A Lois Date

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You care about public opinion too much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then…

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

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

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

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

“Looks promising,” Bruce remarked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not true and you know it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was–”

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

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

She returned his smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My first posted DCAU fic! Congratulate me! These three are so damn cute that you can definitely expect more from me about thems in future.

I’ve rated this story even if it is mostly fluff :D

My relationship with RK

Because of the hideous behavior of its creator, I have stepped away from Rurouni Kenshin. I don’t have active plans for new stories in that fandom except as pertain to my ongoing stories Aku Soku Zan(za), Blood Contingency, Heretic’s Reward, and my His Own Humanity series, all of which I’m still working on.

I still welcome readers of my RK fic, and do not discourage comments or discussion. I’m currently working on getting this archive to reflect the new state of affairs, so it may still look like the home of an active RK fan in places, though this, sadly, is no longer the case.

Monthly Story Prompts

February: Closed

Here’s how it works:

Once a month until further notice, I solicit a prompt for short fiction of just about any type. Leave your prompt as a comment on this post, and I’ll write it as soon as I have an open month!

I am willing to write original fiction, fanfiction, pieces related to my own existing stories or to anyone’s stories if I’m familiar enough with them, etc.. I am not willing to write detailed sex. I will consider RK prompts, RPF, or non-fiction/essay, but make no promises.

Due to time constraints, I can’t promise huge levels of accuracy or “canon compliance” for most stories (which is why I may not accept RPF prompts), but I will certainly try. There are undoubtedly more fandoms I’m familiar with and just can’t think of. Feel free to ask whether I know something or not.

Movies and TV series I'm tolerably familiar with
  • The 10th Kingdom
  • Avatar (more TLA than TLoK)
  • Bishoujo Senshi Sailormoon (the original TV series)
  • Castlevania
  • The DC Animated Universe (and I’ve got a decent amount of Batman-related knowledge outside of that context as well)
  • Various Disney movies such as Frozen
  • Gargoyles
  • Gundam Wing (AU’s are always better here; I can’t keep the canon story straight)
  • The original He-Man and She-Ra
  • homestarrunner.com (yes, I know Strong Bad said “fiction” is the worst word you can put after “fan,” but I do not care; also, this isn’t TV or movie, but I have most of it on DVD, so that counts, right?)
  • Jem and the Holograms (the TV series; I like the comic, but don’t know it well)
  • Labyrinth
  • Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Chat Noir (I watch in French, so don’t expect any references to ‘Hawk Moth’)
  • Shoujo Kakumei Utena (I can work with TV-series-verse or movieverse)
  • Sofia the First
  • Books and book series I'm tolerably familiar with

  • The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters
  • Faery tales as told by Andrew Lang
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (including CC but excluding Fantastic Beasts)
  • Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  • J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (though I warn you right now that I hold in my very marrow an all-consuming hatred for fucking Peter fucking Jackson and any and all bullshit he’s come up with)
  • The Oz series by L. Frank Baum
  • Peter Pan by Sir J.M. Barrie
  • The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams (not as familiar with the mediocre sequel, but could probably work with that as well)
  • Movies and TV series I'm less familiar with

  • The Boondocks
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine
  • Cowboy Bebop
  • Firefly/Serenity
  • My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (I think I stopped watching in the middle of season 4 or so)
  • Pirates of the Caribbean (first three movies only)
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (have not watched season 4 yet)
  • Star Trek TOS/TAS
  • Star Wars (actually I mostly know the Star Wars movies pretty well, but I was only halfway through season 3 of The Clone Wars when it dropped off Netflix, I haven’t refreshed myself on Revenge of the Sith in a very long time, and I’m really just getting started on the new EU)
  • Steven Universe
  • Tiger & Bunny
  • Weiß Kreuz (anything having to do with the actual overall plot of this show I’m not likely to remember, but I can deal with the characters and their daily activities pretty well)
  • Books and book series I'm less familiar with

  • The Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian (don’t count on me for accurate nautical terminology, though)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • The Cormoran Strike series by “Robert Galbraith”
  • Discworld by Terry Pratchett (I probably know the witches best)
  • The Howl books by Diana Wynne Jones
  • All six of Jane Austen‘s full-length novels and Lady Susan (there’s just too much depth to these to claim I’m very conversant)
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  • The Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King
  • The Princess Series by Jim C. Hines
  • The Riordanverse
  • The Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer (and I’m willing to be satirical or serious about it)
  • Video games I know more or less

  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (what story there is in this game I know pretty well)
  • King’s Quest (the original series)
  • The Legend of Zelda (I have a general knowledge of how these games go and what the main characters are like, and I’m in the middle of Breath of the Wild right now)
  • Quest for Glory (definitely falls into the ‘more’ category)
  • Skyrim (I’ve clocked probably 150 hours, but haven’t actually finished the game; I’ve not been following the actual Dragonborn storyline much yet, nor made it very far in the civil war, though I’ve joined the Legion; lately I’ve been faffing about on Solstheim)
  • World of Warcraft (I stopped playing in the middle of WoD and couldn’t even tell you much of what happened in that one)

  • The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

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

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

    Unique to this story: Hints of racism/antisemitism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But her eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Could she tell them? Would they believe her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Jane?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “So many people do,” Anna murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    She hadn’t been. But could she now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For a few author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it and actually wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up.

    Blind Repair


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Can you fix it?” Sokka wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Subtlety? You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “What diverted it inside?” Sokka squawked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    Displaced, of Unknown Provenance

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “That’s kind of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    It’s my first original NQF, so that’s cool. I’ve rated it

    Her Own Words

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

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

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

    “Two notes lower,” Seiya requested.

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

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

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

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

    I feel it every time.

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

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

    Not that she wanted any fans.

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

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

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

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

    I feel it every time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

    I think I hit most of the points. I’ve rated this story


    Escape From Reality


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “I couldn’t tell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Chloé?” they queried in unison.

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

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

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

    “And what are you wearing?” Chloé added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “2…” said Ladybug.

    “1…”

    “Jump!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Right,” said Ladybug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Failure, Horror, Shock, Heartbreak

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And for the moment…

    Marinette would never even know…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And the subject was Ladybug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “But Chloé…” Chat Noir protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Cedulie nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A Legion of Hideous Minions

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

    Angela finds the castle overrun by unexpected enemies.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



    Birthday countdown

    38 days until I turn 38!

    This year’s countdown is especially exciting, since I’m aiming to release a book on my birthday (though whether that deadline is feasible is a matter of question XD)

    “0-po0oi9ooooooooo,” says cat to mark the occasion.

    Aku Soku Zan(za) (5)



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

    Last updated on February 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Are we?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “You sound like Saitou,” he snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Kiss me.”

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

    Now who sounds like Hajime?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    She left the office feeling like the worst of cowards.

    ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    To my esteemed former colleague…

    Oh. He knew who must have written this.

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

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

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

    Well, that was certainly true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Saitou started skimming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Zanza-san?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This Sano had not necessarily been expecting, at least not so soon. Though he filed away the confirmation that Kanno oversaw the matter of keeping an eye on him, as he’d suspected, now he had to figure out something to offer in response to the rumor Kanno had started as a result. “Oh, yeah.” He put on an air of annoyance to buy himself time. “Don’t worry about that. See, my girlfriend’s a cop, and–“

    And maybe this hadn’t been the best direction to take his explanation, if Kotono’s little twitch meant anything. She tried to hide the clenching of her hands into delicate fists, the slight widening of her eyes, but Sano saw them anyway. He’d often thought in the past, somewhat idly, that Kotono might have some romantic interest in him… Now he gave the idea more serious consideration. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her, especially when she’d already gone through so much and still lived in bondage. At the same time, he had to have a solid story, and the words ‘my girlfriend’s a cop’ — not even true! — had already been spoken.

    Perhaps to cover up her visible reaction, Kotono remarked, “I have heard that the local precinct has a woman working as a police officer. How interesting.” She tried with impressive success to sound politely curious rather than unhappy.

    So that he wouldn’t sound unhappy, Sano adopted the tone of one that hasn’t noticed his conversational companion’s disinterest and is going to chatter away obliviously until he’s out of things to say. “Yeah, it’s great! She’s great. But her partner’s a complete asshole–” he invented as he went along, and hoped the cheerful speed with which he spoke wouldn’t end up getting him in trouble– “and he didn’t like her running around with someone like me. Actually I think he was jealous, even though she won’t give him the time of day in that way. That was the fight I lost where my sword got destroyed — you musta heard about that — because this guy really is a serious jerk, but eventually she got him to back off, and everything’s fine now.”

    He ended so abruptly that he found Kotono staring at him as if expecting more. It made him nervous, so he endeavored to come up with a conclusion of sorts. “It’s kindof a pain being with a cop, ’cause I gotta be so careful about what I say and do so she doesn’t find out, uh, certain things about me, but it’s still a good deal ’cause now I’m in their blind eye, you know? Eventually I figure I’ve gotta hear some nice police secrets.” And he managed to come up with the most painstaking conspiratorial grin that had ever decorated his face.

    His performance seemed to have eased her mind, for she returned a tentative smile. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing, but take care. If this policewoman finds out you’re trying to rejoin the Furukawatai…”

    “Hell, if she finds out I was ever a member in the first place, there’ll be trouble,” said Sano, proud of himself for this line. “But, yeah, I know what I’m doing.” And in response to Kotono’s continued solemnity, despite the smile she’d offered a moment before, he added, “I’ll make a deal with you: you don’t worry about me, I won’t worry about you.” Since he was lying to her about everything already, he might as well go this far. “Sound good?”

    “I’m not entirely sure that’s an equal bargain,” she replied in the lightest tone she’d used with him yet today, “but I suppose I can close on it.” Then she looked around again, out the window, and her quiet seriousness returned as the happier moment passed. “I need to go. I wouldn’t want my escort to come looking for me.” She returned her eyes to him, and as usual appeared somewhat downcast. “I suppose now you won’t allow me to tell you again to be careful.”

    With a shake of his head, Sano replied silently, And I can’t tell you not to let anyone kick you around or use you like a broken toy… but I never could, could I? Aloud he said, “Put in a good word for me with Tone-sama, would you?”

    She nodded deeply enough that it was almost a bow, then turned and made her way out of the shop.

    Sano frowned after her. The very thought of what that woman’s life had become made his blood boil, and he avidly rejoiced in the assignment he’d more or less stumbled into that would allow him to help her out of her terrible circumstances. It couldn’t happen soon enough.

    ***

    Every time Katsu had ventured out of his home since Sunday, he’d suffered the weariness and confusion that typically comes with convalescence after a long seclusion. Which struck him as ironic, since he didn’t know that he’d really recovered. Beyond that, his eyes seemed peculiarly sensitive to bright lights — again as if he’d been lying abed in a closed room for weeks or months attempting to get over some tenacious illness — so he’d quickly become crepuscular in his limited activities following the events of the new moon. He’d emerged to replenish his rice supply Tuesday at dawn, and to buy some ink that same evening… but hadn’t found himself particularly inclined either to eat or to sketch.

    There was one thing he did incline toward, and it was the reason he loitered, in the overcast gloom of a Wednesday dusk, at the entrance to a particular neighborhood, standing conspicuously on a street corner doing absolutely nothing. Nothing but seething with much the same thoughts that had filled his head for the last several days.

    He felt that Sano had not so much talked him out of his plans as touched them with the hand of death, withered them and rendered them ineffectual, impossible. And with them, some part of Katsu seemed to have crumbled away as well — perhaps this was the illness he’d been struggling to recover from — and he’d been left half formed, aimless, and likely to blow away at the whim of the next heavy breeze.

    His passions had not deserted him, but as a defense mechanism against his current complete impotence to satisfy any of them, he’d pushed most of them aside. He still desperately longed to change this flawed society, but, at a loss how to go about it, he did his best to muffle that and all interrelated desires in the back of his head. Which left him with almost nothing besides the one other thing he wanted above all else, something he’d now decided to allow himself to seek.

    He was starting to think, however, that he should be a little less circumspect about it, face the matter more straightforwardly, and that he might have missed the woman or chosen the wrong day to wait for her, when a carriage of just the right style — that is, the kind that tended to vulture at the police station — approached him around the corner from just the right direction — that is, that of the police station. These circumstances gave no guarantee that the person he wanted to speak to was inside (and in fact it might as easily be the husband, whom Katsu had no particular desire to meet), but he lacked the energy to think of a better plan.

    It worked, though. The carriage drew to a halt not far past him, and the figure that emerged and cheerfully paid the driver before turning toward the waiting artist was the police woman, Tokio. As the equipage pulled off, she made her way toward him with the air of one approaching a prearranged meeting rather than having stopped out of curiosity to see what this friend of a friend might be doing at the outskirts of her neighborhood.

    “Tsukioka-san, isn’t it?” She stopped in front of him, throwing a quick glance at where a lamplighter made his way down the street toward them, then met Katsu’s eye with a smile. “We were never properly introduced before, that night when Zanza was so drunk, but…”

    “But he’s talked about us both,” Katsu finished for her. He tried to return her smile, reminiscent of the night in question when he’d been reunited with his old friend, but thinking about Sano was both pleasure and pain to him right now.

    “Walk with me,” she invited. She probably wanted to keep ahead of the lamplighter. Katsu wasn’t sure exactly how much she knew about him and his recent activities, or how much she might guess about what he wanted to say to her now, but in any case she would still probably rather keep this conversation relatively private. He fell in by her side.

    “Have you seen Zanza — Sano — lately?” Though on the surface this seemed a pretty standard polite inquiry about a mutual acquaintance, Katsu thought it was made with both care and precision.

    “No,” he said, then added somewhat confusedly, “at least not for a few days. I was hoping you could take a message to him for me.”

    “Ah, so that’s what you’re doing waiting around in my neighborhood.” She gestured before them. “Since you obviously know where I live. But you know where he lives too, so…”

    And it had come to the question, Why don’t you talk to him yourself? even sooner than he’d expected. Katsu stifled a sigh, but couldn’t repress a frown, and did not immediately answer.

    She turned her head toward him, walking without watching her next few steps as she studied his face. She wore, and had worn since she descended from the carriage, a demeanor of shrewdness, of penetration, as if, no matter how much she did or didn’t know about him, she could easily tell what he was thinking now. And this seemed more than mere fancy the next moment when she came up with the answer in his place: “You’re not sure what to say to him, so it’s easier to start with a message from me.”

    Katsu admitted she was right, but, still completely uncertain about the message he supposedly wanted to send, said nothing more.

    She glanced at him again, and her shining black eyes seemed to make quick work of what she saw. “I know you two had a falling out…” And was that really what Sano had told her, or was she paraphrasing due to the presence of the assiduous lamplighter that made irritatingly good time in their wake? “And you’re still bitter about it. You still resent him for what he said and did.”

    “Yes.” Sano had closed off what Katsu had believed a clear path, nullified all the hard work of the last many months, stabbed ruthlessly at their shared past, and left Katsu a frustrated drifter with no remaining goals, no new plans, and no hope for any future fulfillment of his longstanding desires.

    “But you don’t want to lose him,” Tokio added.

    “Yes.” It came out even more quietly this time, though it was no less true. Sano was the only family remaining to him, and it still seemed nothing short of a miracle that they’d found each other again when they had — though Katsu had been avoiding the question of whether taichou had had a hand in it and, if so, what his motivations might have been. Katsu wanted to hold onto that friendship, that brotherhood so unexpectedly regained, and somehow the bitterness he felt in regard to Sunday night only made him want to cling all the more tightly to Sano.

    “So you want to talk to him again, but you don’t know what to say.” Then, with a critical expression, she amended thoughtfully, “Or is it that you want to talk to him again because you don’t know what to say?”

    “I… I’m starting to believe I can’t figure things out on my own. I need Sano.”

    She threw him another look, this time more sidelong than before. “He told me he said some hurtful things, and you don’t seem like you’re ready to forgive him yet.” And was she standing up for Sano here, seeking to stave off Katsu’s prospective wrath, or simply working her own way through the tangle that was their relationship right now as best she could from the outside?

    Katsu sighed again. “I don’t know that it’s a question of forgiveness. He did and said what he believed was right and true, and he tried his best not to hurt me with it. It’s more a question of me adjusting to that, aligning myself to his right and his truth.”

    “But you don’t know that you believe he was right,” she insisted, “so whatever it is you have to do — forgive or adjust or align — you’re not ready to do it yet.”

    “I have to be. I need him.”

    “You feel like you’ll be able to find some answers by talking to him, but you’d be much better off talking to him after you’ve already found some.”

    He shook his head, simultaneously sorrowful and deeply impressed. “You must be an excellent police officer.”

    Now the look she gave him was startled, indicative of some confusion at the sudden subject change and some apparently reflexive wariness. “You say that because…”

    “I wasn’t planning to discuss this all with you. I intended to request you take a message for me, and leave it at that. But you read so much of what I was thinking, and drew me out so well… You must be very skilled at dealing with witnesses.” Katsu had always considered himself fairly good at drawing information out of people, but didn’t think he could have prompted the level of emotional confession this woman had so easily gotten from him tonight.

    She smiled acerbically. “Thank you. I’m afraid you’re one of the few men who thinks so.”

    That explained her wariness when he brought up her profession. It also fit with what he’d learned when he’d been looking into the activities of Tokio and her partner. “I meant it,” he said seriously, “and I’m sorry.” There wasn’t much else to offer.

    She gave the shrug of one that has been laboring under a troublesome weight for so long it’s almost become a matter of indifference. “If more men thought like that, even outside the police force…”

    “Nothing is right in this system,” he murmured, sounding almost more forlorn than grim. But even as he said it, the first hint of a new idea, like a scant stream in a dry channel after a long drought, came trickling down to him.

    “It’s like you said — people just need an example to realize what they can do.”

    “But what kind of example besides violence could possibly–“

    “I hope you find another way.”

    “If more men thought like that, even outside the police force…”

    Only moments before, he’d said he didn’t think he could figure this out his own… but perhaps it hadn’t really been any further help from Sano that he needed. Not that he wanted to see him any less — especially now he had this faint beginning of an answer — but perhaps he’d just received the catalyst he wanted from a completely unexpected source.

    He’d stopped dead on the sidewalk, grasping at the threads of this idea, trying in a measured panic to weave them together into something less ephemeral before they slipped away. The lamplighter had caught up with them, and was, in fact, mounting his ladder not three feet off; and Tokio was staring at Katsu with a curious smile.

    “I seem to have given you an idea,” she said.

    Keeping a tight mental hold on the all-important strands, Katsu yet allowed the woman in front of him to come back into greater focus. “Yes,” he said gravely. “You’re very inspiring, Takagi-san.” And he meant it as sincerely as he’d meant his complimentary assessment of her police skills before. With her firm but pleasant demeanor and those lovely lips saying so easily exactly what he’d needed to hear tonight, she’d made a significant impression on him.

    Her smile widened. “I’d love to hear about it sometime.” –though a quick glance at the lamplighter they couldn’t get free of, a slight roll of eyes, and a shake of head indicated that she wouldn’t ask for details in present company. Which relieved Katsu, since he didn’t have details yet, and remained uncertain how much to share with this woman regardless of how she’d inspired him.

    “If you could take that message to Sano for me,” he said instead, with a nod, “I’ll let you get home.”

    And again she read him with seeming ease as she suggested, “Only that you want to talk to him?”

