Heretic’s Reward 26-29

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
>13 Interlude
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
>16 Interlude
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
>20 Interlude
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm
Chapter 34 - Converging Forces

Chapter 26 – The Visitant

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

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

In fact that was not true. It was perfectly simple to walk as if he felt exactly the way he did: happier than he’d been in a week and eager to get back to the inn. But he didn’t think that walk was likely to do him any disservice; it fit with his bright colors.

It hardly seemed a matter of question, today, whether or not to stop in the market for some breakfast, and Sano found himself traversing the busiest street looking for the freshest stack of fruit almost without even thinking about it. He occasioned some smiles as he made his cheerful purchase, then had to work hard to restrain himself from juggling the shining apples as he moved on through the crowd. The ridiculously delicious scent emanating from a baker’s shop tempted him soon afterward, but, preferring to avoid the notice of the red devoted currently examining the steaming wares held by an employee on a large tray just outside the building, he didn’t stop even to look.

“–so much more shopping to do all of a sudden,” the devoted was remarking in a wry tone.

“Yes, I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine,” the baker sympathized. “What a hassle for you.”

“Well, you can’t say no to the white, but those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are.”

Interested, Sano had slowed to listen, but, feeling conspicuous, now moved on before he could catch the rest of the red’s complaint. He hadn’t heard anything in Elotica about Misao’s new white devoted being in Enca; it must indeed be a last-minute visit! Scant sympathy as he felt for any devoted, he couldn’t really blame the guy: he too might want to get out of a place where people of the rank he’d just assumed had recently been attacked and the one closest to him murdered. He did wonder, though, which lower-ranking follower of Misao that left to sit on the Devoted Council. Had Soujirou and his people had anything to do with this? If so, what did they gain from it? Sano knew nothing about the Misao golds, nor which of them had been made the new fourth-wash, and therefore had no guesses. He would have to talk to Hajime about it. That and any number of other things.

But he didn’t need the unoccupied inn chamber with its beds stripped of linens to tell him Hajime was gone; the cracked door that swung open without requiring a key in its broken lock alerted him even before he burst into the room and looked frantically around. And it took no more than an instant for his heartbeat to accelerate to a gallop. Blood roaring in his ears and a coldness in the pit of his stomach, he tore down the hall and the steps — the main staircase this time — straight for the innkeeper’s office. The door slammed violently back against the wall as he rushed in bellowing somewhat incoherently, “Where is he? What happened??”

Immediately on her feet, visage dark, the innkeeper responded to his presence with every bit as much intensity as Sano himself could command: “You get out of my inn! I don’t ever want to see you around here again!”

Fists clenched, Sano advanced on her. “Where is he?

“Before dawn, four men came and–”

“Bullshit!” He hardly knew what he shouted into her face, and only a barely conscious awareness that she was no warrior kept him from taking hold of her shiiya and shaking her. “As if just four men could ever–”

“For your information, you trash,” she yelled right back at him, “they dragged my wife up there and threatened to kill her if he didn’t go with them! That’s what I get for looking the other way and renting rooms to suspicious people! I want you out of here now, and don’t you or any of your criminal friends come back here looking for service, ’cause I’ll send for the guards if I ever see your lousy faces again!”

Horrified, Sano took a step back and stared at the woman. There was no reason to think she might be lying, and her emotionality seemed perfectly justified under the circumstances. In fact it was pretty impressive for her to be standing up, without a weapon in sight, to a raging Sano whom she believed to be a criminal. But fury still sounded in his voice as he demanded, “Who were they? Where did they take him?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care.” She pointed vehemently. “Get out!”

Sano was surprised to find the door the woman indicated already under his fingertips, as if, anticipating her lack of useful information, he’d already moved without realizing it. He paused, though, and took a deep breath. “Is your wife all right?”

The innkeeper too calmed just a trifle, perhaps realizing he was sincere in his inquiry. “She’s fine. Your friend surrendered as soon as they threatened her.”

“Of course he did,” Sano muttered, and left the inn.

Still irate and aghast and now dizzy as well, as if he’d taken a blow to the head, he staggered out into the street, wondering what the hell to do next. The thought that he had to find Hajime reiterated itself so continually that it got tripped up by its own repetition and didn’t allow any subsequent reflections as to the how of the matter. He must, he must, he must… but he couldn’t get any farther than that. It would help if his heart would beat properly and the world’s spinning would diminish.

Between buildings and around corners at random he stumbled, probably drawing all the attention he’d managed to avoid earlier by crashing into people he didn’t see and whose indignant remonstrances he barely even heard, and with an agonizing slowness recovered his presence of mind. Yes, he had to find Hajime. And this wasn’t helping him do so. He looked around sluggishly — he would have expected his movements to be so much quicker, what with all this frantic energy pounding through his veins — and began to take stock of both his surroundings and what he knew of the situation.

Someone had known where to find Hajime. Just as the assassin had been well enough informed to locate a rebel spy in the purple district of Elotica, so these four men had managed eventually to pinpoint the location of the deposed king’s chief knight. And they’d known how difficult it might be to capture him; they’d taken the precaution of securing a hostage before approaching, and even then had felt it expedient to break open the door to his room and give him as little time as possible to respond. They’d known their business. But where would they have taken him from there? Surely four men with a fifth held captive among them, even before dawn, must have turned some heads throughout town…

Four men…

“I heard about your last-minute guests at the shrine…”

From the ground he’d been staring at intently, Sano’s gaze rose and turned to where, mostly obscured by buildings from this vantage point, Enca’s aged shrine of Misao yet rose tall and orange in the distance. Was that the real reason the newly made fourth-wash had left the capital — to apprehend a fugitive on Soujirou’s behalf? Was Hajime over there even now, bound and gagged, awaiting transport to his doom inside the city?

It was the only idea Sano had at the moment, so he followed the urging of his racing blood and headed in that direction.

The shrine had originally been a monastery, until some religious leader or other — probably Rionura the Pious; everything was Rionura the Pious — had discouraged asceticism throughout the kingdom. This pointless trivia would surely never have entered Sano’s head at such a time, irritating him that he knew it at all, if it hadn’t been the explanation for the high walls, definitely unclimbable, that surrounded the place. Sano spent a very agitated half hour circling the shrine and discovering only a few entrances, none of which he could get through unobserved. It was like the Elotica checkpoint problem all over again — but here were no unattended wagons to help him on his way. He really had only one option.

Little as he fancied the lack of privacy on any of these streets around the orange walls, he couldn’t bring himself to stray far from the shrine, and had nowhere better to go in any case. So he chose a spot that struck the best balance he could manage at such short notice between ‘least frequented street’ and ‘closeness to a shrine entrance,’ knelt down in a dirty corner after ensuring no windows immediately overlooked him, and opened his backpack. It would be disastrous if anyone saw this, yet his movements were far more hasty than careful as he dug through his collection of devoted shiiyao looking for the one with Misao’s rabbit symbol on the chest.

He had no idea what he would say. He had already posed as a devoted on numerous occasions, but that had been wandering the religious districts like a gormless newcomer. Could he imitate the speech and bearing of someone with a specific purpose that knew exactly what he was doing? And what purpose, indeed, could he claim? What would get him inside so he could search the shrine unaccompanied? Could he pretend to have a message for the white devoted that must be delivered in person and in private? But then if the fourth-wash turned out not to be involved, what could Sano say that would allow him to remain in the shrine unhindered? He tried to come up with a coherent plan as he finally located and drew out his Misao shiiya, but he still couldn’t think entirely clearly.

And that was when the entire world abruptly turned upside-down. Or, rather, Sano turned upside-down, or was turned upside-down out of nowhere by the application of skilled hands whose owner’s approach he hadn’t heard or suspected. Blows landed, torque was made use of, Sano was suddenly much closer to prone than he had been half a moment before, pain had arisen, and a harsh voice was speaking somewhere above him:

“Give me a good reason not to kill you.”

Not precisely flat on his back but close enough, head spinning even more severely than it had been for the last hour, Sano struggled against the urge to struggle against the sharp metallic object that now lay threateningly on his neck. A knee, bearing most of the weight of a decent-sized woman, pressed painfully into his stomach; he could probably have thrown her off if not for the very inconvenient position of the blade she held, with which she could cut his throat in less time than it would take him to tense his muscles for the effort.

This didn’t mean he felt any need to remain silent, though.

“What the fuck? Who are you? Where do you get off jumping on random people without warning? Where did you even come from?”

“Give me a good reason not to kill you,” the woman repeated. Her face was set in a hard, unforgiving frown as she stared down unrelentingly from her advantageous position above him.

“Why don’t you fucking give me a good reason to kill me!” Sano demanded.

Immediately she complied. “Because you’re obviously planning to sneak into a shrine dressed as a devoted.”

While the woman did have a point, “Since when is that a capital offense?” wondered Sano. “Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

The hard metal on his neck pushed down more bitingly; blood was sure to run soon if she didn’t let up. “You’ve got five seconds to explain yourself.”

Irritated as he was with this situation, Sano couldn’t really argue with that weapon. “Fine, all right, fine,” he said, trying to decide quickly how much he could safely tell and still placate the stranger. “Misao’s white devoted’s in here after the old one got assassinated, and I think the new guy’s taken my friend prisoner. I can’t just walk up to the door and ask if they have him; sneaking in’s my only option!”

For a few moments after this account (fairly neat and concise, he thought), there was pensive silence above him. Finally the uncomfortable knee was removed from his stomach, though the hard blade against his flesh did not retreat. “Get up,” the woman ordered. “Slowly.” As if there was any other way he would move with her threatening to cut his throat! Painstakingly, with the woman’s weapon never much farther from his neck than it had been all along, Sano sat up and then climbed awkwardly to his feet. As he did so, the woman said in a businesslike tone, “We’ll go in there together and see if any of your story is true.”

Any of it?” Sano wondered. “You’ve gotta know Misao’s white was assassinated! Haven’t you heard what’s going on in Elotica?”

“I’m not the one whose actions need to be explained here.”

“Not from where I’m standing,” Sano replied, somewhat surly. He was trying to calculate whether it would be possible for him to spring backward and draw his own sword without her detecting his intention and severely injuring him. If whatever she had at his neck was a keonblade, she could easily extend the energy blade and kill him outright before he was halfway through his jump; better not try it.

The woman tilted her head in what seemed to be a specific gesture (though one Sano did not at first understand), and commanded, “Take his sword-belt.”

“What?” Sano hadn’t realized the woman had anyone else with her; it was a good thing he’d decided against attempting to break free. But he didn’t much like the thought of being thus disarmed. “You can’t–”

“You’re not in any position to argue,” she interrupted him.

“Says you.”

She was right, though. “I could just kill you without testing your absurd story, if that’s what you want.”

“Fine.” He felt hands lifting the hem of the blue and orange shiiya he never had managed to switch out and unfastening the belt on which he wore his keonblade; looking carefully toward the movements, he was surprised to find them being performed by a boy of perhaps twelve.

“You’ll get it back when I feel it’s appropriate,” the woman said as the boy finished his task; then both of them took a step away from Sano, and he was able to look them over a bit better.

The woman had the type of face that was usually called ‘handsome’ rather than ‘beautiful,’ with hard eyes generally dark despite their light brown color and a disapproving set to her lips. The similarity to hers in the boy’s appearance, coupled with what Sano guessed to be around a twenty-year age difference, made him assume they were mother and son. The boy had slung Sano’s belt over his shoulder in a movement indicating he was not entirely unfamiliar with such accouterments, and the woman was returning to its sheath the long knife — not, in fact, a keonblade — with which she’d been threatening Sano.

The most eye-catching thing about either of them was the woman’s shiiya. Off-white like that of a fourth-wash devoted, it had the same flower-cut hem, and even a teardrop-shaped device on the chest. But this device, unlike that worn by devoted, was not white: it had a blue outer band, and, instead of an image in its center to indicate which of the divine ladies she served, its inner portion held five horizontal sections, each a different color.

Blue, Sano recalled, mostly from statements made by his father so many years ago, represented the unity of the divine and eternity, which was why the sky was blue or some such nonsense. The other colors in the teardrop, he was unsurprised to note, were the green of Yumi, the yellow of Megumi, the orange of Misao, the red of Kaoru, and the purple of Tomoe. Who was this woman?? And how in the world had someone that had previously worn an empty device on his shiiya to signify his disbelief in any of the divine ladies happened across someone that apparently served all of them?

She didn’t comment on the continual, startled attention he gave her chest. What she said was, “Now come with me, and don’t say a word; you can bring your things with you.”

“Megumi,” Sano swore (perhaps prompted just a little by his hypothesis about what this woman was), “you’re worse than–”

She cut him off, with no sign that his irreverence specifically had bothered her. “What did I just say?”

He looked around: at the woman, at the boy, at his fallen backpack, at the shrine’s entrance down the street. He could probably make a break for it right now and escape, but that would involve leaving everything he possessed behind. He might be able to dash for his sword and get at it before either of them could react, but not only did he dislike the idea of possibly hurting a kid, he wasn’t entirely confident in his ability to meet this woman even in a fair fight even just against a dagger. She had an air about her of absolutely infallible competence.

And beyond all this, there was the question of Hajime. The woman had told him not to say anything, which he tentatively thought meant she didn’t intend to march over there and announce to the shrine attendants he’d been planning on conning his way inside. She might have been taking his story more seriously than he’d thought, and did actually plan to find out whether it was true. In any case, if he ran away now, he might discard his only chance at discovering whether Hajime really was a prisoner in there, and he couldn’t stand that idea. It seemed he had no choice but to go with her.

As he turned, still somewhat surly, toward his backpack to gather up his spilled things, he thought he saw a corner of the woman’s mouth twitch upward as if he was behaving exactly as she’d thought he would, and he added on to everything else he’d been wondering, How do I keep finding these condescending jerks?

Awkward as he felt moving in the wake of this unknown intimidating woman, beside the little boy that looked so much like her and held Sano’s only weapon, not knowing whether he would be betrayed and possibly taken (more) into custody at any time, Sano had to admit he was glad the stranger and not he did the talking when they reached the entrance. An elderly red devoted seated in the shadow of the open gate seemed to function more as a receiver of guests than a warder-off of intruders, but Sano would still have been forced to come up with a story. As it was, the woman walked up to the old man as if she owned the place and said, “I am the Visitant, here to inspect this shrine on my way to Elotica.”

The man rose, touched his forehead courteously, and stared at the stranger’s chest exactly as Sano had — though evidently with different emotions involved. “We are honored to have you here, mistress.” There was a touch of wonder to his tone.

More polite than Sano had expected, the woman returned the red’s salute. “Who is currently presiding here?”

“You’ve arrived at just the right time.” The red seemed delighted to be able to relay this information. “The new white devoted has retreated here from the city to meditate on his new position.”

“I’ve been carrying out an inspection tour in the coastal towns,” the so-called Visitant replied. “I had not heard a new white devoted of Misao had been instated.”

The red’s face clouded, and he hesitated a moment before speaking again. “Then it’s probably best you hear about it from him.”

The woman nodded. Her gaze didn’t even twitch in Sano’s direction, but surely she must see now that at least part of his report had been accurate. “I will do so.”

“I believe he’s in the sanctum.”

“Thank you.”

Though older and smaller, this shrine still very much resembled the temples of the divine ladies in the five corners of Elotica, so Sano was unsurprised at the direction in which the Visitant led them: past a twelve-sided dais bearing a statue of Misao, who Sano had always thought looked more impish than stately in many of her portrayals, under a mess of crisscrossing ropes from which hung a variety of homemade artwork dedicated as offerings, through the gap in the great five-sided building into a smaller courtyard featuring another, more petite statue of Misao, and across this toward a door into the shrine itself.

And as they walked, the very instant they were out of earshot of the devoted at the gate and another that had been present in the outer yard, Sano wondered, “Who are you? What’s a Visitant?”

The woman barely turned her head to admonish him, “I told you to keep quiet.”

Scowling, Sano turned to the boy at his side and whispered, “Seriously, what’s a Visitant?”

Skeptically — perhaps even a little scornfully — the kid whispered back, “What are you, a heretic or something?”

“For your information–” But Sano cut off his growling retort at a harsh sound from the woman; they were entering the building. It was time to keep his eyes open for any signs of Hajime.

Chapter 27 – At the Sanctum Doors

For all his posing and playacting lately, Sano had never actually been inside one of these big religious institutes, and couldn’t help looking around with some curiosity now. The murals painted directly onto the stone bricks of the walls in the room they entered reminded him of those he’d seen in Hajime’s memory of a certain palace chamber, though these were far older and looked as if they could do with some restoration. So too did the piece in the middle — yet another statue of Misao, this one in a much more antiquated style — though the cushions arranged around it, presumably for prayer and meditation, looked recent and functional enough. That was all he had a chance to observe, for the Visitant unhesitatingly led them through an archway into a claustrophobic hall significantly dimmer than the previous space had been. Though weavings of bright colors hung so close together that barely an inch of stone showed between them, still there was a draft and a consequent feeling of chill and darkness. The Visitant seemed to know exactly where she was going, though, so Sano saw this and two other, similar connected hallways only briefly.

The wider corridor they eventually emerged into was longer and taller, but that just made it feel even draftier. Evidently they were nearing their destination as they walked its length, for the Visitant slowed as they approached a pair of large doors, carved around the edges and painted in their centers with further images of the lady of quick thinking and deception, flanked by a pair of second-wash. Whatever lay beyond these was probably the far back of the shrine, if Sano had his bearings right; it must be the sanctum.

Before either of the men could hail her, the woman asked, “Is the white devoted inside?”

The two door-guards studied the Visitant’s shiiya without visible reaction, and in turn Sano, at least, was studying them. He remembered the comments of the red he’d overheard in the market — “Those four men he brought with him are likely to eat a year’s donations in a day — or at least two of them are” — and believed he’d found the subjects of that statement. The one on the left was hugely fat, which almost drew attention entirely away from how tall he was; he was just really big in general. The design of a shiiya as an outer garment intended to be worn over a smaller, more form-fitting shirt accommodated it to a number of body shapes… but this guy must have his specially made.

The man to the right of the doors was shorter and took up less space overall, but was no less imposing: the broadness of his chest and thickness of his arms where they showed outside his orange hanging sleeves seemed to imply he did little in his life besides exercises tailored to the development of this extremely visible style of musculature. He reminded Sano of Seijuurou; though the keonmaster was wider in the shoulders and a little taller, and therefore perhaps just slightly bigger in general, this man bulged more and was as a consequence more incredible and conspicuous. And the number of scars crisscrossing his visible skin, including his face, spoke of a greater number of deep wounds received over the course of his life than Seijuurou had ever taken. Seijuurou might appreciate the guy’s surprisingly luxurious unbound hair, though, and its waviness that was atypical in this region. Seijuurou had never been able to get his hair to wave.

In any case, the two men side by side like this did indeed look as if they could eat a significant amount of donated food in a single day, and formed a formidable barrier to entrance into the presumed sanctum. And just the fact that there were such intimidating guards outside these doors said something about what might wait inside.

