Stumped

“You’re always so honest. I feel like I could come to you about anything.”

Spike wonders whom to ask to spend Hearts and Hooves Day with him. Applejack may know.


“Prop that there log up under here, would you, Spike?”

Proof of the little dragon’s trust in Applejack was the readiness with which he seized the piece of firewood in question and hopped down into the awkward hole beside her in order to squeeze it under part of the enormous tree stump she was holding partially up with her forehooves. If she were to lose her grip, the thing would swivel down on top of them, retaking its place in the gap in which they stood and crushing them without a trace.

As it was, once Spike had wedged the log in place and vacated the hole, Applejack eased the stump down to test it; and when it held, standing perpendicular to its usual position propped on the other piece of wood, she made a satisfied sound and also jumped out.

“Hey, Applejack!” was Spike’s belated greeting.

“Hiya, Spike,” replied the amused pony as she positioned herself just at the edge of the hole.

“Can I talk to you about something?”

“Sure thing, if you don’t mind me workin’ on this gol-durned stump at the same time.” She turned her back to the object in question, looking over her shoulder to adjust her angle.

“OK,” said Spike, then took a deep breath. His next phase came out all in a rush: “I need some advice about Hearts and Hooves Day.”

With great precision and all the force she could muster, Applejack bucked at the stump, hoping with the motion to disengage the two stubborn and inconveniently deep roots that yet held it in place. Unfortunately, all it actually did was dislodge the log from the stump’s jagged underside and bring the latter creaking inevitably back down into its former home. “Darn it,” Applejack muttered. Then she turned to Spike, who had watched with interest. “You need advice on how to ask Rarity to spend Hearts and Hooves Day with you?”

“Well…” Spike traced a pattern in the dirt with one clawed foot. “Not exactly. See, I like Rarity… I really, really, really like Rarity… but…” He gave a hopeless sigh. “She still thinks of me as a kid.”

“Rarity is real sophisticated,” Applejack admitted. “I think she’d prefer somepony older.” She didn’t mention, as unhelpful, how little it improved matters that Twilight always referred to Spike, however affectionately, as a ‘baby dragon’ — which, though it might technically be true in terms of years, proportionally speaking, gave an inaccurate impression of Spike’s level of development and maturity.

“Yeah,” said Spike, wistful and admiring. “So sophisticated.”

“Won’t do any good to dwell on it,” Applejack said with matter-of-fact sympathy. “Who’re you gonna ask instead?” She was studying the stump from all sides again, trying to determine, since bucking hadn’t worked, what would be the most efficient method of getting it out of there.

“That’s…” She could hear him pawing the ground again, but presently this was overridden by a brief belching sound and the rustle of paper. “…actually what I want your advice about.”

She glanced over to find him holding a scroll that, as it unrolled, proved longer than he was tall. Stifling a laugh she commented, “You’ve been workin’ for Twilight for too long.”

“Do you think so?” Spike asked somewhat anxiously. “Just, she’s the first pony on my list…”

Applejack had gone back to examining the troublesome roots. “Just a joke, Spike,” she assured him with a grin. “Twilight’s a genius when it comes to organization, and that’s been useful to everypony in this town.” Moving to the wagon in whose bed her tools waited (not to mention a huge heap of firewood from the tree she’d felled), she hopped up. As she tossed her shovel shoes down over the side, their brief presence in her mouth muffled her subsequent words somewhat: “But for Hearts and Hooves Day, dontcha think you might like somepony a little more spontaneous? She’d probably put you on a tighter schedule than you’d really enjoy.”

Spike made a note on his list (she had no idea where he’d been keeping the quill) as Applejack jumped back down from the wagon. “Well, there’s Rainbow Dash,” he suggested, hovering the tip of his pen over another spot on the paper.

Applejack chuckled. “Can’t get better than Rainbow Dash for spontaneity!” Adjusting her shovel shoes and slipping her forehooves into them, she added, “Rainbow’s a lot of fun, too. You’d have an excitin’ Hearts and Hooves Day with her! She might wear you out, though; she doesn’t always notice when ponies around her don’t have as much energy as she does.”

“True,” Spike agreed with a nod, and jotted something down. “But I bet I wouldn’t have to worry about that with Fluttershy!”

Applejack had begun driving the blades now attached to her feet into the earth beside one of the problem roots. She would never be able to get at the stupid thing with a saw, but if she cleared the dirt down to a point where the root wasn’t so stubbornly thick, she could try an axe. And as she dug she replied to Spike’s latest proposal. “No, you’re right about that: Fluttershy’s always sensitive to ponies around her. You might have a sweet old time with her.” She paused in her vigorous attack on the ground and looked over at him with a rueful expression. “She really is shy, though, obvious as that sounds to say. She might be too bashful to enjoy anythin’ y’all decided to do together that day, if she even agreed in the first place.”

Spike nodded decisively, evidently accepting this assessment, and made another mark on his list. “You know who’s not shy, though?”

“Pinkie Pie?” Applejack speculated as she returned to her digging.

Spike sounded startled. “Yeah; how’d you know?”

“Lucky guess?” Digging down the sides of the root was proving somewhat tricky, and she was coming at it in bits and pieces from various angles.

“Well, yeah, then, what about Pinkie Pie?”

“She knows how to have fun if anypony does!” Applejack replied, the thought of the broadness of Pinkie’s definition of ‘fun’ making her grin. “And she can always come up with things to do, so y’all’d never be bored…”

As Applejack trailed off in the relative silence of the shovel shoes’ continued scraping thunks into the ground, Spike wondered, “But…?”

Somewhat reluctantly Applejack answered, “But dontcha think an entire day with just Pinkie might get a little… crazy? I’d never want to insinuate an earth pony wasn’t down-to-earth enough, but sometimes Pinkie Pie…”

“‘Possible sensory overload,'” Spike muttered as he scribbled.

Applejack gave a laugh of agreement, but found her smile turning to a faint frown as she looked at the dragon and his lengthy paper. “Now, just how many more names do you have on that there list?” she wondered warily.

“Oh, tons,” Spike replied. “There’s Cheerilee, and Rainbow’s friend Gilda, and Time Turner, and Vinyl Scratch, and Lyra, and Big McIntosh–”

Applejack was afraid she would have some disqualifying news about more than a few of the ponies Spike was considering, but on this topic as well as the conspicuous lack of one particular name she had no comment as yet. What she wanted to know next, gently interrupting the recital, was, “And why’d you come to me about this, Spike?”

“Because,” the dragon replied earnestly, lowering his paper and looking at her with big green eyes, “you’re always so honest. I feel like I could come to you about anything, I guess.”

“Well, you keep right on feelin’ that way,” Applejack told him with a smile that probably concealed very well the bittersweetness of this turn in the conversation. “But why this in particular?”

“You can tell me exactly what would be great about every one of our friends… and what wouldn’t be so great… as a special somepony for Hearts and Hooves day.” His looks and tone became despondent as he added, “And it seems like everypony has something about them that wouldn’t be so great…”

“Aw, Spike, you can’t think about it that way,” she chided kindly. “If I made it sound like any of our friends wouldn’t be a great choice for you to ask, I didn’t mean it. Nopony’s perfect; you’ll never find somepony who won’t have some problem. That’s the thing about havin’ a special somepony, even if it’s just for one day: you gotta work together to have fun in spite of everythin’ that ‘wouldn’t be so great.’ It takes a lot of hard work sometimes, but that just makes it better.”

“I guess,” he said a little doubtfully, looking down at his list again.

Applejack too returned her eyes downward. She’d made good progress on the root, but it was going to take as long again to render it accessible to an axe, and even once it was severed she would probably need to dig further along its length to free it from the constricting earth in order to lift the stump out. And then there was the other root.

“I think we could both use a break,” she said at length. “Wanna ride to the house for some cider before we tackle this again?”

“Sure!” With an air of some relief, Spike rerolled his paper and fire-breathed it back to whatever hiding place, hopefully safe from Twilight’s sharp eyes, it had originally come from (and perhaps his pen with it?).

Applejack, meanwhile, shed her shovel shoes and stretched out her forelegs. When she found the little dragon standing next to her, she reached out to grip between her teeth the spines just south of his neck and toss him up over her head and onto her back. His innocent laughter at the stunt energized her, and she crouched slightly, tensed to run. “Time me!” she commanded.

“All right!” His little clawed hands gripped her mane just beneath her hat. “Ready? Set? Go!”

There was a certain type of withholding of information that was not a lie by omission, but rather a recognition that the truth had not yet matured into an appreciable form. Though he might not be a kid, precisely, Spike was still young, and had a lot to learn, both of universal constants and specific possibilities, not to mention of himself. It would never do to try to rush him. And Applejack, for all Spike might value her honest advice, probably had a thing or two to pick up as well. They could figure it out together, given time.

For now, they just galloped off through the trees.


This was for MangoFox’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “MLP fic where Spike has multiple romantic interests. So he goes to Applejack to get advice on whom to choose. But it turns out that Applejack is actually the best choice for him.” I did not watch a single episode to prepare myself for writing this, none of Spike’s sarcasm ever happened, much to my sorrow, and the implied Applejack & Spike ended up kinda vague. Ah, well.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?



Youma

Megumi wasn’t (quite) the only person to look at her like this, but she was the only one to inspire this reaction, this deep level of motivation, in Kaoru’s heart.

Two professional women prepare for their very first night together.


The rattling crack of contact between shinai filled the room along with the thump of feet and the controlled breathing of almost a dozen students and one instructor. The air smelled of clean sweat and bamboo and the soap that had been used earlier on the spotless floor. It all combined to form, without a doubt, Kaoru’s favorite ambiance.

This was the first of a new, experimental series of evening training sessions at the Maekawa Dojo aimed at accommodating those with daytime work that yet wanted to study kenjutsu. The latter could no longer be a full-time commitment for many, and Kaoru agreed with Maekawa-sensei that it was best to evolve with the changing era. They would just have to see whether the turnout in future was as good as tonight’s.

They’d made some excellent progress at this session, notwithstanding it was the first or the varied levels at which she’d found her pupils, and progressed along their numerous paths toward the multiform goals that swordsmanship would help them meet. Pleased, she moved among them, her sharp eyes seeking and never failing to find opportunities to offer suggestions for improvement regardless of the forwardness and enthusiasm of each man. They were learning, and she believed many of them enjoyed the process every bit as much as she did. For her the experience was short of perfect in only a single respect. She had hoped — it never hurt to hope — it might be different this time, but it had been a distant hope, a forlorn one, without much rationality or any precedent behind it.

These were professional men, modern men that lived in a new age and interacted with new types of women. Though the concept of yamato nadeshiko hadn’t lost its hold in society at large and still retained a certain degree of admirability, Kaoru had believed it not impossible that these individuals, unlike so many that had gone before them, might be able to reconcile their idea of what a woman was and should be with the skilled kenjutsu instructor they met at this dojo. She hadn’t felt any surprise when, like so many that had gone before them, they hadn’t been.

Someone simply could not be both a woman and a kenjutsu instructor. Therefore, most people she met tried to divide her down an impossible line, treating her as one or the other. If they saw her as a woman, they refused to acknowledge — in fact seemed utterly incapable of acknowledging — her adroitness with the sword and potential to transfer it to others. They were skeptical, even amused, or angry, or uncomfortable — or sometimes a fluctuating blend of the four — at any mention of what she did with her life or any behavior they considered less than perfectly feminine. This was the category into which most prospective students fell at first. It usually took little time and a very little effort (though admittedly some men were incredibly stubborn) to teach them not to underestimate her, to demonstrate the wrongness of their assumptions about her skills, and then invariably there would be an abrupt shift to the other end of the spectrum.

For when they saw her as a kenjutsu instructor, it was as if she’d been revealed as a sort of youma in human guise come to do them a favor for mysterious reasons of its own. They were happy to take advantage of the youma’s knowledge and experience, and even willing to be fairly jovial with it at the time, but at the end of the day the creature wasn’t a person, certainly not a woman, and no true companionship could ever be expected of it. As a female kenjutsu instructor, Kaoru inhabited a strange, lonely place in between the different things she was supposed to be — and not to be — and the people around her would never let her forget it.

That had been the problem with Kenshin, too, though his shift had been more gradual and his behavior toward her always much more sympathetic. He had started out on the kenjutsu side, and hadn’t really known how to deal with her femininity or any overtures of emotional connection she’d made. Eventually he’d come to see her as a woman, but in so doing had lost track of her strength and skill and the importance of teaching in her life. That was the reason, despite everyone around them taking it for granted they would eventually marry, they had instead finally, essentially, looked at each other and shaken their heads, recognizing that, though they would always be friends, their spirits just didn’t communicate on the level each of them needed for romance.

Because teaching kenjutsu was the most important thing in her life. To instill in students not only a knowledge of techniques and the physical discipline required to perform them well, but the determination to maintain a personal righteousness and the awareness that, by ordering their lives along the lines of a well regulated school, they could improve every aspect of those lives and progress toward the best version of themselves they could possibly be… she couldn’t conceive of anything more crucial, more meaningful, more fulfilling than that. And having the aptitude for it — to no small degree, she considered without false modesty — it was her duty and her pleasure to carry out this task left to her by her father, taken up out of love for him but continued with all her heart for its own sake. Anyone that couldn’t recognize and appreciate this side of who she was must be as alien to her deepest heart as if she had never met them. And on the other hand, anyone that considered kenjutsu as having somehow banished or eradicated everything womanly about her, leaving her less than a person, obviously could never hope to be her true friend, let alone something more.

Of course there were exceptions. Her aforementioned father had accepted and respected every aspect of his unorthodox daughter with love and pride unblinded (mostly) by his parental fondness — though admittedly her supposed eccentricities hadn’t developed fully by the time he left forever. Misao, whom Kaoru still saw occasionally but more often wrote to, would probably have understood and treated Kaoru rationally even if she hadn’t been in much the same dilemma herself. Maekawa-sensei, in their dealings together, had given every indication of considering her a talented protégé that was also female rather than some strange and incomprehensible entity to be made use of, perhaps offered joking and possibly offensive flirtation, but certainly never befriended. And of course the most important exception of all–

“Takani-sensei!” cried several simultaneous voices in greeting.

–had apparently just arrived on the scene.

The extent of Megumi’s celebrity was evident here, where she’d visited occasionally lately but not at this time of day with this particular set of men present. They knew her from various other encounters elsewhere, from instances of illness and injury and even circumstances during which she alone had stood between them and death, and they welcomed her now with an enthusiasm similar to the joviality with which they treated Kaoru. She, on the other hand, had to work to fight off a blush.

It was, in fact, the fourth time Megumi had visited her here near the end of a training session, all of those instances having occurred since the two women had come to an understanding concerning their mutual regard, and Kaoru mostly had her face under control by now. She wasn’t necessarily worried about betraying herself and her sweetheart — nobody in the room came even close to thinking of her in terms of romantic involvement with anyone, let alone another woman; they would never guess, no matter how red she turned — but Megumi had a tendency to tease her later with a mercilessness directly corresponding to the shade of her cheeks.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” Megumi was saying with that complicated smile of hers that enticed even as it condescended. “I came to walk home with Kaoru-san when you all are finished; I’m happy to wait.”

Kaoru felt a little thrill go through her. She’d told the other dojo inhabitants (a phrase that referred technically only to Kenshin and Yahiko, but Sanosuke had been there too) not to wait up for her after this late training session, that she would get her own bath. And here instead was Megumi come to walk her home. It was such a delightful scenario, with so many happy little attendant thoughts, that, once a cushion had been found from which the doctor could observe the proceedings, Kaoru applied herself to the last of the night’s education with even greater vigor than before.

In part this was because she could now feel Megumi’s eyes on her, and she wanted to offer those eyes her best. This wasn’t merely out of a desire to impress someone that impressed her on such a regular basis; it also arose from the awareness that Megumi specifically admired, in addition to her physical form, both her combative and instructive abilities, so of course she must exemplify them as best she could here and now — as whenever Megumi was watching — just as she must also do her best whenever her sweetheart wasn’t observing her and live up to that admiration and her own potential as elevated thereby. Megumi wasn’t (quite) the only person to look at her like this, but she was the only one to inspire this reaction, this deep level of motivation, in Kaoru’s heart.

Once she had declared the training session finished, drilled everyone in a quick and efficient cleanup process, and tried her damnedest to extract promises of future attendance from all the men present — this last with an indifferent degree of success — she saw her pupils out the door with various levels of friendliness in their goodbyes, stepped into the chilly breeze of night with Megumi beside her, and locked up the building behind them. And as they headed off the property toward the street, Megumi immediately tucked Kaoru’s arm under her own and pulled her to walk close by her side.

“That seems to be going well,” the doctor remarked. “How many of them do you think will come back?”

“I don’t know.” Kaoru bit her lip. “It’s the usual thing.”

“But a lot of the daytime students respect you as a teacher.”

“And a lot of them consider me a mascot,” Kaoru sighed.

“I can’t imagine you aren’t getting through to at least a few of them,” Megumi said in that airy tone she sometimes used that belied the seriousness of her words. “And if you can change the life of even one of them, you’re already making the world a better place. That’s more than most people manage.” Her voice turned scathing as she added, “Those foolish men have no idea the opportunity they’re making light of.” And she squeezed Kaoru’s arm.

Succumbing to the blush she’d avoided inside — she was probably safe out here in the overcast night — Kaoru murmured, “Thank you.” Before she could continue on the same topic, however, she looked around in sudden puzzlement. “Where are we going?”

“My apartment is closer than your house, if you’d like to spend the night.” And it was remarkable how Megumi could make this invitation — presumably involving a step they hadn’t taken yet, though that would require further arranging — so calmly, so assuredly. Megumi was so rarely flustered about anything, so perfectly in command of herself under most circumstances; it really was wonderful.

Kaoru, on the other hand, whose passions often tripped up her poise, now felt the flush previously limited to her face spreading throughout her entire body, and couldn’t help stammering a bit as she answered. “I- I’d love to, but- but I don’t think you have a bath?”

“Oho, Kaoru-chan,” Megumi chuckled, squeezing Kaoru’s arm again, “you feel the need to take a bath before spending the night at my apartment, do you?”

“I didn’t mean it that way,” Kaoru protested a little hoarsely. Then, realizing, she added quickly, “I could mean it that way, but what I meant was, I was planning to take a bath when I got home; I’m always sweaty and smelly after training.”

“I know you are,” said Megumi fondly. “And I’m glad you could mean it ‘that way.’ But there’s a bathhouse in my neighborhood, you know.”

“One that’s open this late?”

“It’s mostly working women who live on my street,” Megumi reminded her. “There are a lot of amenities in the area that keep unusual hours.”

“In that case,” Kaoru smiled, “let’s go take a bath.”

“‘Let’s?'” Megumi replied, teasing again as Kaoru had known she would. “I like the sound of that!”

As they moved on through the patches of light and shadow formed by streetlamps and the spaces between them, Kaoru’s neck tickled by Megumi’s swaying hair as it shifted her direction in the cool wind, she began to inquire about the doctor’s patients and whether her day had been as subtly frustrating (and perhaps simultaneously rewarding) as Kaoru’s had.

Swiftly it became evident that it had. Megumi’s withering commentary on her patients’ common sense, compliance, and hygiene was really just a (sometimes very amusing) veil across her frustration at their inability to treat her like a human being the way — the especially profound way — she treated them. As Kaoru listened to the description that was two parts bodily fluids to one part disrespect, she leaned her head fondly onto Megumi’s shoulder with a smile. The action called up an answering smile in the other woman, only briefly interrupting her flow of invective.

Though the thought had crossed her mind, Kaoru couldn’t bring herself to believe she had only become involved with Megumi because the doctor had been the first otherwise romantically attractive person to reconcile the various aspects of the Kamiya Kasshinryuu’s master that were seemingly incompatible in the eyes of the rest of the world. That had certainly been a huge inducing factor, but only in combination with such selfless and unwearying dedication to helping others, such never-ending engaging cleverness, and such overwhelming personal charms as Megumi also possessed could such a thing have made her more than a much-needed friend.

But the fact remained that they could connect on this level as Kaoru couldn’t do with many others. For Megumi too was a youma, someone never allowed to be both a woman and a doctor by those around her, and it made Kaoru want to cling to her — as she did now, but tighter, harder, longer — and declare that they monsters, they in-betweens, they women had to stick together.

Only then she would relent, as it were, and declare she liked Megumi for so many more reasons than that, and start enumerating… and, regardless of how much she did like her and what they might do tonight, that thought was still a little too embarrassing to be acted upon. So she just listened, with legitimate interest despite some portion of her thoughts having wandered, to Megumi’s tirade about her day.

The bathhouse was relatively new and consequently felt very crisp and modern, but no less convenient for that. Despite Megumi’s reminder about the primary inhabitants of this neighborhood, Kaoru was a little surprised to find two women already there — one, within ten years or so of them, soaking, while the other scrubbed with an energy and elasticity not suggested by her white hair and bent spine. If Kaoru and Megumi had hoped for the privacy to enjoy their first bath together as intimately as they would have dared in a public establishment, they were disappointed. And Kaoru thought she, at least, had been hoping for that, inappropriate as it might have been.

Whether or not Megumi was of the same mind, she could certainly detect it in Kaoru’s taut nipples and stifled reactions as, with sparkling, knowing eyes, she helped her clean up in motions that, if either of the other ladies happened to be watching closely, might have seemed just a little too enthusiastic and pointed. Then the instructor, far from the relaxed state this stage of the proceedings was supposed to induce, had to lounge in water scarcely hotter than her sensitized skin very near someone whose body she was trying not to study with blatant lust, had to try to deal with the pressurized throb in her groin. Needless to say, they spent as little time soaking as propriety would allow; Kaoru could never decide whether she was relieved or disappointed that the other women present seemed disinclined to chat.

Putting her sweaty kimono and hakama back onto her newly clean body seemed a crying shame, but it was one she barely noticed in the face of Megumi covering herself up again. But Kaoru managed to get tolerably in control of her feelings as they dressed, paid, and departed, and was able to begin the short walk to the doctor’s home with a rational response to her first remark outside the bathhouse door — and continual engagement in the conversation thereafter — with only a little clinging.

She’d been inside Megumi’s apartment twice before, and therefore was not forced to reprise her irrational astonishment that the doctor didn’t actually live at the Oguni Clinic, but those two instances (the second just barely) had been before they were together. Now the place appeared in an entirely new light. A surprising amount of clutter — not a horrendous mess, but somewhat more than Kaoru would have expected of her meticulous sweetheart — spoke of long hours with little energy left afterward for tidying, further proof of Megumi’s devotion to her profession and further reason for Kaoru to be impressed and attracted. But at the same time, the place felt deliciously welcoming and familiar, as if, instead of this being her first night over, she’d stayed here many times and was now returning after a lonely hiatus. It felt so much more like home than the dojo had in several years, in fact, that she had to fight off another blush in response to the sudden prickle of tears she was simultaneously repressing.

Why was she overwhelmed with such a sense of homecoming, such a burning in her chest — and not even of a sexual nature, which would be far easier to explain — walking into Megumi’s apartment after a mere three weeks together with her? How could there be this idea of truth, of rightness, as if pertaining to a moral conviction, about this scene so early in their relationship? She didn’t know… and, though she thought she must confide these unusual feelings in Megumi someday, she was too embarrassed at their seemingly inordinate intensity to do so now.

Once the door was locked, Megumi took Kaoru’s hands and smiled down at her. This expression on the doctor’s face was often so mysterious — part of an overall aura of private amusement and veiled contemplation that was very alluring — and Kaoru wondered what she was thinking. She couldn’t ask, though, since at the moment Megumi had a question: “I know it’s very late, but would you like some tea before bed?”

Kaoru considered briefly how to answer, enjoying the feel of Megumi’s hands in her callused own, smiling up at her with a certain amount of shyness she could never seem to overcome. Finally she said, “Only if you do. Otherwise I’m fine.”

“I’m glad,” Megumi confessed, proving Kaoru had said the right thing. “Because I don’t want any.” She released Kaoru’s hands and slid hers up the instructor’s arms, seeming to probe or search as she did so. Though it wasn’t an overtly sexual touch, it brought back very abruptly to Kaoru all the physical sensations she’d been gradually getting in order and under control since they’d been naked together, and her face was suddenly burning as red as it must have been then, much like the rest of her body.

Megumi hadn’t observed this yet, concentrating as she was on Kaoru’s arms for some reason, and presently she explained herself: “Your muscles are still so tense… There’s an ointment I’d like to try, if you don’t mind.”

“I usually soak longer after training,” Kaoru admitted, trying to sound natural but very conscious of the breathlessness in her voice. “I’ll try whatever ointment you’d like.”

Undoubtedly detecting how flustered she’d rendered her sweetheart, Megumi now drew back from her examination of Kaoru’s arms and regarded her face for a moment with the same twinkling eyes she’d used at the bathhouse. Then she let go completely and said, “Sit there, then,” indicating, and added with tellingly extreme casualness, “and strip down for me.”

Though this did nothing to decrease the redness of Kaoru’s face, she didn’t at all mind obeying. Embarrassed she might be (for now; she must eventually adjust), but never ashamed. She went to the adjured place and began, as Megumi busied herself somewhere behind, removing her clothing for the second time that night.

It wasn’t cold in the apartment by any means, but her skin prickled as it was bared as if she were still outside in that chilly wind, and her nipples — only barely settled after the relatively soothing walk — were immediately straining tensely outward again as she undid the sarashi (somewhat haphazardly wrapped for the short term in which she would need it) around her breasts. Her pony-tail fell wet against her neck and back as she finished her task and took her place, and that, at least, seemed significantly cool — though perhaps this was just because her entire body was so flushed.

“Mmm,” Megumi said from behind her, commenting on Kaoru’s only remaining garment as she hadn’t been able to at the bathhouse, “I love the fundoshi on you.”

Kaoru was very conscious of her bare buttocks, separated by the twist of cloth in question, against her heels, and could hardly manage to reply, “It’s… the most convenient… under a hakama…”

“Mmm,” Megumi said again. From the sounds of it, she was setting up their bed for the night before she came over, and there was something so inexplicably sexy about hearing but not seeing her carry out this mundane yet auspicious task that Kaoru had to repress a shudder of anticipation. She could no longer keep it in check when, a minute or so later, the rustling died away and she sensed Megumi dropping down just behind her. A couple of gentle taps on the floor suggested whatever she’d brought with her, but Kaoru couldn’t concentrate on guessing what that might be as the other woman’s breath warmed her neck where it curved to connect with her shoulder.

“You’re blushing like a camellia all the way down your chest,” Megumi whispered against Kaoru’s skin, her lips at last making contact with it before withdrawing slightly to add, “and you’re burning hot.” Tone growing more and more playful she finished up, “Shall I take your temperature? I have a mercury thermometer somewhere around here…”

“Megumi…” It was a very weak protest, since Kaoru couldn’t seem to draw proper breath to speak any more loudly or insistently.

“I really will have to give you a full examination one of these nights,” Megumi replied in a tone so businesslike that its tantalizing aspect was no more than a suggestive veneer, “but for now just relax and hold still.” And she began working the tie from Kaoru’s hair.

As she had her damp tresses combed, gently braided, and then retied, Kaoru really did relax — far more than she had in the hot bath earlier, anyway — and pondered the silence that had fallen around them. It was a wordless atmosphere both rich and comfortable, very much like a soak itself in that it was warm, welcoming, and tranquil, yet full of simultaneously exciting little currents and piquant emotions lacing through like minerals in the water.

Finished, Megumi set the comb back down with another soft tap on the mat, and leaned against Kaoru again, this time kissing her neck behind her jaw beside the fresh plait. The contact seemed to sap all strength from the point in question, and Kaoru’s head fell limply against Megumi as the latter’s lips picked a gentle path around to the underside of her chin before withdrawing. “Now…” the doctor said softly, puffing against her ear, and Kaoru felt hands slide purposefully up her back. Megumi massaged briefly, seeming to seek out the tensest spots, then pulled away again; when the strong fingers and palms returned, they were pasted over with some kind of cream they then set about rubbing into Kaoru’s skin just above the most overtaxed of her muscles.

Tonight had been a period of maddeningly fluctuating arousal, and now as it all came flooding back yet again Kaoru simply could not restrain a groan. The firm, quick, circular pressing movements sent shiver after shiver through her, little pulses of sensation that spread throughout her body and activated its every deep, fiery impulse toward the woman behind her. By the time Megumi had finished working all down her spine on both sides and begun branching out, Kaoru was panting uncontrollably and occasionally whispering her name in helpless appeal. And when Megumi let out a satisfied little chuckle at the effect her actions were having, Kaoru couldn’t stand it one moment longer.

It was true she found herself dismayingly easily flustered. It was true she, like most women, had been raised to be demure and retiring when it came to sex. It was true she had a tendency to freeze up under intensely emotional circumstances. But in the midst of all that, she had a will that drove her toward what she wanted with a powerful thrust if only it could circumnavigate those aforementioned hazards. Sometimes she floundered in her embarrassment or indecision or even fear… but sometimes she was able to strike out boldly toward her goal. And this was one of the latter moments. She rose up, twisted where she knelt, and, flinging her arms around Megumi’s neck, bore her to the floor on her back. Megumi barely had time for a surprised squeak before Kaoru’s lips and tongue were tangling with hers very much as their lower limbs became swiftly entwined in and around the pink kimono the doctor still wore. Kaoru squeezed one of Megumi’s thighs between her own and kissed her fiercely, breathing hard through her nose and writhing against her.

She drew her arms back, which rendered their kiss even messier but did not break it, and fumbled downward for some route — any route — inside Megumi’s clothing. The older woman, having almost instantly regained her presence of mind in the remarkable way she often did, seemed to chuckle again at Kaoru’s somewhat clumsy enthusiasm, though this was merely a vibration and a change in the tone of her heavy breaths against Kaoru’s face, and her hands rose, still covered in ointment, to caress the other’s sides in what felt like an encouraging gesture. And Kaoru had just squirmed and groped enough that she thought she could manage Megumi’s obi when a sudden noise completely alien to the throbbing, gasping world they were building around themselves staggered her momentum toward satisfaction.

“Sensei! Sensei!” The words were punctuated by an arrhythmic but insistent pounding at the door, uncomfortably like the hard flutter again troubling Kaoru’s groin. “Takani-sensei, are you there?”

It seemed the instructor was only able to withdraw her swollen lips and still-eager tongue from Megumi’s mouth in the slowest of motions, easing back as if her pelvis had fused to the other woman’s and there must soon be a crack and a stab of pain as she pulled away, and in the groan that broke from her this time sounded utter despair. Megumi’s expression was one of similar disappointment as well as pity for Kaoru’s thwarted hopes, but she propped herself up on an elbow as soon as the removal of weight from atop of her allowed her to do so. Miraculously and very impressively, her voice was entirely steady as she called out, “Just a moment.” And then she was climbing to her feet, straightening her attire and checking to be sure nothing untoward was exposed — a safe assumption, as Kaoru hadn’t quite managed to get in there yet. And as the doctor headed for the door, the very frustrated woman she walked away from ducked behind the changing screen and tried to calm her ragged breaths so they wouldn’t be heard. It was a small apartment, after all.

“Sensei!” came the relieved voice after the sound of a sliding panel. “Please, can you come? The horse went mad, and we tried– it kicked Watanabe in the chest and he hasn’t gotten up, and–”

“Of course,” Megumi interrupted. “Wait here one more moment.” And the door shut again, presumably right in the face of the distraught man seeking her assistance.

Kaoru, who felt as if she’d been kicked in the chest by a mad horse, stepped immediately out to find Megumi already washing her hands of the thick ointment that had been so pleasant and so inciting just minutes before. When the doctor caught sight of her — entirely naked but for the fundoshi she liked so much, nipples still taut and face presumably still that camellia-red she’d commented on earlier — she gave a sigh with a hint in it of the same groan Kaoru had recently let out. “I’m sorry,” she murmured.

“Don’t be,” Kaoru replied, coming up to her and giving a smile half shy and half rueful. “Go save Watanabe. I’ll be here when you get back.”

Megumi bent suddenly and kissed Kaoru hard without touching her anywhere but at the lips — there was a lot of pasty mess around — then drew back with her own smile half appreciative and half rueful. “It may be quite a while.”

“You never refuse to help people who need you,” Kaoru replied. In an embarrassed whisper, wanting to say it but somehow finding it harder than it had been to initiate sex a little while ago, she added, “I really like that about you.”

Megumi’s smile turned entirely appreciative. She gave Kaoru one more quick kiss, seized the smock she’d draped over the clothes rack earlier, and turned to go.

Behind the screen again, Kaoru was unable to watch her all the way out the door. And it was with a striking blend of fondness and sense of letdown that she reemerged and looked around the empty room once the noises had faded of the man giving Megumi details of the situation in a voice loud with agitation and concern. This still felt like home, just a lot more lonely all of a sudden. She supposed she would don that yukata Megumi had obviously intended her to wear to sleep — there were two of them lying right up against each other like lovers themselves — blow out the lamp, curl up in a bed that would undoubtedly have the clean, womanly, only occasionally somewhat chemical smell of her sweetheart, and try to deal intrepidly with her disappointment.

She might have to touch herself under that blanket, thinking of the skillful hands and passionate lips that had been taken from her so inopportunely, but then again she might resist the urge and wait for Megumi’s return… for the moment when, in the darkness, she would perhaps be able to tell her just how proud she was of her doctor that put the welfare of the wounded and dying, even those that didn’t respect her as they should, above the consummation of a romance that had already taken her years to find and establish. How much she loved her for so unfalteringly maintaining the dignity and strength of the youma.


This was for plaidshirtjimkirk’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “fluff about Kaoru and Megumi getting ready for bed together??? Like maybe Kaoru brushes Megumi’s hair or Megumi helps take off Kaoru’s kimono.” It, uh, got a lot sexier than that prompt suggests, and a hell of a lot longer than I had planned. Like, it was November, and this is a fic, but there was nothing much ‘quick’ about it XD

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?



An Unexpected He Could Deal With


Sano was barely through the apartment door when he found himself practically knocked backward by the advent of a phone right in his face.

“What. Is this.” Katsu held his arm out at its full length and very straight, as if at its end lay something disgusting he wanted to keep as far from himself as possible… or a deadly weapon that required great steadiness and stiffness to aim.

It took Sano a moment to regain his balance, then another to focus on the small screen so immediately in front of him, but finally he managed to un-blur and properly parse the text. Then he said, “Oh.”

“Oh?” Katsu echoed.

“Uh, yeah. That happened.”

“‘Sano Sagara is… In a relationship with Hajime Saitou???'” Somehow his roommate managed to enunciate multiple question marks at the end of this statement quoted from his Facebook app.

“Yyyyyeah,” Sano admitted.

“And you were planning on telling your best friend about this when?” Katsu finally withdrew the long arm and allowed Sano far enough into the apartment to close the door, bringing his phone back around toward his own face that now bore an expression both angry and forsaken.

In all honesty, Sano had counted on Katsu’s inconsistent Facebook usage to keep him from seeing the announcement for a while — possibly forever — so he could work him up gradually to hearing about this development. He didn’t plan on all honesty in this conversation, however (unless Katsu got him really worked up, which was always a possibility).

Thankfully, he had a little more time to decide how to break the news, for Katsu was now busy scrolling with a growing scowl on his face. “Who even is this guy. He looks familiar, but I don’t remember where I’ve seen him before. And you’ve never mentioned him–” Katsu looked back up at Sano with accusatory eyes– “but now you’re ‘in a relationship.’ A formal ‘relationship.'”

Sano cleared his throat. “I guess it did happen kinda fast…” he said evasively.

How fast.” Katsu seemed to have used up all his question marks on that earlier demand.

“I met him, like… less than two months ago?” Sano couldn’t recall the exact date. “At that fight outside the courthouse.”

“Don’t call it a ‘fight,’ Sano.” With disconcerting abruptness Katsu spoke with the wearily patient tone of remonstrance he used whenever Sano wasn’t demonstrating enough dedication to The Cause. “It was a riot, and with the amount of media coverage we got, I’d say it was– wait.” His expression, previously reminiscently calculating, suddenly snapped back into very present focus. “You knew everyone there already. Who could you possibly have… The only new people we ‘met’ were…” His eyes had widened just slightly with every word, and now they were very round indeed. “Sano…” he choked as light seemed to dawn. “Sano, please…”

“Please what?” Sano wondered uncomfortably, just as evasive as before.

Please tell me you’re not dating a cop.”

Sano’s gaze dropped to the floor. He really hadn’t been ready for this conversation.

“OH MY GOD SANO.” Katsu fell back a step, tugging at his hair with both hands. “Why– how– what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking it’s none of your business.” He’d known Katsu’s reaction would annoy him, but wasn’t able to stave off the surliness even having seen it coming.

“It is my business! It’s bad enough my best friend has seen this guy I’ve never heard of enough lately to be ‘in a relationship’ with him… but on top of that, he’s a cop?!”

“Geez, Kats,” said Sano, stung, “does it really bug you more that he’s a cop than that I didn’t tell you?”

“Yes, because you only didn’t tell me because he is a cop.” Katsu could dismiss this concern, but not the other. “Because, seriously, Sano — the exact opposite of everything we are?”

“Most of ‘everything we are’ is unemployed, so, yeah, I guess he’s the opposite of that.” And there was some of that honesty in response to some of that getting worked up.

“I am not unemployed! I sell plenty of art! How do you think we pay rent?” Katsu’s righteous indignation shifted from defensive to betrayed in the middle of his retort. “Besides, I thought you wanted anarchy just as much as I do! How can you be dating the enemy like this?”

“Katsu, I don’t think anyone in the world wants anarchy as much as you do. And he’s not ‘the enemy;’ there is no ‘the enemy;’ he’s just a guy doing his job.”

“You’ve become one of them,” Katsu whispered.

“I was only really ever in it for the fighting and the cool t-shirts anyway,” Sano admitted.

“Like your shirt that says, ‘Fuck the police!?'” Katsu burst out.

“Well, maybe I just decided to take that literally.” Sano couldn’t help grinning as he said this, even if he was annoyed.

Katsu made a frustrated sound and, tugging at this hair again, spun away from Sano. The latter watched with some interest — still colored by irritation — as his roommate started making a peculiar sort of rounds about the room. He picked through the magazines on the coffee table, stacking most in the crook of his elbow; tucked all the coasters — most of them falling apart, since they were just the cheap cardboard kind, but all still visibly bearing the anarchy symbol — into his pocket; gathered up the three or four table-bound CD cases from local independent artists that still released to plastic in their attempts at bucking the system; and moved next to the shelves that held books and, farther down, DVD’s.

He’d been mumbling to himself the entire time, and now his words became slightly louder and more comprehensible. “This… and this… and everything by this guy… and this entire series… Most of this is going to have to go…”

“Katsu…” Sano watched in a mixture of amusement and frustration as Katsu piled more and more junk into his already overburdened arms. “What are you doing?”

“If we’re going to have a pig in here on a regular basis,” his friend replied haughtily, “some of this stuff is going to have to move into my bedroom.”

“You don’t have to do that, man.” Though he still found Katsu’s bustle somewhat entertaining, Sano was increasingly annoyed. “You really think I’d bring someone here who’d get you in trouble just for being an anarchist? That’s not a crime by itself, you know.”

Katsu only snorted.

“Besides, who says he’s going to be here in a regular basis?”

In exasperation Katsu pointed out, “You’re probably the most sexual person I know.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have a bed.” Sano slept on an old mattress on the floor, and had no clue when he was likely to upgrade.

“That’s never stopped you before!”

“Except he does have a bed!”

“And if you happen to be in our neighborhood instead of his?”

Sano cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I really want him to see my bedroom.”

Katsu turned to face him, his stack even bigger than previously and his jaw low. “You… finally found someone… whose opinion of your bedroom you care about that much…” His voice rose into an unhappy, incredulous shout. “…and he’s a cop?!

“Yeah, but my point is he’s not going to be around here all that much — and even if he was, he won’t care what your politics are like as long as you’re not actually breaking the law!”

Katsu snorted again and went back to collecting supposedly incriminating items. Sano sighed, having no idea what else to say.

The cumbersome load had risen above the level of Katsu’s mouth when he turned to face the south wall of the living room and gave a (consequently rather muffled) groan of despair. For against that wall, stacked several layers deep, stood his unsold paintings propped up and staring out over the room in all their bloody, symbolic, explosive, revolutionary glory. There really was nowhere else to store them — they took up half the space in here, and, besides, there were already more in both bedrooms and some of the kitchen cupboards — and there was no hiding the anti-government sentiment that had driven their creation. It was an immovable and undeniable monument to Katsu’s anarchism, and he groaned again as he stared at them.

“Katsu… It’s fine.” But for all Katsu seemed to hear him, Sano might as well not have spoken.

“I could throw a sheet over them…” This tone sounded more hopeful than either of Katsu’s groans, though the proposed solution wouldn’t help with the art on the walls (the pieces Katsu, for whatever reason, hadn’t wanted to sell).

In any case he didn’t get the chance to throw a sheet over anything, for at that moment there came a knock at the door. They both jumped, undoubtedly for different reasons, and then Katsu backed away suspiciously while Sano moved sheepishly forward.

“I thought you were just stepping in to grab your cell phone charger.” And there, badge and gun visible and everything, was Saitou, raising his eyebrows at Sano once the latter had admitted him and then looking around the room.

“Yeah, I, uh…” This was not how he had planned to introduce his boyfriend to his roommate, this was not how he had planned Saitou’s first impression of his home life, and this was not how he had planned this afternoon to go.

Katsu, at whom Sano had glanced involuntarily as if in silent explanation of what was taking him so long in here, gave him a scathing I told you so look before transferring the force of his glare over the top of his armful to the newly arrived police officer. Saitou barely looked at him, however; instead his attention seemed to be caught immediately by one of the hanging paintings, and he moved toward it unblinking.

Despite everything he’d said, Sano couldn’t help some nervousness as he watched his boyfriend approach this canvas his best friend had slaved over and liked so much he couldn’t bear to part with. Saitou could be very, not to say excessively harsh at times, and, though Sano truly believed he wouldn’t try to get Katsu into trouble over this, he might make some criticism that would be, in Katsu’s mind, just as bad.

But what he said, astonishing even Sano, was “I remember this one. The military force that has that family cornered looks even more oppressive in person.” He nodded sharply in clear approval. “But my favorite is still…” And he swung around abruptly, quickly scanning the other hanging artwork and then the front row of those stacked against the wall. “…this one, with the dark angel about to exact vengeance on the abusive cop.”

“I’da thought that one would be your least favorite,” Sano chuckled. This wasn’t going as he’d expected, but it was an unexpected he could deal with.

Saitou’s return smile was very grim, and he said in that intense tone that always sent shivers up and down Sano’s spine, “I won’t tolerate abuse of power. If we had an avenging angel on the force, my job would be easier.”

A set of thuds, variegated in sound (as it were), came from behind them, and they turned to find Katsu had completely unburdened himself with arms that seemed to have gone limp in their sockets. Books and magazines and CD’s and DVD’s slid haphazardly off the coffee table where he’d dropped them, but, eyes locked on Saitou and mouth slightly agape, Katsu didn’t seem to notice. “Are you… DireGold…?”

Saitou seemed to really look at Katsu for the first time. “I am. Are you Four Brushstrokes?”

Sano was, of course, still somewhat flabbergasted at finding his boyfriend familiar with the fruits of his roommate’s profession, but his shock couldn’t come anywhere close to Katsu’s. His jaw quivered, and the lips of his open mouth trembled, but no sound emerged, until finally Sano provided the affirmative Katsu was obviously incapable of giving.

Saitou nodded. “Interesting that you’d turn out to be Sano’s roommate. Your art is a much better use of your energy than the political movement it embodies, but at least in either case–” glancing at Sano with a quirk of lips– “you use your energy for something.”

“Hey!” Sano protested, almost drowning out the whisper Katsu managed at last:

“But… you’re a cop… and you’ve commented on so much of my stuff…”

If Saitou’s smirk was any indication, he hadn’t missed how wild a loop Katsu had been thrown for or just how upside-down he’d landed. But all he did was shrug and say, with almost pointed casualness, “I like what I like.” Then, as if to demonstrate, turning toward Sano with the same exaggerated unconcern (which was only making this worse for Katsu, which Saitou obviously recognized), he added, “Do you have your charger? Shall we go?”

Not sure what to think, or whether to laugh or tremble at this new development, or what to expect from the future, Sano hastened into his mattressroom to get what he’d come for. From the adjacent chamber he heard the ridiculously bland comment from his boyfriend, “I might even be interested in buying this one, if it’s for sale,” but all that came from his friend was a sort of choking gurgle. By the time he got back in there, Saitou had stepped to the door and was conspicuously not looking at Katsu again. When he saw Sano returning he said, “Nice to meet you,” in a deceptively polite tone, and stepped out.

As the door swung mostly shut, Sano demanded of his friend, “Are you OK?”

“Yes,” said Katsu hoarsely. “Yes. Don’t let me keep you from your date or whatever.” And, though the look on his face was still entirely poleaxed and the sound of his voice temporarily soulless, the words at least were calm and rational. Sano still hesitated a bit before walking away, but did eventually move to go. And before he made it entirely out of the apartment, he heard his roommate say to himself in a harsh mutter, “I’ve got to think about this…”


This was for leb’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “modern au. extremem anarchist punk sano n katsu. katsu finds out his friend is dating acop n is disappointed. hilarity ensues?????” I don’t know that all that much hilarity actually found its way into this piece, but I still think it’s kinda cute.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Aku Soku Zan(za) (4)



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

Last updated on February 10, 2019

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Of course the simplest solution would be to arrest the artist before the catastrophe could take place, but for a few different reasons Saitou chose not to. The greatest of these was Zanza’s existing feeling of annoyance, perhaps even betrayal, that Tokio had been spying on him. Stepping in and hauling his friend off under his nose wouldn’t help him like or trust those that were supposed to be his allies. Besides, he’d said he needed to figure this out on his own; arresting Tsukioka would take that opportunity from him.

Tokio’s uncertainty about the decision Zanza would make had been aggravating, but nothing more than Saitou could have predicted. For the young man to be faced with a choice like this so soon after his life’s metamorphosis and before he’d even had the chance to start his new assignment seemed an unkind and unfair trick of the universe… but the universe was known for its lack of gentleness and parity. Zanza would have to deal with it as best he could; what conclusion he eventually came to would speak volumes about his character… perhaps even release Saitou from the fascination and emotional involvement he’d been gripped with ever since meeting the young man. Not that this was the outcome Saitou wanted, but it would, at least, be a silver lining to a poor decision on Zanza’s part.

He would like to talk to him, or at least observe him — though he doubted he could get any clearer impression of Zanza’s intentions than Tokio had; she was better at that kind of thing — but in any case found himself unable to track the kenkaya down. It was a big city, and on his own (since enlisting anyone else’s help was obviously out of the question) he had neither the time nor the luck to locate Zanza in it. And he had other things to do anyway. He would just have to wait for tomorrow and see how the scenario played out. Though well aware it could play out very badly for everyone involved, still it seemed wisest to stay his hand until the proper moment. But he was early to the Internal Affairs offices on Saturday night.

What route the artist planned on using to enter he couldn’t predict with 100% accuracy, but if Tsukioka had any sense — which Saitou believed he did, clouded though it might be by old pain and a revolutionary haze — he would scale the wall (which, though crenelated, foolishly bore nothing sharp at its top to prevent this) near where Saitou had stationed himself: some trees, also foolishly placed for tactical purposes, grew on the grounds in this area and would hide the climb from the sight of anyone not close by, and the earth’s slope made this the highest point anywhere inside the perimeter. Saitou was still taking a chance waiting where he was, for doing so assumed Tsukioka had planned thoroughly and wouldn’t be taking unnecessary risks; given the man’s fanatical nature, no matter how much sense Saitou ascribed to him, he could be certain of neither. But he trusted his instincts and stayed.

He glanced upward into the tree whose deep shadows concealed him. No, he couldn’t be sure he was correct, but he estimated a pretty high probability. So even when, a tediously long and quiet time after he’d taken up his position, explosions sounded outside near the main gates, he held his ground, watching the wall carefully from his hidden place through the moonless gloom. His speculation was confirmed when, with a click, the head of a grapnel arced up and over, drawing back and latching onto the inside corner of the top of the wall on the first try. Saitou remained perfectly still, counting on his dark clothes and hair and motionlessness to keep him from notice, as a man followed the hook onto the summit, where he gathered it and the attached rope concisely around his arm and peered into the space beneath him.

Saitou recognized Tsukioka from the description Tokio had provided: a stocky, long-haired figure in dark red and saffron with a bandanna reminiscent of Zanza’s around his forehead. Against the stars at the top of the wall he appeared inscrutable and almost ominous, and the officer didn’t remove his interested eyes from him as he dropped to the turf below.

Tsukioka wasn’t the only one that jumped down seemingly out of nowhere. Zanza hit the ground not five feet in front of Saitou, descending from where he’d been relatively well concealed in the tree (‘relatively’ because, despite his ideal hiding place, he still wore all white), and ran toward his friend. It took only a moment for the artist to notice him and pause.

Saitou leaned forward slightly, scarcely breathing. This was the moment that would confirm the hopes or fears he and Tokio had been harboring for days, determine the course of their mutual interest in Zanza, and possibly completely alter the Karashigumi investigation.

Tsukioka had said his friend’s name, and the tone in which he spoke as well as his subsequent words caused Saitou’s heart, previously subdued as if to muffle its own sound and make listening easier, pick up again and thud perhaps a bit more vehemently than usual: “You said you weren’t coming with me!”

“And you said you weren’t gonna try this alone.” Zanza spoke as if they’d both been taken in a lie, or perhaps something less reprehensible — as if they’d each been cheating at a game where this was allowed as long as it remained undetected, and they’d caught each other out at exactly the same moment.

Tsukioka’s response, “And I thought you believed me,” held the same rueful, friendly accusation.

“Nope.” Zanza shook his head. “I know you were already getting ready for this even before I showed up. No reason not to still go through with it just because I didn’t want to, right?”

“That’s about right. So why are you here?” Tsukioka looked impatient to get on with his work, but also justifiably suspicious at Zanza’s presence.

Even from his concealment some distance away — though only because he had excellent night vision — Saitou could see the deep expansion of Zanza’s chest. This wasn’t easy for him, but he seemed resolute. “I’m here to stop you.”

And at these words, Saitou too found himself able to take a deep breath and let it out. It was all right. Zanza had come to the right conclusion. And did Saitou’s disproportionate relief have anything to do with the fact that he wouldn’t be forced to abandon his infatuation? Because it would really be more convenient if he could let it go…

Tsukioka stiffened, perhaps a little bewildered or betrayed, if not both. “Why?” he hissed. “After everything we talked about, why would you–“

Zanza interrupted, “You musta known I didn’t like this, or you would’ve just told me you were still planning to do it even when I didn’t want to come along. So I think you know why, too, underneath everything.” When the frowning Tsukioka just shook his head, Zanza went on. “This isn’t what taichou would want. Maybe years ago, right after the Bakumatsu, this would’ve been a good idea, but not now, not anymore. Taichou wanted people to have safe and happy lives, and this isn’t going to give them that.”

“We have to do something,” Tsukioka protested. And that, at least, was a better attitude than many citizens had.

“But not this! This–” Zanza gestured toward the building and the distant sounds of running feet and shouting– “is only going to start your new war if you’re really, really lucky, and either way you’re probably gonna die.”

“I told you I don’t–“

Zanza was relentless. “And so will a bunch of other people, innocent people! Look, I know this government is bullshit, but there’s a lot of people working their asses off trying to make things better. You can’t just trample all over that!”

Now Tsukioka definitely appeared betrayed. “You’ve been talking to that Saitou about this, haven’t you?”

“I haven’t even seen him,” Zanza said dismissively, making Saitou glad, in a way, he hadn’t found him when he’d looked. “I’ve just been thinking a lot. Because things are improving, aren’t they? People — like Saitou, yeah — are working hard for reform, and they’re getting somewhere! People are happier now! Isn’t that worth preserving?”

“There’s only so far anyone can get in a faulty system! It needs to be overthrown!” The noises of inquiry and alarm from over by the gates seemed just a little louder, and Saitou thought Tsukioka’s willingness to stand here debating proved something, if not about his overall intentions, at least about his dedication to this specific attack at this specific moment: he wasn’t as sure as he pretended. Exactly why this was, Saitou didn’t know — he would have welcomed Tokio’s assessment of the emotions in this scene — but the wavering was there in any case.

“And once it’s overthrown, if you can somehow manage that,” Zanza was saying, “what do you think’s gonna replace it? Are you gonna rule Japan, or just try to talk some sense into the Emperor? Or are we gonna assassinate him too?”

Saitou didn’t want to grin and risk having starlight gleam off his teeth and possibly betray his presence, but he was just so pleased with Zanza for bringing up this point — especially as he observed the lack of certainty in Tsukioka’s answer, “There are many people who think like us…”

“You know who else there’s a lot of? Old, bitter Bakufu supporters just waiting for a chance to put things back the way they were. Seriously, what are the odds the right people are gonna grab power after this?” Zanza snorted. “‘After this?’ Hell, what are the chances even the right people will be fighting this new war of yours? Seems to me it’s more likely to be people like the guys from Satsuma, trying to get back the last three hundred years.”

Saitou wished he would bring up foreign relations and how petty scuffles like this appeared to other power-hungry countries, but you couldn’t have everything — and he’d already gotten so much more than he could have asked for tonight. He’d come out here fearing Zanza would do something stupid and morally questionable that would damage him irreparably in Saitou’s estimation… and instead the wolf found himself more impressed by and attracted to the young man than ever.

Again Tsukioka insisted, “But we have to do something!”

“You don’t always have to break something to fix it, though.”

“But do you really think people like those police of yours can possibly have any long-term effect on a system like this? You can’t fix a problem this big from the inside!”

“Maybe with enough people working on it, we can fix some of this shit. It’s like you said — people just need an example to realize what they can do.”

Tsukioka’s demeanor by now seemed perfectly desperate, though toward exactly what end Saitou didn’t know. “But what kind of example besides violence could possibly–“

The noises of what must have become a thorough and energetic search of the entire grounds were suddenly growing significantly louder with increasing nearness. All three men glanced around, but could see very little through the shadows of the scant trees. And when Zanza turned back to his friend, he appeared very grim.

“We’re out of time here,” he declared. “We gotta go.”

“No!” Tsukioka’s gaze seemed to burn in the starlight. “I can still — Sano, I’ve worked too hard for this!”

“At least put it off,” Zanza begged, lowering his voice now there was more danger of being heard. “Think about it and come back another night if I really can’t convince you.”

Tsukioka just stared at him hopelessly, and it became clear he couldn’t bring himself to abandon his progress and all his preparations. No matter what he felt or to what extent Zanza had him persuaded, he was simply incapable of moving. Saitou had seen that look before — in battle, just before cutting down an opponent whose conviction outweighed their common sense and self-preservation instinct. Tsukioka had admirable desires and even a certain amount of savvy regarding social change… but he needed a better channel for his energy.

Zanza looked just as troubled and agitated as did his friend. With another deep breath, he placed a hand on Tsukioka’s shoulder and said slowly and heavily, “Hey. Forgive me for this.” Then in a swift movement without warning, he punched Tsukioka so hard in the gut that the artist collapsed immediately into his waiting arms. “I won’t lose you,” he muttered. “Not like this.”

Saitou stepped unhesitatingly from the blackness at that moment, and Zanza, busy slinging the red and yellow figure over his shoulder, almost dropped him in his startlement at the unexpected movement and the officer’s abrupt appearance. “Holy shit! How long’ve you… why are you here?”

“In case you needed help,” Saitou replied, “and now you apparently do. Can you get over the wall?”

Gathering his wits, Zanza blinked, shook his head slightly, then looked around. It seemed he hadn’t given much thought to how he was going to get out of here carrying an unconscious body. “I… could use a hand up,” he admitted.

“I’ll tie his wrists together so you have your hands free,” Saitou suggested, and, swiftly approaching, confiscated Tsukioka’s rope for the task.

Still baffled, Zanza asked, “How long were you there?”

“The whole time. Nice work with him.” With this brief answer, Saitou was finished preparing the artist for transport. He took up a place near the wall and cupped his hands expectantly. “I’ll take care of the guards. Go!”

“Can you…” Zanza seemed suddenly a little flustered. “Can you meet me at his place later? Do you know where he lives?”

“Yes.” Saitou gestured with his head toward the wall and repeated, “Go!”

Zanza got a decent running start from where he’d been standing talking to his friend, stepped onto Saitou’s waiting hands and sprang upward with the added force of Saitou’s heave. Even with the assistance, he barely made it high enough to grasp the top of the wall with that swinging burden on his back, undoubtedly scraping himself and possibly Tsukioka in numerous places as he hauled them both up and over and out of sight. The sound of the doubled weight hitting the ground on the other side and his retreating footsteps assured Saitou he’d gotten down in relative safety. And then the wolf turned to meet the approaching guards.

Without appearing very suspicious — and his story of coincidentally hearing the bombs go off as he passed by on a night patrol and somehow entering and reaching this corner of the grounds without anyone seeing him was already a little suspect — he couldn’t disengage from the offices’ employees and the search for the attackers for quite some time. With those ambiguous words ‘Can you meet me’ echoing in his head, this was more than a little irritating. But so satisfied was he at how well Zanza had handled the situation, he couldn’t consider even the futile pursuit of a bomber long fled throughout the empty grounds of the government buildings a waste of time. Still, he was intensely curious what Zanza could want from him, so when, after almost two hours, he was finally able to depart with impunity, he set off for Tsukioka’s home by a roundabout way as quickly as he could.

***

Given the numerous disasters in potentia during Zanza’s walk back to Katsu’s apartment — to name a few, his friend awakening, declaring he hated Zanza and should never have trusted him, and running back to the Internal Affairs offices to complete the interrupted job, undoubtedly getting himself killed in the process; any one of the truly distressing and extremely uncomfortable number of hard round bombs secreted about Katsu’s person and digging into Zanza’s as he carried him going off unexpectedly and blowing them both to pieces; someone he passed on the street, darkness notwithstanding, noticing the tied wrists around his neck of the figure on his back, very understandably mistaking him for a kidnapper or murderer, and reporting him to police far less likely than Saitou to be relatively sympathetic — it was nothing short of a miracle that he reached his destination without incident.

