Animal-Handler

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

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

Unique to this story: a/b/o dynamics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Since when?”

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

“How big?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded gravely.

Next she wondered, “What are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s his name?” Relena wondered.

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

“Can I name him?”

Trowa repeated the gesture. “Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero’s brows went up.

“Relena named him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero nodded slowly, and said nothing more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Physical fulfillment, on the other hand…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But I wanna do it now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Heero said again. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is your lion following me around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s very protective of her.”

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

“Keep clear of the weapons,” Cathy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah withou’ my lion!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cathy agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moombah just yawned.

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

Relena’s grin threatened to split her face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

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

“I apologize,” Trowa murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

Garments that now appeared unoccupied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dryly Trowa replied, “It never came up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did,” Trowa agreed.

“And you turned into an animal too.”

“I did.”

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

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

“I knew it…” Trowa murmured.

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?” Trowa broke in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He sure is.” And abruptly Duo transformed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He said I can call him Moombah!”

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

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

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

The others just waited.

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

“Oh,” Heero said in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you turn into, Uncle Heero?”

“An alligator.”

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely.”

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

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

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

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

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

“As if you don’t completely understand–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have more nieces?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trowa nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

Trowa chuckled.

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

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

Trowa nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iukkkkkk888888888888888888888888I



Heretic’s Reward 33-

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

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

Chapter 33 – Before (or After) the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what if something happens to us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” wondered Sano incredulously.

“He sounds like an oddity.”

“Yeah, an annoying oddity.”

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

Sano snorted, and they spoke no more.

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

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

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

The same incoherent grumbling came from the next room.

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

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

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

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

“He found it following Chou.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hajime gossips to you in letters?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. Lemme see your keonblade.”

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

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

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

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

Sano laughed quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Haute Coauteur

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

Clark can’t figure out why Lois, not usually given to writing gossip articles, has just come up with this fluff piece about a couple of villains at a nightclub.


Since Clark was driving, Lois answered the call and put it on speaker. This particular ‘Unknown Number’ they always answered, in preference to the ‘Unknown number’ that occasionally got past their spam blockers, and the voice that immediately sounded over the line was terse and offered no greeting.

“Poison Ivy’s at the house.”

Clark and Lois threw each other raised-eyebrow looks.

With a smile and a shake of head Clark said, “Haven’t I asked you to keep your villains out of my city?”

“I’d be happy just to keep them out of your home,” Batman grumbled.

I’d be interested in knowing how you know Poison Ivy’s in our home,” Lois put in.

An explosion sounded in the background just then, and Batman used this extremely plausible excuse to evade the question. “I’m in the middle of something. Clark, can you deal with her?”

“Ivy, or me?” Lois wondered.

“Ha ha.” On this sarcastic note, Batman disconnected.

Clark chuckled and pulled the car over into a maintenance side-tunnel, ill-lit and soon blocked off but sufficient for their purposes, off the main tunnel they were traversing. “We’re going to have to have a talk with him about what kind of secret security measures we’ve been living with all this time,” he remarked as he undid his seat belt and opened his door.

“After he promised it was a normal house,” said Lois with a lop-sided smile, emerging as well.

Clark, buttons already completely undone, met her with a quick kiss as she came over to the driver’s side. “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t let her kiss you,” she advised, throwing his tie into the car behind her to join the rest of his civilian clothing his much quicker hands had sent ahead of it. Then she watched him fly off, hugging the tunnel’s ceiling so as not to be seen, before getting back into the car and resuming her progress toward the job she would now be doing alone.

As the serious girlfriend of two superheroes, Lois had become somewhat inured to the dangerous events happening around her on a regular basis. Of course she worried about Batman and his explosions… and there was always the off chance Poison Ivy might have some devious plot that would temporarily get the better of Superman… and the fact that such a villain had shown up at their house at all was a little worrisome… but mostly Lois was able to concentrate on the story she and Clark had been sent to follow up on, and by the end of the day the Poison Ivy business had slipped her mind.

***

They not infrequently teased Bruce that he did have a superpower: convincingly pretending he wasn’t exhausted when every other indicator said he was. This morning, however, Lois, who’d had the same hour and a half of sleep and had only risen now to see him and Clark off, was drooping too hazily toward her omelet to come up with anything facetious to say.

In fact she was so near sleeping in a sitting position that she hadn’t even noticed Clark with his tablet out, something he only did when breakfast conversation lagged. She perked up just a little, though, when he presently remarked, “Now I see where you two went last night.”

Lois, relieved she’d made the deadline for the morning edition — it helped she’d written much of her story before the fact — remarked with a yawn, “I didn’t know you read the society page.”

He grinned at her. “I read pretty fast.”

“We both read all your articles no matter which section they appear in,” Bruce murmured into his coffee.

Lois smiled and turned a little more attention toward her breakfast.

“There’s some of this I don’t understand, though…” Clark’s grin slowly turned upside-down as he scrolled back to what was apparently a difficult part. “Dr. Isley wore Elie Saab…” His frown grew. “…a clingy knit frock spliced with lace…” His brows lowered. “…ruffles in turquoise broderie anglaise…” He lifted a bewildered face toward Lois. “Is this part in English?”

Bruce chuckled quietly.

***

Lois’s inurement notwithstanding, when both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn intercepted her on her way back to the Planet after an interview, she remembered all too well that one of them had been spooked off her property by Superman earlier this week.

There’s my star reporter!” Quinn, though dressed like a normal person and in fact looking fashionable and bubbly-cute, still managed to stand out like a beacon as she took Lois’s left arm.

Ivy, conversely, had a more restrained, elegant beauty to her appearance that fit her better to an everyday big city street; Lois wondered what she wore under that tasteful dark green coat, and whether she’d worn the same or something flashier when she’d been prowling the house.

“Good afternoon, Miss Lane,” she said, taking the other arm, and what Lois wondered next in some surprise was whether her voice was always this smooth and sultry. “Let us walk you back to work, won’t you?”

“Sure.” Lois threw each of them a suspicious look. “I love taking a stroll with supervillains.”

“D’you hear that, Red?” Quinn was grinning widely. “I’ve been upgraded!”

Lois was a little surprised at the fond smile that crossed Ivy’s painted lips before the woman spoke again. “We’re not in town for any supervillainism, Miss Lane, I promise. We just happen to need a reporter’s services, and Harley tells me you’re reliable.”

Lois raised her brows at the aforementioned Harley, who had, when they’d last met, tied her up in a giant bow and suspended her from factory equipment on a Lexcorp lab ceiling as bait for Superman. Quinn giggled sheepishly, obviously clear on the meaning of the look. “I meant it,” she said. “You’re a good kid.” And she gave Lois a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Am I,” Lois said dryly, slowing her pace a touch. The high-rising globe of the Planet building ahead was easily visible; she had no worries for her personal safety, but was overwhelmed not only with skepticism but also curiosity at this conversation.

“Harley and I are planning a day of fun and a night of drinks and dancing tomorrow,” Ivy explained, businesslike, “and we want to make sure it makes the papers.”

Now Lois’s raised brows were directed at her. “Legal fun? Legal drinks? Legal dancing?”

Ivy nodded.

“And you want me to report on it.”

Ivy nodded.

Lois tried to decide which of the numerous problems she perceived in this setup to mention first. Her desire to be in possession of all the facts before throwing out ideas eventually prompted a simple, “Why?”

“We want to make it clear as an engagement diamond that we’re together.” Quinn raised her free hand and crossed her fingers significantly. “A big, public day out as a couple, ya know?”

Lois blinked. That explained Ivy’s fond smile, she supposed, at the idea of Quinn’s having been promoted from ‘villain’ to ‘supervillain.’ It also clicked together some gears that began to spin, one turning the other and the next and the next, until the machinery in her head provided an unexpected output. “So you want to send a message to the Joker that he’s good and truly out of the picture, without actually telling him directly.”

“See?” Quinn wondered gleefully. “Didn’t I tell you she was sharp as a pencil?”

“The Joker doesn’t take bad news well,” Ivy said regretfully. “Indirectly seemed the best way to break it to him.”

“Normally I’d say dumping someone by newspaper in another city is about the tackiest way I can think of to end a relationship, but in this case I approve.” Lois stopped walking entirely. “And you want me, specifically, because I’m Superman’s friend and you think the Joker won’t try to retaliate against me for writing the story.”

“Superman’s ‘friend‘?” Quinn let go of her arm and made an exaggerated gesture of disbelief. “Come on, toots, you don’t have to pretend with us.”

Ivy smirked. She truly had an exquisitely beautiful face, that one.

With a sigh, Lois disengaged from their arms and moved toward a nearby bench. She balled up the old newspaper caught between its slats and tossed it into the trash can next door, then sat down on the cold metal. “I’m forever having to clear this up.” Forever perfecting this particular dramatic role was more like it. “I’m not dating Superman; we really are just friends. I’m in a closed relationship with two non-superheroes.”

The other women took the places to either side of her, both showing an almost professional interest. “You shouldn’t let supervillains know you’re not actually with Superman, you know,” Ivy chided, amusement in her tone. “It’ll make us all think you’re an easier target.”

“I couldn’t be targeted much more than I already am,” replied Lois flatly. “You must have noticed I have a supervillain alert at my house.”

“Was that what it was? I wondered how Superman showed up so quickly… I just assumed, as everyone else does, that you two are dating.”

“I mean,” Quinn put in, “there’s nothing wrong with letting people think that! It could just as easily be an open relationship you’re in, right? That’s me and Red here.”

“Just not with the Joker as an option anymore,” Lois mused.

“Exactly! He and I’re like pickles and strawberry jam.” Quinn kicked her legs out from under the bench, then held them perpendicular and reached to touch her toes. Lois noticed that Ivy watched her with barely concealed concern, as if she feared Quinn wasn’t yet entirely convinced of what she said and needed constant care to prevent a relapse. And just this made Lois determined to do what she could for them, off-duty supervillains though they might be. She’d spent far more time with the Joker than she’d ever wanted to, and if this was what it took to get someone out of his clutches, she was ready to play her part.

***

“Read us the description of Quinn’s outfit,” Bruce prompted at a deadpan.

Squinting at the screen in a very human gesture, Clark said helplessly, “I think some of that was Quinn’s outfit…”

Lois grinned. “None of my cell phone pictures do justice to those dresses.”

“They also don’t help me understand a word of this.”

“It’s only a few paragraphs.”

“A few paragraphs,” Clark declared, “more opaque than one of Luthor’s lead-lined walls.”

Lois and Bruce both laughed at him.

“But moving on…” He scrolled away from the highly confusing section. “I don’t quite understand whether this club is indoors or outdoors. People were using the pool in these temperatures?”

“I made it purposely obscure,” Lois replied, yawning again, “so it wouldn’t sound like it was my first time there. It’d be a rookie mistake to gush about the force field.”

“Even in the privacy of your own home?”