    He nodded again. “Thank you, Takagi-san. Good evening.”

    She returned the goodbye with a wave he barely saw before he hurried away into the growing darkness.

    ***

    Sano hoped the thunder that rumbled in precise concurrence with the door’s opening didn’t auger badly for the conversation he’d come here for. The sounds of an approaching rainstorm had colored his entire earlier discussion with Tokio — the first since they’d slept together — and that had gone more or less not terribly… but the growling sky lowered a lot more closely and darkly now. Still, it might be a propitious sign that this encounter started out exactly as that one had: with the two parties staring at each other in silence across the threshold for a length of time that quickly escalated the mood into extreme discomfort and awkwardness, clearly unsure how to begin or whether the visitor should be invited inside.

    Tokio had been much better at this, and had started things out eventually with a creditable attempt at smoothness. Now, not nearly as skilled but desperate for something to put forward, noting the condition of Katsu’s hair and yukata, Sano said, “I didn’t wake you up, did I?” His voice sounded hoarse, and he had to clear his throat after speaking.

    Katsu let the silence hang for another very awkward moment, and finally replied, “You did, but only because I was out all night.” And despite being the one to have solicited this meeting, he sounded every bit as uncertain as Sano did. While the latter refrained from demanding to know why he’d been out all night and whether he’d been doing something revolutionary, Katsu with a visible effort went on in no particularly welcoming tone. “It’s going to be raining soon. Come inside.”

    Sano hesitated, drew in a deep breath he hoped Katsu wouldn’t take special notice of, and followed when the artist stepped back to allow him past. As he watched Katsu close the door and then absently make a rather futile attempt at calming his tousled locks, Sano swallowed and forced himself to say, “If you need to go back to bed, I can go…”

    “No.” It was more commanding that welcoming still. “Sit. I’ll warm up some sake.” And this must be deliberate; he must know what an inducement for Sano to stay, and what an indication of the proposed length of their interaction, sake would be.

    Sano found a seat at the table, which seemed at least twice as cluttered as it had been the last time he’d visited. Surprisingly, the mass of papers strewn across its face was not, as he’d expected, a collection of sketches or random-looking blots of ink or color tests, but covered in writing, not all of it in the same hand. His curiosity and unease only increased at this sight, but he exerted his will power and did not pry. The atmosphere in here was already stiff enough; he didn’t need to be jumping right in with accusatory questions.

    Whether or not Katsu had the same idea, his next remark, as he rummaged through something across the room, seemed somewhat forced. “I hear you’re trying to rejoin the Furukawatai.”

    Did he want to induce panic? Sano saw no reason he should — that would be an awfully stupid revenge, and, besides, Katsu shouldn’t even know his statement would make Sano panic — yet here Sano was panicking. It came out in his voice, for all he tried to keep his tone even, as he asked, “How do you know that? Are people talking about it?”

    Katsu paused in the act of getting a demurely small bottle of sake set up on his stove, looking over at Sano darkly but also with some bemusement. “Only certain people in the Furukawatai,” he said both carefully and curiously.

    This wasn’t the first time Katsu had been far better-informed than Sano had expected, but it was perhaps the most important to Sano and his interests. He wanted this cleared up right now, no matter how it increased the awkwardness between them. “So you have contacts — sources — in the Furukawatai. It’s not just gossip.”

    They believe it’s just gossip,” Katsu replied, lighting his stove. “But, yes, ‘contacts’ or ‘sources’ describes them better.” And, indeed, the words sounded much more appropriate than the ‘friends’ he’d used in a previous conversation.

    “Well…” Sano had already practically admitted it, and might as well not backtrack. “Yeah. I’m trying to get back in.”

    “I would have thought you were done with gangs.” Seeking cups, Katsu faced away from Sano, so only by tone of voice could his attitude be assessed. And he really did seem to be trying to make casual conversation — ‘casual’ relative to talking about his own terrorist activities and Sano’s hurtful behavior, that is.

    “I would have thought you were done spying on me” was, perhaps, a less casual return.

    “I am. If what I do can be called ‘spying,’ then I spy impartially on everyone.”

    Sano relented, for more than one reason. “Spying’s fine. Or gossip, or whatever you want to call it. Go ahead and spy impartially on everyone. I love spying.”

    Katsu raised a brow as he set down their cups and took his place at the table within arm’s reach of the stove.

    “Just…” Sano hadn’t wanted to come right out and ask, but his impatience and agitation now took the lead. “Why are you spying on everyone? What are you doing? Looking for new targets? Are you still planning to–” But at Katsu’s hard glance, he bit down on his words with a grunt. They stared grimly at each other for a long moment.

    “I wish,” Katsu finally said softly, bitterly, “I could explain… I wish I had the right words for how much I let go of because you insisted. For how lost I felt after you made me give up everything I was working on for so long.”

    “I didn’t make you,” Sano protested, his heart aching. “If you did give up on that bombing shit, I’m really glad, but I left you a choice.”

    Katsu shook his head, and looked as if he would speak again, but refrained.

    “And you don’t need to explain,” Sano went on. “Because I do know how that feels. I just barely gave up fighting for money, remember? How do you think I felt after that? I was doing that for years too, you know.”

    With a smile only a tiny bit too sad to be sarcastic, Katsu asked, “But did your fighting aim to free the country from a corrupt government?”

    “No, but it was everything I was for so long, and… the only thing that helped with the pain from back then.”

    “We were both thinking of taichou…”

    “Listen.” Sano shifted restlessly. “I can’t take back what I said about him and what he would have wanted. But I’m sorry, all right? I’m sorry I had to say shit like that; I’m sorry I hurt us both.”

    The artist continued to frown. At last, slowly, he prefaced with a deep breath the response, “And I’m sorry I’ve been so upset with you for it. I know you were doing right in your own estimation, and I should never expect you to do anything by halves.”

    Sano wasn’t exactly sure where this exchange put them. Katsu hadn’t told him what his plans were yet, and they’d really only apologized for unpleasant emotional interactions. He had to admit, though, to a lessening of the heaviness and unpleasant pressure in his chest, to the thunder that roiled inside his own head rather than outside.

    I can’t take back what I intended,” Katsu went on presently. “I don’t know that I don’t still think it’s the best way to set an example for the people, to set events in motion. But that’s over.” He made a helpless gesture that was yet less unhappy than Sano would have anticipated. “Sometimes a plan has only one right time, and that time has passed.”

    Sano could not apologize again, and sat uncomfortably silent.

    Katsu turned and took longer checking how the sake was getting on than seemed strictly necessary. Sano believed he was staring into the heating water beneath the bottle without realizing what he saw there.

    Sitting in loaded silence with Katsu was easily as bad as the forced continuance of conversation from earlier with Tokio. So anxious had she and Sano both been not to let this exact type of wordlessness fall between them that they’d manufactured cheer and chatter and ended up repeating themselves and laughing too loudly and spewing nonsense just for each to check how the other was doing and Tokio to report that Katsu wanted to speak to Sano. Still, it had been a crucial patch to their damaged friendship and a promise of less awkward times to come… which was exactly what he needed with Katsu here and now, and probably what Katsu had been aiming for when he’d first entered.

    So, “Probably not ready yet,” Sano forced himself to remark. And he was about to go on about his terrible stove at home and say something about the last time he’d used it, but, recalling what the issue of that evening’s drinking had been, shut his mouth with a faint heat in his cheeks.

    “Not yet,” Katsu agreed, finally tearing his eyes from the stove and resuming a normal position at the table. He didn’t look at Sano, but let his gaze range over the papers strewn between his resting hands and his friend’s. As if he’d been reading Sano’s thoughts, or as if some other set of mental prompts had led him to the same topic as Sano’s reflections, he said, “I spoke to Takagi-san the other evening, as you probably know.”

    “Yeah…”

    “She’s impressive. A very talented, effective woman.”

    “Yeah.”

    “And yet she’s held back by the way men think of women and have always thought of women.”

    “Absolutely.” Sano wondered where this was going, but didn’t wonder at all that ‘the way men think of women’ had come up in the conversation between Katsu and Tokio, even if that conversation’s original purpose had only been to get Tokio to relay a message to Sano.

    “It seems there are more subjects than corruption in the government people need to be enlightened on.”

    Remembering what Katsu had postulated before, about Tokio also being held back by her devotion to a system that should be dismantled, and her potential to do so much more if she were ‘freed’ from that restriction, Sano said a little uneasily, “Probably more than that, even.”

    Katsu nodded. He spread his long fingers out across the chaos of papers in front of him, ruffling them gently, and looked up at Sano. “So I’m going to do my best to enlighten them. I’m going to present the truth wherever I find it, and with it the idea that things need to change.”

    Sano’s breath caught, and in a frantic nod-like motion he turned his gaze up and down from Katsu’s eyes to the chaos of text in front of him a couple of times. “So you’re gonna be writing–“

    “A newspaper.” Katsu tapped the table gently and turned back toward the stove again. “Something easily distributed. I’m already set up for printmaking, of course, and since everyone talks to an unthreatening artist, I have, as you realized, many well placed sources of information.”

    For a moment Sano couldn’t speak. It wasn’t merely relief that Katsu truly had abandoned his bombing scheme, and to all appearances wouldn’t resume it now he had this significantly less dangerous undertaking in mind. It was that Sano had seen a hint in his eyes of what he’d seen there so intensely before: the fire of drive, of faith in a tenable plan and eagerness to start on it. Yes, it had only been a spark, but the point was that Sano hadn’t crushed Katsu’s spirit or destroyed his ambition to better Japan and work toward what taichou had wanted.

    That Tokio had apparently inspired this new idea only made Sano a tiny bit jealous. He knew full well how inspiring those police officers were, and didn’t begrudge it as long as Katsu had a new idea. As long as Katsu could hold onto his beliefs and desires and his personal safety at the same time. As long as Katsu was no longer looking to start a war.

    Sano found a purely happy and relieved smile on his face, and himself drawing breath to speak. He paused, though, trying to get a grip while Katsu’s back was still turned to test the sake. He had to remind himself not to be patronizing, not to act like a parent whose kid has finally found something non-destructive and non-annoying to do so dad can take a nap, not to immediately compare this new notion with the old, terrible one. That was probably why, in the first place, Katsu had felt the need to work his way around gradually to telling Sano about his intentions: for fear of how his friend would react in multiple senses.

    At last he allowed himself to say, “That’s an amazing idea.” It came out sounding very much like his smile: happy, relieved, approving, enthusiastic. “You can get the word out to so many people that way.”

    The set of Katsu’s spine relaxed just a trifle at this, though his face remained as serious as before as he reached across to pour sake into the cup Sano raised. “If I take care to word it simply. I’ll need to keep the language accessible in order to make it as generally readable as I can.”

    Sano chuckled. “Not too many kanji, then,” he advised, and sipped his sake. In light of this conversation, it tasted excellent.

    Katsu smiled, his relief now clearly evident. “I have enough information for an issue or two.” He gestured with his own filled cup to the papers on the table again. “I was out late talking to all kinds of people. Now I just have to write it all up. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

    “A lot of work and maybe a lot of trouble,” Sano said consideringly. “If you’re gonna be printing up ‘truths’ about the government or anything else, you’re gonna have a lot of enemies pretty quick.” It remained less dangerous than bombing government buildings, but there was definitely a risk involved.

    The artist shrugged. “Nothing in this world is truly safe,” he said philosophically, offering Sano a refill. His eyes rose to meet Sano’s as he did so with a look of slight accusation. “Would you say the Furukawatai is safe?”

    Sano sucked in a breath at the unexpected subject change. Pleasant as it was to recognize Katsu’s reciprocal concern, he couldn’t be sure of the wisdom of getting into details on this topic right this moment. But a quick, complicated set of reflections on Katsu’s impartial spying, the probability of his finding out eventually anyway, his potential usefulness as a source of information, his openness with Sano today and ever since they’d met again, and just how much Sano wanted things to be on the level between them convinced him to tell all.

    “They won’t be when I’m done with ’em,” he said.

    Katsu gave him a skeptical look.

    “I’m trying to join the Karashigumi at the same time,” Sano explained succinctly with a growing grin, finding it was actually pretty fun to say what seemed like overblown dramatic nonsense so straightforwardly. “I’m gonna get the two groups to brawl so the police have an excuse to make a bunch of arrests. Especially the leaders.”

    “You’re working for Saitou,” Katsu said flatly.

    Sano’s grin faded at the tone. “Yeah. I’m trying to make a difference too.”

    Slowly Katsu nodded, and he sipped his sake in silence for a moment. Finally he said, “I owe those two for more than just the idea Takagi-san half gave me. If I hadn’t been looking into their activities, I would never have realized just how much useful information someone like me can dig up by speaking casually to the right people.”

    “I owe them even more than that,” Sano murmured.

    “Is that why you’re working with them?”

    “No.” Sano’s voice went completely serious now. “I really, truly am trying to make a difference. Fighting’s what I’m best at, and being a lowlife, and I’m gonna use that to get shit done.”

    Katsu laughed a little, probably at Sano’s wording, and said, “Then I’m very happy for you, Sano.” And perhaps this reaction was his version of what Sano’s had been minutes before on learning Katsu’s plans. They’d each found something new to do that would, they hoped, please their dead captain.

    They drank quietly for a few moments, and Sano reflected on the blessedly improved atmosphere in the room. It seemed they’d come to terms and were properly friends again, which was what Sano had wanted most in the world, at least from this afternoon and this meeting.

    Eventually Katsu asked, “Why those two particular yakuza? The Karashigumi has always been big news, and I haven’t seen any efforts to take it down before. The Furukawatai is only starting to become a serious force.”

    “Turns out the Karashigumi kinda belongs to this one politician–“

    “Rokumeikan Hatsuo? Army Ministry?”

    “Well, shit, if everyone knows, I don’t know why Saitou can’t just take him out openly,” Sano grumbled.

    “That’s only a guess based on a combination of rumors,” Katsu soothed. “I doubt a man of his connections and influence could be brought to justice openly in any case.”

    “Well, anyway, I guess Saitou wants to take care of the gang Rokumeikan controls before he goes after the guy himself.”

    “Not a bad idea. Just a dangerous one.”

    Sano grinned all over again. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to that part.”

    “Bakayarou,” Katsu murmured. He tapped a pensive finger against the sake bottle, tipped it toward him to see inside, and refilled his cup. “Actually, I may be able to help you. Do you remember the organized fights they used to have in Azabuku two or three years ago?”

    “The ones that got stamped out ’cause too many guys got killed?”

    “Those ones, yes. They’re restarting, with much tighter security this time around so they don’t get shut down again. And as far as I know, it’s mostly Karashi involved. That is their part of town, after all.”

    Sano was nodding enthusiastically. “That’s a great idea! If I can get in on those, it’ll be easy to get into the gang next.”

    “And I can’t see that they’d pass up an opportunity to have you fight,” Katsu agreed somewhat dryly. “It should be simple.”

    “That’s an amazing tip,” Sano said. “Thanks!”

    “Of course. Any time you need information, feel free to ask. I may not have exactly what you need, but I plan to do a lot of gossiping from now on.”

    “Careful,” Sano advised, “or you’ll end up as an honest-to-goodness police informant.”

    “If they’re all as attractive as that friend of yours,” Katsu said with relative lightness, “I might not mind so much.”

    Sano was incredulous. “Who, Saitou?”

    Katsu blinked. “Takagi-san, I meant.”

    “Oh. Well.” Complete openness in mind, and because the implication here was fairly clear, Sano added, “It didn’t really work out with her.”

    “Really?” And Katsu definitely seemed interested in that news. “I had heard you and she were a fixed thing.”

    “Good. That’s my excuse for hanging out with her.”

    Pensively Katsu nodded.

    Sano was pondering whether to tease him about all of this or whether he should let what charged conversation they’d had be enough for today when the sound of downpour from outside — which he realized abruptly had been going on for some time — made him suddenly sit up straight and set down his sake cup. “Oh, shit, I forgot. I gotta go.”

    “Forgot what?”

    “I got this anonymous note yesterday telling me to meet someone if it was raining today, so that means now I’m late.” His anxiousness first to talk to Tokio in anything like a rational manner and second to smooth things over with Katsu had driven it entirely out of his mind.

    Both of Katsu’s brows went up. “That sounds incredibly shady.”

    “Yeah it does. Hopefully it’ll be either fun or useful.”

    “It could be someone who wants to hire you for a fight; the ‘rain’ clause makes it sound like something someone wants to keep under cover.”

    Sano nodded as he got to his feet. “Anyway, it’s raining–” he pointed toward the shouji– “so I’ll find out soon.” Heading for the door he added, “Thanks for the sake.”

    “Sano.”

    When he turned, he found Katsu too on his feet. The artist threw his arms around the kenkaya as soon as Sano faced him, and pulled him close with a grip that would not be denied. “Stay safe,” he advised. “I’d rather not lose my brother to some stupid ambush in the rain.”

    Sano’s heart clenched, and to his own astonishment he felt a prickling behind his eyes. Gruffly he replied, “You too, nichan. Don’t go asking the wrong questions.” And they avoided each other’s gaze as they withdrew from the hug and Sano turned away again to leave.

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


    Forgivably Wrong

    He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

    When Detective Saitou gets a chance to meet his favorite author and learns something very unexpected about him, resisting his fanboyish impulses is suddenly the least of his concerns.


    Technically Saitou could have taken the interstate one exit farther and gotten onto Coolidge Boulevard some distance closer to the station, but the highway ahead had appeared a little congested, and he had plenty of time for the longer stretch on the slower street since he’d left for work rather early. There had been no real reason to leave so early, but, having finished breakfast and finding he had nothing remaining to do at home, he’d decided he might as well head on in.

    A mass of balloons, including two huge ones floating high up on long cords, decorated the front of the bookstore on the north side of Coolidge, and Saitou recalled it was the 18th. That event he’d seen advertised so much lately was today, wasn’t it? He probably wouldn’t even have remembered if he hadn’t happened to come this direction due to traffic. And he probably wouldn’t even have looked at the store closely enough to be reminded if not for the eye-catching balloons.

    Lately he’d been considering purchasing an e-reader of some sort. It would be more easily carried around with him than most books, and provide more options at any given moment as well. The question then remained whether he wanted a dedicated e-reader with limited other functionality or a tablet with the option for an e-reader app. And right now, when he’d left for work rather early for no particular reason and had plenty of time, seemed like not a bad moment to just step into the bookstore and examine the options they had. Not, of course, with any intention of getting involved in the book-signing that was, quite coincidentally, going on in there simultaneously.

    But it would probably be pretty crowded, wouldn’t it? The e-reader display, he remembered, stood precisely at the center of the store, undoubtedly also where the event would be set up… it might be a little difficult to reach the sample devices without getting involved in the signing… Maybe he should wait for some other day.

    But today was when he happened to have time to spare. Some other day he might not. There was no logical reason not to go in there right now. He changed lanes so as to turn into the shopping center immediately ahead.

    The Yuki Tomoshiro series had probably only even grabbed Saitou’s attention originally because it was about a Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system. It wasn’t as if it was spectacularly good or anything. The prose was nothing brilliant — this wouldn’t be ranked among the classics or studied in prestigious schools — even if it did have a refreshing directness and emotionality to it without being at all pretentious. The police procedure was never 100% accurate, though admittedly what the author got wrong he at least got forgivably wrong. And the cases Yuki worked tended to be overblown and improbably adventurous much of the time, as if the author had watched a few too many crime dramas for inspiration — though, yes, that did make for the most entertaining stories. So Saitou wasn’t sure how it had become his favorite series.

