Visual Art: Exchange Art Etc.

I was an active participant in multiple art exchange communities for many years; here you can see the least terrible images I came up with for other people. Also, my favorite exchange pictures drawn for me, as well as gift art and commissions. (This last is the most NSFW gallery on this site.) For TLY commissions, see the TLY site.

2015/04 - All My T-Rexes Live In Texas

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This was a Character Art Exchange piece for Shinmaxwell; the character’s name is Casey.

Amy K. Cyrway - Ien and Aria (Exchange art)

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Visual Art: Browse by Content

My Gundam Wing fanart is not quite a big enough collection to have its own gallery. Some of my original art is of characters you won’t recognize from old stories. There is probably more Rurouni Kenshin fanart around the site that isn’t yet tagged correctly to appear in the galleries here.

2019/02 - Dirty City

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2019/07 - Zoo-sketches - Zebra

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2017/09 - Heretic's Reward Shikijou

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A second-wash devoted of Misao.

Visual Art: Browse by Medium

Watercolor Pencil (CretaColor Aqua Monolith) is my favorite medium. I also enjoy graphite. Prismacolors frustrate the hell out of me, though they certainly have beautiful results. I used to work with a tablet quite a bit, but these days fibromyalgia makes that difficult. I did a lot of stuff in pen when I was younger, and most of it was crap, but these days I still combine pen with other media pretty frequently. I’ve experimented with a few other things such as pastel pencil, marker, and makeup.

Visual Art: Music Videos

Batman: The Animated Series - Things Batman Doesn't Like

 

I posted this for my 37th birthday (i.e. September 2, 2017), because that was the year I discovered my love of Batman. For some notes on the creation of the video, see this and this Productivity Log.

Rurouni Kenshin (2012) - Unbreakable Heart

I made this video in May of 2013. It was the first time I'd worked with live action footage rather than animated, and it was a distinctly different experience. In some ways it was more difficult, but in others it was actually much easier. I'm extremely pleased with the finished product, in any case! I look forward to doing more live action stuff in future, though at the moment I have no particular ideas.

As far as the lyrics go, this song is much less how I think of Kenshin than how I think Kaoru might think of Kenshin. And I'm afraid she'll find, come Jinchuu, that he isn't quite as unbreakable as she believes. But anyway, I think the song fits pretty well.

Gundam Wing - Life Starts Now

Obviously I love Heero and Duo together, so here's me in December of 2010 contriving to erase all other characters from various scenes and shove them together to showcase their deep, forever love :D

Gundam Wing: Friendship Is Magic

People kept making these, the major draw being the assignment of traits (Elements of Harmony) to characters in whatever new series you had in mind. Nobody had done it for Gundam Wing, so in January of 2012 I figured I would. It makes me laugh pretty hard in spots, particularly Heero watching MLP:FiM and then later sending Treize a picture of himself and the other characters in his gundam.

Rurouni Kenshin - My Favorite Guys

Many years ago, when I used to post stuff on fanfiction.net, I made a tradition of putting up a new Rurouni Kenshin-related song "parody" along with every chapter or story. Most of them were very stupid, but there were a couple of diamonds in that rough (if I do say so myself) -- and one such was My Favorite Guys. Years later, in 2010, it occurred to me that it wouldn't be too difficult to dig up those old lyrics and make a music video out of them, so I did. In other words, yes, that is me you hear singing, and I apologize profusely for it.

The instrumentation comes from a karaoke CD called Just Tracks: Sing The Hits Of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's really a dreadful track; it has all this background noise like whoever made it recorded it off of something else by putting an actual microphone up against the speaker it was playing out of. I would definitely not recommend buying this CD, or probably anything bearing a similar title.

Many thanks go out to my mother (not that she sees this stuff) for her sound-related assistance. She couldn't make me or the awful karaoke track sound any better, but without her I couldn't have recorded this thing at all. She is awesome.

Lastly, the lyrics:

Psychos with glasses and kanji-marked brawlers...
Weapon collectors and gay sickle-haulers...
Deadpans who never show any surprise...
These are a few of my favorite guys.

Paisley bandannas and big crimson collars...
Dark puppet-masters and kenjutsu scholars...
Warriors who fight with their bangs in their eyes...
These are a few of my favorite guys.

Red-haired assassins and wolves that are taller...
Prodigal smilers and cruel girlfriend-maulers...
Masters of moves in just one or two tries...
These are a few of my favorite guys.

When the real world’s jerks and losers start to make me mad,
I simply remember my favorite guys,
And then I don’t feel so bad.

GetBackers - Never Too Late

I made this video in September of 2008. It was difficult not to make it entirely about Akabane.

Rurouni Kenshin - Du Hast (Enishi Remix)

Rammstein is one of my favorite bands, and when it originally crossed my mind in 2004 to make Du Hast into a music video about Enishi, Kenshin, and Tomoe, my first thought was, What a shame Jinchuu was never animated. But despite the obvious lack of animated footage, the idea wouldn't go away and wouldn't go away, until finally I decided to experiment with manga frames just to see what I could come up with. The result is, at the very least, interesting.

As with my previous video, my impatience shows quite a bit here; there are several spots that make me wince because I was just too lazy to go fix whatever the problem was. Also, the quality deteriorated on conversion much more than that of the previous video, probably because of the manga frames. I did hack bits out of the song, BTW. You can only put footage to "Du / Du hast / Du hast mich" so many times before you go completely crazy.

Here's an unnecessarily lengthy explanation of why these lyrics are so fitting:

Du / Du hast / Du hast mich - Until he actually finishes this phrase, it sounds like he's saying "Du hasst mich," which means "You hate me." This seems to me appropriate for both Enishi and Tomoe in relation to Kenshin because Enishi's hatred is based on incomplete knowledge of the situation and of Tomoe's heart, while Tomoe's hatred is changed or eradicated when she gains better knowledge of Kenshin's character -- so their hatred, like one's initial assumption that Till is saying "You hate me," arises from not having all the facts. Yet Enishi assumed for years that Tomoe wanted revenge, Tomoe herself sought revenge at first, and one hears "You hate me" whether or not that's what the line actually says -- so the hatred does exist.

Du hast mich gefragt und ich hab' Nichts gesagt - So the complete phrase actually means, "You asked me and I said nothing." I found this a very fitting expression of Kenshin's inability, for quite some time, to come up with an "answer" for Enishi on the subject of the crimes he'd committed as a hitokiri, specifically killing Tomoe. And during his time in Rakuninmura searching for that answer, several people asked (and told) Kenshin things and he said nothing. Even after Kenshin had found his "answer," Enishi could not accept it -- so it was still as if he'd said nothing in response to what Enishi had "asked."

Willst du bis der Tod euch scheide' treu ihr sein für alle Tage? - This is a typical wedding-vow phrase -- "Will you be true to her for all your days, until death separates you?" -- after which we hear the feminine voice answer faintly in the affirmative and the masculine voice or narrator iterate loudly, "Nein!!" making the song, or at least this particular part of it, a sort of cry out against marriage or an expression of the breaking of wedding vows. And I have to think that killing one's wife is a fairly decent way to break one's wedding vows!

But there's more to it than that. Once again, just listening to the line provides a couple of very different possible meanings -- because it sounds like he says, "Willst du bis der Tod der Scheide treu ihr sein für alle Tage?" which would mean, "Will you be true to her for all your days, until the death of the vagina?" It's a typical Rammstein trick to use a play on words to turn something like getting married, showing charity, or taking turns into something purely sexual -- but in this context it fits surprisingly well: the slang term for vagina used here, "der Scheide," literally means "the sheath." And what was Tomoe supposed to be for the ungovernable rage of her hitokiri husband? I think it was this phrase that first reminded me of the Kenshin/Tomoe/Enishi situation and gave me the initial idea for the music video.

The last thing I wish to note, unrelated to the song lyrics, is that I think Seisou Hen is utter bullshit. There is at least one spot in the video that seems to imply that I agree with some of the nonsense that happened in that OAV, but I really don't. Simply put, I could not resist using some of that footage since an animated Enishi was too good to pass up for this project.

Rurouni Kenshin - I Hate Everything About You

So I heard this song on the radio one day in early 2004 and just flipped out; it reminded me so much of Saitou and Sano that I had to go buy the Three Days Grace CD as soon as possible and try to figure out what to do with the song. The problem with it was that the lyrics weren't coherent enough to make a songfic out of, and I didn't know how to make music videos. Well, as you can see, I figured it out (to a certain extent); the song was just too perfect to leave alone.

The fact that I'm self-taught is painfully evident. There are some choppy moments that I was too impatient to smooth out, and the lip sync at the end of the verse is soOoOo corny (I couldn't resist seeing if I could do it; I really should have). It looks like there's supposed to be lip sync during the first chorus (Sano's mouth flaps a lot), but that was unintentional. It would have been a much better lip sync sequence than the one I did on purpose, though; I should have thought about it more.

The song, in case you're not familiar with it, has been shortened a little; I chopped out the "second verse," which is exactly the same as the first verse, to avoid boring repetition as well as to give myself a lighter workload.

I planned for years, after I became a little better at this hobby, to remake this video... but first someone else, obviously unaware mine existed, made their own Saitou & Sano MV to this same song; and then Watsuki turned out to be evil. So this remains as it is as a relic of a past age.

Supergirl, She-Ra, and Raphael Save the Day

A gradual diminution of spirits accompanied them from house to house. At one door after another, she heard some variation on the same thing, and it got more annoying every time. Beyond that, it made her sad for some reason, in a weird kind of way. “Oh, look, it’s Black Supergirl!”

Halloween is a roller coaster of emotion and adventure for three girls, who just might learn some things in the process.


“I found it!” came mom’s triumphant voice from the rear of her closet where they stored boxes full of old stuff. She’d been rustling around back there for what had felt like at least two lifetimes.

“Yaaayyyy!” Katriche cried, jumping on one foot and then switching to the other. “I want to go~o~o~o!”

“Me too, me too!” Katie’s twin Ambrosya dashed in and joined Katie in hopping around. She already wore her complete costume, and as she reached Katie she drew her cardboard sword and started making knighting motions toward her sister’s shoulders.

“Did you help Teyshawn with his costume?” mom asked as she stumbled from the closet, pulling her foot awkwardly from a box she’d accidentally stepped in.

“My hair!” Katie shrieked, jumping to seize the wig in her mother’s hand and thwarted by mom’s quick movement.

Using a second hand to repel Katie’s attempts at climbing her, mom said sternly, “Amber, did you help your brother with his costume?”

“Ye~es, mom,” said Amber, rolling her eyes. “Now can we go trick-or-treating?”

“You both need to be patient,” was mom’s admonishment. “Katie, stop that. Amber, it’s not even 5:30 yet.”

Amber protested, “Yeah, but you found Katie’s white-girl hair, so we’re ready now, right?”

“Not ’til I get it on her head,” said mom, then called over her shoulder, “Tey! Teyshawn! Come in here, please!”

At the same moment, Katie took issue with her sister’s description. “It’s not white-girl hair!”

“Did you ever see a Black Supergirl?”

“Supergirl can be Black!”

“Sit down, baby,” mom urged, leading Katie to her bed, ignoring the argument much as Katie ignored her words and obeyed by muscle memory alone.

Amber retorted, “Yeah, but she’s not.”

“Neither is She-Ra, booger-face!”

“There are a bunch of She-Ras,” said Amber in a superior tone. “Every time she’s different, so there could be a Black She-Ra.”

Katie was about to protest that the same logic applied to Supergirl, because, though white in each, the cartoon heroine differed significantly from the real-people one, but at that moment mom, who’d finished brushing out the wig, plopped it onto her head.

Notwithstanding the weird feeling she got the very instant her costume was complete, Katie jumped up and ran to the mirror, shouting, “I wanna see!”

“I told you to be patient!” mom reminded her. “Get your butt back over here and let me fix that!” And again she called, “Teyshawn!” out to the rest of the house.

But Katie had already caught sight of herself in mom’s mirror. The wig had fallen immediately askew, but she reached up to steady it and grinned at her reflection. She didn’t care what Amber said; she looked like a hero. She felt like a hero, too, what with the strange tingling that ran through her once she’d righted the wig. She was ready to save everyone and punch bad guys in the face!

“We~e~ell….” Amber tilted her winged head to one side. “I mean, I guess it looks OK.”

“It’ll look better if your sister will hold still and let me get this wig on.”

Katie tried to hold very still for this process, but in the midst of it Teyshawn wandered in, half-clothed and with a face covered in chocolate.

“I thought you said you helped him, Amber,” mom said in exasperation, abandoning the wig with only one of its sharp little interior combs in place and moving toward her son.

Amber seemed discontented with her mother’s tone, for defensively she said, “I did! He must’ve took it off!”

As mom attacked Tey’s face with a wet washcloth and sent Amber in search of the missing pieces of his costume, Katie tried by herself to get her wig to stay on. It was funny; every time she pressed down on it, that buzzing sensation returned. She kinda liked it, and kept smashing the blonde hair against her head so it would come back. This didn’t help with the second comb, but mom had evidently lost track of that.

Even as they were getting Tey back into his fuzzy leopard outfit and tying the hat onto his head, the doorbell rang. “See?” Amber cried. “Other people are trick-or-treating already!”

“No, I turned the porch light off,” said mom. “That’s the Keenes.”

“Do we have to go with them?” Amber looked disgusted. “They’re too young for us!”

Firmly mom replied, “Yes. We’re going to go together because it’s safer with more adults.”

“It’s safer with me!” Katie punched the air in an upward leap, and thought she felt even her feet tingle a little. “I’m Supergirl!” She stumbled as she hit the carpet, and giggled wildly.

“I can protect people just as good,” Amber shouted. “I’m She-Ra!”

“That means you have a crush on Huntara!”

“Ew! No, I don’t, pooper! I’m a different She-Ra!”

Nevertheless, Katie began a chant about Amber and Huntara sitting in a tree.

Though mom let the Keenes in, and everyone’s costume seemed about ready, it yet took them at least fifteen more minutes to get out of the house. For all her impatience, Katie didn’t really mind this, because the sky had darkened significantly and the street lights had come on by the time they got outside — and trick-or-treating should happen in the dark. She skipped along, bickering amicably with her sister and trying to keep ahead of the two Keene kids while mom and Mrs. Keene followed behind with Teyshawn.

A gradual diminution of spirits accompanied them from house to house, however. Katie had been ecstatic about Halloween, thrilled at how her costume looked, excited for candy, and even OK with having a couple of boring little kids as company since at least they were all out here. But at one door after another, she heard some variation on the same thing, and it got more annoying every time. Beyond that, it made her sad for some reason, in a weird kind of way.

“Oh, look, it’s Black Supergirl!”

Not everyone said this, but enough of them did for it to grate on her. Finally, after about a million people had, she shouted at the next one. “It’s just Supergirl! My name’s not ‘Black Supergirl;’ it’s just Supergirl!”

“Told you so,” Amber said.

The woman at the door looked taken aback, and all of a sudden mom was running up the porch steps to apologize and hasten her girls away while the younger kids got candy from the nonplused stranger.

“Katie,” she hissed, “you are going to be polite, or I am marching your butt straight home.”

“But they keep calling me ‘Black Supergirl!”

“Well, that’s what you’re dressed like, isn’t it?”

“But it’s not her name! Nobody puts the color they are in their name!”

“Black Panther,” Amber pointed out.

“But I mean, like, she’s not called ‘White Supergirl’ so you have to change it if she’s Black!”

Mom looked up at the sky, breathing in through her nose and letting it out again as a sigh. “I know, baby,” she said in a gentler tone. “You’re right. But it’s just something you have to get used to. It’s annoying, but you still have to be polite to people.”

“It’s stupid,” Katie grumbled. “Why do I have to be polite when they keep saying stupid stuff to me?”

“Because,” said mom firmly, “it doesn’t matter what other people do; it matters what we do. And in this family, we are polite to people.”

“Even if they call us bad words?” Amber wondered.

“Well…” It looked like this was one of those things mom had a hard time explaining. “When your sister called you ‘booger-face’ earlier, did it make you feel bad?”

“No. It’s just Katie.”

“And sometimes you two aren’t very polite to each other, but it’s all just joking, right?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“But what if Katriche called you a really bad word?”

“I wouldn’t!” Katie broke in.

“I’d punch her!” Amber lifted her chin. “But I know she wouldn’t, ’cause she knows I’d punch her.”

Mom looked simultaneously amused and at a loss, and the Keenes were catching up. Briefly she said, “Don’t punch people unless they’re going to physically hurt you, OK? But you don’t have to keep talking to someone who calls you bad words. Most people won’t, though, so be polite.”

“Everything OK?” Mrs. Keene asked.

Mom replied that it was and took Tey’s hand again, and they all moved on.

This time, the twins lagged behind. Katie could see Amber wasn’t entirely satisfied with what mom had told them — possibly because it had been cut short by circumstance — and Amber remained unusually quiet for the next few houses. Eventually, though, she grabbed Katie’s arm and said all of a sudden, “How do we know which words are bad enough to stop talking to someone?”

“Well, obviously, the s-word and the n-word and the f-word,” Katie replied. But something bothered her about that assessment; it didn’t really satisfy her.

Obviously it didn’t satisfy Amber either. “But what if… you know how they make fun of Rachel Hunter at school because she has two moms? It’s not bad words, but it’s… What if I really did have a crush on Huntara, and they made fun of me too?”

Eyes wide, Katie demanded, “Girl, do you really have a crush on Huntara?”

Amber’s eyes opened just as far, and she began shaking and tussling with her sister. “Don’t you dare tell anyone that! Not even mom, you hear?”

Fending off Amber and giggling uncontrollably took first place in Katie’s priorities, and they swerved all over the sidewalk for a few moments. Mom looked back, but, marking the ostensible good nature of their activities, merely smiled at them. Finally, getting her breath back, Katie managed, “I don’t think you have to keep talking to anyone who’s a jerk to you about that. Except me!” And she began for the second time that evening a chant involving spelling out words in a tree. And as Amber protested, the giggling and wrestling continued.

Presently even their noise was drowned out by a sudden excited gabbling up ahead. The party had begun passing by the neighborhood convenience store, and Tey had stopped short right in front of the building and was pointing at the door and shouting. “Urms! Urms! Pace ere mama get urms!”

Katriche and Ambrosya knew exactly what that meant, and exchanged exasperated big-sister looks. They drew up to the others in time to hear mom say to Mrs. Keene, “I’m sorry; we always get him gummy worms here. Obviously he doesn’t understand trick-or-treating yet.”

“That’s OK,” Mrs. Keene said. “I could go for a bottled water.”

“We’ll stay out here,” Amber announced.

Mom said, “Fine, but don’t go running around. Stay on the sidewalk.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Gregory, the younger of the Keene kids.

“Honey, it’s going to take forever to get you in and out of your costume. Can’t you wait until we get home?”

Gregory pondered for a moment, then said firmly, “No.”

His sister Kimberly looked torn, but eventually seemed to decide she might increase her haul of snacks if she accompanied them inside. Soon Katie and Amber were alone in front of the store.

Loud voices had been this entire time coming from around the corner, the side of the building where stood machines for filling up tires and vacuuming out your car and stuff, and the two girls immediately moved to peek around and see who it might be. Three white boys — big boys, obviously old enough to know how to drive — didn’t seem to be doing anything except talking and laughing and leaning against their parked car with energy drinks and a bad smell. Maybe they enjoyed that, but they must have been bored anyway, because the moment one of them caught sight of the sisters looking at them, he jumped up from where he’d been sitting on the curb and came over.

“Lemme see your costumes!” he demanded in a monkeyish way: jovial but with the potential to become troublesome at any moment. Somewhat reluctantly, the girls stepped out past the corner of the building, and the boy began to laugh. “You guys, check this out: it’s Black Supergirl.”

Katie made a frustrated sound. It wasn’t just that people kept calling her that; it was this guy’s mocking tone.

“And who are you supposed to be?” he demanded of Amber.

“I’m She-Ra,” she replied defiantly.

Now another boy laughed and approached. “My little brother–” and he called his brother something mean– “watches that show, and it’s the gayest show in the world. Guess you’re a little lesbo, right?”

For this Amber had no retort. She appeared simultaneously angry and embarrassed, and Katie hated these boys. “So what?!” she shouted. She didn’t shout in anger much, but she also hated that look on Amber’s face. “You’re dressed up as a big fat jerk!”

This made the boys laugh even harder. One reached out and patted them each hard on the head, then made a grab for Katie’s pillowcase. He referenced something Katie didn’t understand, but which involved a couple of words mom didn’t like.

But the moment his heavy, stupid hand had made contact with her wig, scratching her scalp with the metal fastening combs inside, she’d experienced that same weird tingling as earlier — but much more intensely now than when she’d been unable to get the second comb properly into place — and she felt all of a sudden powerful, strong, and invincible, though unsure how she knew what that felt like. Retaining her bag of candy and even jerking it free of the jerk’s hand proved ridiculously simple.

“We don’t have to talk to you anymore,” she declared. And she knew it was true. Just as Amber had suggested, people probably didn’t need to call you bad words, exactly, for the rule to still apply.

Not that it mattered in this situation, for now the boys all started swearing at them. They grabbed at the girls, trying to seize their candy, get hold of them and squeeze, push them down, or whatever other mischief they could think of. It crossed Katie’s mind that this was one of those times mom had said she could punch someone, but she dodged and repelled the seemingly clumsy attacks with such ease that it seemed unnecessary.

And just at that moment, there came a cry from behind them — more a high-pitched shriek, really — of, unexpectedly enough, “Cowabunga!!” A ninja turtle — Raphael by color, though in the show he’d gotten on Michelangelo’s case for saying that word — burst onto the scene and threw itself at the teenagers. “You — don’t — hurt — people — while — I’m–” she shouted, punching the nearest boy with all her might.

So surprised was he by this that he took a moment (and a few blows!) to react, but then he pushed the new costumed kid backward roughly. The turtle stumbled and would have fallen if Amber hadn’t caught her. And Amber would have fallen under her weight in normal circumstances. Instead, she steadied the newcomer and stood firm. And the turtle, instead of crying or something, said, “Whoa.” She straightened, shaking her masked head — her ears and neck were the only indications she was white — and said, “Weird.” Maybe she’d felt the tingling too? Then she seemed to rally, clenching green-gloved fists and assuming a new combative pose. “You stupid muttonchops!”

The incredulous laugh from one of the teenagers confirmed Katie’s suspicion that this wasn’t something people really called each other, but the sound cut off abruptly as the unknown girl threw herself at the boys again. Her fighting appeared far more effective this time, and the ensuing remarks from her three opponents were limited now to, “Whoa, hey!” and, “What the–” and, “Oof!” Katie had never seen someone do a flying kick like that in real life.

Neither had the boys, evidently. With startled, almost panicked looks at each other, they came to a unanimous decision about scrambling into their car and retreating. The vehicle backed so precipitously that its rear end headed directly for Amber, and Katie’s heart suddenly raced with panic of her own. But Amber put out a hand against the oncoming car, which crunched into the arm that did not falter and came away, as it turned and sped forward, with a huge dent and a completely mutilated tail light.

“Awesome!” cried the anonymous girl.

Amber, mouth agape, hand still outstretched, turned slowly to face her sister, and then she too gave a cry. “Katie! You’re–”

“You’re flying!!” The turtle girl ran right up to Katie, and couldn’t have appeared more astonished if her face had been visible.

Katie looked down and realized with a jolt that, indeed, several inches stretched between her feet and the dirty sidewalk. In her momentary terror for Amber’s safety, she must have…

“We all have powers!!” The ninja started doing effortless backflips. “Look at me!!”

Reaching up and taking the arms of Katie (who was trying to figure out how to get back down), Amber began an agitated dance as she said, “We do, Katie, we do! We have powers! You’re Supergirl and I’m She-Ra, and she’s–”

“I’m Raphael!!”

They both turned toward the stranger, who was now spinning on her shell.

“So you’re–” said Katie.

“But there aren’t–” said Amber.

The second half of their statements — “a girl Raphael” and “any girl turtles,” respectively — died on their lips as they looked at each other and recognized with a shock that Katie’s earlier distress might afflict others as well.

“You’re just like Raphael,” Katie said instead. “You like to run in and fight people!”

The turtle ceased spinning, jumped to her feet, and came over. “Those guys were trying to steal your candy!” She sounded defensive.

Katie and Amber glanced down at their pillowcases, which slumped, pathetic and forgotten, on the ground. Candy suddenly didn’t seem to mean as much as it had. “We~ell…” Amber said at last. “Thanks for helping us, I guess…”

“My name’s Stephanie Lisa Larretson. I live on Pitcheresque, and I go to Voyager School.”

As Amber began to introduce herself and her sister, Katie felt she could wait no longer. “I’m going to fly really high,” she said, and it came out in something like a whisper as if it were a big secret. And the other two girls fell silent as Katie ascended.

Never in her life had she felt anything like this. Listening to Amber and Stephanie burst into a flood of encouragement and admiration below, she considered how right they were — and also that they couldn’t have any idea how amazing and cool this really was. She thought she could get through people calling her Black Supergirl with no problem now, and for the rest of her life, because she would always know that at least once, she had flown.

More and more of the neighborhood became visible as she rose; she could make out street lights and stop lights and cars and trick-or-treaters and angles on things most people never got to see. A big, happy excitement bubbled up inside her, rising as she did. Thus, when something out of place caught her eye, it was in a shriek that she announced it: “I see a fire!”

The girls on the sidewalk shouted up that they couldn’t hear her and she should come down, though Katie had no problem hearing them. She floated to where they still stood — jumped around, rather — so quickly that she felt her cape and wig flutter. “There’s a fire!” she told them breathlessly, overriding whatever each had begun to say.

The conversation turned to chaos, what with questions and urgings and further expressions of astonishment that simply couldn’t be repressed, but it all added up to, “We have to help!”

“I’ll fly us all over there,” Katie declared as soon as she had the chance.

“Yeah!” Stephanie punched the air, then stood at Katie’s side in anticipation.

“Girl, if you drop me, I really will punch you,” Amber warned as she took a similar position opposite Stephanie.

Katie put an arm around each of them, somewhat surprised to find that, though Stephanie had been grinding her shell against the pavement just recently, it still felt like nothing but a costume made of cloth and padding. Then she took off, holding tight to her sister and her new acquaintance and listening to their shrill sounds of delight close to her ears. By the time they got high enough for Katie to see the fire again, they almost seemed to have forgotten about it, screaming as they were like people on a roller coaster; but they recognized it as Katie began flying in that direction, and their clamor ceased.

They’d come far enough that none of them knew exactly where they were, but that didn’t matter. As they touched down in front of the house and took in the situation, Katie figured this place might as well have been in their neighborhood, for jerk teenagers had obviously been at work here — maybe because the porch light was off? The overgrown trees sagged under an unbelievable amount of toilet paper, and the front of the building dripped with eggs.

These details hardly comprised the most important aspects of the scene. One of the trees, or at least the toilet paper bedecking it, had been set alight, and its drying autumn leaves had been eager to share in the heat. A roof gutter clogged with a crackly mass of red and brown now crackled orange and deadly, and the curtains of an ajar upstairs window evidently hadn’t taken long to join in the fun. The whole thing was getting along like… well, like a house on fire.

“You can put it out with your cold breathing!” Amber suggested.

“OK!” Katie nodded emphatically, and, releasing her passengers, flew up to try. It took a minute to get the hang of it, and then another minute to realize that putting out the fire at the top did no good; she had to start at the bottom. It felt funny flying around blowing on a tree and a house, but pretty great to see the flames retreat against her freezing breath. When she couldn’t see any more fire, and when the air she flew through had cooled considerably, she landed again next to the others.

Stephanie appeared impatient. “We have to check inside!” And she waited not a moment longer to start running across the lawn.

Amber and Katie followed to where Stephanie was already sandwiched between screen and front door, alternately rattling and pounding on the latter and getting egg on her costume. “It’s locked!” she shouted. “Let me in!”

Katie’s eyes widened as her ears caught, beyond the entrance and Stephanie’s noise, the sound of someone feebly calling out for help.

“Move!” Amber commanded, ready to wrench the door open.

“Wait! The house is already burned; don’t break it too! Stephanie, you’re a ninja! Can’t you get into places?”

“Of course!” Stephanie slapped her forehead, setting her mask askew. After righting it, she looked around. “I’ll unlock the door for you guys!” And she jumped off the porch, ran right up the adjacent wall, and disappeared from sight. Less than a minute later, they heard the deadbolt grind open.

“How’d you do that?” Amber demanded as she crossed the threshold.

“Secrets of the ninja,” replied Stephanie proudly. “But hurry! The old guy’s hurt!”