“It is an interesting technology.” Bruce had risen to pour himself another cup of coffee, and raised the pot to question whether his boyfriend needed a refill as well. Clark quickly blew the interior of his mug dry, then tossed it across the kitchen into Bruce’s waiting hand. “It allows for an open terrace all around the building, but keeps the winter out. The owner greeted me personally — one rich playboy to another — so I was able to make a rookie mistake and ask him all sorts of questions…” And as he returned to the table with two full cups, he began talking technical details about the low-power, light-bending force field.

At the first available pause, “I don’t like seeing technology like that used purely for the petty entertainment of the rich,” Clark said with a shake of his head.

Bruce shrugged. “Wayne Enterprises might be interested…”

“And the fake fireworks show was pretty cool,” Lois put in. “But that’s all the gushing you’ll get out of me.”

***

“Right,” Lois said in as businesslike a tone as Ivy had used a minute before. “What are your exact plans for tomorrow?”

“We’ll start with lunch at Bienvenue.”

The reporter winced. “That’s great for visibility, but is it going to get more or less expensive after that? Because it’ll be hard to convince people you’re not up to supervillainism when you start that high.”

Ivy’s smile was secretive. “Don’t worry about where the money comes from. Just be ready to write the story.” Obviously she’d caught on to Lois’s interest and willingness.

“All right,” Lois replied dubiously.

Quinn took up the elaboration on their plan with a gleeful glint in her eye. “Next we’re going to the zoo!”

“Less extravagant,” Lois allowed, “but isn’t it a little cold for that?”

“Metropolis Zoo has one of the best savanna animal habitats in the country! We’d be baboons to miss it just ’cause of some nippy weather!”

Again Ivy was giving Quinn that unexpectedly soft smile. “Besides,” she said, “the Metropolis Botanical Gardens are next door, so we can warm up in the greenhouses after that.”

“And you’re sure you’re not planning something illegal.”

“Absolutely.” Ivy’s gaze was very serious as it slid from Lois’s face to Quinn’s as if to say, “Can’t you tell I’m doing this all for her?” and Lois determined not to ask again.

“Then we’ll have dinner at the Calico Club, and–”

“The Calico Club?!” Lois could feel her eyes bugging out of her head at Ivy’s mention of this extremely exclusive restaurant and nightclub belonging to one of Metropolis’ richest, classiest socialites. “I’ve always wanted to go there,” she added in a jealous whisper.

Smugly Ivy said, “Well, now’s your chance.”

“But… but… it’s not just money you need to get in… you have to be on a list…”

“Well, you’re ‘friends’ with Superman, aren’t you?” Quinn winked at her. “It should be easy as pie for you!”

“Hmm…” It occurred to Lois that she probably did know someone that could get her into the Calico Club… but it wasn’t Superman. Finally she nodded. “OK, so you start the afternoon expensive, and you finish the night astronomical. Drinks and dancing after dinner, and then you sparkle off in the same car to the same hotel. Do I have that right?”

“You got it, LoLa! Think you can handle all that?”

Not sure how she rated in having been granted a nickname by Harley Quinn, Lois said restrainingly, “Now, the next thing we have to think about is this: I can’t follow you around to so many different places. I’m not paparazzi, and with you two busy with perfectly innocent activities all day, it’ll make me look more and more desperate for a story the longer I tail you.”

“It’s a good point,” Ivy conceded. “And I suppose a story about our entire day might feel a little contrived in any case.”

Lois nodded. “So I suggest you choose just one of the places you’ll be at tomorrow, and I’ll find you there.”

“The zoo!” Quinn said, while at the same moment Ivy declared, as Lois had feared she would, “The nightclub.”

“Harl,” Ivy said gently, “if she writes about us at the club, she can mention that we were seen at the zoo earlier.”

“And mention the savanna animals habitat?”

“I… might be able to work that in…” said Lois tactfully, extracting her cell phone from her pants pocket.

“The Calico Club it is, then,” Ivy nodded as Lois composed a text message. “We’ll be there for dinner at around 6:30, and should be out to wander the rest of the club and do some dancing after about an hour and a half.”

Quinn laid her hands each on the opposite knee and said proudly, “I’ve been practicing the Charleston.”

Ivy’s fond smile was wide enough to be called a grin this time.

“OK,” Lois nodded. “Next point. I’m not a society reporter. I’m going to frame this story like I was there with–” she glanced down at her phone, pleased with the immediate response– “my own date, and just happened to–”

“What date?” Quinn had been crossing her hands back and forth on her flapping knees, but now jumped up onto those knees on the bench and peered eagerly at the reporter.

“Bruce Wayne,” Lois laughed, pushing away Quinn’s too-close face.

“I thought you dumped him like a load of rubble! It was all over the tabloids in Gotham!”

“We got back together. He and my other boyfriend too. Hasn’t that been all over the tabloids?”

Quinn shrugged. “Eh, sometimes you’re in Arkham and don’t hear the gossip.”

“Wayne’s a decent guy,” Ivy nodded reminiscently. “I once planned to make him into a tree when his company was part of a deforestation project, but it turned out he hadn’t authorized the project and called it off immediately.”

Lois gave a pained grin. “You’ve got to stop saying things like that.”

“He was nice to me too, that one time when I stole his car,” Quinn mused.

“And that,” groaned Lois.

“Our point is that your taste isn’t terrible,” Ivy soothed, “for someone who fancies men. What were you saying about being there with him?”

“Bruce and I will be there doing our own drinking and dancing, so it will look like pure coincidence that you two are there at the same time. Of course a good reporter wouldn’t pass up the chance to write about seeing a couple like you at a place like that, so it’ll look completely natural when I hand in a story about you to my editor as soon as I can.”

The supervillains nodded their understanding.

“The problem is, like I said, I’m not a society reporter. For a story like this, I’ll need to describe what you’re wearing and all that jazz, and I’m hopeless at things like that. I grew up wearing hand-me-down combat boots, and Bruce literally buys all my evening wear for me.”

Quinn collapsed in giggles against the back of the bench. Even Ivy, when Lois turned a glance on her, had one gloved hand in front of her face as if to hide a chuckle. Lois screwed up her mouth in an expression of sardonic and only a quarter serious resentment.

“Maybe you should have Brucie take notes for you, then,” Ivy remarked innocently.

Quinn’s advice, still laughing, was, “You just look at our killer outfits at the club, and it won’t matter what kind of boots you wore growing up! The words’ll just flowwww.” And she made a flowing gesture with her arms as if dancing the hula. “Fashion appreciation is buried deep inside all of us… it’s a girl thing!”

Lois wasn’t so sure about that. But what she was sure of as a girl thing was helping another girl away from an abusive relationship. So she braced herself, at the same time opening the recording app on her phone. “Call me a tomboy, then.” And she tapped the red button. “I assume you already have these killer outfits. Describe them to me in detail — and use all the fashion terms you girls can come up with.”

***

Clark could drink freshly brewed coffee (or any beverage, throat-scorching or otherwise) faster than Lois believed the laws of physics should allow. And in between nearly invisible sips he read out the final paragraph of the article. “As they finished the last dance Dr. Quinzel insisted they stay for — an energetic Charleston bringing a blast from the past to the ultra-modern setting — they also finished their night in the public eye with a passionate kiss. Rumors throughout the building suggest they held hands all the way down to where a Lamborghini the exact color of Dr. Isley’s rose-red hair waited to whisk them off to their hotel a very happy couple.

“The biggest thing I don’t understand–” Clark’s dash to put his newly empty mug in the sink and his tablet on its charger formed barely a break in his statement– “is why you did this at all. You’re not a society reporter, and I’m willing to bet those lead-lined paragraphs earlier didn’t actually come from you. And let’s not forget that you — and you–” throwing Bruce a somewhat accusatory look– “spent the evening spying on supervillains.”

“You say that as if it’s unusual.” Bruce was enjoying his own coffee, and Clark’s confusion, at a more leisurely pace.

“It is when she writes a gossipy society article about it.” Clark looked at Lois pensively. “What could possibly have convinced you to do something like that?”

“Does it bother you?” wondered Lois. By now she’d eaten half the omelet he’d made for her, but yawned widely before her next bite.

“Not at all! ‘Dr. Isley’ and ‘Dr. Quinzel?’ You know I love to see villains reform, and you writing about them so kindly and respectfully can only promote that. But I can’t help feeling like something strange is going on here. Were you under duress?”

Bruce threw a piece of toast at him. “Use your superhuman brain, Clark,” he admonished. “If she were under duress, would I have gone along with it? They are, as you reminded me a few days ago, my villains anyway, not yours.”

Clark caught the toast jelly-side-up and ate what remained of it in two bites.

“They’re my villains now,” Lois contended, “so hands off. I don’t know if they’re really reforming, but they promised they wouldn’t break any laws yesterday.”

“So why did you follow them around the Calico Club and write that vapid story about them?”

“It was vapid, wasn’t it,” Lois chuckled.

Clark just looked at her expectantly.

She hesitated. She didn’t want to say, “You wouldn’t understand,” because he absolutely would, with that heart of his, when she told him… but she didn’t plan to explain until after she’d spent half her day off sleeping and he’d returned from work. So finally she merely smiled and offered somewhat wistfully, “It’s a girl thing.”


This is set in the same world as A Lois Date, but since I haven’t come up with a name for the series yet, it isn’t labeled as such.

The brief descriptive phrases of dresses in this story are bastardized versions of lines from an article written by Amy Verner on the official Elie Saab website. I didn’t wear combat boots growing up, but close enough.

For a few more notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Rise Unseen

“Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

An acquaintance from school, who happens to be a Death Eater now, highlights everything wrong with all of Peter Pettigrew’s relationships.


“I have to say I’m not surprised to run into you here; you always were good at skulking.”

Peter, who had whirled at the first syllable, let out his sharply indrawn breath with a bit of a squeak when he identified the woman that had stepped from the shadows of a doorway and addressed him so unexpectedly. “Lila!” he more gasped than properly greeted. “I- I haven’t seen you since Hogwarts!” He should have stopped there, but, too nervous at this sudden encounter so close to Headquarters, he allowed the next question, and the subsequent attempt at repairing it, to slip out uncautiously: “What are you doing in this part of London? I mean, in London at all? Don’t you live in Kent?”

The witch leaned against the wall beside the smelly bins Peter had been in the process of circumnavigating when she’d appeared, and gave him the bright smile he remembered so well from school. “Is it really so strange for someone to come to London? Visitors from Kent aren’t allowed; is that it?”

“No, of course not.” Peter tried to return her smile, but his could never sunburn the way hers did. “Just a little strange to meet you in this alley. It’s a bit–” he glanced around, in part to indicate what he meant and the rest to break eye contact– “rubbishy back here.”

“Like I said, then, no surprise to find you here.” She flashed her teeth in a chuckle, in which Peter weakly joined. “But it wouldn’t have been a surprise in any case, because I suspected you’d come this way soon. I was waiting for you.”

His blood ran colder than the October chill could account for. Did she know? How much did she know? How did she know? And what was she in a position to do with that knowledge? Her intentions as a Hogwarts seventh-year had been clear, but he couldn’t be completely sure what direction she’d taken once school had ended. He certainly couldn’t blurt out his suspicions here and now, and all he ended up managing to say, faintly, was, “Back here?”

