Aku Soku Zan(za) (6)



This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.

Last updated on February 10, 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.


A Lois Date

“She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much.

Lois is too sick to join her boyfriends on the date she had planned. And though they, of course, enjoy each other’s company in any context, can they enjoy the type of evening she had in mind without her?

 

 

A Clark Date usually took place in some exotic locale that his power of high-speed flight made easily accessible: a picnic on the Serengeti with no worries about their safety in the presence of all kinds of wildlife; a swim in a secluded cove at some tiny tropical island followed by Lois and Bruce making love on their beach towel while Clark fondly looked on (or, rarely, joined in); a hike up a Tibetan mountainside with a gorgeous misty expanse beneath them and no concern about how much trouble it might take them to get back… In fact there was often a lot of nature involved in a Clark Date: aspects of a planet he was proud to call home.

A Bruce Date, on the other hand, tended to involve a lot of money: Bruce’s secondary weapon of choice. Galas, premiers, openings, exclusive red carpet events, and ridiculously fashionable private cruise ship parties off foreign shores where a third of the guests were royalty and the swimming pool was filled with champagne or something — Lois and Clark hadn’t even owned formal attire snazzy enough to hang out in the kitchen at such gatherings prior to Bruce’s buying it for them just so he could show them off at every rich venue he could think of and enjoy removing it in their private, unnecessarily opulent suite later.

(It was either this or downright stakeouts, waiting for some villain or other to show their face so it could be punched through a wall, with Lois almost frantically noting down details of the encounter for her write-up of it after the fact.)

But tonight… tonight was a good, old-fashioned Lois Date: rambling and casual. She very much enjoyed the other styles of romantic outing, but, unable to come close to matching either of her boyfriends in their chosen areas, had instead made her specialty the paying of homage to the long American traditional of cheap middle-class relaxation.

Of course it was difficult to get either of them to relax. Bruce’s definition of ‘casual’ was ‘going places as Bruce instead of Batman,’ and since Bruce Wayne was a high-society fellow, just convincing him to wear a polo instead of a button-up with a tie (and probably a suit coat) was an ordeal. And Clark’s idea of dressing down was a colored long-sleeved shirt instead of one of the improbably opaque white ones he usually favored — a style of garment he couldn’t abandon in public under any circumstances.

And both of them, no matter the context, spent their time subtly watching for signs of trouble. While in Metropolis, Bruce checked his phone for notifications from Dick or Barbara every five minutes or so; and Clark’s hearing spanned most of whatever area they happened to occupy, listening for someone to rescue or punch through a wall.

In fact Lois was certain they were doing exactly that right now.

*

“Stephanie didn’t react very naturally to the legal proceedings.” Bruce stepped aside after passing through the theater’s exit, pausing by the outside wall and a glowing movie poster advertising some nauseatingly bright computer-animated gimmick-flick, and pulled out his phone. “I’ve known plenty of spouses of accused criminals; they never act like that.”

Clark joined him with a smile, though it did turn a bit wry as he glanced at the poster against which Bruce was now silhouetted. “Not everyone is like…” His smile widened. “…some of the people we know.”

Bruce was not smiling. A frown was his typical reaction to updates from home.

“Besides, she knew all along he was innocent,” Clark persisted.

“Not all along. She had moments of doubt.”

“I don’t think so. I think she was just confused because she was so attracted to Roger in the middle of everything.”

Finally one corner of Bruce’s mouth curled up. “You always have to put a positive spin on things.”

“I believe the best of people,” Clark replied righteously, though his eyes twinkled.

Now that he’d turned the sound back on, Bruce’s phone chimed.

Familiar with Bruce’s various subdued text-tones, Clark said with some disapproval, “I thought she said she was going to take a nap.”

“She set it to send on a timer,” Bruce observed. “It’s instructions on how to proceed.” Again one corner of his mouth pulled up — the opposite corner, the Lois corner — as he added, “Looks like she’s not letting us off the hook for the rest of the evening either.”

“I’m game,” Clark declared. “Where to next?”

“Frederick’s,” relayed Bruce, “to discuss the movie.”

“It was a good movie.” Clark glanced across the parking lot, locating the restaurant in question without bothering to hone his vision for a closer examination of its distant sign. Lois had sent them with a gift certificate for the place, and it expired tomorrow — which (along with movie tickets purchased in advance) was the reason she’d insisted they go on this date without her.

Bruce raised a warning hand. “Don’t discuss the movie any more until we start dinner. Just talking about Stephanie’s attraction to Roger a second ago already put us off schedule.”

Clark laughed, and they started the relatively long walk from the theater through half a million parked cars over to Frederick’s.

There, they stood on the sidewalk and more or less gaped upward. Lois hadn’t mentioned this was a game-filled, child-filled arcade-style pizza restaurant with disquieting animatronic characters peeking around every corner.

“Bruce,” Clark said, watching colors race in a dizzying pattern around the neon letters of the sign, “isn’t there a heinous stigma that associates gay men with pedophilia?”

“I’m surprised you even acknowledge there are people so ignorant and cruel in this world,” Bruce replied dryly as three screaming children raced past them toward the doors they two adults hesitated to approach. “But, yes. I’m afraid it applies to bisexual men and panromantic asexual Kryptonians too.” Here Bruce’s phone chimed again. Not yet having returned it to his pocket, he was able to read out the message immediately. “Now that you’ve rejected Frederick’s, cross the street to Wild Burgers. Make sure one of you gets the Piggyback, because that’s my favorite.

Both brows raised, Clark laughed incredulously, and Bruce even joined him for a moment. “She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much, then began scanning the even more distant shopping center across the street to find the new and hopefully much more appropriate restaurant. This time he was careful to study it in detail.

Bruce nodded, and with a half-reluctant gesture finally pocketed his phone.

A few minutes later, though, he was giving the menu at Wild Burgers a very flat look indeed.

Clark, probably examining the same item Bruce was, broke the silence with, “You know, I think she meant–”

“Yes,” Bruce said in as flat a tone as his gaze. “I know what she meant.”

“We have to do it for her,” Clark insisted, a grin growing, despite his best efforts, on his face. “If she were here–”

“But she’s not here.” It was impossible to best Superman in a contest of pointed gazes, but this wasn’t the first time Batman had tried. “Just doing her best to torment us from a distance.”

“It won’t be torment,” Clark assured him, getting to his feet. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

Bruce snorted. “The more attention we draw to ourselves, the more likely we are to end up in the tabloids again.” But he followed his own advice and gave in without making a scene that would only render the entire ordeal even more eye-catching, standing also and dropping the menu that read, among other things, Give your dining companion a piggyback along Piggyback Lane and win a free Piggyback Burger!*

Naturally ‘Piggyback Lane’ snaked around and among tables throughout the entire restaurant. The latter, though not exactly packed, was full enough that a cheer and much applause and laughter broke out the moment Clark and Bruce stopped at its head, which was marked with a checkered flag pattern on the floor. Sighing, trying not to look too sour and give these people even more of a show, Bruce obediently jumped onto Clark’s back as soon as it was turned. All employees present began clapping rhythmically with a somewhat spooky spontaneity and unison, in the which they were joined by most of the diners, and the race for a free burger was on.

Oh, well. At least Clark’s hands were on his butt.

Of course Bruce’s weight was nothing at all to Superman, and hanging on for the duration of the ride was no trouble whatsoever for Batman, but Clark did pretend to lose his balance a couple of times and come close to failing the challenge like the superdork he was. And the moment they’d looped back around and touched the checkered spot on the carpet again, the entire room erupted into cheers. Bruce saw with resigned dismay that many of the other restaurant patrons were lowering cell phones; he wondered, as he hopped down and allowed Clark to lift his hand into the air in a signal of victory, if any of them had any idea how valuable their photos and footage might prove.

Next they had to suffer through congratulations from the staff and questioning on whether the documentation of their jaunt could be added to the Wall of Fame (which request Bruce managed to deny before Clark could good-naturedly agree), and their drink orders were taken and at last they were allowed to sit down again in relative peace. Then it was merely a question of who would be eating the Piggyback Burger and who got to order something of his own choosing.

“Lois doesn’t even like Canadian bacon,” Bruce complained as he examined the components of the sandwich they’d won.

“But you do,” Clark reminded him. Bruce pointed an accusatory finger at him, found he had nothing to say, and subsided.

Once Clark had ordered his meal, and some extra fries for Bruce that came to just about as much (which was how the place could afford to give away free Piggybacks), he sat back and remarked, still trying to restrain the same grin from earlier, “It was a good movie, though.”

Bruce pursed his lips and then admitted, “Yes. Lois would have liked it.”

“We’ll have to take her to it later on.”

Bruce nodded, and pulled out his phone. Honestly at the moment he rather hoped the Scarecrow had just broken out of Arkham again. No such luck. In reality, though, had he found an alert to that or similar purpose, he would have been incredibly bitter that it hadn’t come five minutes earlier.

“You know Lois might have made us do that anyway if she’d been here.”

The Lois corner of his mouth quirking again, Bruce acknowledged the point. “But it wouldn’t have looked quite so ridiculous if it had been clear she was prodding us into it.”

“You care about public opinion too much.”

“You only have the luxury of saying that because you’re everyone’s darling. Nothing spoils your reputation.”

Clark lowered his voice. “Am I your darling?”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Does it feel nice to be able to win arguments that way?”

Clark grinned. “Back to the movie we’ve been instructed to discuss.”

“Yes, it was a good movie,” Bruce harrumphed, sounding, despite being glad to change the subject, as if Clark had dragged the concession from him with red-hot pincers. “I enjoy watching normal people deal with fairly normal problems every now and then.”

“And I like to see happy endings: good people getting what they deserve and living happily ever after.”

“You say that as if you don’t still believe in happy endings in real life.”

With a raised brow Clark replied, “It’s dangerous to imply that you don’t when you’re talking to your boyfriend.”

Bruce hmph‘d again. “I believe in happy middles; that’s all I’ll give you.”

“If Lois were here, she wouldn’t let you get away with saying that.” And Clark’s eyes had that sad slant to them that appeared there whenever Bruce’s fatalism reared its head.

Whatever each believed about the outcome of the endeavors and the course of the emotional fulfillment of sentient beings, they both liked Diet Coke, and once it had appeared at their table they turned their conversation back to specific events and character behaviors in the film.

Eventually, around the time their food came out, Bruce received another text from Lois: I hope the movie was good. And by now you better have scored a free Piggyback Burger. The next step is for Bruce to throw French fries and Clark to catch them in his mouth.

Appearing much more willing to throw food at his boyfriend than to be carried through a crowded restaurant to general acclamation and the clicking of cell phone cameras, Bruce nodded after he read this aloud.

“I should have seen that coming,” Clark said with some regret. “She always picks bits of pickle out of the relish and flicks them at me when we grab hot dogs on the way out of the Planet. I have to catch them, or else they’ll stain my shirt.”

“Sounds like ketchup is in order this evening, then,” Bruce murmured, pouring a generous helping into the basket next to his fries.

“But my shirt today is red,” Clark announced in triumph.

“Better catch anyway to protect innocent bystanders.” And Bruce lobbed the first missile.

It came as no surprise whatsoever that, as longsuffering as he’d sounded describing the recurring hot dog debacle, Superman was ridiculously, effortlessly good at catching food in his mouth no matter how clumsily or with what attempt at a curve it was thrown. Beginning to see why Lois enjoyed this so much, Bruce continually widened the radius of his attacks and the spin he put on each fry, until finally Clark had to jump to his feet to snag one that had flown upward at a dangerously acute angle. At this point he noticed more definitively how many eyes were on them and his uncanny skills, and he cleared his throat and leaned forward as he resumed his seat.

“Stop,” he admonished quietly, perhaps regretting showing off his preternatural fry-catching abilities to the uninitiated masses. “Too many people are watching.”

“You do care about public opinion,” was Bruce’s wry reply.

“Only because…” Clark let out a defeated breath and smiled. “All right, point taken.”

The Clark corner twisted upward in minor triumph, though Bruce reflected that Lois had really been the one to make the point.

*

How she had timed these messages so precisely neither detective Bruce nor superhuman Clark had any idea. The message that came in just as they left the restaurant said, Now if you head south on that same street, there’s a park you can walk through. Don’t forget to stop by the car for gift cards. And Clark was once again shaking his head in admiration.

“Lois thinks you’ve cleaned up these streets a lot better than you have,” Bruce muttered, “if she’s walking through parks in this part of town at night.”

“Lois goes wherever she wants to go,” Clark said ruefully. Bruce nodded with an expression matching the tone.

As they moved down the line of shops in the little strip mall approaching where they would cross the street back toward the movie theater parking lot, Clark paused. “Isn’t Lois a fan of that series?”

Bruce looked where he pointed. “Yes. I often question her taste.”

“Dangerous territory again there, babe.” Clark approached the crane game that stood in the entry of the store they’d been passing, and examined the stuffed characters within. Bruce, who loathed being called ‘babe’ or any other twee little term of endearment (as Clark well knew), followed.

“Yeah, I think that’s from that awful Netflix superhero show,” Bruce said with distaste. He glanced at his phone again and added, “And she wants us to hold hands.”

“Not yet.” Clark was digging through his pockets. “She’s sick; I want to bring her back something.”

“We’ll stop on the way home and pick her up something better than that,” Bruce insisted. “These games are mostly unwinnable anyway.”

Clark gave him a stubborn look. “For me? You really think so?”

It was in situations like this that Bruce outright grinned. Clark always wished it could happen at less sardonic moments and be a more straightforward, happy expression, but in any case liked to see his boyfriend smiling. “Go ahead. It’s your…” Bruce studied the machine. “…dollar-fifty a try.”

It turned out to be Bruce’s dollar-fifty a try, since Clark had no cash but the machine did take cards. Displaying a clear lack of confidence in Clark’s crane game skills despite his ability to catch ketchup’d French fries flawlessly no matter how they spun, Bruce loaded the machine with $30 — which Clark was certain was $28.50 more than he needed to get Lois a tacky little present as a memento of the date she’d been too sick to accompany them on except in uncannily accurate spirit. Oh, well; at least it would be a nice surprise for the next kid that came along and wanted to play.

Yet he found it took three tries simply to get a feel for the jerky, irregular controls, and thereafter another couple to sense the heft of the stuffed toy, which was lighter than he’d expected. Then, despite his minutely fine muscular regulation capable of far more crucial tasks than this, he just couldn’t manage to put together the three process components of aiming the crane correctly at the desired target, grabbing the stupid thing without it slithering free, and keeping it in the crane’s grasp while the arm stuttered its way back to the drop point. And he didn’t think it was his reflexes that were suffering in this instance.

“This is a very Lois Date activity,” Bruce commented after while, that sarcastic grin still on his face.

“It’s not responding right,” Clark groused. “It doesn’t react the same way every time.”

“I told you these games are mostly unwinnable.” Bruce shifted to peer down through the glass, trying to get a glimpse of the machine’s internal workings. “Would you like me to hack it for you?”

That was Bruce’s version of sweetness, but, while Clark appreciated the offer, he had to refuse. “I don’t like cheating.”

“I know you don’t,” Bruce replied with a shrug and then a clap on Clark’s back that turned into a brief warm rub of hand down his boyfriend’s spine. “Even when the game is cheating you. I hope you like giving up better, though, since I’m not putting more than thirty bucks into this thing.”

“As if you’d ever notice it was gone,” Clark murmured.

“No, I wouldn’t. But according to Lois’s plan, we should be holding hands by now, and instead you’re holding that stupid joystick.”

Clark threw him a smile, but kept trying at the game. And eleven attempts later, his patience paid off: the rigged device relented long enough for him to deliver the prize into the plastic shaft that led to the collection trough. There was a breathless moment wherein they feared it might rebound off the shaft’s wall and fall back into the sea of stuffed animals, but a jolt to the machine that definitely wasn’t caused by Bruce leaning hard against it at exactly the right place at exactly the right instant forced it the correct direction, and Clark was able to extract it at last.

And then…

“Actually I think that’s not from the show we were thinking of.” Bruce was peering critically at the outfit the super-deformed character wore. “That’s… from something different… I don’t know what.”

“I think you’re right,” Clark replied. And they both started to laugh.

“Now you have a story to go with the gift,” said Bruce, and, after a quick glance around, pecked Clark on the cheek. “Speaking of which, let’s go get those gift cards.” He was obviously tired of hanging out beside a gerrymandered game he wasn’t allowed to render more winnable.

Not long after, Clark sent his gaze through the thick layer of spray paint across a tall wooden sign to determine the name of the park they intended to enter. Apart from this graffiti, the place didn’t look too bad; a second sign, also unreadable to those that didn’t have x-ray vision, mentioned the name of the organization that had most recently volunteered to help keep the place clean, and it appeared the group was doing its job. A third sign, half of its letters peeled off and others painted in to change its meaning entirely, had originally begged park-goers to clean up after themselves and their dogs.

“Looks promising,” Bruce remarked.

“I’m not sure if I should ask ‘for what?'”

Bruce gave one of his sardonic grins and took Clark’s hand. They’d forgotten as they walked this direction that they were supposed to be doing this, and now needed to make up for lost time.

Like so many Metropolis parks in the evening, this one was dotted with homeless people settling down for the night or already resting on or under benches and trees. Some had ragged sleeping bags, some rickety shopping carts filled with all their worldly goods, and some slept curled up as tightly as possible with no particular means of warmth. The weather was mild, but that didn’t make it comfortable at such late hours not to have a wrapper of some sort.

Which was where the gift cards came in. If Clark remembered correctly, they were up to $150 each by now, their value having elevated significantly when Bruce had found out about this little hobby of Lois’s and insisted on joining in. That could buy someone a decent blanket, some new shoes, some non-perishable food… or several twelve-packs, if they so preferred. Bruce always anticipated the latter, Clark the former, while Lois maintained a position in between and added it wasn’t their business anyway what someone did with a freely given gift.

Stealth was one area in which Batman consistently bested Superman. They took turns trying to sneak the gift cards onto the persons or into the personal effects of the homeless occupants of the park as they passed them, but, though Clark could fly noiselessly, especially sans cape, he often couldn’t render his steps nearly so devoid of sound, and he certainly wasn’t a trained pickpocket. It didn’t help that Bruce could not, at times, entirely restrain his snorts of laughter at the startled reactions of the recipients Clark disturbed with his overly straightforward attempts. Meanwhile he slipped in and out without the rustle of a hair, leaving a little prize that would hopefully be surprising and gratifying when its beneficiary eventually awoke without his assistance. And every time they regrouped on the path, they joined their hands again before moving on.

They’d nearly used up the stock of gift cards they’d retrieved from the glove box of Clark’s car (in which Lois had insisted they come because Bruce’s was too nice for this kind of date) when footsteps that had been moving quietly behind them ever since they’d passed a dark set of bathrooms abruptly took to a run. There was the snicking sound of a switchblade opening, the faint prick of its point against Clark’s back, and a foul-breath’d voice mumbling, “Give me whatever you got.”

Clark started to look around in preparation for reaching around and defusing the situation, but Bruce, with a tired expression, lifted a hand. “I got this one.”

This was Bruce being sweet again: he knew how much it pained Clark to have to be harsh with misguided youth. And the undercover Batman had the guy on the grass beside the path in a move so quick and smooth it was nearly invisible, pinning him in an easy wrestling hold with one arm and a knee and pressing the would-be mugger’s own knife to his neck.

“Kid, this is stupid,” he said quietly in his Bruce voice but with the tiniest hint of Batman laid over the top. “Say you successfully robbed us — say we each had a couple hundred dollars. What then? A few grams of whatever you’re on and a pizza, and then you’re right back out here trying this again. And I don’t think I need to tell you that I could kill you right now.” This completely false threat undoubtedly rang entirely true with that blade pressing into his skin.

“So you’re out here running the risk that you’ll pick the wrong target every night for what? A couple of highs, a little bit of food? If you’re going to put your life on the line, do something big. Rob a bank; make a hundred thousand. Steal a really nice car and sell it. Genetically engineer your face onto all the fish in the harbor and trademark it.

Or–” here Bruce produced a gift card out of nowhere and tucked it into the back pocket of the young man’s ragged jeans– “go to Wal-Mart, get yourself some clean clothes, and some deodorant, and a toothbrush, and then head over to the rehab center on Patriot Avenue. Tell them Bruce Wayne sent you.” In a light motion he was off the kid and standing straight again. “It’s up to you,” he finished, and tossed the assailant’s knife straight down so it stuck, quivering, into the turf just in front of the kid’s wide, terrified eyes.

Bruce’s own eyes were dark as the night as he turned away and rejoined Clark on the sidewalk. Clark took his hand and held it tighter than ever, but said nothing. Sometimes there was nothing to say.

After they’d walked on for a minute or two, Bruce reached across his body to extract his cell phone without giving up Clark’s grip. It had chimed around the time when he’d first jumped the kid, and now he finally checked what Lois’s next instructions were. “By now you’ve probably had an attempted mugging,” he read out, “so you should call it a night.

*

The timed text messages had allowed Lois to nap with a clear conscience, knowing her men would dutifully follow her orders; but the laptop on her nightstand had continually awakened her again, knowing her story for tomorrow wasn’t getting done. What she needed was a stronger cold medicine that would knock her out reliably.

At about the time she expected Bruce and Clark to be done with their date, she gave in. She wanted to see them when they got back anyway, so she might as well work on her story until then. Seeking a comfortable angle at which to use the computer from bed for more than a minute or two proved futile, so she carried it into the office and sat down at her desk. The room was a little chilly, despite her fleece pajamas, but she shouldn’t have to wait too long.

“Why am I not surprised to find you in here?”

She looked up from her typing, a little startled that she’d lost track of time, to find Clark and Bruce in the doorway appearing handsome and (at least Clark) not too disgruntled after the outing she’d sent them on. “Because you–” But she was unable to finish her suggestion as she turned to her sleeve for a fit of coughing.

“You’re shivering,” Bruce added, coming around the desk to shake his head at her. When, trachea clear for the moment, she looked up at him, he bent down to steal a kiss.

“Yes, I’m shivering!” she said in a tone of protest, pushing his face away. “I’m undoubtedly contagious too!”

“Lois,” he chided. “I’m Batman. I’m not going to catch cold.”

“That’s not true and you know it.”

“It is for me,” said Clark from her other side, and leaned over for a kiss of his own.

Lois laughed, which turned into another cough, which pushed Clark’s face away in turn. “It is not,” she insisted when she could, “because you’re not Batman.”

“Semantics.” Clark waved a hand, then swept Lois up out of the chair into his arms.

“My story–” she said, reaching futilely for the computer.

“I’ll finish it for you,” Clark assured her. “You weren’t thinking of going in tomorrow, were you?”

She sighed and laid her head against his chest. “Well, I was, but now I think I see how this is going.”

“We followed your instructions all night,” Bruce pointed out, “so now it’s your turn.”

“I guess that’s only fair,” Lois mumbled into Clark’s red shirt. “As long as your instructions are for us all to cuddle up together tonight.”

“I was–”

She lifted her head and fixed him with a glare. “Bruce, if you say you’re planning to go back to Gotham and leave us here with me sick, I’ll never speak to you again.”

Bruce gave a defeated sigh, but smiled as he did so. “I’ll make you a cup of tea,” he said, instead of arguing, “and you can take some of the cough syrup we brought you.”

She returned his smile.

Soon Lois was sipping honey ginger tea that Bruce always made surprisingly well, while her boyfriends changed into pajamas in preparation for the cuddling she had more or less demanded in exchange for her calling in sick to work in the morning. She was pleased to see them putting on the matching sets she’d bought them when (after her initial exploration of each) she’d realized they were just about the same size; it was so cute to have them both in the striped pants and tops with the monogrammed pockets.

“We brought you a few things besides the cold medicine,” Clark told her, setting a shopping bag down near where she sat in bed. He began lifting items out of it. “A book if you’re up for reading tomorrow… this stuffed thing… a warm pack for your throat if you need it… and some animal crackers.”

Lois’s eyes widened covetously when she saw this last offering, and she grabbed the package without yet paying much attention to the other gifts. She hesitated before opening it, though, and finally said with a sigh, “I don’t want to eat these in bed and then roll in the crumbs all night.”

“I’ll catch them for you,” promised Clark. “Go ahead.”

Before she could do anything else, Lois had to cough and clear her throat several times, and decided to deal with the tea and the cold medicine — the really good stuff; these guys knew what she needed — prior to opening the cookies. Then, with Clark and Bruce right up against her and encircling her back with their near arms, she dug in. “I love these,” she mumbled as she began shoving pink- and white-coated animal crackers into her mouth, always selecting the ones with the most sprinkles first.

“I know,” Clark said, darting out a hand to catch the first of the crumbs (so small she couldn’t even see them) and a few dislodged sprinkles that fell. “Bruce wanted to get you some kind of expensive cherry cordials with rum in them, but I thought these were more appropriate for the kind of date we were on.”

Lois groaned. “Cherry cordials with rum in them sound amazing,” she said through a full mouth. And when Bruce made a triumphant sound and kissed her on the cheek she added, “But I think you were right, Clark. Besides, that cough syrup already has alcohol in it.”

Bruce sounded a little grumbly as he said, “He did let me choose the book.” And he too bit into a cookie, with perhaps just a little more force than necessary, sending a spray of crumbs out into the air for Clark to catch in a movement quicker than sight.

Turning her attention to the rest of her gifts, Lois picked up the book. Then she gave Bruce a skeptical smile and a raised brow. “And you chose a romance novel?”

“The guy on the cover looks like Clark,” Bruce defended his choice, his deadpan marred somewhat by his own full mouth.

Lois peered closer. “He does.” She looked over for comparison and found Clark blushing a little. She poked at his chest and yawned, “All right, I’ll read it tomorrow and see if he acts like Clark too. What the hell is this, though?” She’d dropped the book and picked up the stuffed character that appeared to have come right off a carnival barker’s wall.

The men glanced at each other behind her head; of course she couldn’t see their expressions, but she got the feeling there was a tale to be told here. “You’d better hear all about the evening,” Bruce said.

“Yes, tell me.” Lois leaned back, settling more comfortably into their arms, and ate another animal cracker. “Did I time my texts right?”

“All but the last one. That was a little early.”

“Oh?” she wondered sleepily, and rolled her head back and forth to look at first Clark and then Bruce. “Did he get the ‘What would your grandmother think?’ lecture or the ‘I can kill you fifty ways with my pinkie’ lecture?”

“The second one.” Clark, in the midst of extracting some animal crackers of his own, tried not to laugh. But he added loyally, “And Bruce delivered it very well.”

“We’re starting at the end,” Bruce complained. “That wasn’t exactly my favorite part of the date.”

This is my favorite part.” Lois’s head was beginning to feel very fuzzy indeed, and, despite the continual sore throat and pressure in her sinuses, it was in general satisfaction that she closed her eyes.

The other two made noises of agreement. “But the movie was good too,” Clark said, and began to tell her his impressions as best he could without spoiling it. Bruce joined in with his more cynical take, arguing against Clark’s opinion in places, and their voices started to blur together into a pleasant, incomprehensible lullaby. Lois wondered in drowsy contentment how long it would take them, after a few minutes, to notice that she’d fallen asleep.

The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

Could she tell them? Would they believe her? Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Three lonely years after returning to England, Jane Porter longs to find Tarzan again. And though she’s able to set out as a consultant to Elsa and Anna of Arendelle, who plan to search the same area for any news of their long-lost parents, will she be able to explain to them what she believes is the missing piece of the puzzle that brought them together on this voyage?

Unique to this story: Hints of racism/antisemitism.

Fog sneaked among masts and rigging, pier supports and walls, hats and umbrellas and even legs, very much as the African mists had sometimes done among the mighty trees and world of dangling vines and the subsequently obscure items of their own camp three years before. Each did unforgivable things to her hair, but whereas in Africa she’d been free to keep her pith helmet on as long as she felt the need — and beyond that hadn’t exactly had any social engagements — here the drooping locks that never failed to get down into her eyes would be visible not only to every passerby on the street, but also to the delegate she hoped to impress.

Beyond that, the fog chilled her to the bone despite the layers she’d donned against it, while the African mists had been a pleasant contrast to the hot equatorial atmosphere. She adjusted her hat, took a firmer grip on her closed umbrella, and pressed her unoccupied hand into a coat pocket. The crinkle from within as glove closed on paper acted as a sort of warmth, anyway.

She’d lost count, in recent days, of how many letters she’d received beginning with some approximation of, My dear Miss Porter, though I have the utmost respect for the scientific achievements of your eminent father, it is with deepest regret I must inform you… Just to have one that started differently, however desirable its proposal might or might not turn out, had lit a fire of hope in her breast as nothing else had during these increasingly bad years.

She would not, she believed, have received so many denials of her request for sponsorship if she could have said — or even in good conscience implied — that her father would once again be heading the proposed expedition. But his health had grown poor enough of late that she didn’t want him to risk the long voyage, even back to an area she believed had been especially salubrious for him, until she was certain it would be a one-way trip. And how could she know that without making a preliminary survey herself? How could she dare believe in the possibility? Was it within her conscience?

In any case, even with suffragettes becoming increasingly vocal in England and elsewhere, scientific expeditions headed by single young women did not raise much confidence — or money — with the various stodgy men of the Royal Society, or even the BA. And there was another reason the letter in her pocket warmed her heart: it was signed by a woman.

Though relatively uninitiated in the functionality and visual design of sailing ships, with or without supplemental steam engines, Jane believed the one to which she’d been invited today had a subtly affluent and dignified look while also appearing sturdy and practical. Her green and purple paint was subdued, and the carved crocus that formed her figurehead was a subtle rather than a glittering gold that didn’t immediately draw the eye. For her own part, Jane preferred bright colors, but for the conveyance of a delegation from a small norther country, this seemed properly unobtrusive.

The gangway stood extended and ready for her, and a figure, appearance blurred in the fog, waited at the top. As Jane climbed the oblique walk and kept her eyes steadily forward and upward, she took in more and more details: the stranger was a plump, fit-looking woman in her forties wearing a braided crown of red hair striped with grey and one prominent patch of pure white. This tight coiffure, along with her modish green coat over a short split skirt and neat tall boots, suggested an active person and an active function in the delegation.

The woman held out a hand as Jane drew near, and her pleasant face seemed to take the edge from the air around them with a welcoming smile and the wrinkled pattern of many such gone by beside her eyes. And there was something in those eyes — medium blue with just the slightest touch of green, the passion and energy behind them increasingly visible as Jane drew up to her — that thoroughly and abruptly engrossed her.

Jane had always been easily distracted. It wasn’t that she hadn’t spent her entire childhood taking lessons, tacit and overt, in proper behavior and social consciousness; it was just that as soon as she encountered something that grabbed her interest, she forgot herself. Staring silently between the delegate’s dark lashes, standing stupidly still without taking the last step off the gangplank, not reaching out to shake the offered hand, was patently rude, but so caught up was Jane in the seeming familiarity, the almost enchanting familiarity of those eyes that she didn’t even recognize the extent to which she’d lost her head until the woman spoke.

“You must be Jane Porter.” The delegate took that last step forward in Jane’s place and reached out. She did perhaps appear a little curious as to what had stopped her visitor so short, but only added, “I’m Anna of Arendelle,” as she shook Jane’s hand.

“Oh! Oh, yes, of course, good morning.” Fidgeting in response to her own behavior, Jane brushed a strand of damp hair out of her face, pushed her hat up by half an inch, and released both Anna’s hand and Anna’s eyes seconds too late to avoid awkwardness. “We’ve corresponded. I’m very happy to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m so glad you were able to come on such short notice,” Anna replied, taking Jane’s elbow and leading her onto the ship and across the foggy deck. “Though I guess it wasn’t such short notice for you, since you were already looking for a sponsor, but since we only determined on this voyage a few weeks ago, it seemed like a miracle when we came across your name. Come inside!”

Jane smiled to find her new acquaintance so chatty already, and allowed herself to be led out of the greater chill of the morning. “It seems we may be able to help each other,” she agreed as they went.

Inside, under a low ceiling in what nevertheless appeared a relatively comfortable cabin — the captain’s, perhaps — two more women sat behind a table covered in charts, with a man standing straight-spined nearby, his grizzled head brushing the beam just above him. Anna moved forward after closing the door behind them, gestured at the central figure, and said, “May I present Queen Elsa of Arendelle.”

Jane nearly choked. She’d taken a confident step or two behind Anna on entry, but halted as if on a sixpence at these words and gaped. Any other potential source of distracting interest — and she felt immediately there might be one or two before her — immediately slipped her mind, but that didn’t stop her from gawking at the indicated woman for at least one impolite second.

Not one tiny hint had been dropped in Anna’s correspondence that this was a royal delegation, that Jane would come face-to-face with the ruler of a nation aboard this ship. A drawing-room-sized nation, granted, consisting primarily of uninhabitable mountains and which she’d barely even heard of before looking into it on receipt of Anna’s first letter, but the fact remained that Jane’s preparations for this interview — credential, sartorial, and emotional — would have been significantly different had she known this in advance.

Queen Elsa said Anna’s name in a fondly reproving tone, and the likeness between the two struck Jane even through her haze of astonishment and agitation. This combined with the previous introduction ‘Anna of Arendelle’ rather than Christian name and surname struck Jane with the sudden realization that they were sisters. Anna too, informal and personable as she’d shown herself thus far, was Arendelle royalty.

“I thought she should know before we begin,” Anna said with a twinkle in those compelling aqua eyes. “This is Jane Porter.”

With a monumental effort, Jane got something of a grip and made her curtsey, first toward the queen and then, more shallowly and belatedly, toward the princess or whatever Anna’s official title might be. “Your majesty,” she said. “Your highness.”

“Please, Miss Porter,” the queen replied in a firm but gentle voice that mixed formality and welcome in a manner striking Jane as quite regal, “this expedition is a private undertaking; I’m not here in my capacity as Queen of Arendelle, nor my sister Anna as Princess.” She gestured elegantly to her right with one pale hand. “Neither is Duchess Judith Feinberg here in her capacity of royal advisor, but rather that of personal friend. I didn’t plan on mentioning our official ranks to you until we’d made all our arrangements, but–” shooting her sister a wry look– “Anna obviously had other ideas. I hope you’ll be willing to call us by name rather than title, or ‘ma’am’ if that makes you more comfortable. And naturally our good Captain Bengtsson–” with another wave– “prefers to be addressed by that title.”

While she spoke, Jane examined her more closely than she’d been able to while overcome with confusion and surprise. Queen Elsa of Arendelle appeared to be a little older than her sister, with the same slender figure filled out by middle-aged solidity, and hair gone entirely silver — on which she wore no crown — pulled up into a practical arrangement similar to Anna’s. Her clothing represented equal functionality in a coat of the same cut, hers of a deep purple with blue and green scrollwork in shining thread, and Jane had no doubt she wore, beneath the table unseen for now, a split skirt and stout boots like Anna’s. The only concession her garments made to her position was the embroidered crest of Arendelle on her left breast.

But her eyes…

They were the same as Anna’s, which Jane was beginning to think were also the same as…

It was that slightly greenish blue again, pure and clear, but more than the color it was the intensity that took Jane dizzily back to hot jungle days and a family of (mostly) gorillas. The depth of emotion, the penetrating energy of the spirit behind the startling irises and pupils… Jane knew it. There was little more resemblance in the soft, feminine features to the ones she recalled so clearly, but the expression in those eyes was the same. She would rather have liked to look over at Duchess Feinberg or Captain Bengtsson and take in what she could of their appearances, but couldn’t break away from Elsa’s face. She couldn’t stop the series of shivers that ran, one after another, up her spine.

Just as when she’d been connected to Anna’s gaze as if by a bar of steel, she only realized the queen had stopped speaking after some undetermined period of time had passed. She shook herself, glancing at last toward the princess and finding her watching this time with open curiosity. Fidgeting with hair and hat for a second time in five minutes, untying the latter somewhat absently, Jane took a breath and managed, “Of course, ma’am.”

“Please have a seat–” Elsa gestured at the cabin’s vacant chairs– “and we’ll discuss particulars.”

Jane obeyed, drawing up to the table so she could easily see the charts and other documents thereon, while Anna and the captain did the same at opposite corners. She hoped she could keep her gripping distraction under control and have a professional conversation.

The queen next swept her hand across a map showing the west coast of central Africa, a section of the world Jane was very accustomed to seeing on paper like this. “Our voyage, as Anna informed you by letter, is to the Kingdom of Loango, here, and, if necessary, the surrounding area. We understand your scientific expedition a few years ago was to that area as well.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Here Jane was on far more solid footing, and spoke without hesitation. “Our expedition to study western African gorillas, which was largely funded by legatees of the African Association, took place on the coast here–” she drew her finger along it– “about seventy miles north of the mouth of the Congo River. On our way there, we stopped in a European port in Kakongo — a dreadful place; full of slavers, you know — and stayed there for some time planning and making arrangements and gathering supplies. We stopped in the same area on the way back, and that was an even longer stay. A lot of the locals speak an Africanized French, which I can communicate in tolerably. I know a little about some of the local customs as well, though I’m afraid most of their dialects are beyond me. I am aware that Loango often resists European landings, but there are go-betweens you can procure without much trouble.”

When she looked up, she found both royal sisters as well as the captain nodding, as if this matched what they understood of the area. Elsa discontinued the gesture and stared down at the map with a furrowed brow. After a moment she sighed, looked up, and said, “During the reign of my father, Arendelle imported copper and a few other goods from Loango. Thirty years ago, disputes arose that threatened to break off all trade between our nations, and grew so involved that my parents felt the need to make a diplomatic voyage in person to settle them. They landed in Kakongo in order to approach Loango by land from the south, and dealt with their business there successfully over the course of several weeks. Then something delayed them. I’m sure you know how difficult communication is over such a distance and across such uncertain territories, so you’ll understand that we never knew what it was. But for some reason they only set out several months later for the return voyage, and the confused report we received after that was that their ship had gone down with all hands somewhere off the west African coast.”

Jane’s attention had been seized again by intense aqua during this speech, and as she found herself unable to look away for the moment, she also found herself thinking, I know exactly why they were delayed: they realized your mother was pregnant. Of course they wouldn’t risk the return voyage with her in that condition. And I know just about where their ship must have gone down. And I know your brother.

She couldn’t speak, not to acknowledge what she’d just heard nor to offer her condolences on the loss of three decades before. The shivers up her spine had grown so strong she was almost tempted to call them shudders, and she simply couldn’t manage a single word. Was it true? Could it be true? The phenomenal improbability of this coincidence, if it were, deafened her with the shout that it couldn’t possibly be… yet how did the saying go? Il est impossible que l’improbable n’arrive jamais? Science was full of improbabilities, and so, perhaps, was life.

That didn’t mean she could say a word, however. How could she tell them this on only the evidence she had? An area of the world, a timeline clicking into place, a color of too-familiar irises… Every moment her belief grew stronger, but with no other proof than a collection of impressions. No, best to hold her tongue on this matter until she was more certain. Especially since her own long-term plans remained hazy in the extreme.

Finally Elsa, seeing Jane did not intend to speak, finished her tale. “Events in Arendelle after our parents’ death led us to drop the connection with Loango as inconvenient, and we never renewed trade with that area of the world.” As a sort of aside she added, “We agree with you that slavers are simply dreadful. In any case, just a few weeks ago, a trader brought us what he considered an antique clearly of Arendelle design but which we recognized immediately as having belonged to our mother. It was just an old trinket, but it was our father’s gift to her, and unmistakable to us. There was a story connected with it of a sailor having survived a shipwreck and salvaged what he could on the west coast of Africa somewhere in the Loango area.”

Jane’s heart clenched. That they’d essentially taken one look at the trinket that had made a five-thousand-mile, thirty-year journey into their hands and immediately planned to trace that long course back could only mean they harbored some hope that one or both of their parents, even in old age, might yet live — and Jane knew full well they did not. And yet there was a relation for them to find down there, a brother so full of life he might almost put paid to those three decades of sorrow. But did Jane really want to find him again? And what would she do if she did? And why couldn’t she say his name even in her private thoughts?

Tarzan. Tarzan of the apes was an unknown Prince of Arendelle, secret brother of Elsa and Anna, son of the late king and queen. Tarzan was the trace of their lost parents these women were seeking.

Could she tell them? Would they believe her?

Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Rallying herself once again with great force of will, she managed at last to express her understanding of and engagement in the story, her condolences on the apparent loss of their parents, and her continued interest in joining their crew. She emphasized her qualifications and the manner in which she could be of assistance to them in an area with which she was somewhat familiar but they were not, and produced what letters of recommendation and credentials she’d brought with her.

As she went through all of this, she tried very hard not to get lost once again in Elsa’s eyes, and as part of that effort bestowed her glance equally upon everyone that sat in a convenient position to be looked at. And she was surprised and a little dismayed to find that there was another source of distraction in the room, as she’d suspected earlier, in the person of the duchess to the queen’s right. This was a thin, dark woman of about Elsa’s age, her bearing as upright as the captain’s but seeming nevertheless at ease. Still, from the fringed scarf covering her hair, to the coat as elegant and fine as those of the royal women yet cut to a completely different design, to her slightly but discernibly dusky coloration and the very features of her face, she did not appear someone Jane had not expected to find as a ‘royal advisor’ and ‘personal friend’ of the pale northern Elsa.

The latter took no exception to any evident distraction on Jane’s part, but seemed satisfied with her qualifications as stated verbally and presented in writing. She only regretted, she said, that they had not the means of financing a proper expedition such as Jane had been hoping to conduct; but she would be glad to take her back into a part of the world that clearly greatly intrigued her, and hoped the salary they offered would represent some advancement of her goals. Jane certainly wasn’t about to tell her that the first expedition had represented thirty years’ worth of savings on the part of her father and, before an untimely death, her mother, and the salary provided by one voyage, generous as Elsa’s offer was, seemed unlikely to make much of a dent in the sum necessary for a second. Elsa’s other point still stood, and it relieved Jane significantly to have secured a position on this ship.

Thereafter, a more technical description of the intended journey was given by Captain Bengtsson, and Jane, after sorting through the nautical terms she didn’t understand, generally agreed that it sounded sensible. They discussed the details of her employment and signed a contract, and her luggage — packed in advance for the type of voyage specified in Anna’s letter in case of a desirable issue of this interview — was sent for from her hotel. A tide was set for departure, and Jane was more than satisfied.

That night, however, found her hopelessly insomniac. Usually the movements of a ship under sail — between bouts of steam power — were restful and soothing to her, but mental agitation in this case overcame physical comfort even before the wind died and the engines were required for further motion.

She’d been assigned one of the ship’s two staterooms to share with Princess Anna, and certainly that formed part of her agitation. Anna had behaved toward Jane throughout the day with casual friendliness, and at times an almost sisterly comradeliness, and if she’d been anyone else in the world Jane would have valued her as a roommate. Yet she was royalty, and Jane couldn’t determine yet exactly how to interact with her. So she’d donned her coat, tiptoed from the room onto the quarterdeck, and found a spot at the railing where, not too blinded by the light of the nearest lantern that she’d avoided, she could look out over the dark water and up at the stars.

Royalty. Jane’s own blood ran a distilled blue, her father tracing his line back to a lesser French prince that had fled to England with wife and children a hundred years before, and this formed the basis of nearly all her problems. Not only did the pride of lineage her mother had always attempted to instill in her increase her uncertainty at how to deal with proper royalty in this context, it was that same pride that had driven her from Africa in the first place. “I belong in England… with people…” — those words would never have crossed her lips without her mother’s influence strong in the back of her mind reminding her of her place, her prospects, her deserts.

And now she was returning. Why, exactly? What would she do if she found Tarzan again? Confirm he still lived, then say a more permanent goodbye? Or turn her back on her dignity and become a woman of the jungle, bringing her father, in whom her mother had also felt so much happy pride, with her into the same darkness?

Beyond that, the aforementioned almost sisterly behavior at times displayed by Princess Anna made her more uncomfortable than ever with that second possibility. Did she aim to become Anna’s sister in reality? She had no idea what the two Arendelle women would think of their unknown brother if they were to meet him… What, furthermore, could they possibly think of an English gentlewoman bent on spending her life with such a savage-seeming man? Was any sort of acceptance to be expected, or would they withdraw in horror both from Tarzan and from the idea of Jane requesting Captain Bengtsson to perform the ceremony aboard this ship and them to return a message to her father in England that he should join her and his new son-in-law at once on the west African coast?

Returning meant she had to decide whether to seek Tarzan out once again, what to do if she found him, and whether to tell Elsa and Anna what she believed about the situation. And her mother’s voice seemed to speak to her out of the past, urging her to decide one way, while her heart seemed to be pulling her in precisely the opposite direction.

“Jane?”

She jumped at the sound of her own name and whirled with a gasp to find Anna approaching so quietly that her steps had been drowned out by the rushing of the sea beneath them. Her heart suddenly beat faster than the rhythmic rumbling of the steam engine through the deck. “Oh! Your– Anna. Good evening.”

“Good evening,” Anna returned, and her starlit smile reflected all the curiosity she’d never yet expressed aloud. “Can’t sleep?”

“I don’t much fancy traveling under steam power,” Jane admitted — and it was the truth — “but I’ll get used to it.”

Anna came to join her at the railing. “I can’t say I’m fond of that development myself.” Her interested face turned eagerly toward the stars reminded Jane yet again of Tarzan: always fascinated by the beautiful and impartially understood, no matter how commonly encountered. “But I’m looking forward to seeing Africa. How about you?”

“I…” Jane sighed. And if Anna hadn’t gone and hit near the very center of her reverie… “Yes,” she finally said honestly. “I am.”

“But you didn’t expect to be traveling with royalty.” Now Anna sounded half apologetic and half prodding: she did want to figure out what Jane’s dazed reactions earlier had been about.

At this Jane managed a smile. “No, not at all. In fact I felt in danger of fainting when you presented your sister; I really did.” And then, because she simply couldn’t bring herself to mention Tarzan just yet, no matter how much the friendly Anna wanted elucidation, she hastened on with, “If I may ask, are you two the only sisters? In whose care did you leave Arendelle?”

“We are,” Anna replied easily, leaning both arms on the rail. “And we have a whole collection of dukes and duchesses, including my husband, who are happy to look after the kingdom for us while we’re away. Arendelle is… unusually fond of my sister–” she grinned privately– “and when people heard we might be able to find some information about our parents by going to sea, they were tripping over themselves offering help so Elsa could go with a clear conscience.”

“That’s so kind of them.” Unsure what volunteering to look after a small kingdom on behalf of its sea-bent ruler precisely entailed, Jane couldn’t think of much else to say. So again she hastened on somewhat at random. “And the duchess? Does she have a financial interest in this trip?”

Anna gave her a puzzled look. “No, she’s just along as Elsa’s particular friend. Why would you think that?”

“Well, isn’t she…” Awkwardly Jane twisted her hands. “Forgive me if I’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion, but isn’t she…” She lowered her voice a trifle in order to finish, “a Jew?”

Standing straight and folding her arms, Anna stared at Jane with one brow raised. “Yes, she is. What difference does that make?”

“Oh, none at all, I’m sure,” said Jane, hastier even than before. “I’m sure the Jews are lovely people.”

Anna’s second brow went up, and her skeptical look took on a touch of disapproval. “Are you?”

Very seriously Jane said, “Please understand I intend no offense. To be perfectly frank, I’ve barely ever spoken to any Jews, and have no real opinion — if any opinion is even necessary. It was my mother who always…” She trailed off and sighed. It kept coming back to that.

Anna’s expression softened. “Judith is basically a member of the family, and sometimes I forget that the rest of the Christian world doesn’t have Jewish sisters. Was your mother particularly opposed to Jews?”

Jane pursed her lips. “She might have been. Of course she was always civil, but I’m afraid she had her prejudices.”

“So many people do,” Anna murmured.

“It’s hard to look back on her and know what to think.” Again Jane leaned on the polished wood before her and regarded the ocean. “She spent my childhood teaching me ladylike behavior and the rules of society because she wanted to see me a successful, accomplished, happy woman, and she loved me so dearly…” It seemed an imposition to be discussing such personal matters on such short acquaintance, but she wanted to offer some explanation for what she now saw had been a markedly impolite remark. “But so much of what she believed contradicts so much of what I want to believe now.”

Mrs. Porter had highly valued her husband’s scientific pursuits, and, given the longstanding family tradition of devouring any book one could get one’s hands on, had always encouraged Jane therein as well. But would she have approved of a young lady actually physically taking part in an expedition to Africa? Jane had often asked herself that under the green canopy she so loved as she bathed from a small basin behind a screen at their campsite.

Mrs. Porter had always taught her daughter to treat her inferiors with kindness and charity, but Jane wasn’t sure her mother had ever truly believed Park’s assertion that whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature. Would she have approved of a descendent of Prince Adam of France hob-nobbing with the people of the Congo area?

Mrs. Porter had stressed the importance of marrying a respectable man of good upbringing — and very hopefully of good family — that would treat his wife well and be able to support her at the level to which she was accustomed. Would even the blood of Arendelle serve to compensate for a complete lack of gentility in lifestyle and connections? No, Jane didn’t think it would. And that was why she’d gone back to England. She’d regretted the decision the moment she’d made it, but had never been able to reconcile herself to contradicting her mother’s wishes either.

Her voice trembled as she finished her explanation. “She did everything she thought was best for me, and I feel as if it’s disrespectful to her memory to abandon what she taught me — as if what she did and what she wanted for me are all I have left of her.” She glanced penitently at Anna and added, “But that doesn’t mean I have any wish to speak disrespectfully of anyone you think well of.”