    Honestly he couldn’t say for certain it was his favorite series. It just hit pretty close to home; that was all. And, although the personal interactions unrelated to the cases were consistently the weakest parts of the writing, there had been hints in the latest book that Yuki might, after some wrestling within herself, start dating her precinct’s female civilian administrator. No matter how long Saitou himself had been single, a gay Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system hit even closer to home.

    He couldn’t say he entirely approved of the author’s pen name, however. Though some part of him secretly rather liked the uncompromising ‘斬’ — and he knew this was the intended spelling because the kanji were given in the author’s extended bio on the official series website — it did seem melodramatic. Still, most American readers wouldn’t recognize this — the books were written in English and set in the U.S., after all, and name kanji didn’t really enter into it except as trivia for sharp-eyed and perseverent fans — and Saitou wasn’t ignorant of the need for a catchy pseudonym. Still, he couldn’t help shaking his head a little at the huge banner on the store’s outer wall proclaiming, Book Signing Today with Zanza Sagara, Bestselling Author of the Yuki Tomoshiro Series.

    Saitou had heard rumors (well, read online) that Sagara was a native of this city. Of course he didn’t really care where some random author lived, but once or twice when he’d been bored he’d tried looking it up more definitively. That had never succeeded — the guy kept pretty quiet about his personal life — but Saitou supposed, if Sagara really did live around here, it would explain why this generic bookstore with nothing special about it got the preference over classier venues for the author’s very first (Saitou was fairly sure it was his very first) public appearance, especially so soon after the release of the latest installment in the series.

    The book had been out for so little time that Saitou hadn’t even finished it yet, and the envisioned greater ease of getting the rest of the way through it on an e-reader rather than lugging the new-release hardback around was one of the reasons he was considering purchasing such a device. And surely he could slip in and through the Sagara crowd, take a look at what the store had to offer, and get out without too much inconvenience.

    If Saitou had been on an earlier shift rather than in at 11:00 these days, he wouldn’t have needed to worry about this event; as it was, the signing seemed to be in full swing as he made his way inside. Cheerful chatter filled the big room, which subsequently lacked its usual library-like feeling; and, as he’d anticipated, a crowd bloated the central open space. It was difficult to tell with shelves and a lot of people in the way, but he thought the table where the author sat conversing and autographing stood on the left, so he circled immediately around to the right.

    He couldn’t help noticing, as he gave the crowd a wide enough berth that he wouldn’t be mistaken for someone trying to get in line, that nobody else in here looked like a cop. Of course some of them might be — it wasn’t as if he knew every last member of the police force, and there was no single defining characteristic that made cops immediately recognizable even to others of their kind — but at the very least no uniforms or visible badges showed in the group. Probably for the best, then, that Saitou didn’t plan on approaching Sagara; he didn’t really fit in with this crowd. It did prove a little difficult to squeeze between it and the e-reader display, though; he was forced to excuse and explain himself far more frequently than he would have liked.

    But eventually he maneuvered into a position from which he could make a leisurely examination of the electronics. He was actually fairly close to the author’s table here, as it formed a right angle with this display and Saitou was at the end closest to the corner. That didn’t matter much, since his back was turned on the unrelated business and he stayed right up against the e-reader collection so as to keep from interfering with the autograph line.

    Disappointingly, there were far fewer options than he’d expected; in fact the space was mostly taken up with different colors of the same model, as if prospective purchasers needed to test each color separately to find which would work best. Though at least one of the choices they had for sale looked fairly promising, Saitou was annoyed enough with the silly setup that he stood still for several moments listening to the group immediately behind him and one particular voice, somewhat difficult to make out among the rest of the chatter, that he believed to be that of the author.

    Suddenly that voice rose in a much louder, jovial remark to whomever was at the front of the line, followed by a hearty laugh, which rendered its sound much clearer… and more recognizable. Saitou went absolutely still against the e-reader display, abruptly listening significantly harder to the next statement, sinking back down to a more normal conversational volume though it was. He knew those tones. He knew that laugh.

    Because he wasn’t here to meet Sagara or particularly curious what he looked like — the dust jackets and websites were remarkably devoid of photos — Saitou hadn’t attempted to get a glimpse of him through the milling bodies; and every time he had happened to glance in that direction, nothing at the author’s table had been visible. But now he not only turned and craned his neck, he pretty quickly began pushing his way through the crowd without any excuse or explanation this time. The outcry his passage caused did little to drown out the sound of the voice he’d locked onto, nor make him any less horrifically suspicious. He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

    It was possible, and there was a way. Saitou broke free of the crowd and barely stopped himself from ramming his thighs into the table, on which he laid his hands for support in his sudden, utter shock and disbelief.

    *

    Knocking on doors was tedious but necessary, an endless repetition of the same questions and answers that, after a while, blended together so he had to struggle to remember which floor he was on and who’d told him what. Of course he would assess any unusual demeanor for anything beyond run-of-the-mill discomfort with talking to the police, and he would make a note of any useful or even just interesting information… but that was assuming anyone had an unusual demeanor or any useful or even just interesting information. Obviously they did often enough to make this a productive way to spend his time… but it was never often enough to make this a fun way to spend his time.

    Perhaps this was why he noticed that someone seemed to be watching him even sooner than he otherwise might have: it offered some potential for engagement that this part of his investigation otherwise painfully lacked.

    Of course there were not infrequently gawkers at any active police work (even when ‘active’ was a dismaying misnomer), and most of the time they offered far more sources of annoyance and interference than of fascination… but Saitou was pretty good at interpreting the feeling of eyes on him, and the current set seemed to carry something subtly different than the usual gormless curiosity or deep mistrust with which he was usually watched while on duty.

    Then, the hallway walls in this particular apartment building were relentlessly white and plain — and it wasn’t even an off-white, but an unfinished pure lack of color except wherever it was dirty — and the carpeting a utilitarian grey that did nothing for overall appeal. The bland brown of the doors was equally neutral, so the whole place had a drab, dull feeling that made Saitou wonder how anyone ever agreed to live here. Crisp colors stood out against all of this just as obtrusively as a seemingly intrigued contemplation stood out against the insipidity of this part of his investigation, caught his notice with just as much promise.

    The watcher was a young man half visible around the corridor’s far corner, casually observing Saitou approach slowly, one door at a time, toward his end of the hall. His red hoodie, unfaded black jeans, hair of a brown much less lackluster than that of the doors Saitou was knocking on — even the bright green of the apple he was eating — rendered him distinctive initially, but when Saitou fixed him with a pointed and assessing look, his face and figure had that effect perhaps doubly so.

    During the run of any investigation, Saitou, naturally, saw a lot of people, and throughout his career as a whole encountered a pretty decent cross-section of the city: citizens of every race, economic level, type of self-presentation, and apparent degree of sanity. He was required to assess them, to pinpoint any aspect of personality or behavior that might be indicative of something he wanted to know, so of course he concentrated minutely on many of their personal attributes. Despite this, however, rarely did any of them really grab his attention. They were all vastly different, but in a way they were all the same: they did nothing for him; they were all numbers to crunch, essentially, puzzle pieces to fit into appropriate spots and then leave there.

    So when someone did stand out to him, did catch his attention as something other than a number to be crunched, the very fact that they did so made them even more obtrusive. And as such, this young man seemed to shine like a beacon at the end of the hallway, simultaneously difficult to look away from and perhaps a little blinding. Saitou paused in his work, motionless before the next door he needed to knock on, and simply stared, wordless.

    The most pertinent point had to be the young man’s excessively good looks, as well as a sort of overall contradictoriness that gave an immediate and perhaps unfair impression of perverseness of character. His face appeared young and fresh, with a touch of the feminine to its prettiness, but bore a scattering of stubble and a broadness of jaw that helped him retain a look of masculinity despite this. His hair had obviously had gel applied in order to be styled into that wild set of spikes, but, despite this deliberate effort, the overall effect was one of carelessness, of indifference to physical appearance and purely accidental handsomeness as a result. And though the baggy sweat-shirt hid upper body details, the jeans fit closely enough to indicate the excellent shape of groin and legs. He was more than just eye-catching; he was enticing, appetizing.

    And there was also his race. Of course the city’s Japanese population was such that Saitou felt no surprise at finding them wherever he happened to be, but Japanese heredity yet made for an automatic source of greater interest. To run into someone this attractive that also happened to have the same descent as Saitou’s — and who seemed to be looking at him with some kind of unusual fixedness — was far more rare.

    When the young man observed Saitou’s riveted gaze, he abandoned his position at the hallway’s corner and came ambling down toward him, still eating his apple in careless motions that implied he wasn’t worried at all about what this cop in his apartment building might think of him hanging around watching — and also demonstrated a flexibility of lips that Saitou’s hedonistic side (not nearly as smothered as it usually was, for some reason) took special notice of. He came to stand casually near Saitou, finishing his snack and looking the detective up and down without compunction.

    “Can I help you?” The officer’s words came out dry as paper not only because he wondered what the kid was up to, but because he was dissatisfied with himself for how pleased he was to see him at close range.

    The young man shrugged. “I heard there was a cop in the building, so I figured I’d come down and see.”

    “Is there a problem with me being in the building?” In response to that carelessness, Saitou’s tone was even drier than before.

    “Nah. I like cops.” He gave Saitou a grin that was both cheeky and damnably attractive, then went on to say something rather shocking: “We just don’t usually get the sexy ones around here.” He eyed Saitou again without a trace of hesitancy — indeed, with a cockiness and self-assurance that seemed to suggest the perfect naturality of flirting with someone without checking on their orientation first. His grin took on a satisfied edge as he finished his second once-over, but then he shook his head. “Sometimes I feel like I should move somewhere with higher rent… maybe then I’d meet more hot cops. You know… richer neighborhoods getting more police attention and all that.”

    This statement troubled Saitou largely because it was probably true. The young man might be gorgeous, but in practically leading with a jab like that he was simultaneously frustrating. So, rather than trying to decide whether or not to respond to the flirtation — which, under some circumstances, he might have done — Saitou replied in a tone now more disdainful than dry, “Could you afford higher rent?”

    The stranger scowled. “Why would you assume I couldn’t? I probably make more money than you do. I’m just…” He was either embarrassed to admit this or (which seemed more likely) scrambling for an excuse. “…stuck in a long lease I shouldn’t have renewed.”

    Saitou glanced around — at the disgusting carpet, the scuffed walls, the terminally bland colors — intending the message, “If you make so much money, you’re an idiot to stay in a place like this.” Evidently he’d gotten his point across, since when his eyes returned to the handsome youth, he noticed clenched fists. (Where the apple core had gone he didn’t know.) What he said aloud was, “I’m Detective Saitou, RCPD. I need to ask you a few questions.”

    “Here?” the young man wondered.

    Saitou raised a brow. “Unless you’d prefer I arrest you for obstruction of duty and then question you…”

    “That sounds like fun. But, nah, I got work to do. No time for an arrest today. What I meant was, here, in this hallway? You don’t want to come upstairs to my apartment? It’d be way more… private in there.”

    “I do not require privacy to ask everyone in the building the same set of questions.” Again Saitou might have responded to the flirtation instead of making such a businesslike and acerbic statement, but he really did need answers.

    “Huh,” said the young man, sounding disappointed. “Hot, but not a lot of fun. OK, so what are your questions?”

    “What’s your name?”

    “Ooh, questions about me personally.”

    “No, idiot, I just need to know who you are in case I decide to arrest you later for annoying me.”

    The young man relented with good grace. “Well, I’m Sanosuke Higashidani.”

    “It must be fun navigating American life with a name like that,” Saitou murmured as he noted it down in his phone.

    Sanosuke sounded rueful, with a touch of actual exasperation, as he replied, “Yeah, well, we can’t all have sleek, snappy names like ‘Saitou.’ Unless we use pseudonyms.”

    Saitou smirked. “And which apartment do you live in?”

    “4305.” Sanosuke jerked a thumb upward to indicate the third floor above them. “Wanna see it?”

    Making a show of ignoring the second half of that answer, Saitou quickly ran over the building’s layout in his head. “So the windows of your apartment must be on the east side, looking out over the side parking lot.”

    Sanosuke considered for a moment. It was sometimes surprising how little oriented people were within their own personal spaces. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a pretty boring view, now I think about it.”

    “I can’t imagine there are many interesting views from the windows of this apartment complex.”

    Sanosuke seem to recognize that the officer was again prodding him subtly on his choice of living accommodations, for he frowned. Somewhat defiantly he said, “Well, if you’re wondering whether I’ve seen anything interesting out my windows lately, the answer is no.”

    “I wonder if you would recognize something of interest even if you saw it.”

    The frown deepened into a scowl. “What, you think I’m too stupid to know something suspicious when I see it? This is about those burglaries, right? You probably think it was an inside job, and want to know if anybody who lives around here’s been acting weird or coming and going at weird times.”

    “‘Inside job?’ Somebody’s been watching too many police dramas.”

    “No such thing as watching too many police dramas,” Sanosuke replied immediately. No wonder he claimed to like cops. “And the answer’s still no: I haven’t seen anybody suspicious around here lately.”

    “What times of day are you usually at home and awake?”

    “Wondering about my sleeping habits, huh?” He tried to say it suggestively, but it sounded more stupid than flirtatious. And when Saitou only looked at him, he answered the question. “My schedule’s really random. I’m just as likely to be up all night on the computer and sleep all the next day as the other way ’round. Except sometimes I take my laptop to a restaurant or something and work on shit there for a while. So I’m in and out a lot too.”

    People took a bizarre amount of pleasure, Saitou had noticed, in talking about the mundane minutiae of their personal lives. They might be a little uncomfortable answering police questions, but once they got started about their boring schedules, many were willing to go on at tedious length. Sanosuke had actually been more concise than most — probably because he didn’t really have much of a schedule, as he admitted himself — and the unpredictable nature of his activities spanning all twenty-four hours of the day made him almost an ideal potential witness, except…

    “If you’re working at your computer most of that time–” Saitou believed himself very generous with the term ‘working’ here– “you probably don’t see all that much out your windows even when you are home.”

    “No,” Sanosuke said regretfully, “I don’t. And my computer desk faces away from the patio door.”

    Saitou nodded, and moved on. “Since you’ve lived here, how often have apartment complex employees or maintenance people come into your apartment?”

    Sanosuke tilted his head, simultaneously cheerful and pensive. “You do think it was an inside job.”

    He was right, but Saitou wasn’t about to admit it. Apartments like this were very difficult to break into, and that several of them had been lately suggested someone somewhere had access to keys. “How often?” he repeated.

    Still appearing somewhat triumphant at his supposedly correct analysis, Sanosuke replied, “A bunch of times. For a while, every time I took a shower — naked, in case you’re interested — it leaked into the bathroom of the person downstairs. Took ’em forever to figure out what was wrong, so some maintenance guy was in and out of here probably five times, and one of the apartment managers came to look at it once too.”

    “Can you describe them for me?”

    “Maintenance guy was about my height,” Sanosuke said promptly, almost professionally; “narrow build, kinda like yours, but with a little more fat on him; Caucasian, at least mostly, and at that point he had a fading sunburn; long face, bit of a double chin, thin nose, acne scars, labret piercing; ears stuck out pretty far, and he had one of them pierced too; brown hair, not as dark as mine, with–”

    “All right.” Saitou raised a hand to stop him. He didn’t actually need all these details, just enough to pinpoint which maintenance guy it had been — and what Sanosuke had already said tallied with what he’d heard from other apartment-dwellers about the one named Jeff. He was, however, more than a little impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and conciseness of description, though he didn’t plan on saying so. “How about the apartment manager?”

    “Her name’s Vivian Something. She doesn’t work here anymore; I think she moved. But she’s a Black woman with–”

    “Since you know her name, I don’t need the description.” Saitou had heard about Vivian Something (it was Stetson, in fact, at least up until her recent marriage) from other residents as well.

    “OK,” Sano shrugged. “Where’s your partner, by the way?”

    Saitou raised his eyes from where he’d been making another note, and raised a brow at the young man. “Asking stupid people boring questions is hardly a task that requires two officers. She’s busy with a different aspect of this case.”

    In response to this, Sanosuke seemed to go very rapidly through three distinct emotional states, and the one he ended on surprised Saitou a little. “I’m not— you know, this could be way less boring if you– so your partner’s a woman?”

    “Is that a problem?” Not entirely sure why Sanosuke had asked, Saitou gave this response very coldly indeed.

    “No, it’s great!” The enthusiasm in Sanosuke’s tone was another surprise. “She wouldn’t happen to be Japanese too, would she?”

    Saitou hesitated, but since he saw no reason not to give this information he admitted, “As a matter of fact she is.”

    “And I bet you two got partnered up because you’re the only Japanese cops in the precinct.”

    Not only did Saitou feel disinclined to comment on this probably true assumption, they were getting off track. Why did he feel as if the tables had turned and he was suddenly the one being interrogated? “And what about your vehicle? Or do you take the bus everywhere?” He really had nothing against public transportation; the disdain with which he spoke the word ‘bus’ merely aimed at prodding Sanosuke away from his untoward queries.

    It worked. It seemed pretty easy to bait this young man, and Saitou definitely felt he had the upper hand while they discussed comings and goings in the parking lots and what cars and trucks Sanosuke recognized as regulars around here. But Sanosuke recovered himself enough to resume his previous demeanor of simultaneous obnoxiousness and far-too-tempting flirtatiousness during the next topic. All in all, Saitou felt like they came out of the questioning approximately even — and that was both unprecedented and irksome.

    He didn’t suspect the young man of anything except extreme nosiness, and perhaps an unexpected interest in Saitou, and it was the latter suspicion combined with Sanosuke’s undeniable allure that kept Saitou from telling him off. But he wouldn’t go so far in the other direction as to leave a business card with the guy; alluring or not, Sanosuke was also pretty aggravating. When they eventually parted — Sanosuke, presumably satisfied about the presence of a cop in his building, back to whatever apple-eating idling he’d been doing before some gossipy neighbor had informed him of the circumstance and sent him down here; Saitou to continue door-knockings destined to be even more tedious and uninteresting than ever now — he watched the handsome figure disappear around the hallway’s corner with ambivalent feelings, wondering whether he would encounter him again during the course of this case, or perhaps in some context besides criminal investigation. If he did, it would be through no fault of his own.

    *

    “What the hell…?” No great shock, honestly, that he’d somehow gotten past the officers in the dining area; they’d only just barely gone out there to keep an eye open for customers trying to enter. “Well, no wonder a guy can’t get any pizza, with all these cops running around the place.”

    It wasn’t necessarily startlement that kept Saitou silent for a moment or two longer than he normally would have been, though there was some of that too; it was more the combination of surprise at seeing this person again so unexpectedly with the abrupt reminder of how ridiculously attractive he was. And since Saitou was thus momentarily speechless, Tokio answered:

    “Got the wrong stereotype there, don’t you?”

    Trying to fight off a grin in order to maintain the facetious expression of concern he wanted, Sanosuke’s face writhed comically for a moment. Stupidly, this didn’t make him any less handsome. “Oh, crap, don’t tell me Krispy Kreme’s been hit too!”

    Tokio rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you go check for us?”