Katsu didn’t stir when Zanza clumsily searched his pockets to find the key to his door, nor when he was laid onto his futon by tired arms trying, and probably failing, to be as gentle as possible. Nor did he react when Zanza began removing the copious bombs from his pockets and sleeves and stacking them very gingerly in the cupboard from which they’d originally come. The artist remained still and silent, except for his somewhat shallow breathing, as Zanza finally finished his task and threw himself down to rest.

The kenkaya leaned back and closed his eyes, unexpectedly bone-weary and beginning to feel the smart of the scrapes he’d taken from climbing that wall and a certain kink in his back from carrying another grown man such a distance. And in his head he heard, rather than any of the things he and Katsu had said to each other tonight, a different statement from days before: “One of the hardest things about being with the police is that there will always be situations where there’s nothing you can do. No matter how good you are at your job, you’re going to run into those times.”

He had applied Tokio’s words, as she’d specifically intended, to the anger and wretchedness of not being able to help an anonymous woman attacked by anonymous men; they tore at him so much more viciously now as he considered the possibility that Katsu might soon open eyes full of angry rejection, that Zanza might be forced to say goodbye to his oldest friend just as definitively as if he’d allowed Katsu to go through with his suicidal plan. He couldn’t decide whether to hope for a longer or shorter period of unconsciousness; he wasn’t sure he wanted to know how Katsu would behave when he awoke.

Of course, this wasn’t the only thing he had to think about.

“In case you needed help.”

Not, “To stop you from doing this,” or, “To arrest your friend,” but, “In case you needed help.” That Saitou had remained hidden until the other two had finished their debate (if it could be called that), until the moment Zanza had specifically required him, attested to the truth of the statement, but Zanza could still hardly believe it. Because it meant Saitou, the guy that had never said anything kind to him once since they’d first met, had trusted Zanza to handle the situation using his own judgment.

Reasonably, why should he be surprised at this? If Saitou didn’t trust him at least a little, he wouldn’t have hired him. Yet Saitou, even in the midst of discussing that very assignment, had given him such a hard time about past choices he considered poorly handled… It astonished him that that Saitou had been willing to watch and say nothing until the situation had progressed to a point where Zanza could no longer get by on his own.

And then, “Nice work with him.” ‘Nice work?’ This was so far from the condescending and insulting behavior Saitou had offered him on previous occasions that Zanza was almost tempted to call it ‘praise… ‘ but didn’t quite dare. In any case, it had been comradely and encouraging… and since when was Saitou that friendly to him? Or did Zanza simply not know the man as well as he thought he did?

Why, though, should he think he knew him at all? He’d fought him exactly once, talked to him barely more often than that… Most of the knowledge he had of him was from the research he’d done before his battle, which wasn’t exactly personality-profiling. Sure, he had a pretty good idea what Saitou’s morals were, but what did he really know about Saitou personally? Maybe it would be wise to spend some time with his new employer and find out whether the guy was actually as big a bastard as he’d been assuming.

With these reflections helping to push away the far more uncomfortable ones about what would happen presently when Katsu woke, Zanza nevertheless waited uneasily for that event and his doom, leaning against the wall between a cabinet and a table alternately staring up at the dark ceiling and into the deeper blackness of his eyelids in a room where he hadn’t bothered — or perhaps had the heart — to light a lamp. It was no great wonder that, after a while, he drowsed and lost awareness of his surroundings. He wasn’t so deeply asleep, however, that the sound of Katsu stirring did not immediately return him to full consciousness. He had the vague impression that hours had passed, and there was definitely a crick in his neck, but as it was time to face the music he didn’t spend too long thinking about either of these circumstances.

At first it was merely a change in Katsu’s breathing patterns and a slight shifting of limbs — perfectly normal sounds for someone coming out of sleep or something like it — but then, so abruptly it startled Zanza into a more upright attitude of his own, he bolted into a sudden sitting position as if memory had come back to him just as precipitously. “Where–” His level of tension hardly decreased as he looked frantically around and recognized his own room, and eventually his eyes fixed on Zanza and stayed there, wide and trembling. “Sano…!” And a long moment of silence followed.

Recognizing the necessity for him to start the conversation, no matter how difficult it would prove, Zanza forced his mouth open. His words came out very heavy indeed: “Hey. I’m sorry I hit you. I hope you don’t hate me.”

Katsu simply continued to stare at him.

“I just thought the whole thing was such a bad idea,” Zanza explained awkwardly, “and it felt like I was never gonna be able to get you to leave.”

Katsu’s face seemed to be compressing, his eyes losing their agitated wideness, his brows drawing together, and his mouth tightening to a hard, bitter line. This change of expression spoke volumes, but his voice said nothing.

Zanza pressed on. “Taichou did a lot of dirty work trying to reach his goals, even if his goals were good…” Though an integral part of the conclusion he wanted to draw that had been on his mind quite a bit lately, this hurt him to say aloud, and he felt the driving need to add, “I know we’d rather think of him as this perfect guy who always did the right thing, but we’ve both gotta know that’s bullshit.”

The artist’s gaze dropped his lap, his face now at an angle unreadable in the darkness.

“But it wasn’t like he wanted it to be that way. Because his goals were good, and he probably would’ve liked it a whole lot better to keep his hands clean for them.”

Finally Katsu spoke, but if Zanza hoped to gage his current attitude and likely future actions from his tone, he was disappointed. “Sometimes the end justifies the means.” He said it so dully, so totally without emotion or direction, that the words could indicate any point along the scale from unmotivated philosophy to specific planning.

“Maybe,” Zanza allowed helplessly. “I dunno.” He sat silent for a moment, feeling his ability to debate this topic entirely exhausted for the night, but also that he must get his final point out before giving up. “You kinda made it sound,” he resumed at last with some difficulty, “like you thought taichou was arranging things from wherever he is now… like he brought me to you just at the right time…” And perhaps it was dangerous to state this idea so explicitly when it had only been hinted at before, but Zanza felt what little conversational finesse he might have had earlier draining from him now.

Nevertheless, Katsu, though still staring down at the hands clenched in his lap, nodded slightly.

Zanza believed this was a good sign, and his tone was a little stronger as he continued, “I think you’re right about that. But I don’t think it was for me to help you with your plans.” After this his words came out on a rush: “I think it was for me to stop you, because he might see that as a second chance — a chance to keep us from making ourselves as dirty as he was.” He took a deep breath. “We can’t do shit that makes us as bad as our enemies. That’s never what taichou would’ve wanted.”

Almost no motion had shown in Katsu’s figure during all of this, but at these last words he went so perfectly still it appeared he’d stopped breathing. Zanza knew from recent experience how very, very difficult it was to have your way of life and the attitudes behind it criticized in a manner you couldn’t ignore; the situations weren’t entirely the same, but he did have some idea what he was putting his friend through at this point.

‘His friend?’ Was that even true anymore?

“But, look…” He also knew, from that same recent experience, how important choice was in personal revolution. Sorely, wearily, sadly, he got slowly to his feet, watching nothing but Katsu even as he stepped toward the door. He sighed, and finally dragged his eyes away, directing them toward making his way through the dark room. “I didn’t touch anything. Your bombs are all still there, and nobody knows what you tried to do tonight.” He refrained from mentioning Saitou, unsure where they stood on this matter. “You can still go back another time if you want. I just… really… really hope you won’t.”

No word, not even a shifting of garments sounded from behind him, and in fact the only thing he heard was the echoing statement in his head, “There will always be situations where there’s nothing you can do.”

“I hope you find another way,” he said, and left the apartment.

Outside, he sighed again and turned his gaze upward. This wasn’t comfortable on his neck after having dozed however long against Katsu’s wall, but he nevertheless stared up at the moonless, spotted blackness for several long moments, seeking to calm himself. He might have been seeking something else as well, which he realized only when he directed a mental call into the sky: I did my best. What the outcome of his best might be he couldn’t guess, and he would be watching newspaper headlines anxiously for the next several days, but he doubted there was anything more he could have done. If Sagara-taichou had arranged this, it was time for him to take a hand again to nudge things along to their proper conclusion.

When Zanza’s eyes finally dropped from the stars, he found Saitou standing beside him. He started violently, and had to restrain himself from yelping; instead he hissed, “Dammit, stop startling me like that! You and Tokio both are so sneaky!”

Saitou’s smirk was more visible in the starlight than Katsu’s entire form had been inside the unlit apartment. “You asked me to meet you here.”

Slowly Zanza nodded, and began moving away from Katsu’s door so as to be able to speak at a more normal volume without risking the artist hearing them from inside. He wasn’t entirely sure why he had asked Saitou to meet him here; he supposed he’d entertained some hazy idea of the officer’s being useful if Katsu decided he wanted to run straight back to the Internal Affairs offices, but now, as uncertainly as everything had turned out, he knew neither what to do with himself nor what to request of Saitou.

The latter followed him across the street, then followed his constantly returning glance to Katsu’s door. “You think he’ll try again tonight?”

Zanza let out yet another sigh. “I’ve got no idea what he’s gonna do.” With a deep breath, trying to order his thoughts, he shook his head and forced himself to be more rational. “No. I don’t think he’ll try again tonight, at least. But I sure as hell don’t know about tomorrow night.”

It was probably nothing more than a trick of the shadows, but there seemed an unexpected amount of understanding in Saitou’s nod. “You made a number of excellent points, and told him what he needs to hear; all you can do now is stand back and wait for him to make his own decision.”

This was exactly what Zanza had been thinking inside, and coming from exactly the person most qualified to make the pronouncement with far more conviction than Zanza had been thinking it. It heartened him, but at the same time stood as a painful reminder of how much control he didn’t have over the situation, the potential loss of an important friend. Saitou couldn’t have felt precisely this way while waiting to see what effect his words would have on the backward mercenary that had come to attack him, yet he must understand to some extent what this was like for someone that had suggested a change that might after all never take place.

Saitou was leaning against the wall now, withdrawing a cigarette as if he had nothing better to do than stand here with Zanza in the dark discussing possibilities. And when he evidently observed the young man had no answer for his latest statement, he went on casually. “And you don’t do anything by halves, do you? You only just agreed to work with Tokio and me, but already you’re throwing around phrases like, ‘Don’t you think that’s worth preserving?'”

“I…” Zanza had to smile faintly at hearing himself quoted. “I didn’t even know what I was saying half the time. I was just trying to save him. If it sounded like I knew what I was talking about, I was putting on a really good show. I just… didn’t want to lose Katsu.”

“Do you think his plan has potential?” Saitou’s tone remained surprisingly conversational, something Zanza had heard almost none of from this source in the past.

“The more I thought about that, the less I believed it. That shit would only work if every little thing lined up just right, and maybe not even then.”

Saitou nodded sharply, exactly as Zanza had seen him do in a similarly dark street on a recent night during a very different discussion. It was, he thought, a nod of approval. “But you were tempted.”

Yeah.” The smile returned, now bittersweetly nostalgic. “You’re too old to know what it was like to be a useless kid during the Bakumatsu. The idea of really getting to fight this time sounded really good.”

Saitou shrugged. “You’re still a useless kid, though. Sano.”

Engrossed in formulating a response for the slander, he almost missed the cop’s deliberate use of his real name, but as soon as it caught up with him he stilled the words on the tip of his tongue. Despite its appendage to a needlessly insulting remark, he found he rather enjoyed being called that. “Yeah, that’s me… Sano…” A slow, thoughtful frown grew on his face and a slight shiver ran through him as he fully realized what Saitou was prompting him to let go of. “I guess I’m not really Zanza anymore, am I?”

“Aren’t you?” Saitou asked neutrally.

“Zanza…” Sano worked through this slowly, more for himself than for his listener. “Zanza would have gone along with Katsu, for one reason or another. Either just for fun, or because…” He shook his head, and his next words held increasing decisiveness. “Zanza was the reason I was tempted in the first place. Zanza was all about living in the past, and this–” he gestured across the street– “was all about the past: reviving the Sekihoutai, bringing back the war, sticking with an old friend… but Zanza was always just a bad way of coping; he was never really right about anything.”

And now, at last, Sano could give him up. As he put this into words for the first time, he felt a positivity, a surety, about his own actions and beliefs that he’d never been able to harbor before. He’d been certain of nothing tonight — or, indeed, since Katsu had presented his plan — except his desire not to lose his friend, but now all of a sudden he saw his path clearly and felt he could walk it with determination. There was no longer even a shred of temptation to go back to his life of meaningless fighting in order to escape the complications that currently plagued him. And this had taken place specifically because he’d been able to talk to Saitou about it; perhaps subconsciously, in response to those unexpectedly encouraging phrases the officer had granted him back at the office grounds, this had been the real reason he’d asked him to come here.

Saitou was nodding, the bobbing end of his cigarette bright in the darkness. “And maybe this whole plan was just your friend’s way of coping.”

Sano dragged his eyes back from where they’d wandered to the police officer as he considered yet again what a difference this man had made in his life, and turned them once more on the door deeply shadowed in its frame across from them. Would Katsu be able to let go the way Sano had? There simply was no telling at this time.

“Well,” said Saitou after what felt like an extremely long silence, throwing his spent cigarette to the ground and stepping on it as he stood straight, “no reason to keep waiting around here like a stray dog hoping for scraps.”

Wondering to what extent the circumstances did cause him to resemble that ignoble beast, Sano too pushed himself straight from where he’d wearily been leaning against the same wall Saitou had. “Yeah,” he agreed reluctantly. “And I guess if he does decide to try again…” But he didn’t know what he would do in that case.

“I’ll send warnings to all the government offices as soon as I get back to the station.”

“You won’t just arrest Katsu? Or…” Sano could barely bring himself to say it, but he remembered certain statements Saitou had made that he’d never been able to doubt. “…kill him?”

“Only if I have to,” replied Saitou steadily, and Sano appreciated his honesty even while deploring the idea. And then the officer turned to leave.

The former kenkaya found himself loath all of a sudden to part from Saitou after the events of the evening. It seemed his life’s metamorphosis that had begun during their second encounter had been completed tonight, and there was a sort of binding power to Saitou’s words, even the ones not strictly concerned with Sano’s state of being. It felt wrong — ungrateful, lonely, unthinkable — to let Saitou walk away. Besides, hadn’t he been reflecting earlier that he should probably spend some time with the guy and get to know him a little better?

And perhaps Saitou recognized this when, upon his taking the first step up the street, Sano immediately followed as if it were prearranged they would be going together. He glanced back at the younger man with a raised brow, at first asking a wordless question. Behind Sano the sky brightened, changing to a dark grey instead of black and gradually swallowing up the stars, and he was surprised to realize the night’s adventure had taken so long; but he was even more surprised when the growing light seemed to show a softening of Saitou’s facial expression before him, as if the officer truly did understand Sano’s present vulnerability and did not necessarily object.

Saitou turned fully to face him again instead of merely looking over his shoulder. “Are you hungry?” he asked.

“Yeah!” Sano replied, startled. He’d had no idea, but found he was.

“Come on.” Saitou gestured as he turned again. “I’ll buy you breakfast.”

Sano did not hesitate to fall into step beside him, but couldn’t help querying, “Is it a good idea for you and me to be seen together in public, though?”

“There’s a restaurant where the police often go,” Saitou assured him. “They’re very good at keeping quiet.”

“Then lead the way!” Sano restrained himself from throwing one last glance back at Katsu’s door, just continued to walk at Saitou’s side filled with an almost startling new feeling of satisfaction and confidence.

***

After Sano left, how much time passed with Katsu in exactly the same attitude, cross-legged on his futon staring down at his hands, he wasn’t sure; but he had the impression he’d been sitting in the dark far longer than this. In fact light had been the aberration; the periods of his life he hadn’t spent in the dark were vastly overshadowed by those he had.

The family into which he’d been adopted as a young child had given him a few advantages: among them, the beginnings of an interest in fine art in a setting where he was privileged to enjoy such things; a name he’d eventually discovered he could trade on, however he felt about it, and thereby obtain a somewhat better education than he otherwise could have; and a relatively safe haven when his birth parents had been executed for treason. What they hadn’t given him was any motive — based on loyalty, love, or an idea of what he ‘owed’ them — to stay with them once he discovered what had happened at his former home; any significant amount of respect for a class system that encourage the swapping of sons like trade goods, no matter the reasoning behind it; or any sense whatsoever of family. That sense had only come later, with Sagara Souzou and Sanosuke.

And now had he lost it all over again?

There was a certain feeling he often experienced at the completion of a long-running artistic project he’d granted a lot of concentration and energy: a bleakness, an emptiness, an ignorance of what to do next or even if he could do anything next or ever again. Of course he invariably recovered — especially if he had another project lined up — but the labor took a lot out of him, and, even when he approved the finished work, that depression of spirits at the closure of any such project sometimes made him wonder whether it was all worth it.

This was worse. In addition to those precise sensations, he felt crushed, defeated, that all his hopes and plans had meant nothing; he suffered the same lowness that came after he’d finalized some intricate painting weeks or months in the creation, but with no finished work to show for it.

He remembered lying awake with Sano far into the night, in their little tent adjacent to the captain’s or an alcove just off his bedroom when they weren’t on the march, talking about basically nothing — the trivia children discussed, meaningless and unremembered in its specifics but inestimably valuable in the bond it forged — then being chided good-naturedly by Sagara-taichou in the morning when they drooped over breakfast. Taichou always ate breakfast with them, even if official conversations had already started across that meal and even if he would soon be called away on other business. He always made that time. And thereafter, tired though they might be, Sano and Katsu would enjoy carrying out their duties — tasks within their skillsets assigned to them without condescension — because they knew they were valued members of the group.

Sagara, the man that had eaten with him regardless of what other responsibilities he might have, that had cared whether he was getting enough sleep, that had listened to what he had to say, that had allowed a couple of kids from two totally disparate classes to do what they were capable of in the fight for justice and equality, had walked out of his life one day in 1869 when he’d gone to Shimosuwa supposedly to try to clear up the ‘misunderstanding’ regarding the Sekihoutai but probably knowing very well he would never return.

And Sanosuke, the friend to whom Katsu had drawn so close, the tent-mate to whom he’d bared his young heart, his comrade in what arms they children had been allowed to take up, the only true brother he’d ever acknowledged, had walked back into his life just when Katsu had honed the biting memory of that time ten years ago to its sharpest point, one day in 1878… to do what? To refute his beliefs, thwart his schemes, destroy his vision of the future?

Or to rescue him from disaster?

Katsu didn’t know whether he felt he’d been stabbed in the back or snatched away at the last possible moment from a precipice whose edge he hadn’t realized was so near and whose height he hadn’t realized was so towering.

Not that Sanosuke had been absent from Katsu’s thoughts even before he’d returned. With the scattering of what remained of the Sekihoutai’s first regiment after Sagara’s execution, Katsu had entirely lost track of Sano physically, but never mentally. Having plunged back into that darkness of a life without family, without love, he’d clung all the more tenaciously to the distant memory of the father figure whose severed head he’d seen on public display and the brother he acutely hoped had survived. In a way, the plans he’d gradually been formulating and the bombs he’d eventually created had been every bit as much for Sano’s sake as they had been for Sagara’s.

And then Sano had shown up and declared he didn’t want any of it.

But this couldn’t be exclusively about what Sano wanted. Whether or not his friend had betrayed him, the issue was not merely Katsu’s will versus Sano’s. True, Katsu’s motivation in this matter had taken a severe blow at Sano’s declaration that he wouldn’t be accompanying him, but he’d felt strongly enough about the enterprise to proceed with it anyway. And he’d been utterly torn when Sano had appeared unexpectedly on the office grounds to try to stop him, but even the intense desire to comply with Sano’s wishes in some way — any way — in deference to their old attachment hadn’t been enough to drag him from what he intended to do.

A combination of his indecision and Sano’s physical strength, however, had been enough. And afterward — how long afterward he still couldn’t tell — his decisiveness had yet to return. Of course he could go back, try again, just as Sano had stated on his way out of the apartment, but his limbs felt stone-heavy; the faint light of stars and streetlamps through the shouji of his door was not enough to show his path clear, and he didn’t know what to do. But did this irresolution arise from to a desire to placate Sano now he had him back in his life (if he had him back in his life), or from fresh doubts about the entire business?

He felt as if he’d suffered a significant loss: not merely of the opportunity provided by a moonless and less-guarded night, but also of the burning drive that had powered the undertaking in the first place. Everything was in a shambles now, and he couldn’t decide, intellectually or emotionally, where he currently stood in relation to his former designs. Was he merely shaken by the events of the evening, by feelings and memories that naturally reached deep but that were, in the end, unrelated to this endeavor? Would he recover, regain that drive, feel secure again that he’d come up with the only viable option for enacting change, and head out once more with strength of spirit redoubled? Or had Sano’s words and actions — many of which had come across as less reasoned than blatantly desperate but all evidently hailing from an honest place — penetrated him more thoroughly than he recognized yet? Was he truly doubting his own convictions?

He’d hinted at a belief in Sagara-taichou’s supernatural supervision, and Sano had later stated the idea openly… but did Katsu truly have any faith in that phenomenon? He’d been so alone for so long… Surely more light would have shone into his empty life if his captain had been watching over him? And Sano too, the ‘Zanza’ Katsu had met after so many years apart, had, at least up until this very night, seemed so lost, so aimless… If Sagara Souzou was directing events on behalf of either of them, why had they both walked such tortuous paths through darkness? The one reasonable supposition was that Sagara had taken a ghostly hand in the proceedings only when that hand was most needed — that is, when Katsu had finally solidified his plans for sedition and violence. But had that interference been intended to bring Sano to him just at the right moment, as Katsu had believed, to assist… or, as Sano believed, to hinder? Each of them regarded the timing of their reunion as significant, and possibly ascribed it to the will of their dead commander, but each had assigned him a different motivation. Each was using the circumstance to support his own point of view.

Exactly as Katsu had been using the memory of Sagara-taichou’s political goals, the concept of ‘reviving the Sekihoutai,’ to further his own agenda?

It had hurt him so profoundly earlier to hear Sano talk about Sagara as having been dirty, as having committed wrongs even in the name of the righteousness he’d longed to achieve. Some part of Katsu was glad Sano had left him to his thoughts, because after that statement he wasn’t sure he was capable of a level-headed conversation with his friend. For the beloved companion of his youth, his brother, to malign a man that had been as good as a father to both of them had been more than Katsu could bear, even if Sano had gone on in practically the same breath to reaffirm the essential virtue of that man.

But Sano had once had a real father and an affectionate family, even if some careless impulse had driven him to run away from Nagano farm work and join the Sekihoutai, and perhaps — it stung even to consider, but seemed nonetheless rational — perhaps that allowed him a clearer view of the figure that had acted as surrogate during the war. Perhaps Katsu’s memories of Sagara were warped in a way Sano’s never would be by the fact that the Sekihoutai had been the only true family Katsu had ever known. And perhaps the whole bombing scheme had been an attempt, however strange and backward it might seem, to reconnect with that. Maybe Sano was right, and it wasn’t at all what Sagara-taichou would have wanted, whether or not the blinded Katsu could see that. If only Sano hadn’t cut so deeply in conveying the idea.

And yet… no matter how he felt about his old friend, the manner in which Sano had altered his course, or his goal of destroying the Internal Affairs offices… no matter how accurate Katsu’s picture of their captain was or wasn’t… it was undeniable that the vision Sagara-taichou had died for was not yet realized. The classism of the previous era, though technically abolished by law, was still tacitly upheld in the dealings of this fraudulent government. Criminals such as those that had betrayed the Sekihoutai to disgrace and death still ran unchecked and often even unrecognized, certainly unpunished by this imbalanced system. His specific drive might have faltered, but he still had a deep-rooted desire to fight against this corruption on behalf of Sagara and all of his fallen comrades. As he’d told Sanosuke earlier, those that had eyes open to the true state of things couldn’t simply do nothing.

He’d also told him the end sometimes justified the means. He’d told him war was the only way. Sano hoped he would find a different one, but Katsu couldn’t imagine what that might be.

Would the people of modern Japan respond to anything short of violence? Was there any better, more peaceful manner of righting the wrongs brought about by the Meiji, of inspiring the downtrodden to claim their rights without embroiling them in the weary horrors of another bloody conflict? Could anyone expose and begin to scrub away the grime of this era without getting it all over his own hands? And if such methods could be determined upon, would someone that had lived most of his life in a darkness without family, without love be capable of using them?

He found himself staring over at the lamp on his table. Light was such a simple thing, so easy to produce and maintain. He could strike a flame and set it to the wick and bring his room into much greater visibility and comprehensibility just as he’d done thousands of times before in preparation for going about his daily activities and working at the tasks that were important to him, the things that made his existence in some measure worth continuing. Yet he found, though unable to remove his unhappy eyes from the familiar implements that could so easily restore luminance to the space around him, that he simply didn’t know how.

***

Tokio had informed him in the past that he had a terrifying smile. While taking the statement with a grain of salt and assuming only certain smiles qualified in any case, Saitou nevertheless had good reason to believe it upon reaching the station that morning. Overt cheerfulness, after all, was no particularly striking characteristic of his, and might convince anyone his mood was homicidal rather than pleased and optimistic.

Imitating his wife’s behavior of a few days before as he entered his own office, he closed the door only imperfectly and leaned toward it to listen. And just as when Tokio had done this, what he overheard simultaneously amused and annoyed him.

“Holy shit, what’s his problem?”

“Didn’t look like a ‘problem‘ to me.”

“Well, he sent his butch woman off somewhere–” Of course this remark was Hino’s– “so he’s got some time free for his side piece.”

“Are you kidding? Any woman in her right mind would run like hell if a guy looked at her like that.”

“Maybe it’s a man, then?”

“A suicidal man!”

Nervous laughter.

Shaking his head, Saitou shut the door completely. Maybe indeed. It was remarkable how disrespectful otherwise fairly rational people felt free to be when the objects of their discussion were even minutely unorthodox in any way. He still would have enjoyed avenging himself and his wife — giving those officers something far more terrifying to consider him by than a smile — but when he wasn’t working directly with them, that would have been unprofessional, petty, and (most pertinently) ineffectual. Best just to get on with what he had to do today.

The latter, predictably, struck him as infinitely more boring than usual. At the same time, he seemed also to have a vastly improved ability to tolerate it, a greater strength for dealing with tedium, fueled by the memory of breakfast. If Zanza — if Sano had grasped exactly how much that simple meal had affected the man he’d eaten it with, he surely would have been taken aback. He might have reacted very much as the officers out in the station proper had, speculating inappropriately though probably not coming as unwittingly close to the real reason for Saitou’s good mood as those policemen.

Saitou hoped, however, and to a certain extent liked to believe Sano wouldn’t be nearly so stupidly offensive about it. Stupidly offensive about any number of things Saitou could easily picture the young man, but in this area, at least, probably not. Sano had demonstrated a decent level of respect for Tokio and her professional abilities so far, and she usually didn’t interest herself in anyone inclined to treat her (or refer to her) the way men like Hino-kun did.

Admittedly Sano had mentioned Tokio in Saitou’s presence only a handful of times, which contributed in no small degree to the frame of mind that so unsettled his co-workers. Though their discussion over breakfast had ranged from the personal to the occupational and back, Saitou’s wife and possible rival had barely been touched upon. That seemed a promising sign.

“Tokio claims she’s a really good cook.” Sano exhibited a preposterous and charming fluctuation of mood as he ate: every time his attention returned squarely to his food, he seemed immediately to experience an entirely pure and simple happiness based on its presence in front of him; but when his thoughts evidently moved toward anything else, his face would gradually darken — up until the moment he looked down and remembered his breakfast again, at which point he would grin slightly and shovel another bite into his mouth. He’d made his latest comment in the pleasant atmosphere, then started once more on the descent.

“She is,” Saitou replied, but did not elaborate; instead he spoke in response to the unpalatable reflections that obviously repeatedly returned to Sano’s stream of consciousness. “Are you still worrying about your friend?”

“I’m trying not to,” Sano sighed. “It won’t do any good, right? He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and me dwelling on it won’t change what he decides.”

“What’s bothering you, then?” Saitou asked bluntly, fully aware he might not get any kind of satisfactory answer. And when Sano glanced up at him sharply, his handsome face closed off, then visibly relaxed, Saitou’s curiosity might have been described as ‘desperate’ regarding what rapid thought process had prompted the young man to open up.

“Just thinking about the Sekihoutai… and taichou… and all that.” The smile Sano couldn’t seem to help as he somehow plucked another strip of pork, a head of broccoli, and three or four noodles all at once appeared incongruous with the statement he next made before stuffing everything between his teeth. “I said some awful shit to Katsu in there.”

“You said you didn’t know what you were saying half the time,” Saitou recalled. “Did you mean those things, or was it just something you were using to try to convince him?”

Sano swallowed half of his mouthful and talked through the rest. “I did mean it, and that’s what makes it so awful. It was the first time I ever admitted out loud that taichou wasn’t perfect, but I’ve known for years and years the Sekihoutai had all sorts of problems. Don’t get me wrong; the Ishin Shishi screwed them over and murdered a bunch of… well, not innocent guys, but innocent of what they accused them of: guys who maybe didn’t deserve to die. But there was some pillaging, and intimidation and shady deals trying to get recruits and a better position with the patriots. It mostly went over my head as a kid, but with what I heard afterwards and then looking back…” He shrugged unhappily, helplessly, then directed his gaze down at his food and smiled seemingly against his will yet again.

“While I was fighting all those years, I didn’t think about that much.” He began gathering together another massive bite. “I was proud of being the ‘evil’ survivor of the ‘false army,’ and I didn’t give a shit whether the Sekihoutai and Sagara-taichou really did some evil things. But now…” His next words came out muffled. “I don’t feel like I can ignore that real evil anymore. I’ve always worn the kanji to protest what happened to people I cared about, this label that got put on them unfairly… but now… maybe it’s more true than I ever wanted to admit it was. And I don’t know if I wanna claim that anymore.”

Saitou thought he understood. He still didn’t know why Sano had chosen to lay this dilemma before him — perhaps simply because he’d paid for such a substantial breakfast — but he was touched, every bit as happy as Sano seemed to be at finding food continually in front of him, that he had. And he considered himself uniquely suited to respond to these concerns. It wasn’t something he discussed with just anyone, but the fact that he wanted to be closer to Sano and was therefore willing to broach this subject only increased his suitability for the exchange.

Since he, unlike his companion, wasn’t given to talking with his mouth full, he swallowed his current bite before beginning. He also lowered his tone, though restraining himself from glancing around suspiciously at the few other early-morning restaurant patrons and staff. They really were tight-lipped here, and he’d trusted the setting with more secure information than this. “The Shinsengumi,” he said slowly and seriously, “has been called a lot of things by various parties since it dissolved. We’ve been painted as everything from the most honorable protectors of true nobility to a despicable band of treacherous thugs.”

Motionless, Sano stared at him, and as he did so a long noodle slithered from the grasp of the chopsticks that had paused on their way to his mouth and plopped back into his bowl. The look on his face was an interesting mixture of far-away consideration, grudging admiration, and what Saitou could almost describe as rote disapproval. Many people reacted thus to talk of the Shinsengumi these days. At last he said, in a tone expressing all of this, “To a lot of us you guys were the enemy. Larger than life. A lot of kids thought if they could just get to Kyoto and beat you, the war’d be won.”

Speculating that Sano himself might have been one of those kids, Saitou remarked, “Kids are ignorant like that.”

Sano snorted. “The point is, yeah, I get it — there’s been lots of talk about the Shinsengumi and what it was like as long as I can remember. Why?”

“The truth about us was a little of all that talk. There were the honorable and the noble among us, and there were the treacherous thugs. And there were honorable, noble men who sometimes descended into treachery and mindless violence.”

Slowly Sano nodded, finally chewing with his mouth closed as he evidently had nothing to say.

“My time in the Shinsengumi was integral to who I was then and who I am now.” He had reached the crux of his discourse. “But I don’t have to claim everything they were. I can retain my pride as a former captain while rejecting what I consider evil.” Even, he did not add, evil committed by his own hands under the Shinsengumi banner during a youth that had shaped him into a man that would look back on some of his former actions with regret.

Again Sano was staring, and by the arrangement of his features he clearly took the point. He couldn’t seem to decide how to respond, though, and sat in silence with without moving for several moments. Eventually, rather than acquiescing or offering thanks for this insight or acknowledging how unexpectedly private some of this exchange had been, he cleared his throat, returned his ostensible attention to his food, and shifted their focus. “You were always trying to fix shit in the Shinsengumi, though, weren’t you? I heard you were kinda the police back then too.”

“Something like that,” Saitou agreed, his tone lighter than before.

“And now you’re doing the same thing with the Meiji government.”

“The Meiji government is significantly bigger, though,” Saitou observed, sardonic.

“Yeah.” Sano gave a rueful laugh. “Still, it’s good you’re going after guys like… well, I already forgot his name… that politician who’s working with the Karashigumi.”

“Rokumeikan Hatsuo.”

“You know you kinda grind your teeth when you say that?” Sano wondered with apparent interest.

“Some politicians abuse their influence to provide themselves with money and luxury and social prestige,” Saitou replied — indeed, through gritted teeth — “which, while far from harmless, tends to be the least of the evils they can do. But Rokumeikan, in addition to that, seems to love power for its own sake. We can’t definitively prove any crime at this point, but it’s evident his every political decision is intended to flatter and appease his professional colleagues, and every deal he makes is aimed at gathering more influence in the Army Ministry. Needless to say, those decisions and those deals aren’t made in the best interest of the country or its people.”

“So why don’t you just take him out?” Sano wondered. “You could clean up the gangs afterwards?”

Saitou wondered if Sano could tell just how much he’d love to do exactly that, how his hand almost twitched toward the hilt of his sword every time this came up. It seemed wise to remind himself of the answer to the question even as he provided it for Sano. “Several reasons. Rokumeikan’s death will be a warning to anyone involved with him, and if these gangs he’s working with are still active at that time, their most important members may go into hiding and take greater care to avoid capture. It’s also more convenient when it comes to the case review — because I do have to answer for my actions — to have dealt with all aspects of the problem at the same time. Then, damaging or destroying his underground operations all at once may bring to light other organizations under his control that we’re not aware of yet. And of course it’s just sensible caution to remove his manpower in addition to him personally.”

“Well, that all makes sense.” Sano was picking the last morsels out of his bowl. “It doesn’t really answer my question, though. I mean,” he continued quickly before Saitou could demand how on earth he hadn’t been thorough enough with his reply, “all that’s really good stuff, and you’re right: it is sensible caution. But it’s not exactly immediate. Aku Soku Zan, right? You’ve got this freaky look like you could go out and stab someone right now. How can you stand to wait when you know what that bastard’s up to?”

He could tell, then. That pleased Saitou more than he was willing to show, especially since a smile would have seemed incongruous at the moment and he had no food-related glee to excuse it. So he just sighed a little as he replied, “This is the Meiji, and while things are fundamentally unchanged in what I do and what I believe, we’re no longer at war. Acting in haste or with undue passion would be foolish.”

“Shit, you’ve got more patience than I do,” marveled Sano.

Saitou restrained his smile no longer, though it had a disdainful twist to it now. “Of that I’ve been aware since our first meeting.”

“What?” Sano’s brows lowered over the tea he’d been slurping. “Why?”

“If you had any patience at all, you wouldn’t have been running around accusing people of treachery and attacking them without talking to them first.”

“Hah!” Sano set down his cup so firmly that tea sloshed over its edge onto his hand. As he wiped the latter on his pants, he added with a grin, “Like I would ever have talked to a jerk like you!” And his expression and tone made it plain he didn’t mind the idea nearly so much anymore.

“No, indeed,” Saitou agreed. “That would have been far too sensible for someone like you.”

Almost everything Sano ever said to him reiterated how headstrong and impetuous he was, yet Saitou liked him. And maybe those traits, annoy him though they might at times, were part of the foundation of his infatuation. Certainly Sano’s ability — a somewhat unexpected ability, but all the more delightful for that — to seriously consider issues of self and morality was part of why Saitou felt about him the way he did. He didn’t even mind, after that conversation, the thought of how weightily captivated he was and how this morning had only intensified the condition, despite how it threatened to distract him as he went about his work.

Tokio entered his office that evening, weary and dirty as usual after such an assignment, and gave neither report nor even greeting before soliciting news of last night’s events. In fact her hand hadn’t left the door handle yet when she demanded, “Well?”

Her presence could not exactly destroy his mood, but was somewhat irksome, and he found himself, in response to her insistence, perversely unwilling to tell her anything — as if last night were a secret he wanted to guard jealously from her, or as if while she’d been gone some new understanding had arisen between himself and Sano and he balked from welcoming her into it. That might well be the case, and in fact there was no actual need to describe breakfast, but hadn’t he decided he wouldn’t be competing with her? So with an effort he replied casually, “It went very well.”

What went well? What happened? Did you have to fight him again? Is he all right?”

With the beginnings of a smirk at her frustration, he leaned back in his chair and reached for his cigarettes. “He’s fine. I didn’t fight him.” As she rested a hand on his desk in a gesture more like pounding it down insistently than supporting her tired frame, he put a cigarette to his lips (which were therefore conveniently occupied for a few more moments) and lit it. Finally he finished his brief account. “He went to the Internal Affairs offices and talked Tsukioka out of his plan. I just watched.”

Tokio took a deep breath, standing straight again and letting the air back out in a sigh of relief. “He… talked him out of it…”

“At least for last night.”

“I thought the most he would manage was just not to go along with it. I didn’t think he was far enough along to actively oppose his friend.”

“It was more that he didn’t want Tsukioka to get himself killed.”

“He didn’t want to lose him,” she breathed, nodding. “Of course. That was the angle I should have tried all along.” She looked irritated all of a sudden. “We could have skipped that ‘enemies’ talk.”

Saitou laughed briefly, though he did sympathize: Tokio could almost always read, during the course of a conversation, what someone was feeling, and could often use that knowledge to extrapolate about their plans and spin the discussion in the direction she wanted in order, perhaps, to manipulate those plans. But no one was omniscient, and she knew it; her irritation faded as quickly as it had arisen. She was obviously far more relieved, anyway, that the potential disaster had been averted than hung up on what had passed.

“So what about Tsukioka?” she finally asked. “‘At least for last night?’ Is he likely to try again?”

“That’s what we’ve been wondering. Sano raised every point in the book to convince him his plan was foolish, but whether it was enough to shake Tsukioka out of his idealistic trance… we’ll just have to wait and see.”

“‘Sano?'” Tokio sounded nothing more than curious, but in her eyes that did not break from her husband’s was the light of epiphany. Usually he saw it shining there over dinner when she’d realized belatedly she could have made such-and-such to go with the fish or something equally trivial, but this time it was perhaps a little more detrimental. To what, Saitou wasn’t sure, but he feared maybe it had been a mistake to speak Sano’s newly resumed moniker. There was an edge to his wife’s expression that Tokio herself possibly wouldn’t have recognized if she’d seen it: a demand, a challenge.

And Saitou would not meet it. “That is his name.” He might inadvertently have thrown down a gauntlet, and she might have taken it up with dawning recognition, but he refused to acknowledge that.

“Yes,” she replied, her voice already absent as her gaze became guarded and pensive. “Yes, that’s what Tsukioka calls him.”

“Well.” Saitou deliberately changed the subject. “What do you have to report?”

“Yes,” Tokio said again, now seeming to shake herself in an attempt at focusing on the new topic. “That poor woman, whose name was Youko, was Rokumeikan’s resident plaything.” A deep crease appeared between her brows and her lip curled in disgust as she added, “I hate to use the word ‘mistress’ when he controlled her so completely, but to society… She was originally hired as a maid, though, and never really achieved the status a mistress would have. But when he transferred his attentions to some other mistress — this one a woman named Tajiru who lives elsewhere and only occasionally visits; Rokumeikan usually goes to her — Youko tried to run away. Obviously she, as the previous mistress, was afraid of retaliation from the new one.

“Everyone in the household — even Rokumeikan’s wife — knows about both Youko and Tajiru, and doesn’t think very highly of either of them. But since Youko was on the premises and Tajiru usually isn’t, the talk about Youko was much more vicious, as if it were her fault Rokumeikan pressured her into sleeping with him and then her fault she tried to escape the situation.” By now Tokio’s tone reflected the vehement bitterness only a woman deeply concerned for an abused fellow could feel; it was an intensity of emotion Saitou could only partially understand. “Some of them even laughed about Youko’s death. I don’t know if Tajiru really had anything to do with it, or whether Rokumeikan ordered Youko hunted down because she knew too much about what goes on in his household, but all his other servants knew exactly what had happened to her and didn’t seem to care much.”

“Animals,” Saitou muttered.

“To last any length of time working for someone like that…”

He pursed his lips in distaste similar, if perhaps not equal, to hers, and ground out what remained of his cigarette in the ash tray. “I’m going home,” he declared, rising. It was a little earlier in the evening than he usually did this, but he’d had no sleep last night and had only been slogging through paperwork today anyway.

“I’ll write up my report,” she replied, “and then…” The blank pensiveness returned briefly to her expression, but she snapped out of it fairly quickly and her eyes flicked over to him with a momentary touch of suspicion. “I’m going to go look for him.” There was just the briefest pause before the pronoun, as if she’d been considering greater specificity but perhaps hadn’t been able to decide which name to use — or simply didn’t want to think about names at the moment.

Saitou nodded; that was more or less what he’d expected. And as he left his office, feeling no obligation to return a goodnight for her silence, he wondered if things were actually going as well as he’d believed.

***

So… ‘Sano,’ was it?

She moved through the evening streets, silent and pensive, ignoring the traffic that diminished gradually at the coming of night and ignored even more thoroughly by it. With her self-contained movements and her dark hair and clothing, thoughts turned entirely inward with no inquisitive or aggressive edge to give her a discernible ki, she became, ironically, more thoroughly invisible than she could ever manage during a spying mission when on her guard and actively concentrating on not being seen or heard.

‘Sano?’

She must be a very great fool. She relied too much on manifest emotions and not nearly enough on the actions people took in response to those emotions. Usually this wasn’t a problem, because most people’s feelings were so readily legible… but every once in a while, when she met someone with a tighter-than-usual control over what they displayed, she had a tendency to forget there might be other ways to determine what someone was thinking and planning. And she interacted with Hajime far more often than ‘every once in a while,’ so it was a very foolish thing to forget.

Why had Hajime offered Zanza such a high wage for a task they could have assigned more cheaply to one of their regulars?

Why had Hajime fixed on Zanza at all to work with them on the Karashigumi business?

Why had Hajime aggravated Zanza with such seeming pointedness, such deliberation, very much like the grown-up version of a petty child that didn’t know how else to make sure someone’s attention remained firmly fixed on him?

Why did Hajime call him that name used by Zanza’s oldest friend?

The answer to these questions — a single, looming, all-encompassing answer — seemed painfully obvious to her now. But she’d had to be obtuse and delude herself into believing that since she couldn’t easily decipher what her husband might be feeling most of the time, she must be completely lost when it came to what was going through his head. As if she hadn’t known him for seven years. Damn.

What was she going to do about this?

She sighed. The answer to that question was precisely as obvious as the previous, and frustrated and distressed her precisely as much. Because there wasn’t anything to be done about this; this wasn’t a puzzle for which she was required to find a solution. Even if part of her absolutely believed it was.

Hajime hadn’t seen fit to reveal his simultaneous interest to her, undoubtedly because he could see perfectly well what was developing between his wife and the young man he had his eye on. After Tokio had made the first move and clearly captured Zanza’s attention, Hajime exhibited discretion entirely typical of him by keeping quiet — not to mention, most likely, a sense of loyalty equally typical of him in not making this a contest that might destroy his relationship with his best friend.

It was this sensibility on Hajime’s part, this unwillingness to drive a wedge between them by making his own overtures, that seemed to insist Tokio change her own behavior in response to what she’d learned today. And that was absurd. Of course she hated the thought of making light of his feelings, of hurting him or letting him be hurt, but it would be unreasonable to expect someone to give up something they’d been working for just because someone else wanted it. She didn’t think she was unselfish enough in any case to make such a sacrifice, even for Hajime.

And of course she was considering this in very finite, one-sided terms. She had no romantic understanding with Zanza, and they could veer from the path they were on at any time. She liked him, and wanted to see where that might lead, but she certainly wouldn’t claim at this point to be in love, and was fairly sure he felt the same. Things could change one way or another, and she did not plan on feeling guilty.

Well, it was too late for that: guilt had prompted all of these musings in the first place. But the end result was still that what she’d discovered didn’t and wouldn’t change anything.

It galled, though, and undoubtedly would for a while, that Hajime’s interest had so completely escaped her notice until today.

She found Zanza’s longhouse uninhabited — or at least no reply came to her knock and identification of self — and the combination of her desire to sit quietly thinking for a while and the feeling of eyes on her from somewhere in the near vicinity prompted her to let herself in to wait for him. The cheap, simple lock on his door gave her little trouble, and soon she was picking her way across the dark, dirty space beyond — empty just as she’d believed — looking for the most comfortable place to settle.

Having time to sit and think did nothing for her, since her reflections proved exactly identical to those she’d had on the way here, but she was glad to rest for a while with no surveillance to conduct and no potential enemies to avoid. And in fact she descended into something like a doze, having pushed her unreasonable guilt away as best she could, by the time, now fairly late, Zanza returned home.

The first warning she had of his arrival was not the sound of a key in the lock (though that came soon after); it was an unknown voice shouting across a certain distance outside, “Zanza! You fucking that police woman now?”

Zanza’s tone closer to the door was very jovial as he returned, “None of your goddamn business!”

“I can’t think of any other reason for her to be sneaking into your house at night,” called back the other voice proddingly.

There was the briefest pause before Zanza, still sounding very cheerful, repeated himself. “Still none of your goddamn business!”

And the neighbor, disappointed at his failure to get any gossip out of the kenkaya, replied with friendly surliness, “Aw, fuck you,” at least one syllable of which was partially drowned out by the sound of the door sliding open.

The dimly backlit Zanza scanned the room carefully before entering, though his gaze seemed to pass over where Tokio sat at least twice without any apparent slowing. When she chuckled at his inability to locate her, his head turned properly in her direction even as he closed the door and stepped up out of his shoes. “You’re still sneaky as hell,” he remarked. Then with an audible grin he added, “But not sneaky enough for that dumbass over there not to notice you.” He gestured over his shoulder, presumably indicating the nosy neighbor. “Is that safe?”

Tokio stood and stretched. “Actually, if people think we’re having an affair, that gives us a perfect excuse…” Never mind that she fully intended to have an affair with him if it worked out, rendering this far more than just an ‘excuse.’

Zanza made a thoughtful, amused sound as he moved to set down on the table whatever he was carrying, which by its sloshing clunk was probably a big jug of sake. This guess was confirmed when he lit a lamp thereafter, but Tokio was less interested in the alcohol than in the expression on Zanza’s face as he turned toward her: obviously very happy to see her, and not merely because he was operating in a general state of as-yet-unexplained jocundity at the moment.

They met for an enthusiastic hug in the middle of the room, and Zanza rocked her back and forth with a glee that couldn’t be stifled. “Not enemies!” he said with great satisfaction. He smelled like sake, smoke, and cheap food, and his gi needed washing, but she wasn’t significantly tidier, after her time sneaking around outside Rokumeikan’s enormous house, and didn’t let it bother her.

“No!” Though she shared his pleasure to some extent, she couldn’t help responding with a certain amount of annoyance and accusation, drawing back from the embrace far enough to look him in the face. “You had me worried half to death for the last couple of days; why that stupid ‘goodbye kiss’ if you weren’t planning…”

“Sorry,” he said a little sheepishly, releasing her and standing back a bit. He reached one hand up to scratch beneath his bandanna as he added, “I really hadn’t actually decided yet. I really didn’t know. It was a damn tough decision.”

“I know it was,” she said more gently.

He turned from her and went back to the jug he’d been carrying, which he used to fill an extremely battered copper pot he then set atop an undersized stove that looked as if it might fall apart and spill ashes all over the floor at any moment. As he lit this questionable device, Tokio came to sit nearby and listen to his latest statement. “I was just sure you’d show up at the Internal Affairs offices, and when it was only Saitou I was worried. I thought you must be so pissed at me you didn’t want to see me yourself, so you just sicced him on me and Katsu. Then he was really nice about it — actually surprised the shit out of me, how nice he was — so that was all right; but I forgot to ask him where you were, so when I thought about it afterwards I was still afraid you might be pissed at me.”

Tokio was disheartened for more than one reason. First, Zanza had believed her willing to ‘sic Hajime on him and Katsu’ even though he must be aware Hajime not infrequently killed wrongdoers; did he really believe her that vindictive when upset? Second, Hajime had been ‘really nice about it,’ to the point where Zanza had specifically noticed what struck him as unusual behavior; her husband might not have declared war on her in this field, but there couldn’t help being a certain amount of quiet competition between them regardless of whether or not they admitted what was going on… and Hajime had evidently scored a point. Third, though supposedly concerned about Tokio’s absence, Zanza had forgotten to ask the one person that knew where she was for an explanation. He’d certainly been happy and relieved to see her this evening and affirm they weren’t enemies, but had he actually cared as deeply as his words implied?

She intensely wished she’d been there last night.

But there was no reason for him not to know where she had been. So, while the sake warmed and Zanza peered into what cups he owned that weren’t too badly damaged to imagine drinking from to see if their level of cleanliness didn’t also disqualify them (and for most of them it did), she explained what Hajime had learned about the woman Youko that had sent her to spy yet again on a mansion on the edge of the city. “She was Rokumeikan’s mistress, however unwillingly, and she ran away when he started openly seeing someone else. It was either the new mistress or Rokumeikan himself who ordered her killed.”

Zanza shook his head in response to this unfortunate summary, and handed over the cup he’d eventually selected for her. He still seemed contradictorily upbeat, and evidently her brief story had contributed to that; it seemed she would have to wait a moment to pick up on why, though. “Saitou told me a little more about Rokumeikan, so I guess I’m not really surprised… What an asshole…”

And there he was mentioning Hajime again — in all innocence, yes, but no such reference could fail to discomfort her now she knew what she knew. It shed some light on Zanza’s mood, too: in part, she thought, he was pleased because she’d been so open with him about her relatively secret assignment; he’d obviously been pleased that Hajime had provided information about their current target as well. It seemed he was gratified to be a part of their work. That wasn’t everything, though — he’d already been tickled when he’d approached the apartment, before he’d even known she was here or any of this had been brought up — and she didn’t want to have to dig for the rest of the answer. So she asked, “What are you so cheerful about tonight?”

He glanced at her sidelong, as if finding the question a bit of a non sequitur but unable to deny the truth of her words. And indeed his cheer sounded in his tone, gradually increasing, as he answered, despite the seriousness of his response. “After last night and this morning, I really felt like I wanted to get to work on something that would help make shit better.”

Tokio wondered about the distinction between last night and this morning, but did not interrupt.

“I couldn’t do anything that Katsu thinks is gonna help, even if I wanted to, but I figured there was something I could do. So after I got some sleep, I headed right into Karashi territory. Saitou’s right: they are all about gambling. I just spent the last three hours being really visible rolling dice like I didn’t give a shit about what I lost.”

He’d mentioned her husband again, without even any annoyance in remembering how insulting Hajime had been when he’d brought up the nature of the Karashigumi. Did that matter? In any case Tokio speculated, “But you didn’t lose.”

The smile he’d been trying to restrain, in light of his lightheartedness seeming inappropriate just after having discussed the sufferings of a murder victim, now blossomed into a full grin. “Nope! The guy I was playing with ran completely out of money, so he had to wager his sake–” Zanza gestured at the jug on the table– “and obviously he lost that too, so he damn well won’t forget me anytime soon… and even if he wasn’t Karashi himself — seriously I fucking cannot remember what their tattoo looks like — I’m pretty sure at least a few of the other guys in the place were. So that’s a good start, right?”

Suspecting the sake in question would soon be rather too warm with only the inattentive Zanza keeping an eye on it, Tokio removed the pot from the stove and poured herself an experimental dribble. A quick sip having demonstrated the need for another minute or so, she replaced it and turned back to the young man that had taken a seat at her side. “It starts out on the upper arm with black and white bands and flower petals,” she said.

“Yeah.” Zanza followed the gesture she made with one finger along her own arm. “That does sound right.”

“Hajime and I have researched them quite a bit lately — in fact when I talked to him earlier, he was up to his elbows in all the reports we’ve collected about them — so if you need to know anything else specific…” And there she was talking about Hajime. But she and Zanza both worked with him, for god’s sake… she couldn’t keep taking special note of every single time he came up in conversation between them.

“He was busy with reports all day even after being out all night with me, huh?” Zanza shook his head. “I wonder if he got any sleep.”

This she could take special note of, not that there was anything to be done about it. “We’ve already established he’s a workaholic,” she sighed. Though it might be still a little too early, she reached for the sake again in order to give her hands something to do, and changed the subject. “Did you see any of that tattoo at the gambling hall?”

“I think so.” He held out his cup so she could pour for him, then added at a grumble, “Upper arm’s a stupid place to start a design; it’s usually gonna be covered up, depending on what you wear, and by the time you get enough added on so it’s down to your wrist and people can actually see it, you’re already such a big shot in the gang that people’ll recognize your face anyway.”

“Yakuza aren’t known for their practical social customs.”

He snorted, and for a while they drank in silence. He still seemed pleased with himself, and with this attitude Tokio was equally pleased. She didn’t know exactly what had been said last night (‘and this morning?’), but obviously not only had Tsukioka been at least somewhat convinced, Zanza too had taken away from the experience a greater resolve than she’d seen in him prior to it. It was good to find him so eager for this work, regardless of how that had come about.

The sake was cheap and not of the highest quality, and Tokio tired of it sooner than Zanza, who continued to drink and refill while she sat mulling over what remained of her second cup. But what the acquisition represented was more important than how it tasted, so it was safe to say she was enjoying it nonetheless. And when he next spoke, she believed there couldn’t be much left in the copper pot in any case.

“So you’re really not mad at me?” He gave her another sidelong look, and she thought she knew why he was asking.

“I was more worried than angry. I could tell how much you were tempted.”

“Could you? ‘Cause I was really tempted.” Zanza went to pour himself a final cup, but made a disappointed sound at the bare few drops that emerged. He had long since poked out the stove fire, and, most likely, that last trickle wasn’t even warm anymore.

“Have mine,” Tokio offered, handing it over. Zanza set his cup down on the nearby table and accepted hers. She went on, “And maybe I couldn’t tell exactly how much you were tempted, but…”

“Did you think I’d go through with it?”

With a slight frown Tokio shook her head. “I didn’t know. No matter how much I analyzed everything you’d said…”

“That’s because I didn’t know yet.”

“Mmm.” She felt she should have known, even so. She should have been better attuned to him. There were a couple of different things she should have known recently, in fact, about men she was supposedly close to.

“So we were worried about each other all weekend for nothing.” Zanza still looked incongruously cheerful as he set down her empty cup beside his.

She had to smile at his demeanor, and though she was serious as she remarked, “If you call everything that’s happened ‘nothing…'” she said it more lightly than she otherwise might have.

He moved closer to her, and pointedly put an arm around her shoulders. “Yeah, you’re probably right. We still don’t know what Katsu’s gonna decide to do, and it’s terrible about that poor woman, and Rokumeikan’s a dick. But…” He turned his face, now very close, toward her. “You and me are good, right?”

Right.

It wasn’t like the uncomfortable kiss he’d given her the other day when she’d left fearing they might be enemies, but much more like the reassuring, playful ones they’d shared on the pier. She enjoyed it very much, but it immediately brought back the guilt she’d sworn she wouldn’t entertain.

Throughout Zanza’s discourse this evening, it had become clear — subtly but plainly to someone listening for it — that he considered Hajime much more a comrade now than he had before. That was probably where the ‘Sano’ had come from: last night’s events had changed Zanza’s feelings toward Hajime, if only ever so slightly, and Hajime had taken encouragement from the interaction. Of course Zanza had no idea he had shored up the romantic ambitions of the man that had stabbed him in the shoulder, or he would have conducted himself very differently tonight… but that encouragement had obviously been given, and Hajime — who, Tokio recalled, had also seemed to be in an unusual mood, as far as she could tell, when she’d spoken to him at the station — believed he had more of a chance now. And Tokio was forced to revisit her earlier question: What was she going to do about this?

But as she enjoyed the taste of sake in Zanza’s mouth more than she had in her own cup, enjoyed the feeling of his lips working against hers and his arm drawing her near, she came to the conclusion that the answer was also the same as earlier.

Whether she pushed him or he pulled her or both, or whether it was solely his tipsy lack of equilibrium, they were suddenly on the floor, she squirming into a better position on top of him and their hands busier than they had been all night (not excluding Zanza’s three hours of gambling). And whether it was Zanza’s foot or Tokio’s elbow, or an impossible gust of wind through the suddenly warm room, the little table beside them was shaken hard enough to put out the lamp that had been their only source of light. And in the resultant darkness, any number of things could happen, Hajime entirely notwithstanding.

She simply refused to feel guilty about this.


Unboxing Party

Saitou might well have dismissed it if he hadn’t reached the conclusion that Sano was serious in this request.

Of gifts for Sano that may have cost Saitou more than just money.


Though Saitou generally walked home from work, using the negligible distance between the station and his house as a cooldown period after the business of the day and to orient himself toward what waited at home, today he hired a carriage. The parcels that had been delivered earlier were too numerous and too unwieldy — individually and in combination — to carry conveniently on foot. He could have had them delivered to the house instead, but hadn’t wanted to spoil the surprise.

Of course, the more leisure he had to stare at the things undistracted by his usual evening walk, the more opportunity there was for doubts to return. He’d never really been sure of this plan; it had taken him months to concoct it, almost as long to decide he wasn’t crazy just for considering it, and another small eternity to act upon it, and he still couldn’t be sure he — its source of inception, initiation, funding, and presumably follow-through — believed it a good idea.

At this point there really did seem little to be done, however; the decision had been made along with the order. There were a few possibilities for backing out, but no pleasant ones, so Saitou might as well just proceed as he’d intended.