“He is,” the man on the right answered the Visitant’s question at last. “But he’s not to be disturbed. He’s meditating and praying trying to heal a man who was brought in with some unknown disease.”

The Visitant’s brows rose in a skeptical gesture worthy of Hajime. “A Misao devoted doing healing work?”

“There’s no time to send for someone from Megumi; the man may die.”

Sano shifted inadvertently. It might be a lie in its entirety, but he couldn’t possibly be pleased at hearing that a man inside with the white devoted might die. The muscular second-wash certainly seemed untroubled by the prospect, however.

The Visitant’s demeanor had stiffened somewhat, and Sano guessed she was starting to believe what he’d told her — or at the very least that something weird was going on here. She still sounded relatively polite, though, if as authoritative as ever, when she said, “Perhaps I can be of assistance. I am the Visitant.”

“Thought that’s what that device meant.” The fat man sounded childishly pleased, much as that old devoted at the gate had been at the opportunity to meet this Visitant person, and more than a little stupid. Sano wondered how he’d made it to this rank.

The muscular man threw his companion a brief look of patient, comradely disdain, and told the woman, “The fourth-wash ordered that nobody should disturb him.”

“And I,” replied the Visitant almost pleasantly, “am ordering you to stand aside and let me pass.”

The muscular man shook his head. “I’m afraid his orders came first, mistress.”

“Specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church.” The Visitant said this as if making a note for later. Then, examining each of the door-guards thoughtfully in turn, she commented, “I don’t believe what you’ve told me. I think your white devoted has some other reason for wanting visitors kept out of the sanctum at this time. As the royally appointed inspector of church affairs it is my duty to determine what that reason is. Now either step aside or give me a good explanation.”

Inspector of church affairs? Sano wondered when that had happened. There certainly hadn’t been such a person back when he’d lived with his devoted father, yet the folks at this shrine seemed tolerably familiar with the position. Tolerably respectful of it, too… stopping just short of actually doing what the Visitant commanded.

“I’m sorry, mistress,” said the muscular man with a shake of his head, “I can’t let you inside, and I can’t tell you anything more than what I’ve already told you.”

“You realize you’re only giving me greater reason to insist on being let in,” the Visitant said quietly, and now there was a touch of threat to her tone.

The muscular man nodded. “We all do our duty as we see it.” And as he made this statement he made also a subtle shift to his stance — and the atmosphere in the drafty corridor had suddenly changed.

Sano, who by now doubted very little that Hajime was beyond these doors and whose mood had become more and more tense as the seemingly pointless conversation progressed, now felt his fists clenching and his body stiffening in response to the combative aura surrounding the two men that stood between him and his goal.

“Eiji, stand back.” The Visitant’s tone was cool and calm, but Sano thought she too was ready for a fight. If so, he couldn’t help reflecting, she might have had the boy return his weapon to him rather than merely ‘standing back,’ but at least the kid would be out of harm’s way.

No further signal or statement was given to turn the verbal conflict into a physical one; as the muscular man had implied, they must carry out their conflicting duties, and there seemed little point in further debate. And it was at that same man in that same wordless state that Sano now threw himself, he having been to the Visitant’s right all this time and therefore closer to this particular enemy. How she dealt with the fat man on the left was not Sano’s concern as long as that battle did not encroach upon this one.

Unfortunately, under the current circumstances, there was no way to take his opponent off guard. Sano knew this as he advanced, and certainly anticipated a challenging conflict he would not be able to end with the first strike, but he didn’t expect the response he got: the man caught in his left palm the punch aimed at him, despite its having the entirety of Sano’s weight behind it, slapped his right hand against Sano’s forearm, and used the momentum of Sano’s charge to swing the smaller man’s body continually forward and around into the wall beside the door. If the building were newer, its interior might be plastered as had become the trend throughout the kingdom; as it was, the tapestry that was the only thing between Sano and the structure with which he now became intimate did little to cushion the blow.

Brain rattled and wind knocked out of him, Sano slumped to the floor; pain ran up and down his back, lightning seem to flicker through his skull, and for a moment he couldn’t even see what else might be going on around him. And all he could think of was that, though it came as no surprise to find someone so extravagantly bulky such a master of brute force, he couldn’t allow himself to be beaten like this — not when Hajime, beyond these doors, might die. Therefore, earlier than was probably wise, he dragged himself up and struggled back to his feet.

Though his spinning head attempted to prevent him from focusing on the corridor before him, Sano noted that the muscular man had already begun to turn away, as if confident having thrown him into the wall would be enough — as, under many circumstances, it would in fact have been. Now the orange-clad devoted paused in his shifting of attention toward the other skirmish, and watched with some surprise as Sano staggered up. “Visitant’s got herself a pretty good bodyguard,” he muttered, sounding faintly impressed, as he drew near again with fists clenched.

Sano’s hands too, though trembling slightly, reformed the only weapons he could count on right now. And as the big man approached, Sano’s returning coherence informed him he must at all costs avoid allowing this enemy to take hold of him again; he couldn’t afford to be slammed into another wall. He also wanted to correct the man’s mistake, so he said, “I don’t work for her. I’m here for the guy you’ve got inside.”

The muscular man paused in his advance and studied Sano for a moment. “You’re that heretic spy, aren’t you?” One side of his big mouth twisted up into a half grin, distorting his scarred features bizarrely. “Well, let’s see what you’ve got.”

They closed again, bodies dancing and fists flying. Sano realized almost immediately that nothing short of a hard knock to the head would be enough to deal with this monster; contact with any other point on his body felt like punching a sack full of rocks, and did about as much good. He was reminded again of Seijuurou, a sparring partner against whom he’d had no qualms throwing the entirety of his power since there had never been any realistic concerns for the master’s safety. Sano didn’t think this guy could possibly be that strong, but the conflict was not without its difficulties nonetheless.

“My fourth-wash will be pleased to present you to the king,” the man said as he peppered Sano with painful blows to the chest and face.

“Why your fourth-wash, and not you?” Sano gasped as he attempted to return the hits, aiming for the head every time, and was continually thwarted by the man’s meaty palms that never seemed to tire of catching his full-strength attacks.

“I don’t care about the king,” the man answered simply. “I follow the white devoted of Misao.”

So the Visitant’s assessment of ‘specific loyalty to individual superiors rather than the church’ had been accurate. Sano wondered how that would figure into her inspection; did she consider it a good or a bad thing? He had to admit he respected it more than blind devotion to some invisible woman in the sky. “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us,” he said as his enemy again caught one of his punches and Sano quickly jerked his fist away to prevent the man from taking hold of his arm once more. And this gave him an idea. “Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?”

The man appeared not so much angry as determined, as if taking Sano’s question as a specific challenge, and threw another punch. This time Sano grabbed the flying fist in his own right hand. He couldn’t mimic his opponent’s opening technique by taking hold of him and flinging his entire body into the wall — the guy was far too large and solid for that — but he might be able to stop him catching his every blow; if he could get in just a single good hit to the head…

Since the big man also undoubtedly knew Sano couldn’t hope to use the same method he had, he didn’t withdraw the fist Sano had caught nearly as quickly as Sano had been doing with his own all along, and his eyes went wide with surprise when Sano clamped down hard on the big, solid knuckles and applied every bit of pressure his grip could command. No matter how strong someone was, after all, the hand had a limited amount of musculature, and must be a vulnerable point to someone with as strong a hold as Sano was capable of. He felt grinding and crunching inside his tight squeeze — whether the breaking of bones or the painful realignment of tendons he didn’t know — before the man’s hand was wrenched from his grasp.

His enemy backed away a pace, letting out a grunt of shock and discomfort, holding up for inspection fingers that did not all point the directions they should; and Sano pressed his advantage, rushing in for the long-desired blow. The man clumsily attempted to block with his damaged hand, but perhaps pain rendered him incapable of holding as steady as before; Sano’s attack brushed right past the beefy arm, and he felt the shudder of contact all the way down into his shoulder as he connected with the man’s temple. The punch made satisfyingly more noise than any previously delivered to that massive form, and the man crumpled in response and hit the floor like the aforementioned sack of rocks.

Sano almost fell immediately on top of him; aside from his earlier abrupt meeting with a stone wall, he’d taken a number of hits to places far more sensitive than the corresponding points on the body of his opponent. He was dizzy and aching, but he forced himself to remain upright; he had to see what was going on between the Visitant and the other door-guard.

Though he’d abstractedly noticed something burning off to his right during the previous conflict, he started now at finding it the left shoulder of the woman’s shiiya. Whence the fire had come he could not guess, since the fat man was at the moment empty-handed, but it seemed to be flickering more lustily by means of some type of oil that had been spilled or sprayed onto her. Even as he watched, she took a step backward and, shifting her long knife from her dominant hand into the unoccupied left, clapped the right down over her shoulder to squelch the flames with a wincing hiss.

Though disarmed — assuming he’d carried equipment in the first place — and bearing three or four shallow bleeding cuts across his arms and chest, the fat man didn’t seem ready to go down anytime soon. And indeed, without outright killing him (or at least wounding him to the point where he might die later, either of which could be considered overstepping a bit for an inspector of church business toward a devoted), what could the woman do to defeat him decisively? The behemoth probably weighed twice as much as Sano did, so the tricky throw and knee to the stomach she’d used on him outside the shrine wouldn’t be very effective; and was she capable of delivering a blow to the man’s fat head that would render him unconscious so as to end this battle? Sano thought it might be best, while he still had the strength, to help her out here. He could just enter the sanctum on his own while the sole remaining guard was busy, but he probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without the Visitant, and anyway it would be a shame to force her to kill this guy.

The fat man didn’t expect an attack from a third party, probably not having noticed his comrade had fallen, and barely had time for a stupid surprised expression on his enormous face when Sano came flying at him. And though the building didn’t exactly shake when the giant frame hit the ground, the air kicked up by the motion did flutter the tapestries on the wall nearby. And then Sano sank to his knees, breathing hard, seeing stars, ready for a long moment to compose himself.

The corridor around them was eerily silent now — in fact it seemed a little odd no one had come to investigate the sounds of battle outside the sanctum doors, and Sano wondered whether the various devoted that would normally be hanging around here had been dismissed for the duration of whatever the white was up to — and the boy’s footsteps returning from wherever he’d taken shelter were startlingly loud all of a sudden. So was his query, “Do you need help?”

“No, thank you.” The Visitant was every bit as breathless as Sano, and evidently she too was taking a few moments to recuperate. “I don’t think we have anything with us to treat burns anyway.”

“You’re right,” said the boy reluctantly, and his concern for his mother — at least Sano still assumed she was his mother — sounded clearly in his voice.

Further, heavier footsteps came across the floor at last, and Sano raised his eyes to find the Visitant standing beside him. Looking her over, Sano saw a number of scorch marks on her clothing, and one stretching down her left arm that appeared particularly uncomfortable. The fat man must have fought with an interesting technique, but Sano had no room in his head to give that much consideration. With a deep breath, struggling for calm, he stood up.

“‘Heretic spy?'” The woman gave him another once-over such as he was giving her.

Sano shook his head and turned. “I’m surprised you caught that in the middle of fighting and shit.”

“It’s my job to catch religious deviation.” She said it with a faint touch of humor to her tone that made it seem she was not so much accusing Sano of something as admitting she’d walked into a situation more complicated than she’d had any idea of at the outset.

“Well, it’s a long story,” Sano said as he reached for one of the carved handles in front of him. “I don’t think we have time for it right now.”

“Yes,” the Visitant said darkly. “Let’s see what they were so determined to keep hidden in there.”

And they walked through the sanctum doors into the middle of another battle.

>27 Interlude

The lock had crumpled under heavy blows from Shikijou’s iron knuckles, and now the ruined door swung inward to reveal a small atrium hung with the poorest examples of woven tapestries depicting the divine lady Misao that Shikijou had ever seen. They didn’t even have a statue; this really was a wretched little shrine.

Doubtless in response to the noise he’d made beating in the lock of the foolishly un-barred entrance, two figures appeared in the doorway that led further into the building (not that there was much further in to go, the place was so small). As Shikijou took in the details of their appearance — red shiiya on one, indicating the lowest rank, and no shiiya on the other, indicating she’d probably been in bed or about to be — a broad grin spread across his face, and he drew himself up to his full, impressive height.

“They were right,” he said smugly: “one old woman, one young man. Not much of a defense for all those supplies you just got in.”

Instead of cowering before his bulk as they should have done, the devoted glanced at each other — she with a frown, he with a seemingly indifferent blankness. “It must’ve been the delivery men,” the woman sighed — and in fact it had been the drivers of the recently arrived wagons that had tipped Shikijou off about the significant amount of food and other goods this understaffed shrine had recently had delivered. “Maybe we shouldn’t have ordered so much all at once.”

“It will be fine,” the young man replied in a tone far more even than reassuring or confident.

“It will be fine,” Shikijou echoed cheerfully, “as long as you cooperate.” He advanced a few more steps into the room, slamming his fists together so the iron he wore made a dull clinking sound. “Misao’s the lady of thieves, right? I’m doing her work here. This’ll practically be a religious experience for you guys!”

And again instead of backing off the way they should have done, stepping aside to let him past or even showing him the way to their storeroom themselves, the two devoted… Well, actually, Shikijou wasn’t entirely certain what they did. For the next instant, before he could take another step, blows every bit as iron-hard as the devices he wore on his own hands slammed into him at multiple points, and he was staggering back with only a confused glimpse of the young man that seemed to have crossed the room without even moving. He was knocked sideways, knocked down, knocked silly before any of his own suddenly clumsy punches could strike outward far enough to hope to connect. And he found himself on his stomach on the floor, flailing, while a slender weight pressed down on him and deft hands yanked his arms back, seized his wrists, and tied them quickly with what must be a rope conjured out of nowhere.

Though he kicked upward and otherwise struggled for a few moments, Shikijou gradually fell relatively still. The awareness of his defeat sank in slowly and confusedly, since it had taken less than fifteen seconds for the unexpectedly skillful young man to break his concentration with a series of well placed hits and then use his weight against him to bring him down. So it was in some bafflement Shikijou finally went quiescent, unable quite to believe what had just happened.

And then a calm, somewhat dark voice spoke in his ear every bit as emotionlessly as it had made its previous comments to the old woman. “Misao is the lady of thieves, but not the lady of armed robbery. For you to walk in here carrying weapons and claim to be doing her work is blasphemy.”

“Misao devoted use weapons all the time!” Shikijou protested. “I’ve seen them all over the place!”

“We do,” the young man agreed. “She has nothing against the use of weapons.” And to demonstrate this point, there came the sound of blade leaving sheath, and the next moment what felt like a short sword — possibly a keonblade — pressed threateningly to Shikijou’s neck. “But she values stealth and cunning more than straightforward combat.”

Shikijou snorted, both at the sentiment and to express just how intimidated he wasn’t by this barely adult lightweight on top of him, no matter how he might be armed. “Me and my guys go through a lot of food, you know. And straightforward combat’s a much easier way to get it than trying to sneak around.”

To Shikijou’s surprise, the young man didn’t even sound particularly disapproving as he replied, “I have no doubt that’s true.” But a harder, less forgiving note crept into his tone as he added, “Only don’t claim to have Misao’s blessing in an endeavor she would never bless.”

Shikijou had still been making token struggles during this exchange, but now even these ceased in his surprise. “Does it really bother you more that I claimed this was a Misao thing than that I was trying to rob you in the first place?”

From across the room the old woman put in gently, “Of course it does. We’re Misao’s servants. What did you expect from us?”

And the young man remarked, still perfectly calm but now slightly more conversational than before, “If you had come in here while we slept and stolen our supplies without waking us, then we would have believed you had Misao’s blessing. You would have been welcome to anything you could take.”

It was a totally incredible statement, yet Shikijou found he couldn’t disbelieve it. They truly would make no attempt at recovery or retaliation if he managed to get the stuff away from them in a manner approved by the divine lady they served. The idea affected him strangely, and he found his own tone low and husky as he asked, “You really believe in her, don’t you?”

A long, pregnant silence followed before the young man said, low and measured, “Don’t you?” And there was, somehow, a subtle threat to that demand that intimidated Shikijou far more than the mere presence of an unexpected warrior on his back with a drawn blade could ever have done.

And he was left to ponder in silence: did he believe in Misao? In his life of banditry, of taking what he could get from wherever he found it and using it to carouse with his companions until it ran out and he was forced to look to the next venture that would feed them for the next however long, the divine ladies weren’t something he routinely bent his mind toward. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the idea of them, or the idea of their blessings when he needed them… it was mostly just that he didn’t care. And now here was this boy with his deadly earnest voice and his ridiculous combative abilities sitting on top of Shikijou and urging him to think seriously about something he hadn’t given this much attention since his distant childhood.

Before he had a chance to answer — indeed, before he had a chance to decide — the young man was speaking again, this time clearly not to Shikijou, and in a tone even more low and serious than before: “Misao, lady of quickness and brightness, let this doubting man for just one moment feel the vigor and joy that you bring. Hear my prayer.”

“Hear my prayer,” the old woman echoed at a murmur.

And Shikijou felt it.

There was a rush of energy so stimulating it would undoubtedly have lifted him immediately to his feet had he not been encumbered by another human body. And along with this came a bubbling feeling of pleasure and contentment that would surely have prompted gleeful laughter if it had lasted for more than the single moment the young man had specified. But for as brief as the sensations were, they were real; they were undeniable.

“You do believe,” said the quiet voice above. And as if he felt safe now leaving Shikijou to thrash about on the floor as he would, the red devoted got lightly to his feet, removing his weight from the bigger man and replacing his weapon audibly in its sheath that must be concealed beneath his shiiya.

Shikijou didn’t know what to say. Everything had changed, somehow, in the presence of this sedulous young man and the belief he both expressed for his own part and stimulated in another.

“You came here tonight unaware there was a warrior at this shrine.” Skilled hands were once again working the ties at Shikijou’s wrists, this time loosening them. “I offer you this bargain: fight me knowing what I am, and if you defeat me, the supplies are yours.”

Now able to move freely, Shikijou got quickly to his feet and looked suspiciously at the two devoted. It appeared he’d been tied with the drawstring of one of the room’s curtains; that was nearly as good as a rope conjured out of nowhere. The young man didn’t seem to think he would need it again, though, for now he tossed it aside onto the floor. Shikijou observed the motion, as well as the young man’s stance, from beneath lowered brows. “Thought you said Misao doesn’t like straightforward combat much.”

“She is fond of bargains, though.” The old woman appeared amused, and not particularly worried about the outcome of the contest. Couldn’t a guy get any appreciation for his solid musculature?

“And what happens if you beat me?” Shikijou wondered, even more suspicious than before.

“You stay here,” replied the young man simply.

Shikijou blinked. “As a devoted?”

The young man nodded.

“And what about my guys?”

“They’re welcome to join us too.”