“Damp corridors do seem like the best places to find you.”

*

“What are you doing down here, Pettigrew?” The tone was cheerful and vaguely familiar, and, though Peter could sense the underlying bite to the words, even just the hint of a pleasant sound made the dungeon hallway feel slightly less clammy and chilly.

The face, too, seemed somewhat recognizable as its owner stopped in the doorway of the classroom she’d just been exiting. Yeah, that was right: she was in his year; he saw her in one of his double classes. Her name was on the tip of his tongue, but he had to speak sooner than he could remember, so he merely addressed her by house. “None of your business where I go, Slytherin.” It came out sounding a little less confident than he’d planned, and she noticed.

Her musical laugh echoed off the stone walls around them. “Not so brave without your swaggering friends along, are you, Gryffindor?”

Obviously she knew him better than he knew her, and Peter struggled to recall her name so as to put them on a better footing. Finally he managed it, as well as to come up with something to say other than, ‘Well, I was supposed to meet them down here for something, but they’ve never shown up.’ “No need to be brave when there’s nothing to be scared of.” He tried to make his shrug nonchalant, the way James would have done. “You don’t think I should be scared of you, do you, Sutton?”

“Of course you should.” Again she laughed, and again the sound carried two layers — ‘I’m totally kidding,’ and, ‘I’m totally serious and you’d better watch your back’ — and which he should attend to was as yet a mystery. “I’ve had a glimpse at our marks in Care Of Magical Creatures, and I know how much better I’m doing than you.”

“So?” In reality, though, Peter’s heart fell. He was only taking Care of Magical Creatures because his friends were, but by this late autumn of their third year at Hogwarts, Remus had less and less time to tutor Peter in difficult subjects.

“So,” Lila explained patiently, smile widening but eyes narrowing proportionally, “I’m a lot better than you at that subject. But even I’m having a hard time with fairy management. Since you’re down here, why don’t we go practice together? It might help us both.”

Peter hoped she couldn’t see the mixture of emotions that arose in him at the suggestion. He was surprised, he was suspicious, he was skeptical, but most of all he was interested. He’d had to worm his way into every study group he’d ever taken part in; he’d never had someone suggest to him that they might practice together. And with Remus, his usual recourse, more and more caught up in his own private struggles and with Sirius, Peter could use all the help he could get. But was she serious, or baiting him? There were other objections the idea besides.

“Don’t you have your own friends you’d rather revise with?” he asked cautiously. Most people did, after all; just because his own didn’t seem to care much whether he passed or failed didn’t mean hers didn’t.

She laughed. “I exploit my friends in other ways.” And she sounded so pleasant as she said it. “I think you have latent talents that will be useful in helping me get good marks if I can just help you bring them out a bit first.”

He simply couldn’t help smiling at her tone, even as she blatantly discussed the idea of using him. At least she was very straightforward about her selfish motives. “Do you really want to be seen with a Gryffindor, though?”

She shrugged. “I think you’re more than half Slytherin, but of course we’ll be quiet about it.”

That clinched it. He couldn’t imagine why she’d been watching closely enough to recognize the Slytherin in him, but she’d hit close to his heart. Even after two years at Hogwarts, he’d never been completely convinced the Sorting Hat had made the right choice… and if other people could see it, that meant he wasn’t imagining things. Interhouse rivalries were all very well, but if he’d gone to the wrong place, he needed to get in touch with his Slytherin side… and wouldn’t this be the best, the safest way to do it?

“All right,” he said. “But I don’t make any promises for what my mates will do if they find out.” It was more false bravado, and she knew it.

She twirled her wand dangerously, smiling brightly all the while. “Same here! Let’s go look into fairies, shall we?”

“I actually think I’m starting to get them,” Peter admitted.

“Good! I thought you might be.”

*

She’d taken his arm and was leading him the way he’d come with no slow steps. Now as ever it was difficult to deny her, and his mind was a blank in every attempt at coming up with an excuse for why he didn’t want to return this direction, what he was doing that he needed to get back to. He had to admit, though, it was nice to leave the alley and the smells of rubbish.

Lila had begun chatting about her shopping in London, the outlet they didn’t have in Ashford, and how she’d found just about everything she’d come up here for. She’d always been interested in fashion design, he recalled as she discussed the latest in robes and hats. It wasn’t interesting, and didn’t serve to conceal the minuteness with which she peered at their surroundings, and into the face of every passerby, and watched him for reactions to any of it.

“You must be meeting some friend around here,” she said with an ease belied by the closeness of her examination of the area. “Some of your friends did always seem the London types. You certainly did, so it’s lucky for you you’ve got friends in town.”

She couldn’t trick him that easily into mentioning where everyone was living these days and that most of them apparated over for meetings — nor how formal and deserving of the term those meetings were. But her very use of the word and her assumptive declaration that it must be nice for him to have friends in London left him a little tongue-tied. All he could manage was yet another weak laugh and a mumbled something about Sirius — who did, in fact, live here, as anyone might know.

She tossed her head. “Sirius Black,” she scoffed. “I’m surprised you still keep up with him when I haven’t heard from you more than two or three times since school.”

“Sirius has always been a good friend,” Peter protested, and forced himself not to add, “If you call treating me like an obnoxious little brother when he even notices I’m around ‘being a good friend.'”

Full well she knew, though, what he wanted to follow up with, and she shot him a bright smile. “Oh, yes,” she said airily. “Always.” She gave him a dig in the ribs; he couldn’t tell if it was with her fingers or her wand, it was so quick. “Admit it, Pettigrew: I was a better friend to you than any of that lot ever were.”

*

From where she lay stretched on the sun-warmed stone of the disused Astronomy Tower, having rolled onto her back and away from the book she’d previously had her nose in, Lila asked lazily, “You’ve been spending more time with your blood traitor friends again lately. Have they ever cottoned on to us?”

Not about to admit that the process of becoming animagi he and his friends had of late illicitly embarked upon required a lot more time and attention from him than he’d expected, Peter chose to respond to a different part of her question. “I’m half-blood. You think I’m a blood traitor too?”

Her tone was still languid, and so was the little laugh she gave. “Being a half-blood’s bad enough.”

Peter let out a soft breath that was like the prototype to a laugh in return. Stretching out his legs beneath the relatively giant book on his lap so his toes pointed in Lila’s direction, and noting as always how stubby and unattractive they seemed, he let his eyes fall from the Slytherin girl and his own appendages down to the book’s pages. He turned surreptitiously to the later spot where he’d tucked the Marauders’ Map, and checked the immediate area again for anyone that might come interrupt them and, more importantly, spread rumors.

He tried to be the one carrying the map whenever he was to meet Lila, but lately he felt as if he didn’t really need to be: he doubted his friends would notice his absence, his location, or his company in any case. He was still around them much of the time, but didn’t know if they noticed that either unless they were busy with the animagus process together; they were probably just relieved he didn’t need nearly as much help as in earlier years with his schoolwork. That was largely thanks to Lila, whether she believed him a blood traitor or not, and Peter wasn’t inclined to deny it. It turned out he wasn’t half bad at most school stuff; he merely needed it presented in a different manner, a lot of the time, than conventional teaching methods offered.

Finally, though, he answered her original question. “No, I think they still have no idea.”

“Gryffindors have no subtlety,” she yawned. “They’d pay a lot more attention to you if they knew how useful you can be.”

“You mean,” Peter replied a little dryly, “you help me with what I’m having a hard time with, and that helps you understand it better, so then you get better marks.”

She laughed like golden bells ringing. “You make it sound like that’s a bad thing. Aren’t friend supposed to help each other out? And Slytherins? And better-blooded families?”

Not at all sure what to say in response to this, Peter changed the subject. “So are you getting this stuff about the Arithmantic Renaissance?”

*

He simply couldn’t help admitting, in a quiet, reluctant tone, “You were.”

She threw him her dazzling smile and pulled him closer, squeezing his arm. “I knew it; and I knew you couldn’t deny it.” She’d never ceased her intense scrutiny of the area, and now gestured to a muggle café that stood not far off — undoubtedly a spot where she could watch through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and note from which direction they came. “So let’s have tea like the old friends we are, and try to figure out why you haven’t contacted me in so long.”

He didn’t want her there, watching through the windows for any familiar faces in the street and noting from which direction they came, but it was so hard to say no. He fixed on the best excuse he could come up with. “Do you have any muggle money?”

She waved his concern away. “We’ll just obliviate them. Come on; you look a little peaky, and I’m dying for something chocolate.”

Uneasily Peter went where he was steered, a mixture of emotions and memories not allowing him to be as assertive with her as he wished. He relaxed a little, though, when, on entering the café, they really did embark on a simple and relatively innocuous process of ordering and obliviating, and even then settled at a table not immediately adjacent to the windows. Maybe he was paranoid; maybe he’d been fabricating her significant statements and pointed looks. Maybe they could have an innocent tea together as old friends that truly had met by pure coincidence.

In an alley full bins. In a rundown area of a city where neither of them lived.

Lila dipped a spoon into her tea and cast a patronizing smile of dismissal at the waitress that had brought it out. The young woman had not been obliviated, but obviously took instructions from someone that had, and now appeared a little confused. “Muggles,” the witch said with mild disdain. “They’re not so bad as servants, but it’s a shame they’re not magically enslaved like house-elves; they’d be so much easier to control.”

Peter drew breath to contradict her, but found he didn’t have the energy to voice an opinion he’d never more than half embraced anyway.

*

The seventh-year ball, Peter had heard, was dropping out of favor and might soon be discontinued, but that happy event had not yet taken place, so to celebrate the end of his stint at Hogwarts he was still forced to endure an entire awkward evening of being ignored and overlooked. James and Lily were sickeningly caught up in each other, Remus and Sirius were hiding somewhere together to prevent the latter being mobbed by girls (and a few boys), and all of Peter’s remaining friends were only such through the others.

Except Lila.

“You want to dance?” he wondered in an incredulous hiss. He threw a covert look at the group Lila had left in order to come seek him out — a rough set of Slytherins if ever there’d been one, including Rabastan Lastrange, Calliope Wheatley, Evan Rosier, Sirius’ annoying little brother taking advantage of the fact that sixth-years were allowed to this gathering, and, of course, perennial favorite Severus Snape. “What happened to keeping quiet?”

“We’re leaving school soon,” she shrugged. “I don’t think it much matters anymore.”

He sucked in a reluctant breath through his teeth, but after another moment’s thought decided, why not? He hadn’t anticipated being noticed by the other Marauders or Lily at all this evening anyway; he might as well dance with a Slytherin. And Lila was looking especially pretty tonight in a gown that went from black to blood-red, and smooth shining red stones (Peter didn’t know what they were called) in settings just a few shades lighter than her golden-brown skin.

“OK,” he said. “Let’s dance.”

Of course his skill at this was negligible, and he thought he caught more than one giggle from people around them as Lila clearly took the lead. But it wasn’t too bad. At least he would be able to say he hadn’t lacked a dance partner throughout the entire ball.

