How might things have gone if Saitou, rather than Kenshin, had beaten some sense into kenkaya Zanza and become his guiding force?
This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.
Last updated on March 17, 2020
They’d chosen the case that looked the most interesting and time-consuming of all those currently open to them, and, though it promised to remain just as interesting until it wrapped up, the number of days or hours it would pass seemed to shrink with every new lead Tokio uncovered.
Though she might do it sometimes subconsciously, she never truly wanted to retaliate against men by undervaluing them they way they undervalued her… but sometimes it did seem that male officers completely ignored the emotional nuances of cases and blundered past information whose importance couldn’t have been more glaringly obvious to a more sensitive investigator. Not that Tokio had the precise solution to this mystery yet, but with the picture coming together for her, it was only a matter of time.
Yasuyoto, the old man running the restaurant across the street from where she waited, knew everyone in the area and lived to tell all of them everything there was to be told about one another. In this noble endeavor he was aided by his funny little wife, and even an eccentrically female police officer had only to be polite, buy something insignificant, and word things in an amiable and non-threatening manner to get just about any kind of district gossip from them. This was doubtless the reason the group of local teenagers for whom Tokio now waited made the restaurant one of their hangouts: to take advantage of the information hub while still appearing totally innocent.
These hooligans, all the more docile during the day for being little hell-raisers by night, would probably show up here any time now for their afternoon snack; and once they did, they were sure to be informed with relish by the gossipy restaurateurs that a police officer had been asking about them around closing last night, and why were such nice young men being asked about by the police at such late hours? The nice young men couldn’t discuss their miscreant doings in front of the old couple, so they would make an excuse and then run — if not all the way back to their hideout, at least to some place convenient for them to talk and Tokio to eavesdrop — and she could discover whether or not they were concealing the person around whom this case revolved.
She took some pride in her makeup today. Sometimes she was forced to wash off and redraw the shadows and crow’s feet two or three times before she got them right, but today’s middle-aged woman had been convincing on the first attempt. Even older might have been preferable, but the more wrinkles she applied, the farther away anyone needed to be for her to maintain verisimilitude. As it was, with a little padding, grey streaks in her hair, and a staid married woman’s kimono (in a precisely bland color the eyes slipped right over), she was mobile, unobtrusive, and completely unrecognizable as that weird cop woman.
Why this plausible wife and probable mother of four was skulking around in a side-street small enough to be called an alleyway, in the rain, eyes glued to the restaurant across the way, might have been difficult to explain, but nobody asked because nobody saw her.
Zanza startled her by appearing about forty-five minutes after the rain had, strolling up the street without regarding the elements and heading she did not know where with purpose in his step. His bearing intrigued her, its nonchalance seeming little more than a façade that barely concealed a mixture of what she believed to be contemplation, agitation, and relief. He appeared satisfied and optimistic, but in a way that spoke of having had these emotions delivered via a turbulent scene. Had he spoken to Tsukioka, then? How exactly had that gone?
She peered after him as long as he remained in sight, trying to read him better and get some idea of what she wanted to know. Their conversation earlier had been awkward and low-key unpleasant, despite their best efforts, but also good to get out of the way and promising of better exchanges going forward; and she’d taken from it an impression of Zanza’s desire to comply with his friend’s request immediately. In fact that had been an excellent excuse for her to cut their exchange short: to allow him to get ready to go out in public (not that she suspected there was much involved in that process) so he could meet Tsukioka.
Of course she could have done some general damage control, worked on smoothing over what had happened between them, by regaling him about the current case and her need to put a bunch of subtle wrinkles and shading on her face, but the other option had seemed quicker and much less emotionally demanding. She still felt like a bit of a coward.
Her full attention returned to the restaurant as Zanza disappeared up the street. The volume of rain drumming just above her head increased every moment, and still no sign of her targets. If they were suddenly changing their habits just when she’d begun looking into them, either they were hiding Ichiro, as she believed, or they knew someone suspected them of it and were up to something else they didn’t want to fall under scrutiny. She would give them a little while longer to show up, though.
A tattered umbrella was the next distraction to come into view, and Tokio barely caught a glimpse of the face beneath it before its bearer had ducked into Yasuyoto’s. And this actually struck her as more interesting than Zanza’s appearance, though in the same vein. Not only was it the second time she’d seen Tsukioka by chance since his adventure at the Internal Affairs office, for him to show up so soon after his friend along the same street…
Well, he didn’t live too far off, and couldn’t a man leave his home and enter a nearby restaurant without all eyes upon him? But why not eat with Zanza, when they’d probably been together and had definitely come the same direction? The kenkaya had evidently had somewhere to be, but was that by his own choice or because Tsukioka had dismissed him? Zanza hadn’t seemed anywhere near as unhappy as Tokio assumed he would if the discussion with his friend had gone badly — assuming it had taken place at all — but if it had gone well, why had they separated? Did it relate at all to the fact that this restaurant was one of the district’s best information mines?
She’d seen the light of inspiration in Tsukioka’s eyes when they’d spoken the other evening, and knew he’d been on the verge of some sort of breakthrough. Did his behavior today have anything to do with that? Did he specifically want gossip from the Yasuyoto couple, or was this merely an early dinner? She wished she knew him well enough to ask, because curiosity was about to kill this cat. The best she could postulate at the moment was that, if he had some inappropriate plan, he must not have told Zanza about it; she didn’t believe the latter would have been nearly so satisfied in the wake of such news.
So the question was: did Tsukioka have some new subversive scheme he hadn’t disclosed to his friend, with whom he must then have had a deceptively placating conversation not too long ago in order to set Zanza at his ease? Tokio wanted to trust him, trust that whatever idea had sparked during their exchange the other evening had been an acceptable one. She didn’t like to think that a friend for whom Zanza had exerted so much might be deceiving him — but, though it was little to the credit of Zanza’s discernment that she thought so, she had seen too many corrupt, exploitative friendships and known too many idealistic radicals to be entirely convinced just yet.
At any rate, Tsukioka remained in the restaurant for long enough to convince anyone he’d had an innocent meal, not to mention long enough for the time Tokio had planned to give the hooligans to show up to have expired. In light of this, she decided to set the Ichiro case aside for a while and follow the artist when he emerged. If Hajime faulted her on this behavior, she could easily point out that it was his case too and she hadn’t seen him around here today. Of course he was undoubtedly doing something important — that was all he ever did — but he couldn’t deny having left her alone on this one.
Despite the excellent cover provided by the weather, she made more than a conscientious effort to remain totally undetected as she trailed Tsukioka up the wet, grey street, and he gave no sign of being aware of her. Beyond that, he acknowledged none of the few people he passed; he went at no greater speed than a natural walking pace; he seemed not at all nervous; in general, he succeeded in looking absolutely normal and trustworthy. Her misgivings didn’t necessarily lessen at this, but it seemed a good sign.
He entered a shop that sold paper and ink and emerged with a large package, which he shielded more carefully under his umbrella even than his own person; so far, for an artist, so unremarkable. After this they went in the direction of his home, and Tokio began to relax. On this little rainy day outing, at least, it seemed Tsukioka had no more sinister intentions than a bit of shopping. Or so she was ready to judge, until the moment Tsukioka recognized with a mostly unobtrusive nod a man leaning against the building’s corner in the shadows, who disappeared the moment after into the alley behind.