For a moment Shikijou simply stared. The offer seemed every bit as bizarre as this entire encounter had been, and sparked strange thoughts in his head: thoughts of what it would be like to serve alongside (or under) this somber youth so unlike what he considered typical of Misao’s followers yet clearly so dedicated to her; thoughts of what he’d just felt while lying on the floor that had supposedly hailed from the divine patroness of such energy and joy but that he was almost more inclined to attribute to that same young man; thoughts of how his own faith, never a particularly intense flame, had been fanned so expertly and so unexpectedly here. Of course he considered his people back home, too, and how in the world they would react to the tale of this evening, no matter how it turned out…

He slammed his iron knuckles together once more and, with a sharp downward motion, flung them clattering to the floor. He fought just as well bare-fisted in any case, and was sure these rabbits would interpret the gesture as exactly what it was — a symbol of respect for a fellow warrior that had chided him for embarking on his errand to this place bearing weapons. He clenched both his hands and lifted his arms, falling into a combative stance.

“Sounds like a good deal either way.”

Chapter 28 – Twitch

Overall the sanctum was smaller than Sano had expected — certainly cramped for the fight taking place there now — but admittedly he didn’t know what type of religious activities the room was intended for under normal circumstances. It had an odd feeling to it — if any feeling could be admitted other than those occasioned by the action in front of him — with its two storeys’ worth of height but conspicuous lack of breadth, its floor-to-ceiling orange hangings creating an almost claustrophobic effect despite the openness above. A full-length painting of Misao, making use of the vertical space to stand larger than life on a recessed wall behind the plain altar, looked out with that impish smile of hers again on the violence going on in her most sacred of chambers.

Sano, the Visitant, and the boy Eiji had emerged onto a narrow balcony overlooking the sanctum’s only slightly less narrow floorspace. Down there, a set of cushions that must originally have been arranged in a semi-circle before the altar — there were perhaps five of them; more would not have fit — had been kicked aside and trampled by the inconsiderate feet of the two combatants now ranging the limited area where they had rested. One of them had been so displaced as to fly past the altar into the alcove that held the painting of the divine lady, and now slumped forlornly at her unshod feet. Sano started forward to grip the railing of the little balcony and stare down breathlessly in a mixture of anxiety and relief that should have canceled itself out but somehow was all the stronger for being so contradictory.

Hajime must have wrested one of the white devoted’s own weapons away from him, for the slender keonblade he now fought with was identical to the one in the hand of the other man. He bore no visible wounds, and moved as if unhurt and unimpeded, though Sano could see the remains of at least one of the ropes that had held him still dangling from his right wrist. How he’d initially freed himself from those Sano had no idea. The white devoted of Misao, on the other hand, moved with an uncanny swiftness masquerading as languor that Sano, though he’d observed it only once before, would never forget. His eyes went even wider as unpleasant memories and a more intense worry arose within him.

“That’s him,” he choked out. “That’s the fucking assassin.”

Her grimness having faded into resignation and possibly even something like mild amusement — in any case, a marvelous lack of concern — the Visitant leaned on the railing beside him. “And that’s the man you were so desperate to rescue?” She gestured at Hajime, who was busy blocking a series of deceptively quick blows delivered by the stranger.

Feeling his face go hot at her tone, Sano mumbled, “Yeah… he doesn’t really look like he needs…”

Her eyes rolled toward him condescendingly. “You don’t know him very well, do you?”

Sano wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and didn’t have a chance in any case. The combatants, obviously aware of the new presence in the room though they hadn’t looked up, had slowed a trifle, and now Hajime spoke in a tone indicating he found this as good a moment as any to put an end to the proceedings: “This is pointless. Do you think I can’t tell when my enemy’s heart isn’t in his attacks? You can’t defeat me fighting like that.”

Though he said nothing, and his startlingly handsome face beneath eye-shading black bangs did not change, the white devoted appeared to falter slightly; it seemed his heart really wasn’t in this. Sano wondered what it was about this guy the muscular guard at the door was so excessively loyal to. Hajime, conversely, did not hesitate; he took advantage of the momentary wavering his words seemed to have caused to press forward with a few twisting blows that struck the weapon out of the devoted’s hand. With a full-body advance, he backed his opponent up against the wall, crumpling the hanging behind him, and laid the unfamiliar keonblade against the devoted’s neck. He had allowed the energy to recede; all it would take was flashing it out again by an inch or two and the man would die.

The room went utterly still and silent: the three people on the balcony watching intently, Hajime staring searchingly into the devoted’s face, and the devoted himself carefully motionless and unblinking in Hajime’s grip. Finally the knight said, “You murdered your own superior and tried to kill all the other whites.”

The fourth-wash did not react.

“And in attempting to kill my associate, you murdered an innocent Tomoe man in the street.”

Sano felt his gut clench at the words, but Misao’s white did not react.

“But you never wanted to kill anyone,” Hajime went on speculatively. “You couldn’t even bring yourself to fight me properly here today. We would have been much better matched if you had.”

Still no hint of a reaction from the stranger.

“None of this was your idea, so whose was it? Whom are you taking orders from?”

Not a shift of frame, not a fraction of muscular movement in that impassive face, gave any indication what the fourth-wash might be thinking.

Sano could see Hajime’s hand on the keonblade pressing just slightly harder. “Who put that little snake Soujirou up to his tricks at the palace?”

If he hadn’t previously been so consummately motionless, the twitch the devoted’s body gave at this moment might not have been visible — or at least not so eye-catchingly noticeable. As it was, Sano could stand it no longer; fearing what that twitch portended and feeling more than ever the need to be at Hajime’s side with whatever assistance he could offer against this enemy, he vaulted over the balcony’s railing, ignoring the narrow staircase that curved down to the wrong side of the room, and landed near the knight. One of his feet came to rest on one of the smashed cushions, causing him to stumble slightly, and that seemed to be all the diversion the fourth-wash required: he jerked to the side at great risk to himself, given the position of Hajime’s blade, wrenching free of the knight’s right hand that had grasped his arm, and ducked behind another of the orange hangings. From behind it came the noise of creaking hinges; then there was a brief draft that sent the cloth rippling even more than had the advent of a body behind it, the closing of a door, the muffled slamming of a bar on the other side, and quick, light receding footsteps that echoed slightly and faded swiftly from hearing.

Wordlessly Hajime watched the fluttering tapestry settle, then began to turn toward Sano. The younger man braced himself for a reproof he couldn’t deny he deserved for having provided the distraction their enemy needed in order to make his escape, but it did not come. For the knight’s path of rotation brought his eyes first to rest on the Visitant who, with Eiji behind her, now descended from the balcony by more conventional means than Sano had used, and Hajime looked genuinely surprised to see her. Before he could say anything, however, she spoke:

“You’re not going after him?”

Seemingly recovered from his moment of startlement, Hajime turned his attention to removing the last of his bonds from his wrist with his stolen keon weapon. “That’s your job, not mine.” He let the energy blade fade entirely before tucking the short sword beneath his belt; presumably he meant to keep it, as he’d undoubtedly been relieved of the long standard sword Seijuurou had provided him. “It seems as if I’d have to torture him to get anything more out of him anyway, and shrines aren’t usually equipped for that.”

The Visitant chuckled as she drew nearer, and then, to Sano’s utter astonishment, threw her arms unhesitatingly around Hajime for a close embrace. What was even more baffling was that his arms immediately rose to clasp her in return.

Sano stared at them, unable to blink and, inexplicably, unable to breathe — at the unhesitating way they, obviously well acquainted, greeted each other with a gesture Sano honestly hadn’t ever expected to see from the royal knight. If he’d considered the matter (unlikely as he was to have done so), he wouldn’t have expected it of this harsh woman either, little as he knew about her at this point. And surely a church inspector… and a committed heretic…

Motion in the corner of his eye caught his attention, and it was with a curious blend of reluctance and a sense of reprieve his gaze left what he was watching to look at Eiji, who had stepped forward from the bottom of the stairs. He studied the kid’s face as Eiji too observed this apparently affectionate reunion… the kid’s familiar face… that faint smile, that angle of brow, those dark smooth lashes…

It was a shock so palpable that Sano’s entire body twitched in very much the same manner the white devoted’s had a minute before. For some reason he still couldn’t breathe.

“I thought you were in the border towns for the rest of the year.” Whether or not Hajime had withdrawn from the hug, Sano didn’t know.

“I heard rumors about what’s going on in Elotica,” the Visitant replied, “and thought it would be best if I was there. I ran into your friend here getting ready to sneak into this place.”

Knowing the woman must be gesturing at him, knowing Hajime must finally turn fully in his direction, Sano almost reflexively broke away from the kid that so resembled both of the other adults in the room and looked the royal knight in the face at last. The moment of gold meeting brown seemed to drag out far longer than it actually lasted. It wasn’t only that Sano was ridiculously relieved to see Hajime unhurt and free of captivity; it wasn’t only that Sano was absurdly glad to see Hajime at all; it was as if something fundamental had altered in the way he looked at him, as if he was seeing him for the first time.

“You told me about your family,” he couldn’t help accusing silently. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Not that Hajime was under any obligation, or would have had any need to mention these people if not specifically inclined to do so. Not that Sano had any reason to care. But somehow things had changed. He remembered his worries — stupid and meaningless they seemed now — that Hajime might discover Sano had possibly slept with a group of random strangers, and trying to reassure himself defiantly that he owed the knight neither restraint nor explanation in such matters. It wasn’t heartening to find that went both ways.

And all Hajime said, looking him up and down, was, “What in Kaoru’s name are you wearing?”

“Language, Hajime…” the Visitant reproved, demonstrating (as if that were needed) she knew his name without having to be told.

Hajime’s roll of eyes might have been promising, but the half smile that accompanied it made the gesture seem more fond than exasperated. He turned away from Sano as if their locked gaze hadn’t meant a thing, and said, “How are you, Eiji?” — demonstrating (as if that were needed) he knew his name without having to be told.

Sano was glad no one was watching him now as Hajime and his… and Eiji had a brief moment of catching up. He wouldn’t have liked them to see the way he trembled as if from some great exertion — and not from the battle in front of the sanctum doors, either; it had started when Hajime had withdrawn his eyes. As he struggled to regain control, he fought against rising anger and despair. Of course it made sense for Hajime to comment on the stupid outfit he still wore; what else had he expected from him? An explanation? An apology? Even just a “Thanks for trying to rescue me” would have been nice. But once again, Hajime didn’t owe him anything, and Sano needed to conquer this before he made a fool of himself.

Fortunately for his dignity, he did have an excuse for the turmoil he was undoubtedly displaying in spite of his best efforts; and in fact the results of the aforementioned battle, completely forgotten as he’d anxiously followed Hajime’s conflict with the white devoted, were practically screaming aloud now. His entire right side throbbed from where he’d hit the wall, and a pattern of spots like a constellation across his figure, including on his face, had commenced a deep, stinging ache as they remembered fists slamming into them. His lungs pulsated not so much with pain as with lingering aftershock from the long moments during which he’d had no breath after hard stone had knocked it out of him. No wonder he was so emotionally distressed! His body was certainly in no position to contribute to personal strength and discipline.

Hajime had asked Eiji a couple of questions Sano hadn’t wanted to listen to, but now was looking around at the room — most specifically at the hanging behind which the fourth-wash had disappeared — with anticipatory impatience. “I’m surprised Aoshi isn’t back yet with his minions.”

In a relatively impassive part of his brain that Sano was astonished still existed, he filed away the name ‘Aoshi,’ which he did remember having heard at some point in relation to the higher-wash of Misao. But that didn’t mean he could speak yet, and it was the Visitant that replied to Hajime’s statement: “We left two of them unconscious outside the doors.” She waved to her left, and Hajime, following her hand, evidently had his eyes caught by Sano as they would have passed him upward to the little balcony and the room’s traditional exit. His gaze moved from head to toe again, and, though he gave a little shake of head surely in continued baffled response to the blue and orange outfit, this time he also seemed to take in more details than merely that. And when he turned back toward the Visitant, he appeared to be assessing her injuries as well.

“You’re both all right, it seems.” Then solely to the Visitant, in that smirking tone Sano thought he knew so intimately but that the woman presumably knew better, he added, “You must have been practicing with that little knife of yours.”

“I have the ladies’ blessing on that little knife of mine,” the Visitant replied. And though she spoke in a tone of piety, there was a touch of sarcasm to it as well; Sano realized with a sinking of heart that she had deliberately made the religious reference in order to annoy Hajime and pay him back for the tease about her weapon and combative abilities. She did know him well. Then she added in a more reasonable tone, “Your friend here actually threw the last punch both times, though.”

Hajime gave Sano another meaningless glance and said briefly, “Well done, Sano.”

And in response to this commendation that would have meant the world to him just yesterday, Sano was tempted to reply, “Too little, too late, your knightliness.”

Looking immediately away from him again, Hajime said, “I expected another fight, but if you cut his little team in half, it may take Aoshi longer than I thought to rally his forces. We may be able to get out of here without encountering him again.” His eyes flicked once more to the hanging that concealed the back door, then up at the main ones, pensive. Finally he said, “The shrine’s eastern entrance is the closest to a street that will take us out of town; we need to get away from Enca as soon as possible.”

Finding his voice at last, Sano protested, “But that’ll put pretty much the whole town between us and Elotica!”

Hajime looked at him and away, and now Sano started to get the feeling he was deliberately avoiding meeting his gaze for more than an instant. “We can’t just go straight into the capital, idiot. It won’t take long for Aoshi to get someone on our trail — maybe even guards from the capital; he must have sent word hours ago, and they could be here any time. We have to shake any pursuit before we can even think about getting into Elotica.”

Surly, Sano had no response for this reasonable point.

Apparently sensing his capitulation rather than reading it on the face he seemingly now refused to look at, Hajime nodded sharply. “We’ll need to get out of this building quickly. They brought me in through the back ways and this door–” he gestured over his shoulder– “which won’t be available to us now. Tokio, do you remember the way you came in?”

The Visitant nodded. “It shouldn’t be too much trouble to retrace our steps, but I think the middle entrance of the shrine will be easiest to get out of from there. We may have to make our way through more streets than you were planning.”

Hajime’s nod was identical to Tokio’s. “Fine. But the east end of town is still closest. If we get separated…” He appeared frustrated, probably because he didn’t know the environs of Enca well enough to suggest a rendezvous point in this eventuality.

“We’ll find each other.” Tokio laid a hand briefly on Hajime’s arm in another gesture Sano would not have expected to see him accept so readily. And again Hajime nodded, then moved past her toward the stairs.

To a certain extent, despite the slew of negative and tempestuous emotions Sano had been struggling against in here, the room had come to feel a bit like what it actually was: a sanctuary from the world. They had no idea what they would find outside the doors — their previous enemies awakened, fresh enemies appearing, or just an empty corridor — and the very instant they set foot out there they would be on the run from as-yet-unknown powers. Whether that was better than skulking in here with the knight disinclined to look at him and a bizarre new set of sentiments Sano didn’t want to face threatening every instant to burst out of him, he couldn’t really be sure. It didn’t matter, since it was obviously time to go.

Not wanting to talk to the kid — or anyone at the moment, really — Sano got Eiji’s attention somewhat rudely with a rough wave, then pushed his hand palm-upward toward him in a gesture of demand. Eiji hesitated briefly, glancing at his mother, who was following Hajime to the stairs, but then shrugged a bit and relinquished the belt and sheathed weapon he still had draped over his shoulder. He would be freer to move without it anyway, and he must recognize by now that Sano was an ally of his… of Hajime.

The latter, taking the lead as naturally as if he’d been chosen by general consensus, ascended and grasped one of the door handles. Leaning close, he listened intently, and Sano from two steps down the staircase did the same, for whatever danger might lie without that Hajime by his own choice would be the first to face. His slight frown indicated nothing of what he might be hearing out there, but as he drew the confiscated keonblade from his belt — carefully; it seemed to be unusually sharp — the rest of them readied for further movement.

The doors opened outward from here — wide as they were, there wouldn’t have been space for them to swing inward onto the narrow balcony — and this was a tactical advantage in the current circumstances. With a swift motion and no warning, Hajime flung them both open, one with a kick and the other with his arm, hopefully breaking the nose of or smashing against the wall anyone lying in wait for them outside. The door on the left did strike something, and only opened halfway, but Sano remembered leaving the muscular second-wash lying pretty close to it before, so that could mean nothing. Quickly, single file, they all darted out after Hajime.

Was it a disappointment to find the drafty corridor exactly as they’d left it? The two orange-clad devoted still prone, and not another person — another enemy — in sight? It was. Despite being well aware that their current goal was quiet escape, Sano found he longed for further combat. Only the heat of battle, he thought, could distract him from what he experienced internally right now, and his hands and arms seemed to ache with more than the actual pain they felt — with desire for the shock of impact, the sensation of something first resisting and then giving way beneath his attack. He would like to haul that muscular devoted to his feet (near-impossible an undertaking as that would undoubtedly be) and shake him awake, challenge him, “Why don’t you throw me into another wall?”

Yet earlier he’d said to him, “So we’ve each got someone in there who’s really important to us. Which of us you think’s gonna fight harder for that?” And then it had turned out that what he’d been fighting for was–

“This way.” Tokio directed them without hesitation, and they all followed at a jog. Maybe there was an enemy lurking around the next corner, and Sano could be satisfied then.

There wasn’t, and he couldn’t. Just as on the way in, the chambers and corridors were eerily noiseless and empty as they made their way out, and Sano continued to speculate, with the portion of his brain not occupied by bitterer thoughts, that the mundanes had been temporarily banished for the duration of the intended prisoner transfer. They arrived at what he remembered as the first room they’d entered, with its old statue of Misao surrounded by cushions, without incident, but as they crossed it they could hear the distant sound of numerous footsteps echoing down some deeper hallway.

Again Hajime took the lead, setting the door ajar and peering through before gesturing them all onward. Sano was surprised, when he stepped out after Tokio and Eiji, to find they were by no means alone in the courtyard inside the main building’s pentagon: it appeared the entire population of the shrine had gathered in some agitation where they’d presumably been ordered to stay, and now a shifting and a murmur of surprise rippled through them at the appearance of the fugitives from within. Sano wondered Hajime had chosen to emerge when he’d seen this, but supposed retreating and looking for another exit might have been even more hazardous when someone was evidently in there now searching for them.

They had begun pushing their way through the crowd before anyone could properly react, banking on the hope that none of these people really knew what was going on or would be inclined to stop them; but in fact it worked out better than that. For almost as soon as Tokio’s shiiya caught the grey light of the now-overcast sky, the murmuring became more pointed, and Sano could even make out some of it. It seemed the individual loyalty to the current white devoted of Misao she’d remarked upon outside the sanctum doors was limited to the specific warriors they’d met, or at the very least not shared by the members of this group. They had found Aoshi’s behavior troublesome and questionable from almost the moment he’d arrived here, and the appearance of the inspector of church affairs shortly thereafter seemed to confirm their suspicions. Something strange was going on, especially now Elotica city guards had entered the shrine in pursuit of someone and the rightful residents and employees — some of whom had lived here all their lives, and never before been subjected to such an indignity — had been ousted without explanation. They only hoped they would not be the ones to suffer when the Visitant reported on the untoward happenings and came down as hard as was rumored to be her wont on the wrongdoers.