    Now Sanosuke’s grin conquered the look of false consternation and spread wide. “But I wanted pizza today, not donuts.” Then, seeing Tokio was about to dismiss him in a more official capacity, he added quickly, “Besides, I was an invaluable witness at y’all’s last case; I can probably be useful here too.”

    Undoubtedly never having seen Sanosuke before, Tokio turned toward Saitou with elevated brows, and Saitou broke his silence at last with, “He lives in the Hammock apartments. And ‘invaluable’ is a gross exaggeration.”

    Sanosuke appeared annoyed, but rallied quickly and said, “Hey, just because you turned down certain parts of the offer doesn’t change its overall value.” His grin, which had darkened somewhat in his irritation, now brightened as he added in a more jovial tone, “But seriously. How you doing, Detective Saitou, RCPD? Single? You never did call me.”

    Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

    “What are you doing here?” Saitou asked the question flatly, feeling he did fairly well at hiding how amusing he found this kid.

    “Well, I wanted pizza. Looks like I got a crime scene instead.” And it couldn’t be more evident that Sanosuke considered this an excellent trade. He did a little dance of childish excitement and anticipation as he looked around the chaotic kitchen, causing the laptop bag slung over one shoulder to bounce alarmingly against his hip, and punched one fist into his other palm, smiling broadly and lopsidedly the entire time. “I mean, check it out: there’s fresh bullet-holes in the walls and everything!” And his grin only widened as he noted this fact that many another person might comment on with fear or dismay. He paused, though, as he turned to gaze delightedly at the signs of the few shots that had been fired not long before and added, “Except that one above the grill; that one looks older.”

    Of course the eyes of the two cops snapped immediately to the spot in question, then to each other. Then Tokio started searching for something to stand on. They hadn’t even really begun examining this room yet; the questionable employees had only been escorted out minutes before. But it was possible — Saitou didn’t like to admit it, but it was possible — the evident age of one of several bullet-holes decorating the kitchen walls might have escaped them where this apparently sharp-eyed idiot had been able to point it out immediately. And it might even provide useful facts, depending on which bullet matched which gun.

    As he watched Tokio go about her examination, Sanosuke’s expression of pleasure intensified; he obviously reveled in having stumbled upon an interesting crime scene as well as in what he’d cleverly noticed there. But Saitou wasn’t going to put up with his nonsense this time. “You need to leave,” he said sternly.

    Before Sanosuke could even begin to protest, as Saitou was certain he would have done, Tokio said in a mischievous tone, “Oh, I don’t see why he can’t stick around. He is an invaluable witness, after all… and this bullet-hole is definitely old.” She’d dragged a greasy chair from just outside the restaurant’s small office over to the grill and begun examining the place carefully without touching it. Now she held out a mute hand requesting implements, which Saitou hastened to provide.

    Into the ensuing silence Sanosuke remarked easily, “So you must be the partner. Saitou mentioned you last time.”

    “Only because you brought her up,” Saitou reminded him.

    The aforementioned partner, though she didn’t look away from her task, gave every indication of great amusement and a strong likelihood of going into Tokio Mode. Now she said, in as casual a tone as Sanosuke had used, “Yes, I’m the partner. Someone has to keep this crooked cop in line.”

    The responding expression of glee Sanosuke turned toward Saitou did not bode well, but at least he seemed to recognize this particular statement as a teasing remark rather than taking it at face value. “So maybe you can tell me, since he never bothered to: is he single?”

    Saitou braced himself for Tokio’s answer, and therefore was prepared when she said, “Of course he is.” Out of the side of her mouth, as if he weren’t standing immediately to her left, she added in a stage whisper, “He’s a virgin.”

    Sanosuke looked Saitou up and down, then let out a patently disbelieving chuckle. And Saitou had to admit to a certain amount of disappointment, despite how stupid the conversation already was, when the young man’s next question, still directed at the more cooperative Tokio, was, “And what about you?”

    She adored talking about herself, especially in Tokio Mode, so she answered with no trace of hesitation. “Single, or virginal?”

    Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

    “Neither. I have nine children; I’ve been married for ten years.” In fact the closest she came to being a mother was forcing Saitou to look at funny pictures of her nieces and nephews sent by her brother in Montana; and, though she’d been married throughout most of her twenties, had divorced her husband three years ago.

    Nine?” the young man echoed, startled out of his casual flirtatious demeanor. Though he’d recognized her earlier statement as untrue, evidently she’d taken him in with this one. “How old are you?”

    “You should know it’s rude to ask a woman that,” she chided. “But I’m twenty-six.” In fact she was thirty-two.

    “You’ve been married since you were sixteen?”

    She redirected the course of the questioning. “I notice you don’t ask how old Saitou is.”

    “I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

    Finished prying the bullet from the wall and sealing it in an evidence bag, Tokio jumped down from the chair. “Well, he’s only forty-two,” she assured Sanosuke. In fact Saitou was thirty-six. “That’s not too old for you, is it?”

    “No,” Sanosuke said thoughtfully, apparently adjusting his perspective but not necessarily disappointed. “No, it’s not. But you — you make enough money as a police detective to support nine kids?”

    This unexpected question was evidently a welcome challenge, and Tokio, in fine form, didn’t miss a beat as she replied, “My husband won the lottery a few years back, so we have more money than we know what to do with.” She rolled her eyes as she added, “He bought an entire stable outside town last year so he could get a pony for every single one of our children, including the baby.”

    Now Sanosuke looked as if he finally began to suspect the veracity of Tokio’s words, and didn’t know quite what to do about it. Accusing a police officer of straightforwardly lying to your face was always a tricky business, after all; that was part of why Tokio Mode worked so well in the first place.

    But Tokio had a dual purpose in this instance, and didn’t allow Sanosuke time to reply to the pony comment. “But maybe it wasn’t so much my income you wanted to know about?” She threw Saitou another sidelong glance. “I ain’t sayin’ you a gold-digger, but why did you want to know?”

    Sanosuke laughed. It was unfair what a nice laugh he had. “Well, I really was curious, but, you know, it is useful — like if you want to go out to dinner with somebody or something — it’s kinda nice to know what they’re used to. Like whether you can get away with cheap-ass pizza places that apparently have secret crime going on in the back room at the same time–” He pronounced the word ‘crime’ with satisfaction verging on delight as he gestured around at the kitchen in which they stood– “or whether, like, a Red Robin is a better price range, or if I need to spring for some fancy-ass steak place where it’s forty dollars a plate.”

    Tokio’s satisfaction too seemed to be on the verge of delight, and Saitou could practically hear the gears grinding in her head as she came up with some elaborate description of what type of dates he enjoyed going on. But there was more a pressing concern at the moment, and Saitou himself spoke up for the first time in a while: “It’s interesting you’re talking like you have money when you’re still dressed like that.” (This wasn’t actually the pressing concern, just something he felt he had to bring up first.)

    “Like what?” Sanosuke demanded, looking over his jeans and layered T-shirts before turning challenging eyes under lowered brows on Saitou.

    The latter pressed on without elaborating on that particular topic, however: “But what I really want to know is why you think ‘secret crime’ is ‘going on in the back room’ here. Despite the old bullet-hole, a scene like this–” he imitated Sanosuke’s gesture around them of a moment before– “would seem more indicative of an isolated incident, don’t you think?”

    Now Tokio also appeared more focused on the interloper, for reasons other than that she loved messing with people. She said nothing, though, waiting for Sanosuke’s answer (and probably still contemplating her fiction about her partner’s ideal date and holding it in reserve for a better moment).

    “This place always seemed sketchy,” Sanosuke shrugged. “Especially the guys in back, if you ever saw ’em. They made such good pizza, though,” he added with an unrepentant flash of teeth.

    “And you didn’t report this?” Saitou’s words came out darker and more cutting than they needed to be because he was vexed both with Sanosuke’s flippancy and his own amusement at it.

    “Oh, yeah,” the young man said with a roll of eyes, “like I’m gonna call you up and say, ‘Hey, this pizza place I do my work at sometimes has a bunch of really twitchy employees, and I think their food license is outdated.'”

    “It would be an excuse to call,” Tokio pointed out.

    “Huh.” Sanosuke acknowledged this with a thoughtful twist of lips, probably trying to decide whether having an excuse to call would be worth the hell Saitou would undoubtedly give him in response to that idiotic ‘report’ — and whether it wasn’t more likely Saitou would simply hang up on him (about which Saitou himself wasn’t entirely sure).

    “Tell us about the twitchy employees,” Saitou commanded, hiding his precise facial expression by digging for his phone and stylus and opening the note-taking app he primarily used.

    “OK, well…” Sanosuke launched into a detailed account of what he’d noticed about the pizzeria’s employees and their comings and goings. Though he could only guess — and did, with possibly problematic canniness — at what had been going on around here, his information served to enhance the impression Saitou and Tokio had of this place: that if you knew the right way to order and had the cash, you could get a side of stolen iPad with your breadsticks; and, just as the last time they’d met, Saitou was grudgingly impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and his ability to collate the information he observed.

    And it was clear Saitou wasn’t the only one when Tokio, about halfway through Sanosuke’s description, leaned over and said very unsubtly to her partner, “Kid’s got good instincts.”

    Saitou restrained himself from nodding, and didn’t look up from his notes even when Sanosuke broke off to retort, “‘Kid?!’ We never talked about how old I am!”

    “Old enough for Saitou,” Tokio said airily. “That’s all that’s important.”

    As the banter continued and Saitou tried with varying degrees of success to get actual information out of this alternately obstructive and entertaining young man, he also tried with varying degrees of success to push away thoughts of how (he was tempted to say ‘conveniently’) well Sanosuke got along with his partner, how unexpectedly useful his powers of observation and recounting might turn out despite his simultaneously being completely in the way, and how damned attractive he still (in fact now more than ever) was.

    *

    Saitou had only planned to have one last, quick look around the bloody crime scene for the satisfaction of his own inquisitiveness before leaving it to forensics and heading down to the end of the alley where Tokio was already busy taking statements; but as his eyes had risen from the pocked and stained asphalt surface on which he stood, past the rusty dumpster and collection of plastic trash cans that surrounded it, and up the dirty brick walls of the buildings that loomed over him to either side, he discovered he wasn’t going to be able to walk away just yet.

    “What are you doing?” he asked the young man squatting on the lowest level of the decrepit fire escape and peering down through its railings. His tone wasn’t accusatory or demanding or even particularly surprised; somehow he felt he should have expected to find Sanosuke there.

    “Ogling your crime scene, of course,” the latter replied easily. “And you, maybe.” Even more so here than when Saitou had originally met him, he seemed to shine brilliantly, ridiculously visually appealing and desirable in contrast with the dilapidation and grime and evidence of murder around him. He was also, and for reasons beyond his mere presence where his absence would have been more appropriate, still annoying. “And before you say I’m not supposed to be here, there’s people watching from up there too–” He jabbed a finger skyward, indicating two figures peering down from the fire escape’s fourth platform– “and you should really start at the top.”

    They’re not ogling me, though.”

    Though Saitou had said it at a mutter, Sanosuke obviously caught the statement, for he grinned. “They are if they have any brains!”

    There was some impulse to return the expression, but Saitou resisted easily. “What are you doing here?” he asked again, grim.

    Sanosuke’s eyes shifted from where they’d been wantonly traversing Saitou’s figure to the ground nearby where a splatter of red was drying to copper. And though his tone didn’t sound quite as dead serious as Saitou’s had, he still spoke levelly. “Got a text from a friend saying something was going on — police and stuff.” Next he indicated behind him with a thumb. “The guy in this apartment was nice enough to let me come out here and have a look.”

    Of this Saitou could not approve. “In other words,” he said cuttingly, “you’re sitting up there like a vulture waiting to feed off of someone else’s death. Crime dramas aren’t enough for you anymore, so you have to get your fix by dogging the police trying to see the real thing.”

    Sanosuke sprang to his feet, barely missing knocking his head against the metal stairs upward behind him. “Don’t act like you know what my motivations are.” Fists clenched and eyes flashing from on high, he appeared more lively and enticing than ever — but Saitou feared he could no longer look at him in the same light. “I admire you, OK? And I don’t just mean your long sexy legs. You cops trying to figure shit out and make sure situations like this get resolved, trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again — just because I want to watch your procedure and see how it’s done doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting that poor guy who got killed!”

    Saitou stared up and Sanosuke stared down for a long moment, and something in the officer gradually relaxed. It was an unexpected relief, actually, to find himself believing the young man’s words. Even if his presence here and irrelevant curiosity was a little tasteless, Sanosuke truly didn’t intend any disrespect. Even if he was still a dumbass. Saitou probably shouldn’t have been so pleased.

    Possibly sensing the change in atmosphere despite Saitou’s continued silence, Sanosuke added at a grumble, “And don’t talk about crime dramas like they’re worthless. Nothing wrong with getting some entertainment out of crime, since it has to happen anyway. Besides, they make people think, don’t they?”

    “I’m not sure they make people think about anything useful.” Saitou’s tone had eased as his attitude had. He wasn’t about to offer an apology for having misjudged, but in a slightly more conciliatory manner he did add, “I do enjoy some crime dramas, though.”

    Anger seemingly in full recession, Sanosuke dropped back into the same crouch as before; it allowed him a closer view through the railings of the narrow street beneath him. And his tone too had lightened as he replied, “We should read some together sometime,” with an incongruously suggestive smile.

    “‘Read?'” Saitou echoed in surprise. Literature was not the medium he would have expected Sanosuke to propose.

    “Yeah, you know, like… Barnes & Noble and chill.”

    Saitou laughed. He couldn’t help it. He sobered quickly, though, shaking his head and making the scan he’d come here for in the first place. When he glanced back up at the fire escape, he found Sanosuke watching him intently. “You’re not likely to see a lot of procedure here today. The team’s going to get started soon, and you’re going to be asked to leave.”

    Sanosuke merely shrugged. “At least I got to see you.”

    “Do you want to join the police?” Saitou wondered, ignoring this latest bit of flirtation. “Is that what this is about?”

    “No. What?” Sanosuke seemed inordinately surprised at the question, as if the idea had never occurred to him and he was a little incredulous it had to Saitou. “Actually I’m an–” But he stopped when Saitou’s phone warbled thrice in quick succession.

    I see you gossiping over there, Tokio had sent from the alley’s entrance. The second message read, Is that that kid from the pizza place? Followed immediately by, If you’re not going to help me take statements, I hope you’re at least setting up a double date with him and someone for me. She had a remarkable gift for never letting on that she was texting while busy with something else.

    I’m taking HIS statement, Saitou replied, and proceeded to do so. “How long have you been out here?” he asked as he returned his eyes to Sanosuke, who he knew had not been stationed on the fire escape for any significant span but who, with that unexpected detail orientation of his, yet might have noticed something useful.

    In order to look at his watch, Sanosuke pulled back the sleeve of his hoodie. It was the same he’d been wearing the first time Saitou had encountered him, the one whose bright red looked so good with his brown eyes and dark brows. “Twelve minutes,” he answered in the more businesslike tone he used to give solicited information, “and we’ve been talking for three.”

    His statement about where we’ll all be going out to dinner tonight? Tokio wondered. I never did get a chance to tell him what your dream date would be like.

    “So you didn’t see anything here.” The body would have been gone by the time Sanosuke emerged from the apartment, it seemed.

    “Thought you weren’t supposed to frame it as a leading statement like that,” Sanosuke said with a crafty smile. Observing Saitou’s impatient expression he added, “No, sorry, I didn’t see anything here except the neighbors upstairs.”

    “We’ll have to talk to them,” Saitou confirmed. He paused for a moment in order to send, If YOU want to go to dinner with him tonight, I’ll give you his number. Then he asked aloud, “Who was the friend who texted you to come here?”

    And as Sanosuke described his acquaintance and the circumstances under which the guy had noticed the gathering police — all perfectly, dully innocuous — Tokio replied, So you DO have his number.

    May I remind you someone has died here. Saitou wished he could send a stern expression in some manner other than by using emojis, which he found stupid and counterproductive.

    “Are you texting your partner at the same time you’re questioning me?” Sanosuke asked with uncanny acumen. “Say hi to her for me.”

    “May I remind you someone has died here?” Satisfyingly, Saitou was now able to employ the stern expression.

    “I know that.” Sanosuke stood straight again, looking around once more at the taped-off area. His bearing and faint frown indicated he truly was taking this seriously, despite any little indications to the contrary. It was an almost police-like attitude of Life goes on in spite of everything that struck Saitou as odd and more than a little fascinating coming from someone that had expressed surprise at the idea of his wanting to join the force.

    Did that kid kill him? was the next text from Tokio, and Saitou stifled a sighing laugh. It wasn’t as if they didn’t pretty typically use gallows humor and fake flippancy in most situations like this, after all. Life went on in spite of everything; Sanosuke couldn’t really be blamed for exhibiting some levity even in the wake of a murder when the cops did the same thing. Actually it stirred up a sense of camaraderie between them that Saitou would rather it didn’t, and made the idea of spending time with him — in some situation besides the somewhat ridiculous ones in which they’d met so far — seem all the more appealing.

    “You guys’ll figure it out,” Sanosuke went on in a lighter tone. “By dinner time, maybe? Then you can meet me somewhere. Do you like pizza? We never established that last time.”

    Thinking he really should give his partner Sanosuke’s number, since the two of them were so eager to have dinner somewhere tonight, Saitou instead pocketed his phone in some irascibility without responding to Tokio’s latest, which was, In any case, say hi to him for me. And tell him I own this entire city block. In fact she didn’t even own her car. He did not relay the greeting of either one of them.

    “Or you could come to my place — you remember where I live, right? — and I’ll cook us dinner. And then breakfast tomorrow,” Sanosuke finished with eyebrows pumping.

    Saitou rolled his own eyes at the impudence that could flirt so blatantly while overlooking the tragic and gruesome. Simultaneously, though, it made for another nice contrast. “I have no more questions for you,” he said shortly. “You’d better clear out.”

    “OK, fine.” Sanosuke’s tone was one of mingled regret and frustration, with just a touch of defiance thrown in; Saitou, having turned away and started walking, couldn’t see his face, but he believed the obnoxious kid was torn between respecting the crime scene and annoyance with Saitou for not responding to his amorous efforts. He was also probably, based on what Saitou knew of him so far, trying to concoct one last snappy statement, whatever its purport. After all, the chances of their meeting like this ever again — by coincidence while Saitou was working — seemed infinitesimal, so if he wanted to change the nature of their relationship, this was pretty much his last chance.

    The only thing he came up with, however, before (if the sound of rough hinges and the closing of a door was any indication) also turning and leaving, was a shouted, “Call me!”

    And Saitou didn’t necessarily know that he would. But the temptation was definitely there.

    *

    He’d been wrong. So very wrong. He imagined a number of shapes lying on a table — perhaps a table like the one at which he now stood — onto which a fist had just slammed down hard — harder than his limp hands had helplessly come to rest on this one — and the shapes jumping into the air and falling again all scrambled into an entirely new pattern. Everything was different now, and a lot of facts bore considering in quick succession.

    Zanza Sagara, quite possibly Saitou’s favorite author, had suggested they read together.

    Zanza Sagara, Saitou’s favorite author, had asked if Saitou was single.

    Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

    Zanza Sagara, historically so repressive in keeping his personal life separate from his professional, had actually, at one point (Saitou realized now), been on the verge of crossing the line and mentioning to some random guy he was flirting with that he was an author of detective novels. On the verge of letting Saitou in on that secret in order to make him understand why he was so interested in crime scenes.

    Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

    Given that there were seven books in the Yuki Tomoshiro series, that they’d been released over the last decade, and that no preteen had written any of it, Zanza Sagara had to be at least ten years older than that fresh face of his indicated. And he really did live in town… in fact Saitou knew exactly where he lived… He knew where he had, at least up until its closure a few months back, worked on his novels while eating cheap pizza. He knew what color most flattered his eyes, and it wasn’t the sage green of the tie-less button-up he currently wore.

    Now the author looked over at the sudden movement through the crowd and abrupt appearance at his signing table, and his jovial face broke into a wide grin. And why was Saitou so damn pleased at that familiar expression? Yes, this was Zanza Sagara, his favorite author, but it was also that dumbass kid he’d never quite been able to bring himself to reprimand properly for being obnoxious and obstructive, because he was so very, very distracting.

    The two were merging irrevocably in Saitou’s thoughts, however. His favorite author was taking on the undeniably gorgeous looks and compelling aura of the dumbass kid, and the dumbass kid was revealed to have the intelligence and creativity to write a series of books Saitou hadn’t been able to put down. It frustrated and disconcerted him. He didn’t know what to do.

    “Saitou!” Zanza jumped up, knocking his folding chair over with a clatter and appearing overjoyed — which still, aggravatingly, provoked a similar response in the officer. The author’s surprise at seeing him faded quickly as he added what would have been incongruous with that emotion: “You made it!”

    The crowd, previously discontented at Saitou’s rude intrusion, seemed to relax and accept his presence much more readily as the person they were all here to see reacted so favorably to it. There was some shifting — these were probably bookstore employees and maybe an agent or publisher’s representative standing near the author, and some looks of slight confusion passed among them as Sanosuke seized Saitou’s arm and dragged him around the end of the table to stand beside him. Saitou, still shell-shocked and not sure how to react, went unresisting.

    “Guys, this is Detective Saitou, RCPD!” Sanosuke announced. He draped an arm around Saitou’s shoulders in a manner so far from platonic that Saitou marveled there wasn’t a chorus of titters from the assembly, and fitted himself against Saitou’s just slightly taller form as if he’d been designed for that space. It was obnoxiously comfortable, and Saitou had to actively fight the urge to slip his own arm around Sanosuke’s waist. “He helped me with some accuracy checks in this latest book…”

    Perhaps this statement was true in a sense, but it certainly made it sound as if Saitou had provided a lot more directed information and critique than had actually been the case. It also, somewhat to Saitou’s chagrin, gave him a little thrill, as if he really had been involved in the production of the most recent installment of his favorite series. He shouldn’t be feeling so much excitement about this; Sanosuke just wanted to get into his pants, right?

    Though was that idea really so bad?

    “…and he’s going to be my consultant for all the rest of the series!” Sanosuke finished, and Saitou had to clench his jaw to keep it from dropping open. There was no doubt the sly young author meant what he suggested, but in addition to that a twist to the sound of ‘be my consultant’ implied so much more than just police-picking details in future books (itself a delightful prospect). The arm around Saitou’s shoulders tightened, and the warmth all along his side seemed to squirm just slightly closer. “Right, Saitou?”

    “You shameless idiot,” was what Saitou wanted to say. But under the gaze of a hundred expectant fans (among whom he reluctantly had to number himself), with the prospect in mind of getting a glimpse not only at Zanza Sagara’s work in advance but also at his writing process as it took place, and with a very desirable person he hadn’t wanted to admit he would like to get to know better in a couple of different senses pressed covetously up against him, all he could manage was, “Of course.”

    That this bargain had been struck only this moment, and perhaps somewhat under the duress of an unexpected public appearance, it seemed a fair amount of the audience recognized, and there was some laughter interspersed among the applause that followed, but nobody seemed to object. Sanosuke gave his possessive arm another squeeze, then looked around for the chair he’d knocked over so as to resume his celebrity activities — but not until after granting Saitou a very private and evocative grin that promised a host of interesting possibilities for the future.

    Well, Saitou was thoroughly embroiled now, but he found he didn’t mind so much. Anticipation and curiosity filled in the gap between astonishment and annoyance at today’s unanticipated events, and looking forward through a disbelieving haze that fully obscured what on earth might happen from here — not to mention the necessity of staving off Tokyo’s inevitable curiosity about his inevitable preoccupation — would undoubtedly occupy his work shift to a lesser or greater extent.

    He’d been wrong about the diminutive likelihood of ever meeting Sanosuke by coincidence again; he’d been wrong about the minuscule probability of the young man’s getting what he wanted. He’d been wrong about his real level of interest both in Sanosuke Higashidani and Zanza Sagara, and as such could never have imagined the direction this day would go when he’d decided, under the pretense of having nothing better to do and unrelatedly wanting to look at e-readers, to stop by this bookstore to catch a glimpse of his favorite author. He’d been wrong about a fair few things, it seemed.

    Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.


    This fic, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Yaoibutterfly, because one time when they were telling me about a story idea they had, my brain tangented and came up with this thing. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.



    Blood Contingency 21-25



    This story was last updated on November 26, 2019


    Yes, there’s unquestionably a feeling of pleasure — delight, even, or joy — that comes with seeing Sano again. My memories of our time together in Japan have such a freshness about them, not to mention my feelings for him then, that how I feel now hardly seems relevant. This strikes me as a trifle unfair, but hasn’t the whole thing been?

    Vampire ex or no vampire ex, my life goes on, and that means I need clean clothing for work I really do have to attend, and that means laundry must be done. The experience is undeniably different than usual with Sano hanging around making conversation, though. As if a long-lost friend has returned? Something more than a friend? Or something completely separate from that — a predator, a demanding stranger whose goals must perhaps make him an enemy, no matter how happy I am at his presence?

    “Damn lotta laundry you got here all at once,” he’s commenting as I rotate the second load into my undersized dryer in preparation for filling my tiny washer with the third.

    I don’t bother pointing out just how small the loads have to be thanks to the aforementioned diminutive nature of my laundry room, which is really more of a closet off my kitchen; I merely reply, in a tone of somewhat sarcastic accusation, “I usually only have one or two loads, but last week something had me too agitated to get a lot of my chores done.”

    “Yeah, sorry about that.”

    “Do you always approach me like that? So I’m miserable and confused for a week?”

    The query restores the hard expression to his face, probably because it reminds him of just how many times he has approached me, whether like that or in some other manner, and his voice as he answers holds that cold unhappiness I’m getting used to. “I keep hoping you’ll remember me on your own.”

    So my assumptions along those lines were correct. Finished starting the washer, I turn my attention to folding and hanging the still-warm contents of the basket I recently set atop the dryer. “You never were very good at pattern recognition.” My nonchalance is a deliberate contrast to his darkness and heaviness.

    It seems to work, too, for he chuckles, only a little morose. “And I’ve seen a lot of patterns; you’d think I’d be better at it by now.” He’s leaning against the kitchen cabinets just outside the laundry room doorway, and at this he unfolds the arms he had crossed and places his hands on the countertop instead. “But, no… it hasn’t always been like that… You haven’t always been in a good position for me to give you a week.”

    Every time I glance over at him, I find his gaze locked on me; I don’t think he ever looks away. Now when I meet his eyes briefly in asking, “What do you mean?” I find him staring as intently as ever.

    “When you’re doing well… when you’re well-off… when you’re safe…” He shrugs. “Getting a week to try to figure shit out is a luxury. Sometimes when I find you, it turns out you’re in such a bad position I don’t even know if you have a week. I have to jump in right away and give you your memories back — or just tell you about everything, like in Brazil, before I learned how to do that. You may think it’s pretty bad this way, but it’s worse with no warning at all.”

    I hang shirts in silence for a moment, then nod. I can’t quite bring myself to point out that not restoring my memories of a previous life, refraining from demanding I choose between hurting someone I once loved and becoming a monster, simply not approaching me at all might be even less unkind than either of those two options. It’s already obvious how impossible he would find letting me go, and I still haven’t confirmed how I feel about his return to my life, so bringing up the inappropriateness of his actions would only wound him. And even if he’s wounding me, I’m not inclined to reciprocate.

    “I like to see you in a life like this.” There’s a forced sense of greater lightness to his tone as he says this, and I feel like we’re skirting he-wants-my-answer territory again. “I mean, you’re always in danger, but at least in a life like this it’s official. And obviously you make enough money to be comfortable… You can afford your gross-looking mac and cheese, and a washer and dryer in your apartment, and all that…”

    Again I nod without a word, without bringing up the fact that my life has been decent and relatively uncomplicated… up until now.

    In a way this exchange, in which everything each of us says or could say has the potential to hurt the other, is a mirror of many we had in Japan, where everything each of us said had a tendency to aggravate the other. Of course back then there was a specific subconscious reason to become agitated at the sound of the other’s voice; and here and now I’m far less willing to hurt Sano that I was to annoy him in those days… but the parallel remains. It’s a tense conversation even in its easier moments, hinting at possibilities I’m not eager to face.

    Am I grateful for the interruption of a knock at the door? I wasn’t necessarily unhappy to be alone with him, but that tension was undeniable and not particularly enjoyable. I do worry a little, however, about who this might be. A neighbor coming to talk about local safety? Apartment maintenance appearing for an unusually late job? Renee wondering why I haven’t called her? None of these options is palatable, and the last is downright nightmarish, considering I still haven’t figured out what to say to her.

    Whether or not he guesses my specific concerns, Sano obviously recognizes my uneasiness about the visitor, for he reassures me, “I think it’s Meg. Want me to get it?”

    He’s offering to answer the door at my apartment just as he felt free to do at my house in Japan (though in that instance without asking). I’d like to say yes, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, so I tell him, “That’s OK,” and move past toward the entrance.

    And Megumi it is. Like Sano, she’s still wearing the same outfit I saw her in previously — the one that makes her look like a video game character — but unlike Sano, she gives an immediate smile when she sees me. “I thought I had the right place. May I come in?”

    “She’s a better vampire than you are,” I throw over my shoulder into the kitchen. Then to Megumi, “Yes, come in.”

    As she does so, she reaches out a startlingly cold hand and clasps mine, shaking it with contrasting warmth. “It’s good to see you again.” And I think she means it. I know she means, by ‘again,’ not a reference to our meeting in the police station parking lot some days ago but rather to however many previous lives she’s known me in.

    I return the handshake and agree with her, every bit as sincere. I can’t help staring a little, though, and I hope she’s not offended. I simply don’t remember her as nearly this… beautiful.

    Despite my relationship with Sano being the most meaningful of my Japanese life, the capacity for attraction to women was, I believe, just as strong in me as attraction to men. Whether the same is true in this incarnation I don’t yet know, but currently it’s the male side of things in question; I’ve never doubted I liked women. I’ve never had any problem recognizing and admiring female beauty. My awareness of Megumi’s was always somewhat abstract, given how thoroughly occupied my aesthetic appreciation of others was by Sano at the time… but I surely would have taken greater notice if she’d looked like this.

    In the dark station parking lot it wasn’t nearly as evident, with my attention so caught up in the mystery of the situation, but here in the brighter lights of my apartment, up close, with the bafflement and confusion and frustration of that scene behind me, I can easily categorize her looks as ‘stunning.’ The precise perfection of her features, the luster of her hair, the curve of her figure… it’s almost unbelievable.

    But as I stare I realize just as immediately that there’s something else different about her as well, something less pleasant: a sense of otherworldliness, of horror almost, that’s deeply repellent, perhaps especially so as it contrasts with her incredible beauty. It’s not the same feeling I’ve had about Sano — I still believe that arises more from the awareness of what he wants from me than from any kind of innate human fear of a predatory alien being… but the latter is exactly what I believe this reaction to Megumi must be. Sano I recognize as someone that at least should be human, but in Megumi my instincts see little to no humanity at all. Ironic, when Sano is the one most concerned with losing track of what he was. Unnerving.

    “She’s a hotter vampire than me too,” Sano remarks, obviously observing my reaction.

    I pause and give my two guests a back-and-forth comparative scan. And though my goal is primarily to bait Sano, and though there’s still something about him that has far more of a personal draw than Megumi, with all her astonishing loveliness, can command, when I nod and agree with him my statement is nothing but the truth.

    Sano makes a snorting, huffing sound, and, while it sounds like a darker reaction than such a meaningless tease would have prompted in him back in the day, it’s a relatively lighthearted moment nonetheless — especially when Megumi seems to validate my facetious intentions by laughing in response.

    Since I resumed my progress into the laundry room in order to finish up that chore before I sit down to have a proper conversation with Megumi, Sano’s face is out of sight; therefore I can’t be sure of the precise reason he targets her with his retort, “Yeah, Meg’s a walking stereotype these days.” Is he jealous because I indirectly called her hot? Or is he simply unable, at this juncture, to aim a snide comment at me?

    I ask, “What stereotype?”

    “Sano’s just jealous,” Megumi answers, “because he doesn’t look like a Hollywood vampire.”

    “Oh, fuck that shit,” Sano grumbles.

    As they then fall silent for a few moments, I prod, “That still doesn’t tell me what the stereotype is.” By now I can probably guess, but I’d rather have one of them elaborate.

    Megumi does so. “Real vampires — most of us, anyway — look more and more monstrous the longer we survive, and all of us appear less and less human. Many vampire stories used to reflect this: we were horror story villains meant to inspire fear. But over the years the public perception of vampires has changed somehow, and now we’re portrayed as sympathetic villains or even heroes, and almost always superhumanly sexy instead of frightening.”

    I nod my understanding, both of the phenomenon she describes and of the specific stereotype she therefore seems to embody. Why she’s evidently not included in the ‘most of us’ that look more and more monstrous the longer they survive has yet to be revealed, but everything makes sense so far.

    “It’s bullshit.” Sano is still irritated. “Some of the old stuff used to be almost accurate, but these days people have this entire concept of vampires that’s 100% wrong. There’s nothing sexy about us, for one thing,” he finishes in disgust.

    I glance over, giving him a skeptical look, unwilling to bring up aloud the way he somehow forced me to want him so desperately in order to ‘make this easier’ when he was restoring my memories of life in Japan.

    “Well…” He obviously knows exactly what I mean with the expression, and has the grace to look a little sheepish. “Yeah, I mean, there is that. We’ve got a sort of sexual attractiveness we can turn on and off to help us hunt. But it’s not like we can take it any further than that; we can’t do any of that shit anymore — at least not without eating, like, three people first. And you can stop rolling your damn eyes at me, Meg; we’re not all born aces.”

    “It’s certainly easier not to worry about the circulatory system that way.”

    I believe I understood that exchange, though the reference to aces might have gone over my head if sexual or romantic orientation hadn’t already been at least a little on my mind. I never knew Megumi was asexual; as she says, it’s probably more than a bit of a blessing in her current form. I think back to my concerns about this specific topic in Japan, and wonder how sexuality in the long term is affected by becoming a vampire and the changes in bodily function that transition represents — by the apparent need to ‘eat, like, three people’ before attempting sexual activity. It seems insensitive to bring up, however, so instead I revert to what I previously wanted to know: “And how do you manage to look like a Hollywood vampire?”

    “I’m a cannibal,” Meg replies easily. “I drink blood from other vampires, which heightens all of my abilities and makes me…” She gives a reluctant chuckle. “…sexier.”

    “Yeah, she’s like a vampire squared.” I glance over in time to see Sano aim a blow, lightning-quick and totally unnecessary, at Megumi’s face and she, from where she’s seated at my dining table, catch it and throw it back with zero apparent effort.

    “And you can survive that way?” I’m about done folding my laundry, and very interested in this new information.

    “As long as I feed on non-cannibals. Which is a shame, really; if cannibals could all live off each other, we could leave humans entirely alone.”

    “So why do you do it?” I hang the last pair of pants and emerge, deciding that, today at least, I’m not ready to put away my laundry (including underwear) in their presence. It can wait where it is until they’ve gone.

    Megumi leans back in her chair with that outlandish undead fluidity and soundlessness I’m just about accustomed to by now. “Drinking the blood of other vampires gives me insight into their abilities and evolution, and helps me understand vampires as a species better. There are a lot of things about ourselves that we don’t understand, and cannibalism helps me study them.”

    This starts to answer some of the questions I took from my conversation with Sano about the mysteries of vampirism, but not all of them. Before I can decide what to ask next, however, Sano responds to my assumption of the third seat at the dining table by lifting a pack of cards he’s withdrawn from somewhere and asking, “Wanna play?”

    Since a card game — whatever card game — seems an optimal technique for staving off awkwardness among the three of us as we chat, I readily agree, and the next few minutes are spent going over the rules. This involves Sano writing out a list of scoring parameters on a piece of notebook paper I retrieve at his request, and I find myself inordinately interested in what his handwriting looks like in English and modern times.

    I’m also intrigued by his reaction to his role as rules authority for the game. It’s only a reminder for Megumi, with whom he’s obviously played this before, but to me it’s all new, and Sano is surprisingly engrossed in — indeed, at times almost excited by — the simple action of teaching me how it works. He always did love to gamble, and, though we’re not wagering anything here and now, it seems games of chance still rank among his favorite pastimes. It’s yet another moment of Sano seeming like Sano, and my own engrossment in learning the rules is definitely enhanced by my pleasure at seeing this.

    So here I am again hanging out with vampires — one my lover from a previous life, one the most beautiful woman in the world and yet so off-putting that my chair is decidedly closer to Sano’s side of the table — casually discussing the drinking of blood and other horror-movie concepts, this time without nearly so much discomfort as I experienced in the previous instance: I’m getting used to this. Exactly how used to it I can become remains a matter of question, along with a host of other things, but at the moment I’m relatively content just to play cards with a couple of friends without worrying about the fact that they are physically programmed — magically programmed? — to require the death of people like me for their own survival. Without worrying about how startlingly much I enjoy the presence of one of them when I’m not sure how I feel about him personally and he’s literally here to offer me a fate worse even than that aforementioned death.


    “You haven’t eaten anything in three days.”

    “Yeah, well…” Sano sprawled on my living room floor in a pose that would normally have seemed easy, unconcerned. “I’m still not hungry.”

    This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Takani had mentioned that Sano’s bodily functions seemed to have shut down; conceivably this lack of appetite was the new normal. However… “You may not feel any hunger, and it’s possible you don’t actually need food, but we don’t know that. To be on the safe side and make sure you don’t starve, you should come over and eat something.” My gesture at the table I’d just finished ladening with dishes was lost on his now-stubbornly-closed eyes. Would he even have entered the room if he’d known I was preparing a meal for two rather than one?

    “I think the, uh…” He denied the sight of the ready table even more decisively by turning his back to it — and me — and propping himself up on his side facing the fireplace. His volume dropped a dreary step as he finished, “…the blood was enough. I don’t think I need anything else for a while.” And he let out a faint, unhappy sigh. It hadn’t been long, but he already hated mentioning ‘the blood’ more than I’d ever seen him hate anything during our entire acquaintance — my decisive ability to defeat him in combat, the Meiji government, and Shishio Makoto included.