The cab driver would have helped him inside with his burdens — out of, Saitou believed, actual courtesy more than the desire for a bigger tip — but the officer, preferring to maintain the privacy of his home as much as possible, declined the offer. It was a bit of a hassle getting all the boxes inside, and Sano was footworking around him like an anticipatory monkey and making almost comparable noises of wild curiosity by the time they were all situated in the bedroom, but eventually Saitou did get the driver paid and dismissed and turned his attention to the evening’s real business.

Sano was crouched next to the largest of the boxes in a position that reminded Saitou of that assumed by children playing chicken-scratch games in the dirt, examining its neat cardboard edges and the foreign logo stamped on its top with great interest. As Saitou reentered the room he commented, “This is some fancy shit! What are these?”

“They’re for you,” Saitou replied. “Are your hands clean?”

Sano’s brows rose as he glanced again at all of the parcels, then down at his hands. These didn’t look too bad, but Saitou wasn’t taking any chances. “Go wash up,” he commanded. “This was all too expensive for you to ruin immediately with your lack of hygiene.”

“Hey, I had a bath just yesterday!” This protest was made only as Sano scrambled to his feet, however; it seemed he was too curious about the contents of the boxes to argue much. He went in haste to the basin and, after staring somewhat suspiciously into it — whether assessing the state of the water or silently resenting the need to wash his hands at all Saitou couldn’t be sure — plunged in halfway up his forearms and splashed around for a few moments. How effective this actually was for purposes of cleanliness Saitou also couldn’t be sure, but since Sano’s hands hadn’t been terrible in the first place, he accepted the young man’s presence next to the parcels again after not too long without complaint.

“All right!” Sano bounced up and down on his knees a little in excitement; he wasn’t used to receiving presents.

“Go ahead.” Saitou pushed the biggest of the boxes, the one Sano had been examining closest before, toward him.

Unnecessarily thoughtless and energetic though he sometimes was, Sano did have the capacity to act like a normal, rational person at times. If Saitou had feared he would damage the packages or their contents in the process of unboxing, his worries were allayed now as Sano undid the fastening strings and lifted the lid with unusual care. A layer of thin, crinkly paper protected the contents, and this too he folded aside with responsible fingers. Then he sat back for a long moment and simply stared.

Since entering the house, nothing had occurred to ease Saitou’s doubts. This had probably been a bad idea from the beginning, and, though he was fully committed to it now, it hadn’t really gotten any better. Except that then, as the full implications of the gift seemed to hit Sano all at once, he looked up at Saitou with a sudden smile and enthusiastic energy as bright and hot as a Tokyo summer, and all the officer’s issues with this decision were abruptly blown away.

On occasion — far oftener than he liked, in fact — Saitou was required to attend gatherings such as private music recitals, European wine-tastings, lectures with drinks and discussion afterward, dances (for god’s sake), and just general-purpose parties held by the rich and influential of Tokyo’s upper crust.

It had started with him grudgingly volunteering to represent the police force at certain official occasions to which they’d been invited to send a delegate — a task he only undertook because such get-togethers had the potential to provide him with useful information about the precise type of people it was his real job to investigate, and a chore he was fairly sure Uramura silently thanked him on a regular basis for accepting as that meant he didn’t have to do it — but eventually, usefully but to his chagrin, Lieutenant Investigator Fujita Gorou had begun to develop a certain reputation as a man that enjoyed a life somewhat above his own and would snap up any classy invitation that happened to come his way.

Loathing the entire business — this impression of himself, the condescending amusement with which many of these nouveau riche treated him as a result, and the necessity of attending these phenomenally dull and overly westernized events in the first place — Saitou accepted the invitations with squint-eyed gratitude and continued to gather incriminating or suggestive evidence from circumstances observable and gossip overhearable.

The first time Sano had appealed to Saitou to take him along to one of these parties, Saitou had dismissed it as a joke and thought no more of it. The second time, however, given how vehemently (for him) he’d just been complaining about the musical revue he’d been forced to attend and the offensive insipidity of the group that had gathered for drinks thereafter, he was shocked Sano would repeat such an entreaty, and in such a straightforward tone; so he was forced to take the request more seriously and wonder aloud why on earth his lover should think he wanted to join him in such a dreadful activity.

Sano had appeared a little embarrassed at the question, but answered readily enough. “Well, you know, I was born dirt-poor… My family lived pretty hand-to-mouth while I was growing up, and I never actually made all that much money in the fighting business… And now I live with you, and you make decent money, and I’m really comfortable here…”

“… freeloading…” Saitou interjected at a murmur.

“Yeah,” Sano allowed. “Yeah. The point is, I’ll never be that person — that guy who gets all dressed up in fancy clothes and goes to a party full of rich people and drinks expensive wine or whatever. I’ll never live that life.”

“And you’d like to see what it would be like to freeload at a higher level,” Saitou finished for him.

Sano’s grin was sheepish, but also perhaps a little wistful. “I just think it’d be cool to see what that’s like.”

“But you don’t need to be that person.” It was as close as Saitou could come to telling him, “I love you exactly as you are.”

Sano had seemed to understand, though; it was remarkable how often he understood the things Saitou couldn’t say. His smile had softened, and as he sat up and shifted over to press himself against the older man, he said, “And the life I do live is pretty damn satisfying anyway.” After which they were too distracted to discuss anything as boring as the previous topic any more that night.

The third time Sano had asked, it had been in a more belligerent tone than previously — “So when are you gonna take me to one of these parties already?” — and Saitou might well have dismissed it once again, as he had in the first instance, if he hadn’t heard Sano’s reasoning the last time this had come up and reached the conclusion that Sano was serious in this request. Odd as it seemed, especially when Saitou had made no secret of how much he hated the things, Sano legitimately wanted to attend one. One was probably all it would take to show him just what he wasn’t missing, but that one seemed to be important to him. And what was important to Sano was, sometimes very grudgingly, important to Saitou.

So now Sano opened box after box containing the various pieces of a fine (and expensive) suit of clothing provided by a French designer currently based in Yokohama: shirt and pants, tailcoat, waistcoat, white tie, gloves, a set of silk handkerchiefs with an embroidered ‘S’ in one corner for versatility, shoes, and an utterly ridiculous piece of headwear called a ‘top hat,’ all of which would fit in impeccably at one of these hyper-European gatherings he was so interested in suffering through.

“I don’t believe this,” he was commenting in supreme glee as he smoothed out the dark grey vest with a huge grin on his face. “Is all this gonna fit me?”

“It fits me,” Saitou replied with half a shrug. They’d long since determined their bodies to be similar enough in shape and size that they could easily wear each other’s clothing — though how this would apply to European garb remained to be seen.

Sano looked up at him with an enchanted smile. “You went and got fitted for all this?”

“I thought it might be useful to have a western evening suit around.” Saitou didn’t bother getting into details of just how uncomfortable it had been dealing with the French couturier. “You can wear it to the party tonight, and then I’ll have it if I need it in the future.” And he also didn’t mention that, although this was perfectly true, he would never even have begun to consider purchasing such a thing if he hadn’t wanted it specifically for Sano.

“Oh, so it’s not really ‘for me.'” Sano didn’t seem at all put off by this information, and continued to grin over their object of discussion with great delight. “It’s really just a loan.”

“That’s right. Now let’s get you into it.”

Sano jumped up with alacrity and began shedding his clothing almost as quickly as he was wont to do under much different circumstances in this room. As he did so he asked, “What are you wearing?”

“My police uniform, as always.” Fujita-kun’s reputation, after all, involved a touch of stuffed-shirtedness.

“All right.” Sano held up the trousers he’d pulled fully from their box. “But I wanna see you in this sometime too.”

Saitou smirked, and they got to work.

At the shop in Yokohama, one aspect of the fitting had been a careful training session on how to wear all these articles. Saitou had wanted to be absolutely certain he could get the things onto Sano and start his festive evening out properly, and just looking at some of them there had been some initial confusion. After that there had been some… well, not embarrassment, exactly, but certainly an enhancement of his discomfort as the French designer and his assistant had obviously discerned without needing to be told that Saitou was ordering these clothes for someone else… and what his relationship with that someone must be. Since the aforementioned two gentlemen seemed to have the same relationship, this had evidently raised him in their opinion… but it had also raised the familiarity with which they treated him, and, given he was half naked much of that time, that had only made things all the more awkward for Saitou.

Sano would never know what his wolf had gone through for his sake, however, since Saitou didn’t plan to mention it. And Sano was certainly in nothing but a good mood now as, with a fair amount of assistance, he donned the pieces in the correct order and manner and made himself into an imitation of a French gentleman of the latest mode. Once his hair was combed out of its chaos and into smoothed-back, shining locks, he was ready for the top hat and a thorough examination from all angles.

“Well?” he wondered when Saitou had prowled all around him twice, eyeing him from head to toe.

Saitou did not immediately reply. Sano looked… well, he looked absurdly handsome and desirable… but also… alien. This ensemble that not only partook of a completely different culture but represented, to Saitou, much of what he disliked about modern times… it suited Sano on one level, the most superficial, but not in any more profound way. Saitou would like nothing better, for more than one reason, than to strip it all off of him again.

At the same time, though, Sano’s delight at his finery and the prospect of attending a party in it was almost luminous. Saitou still didn’t quite understand this desire, but his own confusion, the awkwardness and discomfort he’d gone through, the amount of money he’d laid out to get to this point — even the sight of the person he cared about most wearing, essentially, the uniform of many of his enemies — seemed entirely worthwhile to witness such purity of joy and anticipation in his lover’s face and bearing.

“Very French,” he said at last.

Even Sano’s snort in response sounded happy. “Well, when does the party start?”

“We need to get going. We’re going to be fashionably late as it is.”

Sano’s eyes widened. “‘Fashionably late?’ Is that a thing??”

“Damn,” Saitou muttered, and led the way out of the room.

The rest of the night was certainly going to be interesting. Saitou would introduce Sano to his host simply by name without appending further information, and leave him to his own devices. Then Sano would wander around the place with his thug’s saunter intruding on private conversations; demonstrate that he spoke neither French, English, nor German — nor even particularly good Japanese — in his loud, uncultured accent; eat all the food, possibly commenting uninformedly on its origin and composition, and drink far too much; start arguments and maybe even pick fights; and thoroughly and unabashedly enjoy every last brutish, ignorant second of it. He was going to ruin this party, and Saitou looked forward to it almost as much as he did.


This was for HakuSaitoSan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt “Saito giving in to some unusual want of Sano’s.” There are some moments in this one that make me squee like a little Saitou&Sano-loving mouse.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Prison of Their Own Making

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered.

Tom Felton organizes a silly little reunion, and it gets sillier.


When Tom stepped from his car into the parking lot to meet his friends, he was a little dismayed if not particularly surprised to find a grand total of two people waiting for him — only Daniel and Emma, the ones he saw most routinely anyway — at the specified time.

After hugs and handclasps of greeting, Emma looked around curiously and commented, “I thought you invited everyone.”

Tom shrugged. “I guess everyone’s busy.”

I’m very busy,” Emma replied in a mock huffy tone, “and I’m here.”

With a laugh Tom put a comradely arm around her shoulders and hugged her again. “It’s really good to see you guys.”

Daniel too was scanning the area. “It is,” he agreed, shrugging slightly as he turned back without having found a trace of any of their other friends. “So what are we doing, exactly?”

Tom frowned across the lot at their destination, then threw one last, futile glance at the empty parking spaces nearby. “Well, I’d like to wait and see if anyone else shows up, but we’re scheduled for 4:00, so we’d better go inside.”

“That doesn’t actually answer the question, though,” Emma pointed out as they crossed toward the tinted glass doors awaiting them.

Tom grinned. “You’ll see inside.” The others rolled their eyes at this pointed but pointless mystery, but didn’t hesitate to accompany him.

They did see inside, and the continued rolling of eyes and a certain amount of gaping once they were there prevented any further comments from Daniel or Emma as Tom got them checked in. “Felton?” the attendant was saying, flipping through pages on a clipboard. “Yeah, we’ve got you down for four, but I thought you were going to have a lot more people with you?”

“Seems like all our other friends are gits who can’t show up on time to a reunion get-together,” Tom explained. “I thought we’d get started, and if anyone else arrives you can let them in, all right?”

Although this arrangement didn’t entirely seem to suit the attendant, he nevertheless agreed; Tom had paid him a decent amount of money. After some picky business with waivers the man didn’t even look at once they were all filled out, he ushered them down a narrow hallway to where a set of lockers stood across from a dark door. Once he’d allowed Emma to stow her purse in the former, he drew their attention to the latter and began giving instructions. These dragged on for what seemed an unnecessary length of time, perhaps because the only one of the three to respond and confirm he was actually paying attention was Tom; the others maintained a dubious silence. But finally the man finished his dissertation, handed each of them a large round button with a pin on the back for attaching to one’s clothing, and stepped past them to open the door and allow them to enter.

Inside what proved to be a cramped but high-ceiling’d entry or antechamber, the moment the way behind them was closed, Daniel and Emma rounded immediately on Tom with expressions of skeptical amusement and demanded almost in unison, “A Harry-Potter-themed escape room?”

Tom’s grin was part sheepishness and part cheek. “When I saw they had one, I couldn’t resist.”

“Of all the silly things to drag me away from everything I was busy with…” Emma was rolling her eyes again, but she laughed as she said it.

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered at about the same moment.

Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. You’d think he would, but it’s been so long…”

“Well…” Emma turned away from them to examine the tiny room. “We only have an hour, right? Since we’re here, we might as well get going on it.”

The nature of the first puzzle was immediately apparent. A big wooden door with an old-fashioned wrought-iron handle and lock blocked their path, the keyhole gaping at them like a taunting mouth. And above them, too far up to be reached even with a skillful vertical spring, myriad winged keys dangled on strings from the distant ceiling. A fan seemed to be running up there, for the keys spun and jostled and clinked together in not too bad an imitation of the scene from the film.

Finished peering into the jingling dimness, Daniel dropped his eyes to the more accessible parts of the room again. “There’s no broom…”

And this is reality,” Emma reminded him. “How were you expecting to fly up there?”

Now it was Daniel’s turn to look a little sheepish. “I thought if I could find a broom and sit on it, the right key might fall down.”

“It’s sure to fall down if we do something,” Tom mused.

At that moment the door behind them opened once again, and they were joined by Rupert, who came bounding into the small space and immediately clapped Tom on the back. “All right, guys? Tom, you’re a genius! I would have never guessed this was your idea! How did you find this place?”

“Online, of course,” Tom told him, returning the slap on the back.

Daniel winced even as he moved to take his turn greeting Rupert. “You look at Harry Potter stuff online?”

“So what are we doing here?” Rupert wondered before Tom could answer the somewhat loaded question.

“Trying to get the right key to come down to open this door,” Emma explained as she hugged him in her turn. “And before you ask, there’s no broom.”

“Well, and this is reality anyway,” Rupert allowed.

“It was the natural first thing to look for!” protested Daniel.

“But there is a wand over there.” Everyone followed Rupert’s pointing finger, wondering how he’d noticed when he’d been in the room a fraction of the time they had.

Emma moved to snatch the prop from the little wall-mounted shelf where it lay beside a vase of fake flowers. Examining it, she said, “This is one of those official replicas. I think it’s Draco’s.”

“Let me see,” said the admitted Draco expert. And when he too had studied it for a moment he confirmed, “Yeah, this one’s mine. But I don’t remember the fetching-things spell.”

“Accio,” Daniel supplied with a grin. “I should really know.”

Tom thanked him and pointed the wand upward. “Accio key!”

Emma’s amused reminiscent murmur of “Swish and flick!” was drowned out by the sound of the shelf from which they’d retrieved the wand crashing from its supports down against the wall and the vase that had previously rested upon it — apparently made of nothing more delicate than plastic — falling to the floor.

“Oh, crap, we broke the escape room,” Tom muttered as he lowered his wand. He looked guiltily toward the door, expecting the attendant to enter at any moment and demand what they were playing at not five minutes into this challenge.

“No, I think that was supposed to happen.” Daniel bent thoughtfully to pick up the fallen vase and gather its silk flowers. “That was sort of like what happened when I — when Harry tried to use a wand that wasn’t right for him. Remember?”

“That’s right!” Rupert pointed at Daniel enthusiastically as he agreed with the theory. “We have to find a different wand!” And he began poking into the room’s darker corners.

As they all searched, the main door opened again and admitted Evanna into what was by now a very crowded space indeed. Hugs were getting difficult, but they managed them, and then the newcomer wondered what they were all looking for. Once Tom explained, she shook her head with a smile.

“But it won’t be a different wand. It’ll be the same wand, only somebody else has to use it.”

Their foolish looks at each other indicated their concurrence with this idea they wished they’d thought of sooner.

“We could all try it,” Daniel suggested reluctantly, glancing around. “There’s not much else to destroy in here if we get it wrong.”

But Emma said suddenly, “No, I get it! It’s Draco’s wand, so it can only be used by whichever of us got assigned Slytherin — that’s you, Dan.”

They all looked down at the buttons they wore. Tom had fastened his on without really paying attention — the attendant had still been talking at that point, and all he’d said about these accoutrements was that they would provide valuable clues — but now as he handed the wand over to Daniel he remarked, “I always did rather fancy Hufflepuff.”

This time when Daniel pointed the wand upward and confidently said, “Accio key!” nothing in the room around them fell apart… but if there was a more positive effect, they all missed it, for just as he spoke, the entrance opened again and Bonnie came in.

There was now barely room to move in here, and as everyone shuffled awkwardly around trying to greet their friend, it wasn’t even clear who muttered, “We really need to get this door open.”

“And what are we doing to get the door open?” Bonnie asked. With a glance at the dangling keys that evidently apprised her of the situation, she added, “I guess we can’t fly up there with a broom in real life.”

It was clear who snorted at this.

“We were trying to summon it,” Rupert explained.

“That… usually doesn’t work in real life either,” Bonnie pointed out with laughter in her tone.

Daniel just raised the wand again, nearly taking Evanna’s eye out as he did so. “Accio key!”

Nothing happened.

“Try pronouncing it ‘ax-ee-oh,'” Tom suggested. It was getting pretty hot in here, and he hoped uneasily that everyone was wearing antiperspirant.

And when the altered pronunciation too produced no results, Emma wondered, “Are we sure this is right?”

Evanna said, “I think you need to be more specific with the spell.”

Bonnie agreed. “Yeah, you have to say which key you want.”

“I can’t see any of them clearly, though,” Daniel complained, gently head-bashing Rupert as he craned his neck to look upward. “What should I say?”

“Which key was it in the film?” someone asked.

“I wasn’t even in the studio when you guys filmed that scene.” Tom started to shrug, then, finding his two arms pressed up against Emma’s back and Rupert’s side, respectively, thought better of it.

“I wasn’t even in the franchise when you guys filmed that scene,” Evanna put in.

“But there was a line about it,” Emma insisted. She added at a mutter, trying to remember, “What was it?”

“I’ve done a lot of other films since then,” Daniel said helplessly.

I’ve been driving an ice cream truck.” This was apparently all Rupert had to offer.

Tom advised, “Just try everything you can think of.”

“Accio correct key!” Daniel jabbed the wand toward the ceiling again. “Accio the key we need!”

“Try colors,” someone suggested.

“Accio black key! Accio brown key! Accio silver key! Accio rainbow key!”

“That’s a lot of keys!” came another voice from the newly opened door — the statement and a slight, very refreshing breeze from the orifice were the first indications of James’s presence.

“Yeah, do we really need all of those keys?” Oliver wedged himself in beside his brother, cheerfully eliminating the very last of the available space. “Or would just the rainbow one do?” And as the entry closed behind the twins, verbal pandemonium broke out.

Far above the reunited group now packed like sardines into the little escape room antechamber, unseen but not unseeing, seated on the fluffiest of clouds overlooking the bustling Earth, two winged men shared a bowl of celestial peanuts. These came up honey-roasted for one, lightly salted for the other, as each preferred, and now the elder of the two — though it was difficult to distinguish ages in this context — plucked one nut from the container and flicked it down toward the subject of their entertainment. It faded away into nothingness as it fell, unlike his chuckling lament, “They’ve wasted twenty minutes on just the first puzzle!”

“‘We’re looking for a big old-fashioned one,'” the younger man quoted. “‘Probably rusty like the handle.’ ‘The one with the broken wing.'” And he shook his head with a wry smile.

“Now, Alan, you have to remember that they don’t have nearly as much freedom as we do to marathon all eight films whenever they please.”

“You still think they can make it?”

“They always worked together well in the studio.”

“I think you’re going to end up owing me twenty wingfeathers, Richard.” Alan rattled his own angelic appendages in satisfaction.

“Bets aren’t binding in Heaven,” Richard replied piously.

“Which is why we came down here to watch,” said Alan with a grin. “Look, he’s trying the spell again.”

And with another handful of peanuts apiece, the two divine messengers returned their attention to the scene below and their friends’ sporting attempt at finding a way out of a dark, crowded, sweaty, and ridiculously appropriate prison of their own making.


This was for my very own mother’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “The child actors that play the HPworld characters do a HP escape room. Although maybe as adults.” I was not expecting any RPF prompts for this, least of all from my mom XD Hopefully nobody that reads this piece knows how any of these people actually act or talk, since I purely made it all up. Also, this may be Too Soon re: Alan Rickman, but there it is.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?



It’s Curtains For You


Indifferent as he was to most westernization, Saitou had a distinct opinion on the new curtains. They were part of a continual project intended to ‘increase the comfort and convenience and augment the dignity of the much-respected Tokyo police force,’ a project that had strangers in and out of his office on a regular basis taking measurements and assessing colors. The result was gaudy and provokingly red, didn’t necessarily match the fresh wallpaper as well as they believed it did, not to mention something that would require dusting or laundering or airing or whatever you did with long curtains — which meant further invasion of his privacy on a regular basis with no foreseeable end.

And it wasn’t as if the window needed any covering… This second-floor chamber wasn’t susceptible to invasion through that route — not that the curtains would do much good if it were — and even an assassin with a powerful weapon would never have the office’s occupant in his line of sight since Saitou’s desk was a good six feet forward. Still, he would probably get used to the stupid things eventually.

It was ironic, when he’d just been grouching about the advent of intruders unrelated to police business in his space, how his heart leapt at the sight of Sano’s head poking through the door. And there was something like the exact opposite of irony — a feeling of interest, of piquancy, based not on contradiction but on precise similarity — about the way Sano’s face lit up when he saw Saitou.

“Here you are!” the rooster said cheerfully as he opened the way more fully and stepped inside, closing it firmly behind him. He studied the office with a quick and seemingly fairly negligent eye before returning his happy gaze to Saitou and sauntering toward him. “This is nice! I’ve never seen this part of the station before, only the shitty downstairs.” As something seemed to occur to him, he frowned slightly and added, “Funny how it gets less Japanese as it gets nicer up here.”

A recent conflation of ‘refurbish’ or ‘improve’ with ‘westernize’ was one aspect of the movement Saitou did actively disapprove of, but, though he admired Sano for making the point, he was too impatient to know something else to pursue that topic right now. “How did you find my office? Have you been invading every room on the second floor looking for me?”

“Well, only the unlocked ones,” Sano replied without compunction, placing both hands on Saitou’s desk and bending to give him a cheeky grin. “And I only just peeked in to see if I had the right room; I didn’t interrupt anything.”

Saitou leaned back in his chair and, after a long drag, blew cigarette smoke up into the young man’s face. The harshest expression he could command, however, was a wry smile at the thought of Sano startling every single officer and secretary all along the hallway in his quest to visit his relatively new lover at work for the very first time. He tried to concoct a reprimand, but his brain kept stumbling over that idea — Sano was visiting him at work — and suggesting statements and actions completely different both from what needed to be said and done and even what was feasible to say and do in this context. Finally all he managed was, “Well, now that you know where my office is, you can avoid harassing my co-workers going forward.”

“That sounds like an invitation to come back in here whenever I feel like it.” Sano’s grin had intensified, and now he knelt upward onto the desk, drawing his second leg after so he straddled the paperwork Saitou had been busy with and the wolf would be forced to reach right between his wide-angled thighs should he wish to rescue it.

“You have a gift for selective interpretation.” Not favoring how inaccessibly far above him Sano’s face now hovered, Saitou stood, reaching past the young man on the desk to stub out his cigarette in the ash tray as he did so. This was going to fully confirm the presumed invitation for Sano to return routinely, but to be honest Saitou hadn’t really planned on contradicting it. Instead he put one hand on each of Sano’s knees to protect the stack of sheets in between, and moved in close.

Sano’s arms wrapped eagerly around Saitou’s neck, crossing at the wrists as he tilted forward to bring his face nearer the other man’s. “What time do you get off?” he asked in a tone that was half faux-casual flirtation and half ridiculous husky seduction.

“Not until I get you into bed,” Saitou replied with a smirk, sliding his hands off Sano’s knees and halfway up his thighs on the inside curve, ruffling the overshadowed and largely forgotten papers.

Sano chuckled appreciatively and bent to close the distance between them. His breath tasted like sake and something slightly spicy and the even spicier anticipation of the promised nighttime activity.

Just then, noisy booted footsteps came pounding up the hallway outside so quickly and loudly that both men looked toward the door. “Chou,” Saitou muttered in some irritation, withdrawing his hands disappointingly from their sneaky upward progress.

Sano grunted in similar annoyance and, bracing himself abruptly on Saitou’s shoulders, gave a little spring off the desk, barely missing sending the entire stack of paperwork flying. He’d no sooner hit the floor on the far side from the room’s entrance than he’d ducked behind one of the unnecessarily elaborate curtains beside the window and concealed himself completely.

Saitou wasn’t sure how he felt about this. Yes, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and, yes, they’d been in a pretty compromising position just now, but if Sano planned on making these visits a regular thing, trying to keep them a secret from Saitou’s assistant seemed futile and not worth the effort. Still, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and Saitou did take a certain amount of delight in the delicious novel privacy of Sano’s presence.

He didn’t really have time to decide one way or another, since the aforementioned assistant came bursting in without knocking — they might need to have a conversation about knocking — and breathlessly right up to his desk without a pause. He slammed his hands down in a louder version of Sano’s earlier gesture and gasped out, “Commissioner’s on his way!”

“Thank you, Chou.” Both Saitou’s statement and the nod that accompanied it were slightly exaggerated in response to the over-the-top delivery of this mundane news. And when Chou continued to lean on the desk and catch his breath Saitou was forced to add, “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

Grudgingly Chou acknowledged this dismissal by standing straight and backing away a step. “You sure you don’t want me to–”

Saitou cut him off before he could complete whatever spurious offer he was about to make as an excuse to stick around and eavesdrop like the gossip he was. “I’m sure.”

“All right, fine.” And the broomhead made an exit as exaggerated as his entrance had been.

The latch had barely clicked when Sano’s warm hands were on Saitou’s neck, moving up and down in a stroking, almost massaging motion he liked very much. But the comment Sano had to make was, “Nice of him to warn you like that.”

“He does think he’s being nice,” Saitou admitted, giving Chou credit he rarely afforded him in person. “He’s the type of person who never wants his boss to drop by unexpectedly, and he assumes I feel the same.”

“And you think I’m like that too,” Sano concluded from Saitou’s tone, indignant but simultaneously laughing a little.

“You did approve his choice to come in here and ‘warn’ me.”

Taking hold of Saitou’s earlobes and using them as handles to tilt the officer’s entire head back, Sano looked down into his face with a stern expression. “I approved,” he said, “his choice to try to make your day easier.”

“You might make the same choice now and then,” Saitou smirked as Sano’s lips descended.

Before they could come to rest, however, there was a proper knock at the door. Saitou found he’d been balancing his seat on its two rear legs as he leaned back to look at Sano upside-down, for as his lover released him and darted behind the curtain once more, the chair thumped onto the rug below with surprising heaviness. It made Saitou’s “Come in” come out with more vehemence than he’d intended.

Here was, as Chou had indicated, Kawaji, accompanied for the moment by Uramura, though Saitou knew full well the police chief would be dismissed presently without much reason given. He always went with good grace, knowing ‘Fujita-kun’ to be more than what he’d ever been let in on, but while he remained in the room there was a sort of wistful curiosity about his every word and gesture that amused Saitou faintly — though perhaps not as much as, uncharitably, did his awareness that, at this private meeting between commissioner and agent, a former kenkaya and present layabout with no connection to the force except that he was fucking one of its members would be hearing all the interesting details the loyal and discreet Uramura was barred from (and probably wouldn’t even find them all that interesting).

And they weren’t all that interesting. It was a pretty standard meeting with Kawaji: important, engrossing, but nothing to get fired up about. Saitou paid no less attention and responded with no less engagement than usual, and Kawaji certainly didn’t appear to notice anything out of the ordinary… and yet there was a distinct difference to the proceedings in Saitou’s mind that unquestionably sprang from the awareness of what waited for him behind that luxurious curtain. He had a hidden muse, a beautiful secret that made no real difference to the scene except to add an undercurrent of irrelevant entertainment as long as the conference lasted and a crackling anticipation for the moment it ended.

Eventually it did end, no sooner or later than they ever did, and, though Saitou hadn’t been impatient, precisely, he did feel something like relief — and definitely something like excitement! — as he watched Kawaji’s diminutive form disappear out the door. And once again, before the latter was even completely closed, Sano was upon him.

Whatever interest or amusement mirroring Saitou’s Sano had or hadn’t felt back there, he was evidently tired of running out of time and getting interrupted, for in this instance he wasted no words: he stepped immediately around into the narrow space between the seated Saitou and the desk, leaned down, and, braced firmly on the armrests, kissed him thoroughly. Saitou did not protest that he should really get back to work, glorying as he was in the taste and smell and nearness of Sano, the feel of his tongue in his mouth, and wishing this chair were big enough for Sano to fulfill the movement toward which he was obviously inclined and crawl into Saitou’s lap somehow. In fact gloved hands were making ineffectual tugging gestures at Sano’s flanks beneath the open, dangling sides of his gi.

And then they heard Chou’s boots in the hall again.

The sound Sano made as he broke free of the kiss and slipped away was almost more a laugh than a frustrated sigh, and Saitou rolled his eyes. It was annoying, but not as if they wouldn’t have plenty of opportunity for this kind of thing in days to come, or kiss many times over and much more intimately tonight after work. The newness of the relationship and the situation rendered the separation more aggravating than it really was.

The broomhead entered and reached Saitou’s desk in another whirlwind of gaudy garb and hair, but now seemed less panicked and more eager to hear all the juicy news. “So what’d he want?” he demanded.

“None of your business,” replied Saitou in as cool a tone as he could manage given the lingering heat of his mouth. “Get out; I have work to do.”

The dramatic Chou looked so utterly crestfallen, staggering backward this time as if he’d been struck, that Saitou was forced to relent and promise, “I’ll tell you about it later, when I have a chance.” After all, much of it hadn’t actually been strictly confidential, as least as far as Saitou’s assistant was concerned.

This seemed to be all Chou needed to cheer him, for he grinned and continued backing toward the door. “You better!” he said.

“Oh, and, Chou…” Saitou raised a hand, then continued when the broomhead paused. “I’m going to need you to start knocking before you enter.”

Appearing a little surprised at this new development, Chou tilted his head slightly and said, “Got it,” in an almost questioning tone — as if the edict to knock on a superior’s door instead of just bursting impetuously into the room was a peculiar one requiring explanation. But then his eyes strayed past Saitou’s lifted arm in a direction the officer realized might be somewhat dangerous, and a thoughtful expression took his face.

Cautiously, not daring to look behind him just yet, Saitou asked, “What is it?”

“You know…” Chou put one of his own gloved hands to his face, rubbing his chin with a finger. “I kinda like the new curtains.”

Now Saitou did turn and give the curtains — or at least one of them — a long, searching glance, and was able to assure himself that, with the opulent amount of cloth the things were made of, there was no hint of where Sano was hidden even to someone that knew he was there. Which meant Chou wasn’t making a snide comment but voicing an actual opinion.

With a faint smile as part of a thoughtful expression of his own, Saitou turned back to his subordinate and admitted at a deadpan, “They’re growing on me.”


This was for plaidshirtjimkirk’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Established Saisa where Sano visits Saito when he’s working and kisses him in his office.” It was only a barely established relationship, though XD

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Time For This


Sano kept stretching out his arms and examining his cuffs and looking pleased. He’d needed the use of links demonstrated, having barely been accustomed to standard button-up shirts, let alone these fancier things, but he seemed to relish the effect.

Saitou tried not to watch him, because it burned like acid on his heart how good Sano looked in the suit. He also didn’t like to see Sano repeatedly checking his gun because he wasn’t used to a shoulder holster either; he didn’t like to be reminded how much distress he felt at Sano’s recent minor promotion.

As they continued along the highway, however, Sano’s grin at his own finery turned gradually downward until eventually he wore a pensive frown instead of a smile. Finally he remarked somewhat darkly, “You can stop looking at me like that. I know you think I shouldn’t be at this thing.”

Concentrating on the road ahead and refraining from glancing at the passenger seat again, Saitou answered, “I’m surprised you noticed.”

“Oh, fuck you,” relied Sano without venom. “I’ve known for a long time. You don’t think I’m cut out for diplomatic work.”

“You’re not.”

“And fuck you again. You think I can’t keep quiet, but what do you even know about it?”

Saitou just snorted faintly and said nothing, knowing Sano would, as the saying went, open his mouth and prove it.

“I’m just going to be basically Sadojima-san’s bodyguard anyway. It’s not like I’m going to be part of the talking.”

Saitou did not reply.

“And you know that, since it’s pretty much what you’ll be doing too.”

Still Saitou remained silent, though now he did wonder if Sano had some other point he hadn’t anticipated.

“So what I’m wondering is: is the real reason you don’t want me here just ‘dumbass Sano can’t talk fancy and is likely to fuck this up?'”

Uncomfortable all of a sudden for what reason he couldn’t guess, Saitou nevertheless replied drily. “That, and you’re likely to misinterpret everything anyone says to Sadojima-san and start fights over nothing. And a concealed weapon isn’t right for you. And your hair is a disgrace.”

“Pff.” Sano failed at not sounding annoyed, but succeeded at not being distracted. “Same old insulting bullshit as always, huh?” He shook his head, and the movement looked almost wry. “Are you sure that’s why you don’t want me there?”

“Did you have some other reason in mind?” Saitou’s tone was cool, but he was beginning to feel distinctly hot under the collar. Was it possible Sano — childish, inattentive Sano — had noticed? Had recognized how Saitou felt? But why would he bring it up now, of all times? Because Saitou was driving and essentially couldn’t escape the conversation?

“I thought maybe you didn’t want me along because…” Sano tried to hide his deep breath, his nervousness about making this statement, and couldn’t. Would he feel any better if he knew how correspondingly nervous Saitou was about hearing it?

“…because Hanazuki and Shirojima aren’t the only groups that’ll be there tonight, are they?”

It came like a blunt strike when he’d been expecting a sharp, and it took a moment for him to shift gears to deal with it. And then, as the implications of that declaration veiled in inquiry hit him, he literally shifted gears, pulled abruptly to the shoulder, and stopped the car.

“How do you know that,” he wondered in a low tone with just the barest hint of threat to it, “and what else do you know?”

“I know you’re undercover.” Sano’s voice was just as quiet, and also surprisingly even considering he’d obviously had to work himself up to this. “But I only know ’cause I’ve been watching you. Really closely. I don’t think anyone else has you figured out… but I do.”

Saitou stared at him, wondering, first, just how far Sano did have him figured out — whether his original suspicion still held true even in the light of this new information — and, second, whether or not Sano, over there in the dark passenger seat on this dim evening highway, was blushing. Why had he been watching Saitou ‘really closely?’ Was it possible…

It was a further burn on Saitou’s heart that they didn’t have time for this right now.

“You must realize,” he said, steeling himself, “that I can’t take you to the meeting now that I know you know.”

“Yeah, you can,” Sano defied him. “You can take me as your partner.”

Did he know? Could he possibly not be punning? Or was he indeed completely oblivious to how very much Saitou would like to ‘take him as his partner?’

But they still didn’t have time for this.

“You want to abandon Hanazuki and join me?” he asked, blunt and a little skeptical, refraining from specifying the organization he worked for even to this person he longed to trust.

“You want to stop us making an arrangement with Shirojima,” Sano said. This sounded like a reasoned hypothesis rather than a guess — a more logically certain tone than Saitou was accustomed to hearing from Sano. It scared him how much he liked it.

“If Hanazuki and Shirojima start sharing turf and working together,” he answered, “they may both be given boryokudan status.”

“Shit.” All fleeting hints of relationship talk drained from the discussion as Sano vehemently shook his head. “That’s gonna suck for everyone.”

Saitou nodded. “You might want to get out while you can.”

“I’ve been thinking about it…” Sano spoke slowly and not with perfect surety. Undoubtedly this was the first time he’d voiced this sentiment aloud. “And I dunno that ‘getting out’ is enough anymore.”

“What more do you want?”

“I never realized how fucked-up this life is until I talked to you. Not like you ever said it, but you made me think…” At a mumble he added in some apparent chagrin, “Nobody ever really made me think before. Supposedly this is all about family and looking out for each other and shit… but nobody cares much if you’re a terrible person doing terrible things as long as those things are for the family.”

Saitou was moved in a way he hadn’t been in many years, and impressed beyond words that this young man had somehow, in an atmosphere completely antithetical to the concept, developed a sense of individual morality. He wanted to tell him how much more attractive this made him, wanted to express his sense of flattery that Sano had somehow been inspired to this by him, even while he’d been undercover… but they still didn’t have time for this.

“So what is it you want?” he asked again.

“I want to help,” said Sano immediately. “I don’t want a bunch of people getting arrested or killed because the group gets promoted to ‘most dangerous to society.’ We’ve gotta stop them from making that deal.”

“‘We…'” Saitou was surprised how bitter his imitation sounded. He should have known Sano would manage to get himself into a situation even more dangerous than his little yakuza promotion had already lined him up for.

“This meeting’s gonna get raided, right?” This was clearly a guess, but it was a shrewd one. “Then you’ll find excuses to deal with everyone there in one way or another…” Sano sounded a little anxious as he avoided defining how he expected Saitou and his allies to ‘deal with’ the gathered yakuza bosses, but evidently even the worst he could imagine wasn’t a deterrent, for he went on almost defiantly. “It’ll be real useful to have someone else on your side with the Hanazuki people. It might make things a lot easier.”

Saitou continued to stare at him as Sano fell into a demanding silence, wishing he could see more details of that attractive face in the darkness without doing something that would immediately give him away like turning on the cabin light.

It would be useful to have someone else on his side among the Hanazuki people. It might give him an invaluable edge in what was likely to be an unpleasant and difficult situation. And afterward… Sano wouldn’t be able to go back. He would have to seek out other work, other sanctuary. Where and with whom was a matter of question… but certain possibilities came immediately to mind…

But could he trust Sano? Did he really believe Sano had come to recognize the inherent wrongness of yakuza life and wanted a change? Did such things happen — could all of this be true — or did he only want to believe it? Were his heart and his vanity and some misguided sense of optimism out of nowhere overriding his logic, and likely to betray him just as Sano was?

But Saitou had always been one to follow his instincts. They didn’t really have time for anything else. And nowhere was safe for a yakuza thug, especially a passionate and foolhardy one… so they might as well go into danger together.

“All right,” he said, taking the car out of park. “Your briefing starts now.” And he could hear the excited catch of breath — childish as usual! — at the world of meaning inherent in his words. He had to smile a little as he added, “Stop checking that gun, though; I don’t want you killing anyone tonight if you can help it.” He glanced briefly over to where Sano’s teeth showed in the darkness in an eager grin. “It doesn’t suit you anyway.”


This was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Saitou/Sano Modern AU Yakuza,” and it just goes to show that when I think of things in haste, the result is often a lot of idea-recycling XD Also there wasn’t actually any yakuza action, but ‘primarily conversation’ has always been so much my specialty that I even have a content tag for it XD

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Salt


The thing about salting Hyottoko’s cooking was that you had to do it when he wouldn’t see, because he insisted everything he concocted was perfect without any additional seasoning, even if it was just leftover potato soup from three nights ago. Hannya had made it to the kitchen first as on most mornings — not solely so he could doctor his soup, but because he ate slowest of all of them; people didn’t realize what an advantage lips gave them in so many areas — but, though he’d added the desired amount of salt and replaced the shaker at a safe and unsuspicious distance in the middle of the table, he hadn’t started eating his breakfast yet; he’d miscalculated the amount of time the stuff needed to stay in the microwave, and was now waiting for the pool of magma in front of him to subside somewhat while the others got settled in gradually around him. This didn’t bother him, since Watching Aoshi Eat Breakfast currently ranked #14 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do.

Aoshi was moving slowly this morning after a night of insomnia, and if he’d been more alert he might have remembered the soup needed salt and given some effort to beating Hyottoko to the kitchen. As it was, he left his sitting in the microwave long after the beep had sounded while he hovered zombie-like over an enormous mug of coffee. Fortunately, Hyottoko didn’t fuss about what they put in their coffee, so Aoshi was allowed to turn his into an abomination of off-white milkiness and Splenda to his heart’s content. He brought it to the table, looked around somewhat blankly, remembered where he’d left his actual breakfast, returned to the microwave, stared at nothing for a long moment, eventually seemed to recollect what he was doing, extracted the bowl and held it cupped in his hands as if to warm them for another long moment, then finally noticed Beshimi waiting with a nervously tapping foot for his turn to use the microwave. He returned to the table at last to take his place beside Hannya, set down his bowl, looked into it, and now at the end of all things seemed to remember the issue of salt.

Aoshi didn’t have facial expressions so much as he had a facial aura you had to take a two-semester course even to begin to interpret; but Hannya had been with him far longer than that, and now was easily able to detect Aoshi’s clandestine worry directed toward Hyottoko across the table. The salt stood prominently between them, and, quickly and dexterously though Aoshi was capable of moving, chances seemed remote that he could grab the stuff and apply it to his soup rapidly enough not to catch the attention of — and offend — the chef. His lips tightened infinitesimally in concentration before he took a deep drink of his coffee and continued to stare with what Hannya recognized as longing at the salt shaker.

“Besh, how much soup is left?” Hannya asked.

Beshimi, leaning against the counter beside the humming microwave, reached over and tilted toward him the tall pot that had been taking up the entire bottom half of the refrigerator for the last three days. “I dunno… some?”

The ruse worked; Hyottoko turned to look over there in some concern. “Should be more than ‘some.’ I made enough to last the week. How much have you guys been eating?”

“How much have you been eating?” Beshimi shot back. “You’re the one always getting high off his own supply.”

Hyottoko rolled his eyes and returned to his breakfast. At any other time of day this would have become a snipe-fest, but there was too much of a mismatch between morning-person Beshimi and decidedly-not-morning-person Hyottoko for him to consider it now.

And during this distraction, as intended, Aoshi had seized the opportunity to freely salt his soup.

Unfortunately, the salt shaker, like, frankly, many things in this house, had come from a thrift store and didn’t work very well. Or, rather, it worked a little too well if you weren’t careful. The requisite quickness of movement while Hyottoko’s back was turned, the enthusiastically open pores of the dented old tin lid, and the minuscule amount of soup in the bottom of the bowl had conspired to provide a salt-to-soup ratio you wouldn’t have to be a slug to find alarming. Aoshi was certainly alarmed as he gazed down at the ominous whiteness already beginning to dissolve into the liquid around the large chunk of potato on which it primarily rested like snow on a mountaintop. Hastily he inserted his spoon and lifted the potato out of the broth to prevent further dissemination of the enormous pile of salt, but his aura turned to one of despair as he surreptitiously took a frantic look around and realized there was nowhere to put the thing except into his mouth or back into the soup — neither of which was likely to solve his problem.

“I ask,” Hannya said, glad he’d started the conversation even if he hadn’t anticipated being able to make further use of it — it was good to be a social engineer — “because I thought Aoshi might’ve taken the last of it, which would explain why he has approximately two mouthfuls in his bowl.”

Protest came from all quarters: Beshimi ranted that no one could survive just on coffee and it was a good thing Shikijou was at the gym because if he heard Aoshi was starving himself again he would start stuffing the fridge with unmanageable chunks of raw meat and they’d been down that road before; Hyottoko remarked in surprised dismay that he’d been under the impression Aoshi had enjoyed the recipe, and wondered if he should change it for next time — more bacon, maybe? And Aoshi himself shot Hannya a quick gleam of aura indicating indecision whether he was more annoyed at his boyfriend for having brought down all this criticism on his head or appreciative of being provided a convenient excuse to obtain more soup and thereby dilute the excessive salt somewhat. In any case he rose with great dignity and returned to the soup tureen, passing a still-grumbling Beshimi on the way.

Though he hadn’t touched his own breakfast yet, Hannya put it off a little longer in order first to reassure Hyottoko that this wasn’t about the quality of his cooking, but rather merely the usual Aoshi-eats-like-a-bird-on-a-crash-diet thing, and the second to keep a careful eye on said Aoshi just in case he decided, piqued, to tip the entire contents of his bowl down the garbage disposal and go to work without any sustenance besides what was essentially four cups of half-and-half with a tablespoon of coffee thrown in. And under Hannya’s baleful eye, Aoshi had no choice but to load up with a decent amount of potato soup this time and put it back into the microwave. Still, fearing treachery (and also maybe a little because Staring At Aoshi ranked #6 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do), Hannya did not remove his gaze from his boyfriend’s blank but dour-aura’d face throughout the entire three minutes the soup spent heating.

Three minutes? Oh, that was way too long.

Aoshi’s demeanor, already a trifle surly at being forced to the unthinkable extreme of eating a rational amount of food, became even more so as, having returned to the table, he stared down at the now significantly larger and untouchably boiling aggregate of soup he was expected to consume. In a mixture of continued weariness and defiance, he took another long drink of his coffee, entirely burying his face in the oversized mug as he tilted it upward. Hannya took advantage of this momentary blindness to replace Aoshi’s soup bowl with his own. As the sinking cup widened Aoshi’s field of vision, his aura became suspicious, and Hannya pretended he’d only been reaching over to stir Aoshi’s breakfast. “It cools faster this way,” he explained, then withdrew his hand and turned his attention to the fresh pool of magma that had belonged to his boyfriend but was now his.

Still appearing extremely dubious, Aoshi nevertheless took up his spoon — originally Hannya’s spoon, and bearing a completely different pattern (they’d bought all their silverware one piece at a time), though in his discontentment about how this morning was going he didn’t seem to notice — and lifted a scoop containing cheesy broth, bacon bits, and potatoes. He stared hard at it, as if screwing himself up to eat it at all after everything he’d suffered to get to this point, then after approximately forever shoveled it into his mouth. And the change to his demeanor as he chewed and swallowed — the contentment that seemed to wash over him, the relief that something had gone right, the sense of reassurance that maybe today wouldn’t be so bad after all — made everything worth it to Hannya.

Scenes like this only served to reinforce how much of Real Life Aoshi wasn’t very good at. Sleep, timeliness, the proper amount of coffee creamer, salt shakers, basic nutrition, microwaves… It was all somewhat beyond him. And perhaps Hannya, in manipulating situations so they went more smoothly for his occasionally clueless boyfriend, was an enabler, but besides the fact that Helping Aoshi Live ranked #3 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do, honestly it wasn’t as if Hannya had it together much better than Aoshi did. He was a step or two farther down the path toward adult competency, maybe, just far enough ahead to clear the way a bit for anyone behind him. Which was, he felt, the least he could do in exchange for Aoshi forcing himself to go out there day after day and deal with the Real World so Hannya didn’t have to. It was the least he could do for someone he loved so much.

Eventually everyone who didn’t hesitate to leave the house without a mask on prepared to do just that, and there was a bustle of clearing the table (Hannya noticed with some satisfaction that Aoshi had eaten most of his soup), stowing the remaining leftovers (Hannya was going to transfer them to a smaller container as soon as Hyottoko was no longer around to protest that they tasted better out of metal than plastic), and searching for shoes (Hyottoko preferred to go barefoot every moment he was inside the house), jackets (Aoshi had to be reminded he needed one), and today a battered leather case in which Beshimi kept a variety of obscure chemicals (Hannya didn’t ask) before anyone could embark, only running a little late, upon their various tasks.

Before he let Aoshi out the door, Hannya pulled him close to receive his usual goodbye kiss to the incisors or what would have been a labial commissure, and found it, to his satisfaction, delivered with a decent amount of optimism. He thought he’d managed things pretty well this morning. He could never convince Aoshi to pack a lunch for whatever break, if any, he managed to take in the middle of his work day, nor was there any guarantee he would be able to get a healthy amount of dinner into his boyfriend once he got home in the evening… but at least he had breakfast figured out.


This story is dedicated to Crying leb because of the tumblr conversations we’ve been having that inspired it.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?



The Solution


The funny monotonous humming, alternately amusing and irritating, that Chou used to pass the time while he worked broke off suddenly, and Saitou glanced from where he sat in his own office to the tank-like outer area housing Chou’s desk. Based on the new ki discernible there, Sano had arrived on the scene. Now they would distract each other and get zero work done for an incalculable period of time; they always did.

After the rude greetings in jovial tones that could have misled anyone about the relationship between these two, Sano asked, “Saitou around?”

And Chou immediately replied, “Nah, he’s not here yet.” And though this might have been a deliberate lie — especially in light of the further conversation — Saitou thought it not unlikely the broomhead really was unaware of his presence; he’d entered his office at a moment when Chou had stepped away, and he wasn’t making a lot of noise in here.

“Damn,” was Sano’s response to the news

Saitou could hear the lazy grin in Chou’s tone as he said, “Well, no wonder he wouldn’t come in when you’re gonna be here.”

And the identical expression must have been on Sano’s face as he replied, “He’s probably just trying to spend as little time with you as he possibly can.” Though if Saitou had really been forced to decide which of them annoyed him more, he would probably have had to flip a coin. He wouldn’t truly have bothered trying to avoid either of them, though; the occasional annoyance was just part of the deal.

Chou replied, “Hey, he’s glad to have me. He was doing all this shit alone before; he’s never had an assistant he could trust.” And the listening Saitou had to admit this was true; he’d never told Chou it was the case, but evidently the broomhead had figured it out on his own.

“I do good work for him too!” was Sano’s defiant response. “I’ve turned up loads of important information for him.” Which was also true — Sano had a gift for reading a crowd, a room, or a witness that spoke to a highly developed, if largely subconscious, analytical ability Saitou greatly valued. He was far more intelligent than many would have guessed. And where Chou was conspicuous both visually and in a sense of showmanship he simply couldn’t abandon, the roosterhead, despite his almost equally ridiculous clothing and hair, could fit into many an unexpected group and winnow out of it whatever Saitou needed to know.

“Yeah, too bad you have to leave writing it up to me, since you’re so damn hopeless at that.” There was that grinning tone again: a surprisingly un-biting tease that was also perfectly accurate — Chou, far more meticulous and systematic than many would have guessed him, had a talent for police paperwork that Saitou also greatly valued. Where Sano was semi-literate, sometimes completely inarticulate, and certainly disorganized, Chou had raised the efficiency of Saitou’s operation to a degree the wolf had never anticipated when he’d begun working with him.

Sano pointed out, “But at least I’m behind him with all his goals. I even totally forgive him for stabbing me when we first met, ’cause it was all for justice and shit.”

“I’m totally behind him too,” Chou protested, though his tone turned to more of a grumble as he went on. “I actually follow laws now, and I never kill anyone except when I need to for work.”

Though unsure whether he was more exasperated at the description of his personal policies as ‘for justice and shit’ or Chou’s long-suffering air of martyrdom, Saitou had to admit (to himself; he never would have said it to them) that he appreciated the sacrifice and change in lifestyle enacted by each for his sake. Sano could still be cluelessly trailing Battousai around and getting nothing done, and Chou could have run off long ago to murder people and steal their swords, yet they were both here dedicating at least some of their not inconsiderable energy to helping him make a difference in the government and the country.

“Way to be totally morbid about it!” If Sano’s laughter was any indication, however, he had no real objection to Chou’s references to his homicidal past. “See, I’m happy all the time–” Saitou didn’t really think this was true, though he did find Sano’s intense and often rapidly shifting emotional state compelling– “and he needs that. He isn’t happy nearly as much as he should be; he needs someone cheerful around.”

“He sure as hell need a distraction sometimes,” Chou agreed. “It’s just this endless grind for him, and he’ll never be able to deal with all the corruption. But that’s where I come in! He likes hearing about my swords, and that helps him think about something else for a while.”

The idea as stated was not entirely correct; it wasn’t so much that Saitou specifically enjoyed hearing Chou talk about his ever-expanding collection as that he was amused and grudgingly impressed by Chou’s unfailing interest and extensive knowledge. And it wasn’t impossible that he did need cheering and distracting more — and more frequently — than he would be willing to admit. It displayed a greater degree of thoughtfulness than anyone could have expected of these two — and certainly more than Saitou was accustomed to having in his life — that Sano and Chou recognized this.

But he couldn’t be entirely pleased at the thought, nor at what he was overhearing. They were confirming, out there, what he’d long quietly and somewhat worriedly believed: that their desire to impress him went beyond the professional. That they weren’t merely ‘behind him with all his goals.’

“I’m distracting too, you know!” And was that ever right! Sano had such a vibrant, entertaining personality that Saitou had never been satisfied — had never been able to stop dwelling on him — until he’d secured him to his employ. The same thing could be said of Chou, however — there was a reason he’d snapped him up the moment he learned about the broomhead’s amnesty deal, after all — so if he’d had to choose which of the two was more distracting, he would have to bring out that coin again.

“I’m never scared to say exactly what I think about him right to his face,” Sano went on proudly, as if this was a mighty accomplishment rather than a childish and somewhat annoying behavior prone to getting in the way of business.

Sardonically Chou replied, “Yeah, too bad ‘what you think’ and ‘how you feel’ are two different things.” And they both sighed. After a long, pensive silence during which Saitou didn’t even pretend to be working rather than following the drama going on just outside his office with an avidity he wouldn’t have wanted to admit to anyone, Chou spoke again. “And I think he likes me being kinda roundabout. Makes conversation interesting, you know?”

It fascinated Saitou that they neither ever denied the other’s claim — that by neglecting to argue Chou had tacitly admitted Sano’s presence was cheering, and Sano that Chou’s conversation was interesting. The two were a volatile, possibly explosive combination, but for all that not, Saitou believed, incompatible. The issue was that they hadn’t realized their chemical compatibility; each had another mixture in mind. And he didn’t necessarily object to that idea, except for one glaring problem.

“You don’t need to do anything to make conversation with Saitou interesting,” Sano said. “It already kinda… crackles… if you know what I mean.”

Chou sounded as if he did know what Sano meant as he replied regretfully, “Yeah… He’s sexy as shit.”

And there was the glaring problem.

I can barely look at him without getting into an argument,” Sano mused, “and he treats you like the worst kind of peon… I wonder which is better.”

“Or… Juppongatana or Sekihoutai — which is worse?”

Sano gave a surprisingly mirthless laugh, and another silence followed.

Presently Chou said, “You know he’s got files on both of us, right?”

“Does he?” Sano wondered in surprise. “I mean, of course he would, but I never really thought about it…” And temptation already sounded strong in his voice even just with this beginning of an idea.

“Not like they’d tell us which of us he’d rather get horizontal with, but it might be interesting to see what he does have to say about us.”

Saitou barely had time to reflect that he’d rather not ‘get horizontal with’ either of them — or anyone, which was precisely his dilemma in this situation — when the sound of Chou’s chair scraping across the floor indicated he had more important things to think about. Not that he was likely to be the one flustered by the revelation that he’d overheard their entire conversation, just that things would probably come to a confrontation now and he needed to be prepared for his part.

The door burst open with the impetuosity of movement exhibited by both of his assistants, so it was impossible to say which of them had done it, and they piled into the room.

“Discuss me in my absence all you want,” Saitou said from where he sat at his desk, “but prying into my files is going too far.”

Though his words had been cool, they seemed to have just the opposite effect on the faces of his subordinates. He found it was a fairly attractive shade of red on both of them.

“What the serious fuck?” Sano demanded. As was often the case with him, the emotions of the situation (regardless of what they specifically were) caused his hands to ball into fists as he took an angry step forward. “How long have you been here?”

“Really, ahou, what kind of question is that? I know it was an engrossing conversation, but do you really think I could have sneaked past you at any point?”

“You’re a damn sneaky bastard,” the roosterhead shot back, “so maybe!” His face had gone even redder. Chou, more circumspect (just as he’d said a minute before), stayed silent, but Saitou thought he too was blushing a little harder at this clear indication that the wolf had been there all along.

“It is my office,” Saitou pointed out.

“So then you probably heard all that shit we were saying out there.” The nonchalance Sano attempted at this juncture was far too little too late, but it was funny he was trying.

“You were talking rather loudly. It’s been difficult to get any work done in here.” Which was true, but not for the blandly insulting reason Saitou implied.

“So there’s no point pretending!” After a deep breath and never breaking eye contact with Saitou, Sano demanded, “Which one of us do you like better?”

“You hired me way earlier,” Chou hastened to remind his boss, speaking for the first time since entering the room. “You musta liked what you saw in that jail cell.”

“Yeah, but he met me earlier than that.” Sano addressed Chou rather than Saitou in order to argue the point more directly. “He liked what he saw on the dojo steps!” And Saitou almost couldn’t believe this was devolving into, ‘Well, I saw him first.’

“Yeah, but then he stabbed you.”

“He left you in the jail cell.”

Saitou didn’t even bother trying to keep the amusement from his tone as he asked, “Can’t you idiots think of a better way to solve this than trying to determine which of you I’ve abused less?”

“Yeah!” Sano took another vigorous step forward, raising his fist as if for a fight rather than what he was about to suggest. “Yeah, I can! All we gotta do is each of us kiss you, and that’ll clear everything up!”

“You think so?” Now Saitou was on the verge of laughter, though he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the idea. Kissing he didn’t mind so much — he was lucky Sano hadn’t demanded, in that straightforward way of his, something far more inappropriately intimate to prove this point — but he couldn’t be confident the demonstration would have the desired effect.