A certain depth to the sad smile on Anna’s face seemed indicate both that Jane was forgiven and that this discourse had struck a chord. As she had that morning, she reached out to take Jane’s hand. Her own was ungloved, and Jane wondered whether living so far north made her less susceptible to the cold. As she applied friendly pressure, she said, “It’s hard to know what to think about my parents too.” Her gaze, even as it met Jane’s, seemed to withdraw, as if, though every word had weight, she watched far-off events rather than her companion’s reaction. “They did everything they thought was best for Elsa and me — especially Elsa — and they were, to be blunt, wrong. They loved us so much, and they tried so hard… but what they did supposedly in our best interests caused us years and years of suffering. I don’t resent them — obviously, or I wouldn’t be on a voyage right now looking for any clue to what happened to them! — but I don’t feel the need to cling to their bad ideas. I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all to let go of something someone’s taught you that was simply incorrect, even if you dearly loved that person and they you.”

Jane watched Anna’s eyes, so similar in color and energy to Tarzan’s, and considered her words in something of a stupor. Older and more experienced, royalty, herself married, sister to the man Jane loved and sisterly in and of herself, having been through something at least vaguely similar to what Jane had thanks to the misguided actions of a parent… Anna was perhaps the only person in the world that could have driven this advice home. She let her glance drop to where Anna held her hand tightly as if with an urgent desire to convey more gently the lesson her own past had so painfully taught her. And she suddenly remembered, with a fresh throb of the heartache that had plagued her ever since that moment, a glove flying from her hand in the wind and spinning away to land in the surf at Tarzan’s knuckles just as if she really had been letting go of her hold on her mother’s mistaken precepts and resolving to stay with him as her father had urged.

She hadn’t been. But could she now?

“Goodness, we’ve gotten personal out here,” Anna said, abruptly releasing her with one more squeeze and half a sheepish grin. “I’m so emotional all of a sudden thinking about my parents, and it’s been thirty years.” She laughed a little, but as she turned away Jane thought with some concern she saw sparkling around the edges of the princess’ eyes beyond what starlight could account for.

“Oh, dear. I hope I haven’t upset you.”

“Not a bit!” Anna was definitely wiping away tears with her back turned to Jane, perhaps eschewing the use of a handkerchief in an attempt at concealing the motion. “Not that I’d consider it your fault if you had, with me being the one to bring up my parents. Still, I think I’ll go back to the cabin now. Good night!”

Jane almost asked her to stay, but wasn’t quite to the point of pouring out the tale of Tarzan just yet, and so only returned her goodbye. She watched the spry figure disappear through the door that led to the cabins, then turned with another sigh, hugging herself against the chill of the night and the sea spray, to look out into forever again.

She kept picturing that glove, and how it had almost taken her back to him. But the other one had remained, a stark symbol of everything her mother had stood for, and once aboard the ship she had replaced the one she’d lost. And she’d never felt good about it. Now she imagined tearing off the gloves she currently wore and tossing them into the ocean below, throwing away that symbol and truly going back. She didn’t actually do this, since the cold did bother her, but one by one the mental gloves were discarded as she examined her mother’s truths and rejected them.

Royalty, or simply someone that had married a royal descendent, could make poor choices regarding their children, even coming from a place of love. A descendent of royalty could do unladylike things such as every single activity Jane had taken part in the last time she’d been in Africa. A descendent of royalty could get distracted by matters she truly valued and drop some of the trappings of polished society. A descendent of royalty could make friends with Jews and Negroes and not consider them inferiors to be regarded only through the lens of noblesse oblige.

But could a descendant of royalty marry a man completely uncivilized, unmoneyed, unknown to the enlightened world, and usually unclothed? This was the point where she repeatedly stuck, the glove that just wouldn’t come off.

She had squeezed herself into a corner and laid her cheek forlornly against an upright beam, in spite of the chill, and this time, rather than her failing to notice those that emerged from the cabins, it appeared they missed the presence of anyone standing in a narrow little spot beside the railing. They climbed the stairs onto the upper deck without seeming a glance in her direction, and moved to gaze out over the prow. The lantern on the poop revealed them as Elsa and Judith, strolling easily to their destination arm in arm.

Jane watched them forlornly, envying their easy steps and evidently easy consciences. Elsa had been, if not as warm and talkative as her sister, nothing but civility and grace, and the duchess’ politeness, though quiet, had never been tainted by any coolness or restraint. But they hadn’t talked to Jane as pleasantly and freely as they seemed to be talking to each other now. Their low, indistinguishable conversation nevertheless proved how intimate and comfortable they were with each other, and the dark sea surely had no such effect on them as it did on Jane.

She should return to bed, she considered as she continued somewhat absently to watch the two women in the lamplight on the higher deck. She had over four thousand nautical miles to work the matter out, and anyway she was weary from the long train of thought she’d already engaged in tonight. That should help her sleep, and by tomorrow night perhaps she would be reaccustomed to the movements of the ship under all varieties of power.

Frozen in place, however, she found herself abruptly stock-still as she would have moved toward the door to the cabins, staring upward with widened eyes, unable to take a step. For of all things that could have arrested her complete attention and even torn it from contemplation of Tarzan and what to do about him, nearly foremost on the list was Judith turning a smiling face toward her queen and interrupting the latter’s laugh by kissing her full on the lips. She withdrew only after several loving moments, then laid her head on Elsa’s shoulder.

That had been no familial kiss, and it was clear that when Anna had referred to the duchess as being like a sister, she’d meant only to herself. To Elsa Judith was obviously something different, something more. And Jane could not have been more astonished.

Oh, she’d heard of such behavior. Suffragettes talked about it at times when the desired freedoms of women arose in conversation, and of course there was the poetry of Sappho. But she’d never in life thought to encounter women living out a Lesbian tradition in front of her very eyes. It gave her an even greater shock than had Anna’s earlier words concerning the very real possibility of a loving parent making choices that would traumatize their children for years. It was… it was…

It was sending her thoughts hurtling in the direction of Tarzan again as if they were made of India rubber and now sprang back with a violence proportional to the force with which they’d been thrown away.

Because Queen Elsa of Arendelle, not merely the descendent of a prince that had (like so many royals and nobles) fled a people’s revolution a century ago, but the much-loved monarch of a nation, felt herself free to take a lover that would surely meet with approval neither from Mrs. Porter nor society at large — both a Jew in a Christian nation and a woman. She was not standing up there on that deck worrying about the propriety of her match, nor clinging to the poor decisions her parents had made trying to do what they thought was best for her.

Jane didn’t know how she felt about this issue of Lesbian love that had just exploded upon her, but had a sneaking suspicion that, as with Jews, she wasn’t actually called upon or perhaps qualified to have an opinion. All she knew was that Queen Elsa, someone her mother would have wept with joy to see her daughter grow up to be like in many respects, was following her heart.

Taking care to walk as quietly as she could so as not to disturb the sweethearts on the poop deck nor reveal to them that she now knew their secret — though, in full view of the watch as they were, the ship’s entire crew must be in on it already — Jane moved with a sudden warm sense of internal peace she hadn’t felt in longer than she could remember into the hallway off of which the cabins opened.

Inside her state room, she found her princess roommate and possible sister seated at the dressing table brushing out her greying red hair. A smile and those energetic crinkled eyes met Jane in the mirror as she entered, and Jane took a deep breath.

“Anna,” she said quietly, “may I tell you a story?”

My final November Quick Fics 2018 prompt, which took me approximately forever to write a story for, was from my co-worker Julia, who said, “Jane actually leaves Tarzan at the end of the movie and spends about 5 or so years trying everything to get back to him. She finally finds a way back because Elsa and Anna are trying to find him too.” Technically Elsa and Anna don’t know here that they’re looking for Tarzan, but close enough, eh? :D This one now holds the record as my longest November Quick Fic!

Blind Repair


“I still don’t see why you guys felt the need to put a pool here in the first place. This is literally a beach house.”

Zuko, Sokka, and Toph attempt to fix the swimming pool at the old Ember Island estate.

“I still don’t see why you guys felt the need to put a pool here in the first place.” Sokka rotated the blueprints ninety degrees and compared them at the new angle to the view in front of him with a critical squint. “This is literally a beach house.”

“That’s because you don’t understand rich people,” Toph provided, feeling her way slowly around the empty basin to get a good impression of the workings under the stone beneath her feet. She went from dry to drippingly sarcastic as she added, “Of course they’d need a swimming pool even though the ocean’s right out there. What if they want to swim in fresh water?”

“And ‘us guys’ didn’t put it here,” Zuko put in, perhaps attempting to evade the truth of Toph’s words. “This house is 75 years old.”

“Oh, so a generation into the war.” Sokka turned the plans again and scowled. “The Fire Nation sure sucked at blueprints back then.”

“I’m not responsible for either of those things,” said Zuko.

“I don’t know…” Toph suddenly fell into a soldierly rigidity, then transitioned stiffly to a firebending pose. No one imitated postures as well as Toph, because she wasn’t deceived as to the exact arrangement of body by clothing or gear. “You’re pretty naturally warlike.”

“Or unnaturally,” Sokka laughed, slapping his knee. “Toph, you’ve got that down! Do me next!”

Toph immediately went boneless, wobbling back in Sokka’s direction for a few steps before miming the throwing of a boomerang with a completely limp arm. At least she had the decency to do a catching movement next, though, implying a less than total lack of competence.

Zuko chuckled, then straightened his face back out again when he saw Sokka’s resultant outrage and heard his protest, “I do not do that!”

Having prompted the reaction she wanted, Toph doubled over laughing. “You asked for it!”

Emboldened, Zuko put in, “And sometimes you do kinda… flail…”

“You know,” Sokka huffed, “I was just about to say we know you’re doing your best to help end the war, but now? I don’t think you deserve it.” He buried his face in the blueprints again. “Let’s just figure out how this outdated pump system worked.”

“I don’t get why we want to.” Toph raised her arms, put her hands behind her head, and continued ambling along. She’d probably assessed everything beneath the surface by now and was merely confirming details. “Why not just have Katara waterbend the pool full?” She gestured vaguely toward the house, then resumed her casual pose.

“It won’t be a surprise if we ask her to help,” Zuko replied somewhat impatiently.

“Ooooh,” Toph hooted. “Prince Zuuuko wants to impress Kataaaaraaaa.”

“It’s for Aang and Suki too!” Zuko blustered.

“Ooooh,” Toph echoed herself. “Prince Zuko wants to impress Aang and Suki!”

“I do not!” Zuko replied even more loudly, blushing (though in response to which name was impossible to tell). “I just wanted… I thought it might be nice…”

“Chill out, hotman.” Toph’s tone was light but still mocking. “We all know you want to do things for the team because you feel guilty about everything you did before, but you should know by now you don’t need to.”

“I think it’s this way.” Sokka, who didn’t seem to be paying attention, said this uncertainty as he yet again rotated the plans he held. “Why did they have to make this plan square when the swimming pool is rectangular??”

Toph patted the ground with one foot. “Because the mechanisms underneath are laid out in a square, oh wise technician.”

“Aren’t there labels on the blueprint that indicate which side is up?” Zuko wondered.

“You’d think so,” grumbled Sokka, “but the instructions are all on this other sheet, and they just assume you know where everything is!”

“That seems like… really poor design.” Zuko scratched his head. “Sorry about that.”

“Not your fault. Like you said, 75 years old.”

Impatiently Toph suggested, “Why don’t we walk around the pool together, and I’ll tell you what I’m sensing down there, and you can match it up with your ancient diagram?”

“Good idea,” said Sokka, and they set off.

Zuko watched them make the circuit, undoubtedly aware he could contribute nothing and thus standing still. By the time they came back, Sokka was certain which direction was up, and beginning to think he knew where to go to get the whole thing working again.

He moved to a spot where the mossy flagstones were divided into smaller segments than in most other places, and started trying to pry one up. Zuko came to stand beside him, waiting to see what would be disclosed. But after nearly a minute and a half of groaning and straining and scraped fingers and really funny facial expressions on Sokka’s part, Zuko had to ask, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Hey, don’t ask me for help and then question my help!” the breathless Sokka protested. In some annoyance he added, in a different direction, “Earthbender! A little help?”

Toph gave a mocking laugh and shifted a toe. The stone panel swung upward.

Grumbling something unflattering about benders — though there must have been some other way to open the thing for those without the ability to manipulate earth — Sokka leaned over the cavity and began comparing its contents to his blueprints. “Yeah, these are the controls, all right,” he muttered.

Zuko peered in over his shoulder, eyeing the unfamiliar gears with a total lack of understanding. He sat back on his heels and looked around: first at the quiet house — checking to see if the other half of their party had heard them and might appear at any time — then, satisfied, at the empty pool. His eyes seemed to go out of focus for a moment.

“When I was a kid and we used to come here as a family,” he murmured, “how the pool worked was a big mystery to us. To me and Azula, I mean. It would be empty when we arrived, and the next morning it would be full. It seemed like magic to us back then. I wish that were the only thing my father never explained…”

Toph, standing at the edge, rubbed a foot contemplatively at the corner where it plunged down into what would be the deep end if they ever managed to fill the thing. “Yeah… We had a pool at home too. I was never allowed in it, because my parents were convinced being blind meant I couldn’t learn to swim. And it did, of course, since they wouldn’t let me try…”

Perhaps in response to the doleful mood that settled after these statements, Sokka put in a little awkwardly, “Well I have great parents. Or… had… in my mother’s case.” Then he evidently felt his companions’ none-too-appreciative eyes on the back of his neck, and added, “But, uh, the water’s literally almost freezing all the time where I come from, so… we never did much recreational swimming?”

Toph changed the subject. “The pipe is warped and has a crack in it about three yards that direction.” And she did that thing where she pointed directly where she meant without actually looking over.

“Can you fix it?” Sokka wondered.

“‘Can I fix it,'” she scoffed, cracking her knuckles and moving toward the spot.

“And then I’ll need you to help me with these gears!” he called after her.

As Toph started what seemed an unusually finicky earth- or metalbending process, Zuko gazed past Sokka’s shoulder again. With a deep breath he said quietly, “You know, I said it to Katara, but I never got a chance to tell you: I’m sorry about your mother. I’d bring her back for you if I could.”

Sokka turned to face him sharply, but his expression immediately softened. “Zuko, that wasn’t you. I mean, thanks, but… don’t feel guilty about it, all right?”

“It’s… not exactly guilt…” Zuko lowered his tone ever further. “It’s just that, if I’m ever going to be Fire Lord — and I’m not sure anymore that I am — I have to take responsibility for the Fire Nation’s deeds. My father’s deeds. It’s probably best if I start with my…”

“Friends?” Sokka supplied the word for him when Zuko trailed awkwardly off.

“Yeah.”

“Then… I accept… whatever that was. Apology? Was it an apology? Or more a sort of… official statement?” Sokka put a hand briefly on Zuko’s shoulder. “Anyway, it’s really big of you. The Fire Nation’s going to have a good ruler when this is all over.”

Zuko smiled faintly, seeming more relieved than flattered. “Thanks.”

“Ooooooh,” came Toph’s voice from nearby, “Zuko wants to impress Sokka!”

“Shut up, Toph,” said Sokka good-naturedly, “and help me with these gears.”

Zuko’s smile did not fade for a good minute while they worked.

Eventually, several crooked gears and a sort of lantern-thing and a few more pipe repairs later, the mechanic and the metalbender declared the business finished — or at least that they could give it a try and see if the aged pumping devices could still bring water up from the spring at Ember Island’s center and fill the pool so everyone could have a relaxing day of swimming without setting foot outside the anonymity of the royal family’s walls.

“Now we need you, Zuko, to heat the interior of the activation chamber to…” Sokka checked the instructions again. “230 susuros?” He looked at the written line askance. “What the heck is a susuro?”

“You’re not familiar with susuros?” Zuko wondered.

Toph agreed in the same skeptical tone, “Yeah, Sokka, you’re not familiar with susuros?” Then to Zuko in a loud whisper she asked, “What the heck is a susuro?”

“I know it’s an older unit of heat, but I didn’t think–” Zuko did a double take at Toph and scowled. “You too? But you’re a well educated Earth Kingdom girl!”

“Eh, I forget stuff that’s not important,” Toph shrugged.

At the same moment Sokka said, “Fine, fine, it’s some snooty elite Fire Nation term that only snooty elite firebenders will understand. Can you heat the thing to 230 of them?”

“No,” Zuko admitted, visibly uncomfortable. “I know what they are, but I have no sense for how hot that is.”

Again Toph doubled over laughing. Sokka seemed torn between a grin and a glare. “Well, according to these instructions, it has to be that hot to activate the pump process, but if it gets much hotter it’ll warp the disc and you’ll have to replace it. So can you make it kinda hot but not too hot?”

“How am I supposed to know how hot is too hot?” Zuko demanded.

“I don’t know! Use your firebending senses!”

Zuko threw his arms up. “I don’t have ‘firebending senses’ that tell me how to fill swimming pools!”

“This was all your idea in the first place, you know!”

“Yeah, and I asked you to help because I thought you could figure out this old–”

Why,” Toph said loudly enough to override Zuko, “don’t you just heat it gradually until the pump starts working, and then stop?”

Both young men stared at her. “Yeah, that’s…” said Sokka.

“Or that, yeah,” Zuko agreed. “Where is the… active… disc… thing?”

Sokka hustled him to the correct spot and pointed. Zuko subsequently went through more of the breathing exercises he and Aang both tended to use before firebending than the other two expected, if their similar dubious expressions were any indication. With a frown at their obvious bemusement, Zuko murmured, “Stop shifting around back there. This is going to take some subtlety, so I have to prepare.”

Both Sokka and Toph nearly collapsed with giggles, and practically tripped over each other to get their comments out:

“Subtlety? You?”

“You’d better breathe for another couple of days, then!”

Fire sprang up to either side of them in mock warning, and perhaps the very safe distance it kept was prompted by the memory of a burned pair of feet once upon a time. Then Zuko turned his real attention to the job at hand.

For a long time nothing happened in response to the thin, concentrated stream of flame, and both Sokka and Toph had begun to shift again in a muttering sort of motion when the younger of them paused. Pensively she bit her lip, and slid one foot slowly in front of her every bit as if peering through deep shadows. Then she announced excitedly, “It’s working!”

Zuko pulled back, and he and Sokka dashed to the pool’s edge and peered eagerly down. And there was a distant rumbling and sloshing sound drawing nearer. There wasn’t, however, any actual water, and this state persisted for so long that both young men stood straight and looked at each other.

“What’s going on, Toph?” Sokka scratched the shaved area just above his ear.

“I’m not sure… It’s definitely pumping, and there’s water somewhere…” She tapped a foot impatiently, clearly annoyed not to be able to sense exactly what was happening beneath them. “The pipes may be broken farther out than I can feel…”

“The water probably has to come a pretty long way from the spring,” Zuko said doubtfully.

Sokka started some remark about flushing the system and how many leaves were probably collected down where they couldn’t see, when they all jumped, cringing, at the explosive sound of water gushing forth. Because the sound and the rush came not from the pool but from the house behind them. Zuko and Sokka whirled.

The rice-paper windows at this end of the building had all burst outward in an initial violent spray, which now settled into a calmer but no less prolific waterfall from every orifice. A full-blown river began to fill the courtyard, and raced toward them carrying various household items and — as Sokka had predicted — leaves in all states of decay.

“What diverted it inside?” Sokka squawked.

Toph was laughing at this unexpected outcome, but it sounded a little hysterical as water splashed over her feet.

Zuko cried in horror, “My house!” at least partially disproving the claim that he didn’t care about the place.

As the earthbender scrambled up a surprised Sokka for an enforced piggyback ride, there emerged from one window, along with the water, a bedraggled Suki, slipping on the sill, clad still in her nightclothes, coughing and irritated. A moment later Aang appeared in a similar state of dishabille but a far more cheerful mood. “The bathroom just went crazy!” he called as he slid neatly down one particular flume, curled up and spun blithely on his back in a small whirlpool, and finally jumped to his feet with a splash.

The water had found its way into the activation chamber, and at an abrupt hiss and jet of steam Sokka leaped backward, almost losing his balance as he forgot to compensate for Toph’s weight on his back. She demanded to know how far the water had risen, and with Zuko in the background trying to reassure her that it couldn’t get high enough to touch her as long as Sokka didn’t klutz up and Suki (in annoyance transforming to grudging amusement) wondering what was going on and the continued gurgling and gushing all around, no question or answer could be heard.

Then, miraculously the driest of any of them, Katara came barefoot-surfing out another window with raised arms, bringing with her all the remaining water from the house. No more replaced it, as the cooling of the activation chamber (and undoubtedly the warping of the mysterious disc) had probably halted the pumping process. Katara slid expertly to a halt in the midst of them, directing the sloshing contents of the courtyard effortlessly into the nearby receptacle. As she came to a gentle rest on the sodden moss of the flagstones and lowered her arms, everyone else seemed to ease into less tense poses and take stock.

Zuko gazed at the pool as the water in it gradually settled and bits of window, wooden dishes, miscellaneous articles of clothing, the blueprints and instructions for the pump mechanism, and a cushion or two bobbed to the surface or spun in calming eddies. He turned back to the others with a helpless expression and lifted his hands a little before dropping them again. “Anyone up for a swim?”

scifikimmi gave me a November Quick Fics 2018 prompt that said, “One of my fave dynamics between characters was Zuko and Sokka and also Toph in season 3. Could you write about them all having an awkward (but but not fight-y just funnily awkward) conversation? Maybe they are all forced work together for some reason without the rest of the crew?” I don’t know if I really captured their dynamic properly, but I think it’s a pretty fun story nonetheless.


Displaced, of Unknown Provenance

She’d begun to think this chimerical business might be less crucial than she’d felt it was for the last fifty years.

A woman that’s spent all her life in fruitless search is ready to give up the quest and her only remaining symbol of it.


Dry leaves scrabbled their way across the car park in a chilly wind out of nowhere, reminding Marjorie of her own ambitions: sapped of vitality, newly aimless, soon to crumble away entirely.

They’d gone surprisingly easily, in fact, after a lifetime’s devotion to them, especially given how she’d ramped up her efforts in the last few years. She’d considered — perhaps only subconsciously — that, pushing 60 as she was, it was now or never… and that here in the 90’s, with information so much better stored and readily available, her chances were greater than they’d ever been.

But when everything she’d believed might be a lead had fallen through, and her constant absences to chase them had cost her a job she hadn’t much cared for but that paid the bills, she’d begun to think this chimerical business might be less crucial than she’d felt it was for the last fifty years.

She glanced down at her wrist, as she’d done reflexively maybe twice a waking hour nearly her entire adult life. Obscured though it was by the sleeve of her coat, she could picture what lay beneath so clearly it was as if her vision could penetrate the plum-colored wool. And she really didn’t mind. For decades the idea of giving up would have broken her heart, but now, after losing everything to this, she found it didn’t bother her to lose this as well.

Funny she hadn’t been able to take if off, though.

The wind picked up, and Marjorie tried to pull her coat tighter, around a body that had lost at least a stone recently as she’d gradually run out of money for food, without upsetting the holdall into which her remaining belongings had condensed when she’d officially moved out.

The signs of approaching winter seemed less the normal progression of seasons in nature’s long repeating song, and more ominous portents of days to come — a threat, almost, a warning that things would get worse before they got better. If they ever got better. You’ll only become more and more cold, they told her. More and more indifferent, like the world around you. Well, she was fine with that.

Marjorie had chosen this antique shop for her first try not because she’d heard it recommended, but because it stood so close to the flat she’d occupied until yesterday, and she’d passed it regularly on the way to the tube when she’d had somewhere to go regularly. Its old brick exterior, the somewhat tacky fake flowers in window boxes, its warm gold lighting through the warbly paned glass, the car park it shared with the bakery next door — it was all so familiar as to be almost comforting, to seem almost comradely in the overcast autumn dimness.

She nearly smiled when a cheerful bell announced her entrance as if greeting someone it was happy to see. She might as well consider a shop she’d never been into a friend, since she had no real ones. Anyone she’d ever sought closeness with, after all, had eventually drifted away from her driving obsession, and now even her more casual acquaintances from work weren’t likely to bother keeping up with her anymore. But a shop couldn’t drift away; it was always right where you looked for it. Then she really did smile — faintly — as a voice from across the room called out, “Good morning!”

“Good morning,” she replied, and moved farther inside.

In here she already felt at home. This building was full of objects just like her: old, displaced, of unknown provenance, sometimes worn, usually entirely mismatched. Appropriate surroundings for her indeed; she felt she could settle in among the Georgian furniture, the bric-a-brac, the china tea services and ivory tableware, stand still like a statue and let the dust cover her among all these other unwanted things, and that nobody would ever notice.

Ambling up and down uneven rows of miscellany with steps that seemed to have nowhere else to go though she had entered for a specific purpose, she came upon a wall covered in picture frames of various shapes, sizes, and levels of ornate bad taste. Some contained old paintings, some simple printed sheets giving their history (if available) and measurements, while one right in the middle held what looked like a Year 9 art project. Marjorie stepped closer to examine it.

“My granddaughter did that,” said the same voice that had greeted her not long before. Marjorie barely glanced over to see the woman about her age that had joined her in looking at the picture. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it?”

Now Marjorie definitely had to smile, because it was, rather. “How old is she?”

“Fourteen. She painted it for school and gave it to me as a gift. I use it as a demonstration in picture frames that are the right size, and she thinks that’s wonderful.”

“That’s kind of you.”

The painting showed a family gathering — it had probably been copied off a photo — containing, apparently, three generations, some with relatively human features but most of whom could most charitably be described as ‘abstract.’ Marjorie stared longest at what she believed was a toddler on the lap of one of the middle figures, reflecting that this generation didn’t even know how lucky it was not to be comprised of war orphans that would never be adopted unless they were handsome, gregarious, and not too traumatized by whatever they’d gone through before losing their families.

“Is there anything specific you were looking for?” the woman beside her asked.

Anything specific she was looking for. Hadn’t she just spent half a century looking for something specific? “No, thank you,” she replied — and why? “I’m only browsing.” She was here for a reason, not to browse; why not say so?

“All right,” was the woman’s friendly response. “Let me know if you have any questions.” And she headed back to her counter.

“Thank you,” Marjorie murmured, and turned again to the painting.

She found she didn’t really mind it. Yes, it made her think of her lonely childhood in a succession of orphans’ homes and curious psychiatrists’ dark-leather offices; yes, it was a reminder of the loving family she’d never had and never been able to locate so much as a clue toward finding; yes, it was like studying all over again the many, many old paintings and photos in various strangers’ collections searching for familiar features from the right era… but she simply didn’t care anymore. She’d given that all up, that weary and unsuccessful search, that long-running pursuit, that current of longing that had run beneath everything she thought, everything she was, for so many decades. She’d let everything go, and was on the brink of a new life. She was satisfied.

So why did she remain on this spot, staring at a fairly terrible painting in a frame she had no interest in, instead of going up to the counter and asking her real question?

Finally she forced herself to move. Somehow, though, even in motion again, she still couldn’t point herself in a direct line toward her goal. A glass display case full of jewelry, which by rights should have encouraged her since several pieces inside were of a style promisingly familiar, instead of prompting her to walk on with a greater spring in her step, rather caused her to dally pointlessly for several minutes wondering what their prices might be and just gazing down without much in the way of reflection at all.

But eventually she did reach the counter. The employee, who’d been reading a paperback on a tall stool behind the cash register, placed a bookmark and asked, “Did you find something you like?”

“I had a question for you, as it happens.” Marjorie was surprised to find her voice a little uncertain as she began, as if she weren’t perfectly at peace with this course of action. In a motion much the same, she shook her coat sleeve back, pushed her bracelet forward over her bony wrist, and laid her hand on the counter. “I’m wondering if you appraise and purchase jewelry. I’m looking to sell this.” She did not add that she needed to sell it if she was to find a place to stay tonight.

The woman’s breath caught audibly, and she reached out her own hands — warmer and plumper, but with the same prominent veins as Marjorie’s — one to steady the fingers pointed in her direction and the other to examine the bracelet. “Where did you get this?” she whispered.

It seemed an oddly significant moment, a moment in which the world of dusty objects around them grew even more silent as if holding in a great, anticipatory inhalation, and Marjorie found herself whispering in response for no reason she could recognize: “I’ve had it as long as I can remember.”

Delicately the woman twisted the upper half of the piece, which contained a Wedgewood cameo of Queen Victoria set in silver with blue and white stones in the chain around it, upside-down to reveal the one hopeful sign Marjorie had ever possessed that she might be able to track down someone, anyone of her bloodline: the initials MH inside a heart, tarnished from a lifetime of silver polish refusing to reach inside the tiny tight lines, etched into the back of the cameo.

“M.H.,” the woman said, and now her eyes were turned up toward Marjorie’s face rather than the bracelet she still held two fingers against like a blind reader against a line of braille.

“The orphanage named me ‘Marjorie Hughes’ because of it.” She finally returned the other’s gaze, and then she too caught her breath.

“It stands for Morris Hadleigh.” The woman’s hair, dyed a brown not quite natural to hide the grey, had those same wispy and probably uncontrollable spots over the ears. “He had it engraved on each of the four bracelets he’d inherited from his mother, since he had no sisters, and he gave one to his first wife and one to each of his daughters.” Her eyebrows were sparse at their ends disproportionately to their midsections, and she’d filled them out somewhat with pencil the same way Marjorie did hers. “He and one daughter were separated from his wife and the second daughter during the Blitz…”

Terrifying darkness, flashing light directly into her eyes, high wailing and screams and whining and crashes too loud to bear, confusion, loss… brown leather and deep brown wainscoting in one psychiatrist’s office after another… no one wanted to adopt so disturbed and inward-focused a child…

“They identified the mother’s body eventually…” The woman’s lips, telling the halting story, had the same wrinkles around them, the same deep creases down the outsides. “But her bracelet was destroyed in the attack.” Her nose had the same freckles, and — though it was hard to tell from this angle — the same slightly crooked left nostril. “And eventually a step-sister was born to a second wife, so she received the fourth bracelet.” Her eyes, with the same crinkles at their corners and veins in the lids, were a startlingly familiar shade of hazel as they stared in wonder at Marjorie. “But the third bracelet — and the second daughter — were never seen again.”

Something was building inside Marjorie: something huge and overwhelming threatening to break out when it reached the limits of what she could keep tamped down. Was it merely those suddenly wakened incomplete memories of horror and fear from her earliest childhood, eventually put in their proper place but never completely forgotten, that had been triggered by the unexpectedly spoken password ‘the Blitz?’ Or was it something else?

The woman released Marjorie’s hand and shook her own in an eye-catching movement. Tearing her gaze from the stranger’s face was like tearing herself open, but Marjorie looked, and saw the woman’s sleeve fall back to expose a mirror image of what had been the prized possession of her life, the one thing she’d vowed not to part with even in greatest need. “They never found my twin sister,” the woman finished shakily, turning her wrist so Queen Victoria’s matte white face and the shining facets of the blue and white jewels caught the light.

And Marjorie realized, as the hitherto-unknown something broke out in a violent sob like the tears that spontaneously poured down her trembling face, that she did care. The desire to find her family, to discover who she was and where she came from, had never left her or diminished one tiny bit — she’d merely buried it as deeply as she was capable, tried to tell herself it didn’t matter, in the hopes that she could move on to a new and less fixated era. And maybe giving it up, or believing she had, had been the sacrificed required of her to reach the goal she’d so long sought and had lately been so certain she no longer wanted.

The woman — her twin sister — gave an echoing sob and started clutching at her, trying to embrace her across the counter, marvelously unsuccessful and crying just as hard as Marjorie was. They drew back, each with a shaky wet laugh, and the woman jumped down from her stool and came racing around to meet her on the other side for a proper hug that was just as moist.

“Marjorie,” the woman said thickly into her shoulder. “Your name’s Marjorie?” And when her sister made a muffled sound of confirmation, she added, “Mine’s Gladys. Gladys Cross. Née Hadleigh.” And they pulled apart again, holding hands, staring at each other with baffled smiles and tearstained faces. “Where have you been living?”

“Just up the street for the last several years,” Marjorie admitted. “I’ve walked past your store every day. But before that I had a job in Swansea for long while.”

“I can hear it,” Gladys laughed in her much purer RP. “But to think you were in London for so long too — and right around the corner?” She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head at the irony of it all. “Where are you living now?”

“Nowhere. I came in here hoping to make enough money for a B&B for tonight, and tomorrow it’s looking for a new job.”

Gladys stared at her with a slightly open mouth, and her eyes fell to the holdall Marjorie had set down beside the counter when she’d first made her way over here. “You’re really… you’re really without a home and without work just today? Just when you came in here and found me?”

Marjorie nodded. Prior to this meeting, she would have been embarrassed to admit it, but now… now it simply seemed right. As if she’d done exactly what she needed to in order to prepare for this without knowing it. As if the new life she’d hoped for had been specifically lined up for her, ready to start the instant the old one ended — only she hadn’t known what it was yet.

Her sister squeezed her hands and released them. “I’m going to close up. You’re coming home with me this instant to see your new room and meet your new family.” And as Gladys disappeared into the back and the lights began to go down from some rear switch before she returned with coat and handbag, Marjorie looked around the darkening shop again with blurry eyes. She recalled the welcoming feeling she’d had upon entering that had never diminished, the sense that she belonged here as a kindred spirit to everything that had no place, no ties, no history.

It seemed she’d been right about the sensation, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

For November Quick Fics 2018, my co-worker Danielle gave me the following prompt:

There was an old sad woman who was raised in an orphanage, and knew nothing about her family history. She spent her lonely life searching for anyone who may have had ties to her past, and longed for any sense belonging. She tried to be happy with her life, but always had an empty space that she hoped would eventually be filled with love. She possessed only one small token that represented her obscure past, a unique handcrafted silver bracelet with encrusted jewels and intricate details. The initials “**” were engraved on the inside of the bracelet, but the woman was clueless as to their meaning. She cherished this object more than anything else she owned, and it was her only comfort when she grieved for her lost family that she may never find. She eventually fell upon hard times: losing her job, failing health, and a recent break-up that only added to her ever-present feeling of abandonment. Eventually she succumbed to poverty and misery, and in desperation made the most difficult decision she ever made. She decided to sell her treasured bracelet in hopes that it would be worth enough money to buy food and possibly shelter for a little while. She took the bracelet to an antique shop to see if they could appraise the bracelet and maybe even find a buyer for her. When she came into the shop, an older woman greeted her with a friendly smile, and asked how she could assist her. The woman took out her bracelet, and the shopkeeper gasped. The shopkeeper’s eyes filled with tears as she asked, “Where did you get this?” Her hands trembled as she reached out to touch the bracelet. The woman replied, “Unfortunately I’m not sure… I’ve had it ever since I was young, ever since I can remember.” The shopkeeper rolled up her sleeves, and revealed an almost identical bracelet. The old woman’s heart fluttered, as she thought this shopkeeper may somehow be able to help her find her family. “Could you tell me any information about these bracelets and where they come from?” asked the old woman timidly. “These are the only 2 bracelets like this in the world. The were made by my father for myself and my sister. My mother and sister were tragically lost in one of our city’s bombings during the war. My mother’s body was eventually found, but we never found my sister…” The two women looked at eachother, realizing the remarkable similarities in their facial features, eyes, and even hair. “My father’s name was “**” explained the shopkeeper, and the old woman realized now what the initials in her bracelet represented. The women immediately knew that they were meant to be reunited, and embraced tightly for several minutes while they both sobbed tears of joy. After several hours of conversation, it was settled that the old woman would come home with the shopkeeper, and be integrated into the wonderful, loving family that she had waited for all this time.

It’s my first original NQF, so that’s cool.

Her Own Words


These angry, fisted hands may never heal again.

Yaten’s lyrics reflect her internal struggles.

With some surprise Seiya took the paper Yaten held out, and skimmed it. Yaten didn’t write lyrics often, so it always came as something of a surprise. She supposed she could have handed the sheet over more gracefully, too, than with nothing beyond the grumbled name of a currently popular song with a similar meter.

Seiya started to hum as she neared the bottom of the page, and Yaten, observing she’d caught the working melody, turned away and moved to the widow seat, where she drew her knees up to her chin and stared somewhat sullenly out the dark glass. In these male bodies, Seiya alone of the three of them had a soloist’s voice, which Yaten blatantly resented since she’d loved to sing back on Kinmoku. Now it was backup or embarrassment, and though Yaten often chose the latter, Seiya was really the only one that could do a dry run of a new lyric.

Taiki, who’d arrived in time to hear the name of the song Yaten had mentioned and then taken her customary place at the keyboard, now played a few introductory chords.

“Two notes lower,” Seiya requested.

Taiki frowned as she did a quick and somewhat difficult mental transition, played a few more chords to get the feel of the new key, and paused.

“And there’s a bridge I’m going to have to improvise,” Seiya added. “Maybe just drop out when I get there.”

Taiki nodded, fingers poised on the keys, and Seiya started the run-through.

Once this gentle heart of mine gave birth to so much love,
But with the ending of my world I had to lock it up,
Wrapped in starry scarlet like the glitter of your hair,
Surround myself in marble as I struggled not to care.
But can you blame me?
Can you blame me?

I feel it every time.

Of course they each had an image, a specific niche they filled in the band: Seiya the bad boy, the show-off; Taiki the scholar, the aloof and dignified; and Yaten the hard-hearted, the cold-hearted, the bitch. She knew she had a following, a specific set of fans of this persona that went starry-eyed every time she rudely refused to take a picture with the groupies or made some overly harsh comment in an interview.

And this song would be a calculated risk, representing as it did a shift in that persona, but Yaten thought it would pay out by solidifying that part of the fanbase without a lot of interaction with them on her part. She was pretty sure most of them already believed her to be so seemingly unfeeling because of some great tragedy in her past. They were right, of course, but their vapid imaginations went no farther than ‘loss of girlfriend…’ which was exactly what these lyrics would be taken as confirmation of, sending most of the hiding-his-broken-heart-Yaten contingent into paroxysms of pity and passionate love. And those that legitimately liked her because of her perceived unkindness were the type of people she didn’t want as her fans anyway.

Not that she wanted any fans.

And it’s not your fault for leaving,
But if you came back you’d fix everything.
Please return to me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

It had been different once. On Kinmoku or on the moon that had been her particular domain under Kakyuu’s rule, Yaten had been happy to share her music, when she had time, with everyone around her. She’d been pleased to have admirers that appreciated her talents. She never would have refused anyone a picture or made overly harsh comments back then. But that had been before every single one of them had died.

Here on Earth she looked out over a sea of humanity and tried to pretend she neither liked nor cared about them. It didn’t quite work — and every time one of them had a Star Seed taken, she literally ached — but she was able to present this frigid front to save herself, and part of that was denying her fans. Fans that might well be multiplied by this song when they realized it was only unbearable pain that had made her so cold. Oh, joy.

Though I’ve tried to block it out, I always feel their pain,
But these angry, fisted hands may never heal again.
Somewhere past my cruelty I’m longing to be kind,
But when everything is gone, what’s left to do but hide behind
The walls I’m building?
These walls I’m building…

I feel it every time.

When she did write lyrics, she tended to put her heart and soul into them; none of her songs were fictional as so many tended to be. As such, when performed or even recorded, they always included the psychic message the trio desperately hoped would bring Kakyuu back to them. Of course the band came up with a decent number of more mundane pieces — they had to fill up their concerts and albums somehow, and it took a lot out of them if every song sent the broadcast — and Yaten dutifully orchestrated them and played bass and sang harmony as needed… but, though she put plenty of artistic energy into them, those songs didn’t mean a thing to her. The trio had one mission, one goal, one purpose that swallowed up everything else; she couldn’t afford — and had no desire! — to get caught up in other nonsense.

And the rest of the band business? The signings and the sponsoring events and the advertising contracts and the interviews? That was even purer nonsense than the casual music required of them by circumstance. She considered it nothing very worthy of censure to give very little effort to that.

It wasn’t as if she needed anyone around here to respect her work ethic anyway. Though perhaps, deep down, in the part of her that lived in the past on a now-barren world, she might have liked them to.

And it’s not your fault I’m alone now,
But if you found me I know I’d know how
To say I’m sorry,
And return me to the me I used to be.

All this drama with the local Sailor Senshi had made her feel worse than ever. That Sailor Moon, like their own princess, had the power to restore phage to human form, to restore stolen Star Seeds, cut like a knife into the breast of one that had sensed so many of her own people disappear forever at the hands of Shadow Galactica. Of course Kakyuu would have saved them if she could, but, wounded and defeated, hadn’t been given that choice. That someone else out there had the power to prevent all that death and suffering, but hadn’t been present to do so, hurt so badly it was almost a catalyst to draw out all the emotions Yaten was so industriously repressing.

And that Sailor Moon clearly wanted to help, had been the one to insist in the first place they heal the phage instead of simply destroying them… that was so close to unbearable Yaten simply refused to think about it. Not only because it represented a missed opportunity, however remote the chances, but because healing…

No, she would never consent to join forces with Sailor Moon and her handmaidens. Never. Let them heal their own world, since they oh-so-fortunately still had the power to do so. Or fall to Galaxia, for all Yaten cared.

I feel it every time:
Every sorrow and hurt.
They reach out to me, and I turn away without a word.
Are you reaching out too?
I swear I feel you near.
I know the type of me you’d prefer…

Kakyuu was out there somewhere. And ‘out’ perhaps wasn’t even the right term; Yaten could absolutely sense her somewhere on this planet, somewhere in this country. The others couldn’t — at least not nearly so strongly — which was why Yaten herself had led them here, and at first she’d looked down on them for that. In her newly forged emotional withdrawal and harshness, she’d disdained her fellow soldiers for lacking her adeptness in one particular area.

But she was past that now. They had their own skills, as she’d known all along and had eventually come to accept even through the walls and the bitterness. It was impolitic in any case to demand more of them, or to blame them for working in their own ways alongside her when that work was more important than any individual’s strengths or weaknesses.

Would she ever see her princess again, though? Every time she thought about it, a dull ache she simply couldn’t push down throbbed through her. Where, exactly, was Kakyuu? What was she doing? Dying of her wounds, or biding her time? Working toward some goal, or just slowly healing?

And did she fail to respond to their desperate songs because she didn’t feel it safe to do so, or because she didn’t hear… or because they had changed so much she no longer wanted or needed them?

Yaten refused to think about it. Just finding her… that would be enough.

And it’s not your fault I’m broken,
But if I saw you I’d be whole again.
Please don’t forget me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

She didn’t like what she was. That was one truth of the song: she wished she could be other. In reality she didn’t think she could go back to her former self, because she couldn’t unsee the horrors she’d witnessed on Kinmoku and on her moon, and she couldn’t unfeel the pain of her princess’ flight to this unknown world. And it would take some doing even just to unwrap the layers of unkindness she’d used to hide from everyone she might have loved.

But if she could grow from the experience into a better, gentler, stronger version of her old self… couldn’t she better serve her princess that way? Perhaps someday she could even heal again… if only she could find her…

And until then, the walls. The marble. The near-complete insensitivity.

We’ll be together. I’ll find you.
I won’t stop searching past the stars and the moon,
Through the galaxy,
For my princess and the me I used to be.

That last chorus… Yaten wasn’t quite sure about it, and would probably cut it. Too many of their songs already used the word ‘princess,’ and eventually even the most thick-headed fan had to wonder why the Three Lights all seemed to be obsessed with someone they called by that name. The imagery of stars and moon was also repetitive of similar wordings in other pieces, and, though it was difficult to avoid, it did get old after a while.

Beyond that, the attitude seemed a little… optimistic. After all, perhaps, as Yaten had reflected before, Kakyuu didn’t want to be found. Perhaps she was on a mission of such importance she’d considered it expedient to shed everything that might hold her back, including her own soldiers. Or perhaps she didn’t even recognize them in their young men’s bodies.

Yaten stared down at her boy’s hands as Seiya finished singing. This was another thing she hated. The others often seemed fairly comfortable in their bodies, but Yaten never was. The only time she felt physically right was when she transformed. Just another thing to hate about herself and the contingencies of the mission they were on.

Seiya went over the bridge again, experimenting with a different melody without accompaniment. Then she tried one of the verses a little slower than before, making it sound even more soulful in her smooth voice. Yaten fought a prickle of tears behind her eyes as her own words, her own deepest thoughts and the pain that prompted them, poured out of her comrade’s mouth.

Finally Seiya ceased singing all together. Yaten’s gaze shifted to where she could see Seiya’s reflection in the window, and, observing her frowning slightly over the paper, Yaten frowned as well. And Seiya asked, “Don’t you think some of this is a little obscure for a boy band?”

“No more obscure than most of Taiki’s lyrics,” Yaten almost snapped back.

“That’s true,” Taiki admitted. Gently she added, “I think they’re excellent lyrics, Yaten.”

Seiya’s reflection nodded. “We’ll have to find a different melody, of course, but this’ll make a great song.”

Almost against her will, Yaten smiled faintly. Because she knew they’d suffered very much as she had, changed in their own ways as she had in hers. Because she knew that by ‘excellent lyrics’ and ‘great song’ they meant, “We understand every word; we’re with you in pain and in hope.”

Because where she’d previously had fellow servants of a higher authority from different moons, barely even acquaintances, she now had sisters — or perhaps brothers — with the same name, the same goals, the same trauma.

She swiveled in the window seat and stood. “Let’s practice something else,” she said airily, as if none of this mattered, and headed to pick up her own instrument.

And maybe she would keep that last chorus in after all.


An anonymous Guest gave me the following November Quick Fics 2018 thoughts:

I’m not sure if you would be interested, but I feel like the Starlights don’t really have enough fics about them? I’m particularly interested in Yaten and her apparent (psychic? emphatic?) abilities. None of the Solar Senshi were able to tell when a Star Seed was taken, yet she always did. How was she affected when her own planet was destroyed? I mean, could it be a reason for her to close herself off and become so resistant to getting attached again? I feel like one of the reasons she never lost faith in the Princess and knew she was somewhere out there was because she could sense that she was alive, but then seeing her die would have hit her twice as hard. It also seemed to me that while Taiki and Seiya could be a little harsh on each other, they were more tolerant of Yaten’s mood swings and when they did scold her (i.e. for throwing away fans’ letters) they were always gentle. Lastly, her name’s Healer but she doesn’t seem to have the ability to actually heal – or could that be that by cutting herself away from her emotions she also cut away her healing powers? (we do know some other characters have these.) I feel like there is much to explore here (not necessarily in the way I see it). Or maybe not, and I’m terribly wrong…

I think I hit most of the points.


Escape From Reality


“Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain.”

Ladybug and Chat Noir face off against an enemy that shows them a variety of unpleasant possibilities… and one that may be a little more pleasant.

“They said I play too many video games and don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality…” The akumatized villain, calling herself Dimension, shouted her manifesto as so many of them did. “But I’ll show everyone that any reality can be real enough to change your life… or to end it! Starting with you, Ladybug and Chat Noir!”

She waved an akumatized parody of a motion controller at them in a rapid succession of movements like repeatedly cracking a whip, and in the air around them at each invisible point where the fictional whip’s end would have snapped, a translucent oval of color — red, yellow, black, blue — appeared and began wheeling around and above the two superheroes in unpredictable patterns. Inside the whirling set of hazy-edged shapes, Ladybug and Chat Noir threw each other a glance of bemusement.

“Is your idea of reality to make us look at pretty colors?” Chat Noir scratched his head, then, with a lop-sided grin, threw out an elbow as if to prod Ladybug with it as he added, “I think she really doesn’t know the difference.”

Ladybug had to smile a little, but… “Let’s just make finding her akuma a reality, OK?”

“Of course, milady!” And Chat Noir moved to duck under one of the floating colors and dash toward their enemy. The black, hazy-edged oval caught him in the shoulder, however, and with a loud popping sound like a cork from a bottle, he disappeared.

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug yelped, and jumped backward to avoid the black oval that swerved in her direction. This put her right in the path of the red one, and with both a popping sound and a popping sensation — as if she were the cork — she suddenly found herself somewhere else.

Well, it was still the streets of Paris. But something — everything, in fact — was different about them. The walls and buildings and even the parked cars around her were a confusion of varied hues she couldn’t take in quite yet, and the people had gathered in far different groups than those carefully collected at corners and behind cover to peek around and see what Dimension would do. These onlookers had clustered up at different points seemingly at random, and stood casually chatting. Confused, Ladybug drew closer.

A list of startling items became gradually evident: first, the surrounding chaotic colors were spray-painted onto every available upright surface in an epidemic of graffiti; second, the only thing those that viewed it had to say was a litany of repetitive praise for its artistry and the talent of someone they called ‘Tagger;’ third, they’d been engaged in this activity for a dreadfully long time, if their near-emaciated frames and the human waste on their lower bodies was any indication; fourth, the graffiti — or ‘street art,’ to give it the name used by the enthusiastic, starving audience — had some sort of hypnotic power over those that looked directly at it. Even from the corner of her eye, Ladybug felt the pull: a dizzy, euphoric impression and the creeping alien thought that it really did look nice and the artist really was talented.

She shook her head violently, eyes closed, and when she opened them again she focused steadfastly on the cobblestones beneath her feet. Lucky this ‘Tagger’ hadn’t painted the ground as well! She sidled up to the nearest group of art critics.

“Look at the colors!” one of them was saying rapturously.

Ladybug had, in the short time she’d been here, heard him say this once already, and now, careful to concentrate only on him, she grasped his shoulders and shook. “Hey! Snap out of it!”

When he didn’t reply, nor even turn his head in her direction, she attempted to drag him away or pull him off balance, but he seemed stuck in place and would not budge. She tried putting her hands over his eyes from behind as if playing the ‘Guess who!’ game, but he pushed her arms away and said, “Just look at the way the red melts into the orange!”

“Tagger is so talented,” agreed the elderly woman beside him in a tone of extreme weakness, and even as she made the comment she fell to her knees. Almost in a panic, Ladybug tried to catch her under the arms and ease her away from the soiled spot where she collapsed, but she too proved impossible to move. She just kept staring at the graffiti out of an unhealthily pale face.

