The brightest of lights shone through the throbbing nerves at the back of his eyes — closed though they were — directly into his brain, which seemed to be pulsing in time with a noisy pounding that reverberated from somewhere nearby — against his skull, perhaps, if the pain therein was any indication, though what the weapon in use was he couldn’t guess.
With seeming suddenness and all at the same time came the realizations that the light was the normal illumination of the sun through shouji, the pounding a knocking at his door that had at least started out at a normal level of firmness and volume, and his overall state one of very normal hungover discomfort and incoherence. Zanza dragged his hands up to his face to shut out the light and try to clutch the throbbing into manageable stillness.
In the next instant, with the same abruptness, came the memory of Katsu and their unexpected reunion, of their hours of ambivalent reliving of old times and subsequent visit to the nearest bar. Under the cover of his big hands, Zanza’s mouth curled into a slight smile. He wasn’t exactly happy at having met Katsu again, at having suffered a stirring of dregs in the cup of his life he’d spent so many years and so much effort trying to get to lie still; but proper happiness was nothing he’d felt for some time, and he wasn’t sure he even knew how anymore. In any case, there was an intense feeling of rightness about the meeting — perhaps abetted by the type of language Katsu himself had used in reference to it — as if they’d been specifically destined to run into each other again just now. So obviously the only thing to do had been to get flaming drunk. Well, for Zanza, anyway — he wasn’t sure he’d seen Katsu take anything more than the occasional sip.
The reoccurrence of that pounding against his head — no, it really was at the door — reminded him why he’d awakened in the first place. It was astonishingly early, in this context, for visitors, and he planned to do nothing more than dismiss this one in a most peremptory manner when he raised his voice to inquire who it was. He didn’t even manage that inquiry, however, as he found his croaking throat and nasty, swollen tongue far less manageable than he’d anticipated. Whatever noise he made, aside from being muffled by the hands he’d neglected to remove from his face, didn’t qualify as speech, and the knocking at the door was not so much repeated as stubbornly continued.
Finally, on his third attempt, he managed something that, though completely inarticulate yet, was at least loud enough to be heard without — or so he judged when the pounding gave way to a listening, ringing silence. Then he was rather pleased with himself when his next try sounded at least a little like, “Go the fuck away,” at a tolerably loud volume.
“You know, Zanza, some people, by the time noon rolls around…” This voice was somewhat familiar, but the kenkaya had used up all his finer skills on emitting words more or less distinctly, and couldn’t quite place it. When he made no reply, however, the voice called out, “I am authorized to force entry if you don’t comply,” and he realized all at once who this must be.
Much as he would rather remain still except for whatever motion was required to pad his unwilling ears with blanket, he feared for the state of his door should the cheeky woman make good on her threat. Not that anything around here was of high quality or in any kind of good repair, and not that he owned much that was both worth stealing and portable to the average thief, but he would prefer his lock remain intact. So with a monumental effort, he hauled himself across the floor, trailing the blanket behind him, and reached up, without standing, to unlock the door. The light in the room increased even as he buried his face again in cloth that smelled of sake and sweat and other things, and the voice, now clearer, said, “I’m not, actually. They’d never give that kind of authorization to a woman.”
Zanza’s only reply was an inarticulate grumble.
She closed the door behind her, and then he could almost feel her assessing and increasingly disdainful gaze on him as he wallowed in a straggling blanket in the genkan trying to combat nausea. Finally she said, “You’re one for extremes, I see. Drinking yourself into a stupor, then sleeping all the next day…”
“Extremes are the only thing that work,” he replied, though whether the words were at all comprehensible to her he neither knew nor cared. What could it possibly matter to her how much alcohol it took him to forget, or how much sleep he needed thereafter?
She stepped out of her shoes and up onto the floor, evidently taking a look around the small apartment. This got Zanza’s fuller attention, as he had a vague idea that her first impression of his quarters might play later into his chances with her, so he finally, painstakingly dragged himself into a sitting position so as to see what she saw. And he had to admit, it wasn’t pretty. Dust that in some places had turned to grime coated many a surface, the cabinet in which he kept his few small possessions was missing a door, his tiny tea stove was propped up on a brick where one leg had been knocked off ages ago, and the futon he’d just vacated to crawl over to the door was covered in stains.
“Don’t go complaining about the mess in here–” His voice was a rather stupid-sounding mixture of defiance and embarrassment– “since you’re the one who insisted on coming in.”
“Oh, I saw it all last night,” she replied somewhat absently, her eyes seemingly fixed on the broken zanbatou that now half stood and half lay in one corner. “Just getting a better look in the light.”
“What?!” Halted in the act of struggling to his feet in order to leave the entry and return to his futon (in some part to hide its stains with blanket or body or both), Zanza ran rapidly again through the catalogue of yesterday’s events. Talking to this woman, seeing the print, finding Katsu, astonishment, talking to Katsu, talking to Katsu, heading for the bar, drinking, drinking, drinking, and then… blankness. Yes, he’d envisioned getting this attractive and unusual woman in here some night, probably with sake involved, but, even given her flirtatious manner during their conversation, he’d considered the prospect distant at best and ridiculously optimistic at worst. Surely it hadn’t happened the first night after they’d been introduced??
“Extremism in your housekeeping too, I see,” the officer said at last with a wry smile.
Finishing his project of returning to the bed, though at first he only plopped into a sitting position on top of the blanket rather than lying down again, Zanza mumbled something about how he would have cleaned up a bit if he’d known beforehand that he would have a lady’s company.
The policewoman chuckled. “I’ll look forward to seeing that sometime. Last night you were far too drunk to do much more than collapse there–” she pointed at where he currently sat– “and pass out again.”
So she’d helped him home. Not as glorious as his momentary daydream, but not as bad as it could have been, either, unless… “Did you get called out to that bar?” Perhaps now she was here to effect an arrest or reprimand for which she’d been too compassionate (or he too incoherent) last night.
Her wry smile twisted into a smirk. “Not at all, though that probably might have been a good idea. I met you by coincidence in the street on my patrol, just like earlier, and noticed your friend was having a hard time lugging you home all by himself, so…”
Zanza looked her up and down, this time concentrating not on the figure so nicely delineated by the police uniform, but on the uniform itself. “And he let you help?” Cooperating with a representative of a government agency didn’t sound much like the Katsu he’d met last night.
“He said you’d mentioned me.”
“I… oh.” Now Zanza turned his face quickly away in the hopes that his sudden abashment wouldn’t be observed, totally unwilling to admit that he’d vocalized the ridiculously optimistic to Katsu in terms he vaguely remembered to the tune of, ‘I might score with this hot police chick.’ Better change the subject. “What’s your name, again?”
“Yeah…” Zanza scratched his face. “Where have I heard that before?”
“Besides yesterday, when I introduced myself?”
“If you were looking into any of Hajime’s business…”
“Oh, yeah, of course.” Saitou’s name (even his given name) was like a pinprick at the moment. Despite having been awakened earlier than he’d intended, despite his hangover, Zanza had been creeping toward a fairly good mood in the presence of this attractive woman… and the reminder of her loathsome partner brought him right back down into the headache and muscle aches and disgusting mouth. Saitou, yes. He’d tracked down some information about the man in order to get a better idea of what he would be up against, and in doing so was pretty sure he had heard Tokio’s name mentioned. He also seemed to recall having dismissed it as unimportant, though he couldn’t quite remember why; a partner that lived with his target seemed worth taking into some consideration.
She interrupted his attempts at recollection. “I arranged your fight with him.”
Suddenly the thought of Saitou wasn’t nearly as loathsome as it had been, and Zanza eagerly made a proper sitting position out of the sprawl he’d sunken into. “Yousha! For when?”
“Whenever you want to drop by like you did the other night. I’d really rather you didn’t show up at the house again, but you already know where it is, and there is that convenient clearing, so…”
“Any time?” wondered Zanza eagerly.
“Make it evening. You must have noticed when we arrived home before, though I can’t guarantee when he’ll be there any given night.”
“Bastard’s a workaholic, is he?”
“He is a workaholic, but he isn’t a bastard.” She was strolling around the small room now, around Zanza, and had put herself between him and the patched paper windows, so her head seemed surrounded by a painful, glowing halo of sunlight if he looked in her direction. “Just because he defeated you…”
“It’s not that!” Zanza protested angrily. And when she gave him a brow raised, still brightly backlit, he turned away in pained annoyance and explained. “I figure you know who he really is, since you call him ‘Hajime,’ so how the fuck can you work with him? This government — this whole fucking system, everything the country’s turned into these days — is such a load of bullshit, and–” He stuttered for a moment, remembering that this was the government she worked for he was trash-talking. Of course he meant every word of it, but perhaps he should dwell on a slightly different aspect of the truth. “And he was against that until suddenly he switched sides! Everyone says he was so strong and dedicated when he was with the Shinsengumi; how could he just abandon that?”