Her suspicions redoubled. That he could appear so very unassuming, so perfectly innocent, and still be up to something all along cast him in an even worse light than before. And that Zanza had apparently left him in such a satisfied mood and, she guessed, with no hint of suspicion that his friend would immediately after their discussion get started on some clandestine pursuit, spoke of deception and betrayal.
She spent the rest of the distance to Tsukioka’s apartment urging herself to be rational about this. There could be a perfectly acceptable, if not necessarily technically legal, explanation for the secrecy of the exchange she’d witnessed, something that fit with his new idea that didn’t involve destruction and war. Zanza might have seemed so satisfied simply because Tsukioka had, in fact, told him everything, and that everything was nothing to worry about. She didn’t have enough information yet to properly read the situation, and she shouldn’t jump to conclusions. But since Tsukioka might also be planning to bomb something, and that man he’d exchanged nods with was his new confederate, she kept up her surveillance.
For the next long while she listened uneasily for any sign of unusual activity from within his home, but there was none. Indeed, but for the light still unquestionably lit within, she might have thought he’d gone to bed early, for not a sound reached her above the pattering of the rain. This, for greater concealment, she endured without her umbrella, certain her wrinkles were horribly smeared at best.
He certainly was quiet in there! Surely if he planned something for this evening, he would not be so idle at the moment? Though since she never engaged in terrorism herself, she couldn’t be certain what preparing for it entailed, and whether it wasn’t just as likely that the nod earlier had been an ‘everything is ready’ indicator and Tsukioka had only to wait until the appointed time. Still, based on what she’d seen in his demeanor as she’d tailed him, she couldn’t bring herself to believe it would happen tonight.
Of course the only way to find out for sure was to remain here until then, and she’d come to the point where she had to decide whether that or returning to the Ichiro case should be her priority — whether to give more credence now to her paranoia or her surveillance instincts, her desire to protect Zanza or to trust his friend (and, by extension, his judgment). If only it didn’t all seem to balance out so equally.
Arbitrary as her eventual decision was, she felt as satisfied with it as she had with anything today or lately. She would talk to Hajime later and bring him up to speed on all this; she would talk to Zanza when she had a chance, awkward as it might be, and find out what he knew. But for the moment, she left the observation of the artist to the falling rain.
The glance Sano cast around the area as he picked his way from the street down the shallow gully that sloped between two properties was observed and assessed by Saitou, who waited at the point just before where the ground took a more precipitous dip toward the river. The young man appeared appropriately suspicious, ready for anything but for battle most of all. Still, though Saitou would never wish to encourage pointless paranoia, if Sano’s correspondent had intended him harm, the bravado and carelessness with which he looked around would have availed him little walking into such a perfect ambush scene.
As the kenkaya attempted to avoid the deepest mud, the downpour reached a point where it defied credulity that so much water existed in the world, let alone in the sky above them, and details blurred any farther away than about arm’s length. So Saitou couldn’t examine Sano’s expression any further, and only by the color of his uniform did he believe Sano might guess his identity.
The young man splashed along the side of the indentation, descending the general slope, and as he drew nearer and the rain eased up a trifle, Saitou could make out the mixture of skepticism and annoyance on his face. When he’d come close enough, he said in a bit of a grumble, “So it was you, was it? I was hoping for some kind of fight.”
“You found one.” Saitou gestured and turned.
“What’s the big idea?” Sano followed obediently, and they both slid down the steep wet hill onto a flatter space where the rainwater oozed in a less confined channel into the river beyond. Scrub blocked their view of the latter in that direction, and the walls of the flanking properties rose above the bushes and behind the trees to either side, creating a relatively open — if boggy and a little cramped for the purpose — and very private space in between.
Saitou turned to face Sano. “You need training.”
With a dubiously belligerent expression, looking around at the hidden field, Sano wondered, “In this weather?”
“What better cover?”
“Why not just at night or something? Well, yeah, I guess I have shit to do at night, but… in the rain?”
“People who are afraid of getting wet,” Saitou said in a mocking tone of patient explanation, “tend to stay inside when it’s raining. Beyond that, visibility is bad. We’re less likely to be seen now than at any other time. Do I need to explain why it’s better for us not to be seen together?”
“All right, all right. You’re heartless. What am I learning?”
Saitou felt some surprise at finding Sano amenable to the suggestion of training; maybe the young man’s bravado and carelessness were more of a show than he’d realized. Good for him. The officer began to unbutton his soaked jacket, and replied with a smirk, “How not to get stabbed and knocked out.”
The scowling Sano appeared to be trying to come up with something to say. But having been so thoroughly beaten by Saitou when they’d fought before evidently left him with little defense — quite appropriately, given he had so little in general. He settled for mimicking the man opposite him and stripping his upper half… which, though he probably didn’t know it, was retort enough.
This physical admiration had crossed a line into the realm of lust. With perfectly formed shoulders, beautifully tanned skin shifting over taut muscles as Sano shivered slightly in the cool rain; with clear droplets running past prickling nipples and over near-transparent skin-tight wrappings to disappear teasingly into clinging pants, he should really consider himself luck Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion.
He didn’t realize how long he’d been staring until Sano said, perhaps a trifle uncomfortably, “What?”
Then he wondered for an extended moment whether or not to be frank. He wanted to believe there would be no harm in making his interest known, wanted to believe a casual admittance of admiration would not come like an unexpected blow… but there was still the chance it would be exactly the wrong thing to say. He dared not risk driving Sano to desert their cause — not with Sano’s role so central. The ambiguous situation with Tokio remained as well. He couldn’t discover that those two had spent more than one night together so far, yet they might be more deeply involved than that fact seemed to imply. Best to keep his own counsel as he excelled at doing.
But the part of him that longed to run his mouth over each scar on the rain-drenched chest opposite him and see if they tasted as good as they looked whispered, He’s right; you are heartless. And, “Studying your balance,” he lied, pushing that thought away in annoyance.
“Why? Something wrong with it?”
“Maybe. Try to attack me.”
Sano’s face finally took on a more pleased expression as his demeanor went in half an instant from static to vigor, and he growled in a tone surprisingly devoid of anger (for now), “I’ll do more than try!”
What followed was a sore test of temperance. Despite Sano’s initial lack of complaint, he didn’t relish the idea of altering his clumsy fighting style, and felt the need to resist everything Saitou tried to show him. This was not the true difficulty, however. Sano’s stubbornness, though frustrating, was more of a challenge, a game, and almost more endearing than anything else. Saitou’s real trial was holding to his resolve of aloofness in a secluded place with a soaked, panting, flushed, increasingly angry young man glaring at him in perfectly unwitting sexiness. No matter what Sano did, no matter how reckless or stupid the move he chose to respond to Saitou’s techniques with, it looked good, and only the cool rain kept the heat of their exercise from being a serious problem in some areas.
As the force and volume of precipitation began to lessen in preparation for ceasing all together, Saitou brought the lesson to an end as well. “You need quite a bit of work still,” he told Sano, a little breathless even himself, “so unless you have something else to do, we’ll plan to practice here every time it rains.”
That Sano did not immediately protest was hopeful, but he didn’t exactly jump at the suggestion either. “All right,” he grumbled, “if you say so. I still don’t think I’m all that bad.”
“Once you can hold your own against me, I’ll let you say that.”
Sano stuck out his tongue. God, he obviously just had no idea.
Saitou changed the subject. “How close are you to either of our gangs?”