These people needed food and water and to be cleaned up and gotten away from here, but obviously Ladybug lacked the power to effect that on her own. Glancing around at everyone clustered all up and down the street, she felt her heart sink slowly but surely into her spotted shoes. She also noticed the swirling colors not far off still doing their unpredictable dance in the air around where she’d originally appeared. The red was missing now, and in its place whirled a white oval whose movements seemed the most darting and random of all. If she understood correctly, those were portals to — as Dimension had hinted — other realities. The red one must lead here, so now it had been replaced by white, which led… where? Back to her own reality? Could she catch it and then come back here with help? She had to try.

The white portal proved far too capricious to catch, however, and she found herself popping through the black one before she even realized what was happening. Well, at least she followed Chat Noir; if she could find him, they could regroup and consider what to do.

A mere moment in the new reality was enough to make her shudder, for the structures of this Paris were covered in cobwebs. It was like the street leading up to the Arc de Triomphe under Anansi’s influence, only far worse. The wispy pale substance stretched from the ledge of one window the next, across doorways, and from wall to street as far as the eye could see. Despite the blue sky, the entire world looked dusty and grey, and in the corners of her eyes she thought she saw skittering movement. What was going on here??

Even as she directed her gaze upward in the immediate vicinity, something like a teardrop made of web detached from a street lamp and fell to the ground. Its outer covering seemed to melt away, and a cluster of huge spiders uncurled, detangled themselves from each other’s legs, and turned their many eyes upon her.

In great agitation, Ladybug looked for something she could fling her yo-yo at in order to swing away… but everything was far too spidery, and she didn’t feel confident connecting with any of it. She did a panicked little dance in place as she watched the spiders approaching, and a squeal escaped her lips as she searched for cover. And then, with a thud that made her shriek out loud, Chat Noir landed in front of her. He wore thigh-high wading boots, for some reason, instead of his usual footwear, but to her relief his staff was extended; he held it like a hockey player ready to bat away a puck and then get into a knock-down-drag-out with some member of the opposing team. Except the puck — and the opposing team! — was a group of spiders.

“Since I ran into myself here just a few minutes ago,” he said over his shoulder, “I assume you’re that other reality’s Marinette!”

“M-M-Marinette?!” was all she could reply, frozen in place more completely than fear of the spiders could hope to leave her.

“Oh!” Chat Noir replied, a bit startled. “Do you not know each other’s identities in your world yet?” The first of the spiders had reached him, and he knocked it away with his staff. It flew twelve feet into the air and disappeared into a swirl of purple and black. They weren’t real spiders, then, but the product of some akuma.

“No!” Ladybug’s head spun, and not merely from the thought of an akumatized villain covering Paris in spiders. “You didn’t tell the other Chat Noir, did you??”

“It didn’t come up,” this Chat Noir assured her, fighting off a thickening wave of arachnids. “I was too busy rescuing him just like this! When the egg sacs open, the spiders inside go for the first person they see. They don’t bite, just swarm all over them — but that’s bad enough! Araña wants to convince everyone that spiders are awesome, but it’s backfired — nobody comes out of the buildings anymore.”

Ladybug was a little easier at the news that this undertaking hadn’t shattered the secrecy between her and her world’s Chat Noir, but horrified at the nature of this dimension’s dilemma. She would have asked why the local Ladybug and Chat Noir hadn’t captured the akuma yet, but believed she already saw the answer: Chat Noir’s movements, even as he defended her against the last of the spiders as if he did this all the time, were stiff, awkward, borderline clumsy. “You’re injured!”

“No.” He grimaced over his shoulder at her. “Just scared to death of spiders.”

“Me too,” she admitted. That would hamper anyone’s ability to deal with a city full of them.

“I know.” He gave her a smart-aleck grin. “And I need to get back to my Ladybug. You should get through your portal before another egg sac hatches!”

Ladybug glanced where he was looking, and indeed saw the whirling set of colorful portals waiting for her. Here, the black portal was missing and had been replaced with the red. “Which one did Chat Noir take?”

“I couldn’t tell.”

“I’ll aim for white, then. Thank you!” she shouted as she darted to try.

But again the chaotic movements of the portals betrayed her; blue filled her vision, and with another popping sound and sensation she was carried to yet another version of Paris. Her running momentum did not slacken at the transition, and she stumbled several more steps forward and smack into Chat Noir. They both tumbled to the ground, she on top of him, and his eyes widened as he recognized her.

“Please tell me you’re my Chat Noir,” she gasped.

“Always and forever, milady,” he said just as breathlessly, probably because she’d knocked the wind out of him. He added, “But if you mean the Chat Noir from the reality where Dimension sent us off to various miserable places covered in spiders, I’m that Chat Noir too.”

“Thank goodness,” Ladybug said, climbing off him and scanning the area. Her brows lowered as she took in the scene, and she asked, “What’s going on in this Paris?” with a sense of great uneasiness.

Chat Noir jumped to his feet and stood beside her, looking grim — or at least as grim as he was capable of. “They’ve got everything they need in there…” He gestured to the pedestrians that resembled walking showers, their bodies circled from head to ankle in opaque curtains. “Food, water, something that keeps them clean, and they can even sleep standing up. They can see out, but nobody can see in. I saw the supervillain putting the things on some construction workers, and they just went back to work without talking to each other. Nobody interacts wearing these things; I think the villain hates all kinds of human interaction, but he didn’t say a word when I saw him!”

“Then us standing here talking is probably going to draw his attention,” Ladybug speculated. “Where are the Ladybug and Chat Noir of this reality?”

“I haven’t seen them. Maybe they got curtained like these people?”

“It would be hard to fight in those things… Should we try to defeat the villain ourselves?”

Chat Noir did a pensive handstand. “I don’t think we have time to go defeating all the villains in these realities… who knows what Dimension is up to back in our reality?”

With a reluctant final look around, Ladybug protested, “I don’t like to leave them like this, though.”

“Always so kind,” said Chat Noir admiringly. “But it’s not as bad as some we’ve seen…”

“You’re right.” She clenched a fist in unhappy determination. “Let’s see if we can get back through the white portal!”

They turned to face the crazy ovals. Ladybug thought she was getting better at predicting their patterns, but the white one remained the fastest and the least calculable among the other available options of yellow, red, and black. As she and Chat Noir dove for it, he got swept up by the red one, while she popped through the black again.

Spider-Paris’ Chat Noir was nowhere in sight, and neither, thank goodness, was any egg sac ready to burst — but that didn’t mean Ladybug wanted to linger. She spun and dashed for the portals again, and this time actually managed to hit the one she wanted. With a pop, the graffiti-covered Paris came back into view, and Ladybug quickly dropped her eyes to the ground.

“Chat Noir!” she shouted. “Where are you?”

His voice came from nearby, but unfortunately its tone was all hypnosis in remarking, “What a cool design! What genius painted this?”

Ladybug looked up just far enough to see the black-clad figure slowly making his way toward a nearby car where bright colors already tugged at the corner of her eye. With a sound of frustration she followed, and, getting around in front of him, put both hands over his eyes and tried to hold him back. And perhaps because he hadn’t yet reached the spot where he would be rooted to the ground immovably, it worked; though he raised his hands to try to remove hers, his grip was lackluster and his steps slowed. He came to a halt, stood still a long moment simply holding her wrists, and finally wondered, “What’s going on?”

“Chat Noir, I’m going to remove my hands,” she told him, “and you can’t look at the graffiti. Look at the sky, or the ground, or — or at me, but not at the graffiti. OK?”

As she did as she’d said, his face wore the grin she’d expected when she’d suggested he look at her. “OK, milady,” he replied, pleased. “I’m always happy to look at you! But what’s with this place?”

“It seems like nobody appreciated the villain’s art. Now everyone who looks at it is hypnotized and can’t leave or talk about anything else. They’re all starving because they’re not allowed to do anything but admire his graffiti nonstop!”

Chat Noir swept a careful low glance around, undoubtedly taking in enough of the people nearby to confirm what she’d told him. “Do you think we’re hypnotized somewhere too?”

“If we are,” Ladybug replied in dismay, “the villain could easily have taken our Miraculous while we just stood there praising his art.”

“Or maybe there is no Ladybug and Chat Noir in this reality. Le Papillon showed up and started stirring up trouble, but somehow we never got our Miraculous and aren’t around to help. Maybe in curtain-Paris too.”

“I can’t decide which idea is worse,” Ladybug grumbled.

He met her eyes again, but this time with a thoughtful, almost sneaky smile that didn’t seem to fit the situation. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“We may not have time and energy to defeat all these villains or even check whether there’s anyone around who can, but maybe we can do something to help. These people need to be fed and cleaned and to get some rest, right?”

“Yeah…?” She stared into his strangely green eyes for a moment, and then suddenly realized what he meant. “Yeah! That’s genius!”

He bowed. “I’m like that sometimes!” And he turned back toward the portals again.

“Wait!” Her cry halted him mid-step. “We keep getting separated; hold my hand!”

Coming back toward her, he took her extended hand and kissed it. “I thought you’d never ask!” Then together they tried to intercept the blue portal.

Yet again they weren’t able to pinpoint the one they wanted. Yellow swallowed them up with a pop, and, hands still tightly clasped, they found themselves elsewhere: not the streets of Paris this time, but an annoyingly familiar suite in an obnoxiously familiar hotel. After a brief glance around, each met the other’s gaze, and they both sighed.

“Chloé?” they queried in unison.

“In here!” came the immediate reply from the next room. The same voice — Chloé’s voice — then went on in frustration, obviously addressing someone else, “Don’t you dare put that on me! That thing is absolutely hideous!” Then there was a loud rustling of paper and a muffled cry, followed by another yell in their direction: “Whoever’s out there, get in here and help me before I puke from this horrible color!”

The scene in the next room was not all together surprising: a clearly akumatized woman whose left hand had been replaced by a pair of scissors was busily cutting outfits from pieces of paper she pulled from a kind of quiver at her back. They grew to life-size as she cut, bore tabs like those used to attach such clothing to paper dolls, and were obviously intended to be worn by Chloé Bourgeois. The latter hung in the air, tied up at wrists and ankles by long strings of simpler, chain-style paper dolls, currently dressed in a fluffy sequined orange dress of which she evidently didn’t approve.

Both the villain and the victim looked over as Ladybug and Chat Noir entered, and mimicked the unison of a moment before in demanding, “Who on Earth are you?”

“And what are you wearing?” Chloé added.

So that basically proved Ladybug and Chat Noir didn’t exist in this reality. Of course there was no reason they couldn’t eventually, but it was still a depressing thought.

“Well, I don’t care who you are,” was Chloé’s next, dismissive comment. “This servant I fired because she brought me ugly clothing turned into a monster and is making me wear hideous rags like this–” the clause ended on a disgusted shriek– “and you need to take care of it! You know who I am, I assume?”

The villain had paused with the next outfit mostly cut out, staring at Ladybug and Chat Noir warily, but as Chloé went on about how the daughter of the mayor of Paris should never be forced to wear such monstrosities and the villain’s taste was even worse as a monster than it had been as a personal assistant, she returned to her snipping without a word.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered. “Let’s find the blue portal.”

Ladybug barely resisted as he pulled her back into the other room. “But Chloé…”

“If the worst that supervillain’s doing to her is making her wear clothing she doesn’t like, she’ll be OK for now.”

With a shrug Ladybug admitted, “At least this one isn’t trying to kill her.” She did feel a little bad about leaving even Chloé at the mercy of an akuma in a Ladybugless Paris, though.

This time they made it through the blue oval and back to the curtain dimension. It looked as it had before: with numerous shrouded white figures moving about in a fairly normal fashion, just completely invisible behind their yards of cloth and never acknowledging the presence of others.

“You said the villain was near here a little earlier, right?” Ladybug asked.

“Yeah. I figure if we keep talking, he’ll show up.”

“It probably helps that we’re holding hands.” She thought she saw a faint blush seep out from beneath Chat Noir’s mask as she said this, and that made her own face heat.

Chat Noir cleared his throat. “This is going to be tough once he does show up.”

“I know. It’s hard enough on our own!”

“We’ll probably want to grab him from both sides so we’re all touching, and then jump. If we miss, don’t think about it — just jump again.”

“Right.” She nodded firmly. “We can do this.”

“Hey! Isn’t this great?” Chat Noir startled her with his sudden yell. “Look how well we’re interacting! We always get along so well! We always want to talk to each other and hold each other’s hands!”

“Uh, yeah!” Ladybug took her turn at the ridiculous taunt. “We hang out all the time! And we get other people involved too!”

Do we?” Chat Noir’s eyes twinkled as he asked this in a low tone.

Ladybug blushed more deeply than before at his implication. “I mean we have a lot of friends!” she cried. “Friends who interact with each other all the time, just like we do!”

“Sometimes we get into arguments!” Chat Noir agreed. “With people we interact with!”

“Oh, yes! There’s all sorts of drama! Sometimes people even get their feelings hurt!”

“Misunderstandings! And deceitful behavior! And insults! And–”

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug freed one hand from where they’d somehow come to be clasping both, and pointed. A ripple in the crowd seemed to be making its way in their direction, and as the pedestrian traffic shifted she thought she could see a different color than the omnipresent white.

“That’s him, all right.” Together they began backing up, her left hand still in his right, until they were about as close to the portals as they could get without risking being hit by one on its forward swing. And before them, a figure wearing a black curtain emerged and plodded slowly toward them. It stopped not far off and, though it said nothing, seemed to be examining them. Several moments passed in silence.

Undoubtedly to speed things along, Chat Noir bent toward Ladybug and asked, “Well, what do you think, milady?”

“I think Chloé wouldn’t approve of the outfit,” Ladybug replied.

The villain struck in a sudden, startling movement. His curtain fluttered upward with the missile that flew from each of his outflung hands, granting them just a brief view of the sad-looking man beneath. But they were too busy dodging the white cloth that had shot toward them, threatening to make them into solitary curtain-wearers probably every bit as lonely as this guy. Their hands had broken apart with their leap, but it didn’t matter; if they couldn’t get hold of him quickly and drag him back in this direction, being separated would be the least of their worries.

More curtains raced toward their new positions; Ladybug jumped while Chat Noir ducked. Then a yo-yo flicked out at the enemy in the hopes of immobilizing him at least briefly. The villain essayed a dodge of his own, but came immediately up against Chat Noir’s extended staff and was caught neatly in the yo-yo’s string. The two superheroes dashed forward, each catching hold of one side of the floating bar above the guy’s head from which his curtains hung. They pulled his stumbling form toward the portals, and Ladybug could feel him straining against the tie in which he was wrapped; it wouldn’t hold him long.

The colors swirled before them, and by now they were definitely parsing the patterns somewhat. The curtain-villain struggled even harder as Chat Noir said, “3…”

“2…” said Ladybug.

“1…”

“Jump!”

With a red pop, they’d succeeded — all three of them landed in graffiti-Paris. Hastily they shoved the curtain-villain forward, Ladybug disengaging her yo-yo, and stepped back themselves. Now to get the all-important answer: could one akumatized villain resist the hypnosis created by another?

The man caught his balance after a step or two, then stood still as he’d done in curtain-Paris just a minute before, seeming to look around without a word at the admirers of Tagger’s street art. He took another step forward as he and the superheroes heard someone nearby make a remark to a neighbor and get a reply: clear interaction. Then white cloth began to fly. Bystanders disappeared one by one, and Ladybug was pleased to see the old woman she’d been so concerned about before rising easily to her feet as soon as she was under the protection of a curtain.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered, and drew her backward again. The villain was moving away from them, up the street, curtaining everyone he could see, but if they spoke too loudly he would undoubtedly turn once more. They needed to get through a portal, and right now it didn’t much matter which.

The color turned out to be black, proving it did actually matter which since Ladybug hadn’t really wanted to come back to this version of Paris. She and Chat Noir shuddered in tandem as they realized where they were, and huddled almost unconsciously closer together.

“It worked,” Chat Noir said, still in a whisper though they’d left curtain-villain behind. Doubtless he, like Ladybug, thought attracting the attention of the spiders around here would be every bit as bad.

“At least they’re better off now than they were before,” Ladybug replied in as quiet a tone. And looking around she added, “Now I’m getting an idea…”

“I love your ideas,” Chat Noir told her with a grin obviously tempered somewhat by their surroundings.

But before she could speak again, another voice — this one not bothering to whisper — called out to them. “I thought you might come back, since the portals are still here!” And the other Chat Noir vaulted into view. This time the spider-Paris Ladybug swung in beside him, and Ladybug noticed she too wore tall wading boots. That only made sense, given what this Paris was like, but it did rather spoil the outfit.

“Do you two need some pointers,” alternate Chat Noir went on, “from a more in-tune superhero team?” And he threw an arm around alternate Ladybug’s waist and laid his head on her shoulder.

The gesture and the question combined were so easily understood that Chat Noir’s jaw dropped and Ladybug’s face went burning hot — far worse than earlier. With a squeak she dropped his hand and stepped awkwardly away, stammering as she did so, “No, no, no, of course we don’t need any pointings — pointers — like that! No pointers at all! We’re just fine in-tune the way we are, thanks!”

But, “I think we could use some pointers!” Chat Noir told his double with eager haste. “How did this happen?”

Alternate Chat Noir moved to kiss alternate Ladybug, who pushed his face away with a roll of eyes. “This really isn’t the time for it, kitty-cat.” Then, turning to the others, she added, “Do you need our real help?”

“You’ll figure it out eventually,” alternate Chat Noir whispered loudly behind his hand to his twin.

“Oh, like you did?” wondered alternate Ladybug with affectionate sarcasm.

Alternate Chat Noir allowed, “You’re right, milady.” And to Ladybug and Chat Noir he admitted, “She figured everything out. She’s even more of a genius than I am.”

“Right!” Chat Noir agreed. “I’m always in awe of her powers!”

“What did I do to deserve two of them,” Ladybug muttered. Then, loudly, overriding the two amorous cats, she said, “Actually, Ladybug, you might be able to help us.”

Her Chat Noir’s attention snapped right back from the small distance it had wandered. “You said you had an idea.”

“Yes! I think we can use the same trick twice, and help Chloé!”

The alternate pair echoed, “Chloé?” and, meeting each other’s eyes, sighed.

On the other hand, Chat Noir’s face lit up. “Good thinking!” And he started looking around at the walls and lamp posts.

“So what do you need?” alternate Ladybug wondered. “I suppose Chloé’s gotten herself targeted again?”

“We need to push one of those egg sacs through the yellow portal,” Ladybug explained, “to scare off her villain at least temporarily. But Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain. If we can find an egg sac–”

“There!” Chat Noir’s searching gaze had located one three storeys up a wall above them.

Ladybug gave him a nod of acknowledgment. “–can you two help us get it down and through the portal?”

They all looked at the egg sac, and they all shuddered in unison. Then, eyes falling again, the four of them laughed nervously.

“Yes, of course,” alternate Ladybug assured her, though her voice very naturally wavered a little at the prospect of messing it up and spilling spiders all over them.

“That one doesn’t look ready to hatch yet,” alternate Chat Noir assured her. “Which is a problem we’ll have to deal with once we get it down.”

“But how do we get it down?” Chat Noir wondered.

Alternate Ladybug, frowning upward, took her yo-yo in hand, and Ladybug was intimately familiar with the motion, as well as with the sound of a voice just like hers crying out, “Lucky Charm!” Some things had gone differently in this reality, and the superheroes were wearing wellies, but many things were identical.

A small folding chair without legs — just plastic cushion and back and a couple of hooks on the bottom for attaching it to something — appeared in the air above alternate Ladybug and dropped into her hands. “What is this?” she wondered, sounding as baffled as Ladybug felt.

“It’s a stadium chair,” both Chat Noirs informed her at the same moment. One of them went on, “You bring it to a game to make the seats more comfortable.”

“Well, I’m not sure it’ll make things any more comfortable for us with all these spiders around,” alternate Ladybug muttered, her eyes darting from point to point in another motion Ladybug was eminently familiar with. She decided to join her.

“Um, milady…” Alternate Chat Noir was looking uneasily up the street. “I think I hear the skitter-scatter of a lot of little feet coming our way…”

“One more second,” said alternate Ladybug with a touch of desperation, and then she and Ladybug lighted on the same solution at the same moment. “There!” they both cried, startling the Chats. Then they got busy, each taking her Chat Noir by the arms and arranging him as needed: shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the wall to which the egg sac adhered. Alternate Ladybug stood in front of them, holding the stadium chair so its back was to them, and instructed, “Now, if you each extend your staff to the same length, so they catch the hooks under here…”

“The chair becomes a giant spatula!” gloated one Chat Noir.

“For a super nasty omelette,” the other added.

In perfect synchronization they did as they were told, and alternate Ladybug ducked as the seat was lifted out of her hands by the two extending staffs. It rose smoothly at an oblique angle, and where it hit the wall slid neatly underneath the sac, separating the latter from the stone so it settled down against the seat back and descended gently toward the pavement again as the staffs retracted. They didn’t bring it within arm’s reach, though, seeming to agree tacitly that just beyond was close enough.

“Now…” said alternate Chat Noir, looking up the street again to where the sound of tapping spider claws definitely sounded, “you said the yellow portal, right?”

“Right,” said Ladybug.

“Then take this.” Alternate Chat Noir gestured to his staff, and Ladybug was quick to obey. She and her Chat Noir pivoted, turning the chair with its disgusting burden toward where the portals whirled some distance away. Alternate Chat Noir was already headed in that direction. “Extend!” he called as he ran. Ladybug and Chat Noir did so, struggling to keep the wobbling seat steady as the staffs grew longer. “Cataclysm!” alternate Chat Noir shouted next, raising his hand.

They stopped the chair’s movement just in front of the portals, where alternate Chat Noir halted as well. He watched carefully, then darted his hand out to slap the egg sac off the stadium seat and forward just as the yellow portal swung by. His Cataclysm destroyed the sac’s outer coating of web, and they all barely saw a mass of spiders pushed forward into the portal, where they disappeared — hopefully to swarm over the scissor-handed villain tormenting Chloé and drive her away long enough for Chloé to escape.

Alternate Chat Noir seized the stadium chair and bounded back to his Ladybug, who threw it into the sky to return it to the magic (though it changed nothing, of course, as no akuma had been captured). Her earring spots were already in short supply.

“You two better get out of here,” alternate Chat Noir advised, “before that new group of spiders arrives!”

“You two too,” Chat Noir returned, “before you transform back and can’t do anything to fight them!”

“We have got to take care of Araña,” alternate Ladybug complained.

Ladybug said, “Let me guess… she’s a giant spider?”

“Got it in one,” said alternate Ladybug in a dark tone. In an impetuous movement, she stepped forward and gave Ladybug a kiss on both cheeks. “Good luck with your villain!”

“Yours too!” Ladybug replied, touched. “Everyone, go!” And they split, the local superheroes swinging and vaulting off to safety before they could regain their civilian forms and Ladybug and Chat Noir, finding each other’s hands again, sprinting toward the portals.

“Think we can manage the white one this time?” Chat Noir wondered as they ran.

“No doubt!” was Ladybug’s enthusiastic reply. “I’ve got the kiss of luck on me now!”

“Aww, don’t make me jealous,” Chat Noir pouted, and they came to a brief halt and waited only a few moments before jumping forward again. White enveloped the world, and they popped out right into Dimension’s face.

She appeared more than a little startled, but rallied quickly. “So you made it back, did you? How did it feel to witness your failures in those other realities?”

“We didn’t witness failures,” Ladybug declared, giving Chat Noir’s hand a squeeze before letting it go. “We only saw what’s made us stronger than ever — and you’re going to feel it!” And throwing her yo-yo into the air, she added, “Lucky Charm!”

MangoFox’s second November Quick Fics 2018 prompt was this: “By some shenanigans (time travel, parallel universes, whatever), Marinette and/or Adrien have to view or enter a series of alternate realities in which Ladybug and Chat Noir have been unable (or unwilling) to stop certain villains. In each reality, one akumatized villain, now unopposed, has been able to continue using their powers, taking their method/goal to its logical extreme. Now, Marinette/Adrien are forced to (briefly) deal with the creepy outcomes of each scenario.”

I feared this might be a little too complicated for a quick fic, but then I got an idea how to deal with it, so it happened.

Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

Marinette would never even know… Cedulie put on the earnings. So what if Ladybug was hiding somewhere in shame? They were cute.

Staying in her ‘cousin’ Marinette’s room, Cedulie from Pontrieux learns a tragic secret.

Cedulie turned the ornate yet compact wooden box over and over and over in her hands, studying its shape and inlay for perhaps the sixth time before setting it back down and opening it yet again. She’d stumbled across its hiding place behind a loose baseboard by purest accident, and could only guess at the reason for its being so secretively tucked away… but surely ‘cousin’ Marinette wouldn’t mind her wearing these earrings while she was here?

Cedulie wasn’t actually supposed to know the real reason they were doing this temporary house and business swap, but by eavesdropping on her parents completely by accident, she’d heard about the nervous breakdown of the daughter of her père’s old friend from culinary school, and the Dupain-Chengs’ desire to get the girl out of Paris for a while. Though they were about the same age, Cedulie and Marinette had never met, so the reasons for the breakdown must be hazy… yet it had happened, Cedulie understood, almost six months ago, which would correspond with the disappearance in disgrace of the Parisian superhero Ladybug… and here was a hidden pair of earrings that looked, unless she was very much mistaken, just like the ones that came with Ladybug costumes (though how to get the spots to appear she couldn’t tell yet).

From what she’d heard, Marinette wouldn’t be the first to suffer some manner of PTSD in the wake of whatever disaster — Cedulie didn’t know the details — had driven the polka-dotted heroine from the esteem and environs of the capital. Five and a half months seemed perhaps excessive, but it did allow Cedulie to spend an as-yet-undetermined length of time in a pretty cool loft bedroom with a view of Notre Dame and a chance for her dads below to try their hands at more specialized baking than they did at their cafe back in Pontrieux.

And of course she hoped her own bedroom, with its flower-strewn window ledges and panels of colored glass, would help Marinette recover.

And for the moment…

Marinette would never even know…

Cedulie put on the earnings. So what if Ladybug was hiding somewhere in shame? They were cute. She closed the box and headed to the mirror, only a little guiltily, to admire her ears.

That night, after a day busy with settling in and helping to get the bakery ready for reopening under guest management tomorrow, she dreamed in black and red.

Beyond the slashes and blotches of color, it was nothing more than a mess of terrifying emotions: shattered determination, terrible failure, horror, fear, guilt, shock, heartbreak, loss, self-blame, despair… She’d never had such vivid nightmare feelings without a scenario to go along with them, and she’d certainly never thought merely sleeping in an unfamiliar space could waken such trauma inside her. After bolting up in a panic and then walking the floor of Marinette’s room for a few minutes to calm her racing pulse, she got a drink of water and went back to bed. And then it happened again.

She’d never had such a miserable night. Horror, guilt, heartbreak; failure, loss, despair — could it only be that she’d left her home and school and friends possibly for months and come to a big city she hadn’t visited before? Because she personally had never felt these emotions so intensely, so how could any circumstance be prompting them like this?

Glad she was that they’d come at the beginning of a school holiday, because that meant she could mope around the bakery and the neighborhood yawning all the next day. Her dads assumed she’d stayed up all night excitedly talking to friends about her new surroundings, and they threw each other grins over the baked goods every time she slouched through with her tired eyes. The prospect of bed that night was a significant relief.

Unfortunately, bed that night was as bad as bed the previous night had been.

It was the same sequence over and over: failure, horror, guilt, shock, heartbreak, despair… When Cedulie woke again in a cold sweat, tears running down her face, her gradual return to coherent thought was also a growing awareness that what she dreamed did make some kind of sense. Not any kind she could puzzle through, and it didn’t change the fact that she needed sleep, but, yes, there seemed to be a train of logic to the alien emotions.

By the third night, beyond exhausted, she’d grown enough accustomed to the nightmare that it didn’t wake her up quite so frequently — and, beyond that, she was starting to be able to read it a little better. Determination toward a long-sought victory, failure in that endeavor, ongoing horror at the outcome, fear for further terrible consequences, guilt at the poor decision that had led to this disaster, shock at an unexpected revelation and the means by which it had been made, heartbreak at the loss of someone important, awareness that none of this would have happened with a different choice, utter despair at ever being able to make any of it right… But what did it all mean? Cedulie was reliving the emotions associated with someone’s experience of some sort, but getting no details of that experience to explain them.

And that someone pretty much had to be Marinette, didn’t it? Whatever had caused her breakdown was haunting her room, her bed, so that Cedulie picked up on it while sleeping in here. And the feelings were so strong and unpleasant, Cedulie no longer considered five and a half months a long time for Marinette not to be over this. Whatever it was.

On the fourth day, less worn out as she’d begun to master this but now with a burning desire for answers, Cedulie, helping out in the bakery, fielded a visit and set of questions from a group of Marinette’s classmates. Evidently Marinette hadn’t given them the address in Pontrieux where she would be spending time trying to recover, and had long since ceased answering texts and calls, and these girls were trying to winkle her location out of the exchange family so as to send letters and care packages and who knew what else. Cedulie, having felt what she presumed Marinette had felt to sour her home in the first place, hesitated to betray the ‘cousin’ she had never met, but her papa gave out the address before she even knew he’d heard the request, so that was that.

The positive side to the girls’ visit, besides the fact that they all wanted to try the unfamiliar baking of the Arseneault-Chagnon family and spent a decent amount of money for hopefully a decent amount of word-of-mouth, was that Cedulie was able to grille them on everything they knew about Marinette and her problems of late.

It seemed Marinette had completely dropped out of school fifty-some days ago after three and a half months of increasingly poor performance and obvious depression and anxiety following some disaster none of the classmates wanted to talk about. There was a sense of mutual standoffishness or wariness between Cedulie and the group, in fact, since neither wanted to reveal all the information available. Cedulie thought she might have worked on a pale, ditzy-seeming girl that cried actual tears when Marinette’s troubles came up, but another with purple-tipped hair seemed to act as her protector and perhaps even girlfriend, and undoubtedly wouldn’t allow it. Once they’d bought their pastries and learned all they could, they filed out, most of them throwing covert glances at Cedulie as they went.

The last girl in the procession, though, paused in the doorway, ostensibly to allow another customer to enter past her but clearly in reality to look back at Cedulie more pointedly than the others had done. Despite her lack of overt weeping, she somehow seemed more torn up than any of the others about Marinette’s uncertain condition; behind her glasses, her drooping eyes showed signs of as much insomnia as Cedulie had suffered lately, and her face had paled during the preceding conversation to a significantly lighter tan than that of her arms (already two or three shades lighter than Cedulie’s skin). Perhaps she too sensed she wasn’t being told everything, and thought she could get something out of Cedulie alone. The latter couldn’t imagine sharing the strange emotional nightmares she’d been having with a stranger, though.

The girl came back a few steps into the store to where Cedulie was finishing up her task of arranging macarons in a swirl of colors on a large elevated platter for one of the displays. She stared at Cedulie wearily for a moment, and finally raised her hands. One held a state-of-the-art cell phone, and the other hung poised above it. “What’s your number?” she asked flatly.

Cedulie hesitated, but couldn’t see any reason not to give it. The stranger entered it, then stared down at her phone for a moment with a frown. Finally she pocketed it, looked back up at Cedulie, and said, “I’ll send you something. It explains… some things.” And without waiting for an answer, she turned and left.

Wondering exactly what that had been about, Cedulie went pensively back to her macarons. A few minutes later, however, when a tone sounded from her own pocket, she hastily added the last of the cookies to the tray, pushed it into place, and spun. “Père! Papa! Can I take a break?”

Père was busy with the new customer, but papa came over and inspected Cedulie’s work. “Looks great, love. Go have fun for a while.”

She’d barely thanked him before she was through the back and up the stairs to Marinette’s loft. There, she threw herself onto the bed, drew her knees up, and pulled out her phone.

They repressed this footage, said the unfamiliar number, but this is what happened to two of our other classmates. It’s really disturbing.

The video file had already fully downloaded — cell signal seemed to be really good here — so with a deep breath and bracing herself for what she assumed she would see, Cedulie hit Play.

The view was that of a patio filled with stone tables outside a restaurant, and the recording, probably from a cell phone, held remarkably steady, as if whoever had captured this had a lot of experience getting disaster footage.

And the subject was Ladybug.

Agitated and curious though she was, Cedulie had to pause the video for a moment to hiss, “I knew it!” Marinette’s breakdown did have something to do with Ladybug.

But wait… the local news in Pontrieux hadn’t ever shown what had happened to the superhero in the end (not that their coverage of Ladybug had ever been more than patchy in the first place), and the message here said this footage was being repressed and that it was disturbing… Could this somehow be a video of Ladybug’s last stand? How would that girl have gotten hold of it?

Starting it again in even greater agitation, Cedulie watched on.

The akumatized victim appeared to have taken the shape of an enormous pair of spiked boots with only the faintest hint of a figure wearing them, and was busy chasing a blonde girl Cedulie vaguely recognized from past news reports as having been rescued by Ladybug and Chat Noir on at least a couple of other occasions. From the mostly transparent body above the boots came a tirade about how the blonde girl always walked all over everyone but now it was her turn to be trampled on.

Ladybug and Chat Noir struggled with the two ends of what appeared to be a black-spotted red rubber diving suit, stretching it out to tie to the umbrella poles of two adjacent tables. But whether the intention had been to call to the blonde girl to lead the pursuing villain toward the springy potential trap was unclear, for Ladybug suddenly gasped, “Papillon!” and pointed. “Here, help me with this!”

Cedulie thought she remembered, from months back, that the news had mentioned a greater incidence, there at the end, of the major villain appearing in person, evidently having become frustrated at the continual failure of his efforts conducted from afar. And, indeed, the camera swerved from its closeup on Ladybug and Chat Noir to show a tall, narrow figure in grey atop the wall bordering the patio on one side. Then the view returned with almost a sense of breathless haste to Ladybug, who was trying to wrestle a fallen table umbrella into a perpendicular position against the stretched diving suit so as to use the latter as a giant slingshot and the former as an oversized arrow aimed at Le Papillon.

“But Chloé…” Chat Noir protested.

Ladybug was firm in her purpose. “We have time! This may be our only chance!”

Though Chat Noir looked uncertain, he obeyed, and with four hands it did indeed only take a second longer to load up the umbrella, direct it, and let it fly. The camera followed the missile, whose aim was true: the surprised Papillon, with a cry, took the makeshift dart right in the chest and was knocked from his perch on the wall. There was a shout of triumph from Ladybug, but the second half of the enthusiastic syllable was overridden by a pandemonium from all sides, both from Ladybug’s direction as well as from near the camera: screams of dismay and horror, the triumphant laughter of the akumatized villain, and Chat Noir suddenly shouting desperately, “Chloé! Chloé!”

And when the camera returned quickly in that direction, it displayed the form of the blonde girl — Chloé — now visible where the enormous boots had just stamped, flattened into an unnatural position on the flagstones, oozing blood, and very, very still. Ladybug had been wrong; they hadn’t had time.

She had already run several steps in the direction of the fallen Papillon, but now stood stock-still staring at the lethal result of her poor decision. She faced away from the camera, which had begun to shake slightly in whatever hand held it, but Cedulie knew what she felt. She’d experienced herself the sudden sense of failure, the awful sick feeling at Chloé’s death that would suffuse the rest of the scene, the guilt and shock. And she knew another shock was coming. Though her heart seemed to be pounding in her throat, she also couldn’t quite bring herself to breathe as she watched on.

The screams had died down into an eerie quiet broken only by the chortling of the lesser enemy, while everyone stared in astonished dismay at the body on the ground. As the camera wandered away almost absently as if the hands holding it had forgotten their task, Cedulie was able to see that even Papillon, where he’d emerged around the wall off of which he’d tumbled, appeared startled, perhaps even shaken by the event.

“She’ll never step all over anyone again!” the villain was gloating. “And you, who defended her, are next!” And the view suddenly snapped back to the action, still a bit shaky but evidently determined to record everything that went on here today.

The giant boots rushed at Chat Noir, taking him by surprise in his continual surprise and horror despite the announced intention, and kicked him to the ground with a single hit. One shoe came to rest on his chest, the other on his right arm. The nearly invisible figure wearing the boots bent low with a triumphant laugh.

Ladybug, for one moment too long, could not tear her traumatized gaze from Chloé’s corpse. But the sound of bone snapping and her partner’s anguished cry dragged her attention in that direction — too late. For the villain stood straight again, bounding off the prostrate, broken-armed figure of the fallen hero, hefting his captured Miraculous high for all to see. “Papillon!” came the disembodied voice from above the boots. “I’ve done it!”

But everyone’s eyes were on Chat Noir. A gasp seemed to issue from every nearby throat as the black cat suit melted away and the true form of the mysterious superhero appeared. He couldn’t even drag an arm across his face to hide it, for one clutched convulsively at the other as he rolled in agony onto his side, visage in full view of the onlookers. And even Cedulie found it familiar, though the name didn’t come to mind until the group behind the camera — whatever crowd had gathered for this gruesome display — started whispering it in intense surprise: “Adrien Agreste!”

Ladybug fell to her knees, utterly powerless on the pavement.

Half a moment later, the general outcry changed and increased, and the unexpected form of Le Papillon dashed into view, scooped the fallen model off the ground, and sprinted away. The camera didn’t follow him; in fact it drooped from Ladybug’s defeated figure and lingered, unfocused, on the flagstones and a pair of shoes before the video abruptly ended.

The tears streaming down Cedulie’s cheeks were genuinely her own this time, and she bent over the phone with eyes squeezed tight shut for a moment. Chloé and Adrien must have been the other classmates the girl in the bakery had mentioned, and Marinette…

“Marinette was Ladybug,” she whispered, her voice choked and weak. Marinette had been Ladybug, and she’d not only gotten her classmate killed and her partner de-powered and injured, she’d lost him to her greatest enemy, whom she’d failed to defeat. And if the heartbreak Cedulie had sensed in her nightmares was any indication, there might even have been more to the emotional tangle of the scene than that.

“Now you know the truth,” came a tiny voice from nearby, and the sorrow and weariness it held was so in keeping with how Cedulie felt and what she’d just witnessed that it didn’t even startle her despite its total unfamiliarity.

She looked down, and found at her side, lying on the mattress and appearing to have used up all its energy getting only that far, a strange little red creature whose black spots left no doubt in Cedulie’s mind that it had something to do with Ladybug. Not daring to speak above a whisper, fearing too heavy a breath would blow the sad and worn-out thing away, Cedulie said, “But what happened after? Where is Chat Noir now? Does everyone blame Ladybug for that?”

“Ladybug escaped before she transformed back,” the tiny person replied listlessly, “but she was never the same again.”

Cedulie nodded.

“No one’s seen Adrien since. Marinette was in love with him, you know.” Minuscule tears slid down the creature’s face, and Cedulie, heart aching, impetuously scooped the thing up and cradled it in her hands. The tiny body expanded with a deep breath that came out as a miserable sigh, and then the high-pitched voice finished, “And nobody every blamed her as much as she blamed herself.”

For a minute or so Cedulie simply sat and cried along with the unknown being in her hands. She didn’t fully understand yet, but the creature seemed to need this. If it was a part of the Ladybug business, after all, everything had fallen apart for it five and a half months ago just as it had for Marinette.

Finally, though, Cedulie stirred and looked down again at the red and black stranger. Still in a whisper she ventured, “So what now?”

Soulful, exhausted eyes looked up at her, and the creature seemed to gather its strength to speak again. “You’re wearing the Ladybug Miraculous. That’s why I’m here.”

Cedulie’s right hand flew to her ear. She’d almost completely forgotten about the earrings she’d thoughtlessly borrowed. Surely that was the reason for the nightmares! She’d been connecting to Ladybug through Ladybug’s own conduit of power!

“But the experience was too much for her,” the creature went on, “and the earrings are tainted. She renounced me… she said it was only for a while, but…” It was evident from tone and expression that Marinette had been more than merely a superhero partner to this being. It let out another long sigh, and Cedulie thought for several moments it had finished speaking. But at last it continued, “But Ladybug is still needed… Adrien is still out there somewhere… and Le Papillon… and… and Marinette…” It shifted as if in pain. “I just… I can’t transform anyone until the earrings are purified. There’s someone who could help, if only Marinette had gone to him…” And then the creature really did fall silent, and closed its eyes as if too tired and unhappy to go on.

Failure, horror, shock, heartbreak… Ladybug was still needed and Adrien was still out there somewhere… and poor cousin Marinette, suffering under a weight of guilt and despair that had broken her spirit… not to mention this little thing in Cedulie’s hand…

Abruptly she stood, tears still running down her face but a new determination in her heart. “Tell me where to go.”

For November Quick Fics 2018, MangoFox prompted, “Ladybug and Chat Noir have been permanently defeated, and everyone knows it. Another girl finds the Ladybug earrings and takes it upon herself to become the new Ladybug. However, she has to face an unexpected problem: the earrings are still haunted by memories of the emotional issues that caused the Miraculous team to fail in the first place.” Why he wanted such a freaking sad story I have no idea XD

A Legion of Hideous Minions

The castle’s residents had been driven out. Thank goodness she didn’t yet have worse to suspect, since almost no blood and no signs of corpses had she seen.

Angela finds the castle overrun by unexpected enemies.


Angela wouldn’t exactly call her ascent ‘panicked,’ since it was a more controlled haste and (she liked to think) a more controlled attitude than that, but she certainly clawed her way up the last few yards of the castle wall a little less carefully than usual.

It had been merely a leisurely sweep of the surrounding area upon awakening, a brief glide about this immediate part of a city she was only just getting to know, but it had at first startled and subsequently alarmed her. And now she finished her quick trip back home with a climb up over the crenelated walls to inform her clan that New York had gone completely mad.

Finding no one in sight in the courtyard where she landed and feeling a little too unnerved to shout, she made her way through the first door at hand and into a pleasant lounge that had probably once been a war room or something similar but that had been fitted up lately with more modern furnishings. Comfortable seats called sofas formed a square with open corners in the center, while a gleaming bar stood to one side, and the hangings that, now as a thousand years ago, worked to keep out the October drafts were machine-woven blankets from a Mexican street vendor rather than hand-crafted tapestries depicting battles long forgotten.

At first Angela believed herself alone in the room, and would have passed immediately onward looking for someone to tell about the chaos many storeys down… but as the heavy oak door closed behind her with an inevitable noise despite its well maintained hinges, a figure previously motionless at the bar whirled suddenly to face her. Angela took a step backward in shock, wings returning to a startled half-open position from where they’d been clasped around her shoulders.

He couldn’t be anything but a vampire, with that mottled skin as pale as death and those extra-long, protruding incisors startling even to one not remiss in the tooth department herself and from one of which dripped a viscous red substance. She hadn’t thought gargoyles capable of becoming vampires, but the stranger’s dolichocephalic face and the wings that sprang up behind him in as startled a movement as that of her own marked him as no human, even if the black and white suit and red cape he wore looked more like something designed by that race than the simpler garments gargoyles typically favored.

For one moment he stared at her, obviously surprised at her abrupt presence. Then his mouth opened into a smile, baring the expanse of the nearest overlong tooth and its gob of blood slowly sliding downward toward the direly pointed tip. When he spoke, it was in an accent she recognized from one of the ‘movies’ Broadway had recently taken her to — maybe the humans, ignorant though they were of so many things supernatural, had gotten at least that part correct.

“Ah, a beautiful gargoyle voman. Perhaps you vill be villing to donate your blood to my noble cause.”

Angela still didn’t panic, but at this point she was definitely a long step closer. Monsters rioting in the streets below, looting food from homes, and now one had found his way all the way up here to the castle above the clouds?

She considered her options. Vampires were said to be immensely strong, fast, and difficult to defeat. And though some gargoyle clans, in other areas of the world, reputedly hunted them — the night should stalk the night, after all — they were far from here and far from her range of experience. She didn’t know if she could take a gargoyle vampire one-on-one, especially unarmed as she was. Her eyes darted toward the opposite door, calculating her chances of escape. If she could just find some of the others, they could battle side-by-side and even the odds.

“You can run,” the vampire said, and for all the calm in his voice she thought him on the brink of laughter — at her relative weakness? “…but you can’t hide. I am Count Mordacula, lord of vampires, and my host of minions from the undervorld is loyal only to me! Your puny castle doesn’t stand a chance!”

Were the monsters ransacking the city his servants, then? Angela had to find the others, assess the situation and plan a counterattack, before the situation got any worse. Without answering the vampire lord — she wouldn’t be hypnotized by any spell of words! — she made what she hoped would be an unexpected dash for the exit. Feeling no gnash of sharp teeth or scrape of undead talons, she darted through the door and slammed it behind her, fumbling with the lock as if that would do any good. Then she raced down the corridor beyond.

What had once been the Great Hall and, she supposed, still was — though it had become more a museum dedicated to physical mementos of adventures past — seemed less defensible than other parts of the castle keep, having multiple entrances whose banded doors were more for show than anything these days, but it lay at the end of this hallway, so there she went. So fast did she tear inside, in fact, that she skidded to a halt on scraping claws, unfurling her wings again slightly to stop herself, as she entered the larger space and looked around.

This time she had no illusions about being alone, as the great figure before her would have been hard to miss. And lucky she considered herself that she hadn’t eaten anything yet tonight, for the abomination in front of her might have caused her to lose it if she had. She’d never seen anything like it — was it zombie or unholy construct or simply a walking nightmare? Its belly gaped open, showing rotting green intestines only held in place by what appeared to be metal bars grafted to the withering edges of the rent, and from behind its head stretched a third fleshy arm bearing a huge hook ready to impale an unwary enemy — assuming they hadn’t already passed out from sheer horror.

On catching sight of her, the creature opened its mouth, disclosing a mass of sticky brown as if its tongue had decayed into a stretchy mass, and let out a muffled groan as if trying to speak words long since lost to its cold, dead brain. Gagging, Angela took off running again so fast she left scores in the flagstones. She had to find the others. It seemed Count Mordacula hadn’t lied: he did command a legion of hideous minions, and — as long as she remained its only defender — the castle didn’t stand a chance. She needed her father’s strength, Hudson’s sword, and Elisa’s gun. She would even welcome some of Xanatos’ appalling mechanical suits right about now.

To the sound of the inarticulate monstrosity’s gurgling behind her, she made her way up a spiral staircase to the keep’s second floor and into a network of tighter hallways and chambers used as bedrooms by the various members of the small clan. The first with an unlocked door was the one Lexington used to tinker with his outlandish modern gadgets, and into this she ducked, hoping to find some sign of where everyone had gone. This time, though, panic was so close she could taste it, and she actually gave a little squeak at what the creaking hinges disclosed at their unfolding.

The place was overrun with spiders uniform in shape and size, that shape beyond unnerving and that size positively outlandish. She’d seen tarantulas; she’d seen funnel web spiders and camel spiders and a giant spider god, for goodness’ sake… but this many spiders the breadth of a small shield moving with clacking, whirring limbs in motions almost identical was enough to unnerve even the most seasoned world traveler. And that was before their dark master, hearing her cry, whirled toward her: three times the size of its brood, it moved more quickly and fluidly as well, and, seeing her, leaped forward with its many greenish legs, glowing webs criss-crossing between them, waving. Angela stumbled backward from the room, skin crawling, again slamming the door… but unfortunately, this one locked only from the inside.

Obviously in just the time she’d spend gliding around the neighborhood — an hour at most — the castle’s residents had been driven out. Thank goodness she didn’t yet have worse to suspect, since almost no blood and no signs of corpses had she seen. But who knew how many more of Count Mordacula’s minions had replaced her family? Though a skilled warrior and learning the ways of tactics and castle defense, Angela on her own was out of her depth and wrestling with fear. Best to get away from here as quickly as possible.

As she navigated the same smaller halls, now away from Lex’s spider-filled room, passing as quietly as she could Hudson’s partially open door from which an eerie glow and a menacing growl emanated, she thought fast. Where might the clan go at a time like this? Into the Xanatos building to seek aid from their uneasy allies? But the monsters she’d seen thus far didn’t seem capable of flight, and must have reached the castle somehow… how else but up through the building from the ground level? It seemed probable, therefore, that the building was also overrun.

Perhaps they’d gone over the side and all the way down underground to seek reinforcements among the Mutates? Not unlikely — and a practical regrouping option for Angela herself even if she didn’t find the others there. She hastened with steps as muffled as she could make them around the tight corners and outside.

On the battlement, she nearly ran smack into two figures that were surveying the courtyard below as if searching for something. The first, clearly a human or human-like magician of some sort in black robes, stood even taller than Angela if her wide-brimmed pointed hat counted for height, and turned to regard the gargoyle with a face as green as an apple. The other loomed over them both, hat notwithstanding: a great winged monkey, bulky and hairy and glowering of brow over deep-set eyes. It too turned immediately toward Angela as she emerged so close beside them on the stone terrace.

Succumbing for one brief moment to the panic that had been threatening all along, she leaped haphazardly to the wall, tore her way upward, and launched herself into space from the top before her wings were even fully unfurled.

***

Goliath lifted his monkey mask, which he wasn’t too sure about in the first place, the better to watch as his daughter scrambled unexpectedly up the great blocks and dove off the castle’s side after a single glance at him. At his side, Elisa likewise snatched off her obstructive witch’s hat, letting the hair she’d styled into a scraggly, unkempt imitation of is usual sleek shine shift slightly in the autumn breeze. Removing their eyes from the spot where Angela had disappeared, they shared a look involving the same grimace of sudden dismay. Before they could say anything, though, the door behind them opened again and Brooklyn, in complete makeup and evening wear, emerged from the keep.