When he turned his head back toward Tokio, he found her movement stilled and that she was looking at him with a kind of faintly amused skepticism, as if he were a silly child. As annoying as he found this, there was also something… perhaps a little titillating about it at the same time. But all she said was, “Maybe if you ask him…”
Zanza frowned as he felt, unexpectedly, of all things, a faint touch of jealousy. “You like him.”
Her expression did not change. “Yes.”
“And you live with him. Are you guys… y’know…?”
“Consummating our relationship?” she replied somewhat sarcastically.
Zanza thought this an odd way to put it, but figured Tokio probably encountered a lot of assumptions that her position on the police force was based entirely on a sexual relationship with a man. He scratched his head. “I was just going to say ‘fucking,’ but, yeah?”
She laughed. “No, we’re not. He’s a good friend, but he’s a hard man to love.”
Perhaps a little startled by the honesty in the statement, Zanza wasn’t sure which of his thoughts to voice next. How could anyone be friends with what he’d met the other evening? ‘Hard to love’ sounded like the understatement of the century. And if Saitou was such a good friend to her, was Tokio too a treacherous snake? He couldn’t quite believe it of her. But if she was so fond of the man, why had she so readily agreed to arrange a second fight between him and Zanza? Finally he asked this last question, deeming it least offensive and most related to what he cared about.
“First of all,” she said bluntly, “you don’t stand a chance against him, so…” She ignored his protesting sound and went on with a grin. “Second, I like you.”
So evidently Zanza had, somehow, not insulted her enough to drive her away. He obviously hadn’t given her much of an impression of his strength and skill as a warrior, either, but at least she did, apparently, retain the beginnings of interest in him. That was something worth building on, he thought. “Well,” he said, trying to return her grin (which didn’t work very well with his hangover), “guy you like’s kinda sitting here in bed kinda naked — kinda–” he glanced around vaguely, wondering where his gi had got to– “in this nice private room…”
“And I’m kinda on duty. I need to get back to my patrol. Besides, you haven’t had a chance to clean up yet.” Tokio threw another wry look around the dirty apartment. “I’ll drop by some time after your fight with Hajime, and we can arrange something. If,” she added as she stepped to the door and slid it open, “you’re still alive.”
“If I’m still alive,” he grumbled once she was gone, collapsing back into the blanket and muffling his face again as all the symptoms of hangover that Tokio’s presence had caused to dim slightly returned in a miserable wave. “If your bastard partner’s still alive after I get through with him…” But he had no way to finish the statement, so he trailed off and slowly relaxed onto the futon.
He didn’t really know that he could beat Saitou. It had been almost unreal, the way that man fought — speed, strength, endurance; Zanza had never seen anything like it. Despite the air of sarcasm, his words about Zanza’s level of strength relative to his own had seemed painfully accurate; Zanza, little as he liked to admit it even in his own head, had been outmatched. A hand crept to his still-bandaged injury, and he recalled what the doctor had said about it — how marvelous was its accuracy, how little damage it had done despite its depth. Which meant Saitou had been toying with Zanza even when he’d delivered the blow that had nearly felled him. And someone that could so carelessly and disinterestedly act with such strength and precision was not someone Zanza was sure he could ever win against. He shivered slightly as he remembered the gleam of those freaky eyes in the darkness. But it was a shiver of pure excitement.
He’d never met someone so unequivocably stronger than he was, and hadn’t he been actively searching for such a person for years? There wasn’t much meticulousness to his thoughts and plans about his manner of living, but that had been more or less the reason he’d gotten into the fighting-for-hire business: to find the battles — or, rather, someone capable of providing the battles — that would allow him to forget, that would blast away for a while all the feelings he carried with him every moment of every day. And in Saitou surely, surely he must have found what he’d been seeking for so long. He looked forward to their rematch with throbbing, aching impatience.
He tried to tell himself he was still angry at someone that had joined the Meiji after having opposed its formation, but he knew that wasn’t true. Well, he was still angry, but that wasn’t the reason he wanted to fight Saitou again. Hadn’t Saitou, after all, already addressed that question? At the time, of course, Zanza had been lying on the ground with a fresh stab-wound in his shoulder, and the statements hadn’t quite registered in his conscious awareness, but afterward he’d remembered the claims Saitou had made — that he was ‘fighting corruption within the system as one of the government’s own agents,’ or something like that.
Despite the tone in which the officer had spoken and the peculiar look on his face, which mannerisms somehow seemed to affirm his words, Zanza wasn’t entirely sure he believed any of it. But dutifully he had relayed the message when he’d gone to collect his payment, and Yonai, a handsome if rather pretentious-looking dandy of an older man, had frowned and said nothing for a moment upon hearing the report. Already having the money in hand, Zanza had taken advantage of the uncharacteristic silence to make his escape, but now he almost wished (only almost) that he’d stayed a little longer to see what Yonai might have to say about his former comrade’s assertions. His perspective on the matter might have been useful, but it was too late now.
The point was that, whatever the kenkaya or the man that had hired him did or didn’t believe, Zanza couldn’t go back to fight Saitou again with the same emotional motivation as before, since Saitou had already explained himself on that front. And it would be ridiculous to state that he wanted to fight him simply because Saitou was stronger than he was. So at this point, what justification did he have for initiating further combat? Not that he needed any at all — he didn’t owe Saitou a damn thing — but he was already worried about the seriousness with which Saitou might or might not be willing to fight him, and he considered a real rematch much more likely if his reasons for approaching it didn’t seem totally spurious.
Well, hopefully he would have come up with something by tonight when he went to fight him again. Because he was going to fight him again tonight, and nothing insignificant like the lack of a rational-sounding excuse was going to stop him.
Unexpectedly forced to put her woodland tracking skills to the test and finding them rusty enough that she couldn’t be certain of any satisfaction from this venture, it was with some annoyance that Tokio made her way through the trees as quietly as possible while still quickly following what little trail she could detect. She was pretty sure they’d gone this way.
Hajime had dogmatically assumed Tokio would wait out tonight’s fight inside the house just as she had the previous; and, rather than eliciting his skepticism or disapproval, or even starting an argument they didn’t have time for by expressing her greatly increased level of interest, Tokio had deemed it easier simply to follow quietly behind after a few minutes. Knowing Hajime had a thing or two to say to Zanza in pursuit of their new goals, she doubted she would miss much if any actual fighting — and, having been on the receiving end of plenty of Hajime’s lectures in the past, she might even be better off giving them a head start, though she wasn’t entirely disinterested in how her husband might choose to word his message.
But none of that would matter if she couldn’t locate them.
She supposed it wasn’t impossible they’d moved deeper into the wood than the usual clearing in order to placate the sensibilities of neighbors (such as Tokio herself) that might not be terribly happy at having the neighborhood peace broken by noisy violence, but honestly there wasn’t much deeper into the wood to go. It was really little more than a thick belt of trees between this neighborhood and another, richer one Tokio and her husband had deemed too ostentatious for their needs when shopping for a Tokyo home a couple of years back. The clearing made a nice venue for picnics or small battles, but it was the only such place nearby… unless perhaps Hajime knew of some better location somewhere among the bigger houses to the north?
From curious why they’d chosen to relocate and annoyed that she might already be missing something interesting, she transitioned to alert and ready when, as if specifically to answer her irritated questions, the clash of metal came from somewhere ahead. The sound told her plenty; even had she not seen the ruined remains of Zanza’s great sword in his apartment this morning, she wouldn’t have supposed it capable of the quick, ringing noises, such as she now heard, that marked a contest of more normally sized weapons. She abandoned stealth (as far as she ever did) and broke into a run.
Having found what she sought just beyond the trees, she nevertheless did not leave their shelter, but stopped in the shadows to observe — no reason to make her presence known when her assistance wasn’t yet needed.
That Hajime’s opponent had managed to survive long enough for the sound of their swords to draw Tokio all the way to them indicated Hajime was fighting to capture. This might explain the grimness of his expression and movements; she knew he much preferred a quick kill to this more finicky process, but oftentimes some purpose other than immediate justice made it necessary to refrain from damaging even some hateful little worm of an enemy too badly. Zanza, however, not far off, probably did not have this end in mind. Tokio rather doubted any fight ever seemed so complicated to him, and couldn’t help watching in admiration as he faced off against a swordsman with nothing more than clenched hands and angry vigor.
What had united the two opponents against this pair of thugs Tokio did not immediately observe, but when she was able to drag her eyes away from the young man’s body she shouldn’t have found nearly so engrossing at the moment, she saw it: the motionless form, face-down on the ground, of a woman from beneath whom blood slowly spread in a growing pool. Whether the poor thing had been fleeing pursuers through the trees and Hajime and Zanza had seen her, or whether she had screamed as she was attacked and drawn them away from their conversation before it could turn into a fight, she’d somehow obviously seized the attention of the combatants in the wood… but perhaps not early enough in her dilemma to do much good. As always when observing a woman victimized by men with a clear advantage of strength and power, Tokio felt all at once tense, nauseated, and vengeful.