    In an effort to strike a balance between distressing him by belaboring the issue and yet, by necessity, insisting, I tried to approach the subject as matter-of-factly as possible. “We still can’t know that.” As I reiterated this idea, I dropped to my knees beside him and placed a hand on the shoulder that stood like the top of a bastion wall before me. I was more or less accustomed by now to the coldness immediately apparent through his upper garment, and left the hand in place, thumb sliding back and forth in a subtly caressing movement, as I continued. “We do know that something as simple as sunlight could kill you, and avoiding that is as easy as keeping you out of it. I won’t let you die of something as simple as starvation when avoiding that is as easy as having you eat occasionally, even if you don’t feel like it. So you need to at least try.”

    “It’s you who needs to be resting,” Sano returned, trying a different tack still with his back to me, “instead of wearing yourself out making dinner for people who don’t want it.”

    “Making dinner does not ‘wear me out,'” I told him with a roll of eyes. “I’m not the one whose recovery the doctor was worried about when we left.”

    “Oh, yeah,” replied Sano in a tone even more sarcastic than mine, “Megumi wasn’t worried about you at all. You’re doing just fine. Obviously it’s way more important to harass me about food than take care of your own injuries.”

    I wanted to say, “To me it certainly is,” but it seemed a mawkish sentiment (however true), so I avoided expressing it. I also didn’t comment on his apparent prioritization of my state over his own. Anyway I believed he was only using that as an excuse not to do something he didn’t feel like doing, and therefore preferred not to admit how much it touched me. Why he was so averse to eating I couldn’t be sure, but I also couldn’t simply let the matter go. Prepared to close the sub-topic with this statement, I said, “My injuries have healed exactly as much as they should have five days after being inflicted.”

    “Oh, have they?” Sano sounded irritated, as if the claim were particularly childish and aggravating despite his being far more prone to such behavior. I was about to answer snappishly, but he pre-empted the intended remark. The flash of a glowing brown eye turning toward me provided scant warning before, undoubtedly to prove in a somewhat backward fashion a point about my level of infirmity, he had risen, twisting around to throw me none too gently to the floor and himself on top of me.

    Like a convalescent gradually regaining full use of a damaged body — such as I was, in fact — Sano had been moving faster and faster since the incident in the shed. The difference was that he’d never slowed in the first place, never been an invalid working at a diminished level; so his increase in speed had put him above average from the very beginning of the process. By now his normal actions (when he wasn’t concentrating on maintaining a more standard rate of motion) were so rapid as to be startling, uncanny, inhuman. It provided further evidence that the enemy I’d fought a few days earlier — an enemy that, despite his lack of combat prowess, had demonstrated such lightning quickness that I’d been forced to try to anticipate where he might be next rather than tracking his movements as he made them — shared Sano’s non-dead state of inexplicably increased physical abilities.

    And it was a good thing Sano, with his far greater natural talents and level of training, intended me no harm. For not only had he pressed me to the floor, pinned my arms, and straddled my hips in half a breath’s unexpected action, then when I immediately made an instinctive attempt at pushing back against his hold, the straining of my body beneath him had almost no effect on the arrangement of his above.

    He had been, I believed, about to comment something to the purpose of, “See? You’re still in really bad shape; you should lie down and get some sleep instead of trying to force me to eat dinner” — but as he observed the difficulty, the near futility of my struggles against him (almost instantly discontinued though they were), his demeanor abruptly completely changed.

    He didn’t seem to have felt much in the way of happiness since, to Takani’s distress, we had abandoned the Oguni clinic and come here for a more private and leisurely recovery, so his apparent glee as he crouched there on top of me was as refreshing to observe as it was surprising. He stared into my face with an almost disbelieving grin on his pale lips, shifting somewhat on top of me as if settling in, and finally murmured, “I really am stronger than you now, aren’t I?” And you would think he’d never received good news in his life prior to this; it was idiotic and nonsensical how happy the realization had made him… but also, perhaps, stupidly endearing.

    “We’ll have to spar some time and find out for sure.” I said it with a wince that might have had a touch of the theatrical about it; I was distinctly uncomfortable, but probably wouldn’t have displayed it quite so openly had I not wanted to point out to him the foolishness of exacerbating my injuries in order to insist I take better care of them — especially if his new condition had indeed rendered him physically more powerful than I was.

    Sano swore at my subdued indication of pain, and the wrestling hold ended as abruptly as he’d initiated it. As I sat up, sore, and rubbed at my right shoulder, I was interested to observe the mixture of emotions in his demeanor: sheepishness that he’d hurt me blended with a kind of grim satisfaction that he’d been right about my state of debilitation, and underneath it all the exhilaration that he’d somehow been granted one of his dearest and most pointless wishes: to be stronger than his longtime rival Saitou Hajime.

    “Now will you come eat something?” I asked.

    He gave a startled laugh at my persistence, and I knew I had him; the better temper he’d achieved thanks to the revelation of his superior strength seemed relatively tolerant of food he didn’t want. “All right, fine.” And he jumped to his feet almost quicker than sight, stretching a hand to help me up after him. “Now that I know I can force you to stay here until you really are healed.” Evidently there was more to his attitude than solely the desire to get out of an undesirable task.

    We moved to the table and took our seats, and I told him, “I don’t plan on going anywhere for a while.”

    Across the bowl into which I was dishing him a generous helping of rice, he eyed me suspiciously. “Really? ‘Cause when that messenger was here yesterday, it sounded like you were pretty anxious to go question that Nori woman again.”

    Finished patting down the rice heap, I turned my attention to the vegetables and corrected his misapprehension. “I just wanted to know exactly how much she knew when Hironaku took her into custody. I don’t feel the need to talk to her again myself.” In reality, any number of things did have me pretty anxious to get out of the house, but not only was talking to Tomizawa Nori not one of them, what concerned me even more was keeping Sano inside, safe and quiet, for as long as possible. If he believed his continued presence here represented the sole barrier between me and the work currently being handled by my only questionably competent assistant… well, he was at least partially correct, and so much the better. We could be a check on each other, and both feel more secure because of it.

    As I’d seen him do many times in the past, Sanosuke gathered up as big a bite as chopsticks would allow; he stuffed it into his mouth without any of the reluctance I’d feared he would continue to exhibit about eating. Satisfied, I started piecing together my own bite, only to be interrupted by a startlingly disgusted sound from across the table that caused me to look over again at my companion. An intense grimace, so puckered it would have been funny under other circumstances, had overtaken Sano’s face, and the chewing movement of his jaw as he struggled to finish what he had in there seemed almost tortured. At my inquisitive raising of brows, he shook his head minutely as if he had no strength to answer, and continued his apparently very difficult mastication.

    Admittedly I hadn’t taste-tested the components of this meal as regularly as I usually did while cooking, anxious as I’d been to finish and get on to convincing Sano to join me (though little had I suspected how troublesome that process would prove), but Sano was the least picky eater I’d ever met in my entire life; it would take more than a slight carelessness in the kitchen to wring this type of reaction from him. I assumed, therefore, this had something to do with his new condition rather than my culinary skills. To test the theory, I took my own bite and chewed it thoughtfully; when its flavor and texture proved no better or worse than my usual efforts in this area, I swallowed and remarked with easy dryness, trying to keep the atmosphere light, “It’s not Himura’s cooking, I’ll admit, but it’s not that bad.” Not that I’d ever actually tasted Himura’s cooking, but I’d heard the rumors.

    Sano finally managed to swallow his oversized mouthful, though his distorted expression barely untwisted in its wake and his tone had a pained groaning quality as he said, “Yeah… sorry… that was fucking awful.” He worked his lips and jaw as if trying to rid himself of the taste, emitting faint gagging noises, and swung his head rapidly back and forth. “I thought I could eat some of this just to make you happy, but there’s no way… I can’t take another bite… No wonder I wasn’t feeling hungry; that was like eating brick dust or some shit.” And he resumed his apparently futile movements aimed at ridding himself of an unbearable flavor.

    This time I had to give in. He’d made the attempt; that was all I could ask. But the implication that he could no longer eat food intended for the living distressed me for more than one reason. Of course there was the obvious, looming question of what he would be required to subsist on if normal food was no longer an option — a question whose answer was likely to cause Sano disgust and dismay along the same lines as before. But there was also the fact that something Sano had always adored with a winning avidity and simplicity seemed now to have been taken from him, perhaps forever. And one of the few ways in which I was able to care for him — providing him with meals and ensuring he maintained a healthy diet — had now been taken from me.

    But as I had been doing fairly regularly over the last few days, I tried to remain calm and rational about this and not show how deeply disturbing I truly found it. All I said was, “Do you want to try some tea to wash it down?”

    He gave the kettle I had lifted a dubious look, but eventually said, “Yeah, might as well… It can’t taste any worse than this.” And after an almost clawing gesture toward his throat, he accepted the tea I poured for him, took a large gulp, swished noisily, and swallowed again. He rolled his eyes thoughtfully upward, working his mouth once more, and finally let out a relieved-sounding sigh.

    “Better?” I asked with some curiosity. I hated to let slip that I found his condition interesting in spite of how much it upset us both, but that was the truth of the matter. Takani probably would have been even worse had she been here.

    He nodded and lifted his cup again. “Still pretty disgusting, but nowhere near as bad.” And he took another drink.

    The logistics of his nutritional situation as revealed by this event would, sooner or later, require discussion. Would he have to drink more blood? How soon was that need likely to arise, and how was it to be fulfilled? These issues were going to devastate Sano, and few of the facts that might come to light were likely to be any more pleasant in and of themselves than his inevitable reaction to them. As such, I preferred to put off the conversation as long as I could — at the very least until this scene with the disgusting food had become less of an immediate disagreeable presence in his head. Given the extreme reluctance he’d demonstrated over the past few days to touch on the blood-drinking at all, I believed he must agree with this unspoken decision.

    Unfortunately I, not being dead, could not so easily do without this human-style food, needed to finish the meal on the table, and feared that might remind him of what we were postponing and render postponing it a meaningless exercise. If he decided to leave the room to avoid watching me eat, he was likely to brood pointlessly in another part of the house and keep the unwanted topic firmly before him. So, since I saw in this a service I could render him that yet remained to me, I considered how best to assist his frame of mind until the dark time when we would be forced to face the miserable topic.

    Finally I decided to strike up a discussion of police work, beginning with (as most relevant to our current situation and most on my mind) what Hironaku’s messengers had told me he’d discovered so far about Tomizawa Daitarou’s movements, but fully intending after not too long to segue into other cases I’d dealt with in the past that wouldn’t be quite such a blatant reminder of what had happened to Sano during the course of this one.

    To whatever degree aware this was a deliberate tactic, Sano accepted the distraction, and seemed… not exactly happy… but at least content with the subject I’d raised. His un-life had become an unpredictable fluctuation of mood that I didn’t know how to deal with in the long term, but at least in the short term we were staying on top of things. Barely. At least he remained here with me and didn’t go torment himself somewhere alone, as he’d shown a pathetic inclination to do occasionally over the last few days.

    A worrisome aspect of the conversation, however, unrelated to his mental state in the aftermath of the attack, was that as we spoke, casually and mostly about business long concluded, he yet gave subtle indications of still wanting to be involved in my professional affairs. This elicited in me the same reaction as it always had: a mixture of poignant pleasure at the closeness or sought-after closeness the desire exhibited, and exasperation, even frustration, at his impractical stubbornness. But these feelings seemed shallow in comparison to the underlying, overwhelming consternation now accompanying the idea. Sano in his current state would be physically unstoppable should he decide to insist on taking part in the current case, and I doubted my ability to reason him out of it — especially after all the effort it had taken merely to convince him to try something to eat.

    And how could I bare to him the extent of my horror at the thought of his being hurt further? How could I tell him that I feared it might break me to see it, to come so close to losing him again? That I knew it would break me if I did lose him after all this strangeness and pain?

    I couldn’t. I simply didn’t have the words. So I merely continued with what I could say, doing my best to keep him occupied and relatively optimistic, until long after I’d finished eating, and dishes, leftovers, table, and cushions had all gone to their proper places. Dawn would break after a short while, which meant bedtime was nearing; it might not have been too bad a moment to bring up the hateful subject that must eventually be broached, to get it over with and then allow Sano to cleanse his mental palate with sleep perhaps more effective than tea had been at a similar task — though not positively unwakable, Sano had already shown a propensity in this new form to sleep particularly hard during our new daylight downtime… but my efforts at keeping him contented seemed to have been so successful, I couldn’t stand to sabotage them. There would be time for the conversation tomorrow, our moods perhaps strengthened by some rest.

    The latter was not the only bedroom activity I could think of that might improve our outlooks and brace us for what was to come. In fact a physical demonstration of our feelings for each other, which I believed had only intensified during this disaster, seemed an extremely desirable step. But no sexual activity whatsoever had taken place between us since we’d come to my house; I’d barely even kissed him. In some dismay I considered again the shutdown of bodily functions Takani had mentioned that had already been so discouragingly manifest this very night, and wondered whether Sano was capable anymore of feeling sexual urges or acting upon them if they arose… and whether he ever would be again.

    Considering the matter dourly as we undressed for bed, he baring an expanse of grayish pale skin that showed only the slightest hint of the golden tan it had once worn, I reflected sadly that there might be an emotional element to it as well. Satisfied as he seemed to go to sleep for the day pressed up against or even embracing me, perhaps he wasn’t prepared to resume the greater intimacy we’d had before his disaster. And I wondered, as with the physical element, whether he ever would be. He’d seemed ready enough earlier to throw me on my back in a different type of interaction; would that other sort of freedom with me ever return?

    And if the answer was no, that meant yet another thing Sano sincerely enjoyed that had been taken from him by that man we were trying to track down. It meant yet another way my relationship with him and our mutual happiness had been damaged, possibly beyond repair. It meant, I reflected as I gathered him into arms clutching with a fierceness that no longer threatened to harm him but that I still tried to conceal, a distressing tendency in my thoughts — not hitherto unknown but never approved of — toward a desire for revenge rather than justice.


    The game I’m setting out to play with Sano and Megumi seemed complicated at first description, but turns out to be relatively fast-paced and simple enough that I’m not likely to need constant reminders of most of its procedures. And after a few rounds to get the hang of it, conversation unrelated to the game starts up again in and around our turns, and I’m able to resume the interesting topic where it was left off. “What do you hope to learn about vampires by drinking their blood?”

    “I have a number of specific questions I’d like to find answers to,” Megumi answers, “but I’d settle for ‘everything.’ Sano, I’ll trade you two tens for that eight.”

    Sano agrees, and as the trade takes place I ask, “What questions?”

    “About special vampire powers, for example.” Takani studies her cards. “Why do we develop these special abilities as we get older? And why does the lineup of available powers seem to be changing? Does either of you want a five or a king?” Once she’s traded away her five and been forced to put up with the king since neither of us wants it, she goes on without prompting. “Sano has the ability to restore people’s memories from their past lives, and that’s an ability specifically useful to him. But did his need for a power like that have anything to do with gaining that power? And is that why certain other powers seem to have been phased out over the years — because vampires simply don’t find them useful anymore?”

    “I dunno… being able to turn into a bat would be pretty badass.” Tone almost completely unaltered, Sano immediately goes on, “Saitou, I’ll take both of those off your hands, but all I got’s a jack.”

    Suddenly I have multiple ideas to deal with at once. I find, for one thing, that I wish he wouldn’t call me ‘Saitou.’ I don’t say so right now, however, since I’m too much arrested by his tone in mentioning the concept of turning into a bat (which is a pretty cool idea, I have to admit) — the same tone he used to discuss an aspect of the game, which I’ve already noticed is something he seems to be specifically relishing. Obviously there are multiple sides of reality besides just me that interest him, things he can enjoy if he allows himself to… although perhaps only in my presence.

    I also have the game to think about, and accept the proposed trade somewhat distractedly. Then I have to figure out what to do with the jack, and don’t end up asking anything about bats until halfway through Megumi’s turn and some further exchange. “Badass, yes,” she says, “but how useful, exactly?”

    “It’d always be useful to be able to turn into some small flying thing to get into places. And if you could spend the day as a bat, that could solve all sorts of problems with the sun and worrying about people finding you and shit.” At a mutter Sano adds, “Think I’ll take both of these… and… your turn.”

    “It might be a useful power, but do people think of it that way? In modern times, when you think, ‘I need a safe place to spend the day where people won’t find me,’ is your next thought, ‘If only I could turn into a bat?'”

    I chuckle at the suggestion as I watch her somewhat elaborate turn, and finally ask, “So some vampires have been able to turn into bats?”

    “Some of ’em still can,” Sano confirms when Megumi proves a little too distracted at the moment by her layout of cards to answer immediately. “Just older ones, though.”

    “And what about wolves?” I ask after making an offer — eventually rejected — for Megumi’s two aces. Probably more appropriate for her to keep them anyway. “Can any of you turn into wolves?”

    “You would think of that,” Sano says with a dark grin. For a second time I don’t remind him that I’m not exclusively Saitou, only acknowledge his point as he goes on to remind me of a rule I’d forgotten as I attempt to cash out some of my cards.

    It’s Megumi who actually answers my question: “That’s another old power, and I have a theory about that one. Society has so separated the concepts of vampire and werewolf that vampires have lost the ability to turn into wolves because it’s perceived as belonging to a different species entirely.”

    Somewhat drowned out by Sano’s sound of triumph as he trades in a ten-card stack for points, I ask, “Do werewolves exist, then? Separate from vampires, I mean?”

    “They do. And how they’re connected to vampires, if at all, is another one of the things I’d like to figure out. Did modern vampires and werewolves evolve out of the same monster, and separate gradually into two categories over the years because of people’s perception, or were we two separate things from the start and just happened to have some similarities for a while?”

    “Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, then.” It’s really just a polite remark; though this is all very interesting, I don’t know what else to say.

    “Your turn,” Sano tells her.

    Megumi stares at her cards with a pensive frown, and eventually, laying down only sluggishly the ones she intends to play, remarks, “I know a lot of this seems frivolous…” Perhaps, though I didn’t intend it, my comment came across as somewhat critical. “But answering some of these seemingly less important questions may help me understand the bigger ones: why are we like this? What power causes us to become undead, and allows us to survive apparently against all the laws of nature? And is there any way for us to continue surviving without committing murder?” She looks up at me with serious glowing eyes from the cards she’s just turned over. “You’re working on fives; do you want this?”

    Once again I make what may or may not be an advantageous trade without giving it much thought, dwelling as I am on the simultaneous conversation. What my mind is caught up with now is a comparison between the lives (if that word applies anymore) and purposes of Sano and Megumi. For each of them has a purpose, a goal or set of goals that drives them, but while Megumi’s has to do with truth and understanding and potentially helping others, Sano’s is and has always been small-scale and essentially selfish. I wonder what kind of strength it takes to keep hanging on decade after decade with only a personal desire and no prospect of doing any good in the world; I don’t wonder at Sano’s bitterness, nor at the apparent honing of his selfishness to the far sharper point I’ve felt from it lately than I was ever aware of in Japan.

    And of course very little has changed besides that since I knew them before. Megumi was always determinedly humanitarian and purposeful, whereas Sano, though he performed the good of which he was capable when opportunities arose, was always fairly aimless. In fact I think it was in part his lazy approach to morality that drew me to him: it was nice to take a break, without actually letting go of any fundamental rightness, from the driving need to be changing the world, and Sano certainly represented that.

    These days, it seems, the two of them have taken their natural propensities one step further: instead of merely saving and bettering the individual lives she comes into contact with through her medical practice, Megumi is bent on saving humanity from vampires and saving vampires from themselves through her research; and Sano, instead of merely freeloading alongside those he loves and enjoying their company (sometimes at the expense of their comfort and convenience), is continually seeking out the one person he loves most in an effort at promoting that old way of life he so misses at the expense of that person’s peace of mind or even happiness.