So it appeared. The staircase of the smoke-filled house had a kind of chair-elevator-thing equipped, undoubtedly to help the man between wheelchairs, but the seat remained at the top. No wonder he hadn’t been handing out candy! What an awful thing to do, targeting him with eggs and toilet paper just because he was old and handicapped! He’d probably been headed to the ground floor to call the firemen with that really old-school phone on the wall nearby, and had fallen down the stairs in his haste. He lay on the rug at the bottom in his pajamas, evidently in significant pain, while his downstairs wheelchair had rolled a few steps away from his outstretched hand.

Amber was at his side in an instant. “I’m gonna take you outside, mister.” And she scooped him up effortlessly and turned toward the front door. It looked really weird to see a little girl carrying a big man as if he weighed nothing.

He groaned, and Amber froze. She glanced at the others desperately, but they didn’t know what to do either. If it hurt the old man too much to be lifted, they couldn’t get him out of all this smoke! But then he forced himself to speak, in a quavering, gasping tone: “My cat… upstairs bathroom… locked in…”

Stephanie cried, “I’ll get him!” and took the stairs in two jumps. The old man broke out coughing, and Amber hurried toward the exit. Katie was about to follow when Stephanie shouted from above, “Supergirl! There’s more fire up here!”

Zooming through the air to the second level, Katie saw it: smoke billowed from the open door of what seemed like the old man’s bedroom, and through the murk she could make out flickering flames. She took a deep breath, glad the smoke didn’t bother her as it did the old man, and blew freezing air into the overheated space. Soon the fire had gone out, and she retreated down the hall to find Stephanie struggling with another locked door.

This time can you just break it open?” Regretting it, Katie did it anyway, and the ninja turtle dashed inside. “Kitty! Kitty, where are you!”

They found it curled up in terror behind the toilet, trembling, eyes wide. As Stephanie lost track of the mission for a moment in her delight over how cute it was, Katie looked around frantically. “There’s nothing to put it in! If we carry it out, it’ll probably run away!”

This snapped Stephanie out of her transport. “Don’t worry!” she said. Picking up the animal, she added, “Oof!” and in some surprise, “This cat is so heavy!” Then she tucked it away inside her shell.

Katie blinked. “Wow.”

“He’ll be safe in there for now!” Stephanie patted her chest with the shell’s underside on it. “I’m gonna take him outside!”

“I’ll try and find a box or something,” said Katie.

“And see if there’s any more fire!”

This took less time than expected. The three upstairs rooms were clear of fire, and in a hall closet Katie found something better than a box: an actual cat carrier. She flew back downstairs and, without pausing, out of the house to where Amber had laid the old man down on an egg-free spot in the grass. Sirens sounded in the distance, and over on the sidewalk at the corners of the property, people were beginning to gather.

“We’ve gotta go,” Stephanie hissed, “or they’ll find out your secret identities!” She extracted the cat from her shell — Katie still couldn’t quite see how she did it — and encouraged it into its carrier. The old man made a sound of relief mingled with continued pain.

“Just one thing real quick,” said Amber. She placed both hands on his chest and whispered, “For the honor of Grayskull, heal up, OK?”

The old man started at the glow that grew over the spot, and his mouth trembled. A feeling of serenity and warmth, of deep magic, swirled briefly around them all, and then dissipated with the light. Even the cat, who’d been crying inside the carrier, quieted and seemed to settle down peacefully.

The old man sat up, an expression of wonder on his face. “Young ladies…” His voice sounded much stronger now.

“We gotta go!” Stephanie said again.

The old man reached out and gripped Amber’s arm. “Come visit me. In a couple of months. You can each have one of Ladybug’s kittens.”

“Kittens?!” squealed Stephanie. Now she appeared torn between agitation concerning the approaching strangers and firefighters, and pure ecstasy and excitement. She kept squeaking all the way up into the air and back to the convenience store parking lot.

The instant they touched down, all three began jumping, hugging and gripping each other, giggling and shouting. “We flew so high!” “You got into that house like magic!” “You put out all the fires with your mouth!” “How did you get that cat into your shell?” “I can’t believe you totally healed that guy!” “Did you see me carry him?” “Did you see me run up that wall?” “Did you see me fly to the top of that tree?” “I can’t believe it!”

The tingling sensation had departed, and Katie’s powers with it, but she didn’t mind. Super-awesome as it would have been to keep them, the adventure they’d had made up for the transitory nature of her ability to fly. They’d rescued an old man and his cat and saved his house from more damage. They’d been real heroes. And that old man hadn’t said anything about Supergirl not being Black or Raphael not being a girl, and he probably wouldn’t care if She-Ra maybe had a crush on Huntara — and he was way more important than whatever poop-faces had been the ones to get him into that mess in the first place. And he’d promised kittens!!

“Well, you’re all having fun out here!” said mom’s voice. She and the others had emerged from the convenience store and followed the girls’ noise around the corner.

“Mom! Mom!” Katie and Amber ran to her and grabbed on, barely avoiding Tey and his gummy worms in her arms, pointing back at the ninja turtle in their wake. “This is our friend Stephanie can she trick-or-treat with us?!”

“It’s nice to meet you, Stephanie,” said mom, laughing at her daughters’ exuberance. “Are you out trick-or-treating all alone?”

“Yeah,” Stephanie replied awkwardly. “My friends said I couldn’t come with them because I dressed up as a boy.”

Amber was outraged. “See? She has to come with us!”

“Of course she can, baby,” mom said. “You guys ready to go?”

Mrs. Keene and her kids indicated that they were.

“Stephanie, these are Mrs. Keene and Gregory Keene and Kimberly Keene.” Katie pointed them out, then added to the kids, “Do you guys want to hear a story about Supergirl and She-Ra and Raphael?”

Gregory considered for a moment. “Yeah,” he said.

Katriche took his hand while Ambrosya took Kimberly’s. “We’ll all three tell you while we walk, OK?”

“OK,” said Kimberly. Katie thought she saw mom and Mrs. Keene look at each other with their eyebrows up.

“So this one time,” Amber began, “She-Ra accidentally got sent all the way from Etheria to Earth…”

“To a parking lot!” Stephanie jumped in and took Kimberly’s other hand.

“And Raphael was already there,” said Katie, “because he…”

“Because he was going to buy a pizza!” Amber finished.

The Keene kids giggled. As they moved on toward the neighborhood houses, Stephanie said, “But they didn’t know that Supergirl seen a fire far away, and she came down and said, ‘I need you guys’s help!'”

“And…”

“And…”

“And……”


For November Quick Fics 2019, my mother gave me the prompt, Someone’s Halloween costume comes to life and gives them the powers of the character they’re dressed as. Course then I had to make it about other stuff too, and we never actually get to find out how the whole thing happened XD

The old man is played by Stan Lee.



His Own Humanity: Cockatiel and Armadillo

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei.

Ze likes fashion, football, and social justice. He likes Star Wars, friends, and tabletop roleplaying. Can this meeting between totally dissimilar strangers go anything but badly?

Kamatari was conscious of eyes on zir. Not that the entire café was staring or anything so dramatic, but ze was sitting by the door, and nearly everyone that came in or went out threw zir at least a glance. Zir hemline sat too high, perhaps, for a day of shopping — it might have been better suited for a night of drinking and dancing — but the lovely weather and zir lovely waxed legs had been too tempting a combination. Ze knew the entire outfit looked fantastic on zir, and if anyone in the café had a problem with it, they could just deal.

Some of the looks ze caught reflected in the window, however, indicated that most of them wouldn’t have used ‘problem’ to describe their reaction, so for now the situation remained tenable.

“Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker,” said Darth Vader from nearby.

Kamatari glanced at zir watch. Fifteen more minutes before zir bus would arrive, assuming ze remembered the schedule correctly. Fifteen minutes would be adequate time for a little more wandering, and, with a half-empty apartment in mind, the furniture store two doors down definitely appealed… but ze was tired. Ze might have overdone zir shopping exploration of zir new hometown.

“Obi-wan knew this to be true,” said Darth Vader.

Perhaps tomorrow ze would find zir way out again and have a look at some furnishing and decoration. Sundays offered nothing better to do in a place where ze had literally no friends. Even overtime wasn’t an option, since neither ze nor anyone else at zir company worked on the Sabbath. Or perhaps ze would sit around with a few beers signing petitions on the internet.

“All too easy,” said Darth Vader.

Kamatari glanced toward the source of the voice. Though the corner spot half ringed with booth seating and half with chairs was probably the biggest table in the café, only one person sat there now, and he didn’t look much like a Sith Lord. He did glance up from the phone he held, though, just after the latest quote played, so Kamatari quickly removed zir attention.

“Perhaps you are not as strong as the Emperor thought.”

James Earl Jones had a damn sexy voice, Kamatari had to admit. Why that voice should be speaking up to harass an absent Luke Skywalker in this relatively busy restaurant/coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon not, as far as Kamatari knew, a date of any particular significance to fans of the actor, the character, or the franchise? That was another story.

“Impressive.”

Ze couldn’t help looking over again at the man from whom this effusion of Star Wars came. Was it a game on his phone playing these quotes, or what? From his movements, he appeared to be texting, but that didn’t quite fit with the sounds. He also kept glancing up and around as if to check whether he’d attracted any attention. Again Kamatari looked quickly away.

“Most impressive.”

These lines, arranged (as far as Kamatari could remember) in their proper order of appearance, were simultaneously cool and obnoxious. If the guy knew he would be receiving a string of text messages or whatever, he should really turn the sound off; yet if the quotes were text-tones, it was interesting that they played in the order the lines had been spoken in the movie.

The next sound from the stranger’s phone was the first nine notes of the Imperial March, and this time the guy caught Kamatari peeking. Where many might have smiled, the stranger instead gave a nod of acknowledgment. He looked good — though he would have looked better without the huge glasses — and wore (to somewhat strange effect, Kamatari thought) a t-shirt tucked into belted dress slacks. Which Asian heritage, specifically, he came from, Kamatari couldn’t be quite sure.

“Please forgive me,” the man said, “if my text messaging is bothering you.” His demeanor seemed at odds with his words, however: he didn’t come across as at all penitent, or even as if he really comprehended how he could possibly have been bothering anyone.

Bemused by the overall presentation, Kamatari replied, “I was mostly wondering how you got the quotes to play all in a row like that.”

“Oh,” said the man, clearly pleased at being asked, “it’s an app a friend of mine developed. It allows you to establish a folder for your text-tones and arrange them in the order you’d prefer them to play when you receive several messages in a row, or to have them chosen at random.”

This was more information than Kamatari really needed, but not entirely uninteresting. Ze might have said so if the man hadn’t continued talking without pause: “It’s on its second version, so it’s very stable by now, but he’s always working on minor updates for it. At the moment I believe he’s attempting to make it possible to combine sequences with random selection in the same settings. The app is called ‘Text-Tone Sequencer,’ if you’re interested — if you have a phone with an Android operating system, that is.”

“Thank you,” was all Kamatari could think to say.

“My pleasure,” the stranger replied magnanimously.

Kamatari might have turned back to the window at this point, but the man had lowered his phone somewhat and begun examining zir more specifically. The glinting gaze lingered longest on Kamatari’s legs — not entirely surprising given both the attractiveness of said legs today and the stranger’s evident lack of subtlety. Or he could merely have been counting the bags clustered at Kamatari’s feet, for he remarked next, “I deduce that you’ve had a successful shopping trip today.”

Now Kamatari tried to repress a smile and to match the gravity — the solemnity, almost — of the other’s tone as ze replied, “Yes, I have. I found some good sales.”

“I have a tendency to do most of my shopping online, so I have a much greater range of locations to monitor for good sales. And these sites often hold flash sales that only last a certain number of hours, so catching them is sometimes extremely difficult.”

“Yeah, I bet.”

“Everyone in my group of friends is aware of what the others like to buy, however, so we’re able to keep watch on each other’s behalf for sales.”

“That must be nice.” Not really knowing what else to do, Kamatari nudged one of zir shopping bags with zir foot and added, “I love sales.”

“And now, I presume, you’re waiting on a ride. Either that or you’re recuperating between lengths of your walking journey.” The man’s eyes hadn’t risen from Kamatari’s shoes, which were a little high for all the walking ze’d known ze would be doing today (but matched the skirt so well ze hadn’t been able to bring zirself to wear anything else).

“My feet are a little tired,” ze admitted. Ze added with a laugh, “I definitely won’t be wearing these shoes to work and back.”

Ze’d been told, in the past, that ze had a sweet laugh, and ze’d already suspected this guy of trying, ineffectually, to flirt with zir. Now ze was further convinced of both circumstances. The man scooted toward the closer end of the booth seating he occupied, and leaned forward slightly as he replied, “No, if you’re regularly walking to work and back, I would recommend something more ergonomic. Do you lack a vehicle?”

Again Kamatari struggled to restrain a smile of amusement at the man’s expense. “By choice, yes. I sold my car before I moved here.” Ze figured it was zir turn to plunge on with unnecessary additional information. “There’s no reason to contribute to air pollution or waste non-renewable fuel sources on just myself in a city with such a thorough mass transit system.”

The man nodded agreement, but simultaneously seemed surprised. While Kamatari had never had anyone say it to zir outright, ze’d long believed ‘too pretty to be an activist’ was a common assumption about zir. But since that assessment contained ‘pretty,’ the reaction remained generally positive.

Surreptitiously the man cleared his throat. “My RP group meets here every Saturday evening, and this week it’s my duty to reserve the table until everyone arrives at seven… but you’re more than welcome to join me while you await your bus.”

It was barely past five. Did this guy really intend to sit here for two hours simply to make sure no other group usurped the large corner seat? Did this happen on a weekly basis? What did the café think of it?

For a moment Kamatari considered refusing the offer, but could produce no real reason not to sit with the guy for a few minutes. Saying no and continuing at the next table over would be more awkward than anything this weirdo could come up with. Probably.

Kamatari couldn’t quite tell what the stranger’s impression of zir gender was, and the man read as nothing but cis-het… but that could be because the sense of ‘geek’ about him overrode and obscured everything else. Something would have to be offered, though, to be sure everything was on the level. “Sure,” ze said, standing and reaching for zir bags. “If you don’t mind having an Action Transvestite on your team.” Ze knew standing abruptly would hit the stranger with the Full-Length Kamatari Effect, but at least in this case the Full-Length Kamatari had just been outed as a cross-dresser of sorts.

The man’s face lit up — and clearly not in response to the F.L.K.E., since he said, in a truly wretched attempt at some kind of British or perhaps Scottish accent, “You can never have too many Action Transvestites. Well, if you have eight hundred million, that’s too many, I suppose.”

Kamatari laughed, both at this very appropriate response to zir original reference and in pleasure at having successfully exchanged ideas in a language they both spoke.

The man held out a hand. “My name is Wufei Chang,” he said. The formality of his tone did not perfectly gel with his omitting to stand up and only reaching across the table as Kamatari set zir bags down.

Kamatari gave zir first name, shook the hand, then sat.

“I take it you are a sports fan,” was the first thing Wufei said when Kamatari had settled, “because you said ‘on your team’ rather than ‘in your party.'”

Kamatari blinked. As far as ze could imagine, in not a single circumstance would ze have used the phrase ‘in your party.’ Ze was only very vaguely familiar with what it meant. So perhaps ze sounded a little blank as ze responded, “Yes… yes, I am a sports fan.”

“I, sadly, am not, unless you count Eyeshield Nijuuichi and Kuroko no Basuke.”

Though Kamatari had heard of neither title, ze felt ze was at least on more familiar turf here. Not that the small amount of Japanese ze’d learned in high school made zir anything like an expert, but certain specific linguistic research ze’d done a few years back, as well as zir genetics, rendered zir slightly more confident discussing anime or whatever those things might be.

Before ze could make any response at all, however, Wufei’s phone went off again. They were back to, “Your destiny lies with me, Skywalker.” Kamatari raised a skeptical brow as the man turned his attention to it immediately without looking at or saying another word to his companion until he’d answered the message.

“Yes,” Wufei said at last, as if returning to a conversation that, as far as Kamatari knew, hadn’t actually started, “some of my friends and I put together an Eyeshield Nijuuichi group cosplay for FanimeCon a couple of months ago, and purely for reference purposes — all right, I admit that it was only mostly for reference purposes, as we also wanted to compare American football as portrayed in the manga to actual American football — we watched an entire NFL game rerun online.”

This statement didn’t make perfect sense to Kamatari, but ze feared if ze asked for clarification on Eyeshield Nijuuichi, cosplay, or FanimeCon, ze would be getting in over zir head. Ze was also amused at the way Wufei announced he’d watched an entire football game as if it were an accomplishment to be proud of. So ze asked, “What game was it?”

“Something from last year,” Wufei replied vaguely, “featuring, I believe, a team from Texas against somebody local.”

“Cowboys? Texans? Raiders? Niners?”

Wufei cleared his throat. “Excuse me; I don’t remember.” Then he looked down to answer another text message.

This time Kamatari didn’t bother trying to repress a complete skeptical facial expression. This had been rude enough when Wufei was alone harassing everyone with his Darth Vader quotes from a greater distance; in the middle of a conversation with someone at the same table, it showed seriously bad manners. But zir display of disapproval went for naught, since ze didn’t have the energy to keep the expression on zir face the whole time Wufei was busy, and Wufei might not have noticed or interpreted it correctly even if ze had. So Kamatari just picked up the conversation where it had been left:

“I haven’t missed many Sunday NFL games — at least featuring local teams — for the last couple of years, so whatever game you watched with your friends, I probably saw it too.”

“To me this indicates that you don’t work Sundays,” commented Wufei astutely.

After confirming this extremely dull speculation, Kamatari added by way of explanation, “I work for Life’s Covenant. Actually I just transferred here to manage stock at the LC warehouse. We’re the hub for all the stores in the area.”

“The Christian bookstore chain?” Wufei raised a surprised brow. ‘Too alternative to work at a Christian bookstore’ was another assessment nobody ever made aloud, but which was often implied. Or sometimes just ‘too deliberately sexy.’

“I don’t have much to do with Christianity,” Kamatari admitted, “but Elsie’s very accepting, and I’m guaranteed Sundays off. And it’s a low-profit organization with a lot of worthwhile charitable branches, so I don’t mind that the pay isn’t spectacular.”

“I make quite a decent salary,” Wufei said. Kamatari couldn’t decide whether he sought to lord this over his companion or just continue the conversation with a relevant fact despite the potential impropriety of mentioning it. “I doubt I could survive working for a non-profit organization — my hobbies are too expensive.” Whatever his intentions were, it was in a tone almost of competition that he continued, “When you’re interested in 200-episode TV series where $25 DVD’s contain four episodes each, a low salary isn’t an option.”

Maybe there really was a touch of disdain for Kamatari’s unspectacular pay in Wufei’s attitude; Kamatari still couldn’t tell. But that tone of near-competition had stirred zir own competitive blood, and ze found zirself engaging almost without thinking. “I donate to a number of charities and activist organizations, and there are a lot more of those that need a lot more money than anyone ever has on any kind of salary.”

This time a competitive edge unmistakably sounded in Wufei’s tone as he added onto what he’d already said: “I also import a lot of soundtracks from Asian countries, as well as high-quality merchandising.” Here he gestured at the shirt he wore, which bore the image of a frantic-looking blonde child in red riding on the shoulders of a robot.

“Cute clothes aren’t always cheap.” Half agreement and half defiance, this, and somewhere in the back of Kamatari’s head a little voice asked, Are we really trying to establish which one of us spends more money? “Especially if you’re at all interested in new fashions.”

“Or interesting ties. I always make a serious attempt to have interesting ties to wear to work.”

I just bet you do, Kamatari reflected. Ze might have said it aloud, but didn’t want to be forced to explain what a fashion faux pas novelty ties represented. Besides, Wufei’s phone went off again at that moment, and he had once again stepped out of the conversation.

At this third instance of Wufei suddenly ignoring zir in favor of answering a text message, Kamatari wished very much that ze would suddenly receive several messages in a row so as to set a good example by completely ignoring them. But zir text message reception rate had died right down since moving, as past messages had mostly been of the ‘are you coming to so-and-so’s party tonight?’ variety, and were no longer applicable. Now the only person that texted zir was zir step-brother, and he not frequently enough for Kamatari to hope for something right this moment.

Abruptly Wufei looked up and asked, “Have you seen How to Train Your Dragon?”

In some surprise at both the suddenness of the new topic and the odd chance that allowed zir to answer in the affirmative, Kamatari replied, “I have. My step-brother wanted to see it, but nobody else was interested, so I took him just before I moved.”

“What was your opinion of Hiccup becoming handicapped at the end?”

“Oh, I…” Thinking back about the movie and shifting gears as best ze could, Kamatari was yet unable to come up with an answer before Wufei went on with a gesture at his phone and an explanation of this out-of-the-blue question:

“My friend feels it was a cheap gimmick meant to evoke needless sympathy from the viewer as a sort of sucker-punch secondary climax.” The disdain in Wufei’s voice as he echoed this opinion of his friend’s told clearly what he thought of it long before he added, “I disagree. I feel it provided a much-needed element of depth to Hiccup’s characterization, especially by giving him another instance of parallelism with Toothless.”

Kamatari, who, though ze’d recovered zir wits, did not remember the movie well enough to be discussing it on this level and was pretty sure ze had no strong opinions on it in any case, decided to bring up something ze’d seen mentioned on the internet in reference to this specific plot device: “It’s nice for the physically handicapped to get any representation in a movie that isn’t all about being physically handicapped.”

“Yes, of course!” Wufei sounded as if, though happy to agree with anything that might even obliquely support his own views, he hadn’t expected this.

“Is it a good representation of a physical handicap, though?” Kamatari mused, for once having a point to raise before being prompted by zir companion. “It happened right at the end, didn’t it? That’s only a couple of minutes of representation…”

“You know there will be a sequel,” Wufei assured zir. “It was a huge box office success, and it has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.”

Kamatari, who cared a lot more for Bitch Flicks’ opinion than Rotten Tomatoes’, said, “It certainly wasn’t a good representation of female characters.”

“Well, in the time period–” Wufei started to apologize.

“The time period when Vikings rode dragons?” Kamatari interrupted sharply.

“It was Hiccup’s story, not Astrid’s.”

“It could have been Astrid’s story. It would have been the same story.”

“It’s based on a book, you understand.”

“A book that’s also about a cis-het white male? Why does every story have to be about that same person? Can’t some of the rest of us have stories too?”

“There are plenty of stories about women!”

“There are some stories about women,” Kamatari corrected almost fiercely. “But they’re usually not riding dragons or fighting battles or even getting to stand in the spotlight all that much.”

“Don’t you watch football?” Wufei’s tone too was becoming somewhat heated. “That’s a field almost exclusively dominated by men!”

“There’s a difference between allowing for physical differences between men and women and continually pushing women’s stories aside, forcing women to be either completely invisible or just secondary characters over and over and over again.” Ze added quickly enough to forestall any comment of Wufei’s, though in a quieter tone, “Though at least there were some female characters in that one. People of color didn’t even get a token representation, if I remember right.”

“Well, in the setting–” Wufei began again.

Kamatari’s interruption was even harsher than before. “The setting that has dragons in it?”

“It makes sense,” said Wufei firmly, “for a story about Vikings to be a story about white people, whether or not dragons are involved.”

“But somebody decided what that story would be about, and, as usual, went with subject matter that would dictate all the characters be–” Kamatari forced zirself to stop. Ze hadn’t meant to start an argument about this with someone ze would probably never see again in zir life, though perhaps it had been inevitable with Wufei’s random introduction of this topic in the first place. In a less combative tone ze said, “I just would like to see more Asian heroes in movies — and other people of color, though of course I have a special interest in Japanese people, and would like to see them take center stage more often. Wouldn’t you?”

Wufei stared at zir pensively, and eventually said, “Yes. Of course I would. I’m of Chinese descent myself, however. And I don’t believe being all about white people makes How to Train Your Dragon a bad movie.”

If Kamatari had had a dollar for every time ze’d expressed this opinion… “Maybe not bad on its own, but definitely not trying very hard to correct any systemic problems.”

“Is it required to?”

“Well, somebody should be.” Wanting to dispel this tension, Kamatari added in non sequitur before Wufei could say anything else, “So you’re Chinese-American?”

Wufei seemed to hesitate a moment, as if less interested in dispelling the tension than Kamatari was, then seemed to give in at least for the moment, and replied, “Correct. It was my parents, however, who moved here from China, and I speak very little Mandarin myself. I found Japanese a much more convenient language to study. It is, after all, the language spoken in a lot of media I enjoy.”

Pleased to have segued to a topic ze could not only discuss fairly well but that was obviously less charged than the previous — and normally ze really didn’t mind charged debate, just not with this weird guy in a random café near the end of a tiring day — Kamatari responded, “I have heard Mandarin is a very difficult language for English-speakers to learn. I’m Japanese-American, and my family’s been in the country for a couple of generations, so I speak practically no Japanese. In fact my original name wasn’t even Japanese, but I legally changed it a couple years back, and did some research in the language then.”

“Oh?” Testament to how successful Kamatari’s tension-diffusing efforts had been was the fact that Wufei’s interested look turned up toward his companion away from his phone. “And what made you choose the name you did?”

“I went with Honjou Kamatari — or Kamatari Honjou, legally speaking — because to Americans, who won’t know what it specifically means, it sounds androgynous and Japanese at the same time. My birth name was Daniel Joshua Reed, and I kept Daniel as my legal middle name just as a sort of nod to my parents.”

Wufei blinked. His brows twitched slightly together and slightly downward in an expression of momentary confusion. He stiffened, and his face went blank. Kamatari had seen this reaction many times before, and knew exactly what it signified; what he didn’t know was why it had been so delayed in this instance.

“So I deduce,” Wufei said, “from that name,” clearing his throat, “that you are actually a transvestite.”

“I did say I was.” Kamatari’s puzzlement sounded in zir voice.

“Yes, you did,” was Wufei’s awkward concession. “But I thought you were just Quoting.” The way he said the word cleared the matter up; Kamatari didn’t even have to ask: Quoting, obviously, was an activity — an art — so worthy in and of itself that the actual purport of the quotation fell by the wayside. A world in which someone could declare zirself a transvestite without meaning it was a somewhat difficult concept to grasp, but Kamatari had certainly met people that seemed unable to speak at all without peppering their conversation with random bits of movie dialogue.

“Well,” ze said, and felt zir voice slipping toward that borderline-threatening sweetness that often emerged at such moments, “I was assigned male at birth, though I came out as agender four years ago, so it’s not stretching the term ‘transvestite’ much to say I am one.” Ze didn’t want to add aloud that, since it was still a bit of a stretch to the term, ze had actually been Quoting just a tad.

Wufei cleared his throat again, and Kamatari waited with patience long-honed by similar circumstances to hear what he would say next. In zir experience, there was a limited list of options — some of them comments, some of them questions, most of them obnoxious.

“You’re very convincing. You pass,” Wufei corrected himself as he suddenly remembered what he believed to be a more appropriate term, “very well.”

Kamatari tried to decide whether or not ze had the energy today to break this down for a complete stranger. The problem was that even a concise statement like, “‘Passing’ isn’t my goal; it just happens because I naturally look like a woman,” still usually managed to raise more questions than it answered. But if ze offered no clarification at all, people were left with incorrect impressions about zir, and possibly about the LGBTQIA world in general.

In this context, ze decided after some quick thought that, since ze would probably never encounter this guy again and therefore could probably afford to overlook any false impressions Wufei might get, ze might as well not bother explaining zirself. So ze merely said, with a slight nod, “Thank you.”

Kamatari had a little less faith in zir ability to overlook misconceptions the next moment when Wufei remarked, “One of my very best friends is gay.”

The problem was that it would take even more effort than the previous hypothetical answer to say, “Please don’t conflate gender identity with sexual orientation. I do happen to identify as queer, but that has nothing to do with my gender. Also? Having gay friends doesn’t mean a damn thing.” As with the debate on representation in the media, ze simply didn’t feel up to it on behalf on an acquaintance ze wasn’t at all invested in. Ze probably should have made the effort, but ze’d been walking all day in heels, and it was really too much to expect for zir to be ‘on’ all the time.

Besides, ze didn’t like to admit to being a little daunted by the phrase ‘one of my very best friends’ that ze couldn’t use with any accuracy.

This time when Wufei received a text message, it was almost more a relief than anything. Kamatari sat back and waited while the man composed his answer, then asked in a casual tone, “So you’re a Star Wars fan?” And refrained from adding, “Speaking of movies with little to no female or racial representation.”

“Naturally,” Wufei replied, raising his eyes from his phone at last. “But I only support the Jedi Order so long as they serve Justice. I won’t be at the beck and call of any Republic.”

“I see,” was all Kamatari could think to say, repressing another laugh.

“The Sith are also an interesting Order, with, I believe, a more rational outlook in many respects, but our group already has two Sith Lords — one a Lady, as a matter of fact — and there are never more than two.”