To the head of his opponent, Zanza’s big fist delivered a blow that sounded no less painful than decisive, and the man’s weapon slipped from his hand as he dropped with a grunt. An instant later Hajime’s sword slid along that of the second enemy to within his guard and a position where it could slice across his neck as well; and with a spurt of blood and a distressing choking and gurgling sound that filled the air in place of the previous noises of combat, the second stranger too hit the ground. Tokio, not eager to watch a gruesome death even if she couldn’t help listening to it, let her eyes follow her husband instead. His movement was quick and practiced as he applied a handkerchief to the edge of his sword so it could be resheathed, and Tokio couldn’t help wincing a bit, even in the midst of this more serious action, at seeing the bloody cloth go back into his pocket without regard to its effect on the material of his pants. He would absolutely be laundering those himself.
Hajime was stripping off a glove even as he crouched swiftly beside the fallen woman, but his haste was insufficient. As his bare hand sought out the artery in her neck, his tightening of lips was enough to tell Tokio what she needed to know, and the nausea in her gut increased. And when Hajime looked up at Zanza and shook his head, it became clear that Tokio wasn’t the only person upset by the situation.
“Fucking monsters,” the kenkaya snarled, turning aside. “If you can’t have her, you just kill her; is that fucking it?” And he began viciously kicking at the figure he’d just felled.
“Stop.” Hajime, rising, hurried toward him with an outstretched hand. “I want him alive.”
Zanza glanced at him, then quickly away. “You killed the other one!” he protested. But his next kick was about half as hard as the previous had been.
“I saw you were going to knock this one out,” explained Hajime tightly, “so I was free to dispose of that one.”
“So you’re the only one who gets to–” Zanza’s accusing words died when his eyes met Hajime’s, and yet again his head turned abruptly, this time with a frustrated growl. It was obvious that, in addition to his rage at this situation, he was overcome by a mess of other emotions difficult for a bystander — even Tokio — to make sense of: confusion, sorrow, embarrassment, guilt? He didn’t want to meet Hajime’s gaze, and his agitation seemed to increase every time he tried. Tokio couldn’t imagine this was caused by merely the same irritation with her husband as before, and thus assumed Hajime had already spoken his piece — and effectively, at that! She’d clearly waited too long to follow them.
“We’ll have to have our own fight another time.” Hajime made this statement a little louder than the previous, Tokio thought for the benefit of the neighbors that had emerged from their houses to see what the commotion at the end of their street might be. “I need to get that guy to the police station and make sure you haven’t killed him.”
“I fucking wanted to kill him!” Zanza raged, though still not looking at the other man. “Bastards chase an unarmed woman through the streets to do fuck-knows-what to her, and then fucking kill her as soon as help shows up? He fucking deserves to die!”
“Of course he does.” Hajime had crouched again and was examining the man in question, whose state of continued life was evident in his visible breathing. “But not until I get some answers out of him. Tokio, we’re going to need a carriage.”
His addressing her — being aware of her presence and involving her so casually in the conversation — caused no surprise whatsoever in Tokio; but Zanza started and jerked around, scanning the area with widened eyes. They were all just beyond the circle of the nearest streetlamp, so in the growing darkness it took a moment for him to spot her — and then, she thought, he only did so because she stepped out from the trees in preparation for compliance with Hajime’s order.
And as Zanza looked directly at her, her tentative assessment was confirmed: anger, confusion, sorrow, embarrassment, and guilt warred across his face as much as in his bearing. Hajime must really have gotten through to him; whether that would help at all with his plan for recruiting the young man she couldn’t guess. Right now Zanza seemed ready to run away and be glad never to lay eyes on either of them again, any previously apparent romantic interest in Tokio notwithstanding.
Moving to pass him, she lifted a hand to offer a would-be comforting squeeze to his arm. He flinched slightly, though he didn’t shy away, as if unable to decide whether he could bear any contact with her at the moment. Pushing aside the totally ill-timed desire to keep squeezing once she felt his lovely muscle, she made her touch brief and headed over to where her husband had resumed a standing position and was watching her.
There were two reasons she then bent and repeated Hajime’s examination of the dead woman on the ground. First, regardless of how much interest she had in the kenkaya’s state of mind and what might be going on here, the involvement of a victimized woman in any scene always constituted an automatic shift in focus and often priorities for Tokio. And it wasn’t that she didn’t trust her husband’s assessment; she simply had to know for herself, with her own hand, that it was too late to help her fellow.
Second, regardless of how much interest she had in the figure whose limpness, growing coldness, and lack of pulse or breath were beyond dispute, she was also hugely curious about Zanza’s state of mind; she didn’t want to walk away from the scene looking for a cab and let the young man and his expressive face out of her sight. Though admittedly checking the poor woman on the ground didn’t put off her moment of departure very far.
“We’ll need something for her too,” Hajime remarked, quiet and grim.
Tokio nodded as she stood straight, then looked toward where Zanza had let out a sad, frustrated breath. Meeting the brown eyes she thought were once again avoiding Hajime’s by fixing on Tokio and the fallen, she could see how deeply Zanza regretted this circumstance. He’d really wanted to save this stranger in need, even in the midst of his personal turmoil. His strong feeling thus displayed raised him in her esteem, and gave her some hope that Hajime’s plan to recruit him might work out. This, naturally, only made her more curious and desirous to remain on the scene, but that she couldn’t do.
Here Zanza himself helped her out. His eyes strayed from Tokio to the dead woman at her feet, then to Hajime — whence they almost immediately jerked away. He made another unhappy sound, clenched his fists once more, and, whirling abruptly, stalked off into the trees.
In response to Tokio’s slight twitch in the direction he’d gone, Hajime said softly, “Give him time to calm down.” And reluctantly she nodded agreement. Her husband was removing his jacket to drape over the head of the victim on the ground — this one Tokio wouldn’t mind washing for him — and it was about time to go fetch some conveyances for the five people, living and dead, that needed to get to the police station.
As long as it felt it took her to accomplish this and as much as she wanted elucidation, she did not immediately demand, once the bodies had been loaded onto a wagon and she and her husband and the prisoner into a carriage, what she was increasingly impatient to know: what on Earth Hajime had said to Zanza to get him so worked up even before they’d encountered these thugs. One of the latter, lying on the seat across from them in the cab, showed signs of returning consciousness, and not only did that mean they would have to keep an eye on him — he wasn’t tied — but his presence rendered gossip unpalatable and perhaps even dangerous. Beyond that, she couldn’t quite get past the memory of Zanza’s heart-wrenchingly angry, horrified face and Hajime’s current glower.
The station at night was not half the chaos it was in daylight, but never emptied entirely; it was easy enough to arrange everyone to their satisfaction quickly, and to dispatch a messenger to fetch a police doctor to examine the corpses and help ensure the prisoner did not join them. The thug did seem rather in need of medical attention after Zanza’s rough treatment of him — he had, in fact, awakened during the carriage ride, but not very coherently — and, while the doctor performed his task, Hajime was sucking down a cigarette in his own office on the other side of the station with Tokio looking on in some annoyance.
Just as something besides the failure to save that woman from those men had been bothering Zanza, something other than the conversation with Zanza seemed now to be bothering Hajime, and Tokio couldn’t guess what it might be. She hated it when he didn’t open up to her. This was such an old lament these days, though — the extent to which she couldn’t read her own husband — that it was hardly worth wasting any energy thinking about. She merely needed to find a way to ask that would get an actual answer out of a partner that often thought he could handle everything — physical and emotional — on his own.
What she eventually chose was, “Aren’t you going to get the interrogation started? You were as angry at him as Zanza was, so I assumed…”
Hajime tapped ash into the tray on the desk, and a certain distance receded from his eyes as he answered. “I’m going to wait until someone can identify the dead woman.” He paused, and for a moment the irritated Tokio believed she would have to drag answers out of him. But then he added, “Something was strange about that whole situation. It didn’t feel like a standard attempted robbery or rape. Zanza’s assessment was too simplistic; they didn’t kill her just because they couldn’t take what they wanted from her. That much was obvious, but what they were actually after I don’t know. And I’d rather approach that man with more information than I have now.”
Surprisingly satisfied with this, Tokio now felt torn between discussing it in greater detail and asking what had happened just beforehand. Her husband solved this dilemma for her by adding, “I want you to go find Zanza.”
“And see how badly you damaged him?”
His lips twitched, even as his cigarette made contact with them again, into a faint smile as he answered, “I was relatively gentle.”
“Oh, yes, so much that he was in a murderous rage when I found you two.”
“He’ll have had time to work through that by now.”