    I can’t help thinking that perhaps Sano would be better adjusted now, abler to deal with the inevitable, if he had ever developed a sense of purpose beyond seeking me throughout endless lifetimes. His lack of large-scale drive seems another aspect of his original character, along with his inability to let go, that has made the situation particularly harrowing for him. I also can’t help admiring Megumi for her continued desire to work hard for humanity’s sake as best she can even under these difficult circumstances. And this time when I remark, “Those do seem like questions worth answering,” I’m careful to offer the comment in as sincere a tone as I can manage.

    “She probably wouldn’t be a cannibal for anything less,” is Sano’s remark.

    “Well, it is nice being the strongest vampire around most of the time.”

    Sano grumbles, “You just mean it’s nice being stronger than me.”

    “Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” she says complacently.

    “Do either of you want these?” I ask. “And what’s wrong with being a cannibal?”

    I make a trade with each of them, and Megumi explains. “You’ve heard of prion disease in human cannibals? Well, being a vampire cannibal has had strange effects on me that I don’t understand any better than a lot of these other aspects of vampirism. You can see, for one thing, how much less human I look than Sano even though we’re the same age. For another, though I am stronger and faster than most other vampires–”

    “Vampire squared!” Sano puts in as he shuffles the discard pile into what I believe is our final draw pile of the game. He sounds almost annoyed, evidently seeking the reaction he didn’t get with the first instance of this joke.

    Megumi allows a smile, at least, as she continues. “I have less and less specific control over standard vampire abilities such as the allure Sano mentioned that gets used for hunting, and I’ve never developed any extra special abilities at all.”

    “That’s why she doesn’t think being able to turn into a bat would be a useful skill,” Sano says to me, and even in his conspiratorial tone there’s still some of the usual darkness. “It’s just sour grapes because she doesn’t even have the option.”

    “At least I look like someone who might be able to turn into a bat,” she replies. “Are you going to use that four or just sit there staring at it?”

    Sano grumbles something about ‘fucking Hollywood vampires,’ and throws the four at her without asking for anything in exchange. And as I watch her casually pluck the spinning card from the air and add it to one of her piles, then commence her own turn, I reflect that perhaps Sano is actually jealous to some extent of Megumi’s incredible beauty. Maybe he feels a supernatural boost in attractiveness would be enough to carry his point with me, to get me to give him the answer he wants, make him just desirable enough to provide the final convincing factor. It’s horrible to be thinking of him so exclusively in terms of how he relates to me, but this is the only explanation that comes to mind for his attitude in referring to ‘Hollywood vampires.’

    Certainly having no desire to ask this outright, and therefore deciding to change the subject, as I take the next turn I ask, “Is cannibalism the reason other vampires don’t like you?”

    Megumi glances and Sano, acknowledging that he was probably the one to give me at least the beginnings of that idea, and nods. “Vampires hate cannibals almost as much as Sano hates Twilight.”

    My mouth quirks upward at the comparison, but it’s in a serious and somewhat reluctant tone I reply, “A stigma against cannibalism is understandable even among murderers.”

    “I’ll trade you two fours for that queen,” Sano offers. This time, not nearly as distracted as in previous instances, I take a look at his piles and make a tactical decision to decline the exchange. Evidently still unable to be rude to me in reply, however facetiously, Sano resorts to saying something startlingly profane about Twilight under his breath to express his annoyance.

    In response to Sano’s behavior, Megumi grins. They remind me of a close brother and sister, and I especially appreciate the way Megumi knows just how to draw out aspects of the old Sano that are clearly still in there despite the overlay of a century’s worth of bitterness. Her words are not exactly cheerful, though. “It doesn’t help that I’m also a vagabond-hunter. I track down and kill vampires who aren’t being careful enough, who are threatening to expose our existence to the world.”

    This is something that, without any input from Sano, I had already guessed about her, and it’s pleasant to be confirmed in my theory even if I made it simply to distract myself on a bad day.

    “That makes me the sort of garbageman of the vampire world,” she goes on: “it’s an absolutely essential job that nobody respects or is willing to pay much for. Vampires hate vagabond-hunters, especially successful ones like me, so it goes with being a cannibal extremely well: I’m largely hated for both of the things I do, but tracking down vagabonds provides me with vampires I can cannibalize for my research, which I consider just as important as executing the worst of the murderers.”

    I nod my understanding, though the gesture doesn’t convey my admiration. I can see the need for better understanding of what these people are in order to improve their conditions. I can see the need for a vagabond-hunter, and the convenience of how she’s set up her situation. It seems she’s taking a dreadful risk on a regular basis when her continued cannibalism has effects she doesn’t yet understand, but if she believes the research she can accomplish this way and the potential good it may be able to do for humans and vampires alike is worth taking that chance, that’s a choice — a courageous, terrible choice — only she can make.

    I understand, at least to some small degree, for I too have a subject of research whose pursuit may well involve a direct personal risk. As in the comparison I drew earlier between Megumi’s sense of purpose and Sano’s, my research probably seems much more selfish and limited in scope than hers, but I find I’m no less serious about it. Because I want to understand Sano: the way he is and why, how deep the changes run in him that have been taking place since our deaths in Japan, and most of all whether there’s the possibility of his being happy — remaining a relatively good person who can be satisfied with himself — in this impossible situation he’s created and with the answer I’m inevitably going to give him. I’m determined to find this information even if my continued proximity to him in seeking it is tempting fate — tempting him, rather, to forget about consent and take what he wants as he’s well capable of doing.

    And why am I so determined?

    Is it because I love him?

    I still have no answer to this question, but I don’t shy away from the question itself quite so hard as I’ve done on previous days. In fact, as I watch him finish up the last turn of the game and cash in his remaining piles to add to his final score with a simple glee apparently born of a surety of having won that I can’t be certain is overconfidence — a glee that reminds me more than ever of those wonderful old emotions he used to display so readily — I concede to myself that the idea of being in love with him isn’t nearly so monumentally intimidating as it was the first time I asked myself about it.

    “Twenty-six,” he announces, having counted his score pile and slammed a triumphant pale hand down onto it.

    “Twenty-two,” is Megumi’s defeated acknowledgment.

    “Twelve,” I admit.

    “Damn, Saitou! I’d have thought you’d be better at this!” At this openly teasing expression of surprise — the first time Sano has broken the barrier and spoken to me in such an easy manner during this lifetime — even Megumi chuckles a little.

    I’m not entirely without competitive instinct; I’m almost tempted to protest that, for my first time playing this particular game and as distracted as I was by various circumstances, it’s really not such a bad score. But I prefer not to make excuses — they only make you look pathetic — and therefore remain silent.

    Sano has been gathering the cards, and now holds up the deck a second time with a glint in his eye beyond the actual literal glow. “You want to try again?”

    I glance around, then briefly down at my watch. I do have chores to finish, and haven’t eaten dinner yet, and there’s work in the morning. But somehow none of that seems to matter. And it isn’t merely because Megumi has interesting information and Sano is a newly embarked-upon project; it’s because I enjoy their company. Whether I love him or not, I’m glad to have Sano around, and I’d rather he didn’t leave just yet.

    “If you two are ready to lose this time,” I say.

    Megumi grins. Sano grins — which was what I hoped for. The night progresses.


    The note read, I don’t know exactly where you live, but this concerned young policeman does. Don’t think I’m unwilling to track down my patients at their own homes or anywhere else if they won’t come to me for their follow-up exams. And I had to admit, it was nice to have something to laugh about, not to mention very desirable to have something to share with Sano that might cheer him up a bit too.

    “Guess we better go see her,” was his response to her message. And though he sighed after he said it, undoubtedly not looking forward to hearing more about his condition and having prying questions asked, the tone of his words, at least, was amused.

    In the small handful of days since the question had arisen in my mind about what Sano must subsist on now, I hadn’t worked up the fortitude to ask it aloud. Since he had reported no sensations of hunger (or, as it might turn out, thirst), I’d concentrated instead on my continual efforts to improve his attitude and on the news my subordinates regularly brought me. As I returned to fighting trim, my impatience to get back onto the case personally increased alongside my fitness, but I found my priorities divided. Sano’s physical safety concerned me less than it previously had, but his mental state had become far more precarious, and anything I could do to help him struck me as the most desirable course to take.

    At the moment, though, the only course to take led to the Oguni clinic. We certainly didn’t want the doctor getting herself in trouble by demonstrating further how involved she was in our affairs, and I absolutely believed what she said about coming to find us; so we would have to go see her. Therefore, the moment the sun had set sufficiently to render walking abroad safe for Sano, we headed that direction. About halfway there I gave in and hailed a late-prowling cab, satisfied at least that I could make it half the distance on foot; and Sano was kind enough not to complain, though his claustrophobia regarding carriages did not seem to have diminished with his transformation.

    “Good evening, officer-san, Sanosuke-kun,” Oguni himself greeted us when we arrived at the quiet clinic. “Megumi mentioned you might be dropping by this evening.”

    “Did she,” I wondered with flat amusement.

    “Yes, and she asked me to send you in when you got here. We’ve both been busy writing up notes on all these influenza cases lately, but she’ll be happy to see you in her room.”

    Observing that we did seem to have interrupted him in his work despite the hour, I assured him of our familiarity with Takani’s room and that he need not trouble himself. Then, as we headed down the hall in the direction we unfortunately knew all too well, I requested elucidation on the cause of the wry, almost wistful grin on Sano’s face.

    “You gave me that polite act exactly once,” he explained, “and then never again.”

    “You never do much to merit politeness.”

    “Least it means I’m in your inner circle by now… the people you don’t bother faking with.”

    “You’re in an exclusive circle.” I would have gone on, but at that moment, having reached the door to Takani’s room, I paused for Sano’s knock.

    “All right, kitsune, here we are!” His tone was put-upon, but his grin from a minute ago had only grown more solid, and lent some joviality to his assumed annoyance.

    And at about that moment I began to feel uneasy. Did I sense something amiss through the door? Or was it merely that everything had been so uncertain lately? In any case, I gave the doctor less time to respond than I normally would have before calling a second greeting. “Takani-sensei, are you in there?”

    Either Sano sensed something too, or he picked up on my worry, for his face was dead serious and, not even giving her as long as I had, he pulled the door open.

    At first the signs of invasion were minimal, as was to be expected: if too much furniture had been tossed around, the noise would have alerted others in the building. But following a small trail of scattered objects around the corner from Takani’s sitting area into what might be thought of as her office and bedroom beyond disclosed a despoiled desk and set of shelves, a chaos of fallen or disarrayed items — among them an unsheathed tanto — and the woman herself on her back in the midst of it.

    As quickly as I moved, Sano was kneeling at her side literally faster than I could see, sweeping books and papers carelessly away to make room for himself and disentangling a towel or other cloth that had wrapped around one of Takani’s legs apparently as she’d fallen. I knelt opposite him and fixed my gaze on the doctor’s white face, but not with much hope.

    “Is that you two?” Her eyelids dragged open, but the slow, rolling motion of her eyeballs didn’t indicate much clarity of vision.

    “Yeah, it’s us,” said Sano hoarsely. “What the fuck happened here?”

    With the shallowest of breaths, even that obviously painful, she answered without strength or volume. “He knew I sent a note. He was afraid you would be staying at the clinic again. Then he’d never get the information he needed. He had to get to me first.”

    “He must have been just here.” Sano looked around wildly. “If we’d been five minutes faster– Gensai doesn’t even know anything happened!”

    Takani’s eyes closed again, but her lavender-tinted lips still seemed capable of some speech. “Didn’t want to scream. Nobody here could have fought him. They would have died with me.”

    This was why I wanted people — especially people I cared about — out of the way in such dirty business. Doctors were often forced to get involved, but it had been foolish of me to start considering this one a friend, to allow anyone to see we’d become close enough that she might be expected to have information. She’d known the risks — of her profession in general, of treating patients like me and Sanosuke, of responding to me lately with apparent similar feelings of friendship — and she understood every bit as well as I did the desire to keep innocent others from becoming entangled in a mess she felt she couldn’t turn her back on… but that didn’t make this any less tragic a sacrifice.

    And it was a sacrifice Sano evidently wasn’t ready for. So agitated I could see him trembling, he demanded in a fainting tone, “What did he do? Where are you hurt? How can we help?”

    Takani let out the lightest pained sigh. “He wanted to know where Tomizawa Nori is. I don’t know, but he wouldn’t believe me. Kept hitting me. Broken ribs… moderate to severe internal hemorrhage… nothing to be done.”

    Eyes wide as dinner plates and fists clenched, Sano jumped to his feet. “But Gensai…!”

    I said his name softly. I wished I had some comfort to offer my lover, who would suffer a greater loss than I would in this scenario, but death took everything — even words from the mouths of the living. All I could advise was, “Do her the credit of believing what she says.”

    At some point I’d taken Takani’s hand, but I only became properly conscious of its cold clamminess now when she exerted the slightest pressure to recover my attention. “Listen, Saitou… 165cm… 80kg… wide, thick eyebrows… early receding hairline… kuroboku-stained clothes…”

    “It’s impressive you managed to take in so many details of the man beating you to death.” I clasped her hand, which had gone limp again after that one tiny squeeze, in both of mine. “Otsukaresama.”

    Recognizing this for the farewell it was, Sano dropped to his knees again and pounded on the floor with a fist that sent shockwaves through the boards and my body. “No,” he half roared. “I won’t fucking accept that! You can’t– just because it’s bad doesn’t mean–”

    Takani let out a faint huff that might have been something like a laugh. Again with what effort I could not guess, she opened her eyes, perhaps for the last time. “I was… looking forward… to studying your condition… further…” Though clearly unable to smile, the tone of her ever-fainter voice was halfway there.

    Again Sanosuke stood with lightning quickness, but now his expression had entirely altered. His eyes had gone wide again, and his brows down, and he shook his head as if in denial… but watching him, I felt a chill. This wasn’t horror at Takani’s fate, nor denial of what lay in front of him. He was contemplating something desperate that appalled, perhaps even sickened him, and it took the briefest moment to realize what it must be.

    I can save you,” he whispered. “I know how.”

    Uncertain, uneasy, I asked, “Would it work?”

    “I don’t–” He looked at me desperately, as if begging for answers. “My neck was broken, and… but then she’d be like this… but if she’s dying…”

    I could do nothing but shake my head. I had absolutely no answers for him.

    He dropped yet again to his knees and gave Takani’s shoulder a little shake. “Megumi, I can– I can save you.” His voice choked as if with tears, but his face remained dry, tormented, dead in color but alive with sentiment. “I can make you like me, and that should heal your wounds — least that’s how it worked for me — and then you can study yourself all you want, but you’ll… you’ll probably have to…”

    Her head had rocked slightly with the shake, but her eyes did not open again. She breathed out a lifeless, delirious “Yes, please” that might after all only have been a sigh, then stilled again.

    Sano’s face was even more haunted than before as he looked back up at me, and by now he was beyond words, though I recognized what he wanted to know. My own voice came out rough and quiet as I answered, “She’s too far gone to understand what you’re asking her. You’ll have to do it without her consent, or let her die.”

    At the last three words, his face twisted into a nearly unbearable mask of pain and uncertainty. Letting go of someone he cared about, giving up on a cause, not taking every last measure of which he was capable in an effort he supported, was a trial too great for my Sanosuke… and yet he didn’t want to force upon her the inhuman condition with which he was afflicted. He’d probably never been so torn, and it broke my heart in turn to see it and be able to do nothing. It was a decision he had to make.

    And once he made a decision, he acted upon it without further hesitation. Sitting up straight, his face smoothing into a less convoluted expression of determination, he took a deep breath. Meeting my eyes he said, “Go outside. I don’t want you to have to see this.”

    Aching for him and the disgust he felt at his own intentions, I replied, “Only if you really don’t want me here. If you do, I’ll stay.”

    His lips writhed around his attempted answer, but he couldn’t speak. He merely nodded, his expression conveying a desperate gratitude I would have done just about anything in the world to excite. Then, looking quickly away, he bent forward, reached down, and took Takani into his arms. Her head fell limply to one side as he cradled her upper back and settled her, reclining, onto his lap. His eyes taking on an even brighter glow than I’d yet seen and a startling flash coming from bared teeth that appeared longer and more pointed than before, he bent and fastened his mouth on her pale neck.

    Only for Sano would I have watched such a display. It was monstrous, the way he sucked at her, the way her body had stiffened as he began to drink, and it sounded obscene. Bile rose in my throat and my stomach twisted, and intermittent shudders would not be repressed… but I sat firm, observing all remaining color ebb from the doctor’s exposed skin. She seemed likely to become a desiccated husk in no time at all, drained just as all those corpses had been. It had affected me before, but now it almost hurt to consider this type of end for a vibrant, brave, efficient human being, friend or otherwise.

    “Sano,” I urged at last, my voice husky and low. “The next step?” I feared he was taking too much of her blood, and there would be no life left to revive with his own if he didn’t get on with it.

    He made no answer, however, nor any shift of body, only continued his repugnant sucking. In this, I believed with sinking heart, our unspoken fears were confirmed: blood was life to him now, sustenance of which he’d been entirely deprived since his transformation, and he couldn’t bring himself to stop while it still flowed.

    As close as I knelt to him, it was no difficulty to wind up and punch him in the shoulder, where once I’d stabbed him, with all my strength.

    He toppled and slid, the figure of Takani falling bonelessly on top of him, and a snarling noise told me he’d disengaged from her neck even before I could see it when he sat up again. He shifted backward into a more active kneel, pulling the woman’s body halfway behind him with one possessive hand as if she weighed nothing at all, and raised the other hand as if to return my blow. His lips, running with blood, twisted into a snarl, and his eyes were feral for one long, breathless moment before he seemed to shake himself, breathing hard, and recognize me. And then the abrupt agony in those eyes was equaled only by the agony in my heart in response.

    He looked as if he wanted to speak but didn’t know what to say, or perhaps lacked the power to say it. And in any case, I didn’t want him to bury himself in shame; once he gave in to that emotion, it would be a long uphill battle compelling it to release him. So I spoke instead, urging, “You have to finish it. Do you want my sword?”

    Sano let out a faint, desperate laugh, and whispered harshly, “So damn practical,” even as he shook his head. Glad I’d diverted him at least somewhat from a detrimental frame of mind, I watched as he lifted his right wrist and raked his teeth across it with careless violence. Blood welled and ran down his arm, spattering across him and the objects on the floor as he moved once more toward Takani. He easily adjusted her position, smearing her with red as he did so, and soon the oozing liquid was flowing into her mouth.

    I found the sight easily as distressing as the previous — perverted and inhuman and disgusting — and as I forced myself to sit still and calm and be a strength for Sano if I possibly could, a chill like icy water began to spread through my own body, as if my own veins were running cold.

    Sano had undertaken this hideous task to try to save a friend. Whether or not he’d made the right choice in so doing, he was motivated by determination, mercy, and love. Yet Shibue — for I no longer had any doubt, after Takani’s description, about the murderer’s identity — appeared not to have acted on sentiments so noble. And he and Sano were now, after all, the same kind — the same kind Takani would become very soon if this process worked the way Sano believed it would. All three of them would be blood-drinkers; all three of them, presumably, would require something essential to the lives of others in order to maintain their own, regardless of what morals they took into their state of life or death.