Slicking back his wild, wet hair (futilely) with each hand in succession, Sano answered. “I’ve got some people talking up letting me back in to Tone, so I figure that one won’t take much longer. Then once I trash some guys in the fights in Azabuku, the Karashi’ll probably be begging me to join them.”
“So those are active again, are they? We’ll have to shut them down as quickly as last time as soon as you’re done with them. It’s convenient timing, though.”
“Yeah, I was pretty happy to hear about ’em.”
“Just don’t get yourself killed.” This admonishment was only half serious in tone. “Those fights have always been brutal, and my wife won’t forgive either of us if you die.”
The statement had been a bid for information about the state of things between Sano and Tokio, but its results were different from anything Saitou had expected. Sano stared at him with brows lowered, looking slightly confused and as if he hadn’t quite heard right. “What did you just say?”
Puzzled by Sano’s expression, Saitou reworded. “Tokio won’t light any incense for you if you get killed in the Azabuku fights. And as for me…” But he fell silent, watching Sano in increasing bemusement.
The young man’s mouth opened once or twice, emitting no sound. Finally it simply remained slack. His eyes were equally wide, unblinking. After several long moments he dragged his jaw up with an evident effort and said, “But you called her your… You and her are…”
Recognizing at last the source of Sano’s astonishment, Saitou could find no other outlet for his own than disbelieving laughter. And at the sound, the younger man’s expression of shock and chagrin gradually crimsoned, whether in embarrassment or anger Saitou couldn’t be sure.
At length he said, “How is it possible you didn’t know we’re married?”
“Nobody ever…” Sano spluttered his way through his explanation. “I mean, somebody did tell… but I forgot… And she uses her old family… and-and she and I–” His blush intensified as he ceased abruptly.
“It’s not my fault!”
“Whose fault, then? You’re lucky we didn’t have this conversation before I hired you, because I never would have.”
“Just because I didn’t know Tokio is… is… ” He seemed to choke on the words.
“To have picked up so little when you were researching me isn’t very promising for an undercover agent.”
Sano ran his hands through his hair again, this time in a motion more like pulling at it in agitation than squeezing excess water from it. “Someone did mention it — I remember that now — but I didn’t really care! so I didn’t bother to remember it. I was researching the best way to fight you, not your personal life!”
“And her given name didn’t jog your memory? Nor the fact that we live together?”
“But you two don’t act like…” Sano no longer met Saitou’s eyes, and his face, if possible, glowed even redder than before. “I mean, why don’t you…”
The officer had been entertained by this exchange up until now, but Sano’s growing embarrassment was no good sign. Why would he blush so much, after all, or question intimate details if not from awkwardness or guilt about something that had happened between himself and Saitou’s wife? This was not unforeseen, really, just discouraging… but at least it served as some confirmation.
Saitou allowed Sano to proceed for a few fumbling moments — dancing around his real point, eventually trailing off, and looking again, hesitant but angry, up into Saitou’s face — before answering succinctly, “Our marriage is one of friendship and convenience. I’m not romantically interested in women.”
“Ohhh.” Sano sounded relieved and enlightened. Then silence fell just as the rain sank to a quiet, negligible sprinkle. The kenkaya once more had his eyes turned away, and obviously no idea where next to take this conversation.
Stifling a sigh Saitou finally said, “I believe we both have work to do.”
“Right.” Sano began searching for his gi. “Yeah.” Throwing the recovered garment over his shoulder with a splat against his bare skin and turning hastily, again not meeting Saitou’s gaze, he added, “So here whenever it’s raining, right?”
“Yes,” Saitou replied, and watched the young man walk off without any further word of goodbye.
Once Sano had struggled up the slippery hill and out of sight, Saitou found his own discarded jacket and absently reached into its pocket, glad he’d thought to tuck his matches into the water-resistant cigarette case before the rain started. For a long time he stood in the long, wet grass as the sun came out and dried his skin, smoking in thoughtful silence.
Looked at in a practical light, no logical reason existed for Sano to be so agitated about this. Understandable as it was to be a little agitated upon discovering a woman you’d slept with was married, and all the more humiliating and potentially dangerous as it made the situation to learn her husband was your boss, if you’d found out at the same moment that said boss only liked men and probably wouldn’t care you’d slept with his wife, the reaction should be negated, right? And since both Saitou and Tokio had obviously assumed he’d known all along, he couldn’t rationally be upset with either of them. So why did this bother him so much?
So rattled he couldn’t keep still, he wondered in a silent shout how many things a person could be expected to keep track of at once. He hadn’t ceased mulling over his own character and life philosophies… he hadn’t stopped worrying about Katsu and his life philosophies… He needed to go to Azabuku and impress basically the entire district, then find someone that knew about the fights so he could get signed up or passworded in or whatever it would take. He needed to find Kanno or some other Furukawatai jerk and check on his status there. He needed to figure out a way, in the middle of that, to help make Kotono’s situation less miserable. And now he really needed to get away from reflections on Tokio and Saitou and why it bugged him so much that they were married.
At first he couldn’t decide which item of business to pursue this evening — mostly because the aforementioned agitation had left his planning abilities in scattered pieces. He would like best of all to sit down calmly at a quiet bar somewhere and try to drink his head straight… but he hadn’t much enjoyed giving Tokio’s husband a no-real-progress report earlier. Saitou hadn’t said so, but Sano knew he would appreciate greater speed and efficiency. But which gang to play with tonight? They operated out of different districts, so the average night held insufficient hours to try making contact with them both.
After attempting some breathing exercises to calm himself (though pretty sure he got them wrong), eating some leftover rice that had to be finished off now or never, and confirming that the clothing he’d left draped beside the stove to dry had mostly done so, he finally managed to come to what actually seemed an obvious answer now he thought about it. If he harassed members of the Furukawatai about reentering the gang, it would make him seem desperate. They already knew he was poking his nose in that direction, and they specifically wanted him back; best to let the matter stew. The Azabuku fights, on the other hand, could already have started, and, for all he knew, the Karashigumi had no idea, as an organization, that he existed.
Dressed now in wet shoes, damp pants, and a very wrinkled gi he hadn’t had time or inclination to steam properly, he at last issued forth to spend the final light of the day carefully examining all the establishments in Azabuku where Karashi members seemed likely to show up. Taking special pains not to let it look like he traversed a premeditated route, he considered the probable schedules of such people based on his own history in a gang, and which of these bars and opium dens and gambling halls promised the strongest and most pugnacious of them.
He did this with a scowl on his face, partly in pensiveness and partly directed inward at his fixation on irrelevant facts. At least the expression matched his intentions; he’d decided the best way to attract the kind of attention he needed was to go heavy on the tough-guy act and get thrown out of a few places around here for fighting. All right, this didn’t constitute much of an act. He would have to be careful not to take it too far. Tokio (‘Takagi‘ Tokio his ass) would never let him hear the end of it if he got arrested during the course of what was essentially police work. He didn’t like to think what Saitou himself (who was just as married) would have to say about it.
A surprising amount of the time, bars that appeared to be the scummiest pockmarks on the world’s face actually had cleaner noses than their slightly less grimy and run-down fellows — possibly because they were ideal raiding-places for bored police rookies, and possibly because yakuza types, even the thugs, tended to consider themselves too high-class for such establishments. Therefore, though his own tastes weren’t so discriminating in the presence of decent drink and the absence of drug addicts, Sano avoided anything matching that description. And by the time true darkness had settled, he’d composed a sufficiently long mental list of places he thought worth visiting, and wondered idly how many of them it was safe to get tossed out of in one night.