Tokio obviously picked up on this atmosphere as well, for as she pushed her way through the agitated devoted she called out, “There’s no need for concern! Just let us through!” And the crowd parted as if by magic, creating a path the fugitives did not hesitate to take advantage of. As they ran, the space closed behind them, to which movement there was almost a feeling of support, of solidarity. When Aoshi and whichever of his loyalists remained to him and the city guards eventually emerged from the empty building and inquired of the assembly where the escapees had gone, Sano didn’t think anyone would be very forthcoming with the answer.

The old man at the gate, who had not abandoned his post even in the midst of this inexplicable chaos, saluted as the four of them hastened past, a gesture Sano believed was aimed specifically at the Visitant he’d shown so much respect earlier. And Sano couldn’t help wondering breathlessly, “Why are you so famous when I’ve never heard of you?” The question of why he’d never heard of this woman being presently one rather close to his heart, after all.

He could see the smirk on her face as she turned it slightly to offer him the semi-answer, “Maybe I’ll tell you once we’re somewhere safe.”

Sano huffed, but said nothing more. They were in the street by now, heading toward the intersection of this road and another that would take them out of town. Despite the cooperation of the group of devoted behind them, they could be followed at any moment, and needed to put as much distance between them and both pursuers and witnesses as soon as they possibly could. So Sano concentrated on dodging pedestrians and vehicles, matching his pace as his companions did to that of the slowest of them — Eiji — keeping his eyes open for anyone coming behind, and generally bringing up an effective rear.

Chapter 29 – As-Yet-Unknown Powers

Enca had no coherent shape, and at this east end of the small city the neighborhood devolved into a sort of shantytown that hugged the road for a considerable distance ahead. Sano hadn’t previously visited this area, and found it eerily like a tighter-packed and much dirtier version of his longtime home of Eloma. Disreputable-looking loafers, myriad unkempt children, dogs and cats and tied-up livestock (not to mention totally unrestrained chickens) eyed them from doorways or seats under roofs or merely where they stood or ambled in the tiny lanes among the clustered buildings with expressions ranging from curious and wary to completely disinterested. It seemed unlikely this was the favored route in and out of town, which was perhaps promising in terms of escaping unseen.

When cries arose behind them, however, indicating the direction of their flight had been noted, it was remarkable how quickly everyone in the immediate vicinity disappeared, leaving behind a somewhat disconcerting collection of empty alleys, closed doors, and a few remaining nervous animals for good measure. These folks probably represented the poorest selection of the Enca population, and it was understandable that even the slightest hint of a chase, even the distant sight of a city guard’s shiiya would send them scurrying. Of course, it had a similar effect on those actually pursued.

“This way,” was all the warning Hajime gave before making a right angle off the road into the nearest little twisting street between the crooked, unpainted structures built entirely of wood here where masonry was undoubtedly too expensive. As the other three followed his lead, changing direction frequently but in general moving away from Enca proper, darting among the grungy houses and workshops and sheds and who knew what else that comprised this part of town, Sano could feel unwelcoming eyes on them from cracked doors and windows and around corners. He hoped the denizens of the area would be no friendlier to those that came after.

Eiji was slowing them up. He obeyed Hajime’s instructions without hesitation, and seemed sufficiently athletic, but the fact remained that he wore a large backpack and simply couldn’t be as fast as the three adults — and also that those following undoubtedly didn’t have a twelve-year-old in their party to keep pace with. Since feelings of hostility would only provide another obstacle, Sano attempted to avoid them; it wasn’t the kid’s fault he was twelve. It wasn’t his fault he was who he was. But he definitely wouldn’t have been Sano’s companion of choice on such an adventure.

It proved wise to have entered the shantytown, where between trying to determine which turn their quarry had taken and to dodge crates and trash heaps and water troughs and the occasional oblivious resident the guards too were delayed, though maybe not enough. Sano could hear them behind — they didn’t shout except when surprised by some aspect of the environment through which they ran, but their footsteps pounded unsubtly against the unpaved earth — but fortunately, whenever he risked a brief look rearward, those giving chase were not yet visible. Thus he couldn’t be sure how many there were, nor exactly what the group was composed of — Elotica guards? Soujirou’s knights? Misao devoted? In any case, though they hadn’t caught up, neither did they seem to be falling behind.

At the front of their little party, Hajime’s head turned from side to side; undoubtedly he sought anything that would give them an advantage, and perhaps was considering the possibility of attempting to hide rather than continuing to run. These environs provided plenty of potential places of concealment, assuming the inhabitants didn’t oust or betray them… but with their enemies so close on their heels, would that be at all effective? Surely the guards would recognize the general area where they’d stopped running, and search so exhaustively that they would all quickly be found. And what then would happen to the kid? It was no fun envisioning what Hajime’s fate might be if recaptured, or Sano’s, but at least they two were active participants in the struggle against Soujirou’s regime and had entered into this business prepared for all contingencies. The knight couldn’t possibly be pleased that Tokio and Eiji — the latter of whom, at the very least, was completely unrelated to this business — had chosen just this moment to show up.

Sano couldn’t be quite sure how pleased he was that they’d chosen just this moment to show up. That they existed at all it was better for him to know than be ignorant of, and Tokio had been instrumental in gaining access to the shrine… but he didn’t like having them around, being persistently reminded of that existence of which he’d been unaware until earlier this very day. But discontented as he might be on the topic, he didn’t want to see an innocent kid taken captive, handled roughly, maybe separated from his mother, simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time… and perhaps related to the wrong people.

Whatever Hajime considered the best course, they needed to take it in a hurry; it was evident from the sounds behind them that their pursuers were gaining ground. Besides that, the previously cramped streets were beginning to widen, and the light grew brighter as the buildings drew farther apart; the city was petering out in earnest now, and they would soon be required to turn back toward its depths, which were presumably inhabited by more enemies, or lose this cover entirely. At certain turns Sano could see opener spaces ahead; Hajime, observing the same, put his hand briefly to the hilt of his confiscated keonblade, as if his next idea was to turn and fight… but almost immediately released it. They didn’t know the number or strength of their hunters, and there was still Eiji to think of.

Before any other decision could be made, a new set of noises suddenly erupted behind them: shouts and crashes and the clash of weapons. Hajime skidded to a stop as abruptly as the din had begun, and so unexpectedly that Tokio ran into him. He caught her shoulders to steady her, but he was staring in the direction they’d come, eyes wide. Eiji and Sano too stumbled to a halt and looked back, but they could see nothing — only hear the indications of a sudden, unforeseen skirmish in their wake.

“They’re buying us time,” Hajime said, shaking off his surprise. “Come on.”

“Who?” Tokio wondered as she joined him running again.

“It may just be some of the locals.” And it might merely have been Sano’s imagination — he was at the end of the line, and couldn’t hear very clearly with Hajime facing ahead like that — but it didn’t sound as if the knight believed this.

To the distant, fading noises of altercation behind them, with one voice rising tauntingly above the rest though still unintelligible from here, their route now took them directly out of the shantytown to the very edge of Enca and beyond. A stream, thigh-deep at its center and dismayingly filthy as it made its way alongside the dirtiest part of the city, seemed to mark the final boundary, and once they’d waded this their next step was to climb a fence into a hayfield and set off across it as quickly as possible. The field had recently been harvested, so the only cover here was the intermittent stacks held down by tarps staked to the ground, but if they could reach the opposite end without being seen, they could disappear pretty effectively in farmland, thanks to the unknown parties that had evidently attacked and certainly slowed their pursuers.

The sky had clouded halfway over while they’d been inside the shrine, but the smell of impending rain was completely overridden by the pleasant but overwhelmingly rich scent of fresh hay, and Sano sneezed more than once as they made their way across the lengthy field. He only glanced around a couple of times, abandoning the action eventually in favor of speed when he saw nothing to alarm him between the dingy buildings that grew more and more distant with every step. Then they had only to cross another fence and a narrow ditch with muddy water at its bottom before they emerged into a cypress-lined lane where they were completely hidden from the sight of anyone within the borders of Enca. Here they were able to pause, catch their breaths, and consider where to go next.

“Let me wear that backpack,” Tokio said at once to the panting Eiji, reaching out a hand.

He did not immediately comply. “But what if you need to fight? It’ll get in your way.”

She pursed her lips, obviously seeing the sense in this argument but still wanting to make the journey easier on him. Sano, not particularly caring who wore the thing nor liking to watch either of them, looked around instead.

The lane, wide enough for a cart but no bigger, ran roughly north to south, though in the latter direction it curved slightly so the cypresses running along it hid its course from view; it probably connected with the road out of Enca in that direction — meaning, though Sano would prefer to turn south since there Elotica lay, it would be unwise to do so at the moment.

“It shouldn’t come to that,” Hajime was saying; “let her have it.” He seemed to direct his next words, pitched low, to Tokio specifically. “Fighting degenerate devoted is one thing; city guards or false knights are a little outside your job description.”

On the opposite side of the lane, a neat wall rose up over whose top the heads of trees were visible. Sano recognized an orchard when he saw one, but guessed those boughs to be full of olives, a harvest he was not familiar with. Whatever grew there, though, the fugitives might conceivably search out the opening leading inside and make their way through that private space to wherever its far end might be; but not only was he unhappy at the thought of encountering orchard workers, he didn’t much like the idea of being surrounded by walls should their pursuers happen to follow them inside.

“They are well within yours, though,” said Tokio, “and I’m certainly not going to let you face them alone.”

“Not alone,” Sano muttered sourly; but as his back was to them, they either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore his words.

Past the nearest corner of the orchard walls, some distance away up the lane to the north, he could discern an opener area through the line of trees where a shorter crop seemed to be growing in rows. Anyone working that plot could see them if they went that direction, but if they hugged the orchard wall, kept low, and hurried, it might be some time before anyone paid them significant attention. He would still much rather head south, but Hajime had been correct earlier — damn his constant correctness — in saying they needed to shake pursuit before they attempted to return to the capital.

“I won’t hesitate to kill anyone who gets too close,” the knight was warning.

“Then I’ll speak their death rites,” she replied just as grimly.

“Fine.” Sano suspected Hajime would prefer Tokio keep entirely clear of any fighting that might happen from here on out — the comment earlier about ‘practicing with that little knife’ hadn’t suggested a great deal of confidence in her combative abilities — but didn’t feel he had time to argue.

Looking back over at the knight, Sano found him too examining their surroundings. The younger man gestured and suggested what he had in mind: “Along that wall there?”

At the first sound of his voice, Hajime met his eyes very naturally as he might have under normal circumstances prior to the appearance of the Visitant and her son; as he’d been doing all day, however, he removed his gaze with awkward immediacy and looked where Sano indicated. He gave a sharp nod, and, somewhat to Sano’s surprise, responded specifically to the proposal: “Good idea, Sano.” This was the second time he’d needlessly tacked Sano’s name onto the end of an unexpected commendation; Sano simply didn’t understand his current behavior. Not that he needed to. There’d been a time when he’d thought it might be a useful skill for his future to understand Hajime; that time had passed.

The knight glanced at Eiji as if to check whether he was ready and that the discussed gear transfer had taken place. Then he commanded, “Let’s go.”

They set off now at a slower pace — still quick, but more of a cross-country speed that could be maintained — and in the same order as before: Hajime leading, keeping a sharp eye out for trouble ahead; Tokio wearing the backpack in which she and Eiji presumably kept supplies for their journeys from town to town inspecting shrines and devoted; Eiji silent and intent, even somewhat dour at the potentially dangerous situation in which he found himself; and Sano in the rear carrying out his disconsolate self-appointed task of checking behind from time to time for signs of pursuit.

Reminded by thoughts of what might be in the Visitant’s backpack, he wondered what had happened to those apples he’d bought this morning. Had he lost them when Tokio had attacked him? Or had he dropped them in the street while he’d been so incoherent trying to decide what to do? Perhaps even earlier than that — in that horrible empty inn room with its broken door? He’d been so worried. So worried — and now he knew exactly why — and it had turned out Hajime not only didn’t need rescuing, but wouldn’t meet Sano’s eye for any reasonable length of time, and was, in fact…

There really was nothing to do but continually look behind in case they were being followed. Looking ahead was too bleak.

Yet as they moved on, coming eventually to the end of the orchard wall, carefully crossing another lane, and beginning to pick their way over a field of what seemed like unnecessarily huge lettuces, he couldn’t help listening ahead. For Tokio seemed to believe they were safe to converse, and Hajime conveyed his agreement by answering. Sano’s position rendered them continually difficult to hear, no matter how tight he strove to keep the line, especially given the cautious volume used by each, but he struggled to catch everything out of an almost masochistic jealousy.

Yes, jealousy. That was the word; he might as well own it. But it was, and had been since its inception, the jealousy of despair. He hadn’t know he might be jealous until he’d known there was something to be jealous of… and by then it was too late for hope.

“What do that white devoted and his fanatical followers have to do with all of this?” Tokio was wondering.

“I don’t believe Soujirou’s takeover was carried out entirely under his own motivation,” Hajime replied. “Any number of devoted may be involved, but Aoshi, at least, is loyal to our new king.”

“How do you know? His second-wash seemed exclusively loyal to him.”

“Aoshi delayed sending to Elotica for a force to take me into custody because he wanted to question me personally first — which was foolish of him, since keeping drawn blades nearby for an extended period of time when he wasn’t actually inclined to kill me just gave me more opportunity to get the rope cut and attack him.”

“You’re going to be famous for your daring escapes,” Tokio laughed. “I hope you know one of the rumors out of the capital that brought me this direction was something ridiculous about you evading Soujirou by jumping through a second-floor glass window and vanishing into thin air.”

Hajime snorted, and didn’t bother to admit how much of this was true.

She let it go. “But why didn’t the rabbits take you in themselves instead of sending for someone?”

Hajime’s answering tone was a combination of annoyance and disdain he not infrequently used to discuss religious topics. “I think Aoshi really did go there to meditate. I believe he wants to seek forgiveness with his lady.” Sano knew his eyes were rolling without having to see them. “He certainly looked forward to sending me to Soujirou, and before that he wanted to find out what threat I and my allies are to his precious new king, but I think he truly regrets the murders he’s committed so far.”

“He may find forgiveness from Misao,” Tokio said sternly, “but that doesn’t absolve him of blame on the mortal level.”

“He’ll never face justice under Soujirou’s rule.”

“Then we’d better get Kenshin reinstated.” At least that was what Sano thought she said; rain had begun to pour from the darkening sky, and he could no longer make out anything clearly from up ahead. He couldn’t decide whether he preferred it this way. They’d only been discussing the situation — nothing particularly private — and Sano himself had been curious about Aoshi and the circumstances of Hajime’s brief captivity at the shrine… but he disliked hearing them talking together at all, petty as he knew that was. In any case, he couldn’t stop the rain from falling, so it didn’t signify how he felt about the conversation — potentially much more personal now — that might or might not still be going on in front of him.

They proceeded through various fields and pastures, actively encountering no one but observing workers, eyes averted against the shower, frequently enough — and once, down a small road they subsequently crossed in haste, distant figures in white on horseback. Recalling how persistently the mounted ‘knights’ had followed Hajime when he’d fled the city after his first daring escape (the one he already was famous for), Sano couldn’t be pleased at this sight, even though it was entirely possible the riders had nothing to do with them.

The rain kept up heartily for at least an hour, and after not too long Sano was as miserable physically as he had been mentally for some time. Eiji too, plodding through the wetness before him, seemed far from happy with the situation, but Sano couldn’t bring himself to feel much sympathy. How the man and woman in front were faring Sano didn’t know; he tried to tell himself he didn’t care.

They’d avoided farm buildings thus far, but in the afternoon when Sano believed his flesh and muscle as well as every stitch of his clothing was finally soaked completely through, Hajime seemed to be heading more or less directly toward the latest cluster of houses, barns, and sheds. At the last fence they would need to climb to make their final approach, he stopped and gestured for a huddled conversation.

“We’ll hide somewhere over there. Once the sun goes down, it may be safe to start making our way around to Elotica.”

“What about the farmers?” Sano wondered. He saw little motion among the buildings through the haze — and one instance of what he did see moving was an enclosed group of pigs apparently enjoying the rain very much — but there were still sure to be people about all day that might very well stumble upon them, and how they would react he couldn’t guess.

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take,” replied Hajime without looking at Sano. “We can’t keep heading away from Elotica, but I don’t think it’s safe to go south just yet; we need to get under cover for a while and lie low. For one thing, I assume you have a report for me; for another–” with a glance at Eiji, whom he was willing to look at– “we need to get out of the rain and rest.”

Somewhat to Sano’s amusement — certainly the first instance of that emotion he’d felt all day — Eiji appeared a little annoyed at this evident concern for his youthful health. If he was anything at all like Sano had been as a twelve-year-old, he would much rather demonstrate his ability to continue on across whatever terrain and through whatever weather for as long as necessary… but this would not be countenanced by the adults watching over him — in which number, at least to a certain extent, Sano grudgingly had to include himself. It was an earlier proposed rest than any taken between Eloma and Enca, but if Hajime was more concerned about Eiji’s wellbeing than he had been about Yahiko’s, that was only to be (cheerlessly) expected. And perhaps there was a little unspoken concern for Tokio’s wellbeing too; Sano had a feeling she wouldn’t appreciate the gesture any more that her son did.

“That shed there.” She pointed. “It’s the only building I can see whose door doesn’t face in toward the farmhouse. It’s probably the safest place for us to break into.”

“Breaking into farm sheds,” Hajime commented with a smirk and a sidelong glance at her. “What kind of church official are you?”

“One who serves all the divine ladies,” she retorted, voice much drier than their surroundings, “including Misao.”

“But has she forgiven you for beating up her devoted? Is she likely to help you break into anything at this point?”

Tokio rolled her eyes. “Spare me your disbelief, at least until I’ve had a chance to dry off.” She moved forward and placed her hands on the top slat of the rain-slick fence.

They did, in fact, have to destroy the lock on the shed door — this was one of many things a keonblade was useful for, along with doubling as a lamp in the unlit interior — but besides that they reached and entered the place without any trouble. Whether its current uninhabited state would continue was anyone’s guess, but at least for now they were out of the weather and out of sight.

It was a wide, flat structure half sunken into the earth, with walls made entirely of stone to retain as much cool air as possible, and its dirt floor was reached by several steps leading down from the door; this rendered it somewhat difficult to hold the latter closed once it would no longer latch properly after their vandalism, but a couple of sacks of potatoes propped against the ingress and each other eventually did the trick.

In fact the entire place was full of vegetables, and its atmosphere overwhelmingly that of earth and carrots and cabbage, not all of the scents fresh. Without even discussing the matter they headed immediately toward the far end — where Sano was disappointed to find no back door, which would have been terribly convenient for their purposes if not those of the farmers hoping to keep off thieves — past floor-to-ceiling racks of vegetables laid out or hung up in bunches that made the place feel like a dark, fragrant forest comprised of unfamiliar trees.