    Had Sano become a monster? Was he turning Takani into one before my eyes? Was I allowing evil to be born right in front of me because of my attachment to Sano?

    The mere need for something combined with the capacity to take it did not make someone evil. But I’d seen how rapt Sano had been a minute before… I had no doubt that if I hadn’t been here to stop him, he would simply have killed her. Was it possible for someone to exist like that without committing murder, or was Sano destined to tread Shibue’s path?

    And if he was, did I have the strength to do what was necessary? If it came to a choice, could I make the correct selection between Sanosuke’s life and Aku Soku Zan?

    I rather doubted it.

    In the near silence of the scene, the very disquieting noises from within Takani’s body were easily audible. And it wasn’t merely the occasional gut sound that made being in the presence of the dead so disturbing to some: there was a creaking, as of something all through her tensing, tightening; and a sound like boiling water, as if the blood Sano returned to her were indeed changing into a different state. And after several minutes, there came from her chest a startling cracking — ribs repairing themselves? — and her entire form straightened almost imperceptibly as if she were unconsciously correcting her posture in this prone position.

    Her emaciation had faded; though her skin remained white as chalk, her lips a pale purple where they weren’t covered in blood, she now appeared more like a corpse awaiting cremation than a recent murder victim. In a way, she looked very much like Sano. She certainly looked like Sano had when I’d found him in the shed, and, for all I wanted her to live, that thought could give me no pleasure.

    How Sano knew or thought he knew he’d done enough I couldn’t tell, but eventually he lifted his hand from near her face and drew it back, dripping blood down her chin and neck and chest. He started picking at the red wrap he always wore around his left wrist, and when I realized what he intended I spoke.

    “Ahou…” I had to clear my throat. “We’re in a doctor’s office. There are plenty of actual bandages around.”

    “So damn practical,” he whispered again, and distractedly began searching. I lifted a hand to stop him and then carried out the task myself, quickly sorting through the items that littered the floor nearby until I located a roll of bandages. I reeled out what I deemed a sufficient length and tore it free, then handed it to him. And as I did so, he continued speaking in a voice hardly louder than the previous whisper:

    “I don’t think it’s going to bleed long. My heart… it got my heart going again to drink… It was pretty strong for a minute there… but I can feel it slowing down again. Thanks.” And he began to wrap his wrist.

    If drinking some blood restarted his heart beating (implying that the rest of the time, whatever blood his body possessed was, what? resting motionless in his veins?), would a large enough quantity of blood restore all his bodily functions? Essentially restore him to life? Was that what Shibue sought, secondary to whatever Tomizawa Daitarou had assigned him? Evidently it hadn’t worked even after quite a few victims. I wondered if this had crossed Sano’s mind as it had mine.

    In any case, the information Megumi had provided might help me pin the murderer down at last, and that she’d made the effort to convey it as she died was worthy of deepest respect. It wasn’t every murder victim that had the opportunity to avenge themselves. I only hoped she wouldn’t wake up now in her righter mind and resent what Sano had done. I didn’t know if he could handle that.

    Perhaps it was time to find out, for Megumi stirred slightly where Sano had laid her. Her chest did not rise — evidently it was normal for people in this condition not to breathe spontaneously — but her fingers twitched, and before her eyes even opened, one hand had risen to brush hair from her face and blood from her chin.

    I stood, and Sano’s gaze snapped over to me in startled dismay. I told him, “I’ll give you a few minutes.”

    “You don’t have to.”

    I regretted the necessity, and regretted the secret relief I felt at the idea of taking a break from this situation, but meant it when I said, “You’ll need to discuss things only you two can understand. I’ll wait outside the room.”

    He stared for a moment, then seemingly required some effort of will to nod. “Thanks for staying this long,” he mumbled as he turned his face away. Then, even more softly, “Thanks for stopping me.”

    “Of course.”

    And as I moved quickly toward the door, I heard Megumi’s voice asking in quiet confusion, “Sanosuke? What just happened?”

    Sitting beside Sano on the sofa has become, by now, routine. I may still shy away from what he represents, what he wants in the long-term, but at his mere physical presence I no longer balk. I’m confident at least that he won’t attack and turn me right this moment; and his personality and character, and the changes therein, still fascinate me. Whether or not he’s truly beyond hope, whether he might retain some chance at happiness and (relative) morality, and what role I and Megumi have in the process of his reclamation, I long to discover.

    Originally we were playing some old copy of Trivial Pursuit that Megumi dug up somewhere, with the finicky plastic pie pieces and everything, but, after she and Sano tied twice in a row, it devolved into their flashing trivia questions at each other in such quick succession it’s almost too fast to hear. Only now does it occur to me how many books you have time to read, movies and TV shows you have time to watch, and museums you have time to visit when you’re immortal — on top of whatever you’ve experienced firsthand. And I’m so comfortable at this point sitting around playing family games with a couple of vampires that I actually find myself complaining.

    “You know this is less fun for the odd-man-out who hasn’t lived a hundred and fifty years?”

    Meg laughs. “Sorry. We got carried away.” And she reloads the game components into the box with white-flashing hands in about two seconds.

    “I’ll beat you next time, though,” Sano says with a competitive grin.

    “I’ll beat you both at that card game,” I assure him. “It would be nice to know what it’s called.”

    “I don’t actually know.” Sano joins me standing and heading toward the kitchen table. “I learned it from a werewolf in Frobisher Bay, like, thirty years ago. Then I tweaked the rules some, and I always just call it ‘that game.’ Not like I have a lot of people to play it with.”

    Deciding not to dwell on his terminal loneliness and the effect it’s had on him, I state lightly instead, “You’re going to have to tell me about werewolves.”

    But as he sets up the new game as quickly as Meg dismantled the old, and both of them start in on a description of werewolves and what is and isn’t known about them, I’m distracted by my phone lighting up yet again. This is the fourth time Renee has called today, and, though I turned off both sound and vibration much earlier, the alert that still appears on the screen causes guilt to weigh more and more heavily on my heart.

    As Hajime, I wouldn’t have had a hard time coming up with what to say, and wouldn’t have been afraid to say it. I managed my relationships with the wives I had in that life reasonably well, after all. But I’m not entirely Hajime, and my former samurai straightforwardness blended with the cunning of a spy is of less use here and now. I don’t want to hurt her, but I can’t formulate an explanation for the circumstances rational enough to convince her of its truth and render our remaining interactions as smooth as possible. And every minute I put it off makes it less likely I’ll be able to do anything of the sort.

    Self-castigation and a feeling of confounded helplessness notwithstanding, I manage to start the game and drag my mind back to it for a while. Sano and Meg resume their discussion of werewolves, and the night moves on with a certain amount of interest and entertainment. And as the hours pass, the chances of Renee calling again diminish, which is one benefit of having nocturnal friends. I’ve been up late far too often in recent days, and it has to start taking its toll sooner or later, but, even in her desperation to talk to me, Renee won’t risk waking me up.

    But then my phone glows again. With a deep breath I look down, and note that it’s a voicemail. This is the first time she’s left me a message, and I reach for the device as I let the air out of my lungs as silently as possible. I glance back up at Meg’s neutral expression and the faint crease between Sano’s brows, and tell them, “I’d better listen to this.”

    Swiftly Meg rises. “I’ll get out of earshot, then.” I wonder how far away that is for her.

    “No, don’t–” Sano begins, and Megumi jerks to a standstill. “Sorry, sorry. I mean, why don’t we make sure Saitou doesn’t want us around before just running off?”

    I frown. The truth is that I would prefer neither of them listen to this, but I fear what it might do to Sano to push him away — especially when the matter touches him so closely, even if it’s really none of his business. But I don’t like to evict one and permit the other.

    “I’ll go,” she says with a reassuring smile — or as reassuring as that gesture can ever be on her too-perfect lips. Unexpectedly, she bends down and gives me an ice-cold kiss on the cheek. Then she punches Sano hard in the arm as she walks past him, and she’s gone.

    Rubbing at the injured spot, Sano turns to face me again. “It’s OK if I stay, right?” His modern coldness gives the impression less of a request than of a command.

    I nod. And since he’s going to hear it all anyway, I set the phone on speaker as I dial in to voicemail.

    Joe, I know something’s wrong. It isn’t like you to ignore me. I didn’t think it would happen like this, because I know you’re better than this, but I’ve been worried about our relationship for a long time. You’ve never seemed ready to take things to the next level with me, and lately — even before you started ignoring me — I’ve gotten the feeling your heart’s not in it anymore. But I love you, Joe, and I want to make this work. If you’d just tell me what’s going on, we can still try. Or if you really do want to break up, I’d still like to be your friend and support you. But you have to talk to me.

    After pressing 9 to save, I hang up and stare at the phone on the table without taking in any of its details. That Sano is doing the same I can tell from the corner of my eye, but I don’t look at him, and he makes no sound. That was… such an unusual message. Not one drop of sarcasm, barely any disdain, open emotional talk… not at all like Renee, who’s never seemed inclined to discuss our relationship. The cues she gives have always been subtle and usually unspoken. If she has worried for some time, did it take this crisis to force the confession out of her? Otherwise, why is she suddenly willing to bare her heart like this?

    And I still don’t know what to say to her.

    At a loss, I dial in again and replay the message. Her language is direct, personal but not overly sentimental — which is like Renee — and I notice she’s used the least affection form of ‘love’ when she declares her feelings for me… and that’s the answer.

    “It’s in Japanese,” I say aloud in some surprise.

    “Yyyeah,” Sano confirms, bemused.

    Now I can’t help but smile as I hang up on voicemail once more. “She assumed I wouldn’t understand this.”

    “Why would she say all that shit if you wouldn’t understand it?”

    “One mystery for another. I haven’t been talking to her, so she left me a message in Japanese trying to get me to call back. It’s pretty clever.” I was underestimating her. That’s the Renee I know and… love? In the least affectionate form of the verb? I swallow hard and close my eyes as I leave the table, and my phone, behind.

    “So what are you gonna do?” Sano wonders, somewhat demandingly, from behind me.

    “I don’t know.” I sit down hard on the sofa, and find him beside me before I’ve completely settled. But all I can say, again, is, “I don’t know.” Uncomfortable as I feel dating someone I know is my own descendant, the more I consider cutting her out of my life, the more reluctant I find myself.

    “You–” He reaches out a pale hand to touch my arm, hesitates, and then, when I don’t pull away, places it there with a restraint I didn’t expect. It’s trembling slightly, and colder than ever through my sleeve. And in his face there’s torment, less skillfully repressed than the strength of his hand.

    “I know what you’d prefer me to say to her,” I tell him, cautious.

    “I wasn’t gonna say it,” is his fierce, bitter response. Jealousy seems to darken his face, though in reality it’s as bloodless as ever. His fingers clench a bit more tightly on my arm, and he holds the pose for a moment, seeming to struggle within himself. Silently I’m doing my best to encourage him, because this emotion — which can only worsen with time — must certainly be one of the obstacles he needs to overcome if he wants to remain a decent person, or at least a decent vampire. And something inside me seems to untwist in relief when he relaxes a trifle and says in a tone less harsh, “I’m not qualified to give love advice. I’ve only ever had one boyfriend — that I remember — and you saw how that went.”

    I breathe out a weak chuckle, and am surprised to find it followed by another, stronger, and then another. Soon Sano and I are both laughing ridiculously at what was, after all, a fairly morbid statement. As unexpectedly as Megumi’s earlier kiss — to both of us, I think — I lean into him for a hug and laugh on his cold, stiff shoulder for a moment. At first he goes motionless, and his laughter dies abruptly, but then he draws in a gasp and clutches me with bruising tightness. When I move to pull away, he clings only for an instant before letting go, and the darkness is gone from his face.

    Memories of physical contact with Sano in another life bombard me, and my heart stutters into a higher gear. Am I tempted? I won’t deny it. The idea of being with him like that again prompts far less awkwardness and discomfort in me than it did before. But do I love him? I still don’t know.

    Clearing my throat, I look away from the hope and desire and underlying acquisitiveness in his expression, and shift the subject. “So you said I’ve been in love with people in past lives?”

    He lets out his gasp of a moment before somewhat raggedly, and at first appears to struggle once more, this time for an evenly delivered answer. “You… yeah, you were. You carried around a love note from some girl you left behind in Spain, and showed it to me every time you thought I was getting pushy… and then you had a wife in South Africa, who I didn’t really meet… and a husband in the States…”

    An image returns to me of an airport terminal, a lingering kiss goodbye, and jealous eyes on me like those of a bird of prey, and I snatch at the memory and his last words. “I dreamed about him. My – husband.” The word tastes unfamiliar in this context, but not necessarily unpleasant. “After you showed up, but before you gave me my memories. I had a very confused dream where I saw…” Thinking back to it, its events become clearer and clearer, but only up to a certain point. “I saw past lives. I saw my husband, and our goodbye at the airport before I went to Iraq.”

    “You– what!?” Sano leaps to his feet, for a moment every bit his old impetuous self. “You dreamed about previous lives before I gave you any memories back?!” The look on his face is divided between astonishment and excited delight. “That means you’re — you’re getting better! You’re figuring it out!”

    “I didn’t enjoy it,” I tell him quietly — though I am, merely for these few seconds, enjoying his happiness. “It took place mostly in Shishio’s fortress. It was very chaotic. Not knowing what any of it meant made it into a nightmare.”

    “I’m sorry, but, but, but this is great!” He shakes exuberant fists in the air and spins around on one heel. “It means you’re kindof… assimilating…” And he trails off at the serious expression on my face. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “Just…”

    “Tell me about my husband,” I request. I know the subject must bother him, but I suspect getting him to talk about it is a step in the right direction. Wrapping past pain in an ever-thickening layer of jealousy and anger isn’t the way to deal with it. And I don’t want him dwelling more than he needs to on the idea that our souls are becoming more tightly linked with every passing lifetime, no matter how it pleases me to see him so simply happy again.

    “Do you just want the memories?” he asks, a little sourly.

    And again, I’m tempted. The condition I considered earlier — having more experiences than the average person to draw on for knowledge and wisdom — comes before me again with tantalizing promises. But even after so many days, I’m still fighting to deal with one previous lifetime’s worth of experiences and the little memories that pop up out of nowhere at inopportune moments and have to be worked through. Besides, the point is getting him to talk. “I think you just want to bite me again.”

    The look he gives me is slightly suspicious, but perhaps my statement — which, despite its deadpan delivery, might be considered the tiniest bit flirtatious — strikes him pleasantly, for he resumes his seat at my side and takes a deep enough breath for extended speech. And a story unfolds of a college football coaching assistant, injured during his own time on the defensive line and unable to join the armed forces as he’d long wished, who won the heart of one Peggy McClendon with his fun-loving ways and infinite devotion. And Sano, in describing him, sounds not so much jealous or bitter as forlorn, maybe even nostalgic. He respected that man. He respected my love for him, because he saw why I felt the way I did. It hurts to watch him, but this is a remarkably good sign. I’m starting to feel the first hints of hope.

    I’m also curious. Once he’s finished his description, I prompt, “So I’ve been attracted to men in more than one lifetime.”

    The hunger springing up in his eyes tells me this may be a dangerous topic. “You were bi as Peggy, though you guys were monogamous, so…” He shrugs, and the gesture isn’t as casual as he’d probably like it to be. “When you were Yaro, you never showed any signs that I saw, but you were pretty damn busy speaking out against apartheid everywhere it wouldn’t get you killed… I mean, it eventually did, but… Anyway, as Aliásar, just from the way you looked at the other guys in camp, I thought you could’ve probably been into them, and you reacted way better than I expected when I told you my story — you just didn’t buy the vampire part — but then you died.” He shrugs again, and it’s more helpless this time.

    “And the life that came after Japan? In South America?”

    “Yeah, as Fernando…” He reaches a hand up to scratch the back of his head, and I wonder if he actually itches or if this is merely an echo of a long-ago gesture of the living Sano. “You were really young? And really gung-ho about getting yourself killed. I think you just weren’t really into it that time around.”

    I chuckle faintly. “And I’ve been Japanese, Brazilian, Spanish, South African… What was Peggy?”

    “White,” Sano replies, more easily now. “Probably had some Irish or Scottish in her, with a name like that, but I never found out for sure.” He looks me up and down, and, though there’s the customary expression of longing in the gaze, it’s more assessing than anything. “And now you’re… Puerto Rican?”

    Impressed at his discernment, I nod. “I seem to have gravitated toward Latino.”

    Sano shrugs. “I got no explanation for that.”

    As so often happens these days, I find myself emotionally drained. Having my curiosity satisfied is bittersweet, and trying to navigate Sano’s convoluted frame of mind at the same time is nerve-wracking. But I can’t bear to abandon this conversation with Sano relaxing and enjoying it again. “It’s very interesting, though,” I say, then fight to come up with another question or remark to keep the discussion going.

    I’m not fast enough. Sano’s face darkens again. “…but none of this is helping you figure out what to do about your girlfriend.”

    With a sigh aimed more at my inability to manage his mood than at the purport of his statement, I admit the truth of this.

    Very seriously he begins, “Look, Saitou–”

    “Call me Joe,” I interrupt, ironically in a more Saitou-like tone than anything else I’ve said this evening.

    For an instant he appears purely surprised and hurt. Then his lips and brows tighten into darker lines, and his words come out like ice. “It’s harder every time I see you with someone. But she’s safe for now.” He rises from the sofa, stiff as rigor mortis. “Do what you want with her.”

    Quiet but firm, I tell him, “That may just mean taking her up on her offer of friendship.” Since I’ve blown my chance at continued conversation on a more pleasant level, the truth is the next best option. And his form seems to soften just perceptibly at my statements. “You’re friends with Megumi; I can be friends with Renee.”

    “Megumi is literally a blood relation.” Sano still has his back to me, but his tone also has softened a trifle.

    “But I’m her friend too. It would be unfair of you to be jealous of Renee but not of Megumi — and every other friend I have.”

    He takes a deep breath, very deliberate as all his deep breaths must be, then lets it out gustily. “You’re right,” he says, turning. “I have to try to be reasonable.”

    “Never an outstanding skill of yours,” I reply in Saitou’s tones with a grin, “but it’s good that you’re willing to try.” And I mean that very deeply. Perhaps to emphasize the fact, I get to my own feet, step forward, and put my arms around Sano again. “Thank you,” I murmur. And I’m not entirely sure what I’m thanking him for. Probably for the optimism I’m truly beginning to feel.

    He may not be sure either, but the embrace melts him. Once more he clutches at me as if letting go means ceasing to exist, though he says nothing. I can only hope this will serve to give him strength — strength to do what I’m sure he still knows is right, strength to resist becoming something neither of us wants.

    This time when I pull back, there’s more than a moment of tenacity on his side. But he does let me go, and looks at me with a mixture of emotions on his cold face. “I’ll… let you decide what you’re gonna do,” he almost whispers, and suddenly he’s at the door.

    “Good night,” I reply at about the same volume. Then, in a preternaturally abruptly empty apartment, I mimic my movements of several days ago and sink back onto the sofa to put my head in my hands.

    So we’ve definitely progressed to hugging now.

    For some notes on part 21, see this Productivity Log, this one for part 22’s notes, and this one for part 24. Where are the notes on part 23? I don’t know. Evidently I didn’t make any. How will you cope??