“So you all have Star Wars… identities… you and your friends?” Ze could just imagine Wufei and his group (all of whom, in Kamatari’s imagination, looked like Wufei with different hair and sometimes breasts) running around in robes with toy lightsabers talking portentously about the Force.

“That’s correct. I am Jedi Master Chang, a Kaleesh from Kalee. Lately I’ve been considering accepting a Padawan, though it’s difficult to decide how much of the Jedi Order’s restrictive precepts I want to pass on to a apprentice.”

“And what precepts are those?” Kamatari preferred to keep Wufei off the topic of queer issues, and Star Wars didn’t make for too bad a substitute.

“The Order is specifically opposed to passion of any kind. And while it’s no great effort to understand that fear, anger, and hatred lead to the Dark Side, they believe that other, more positive emotions do as well.” It sounded like a dissertation. “The Jedi Code expressly forbids attachment. And not merely love, as we observed in Attack of the Clonesall attachment: friendships, loyalties, family bonds… And how do they expect Jedi to value the people and places and institutions they’re supposed to protect if they aren’t permitted to become attached to any of them? The Jedi Code insists on Force-users becoming emotionless robots, and my friends and I–” he put a significant emphasis on the word– “believe we would be dishonoring our commitment to Justice, and each other, by downplaying the attachment between us.”

Kamatari wanted to remark that Wufei (and, evidently, his friends) took this all far too seriously. At the same time, though, ze found zirself responding to the attitude with reluctant approbation, even admiration… and perhaps some jealousy. So, with more difficulty than ze had expected, ze said instead, “I don’t remember any of this from the movies.” And ze did actually remember the movies fairly well. Ze’d even liked them — the first three better than the second, of course, or should that be the second three better than the first? Ze’d never considered applying the Jedi Code to zir own life, though.

“You have to understand,” Wufei replied pedantically, “the movies are only a tiny fraction of what exists in the Star Wars universe. Novels, comics, video games… every day we’re expanding our knowledge of what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For example, in The Jedi Academy Trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson…..”

Wufei was still lecturing an only idly listening Kamatari by the time ze needed to head out to the bus stop. In fact he kept talking, hastily trying to finish up his current point, while Kamatari stood and began gathering zir bags.

“Oh,” he interrupted himself at that juncture. “I was going to give you my email address. We’re always seeking extra players.”

Kamatari hesitated, then, in a moment of weakness, felt the inexorable power of loneliness forcing zir to give in. “Why don’t you text me?” And ze rattled off zir phone number.

“I’ll have to inquire into your area code another time,” Wufei remarked as he typed.

Wanting to shake zir head at the implication there might be any more explanation for zir area code than ‘I just moved’ — a fact ze believed had already been established — Kamatari rather nodded. Once zir phone had chimed (the notification sound was called ‘Rose Petals’ and had come preloaded), unsure exactly how to say goodbye in this situation, ze raised one hand with a touch of awkwardness and went with, “Have fun with your game.”

“Farewell, my young apprentice,” Wufei replied. As Kamatari had already turned away, ze didn’t bother to restrain zir smile.

Exiting the building, wending zir high-heeled way toward the bus stop in front of the next business over, ze couldn’t quite decide how ze felt about that entire encounter. It had been frustrating, even aggravating, and certainly ridiculous, but there’d also been about it an incomprehensible sort of pleasantry, almost as if Wufei had been speaking another language the entire time, but in a friendly tone. They’d been like aliens meeting and managing to convey peaceful intentions with very little common ground to stand on — a cockatiel and an armadillo somehow communicating amicably.

Kamatari had no wish to join the world ze’d glimpsed through the window of zir conversation with Wufei; it was foreign to zir in a manner almost completely unpalatable. And yet not only could ze not quite bring zirself to condemn it, one aspect of it also could not be dismissed as entirely undesirable.

Wufei clearly moved in a warm, happy, and extensive group of friends that shared his interests and probably thought much the same way he did. They looked out for online sales for each other, they spent every Saturday evening together, they understood each other’s Quotes, they considered denying attachment to each other dishonorable, they watched sports they were clearly uninterested in together ‘for research purposes,’ and their texts meant so much to each other as to overcome public phone etiquette. Wufei might be a hopeless nerd, but he obviously had personal characteristics pleasant enough to win him a place among such a devoted circle.

To someone alone in a new town, there was something enviable — maybe even commendable — about that. Kamatari didn’t want to partake in Wufei’s way of life and had no interest in spending any more time with him or his ilk than ze already had, but ze couldn’t help wondering how long it would take zir to gather even a few such meaningful friends. It made zir feel a little pathetic, really.

It wasn’t impossible that it worked both ways, though. Maybe Wufei, even while looking down on Kamatari’s interest in football and willingness to work for lower pay just as much as Kamatari had looked down on Wufei’s vestiary obliviousness and solemn interpretation of fictional Orders, had yet seen something via Kamatari’s conversation that he wished he could have. He might not be specifically interested in anything Kamatari had mentioned, but perhaps some aspect of the life hinted at during their discussion called to him the way that small part of Wufei’s life called to Kamatari.

Ze would probably never know. It probably didn’t matter. But it gave zir something to think about as the bus wended its rumbling way out of the shopping district where ze’d made this strange acquaintance and back toward zir neighborhood. And honestly, it didn’t seem entirely unlikely. Animals evolved wings or claws as needed on a regular basis, didn’t they?



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.



Animal-Handler

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement.

Though the circus has settled in for its winter break, Trowa Barton (acrobat, animal-handler, and werebeast beta) still has his hands full — with a newly acquired lion he’s sure is more than it appears, the return of former romantic partner and current alpha-friend-with-benefits Heero, and tiny niece Relena growing up much too fast.

Unique to this story: a/b/o dynamics

Keeping the circus provisioned while on tour was a balancing act (pun intended) between overloading (which rendered travel difficult) and running short of supplies for all the people and animals that made the whole thing work (which put them at the mercy of the price hikes of the closest general store). By the time they finished their nine months on the road and returned to Springcleft for their season off, they’d usually run pretty low in a desire to travel light on the last leg; and the first thing Andrian and Cathy did, while everyone else got settled in, was drive back down into town and load up on goods to get the winter started. Therefore, Trowa’s heart sank a bit when his sister and brother-in-law returned earlier than expected, not with a truck bed full of food crates, but with only a handful of them beside a large, iron-banded box with what had to be air-holes cut into its sides at various points.

He jogged to meet them, but had to stand off as they circled toward the empty lions’ pen, angling and backing so the bed faced it. That elaborated on the box’s contents, at least. As Cathy jumped out the passenger side, Trowa came closer. “Cubs?”

She shook her head, wide eyes promising a surprise. “It’s a full-grown male, 450 or so.”

Trowa looked again at the box, brows lowering. “How long has it been in that undersized crate?”

“Probably a lot longer than it should have,” said Andrian as he rounded the front of the truck to join the conversation. “You know how Alex treats his animals.”

Trowa nodded. A dealer in imports and exotics often of dubious origin, Alex took advantage of the circus’s compassion for animals by procuring as many unusual examples as he could and housing them in small, shabby cages on short commons, knowing Andrian would pay the asking price just to get them away from him.

“One of these days we’ve got to find a way to make him stop,” Cathy said with a disapproving shake of head.

“It won’t be today.” Andrian gave her a quick squeeze about the shoulders. “We need to unload it and get back into town before the stores close.”

By this time, many of the circus folk had appeared and headed this direction, expecting to unload supplies but not entirely surprised when the truck’s cargo proved to be mostly lion instead. Trowa’s niece Relena, too young to remember the circus’s previous lions clearly, had popped up from somewhere, and danced with excitement to see the new animal. It took long enough, though, to rope the heavy box off the truck bed, down a ramp they used solely for this purpose, and into a position where its door could be opened to allow the creature out into the spacious pen, that the child had wandered off singing a song about lions before the actual lion became visible.

Trowa stood near the tall bars and watched in interest nearly as great as Relena’s had been. He’d missed having lions around, and only hoped this one hadn’t taken too many ill effects from its time in Alex’s clumsy hands.

“Handsome animal, isn’t it?” said Andrian as he joined his brother-in-law observing the acquisition moving slowly out into its new habitat.

Trowa nodded. The creature’s extensive mane appeared tangled, its shaggy body hair matted, and its entire frame covered in dirt and little bits of debris, but it was well formed and not as scrawny as he’d expected. It stretched thoroughly almost the instant its entire body had come free of its constrictive crate, then began to pace around the enclosure; the movements of its limbs were normal, fluid, strong, showing no signs of deformity or injury. Trowa nodded again.

“Work your magic,” Andrian commanded cheerfully, clapping the younger man on the shoulder.

“We don’t have much meat left,” Trowa reminded him.

“We’ll be sure to buy extra.” Andrian turned back toward the truck, which Cathy, once the lion-extracting equipment had been removed, had turned on again and pointed at the front gate. Trowa kept his eyes on the lion.

As a recent tenant of Alex’s, it must certainly be hungry. Once Trowa had satisfied himself that the animal seemed content for the moment simply to wander through the brush and up and down the rocks in its pen, he set off for the meathouse, after requesting that a nearby couple of trapeze artists see to the water trough.

What meat they’d had left at the end of their travels was still being unloaded, so Trowa stood and watched his options go by as Adele, who ran the circus’s fortune-telling tent, walked back and forth between the meathouse and the stack of crates just outside it. Eventually she wondered in a jovially sarcastic tone, “Can I help you, Trowa?”

“I have a lion to feed,” he informed her.

“Since when?”

“Since half an hour ago. Andrian bought it from Alex.”

“How big?”

“Upward of 400.” He didn’t quite agree with his sister’s assessment of 450; she probably hadn’t seen it walking freely.

“Spirits preserve us,” Adele muttered. “I haven’t taken inventory; I’m just doing this grunt-work.” She indicated the crates with a thumb over her shoulder. “But come down and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

A clear none of the raw stuff they inspected looked in any way palatable, though some of it, still on the bone, advertised the type of meal a lion might otherwise enjoy. Trowa settled for several smaller pieces of preserved meat, which he re-wrapped in waxed paper and dumped into one of the crates that had already been emptied. Then, with a gesture of thanks at the fortune-teller, he turned his steps back toward the lions’ pen.

There, he found John and Mary just about finished scrubbing out the water trough, which they’d removed and brought into the open for this purpose. The lions’ pen had its own pool, consistently refreshed by water running in under one set of bars and out under another, but it was some of the most mineral-heavy water that came down from the hot springs Springcleft practically overflowed with, and the previous lions had never approved the taste. A pipeline in from one of the clearer springs in a different direction kept a silo full of drinking and cooking water for anyone else in the circus complex that shared this opinion.

The troughs in the lions’ pen were accessed from an adjoining keeper’s building that had been increasingly used, while they’d had no lions on the premises, for storage. Even had Trowa anticipated the advent of a lion, there wouldn’t have been time between their late arrival yesterday and this afternoon to clean the place out. So he merely squeezed between the recently shuffled boxes near the door into the opener space beyond, and approached the bars where a chute allowed food to slide down into the other, still-present trough.
The chute was set a little high for convenience, even for the tall Trowa, and he had to drag a sealed box over and stand on it in order to peer its length and make sure it hadn’t become clogged with leaves or anything since its last use. He found it relatively clear, but rather dirty: another item he would have scrubbed beforehand if he’d known.

He hopped down and pushed his erstwhile step-stool to the opposite wall, then quickly rearranged some of the others (which he wasn’t sure why John and Mary hadn’t moved entirely aside in the first place) so it would be easier to bring the water trough back in. This they soon did as Trowa began to unwrap the preserved meats, and once they’d gotten it locked into place through the slot at the bottom of the bars, they headed back to the silo for more water to fill it with. Meanwhile, Trowa fed the meats into the chute and thereby into the equally dirty food trough.

Eventually, with food and water provided for the lion and everything in its place, the trapeze artists returned to their own tasks, and Trowa stood at the bars observing the figure at the other end of the enclosure. At the moment it was rolling around in the dirt and scratching at itself all over, and either hadn’t noticed the new amenities or didn’t yet see fit to approach. Trowa watched for a few minutes, pleased at least that the poor thing had room to roam and roll as much it wanted now. More or less satisfied, he finally walked away.

An elderly couple, former bareback rider and strong man respectively, made up the circus complex’s entire human population while the actual circus toured. They ran off would-be trespassers, took care of the animals that, like themselves, had grown too old to travel and perform anymore, and generally made sure everything remained at an acceptable level of readiness for the day at the end of the year when their fellows returned. But this didn’t by any means lessen the amount of work required in as short a time as possible when that event took place.

There were animals to be settled into their long-term habitats, supplies to stow, inventories to take, repairs to be made, and a lot of cleaning to do. So Trowa, like everyone else, kept very busy for the rest of that day, and never had a chance to check whether the lion had found its meal or stopped rolling in the dirt. But since one of his functions in the circus was animal-handler, and he needed to ‘work his magic,’ as Andrian put it, sooner rather than later, he arranged for a good long time to spend with the lion the next day.

With the meathouse stocked to a better level after a proper shopping trip with no lions involved, Trowa was able to select a much better-looking lunch for the animal than yesterday’s. And as he made his way back to the lions’ pen, he recalled its previous inhabitants: a pair of males that had sometimes bickered amicably but for the most part had gotten along fairly well. Middle-aged when Trowa had joined the circus, they’d still been an active part of the show, so Trowa had worked with them quite a bit at first. But they’d progressed into their elderly years and retired, and eventually died within weeks of each other. At times Trowa still missed them; whether the new beast would grow on him as the old ones had, he couldn’t guess.

Today, instead of wandering an enclosure it must be tolerably familiar with by now, it had settled down on a rock in that royally lazy way lions — especially the males — often had, and was soaking up the sun. It lay not too far from the keeper’s building, so Trowa believed he could get its attention fairly easily.

He hefted the large leg of lamb up into the chute and watched it fall wetly into the trough beyond the bars with a splatting thud. Then he called to the lion, “Feeding time,” and watched as the animal rose slowly, stretched leisurely, and moved casually in this direction.

“Hello,” Trowa said as it approached. “I hope you prefer this pen to whatever Alex had you in.” He spoke softly, as he always did when talking to animals and aiming to soothe; this habit had crept into his mannerisms with humans as well, leading many to make some interesting assumptions about him.

The lion looked at him briefly, then turned its full attention to the meat in the trough.

“My name is Trowa Barton,” he went on. It didn’t at all matter what he said; the point was simply to get the lion used to him and the sound of his voice. “I’m 28 years old. I’ve been with the Springcleft Circus for almost nine years — ever since my sister Cathy married Andrian, the owner. They have one child, a daughter named Relena; she’s six this year.”

As the lion tore at the meat and ate the pieces it separated from the bone in surprisingly delicate movements, Trowa went on.

“I’m a werebeast, but my sister isn’t. As far as I know, Andrian is still in the dark about it. I handle the circus animals, get them used to humans, convince them to obey commands and work together with us. Any werebeast could do that, but Andrian thinks I have a magic touch.

“I’m only a beta, but even a beta werebeast can establish an order with animals. You and I, for example…” His already-quiet tone faded to nothing as the lion looked up and met his eyes for the first time.

This was usually all it took — allowing a creature to adjust to his presence, to him, and then a good solid look in the eyes to establish his dominance — and then it would become his servant, or at least (in the case of those more intelligent or dominant themselves) a pliable, receptive associate. This was the ‘magic’ he worked for the circus and for his own satisfaction: not taming animals, precisely, but convincing them of their position relative to himself and the wisdom of complying with his wishes.

But the lion’s eyes seemed beyond intelligent, beyond assertive, and Trowa knew immediately his usual tactic wouldn’t work. He’d never seen eyes quite like that in an animal before. In fact, his surprise prompted him to ask, “Are you a werebeast too?”

The lion gave no indication of having specifically understood him, but continued its unbroken stare.

Trowa shook his head. “Anyway you’re all alpha, aren’t you? You’re never going to submit to me.”

Returning to its meal, the lion terminated the almost uncanny eye contact.

Trowa continued pensively watching. Finally, after a long interval, he spoke again. “What I want is to make sure you’re healthy and happy. If we can become friends, I’d like to arrange for acts in the circus for you. If that doesn’t work out, I’d at least like you to be comfortable and secure here. But if you won’t submit…” He pondered for a moment as the lion began gnawing the last of the flesh off the bone in the trough. Eventually he suggested, “Maybe you can consider me your beta. I don’t mind, if that’s what it takes.” He stood straight from where he’d been leaning against the bars, and swept the dramatic bow he used during his own circus acts.

Abruptly and without warning, the lion dropped the bone, cleared the trough in a quick spring, crouched in the cramped space between it and the bars, and onto one of the latter placed a huge paw.

Trowa took a step backward, not frightened but definitely startled. More than startled at the sudden and unexpected movement, he was very surprised at the comprehension, completely absent prior to this, the lion seemed to demonstrate. With that raised paw, it appeared to be accepting Trowa’s offer of service. It spoke again to the behavior of a werebeast rather than a natural animal.

“If you transformed,” he remarked drily, “we could shake on it.” But when the lion’s attitude remained the same, he raised his tanned hand to place it on the bar across from the darker brown pads. He looked the lion in the eye, searching for signs of humanity. But no clues of body in any animal suggested it might be a werebeast, only of behavior. Trowa had certainly witnessed a few such hints, but they weren’t quite conclusive.

Finally the lion, with the air of getting bored with this, removed its paw, turned its rear end on Trowa, and started nosing around in the food trough again. And Trowa decided that was enough interaction for now.

The next day, he saved the lion for last on his rounds so as once again to give himself plenty of time with it. Of course he couldn’t be certain the animal would even grace him with its presence at the west end of the enclosure where Trowa could talk to it from the comfort of the keeper’s building; and if it did, that didn’t guarantee it would stay long enough for the time to be of any value. But Trowa needed to understand it better, so he would make the attempt.

When he’d dropped off the lion’s supper yesterday evening, he hadn’t seen it. Now, however, the creature paced in front of the food trough as if unusually hungry. When it caught sight of Trowa, it let out an annoyed growl and went still.

“Sorry,” Trowa told it as he used the waxed paper to tip this late morning’s meal into the chute. “You’re on a long list; sometimes you’ll have to wait for breakfast.”

The lion inspected the food briefly, then stood back and shook itself vigorously all over. Debris flew from its dark brown mane, and Trowa stepped back even on the other side of the trough and the bars to escape some of it. Then the lion did as it had yesterday and bounded over the trough to look at the human more closely. It sat down in the dirt and, once sure of Trowa’s attention, began making grooming motions with its left paw.

Trowa watched the huge appendage run up over the lion’s ear, smoothing at its frazzled mane, and wondered what this was about. When the lion ceased this motion and pushed the paw out toward him in what could almost be taken for a pointing gesture, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The lion stood again and, moving forward, pressed the top of its head against the bars essentially right in Trowa’s face.

Trowa too stepped forward, and peered into the grungy hair in front of him. At the sound he made when his eye caught movement therein, the lion stepped back again. It sat, repeated the grooming gesture, and again put out its paw as if to point at Trowa.

“You have fleas,” said Trowa, “and you want me to take care of them.”

For a third time the lion pointed at him. Now that Trowa believed he understood, the gesture came across very much like an order. If this creature wasn’t a werebeast getting its kicks from harassing a fellow, it must be considerably domesticated to know a human could help with its parasite problem.

“I suspect it’s much easier to bathe in human form,” Trowa murmured, then added in a louder tone, “but I’ll go get what we need. You’re going to have to get very wet, and let me scrub you down. A haircut, too; you’re so matted.”

The lion made a grumbling noise, and turned back to the trough and its breakfast.

As Trowa left the keeper’s building and headed toward the shed where flea powder for all the hairy animals was kept, he reflected on his new relationship with this unusual lion. A good beta followed their alpha’s orders perfectly, and acted in every way as a staunch supporter and second-in-command. Of course he didn’t consider the lion his alpha — that honor was reserved for other werebeasts or, very occasionally, exceptionally assertive natural humans — but the lion had obviously decided to take him up on his offer and consider him its beta. And a command even from an animal alpha to whom Trowa had offered a certain level of submission spoke to his natural inclination to obey. Giving a new hairy acquisition a flea bath (and possibly a good barbering) was something he would have done anyway as soon as he believed the animal wouldn’t try to kill him for the offense, but that didn’t alter the aberrant and interesting nature of this situation.

Relena, evidently having escaped all watchful eyes elsewhere in the complex, came running up to him as he left the shed. “Uncle Trowa!!” she shouted, not even breathless yet in her youthful energy. “Wanna see me do five cartwheels in a row?”

“Yes,” Trowa replied, and watched attentively. He resisted he urge to criticize her form, merely saying, “Well done,” when she’d finished.

“I get dizzy if I do more than five,” she informed him, clapping her little hands together so dust flew off them in clouds.

He nodded gravely.

Next she wondered, “What are you doing?”

Trowa lifted the flea powder. “I’m going to give the lion a bath.”

Relena practically shrieked in her excitement. “Can I help??”

“No.” Trowa smiled. “But you can watch.

“OK.” Relena turned to lead the way. “Look how high I can skip!”

The lion observed Relena with apparent interest as she grasped the bars inside the keeper’s building and stared into the pen. It wasn’t the attitude some predators adopted when a small perceived prey stood before them; it seemed rather to contain curiosity and immediate approval. And here Trowa was, already assigning very human interpretations to the lion’s expressions.

“What’s his name?” Relena wondered.

“He hasn’t told me.” Trowa threw the lion a look.

“Can I name him?”

Trowa repeated the gesture. “Sure.”

“OK.” His niece stood on one leg and pondered, still holding a bar and gazing delightedly at the animal. “I’ll name you… MOOMBAH.”

Trowa’s third look at the lion was pretty smug. The creature, he believed, had twitched at the word. “That’s a great name,” he told Relena. “Now why don’t you go outside and down to the far end of the pen so you can see the area where the water goes in and out?”

“OK!” She tried to skip out of the building, but the crates and things that still cluttered it got in her way and she was forced to walk.

Trowa turned back to the lion. “Well, Moombah, shall we get this done?”

The lion growled softly and rolled his head from side to side, then turned around and stalked away. Trowa set down the supplies he’d brought and reached for his keys. This would be the moment of truth. Would the werebeast take revenge on him for encouraging his niece to dole out a silly name? Would the mere animal become aggressive when Trowa invaded its new space and tried to scrub it? Now to find out.

The door, a section of bars that tracked to the side, fastened with two bolts and a chain, and fortunately the roof of the keeper’s building provided sufficient protection from the elements that no rust had developed during the disuse over the last few lionless years. Trowa undid all three locks, slid the bolts back, and opened the door.

Moombah still plodded toward the pool at the other end, and did not turn at the rattling sound of the ingress. The latter Trowa closed and refastened after hauling everything he’d brought through the opening, then followed the lion to the bathing area. Relena had gotten as close, on the outside of the pen, as she could; now she poked her nose through one of the gaps so the bars pulled her cheeks back into a bizarre stretched expression, and watched with avid interest as Trowa drew even with the lion that had taken a seat near the edge of the water.

“I don’t know when anyone last used this bucket,” he remarked as he removed the items he’d been carrying inside the tin container. Moombah glanced indifferently at it, then started pawing at the running water. He tapped the surface delicately, then shook the water from his paw, then licked tentatively at what remained. He showed no signs of wanting to slaughter Trowa, and revealed this momentous fact with casual indifference. Trowa, letting out a silent breath, bent to rinse the bucket.

The land in Springcleft was composed of tier upon tier of various types of rock, and where the hot, mineral-filled waters from the springs wore away the earth between and around them, weirdly shaped holes with uneven layered edges gaped. So it was here in the circus complex wherever streams came down; so it was higher toward the apex where the large hot pools attracted bathers and vacationers; so it was right up the craggy walls of the valley, which might itself once have been completely underwater.

The pool in the lions’ pen went perhaps six feet deep at most, but had a variety of floors at different levels like a miniature of the entire valley. The channels that fed into and led out of it dug deeper and deeper into the ground each year, and one of these times they were going to have to look to the bar supports. But in any case it was sufficient to rinse buckets and keep lions clean, and surprisingly warm even this far from its source.

Moombah turned to regard the act of mixing up a batch of soapy water in the bucket, and Trowa thought that, with an audience such as he had — a lion that might be a werebeast and a small human girl on the other side of the bars — this made for the most eccentric (and possibly the most boring) show in the history of the circus. When he began scrubbing the lion, though, he trusted it became much more interesting. The creature growled and whined and stretched and wiggled under the brush, and Relena giggled incessantly. And when Trowa gave the command, “Rinse!” and the lion obeyed without too much grumbling, leaping down into the pool so water splashed far out past its mineral-crusted edges and onto Trowa, Relena was beside herself with laughter.

With the process finished — flea scrub, several rinses, shearing, and what brushing was feasible — Moombah shook himself thoroughly from head to tail, rendering Trowa wetter than ever, and took off at a run around the pen. Trowa began packing up his equipment, trying to avoid the worst of the mud that had formed over the last half hour, while Relena made gleeful, impressed sounds about how fast Moombah could run. Eventually the lion came her direction, stopped abruptly at a bit of a skid, and shook his unevenly cut mane violently so water droplets sprayed across the little girl and the bars she clung to. Once more she shrieked with laughter as he then tore away again. Obviously Relena had made a new friend.

This observation was borne out over the next several weeks, and Trowa grudgingly added to it the assessment that he had made a new friend as well. Though occasionally imperious, the lion proved consistently companionable and sometimes outright friendly. As the circus settled and began to relax, and the immediate pressing tasks of winter’s beginning were finished, Trowa had more free time in the afternoons, which he usually spent working on his acrobatics… and somehow (it was a mystery) he came to do this habitually in the lion’s pen.

Moombah watched him with apparent interest. Cats of any size were, of course, natural acrobats and contortionists, but this one never tried to imitate Trowa’s moves. One day, however, it did start a completely unexpected wrestling match. Of course it won handily, pinning Trowa to the ground with paws whose claws only barely prickled outward to keep him down, and this seemed the last proof Trowa needed that they truly were friends rather than predator and prey as they might have been.

Another mystery gradually made itself known: how Relena had come to interact as closely with the lion as Trowa did. Trowa’s growing habit, confident in Moombah’s friendliness now, of leaving the bar door inside the keeper’s building open probably had something to do with it; Relena must have wandered in at some point when he wasn’t looking. This worried Trowa as far as his vigilance concerning his niece went, but its results were nothing but pleasant. Moombah allowed Relena to do literally anything to him — play tag, climb all over him, brush his mane, and some kind of private game Trowa didn’t understand that involved pushing each other and only sometimes falling down.

The lion demonstrated gentleness, care, and infinite patience with her. Once, when Moombah deemed she’d gotten too close to the pool at the east end of the pen, he even picked her up by the overalls as he might a rebellious cub, covering her with lion slobber and carrying her, helpless with laughter, away from what he obviously considered a dangerous area. Trowa was impressed. He also believed more than ever that this must be a werebeast, but nothing he could say or do convinced the animal to reveal his human form or even confirm the theory with an unguarded look or movement. So Trowa let that matter sleep for now.

Winter in Springcleft never became more than cool, and usually remained comfortably warm (as opposed to the long span between mid-spring and mid-autumn when the atmosphere resembled the interior of a stew pot), so Trowa tended to spend more time outside than in. They had their own discrete weather patterns, too, and in winter rain only occasionally drove him under cover. At such times he would read two-bit novels, chat with his sister, or help Relena cut out an eclectic set of pictures from magazines to paste onto colored paper for some enigmatic purpose.

It looked as if it would turn into one such day, as the valley’s narrow window on the sky clouded over from northwest to southeast and a faint sprinkling of warm, scented rain already misted his hair and shoulders whenever he stepped out of the lion keeper’s building. He’d finally gotten around to tackling the plethora of nonsense that had collected in there since the previous lions had died. Some of it, relevant to lion husbandry, only needed to be rearranged logically within the small building, but most of it belonged elsewhere in the circus complex. So Trowa grew increasingly damp as he went back and forth during the course of his work. Nearby, Relena played with Moombah in the pen beyond the open bar door into the keeper’s building, undoubtedly becoming much wetter.

“Almost time to go inside, Relena,” Trowa called to her as he explored the detritus at the bottom of another crate. A resistant cry from the human child and a discontented growl from the lion answered him.

Relena got a reprieve, as Trowa became distracted by the roll of old circus posters he found amidst the other junk. He couldn’t help looking through them one by one, remembering those from the years he’d been here and assessing those he wasn’t as familiar with from before his time. It intrigued him to see the change in styles from when the previous artist had retired and handed the job over to newer blood. And some of these featured Relena’s grandmother Vasilisa, Andrian’s mother the previous owner and manager, whom Trowa barely recognized except for the golden-brown hair she’d passed on to her granddaughter.