“Hopefully not by actually murdering anyone. What exactly did you say to him?”
“I only pointed out the fact that he could be doing much better things with his resources than pointless fighting.”
“And I take it style did more than substance in this case.”
Hajime’s smile curled into a smirk, and he didn’t directly answer. “I want you to go observe him. See how he’s dealing with this and what he decides to do next. Try to gage whether he’s likely to be willing to work for us after this.”
Remembering the look on the mercenary’s face just before he’d left them behind earlier, Tokio had her doubts. “Do you want me to talk to him?”
“If you think that will help.”
She nodded. “And you will…”
“Make sure everything’s in order here and go home.”
For a moment she hesitated, pondering whether to ask or discuss anything else, whether he was likely to engage with her in any useful way. After not too long she decided to skip the attempt; another problem with having a partner that thought he could handle everything on his own was that, whether he realized it or not, he often expected his partner to be able to do the same. And it wasn’t that she couldn’t; it was just that some assistance now and then would be welcome. None would be offered tonight, though. “Good evening, then,” she bade him, and departed.
With thoughts and emotions mixed, though not quite as turbulently as Zanza’s evidently had been earlier (and quite possibly still were), she left the police station, her mind caught up in a surprisingly and rather unpleasantly sexual metaphor. She’d had described to her, on a couple of occasions in her life (neither of which, unhappy to recall, she had solicited), the sensation a man got in his testicles when aroused and denied release for a certain period of time. She wasn’t terribly happy that this image had popped into her head all of a sudden, but she believed it fit.
The usual reactions had arisen within her in response to that dead woman — the anger and deep, painful sympathy; the ill feeling of helplessness; the desire to enact change for people that found themselves in situations just like this every day of the year — and then nothing had come of it: no rescue, no revenge, not even an interrogation yet for any information that might begin to satisfy her. The most she’d been able to do for that woman whose name she didn’t even know was to summon a wagon to carry her corpse to the police station.
Those emotions were left to swirl and stew inside her to no avail, leaving her frustrated and sorrowful and hurting in her own sense of ineffectiveness in the world at large. And she didn’t even have time to devote right now to quiet thoughts of respect and regret, resolutions of harder work in the future to try to keep this from happening again. She had to concentrate on something entirely different at the moment, and just deal with the denial of release as best she could. And she would, because she knew well the benefits to society of the job she had, even if it didn’t accomplish everything she wanted.
Before the station was completely out of sight, therefore, as she hastened down the street in her subdued agitation, she was running through the places she should look for Zanza. Would he go home when he was angry? Or to a bar? And if so, one near his home or just the first he came across on his way from the disastrous meeting with Hajime? Or would he go somewhere he could take out his rage through violence? That might be the most difficult to find, since she wasn’t sure where (or what) such a place might be.
In better news, Zanza stood out even when he wasn’t extremely emotional and likely to leave a trail of destruction or at least fear in his wake. Also she knew where he lived. She planned on beginning there, then working her way through the other options, and had faith in her ability to locate him. What would happen then she had no idea, but she could at least get off to a good start.
Pale stars had appeared throughout the patchily clouded sky by the time Zanza stopped moving and threw himself onto the wooden planks of an unoccupied pier beside the ruffled water of the bay. The air smelled of fish and sea-salt, especially in the breeze that had stiffened throughout the evening, but he was accustomed to the scent as his own neighborhood wasn’t far off. He’d tried going there, going home, but his apartment felt dirty and claustrophobic and accusatory, so he’d left it after not too long and come here instead.
Hardly anyone was around, since it was late enough for little real labor to be going on nearby, and the distant sounds of the closest drinking establishment where many of the sailors and dock-workers had taken themselves were mostly drowned out by rush of the sea, so in relative peace — externally — he gazed down into the blackness lapping against the pilings. Caught in a stare that seemed unshakable, he didn’t blink until his eyes started to sting and water and he finally, briefly closed them, only to repeat the uncomfortable, drawn-out process again and again. He might just stay all night in this relatively tranquil atmosphere where he was free to sit quietly and think. He had a lot to think about.
It wasn’t actually about Saitou, though, was it? The way Saitou lived his own life didn’t really enter into it, except as a point of contrast. Though the officer had given more details, in general he hadn’t provided any information beyond what he had at their first meeting, hadn’t mentioned anything new. And Zanza had already believed that stuff.
Well, no, he hadn’t, necessarily. He hadn’t known whether he believed it or not, and he hadn’t cared; he’d merely wanted an excuse to fight the guy again. Beyond its usefulness as a motivator toward a second battle, none of what Saitou had said during their initial encounter had truly mattered to him — not until Saitou had somehow managed to turn it around, like a weapon twisted out of Zanza’s hands and driven right into his gut. Saitou had stabbed him with the truth just as bitingly as — and far more painfully than — he’d stabbed him with his sword that other time. This might not actually be about Saitou, but Zanza was pretty sure nobody else in the world could have instigated it in quite the same way.
He couldn’t help retreading the whole scene in his head…
Cigarette in hand, Saitou not only appeared completely unsurprised to find Zanza knocking at his door, but also immediately gave him that enraging once-over with those freaky yellow eyes that seemed simultaneously to contain objectifying assessment and cursory dismissal. “Good evening,” he said.
“Don’t ‘good evening’ me!” Zanza, annoyed by the glance, was in no mood for pleasantries, real or feigned. “Just get out here and fight.”
Saitou made a noise half disdainful and half amused, but didn’t protest; he simply stepped from the house and closed the door behind him, sucking on his cigarette all the while. Without a word he set off up the street, doubtless toward the same clearing they’d used before. Zanza noticed he’d already been wearing his sword, hadn’t needed to retreat into the house to get it; had he been expecting the mercenary this evening? Tokio had said ‘whenever…’ maybe she’d anticipated the ‘as soon as possible’ interpretation Zanza would assign to that nonspecific instruction.
Once they had reached the clearing in the trees past the end of the pavement, amid the rustling spring leaves that seemed to have a portentous sound to them after what had happened here last time, Zanza fell immediately into an aggressive stance, fists at the ready. It was more than merely his fists, though; he was ready deep down into his soul not only to pay this guy back for destroying his zanbatou, but to force him to demonstrate again his ability to drive away twisted old pain with straightforward combat.
It appeared, however, that Saitou was going to behave just as infuriatingly as last time, as he didn’t seem to be preparing to attack or defend, only stood there finishing up his cigarette and staring thoughtfully at Zanza. The latter, anger increasing, made an impatient movement that would have transitioned into an all-out charge, but paused when Saitou raised a casual gloved hand to halt him.
“Before I knock you out again, I’d like to know why it is you’re here when no one’s paying you. I did beat you pretty decisively last time, and I assume you took my message to Yonai.”
Zanza ground his teeth, as much at the query as at the attitude so assumptive of definite victory. He should have known Saitou would ask. He should have thought through his reasoning further; he’d specifically considered this, but obviously not thoroughly enough. Without coming across as more than a short distance out of his mind he couldn’t really say, “I’m here because you beat me last time.” He couldn’t admit, “I’m here to forget. I’m here to make you make me forget.”
So he called upon the only other rational — and still partly true! — explanation for his actions: “Because I can’t stand you. You who everyone says couldn’t be beaten by anyone else in the Shinsengumi… you who supposedly had all these high ideals and never gave in… How could you be like that — someone who everyone who knew you back then praises even now — and then turn around and join this shit-ass government? ‘Fighting corruption within the system,’ you said.” He spat the words in bitter, skeptical imitation, determined to get a reaction this time. “That’s some nice bullshit coming from someone who can afford that house over there.”
One of Saitou’s brows rose, and he obviously felt it was his turn to sound skeptical. “Do you have any idea of the market value of a two-bedroom house?”
Not being taken seriously couldn’t be ranked among Zanza’s pet peeves, because at his level of strength and notoriety it was something that simply didn’t happen very often. But he found now that it rankled more than just about anything else he could think of. “My fucking point,” he snarled, “is that you’re a fucking sellout. The Meiji government bought you, no matter how you dress it up or what you claim you’re doing.”
And now, he thought, he was getting somewhere — quicker than last time, too — when a flicker of irritation seemed to cross Saitou’s face and the man shifted slightly, tossing away his cigarette at last. Darkly pleased with his progress, Zanza ranted on. “You fought so fucking hard against them before — I know you did; I talked to all sorts of people, and even your fucking enemies say that about you — and then all of a sudden — for some reason, and what could that possibly be? I fucking wonder! — you just decided to join up with these people who’d do anything to get what they wanted, who take advantage of the weak and walk all over people who’ve helped them without giving a single shit, and throw their power around to make themselves rich and comfortable, the same goddamn people who–“
Abruptly he choked his own words with a growling, gasping sound, aghast at what he’d been about to reveal. When had he lost control of what he was saying? He’d been trying to provoke Saitou into fighting him, not to bring up his own pain — the pain he was specifically aiming to forget and was, in fact, trying to provoke Saitou into fighting him in order to forget.