There was no particularly convenient place for them to stop, given that the rows of stored produce ran all the way to the rear wall, and the space available in the aisle was limited, so eventually they just settled onto the floor in the same line they’d maintained all along, wet and tired and still slightly paranoid about their chosen hiding place, and attempted to get the best rest they could out of these uncertain circumstances.

Here’s an old picture of our Visitant. Obviously back when I drew this, it didn’t occur to me that her shiiya should be flower-cut. So inaccurate!!

For some author’s notes about chapter 26, see this Productivity Log. For chapter 27 notes, see this one, and this one for notes on the Shikijou picture. For interlude notes, see this one.

Here’s an old picture of Aoshi before he got promoted. It’s a bit of a mix, actually — he’s carrying the staff symbolic of the office of white devoted, but as you can see, he’s not quite to that rank yet. In any case it makes him look like a tightrope-walker.

For author’s notes on chapter 28, see this Productivity Log, and this one for chapter 29.


I Like Your Face


Sano’s strange behavior started on Monday, though (that day at least) its strangeness stemmed merely from the fact that he’d never done it before, not that it was in any way out of character. He hung around the station for hours, continually making believe he was leaving but never really doing so, and kept jumping out at Saitou from around corners and through half-open doors, presumably in an attempt at taking him by surprise that was consistently foiled by Saitou being hyper-attuned to Sano’s ki.

He crashed into him three times, and once into another officer he wasn’t aware was also walking that hallway, until finally Saitou told him irritably to properly go away. Sano did, but tried the same trick twice during Saitou’s walk home, prompting an eventual growl that finally sent the idiot, disappointed, scurrying off for good for that evening. It hadn’t ever been startling, but it had been annoying… and the fact that Saitou then spent the night alone was even more so.

On Tuesday, though he’d evidently abandoned the jumping-out tactic, the one visit he made to Saitou’s office during the day was just as silly: he came bursting in red-faced as if he’d been running quite some distance, rushed up to Saitou’s desk, and informed him breathlessly, “Your house is on fire!”

Saitou sat back, studying him, noting he’d gone to some trouble for this. However… “You’ve been over at the smokehouse, I see. If it were my house burning, you wouldn’t smell nearly so much like salmon.”

Looking even more disappointed than yesterday as he stared Saitou right back in the face, Sano replied, “Aww, man! I was sure the smoke smell would get you.”

“Apart from that, you should have chosen a building closer to the station. If I really thought you’d run all the way here instead of getting the fire brigade when my house was burning, you’d have bigger problems than what kind of smoke you smelled like.” Observing Sano’s mutinous expression at this, Saitou added quickly, “But you have given me an idea for dinner, so don’t be late tonight.” He didn’t want another lonely evening like yesterday’s had been.

He might have believed Wednesday morning’s gross aberration of Sano getting up before he did and clumsily cooking breakfast for them both was the young man’s way of demonstrating gratitude for the numerous meals Saitou had made him over the past three months, except that Sano seemed to be so pointedly expecting some specific reaction from Saitou when he walked into the kitchen and found his lover, like the room, splattered with ingredients that might or might not require the application of a chisel in various places to remove. Sano’s cooking, though explosive, wasn’t half bad, and it was nice to spend some time with him before work for a change, so Saitou enjoyed the unusual morning… but he did wonder what the roosterhead was up to.

Scant light was shed on this question on Thursday, even when Sano made his appearance in the afternoon fully decked out in a woman’s kimono and with his usually spiky locks combed into sleek near-unrecognizability. Again Saitou sat back and studied him, examining the pattern of autumn leaves across the garment, the brown obi, the gold leaf-shaped hair ornament, and most of all the expression on Sano’s face that already conveyed disappointment with the wolf’s response. And Saitou said, “Those colors suit you very well — much better than they would Kamatari, which is where I assume you got all those things.”

“Yeah, they’re just a loan.” Sano sounded almost surly. “And thanks, I guess.”

Noticing Chou in similar getup just inside the doorway — his hair really was quite long when not perpendicular to sanity — Saitou’s next comment was, “If you two are going undercover like that, let me hear you both talk like women.”

Now Sano’s surliness came to be mixed with amusement as Saitou forced him and the broomhead to practice various phrases in feminine tones over and over until they could deliver them relatively convincingly, so at least he didn’t leave the office entirely unhappy. Saitou still wondered what the ultimate goal of his recent behavior was.

On Thursday, when Sano showed up at the station as he so often did these days, it was with an unusual air of bashfulness and worry that, while fairly convincing, Saitou still believed to be falsified. Sano kicked around and cleared his throat and said nothing in a manner unusual and somewhat calculated to annoy, until Saitou, figuring they’d better get this over with, finally asked him what was wrong.

Sano came over and planted his hands on the desk, took a deep breath, and looked into Saitou’s face — there certainly did seem to be a strong element of studying Saitou’s expression to all of this — before answering with calculated hesitation, “Megumi just found out she’s pregnant with my baby.”

Saitou almost laughed aloud at this one, a reaction certainly not what Sano wanted. With only a faint smile, therefore, he shook his head and said, “Ahou. A woman might know she’s pregnant after five or six weeks, and a doctor is likely to be especially aware.”

“So?” There was some defiance in Sano’s tone, but also the letdown Saitou was growing accustomed to this week.

“So,” the officer explained patiently, “you and I have been exclusive for eighty-six days, and you’re not the unfaithful type.”

At this assessment Sano appeared to be grinning in spite of himself. “Yeah, you’re right; it was just a joke.” But the statement came out rather forced; evidently he was still disappointed. Besides, claiming to have cheated on his lover in such an egregious fashion would not normally be his idea of casual humor.

“Takani doesn’t strike me as the unfaithful type either,” Saitou mused. “Didn’t her relationship with the kenjutsu girl start even before ours did?”

Startled, “I didn’t know you knew about them,” said Sano.

“Oh, I follow the gossip in your little circle closer than you think.”

“Still spying on us all, are you?” Sano sounded pleased, though, and Saitou was glad to have mitigated his disappointment somewhat.

The pregnancy scare hadn’t exactly been subtle, but Sano seemed to have pulled out all the stops for Friday’s attempt. Saitou was on his way home, wondering in the back of his head whether his rooster had given up on whatever it was he was trying to do, when the most dramatic and horrified of shrieks burst from an alley just in front of him. Though Sano had tried to disguise it, Saitou recognized his voice, and he rolled his eyes even as he glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed. The area was empty — at least Sano had chosen his location well — so Saitou didn’t hesitate to step into the small side way and look around. And he wasn’t at all surprised to find the alley drenched in crimson, the bulk of it a puddle in the dirt but a significant amount yet spattered over the walls and contents of the little street. It reminded him of the breakfast kitchen the other day.

“Ahou,” he sighed, “even if it weren’t obvious this is just red paint — which has already started to dry, by the way — the amount is inconsistent with the scream.”

“What?!” came Sano’s indignant voice from behind a garbage barrel. “I set up this great murder scene, and you’re getting picky about the amount of blood?”

“A more pertinent question than why you believe someone could have spontaneously shed so much blood, still had the energy to scream so loudly, then disappeared without a trace along with their murderer before I could get here is the question of why you’ve apparently been trying to startle me all week.”

Sheepishly Sano emerged from where only half of his face had previously been visible behind the barrel — presumably in order to observe Saitou’s response — and stood straight looking down at the bright stain on the ground. “I guess you caught me.”

“Yes. So explain.”

Sano did not look up, and Saitou didn’t think the slight redness of his cheeks was a reflection off the paint. “Well, I was talking to Kenshin the other day, and we got to remembering the Rengoku, and he mentioned how at one point, while I was crossing over on the wreckage and couldn’t see you, you had this really surprised look on your face — like surprised enough to surprise him. Though now I come to think of it,” Sano added with a touch of newfound suspicion, “I dunno why he would’ve been looking at you right then when I was about to get my ass shot…”

“Himura is very observant about certain things,” Saitou replied dryly, recalling the moment in question with piercing clarity. “He was probably looking for my reaction. But go on.”

“Well, it occurred to me I don’t actually know what your surprised face looks like. I kinda wanted to see it,” Sano finished with a shrug.

“The amount of trouble you’ve gone to–” Saitou gestured around, one brow raised– “suggests more than ‘kinda.'”

“I just… like your facial expressions, all right?” Sano mumbled. Even more quietly he finished, “I like your face.”

Saitou couldn’t help chuckling as he moved to take the young man in his arms. Sano felt stiff, as if resentful at having his honest confession laughed at, so Saitou said, “In exchange for that compliment — if that’s what it was — I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t a surprised look, back then.”

Sano drew back and glanced up at him curiously. “But Kenshin said–”

“I was a little surprised to see the Gatling gun,” Saitou admitted, “but by then I was taking everything Shishio did in stride. After seeing the Rengoku itself, I could hardly be astonished at anything else… If you’d looked at me when the façade came off the ship, you might have been satisfied.”

“Huh. But then what was that look later, that Kenshin saw?”

Saitou pulled Sano close again, shaking his head. “That was a look of absolute horror, ahou.” He elaborated simply, “I’d just heard Shishio order you gunned down.”

Now Sano struggled against the embrace that had him pinned in order to pull away once more and stare Saitou in the face… and his expression might very well be exactly what he’d incorrectly imagined Saitou’s to have been on the deck of that warship. “Way back then? Already?”

Saitou nodded solemnly.

Sounding confused and perhaps even somewhat affronted, Sano wondered, “But then why did it take us so long to–”

“Because you’re an oblivious idiot,” Saitou interrupted with fond impatience. And when Sano scowled at him, he went on, “Though if it’s any consolation to you, you surprise me all the time.”

“Yeah, but you never show it.”

Saitou chuckled. “Maybe one of these days you’ll take me off guard with something if you keep trying. Just,” he added quickly, thinking of this past week, “stop being an idiot about it.”

“According to you,” Sano grumbled, “that’s not possible.”

“You’re a creative idiot, at least; I’m sure you’ll figure something out that will surprise me without making me want to kill you. In the meantime…” Saitou bent to kiss him, not caring how strange it would look to anyone that happened to walk down this narrow, dirty alley and find a police officer and former kenkaya making out in the midst of a copious amount of red paint. Just before their lips met he finished his statement: “I like your face too.”

This story, which I’ve rated , was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “How about a Saisa where Sano keeps trying to surprise Saitou?” I liked the idea and had fun with this piece, but this the first RK writing I’d done since the big bad news felt… just a little different than usual. Perhaps the new normal.

For a few more notes, see this Productivity Log.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Stumped

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Can I talk to you about something?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, they just galloped off through the trees.

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

For some further thoughts on this fic, see this Productivity Log.



Youma

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

Two professional women prepare for their very first night together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–had apparently just arrived on the scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One that’s open this late?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

For further thoughts on this story, see this Productivity Log.



An Unexpected He Could Deal With


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

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

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

“Oh?” Katsu echoed.

“Uh, yeah. That happened.”

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

“Yyyyyeah,” Sano admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu only snorted.

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

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

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

“That’s never stopped you before!”

“Except he does have a bed!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I’ve rated this fic . For some further thoughts on it, see this Productivity Log.



Aku Soku Zan(za) (4)



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

Last updated on March 17, 2020

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6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you I don’t–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“In case you needed help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu simply continued to stare at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘His friend?’ Was that even true anymore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t you?” Saitou asked neutrally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

And now had he lost it all over again?

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

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

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

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

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

Or to rescue him from disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Holy shit, what’s his problem?”

“Didn’t look like a ‘problem‘ to me.”

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

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

“Maybe it’s a man, then?”

“A suicidal man!”

Nervous laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rokumeikan Hatsuo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At least for last night.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Animals,” Saitou muttered.

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

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

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

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

***

So… ‘Sano,’ was it?

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

‘Sano?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was she going to do about this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She intensely wished she’d been there last night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s because I didn’t know yet.”

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

She simply refused to feel guilty about this.

For author’s notes on these segments, see this and this Productivity Log.


Unboxing Party

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… freeloading…” Saitou interjected at a murmur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou smirked, and they got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

“Very French,” he said at last.

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

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

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

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

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


This story, which I’ve rated , was for HakuSaitoSan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt “Saito giving in to some unusual want of Sano’s.” For some author’s notes from not long after I wrote it, see this Productivity Log.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Prison of Their Own Making

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was clear who snorted at this.

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Try colors,” someone suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You still think they can make it?”

“They always worked together well in the studio.”

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.



It’s Curtains For You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Time For This


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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not.”

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

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

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

Saitou did not reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they still didn’t have time for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What more do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Salt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three minutes? Oh, that was way too long.

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

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

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

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

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


This story, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Crying leb because of the tumblr conversations we’ve been having that inspired it. For some author’s notes written not long after the story, see this Productivity Log.



The Solution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was the glaring problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is my office,” Saitou pointed out.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, but then he stabbed you.”

“He left you in the jail cell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This story, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk because it was directly inspired by their ficlet Tough Love. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Heretic’s Reward 22-25

Heretic's Reward Title art by Miradella

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

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



This story was last updated on February 25, 2020.

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
>13 Interlude
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
>16 Interlude
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
>20 Interlude
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm
Chapter 34 - Converging Forces

Chapter 22 – Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers

“Fucking… how could he just do that?” It was the first thing Sano said after a long silence following the relation of the event itself. He should probably continue his account, but couldn’t help tangenting to express some of his extreme agitation. “Throw himself into the middle of something like that and fucking die smiling? Knowing he would die, for a complete stranger?? He was really hearing something, or thought he was, just like that fucking kid… are they all crazy? Or… I don’t know what to think! There must be something there… people don’t just… but if there’s really something, why would they let…”

“Maybe there is something there.” Hajime’s voice, utterly devoid of any emotion, was also, oddly enough, just a touch gentler than usual.

“You don’t believe in them either, though!”

Hajime shook his head minutely and said in the same somewhat blank tone, “But there’s no harm in believing something that helps you make sense of your world.”

“No harm??” Sano jumped up. “That man is dead because the voices in his head told him it was time to die!”

“And that was his choice. You said he was happy; who are you to question that?”

“I said he was smiling, not– what the fuck are you saying? Why are you taking their side?” Sano felt the usual fists forming out of his twitching hands, but in this instance wasn’t sure whether Hajime was the true object of his anger.

“Because while you’re confused about this, you’re likely to be less useful.” With this aloofly pragmatic statement, Hajime sounded more himself. “You need to resolve this and get past it.”

“And you think arguing some stupid devoted bullshit is the way to help?”

“What do you want me to say?” wondered Hajime irritably. “It’s a lot easier to prove something exists than to prove it doesn’t.”

“I want you to be less of a patronizing bastard! Don’t treat me like a little kid who can’t go to bed until daddy’s checked the cabinet for monsters! I’m not looking for an easy answer that might not be true but that’s all right to believe because it helps me cope!”

Hajime’s annoyance seemed suddenly tempered by surprise, and once again there was an unaccustomed gentleness to his tone as he asked, “Why do you think I have any answers at all?”

“I…” Sano retreated a few steps, then turned his back entirely and stared down at his own bed. “I don’t know.” He certainly wasn’t going to admit that he’d started to think of Hajime as one of the wisest people he knew. “Just because you’re here, I guess.”

“Then don’t blame me for offering the only thing I do have.” It was a cool reply, and something of a reprimand, but not unkind. Hajime obviously understood how much the events of the evening had shaken Sano.

“Thank you,” Sano said. It didn’t even come out grudgingly, for all he had no more answers now than when he’d entered the room.

Businesslike as ever, without acknowledging Sano’s thanks, Hajime returned to the events in Elotica by asking what had happened next.

With another deep breath, Sano resumed his previous place at the table and looked at his hands. One of the nails on the left had dried blood underneath, and he started picking at it as he spoke. “The assassin backed off a little and just stood there, staring at us. He didn’t expect Korucun to do that any more than I did, I guess, and since he did do it, it was like suddenly the assassin just couldn’t keep going. He probably could have killed me right then since I was so shocked, but he didn’t.”

“Interesting.”

“Then we both heard somebody coming, and the assassin just disappeared. I never saw anyone move like that. I couldn’t stand around holding this dead body, so I put him down and ran off too. I just put him down on the ground and… left him there…”

That utterly heartless and inhumane action on Sano’s part had bothered him almost as much as Korucun’s random sacrifice — but he’d had no choice! He, who had already attacked multiple devoted in order to impersonate them, an enemy of the current regime and the confederate of a man in hiding, simply could not be found by anyone holding a corpse in the street with no better explanation than ‘A mysterious hooded man did it and ran off before anybody but me saw him.’ But he’d just left him there in his own blood, like a sack of spilled goods, to be found without warning possibly by someone that had known and cared about him.

Yet again he took a deep breath and forced himself to go on. “It’s getting harder to pretend to be a devoted. By now everyone’s heard about the guy who knocked people over the head and stole their shiiyao, and a lot of them think that guy’s the assassin. Nobody I smacked got a good look at me, so they don’t know I’m that guy… but they all know I’m a new guy, and some of them have been asking questions about me…”

“And whoever this assassin is, he’s managed to gather enough information to come after you fairly effectively.”

“Yeah. I don’t think I can go as a devoted anymore. Even if I really wanted to.”

“You’re going to have to go back, though.”

“Yeah… yeah, I know. I shouldn’t even have come out here again so quick like I did.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“You could be a little more sympathetic.”

“Would that change things? I think you can handle this without it being sugar-coated.”

Sano looked over at him. “Do you really think that? Or are you just saying that to make sure I do go back right away?”

Hajime replied with a long, calculating look of his own. Finally he said, “Yes, I really do think that. You suffered the loss of your entire family when you were a child, and I think you knew even then that they were killed by bandits. I think you can handle this, no matter how much it’s bothering you.”

In a not insignificant amount of shock, Sano stared at the knight. That Hajime had, from the broken mentions of them Sano had made, pieced together the story of his family was not terribly surprising, but for Hajime to base on that circumstance any belief in Sano’s current ability to function under emotional stress was almost astonishing. Certainly Hajime had given no greater compliment or vote of confidence!

But Hajime himself had suffered some kind of pain in earlier life, hadn’t he? He’d been unable to deter some devoted from harming and taking advantage of a woman he loved — and ladies knew what had happened to her thereafter — and it disturbed him enough that he still dreamed about it to this day. His experience wasn’t remotely similar to Sano’s, but he must understand well the effect an emotional event would have on someone’s later abilities. Which made the fact that he still thought Sano capable of carrying on even more meaningful than it otherwise would have been.

Sano had no idea what to say next. That plenty remained to be said he felt deeply and intensely, but what it was or how to start he couldn’t determine. So he rose once more and began preparing for bed as if he had some illusory notion about lying down and getting a good night’s sleep. From behind him he heard Hajime resheathe the sword he’d drawn at Sano’s entrance, then sit down again on his own bed, and for several moments both men were wordless.

Finally, when Sano had removed his shoes and belts and was pulling his shiiya over his head, Hajime said, “From the way you described it, it sounds like that devoted saved your life.”