But Chou was grinning, the expression devious and anticipatory. “Yeah, that’s perfect. Good idea, tori.” And Saitou thought he could read the true thoughts behind the approving words: Chou too doubted the efficacy of this plan for actually determining which of them Saitou liked better, but was totally onboard with any course of action that would win him a kiss he hadn’t otherwise expected to receive.

Saitou looked back and forth between their agitated but eager faces, and found a smirk growing slowly on his own as he thought he began to see the formula laid out before his mind’s eye. It was still a volatile situation, but he believed he knew now how to work his way through it. Finally he said, “All right.” Then he raised a gloved hand to stop Sano’s immediate impetuous advance. “On one condition.”

Sano and Chou shot each other an almost conspiratorially nervous look, then turned their eyes back toward Saitou in mute curiosity.

“For every kiss I give either of you,” Saitou told them calmly, “you to have to kiss each other first.”

Chou’s left eye popped open in astonishment, while Sano’s response was a hoarse, “…the fuck?”

Saitou’s smirk widened. “You heard me. Get to it.”

The immediacy and lack of complaint or question with which they obeyed was not only flattering — they wanted to get at him quicker — but also promising — they truly didn’t mind this. And he had to admit, it was even nicer than he’d expected to see them together like that. They seemed to fit remarkably well, and know instinctively what motions of lips and tongue — because, oh, yes, there was tongue involved — would be most enjoyable. It lasted a lot longer than even Saitou had anticipated, and certainly, based on their expressions when they broke apart, longer than its two participants had guessed it might. They stared at each other — Chou’s left eye, Saitou noted, still wide open — in bafflement and perhaps a growing mutual awareness for several long seconds after the kiss ended.

Saitou was more than satisfied. If they could get some of what they needed from each other and the rest of what they wanted from him, perhaps there was a solution to this problem after all. And perhaps they too were beginning to recognize that.

But they were also still desperate for the answer to the original question. In entertainingly similar movements, they shook themselves as if discarding, at least for the moment, the revelation that had just began to dawn, and turned toward Saitou almost in synchronization. “Well?” Sano demanded, and Saitou thought the redness of his face arose now from more circumstances than before. “That’s one! So who’s first?”

“Who, indeed?” Still smirking, Saitou reached into his pocket and pulled out a 10 sen piece. Without bothering to declare which of them he’d assigned to which side of the coin, he sent it spiraling into the air with a flick of his thumb. Three pairs of eyes watched it rise, flashing, and then begin to descend.


This story is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk because it was directly inspired by their ficlet Tough Love.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Heretic’s Reward 25-28

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 July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 25 – A Small Gathering of Malcontents

“You don’t know what it’s been like.” Sano tried not to evoke the image of a petulant child complaining about having to play with the least popular kid in the village, but it wasn’t working very well. “He just goes on and on and on about his fucking swords and how he got every single fucking one of them all fucking day.”

Katsu, often morose, excelled at keeping a straight face even under provocation, but that wasn’t working very well either. This was essentially the first thing Sano had said to him tonight, after they’d walked together in tense silence — giving the ‘hiding in plain sight’ theory its initial test — from the thieves’ guild headquarters through town to the inn where the meeting was to take place; Sano hadn’t dared speak until they were upstairs in the privacy of the rented room they’d decided was the best place to hold a small gathering of malcontents, and that he’d chosen this complaint to get started with lent it even greater strength (and probably amusement to Katsu).

“Even if I try to change the subject, he drags it back to fucking swords after not too long; it’s the only thing he wants to talk about!” Sano was watching as Katsu examined the room carefully and checked for any defect of layout that might be problematic for their secrecy, but he wasn’t paying close attention to the details of Katsu’s actions in his frustration and the relief of getting this all out into the open after what had felt like the longest evening, night, and ensuing day of his life.

“He’ll talk about swords in general, or other people’s swords, for a little — swords he’d like to steal, or swords he’s heard of in history or whatever — but then he goes right back to his own fucking swords, and it is the most boring bullshit I’ve ever heard in my lady-damned life!”

And of course what Sano couldn’t mention was how much he really needed conversation that wasn’t boring to stave off things he didn’t want to be thinking about. Whenever his mind wandered from Chou’s sword-talk — which happened, or at least threatened to happen, very frequently in light of how dreadfully uninteresting that talk was — it tended to alight on the memory of Korucun’s weak smile as he died, his bloody figure on the ground where Sano had left him, and the still-looming question of why the hell he had sacrificed himself for a stranger. The shadows of the thieves’ guild even somewhat resembled the shadows in the street that night, dredging up all the emotions of those events poignantly in Sano’s heart.

Finished and seemingly satisfied with his inspection of the room, Katsu came to face Sano and wait patiently for the end of the rant.

“I thought being a ‘rebel spy’ would be exciting and dangerous, even though some of what I’ve been doing so far has been a little boring — talking to people looking for information for days and days and shit — but I never thought I’d end up in some cellar in Yumi’s armpit listening to some moron Schoukaff guy who crawled out of Misao’s ass going on and on all fucking day about his Kaoru-damned swords!”

Katsu’s previous expression of repressed amusement had turned skeptical now, and Sano realized the reference to Misao’s ass might strike the friend that had expressed himself unable to disbelieve in that particular lady as at least somewhat offensive. How frustrating it was to have to consider such things!

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just… how did you deal with that guy for so long already?”

Katsu shook his head. “Just be glad he didn’t want to come to the meetings.” Chou had stated he would be happy to take part in any endeavor that would help get Kenshin out of captivity and back into the open where his sheath could possibly be stolen, so long as that endeavor was fun in and of itself — and evidently he didn’t think these meetings were likely to be all that entertaining, and had opted to sit around in the dark (probably talking to himself about his swords) until there was something more interesting to be done.

With a frustrated sigh, Sano finally took his own careful look around the chamber. It was the inn’s biggest, and in addition to the usual accouterments of such accommodations — including, in this case, four beds — was also fitted with a larger table than usual in the resultantly larger space. It would still be crowded if all the people that had agreed to come actually showed up, but better than trying to talk privately down in the common room.

“This’ll work,” Sano said belatedly. “Thanks for renting it.”

Katsu nodded, and moved to take a seat at the table. About half an hour remained before he needed to go downstairs and start directing people to the appropriate place. “If there are any problems,” he remarked as he settled, “probably the best way to get out of here will be the main hallway and the stairs down into the common room. Anyone waiting in the street outside would probably expect you to come out the side entrance or even the window.”

“Just me?” Sano wondered, joining him at the table.

“Well, you’re the wanted one. The rest of us could hopefully blend in with the inn patrons or claim some other reason for meeting.”

Dourly Sano nodded, glad to have that plan in place. Careful as they’d been, it was impossible to say whether or not everyone they’d talked to was really on their side. Any one of the attendees could be leading Soujirou’s people here tonight in the hopes of getting a reward out of it. Of course, Katsu could have arranged for Soujirou’s people to be here tonight in the hopes of getting a reward out of it. But Sano was still trying to avoid such suspicions.

“Take a look at this,” Katsu said next, pulling from somewhere — Sano thought he kept stuff in his hanging sleeves — a folded piece of paper and offering it over.

Upon opening the thing, Sano found it to be a work order for another set of posters, and for half an instant his heart clenched… but it wasn’t as if he and Hajime could be doubly wanted, after all. “Festival of the Divine,” he read out. “King Soujirou I of house Gontamei will do honor to our patronesses Yumi, Misao, Megumi, Tomoe, and Kaoru at the opening ceremonies of a daylong festival on Yumifyo 55, a Mis’hyou. Come to the palace plaza and witness the faith of the king and the blessing of the Divine Ladies, then join in the feasting and revelry.” He looked up at Katsu with a frown.

“They delivered the order this morning, so that’s what we’ve been working on today. We’ll have them up tomorrow sometime, so people will have a good three weeks to get ready for the festival.”

“Including us,” said Sano grimly.

“I thought this might be a good time to target Soujirou.”

“Not just that…” Sano stared at the order, still frowning, particularly at one specific line, which he presently reread aloud: “‘Witness the blessing of the Divine Ladies…’ Hajime knew this was going to happen…”

Katsu’s curiosity as he asked, “What?” seemed inspired by the somewhat wondering tone that had colored Sano’s last statement.

“He said whoever was behind all this would have to make some kind of show of the ladies’ approval to make sure everyone was willing to follow Soujirou.” He jabbed a finger down at the text in question. “This is it. This ‘opening ceremony’ thing is going to convince everyone the ladies are on Soujirou’s side and it’d be blasphemy to oppose him. That’ll be the end of anyone going up against him, if it’s convincing enough.”

Katsu was frowning now too. “That’s an excellent point, and I think you’re right.” His eyes fell to the work order as if it would give him answers, and he finally shook his head and said, “We can’t let it happen.”

“Got any ideas?”

They both sat silently for several moments, thinking, and finally it was Sano that spoke again. “I guess there’ll be a lot of guards and knights there at the ceremony, and we’ll need them to be occupied if we’re going to get at Soujirou. We’re gonna have to ask people to fight, aren’t we?”

Katsu nodded grimly. “I thought it would come to that.”

“But a lot of people don’t normally carry weapons…” Sano’s tone, like his thoughts, was a mixture of musing and dismayed. “How are we gonna get a bunch of armed people onto that plaza without it looking suspicious? And how will we keep Soujirou from just running right back into the palace? And how–”

Firmly Katsu cut him off. “We need more details before we can make definite plans. We’ll have to see what information we can get out of people who work at the palace, and anyone working with Soujirou’s people on festival setup. We should be able to figure out how things will be laid out and what the order of the day is going to be, and then we can decide how to move.”

Seeing the wisdom in this — though it did mean another tedious span of waiting for information, undoubtedly broken up only by Chou’s sword-talk all over again — Sano took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, you’re right.”

“And I think you should bring Hajime into the city.”

Though Sano’s heart gave a little leap at the idea, still he couldn’t entirely keep off a dubious tone as he said, “Just yesterday you were saying I shouldn’t do that.”

“I know.” Katsu looked conflicted. “But I’ve been thinking about it further today, and… it’s a risk you’re going to have to take eventually, and I think now’s the time. We’re going to need him to help us plan the attack on Soujirou, and for the people we’ll be meeting with we’re going to need him as a rallying point now more than ever. You’ll help with that, of course, but if–”

“Me?” Sano broke in, surprised, distracted for a moment from the topic of Hajime. “How will I help?”

Katsu smiled. “You’re a rebel spy whose face is on posters all over town. And in that outfit–” he gestured with evident amusement– “I don’t think you can help being something of an icon.”

Sano took the cuff of one sleeve in his hand and scowled down at the shiny blue trim against the translucent orange body of the garment. Irritably he began slapping the sleeve against the table. He couldn’t think of anything to say, either about the shiiya (or the orange-striped blue pants that went with it) or about his supposed status as a rebel icon.

“If,” Katsu resumed, still smiling, “we can promise these people Hajime will be present at our next meeting, that will be even better. I think that will really solidify our efforts.”

Sano remained silent, busy with unpleasant thoughts. Katsu was right about a number of things: bringing Hajime into the city was a risk they had to take eventually; and Sano would love to be hiding out with Hajime instead of just Chou, to have someone rational to wile away the dull hours talking to instead of listening to tall tales about stolen swords and blacksmiths’ touch-ups while they waited for the information Katsu would now be their primary resource seeking. And Hajime’s input on the festival matter would be invaluable, and the promise of his presence undoubtedly would be an excellent benefit to the meetings they would be having over the next few days.

But this could also be an excuse to entice Hajime out of hiding so he could be arrested. Katsu could have been working with Sano, putting up a front of loyalty, only because he was after a bigger fish. Surely the reward for Hajime, and the accompanying prestige of having been the one to bring him in, would be far greater than for a mere rebel spy in a stupid outfit. Though Katsu might indeed be angling for both.

Sano just didn’t know what to do with these suspicions. There was no logical reason to entertain them, but simultaneously he couldn’t seem to shake them. He hated himself for doubting his friend, as well as for lingering in an emotional state that might be specifically detrimental to their efforts, but he couldn’t stop. Though the fear that Katsu might betray him seemed abstract and incredible, the fear that Katsu might betray Hajime was concrete, cold, and consistently present. Would Sano be contributing to that betrayal if he brought the knight into the city now?

Katsu reached out all of a sudden to arrest the perseverent motion of Sano’s hand. Sano relinquished the slapping of his sleeve and dropped the latter to hang as usual, looking across into the artist’s face. What else was there for him to do at this point besides go along with Katsu’s plan? Nothing, he supposed. So finally he said, “After all the meetings I’ll go talk to Hajime. See if he feels like it’s a good idea for him to come into town.”

“If we ever feel like the thieves’ guild is too dangerous, we can relocate to the printmaker’s.” Katsu seemed to recognize Sano’s need for reassurance, though whether he read the emotions behind that need was a matter of question. “I’d rather not go there, since I doubt Deikon or his family or his other apprentice are going to be on our side.” Here he held up the work order he’d re-folded, and shook it slightly before replacing it in his sleeve. “Though if the new regime keeps demanding projects at a discount, even Deikon may come around eventually. Probably not soon enough. But at least his shop has a big cellar with room for a few people to hide out in at a pinch.”

Sano nodded. Katsu had mentioned before where the printmaker’s shop was located, and it was good to have this option in reserve. Everything was starting to feel precarious and uncertain, and the meeting hadn’t even begun.

As if reading his mind, Katsu stirred. “The bell’s going to ring soon and I’ll have to go down. We need to decide how we’re going to handle things tonight.”

Again Sano nodded, and Katsu launched into a list of suggestions on what topics, specifically, they should cover, in what order these should be discussed, what arrangements needed to be made, and what to do in the event (not unlikely, he believed) talk started to get out of hand or arguments sprang up. Sano mostly just agreed with everything — including, grudgingly, the idea that Katsu would have to reference some religious nonsense — and found himself somewhat unexpectedly reassured. He wouldn’t have known where to start arranging a gathering like this, and his friend’s detailed proposals made him feel a lot better not only about the meeting, but about Katsu’s intentions.

Katsu rose at last and went down to the common room, leaving Sano impatient and nervous for what was to come. Before he could even pace the room twice, however, he heard the five knocks (had Katsu deliberately chosen that damned religious number?) of the first person up the stairs. It turned out to be the first people up the stairs — there were three of them — and they’d barely had time to give Sano’s borrowed outfit some surprised looks of assessment, and comment that they’d recognized his face on the wanted posters, before the next person arrived.

Any awkwardness Sano might have felt at the unusual circumstances of semi-introduction and waiting around for the night’s doings to start was dispelled by the fairly steady stream of newly arriving others. The chamber became more and more crowded and warm, but at least the group had the sense — probably prompted by Katsu below — to keep their conversations relatively quiet as they waited. That many even relatively quiet conversations, however, in such close proximity, made for an agitating buzz of sound Sano intensely hoped wouldn’t be heard from outside.

Eventually twenty other people were packed in with him, lined up against the walls, seated on the beds and at the table, or just awkwardly standing next to each other facing Sano, who was consequently trying to avoid fidgeting and to appear calm and in control. Not a small amount of relief filled him when Katsu at last appeared with the final attendees. Any latecomers, with no guide remaining in the common room, would not be participating, but having two dozen people here to discuss things was not only a pretty good turnout, it was about as much as the rented room could handle.

“Thank you all for coming,” Katsu began as he made his way through the quieting crowd to the table, onto which he climbed to stand above the heads of the gathering for maximum visibility and audibility. Sano, wondering why his agitation was only increasing even though Katsu had rejoined him, followed him up. Looking around at the many eyes watching them curiously, Sano thought this was probably the scariest thing he’d ever done.

“Thank you all for coming,” Katsu repeated. It was a predictable greeting, and his tone seemed to indicate he might be just as nervous as Sano about addressing so many people on such an uncertain topic. But he went on without hesitation to assure everyone, “Your presence here does not commit you to anything. We are making plans, yes, but all you’re agreeing to do right now is talk. Even so, we ask that you keep quiet about this, for obvious reasons.”

A lot of nodding and a murmur of assent and appreciation moved through the room. So far, at least, everyone seemed pleased to be here and eager to hear what Katsu and Sano had to say.

Katsu cleared his throat, even more obviously than before trying not to appear apprehensive. “The issue is,” he began, “that not everybody in the city is happy about the new king. I would guess not everybody in the kingdom is happy about it, but we’re here in Elotica where something can possibly be done about it.”

More agreement from the group. Sano considered this a good sign, a good start.

“As a king, Kenshin has always been a little too easy-going. I think we all know that.” As Katsu began with the agreed-upon opening topic, ‘what we like about Kenshin,’ he started to ease into his role of public speaker a little more. “He lets criminals off too lightly, he’s a little too content for people to police themselves in most matters, and even his lawmaking process sometimes seems a little…”

“Lazy,” someone supplied from the crowd. There was general laughter, but Sano was heartened to notice it sounded good-natured.

Katsu nodded his acknowledgment. “These are absolutely problems. Nobody is going to claim Kenshin was ever a perfect king. But not only do these defects have very little negative effect on the kingdom as a whole, we have to keep in mind the reason behind them: that Kenshin believes in the goodness of people. He believes even criminals deserve a second chance, that people have the capacity to behave well in their various fields, and that laws are more of a last resort than an immediate necessity.

“This may be a weakness in some areas, but in others it is specifically a strength. Kenshin is motivated by kindness and trust, and a king that loves and trusts his people is a good king who will do what is best for them.”

There was some uncertain murmuring, and Sano, though not really wanting to speak, felt he had to jump in. “The point is, Kenshin’s a good man. He might not be the best king ever, but, hell, which of us would be? He was trying his best, and he knew what was right and what was wrong, and he had good people around him to help out.” Of course much of this was drawn from what Hajime had said about his deposed superior rather than any personal experience on Sano’s part, but he thought it worth offering nonetheless.

There followed a discussion of various impressions of and experiences with Kenshin during his time as king and even before. It was rather incoherent — no surprise, given the number of people in the room — but seemed to bear out the general point. Then Katsu waved for silence, and moved on to the details Sano had been less looking forward to: Kenshin’s level of religious devotion. Though at least this was a fairly solid topic in favor of the former king, since that devotion was evidently significant and generally acknowledged.

It did start another complicated discussion, however, this one much closer to an argument than previously, when somebody wondered whether Katsu wasn’t a heretic just as Sano was and trying to score cheap points by referencing a religion he didn’t actually subscribe to. Then they had to debate the question of whether and to what extent a heretic could possibly support a religious king, discussing the hypothetical motivations of such a heretic as if Sano weren’t standing right there in front of them and capable of answering any questions they might have. Eventually Katsu had to oil the waters by bringing up the rather loathsome point that Kenshin had always allowed a certain amount of freedom in religious observance, no doubt trusting in the goodness of the human heart to bring all heretics back eventually to where they needed to be, and that therefore even so devout a man would have no qualms being assisted by a nonbeliever in the matter of regaining his throne.

“And I hear the new guys are trying to make laws about that,” Sano said. Though still nervous, he too had relaxed a trifle as the meeting had really gotten going, and he spoke now more or less with ease. “They may end up wanting to kill people like me, but it won’t just be heretics that kind of bullshit hurts. I don’t know exactly what they’re planning, but do you really want somebody up at the palace telling you how to worship? What you are and aren’t allowed to do, how often you have to go to services, that kind of thing?”

Katsu used the discontented muttering that filled the room in response to this as a means of transitioning to the second point, ‘what we don’t like about the new regime.’ “And that isn’t the only suggested change to national policy we’ve heard about. As you can see, Soujirou wants to tighten things up — more regulations, more restrictive regulations, perhaps a complete overhaul to our legal system. This may or may not be a good thing in general or in specific, but what’s evident is that he isn’t coming from that place of kindness and trust that Kenshin always was. We may have been longing for a more efficient bureaucracy, but we can’t count on Soujirou to have the people’s best interest in mind.”

They wasted some time then on incredibly and unnecessarily detailed tangents regarding legal minutiae — both laws in existence the company wasn’t fond of, and laws hypothetical the company would like to see in place. Eventually Sano felt the need to break in again, once more with ideas he’d originally gotten from Hajime. “And even if he does make a couple of good changes, we can’t forget he was willing to throw Kenshin into prison somewhere and just take over, going against all the laws and traditions I can think of. That makes him a criminal, and a criminal’s always going to commit another crime sooner or later. Do we really want someone like that ruling the country?”

This, of course, led to a divergent debate that was half about criminals and whether they should be welcomed into various social roles (and whether, as Kenshin seemed to believe, they deserved a second chance; and whether it wasn’t hypocritical to excuse some flaws of character in the previous king while condemning the usurper for others), and half about Soujirou personally. Though the young prince had made a charitable pilgrimage to the town of Enatio some months back, and apparently done a lot of good there, which everyone present remembered — that and not a lot of the repressed details about his kidnapping as a child — it seemed the general impression of Soujirou was neither particularly good nor particularly bad: he was just another rich noble.

Eventually, though, Katsu and Sano did manage to move on to the third point on their list, ‘what we fear may happen if things go on like this.’ It was a vague subtopic, which might have actually been for the better in this case: more effectively than knowing exactly what was coming, shadowy concerns about too-restrictive laws and as-yet-unknown criminal behaviors on the part of the very ruler of the nation helped to make the point that things were likely to deteriorate rather than improve under Soujirou’s rule. Few members of the group had anything concrete or particularly useful to add — for all they tried to add it insistently and at great length — except for one woman with a specific concern she didn’t hesitate to lay before the company.

She didn’t give her name, probably in the interest of safety, but Sano thought he would remember her face: a round, friendly visage that looked all innocent pleasantness except when, every once in a while, it took on a shrewd, calculating expression that was a sudden window into the canniness and determination underneath. She was, she told them, an officer of the Etoronai merchant’s guild here in Elotica on a (now very extended) business trip aimed at organizing a branch of the guild here in the capital. Not only was all the negotiation progress she’d made at the palace now lost, necessitating she start entirely over once things had calmed down, she couldn’t be sure how receptive the new regime would be to the terms she and her associates back home had so carefully drawn up to appeal especially to Kenshin. If the previous status quo could possibly be restored, things would be a lot easier for her. And this wasn’t merely a complaint aired with no action taken: she had, she assured them, a decent amount of influence among merchants across the kingdom, including here in the city, and would gladly bring to bear that influence as needed in this conflict. Sano and Katsu were surprised and pleased.

The penultimate list item, ‘the need to gather weapons and be ready for a fight,’ was perhaps the most difficult to insinuate into the minds of those that had committed to nothing by being here. In fact, it was this point in particular that demonstrated to Sano exactly how lukewarm the general reception here was. Yes, a lot of discussion had gone on during the last two hours, but as it turned out, most of it had been exactly like all the talk leading nowhere he’d observed in the inn common rooms he’d been frequenting during his trips into the city all along. This was extremely discouraging.

He’d determined gradually during the course of the meeting that maybe nine of those present were individuals he and Katsu had spoken to and specifically invited, with the other thirteen being guests brought by the initial set. Since they’d done most of their recruiting here in the red district, it seemed likely that perhaps half as many people would show up to each of the other meetings. And if that estimate was correct, they would end up talking to around sixty people total. How many would actually commit to the cause? Half of that? A third of that? It seemed this grand resistance was likely to consist of no more than twenty or thirty people. Whatever they eventually decided to do had better not be anything on a particularly large scale.

They didn’t mention the other four meetings just like this (not just like this, Sano fervently hoped) planned for the immediate future, but anyone with an ounce of sense must have anticipated them. What they did announce was a larger assemblage to be held two weeks from now on or around Yumifyo 50 — exact time and place to be determined, and that information to be disseminated to everyone currently present at a later date — whereat more solid plans for disrupting Soujirou’s rule would be discussed. Though no one protested the idea, neither did anyone seem particularly enthusiastic about it… until they learned that royal knight Hajime would be present at that time.

It was a risk making this promise at all, since Sano hadn’t had a chance to talk to the knight just yet, but it seemed Katsu had been right: though Sano obviously intrigued this crowd, Hajime was a source of significantly greater interest and possibly inspiration. Voices sounded more enthusiastic and assenting, comments about upcoming events more engaged and proactive, and there were even some definite promises of attendance regarding that bigger meeting, once the royal knight’s name had been brought up. And it wasn’t as if Sano didn’t agree; he too was inspired and proactive in response to his involvement with Hajime… and in fact might have felt, unexpectedly, a little jealous at everyone else’s show of interest in the man that had been his companion (sometimes exclusively) ever since he started this venture. But the point was that they were engaged; that was all that really mattered

Eventually the whole thing broke up, without ever having been raided or otherwise threatened in any way. The group dispersed gradually in small portions out various entrances, as subtly as it was capable of doing, leaving the exhausted Katsu and Sano behind in a room that now felt overly large and seemed to echo with the many tones and schemes that had previously filled it. They’d survived the process. They’d taken their first real step toward forming a serious resistance, however small it might turn out to be.

And now they had to spend the rest of the week repeating the performance four times over.

Chapter 26 – The Visitant

The sky was a milky blue that promised later cloud cover and rain, and Sano’s steps were light beneath it. Not Chou’s stupid sword talk nor the memory of four meetings essentially the same as the first (if less heavily attended), not his concerns about Katsu or his very different concerns about Korucun nor his underlying uncertainty and agitation about the situation as a whole with Soujirou’s festival looming and probably only a very small group of people to resist it — none of these could dampen Sano’s mood as he made his way out of the troublesome capital and back into Enca to rejoin Hajime.

Despite the success thus far of the borrowed outfit at preventing people from suspecting him of anything but phenomenally poor taste, he was glad it was accompanied by a hood, be that article ever so translucent to match the shiiya, especially on the more sparsely trafficked path — where he certainly stood out — from one of the non-checkpoint Elotica entrances around to the smaller town. His biggest challenge was to refrain from walking as if fully aware of his absurdity of attire in addition to his wanted status and drawing even more eyes than he was already destined to.

In fact that was not true. It was perfectly simple to walk as if he felt exactly the way he did: happier than he’d been in a week and eager to get back to the inn. But he didn’t think that walk was likely to do him any disservice; it fit with his bright colors.

It hardly seemed a matter of question, today, whether or not to stop in the market for some breakfast, and Sano found himself traversing the busiest street looking for the freshest stack of fruit almost without even thinking about it. He occasioned some smiles as he made his cheerful purchase, then had to work hard to restrain himself from juggling the shining apples as he moved on through the crowd. The ridiculously delicious scent emanating from a baker’s shop tempted him soon afterward, but, preferring to avoid the notice of the red devoted currently examining the steaming wares held by an employee on a large tray just outside the building, he didn’t stop even to look.

“–so much more shopping to do all of a sudden,” the devoted was remarking in a wry tone.

“Yes, I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine,” the baker sympathized. “What a hassle for you.”

“Well, you can’t say no to the white, but those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are.”

Interested, Sano had slowed to listen, but, feeling conspicuous, now moved on before he could catch the rest of the red’s complaint. He hadn’t heard anything in Elotica about Misao’s new white devoted being in Enca; it must indeed be a last-minute visit! Scant sympathy as he felt for any devoted, he couldn’t really blame the guy: he too might want to get out of a place where people of the rank he’d just assumed had recently been attacked and the one closest to him murdered. He did wonder, though, which lower-ranking follower of Misao that left to sit on the Devoted Council. Had Soujirou and his people had anything to do with this? If so, what did they gain from it? Sano knew nothing about the Misao golds, nor which of them had been made the new fourth-wash, and therefore had no guesses. He would have to talk to Hajime about it. That and any number of other things.

But he didn’t need the unoccupied inn chamber with its beds stripped of linens to tell him Hajime was gone; the cracked door that swung open without requiring a key in its broken lock alerted him even before he burst into the room and looked frantically around. And it took no more than an instant for his heartbeat to accelerate to a gallop. Blood roaring in his ears and a coldness in the pit of his stomach, he tore down the hall and the steps — the main staircase this time — straight for the innkeeper’s office. The door slammed violently back against the wall as he rushed in bellowing somewhat incoherently, “Where is he? What happened??”

Immediately on her feet, visage dark, the innkeeper responded to his presence with every bit as much intensity as Sano himself could command: “You get out of my inn! I don’t ever want to see you around here again!”

Fists clenched, Sano advanced on her. “Where is he?

“Before dawn, four men came and–”

“Bullshit!” He hardly knew what he shouted into her face, and only a barely conscious awareness that she was no warrior kept him from taking hold of her shiiya and shaking her. “As if just four men could ever–”

“For your information, you trash,” she yelled right back at him, “they dragged my wife up there and threatened to kill her if he didn’t go with them! That’s what I get for looking the other way and renting rooms to suspicious people! I want you out of here now, and don’t you or any of your criminal friends come back here looking for service, ’cause I’ll send for the guards if I ever see your lousy faces again!”

Horrified, Sano took a step back and stared at the woman. There was no reason to think she might be lying, and her emotionality seemed perfectly justified under the circumstances. In fact it was pretty impressive for her to be standing up, without a weapon in sight, to a raging Sano whom she believed to be a criminal. But fury still sounded in his voice as he demanded, “Who were they? Where did they take him?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.” She pointed vehemently. “Get out!”

Sano was surprised to find the door the woman indicated already under his fingertips, as if, anticipating her lack of useful information, he’d already moved without realizing it. He paused, though, and took a deep breath. “Is your wife all right?”

The innkeeper too calmed just a trifle, perhaps realizing he was sincere in his inquiry. “She’s fine. Your friend surrendered as soon as they threatened her.”

“Of course he did,” Sano muttered, and left the inn.

Still irate and aghast and now dizzy as well, as if he’d taken a blow to the head, he staggered out into the street, wondering what the hell to do next. The thought that he had to find Hajime reiterated itself so continually that it got tripped up by its own repetition and didn’t allow any subsequent reflections as to the how of the matter. He must, he must, he must… but he couldn’t get any farther than that. It would help if his heart would beat properly and the world’s spinning would diminish.

Between buildings and around corners at random he stumbled, probably drawing all the attention he’d managed to avoid earlier by crashing into people he didn’t see and whose indignant remonstrances he barely even heard, and with an agonizing slowness recovered his presence of mind. Yes, he had to find Hajime. And this wasn’t helping him do so. He looked around sluggishly — he would have expected his movements to be so much quicker, what with all this frantic energy pounding through his veins — and began to take stock of both his surroundings and what he knew of the situation.

Someone had known where to find Hajime. Just as the assassin had been well enough informed to locate a rebel spy in the purple district of Elotica, so these four men had managed eventually to pinpoint the location of the deposed king’s chief knight. And they’d known how difficult it might be to capture him; they’d taken the precaution of securing a hostage before approaching, and even then had felt it expedient to break open the door to his room and give him as little time as possible to respond. They’d known their business. But where would they have taken him from there? Surely four men with a fifth held captive among them, even before dawn, must have turned some heads throughout town…

Four men…

“I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine…”

From the ground he’d been staring at intently, Sano’s gaze rose and turned to where, mostly obscured by buildings from this vantage point, Enca’s aged shrine of Misao yet rose tall and orange in the distance. Was that the real reason the newly made fourth-wash had left the capital — to apprehend a fugitive on Soujirou’s behalf? Was Hajime over there even now, bound and gagged, awaiting transport to his doom inside the city?

It was the only idea Sano had at the moment, so he followed the urging of his racing blood and headed in that direction.

The shrine had originally been a monastery, until some religious leader or other — probably Rionura the Pious; everything was Rionura the Pious — had discouraged asceticism throughout the kingdom. This pointless trivia would surely never have entered Sano’s head at such a time, irritating him that he knew it at all, if it hadn’t been the explanation for the high walls, definitely unclimbable, that surrounded the place. Sano spent a very agitated half hour circling the shrine and discovering only a few entrances, none of which he could get through unobserved. It was like the Elotica checkpoint problem all over again — but here were no unattended wagons to help him on his way. He really had only one option.

Little as he fancied the lack of privacy on any of these streets around the orange walls, he couldn’t bring himself to stray far from the shrine, and had nowhere better to go in any case. So he chose a spot that struck the best balance he could manage at such short notice between ‘least frequented street’ and ‘closeness to a shrine entrance,’ knelt down in a dirty corner after ensuring no windows immediately overlooked him, and opened his backpack. It would be disastrous if anyone saw this, yet his movements were far more hasty than careful as he dug through his collection of devoted shiiyao looking for the one with Misao’s rabbit symbol on the chest.

He had no idea what he would say. He had already posed as a devoted on numerous occasions, but that had been wandering the religious districts like a gormless newcomer. Could he imitate the speech and bearing of someone with a specific purpose that knew exactly what he was doing? And what purpose, indeed, could he claim? What would get him inside so he could search the shrine unaccompanied? Could he pretend to have a message for the white devoted that must be delivered in person and in private? But then if the fourth-wash turned out not to be involved, what could Sano say that would allow him to remain in the shrine unhindered? He tried to come up with a coherent plan as he finally located and drew out his Misao shiiya, but he still couldn’t think entirely clearly.

And that was when the entire world abruptly turned upside-down. Or, rather, Sano turned upside-down, or was turned upside-down out of nowhere by the application of skilled hands whose owner’s approach he hadn’t heard or suspected. Blows landed, torque was made use of, Sano was suddenly much closer to prone than he had been half a moment before, pain had arisen, and a harsh voice was speaking somewhere above him:

“Give me a good reason not to kill you.”

Not precisely flat on his back but close enough, head spinning even more severely than it had been for the last hour, Sano struggled against the urge to struggle against the sharp metallic object that now lay threateningly on his neck. A knee, bearing most of the weight of a decent-sized woman, pressed painfully into his stomach; he could probably have thrown her off if not for the very inconvenient position of the blade she held, with which she could cut his throat in less time than it would take him to tense his muscles for the effort.

This didn’t mean he felt any need to remain silent, though.

“What the fuck? Who are you? Where do you get off jumping on random people without warning? Where did you even come from?”

“Give me a good reason not to kill you,” the woman repeated. Her face was set in a hard, unforgiving frown as she stared down unrelentingly from her advantageous position above him.

“Why don’t you fucking give me a good reason to kill me!” Sano demanded.

Immediately she complied. “Because you’re obviously planning to sneak into a shrine dressed as a devoted.”

While the woman did have a point, “Since when is that a capital offense?” wondered Sano. “Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

The hard metal on his neck pushed down more bitingly; blood was sure to run soon if she didn’t let up. “You’ve got five seconds to explain yourself.”

Irritated as he was with this situation, Sano couldn’t really argue with that weapon. “Fine, all right, fine,” he said, trying to decide quickly how much he could safely tell and still placate the stranger. “Misao’s white devoted’s in here after the old one got assassinated, and I think the new guy’s taken my friend prisoner. I can’t just walk up to the door and ask if they have him; sneaking in’s my only option!”

For a few moments after this account (fairly neat and concise, he thought), there was pensive silence above him. Finally the uncomfortable knee was removed from his stomach, though the hard blade against his flesh did not retreat. “Get up,” the woman ordered. “Slowly.” As if there was any other way he would move with her threatening to cut his throat! Painstakingly, with the woman’s weapon never much farther from his neck than it had been all along, Sano sat up and then climbed awkwardly to his feet. As he did so, the woman said in a businesslike tone, “We’ll go in there together and see if any of your story is true.”

Any of it?” Sano wondered. “You’ve gotta know Misao’s white was assassinated! Haven’t you heard what’s going on in Elotica?”

“I’m not the one whose actions need to be explained here.”

“Not from where I’m standing,” Sano replied, somewhat surly. He was trying to calculate whether it would be possible for him to spring backward and draw his own sword without her detecting his intention and severely injuring him. If whatever she had at his neck was a keonblade, she could easily extend the energy blade and kill him outright before he was halfway through his jump; better not try it.

The woman tilted her head in what seemed to be a specific gesture (though one Sano did not at first understand), and commanded, “Take his sword-belt.”

“What?” Sano hadn’t realized the woman had anyone else with her; it was a good thing he’d decided against attempting to break free. But he didn’t much like the thought of being thus disarmed. “You can’t–”

“You’re not in any position to argue,” she interrupted him.

“Says you.”

She was right, though. “I could just kill you without testing your absurd story, if that’s what you want.”

“Fine.” He felt hands lifting the hem of the blue and orange shiiya he never had managed to switch out and unfastening the belt on which he wore his keonblade; looking carefully toward the movements, he was surprised to find them being performed by a boy of perhaps twelve.

“You’ll get it back when I feel it’s appropriate,” the woman said as the boy finished his task; then both of them took a step away from Sano, and he was able to look them over a bit better.

The woman had the type of face that was usually called ‘handsome’ rather than ‘beautiful,’ with hard eyes generally dark despite their light brown color and a disapproving set to her lips. The similarity to hers in the boy’s appearance, coupled with what Sano guessed to be around a twenty-year age difference, made him assume they were mother and son. The boy had slung Sano’s belt over his shoulder in a movement indicating he was not entirely unfamiliar with such accouterments, and the woman was returning to its sheath the long knife — not, in fact, a keonblade — with which she’d been threatening Sano.

The most eye-catching thing about either of them was the woman’s shiiya. Off-white like that of a fourth-wash devoted, it had the same flower-cut hem, and even a teardrop-shaped device on the chest. But this device, unlike that worn by devoted, was not white: it had a blue outer band, and, instead of an image in its center to indicate which of the divine ladies she served, its inner portion held five horizontal sections, each a different color.

Blue, Sano recalled, mostly from statements made by his father so many years ago, represented the unity of the divine and eternity, which was why the sky was blue or some such nonsense. The other colors in the teardrop, he was unsurprised to note, were the green of Yumi, the yellow of Megumi, the orange of Misao, the red of Kaoru, and the purple of Tomoe. Who was this woman?? And how in the world had someone that had previously worn an empty device on his shiiya to signify his disbelief in any of the divine ladies happened across someone that apparently served all of them?

She didn’t comment on the continual, startled attention he gave her chest. What she said was, “Now come with me, and don’t say a word; you can bring your things with you.”

“Megumi,” Sano swore (perhaps prompted just a little by his hypothesis about what this woman was), “you’re worse than–”

She cut him off, with no sign that his irreverence specifically had bothered her. “What did I just say?”

He looked around: at the woman, at the boy, at his fallen backpack, at the shrine’s entrance down the street. He could probably make a break for it right now and escape, but that would involve leaving everything he possessed behind. He might be able to dash for his sword and get at it before either of them could react, but not only did he dislike the idea of possibly hurting a kid, he wasn’t entirely confident in his ability to meet this woman even in a fair fight even just against a dagger. She had an air about her of absolutely infallible competence.

And beyond all this, there was the question of Hajime. The woman had told him not to say anything, which he tentatively thought meant she didn’t intend to march over there and announce to the shrine attendants he’d been planning on conning his way inside. She might have been taking his story more seriously than he’d thought, and did actually plan to find out whether it was true. In any case, if he ran away now, he might discard his only chance at discovering whether Hajime really was a prisoner in there, and he couldn’t stand that idea. It seemed he had no choice but to go with her.

As he turned, still somewhat surly, toward his backpack to gather up his spilled things, he thought he saw a corner of the woman’s mouth twitch upward as if he was behaving exactly as she’d thought he would, and he added on to everything else he’d been wondering, How do I keep finding these condescending jerks?

Awkward as he felt moving in the wake of this unknown intimidating woman, beside the little boy that looked so much like her and held Sano’s only weapon, not knowing whether he would be betrayed and possibly taken (more) into custody at any time, Sano had to admit he was glad the stranger and not he did the talking when they reached the entrance. An elderly red devoted seated in the shadow of the open gate seemed to function more as a receiver of guests than a warder-off of intruders, but Sano would still have been forced to come up with a story. As it was, the woman walked up to the old man as if she owned the place and said, “I am the Visitant, here to inspect this shrine on my way to Elotica.”

The man rose, touched his forehead courteously, and stared at the stranger’s chest exactly as Sano had — though evidently with different emotions involved. “We are honored to have you here, mistress.” There was a touch of wonder to his tone.

More polite than Sano had expected, the woman returned the red’s salute. “Who is currently presiding here?”

“You’ve arrived at just the right time.” The red seemed delighted to be able to relay this information. “The new white devoted has retreated here from the city to meditate on his new position.”

“I’ve been carrying out an inspection tour in the coastal towns,” the so-called Visitant replied. “I had not heard a new white devoted of Misao had been instated.”

The red’s face clouded, and he hesitated a moment before speaking again. “Then it’s probably best you hear about it from him.”

The woman nodded. Her gaze didn’t even twitch in Sano’s direction, but surely she must see now that at least part of his report had been accurate. “I will do so.”

“I believe he’s in the sanctum.”

“Thank you.”

Though older and smaller, this shrine still very much resembled the temples of the divine ladies in the five corners of Elotica, so Sano was unsurprised at the direction in which the Visitant led them: past a twelve-sided dais bearing a statue of Misao, who Sano had always thought looked more impish than stately in many of her portrayals, under a mess of crisscrossing ropes from which hung a variety of homemade artwork dedicated as offerings, through the gap in the great five-sided building into a smaller courtyard featuring another, more petite statue of Misao, and across this toward a door into the shrine itself.

And as they walked, the very instant they were out of earshot of the devoted at the gate and another that had been present in the outer yard, Sano wondered, “Who are you? What’s a Visitant?”

The woman barely turned her head to admonish him, “I told you to keep quiet.”

Scowling, Sano turned to the boy at his side and whispered, “Seriously, what’s a Visitant?”

Skeptically — perhaps even a little scornfully — the kid whispered back, “What are you, a heretic or something?”

“For your information–” But Sano cut off his growling retort at a harsh sound from the woman; they were entering the building. It was time to keep his eyes open for any signs of Hajime.

Chapter 27 – At the Sanctum Doors

For all his posing and playacting lately, Sano had never actually been inside one of these big religious institutes, and couldn’t help looking around with some curiosity now. The murals painted directly onto the stone bricks of the walls in the room they entered reminded him of those he’d seen in Hajime’s memory of a certain palace chamber, though these were far older and looked as if they could do with some restoration. So too did the piece in the middle — yet another statue of Misao, this one in a much more antiquated style — though the cushions arranged around it, presumably for prayer and meditation, looked recent and functional enough. That was all he had a chance to observe, for the Visitant unhesitatingly led them through an archway into a claustrophobic hall significantly dimmer than the previous space had been. Though weavings of bright colors hung so close together that barely an inch of stone showed between them, still there was a draft and a consequent feeling of chill and darkness. The Visitant seemed to know exactly where she was going, though, so Sano saw this and two other, similar connected hallways only briefly.

The wider corridor they eventually emerged into was longer and taller, but that just made it feel even draftier. Evidently they were nearing their destination as they walked its length, for the Visitant slowed as they approached a pair of large doors, carved around the edges and painted in their centers with further images of the lady of quick thinking and deception, flanked by a pair of second-wash. Whatever lay beyond these was probably the far back of the shrine, if Sano had his bearings right; it must be the sanctum.

Before either of the men could hail her, the woman asked, “Is the white devoted inside?”

The two door-guards studied the Visitant’s shiiya without visible reaction, and in turn Sano, at least, was studying them. He remembered the comments of the red he’d overheard in the market — “Those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are” — and believed he’d found the subjects of that statement. The one on the left was hugely fat, which almost drew attention entirely away from how tall he was; he was just really big in general. The design of a shiiya as an outer garment intended to be worn over a smaller, more form-fitting shirt accommodated it to a number of body shapes… but this guy must have his specially made.

The man to the right of the doors was shorter and took up less space overall, but was no less imposing: the broadness of his chest and thickness of his arms where they showed outside his orange hanging sleeves seemed to imply he did little in his life besides exercises tailored to the development of this extremely visible style of musculature. He reminded Sano of Seijuurou; though the keonmaster was wider in the shoulders and a little taller, and therefore perhaps just slightly bigger in general, this man bulged more and was as a consequence more incredible and conspicuous. And the number of scars crisscrossing his visible skin, including his face, spoke of a greater number of deep wounds received over the course of his life than Seijuurou had ever taken. Seijuurou might appreciate the guy’s surprisingly luxurious unbound hair, though, and its waviness that was atypical in this region. Seijuurou had never been able to get his hair to wave.

In any case, the two men side by side like this did indeed look as if they could eat a significant amount of donated food in a single day, and formed a formidable barrier to entrance into the presumed sanctum. And just the fact that there were such intimidating guards outside these doors said something about what might wait inside.

“He is,” the man on the right answered the Visitant’s question at last. “But he’s not to be disturbed. He’s meditating and praying trying to heal a man who was brought in with some unknown disease.”

The Visitant’s brows rose in a skeptical gesture worthy of Hajime. “A Misao devoted doing healing work?”

“There’s no time to send for someone from Megumi; the man may die.”

Sano shifted inadvertently. It might be a lie in its entirety, but he couldn’t possibly be pleased at hearing that a man inside with the white devoted might die. The muscular second-wash certainly seemed untroubled by the prospect, however.

The Visitant’s demeanor had stiffened somewhat, and Sano guessed she was starting to believe what he’d told her — or at the very least that something weird was going on here. She still sounded relatively polite, though, if as authoritative as ever, when she said, “Perhaps I can be of assistance. I am the Visitant.”

“Thought that’s what that device meant.” The fat man sounded childishly pleased, much as that old devoted at the gate had been at the opportunity to meet this Visitant person, and more than a little stupid. Sano wondered how he’d made it to this rank.

The muscular man threw his companion a brief look of patient, comradely disdain, and told the woman, “The fourth-wash ordered that nobody should disturb him.”

“And I,” replied the Visitant almost pleasantly, “am ordering you to stand aside and let me pass.”

The muscular man shook his head. “I’m afraid his orders came first, mistress.”

“Specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church.” The Visitant said this as if making a note for later. Then, examining each of the door-guards thoughtfully in turn, she commented, “I don’t believe what you’ve told me. I think your white devoted has some other reason for wanting visitors kept out of the sanctum at this time. As the royally appointed inspector of church affairs it is my duty to determine what that reason is. Now either step aside or give me a good explanation.”

Inspector of church affairs? Sano wondered when that had happened. There certainly hadn’t been such a person back when he’d lived with his devoted father, yet the folks at this shrine seemed tolerably familiar with the position. Tolerably respectful of it, too… stopping just short of actually doing what the Visitant commanded.

“I’m sorry, mistress,” said the muscular man with a shake of his head, “I can’t let you inside, and I can’t tell you anything more than what I’ve already told you.”

“You realize you’re only giving me greater reason to insist on being let in,” the Visitant said quietly, and now there was a touch of threat to her tone.

The muscular man nodded. “We all do our duty as we see it.” And as he made this statement he made also a subtle shift to his stance — and the atmosphere in the drafty corridor had suddenly changed.

Sano, who by now doubted very little that Hajime was beyond these doors and whose mood had become more and more tense as the seemingly pointless conversation progressed, now felt his fists clenching and his body stiffening in response to the combative aura surrounding the two men that stood between him and his goal.

“Eiji, stand back.” The Visitant’s tone was cool and calm, but Sano thought she too was ready for a fight. If so, he couldn’t help reflecting, she might have had the boy return his weapon to him rather than merely ‘standing back,’ but at least the kid would be out of harm’s way.

No further signal or statement was given to turn the verbal conflict into a physical one; as the muscular man had implied, they must carry out their conflicting duties, and there seemed little point in further debate. And it was at that same man in that same wordless state that Sano now threw himself, he having been to the Visitant’s right all this time and therefore closer to this particular enemy. How she dealt with the fat man on the left was not Sano’s concern as long as that battle did not encroach upon this one.

Unfortunately, under the current circumstances, there was no way to take his opponent off guard. Sano knew this as he advanced, and certainly anticipated a challenging conflict he would not be able to end with the first strike, but he didn’t expect the response he got: the man caught in his left palm the punch aimed at him, despite its having the entirety of Sano’s weight behind it, slapped his right hand against Sano’s forearm, and used the momentum of Sano’s charge to swing the smaller man’s body continually forward and around into the wall beside the door. If the building were newer, its interior might be plastered as had become the trend throughout the kingdom; as it was, the tapestry that was the only thing between Sano and the structure with which he now became intimate did little to cushion the blow.

Brain rattled and wind knocked out of him, Sano slumped to the floor; pain ran up and down his back, lightning seem to flicker through his skull, and for a moment he couldn’t even see what else might be going on around him. And all he could think of was that, though it came as no surprise to find someone so extravagantly bulky such a master of brute force, he couldn’t allow himself to be beaten like this — not when Hajime, beyond these doors, might die. Therefore, earlier than was probably wise, he dragged himself up and struggled back to his feet.

Though his spinning head attempted to prevent him from focusing on the corridor before him, Sano noted that the muscular man had already begun to turn away, as if confident having thrown him into the wall would be enough — as, under many circumstances, it would in fact have been. Now the orange-clad devoted paused in his shifting of attention toward the other skirmish, and watched with some surprise as Sano staggered up. “Visitant’s got herself a pretty good bodyguard,” he muttered, sounding faintly impressed, as he drew near again with fists clenched.

Sano’s hands too, though trembling slightly, reformed the only weapons he could count on right now. And as the big man approached, Sano’s returning coherence informed him he must at all costs avoid allowing this enemy to take hold of him again; he couldn’t afford to be slammed into another wall. He also wanted to correct the man’s mistake, so he said, “I don’t work for her. I’m here for the guy you’ve got inside.”

The muscular man paused in his advance and studied Sano for a moment. “You’re that heretic spy, aren’t you?” One side of his big mouth twisted up into a half grin, distorting his scarred features bizarrely. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got.”

They closed again, bodies dancing and fists flying. Sano realized almost immediately that nothing short of a hard knock to the head would be enough to deal with this monster; contact with any other point on his body felt like punching a sack full of rocks, and did about as much good. He was reminded again of Seijuurou, a sparring partner against whom he’d had no qualms throwing the entirety of his power since there had never been any realistic concerns for the master’s safety. Sano didn’t think this guy could possibly be that strong, but the conflict was not without its difficulties nonetheless.

“My fourth-wash will be pleased to present you to the king,” the man said as he peppered Sano with painful blows to the chest and face.

“Why your fourth-wash, and not you?” Sano gasped as he attempted to return the hits, aiming for the head every time, and was continually thwarted by the man’s meaty palms that never seemed to tire of catching his full-strength attacks.

“I don’t care about the king,” the man answered simply. “I follow the white devoted of Misao.”

So the Visitant’s assessment of ‘specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church’ had been accurate. Sano wondered how that would figure into her inspection; did she consider it a good or a bad thing? He had to admit he respected it more than blind devotion to some invisible woman in the sky. “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us,” he said as his enemy again caught one of his punches and Sano quickly jerked his fist away to prevent the man from taking hold of his arm once more. And this gave him an idea. “Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?”

The man appeared not so much angry as determined, as if taking Sano’s question as a specific challenge, and threw another punch. This time Sano grabbed the flying fist in his own right hand. He couldn’t mimic his opponent’s opening technique by taking hold of him and flinging his entire body into the wall — the guy was far too large and solid for that — but he might be able to stop him catching his every blow; if he could get in just a single good hit to the head…

Since the big man also undoubtedly knew Sano couldn’t hope to use the same method he had, he didn’t withdraw the fist Sano had caught nearly as quickly as Sano had been doing with his own all along, and his eyes went wide with surprise when Sano clamped down hard on the big, solid knuckles and applied every bit of pressure his grip could command. No matter how strong someone was, after all, the hand had a limited amount of musculature, and must be a vulnerable point to someone with as strong a hold as Sano was capable of. He felt grinding and crunching inside his tight squeeze — whether the breaking of bones or the painful realignment of tendons he didn’t know — before the man’s hand was wrenched from his grasp.

His enemy backed away a pace, letting out a grunt of shock and discomfort, holding up for inspection fingers that did not all point the directions they should; and Sano pressed his advantage, rushing in for the long-desired blow. The man clumsily attempted to block with his damaged hand, but perhaps pain rendered him incapable of holding as steady as before; Sano’s attack brushed right past the beefy arm, and he felt the shudder of contact all the way down into his shoulder as he connected with the man’s temple. The punch made satisfyingly more noise than any previously delivered to that massive form, and the man crumpled in response and hit the floor like the aforementioned sack of rocks.

Sano almost fell immediately on top of him; aside from his earlier abrupt meeting with a stone wall, he’d taken a number of hits to places far more sensitive than the corresponding points on the body of his opponent. He was dizzy and aching, but he forced himself to remain upright; he had to see what was going on between the Visitant and the other door-guard.

Though he’d abstractedly noticed something burning off to his right during the previous conflict, he started now at finding it the left shoulder of the woman’s shiiya. Whence the fire had come he could not guess, since the fat man was at the moment empty-handed, but it seemed to be flickering more lustily by means of some type of oil that had been spilled or sprayed onto her. Even as he watched, she took a step backward and, shifting her long knife from her dominant hand into the unoccupied left, clapped the right down over her shoulder to squelch the flames with a wincing hiss.

Though disarmed — assuming he’d carried equipment in the first place — and bearing three or four shallow bleeding cuts across his arms and chest, the fat man didn’t seem ready to go down anytime soon. And indeed, without outright killing him (or at least wounding him to the point where he might die later, either of which could be considered overstepping a bit for an inspector of church business toward a devoted), what could the woman do to defeat him decisively? The behemoth probably weighed twice as much as Sano did, so the tricky throw and knee to the stomach she’d used on him outside the shrine wouldn’t be very effective; and was she capable of delivering a blow to the man’s fat head that would render him unconscious so as to end this battle? Sano thought it might be best, while he still had the strength, to help her out here. He could just enter the sanctum on his own while the sole remaining guard was busy, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without the Visitant, and anyway it would be a shame to force her to kill this guy.

The fat man didn’t expect an attack from a third party, probably not having noticed his comrade had fallen, and barely had time for a stupid surprised expression on his enormous face when Sano came flying at him. And though the building didn’t exactly shake when the giant frame hit the ground, the air kicked up by the motion did flutter the tapestries on the wall nearby. And then Sano sank to his knees, breathing hard, seeing stars, ready for a long moment to compose himself.

The corridor around them was eerily silent now — in fact it seemed a little odd no one had come to investigate the sounds of battle outside the sanctum doors, and Sano wondered whether the various devoted that would normally be hanging around here had been dismissed for the duration of whatever the white was up to — and the boy’s footsteps returning from wherever he’d taken shelter were startlingly loud all of a sudden. So was his query, “Do you need help?”

“No, thank you.” The Visitant was every bit as breathless as Sano, and evidently she too was taking a few moments to recuperate. “I don’t think we have anything with us to treat burns anyway.”

“You’re right,” said the boy reluctantly, and his concern for his mother — at least Sano still assumed she was his mother — sounded clearly in his voice.

Further, heavier footsteps came across the floor at last, and Sano raised his eyes to find the Visitant standing beside him. Looking her over, Sano saw a number of scorch marks on her clothing, and one stretching down her left arm that appeared particularly uncomfortable. The fat man must have fought with an interesting technique, but Sano had no room in his head to give that much consideration. With a deep breath, struggling for calm, he stood up.

“‘Heretic spy?'” The woman gave him another once-over such as he was giving her.

Sano shook his head and turned. “I’m surprised you caught that in the middle of fighting and shit.”

“It’s my job to catch religious deviation.” She said it with a faint touch of humor to her tone that made it seem she was not so much accusing Sano of something as admitting she’d walked into a situation more complicated than she’d had any idea of at the outset.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Sano said as he reached for one of the carved handles in front of him. “I don’t think we have time for it right now.”

“Yes,” the Visitant said darkly. “Let’s see what they were so determined to keep hidden in there.”

And they walked through the sanctum doors into the middle of another battle.

>27 Interlude

The lock had crumpled under heavy blows from Shikijou’s iron knuckles, and now the ruined door swung inward to reveal a small atrium hung with the poorest examples of woven tapestries depicting the divine lady Misao that Shikijou had ever seen. They didn’t even have a statue; this really was a wretched little shrine.

Doubtless in response to the noise he’d made beating in the lock of the foolishly un-barred entrance, two figures appeared in the doorway that led further into the building (not that there was much further in to go, the place was so small). As Shikijou took in the details of their appearance — red shiiya on one, indicating the lowest rank, and no shiiya on the other, indicating she’d probably been in bed or about to be — a broad grin spread across his face, and he drew himself up to his full, impressive height.

“They were right,” he said smugly: “one old woman, one young man. Not much of a defense for all those supplies you just got in.”

Instead of cowering before his bulk as they should have done, the devoted glanced at each other — she with a frown, he with a seemingly indifferent blankness. “It must’ve been the delivery men,” the woman sighed — and in fact it had been the drivers of the recently arrived wagons that had tipped Shikijou off about the significant amount of food and other goods this understaffed shrine had recently had delivered. “Maybe we shouldn’t have ordered so much all at once.”

“It will be fine,” the young man replied in a tone far more even than reassuring or confident.

“It will be fine,” Shikijou echoed cheerfully, “as long as you cooperate.” He advanced a few more steps into the room, slamming his fists together so the iron he wore made a dull clinking sound. “Misao’s the lady of thieves, right? I’m doing her work here. This’ll practically be a religious experience for you guys!”

And again instead of backing off the way they should have done, stepping aside to let him past or even showing him the way to their storeroom themselves, the two devoted… Well, actually, Shikijou wasn’t entirely certain what they did. For the next instant, before he could take another step, blows every bit as iron-hard as the devices he wore on his own hands slammed into him at multiple points, and he was staggering back with only a confused glimpse of the young man that seemed to have crossed the room without even moving. He was knocked sideways, knocked down, knocked silly before any of his own suddenly clumsy punches could strike outward far enough to hope to connect. And he found himself on his stomach on the floor, flailing, while a slender weight pressed down on him and deft hands yanked his arms back, seized his wrists, and tied them quickly with what must be a rope conjured out of nowhere.

Though he kicked upward and otherwise struggled for a few moments, Shikijou gradually fell relatively still. The awareness of his defeat sank in slowly and confusedly, since it had taken less than fifteen seconds for the unexpectedly skillful young man to break his concentration with a series of well placed hits and then use his weight against him to bring him down. So it was in some bafflement Shikijou finally went quiescent, unable quite to believe what had just happened.