“Hey, did you guys see Angela?” he wondered. “I tested my accent out on her, but she didn’t say anything, just ran off.”

Again before any answer could be made, Broadway appeared, and they all shifted along the battlement to make space for him; he seemed even bigger than usual with all the cosmetic putty and one wing done up like an extra arm. He was smacking his lips, and his voice still sounded gooey as he remarked, “Remind me never to put that much caramel in my mouth all at once ever again! I couldn’t say anything to Angela, and I think I grossed her out! Did she come out here?”

Lexington was the next to forestall an answer, creeping from the doorway on all fours due to difficulties walking upright in the extra-legs harness. He seemed to have caught the end of Broadway’s statement, for he put in regretfully, “I think I scared her with my remote-control spiders.” He brightened a touch, though, as he added, “At least I know they work!”

“But where is she?” Broadway wondered, now sounding a little concerned.

Both Goliath and Elisa looked again at the wall’s summit where the object of their conversation had disappeared. In some chagrin Elisa said, “I don’t think any of us told her about our costumes.”

Goliath shook his head, and his tone was even more regretful than his human mate’s. “I don’t think any of us told her about Halloween.”


This is for iamkatsudone’s November Quick Fics 2018 prompt, “All the gargoyles and Elisa and halloween shenanigans?” It’s not quite all the gargoyles, but there are certainly Halloween shenanigans! (The WoW abomination costume is a total anachronism, though XD)



Aku Soku Zan(za) (5)



This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.

Last updated on February 10, 2019

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The hour was far too early for his eyelids to remain so stubbornly raised, and, given that all he could see anyway was a mass of shining black hair he would truly rather not look at, he had multiple good reasons to try to keep them shut… but he couldn’t. So he shifted onto his back, away from the accusatorily beautiful hair and the curve of a fine cheek visible through it, and tried to focus instead on the pale beginnings of dawn that gradually filled his apartment.

His next motion was to pillow bare arms beneath his head to facilitate his pointless gaze up at the shadowed, dusty ceiling, before he realized that so much movement might leave him not the only person prematurely awake and he wasn’t ready for that. He resisted the urge to turn and look at her again, simultaneously stifling a sigh. In addition to his inability to continue sleeping, he also couldn’t get comfortable, but he needed to lie still and avoid waking her. Too bad the thoughts in his head seemed to be bellowing.

He’d enjoyed it, of course; he always enjoyed sex. But he couldn’t deny that it hadn’t been… well, it hadn’t really been satisfying, and not necessarily in a physical sense. He didn’t want to postulate something wrong with Tokio any more than something wrong with himself, but this encounter simply hadn’t been enough for him. In fact the memory of last night suggested he’d lost interest fairly early and gone along from there solely for her sake. And while he didn’t believe he’d performed poorly, such perfunctory attention to such crucial business was something he couldn’t recall ever having given before… and it seemed tactless, perhaps even disrespectful. That wasn’t why his conscience was bristling, though. It wasn’t about whether his body had taken pleasure from it, or even whether hers had; it was that he’d done it at all.

But why should he feel guilty about that? Sleeping with Tokio had been a normal progression after flirting with her and kissing her, right? Sex was something people did… desire for it was a normal instinct… Sano was as red-blooded as anyone else he knew, and had indulged in sex ever since he’d been old enough…

No. Zanza had indulged. To him sex had been merely another tool, another physically distracting activity he could use to forget his past, erase his pain, even alleviate his boredom. Just another game, a pursuit as meaningless as his mercenary work had always been. And here Sano was playing that game again after he’d supposedly renounced that kind of sport and started living his life seriously. He knew he wasn’t serious about Tokio — he’d known it last night — and yet he’d done it anyway: played with her as he’d done with others in the past; taken advantage of her for some kind of quick, distracting thrill; forgotten himself as he used to do and brought her with him. How was he going to tell her it couldn’t happen again? How did you confess to something like that? How was he supposed to work with her after this?

Course I’d think of all this after He’d been so pleased with himself last night, caught up in the progress he’d made and excited to share it with her, not to mention overwhelmingly relieved at finding her still his friend, and consequently full of fondness toward her… but that was no excuse for impetuosity that might prove to have hurt them both. Great mess I’m in now…

During this reverie, he’d turned onto his side again, away from her now and facing a haphazard clutter of blue, black, and white across his floor; as he stifled another sigh his eyes abruptly focused and began to range over clothing and wraps until they came to rest on a certain kanji that had somehow draped itself over the edge of the table to stare at him in stark condemnation. He grimaced. He really did feel like a villain.

She stirred beside him. His attempts not to bother her had been negligent, and it made sense she would be a light sleeper. How to interpret the apparent casualness and unconcern of her movements as she stretched languidly and sat up, he did not know.

“Ohayou,” she said. Either she knew he’d awakened before her, or she wanted him to awaken now. She didn’t reach out to touch him, to shake or alert him or to explore his body further than she’d done last night; but as she drew her legs up one of them brushed in a whisper of smooth skin against Sano’s right buttock under the blanket beside her, and it was an effort for him not to jerk away as if burned. He certainly mimicked her motion of sitting up abruptly enough, and his return good morning came out hoarsely.

For a moment they stared at each other, and Sano reflected what a shame it was that he couldn’t be serious about her. She was fun to be with, very convenient in his current situation, and sure as hell beautiful. This was the first time he’d seen her hair free of its bun, and, sitting there with it spilling down over pale shoulders past the line of a cute uniform tan and across nicely rounded bare breasts, she looked good enough to eat. For someone else, anyway. Sano, at the moment, would rather turn and run, faint residual stirrings in his lower body notwithstanding.

Her smile had changed as they examined each other, but Sano didn’t understand the new version any better than he had the old. She leaned back on her hands and crossed her legs, disarraying the blanket atop her. “I’d volunteer to make tea, but I’m almost afraid to touch your stove. It looks like it might fall apart and set the apartment on fire.”

Glad of an excuse to direct his attention away from her at the device in question, Sano protested, “You saw me use it just last night!” Not that he really wanted to bring up last night, and not that this attempt at naturality succeeded in any way.

“Every use could be its last,” she intoned.

Sano tried to laugh, but this too sounded far from genuine.

“Just trying to lighten the mood,” Tokio sighed, “before we plunge into our serious discussion.”

Sano winced. He hadn’t meant to look like he wanted one, nor believed he’d betrayed his subject of reflection in any way. “What serious discussion?”

Her expression, as he swiveled back toward her, became a little sad even if her tone was still light as she replied, “The one we’re about to have.”

Sano nodded, attempting to return the smile but having more success returning the sigh. He should have known he couldn’t hide anything from a spy — especially one he’d slept with — but he’d been hoping for a little more time to figure out how to tell her he regretted what they’d done and didn’t want to do it again. Of course, she probably already knew… Two people didn’t start the morning after sex with a ‘serious discussion’ except to make a momentous change in their relationship — and as Sano obviously wasn’t planning on proposing marriage to her, she must be aware that any such discussion between them entailed a breakup of sorts. The problem wasn’t really how to tell her, but how much to tell her. He took a deep breath. “The thing is…”

She used the hesitant interval in his words to protest. “You’ve got to stop looking so guilty. We’re both thinking the same thing, so…”

“Are we?”

“That this was a mistake we shouldn’t repeat? I believe so.”

“Yeah…” He managed a weak smile this time, of relief perhaps but more of bewilderment. It hadn’t crossed his mind that she might have reached the same conclusion he had — and what an arrogant little shit it marked him as that he’d never even considered she might regret sleeping with him. This only added to how unfairly he thought he’d treated her, and he began again, “I’m sorry–“

“No apologizing either,” she cut him off, shaking a finger. “If we haven’t done right by each other… well, it’s in the past now.”

In what manner she could possibly think she’d wronged him lay beyond his ability to guess, but perhaps she was as reluctant to confess it as he was to put his own earlier thoughts into words. Still, he couldn’t keep from asking a bit helplessly, “What’s left to say, then?”

She pondered, crossing her legs and leaning her chin on her hand. He stared at the faint line between her eyebrows rather than any other point on her naked body. “How about this: I’ll say what I think, and you see if you have anything to add. If we haven’t worked this out by then…” A shrug seemed to finish with something to the effect of, “I don’t really know what we’ll do then.” Sano didn’t know either, but thought her proposed plan was probably for the best, and said so. And with a deep breath of her own Tokio began.

“I think,” she said slowly, “you’re a great guy. I’m glad I met you, and I’m looking forward to working with you. I think we’ll continue to get along very well. I’m glad we didn’t have to become enemies; I’m glad we’re still friends.” She looked him squarely in the eye. “And if it took sex to make us see what kind of friends we’re supposed to be, and what kind we’re not… I’m not going to regret it.” Her lips spread into a self-deprecating smile. “No, I’m already regretting it… but as an experience that’s in the past that we can both learn from…”

Contradictorily with a certain amount of effort, Sano finally relaxed. While Tokio’s description of the situation did not meet with the full approval of his conscience, it was plausible and he was more than willing to go along with it for the sake of preserving the friendship she’d mentioned. She hadn’t explained her compunctions about last night, nor her comment earlier that suggested she thought she’d done him wrong, but neither did she need to know the sordid details of his thought processes. At last, more easily than he’d said anything this morning, Sano allowed, “Well, I agree with you.” He almost wished he did have something to add, if only to prove how seriously he was taking this, but still found himself floundering in guilt and uncertainty and a desire not to tell her how much and how senselessly he felt he’d used her.

She raised an eyebrow. “You agree that you’re a great guy?”

“You sound like Saitou,” he snorted.

“Hn,” she replied. Then less facetiously, “So we’re not going to hate each other over this?” And despite having been the one to set everything right between them, to come up with the excuse that would prevent them from hating each other, a kind of nervous supplication flickered for a moment — only one moment — in her eyes as she asked this. As by pure luck alone he caught the expression, Sano reflected that in addition to having reached the same conclusion about the night’s events and their relationship, she might be experiencing emotions similar to his own on the subject. Perhaps she felt like a villain as well. And he wondered if she bought the ‘if it took sex’ speech any more than he did, or if it would simply become their standing silent agreement to leave it at that.

“Course not,” he said, struggling hard for a real smile at last if only to reassure her, as well as himself, that his words were true. And they had to be. He would make certain they were even if he had to work every moment for the rest of his life not to hate Tokio. How to go about repairing a mistake of this sort remained a mystery on the whole, but he could begin by ensuring it didn’t get in the way of their immediate happiness. He could only hope he’d be successful at deliberately holding together a friendship marred by a poor decision when that was something he’d never done before or even considered. At least he knew he could count on her help.

“Good.” It was her usual cheerfully brusque tone once again. Unashamed of her nakedness, she pushed the blanket away, rose, and began to pick her clothing from among his off the floor. “You should make tea.”

Sano figured she was right: not belaboring the issue was probably the best way to move past it, at least while they were still in the same room together. “You don’t think it’s going to burn the apartment down when I touch it?”

“There’s always the chance,” she admitted regretfully.

Determined not to make tea in the nude, Sano reached for his pants. “Besides, don’t you need to get to work?”

“Yes, I have things to do — and so do you.” Finished with her undergarments, she was pulling a black shirt over her head with her back turned to him. “But there’s nothing wrong with starting the day out right.”

Sano laughed, but didn’t comment that they were off on the wrong foot — or would it be the wrong side of the futon? — already in that case. Half clothed, he looked around to see if he even had any tea, or anything to go with it; he was hungry.

Their brief and meager breakfast was a struggle, he guessed, for both of them, but a necessary one. Whatever degree of awkwardness they parted in now would undoubtedly multiply for their next meeting. Better to force themselves to stay friendly and casual and discuss things that remained common between them as if nothing untoward had happened. At least that was how he saw it, and the fact that she stayed for half an hour chatting about work over weak tea seemed to indicate she agreed. Still, he experienced unabashed relief when she finally made to depart.

“I’ll talk to you later,” she was saying as she moved to the entry to put her shoes on.

“Yeah,” he nodded, following like a good host.

“Do me a friendly favor?” she asked, looking up at him.

“Sure.” He paused in the act of reaching out to open the door for her.

“Kiss me.”

He shook his head in a mixture of amusement and admiration at her cheek. “Shameless woman.”

Now who sounds like Hajime?”

“Fine,” he laughed, and kissed her one last time. He couldn’t help feeling as he pulled away that there was something unhappy in her eyes. It probably mirrored his own, but whether this was sadness that they weren’t meant for each other or guilt neither could completely overcome, he couldn’t tell. Things wouldn’t be entirely smooth between them for a while; that much was obvious.

“Bye,” she said softly, pulling the door open on her own.

“See ya,” he replied, equally quiet, watching as she stepped briskly away. After a moment she looked back at him. She didn’t turn, only glanced over her shoulder; it reminded him of when Saitou done exactly the same just yesterday. But all Tokio did was wave and move off again.

He returned the gesture, though it felt empty and she wouldn’t see it in any case, and closed the door on the sight of her receding figure. Then he slumped back through his room, absently straightening up for no reason other than needing something to do with his hands. Finally he sat down on the rumpled futon and lay back, arms behind his head and feet propped up on the table, and stared again at the ceiling.

Everything had happened so quickly — how they’d started down an unwise path last night and how they’d left it just now — that he felt a little dazed. And when he thought about it, he hadn’t really known Tokio very long in the first place, so even in relationship terms it at all been hasty. Maybe he’d purposely rushed things. Why he might have done so he didn’t know, but something had caused him to race ahead in his progress with Tokio. He’d never thought of himself as particularly desperate for sex — which only made him feel worse for having slept with her — so why had he done it? Was it simply what he’d been labeling it before — a leftover dalliance of Zanza’s — or was there some other reason he hadn’t yet recognized? Some craving for companionship, perhaps a result of recent events and actually having more to do with his new life than his old, that had led him to seek the only kind of closeness he knew he could rely on at this point? He couldn’t be sure.

What he was sure of was that nothing like this could be allowed to happen again. Somberly he made a vow to himself: Next time I fuck someone, I’m not gonna have to ask myself all these questions about it; there’ll be a damn good reason for it, or I won’t do it at all.

As this almost ritual moment of silent oath-taking passed, he gave the ceiling a grin both rueful and bitter in addition to slightly amused. It was funny, he thought, how much thinking he’d been doing since he’d met that woman. Actually it had mostly started with Saitou, hadn’t it? Lots of thinking in general lately, then. And he wasn’t entirely certain how much he liked it.

***

Tokio counted out coins to the solicitous attendant, and with a murmured thanks allowed herself to be directed into the dressing room. Steam welled up around her in a sudden rush as the door opened, and, hands stilling briefly on her jacket lapels, she closed her eyes and breathed in the good scents of wet tile and soap. She was glad she’d had some money on her. She’d already stopped by an herbalist she probably patronized far more often than most ‘respectable’ women did to purchase a certain technically illegal but very convenient concoction… but primarily she was simply relieved she didn’t have to meet Hajime today before taking a bath.

As she began, pensive and frowning, to undress, she anticipated with no great pleasure the moment when she would meet Hajime, an event that could not be put off for any reason so petty as social awkwardness. In fact she looked forward less to encountering him than she did to talking to Zanza again, since one ‘morning after’ conversation had already taken place, whereas the other… the other she didn’t even quite know how she would deal with.

There was some irony here that brought a faint, bitter smile to her face. Typically a woman’s thoughts regarding her husband after sleeping with another man would be very different than this, and her current reflections might have surprised anyone to whom she happened to relate them. Not that there was anyone to whom she would; she didn’t lack friends, but none of them besides Hajime himself were close enough, sufficiently privy to the details of her unusual life to share such personal affairs with. And how much she could possibly share of this with Hajime was a matter of very doubtful question.

What she’d told herself yesterday remained true: she didn’t owe it to him to give up on something she wanted just because he’d developed an interest in it (without offering any indication thereof, she might add). It represented neither betrayal of friendship nor dishonorable conduct to continue down a path she’d already started walking even having inadvertently discovered her husband would prefer to be the only one moving toward her destination. So far she was in the clear.

The combination of her new awareness of Hajime’s interest, on the other hand, with everything that had come to light last night and this morning made her feel she hadn’t treated either him or Zanza properly.

Three other women, one with a chubby child to soap up along with herself, occupied the washing area, and it appeared at least three more sat in the tub. Tokio took one of the last few stools, determined to scrub as slowly as possible in the hope that some of the soakers might leave and she wouldn’t be forced to share the space with seven other, probably socially inclined people. She didn’t have all day, but she also thought spending a little extra time in here to secure peace of mind would be well worth it.

One aspect of last night’s experience had been totally new to her: her partner’s heart hadn’t been in. Which is not to say she’d never had lackluster sex, that no previous lover had ever been tired or preoccupied… but she couldn’t recall ever having gone into a sexual encounter with someone so seemingly eager at first who had then pretty clearly lost interest the way Zanza had. In a way she was almost grateful for the circumstance, as its uniqueness was opening her eyes about her own condition as nothing in the past had ever done.

Excluding Hajime, most men treated her very poorly. At best they interacted with her the way they did with other women — that is, as if she were some kind of extra-intelligent animal that, while it could provide certain services, needed a lot of looking after and was (and must remain) gratefully subservient. The worst examples treated her like a criminal, a personal affront, something heinous and disgusting that needed to be trampled down on a regular basis to keep it in its place. There were very few exceptions. She’d always had to fight simply to be allowed to exist as she was in society; she’d become so accustomed to it by now that she often gave it very little thought. And she hadn’t considered, until today, exactly how deep this necessary rebellion ran, exactly how specific and personal some of her efforts were at getting the men in her life to take her seriously.

She scrubbed with only a very average level of force, but prolonged repetition was turning her skin red; yet she continued, as if with the motion she might rid herself of the guilt and the confusion and the… and the unexpected unhappiness that welled up inside her at her own thoughts. Even though she couldn’t actually wash away what she felt, action was still better than non-action.

Her last lover, Noriyuki, was a fellow police officer. She’d only slept with him a handful of times before discovering that, though he’d given an impression of respecting her abilities and ambitions, he expected without even asking that, once they became physically intimate, she would, if not actually divorce her existing husband, at the very least ‘settle down’ with Noriyuki, abandon her police career, and start having his babies. His inflexibility on this point — indeed, his frank skepticism at her unwillingness — probably should not have come as such a surprise to her; perhaps she’d been too optimistic. But the sex — the very act that had ushered them toward the end of their relationship — had been passionate and enjoyable while it had lasted.

The man before that, Taku, a rare uncorrupted government secretary met during the course of work, had made specific verbal claims to understand and support Tokio’s life choices; yet it had become obvious over time that, at least subconsciously, he, like Noriyuki, believed her government employment to be nothing more than transitory, that domesticity and perhaps even motherhood must be her actual ultimate goal. That relationship had suffered no serious change at the introduction of sex, so they’d had quite a bit of it, but it had necessarily eventually ended.

Prior to that, Iwashiro the struggling poet had always immortalized in verse such traits as her trim figure, charming laugh, or sparkling eyes, writing nothing of her mental or spiritual characteristics or professional accomplishments. He would listen largely in silence to her description of her day, having nothing to add despite his eloquence, then praise her cooking and wander off to get back to his own work. The sex had been pretty fun, though.

She didn’t want to go any further back in her memory. The latest four were more than enough to tell her what she needed to know: that she’d developed a habit of using sex not nearly so often for connecting with someone she cared about, or even merely a physically enjoyable pastime, as for a method of proving herself to her partner. It had long been an indicator not only of her unwillingness to lie quiescent and allow a man to take charge of the proceedings in any part of her life, but of a demonstrable talent not nearly so easily dismissed by someone close to her as the one she had for police work and spying. She hadn’t recognized that she did this until now, until she’d had an encounter during which her partner hadn’t paid her the attention she was accustomed to, had remained largely unengaged and unimpressed.

And this was shameful, disgraceful. Whatever a sexual encounter should mean to the people involved, it wasn’t this. It made sense, perhaps, that she had developed this habit, but just because she’d been treated poorly didn’t mean she should behave poorly in response. And given that sex was one of the few things, in the minds of the backward men of her culture, women were allowed to be good for (if not necessarily good at), aggressively proving she was skilled in that area seemed likely to do her — and other women — no real favors.

She rinsed away soap and shampoo at last with an almost vicious application of fresh, cool water that smarted against the flesh she’d rubbed raw. The number of ladies in the tub hadn’t decreased as she’d hoped, and they were over there chatting in a manner she would usually have considered pleasant about their lives, their children and husbands. She might as well join them rather than waiting any longer. None of them had a life like Tokio’s, though; none of them had a husband like Hajime.

And this brought her back to the one man that invariably treated her like a fellow professional and an intelligent being, yet with whom she not infrequently, if only subconsciously and probably merely because he was the closest man to her at any given moment, set herself up in competition. Had there been some of that last night? Had she, with the stone she’d used to ‘prove herself’ to Zanza, also killed the bird of scoring a point against Hajime in an undeclared and entirely inappropriate contest?

In the time she’d known him, which was about four months longer than she’d been married to him, she’d seen Hajime take interest in exactly two different men, not counting Zanza. He was picky and demanding — neither of the two had been with him long — and eclectic in his tastes — they’d been totally dissimilar, and Zanza was as different from them as they from each other. Not that either had been unpleasant… they simply hadn’t been what she might have expected Hajime to appreciate. And neither was Zanza. She’d given up trying to understand it. She only knew that, when Hajime did like someone, the entire impressive strength of his tenacious nature came to bear, and he didn’t give up until having it incontrovertibly demonstrated that being or remaining together with the man in question was impossible for whatever reason. Someone as passionate as Hajime (as Hajime often pretended not to be but unquestionably was) could easily get his heart broken that way, so it was probably for the best that he took such interest in others so infrequently.

She knew all of this, yet had brushed it carelessly aside, and for what? For a night of unwisely demonstrating some ephemeral superiority in some area to someone she’d specifically admitted she didn’t love. She had no moral objection to sex without love or commitment, and normally would not even have taken this point into consideration, but here was where that combination of circumstances she’d been thinking of earlier came into play.

Love, or even merely the desire to form a fulfilling physical arrangement, would have been sufficient reason to disregard Hajime’s interest in Zanza; or, if she hadn’t been aware of that interest, embarking on sex with Zanza with foolish, selfish motivations would have been as bad as in her previous relationships but ultimately harmless — even educational when Zanza, by losing interest, helped her understand her own heart at last and then (thank god!) seemed both unhurt by her behavior and disinterested in continuing the farce.

But having done what she’d done for the reason she had while knowing what she’d known, she had acted wrongly by each of her friends. And she felt wretched about it now.

And where in all of this she should place the question of how she might go about developing a real relationship with a man, having sex with someone for real reasons and never feeling the need either to prove herself or to compete with him, she couldn’t begin to guess. She didn’t have to be with someone… yet she almost constantly was. It was a stroke of luck, really — good or bad she didn’t know — that Zanza had caught her between other men at all; they came into her life like clockwork. But somehow it never answered. Was there anyone out there that was right for her, with whom she could have a fulfilling romance without all this inappropriate and destructive emotional and social fencing? And did the problem perhaps lie with her just as much as with the men around her? She didn’t know.

Not entirely to her surprise, though she had been a little perverse about it, relaxing in hot water alongside other women with troubles of their own — regardless of how simplistic some of those troubles might be in comparison with Tokio’s — calmed and comforted her. True, she couldn’t open up to them (and probably wouldn’t have been able to even had they been more than complete strangers), but there was a supportive, comradely feeling simply to having them there and to the pleasantness and welcome in their conversation. Then too it relieved her to concentrate a little less for a while on the tangle her own interactions with men had become.

Eventually, though, she could postpone no longer her departure and inevitable getting back to work. It was time to dress, leave this soothing ambience, and face her husband. He would probably have her take one of the day’s patrol assignments, which could prove either helpfully distracting or precisely the opportunity for further brooding she didn’t need right now, depending on which area of town she ended up walking and the happenstance of the day. But she had to get through that conversation with Hajime first. So, cleaner but wishing she had a different uniform to wear, she dried, covered her nakedness, and left the bathhouse for the police station.

She would need to tell him things hadn’t worked out with Zanza. She would like to tell him what she’d realized about herself as a result of this event, but knew that, at least, would have to wait. How she could even word the statement she most needed to make, the one that was to set things on the level between them, she couldn’t imagine. As she moved through town with steps she had to struggle to keep from becoming sluggish or ceasing entirely, she tried futilely to think of how to say what was required without having it come across as something like, “I’m done with him, but there might be some left over for you.”

Preoccupied, she hadn’t wrung her hair out as thoroughly as usual before putting it back up, and now drops of water fell perseverently from the bottom of her bun right down the collar of her uniform jacket. As she reached an annoyed hand up to rub the moisture into her skin, she realized that wasn’t the only somewhat uncomfortable sensation on the back of her neck. Perhaps she might have noticed sooner had she been less busy inside her own head, though maybe it had just started and she wouldn’t have, but she did have the sudden feeling that someone behind her had their eyes on her. She veered into a side street without breaking stride — what stride she was managing to maintain, anyway — and was able, with the ninety degree shift, to glance unconspicuously toward the area from which she believed the scrutiny came. She didn’t allow her expression to change at what she saw, though admittedly she couldn’t be sure what it would have changed to.

She knew that the disquieting impression she and Hajime had suffered the other day of being continually talked about had arisen in response to Tsukioka setting inquiries in motion about them out of worry either for Zanza’s safety or the degree to which he could trust him, or a bit of both. Despite the foolishness of his subsequent scheme, and the inconvenience he’d caused the two police officers, Tokio hadn’t really been able to blame him for that. But surely he’d learned enough at that time to require no further information about her and Hajime? Surely there was nothing else he felt he needed to know in order to protect (or assess the trustworthiness of) his friend? Because he seemed to be staring pretty fixedly, yet so subtly that it was clear he didn’t seek her attention.

But there could be another reason besides the aforementioned for him to spy on her. Zanza had expressed significant concern, after all, about where Tsukioka’s path would lead from here. Though unsure of the extent of the artist’s knowledge about Zanza’s involvement with the police — whether Zanza had framed it as a totally personal relationship such as Tokio herself hoped to use as their cover story with most of the world, or whether he’d elaborated on the professional arrangement as well — Tokio thought it seemed not improbable that the artist, knowing there was some involvement of whatever kind, sought to discover just how detrimental that involvement might be to any future illegal plans he was concocting. Honestly she couldn’t come up with any other explanation for that intense, secretive stare.

She also couldn’t think of anything to be done about it at the moment. To confront him would probably scare him off, and she doubted she’d get any honest answers out of him in any case; and it wasn’t as if he committed a crime — or even a particularly unusual deed, unfortunately — in staring at her. She would simply have to bear in mind that he still needed to be monitored until they knew for certain what he was up to.

This didn’t exactly oust the matter of Tokio’s relationship problems, only added a secondary subject of concern, but it did diffuse somewhat the more weighty subject in her thoughts so that when she entered the police station and her husband’s presence at last, she was less prepared than she had been for the scene that must follow. But her complete focus returned almost violently to the topic she’d been worried about all morning at the look Hajime gave her immediately she entered his office. For it was clear that he knew, without a single word from her, what had happened last night. He’d recognized her recognition of his interest yesterday, and now he knew she’d proceeded in spite of it. But he didn’t know what happened this morning — what had passed between her and Zanza, what had gone through her head — and she had no idea yet how to tell him.

“We still need to keep an eye on Tsukioka.” She wasn’t usually given to blurting things out so awkwardly, and as greetings went it was pathetic, but these were unusual circumstances.

“I’ll leave that to you.” He could be so cold when he wanted to! He didn’t even ask why she thought they should be watching Zanza’s friend.

She attempted to clear her throat silently, and continued seeking some method of delivering her news that wouldn’t be totally mortifying.

More paperwork than ever covered his workspace, and he’d been writing busily when she’d arrived. Now he stared at her, obviously aware she had something else to say and waiting for it with steely patience — or perhaps demanding she say something with his expectant silence and narrowed eyes. Desperately she dropped her gaze from his and scanned the sheets on the desk just to have anything else to look at. It appeared he’d opened up not only the packet of information they had on Rokumeikan but the more recently compiled details on the Karashigumi, not to mention a collection of miscellany that was undoubtedly connected in one way or another, and was using all of it to get a head start on the case report so he wouldn’t have quite so much to tire his hand with when everything was finished. That meant he’d done everything he believed he could with what they had at their disposal, anticipated no further useful reports on any of these subjects, and would soon leave his desk to work on some interim project — patrols of his own or unsolved minor cases — while they waited for progress on Zanza’s end.

Tokio found she still couldn’t say what she needed to say, so she asked the next question that came to mind: “Are you working Youko in?”

Whether he’d been passively waiting for or actively demanding a statement from her, Hajime probably saw he wasn’t going to get it. His eyes narrowed an infinitesimal further amount, and he shook his head. “There’s no real indication she’s related to Rokumeikan’s criminal activities. He may have driven them to it, but the blame for her death still seems to rest with his other mistress, that Tajiru woman.”

Though this was true, and Hajime’s exclusion of Youko from the report perfectly reasonable, it felt like a personal sting, punishment for her poor behavior and her inability now to explain things to her affronted husband. He probably knew it, too. She had so looked forward to seeing — to helping attain! — justice for that poor young woman. “Now she’ll never be avenged,” she murmured in some despair.

There was, somewhat ironically, a sense of relenting slightly to the grimness of Hajime’s response, “That depends on whether he’s with his new mistress when I eventually go to kill him.”

She looked into his face again, and, though things were not right between them and she still had no emotional strength to make them so, yet there was an acknowledgment in his gaze that their mutual concern for justice in this case superseded all personal awkwardness.

He was the next to remove his eyes, smoothly and with apparent unconcern: difficult to read, as ever. “There have been some unarmed disturbances centering around the Ayameie lately,” he told her with perfect coolness. “Head over that way today and keep an eye on things.”

“The Ayameie…” She’d heard about the disturbances, but couldn’t quite remember what or where the establishment in question was.

“It’s a brothel in Taitoku-akasen,” Hajime replied shortly.

“Ryoukai,” she acknowledged, heart sinking. Was he making a statement by sending her to a house of abused women? She could see clearly what he might mean by it. But, no, she was overthinking and paranoid. Hajime would never do such a thing. Not even to someone that had mistreated and possibly hurt him — not when that someone was a respected friend. Not even when that someone had something very important to tell him and still hadn’t figured out how.

She left the office feeling like the worst of cowards.

***

Useful though it often turned out to be, memorizing case information did not feature among Saitou’s top priorities. Of course he kept enough in his head to facilitate efficient work away from office and records, but there tended to be numerous little details he had to refer to that same written material in order to remember specifically. Things simply went more smoothly that way than spending further tedious hours he already didn’t have free committing everything in his paperwork to memory, even if it did mean a set of legible data he wasn’t entirely comfortable leaving under only the protection of the general police force.

In this situation, however, he’d memorized more than was typical of him, undoubtedly because he had alternately been more emotionally invested in this case than usual (thanks to Sano’s involvement) and readier than usual (this moment, for example, because of Tokio) to take advantage of the case as a distraction from unprofessional issues. He was far more conversant with the minutiae of Rokumeikan’s guilt than he usually was with that of a normal target, and really more than he wanted to be.

Although an unequivocal sense of certainty was an absolute necessity in his line of work, feeling that certainty often deeply frustrated him, and having the evidence memorized could only contribute to that frustration. What they’d collected about Rokumeikan was by now more than enough to satisfy Saitou personally, but undoubtedly would be insufficient in a court of law. Even if they could obtain a conviction on any of the charges they might bring him up against, it was likely to be a hesitant judgment in the face of the goodwill Rokumeikan could purchase; sentencing would be lenient, and Rokumeikan’s money and influence were likely to help him evade punishment altogether. And to anticipate this, to know the system remained so flawed while truth stared him in the face, was the primary source of Saitou’s discontentment.

A secondary source might have to do with his wife, but he was concentrating on something else right now.

And of course for the sake of situations precisely like this he had taken on the job in the first place. As he reorganized the papers he’d been headaching over and started filing them away again, he could practically smell the blood. Someday, perhaps — honestly he wasn’t too sanguine — assassination would become obsolete; the system would see improvement such that an operative like him would no longer be required to bridge the gap between idealism and reality; straightforward law would be powerful enough to achieve the ends he currently fought for in the shadows. But as long as things continued the way they were now, he would work toward blood. And assassinating Rokumeikan was going to be especially satisfying.

Though that might have been as much because he was in a sour mood as at the thought of the influence that corrupt official had on the fate of the nation.

To punish Tokio — or, indeed, to act any differently toward her than usual — had not been Saitou’s intention, and perhaps if the day had progressed further before their first interview he would have had his demeanor under better control. He believed that by the next time he saw her he would be able to maintain their normal amicable interaction; it had only been just then, in the face of her morning-after nervousness and rumpled uniform, that he hadn’t been able to help acting a little more like the rival he essentially was than the friend he was supposed to be.

And it didn’t help that he’d now used up his primary source of diversion from that matter by gleaning all the useful insight he could from the compiled notes — indeed, as previously mentioned, by reading them so thoroughly and repeatedly he’d mostly memorized them — and writing out everything he could at this point of the details of the case. What to do next? He required no further evidence about Rokumeikan, so dragging out the investigative stage would be counterproductive. Some rats, after all, could feel the eyes of even hidden predators, and it would be wise to take the direct focus off their enemy for a while and let him believe himself safe. If he were nervous and wary, that attitude would be reflected by the gang or gangs he controlled, making Sano’s deception more difficult. So Saitou needed to step back, find something else to busy himself with — hopefully something engrossing — and wait for word from his new operative.

As if taking its cue from his desire for a distraction, the universe saw fit here to provide him with one. Its herald came in the form of a police rookie knocking at his office door and subsequently entering to deliver a thick folded letter. When the young man had retreated and Saitou had finished stowing his papers and locking his drawers, he turned his attention to the correspondence. As he picked it up and examined it, the character of his frown changed, losing the look of profound private frustration it had held all morning and shifting to an expression of simpler puzzlement and annoyance at the tricky manner in which the letter was closed. Who would go to so much trouble folding their message? This was practically origami…

To my esteemed former colleague…

Oh. He knew who must have written this.

To my esteemed former colleague, whose efficacy in the management of affairs previously mutual to us both and whose demonstrated prowess in personal skills required by and related to those affairs I have always held in the highest admiration even at such times as — to my deepest chagrin in the light of further information that perhaps, in a spirit of trust born of a history longer and more profound than the time in which I had to consider what in the end proved to be a false notion, from the moment of the inception of that notion and to the contradiction thereof, I should have anticipated — I was deluded by circumstance regarding more intimate and, in the scales of eternity, crucial aspects of your character, I write, with the aim of obfuscating personal detail you and I might both wish to prevent any third party becoming familiar with, in the event that this correspondence be misdirected or stolen, with a constraint that will, I hope, meet with your approval or at least forestall your immediate disapprobation.

‘Constraint’ was one way to put it. Saitou pitied the victim of this letter ‘misdirected or stolen,’ and in fact rather pitied himself as the victim of it properly directed. And as for personal detail he might wish to prevent a third party becoming familiar with, he doubted even the plainest and most straightforward language Yonai Fumihiro could torture himself into coming up with — which this wasn’t — would inform that hypothetical third party of anything Saitou didn’t want them to know before it caused their brains to boil and leak out their hypothetical ears.

Undeniable as we find the naturality within the scope of human nature of a man’s deep-seated belief in the basic goodwill and courteous interest of those around him, particularly those with whom he shares a history of action undertaken in a spirit of moral conviction, and the certainty of any one contributor to a long-disbanded aggregate that the desire to rejoin, if only temporarily, some reminiscent vestige of that aggregate burns as strongly in the breasts of other contributors as it does in his own, modesty, bitter comprehension of personal culpability, and a sense of reason that, though perhaps neglected in the specific consideration of the aforementioned false notion, I yet retain forces me to admit the likelihood that you must meet my attempt to communicate with you herein, despite that constraint heretofore briefly touched upon, with no favorable attitude or feeling…

Well, that was certainly true.

… consequent on certain recent events orchestrated by my hand which must have proven injurious to your pride if not indeed harmful to your person…

And that was certainly not the reason. If anything, he should be thanking Yonai heartily for setting kenkaya Zanza on his trail. Even if things with kenkaya Zanza weren’t working out exactly as Saitou would prefer just at the moment.

Yonai went on to discuss the sense of betrayal and injury to himself and to the Shinsengumi that lay behind the excessive haste in his choice to hire a mercenary against his one-time captain, rather than directly questioning him, when he’d discovered that Meiji police Lt. Investigator Fujita Gorou was actually Saitou Hajime (without using names, of course; such was his constraint). Then he had to get into the circumstances under which he’d become acquainted with that fact, a story Saitou didn’t need in the first place and was in the second somewhat confused at reading due to Yonai’s insistence on repressing any kind of potentially sensitive detail. And all this in the type of language Saitou associated with mid-level government officials, not war-time companions. He didn’t appreciate having that pleasant nostalgic illusion eroded, and knowing Yonai could make up for this truly irksome habit with a number of good qualities made it no less annoying.

The letter then expressed surprise and admiration regarding the willingness of Saitou, not an especially forgiving man according to what Yonai remembered of him, to spare the bearer of so violent and inappropriate a message, and even to send an elucidating reply by, as it were, return of post. If, Yonai postulated, Saitou could overlook the affront of the physical attack, he could conceivably pardon the state of mind that had led to it as well.

Good god, there was another page and a half of this.

Though fully aware Saitou might not choose to forgive him and might, in fact, consider him henceforth an enemy, Yonai nevertheless felt it expedient to make what reparations he could for his impetuosity, despite the discomfort and possibly even danger of so doing. And since his time in Tokyo was drawing to a close… here he felt it necessary to elaborate upon his current business interests and how they tied in with the pre-existing family trade that had always made him richer than he needed to be…

Saitou started skimming.

…appeal to that justice aforementioned… …if you would favor me… …make apology face to face… …hear from your own mouth the account… …additionally, perhaps share some reminiscences of… …meet me at… …if it is not your desire to… …assume that you no longer… …hold no grudge… …ever respectfully…

He should have guessed — no, he should have known this entire epistle was merely a glorified invitation to go out and endure Yonai’s bombast somewhere in person. He tossed the letter onto his desk, closed his smarting eyes, and sighed.

In fact he should have seen all of this coming. Yonai had a fanatically elevated idea of the dignity of his station in life that led him to be thus ridiculously verbose, but that was the worst of it. His principles were otherwise excellent, and he would take the insult he believed he’d inflicted on a former comrade very seriously. Right now, with Saitou not only between projects but actively wishing for a distraction, really made for the perfect time to get this over with — to meet Yonai and accept whatever apology he wanted to offer, to put misunderstanding behind them. It was just that Saitou couldn’t abide the man. Had never liked him, did not plan to start now, and wanted little less in the world than to spend time in his company ‘sharing some reminiscences’ or anything of the sort.

Truly, though, it would be in his best interest to bite this bullet. It seemed likely that Yonai, a gossipy socialite, remained in contact with many of the other former members of the Shinsengumi (whatever that number had dwindled to these days), and talking this out now could put the matter of Saitou’s loyalties to rest indefinitely. Of course this wasn’t his first encounter, since joining the Meiji government, with someone that had worn the blue haori, so there must be rumors among them already; but this appeared to be the most convenient way of getting the word out more definitively and yet with relative subtlety.

Not that his heart burned, particularly, to have them hear about and believe in his continued devotion to justice and righteousness regardless of which side of a dead conflict he currently occupied — nearly everyone from those days whose opinion had meant anything to him had died long ago, and those that remained could think what they would of him, accurate or otherwise, without robbing him of sleep — but, regardless of his pleasure at the outcome of this latest instance, the string of mercenaries sent against him by those with the wrong idea could, to his preference, stop any time.

So he’d better go meet Yonai. It would feel easily as productive as finding a minor case to work on (though he would do that on returning to the police station later anyway, so this would only be a postponement of that other lukewarm productivity), and would give him something else to think about to help adjust his mentality so as to be ready to face Tokio — and Sano! — when next either of them came before him. He only hoped Yonai didn’t annoy him so much that he snapped and admitted exactly what he thought of the man.

He glanced first at the clock, then down to find the time and place listed in the letter, but the movement became a more searching gaze as it proved impossible to locate anything specific in that morass with a mere glance. Eventually he discovered he had just under half an hour before the proposed meeting, whose location lay a corresponding walking distance from here; at least Yonai wasted far less time in physical life than was taken up by the composition and perusal of his written communication. Refolding the letter as best he could (making no attempt to follow its original complicated network of creases), unsure of when would be too early a moment to set it on fire, Saitou pocketed it and departed.

***

The novelty of Sano’s new position as a secret operative hadn’t yet entirely worn off, and now it dragged him from his apartment when he might otherwise have gone back to bed not long after Tokio left — though he might not have been able to fall asleep again in any case. The room held that lingering scent of the night’s activities that would only have made him uncomfortable, so sticking around awake was out of the question. He left a window open and set out to get some work done, or at least to distract himself from unpleasant thoughts.

Unfortunately, the type of people by whom he needed to be seen and among whom he needed to be known — the grunts that could pass the word upward about Zanza’s habits, strength, and interest in finding a new organization to attach himself to — didn’t emerge much at this time of day. Plenty of higher-level yakuza members would be busy organizing their criminal activities this very minute, but Sano hadn’t progressed far enough yet to have any hope of finding or interacting with them. So what remained for him to do until the vermin started coming out of the woodwork this evening?

With the vague idea that it might yet profit him to hang out in Karashi territory even during the hours when the only gang members available would be the dregs not trusted enough by the organization to be offered regular work, he slouched off, still uncertain, in that direction. He couldn’t help thinking that what he would really like was to see Katsu. How was his friend doing? Had he come to any kind of decision? How did he feel about Sano? Were they, in fact, friends?

Though Katsu seemed far more likely than any yakuza thug to be up and about this early, and Sano might even be able to catch him at home if he tried, the timing didn’t feel right. It was still too soon after the incident. When the timing would feel right, when he might have waited long enough, he couldn’t guess. But he didn’t dare reopen dialogue today. In fact he should probably allow Katsu to make the first overture, knowing full well that if he chose never to do so, Sano would have to respect that choice.

And where had this sense of severe loneliness come from all of a sudden?

Warm sunshine flooded the morning, but it might rain later. He enjoyed the cool of the rain in the afternoon Tokyo heat that only grew as spring progressed, and today might be perfect for finding a porch somewhere to lie down on for a catnap, then strolling through some particularly alcoholic area to pick a fight. Too bad he couldn’t possibly pull off the first in his agitated mental state and had no interest in the second anymore if it would prove as pointless as it had always been. He really was suffering from a dearth of options.

Not two streets later, though, he realized abruptly and with some confusion that, during the course of these thoughts, he had unconsciously altered his route. He no longer headed toward the area of town where the Karashigumi held sway, but into a district full of bigger businesses and some government facilities, including Tokyo’s main police station. He rarely had anything to do with that part of the city except when he spent time in a cell, which hadn’t happened recently. Yet when he looked down at his black-shod feet, he noted with mild surprise that they still moved as if for that destination. Was he walking toward the police station? Why was he walking toward the police station? He couldn’t just pop into the place without reason, shouldn’t even be seen in its vicinity if he could help it, and wanted nothing less than to meet Tokio again right now. If talking to Katsu today would be ‘too soon after the incident…’

Of course he knew someone besides Tokio at the police station. Perhaps the thought of the distraction Saitou could provide — what with his having inspired, shamed, intrigued, irritated, entertained, and enraged Sano in dizzying alternation during the course of their acquaintance — had been the subconscious source of Sano’s redirection. The same considerations applied to make this an unfeasible goal, but for now Sano did not change course. He was safe for another few blocks. Not like he had anything better to do.

Though the ubiquitous carts and temporary stands people set up in this area charged only somewhat steeper rates than elsewhere in town, the permanent commercial establishments around here ran toward the decidedly pricey — which amused Sano when he considered how cheap so many policemen were. The open-air dining enclosure of a restaurant he now approached, for example, included among its current patrons only two employees of the nearby station, whereas Sano might see as many as a dozen off-duty cops at some dirty bar in a trashier part of town on any given night. He supposed the lower police ranks, like yakuza thugs, weren’t actually paid all that much.

Saitou never had mentioned his precise salary during their argument on the subject, but it seemed he was actually paid all that much, for as Sano drew closer he recognized his new employer as one of those two figures in blue at the restaurant. Except maybe he didn’t eat on his own yen today, because unless Sano was very much mistaken, Saitou sat across from none other than Yonai Fumihiro. Of course the kenkaya had seen the latter only once, but his strikingly handsome face had made an impression.

Sano stopped. For some reason, he found the scene annoying. It wasn’t that he regretted the results of Yonai’s request — in fact the eventual effects of his being hired to fight Saitou had been some of the most fortunate of his life — but it just seemed so ridiculous to see the man that had been willing to pay him decent money to prove an angry point to a former comrade sitting there chatting with that comrade as pleasant as could be. Well, actually, though Saitou did appear fairly relaxed, he also, Sano believed, had an air about him of patient irritation. Anyway it all felt so stupid. Why it should bother him this much Sano couldn’t guess, but somehow it discernibly increased today’s loneliness.

He turned away. This could be a good opportunity to talk to Saitou and get some of that diversion he’d apparently sought in coming his direction, but he certainly wasn’t about to try it under these circumstances. He hadn’t understood any of Yonai’s letter on his own; with Saitou present, even longer words might be flying around. At any rate, Sano’s steps seemed more sluggish now, as if he’d suffered a disappointment, in walking back through the crowded street.

What a great day this is turning out to be, he reflected bitterly as he passed by the expensive shops and neat merchants’ stands. Wrong side of the futon indeed.

“Zanza-san?”

Startled, Sano turned again. Of all the unexpected voices… “Kotono-san!”

Standing in the doorway of a store that advertised European haberdashery (whatever that was), Kotono looked stunning as usual in a sea-green kimono decorated with pink flowers and white swans and touches of gold embroidery that made the overall impression just a little too fancy for everyday wear. Sano had never considered where she might do her shopping, but now that he did, this seemed as likely an area as any. He hastened to her side, where she smiled shyly up at him. Tucking an escaped lock of wavy hair behind one ear, she said, “I’m so glad to see you. Will you step inside and keep me company?”

Glad to see her too — especially with how his morning had gone — and curious at her immediate invitation, he replied, “Sure,” and followed her into the shop.

As she moved to a place beside a shelf full of various styles of gloves marked with positively ridiculous prices, away from any other customers, he took the opportunity to examine her closely. Believing he could do nothing for her, he’d avoided paining them both by seeing her since her influence with Tone had assisted him in leaving the Furukawatai, but today she appeared no worse off than then — no new bruises on her exquisite face, her attractive figure no thinner — though she did seem worried.

“My escort is across the street,” she said, gesturing out the window through which she must have noticed Sano as he walked by. He followed with his gaze, which alighted on a tea shop where her bodyguards presumably enjoyed some illicit relaxation while she went about the (to them, undoubtedly) tedious task of selecting gloves or whatever else was sold here. Given that their presence probably functioned more as a sign of status and a method of keeping tabs on the oyabun’s favorite out in public than actual protection against enemies, Sano doubted this breach of performance represented any particular threat to Kotono’s safety… He just wished she had the nerve to slip away while her escort wasn’t looking and find a new life for herself. But apparently the only use she wanted to make of their absence was, “We can speak privately for a moment.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano would have asked how she was doing, but, observing she had a specific purpose for pulling him in here, left it at this.

She took a deep breath, glancing around at the other people in the shop and lowering her voice to say, “I’ve heard that you might be coming back.”

Having anticipated something like this, Sano was ready with his answer. “I’ve been thinking about it. Got to missing the old days, you know?”

Her lips and eyebrows formed only the faintest frown as she replied with a futile attempt at conviction, “You… you shouldn’t.” It seemed difficult for her to get this out at all. “You should value your freedom more. Stay free. Stay away.” And though her words said, “Don’t come back,” everything else about her said, Please come back.”

He wished he could tell her the truth — that he intended no permanent return, that in fact he planned to strike a blow against the organization that should allow her the same freedom she had once granted him — but he didn’t dare. He had to act his part, and only hoped, after how vehemently he’d sought to leave the gang in the first place, he could convince her or anyone else of his sincerity in wanting to rejoin. So he shrugged and said, “Hey, freedom’s overrated. Having a support network, and… you know… getting close to people… I’m starting to think I shouldn’t have given that up.”

She pursed her lips, seeming indecisive about her next statement. Finally she made up her mind and began, “But I’m afraid…” She smiled uncertainly at him, and a deeper dusting of pink joined the rouge that colored her cheeks. “I’m afraid you’re doing this for me. You were always so kind… and I was afraid you’d heard about… but you don’t need to worry about me…”

As she trailed off, as he looked down at this almost unbelievably beautiful shell of a woman, Sano reflected with astringent regret that the life Kotono had been compelled to lead had drained from her all assertiveness and effectiveness as a person. Minor remains of her former self and her geisha training, from the days before she’d essentially been enslaved, still clung to her, leaving her with smoothly enticing movements of body and, sometimes, engaging powers of conversation, but what was she underneath? A timid shadow of what she had once probably been. It outraged him that anyone should be in a position where her very character was forced to change for the sake of her survival. He had to get her out.

Then, all of a sudden, his mind caught at exactly what she’d said, and he asked in some startlement, “Heard about what?”

She shook her head. “Nothing. I only want you to understand that you mustn’t be concerned about me.”

“No, seriously, I want to know. Heard about what?”

“It’s not important! I’m worried about you; don’t you see?” And she really seemed upset. Sano couldn’t help but be touched. “Kanno-kun said you’ve had some trouble with the police lately.”