The next problem he encountered, immediately inside the first bar, was how not to give the impression he was expecting someone or keeping an eye on the clientele, only angry-drinking or longing for a good fight. The subtle difference between how he wanted to appear and how he didn’t might make things difficult. It would be a breeze if he could drink a decent amount, fulfilling the bar’s purpose like everyone around him, but, being low on money (because a certain married man hadn’t yet given him the wage he’d promised), and wishing to remain cautious and observant and clear-headed, he had to limit himself.
Eventually, planning to keep an eye open for anyone he could insult or be insulted by in order to start some trouble, he decided on the brooding-in-a-corner look. Nursing a single drink (all he wanted to pay for) was really only convincing in solitude with a grim face, after all. And he had no difficulty coming up with a subject to occupy his thoughts and keep that scowl in place.
Might Tokio have said something to her… husband (thinking of Saitou in such terms remained almost mind-boggling) …about having slept with Sano? No, Saitou wouldn’t have failed to bring it up and work it into his mockery of Sano’s ignorance if he’d known. And she wouldn’t say something now, would she? Now they’d decided not to do it again? He couldn’t think of any reason Saitou should need to know about that. He also couldn’t think of any reason he should care so much whether or not Saitou knew, aside from wanting to avoid more mockery, but he did. Dissonance arose in his head whenever he considered having slept with Saitou’s wife. Perhaps he only worried Saitou would object to him as a partner for Tokio, believe him not good enough for her or something. But the affair had ended, so what could the officer even say along those lines?
“Gotta problem, kid?”
He’d become so lost in reflection as to completely miss that he’d been staring straight at someone for maybe quite a while. Now as he came to his senses, he couldn’t even curse himself for losing track, as this was exactly what he needed. “Name’s not ‘kid,'” he replied at a growl.
“I don’t give a fuck what yer name is,” said the object of Sano’s absent gaze. Burly and disgruntled-looking, he might be precisely the right type of person for the task at hand. “Just keep yer pervert eyes off my ass.”
Sano struggled not to show how much this startled him. He’d been very unaware of the direction his eyes pointed! But he managed to recover without letting his glower falter, and sat up straighter to indicate a greater level of engagement. “Most guys’d be proud I was checkin’ them out, but for someone as ugly as you, it’d be more logical to be scared shitless I’m just gonna kick that stupid ass out to the street.”
“You lookin’ to get killed?” the man snarled, and Sano had to work to keep from grinning at how well this was going. Not so difficult at all, really, putting on a show of this sort.
“Lookin’ to teach some cheeky bastard like you a lesson, maybe.” It took some practice to rise quickly from the benches at most bars without the movement appearing awkward and entirely backfiring even if you didn’t outright fall over, but fortunately Sano had had that practice. He stood abruptly to see if the guy would startle, and when the thuggish fool didn’t flinch, the pleased younger man added in a slightly louder tone, “Ain’t had a good fight in forever.” Entirely untrue, this, since he’d fought Saitou earlier today — right before the cop had mentioned he was married to Tokio — but the district needed to hear it.
The stranger stood as well, from a stool that took less dexterity and experience to leave smoothly. “You little shithead, I’m gonna–” But he was cut off by the appearance at his side of another man, who shook him hard and leaned up to whisper something roughly and beratingly in his ear. Sano definitely caught the words ‘kenkaya Zanza’ and ‘strong.’ So at least he had some reputation left; at least his recent loss to Tokio’s husband wasn’t the talk of the entire town.
The primary antagonist’s red face soured even further, and he pushed his friend aside mid-admonishment. Somewhat to Sano’s dismay, he said as he closed the distance between them, “You think I’m scared’a some failure who got his ass kicked by a cop? Yeah,” he added with an unpleasant little laugh, “yeah, I heard about that, Zanza.”
So maybe it was the talk of the entire town. Sano tried to plan in haste.
“Did your friend there have to tell you about that too?” he taunted as he weaved between two badly thrown punches. (His enemy had obviously taken a tad more to drink than he had.) “Does he always tell you bedtime stories?” He was buying space to think with these weak lines, but it also made him chortle a bit to see how angry the guy got.
Obviously next he must take this man out in the flashiest, concisest manner possible. But he also needed to make it absolutely clear to anyone paying attention that a kenkaya Zanza that had gotten his ass kicked by a cop still made a desirable acquisition for organized fights and for the Karashigumi. Not having a lot of time at the moment, he plunged into the first scheme he formulated without giving it much further thought.
Voices shouting at them to stop fighting or get out of the bar were converging from multiple sides, and the older man was making some new threatening statement Sano didn’t bother paying attention to. Instead, he said loudly as he continued to dodge, “Lemme tell you one too: everybody — even me — figures out eventually there’s always someone stronger than him. And for you and everyone else in this room…”
He caught the man’s right fist in his left hand, leaning back slightly so the wide upper body behind it bent forward inadvertently to follow. Then, using the strength of his legs rising from the crouch this had put him in to add extra power to his punch, he struck upward into the enemy’s stomach, lifting him off his feet and flinging him toward the low ceiling. The contact of body and plaster provided only a dull thud, since the guy’d been damned difficult to throw that high in the first place, and in the wake of the disappointing sound Sano finished his cocky statement: “…that’s me!” And he stepped aside as his enemy made a much more satisfying noise hitting the floor in front of him.
He wondered what Saitou, the husband of Tokio, would say about that move. Probably that Sano had been foolish to leave himself open for a left hook; what if he hadn’t been able to get in his punch quickly enough, and had been knocked out as payment for his showboating? Tokio, the wife of Saitou, would probably mock him for the showboating too, even if she had nothing to offer on his technique. It wouldn’t help to point out that he needed to showboat, and only did it (well, mostly did it) in the pursuit of their goals.
“And I’m still lookin’ for a good fight,” was his closing statement, rendered a touch grumpier in tone than he could have affected on his own by the thoughts he’d been entertaining.
“You need to leave,” came a voice over his shoulder. Much of the room had turned to chaos now as whoever this was threatened him, two other solid employees approached with a wakizashi and a club respectively, the downed loser’s friends clustered around to discover whether or not he’d died, and other patrons crowded for a good view and commented among themselves. Little more could be gained in here tonight.
“Yeah, yeah.” Sano waved the man behind him away with one hand, the two in front with the other. “You need to make sure your clients don’t bug me while I’m drinking.” Belatedly, already heading for the exit, he added, “Unless they’re actually worth fighting.”
The temperature outside compared comfortably well to the overstuffed bar, though the nearby gutters, still running high from the afternoon’s rain, scented the air just about as pleasantly as body odors and whatnot did within. The cloud cover had mostly passed, but a faint haze rising from the area’s various establishments colored the air, and the stars looked as dirty as the ground beneath his feet. These he moved smartly, heading for the next bar and the next fight. He wished he could gamble as he had the other night, but his near lack of funds made that unfeasible.
As he walked, he considered how he’d handled that last scenario, and decided he didn’t like it. He’d entered into it by lucky accident while distracted, then been so focused on how he would knock the guy out and what he should say to get his point across that he hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the people around him. How long had that man’s sleeves been? Might Sano have missed a chance to look for a Karashi tattoo? Had any been visible elsewhere in the room?