But then Saitou finished for him, “–who betrayed your mentor and your comrades?”
Now the choking sound that issued from Zanza’s throat was one of stunned astonishment.
“Don’t think I don’t know who you are, Sagara Sanosuke.” The manner in which Saitou withdrew a new cigarette from the case he’d extracted from his jacket pocket, then pulled out matches to light it, seemed to indicate he wasn’t particularly focused on the young man he’d just addressed by a name very few people knew these days… and yet his words had a purposeful edge to them. “I know your history. I know how your past has shaped you, and what motivates you.” As he stowed his matches and his fresh cigarette glowed red in his mouth, he added in a tone of curiosity almost idle-sounding, “Can you say the same for me?”
Though his anger had only grown at having the memories he’d come here to repress instead brought before his mind’s eye in all their bloody glory, Zanza was also taken aback and uncertain how to answer. Truly he shouldn’t have been surprised that Saitou, an investigator working for the government, did, after all, know the truth about the Sekihoutai and his involvement with it, even when nobody knew about that, but to hear Sagara-taichou mentioned — to hear his own name — from anyone that hadn’t been there, hadn’t lived that tragedy… it threw him off balance. He also didn’t entirely understand what Saitou was so languidly wondering, and he found his throat dry and his voice somewhat hoarse as he asked, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Just answer the question.” That Saitou, though calm, was so unmistakably commanding naturally rendered Zanza all the more angry; but at the same time the mercenary was beginning to be overtaken by the creeping feeling that the conversation had shifted, somehow, into territory he hadn’t expected and wasn’t entirely comfortable with.
Rallying, however, he declared, “I know enough! I know you’re a fucking sellout!”
“All right,” Saitou replied with a patronizing smile, his tone a mixture of amusement and exasperation. “I’ll give you that. I’m a sellout. I’m a government spy working directly with certain officials, such as Ookubo Toshimichi, whom I would probably have killed without a second thought during the Bakumatsu. And in what I like to call my off-time I am also a mid-ranking police investigator in whatever precinct happens to surround my current place of residence. A sellout.”
Ookubo? Damn! Zanza was impressed in spite of himself; when Saitou Hajime sold out, it seemed, he didn’t bother with low bidders!
“And let me elaborate on the finer points of that arrangement,” the cop went on as if he’d at least partially read the mercenary’s mind, “since your thick wits don’t seem to have gotten around that name yet: in my position, it is my duty and my pride to monitor closely the activities of said Ookubo, as well as those of his political colleagues. If any one of them were to, as you put it, take advantage of the weak, walk all over people who’ve helped them, or throw their power around to make themselves rich and comfortable…” He paused for a moment, holding Zanza’s gaze, and the kenkaya found himself unexpectedly anticipatory for the resolution of the statement. At last Saitou finished simply, “I would kill him.”
The words rang overwhelmingly of truth. Zanza could not disbelieve. And suddenly he wasn’t angry anymore; he couldn’t be. In fact he was beginning to feel slightly ashamed at having been so antagonistic toward this man and his supposed betrayal of justice.
And Saitou didn’t stop there. “My specific field is the discovery and exposure of corruption among those of high rank, those in a position to do the most damage to the weak you claim to care about. If names like Asakura, Iwasaki, and Taro mean anything to you — which I doubt — you may be familiar with some of my recent work. And, yes, in exchange for these services, I receive a regular sum of money from the government. My superiors typically refer to this as a ‘paycheck’ — if you’re familiar with the term — but if ‘blood money’ sounds better to you, by all means call it that.”
This was too much. “Asakura… Iwasaki… and Taro…?” The names did mean something to him, whatever Saitou might derisively imply about his awareness of what went on that far above his head. In the time he’d spent in Tokyo, two of these prominent politicians had been assassinated by parties unknown, following which had come to light their extensive involvement with weapons smuggling and exploitation of small-town workers, respectively; the third had been charged with and formally executed for treason — something involving selling information to someone in Macau. Zanza had celebrated with his friends each time (though it was likely none of them had cared anywhere near as much as he did about what he perceived as blows to a government he loathed). And that had all been Saitou’s work?
“And, yes,” Saitou went on, “I am aware of the injustices that government, or at least the groups that formed it, have perpetrated. I do not agree with all of its policies and decisions, and I can’t say for certain it’s the best option for the people of Japan. But it is what we have to work with, and to do what I can to right wrongs within the existing system is what I have always done and what I will always do. That’s how I’ve spent my Meiji era.” With a piercing, unwavering, unblinking glance, Saitou delivered the killing blow: “And you?”
“I…” Zanza was staggered, physically as well as spiritually, taking a weak, faltering step backward in his shock. He couldn’t answer; he couldn’t defend himself; he couldn’t even speak. In fact he felt he could barely draw breath. Saitou seemed to tower over him, a sudden pillar of condemnation and icy cold disdain under which a core of untouchable admirability and excellence lay unexpectedly, unreachably hot. The kenkaya was fortunate, if only for the sake of what remained of his pride, that a sudden scream interrupted their strange interview — for he had been, for the first time in his life, about to back out of a fight.
Saitou’s meaning had been all too clear, and Zanza could not refuse to take it. How did he spend his time? How had he spent all of his time ever since the trauma of his childhood? In careless violence for sale to whoever could pay — and not even, as might have formed some excuse, for the sake of making a living, but solely in order to push aside his own discomfort. And had it really been only that same old desire driving him to go up against Saitou Hajime a second time, or had something in him recognized that with Saitou Hajime it was possible he would come at last to see the truth, to recognize his own pathetic reality? Had something deep inside him wanted to shrug off the lies under which he’d been living, no matter how painful it might be, and therefore sought out the light when it finally shone?
However he had come by the facts, or why he’d chosen to seek them, they must be faced: that he was the real sellout, the one that had turned his back on lofty principles and joined forces with an unforgivable enemy. By living such an abandoned life of mindless brutality… by accepting money and the decision of where and how he would spend his rage from strangers with independent and usually unvetted agendas… by wasting his strength exclusively on the pursuit of his own complacency, as if his suffering superseded that of anyone else in the country… he allowed the era to support him just like all those corrupt politicians, if in a slightly different manner, and preyed on the weak every bit as much as they did — directly victimizing many of those weaker than him at the behest of scheming strangers, and being too wrapped up in his own precious self to see where he might be doing some good for the rest. And by losing track of the ideals for which Sagara-taichou had worked, had fought, had died, by concentrating instead on his own insignificant emotions as if those were something worthy of replacing what he’d learned in childhood, he’d dishonored his captain perhaps more than the Ishin Shishi ever could have.
Taichou… what do I do now?
The answer was distressingly vague: work to make things better instead of sitting on his spiritual ass moaning continually about the situation and seeking a diluted, insufficient replacement for the real contentment that would come with a job well done or at least well attempted. But what work? That he was a selfish waste of space would never have occurred to him in the first place if he hadn’t had it demonstrated that there was an alternative, that there was good work to be done — but even knowing that, was there good work for Zanza to do, or was that work necessarily limited to someone with the personal strength and position of influence held by Saitou Hajime?
Zanza still blinked very little as he stared at the water, gaze unfaltering even when it burned, as if he believed that if he only looked hard enough he would find all the resolutions he sought and a coherent plan for untangling his future out there just beneath the black surface of the bay. He wasn’t accustomed to thinking long and hard, to concentrating on something unpleasant, and a large part of him wanted to get up from where he sat in a miserable huddle and walk away, go find the nearest bar and drink until he couldn’t see straight, then start all over again, whenever he awoke tomorrow afternoon, with the fighting and the struggle to forget. But he couldn’t. Not now he knew what someone could be doing to oppose the wrongs he felt so sorely — what someone was doing, day after day, not merely hypothetically but in this present reality.
It left a bitter taste in his mouth to consider, but in the last few hours he’d developed a completely unforeseen respect for Saitou Hajime. More than that, he’d caught from the man’s words, like an elusive scent noted for a brief moment on a shifting breeze, a sense of purpose, of progress, of real meaning in a world Zanza had believed to have lost all these things. And he had a sudden, overwhelming desire to be part of that, to feel that progress as his own and not merely something observed and admired in someone else. His own life had been so devoid of purpose for the last ten years… no blow he had struck that entire time had meant a thing, as heavy as they all had been. He wanted the next one — he wanted every blow he struck from now on — to have a meaning just as weighty as the weapon behind it.
And he was back to apostrophically asking Sagara-taichou what to do. Because it was simple enough to say he wanted a purpose, wanted his life and his actions to signify something, wanted to replace the selfishness that had been his very blood and breath with the real, effective, outward-looking effort he now knew was possible. It was a good deal more complicated to make those wishes a reality.