As he moved to shuffle to the next poster near the end of the roll, he was startled by the flinging open of the wooden door into the building and the rush of a figure, darting past him through the open bar door into the pen, whom he couldn’t quite identify in the speed of their passage. He leapt to his feet, dropping the posters — they fell onto the side of the crate, some tipping into it but some scattering across the floor — and followed.

Trowa arrived just in time to see a man in a denim jacket fling himself between Relena and the lion, yanking the child back and shoving her behind him so she fell into a seated position on the grass with a yelp. Now Trowa recognized him, as well as the assumption he’d logically made upon entering the circus complex and seeing, almost first thing, a lion and a six-year-old together apparently unsupervised in this pen.

“Heero, wait,” Trowa called, hastening forward.

Heero faced the lion in an openly combative pose, though what he thought he could do with human limbs Trowa had no idea. Still, he appeared ready to attack at any moment, or try to hinder the lion if it did. Actually, he seemed ready to transform, if Trowa was any judge; the hands he’d lifted seemed to be drifting toward what garments would be destroyed or hamper his movement if he did, ready to pull them off and reveal his werebeast form to the world in order to protect Relena.

Imitating his friend, Trowa placed himself between human and lion, blocking the latter’s bemused tilt of head from the former’s view and raising his own hands. “Stop,” he commanded. “Don’t.”

Heero’s eyes widened, and a body-wide start gave way to a gradual, reluctant relaxation into a normal standing position, no longer threatening to shed his clothing onto the wet grass in order to change shape. He opened his mouth to speak, but Relena beat him to that punch. Throwing her arms around his legs, she cried, “Uncle Heero! You came back!”

The lion took one step delicately to the side, then one forward, so it could see Heero around Trowa and his outspread arms. Trowa let one of these fall so his hand rested in Moombah’s mane, a gesture of restraint and reassurance for both parties. Heero did not take his eyes off the creature as he tried to unclasp Relena’s hands from his legs, but he did acknowledge her greeting with a gruff affirmative sound.

“This is Moombah,” Trowa said, running his hand through the lion’s dark brown hair.

Heero’s brows went up.

“Relena named him.”

“He’s my friend!” Relena had gotten around in front of Heero and was now jumping up and down. “He’s my uncle, just like you and Trowa! Uncle Moombah!” Almost absently, perhaps in an attempt at calming her, Heero reached down and picked the little girl up, still keeping his eyes on the lion. Relena took advantage of the position to hug him around the neck and plant a big wet kiss on his cheek. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I didn’t see you for so long!”

“That’s a good question,” Trowa murmured.

Heero spoke at last. “I’ll tell you. Let’s get out of this lion pen.”

Trowa nodded, then was forced to stifle a chuckle as Heero literally backed away from the lion, holding Relena and staring at Moombah steadfastly with every step. Trowa had to hasten to guide him around the food trough and through the still-open bar door into the building. There, Heero set Relena down in a slow, careful movement, as if expecting the lion to bound forward and gobble her up once she stood on the floor.

Turning, Trowa observed that Moombah had followed them and taken a seat next to the trough. Interestingly, he stared at Heero as ceaselessly as the human stared at him, though his reasons were far less fathomable.

Relena started bouncing around Heero, but, as usual, the clutter in the keeper’s building got in her way. And halfway through her already broken circle, she noticed the circus posters scattered around a nearby crate, and abruptly dropped to her knees to examine them.

“You always leave this gate open?” Heero asked suspiciously, examining the setup briefly before looking at the lion again.

“When I’m here.” Trowa sat down on the floor and pointed to a place opposite to suggest Heero take it. “Moombah doesn’t cause any problems.”

The other werebeast reluctantly sat. “It’s tame?”

“I… wouldn’t say that. But he’s friendly.”

Heero nodded slowly, and said nothing more.

As usual, it would be up to Trowa to start the conversation. Accustomed to this, he found it no great difficulty, but it was all part of a problem he’d observed for as long as he’d known Heero. “We’re almost six weeks into winter. I didn’t expect to see you at all, especially after you didn’t show up last year.”

Relena wandered over with what must be her favorite poster, and installed herself unceremoniously in Heero’s lap to look at it. It occasionally blocked his vision, at which point he would push it aside in order to keep his eyes locked on Moombah. Trowa again had to restrain that chuckle.

“I went downriver to the coast. I spent the season in the swamps.”

Knowing that by ‘season’ Heero meant ‘mating season’ rather than ‘winter,’ Trowa considered this. He had no chance to ask his next question, though, because Relena cried, “You were in a swamp??”

“That’s right,” Heero replied, taking her by the shoulders and tilting her sideways so the poster moved with her.

Relena squirmed and giggled, and through her glee demanded to know, “Were there alligators??”

Now Heero met Trowa’s eyes briefly, and they both smiled. “Yes,” Heero replied.

“How many alligators? I can count to one hundred, so if there were one hundred alligators, I can count them for you!”

“Thank you,” said Heero gravely. “I didn’t count them.” His eyes flicked to Trowa’s once more as he added, “They were a dirty temptation.”

This was werebeast slang, and Trowa understood now how the beginning of Heero’s previous year had gone: he’d tried to spend his inconveniently intense mating season as an alligator, in an area suited to that shape, in order to circumvent the irresistible attraction he felt to humans in his other form… but the natural alligators in the swamps had been distractingly sexually alluring to him in alligator form. It must have been a maddening, miserable winter.

“How many is that?” Relena was asking, getting her poster in Heero’s face again.

“Relena,” Trowa said suddenly, “Uncle Heero doesn’t believe Moombah is a nice lion. Why don’t you go play with Moombah so Heero can see how nice he is?”

Relena jumped up, nearly bashing her head into Heero’s face, and stumbled out of his lap. “I will!”

“Don’t take the poster into the rain,” Trowa added hastily. For the storm had broken, transforming the drizzle into steady, heavy drops. Relena would be soaked; the adults had better finish their private conversation quickly so they could get her inside for a hot bath.

“Is it really safe?” Heero wondered, setting aside the poster the child had handed him before running out into the wet.

Trowa nodded. He noted that Moombah had come even closer, possibly to avoid the worst of the downpour, so Relena had no great distance to go to start climbing all over him. There was a relatively waterproof sort of den near the north wall of the pen, but evidently Moombah preferred to be here right now, despite how long it would take his fur to dry later.

Trowa turned back to Heero and said, “I’m sorry your swamp experiment failed.”

Heero shook his head, looking grim and somewhat haunted. “I thought this year I’d try something else. But I couldn’t. Nothing seems to work.”

“Heero, you’re welcome here. I’m here all season for you.”

“I know. I’m grateful. But it’s not fair to you.”

“It may not be,” Trowa allowed. “But I don’t mind it. If I ever do, I’ll tell you.”

Heero only frowned. He’d removed his eyes from the lion again to look at Trowa, and now it seemed they were stuck traversing his friend’s seated form. A hunger glowed in those eyes that Trowa had seen many times before, but which now looked famished, desperate; and the tension in his frame conveyed very clearly what it would take to satisfy him. An answering shiver ran through Trowa’s body, as it always did on seeing Heero for the first time after a long absence.

Trowa lowered his tone. “I need to get Relena inside to Cathy, but I can meet you in my room after that.”

Heero drew in a ragged breath. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“You’d better hold your jacket in front of you,” Trowa advised with a glance at Heero’s lap, “and be glad that didn’t happen three minutes ago.”

With a grimace, Heero removed his outer garment, stood, and stepped toward the door. Trowa rose as well, and began to replace all the circus posters in the crate they’d come from so they wouldn’t blow into the rain or otherwise get destroyed. Then he went to the bar door and called Relena, who seemed, in this rain, far more likely to come willingly. He noticed the lion’s eyes followed Heero until he was out of sight.

Trowa missed dinner that night, but since Relena had undoubtedly spread the news of Uncle Heero’s return, and the adults of the circus understood Uncle Heero’s relationship with Uncle Trowa a little better than the child did, he doubted anyone worried about him. They might have worried about muscle strain and cramp resultant upon not having moved in certain ways for quite some time, regular acrobatics entirely notwithstanding — but only if they were thinking far more about his sex life than he would prefer.

Breathless and covered in sweat after the fifth or sixth time, Trowa attempted to rearrange the bedding into some semblance of order. He found himself a little too worn out, at the moment, to do more than tug on the thin patchwork quilt that had fallen half off the bed, and inadvertently induced its complete abandonment of that piece of furniture. The sheet beneath was hopelessly twisted and wrenched from where it had been tucked at the bottom, and this Trowa couldn’t muster the energy to detangle and drape over them properly. So he let his head fall back onto the pillow, near Heero’s, and tried not to care.

They were two very quiet men that rarely disturbed the inhabitants of the rooms to either side. In fact, they might well be considered extremely similar in personality by casual acquaintances. But, Trowa reflected as he listened to Heero’s breaths controlled and silenced much quicker than his own, where his quiet was that of calm, of confidence, of peace and satisfaction with his life, Heero’s quiet was that of repression. A passion and intensity lurked beneath Heero’s surface like the alligator he sometimes was, and a muted frustration at his own denial of it drove him to wander, to seek, rather than settling into a comfortable life somewhere (such as here at the circus).

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement. He’d always done whatever he could for Heero… but he knew by now that such behavior wasn’t what Heero needed. Trowa’s willing submission and second-in-command attitude could not draw out Heero’s intensity the way Trowa (and undoubtedly Heero himself) would like to see it brought to the surface.

Some betas (they’d started calling themselves ‘beta pluses,’ which Trowa considered phenomenally stupid) were constantly challenging their alphas, pushing them, testing boundaries, essentially seeking to topple the dominance order and become alphas themselves. This would never be Trowa’s way, and in fact annoyed him to think about… but perhaps it would better fit Heero’s true needs.

The latter obviously remained unsatisfied. A proud and selective alpha, Heero demonstrated fastidious unwillingness to take to the cities, with their bigger selection, in search of a mate, clinging instead to something he knew met his body’s demands, even while feeling guilty about it. His romance with Trowa had ended amicably some years ago, but Heero always came back here for his mating season. And Trowa would always be there for him, always love him as a friend, always submit to him sexually as Heero so desperately needed him to… but he feared Heero’s lifestyle would never lead either of them to emotional fulfillment.

Physical fulfillment, on the other hand…

Trowa slept little that night, but on subsequent nights (when they hadn’t started so early and therefore went on later) he slept even less. At this time of year, Heero was insatiable; he wore the other werebeast out before every dawn. And Trowa enjoyed the sex, naturally. He too felt lonely in general and longed for a mate, most especially during his own season in spring, but, not nearly as driven as Heero, he generally managed to get by.

“We always know when Heero’s here,” Cathy told him one day, “because you get circus tents under your eyes.” And, though she was clearly teasing, the gentle sympathy showing simultaneously in her face probably pointed toward both her brother and Heero. Despite the transformative gene’s recessiveness in her, she’d grown up in a family of werebeasts, and well understood the devastating toll an intense mating season could take on one without a mate — and those around them. But she didn’t — maybe couldn’t — say this in front of her husband.

He, a very supportive brother-in-law and with genuine good feelings and wishes toward Trowa, believed Heero and Trowa had an on-again-off-again romance, and at this point in the conversation said with comradely sympathy, “Hopefully he’ll stick around this time.”

Relena obviously had the same wish, for reasons of her own, and after not too long Heero appeared to return her affection. The last time he’d been here, his niece had only been four years old, and had mostly stayed with her parents and babysitter. Now, at six, she’d become interactive, and had the freedom to spend time with her uncles, blood and nominal and lion — and Heero didn’t seem at all to mind. Trowa speculated that, being a child and therefore not sexually attractive, Relena made a much better companion for the easily aroused alpha than did any older human, including himself. So they were frequently together, the four of them.

The uneven, grassy ground of Moombah’s pen could not be considered ideal for floor acrobatics. Because of this, Trowa found practicing there helped him adjust quickly to different terrain, a useful skill for someone that never knew how perfectly flat a surface the circus might or might not find for each show on tour. And in all or nearly all of his flips and balancing moves and cartwheels and rolls, Relena imitated him.

“I want to do the trapeze,” she complained one day after failing to pull off even a single flip in imitation of Trowa’s triple. She sat on the grass pouting, having previously brought under control the wailing and tears occasioned by her fall.

“When you’re bigger and older,” Trowa promised, “John and Mary will teach you.”

“But I wanna do it now!”

“He’s right,” said the nearby Heero, who’d been seated in the grass taking care not to watch Trowa’s body and its flexible talents, and who now rose to a crouch. “But come here.”

Relena ran to him, and jumped into his arms. Heero promptly stood straight and threw her into the air. She flailed and let out the expected shriek of mirth, then fell back to his waiting hands. “Again! Again!” she demanded. And Heero complied.

Trowa, standing still for the moment to watch, observed that Relena wasn’t the only thing rising and falling; Moombah’s great maned head swiveled up and down, up and down, following her closely with his big liquid eyes. And whether the lion felt more interest in Relena’s safety or Heero’s physical prowess, Trowa couldn’t guess.

Eventually, breathing hard, Heero caught Relena and did not immediately throw her again, though she kept telling him to. “Too tired,” he said, and unexpectedly swung the girl onto the lion’s back. Her eyes went wide, and she immediately clutched at the brown mane for balance. Moombah too seemed startled for a moment, but almost instantly regained his composure and waited, stock-still, for Relena to get her bearings. Then, as she sat up straight and looked around, clamping her little legs down as best she could onto the deep chest, he began slowly pacing forward.

A huge grin spread across Relena’s face as she discovered she could direct her mount by pulling on his mane in one direction or another, and soon they were wandering all around the enclosure at varying speeds. Heero stood and watched them, and Trowa stood on one hand and watched them, and the atmosphere was nothing but cheerful.

Relena had needed only prompting to become a devotee of lionback riding. Over the next few days, whenever they were in Moombah’s pen, she kept coming up with what she considered new ‘moves’ — different ways of mounting and dismounting, commands for actions on the lion’s part that she kept forgetting, and ringleader-style introductions to her fictional lionback riding act. Heero would throw her in the air until too tired to continue, and then she would demand all eyes upon her while she performed the latest in a string of ideas she’d come up with during the rest of her day.

This was typical Relena behavior, but more in Trowa’s vicinity than usual, and he relied on Heero’s constant concentration to give him any time to practice his own routines. Moombah seemed aware of this small dilemma, and occasionally diverted Relena’s attention away from Trowa’s lack thereof, in ways the werebeast couldn’t in any way believe unpremeditated. He never had persuaded the lion to reveal its human form, though, and had mostly given up trying.

Heero, Trowa believed, exercised this endless patience and show of interest for Relena’s young antics not solely out of desire to do what he could to help Trowa, out of gratitude and some shame for what Trowa did for him; he also truly seemed to care about her, to enjoy interacting with her, and to take real consideration with her for her plans. It touched Trowa’s heart, and made him wonder whether this was an alpha thing, or an aspect of Heero’s personality he’d never had a chance to exhibit before in Trowa’s presence, or maybe a little of both.

A camaraderie of another nature developed between Heero and Moombah. It differed from Trowa’s relationship with the lion too; this much was observable from the merest moment they all spent together. But Trowa didn’t realize just how different it was until the time he saw Heero and the lion wrestling, as Trowa did sometimes with Moombah, and felt the closest thing to a shock he’d had in quite some time.

Moombah snarled and lashed his tail and wrinkled his lips so his enormous teeth showed ruthless and shining, while Heero grappled him with biceps bulging and gritted teeth and an intensity looming in his blue eyes that Trowa had rarely seen there. Claws in, the lion gave Heero a tough bat with his paw and sent him sprawling, into a position from which Heero rolled into a crouching skid and launched himself right back at the animal. There was a seriousness to the sound, the look, the feel of the match that had never been present between Trowa and Moombah.

He shook his head slightly. That one had to be an alpha thing.

Not infrequently during any given day, Heero would become inconveniently aroused by some adult human in his vicinity, and retreat with a grumbling demeanor to Trowa’s room until presentable again. But even on the nights following days when this hadn’t happened, Heero remained insatiable. In earlier life, Trowa wouldn’t have guessed a diminished refractory period might come with the drive of a werebeast alpha, but had definitely seen it demonstrated many times over the years.

In one instance, when they’d fallen out of bed and continued on the floor, and eventually lay half on the hard slats and half on the rug, the sore and panting Trowa happened to glance in the direction of the room’s exit, and sat up abruptly. The pale glow of the minute cracks around the door prompted a broken query, “What time… how long…?”

Though Heero’s expression was invisible in the darkness, just his single syllable, “Oh…” sounded embarrassed.

Rising and stumbling to his bureau, Trowa felt out the lamp and reached for the switch. As the gas hissed and the striker clicked, the room lit up enough to see the clock on the wall, by which he observed it was nearly seven in the morning. He tried very hard not to let his subsequent glance at the naked Heero come across as accusatory.

“Oh,” Heero said again. “I’m sorry.”

Trowa shook his head, stifling a sigh. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No,” insisted Heero, rising and looking sheepish. “This is my fault.”

Unable to deny it, Trowa said nothing, just turned back toward the bureau and opened the top drawer seeking a clean shirt.

“Don’t.” Heero began replacing and straightening the disarrayed bedding. “Get some sleep. I’ll start the chores.”

Trowa smiled faintly at the offer, and nodded at his companion. “I’ll join you later.”

Heero nodded as well, and then, once he’d pulled down the blanket and sheet for Trowa to climb back into bed under, searched for his own clothing and shoes. After not too long, fully dressed, he put out the lamp and left the room.

Trowa squirmed into the bed, half luxuriating in lingering sensations and half resolving soreness and exhaustion. Despite thinking drowsily that it smelled like sex in here just a little more than usual, it wasn’t long before he dozed. And then it wasn’t long before the door cracked open again with a creak of hinges and an in-flooding of dim morning light that startled him awake.

“Trowa,” Heero said quietly, sounding bemused, “why is your alpha following me around?”

Re-closing his eyes against the light, Trowa grumbled out a barely intelligible answer: “Don’t have an alpha. ‘M a lone beta.”

“Why is your lion following me around?”

Trowa lifted himself up onto an elbow and peered at the backlit, messy-haired head peeking through the door at him. “What.”

“Your lion. Moombah. Is following me around.”

Trowa made a noise of indifferent confusion. “Maybe he wants to help you with the chores.” He reclaimed his recumbency and pulled the blanket over his head.

Heero said nothing further, and a moment later the latching and locking of the door sounded. Soon Trowa did more than doze; he’d fallen deeply asleep, and stayed there for several hours.

Though he woke groggy and sorer than usual thanks to the strenuous night and the unusually timed, truncated sleep, curiosity gave him a sharper edge than he’d expected, and eventually he rose, dressed, and issued forth to find out how much work Heero had accomplished and to what extent Moombah might have assisted in that endeavor.

Everything he took note of on his way from the rooms appeared finished, which relieved him since he hadn’t looked forward to completing a miscellany of tasks in this fuzzy state He saw no signs of Heero or Moombah all the way to the latter’s pen, but there he stopped short. Approaching the bars slowly, he felt an unexpected warmth growing inside him.

Stretched out lazily in the winter sun, the lion looked precisely like every other lion Trowa had seen lounging around that habitat in the past — except usually they didn’t have a human man propped up against them, head on mane and arm along golden back, deeply asleep. Those two had bonded indeed, whether it was an alpha thing or not. Trowa would never tell Heero how charming a scene this made, though.

How rarely the bar door into the lions’ pen was ever closed, Trowa doubted anyone besides himself, Heero, and Relena knew. The door into the keeper’s building often stood open as well, so Moombah essentially had free run of the complex and beyond. Because he emerged primarily to follow Heero and Trowa around (not when they were caring for other animals, of course, as the presence of a lion invariably spooked or aggravated those), the rest of the circus simply assumed Moombah to be under their control.

One evening, though, as Trowa and Heero sat with Cathy helping to sharpen a truly startling set of throwing weapons that she’d arranged by size in heaps on a thick tarp spread across the dirt, while Relena hopped and cartwheeled and sprinted in large circles around this business she was strictly forbidden to get any closer to, Cathy remarked, “The way that lion stares at us is unnerving.”

Her brother glanced over to where, some yards away closer to the front gate, Moombah sat, straight and lordly, gazing across at them from behind the bars of his pen. Trowa believed him to be staring at Heero as he often did when not outright following him around, but Trowa refrained from informing Cathy of this.

“Maybe he wants to help,” Heero murmured in between grinds at the spinning stone.

Cathy chuckled. “And have his claws sharpened while we’re at it?”

“He might,” Trowa realized aloud as he noticed the lion’s gaze moving subtly, “be watching Relena.”

Cathy’s expression and bearing became uneasy. She turned entirely toward Moombah and watched him intently, her brows lowering farther every time Relena crossed her field of vision.

“Because he’s worried about her,” Trowa clarified. “He’s afraid she’ll get too close to the edged weapons.”

The look Cathy gave him now blended skepticism with a hint of suspicion. “He knows about edged weapons?”

Trowa reminded her, “I’ve mentioned he must have lived with humans in the past.” In one form or another.

“Yes, but…” She pursed her lips as she fixed worried eyes on her daughter.

“He’s very protective of her.”

Whatever answer Cathy might have given was overridden when Relena, noticing her mother’s fixed attention, shouted, “Mommy, watch me!!” and started cartwheeling again. It was nothing any of them hadn’t seen a dozen times before, but they applauded when she finished, staggering and panting, and started to draw closer at a walk.

“Keep clear of the weapons,” Cathy said.

Relena stopped and sat down at a safe distance. “OK.”

All three adults smiled — for each’s personal definition of the term — as they turned back inward to their work and Relena began to draw in the dirt and sing a song about numbers as she did so. The next time Trowa looked over at Moombah, he found the lion’s gaze fixed… but the animal stood too far away to guess precisely whom it stared at.

Though the surrounding walls loomed about twice as high, the front gate onto the property rose only about five feet — tall enough for basic security, but making no pretensions to an ability to stop, for example, stampeding elephants. It remained fastened by chain and padlock unless someone had left and would return the same day; and on this particular one, the two high divers — a vapid married couple of ladies whose only real talents were looking extremely good in swimwear and no fear of heights — had gone to the lower valley to shop. Though perhaps unlucky for the Springcleft Circus folk, this was a lucky thing for the figure fumbling drunkenly at the gate’s fastening, which never would have given way to his clumsy hands had the chain been in place.

They only noticed their visitor by noticing first that Moombah had moved down to the far end of his pen nearest the complex’s entrance and now stood in a pugnacious pose, fur bristling, watching the man struggle to and eventually, painstakingly enter. Then, attention drawn that direction, they all looked at the big blonde figure stalking toward them with alcohol-fueled determination.

Cathy, as a co-owner and manager of the circus, rose first. She didn’t bother putting down the hand ax she held as she left the tarp and the seats, and her face radiated disapproval. “Relena, please go into the house,” she called over her shoulder before heading toward the newcomer. Then in a louder tone she asked, “What do you want, Alex?”

Alex’s line toward them hadn’t exactly been straight, but the angle changed when Cathy spoke. “I’ll te’you what’s I want!” he shouted in reply. “I tell you, I’ll tell ya!”

Trowa sighed, and looked around at where Relena had, instead of obeying her mother, merely moved back a pace. “Relena, go into the house,” he reminded her quietly. Very reluctantly, the child obeyed, looking over her shoulder every couple of steps and then standing in the open door to the residence hanging from the knob without going any further. At least there she was too distant to hear the language Alex would undoubtedly soon start using.

“Thas my lion, dyhearme? My lion!” Alex gestured furiously at Moombah, who, behind the bars of his pen, had kept even with Alex and maintained his angry stance. “You circus freaks thing you’re better’n me with your big cages an’ shiny tens an’ lectric lights an’ shit, up in this rich fuckin’ valley you don’ even ‘serve t’own landin… Well, thas my lion, yhearme?”

Cathy remained cool and completely uncowed as Alex stumbled up to her and shouted the last declaration directly in her face. “How did you get here in this state?” she wondered, the question more rhetorical than anything. “And how many trees did you hit on the way up?”

As Alex’s ranting became a little more personal, all about how the circus folk lorded it over him but in reality they were just weirdos that couldn’t get real jobs, interspersed with continual insistences that Moombah belonged rightfully to him, Trowa and Heero came to stand on either side of Cathy for solidarity, and hopefully to diminish the amount of spittle she had to deal with on her face by sharing the load.

“You’re very drunk, Alex,” Trowa informed him quietly when he paused to draw breath. “You need to go home.”

“Nah withou’ my lion!”

Trowa followed Alex’s flailing gesture over to Moombah. The lion, observing Trowa’s eyes on him, bared his teeth and made an imperious clawing movement with one paw; and Trowa didn’t doubt — not least because he instinctively twitched to obey — Moombah was ordering him to physically attack Alex. The lion must have been mistreated during his time in one of the unkempt cages in Alex’s filthy warehouse, and now wanted Trowa to take revenge for him. Trowa, however, resisted the loyal beta’s urge to do so, because Heero had stepped forward to deal with Alex in his own way.

Though broad-shouldered and tall — standing at least a head above Heero and even a couple of inches taller than Trowa — and bulked out by muscle and fat, Alex seemed abruptly hypnotized by the close gaze he suddenly had locked with the shorter, more wiry man in front of him. Heero had placed a fist on Alex’s chest, and begun moving forward slowly, forcing Alex to give way. A drunk human ranked little higher than an animal, after all, so no surprise a werebeast alpha, even in this less intimidating form, could impose his will on him.

“You sold that lion to the circus,” Heero said. He spoke even more quietly than Trowa, but his voice held authority and a buried fierceness.

Alex continued moving slowly backward away from Heero’s advance, but protested, “Mueller sol’ the lion! He ‘ad no right!”

“Mueller works for you,” Heero reminded him. “He acts with your authorization.”

“He di’n’ get enouffer the lion! Thas a good lion! You assholes owe me!”

Trowa, moving slowly forward behind Heero, shifted in annoyance. Alex paid this type of call infrequently (and had never done it in Heero’s presence before), but was consistently irritating when he did; and honestly Trowa would like to follow Moombah’s command and give him a good sock to the jaw… but Heero outranked the lion in terms of influence over Trowa, and must be allowed to continue as he wished. Trowa remained poised nonetheless for whatever he would be called upon to do.

Heero’s final word on the matter came with the force of crushing jaws: “You need to leave this property. If the circus wants to deal with you and your illegal animal imports, they’ll come to you. Leave, and never come here again.” He had alpha’d Alex all the way back to near the main gate, and as Alex stumbled over the gate rut and only barely caught himself, he looked around and realized how far he’d come. Trowa could see his crookedly parked truck out beyond, its front bumper buried in a bush. And Alex himself appeared for a moment as if he might actually leave of his own free will, though whether or not he could navigate a motor vehicle down to the larger valley in his current state remained a mystery.

But then he turned again, seeming to rally, glaring at Cathy and Trowa and pointedly avoiding Heero’s gaze. “You thing you’re th’only circus aroun’?” he demanded spitefully. “I’m a circus too, an’ you can’ keep my animals from me! Thas my lion, an’–” But he broke off with a squeal, bloodshot eyes widening in sudden terror, and fell onto his rear end as he attempted to scramble back. For Moombah had obviously tired of the tirade exactly as Trowa had, and emerged through the ever-open bar door of his pen and the keeper’s building to come bounding toward them.

The lion pounced on the screaming Alex, pinning him to the dirt, and roared again, deafeningly, right in the face of the drunk that hadn’t expected any such result of his visit to Springcleft Circus this evening. In the distance, other animals stirred up by the sound added their opinions, particularly the elephants and the monkeys, and the entire north side of the complex shook with cacophony for almost a full minute. Alex, losing the energy or perhaps the strength of lung even to scream, writhed, wet himself, and made incoherent whimpering noises with a pleading timbre to them. The others, at least for a moment or two, merely stood back and watched.

Trowa felt he knew Moombah pretty well by now. He knew how friendly the lion was toward himself and any other human he’d observed approach it thus far; he knew how protective it was of Relena. He speculated, based on Moombah’s apparent order to him, the lion didn’t actually want Alex badly injured or killed. But he wondered whether a line had been crossed, whether the creature would now act like a vengeful lion instead of a sensible werebeast and actually maul Alex here and now. If Moombah chose to do so, they wouldn’t be able to stop him — and attempting to might be dangerous.

But evidently Heero disagreed. At any rate, he appeared mildly annoyed — perhaps that his successful nonviolent maneuvering of Alex had been overridden by the lion’s more vigorous plan — and moved around to look Moombah in the eye. “If you kill him,” he said, in his own tone of command, “the circus will face legal trouble. Back off. Let him go.”