“Yeah…” Sano stilled for a moment, his vision entirely blocked by grey-blue cloth that looked colorless in the shadows, before resuming his disrobing. “Yeah, I think he did. That assassin’s got a way of moving that… I could probably fight him now, now I’ve seen it and know how much faster he is than you expect… but right at first… yeah, I probably would have died.”

“Do you regret not having died?”

“Of course I don’t!” On the surface it seemed like such a stupid question. Who wouldn’t rather be alive than dead? But as he considered further, after his initial growling outburst, doubts crept in — or, rather, doubts he’d already had solidified into an expressible form. “But… why should he be dead and not me?” Sano threw his shiiya to the floor, kicked it under the bed, and flopped down onto the latter facing the wall. He felt sick and cold, and was glad of the darkness that allowed him to avoid visual focus on anything.

“Because that’s what he chose.” This continued tolerance of the unproductive conversation did little to improve Sano’s mood, especially since Hajime had already admitted that his patience was aimed merely at trying to put Sano back into a frame of mind more useful for his own purposes.

“Only because he thought he had to. I mean…” Sano shook a fist that was as imperfectly formed as his uncertain thoughts. “He was terrified — he didn’t want to die — he was so surprised and… and… not happy that his stupid death reading told him he was going to die so soon… but he fucking did it anyway! It wasn’t like he knew me, or knew anything about what I was doing in town so he could think, ‘I gotta save this guy; this is totally worth dying for.’ If he didn’t already have this idea, ‘Oh, hey, I’m going to die on Yumifyo 38,’ he wouldn’t ever have jumped in the middle of a fucking assassination!”

“He might have,” Hajime replied quietly. “He might have made the same choice.”

“But he wouldn’t have! Who would make a choice like that without any lady-damned reason for it? He really believed there was some good reason to get himself slashed and stabbed and bleed out on the street, or else he wouldn’t have fucking done it!”

“And you can’t allow him that belief?”

“I don’t want to!” Now Sano felt compelled to sit up again, staring across the space between the beds to where the shadowy figure of Hajime sat just opposite him staring back. “I don’t want him or anyone else to believe there’s something telling people they should die so someone else can survive! Why should I be the one who gets to live? What kind of monster would whisper that in someone’s ear?”

Hajime’s tone was quiet and dark, condemnatory of a distant evil, as he said, “I don’t want to believe something like that either.” He sounded very serious, his statement coming a bit more slowly, as he went on, “But when someone chooses to give up their life for someone else, that’s a choice you have to respect.”

“But it was a choice based on shitty information!”

“That doesn’t change the fact that he saved your life.”

“I know that! I just…” With his elbows on his knees, Sano hung his head and closed his eyes. There was such a maelstrom of emotions inside him — continued shock at what had happened, rage at the assassin as well as at the system that had been Korucun’s true murderer, sorrow that he hadn’t been able to prevent a pointless death, confusion about what others believed and how they could possibly do so, and even some loathing of himself under the circumstances — he feared he would never get it sorted out. “I don’t know what to think.”

“Neither do I.” Hajime sighed faintly, evidently annoyed — but Sano thought it was more frustration at his own helplessness in this situation than with Sano. “And we’ll never know what was going on in his head. But…” The sound of shifting, of weight leaving a mattress, made Sano look up just in time to see Hajime step over and place a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t regret you’re alive.”

As Sano met his companion’s gaze, little of it as he could see in the dark room, and heard that somber tone, he was shaken for a few moments completely out of his dreary thoughts by the sudden startling realization that Hajime meant what he said on a level totally different from wanting Sano back to work as soon as possible. In fact there even seemed to be an unspoken “I don’t” appended to the previous statement. Hajime really wanted to help and comfort Sano on a personal level, and simply didn’t know exactly what to say — who, after all, would? And while Sano rather wished the knight would say that “I don’t” aloud and confirm its presence in his head, he was already almost stunned — and certainly very deeply touched — by what Hajime had offered.

“Thank you,” he said for a second time, hoarsely, staring Hajime in the eye unblinking for as long as the intense moment lasted before the knight removed his hand and turned back toward his side of the room. And Sano found that, when the previous maelstrom resumed, as if the eye of the storm had passed over him and gone, it was easier to deal with, seemed more likely to shift into perspective at some point. Slowly he turned and lay down on his side again, facing the wall, still glad of the darkness but now with an equally welcome image in it of Hajime’s eyes staring so intently into his.

“Will you be able to go back in the morning?” Of course Hajime would feel the need to return to this point… but at least Sano was certain he had returned to it after having left it for a moment of real camaraderie and goodwill.

“Yeah,” Sano said, more or less in a whisper. “Yeah, I should be fine.” For a given value of ‘fine.’

Hajime made no reply, and presently the sounds of his mattress and blanket shifting indicated that he too had lain down again, possibly even facing the wall and away from his companion just as his companion was.

Though motionless, Sano yet had a feeling of spinning, as if physically in the clutches of that storm he’d envisioned in his head and heart — perhaps as a reminder of how little control he could ever possibly have when people made insane choices they couldn’t take back based on a faith Sano would spend his last breath denying. He had the sense that he could do nothing more than hold on and wait this out… or, rather, since the spinning would never cease, he would simply have to adjust to it — as Hajime had said, resolve this and get past it.

And Hajime’s words really had helped. Despite the fact that nothing had been resolved, that Sano remained at square one trying to figure this shit out, the knight’s unexpected belief that he was strong enough to handle it, as well as his equally unexpected gladness that Sano had survived the attack, made all the difference in the world. Previously, Sano had doubted his ability to shoulder this burden, let alone get it straightened out in his mind; now, he was sure he could, given time.

He wondered what Hajime was thinking over there right now, if anything at all. It reminded him of lying here just a couple of nights ago pondering the dream he’d seen alongside the other man, wanting but feeling unable to ask, ignorant whether or not Hajime was awake just across from him.

An old saying kept coming to mind: Your wishes may be prayers, so make them wisely. The advice was not to spend a lot of effort longing for frivolities or things you shouldn’t have, since the ladies were always listening; aside from the embarrassment of their awareness of your shallow or inappropriate desires, what if they granted your wish as if you really had specifically asked them for it? Sano had never liked the adage, not merely because he didn’t pray and didn’t believe any supernatural force was taking a hand in his life and arranging events according to some cosmic plan or sense of irony, but also because supernatural forces that couldn’t distinguish between wishful thinking and actual requests were even less worthy of faith or worship. But he couldn’t help coming back now, again and again, to the idea that some caution was advisable in wishing intensely lest that wish be granted in some unpleasant way.

He’d wanted to be close enough to Hajime that they could discuss personal things, support each other through personal problems… He’d wished for it, he realized now, more fiercely than he’d had any idea even while lying right here thinking about the personal problem he thought he observed Hajime in the grip of. There had been a sort of ache inside him representing the want of that closeness.

And then something had happened to demonstrate that they already had it. Surely, therefore, Sano’s wish was granted; that particular ache was relieved. Yet the ‘something’ had shaken him deeply, saddened and confused him, replaced one ache with another and left him agitated and unable to sleep or foresee when he might next be content. Would he have wanted to know the degree to which Hajime was willing to engage with and comfort him if he’d known how he would come to know it?

And yet, just as being unable to figure out Korucun’s mindset didn’t change the fact that Korucun had saved his life, the fact that decidedly unpleasant circumstances had brought to light his closeness with Hajime didn’t change how much he’d wanted that closeness. He wouldn’t have wished — ‘prayed’ — for it to happen like this, but it meant so much to him that it had happened that he couldn’t really regret it. What was more, it gave him strength — or perhaps simply called on the strength Hajime had declared Sano already had — to lie quiet in the darkness and at least try to start making sense of his whirling thoughts about Korucun, about the divine ladies, about life and death, and how he himself fit into it all.

Chapter 23 – Wanted

Attempting to remain in the same spot long enough to get a good idea of the current setup at the gates while simultaneously blending in was proving ridiculously difficult. Sano found himself repeatedly forced to move along the line in one direction or the other when he saw someone apparently looking at him, which made it difficult not to reach the city entrance or get so far from it that he could no longer see anything useful.

It was obvious, at least, that everyone entering the capital was now being checked by the gate-guards. Exactly how thorough that examination was Sano had not yet been able to determine, thanks to the aforementioned difficulties getting information and refraining from standing out at the same time. He didn’t think they were searching carts and bags and pockets in detail — the line along the road would have been moving much more slowly in that case — but he simply couldn’t risk having his cache of one red devoted shiiya from each divine house discovered; honestly, he didn’t really want guards looking closely in his face and asking him what his business in the city was in any case. But would he be able to sneak in under the cover of some party or other? Were they checking that thoroughly? Three more slow instances of approaching Elotica’s high walls and then turning to go back as subtly as he could were required to determine that they were not.

He should have been well inside the capital by now seeking far more important information, but he supposed such obnoxious circumstances were inevitable whenever an anonymous assassin threatened high-profile targets and had now killed at least two people. Everyone in the crowd pressing along the road was a little on edge, and Sano rather doubted a cursory examination of persons and vehicles was likely to make anybody but whoever had ordered it feel any better. Hell, he knew more about the assassin than anyone else out here (most likely) — he was trying not to think about that — and he certainly wasn’t comforted by the checkpoint. Though his situation was a little different from that of all these workers trying to reach their jobs inside the city and deliverypeople trying to get their goods to the Elotica markets.

Without nearly as much consideration as he probably should have given it, he took the first opportunity that presented itself. A particularly long delay in the movement of the line had caused the driver of one wagon to hop down from his perch and move forward a bit trying to see around the bend in the road he’d nearly reached, and the people just behind him had gathered into a cluster at precisely that moment to discuss whether they shouldn’t try one of the other city entrances, as inconvenient a walk as that would be.

This left a tempting wagon bed unwatched for a brief period, without a driver to feel an additional weight added to it, and Sano jumped for it almost instinctively. It was full of — what else? — bushels of apples, but they sat atop a loosely placed tarp far larger than the floor it covered so it was bunched up in multiple places between the similarly loosely packed bushels. Shoving his backpack between tarp and wagon floor, within one of these folds so the new presence hopefully wouldn’t create an unusual bulge, and then worming his own way after it feet first was the work of less than a minute, and no outcry or approaching footsteps seemed to indicate he’d been spotted. If the guards made as desultory an examination of the interior of this wagon as they had those he’d noted the last time he’d been up near the gates, Sano should be able to slip through unnoticed.

Unfortunately, the presence of the tarp — or, rather, its shoddy placement with bushels stacked on top of it without its being smoothed out to accommodate them — should have told Sano something about the careless nature of the owner or driver of the wagon. The tarp served to separate the bushels from a surprisingly thick layer of grime that covered the floor of the wagon and was comprised, as far as Sano could tell (and he had some experience in this area) of the remains of rotted fruit. He could already feel the sticky goo penetrating his hair and clothing in various places before he was even fully settled, and the smell almost overpowered him. Lucky it was both that his face pointed toward the tented opening — though he didn’t dare stay too close, lest he be seen from without — and that he wouldn’t have to be here very long.

Of course he could only estimate, with this imperfect view of the world beyond the tarp, how close they drew to the city once the line started moving again in its broken fashion, and, misjudging, he didn’t start his agitated anticipation quite as soon as he otherwise would have. In fact it was the voices of the gate-guards that alerted him to how far they’d come, and then Sano, belatedly holding his breath, was startled at how smoothly the entry into the city went. As he’d somewhat expected but mostly hoped, it seemed the guards gave nothing more than a perfunctory glance into the bed of the wagon, not bothering to move the bushels or the tarp in any way; and evidently Sano’s presence under the latter presented no visual anomaly worth exploring or commenting on.

Before he knew it they were inside Elotica, and Sano was edging closer, within his reeking den, to the perimeter of the wagon’s bed where he could peer between the slats and try to gage when would be best to wriggle out of here. He didn’t want to get all the way to a market street where there would be a crowd, but at the same time preferred to wait as long as possible after passing through the gates. He also wanted a clear and immediate escape route before him when he disembarked.

Though he had these circumspect plans, once again he acted with little forethought when an opportunity arose. With no one immediately in sight (though admittedly his field of vision was severely limited), and with a narrow side-street — also apparently empty — coming into view, he made a break for it. Dragging his backpack behind him, he hauled himself free of the tarp (knocking two bushels askew or completely over in the process), and rather clumsily climbed the wagon’s side as quickly as he could. And this time his actions did not go unobserved.

“Hey!” He thought it was the wagon driver, who’d undoubtedly felt the shifting of Sano’s movements this time and turned. “What are you–” The man’s voice sounded so surprised, it was no wonder he couldn’t finish his sentence. Sano, though he didn’t look back as he pelted off with steps that stumbled at first after hitting the ground, had a confused idea that the wagon pulled up short and the horse protested. He couldn’t imagine the guy was likely to circle back to the gates and report that he’d apparently accidentally transported someone past the search, but he might mention it to others he encountered today; so Sano ducked his head and tried to put as much space as hastily as he could between the man and any details that could be noticed about the stowaway.

A couple of zig-zags down the network of alleys into which his chosen escape route had led, when it seemed no one was following and he was approaching another larger street, he slowed, ducked into a corner, and let his breathing settle as he looked around more carefully. Though it was larger, the street ahead wasn’t particularly busy — he’d drawn near the city wall, and this might be considered a back way — so he felt free to pause and consider what his plans for the day were. Of course first of all — he wished it could take place even before this cogitation — he needed to clean off the rancid fruit slime that coated him from head to toe, and that wasn’t going to be convenient, but thereafter he could decide where to seek information first.

Before he’d even finished these thoughts, however — and he certainly wasn’t accustomed, yet, to the smell that clogged his nostrils and only seemed to strengthen with every move he made — something just across the street from his corner caught his attention, and he was drawn almost inexorably, though not without scanning the area first to ensure his relative safety, to examine it.

The building on the other side of the larger street had a side-roof creating a little alcove that would doubtless have been used to shade sales stands if this particular area had been more advantageously placed for market purposes. As it was, only a stack of crates and a couple of barrels were tucked away there — but a number of public postings had been tacked onto the wall beneath the protective overhang as well, and one of these papers bore what appeared to be a very familiar face.

Sano became more and more convinced with every step that took him across to stand in the shadow of the roof and the crates and stare at the poster, until there could be no doubt. Under the large Wanted text at the top, around a portrait that held Sano’s eye far longer than it probably should have at the moment, the sign read, Royal knight Hajime – Chief of Prince Kenshin’s knights – Wanted for inciting rebellion and for the murder of Nenji, white devoted of Misao – Reward for capture or information regarding – Very dangerous: use caution.

As he read this, Sano gaped slightly. Hajime was wanted for what? They thought the assassin was Hajime? The idea was more than simply ludicrous. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find Hajime capable of moving and fighting with a silence and skill just as uncannily quiet and deadly as that of the assassin… but remembering that innocent Tomoe devoted choking on his own blood to wish Sano well as he died in his arms — something he was still trying not to think about — he found himself outraged on Hajime’s behalf. How could anyone believe Hajime was the assassin? It was absurd; it was insulting; it was… surprisingly painful. Someone so upstanding, someone so applied to righting wrongs — someone, in short, so good as Hajime was… it was preposterous.

Dragging narrowed eyes beneath lowered brows from that poster with an effort, fighting back the unexpected agitation the reading of it had caused, he forced himself to turn to the next one, which his peripheral vision had informed him might also be of interest. Again he was a little surprised at the accuracy of the face depicted; though it wasn’t exactly like gazing into a looking glass, he was pretty sure anyone that happened to walk by at the moment might look twice if they looked once at the man staring at his own image on a wanted poster.

Heretic Sanosuke – Rebel spy – May be disguised as a devoted of any house – Reward for capture or information regarding.

“‘Rebel spy?'” he muttered. “What the…” Well, technically, he supposed he was… It just seemed so overly dramatic when there wasn’t really, as far as he knew, a ‘rebellion’ yet. And he couldn’t help being a bit disappointed that, unlike Hajime, he wasn’t considered ‘very dangerous.’

The next thing he wondered was how whoever had printed these had gotten his name and the detail that he was a heretic and come up with such an accurate picture of him. It was actually fairly attractive, though his eyes had already wandered back to the one of Hajime (which was even more so). A few moments of consideration reminded him that the false knights he’d fought in Eloma would certainly have had the chance to make some mental notes, and have heard his name and probably his religious status from his neighbors. If that was where the information had come from, it surprised him a little at first that he saw no poster for Yahiko as well… but perhaps those guys hadn’t had the nerve to admit they’d been single-handedly defeated in that small town, and the single hand had belonged to a ten-year-old. Sano smirked at the thought, but the expression faded quickly.

He had no idea what to do now. These things were undoubtedly up all around town, and his picture was accurate enough that, even covered in smelly grime, even with hair far neater than it had been, even with what alterations he could make to his appearance in short order, he would be recognized almost immediately by average citizens in the street. How likely average citizens in the street would be to report his presence was debatable — though the word ‘reward’ did figure dismayingly on each poster — but the chance was better not taken. What to do instead, though…

The fact was that he just couldn’t count himself among the stealthiest people in all of Akomera. Though there had been some eavesdropping, most of his information-gathering had been conducted in a face-to-face manner with him merely being friendly and plausible — sometimes specifically helpful — in order to get what he needed out of people. And obviously that wouldn’t work anymore; a new plan was absolutely necessary. Should he abandon the efforts he’d made to get into the city today, go straight back to Enca, and discuss this development with Hajime? Or should he take advantage of his presence in Elotica to try to… accomplish something… while he could? Though the idea of returning to Hajime was immediately and almost overwhelmingly appealing, he forced himself to stay calm, stay still, and give the matter some reasoned thought.

It seemed he was destined never to finish thinking about what he would be doing today, however, as once again he was interrupted — this time by a quiet voice saying his name just to his right and a little behind. Nearly jumping out of his skin, Sano whirled, his hand going to his sword, his heart racing, but found only Katsu standing nearby.

“Fucking ladies’ tits!” he gasped out. “Give a guy some warning!”

“Somehow I didn’t think shouting out your name from across the street was a good idea,” replied Katsu in a low tone, tilting his head indicatively at the posters on the wall.

“Yeah… yeah…” Sano’s breathing was calming, but his heart still raced. “But, fuck, man.”

Katsu cast his dark eyes about to see if anyone was watching. “Come with me. There’s a place we can talk safely. What are you covered in?”

“I had to hide in a dirty-ass wagon to get through the gates.”

“For future reference–” now Katsu tried to repress a smile– “they’re only doing checks at the biggest two entrances. It’s just for show; they don’t have the manpower to waste on all eight.”

“Oh.” Thanks to his still-racing heart, Sano felt more bitter about this even than he might originally have done. “Fuck.”

“You can clean up a little when we get where we’re going, and we’ll see if we can’t find you something else to wear.” Katsu glanced around again, then unexpectedly pulled both wanted posters down from the wall in a quick movement that put little slits at the top edge of each where tacks had abruptly vacated the paper. After folding them and tucking them into a pocket somewhere, he gestured briefly and took off at a quick walk up the street.