And then a calm, somewhat dark voice spoke in his ear every bit as emotionlessly as it had made its previous comments to the old woman. “Misao is the lady of thieves, but not the lady of armed robbery. For you to walk in here carrying weapons and claim to be doing her work is blasphemy.”

“Misao devoted use weapons all the time!” Shikijou protested. “I’ve seen them all over the place!”

“We do,” the young man agreed. “She has nothing against the use of weapons.” And to demonstrate this point, there came the sound of blade leaving sheath, and the next moment what felt like a short sword — possibly a keonblade — pressed threateningly to Shikijou’s neck. “But she values stealth and cunning more than straightforward combat.”

Shikijou snorted, both at the sentiment and to express just how intimidated he wasn’t by this barely adult lightweight on top of him, no matter how he might be armed. “Me and my guys go through a lot of food, you know. And straightforward combat’s a much easier way to get it than trying to sneak around.”

To Shikijou’s surprise, the young man didn’t even sound particularly disapproving as he replied, “I have no doubt that’s true.” But a harder, less forgiving note crept into his tone as he added, “Only don’t claim to have Misao’s blessing in an endeavor she would never bless.”

Shikijou had still been making token struggles during this exchange, but now even these ceased in his surprise. “Does it really bother you more that I claimed this was a Misao thing than that I was trying to rob you in the first place?”

From across the room the old woman put in gently, “Of course it does. We’re Misao’s servants. What did you expect from us?”

And the young man remarked, still perfectly calm but now slightly more conversational than before, “If you had come in here while we slept and stolen our supplies without waking us, then we would have believed you had Misao’s blessing. You would have been welcome to anything you could take.”

It was a totally incredible statement, yet Shikijou found he couldn’t disbelieve it. They truly would make no attempt at recovery or retaliation if he managed to get the stuff away from them in a manner approved by the divine lady they served. The idea affected him strangely, and he found his own tone low and husky as he asked, “You really believe in her, don’t you?”

A long, pregnant silence followed before the young man said, low and measured, “Don’t you?” And there was, somehow, a subtle threat to that demand that intimidated Shikijou far more than the mere presence of an unexpected warrior on his back with a drawn blade could ever have done.

And he was left to ponder in silence: did he believe in Misao? In his life of banditry, of taking what he could get from wherever he found it and using it to carouse with his companions until it ran out and he was forced to look to the next venture that would feed them for the next however long, the divine ladies weren’t something he routinely bent his mind toward. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of them, or the idea of their blessings when he needed them… it was mostly just that he didn’t care. And now here was this boy with his deadly earnest voice and his ridiculous combative abilities sitting on top of Shikijou and urging him to think seriously about something he hadn’t given this much attention since his distant childhood.

Before he had a chance to answer — indeed, before he had a chance to decide — the young man was speaking again, this time clearly not to Shikijou, and in a tone even more low and serious than before: “Misao, lady of quickness and brightness, let this doubting man for just one moment feel the vigor and joy that you bring. Hear my prayer.”

“Hear my prayer,” the old woman echoed at a murmur.

And Shikijou felt it.

There was a rush of energy so stimulating it would undoubtedly have lifted him immediately to his feet had he not been encumbered by another human body. And along with this came a bubbling feeling of pleasure and contentment that would surely have prompted gleeful laughter if it had lasted for more than the single moment the young man had specified. But for as brief as the sensations were, they were real; they were undeniable.

“You do believe,” said the quiet voice above. And as if he felt safe now leaving Shikijou to thrash about on the floor as he would, the red devoted got lightly to his feet, removing his weight from the bigger man and replacing his weapon audibly in its sheath that must be concealed beneath his shiiya.

Shikijou didn’t know what to say. Everything had changed, somehow, in the presence of this sedulous young man and the belief he both expressed for his own part and stimulated in another.

“You came here tonight unaware there was a warrior at this shrine.” Skilled hands were once again working the ties at Shikijou’s wrists, this time loosening them. “I offer you this bargain: fight me knowing what I am, and if you defeat me, the supplies are yours.”

Now able to move freely, Shikijou got quickly to his feet and looked suspiciously at the two devoted. It appeared he’d been tied with the drawstring of one of the room’s curtains; that was nearly as good as a rope conjured out of nowhere. The young man didn’t seem to think he would need it again, though, for now he tossed it aside onto the floor. Shikijou observed the motion, as well as the young man’s stance, from beneath lowered brows. “Thought you said Misao doesn’t like straightforward combat much.”

“She is fond of bargains, though.” The old woman appeared amused, and not particularly worried about the outcome of the contest. Couldn’t a guy get any appreciation for his solid musculature?

“And what happens if you beat me?” Shikijou wondered, even more suspicious than before.

“You stay here,” replied the young man simply.

Shikijou blinked. “As a devoted?”

The young man nodded.

“And what about my guys?”

“They’re welcome to join us too.”

For a moment Shikijou simply stared. The offer seemed every bit as bizarre as this entire encounter had been, and sparked strange thoughts in his head: thoughts of what it would be like to serve alongside (or under) this somber youth so unlike what he considered typical of Misao’s followers yet clearly so dedicated to her; thoughts of what he’d just felt while lying on the floor that had supposedly hailed from the divine patroness of such energy and joy but that he was almost more inclined to attribute to that same young man; thoughts of how his own faith, never a particularly intense flame, had been fanned so expertly and so unexpectedly here. Of course he considered his people back home, too, and how in the world they would react to the tale of this evening, no matter how it turned out…

He slammed his iron knuckles together once more and, with a sharp downward motion, flung them clattering to the floor. He fought just as well bare-fisted in any case, and was sure these rabbits would interpret the gesture as exactly what it was — a symbol of respect for a fellow warrior that had chided him for embarking on his errand to this place bearing weapons. He clenched both his hands and lifted his arms, falling into a combative stance.

“Sounds like a good deal either way.”

Chapter 28 – Twitch

Overall the sanctum was smaller than Sano had expected — certainly cramped for the fight taking place there now — but admittedly he didn’t know what type of religious activities the room was intended for under normal circumstances. It had an odd feeling to it — if any feeling could be admitted other than those occasioned by the action in front of him — with its two storeys’ worth of height but conspicuous lack of breadth, its floor-to-ceiling orange hangings creating an almost claustrophobic effect despite the openness above. A full-length painting of Misao, making use of the vertical space to stand larger than life on a recessed wall behind the plain altar, looked out with that impish smile of hers again on the violence going on in her most sacred of chambers.

Sano, the Visitant, and the boy Eiji had emerged onto a narrow balcony overlooking the sanctum’s only slightly less narrow floorspace. Down there, a set of cushions that must originally have been arranged in a semi-circle before the altar — there were perhaps five of them; more would not have fit — had been kicked aside and trampled by the inconsiderate feet of the two combatants now ranging the limited area where they had rested. One of them had been so displaced as to fly past the altar into the alcove that held the painting of the divine lady, and now slumped forlornly at her unshod feet. Sano started forward to grip the railing of the little balcony and stare down breathlessly in a mixture of anxiety and relief that should have canceled itself out but somehow was all the stronger for being so contradictory.

Hajime must have wrested one of the white devoted’s own weapons away from him, for the slender keonblade he now fought with was identical to the one in the hand of the other man. He bore no visible wounds, and moved as if unhurt and unimpeded, though Sano could see the remains of at least one of the ropes that had held him still dangling from his right wrist. How he’d initially freed himself from those Sano had no idea. The white devoted of Misao, on the other hand, moved with an uncanny swiftness masquerading as languor that Sano, though he’d observed it only once before, would never forget. His eyes went even wider as unpleasant memories and a more intense worry arose within him.

“That’s him,” he choked out. “That’s the fucking assassin.”

Her grimness having faded into resignation and possibly even something like mild amusement — in any case, a marvelous lack of concern — the Visitant leaned on the railing beside him. “And that’s the man you were so desperate to rescue?” She gestured at Hajime, who was busy blocking a series of deceptively quick blows delivered by the stranger.

Feeling his face go hot at her tone, Sano mumbled, “Yeah… he doesn’t really look like he needs…”

Her eyes rolled toward him condescendingly. “You don’t know him very well, do you?”

Sano wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and didn’t have a chance in any case. The combatants, obviously aware of the new presence in the room though they hadn’t looked up, had slowed a trifle, and now Hajime spoke in a tone indicating he found this as good a moment as any to put an end to the proceedings: “This is pointless. Do you think I can’t tell when my enemy’s heart isn’t in his attacks? You can’t defeat me fighting like that.”

Though he said nothing, and his startlingly handsome face beneath eye-shading black bangs did not change, the white devoted appeared to falter slightly; it seemed his heart really wasn’t in this. Sano wondered what it was about this guy the muscular guard at the door was so excessively loyal to. Hajime, conversely, did not hesitate; he took advantage of the momentary wavering his words seemed to have caused to press forward with a few twisting blows that struck the weapon out of the devoted’s hand. With a full-body advance, he backed his opponent up against the wall, crumpling the hanging behind him, and laid the unfamiliar keonblade against the devoted’s neck. He had allowed the energy to recede; all it would take was flashing it out again by an inch or two and the man would die.

The room went utterly still and silent: the three people on the balcony watching intently, Hajime staring searchingly into the devoted’s face, and the devoted himself carefully motionless and unblinking in Hajime’s grip. Finally the knight said, “You murdered your own superior and tried to kill all the other whites.”

The fourth-wash did not react.

“And in attempting to kill my associate, you murdered an innocent Tomoe man in the street.”

Sano felt his gut clench at the words, but Misao’s white did not react.

“But you never wanted to kill anyone,” Hajime went on speculatively. “You couldn’t even bring yourself to fight me properly here today. We would have been much better matched if you had.”

Still no hint of a reaction from the stranger.

“None of this was your idea, so whose was it? Whom are you taking orders from?”

Not a shift of frame, not a fraction of muscular movement in that impassive face, gave any indication what the fourth-wash might be thinking.

Sano could see Hajime’s hand on the keonblade pressing just slightly harder. “Who put that little snake Soujirou up to his tricks at the palace?”

If he hadn’t previously been so consummately motionless, the twitch the devoted’s body gave at this moment might not have been visible — or at least not so eye-catchingly noticeable. As it was, Sano could stand it no longer; fearing what that twitch portended and feeling more than ever the need to be at Hajime’s side with whatever assistance he could offer against this enemy, he vaulted over the balcony’s railing, ignoring the narrow staircase that curved down to the wrong side of the room, and landed near the knight. One of his feet came to rest on one of the smashed cushions, causing him to stumble slightly, and that seemed to be all the diversion the fourth-wash required: he jerked to the side at great risk to himself, given the position of Hajime’s blade, wrenching free of the knight’s right hand that had grasped his arm, and ducked behind another of the orange hangings. From behind it came the noise of creaking hinges; then there was a brief draft that sent the cloth rippling even more than had the advent of a body behind it, the closing of a door, the muffled slamming of a bar on the other side, and quick, light receding footsteps that echoed slightly and faded swiftly from hearing.

Wordlessly Hajime watched the fluttering tapestry settle, then began to turn toward Sano. The younger man braced himself for a reproof he couldn’t deny he deserved for having provided the distraction their enemy needed in order to make his escape, but it did not come. For the knight’s path of rotation brought his eyes first to rest on the Visitant who, with Eiji behind her, now descended from the balcony by more conventional means than Sano had used, and Hajime looked genuinely surprised to see her. Before he could say anything, however, she spoke:

“You’re not going after him?”

Seemingly recovered from his moment of startlement, Hajime turned his attention to removing the last of his bonds from his wrist with his stolen keon weapon. “That’s your job, not mine.” He let the energy blade fade entirely before tucking the short sword beneath his belt; presumably he meant to keep it, as he’d undoubtedly been relieved of the long standard sword Seijuurou had provided him. “It seems as if I’d have to torture him to get anything more out of him anyway, and shrines aren’t usually equipped for that.”

The Visitant chuckled as she drew nearer, and then, to Sano’s utter astonishment, threw her arms unhesitatingly around Hajime for a close embrace. What was even more baffling was that his arms immediately rose to clasp her in return.

Sano stared at them, unable to blink and, inexplicably, unable to breathe — at the unhesitating way they, obviously well acquainted, greeted each other with a gesture Sano honestly hadn’t ever expected to see from the royal knight. If he’d considered the matter (unlikely as he was to have done so), he wouldn’t have expected it of this harsh woman either, little as he knew about her at this point. And surely a church inspector… and a committed heretic…

Motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and it was with a curious blend of reluctance and a sense of reprieve his gaze left what he was watching to look at Eiji, who had stepped forward from the bottom of the stairs. He studied the kid’s face as Eiji too observed this apparently affectionate reunion… the kid’s familiar face… that faint smile, that angle of brow, those dark smooth lashes…

It was a shock so palpable that Sano’s entire body twitched in very much the same manner the white devoted’s had a minute before. For some reason he still couldn’t breathe.

“I thought you were in the border towns for the rest of the year.” Whether or not Hajime had withdrawn from the hug, Sano didn’t know.

“I heard rumors about what’s going on in Elotica,” the Visitant replied, “and thought it would be best if I was there. I ran into your friend here getting ready to sneak into this place.”

Knowing the woman must be gesturing at him, knowing Hajime must finally turn fully in his direction, Sano almost reflexively broke away from the kid that so resembled both of the other adults in the room and looked the royal knight in the face at last. The moment of gold meeting brown seemed to drag out far longer than it actually lasted. It wasn’t only that Sano was ridiculously relieved to see Hajime unhurt and free of captivity; it wasn’t only that Sano was absurdly glad to see Hajime at all; it was as if something fundamental had altered in the way he looked at him, as if he was seeing him for the first time.

“You told me about your family,” he couldn’t help accusing silently. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Not that Hajime was under any obligation, or would have had any need to mention these people if not specifically inclined to do so. Not that Sano had any reason to care. But somehow things had changed. He remembered his worries — stupid and meaningless they seemed now — that Hajime might discover Sano had possibly slept with a group of random strangers, and trying to reassure himself defiantly that he owed the knight neither restraint nor explanation in such matters. It wasn’t heartening to find that went both ways.

And all Hajime said, looking him up and down, was, “What in Kaoru’s name are you wearing?”

“Language, Hajime…” the Visitant reproved, demonstrating (as if that were needed) she knew his name without having to be told.

Hajime’s roll of eyes might have been promising, but the half smile that accompanied it made the gesture seem more fond than exasperated. He turned away from Sano as if their locked gaze hadn’t meant a thing, and said, “How are you, Eiji?” — demonstrating (as if that were needed) he knew his name without having to be told.

Sano was glad no one was watching him now as Hajime and his… and Eiji had a brief moment of catching up. He wouldn’t have liked them to see the way he trembled as if from some great exertion — and not from the battle in front of the sanctum doors, either; it had started when Hajime had withdrawn his eyes. As he struggled to regain control, he fought against rising anger and despair. Of course it made sense for Hajime to comment on the stupid outfit he still wore; what else had he expected from him? An explanation? An apology? Even just a “Thanks for trying to rescue me” would have been nice. But once again, Hajime didn’t owe him anything, and Sano needed to conquer this before he made a fool of himself.

Fortunately for his dignity, he did have an excuse for the turmoil he was undoubtedly displaying in spite of his best efforts; and in fact the results of the aforementioned battle, completely forgotten as he’d anxiously followed Hajime’s conflict with the white devoted, were practically screaming aloud now. His entire right side throbbed from where he’d hit the wall, and a pattern of spots like a constellation across his figure, including on his face, had commenced a deep, stinging ache as they remembered fists slamming into them. His lungs pulsated not so much with pain as with lingering aftershock from the long moments during which he’d had no breath after hard stone had knocked it out of him. No wonder he was so emotionally distressed! His body was certainly in no position to contribute to personal strength and discipline.

Hajime had asked Eiji a couple of questions Sano hadn’t wanted to listen to, but now was looking around at the room — most specifically at the hanging behind which the fourth-wash had disappeared — with anticipatory impatience. “I’m surprised Aoshi isn’t back yet with his minions.”

In a relatively impassive part of his brain that Sano was astonished still existed, he filed away the name ‘Aoshi,’ which he did remember having heard at some point in relation to the higher-wash of Misao. But that didn’t mean he could speak yet, and it was the Visitant that replied to Hajime’s statement: “We left two of them unconscious outside the doors.” She waved to her left, and Hajime, following her hand, evidently had his eyes caught by Sano as they would have passed him upward to the little balcony and the room’s traditional exit. His gaze moved from head to toe again, and, though he gave a little shake of head surely in continued baffled response to the blue and orange outfit, this time he also seemed to take in more details than merely that. And when he turned back toward the Visitant, he appeared to be assessing her injuries as well.

“You’re both all right, it seems.” Then solely to the Visitant, in that smirking tone Sano thought he knew so intimately but that the woman presumably knew better, he added, “You must have been practicing with that little knife of yours.”

“I have the ladies’ blessing on that little knife of mine,” the Visitant replied. And though she spoke in a tone of piety, there was a touch of sarcasm to it as well; Sano realized with a sinking of heart that she had deliberately made the religious reference in order to annoy Hajime and pay him back for the tease about her weapon and combative abilities. She did know him well. Then she added in a more reasonable tone, “Your friend here actually threw the last punch both times, though.”

Hajime gave Sano another meaningless glance and said briefly, “Well done, Sano.”

And in response to this commendation that would have meant the world to him just yesterday, Sano was tempted to reply, “Too little, too late, your knightliness.”

Looking immediately away from him again, Hajime said, “I expected another fight, but if you cut his little team in half, it may take Aoshi longer than I thought to rally his forces. We may be able to get out of here without encountering him again.” His eyes flicked once more to the hanging that concealed the back door, then up at the main ones, pensive. Finally he said, “The shrine’s eastern entrance is the closest to a street that will take us out of town; we need to get away from Enca as soon as possible.”

Finding his voice at last, Sano protested, “But that’ll put pretty much the whole town between us and Elotica!”

Hajime looked at him and away, and now Sano started to get the feeling he was deliberately avoiding meeting his gaze for more than an instant. “We can’t just go straight into the capital, idiot. It won’t take long for Aoshi to get someone on our trail — maybe even guards from the capital; he must have sent word hours ago, and they could be here any time. We have to shake any pursuit before we can even think about getting into Elotica.”

Surly, Sano had no response for this reasonable point.

Apparently sensing his capitulation rather than reading it on the face he seemingly now refused to look at, Hajime nodded sharply. “We’ll need to get out of this building quickly. They brought me in through the back ways and this door–” he gestured over his shoulder– “which won’t be available to us now. Tokio, do you remember the way you came in?”

The Visitant nodded. “It shouldn’t be too much trouble to retrace our steps, but I think the middle entrance of the shrine will be easiest to get out of from there. We may have to make our way through more streets than you were planning.”

Hajime’s nod was identical to Tokio’s. “Fine. But the east end of town is still closest. If we get separated…” He appeared frustrated, probably because he didn’t know the environs of Enca well enough to suggest a rendezvous point in this eventuality.

“We’ll find each other.” Tokio laid a hand briefly on Hajime’s arm in another gesture Sano would not have expected to see him accept so readily. And again Hajime nodded, then moved past her toward the stairs.

To a certain extent, despite the slew of negative and tempestuous emotions Sano had been struggling against in here, the room had come to feel a bit like what it actually was: a sanctuary from the world. They had no idea what they would find outside the doors — their previous enemies awakened, fresh enemies appearing, or just an empty corridor — and the very instant they set foot out there they would be on the run from as-yet-unknown powers. Whether that was better than skulking in here with the knight disinclined to look at him and a bizarre new set of sentiments Sano didn’t want to face threatening every instant to burst out of him, he couldn’t really be sure. It didn’t matter, since it was obviously time to go.

Not wanting to talk to the kid — or anyone at the moment, really — Sano got Eiji’s attention somewhat rudely with a rough wave, then pushed his hand palm-upward toward him in a gesture of demand. Eiji hesitated briefly, glancing at his mother, who was following Hajime to the stairs, but then shrugged a bit and relinquished the belt and sheathed weapon he still had draped over his shoulder. He would be freer to move without it anyway, and he must recognize by now that Sano was an ally of his… of Hajime.

The latter, taking the lead as naturally as if he’d been chosen by general consensus, ascended and grasped one of the door handles. Leaning close, he listened intently, and Sano from two steps down the staircase did the same, for whatever danger might lie without that Hajime by his own choice would be the first to face. His slight frown indicated nothing of what he might be hearing out there, but as he drew the confiscated keonblade from his belt — carefully; it seemed to be unusually sharp — the rest of them readied for further movement.

The doors opened outward from here — wide as they were, there wouldn’t have been space for them to swing inward onto the narrow balcony — and this was a tactical advantage in the current circumstances. With a swift motion and no warning, Hajime flung them both open, one with a kick and the other with his arm, hopefully breaking the nose of or smashing against the wall anyone lying in wait for them outside. The door on the left did strike something, and only opened halfway, but Sano remembered leaving the muscular second-wash lying pretty close to it before, so that could mean nothing. Quickly, single file, they all darted out after Hajime.

Was it a disappointment to find the drafty corridor exactly as they’d left it? The two orange-clad devoted still prone, and not another person — another enemy — in sight? It was. Despite being well aware that their current goal was quiet escape, Sano found he longed for further combat. Only the heat of battle, he thought, could distract him from what he experienced internally right now, and his hands and arms seemed to ache with more than the actual pain they felt — with desire for the shock of impact, the sensation of something first resisting and then giving way beneath his attack. He would like to haul that muscular devoted to his feet (near-impossible an undertaking as that would undoubtedly be) and shake him awake, challenge him, “Why don’t you throw me into another wall?”

Yet earlier he’d said to him, “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us. Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?” And then it had turned out that what he’d been fighting for was–

“This way.” Tokio directed them without hesitation, and they all followed at a jog. Maybe there was an enemy lurking around the next corner, and Sano could be satisfied then.

There wasn’t, and he couldn’t. Just as on the way in, the chambers and corridors were eerily noiseless and empty as they made their way out, and Sano continued to speculate, with the portion of his brain not occupied by bitterer thoughts, that the mundanes had been temporarily banished for the duration of the intended prisoner transfer. They arrived at what he remembered as the first room they’d entered, with its old statue of Misao surrounded by cushions, without incident, but as they crossed it they could hear the distant sound of numerous footsteps echoing down some deeper hallway.

Again Hajime took the lead, setting the door ajar and peering through before gesturing them all onward. Sano was surprised, when he stepped out after Tokio and Eiji, to find they were by no means alone in the courtyard inside the main building’s pentagon: it appeared the entire population of the shrine had gathered in some agitation where they’d presumably been ordered to stay, and now a shifting and a murmur of surprise rippled through them at the appearance of the fugitives from within. Sano wondered Hajime had chosen to emerge when he’d seen this, but supposed retreating and looking for another exit might have been even more hazardous when someone was evidently in there now searching for them.

They had begun pushing their way through the crowd before anyone could properly react, banking on the hope that none of these people really knew what was going on or would be inclined to stop them; but in fact it worked out better than that. For almost as soon as Tokio’s shiiya caught the grey light of the now-overcast sky, the murmuring became more pointed, and Sano could even make out some of it. It seemed the individual loyalty to the current white devoted of Misao she’d remarked upon outside the sanctum doors was limited to the specific warriors they’d met, or at the very least not shared by the members of this group. They had found Aoshi’s behavior troublesome and questionable from almost the moment he’d arrived here, and the appearance of the inspector of church affairs shortly thereafter seemed to confirm their suspicions. Something strange was going on, especially now Elotica city guards had entered the shrine in pursuit of someone and the rightful residents and employees — some of whom had lived here all their lives, and never before been subjected to such an indignity — had been ousted without explanation. They only hoped they would not be the ones to suffer when the Visitant reported on the untoward happenings and came down as hard as was rumored to be her wont on the wrongdoers.

Tokio obviously picked up on this atmosphere as well, for as she pushed her way through the agitated devoted she called out, “There’s no need for concern! Just let us through!” And the crowd parted as if by magic, creating a path the fugitives did not hesitate to take advantage of. As they ran, the space closed behind them, to which movement there was almost a feeling of support, of solidarity. When Aoshi and whichever of his loyalists remained to him and the city guards eventually emerged from the empty building and inquired of the assembly where the escapees had gone, Sano didn’t think anyone would be very forthcoming with the answer.

The old man at the gate, who had not abandoned his post even in the midst of this inexplicable chaos, saluted as the four of them hastened past, a gesture Sano believed was aimed specifically at the Visitant he’d shown so much respect earlier. And Sano couldn’t help wondering breathlessly, “Why are you so famous when I’ve never heard of you?” The question of why he’d never heard of this woman being presently one rather close to his heart, after all.

He could see the smirk on her face as she turned it slightly to offer him the semi-answer, “Maybe I’ll tell you once we’re somewhere safe.”

Sano huffed, but said nothing more. They were in the street by now, heading toward the intersection of this road and another that would take them out of town. Despite the cooperation of the group of devoted behind them, they could be followed at any moment, and needed to put as much distance between them and both pursuers and witnesses as soon as they possibly could. So Sano concentrated on dodging pedestrians and vehicles, matching his pace as his companions did to that of the slowest of them — Eiji — keeping his eyes open for anyone coming behind, and generally bringing up an effective rear.

There are a lot of weird things about this old picture (not least of which is the question Why did I draw this AU’s Tomoe so many times?), but there are some decent aspects to it as well.

Here’s an old picture of our Visitant. Obviously back when I drew this, it didn’t occur to me that her shiiya should be flower-cut. So inaccurate!!

For some author’s notes about chapter 26, see this Productivity Log. For chapter 27 notes, see this one.

Here’s an old picture of Aoshi before he got promoted. It’s a bit of a mix, actually — he’s carrying the staff symbolic of the office of white devoted, but as you can see, he’s not quite to that rank yet. In any case it makes him look like a tightrope-walker.


Silly and Pointlessly Difficult


After work, Saitou found Sano had taught himself how to leap up and perch on the top of the tallest vertical slat of the bridge near home, standing still high up like a long-leggèd crane or posturing ninja. He looked absurd, his gi and bandanna flapping in the evening breeze. But he jumped down, as Saitou began to cross, with a satisfied grin.

Of course Saitou must mock him for devoting so much time and effort to so silly and pointlessly difficult an undertaking, but even as he did, he realized the exercise was not only one of balance, which could benefit future combat, but it let Sano catch sight sooner, from that elevated situ, of Saitou’s figure coming t’ward him and the house they shared as of late through the growing dusk. It seemed meaningless, but the superficial hid unexpected depth.

Such too was Sano: an exterior often foolish and aimless screening intentions and a depth of character admirable and even delightful. This unexpected treasure in mind, somewhat to the bemusement of that same young man so complex and yet so simple, Saitou took his hand as they walked along, and said, “I love you, ahou.”


For author’s notes, check out this Productivity Log. I’ve rated this fic . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Aku Soku Zan(za) (3)



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

Last updated on February 10, 2019

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Only a policewoman would break up a good encounter because they were in ‘too public a place.’ True, early morning was progressing, and eventually the docks would be alive with busy men, but enough time remained before that inevitability for some in-depth fun there on the pier — or they could have gone to his apartment. But Tokio, instead, had ended the night’s entertainment by saying she needed to return to her own home; apparently she had to be working again after not too long. Zanza might have been more annoyed and frustrated at this if he hadn’t suspected he’d been using the circumstance in the first place as a respite from the thoughts that had occupied him for the previous several hours.

Although those thoughts were trickling back as he headed home, his primary consideration at the moment was how tired he felt. It seemed incredible how much he needed sleep; he’d been a very active person for most of his life, and yet was wearier right now than just about any time he could remember. The day had been unusually taxing, despite the fact he hadn’t actually fought Saitou and that Tokio had turned out to be a rather tame kisser.

“You taste like mint,” he murmured, withdrawing far enough from her lips after his third or fourth contact with them to make this observation.

“We keep some candies at the office,” she replied, somehow managing to give a sense of allure to this mundane phrase.

“But you smell…” He shifted his position and brought his nose and mouth close to her shining black hair to inhale the scent. “You smell more like cigarettes.”

Sardonically she chuckled. “Anyone who spends time with Hajime…”

Wondering idly what you had to do to be allowed to call that guy by his given name, he replied in probably the most charitable tone he’d used when speaking of Saitou, “Yeah, I bet!”

“I kissed him once, you know.” He thought she said it a little wistfully, and, remembering her comment about Saitou being a hard man to love, he couldn’t help thinking maybe she would have liked to love him — and feeling a touch of the same discomfort (jealousy?) he’d experienced the last time she’d brought this up. She certainly sounded wistful when she added, “Just the once.”

With that discomfort or jealousy hovering — it was a little like hearing a new lover talk about her ex — he almost didn’t want to ask, but he was curious. Then he had to decide how to word his question, since ‘Why?’ seemed potentially insulting. Finally he went with, “What was the situation?”

She looked as if she knew exactly why it had taken him a moment to formulate the query, but her smirk at his unease contained also the same wistfulness as her previous tone, and she answered straightforwardly enough. “We were in Okayama spying on some smugglers we’d been following for weeks. The meeting we were listening in on broke up earlier than we’d expected — not through any fault of ours! — and there was no way we could avoid being seen by the men leaving the building…”

“Oh, I see where this is going,” Zanza grinned.

She returned the expression, though hers was still a little wan. “Yes, the place we were standing… there were only a few reasons a man and a woman might be there. We took advantage of one of them.”

“Did it work?”

“The smugglers were spooked, and in a hurry to get out of the area, but one of them gave us a dirty laugh as he passed, so obviously they weren’t suspicious of us.” She sighed. “It probably helped that I was a woman. For all I’d rather be taken seriously by the men around me, there are certain… I’ll call them ‘consolation prize advantages’ …to not being taken seriously.”

Having nothing to contribute on the topic of a female spy and what advantages or disadvantages she might have, Zanza said, “But you probably caught ’em eventually, and paid that guy back for laughing, right?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, he probably doesn’t laugh much these days.”

Zanza gave a dark laugh himself.

“The best part, though, was the look Hajime gave me when we both realized what we needed to do: a very grim look, as if this was our last resort and he deeply regretted it already.”

“He’s such an asshole. Why was that the best part?”

“Because I’ve been able to tease him about it ever since! Though the kiss itself wasn’t too bad either.”

“Really? Sounds like kissing an ashtray to me.”

“It was. But if you can allow for the kissing of an ashtray not being a bad experience…”

For some reason this exchange, the longest they’d had during their makeout session, interested Zanza significantly in retrospect. It made him chuckle a little as he walked, and also wonder what a smoker of cigarettes would taste like. He tried to picture the scene described — the harsh-faced Saitou and the beautiful Tokio in plain clothes tucked into a corner somewhere determinedly kissing each other to avoid looking like exactly what they were — but whether because she hadn’t given him much detail or for some other reason, he couldn’t get the image to come out right in his head. Maybe he was just so into Tokio already that the idea of her kissing someone else seemed wrong.

But thoughts of Tokio moved abruptly into the background as he entered his apartment and found he had a guest. “Oh, hey, Katsu,” he greeted, not particularly disturbed that his friend had let himself in.

“Good morning, Sano.” And it still was awfully early morning.

“How long have you been here?” Zanza yawned as he said it.

“Only an hour or so. How did your fight go?”

Zanza gave a somewhat startled look to where the artist sat beside the tea stove. “How did you know about that?”

Katsu, watching with shadowy eyes as Zanza settled onto his futon, gave a slight shrug. “Word gets around.”

Without any particular conceit, Zanza supposed this was true enough where a well known mercenary was concerned. He’d probably better keep that in mind if he did end up working on whatever Tokio thought he might be useful for. For now he answered Katsu’s question. “Well, the fight didn’t really end up happening. There was this lady in trouble, so we stopped to help, and then he had to go to the police station to deal with it, and I was kinda upset about it, so I ran off, and now I’m back here finally.”

Katsu nodded slowly, and just a shade of darkness lifted from his eyes. “I was worried about you,” he admitted in that solemn tone of his. “After your description of your previous fight with Saitou, I talked to a few people about him, and I was afraid he might actually kill you this time.”

By now Zanza was seriously starting to wonder just what ‘few people’ Katsu had been talking to, how exactly ‘word got around.’ For even the beginnings of a satisfying set of facts about Saitou Hajime, he had been forced to track down a number of sources, several of which had turned out dead ends, over the course of about two weeks. And here Katsu claimed to be far better informed after only a couple of days. This he would also have to keep in mind; if Katsu was that well connected, it might be useful in the future.

“Nah, Saitou didn’t even want to kill me. I think. Turns out he’s… not as bad as I thought.”

With a frown, Katsu said nothing.

Zanza wasn’t sure he should get into details about everything he’d been contemplating tonight. He’d discussed the matter with Tokio, yes, but she had already been involved and knew the situation that had prompted that contemplation; Katsu, for all he was the kenkaya’s oldest friend, remained an outsider to this affair. Zanza would like to talk it over with him, to have the perspective of someone more familiar with the events that had led to his previous way of life, but not just yet. Let his emotions straighten out first. But he did, oddly enough, want to set the record straight regarding Saitou. So he said, “I’m serious. He and his partner — that hot policewoman you met the other night — are spies who watch out for corruption in the government.”

“The rumor was true, then, that Saitou was responsible for taking down the Yuuju ring and its leader?”

A little uncomfortably Zanza said, “Yeah, that’s the kind of shit he does.” But there probably shouldn’t be a rumor; was Katsu really that deep in gossip about government dealings, or was the impression Zanza had gotten of Saitou’s skills as a spy exaggerated? This time he decided to ask. “But how the hell do you know that? He only told me some of the stuff he does because he was trying to make a point.”

“I have many friends.” Contradictorily, depressingly, the word ‘friends’ sounded awkward and out of place coming from Katsu.

Not wanting to press the issue, however, Zanza took the statement for the dismissal of the subtopic it seemed intended as. “Well, don’t worry about Saitou. He’s a good guy. A complete jerk, but a good person.”

Katsu shook his head. After a moment of silence he remarked quietly, “A good, strong man. A man dedicated to the downfall of major criminals. A man who fought against the current powers during the Bakumatsu.”

“Uh-huh,” Zanza said when Katsu didn’t follow up with any conclusive remark.

“I wonder…” Katsu frowned. “I wonder he isn’t fighting against the government openly rather than just treating the symptoms of this Meiji disease.”

Zanza yawned again before answering. “He knows the government’s got problems. He told me so himself. He’s just decided to work inside the system we have and do the best he can.”

“And I wonder why, when he could be working against the system we have.”

“There’s only so much one person can do. Even that Saitou probably couldn’t put much of a dent in this government.”

“On the contrary.” Katsu leaned forward slightly, fixing Zanza with an intense gaze. “It doesn’t take a large group to make a great difference in any system. With the right tools, even one man could cause enough damage to the Meiji to bring chaos, and start a new revolution with his example.”

Zanza had nothing to say in reply to this. Not only was he growing more tired by the minute, and increasingly unwilling to entertain these serious subjects, this talk of revolution made him a little uneasy — not least because he didn’t doubt Katsu was correct.

“Sanosuke,” Katsu said suddenly, startling the kenkaya. Except for Saitou, who’d also said it once, Katsu was the only person to call him by his proper name for years and years. It was like an electric shock every time. “What would Sagara-taichou think of these times?”

“I don’t know that he’d like ’em much,” Zanza answered slowly, perhaps a little worried by the fervor in Katsu’s tone. “Not a lot he was fighting for actually happened.”

“And don’t you believe, if he were here now, he would still be doing whatever he could to reach those goals?”

Tokio’s words echoed in his head: “He would have kept fighting. Even if it might not have been a physical battle anymore. Real heroes, you know…”

“I know he would.” Zanza’s reply was immediate and definite, though it was almost more for himself than in answer to Katsu’s question.

The artist evidently approved, if his sharp nod meant anything. Zanza seemed to have passed some sort of test, proven himself somehow, and as silent moments dragged on he was less and less sure he liked that. He had lain down on the futon in order to avoid Katsu’s earlier gaze, but now drew himself back up into a sitting position as he worked through things in his mind. Finally he said, “What do you mean, ‘with the right tools?’ And how much chaos are you thinking, exactly?” For he’d gradually come to realize that this wasn’t mere talk.

“If any vital government function were brought to a halt, that would be chaos enough.” Katsu did not, Zanza noted, address the ‘tools’ question at this time. “The key is to show the common people what can be accomplished if we stand up against the government. Once that was demonstrated, things would move from there.”

Zanza nodded slowly. So when Katsu said ‘revolution,’ he meant it. It made a certain kind of sense. And given what Zanza had come to know of this adult version of his old friend, he couldn’t even say he was surprised. He noticed, though, that Katsu chose his words carefully, giving no specifics about whatever he might be planning. Just as Zanza wasn’t quite ready to share the somewhat painful personal metamorphosis he’d been revolving in his head these past several hours, Katsu obviously wasn’t ready to share the entirety of his subversive thoughts and machinations with Zanza quite yet.

But Zanza found himself unwilling to leave the artist to it, leave him alone with his revolutionary ideas, let him walk out of here without some show of support. For one thing, he wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t be on board. It seemed he’d had two different options presented to him in rapid succession just when he’d been thinking he wanted to make a difference in the world — one by Saitou and Tokio, one by Katsu, neither clearly delineated at the moment but each representing a highly divergent path from the other. The question of whether to work within the system or against it was a momentous one, and one he didn’t think he could tackle right now. And he didn’t want Katsu’s option withdrawn from him because he was too indecisive to give an impression of willingness.

So finally he said cautiously, “I’ve been thinking — Saitou made me think — I could be doing more with my life than this fighting-for-money shit. I could maybe be accomplishing something somewhere. I think that’s more what Taichou would’ve wanted than me being a mercenary.” He shrugged slightly, as if this thought were less complete than it really was, then yawned again.

Katsu eyed him searchingly, but his gaze seemed to soften a trifle at the yawn. “You look exhausted.”

“Like I said, thinking.” Belatedly Zanza realized he’d crafted an insult for himself without meaning to, and chuckled wearily. “I mean I was out all night thinking.”

Though he smiled faintly at the inadvertent self-deprecation, Katsu paused before speaking, as if considering continuing the conversation in the direction it had been going before. But finally he said, “I should let you get some sleep.”

“Yeah,” Zanza agreed, lying down again. “I need it. But I’ll come see you tomorrow, all right? In the evening? With sake?”

There was another moment of apparent hesitation before Katsu answered, “All right.” And though he didn’t sound entirely enthusiastic, at least he didn’t decline the offer either. He was probably as indecisive as Zanza was about all of this. After a quiet goodbye, he slipped away into the paling darkness.

What a night, Zanza reflected as he tossed his gi aside and started to arrange his blanket. His life was suddenly upside-down, and parts of the upside-down had been turned again so everything was set at odd angles, none of which matched. Just a few hours earlier he’d been wondering how he could attain his goal of doing something worthwhile — that goal itself a brand-new and startling development he hadn’t yet entirely assimilated — and now he was spoiled for choice. It left his head spinning.

Within or against? Alongside new acquaintances that had demonstrated competence in weeding corruption from the government, or an old friend that seemed to long for the destruction of that same government? He knew only one thing for certain: no matter what Tokio wanted him for, or what exactly Katsu was planning, he couldn’t have it both ways. He could assist the police, or he could go revolutionary; he couldn’t combine the two. And it seemed he must decide which he would prefer before this evening.

It might prove a struggle to continue disregarding this little voice in the back of his head that insisted it would be so much easier to forget about that decision and his new resolve and just go back to kicking ass indiscriminately and seeking oblivion.

Because it would be so much easier.

He desperately needed sleep. His unprecedented exhaustion threatened to swallow him at any moment, and he couldn’t keep thinking about this. In the face of all this nonsense — it wasn’t really nonsense, but it sure as hell felt like it right now — a good long rest was going to be very welcome.

***

The look on Tokio’s face when she finally found her way into the station late the next morning was enough to give Saitou an instant headache. Why she smiled so broadly, why her eyes sparkled so brightly above the shadows indicating just how little sleep she’d had, why there was such a spring in her step after so little sleep, he really didn’t want to know… but was sure to find out. Even had he not required an account of the night’s dealings, even had those dealings been solely personal and unrelated to business, she would still have told him about it. They were friends, for all ‘unwitting rivals’ might have been a better description at the moment, and they shared things with each other. He would hear about this whether he liked it or not. And he couldn’t even berate her for wandering in far closer to lunchtime than his dawn arrival, since she was scheduled for an afternoon patrol.

“Good morning!” she hailed him in a much too spirited tone as she entered his office.

“So there you are,” was his only greeting in return.

Unfazed, and in fact evidently not paying very close attention, she leaned toward the door she hadn’t pulled completely shut as she’d entered, eavesdropping through the crack. The sounds that filtered down the short hallway leading to Saitou’s office were only the usual station bustle, but the grin tightening Tokio’s profile indicated there must be something out there of interest. Saitou didn’t particularly care to know what it was, but this too he would hear whether he liked it or not. As she closed the final half inch that remained to be listened through and turned to face her husband, she remarked cheerfully, “They’re all making wild guesses about my mood. ‘Looks like the man-woman got laid last night,’ Hino-kun just said.” And she chuckled.

Is that a ‘wild guess?'” This response was far milder than the one Saitou might have made and had, indeed, originally had in mind. Though Tokio was currently too sanguine to comment on it aloud, yet an edge of bitterness to her smile and laugh was all her husband required to recognize her stifled unhappiness with her work situation, with the disrespect so consistently shown her by her fellows. At such moments, he felt it no imposition to ease off the harshness and sarcasm a bit.

“Not so terribly wild, no.” The bitter edge blunted somewhat as she focused on something more pleasant. “It was really only kissing, but…” But things were obviously heading in the direction of Hino-kun’s inappropriate and unkindly worded suggestion. She came to lean a hand on the end of the desk, crossing one ankle over the other in a jaunty pose almost more indicative than anything else of her chipper frame of mind. But her eyes were calculating as she looked into his face. “You’re annoyed, aren’t you? Can’t let a lady have any fun?”

He was annoyed. But it wasn’t only his frustrated curiosity at what it would be like to kiss Zanza, his wish that he could be the one to show up here at 11:15 with a spring in his step after ‘having fun’ until early morning. It was also the irritating awareness that, though he could head out into the main room of the station and use certain pointed looks and statements to strike fear into the hearts of those that insulted his wife, it would be a treatment of symptoms only; he could not forcibly share the respect and esteem he felt for Tokio with anyone else, nor better her situation by intimidating those around her into merely being more cautious about how openly they displayed their ignorant disdain. But his impotent desires on both counts could not easily be expressed to her, so by saying nothing he allowed her to think he was simply a hard-nosed taskmaster that didn’t approve of kissing on the job.

Her expression turned wry, though there was a hint of defiance to it as well. “Well, don’t you worry… I wasn’t so busy enjoying myself that I didn’t get what we need. And I think the kissing even helped.”

“Two birds with one stone?” When she just grinned unrepentantly he added, “So you think he’ll be willing to work with us?”

“I’m almost certain of it.” She sobered a trifle. “You really shook him with whatever you said to him yesterday. He’s determined to change his life and do something useful, and when I told him there was something he might be able to help us out with, he grasped at the idea as if I’d thrown him a lifeline. I didn’t give him any details — left him very curious — but unless he has some specific objection I can’t predict to the actual work we want him for…”

Saitou was conscious of a certain amount of relief at this news. No matter what conclusions he’d come to about Zanza’s level of moral intelligence, those conclusions yet remained little more than educated guesses; he didn’t really know Zanza that well. There had always been the lingering possibility — and a cold awareness thereof under everything else — that the kenkaya was either too mired in his mindlessly violent ways or too much of a stupid thug to live in any other manner. That he’d confirmed Saitou’s educated guesses in taking the officer’s words to heart and resolving on a more upstanding future not only vindicated Saitou in his beliefs, but also strengthened his confidence and interest in Zanza.

“Good,” he said with a nod. “We’ll need to take the next step as soon as possible.”

“I told him I needed to talk things over with you before I could give him ‘classified information.’ I thought it would be best if we approached him together with the details.”

“Yes, if you’re there too, he may not mind me so much.”

No offer of consolation, only amusement, showed in her smile; she obviously recognized that his dryness of tone referred to Zanza’s disliking of him, but not the bitterness the thought of that disliking provoked. “He doesn’t hate you nearly as much as he did, now he knows you’re not a shameless turncoat.”

While this was somewhat comforting, it came from altogether the wrong person. Saitou was starting to want her out of this office, and not even so much because he had other work to do. “I have people to talk to today,” he said as he began to file the paperwork he’d been perusing and amending prior to her arrival. “We’ll go find Zanza tonight.”

She nodded, standing straight as if in preparation to leave the room alongside him when he went. “Anything on that woman’s identity yet?”

“Nothing,” he replied grimly. “But if the quality of her clothing was any indication of her importance, I expect to hear something any time.”

Tokio nodded again. “One more thing before you go: I’m a little worried about that friend of Zanza’s — the artist.”

“The other Sekihoutai survivor?”

“That’s the one. He may be planning something. I listened in on him talking about it with Zanza last night — this morning, really — after Zanza thought I’d gone.”

“Planning what?” Saitou asked a little impatiently.

“He talked about ‘fighting against the government,’ ‘starting a new revolution,’ and ‘attacking vital government functions.’ What he didn’t mention was anything at all specific, anything he actually plans to do — if he even has any specific ideas, and isn’t just philosophizing.”

He observed her expression and demeanor of cautious concern. “But you think he does have specific ideas.”

She nodded. “That was my impression, but I don’t think he feels entirely secure confiding in Zanza yet. Zanza’s been pretty open with him about his involvement with me, and even what he’s learned about you, and Tsukioka doesn’t know how far he can trust him.”

“But he wants to trust him,” Saitou surmised, “or there wouldn’t have been any conversation on the topic for you to overhear.”

“I think so.” Tokio looked pensive, but her unusual cheer still lay insidiously underneath. “I think he wants to involve him, and it’s possible he won’t make any move until he knows for sure whether Zanza will agree with whatever he’s planning. Zanza was too worn out last night for them to discuss it very extensively — and I don’t know how much of this Zanza picked up on — but when they meet again tonight…”

“Any idea what time?”

She shrugged. “Zanza doesn’t seem to work much by clocks.”

Saitou didn’t express all his thoughts on the matter — his concern that one more conversation might be all it would take for Tsukioka to decide either to invite his old friend into his schemes or to carry them out on his own; the even more pressing worry that Zanza, if invited, might accept, probably putting himself irrevocably beyond any purpose Saitou wanted him for and possibly making him a criminal Saitou would be forced to deal with personally — but his tone was as serious as those unspoken thoughts as he said, “It would be very useful for us to know what they talk about tonight.”

“Another patrol made interesting,” she grinned. “Why we didn’t bring Zanza into our lives years ago…” He gave her a stern look, and in response she laughed aloud. “I promise I’m taking this seriously! I’ll see if I can’t manage to be outside Tsukioka’s apartment when Zanza’s inside it.”

Saitou gave a curt nod, after which they agreed to meet up when Tokio had finished this round of spying, discuss any new information thus obtained, and then (hopefully) go have their own conversation with the popular kenkaya. And once these arrangements were made — Tokio’s ‘one more thing’ having proven the meeting’s lengthiest segment — they left the station, ignoring the suspicious silence that took hold of the main room when they walked through it, and headed for their separate tasks.

Saitou was determined not to spend the entire day thinking about Zanza. He’d had plenty of that last night, had admitted today that much of it had been speculative in the first place, and didn’t need to entrench himself farther in his fascination and interest when it wasn’t impossible Zanza would be completely lost to him after not too long. He had work to do at any rate. And fortunately the headache induced by Tokio’s practically afterglowing demeanor was already dispelling in the pleasant weather. It was a warm, almost humid spring day; he had a feeling they were in for a hot, wet summer.

A proficient spy can always tell when someone is tailing him, and Saitou knew without conceit that he was a proficient spy, but the prickling feeling that grew on him as he went about his business was not that of eyes on him or ki directed toward him… and yet it was similar. Superstition formed very little part of how he looked at the world, and in fact he sneezed not once the entire day, but he could have sworn people all over town were talking about him behind his back the moment it turned on them. People all over town had no reason to be talking about him behind his back; even his true name and personal history, were they more widely known, though they might cause a stir in certain circles, could not possibly generate as much conversation as his tingling spine seemed to indicate was being carried out about him right now.

Disconcerting though this sensation was, because there could be no confirming it there was also nothing to be done about it, and he certainly wouldn’t let a bout of apparently unjustified paranoia dictate his actions. Had he felt someone was actually watching or following him, it would have been simple enough to lay a trap and, having determined their identity and intentions, deal with them appropriately… but this was different. Though he didn’t consider himself imaginative enough to have invented it wholly out of nothing, still he might be exaggerating what he legitimately sensed — someone he’d just talked to whispering to their neighbor about his hair, for example; it had happened before — and there really was no ‘them’ to be dealt with, appropriately or otherwise.

At least it didn’t drive him crazy as he knew it would have done Tokio. She was as proficient a spy as he was — in some ways, especially when it came to surveillance, even better — and such an ambiguous situation, where truth was difficult to sift from misleading impressions, was precisely the type she hated most. He half wished she were with him right now just so he could watch her squirm… though that desire probably arose in response to his continued and continually difficult-to-eradicate bitterness about her involvement with Zanza, and was definitely unworthy of him.

And Zanza — how would he react to this feeling of being talked about? Of course Zanza’s ability to behave with any degree of subtlety would have to be brought up before they set him an intelligence-gathering mission; he seemed like a very straightforward person in general. He might have no inkling of anything wrong in the first place… in which case it could be amusing to bring the matter to his attention and then see how he reacted not only to the idea of being quietly discussed but also the awareness that he hadn’t noticed it until now. Would he get angry? Try to fight someone? Precedent rather indicated he would.

Questioning people rendered the afternoon exceptionally tedious. Apart from the necessity of making certain irrelevant inquiries in order to muddy the trail he left, so that his efforts felt very diffuse, there was also, in this case, the unpleasant awareness growing throughout the day that those efforts were destined never to bear much fruit. Yes, he did get from those he spoke with about the Karashigumi (sometimes very indirectly) a sense of new direction and greater focus and ambition, which did seem to confirm that some fresh unknown power had been guiding the gang’s activities lately; but anything more specific or detailed than this proved impossible to obtain, resulting in a lot of very boring and seemingly pointless conversations. Whether he wore his polite face or his intimidating face, not one single encounter provided him with the least bit of interest.

He couldn’t help thinking it would have added greatly to the day’s entertainment value, probably without decreasing the number of useful facts acquired, to have Zanza question people — perhaps under the guise of casual gossip — and simply watch from a distance rather than taking part himself. Based on the kenkaya’s conversational maneuvering during their fight, Saitou believed the young man wouldn’t do too poorly on the questioning scene; at ingratiating politeness he might not be particularly skilled, but he certainly had a pleasant appearance and voice, and if necessary could undoubtedly be plenty intimidating to the average person. In any case he would, most likely, be fun to observe. Well, depending on how things went tonight, Saitou might have an opportunity to find out for sure.

Feeling he should wring every last drop of information (for a certain definition of that term) out of a day probably destined to be his last at this particular pursuit, he stopped at a soba stand as the sun went down rather than returning to the station just yet, planning a little more questioning once he’d finished supper. And as he ate, he stared down into his noodles with unusual attentiveness. None of the reports the police had on Zanza — all of which Saitou had, of course, carefully read — mentioned the kenkaya’s eating habits or preferences. Sake was referred to a couple of times, but never food, and Saitou wondered…

…why, after so firmly telling himself he was not going to think about Zanza all day, he’d done exactly that almost without even realizing it. Ridiculous infatuation, this; very distracting. He gave an exasperated sigh, returned his empty bowl, and moved to get back to work.

And he still couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone everywhere he went — soba stand attendant included — was discussing him with whoever happened to be around as soon as his back was turned.

***

Hajime’s timeliness and punctuality were constants that could be relied on, but he would have to return to the station to receive her message before he could act upon it, so it was anyone’s guess when those aforementioned virtues would actually come into play and put an end to Tokio’s impatience.

She had a particular talent for stifling this type of restlessness, and she was almost never bored; she simply had too much to do. But that typically applied to duties a little different than this, to long hours of surveillance aimed at the unearthing of specific information. At the moment she wasn’t after any particular knowledge, but, rather, waiting for action — keeping her eyes open for either Zanza to leave his apartment yet again or for her husband to show up. She thought in this instance she could be forgiven a little untoward impatience.

She and Hajime had worked together for long enough that he was able to slip into position beside her without either forewarning her or startling her with his arrival. She did, however, smile at his appearance, since now the night could really get started. “So there you are,” she threw back his greeting from earlier. And when he only made a sound of acknowledgment, she gave him an update instead of any description of her late boredom. With a gesture, “That longhouse there is his,” she said. “You can almost see the sign on the window from here, at least in better light.” Ruffian’s Row was not the type of area to boast an abundance of streetlamps, which was more convenient to their purposes than anything. “He’s in there right now — yes, sitting in the dark — probably trying to decide whether he wants to go look for Tsukioka again.”

“Then those two haven’t had their meeting yet.”

“Tsukioka hasn’t been home. Zanza’s been over there at least three times checking for him, but…”

“That kind of persistence,” Hajime remarked pensively, “may suggest Zanza has some idea of what Tsukioka is planning.”

Tokio agreed, “It may,” but couldn’t help adding somewhat reluctantly, “or it could just mean he has no idea what else to do with himself. He seemed pretty lost yesterday — all drive and no direction — and every time I’ve seen him today, it’s been about the same. He’s had a lot to think about but not a lot to do, so…”

“We’ll give him something to do. You think he’ll come out again?”

“If he does, it should be soon, based on how long he spent at home between his previous attempts. I don’t think he’s likely to fall asleep in there as early as this — not after how late he was out last night; I’m sure he slept until noon. He has sake in there, but I know he bought it to take to his friend’s; I don’t think he’ll drink it by himself.”

Hajime nodded and said, “We’ll wait here a little while longer, and if he doesn’t come out, we’ll go in.”

Tokio mimicked the nod. Knowing from experience how easy it was to eavesdrop on conversations held inside the shabby longhouse, she too would prefer to take the one they planned to some more propitious location. This neighborhood could undoubtedly supply any number of venues for a private discussion, and this time of night provided just the right level of darkness; all they needed now was for Zanza to emerge.

While they waited for that to happen, Tokio brought up what had been bothering her for the last several hours. “I felt like someone was… watching me today.” Her volume didn’t sink merely for the sake of remaining undetected, but also partook of her uncertainty. “Nothing definite… nothing I could pinpoint specifically… and in fact ‘watching’ isn’t even exactly the right word…”

He rendered further explanation unnecessary with, “I know the sensation. I’ve had it all day too.”

“That can’t be a coincidence.”

“No. Was anything unusual about your patrol?”

“Nothing.”

“I encountered nothing suspicious either. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”

“Oh, good!” she said in as bright a tone as subtlety would allow. “I was looking for something else to add to my list of things to watch for.”

He made a sardonic sound.

Just when she thought they were both growing too impatient with this waiting game and would certainly decide at any moment to enter the apartment, Zanza finally came out of it. Whatever indecision he’d been suffering inside, he set off now with no hesitation in the direction that would eventually take him to Tsukioka’s home. Relieved and looking forward to a lessening of her uncertain anticipation, Tokio, accompanied by her husband, immediately followed.

They’d almost reached an appropriate spot — where the street was wide enough that standing in its center would put them beyond the hearing of anyone at its edges, but the buildings on the east side were tall enough to cast halfway across it an all-concealing gloom — and in fact Tokio believed she heard Hajime drawing breath to make their trailing presence known to the kenkaya, when they both paused and drew instinctively back deeper into the shadows they’d been clinging to this entire time. Zanza didn’t notice the approaching figure nearly so soon; in fact, it required the man stepping from his own concealing shadows into the moonlight to alert the mercenary that he was making use of this same convenient place to instigate a private discussion. Lucky it was that he obviously didn’t have the same perceptive skills the other watchers did, and that they had so much experience remaining unseen.

“Zanza-kun, hisashiburi.” Even lurking in the darkness of a trashy neighborhood, the man appeared nothing but unremarkable — late twenties, plain-cut black hair, unassuming features, casual attire — except for the tattoo intermittently visible on his left arm that marked him as a member of the Furukawatai, a criminal organization whose Tokyo territory stretched into this part of town.

Zanza had been startled for only a moment; now his demeanor shifted into wary resignation. “Hey, Kanno. Figured you might show up around here eventually.”

The man Kanno smiled, and, though his hands rested unthreateningly in his pockets, Tokio thought there was something remarkably… acquisitive about his attitude. “We heard you–”

But Zanza cut him off with a sudden fierceness that startled probably everyone present besides himself. “That was a joke. You guys didn’t really think I meant that, did you? I never planned on coming back, no matter what happened.”

Recovering quickly, Kanno gave a thoughtful nod. “You have to admit, though, it made sense: you would strike out on your own, but if it didn’t work out, you’d come back to us.”

“Losing one fight doesn’t mean it ‘didn’t work out.'”

“But it is exactly what you referred to when you left: that you’d come back when you lost a fight.” Tokio got the impression this promise had been very much along the lines of, ‘when hell freezes over,’ and she thought Kanno knew it too. “Besides, we heard your sword was destroyed.”

“So?” Zanza wondered impatiently.

Kanno shrugged, and his next statement was made with an air of reluctantly pointing out unpalatable inevitabilities. “I just hope you’re still successful. We’re moving in this direction, you know… We’ve let you do your own thing, left you alone out of respect, but eventually, when we’re fully in control of this area…”

Zanza’s brows had risen. “You were always about merchandise, not shit like what I do.”

Regretfully Kanno shook his head. “We’re not going to be able to overlook you much longer. We’ve been branching out into services lately; ask Kotono-san about it if you run into her.”

The immediate transition in Zanza’s demeanor to one of discomfort and perhaps guilt would have been hard to miss even for someone less accustomed to studying body language than Tokio. And she had to admit that hearing a woman’s name brought up in connection with the gang-controlled ‘services’ being hinted at here made her ears prick. To Zanza, obviously far more familiar with the situation and the woman in question, it must be infinitely more significant. “Kotono-san…” he repeated in a low tone. It was the first time she’d heard him use an honorific for anyone’s name besides that of his long-dead captain.