“I wanted to talk to you tonight,” Lila said as he struggled to keep up with her steps without stumbling or treading on her feet, “and this seemed like a better way to do it privately than dragging you off behind a curtain or something.”

Peter felt his face go red at the idea. “Yeah,” he said a little shakily. “Thanks.”

“You saw my friends?” She gestured with her head.

“Yeah?”

“We’re a pretty tight-knit group, and we all have similar interests.” Her tone was low, effecting the privacy she’d mentioned, but she emphasized certain words to indicate a meaning beyond their surface level. “We’re planning on sticking together after school, and doing some great things.”

He wished he could say the same for his set. But, although there was a lot of murmuring about taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good, if anyone had made any concrete plans, those hadn’t yet been shared with Peter Pettigrew the permanent afterthought. So eventually he said nothing at all.

“We’re going to be important and respected,” she pursued, “and we’re going to be winners. We’re going to be on top. Everyone else…” She gave her usual bright smile, but there was a touch of wry regret to it as well, and her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. “I can’t say how successful — or safe — everyone else is going to be.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Peter wondered, the voice he found at last yet hoarse and quiet.

All wryness, regret, and indifference burned right out of Lila’s smile, which now shone like the sun. “Because I want you to join us, stupid. You’re not too bad a wizard, but no matter what you decide to do, if you don’t join us, you’ll be in danger. Who knows what could happen? You might die!” Her light, tripping tone as she made such a morbid prediction was utterly typical of her, suggesting jest while assuring him of her deadly earnest.

He shuddered, having no doubt in his mind of exactly what she meant by all this. And her final point had preyed on him, in the shadows of his awareness, for a few years now. Taking a stand and using what they’d learned for good made for a gorgeous castle in the clouds, but here in this actual castle, in reality, he had to wonder just how suicidal such a course might prove. Wouldn’t he be much safer, indeed, as Lila promised, offering no resistance to the way things were going? Not provoking the wrath of the important, the respected, the winners?

And wouldn’t it be nice, for once, to be important, respected, a winner?

What chance did he possibly have, though, at being any of that? If he abandoned his friends and joined Lila’s in their quest for great things — even assuming they would accept him as readily as she did, which seemed doubtful — wouldn’t he simply be trading one group that ignored and undervalued him for another? Her promises should be made to someone less invisible than he was; in reference to himself, he couldn’t believe them.

So he couldn’t accept her invitation. Simultaneously, he’d never been able to give her a direct negative, and now found himself torn in two, wordless and awkward. He stomped on one of her feet three times in a row, tried to move the wrong way, and felt his face getting hotter and hotter.

She laughed openly at him, but as always there was a sense of friendliness to her mockery that kept him from feeling the sting as much as he otherwise would have. “You don’t have to answer right now,” she said a little condescendingly. “As long as you don’t do anything dangerous–” and she flicked a look toward the end of the Great Hall where most of the Gryffindors not busy dancing were amassed– “you should be OK for a while.” None of his immediate circle stood over there, but he caught her drift.

The song ended, and Lila released him and stepped back into a mock curtsey. “Send me an owl,” was her goodbye, and then she headed back toward her cohorts.

*

“So what have you been busy with these last couple of years?” Lila’s eyes sparkled at him across the rim of her teacup.

Peter swallowed, and accidentally poured significantly more sugar into his own drink than he wanted. “This and that,” he said, trying to sound casual.

Lila chuckled. “And some of the other thing?” She’d seen through him, as always, and they both knew what ‘other thing’ she referred to. She bit into her chocolate tart, which silenced her briefly. It might have been the perfect chance for Peter to attempt heading her off, but, as usual, he couldn’t think of anything to say to that purpose. He feared the moment of reckoning was at hand, the moment when ‘OK for a while’ drew to its grisly close, and a cold knot of fear began to grow in the pit of his stomach.

He was right. When she’d finished her bite, Lila asked in the same easy tone as before, “And your friends? What have they all been up to?”

Peter couldn’t speak.

She leaned forward a trifle, forking another gooey piece of tart but pausing with it near her mouth. “You remember the last time we talked in person?”

He nodded. He couldn’t stop remembering it, in desperate detail.

“I have all the same friends — and more — and they’re just dying to hear the gossip about yours.”

Trying to buy time, clutching at the wand in his pocket with his free hand just in case this went suddenly from coaxing to Imperius, he gulped his tea, then choked at its hyper-sweetness. Coughing into a serviette until his eyes watered did give him several seconds, but when he’d finished the artificially extended process he found her gaze still fixed on him.

Like the tea, she was all sugary sludge as she murmured intensely, “So spill.”

And that was when realization hit.

At the Hogwarts seventh-year ball, she’d offered him a place among her proto-Death-Eater friends merely because he was ‘not too bad a wizard’ and she had a passing fondness for the boy she’d used to improve her school marks. She’d never seen any real value in him, and if she hadn’t noticed he was doing better with fairy management than she was, back in third year, her eyes would have passed right over him just like everyone else’s did. And today she’d been sent to sound him out not because she’d developed a sense of his worth, but because he was viewed, when viewed at all, as the weakest link in the Order of the Phoenix, and she’d been more or less his friend for several years.

But now, in addition to whatever value he’d had all along (something he believed in but whose quantity he’d never been sure of), he also had exactly what she wanted. What her same friends — and more — wanted.

Sirius, Remus, James, Lily, his supposed nearest and dearest, those to whom it should have been a priority to encourage and support him… they’d never seen his potential. They’d never seen him as anything but a tag-along, a vague nuisance tolerated mostly out of habit and because he never did anything memorable enough to force them to pay better attention.

Even now, when he risked his life on a daily basis to fight against the rising tide of Death Eaters and for goals he didn’t particularly care about, his sacrifice of personal safety was never recognized the way that of the others was. Oh, Sirius was a disinherited pureblood… Remus was a suffering werewolf… James and Lily had a son, and He Who Must Not Be Named was after them personally… so of course that made them and their work more meaningful than little Pettigrew, who remained in the background toiling away like a house-elf… like a muggle… and likely to get killed just like one because his so-called friends neither noticed nor cared. He probably wouldn’t even get a Dark Mark above his flat, because he just wasn’t that important.

But now he had an opportunity to be important. To be respected, a winner… and safe. The moment of reckoning was at hand, and Peter Pettigrew would be reckoned up at a much greater sum than anyone had expected.

He stood abruptly, rattling the teacups on the table, and looked down at Lila with more confidence than he’d ever used to face her in the past. Of course he had to swallow his fear at the idea of facing someone worse than merely Lila Sutton, his sunny, conniving, manipulative pseudo-friend — yet he believed, in this suddenly assertive mood, he might actually be able to say no to her for once. But for once he didn’t want to. He was taking the step at last that would make him somebody, and somebody that wouldn’t be ignored.

And Peter thought he would always remember triumphantly the startled look on her face as he finally managed to surprise her with the blunt statement, “I talk to the Dark Lord personally, or I don’t talk at all.”


Co-worker Julia gave me the following Monthly Story Prompt:

Peter Pettigrew is obviously weak minded and betrayed his “friends” and gave them up to Voldemort, then suprizingly uses powerful magic to fake his death and make it look like Sirius Black did it all. I want the moments in his life that lead up to this. Did it start at a young age? Was he jealous of his friends?

I had several immediate ideas, but how to make them somewhat interesting was the tricky part. Add to that the health issues just when I got the prompt, and this took approximately forever to write XD

For some later notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



Voice of Experience

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.”

Sofia has a dilemma concerning her sister, and there’s only one princess that can give her exactly the advice she needs.


From the great ballroom doors into the shadowed corridor, the spilling light appeared golden and hypnotic, the spilling sound as sweet an invitation as a delicious scent to the hungry. Nevertheless, Sofia waved a negative at the herald waiting to announce her, and ducked into a side hallway under the pretense of adjusting her scarf with its huge emerald broach and the string of pearls winding through her upswept hair. Perhaps being fashionably late to your own brother’s engagement ball was not quite the thing, but she simply had to take a moment to calm her nerves and make a final desperate bid at overcoming her indecisiveness.

She smoothed her gloved hands down the rustling taffeta beneath her waist. The wide hooped skirts she’d run around in for much of her childhood were a thing of the past, and long, sleek, slender lines such as she’d often admired on classmates the Enchancia fashion now; but — aside from frequently having difficulties, even with Amber’s help, finding a design in that style that flattered her full figure — tonight the royal ladies, in honor of James’s fiancé, were all clad in voluminous-skirted ball gowns with a dozen petticoats inspired by current Avalor fashion — still designed by Amber, of course.

Amber. Sofia clenched her hands into nervous fists. There was a reason she’d requested a gown in green, Amber’s favorite color.

She checked her fan, checked her bracelets, checked her dance card, realized she was stalling, took a deep breath, and turned back toward the doors into the ballroom… and ran into déjà vu as into a brick wall. She’d mostly forgotten, but this wasn’t the first time she’d been through this precise struggle, was it? Back then she’d always worn purple, but the indecision had been the same… even if it might not have meant quite as much, to a child, as it did tonight to a grown woman. In fact it had been in this very corridor…

And as she recalled those events in greater detail, going right through them in her head perhaps as one last excuse to postpone her entry into the ballroom, she suddenly caught her breath, and heat rose to her cheeks. Because she did remember completely now, and she understood.

*

The music flowing from the great doors into the shadowed corridor enticed her, and the scents of the thousands of flowers Baileywick had ordered and painstakingly hung as decorations throughout the ballroom enchanted her, all calling out in hypnotic voices to come in and join the dance. Sofia, however, already late though she was, couldn’t quite bring herself to enter yet. Under the pretense of making sure she hadn’t lost her fan and that the pearls hadn’t somehow detached and fallen from her shoes, she sneaked off into a side corridor to calm her nerves and ponder one last time a question she hadn’t been able to discuss even with her mother or Clover for all she craved advice on the matter.

The fan was there, and the pearls were there, and pondering the question wasn’t any easier in this dimly lit hallway than it had been all week in various other places. With a deep and frustrated breath, she prepared to turn back and make her entrance, though she hadn’t made her decision, when a familiar warmth and light caught her attention and stopped her in her tracks. She lifted her eyes from the glowing, slightly hovering pendant around her neck, her brows lifting as well.

The woman whose figure resolved out of the shimmer before Sofia also wore a ball gown, and appeared as ready to dance as Sofia would be if she could get this question resolved. She smiled at the little princess, and had already begun swaying to the music almost before she finished materializing.

“Princess Anna!” Sofia couldn’t help smiling herself at seeing how eager her visitor was for the evening’s activity. “I didn’t think this was a problem I needed a princess’ help for, but I’m still really glad to see you.”

“I’ll help however I can!” Anna replied. “Oh, and Olaf says hi.”

“Oh… great! Hi to him too! I wish he could have come with you… I could use a warm hug right about now.”

“So what’s the problem?”

Sofia sighed. “I want to ask Amber to dance with me tonight, but I don’t know if she’ll like that.”