Sano hastened after him. “Where are we going?” But Katsu, busy checking every corner carefully and obviously choosing the most back-street route he could find, did not answer.

Whether he was more tense or relieved during this circuitous walk, Sano couldn’t be sure. Katsu too might not have the most stealth in all of Akomera, but in that category — as well as in cautious forethought, and certainly in familiarity with the Elotica streets — he easily outranked Sano; and beyond that, his appearance at that precise moment, when Sano had been at a loss what to do, had been amazingly fortuitous. Perhaps, in fact, a little too fortuitous. As they made their especially cautious way to wherever they were going, Sano reflected not only on this phenomenal good luck, but also — perforce — on Hajime’s doubts regarding his friend. “Are you sure you can trust him?” the knight had asked… and then he’d let it go at Sano’s insistence… but the raised point hadn’t disappeared merely because Sano had resisted it.

How had Katsu managed to find Sano just when he had? Where were they going now? He had a feeling Katsu wouldn’t answer if he asked, and, at least while stealthily navigating the streets, he agreed that remaining as quiet as possible was wise — so he didn’t ask. But certain disloyal stirrings haunted him all the way there.

‘There’ was a grimy yard apparently belonging to a business of some kind, possibly an inn, that they entered via a small side-gate in another tiny back street. It did look like a fairly safe place to have a private conversation, since it sat right up against one of the high main city walls and there were no windows on this side of the building. Katsu evidently wanted even more privacy than only the relatively hidden space behind some of the stacked goods, though, and headed straight for a shed that stood near one of the corners of the yard. Sano, despite feeling this was maybe overkill, followed without question.

But Katsu did not enter the shed; rather, stopping to one side of it and reaching up into the space beneath the corner of its low-sloping roof, he manipulated something — something that creaked and turned and squeaked once — as Sano watched in curiosity and confusion. So intent was Sano, in fact, on this observation, that he didn’t at first notice the effect of his friend’s movement. When Katsu withdrew his hand and turned slightly, Sano finally caught sight of the purpose of all of this: an opening had appeared in the city wall nearby, a foot or so above the ground and totally black. And though it wasn’t enough to make him jump back in astonishment or anything, he did demand in some surprise to know what it was. But of course Katsu merely shook his head and gestured for Sano to follow him.

Down a grimy ladder into darkness Sano continued tailing his friend with only minimal hesitation, reflecting that whatever this clandestine place might be, it certainly seemed optimal for backstabbing. He felt comforted by the awareness, however, that there wasn’t much non-reward-related reason for anyone to do him harm at this point, and logistically it would be very troublesome to get him back out of here, up this ladder and through that smallish opening to somewhere a reward could be collected, either dead or under duress. This could possibly make a pretty decent prison, though…

“Chou, are you here?” Katsu’s voice echoed slightly beneath Sano, and covered up almost completely the sound of another crank working to close the opening above him. At that point it became obvious, as Sano reached the floor and turned away from the ladder, that the space wasn’t entirely dark, as flickering candlelight immediately approached around a corner in what appeared to be a multi-roomed space built into and under the great city wall.

Along with the candlelight came the protesting reply through the damp, musty air, “Not sure where else I’d be…” The speaker emerged around the corner, bringing the light with him, and stopped abruptly. “Who’s this?”

Even through the subsequent explanatory exchange, Sano stared bemusedly at the unexpected figure — at his impossibly erect hair, his loose pants and shiiya of blues and purples so bright they were clearly discernible even in the dimness, and at his stance that looked like a stationary swagger declaring his ownership of this… dirty underground place? …as if it were a royal treasure trove and Sano and Katsu supplicants before his throne.

“Chou,” Katsu was saying with an introductory gesture toward the stranger, “is a sword-thief–”

“Sword-collector,” the man, Chou, broke in.

Katsu went on as if he hadn’t heard him. “–a sword-thief who decided Kenshin’s empty sheath is a good target. With the king — and his sheath — a prisoner who-knows-where, Chou is a rebel by necessity for now.” He gave Chou a calculating look up and down. “I think he’s close enough to your size.”

They had all moved forward out of what must be considered the entry, so when Sano gave a convulsive shake of head and took a stumbling step back at Katsu’s words, still staring at Chou’s hair and the bright blue headband at its base, he found himself suddenly in the doorway near the ladder again. “You’re fucking kidding me.”

Chou seemed to divine the exact cause of Sano’s chagrin, for he said with a pugnacious sneer, “You got a problem, stinky? How the fuck did you get like that, anyway? Ain’t you that heretic spy in the posters?” He turned from examining Sano toward Katsu. “Don’t tell me you want me to–”

A little impatiently, though not without some evident amusement, Katsu broke in. “He does have a problem; he is the spy from the posters, which is how he got like this; and, yes, I do.”

Chou’s pointed and very irritated stare dragged out as the artist looked placidly back in the flickering light, as if Chou thought Katsu might change his mind if he only squinted his left eye hard enough at him. Finally, though, clearly realizing he was getting nowhere, the sword-thief made a frustrated noise, turned abruptly, and disappeared. As he was holding the only light extant, this action plunged the room Katsu and Sano occupied into darkness except for the meandering glow from around the corner.

“Something with a hood!” Katsu called after.

“Fiiiine,” Chou replied petulantly.

In a lower, conspiratorial tone, Katsu explained, “He can’t say no to me since I bring him food.” And with as much confidence as if he were in his own home and knew every inch of it, he walked through the darkness. Presently the sound of a fire-starter clicked from the direction he’d gone, and a second candle provided some further illumination.

“What is this place?” With only a single light, even one more centrally placed than that which Chou had taken away, Sano couldn’t make out much more than before of the decent-sized room they stood in except that it held three long tables with attached benches and seemed to have as many gaping doorways into other, mostly blacker spaces.

It all made sense, though, when Katsu replied, “The old thieves’ guild headquarters.” He gestured around, sending strange blurry shadows up the walls behind him. “As you can see, it hasn’t been used for years.”

“I guess that weirdo found it for you, then?” Sano was still looking around, now in increasing curiosity and interest, little good though the action actually did him.

“I knew it was here,” Katsu shrugged, “but he reminded me.”

“You already knew where the thieves’ guild was?”

“No, don’t come over here yet.” Katsu raised his hands in a warding gesture as Sano took a step forward. “Get out of those clothes and use that bucket.” He pointed to a squat shape barely visible in the darkness near the bench at one of the tables. “The water’s not that clean — I was using it on some stuff around this place — but it’s better than what you’ve got all over you now. I’d treat you better, but there aren’t many places I can take a wanted man.”

Sano hadn’t been sure what to expect from this day, and never had made any concrete plans… but he certainly hadn’t anticipated stripping off smelly goo-soaked clothing in a secret chamber hidden inside the city wall with only some incredibly haired eccentric and the longtime best friend whose trustworthiness he didn’t want to admit he might be questioning a little for company. But a ‘rebel spy’ had to take such things as they came, so for now he just obeyed Katsu’s injunction and started to get cleaned up.

>23 Interlude

Katsu’s gaze snapped back to the street after what had originally been intended as a quick, casual glance. Once he’d confirmed that his eyes really weren’t playing tricks on him, he allowed them to follow the walking figure that had caused his double-take. He didn’t worry about the rudeness of staring; this particular guy was used to it, as anyone that looked like that must be. Katsu had never seen a more creative (or bizarre) use of hair wax. Sweeping his charcoal sticks into their tin and carefully but quickly rolling up his drawing, he tucked it all under his arm and set off to follow the stranger.

Skyward hair wasn’t the only peculiarity. The lime-green shiiya the guy wore was translucent, displaying the dark aqua of his shirt, which matched his pants; these bright colors were stabilized somewhat by the black of long gloves, boots, and several belts and straps that held at least half a dozen swords. All together it was a strange and attention-grabbing ensemble, which was why Katsu followed. Curiosity would be the death of him one of these days; knowing more than most people did seemed only to heighten proportionally his desire to know even more.

The newcomer paused at a street intersection, shifting the large leather pack he wore on his shoulders somewhat impatiently as he consulted a sheet of paper and looked back and forth. Katsu nearly laughed aloud when he realized where the guy was headed. Surely this flamboyantly attired and highly obtrusive person didn’t consider himself a thief…!

Although the old thieves’ guild headquarters was still accessible, as it had always been, through the yard behind a relatively respectable tavern in the green district, Katsu didn’t think there were more than a handful of people left in the entire city that were aware of it, and certainly no one used it. The Elotica underworld was so disorganized these days, he suspected half the criminals in town didn’t even know what a thieves’ guild was. Socially this was a mixed blessing — but there really wasn’t time at the moment to ponder that topic if he wanted to continue trailing this guy.

The stranger’s written instructions seemed to be correct, for he was heading exactly the right direction — without any apparent attempt to make himself less conspicuous or disguise where he was going. That would make sense if he was aware that nobody really remembered the thieves’ guild headquarters anymore — but if he knew that, why would he go there? Any number of logical reasons came to mind, but none of them seemed to be the case. So Katsu just kept following quietly.

It wasn’t difficult, given that the stranger didn’t seem to care about pursuit, never looked behind him, only walked along with an energetic, almost cocky step that yet seemed somehow impatient or even angry. Katsu didn’t think he was actively angry, but still got an overwhelming impression of that emotion from the guy’s bearing. Interesting.

Once they reached the Green Apple, Katsu had to fall back some distance: no matter how oblivious the other appeared, he was sure to notice someone practically treading on his heels down the little-used alley on the tavern’s north side and thence into the yard behind it. Even from the main street, however, the listening Katsu caught the sound of rusty hinges as the gate into the yard screeched open. Surely the stranger must be clued in by that… if thieves still used this place, there was not a chance they would leave such a noisy piece of metal unattended nearby. It was useful to Katsu, though, as it told him the guy had entered the yard. After counting to fifteen, he stepped into the alley after him.

He took note of the high, windowless wall of the building to his left, and that there was another way into (or out of) the alley: a narrow lane between that building and the even higher main city wall that was the rear of this space. The latter was rendered quite shadowy by all these walls, mid-afternoon and cloudless though it was. In the lowest wall, to his right, that of the tavern’s yard, the iron gate stood open. Why had the stranger left it standing like that? For a quick getaway?

Katsu edged to the opening and looked cautiously in. He caught a glimpse of a somewhat dirty enclosure mostly full of crates in neatly-stacked rows, some of them covered with tarps; what looked like a shed nestled right up against the city wall at the back of the yard; and a privy near one of two doors into the establishment. There was no chance to take in details, however, as almost immediately a gloved hand seized his shiiya, pulled him roughly through the open gate, and slammed him into the wall.

Breathless, he found himself facing the stranger’s glower, drawn sword, and abrupt demand, “Why the fuck are you following me?”

Though he was more concerned for the objects that had been knocked from his grasp to the dirty pavement than that the other would actually harm him, Katsu was at first too startled to speak. He examined the stranger’s face wordlessly, his mind momentarily blank.

The newcomer appeared to be a few years his senior, with features he could not exactly call handsome but that might be pleasant without the scowl and the squint they wore. The eye whose color Katsu could see was grey-brown, and the high blonde hair was even more astonishing up close.

Finally, getting hold of himself, he realized what he needed to say. “Orange skies’ blessings be on you, cousin.”

The grip on his shiiya relaxed, and the tip of the sword left his neck. The stranger didn’t sheathe the weapon yet, but he did step back. “Shit,” he was remarking, “you guys actually say that here?”

“Not so much anymore,” Katsu replied, bending to gather his fallen supplies, “but it was better than getting stabbed.”

“Aw, I wouldn’t have stabbed you.” The other was consulting his directions again, and said this somewhat absently. He seemed attentive enough, though, when he pursued, “So why were you following me? Keeping an eye on the new guy?”

“Something like that.” Katsu had located what they needed with a quick glance around, and now pointed. “It’s there, up in the shed eaves next to the wall.”

The man, who had been frowning darkly at the paper in his hand, looked up and then along Katsu’s extended arm. “Well, I sure as hell am glad you know.” He crumpled his instructions and shoved the crackling wad into a pocket, putting his sword away as he did so. Stalking to the shed, he twisted head and neck to look into the eaves where the low end of the roof met the city wall. Katsu, who only had a vague idea of what to expect here, watched with interest as the stranger’s face lit up at whatever he saw. The artist took a step closer when the newcomer reached into the recess and began, apparently, turning a crank of some sort — to judge by the motion and the horrible screeching sound that ensued.

In the brief space of city wall that stretched between the shed and the yard wall, a dark opening appeared, a low rectangle that had previously seemed just another of the large bricks. It ground backward and down, a subdued grating sound joining the shriek of rusted metal, bits of dirt raining down into the darkness from the widening cracks, and finally stopped.

The stranger bent and peered into the shadows. “What, do they think we’re all midgets?” he demanded.

“It had to look like the bricks,” Katsu supplied.

The other turned toward him as if he’d forgotten he was not alone. “I’m Chou, by the way.”

“You’re from Gönst… by way of Etoronai?” the artist wondered, rather than stating his own name.

Chou had turned back to the opening and inserted his head, so his reply was somewhat distorted by muffling stone and a slight echo: “Nah, I just talk like it.”

Ignoring this bit of bullshit, Katsu watched as Chou extracted his head and, turning, began to descend what was apparently a ladder leading into the lightless space below. Once the blonde plume had disappeared from sight, Katsu followed. Before he’d even reached the floor ten feet below, he heard Chou exclaiming, “The fuck…?”

The light from outside was quite limited, even after Katsu left the ladder and stood out of its way, so only the first room was dimly visible — but the shadows could not hide the fact that the place was completely empty. Some trash lay in one corner, cobwebs stretched across others, and a thick coating of dust or light dirt covered the floor everywhere their feet hadn’t touched. The doorway into the next room, devoid even of a door, was a yawning portal of darkness.

Chou rounded on Katsu, demanding, “What’s with this place?”

“It hasn’t been used for years,” replied Katsu.

For a second time the artist found himself slammed up against the wall with one of Chou’s swords to his neck; he realized with some amusement that this was not so much because Chou really felt the need to threaten him as that Chou really liked to swing his swords around. “Your behavior is striking me as pretty damn suspicious,” the other growled along the drawn blade. “If nobody uses this place, why the fuck did you follow me here and come down with me?”

“I’d never seen it before,” answered Katsu, calm and honest, “and I was curious. Besides, how else would you have gotten your questions answered?”

Again Chou released him, then swished the sword in his hand in an impatient pattern through the air before resheathing it. Katsu, smoothing out his now rather crumpled shiiya, noticed it was a different sword than the one he’d previously been threatened with. “Well, then, you better have some good answers,” Chou grumbled. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Katsu.” The latter held up the drawing he’d been working on earlier, still rolled up though it was, and added, “I’m an artist.”

“An artist?” echoed Chou incredulously. “No wonder this place don’t get used, if any old artist person knows it’s here.”

“Actually, almost nobody knows it’s here,” Katsu explained conversationally as he moved forward toward the black doorway. Free hand outstretched, counting on knowing what obstacles were in the next room before he ran into them, he walked slowly on.

“Wait…” Chou had also come to the door, but (naturally) didn’t have Katsu’s confidence in a pitch-black unknown space. “If you’re just an artist, how’d you know the thief greeting?”

Katsu rolled his eyes at being referred to as ‘just an artist,’ and didn’t answer the question. Rather, as he made his way around the old wooden tables that still stood in this large chamber, he narrated what he was realizing as it came to him — as much for his own entertainment as for the edification of the newcomer. “That room there is the entry; there’d have been a guard there just in case anyone made it down who wasn’t supposed to. Anyone coming down the ladder would be an easy target if they didn’t know the password. This is the common room here…”

His voice echoed as he approached another doorway into a third empty space. “And back here is where the thief princes did their private business.” He didn’t enter — too many spiders — but recrossed the common room to the final chamber. “And in here they used to practice knife-fighting and pocket-picking and wrestling. It still smells like sweat,” he added in mild distaste — “old sweat. And the sewer… that must be next door…

“They had doors in the doorways back then,” he went on, waving a hand in front of his face in a futile attempt to ward off the smell of the back room, “but those were stolen not long after the guild was scattered. That figures, doesn’t it? Nobody bothered to take the tables because they weren’t in the best condition and it would have been a pain in the ass to get them out the entrance. ” By now he’d come full circle, and with his last statement, “Though I’d think that would apply to the doors too…” was face to face with Chou in the entry once again.

Chou’s squinting eye had loosened, and on his face was an expression of bemusement. “All right,” he said, “who the hell are you really?”

Katsu chuckled again. “Just a guy who knows a lot of trivia. Really. Who are you really? You don’t much fit my image of a thief.”

“‘Cause I ain’t. I’m a sword-collector.” Chou patted one of the numerous items in question.

“What are you doing here, then?”

“Well, I needed a… Why are you asking? You a guard in disguise?”

Katsu raised a brow. “If I say no, are you going to believe me?”

With a shrug Chou replied, “Why not? I could kill you up if I had to.”

“Good reasoning,” agreed the artist. “No, I’m not a guard in disguise. I really am ‘just’ an artist. A curious artist.”

“Well, I needed a thief to help me get into the palace and steal that sheath the king supposedly wears, so I got a thief friend back home to give me directions to this place. Too bad he ain’t been in town for forty years or some shit… He warned me he’d heard things had slowed down a lot around here, but obviously he didn’t know it was like this. It’s going to be a lot harder than I thought now.”

There were so many interesting aspects to this explanation that Katsu didn’t know where to begin. Finally he decided to hit as many as he could in a single reply. “Stealing the king’s sheath, which isn’t a sword, would make you a thief, and it’ll be a lot harder than you thought for more reasons than you think.” He was rather proud of this all-encompassing statement once he’d made it, actually.

This seemed to confuse Chou for a moment, but his eventual response proved he’d unraveled it. “Nah, I ain’t a thief. Just ’cause some of my swords are stolen don’t make me a thief.” This utterly nonsensical declaration baffled Katsu to such an extent that Chou was able to continue uninterrupted. “And I know the king’s sheath ain’t a sword, but I figure it’ll make a great addition to my collection anyway. I like things with some history. Why else is it gonna be hard?”

With a laugh and a shake of his head, Katsu opted to ignore entirely the ‘not a thief’ issue. At least for now. Additionally, he chose not to mention the fact that the sheath the king wore was less than four decades old. “It’s always fun relating big news someone doesn’t know…” was what he decided to say. “You must have just arrived in town if you haven’t heard yet.”

“Big news usually doesn’t mean shit to me,” Chou shrugged. “Unless,” he added hopefully, “we’re going to war?”

“Not that I’ve heard,” Katsu chuckled, “but I wouldn’t be surprised, at this rate. No, it’s just that Kenshin’s been usurped. He’s being held prisoner by the ‘new king,’ Soujirou, assuming he’s not dead, and nobody knows where.” Not even I know, he didn’t add.

Chou’s eye went wide, and again the other loosened somewhat (though it still did not open). “Shit!” he cried. “He got himself captured and took my nice sheath with him??”