The lion did not obey, only stared defiantly at Heero. Trowa took a few steps to the side so as to see their locked gaze more clearly, then had to resist the urge to shy away from the crackling of alpha energy practically visible in the air between them. And as this contest of wills dragged out, Alex managed somehow to gather his nerve and wriggle from between the lion’s paws. He scrambled away, first on all fours, then, finally gaining his two legs, toward his truck.

It was Moombah’s turn to appear annoyed, and he broke eye contact with Heero at last in order to step to the side and roar at Alex again. Again the elephants trumpeted and the monkeys shrieked, and Trowa believed he heard the zebras making their strange noise as well. Alex ran faster in response, slammed into his driver’s side door, and hauled himself up through its window with a dexterity Trowa wouldn’t have expected from him at this juncture. As he struggled to start the car, Heero grunted and turned away.

“I’ll be in your room,” he said to Trowa, and stalked back into the complex.

Moombah spun with much the same frustrated gesture and stalked back toward the lion keeper’s building. A minute later, having returned that direction themselves, Cathy and Trowa saw him pacing as if still irritated behind the bars of his pen.

Sister and brother looked at each other, and each shrugged faintly. Then they went back to sharpening Cathy’s throwing weapons, their task force diminished by one. Eventually Cathy remarked, “That was a dominance struggle, or I don’t know anything about pack dynamics.”

Trowa nodded. “It wasn’t exactly settled, either.”

Cathy agreed.

Just at that moment, Relena came running out to resume her safe distance from the tarp and the sharpening endeavor, and demanded to know what had happened. So Cathy began to tell her, which had the benefit of allowing Trowa to relive it all and decide what he really thought about it.

The little girl’s impression, as she told them a few days later in Moombah’s pen while Trowa practiced, was glee at the bad man having been scared off by the lion… but some bafflement as well. The idea of fearing Moombah seemed patently silly to her; Moombah was her best friend in the whole world.

Said Moombah rewarded her with an affectionate nuzzle for this statement.

“I want to do an act for the circus to show everyone I’m not scared of Moombah!” Relena went on. “Because a lot of circus acts are things people are scared of, so if people are scared of Moombah, won’t they like to see me not scared of him?”

Trowa landed in a standing position instead of on his hands as he’d planned, and glanced at Heero. They both wore the same thoughtful expression, though his friend’s showed more subtly in brow and corners of the mouth. He looked back at Relena and the lion. “I think that’s an excellent idea for a circus act,” he said.

“Really?!” Relena worried Moombah’s mane, then jumped up and hopped over to Trowa. “I’m going to decide what it’ll be!”

“Are you up for this?” Heero asked the lion.

Moombah just yawned.

“Let’s all decide what it will be,” Trowa corrected Relena. “Then you and Moombah can practice it together.”

Relena’s grin threatened to split her face.

In his own opinion, Trowa had never been the most artistic deviser of circus acts. He made sure to remain expert at a variety of acrobatic moves, but usually allowed one of the other acrobats to put them together into a routine that would dazzle an audience. Thus, coming up with a juvenile lion-tamer’s act that demonstrated how firmly under Relena’s little thumb Moombah was taxed his resources, and Heero had little useful input. They undertook the task, however, with great energy and seriousness not only because they believed this would be a legitimately valuable circus act that audiences would eat up (and therefore they needed at least a prototype of how it would go to present to Andrian), but because if Relena had an honest-to-goodness act to practice that she felt only she could do, it might take the edge off her longing to join the circus in more hazardous ways such as the trapeze, the tightrope, and the high dive. Beyond that, Trowa couldn’t help feeling proud of his niece for her dedication to the family business, and rather suspected Heero felt the same. Everyone seemed likely to come out a winner from this situation.

Once they convinced Relena to stop describing the sequined outfit she wanted, they were able to come up with a sequence of tricks she and the lion could perform together that didn’t seem too badly constructed. Relena’s favorite suggestion, which made her dissolve in giggles more than once, was the idea of pretending to brush Moombah’s teeth and then finding her missing toy inside his mouth. She would need a few props, which Trowa (who knew the inventory better than Heero) went to fetch, and then practice began.

Yet again, Trowa found himself more than a little frustrated at his certainty Moombah was a werebeast without hard proof that would allow him to bring it up to any real purpose with Heero. The lion played his part of the act with precision, excellent memory, and the care for Relena’s wellbeing the others had come to expect of him, and he simply could not have gotten the hang of this so quickly and expertly as merely an especially intelligent lion. But what could Trowa say? Nothing he’d ever tried had convinced Moombah to admit to being a werebeast, and as long as he retained his lion form, nothing changed even if he was.

In fact Moombah seemed willing to continue practicing the routine far longer than Relena did. The attention span of a six-year-old, no matter how devoted to the family business, allowed for no more than a handful of times through and some memorization practice before she wanted to play something else. But they had worked some kinks out, and Relena was over the moon about the plan.

“I want to show mommy and daddy!” she declared, worrying Moombah’s mane again. “Moombah, don’t you want to show mommy and daddy! It’s going to be the best act ever!”

“How about tomorrow night?” Trowa suggested. “You can practice one more day, and then we’ll get them to come to the practice ring and turn on the electric lights.”

Relena’s eyes widened in excitement at the thought of the electric lights, which were the mark of a proper circus act such as actual circus performers did, but she still complained in a silly high-pitched voice, “I want to show them nooowwwwwww!”

“You need to practice more,” Heero admonished. “But come here.”

This had become a catch-phrase in more than one sense, and Relena ran to him to be thrown into the air as many times as Heero’s arms would stand for. Thus he often convinced her to do something she would rather not, or compensated her for a perceived hardship.

The second day went as promisingly as the first, though Relena still took some persuasion to keep at it long enough to truly have the routine memorized and perform it relatively smoothly instead of running off to her parents and dragging them to a premature demonstration. Trowa had recommended not spoiling the surprise by saying anything to them last night, and (though when he’d spoken to them about Relena having something to show them, their knowing looks had suggested she hadn’t been able to keep her mouth entirely shut) he believed she’d at least attempted to take his advice. Andrian and Cathy had set aside a special time in the evening, after the sun had gone down so as to please Relena with the use of the electric lights, to watch her unknown show, and Relena could hardly keep her head attached to her shoulders for excitement and impatience.

The practice ring measured the same distance across as the main ring they set up under the big top while traveling. Trowa didn’t know that Relena, small as she was, would merit a show in the main ring even with the bulky Moombah beside her, but for astonishing her parents there could be no other option. The electric lights, which were the same (and ran off the same generator) they took with them on tour, had been set up in the same pattern they would be on the road: footlights, spotlights, and some with thin colored paint over the outer glass to cast a dizzying rainbow into the ring. It made for an impressive spectacle, and tonight it might well make the highlight of Relena’s year.

With the ring open to the sky and no rear curtain through which performers could emerge, there could be no surprise entrance. And when Andrian and Cathy arrived and took their seats on the lowest of the high-rise benches, Trowa noted Andrian was startled and unhappy to see a completely unrestrained lion off to the side with his six-year-old daughter. Either Cathy hadn’t informed him of Moombah’s friendship with the girl, or he hadn’t believed her when she had. They’d better get this show started, lest Relena’s father call it off and break her little heart.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Trowa strode out into the ring sooner than he’d intended, trying to nip any such intention in the bud. “May I present, for your wonder and delight–” with his level and often solemn tone, he made an abysmal ringleader– “the youngest lion-tamer who ever lived, the fearless and fantastic Miss Relena! With her terrifying companion, the dreaded Moombah!” Also, it was difficult to announce with a straight face anyone named ‘Moombah.’

Andrian looked as if he would stand up and shout his disapproval in immediate response to the announcement, but Cathy took his arm firmly and said something to him in a low tone Trowa didn’t catch. Then she disengaged her hands and began to clap loudly, in which her husband, after a reluctant moment, joined.

Relena, grinning in a manner exactly opposite the calm, professional demeanor wanted for such an exhibition, entered the ring as Trowa bowed himself out and went to stand beside Heero not far from the watching parents. She had one hand in Moombah’s mane, and the lion slowed his steps to match hers. They stopped in the center of the ring and started in on their routine, and Trowa restrained a shake of head. He’d told her they should come farther forward, since the ring was so big the details of their act wouldn’t be seen well from this distance, but obviously she’d forgotten. Still, that she gave commands the lion obeyed with precision and alacrity couldn’t be mistaken, and after not too long Andrian and Cathy were both sitting forward looking intently at her with surprised interest.

The child couldn’t ride the lion at any great speed yet without losing her balance, but her lionback circuit around the perimeter was still impressive, and she remembered (or just happened) to stop this time at a better distance for visibility. Then she began playing fetch with Moombah with a ball they’d brought along for this purpose. It was the weakest part of the act, because Relena didn’t throw very well (even less so when excited), and the lion had to retrieve the ball from various incorrect places after failing to catch it in his mouth. But then they moved on to the finale, and the show was saved.

“Moombah!” Relena announced. “You got so much dirt in your mouth getting the ball! We’re going to have to brush your teeth!”

The lion took his place patiently in front of her, and pulled his lips back in what resembled a terrifying snarl. This time, Andrian really did stand up, and Cathy with him. However tame this animal had proven, they understandably couldn’t believe this part of the routine would go well.

And Relena pulled from her pocket the biggest toothbrush they’d been able to find at short notice, and began placidly rubbing it across Moombah’s big ivory teeth. He made no sound during this process, only sat very still except for the occasional twitch of lips that probably weren’t comfortable holding this position for so long. His jaw certainly remained more fixed than those of the circus managers.

“All done!” Relena declared. “Let me see inside your mouth!” And when Moombah obligingly opened it wide, the alarmed half cries of Andrian and Cathy were drowned out by the girl’s subsequent declaration, “It’s much cleaner now, but look! You still have the ball in there!” Utterly fearless, Relena reached into the dark space (they would have to think about angles and lighting for future performances) and retrieved the slobbery ball. Holding it high in the air, she turned completely toward her parents, who’d taken at least four steps in her direction, and bowed. The gesture was clumsy with the burden in her still-upraised hand, but Moombah mimicked it much more gracefully beside her, and the two of them retained the position for the appropriate count.

Trowa and Heero, neither of them the sort to stomp and whistle and cheer, yet were capable of applauding loudly; and Cathy and Andrian joined in only a little tardily with half-forced smiles on their faces. In response, Relena came tearing over to the adults and flung herself at each of them in turn for hugs all around. Then, in an excess of exuberance, she began jumping and skipping and cartwheeling from where they stood to the other end of the ring, and the complex wall beyond, and back, laughing and shouting “Hooray!” at intervals as she did so.

When the child had moved out of earshot, Andrian turned to Trowa with lowered brows. “You should be pleased to know you’re a classic uncle.”

“Why?” Trowa wondered a bit awkwardly. Heero too — the other uncle in this scenario — looked puzzled.

Cathy gave a weak laugh. “You couldn’t have warned us?”

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Well, it was that.” Andrian shook his head and took a deep breath. “My heart still hasn’t stopped racing.”

“I apologize,” Trowa murmured.

Andrian’s smile returned as Relena did, and it looked a little more natural this time. He accepted her repeat hug, then watched as she worked her way down the line again. It seemed her energy had only increased in her jaunt to the wall and back, and a glance between Andrian and Cathy took a break from the agitation caused by the lion-taming act to say, “We’re never going to get her to bed tonight.”

Heero, at the end of the queue, pulled Relena out of the hug and into the air above his head, causing her to shout her glee shrilly and (hopefully) expend some excess energy. The others angled themselves to watch — not without a few suspicious glances, on the managers’ part, at where Moombah had relaxed into a comfortable-looking sprawl on the dirt in the same spot he’d occupied before — and began discussing in relatively low voices their feelings about the night’s entertainment.

Andrian and Cathy obviously agreed that, having the matter sprung on them as it had been, they couldn’t assess their own feelings about it very well… but Trowa got the impression that, once they’d calmed down and thought about it a bit, they would see the matter as he did. Trusting Moombah would make a big difference in getting Relena her own circus act, and that could be pretty easily accomplished.

In fact, Trowa was about to suggest they all head over to the lion and interact with him so the others — Andrian in particular — could get to know him and his cooperativeness. But just then, Heero gave a sound of surprise, and the nonspecific gazes of the other three adults focused perforce on the airborne Relena. Or rather, where Relena had been.

Only with great difficulty had Trowa convinced his niece to wear normal clothing for the demonstration. In the absence of an actual costume, she’d wanted to wear her nice dress, and it had been an effort for an uncle to come up with reasons why she shouldn’t. Eventually, he believed, it had been her impatience to get going far more than his powers of persuasion that had won his point. She’d opted to remain clad as she had been all day, in a ruffly shirt and denim pants and leather shoes.

Garments that now appeared unoccupied.

The upward momentum granted them by Heero’s latest throw had not yet faded; and the way the little shoes, no longer inhabited by feet, abruptly flew faster than the other pieces and started their drop sooner held a touch of horror to it. This was only compounded by the sudden unfamiliar shrieking that now sounded from the abandoned clothing as if in mockery of the late cries of delight from its former occupant.

As the pants too slowed in their rise and, fluttering with uncanny emptiness, began to fall, the shirt seemed rather to hang in the air, and from it the noises obviously emerged. And there seemed to be a struggle going on within as it jerked and bulged and moved in ways not entirely in keeping with the toss that had set it aloft.

Then, from beneath the hemline, a chaotically fluttering blur in brown and tan emerged in an explosion of feathers, and Trowa abruptly knew what had happened. The shirt drifted to the ground at last to join its fellows, and Relena, in the form of a small owl, appeared above their heads, awkwardly trying to get her wings to obey.

Her panicked screeching didn’t stop, and in fact she’d become even more frightened than before now she’d emerged from her shirt, since a number of the electric lights that had so delighted her earlier shone into her wide but diminutive owl eyes. And the would-be inviting gestures both Heero and Trowa made and calls they gave to the confused child tripped each other up as they came late and at the same time.

Though it seemed at first Relena would lose control of the wings she’d never used before, her evident desire to get away from the bright lights blinding her must have granted her a boost in fledgling skill. She screeched again and reeled across the practice ring, unfortunately heading toward the complex wall.

“Relena, come back!” Trowa called, but this time was overridden by the frightened cries of Relena’s parents — one of them far more savvy than the other, but both startled and concerned. So Trowa began unfastening his clothing indiscriminately; from the corner of his eye he saw Heero doing the same.

“You never mentioned you had birds in your family line,” the latter commented.

Dryly Trowa replied, “It never came up.”

With an animal form so much closer to human than Heero’s was, Trowa didn’t need to disrobe nearly as far before changing shape. Evidently the mere sight of him shedding his shirt and opening his pants, though, had been enough to give poor mating-season Heero an inconvenient and very badly timed erection, and the last thing Trowa saw before transforming and heading for the wall was Heero turning around as he unfastened his own pants.

Shaggy and rust-colored, Trowa ate up the ground on all four palms, then jumped and caught at the wall and swung himself upward on long arms. His eyes quickly lighted on the still-fluttering figure of Relena heading into the trees at the top of the slope, and he made a series of quick calls while pointing in the direction she flew. Then he threw himself off the wall and went loping after her.

As he ran, he was soon joined by Heero, who’d taken to alligator shape in order to worm his way under the wall rather than seeking out the nearest human exit. Possible lingering erection and definite nudity notwithstanding, Heero changed back to his longer-legged form not long after, but Trowa found it most convenient to remain an orangutan as they entered the trees. He swung up as high as he could go, and managed to catch another glimpse of Relena ahead.

Although they’d left behind the distressing lights of the circus complex, the young owl appeared more panicked in the forest. She probably didn’t know how to perch or come to any kind of safe stop, so, unable to conceive of anything else to do, flew on simply out of desperation, though she had no idea how to navigate among the trees.

Trowa hooted as he followed to indicate the direction, and heard Heero crashing along in the brush beneath. Breathlessly the other werebeast called with his human mouth, “Relena! Stop! Turn around and come back! Come toward my voice!”

Somehow this made Relena fly faster. Was she too frightened to hear and obey? Did she believe the sounds behind her to be unknown enemies? Or did they have another alpha on their hands, and issuing orders would only make things worse?

They came perpendicularly upon a fold in the land down which a small stream ran, where it appeared Relena had made almost a right-angle turn in order to follow the easier, less tangled path up the line of the water. She gained better and better control of herself every moment, until she almost looked like a normal bird in flight as far as Trowa could tell in the shadows, yet she didn’t stop or turn back.

Briefly, dangerously, he changed shape again and, during the rapid moment he spent balanced, naked and precarious, on a branch very inconvenient for a human, called behind him, “Heero! Up the waterway!” He couldn’t retain this shape any longer than that if he didn’t want to lose his grip and fall straight out of this tree, but as he transformed and swung off again, he hooted continuously in case Heero hadn’t heard him clearly.

They needed to catch up with Relena and bring her home or into their direct protection before she either lost them and then herself or some bigger predator noticed the inexperienced owl and took advantage of the situation. How did the relatives of bird werebeasts deal with this problem? Kids often panicked at their initial transformation, but all those Trowa had known had been ground animals — or at least indoors when they’d first changed shape.

It would be convenient if she did lose control of her flight or run into something and fall down, as long as she took no injury, because then she could be scooped up into relative safety. She hadn’t done them this favor yet, though. Trowa was unsure how quickly bird werebeasts learned to fly, but had a feeling this one would be a champion as she grew up if they could keep her alive to do it. No wonder she’d been so fixated on the airborne circus acts, and being throw into the air by Heero!

A splash behind alerted him to Heero’s entry into the water, and a dark form below shot past as the alligator did what he did best and raced forward with powerful lashes of his tail. He probably wouldn’t dare go too far, since he could undoubtedly make out even less, from under water, of Relena’s shape in the air above him than Trowa could in the dark.

Heero confirmed this speculation when he rose, a dripping and muddy human figure pale in the darkness, from the middle of the stream some distance along — ahead of Relena, in fact — and looked around. The owl whirled when she detected him, making a clumsy turn that pointed her straight up what had become a much sharper-angled slope as they’d progressed. Heero waded messily out of the water and plunged into the trees after her, calling another futile command for her to come back; and Trowa, who’d been navigating the trees on the opposite side of the stream, made a reckless swinging leap across and hastened to follow them both.

The earthen forest floor and its foliage swiftly gave way to crag rising almost vertically to one step and then another and another, climbing the valley’s side out of the warm, wet air around the hot springs environs and into the winter chill of the mountain proper. Trowa’s long clinging orangutan fingers and strong, flexible arms made short work of the uneven rock faces, but Relena remained ahead of him — while Heero, lighter but unable to climb nearly as fast, lagged behind.

The owl, who’d screeched in protest or fear when Heero had last called out to her, now flew silently but crazily, wheeling and rising unevenly and struggling not to plow into the rock or any of the bushes, increasingly devoid of leaf, that clung to patches of earth in crevices in the crags. She really must have no idea how to land; she would most certainly run into something eventually, especially as she grew more and more exhausted. Toward that state Trowa too felt himself hastening; even as an orangutan, he couldn’t climb forever, and the increasing cold seemed to be sapping his strength.

He felt the force of it more severely when he changed shape not long after. He’d reached the top of the current crag, and found he’d entirely lost sight of Relena, so he took on his human form with its slightly better night vision and turned quickly around, shivering, trying to locate her.

This step stretched longer and wider than the previous as the mountain began to change shape, and had enough accumulated soil tucked into the cracks in its surface to support a scrubby set of trees and bushes. It still felt hard and rough and frigid under Trowa’s bare feet, though, as he swiveled from side to side. To the southeast he could see the forest below and the lights of the circus complex beyond, and down past that a blanket of cloud hiding the lower valley from view; if it blew over Springcleft, the warm drafts would lift it and melt it to rain temperatures, and they’d have a downpour tonight. To the north the step ended with a cluster of largely leafless foliage, over whose heads the stars stretched up and up.

And above, the rising ground gradually lost both the chaotic distribution of smaller rocks that characterized the crags as well as the crag’s unrelenting verticality, moving skyward at more varying angles; but it also disappeared after no great distance in a lowering cloud-like mist that sheathed the mountain from here to its peak. If Relena had gone into that, she was lost to them.

He breathed deeply, trying to ignore his racing heart and the importunate cold, closing his eyes and listening hard. And perhaps it was his desperation to find his niece that allowed him, in this blundering human form, to hear scrabbling and fluttering from the cluster of trees and bushes to the north. Transforming as he ran so as to have some protection against prickling twigs and the needles of pines that were more prevalent this far up, he took off in that direction.

Once he’d fought his way through the thicket, with care so as not to plunge off some abrupt precipice that could support scrub but not an orangutan, he found what he sought. She’d obviously crashed into a stunted hollygrape bush that grew just at the edge, and hadn’t righted herself; she vibrated and panted visibly at an awkward angle of leg and wing amongst the scraggly red leaves of winter and what berries, rotted to purple-black, she hadn’t knocked to the ground in her crash. She appeared uninjured, and Trowa let out a soft relieved hoot.

Just then there came a snapping of talons and beating of wings in his face, to the tune of a startling long screech clearly meant as a warning. A clawed foot with a wicked opposable digit scratched a bloody stripe across Trowa’s leathery brown face, and he stumbled backward with a startled sound. He tripped right over something that hadn’t previously stood immediately behind him, and felt a large shape wriggling free of his flailing legs. As he righted himself, he was just in time to see the alligator (a shape doubtless assumed, like that of the orangutan, for protection against the vagaries of the thicket) give a half leap and snap his enormous jaws into the air.

Heero missed the duck hawk, as it wheeled upward, by a yard or so, and the raptor gave another cry and, turning, dove at frightening speed for the prey it claimed for itself. Heero’s second lunge at it prevented its talons from closing on any part of Relena in the bush, but only just barely. Black-barred white underside flashing in the starlight, the bird came around for another pass, and Heero hissed out an alligator’s subtle challenge, barely audible over the crashing of Trowa’s heart and the screech of the hungry hawk.

And as the latter started its descent, and Heero’s stubby legs tensed in readiness, the crashing sound abruptly grew louder — loud enough for Trowa to recognize it as coming from outside his chest — and a huge form that glowed a dull gold and seemed to shake the crags with its roar sprang free of the trees and brush and, intercepting the duck hawk mid-flight, crushed it concisely between massive, toothy jaws.

Moombah trotted to a stop after his leap, muscling his way through bushes and turning awkwardly with his right rear leg planted firmly inside one. He gave the duck hawk one worrying shake, then tossed it aside. Licking his bloody lips, he pulled his leg ungracefully free and moved toward Trowa and Heero.

Trowa, quickly changing shape, reached out both arms with a gasp and received Moombah’s big head for a nuzzling hug. “We’ll have a barbeque just for you,” he whispered to the lion. Then he turned, one arm still across the maned neck, toward Relena.

Heero too had transformed, and was moving slowly and carefully right up to the hollygrape bush. Relena hadn’t resumed any attempt at rearranging herself into a more reasonable position, and perhaps was too frightened to move, so Heero shifted his feet a little farther apart as if for balance and reached out cautious hands into the midst of the shrub.

The nearby sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs must have startled Relena, for she began struggling and screeching weakly. The entire bush shuddered, and Heero said in a quiet tone, “Relena. Relena, calm down. It’s me, your Uncle Heero. You’re safe now. Hold still.” It appeared to work, and everyone — including the lion, Trowa thought — breathed more easily as the owl at last followed orders. Gingerly, slowly, Heero’s hands, now streaked with dark berry juice, closed around the little feathered body and began to adjust the wings so as to be able to draw her out of the bush without harm.

He kept shifting his feet, though, and Trowa thought he saw movement in the ground beneath them. Cracks opened in the soil, which appeared to be sliding away and breaking up, and the level of Heero’s head, framed by the stars of the open space beyond, was sinking.

“Heero…” Trowa spoke in barely more than a whisper.

“I know,” Heero replied at the same volume. He did not, however, hasten his movements; if Relena were startled into panic again, the likelihood of catching up with her a second time and rescuing her at last seemed scant. But the earth at this end of the crag was definitely collapsing, sliding toward the drop-off.

After the agonizing patience of Heero’s minute and painstaking progress at getting Relena detangled from clinging twigs and pulling her toward him, when things did move it was as if the passage of time, lulled by the preceding thirty seconds, had suddenly dashed ahead at double speed. Heero flung out his arms to throw the owl toward Trowa precisely as the ground beneath him gave way completely; Moombah darted from under Trowa’s hand and away; and Relena changed shape in midair and hit Trowa full in the chest, knocking him down and backward. The sliding, scrabbling noise of a minor landslide, with the cracking of ill-held roots as they disconnected, the grunts and piteous crying of human voices filled Trowa’s ears; and he disregarded entirely how scored and bloodied his human skin would be when this was over as he awkwardly scrambled around onto his knees facing the disaster with Relena clinging to him like a vise with all four limbs.

And there he saw, lying flat on his belly in the slithering soil, reaching down with both arms past what was now visible as a rocky precipice, free of foliage, over which dirt still poured in little rivulets, naked but for a veritable mane of brown hair, a complete stranger.

Trowa wasted no time in springing to his feet and, wishing he could detach Relena but having no opportunity to think about it, planting his own bare buttocks right on top of the other man’s and digging his heels into the ground in front of him, trying to create a sort of anchor. The other man — no stranger at all, really — grunted again as he felt Trowa’s weight, but said nothing, only hauled upward as best he could. As soon as Heero’s hands in the stranger’s became visible, Trowa leaned forward (very awkwardly) and grasped the wrists beneath them; and together, still to the sound of Relena’s weeping, and with the help of Heero climbing where he could with his bare feet, they pulled their friend up and over and away from the brink of certain death. Then everyone collapsed on the ground a safe distance from the edge, gasping and twitching.

It was the eventual subsiding of Relena’s sounds of confusion and fear, and her removal of her head from where it gave Trowa a crick in the neck, that caused him to sit up at last into a cross-legged position and let her slide down onto his leg. She took deep breaths that calmed gradually, and presently began looking around. Trowa squeezed her and asked, with a quiet born more of shock than of his usual placidity, “Do you feel better now?”

Relena nodded, eyes wide. “I turned into a bird,” she whispered.

“You did,” Trowa agreed.

“And you turned into an animal too.”

“I did.”

“And Uncle Heero…” She rotated, and Trowa looked with her.

Heero and the stranger, both lying on their stomachs, had also both risen to their elbows and were mutually staring in complete silence. It reminded Trowa strongly of the time they’d faced each other as lion and human when Alex had come harassing: there was a crackling intensity, a wordless struggle for dominance, easily discernible in the gaze.

“I knew it…” Trowa murmured.

The stranger gave his head a couple of extensive shakes and tore his eyes from Heero to glance at Trowa. He had a wide, lop-sided grin on a jovial face that also held some regret, if Trowa could be any judge in this light. “Yeah, you called it. You’re too familiar with how natural lions act!”

Heero, not nearly as familiar with how natural lions acted, drew in a deep breath. His eyes had not moved. “I don’t know whether to thank you for your help or throw you off the cliff myself.” He spoke in an unusually dark, intense, accusing tone.

The stranger’s grin became completely teasing as he returned it to Heero. “Trowa promised me a barbeque. But after that we can come back up here all alone, and you can try whatever violence you want to.”

With not a twitch of change to his expression, Heero said nothing. Still it seemed as if something were passing between them, in their moments of wordlessness, that occupied much of their attention.

“Who are you?” Trowa broke in.

“Duo,” replied the lion werebeast. “Duo Maxwell.” And he only glanced at Trowa briefly as he said it before resuming crackling into Heero’s eyes.

“Everyone is naked,” Relena announced with a slightly hysterical giggle.

“We sure are, kiddo.” For Relena Duo obviously was willing to break eye contact with Heero for more than a mere moment, in order to give her the fondest smile ever uncle bestowed upon niece. “Are you OK?”

“Yes… I think so,” said Relena. “I turned into a bird, but now I’m back to being normal. Who are you?”

“I’m Duo Maxwell,” repeated he, then added with a wink, “but you can keep calling me Moombah if you want to.”

“I… never saw you before.” Relena sounded confused and suspicious. “Moombah’s a lion.”

“He sure is.” And abruptly Duo transformed.

Relena jumped and let out a shriek of surprise, but ran to hug her friend with equal rapidity. “Moombah! Moombah, really can you turn into a person just like I turned into a bird???” Her words were barely intelligible through the lion’s mane, and she continued in that vein for quite some time while Moombah, or Duo, returned the embrace with a big paw and nuzzled her with his soft face and wet nose.

Finally Heero interrupted them with the impatient statement, “Don’t think you can just stay in lion form now. We want to know who you are.”

With evident reluctance, Duo pushed Relena away, lay down, and transformed back into a man on his stomach in the dirt. “Why doesn’t Relena know anything about werebeasts?” he demanded.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” said Heero stonily.