Anna’s smile did not alter, but her eyes seemed to take on a serious depth that had previously been nothing more than a sparkle of excitement on hearing the music from the ballroom. “Seems like all you need to do is ask,” she offered, “and then you’ll know!”

“Yeah, but I don’t know if she’ll even like me asking,” Sofia said awkwardly. “Most princesses don’t dance with their sisters at balls… Most princesses don’t even dance with other princesses at balls! It’s just not what princesses do.”

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.” And she dropped unceremoniously to her knees, billowing skirt and all, and reached out to take both of Sofia’s hands. She wore gloves that matched one of the lighter greens on her dress, which clashed with the purple of Sofia’s… and looking at the colors combined to such ill effect made the younger princess more uneasy than ever.

“Why do you want to ask Amber to dance so much?” Anna queried earnestly.

This was easier to explain. “I love dancing with Amber! She taught me how to dance in the first place, and it’s so much fun! I don’t mind dancing with dad or any of the princes, but Amber’s my favorite person to dance with in the whole world. She’s so graceful and beautiful, and we can talk about anything while we’re dancing!”

Anna gave the same nod as before, the one simultaneously impressed and pensive. She squeezed Sofia’s hands. “All right, your little highness, here’s what I think.” And Sofia focused hard on whatever advice she would give, knowing it must be especially pertinent if Anna believed she knew why she in particular had been brought here tonight. “I can’t tell you whether Amber will like you asking her to dance, or whether she’ll say yes or no. That’s all on her end. But for you–”

She suddenly jumped to her feet — no mean accomplishment without tripping over her gown! — and whirled Sofia around like a partner in a particularly vigorous Avaloran salsa. Sofia giggled as she spun, but still caught the rest of Anna’s statement: “If dancing with Amber is what will make you happy tonight, don’t miss out on it because you were afraid to ask! She might say no, but she definitely won’t say yes if you don’t ask!” And Anna spun Sofia back toward her and into the warm hug she’d just recently been wishing for.

After a few moments’ thought, the Enchancian princess accepted the advice she’d just recently been wishing for as well. “You’re right,” she said as she stepped away from Anna and nodded decisively. “I have to try. What’s the worst that could happen, right?”

“Right!” Anna pumped a fist in encouragement. Then she sobered, and her expression turned somewhat distant. “There’s one more thing I need to tell you.”

Sofia focused in again, which made Anna smile.

“This is actually advice for when you’re a lot older; you won’t really understand it now, and you may not even need it then. But if you do need it someday, think back to what I’m about to say, and maybe it’ll help.”

A little puzzled, Sofia said, “What is it?”

“It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in that ballroom. It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in the world. It’s all right to love her more than anyone else around you expects you to.”

“But why would anyone expect me not to love Amber?”

Anna’s expression was both kind and mysterious. “I told you you wouldn’t understand until you’re older. Maybe not even then. Just don’t forget what I said, in case you need it later!”

Again Sofia nodded decisively. The counsel seemed strange, and perhaps a little unnecessary or even redundant, but she thought she could keep hold of it until she understood.

“Now! Ready for some dancing?” Anna gestured toward the ballroom doors with a grin.

“Thanks to you I am!”

“Should I come in with you and show everyone how it’s done?”

Sofia giggled. “I know my family would love to have you as a guest, but I think it would be kinda hard to explain when the amulet sends you back.” And in fact, when she turned from the light spilling out of the ballroom to face Anna once again, that had already happened.

*

The great domed space shimmered from every wall, while the spinning forms of the dance about to end created a blur of gorgeous color. Sofia hardly marked her name and titles from the herald’s lips as the orchestra, now so much closer to her ears, called her again, this time inexorably, with stirring voices. Guests that stood still, like a garden seen from afar, lacked detail just as much as those dancing; the only clearly visible figure at the ball to Sofia at that moment was Princess Amber, resplendent and graceful seemingly at the end of a rainbow tunnel of light and sound.

“There you are!” Amber’s eyes swept her sister from toe to head, in the end meeting her gaze with an approving set to her chin at Sofia’s dress and accessories. “You could have made a flashier entrance, you know, if you’d waited until the end of the opening waltz.”

Even through her lingering nervousness, Sofia couldn’t help grinning at this very typical remark. “I didn’t want to make a flashy entrance. I just wanted to get to you before all the princes started crowding around asking you to dance.”

“Oh, they already did that.” Amber smiled smugly, but her wave was dismissive. “My card is completely full.”

Sofia’s heart sank. “Then why aren’t you out there now?”

“Because Prince Zandar claimed the first two dances and then disappeared,” Amber sniffed. “He probably wandered off to look at the Hall of Armor and lost track of time.”

This was it, then. The second dance would soon begin, and, with Amber fully engaged, now was Sofia’s only chance. Thanking Zandar from the bottom of her heart for his absentmindedness, trying not to show how deep was the breath she took, she screwed up her courage. She’d faced worse trials than this.

“Then…” She dropped into a deep curtsey, fanning out her skirt with one hand and holding the other up toward the gold-clad princess before her. “I would be honored if you would give me this dance.”

“Oh!” Amber seemed unusually tongue-tied after that one surprised syllable, and as Sofia lifted her eyes she found an expression of some confusion on her sister’s face. And even in the midst of the flowers and glittering lights and luxurious ballroom attire and happy visages all around them, the blush that then spread across Amber’s royal cheeks and the hesitant smile that grew on her perfect lips as she reached for the offered hand had to be the loveliest sight Sofia had ever seen.


For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Sketch: To Suggest

She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

On seeing a new set of Nathaniel’s drawings with a new subject, Chloé’s at it again.



Though truth and documentation would always be her primary concern, there was a distinct flavor of sensation to Alya’s journalism. And though she strove to be fair and as kind as reasonably possible, she liked gossip as much as the next high-schooler. She wouldn’t bother to deny it. So when, descending the stairs after class (by herself, as Marinette had pulled a vanishing act the way she so frequently did), she caught sight from that high vantage point of what promised to be a kerfluffle at the bottom, she paused and watched for two reasons: first, in case she might learn something of interest; second, in case she might need to step in and tell off Chloé Bourgeois.

Nathaniel had a marvelous talent for carrying a stack of loose papers while not looking where he went. The sound of their rustling flutter to the ground and under the feet of startled passersby had barely even settled before Chloé had begun the statement that had really attracted Alya’s attention: “Look, Sabrina–” snatching up a sheet covered in headshots and holding it between finger and thumb– “Nathaniel’s finally moved on from his first bad choice.”

Sabrina, under the guise of being helpful but the wicked gleam in her eyes seeming to reflect off the floor and make itself visible even with her head turned downward, had immediately begun reaching for the spilled papers. In so doing she bumped heads with Rose, who had knelt to do the same (though undoubtedly with much kinder intentions). The rest of the flow of students had formed a hasty circle around them so as both to stop stepping on the sketch pages and to observe what transpired.

“Let’s see who his new gross crush is,” Chloé declared, flipping her confiscated set of drawings upward and examining it critically. Her brows went down, and her expression gradually changed from eager disdain to frustrated confusion. “Ugh. I can’t even tell who this is supposed to be. Usually Nathaniel’s chicken scratches are more recognizable than this.” She tossed the paper down in a sort of Get this away from me gesture. “Or do you like someone so boring we can’t even figure out who she is?”

Alya, pressed against the staircase railing in an attempt at letting others pass, grimaced. She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again on the dozen sheets that had gone flying when he’d tripped or bumped into someone. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

I think they’re fine,” Rose protested, grabbing after three attempts the page Chloé had dropped as it switchbacked through the air toward the floor.

But Nathaniel sighed, bending to retrieve the last of the fallen papers. “No, she’s right, Rose. For some reason, not one single one of them came out any good. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.”

“What’s wrong,” Chloé said, never one to miss such an opening, “is obviously that you have a crush on someone who’s not even interesting enough for me to recognize.”

“He does not!” Rose, now on her feet, hugged the pages she’d gathered to her chest like a precious treasure.

At the same moment, Nathaniel said in frustration, “It’s not that! She’s very interesting to look at! It’s just that something seems to go wrong with every picture…”

“Chloé!” Sabrina gasped all of a sudden from where she too had risen and was staring intently at the only couple of sketches she’d managed to get her hands on. “I think it’s Juleka!”

Alya shook her head with a sigh of her own. She’d hoped neither Sabrina nor Chloé would pick up on that. Admittedly the sketches didn’t seem quite right somehow, so there had been basis for optimism…

“Juleka?!” Snatching one of the drawings from her minion, Chloé peered again. “No. Way.” And when she raised her eyes, she was clearly convinced. “I mean, obviously it’s not as bad as the bread-flour girl, but, really, Nathaniel? Juleka, with her corpse makeup and that awful dye job and those tacky gloves?”

More to the point, Juleka, with her preference for other girls? That Chloé didn’t bring that up meant she must not know. Alya let out a breath of relief that Nathaniel’s hopes and dreams wouldn’t be destroyed (yet again) by such a cruel messenger. Someone would have to tell him, though.

“I think we’re going to have to warn Juleka,” Sabrina said in a serious, almost pious tone. “I mean, Nathaniel already turned into a supervillain over one girl he liked…”

Chloé put a finger to her chin. “You’re right, Sabrina. Even if it means I have to talk to Juleka and try to stand her fashion sense for a few minutes, it’s for her own good!” She laughed affectedly. “I’m such a good friend.”

“You’re making a–” Nathaniel began, appearing awkward but not at all disturbed by Chloé’s barely veiled threat. But he went no farther.

“Nathaniel does not have a crush on Juleka!” When Rose raised her voice, it was more squeak than shout, but sufficient to draw the attention of anyone in the vicinity not listening. “And Juleka has adorable fashion sense, and I love her makeup, and I love her hair, and I love her gloves!” She stalked toward Chloé, waving papers in her face, free hand clenched into a little fist at her side. “I asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for me, because for some reason nobody can get a good photo of her and I wanted some pictures!” The tears that came so easily to Rose’s eyes sounded in her voice, but that same tone was unexpectedly assertive enough to have driven Chloé back a few steps with hands raised.

“Calm down!” Chloé protested, obviously unsure, just at first, how to respond to such a confident Rose. “Geez!”

Ever the loyal assistant, Sabrina dashed in here to help Chloé save face. “So you’re saying you’re the one with a crush on Juleka, Rose?”

“Yes!” Rose replied at top volume, retrieving the last of the drawings from the tormentors.

Silence fell around the circle, and now at last Alya began again making her way down the stairs, tensed for conflict. There were certain levels of jerkish behavior everyone had learned to tolerate in Chloé, but if she started throwing homophobia around, Alya wanted to be on the spot ready to smack her down. She’d never heard Chloé’s opinion on the subject, but couldn’t trust it to be a reasonable one.

As the inevitable muttering and giggling began all around them, Nathaniel murmured, “Sorry, Rose; I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s OK, Nathaniel,” Rose broke in, and as she briefly faced him Alya could easily see the tears. But then she returned her gaze to throw what appeared to be a very pointed look from Sabrina to Chloé and back. “I’m not too embarrassed to admit I like another girl.” And with her head held high, she marched from the open circle into the crowd and away.