A voice spoke suddenly in his head: “You’re lucky we didn’t have this conversation before I hired you, because I never would have.” Because, yeah, Saitou wouldn’t have anything nice to say if he knew how inattentive Sano had been. He would probably connect it to Sano’s previous obliviousness about his nuptial state, and come to unflattering conclusions. And Tokio wouldn’t be much help; she was married to the bastard, after all. Besides, the only skill of Sano’s she could really attest to was…
He scowled and pushed onward, pushing at the same time all such thoughts out of the way. He had work to do: people to intimidate and awareness to attract, fights to start, and so on.
Now if he could only get the platonic married couple in his head to leave him alone while he did it.
The monotonous scraping of blade on wood had been Katsu’s constant companion these last few days, and without it he seemed to feel as if something had gone wrong, as if there were something he needed to be doing but wasn’t. The time had come to begin the printing process, to turn out the twenty copies of his first edition, so he’d set aside his carving tools and now faced a stack of thin papers that would undoubtedly prove tricky to find places for in his small apartment so they could dry after inking.
Something nagged at him beyond merely the absence of the previous days’ habitual sounds. He assumed it had to do with this being his initial step into a new world, a new line of work — he certainly recognized some measure of agitation concerning the public reception of his newspaper, the effect it might eventually have, and the potential dangers involved — and perhaps it was indeed limited to that. He nevertheless directed his mind toward ferreting out the cause for certain as he began to set up.
In the interest of making this a tenable long-term endeavor, he’d chosen just about the cheapest paper and ink on the market — the former much flimsier and the latter of a far lower quality than he used for artistic prints — and smallish, thin blocks of wood that often sold as remnants and that he wouldn’t have given a second glance for any other project. Each story existed on a separate block (though the main piece had stretched long enough to require two), and he’d carefully measured the space on the paper to make sure they would all fit.
Now he laid out the blocks edge-to-edge on the first sheet to be sure he’d done the calculations correctly. Confident that he had, he fetched a baren and a dish and brush for his ink (none of these ever too far from his hand). He decided to dilute the latter somewhat; after all, this first edition, and probably the second, would go for free, so he needed to conserve resources.
Along those same lines, he also needed to come up with a new artistic print that would be likely to sell. Regular nourishment formed a significant part of his life, and he would like to keep it that way.
But as he began an inking process that, though contextually different from what he usually did, he could still probably accomplish in his sleep, his head remained full of vague curiosity and worry over what kept needling him — what he’d missed, what he should be doing and wasn’t.
His distributor had signaled not only his readiness to hand out copies, but his success in locating the people he believed most likely to appreciate the content and share it in their own circles — thus paving the way for future editions. Katsu and his contact would be going about this quietly and as anonymously as possible; they’d taken every precaution. That couldn’t be what bothered him now.
Or could it? Increasingly while he inked and pressed and spread sheets of paper across his living space to dry, that woman, Takagi Tokio, kept drifting into his mind as if she had something to do with this. She, as a police officer not merely slightly acquainted with Katsu but romantically involved with his best friend, would be perfectly placed to make trouble for him. Despite what he knew of the work she did with Saitou Hajime, he couldn’t be sure she would react favorably to the suggestive or even specifically incriminating content of his newsprint. Perhaps she haunted him now due to skittishness concerning that reaction.
And yet… something about her fascinated him and seemed to draw his thoughts without needing any such excuse. He’d recalled her surprisingly often lately, and not necessarily when he pondered or labored at his new undertaking. Why should there be any reason to dwell on her today beyond what had driven him on previous occasions? On further reflection, he decided she couldn’t be the cause for his subdued anxiety either.
He’d finished the main article, and the next step was the second, starting back at the beginning of the line where the ink should have dried by now. But he hesitated, moving only slowly to gather up a few of the initial sheets and angle them toward the light to catch its reflection on any remaining moisture. Finally he set them back down in their places and reached instead for a drawer where he kept paper for nishiki-e. He had to sort through his somewhat disorganized stock before he found a size that would work, and then he extracted two pieces.
It would be wise, he’d realized, to keep a copy of each edition for himself in case he needed to reference something previously printed at a later date. And the second higher-quality facsimile would go to Sano, not only to ensure Katsu knew his thoughts on the content but as a gesture of friendship and gratitude.
As he pressed the main article’s two blocks again and replaced the wet cloth that would keep them from becoming crusted with dried ink before he was quite done with them, his movements remained slow with indecision. Because it had been Takagi-san that had largely inspired him to do this, not Sano. If he planned to make a gesture of friendship and gratitude, it ought to extend to her as well. If he truly didn’t fear the repercussions of giving a police officer a copy, he should prove it by sending her one in good faith. Perhaps that was what had been bothering him. He fetched out a third sheet of the finer paper.
He believed, printing the primary story for the last time, he’d solved his mystery. He was even able to give some thought to the kind of tray or sliding apparatus he would need to buy or build in order to lock all his blocks in place and be able to ink and print them in one go instead of piecemeal like this. But as he really did get started on the second article, he found that woman’s face once again interposing itself between his eyes and the work at hand.
“You must be an excellent police officer.”
“I’m afraid you’re one of the few men who thinks so.”
From the research he’d done, not to mention her attitude when they’d very briefly discussed this, Katsu knew Takagi-san had undertaken a constantly uphill journey, even a battle, when she’d signed on with the police. He knew many of the men at the precinct considered her as something like a pet Fujita kept around to amuse himself with. He knew, from the way they’d talked about her, that they viewed and treated her with very little respect. He knew, in short, that she couldn’t get herself taken seriously because she was a woman.
It came as no surprise, but he couldn’t understand it. He’d met her twice, studied her to some extent from afar, and heard Sano talk about her, and through all of that she’d done nothing but impress him deeply with her abilities, her effectiveness, and her moral determination. How could her co-workers fail to see it? How could anyone give her anything but the acknowledgements and admiration that were her due?
Yet men never took women very seriously, did they? Perhaps even he. His hands faltered on the third article as he made this speculation. He’d had it pointed out to him by a beautiful, fascinating woman that publicly performed notable work usually conducted by men; would it ever have occurred to him otherwise? Did he think of women — most women, everyday women, the ones that didn’t grab his attention and force him to own up to this social deficiency — as inevitably secondary, as less capable, as amusing pets whose concerns were far outranked by those of men?
He scanned the room, directing his gaze toward but not really seeing each growing copy of his first edition: a newspaper that mentioned no female even once in any of its articles.
Now a different woman’s face occupied his mental eye: a startlingly haggard face aged beyond its twenty-some years.
This contact he’d made at a market stall in Tsukiji had fallen into a strange melancholia after delivering her baby. She’d felt herself unequal to caring for the child, herself, or the household. She’d had trouble sleeping and little interest in eating, and could rouse herself from lethargy to no emotion other than anger. She’d grown distant and confused, and almost completely indifferent to everything in her life, including the baby.
Instead of seeking medical care — doctors in Europe, she’d said, studied melancholia and were developing new treatment methods every year — her husband had declared her unfit for motherhood or the maintenance of a household, and accused her of neglecting her marital duties. He’d divorced her and sent her back to her family in disgrace, where she’d spent almost a year recovering from both the initial malady and the subsequent shock. She hadn’t seen her son since, and now lived very miserably helping her parents sell fish.
Katsu had jotted all this down, omitting names, thinking, This story has merit. Then he’d brought it home and set it aside, buried it under more important men’s matters, continuing the thought, But it’s a personal or a social or a medical issue, and I’m writing a political paper.