Yet again Katsu was forced to laugh. It wasn’t, he thought, that this Chou had no common sense so much as that he deliberately chose to ignore it. “Yes, so it seems.”

With a long, irritated exhalation, the sword-collector rolled his head from side to side, stretched his arms, and unexpectedly shed his pack onto the floor. “Well, fuck this,” he grumbled. “Now I don’t know what to do.” And, kicking the pack against one of the walls, he threw himself down to lean against that same structure with the abused object between his angled back and the stone. “Had a great plan and everything, and now…” Placing his finger-laced hands behind his head, he proceeded to look darkly contemplative.

As far as Katsu could tell, Chou’s great plan had been to stroll casually into an unfamiliar thieves’ guild, give the thief’s greeting while claiming he wasn’t a thief, and (if he lived that long) request someone’s assistance on an impossible and rather pointless venture whose details he didn’t himself have in the least worked out. Now his plan seemed to be to sit around in the dark of an abandoned underground room and decide what to do since his first great plan had gone awry through no fault of his own. Katsu wasn’t even quite sure what to say.

“Well,” he remarked at last, “it’s going to get very dark down here after I leave and close the door. Are you planning on staying?”

Chou shrugged. “I ain’t afraid of the dark.”

“Not that it’s any more of my business than any of the rest of this has been,” Katsu pursued, “but why are you sitting there? If you think I don’t know what I’m talking about and some thief or other might actually show up here… well, I can’t really say anything that’ll convince you, but…”

“Truth is, I been walking all day,” Chou admitted, “and I’m dead tired. I was counting on some rest and food when I got here, and now this…” He crossed his legs as he looked up at Katsu and finished, “I don’t have any money for an inn, so this is as good a place to settle as any.”

“You… don’t have any money.”

With another shrug, Chou declined to answer this pseudo-question. Katsu got a sudden mental image of the very important orange and yellow shiiya with tassels that Chou had been unable to resist in Enca that had depleted his funds, and stifled another laugh. Shaking his head, he moved toward the ladder and the light. Then he turned again, thoughtful. “I might be coming back here,” he stated. “Don’t get startled and stab me, all right?”

Both of Chou’s eyes were closed. “Why?” he wondered. “What’s here for you?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Katsu admitted truthfully, “but it’s an interesting place. I may clean it up a little in case I want to use it for something later.” Because somehow he got the feeling — not any actual foreknowledge, just an impression — that it would be useful later. And so would Chou. “If you’re lucky, I’ll bring you some lunch.”

Chou’s right eye cracked open again. “Not that I’m complaining of that idea, but why would you do that?”

“Well, you’re interesting too,” was the artist’s candid answer.

“Is that your way of saying I’m hot?” The eye had opened a bit further, and was now accompanied by a crooked smile.

“Keep dreaming,” Katsu grinned, and, turning, began to climb the ladder.

Chapter 24 – Playing Thieves Guild

“So how long have I been a wanted man?” Sano was trying to figure out the best way to remove sticky clothing without getting the actual substance on skin underneath that, though tainted by strike-through, wasn’t nearly as actively dirty as the garments.

“Probably for a while, officially, but the posters just went up yesterday.” Katsu sat down on a bench near where the candle stood on one of the tables, leaned an elbow against the latter, and pulled the confiscated documents from his pocket. “They look good, don’t they?”

“Well… I guess…” Sano replied skeptically.

The artist smoothed out first one and then the other of the folded papers in the light of the small flickering flame. “I made them.”

Sano’s shiiya hit the floor with a wet plopping sound that would have been more disgusting if it hadn’t been mostly overridden by his demand, “What??”

“I work for the printmaker, remember?” Katsu didn’t lift his eyes from where — even in the shadows Sano could tell — they roved critically over the posters. “And we didn’t get paid for this job, by the way. Well, not for labor — just for the supplies, and less than full value at that. I guess we should be grateful the new regime was willing to pay even that much.”

Sano simply couldn’t help a resurgence — now stronger than before — of the mistrust he’d been trying not to feel earlier. Katsu had made a wanted posted with his face on it. No matter what mild complaints he might have about financial considerations and the courtesy of the new governing body, that was disturbing. Sano struggled not to let discomfort render his movements awkward and give him away. He was working to assess, with some difficulty in the low light and with dirty hands, the status of his shirt and whether he could retain it and keep from having to wear one in bright green or whatever other crazy color Chou eventually showed up with out of the other room.

Katsu evidently had no idea what was going through his friend’s head; in fact he didn’t even look at him, but ran his fingers over the printed version of that friend’s face on the table in front of him. “I probably should have made yours less accurate, since supposedly I’ve never seen you — they gave us a written description — but I got a little carried away…”

This statement certainly didn’t help with what Sano was thinking.

The artist’s hand drifted to the other poster, and for some reason Sano found himself stiffening in even greater uneasiness than before, pausing in the act of unthreading his belts, as he watched Katsu trace over Hajime’s face with a light fingertip. “We still had the blocks I made for the tournament advertisement posters a few months ago, so we just reused those for this one.”

This was ridiculous. In some annoyance Sano pulled the first of his belts free of its loops in a gesture far too quick that ended up splattering fruit goo in all directions. Katsu had brought him to a safe place and was providing him with things he very much needed (even if the clothing would technically be coming from Chou). Katsu had loaned him money to help continue paying the bill at the Enca Inn North. Katsu had been working with him to recruit malcontents toward some kind of actual rebellion so Sano could be a proper ‘rebel spy.’ And it wasn’t as if he could have refused to make these posters if he wanted to stay out of jail, most likely. What was Sano doing with this mistrust of his oldest friend? Just because Katsu had voluntarily printed those awful things about Hajime…

Well, that, at least, Sano could begin to express aloud. “I can’t believe that stuff on there about Hajime! It’s a bunch of bullshit! Do they really think he murdered that Misao guy?”

“Whoever ‘they’ are,” Katsu speculated, “they probably murdered ‘that Misao guy’ themselves for their own reasons. But you must see the importance of making Hajime look bad.”

In some confusion Sano replied, “Not… more than anyone else… no…” He stepped out of his pants and started examining his drawers. With shiiya, pants, and belts between them and the fruit goo, they were mostly untouched; it was the best news he’d had all day.

“Haven’t you heard the rumors of his daring escape from Soujirou and his men?”

In fact Sano had seen Hajime’s daring escape from Soujirou and his men, via the knight’s memories back at Seijuurou’s house. Obviously he wasn’t about to say this aloud, but now he thought about it, that kind of adventurous exploit — which certainly wouldn’t have diminished in the retelling — would be pretty exciting to the general public, wouldn’t it?

“Just months after he was the champion of the king’s tournament,” Katsu went on, “those rumors were enough to make him larger than life. Hajime would be a perfect rallying point for Kenshin’s supporters, if they could find him, so of course Soujirou’s people are going to do whatever they can to tear down his image. They’d like it even better if they could get their hands on him.”

Sano stilled in dismay, and said softly, “Shit…”

Finally Katsu looked up from the posters. “You’re working with him, aren’t you?”

“How did you know?” Sano tried not to frown. If Katsu was up to something not entirely in line with Hajime’s goals — and the idea of some unknown private motivations and plans was as far as Sano was willing to go even in his head; he refused to believe the artist was aligned with the usurper — it could be potentially disastrous that Katsu had figured this out.

Katsu smiled wryly. “That one’s pretty obvious.”

Well, the secret was out now; there was nothing to be done about it, except to keep going as he had, keep his eyes peeled for any signs of treachery. He hated even the thought, but this was what things had come to. “I need to get back to him,” he said, “and let him know about this ‘Wanted’ shit. We already knew I couldn’t pretend to be a devoted anymore, but now I can’t even keep wandering around the city looking for information, so we’re gonna have to make another plan.”

“Are the posters going to be a problem for him?”

“I hope not.” Sano bit his lip. “We tried pretty hard not to let anyone see his face… and I know he’s careful.” That didn’t lessen, however, the worry that sat like a dense stone at the bottom of Sano’s gut. Still, he wasn’t going to give Katsu any details he didn’t have to about Hajime’s current situation. Katsu would probably guess them anyway.

Whatever he did or did not conjecture, the artist seemed to realize that everything to be said on this topic had been. “Well, don’t forget we have meetings the next few nights.”

Sano had, in fact, entirely forgotten how near was the date of the first gathering of those from the red district that might be interested in opposing Soujirou’s rule, and wasn’t even sure how he could reach that gathering in the current climate. He stepped away from his discarded clothing and squatted down beside the bucket, examining its contents that were his only current options for ablution. Then neither man said anything for several moments — Katsu pensive, possibly considering, as Sano had just been, how they were to get a wanted man to a meeting that was already supposed to be a careful secret; Sano still trying to avoid contemplating the suspicions about Katsu that had arisen in the last hour.

Finally, with an effort, he made an attempt at a more light-hearted comment in order to send his thoughts in a less unpleasant direction. “I don’t think you and me ever did in Encoutia, but after I finally started playing with the other kids in Eloma, we used to love to play thieves’ guild.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Despite never having taken part in this game with his friend, Katsu sounded reminiscent, as if fondly recalling more general memories of the young Sanosuke and their time together.

“Yeah, we’d set a place to be the thieves’ guild, and try to sneak around and steal shit and then get back there and ‘sell’ it.” Sano started swabbing mess from his body, beginning with the arms that had been bare and therefore the most susceptible.

Katsu’s smile widened. “I bet you weren’t very good at it.”

“No, not very.” Ruefully Sano returned the grin as he looked away from his sticky limbs. “But it’s kinda fun to be in a real thieves’ guild, even if it’s completely abandoned.”

“I’m glad you like it…” Katsu’s tone was now as rueful as Sano’s expression. “Because it’s probably the best place for you to stay while you’re in the city.”

“I was afraid of that.” Sano cast another look around, specifically at the hard, dirty floors. “But it might not be a bad place for more people than just us, you know?”

Katsu put a pensive hand to his chin. “I’ve been thinking about that, and I’m not sure. I’ve been cleaning it up a little for that exact reason, but… how many people in the city know about this place? Doesn’t it seem like a very obvious meeting-place? If Soujirou’s people get wind of meetings taking place anywhere, aren’t they likely to check here first?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true…” The wet cloth Katsu had been using for aforementioned purpose ran next over Sano’s head, trying to get the worst of the stuff out of his hair. “But that means it’s just as dangerous for me — and you, and that other guy — as it would be for a bigger group of people.”

Katsu nodded. “My point is that it may not be the best idea to bring Hajime here.”

Sano didn’t want to talk about Hajime any more right now. If, after all, Katsu’s knowledge of his association with the knight did turn out to be dangerous, there was little Sano could do to counter that danger, so it was better not to think about it. It seemed he had far too many things he was trying not to think about lately. And it was also somewhat disconcerting, maybe even worrisome, the way Katsu had immediately picked up on the idea in the back of Sano’s mind — to get Hajime out of that inn to somewhere less public (and less expensive). Of course in this place the poor guy would only be able to read by eye-straining candlelight, wouldn’t even have a window to look out of to stave off boredom, and would have to put up with that Chou person, but it seemed safer in some ways. Except that Katsu did have a point.

Still trying not to think about it, “Well,” he requested, “tell me all the news… about the Devoted Club and shit.”

“The Devoted Council haven’t officially publicized their discussions, but they haven’t made much effort to keep them secret either, so what we have to go on is the rumors from people working in the palace. Apparently they started out with a lot of insignificant proposed changes to the divine houses and the way they run, but then it got bigger. They’ve talked about legalizing kereme… an entire rethinking of the criminal trial system… opening the country up to Essentialists… legalizing brother-sister incest… I think that’s all the big stuff. Whoever has Soujirou’s ear seems to have built up quite a list of things they wanted to change, and they’ve gotten right on it.”

“Wait…” The wrinkling of Sano’s nose in distaste arose not entirely from the lack of clarity in the water he was using to bathe. “The brother-sister thing… is that common enough for anybody to care…? Do that many people really want to get with their own family members?”

“Or,” Katsu said, pointedly enough to indicate this was more than blind guessing, “is there someone in an influential position who would appreciate it being legalized?”

“Like who, though?”

“Like a Megumi third-wash who just showed up after yet another extended absence with her brother, mysteriously pregnant?”

“Shit…” Sano recalled what he’d heard about Shougou and Sayo and their disappearances, and the prevailing thought that, if they were part of a resistance of any sort, they were terrible at keeping it any kind of secret. That the secret might be completely unrelated — if still not very well kept — Sano had not considered; but evidently others had.

“As you say, I don’t think there are enough people in the general population that this change in law would benefit to make it seem like anyone but those two Megumi golds are the specific beneficiaries. Though I’m sure,” Katsu added thoughtfully, “some people would appreciate the stigma lessening in cases like adopted siblings or distant cousins. But I doubt that would change with the law — at least not for a long time.”

Whether the stigma against male-female incest was fair or unreasonable in whatever case, it was certainly an attitude Sano had never questioned throughout his life. The whole topic made him uncomfortable — what was with this day and things he didn’t want to think about??

“So I wonder where the push came from,” Katsu went on, either oblivious or indifferent to Sano’s discomfort. “The rumors don’t say who suggested what, or what arguments were made in favor or against it… was it Gensai trying to keep his golds out of trouble, or was it one of the other houses trying to get Megumi’s devoted on their side or in their debt?”

It was a good point. As Katsu had said, it seemed unlikely the proposal had been made in any light besides as a specific aid to Shougou and Sayo — but who had made it, and what were their motives in so doing? “Hajime’ll know,” Sano muttered when he found he couldn’t decide on his own. “He figures everything out just by hearing about it.”

“Oh, is he a damn know-it-all too?”

Though Sano wasn’t looking at Katsu, he could hear the grin in his tone. And he couldn’t help returning it as he answered, “Well… yeah.” He might have elaborated on other things Hajime was if he hadn’t been so reluctant to discuss the knight with his supposed friend. “So what else do I need to know?” he asked instead.

Katsu sighed faintly. “Just that they’re trying to outlaw heresy.”

“What??” In his surprise and anger, Sano dropped the cloth that by now he was using on his legs. It didn’t even manage to fall into the bucket, but hit the floor with a wet plopping sound similar to that of his shiiya earlier. “They’re gonna force people to– how do they think they’re even gonna do that?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like a very enforceable law.”

“It’s bullshit, is what it is!” Sano bent, seized the cloth, and thrust it into the bucket with a vigor that splashed dirty water over the wooden edge and onto the floor. He wrung it out with just as much energy before returning to his task. “Why don’t these people try going through what some of us have been through and then say they have to pretend to believe in the fucking ladies?”

Sympathetically Katsu shook his head. “Even Kenshin was never that bad. He’s always been very open about his devotion to Kaoru, to the point where some of us thought he must be exaggerating for show, but he never had anything to say against non-believers.”

“Not like we got any respect anyway,” Sano grumbled.

“Not getting respect and getting throw in jail on sight — or worse — are totally different things. If you weren’t already wanted specifically, I’d tell you to keep your head down now people know you’re a heretic.”

The words ‘you’re a heretic’ seemed to echo strangely in Sano’s ears, and it occurred to him that, in all the years he and Katsu had corresponded, he had never once thought to ask… “And what about you? What do you believe?”

“I follow Misao.” This answer was so quick and decisive, so unexpectedly passionate, that Sano was startled into looking over at where Katsu stared down again, with a small but intense frown as if of concentration, at the posters he’d made. And Sano found his heart sinking.

Katsu had probably never brought this up before because he he’d seen how determined in heresy Sano was becoming — during the same years Katsu himself had been developing this determination toward Misao? — and didn’t want to start an argument a friendship maintained via letter might not be hardy enough to withstand. But for Sano to be hit with this revelation just when he’d already been beginning to doubt Katsu…! He wasn’t about to deny that he categorically and probably often unfairly mistrusted those that professed strong religious conviction, and that made this particularly bad timing for such a strong statement from his friend about the supposed patroness of artists and the like.

Still, he had been the one to ask.

“I can’t disbelieve in Misao,” Katsu reiterated, more quietly but essentially with the same passion as before. “But I reserve judgment on the other ladies. And as for the rest… the whole church and all its prayers and shrines and writ…” He shrugged and sighed. “I’m more than a little dubious. So I’d probably keep you company in jail.”

This admission of lack of knowledge in some areas and skepticism in others did little to comfort Sano after the completely confident declaration of belief in Misao, and it was all he could do to make his reply, “Or on the block,” more sardonic than a totally serious expression of his unhappiness.

“We may both end up there anyway.” Katsu too, in his attempt at relative lightness, sounded bleak.

They both fell silent again, perhaps in greater darkness but no less pensiveness than before. Nothing had improved during the course of this conversation; even the cleanup work Sano was doing on himself had accomplished not so much the removal of the fragrant slime as its fairly even redistribution, so he felt slightly sticky all over instead of intensely so in certain spots. He was about as clean as he was going to get for the moment, however, so he dropped the loathsome cloth and came to sit beside Katsu.

Katsu looked him over in the faint light. “Better,” he said, though his unenthusiastic tone indicated his recognition of the mere redistribution and the lingering scent.

“Yeah, thanks for the…” Sano gestured vaguely in the direction of the bucket. He found he didn’t want to meet Katsu’s eyes right now, either because it disturbed him or because he didn’t want Katsu to guess at any potential change in their relationship — maybe both — so he wasn’t surprised when his gaze locked onto the printed version of Hajime’s face lying on the table. Katsu was right; he really had done well on the portrait. Even if the text was complete and painful bullshit. With a deep breath and an effort but without looking up from an image that, unexpectedly, seemed to give him strength, Sano asked, “So how am I gonna get to the meetings and back without getting arrested or whatever?”

“I think it’s going to be a matter of hiding in plain sight.”

“How?”

Before Katsu could elaborate, the answer came in a different fashion. The light increased as Chou reappeared from the other room, finally — tardy no doubt due to deliberate sluggishness rather than because his task had legitimately taken that long — carrying a candle in one hand, as before, and a couple of folded garments on his other arm. In the glow of two separate flames, especially as Chou drew nearer, Sano could make out powder blue and bright salmon-orange, and with a lump in his throat thought he saw Katsu’s point: sheer audacity might take him wherever he needed to go, since nobody with any sense would ever believe a ‘rebel spy’ would parade around in clothing so ridiculously eye-catching.

Chou stopped in front of Sano and, in a pained movement, extended the arm over which the articles were draped, looking abruptly away as if he couldn’t stand to see Sano take them. “I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” he grumbled loudly in the direction of Katsu, toward whom his face now pointed.

Half tempted to look away in a very similar motion, Sano reached out a reluctant hand for the just-as-reluctantly offered garments, and couldn’t help replying, “I totally agree.”

Chapter 25 – A Small Gathering of Malcontents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Including us,” said Sano grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Got any ideas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a lot of weird things about this old picture (not least of which is the question Why did I draw this AU’s Tomoe so many times?), but there are some decent aspects to it as well.

For some author’s notes on chapters 21 and 22, see this Productivity Log; for chapter 23 and its interlude, this one; and for chapter 24, this one.