Frozen in place, jaw slightly slack, Alya lost sight of Rose as a new sound from the crowd filled her ears: much louder mutters and giggles, this time with some shrieking and the occasional Ohhhhhh of triumph and pleased surprise thrown in. Had Rose, little innocent flappable airheaded Rose, just made a snarky implication about Sabrina and Chloé and silenced them both thereby? For they certainly were standing stock-still with scarlet faces trying not to look at each other.

It was a good five seconds longer than her standard before Chloé got hold of herself. The color of her cheeks altering not one whit, she demanded with less outraged certainty than her norm, “What did she just say about me? The very idea! It’s ridiculous — utterly ridiculous!” She stomped her foot and, still without meeting Sabrina’s eyes, called her to heel.

As they stalked away in a huff, pushing between students at the edge of the circle, jeers began to float in from miscellaneous spots around them, only rendering Chloé’s walk all the more exaggeratedly angry. Since some of the taunts were, unfortunately, as homophobic as the sentiment Alya had half feared from Chloé herself, she made a point of shouting them down with, “Aren’t you going to warn Juleka about Rose’s crush, Chloé?”

“No!” Chloé called back, and her words faded with distance despite her annoyed volume. “Rose hasn’t ever been akumatized, so Juleka can take care of herself!”

The interested students began to disperse (not least because M. Damocles had emerged from his office and come to the railing, wondering what was going on below), and the tenor of the surrounding conversation was curiosity as to how much truth there might be to Rose’s implication. Alya herself found it interesting that Chloé had so automatically assumed Rose to be addressing her when it could just as easily have been Sabrina accused of hiding an interest in her best friend.

Glancing around, regaining her bearings and trying to remember where she’d been on her way to when this had started, Alya found herself meeting Nathaniel’s eyes. Unexpectedly he gripped one of her shoulders and gave it a little shake, saying intensely as he did so, “Thanks, Alya.” Then he ran off, probably to collide with someone else and spill a second set of sketches all over the floor.

Since the only thing Alya had actually done just now had been to try to drown out the homophobia in the courtyard, she could only imagine Nathaniel had been thanking her for that. And the implication of that thanks, therefore, was clear. Alya smiled and shook her head, resuming her walk toward the cafeteria and mulling over everything she’d learned in the last several minutes. At some times it was harder than others to keep from turning the school blog into a pure gossip rag.



Rewatching Reflekta (prior to which this is set) gave me this idea. Though it’s understated in the story, I thought it would be incredibly sweet if Rose asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for her so she could have pictures when none of the attempted photos ever came out right. And of course the curse is still in effect at this point, so even Nathaniel’s drawings don’t come out right!

Oh, and did I mention how pansexual everyone is?



Aku Soku Zan(za) (6)



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

Last updated on August 12, 2019

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They’d chosen the case that looked the most interesting and time-consuming of all those currently open to them, and, though it promised to remain just as interesting until it wrapped up, the number of days or hours it would pass seemed to shrink with every new lead Tokio uncovered.

Though she might do it sometimes subconsciously, she never truly wanted to retaliate against men by undervaluing them they way they undervalued her… but sometimes it did seem that male officers completely ignored the emotional nuances of cases and blundered past information whose importance couldn’t have been more glaringly obvious to a more sensitive investigator. Not that Tokio had the precise solution to this mystery yet, but with the picture coming together for her, it was only a matter of time.

Yasuyoto, the old man running the restaurant across the street from where she waited, knew everyone in the area and lived to tell all of them everything there was to be told about one another. In this noble endeavor he was aided by his funny little wife, and even an eccentrically female police officer had only to be polite, buy something insignificant, and word things in an amiable and non-threatening manner to get just about any kind of district gossip from them. This was doubtless the reason the group of local teenagers for whom Tokio now waited made the restaurant one of their hangouts: to take advantage of the information hub while still appearing totally innocent.

These hooligans, all the more docile during the day for being little hell-raisers by night, would probably show up here any time now for their afternoon snack; and once they did, they were sure to be informed with relish by the gossipy restaurateurs that a police officer had been asking about them around closing last night, and why were such nice young men being asked about by the police at such late hours? The nice young men couldn’t discuss their miscreant doings in front of the old couple, so they would make an excuse and then run — if not all the way back to their hideout, at least to some place convenient for them to talk and Tokio to eavesdrop — and she could discover whether or not they were concealing the person around whom this case revolved.

She took some pride in her makeup today. Sometimes she was forced to wash off and redraw the shadows and crow’s feet two or three times before she got them right, but today’s middle-aged woman had been convincing on the first attempt. Even older might have been preferable, but the more wrinkles she applied, the farther away anyone needed to be for her to maintain verisimilitude. As it was, with a little padding, grey streaks in her hair, and a staid married woman’s kimono (in a precisely bland color the eyes slipped right over), she was mobile, unobtrusive, and completely unrecognizable as that weird cop woman.

Why this plausible wife and probable mother of four was skulking around in a side-street small enough to be called an alleyway, in the rain, eyes glued to the restaurant across the way, might have been difficult to explain, but nobody asked because nobody saw her.

Zanza startled her by appearing about forty-five minutes after the rain had, strolling up the street without regarding the elements and heading she did not know where with purpose in his step. His bearing intrigued her, its nonchalance seeming little more than a façade that barely concealed a mixture of what she believed to be contemplation, agitation, and relief. He appeared satisfied and optimistic, but in a way that spoke of having had these emotions delivered via a turbulent scene. Had he spoken to Tsukioka, then? How exactly had that gone?

She peered after him as long as he remained in sight, trying to read him better and get some idea of what she wanted to know. Their conversation earlier had been awkward and low-key unpleasant, despite their best efforts, but also good to get out of the way and promising of better exchanges going forward; and she’d taken from it an impression of Zanza’s desire to comply with his friend’s request immediately. In fact that had been an excellent excuse for her to cut their exchange short: to allow him to get ready to go out in public (not that she suspected there was much involved in that process) so he could meet Tsukioka.

Of course she could have done some general damage control, worked on smoothing over what had happened between them, by regaling him about the current case and her need to put a bunch of subtle wrinkles and shading on her face, but the other option had seemed quicker and much less emotionally demanding. She still felt like a bit of a coward.

Her full attention returned to the restaurant as Zanza disappeared up the street. The volume of rain drumming just above her head increased every moment, and still no sign of her targets. If they were suddenly changing their habits just when she’d begun looking into them, either they were hiding Ichiro, as she believed, or they knew someone suspected them of it and were up to something else they didn’t want to fall under scrutiny. She would give them a little while longer to show up, though.

A tattered umbrella was the next distraction to come into view, and Tokio barely caught a glimpse of the face beneath it before its bearer had ducked into Yasuyoto’s. And this actually struck her as more interesting than Zanza’s appearance, though in the same vein. Not only was it the second time she’d seen Tsukioka by chance since his adventure at the Internal Affairs office, for him to show up so soon after his friend along the same street…

Well, he didn’t live too far off, and couldn’t a man leave his home and enter a nearby restaurant without all eyes upon him? But why not eat with Zanza, when they’d probably been together and had definitely come the same direction? The kenkaya had evidently had somewhere to be, but was that by his own choice or because Tsukioka had dismissed him? Zanza hadn’t seemed anywhere near as unhappy as Tokio assumed he would if the discussion with his friend had gone badly — assuming it had taken place at all — but if it had gone well, why had they separated? Did it relate at all to the fact that this restaurant was one of the district’s best information mines?

She’d seen the light of inspiration in Tsukioka’s eyes when they’d spoken the other evening, and knew he’d been on the verge of some sort of breakthrough. Did his behavior today have anything to do with that? Did he specifically want gossip from the Yasuyoto couple, or was this merely an early dinner? She wished she knew him well enough to ask, because curiosity was about to kill this cat. The best she could postulate at the moment was that, if he had some inappropriate plan, he must not have told Zanza about it; she didn’t believe the latter would have been nearly so satisfied in the wake of such news.

So the question was: did Tsukioka have some new subversive scheme he hadn’t disclosed to his friend, with whom he must then have had a deceptively placating conversation not too long ago in order to set Zanza at his ease? Tokio wanted to trust him, trust that whatever idea had sparked during their exchange the other evening had been an acceptable one. She didn’t like to think that a friend for whom Zanza had exerted so much might be deceiving him — but, though it was little to the credit of Zanza’s discernment that she thought so, she had seen too many corrupt, exploitative friendships and known too many idealistic radicals to be entirely convinced just yet.

At any rate, Tsukioka remained in the restaurant for long enough to convince anyone he’d had an innocent meal, not to mention long enough for the time Tokio had planned to give the hooligans to show up to have expired. In light of this, she decided to set the Ichiro case aside for a while and follow the artist when he emerged. If Hajime faulted her on this behavior, she could easily point out that it was his case too and she hadn’t seen him around here today. Of course he was undoubtedly doing something important — that was all he ever did — but he couldn’t deny having left her alone on this one.

Despite the excellent cover provided by the weather, she made more than a conscientious effort to remain totally undetected as she trailed Tsukioka up the wet, grey street, and he gave no sign of being aware of her. Beyond that, he acknowledged none of the few people he passed; he went at no greater speed than a natural walking pace; he seemed not at all nervous; in general, he succeeded in looking absolutely normal and trustworthy. Her misgivings didn’t necessarily lessen at this, but it seemed a good sign.

He entered a shop that sold paper and ink and emerged with a large package, which he shielded more carefully under his umbrella even than his own person; so far, for an artist, so unremarkable. After this they went in the direction of his home, and Tokio began to relax. On this little rainy day outing, at least, it seemed Tsukioka had no more sinister intentions than a bit of shopping. Or so she was ready to judge, until the moment Tsukioka recognized with a mostly unobtrusive nod a man leaning against the building’s corner in the shadows, who disappeared the moment after into the alley behind.

Her suspicions redoubled. That he could appear so very unassuming, so perfectly innocent, and still be up to something all along cast him in an even worse light than before. And that Zanza had apparently left him in such a satisfied mood and, she guessed, with no hint of suspicion that his friend would immediately after their discussion get started on some clandestine pursuit, spoke of deception and betrayal.

She spent the rest of the distance to Tsukioka’s apartment urging herself to be rational about this. There could be a perfectly acceptable, if not necessarily technically legal, explanation for the secrecy of the exchange she’d witnessed, something that fit with his new idea that didn’t involve destruction and war. Zanza might have seemed so satisfied simply because Tsukioka had, in fact, told him everything, and that everything was nothing to worry about. She didn’t have enough information yet to properly read the situation, and she shouldn’t jump to conclusions. But since Tsukioka might also be planning to bomb something, and that man he’d exchanged nods with was his new confederate, she kept up her surveillance.

For the next long while she listened uneasily for any sign of unusual activity from within his home, but there was none. Indeed, but for the light still unquestionably lit within, she might have thought he’d gone to bed early, for not a sound reached her above the pattering of the rain. This, for greater concealment, she endured without her umbrella, certain her wrinkles were horribly smeared at best.