This Sano had not necessarily been expecting, at least not so soon. Though he filed away the confirmation that Kanno oversaw the matter of keeping an eye on him, as he’d suspected, now he had to figure out something to offer in response to the rumor Kanno had started as a result. “Oh, yeah.” He put on an air of annoyance to buy himself time. “Don’t worry about that. See, my girlfriend’s a cop, and–“

And maybe this hadn’t been the best direction to take his explanation, if Kotono’s little twitch meant anything. She tried to hide the clenching of her hands into delicate fists, the slight widening of her eyes, but Sano saw them anyway. He’d often thought in the past, somewhat idly, that Kotono might have some romantic interest in him… Now he gave the idea more serious consideration. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, especially when she’d already gone through so much and still lived in bondage. At the same time, he had to have a solid story, and the words ‘my girlfriend’s a cop’ — not even true! — had already been spoken.

Perhaps to cover up her visible reaction, Kotono remarked, “I have heard that the local precinct has a woman working as a police officer. How interesting.” She tried with impressive success to sound politely curious rather than unhappy.

So that he wouldn’t sound unhappy, Sano adopted the tone of one that hasn’t noticed his conversational companion’s disinterest and is going to chatter away obliviously until he’s out of things to say. “Yeah, it’s great! She’s great. But her partner’s a complete asshole–” he invented as he went along, and hoped the cheerful speed with which he spoke wouldn’t end up getting him in trouble– “and he didn’t like her running around with someone like me. Actually I think he was jealous, even though she won’t give him the time of day in that way. That was the fight I lost where my sword got destroyed — you musta heard about that — because this guy really is a serious jerk, but eventually she got him to back off, and everything’s fine now.”

He ended so abruptly that he found Kotono staring at him as if expecting more. It made him nervous, so he endeavored to come up with a conclusion of sorts. “It’s kindof a pain being with a cop, ’cause I gotta be so careful about what I say and do so she doesn’t find out, uh, certain things about me, but it’s still a good deal ’cause now I’m in their blind eye, you know? Eventually I figure I’ve gotta hear some nice police secrets.” And he managed to come up with the most painstaking conspiratorial grin that had ever decorated his face.

His performance seemed to have eased her mind, for she returned a tentative smile. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing, but take care. If this policewoman finds out you’re trying to rejoin the Furukawatai…”

“Hell, if she finds out I was ever a member in the first place, there’ll be trouble,” said Sano, proud of himself for this line. “But, yeah, I know what I’m doing.” And in response to Kotono’s continued solemnity, despite the smile she’d offered a moment before, he added, “I’ll make a deal with you: you don’t worry about me, I won’t worry about you.” Since he was lying to her about everything already, he might as well go this far. “Sound good?”

“I’m not entirely sure that’s an equal bargain,” she replied in the lightest tone she’d used with him yet today, “but I suppose I can close on it.” Then she looked around again, out the window, and her quiet seriousness returned as the happier moment passed. “I need to go. I wouldn’t want my escort to come looking for me.” She returned her eyes to him, and as usual appeared somewhat downcast. “I suppose now you won’t allow me to tell you again to be careful.”

With a shake of his head, Sano replied silently, And I can’t tell you not to let anyone kick you around or use you like a broken toy… but I never could, could I? Aloud he said, “Put in a good word for me with Tone-sama, would you?”

She nodded deeply enough that it was almost a bow, then turned and made her way out of the shop.

Sano frowned after her. The very thought of what that woman’s life had become made his blood boil, and he avidly rejoiced in the assignment he’d more or less stumbled into that would allow him to help her out of her terrible circumstances. It couldn’t happen soon enough.

***

Every time Katsu had ventured out of his home since Sunday, he’d suffered the weariness and confusion that typically comes with convalescence after a long seclusion. Which struck him as ironic, since he didn’t know that he’d really recovered. Beyond that, his eyes seemed peculiarly sensitive to bright lights — again as if he’d been lying abed in a closed room for weeks or months attempting to get over some tenacious illness — so he’d quickly become crepuscular in his limited activities following the events of the new moon. He’d emerged to replenish his rice supply Tuesday at dawn, and to buy some ink that same evening… but hadn’t found himself particularly inclined either to eat or to sketch.

There was one thing he did incline toward, and it was the reason he loitered, in the overcast gloom of a Wednesday dusk, at the entrance to a particular neighborhood, standing conspicuously on a street corner doing absolutely nothing. Nothing but seething with much the same thoughts that had filled his head for the last several days.

He felt that Sano had not so much talked him out of his plans as touched them with the hand of death, withered them and rendered them ineffectual, impossible. And with them, some part of Katsu seemed to have crumbled away as well — perhaps this was the illness he’d been struggling to recover from — and he’d been left half formed, aimless, and likely to blow away at the whim of the next heavy breeze.

His passions had not deserted him, but as a defense mechanism against his current complete impotence to satisfy any of them, he’d pushed most of them aside. He still desperately longed to change this flawed society, but, at a loss how to go about it, he did his best to muffle that and all interrelated desires in the back of his head. Which left him with almost nothing besides the one other thing he wanted above all else, something he’d now decided to allow himself to seek.

He was starting to think, however, that he should be a little less circumspect about it, face the matter more straightforwardly, and that he might have missed the woman or chosen the wrong day to wait for her, when a carriage of just the right style — that is, the kind that tended to vulture at the police station — approached him around the corner from just the right direction — that is, that of the police station. These circumstances gave no guarantee that the person he wanted to speak to was inside (and in fact it might as easily be the husband, whom Katsu had no particular desire to meet), but he lacked the energy to think of a better plan.

It worked, though. The carriage drew to a halt not far past him, and the figure that emerged and cheerfully paid the driver before turning toward the waiting artist was the police woman, Tokio. As the equipage pulled off, she made her way toward him with the air of one approaching a prearranged meeting rather than having stopped out of curiosity to see what this friend of a friend might be doing at the outskirts of her neighborhood.

“Tsukioka-san, isn’t it?” She stopped in front of him, throwing a quick glance at where a lamplighter made his way down the street toward them, then met Katsu’s eye with a smile. “We were never properly introduced before, that night when Zanza was so drunk, but…”

“But he’s talked about us both,” Katsu finished for her. He tried to return her smile, reminiscent of the night in question when he’d been reunited with his old friend, but thinking about Sano was both pleasure and pain to him right now.

“Walk with me,” she invited. She probably wanted to keep ahead of the lamplighter. Katsu wasn’t sure exactly how much she knew about him and his recent activities, or how much she might guess about what he wanted to say to her now, but in any case she would still probably rather keep this conversation relatively private. He fell in by her side.

“Have you seen Zanza — Sano — lately?” Though on the surface this seemed a pretty standard polite inquiry about a mutual acquaintance, Katsu thought it was made with both care and precision.

“No,” he said, then added somewhat confusedly, “at least not for a few days. I was hoping you could take a message to him for me.”

“Ah, so that’s what you’re doing waiting around in my neighborhood.” She gestured before them. “Since you obviously know where I live. But you know where he lives too, so…”

And it had come to the question, Why don’t you talk to him yourself? even sooner than he’d expected. Katsu stifled a sigh, but couldn’t repress a frown, and did not immediately answer.

She turned her head toward him, walking without watching her next few steps as she studied his face. She wore, and had worn since she descended from the carriage, a demeanor of shrewdness, of penetration, as if, no matter how much she did or didn’t know about him, she could easily tell what he was thinking now. And this seemed more than mere fancy the next moment when she came up with the answer in his place: “You’re not sure what to say to him, so it’s easier to start with a message from me.”

Katsu admitted she was right, but, still completely uncertain about the message he supposedly wanted to send, said nothing more.

She glanced at him again, and her shining black eyes seemed to make quick work of what she saw. “I know you two had a falling out…” And was that really what Sano had told her, or was she paraphrasing due to the presence of the assiduous lamplighter that made irritatingly good time in their wake? “And you’re still bitter about it. You still resent him for what he said and did.”

“Yes.” Sano had closed off what Katsu had believed a clear path, nullified all the hard work of the last many months, stabbed ruthlessly at their shared past, and left Katsu a frustrated drifter with no remaining goals, no new plans, and no hope for any future fulfillment of his longstanding desires.

“But you don’t want to lose him,” Tokio added.

“Yes.” It came out even more quietly this time, though it was no less true. Sano was the only family remaining to him, and it still seemed nothing short of a miracle that they’d found each other again when they had — though Katsu had been avoiding the question of whether taichou had had a hand in it and, if so, what his motivations might have been. Katsu wanted to hold onto that friendship, that brotherhood so unexpectedly regained, and somehow the bitterness he felt in regard to Sunday night only made him want to cling all the more tightly to Sano.

“So you want to talk to him again, but you don’t know what to say.” Then, with a critical expression, she amended thoughtfully, “Or is it that you want to talk to him again because you don’t know what to say?”

“I… I’m starting to believe I can’t figure things out on my own. I need Sano.”

She threw him another look, this time more sidelong than before. “He told me he said some hurtful things, and you don’t seem like you’re ready to forgive him yet.” And was she standing up for Sano here, seeking to stave off Katsu’s prospective wrath, or simply working her own way through the tangle that was their relationship right now as best she could from the outside?

Katsu sighed again. “I don’t know that it’s a question of forgiveness. He did and said what he believed was right and true, and he tried his best not to hurt me with it. It’s more a question of me adjusting to that, aligning myself to his right and his truth.”

“But you don’t know that you believe he was right,” she insisted, “so whatever it is you have to do — forgive or adjust or align — you’re not ready to do it yet.”

“I have to be. I need him.”

“You feel like you’ll be able to find some answers by talking to him, but you’d be much better off talking to him after you’ve already found some.”

He shook his head, simultaneously sorrowful and deeply impressed. “You must be an excellent police officer.”

Now the look she gave him was startled, indicative of some confusion at the sudden subject change and some apparently reflexive wariness. “You say that because…”

“I wasn’t planning to discuss this all with you. I intended to request you take a message for me, and leave it at that. But you read so much of what I was thinking, and drew me out so well… You must be very skilled at dealing with witnesses.” Katsu had always considered himself fairly good at drawing information out of people, but didn’t think he could have prompted the level of emotional confession this woman had so easily gotten from him tonight.

She smiled acerbically. “Thank you. I’m afraid you’re one of the few men who thinks so.”

That explained her wariness when he brought up her profession. It also fit with what he’d learned when he’d been looking into the activities of Tokio and her partner. “I meant it,” he said seriously, “and I’m sorry.” There wasn’t much else to offer.

She gave the shrug of one that has been laboring under a troublesome weight for so long it’s almost become a matter of indifference. “If more men thought like that, even outside the police force…”

“Nothing is right in this system,” he murmured, sounding almost more forlorn than grim. But even as he said it, the first hint of a new idea, like a scant stream in a dry channel after a long drought, came trickling down to him.

“It’s like you said — people just need an example to realize what they can do.”

“But what kind of example besides violence could possibly–“

“I hope you find another way.”

“If more men thought like that, even outside the police force…”

Only moments before, he’d said he didn’t think he could figure this out his own… but perhaps it hadn’t really been any further help from Sano that he needed. Not that he wanted to see him any less — especially now he had this faint beginning of an answer — but perhaps he’d just received the catalyst he wanted from a completely unexpected source.

He’d stopped dead on the sidewalk, grasping at the threads of this idea, trying in a measured panic to weave them together into something less ephemeral before they slipped away. The lamplighter had caught up with them, and was, in fact, mounting his ladder not three feet off; and Tokio was staring at Katsu with a curious smile.

“I seem to have given you an idea,” she said.

Keeping a tight mental hold on the all-important strands, Katsu yet allowed the woman in front of him to come back into greater focus. “Yes,” he said gravely. “You’re very inspiring, Takagi-san.” And he meant it as sincerely as he’d meant his complimentary assessment of her police skills before. With her firm but pleasant demeanor and those lovely lips saying so easily exactly what he’d needed to hear tonight, she’d made a significant impression on him.

Her smile widened. “I’d love to hear about it sometime.” –though a quick glance at the lamplighter they couldn’t get free of, a slight roll of eyes, and a shake of head indicated that she wouldn’t ask for details in present company. Which relieved Katsu, since he didn’t have details yet, and remained uncertain how much to share with this woman regardless of how she’d inspired him.

“If you could take that message to Sano for me,” he said instead, with a nod, “I’ll let you get home.”

And again she read him with seeming ease as she suggested, “Only that you want to talk to him?”

He nodded again. “Thank you, Takagi-san. Good evening.”

She returned the goodbye with a wave he barely saw before he hurried away into the growing darkness.

***

Sano hoped the thunder that rumbled in precise concurrence with the door’s opening didn’t auger badly for the conversation he’d come here for. The sounds of an approaching rainstorm had colored his entire earlier discussion with Tokio — the first since they’d slept together — and that had gone more or less not terribly… but the growling sky lowered a lot more closely and darkly now. Still, it might be a propitious sign that this encounter started out exactly as that one had: with the two parties staring at each other in silence across the threshold for a length of time that quickly escalated the mood into extreme discomfort and awkwardness, clearly unsure how to begin or whether the visitor should be invited inside.

Tokio had been much better at this, and had started things out eventually with a creditable attempt at smoothness. Now, not nearly as skilled but desperate for something to put forward, noting the condition of Katsu’s hair and yukata, Sano said, “I didn’t wake you up, did I?” His voice sounded hoarse, and he had to clear his throat after speaking.

Katsu let the silence hang for another very awkward moment, and finally replied, “You did, but only because I was out all night.” And despite being the one to have solicited this meeting, he sounded every bit as uncertain as Sano did. While the latter refrained from demanding to know why he’d been out all night and whether he’d been doing something revolutionary, Katsu with a visible effort went on in no particularly welcoming tone. “It’s going to be raining soon. Come inside.”

Sano hesitated, drew in a deep breath he hoped Katsu wouldn’t take special notice of, and followed when the artist stepped back to allow him past. As he watched Katsu close the door and then absently make a rather futile attempt at calming his tousled locks, Sano swallowed and forced himself to say, “If you need to go back to bed, I can go…”

“No.” It was more commanding that welcoming still. “Sit. I’ll warm up some sake.” And this must be deliberate; he must know what an inducement for Sano to stay, and what an indication of the proposed length of their interaction, sake would be.

Sano found a seat at the table, which seemed at least twice as cluttered as it had been the last time he’d visited. Surprisingly, the mass of papers strewn across its face was not, as he’d expected, a collection of sketches or random-looking blots of ink or color tests, but covered in writing, not all of it in the same hand. His curiosity and unease only increased at this sight, but he exerted his will power and did not pry. The atmosphere in here was already stiff enough; he didn’t need to be jumping right in with accusatory questions.

Whether or not Katsu had the same idea, his next remark, as he rummaged through something across the room, seemed somewhat forced. “I hear you’re trying to rejoin the Furukawatai.”

Did he want to induce panic? Sano saw no reason he should — that would be an awfully stupid revenge, and, besides, Katsu shouldn’t even know his statement would make Sano panic — yet here Sano was panicking. It came out in his voice, for all he tried to keep his tone even, as he asked, “How do you know that? Are people talking about it?”

Katsu paused in the act of getting a demurely small bottle of sake set up on his stove, looking over at Sano darkly but also with some bemusement. “Only certain people in the Furukawatai,” he said both carefully and curiously.

This wasn’t the first time Katsu had been far better-informed than Sano had expected, but it was perhaps the most important to Sano and his interests. He wanted this cleared up right now, no matter how it increased the awkwardness between them. “So you have contacts — sources — in the Furukawatai. It’s not just gossip.”

They believe it’s just gossip,” Katsu replied, lighting his stove. “But, yes, ‘contacts’ or ‘sources’ describes them better.” And, indeed, the words sounded much more appropriate than the ‘friends’ he’d used in a previous conversation.

“Well…” Sano had already practically admitted it, and might as well not backtrack. “Yeah. I’m trying to get back in.”

“I would have thought you were done with gangs.” Seeking cups, Katsu faced away from Sano, so only by tone of voice could his attitude be assessed. And he really did seem to be trying to make casual conversation — ‘casual’ relative to talking about his own terrorist activities and Sano’s hurtful behavior, that is.

“I would have thought you were done spying on me” was, perhaps, a less casual return.

“I am. If what I do can be called ‘spying,’ then I spy impartially on everyone.”

Sano relented, for more than one reason. “Spying’s fine. Or gossip, or whatever you want to call it. Go ahead and spy impartially on everyone. I love spying.”

Katsu raised a brow as he set down their cups and took his place at the table within arm’s reach of the stove.

“Just…” Sano hadn’t wanted to come right out and ask, but his impatience and agitation now took the lead. “Why are you spying on everyone? What are you doing? Looking for new targets? Are you still planning to–” But at Katsu’s hard glance, he bit down on his words with a grunt. They stared grimly at each other for a long moment.

“I wish,” Katsu finally said softly, bitterly, “I could explain… I wish I had the right words for how much I let go of because you insisted. For how lost I felt after you made me give up everything I was working on for so long.”

“I didn’t make you,” Sano protested, his heart aching. “If you did give up on that bombing shit, I’m really glad, but I left you a choice.”

Katsu shook his head, and looked as if he would speak again, but refrained.

“And you don’t need to explain,” Sano went on. “Because I do know how that feels. I just barely gave up fighting for money, remember? How do you think I felt after that? I was doing that for years too, you know.”

With a smile only a tiny bit too sad to be sarcastic, Katsu asked, “But did your fighting aim to free the country from a corrupt government?”

“No, but it was everything I was for so long, and… the only thing that helped with the pain from back then.”

“We were both thinking of taichou…”

“Listen.” Sano shifted restlessly. “I can’t take back what I said about him and what he would have wanted. But I’m sorry, all right? I’m sorry I had to say shit like that; I’m sorry I hurt us both.”

The artist continued to frown. At last, slowly, he prefaced with a deep breath the response, “And I’m sorry I’ve been so upset with you for it. I know you were doing right in your own estimation, and I should never expect you to do anything by halves.”

Sano wasn’t exactly sure where this exchange put them. Katsu hadn’t told him what his plans were yet, and they’d really only apologized for unpleasant emotional interactions. He had to admit, though, to a lessening of the heaviness and unpleasant pressure in his chest, to the thunder that roiled inside his own head rather than outside.

I can’t take back what I intended,” Katsu went on presently. “I don’t know that I don’t still think it’s the best way to set an example for the people, to set events in motion. But that’s over.” He made a helpless gesture that was yet less unhappy than Sano would have anticipated. “Sometimes a plan has only one right time, and that time has passed.”

Sano could not apologize again, and sat uncomfortably silent.

Katsu turned and took longer checking how the sake was getting on than seemed strictly necessary. Sano believed he was staring into the heating water beneath the bottle without realizing what he saw there.

Sitting in loaded silence with Katsu was easily as bad as the forced continuance of conversation from earlier with Tokio. So anxious had she and Sano both been not to let this exact type of wordlessness fall between them that they’d manufactured cheer and chatter and ended up repeating themselves and laughing too loudly and spewing nonsense just for each to check how the other was doing and Tokio to report that Katsu wanted to speak to Sano. Still, it had been a crucial patch to their damaged friendship and a promise of less awkward times to come… which was exactly what he needed with Katsu here and now, and probably what Katsu had been aiming for when he’d first entered.

So, “Probably not ready yet,” Sano forced himself to remark. And he was about to go on about his terrible stove at home and say something about the last time he’d used it, but, recalling what the issue of that evening’s drinking had been, shut his mouth with a faint heat in his cheeks.

“Not yet,” Katsu agreed, finally tearing his eyes from the stove and resuming a normal position at the table. He didn’t look at Sano, but let his gaze range over the papers strewn between his resting hands and his friend’s. As if he’d been reading Sano’s thoughts, or as if some other set of mental prompts had led him to the same topic as Sano’s reflections, he said, “I spoke to Takagi-san the other evening, as you probably know.”

“Yeah…”

“She’s impressive. A very talented, effective woman.”

“Yeah.”

“And yet she’s held back by the way men think of women and have always thought of women.”

“Absolutely.” Sano wondered where this was going, but didn’t wonder at all that ‘the way men think of women’ had come up in the conversation between Katsu and Tokio, even if that conversation’s original purpose had only been to get Tokio to relay a message to Sano.

“It seems there are more subjects than corruption in the government people need to be enlightened on.”

Remembering what Katsu had postulated before, about Tokio also being held back by her devotion to a system that should be dismantled, and her potential to do so much more if she were ‘freed’ from that restriction, Sano said a little uneasily, “Probably more than that, even.”

Katsu nodded. He spread his long fingers out across the chaos of papers in front of him, ruffling them gently, and looked up at Sano. “So I’m going to do my best to enlighten them. I’m going to present the truth wherever I find it, and with it the idea that things need to change.”

Sano’s breath caught, and in a frantic nod-like motion he turned his gaze up and down from Katsu’s eyes to the chaos of text in front of him a couple of times. “So you’re gonna be writing–“

“A newspaper.” Katsu tapped the table gently and turned back toward the stove again. “Something easily distributed. I’m already set up for printmaking, of course, and since everyone talks to an unthreatening artist, I have, as you realized, many well placed sources of information.”

For a moment Sano couldn’t speak. It wasn’t merely relief that Katsu truly had abandoned his bombing scheme, and to all appearances wouldn’t resume it now he had this significantly less dangerous undertaking in mind. It was that Sano had seen a hint in his eyes of what he’d seen there so intensely before: the fire of drive, of faith in a tenable plan and eagerness to start on it. Yes, it had only been a spark, but the point was that Sano hadn’t crushed Katsu’s spirit or destroyed his ambition to better Japan and work toward what taichou had wanted.

That Tokio had apparently inspired this new idea only made Sano a tiny bit jealous. He knew full well how inspiring those police officers were, and didn’t begrudge it as long as Katsu had a new idea. As long as Katsu could hold onto his beliefs and desires and his personal safety at the same time. As long as Katsu was no longer looking to start a war.

Sano found a purely happy and relieved smile on his face, and himself drawing breath to speak. He paused, though, trying to get a grip while Katsu’s back was still turned to test the sake. He had to remind himself not to be patronizing, not to act like a parent whose kid has finally found something non-destructive and non-annoying to do so dad can take a nap, not to immediately compare this new notion with the old, terrible one. That was probably why, in the first place, Katsu had felt the need to work his way around gradually to telling Sano about his intentions: for fear of how his friend would react in multiple senses.

At last he allowed himself to say, “That’s an amazing idea.” It came out sounding very much like his smile: happy, relieved, approving, enthusiastic. “You can get the word out to so many people that way.”

The set of Katsu’s spine relaxed just a trifle at this, though his face remained as serious as before as he reached across to pour sake into the cup Sano raised. “If I take care to word it simply. I’ll need to keep the language accessible in order to make it as generally readable as I can.”

Sano chuckled. “Not too many kanji, then,” he advised, and sipped his sake. In light of this conversation, it tasted excellent.

Katsu smiled, his relief now clearly evident. “I have enough information for an issue or two.” He gestured with his own filled cup to the papers on the table again. “I was out late talking to all kinds of people. Now I just have to write it all up. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

“A lot of work and maybe a lot of trouble,” Sano said consideringly. “If you’re gonna be printing up ‘truths’ about the government or anything else, you’re gonna have a lot of enemies pretty quick.” It remained less dangerous than bombing government buildings, but there was definitely a risk involved.

The artist shrugged. “Nothing in this world is truly safe,” he said philosophically, offering Sano a refill. His eyes rose to meet Sano’s as he did so with a look of slight accusation. “Would you say the Furukawatai is safe?”

Sano sucked in a breath at the unexpected subject change. Pleasant as it was to recognize Katsu’s reciprocal concern, he couldn’t be sure of the wisdom of getting into details on this topic right this moment. But a quick, complicated set of reflections on Katsu’s impartial spying, the probability of his finding out eventually anyway, his potential usefulness as a source of information, his openness with Sano today and ever since they’d met again, and just how much Sano wanted things to be on the level between them convinced him to tell all.

“They won’t be when I’m done with ’em,” he said.

Katsu gave him a skeptical look.

“I’m trying to join the Karashigumi at the same time,” Sano explained succinctly with a growing grin, finding it was actually pretty fun to say what seemed like overblown dramatic nonsense so straightforwardly. “I’m gonna get the two groups to brawl so the police have an excuse to make a bunch of arrests. Especially the leaders.”

“You’re working for Saitou,” Katsu said flatly.

Sano’s grin faded at the tone. “Yeah. I’m trying to make a difference too.”

Slowly Katsu nodded, and he sipped his sake in silence for a moment. Finally he said, “I owe those two for more than just the idea Takagi-san half gave me. If I hadn’t been looking into their activities, I would never have realized just how much useful information someone like me can dig up by speaking casually to the right people.”

“I owe them even more than that,” Sano murmured.

“Is that why you’re working with them?”

“No.” Sano’s voice went completely serious now. “I really, truly am trying to make a difference. Fighting’s what I’m best at, and being a lowlife, and I’m gonna use that to get shit done.”

Katsu laughed a little, probably at Sano’s wording, and said, “Then I’m very happy for you, Sano.” And perhaps this reaction was his version of what Sano’s had been minutes before on learning Katsu’s plans. They’d each found something new to do that would, they hoped, please their dead captain.

They drank quietly for a few moments, and Sano reflected on the blessedly improved atmosphere in the room. It seemed they’d come to terms and were properly friends again, which was what Sano had wanted most in the world, at least from this afternoon and this meeting.

Eventually Katsu asked, “Why those two particular yakuza? The Karashigumi has always been big news, and I haven’t seen any efforts to take it down before. The Furukawatai is only starting to become a serious force.”

“Turns out the Karashigumi kinda belongs to this one politician–“

“Rokumeikan Hatsuo? Army Ministry?”

“Well, shit, if everyone knows, I don’t know why Saitou can’t just take him out openly,” Sano grumbled.

“That’s only a guess based on a combination of rumors,” Katsu soothed. “I doubt a man of his connections and influence could be brought to justice openly in any case.”

“Well, anyway, I guess Saitou wants to take care of the gang Rokumeikan controls before he goes after the guy himself.”

“Not a bad idea. Just a dangerous one.”

Sano grinned all over again. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to that part.”

“Bakayarou,” Katsu murmured. He tapped a pensive finger against the sake bottle, tipped it toward him to see inside, and refilled his cup. “Actually, I may be able to help you. Do you remember the organized fights they used to have in Azabuku two or three years ago?”

“The ones that got stamped out ’cause too many guys got killed?”

“Those ones, yes. They’re restarting, with much tighter security this time around so they don’t get shut down again. And as far as I know, it’s mostly Karashi involved. That is their part of town, after all.”

Sano was nodding enthusiastically. “That’s a great idea! If I can get in on those, it’ll be easy to get into the gang next.”

“And I can’t see that they’d pass up an opportunity to have you fight,” Katsu agreed somewhat dryly. “It should be simple.”

“That’s an amazing tip,” Sano said. “Thanks!”

“Of course. Any time you need information, feel free to ask. I may not have exactly what you need, but I plan to do a lot of gossiping from now on.”

“Careful,” Sano advised, “or you’ll end up as an honest-to-goodness police informant.”

“If they’re all as attractive as that friend of yours,” Katsu said with relative lightness, “I might not mind so much.”

Sano was incredulous. “Who, Saitou?”

Katsu blinked. “Takagi-san, I meant.”

“Oh. Well.” Complete openness in mind, and because the implication here was fairly clear, Sano added, “It didn’t really work out with her.”

“Really?” And Katsu definitely seemed interested in that news. “I had heard you and she were a fixed thing.”

“Good. That’s my excuse for hanging out with her.”

Pensively Katsu nodded.

Sano was pondering whether to tease him about all of this or whether he should let what charged conversation they’d had be enough for today when the sound of downpour from outside — which he realized abruptly had been going on for some time — made him suddenly sit up straight and set down his sake cup. “Oh, shit, I forgot. I gotta go.”

“Forgot what?”

“I got this anonymous note yesterday telling me to meet someone if it was raining today, so that means now I’m late.” His anxiousness first to talk to Tokio in anything like a rational manner and second to smooth things over with Katsu had driven it entirely out of his mind.

Both of Katsu’s brows went up. “That sounds incredibly shady.”

“Yeah it does. Hopefully it’ll be either fun or useful.”

“It could be someone who wants to hire you for a fight; the ‘rain’ clause makes it sound like something someone wants to keep under cover.”

Sano nodded as he got to his feet. “Anyway, it’s raining–” he pointed toward the shouji– “so I’ll find out soon.” Heading for the door he added, “Thanks for the sake.”

“Sano.”

When he turned, he found Katsu too on his feet. The artist threw his arms around the kenkaya as soon as Sano faced him, and pulled him close with a grip that would not be denied. “Stay safe,” he advised. “I’d rather not lose my brother to some stupid ambush in the rain.”

Sano’s heart clenched, and to his own astonishment he felt a prickling behind his eyes. Gruffly he replied, “You too, nichan. Don’t go asking the wrong questions.” And they avoided each other’s gaze as they withdrew from the hug and Sano turned away again to leave.


Forgivably Wrong

He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

When Detective Saitou gets a chance to meet his favorite author and learns something very unexpected about him, resisting his fanboyish impulses is suddenly the least of his concerns.


Technically Saitou could have taken the interstate one exit farther and gotten onto Coolidge Boulevard some distance closer to the station, but the highway ahead had appeared a little congested, and he had plenty of time for the longer stretch on the slower street since he’d left for work rather early. There had been no real reason to leave so early, but, having finished breakfast and finding he had nothing remaining to do at home, he’d decided he might as well head on in.

A mass of balloons, including two huge ones floating high up on long cords, decorated the front of the bookstore on the north side of Coolidge, and Saitou recalled it was the 18th. That event he’d seen advertised so much lately was today, wasn’t it? He probably wouldn’t even have remembered if he hadn’t happened to come this direction due to traffic. And he probably wouldn’t even have looked at the store closely enough to be reminded if not for the eye-catching balloons.

Lately he’d been considering purchasing an e-reader of some sort. It would be more easily carried around with him than most books, and provide more options at any given moment as well. The question then remained whether he wanted a dedicated e-reader with limited other functionality or a tablet with the option for an e-reader app. And right now, when he’d left for work rather early for no particular reason and had plenty of time, seemed like not a bad moment to just step into the bookstore and examine the options they had. Not, of course, with any intention of getting involved in the book-signing that was, quite coincidentally, going on in there simultaneously.

But it would probably be pretty crowded, wouldn’t it? The e-reader display, he remembered, stood precisely at the center of the store, undoubtedly also where the event would be set up… it might be a little difficult to reach the sample devices without getting involved in the signing… Maybe he should wait for some other day.

But today was when he happened to have time to spare. Some other day he might not. There was no logical reason not to go in there right now. He changed lanes so as to turn into the shopping center immediately ahead.

The Yuki Tomoshiro series had probably only even grabbed Saitou’s attention originally because it was about a Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system. It wasn’t as if it was spectacularly good or anything. The prose was nothing brilliant — this wouldn’t be ranked among the classics or studied in prestigious schools — even if it did have a refreshing directness and emotionality to it without being at all pretentious. The police procedure was never 100% accurate, though admittedly what the author got wrong he at least got forgivably wrong. And the cases Yuki worked tended to be overblown and improbably adventurous much of the time, as if the author had watched a few too many crime dramas for inspiration — though, yes, that did make for the most entertaining stories. So Saitou wasn’t sure how it had become his favorite series.

Honestly he couldn’t say for certain it was his favorite series. It just hit pretty close to home; that was all. And, although the personal interactions unrelated to the cases were consistently the weakest parts of the writing, there had been hints in the latest book that Yuki might, after some wrestling within herself, start dating her precinct’s female civilian administrator. No matter how long Saitou himself had been single, a gay Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system hit even closer to home.

He couldn’t say he entirely approved of the author’s pen name, however. Though some part of him secretly rather liked the uncompromising ‘斬’ — and he knew this was the intended spelling because the kanji were given in the author’s extended bio on the official series website — it did seem melodramatic. Still, most American readers wouldn’t recognize this — the books were written in English and set in the U.S., after all, and name kanji didn’t really enter into it except as trivia for sharp-eyed and perseverent fans — and Saitou wasn’t ignorant of the need for a catchy pseudonym. Still, he couldn’t help shaking his head a little at the huge banner on the store’s outer wall proclaiming, Book Signing Today with Zanza Sagara, Bestselling Author of the Yuki Tomoshiro Series.

Saitou had heard rumors (well, read online) that Sagara was a native of this city. Of course he didn’t really care where some random author lived, but once or twice when he’d been bored he’d tried looking it up more definitively. That had never succeeded — the guy kept pretty quiet about his personal life — but Saitou supposed, if Sagara really did live around here, it would explain why this generic bookstore with nothing special about it got the preference over classier venues for the author’s very first (Saitou was fairly sure it was his very first) public appearance, especially so soon after the release of the latest installment in the series.

The book had been out for so little time that Saitou hadn’t even finished it yet, and the envisioned greater ease of getting the rest of the way through it on an e-reader rather than lugging the new-release hardback around was one of the reasons he was considering purchasing such a device. And surely he could slip in and through the Sagara crowd, take a look at what the store had to offer, and get out without too much inconvenience.

If Saitou had been on an earlier shift rather than in at 11:00 these days, he wouldn’t have needed to worry about this event; as it was, the signing seemed to be in full swing as he made his way inside. Cheerful chatter filled the big room, which subsequently lacked its usual library-like feeling; and, as he’d anticipated, a crowd bloated the central open space. It was difficult to tell with shelves and a lot of people in the way, but he thought the table where the author sat conversing and autographing stood on the left, so he circled immediately around to the right.

He couldn’t help noticing, as he gave the crowd a wide enough berth that he wouldn’t be mistaken for someone trying to get in line, that nobody else in here looked like a cop. Of course some of them might be — it wasn’t as if he knew every last member of the police force, and there was no single defining characteristic that made cops immediately recognizable even to others of their kind — but at the very least no uniforms or visible badges showed in the group. Probably for the best, then, that Saitou didn’t plan on approaching Sagara; he didn’t really fit in with this crowd. It did prove a little difficult to squeeze between it and the e-reader display, though; he was forced to excuse and explain himself far more frequently than he would have liked.

But eventually he maneuvered into a position from which he could make a leisurely examination of the electronics. He was actually fairly close to the author’s table here, as it formed a right angle with this display and Saitou was at the end closest to the corner. That didn’t matter much, since his back was turned on the unrelated business and he stayed right up against the e-reader collection so as to keep from interfering with the autograph line.

Disappointingly, there were far fewer options than he’d expected; in fact the space was mostly taken up with different colors of the same model, as if prospective purchasers needed to test each color separately to find which would work best. Though at least one of the choices they had for sale looked fairly promising, Saitou was annoyed enough with the silly setup that he stood still for several moments listening to the group immediately behind him and one particular voice, somewhat difficult to make out among the rest of the chatter, that he believed to be that of the author.

Suddenly that voice rose in a much louder, jovial remark to whomever was at the front of the line, followed by a hearty laugh, which rendered its sound much clearer… and more recognizable. Saitou went absolutely still against the e-reader display, abruptly listening significantly harder to the next statement, sinking back down to a more normal conversational volume though it was. He knew those tones. He knew that laugh.

Because he wasn’t here to meet Sagara or particularly curious what he looked like — the dust jackets and websites were remarkably devoid of photos — Saitou hadn’t attempted to get a glimpse of him through the milling bodies; and every time he had happened to glance in that direction, nothing at the author’s table had been visible. But now he not only turned and craned his neck, he pretty quickly began pushing his way through the crowd without any excuse or explanation this time. The outcry his passage caused did little to drown out the sound of the voice he’d locked onto, nor make him any less horrifically suspicious. He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

It was possible, and there was a way. Saitou broke free of the crowd and barely stopped himself from ramming his thighs into the table, on which he laid his hands for support in his sudden, utter shock and disbelief.

*

Knocking on doors was tedious but necessary, an endless repetition of the same questions and answers that, after a while, blended together so he had to struggle to remember which floor he was on and who’d told him what. Of course he would assess any unusual demeanor for anything beyond run-of-the-mill discomfort with talking to the police, and he would make a note of any useful or even just interesting information… but that was assuming anyone had an unusual demeanor or any useful or even just interesting information. Obviously they did often enough to make this a productive way to spend his time… but it was never often enough to make this a fun way to spend his time.

Perhaps this was why he noticed that someone seemed to be watching him even sooner than he otherwise might have: it offered some potential for engagement that this part of his investigation otherwise painfully lacked.

Of course there were not infrequently gawkers at any active police work (even when ‘active’ was a dismaying misnomer), and most of the time they offered far more sources of annoyance and interference than of fascination… but Saitou was pretty good at interpreting the feeling of eyes on him, and the current set seemed to carry something subtly different than the usual gormless curiosity or deep mistrust with which he was usually watched while on duty.

Then, the hallway walls in this particular apartment building were relentlessly white and plain — and it wasn’t even an off-white, but an unfinished pure lack of color except wherever it was dirty — and the carpeting a utilitarian grey that did nothing for overall appeal. The bland brown of the doors was equally neutral, so the whole place had a drab, dull feeling that made Saitou wonder how anyone ever agreed to live here. Crisp colors stood out against all of this just as obtrusively as a seemingly intrigued contemplation stood out against the insipidity of this part of his investigation, caught his notice with just as much promise.

The watcher was a young man half visible around the corridor’s far corner, casually observing Saitou approach slowly, one door at a time, toward his end of the hall. His red hoodie, unfaded black jeans, hair of a brown much less lackluster than that of the doors Saitou was knocking on — even the bright green of the apple he was eating — rendered him distinctive initially, but when Saitou fixed him with a pointed and assessing look, his face and figure had that effect perhaps doubly so.

During the run of any investigation, Saitou, naturally, saw a lot of people, and throughout his career as a whole encountered a pretty decent cross-section of the city: citizens of every race, economic level, type of self-presentation, and apparent degree of sanity. He was required to assess them, to pinpoint any aspect of personality or behavior that might be indicative of something he wanted to know, so of course he concentrated minutely on many of their personal attributes. Despite this, however, rarely did any of them really grab his attention. They were all vastly different, but in a way they were all the same: they did nothing for him; they were all numbers to crunch, essentially, puzzle pieces to fit into appropriate spots and then leave there.

So when someone did stand out to him, did catch his attention as something other than a number to be crunched, the very fact that they did so made them even more obtrusive. And as such, this young man seemed to shine like a beacon at the end of the hallway, simultaneously difficult to look away from and perhaps a little blinding. Saitou paused in his work, motionless before the next door he needed to knock on, and simply stared, wordless.

The most pertinent point had to be the young man’s excessively good looks, as well as a sort of overall contradictoriness that gave an immediate and perhaps unfair impression of perverseness of character. His face appeared young and fresh, with a touch of the feminine to its prettiness, but bore a scattering of stubble and a broadness of jaw that helped him retain a look of masculinity despite this. His hair had obviously had gel applied in order to be styled into that wild set of spikes, but, despite this deliberate effort, the overall effect was one of carelessness, of indifference to physical appearance and purely accidental handsomeness as a result. And though the baggy sweat-shirt hid upper body details, the jeans fit closely enough to indicate the excellent shape of groin and legs. He was more than just eye-catching; he was enticing, appetizing.

And there was also his race. Of course the city’s Japanese population was such that Saitou felt no surprise at finding them wherever he happened to be, but Japanese heredity yet made for an automatic source of greater interest. To run into someone this attractive that also happened to have the same descent as Saitou’s — and who seemed to be looking at him with some kind of unusual fixedness — was far more rare.

When the young man observed Saitou’s riveted gaze, he abandoned his position at the hallway’s corner and came ambling down toward him, still eating his apple in careless motions that implied he wasn’t worried at all about what this cop in his apartment building might think of him hanging around watching — and also demonstrated a flexibility of lips that Saitou’s hedonistic side (not nearly as smothered as it usually was, for some reason) took special notice of. He came to stand casually near Saitou, finishing his snack and looking the detective up and down without compunction.

“Can I help you?” The officer’s words came out dry as paper not only because he wondered what the kid was up to, but because he was dissatisfied with himself for how pleased he was to see him at close range.

The young man shrugged. “I heard there was a cop in the building, so I figured I’d come down and see.”

“Is there a problem with me being in the building?” In response to that carelessness, Saitou’s tone was even drier than before.

“Nah. I like cops.” He gave Saitou a grin that was both cheeky and damnably attractive, then went on to say something rather shocking: “We just don’t usually get the sexy ones around here.” He eyed Saitou again without a trace of hesitancy — indeed, with a cockiness and self-assurance that seemed to suggest the perfect naturality of flirting with someone without checking on their orientation first. His grin took on a satisfied edge as he finished his second once-over, but then he shook his head. “Sometimes I feel like I should move somewhere with higher rent… maybe then I’d meet more hot cops. You know… richer neighborhoods getting more police attention and all that.”

This statement troubled Saitou largely because it was probably true. The young man might be gorgeous, but in practically leading with a jab like that he was simultaneously frustrating. So, rather than trying to decide whether or not to respond to the flirtation — which, under some circumstances, he might have done — Saitou replied in a tone now more disdainful than dry, “Could you afford higher rent?”

The stranger scowled. “Why would you assume I couldn’t? I probably make more money than you do. I’m just…” He was either embarrassed to admit this or (which seemed more likely) scrambling for an excuse. “…stuck in a long lease I shouldn’t have renewed.”

Saitou glanced around — at the disgusting carpet, the scuffed walls, the terminally bland colors — intending the message, “If you make so much money, you’re an idiot to stay in a place like this.” Evidently he’d gotten his point across, since when his eyes returned to the handsome youth, he noticed clenched fists. (Where the apple core had gone he didn’t know.) What he said aloud was, “I’m Detective Saitou, RCPD. I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Here?” the young man wondered.

Saitou raised a brow. “Unless you’d prefer I arrest you for obstruction of duty and then question you…”

“That sounds like fun. But, nah, I got work to do. No time for an arrest today. What I meant was, here, in this hallway? You don’t want to come upstairs to my apartment? It’d be way more… private in there.”

“I do not require privacy to ask everyone in the building the same set of questions.” Again Saitou might have responded to the flirtation instead of making such a businesslike and acerbic statement, but he really did need answers.

“Huh,” said the young man, sounding disappointed. “Hot, but not a lot of fun. OK, so what are your questions?”

“What’s your name?”

“Ooh, questions about me personally.”

“No, idiot, I just need to know who you are in case I decide to arrest you later for annoying me.”

The young man relented with good grace. “Well, I’m Sanosuke Higashidani.”

“It must be fun navigating American life with a name like that,” Saitou murmured as he noted it down in his phone.

Sanosuke sounded rueful, with a touch of actual exasperation, as he replied, “Yeah, well, we can’t all have sleek, snappy names like ‘Saitou.’ Unless we use pseudonyms.”

Saitou smirked. “And which apartment do you live in?”

“4305.” Sanosuke jerked a thumb upward to indicate the third floor above them. “Wanna see it?”

Making a show of ignoring the second half of that answer, Saitou quickly ran over the building’s layout in his head. “So the windows of your apartment must be on the east side, looking out over the side parking lot.”

Sanosuke considered for a moment. It was sometimes surprising how little oriented people were within their own personal spaces. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a pretty boring view, now I think about it.”

“I can’t imagine there are many interesting views from the windows of this apartment complex.”

Sanosuke seem to recognize that the officer was again prodding him subtly on his choice of living accommodations, for he frowned. Somewhat defiantly he said, “Well, if you’re wondering whether I’ve seen anything interesting out my windows lately, the answer is no.”

“I wonder if you would recognize something of interest even if you saw it.”

The frown deepened into a scowl. “What, you think I’m too stupid to know something suspicious when I see it? This is about those burglaries, right? You probably think it was an inside job, and want to know if anybody who lives around here’s been acting weird or coming and going at weird times.”

“‘Inside job?’ Somebody’s been watching too many police dramas.”

“No such thing as watching too many police dramas,” Sanosuke replied immediately. No wonder he claimed to like cops. “And the answer’s still no: I haven’t seen anybody suspicious around here lately.”

“What times of day are you usually at home and awake?”

“Wondering about my sleeping habits, huh?” He tried to say it suggestively, but it sounded more stupid than flirtatious. And when Saitou only looked at him, he answered the question. “My schedule’s really random. I’m just as likely to be up all night on the computer and sleep all the next day as the other way ’round. Except sometimes I take my laptop to a restaurant or something and work on shit there for a while. So I’m in and out a lot too.”

People took a bizarre amount of pleasure, Saitou had noticed, in talking about the mundane minutiae of their personal lives. They might be a little uncomfortable answering police questions, but once they got started about their boring schedules, many were willing to go on at tedious length. Sanosuke had actually been more concise than most — probably because he didn’t really have much of a schedule, as he admitted himself — and the unpredictable nature of his activities spanning all twenty-four hours of the day made him almost an ideal potential witness, except…

“If you’re working at your computer most of that time–” Saitou believed himself very generous with the term ‘working’ here– “you probably don’t see all that much out your windows even when you are home.”

“No,” Sanosuke said regretfully, “I don’t. And my computer desk faces away from the patio door.”

Saitou nodded, and moved on. “Since you’ve lived here, how often have apartment complex employees or maintenance people come into your apartment?”

Sanosuke tilted his head, simultaneously cheerful and pensive. “You do think it was an inside job.”

He was right, but Saitou wasn’t about to admit it. Apartments like this were very difficult to break into, and that several of them had been lately suggested someone somewhere had access to keys. “How often?” he repeated.

Still appearing somewhat triumphant at his supposedly correct analysis, Sanosuke replied, “A bunch of times. For a while, every time I took a shower — naked, in case you’re interested — it leaked into the bathroom of the person downstairs. Took ’em forever to figure out what was wrong, so some maintenance guy was in and out of here probably five times, and one of the apartment managers came to look at it once too.”

“Can you describe them for me?”

“Maintenance guy was about my height,” Sanosuke said promptly, almost professionally; “narrow build, kinda like yours, but with a little more fat on him; Caucasian, at least mostly, and at that point he had a fading sunburn; long face, bit of a double chin, thin nose, acne scars, labret piercing; ears stuck out pretty far, and he had one of them pierced too; brown hair, not as dark as mine, with–”

“All right.” Saitou raised a hand to stop him. He didn’t actually need all these details, just enough to pinpoint which maintenance guy it had been — and what Sanosuke had already said tallied with what he’d heard from other apartment-dwellers about the one named Jeff. He was, however, more than a little impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and conciseness of description, though he didn’t plan on saying so. “How about the apartment manager?”

“Her name’s Vivian Something. She doesn’t work here anymore; I think she moved. But she’s a Black woman with–”

“Since you know her name, I don’t need the description.” Saitou had heard about Vivian Something (it was Stetson, in fact, at least up until her recent marriage) from other residents as well.

“OK,” Sano shrugged. “Where’s your partner, by the way?”

Saitou raised his eyes from where he’d been making another note, and raised a brow at the young man. “Asking stupid people boring questions is hardly a task that requires two officers. She’s busy with a different aspect of this case.”

In response to this, Sanosuke seemed to go very rapidly through three distinct emotional states, and the one he ended on surprised Saitou a little. “I’m not— you know, this could be way less boring if you– so your partner’s a woman?”

“Is that a problem?” Not entirely sure why Sanosuke had asked, Saitou gave this response very coldly indeed.

“No, it’s great!” The enthusiasm in Sanosuke’s tone was another surprise. “She wouldn’t happen to be Japanese too, would she?”

Saitou hesitated, but since he saw no reason not to give this information he admitted, “As a matter of fact she is.”

“And I bet you two got partnered up because you’re the only Japanese cops in the precinct.”

Not only did Saitou feel disinclined to comment on this probably true assumption, they were getting off track. Why did he feel as if the tables had turned and he was suddenly the one being interrogated? “And what about your vehicle? Or do you take the bus everywhere?” He really had nothing against public transportation; the disdain with which he spoke the word ‘bus’ merely aimed at prodding Sanosuke away from his untoward queries.

It worked. It seemed pretty easy to bait this young man, and Saitou definitely felt he had the upper hand while they discussed comings and goings in the parking lots and what cars and trucks Sanosuke recognized as regulars around here. But Sanosuke recovered himself enough to resume his previous demeanor of simultaneous obnoxiousness and far-too-tempting flirtatiousness during the next topic. All in all, Saitou felt like they came out of the questioning approximately even — and that was both unprecedented and irksome.

He didn’t suspect the young man of anything except extreme nosiness, and perhaps an unexpected interest in Saitou, and it was the latter suspicion combined with Sanosuke’s undeniable allure that kept Saitou from telling him off. But he wouldn’t go so far in the other direction as to leave a business card with the guy; alluring or not, Sanosuke was also pretty aggravating. When they eventually parted — Sanosuke, presumably satisfied about the presence of a cop in his building, back to whatever apple-eating idling he’d been doing before some gossipy neighbor had informed him of the circumstance and sent him down here; Saitou to continue door-knockings destined to be even more tedious and uninteresting than ever now — he watched the handsome figure disappear around the hallway’s corner with ambivalent feelings, wondering whether he would encounter him again during the course of this case, or perhaps in some context besides criminal investigation. If he did, it would be through no fault of his own.

*

“What the hell…?” No great shock, honestly, that he’d somehow gotten past the officers in the dining area; they’d only just barely gone out there to keep an eye open for customers trying to enter. “Well, no wonder a guy can’t get any pizza, with all these cops running around the place.”

It wasn’t necessarily startlement that kept Saitou silent for a moment or two longer than he normally would have been, though there was some of that too; it was more the combination of surprise at seeing this person again so unexpectedly with the abrupt reminder of how ridiculously attractive he was. And since Saitou was thus momentarily speechless, Tokio answered:

“Got the wrong stereotype there, don’t you?”