But weren’t laws concerning marital duties and divorce a specifically political issue? Since primarily women suffered from them, no one — no man — gave them a second thought. Even he had dismissed the account as unuseful. But didn’t that bereaved mother deserve justice every bit as much as the victims of a pay conspiracy among shipping officials? Wasn’t she downtrodden and suffering, heavy with a story that needed to be told? Wasn’t her experience precisely the type of subject he’d set out to cover, to tell the citizens of Japan about?
He draped his wet cloth over the third article block and scrambled for yet another sheet of paper and a pen, as well as the notes he’d initially taken after talking to the woman. He could use the cheap ink to draft this and then rewrite it. He had to make it fit in the space he’d reserved for his fourth story, the one about the much-exploited loophole in a grains export law, and therefore must choose his words sparingly. The loophole could wait until the second edition.
How would his readers feel about this? Would it promote or discourage future patronage? Did taking this step doom his entire project to obscurity and failure right from the beginning? He was doing it anyway. Because his paper purported to expose evils in everyone’s midst, to prompt changes in attitudes and behaviors so as to improve the country. Because he believed it to be right. Because he was, and wanted to remain, ‘one of the few men.’ He wanted to be better. And because Takagi Tokio might appreciate it.
Though signs had all pointed in that direction, making it no surprise, Saitou yet was inexpressibly pleased that it would obviously be raining again today. Apart from the primary impetus, he wanted to get away from this Ichiro thing. Tokio, obligingly responsible, had made excellent progress despite being preoccupied with something she hadn’t mentioned — had Sano berated her for not revealing her marital status? — but, though it had seemed interesting at first, this had to be the stupidest kidnapping case Saitou had ever seen.
‘Preoccupied’ could describe Saitou equally well. The little case required little concentration, and he would much rather look forward to seeing Sano and anticipating how the young man would respond to his… well, though Saitou had tried to find another way to describe it, the best term for it remained ‘gift.’ He didn’t plan to let Sano see it that way, but the truth would be very present in Saitou’s mind at time of presentation. And perhaps he shouldn’t be engaging in courtship rituals at this point; but the opportunity, a chance encounter leading to a fortunate idea, had been too perfect.
Brushing Tokio off as the clouds darkened above them in the afternoon, he left her with no real clue as to his own plans and an instruction to continue monitoring the group of brats they believed were hiding Ichiro. All he really told her was that he’d join her again in the evening, when they could, most likely, thankfully, wrap up the case. The lack of information and the one-sidedness of the work obviously annoyed her, and he couldn’t help admitting to the unfairness of relegating her to history’s most boring assignment while he played with a panting Sano… but such was life and their job.
Sano awaited him this time, and had, though the rain endeavored to obscure it, the air of someone that had just reluctantly dragged himself out of bed. “I hope you’re not getting carried away with the carousing part of your plan,” Saitou said as he looked him up and down. To which he was inexorably compelled to add to himself, And you would do better not to get carried away in other ways, as he reflected that recently awakened Sano was no bad thing, and one he’d like to see plenty more of.
Sano yawned, shielding his mouth from rainwater with his hand, shivered, then grinned. “I can’t help it if attracting attention turns out to be way more fun than I was expecting. I’m getting into all sorts of fights; was out almost all night.”
“Any actual progress, though?”
The grin melted as if the rain had washed it off. “Nobody’s approached me yet. I’m hearing rumors about the Azabuku fights, but I haven’t run into anyone who’s obviously a member of the Karashigumi. But at least a shitload of people won’t forget me.”
“I suppose that’s a start.”
Worried, Sano wondered, “We don’t have a deadline or anything, do we?”
“Looking for excuses to drag your feet?”
“No, jerk! Just… I dunno how long this is gonna take.”
“No, there is no particular deadline. ‘As soon as possible’ is preferable, but so is thoroughness. We haven’t been working on Rokumeikan long, and you haven’t been working on his yakuza long. It may be too soon to expect concrete results.”
One corner of Sano’s mouth rose sardonically. “You know you still kinda grind your teeth when you say his name?”
Saitou assumed he meant this in a metaphysical sense. “Fortunately, I don’t have to encounter him in person yet,” he replied with a smile just as sardonic as he began unbuttoning his jacket. “We should get started before the rain stops.”
Sano had already demonstrated, both on Saturday when they’d begun this delightful exercise and yesterday, that he disliked having instructions repeated, no matter how much he needed to hear them; and the training became more and more frustrating because of it. The kenkaya’s stubbornness and belligerence even managed to distract Saitou from how attractive he was — no small accomplishment! He wasn’t an inept learner, but he tried his best to be.
Still, he remained a skilled fighter, in his own way, and had the makings of a much better one, and Saitou thought he detected improvement even just on this third day. He didn’t fancy being badgered, but he seemed legitimately to want to grow in this field. This, combined with a wet Sano that even irritation couldn’t render truly unappealing, left the officer not without hope.
It wasn’t in the friendliest of tones, though, that Saitou said, “Here,” as he held out the package of coins he’d extracted from the jacket he’d retrieved once they were finished. “The first half of your pay.”
Sano stared at the object in some suspicion, weighing it in his hand, then opened it. After a quick count, he looked up at Saitou again. “Not like I’m complaining,” he said with a laugh, “but this is a lot more than half. You cops have a hard time with math, or what?”
Saitou rolled his eyes. “There’s a purpose for the extra money; don’t spend it yet.”
For a moment Saitou considered telling him. But he decided, as he had earlier, that it would come better as a surprise. “The next thing you can’t resist buying.”
Sano appeared bemused. “It sounds like you’re giving me pocket money. You realize how many things that might be?”
“You’ll know what I mean.”
Sano’s expression shifted from puzzled to annoyed. “Why not just tell me? You can’t just give me extra money and expect me not to spend it, especially when I’m spending so much damn time at bars looking for Karashi guys!”
“We’ll call it a test, then, to see if you have any patience whatsoever.”
“Fuck that! I’m already using all my patience at the bars!”
“I thought you were enjoying that.”
“Just tell me what the money’s for!”
“Something that will help with your image.”
Saitou paused in the act of striking a match to light one of the same. “How do you think cigarettes would help your image?”
“Well,” said Sano, doing a narrow-eyed mime of taking a drag and flicking away ash, “it certainly does something for yours. Maybe you want me to look like part of the team or something.”
Though interested in how, more particularly, cigarettes affected the image Sano had of him, Saitou felt it would be imprudent to inquire. “Guess again.”
“Pansy-ass police gloves?” Sano tried.
“I think it’s about time we both got back to work,” replied Saitou, who had no good retort in defense of his gloves.
“How’m I supposed to work with all this extra money burning a hole in my pocket?”
“Don’t keep it in your pocket,” Saitou suggested, donning his uncomfortably soaked jacket.
“I swear I’ll spend it.”
“And then you’ll feel like the idiot you are when the time comes.”
“If it’s important, you really should tell me.”
There are a few important things I’m not telling you. “It isn’t that important.”
“Well, then, what’s the harm in me knowing?” Sano sounded triumphant.
“Impeccable as your logic is,” Saitou said dryly, “the importance of the money’s object is not the point.”
“What is the point, then?”
“How fun it is to watch you get frustrated.”
Saitou smirked and turned away.
He could feel Sano’s eyes on him all the way up the hill. He liked that feeling.
Tokio longed to talk to Zanza, but how assiduously she’d worked to make that happen left her better judgment unsatisfied. She’d been what she considered pitifully glad to have a specific excuse for seeking him out last time, and now she had another, but it seemed she remained reluctant to confront him at what she’d begun to think of as the scene of the crime.