He certainly was quiet in there! Surely if he planned something for this evening, he would not be so idle at the moment? Though since she never engaged in terrorism herself, she couldn’t be certain what preparing for it entailed, and whether it wasn’t just as likely that the nod earlier had been an ‘everything is ready’ indicator and Tsukioka had only to wait until the appointed time. Still, based on what she’d seen in his demeanor as she’d tailed him, she couldn’t bring herself to believe it would happen tonight.

Of course the only way to find out for sure was to remain here until then, and she’d come to the point where she had to decide whether that or returning to the Ichiro case should be her priority — whether to give more credence now to her paranoia or her surveillance instincts, her desire to protect Zanza or to trust his friend (and, by extension, his judgment). If only it didn’t all seem to balance out so equally.

Arbitrary as her eventual decision was, she felt as satisfied with it as she had with anything today or lately. She would talk to Hajime later and bring him up to speed on all this; she would talk to Zanza when she had a chance, awkward as it might be, and find out what he knew. But for the moment, she left the observation of the artist to the falling rain.

***

The glance Sano cast around the area as he picked his way from the street down the shallow gully that sloped between two properties was observed and assessed by Saitou, who waited at the point just before where the ground took a more precipitous dip toward the river. The young man appeared appropriately suspicious, ready for anything but for battle most of all. Still, though Saitou would never wish to encourage pointless paranoia, if Sano’s correspondent had intended him harm, the bravado and carelessness with which he looked around would have availed him little walking into such a perfect ambush scene.

As the kenkaya attempted to avoid the deepest mud, the downpour reached a point where it defied credulity that so much water existed in the world, let alone in the sky above them, and details blurred any farther away than about arm’s length. So Saitou couldn’t examine Sano’s expression any further, and only by the color of his uniform did he believe Sano might guess his identity.

The young man splashed along the side of the indentation, descending the general slope, and as he drew nearer and the rain eased up a trifle, Saitou could make out the mixture of skepticism and annoyance on his face. When he’d come close enough, he said in a bit of a grumble, “So it was you, was it? I was hoping for some kind of fight.”

“You found one.” Saitou gestured and turned.

“What’s the big idea?” Sano followed obediently, and they both slid down the steep wet hill onto a flatter space where the rainwater oozed in a less confined channel into the river beyond. Scrub blocked their view of the latter in that direction, and the walls of the flanking properties rose above the bushes and behind the trees to either side, creating a relatively open — if boggy and a little cramped for the purpose — and very private space in between.

Saitou turned to face Sano. “You need training.”

With a dubiously belligerent expression, looking around at the hidden field, Sano wondered, “In this weather?”

“What better cover?”

“Why not just at night or something? Well, yeah, I guess I have shit to do at night, but… in the rain?”

“People who are afraid of getting wet,” Saitou said in a mocking tone of patient explanation, “tend to stay inside when it’s raining. Beyond that, visibility is bad. We’re less likely to be seen now than at any other time. Do I need to explain why it’s better for us not to be seen together?”

“All right, all right. You’re heartless. What am I learning?”

Saitou felt some surprise at finding Sano amenable to the suggestion of training; maybe the young man’s bravado and carelessness were more of a show than he’d realized. Good for him. The officer began to unbutton his soaked jacket, and replied with a smirk, “How not to get stabbed and knocked out.”

The scowling Sano appeared to be trying to come up with something to say. But having been so thoroughly beaten by Saitou when they’d fought before evidently left him with little defense — quite appropriately, given he had so little in general. He settled for mimicking the man opposite him and stripping his upper half… which, though he probably didn’t know it, was retort enough.

This physical admiration had crossed a line into the realm of lust. With perfectly formed shoulders, beautifully tanned skin shifting over taut muscles as Sano shivered slightly in the cool rain; with clear droplets running past prickling nipples and over near-transparent skin-tight wrappings to disappear teasingly into clinging pants, he should really consider himself luck Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion.

He didn’t realize how long he’d been staring until Sano said, perhaps a trifle uncomfortably, “What?”

Then he wondered for an extended moment whether or not to be frank. He wanted to believe there would be no harm in making his interest known, wanted to believe a casual admittance of admiration would not come like an unexpected blow… but there was still the chance it would be exactly the wrong thing to say. He dared not risk driving Sano to desert their cause — not with Sano’s role so central. The ambiguous situation with Tokio remained as well. He couldn’t discover that those two had spent more than one night together so far, yet they might be more deeply involved than that fact seemed to imply. Best to keep his own counsel as he excelled at doing.

But the part of him that longed to run his mouth over each scar on the rain-drenched chest opposite him and see if they tasted as good as they looked whispered, He’s right; you are heartless. And, “Studying your balance,” he lied, pushing that thought away in annoyance.

“Why? Something wrong with it?”

“Maybe. Try to attack me.”

Sano’s face finally took on a more pleased expression as his demeanor went in half an instant from static to vigor, and he growled in a tone surprisingly devoid of anger (for now), “I’ll do more than try!”

What followed was a sore test of temperance. Despite Sano’s initial lack of complaint, he didn’t relish the idea of altering his clumsy fighting style, and felt the need to resist everything Saitou tried to show him. This was not the true difficulty, however. Sano’s stubbornness, though frustrating, was more of a challenge, a game, and almost more endearing than anything else. Saitou’s real trial was holding to his resolve of aloofness in a secluded place with a soaked, panting, flushed, increasingly angry young man glaring at him in perfectly unwitting sexiness. No matter what Sano did, no matter how reckless or stupid the move he chose to respond to Saitou’s techniques with, it looked good, and only the cool rain kept the heat of their exercise from being a serious problem in some areas.

As the force and volume of precipitation began to lessen in preparation for ceasing all together, Saitou brought the lesson to an end as well. “You need quite a bit of work still,” he told Sano, a little breathless even himself, “so unless you have something else to do, we’ll plan to practice here every time it rains.”

That Sano did not immediately protest was hopeful, but he didn’t exactly jump at the suggestion either. “All right,” he grumbled, “if you say so. I still don’t think I’m all that bad.”

“Once you can hold your own against me, I’ll let you say that.”

Sano stuck out his tongue. God, he obviously just had no idea.

Saitou changed the subject. “How close are you to either of our gangs?”

Slicking back his wild, wet hair (futilely) with each hand in succession, Sano answered. “I’ve got some people talking up letting me back in to Tone, so I figure that one won’t take much longer. Then once I trash some guys in the fights in Azabuku, the Karashi’ll probably be begging me to join them.”

“So those are active again, are they? We’ll have to shut them down as quickly as last time as soon as you’re done with them. It’s convenient timing, though.”

“Yeah, I was pretty happy to hear about ’em.”

“Just don’t get yourself killed.” This admonishment was only half serious in tone. “Those fights have always been brutal, and my wife won’t forgive either of us if you die.”

The statement had been a bid for information about the state of things between Sano and Tokio, but its results were different from anything Saitou had expected. Sano stared at him with brows lowered, looking slightly confused and as if he hadn’t quite heard right. “What did you just say?”

Puzzled by Sano’s expression, Saitou reworded. “Tokio won’t light any incense for you if you get killed in the Azabuku fights. And as for me…” But he fell silent, watching Sano in increasing bemusement.

The young man’s mouth opened once or twice, emitting no sound. Finally it simply remained slack. His eyes were equally wide, unblinking. After several long moments he dragged his jaw up with an evident effort and said, “But you called her your… You and her are…”

Recognizing at last the source of Sano’s astonishment, Saitou could find no other outlet for his own than disbelieving laughter. And at the sound, the younger man’s expression of shock and chagrin gradually crimsoned, whether in embarrassment or anger Saitou couldn’t be sure.

At length he said, “How is it possible you didn’t know we’re married?”

“Nobody ever…” Sano spluttered his way through his explanation. “I mean, somebody did tell… but I forgot… And she uses her old family… and-and she and I–” His blush intensified as he ceased abruptly.

“Ahou ga.”

“It’s not my fault!”

“Whose fault, then? You’re lucky we didn’t have this conversation before I hired you, because I never would have.”

“Just because I didn’t know Tokio is… is… ” He seemed to choke on the words.

“To have picked up so little when you were researching me isn’t very promising for an undercover agent.”

Sano ran his hands through his hair again, this time in a motion more like pulling at it in agitation than squeezing excess water from it. “Someone did mention it — I remember that now — but I didn’t really care! so I didn’t bother to remember it. I was researching the best way to fight you, not your personal life!”

“And her given name didn’t jog your memory? Nor the fact that we live together?”

“But you two don’t act like…” Sano no longer met Saitou’s eyes, and his face, if possible, glowed even redder than before. “I mean, why don’t you…”

The officer had been entertained by this exchange up until now, but Sano’s growing embarrassment was no good sign. Why would he blush so much, after all, or question intimate details if not from awkwardness or guilt about something that had happened between himself and Saitou’s wife? This was not unforeseen, really, just discouraging… but at least it served as some confirmation.

Saitou allowed Sano to proceed for a few fumbling moments — dancing around his real point, eventually trailing off, and looking again, hesitant but angry, up into Saitou’s face — before answering succinctly, “Our marriage is one of friendship and convenience. I’m not romantically interested in women.”

“Ohhh.” Sano sounded relieved and enlightened. Then silence fell just as the rain sank to a quiet, negligible sprinkle. The kenkaya once more had his eyes turned away, and obviously no idea where next to take this conversation.

Stifling a sigh Saitou finally said, “I believe we both have work to do.”

“Right.” Sano began searching for his gi. “Yeah.” Throwing the recovered garment over his shoulder with a splat against his bare skin and turning hastily, again not meeting Saitou’s gaze, he added, “So here whenever it’s raining, right?”

“Yes,” Saitou replied, and watched the young man walk off without any further word of goodbye.

Once Sano had struggled up the slippery hill and out of sight, Saitou found his own discarded jacket and absently reached into its pocket, glad he’d thought to tuck his matches into the water-resistant cigarette case before the rain started. For a long time he stood in the long, wet grass as the sun came out and dried his skin, smoking in thoughtful silence.

***

Looked at in a practical light, no logical reason existed for Sano to be so agitated about this. Understandable as it was to be a little agitated upon discovering a woman you’d slept with was married, and all the more humiliating and potentially dangerous as it made the situation to learn her husband was your boss, if you’d found out at the same moment that said boss only liked men and probably wouldn’t care you’d slept with his wife, the reaction should be negated, right? And since both Saitou and Tokio had obviously assumed he’d known all along, he couldn’t rationally be upset with either of them. So why did this bother him so much?

So rattled he couldn’t keep still, he wondered in a silent shout how many things a person could be expected to keep track of at once. He hadn’t ceased mulling over his own character and life philosophies… he hadn’t stopped worrying about Katsu and his life philosophies… He needed to go to Azabuku and impress basically the entire district, then find someone that knew about the fights so he could get signed up or passworded in or whatever it would take. He needed to find Kanno or some other Furukawatai jerk and check on his status there. He needed to figure out a way, in the middle of that, to help make Kotono’s situation less miserable. And now he really needed to get away from reflections on Tokio and Saitou and why it bugged him so much that they were married.