Trying to fight off a grin in order to maintain the facetious expression of concern he wanted, Sanosuke’s face writhed comically for a moment. Stupidly, this didn’t make him any less handsome. “Oh, crap, don’t tell me Krispy Kreme’s been hit too!”

Tokio rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you go check for us?”

Now Sanosuke’s grin conquered the look of false consternation and spread wide. “But I wanted pizza today, not donuts.” Then, seeing Tokio was about to dismiss him in a more official capacity, he added quickly, “Besides, I was an invaluable witness at y’all’s last case; I can probably be useful here too.”

Undoubtedly never having seen Sanosuke before, Tokio turned toward Saitou with elevated brows, and Saitou broke his silence at last with, “He lives in the Hammock apartments. And ‘invaluable’ is a gross exaggeration.”

Sanosuke appeared annoyed, but rallied quickly and said, “Hey, just because you turned down certain parts of the offer doesn’t change its overall value.” His grin, which had darkened somewhat in his irritation, now brightened as he added in a more jovial tone, “But seriously. How you doing, Detective Saitou, RCPD? Single? You never did call me.”

Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

“What are you doing here?” Saitou asked the question flatly, feeling he did fairly well at hiding how amusing he found this kid.

“Well, I wanted pizza. Looks like I got a crime scene instead.” And it couldn’t be more evident that Sanosuke considered this an excellent trade. He did a little dance of childish excitement and anticipation as he looked around the chaotic kitchen, causing the laptop bag slung over one shoulder to bounce alarmingly against his hip, and punched one fist into his other palm, smiling broadly and lopsidedly the entire time. “I mean, check it out: there’s fresh bullet-holes in the walls and everything!” And his grin only widened as he noted this fact that many another person might comment on with fear or dismay. He paused, though, as he turned to gaze delightedly at the signs of the few shots that had been fired not long before and added, “Except that one above the grill; that one looks older.”

Of course the eyes of the two cops snapped immediately to the spot in question, then to each other. Then Tokio started searching for something to stand on. They hadn’t even really begun examining this room yet; the questionable employees had only been escorted out minutes before. But it was possible — Saitou didn’t like to admit it, but it was possible — the evident age of one of several bullet-holes decorating the kitchen walls might have escaped them where this apparently sharp-eyed idiot had been able to point it out immediately. And it might even provide useful facts, depending on which bullet matched which gun.

As he watched Tokio go about her examination, Sanosuke’s expression of pleasure intensified; he obviously reveled in having stumbled upon an interesting crime scene as well as in what he’d cleverly noticed there. But Saitou wasn’t going to put up with his nonsense this time. “You need to leave,” he said sternly.

Before Sanosuke could even begin to protest, as Saitou was certain he would have done, Tokio said in a mischievous tone, “Oh, I don’t see why he can’t stick around. He is an invaluable witness, after all… and this bullet-hole is definitely old.” She’d dragged a greasy chair from just outside the restaurant’s small office over to the grill and begun examining the place carefully without touching it. Now she held out a mute hand requesting implements, which Saitou hastened to provide.

Into the ensuing silence Sanosuke remarked easily, “So you must be the partner. Saitou mentioned you last time.”

“Only because you brought her up,” Saitou reminded him.

The aforementioned partner, though she didn’t look away from her task, gave every indication of great amusement and a strong likelihood of going into Tokio Mode. Now she said, in as casual a tone as Sanosuke had used, “Yes, I’m the partner. Someone has to keep this crooked cop in line.”

The responding expression of glee Sanosuke turned toward Saitou did not bode well, but at least he seemed to recognize this particular statement as a teasing remark rather than taking it at face value. “So maybe you can tell me, since he never bothered to: is he single?”

Saitou braced himself for Tokio’s answer, and therefore was prepared when she said, “Of course he is.” Out of the side of her mouth, as if he weren’t standing immediately to her left, she added in a stage whisper, “He’s a virgin.”

Sanosuke looked Saitou up and down, then let out a patently disbelieving chuckle. And Saitou had to admit to a certain amount of disappointment, despite how stupid the conversation already was, when the young man’s next question, still directed at the more cooperative Tokio, was, “And what about you?”

She adored talking about herself, especially in Tokio Mode, so she answered with no trace of hesitation. “Single, or virginal?”

Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

“Neither. I have nine children; I’ve been married for ten years.” In fact the closest she came to being a mother was forcing Saitou to look at funny pictures of her nieces and nephews sent by her brother in Montana; and, though she’d been married throughout most of her twenties, had divorced her husband three years ago.

Nine?” the young man echoed, startled out of his casual flirtatious demeanor. Though he’d recognized her earlier statement as untrue, evidently she’d taken him in with this one. “How old are you?”

“You should know it’s rude to ask a woman that,” she chided. “But I’m twenty-six.” In fact she was thirty-two.

“You’ve been married since you were sixteen?”

She redirected the course of the questioning. “I notice you don’t ask how old Saitou is.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

Finished prying the bullet from the wall and sealing it in an evidence bag, Tokio jumped down from the chair. “Well, he’s only forty-two,” she assured Sanosuke. In fact Saitou was thirty-six. “That’s not too old for you, is it?”

“No,” Sanosuke said thoughtfully, apparently adjusting his perspective but not necessarily disappointed. “No, it’s not. But you — you make enough money as a police detective to support nine kids?”

This unexpected question was evidently a welcome challenge, and Tokio, in fine form, didn’t miss a beat as she replied, “My husband won the lottery a few years back, so we have more money than we know what to do with.” She rolled her eyes as she added, “He bought an entire stable outside town last year so he could get a pony for every single one of our children, including the baby.”

Now Sanosuke looked as if he finally began to suspect the veracity of Tokio’s words, and didn’t know quite what to do about it. Accusing a police officer of straightforwardly lying to your face was always a tricky business, after all; that was part of why Tokio Mode worked so well in the first place.

But Tokio had a dual purpose in this instance, and didn’t allow Sanosuke time to reply to the pony comment. “But maybe it wasn’t so much my income you wanted to know about?” She threw Saitou another sidelong glance. “I ain’t sayin’ you a gold-digger, but why did you want to know?”

Sanosuke laughed. It was unfair what a nice laugh he had. “Well, I really was curious, but, you know, it is useful — like if you want to go out to dinner with somebody or something — it’s kinda nice to know what they’re used to. Like whether you can get away with cheap-ass pizza places that apparently have secret crime going on in the back room at the same time–” He pronounced the word ‘crime’ with satisfaction verging on delight as he gestured around at the kitchen in which they stood– “or whether, like, a Red Robin is a better price range, or if I need to spring for some fancy-ass steak place where it’s forty dollars a plate.”

Tokio’s satisfaction too seemed to be on the verge of delight, and Saitou could practically hear the gears grinding in her head as she came up with some elaborate description of what type of dates he enjoyed going on. But there was more a pressing concern at the moment, and Saitou himself spoke up for the first time in a while: “It’s interesting you’re talking like you have money when you’re still dressed like that.” (This wasn’t actually the pressing concern, just something he felt he had to bring up first.)

“Like what?” Sanosuke demanded, looking over his jeans and layered T-shirts before turning challenging eyes under lowered brows on Saitou.

The latter pressed on without elaborating on that particular topic, however: “But what I really want to know is why you think ‘secret crime’ is ‘going on in the back room’ here. Despite the old bullet-hole, a scene like this–” he imitated Sanosuke’s gesture around them of a moment before– “would seem more indicative of an isolated incident, don’t you think?”

Now Tokio also appeared more focused on the interloper, for reasons other than that she loved messing with people. She said nothing, though, waiting for Sanosuke’s answer (and probably still contemplating her fiction about her partner’s ideal date and holding it in reserve for a better moment).

“This place always seemed sketchy,” Sanosuke shrugged. “Especially the guys in back, if you ever saw ’em. They made such good pizza, though,” he added with an unrepentant flash of teeth.

“And you didn’t report this?” Saitou’s words came out darker and more cutting than they needed to be because he was vexed both with Sanosuke’s flippancy and his own amusement at it.

“Oh, yeah,” the young man said with a roll of eyes, “like I’m gonna call you up and say, ‘Hey, this pizza place I do my work at sometimes has a bunch of really twitchy employees, and I think their food license is outdated.'”

“It would be an excuse to call,” Tokio pointed out.

“Huh.” Sanosuke acknowledged this with a thoughtful twist of lips, probably trying to decide whether having an excuse to call would be worth the hell Saitou would undoubtedly give him in response to that idiotic ‘report’ — and whether it wasn’t more likely Saitou would simply hang up on him (about which Saitou himself wasn’t entirely sure).

“Tell us about the twitchy employees,” Saitou commanded, hiding his precise facial expression by digging for his phone and stylus and opening the note-taking app he primarily used.

“OK, well…” Sanosuke launched into a detailed account of what he’d noticed about the pizzeria’s employees and their comings and goings. Though he could only guess — and did, with possibly problematic canniness — at what had been going on around here, his information served to enhance the impression Saitou and Tokio had of this place: that if you knew the right way to order and had the cash, you could get a side of stolen iPad with your breadsticks; and, just as the last time they’d met, Saitou was grudgingly impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and his ability to collate the information he observed.

And it was clear Saitou wasn’t the only one when Tokio, about halfway through Sanosuke’s description, leaned over and said very unsubtly to her partner, “Kid’s got good instincts.”

Saitou restrained himself from nodding, and didn’t look up from his notes even when Sanosuke broke off to retort, “‘Kid?!’ We never talked about how old I am!”

“Old enough for Saitou,” Tokio said airily. “That’s all that’s important.”

As the banter continued and Saitou tried with varying degrees of success to get actual information out of this alternately obstructive and entertaining young man, he also tried with varying degrees of success to push away thoughts of how (he was tempted to say ‘conveniently’) well Sanosuke got along with his partner, how unexpectedly useful his powers of observation and recounting might turn out despite his simultaneously being completely in the way, and how damned attractive he still (in fact now more than ever) was.

*

Saitou had only planned to have one last, quick look around the bloody crime scene for the satisfaction of his own inquisitiveness before leaving it to forensics and heading down to the end of the alley where Tokio was already busy taking statements; but as his eyes had risen from the pocked and stained asphalt surface on which he stood, past the rusty dumpster and collection of plastic trash cans that surrounded it, and up the dirty brick walls of the buildings that loomed over him to either side, he discovered he wasn’t going to be able to walk away just yet.

“What are you doing?” he asked the young man squatting on the lowest level of the decrepit fire escape and peering down through its railings. His tone wasn’t accusatory or demanding or even particularly surprised; somehow he felt he should have expected to find Sanosuke there.

“Ogling your crime scene, of course,” the latter replied easily. “And you, maybe.” Even more so here than when Saitou had originally met him, he seemed to shine brilliantly, ridiculously visually appealing and desirable in contrast with the dilapidation and grime and evidence of murder around him. He was also, and for reasons beyond his mere presence where his absence would have been more appropriate, still annoying. “And before you say I’m not supposed to be here, there’s people watching from up there too–” He jabbed a finger skyward, indicating two figures peering down from the fire escape’s fourth platform– “and you should really start at the top.”

They’re not ogling me, though.”

Though Saitou had said it at a mutter, Sanosuke obviously caught the statement, for he grinned. “They are if they have any brains!”

There was some impulse to return the expression, but Saitou resisted easily. “What are you doing here?” he asked again, grim.

Sanosuke’s eyes shifted from where they’d been wantonly traversing Saitou’s figure to the ground nearby where a splatter of red was drying to copper. And though his tone didn’t sound quite as dead serious as Saitou’s had, he still spoke levelly. “Got a text from a friend saying something was going on — police and stuff.” Next he indicated behind him with a thumb. “The guy in this apartment was nice enough to let me come out here and have a look.”

Of this Saitou could not approve. “In other words,” he said cuttingly, “you’re sitting up there like a vulture waiting to feed off of someone else’s death. Crime dramas aren’t enough for you anymore, so you have to get your fix by dogging the police trying to see the real thing.”

Sanosuke sprang to his feet, barely missing knocking his head against the metal stairs upward behind him. “Don’t act like you know what my motivations are.” Fists clenched and eyes flashing from on high, he appeared more lively and enticing than ever — but Saitou feared he could no longer look at him in the same light. “I admire you, OK? And I don’t just mean your long sexy legs. You cops trying to figure shit out and make sure situations like this get resolved, trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again — just because I want to watch your procedure and see how it’s done doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting that poor guy who got killed!”

Saitou stared up and Sanosuke stared down for a long moment, and something in the officer gradually relaxed. It was an unexpected relief, actually, to find himself believing the young man’s words. Even if his presence here and irrelevant curiosity was a little tasteless, Sanosuke truly didn’t intend any disrespect. Even if he was still a dumbass. Saitou probably shouldn’t have been so pleased.

Possibly sensing the change in atmosphere despite Saitou’s continued silence, Sanosuke added at a grumble, “And don’t talk about crime dramas like they’re worthless. Nothing wrong with getting some entertainment out of crime, since it has to happen anyway. Besides, they make people think, don’t they?”

“I’m not sure they make people think about anything useful.” Saitou’s tone had eased as his attitude had. He wasn’t about to offer an apology for having misjudged, but in a slightly more conciliatory manner he did add, “I do enjoy some crime dramas, though.”

Anger seemingly in full recession, Sanosuke dropped back into the same crouch as before; it allowed him a closer view through the railings of the narrow street beneath him. And his tone too had lightened as he replied, “We should read some together sometime,” with an incongruously suggestive smile.

“‘Read?'” Saitou echoed in surprise. Literature was not the medium he would have expected Sanosuke to propose.

“Yeah, you know, like… Barnes & Noble and chill.”

Saitou laughed. He couldn’t help it. He sobered quickly, though, shaking his head and making the scan he’d come here for in the first place. When he glanced back up at the fire escape, he found Sanosuke watching him intently. “You’re not likely to see a lot of procedure here today. The team’s going to get started soon, and you’re going to be asked to leave.”

Sanosuke merely shrugged. “At least I got to see you.”

“Do you want to join the police?” Saitou wondered, ignoring this latest bit of flirtation. “Is that what this is about?”

“No. What?” Sanosuke seemed inordinately surprised at the question, as if the idea had never occurred to him and he was a little incredulous it had to Saitou. “Actually I’m an–” But he stopped when Saitou’s phone warbled thrice in quick succession.

I see you gossiping over there, Tokio had sent from the alley’s entrance. The second message read, Is that that kid from the pizza place? Followed immediately by, If you’re not going to help me take statements, I hope you’re at least setting up a double date with him and someone for me. She had a remarkable gift for never letting on that she was texting while busy with something else.

I’m taking HIS statement, Saitou replied, and proceeded to do so. “How long have you been out here?” he asked as he returned his eyes to Sanosuke, who he knew had not been stationed on the fire escape for any significant span but who, with that unexpected detail orientation of his, yet might have noticed something useful.

In order to look at his watch, Sanosuke pulled back the sleeve of his hoodie. It was the same he’d been wearing the first time Saitou had encountered him, the one whose bright red looked so good with his brown eyes and dark brows. “Twelve minutes,” he answered in the more businesslike tone he used to give solicited information, “and we’ve been talking for three.”

His statement about where we’ll all be going out to dinner tonight? Tokio wondered. I never did get a chance to tell him what your dream date would be like.

“So you didn’t see anything here.” The body would have been gone by the time Sanosuke emerged from the apartment, it seemed.

“Thought you weren’t supposed to frame it as a leading statement like that,” Sanosuke said with a crafty smile. Observing Saitou’s impatient expression he added, “No, sorry, I didn’t see anything here except the neighbors upstairs.”

“We’ll have to talk to them,” Saitou confirmed. He paused for a moment in order to send, If YOU want to go to dinner with him tonight, I’ll give you his number. Then he asked aloud, “Who was the friend who texted you to come here?”

And as Sanosuke described his acquaintance and the circumstances under which the guy had noticed the gathering police — all perfectly, dully innocuous — Tokio replied, So you DO have his number.

May I remind you someone has died here. Saitou wished he could send a stern expression in some manner other than by using emojis, which he found stupid and counterproductive.

“Are you texting your partner at the same time you’re questioning me?” Sanosuke asked with uncanny acumen. “Say hi to her for me.”

“May I remind you someone has died here?” Satisfyingly, Saitou was now able to employ the stern expression.

“I know that.” Sanosuke stood straight again, looking around once more at the taped-off area. His bearing and faint frown indicated he truly was taking this seriously, despite any little indications to the contrary. It was an almost police-like attitude of Life goes on in spite of everything that struck Saitou as odd and more than a little fascinating coming from someone that had expressed surprise at the idea of his wanting to join the force.

Did that kid kill him? was the next text from Tokio, and Saitou stifled a sighing laugh. It wasn’t as if they didn’t pretty typically use gallows humor and fake flippancy in most situations like this, after all. Life went on in spite of everything; Sanosuke couldn’t really be blamed for exhibiting some levity even in the wake of a murder when the cops did the same thing. Actually it stirred up a sense of camaraderie between them that Saitou would rather it didn’t, and made the idea of spending time with him — in some situation besides the somewhat ridiculous ones in which they’d met so far — seem all the more appealing.

“You guys’ll figure it out,” Sanosuke went on in a lighter tone. “By dinner time, maybe? Then you can meet me somewhere. Do you like pizza? We never established that last time.”

Thinking he really should give his partner Sanosuke’s number, since the two of them were so eager to have dinner somewhere tonight, Saitou instead pocketed his phone in some irascibility without responding to Tokio’s latest, which was, In any case, say hi to him for me. And tell him I own this entire city block. In fact she didn’t even own her car. He did not relay the greeting of either one of them.

“Or you could come to my place — you remember where I live, right? — and I’ll cook us dinner. And then breakfast tomorrow,” Sanosuke finished with eyebrows pumping.

Saitou rolled his own eyes at the impudence that could flirt so blatantly while overlooking the tragic and gruesome. Simultaneously, though, it made for another nice contrast. “I have no more questions for you,” he said shortly. “You’d better clear out.”

“OK, fine.” Sanosuke’s tone was one of mingled regret and frustration, with just a touch of defiance thrown in; Saitou, having turned away and started walking, couldn’t see his face, but he believed the obnoxious kid was torn between respecting the crime scene and annoyance with Saitou for not responding to his amorous efforts. He was also probably, based on what Saitou knew of him so far, trying to concoct one last snappy statement, whatever its purport. After all, the chances of their meeting like this ever again — by coincidence while Saitou was working — seemed infinitesimal, so if he wanted to change the nature of their relationship, this was pretty much his last chance.

The only thing he came up with, however, before (if the sound of rough hinges and the closing of a door was any indication) also turning and leaving, was a shouted, “Call me!”

And Saitou didn’t necessarily know that he would. But the temptation was definitely there.

*

He’d been wrong. So very wrong. He imagined a number of shapes lying on a table — perhaps a table like the one at which he now stood — onto which a fist had just slammed down hard — harder than his limp hands had helplessly come to rest on this one — and the shapes jumping into the air and falling again all scrambled into an entirely new pattern. Everything was different now, and a lot of facts bore considering in quick succession.

Zanza Sagara, quite possibly Saitou’s favorite author, had suggested they read together.

Zanza Sagara, Saitou’s favorite author, had asked if Saitou was single.

Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

Zanza Sagara, historically so repressive in keeping his personal life separate from his professional, had actually, at one point (Saitou realized now), been on the verge of crossing the line and mentioning to some random guy he was flirting with that he was an author of detective novels. On the verge of letting Saitou in on that secret in order to make him understand why he was so interested in crime scenes.

Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

Given that there were seven books in the Yuki Tomoshiro series, that they’d been released over the last decade, and that no preteen had written any of it, Zanza Sagara had to be at least ten years older than that fresh face of his indicated. And he really did live in town… in fact Saitou knew exactly where he lived… He knew where he had, at least up until its closure a few months back, worked on his novels while eating cheap pizza. He knew what color most flattered his eyes, and it wasn’t the sage green of the tie-less button-up he currently wore.

Now the author looked over at the sudden movement through the crowd and abrupt appearance at his signing table, and his jovial face broke into a wide grin. And why was Saitou so damn pleased at that familiar expression? Yes, this was Zanza Sagara, his favorite author, but it was also that dumbass kid he’d never quite been able to bring himself to reprimand properly for being obnoxious and obstructive, because he was so very, very distracting.

The two were merging irrevocably in Saitou’s thoughts, however. His favorite author was taking on the undeniably gorgeous looks and compelling aura of the dumbass kid, and the dumbass kid was revealed to have the intelligence and creativity to write a series of books Saitou hadn’t been able to put down. It frustrated and disconcerted him. He didn’t know what to do.

“Saitou!” Zanza jumped up, knocking his folding chair over with a clatter and appearing overjoyed — which still, aggravatingly, provoked a similar response in the officer. The author’s surprise at seeing him faded quickly as he added what would have been incongruous with that emotion: “You made it!”

The crowd, previously discontented at Saitou’s rude intrusion, seemed to relax and accept his presence much more readily as the person they were all here to see reacted so favorably to it. There was some shifting — these were probably bookstore employees and maybe an agent or publisher’s representative standing near the author, and some looks of slight confusion passed among them as Sanosuke seized Saitou’s arm and dragged him around the end of the table to stand beside him. Saitou, still shell-shocked and not sure how to react, went unresisting.

“Guys, this is Detective Saitou, RCPD!” Sanosuke announced. He draped an arm around Saitou’s shoulders in a manner so far from platonic that Saitou marveled there wasn’t a chorus of titters from the assembly, and fitted himself against Saitou’s just slightly taller form as if he’d been designed for that space. It was obnoxiously comfortable, and Saitou had to actively fight the urge to slip his own arm around Sanosuke’s waist. “He helped me with some accuracy checks in this latest book…”

Perhaps this statement was true in a sense, but it certainly made it sound as if Saitou had provided a lot more directed information and critique than had actually been the case. It also, somewhat to Saitou’s chagrin, gave him a little thrill, as if he really had been involved in the production of the most recent installment of his favorite series. He shouldn’t be feeling so much excitement about this; Sanosuke just wanted to get into his pants, right?

Though was that idea really so bad?

“…and he’s going to be my consultant for all the rest of the series!” Sanosuke finished, and Saitou had to clench his jaw to keep it from dropping open. There was no doubt the sly young author meant what he suggested, but in addition to that a twist to the sound of ‘be my consultant’ implied so much more than just police-picking details in future books (itself a delightful prospect). The arm around Saitou’s shoulders tightened, and the warmth all along his side seemed to squirm just slightly closer. “Right, Saitou?”

“You shameless idiot,” was what Saitou wanted to say. But under the gaze of a hundred expectant fans (among whom he reluctantly had to number himself), with the prospect in mind of getting a glimpse not only at Zanza Sagara’s work in advance but also at his writing process as it took place, and with a very desirable person he hadn’t wanted to admit he would like to get to know better in a couple of different senses pressed covetously up against him, all he could manage was, “Of course.”

That this bargain had been struck only this moment, and perhaps somewhat under the duress of an unexpected public appearance, it seemed a fair amount of the audience recognized, and there was some laughter interspersed among the applause that followed, but nobody seemed to object. Sanosuke gave his possessive arm another squeeze, then looked around for the chair he’d knocked over so as to resume his celebrity activities — but not until after granting Saitou a very private and evocative grin that promised a host of interesting possibilities for the future.

Well, Saitou was thoroughly embroiled now, but he found he didn’t mind so much. Anticipation and curiosity filled in the gap between astonishment and annoyance at today’s unanticipated events, and looking forward through a disbelieving haze that fully obscured what on earth might happen from here — not to mention the necessity of staving off Tokyo’s inevitable curiosity about his inevitable preoccupation — would undoubtedly occupy his work shift to a lesser or greater extent.

He’d been wrong about the diminutive likelihood of ever meeting Sanosuke by coincidence again; he’d been wrong about the minuscule probability of the young man’s getting what he wanted. He’d been wrong about his real level of interest both in Sanosuke Higashidani and Zanza Sagara, and as such could never have imagined the direction this day would go when he’d decided, under the pretense of having nothing better to do and unrelatedly wanting to look at e-readers, to stop by this bookstore to catch a glimpse of his favorite author. He’d been wrong about a fair few things, it seemed.

Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.


This fic is dedicated to Yaoibutterfly, because one time when they were telling me about a story idea they had, my brain tangented and came up with this thing.

I’ll give this fic an author’s rating eventually, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?



Blood Contingency 21-25



This story was last updated on December 30, 2018


Yes, there’s unquestionably a feeling of pleasure — delight, even, or joy — that comes with seeing Sano again. My memories of our time together in Japan have such a freshness about them, not to mention my feelings for him then, that how I feel now hardly seems relevant. This strikes me as a trifle unfair, but hasn’t the whole thing been?

Vampire ex or no vampire ex, my life goes on, and that means I need clean clothing for work I really do have to attend, and that means laundry must be done. The experience is undeniably different than usual with Sano hanging around making conversation, though. As if a long-lost friend has returned? Something more than a friend? Or something completely separate from that — a predator, a demanding stranger whose goals must perhaps make him an enemy, no matter how happy I am at his presence?

“Damn lotta laundry you got here all at once,” he’s commenting as I rotate the second load into my undersized dryer in preparation for filling my tiny washer with the third.

I don’t bother pointing out just how small the loads have to be thanks to the aforementioned diminutive nature of my laundry room, which is really more of a closet off my kitchen; I merely reply, in a tone of somewhat sarcastic accusation, “I usually only have one or two loads, but last week something had me too agitated to get a lot of my chores done.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Do you always approach me like that? So I’m miserable and confused for a week?”

The query restores the hard expression to his face, probably because it reminds him of just how many times he has approached me, whether like that or in some other manner, and his voice as he answers holds that cold unhappiness I’m getting used to. “I keep hoping you’ll remember me on your own.”

So my assumptions along those lines were correct. Finished starting the washer, I turn my attention to folding and hanging the still-warm contents of the basket I recently set atop the dryer. “You never were very good at pattern recognition.” My nonchalance is a deliberate contrast to his darkness and heaviness.

It seems to work, too, for he chuckles, only a little morose. “And I’ve seen a lot of patterns; you’d think I’d be better at it by now.” He’s leaning against the kitchen cabinets just outside the laundry room doorway, and at this he unfolds the arms he had crossed and places his hands on the countertop instead. “But, no… it hasn’t always been like that… You haven’t always been in a good position for me to give you a week.”

Every time I glance over at him, I find his gaze locked on me; I don’t think he ever looks away. Now when I meet his eyes briefly in asking, “What do you mean?” I find him staring as intently as ever.

“When you’re doing well… when you’re well-off… when you’re safe…” He shrugs. “Getting a week to try to figure shit out is a luxury. Sometimes when I find you, it turns out you’re in such a bad position I don’t even know if you have a week. I have to jump in right away and give you your memories back — or just tell you about everything, like in Brazil, before I learned how to do that. You may think it’s pretty bad this way, but it’s worse with no warning at all.”

I hang shirts in silence for a moment, then nod. I can’t quite bring myself to point out that not restoring my memories of a previous life, refraining from demanding I choose between hurting someone I once loved and becoming a monster, simply not approaching me at all might be even less unkind than either of those two options. It’s already obvious how impossible he would find letting me go, and I still haven’t confirmed how I feel about his return to my life, so bringing up the inappropriateness of his actions would only wound him. And even if he’s wounding me, I’m not inclined to reciprocate.

“I like to see you in a life like this.” There’s a forced sense of greater lightness to his tone as he says this, and I feel like we’re skirting he-wants-my-answer territory again. “I mean, you’re always in danger, but at least in a life like this it’s official. And obviously you make enough money to be comfortable… You can afford your gross-looking mac and cheese, and a washer and dryer in your apartment, and all that…”

Again I nod without a word, without bringing up the fact that my life has been decent and relatively uncomplicated… up until now.

In a way this exchange, in which everything each of us says or could say has the potential to hurt the other, is a mirror of many we had in Japan, where everything each of us said had a tendency to aggravate the other. Of course back then there was a specific subconscious reason to become agitated at the sound of the other’s voice; and here and now I’m far less willing to hurt Sano that I was to annoy him in those days… but the parallel remains. It’s a tense conversation even in its easier moments, hinting at possibilities I’m not eager to face.

Am I grateful for the interruption of a knock at the door? I wasn’t necessarily unhappy to be alone with him, but that tension was undeniable and not particularly enjoyable. I do worry a little, however, about who this might be. A neighbor coming to talk about local safety? Apartment maintenance appearing for an unusually late job? Renee wondering why I haven’t called her? None of these options is palatable, and the last is downright nightmarish, considering I still haven’t figured out what to say to her.

Whether or not he guesses my specific concerns, Sano obviously recognizes my uneasiness about the visitor, for he reassures me, “I think it’s Meg. Want me to get it?”

He’s offering to answer the door at my apartment just as he felt free to do at my house in Japan (though in that instance without asking). I’d like to say yes, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, so I tell him, “That’s OK,” and move past toward the entrance.

And Megumi it is. Like Sano, she’s still wearing the same outfit I saw her in previously — the one that makes her look like a video game character — but unlike Sano, she gives an immediate smile when she sees me. “I thought I had the right place. May I come in?”

“She’s a better vampire than you are,” I throw over my shoulder into the kitchen. Then to Megumi, “Yes, come in.”

As she does so, she reaches out a startlingly cold hand and clasps mine, shaking it with contrasting warmth. “It’s good to see you again.” And I think she means it. I know she means, by ‘again,’ not a reference to our meeting in the police station parking lot some days ago but rather to however many previous lives she’s known me in.

I return the handshake and agree with her, every bit as sincere. I can’t help staring a little, though, and I hope she’s not offended. I simply don’t remember her as nearly this… beautiful.

Despite my relationship with Sano being the most meaningful of my Japanese life, the capacity for attraction to women was, I believe, just as strong in me as attraction to men. Whether the same is true in this incarnation I don’t yet know, but currently it’s the male side of things in question; I’ve never doubted I liked women. I’ve never had any problem recognizing and admiring female beauty. My awareness of Megumi’s was always somewhat abstract, given how thoroughly occupied my aesthetic appreciation of others was by Sano at the time… but I surely would have taken greater notice if she’d looked like this.

In the dark station parking lot it wasn’t nearly as evident, with my attention so caught up in the mystery of the situation, but here in the brighter lights of my apartment, up close, with the bafflement and confusion and frustration of that scene behind me, I can easily categorize her looks as ‘stunning.’ The precise perfection of her features, the luster of her hair, the curve of her figure… it’s almost unbelievable.

But as I stare I realize just as immediately that there’s something else different about her as well, something less pleasant: a sense of otherworldliness, of horror almost, that’s deeply repellent, perhaps especially so as it contrasts with her incredible beauty. It’s not the same feeling I’ve had about Sano — I still believe that arises more from the awareness of what he wants from me than from any kind of innate human fear of a predatory alien being… but the latter is exactly what I believe this reaction to Megumi must be. Sano I recognize as someone that at least should be human, but in Megumi my instincts see little to no humanity at all. Ironic, when Sano is the one most concerned with losing track of what he was. Unnerving.

“She’s a hotter vampire than me too,” Sano remarks, obviously observing my reaction.

I pause and give my two guests a back-and-forth comparative scan. And though my goal is primarily to bait Sano, and though there’s still something about him that has far more of a personal draw than Megumi, with all her astonishing loveliness, can command, when I nod and agree with him my statement is nothing but the truth.

Sano makes a snorting, huffing sound, and, while it sounds like a darker reaction than such a meaningless tease would have prompted in him back in the day, it’s a relatively lighthearted moment nonetheless — especially when Megumi seems to validate my facetious intentions by laughing in response.

Since I resumed my progress into the laundry room in order to finish up that chore before I sit down to have a proper conversation with Megumi, Sano’s face is out of sight; therefore I can’t be sure of the precise reason he targets her with his retort, “Yeah, Meg’s a walking stereotype these days.” Is he jealous because I indirectly called her hot? Or is he simply unable, at this juncture, to aim a snide comment at me?

I ask, “What stereotype?”

“Sano’s just jealous,” Megumi answers, “because he doesn’t look like a Hollywood vampire.”

“Oh, fuck that shit,” Sano grumbles.

As they then fall silent for a few moments, I prod, “That still doesn’t tell me what the stereotype is.” By now I can probably guess, but I’d rather have one of them elaborate.

Megumi does so. “Real vampires — most of us, anyway — look more and more monstrous the longer we survive, and all of us appear less and less human. Many vampire stories used to reflect this: we were horror story villains meant to inspire fear. But over the years the public perception of vampires has changed somehow, and now we’re portrayed as sympathetic villains or even heroes, and almost always superhumanly sexy instead of frightening.”

I nod my understanding, both of the phenomenon she describes and of the specific stereotype she therefore seems to embody. Why she’s evidently not included in the ‘most of us’ that look more and more monstrous the longer they survive has yet to be revealed, but everything makes sense so far.

“It’s bullshit.” Sano is still irritated. “Some of the old stuff used to be almost accurate, but these days people have this entire concept of vampires that’s 100% wrong. There’s nothing sexy about us, for one thing,” he finishes in disgust.

I glance over, giving him a skeptical look, unwilling to bring up aloud the way he somehow forced me to want him so desperately in order to ‘make this easier’ when he was restoring my memories of life in Japan.

“Well…” He obviously knows exactly what I mean with the expression, and has the grace to look a little sheepish. “Yeah, I mean, there is that. We’ve got a sort of sexual attractiveness we can turn on and off to help us hunt. But it’s not like we can take it any further than that; we can’t do any of that shit anymore — at least not without eating, like, three people first. And you can stop rolling your damn eyes at me, Meg; we’re not all born aces.”

“It’s certainly easier not to worry about the circulatory system that way.”

I believe I understood that exchange, though the reference to aces might have gone over my head if sexual or romantic orientation hadn’t already been at least a little on my mind. I never knew Megumi was asexual; as she says, it’s probably more than a bit of a blessing in her current form. I think back to my concerns about this specific topic in Japan, and wonder how sexuality in the long term is affected by becoming a vampire and the changes in bodily function that transition represents — by the apparent need to ‘eat, like, three people’ before attempting sexual activity. It seems insensitive to bring up, however, so instead I revert to what I previously wanted to know: “And how do you manage to look like a Hollywood vampire?”

“I’m a cannibal,” Meg replies easily. “I drink blood from other vampires, which heightens all of my abilities and makes me…” She gives a reluctant chuckle. “…sexier.”

“Yeah, she’s like a vampire squared.” I glance over in time to see Sano aim a blow, lightning-quick and totally unnecessary, at Megumi’s face and she, from where she’s seated at my dining table, catch it and throw it back with zero apparent effort.

“And you can survive that way?” I’m about done folding my laundry, and very interested in this new information.

“As long as I feed on non-cannibals. Which is a shame, really; if cannibals could all live off each other, we could leave humans entirely alone.”

“So why do you do it?” I hang the last pair of pants and emerge, deciding that, today at least, I’m not ready to put away my laundry (including underwear) in their presence. It can wait where it is until they’ve gone.

Megumi leans back in her chair with that outlandish undead fluidity and soundlessness I’m just about accustomed to by now. “Drinking the blood of other vampires gives me insight into their abilities and evolution, and helps me understand vampires as a species better. There are a lot of things about ourselves that we don’t understand, and cannibalism helps me study them.”

This starts to answer some of the questions I took from my conversation with Sano about the mysteries of vampirism, but not all of them. Before I can decide what to ask next, however, Sano responds to my assumption of the third seat at the dining table by lifting a pack of cards he’s withdrawn from somewhere and asking, “Wanna play?”

Since a card game — whatever card game — seems an optimal technique for staving off awkwardness among the three of us as we chat, I readily agree, and the next few minutes are spent going over the rules. This involves Sano writing out a list of scoring parameters on a piece of notebook paper I retrieve at his request, and I find myself inordinately interested in what his handwriting looks like in English and modern times.

I’m also intrigued by his reaction to his role as rules authority for the game. It’s only a reminder for Megumi, with whom he’s obviously played this before, but to me it’s all new, and Sano is surprisingly engrossed in — indeed, at times almost excited by — the simple action of teaching me how it works. He always did love to gamble, and, though we’re not wagering anything here and now, it seems games of chance still rank among his favorite pastimes. It’s yet another moment of Sano seeming like Sano, and my own engrossment in learning the rules is definitely enhanced by my pleasure at seeing this.

So here I am again hanging out with vampires — one my lover from a previous life, one the most beautiful woman in the world and yet so off-putting that my chair is decidedly closer to Sano’s side of the table — casually discussing the drinking of blood and other horror-movie concepts, this time without nearly so much discomfort as I experienced in the previous instance: I’m getting used to this. Exactly how used to it I can become remains a matter of question, along with a host of other things, but at the moment I’m relatively content just to play cards with a couple of friends without worrying about the fact that they are physically programmed — magically programmed? — to require the death of people like me for their own survival. Without worrying about how startlingly much I enjoy the presence of one of them when I’m not sure how I feel about him personally and he’s literally here to offer me a fate worse even than that aforementioned death.


“You haven’t eaten anything in three days.”

“Yeah, well…” Sano sprawled on my living room floor in a pose that would normally have seemed easy, unconcerned. “I’m still not hungry.”

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Takani had mentioned that Sano’s bodily functions seemed to have shut down; conceivably this lack of appetite was the new normal. However… “You may not feel any hunger, and it’s possible you don’t actually need food, but we don’t know that. To be on the safe side and make sure you don’t starve, you should come over and eat something.” My gesture at the table I’d just finished ladening with dishes was lost on his now-stubbornly-closed eyes. Would he even have entered the room if he’d known I was preparing a meal for two rather than one?

“I think the, uh…” He denied the sight of the ready table even more decisively by turning his back to it — and me — and propping himself up on his side facing the fireplace. His volume dropped a dreary step as he finished, “…the blood was enough. I don’t think I need anything else for a while.” And he let out a faint, unhappy sigh. It hadn’t been long, but he already hated mentioning ‘the blood’ more than I’d ever seen him hate anything during our entire acquaintance — my decisive ability to defeat him in combat, the Meiji government, and Shishio Makoto included.

In an effort to strike a balance between distressing him by belaboring the issue and yet, by necessity, insisting, I tried to approach the subject as matter-of-factly as possible. “We still can’t know that.” As I reiterated this idea, I dropped to my knees beside him and placed a hand on the shoulder that stood like the top of a bastion wall before me. I was more or less accustomed by now to the coldness immediately apparent through his upper garment, and left the hand in place, thumb sliding back and forth in a subtly caressing movement, as I continued. “We do know that something as simple as sunlight could kill you, and avoiding that is as easy as keeping you out of it. I won’t let you die of something as simple as starvation when avoiding that is as easy as having you eat occasionally, even if you don’t feel like it. So you need to at least try.”

“It’s you who needs to be resting,” Sano returned, trying a different tack still with his back to me, “instead of wearing yourself out making dinner for people who don’t want it.”

“Making dinner does not ‘wear me out,'” I told him with a roll of eyes. “I’m not the one whose recovery the doctor was worried about when we left.”

“Oh, yeah,” replied Sano in a tone even more sarcastic than mine, “Megumi wasn’t worried about you at all. You’re doing just fine. Obviously it’s way more important to harass me about food than take care of your own injuries.”

I wanted to say, “To me it certainly is,” but it seemed a mawkish sentiment (however true), so I avoided expressing it. I also didn’t comment on his apparent prioritization of my state over his own. Anyway I believed he was only using that as an excuse not to do something he didn’t feel like doing, and therefore preferred not to admit how much it touched me. Why he was so averse to eating I couldn’t be sure, but I also couldn’t simply let the matter go. Prepared to close the sub-topic with this statement, I said, “My injuries have healed exactly as much as they should have five days after being inflicted.”

“Oh, have they?” Sano sounded irritated, as if the claim were particularly childish and aggravating despite his being far more prone to such behavior. I was about to answer snappishly, but he pre-empted the intended remark. The flash of a glowing brown eye turning toward me provided scant warning before, undoubtedly to prove in a somewhat backward fashion a point about my level of infirmity, he had risen, twisting around to throw me none too gently to the floor and himself on top of me.

Like a convalescent gradually regaining full use of a damaged body — such as I was, in fact — Sano had been moving faster and faster since the incident in the shed. The difference was that he’d never slowed in the first place, never been an invalid working at a diminished level; so his increase in speed had put him above average from the very beginning of the process. By now his normal actions (when he wasn’t concentrating on maintaining a more standard rate of motion) were so rapid as to be startling, uncanny, inhuman. It provided further evidence that the enemy I’d fought a few days earlier — an enemy that, despite his lack of combat prowess, had demonstrated such lightning quickness that I’d been forced to try to anticipate where he might be next rather than tracking his movements as he made them — shared Sano’s non-dead state of inexplicably increased physical abilities.

And it was a good thing Sano, with his far greater natural talents and level of training, intended me no harm. For not only had he pressed me to the floor, pinned my arms, and straddled my hips in half a breath’s unexpected action, then when I immediately made an instinctive attempt at pushing back against his hold, the straining of my body beneath him had almost no effect on the arrangement of his above.

He had been, I believed, about to comment something to the purpose of, “See? You’re still in really bad shape; you should lie down and get some sleep instead of trying to force me to eat dinner” — but as he observed the difficulty, the near futility of my struggles against him (almost instantly discontinued though they were), his demeanor abruptly completely changed.

He didn’t seem to have felt much in the way of happiness since, to Takani’s distress, we had abandoned the Oguni clinic and come here for a more private and leisurely recovery, so his apparent glee as he crouched there on top of me was as refreshing to observe as it was surprising. He stared into my face with an almost disbelieving grin on his pale lips, shifting somewhat on top of me as if settling in, and finally murmured, “I really am stronger than you now, aren’t I?” And you would think he’d never received good news in his life prior to this; it was idiotic and nonsensical how happy the realization had made him… but also, perhaps, stupidly endearing.

“We’ll have to spar some time and find out for sure.” I said it with a wince that might have had a touch of the theatrical about it; I was distinctly uncomfortable, but probably wouldn’t have displayed it quite so openly had I not wanted to point out to him the foolishness of exacerbating my injuries in order to insist I take better care of them — especially if his new condition had indeed rendered him physically more powerful than I was.

Sano swore at my subdued indication of pain, and the wrestling hold ended as abruptly as he’d initiated it. As I sat up, sore, and rubbed at my right shoulder, I was interested to observe the mixture of emotions in his demeanor: sheepishness that he’d hurt me blended with a kind of grim satisfaction that he’d been right about my state of debilitation, and underneath it all the exhilaration that he’d somehow been granted one of his dearest and most pointless wishes: to be stronger than his longtime rival Saitou Hajime.

“Now will you come eat something?” I asked.

He gave a startled laugh at my persistence, and I knew I had him; the better temper he’d achieved thanks to the revelation of his superior strength seemed relatively tolerant of food he didn’t want. “All right, fine.” And he jumped to his feet almost quicker than sight, stretching a hand to help me up after him. “Now that I know I can force you to stay here until you really are healed.” Evidently there was more to his attitude than solely the desire to get out of an undesirable task.

We moved to the table and took our seats, and I told him, “I don’t plan on going anywhere for a while.”

Across the bowl into which I was dishing him a generous helping of rice, he eyed me suspiciously. “Really? ‘Cause when that messenger was here yesterday, it sounded like you were pretty anxious to go question that Nori woman again.”

Finished patting down the rice heap, I turned my attention to the vegetables and corrected his misapprehension. “I just wanted to know exactly how much she knew when Hironaku took her into custody. I don’t feel the need to talk to her again myself.” In reality, any number of things did have me pretty anxious to get out of the house, but not only was talking to Tomizawa Nori not one of them, what concerned me even more was keeping Sano inside, safe and quiet, for as long as possible. If he believed his continued presence here represented the sole barrier between me and the work currently being handled by my only questionably competent assistant… well, he was at least partially correct, and so much the better. We could be a check on each other, and both feel more secure because of it.

As I’d seen him do many times in the past, Sanosuke gathered up as big a bite as chopsticks would allow; he stuffed it into his mouth without any of the reluctance I’d feared he would continue to exhibit about eating. Satisfied, I started piecing together my own bite, only to be interrupted by a startlingly disgusted sound from across the table that caused me to look over again at my companion. An intense grimace, so puckered it would have been funny under other circumstances, had overtaken Sano’s face, and the chewing movement of his jaw as he struggled to finish what he had in there seemed almost tortured. At my inquisitive raising of brows, he shook his head minutely as if he had no strength to answer, and continued his apparently very difficult mastication.

Admittedly I hadn’t taste-tested the components of this meal as regularly as I usually did while cooking, anxious as I’d been to finish and get on to convincing Sano to join me (though little had I suspected how troublesome that process would prove), but Sano was the least picky eater I’d ever met in my entire life; it would take more than a slight carelessness in the kitchen to wring this type of reaction from him. I assumed, therefore, this had something to do with his new condition rather than my culinary skills. To test the theory, I took my own bite and chewed it thoughtfully; when its flavor and texture proved no better or worse than my usual efforts in this area, I swallowed and remarked with easy dryness, trying to keep the atmosphere light, “It’s not Himura’s cooking, I’ll admit, but it’s not that bad.” Not that I’d ever actually tasted Himura’s cooking, but I’d heard the rumors.

Sano finally managed to swallow his oversized mouthful, though his distorted expression barely untwisted in its wake and his tone had a pained groaning quality as he said, “Yeah… sorry… that was fucking awful.” He worked his lips and jaw as if trying to rid himself of the taste, emitting faint gagging noises, and swung his head rapidly back and forth. “I thought I could eat some of this just to make you happy, but there’s no way… I can’t take another bite… No wonder I wasn’t feeling hungry; that was like eating brick dust or some shit.” And he resumed his apparently futile movements aimed at ridding himself of an unbearable flavor.

This time I had to give in. He’d made the attempt; that was all I could ask. But the implication that he could no longer eat food intended for the living distressed me for more than one reason. Of course there was the obvious, looming question of what he would be required to subsist on if normal food was no longer an option — a question whose answer was likely to cause Sano disgust and dismay along the same lines as before. But there was also the fact that something Sano had always adored with a winning avidity and simplicity seemed now to have been taken from him, perhaps forever. And one of the few ways in which I was able to care for him — providing him with meals and ensuring he maintained a healthy diet — had now been taken from me.

But as I had been doing fairly regularly over the last few days, I tried to remain calm and rational about this and not show how deeply disturbing I truly found it. All I said was, “Do you want to try some tea to wash it down?”

He gave the kettle I had lifted a dubious look, but eventually said, “Yeah, might as well… It can’t taste any worse than this.” And after an almost clawing gesture toward his throat, he accepted the tea I poured for him, took a large gulp, swished noisily, and swallowed again. He rolled his eyes thoughtfully upward, working his mouth once more, and finally let out a relieved-sounding sigh.

“Better?” I asked with some curiosity. I hated to let slip that I found his condition interesting in spite of how much it upset us both, but that was the truth of the matter. Takani probably would have been even worse had she been here.

He nodded and lifted his cup again. “Still pretty disgusting, but nowhere near as bad.” And he took another drink.

The logistics of his nutritional situation as revealed by this event would, sooner or later, require discussion. Would he have to drink more blood? How soon was that need likely to arise, and how was it to be fulfilled? These issues were going to devastate Sano, and few of the facts that might come to light were likely to be any more pleasant in and of themselves than his inevitable reaction to them. As such, I preferred to put off the conversation as long as I could — at the very least until this scene with the disgusting food had become less of an immediate disagreeable presence in his head. Given the extreme reluctance he’d demonstrated over the past few days to touch on the blood-drinking at all, I believed he must agree with this unspoken decision.

Unfortunately I, not being dead, could not so easily do without this human-style food, needed to finish the meal on the table, and feared that might remind him of what we were postponing and render postponing it a meaningless exercise. If he decided to leave the room to avoid watching me eat, he was likely to brood pointlessly in another part of the house and keep the unwanted topic firmly before him. So, since I saw in this a service I could render him that yet remained to me, I considered how best to assist his frame of mind until the dark time when we would be forced to face the miserable topic.

Finally I decided to strike up a discussion of police work, beginning with (as most relevant to our current situation and most on my mind) what Hironaku’s messengers had told me he’d discovered so far about Tomizawa Daitarou’s movements, but fully intending after not too long to segue into other cases I’d dealt with in the past that wouldn’t be quite such a blatant reminder of what had happened to Sano during the course of this one.

To whatever degree aware this was a deliberate tactic, Sano accepted the distraction, and seemed… not exactly happy… but at least content with the subject I’d raised. His un-life had become an unpredictable fluctuation of mood that I didn’t know how to deal with in the long term, but at least in the short term we were staying on top of things. Barely. At least he remained here with me and didn’t go torment himself somewhere alone, as he’d shown a pathetic inclination to do occasionally over the last few days.

A worrisome aspect of the conversation, however, unrelated to his mental state in the aftermath of the attack, was that as we spoke, casually and mostly about business long concluded, he yet gave subtle indications of still wanting to be involved in my professional affairs. This elicited in me the same reaction as it always had: a mixture of poignant pleasure at the closeness or sought-after closeness the desire exhibited, and exasperation, even frustration, at his impractical stubbornness. But these feelings seemed shallow in comparison to the underlying, overwhelming consternation now accompanying the idea. Sano in his current state would be physically unstoppable should he decide to insist on taking part in the current case, and I doubted my ability to reason him out of it — especially after all the effort it had taken merely to convince him to try something to eat.

And how could I bare to him the extent of my horror at the thought of his being hurt further? How could I tell him that I feared it might break me to see it, to come so close to losing him again? That I knew it would break me if I did lose him after all this strangeness and pain?