“She misses you,” Kanno said simply. “You were always her favorite.”

“I know that.” Zanza sounded very uncomfortable.

Kanno took a step closer; Tokio guessed it was only the awareness of the strong organization at his back that kept him from being appropriately nervous about putting this kind of pressure on someone as dangerous as kenkaya Zanza. “You’re still one of us, you know. No matter how successful you are on your own, you’ll always be part of the family.”

“So, what,” Zanza demanded belligerently, though his discomposure obviously hadn’t eased, “you came out here to try to convince me to come back?”

“More or less,” Kanno shrugged, still with that noncommittal air. “We’d all like to see you back — I and the other advisors, and Tone-sama, and certainly Kotono-san.”

Tokio fully expected Zanza to give a firm if not explosive negative to this proposal he obviously hated the thought of, but to her surprise he hesitated. Evidently details she didn’t know had significant weight here. Finally he said, “I’ll think about it. Not gonna promise anything else.”

With the same deceptive affability he’d been displaying all along, as if he weren’t a manipulative yakuza dirtbag, Kanno nodded again. “I suppose I’ll accept that answer for now.”

“Yeah you will,” Zanza grumbled, and there was almost a threatening edge to the words.

Once more Kanno smiled. “I’ll see you around, then. Sometime soon.” And as he turned away, before Zanza could react to this maddening goodbye, he added, “And I’ll give your regards to Kotono-san.” This effectively silenced the kenkaya, and the other man disappeared into the darkness.

Zanza stared after him, standing completely still and frowning, for several seconds. Then he shook himself and looked around, as if recalling with some difficulty what his original errand had been. His unease still had not faded, and it seemed to supersede the passions that had been aroused by the previous conversation.

“So you actually walked away from full membership in a yakuza,” said Tokio. “Not just any yakuza–” throwing Hajime a significant look– “but the sworn rivals of the Karashigumi! I’m impressed!”

“‘Impressed’ wasn’t exactly the term I would have used,” Hajime replied dryly, “but it’s certainly unusual.”

Zanza, who had jumped and whirled at the first word, now glared into the shadows in a pretty accurate direction for Tokio and Hajime, though she didn’t think he saw them specifically. “Where the fuck are you? How long have you been there? Don’t fucking startle me like that!” Hajime let out a monosyllabic chuckle as he and Tokio stepped forward into dim visibility, and as a consequence Zanza was glaring specifically at him as soon as he could see either of them. “What the fuck are you guys even doing here?” His list of questions seemed more a response to his own combined discomfort and startlement than any attempt at getting actual information.

“No surprise they want someone like you back,” Tokio mused, looking in the direction Kanno had taken. “It’s a wonder they let you go in the first place. How on earth did you manage that?”

Zanza followed her gaze, though there was nothing to see; even had Kanno not been long gone, a cloud rolled across the moon at that moment and rendered the entire scene difficult to make out. “Only with Kotono-san’s help. She can always convince Tone to do things better than anyone else. She could see I was tired of yakuza life, and, like you probably just heard, I was always one of her favorites, so she helped me out.”

“She must have a lot of influence. Who is she, exactly?”

“I don’t know all the details, but she used to be a geisha.” Zanza’s voice was as dark as the night around them. “Tone pulled some kind of mi-uke bullshit that probably shouldn’t have applied to her in the first place, and now she’s his personal property. He treats her like shit, and any influence she has over him is mostly just because…” It interested Tokio that he trailed off here. He’d been willing, only a few days before, to question her about her sex life in blunt and vulgar terms; that he was unwilling to raise the topic at all in reference to this Kotono woman — especially when combined with that unexpected honorific — indicated better than anything else how concerned and frustrated he was. And she had to appreciate that. Though the tale was far more common of prostitutes, even geisha — the most independent of women — were never completely safe from the vagaries of men when situations went awry.

“Is that why you wanted out?” Hajime asked, tone neutral.

Visible once more in briefly returning moonlight, Zanza shot him a suspicious glance. “Well… when I first got in, I thought there’d be a lot of… partying. Lots of drinking and gambling, you know? And fighting, of course. And there was some fighting, but way the hell more sitting around looking intimidating while other people did the actual work. And it turned out — you probably heard what I was saying to Kanno just now — Furukawatai’s more the dealing-shit type of gang than the kind that runs a bunch of gambling halls.”

“So in the end,” Hajime summarized slowly, all neutrality fled, “you wanted to leave not because of the suffering around you, but because you were bored.”

Zanza’s response to Hajime’s disdain was a mien Tokio strongly associated with an angry flush of the face; such a fine color distinction, however, was not discernible in the current lighting. “Hey, I hated watching Kotono-san suffer — I mean, there was more than one reason — there’s all sorts of messed-up personal shit that goes down in an environment like that… But this was before… I wasn’t really thinking yet…”

Knowing Hajime would not be able to resist an opening like ‘I wasn’t really thinking yet,’ Tokio jumped in. “Did you try to take her with you when you went?” The answer seemed pathetically self-evident, but it was the first question that came to mind that might stave off an argument. And here she was using mentions of this Kotono to keep Zanza in check just as that Kanno guy had done. But she could sense the tension between her companions as if they were at either end of a taut rope hauling away without ever breaking a blistering eye contact, so something had to be done.

“I did talk to her about it.” It was the timbre of someone that felt he hadn’t done nearly enough, but didn’t know what more there had been to try. “She said things with Tone were more complicated than I knew, and I should just worry about myself.”

Tokio made a sad sound of understanding. Things were always more complicated than you knew in a situation like that… more complicated, and yet painfully simple underneath. In any case, it seemed nothing short of miraculous that the woman had been able to exert so much influence even on Zanza’s behalf; there undoubtedly hadn’t been influence enough in the world to save herself.

“Is this Tone Joji?” Hajime wondered.

“Yeah,” Zanza replied, still suspicious, “that sounds right.”

Now to Tokio Hajime said thoughtfully, “I’ve seen that name in connection with Rokumeikan. He’s acted in some advisory capacity to him in the past.”

“Is Rokumeikan playing them off each other, then?” she speculated. “That sounds…”

“Ill-advised?” Hajime finished for her, understating the matter. “More likely he’s making use of both organizations, each without the other’s knowledge. But we can’t know for sure at this point.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Tokio could barely make out the scowl on Zanza’s face, but she could easily hear it in his voice. “What the hell are you guys talking about?”

With a faint laugh she took pity on him, and explained concisely, “Rokumeikan Hatsuo of the Army Ministry is our current target, since he appears to be guilty of… well, a number of things. But he also seems to be supporting and funding his private desires and ambitions by means of the Karashigumi, whom you may be familiar with. We’d like to take out at least some of the gang at the same time we deal with Rokumeikan.”

“And that’s what you want me for.” Zanza’s scowl had turned to a contemplative frown.

“Exactly. You’ve probably seen from the inside how difficult it is for the police to confront yakuza openly; we need irreproachable reasons to make arrests. Someone in your position will have a much better chance at accomplishing what we need to get done.”

“All right.” Zanza nodded. “That makes sense.” Moonlight glinted faintly off his eyes as he shifted them to look at Hajime. “As long as you don’t beat me up, I’ll do what I can to help you guys.”

“And why would I do that?” was Hajime’s immediate reply. “As I recall, it was you who sought me out.”

“Well, I’m the one who’s wasting his Meiji era,” Zanza retorted almost primly; it seemed he hadn’t quite recovered from that comment yet, no matter what had been said since then to assuage the wound. “I would’ve thought–”

“Because everything you’ve thought about me so far has been so very accurate,” Hajime interrupted bitingly.

“The way you’ve been–”

This time it was Tokio’s turn to interrupt. She didn’t dare raise her voice in the current situation, so she compensated by making her tone particularly intense; the result was a rather odd-sounding statement that was nevertheless successful at procuring the attention of the two men: “We don’t know yet whether Rokumeikan is playing the Karashigumi and the Furukawatai against each other, but maybe you could, Zanza. If you were to quietly join each of them…”

Zanza seemed to tear himself away with some reluctance from his argument with Hajime, but he did, at least, sound invested in the conversation. “They do hate each other’s guts… If I played it right, I might be able to get them into a situation where they’d fight each other… Then you guys could jump in and make a bunch of arrests for brawling or whatever, and maybe that would be enough to take care of your politician problem…” He sounded doubtful, though.

“The Karashigumi are always looking for strong fighters,” Tokio said encouragingly, trying to sell him on the formulating plan. “And you’ve already got connections in the Furukawatai, even if you didn’t necessarily want to go back to them…”

“And the Karashigumi are a gambling-centric organization,” Hajime jabbed, “so there’s some fun in it for you.”

“Hey, shut up.” Zanza said this a little absently, though, as a new idea appeared to have struck him. “If I managed,” he began slowly, “to arrange things so Tone would be there… and he got arrested… I might be able to get Kotono-san out. Get her somewhere safe.”

Tokio was pleased and impressed that his thoughts had gone in this direction, and agreed that the freedom of a downtrodden woman would be an excellent secondary benefit to the proposed venture. “Sounds perfect. Hajime, what do you think?”

“It’s the Karashigumi oyabun, Eisatsu, and as many of his men as possible, that we’re most concerned with having an excuse to take into custody,” Hajime replied with unexpected sternness. “If we can manage that, I don’t care what you do with the Furukawatai.”

“Hey, just a minute ago you were acting like you blamed me for not caring enough about Kotono-san, and now suddenly–” And Zanza definitely had a point: it was strange for Hajime to act so indifferent all of a sudden. Even if he couldn’t tell perfectly well how much this woman’s fate meant to their new protégé, he must be aware what it would mean to his own wife.

But what he broke in with was, “Just don’t let your concern for her distract you from our primary goal.” And admittedly this too was a good point. “And don’t move too quickly. Don’t seem too eager. We don’t want the Karashigumi investigating you too closely.”

“I know how to deal with yakuza,” Zanza replied impatiently, with a slight and barely perceptible roll of eyes.

“You weren’t too bored to pick up a few things here and there?”

“I fucking told you, that was back before–”

“Keep your voice down,” admonished Hajime in a harsh murmur.

Zanza gave a guilty start and looked around. “Somebody watching us?” he asked much more quietly.

Tokio had mirrored his glance at their environs, and now answered just as softly, “Not necessarily. But we’ve both felt as if someone was… paying us a lot of attention today.”

“That’s weird,” Zanza muttered, frowning. “I kinda have too.”

“In your case,” said Hajime, his manner still inciting, “it was probably your Furukawatai friends.”

“They’re not my friends!”

“No, I suppose they were too boring for that.”

“Would you just drop that already?”

“I think you’re the only person I’ve ever met who got tired of organized crime not for moral reasons but because it just wasn’t interesting enough.”

“I fucking told you–”

Zanza was getting loud again, and this particular branch of the discussion was getting nothing accomplished. Tokio raised both arms, pointed a flat palm at each man, and said, “At least for tonight, can we please…”

They looked at her as if they’d forgotten she was there, and she laughed faintly. As she lowered her dictatorial hands, a silence fell but for the sudden rumbling of Zanza’s stomach.

“I was hoping Katsu would get me dinner,” the kenkaya mumbled, embarrassed, “but I never did run into him.” He looked up abruptly, and back and forth between the two of them again. “And that reminds me — I’m gonna get paid for this, right?”

“You won’t be supporting yourself by fighting anymore?” Hajime’s voice had returned to its earlier neutrality.

Zanza took a deep breath. “No,” he said, “I won’t.” And, firm as the words were, still they seemed difficult for him to speak. More easily he added, “Anyway I won’t have time if I’m going to be fucking around with two different yakuza and trying to set shit up.”

Beside her Hajime nodded sharply, but Tokio didn’t know if Zanza would recognize the approval in the gesture. In any case, it had always been the plan to offer the mercenary a wage for his services… but when Hajime then went on to mention what that wage was to be, Tokio had to fight a sudden slackness of jaw and constriction of brows. No independent operative made a salary like that; it was unheard of. She knew they were both overtasked; she knew the current case was important; but did they really want Zanza working with them that much? Or did Hajime have other uses in mind for the kenkaya that he hadn’t mentioned yet?

Something a little unusual was going on here. Hajime always seemed to be in a strange mood during and after encounters with Zanza, and now this… So, as the foolish young man, probably not recognizing the ridiculous deal he’d been offered, began attempting to haggle, good-naturedly at first, with her unusually animated and responsive husband, Tokio took care to observe them both more meticulously than she previously had, trying to figure out what on earth was brewing between them.

***

Katsu, appearing every bit as baleful as when Zanza had last seen him, answered the knock after several moments of interior shuffling and gestured his friend inside. He then re-seated himself where he was evidently working on an ink painting of some sort beside a bright lamp with a number of other drawings — references? — strewn about him. A jug of sake stood at the far end of the table, carefully corked even though it was already at a safe distance from Katsu’s work.

“Too bad I missed you last night,” Zanza remarked as he approached to look over his friend’s shoulder at his progress. Such art meant very little to him, so he moved back to help himself to the sake. “I was going to check again when it got later, but then I ran into Tokio.”

Though he didn’t look up, Katsu’s brush stilled for a moment above his dish of ink as he asked quietly, “What exactly is your relationship with her?”

The answer to that was more complicated than Katsu could know, and Zanza didn’t believe it wise yet to elaborate on the details. “Nothing official,” was the technical truth he decided on; even the strictly personal aspects of their relationship were not entirely simple at this juncture. “I’ve kissed her. Why?”

Katsu resumed the motion of arm by which he was applying long, elegant lines to the thick paper in front of him. “I was worried.”

“About what?” Zanza tried to allow nothing more than curiosity into his voice, tried not to indicate his sudden fear that Katsu might somehow already know about his arrangements with the two police officers — and what that might mean for their friendship and Katsu’s mysterious plans.

“I was worried you might be deceived about her and about Saitou.”

Zanza covered up his relief with a snort. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, pal.”

Now Katsu did raise his gaze, his expression as serious as ever. “I’m sorry,” he said soberly. “You were right.”

“Was I?”

“I spent yesterday gathering information about them.”

“We’ve both felt as if someone was… paying us a lot of attention today.” Well, there was that mystery solved. Whether Zanza’s similar feeling had merely been, as Saitou had suggested, the Furukawatai keeping tabs on him, or some sympathetic paranoia invented in response to Tokio’s mention of the sensation, he didn’t know.

“I could see you believed it,” Katsu went on, “and I’d heard some things that made me inclined to believe it too… but I wanted to be sure this woman you’re getting yourself involved with, and her partner, are actually what they say they are.”

“You were that worried about me?” Zanza might have been flattered or touched, but he was afraid this had more to do with Katsu’s lack of trust in him than concern for his well-being.

“I’m satisfied now.” Katsu dodged the implicit questions about how much emotional attachment was expected in their renewed friendship and how much faith he placed in the kenkaya. “It seems everything Saitou told you about himself was true. They really are doing good work.”

If Zanza had entertained any doubts on this score, they would have been eased with last night’s conversation and the scheme he’d agreed to take part in, but he didn’t say so. He watched in silence as the artist dipped his brush into a ceramic dish of clean water, watched as the ink meandered out in a small fog around the bristles and dissipated. Katsu pressed the brush gently against the bottom of the bowl, and the water turned slowly murky around it. In a low tone, shaking his head slightly, he said, “I just can’t understand why they don’t do more.”

Zanza couldn’t stand it any longer. He had intended to allow Katsu to come to his point in his own good time, but he was so agitated by this discussion of Tokio and Saitou when he hadn’t yet spilled everything that was going on with them, he wanted to have a more aboveboard discussion about something. “All right. You’ve got ‘more‘ in mind, I can tell; you were talking about that the other night too. What are you planning?”

Blotting his brush on a cloth much stained by a history of this specific usage, for a moment Katsu neither said a word nor looked Zanza in the face. But finally, setting his implements aside, he met his friend’s gaze. And now, instead of the moroseness that had darkened his eyes ever since the moment they’d reunited, there was a sudden fire and intensity that startled the kenkaya into setting down the sake jug he’d just taken up again. And though Katsu said, “I’ll show you,” quietly enough, it was the quiet before a thunderclap.

Across the room Zanza followed Katsu, stopping with him before an unobtrusive closet. In such a cabinet one might expect to find clothing, linens, or even an adroitly rolled futon, but when at the soft slide of the door Zanza saw what it actually contained, his eyes widened in astonishment.

“Katsu, that’s… Are those…?”

“You remember how I always use to help Akinobu-san with the guns. I learned a lot about gunpowder back then, and I’ve taught myself more since. I can vary their explosive power, and how soon they’ll go off after I light them, and their weight and aerodynamics for different uses.” Katsu’s manner in relating these facts was almost morbidly casual, as if he were discussing artistic techniques rather than a hundred or so little round bombs, their fuses curved in places like devilish grins where they sat piled up in wooden trays like fruit at a market stall.

And all Zanza could think to say was, “Why?”

The light in Katsu’s eyes hadn’t dimmed; it was a wonder he didn’t inadvertently set off the explosives right then and there. He slid the closet door closed, however, with a gentle hand, and answered, “These are all I need to start a new revolution.”

“Katsu…” Zanza barely knew what to say as he trailed after his friend back to where they’d been seated before. “A closetful of bombs isn’t gonna destroy the government.”

“It doesn’t have to.” The same intensity that had marked Katsu’s words the last time they’d met was growing there again, but now, to match his expression, there was a new determination to his tone. “It merely has to provide a spark to start the fire… a beacon the people can follow.”

This was a little too philosophical for Zanza. “What are your exact plans?” he demanded.

And Katsu too became direct. “I’m going to destroy the offices of Internal Affairs. After that, if I can manage it, the military offices and the Bureau of Finance. It will damage government operations, but more importantly, it will act as a sign to the people. The Meiji government was brought to its knees by the Seinan War, and after this it will never rise again.”

“You know,” said Zanza carefully, fighting off an urge toward sarcasm, “I kinda got the impression the Seinan War was a complete failure.”

“Only because Saigou-tachi were foolish enough to start things down where they were easily isolated and defeated. When a revolution starts in the heart of the nation, here in Tokyo, there won’t be anything the government can do about it. All the people need is an example, and–”

“All right, enough with the ‘example’ shit already; I get it.” And it made a sort of sense: as Katsu said, he didn’t actually need to cause significant damage, if he could count on the swelling after the sting to do the rest of his work for him. But some logistical questions still remained. “Do you really think you can manage this? Aren’t you afraid of getting caught?”

“If I time my explosions right, no.”

“And afterwards? If they come looking for you?”

“Why should they? Would you suspect an artist of such a thing, if you were with the police?”

Zanza struggled to keep from squirming. ‘If you were with the police’ wasn’t nearly as inconceivable as the tone of that statement seemed to imply, but evidently even the all-knowing Katsu wasn’t aware of this. He pressed on. “And… after afterwards? You’re pretty much talking about a new war here…”

“War is a machine of change that’s fueled by death. If I can get it running, my death afterwards won’t make a difference.”

This was all very well, and probably true (if a little sententious), but Zanza wasn’t convinced he wanted to lose his friend so soon after having found him again. He couldn’t decide what to say, though.

Katsu didn’t allow him to say anything. “I was planning to do all this by myself,” he continued, immediately but slowly. “But then, just as I was finishing my preparations, I ran into you. And you said you were interested in making a change in your life, doing something that would make a difference. That timing is too perfect to be a coincidence.” He left unspoken the ensuing implication — that if not coincidence, it must have been orchestrated, presumably by someone with the power to do so and an interest in them both — but the idea hung in the air for a long, heavy moment. Finally Katsu turned abruptly toward Zanza, and the suddenness of his movement drew the mercenary’s gaze to meet the artist’s. “Well, Sano, will you help me?” The fervor in Katsu’s face was almost maniacal. “Shall we revive the Sekihoutai, you and I, and usher in a new era?”

It was a decisive question, but Zanza couldn’t give a decisive answer. As he had been early yesterday morning, he was inundated with a variety of thoughts on the subject, now without even the excuse of weariness to put off examining them.

Katsu was headed down a path of chaos and death, and had invoked the name of Zanza’s oldest organizational loyalty to request his assistance in a venture that might indeed be exactly what the country needed — a bold step and a possible martyrdom that not just anyone was willing to make. As one of the few survivors of the Sekihoutai, Zanza didn’t know if he could allow his comrade to do this alone. Yet as, essentially, an independent police operative — recent a development as that was — as an ally of Takagi Tokio and Saitou Hajime, he didn’t know if he could allow his comrade to do this at all.

He took a deep breath. “Like you said — like I told you before — I want to do something worthwhile with my life… something more like what Taichou would’ve wanted…” He tried to restrain himself from sucking in more air unnecessarily, from showing how nervous he was about throwing doubt on Katsu’s project and possibly risking a new rift between them. “I just don’t know if what you’ve got in mind is that kind of thing.” After all, as the artist had said, the two friends had reunited precisely as one’s preparations were nearing completion and the other’s attitude was transforming… but Katsu had reckoned that supposed non-coincidence without Saitou, and Zanza wasn’t sure that sequence of events must naturally result in the same future Katsu envisioned… even if Sagara-taichou had arranged it somehow from beyond the grave.

Katsu’s brow furrowed at Zanza’s words. “What Sagara-taichou always wanted was equality and freedom for the people of this nation. Do you think we’ve come anywhere close? Is this the Japan he died for?”

Zanza could give nothing but a bitter negative.

“He would have succeeded, if he’d lived,” Katsu said passionately. “Now it’s up to us, the people he left behind, to make his dream a reality. I’m going to create the Japan he fought for, and I’m going to do it any way I can. I’m going to start a new revolution, one in which you and I can truly fight at last — not as children, not as assistants, but as fully realized warriors with all our painful history behind us.” His eyes, bright and blue as a driftwood fire, burned into Zanza’s, and his inkstained hands clenched into fists. And Zanza felt it: the call of that new revolution, that opportunity to fight — to fight for the good of the people his captain had sought to raise up.

Of course, even if he didn’t die in attempting to bring it about, a new war would change everything, would mean giving up everything… but what did ‘everything’ consist of at this point? He had long since walked away from his family, and had no idea where they were these days, assuming they still lived; he’d never felt he belonged in the Furukawatai, and had left them at the earliest opportunity; and then he’d recently abandoned his only source of income, and, though he’d made arrangements for a new one, there were no guarantees. All he had were casual drinking buddies, a broken sword, and a dilapidated home he could just as easily turn his back on as not. That… and Tokio.

He didn’t exactly ‘have’ Tokio, but there were certain opportunities she represented that would be lost to him if he followed Katsu down this path. And Saitou — that man had, for reasons of his own, taken the trouble to speak the words Zanza needed to hear rather than responding to his violence in kind… Wouldn’t it be like throwing those words and that inscrutable generosity right back in his face if Zanza then chose to fight against the system Saitou had dedicated his life to improving? Yet Saitou had frankly admitted that system was flawed…

And if Zanza refused any part in this new, subversive undertaking, didn’t that mean giving up Katsu? And wasn’t his old friend, his old loyalty, worth more than these new acquaintances, even a potential lover and someone that had made such a monumental difference in his way of thinking? Especially when the new undertaking could mean so much good for the nation?

“And then, you know…” There was a subtle alteration to Katsu’s fervid tone, as he broke into Zanza’s thoughts, that the kenkaya didn’t entirely know how to read. “She would be freed…”

“Who?” Having just been thinking about Tokio, he recognized the foolishness of this question almost at once. “What do you mean?”

“Your policewoman friend. And that Saitou too, of course. When the revolution starts, they’ll be free to fight for what they truly believe rather than kept skulking in the shadows of a government they actually hate.”

It was an idea that had never occurred to Zanza. Did his new allies do what they did only because they were barred from the actions they would truly prefer to take? Next to Katsu’s explosively straightforward plan, machinations concerning politicians and yakuza bosses seemed petty and needlessly roundabout. But might not Zanza only think so because he was himself so much more straightforward and hadn’t ever previously considered anything like the type of spywork he’d agreed to last night? He wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Tokio and Saitou did wish they could take more direct action against the current regime — and if so, perhaps joining in the attack on the government offices wouldn’t mean giving up the prospects of the one and flouting the advice of the other… but at the same time, there had been nothing indecisive or discontented in “That’s how I’ve spent my Meiji era.”

It came back to the same question as before: was it more effective and creditable to work within the system against its minute evils, taking on corrupt influences a few at a time and slowly bettering the country as best they could, or to smash the system apart and rebuild it? Zanza didn’t know the answer.

“I see what you’re saying,” he said at last with painful honesty. Because he absolutely could see the potential in Katsu’s plan, and unquestionably sympathized with the motives behind it. The dilemma wasn’t, after all, whether it was a good plan, but whether it was the right plan. He stood, breaking eye contact with this friend, and started a quick, agitated pacing of the room. He couldn’t sit still, but the motion wasn’t helping him make this crucially important decision.

“Your strength will be invaluable in this new conflict.”

His strength… the thing he’d relied on for years to help him with his old hurt. What to do with that strength was the question here. And of course, in thinking of those years and that hurt, it occurred to him that he did have a third option: he could simply return to that life. Forget about Katsu’s grand-scale ideas, forget about Tokio and Saitou’s little yakuza drama… just walk out again onto the dirty streets, to fighting and fighting and fighting, the only thing he really knew how to do well, and forget everything.

It would be so easy. Definitely easier than making this agonizing, momentous decision.

But that too would be a decision, even if merely of omission by neglecting his other options. So he was still left with this choice, and he was running out of time. He turned toward Katsu suddenly, though only fixing his gaze on his friend’s knees, and asked, “When are you planning to start all this?”

“Tomorrow night.” Katsu certainly named the hour of his possible death, or the beginning of the new upheaval, calmly enough! “It’s a new moon, and the offices have fewer guards on Sundays.”

Zanza nodded sharply. His period of respite had not yet expired. “You’ll see me again before then,” he promised, and, still without meeting Katsu’s eyes, reached for the door.

***

The range of Tokio’s expectations concerning Tsukioka’s plans had been fairly wide, so what she’d now discovered them to be could not be considered outside the pale. But she was perhaps a little startled at the details. There had been no way to determine, just listening outside the door, exactly how much explosive power the artist had in there, but given the number of offices he’d mentioned intending to destroy, he had to be pretty well equipped. The scheme was crazy, but Tsukioka himself didn’t strike her as far enough out of his mind to embark upon it without the necessary tools.

At first she had planned to head quietly over to the police station once she was confident she’d heard everything useful she could, but as the conversation inside the apartment had become more intense — and especially as it had begun placing more specific demands on Zanza — she had reluctantly changed her mind. She needed to see his face and read his demeanor, needed more certainty than she could take from the mere sound of his voice and pacing footsteps… because, though the only promise he’d made his friend had been to get back in touch with him before the time of the attack, he’d sounded an awful lot as if he only had minor objections left to overcome and really would go along with the artist in the end. Tokio was more than a little concerned.

So now she waited a short distance down the street, out of the flow of traffic but in plain sight, in the direction she speculated Zanza would take. If he went the other way she would have to run after him, but she didn’t want to hang around, and possibly hold a conversation that might become angry and attention-grabbing, too close to the apartment when Tsukioka was still inside. And she’d barely assumed this position when he was, as anticipated, moving toward her; he had sounded as if he intended to leave immediately.

She’d guessed correctly about which way he would come, and now she had the distance between Tsukioka’s door and Zanza’s catching sight of her to glean what she could of his intentions from his candid expression and movements. Unfortunately, all she could make out was unhappiness and confusion. Though perhaps that wasn’t so unfortunate… Surely if he were resolute in supporting his friend, he wouldn’t exude nearly so much uncertainty.

When he observed her after not too long, possibly sensing and then seeking out her focused gaze, he immediately scowled and altered his path to come straight to her. “So you do spy on me,” was his surly greeting, as if confirming a long-standing suspicion. She thought he might not have sounded quite so annoyed, though, if he hadn’t been in some turmoil already.

“And a good thing, too!” she replied, throwing a significant glance at the artist’s door and folding her arms.

Mirroring her look behind him, he grumbled, “Vote of confidence from everyone today.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked him bluntly.

“I don’t know yet,” he answered with just as much frankness. And shoving his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders, he continued on down the street.

As she followed, Tokio judged his statement to be honest and accurate, and this came as a relief: if he truly hadn’t made up his mind, perhaps she could help sway his decision. She fell into step beside him and said quietly, “You are aware it won’t work, I hope?”

“I dunno… he’s got some good points…” Zanza looked at her sidelong, perhaps a little bitterly and perhaps not — she got the feeling he was postponing determining how he felt about her eavesdropping until after the more important choice was made — and added, “You’re the spy; you heard ’em.”

“He’s counting on a people’s revolution,” Tokio said, just as quietly as before and glad they were walking fairly quickly; this wasn’t a subject she would like to have overheard (though she wouldn’t be able to deny it was her turn; all the more reason for caution). “But that isn’t what the people want right now. Even assuming he can pull this off without getting killed or arrested, the best he can hope for is some minor scattered uprisings in response. Remember Akizuki…”

Zanza’s frown had deepened. “But he’s not trying to restore the samurai class,” he protested. “That’s the last thing he’d want! People have gotta see that!”

Tokio shook her head. “I work with ‘people’ every single day. They’re busy trying to build new lives after a lot of chaos and misery. Another war is the last thing they want.”

Zanza stopped suddenly, straightened, and turned to look at her very seriously. “Maybe he’s right about you guys, though… You could be doing more, and you want to do more, but you’re trapped in this system and need a big shakeup to get out of it.”

“Don’t talk about what I could be doing or what I want as if you know better than I do.” She hadn’t meant to sound quite so pugnacious, but it always annoyed and provoked her when men condescended like that. Zanza himself was a little surprised, and drew back slightly at her tone. This latter she amended somewhat, so it only sounded disdainful rather than immediately threatening, as she went on. “Do you really think Hajime and I need rescuing? Do you really think there is some better way to improve the country, and we’re just not doing it because — why? It never occurred to us? We’re too frightened?”

Predictably, in response to Tokio’s altered demeanor, Zanza too had a thread of ire in his voice. “Maybe Katsu’s seeing things clearer than you guys because he’s on the outside.”

“He’s a single-minded fanatic! He’s seeing exactly what he wants to see to support what he’s already decided to do.”

Zanza gave a rough sigh. “Look, this isn’t helping. You’ve… made some good points too, but…” His grudging tone still sounded angry, and his shake of head was just as rough as his sigh had been. “He’s my oldest friend. I’ve gotta figure this out on my own.” He started to turn away. “I’ll see you when I see you.”

Her gloved hand shot out and seized his gi in a crumpling grip. “And if we’re enemies then?” Even as she said the words she realized how much she didn’t want to be his enemy, how horrifying that thought was, and perhaps some of that rising emotion sounded in her voice.

“Then here’s a goodbye kiss.”

That should have been warning enough, but somehow finding herself in his arms took her completely by surprise, and the kiss even more so — perhaps because it was so unexpectedly furious. She’d kissed him before, of course, but she got the feeling now, as he attacked her mouth and nearly crushed her with his embrace, that he hadn’t been serious then. This was different: far more intense than she liked, as if he were seeking something to feed off of and she was not enough. It was arousing, but it didn’t feel right. If she had been superstitious, she would have said it portended disaster.

He was walking away before she even knew it was over. “And quit following me around!” he called over his shoulder.

Agitated, with a hand before her lips as if to shield the bittersweet sensation, she watched his aku ichimonji recede and disappear. Then with a deep, troubled breath, she spun and headed for the police station by the quickest route.

Hajime was absent from his office when she arrived there red-faced after jogging the last half of the trip. She sat on his desk for a moment to catch her breath, and occupied herself while her body cooled with looking over the papers he’d left out: a decent compilation of information about the Karashigumi. That he had left it out indicated he was still in the station somewhere, so as soon as she’d recovered from her run she rose again to find him. This goal would have to be accomplished solely by her own abilities, since she didn’t rank among the precinct’s most popular, and few of her co-workers inclined toward volunteering her husband’s whereabouts even when she was clearly looking for him.

It didn’t prove difficult, however: the nervousness of the guards stationed at the door across the main room from her indicated something was going on behind them, down the stairs in the cells. Generally the only thing that could cause such uneasiness in the ordinary police was Hajime himself, so it was probably a good guess he was interrogating a prisoner. And the only prisoner in whom he would take an interest at this juncture was the man they’d captured the other evening. Something must have come to light about the murdered woman. Since interrupting would be pointless, and since she couldn’t tell him what she needed to in front of anyone else in any case, she returned to his office to wait.

Seated properly in the actual chair at his desk, she skimmed the paperwork in front of her for something to do. Even these accounts of recent gang activity, though containing enough specifics to have some value as written reports, were as imperfect as she had expected: indicative of greater guidance and direction recently, but in no way incriminating of the politician she and Hajime believed was providing that guidance and direction. This was definitely something that needed to be worked on from the inside. If Zanza got himself incarcerated or killed going along with his friend’s suicidal plan, it would be back to the drawing board on how to deal with this yakuza and Rokumeikan. Of course that wasn’t the only reason for her concern about Zanza’s decision — in fact it was the farthest from her heart — but it carried considerable weight nonetheless.

It was not entirely surprising that, when her husband finally returned, the sound of his entrance startled her awake. Though he did look a little grimmer than usual, he didn’t chide her for this lapse; they were both awfully tired these days. She was somewhat embarrassed, though, and, as she sat up straight from the uncomfortable slump she’d fallen into, started immediately on her report to compensate:

“Zanza just had his big meeting with Tsukioka.”

Hajime stopped in front of the desk, giving no indication he wanted her out of his chair, and asked in a tone as dour as his expression, “How bad is it?”

She shook her head. “Bad.” And she related the conversation she’d overheard. It did not help Hajime’s face lighten.

“Did you talk to Zanza afterward?” He must know she would have wanted to.

She nodded, and now her voice was as dark as his. “He as good he said he doesn’t mind if we’re enemies the next time we meet.”

“‘As good as said?'”

Thinking of that disturbing kiss, Tokio’s frown deepened, and she shook her head again, this time to clear the memory. “I pointed out that a plan like that isn’t likely to work and Tsukioka isn’t thinking clearly… Zanza reminded me Tsukioka is his oldest friend, and said he has to figure this out on his own. Whatever else he might be thinking…”

“What do you think he’ll do?”

“I wish I could tell you.” Situations like this, she knew, were the ones where her ability to read others was most useful, not to say crucial, and she hated feeling so helpless. “He’s torn. This is hitting him deeper than just on a logical level, and, Hajime, he’s so tempted.” She stared up unhappily at her husband, who, leaning on the desk, stared back with narrowed, pensive eyes.

Finally Hajime said, “Well, it’s his choice.” Lips tight between phrases, he turned away. Though his back was now to her, she would recognize from any angle the customary movements of pulling his cigarettes from his jacket pocket and singling one out for lighting. “We’ll see how much he actually wants to change.”

“And Tsukioka?”

“I’ll deal with him.” Hajime seemed very tense as he let out a long initial stream of smoke and added tightly, “And Zanza too, if it comes to that.”

“By…”

“Doing whatever I have to.” Which was Hajime’s life in a nutshell, but Tokio wondered if he would be willing to ‘do whatever he had to’ to prevent the disaster but still try, somehow, to keep Zanza on their side. Morosely she nodded, though he wouldn’t see it.

“I need you to go back to Rokumeikan’s mansion.”

“Mmm.” Wearily she accepted the change of subject. “Just what I wanted to hear.”

“That woman was supposedly a servant in his household.”

Finally, now with greater energy, Tokio got to her feet and left the desk. She found her husband staring at nothing in particular as he smoked, the line between his brows pronounced. The mention of the unfortunate murder victim had an electric effect on her, as Hajime had undoubtedly known it would in bringing it up. She felt all over again that sick, agitated despair and the urge toward motion in response to her inability to help that woman, her frustration that she wasn’t able to help in similar situations everywhere, and her desire for justice to be enacted on the perpetrators. The point she chose to raise out loud, however, was, “That’s an odd coincidence… That someone working for the politician we’re investigating would show up so close to our house…”

“The cab driver we managed to track down says he took her from Rokumeikan’s estate to that neighborhood just north of ours; apparently she was in some distress, but said she had friends there. She wanted to be let out down the street from their home, though, so the driver understood he shouldn’t ask questions. He, at least, was telling the truth as he knew it.”

“And the men who attacked her?”

“Apparently somebody not only knew when she was going to run, but where she would go, and sent someone after her. I thought at the time the way they killed her seemed more like a hit than a random crime. They were hired through the usual circuitous lowlife channels, though, so that’s a dead end.”

“How dead?” she asked wryly.

His eyes flicked over to her briefly, and his mouth curled into a mirthless smirk. “Very dead.”

“When Zanza hears that…” It probably wouldn’t be enough to keep him aligned with their purposes, but she thought he would take the same vindictive but justifiable pleasure in it that Hajime was. How she felt about it was beside the point, but under examination it might turn out to be identical.

“I’m sending Shimada and Kasai out there tomorrow to ask some questions. They’ll frame it like a routine investigation of a murder on the streets; nothing for Rokumeikan to worry about. I want you there to see how the household reacts.”

“What was she running from? Who put out a hit on her and why? And was it really just a coincidence she ended up so close to where we live?” Tokio spoke pensively, not merely laying out her mission objectives but pondering aloud.

“And is there anything in all of this we can use against Rokumeikan?” Hajime finished for her.

She nodded. “Well, you know how much I love sneaking around under windows and on balconies and hiding in the bushes.” And in actuality she did rather enjoy it… sometimes. “I suppose that means I’ll be out there tomorrow night.” This job might give her the chance to take steps toward avenging that unknown woman neither she nor her companions had been able to assist before, but in the middle of this business with Zanza and his radically idealistic friend, skulking around Rokumeikan’s mansion on the outskirts of the far side of Tokyo was the last place she wanted to be.

“It can’t be helped.”

She watched her husband steadily for a moment. Naturally the news of an impending bombing and the unpleasantness of the interrogation had left him in a dark frame of mind, but he was behaving even more curtly and unsympathetically than she would have expected under the circumstances. He must know how worried she was about the situation with Zanza and Tsukioka, yet all he gave her was a puff of smoke and, “It can’t be helped.” She thought the likeliest explanation for this was that he too was worried — more than he was willing to let on. She never had figured out why everything connected with Zanza seemed to carry such a charge where Hajime was concerned. She considered tormenting him over this, trying to get more out of him in one way or another, but thought better of it. He would, as he’d said, do whatever he had to… and she trusted him.

At last she asked, “When are the boys going to be there tomorrow?”

“7:00. I want them to catch Rokumeikan at home before he goes in to his office; he may be offended by their showing up that early, but I want his reaction as well as his household staff’s.”

She gave a sharp nod of acknowledgment, already starting to plan. The route she took to any monitoring assignment must by necessity be unobtrusive and relatively untraceable, and she didn’t want to go the same way she had last time to Rokumeikan’s estate. So she would need to leave especially early in the morning to establish her position before the questioning officers arrived. Which meant she could probably squeeze in a few more hours of patrolling today before she went home to cook supper and some surveillance snacks and get to bed early. So the next question was, “Will you be home to eat tonight?” She definitely put an edge into the question; it was really more of a remonstrance, “You should come home to eat tonight.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Hajime replied somewhat stiffly.

“That’s what I thought,” she said in disapproval. “I’ll see you in a couple of days, then.” And she headed for the office door. Before leaving the room, however, she had to turn. “And…” No matter how closed-off Hajime was, no matter how much she trusted him to deal with the situation appropriately, she simply had to say something. “Don’t be too hard on him.”

He gave her another smile that did not touch his eyes, this one somewhat cryptic, as he replied, “Only as hard as I need to be.”

Far from satisfied but having no other choice, she hurried on her way, unsure whether she was most annoyed with her husband for refusing to confide in her, Zanza for having her so agitated in the first place, Tsukioka for his revolutionary craziness, or Rokumeikan for dragging her away from all of this just at the wrong moment. Well, Zanza couldn’t really be blamed for being pulled in opposite directions by polarized ideals. And as for Hajime not confiding in her… technically she hadn’t actually asked. And the other two nearly canceled each other out: Rokumeikan, who used the government and his position in it to full advantage, and Tsukioka, who would like nothing more than its downfall even if it cost him his life.

But Rokumeikan, or at least someone in his circle, had driven a woman to her death, and Tokio still hadn’t even learned her name (for she was sure Hajime, no matter what kind of mood he was in, would have mentioned if he’d found it out, knowing how much she would want to hear it). And because of that already unforgivable deed, Tokio was going to miss the outcome of everything else she was primarily worried about at the moment. So she supposed, after all, she was most annoyed at Rokumeikan Hatsuo and his inhumane selfishness and corruption. She’d rather suspected that might be the case.


For some author’s notes on these segments, see this and this Productivity Log.


Blood Contingency 16-20



This story was last updated on December 30, 2018


Somewhat unusually and not entirely to my satisfaction, the elderly Oguni rather than the younger and more hale Takani was the one dragged from bed to assist me once I’d made it to the clinic of my choice. Of course the man’s medical skills were not in question, and at that point my attitude was very much, ‘Any port in a storm,’ but I was conscious of some disappointment at not finding the woman there. Not only had I come to regard her as a useful ally, and someone to whom more details of the night’s events could be given than to the other doctor, she, as the examiner of all the bodies, was already involved in this affair, whereas the old man was not.

Thankfully I had no broken bones, though the damage to muscle and tendon was bad enough. Between the growing swelling that already constricted my movement in some areas and the pain throughout my body, it was more or less a miracle I’d gotten as far as the clinic in the first place. After a thorough and painful (though mercifully quick) examination, Oguni dispatched a preteen messenger — a great-nephew, I thought, awakened to act as the clinic’s errand boy and apparently not averse to the adventure — to rouse someone that worked at the closest icehouse and purchase a certain quantity for use on my various strains and bruises. Then Oguni declared that, though my life was in no particular danger, pressure, cold, and rest would be required in fairly copious amounts to ensure continued full function of limb — and he got to work with bandages.

The pain wasn’t the worst of it, nor the knowledge that I’d been brought so low by such an apparent amateur. It was the prospect of being forced to stay here with these constrictive wrappings on — the one around my left shoulder was already proving particularly troublesome — pressing ice over internal wounds and languishing in ineffectual stillness while the murderer I sought perhaps struck again. The doctor was already musing on the possibility that several days’ worth of motionlessness except for the gentlest of stretches would prove necessary for my complete recovery. And while I grudgingly agreed to be clinic-bound for the entire coming day, to anything beyond that I would not consent. I didn’t declare this aloud, but I was fairly sure the doctor recognized my resolve, for with a disapproving expression he merely tightened up some of the bandages, applied the ice more firmly, and recommended a dose of laudanum.

The latter I resisted at first, a little worried I might have been followed here and disliking the idea of being unconscious or, at best, hazy-headed if my attacker were to strike again; but eventually I gave in upon consideration that, if he should reappear, I would be in no condition to deal with him in any case, and therefore might as well take advantage of the analgesic and the assistance toward sleep while it was available.

Exactly how many hours I was unconscious I couldn’t be sure, but it was mid-morning when I awoke, groggy and breathing shallowly, to find Takani giving my throbbing wrapped injuries another once-over with ice. I wondered pointlessly if they’d replenished the supply or if this was about the end of it; I had a vague idea I had been iced continually as I slept, though that might have been a drug-induced dream.

“Stay still,” the doctor commanded, putting her free hand on my right shoulder to keep me from trying to sit up. “This round’s almost done.”

I attempted some deep breaths; somehow it seemed I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs, and this paradoxically made me crave a cigarette. My voice as a consequence sounded weak as I asked, “What time is it?”

“That doesn’t matter,” she replied firmly, “because you won’t be going anywhere or doing anything for several hours at least.”

I let out a faint breath that was the closest thing to a laugh I could manage at this point. “You are formidable, doctor.”

“That means a lot coming from you.” A faint smile showed on her face, but overall her expression was dark. She probably knew just as well as her associate did how soon I planned on rising and resuming my work, and that there was little she could do to stop it. And as if she didn’t want to hear me say so, she changed the subject by asking, “What happened to you?”

“I had a run-in with the man I suspect is our murderer. Can you send a message to the police station for me?”

She blinked, as if the seeming non sequitur took a moment to parse. Then she asked suspiciously, “What kind of message?”

“To bring my assistant here. If I’m going to be lying around uselessly all day, I can at least get something done through him.”

At this Takani seemed to relax a trifle. “Of course.” She let the cloth-wrapped ice (which had gradually been transforming into merely a wet cloth) fall into a bowl that sat nearby, and, taking this in hand, rose to her feet. “Anything else you need?”

“A package of cigarettes,” I deadpanned. She gave me a very severe look whose reproof lessened very little even when she realized I was joking, and left the room.

When the same boy as last night — if his meticulously wide-eyed enthusiasm was anything to go by, he had aspirations to the medical profession himself — had been brought in to receive a verbal message I wasn’t sure I could put to paper at the moment, then departed, Takani began cleaning up the melted remains, on and around me, of the morning’s icing process. The pain occasioned by the blows I had received was still somewhat numb throughout my body, consequent on the lingering effects of the laudanum, but I thought those effects also accounted for my inability to breathe quite properly, and I couldn’t decide how quickly I would prefer them to diminish. I was still groggy, too, but definitely didn’t want to sleep anymore; there were tasks to be set in motion, even if I couldn’t do them myself.

At length Takani remarked, “I suppose you’d rather not give me details of what happened last night, but it might be useful for me to know.”

“I don’t mind giving you details,” I replied in all honesty. “You’re not likely to get yourself killed doing something stupid with the information.”

“Another compliment!” This time there was definitely a smile on her face. “Though I wonder if that wasn’t really an insult aimed at somebody else.”

Since insulting Sanosuke in his absence only made me miss him to no purpose, and since speaking with these shallow breaths seems to render it wiser to limit my remarks to the more important ones, I got to the point. “A woman named Tomizawa Nori has been stalked lately, possibly by her missing fiancé, who may be the murderer I’m looking for.” I went on to describe with some specificity the events that had landed me here. As I spoke, I came gradually to adjust to the seemingly lower level of air entering my lungs, until my breathing and speech felt almost normal; meanwhile Takani, having finished her cleanup work, leaned against the counter and watched me, as she listened, with critical eyes.

“That’s interesting,” was her eventual remark when I had finished. “Strength and speed but no training or combative abilities?”

Remarkable strength.” I made a small gesture to the numerous pressure wraps across my body, but quickly returned my hand to its prone position beside me when the motion proved uncomfortable.

“Well, we already knew he was very strong — assuming this is the murderer — based on what Tsukioka-san had to say after he was attacked… but who would have guessed, after that description, he would turn out to be so unskilled?”

I wanted to nod, but there was a spot on my neck and another on my face — already aggravated by the small movements of lip and jaw required for speech — that ached and stung and contraindicated the gesture. I wondered what these bruises looked like from the outside. Eventually I agreed aloud and elaborated. “Sometimes a madman may be superhumanly strong, and these murders certainly have seemed insane… but would a madman have the knowledge and precision required to drain bodies of so much blood and leave hardly any trace of what he’d done?”

“It’s possible…” She trailed off, the fingers of one hand tapping thoughtfully against the opposite arm. “If he’s a doctor or a scientist, that might explain both what he wants the blood for — or at least it would suggest a reason, if he’s conducting some kind of experiment — and also his lack of combat training. Do you know what your suspect’s profession was before he disappeared?”

“Merchant. He dealt in building materials. I don’t know that he had any connection with any medical or scientific profession. It’s not a bad theory, though.”

Mutely she shook her head. Then a long silence fell during which she seemed reluctant to leave the room but unable to think of an alternative. My guess was that, having examined the murder victims and assisted Tsukioka after his attack, she felt too caught up in this simply to walk away, but had no idea what else she could do. Fortunately, as I’d said, she wasn’t likely to plunge impetuously into danger trying to figure it out. It was nice to have someone so level-headed around. Though some part of me put in at this point that having a specific someone a little less level-headed around might have been nice too, in a different way.

The ensuing conversation, broken by wordless periods during which we both, presumably, contemplated the matter to minor effect and I tried to ignore my injuries, brought her up to speed on what details she hadn’t been acquainted with yet. It surprised me somewhat, but I found I really didn’t mind telling her everything about the case; evidently I considered her an even better consultant than I’d realized. Not that it helped. The point we kept returning to was the difficulty of reconciling any rational motivation for the murders with the amount of blood stolen from the victims. Under normal circumstances, reasons for murder were thick on the ground, and if the theft of blood was discounted it was no difficult matter to assign a motive to these crimes. But the theft of blood could not be discounted.

When Hironaku arrived, it was with evident and great reluctance that Takani vacated the room with the comment, “Call if you need anything; I won’t be far off.” I was tempted to tease her with another mention of cigarettes, but decided against it.

“Sir,” my assistant breathed in horror, wringing his police cap between hands that threatened to twist it out of all usefulness, “what happened?” He was looking me over with eyes as wide, and probably just as observant, as the messenger boy’s had been, and I reflected that whatever bruises were not currently covered in bandages must indeed be a sight to behold.

“I may have found our suspect.” And there may have been a touch of flippancy in my reply to his flabbergasted question and gaze.

“And he did this? To you?” Though Hironaku had never seen me so much as draw my sword, ever since being assigned to assist me he’d had an almost unaccountable regard for my strength and combative skill. I knew there were certain rumors that navigated the police force from time to time — quite ridiculous, some of them, though others were closer to the truth — about my history and abilities, and Hironaku must have been listening. His attitude at the moment, however, was more irritating than amusing. He needed to stop goggling at me and consider how to be productive.

I had barely started describing last night’s encounter for a second time this morning — and more sternly than I’d delivered my previous remark as I tried to get Hironaku to think rationally — when I heard a commotion outside the room. Takani’s provoked tone, though raised, was unable to hide another voice I recognized instantly, and I became more irritated than ever at my own immediate pleased reaction to the sound. Only moments later, despite the doctor’s attempts at preventing it, the door flew open, and my difficult-to-deal-with lover entered.

For a few moments I sat quietly in the bed and watched as three outraged people made chaos in front of me — Hironaku outraged at what he considered a gross invasion of an officer’s privacy by a random unrelated party and demanding the intruder remove himself immediately, Takani outraged at essentially the same thing and insisting I needed calm and quiet above all else, and Sanosuke outraged because… well, he was Sanosuke, wasn’t he?

The scene carried a certain entertainment value, especially as I observed the seemingly very effective man-handling abilities of the good doctor, but what humor I could draw from it quickly turned to aggravation as, despite her strength of personality, her strength of body proved insufficient to eject this latest visitor from the room. Hironaku’s comments accomplished little in that direction either, and Sano managed to advance halfway toward the futon with the two of them essentially in tow and no coherent dialogue among the three. So I snapped out an imperious demand for silence, and, despite the pain in my face in so doing, made it loud enough it could not be ignored.

Though he’d undoubtedly come because I was here, Sano didn’t seem to have looked very clearly at me up until this moment, and now his brows went down and his jaw somewhat slack as he took in the bruises and the highly bandaged shirtless upper half that showed above the blanket. “Shit,” he muttered, shaking off the others almost without effort or apparent thought and moving right up to the bed. “You…” He didn’t seem to know what to say, and eventually just added, “Shit,” again. Unlike Hironaku, he had seen me draw my sword, and was therefore fitter to assess the seriousness of this situation. Moreover, he had an emotional involvement that (I sincerely hoped) Hironaku distinctly lacked, which must make this scene all the more distressing to him.

However much I might have enjoyed hearing it, I didn’t allow him to express his concern — assuming he would eventually have been able to — since I was in turn a little distressed by the stricken look on his face and wanted to put things on a more businesslike footing. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

Immediately the outrage returned. “I saw that kid–” he gestured around– “he’s the one they always use around here for running errands and shit — going into the police station, and when I saw this guy come out and head straight for the clinic, I thought–”

In the middle of his second gesture, this one at Hironaku, I broke in. “And what were you doing outside the police station?”

“I was–” Sano cut his explanation short and glanced around. He was glowering, but when his eyes returned to mine I could see the dismay and worry not far beneath. And yet he still had the presence of mind to question silently whether I really wanted him to answer and, essentially, reveal all.

I found I didn’t care at this point. I was glad he was here, but I was annoyed he was here. I appreciated his concern, but not his storming in here and interrupting. And if he’d been waiting around outside the police station for me, possibly hoping to reassure himself with a sight of me alive and well… well, I appreciated that too… and it also annoyed me. This relationship of ours would be difficult to maintain if everything each of us did so continually aggravated the other. But I’d known that going in. The others in this room might as well know it too. I gave Sano an expectant and impatient look.

In response, Sano’s thunderous expression deepened, and he said loudly and with some defiance, “I thought you would come back to my place again after you were done for the night and get some sleep. So when you didn’t show up, I was worried.” His voice dropped to an unhappy mutter as he added, “Looks like I was right, too.”

The phrase ‘come back to my place again and get some sleep’ could potentially have been interpreted in a couple of different ways, but only at a stretch. The expressions on the other two faces in the room — Takani’s in particular — made an interesting picture. Hironaku had some strange larger-than-life impression of me, and if he thought me capable of romance at all, I doubted a former kenkaya fit his mental image of my type. And the doctor knew me to some extent, knew my history with Sano — including the stabbing — and knew Sano even better than that, well enough never to have seen this coming.

As I looked past him at the two gaping people just behind, Sano’s face slowly took on a pinkish hue. Though still angry, still deeply concerned about my condition, now he was also a trifle embarrassed. Well, he had been the one to insist on bursting in here and stalling a police discussion with personal concerns. Though as I saw him square his shoulders slightly, it occurred to me that, chagrined though he was, it wasn’t the disclosure he minded so much as the manner, completely out of his control, in which the information had come to light. I couldn’t say I disagreed.

“Well, as you can see, I took some damage last night, but I’m in no danger now. I was about to tell Hironaku what happened. If you sit down and shut up, you can listen too.”

Sano started in surprise. “You’re not going to kick me out of here?”

“Not if you can behave yourself,” I replied, gesturing to the spot beside my futon. I wasn’t about to admit I might not be physically capable of kicking him out of here at the moment.

Appearing simultaneously pleased and just as disturbed as before, he dropped to his knees beside me.

“Sir…” Hironaku’s voice was half curious and half protesting, with an overlay of doubt. Takani, on the other hand, remained silent. She seemed to have returned to relative placidity after the shock of revelation, but I doubted she knew what to say just yet.

I didn’t give her the chance to think of anything, nor Hironaku any response at all. I simply started again on the story of the skirmish I’d taken part in. After not too long, Sano reached for my hand, and I had to ponder briefly whether I would allow him to hold it. It actually wasn’t that difficult a decision, considering his presence really was a comfort and the others in the room now knew about our relationship. The young man was even savvy enough not to move my arm with the gesture, so I couldn’t complain.

When I’d finished the tale, Hironaku, who had gone a bit breathless without needing any laudanum, said what he’d obviously been longing to ever since the relevant moment in my discourse: “That matches the description we have of Shibue!”

“It does, but don’t get too excited; what I saw was so limited, it could match any number of descriptions.”

“It does seem like it must be Shibue, though, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” I admitted, “it does. We can’t assume, but that is seeming more and more likely.”

“And what about Tomizawa Nori?”

“I spoke to her immediately after my attacker disappeared. Based on what she said about her missing fiancé, I didn’t feel it was wise to tell her he’s under suspicion along with her brother; I just informed her that her stalker may be more dangerous than we had realized, advised her to increase her guard, and told her the police would be in touch. I think now, though, it would be safest to take her into protective custody. Even if this person who’s been watching her is her fiancé, we have no way of knowing what his intentions toward her might be. If he’s our murderer, it’s possible he’s less than entirely sane. I don’t want the woman’s dead body to be the next thing the doctor here has to examine.”

“Thank you,” Takani said quietly with a nod.

Hironaku glanced at her as if he’d forgotten she was there, but must have remembered me discussing details in front of her in the past, for he made no complaint. As if to compensate for that lack of complaint, however, his next glance was at Sano — who had, to his credit, been remarkably quiet throughout this conversation — definitely with some disapproval. But all he said was, “I’ll send someone over there.”

“Quietly,” I ordered. “Plain clothes. And tell her to keep her personal security guards at the house as if she’s still there.”

“Yes, sir. Do you want a police presence there as well?”

I paused for a moment before answering. I had been thinking about this, and, though I’d reached a decision, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it. If Shibue or whoever he was realized Nori had left, he probably wouldn’t return to that house — assuming it was Nori drawing him there in the first place and not something to do with the building itself. Police walking the grounds would probably suggest Nori’s continued residence, which might invite the unknown man to attack again, which could allow him to be identified more specifically or even captured… except that the attacker I’d fought last night had been so reluctant to allow me, a single officer, to see him, it seemed highly unlikely he would be willing to approach a group of such. A smaller number on patrol might draw him in better, but the average police officer — or even two or three of them — wouldn’t stand a chance against the stranger’s strength and speed. A lack of police presence — using the security guards as bait, as it were — might make Shibue feel safer to approach, but might also, again, lessen the implication that Nori was actually still inside and simultaneously any desire Shibue would have to approach.

“No,” I finally said. “We’ll get reports from the guards if the suspect shows up there again.”

“We’re counting on private security?” Hironaku wondered skeptically.

“The security guards are only a precaution. I’m afraid Nori’s house is going to be a dead end to us after this.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I want the observation of the Tomizawa brother tightened up. I want to know everywhere he goes, everyone he speaks to, and details on every member of his household. If he and Shibue are working together on these murders, they have to be communicating somehow.”

“So less focus on his business and more on his personal life?”

“It would be preferable to cover every angle,” I said with a sigh, “but we only have so many operatives.”

“I could–” Sano began.

I cut him off without even looking at him. “No.” Practically feeling his hand growing hotter in mine with his anger at having yet another offer of assistance rejected, I added quietly, “We’ll talk about it in a minute.”

Sano shifted, made a small grumbling noise, then subsided.

“Yes, sir,” Hironaku said belatedly.