He’d been fighting for so long — fighting the pain in his heart, the memories in his head, and perhaps even the awareness, somewhere within, that he could be better if he ever stopped wallowing — he wasn’t sure he could fight any other way. This sudden burning desire to do something, something concrete and real for the good of the people, just as Sagara-taichou had always aspired to, only confused him. What could he do? How could he do it? Was he even capable of it, after so many years, with who and what he was? All he knew was battle and pain, and the blissful forgetfulness these things brought. Being a useful person, living a worthwhile life for the sake of others besides himself, reaching beyond and becoming more… it seemed an unscalable cliff of an ambition; it wasn’t just confusing: it was daunting, disheartening.
Taichou… help me out here…
And abruptly he recognized that he was asking the wrong person.
His gaze snapped up, off the water, rising into the sky as if buoyed by realization. The clouds had mostly withdrawn, so his view stretched unimpeded, and the starscape was surprisingly bright — far brighter than Zanza would have believed while focusing on the blackness beyond the pier. He found he could see unexpectedly clearly all of a sudden.
He didn’t know how to live the way he had in mind, how to make something more specific and practicable of the very general answer that was all he’d found so far. But he knew who did.
He sighed as he stared just as unblinkingly as before into the starry sky, and reflected forlornly, Too bad by now he probably totally hates me.
There were times when what Saitou called his emotional state was little more than a shallow basin sitting atop and acting as a stopper for the reservoir of his true feelings, which therefore, under cover, was never properly stirred.
No, ‘there were times’ wasn’t the best way to put that. It would be easier to enumerate the times he didn’t function this way — when, every once in a while, something punched through that cool, simple set of casual reactions right down into his real, more profound ones. It would be easier especially because every time this occurred, it left behind a lasting impression he couldn’t help but look back on in wonder, and shook him hard while it was happening.
Now he stared up at the ceiling of his dark bedroom, the utter stillness of his body belying his inner unrest. That he remained sleepless when late night had become early morning proved just how much emotional involvement he suddenly had in this affair. He hadn’t entirely expected this.
At face value, his words hadn’t been harsh; “I was relatively gentle” hadn’t been a lie. He could have been so much worse, could have made pointed accusations and denigrations instead of mere implications. Yet, in light of Zanza’s reaction, even that circumspection must be considered harsh. And of course it had been necessary, and was hopefully even now wreaking significant and positive changes in the mercenary’s attitudes and projected lifestyle, but Saitou couldn’t help thinking he’d hurt him by it. He didn’t regret having said it, nor the way he’d said it — which, though he hadn’t been consciously aiming for kindness, really had been the kindest possible way to say it — but he must regret having, so early in their acquaintance, occasioned a frame of mind in which Zanza couldn’t stand to meet his eyes.
And where was Zanza now? What was he thinking about? Saitou considered the very fact Zanza had reacted so strongly to his relatively gentle words proof he had taken them to heart; and in that case, he should be thinking more or less exactly what Saitou wanted him to be at the moment — about how he was wasting his life and there were better options for him. But Saitou couldn’t know that for sure, and even if he could, it was uncertain yet what Zanza’s thoughts about him might be. Did the idea of Mibu no Ookami still induce anger and bitterness in the kenkaya, or… well, what alternative was there at this point?
Since a young age Saitou had been so firm in his own convictions that it had never been a struggle to base his attitudes and actions firmly on them. What would it be like not knowing how to believe or act? What would it be like to realize suddenly that your path in life thus far had been leading exactly nowhere? If Zanza was indeed contemplating these things, regardless of the conclusions he drew at the end of his musings, it seemed an outside chance he could be thinking very kindly of the man that had planted such self-doubt in him. Saitou had probably given Zanza a far more legitimate reason to dislike him than he’d had before… at precisely the same moment he’d found a far more legitimate reason than he’d had before to like Zanza.
He hadn’t realized just how close he’d been standing to a steep slope whose descent could not easily be halted or controlled, until the events of the evening had pushed him down onto it and he’d found his interest in Zanza not merely slightly increased but startlingly greater. Because during the course of those events, Zanza had demonstrated not only the perception, apparently, to grasp what Saitou, while ostensibly talking about himself, was trying to point out about him — and then to assess a criminal situation quickly and with a degree of accuracy Saitou believed was only imperfect because Zanza lacked several years of law enforcement experience to direct his interpretation — he’d also demonstrated a capacity for impressive moral strength.
Even in the midst of whatever inward-looking turmoil Saitou had inflicted on him, Zanza’s avidity to help a stranger in need had been genuine, his straightforward desire for the justice owed her murderer every bit as evident. In the life Saitou led, surrounded by men that put on or cast off morality like a mask at will, this was refreshing and intriguing. Little as Zanza might be driven by it at this juncture, he seemed to have a strong innate sense of good and evil — and it was a passionate sense that, when it directed him, directed him hard and fast. Passionless good could triumph just as effectively over evil, but the more intense and heartfelt good of which it seemed Zanza was capable made him all the more attractive to someone like Saitou.
He was definitely sliding quickly down a severe slope toward serious infatuation.
And all of this had come upon him at exactly the wrong time, for not only did Zanza, most likely, hold Saitou in higher antipathy than ever right now, he might simultaneously be thinking much more favorably of someone else.
What currently kept Saitou awake might actually be jealousy, an irrational and unproductive emotion he would prefer to be rid of but didn’t experience often enough to have much practice in dealing with. Because he’d seen those looks: the looks indicating something had changed in the way Zanza saw Tokio — which implied he’d seen her quite amicably before and could probably do so again — but that, even with the change, she was still the best place for his gaze to rest during his internal chaos; the looks indicating that, if anything had changed in the admiring way Tokio saw Zanza, it had only been for the better as he demonstrated his alignment, at least in that context, with her pet pursuit, the protection and advancement of women. He’d seen the way she touched his arm; he’d seen the way Zanza’s tortured eyes lingered when she turned away.
Saitou was so used to relying on Tokio’s almost uncanny ability to read the emotions of others, he occasionally forgot what a hard time she had reading his. Of course she didn’t know he was interested in Zanza; how could she? He hadn’t mentioned it, certainly hadn’t demonstrated it, and, indeed, hadn’t been nearly so interested until just this evening. It was neither his fault nor hers, then, that he now found himself resenting his own wife as she chased after the man he had his sights on without any idea her husband might be jealous… but what a ridiculous predicament! How many men of his inclinations might find themselves in such a situation?
How many men, though, of whatever inclinations, had a wife like Tokio? She was a good friend — indeed, his only friend — and her talent, intelligence, determination, usefulness, and amusing personality had long ago led Saitou to forgive the arrangements that had saddled him with marriage in the first place. But these positive qualities — which Saitou was at the moment inclined rather to curse than praise — might be overwhelmingly alluring to Zanza, especially when combined with Tokio’s physical beauty and powers of flirtation.
And this was, in large part, why Saitou had sent Tokio after Zanza at the moment: as someone to whom the kenkaya was attracted, someone that could undoubtedly read him better than anyone else could, and someone that understood (to some extent) what he was going through, she might be the best possible confidante for Zanza right now. That she still hadn’t returned certainly wasn’t helping with Saitou’s jealousy, though. If she didn’t come back at all tonight, would he dare ask for details of the encounter?
Well, there was nothing he didn’t dare, if he felt it needed to be done, but there were times he despised his own level-headedness. He knew quite well that bringing down a minor criminal empire headed by a corrupt politician was far more important than the interpersonal prospects of a police spy, that Zanza might be the key to unlocking the Karashigumi… and that Tokio had a much better chance than her husband did at winning the mercenary over to their cause.
But after tonight… if and whenever Zanza was recruited… what then? There seemed to be a few different options, and now while Saitou lay insomniac with these thoughts occupying him so thoroughly seemed as good a time as any to decide from among them.
Tokio was kind and decent, had a hobbyist’s engagement with the emotional drama of others, and hated to see people’s honest desires toyed with. It was not entirely impossible, depending on how Saitou worded his confession and how advanced her own interest was, she might be willing to back off if he laid his feelings before her. Of course at that point she would undoubtedly prod him endlessly, try to play matchmaker, and refuse to allow him to work at his own pace, so there was that to consider.
Or she might not back off. If her interest was as advanced as his, it would be nothing unreasonable for her to declare she wouldn’t be giving up; it wasn’t as if either of them could claim precedence in this matter. She would probably feel guilty about thwarting his desires — unnecessarily guilty, which would form a perfect mirror to his totally unnecessary asperity at being thwarted — and things would be tense between them for the foreseeable future. Could their friendship survive that?