I couldn’t. I simply didn’t have the words. So I merely continued with what I could say, doing my best to keep him occupied and relatively optimistic, until long after I’d finished eating, and dishes, leftovers, table, and cushions had all gone to their proper places. Dawn would break after a short while, which meant bedtime was nearing; it might not have been too bad a moment to bring up the hateful subject that must eventually be broached, to get it over with and then allow Sano to cleanse his mental palate with sleep perhaps more effective than tea had been at a similar task — though not positively unwakable, Sano had already shown a propensity in this new form to sleep particularly hard during our new daylight downtime… but my efforts at keeping him contented seemed to have been so successful, I couldn’t stand to sabotage them. There would be time for the conversation tomorrow, our moods perhaps strengthened by some rest.

The latter was not the only bedroom activity I could think of that might improve our outlooks and brace us for what was to come. In fact a physical demonstration of our feelings for each other, which I believed had only intensified during this disaster, seemed an extremely desirable step. But no sexual activity whatsoever had taken place between us since we’d come to my house; I’d barely even kissed him. In some dismay I considered again the shutdown of bodily functions Takani had mentioned that had already been so discouragingly manifest this very night, and wondered whether Sano was capable anymore of feeling sexual urges or acting upon them if they arose… and whether he ever would be again.

Considering the matter dourly as we undressed for bed, he baring an expanse of grayish pale skin that showed only the slightest hint of the golden tan it had once worn, I reflected sadly that there might be an emotional element to it as well. Satisfied as he seemed to go to sleep for the day pressed up against or even embracing me, perhaps he wasn’t prepared to resume the greater intimacy we’d had before his disaster. And I wondered, as with the physical element, whether he ever would be. He’d seemed ready enough earlier to throw me on my back in a different type of interaction; would that other sort of freedom with me ever return?

And if the answer was no, that meant yet another thing Sano sincerely enjoyed that had been taken from him by that man we were trying to track down. It meant yet another way my relationship with him and our mutual happiness had been damaged, possibly beyond repair. It meant, I reflected as I gathered him into arms clutching with a fierceness that no longer threatened to harm him but that I still tried to conceal, a distressing tendency in my thoughts — not hitherto unknown but never approved of — toward a desire for revenge rather than justice.


The game I’m setting out to play with Sano and Megumi seemed complicated at first description, but turns out to be relatively fast-paced and simple enough that I’m not likely to need constant reminders of most of its procedures. And after a few rounds to get the hang of it, conversation unrelated to the game starts up again in and around our turns, and I’m able to resume the interesting topic where it was left off. “What do you hope to learn about vampires by drinking their blood?”

“I have a number of specific questions I’d like to find answers to,” Megumi answers, “but I’d settle for ‘everything.’ Sano, I’ll trade you two tens for that eight.”

Sano agrees, and as the trade takes place I ask, “What questions?”

“About special vampire powers, for example.” Takani studies her cards. “Why do we develop these special abilities as we get older? And why does the lineup of available powers seem to be changing? Does either of you want a five or a king?” Once she’s traded away her five and been forced to put up with the king since neither of us wants it, she goes on without prompting. “Sano has the ability to restore people’s memories from their past lives, and that’s an ability specifically useful to him. But did his need for a power like that have anything to do with gaining that power? And is that why certain other powers seem to have been phased out over the years — because vampires simply don’t find them useful anymore?”

“I dunno… being able to turn into a bat would be pretty badass.” Tone almost completely unaltered, Sano immediately goes on, “Saitou, I’ll take both of those off your hands, but all I got’s a jack.”

Suddenly I have multiple ideas to deal with at once. I find, for one thing, that I wish he wouldn’t call me ‘Saitou.’ I don’t say so right now, however, since I’m too much arrested by his tone in mentioning the concept of turning into a bat (which is a pretty cool idea, I have to admit) — the same tone he used to discuss an aspect of the game, which I’ve already noticed is something he seems to be specifically relishing. Obviously there are multiple sides of reality besides just me that interest him, things he can enjoy if he allows himself to… although perhaps only in my presence.

I also have the game to think about, and accept the proposed trade somewhat distractedly. Then I have to figure out what to do with the jack, and don’t end up asking anything about bats until halfway through Megumi’s turn and some further exchange. “Badass, yes,” she says, “but how useful, exactly?”

“It’d always be useful to be able to turn into some small flying thing to get into places. And if you could spend the day as a bat, that could solve all sorts of problems with the sun and worrying about people finding you and shit.” At a mutter Sano adds, “Think I’ll take both of these… and… your turn.”

“It might be a useful power, but do people think of it that way? In modern times, when you think, ‘I need a safe place to spend the day where people won’t find me,’ is your next thought, ‘If only I could turn into a bat?'”

I chuckle at the suggestion as I watch her somewhat elaborate turn, and finally ask, “So some vampires have been able to turn into bats?”

“Some of ’em still can,” Sano confirms when Megumi proves a little too distracted at the moment by her layout of cards to answer immediately. “Just older ones, though.”

“And what about wolves?” I ask after making an offer — eventually rejected — for Megumi’s two aces. Probably more appropriate for her to keep them anyway. “Can any of you turn into wolves?”

“You would think of that,” Sano says with a dark grin. For a second time I don’t remind him that I’m not exclusively Saitou, only acknowledge his point as he goes on to remind me of a rule I’d forgotten as I attempt to cash out some of my cards.

It’s Megumi who actually answers my question: “That’s another old power, and I have a theory about that one. Society has so separated the concepts of vampire and werewolf that vampires have lost the ability to turn into wolves because it’s perceived as belonging to a different species entirely.”

Somewhat drowned out by Sano’s sound of triumph as he trades in a ten-card stack for points, I ask, “Do werewolves exist, then? Separate from vampires, I mean?”

“They do. And how they’re connected to vampires, if at all, is another one of the things I’d like to figure out. Did modern vampires and werewolves evolve out of the same monster, and separate gradually into two categories over the years because of people’s perception, or were we two separate things from the start and just happened to have some similarities for a while?”

“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, then.” It’s really just a polite remark; though this is all very interesting, I don’t know what else to say.

“Your turn,” Sano tells her.

Megumi stares at her cards with a pensive frown, and eventually, laying down only sluggishly the ones she intends to play, remarks, “I know a lot of this seems frivolous…” Perhaps, though I didn’t intend it, my comment came across as somewhat critical. “But answering some of these seemingly less important questions may help me understand the bigger ones: why are we like this? What power causes us to become undead, and allows us to survive apparently against all the laws of nature? And is there any way for us to continue surviving without committing murder?” She looks up at me with serious glowing eyes from the cards she’s just turned over. “You’re working on fives; do you want this?”

Once again I make what may or may not be an advantageous trade without giving it much thought, dwelling as I am on the simultaneous conversation. What my mind is caught up with now is a comparison between the lives (if that word applies anymore) and purposes of Sano and Megumi. For each of them has a purpose, a goal or set of goals that drives them, but while Megumi’s has to do with truth and understanding and potentially helping others, Sano’s is and has always been small-scale and essentially selfish. I wonder what kind of strength it takes to keep hanging on decade after decade with only a personal desire and no prospect of doing any good in the world; I don’t wonder at Sano’s bitterness, nor at the apparent honing of his selfishness to the far sharper point I’ve felt from it lately than I was ever aware of in Japan.

And of course very little has changed besides that since I knew them before. Megumi was always determinedly humanitarian and purposeful, whereas Sano, though he performed the good of which he was capable when opportunities arose, was always fairly aimless. In fact I think it was in part his lazy approach to morality that drew me to him: it was nice to take a break, without actually letting go of any fundamental rightness, from the driving need to be changing the world, and Sano certainly represented that.

These days, it seems, the two of them have taken their natural propensities one step further: instead of merely saving and bettering the individual lives she comes into contact with through her medical practice, Megumi is bent on saving humanity from vampires and saving vampires from themselves through her research; and Sano, instead of merely freeloading alongside those he loves and enjoying their company (sometimes at the expense of their comfort and convenience), is continually seeking out the one person he loves most in an effort at promoting that old way of life he so misses at the expense of that person’s peace of mind or even happiness.

I can’t help thinking that perhaps Sano would be better adjusted now, abler to deal with the inevitable, if he had ever developed a sense of purpose beyond seeking me throughout endless lifetimes. His lack of large-scale drive seems another aspect of his original character, along with his inability to let go, that has made the situation particularly harrowing for him. I also can’t help admiring Megumi for her continued desire to work hard for humanity’s sake as best she can even under these difficult circumstances. And this time when I remark, “Those do seem like questions worth answering,” I’m careful to offer the comment in as sincere a tone as I can manage.

“She probably wouldn’t be a cannibal for anything less,” is Sano’s remark.

“Well, it is nice being the strongest vampire around most of the time.”

Sano grumbles, “You just mean it’s nice being stronger than me.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” she says complacently.

“Do either of you want these?” I ask. “And what’s wrong with being a cannibal?”

I make a trade with each of them, and Megumi explains. “You’ve heard of prion disease in human cannibals? Well, being a vampire cannibal has had strange effects on me that I don’t understand any better than a lot of these other aspects of vampirism. You can see, for one thing, how much less human I look than Sano even though we’re the same age. For another, though I am stronger and faster than most other vampires–”

“Vampire squared!” Sano puts in as he shuffles the discard pile into what I believe is our final draw pile of the game. He sounds almost annoyed, evidently seeking the reaction he didn’t get with the first instance of this joke.

Megumi allows a smile, at least, as she continues. “I have less and less specific control over standard vampire abilities such as the allure Sano mentioned that gets used for hunting, and I’ve never developed any extra special abilities at all.”

“That’s why she doesn’t think being able to turn into a bat would be a useful skill,” Sano says to me, and even in his conspiratorial tone there’s still some of the usual darkness. “It’s just sour grapes because she doesn’t even have the option.”

“At least I look like someone who might be able to turn into a bat,” she replies. “Are you going to use that four or just sit there staring at it?”

Sano grumbles something about ‘fucking Hollywood vampires,’ and throws the four at her without asking for anything in exchange. And as I watch her casually pluck the spinning card from the air and add it to one of her piles, then commence her own turn, I reflect that perhaps Sano is actually jealous to some extent of Megumi’s incredible beauty. Maybe he feels a supernatural boost in attractiveness would be enough to carry his point with me, to get me to give him the answer he wants, make him just desirable enough to provide the final convincing factor. It’s horrible to be thinking of him so exclusively in terms of how he relates to me, but this is the only explanation that comes to mind for his attitude in referring to ‘Hollywood vampires.’

Certainly having no desire to ask this outright, and therefore deciding to change the subject, as I take the next turn I ask, “Is cannibalism the reason other vampires don’t like you?”

Megumi glances and Sano, acknowledging that he was probably the one to give me at least the beginnings of that idea, and nods. “Vampires hate cannibals almost as much as Sano hates Twilight.”

My mouth quirks upward at the comparison, but it’s in a serious and somewhat reluctant tone I reply, “A stigma against cannibalism is understandable even among murderers.”

“I’ll trade you two fours for that queen,” Sano offers. This time, not nearly as distracted as in previous instances, I take a look at his piles and make a tactical decision to decline the exchange. Evidently still unable to be rude to me in reply, however facetiously, Sano resorts to saying something startlingly profane about Twilight under his breath to express his annoyance.

In response to Sano’s behavior, Megumi grins. They remind me of a close brother and sister, and I especially appreciate the way Megumi knows just how to draw out aspects of the old Sano that are clearly still in there despite the overlay of a century’s worth of bitterness. Her words are not exactly cheerful, though. “It doesn’t help that I’m also a vagabond-hunter. I track down and kill vampires who aren’t being careful enough, who are threatening to expose our existence to the world.”

This is something that, without any input from Sano, I had already guessed about her, and it’s pleasant to be confirmed in my theory even if I made it simply to distract myself on a bad day.

“That makes me the sort of garbageman of the vampire world,” she goes on: “it’s an absolutely essential job that nobody respects or is willing to pay much for. Vampires hate vagabond-hunters, especially successful ones like me, so it goes with being a cannibal extremely well: I’m largely hated for both of the things I do, but tracking down vagabonds provides me with vampires I can cannibalize for my research, which I consider just as important as executing the worst of the murderers.”

I nod my understanding, though the gesture doesn’t convey my admiration. I can see the need for better understanding of what these people are in order to improve their conditions. I can see the need for a vagabond-hunter, and the convenience of how she’s set up her situation. It seems she’s taking a dreadful risk on a regular basis when her continued cannibalism has effects she doesn’t yet understand, but if she believes the research she can accomplish this way and the potential good it may be able to do for humans and vampires alike is worth taking that chance, that’s a choice — a courageous, terrible choice — only she can make.

I understand, at least to some small degree, for I too have a subject of research whose pursuit may well involve a direct personal risk. As in the comparison I drew earlier between Megumi’s sense of purpose and Sano’s, my research probably seems much more selfish and limited in scope than hers, but I find I’m no less serious about it. Because I want to understand Sano: the way he is and why, how deep the changes run in him that have been taking place since our deaths in Japan, and most of all whether there’s the possibility of his being happy — remaining a relatively good person who can be satisfied with himself — in this impossible situation he’s created and with the answer I’m inevitably going to give him. I’m determined to find this information even if my continued proximity to him in seeking it is tempting fate — tempting him, rather, to forget about consent and take what he wants as he’s well capable of doing.

And why am I so determined?

Is it because I love him?

I still have no answer to this question, but I don’t shy away from the question itself quite so hard as I’ve done on previous days. In fact, as I watch him finish up the last turn of the game and cash in his remaining piles to add to his final score with a simple glee apparently born of a surety of having won that I can’t be certain is overconfidence — a glee that reminds me more than ever of those wonderful old emotions he used to display so readily — I concede to myself that the idea of being in love with him isn’t nearly so monumentally intimidating as it was the first time I asked myself about it.

“Twenty-six,” he announces, having counted his score pile and slammed a triumphant pale hand down onto it.

“Twenty-two,” is Megumi’s defeated acknowledgment.

“Twelve,” I admit.

“Damn, Saitou! I’d have thought you’d be better at this!” At this openly teasing expression of surprise — the first time Sano has broken the barrier and spoken to me in such an easy manner during this lifetime — even Megumi chuckles a little.

I’m not entirely without competitive instinct; I’m almost tempted to protest that, for my first time playing this particular game and as distracted as I was by various circumstances, it’s really not such a bad score. But I prefer not to make excuses — they only make you look pathetic — and therefore remain silent.

Sano has been gathering the cards, and now holds up the deck a second time with a glint in his eye beyond the actual literal glow. “You want to try again?”

I glance around, then briefly down at my watch. I do have chores to finish, and haven’t eaten dinner yet, and there’s work in the morning. But somehow none of that seems to matter. And it isn’t merely because Megumi has interesting information and Sano is a newly embarked-upon project; it’s because I enjoy their company. Whether I love him or not, I’m glad to have Sano around, and I’d rather he didn’t leave just yet.

“If you two are ready to lose this time,” I say.

Megumi grins. Sano grins — which was what I hoped for. The night progresses.


Heretic’s Reward 29-32

“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 July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 29 – As-Yet-Unknown Powers

Enca had no coherent shape, and at this east end of the small city the neighborhood devolved into a sort of shantytown that hugged the road for a considerable distance ahead. Sano hadn’t previously visited this area, and found it eerily like a tighter-packed and much dirtier version of his longtime home of Eloma. Disreputable-looking loafers, myriad unkempt children, dogs and cats and tied-up livestock (not to mention totally unrestrained chickens) eyed them from doorways or seats under roofs or merely where they stood or ambled in the tiny lanes among the clustered buildings with expressions ranging from curious and wary to completely disinterested. It seemed unlikely this was the favored route in and out of town, which was perhaps promising in terms of escaping unseen.

When cries arose behind them, however, indicating the direction of their flight had been noted, it was remarkable how quickly everyone in the immediate vicinity disappeared, leaving behind a somewhat disconcerting collection of empty alleys, closed doors, and a few remaining nervous animals for good measure. These folks probably represented the poorest selection of the Enca population, and it was understandable that even the slightest hint of a chase, even the distant sight of a city guard’s shiiya would send them scurrying. Of course, it had a similar effect on those actually pursued.

“This way,” was all the warning Hajime gave before making a right angle off the road into the nearest little twisting street between the crooked, unpainted structures built entirely of wood here where masonry was undoubtedly too expensive. As the other three followed his lead, changing direction frequently but in general moving away from Enca proper, darting among the grungy houses and workshops and sheds and who knew what else that comprised this part of town, Sano could feel unwelcoming eyes on them from cracked doors and windows and around corners. He hoped the denizens of the area would be no friendlier to those that came after.

Eiji was slowing them up. He obeyed Hajime’s instructions without hesitation, and seemed sufficiently athletic, but the fact remained that he wore a large backpack and simply couldn’t be as fast as the three adults — and also that those following undoubtedly didn’t have a twelve-year-old in their party to keep pace with. Since feelings of hostility would only provide another obstacle, Sano attempted to avoid them; it wasn’t the kid’s fault he was twelve. It wasn’t his fault he was who he was. But he definitely wouldn’t have been Sano’s companion of choice on such an adventure.

It proved wise to have entered the shantytown, where between trying to determine which turn their quarry had taken and to dodge crates and trash heaps and water troughs and the occasional oblivious resident the guards too were delayed, though maybe not enough. Sano could hear them behind — they didn’t shout except when surprised by some aspect of the environment through which they ran, but their footsteps pounded unsubtly against the unpaved earth — but fortunately, whenever he risked a brief look rearward, those giving chase were not yet visible. Thus he couldn’t be sure how many there were, nor exactly what the group was composed of — Elotica guards? Soujirou’s knights? Misao devoted? In any case, though they hadn’t caught up, neither did they seem to be falling behind.

At the front of their little party, Hajime’s head turned from side to side; undoubtedly he sought anything that would give them an advantage, and perhaps was considering the possibility of attempting to hide rather than continuing to run. These environs provided plenty of potential places of concealment, assuming the inhabitants didn’t oust or betray them… but with their enemies so close on their heels, would that be at all effective? Surely the guards would recognize the general area where they’d stopped running, and search so exhaustively that they would all quickly be found. And what then would happen to the kid? It was no fun envisioning what Hajime’s fate might be if recaptured, or Sano’s, but at least they two were active participants in the struggle against Soujirou’s regime and had entered into this business prepared for all contingencies. The knight couldn’t possibly be pleased that Tokio and Eiji — the latter of whom, at the very least, was completely unrelated to this business — had chosen just this moment to show up.

Sano couldn’t be quite sure how pleased he was that they’d chosen just this moment to show up. That they existed at all it was better for him to know than be ignorant of, and Tokio had been instrumental in gaining access to the shrine… but he didn’t like having them around, being persistently reminded of that existence of which he’d been unaware until earlier this very day. But discontented as he might be on the topic, he didn’t want to see an innocent kid taken captive, handled roughly, maybe separated from his mother, simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time… and perhaps related to the wrong people.

Whatever Hajime considered the best course, they needed to take it in a hurry; it was evident from the sounds behind them that their pursuers were gaining ground. Besides that, the previously cramped streets were beginning to widen, and the light grew brighter as the buildings drew farther apart; the city was petering out in earnest now, and they would soon be required to turn back toward its depths, which were presumably inhabited by more enemies, or lose this cover entirely. At certain turns Sano could see opener spaces ahead; Hajime, observing the same, put his hand briefly to the hilt of his confiscated keonblade, as if his next idea was to turn and fight… but almost immediately released it. They didn’t know the number or strength of their hunters, and there was still Eiji to think of.

Before any other decision could be made, a new set of noises suddenly erupted behind them: shouts and crashes and the clash of weapons. Hajime skidded to a stop as abruptly as the din had begun, and so unexpectedly that Tokio ran into him. He caught her shoulders to steady her, but he was staring in the direction they’d come, eyes wide. Eiji and Sano too stumbled to a halt and looked back, but they could see nothing — only hear the indications of a sudden, unforeseen skirmish in their wake.

“They’re buying us time,” Hajime said, shaking off his surprise. “Come on.”

“Who?” Tokio wondered as she joined him running again.

“It may just be some of the locals.” And it might merely have been Sano’s imagination — he was at the end of the line, and couldn’t hear very clearly with Hajime facing ahead like that — but it didn’t sound as if the knight believed this.

To the distant, fading noises of altercation behind them, with one voice rising tauntingly above the rest though still unintelligible from here, their route now took them directly out of the shantytown to the very edge of Enca and beyond. A stream, thigh-deep at its center and dismayingly filthy as it made its way alongside the dirtiest part of the city, seemed to mark the final boundary, and once they’d waded this their next step was to climb a fence into a hayfield and set off across it as quickly as possible. The field had recently been harvested, so the only cover here was the intermittent stacks held down by tarps staked to the ground, but if they could reach the opposite end without being seen, they could disappear pretty effectively in farmland, thanks to the unknown parties that had evidently attacked and certainly slowed their pursuers.

The sky had clouded halfway over while they’d been inside the shrine, but the smell of impending rain was completely overridden by the pleasant but overwhelmingly rich scent of fresh hay, and Sano sneezed more than once as they made their way across the lengthy field. He only glanced around a couple of times, abandoning the action eventually in favor of speed when he saw nothing to alarm him between the dingy buildings that grew more and more distant with every step. Then they had only to cross another fence and a narrow ditch with muddy water at its bottom before they emerged into a cypress-lined lane where they were completely hidden from the sight of anyone within the borders of Enca. Here they were able to pause, catch their breaths, and consider where to go next.

“Let me wear that backpack,” Tokio said at once to the panting Eiji, reaching out a hand.

He did not immediately comply. “But what if you need to fight? It’ll get in your way.”

She pursed her lips, obviously seeing the sense in this argument but still wanting to make the journey easier on him. Sano, not particularly caring who wore the thing nor liking to watch either of them, looked around instead.

The lane, wide enough for a cart but no bigger, ran roughly north to south, though in the latter direction it curved slightly so the cypresses running along it hid its course from view; it probably connected with the road out of Enca in that direction — meaning, though Sano would prefer to turn south since there Elotica lay, it would be unwise to do so at the moment.

“It shouldn’t come to that,” Hajime was saying; “let her have it.” He seemed to direct his next words, pitched low, to Tokio specifically. “Fighting degenerate devoted is one thing; city guards or false knights are a little outside your job description.”

On the opposite side of the lane, a neat wall rose up over whose top the heads of trees were visible. Sano recognized an orchard when he saw one, but guessed those boughs to be full of olives, a harvest he was not familiar with. Whatever grew there, though, the fugitives might conceivably search out the opening leading inside and make their way through that private space to wherever its far end might be; but not only was he unhappy at the thought of encountering orchard workers, he didn’t much like the idea of being surrounded by walls should their pursuers happen to follow them inside.

“They are well within yours, though,” said Tokio, “and I’m certainly not going to let you face them alone.”

“Not alone,” Sano muttered sourly; but as his back was to them, they either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore his words.

Past the nearest corner of the orchard walls, some distance away up the lane to the north, he could discern an opener area through the line of trees where a shorter crop seemed to be growing in rows. Anyone working that plot could see them if they went that direction, but if they hugged the orchard wall, kept low, and hurried, it might be some time before anyone paid them significant attention. He would still much rather head south, but Hajime had been correct earlier — damn his constant correctness — in saying they needed to shake pursuit before they attempted to return to the capital.

“I won’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets too close,” the knight was warning.

“Then I’ll speak their death rites,” she replied just as grimly.

“Fine.” Sano suspected Hajime would prefer Tokio keep entirely clear of any fighting that might happen from here on out — the comment earlier about ‘practicing with that little knife’ hadn’t suggested a great deal of confidence in her combative abilities — but didn’t feel he had time to argue.

Looking back over at the knight, Sano found him too examining their surroundings. The younger man gestured and suggested what he had in mind: “Along that wall there?”

At the first sound of his voice, Hajime met his eyes very naturally as he might have under normal circumstances prior to the appearance of the Visitant and her son; as he’d been doing all day, however, he removed his gaze with awkward immediacy and looked where Sano indicated. He gave a sharp nod, and, somewhat to Sano’s surprise, responded specifically to the proposal: “Good idea, Sano.” This was the second time he’d needlessly tacked Sano’s name onto the end of an unexpected commendation; Sano simply didn’t understand his current behavior. Not that he needed to. There’d been a time when he’d thought it might be a useful skill for his future to understand Hajime; that time had passed.

The knight glanced at Eiji as if to check whether he was ready and that the discussed gear transfer had taken place. Then he commanded, “Let’s go.”

They set off now at a slower pace — still quick, but more of a cross-country speed that could be maintained — and in the same order as before: Hajime leading, keeping a sharp eye out for trouble ahead; Tokio wearing the backpack in which she and Eiji presumably kept supplies for their journeys from town to town inspecting shrines and devoted; Eiji silent and intent, even somewhat dour at the potentially dangerous situation in which he found himself; and Sano in the rear carrying out his disconsolate self-appointed task of checking behind from time to time for signs of pursuit.

Reminded by thoughts of what might be in the Visitant’s backpack, he wondered what had happened to those apples he’d bought this morning. Had he lost them when Tokio had attacked him? Or had he dropped them in the street while he’d been so incoherent trying to decide what to do? Perhaps even earlier than that — in that horrible empty inn room with its broken door? He’d been so worried. So worried — and now he knew exactly why — and it had turned out Hajime not only didn’t need rescuing, but wouldn’t meet Sano’s eye for any reasonable length of time, and was, in fact…

There really was nothing to do but continually look behind in case they were being followed. Looking ahead was too bleak.

Yet as they moved on, coming eventually to the end of the orchard wall, carefully crossing another lane, and beginning to pick their way over a field of what seemed like unnecessarily huge lettuces, he couldn’t help listening ahead. For Tokio seemed to believe they were safe to converse, and Hajime conveyed his agreement by answering. Sano’s position rendered them continually difficult to hear, no matter how tight he strove to keep the line, especially given the cautious volume used by each, but he struggled to catch everything out of an almost masochistic jealousy.

Yes, jealousy. That was the word; he might as well own it. But it was, and had been since its inception, the jealousy of despair. He hadn’t know he might be jealous until he’d known there was something to be jealous of… and by then it was too late for hope.

“What do that white devoted and his fanatical followers have to do with all of this?” Tokio was wondering.

“I don’t believe Soujirou’s takeover was carried out entirely under his own motivation,” Hajime replied. “Any number of devoted may be involved, but Aoshi, at least, is loyal to our new king.”

“How do you know? His second-wash seemed exclusively loyal to him.”

“Aoshi delayed sending to Elotica for a force to take me into custody because he wanted to question me personally first — which was foolish of him, since keeping drawn blades nearby for an extended period of time when he wasn’t actually inclined to kill me just gave me more opportunity to get the rope cut and attack him.”

“You’re going to be famous for your daring escapes,” Tokio laughed. “I hope you know one of the rumors out of the capital that brought me this direction was something ridiculous about you evading Soujirou by jumping through a second-floor glass window and vanishing into thin air.”

Hajime snorted, and didn’t bother to admit how much of this was true.

She let it go. “But why didn’t the rabbits take you in themselves instead of sending for someone?”

Hajime’s answering tone was a combination of annoyance and disdain he not infrequently used to discuss religious topics. “I think Aoshi really did go there to meditate. I believe he wants to seek forgiveness with his lady.” Sano knew his eyes were rolling without having to see them. “He certainly looked forward to sending me to Soujirou, and before that he wanted to find out what threat I and my allies are to his precious new king, but I think he truly regrets the murders he’s committed so far.”

“He may find forgiveness from Misao,” Tokio said sternly, “but that doesn’t absolve him of blame on the mortal level.”

“He’ll never face justice under Soujirou’s rule.”

“Then we’d better get Kenshin reinstated.” At least that was what Sano thought she said; rain had begun to pour from the darkening sky, and he could no longer make out anything clearly from up ahead. He couldn’t decide whether he preferred it this way. They’d only been discussing the situation — nothing particularly private — and Sano himself had been curious about Aoshi and the circumstances of Hajime’s brief captivity at the shrine… but he disliked hearing them talking together at all, petty as he knew that was. In any case, he couldn’t stop the rain from falling, so it didn’t signify how he felt about the conversation — potentially much more personal now — that might or might not still be going on in front of him.

They proceeded through various fields and pastures, actively encountering no one but observing workers, eyes averted against the shower, frequently enough — and once, down a small road they subsequently crossed in haste, distant figures in white on horseback. Recalling how persistently the mounted ‘knights’ had followed Hajime when he’d fled the city after his first daring escape (the one he already was famous for), Sano couldn’t be pleased at this sight, even though it was entirely possible the riders had nothing to do with them.

The rain kept up heartily for at least an hour, and after not too long Sano was as miserable physically as he had been mentally for some time. Eiji too, plodding through the wetness before him, seemed far from happy with the situation, but Sano couldn’t bring himself to feel much sympathy. How the man and woman in front were faring Sano didn’t know; he tried to tell himself he didn’t care.

They’d avoided farm buildings thus far, but in the afternoon when Sano believed his flesh and muscle as well as every stitch of his clothing was finally soaked completely through, Hajime seemed to be heading more or less directly toward the latest cluster of houses, barns, and sheds. At the last fence they would need to climb to make their final approach, he stopped and gestured for a huddled conversation.

“We’ll hide somewhere over there. Once the sun goes down, it may be safe to start making our way around to Elotica.”

“What about the farmers?” Sano wondered. He saw little motion among the buildings through the haze — and one instance of what he did see moving was an enclosed group of pigs apparently enjoying the rain very much — but there were still sure to be people about all day that might very well stumble upon them, and how they would react he couldn’t guess.

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take,” replied Hajime without looking at Sano. “We can’t keep heading away from Elotica, but I don’t think it’s safe to go south just yet; we need to get under cover for a while and lie low. For one thing, I assume you have a report for me; for another–” with a glance at Eiji, whom he was willing to look at– “we need to get out of the rain and rest.”

Somewhat to Sano’s amusement — certainly the first instance of that emotion he’d felt all day — Eiji appeared a little annoyed at this evident concern for his youthful health. If he was anything at all like Sano had been as a twelve-year-old, he would much rather demonstrate his ability to continue on across whatever terrain and through whatever weather for as long as necessary… but this would not be countenanced by the adults watching over him — in which number, at least to a certain extent, Sano grudgingly had to include himself. It was an earlier proposed rest than any taken between Eloma and Enca, but if Hajime was more concerned about Eiji’s wellbeing than he had been about Yahiko’s, that was only to be (cheerlessly) expected. And perhaps there was a little unspoken concern for Tokio’s wellbeing too; Sano had a feeling she wouldn’t appreciate the gesture any more that her son did.

“That shed there.” She pointed. “It’s the only building I can see whose door doesn’t face in toward the farmhouse. It’s probably the safest place for us to break into.”

“Breaking into farm sheds,” Hajime commented with a smirk and a sidelong glance at her. “What kind of church official are you?”

“One who serves all the divine ladies,” she retorted, voice much drier than their surroundings, “including Misao.”

“But has she forgiven you for beating up her devoted? Is she likely to help you break into anything at this point?”

Tokio rolled her eyes. “Spare me your disbelief, at least until I’ve had a chance to dry off.” She moved forward and placed her hands on the top slat of the rain-slick fence.

They did, in fact, have to destroy the lock on the shed door — this was one of many things a keonblade was useful for, along with doubling as a lamp in the unlit interior — but besides that they reached and entered the place without any trouble. Whether its current uninhabited state would continue was anyone’s guess, but at least for now they were out of the weather and out of sight.

It was a wide, flat structure half sunken into the earth, with walls made entirely of stone to retain as much cool air as possible, and its dirt floor was reached by several steps leading down from the door; this rendered it somewhat difficult to hold the latter closed once it would no longer latch properly after their vandalism, but a couple of sacks of potatoes propped against the ingress and each other eventually did the trick.

In fact the entire place was full of vegetables, and its atmosphere overwhelmingly that of earth and carrots and cabbage, not all of the scents fresh. Without even discussing the matter they headed immediately toward the far end — where Sano was disappointed to find no back door, which would have been terribly convenient for their purposes if not those of the farmers hoping to keep off thieves — past floor-to-ceiling racks of vegetables laid out or hung up in bunches that made the place feel like a dark, fragrant forest comprised of unfamiliar trees.

There was no particularly convenient place for them to stop, given that the rows of stored produce ran all the way to the rear wall, and the space available in the aisle was limited, so eventually they just settled onto the floor in the same line they’d maintained all along, wet and tired and still slightly paranoid about their chosen hiding place, and attempted to get the best rest they could out of these uncertain circumstances.

Chapter 30 – Unoppressed Light

“Come on, city boy.” It couldn’t really be called ‘grumbling’ because it was so much more intense, though the words seemed frivolous enough. “These aren’t the carrots we want.” He addressed himself to Hajime specifically despite believing the other two just as ignorant of farming as the knight; he didn’t want to talk to the other two. But they all three followed without any verbal question when he rose after only a few minutes seated and insisted they relocate to a different row.

As they settled again, Hajime remarked seemingly with more curiosity than irritation, “I fail to see the difference in these carrots.” Other items lined the shelves and dangled from the racks around them too, of course, but carrots were what Sano had specifically mentioned.

“Over there–” Sano jerked his thumb at the area they’d previously occupied– “looks like the oldest stuff in here. If anyone comes in to load up vegetables to sell, they’re gonna grab the oldest stuff first. We’ve got a better chance of them not catching us if we’re here with the newer shit. Probably not the next row over, though,” he added, craning his neck but unable to see much of the referenced lane; “the freshest row is where they’ll put anything they’ve just picked.”

The others stared at him, and Sano hoped they wouldn’t ask why he’d gone into such unnecessary detail about the relative freshness of the surrounding produce. Why he seemed to be showing off as best he could and that best was still limited to the most tedious knowledge of a displaced orchard hand. Finally Hajime remarked with sarcasm disguised as interest, “I didn’t realize carrots were your area of expertise.”

“Just common sense,” Sano muttered, pulling his heavy wet shiiya over his head and preparing to wring it out. At least fleeing through the rain could more or less pass for bathing, something he hadn’t done in far too many days. Katsu had brought fresh water to the thieves’ guild for Sano to wipe off with on a couple of occasions, but the limited amount he could carry up and down the ladder through that narrow opening was a far cry from being covered and soaked the way rain allowed for.

Tokio had a couple of spare garments tucked away in her backpack, and as she drew them out as towels for herself and Eiji, it reminded Sano of what he carried himself. Not blankets, unfortunately — back in Elotica, he’d been using the ones he’d stolen from Seijuurou’s house what felt like forever ago to make the thieves’ guild a slightly more comfortable place to sleep. They would have been useful here, but he’d returned to Enca to bring Hajime into the capital with him, not to make camp again (or so he’d believed), and therefore hadn’t brought them.

He did, however, retain his five stolen devoted shiiyao, which represented a significant amount of dry cloth. Or at least mostly dry; it appeared that, after being forced by the harassing Tokio to stuff all his costumes haphazardly back into the bag, he hadn’t closed the latter as thoroughly as he normally would have. Rainwater had leaked in and dampened the shiiya on top (ironically, the one bearing the image of a volcano), but the rest seemed to be dry enough. He ascertained this as he extracted them and tossed them to the floor in a heap with a rough motion, saying as he did so, “Here,” in an ungracious grunt.

Jealously interested though he was in hearing everything Hajime and Tokio said to each other — it was mostly logistical at this point, having to do with ridding themselves of excess rainwater and what supplies they had and why Sano was carrying five red devoted shiiyao around with him — he was equally disinterested in taking any part in the discussion, so as he worked on getting himself dried off (he’d grabbed the Yumi garment completely at random) he scooted a pace or two away from them so he could put his back to the cold stone wall at the far end of the row. And once he’d wrung out his hair, wiped himself down with red cloth that swiftly became thoroughly damp from seam to seam, and risen briefly to hang his blue and orange thing from the corner of one of the nearby shelves — it would smell like carrots after not too long — he sat back and, rather than observing a scene he didn’t want to contemplate, stared upward toward the highest hanging vegetables and the ceiling dim in little more than the light from Hajime’s keonblade.

The garden stretched out expansively, opulently, threaded through with silver waterways gleaming in the warm, pervasive light, yet somehow lay entirely indoors. As such there was an oppressive, claustrophobic feel even to its great size, and the sunlight seemed trapped as if it had nowhere to go and wasn’t even sure how it had gotten in here in the first place.

Lilies floated on the rippling water, and the land between the little walking paths was a rainbow of other flowers: oleander, jasmine, dahlia, crocus, bougainvillea, cornflower… The chaos of hue boggled the eye, every bit as oppressive as the sense of invisible walls around him, and their earthy, edible fragrance was thick and overwhelming.

Hajime didn’t seem to think so; his movements were nothing but casual and leisurely as, hand-in-hand with Tokio, he ambled down the paved lane among the beds and bushes of passionate color. Even as Sano watched, unable to lift a foot to follow them, Hajime turned toward her with an open smile and leaned in slightly, making some comment Sano could not catch that ended on a carefree laugh. The two of them were clad in blue from head to toe.

“You don’t know him very well, do you?” Though the voice was Tokio’s, the words rang from some unknown source outside of her, reverberating off walls and ceiling throughout the great room and echoing continually back in Sano’s direction in cool, largely indifferent mockery. “You don’t know him very well, do you? You don’t know him very well… You don’t know him…”

Hajime and Tokio drew farther and farther away, for Sano still couldn’t move after. But they hadn’t grown so distant and small that he couldn’t easily see what was going on when Eiji, in the same true-blue attire, came running eagerly up to show off the astonishingly huge oleander blossom he’d plucked somewhere in the vicinity. He lifted the bright pink flower like an offering toward his mother, who accepted it and brought it to her face to inhale. As she drew back from it, Hajime’s strong hand reached out and took it, then threaded it through the unbound hair behind her ear.

It looked absurd sitting there, half as big as her head, a brilliant discordant note with her blue garments, but Tokio merely laughed as she turned fully to face Hajime, and leaned up to press her parted lips against his. There was something immediately horrific about this movement, something every bit as oppressive as the enclosed garden and its eye-assaulting colors.

Sano jerked awake as if from a nightmare, and experienced a startling moment of déjà vu: leaning not very comfortably against a hard surface, damp with rainwater, dreaming about Hajime, feeling a fundamental sense of wrongness… But he was fairly sure the original sense of wrongness had been his mind’s attempt to reject the weird connection he and Hajime had somehow developed — people weren’t supposed to share dreams the way they did — not from what he specifically, pettily considered inappropriate in this situation. And besides, this hadn’t felt like that shared type of dream; it had been full of the sensory detail that marked the visions he had when Hajime wasn’t asleep nearby rather than the conceptual detail his connection with Hajime brought.

In fact there had been rather too much sensory detail: the cloying scents of the flowers — which, Sano realized now, had been an enhanced loan from reality, merely the smell of the vegetables around him augmented almost beyond endurance — the leadenness of his feet, and, most of all, the visual specifics of Tokio’s face as she gazed up at Hajime with love and belonging. This last represented an almost aggressive wealth of detail, as if in his dream she looked even realer than in reality. Every line of her face was carved into his brain now as if with hammer and chisel; he would never forget that expression she’d worn, though it was purely a jealous invention of his subconscious.

He jumped to his feet and made his way up the row, pushing rudely past the others in the limited space with no regard to what they might think of this behavior. He couldn’t stay near them — near her — for one instant longer.

Free of the restrictive lanes full of vegetables though never free of their atmosphere, Sano looked around the small open space in front of the exit. He was a little surprised, he considered vaguely, that none of the others had pointed out the flaw in his ‘We’ve got a better chance of them not catching us’ lecture: if anyone did enter the shed, they would notice immediately that the lock on the door had been broken and the door itself held closed by sacks of potatoes piled at the top of the stairs.

More such sacks were heaped up to the left of the entrance, and beside them hulked a great lumpy pile of empty bags waiting to be filled and carted off somewhere. On the other side of the door stood a series of troughs surrounding a large tub where vegetables could be washed before being bagged up. This really wasn’t an ideal hiding place, but they’d lacked a variety of options.

Given the building’s style of construction, there were no proper windows, but narrow horizontal slits at roof level let in a little light and sound from outside. Sano moved to the tub and hauled himself up onto its lip closest to the wall so he could peer out at the rainy farm and have something else to contemplate than what he’d just seen in his doze and what lay behind him. This could double as keeping watch, despite very few people being out and about in the continual downpour.

His mind busied itself very little, though — its inactivity reminded him of his breathlessness and difficult moving after that devoted had slammed him into a wall, leaving him with a pervasive ache — and he was more conscious of the faintly rainbow sheen on the back of a black beetle crawling along the stone nearby that he was of any coherent thought. He only knew what he felt: empty, betrayed, hopeless, tired.

How long he stood there he couldn’t be sure. How long he’d napped before he couldn’t be sure. He didn’t know what time of day it might be or what he — or they, if he could allow for that plural at the moment — should do next. In any case, the rain outside was beginning to let up and his confidante the beetle had long since moved on when he heard footsteps on the dirt floor behind him. He stiffened slightly, unwilling to countenance what whoever it was would have to say. He should have just left. He should have gone outside.

“Hey.” Had the others realized the kid was the least likely to send Sano into a tantrum? Not that Sano wanted to see or talk to him even so. “We’re going to discuss what to do, and probably eat some stolen vegetables.”

Though slightly tempted to laugh at the latter half of the statement, all Sano could come up with in response was a somewhat bitter, “That’s great.” He didn’t move.

“You’re not coming?” Eiji sounded skeptical rather than demanding.

Sano, meanwhile, sounded downright surly. “Maybe. Leave me the fuck alone.” And he kicked out blindly with one foot in the direction of the voice behind him. He regretted the motion immediately, but couldn’t retract it, and he hadn’t connected with anything anyway. Behind him, steps retreated back to the rows of produce and then fell silent.

Presently a much quieter walk — so soft he might have been imagining it — made its way over to him before the newcomer seemed to stand contemplatively still nearby for several seconds. Next, very unexpectedly, something completely unidentifiable for the moment but that made a loud and startling snapping sound in the heavy air stung him so hard and fiercely on his left buttock that he gave an inadvertent yelp and a body-wide jerk that plunged him from where he stood straight into the tub that had previously supported him. He splashed into a thin layer of dirty water at the bottom and knocked various parts of himself against its sides, but the vicious stinging sensation in his ass was his greatest concern at the moment. And it was through sharp tears that he saw Hajime, armed with a wet garment twisted tightly into a lethal weapon ready for a second strike, leaning down to look at him in his new pathetic position.

“What the fuck was that for?” Sano demanded, twisting around to rub at the smarting spot where he’d been hit before he could even consider doing anything else.

“For bullying my nephew,” Hajime replied.

“Why don’t you just go–” The massaging motion of Sano’s fingers against the new wound on his ass stilled abruptly, and he shifted violently around through the muddy water into a clumsy seated position. “Your nephew??” Shock almost completely overrode the pain Hajime had just occasioned, and Sano stared up at him in baffled astonishment.

Hajime lowered the twisted shiiya in his hands and raised a brow at Sano. “Even an idiot should be able to see the family resemblance.”

“I saw it; I just thought…” In his sudden daze, Sano continued to sit still in the muddy inch of water at the bottom of the basin. “Then that woman is…”

And a scene came back to him all at once: an occurrence from a dream Hajime had never explained and Sano had never had the nerve to ask about, in which a beloved woman, pregnant with the child of a con artist, had demonstrated both her unhappiness and her strength of character, and Hajime had been unable to offer the comfort he’d so desperately wanted to provide. Why hadn’t that dream identified her as his sister? Because she represented the suffering of the community as a whole? Because Hajime had been upset on behalf of more victims than only her, unwilling to claim that his personal connection to one of them was more important than the larger scale infamy of the anonymous churchman? Sano supposed it didn’t matter now.

She’s the one who…” But after breathing these words, he trailed off into silence.

Hajime’s expression, its details obscured by shadow in the imperfectly lit shed, was nevertheless recognizable as dour as he came to lean against the side of the tub, facing away from Sano. “Tokio had an unpleasant experience with a devoted when she was younger,” he said quietly. “She vowed to put an end to that kind of corruption in the church. She came with me to Elotica when I joined the royal knights, and when the king heard her story, he created the position of Visitant specifically for her. She travels the kingdom and inspects the shrines and the devoted; she has administrative authority equal to that of a fourth-wash.”

That explained the reverence in which the Enca shrine people had seemed to hold her. Sano still hadn’t quite wrapped his head around the fact that she was Hajime’s sister, but, trying to shake off his stupefaction, he took a deep breath and asked, “And the kid… does he know his dad was–”

“I don’t know, and it’s not my place to ask. You’d better not mention it either.” There was definitely some threat to the admonishment.

“Right.” After giving this affirmation that was essentially a promise, Sano sat silent for several moments, turning things over and not sure exactly how he felt anymore — a condition just the opposite of not long earlier: busy with thought but befuddled as to emotion. Finally the unpleasantness of his particular surroundings started to actively bother him, and he hauled himself up and out of the tub. He came to rest leaning against it next to Hajime, who did not move and was therefore evidently amenable to further conversation. So Sano asked what he’d wanted to know all day, though some of its specifics were now slightly altered: “You… you talked about your parents before… why didn’t you mention Tokio then?” It was the first time he’d said her name aloud. Not a bad name, really.

Hajime’s answer sounded just a little stiff. “With what you and I both are, does it surprise you I didn’t want to mention that my sister is a high-ranking religious official?”

“I guess not,” Sano admitted. “But you knew my dad was a devoted…”

“And I also saw how you treated Yahiko.”

This serious statement stung perhaps as much as the wet cloth snap had a minute before. “You were worried I’d talk shit about your sister?”

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be forced to kill you.” And though the knight’s tone as he said this was light, facetious, Sano’s heart sank as he realized exactly how reasonable Hajime’s reluctance had been.

“You could have just let her kill me,” he mumbled. “That’s how we met, you know: her threatening to kill me. She could have done it, too.”

Hajime smiled.

After another moment of silence, Sano sighed and then muttered, “I really am an asshole…” Then louder, though still in the low tone they’d both adopted to keep this exchange private, “Is that why you’ve been treating me weird today? You were afraid I was going to say something rude to her face?”

Now Hajime looked over at him, appearing a bit surprised. “You’ve been looking at me like you wanted to start a fight. There wasn’t time for that.”

“Right,” Sano said again, and yet another silence fell.

From the anarchy his emotions had become in the last few minutes, some sense was beginning to emerge; he was starting to realize more clearly and precisely what his own feelings were… and he wasn’t sure what to do about them. It had been with abandon, with indifference toward its implications, that he’d admitted his jealousy of Tokio to himself earlier today. What did it matter, he’d subconsciously thought, if he envied the wife of someone that hadn’t seen fit to tell him he was married? It meant nothing; it required nothing of him.

But now, to admit he’d been jealous over his erroneous assumption about a woman’s relationship with someone that turned out to be uncommitted after all… That meant everything, and required everything of him. Was he ready for the confession, even internally, demanded of him by the new information Hajime had presented? Here was a complex emotional state he didn’t know how to deal with — a state he hadn’t been compelled to deal with before but now had to shoulder the entire driving weight of.

Beside him, though he hadn’t moved any closer, the knight suddenly seemed palpably, obtrusively near.

But Hajime hadn’t given any signs… He’d only come over here to swat Sano on the ass as retaliation for his attempted kick against Eiji, and had only disclosed his life-altering information because Sano had asked a stupid question. And he’d thought Sano had wanted to fight him all day. Clearly emotions were divided unequally between them.

Besides, weren’t they in the middle of something big? Getting back into Elotica and figuring out how to overthrow Soujirou must be their top priority right now. They probably didn’t have time for confessions, if Sano could even work up the nerve to make one.

At last Hajime stood straight and turned fully to face the younger man. “Are you ready to act like an adult yet?”

Confession or no confession, Sano was suddenly happier than he had been for quite some time. The facts Hajime had revealed had relieved him almost to the point of dizziness, and the ensuing recognition of his own state had left him almost giddy. He would go over there and look at Tokio and Eiji in a completely new light — a free, unoppressed, unjealous light. He liked that thought.

“Ready to eat stolen vegetables?” he wondered with a grin.

And to his delight, Hajime gave him a smirk in return. “That and give me your report. We need to make plans.”

Sano too stood straight, pushing away from the tub against which he’d been leaning in an almost bouncing motion. He turned toward the dark rows of vegetables that filled most of the building and inhaled once again the earthy scent of the harvest. “Let’s do this!”

Chapter 31 – Final Report

“So that’s where we were at the last time I went into Elotica.” Sano punctuated the end of his summary, into which Hajime had made occasional, amusingly insulting interjections, with an almost explosively loud bite on the vegetable he held. Carrots had never before in his life tasted this good.

“And you’re sure you can trust this artist friend of yours?”

Sano wished Tokio hadn’t said this. He’d been watching her reactions to his tale and thinking how reasonable they were, how wrong he’d been to begrudge her involvement in this affair… Now for her first comment on his report to be this same old frustrating question made him almost resent her all over again. He had forgiven Hajime for making the same point in an earlier instance, however, so there was no reason to get upset and defensive now. Besides, further information would surely clear this matter up definitively, both for Tokio and her brother. “Well, when I went back into town this last time…”

Here was a lengthier explanation than before, since Hajime hadn’t heard about Sano’s activities during his latest foray into the capital, and Sano remained inclined toward some extravagance in the telling. Hajime received the news that his face was tacked up on wanted posters all around town with a dour expression, and rolled his eyes when Sano informed him Katsu had used the same image as for the tournament some months before. The description of not-a-sword-thief Chou and the revelation that he was the source of Sano’s ridiculous outfit won some laughs and a teasing comment or two that didn’t sting. He couldn’t remember when he’d last heard Hajime laugh, but hadn’t forgotten what a pleasant sound it was.