“I really want to know!” Duo protested. “Why is all this such a surprise to her? Why hasn’t Cathy explained? She’s old enough for the talk!”

Relena turned toward Heero and wondered, “Are you mad at Moombah?”

“His name is Duo,” said Heero in a kinder tone. Neither he nor anyone else could be harsh with Relena, but Trowa thought, with a shiver of realization, that this statement held more genuine emotion than he’d heard from Heero in a long time.

“He said I can call him Moombah!”

“That’s right, Heero,” Duo grinned, and the air crackled between them again. “I’m still Uncle Moombah. You’re not allowed to call me ‘Uncle,’ though.”

Trowa broke in again. “It’s freezing up here, and we need to get Relena back to her parents. Duo, I think you owe us an explanation first.”

Duo scratched at the dirt near his face. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. “Short version: I’m in season all year.”

The others just waited.

“I mean in season.” Duo grimaced and rolled his eyes toward Relena, clearly loath to be more explicit. “I mean, why are you lying on your stomach, Heero?”

“Oh,” Heero said in surprise.

“I see,” said Trowa. With a slight frown and shake of head he muttered, “In the freezing cold and all scraped up and everything…”

“You know how it works,” Heero murmured back.

Duo gave an embarrassed chuckle. “It’s easier to just live exclusively as a lion, because there really aren’t any other lions around to, you know, be a dirty temptation. This–” he gestured expansively as if to indicate tonight’s adventure– “forced my hand, though. I’d do anything to help our Little Missy, even take three stupid tries to jump over a damned high wall and struggle through a forest that wasn’t designed for lions and climb a mountain that really wasn’t designed for lions.”

“You did that all to save me?” Relena wondered, awed and excited.

“But it wasn’t Relena you gave away your human form and risked your life for,” Heero pointed out. “It was me.”

They were staring at each other again, and Trowa shifted impatiently. But at least Duo’s reply provided information. “When I first saw you, you were willing to fight a full-grown lion to protect Relena. Actually I thought you were about to change shape and give your other form away to do it. As if I could let you outshine me!”

“What do you turn into, Uncle Heero?”

“An alligator.”

Relena shrieked again, this time, with the resilience of childhood, in complete delight and no remaining trace of fear or uncertainty. “Show me! Show me!”

Heero obliged without a word, but didn’t retain the shape long enough for the girl to examine him all over and force him to open his mouth and so on. She did jump around a bit in a furor even after he’d changed back, though.

“Relena,” Trowa said very seriously, and continued repeating it until he had her full attention. “Your mom’s going to have to talk to you about changing shape, since she’s the one–” throwing a quick glance at Duo– “who decided not to tell you about it before. But right now you need to know — when you turn into an owl again, you need to be very careful, and not fly away scared. It’s dangerous out here, and that mean duck hawk almost got you before. Understand?”

Relena nodded solemnly, and before anyone else could speak or start crackling again, Trowa went on. “We need to leave. Duo, I don’t think either of us can carry her down in either form; can you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Are you sure?” Heero demanded. It seemed half concern for Relena and half alpha contrariness.

“I had to find a lion-friendly path up here in the first place, didn’t I?”

“If anything happens to her on the way down–”

“Do you really think I’d let anything–”

“You don’t exactly have a good record–”

“As if you don’t completely understand–”

They were doing it again. Trowa reached out and took Relena’s hand to draw her fascinated attention away from the two men on the ground. “Do you think you could try to turn into an owl again,” he asked quietly, “and follow me while I climb down the crags and go back to the circus? Those two can follow when they’re done arguing.”

“They’re arguing a bunch,” Relena whispered conspiratorially.

“Do you think you could turn into an owl again?”

Relena thought about it for a moment. “I bet I could.”

“You’ll have to try not to be scared, and watch where I go and follow me. Do you think you can do that?”

Relena nodded. “I could tell where everything was really good before.” She waved her hands and squinted into the air around her. “Easier than right now!”

Trowa too nodded. “And you might have to try to land on something, even if you don’t know how yet. Could you try that if you needed to?”

“I can figure out how!” she replied enthusiastically.

“Good. You’re my favorite niece; did you know that?”

“Do you have more nieces?”

“No.”

“Then…” She tried to puzzle through the compliment and determine whether it held water.

“Why don’t you try right now to turn into an owl?”

A mere minute later, to the sound of the argument — or whatever it was — giving way behind them to reactions of surprise, they were off down the crags. Less than half an hour later, they’d successfully made their way back to the circus complex.

Trowa would have liked nothing more than to drop Relena off, take a bath to clean up all his abrasions (some would need bandages), have a stiff drink, and go to bed, where he had no doubt he would sleep alone tonight — but of course this could not be. Had Relena left behind, in her wild flight, only her parent of werebeast descent, it would have been possible, but instead Andrian must be considered.

He was allowed to sit quietly in the parlor of the big house in the clothes he’d left out in the practice ring — which Cathy had brought inside and which weren’t very comfortable over his dirt and scrapes — as his sister explained the concept of werebeasts to her husband. She’d waited to do this until Trowa returned so she could call on her brother to demonstrate, so Trowa left his belt and shoes off and his shirt unbuttoned at first. It took about twenty-four transformations for Andrian to overcome his shock and begin to accept the truth before him; how long it would take to reconcile with the fact that his wife was a dormant werebeast and his daughter an active one, Trowa couldn’t guess. He rather thought Cathy should have explained all of this years ago, but held his peace on that topic. Perhaps, after growing up with a family whose abilities she didn’t share, she’d set out to have a marriage and a new family completely free of the business.

Relena, despite obvious weariness, had no desire whatsoever to go to bed, or even to stop chattering for half a breathless instant, so some time passed before the entire story could be coherently told. Once Cathy got her daughter into her lap and convinced her to stay quiet for a bit so Uncle Trowa could tell them all about it, they only had to bear with a few interruptions from her before she began falling asleep to the lulling sound of Trowa’s calm, quiet tones. Her subsequent unconsciousness freed Trowa to explain, so Andrian could understand, the more adult-oriented parts of the story without resorting to a lot of euphemisms and tilts of head.

And Andrian, still the supportive brother-in-law even in the midst of his bafflement and shock, commented disapprovingly, “So Heero’s just been using you all along?”

Trowa smiled slightly and with a touch of sadness. “Only because he had to. Have you ever seen a cat in heat?”

Andrian threw a considering glance at his wife and began, “My dear–”

“Yes,” said Cathy hastily, blushing. “Yes.” And from this Trowa gathered she had inherited certain aspects of werebeast life even if she couldn’t change shape. He hadn’t really needed to know this about his sister, but he did pity her.

With everything out in the open — some of it several times over — Andrian finally sat back in his chair and rubbed at his beard with a thoughtful thumb. “An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…” He actually chuckled faintly, and Trowa knew he was coming around at last. He also knew that pensive look accompanied by that particular glint of eye. “So that’s how you always handled the animals so well…”

Trowa nodded.

“An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…”

Trowa had always assumed that, whenever someone did get around to informing Andrian he could transform into an exotic animal and retain his human intelligence, he would immediately be worked into a variety of circus acts as an orangutan. And now that Andrian had his sights set on three werebeasts, his thoughts on the matter probably ran on a much larger scale. This wasn’t a bad thing, but could mean a lot of extra work in future.

“Where are Heero and the lion-man, by the way? I would have thought they’d be back by now.”

“I’m sure they are,” Trowa replied. “And I’m sure they thought me better-qualified to handle this conversation.” Assuming they weren’t already very busy with other things.

“You’re their designated human-handler, are you?”

Trowa chuckled.

Relena awoke at this juncture with a start, and for a moment looked around in a panic as if she’d forgotten where she was. Cathy gathered her into a more convenient carrying position and declared, “Bedtime for you, miss!”

And as Relena protested groggily that she wanted to find Moombah and wanted to show her parents how well she could turn into an owl and didn’t want to go to bed and wasn’t tired, all the way out of the room and up the stairs, Andrian came to Trowa and shook his hand. “Thank you again,” he murmured.

Trowa nodded.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, and a lot to talk over with Cathy, but…” He clapped his other hand over the back of Trowa’s that he held and shook it again. “Thank you. For Relena.”

Again Trowa nodded. He felt he’d done less than the other two, but accepted the gratitude for his effort and concern at least. Next he accepted Andrian’s good night, and, after watching his brother-in-law hasten from the room and up the stairs, turned and headed for the front door.

Outside, he found Heero and Duo, both in human form, both naked, seated on the front steps, staring at each other. They appeared to have been deep in conversation, and, as up on the crag, it took a moment before they could look away and acknowledge Trowa’s presence — as if he’d needed further confirmation that this was a done deal. It gave him, as he gazed at his longtime best friend, some forlornness to consider he’d lost this aspect of Heero’s companionship completely, especially just before his own mating season… but that emotion was overshadowed by happiness that Heero seemed to have found at last what he needed. Who’d have thought it would be another alpha?

“Are we forgiven?” Duo wondered, jumping to his feet. His long erection bobbled as he did so, and Trowa turned immediately to Heero, who, more practiced at dealing with the intense-mating-season problem in human form, had risen more slowly. Trowa handed him the clothing he’d left in the ring, gathered along with Trowa’s by the helpful Cathy.

“You are.” Trowa directed his words toward Heero since he faced that way. “But it may be rescinded if you don’t officially join the circus.”

Heero appeared startled, opened his mouth, and closed it again with brows lowered more in pensiveness than disapproval. The problem that had sent him wandering year after year might well now have been solved, after all.

“Moombah is completely up for that,” Duo declared, putting his chin on Trowa’s shoulder in order to look over it into Heero’s thoughtful eyes. “Can’t abandon my beta now we’ve formed such a good bond.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Heero murmured, staring unflinchingly back.

Trowa snorted, both at Duo’s comment about ‘his beta’ and at finding himself in the middle of the crackling now. “Think about it in a guest room,” he suggested as he slipped out from between them, “and let me know in the morning what you decide.”

Heero nodded. “I’ll show you the way to the guest rooms, Duo.”

Perversely — really, how was this alpha-alpha thing going to work? — Duo flipped his hair and turned the other direction. “I already have a room, thank you very much.”

“You can’t spend the night in lion form,” Heero said flatly.

“And you can’t spend the night with Trowa.”

Trowa, letting out a sigh, was yet smiling as he walked away.

The rain he’d foreseen began not long after he’d gone to bed, and between its lulling sound, the bath he’d taken beforehand, a gulp of whiskey, and the lack of any bedroom activities to keep him up, he slept better than he had in weeks. He awoke, if not sexually satisfied as he usually did in the winter, definitely well rested and full of energy, and emerged into the wet and muddy circus complex to do his chores.

First thing, though, he had to make his way straight over to the lions’ pen and discover which alpha had won that argument. He couldn’t peek into each of the guest rooms, after all, but he could look here. And when he eased open the door to the keeper’s building and poked his head around it, he felt no shock at what he saw within.

Heero had probably never put his clothing back on, and the chances Duo even owned any seemed slim. The dirt and berry juice and dried blood of their adventure of the night before, not to mention Duo’s ample provision of hair, must be their substitute as they lay, entwined at various points and clearly exhausted, on the hard floor. They didn’t so much as twitch at the sound of the door opening or the sense of someone watching them.

With a smile, Trowa withdrew. Tarrying in the shade of the roof over the door, he considered. They reminded him so much of the time Heero, worn out from a night of sex and a morning of chores, had curled up with Moombah in the pen… The word ‘adorable’ came to mind.

About to walk away, he paused as movement caught his eye over by the main gate, and he looked that direction just in time to see its closed height cleared in a fluid movement by a gorgeous blonde stag. If he’d had any doubts, after this unusual behavior, that the animal was something out of the ordinary, the bundle strapped to its back told a familiar tale. He leaned against the door and stood still, awaiting the outcome.

The stag swung its proud head, still crowned with fine unshed chestnut antlers, from side to side, seeming to examine the circus complex in front of it. Then, evidently missing Trowa in his shadow and believing itself unobserved, it stepped delicately out of the main thoroughfare and changed shape. In its place stood a gorgeous blonde man, who quickly removed the bundle tied around his waist and began dressing in haste. Trowa had to smile again, because hadn’t they all been there?

Once decent, the stranger took off at a confident stride toward the main house. When he drew level with Trowa, the latter called out, “Hello — can I help you?”

Though briefly startled, the stranger altered course with no less confidence than he’d already exhibited, and moved to stand before Trowa. “Good morning,” he said as he walked, and came to a halt with a winning smile on his face. “I apologize for the intrusion. I think I took a wrong turn in the fog, and now I have no idea where I am!” Charming smile crinkles appeared to the sides of his beautiful grey-blue eyes as he admitted his mistake. “And then there was this low spot in the road full of water, and my engine flooded. Can you please help me? Do you have a telephone?”

Trowa studied him thoughtfully. Despite the ingratiating demeanor and politeness, he got the sense that here was yet another alpha, and he already twitched to do what the man said. Interesting how many alphas came and went through his life, and never to date one willing to stay for the long term.

“We have no telephone,” he said. “But I know the low spot you mean. I’ll bring one of the trucks around, and we’ll see if we can pull you out of there.”

The stranger gave him a full, dazzling smile. “Oh, thank you. I was at my wits’ end!”

“Don’t worry,” Trowa told him as he moved toward the house himself in order to fetch a key for one of the trucks, gesturing for the man to follow. “I’ll take care of you.” And as they walked off together and the stranger began inquiring curiously, and very understandably, what kind of place this might be, Trowa reflected that a good beta’s work was never done.

This story was written for Daiyanerd as part of the Seasons of Anime Exchange 2019. I wish I could find more such exchanges to take part in! I kinda miss my art exchange days, and writing a story for an exchange is even more fun.

Piper, who has joined Waybee in the fine tradition of helping me write stuff, contributed the following:

iukkkkkk888888888888888888888888I



Heretic’s Reward 33-

Heretic’s Reward

“Sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming his claim to the throne… Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
33-
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm

Chapter 33 – Before (or After) the Storm

Though Tokio and Hajime had conversed, despite the difficulty in the rain, during their trek away from Enca toward the farm shed they’d eventually inhabited, it seemed the entire party felt satisfied with what discussion they’d had therein; for now, in the quiet night when speech would have been so much easier, they largely remained silent.

The dark countryside was quiet and cool, full of the varied scents of farmland on each territorial breeze, and the sky seemed to stretch, starry and silent, into infinity above them. Perhaps they feared subconsciously to break that silence with their insignificant human noise; Sano knew he at least had a sense of surreality about the scene, as if in a sort of calm before the storm (though in reality after it) he’d been granted something peaceful, joyful, and teasingly similar to what he really wanted.

This time he kept no rigid order in their line as he had before, but simply remained close to Hajime. That the knight gave no indication of wishing him elsewhere played into the surreality, into what Sano really wanted. The few words they exchanged (some of them, yes, insulting on Hajime’s part) pleased him, and everything seemed as close to perfect as it could be in the middle of a struggle to put the rightful king back on the usurped throne.

He marveled a bit at Eiji’s fortitude, and not only his walking so steadfastly after having already walked for hours earlier. Eiji seemed content enough with whatever thoughts he entertained that he had no need to solicit conversation from the adults; he never appeared bored by or resentful of their trip, as Sano believed he would have been at that age under these circumstances. Now the former orchard-hand knew Eiji not to be Hajime’s son, he was rather inclined to admire him. Like his mother, the boy evidently possessed a rock-hard strength and mettle Sano couldn’t help but appreciate.

When Elotica became visible as a swallowing-up of the horizon with only a few lights — guards’ lanterns high on the wall — imitating the stars the city’s bulk had blotted out, Sano shivered with a certain measure of awe. He’d entered the capital alone so often in recent weeks; entering now with Hajime at his side and an intention to finish this filled him with a solemn excitement not untouched by dread.

Hajime gazed up at the stars, taking his bearings as best he could with a frown, and drew to a halt. The others grouped around him, Sano glancing back over his shoulder at the looming city as if it might come closer on its own while unwatched. But no such superstitious impulse moved the others, evidently, and Hajime spoke in a lowered tone. “If I have this right, we’re pointed toward the Knights’ Gate, on the northeastern face, though it depends on what turns this lane takes.”

Sano might have teased Hajime about the existence of a small city entrance called ‘the Knights’ Gate,’ a term he’d never heard during his time in the city and might have thought Hajime had invented; but for the moment he held his peace, admired the voice that matched the darkness around them, and nodded to show he was paying attention.

“It’s best we split up to get into the city, in case our numbers have been reported. Sano, you and Tokio take the Knight’s Gate. Eiji and I will head west past the north point and use the Warriors’ Door.”

This time Sano couldn’t restrain himself. “Man, it musta been tough for you to choose between those.”

Hajime had no difficulty with a comeback. “Unfortunately, there’s no Idiot’s Gate for you.”

Sano only grinned, and wondered, “Should I hold Tokio’s hand? Pretend we’re a couple?”

“What?” Hajime demanded, sounding startled and annoyed. “Absolutely not.” And Sano wondered, perhaps with some misplaced glee, at so forceful an answer. “We may be later than you to the meeting place by some time, since it’s going to be cross-country for at least us. If the time frame seems unreasonable, Sano, you’re more likely to know where to go looking for news or rumors of what’s happened to us… but don’t put yourself at risk. Do you understand?”

Sano studied Hajime’s face in the starlight. “Do you think there’s a danger of that?”

“Not particularly, but we need a plan in case it happens.”

“And what if something happens to us?”

Hajime held his gaze for a moment, then shifted to his sister. “Then I’ll find you.”

Both Sano and Tokio nodded. Then the Visitant moved to say goodbye to her son for the second time in less than a day. Since, despite its practicality, it sounded religious, Sano took a few steps away. He threw a glance at Hajime, and tried not to sound awkward as he bade him, “Be safe.”

Hajime nodded. “We’ll see you inside.”

Finished with her farewells, Tokio seized Sano’s hand from behind and said in a dictatorial tone that sounded spine-shiveringly like Hajime’s, “Come, my romantic partner.”

With a snort, Hajime turned and started immediately toward the edge of the lane. As he and Eiji climbed the fence and rustled through whatever foliage lay beyond, Sano, chuckling, forced himself to drag his eyes away. They would be invisible soon enough anyway. And when Tokio released his hand, he followed her without a look back.

For a while they walked side by side in silence, Sano considering Tokio every bit as much as he was Hajime. Finally, hesitatingly, he ventured, “You act different around him than when he’s not there.”

“I trust him,” she replied shortly. “I don’t trust most people.”

Sano didn’t know what to say in response to that; he felt it would be too awkward to mention he knew why that was.

But then she added in a relenting tone, “Besides, it’s a younger sister’s duty to tease her brother.” And even when she spoke more casually, she still mentioned this facetious duty as if it were a solemn and serious task.

The memory of Uki’s effective habit of annoying him stabbed at Sano, but he pushed it aside. No use thinking about that now. He wondered, rather, whether Tokio might ever trust him; and what, if she were against all odds to become an older sister, his duty toward her would be.

Eventually he asked, deeming it safer than any other topic that particularly engrossed him, “What was he like as a kid?”

She remained silent for a moment, and Sano hoped he wasn’t too high up the list of people she mistrusted to get an answer. At last she said, “Driven. Determined. That was my first impression of him as I became old enough to understand.”

“That…” He’d been seeking something more along the lines of childhood foolishness he could use to tease Hajime later. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“He was always selective,” she went on slowly, elaborating cautiously, “about the tasks he took on. But once he decided to do something, or accepted an order, he never quit. I think, even as a child, he would rather have died than face the disgrace of giving up on something he believed in.”

Sano let out a soft breath of admiration, and at the same time felt the spark of hope. “That musta gotten him into some funny situations, though.”

“Oh, are funny stories all you want? You are shallow.”

Sano cleared his throat, unsure if he could contradict that and knowing she would probably beat him in an argument about it.

“Well, when I was six years old and Hajime nine…..”

The remainder of the walk seemed to pass with unbelievable swiftness.

Sano had learned that the government of Elotica — whether specifically Kenshin or the guard or some other body — had always cracked down hard on anyone trying to live outside the city in the vicinity of its walls, undoubtedly the reason the nearby Enca had such extensive slums. So the only warning he and Tokio had that they approached their destination was the sense that the looming walls had drawn very near, blotting out all visibility in three directions, and the gradually growing shape of an opening delineated by greater light within. The lane, as Hajime had speculated, led directly to the gate, and the travelers hastened their pace.

He hadn’t known the slang for the small northwest gate when he’d used it before to bypass the checkpoints (though for all he knew, ‘Warriors’ Door’ might be the official name, and ‘small northwest gate’ was the slang), but he remained familiar enough with the shape of these lesser entrances to refrain from examining this one and act as he believed was normal while they approached. Some disaster appeared to have befallen this one at some point, and it had been rebuilt in an ugly rectangle unlike the arches the others formed. But the iron doors within stood open, and Sano still managed not to stare.

As they made to step through, Tokio unexpectedly took Sano’s hand again and moved closer to him. The tunnel piercing the thick outer wall, darker than any spot they’d yet crossed, chilled him significantly, but he doubted she’d grabbed his hand seeking warmth. This was confirmed when, emerging into the light of two lamps at either side of the opening, Tokio nodded politely to the guard leaning against the wall beneath one of them. It had originally been a joke, but now pretending to be a couple did seem the wisest way to provide an explanation for what they’d been out doing — and an excuse of sorts for Sano’s hood being drawn so far down across his face: if the guard suspected them of an illicit romantic affair, she wouldn’t think twice about one of them wanting his identity to remain unknown.

Again they quickened their pace, and Tokio didn’t release his hand until they’d turned a corner. There, Sano paused for a moment to get their location in his head, and then they set off across town toward the green corner and the old thieves’ guild. This trip wracked his nerves a bit, though why he should fear identification any more with a hood than he had in the blue and orange shiiya (whose matching striped pants he still wore), he didn’t know. Perhaps worry for Hajime and Eiji put him on edge.

Tokio remarked at one point, as they kept to the narrower, worse-lit streets heading south and tried not to attract the attention of anyone out at this late hour, “I look forward to meeting this Chou you described.”

“Why?” wondered Sano incredulously.

“He sounds like an oddity.”

“Yeah, an annoying oddity.”

“Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing him annoy you, too.”

Sano snorted, and they spoke no more.

She got her wish soon enough. They slipped into the street off of which the Green Apple’s yard opened without, Sano believed, anyone seeing them, and the pure darkness in the yard reassured him further. Everything seemed to be in order — the crank in the eaves of the shed, the opening in the wall, the ladder — and when he’d called a quiet greeting down into the blackness, Chou replied as if he’d been awakened abruptly.

“This is smaller than I expected,” Tokio remarked, looking around in the glow of Sano’s keonblade once they’d closed the entrance behind them.

Sano joined her. “Yeah, I guess it is kinda small for a whole city. I wonder if there’s another one somewhere. Hey, Chou, you seen Katsu?”

The same incoherent grumbling came from the next room.

“He’s not gonna be much use right now,” Sano concluded.

Tokio took a seat at the table. “Then all we can do now is wait.”

“Yeah, like I haven’t had enough of that.” But Sano joined her without further complaint, and considered how to bring up the next topic he wanted to discuss.

“And you say your friend Katsu discovered this place?” She remained leery of Katsu; maybe when she met him in person some of her worry would be assuaged. Sano had little hope of this, though, since Katsu was supposedly his best friend and his own worry about him had yet to be fully assuaged.

“He found it following Chou.”

Tokio nodded, and kept her own counsel on that matter.

Leaning forward slightly, Sano began in a low tone, “So I didn’t want to ask out in the open…” Whether she’d be willing (or able) to answer at all he couldn’t guess, but he believed it worth a try. “Do you know what’s going on with Souji and Harada?”

Her brows, so like Hajime’s, rose in surprise at the question. “Is that any of your business?”

“Uh, no…” Sano scratched his head. “I’m just curious.”

She smirked. “You must come from a small town.”

“City people gossip too!” he protested. “I should know: I’ve spent the last two weeks — uh, four weeks — poking around for it around here!”

She studied him, her mouth still quirked. “I suppose it can’t hurt to tell you,” she said at last. And did this mean she’d begun to trust him? “Based on the letters I’ve received from Hajime,” she went on, but here Sano interrupted:

“Hajime gossips to you in letters?”

She gave a brief laugh. “Fine. You’ve made your point.” And she went on without further comment on that sub-topic. “When Souji first became a royal knight and met Sanosuke — excuse me; Harada — he expressed immediate interest in him. Harada didn’t like him at first, and turned him down. If Souji hadn’t moved so quickly, it might have gone differently.”

“Huh.” Sano wouldn’t have thought that all there was to it — and in fact couldn’t believe it. “But they still act like–”

“It didn’t end there. According to Hajime, Harada has developed a reciprocal interest in Souji over the last two years, but now Souji is holding a grudge. You saw the way Harada acts; Souji can’t believe he’s not mocking him for his original interest. And Harada probably believes it’s a lost cause by now. So they behave like an old married couple with none of the benefits of an actual relationship. I’ve only met them a few times, but they’ve always acted like that in my presence.”

“Oh, shit, that makes so much sense,” Sano chuckled. “Yeah, that’s exactly how they acted.”

With another, faint smirk she added, “It irritates Hajime, but he refuses to mediate.”

“That’s what it’s gonna take, though, isn’t it?”

She shrugged. “That, or someone else intervening. I’m certainly not going to, and I’d advise you to stay out of it as well.”

“Ladies, you people are so loud,” came Chou’s voice from the doorway into the next room. He entered, yawning, eyes fixed on Sano’s glowing blade rather than on either of the living humans in the main chamber, and plopped down onto the bench at the table next to Sano. He wore a bright yellow shiiya with a wide red stripe down the neckline decorated with orange tassels, and his hair, though a mess, stood up as persistently as ever. Tokio’s eyes narrowed with interest as she looked at him.

“Tokio,” Sano said, catching Chou’s yawn and speaking through it, “this is Chou from Etoronai. Chou, this is Tokio, the Visitant.”

Tokio restrained her own yawn and said, “Ladies’ blessings on you.”

“Sure, sure. Lemme see your keonblade, Sano.”

“Have you seen Katsu?” Sano wondered as he handed it over. The light went out immediately and did not reappear; Chou, no keonmaster, would have a hard time examining it in the dark.

“Yeah, he was by earlier. Worried as shit about you.” It sounded as if Chou’s currently ungloved hands slid over the blade he couldn’t see. “Why don’t you keep this sharp?”

Needled by the accusatory tone, Sano replied, “What do you know about keonblades?”

It had been unfortunately worded, for Chou immediately began to tell them.

Sano’s head drooped like his stinging eyelids, and Tokio (perhaps in the same state) hadn’t said a word in he couldn’t remember how long, by the time a nearby sound interrupted the lecture and sent all their attention toward the entry. Sano felt the hilt of his sword pressed reluctantly back into his hand (though it hit his unseen elbow first), but didn’t relight it until he heard the voice his heart yearned for call down, “Are you all sitting in the dark?”

“Yes,” Tokio replied. “Come join us.” Then she, along with Chou, grunted in annoyance as the keonblade flared bright with Sano’s joy that Hajime had made it here safely.

Sano restrained himself from jumping up and running to Hajime as his form became visible descending the ladder followed by Eiji, but he studied him carefully for signs of how his trip had gone. There were none beyond a blade of ryegrass adhering to his pants, and Sano then had to restrain himself from letting out a loud sigh of relief.

With the secret opening closed again, Hajime added the light of his own (stolen) keonblade to Sano’s, and Eiji came to sit beside his mother. The kid appeared wearier now than earlier, and Sano guessed the tramp across rougher country had worn him out far more than long walks on flattish roads generally did. Tokio put her arm around his shoulders, and he leaned against her.

Chou got in before anyone else could speak. “So you’re Hajime, huh? You won that big tournament a while back?”

Hajime looked at him, scrutinized him up and down, and with a raised brow said, “And you must be Chou.”

“Yeah. Lemme see your keonblade.”

The knight turned from him without responding, toward Sano and his sister.

“Chou has been educating us on the history and maintenance of keonblades,” Tokio said, with a solemnity a touch different than her usual seriousness.

“Hn.” Whether this sound expressed amusement or disdain, Sano didn’t know.

Next Hajime moved around the main room and put his head (and light) into the other chambers. “This is smaller than I expected,” he remarked.

Sano laughed quietly.

Returning to the table, Hajime looked down at them all again, though he didn’t take a seat. “We need to make specific plans. Sano, when is your friend likely to appear?”

It was Chou that answered, still eyeing covetously the blade that had come from the first-wash of Misao. “He usually comes in the evening, after work. Sometimes he’s here in the morning before work, but if he doesn’t know fruit-boy’s back, he probably won’t tomorrow.” Maybe he thought that by providing real information, he could convince Hajime to let him examine the short sword.