Their relationship as co-workers of sorts and friends might, she knew well, be damaged by this delay. They needed to meet more often during this embarrassing time, not less, in order to prevent the buildup of weird feelings and skewed impressions in each other’s absence… but she lacked the strength for it today. Tomorrow, absolutely, she would talk to him. She wouldn’t allow anything to stop her then.
And for now, since she would not receive news of Tsukioka’s plans from Zanza, she might as well see what she could make of them by her own observations. Of course that would shed no light on how their conversation had gone the other day — the second subject (perhaps first in her heart) she wanted to discuss with Zanza — but it might make her feel better about the world in general and prepare her for the interaction that must without fail take place tomorrow.
Hajime had disappeared again. She would rather like to know what had him so preoccupied, but since she was putting off a (probably even more difficult) conversation with him too, she hadn’t pressed him. He’d obviously been thoroughly bored by the Ichiro case, not sharing Tokio’s fascination with the tangled emotional dramas of other people, so she didn’t entirely blame him — especially now that only the paperwork remained, which lacked even that dubiously redeeming feature. He’d also been very little help on the Ichiro case, so she saw no reason not to leave the clerical part of it to him.
So after stopping at home briefly to change into something less conspicuous than a police uniform, she made her way toward Tsukioka’s neighborhood with, if not exactly a clear conscience, at least one that had come to terms with her current decisions.
Ignorance of the artist’s agenda had her on edge. Obviously he hadn’t carried out anything like what he’d been planning before, since that could not have escaped her notice. And in the absence of that insufferable “Gougai! Gougai!” on every street corner accompanied by some headline like, “Catastrophic bombings at government offices; fires spread!” she’d been keeping her ears open for rumors that might indicate something from him on a smaller scale. Though there were always rumors, and though she wasn’t sure what ‘smaller scale’ would mean with a man like that, she judged he hadn’t made any moves yet.
But there had been the subtle signal and acknowledgment she’d clearly witnessed. It had looked for all the world like an ‘Everything is ready’ nod, and she couldn’t just let it go. You didn’t ignore head-cold symptoms in someone recently recovered from pneumonia.
Suppressing a sneeze, basically ignoring her own head-cold symptoms, she hurried on. Rain was not her favorite setting for spywork, but it wasn’t her favorite setting for paperwork either, so this course of action represented the lesser of two evils. Not that she would like being suspected of assigning herself a spurious mission solely in order to get out of paperwork; this matter really did strike her as important. It was more that she’d chosen to investigate it on her own in order to get out of talking to Zanza today. And, knowing Hajime, the paperwork would probably be waiting for her later anyway.
A surprising number of people came and went through Tsukioka’s neighborhood, considering the weather, and Tokio had to make extensive use of rooftops to reach his apartment unseen. This naturally resulted in a level of wetness approximately double what it would have been had she used the narrow streets, but even that entertained her more than paperwork. The rain, she guessed, wouldn’t keep up for more than about an hour.
Between the heavy cloud and the thick downpour, the light within contrasted eye-catchingly with the dimness outside. Unfortunately, that same rain made it impossible to catch any sound from within, so she could have no idea, until it let up a bit, what use he might be making of that light. Settling in to wait, she tried to find a better angle for her right ankle on the uncomfortable roof, brushed water periodically from her face, and watched and listened intently.
If Tsukioka were indeed deceiving Zanza, it would be another of those clues that the universe had a design flaw. After the efforts Zanza had made — and still made to this day, as far as Tokio knew — to turn his life around, it would be nothing less than a stab in the back for the long-lost friend with whom he’d been so joyfully reunited to prove himself the embodiment of the brutality and lack of rational forethought Zanza was attempting to leave behind. It made her angry to consider his pure emotions and resolution being taken advantage of… but, as in so many situations, the anger was more tired than anything. She’d seen that type of thing too often for the wrath to maintain a sharp edge.
She shifted on her slanted perch as someone hurried down the street on the other side trying to get out of the rain. As rooftops went (and on this subject she considered herself an expert), this one was pretty exposed, and she kept checking to the left and right and over her shoulder, glancing at the other three lanes from which she’d determined she might be seen. She doubted anyone would pass close enough to do so without her hearing their footsteps first, or that they would look up into the rain at a random rooftop even if they did, but her anxiousness for the weather to clear and her agitation to know what Tsukioka was up to made her restless.
It did eventually clear, and at about the time she’d predicted, but the neighborhood didn’t wait for the skies to dry to become lively again. Children emerged to splash in puddles, adults to do outdoor chores or errands or merely enjoy what remained of the day; so some time passed before Tokio, handkerchief pressed to her dripping nose, could dart down to listen at the artist’s door long enough to hear anything definitive.
Of course she wanted Tsukioka to be completely innocent (well, as innocent as any disgruntled radical; a lack of violence was really all she asked), but by now she also had a perverse half inclination to hope she would find unpleasant evidence, simply to justify sitting around in the rain. And perhaps it was this that prevented her feeling particularly relieved when she found none. The only sound audible from inside was a steady, meticulous scraping, as of metal on wood, that for a man so prolific in the production of nishiki-e signified nothing remarkable.
So for today, there remained only that ambiguous nod and Tokio’s misgivings to condemn him. Not for the first time, she admonished herself to let it go, to find something more productive to do — talk to Zanza now instead of putting it off until tomorrow, for instance.
Yet Tsukioka had obviously been struck with some more or less bright idea when she’d talked to him in the street that night. When she pushed aside the sense of flattery that came with having inspired someone, she found beneath it an intense curiosity to know what that idea had been. And did he mean good or evil by it? If she’d prompted some new revolutionary train of thought in him, it seemed almost her responsibility to find out what it was and, if necessary, put a stop to it.
Or was that yet another excuse not to talk to Zanza right away?
She feared she’d fallen into that uncomfortable state where she couldn’t put an accurate label on her own motives. Was she here — she’d returned to the roof again and begun searching for a dry spot on her handkerchief — because she truly believed she needed to be, because she suspected Tsukioka of something and wanted to protect Zanza from deception and betrayal? Or had she invented this suspicion as part of a selfish agenda only obscurely connected to Tsukioka’s guilt or innocence?
The best way to deal with this twisted frame of mind, she knew from experience, would be to walk away and let it untangle itself with time and perspective. But she didn’t have time. She couldn’t abandon the surveillance until she’d obtained proof that Tsukioka required no further monitoring… but, if she’d been clinging to this needlessly, would she be able to recognize such proof even if it were waved in her face?
I’ll go crazy like this, she thought with a laugh. Finding a path stealthily to the ground once more, she turned her back on Tsukioka’s apartment and her own folly, and hurried away before she could change her mind. Better let him bomb half the city than keep that up. Which consideration might be a fairly good indication of how seriously she believed him likely to do so.
She didn’t bother to repress her sneeze this time, only looked forlornly at her disgusting handkerchief afterward. She’d spent too long out in the rain lately, which had to be every bit as healthy as her mental corkscrews. That wouldn’t stop her from doing what needed to be done, though. Arrange a conversation with Zanza tomorrow, finish the Ichiro paperwork, deal with Tsukioka as necessary when she had more information — she would accomplish it all. Maybe one of these days she would even talk to Hajime about the status of everyone’s relationship with everyone else.