But Hajime became somber again upon hearing about the upcoming festival and the poster’s suggestive wording regarding the apparently religious nature of the opening ceremonies. He didn’t mention that he’d known this would happen, but Sano assumed he must be thinking it. The general unease filling the entire party during their brief discussion of this looming event indicated clearly their agreement with Sano’s initial thought when he’d first seen Katsu’s work order: those opening ceremonies couldn’t be allowed to occur. In an attempt at reassurance, Sano hastened on to describe the five meetings he and Katsu had taken part in — this was the information he was sure would allay any suspicions regarding his friend — as well as the scheduled larger gathering where, assuming they could get back into Elotica in time and uncaptured, they would solidify their plans for disrupting the festival.

“Sano’s been talking you up,” Tokio told her brother with a smirk. And Sano couldn’t help feeling a new, different type of uneasiness at this. He believed he’d spoken naturally all along, hadn’t looked at Hajime any differently or any more frequently than he normally would have, hadn’t given himself away… but she’d been watching him with some apparent interest, and to what extent this interest was limited to his report on the political situation and plans for dealing with it he couldn’t be entirely sure.

“So I noticed,” was all Hajime said in response. He turned toward Sano, who had a sudden, giddy mental image of the knight asking him something to the effect of, “Are you sure you only just realized? It seems like you’ve known for quite some time.” For indeed, numerous bygone instances in which he’d responded to what he saw now had been a long-present subconscious awareness had intruded on his notice throughout his description of recent days. But of course Hajime said no such thing. Instead he commented, “We’d better hope what you promised doesn’t disappoint; it already sounds as if we can’t count on a lot of people being there.”

“We can’t,” Sano said regretfully. It felt even worse than usual to admit this imperfect result to his efforts.

“We’ll make do with whatever we have.” Intentional or otherwise, there was a note of consolation in the grimness of Hajime’s tone, as if declaring that, though the situation wasn’t optimal, he attached no blame to his companion for it. Sano, at least, chose to interpret it that way. “What I still want to know,” the knight continued, “is who’s behind all this. Even if we stop this ceremony of Soujirou’s, even if we depose him and put Kenshin back on the throne, the real troublemaker may escape us if we have no idea who they are.”

“And you don’t think it’s Aoshi.” Tokio could obviously tell he didn’t; her statement had no questioning intonation to it.

Hajime shook his head, and with the direction his thoughtful gaze then turned it almost seemed his following remarks were aimed at the small red potato in his hand. “Aoshi is unmistakably loyal to Soujirou, but I believe he has reasons for that other than the political or even the religious. He mentioned him several times in my presence, and his attitude never struck me as that of the power behind the throne.” And he bit pensively into his potato.

Tokio gave an equally pensive nod. Neither she nor Sano could contribute much on this point, as they’d barely even seen Aoshi themselves, but both willingly accepted Hajime’s assessment, at least for the moment. What Sano could offer was, “Well, I know some of what the Devoted Council has been up to… There may be more answers there.”

Though not overly fond of raw potatoes himself, Sano found he very much enjoyed watching Hajime eat one, and even more the expectant expression he pointed in Sano’s direction while doing so. Hajime’s cheekbones were riveting; they always had been, but Sano hadn’t allowed himself to truly absorb the fact before. He had been long aware of the piercing, almost glowing quality of the man’s bright eyes set off so well by their dark, smooth lashes; and he’d watched Hajime eat before, had already noted the even whiteness of his teeth and the finely cut lines of his thin, dexterous lips. And those remarkably expressive eyebrows… Sano didn’t need the reminder they gave now, one tilting and the other rising, to know they could convey a world of thought with only the minutest gesture.

Tokio cleared her throat, and Sano realized abruptly he’d been giving Hajime the lengthy and concerted stare he’d been attempting to avoid this entire time — just because the knight was eating a potato, for Kaoru’s sake. With a burning face whose sudden redness he hoped wouldn’t show in the limited light, he tried to look at something else — anything else — and went on with his report. “They, uh… They’ve been talking about changing the criminal trial system…”

“Changing it how?” Though Hajime had obviously been wondering before what was taking Sano so long getting started, he had nothing to say now about that awkward moment.

“Katsu said something about ‘completely rethinking’ it, but he didn’t have any details.”

“Yumi knows it needs rethinking…” Hajime twisted his shoulder aside to dodge the blow Tokio aimed at him in retribution for his language.

“So Soujirou might actually accomplish something good here,” Sano said. He didn’t fear he might get caught up in staring at Hajime’s face again as he turned back toward him, for he was truly interested in the answer to his implied question.

Indisposition toward a reply he felt logic-bound to make sounded in Hajime’s voice. “It seems difficult to imagine a ruler — even a usurper — not managing something good during the time they’re in charge. That doesn’t make what he’s done acceptable.”

“Yeah…” Sano frowned. “He’s been in and out of the palace for years, from what I’ve heard… He may be only eighth in line for the throne, but he’s still a prince of Gontamei… He could’ve suggested changing the criminal trial system, or any of this other shit, any time before, couldn’t he? He didn’t have to put himself in charge to try to change shit.”

“Which certainly supports your theory that someone is directing his actions,” said Tokio. “Probably someone who couldn’t have suggested any of this any time — someone who assumed they would never have any direct political authority, and thought this was the only way to accomplish what they wanted.”

Hajime swallowed the last of his potato and said, “Exactly. And I would add to that: someone who knew they could never marry their way into that political authority, but who was still in a position of limited social influence over a prince of Gontamei.”

“A higher-wash in one of the divine houses, in other words.” Tokio had retrieved a potato of her own from the pile they’d gathered, but instead of eating it was pressing it between her two hands as if doing so facilitated reflection. “But which?”

“That’s what we need to figure out.” Hajime looked expectantly at Sano again. “What else has the Devoted Council discussed?”

Considering more specifically the implications of his news, Sano spoke more thoughtfully as he replied, “Legalizing kereme.”

“That will make a lot of devoted very happy,” was Tokio’s sardonic comment. Though she personally seemed far above such sordid lifestyle choices as kereme outings, she was certainly in a position, better than the rest of them, to be familiar with devoted habits.

“And one in particular?” Once more Hajime glanced at Sano, seeking answers. “Enishi?”

And once more Sano had to admit to imperfect results. “I never did find out for sure whether he uses the stuff. There’s all sorts of rumors, of course, but the night I was really working on that was when–”

“Of course,” Hajime cut him off. Tone and expression were both serious, but not with the grimness of earlier; rather, it was as if he sought to assure Sano with his interruption that they didn’t have to talk about the murder of Korucun in front of those unfamiliar with the trauma Sano had taken from that occurrence. He found himself as grateful for this as he had been for Hajime’s somewhat unexpected compassion in discussing that horrible night in the first place. “I doubt we would ever have gotten anything more than rumors anyway. But assuming they are true, it seems possible that whoever’s behind the usurpation is pushing for the legalization of kereme in order to conciliate Enishi, to keep him happy with the new regime, or even actively get him on their side. They’ve bought the house of Tomoe this way, or they’re in the process of doing so.” When Tokio and Sano both nodded their agreement with this very reasonable assessment, Hajime asked Sano, “What else?”

“Something about opening the country up to essentialists.”

“Interesting,” said Tokio. “I wonder why.”

“If I’m on the right track with all of this,” Hajime mused, “allowing them into the country would benefit at least one of the divine houses.”

“Most of the whites are warriors, aren’t they?” Sano thought back to what he knew about each of them, and nodded a response to his own query. “Magical elemental powers or whatever would be useful to any of them, even if it’s not anywhere near as strong as the crazy stories say.”

Tokio suggested, “Or it might be a gesture of openness toward other religions. Dyongushou, whether they’re essentialists or not, don’t believe in the divine ladies — they follow a completely different set of beliefs — which is why the border’s been closed for so long. Maybe whoever’s behind this wants to change that.”

Now Sano shook his head. “I don’t think so. They’re talking about outlawing heresy, however they think they’re going to manage that. That doesn’t sound like they’ve got religious freedom in mind.”

“Someone involved in this must secretly be an essentialist,” Hajime declared, “and this proposed change that would allow them to practice their magic openly is intended to buy their loyalty and that of any group they happen to be a part of.” He met Sano’s eyes again. Why did Sano find that so thrilling? Simply because Hajime was turning to him for answers? Or because the knight had spent the first half of the day unwilling to look at him for more than a second? “Have you heard any rumors in Elotica that might indicate who this secret essentialist is?”

Again, and again regretful, Sano shook his head. “Not a single word about that. Actually when Katsu mentioned the letting-essentialists-in thing, it came completely out of nowhere for me.”

“And outlawing heresy?” Tokio wondered. “Whom does that benefit?” She’d taken one bite of her potato, and now, having raised it halfway to her face for a second, pursed her lips in disapproval — evidently she’d decided she felt the same about raw potatoes as Sano did — and let her hand fall again.

As for Sano, it was with some embarrassment that he answered her question. “I, uh, think that’s actually aimed at me. Makes me more of an enemy of the regime, you know?”

Hajime had relieved Tokio of the potato she obviously didn’t intend to finish, and now as he lifted it to his mouth he murmured sardonically into it, “It’s a shame they aren’t familiar with my religious inclinations. It could be aimed at both of us, and doubly effective.”

“Then our wanted posters could match even better,” Sano agreed with a grin, feeling a glorious sense of solidarity with this man he so admired.

“It’s probably for the best that you keep quiet about your nonbelief.” Tokio sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s much less embarrassing for Kenshin that way with you as his chief knight.”

“And for you with me as your brother.” And Hajime bit once again into the potato.

“Speaking of brothers and sisters…” Actually this was a pretty terrible way to bring up the next point, but Sano had blurted it out before he had a chance to think. “Those two Megumi golds Mutou and Sayo showed up again eventually, and we were right: they weren’t involved in any kind of resistance or anything like that; they were…” When it came to saying it out loud, especially after that blundering lead-in, he found he didn’t quite know how. Eventually, given that both Tokio and Hajime regarded him with some curiosity — Eiji probably did too, making things a hundred times more awkward, but at least he’d remained silent throughout this discussion — Sano settled on, “They were involved with… each other. I guess the woman’s pregnant, and everybody thinks they know who the father is.”

“And?” Clearly Hajime wondered why Sano had considered this uncomfortable information worth relating.

And at least Sano did have a reason. “Well, it’s another Devoted Council thing: they’re talking about legalizing that. The brother-sister thing, I mean.”

Hajime nodded slowly. Tokio said, “And there’s the loyalty of that house.”

“Right,” said Sano, relieved to return to the larger political discussion and avoid distasteful details.

“So we have Aoshi, who I don’t believe is behind this, keeping the house of Misao loyal with his personal loyalty to Soujirou; we have the legalization of kereme for Enishi, which buys the loyalty of Tomoe; and the legalization of brother-sister relations so Mutou and Sayo can continue what they’re doing, which buys the loyalty of Megumi.” There was distaste in Hajime’s tone, though about which topic wasn’t evident. Sano would definitely never tell him either that he’d been out on kereme himself or that he’d dreamed about Hajime kissing his own sister. The knight continued his summary. “The house of Kaoru will probably never support Soujirou, and no effort has been made to conciliate them, which could conceivably be for show; but if someone from Kaoru were behind this, they could have worked on Kenshin instead of putting a puppet in his place. And of course there’s our unknown essentialist, but we already have four out of five houses accounted for.”

“You think it’s Kamatari, don’t you?” Sano heard a certain measure of wonder in his own voice as he asked this, and had to admit to a kind of awe at pinning down a name at last. “And she hasn’t done anything that benefits Yumi’s house because this whole thing is the benefit.”

“It’s only a theory,” Hajime cautioned, “but it seems believable.”

They all sat in silence for a moment, possibly pondering in the same atmosphere of awe Sano had just noted. He was thinking back to his one real encounter with the beautiful and surprisingly strong white devoted of Yumi, going through what he’d heard her say at that time, recalling everything he knew about her. Finally he shook his head and muttered, “She probably really likes the idea of sleeping with a king, but couldn’t get Kenshin into bed… Making one of her other boyfriends steal the throne was really her only choice.”

Despite the shallowness of this joke, Hajime chuckled. Then he asked, “How sure are you that she is sleeping with Soujirou?”

Sano shrugged. “Obviously I can’t know . But from the rumors, it’s the worst-kept secret in the city.”

“That’s often the case with higher-wash breaking that particular rule,” said Tokio disapprovingly. “Those that should be most careful to set a good example often turn out to be those with the least shame.”

“Well, it’s a stupid rule in the first place,” was Sano’s critical reply.

Tokio obviously would have taken this challenge if Hajime hadn’t interjected, “And you notice there’s been no attempt at changing it. Unless they’ve discussed this and we just haven’t heard about it, there’s been no suggestion to start allowing the higher-wash to sleep with non-devoted… and not even some kind of quiet exception to the rule to allow Kamatari to keep sleeping with Soujirou.”

Interested, Sano postponed the debate on religious policy and sexual freedom. “What does that mean? Is Kamatari trying to throw everyone off the track by not proposing something that would benefit the house of Yumi?”

“I don’t know,” Hajime said slowly. And was it merely Sano’s imagination, or did he seem to have a theory? It was probably one of those half formed ideas you don’t want to commit to without further information, since all the knight did was shake his head and repeat, “I don’t know.”

“Everything seems a lot clearer now, anyway,” said Tokio, “and we can make more solid plans.” She gave a smile both stern and predatory; it made Sano wonder how he could ever have missed that she was related to Hajime. “Now no matter what happens, I know I need to look into the house of Yumi very carefully. I can ensure the scenario you mentioned earlier — of whoever’s behind this escaping even if we managed to get Kenshin reinstated — won’t happen.”

Hajime returned her smile; really, the expressions were almost identical. “I look forward to seeing that.”

“Meanwhile, though,” said Sano, “if we’re actually gonna get Kenshin reinstated, we should think about how to get back into Elotica so we can get to the meeting in time and deal with Soujirou’s festival. That’s our best chance at this point; if we miss that, shit’s gonna get a hell of a lot harder.”

“You’re right.” Hajime examined their surroundings. Though the clouds outside had evidently begun to clear, still the light remained dim as afternoon turned to evening. “It’s not dark enough yet, but soon we should be able to leave here in relative safety.”

Tokio too looked around, her lips pursed very much as they had been in response to the raw potato her brother had then eaten. Her glance, rather than touching on the high windows under the eaves as Hajime’s had done, moved from one to another of the shiiyao they’d hung up to dry before sitting down in just their shirts. “I would feel safer making our way into the capital if we had something else to wear. My device–” she gestured to her chest, devoid though it currently was of the multi-colored teardrop symbol of her office– “is very recognizable, even from a distance. And Sano’s outfit…” Her serious expression pulled upward into a smile seemingly against her will.

“I have a bunch of devoted shiiyao,” Sano pointed out, not eager to discuss the blue and orange ensemble — and be laughed at — yet again.

“That wouldn’t exactly make us less obtrusive,” Tokio said. “And deep hoods for the two of you whose faces are all over Elotica on wanted posters would be nice too.”

“I see what you’re saying.” It was the first time Eiji had spoken for quite a while, and he sounded more pleased than anything else. Doubtless he’d been a bit frustrated at his inability to take part in the previous discussion, and was now happy at the prospect of doing something useful. He stood and moved to where the backpack he shared with his mother gaped open nearby, and began rummaging through it.

Hajime watched with more than a hint of disapproval. “Do you even know where the closest town is that we haven’t just run from?”

“That’s what the map is for.” In this statement and the glance Eiji threw his uncle, Sano could easily see a certain sarcastic family resemblance.

They all crowded around as Eiji found a relatively dry patch on the dirt floor to spread out a heavy roll of paper on, and in order to read it better Hajime caused bright energy to shine from the edge of his stolen keonblade as he’d done earlier. Then, as Eiji’s small finger jabbed down on a dot labeled ‘Ekoren,’ Sano remarked in dismay, “It’d take you at least a couple of hours to get there and buy stuff and come back here.” He wanted to set out for Elotica as soon as possible; he didn’t like this development.

Hajime seemed to be in agreement as he asked his sister, “Is it safe for him to travel that far alone?” Sano didn’t miss the scowl that crossed Eiji’s face as his kinsman thus simultaneously questioned his abilities and talked right over his head.

“There’s certainly a risk involved.” To judge by her somber tone, Tokio was weighing this minutely. “Our pursuers know we were a group of three adults and one child, so if a child shows up at a village in the area to buy three adult shiiyao, it could arouse suspicion. But of all of us, it’s safest for him to go, and if he gets in and out quickly, they may only get suspicious when it’s already too late. In any case, that’s the risk, not his traveling alone. Eiji is an excellent traveler.”

“But is new clothing worth any risk at all?” Hajime persisted.

“We’re going to need it once we get into Elotica anyway.”

Hajime was frowning, and from the glance he threw at his nephew, it seemed Eiji’s safety was his top concern in this situation; if the prospective messenger hadn’t been so young and his sister’s son, he probably would have accepted her point more easily. Yet he offered no suggestion on how to improve the arrangement.

“I’ll be fine,” Eiji assured them, letting the map reroll and beginning to dig through the backpack again. Next he withdrew what Sano assumed was a purse; he obviously had no misgivings whatsoever about the part he was to play. “I’ll go as quick as I can.”

Now Tokio too stood and accompanied her son along the row between the hanging vegetables toward the exit; what words of caution, advice, or encouragement she might give him at the door Sano couldn’t guess. But like Hajime, he didn’t feel entirely right about this scheme, and swiftly turned to his remaining companion once the other two were out of earshot. “Do you want me to go instead?” Reminded of the time he, Hajime, and Yahiko had approached Egato and discussed the purchase of supplies, he added with a touch of facetiousness, “I might still be the ‘less valuable fugitive.'”

Hajime’s frown deepened. “You’re a very valuable fugitive,” he said unexpectedly, causing a shiver to run up and down Sano’s spine. What did he mean by that, exactly? He hadn’t even responded jokingly as Sano had expected him to. But there was no time to consider this, for Hajime immediately went on, “But she’s right: Eiji is the safest of all of us for an errand like this. And,” he added grudgingly, “it is a good idea to change our appearances as much as possible.”

Sano nodded reluctantly, not entirely satisfied but now, at least, distracted by other thoughts.

Presently Tokio returned, sat where she’d been before, and began poking through what remained of their little stack of purloined food. “We have a few hours,” she announced coolly as she examined a tomato in the reinstated light of her brother’s keonblade. Sano thought he recognized her frame of mind: it wasn’t that she had no concerns about their situation or about her son heading out alone through an area their pursuers might still be searching; it was just that she’d done what she believed necessary, without reference to personal feelings — something Sano was beginning to believe absolutely typical of her. She looked over at him suddenly. “So, Sano, why don’t you tell me about yourself? You’re a heretic, like Hajime, but that’s about all I know.”

Although ‘like Hajime’ pleased him, for a moment Sano hesitated, unsure whether he wouldn’t be opening himself to sarcasm from both sister and brother in elaborating as requested; besides that, he would much rather sit in silence and consider what Hajime had meant by ‘a very valuable fugitive.’ But engrossing conversation of one sort or another was probably exactly what they all needed right now — Tokio especially — as they tried not to worry too intensely or irrationally about the child they’d allowed to take on an adult’s errand. So he began talking about himself, doing her the unplanned favor of starting even earlier in his life than he otherwise might have, deliberately phrasing the story so as to invite questioning just in case either of the others wanted to vent their feelings by demanding unimportant details, trying to keep them all occupied while they waited for Eiji to return.

Chapter 32 – Known Powers

Hajime had lain down on his side, head pillowed on one outstretched arm, for a nap he probably seriously needed after a day of having been taken prisoner, tied up and held captive, forced to fight a proficient warrior for his freedom, pursued by unseen enemies, and further worn out by a cross-country escape. Tokio too — she lying flat on her back, seemingly indifferent to the solidity of the dirt floor beneath her — had gone to sleep, while Sano remained alert as a watchman that admittedly could do little more than awaken his companions should some undesirable party enter the shed.

He had volunteered for this task for a few reasons: first, because, despite his soreness after battle, he suspected his day hadn’t been as tiring as that of the other two; second, because, though of course he felt some concern, he wasn’t nearly as worried about Eiji’s safety as they must be, and thought sleep might prove a welcome distraction for the mother and the uncle; third, because he wasn’t sure he wanted to sleep near Hajime just at the moment.

He’d never been able to control his dreams, nor influence the topics his subconscious decided to ruminate about at night, and he couldn’t be certain right now that his new emotional awareness wouldn’t make itself perfectly, undeniably clear the very next time he closed his eyes, if not during the course of every dream he ever had for the rest of his life. And was that the way he wanted to share his feelings with their object?

Even after all this time, he remained in the dark on whether or not Hajime knew they had the same sleeping experiences when they made their beds close to each other. While information only Hajime could reveal had at times come up and confirmed to Sano that these dreams were not merely his, he could remember no instance of the reverse… so Hajime, though he must be conscious of a change to what he saw in his head at night, might not be aware this change had come about because the contents of a new head had been added to the mix.

And if, believing simply that a dream version of Sano was unusually prevalent in his subconscious (though how he would interpret that apparent fixation was already a matter of interesting question), Hajime were to encounter that supposedly unreal Sanosuke in his sleep in this shed with the ‘real’ Sano sleeping a few feet away, and were to hear from him during the course of that dream…

…if Sano were to tell him…

…to confess to him at last…

… if that dream-Sano were to say, “I love you… I think I’ve been in love with you since you collapsed in front of me in Torosa Forest and I dragged your ass off the road and cut your clothing up for bandages… I love you so much I seriously don’t even know what to do with it right now…”

…or if that dream-Sano were to fling himself on Hajime and passionately kiss the visionary version of those dexterous lips; or get down on one knee and propose marriage to him, offering his entire life and begging for Hajime’s in return; or conjure up a false Tokio, still in this dream-world married rather than related to Hajime, and challenge her to combat to the death in an old-fashioned and these days entirely illegal dual for Hajime’s hand…

…how would the knight react to that? If he believed it a product of his subconscious, what would he make of it?

Or if he did know their dreams were shared, and recognized Sano’s sleeping declaration for the waking truth it was, what then? Would that really be the best way to tell him? It seemed almost cowardly, leaving it up to a dream like that. And what Hajime’s reaction would be, whether he knew of their dream-link or not, came back to how he felt about Sano in return — which remained an unknown factor Sano feared to face.

And they were still in the middle of a significant political conflict that Hajime would probably prioritize over anything else. Whatever Sano believed about Hajime’s awareness and frame of mind, this still seemed like the wrong time to confess — and therefore not a good moment to sleep near the knight and risk inadvertently doing so. He would undoubtedly have to sleep near him again eventually, but that time would not be now, and he would worry about it only when it came.

His own mental state was going to be hell until then, though.

The sun had gone down, the moon not yet risen, and starlight through the small, overhung windows had barely any effect on the resultant blackness. So, although Sano sat unmoving in the vegetable-scented darkness staring at where he knew Hajime lay, he could see almost nothing and had no source of visual distraction in his long vigil. Nor, in this lightless environment, could he have tracked the passage of time even had he possessed the means to do so, unless he wanted to disturb his companions’ sleep with light from his keonblade.

He’d never owned an hourglass back in Eloma, always having been content to show up for his orchard shifts as soon as he was awake and ready; and his employers had never minded as long as it wasn’t too much later than usual. In fact the whole town, though hard-working, had been pretty easy-going about exact times; he didn’t think there’d been more than two hourglasses in the entire village. And in Elotica, the great bells that sang out from the palace at regular intervals during the day made it easy for people to be punctual without ever needing to consult hourglasses at their home or anywhere.

He’d heard of special mechanical devices for telling time that rich people bought from Gönsting traders and worked by means of keys somehow, but he’d never seen one and probably never would. There was certainly no such device in this country farm shed… and he wouldn’t have been able to see it anyway if there had been. And his thoughts were getting silly; he seemed to be in some danger of dozing off after all. He rose and, glad events had put him this time on the outer end of the row so he didn’t have to pick his way over his sleeping comrades, started to pace the fragrant space beyond with the slowness of blind-walking care.

They’d all three assumed their shiiyao again, and packed away any loose articles they had about them, just in case a hasty exit from the shed became necessary. What they’d hung up to dry hadn’t, really, so now Sano felt chilly and uncomfortable as he made circles in the dark in his wet outer garment. At least he couldn’t see its stupid colors under these circumstances… and hopefully when Eiji returned — if Eiji returned safely and had completed his errand — Sano would be able to change out of the thing for good.

Hourglass or no hourglass, it felt as if eons had passed by the time he heard sounds of motion outside. He tensed and felt his heart rate increase as if in response to a much more exciting stimulus, and, drawing his keonblade, gave himself a little light with its energy, moved quickly toward the door, and hissed over his shoulder, “Somebody’s here.”

Before he reached the entrance, he could hear Hajime and Tokio (who must be light sleepers, at the very least under these circumstances) coming toward him, and then the knock they’d agreed upon with Eiji at the door. Sano let out a relieved breath and increase the light from his sword, while Tokio hastened forward to shift aside the sacks in order to allow her son to enter.

Sano’s relief turned to consternation, however, and his relaxation reverted into stiffness the next moment when Eiji was followed into the shed by two complete strangers.

He lengthened his energy blade out and fell into a combative stance, while Tokio took a step back and eyed the newcomers warily. Hajime, however, pushed past all of them to greet the men with almost more enthusiasm than Sano had ever seen him show for anything. He couldn’t even wait until they’d descended the stairs to the sunken dirt floor before grasping them each by the arm in turn. And as he did so he was asking, “Where have you been? Are you both uninjured? How did you escape Soujirou? How did you meet up with Eiji?”

One of the men gave a laugh that managed to sound almost bubbly in its cheer and yet simultaneously sardonic. “One question at a time, maybe?” And, freed from Hajime’s arm-clasp, he reached out to give Hajime’s shoulder a little squeeze and shake of his own, clearly glad to see him.

“And I can’t believe the first thing you said to us wasn’t a great big ‘thank you’ for getting those fake-o’s off your tail back in Enca!” The other man made this jovial accusation as he closed the door behind him and examined the potato-filled doorstops for a moment to determine how they had previously been arranged.

Tokio, now with an arm around the shoulders of her son that hadn’t said anything yet, was nodding thoughtfully as if in confirmation of her own recognition of the two strangers. Hajime, obviously their friend — and that fact alone gave Sano some idea who they must be — answered the statement of the second with, “I thought I recognized your stupid shouting back there.”

“It’s a battle cry,” the second man corrected him, in a tone suggesting he’d made this protest on multiple occasions in the past. And that he had this inside joke with Hajime indicated his identity all the more clearly. “It’s a tradition of my people.”

Sano rejoiced to see Hajime so obviously happy at this reunion, and was interested in how Hajime displayed that happiness, but he more than a little expected…

“Your people?” Hajime replied very sarcastically. “I wasn’t aware the rice-farmers outside Emikara had ancient battle traditions.”

…and, yes, there it was: jealousy again. It had been forced to abandon Tokio, so now it latched onto the next people closely connected to Hajime. That would surely become inconvenient after not too long.

“Anyway,” said the first man with a roll of eyes, “we’ve been hiding out in a shack at the edge of Enca ever since we left the palace. When you four came tearing through with a bunch of false knights at your heels, we stepped in to slow them up. Of course then we had to get away from them, but at least none of us knew where you all had gone. We thought you might head for Ekoren, so as soon as we shook the false knights we went there ourselves — and we ran into your nephew here.”

“I’m surprised you recognized him,” Hajime remarked. “You can’t have seen him more than twice, and I think the last time must have been at least three years ago.”

“Yeah, but he’s got your eyes,” said the second man, narrowing his own in scowling demonstration.

The first man chuckled, then cast a calculating glance around the entire party. “And Eiji wasn’t joking about you all needing new clothing.” His gaze fixed on Sano’s orange and blue ensemble, and his sardonic smile widened into one of scorn that Sano could only describe as ‘catty.’ Sano found his own eyes narrowing a trifle.

Eiji tried to hide his smirk at this further teasing of Sano about his stupid outfit by shrugging off his backpack and dropping to his knees beside it. As he began handing up its new contents to his mother for examination, his uncle turned to Sano and made formal introductions. “These are royal knights under my command: Soujirou and Sanosuke.” And Sano’s heart thrilled when Hajime added with a slight smile, “You’ve commented on their names before, I believe.” It made him want to stick his tongue out at the knights and say, “See? We have a history too.”

“Commented what?” the one Hajime had indicated was Sanosuke asked as he stepped forward and reached out. “And who are you?” And as Sano clasped forearms with him, he studied the stocky, muscular frame, the purple-black hair almost as jagged as (though a little more kempt than) his own used to be, and the rugged, easy demeanor, and wondered whether he was imagining the jovial threat in the man’s expression and tone and the grip of his hand.

“This is another idiot Sano,” Hajime informed his subordinates. “He’s been helping me gather information about Soujirou’s regime, and putting together a resistance group we’ll meet with when we get back into the capital.”

And in having his absolute best accomplishments of recent days mentioned like this (and his humble antecedents conveniently neglected, especially now he knew this other Sanosuke hailed from a family of rice-farmers), Sano didn’t even a little bit mind being referred to as ‘another idiot.’ Besides, he couldn’t help but notice that Hajime had introduced the others to him first as if he were the more intimate acquaintance.

Still, he wondered if he was the only one to notice the tension in this Soujirou’s bearing as they too clasped wrists. The man had a round, smooth, femininely beautiful face beneath dark hair almost as luxurious as Seijuurou’s and above a petite body that yet exuded a wiry strength; and his big, deep eyes that should have given him an expression of childlike innocence helped rather to convey more of the sharpness and cutting amusement that seemed to show in the rest of his demeanor.

Was Sano imagining the sudden feeling of rivalry between himself and these two men he’d only just met? Was he letting his desire to share the same type of camaraderie with Hajime affect his impression of them — and how they reacted to him — right from the off? Or was there really some sense of competition already growing among them? He couldn’t be sure.

At this juncture Tokio began handing out new shiiyao, narrating as she did so. “For you–” to Hajime– “something with a nice deep hood — good find, Eiji — and for me, something without an easily recognizable device on the chest. You two–” she gave a nod of acknowledgment and a slight smile in response to the flippant salute the knight Sanosuke gave her, and looked over the patched and dirty outfits the newcomers wore– “are fine the way you are. For you…” And she turned toward Sano.

“Something less like a circus performer?” Soujirou suggested with slicing sweetness.

“Something less like an invitation to be stabbed?” the traitorous Hajime put in.

The other Sanosuke unexpectedly stood up for him with, “I don’t think it’s that bad…”

“No, of course you don’t,” Soujirou said contemptuously.

And the scowling Sano protested, “I didn’t pick the outfit, all right?”

Tokio cleared her throat, unable to repress a smile herself, and held out a brown shiiya in Sano’s direction.

As those that needed to change clothing did so, and both Sano and Eiji subsequently stored away the previous shiiyao in their backpacks (and Sano absolutely did maneuver to get Hajime’s in his rather than let kid take it), the chief knight questioned the other two about their movements since the takeover.

They both looked dark as Soujirou explained, “The others switched sides. We had to fight them just to get away–”

“And because they were treacherous little shits,” Sanosuke put in darkly. Sano believed that, if he didn’t already feel so much at odds with this guy, he might really like him.

Soujirou gave a vicious smile. “That too,” he said. “We left Keisuke dead and Kanryuusai wounded.”

Hajime, expression grim, bowed his head.

“And I lost my fucking spear,” Sanosuke grumbled, apropos of nothing.

“Which he hasn’t stopped mentioning since.” Soujirou’s tone was even more sugary than before, his smile tight.

Hajime said nothing.

After a few moments Soujirou went on. “We wanted to find you, but nobody knew where you’d gone. Elotica was too hot for us, so we went to Enca… but even there there wasn’t much we could do with our recognizable faces.”

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said with an infuriating grin, “good thing you had this nobody here to help you gather information.”

Again Soujirou gave his incongruously cheerful-sounding laugh of derision.

Sano could remain silent no longer. “Ladies, Hajime, are all royal knights this big of assholes?”

Hajime finally raised his face again, now wearing a very bitter smile of his own. “Yes,” he said. Then he pursed his lips, took an almost angry-sounding breath, and looked at the aforementioned assholes. “So you two have no idea what’s been going on in the capital since the usurpation?”

Soujirou shook his head. “Listening to gossip was all we could do, and that got us exactly nowhere.”

“Yeah, Hajime, you know there’s a rumor that you’re secretly a paruseji and grew wings to fly away from Prince Soujirou?” Sanosuke rolled his eyes as he tried to remember more. “Oh, and that you blinded some city guards with mist to get away from them?”

“A mist of blood from the Tomoe devoted you’d just murdered in the street,” Soujirou elaborated helpfully.

Sano went from fondly remembering the dream he and Hajime had shared about flying with swans’ wings paruseji-style to sadly remembering the Tomoe devoted that had been murdered in the street, and didn’t appreciate the transition.

Hajime, finished rolling his own eyes, shifted the subject. “Soujirou has been–”

But here the other Soujirou broke in. “You know what? Call me Souji from now on. It’s getting confusing, and I don’t want to share his name anyway.”

Suspicious and indignant, the knight Sanosuke protested, “Just don’t expect me to change my name just because there’s another Sano around.”

“What,” Sano wanted to know, every bit as indignant, “are you putting me in the same class as Soujirou?

“Something wrong with that?” Soujirou’s words were like shiny daggers.

“I mean the other Soujirou,” Sano explained impatiently.

“Maybe I am,” Sanosuke shot back.

Now it was Tokio’s turn to chuckle from where she’d gone to lean against the tub Sano had fallen into earlier as she waited for this conversation to wrap up. Eiji merely watched them all with the patience of a child that knows pretty well he is in some ways a lot smarter than the adults around him.

“Shut up, all of you,” Hajime said irritably. “Souji, it’s a good idea to get these names organized. You–” he pointed an authoritative finger at Sano– “will remain ‘Sano’ until further notice while you–” and here he gestured at the other one– “will be identified by your family name, Harada, as long as this Sano is around.”

Harada evidently wasn’t very good at staying shut up, for now he demanded hotly, “Why me and not him?”

“Because I don’t know his family name,” was Hajime’s brief reply.

Though unsurprised at this — family names weren’t used much in day-to-day life — Sano was also a bit disappointed that Hajime could rattle off the appellation of one of his knights but had never heard Sano’s. He found himself murmuring, “Higashidani,” a little wistfully under his breath even as Hajime went on to explain what they knew or suspected of the activities and plans of Prince Soujirou, now more easily distinguishable from a member of their party by a couple of syllables, and the white devoted Kamatari, as well as their own intentions.

Concise as Hajime had the power to be, by the time his update was finished, they were all long since ready to depart, and Sano far more comfortable than he’d been all day in his new, dry garment. Of course ‘new’ was a misnomer: to obtain shiiyao with attached hoods this deep, Eiji must have had to look for used, outdated pieces (probably pretending that was all he could afford), and the collection he’d brought back was worn thin in places and fraying. Still, Sano considered himself one up on Souji and Harada in this, since they’d evidently been out in the rain all day too and had nothing to change into from the damp, ragged clothing, more patches than shiiyao, they’d been hiding out in all this time. But everyone, whatever they wore, had grown equally antsy to evacuate this latest hiding place.

With the help of Tokio’s map, Sano’s knowledge of which city entrances had checkpoints, and a couple of keonblades for light, Hajime was planning the best route toward and into the capital from here so they could leave within the next few minutes, when Souji, who’d been frowning pensively at the unrolled paper all this time, came out with a suggestion:

“We’ve spent weeks in the poor end of Enca… I think some of the people in that area might be convinced to come to the meeting at least. A week from now, you said?”

“That’s right.” Hajime turned toward him thoughtfully, though his expression still held that touch of darkness it had worn ever since he’d heard two of his knights had deserted him and one had died. “Not more fans of my magical escapes, I hope.”

“Nah, they’re fans of Souji,” Harada interjected jovially. When Souji glanced sharply at him he said, “What? I’m allowed to call you that now, aren’t I?”

Despite the general impatience to get going, Souji obviously felt he had time for a long, narrow-eyed, assessing look up and down Harada’s figure as if searching for some change he’d long been awaiting. “I suppose so,” he said at last, frostily, and Sano was instantly curious. He wondered if he hadn’t been misjudging the source and nature of the tension he’d felt upon meeting these two men. He wondered why Harada hadn’t been allowed to call Souji by a nickname prior to this. He wondered why Hajime seemed to sigh very faintly at this exchange.

Harada’s grin widened, showing a gap where a premolar should have sat on the upper left. “Souji’s got a silver tongue; I think everyone hanging out at that end of Enca lately’s in love with him.”

Hajime lifted a brow, at which Souji rolled his eyes. “Nobody there is likely to bring much loyalty,” the beautiful knight went on without bothering to respond to or offer any explanation for the ‘silver tongue’ comment. “They’re paupers and criminals, and if they do come, it’ll be in the hopes of getting something out of it — rewards, pardons, more of Kenshin’s attention to poorer parts of town…”

“…a kiss from Souji…” Harada put in sotto voce.

Possibly in irritation of his own, possibly in response to the lethal smile that had sprung up on Souji’s face, Hajime commanded, “No more of that. Souji, promise them we’ll talk to the king on their behalf if he’s restored to power — nothing more. Sound them out very carefully, though; if they’re willing to throw in with us for a reward, they’ll be just as willing to accept a better deal from our enemies. Emphasize the importance of caution and secrecy for anyone planning to attend the meeting. Get in touch with as many people as you think is safe, then meet us in Elotica no later than the 49th four days from now.”

Souji nodded sharply. Harada, on the other hand, made a skeptical grumbling sound. “After we just found Hajime, we’re going back into the ass-crack of Enca to talk to the grungy crazy people again?”

“Who said anything about ‘we?'” Souji’s full lips, of a perfect pale pinkish brown, somehow managed to form the sharpest line Sano had ever seen as they smiled condescendingly over at his fellow.

“Well, of course I’m coming with you,” Harada said, as if this were a given.

“Of course he is,” Hajime reiterated. “You two will need to meet us at the old thieves’ guild headquarters in Elotica, and the rest of us–” he looked around at his sister and nephew– “if we’re separated, need to meet there as well. Sano, describe in detail where it’s located and how to get inside.”

As Sano did so, and followed it up with the exact time and place of the upcoming meeting so Souji could better inform the paupers and criminals that were apparently in love with him, the somewhat dark cheer of both the newcomer knights seemed to be restored. There was certainly a spring in each step as, finally finished reconnoitering, they left the shed at last and moved quietly out onto the nighttime farm. Perhaps having orders and deadlines and facts to work with helped to distract them from… whatever had been happening in there.

The moon popped up above the horizon with a startling suddenness as, confident they hadn’t attracted any attention yet, they quickly climbed the fence to leave the property some of them had inhabited for several tense hours. A dog let out a brief, barking howl from the other side of the buildings behind them, prompting the travelers to greater speed toward the nearest farm lane. Once there, with firm-packed earth beneath their feet again, they took their leave as Souji and Harada were to head west back toward Enca — the way the others had come earlier, in fact — while Hajime and the rest followed this lane for as long as it ran so directly south.

“Misao bless you sneaking into Elotica.” Souji must know how little Hajime would appreciate this low-voiced goodbye, for his sardonic bubbliness sounded again as he said it.

And Hajime seemed to be taking specific revenge as he replied in just as low and sardonic a tone, “And Yumi’s blessing on you two.”

Harada chuckled. “See you in a week,” he said, repeating his lackadaisical salute from earlier in the light of the waning moon, and turned to walk away.

“Four days,” Souji corrected, following. “Pay attention.”

“It’d be easier if I had my spear,” Harada grumbled nonsensically. And then they’d gone too far for their murmured conversation to remain audible.

Still curious about a number of things, Sano watched them disappear into the shadows, then faced Hajime, whom he would rather look at in any case. The chief knight was shaking his head, expression invisible with his back to the moon, but when he saw Sano’s eyes on him he gestured silently down the lane. Sano, in this instance unwilling to bring up the rear or be any farther from Hajime than he had to, took his place directly behind him as they set out on their nighttime walk, heading back to Elotica for perhaps the last time.


I Like Your Face


Sano’s strange behavior started on Monday, though (that day at least) its strangeness stemmed merely from the fact that he’d never done it before, not that it was in any way out of character. He hung around the station for hours, continually making believe he was leaving but never really doing so, and kept jumping out at Saitou from around corners and through half-open doors, presumably in an attempt at taking him by surprise that was consistently foiled by Saitou being hyper-attuned to Sano’s ki.

He crashed into him three times, and once into another officer he wasn’t aware was also walking that hallway, until finally Saitou told him irritably to properly go away. Sano did, but tried the same trick twice during Saitou’s walk home, prompting an eventual growl that finally sent the idiot, disappointed, scurrying off for good for that evening. It hadn’t ever been startling, but it had been annoying… and the fact that Saitou then spent the night alone was even more so.

On Tuesday, though he’d evidently abandoned the jumping-out tactic, the one visit he made to Saitou’s office during the day was just as silly: he came bursting in red-faced as if he’d been running quite some distance, rushed up to Saitou’s desk, and informed him breathlessly, “Your house is on fire!”

Saitou sat back, studying him, noting he’d gone to some trouble for this. However… “You’ve been over at the smokehouse, I see. If it were my house burning, you wouldn’t smell nearly so much like salmon.”

Looking even more disappointed than yesterday as he stared Saitou right back in the face, Sano replied, “Aww, man! I was sure the smoke smell would get you.”

“Apart from that, you should have chosen a building closer to the station. If I really thought you’d run all the way here instead of getting the fire brigade when my house was burning, you’d have bigger problems than what kind of smoke you smelled like.” Observing Sano’s mutinous expression at this, Saitou added quickly, “But you have given me an idea for dinner, so don’t be late tonight.” He didn’t want another lonely evening like yesterday’s had been.

He might have believed Wednesday morning’s gross aberration of Sano getting up before he did and clumsily cooking breakfast for them both was the young man’s way of demonstrating gratitude for the numerous meals Saitou had made him over the past three months, except that Sano seemed to be so pointedly expecting some specific reaction from Saitou when he walked into the kitchen and found his lover, like the room, splattered with ingredients that might or might not require the application of a chisel in various places to remove. Sano’s cooking, though explosive, wasn’t half bad, and it was nice to spend some time with him before work for a change, so Saitou enjoyed the unusual morning… but he did wonder what the roosterhead was up to.

Scant light was shed on this question on Thursday, even when Sano made his appearance in the afternoon fully decked out in a woman’s kimono and with his usually spiky locks combed into sleek near-unrecognizability. Again Saitou sat back and studied him, examining the pattern of autumn leaves across the garment, the brown obi, the gold leaf-shaped hair ornament, and most of all the expression on Sano’s face that already conveyed disappointment with the wolf’s response. And Saitou said, “Those colors suit you very well — much better than they would Kamatari, which is where I assume you got all those things.”

“Yeah, they’re just a loan.” Sano sounded almost surly. “And thanks, I guess.”

Noticing Chou in similar getup just inside the doorway — his hair really was quite long when not perpendicular to sanity — Saitou’s next comment was, “If you two are going undercover like that, let me hear you both talk like women.”

Now Sano’s surliness came to be mixed with amusement as Saitou forced him and the broomhead to practice various phrases in feminine tones over and over until they could deliver them relatively convincingly, so at least he didn’t leave the office entirely unhappy. Saitou still wondered what the ultimate goal of his recent behavior was.

On Thursday, when Sano showed up at the station as he so often did these days, it was with an unusual air of bashfulness and worry that, while fairly convincing, Saitou still believed to be falsified. Sano kicked around and cleared his throat and said nothing in a manner unusual and somewhat calculated to annoy, until Saitou, figuring they’d better get this over with, finally asked him what was wrong.

Sano came over and planted his hands on the desk, took a deep breath, and looked into Saitou’s face — there certainly did seem to be a strong element of studying Saitou’s expression to all of this — before answering with calculated hesitation, “Megumi just found out she’s pregnant with my baby.”

Saitou almost laughed aloud at this one, a reaction certainly not what Sano wanted. With only a faint smile, therefore, he shook his head and said, “Ahou. A woman might know she’s pregnant after five or six weeks, and a doctor is likely to be especially aware.”

“So?” There was some defiance in Sano’s tone, but also the letdown Saitou was growing accustomed to this week.

“So,” the officer explained patiently, “you and I have been exclusive for eighty-six days, and you’re not the unfaithful type.”

At this assessment Sano appeared to be grinning in spite of himself. “Yeah, you’re right; it was just a joke.” But the statement came out rather forced; evidently he was still disappointed. Besides, claiming to have cheated on his lover in such an egregious fashion would not normally be his idea of casual humor.

“Takani doesn’t strike me as the unfaithful type either,” Saitou mused. “Didn’t her relationship with the kenjutsu girl start even before ours did?”

Startled, “I didn’t know you knew about them,” said Sano.

“Oh, I follow the gossip in your little circle closer than you think.”

“Still spying on us all, are you?” Sano sounded pleased, though, and Saitou was glad to have mitigated his disappointment somewhat.

The pregnancy scare hadn’t exactly been subtle, but Sano seemed to have pulled out all the stops for Friday’s attempt. Saitou was on his way home, wondering in the back of his head whether his rooster had given up on whatever it was he was trying to do, when the most dramatic and horrified of shrieks burst from an alley just in front of him. Though Sano had tried to disguise it, Saitou recognized his voice, and he rolled his eyes even as he glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed. The area was empty — at least Sano had chosen his location well — so Saitou didn’t hesitate to step into the small side way and look around. And he wasn’t at all surprised to find the alley drenched in crimson, the bulk of it a puddle in the dirt but a significant amount yet spattered over the walls and contents of the little street. It reminded him of the breakfast kitchen the other day.

“Ahou,” he sighed, “even if it weren’t obvious this is just red paint — which has already started to dry, by the way — the amount is inconsistent with the scream.”

“What?!” came Sano’s indignant voice from behind a garbage barrel. “I set up this great murder scene, and you’re getting picky about the amount of blood?”

“A more pertinent question than why you believe someone could have spontaneously shed so much blood, still had the energy to scream so loudly, then disappeared without a trace along with their murderer before I could get here is the question of why you’ve apparently been trying to startle me all week.”

Sheepishly Sano emerged from where only half of his face had previously been visible behind the barrel — presumably in order to observe Saitou’s response — and stood straight looking down at the bright stain on the ground. “I guess you caught me.”

“Yes. So explain.”

Sano did not look up, and Saitou didn’t think the slight redness of his cheeks was a reflection off the paint. “Well, I was talking to Kenshin the other day, and we got to remembering the Rengoku, and he mentioned how at one point, while I was crossing over on the wreckage and couldn’t see you, you had this really surprised look on your face — like surprised enough to surprise him. Though now I come to think of it,” Sano added with a touch of newfound suspicion, “I dunno why he would’ve been looking at you right then when I was about to get my ass shot…”

“Himura is very observant about certain things,” Saitou replied dryly, recalling the moment in question with piercing clarity. “He was probably looking for my reaction. But go on.”

“Well, it occurred to me I don’t actually know what your surprised face looks like. I kinda wanted to see it,” Sano finished with a shrug.

“The amount of trouble you’ve gone to–” Saitou gestured around, one brow raised– “suggests more than ‘kinda.'”

“I just… like your facial expressions, all right?” Sano mumbled. Even more quietly he finished, “I like your face.”

Saitou couldn’t help chuckling as he moved to take the young man in his arms. Sano felt stiff, as if resentful at having his honest confession laughed at, so Saitou said, “In exchange for that compliment — if that’s what it was — I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t a surprised look, back then.”

Sano drew back and glanced up at him curiously. “But Kenshin said–”

“I was a little surprised to see the Gatling gun,” Saitou admitted, “but by then I was taking everything Shishio did in stride. After seeing the Rengoku itself, I could hardly be astonished at anything else… If you’d looked at me when the façade came off the ship, you might have been satisfied.”

“Huh. But then what was that look later, that Kenshin saw?”

Saitou pulled Sano close again, shaking his head. “That was a look of absolute horror, ahou.” He elaborated simply, “I’d just heard Shishio order you gunned down.”

Now Sano struggled against the embrace that had him pinned in order to pull away once more and stare Saitou in the face… and his expression might very well be exactly what he’d incorrectly imagined Saitou’s to have been on the deck of that warship. “Way back then? Already?”

Saitou nodded solemnly.

Sounding confused and perhaps even somewhat affronted, Sano wondered, “But then why did it take us so long to–”

“Because you’re an oblivious idiot,” Saitou interrupted with fond impatience. And when Sano scowled at him, he went on, “Though if it’s any consolation to you, you surprise me all the time.”

“Yeah, but you never show it.”

Saitou chuckled. “Maybe one of these days you’ll take me off guard with something if you keep trying. Just,” he added quickly, thinking of this past week, “stop being an idiot about it.”

“According to you,” Sano grumbled, “that’s not possible.”

“You’re a creative idiot, at least; I’m sure you’ll figure something out that will surprise me without making me want to kill you. In the meantime…” Saitou bent to kiss him, not caring how strange it would look to anyone that happened to walk down this narrow, dirty alley and find a police officer and former kenkaya making out in the midst of a copious amount of red paint. Just before their lips met he finished his statement: “I like your face too.”


This was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “How about a Saisa where Sano keeps trying to surprise Saitou?” I liked the idea and had fun with this piece, but this the first RK writing I’d done since the big bad news felt… just a little different than usual. Perhaps the new normal.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?