But Hajime only nodded. “Then there’s no use sitting up and trying to make plans now. Let’s all get some rest.”

Tokio mimicked the nod and stood. Eiji swayed when her support was removed from beside him.

Sano hesitated. There was the matter of ‘fruit-boy’ to deal with, but that could wait. Right now, it appeared, doom had come upon him: the time when he would first sleep near Hajime after having realized the depth and nature of his feelings. He rose slowly, thoughts in a whirl.

That he absolutely would reveal the truth in a shared dream was not guaranteed, but he believed it a pretty sure thing. He couldn’t refrain from sleeping: the day had completely worn him out, as his wounds from the scuffle with that third-wash let him know in no uncertain terms. He couldn’t go somewhere else to sleep. He couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) convince Hajime to do so. What it came down to was tied hands: he couldn’t do anything about this. He could only get it over with and weather the result.

He lifted his head, and found the knight looking at him. Sano knew he blushed, but hoped the imperfect light would hide it. And abruptly a fear he hadn’t considered before hit him right in the gut.

Did Hajime even take any interest in romance? Let alone what he thought of Sano specifically, this point had yet to be resolved. And the irritation he demonstrated regarding his subordinate knights’ proto-relationship, his unwillingness to prod them where he could, suggested not only that he put duty first (which Sano had already known) but that he expected others around him to keep their romantic drama out of his way. Would he gain an unprecedented level of irritation with his companion when he learned how Sano felt?

And then, out of nowhere, Hajime smiled at him. A brief expression, yes, immediately replaced by his usual dark thoughtfulness… but Sano suddenly understood what people meant when they talked about fluttering hearts and knees going weak. Hajime’s smile was… was… there was no word for it.

“If I’m not mistaken, the blankets in there–” Hajime gestured at the gaping hole that was the doorway into the next room– “are the same you took from Seijuurou’s house and never folded once all the way to Enca.”

Stumbling from the bench and struggling to regain his balance, Sano found himself smiling as well as he agreed hoarsely, “Yeah. Yeah, they’re the same ones.”

“We’ll let Eiji use one. I assume you’d like to fight for the other.”

His smile widening into a grin, Sano replied, “Afraid you’ll have to fight Chou for it; he’s been using them both when I’m not here.”

Hajime’s eyes narrowed as he turned toward the doorway. “We’ll see about that.”

How ironic that Hajime himself, at the last minute, should strengthen Sano’s resolve to deal with the knight’s potential disapproval and annoyance! Sano followed him, now determined. What would happen would happen, and he would shy away from it no longer.


Haute Coauteur

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis… and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

Clark can’t figure out why Lois, not usually given to writing gossip articles, has just come up with this fluff piece about a couple of villains at a nightclub.


Since Clark was driving, Lois answered the call and put it on speaker. This particular ‘Unknown Number’ they always answered, in preference to the ‘Unknown number’ that occasionally got past their spam blockers, and the voice that immediately sounded over the line was terse and offered no greeting.

“Poison Ivy’s at the house.”

Clark and Lois threw each other raised-eyebrow looks.

With a smile and a shake of head Clark said, “Haven’t I asked you to keep your villains out of my city?”

“I’d be happy just to keep them out of your home,” Batman grumbled.

I’d be interested in knowing how you know Poison Ivy’s in our home,” Lois put in.

An explosion sounded in the background just then, and Batman used this extremely plausible excuse to evade the question. “I’m in the middle of something. Clark, can you deal with her?”

“Ivy, or me?” Lois wondered.

“Ha ha.” On this sarcastic note, Batman disconnected.

Clark chuckled and pulled the car over into a maintenance side-tunnel, ill-lit and soon blocked off but sufficient for their purposes, off the main tunnel they were traversing. “We’re going to have to have a talk with him about what kind of secret security measures we’ve been living with all this time,” he remarked as he undid his seat belt and opened his door.

“After he promised it was a normal house,” said Lois with a lop-sided smile, emerging as well.

Clark, buttons already completely undone, met her with a quick kiss as she came over to the driver’s side. “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t let her kiss you,” she advised, throwing his tie into the car behind her to join the rest of his civilian clothing his much quicker hands had sent ahead of it. Then she watched him fly off, hugging the tunnel’s ceiling so as not to be seen, before getting back into the car and resuming her progress toward the job she would now be doing alone.

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis. Of course she worried about Batman and his explosions… and there was always the off chance Poison Ivy might have some devious plot that would temporarily get the better of Superman… and the fact that such a villain had shown up at their house at all was a little worrisome… but mostly Lois was able to concentrate on the story she and Clark had been sent to follow up on, and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

***

They not infrequently teased Bruce that he did have a superpower: convincingly pretending he wasn’t exhausted when every other indicator said he was. This morning, however, Lois, who’d had the same hour and a half of sleep and had only risen now to see him and Clark off, was drooping too hazily toward her omelet to come up with anything facetious to say.

In fact she was so near sleeping in a sitting position that she hadn’t even noticed Clark with his tablet out, something he only did when breakfast conversation lagged. She perked up just a little, though, when he presently remarked, “Now I see where you two went last night.”

Lois, relieved she’d made the deadline for the morning edition — it helped she’d written much of her story before the fact — remarked with a yawn, “I didn’t know you read the society page.”

He grinned at her. “I read pretty fast.”

“We both read all your articles no matter which section they appear in,” Bruce murmured into his coffee.

Lois smiled and turned a little more attention toward her breakfast.

“There’s some of this I don’t understand, though…” Clark’s grin slowly turned upside-down as he scrolled back to what was apparently a difficult part. “Dr. Isley wore Elie Saab…” His frown grew. “…a clingy knit frock spliced with lace…” His brows lowered. “…ruffles in turquoise broderie anglaise…” He lifted a bewildered face toward Lois. “Is this part in English?”

Bruce chuckled quietly.

***

Lois’s inurement notwithstanding, when both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn intercepted her on her way back to the Planet after an interview, she remembered all too well that one of them had been spooked off her property by Superman earlier this week.

There’s my star reporter!” Quinn, though dressed like a normal person and in fact looking fashionable and bubbly-cute, still managed to stand out like a beacon as she took Lois’s left arm.

Ivy, conversely, had a more restrained, elegant beauty to her appearance that fit her better to an everyday big city street; Lois wondered what she wore under that tasteful dark green coat, and whether she’d worn the same or something flashier when she’d been prowling the house.

“Good afternoon, Miss Lane,” she said, taking the other arm, and what Lois wondered next in some surprise was whether her voice was always this smooth and sultry. “Let us walk you back to work, won’t you?”

“Sure.” Lois threw each of them a suspicious look. “I love taking a stroll with supervillains.”

“D’you hear that, Red?” Quinn was grinning widely. “I’ve been upgraded!”

Lois was a little surprised at the fond smile that crossed Ivy’s painted lips before the woman spoke again. “We’re not in town for any supervillainism, Miss Lane, I promise. We just happen to need a reporter’s services, and Harley tells me you’re reliable.”

Lois raised her brows at the aforementioned Harley, who had, when they’d last met, tied her up in a giant bow and suspended her from factory equipment on a Lexcorp lab ceiling as bait for Superman. Quinn giggled sheepishly, obviously clear on the meaning of the look. “I meant it,” she said. “You’re a good kid.” And she gave Lois a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Am I,” Lois said dryly, slowing her pace a touch. The high-rising globe of the Planet building ahead was easily visible; she had no worries for her personal safety, but was overwhelmed not only with skepticism but also curiosity at this conversation.

“Harley and I are planning a day of fun and a night of drinks and dancing tomorrow,” Ivy explained, businesslike, “and we want to make sure it makes the papers.”

Now Lois’s raised brows were directed at her. “Legal fun? Legal drinks? Legal dancing?”

Ivy nodded.

“And you want me to report on it.”

Ivy nodded.

Lois tried to decide which of the numerous problems she perceived in this setup to mention first. Her desire to be in possession of all the facts before throwing out ideas eventually prompted a simple, “Why?”

“We want to make it clear as an engagement diamond that we’re together.” Quinn raised her free hand and crossed her fingers significantly. “A big, public day out as a couple, ya know?”

Lois blinked. That explained Ivy’s fond smile, she supposed, at the idea of Quinn’s having been promoted from ‘villain’ to ‘supervillain.’ It also clicked together some gears that began to spin, one turning the other and the next and the next, until the machinery in her head provided an unexpected output. “So you want to send a message to the Joker that he’s good and truly out of the picture, without actually telling him directly.”

“See?” Quinn wondered gleefully. “Didn’t I tell you she was sharp as a pencil?”

“The Joker doesn’t take bad news well,” Ivy said regretfully. “Indirectly seemed the best way to break it to him.”

“Normally I’d say dumping someone by newspaper in another city is about the tackiest way I can think of to end a relationship, but in this case I approve.” Lois stopped walking entirely. “And you want me, specifically, because I’m Superman’s friend and you think the Joker won’t try to retaliate against me for writing the story.”

“Superman’s ‘friend‘?” Quinn let go of her arm and made an exaggerated gesture of disbelief. “Come on, toots, you don’t have to pretend with us.”

Ivy smirked. She truly had an exquisitely beautiful face, that one.

With a sigh, Lois disengaged from their arms and moved toward a nearby bench. She balled up the old newspaper caught between its slats and tossed it into the trash can next door, then sat down on the cold metal. “I’m forever having to clear this up.” Forever perfecting this particular dramatic role was more like it. “I’m not dating Superman; we really are just friends. I’m in a closed relationship with two non-superheroes.”

The other women took the places to either side of her, both showing an almost professional interest. “You shouldn’t let supervillains know you’re not actually with Superman, you know,” Ivy chided, amusement in her tone. “It’ll make us all think you’re an easier target.”

“I couldn’t be targeted much more than I already am,” replied Lois flatly. “You must have noticed I have a supervillain alert at my house.”

“Was that what it was? I wondered how Superman showed up so quickly… I just assumed, as everyone else does, that you two are dating.”

“I mean,” Quinn put in, “there’s nothing wrong with letting people think that! It could just as easily be an open relationship you’re in, right? That’s me and Red here.”

“Just not with the Joker as an option anymore,” Lois mused.

“Exactly! He and I’re like pickles and strawberry jam.” Quinn kicked her legs out from under the bench, then held them perpendicular and reached to touch her toes. Lois noticed that Ivy watched her with barely concealed concern, as if she feared Quinn wasn’t yet entirely convinced of what she said and needed constant care to prevent a relapse. And just this made Lois determined to do what she could for them, off-duty supervillains though they might be. She’d spent far more time with the Joker than she’d ever wanted to, and if this was what it took to get someone out of his clutches, she was ready to play her part.

***

“Read us the description of Quinn’s outfit,” Bruce prompted at a deadpan.

Squinting at the screen in a very human gesture, Clark said helplessly, “I think some of that was Quinn’s outfit…”

Lois grinned. “None of my cell phone pictures do justice to those dresses.”

“They also don’t help me understand a word of this.”

“It’s only a few paragraphs.”

“A few paragraphs,” Clark declared, “more opaque than one of Luthor’s lead-lined walls.”

Lois and Bruce both laughed at him.

“But moving on…” He scrolled away from the highly confusing section. “I don’t quite understand whether this club is indoors or outdoors. People were using the pool in these temperatures?”

“I made it purposely obscure,” Lois replied, yawning again, “so it wouldn’t sound like it was my first time there. It’d be a rookie mistake to gush about the force field.”

“Even in the privacy of your own home?”

“It is an interesting technology.” Bruce had risen to pour himself another cup of coffee, and raised the pot to question whether his boyfriend needed a refill as well. Clark quickly blew the interior of his mug dry, then tossed it across the kitchen into Bruce’s waiting hand. “It allows for an open terrace all around the building, but keeps the winter out. The owner greeted me personally — one rich playboy to another — so I was able to make a rookie mistake and ask him all sorts of questions…” And as he returned to the table with two full cups, he began talking technical details about the low-power, light-bending force field.

At the first available pause, “I don’t like seeing technology like that used purely for the petty entertainment of the rich,” Clark said with a shake of his head.

Bruce shrugged. “Wayne Enterprises might be interested…”

“And the fake fireworks show was pretty cool,” Lois put in. “But that’s all the gushing you’ll get out of me.”

***

“Right,” Lois said in as businesslike a tone as Ivy had used a minute before. “What are your exact plans for tomorrow?”

“We’ll start with lunch at Bienvenue.”

The reporter winced. “That’s great for visibility, but is it going to get more or less expensive after that? Because it’ll be hard to convince people you’re not up to supervillainism when you start that high.”

Ivy’s smile was secretive. “Don’t worry about where the money comes from. Just be ready to write the story.” Obviously she’d caught on to Lois’s interest and willingness.

“All right,” Lois replied dubiously.

Quinn took up the elaboration on their plan with a gleeful glint in her eye. “Next we’re going to the zoo!”

“Less extravagant,” Lois allowed, “but isn’t it a little cold for that?”

“Metropolis Zoo has one of the best savanna animal habitats in the country! We’d be baboons to miss it just ’cause of some nippy weather!”

Again Ivy was giving Quinn that unexpectedly soft smile. “Besides,” she said, “the Metropolis Botanical Gardens are next door, so we can warm up in the greenhouses after that.”

“And you’re sure you’re not planning something illegal.”

“Absolutely.” Ivy’s gaze was very serious as it slid from Lois’s face to Quinn’s as if to say, “Can’t you tell I’m doing this all for her?” and Lois determined not to ask again.

“Then we’ll have dinner at the Calico Club, and–”

“The Calico Club?!” Lois could feel her eyes bugging out of her head at Ivy’s mention of this extremely exclusive restaurant and nightclub belonging to one of Metropolis’ richest, classiest socialites. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she added in a jealous whisper.

Smugly Ivy said, “Well, now’s your chance.”

“But… but… it’s not just money you need to get in… you have to be on a list…”

“Well, you’re ‘friends’ with Superman, aren’t you?” Quinn winked at her. “It should be easy as pie for you!”

“Hmm…” It occurred to Lois that she probably did know someone that could get her into the Calico Club… but it wasn’t Superman. Finally she nodded. “OK, so you start the afternoon expensive, and you finish the night astronomical. Drinks and dancing after dinner, and then you sparkle off in the same car to the same hotel. Do I have that right?”

“You got it, LoLa! Think you can handle all that?”

Not sure how she rated in having been granted a nickname by Harley Quinn, Lois said restrainingly, “Now, the next thing we have to think about is this: I can’t follow you around to so many different places. I’m not paparazzi, and with you two busy with perfectly innocent activities all day, it’ll make me look more and more desperate for a story the longer I tail you.”

“It’s a good point,” Ivy conceded. “And I suppose a story about our entire day might feel a little contrived in any case.”

Lois nodded. “So I suggest you choose just one of the places you’ll be at tomorrow, and I’ll find you there.”

“The zoo!” Quinn said, while at the same moment Ivy declared, as Lois had feared she would, “The nightclub.”

“Harl,” Ivy said gently, “if she writes about us at the club, she can mention that we were seen at the zoo earlier.”

“And mention the savanna animals habitat?”

“I… might be able to work that in…” said Lois tactfully, extracting her cell phone from her pants pocket.

“The Calico Club it is, then,” Ivy nodded as Lois composed a text message. “We’ll be there for dinner at around 6:30, and should be out to wander the rest of the club and do some dancing after about an hour and a half.”

Quinn laid her hands each on the opposite knee and said proudly, “I’ve been practicing the Charleston.”

Ivy’s fond smile was wide enough to be called a grin this time.

“OK,” Lois nodded. “Next point. I’m not a society reporter. I’m going to frame this story like I was there with–” she glanced down at her phone, pleased with the immediate response– “my own date, and just happened to–”

“What date?” Quinn had been crossing her hands back and forth on her flapping knees, but now jumped up onto those knees on the bench and peered eagerly at the reporter.

“Bruce Wayne,” Lois laughed, pushing away Quinn’s too-close face.

“I thought you dumped him like a load of rubble! It was all over the tabloids in Gotham!”

“We got back together. He and my other boyfriend too. Hasn’t that been all over the tabloids?”

Quinn shrugged. “Eh, sometimes you’re in Arkham and don’t hear the gossip.”

“Wayne’s a decent guy,” Ivy nodded reminiscently. “I once planned to make him into a tree when his company was part of a deforestation project, but it turned out he hadn’t authorized the project and called it off immediately.”

Lois gave a pained grin. “You’ve got to stop saying things like that.”

“He was nice to me too, that one time when I stole his car,” Quinn mused.

“And that,” groaned Lois.

“Our point is that your taste isn’t terrible,” Ivy soothed, “for someone who fancies men. What were you saying about being there with him?”

“Bruce and I will be there doing our own drinking and dancing, so it will look like pure coincidence that you two are there at the same time. Of course a good reporter wouldn’t pass up the chance to write about seeing a couple like you at a place like that, so it’ll look completely natural when I hand in a story about you to my editor as soon as I can.”

The supervillains nodded their understanding.

“The problem is, like I said, I’m not a society reporter. For a story like this, I’ll need to describe what you’re wearing and all that jazz, and I’m hopeless at things like that. I grew up wearing hand-me-down combat boots, and Bruce literally buys all my evening wear for me.”

Quinn collapsed in giggles against the back of the bench. Even Ivy, when Lois turned a glance on her, had one gloved hand in front of her face as if to hide a chuckle. Lois screwed up her mouth in an expression of sardonic and only a quarter serious resentment.

“Maybe you should have Brucie take notes for you, then,” Ivy remarked innocently.

Quinn’s advice, still laughing, was, “You just look at our killer outfits at the club, and it won’t matter what kind of boots you wore growing up! The words’ll just flowwww.” And she made a flowing gesture with her arms as if dancing the hula. “Fashion appreciation is buried deep inside all of us… it’s a girl thing!”

Lois wasn’t so sure about that. But what she was sure of as a girl thing was helping another girl away from an abusive relationship. So she braced herself, at the same time opening the recording app on her phone. “Call me a tomboy, then.” And she tapped the red button. “I assume you already have these killer outfits. Describe them to me in detail — and use all the fashion terms you girls can come up with.”

***

Clark could drink freshly brewed coffee (or any beverage, throat-scorching or otherwise) faster than Lois believed the laws of physics should allow. And in between nearly invisible sips he read out the final paragraph of the article. “As they finished the last dance Dr. Quinzel insisted they stay for — an energetic Charleston bringing a blast from the past to the ultra-modern setting — they also finished their night in the public eye with a passionate kiss. Rumors throughout the building suggest they held hands all the way down to where a Lamborghini the exact color of Dr. Isley’s rose-red hair waited to whisk them off to their hotel a very happy couple.

“The biggest thing I don’t understand–” Clark’s dash to put his newly empty mug in the sink and his tablet on its charger formed barely a break in his statement– “is why you did this at all. You’re not a society reporter, and I’m willing to bet those lead-lined paragraphs earlier didn’t actually come from you. And let’s not forget that you — and you–” throwing Bruce a somewhat accusatory look– “spent the evening spying on supervillains.”

“You say that as if it’s unusual.” Bruce was enjoying his own coffee, and Clark’s confusion, at a more leisurely pace.

“It is when she writes a gossipy society article about it.” Clark looked at Lois pensively. “What could possibly have convinced you to do something like that?”

“Does it bother you?” wondered Lois. By now she’d eaten half the omelet he’d made for her, but yawned widely before her next bite.

“Not at all! ‘Dr. Isley’ and ‘Dr. Quinzel?’ You know I love to see villains reform, and you writing about them so kindly and respectfully can only promote that. But I can’t help feeling like something strange is going on here. Were you under duress?”

Bruce threw a piece of toast at him. “Use your superhuman brain, Clark,” he admonished. “If she were under duress, would I have gone along with it? They are, as you reminded me a few days ago, my villains anyway, not yours.”

Clark caught the toast jelly-side-up and ate what remained of it in two bites.

“They’re my villains now,” Lois contended, “so hands off. I don’t know if they’re really reforming, but they promised they wouldn’t break any laws yesterday.”

“So why did you follow them around the Calico Club and write that vapid story about them?”

“It was vapid, wasn’t it,” Lois chuckled.

Clark just looked at her expectantly.

She hesitated. She didn’t want to say, “You wouldn’t understand,” because he absolutely would, with that heart of his, when she told him… but she didn’t plan to explain until after she’d spent half her day off sleeping and he’d returned from work. So finally she merely smiled and offered somewhat wistfully, “It’s a girl thing.”


This is set in the same world as A Lois Date, but since I haven’t come up with a name for the series yet, it isn’t labeled as such.

The brief descriptive phrases of dresses in this story are bastardized versions of lines from an article written by Amy Verner on the official Elie Saab website. I didn’t wear combat boots growing up, but close enough.

For a few more notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Rise Unseen

“Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

An acquaintance from school, who happens to be a Death Eater now, highlights everything wrong with all of Peter Pettigrew’s relationships.


“I have to say I’m not surprised to run into you here; you always were good at skulking.”

Peter, who had whirled at the first syllable, let out his sharply indrawn breath with a bit of a squeak when he identified the woman that had stepped from the shadows of a doorway and addressed him so unexpectedly. “Lila!” he more gasped than properly greeted. “I- I haven’t seen you since Hogwarts!” He should have stopped there, but, too nervous at this sudden encounter so close to Headquarters, he allowed the next question, and the subsequent attempt at repairing it, to slip out uncautiously: “What are you doing in this part of London? I mean, in London at all? Don’t you live in Kent?”

The witch leaned against the wall beside the smelly bins Peter had been in the process of circumnavigating when she’d appeared, and gave him the bright smile he remembered so well from school. “Is it really so strange for someone to come to London? Visitors from Kent aren’t allowed; is that it?”

“No, of course not.” Peter tried to return her smile, but his could never sunburn the way hers did. “Just a little strange to meet you in this alley. It’s a bit–” he glanced around, in part to indicate what he meant and the rest to break eye contact– “rubbishy back here.”

“Like I said, then, no surprise to find you here.” She flashed her teeth in a chuckle, in which Peter weakly joined. “But it wouldn’t have been a surprise in any case, because I suspected you’d come this way soon. I was waiting for you.”

His blood ran colder than the October chill could account for. Did she know? How much did she know? How did she know? And what was she in a position to do with that knowledge? Her intentions as a Hogwarts seventh-year had been clear, but he couldn’t be completely sure what direction she’d taken once school had ended. He certainly couldn’t blurt out his suspicions here and now, and all he ended up managing to say, faintly, was, “Back here?”

“Damp corridors do seem like the best places to find you.”

*

“What are you doing down here, Pettigrew?” The tone was cheerful and vaguely familiar, and, though Peter could sense the underlying bite to the words, even just the hint of a pleasant sound made the dungeon hallway feel slightly less clammy and chilly.

The face, too, seemed somewhat recognizable as its owner stopped in the doorway of the classroom she’d just been exiting. Yeah, that was right: she was in his year; he saw her in one of his double classes. Her name was on the tip of his tongue, but he had to speak sooner than he could remember, so he merely addressed her by house. “None of your business where I go, Slytherin.” It came out sounding a little less confident than he’d planned, and she noticed.

Her musical laugh echoed off the stone walls around them. “Not so brave without your swaggering friends along, are you, Gryffindor?”

Obviously she knew him better than he knew her, and Peter struggled to recall her name so as to put them on a better footing. Finally he managed it, as well as to come up with something to say other than, ‘Well, I was supposed to meet them down here for something, but they’ve never shown up.’ “No need to be brave when there’s nothing to be scared of.” He tried to make his shrug nonchalant, the way James would have done. “You don’t think I should be scared of you, do you, Sutton?”

“Of course you should.” Again she laughed, and again the sound carried two layers — ‘I’m totally kidding,’ and, ‘I’m totally serious and you’d better watch your back’ — and which he should attend to was as yet a mystery. “I’ve had a glimpse at our marks in Care Of Magical Creatures, and I know how much better I’m doing than you.”

“So?” In reality, though, Peter’s heart fell. He was only taking Care of Magical Creatures because his friends were, but by this late autumn of their third year at Hogwarts, Remus had less and less time to tutor Peter in difficult subjects.

“So,” Lila explained patiently, smile widening but eyes narrowing proportionally, “I’m a lot better than you at that subject. But even I’m having a hard time with fairy management. Since you’re down here, why don’t we go practice together? It might help us both.”

Peter hoped she couldn’t see the mixture of emotions that arose in him at the suggestion. He was surprised, he was suspicious, he was skeptical, but most of all he was interested. He’d had to worm his way into every study group he’d ever taken part in; he’d never had someone suggest to him that they might practice together. And with Remus, his usual recourse, more and more caught up in his own private struggles and with Sirius, Peter could use all the help he could get. But was she serious, or baiting him? There were other objections the idea besides.

“Don’t you have your own friends you’d rather revise with?” he asked cautiously. Most people did, after all; just because his own didn’t seem to care much whether he passed or failed didn’t mean hers didn’t.

She laughed. “I exploit my friends in other ways.” And she sounded so pleasant as she said it. “I think you have latent talents that will be useful in helping me get good marks if I can just help you bring them out a bit first.”

He simply couldn’t help smiling at her tone, even as she blatantly discussed the idea of using him. At least she was very straightforward about her selfish motives. “Do you really want to be seen with a Gryffindor, though?”

She shrugged. “I think you’re more than half Slytherin, but of course we’ll be quiet about it.”

That clinched it. He couldn’t imagine why she’d been watching closely enough to recognize the Slytherin in him, but she’d hit close to his heart. Even after two years at Hogwarts, he’d never been completely convinced the Sorting Hat had made the right choice… and if other people could see it, that meant he wasn’t imagining things. Interhouse rivalries were all very well, but if he’d gone to the wrong place, he needed to get in touch with his Slytherin side… and wouldn’t this be the best, the safest way to do it?

“All right,” he said. “But I don’t make any promises for what my mates will do if they find out.” It was more false bravado, and she knew it.

She twirled her wand dangerously, smiling brightly all the while. “Same here! Let’s go look into fairies, shall we?”

“I actually think I’m starting to get them,” Peter admitted.

“Good! I thought you might be.”

*

She’d taken his arm and was leading him the way he’d come with no slow steps. Now as ever it was difficult to deny her, and his mind was a blank in every attempt at coming up with an excuse for why he didn’t want to return this direction, what he was doing that he needed to get back to. He had to admit, though, it was nice to leave the alley and the smells of rubbish.

Lila had begun chatting about her shopping in London, the outlet they didn’t have in Ashford, and how she’d found just about everything she’d come up here for. She’d always been interested in fashion design, he recalled as she discussed the latest in robes and hats. It wasn’t interesting, and didn’t serve to conceal the minuteness with which she peered at their surroundings, and into the face of every passerby, and watched him for reactions to any of it.

“You must be meeting some friend around here,” she said with an ease belied by the closeness of her examination of the area. “Some of your friends did always seem the London types. You certainly did, so it’s lucky for you you’ve got friends in town.”

She couldn’t trick him that easily into mentioning where everyone was living these days and that most of them apparated over for meetings — nor how formal and deserving of the term those meetings were. But her very use of the word and her assumptive declaration that it must be nice for him to have friends in London left him a little tongue-tied. All he could manage was yet another weak laugh and a mumbled something about Sirius — who did, in fact, live here, as anyone might know.

She tossed her head. “Sirius Black,” she scoffed. “I’m surprised you still keep up with him when I haven’t heard from you more than two or three times since school.”

“Sirius has always been a good friend,” Peter protested, and forced himself not to add, “If you call treating me like an obnoxious little brother when he even notices I’m around ‘being a good friend.'”

Full well she knew, though, what he wanted to follow up with, and she shot him a bright smile. “Oh, yes,” she said airily. “Always.” She gave him a dig in the ribs; he couldn’t tell if it was with her fingers or her wand, it was so quick. “Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

*

From where she lay stretched on the sun-warmed stone of the disused Astronomy Tower, having rolled onto her back and away from the book she’d previously had her nose in, Lila asked lazily, “You’ve been spending more time with your blood traitor friends again lately. Have they ever cottoned on to us?”

Not about to admit that the process of becoming animagi he and his friends had of late illicitly embarked upon required a lot more time and attention from him than he’d expected, Peter chose to respond to a different part of her question. “I’m half-blood. You think I’m a blood traitor too?”

Her tone was still languid, and so was the little laugh she gave. “Being a half-blood’s bad enough.”

Peter let out a soft breath that was like the prototype to a laugh in return. Stretching out his legs beneath the relatively giant book on his lap so his toes pointed in Lila’s direction, and noting as always how stubby and unattractive they seemed, he let his eyes fall from the Slytherin girl and his own appendages down to the book’s pages. He turned surreptitiously to the later spot where he’d tucked the Marauders’ Map, and checked the immediate area again for anyone that might come interrupt them and, more importantly, spread rumors.