Of course he could make it an open contest between them, vie for Zanza’s attention right in her face. Tokio enjoyed competition, in many settings, and might accept that arrangement better than the aforementioned. But people got hurt, sometimes irrevocably, in contests of that nature, and not only did Saitou think it would be a little disrespectful to Tokio, he had probably already hurt Zanza enough. For himself he feared far less, though Tokio was capable of making his life hell in innumerable ways.
The point that kept coming up dismayingly, even as Saitou contemplated various possible actions and reactions on the part of his wife, was that under any of these circumstances, he conspicuously lacked the advantage. Tokio had a head start based on the conversations she’d had with the kenkaya in Saitou’s absence, and a better initial position in that she was merely the partner of a perceived traitor rather than a traitor herself.
Saitou would, in fact, begin with a handicap in the form of both the preconceived notions that had brought such a hateful Zanza to him in the first place and the emotional harm he’d done (for all it had been constructively meant) with that little lecture this evening — not to mention his gender, which Zanza might not even view in the correct light. And when it seemed unlikely Saitou would ever be able to catch up to the runner in the lead, was it wise to start the race at all? Especially when doing so might possibly jeopardize the more professional — and politically critical — pursuits in which they were involved? No, probably not.
That didn’t mean he was giving up, of course — not after this evening’s boost in interest! — but it wasn’t as if he’d made any overtures, as if there were some pervasive behavior for him to quit. At the moment it seemed wisest to remain silent on the subject, do his job the way he always did, and keep a careful eye on the proceedings. After all, it was entirely possible nothing would happen between Tokio and Zanza, or that anything that did would be transient and offer no interference to Saitou’s long-term plans. Yes, standing back seemed like the best option for now.
And that little-accessed true emotional state into which Zanza had so unexpectedly punched his way wondered, quiet and provoking, Even if that means watching them end up happy together forever? To which his dominant, logical side — the part of him that kept that shallow trough of casual feelings clamped down so tightly over the other set — replied forcefully, Even so.
Having resolved this internal conflict to his satisfaction, he thought perhaps he would now be able to sleep. But it seemed that, to his deeper emotional side, things hadn’t been resolved quite so satisfactorily, for he continued to stare at the ceiling with no apparent progress away from wakefulness. A voice in the back of his head, just as disruptive of his rest as speech aloud might have been, was inquiring naggingly how long he thought he could keep up any kind of show of indifference and lack of active pursuit when he was actually working with Zanza — which, if things went as he was hoping, might very soon be the case.
Tokio had been confident in her ability to find Zanza, and, though that confidence had not been misplaced, the process had taken quite a while. By the time she found him, out at the end of a pier in an area not far from the neighborhood where he lived, it was early morning, and she wondered how long he’d been there. If the dockworker from whom she’d gotten the tip was to be trusted, it must have been at least several hours.
She approached slowly and silently, taking advantage of his absorption and her own subtlety of movement for a chance to assess his current condition. The dejected slump of his shoulders, combined with the nervous tapping of one foot against the boards beneath him and the listless trailing of one hand across the same, told her he not only felt unhappy and lost, but was determined, in some way, to change that state. He just didn’t know how.
Having ascertained all she could by looking at him from behind (at least from this distance), she finally approached down the pier. He appeared, she thought as she drew nearer, lonely and forlorn, perhaps even downright miserable. And when the sound of her footsteps attracted his attention and he turned, his unguarded face was even easier to read.
As before, she had her doubts about the feasibility of recruiting this young man. He seemed so astray and uncertain, and yet so emotionally charged — like a child suddenly robbed of its favorite pastime and unsure how to react — and he definitely gazed at her now with no great enthusiasm or welcome. Whether that uncertainty could be changed to something more useful, whether that welcome could be improved upon, was what she’d come to find out. Among other things.
“May I?” she asked without any other greeting, gesturing to the place beside him.
Managing to sound both wary and indifferent, he said, “Sure.”
She sat, focused not only on his possible mental state but on what she could say most effectively to cause it to manifest. She started the conversation with a calculated bid in a quiet, regretful tone: “One of the hardest things about being with the police is that there will always be situations where there’s nothing you can do. No matter how good you are at your job, you’re going to run into those times.” And though this was an attempt at getting him to open up, it was also relieving to say aloud.
He nodded his spiky head but made no reply, and even that gesture of agreement wasn’t as invested as she would have expected. So it must not be the young woman he’d been unable to rescue that specifically bothered him right now. It probably did bother him, but that wasn’t what had him so churned up, nor what had driven him to sit out on this pier for however long he’d been here. His mood must really, then — unless some other trauma currently marred his life, coincidentally, that had nothing to do with this situation — hail from whatever Hajime had said to him. Tokio was forced to admit to some secret pleasure at that thought, since she still intensely wanted to know what that had been.
“We’re both upset about it too, Hajime and I,” she went on, deliberately inserting her husband’s name to see what reaction it would get out of Zanza. “Of course, I arrived late and didn’t watch most of it, but even I saw that poor woman… Hajime actually fought one of those men, so he’s even more unhappy about it.”
“Yeah, I fought one too.” Zanza’s tone was a grumble, but he sounded more sad than peevish. “That didn’t make Saitou any happier.”
Tokio assured him, “He just wanted the guy alive. He wasn’t upset with you for fighting.”
“He doesn’t think much of me fighting.” Zanza drew both knees up and wrapped his arms around them, resting his chin on his wrist with a bleak tilt to eyes and brows. “He doesn’t think much of me at all.”
Now they were getting to the heart of the matter. Clearly Hajime’s statements had left Zanza feeling small and worthless, which was what really had him hurting at the moment, above and beyond the pain of the other affair. And with that in mind, the determination Tokio believed she also saw in the mercenary promised good things, since it seemed to exist in spite of this dejection. She put some surprise into her tone as she responded, “You think so?”
“Ohhhhh, yeah. He made that pretty damn clear.” Zanza did not, however, offer any elucidating quotations from the conversation in question.
“Are you sure you’re not exaggerating his opinion of you?” She added leadingly, “I know he thinks you could be doing better things with your strength, but to say he doesn’t think much of you at all…”
“You gonna lecture me about what I’m doing with my life too?” Zanza sounded simultaneously bitter at the prospect, wearily resigned, and perhaps, paradoxically, as if he looked forward to it a little — three steps on an unexpected road to acceptance seemingly undertaken all at once.
“No, he lectures much better than I do. But I do have to say I agree with him on that point. Someone young and strong like you…”
“Strong’s not worth shit,” he replied vehemently, now crossing his legs and balancing backward onto his tailbone in a frustrated gesture that shouldn’t have been as amusing to watch as it was, “when you don’t know what to do with it. He’s way the hell stronger than me, and he told me the kind of stuff he does… but I’m not cut out for that shit.”
Evidently Hajime had gotten through to him, made him want to better himself. She should never have doubted; of course Hajime had managed to touch Zanza’s natural determination and sense of rightness. Those things were what Hajime was all about. And that meant Zanza had determination and a sense of rightness inside him to be touched in the first place. Tokio wasn’t necessarily surprised, just glad it seemed Zanza wanted to seek a new purpose for his strength. Not only was that an excellent path for him to walk personally, it made her more sanguine about the immediate goal Hajime had proposed.
“Why not?” she asked.
“I’m not a spy.” Zanza’s emphasis on the last word contained no disapproval of the concept as many people might have conveyed; rather, he spoke sourly as if about something far beyond his reach. “I’m just a warrior — hell, warrior’s not even the right word. I’m a self-taught fighter — with a lot of practice, yeah, but I’ve barely even ever had any training in anything. I just bash heads and get paid for it. What good is that?”
She smiled encouragingly. “I think all you need is some direction. There are plenty of heads you could bash for a higher cause.”
Zanza shrugged, and his tone was acerbic. “Why bother? He could bash them all better than I could anyway.”
“That’s certainly true,” she laughed. “But you can’t let the fact there are people better than you at certain things stop you from trying those things if they’re worthwhile. If I let that bother me, you wouldn’t see me in a police uniform when there are people like Hajime who are much better operatives than I am — and warriors on top of that, which I’m not either — and then a lot of valuable work wouldn’t get done, if I do say so myself. And on the other hand, what I’m really good at is cooking — should everyone else in the country just give up and starve because I make a better sukiyaki bowl than they do?”
Apparently cheered somewhat by her levity, the mercenary chuckled briefly. But after a moment the smile faded from his face and he sighed. It sounded a little less desolate than he’d seemed before, but no less lost. He flopped backward onto the pier and let his white-clad legs stretch out bright in the darkness. “I guess in my head I’m really confused about the difference between what I can do and what I should do… hell, and what I’ve been doing. It’s like I suddenly see a whole bunch of shit — new ways to think about my old life, options for what I could be doing instead, just thoughts about what I am, you know? — and I don’t even know which direction I’m facing anymore. I wonder whether I made a big mistake years ago, and I’ve just been living in the middle of that ever since, or whether what I’ve been doing is fine and I shouldn’t think so much of what Saitou thinks of me. And if I do want to make a change, what kind of change? Am I even qualified for anything that’s really worthwhile? I’m confused as shit. And I wonder–”
He cut off abruptly, and looked at her sidelong from where he now lay. There was some suspicion in the brown eyes that appeared as black as her own in the midnight dimness, but more assessment than mistrust.