“Send verbal reports with any updates to me here.” I sensed Takani tensing at these words, and guessed she wanted to reiterate just how long I needed to be receiving those reports in this location. Before she could, I added, “I’ll let you know when I’m at home again. It won’t be any earlier than tomorrow morning.” And at this the doctor’s lips and eyebrows pressed together, and she said nothing.

“Yes, sir.” Hironaku hesitated before turning to leave. “Any other orders?”

“Just be careful. Our suspect is incredibly strong, even if he lacks training. He’s been reluctant to let himself be seen, so try to keep to public places or groups, at least for now.” Hironaku was less relentlessly irritating than most of the assistants they assigned me for things like this, and I didn’t want to sacrifice him to the blood thief if I didn’t have to.

With another, “Yes, sir,” he bowed and left the room.

Takani watched him go, then slowly folded her arms and gave Sano and me a very calculating look that seemed to rest longest on our clasped hands. “Well,” she said at last, “as interesting as listening to police orders is, I think this development is even more so.”

Sano’s grin was somewhat sheepish. “Yeah, it’s kinda crazy, isn’t it?”

She shook her head with a wry smile, her eyes still roving over us both. “It certainly is. And I can’t decide whether to scold you about harassing my patient, or scold my patient about potentially hurting you.” And though she spoke lightly, I could tell she meant ‘hurting’ in the most serious sense. It was about the reaction I’d expected from Sano’s friends. God knew how it would be compounded when Himura eventually found out.

And what could I say to her? That Sano’s safety — physical and emotional (probably, by necessity, in that order) — had become one of the highest priorities in my life? I certainly didn’t plan on making avowals of devotion in this woman’s presence, for all I felt we’d become closer lately and today even something like friends. So what I decided on was, “Don’t worry; I’ll send him away if he causes any trouble.”

Seeming to accept this, at least for now, she laughed. “This is Sanosuke we’re talking about.”

“Hey!” Sano protested. “Saitou’s obviously been way more trouble than me today!”

“He has.” And Takani gave me a warning look I knew very well not to disregard. Her concerns were unfounded but understandable; I simply had nothing I was willing to say at the moment to refute them.

The doctor transferred her steely gaze to the young man beside me and said, “I suppose it’s all right if you stay with him, especially if that will encourage him to stay, but you might as well make yourself useful as long as you’re here. I’m going to send for some more ice.” And with that she left the room.

Not wasting an instant, Sano turned toward me, bent over, and kissed me — more gently than his abrupt movements had promised. It aggravated the bruises on my face, but I enjoyed it well enough. When he pulled away, he was scowling again. “You asshole. Why would you send for your stupid assistant and not me?”

“Who says I didn’t send for you? You weren’t at home for a messenger to find.”

Taken aback Sano wondered, “Did you?”

“No,” I admitted. “But I would have, after my work was done.”

Sano looked as if he didn’t know whether or not to believe me, but still, almost against his will, liked what he’d heard. “So you do want me around,” he said in a tone that was equal parts grumbling and flirtatious.

“Of course I do, ahou. How else could I warn you about this new danger?”

Obviously irritated at this implication that, rather than actually desiring him near me, I merely wanted to lecture him, Sano made a frustrated noise and flopped onto his side, propping himself up on an elbow. This allowed me to lie down more fully as well without him towering over me quite so much.

“I don’t want you testing yourself against this enemy,” I said wearily. “I want you to take the same precautions I gave Hironaku: keep to public places and groups as much as possible. I’m going to give the same advice to the staff here. Until we know more about this man and are able to plan an assault on him that won’t fail, I don’t want to give him another chance to get at anyone he thinks might be involved. Especially you.”

“You think he’ll come after me?”

“I have no idea. But if he didn’t know before which investigator specifically is pursuing him, he does now. That may make you a target. And he is very strong.”

“It’s kinda more you I’m worried about at this point. I can take care of myself–” and before I could protest, Sano added grudgingly, “–and I’ll take those stupid precautions — but you’re lying here wounded not in a public place or a group.”

“Then it’s a good thing I have you to protect me.”

At first his scowl deepened at the sarcasm I just couldn’t keep out of my tone, but gradually his face smoothed as he realized that, facetiousness notwithstanding, I was making a legitimate request. He sat up again and looked down at me. “You really want me to stay here with you.” His intonation had the disbelieving flatness of a statement rather than the rise of a question.

“You’re my precaution in this scenario,” I replied, instead of telling him I’d prefer him in that role than anyone else in the world, or something else similarly maudlin.

“Guess I’d better stay, then.” His put-on casualness was a sort of mirror to my professionalism: a mask over what he really meant. He lay back down, and this time didn’t prop his head up but rested on his outstretched arm. After a few moments he said, “But, damn, Saitou, you really know how to scare a guy. Coming in here and seeing you all purple-faced and shit…”

“Should I apologize?” I wondered sarcastically.

He chuckled unhappily. “Only, I didn’t think it was possible. The last time I saw you get your ass handed to you, it was by Shishio. I really don’t want to think you’re up against another Shishio-level enemy practically all by yourself.”

And yet again we were back to the idea of his helping me out on this case. He just wouldn’t let it go. And I was too tired and sore to debate any further at the moment. “Cheer up,” I said, sounding as worn out as I felt. “Maybe he’ll spontaneously combust.”

Somewhat mournfully still, Sano chuckled again.


No matter how much I would like to pretend otherwise, I’ve been dreading this. The aversion I’ve felt regarding Sanosuke from the moment he walked into this current life of mine is based not merely on the fact that he is a vampire, an obligate murderer, but also on the point about to be raised in this already ambivalent conversation.

“It’s gonna be up to you like always.”

“…someone I could be looking for.”

“You’re gonna have a choice to make here after not too long.”

“…constant rejection…”

I can’t ask him what happened next, can’t prompt him to continue his story as I did before. He’s going to tell me no matter what I do, and I don’t have the courage to speed that process. At the same time, I can’t stop staring, and I don’t think vampiric allure has anything to do with it. I may not want him to go on, but I won’t shy from that inevitability. Can he see the antipathy in my eyes as I look at him? I’m sorry for that.

He takes and releases a deep, preparatory breath, and I’m reminded so poignantly of his panic at finding himself unbreathing in those first moments when he awoke a vampire that I draw a sudden, quick gasp into my own, working human lungs without thinking.

“Saitou Hajime died in 1879,” Sano begins quietly at last. “Nine months later, in 1880, the same guy was born named Fernando in Brazil. It took me about sixteen years to find him, though; I was almost ready to give up, but that’s never been something I’m very good at.” A slight, wry smile touches his pale lips, but this time I can’t return it. It doesn’t touch his voice. “By then you were in Canudos and could have seriously benefited from super strength and immortality… but you still didn’t want it, even when I told you how you died before — I couldn’t do the giving-back-memories thing yet at that point. So you died again in 1897.”

“Canudos?” I echo.

“Look it up,” he replies, somewhat harshly. “You don’t need to remember all your past lives.”

I shudder. “No, I don’t,” I agree.

“But after that,” he goes on, his tone growing even harder, “I watched you die again in 1920, 1957, and 1980. I’ve watched you die five times, Saitou. Every time it’s because you refused to let me change you. Every fucking time. You could have lived, we could have been together forever, but every fucking time you said no. You just made me watch.”

The pain in his voice is beyond anything I can fathom, and contemplating what his existence has been since Japan is almost more than my mind and heart can handle. I can’t say a word.

“You always thought I’d get myself killed doing something stupid before I was twenty-five…” He laughs bitterly. “But Canudos… the Rif War… riots in Johannesburg… the fucking Persian Gulf… here I am a hundred and forty-eight, and you’re the one who can’t get through half a life.”

Still I’m unable to speak. What must he have endured, finding me again and again, helplessly watching me die time after time… what must he have suffered?

“It doesn’t have to be that way…”

And that’s what it comes down to: the same point, I suppose, it came down to every lifetime: my power to bring this series of tragedies to a halt, to end his suffering.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–“

It didn’t mean anything to me when I overheard him telling Takani this outside the convenience store, but now the chilling significance of the statement strikes me with cruel, inexorable force. Eventually he isn’t going to ask for my permission, whether I want him to save my life or not, whether I want to share his eternal fate. He’s simply going to force the issue the moment he finds me.

The deep and multifaceted horror I feel at this idea must show in my face, for his twists and hardens in despair and frustration as he looks quickly away from me. “I’m not strong,” he whispers. “You always said it back then, and it was true. I’m not good enough. I’m becoming just like the rest of them no matter how hard I try.

“I can’t stand to give you up, to let you live your own lives and go on without you… but time changes me, and every time I meet you again I’m a worse person than I was before. Someday the Sagara Sanosuke you knew in Japan will be completely gone, and all that’ll be left will be this monster who’ll turn you without thinking and keep you forever like a slave or a pet. And I know I should just walk out into the sun and end all this, but then I think about finding you again and I can’t do it.

“I still love you. I’ve loved every version of you, every time; there are things about people that don’t change no matter how many times they’re reborn, no matter what situation they’re born into or what kind of parents they have or how they grow up — and you’re always the same guy who fights to make things right, who fights until he dies to make things better for people, fights for whatever he believes in and somehow always manages to believe the right things. I’ll always love that. And I don’t want to hurt you, but one of these days it’s going to happen. And I don’t know what to do about it.”

Silence falls like a heavy weight. We’ve reached a juncture where I must speak, and can’t allow not having the faintest idea what to say to keep me from saying something. I open my mouth, but how can I express even a fraction of what’s going through my head?

I anticipated what the eventual primary topic of this conversation would be, and I recoiled… but I see now I was responding solely to the same abhorrence I felt at the time of my death in Japan: an aversion to the prospect of losing my humanity. Now as the full implications of the situation slowly dawn on me, my emotional reaction broadens immeasurably. Because whatever he is or is becoming, the fact that Sano never stopped searching the world for me crashes down on me like a weight as heavy as the silence, sending out ripples through all my other thoughts and feelings.

He never was, as he freely admits, very good at giving up, of letting go of the past; in fact I even wondered just a few minutes ago whether his continued insistence on wearing that aku ichimonji isn’t an indication that this aspect of his character hasn’t changed. But for that stubborn tenacity still to be in ascendancy over a century later? It’s enough to startle even someone that knew him intimately during his mortal life.

There is, however, a certain question I’ve been assiduously dodging the way I won’t allow myself to do with the offer he’s here to make, and only in this avoidance, this suppression of an important point, could I possibly be at all surprised at learning how devotedly he has sought me out over the years. He loves me. He said it himself, and it wasn’t as if I didn’t know it — but the true strength and depth of that love, a love that could keep him endlessly on my trail despite my inevitable reception of him every single time, is something I never recognized — and something that’s making my heart beat rapidly now.

His dogged disinclination to let go of the past cannot account for everything he’s done, and wasn’t I just recalling, with some sorrow at its apparent loss, his intense emotionality? That inability to let go could only send him on this hopeless eternal quest when combined with a profound and dedicated love — a love I underestimated, both in Japan and certainly here and now. Here, at least, because I wouldn’t allow myself to look at it squarely, because I didn’t — and don’t — want to face the related question, Do I still love him? In part because that question and its answer will make his offer all the more complicated to deal with in its turn.

“I’m sorry.” The words that eventually emerge from my open mouth seem ridiculously, agonizingly inadequate. Are they better than saying nothing at all? I don’t know. “I’m sorry it’s been so painful for you. I wanted to save you from…” Helplessly I pause. At the time I didn’t know what I wanted to save him from; plain death was the worst I could imagine. If I’d even dreamed of this possibility, of course I would have tried with all my power to guard him from it… but none of us had any idea. “…everything.” It’s true enough, if still ridiculously inadequate.

Though he accepts my statement with a nod, there’s a faintly afflicted expression on his face indicating he knows perfectly well, as I do, that we’ve slipped from the main point. “This wasn’t something you could save me from,” he says, lifting a ghostly pale hand. “Even if we’d known more about vampires at the time — or anything about vampires — there wasn’t a lot we could have done.”

“We could have stayed inside at night,” I suggest with a shake of my head. This is prompted by the back of that raised hand, which, from wrist to fingertips, is covered with an unexpected, familiar burned patch. That must have been there the whole time, of course — I specifically took note of the paleness of his hands the first night — but I didn’t notice it until it meant something to me.

“That wouldn’t have helped. Remember, I wasn’t a random attack.”

I frown. I do remember. Just as I remember the circumstances of that burn. “We’re lucky the sun didn’t kill you that first day.” I’m still staring at his hand where he’s lowered it to his leg once again. It’s easier than looking at his face.

“‘Lucky,'” he snorts. “Right.”

Taken aback by the bitterness in his tone but not quite ready to discuss the disturbing changes to his character, I remark instead, questioningly, “That still looks almost fresh.”

Sano raises the appendage a second time and gives it the type of nearly blank look generally used to examine an already quite familiar object. “Vampires may be a lot stronger than humans,” he says at last, “but we grow and heal a lot slower. It takes a lot of blood to get rid of something like this. ”

My emotions at this information are indescribable. He’s carried that mark for over a century when presumably he could have hastened the healing process by consuming more blood. He hasn’t given in yet. He isn’t a… Well, he is. He is a monster. No matter how he restrains himself, he’s still a vampire, someone who preys on his fellow man in order to survive. The urge that’s arisen within me — to go to him, to hold him, to kiss his scarred hand — is overwhelmed by the familiar cold reluctance.

Maybe he senses that resurgence of hesitancy, for he brings us back around to our earlier topic. “The point is–” He sounds unhappy and impatient– “this isn’t your fault, and you shouldn’t feel sorry about it. It wasn’t even my fault,” he adds with only the hint of a sour smile. “You did everything you could, and I was even ready to listen to you for once. How were we supposed to know stepping out to use the bathroom would get me killed?”

Again I shake my head.

He takes another unnecessary deep breath. “There’s only one part of the situation you have any control over. And I’m still myself enough to give you a choice, for now.”

“I know,” I murmur, averse to hearing him say it unequivocally but knowing he’s about to.

And he does. As he leans forward, my eyes are drawn inexorably from the sun-scorched hand on his knee to his chalky, earnest face — the face I so loved in a previous life. “Let me make you a vampire, Saitou. Stay with me forever this time.”

I wonder if in previous instances he framed it as a question rather than a command. It doesn’t much matter — except as an illustration of the gradual alterations he’s undergoing — because the answer is still no. Just as it was in Japan, just as it has been every time, just as it always will be. He must know, based on those aspects of my character that remain the same throughout every reincarnation, that I could never consent to become an undiscerning killer. In fact it hurts that he would even ask, continue to ask, as if that might change. But I suppose the idea of giving me up, giving up the only means he can think of to be with me for more than a single too-short lifetime, is just as horrific to him as I find the idea of indiscriminately murdering innocent people to meet my own selfish needs.

And how long can this cycle go on? Anguish, protracted on his part and brief but endlessly repeated on mine; rejection, turmoil, unwanted personal metamorphosis? Death after death after death? How long can he hold out? Next time — hell, perhaps this time — will my refusal of his plan be met with a snap of teeth and a return to that sensationless tunnel, at whose end in this instance will lie slavery and self-loathing? Or is he stronger than he thinks, and this process is destined to repeat far oftener than either of us can anticipate? Will I be stepping from my flying car onto the landing pad of my floating apartment in the year 2500 to confront a pale, unknown but unnervingly familiar visitor approaching me with an offer to which the answer will still be no?

I wonder what I’ve said to his question — or command — in the past. Not the purport of my reply, but what words and demeanor I’ve used. For I find that now, no matter how decisive my opinion, it won’t come out of my mouth. Just as I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I didn’t remember him, to crush his distant hope that something in me might have recognized my old love without his having to resort to vampiric tricks to restore my memory, I can’t straightforwardly tell him the method he has in mind for keeping us together forever is and must always be totally unacceptable. At least not now. Perhaps I do love him, and can’t admit it. I know, whatever my feelings, I don’t want to cause him further suffering. It seems so simple to say, “No,” and yet I find it’s something I have to work up to.

“I’m going to need some time,” I finally manage, “to think about this.”

He doesn’t complain, or demand to know how much time, or protest that it’s a really easy question — which it is — or give any of the passionate reactions I’ve stopped expecting from him but part of me yet craves. He merely nods. I get the feeling, however, he’s disappointed just as he was when I couldn’t offer any verbal reply to, “Do you remember me?” He undoubtedly knows what I’ll eventually say; it would require a flagrant repression of pattern recognition beyond even Sanosuke’s stubbornness not to be aware of that. As such, I may actually be prolonging his suffering exactly as I was reflecting I’d prefer not to in failing to say it candidly now… but still I can’t manage it. I’m simply incapable. He mentioned there are challenges he feels he’s not strong enough to meet — completely different than what I had in mind when I disparaged his strength in the Meiji era — perhaps without realizing that I too suffer from weakness in certain unexpected areas.

Another silence falls, this one unbearably tense. No, he didn’t ask how long I needed or complain about the ease with which I should be able to come up with an answer… but surely, underneath this wordlessness, he doesn’t believe the time I require will be a mere matter of seconds or minutes? That I’ll say what I have to say here on the spot? The thought almost makes me smile, incongruously in the midst of this painful drama, since it would be so characteristic of the old Sano. And I wish I could at least produce some timeframe, some estimated period during which I can hope to work up the nerve to give him the forthright answer that’s already in my head. But I can’t even do that much.

And after a while he demonstrates he is not, in fact, waiting for me to speak again. He abruptly leaves the sofa, prompting me to stand as well, and says, “I’ll come back tomorrow night and see how you’re doing.” And though his movement was startling, his words are a relief: that he didn’t declare he would return for my answer, only to check on me. He has some kindness and consideration left, whatever he’s lost.

It’s my turn to nod blankly, since I can’t think of anything to say or which of my many interconnected feelings to allow on display. And instead of trying to figure out how I’m going to tell him what I have to tell him, I’m staring at his familiar yet altered figure, his still-beautiful face, and remembering happier days.

Between one memory and the next, he’s gone. I actually hear the soft sounds of the door opening and closing this time, but I’m too caught up in emotion and contemplation to add this information to my dilettantish interest in how silently vampires do or don’t move. Without looking after him, my eyes in fact locked on the space where he previously stood, I remain motionless for several moments in my bright, empty living room. Then I step slowly to the sofa and sit down exactly where he sat. The abnormal chill in the slight depression is the only remaining sign he was even here.

I press my palm against the cool spot on the couch’s side where for a while Sano’s arm rested, thinking of that old burn and everything he said to me, everything he’s suffered, and everything I need to say to him. Presently I lean forward, removing my back from a cushion that’s already losing the elusive coldness of Sano’s presence under the influence of my own, and drop my head into my hands.


I couldn’t say I knew something was wrong, for no identifiable sense gave me any such information. Even the paranoia that must have generated the idea, based on an underlying and never-stilled concern about certain possible combinations of events, was not clearly apparent when I awoke. At first I recognized only the absence of Sano and the presence of a feeling that something was wrong.

Of course there were a number of possible explanations for his having risen and left the room, the most logical of which was a need to visit the toilet. Or he could be having a conversation with one of the doctors; he might even be assisting in some midnight business for which medical clinics were specifically prepared. He could have stepped outside for some air, or detected something unusual and gone to investigate. Though these last two options angered me just in considering them, since they would directly defy my edict (as would, technically, a visit to the outbuilding, but that at least was a necessary breach of the companionship rule), they were understandable and not unpredictable actions. And yet I felt something was wrong, to an extent that would not allow me to go back to sleep.

For one thing, I wouldn’t have awakened in the first place, in this hurt and weakened state in desperate need of rest, if he hadn’t been gone long enough for my muddled consciousness to sense it through my incoherent dreams. For another… well, I simply worried about him. I wouldn’t be content until I knew where he was, nor possibly until I’d given him another lecture on safety in the current scenario.

I looked around, feeling the immediate pain in my neck that came from turning my head. The examination room, lacking windows, was filled with deep shadow; in fact the only light filtered dimly through the door’s paper from the hallway where a single small lamp was kept lit overnight for the benefit of patients or staff needing to move around the clinic during the hours of darkness. I could see nothing with any clarity, but I could make out what I knew to be a jug of water and its accompanying cups on the counter — I’d made use of them earlier, and thus distinguished their shapes now — which eliminated ‘getting a drink’ as a possible motive for Sanosuke’s disappearance.

My entire body was ridiculously stiff and painful, and the muscular impulses required merely to sit up were agonizing. I rather expected the ever-increasing discomfort would go hand-in-hand with a similarly rising irritation, but found it was not so; that sense of something wrong, that irrational concern about my irresponsible lover, overrode, for the moment, most of the annoyance I might have felt with him. When I located him hanging around outside for no good reason, or whatever the case turned out to be, normal emotions could resume.

Walking was torture, and I had to take a minute or so to practice this activity I’d mastered thirty-five years ago to make sure I could do it effectively before I even considered leaving the room. Glad I was that I’d refused a further dose of laudanum and was alert enough for upright motion at all.

With Sano’s help and a great deal of inconvenience, I’d changed last night out of what I’d yet been wearing of my uniform into a yukata that had proven much easier to sleep in, and this garment should be sufficient for now. But I wanted my sword as a precaution, and couldn’t remember where it had ended up when I’d first come to the clinic early yesterday morning. If I couldn’t find it almost immediately, I would leave without it; I didn’t have the patience for a prolonged search. Upon sliding the room’s door quietly open and allowing a greater amount of light inside, however, I saw it lying neatly on the counter atop my folded clothing not far from the water jug. Since I was certain Sanosuke hadn’t folded the garments — and uncertain Sanosuke knew how to fold garments — I supposed I had Takani to thank for this.

I would prefer to brook the wrath of neither of the two doctors in residence, so I made an effort to move down the corridor as naturally and evince as little discomfort as possible despite the reluctance of my muscles to do anything I told them. But I hoped not to encounter anyone — except Sano — since the doctors, no matter how I moved, would definitely still scold me and cause delay thereby, and any other patient might be startled or even frightened at the sight of my bruises, my weapon, and my air of determination and concern. Fortunately, in this case my wish was granted.

At the side entrance there were a couple of pairs of geta, small and large, provided for anyone resident in the building and capable of using the external facilities rather than a bedpan, and into one of these I gratefully stepped. I didn’t know how many pairs were usually present or if any might be missing, but I felt this was the most logical direction in which to start my search. This impression was strengthened when I found the door unlocked and observed a hook beside it, where a key might have hung, empty.

I saw no one immediately outside, and silently followed the path curving around into the back. The night was neutral, as the previous had been, with only a faint intermittent breeze, and a scattering of small clouds blocked out the stars only in negligible patches. The rear yard, with its outhouse at the far end and a fenced-off garden seating area where patients could take the air, stood peaceful and quiet in the shadows, yet somehow my every step heightened the sensation that something was wrong.

A lantern’s bright spot showed the grain of the outhouse door even at this distance, but it was to darkness rather than light that my eyes were drawn. For between the clinic’s main building I’d just left and the outbuilding I’d thought to approach to check for Sanosuke, there stood a shed that must be passed to reach one from the other. An unassuming structure in the same style as the rest on the property, there was no reason for it to catch my attention… except that there was also no reason for its doors to be gaping open, a portal into deep blackness like a yawning mouth in its face, at this time of night and with no one around.

Though it seemed superstitious and nothing I would have liked to admit aloud, I felt as if my concerns and the impression of wrongness I was gripped with were all suddenly concentrated on this one spot, on the invisibility beyond those wide-flung doors. I felt as if I’d left my relatively comfortable futon in the examination room, abandoned my own injunction of keeping inside or to crowds as much as possible, forced myself through pain and difficulty to walk out of the building, specifically to come here and enter this shed and find what I would find there.

I checked the sword at my side. The tie of a yukata wasn’t the most convenient restraint for slinging a weapon, but it would do; I could draw at any time as long as my opposite hand was also free to steady the sheath. Then, without attempting to pierce the gloom within the shed with my naked eyes, I walked straight past it to the outhouse and reached up with perfectly steady hands to unhook its small lantern. Finally, without hesitation, I turned back and moved in the direction of the unknown.

My geta clattered somewhat on the step up into the little building, and the noise echoed like gunshots in the silent night. As a matter of course I thrust the lamp forward and took a careful look around at the entry, ensuring no ambush awaited me. All I could see, sharp yet indistinct in the minimal light, was the perfectly mundane accumulated storage of years, exactly what one would expect to find in such a place. And the disarray of much of it indicated, I thought, a recent struggle here, though not a particularly wide-ranging or long-lasting one — certainly not one as dire as what I’d gone through at Tomizawa Nori’s house. I moved forward across the cluttered floor toward the back of the building, the tapping of my shoes continually galling in this vacuum of sound, then halted when the light fell on… fell on exactly what I’d…

White cloth greyed with the dust into which it had fallen… tanned skin faded to pallor…

I wasn’t aware of how still I stood until motion beside me seemed blurringly fast: a rake, previously holding only precariously to its wall peg after whatever struggle had stirred the shed’s contents, now gave up the fight and fell with a clatter to the floor. And it didn’t actually fall any quicker than gravity dictated; it was just that my perception had slowed as it took in every horrific detail of the scene: the stiffness, the paleness, the awkward angle of attitude and limb…

The light shifted, and I found my previously raised arm, trembling slightly, sinking with its minimal burden toward a limp position at my side as if the lantern were simply too heavy to continue holding up.

Eventually, after how long I did not know, I tore myself from where I stood. With every forward step I took, I seemed to grow colder, less connected with my surroundings. By the time I fell to my knees beside him and set the lantern down, I was completely numb. I felt nothing, I heard nothing, I saw nothing but him. His face was placid; at least he didn’t seem to have died in pain. The wound on his neck was the same as all the other victims, but he lacked the appearance of emaciation most of those had exhibited. He didn’t seem to have taken any other hurt, besides hitting the floor in an uncomfortable position and achieving rigor mortis there.

Vaguely surprised by these detached reflections, I abandoned them for the moment as I reached out and brushed aside a haphazard lock of brown hair, touched his face.

Had I thought I had gone cold? It was nothing, nothing in comparison to this. He was stone; he was ice. As cold, predictably, as death.

Had I thought I had gone numb? It struck me like a sudden attack from a heavy weapon, perhaps like the one he had once carried but infinitely more enormous and impossible to parry or dodge. I shuddered, abruptly unable to breathe. Under that attack my chest was being slowly crushed, and a stabbing pain arose there and spread rapidly through me. The only clear thought in my darkened mind was that I was too late; I’d lost him. I’d failed and lost him forever. The entire world was shrinking, contracting like my faltering heart, narrowing until its full extent was my hand on his face and the overwhelming, inescapable fact that he was gone.

Death, in the abstract as well as in the specific reality of lethal wounds sometimes delivered by my own hand, had always been an inextricable part of my reality. Any samurai, any soldier, even a police officer in this new and tamer era lived with and embraced the possibility of dying at any time, and walked surrounded by death wherever he went and whatever he did. It was grim, unfortunate, but unavoidable — and when it came with honor, at times acceptable or even desirable.

Yet there had been instances when this inevitability for which I’d been prepared was more difficult to tolerate: Okita, my friend, lost not in the glory of battle but in a miserable sickbed as his once-brilliant body betrayed him; Yaso, my wife for a mere two months, cut down ignobly by some random killer on the streets of Gonohe; Ookubo, one of the few statesmen I had respected and admired, assassinated for daring to do his job. In these cases death was not so much a quiet, constant companion as a cruel and relentless oppressor.

But it had never felt like this before.

There had always been some degree of grief, of bitterness against the hand of the tyrant, of questioning what I could have done to prevent this, of bleak anticipation of what the future held in the absence of the deceased… but never such an overwhelming weight of unendurable pain. No experience in my life, no failure, no loss, nothing had ever hurt like this. His passions stilled, his determination defeated, his laugh silenced, his love extinguished, his prospects destroyed… I had failed him.

And then…

Then he opened his eyes.

I believe for a few moments my heart actually stopped. The hallucination, however, continued. He looked up at me with a gaze that was far too bright for that dim enclosure, and the new arrangement of his features was familiar. It was one that might previously have irritated me: a complacent, ignorant expression suggesting he hadn’t been paying attention, didn’t know what was going on, but was too lazy to be worried.

“Was a dream…” he murmured a little hoarsely.

And at the sound, I started to believe that maybe this was really happening. After having thought him dead, my reaction to finding him alive was every bit as earth-shattering. I still could not move or speak.

“Saitou…” Sano murmured, and sluggishly raised a hand to take mine.

His fingers and palm were frozen cold. Surely a living human body could not be that cold! I couldn’t reply.

Watching my face in the uncertain light, his took on a look of slowly growing horror and fear. “Saitou,” he whispered again, “what the hell is wrong with me?” It seemed a struggle for him to move, but also that his strength was gradually returning. The straightening of his awkwardly placed limbs seemed eminently unnatural, and he sat up woodenly, clutching at my hands, his glowing eyes wide and desperate. “I can’t breathe,” he said frantically. “S-Saitou…”

Finally I found my voice, but all I managed to say was, “Sanosuke.” At the sound he started and shuddered, clinging to my chest. I ignored the pain this caused; it was nothing compared to what I’d felt a minute ago, what in a way I still felt. I never would have thought to see him so frightened, but it made sense; his entire frame was infused with that impossible chill, and… he was right: he wasn’t breathing, except in quick bursts just before he spoke, as if the only air entering his lungs was doing so exclusively to push sound back out again. How this could be I couldn’t begin to fathom, but I had to set aside my own wonder and confusion in the interest of supporting my understandably agitated lover. “Calm down,” I whispered. “You’re all right.” Though this didn’t seem anywhere close to true.

“I’m not,” he protested, but I thought his desperation was calming somewhat. “I’m dying… I’m dead… I’m… I don’t know… ”

I put my arms around him despite the pain and the unnerving cold. “You’re not dying. You’re not dead.”

Sano still clung. “Then why the fuck am I not breathing?”

I thought his profanity was a good sign. Having no answer to his question, however, I prevaricated, “Have you tried breathing?” I was surprised I was breathing, in fact, surprised at my own ability to formulate coherent words. My chest still seemed incapacitated by the aphysical blow it had received at my original assessment of the scenario; my entire body still throbbed with shock.

“Why should I have to try to–” He interrupted himself by drawing in a shuddering gasp of air and letting it free. After a few more of these he muttered, “I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I,” I assured him, “but you are alive.” I said as much for myself as for him.

Perhaps a little uncertainly he nodded, released the front of my yukata at last, and looked around.

This caused my world to widen abruptly back out, and I recalled surroundings and a situation that had completely slipped my mind until this moment. I decided to decide later whether or not this preoccupation was a legitimate source of chagrin. “Can you stand?” I asked.

He took another deep breath as if desperate for air, and repeated his nod. That he believed himself capable of rising contributed to my ongoing sense of how close he might have come to never rising again.

As we both got rather unsteadily to our feet, I noticed but did not quite understand his change of expression; I hadn’t realized how intently I had my eyes, hungry for his every life-affirming movement, locked on him. He looked down at his hands, flexing them, and muttered, “Feels weird.”

“Weird?” I echoed.

“Yeah… I feel… stronger. Being dead should be a lot worse than this.”

“You’re not dead,” I almost snapped. I couldn’t deal with that idea right now, given how deeply it and its subsequent contradiction had shaken me.

“Yeah, maybe not…” He said it abstractedly, though, and not as if he really believed it, as he began a sort of self-assessment by feeling at various parts of his body. His movements had loosened up from the stiffness they’d originally carried, and he appeared to be unhurt, but his frown only deepened as he examined himself. His probing fingers kept returning to his neck as if he expected to find something there — and not the spot beside his trachea where he might have felt his only visible wound, but the back just beneath the shaggy ends of his hair. Finally, still flexing his hands as he had before and still appearing distressed and confused, he leaned against me and slowly dropped his face to my shoulder.

“What happened?” I asked as I wrapped him in my arms again, continuing to disregard the discomfort such close contact occasioned.

Against my collarbone his head shook slightly. “I don’t… I don’t actually remember. I feel like… a bunch of stuff happened, but…”

“It’s all right,” I assured him, responding to the trace of panic in his uncertain tone. “It may come back to you. We should go back into the clinic.”

“Right…” He lifted his gaze and looked around uncomfortably, then added at a mutter, “I must have been attacked.”

Grimly I nodded. Normally this would have been the perfect opening for a sarcastic remark, since it was very obvious he’d been attacked, but I wasn’t capable of it — or even remotely inclined toward it — at the moment. “Let’s try not to let it happen again.”

As we made our way out of the cluttered shed, after extinguishing the lantern I wasn’t going to bother returning to its place, I attempted to keep an eye out for any signs of the attacker in the immediate vicinity. I hadn’t sensed him when I left the clinic, and I sensed nothing now, but I would be damned if I failed Sano again. It proved difficult, though, with him clutching at me as we walked; it wasn’t that the pain was distracting — it was, but I’d dealt with worse — but that every particle of my being wanted to concentrate solely on him and the fact that he was alive. I wanted my arms to remain around him without release; I wanted to hold him so tightly he became a part of me, keep him so indivisibly close that nothing like this could ever happen again. Stunned and sore, I reeled from the back-to-back shocks I’d taken; Sano was supporting me every bit as much as I was him.

The horror of what might have been and the sense of deliverance from that possibility seemed to wash over me in waves, and a particularly strong instance of these contrasting emotions struck the very moment we’d made it back to our examination room — originally intended for my use with him only on the periphery, but now destined to be a medical haven for us both. I slid the door closed, plunging us into blackness, as soon as we’d stepped inside, ignoring the awareness that I mustn’t stay, that I needed to seek out a doctor. I couldn’t leave his side for even one instant just at the moment.

Succumbing briefly to that deep relief that shook me so intensely, I held him tight against me. My battered frame screamed in protest, despite his unnatural coldness almost resembling the ice that had been used on my bruises and strains more than it did a living human body, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that he was here and relatively safe, that he wasn’t dead. I found myself trembling slightly, which was embarrassing, and breathing more unevenly than he was though no actual wound had been delivered to my chest.

“Hey…” he whispered, the uncertainty in his voice similar to that of his movements as his arms slipped upward in an invisible mirror of mine. “It’s… all right…” Evidently he hadn’t expected to be offering me comfort like this — possibly at any time in our lives, but especially tonight when he had been the one attacked.

“I know,” I replied in just as harsh a whisper… though I didn’t necessarily know. His arms were agonizing around my back, as if he were grasping me much more tightly than he needed to, but I didn’t mind. Anything to continue reassuring me he wasn’t dead.

How long we spent in that embrace, that consoling close connection that nevertheless postponed the night’s crucial next step, each of us struggling for different reasons to breathe properly, crushed together in the darkness and clearly unwilling to let go, I also didn’t know.


Through the blinds, out past the parking lot between the cars, I can see the horizon darkening. I’ve never been much of a sunset-watcher, and it occurs to me that I’m not really sure how long this basic daily occurrence actually takes. I suppose subconsciously, after thirty years — perhaps even sixty-five years — of seeing or at least being aware of it on a daily basis, I really am familiar with the length of time at this season between the disappearance of the sun and full darkness setting in, but consciously I find I haven’t a clue.

There are other things I don’t know: where he spends his days, how soon after dusk he awakens, how quickly he travels, how much residual sunlight in the atmosphere he can tolerate outdoors. I can make educated guesses, but they’re based on pop culture as well as information more than a century old — and, as I’ve already noted, someone can change a lot in that many years. Eventually I let the blinds snap back into place and compel myself to think about dinner.

The water in the pot is perhaps halfway to boiling point when I’m not so much startled as intrigued by the sound of the front door opening. My interest isn’t piqued by the same issue I’ve been pointlessly dwelling on — how quietly a vampire can or can’t manipulate objects in his environment — but by the fact that that door was dead-bolted. He doesn’t need to scan the room; his glowing eyes jump immediately to me even as he’s closing the entrance behind him, and he takes a seat at my small dining table without removing them from me. He’s dressed the same as last night and every night, and I reiterate to myself the theory that vampires don’t need to change clothing much.

There can be no such thing as an un-charged sight of him, and my brain teems even just with this glance. The way he looks at me recalls my realization yesterday of how much he must love me, which is still a diamond-hard awareness my musings glance off of, can’t get any purchase on — and that’s only the most basic level of my reaction to his presence. However, amidst all the complicated reflections and feelings half acknowledged, memories of the past and fears for the future, one interesting point stands out: I’m happy to see him. Uncomplicatedly happy that he’s here, that I can be with him again for a little while. I try very hard not to assign any interpretation to this.

Instead I remark, “That door was locked, you know.”

He glances over. “It probably still is.”

“You couldn’t open locked doors back in Japan.”

“I don’t know if I ever tried,” he replies, and I miss the nonchalant shrug that would have accompanied such a statement from him in the distant past. “But vampires are weird. Those of us who survive get all sorts of interesting abilities as we get older.”

“So I’m seeing.” I lean against the kitchen counter and watch him, content for the moment to do only that — to observe him, assessing as best I can, coming no closer but drawing no farther back. “And you obviously don’t have to be invited into someone’s home.”

He frowns slightly, and it’s an expression of thoughtfulness rather than unhappiness. “That one… used to be true. I think it still is, in some places. But even in the parts of Europe where it was the biggest problem, it was already fading when I got changed. I’m trying to think…” He shakes his head. “I don’t remember ever getting stuck at somebody’s door because of that.”

So fascinated am I at this unexpected description of the situation, it takes me a moment to realize my water is boiling. As I hastily tear open the side of the box and somewhat clumsily pour the dry noodles in while trying not to remove my eyes from my vampire ex, I ask in great interest, “Why? How does that work?”

Now he does shrug, though as casual gestures go it’s still pretty stiff and chilly. “Nobody’s really sure. The favorite theory — at least right now — is that, thanks to all the vampires in popular culture and everyone’s growing interest in them — I mean, we’d never heard of them, but Dracula was only twenty years later — society’s kinda given vampires a collective invitation in, so vampires don’t have to worry about individual invitations anymore.”

This is utterly engrossing, and if I’m stirring my noodles properly, it’s through muscle memory alone. “So… human collective consciousness affects what vampires can and can’t do.”

“Something like that. There’s a lot about us that isn’t really well understood. Nobody likes to call it ‘magic,’ but how else can you describe it?”

Magic. How else indeed? Looking at him like this, talking to him like this… remembering a previous life and our time together in it… reflecting on how surreal and difficult things have become… I can’t think of a better word. I shake my head slightly and ask, “Is anyone studying all of this?”

Sanosuke chuckles monosyllabically. “One thing you figure out pretty quick about vampires is that we’re really private. We probably don’t actually need to stay as secret as we do — it’d be easier to live openly with humans — but there’s this fear of ‘them finding out’ that kinda throws a wet blanket over everything we do. Most vampires aren’t down for being studied.”

I nod. “It seems like a…” I search for the right term, and settle on, “scientific shame… but I’m not a vampire.” And as I offer a shrug of my own, I realize I’ve said the wrong thing. Yesterday he told me he would come back tonight to ‘see how I’m doing’ — not to press the issue of his potentially life-changing wish — and here we’ve been having an interesting conversation on a relatively unconnected topic… I don’t think it’s wise to bring up points more specifically connected to that question I can’t answer yet. Deeming this an excellent moment to pay some real attention to the macaroni spinning in the hot liquid at my side, I turn toward it and stir more pointedly.

It seems to be with some difficulty Sanosuke avoids the segue I inadvertently offered him and says instead, “Ask Megumi about it if you’re really interested. She thinks it’s a scientific shame too.”

Directing my words into the steam rising before my face, I asked as casually as I can manage, “Am I likely to see her again?”

“I’m almost her only friend. As long as we’re in the same area, we’re gonna hang out as much as we can. She’ll probably show up here eventually too.”

His words give me a faint, shivering glimpse into the lonely fate of a vampire, a member of a ‘really private’ people — a people unwilling to be discovered by the majority of the population among which they exist, unwilling even to learn more about themselves if it means ‘them finding out.’ For a doctor, that must be almost unbearable. For anyone, that must be almost unbearable.

“Do you have other friends?” I can’t help asking, quiet and concerned despite the awkwardness of the question. It isn’t my place anymore to pry into his private affairs… though obviously he’d like it to be, which is part of the problem.

“No.” He doesn’t pause before saying it, doesn’t seem to be adding up or considering whether So-and-So really counts as a friend. Just a flat negative. “Other vampires don’t like Meg very much, and they know I created her… They’re mostly a bunch of assholes anyway, so I don’t really try with them.” And he doesn’t even mention the possibility of human friends.

This, I think, sheds some light (an inappropriate metaphor when discussing a vampire if ever there was one) on a couple of different points. If because of this prejudice against Takani and her vampiric creator — whatever that stems from — Sanosuke has formed no meaningful relationships, engaged in no emotional intimacy except with one person that evidently isn’t always around, for 130 years, is it any surprise whatsoever that he’s clung all the more tenaciously to his love for me? Is it any surprise that tracking me down and experiencing, even if only for moments in between lifetimes of suffering, what was perhaps the truest and deepest connection he ever felt has become his driving purpose?

Beyond that, is it any wonder he’s altered so much? On an endless search punctuated with disappointment and rejection, usually alone and with no prospect of any companionship, any uplifting interaction to reinforce his humane instincts, beyond brief contact with that single aforementioned friend — his only other options being ‘a bunch of assholes’ that don’t accept him in any case, is it any wonder he has, as he said himself, become a worse person? He claimed time changes him, but I think it may be more circumstance than natural progression.

And in a situation like this, is there any hope for the future — his or mine?

I can’t speak as unhesitatingly as he does; not only do these thoughts sadden and appall me, I haven’t had over a century to get used to all of this. So it’s a moment or two before I ask, “Why don’t they like her?”

“When she comes around, you’ll have to have her tell you all about it.”

I nod, accepting that this isn’t his story to relate, and silence falls. I don’t know what to say. Can I voice the ideas I just turned over in my head? Can I suggest that perhaps his tendency to throw himself so fully into everything has done him a disservice in this case? Because it seems there are other options, alternatives to living in a lonely echo chamber of the old emotions he can’t let go. It seems he needn’t have transformed into what he is today, if only he had ever been willing to think of something other than me and finding me again and continually making his horrendous offer. He could have saved himself, and perhaps he still can… but can I tell him that? I’m afraid I don’t know him well enough anymore; I may be mistaken in my entire assessment, and in any case I can’t voice it aloud.

Presently, with no apparent incitement other than the passage of silent time, I find him at my side. His quick, noiseless movement is startling, but at least the concept of vampires and their uncanny abilities has been specifically on my mind to prepare me for it. Now he looks into the pot on the stove and grimaces faintly at its swirling contents. “You and your gross noodles,” he comments.

Though his words make me chuckle, which is a relief in the present atmosphere, I’m distracted by his physical closeness. Though not quite against me, he is standing very near — near enough that I should feel his body heat, rendering its absence conspicuous. And though my right hand continues its mechanical stirring motion, the rest of me is frozen in indecision. I’d like to touch him, to connect with him a little, to reassure the part of myself that still thinks of this as impossible that it’s all true. 130 years ago, if we’d been alone like this and he so close to me, I would have reached out without conscious deliberation. It might have been a blatantly sexual gesture, or merely a playful one, or something gentler and more casual just to take pleasure in his presence… but even ‘gentle’ and ‘casual’ is far beyond me right now, and there’s a gulf between us that may never be spanned. I don’t like it. I still don’t know how I feel about him, but I don’t like it.

I do manage to respond to his comment, however, using the process of extracting a couple of macaroni from the water and letting them cool in order to test their softness as a mask for my discomfort. “These won’t be plain, though; they’ll have cheese on them.”

“Yeah… ‘cheese…'” He returns to the table — he really does move disconcertingly quickly — and resumes his seat. “Some foods I’m glad I never had to try.”

“You dodged a bullet with this one, then.” I set the colander in the sink and carry the pot to it. Over the ensuing waterfall I raise my voice to continue, “If you were human in this era, I suspect you’d eat nothing but macaroni and cheese.”

He laughs, and perhaps just a touch of the tension between us is dispelled. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“I know I am,” I murmur as I throw a quarter stick of butter into the bottom of the still-hot pan and let it start to melt. “If Kraft macaroni and cheese had existed in Meiji Japan, that’s all you would have eaten back then too.”

He laughs even louder this time, reminding me hauntingly of the old Sano. “OK, fine, when you sound that sure about it…”

I echo his mirth, then ask in some interest, “Is there any normal food you can eat?”

“Nothing at all, unless you count water. Not even raw meat.”

“What happens if you try?” It’s a rather disgusting topic, but apparently it doesn’t bother him, and I’m curious.

“It sits in my stomach and rots.” And with this matter-of-fact answer, the topic becomes even more disgusting. “And makes my breath smell really, really bad.”

Grateful I’m not squeamish, I even laugh a little as I wonder, “Worse than after drinking blood?”

“I guess it’s a matter of taste,” he admits, “but the blood at least gets absorbed. The food just sits around.”

“And your body really has no way of getting rid of it?”

“Oh, it does.” His tone is dark all of a sudden. “We can get most of our old functions working again temporarily if we drink enough blood all at once.”

“Oh.” I fall awkwardly silent, and for a moment the only sound in the room is the newly squishy stirring of macaroni now complete with sauce. I don’t really want to pursue this, but it’s something I feel I need to know. “And you never drink much blood all at once.”

“I only feed when I have to,” he confirms shortly. And another awkward silence fills the room.

Extracting leftover peas from the fridge, removing the Tupperware lid, and getting the microwave started gives me half a minute or so I can safely spend with my back to him as I ask what may be another unwelcome question: “And what about animal blood?”

“I wish,” he says fervently. “There’s another scientific shame for you: nobody knows why it has to be human blood.”

“That seems like something easier to study, though,” I muse, beginning to gather up accoutrements for my dinner — plate, fork, salt and pepper, napkin, Coke and cup with ice with which to drink it. “To determine what’s nutritionally unique about human blood…”

“I don’t think it’s that, though…” As I turn back toward him with utensils I plan to set down on the table across from him, I find he’s sitting less stiffly than he was when he first took that position: he’s got one foot up on the chair, white hands folded over the raised knee near his face, and his other foot kicking against the floor slightly. I like that; it reminds me of how he used to be. I realize belatedly that his tones have grown less cold, too, during the course of our discussion; is it possible that this vampire talk really has set him somewhat at ease? That would be ironic, considering how uncomfortable I feel.

“It’s another stupid ‘magic’ thing,” he goes on– “but don’t ever let any vampire besides me or Meg hear you use that word, I swear — because it seems like there’s something about the actual act of drinking blood from a human body that makes all the difference. Otherwise the ones of us who don’t like murdering people could just live off the rejects from blood banks. That stuff’ll keep you going for a while,” he adds in a distasteful sort of aside, “if you can stand the anticoagulant, but it doesn’t really satisfy you. And the longer you go unsatisfied…” His hands rise in a helpless gesture. “…the more likely you are to murder people.”

An unpleasant thought strikes me: is he perhaps growing warmer and less constrained this evening, more like his old self, because he’s getting the chance to educate me on being a vampire? He hasn’t brought up the big question even obliquely, but is this all really just a subtle training session of sorts for the future he has in mind for me? Perhaps he believes that if he simultaneously relaxes me into the concept and talks about it in a fairly down-to-earth manner, it will be easier for me to accept. If that’s the case… well, it’s not likely to make the thought of becoming a monster easier to accept, but it is a kinder way to accustom me to these ideas. For I’m not sure if I could have asked what I have tonight under many other circumstances.

Case in point, I wonder now, “Has anyone ever attempted drinking animal blood from a human? Pig’s blood from a human’s mouth, for example.”

He blinks in surprise, letting his foot down off the chair and staring at me. “I don’t know! I never have.” After a moment he lets out the heartiest laugh of the evening. “God, can you picture what a mess that would make? It’d be like a bird-mom giving her little babies food, except the food is blood, and no matter how careful you were, you’d end up with it all over each other — ’cause you’d only get a mouthful each time, so you’d have to keep coming back for more, and eventually the vampire and the human and the entire fucking room would just be covered in pig’s blood.”

“You could use a straw,” I suggest blandly, though it’s a struggle to keep a straight face.

And at this Sanosuke drops his head to the table and laughs until I’m sure he would be crying if he were still capable of it. It’s somewhat reassuring to realize vampires aren’t immune to a touch of hysteria when they’re highly amused during a situation of intense repressed emotion. I don’t hesitate to laugh along with him, through my macaroni and cheese, and for a minute or so everything is… not wonderful, not even good, but… OK. We’ve struck a balance. He’s a vampire; I don’t know how I feel about him; I’m still ill at ease and often horrified around him; but it’s good to be here with him.

And apparently he agrees, for eventually he chortles, “Oh, my god, Saitou, it is so good to be with you again.” And the smile on his handsome, colorless face is 100% my old Sano.

We continue the conversation — mostly about vampires, yes, but I don’t mind so much — for some time as I finish my dinner and clean up. He never mentions his desire to make me one of them, though I think on a couple of occasions he’s tempted to as he was earlier, and an odd feeling starts to take me. Sitting here across the table from him, talking over dinner, asking some decidedly getting-to-know-you questions… I almost laugh out loud when the realization hits me. But I don’t think we’re quite back to the point where explaining funny thoughts that pop up at random would come naturally just yet. So I merely keep up my end of the discussion, sometimes haltingly and never without effort, and remain privately of the opinion that this is without a doubt the strangest date I’ve ever been on.


“Well…” Takani sat back on her heels with an expression so baffled it hardly had room for the revulsion and pity lingering around the corners of her mouth and eyes. She made a helpless gesture. “You appear to be dead.”

“Told you so,” Sano mumbled. He hadn’t rebalanced himself enough to say it brazenly as he normally would, but merely that he said it at all was reassuring.

And I was certainly in need of reassurance. “How?” I wondered, trying not to sound as demanding as I felt of the doctor already mystified by this situation. “Why?”

She gave a slight shake of head indicative of continued bafflement and began to count on her fingers. “Very little heart activity, no respiration except when he’s thinking about it, unlivably low body temperature, almost no gut motility or salivation… He has none of the functions of a living body except for…” She threw her hands up. “…being alive!”

None of us knew what else to say. It was medically impossible, yet undeniably present in front of us — for Sano, undeniably present within his own body. And I wasn’t about to confess aloud that, horrified as I was at the concept of his being dead somehow, I was still intensely, overwhelmingly relieved he was alive.

We sat wordless for quite some time. The situation made for a significant distraction from the far more straightforward and comprehensible nature of my own form, but didn’t entirely erase my awareness of pain and difficulty navigating my wounds. But of course Sano’s condition concerned me far more, so for the moment my state seemed an irritant rather than a true debilitation. I stared at him with frustratingly exhausted eyes, simultaneously unable to look my fill at his moving and sometimes breathing figure and trying to solve the conundrum of what had happened to him.

Takani stared too. She’d done all the basic-level probing she was capable of, but, though she’d mentioned more in-depth testing before declaring him dead and falling as contemplatively silent as Sano and I had, she’d made the suggestion without much energy — not, I believed, out of any lack of interest in answers or determination to find them, though the sheer lunacy of the circumstances undoubtedly did present a barrier of sorts, but out of pure weariness. Earlier, when I’d recovered myself enough to seek her out, she’d informed me — with no reproach, merely as an explanation — that she’d only been in bed about an hour and a half after a late call to assist with a difficult childbirth.

And Sano, in as close to perfect seiza as I’d ever seen him, was staring as well: down at his unmoving hands, pale as the death I still wanted to deny, that gripped each other in his lap. How did it feel to hear with functioning ears, to process in an active brain that you were deceased? What was moving under his unusually calm exterior? I realized I wished Takani would go away.

As if reading my thought, she took a deep breath and looked around in a movement very much like shaking herself awake, tearing her eyes from Sano with the manner of one that hadn’t really been seeing what she was looking at anyway. With an effort she turned toward me. “This changes your investigation.”

“It does,” I agreed, taking a deep breath of my own; it aided in transition. “It suggests an explanation for why my opponent didn’t react normally to being injured during our fight.”

“Yeah,” Sano agreed, lifting one of the hands he was so fixated upon and clenching it into an experimental fist. “I don’t feel like I’d react much if you injured me right now.” The faintest touch of a smile appeared on his face. “Matter of fact, I dunno if you could injure me right now.”

“We’ll see about that,” I replied, trying for levity and largely failing.

Takani didn’t appear to approve in any case. “Whatever I can learn about your condition,” she said sternly, directing her words first at Sano and then at me, “may give us more information about the murderer.”

“Nice to know I’m a test subject for criminal investigation now.” Sano too was aiming at casual banter, and succeeding better than I had.

Takani reached out and poked the center of his forehead with a pointer finger. “Understanding what’s happening to you and how to treat it will be a secondary benefit,” she admitted facetiously. Then she yawned.

I took the opportunity to say, “You should go back to bed.”

Her face tightened with extreme reluctance. “It’s you two who should go back to bed,” she mused, sounding as if she were trying to convince herself, “but as long as my patients are asleep, I might as well be too…” Her concern for us both, but for Sano most specifically, and her professional interest in his state were abundantly evident. But so was her weariness, and probably my own — if not my intense desire, after her initial diagnosis, to talk to Sano privately.

“You can examine him further after we’ve all had some rest,” I told her firmly. “In the meantime, I promise to wake you again if anything medically interesting takes place.”

She tilted her chin upward and replied with mock haughtiness, “I don’t know if you would recognize ‘medically interesting,’ officer.” But it was only a joke, and she pushed herself to her feet the next moment. Neither of us rose with her, so she looked down imperiously as she added, “But make sure you do call me if anything changes.” At the exit she glanced back with a pensive, worried expression, clearly unsure she was doing the right thing in postponing further exploration… but eventually she did depart, closing the door behind her and leaving us to each other’s company in the brilliance of all the lamps she’d lit for her examination.

Slowly, in a movement almost as reluctant as Takani’s had been if probably for different reasons, Sano too finally got up, and went to deal with the obtrusive lights. I watched him carefully, unsure exactly what to say. His movements were fluid, easy, even natural, but there was something about them that made me feel cold. And his face, when he turned toward me again, appeared pensive but nothing worse, yet I shivered. He simply could not be as detached from this as his outward aspect suggested. I wasn’t certain how best to inquire, but between my wounds and the emotional battering I’d taken tonight, I was too hurt and exhausted to come up with any circumspect way of asking what I needed to know.

So I opted for bluntness. “How are you feeling?”

He paused in extinguishing the last lamp, visage averted from me and stillness uncanny. And the forced cheerfulness that emanated from him as he replied was like a blow. “I feel great, actually! I feel like I could run five miles without breaking a sweat. I mean,” he added with a stiff chuckle, “obviously I’m not really sweating right now, but the point is, I feel… probably better than I ever have. I don’t get it–” he shrugged as he put out the final light– “but it’s not bad.”

Still blunt, but finding it easier to make this specification in the darkness, I said, “I meant emotionally.”

For another moment he stood still, and I realized I’d neglected to draw Takani’s attention to the new and preternatural luminance of his eyes. I’d only noticed it vaguely myself, caught up as I had been with other concerns; now I focused on it, not as something I particularly liked or drew interest from, but as essentially the only object on which my own eyes were willing to settle and proof that he was looking at me as fixedly as I was at him. And in fact it was this topic, rather than any response to my question, he chose to bring up next: “I can see a lot better in the dark all of a sudden. It is really dark in here, right?”

“It is,” was all I could say. I didn’t have the heart to tell him his eyes were glowing, to add the question of what that might mean to the ever-expanding list. Not yet.

His black silhouette and those two points moved toward me, footsteps remarkably quiet across the floor, and I sensed him fall to his knees beside my futon. “Megumi was right: you should get some sleep.”

Though my body cried out in agreement, I refused to lower myself into a prone position just yet; I knew that when I did, unconsciousness would not be long in coming, and there were things needing to be said first. “Sano,” I insisted. “Are you all right?”

After the longest silence yet — so long, in fact, with that utterly motionless figure beside me, I might have believed I’d dozed off and missed his answer — he finally took one of the profound preparatory breaths I was already beginning to associate with speech rather than a need for oxygen with him. He probably didn’t require quite that much air, though, for the brief whisper he gave: “No.”

I sat up more fully and reached for him, and he came willingly into my arms. It shocked me all over again how cold he was, and the contact between us still hurt, yet I drew him against me and held him firmly. Apart from the chill, his body felt nothing but hale and strong, giving no indication of whatever turmoil lay within, but all that did was give me reason to cling tighter as if trying to get at that hidden interior.

I didn’t know whether it was the new closeness, or the intensity of my embrace, or my anticipatory wordlessness, or the concealing darkness around us that allowed him finally to elaborate. “I’m so fucking scared right now, Saitou.” He continued to whisper, as if any more volume might attract the attention of what he feared. “My body feels just fine — better than just fine — but I’m still dead. What if this is just… putting off really being dead somehow? When’s it gonna catch up with me? Am I gonna drop down dead all of a sudden — for real this time — without any warning? I don’t know what the hell’s going on, and I don’t really think Megumi can figure it out.”

The light of his eyes disappeared as he buried his face in my shoulder, and I felt my own body trembling as I held him. I couldn’t muster the energy, this time, to tell him he wasn’t dead; I couldn’t even tell myself that anymore. I did, however, have a train of logic I could use to reply to his primary concern. “The man who did this to you — Shibue or whoever he is — has been murdering people for months without any sign of weakening or dropping down dead all of a sudden. I don’t think you need to worry about that.”

“That’s… a good point,” Sano allowed shakily. “I have at least a couple of months, then.”

“And you should have more faith in Takani.” I was grasping at straws here trying to comfort him, but I supposed it was better than nothing. “Imagine what she’d do to you if she knew you didn’t think she could keep you alive. Or whatever we’re calling this.”

He gave a reluctant chuckle. “She might kill me.” It was dark humor, but it was humor. Something in him had eased a little — I couldn’t tell how I knew — so I was satisfied for the moment.

I pulled at him. “Lie down here with me. You may feel better than fine, but you could still do with some rest.”

He drew back a little. “But I’m freezing cold.”

“You’ll save the clinic on ice, then.”