He tried to be the one carrying the map whenever he was to meet Lila, but lately he felt as if he didn’t really need to be: he doubted his friends would notice his absence, his location, or his company in any case. He was still around them much of the time, but didn’t know if they noticed that either unless they were busy with the animagus process together; they were probably just relieved he didn’t need nearly as much help as in earlier years with his schoolwork. That was largely thanks to Lila, whether she believed him a blood traitor or not, and Peter wasn’t inclined to deny it. It turned out he wasn’t half bad at most school stuff; he merely needed it presented in a different manner, a lot of the time, than conventional teaching methods offered.

Finally, though, he answered her original question. “No, I think they still have no idea.”

“Gryffindors have no subtlety,” she yawned. “They’d pay a lot more attention to you if they knew how useful you can be.”

“You mean,” Peter replied a little dryly, “you help me with what I’m having a hard time with, and that helps you understand it better, so then you get better marks.”

She laughed like golden bells ringing. “You make it sound like that’s a bad thing. Aren’t friend supposed to help each other out? And Slytherins? And better-blooded families?”

Not at all sure what to say in response to this, Peter changed the subject. “So are you getting this stuff about the Arithmantic Renaissance?”

*

He simply couldn’t help admitting, in a quiet, reluctant tone, “You were.”

She threw him her dazzling smile and pulled him closer, squeezing his arm. “I knew it; and I knew you couldn’t deny it.” She’d never ceased her intense scrutiny of the area, and now gestured to a muggle café that stood not far off — undoubtedly a spot where she could watch through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and note from which direction they came. “So let’s have tea like the old friends we are, and try to figure out why you haven’t contacted me in so long.”

He didn’t want her there, watching through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and noting from which direction they came, but it was so hard to say no. He fixed on the best excuse he could come up with. “Do you have any muggle money?”

She waved his concern away. “We’ll just obliviate them. Come on; you look a little peaky, and I’m dying for something chocolate.”

Uneasily Peter went where he was steered, a mixture of emotions and memories not allowing him to be as assertive with her as he wished. He relaxed a little, though, when, on entering the café, they really did embark on a simple and relatively innocuous process of ordering and obliviating, and even then settled at a table not immediately adjacent to the windows. Maybe he was paranoid; maybe he’d been fabricating her significant statements and pointed looks. Maybe they could have an innocent tea together as old friends that truly had met by pure coincidence.

In an alley full bins. In a rundown area of a city where neither of them lived.

Lila dipped a spoon into her tea and cast a patronizing smile of dismissal at the waitress that had brought it out. The young woman had not been obliviated, but obviously took instructions from someone that had, and now appeared a little confused. “Muggles,” the witch said with mild disdain. “They’re not so bad as servants, but it’s a shame they’re not magically enslaved like house-elves; they’d be so much easier to control.”

Peter drew breath to contradict her, but found he didn’t have the energy to voice an opinion he’d never more than half embraced anyway.

*

The seventh-year ball, Peter had heard, was dropping out of favor and might soon be discontinued, but that happy event had not yet taken place, so to celebrate the end of his stint at Hogwarts he was still forced to endure an entire awkward evening of being ignored and overlooked. James and Lily were sickeningly caught up in each other, Remus and Sirius were hiding somewhere together to prevent the latter being mobbed by girls (and a few boys), and all of Peter’s remaining friends were only such through the others.

Except Lila.

“You want to dance?” he wondered in an incredulous hiss. He threw a covert look at the group Lila had left in order to come seek him out — a rough set of Slytherins if ever there’d been one, including Rabastan Lastrange, Calliope Wheatley, Evan Rosier, Sirius’ annoying little brother taking advantage of the fact that sixth-years were allowed to this gathering, and, of course, perennial favorite Severus Snape. “What happened to keeping quiet?”

“We’re leaving school soon,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it much matters anymore.”

He sucked in a reluctant breath through his teeth, but after another moment’s thought decided, why not? He hadn’t anticipated being noticed by the other Marauders or Lily at all this evening anyway; he might as well dance with a Slytherin. And Lila was looking especially pretty tonight in a gown that went from black to blood-red, and smooth shining red stones (Peter didn’t know what they were called) in settings just a few shades lighter than her golden-brown skin.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s dance.”

Of course his skill at this was negligible, and he thought he caught more than one giggle from people around them as Lila clearly took the lead. But it wasn’t too bad. At least he would be able to say he hadn’t lacked a dance partner throughout the entire ball.

“I wanted to talk to you tonight,” Lila said as he struggled to keep up with her steps without stumbling or treading on her feet, “and this seemed like a better way to do it privately than dragging you off behind a curtain or something.”

Peter felt his face go red at the idea. “Yeah,” he said a little shakily. “Thanks.”

“You saw my friends?” She gestured with her head.

“Yeah?”

“We’re a pretty tight-knit group, and we all have similar interests.” Her tone was low, effecting the privacy she’d mentioned, but she emphasized certain words to indicate a meaning beyond their surface level. “We’re planning on sticking together after school, and doing some great things.”

He wished he could say the same for his set. But, although there was a lot of murmuring about taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good, if anyone had made any concrete plans, those hadn’t yet been shared with Peter Pettigrew the permanent afterthought. So eventually he said nothing at all.

“We’re going to be important and respected,” she pursued, “and we’re going to be winners. We’re going to be on top. Everyone else…” She gave her usual bright smile, but there was a touch of wry regret to it as well, and her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. “I can’t say how successful — or safe — everyone else is going to be.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Peter wondered, the voice he found at last yet hoarse and quiet.

All wryness, regret, and indifference burned right out of Lila’s smile, which now shone like the sun. “Because I want you to join us, stupid. You’re not too bad a wizard, but no matter what you decide to do, if you don’t join us, you’ll be in danger. Who knows what could happen? You might die!” Her light, tripping tone as she made such a morbid prediction was utterly typical of her, suggesting jest while assuring him of her deadly earnest.

He shuddered, having no doubt in his mind of exactly what she meant by all this. And her final point had preyed on him, in the shadows of his awareness, for a few years now. Taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good made for a gorgeous castle in the clouds, but here in this actual castle, in reality, he had to wonder just how suicidal such a course might prove. Wouldn’t he be much safer, indeed, as Lila promised, offering no resistance to the way things were going? Not provoking the wrath of the important, the respected, the winners?

And wouldn’t it be nice, for once, to be important, respected, a winner?

What chance did he possibly have, though, at being any of that? If he abandoned his friends and joined Lila’s in their quest for great things — even assuming they would accept him as readily as she did, which seemed doubtful — wouldn’t he simply be trading one group that ignored and undervalued him for another? Her promises should be made to someone less invisible than he was; in reference to himself, he couldn’t believe them.

So he couldn’t accept her invitation. Simultaneously, he’d never been able to give her a direct negative, and now found himself torn in two, wordless and awkward. He stomped on one of her feet three times in a row, tried to move the wrong way, and felt his face getting hotter and hotter.

She laughed openly at him, but as always there was a sense of friendliness to her mockery that kept him from feeling the sting as much as he otherwise would have. “You don’t have to answer right now,” she said a little condescendingly. “As long as you don’t do anything dangerous–” and she flicked a look toward the end of the Great Hall where most of the Gryffindors not busy dancing were amassed– “you should be OK for a while.” None of his immediate circle stood over there, but he caught her drift.

The song ended, and Lila released him and stepped back into a mock curtsey. “Send me an owl,” was her goodbye, and then she headed back toward her cohorts.

*

“So what have you been busy with these last couple of years?” Lila’s eyes sparkled at him across the rim of her teacup.

Peter swallowed, and accidentally poured significantly more sugar into his own drink than he wanted. “This and that,” he said, trying to sound casual.

Lila chuckled. “And some of the other thing?” She’d seen through him, as always, and they both knew what ‘other thing’ she referred to. She bit into her chocolate tart, which silenced her briefly. It might have been the perfect chance for Peter to attempt heading her off, but, as usual, he couldn’t think of anything to say to that purpose. He feared the moment of reckoning was at hand, the moment when ‘OK for a while’ drew to its grisly close, and a cold knot of fear began to grow in the pit of his stomach.

He was right. When she’d finished her bite, Lila asked in the same easy tone as before, “And your friends? What have they all been up to?”

Peter couldn’t speak.

She leaned forward a trifle, forking another gooey piece of tart but pausing with it near her mouth. “You remember the last time we talked in person?”

He nodded. He couldn’t stop remembering it, in desperate detail.

“I have all the same friends — and more — and they’re just dying to hear the gossip about yours.”

Trying to buy time, clutching at the wand in his pocket with his free hand just in case this went suddenly from coaxing to Imperius, he gulped his tea, then choked at its hyper-sweetness. Coughing into a serviette until his eyes watered did give him several seconds, but when he’d finished the artificially extended process he found her gaze still fixed on him.

Like the tea, she was all sugary sludge as she murmured intensely, “So spill.”

And that was when realization hit.

At the Hogwarts seventh-year ball, she’d offered him a place among her proto-Death-Eater friends merely because he was ‘not too bad a wizard’ and she had a passing fondness for the boy she’d used to improve her school marks. She’d never seen any real value in him, and if she hadn’t noticed he was doing better with fairy management than she was, back in third year, her eyes would have passed right over him just like everyone else’s did. And today she’d been sent to sound him out not because she’d developed a sense of his worth, but because he was viewed, when viewed at all, as the weakest link in the Order of the Phoenix, and she’d been more or less his friend for several years.

But now, in addition to whatever value he’d had all along (something he believed in but whose quantity he’d never been sure of), he also had exactly what she wanted. What her same friends — and more — wanted.

Sirius, Remus, James, Lily, his supposed nearest and dearest, those to whom it should have been a priority to encourage and support him… they’d never seen his potential. They’d never seen him as anything but a tag-along, a vague nuisance tolerated mostly out of habit and because he never did anything memorable enough to force them to pay better attention.

Even now, when he risked his life on a daily basis to fight against the rising tide of Death Eaters and for goals he didn’t particularly care about, his sacrifice of personal safety was never recognized the way that of the others was. Oh, Sirius was a disinherited pureblood… Remus was a suffering werewolf… James and Lily had a son, and He Who Must Not Be Named was after them personally… so of course that made them and their work more meaningful than little Pettigrew, who remained in the background toiling away like a house-elf… like a muggle… and likely to get killed just like one because his so-called friends neither noticed nor cared. He probably wouldn’t even get a Dark Mark above his flat, because he just wasn’t that important.

But now he had an opportunity to be important. To be respected, a winner… and safe. The moment of reckoning was at hand, and Peter Pettigrew would be reckoned up at a much greater sum than anyone had expected.

He stood abruptly, rattling the teacups on the table, and looked down at Lila with more confidence than he’d ever used to face her in the past. Of course he had to swallow his fear at the idea of facing someone worse than merely Lila Sutton, his sunny, conniving, manipulative pseudo-friend — yet he believed, in this suddenly assertive mood, he might actually be able to say no to her for once. But for once he didn’t want to. He was taking the step at last that would make him somebody, and somebody that wouldn’t be ignored.

And Peter thought he would always remember triumphantly the startled look on her face as he finally managed to surprise her with the blunt statement, “I talk to the Dark Lord personally, or I don’t talk at all.”


Co-worker Julia gave me the following Monthly Story Prompt:

Peter Pettigrew is obviously weak minded and betrayed his “friends” and gave them up to Voldemort, then suprizingly uses powerful magic to fake his death and make it look like Sirius Black did it all. I want the moments in his life that lead up to this. Did it start at a young age? Was he jealous of his friends?

I had several immediate ideas, but how to make them somewhat interesting was the tricky part. Add to that the health issues just when I got the prompt, and this took approximately forever to write XD

For some later notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



Voice of Experience

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.”

Sofia has a dilemma concerning her sister, and there’s only one princess that can give her exactly the advice she needs.


From the great ballroom doors into the shadowed corridor, the spilling light appeared golden and hypnotic, the spilling sound as sweet an invitation as a delicious scent to the hungry. Nevertheless, Sofia waved a negative at the herald waiting to announce her, and ducked into a side hallway under the pretense of adjusting her scarf with its huge emerald broach and the string of pearls winding through her upswept hair. Perhaps being fashionably late to your own brother’s engagement ball was not quite the thing, but she simply had to take a moment to calm her nerves and make a final desperate bid at overcoming her indecisiveness.

She smoothed her gloved hands down the rustling taffeta beneath her waist. The wide hooped skirts she’d run around in for much of her childhood were a thing of the past, and long, sleek, slender lines such as she’d often admired on classmates the Enchancia fashion now; but — aside from frequently having difficulties, even with Amber’s help, finding a design in that style that flattered her full figure — tonight the royal ladies, in honor of James’s fiancé, were all clad in voluminous-skirted ball gowns with a dozen petticoats inspired by current Avalor fashion — still designed by Amber, of course.

Amber. Sofia clenched her hands into nervous fists. There was a reason she’d requested a gown in green, Amber’s favorite color.

She checked her fan, checked her bracelets, checked her dance card, realized she was stalling, took a deep breath, and turned back toward the doors into the ballroom… and ran into déjà vu as into a brick wall. She’d mostly forgotten, but this wasn’t the first time she’d been through this precise struggle, was it? Back then she’d always worn purple, but the indecision had been the same… even if it might not have meant quite as much, to a child, as it did tonight to a grown woman. In fact it had been in this very corridor…

And as she recalled those events in greater detail, going right through them in her head perhaps as one last excuse to postpone her entry into the ballroom, she suddenly caught her breath, and heat rose to her cheeks. Because she did remember completely now, and she understood.

*

The music flowing from the great doors into the shadowed corridor enticed her, and the scents of the thousands of flowers Baileywick had ordered and painstakingly hung as decorations throughout the ballroom enchanted her, all calling out in hypnotic voices to come in and join the dance. Sofia, however, already late though she was, couldn’t quite bring herself to enter yet. Under the pretense of making sure she hadn’t lost her fan and that the pearls hadn’t somehow detached and fallen from her shoes, she sneaked off into a side corridor to calm her nerves and ponder one last time a question she hadn’t been able to discuss even with her mother or Clover for all she craved advice on the matter.

The fan was there, and the pearls were there, and pondering the question wasn’t any easier in this dimly lit hallway than it had been all week in various other places. With a deep and frustrated breath, she prepared to turn back and make her entrance, though she hadn’t made her decision, when a familiar warmth and light caught her attention and stopped her in her tracks. She lifted her eyes from the glowing, slightly hovering pendant around her neck, her brows lifting as well.

The woman whose figure resolved out of the shimmer before Sofia also wore a ball gown, and appeared as ready to dance as Sofia would be if she could get this question resolved. She smiled at the little princess, and had already begun swaying to the music almost before she finished materializing.

“Princess Anna!” Sofia couldn’t help smiling herself at seeing how eager her visitor was for the evening’s activity. “I didn’t think this was a problem I needed a princess’ help for, but I’m still really glad to see you.”

“I’ll help however I can!” Anna replied. “Oh, and Olaf says hi.”

“Oh… great! Hi to him too! I wish he could have come with you… I could use a warm hug right about now.”

“So what’s the problem?”

Sofia sighed. “I want to ask Amber to dance with me tonight, but I don’t know if she’ll like that.”

Anna’s smile did not alter, but her eyes seemed to take on a serious depth that had previously been nothing more than a sparkle of excitement on hearing the music from the ballroom. “Seems like all you need to do is ask,” she offered, “and then you’ll know!”

“Yeah, but I don’t know if she’ll even like me asking,” Sofia said awkwardly. “Most princesses don’t dance with their sisters at balls… Most princesses don’t even dance with other princesses at balls! It’s just not what princesses do.”

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.” And she dropped unceremoniously to her knees, billowing skirt and all, and reached out to take both of Sofia’s hands. She wore gloves that matched one of the lighter greens on her dress, which clashed with the purple of Sofia’s… and looking at the colors combined to such ill effect made the younger princess more uneasy than ever.

“Why do you want to ask Amber to dance so much?” Anna queried earnestly.

This was easier to explain. “I love dancing with Amber! She taught me how to dance in the first place, and it’s so much fun! I don’t mind dancing with dad or any of the princes, but Amber’s my favorite person to dance with in the whole world. She’s so graceful and beautiful, and we can talk about anything while we’re dancing!”

Anna gave the same nod as before, the one simultaneously impressed and pensive. She squeezed Sofia’s hands. “All right, your little highness, here’s what I think.” And Sofia focused hard on whatever advice she would give, knowing it must be especially pertinent if Anna believed she knew why she in particular had been brought here tonight. “I can’t tell you whether Amber will like you asking her to dance, or whether she’ll say yes or no. That’s all on her end. But for you–”

She suddenly jumped to her feet — no mean accomplishment without tripping over her gown! — and whirled Sofia around like a partner in a particularly vigorous Avaloran salsa. Sofia giggled as she spun, but still caught the rest of Anna’s statement: “If dancing with Amber is what will make you happy tonight, don’t miss out on it because you were afraid to ask! She might say no, but she definitely won’t say yes if you don’t ask!” And Anna spun Sofia back toward her and into the warm hug she’d just recently been wishing for.

After a few moments’ thought, the Enchancian princess accepted the advice she’d just recently been wishing for as well. “You’re right,” she said as she stepped away from Anna and nodded decisively. “I have to try. What’s the worst that could happen, right?”

“Right!” Anna pumped a fist in encouragement. Then she sobered, and her expression turned somewhat distant. “There’s one more thing I need to tell you.”

Sofia focused in again, which made Anna smile.

“This is actually advice for when you’re a lot older; you won’t really understand it now, and you may not even need it then. But if you do need it someday, think back to what I’m about to say, and maybe it’ll help.”

A little puzzled, Sofia said, “What is it?”

“It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in that ballroom. It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in the world. It’s all right to love her more than anyone else around you expects you to.”

“But why would anyone expect me not to love Amber?”

Anna’s expression was both kind and mysterious. “I told you you wouldn’t understand until you’re older. Maybe not even then. Just don’t forget what I said, in case you need it later!”

Again Sofia nodded decisively. The counsel seemed strange, and perhaps a little unnecessary or even redundant, but she thought she could keep hold of it until she understood.

“Now! Ready for some dancing?” Anna gestured toward the ballroom doors with a grin.

“Thanks to you I am!”

“Should I come in with you and show everyone how it’s done?”

Sofia giggled. “I know my family would love to have you as a guest, but I think it would be kinda hard to explain when the amulet sends you back.” And in fact, when she turned from the light spilling out of the ballroom to face Anna once again, that had already happened.

*

The great domed space shimmered from every wall, while the spinning forms of the dance about to end created a blur of gorgeous color. Sofia hardly marked her name and titles from the herald’s lips as the orchestra, now so much closer to her ears, called her again, this time inexorably, with stirring voices. Guests that stood still, like a garden seen from afar, lacked detail just as much as those dancing; the only clearly visible figure at the ball to Sofia at that moment was Princess Amber, resplendent and graceful seemingly at the end of a rainbow tunnel of light and sound.

“There you are!” Amber’s eyes swept her sister from toe to head, in the end meeting her gaze with an approving set to her chin at Sofia’s dress and accessories. “You could have made a flashier entrance, you know, if you’d waited until the end of the opening waltz.”

Even through her lingering nervousness, Sofia couldn’t help grinning at this very typical remark. “I didn’t want to make a flashy entrance. I just wanted to get to you before all the princes started crowding around asking you to dance.”

“Oh, they already did that.” Amber smiled smugly, but her wave was dismissive. “My card is completely full.”

Sofia’s heart sank. “Then why aren’t you out there now?”

“Because Prince Zandar claimed the first two dances and then disappeared,” Amber sniffed. “He probably wandered off to look at the Hall of Armor and lost track of time.”

This was it, then. The second dance would soon begin, and, with Amber fully engaged, now was Sofia’s only chance. Thanking Zandar from the bottom of her heart for his absentmindedness, trying not to show how deep was the breath she took, she screwed up her courage. She’d faced worse trials than this.

“Then…” She dropped into a deep curtsey, fanning out her skirt with one hand and holding the other up toward the gold-clad princess before her. “I would be honored if you would give me this dance.”

“Oh!” Amber seemed unusually tongue-tied after that one surprised syllable, and as Sofia lifted her eyes she found an expression of some confusion on her sister’s face. And even in the midst of the flowers and glittering lights and luxurious ballroom attire and happy visages all around them, the blush that then spread across Amber’s royal cheeks and the hesitant smile that grew on her perfect lips as she reached for the offered hand had to be the loveliest sight Sofia had ever seen.


For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Sketch: To Suggest

She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

On seeing a new set of Nathaniel’s drawings with a new subject, Chloé’s at it again.



Though truth and documentation would always be her primary concern, there was a distinct flavor of sensation to Alya’s journalism. And though she strove to be fair and as kind as reasonably possible, she liked gossip as much as the next high-schooler. She wouldn’t bother to deny it. So when, descending the stairs after class (by herself, as Marinette had pulled a vanishing act the way she so frequently did), she caught sight from that high vantage point of what promised to be a kerfluffle at the bottom, she paused and watched for two reasons: first, in case she might learn something of interest; second, in case she might need to step in and tell off Chloé Bourgeois.

Nathaniel had a marvelous talent for carrying a stack of loose papers while not looking where he went. The sound of their rustling flutter to the ground and under the feet of startled passersby had barely even settled before Chloé had begun the statement that had really attracted Alya’s attention: “Look, Sabrina–” snatching up a sheet covered in headshots and holding it between finger and thumb– “Nathaniel’s finally moved on from his first bad choice.”

Sabrina, under the guise of being helpful but the wicked gleam in her eyes seeming to reflect off the floor and make itself visible even with her head turned downward, had immediately begun reaching for the spilled papers. In so doing she bumped heads with Rose, who had knelt to do the same (though undoubtedly with much kinder intentions). The rest of the flow of students had formed a hasty circle around them so as both to stop stepping on the sketch pages and to observe what transpired.

“Let’s see who his new gross crush is,” Chloé declared, flipping her confiscated set of drawings upward and examining it critically. Her brows went down, and her expression gradually changed from eager disdain to frustrated confusion. “Ugh. I can’t even tell who this is supposed to be. Usually Nathaniel’s chicken scratches are more recognizable than this.” She tossed the paper down in a sort of Get this away from me gesture. “Or do you like someone so boring we can’t even figure out who she is?”

Alya, pressed against the staircase railing in an attempt at letting others pass, grimaced. She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again on the dozen sheets that had gone flying when he’d tripped or bumped into someone. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

I think they’re fine,” Rose protested, grabbing after three attempts the page Chloé had dropped as it switchbacked through the air toward the floor.

But Nathaniel sighed, bending to retrieve the last of the fallen papers. “No, she’s right, Rose. For some reason, not one single one of them came out any good. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.”

“What’s wrong,” Chloé said, never one to miss such an opening, “is obviously that you have a crush on someone who’s not even interesting enough for me to recognize.”

“He does not!” Rose, now on her feet, hugged the pages she’d gathered to her chest like a precious treasure.

At the same moment, Nathaniel said in frustration, “It’s not that! She’s very interesting to look at! It’s just that something seems to go wrong with every picture…”

“Chloé!” Sabrina gasped all of a sudden from where she too had risen and was staring intently at the only couple of sketches she’d managed to get her hands on. “I think it’s Juleka!”

Alya shook her head with a sigh of her own. She’d hoped neither Sabrina nor Chloé would pick up on that. Admittedly the sketches didn’t seem quite right somehow, so there had been basis for optimism…

“Juleka?!” Snatching one of the drawings from her minion, Chloé peered again. “No. Way.” And when she raised her eyes, she was clearly convinced. “I mean, obviously it’s not as bad as the bread-flour girl, but, really, Nathaniel? Juleka, with her corpse makeup and that awful dye job and those tacky gloves?”

More to the point, Juleka, with her preference for other girls? That Chloé didn’t bring that up meant she must not know. Alya let out a breath of relief that Nathaniel’s hopes and dreams wouldn’t be destroyed (yet again) by such a cruel messenger. Someone would have to tell him, though.

“I think we’re going to have to warn Juleka,” Sabrina said in a serious, almost pious tone. “I mean, Nathaniel already turned into a supervillain over one girl he liked…”

Chloé put a finger to her chin. “You’re right, Sabrina. Even if it means I have to talk to Juleka and try to stand her fashion sense for a few minutes, it’s for her own good!” She laughed affectedly. “I’m such a good friend.”

“You’re making a–” Nathaniel began, appearing awkward but not at all disturbed by Chloé’s barely veiled threat. But he went no farther.

“Nathaniel does not have a crush on Juleka!” When Rose raised her voice, it was more squeak than shout, but sufficient to draw the attention of anyone in the vicinity not listening. “And Juleka has adorable fashion sense, and I love her makeup, and I love her hair, and I love her gloves!” She stalked toward Chloé, waving papers in her face, free hand clenched into a little fist at her side. “I asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for me, because for some reason nobody can get a good photo of her and I wanted some pictures!” The tears that came so easily to Rose’s eyes sounded in her voice, but that same tone was unexpectedly assertive enough to have driven Chloé back a few steps with hands raised.

“Calm down!” Chloé protested, obviously unsure, just at first, how to respond to such a confident Rose. “Geez!”

Ever the loyal assistant, Sabrina dashed in here to help Chloé save face. “So you’re saying you’re the one with a crush on Juleka, Rose?”

“Yes!” Rose replied at top volume, retrieving the last of the drawings from the tormentors.

Silence fell around the circle, and now at last Alya began again making her way down the stairs, tensed for conflict. There were certain levels of jerkish behavior everyone had learned to tolerate in Chloé, but if she started throwing homophobia around, Alya wanted to be on the spot ready to smack her down. She’d never heard Chloé’s opinion on the subject, but couldn’t trust it to be a reasonable one.

As the inevitable muttering and giggling began all around them, Nathaniel murmured, “Sorry, Rose; I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s OK, Nathaniel,” Rose broke in, and as she briefly faced him Alya could easily see the tears. But then she returned her gaze to throw what appeared to be a very pointed look from Sabrina to Chloé and back. “I’m not too embarrassed to admit I like another girl.” And with her head held high, she marched from the open circle into the crowd and away.

Frozen in place, jaw slightly slack, Alya lost sight of Rose as a new sound from the crowd filled her ears: much louder mutters and giggles, this time with some shrieking and the occasional Ohhhhhh of triumph and pleased surprise thrown in. Had Rose, little innocent flappable airheaded Rose, just made a snarky implication about Sabrina and Chloé and silenced them both thereby? For they certainly were standing stock-still with scarlet faces trying not to look at each other.

It was a good five seconds longer than her standard before Chloé got hold of herself. The color of her cheeks altering not one whit, she demanded with less outraged certainty than her norm, “What did she just say about me? The very idea! It’s ridiculous — utterly ridiculous!” She stomped her foot and, still without meeting Sabrina’s eyes, called her to heel.

As they stalked away in a huff, pushing between students at the edge of the circle, jeers began to float in from miscellaneous spots around them, only rendering Chloé’s walk all the more exaggeratedly angry. Since some of the taunts were, unfortunately, as homophobic as the sentiment Alya had half feared from Chloé herself, she made a point of shouting them down with, “Aren’t you going to warn Juleka about Rose’s crush, Chloé?”

“No!” Chloé called back, and her words faded with distance despite her annoyed volume. “Rose hasn’t ever been akumatized, so Juleka can take care of herself!”

The interested students began to disperse (not least because M. Damocles had emerged from his office and come to the railing, wondering what was going on below), and the tenor of the surrounding conversation was curiosity as to how much truth there might be to Rose’s implication. Alya herself found it interesting that Chloé had so automatically assumed Rose to be addressing her when it could just as easily have been Sabrina accused of hiding an interest in her best friend.

Glancing around, regaining her bearings and trying to remember where she’d been on her way to when this had started, Alya found herself meeting Nathaniel’s eyes. Unexpectedly he gripped one of her shoulders and gave it a little shake, saying intensely as he did so, “Thanks, Alya.” Then he ran off, probably to collide with someone else and spill a second set of sketches all over the floor.

Since the only thing Alya had actually done just now had been to try to drown out the homophobia in the courtyard, she could only imagine Nathaniel had been thanking her for that. And the implication of that thanks, therefore, was clear. Alya smiled and shook her head, resuming her walk toward the cafeteria and mulling over everything she’d learned in the last several minutes. At some times it was harder than others to keep from turning the school blog into a pure gossip rag.



Rewatching Reflekta (prior to which this is set) gave me this idea. Though it’s understated in the story, I thought it would be incredibly sweet if Rose asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for her so she could have pictures when none of the attempted photos ever came out right. And of course the curse is still in effect at this point, so even Nathaniel’s drawings don’t come out right!

Oh, and did I mention how pansexual everyone is?



Aku Soku Zan(za) (6)



This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.

Last updated on October 28, 2019

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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.

“Ahou ga.”

“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.


For some notes on these story segments, see this Productivity Log.