In response she prodded, “What do you wonder?”
“Seems like Saitou knows all about my time with the Sekihoutai. Well, probably not all of it, but enough… What about you?”
She didn’t plan to mention her eavesdropping on his conversation with Tsukioka that had clued the police couple into the Sekihoutai business in the first place; nor that it had taken Hajime searching normally-sealed-away government records to which his unique position gave him access to provide information about the history of — and the Ishin Shishi’s betrayal of — a group of whose existence they’d only been marginally aware prior to this. She merely said, “I know as much as he does.”
“Well, I wonder…” He looked away from her again, back into the stars. “What would Sagara-taichou think of me now? What would he want me to do, with the way things have turned out?” His deliberate removal of his eyes from hers seemed a gesture aimed at avoiding awkwardness or even embarrassment, and she wondered how many people ever got to hear the tough kenkaya open his heart like this. She was pleased with her own success tonight.
“The way things have turned out in Japan, or with you personally?”
“Both. I don’t think he ever expected me to be what I am today… and I guess that’s one answer right there. He always thought everyone deserved a chance at being the best they could be, and I don’t really think I am. He wanted equality, and for the rich to stop walking all over the poor just because they were born into a different class, and I don’t think I’ve been helping. He thought the war was really going to end all the bullshit, but it sure as hell didn’t.
“I don’t think he ever expected the government to be the way it is, either. He never thought they would backstab him back then, and he didn’t predict the kind of corruption we get these days either. I don’t know what he would’ve done if he’d survived and seen what the Ishin Shishi who supposedly supported him really turned into.”
Again Hajime had been right: Zanza’s attitude toward the late Sagara was more than fondly, innocently nostalgic; it was naïvely reverential. He obviously couldn’t see past the heartbreak he and the other Sekihoutai members had suffered to the less pleasant truth that the group he’d been part of and its leader, no matter how victimized and therefore how legitimate their anger, had been far from the paragons of virtue and righteous revolution he still considered them to this day. Fortunately, it was not Tokio’s job to clear up the misconceptions formed in childhood, to convince Zanza his retrospective attitude might not be entirely correct. Her job was assessment and preliminary recruitment.
“He would have kept fighting.” She said it promptly and with surety. “Even if it might not have been a physical battle anymore.” Then, just to butter him up a little further, she added, “Real heroes, you know…”
He propped himself onto one elbow and looked at her, appearing somewhat surprised and pleased. “Yeah,” he said with more certainty than had sounded in his voice during this entire interview so far, “I guess you’re right.”
“He wouldn’t have wanted you to stop fighting either, you know. Like I said, direction…”
Now Zanza’s brows drew together into an expression that reflected some of the same bewilderment and gloom as before. He lay back again, turning away from her. When at length he resumed the conversation, he sounded almost childlike in his forlornness and inquiry: “Is it any fun?”
She made an educated guess as to what he meant. “Spywork?”
“Well, knowing you’re doing something that’s worth doing. I mean, if I really do decide to get off my ass and live differently from now on… I’m not afraid to change myself or anything, but what I am afraid of is… is that kind of life any fun? It’s pretty discouraging to think, if I change what I’m all about, then if I don’t end up dead in the name of Doing Something Good, I’ll die of boredom.”
Tokio believed it safe to laugh at him. “Sasuga kenkaya Zanza! Always looking for a good time!”
“I’m serious!” he protested.
As her mirth diminished she answered, “I don’t know about ‘fun,’ but it certainly is interesting. And it keeps you busy.” She shrugged. “You wouldn’t die of boredom doing this kind of work.” Then she frowned a bit as she pondered her own words, and eventually made an amendment. “Though that’s just me. For Hajime, I think it really is fun. Or at least as close to fun as anything he ever does. He cares a lot about it, in any case. You should see how irritated he gets when he doesn’t have a big assignment. He does standard police work then, and his skills are completely wasted on it. He’s too good for that kind of thing. Not that that kind of thing isn’t worthwhile, just…”
Zanza smiled a bit ruefully. “Yeah, I can see how a guy like him would be cut out for more important shit. And he seems like he’s still into that whole Aku Soku Zan thing I kept hearing about while I was researching him.”
“Like you would not believe,” she chuckled. “He lives to destroy evil. I laugh, but it’s really very impressive and admirable.”
“No wonder he thinks I’m a waste.”
Zanza’s mood was gradually shifting, the sensation of emotional wavering about him diminishing while his determination increased, seeming less aimless. Obviously this conversation had helped him reach or solidify a decision. He still seemed disheartened by Hajime’s assessment of him, though, and that appeared to play into what uncertainty remained. Was he that desirous of not being considered ‘a waste’ by her husband? Tokio thought she had him just about where she wanted him, but apparently this needed to be dealt with.
“I don’t think you’re a waste.”
The young man smiled a bit. “Thanks. But Saitou… he really laid into me earlier.” He sighed in a mixture of melancholy and frustration. “And I’m pretty sure it was all true.”
“Well, so maybe he does think you’re a waste now,” she allowed, “but he wouldn’t have spent so much time and energy laying into you if he didn’t think you had potential for improvement. Trust me: most mercenaries he just knocks out immediately, or even kills; and for him to agree to a second fight, even if it didn’t end up happening…”
“Huh.” Now Zanza sounded pensive and slightly more optimistic.
Tokio measured the silence very carefully before speaking again, letting it seem she was turning an idea over in her brain. “You know, if you’re really interested in doing something worthwhile…”
She knew she had him when he sat up completely and turned toward her with an expression more than a little eager and an almost sharp, “Yeah?”
“There’s something Hajime and I are working on right now,” she said slowly, throwing out her bait, “that I think you could really help us with… if you’re interested…”
“I dunno how comfortable I’d be working for the police.” He seemed hesitant to sound hesitant, as if reluctant to express aversion to the change in lifestyle he’d claimed earlier he wasn’t afraid of enacting.
“And, honestly, I can’t see you in a police uniform,” she replied solemnly. Actually that was blatantly untrue; the hypothetical image of Zanza in a police uniform was candy for her mental eye. “But as an official member of the force isn’t really what I have in mind.”
“So what is?” Despite his earlier reluctance (and perhaps because of this latest small reassurance), Zanza sounded easier.
She put a pensive expression on her face and shook her head. “I only just thought of this,” she lied. “I need to talk to Hajime first to make sure he’s on board. There’s certain classified information…”
“What? You can’t just suggest something like that and then leave me in the dark!”
“I’ll tell you the very instant Hajime says it’s all right.”
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure he hates me even if he does think I have potential or whatever.”
“I don’t think he hates you,” Tokio laughed, somewhat dismissive, “and in any case, don’t underestimate my level of influence.”
“Well, at least give me a hint about what kind of work it is!”
“It’s not something stupid, is it?”
“No!” she said again with another laugh. “In fact it’s something I think you’re exactly suited for.”
He groaned. “That makes me even more curious!” Which was, of course, precisely what she’d intended. But she judged she had him in just the state of inquisitiveness and anticipation she needed, and shouldn’t press things further. So some distraction was in order.
“I’ll make it up to you.”
There was no way he could miss her flirtatious tone, and he was obviously pleased by it; but the shift in focus that spread over his expression as he didn’t entirely lose track of the foregoing exchange, yet seemed suddenly to consider the possibilities of this isolated spot in the darkness, was still pretty funny to watch. “Oh, yeah?” He assumed a kneeling position, hands on thighs, readier for action than before.
Scooting toward him, she answered, “I was mentioning things I’m good at just a minute ago…”
He was much happier to have her around now than he had been earlier this evening, which, though it did play into her specific goal, was really more of a personal bonus she wouldn’t complain of. “So are you better at cooking,” he asked, grinning, “or making it up to someone for not telling him what kind of work you might want him to do?”
She returned the expression. “You’ll have to be the judge of that.”
“But I’ve never tasted your cooking,” he pointed out just as his lips responded to the clear invitation of hers.
For a first kiss, it was a little rougher and more overwhelming than she liked. He didn’t seem to know how to control his power, to be as gentle as she would have preferred. The strength of his body was attractive, though, and the sake flavor of his mouth not unpleasant. She decided it wasn’t a bad start.
But then when he eventually pulled back, he looked at her with sparkling eyes and whispered, “Tell me.”
So obviously he needed further distraction. And since she wasn’t at all averse to providing it, to attempting to get from him the type of attentions she would more greatly enjoy, she simply resumed her grin, answered with a negative just as quiet, and kissed him again.