Two very good reasons existed for Sano to study his surroundings: first, that looking at Tokio where she sat wrapped in a blanket beside the hearth reminded him a little too much of previous in-home activities between them, especially since he’d entered clandestinely through the back door; second, that he’d never been inside Saitou’s house before, and it interested him. It was small, but seemed comfortable and in good repair (and, whatever Saitou had disclaimed, far outside Sano’s budget). Its homey touches he attributed entirely to Tokio, yet he couldn’t help thinking of it as ‘Saitou’s house’ despite it, presumably, belonging to the both of them.
“So he told me to do the paperwork and then come home,” Tokio was saying. “I was looking forward to letting him handle that, but…”
Sano forced a chuckle. “Probably better to get some rest.”
She snorted, then coughed. After a sip of hot tea that filled the room with a honeyed scent, she went on. “Paperwork may be more restful than patrolling or spying, but in general… I had to make two copies each for every heading I was filing the report under, and ‘kidnapping,’ ‘runaways,’ ‘Ichiro Tatsuyo,’ and the name of each of his five friends made for sixteen times I had to write out the same information.”
“Why’d you have to do ‘kidnapping’ when it turned out they were just hiding him from his dad?”
“Because it started as a kidnapping case. If anyone needs to look it up in the future… Anyway, I don’t envy the people at the filing office who have to copy it all forty more times and send it to all the other stations.”
This chuckle came out more naturally. “Why the hell do you guys need so many copies?”
“I’ve heard we borrowed this system of record-keeping from somewhere in Europe. I don’t know how many copies their police officers are expected to make, but we may have beaten them at their own game. Halfway through I was thinking of your friend and wishing for his woodblocks.”
“You should get someone to help like that,” he mused. “Not Katsu, though; he wouldn’t have time.”
“Why? What’s he busy with?” She asked casually enough, but Sano got the impression a lot hinged on his answer. He supposed Katsu truly hadn’t done much to engender trust or satisfaction in his friend’s two police officers.
“He’s writing a newspaper.” He withdrew from his pocket the copy Katsu had given him. “Educating people about shit.”
“What shit?” She accepted the folded paper and opened it, squinted at it briefly, then seemed to decide firelight and the dim glow of a cloudy day through the windows weren’t the best conditions in which to read it.
“Government corruption, politics, problems with Japanese society, all that shit.”
Though she sucked in a breath of concern (which made her cough again), she actually seemed relieved. Once her throat was clear, she remarked, “That could be dangerous for him. If he libels the wrong people…”
“I know. I’m trying not to worry too much, and I know he’s careful, but he’s still doing shit like you and Saitou do, only without really being able to defend himself if something goes wrong.”
“Like I and you and Hajime do,” she corrected with a smile.
For some reason this made Sano blush. He felt peculiarly, at that moment, the honor of being numbered among people he considered so upstanding and effective — perhaps in specific contrast to the wrong he’d done this one. Awkwardly he said, “It’s better than his first idea, anyway. He’s safer exposing people than trying to start a war.”
“Absolutely.” Her firm tone indicated how much she’d been concerned about Katsu’s activities. “He seems like a serious, driven person, and, as you said, he’s careful. I think we all feel violent about the system sometimes, and if he’s found a more productive way to express that…” She’d returned to the newspaper, perhaps rethinking its current legibility.
“Yeah. Definitely.” As silence settled but for Tokio’s sniffling, the restless Sano glanced at the window and frowned. “Everyone keeps saying we’ll probably get lightning but not a lot of rain today.” And he realized that, though he’d said it more to himself than to her, he had just fallen back on discussing the weather.
“Yes,” she murmured.
“Kanno’s supposed to get in touch with me soon,” he tried instead — “probably today — and let me know what Tone has to say about me getting back into the Furukawatai.”
“Good.” She’d clearly begun reading, and gave him only half an ear. “Good progress.”
“He probably thinks I have nothing to do besides sit around on my ass and wait for him to show up.” Not that he would be practicing in the field today in any case.
“Mm.” She refilled her teacup.
“And I feel like this is all taking forever!” He’d gone from grumbling to complaining more forthrightly, in part prompted by truth but largely because it was the best thing he could think of to talk about. “I feel like I’ve been looking for someone useful from the Karashigumi for half my life! I haven’t found anyone from there yet, least that I know of. And only just now I might be able to get back into the Furukawatai, and who knows what kind of bullshit they’ll want me to do to prove myself or whatever?”
Tokio glanced up. “Zanza, it hasn’t even been two weeks since you started working on this.” That she still addressed him thus might have made him uncomfortable, but by now it resembled a nickname more than anything. Yes, being here with her like this had an inherent awkwardness and embarrassment to it, but he believed nevertheless they were slipping into a comradeship that would someday become easy and close. When he’d received her summons by messenger earlier (too early, he normally would have said), he’d been nervous about the meeting; but now he decided it had been a good thought. He’d been able to relieve her on the subject of Katsu, and they were demonstrating to each other that they could be friends.
She hadn’t been able to relieve him on the subject of his crawling momentum, though. He sighed. “I guess I just thought I could do more than that in two weeks.”
“Don’t expect miracles of yourself.” Her voice had gone somewhat absent again as she returned her attention to the newspaper. “This is painstaking work, and it has to be done thoroughly. That’s why we have you on the Karashigumi in the first place.”
“At least I’d like to have something to report, so your husband can stop with all the looks.”
“My husband–” she gave the words the same emphasis Sano had used, though doubtless not for the same reason– “never stops. He just finds something else to look about.”
“Probably because he can do miracles in two weeks.” Sano’s transformation under Saitou’s influence proved this. “He expects all us lesser mortals to be able to too.”
“That’s truer than I like to admit…”
Sano sighed again. “I better get going. Wouldn’t want Kanno to find me not at home and put off talking to me for two more weeks.”
Wishing he could say something casual and friendly to end this conversation, rather than simply walking out while she perused Katsu’s work and half ignored him, Sano got to his feet. He couldn’t think of anything, so walking out would have to do.
But suddenly Tokio drew in an audible breath, its roughness indicative of her level of congestion. She sat up a little straighter and brought the newspaper slightly closer to her face.
“What?” Sano wondered, unsure whether or not to worry.
“This…” She indicated with her thumb. “This article…” And Sano was astonished to see the firelight glint off a tear that oozed from the corner of her eye. She remained silent for a moment, but seemed to be devouring the article in question with unexpected avidity. Finally she choked out, “Have you read this?”
“Of course!” He couldn’t, however, recall anything in it that could bring moisture to the face of someone like Takagi Tokio.
After another wordless moment, she shook her head slightly and groped for a handkerchief. She pressed it to her nose and allowed the tears — now multiple — to continue. “Your friend…” She looked up at him with wide, wet eyes above the monogrammed cloth. “He’s… If you see him, tell him… I’m sorry; this is silly. But tell him he has my support.”
It seemed to mean so much more to her than that. Whatever she’d read beyond mere print, whatever had touched her so deeply, was not fully encapsulated in those words. But Sano didn’t know how to ask for an explanation. Maybe at their third meeting, or fourth, after the wedge they’d driven into their relationship, but not now. All he could think to say was a somewhat confused, “I will!”
She turned her gaze back to the paper. Sano took a step away, sensing the silence now like a noose threatening to drop around his neck. They should have more to say to each other; he should be able to ask, and she should be able to share. But that things should be right didn’t make them so. He mumbled an incoherent goodbye, and retreated.
For some notes on these story segments, see this Productivity Log.