At first he couldn’t decide which item of business to pursue this evening — mostly because the aforementioned agitation had left his planning abilities in scattered pieces. He would like best of all to sit down calmly at a quiet bar somewhere and try to drink his head straight… but he hadn’t much enjoyed giving Tokio’s husband a no-real-progress report earlier. Saitou hadn’t said so, but Sano knew he would appreciate greater speed and efficiency. But which gang to play with tonight? They operated out of different districts, so the average night held insufficient hours to try making contact with them both.

After attempting some breathing exercises to calm himself (though pretty sure he got them wrong), eating some leftover rice that had to be finished off now or never, and confirming that the clothing he’d left draped beside the stove to dry had mostly done so, he finally managed to come to what actually seemed an obvious answer now he thought about it. If he harassed members of the Furukawatai about reentering the gang, it would make him seem desperate. They already knew he was poking his nose in that direction, and they specifically wanted him back; best to let the matter stew. The Azabuku fights, on the other hand, could already have started, and, for all he knew, the Karashigumi had no idea, as an organization, that he existed.

Dressed now in wet shoes, damp pants, and a very wrinkled gi he hadn’t had time or inclination to steam properly, he at last issued forth to spend the final light of the day carefully examining all the establishments in Azabuku where Karashi members seemed likely to show up. Taking special pains not to let it look like he traversed a premeditated route, he considered the probable schedules of such people based on his own history in a gang, and which of these bars and opium dens and gambling halls promised the strongest and most pugnacious of them.

He did this with a scowl on his face, partly in pensiveness and partly directed inward at his fixation on irrelevant facts. At least the expression matched his intentions; he’d decided the best way to attract the kind of attention he needed was to go heavy on the tough-guy act and get thrown out of a few places around here for fighting. All right, this didn’t constitute much of an act. He would have to be careful not to take it too far. Tokio (‘Takagi‘ Tokio his ass) would never let him hear the end of it if he got arrested during the course of what was essentially police work. He didn’t like to think what Saitou himself (who was just as married) would have to say about it.

A surprising amount of the time, bars that appeared to be the scummiest pockmarks on the world’s face actually had cleaner noses than their slightly less grimy and run-down fellows — possibly because they were ideal raiding-places for bored police rookies, and possibly because yakuza types, even the thugs, tended to consider themselves too high-class for such establishments. Therefore, though his own tastes weren’t so discriminating in the presence of decent drink and the absence of drug addicts, Sano avoided anything matching that description. And by the time true darkness had settled, he’d composed a sufficiently long mental list of places he thought worth visiting, and wondered idly how many of them it was safe to get tossed out of in one night.

The next problem he encountered, immediately inside the first bar, was how not to give the impression he was expecting someone or keeping an eye on the clientele, only angry-drinking or longing for a good fight. The subtle difference between how he wanted to appear and how he didn’t might make things difficult. It would be a breeze if he could drink a decent amount, fulfilling the bar’s purpose like everyone around him, but, being low on money (because a certain married man hadn’t yet given him the wage he’d promised), and wishing to remain cautious and observant and clear-headed, he had to limit himself.

Eventually, planning to keep an eye open for anyone he could insult or be insulted by in order to start some trouble, he decided on the brooding-in-a-corner look. Nursing a single drink (all he wanted to pay for) was really only convincing in solitude with a grim face, after all. And he had no difficulty coming up with a subject to occupy his thoughts and keep that scowl in place.

Might Tokio have said something to her… husband (thinking of Saitou in such terms remained almost mind-boggling) …about having slept with Sano? No, Saitou wouldn’t have failed to bring it up and work it into his mockery of Sano’s ignorance if he’d known. And she wouldn’t say something now, would she? Now they’d decided not to do it again? He couldn’t think of any reason Saitou should need to know about that. He also couldn’t think of any reason he should care so much whether or not Saitou knew, aside from wanting to avoid more mockery, but he did. Dissonance arose in his head whenever he considered having slept with Saitou’s wife. Perhaps he only worried Saitou would object to him as a partner for Tokio, believe him not good enough for her or something. But the affair had ended, so what could the officer even say along those lines?

“Gotta problem, kid?”

He’d become so lost in reflection as to completely miss that he’d been staring straight at someone for maybe quite a while. Now as he came to his senses, he couldn’t even curse himself for losing track, as this was exactly what he needed. “Name’s not ‘kid,'” he replied at a growl.

“I don’t give a fuck what yer name is,” said the object of Sano’s absent gaze. Burly and disgruntled-looking, he might be precisely the right type of person for the task at hand. “Just keep yer pervert eyes off my ass.”

Sano struggled not to show how much this startled him. He’d been very unaware of the direction his eyes pointed! But he managed to recover without letting his glower falter, and sat up straighter to indicate a greater level of engagement. “Most guys’d be proud I was checkin’ them out, but for someone as ugly as you, it’d be more logical to be scared shitless I’m just gonna kick that stupid ass out to the street.”

“You lookin’ to get killed?” the man snarled, and Sano had to work to keep from grinning at how well this was going. Not so difficult at all, really, putting on a show of this sort.

“Lookin’ to teach some cheeky bastard like you a lesson, maybe.” It took some practice to rise quickly from the benches at most bars without the movement appearing awkward and entirely backfiring even if you didn’t outright fall over, but fortunately Sano had had that practice. He stood abruptly to see if the guy would startle, and when the thuggish fool didn’t flinch, the pleased younger man added in a slightly louder tone, “Ain’t had a good fight in forever.” Entirely untrue, this, since he’d fought Saitou earlier today — right before the cop had mentioned he was married to Tokio — but the district needed to hear it.

The stranger stood as well, from a stool that took less dexterity and experience to leave smoothly. “You little shithead, I’m gonna–” But he was cut off by the appearance at his side of another man, who shook him hard and leaned up to whisper something roughly and beratingly in his ear. Sano definitely caught the words ‘kenkaya Zanza’ and ‘strong.’ So at least he had some reputation left; at least his recent loss to Tokio’s husband wasn’t the talk of the entire town.

The primary antagonist’s red face soured even further, and he pushed his friend aside mid-admonishment. Somewhat to Sano’s dismay, he said as he closed the distance between them, “You think I’m scared’a some failure who got his ass kicked by a cop? Yeah,” he added with an unpleasant little laugh, “yeah, I heard about that, Zanza.”

So maybe it was the talk of the entire town. Sano tried to plan in haste.

“Did your friend there have to tell you about that too?” he taunted as he weaved between two badly thrown punches. (His enemy had obviously taken a tad more to drink than he had.) “Does he always tell you bedtime stories?” He was buying space to think with these weak lines, but it also made him chortle a bit to see how angry the guy got.

Obviously next he must take this man out in the flashiest, concisest manner possible. But he also needed to make it absolutely clear to anyone paying attention that a kenkaya Zanza that had gotten his ass kicked by a cop still made a desirable acquisition for organized fights and for the Karashigumi. Not having a lot of time at the moment, he plunged into the first scheme he formulated without giving it much further thought.

Voices shouting at them to stop fighting or get out of the bar were converging from multiple sides, and the older man was making some new threatening statement Sano didn’t bother paying attention to. Instead, he said loudly as he continued to dodge, “Lemme tell you one too: everybody — even me — figures out eventually there’s always someone stronger than him. And for you and everyone else in this room…”

He caught the man’s right fist in his left hand, leaning back slightly so the wide upper body behind it bent forward inadvertently to follow. Then, using the strength of his legs rising from the crouch this had put him in to add extra power to his punch, he struck upward into the enemy’s stomach, lifting him off his feet and flinging him toward the low ceiling. The contact of body and plaster provided only a dull thud, since the guy’d been damned difficult to throw that high in the first place, and in the wake of the disappointing sound Sano finished his cocky statement: “…that’s me!” And he stepped aside as his enemy made a much more satisfying noise hitting the floor in front of him.

He wondered what Saitou, the husband of Tokio, would say about that move. Probably that Sano had been foolish to leave himself open for a left hook; what if he hadn’t been able to get in his punch quickly enough, and had been knocked out as payment for his showboating? Tokio, the wife of Saitou, would probably mock him for the showboating too, even if she had nothing to offer on his technique. It wouldn’t help to point out that he needed to showboat, and only did it (well, mostly did it) in the pursuit of their goals.

“And I’m still lookin’ for a good fight,” was his closing statement, rendered a touch grumpier in tone than he could have affected on his own by the thoughts he’d been entertaining.

“You need to leave,” came a voice over his shoulder. Much of the room had turned to chaos now as whoever this was threatened him, two other solid employees approached with a wakizashi and a club respectively, the downed loser’s friends clustered around to discover whether or not he’d died, and other patrons crowded for a good view and commented among themselves. Little more could be gained in here tonight.

“Yeah, yeah.” Sano waved the man behind him away with one hand, the two in front with the other. “You need to make sure your clients don’t bug me while I’m drinking.” Belatedly, already heading for the exit, he added, “Unless they’re actually worth fighting.”

The temperature outside compared comfortably well to the overstuffed bar, though the nearby gutters, still running high from the afternoon’s rain, scented the air just about as pleasantly as body odors and whatnot did within. The cloud cover had mostly passed, but a faint haze rising from the area’s various establishments colored the air, and the stars looked as dirty as the ground beneath his feet. These he moved smartly, heading for the next bar and the next fight. He wished he could gamble as he had the other night, but his near lack of funds made that unfeasible.

As he walked, he considered how he’d handled that last scenario, and decided he didn’t like it. He’d entered into it by lucky accident while distracted, then been so focused on how he would knock the guy out and what he should say to get his point across that he hadn’t paid sufficient attention to the people around him. How long had that man’s sleeves been? Might Sano have missed a chance to look for a Karashi tattoo? Had any been visible elsewhere in the room?

A voice spoke suddenly in his head: “You’re lucky we didn’t have this conversation before I hired you, because I never would have.” Because, yeah, Saitou wouldn’t have anything nice to say if he knew how inattentive Sano had been. He would probably connect it to Sano’s previous obliviousness about his nuptial state, and come to unflattering conclusions. And Tokio wouldn’t be much help; she was married to the bastard, after all. Besides, the only skill of Sano’s she could really attest to was…

He scowled and pushed onward, pushing at the same time all such thoughts out of the way. He had work to do: people to intimidate and awareness to attract, fights to start, and so on.

Now if he could only get the platonic married couple in his head to leave him alone while he did it.


For some notes on these story segments (starting with the third; evidently I got lazy), see this Productivity Log.


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.

My first posted DCAU fic! Congratulate me! These three are so damn cute that you can definitely expect more from me about thems in future.

I’ve rated this story even if it is mostly fluff :D

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!

For a few author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it and actually wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up.

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. I’ve rated it


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. I’ve rated it

Her Own Words

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. I’ve rated this story


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. I’ve rated it

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 But it worked out pretty well, and I give it a