He gave in, clearly craving the closeness, and stretched out against me, as comfortably as we could render the arrangement, on the futon not really intended for more than one person. And he was freezing cold, but my half-joking rejoinder also held true: though the pressure remained uncomfortable, the chill of his body felt actively good against my strained muscles and bruises. If I could fall asleep while a doctor rubbed ice all over me, I could fall asleep like this. I didn’t know whether he would be capable of it, and I didn’t like to abandon him in his current state no matter how much I’d managed to comfort him with my logic and weak humor, but I was about at the end of what I could handle for the night.

And in fact I very soon lost consciousness, and did not awaken for how many hours I couldn’t tell. My dreams during that time wrenched at my heart, appalling and tragic, half remembered and quickly fading upon awakening though they were, and it was with renewed poignancy and relief that I found Sano still in my arms, still cold and unbreathing and unmoving at my side, when I opened my eyes.

Clearly having roused before me, if he’d slept at all, Sano recognized my wakefulness immediately, drew aside, and sat up as if he’d been waiting to do so. The room, an interior chamber removed from sunlight by multiple filters, was only a little brighter now that it had been when I’d gone to sleep, but I thought I could make out the expression on his face: bleak, haggard, wearier than last night if that were possible, and reflecting deeper troubles.

“Did you sleep?” My question came a little hoarsely, and I had to clear my throat.

Sano shook his head, those newly glowing eyes swinging from side to side like carriage lanterns at a sharp turn. He pulled his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them, appearing childish and forlorn and as if he wanted to ward off reality with this defensive posture. He inhaled, perhaps to speak, then merely let it out in a sigh.

I struggled upward more slowly than he had done, feeling my way through my injuries. I thought they were diminished somewhat since last night. I wanted to clean my teeth, to visit the toilet, to find some breakfast… but all of these needs paled beside that of attending to this wretched-looking Sano of mine. I would have reached out for him, inviting him again into my arms, if he hadn’t just pulled away from an embrace that had lasted presumably many hours already. So as it was, I watched, waiting for him to speak.

When he finally did, it was in a fainter voice than I’d ever heard from him, it too almost childlike in its uncertainty: “He broke my neck. He took me by surprise and hit me so hard…” He raised one hand to the back of the organ in question exactly as he had last night. “I couldn’t move. I was just paralyzed on the floor. I think something else was dislocated too, but it kinda didn’t matter right then.”

I merely continued to stare at him. There would be no purpose in commenting that his neck appeared unbroken and nothing on him seemed dislocated.

“He drinks blood,” Sano went on desolately. “That’s what happened to all the murder victims.” Now his hand crept from the back of his neck to the front where the two puncture wounds — long suspected to be the point where our unknown killer had drained the blood from the bodies — stood out copper-colored against the unnatural whiteness of his skin. “He bites you right here and sucks the blood right outta you.”

“But none of the other murder victims…” I had no adequate way to describe what had happened to Sano, so I merely gestured at him to indicate what I meant.

“That’s because I drank his blood too.” Now Sano hid his face between his knees, and the supreme horror of this part of the night’s story sounded strong in his voice. “I thought it was a dream, but… that’s how he made me like this: he drank my blood, and gave me his blood to drink in exchange. My injuries healed up completely, and now I’m like this. Because I drank his blood.”

I was simply out of consolation to offer, words or gestures. What could anyone say in response to that? With an inward steadying of self I tangented to the logistics of our situation. “How long have you remembered all of this?”

“It’s been coming back to me ever since I woke up in that shed out there.”

“But you didn’t tell me any of it last night.”

“It took hours to put all the pieces together.” Finally he raised his bright eyes far enough to look at me again over the curve of his kneecaps; I couldn’t read their expression. “Besides, I figured if I told you I drank some guy’s blood, you’d never get to sleep.”

That startled an “Ahou” right out of me, by which I meant — though I couldn’t say it in so many words — I was supposed to be looking out for you last night, not the other way around.” It was very much like when he’d tried to comfort me in that desperate moment in the dark when we’d first entered this room; it was unfair that he, after what he’d suffered, should be the one to feel the need to offer support. It was just like him.

Now he lifted his face farther, high enough that I could see the slight smile on his lips. “More like ihou now, isn’t it?” — a terrible pun having to do with a relic of a dead person.

“Stop that,” I commanded, glad to find I could still feel irritable even under these circumstances; it normalized things somewhat.

His smile widened into a grin, the first real instance of that expression I’d seen from him since he… died. Finally he let go of his knees, stretching his entire body out alongside mine once again and staring up at the ceiling with a sigh. “Not looking forward to telling Megumi about the blood thing.”

“As eager as she is to find out more about your condition,” I reminded him, “you’re under no obligation to tell her anything.”

“Well, but she’s involved in all of this now; I feel like I owe her that much. Besides, it’s like she said last night: the more she can learn about me, the more we’ll know about the guy who did this.”

“Do you remember anything about him?”

Sano raised his arms to pillow his hands beneath his head in a gesture almost shockingly casual under the circumstances. “Not a damn thing, except what he did: nothing about what he was actually like.”

A long silence followed, less miserable and uncomfortable than any that had gone before. Sano was strong; despite his fear and uncertainty and disgust at what had happened and what might happen, he was recovering his confidence and presence of mind. I felt almost as much relief at this as I had at finding him alive in the first place, and touched to no small degree by the realization that it seemed to have been interacting with me that had helped him take this step. It seemed we really could get through this together, trite as that sounded.

Eventually I voiced something that had been on the periphery of my awareness since last night: “We can’t stay here. He was able to target you on your way across the back yard; our continued presence puts everyone in the clinic at risk.”

Sano nodded. “Maybe I really won’t have to tell her about the blood, then. She’s not gonna like it, though.”

“No.” I chuckled darkly. “Even if she weren’t already concerned for our health as a doctor and a friend, this will be a blow to her scientific curiosity. But it can’t be helped; we wouldn’t want a repeat of last night.”

He shuddered, the most human physical reaction I’d seen in him for a while. “Fuck, no,” he muttered.

Not particularly looking forward to rising and moving around, I stirred and said, “We should let her know as soon as possible, and then leave. We’ll go to my house.”

Sano turned a lopsided grin toward me. “Your house, huh? I guess that’s something to look forward to.” Then he added, “As long as you don’t mind having a blood-drinker under your roof,” in a tone that reminded me very much of the one he’d used once upon a time to confirm that I was married: would-be casualness barely masking a deep concern. I realized he’d mentioned the blood-drinking more frequently and more pointedly than he probably would have if he hadn’t been sounding me out for a reaction I hadn’t yet given.

The truth was, we had a lot to consider and discuss relating to Sano’s attacker and how the events of last night changed my perspective on the murder case and my professional plans — but postponing such discussion until a more private, secure, and leisurely setting still seemed the wisest course. So I wasn’t thinking about the seemingly perverted and decidedly unsettling answer to our long-standing question, ‘What does this murderer want with so much blood?’ And I was trying not to think about the ghastly scenario Sano had mentioned, of his having been forced to partake in our enemy’s gruesome predilection. But it appeared I needed to think about it, at least briefly, in order to reassure him.

“I don’t mind having you under my roof,” I told him firmly, “regardless of what some maniac with sharp teeth did to you.”

A faint hissing intake of unnecessary breath and its release with a more appeased sound was the only indication he gave of the relief I believed he felt. And after a moment he sat up again and turned away from me, apparently toward the clock on the wall; I couldn’t make out its hands in the dark room, but evidently he had no trouble telling the time. “Should be late enough to wake kitsune up by now,” he mumbled. In a fluid movement that illustrated just how hearty and strong he still felt physically, he jumped lightly to his feet. “I’ll go get her.”

Much more slowly and painstakingly, I moved to follow. “First walk with me to the outbuilding.”

In accepting the hand he offered to help me up, I couldn’t but sense his strength. And in the light from the hallway that spilled over him as he opened the door, I couldn’t miss the unquestionable apprehension in his face. “Bring your sword.”

I didn’t protest, despite how absurd the admonition might have seemed to an outsider, only moved to retrieve the article in question.

The Oguni clinic tended toward quiet and calm at most times of day, I’d already noticed, and hopefully Takani was yet resting; so it was both typical and desirable that we met no one in the corridor on our way. My movements still hurt considerably, but I could feel a definite improvement, and this allowed surer steps with less specific concentration than last night; I appreciated that.

Stepping into the same geta as before, I noticed the hook beside the outer door still empty; presumably this exit had been unlocked ever since Sano had left the building on the same errand that occupied me now. We should have considered that, I reflected uneasily, though admittedly we’d had good reason for distraction.

I gestured, pleased to find the motion not as painful as yesterday. “Do you have this key?”

“Oh, yeah.” As I turned to glance at him, Sano, just behind me, lifted a hand, ready to thrust it into his pocket, and the door slid open under the influence of my own. But his expression instantly twisted, altering horribly, as he gave a sudden unexpected cry of dismay and pain and staggered backward.

Occasioning some serious discomfort in my limbs — though by now I was rather accustomed to it — I hastily followed him the two steps he’d stumbled, heart racing as if to make up for the sluggishness of his and glancing around as if I weren’t fully aware of our solitude and expected to find some newly arrived enemy. Sano was clutching at one hand with the other, holding it so tightly against his chest that I couldn’t see what might be wrong with it; and on his face was a look almost more astonished than hurt, though the pain was evident as well.

“What happened?” I demanded, eyes again darting from him to find the answer. But the corridor was, as I well knew, unpeopled except for ourselves, bright in the sun that streamed through the exit flung open to the morning air.

“The– the light,” he gasped, and his words, like his face, seemed to hold more surprise than anything else. He finally released his tight grip in order to gesture almost desperately with his right hand toward the door and the rays streaming through it, and I was every bit as shocked as he to see what had happened to his left: it was covered from fingertip to wrist, on its outside face, with an angry redness, shining and blistered, a hideous welt at least six inches long. It was what I imagined a sunburn might progress to in a far hotter climate than this; it appeared agonizing, but, more than that, impossible to have happened in the mere moment the direct sunlight had spent on his skin. Impossibility, however, had been thoroughly negated where he was concerned.

Footsteps and voices sounded from different parts of the building, undoubtedly roused by Sano’s cry, but I didn’t know that I wanted anyone but Takani to see him. “Come back into the room,” I urged, taking him by the shoulders, disregarding the open door just as we’d previously disregarded its unlocked state. I couldn’t move him until he was willing to move himself, but that took only a moment; soon we were barricaded against prying eyes again in the examination room that had been my home for far too long, though it was only a matter of time before someone knocked.

Sano held his hand out from his body, wincing and hissing with pain, face screwed up so harshly I expected to see tears that, presumably, his eyes no longer produced. He couldn’t utter a word, he was evidently in such distress. Looking at the boils and flaming redness of his fresh wound, I couldn’t say I blamed him.

The implications of this event were so numerous, and potentially interacted so intricately with the other inferences Sano’s condition had raised about our unknown foe, my head was spinning trying to keep them all in the background where they belonged. I needed to help Sano; I needed to talk to Takani; I needed to get our plans for leaving back on track.

I didn’t need, right at this moment, to dwell on just how close I’d apparently come to losing Sano again, this time to the most innocuous of natural phenomena.


For some author’s notes on part 17, see this Productivity Log.


Naked Rooftops

He was a little miffed at the drunken mercenary that had somehow, beyond all reason, tempted him into doing this right in the middle of an undercover assignment.

After (what should have been) a pretty simple assignment takes an unexpected turn, an ambiguous couple in an unusual situation must work out how they got here and what to do next.


Saitou hadn’t expected Zanza to have such ridiculously, compellingly smooth skin. Marked though it was, here and there, with scars of various sizes (and apparent levels of direness of the original wound), even these were unexpectedly smooth and more or less begged to have a tongue run languidly over them, one by one, for the rest of the evening. Saitou definitely hadn’t been expecting that urge. But honestly, Saitou hadn’t expected a fair number of things about this day.

Zanza, whose ridiculously, compellingly smooth skin had barely started to cool from the intense heat of a few minutes before, also hadn’t yet fully stilled, squirming against Saitou as if determined not to allow the sensations to fade. He’d thrown a leg across Saitou’s, hugging him with the lower half of his body if not quite as insistently as earlier, pretty tenaciously yet. It wasn’t a terribly convenient arrangement of limbs, but Saitou was disinclined to move — and he hadn’t expected that either. He wasn’t sure how he felt about all of this.

Well, he was absolutely certain how his body felt about all of this. It had been a while since he’d had sex, and a much longer while since he’d had sex that enjoyable, and every millimeter of his frame — from a scalp that still tingled faintly where Zanza’s fingertips had threaded through his hair against it, to lips throbbing and swollen after the pressure of unrestrained kisses, to the groin with its residual pulsations of the pleasure it had recently experienced, to the bare toes that hadn’t stopped curling luxuriously in the warm air — every last part of him gloried in the memory and aftereffects of the activities just concluded.

But as for his mind… In the more logical thoughts — the ones not caught up with how excellently Zanza’s well muscled yet delightfully limber body had accepted Saitou’s own and how close to perfect that experience had been — he was a little miffed at the drunken mercenary that had somehow, beyond all reason, tempted him into doing this right in the middle of an undercover assignment.

He had recognized kenkaya Zanza almost immediately when that young man, with his obtrusive kanji-marked attire and absurd hair, had made his way over to where Saitou sat very unobtrusively, ostensibly minding his own business and reading the news, at a small table with a good view of the inn’s dining room and bar, but he hadn’t had any idea what the young man might want. At first, of course, he’d considered the possibility that his cover was blown and someone had sent this darling of the violent Tokyo underworld after him — not that it would do them much good — but he’d dismissed the suggestion quickly as a little too random and unlikely. That was ironic in hindsight when what had actually transpired had turned out to be a good deal more random and unlikely.

The mercenary’s eyes had been bright with drink, and he’d smelled not unpleasantly of sake as well. He’d moved with the faintly exaggerated swagger of a person whose confidence is in no way impaired for all his abilities might be, and, though he’d looked like an idiot, he’d looked like an affable and very visually appealing idiot. For this reason Saitou had not objected to his taking the opposite seat uninvited — and also because objecting might have drawn attention to him (which Zanza, of course, with his mere presence, had already been threatening to do).

“Hey.” As drunken greetings went, Saitou supposed, Zanza’s could have been a lot less articulate, though not much more trite. “Haven’t seen you around here before.”

Naturally Saitou had been in Polite Mode at the time, and therefore only smiled and lowered his newspaper. “Oh? Are you here often enough to know the difference?”

“Enough to know what-all hot older guys hang around the place.” The grin Zanza had flashed him was disarming, flirtatious, and intoxicated all at once.

Saitou had laughed — out loud but not loudly — at the idea that he was a ‘hot older guy.’ Given that Zanza definitely qualified as a hot younger guy, however, he’d had to admit to himself some sense of the flattery in the statement. “This is an inn,” he’d said with low-key sarcasm. “There are reasons other than ‘hanging around the place’ drinking yourself stupid for someone to be here.”

Zanza’s grin had turned sneaky. “You away from home on business, then? Away from the wife for a while?”

“That’s right.” Saitou had been amused at both the suggestiveness in the question and the truth beyond what Zanza could know in the answer.

“Well, business is always better with sake, so lemme buy you a drink. I mean, put you a drink on my tab.”

Unable to keep from chuckling at this blatant admission of impecunity, Saitou had also been unable to come up with any reason to give for refusing — and, again, not wanting to do something that might cause Zanza to direct the room’s attention toward them, he’d gone ahead and accepted the offer. Besides, his target (a secretary suspected of making a quiet trade in classified information and with probably no upstanding reason to be spending so many long weekends at this inn away from his boss in the Ministry of Finance) hadn’t yet appeared on this particular evening in the dining room to be observed; Saitou had figured that being engaged in drinks and conversation with someone at his own table — someone over whose shoulder he could still easily watch the entire gathering, even if that someone was an absurdly dressed mercenary — might be a decent way to avoid suspicion.

The arrangement had turned out to be less than optimal, which perhaps he should have expected. Zanza hadn’t exactly been quiet to begin with, and each drink had seemed to drain from him further ability to be so. And every time he’d laughed — which had happened with increasing frequency as their surprisingly entertaining if equally stupid conversation had unfolded — it had been louder than the previous instance. Additionally, the ridiculous flirtation hadn’t stopped, and the drunker Zanza had become, the more suggestive his remarks — and the more suggestive his remarks (especially with his volume increasing), the more they’d attracted the attention of people at nearby tables. The fear that Zanza might make an even louder fuss if Saitou attempted to chastise or dismiss him had remained firmly in place, however.

At least the secretary had not yet shown up at that point. Saitou had considered his options, and the idea of taking Zanza upstairs to the room he’d rented — something Zanza had been hinting at all along and eventually had switched to openly demanding in increasingly graphic terms — had at the time seemed like the best plan. Now, in hindsight, Saitou wasn’t so certain he’d truly lacked a better option, and wondered if he hadn’t been — and wasn’t still, perhaps — a bit muddled by alcohol. He’d discarded, whenever the mercenary had looked away for even a moment, most of what Zanza had insisted on having brought to the table, but some of it had, by necessity, gone down his throat.

And he’d really felt that taking Zanza upstairs would be the best solution to his problem. Of course nearby diners, who’d been aware whether they’d liked it or not of the kenkaya’s desires, would probably laugh behind their hands at Saitou for giving in — but wouldn’t that just make him look less like someone here to spy on someone else? No, it had certainly made sense at the time.

He’d fully intended to knock Zanza out immediately they got up here. He wouldn’t have been able to go back down to the dining room right away, of course, but he hadn’t planned on putting up with a drunk and amorous — and, overall, very loud mercenary for very long, whatever he’d chosen to do thereafter.

And then…

He wasn’t honestly sure what had happened then. No matter how many times he traced the actual events, there was a disconnect in there somewhere that made it impossible to find a logical path from ‘intending to knock him out’ to ‘very enthusiastically fucking him.’

No matter how closely the police kept tabs on people like kenkaya Zanza (and that closeness already varied depending on how dangerous to public order the person in question really seemed), there would always be plenty of areas left uninvestigated. Naturally, therefore, Saitou was ignorant of personal details such as Zanza’s sexual habits and what he did between fights. Even not knowing, however, the officer had assumed without question that the flirtation at the table had been nothing serious. There was simply no way someone as attractive and flamboyant as this kid was really interested in an unhandsome older man that, as far as Zanza could believe at this point, held no compelling position and had no noteworthy experiences or abilities.

So perhaps it had had something to do with surprise at the apparent sincerity and definite eagerness with which the kenkaya had kissed him the moment they’d reached the upstairs room that Saitou hadn’t pushed him away as he’d planned. He hadn’t previously believed himself so susceptible to that kind of enthusiasm.

And here he was naked, very satisfied physically, annoyed mentally but unsure to what degree, with a very attractive young man cuddling up to him as if ready for a highly contented nap against his bare skin. There wasn’t time for that, of course; Saitou should get up, get dressed, and go back downstairs, since, as pleasant (in some ways) as he couldn’t deny this interlude had been, he did have actual work to return to. But was he going to be able to get Zanza to leave in any subtle fashion? Hell, was he going to be able to get Zanza to leave at all? He wouldn’t be surprised if, the moment he alluded to this evening’s next step, the young man started insisting they go for a second round. And after what had already happened, he might not be terribly surprised if he wasn’t able to decline the suggestion.

So in a continued mixture of bodily comfort and psychological dissonance, he tried to decide exactly what words to use to get himself out of this situation, and in what frame of mind he needed to be well entrenched to avoid further temptation.

*

Everything was going not only precisely according to plan but also far and away better than Zanza had expected. When had he last experienced this fantastic level of afterglow? When had he last been this happy about cuddling some guy he’d just met for more than twenty seconds after sex ended? When had he last been this pleased, in general, about the outcome of an encounter?

In the world he inhabited, sex was something you did the same way you used the latrine — every bit as clean, elegant, and fun to think about afterward. You had to do it, had to get it out of the way, and sometimes, if you were lucky enough to arrange circumstances optimally, it was even enjoyable (or at least satisfying) in the moment… but when it was over, you moved on until you found yourself really needing that release some other time. And he’d thought today’s instance would run exactly along those lines.

In fact he had expected even worse. He’d been certain the guy he’d been sent to seduce would turn out to be ugly as hell and thoroughly unpleasant. Then he would have been forced to decide whether or not to go through with it. Threats to his life didn’t scare him all that much, but it would have been risky, he believed, to decline this job. At the same time, he hadn’t been eager to try to seduce some ugly old man. So he hadn’t really wanted to be pushed into that decision.

But then Fujita had turned out to be… well, ‘just fine’ had been the kenkaya’s initial thought: in exactly the right age category (ten to twenty years older than Zanza) and with a striking face that was, if not necessarily gorgeous, unexpectedly fascinating. Zanza hadn’t been able to make out details of his figure at first in the decorously low-lit dining room, except that clearly the man was as lean as he’d been told, but on the whole he’d decided he didn’t at all mind. So he’d approached… and then, to his further surprise, during the course of their conversation, ‘just fine’ had gradually improved to ‘very fine’ as Fujita’s features and what Zanza could now see of his body grew on him — until eventually the mercenary was ready to label his target quite, if unconventionally, handsome. Instead of the grueling task he’d been half expecting, it had been remarkably easy to get into his role of drunk, bored, and horny.

And then the sex had been amazing. That was another thing about sex in the underworld: it was solely a means to an end — orgasm, mostly — not a pursuit in itself, and as such required a minimal amount of talent. For all Zanza might pride himself on his flexibility and stamina, being good at sex was a secondary if not tertiary skill set in his sphere. But, damn, this guy…! Or had it been more a combination than an individual thing? A very happy meeting of bodies, preferences, and abilities that came together remarkably well?

In any case, Zanza was considering very seriously whether, after not too much longer, he might not suggest they go for a second round. In fact, something in the back of his head that was getting louder by the moment was considering, with an increasing level of seriousness, whether or not he really wanted to collect payment for this job — thereby, most probably, destroying all chances of ever meeting this guy Fujita again on amicable terms — or whether, regardless of the promised amount, it wouldn’t be a better long-term plan to abandon it and instead try to find out whether said Fujita guy might not be amenable to some sort of arrangement having to do with future encounters like today’s on a regular basis.

He believed, after all, that Fujita had enjoyed this every bit as much as he had — and everyone needed a break from work now and then, right? (Or maybe slightly more often than ‘now and then.’) For his own sake, Zanza, of course, was always happy with anything distracting, anything that could get his thoughts off of what he lived to forget. He doubted this Fujita had such traumatic motivations, but that didn’t make the sex less fun on its own… Could they go somewhere with this?

At that moment, beneath Zanza’s still-searching hands and against his still-squirming body, Fujita stiffened abruptly. He pushed himself upward into a seated position so quickly his suddenly rising shoulder almost knocked the kenkaya even sillier than the rest of his body had rendered him by different methods. Zanza was sent sprawling to the side, off the edge of the futon onto the much cooler floor, as Fujita struggled to his feet. And then the door to their right burst from its tracks and into two or three pieces under the blow of a large hammer-like weapon carried by one of the several men — too many to count just now — that poured into the room before the door’s clattering pieces had even hit the floor.

Though it did take half an instant for Zanza to get his bearings, still an ambush like this was nothing unusual in his life or even something he particularly disliked. Indeed, the unexpected nature of such an attack added a piquancy to the resulting skirmish that he usually rather relished, even if he was a little angry simultaneously at his enemies’ underhanded methods. He would have been glad to fling himself, lack of clothing notwithstanding, against the swordsmen now arrayed before him and that guy with the interesting mallet thing — except they weren’t alone. As gunshots sounded deafeningly closely to Zanza’s ears, he reflected first that firearms were a really tacky way to change the dynamic of a battle and he didn’t like them much, and second that, while, yes, it would have been fun to rumble with the more traditionally armed enemies in the room, Fujita had the right idea in scrambling for its only other exit.

There wasn’t time to grab anything; there wasn’t time to consider anything except escape from the pistols suddenly aimed at them. So when Fujita crashed through the light wood and rice paper of the closed window to land precariously on the narrow strip of third-floor roof separating the wall from a drop to the street twenty-some feet below, and Zanza followed closely at his heels, it was unarmed, almost completely unattired, and with bullets whizzing past their heads and even, at times, grazing their skin.

Zanza thought his mostly bare feet had a better grip on the tiles of the slanted roof than his shoes would have, but that was small consolation. As he followed Fujita at a run away from the window they’d just burst through, he was uncomfortably conscious of the flapping of his only-recently-flaccid penis with every jarring step, as well as of the fact that their attackers hadn’t given up: further gunshots accompanied swearing and straining and then clattering footsteps behind them, and it was a downright miracle neither of them had been hit yet; he attributed it to the unexpected chase across unusual terrain and the deceptive light and shadow of dusk.

But now the sound of gunfire came from somewhere beneath him and to his right as well. Risking a very quick glance in that direction, Zanza thought he saw running figures down on the ground tracking their progress across the roof and sending up the occasional shot. Of course whoever these people were would have backup outside the inn as well, just in case their quarry escaped somehow — and of course that backup had been on the alert.

To his dismay (and also perhaps a bit to his excitement; peril always made a day more interesting), Zanza saw ahead of them an open space: Fujita, running in front, was approaching the edge of the rooftop, which, instead of turning the building’s corner, just ended with the wall and left that side of the inn a flat expanse from street to summit. They couldn’t go much farther in that direction. Except Fujita wasn’t slowing. In fact his feet, even barer than Zanza’s, pounded with greater speed and intensity as he neared the brink. The area below was relatively narrow — particularly with the walls of this business and the next closing in to make it little more than an alley — but still it had to be at least fifteen feet between this roof and the slightly lower one across from it. Was the guy completely crazy?

Well, to be honest, Zanza kinda liked completely crazy. So when Fujita did indeed push off the last inch of the inn’s third-floor roof and go flying, with no great grace but impressive speed and accuracy, across the gap, Zanza could do nothing but admire and imitate. And maybe his jump was even less graceful, and not quite as efficient, as that of his companion, but he doubted he would even have tried it in the first place if Fujita’s movements hadn’t conveyed so much confidence in its success.

Their destination roof was the highest point of the opposite building, the latter being only three storeys tall, and tiled with wooden shingles rather than ceramic. Fujita, to curb his momentum, had dropped into a splay-legged crouch, and Zanza was forced to do the same rather earlier than he would have liked to keep from running smack into the other man. A number of splinters pierced his skin simultaneously in various places, and this combined with the fading shockwave of having made contact with a hard surface after such a long jump without shoes made him grunt aloud. But he couldn’t pause to assess his many minor injuries: Fujita was already rising, and so must he — the gunshots from behind had not ceased.

Erratically along this new roof they ran, Zanza at least feeling very exposed without a fourth storey wall to hug for some minor protection or illusion thereof, to the sound of chaos and the continual awareness of bullets breezing past. There were, however, no more footsteps on their level — on the ground far below, yes, but not up here — indicating that the completely crazy fifteen-foot airborne street-crossing had been beyond the courage or perceived abilities of their pursuers. And when their zig-zagging path took them up over the decorative ridgepole into a half-run-half-slide down the other side, the gunfire from behind them on the third-floor level ceased entirely, indicating they’d passed from line of sight.

When Fujita, still in the lead, approached the lower end of this side of the roof, however, gunshots erupted toward him yet again, and he jerked away so hard and suddenly that he fell into a sitting position on the shingles, then scrambled further upward so he ran into Zanza, knocking him onto his ass as well. “Get back,” he commanded, rather unnecessarily, as more bullets flew from the street below. Together they fumbled their way up the roof some distance into the shadow of a sort of turret offset the middle of the building, an octagonal structure just wide enough for them both to hide behind. Fujita, from his crouch, craned his neck to scan the area, while Zanza merely sat down with his feet against the turret and let out a long breath. The sake in his belly had been churned into a slightly ill sensation as he ran, but at least he also felt, with so much adrenaline onboard, relatively sober.

“If they’re not on all sides of the building already,” Fujita muttered, gazing meticulously around with a scowl, “they will be too soon for us to get anywhere.” The nearest end of the roof appeared to overlook a yard of some description — it was difficult to tell from this angle — and didn’t seem to offer any avenue for escape; the opposite end or up over the ridgepole again was the direction from which they’d come, where gunmen waited; the low end, the side they’d just approached, was obviously out of the question.

Bending to pick a splinter out of the flesh of his left calf, Zanza wondered, “So what do we do, then?”

“We wait.” Fujita abandoned his half-standing position for a seated one similar to Zanza’s. “With this kind of commotion in the streets, the police won’t take too long to show up; our would-be assassins will run off or get themselves arrested, and we should be safe to find a way down.”

Zanza stared at him. “Seriously, that’s your plan?”

Fujita was still gazing around critically at nearby buildings. “There aren’t a lot of places they could fire at us from, and that’s assuming they can access any of them quickly enough in the first place. If they aren’t sure exactly where we’ve gone, they might not even try.” He tapped the wooden siding his foot was resting against. “We’re lucky this turret doesn’t have windows, or they’d already be halfway up here by now.”

“But, seriously, you want to just wait here to get rescued?” Zanza wondered with increasing skepticism. “By the police?”

Fujita turned narrow, irritated eyes on him. “I don’t want to, no. If you have a better idea…?”

Zanza’s mouth, which had popped open immediately and unthinkingly for a retort, closed gradually. He didn’t have a better idea. If it had been anything but guns

Fujita nodded in a fairly annoying That’s what I thought type of gesture, and they both fell silent.

So this was interesting. Why it was happening was a great big mystery at this point, as was the identity of their pursuers and even which of them was the intended target. The only absolutely certain thing must be the purpose of those attackers: murder, plain and simple. Zanza had been on the receiving end of that purpose plenty of times, regardless of how well it worked out for the instigators, but he couldn’t think of a single entity — individual or group — that was both upset enough with him to wish for his death and well enough staffed and armed to have attempted it in this manner. And who exactly was this Fujita guy, after all, if he was the target of this well staffed and well armed attack? Did it have something to do with whatever he’d been working on at that inn that Zanza had interrupted in order to seduce him?

This thought — of that inn room and what had taken place there — reminded Zanza of something he hadn’t considered until now, and his mood rapidly changed from one of interest and energy (and admittedly some aggravation) to one of extreme frustration and even more aggravation. Finally, as the transition completed, he made an irate noise and slammed a fist into the roof beneath his buttocks. “Dammit! Fucking dammit!”

“Quiet down,” Fujita commanded harshly, startled. “What is wrong with you?”

“My clothes!” Unable to express his sudden anger any other way, Zanza pounded on the roof again. “They’re gonna get destroyed or stolen or something!”

“That’s hardly worth drawing attention to our position for.”

“But I don’t have any other clothes! And you know how expensive that gi was to get made? I’ll have to go back for a-fucking-nother one now!”

Fujita took him by the arm and shook him roughly. “Listen to me, you idiot,” he said in a low tone, close enough to Zanza’s ear for his breath to be somewhat distracting. “I don’t care if you live or die out here, but for the sake of my survival, I would appreciate it if you’d shut the hell up.”

“You didn’t care so little if I was alive or not when you were fucking me,” Zanza spat back.

“Yes, but I only fucked you in the first place to get you to shut the hell up.”

“Well, it’s a good thing I only had sex with you ’cause I was going to get paid for it, because otherwise I’d be pretty pissed you said that.” Actually Zanza was stung by the remark, but not about to admit it.

And at his words Fujita looked a little surprised, perhaps even a little annoyed. “When did kenkaya Zanza turn whore?” he wondered, and Zanza realized belatedly that he might believe the statement to have meant the mercenary expected to be paid by him — which would carry some unfortunate implications Zanza had certainly not meant to make.

Still, it was quickest and easiest to quote, “‘Everyone is a whore for the right price,'” and leave it at that.

“That sounds just like something my wife would say,” Fujita muttered, now clearly more irked than ever.

The words hit Zanza like a cannonball as all the circumstances of today and yesterday suddenly came together into a startling picture he hadn’t seen perhaps because subconsciously he hadn’t wanted to see it. “Shit…” he whispered as the certainty grew within him that he was right, that he’d been a fool, that he’d been used.

Fujita had glanced again toward the street and back, and when he caught sight of the expression on Zanza’s face his own darkened into one of suspicion and concern. “What is it?” he demanded.

Zanza was going to have to tell him; he couldn’t think of any other way. And Fujita, pinned down naked by surrounding gunmen on a third-floor rooftop, probably deserved the truth in any case. With a deep breath and a hard swallow, he began — in a much quieter tone than he’d previously used — to explain.

*

If the exterior of the house and its landscaping hadn’t indicated just how rich this person was, the furnishing and decoration inside would leave no doubt in any visitor’s mind — and Zanza got the feeling that was their purpose. Surely actual Europeans didn’t stuff every last corner so full of rickety undersized tables and shelves of vacant-eyed figurines and plates and things, or paper all the walls quite so relentlessly in so many ugly patterns, or put up ornate-edged mirrors in every available space? But honestly he didn’t know for sure, and the point was that this person he’d been summoned off the street to talk to had lots of money, the desire to show it off, and presumably a need for a mercenary for some task or other.

The very courteous servant that had originally hailed him and then led him here, a pretty young thing in a dark western-style gown with an apron and white cap, now ushered him through a door into a large, sunlit room just as tackily and profusely decorated and furnished as everything else Zanza had seen here, then bowed herself out. And the kenkaya was left facing the employer the girl had been sent to bring him to.

She was in her mid-to-late thirties and dressed exactly as Zanza would have expected in this setting: in a frilly frock of western design that bared a certain amount of cleavage and anything of her arms not covered by the lacy shawl draped across them. The ruffles of her seemingly excessive skirts, a delicate shade of pink that complemented her skin tone excellently, spilled over the sides of the divan around her. She was handsome, especially with that hair so artfully arranged in a high bun from which black ringlets fell in a shining mass, but nothing stunning, and in fact Zanza rather thought the surrounding show — the carpets and furniture and clothing — was intended to enhance what nature had provided. She certainly made a striking first impression, in one way or another.

“Good afternoon, kenkaya Zanza-san.” She greeted him in a polite, cultured tone with no hint of a foreign accent — however she dressed and decorated, her voice and features proved she was Japanese underneath. “Thank you so much for agreeing to come speak to me.”

“Uh, no problem?” Zanza, moving forward to stand nearer where the woman sat — ‘presided over the room’ might be a better description of what she did — wasn’t really sure what to make of all of this.

“Please have a seat,” she added. The gesture by which she indicated a nearby stiff-looking chair facing her divan was more a mandate with an overlay of elegance than real graciousness, but polite nevertheless. “Wine?”

Zanza sat, as adjured, on the extremely ugly and (it turned out) rather uncomfortable chair, and glanced at the servant whose presence in the room he hadn’t noticed until now: a tall, thin man in a western-style suit standing at a table that held a narrow bottle and two stemmed glasses on a silver tray.

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

Though his hostess smiled her amusement at his attitude, the servant did not react at all, only poured a generous measure of dark red liquid into each glass with stony indifference. When he handed hers over in a gesture that was half bow, she said something condescending in a language Zanza didn’t speak and couldn’t identify (not that he was an expert). The man murmured something subservient in reply and, after giving Zanza his glass with a fractionally shallower incline of his upper body, silently left the room.

The woman’s eyes followed her servant out the door, then returned, slightly narrowed, to look at Zanza. “Now that we’re alone…” She didn’t finish the statement, just lifted one eyebrow and took a sip of her wine.

Still not certain how to interpret this scene, Zanza lifted his drink and inhaled its scent. He’d never had wine before, and it smelled weak and fruity compared to his usual fare. Still, free alcohol was free alcohol. He mirrored the woman’s sip.

“Good?” She looked up at him coyly from over the rim of her own glass.

For a moment Zanza debated how to answer, which was a little unusual for him. He preferred straightforward dealings, didn’t like this kind of posturing, and the fact that he was considering his words at all arose only from the dual awareness that there was more to this woman than just a lot of money she might be willing to offer him for some potentially interesting gig and that it wasn’t impossible she was flirting with him right now.

So what could he say? That, though it had a flavor a lot classier than anything he’d ever drunk, the wine wasn’t really to his taste since, other than alcoholic concentration, he was largely indifferent to the components of a drink? That, regardless of what scant purpose there was to this indulgence beyond becoming incoherent and forgetful, he had sometimes wished, recently, that he could share drinks with someone that actually mattered to him instead of an endless succession of fellow lowlifes he might be beating up later and the occasional prospective employer — and that the setting in which she had offered this particular beverage only drove home the idea that here was yet another of those he really didn’t care about and never would? That he would prefer she abandon this coy restraint and lay everything out?

He forced himself to be relatively polite, however, and said, “Yeah, it’s all right.” Which wasn’t technically a lie. But he really would demand she get to the point if she put it off much longer.

Her smile widened. “It’s a vintage I’ve always enjoyed — rare, yes, and very expensive to import all the way from Italy, but, you know…” She leaned forward, and her smile and tone turned conspiratorial, though her big brown eyes remained merely calculating. “I never mind going to some trouble to get exactly what I want.”

“Uh-huh.” Zanza swallowed the rest of the wine in an undignified gulp just to get it out of the way, then looked around for some place to set down the glass. Finding none within arm’s length, he kept it in his hand, and fidgeted with it as he demanded, “Are you trying to seduce me or something?” Honestly he could think of many far worse reasons to be invited off the street into such a nice house by such a polite servant to meet such an impressive lady, but it seemed strange, and he’d rather get the objective of this conference into the open.

The woman gave a laugh that, like many of her other mannerisms, seemed to be unyielding solidity covered in a layer of friendliness. “Of course not!” she said in an almost merry tone. “I know perfectly well you prefer taking it rough from older men.”

At the incongruous and very surprising sight and sound of those details emerging from that perfectly painted mouth, that ostensibly entirely proper personage, Zanza’s face went hot and red. He had to clear his throat twice before he was able to speak. “Well… yeah… that’s totally true… but, you know, we take what we can get…” Looking at the wainscoting, the ugly wallpaper, the bric-a-brac on the shelves in the corner — anywhere but at her — he went on to admit, “And it’s actually… kinda hot to think about some mysterious older woman spying on my sex life.”

Again she gave that comradely laugh with the steel beneath it. “I was spying on your sex life because I was looking for someone with that specific preference. You have quite a reputation, Zanza-san!”

“I dunno whether that’s a compliment or not,” Zanza muttered.

“I’d like you to seduce someone for me,” she said, finally, bluntly getting down to business.

He returned his gaze to her in order to give her a skeptical look, and found her sipping her wine again with thick lashes downturned. “You, uh, know I’m not a whore, right?”

Still smiling, she replied dismissively, half into her glass, “Everyone is a whore for the right price.”

A trifle annoyed at the sound of superior worldly wisdom in her tone, Zanza wondered somewhat sarcastically, “Izzat right? And what’s the price today?”

Without batting an eye as she met his, she told him.

It was lucky Zanza had drained his drink, since he promptly dropped his glass at this juncture. It thumped onto the thick carpet and rolled under his chair and out of sight; he couldn’t expend much effort searching for it, because he was too busy gaping at the woman. “That’s… that’s a pretty right price,” he conceded at last.

She nodded. “As I said, I never mind going to some trouble to get exactly what I want.”

“But why…” Zanza was still so staggered by the quoted sum that his statements continued to have large gaps in the middle. “Why me? Why not… an actual prostitute or something?”

“The target is an exceptionally strong warrior,” she explained, “and very touchy. If you’re not careful, he may become violent. A fragile little prostitute would never do.”

“All right…” Zanza had to admit, his interest was piqued — and not just because of the astonishing promised payoff. “But why do you want this guy seduced at all?” He asked more out of curiosity than a need for information about a prospective job.

With the first frown he’d seen on her face — indeed, it was a rather disconcerting transition between the polite but private look to this dark, almost hateful scowl — she replied in a measured tone that reminded him of calm waters atop a viciously strong undercurrent. “Have you ever met someone, Zanza-san, who considers himself so far above you it’s impossible even to have a conversation with him? Someone who, though he might have been born into the same level of society you were and has done significantly less with what his parents gave him, holds himself superior to you in every way? Who looks down on everything you do, everything you are?”

“Course I have,” replied Zanza immediately, half a grin twitching at his lips while the other side threatened to pull down into a scowl much like hers. “So this guy’s a high-and-mighty ass, is he?”

She nodded, and went on emphatically. “I want to put a dent in his self-righteousness by proving he’s not above a one-night stand with a total stranger of just the type he thinks he’s so much better than.”

Zanza returned her nod, and his version was one of understanding. He did get the feeling, though, despite how sensible he found her explanation, that she had more reasons for seeking his compliance than she’d stated aloud. The reason she had given was enough for him — he was completely onboard with sending that kind of message to some holier-than-thou bastard — but at the same time he wondered what she wasn’t telling him and whether this whole thing was really a good idea. Sometimes just the passion with which someone wanted something done was a decent indication of how foolish the undertaking might be. Zanza didn’t fear danger, of course, but there were other discomforts in the world that he often preferred to avoid, and intrigue could certainly be one of them.

The woman, evidently no slouch in the reading of face and bearing, clearly picked up on the uncertainty in Zanza’s. “Obviously this is very different from the type of work you usually do.” She’d returned to her friendly, professional tone with that timbre of command in its background. “Naturally I understand your reluctance — I don’t want to push you into something that would make you uncomfortable. Please remember that I sought you out because you seemed specifically suited for this job, but if that turns out not to be the case, I would never want to inconvenience you.”

Again Zanza found himself waiting for the point. And when he said nothing, she got to it. “You’re welcome to approach him where he’s currently working — of course I’ll give you all the details you need — and decide then whether you want to go through with it. Come back here afterward, either to collect your payment or let me know I need to find someone else.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Zanza replied slowly. It did, too. It was already his policy to request payment after the service was performed, since he normally didn’t have a fixed rate. In this case it made even more sense. But something still felt off.

“That way you can make up your mind when you have all the information,” she pressed, looking at him earnestly.

And Zanza decided it didn’t matter much what she was hiding or what kind of life she led beneath this veneer of European sophistication. Everyone had their secrets, right? What mattered was this job with the prospect of a high distraction value and a ridiculous amount of compensation that would keep him in sake and under a roof for many months to come.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll at least have a look at the guy.”

*

Saitou wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when Zanza had given that stricken look and started his rambling narrative of the events of yesterday, but it hadn’t been what he’d actually gotten. And he certainly hadn’t been expecting to find himself far more entertained than annoyed by the stupid story, and even less put out with Zanza personally.

One item of special (if peripheral) interest was the fact that Zanza, on seeing him, had decided to go through with the assigned seduction. Of course there had been a large amount of money involved, which might have rendered Saitou more attractive — attractive enough, anyway — in the mercenary’s eyes, but Zanza had obviously had misgivings about the whole thing even with that money in mind, and it interested Saitou to know his allure had tipped the scales.

“So I guess,” Zanza was finishing up bitterly, “the real reason she wanted me to seduce you was so you’d be distracted and easier to kill. And she sure didn’t give a shit whether I died at the same time. She never was planning on paying me, I bet… I should have known… it was stupid to think anybody’d ever offer that much money for that kind of job. I was such a dumbass!” And he rammed a fist downward just as he had when lamenting the loss of his clothes, though this time he stopped short of actually pounding on the roof.

“She manipulated the fuck out of me…” He paused, and his anger seemed to abate slightly as he realized he’d inadvertently made a pun. “Literally,” he added, with half a grin — while the rest of his face still appeared irate — and even reddened a touch as he went on, “and don’t get me wrong — it was damn good sex… but I can’t believe she made such a fool out of me! Are you really married to that nightmare?”

Saitou had to admit, he appreciated that description of their sexual encounter. He wondered a little both at this appreciation and at his reflections regarding Zanza’s assessment of his attractiveness. It was odd that these things seemed to matter to him; had his ego been in need of a boost lately, and then this gorgeous idiot had shown up at precisely the right moment to stroke it? Saitou supposed it wasn’t hugely important, except as far as he should probably give some serious thought to how pliable he was when promising lips demanded they go up to his room.

And, gorgeous or not, Zanza was an idiot. Who walked blindly into an unfamiliar setting at the bidding of a total stranger? Well, someone completely confident in his own abilities, Saitou supposed. It fit with Zanza’s level of strength. But who discussed business with someone whose name he hadn’t even bothered asking? Not that Tokio’s name would have done Zanza much good under the circumstances, but still… who accepted a job completely different from what he usually did at only a few minutes’ notice? Though Zanza had obviously been at least slightly confused and discomfited by the atmosphere in that house, the one Tokio so excelled at cultivating. The whole thing had been stupid… but perhaps not as stupid as it could have been.

And Zanza obviously had some intelligence hidden in there somewhere — or at least some good instincts — that hadn’t been completely blinded by all of Tokio’s posing. He must, to have been able to question the situation even after the offer of that much money. Though the staggering amount itself, as Zanza had even admitted, should have been a tipoff that all was not right, many a mercenary more financially secure than this young man might still have had his head turned by the mere number.

In addition to this, Zanza obviously had a streak of pride, beyond what his class or lifestyle promised, that had been genuinely wounded by Tokio’s machinations. And there was also the excellent sex and the unneeded but not unwelcome ego-boost to consider.

Zanza probably deserved the truth.

Saitou gave a quick look around at the growing darkness, and, when he still spotted none of their enemies in any of the places he’d determined they might seek to occupy in order to get the drop on their targets, began a carefully curated story that would tell the mercenary what he needed to know.

*

The walk home seemed obnoxiously longer than usual this evening, something Saitou attributed mostly to vexation with his current work pursuit. Small fry employed by the criminal organization that had recently come somewhat hazily to light were thick on the ground, which should have been encouraging… but so far they’d proven every bit as useless as they were common and easy to arrest.

The one Saitou had just been interrogating even believed himself a big-shot of some type, arrogantly maintaining his own importance farther into the interview than they generally did… and yet he, like everyone before him, knew nothing about anyone or anything in the organization above a certain level beyond him. This group was not only pretty good at smuggling, hosting rigged games of chance, the occasional assassination, and intimidating business owners into highly suspect and very imbalanced ‘deals,’ it was also frustratingly efficient at sealing off data within certain portions of its faculty — the specific portions Saitou was attempting to access, or at least learn something about.

But he was beginning to doubt he would ever move beyond these meaningless conversations to where he needed to be if he was going to get anywhere against the upstart yakuza. Not one iota of useful information, not one tiny fact about their upper-tier superiors could he extract from these evidently expendable thugs… and, confident in his own interrogation techniques, he believed it was because they truly didn’t know, thanks to the caution of those same superiors, rather than that they were holding out. He was inexpressibly weary of the redundant exchanges, and if he never again in his life had to see one of the simplistic eight-pointed snowflake tattoos they all wore so proudly to indicate their membership in an organization they didn’t know how little they actually knew about, it would be too soon.

As he approached his apartment with thoughts far more fatigued than his body, due to his unproductive evening, he was briefly startled at seeing light through the windows. But it was no surprise whatsoever, upon entering, to find that the source — in her extravagant way she’d lit every lamp — was his wife. After all, though he might be paid a visit by thieves or assassins, they wouldn’t turn the lights on. And it wasn’t as if he had any other friends that might wait for him inside.

Not that Tokio counted as a ‘friend.’

“Your place being fumigated?” he suggested as the sarcastic explanation for why she was here rather than at her far larger, more opulent, and arguably more comfortable house across town.

She’d made herself at home, as she did whenever she exercised her legal right to invade his space, by dragging the chair from his desk into the main room near the stove — she boycotted seiza and yokozuwari, largely due to her couture — and helping herself to one of his spare cigarettes, which she smoked in a long holder. This she took from her lips as she answered, presumably because the coy smile she affected would have been marred by its presence. “Does a woman need an excuse to seek out her handsome husband?”

“Hn.” When Tokio acted like this, not one single word out of her mouth could be believed, so pursuing the matter and trying to find out why she was truly here would be futile and demeaning. Saitou didn’t care much, however, since, whatever she was scheming, he mostly just wanted her gone.

He had to admit, privately, that it would be nice to believe she really had come to spend time with him. Well, not necessarily Tokio herself, but somebody he wasn’t quite so disdainful of. It would be nice to have somebody he wasn’t quite so disdainful of that he could trust and connect with; in that case, he would be quite happy to come home to an unexpectedly occupied apartment and flirtatious behavior. But Tokio, who had always been vindictive and underhanded, was probably present because she needed to keep her head down in the wake of some less than entirely ethical business transaction, and her presence, whether she knew it or not — and it wasn’t impossible that she did — served to exacerbate the absence of anyone else’s.

“But you’re just home from work for the night!” she said, giving a good imitation of caring concern — or at least concern with an iron ulterior motive — and jumped up from the chair. “Here, sit down… let me take your jacket.”

Since he did, in fact, want to remove this garment and have a seat, he let her play her little game. Most nights there was no one to hang up his jacket and set his sword on the stand and fetch him his newspaper, so her showing up every once in a while to do these things for him was really just a reminder of what a mutually supportive relationship they’d never had even back when they’d lived together. She was obviously bored.

“Have you eaten?” she wondered with the same false solicitousness as before.

Saitou merely grunted an affirmative, glad this was the case. He wouldn’t have wanted to sit down at floor level for a meal with her standing triumphantly above him. It was bad enough to have her hovering over him in this chair. But as he unfolded the newspaper she’d put in his lap, he made a concerted effort to pay it some actual attention — and her less or none. Eventually she must get tired of annoying him and go find some other place to lie low.

Her next move to get his attention was to reach right into his field of vision and place a cigarette to his lips. He accepted it, and her subsequent lighting of it, without a word. In addition to enhancing, by contrast, the awareness of his usual aloneness, this behavior aggravated him — and she knew it — because he didn’t like being babied; he preferred to perform tasks with his own hands rather than relying on those of others as she was so fond of doing back at her mansion packed with servants.

“Oh, my,” she remarked next, bending across him to read the paper over his shoulder so her long shawl slid half off her back to trail onto his arm. “How dreadful! They planned to burn the palace?” But her tone was far from horrified; rather, it sounded intrigued and maybe even somewhat pleased.

“They deserved the pay they were demanding,” Saitou couldn’t help but reply, especially in response to her gleeful-onlooker tone. “But the method they used–”

He had glanced to his left, irritated, hoping to give her a disapproving glare but finding himself looking down her cleavage instead. Even more irritated, his eyes slipped from the undesirable sight that she, knowing his disinterest in her person, had undoubtedly deliberately placed in his view, and onto her left arm now bare of the shawl that had previously obscured it — and the tattoo on her inside forearm, just south of the elbow: a highly complicated eight-pointed snowflake.

He jerked away from her and to his feet, staring at this far more elaborate version of the yakuza design he’d been getting so tired of lately. Just for now, he was so surprised that he could make no further move.

She was surprised too, straightening and staring back briefly in confusion before glancing down to see what had caught his attention. When she found what the disarray of her shawl had revealed, and clearly realized that he had recognized it, she pulled the garment quickly back into place with a movement far less suave than hers usually were. She must not have been aware of his efforts to track down the organization she belonged to — perhaps an inverse of the information moratorium that had been so plaguing him was inadvertently in effect as well — or she would never have left the mark so easily exposed when coming here; this must be as much of a shock to her as it was to her husband.

Abruptly she turned on her stockinged heel and ran for the door.

*

Everything made sense now, though that didn’t change the way Zanza felt about most of it. Having slept with an undercover cop or whatever Fujita was — and having enjoyed it so damn much — did make him faintly uneasy, but he could decide later on the finer points of his attitude toward that revelation.

For the moment, newly disclosed government agent Fujita was coming to the end of his story with, “She managed to cover her escape with a pistol — she seems to have them in no short supply — and kept me far enough behind for her to jump into a cab eventually.”

“Damn,” Zanza said wonderingly. “That’s one hell of a thing to find out about your own wife.”

“It gets worse.” Fujita’s tone was grim. “Eventually I discovered she actually runs the organization.”

Zanza laughed in frustration. “Well, that’s no surprise now…”

By this time their rooftop hideaway was lit only by moon and stars, but these were bright enough to show clearly Fujita’s nod. “I’ve been trying to track her down and dissolve her organization ever since, though I’ve never seen her in person again and she’s changed houses. And she’s sent multiple assassins after me. I hoped to make significant progress while she was in Europe not long ago, but she had things locked up too tight. She’s back now, and back to her old tricks.” A sardonic expression took his face as he added, “This latest attempt at killing me is more elaborate than usual, though, and she may have overreached… We’ll see who gets arrested down there, and what they can tell us.”

“You know…” Zanza looked at the other man pensively. “She obviously, definitely wanted to kill you… and I’m sure she’d have been happy if it worked… but I bet the reason she claimed she wanted me to seduce you was true too. A sort of backup, right? She said you were so high-and-mighty and self-righteous, and she wanted to prove you could be dragged into having sex with some random lowlife. So even if she didn’t manage to kill you, she’d still have that to hold over you.”

Fujita gave him an assessing look and finally said, “You read her well. I think you’re exactly right.” His thin lips twisted into a smirk as he added, “But she chose poorly if she wanted to find someone I would be ashamed of having sex with.”

While specifically pleased at the implication that Fujita didn’t regret having slept with him even under these strange circumstances, Zanza couldn’t help pointing out with a shrug, “I am kindof the dregs, though. I thought she chose pretty well.” For both of them, he did not add aloud.

“Tokio would assume you’re in the criminal class I would automatically look down on.”

“Well, I’m not exactly the most law-abiding citizen,” Zanza admitted uncomfortably, unsure why he was saying it but feeling he had to be open about this. “I fight people for money… sometimes even kill ’em.”

“I know what you do,” said Fujita somewhat dismissively. “And I also know you never attack anyone who can’t fight back, and that your targets are primarily from your same walk of life. You’re a complete waste of talent, and, yes, often on the wrong side of the law, but you’re practically a clean-up service for us. Criminal, perhaps, but nothing like Tokio and her ilk, who wreak havoc on the economy and victimize the community indiscriminately. She thinks your lack of money and class make you someone I’d be ashamed to associate with, but you’re certainly a better person than she is — and I’m married to her.”

Zanza wasn’t sure whether to laugh or get angry or just gape in baffled admiration. This guy, who evidently in one capacity or another worked for the government Zanza loathed above all things, had some seriously solid principles in there. Despite having come to doubt everything that woman had said to him, the mercenary realized he’d still been subconsciously clinging to her description of Fujita — her husband, had he known — as inappropriately condescending. Turned out maybe that wasn’t entirely the case. Still… “So you’re all right with me and what I do?”

“No.” Fujita fixed him with a stern look, gold eyes glinting in the moonlight. “If I met you in another context, where I had certain knowledge you were breaking the law, I might not just arrest you; I might kill you.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Zanza scoffed. He had to admit, though, that look — especially combined with the body he’d come to some extent to know in the last few hours and the skill and determination Fujita had demonstrated during much of that time — was pretty damn convincing, and might have been, to someone less confident in his own abilities than Zanza, frightening.

“In any case, I don’t choose to do things I’ll be embarrassed about afterward, so that aspect of Tokio’s plan was destined to fail regardless of whom she chose to send.”

“Weeelllll…” Zanza grinned ruefully. “You are hiding naked on a rooftop waiting for the police to rescue you. I mean…” He reached over to pull a splinter from where it was marked in the darkness by a tiny trickle of blood on Fujita’s thigh. “I got no problem at all with you being naked up here with me, but I figure it’s gotta be pretty embarrassing for you…”

“It is extremely annoying.” Unexpectedly, Fujita returned the favor, reaching out to grasp between his nails and draw out a large splinter whose tip was the only thing visible in the side of Zanza’s right buttock; it was practically a pinch to the ass. “Some of it.” He looked at the splinter briefly, abstractedly, before flicking it away. “But it’s one of the risks of the job.”

Zanza burst out laughing. “That’s a really weirdly specific thing to have to be prepared for when you get into a job!” And to his surprise, Fujita joined his mirth for a moment. This made it easier, once they’d fallen silent again, for Zanza to break down and admit, “I’m kinda embarrassed. I’m fucking Zanza, man, and here I am on a roof I can’t get down from without getting shot with no fucking clothes on! I’m sure she wasn’t even thinking about embarrassing me or anything, but she sure as hell twisted me right around her stupid finger.” He growled his increasing frustration with the woman and the circumstances.

Fujita sounded both amused and somewhat reassuring when he replied, “This situation doesn’t change anything. I’m not going to stop working against her.” And though the combination of those two tones made him come across as distinctly patronizing, it seemed clear he did understand Zanza’s desire for revenge on his wife.

“Weren’t you on some other job at that inn, though?” Zanza wondered. “You probably need to get back to that first.”

Fujita frowned. “I’m afraid that setup will fall apart after this. If the man I was there to watch believes that inn is a place where people get attacked in their bedrooms, he certainly won’t hang around there much longer. I’ll have to start all over with him. But after that, I’ll be right back on Tokio’s trail.”

“You know…” It was exactly the same pensive look as when he’d said these words before, but this time Zanza couldn’t help a flirtatious touch to it and to his tone, despite the pragmatic nature of the offer he was about to make. “I’m a mercenary… Normally it’s fighting, yeah, but I’m ready to do all sorts of dangerous shit for pay… and I happen to know where at least one place she operates out of is, since I was just there yesterday…”

Though dry, the other man’s voice, Zanza thought, also held a hint of incongruous flirtation as he replied, “After what she offered to pay you, I doubt I could afford your services.”

“Actually I’m available at a newly discounted rate,” declared the grinning Zanza. “The chance to get back at a mob boss who made me look like an idiot and some really good sex is all it’d cost you. Oh, and a new gi.”

With an almost languid movement, Fujita rose partially up again into a crouch, peering around the side of the turret and down as far into the lamplit street as he could from this awkward angle. As he settled back into his seated position beside Zanza he said, “No sign of the police yet.” He turned toward the mercenary, and, though he appeared exasperated with the situation as a whole, there was a faint smirk on his lips. “It seems we have plenty of time to reach some kind of reasonable arrangement.”


This story is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk (WordPress / Ao3), whose enthusiasm about Saitou and Sano has been an absolute delight to watch and whose fic on the subject is top-notch.

For some author’s notes on this fic, see this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook: