Heretic’s Reward 25-28

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

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

Chapter 25 – A Small Gathering of Malcontents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Including us,” said Sano grimly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Got any ideas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 26 – The Visitant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before dawn, four men came and–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four men…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Says you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I believe he’s in the sanctum.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 27 – At the Sanctum Doors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

>27 Interlude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Shikijou felt it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shikijou blinked. “As a devoted?”

The young man nodded.

“And what about my guys?”

“They’re welcome to join us too.”

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

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

“Sounds like a good deal either way.”

Chapter 28 – Twitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fourth-wash did not react.

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

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

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

Still no hint of a reaction from the stranger.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not going after him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surly, Sano had no response for this reasonable point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are a lot of weird things about this old picture (not least of which is the question Why did I draw this AU’s Tomoe so many times?), but there are some decent aspects to it as well.

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

For some author’s notes about chapter 26, see this Productivity Log. For chapter 27 notes, see this one, 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.


Heretic’s Reward 21-24

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

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

Chapter 21 – Third Report: Purple Sky

It wasn’t that he hated it when Hajime was right, but in a way, Sano hated it when Hajime was right. Part of this was probably more that he hated the unpleasant and inconvenient circumstances the knight had predicted and warned him about, but merely the fact that Hajime had managed to anticipate something Sano had thought unlikely must be consistently annoying.

A mere two days in Elotica had proven Hajime’s concerns not unfounded. After the news of an assassin targeting devoted, naturally everyone in the religious districts was on edge, but it was worse than just that for Sano: suddenly almost everyone acted differently around him than they had. As Hajime had feared, a mood of mistrust had spread through the devoted, and anyone not long-established was being eyed askance and treated with less friendliness and welcome than before.

This applied, of course, to others besides Sano — any newcomer, really — but Sano, who carried a sword in contexts (such as in Megumi’s corner) where it was less than entirely usual to do so, and who’d had very attention-grabbing hair up until this very visit to town, was particularly visible. So he often got the worst of it, which was extremely inconvenient for someone trying not to stand out in order to gather information.

That wasn’t all Hajime had been right about.

Now Sano hurried back to Enca after those mere two days in the capital, his footsteps occasionally threatening to hasten into a run despite his efforts at keeping to an unsuspicious pace, his heart thudding with a beat far faster than those footsteps and that in part, he thought, served to quicken them past what he wanted, past endurance. The lump in his throat threatened to choke him, or to burst out of him as a hopeless cry, at any moment; and if it weren’t for the adrenaline pounding through him to the very tips of his extremities, he feared his entire body would be weighed down with an intolerable heaviness that would have prevented any movement whatsoever, except perhaps uncontrollable shaking.

Having passed out of sight of the Elotica gate-guards and onto a stretch of road completely untrafficked at this dark hour, Sano felt it safe to release some of his wretched energy in a brief run. It didn’t help much. And then forcing himself to slow as he reached a bend, around which he might encounter late-returning farmers or other tradesmen to whom his agitation and haste might appear strange, was tremendously difficult; it seemed his legs would easily continue running until the entirety of his being gave way in exhaustion and he collapsed. Running certainly felt more right at the moment.

There were a few people on the road outside Enca, and Sano struggled to move with something like calm. He hardly knew how he must look to them. How was he ever supposed to get into town and to the north end without someone taking unnecessary and detrimental notice of him? Or was he worrying too much? His thoughts were in chaos; he had no idea what he should be doing.

Whether or not he managed it in any way subtly, he did eventually, after what felt like an eternity, get back to the inn. And whether his footsteps on the wooden stairs and upper floor stomped or staggered, he did manage to get inside.

Hajime had obviously been in bed but not yet asleep, and was on his feet by the time Sano’s clumsy hands got the door unlocked and himself inside the room. His tall, wiry form, sword drawn against what he must perceive as an intruder at this unlikely time of night so soon after Sano had left, would have been intimidating — even terrifying — to an actual intruder, but to Sano was unexpectedly reassuring. Sano closed the door perhaps too abruptly and loudly, and leaned back against it with a shuddering breath, finally stilling except for the trembling of his body and the pounding of his heart.

Hajime’s sword lowered as quickly as it had risen, and he said somewhat harshly, “What happened? Why are you back here already?”

“I… shit…” At the thought of answering Hajime’s questions, Sano felt suddenly shakier than he had the entire way back to the inn. He moved to the table, dragged a stool out, and sat heavily down.

“You’ve got blood on your arm.” Later Sano must remember to be gratified in retrospect at the concern in the knight’s voice as he said this. “Were you attacked? Are you wounded?”

“No. Yes.” Sano shook his head. “No, I’m not wounded. Yes, I was attacked.”

“What in Yumi’s name happened?” demanded Hajime, both speaking and dropping his sword on his bed with evident impatience. “Unless you were attacked in the street right outside the inn, you’ve had the entire way back to calm down — so don’t just sit there; tell me.”

Sano snorted. “You really know how to comfort a guy.” Though the irony was that he was comforted. Somehow, though he hadn’t recognized it during the chaotic trip, he’d very much wanted to get back to Hajime. “All right.” He sat up straight from where he’d been resting his face on one hand, and took a deep breath, bracing himself to tell his unpleasant story. “I went to Tomoe’s plaza…”

Starting at the beginning helped calm him a little, enough that he was able to leave out the details he didn’t want to give. Other details, though, he found himself emphasizing to an unnecessary extent in a pretty obvious attempt to put off the eventual relation of the climax.

Hajime would never know just how difficult this was, because Sano would never tell him, because Sano would probably never want to relate the prior circumstances that made it so difficult. And maybe it was childish to keep that hidden, but that was how things were, and therefore led to how things must be.

He needed to find out more about kereme and whether or not Enishi used the stuff, and figured his best avenue for doing so — and the most effective use of his time, since, despite the approaching meeting with those he and Katsu had been chatting up lately, he often found himself at loose ends at night after most of the common roomers at the inn had gone home — was to head back to Tomoe’s corner and look around for the same companions with whom he’d had his own kereme experience.

He really, really didn’t want to — didn’t want to see any of them ever again, didn’t want to hear anything they might have to say, didn’t want to risk getting entangled in another scene like the previous — and hadn’t yet come up with anything logical he could ask that would get him information but keep him from having to partake again… but this was still the surest way he could think of to seek what he needed to know. With anyone else, he would be forced to work his way around to the subject first, and then what if they weren’t involved with kereme themselves and had no idea what he was talking about — or, worse (though probably better for them), were opposed to kereme and tried to get him in trouble for his interest? No, he thought, if he could find one or both of those two guys that had been in charge of the get-together before, that would be his best source of information.

Largely thanks to the memory gap that persisted of much of the night in question, Sano couldn’t be sure in what part of the purple end of town he’d run into them last week, so he was simply moving cautiously and watchfully through the darker and smaller streets of Tomoe’s corner, looking for low lights in any of the residences or the furtive movements of someone checking for trouble outside their doors. But thus far he’d seen nothing. It was so dark on this latest street, in fact, that he didn’t notice a still-standing figure leaning against the corner of a building until he was startlingly close.

“Sometarou?” Though there was a slight questioning tone to it, still the speaker detached from the wall and came toward Sano as if he’d been specifically expecting him.

Hoping his violent start hadn’t been visible in the darkness, Sano replied with all the levelness he could command, “Yeah. Is that–” Hair thinning and greying simultaneously, unremarkable face and figure… even in the low light it took only a moment to recognize one of his companions from that night last week, but… “Sorry, I… can’t remember your name.”

“Korucun,” the man replied with understanding friendliness. “It was your first time, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah…” Sano tried not to sound as chagrined as he actually felt, especially considering this was one of the people he might very well have slept with on that unfortunate occasion. “I forgot everyone else’s names there too.”

“That’s normal,” Korucun reassured him. He probably didn’t realize, actually, just how reassuring was his unpressing and unsuspicious good will; Sano had expected him to be as wary as the rest of the religious folks — or perhaps, on the other end of the spectrum, given what they’d conceivably done together, leering and overly familiar — but here he was nothing but welcoming. He did seem a little abstracted, though, glancing around and up into the sky as if specifically waiting or searching for something.

“Are you looking for them again?” Sano wondered, quiet and conspiratorial. Maybe he could get the information he needed without having to risk another kereme encounter. “Going to hit the K tonight too?”

“No,” said Korucun, still looking upward. “No. I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.”

Though it was a little off-topic, Sano couldn’t help asking in genuine curiosity at both words and tone, “Why?”

Instead of actually answering, the other man remarked, “Did you notice how purple the sky is tonight?”

Sano cast his bemused gaze in the same direction as Korucun’s and assessed, but couldn’t say he had.

“I can’t wait to meet her,” Korucun added softly, maybe even a little shyly.

“Her?”

“Tomoe.”

And what could Sano say to this? Possible answers in his head ranged from, “Are you sure you haven’t been hitting the K already?” to, “Do you have to stop existing too, to meet a nonexistent lady?”

Korucun was staring upward as if he’d forgotten Sano was there. After a moment he proved he hadn’t, however, by asking in the same distant tone, “Have you ever had your death reading done?”

Sano didn’t really want to know what a death reading was, and certainly couldn’t ask while posing as someone who probably should already have known. So he merely answered in the negative, and was a little surprised at how hoarsely the word came out.

“It’s an amazing experience. Yeah, it’s scary, but you feel so close to her…”

This time Sano didn’t bother to ask which ‘her’ he meant.

Finally Korucun’s eyes dropped from a sky Sano now realized he associated with the divine lady of mysteries and all that, and the look on his shadowed face proved that, however else he felt about it, ‘scary’ was accurate for his experience of whatever they were talking about. “Though I was a little surprised it was so soon,” he said, and there was a slight tremor to his tone.

Sano had a feeling he knew, now, what this death reading was, and it made him extremely uncomfortable. He was reminded a little of Yahiko claiming his proxy mother had pulled his father’s spirit from his body to spare him the pain of death by fire, and that was nothing he wanted to think about. He wondered how he could get out of this insane and unsettling conversation without giving away the fact that he didn’t believe in any of it. He cared less about hurting Korucun’s feelings than he had about Yahiko’s, of course, but here he had more of a cover to maintain…

“But I don’t think you’re the–” Korucun broke off suddenly, drawing in a sharp little breath, and in the shadows the whites of his eyes showed abruptly brighter around his irises. Startled at the expression, Sano whirled to follow the direction of his gaze, and he too found his breath catching when he saw what Korucun had seen.

There had been no sign of the man’s appearance or approach up until now, and he’d already come within a few yards of them. He moved utterly noiselessly, seemingly unaffected by the fact that they’d noticed him, and as he drew closer he also drew a keonblade whose sudden flash into energy momentarily brightened the scene. Though he was fairly clearly a man, judging by the shape of his body, little else could be determined about him; he had a hood pulled low over his face, which was consequently hidden in shadows. But if this wasn’t the assassin that had attempted to kill all the white devoted — and succeeded at one of them — it was, at least, somebody with a very similar purpose.

“Korucun,” Sano commanded in a low, tense tone, “run.”

“…and the guy came charging at us totally silent; I could barely hear his feet even when he was running. It was pretty creepy, but I drew my sword and got ready to fight him. He didn’t say anything — like, to explain what he was doing or why — but it wasn’t like we couldn’t tell he wanted to kill us.”

“Or just you,” Hajime speculated. His tone was tight, and he remained standing beside the table, not having found a seat anywhere in the room to listen. He was clearly hanging on Sano’s every word, which under other circumstances Sano would have found extremely gratifying.

Sano took a shaky breath. There were so many ways he could have responded to that brief statement, but some of those options — the most appealing, really — were sarcastic, and he didn’t have a drop of sarcasm in him at the moment. Probably best just to go on telling his story.

As the figure finished its approach, drawing up to Sano with those eerily quiet steps, Sano had a moment of relief and confidence as he reflected, Oh, this guy doesn’t actually move all that fast. And it was a moment in which he could easily have died. For what he mistook for slowness was a transition from running to attacking as fluidly smooth as a river that, under its apparent languidness, has a deadly swift current. The backhanded slice of the enemy’s sword, taking Sano unawares with its deceptively fast appearance of sluggishness as it did, should have removed him from the battle before he entered it, possibly even killed him immediately if it caught him in the neck rather than the chest. But in an instant of unexpected confusion, and more motion and heat than Sano’s awareness of the situation could account for, he felt nothing — no sudden, precise slice of pain from the energy blade, no blunter strike from the physical sword within — for it suddenly wasn’t his chest taking the blow. Nor was it the enemy’s body or weapon that met the keonblade Sano was raising in an anticipated attack of his own.

“Ko–!” Sano’s gasped-out cry of surprise and horror only got as far as the first syllable of the man’s name as the red devoted of Tomoe collapsed backward onto him, and Sano’s sword, abruptly devoid of energy, clattered to the ground.

Korucun had thrown himself into the middle of this with his back to Sano and arms spread, as if to shield him, but as he tumbled into Sano’s fumbling grasp, his head turned enough that Sano could see his expression — fear, pain… and determination. Maybe a touch of regret, but certainly no surprise. This was what he’d meant when he’d talked about meeting Tomoe. This was what he’d meant when he’d said, ‘so soon.’ He even made a brave attempt to smile now as he choked out, “Tomoe bless you, my friend.”

There wasn’t time for anything beyond that; just those five words, and he went limp. And Sano was left staggering backward under a suddenly dead weight and an oppressive purple sky.

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,” Katsuo 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.”

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.


Rainbow Love Explosion!!

Even in a series where I’m open to lots of potential pairing arrangements, I still have an optimal lineup of couples that provides me with the greatest possible satisfaction at one time. My favorite arrangement of Rurouni Kenshin characters is as follows:

Saitou and Sano
Kaoru and Kenshin
Chou and Kamatari
Aoshi and Soujirou
Hiko and Megumi
Enishi and Misao
Shishio and Yumi

This leaves some characters I’m fond of — Katsu, Tomoe, and Gein, for example — without romantic partners. In combination with the lineup above, I tend to prefer Katsu with practically OC Tokio, Tomoe as Kenshin’s ex (probably dead, poor thing), and Gein as all the single ladies put your hands up.

Interestingly, I’ve never actually written a story or series of stories wherein I’ve hit every single one of these pairings. HoH is going to come close, but Enishi’s dead before the series starts and Misao and Tokio are cats. Katsu’s romantic fate is still up in the air… maybe he will become part of the first cross-fandom pairing and hook up with a Gundam Wing character? We’ll see, I suppose.

Anyway, my point is that, for a pairing that’s part of my optimal lineup, I don’t give Chou and Kamatari nearly enough love. They’re just so freaking adorable together. So I drew a picture of them in their canon outfits (and with Kamatari’s anime hair color, which I am fond of but which tends to revert to manga red for just about every story I write that mentions it). It took me, like, three months to draw on account of being busy, but whatevs! Yay Chou and Kamatari!!

First Kiss

Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Why did Saitou kiss Sano on their way into Shishio’s fortress? Can Sano figure it out now Saitou is dead?


Two steps earlier and Kenshin would have seen. Two steps later and Yumi would have. Two seconds shorter and Sano wouldn’t have been quite shocked enough to keep quiet; two seconds longer and, again, Yumi would have seen.

Saitou certainly had a good sense of timing.

This wasn’t Sano’s only thought on the matter, but it was one of the more prevalent. The universe seemed to have handed Saitou that moment, that perfect opportunity, to surprise and confuse the hell out of Sano, and Saitou had not been remiss in accepting.

And now he was dead.

How long he’d been awake Sano couldn’t be sure; dream and waking thought tended to blend rather uncomfortably when you were wounded. Had he been dreaming about Saitou and was now consciously thinking about him? Or had he been awake, contemplating, and slipped into a dream that still gripped him? Honestly it didn’t matter much; such metaphysical questions paled in comparison with the greater query, Why had Saitou kissed him?

Sano sighed (a gesture that, he thought, indicated fairly well he was awake). He could recall the exact feeling of Saitou’s lips on his, the racing of his heart, the shock that had suffused his entire body, the taste and the smell… but why? Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Saitou was an asshole. This Sano’s logic told him with alarming frequency while these reflections meandered through his head. Saitou was an asshole, and why he’d done anything he’d done during his lifetime could not be a question worth asking. Nor Saitou, the asshole, worth pursuing, nor the feel of his kiss a sensation worth dwelling on. But Saitou was also intelligent and persistent and honorable. Not to mention attractive as hell, but what did that matter? The guy was dead.

The ability to predict and plan for the moment of his own death was something Sano would not put past Saitou’s impressive skill, so perhaps it had been a sort of goodbye. The concept of a ‘goodbye kiss’ was not unusual, after all… just totally bizarre in this context. Because why a kiss? From Saitou? Though it didn’t seem too out of character for Saitou to have left Sano with an insoluble mystery in an aggravating memory just to drive him crazy after he was dead…

And Sano couldn’t regret it. After all, apology, proposition, or farewell, it was the only one he’d gotten.

He’d felt for some time that Saitou’s disliking of him, strongly expressed though it was, really didn’t exceed Saitou’s disliking of anyone else… that Saitou might, perhaps, not even dislike him much at all. It had been a significantly shorter time since he’d started thinking his disliking of Saitou might not be as intense as he’d all along believed. Was that merely because he felt bad about Saitou’s death? Was he cutting him slack because they’d fought side by side and Saitou had eventually given his life for the cause? Sano couldn’t be certain it was only this and not something more, because he’d never bothered attempting to analyze his feelings before.

That analysis was not proving very successful now. His hands ached, his head ached, his entire body ached, and he was operating in a state of perpetual weariness; the mental fatigue that came with this topic clouded the issue further, until he could barely think straight. And wasn’t it a moot point in any case? With Saitou dead, did it really matter how Sano had felt about him?

As little able as he was to distinguish sleep from waking at any given moment of this contemplation — he knew he’d had some real sleep since coming back from the fortress, and acknowledged vaguely that it was now the next day, but more details than this eluded him — he felt it was about time for another long attempt at some real rest… the kind that didn’t involve surreal memories of Saitou’s hand gripping his jaw, holding him in place for precisely four and a half seconds, and what the hell that meant. Afterward, maybe seeing how everyone else was doing and getting a more coherent version than they’d had on their return of what had happened in their absence would distract him from what he’d been thinking about ever since that return.

Just as he was lying back down, however, from the seated position in which he’d been dully looking around the room he’d been occupying in what remained of the functional chambers of the damaged inn, there came a knock at the door. Most likely, he thought, here was that hyperactive girl trying to find anyone to talk at when everyone was as busy resting as she should be after the ordeals of the last few days, but he retracted this speculation when the knock was not repeated.

Despite its probably being someone else, then, he considered not answering, pretending to be asleep — but only for a moment. He might as well see what whoever it was wanted. Something interesting (distracting) might be going on that would be even better than rest for him at present, since if he actually managed to fall asleep he couldn’t be at all certain what type of dreams he would have (or continue to have). So he called for the unknown to enter.

It was one of the two Oniwaban guys, Kuro or Shiro (visually they were perfectly distinct, but Sano sure as hell couldn’t remember which name went with which man), and all he’d come for, he explained apologetically when he saw Sano lying down, was to bring up a note that had just been delivered to the Aoiya. Thinking he’d been right not to pretend to be asleep, Sano thanked the guy and accepted the folded paper, though he didn’t open it until he was again alone.

Its purport was merely that he should come immediately to a certain room of a certain inn, and the unfamiliar handwriting, strong but neat, had a dictatorial slant to it that matched the style of the language.

What was this? Whom was it from, and what did it mean? The writer had put Sano’s full name on the outside, so it certainly hadn’t been misdelivered, but they sure hadn’t bothered to put their own name at the end of the message. With the conflict over and Shishio dead, what kind of meeting would someone feel the need to summon him to at this point?

None of this mattered much, he reflected as he rose from his futon and looked around for something to wear. Pursuing this mystery would be an engrossing pastime, and in that light the note was little less than a godsend.

Given how imperiously it ordered him to come, Sano thought its writer might at least have provided directions to the area of town where his destination was located. He intended to go, and go immediately as instructed, but there was no guarantee, in this unfamiliar city, he would be there anytime soon. That was fine with him — a relaxing walk with thoughts of this unknown communicator to keep him from what he’d been agonizing about was exactly what he needed — but how the sender of the note would feel about his probable lateness he couldn’t guess.

It had rained significantly sometime while Sano had been unconscious, in pain, deliberating, and analyzing, and the brisk wet air under the silver cover of clouds made Kyoto feel like a different world than the one he’d walked through with Kenshin and Saitou to reach the path to the shrine. Of course, that one of those men was dead had an impact on the scene as well. Every death made the world a different place; Sano wasn’t sure why this one should make so much more of a difference than most. Maybe because it had been preceded by that damned inexplicable kiss.

But he really must stop thinking about that. Whatever secretive and dangerous circumstances he was preparing to put himself in would not be improved by thoughts of the taste of Saitou’s breath through barely parted lips, and wasn’t the entire point of going to force his mind away from that topic? Firmly Sano started running through names of potential senders of the note and potential reasons for their having sent it.

Though he’d come up with a few scenarios whose pieces more or less fit together, though sometimes only roughly, by the time (after having separately asked three people for directions that had turned out to conflict in various aspects) he found the stupid inn he was looking for approximately ten thousand miles away from his starting point, nothing he’d thought of seemed terribly likely. This wasn’t terribly important, since the distraction had been unobjectionable, and now he was finally here he could concentrate on what this situation actually turned out to be rather than his speculations about it.

The place looked normal enough, Sano considered as his gaze swept across the second-floor windows, all of them in perfectly natural and innocuous positions, where the room he needed must be located. Of course an enemy could be waiting up there to attempt to kill him silently, or possibly the entire inn was in on the ambush or whatever it was… Sano couldn’t think what enemy it was likely or even possible to be, but it wasn’t impossible. Still, he didn’t really mind walking into ambushes; one against many was his specialty. He would have preferred to be less tired and incapacitated, but everyone needed a handicap now and then, right?

When the employee inside, upon hearing of Sano’s errand (just that he was supposed to meet someone, not that he anticipated an attack), merely directed him politely as if this was expected, Sano’s suspicions intensified. He saw no one all the way up the stairs, and the second-floor corridor was empty, but he listened hard at every step for anybody that might burst out of one of these rooms or try to sneak up behind him. And when he reached the door he needed, after double-checking the note he then thrust into his pocket so as to have his hands completely free, he tensed for action before knocking. He couldn’t help hoping there might be a really fun fight waiting for him in here, and he could lose himself in those good old emotions and forget about everything else for a while.

The door opened, and Sano found himself staring up into narrow golden eyes.

“I sent that message over two hours ago. What could possibly have taken you that long?”

Sano could have told him to fuck off, that Saitou was not entitled to his presence in a timely or even an untimely fashion, that Saitou should feel damn lucky Sano had bothered to respond at all to an anonymous note mysteriously ordering him around, that he might have been in the middle of something and had taken his sweet time responding. He might even have told the truth, admitted he was unfamiliar with the layout of Kyoto and had made one or two wrong turns on the lengthy trip over. But he actually said nothing, at least at first.

For the world seemed to go simultaneously unnaturally sharp at all edges and blurred in the middle, while the saturation of every color fluctuated wildly. A sudden pressure in his head combined with an erratic jumping of his heart made him feel as if he was suspended by the latter in a haze of surprise and other, less definable emotions above an unknown abyss.

The first he knew he was swaying was when Saitou caught him. The feel of the man’s hands on his arms, hot and alive, jolted him out of his momentary syncope. And when the officer said with unexpectedly warm sarcasm, “That happy to see me, are you?” it worked further to bring reality back.

“You asshole,” Sano gasped, and, neither content to leave it at that nor able, just yet, to articulate anything more meaningful, repeated himself in a stronger tone. Finally, after what seemed at least an entire minute during which Saitou had drawn him into the room, guided him to a seated position on the mat, and dropped down beside him, he felt up to continuing. “You survived. You fucking survived, and let me think you died.”

To this there was no response, and Sano needed none to know the rebuke was unjust. Everything around him signified this was almost the earliest possible moment he could have been called here: near the futon not far off were indications of a doctor’s having been in attendance until recently; a thoroughly consumed meal’s empty dishes, though neatly stacked, had not yet been removed; and a packet of what looked like official paperwork had not yet been untied or attended to… indeed, that Saitou was here at an inn at all, rather than already back at a police station plugging away again, seemed meaningful.

And the very instant Sano’s brain had finished up these thoughts, he was overcome once again with the abrupt memory of Saitou turning suddenly toward him, gripping his chin, and kissing him firmly for four and a half seconds. From the cold and light-headed whiteness it had undoubtedly attained during his brief weakness, Sano’s face transitioned instantly to a burning heat that was probably brilliant red. Was that why Saitou had brought him here? To explain his strange behavior? And what would Sano say when he did? He never had figured out how he felt about it.

He opened his mouth to demand to know why Saitou had kissed him, but found he couldn’t quite bring himself (indeed, didn’t even really know how) to tread such vastly alien territory. What emerged instead was, “So how did you get out of there? Seemed like there wasn’t even much ‘there’ to get out of when we were leaving.” The words sounded surprisingly rational, considering how different they were from what he really wanted to say, what he really meant.

“There was a second exit on the other side of the canyon,” Saitou replied, “though it did take some work to get to.”

“Shit! Did you have to climb burning wreckage and stuff?” Though Sano was legitimately alarmed by the mental image of that escape, what he meant by the question was, ‘Why the hell did you kiss me?’

“In between dodging it,” Saitou nodded.

Impressed rather in spite of himself, the younger man gave the older a more thorough visual examination than before. Like Sano, Saitou had abandoned for the moment the ensemble, now rather the worse for blood and battle damage, he generally favored; he wore a more traditional kimono and hakama from under which bandages peeked in bright contrast to the outfit’s dark grey and black. And like Sano, Saitou had about him the kind of passive pained weariness that comes after the first long rest following injury and exhaustion. But in general, remarkably, “You don’t even look all that much more hurt than you were when we left.”

Saitou’s lips lifted at one corner as if he could tell this near-praise was delivered almost against Sano’s will, but he probably couldn’t tell that what Sano would rather say was, ‘So why’d you kiss me?’ At any rate, his reply was, “It looks like you managed to stumble back without hurting yourself too much more as well.”

“Excuse me, dickface,” Sano retorted, instead of asking why Saitou had kissed him, “I am capable of walking across town without fucking dying.”

“But apparently not without taking two hours.” It was irritating how attractive those thin lips could be even when arranged in such a mocking expression.

“You know, you’re lucky I came at all. An unsigned note telling me to come to some strange place for some reason it didn’t bother to mention?” Sano was pleased to make one of the points he hadn’t been able to when he’d first arrived, even if the point behind that point was, “And now you’re going to tell me why you kissed me, right?”

“Certainly nobody with an iota of sense would have come in response to a note like that,” Saitou agreed with mock solemnity. “I was counting on that.”

“Bite me,” Sano growled. “Or at least goddamn explain why you kissed me yesterday.” Yesterday? Had it really been only yesterday? He felt like he’d been dwelling on it for a lifetime. With an effort he forced himself to ask, “Why the hell did you even call me here, anyway?”

“I thought you might want to know I was still alive.”

“You really thought I’d care, huh?”

Rather than point out that, just minutes before, Sano had grown faint at the revelation and then profanely reprimanded Saitou for not telling him sooner, the officer merely said, “I thought it might at least be interesting to you.”

“You know you could have said that in the note, though, right?” Annoyed that he had reacted so dramatically, whether or not Saitou had called him on the discrepancy, Sano sounded more surly than he actually felt. “I didn’t have to come all the way across town when you could have just written, Hey, I’m still alive, and actually signed it.”

“But I couldn’t kiss you from all the way across town.”

Having gone so long without bringing it up and then made inroads away from the topic, then giving this statement so blandly, Saitou took Sano completely and shockingly by surprise, and he’d leaned in and almost connected with Sano’s lips before the stunned young man could react to the words or the gesture. As in the previous instance, Saitou’s nearness and intoxicating smell overwhelmed him, and Sano was for an instant entirely paralyzed.

And then, jumping as if stung, he jerked back and raised a hand to block access to his mouth. “Fucking–” he gasped. “No, just– stop that!”

Though the time that passed between this broken admonishment and Sano’s subsequent words was the span of a breath and no longer, it was enough to observe, interpret, react, and feel a great deal. For Sano thought he read in Saitou’s slight straightening movement toward his previous position some disappointment and resignation, and just that was enough to provide a few answers or at least conjectures to similar effect.

Saitou had summoned him here not merely to let Sano know he was still alive, but to reiterate the overture he’d made at the gates of the fortress… and in that brief moment before Sano explained himself, Saitou interpreted Sano’s impetuous reactive words as a rejection, and was disheartened by it. This was simultaneously, even in that fraction of a second, empowering, pathetic, and irritating to Sano.

He could never have predicted that, having (or perhaps being) something Saitou wanted, he would be able to hold over Saitou’s head his ability to deny him that desire. The lightning-fast realization that he didn’t want to deny Saitou that desire didn’t change the fact that, with this unexpected influence in mind, they were on much more equal footing than they’d ever been before. Much more equal footing was much more solid footing, and Sano felt abruptly much more sure of what to say, much more able to deal with this scenario.

And even that merest hint of disappointment he thought he saw in Saitou made him feel bad for the man. Who hadn’t, after all, experienced fear of rejection, fear of losing or even entirely failing to gain a desired prize? Saitou had too much pride to display anything beyond just that faint hint that couldn’t be hidden, but just that faint hint had been enough to make Sano pity him and feel more disposed toward his cause.

And this was annoying. A normal person, someone not intolerably arrogant and overconfident in their own powers, would perhaps say words to the effect of, ‘I like you; let’s have a romance.’ There might be presents involved, or at least pleasant conversation or other signs of friendship preceding the declaration. But not Saitou Hajime. Saitou would kiss a guy out of the blue, unsolicited, unwarned-for, unexplained, then allow his victim to suffer agonies of indecision and confusion, then try to repeat the performance without ever giving any other overt signs of interest or even good will… and then make a grippingly pathetic display of his manfully repressed sorrow at the apparent failure of his scheme. What a marvelous jerk.

And yet Sano didn’t want to say no, and did feel something in response to Saitou’s disappointment.

He might have tried to play with that power he suddenly felt he had over the other man, but couldn’t quite bring himself to evoke a possibly even stronger dismayed reaction in Saitou. Though Saitou would certainly deserve that, it might get Sano thrown out on his ass before he could admit he was just messing around, making the whole situation much more difficult and uncomfortable. Also, he maybe wanted to hasten, as best he could, the moment when Saitou would kiss him again.

So he lowered his hand, leaving his lips unguarded, and said loftily, “We need some First Kiss rules before you can do that.”

Saitou’s lean toward Sano disappeared completely as he sat straight again, eyebrow raised. “And the previous kiss doesn’t count why?”

Sano’s glare was one of righteous indignation. “Because you didn’t explain anything — like why the hell you did it — and then you went off and died.”

Any and all signs of unhappiness had vanished from Saitou’s demeanor, and the skeptical expression on his face took on a touch of amusement. “Setting aside the fact that neither of those things makes this our first kiss, are those the rules you want? ‘Tell you why I’m kissing you,’ and ‘don’t die afterwards?'”

Pensively Sano replied, “Also you have to promise you’re not just fucking with my head — because you’ve pretty much been nothing but a complete bastard all along to me, so it’s hard to believe you kissed me except to mess with me.”

“Is that all?” Saitou asked with an exaggerated air of patience.

“Um, no, also–”

“These are a lot of rules for something that’s only going to happen once.”

“Well, yeah, but a First Kiss is important!” Sano too was impatient to get on with this thing, but he meant what he said. “It’s a big moment, and it means a lot — it sort of sets up how everything’s going to go from then on!”

“All right.”

“So when you beat me up outside Katsu’s place, you were saying…”

Saitou’s brows both rose as Sano proceeded to elaborate the fourth rule. Presently, with a slight sound of frustration that might have been his forbearance snapping, he leaned forward again and cut Sano’s words off entirely by kissing him.

As Sano’s lips worked slowly against Saitou’s, opening gradually at the advancement of a tongue that tasted more of soba and green tea and less of cigarettes than he would have expected, every nerve in his body seemed to intensify in its receptiveness so his injuries throbbed like his heart. He felt sensitized and dizzy and overwhelmed, and he clutched at Saitou with painful hands as the man pushed him slightly backward with the fervor of their connection.

This was Saitou being an tyrannical asshole again, but Sano could not have complained even if he’d had breath and opportunity to do so. As a First Kiss it was acceptable, even superior, and as a representation of the rest of their relationship, whatever that turned out to be, Saitou muscling past any preexisting animosity to startle and incapacitate Sano with something new and shockingly wonderful seemed neither inaccurate nor undesirable.

When after some time they divided like a chemical bond breaking, forming two entities from what had previously been one, Sano was panting heavily and almost painfully and watching little darting, sparkling dots at the edges of his vision. He was definitely in no physical condition, at the moment, for kisses that passionate; if he had been, he would probably have flung himself on top of Saitou at this point and demanded more… never mind that Saitou’s physical condition seemed even worse than his.

“I did that,” Saitou said somewhat breathlessly, “because I like you. And I have no intention of dying any time soon. And if this weren’t such a bad time for it, I would drag you onto that futon over there and prove that I’m not just fucking with your head.”

The rush of hot blood mobilizing through Sano’s body at these words and at the look in Saitou’s eyes, making him feel all over again as if he might faint, only served to reiterate what he’d just been thinking and Saitou had essentially just said: that, despite how much both of them would love to continue this experiment, this was not a good moment for it. All the interesting possibilities that had arisen between them must be put off until another time.

“I might drag myself onto that futon over there and take a nap,” Sano muttered.

“No. I have paperwork to do, and I can’t have that temptation lying there the whole time.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at what was essentially a compliment no matter how coolly Saitou had delivered it, but he was concurrently annoyed. “You want me to walk all the way back across town again?”

“I didn’t say I wanted you to.” Saitou threw a look half regretful and half irritated at the bundle of papers.

“You and your stupid dedication,” Sano snorted.

Saitou’s gaze returned to him, the quirk of his lips and the narrowness of his eyes now clearly teasing. “Think you can manage it in less than two hours this time?”

“Probably not. I know the way better, but I’m in worse shape now — which is your fault, by the way.”

Without responding to the accusation, Saitou just said, “You’d better get going as soon as possible, then.”

“Fine!” Only Saitou would start something like this and then dismiss his partner like that. Sano climbed laboriously to his feet, somehow managing not to reel once fully upright, and stuck out his tongue at the smirking policeman. Then he turned toward the door. When he’d opened it, before actually leaving the room, he glanced back briefly, perhaps to offer a goodbye, though whether it would be friendly or belligerent he couldn’t be quite sure.

His breath caught, however, and he found himself incapable of speech of any kind when he observed Saitou smiling at him as Sano had never seen him smile before — with a look of fondness, of genuine pleasure, of satisfaction untouched by mockery. In the face of this interesting unknown he’d somehow unlocked, Sano clutched at the doorframe in an unexpected repeat of his earlier imbalance as he blushed madly… but he did manage a return smile before departing.

He made his way back to the Aoiya in continued dizziness and a mixture of buoyancy and discomfort. His injuries hurt more severely than before, and he was far more exhausted than he should have been after a mere two leisurely walks (even with an earth-shattering kiss between them), but his fluttering heart seemed to keep him half-hovering off the ground, and his emotions, though not significantly more coherent than they had been earlier, were now such a pleasant tangle as to give a vigor he could not otherwise have expected to his steps.

By the time he’d reached the blue roofs, some of them even more damaged than he was, and let himself in and found his way back up to his room as quietly as possible, he was happily, fuzzily contemplating both the general future with its bizarrely unexpected pleasures and the very immediate prospect of some thorough rest and recuperation almost this very moment. Though famished and still curious about what his friends were and had been up to, he must consider sleep his absolute first priority; with one contact of lips, Saitou had managed to enforce that.

Sano thought he understood, now, the meaning of the original kiss that had so baffled him at the time. It had been neither apology nor goodbye, as he’d speculated (though there had probably been in it some smugness at the thought of how much it would puzzle and annoy Sano until it could be explained); it had been no declaration of deepest affection, nor yet a meaningless whim; in fact it had been nothing more nor less than a suggestion of something they might try and see how they liked it. Which meant Sano didn’t need to figure out how he felt about Saitou, since the experiment was not over; actually it had just begun.

Currently he felt pretty damn positive about him, despite how much Saitou had annoyed him even during the pleasant parts of their conversation. Currently he felt pretty damn positive about everything. Getting some proper sleep was going to be a lot easier now.

For a second time, however, just as he was lying down and preparing to rest, in this instance far less worried about (indeed, rather looking forward to!) the type of dreams he might have when he did, there was a knock at the door. Also for a second time he speculated it was probably Misao, and also for a second time was proven wrong.

It was the other of the two Oniwaban guys, Shiro or Kuro, and the déjà vu of debating over appellations augmented that of seeing the note just delivered to the Aoiya. That it had arrived directly on Sano’s heels reiterated one of yesterday’s startling points: what an uncannily good sense of timing Saitou had. And Sano’s full name on the outside of the folded paper was so identical to the first, he had to pull the other out for comparison before he could believe there actually were two notes. Then, once again having waited until he was alone, he opened the message.

I thought about it, and that one may not have qualified either. We had better discuss your other rules and try again tomorrow. Come by at around lunch time.

Sano lay back down in triumph and weariness, hugging the refolded note to his chest. That was right; that was exactly right. Saitou recognized his First Kiss requirements, that they hadn’t all been elaborated upon, and that another attempt must be made at meeting them. And if he and Sano didn’t manage it tomorrow, they could easily give it another shot the next day. Eventually, when wounds had started to heal and bodies had regained some stamina (and perhaps when paperwork had diminished a trifle), they could try more than once in a day. His standards were fairly high on this point, after all; the number of attempts it might require could not really be fathomed at this juncture.

He plunged toward sleep happily anticipating something he would not previously have considered a matter of question, something he would have taken entirely for granted before yesterday: the probability that he would never have a proper First Kiss with Saitou.


This fic is dedicated to liveonanon and W. Solstice for the explosion of joy they had recently caused in my life at time of writing.

I’ve rated this story . The part where Sano reacts to Saitou reacting to Sano blocking his attempted kiss is my absolute favorite. The rest of the fic is pretty good, but that part is genius, if I do say so myself. Too bad I can’t say the same about the illustration XD

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


Hospital

I really should make an entry about my internship now that I’m at the halfway point, but I don’t feel like it. It’s going well. Much more interesting than that is the amazing picture drawn by Candra, whose art I have long adored, for me by commission:

This is a scene from Death Wish, and I literally cried when she sent me the initial sketch. Isn’t she just spectacular?? Her commissions still seem to be open, if anyone else is interested in jumping on that chance!!

SHARKFACE

Month after month after month, I put off my art exchange piece until the last weekend of the month, draw something barely passable at best, and tell myself, “Next month I will start as soon as I get the assignment so as to work on it in whatever spare time I happen to have all through the month so my picture will NOT SUCK.” And month after month after month, this doesn’t happen.

But in September, by some miracle, I actually managed to do it. And behold! The picture does not suck!

Busy Week

Although I’m still on for the rest of my lengthy shifts until Christmas, I was fortunate enough not to have to work today. So I decided to finish that picture from yesterday!

I’m more than a little astonished at how nice this turned out. I should start more pictures at work. You hear that, EA customers? Just stop… well, no, I can’t curse my own job like that, for fear of another place I work at going out of business. Aaanyway. Then I decided some color was in order, and I like the color version even better (which is a little unusual for a piece designed in black and white):

It even looks kinda Christmassy, doesn’t it? That’ll have to do for my Christmas offering this year, since I’m sure as hell not going to finish anything else in time. So happy Christmas, everiun!

Incidentally, it became clear, specifically while coloring this, that Duo is wearing Heero’s scarf. I wonder why that is…

Getting paid for this

OK, so, this extremely busy work week has been extremely busy almost exclusively in the mornings. The last few days I’ve come in and mostly just cleaned up after everything else. Lots of dishes, not a lot of arrangements. And today, I have literally nothing to do. So I’ve decided to draw a picture with what materials I happen to have with me. I’ll put progress reports here, and we’ll see how it goes.

So there’s the beginning of a sketch. Man, I’ve used so many kiss refs from Getty Images, I’m starting to forget which ones I’ve already done.

Co-worker called from the other store and said he’s sending an order over here, but I’ve yet to see any sign of it. Onward, then, to the drawings!

So now Heero, like, is a robed faery and Duo is a sleeveless, high-booted jewelry aficionado. Or something. And there is mystic wind. This is what happens sometimes.

After some time wasted spent doing actual work, we are back with more defined lines and the beginnings of a border both on Heero’s rather inconvenient-looking (at least to fly in) robe and the picture as a whole.

Borders and some colors. Dammit, Heero, why do you look like Harry Potter all of a sudden.

OK, I got a little bit further than that, but then I had to wash, like, four dishes and mop the floor, and then drive home at 20 MPH in teh snows. So. I like this picture very much so far, but Poe only knows when I’ll have a chance to finish it.

Have You Done This Before?

Remember not long ago when I was complaining about a paltry $90 charge for a tetanus shot? Well, today I scheduled my three appointments for rabies vaccination at a local health center (since my doctor does not offer this vaccine), and learned to miss paying $90 for a poke in the arm. Even if each of these three visits were only $90 I would be satisfied. As it is, the entire thing is going to cost upward of eight hundred. I’m having serious second thoughts about doing it at all at this point.

Aaanyway, the revelation of this price rendered me useless for most pursuits for the rest of the day, and this combined with a pairing freakout I’ve been having of late led me to do the first drawing besides art exchange stuff I’ve done for quite a while. I don’t know if anyone else has been watching Once Upon a Time, but ZOMFG YOU GUYS Aurora and Mulan. I’ve been shipping them essentially from the off, and the writers have provided no lack of subtext to encourage me in this, but on Sunday they had this moment like no moment I’ve ever seen. So here is a picture:

I colored it, intending it to be a washed-out scribbly piece… but then I found that no combination of lineart and color pleased me nearly as much as each one on its own. So here are some colors:

Now I just have to decide whether I really want this rabies vaccination right now. Well, that and watch my Broncs totally obliterate the Raiders again. What a difficult life I have.

Heretic’s Reward 16-20

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on September 1, 2019.

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

Chapter 16 – Nine Years Later

“Katsu?!” He said it overloudly, but he didn’t care. He’d jumped from his stool at last and seized both of his old friend’s shoulders in his pleasure and sudden surprise. “Holy fuck! What are you doing here?”

Katsu, who looked so much like an older version of what Sano specifically remembered that it was almost comical, gave him the same serious smile he’d always used to. “I’ve been living in Elotica almost two years now,” he said. “If you weren’t such a poor correspondent, you’d know that, but I haven’t had a letter from you since before I left Encoutia! A better question is: what are you doing here?”

This better question was enough to remind Sano forcibly of his situation; he glanced about in some concern to see whether he’d attracted any attention. It didn’t seem he had; excited reunions of old friends were probably tolerably common around here. Trying to think how to answer, he cleared his throat.

“I see that’s not a better question.” Katsu’s tone had dropped as he followed Sano’s somewhat paranoid gaze around the room. “Anyway, I have a letter for you.”

This recaptured Sano’s full attention. “What..?”

Katsu released Sano’s shoulder and slid onto the stool beside his. As Sano retook his abandoned place before his cooling supper, Katsu was pulling a small scroll from his sleeve; Sano accepted it in growing confusion.

For Sano, care of Katsuhiro the printmaker’s apprentice, was the cramped direction. Sano looked up from it to Katsu with knitted brows. “You’re a printmaker’s apprentice now?” It was a stupid thing to ask first, but at the moment he was torn inside between continued pleasure at seeing his friend again and wonder at the circumstances attending it. “But who could have possibly known we’d run into each other…?”

“It was delivered yesterday by a letter carrier,” Katsu answered; the look on his face seemed to convey much the same frame of mind as Sano’s. “I’ve been dying of curiosity ever since. Oh, and, yes,” he added as a sort of aside, “I am the printmaker’s apprentice. Though I think I’ve learned more than he ever knew, and it’s about time for me to move on.”

Sano wasted no more time in opening and reading the message. The handwriting inside, though a little crowded on the small paper, was neat enough — certainly neater than his own — and something about it, from the very beginning, struck him as familiar, though he knew he’d never seen it before. When he realized almost immediately whom the scroll was from, he thought he understood this impression, and he read with increasing wonder.

I’m sorry I I apologize for running off, but you have to understand how I was sure it was going to end up. What was I supposed to do? The ladies don’t take sides in politics, so should I really? I’m sorry I yelled at you. I think you’re really my friend, but it’s too bad you don’t believe in the ladies. They can help you a lot. They comfort you, like I told you, and they tell you things you need to know — like where to send a letter — and they warn you of danger and stuff. But it’s not my job to convince you, I guess. I hope I see you again sometime when you’re not with that jerk anymore and not working on stuff I shouldn’t be involved with. Stay safe. –Yahiko

Preceding the words ‘that jerk’ there was a fairly neat round blotch, as if Yahiko had started to write Hajime’s name, realized this could potentially put him and Sano in danger, and completely eradicated what characters he’d already formed. Sano rather thought Yahiko must think him the bigger jerk, in any case — and the forgiveness in this message, only implied though it was, meant more to him than he would have expected.

Katsu, invoking a privilege of friendship that, even after all these years apart, Sano did not begrudge him, had moved around to look over Sano’s shoulder and read the letter at the same time he did. Now he wondered quietly, “Who in the world is this?”

Slowly Sano dragged his eyes away and looked his friend over. Really, it was almost unbelievable how little Katsu had changed, at least visually, in the last nine years. His face and body were those of an adult now, of course, and a touch more angular, but he still had his hair cut the same way, and a gaze just as dark and serious as ever. It was as if he’d already been, back then, what he intended to be for the rest of his life, and had no reason thereafter for any alteration.

“Well, sit down, and I’ll tell you,” Sano commanded. And as Katsu obeyed, Sano began his tale in the quietest tone Katsu would still be able to hear. “Back home — in Eloma, you know — I was on my way home from somewhere, through the forest, and I ran into this kid…”

Having no idea who might overhear him despite his efforts at quiet, he decided reluctantly that, just for the moment, he probably shouldn’t mention Hajime even obliquely, nor the real reason he’d come to Elotica and what he was doing here. So he made Yahiko the focus of his story, didn’t specify the identity of the attackers the kid had helped him fight off, gave the impression that the journey to Elotica had been started on a whim or perhaps in response to his annoyance at Seijuurou’s attitudes, and generally managed to give an account with more holes than actual substance, finishing up with, “…and this is the first I’ve heard from him since.”

Katsu was shaking his head slowly and gravely. “Poor kid,” he remarked.

“‘Poor kid?'” echoed Sano in some irritation. He didn’t like withholding so much from his friend, but would quickly get over it if Katsu continued making comments like that. “He’s a little brat who hears voices and messes with people’s heads!”

With a wan smile Katsu said gently, “Sano, whether you believe in the ladies or not, it’s obvious from your story — and that letter! — that the kid has some real power. You can’t just ignore that.”

“That’s what we–” Quickly Sano caught himself, remembering there shouldn’t be any ‘we’ involved in his narrative at this point. “Well, but it doesn’t make up for…” But Yahiko hadn’t ever really done anything wrong, except as far as clinging to the traditional brainwashing of a naïve and repressive religion counted — which, to Sano, had always been quite a bit… Yahiko, however, was a little different. He hadn’t tried to force anything on Sano, and, in fact, had seemed pleased that Sano had real reasons for what he did and didn’t believe. He’d been reasonable about the church, too. Sano sighed.

“You thought you’d found somebody just like you, didn’t you? Some orphan who’d lost faith at the same age you had.” Katsu sounded sympathetic, and annoyingly certain of his speculation. “That’s why this bugs you so much; you thought you’d found a kindred spirit, and then it turned out he was actually almost the opposite.”

“You’re way too fucking smart for your own good, you know that?” Sano turned fully to face his friend with a skeptical and not entirely happy smile.

“Yeah, I know,” said Katsu dismissively. “Now think how the kid must feel.”

“You’re just standing up for him because his mom sounds exactly like yours,” Sano grumbled.

“Well, that might be a coincidence, and it might not. But, no, that’s not why I’m standing up for him. Think about it. All that stuff he said to you — I’m sure it’s true: people who are different always have a hard time. No wonder he lied to you when he realized you were a heretic! He’s probably taken every kind of abuse you can imagine since his dad died; how was he supposed to know you wouldn’t treat him even worse because of what he was and what you were?”

“Ladies, don’t lecture me, Katsu!” In some frustration Sano leaned his face on his hand. Why had he thought Katsu might be on his side? Hell, why had he thought he had a side? Were there sides in this? Why should there be sides? It was just a matter of being driven apart from someone he might have cared about by their drastically different beliefs. “I’m not really mad at him or nothing,” he admitted with another sigh. “But…” He tried to put into words one of the many things that had been bothering him about Yahiko. “If he’s so powerful, why would he let anyone treat him bad? If I could fight like that when I was his age, nobody would’ve ever kicked me around.”

Now Katsu grinned nostalgically. “I can only imagine,” he said with a slight laugh. “Not that I can remember anyone ever kicking you around, back in Encoutia, at least.” He sobered again as he continued. “But people are different, you know? You might have had the courage to use power like that whenever you wanted, if you’d had it, but it seems like he’s afraid of everyone. He hasn’t been able to trust anyone since his parents, so all he knows how to do is run away. He’ll learn one of these days he can’t keep running his whole life, and then he won’t get kicked around anymore either.”

Weakly, helplessly, Sano smiled. “You’re still a damn know-it-all. I barely told you about this kid and now you’re analyzing his deepest fears and everything…”

Katsu shrugged with a faint smile of his own, and turned his attention toward his drink.

Unrolling the little letter again, Sano reread it. I’m sorry I yelled at you. I think you’re really my friend, it said. And he couldn’t help wondering whether if he hadn’t once had a brother Yahiko’s age he would have cared quite so much.

Not wanting to think about Yahiko anymore, “So how about this new king business?” Sano asked at length.

Katsu didn’t look up from his cup, but his sigh was audible and Sano could see the lowering of his brows. In as quiet a tone as Sano had used for his potentially dangerous story, he said, “Kenshin was never a strong enough king for my tastes, but he at least tried. The only reason to seize power from him would be to make certain immediate changes to the bureaucracy. Soujirou’s not doing anything of the sort… he has no reason for what he’s doing, as far as I can tell.”

Sano tried to move unobtrusively, casually, as he edged toward the left side of his stool and leaned a little closer to Katsu. “You think there’s someone behind him, right?”

Katsu nodded.

“But not Gontamei.”

Finally Katsu looked over at him, appearing surprised and pleased. “Sano, I’m proud of you! I never thought I’d see you paying attention to politics. No, not Gontamei… someone in one of the divine houses. Or someones in some of the divine houses.”

“Not Kaoru, though.”

Katsu returned his attention to his mostly empty drink. “Don’t be too sure of that… those girls’ loyalty to Kenshin could be for show.”

“Well, you seem to know a lot.”

Again Katsu nodded.

“Anything interesting?” There was no way for Sano to keep his tone casual; Katsu was bound to pick up that he had a stake in this beyond simple curiosity.

Whether or not Katsu did, he seemed ready enough to share what he knew. “Have you heard what our new king’s first official act was?” At Sano’s shake of head he went on, “He started this thing he calls the Devoted Council… It’s just like it sounds: a devoted from each house sit council to the king. Supposedly it’s ‘to ensure the king’s decisions are in keeping with the will of the ladies,’ but obviously it really comes from whoever in the divine houses is backing him — to make sure they have a say in the rule of the country. Probably a damn big say.”

“Shit.” Sano tried not to look too dark or pensive at this, but knew he was failing. “Thanks for that news.”

“I’m not going to ask questions you don’t want to answer, Sano,” said Katsu carefully, “but if you need any help, let me know, all right?”

“So that pretty much confirms it’s the divine houses behind this, doesn’t it?” was how Sano finished this account of his reunion with Katsu. Including so much detail hadn’t bothered him this time, not only because he’d been so pleased with the circumstance but because Katsu had given him so much useful information. Honestly he wished he’d run into him a lot sooner during his trip into the city.

“It is another good indicator,” Hajime agreed.

“And having Katsu around will be useful.”

“Are you sure you can trust him?”

Sano had sat up abruptly in response to Hajime’s statements so many times during this conversation that now he decided just to stay upright. “What do you mean?” he demanded as he slid until his back touched the wall. “This guy’s my best friend!”

Hajime threw a slightly skeptical look a Sano’s legs, which now protruded into space off the edge of the bed. “Your best friend whom you haven’t seen in nine years.”

“Hey, I wrote to him!” Sano protested.

“Only occasionally, from what you just said.”

“Yeah, well…” Even a hint that he might not be able to trust Katsu disturbed him, and Sano couldn’t help being annoyed at Hajime for suggesting it. That idea was, however, perfectly reasonable, and one that needed to be suggested at this point. Sano had fallen into such easy camaraderie with his old friend, just as if they’d never been separated, he’d almost automatically begun thinking of him as he had before: as someone with whom he could share anything, someone that would have his back in any scenario… but the truth was he didn’t really know Katsu anymore, and couldn’t say with any surety that Katsu would be on his side in any given situation.

Hajime seemed to recognize Sano’s understanding, for he only said, “Just be careful.”

Glumly Sano nodded.

After he’d allowed Sano to stew for a minute or two in doubt, Hajime remarked pensively, “This Devoted Council…”

Responding to the disapproval in the brief phrase, Sano said, “Yeah, as if the church needed more say in people’s lives.”

“Politically it’s a good move. It gives an impression of piety and tractability… and it will make people wonder why Kenshin never did something like it.”

“Yeah, but, seriously… more religious influence?”

Hajime shook his head.

With a frustrated sigh Sano tried to recall what was left of his report. “Royal knights,” he remembered. And at the attentiveness with which Hajime immediately looked at him, Sano felt a little bad having to admit, “I’ve got practically nothing. I heard some talk about you — pretty admiring talk, too, you should be glad to know — and I think at least one of the others is dead–”

“Who?”

Sano gave a gesture of helplessness. “Problem is, Soujirou’s got a lot of guys running around who he’s calling royal knights now, so just listening in to conversations is really confusing because you never know who they mean when they say ‘royal knight.’ And that’s already assuming people know what they’re talking about in the first place. But the rumors I heard most said three knights ran off and one was dead; nothing on the last guy.”

Who?” Hajime muttered intensely, clearly not expecting Sano to answer this time.

Honestly Sano wished he could… these were Hajime’s companions they were discussing, possible allies in the present cause, and maybe even the knight’s friends (if such a word could apply to any relationship of Hajime’s); it was only natural he would want to know what had become of them specifically. Unfortunately, Sano had never felt safe asking direct questions of anyone he thought might actually have the information; the rumors he’d already relayed were the best he could provide.

“Sorry,” he found himself saying, rather unexpectedly. “Maybe there’ll be better stuff later.”

“And I assume if you weren’t able to find out much about the royal knights, you found out even less about Kenshin.”

“Nothing,” Sano confirmed. “Lots of people are wondering where he is, but of course if anyone knew, they probably wouldn’t have been saying it where some random guy like me listening in could hear it.”

Appearing simultaneously annoyed and as if this was exactly what he’d been expecting, Hajime nodded again. “So,” he said darkly, “we still know next to nothing about what’s actually going on, and we have no advantage.”

“Hey–” Sano was a little stung by his demeanor and its implications– “that’s not my fault!”

“I didn’t say it was.”

“Yeah, well, you looked it.”

Hajime mostly ignored this. “We do know we should focus more on the divine houses than the royal families, and that’s a beginning, at least.”

“A beginning,” Sano repeated. “Sure.” It was a grumble, but there was the dullness of weary disappointment to it as well. He should have known even so many days of effort with no reward and possibly in constant danger, definitely bored and annoyed much of the time, still wouldn’t impress or even satisfy the chief of the royal knights.

But it didn’t really matter, he reminded himself. His reason for coming, for doing what he’d been doing, had been to assist in his patriotic duty and get some of his own back against Soujirou, not to impress Hajime. Well, maybe it had been a little of all three. Not necessarily in that order.

“A beginning is more than we had before,” Hajime admitted, to Sano’s minor gratification. “But you’ll have to go back tomorrow.”

Sharply Sano nodded. “And I can get a little more specific on everything. Drop the royal families, find out more about Shougo and Sayo, that sort of thing.”

With an assessing glance, perhaps somewhat pleased, Hajime also nodded.

“And for now, I can relax for a while. What is there to do around here for a guy who’s not busy spying out shit in the city?”

At this, Hajime turned slowly from him with a sigh and looked out the window again.

Chapter 17 – Second Report

“If Katsu isn’t on our side, he’s going pretty far to make it seem like he is.” This was the beginning of Sano’s second report on returning to the Enca inn, but it wasn’t the first thing he’d said on entering the room. First there had been an awkward greeting during which they’d both, apparently, tried to hide how pleased they were to see each other; and then an argument over how economical it might be to order a meal from the inn staff just then, since Sano hadn’t had breakfast but Hajime would prefer to conserve funds and simply wait until supper.

“Based on what you know of him, can you think of any reason for him to pretend to help you?”

Sano still didn’t like to consider the possibility of Katsu betraying him, didn’t really appreciate Hajime bringing it up again, and was already a little annoyed (and hungry) after the previous argument — but at the same time, Hajime was absolutely right to question everything at this point, especially such a convenient reunion with an old friend. So Sano struggled not to lash out and to give the matter some rational thought.

Finally he said, “I can think of a reason someone in his position might. We’ve been talking to people at a few different inns, trying to get a group together who might actually want to do something instead of just chattering about it over drinks, and we’ve got some people interested. If we got a resistance going and meeting somewhere, and then somebody reported it to Soujirou, that somebody might get a big reward… money or political favor or both or more; I don’t know. Thing is, I just don’t think Katsu’s that kind of person. He watches what’s going on, yeah, but he’s never shown any interest in getting involved until now. I just don’t think he cares that much; he’s way more interested in… art… and… making stuff.”

He thought he’d presented a fairly well rounded picture with this statement — though admittedly his knowledge of Katsu was still based more on the letters they’d exchanged over the last nine years than any newly discovered or rediscovered traits. In any case, he was pleased to see Hajime nodding slowly in a manner suggesting he would accept this perspective for now. “Keep your eyes open, though,” the knight said at last. “I know you don’t want to think so, but he may still have his own agenda.” And that was all it took to keep Sano from getting angry: an acknowledgment that Katsu was his friend and it distressed Sano to think of him as a possible enemy; Hajime was capable of being considerate when he bothered.

In response to this consideration, Sano decided to give Hajime what he’d brought him now instead of later. Despite this being a very natural reaction, however, he couldn’t help sounding a little awkward as he announced, “Hey, I brought you these.” Neither gift-giving nor a lot of interpersonal thoughtfulness had been typical of their relationship thus far, after all.

“Why?” Hajime wondered, perhaps just a little suspicious as he accepted the two books Sano had fished from his backpack.

“I dunno…” Sano looked away immediately, shrugging. “I thought you’d like them.”

“But how much did you spend on them?”

Reassured that the financial aspect of this exchange was Hajime’s source of concern, Sano replied in some relief, “Oh, they’re Katsu’s.”

But evidently the other aspects of this exchange were also on Hajime’s mind. “So you specifically asked him if you could borrow books for me?”

“Yeah… well… just it seemed like last time you were going a little stir-crazy in here. Or maybe more than a little.”

“That’s no reason to be giving out dangerous information.”

Reflecting that he should have known better than to expect thanks, Sano reassured him somewhat indignantly, “I haven’t told anyone about you — not even Katsu! He thinks I have to hide out a lot and it gets boring.”

“Does he really think that, I wonder…?”

“Well, even if he doesn’t believe that story,” Sano protested, “there’s no reason for him to think I wanted them for you.”

“He probably also has no reason to believe you’ve really gotten involved in the conflict against Soujirou purely out of your own interests and motives. And the fact you’re working with him to try to get a resistant group together will tell him you don’t have a group elsewhere. Therefore, it would be logical for him to assume, when you ask for books you’re really not the type to read on your own, that you want them for a fugitive you’re harboring somewhere. And if you happen to have mentioned my name even one time more than the name of anyone else involved in this affair, it’s a good bet he knows who you’re working with when you’re not working with him.”

“Ladies’ fucking tits!” Sano had jumped up from the bed where he’d previously been sitting, and was gaping angrily at Hajime. “Why don’t you just say I can’t read at all and I’m obviously too stupid to be handling any of this and too unprincipled to care about it anyway?!”

“As much as I would enjoy saying that,” replied Hajime coolly, though with a teasing glint in his eye, “it would be straying from the point. I’m not even trying to insult you at the moment; I’m trying to remind you you need to be careful. If your friend is really on our side, it’s fine for him to know about me… but if he’s playing his own game throughout all of this, it may be very dangerous.” He sounded somewhat bitter as he finished, “I can’t do much from here, so practically our entire cause is in your hands.”

Sano’s ire, and as a result his glare, had lost some of its intensity as Hajime said this. Problematically, Hajime’s rude bluntness was so often perfectly accurate. Sano really wasn’t much a reader of books, and probably wouldn’t have gotten involved, on his own, in the matter of who ruled the kingdom… and any potential carelessness on his part could get Hajime killed.

“Besides,” Hajime added as Sano stared across the room at him with this equivocal attitude, “I don’t doubt your principles.” Breaking eye contact with Sano so as to look down at the books again, he continued, “Your motives are always good. It’s your methods I doubt.”

Once again, though it rankled to be doubted, Sano couldn’t logically protest; Hajime had every right to worry about the performance of the man on whom his personal safety and possibly the future of the king he served rested. Besides that, it was unexpectedly gratifying, even mollifying, to have his principles recognized by this royal knight. So he took a deep breath and, instead of arguing, started trying to ease Hajime’s doubts regarding his methods.

There was a certain type of blind loyalist they didn’t want — people that, without a great deal of comprehension of what was going on or what had gone before, yet professed strong support for Kenshin. Of course any support was welcome, but people that had actually given the matter some thought, had some reason for their loyalty, were likely to be more reliable.

The woman they were watching tonight, for example, had established during her supper talk that, while she felt little in relation to Kenshin in specific, she was pretty passionate about changing things via the proper methods — and usurpation and abduction did not strike her as proper. Katsu and Sano had been particularly pleased with the way she’d worded it to the friend she was discussing the matter with: “If someone doesn’t like the way you handle your business, and thinks he could sell baked goods better than you do, is he allowed to lock you up in a back room somewhere and just step in and take over your shop?”

They’d decided she seemed more Sano’s type than Katsu’s. Whether or not she was Sano’s type (and, he being interested only in men, this was unlikely) didn’t really matter; it just needed to seem logical, at a glance, that someone like Sano might try to draw her aside for a private conversation.

Of course this way they risked exposure, but that risk could not be erased, and they had to do something. They could only gage people’s sincerity as best they were able, and hope any spies sent by Soujirou’s people to prevent exactly what they were trying to do would present the sort of supposedly raging loyalty they were already avoiding.

This particular woman didn’t give Sano any convenient opportunity to talk to her inside the inn, which meant he had to follow her out. He didn’t much like having to do that, since it made him come across as an overly eager creeper — not a good way to get someone to trust or want to talk to him. Still, once again, there was no other option if he wanted to try her at all tonight.

Katsu elbowed him conspicuously in the ribs in a ‘Go for it!’ sort of gesture. It was part of the act, but Sano hadn’t been expecting it, and therefore reacted very naturally by choking on his drink and jumping abruptly away from his seat in an attempt not to spill it all over himself. Then he shot Katsu a dirty look, left him to pay the tab, and headed toward the door after the woman.

This time he got lucky: nobody else was hanging out around the inn’s entrance, which meant he could approach her immediately instead of trying to stalk her to a point where nobody would overhear them. He still started things out in accordance with the deception, however, just in case. “Hey, wait up!”

She complied, turning to look at him, her expression curious and slightly skeptical as she glanced up and down his figure. “Yeah?”

“I, uh…” He glanced back at the inn’s door, probably giving a good impression of bashfulness but actually just to double-check that no one else was close by. “I was listening to you inside, and I was wondering if you might want to–” he lowered his voice– “team up with some other people who’re trying to get our old king back on the throne.”

After a pronounced blink of eyes, she stared at him in silence. Clearly he’d played his part well, for she looked completely taken by surprise. Finally she said, in as low a tone as his, “You really just walk up to people and ask them that?”

“If you can think of a better way to do it,” Sano replied with a rueful grin, “I’d love to hear it.”

Her return smile looked as if it was delivered almost against her will. “Let’s walk this way,” she said with a gesture. Sano nodded and fell into step beside her, ready to bolt if she gave any indication of turning on him. But as they walked she went on, “I might be interested in… what you suggested… if I thought it had a reasonable chance of success.”

“Gets more reasonable with every person who joins us.”

“And how many people is that?”

“Not enough yet.”

She nodded, and that she’d accepted this answer was another good sign. “I’m not any kind of fighter, mind you — a little self-defense for the streets is all. If flour will help you, I’m a good source, but if you’re looking for someone who can hold a sword, look somewhere else.”

“We’re just looking for lots of people,” Sano assured her. “The first step is to prove that lots of people don’t like this, right? There may be fighting eventually; I don’t know. You don’t have to commit to anything right now. We’re gonna meet in a week — a couple of weeks, I mean–” Damn the five-day week and that he was used to the ten– “to see just how many people we’ve managed to scrape up and what they all can do. We’ll talk about some ideas then.”

Again she nodded. “Sounds like the beginning of a plan. Where and when is this meeting?”

“If you come back here in nine days — Mis’hyou after next — we’ll tell you.”

She stopped walking and looked him over again, brows slightly lowered. “You’re taking a big personal risk here.”

Sano shrugged. “Like you said, you can’t just lock someone up in a back room and then take over their business.”

With a serious smile, she raised a hand to her forehead in a gesture of courtesy and respect. “I’ll see you a week from Mis’hyou, then.” Then she turned and hurried away down the street.

Once again Hajime was nodding with seemingly reluctant approbation. It was clear he wouldn’t concede verbally in regard to Sano’s methods, nor praise his progress, but there was definitely a relenting tone to his subsequent statement, “All right. So we may have a growing number of allies in town, with a date set to find out for sure, and your friend seems like a useful asset for now, whatever he may do later. What else did you find out?”

“Let’s see… knights.”

At this, Hajime looked quickly over at him with an expression of piercing interest.

“The ones who got away were Sanosuke and Soujirou. You didn’t tell me you had knights with the same names as me and the new fake king.”

“That didn’t seem a point worth mentioning.” Hajime was, however, evidently very pleased to hear which of his subordinates had escaped. “Besides, you’ve never mentioned that ‘Sano’ wasn’t your full name.”

“Oh. Well. Anyway, yeah, those two apparently escaped. I still don’t know about the other two, though; people keep saying they’re either dead or joined Soujirou.”

“Well, keep your ears open for where any of them might be.”

Sano nodded. “Still no real idea where Kenshin is, either. The good thing is, I figure if Soujirou had had him killed, I’d have heard about it. Some people wonder if Kenshin might be dead, but nobody’s claiming that he definitely is.”

“I doubt he’ll have Kenshin killed; he has no excuse to. Claiming he’s just trying to improve the kingdom will only work for him as long as he doesn’t demonstrate a personal grudge. Executing the previous king for nothing would lose him a lot of support.”

“Yeah, well,” said Sano darkly, “we better hope he sticks to that idea. Some people are worried he’ll come up with some fake crime Kenshin’s committed so he will have an excuse.”

Hajime looked grim, but said nothing.

Shaking his head to drive away the unpleasant possibilities for now, Sano went on. “I found out some stuff about most of the divine houses; that’s where I spent most of my time during the day. It’s actually mostly gossip, but that’s about all I can get at this point. There’s nothing really new about Shougo and Sayo; they haven’t stopped acting weird, and they still aren’t bothering to hide it at all, so that hasn’t changed, except that the Megumi people are starting to say what I already thought: if those two are in some resistance, they’re terrible at it.”

Hajime smirked faintly at this assessment.

“None of the divine houses have had any new announcements about Soujirou, and they’re still doing that Devoted Council thing every week. Five-day week. Gossip comes from the servants in the palace about what they’ve been talking about, and I don’t know how true it is, but it seems like the Kaoru girls are serious about not supporting Soujirou’s bullshit, since apparently everything Kaoru has to suggest at the Council gets completely ignored.”

“That’s useful to know,” Hajime said thoughtfully.

“Yeah. It makes it seem like, if a divine house is behind all of this, it really isn’t Kaoru.”

Hajime nodded.

“After I heard that, I decided not to spend any more time in Kaoru’s corner of town unless I had to. So the next interesting thing I noticed was Kamatari kissing someone on a balcony over in Yumi’s. I mean serious kissing: hands were going places, and some clothes were already off, and it looked like more clothes were about to come off; they were really into it. This other person didn’t have a shiiya on, and the light made it hard to see details, so I don’t know who it was… but the first one was definitely Kamatari.” Yumi’s fourth-wash had been interesting enough (and had embarrassed Sano enough at their first meeting) that he’d easily recognized her again.

“It may have been Makoto, one of Yumi’s golds,” Hajime provided, repeating one piece of gossip he’d already shared during their walk to Enca. “But given Kamatari’s reputation, it could have been anyone, inside Yumi’s house or out of it. According to everything I’ve heard, Kamatari is a very sexual person.”

It wasn’t a point of great significance at the moment, but Sano couldn’t help reflecting briefly on the complete lack of any sort of condemnation in Hajime’s voice.

One of many reasons religious folk were such damn hypocrites was that they held themselves to different standards of behavior, particularly when it came to sexuality, than the secular populace; the latter tended to be extremely repressive and prudish about extramarital sex and multiple partners, sometimes even when referring to the devoted among whom such behavior was allowed. To hear a non-devoted speaking without any negativity of a ‘very sexual person’ (in a tone of understatement, no less) was refreshing. Sano hadn’t forgotten the look Hajime had given him on discovering he’d been sleeping with Seijuurou, but, in light of what seemed to be optimistic new information on Hajime’s attitudes, Sano thought now the knight had probably been questioning his taste rather than his morals.

Of course this wasn’t the time to discuss such things, and even thinking about it, pleasant as it was, had to wait, since they were in the middle of a conversation. “Yeah,” Sano said, more or less smoothly in response to Hajime’s last statement, “the only reason this was even interesting is that people are starting to say Kamatari’s sleeping with Soujirou now too… but I’m pretty sure this person on the balcony wasn’t Soujirou. He wouldn’t have been on an open balcony where just anyone could assassinate him, for one thing.”

Hajime made a pensive sound and put a thoughtful hand to his face, obviously struck. When Sano inquired, the knight said slowly, “You’re right. It is interesting. Kamatari gets away with plenty of sex with people outside the church because everyone is willing to look the other way to a certain extent — but the king is too high-profile to ignore. If Kamatari is sleeping with Soujirou, we can expect to see serious repercussions of one type or another eventually.”

“And if we don’t…”

Hajime nodded. “Listen for anyone complaining about that; it may be useful to know which house objects most strongly.”

“Right. All right, so, Misao… there was nothing new, actually, around Misao’s place. At least I didn’t get robbed as much this time, though.” Sano shook his head. “They’re all so used to stealing shit, they probably didn’t think anything of Soujirou stealing the throne. Anyway, nobody seemed like they were thinking about it at all this week.”

Hajime snorted. “It’s no wonder the country’s in such a state, when the religious leaders people look to for guidance are so indifferent to the government.”

Sano could do nothing but agree. Then he cast about for any other news he hadn’t yet relayed and finally, a little reluctantly, brought up what he’d saved for last. “And Tomoe… Tomoe’s people…”

“What?”

Sano had to force the word out. “Kereme.”

“What about it?” Hajime didn’t seem to have much patience for Sano’s reluctance to speak, and Sano wasn’t sure he would have any more patience once the story was told.

“Well…”

Chapter 18 – The K

What he sought at this point was what would under other circumstances have been considered purely social interaction: the opportunity to discuss whatever came up (whatever he could induce to come up) with whomever he met. He hadn’t run into his acquaintance Toki so as to have her direct him to the best places for such interaction, so he searched for them on his own.

The problem with this was that Toki had seemed so pious, not at all the type to enjoy socializing in casual and only moderately religious settings, that Sano doubted he was likely to find the sort of interaction he needed based on what she’d shown him. As such, he mostly wandered blindly through Tomoe’s part of town poking his nose into corners where it looked like chatty people might be inclined to congregate (and hopefully share political thoughts and updates with newcomers).

Really, it was pure luck that a first-wash, whose name Sano didn’t remember but whom he recognized by the guy’s frizzy hair as someone to whom Toki had introduced him, happened to notice him poking around and hailed him in a tone of friendly secrecy by the false name he’d been using.

“Glad I saw you, buddy,” he said. “I was just checking the street, about to lock up.”

“Sounds like I’m just in time for something,” Sano replied, having no idea what that something might be but playing along and speaking in the same tone of subdued, clandestine excitement.

“You sure are.” The frizzy-haired devoted’s voice dropped. “We’re all hitting the K tonight, since we just finished a whole batch of shiiyao and made sure we had plenty left. Figured you might want to see how we do it here in the city.”

The bright-eyed anticipation — actually, the somewhat disconcertingly wide-eyed, pointed, almost twitching anticipation in the man’s face would have been impossible to miss, but Sano was so far from any idea what he meant that, though he followed him into the building from which he’d come, it must be inconceivable to play along any further than that.

Immediately inside the door frizz-hair was now locking stood another first-wash Sano vaguely recognized, and this man too greeted him with an obvious excitement whose source Sano could not place. Though he’d successfully stumbled upon a gathering, he was beginning to think it wasn’t the type likely to be exchanging political opinions. What it might actually be he couldn’t guess.

“Look who I found on the street,” said the first devoted.

“It’s Sometarou, isn’t it?” said the second, whose best identifying feature was a large mole on his jaw on the left.

“That’s right,” Sano replied, trying to sound easy and ready for anything.

“Good timing! But I bet you were probably looking around for it anyway, right?”

Evidently Sano’s total lack of understanding was glaringly apparent, for the mole-faced devoted burst out laughing. “Oh, man… I heard small-towners didn’t do it much, but, seriously…”

Frizz-hair clapped Sano on the back with a friendly hand that lingered there a few seconds too long for perfect comfort. “You really did come just in time,” he said, sounding pleased. “You’ll have your first taste of kereme in style.”

Kereme… that sounded familiar… but no matter how Sano wracked his brains, he couldn’t think where he’d heard the word before, or what it might be. So, wondering what the hell these people were on about, and distinctly uneasy about whatever was about to happen to him, he allowed himself to be led down the corridor by the two devoted. The latter moved quickly and quietly, looking around with practiced wariness that did little to make Sano feel any better about any of this.

“We’ve got another first-timer here too,” said frizz-hair as they entered an antechamber of some sort and there seemed to be security to speak more freely. “So we two’ll be keeping a watch all night so you’ll be cozy and safe for your fist time.”

Safe? Keeping a watch? What was this?

“Don’t look like that, master newcomer,” mole-face laughed quietly. “There’s no way for us to explain it; you just have to experience it yourself.”

“You’ll be closer to Tomoe than you’ve ever been before,” said the first devoted, with a decidedly un-pious grin on his face.

Sure, Sano remarked silently. ‘Cause that’s exactly where I wanna be. Especially given that ‘closer to the lady of death’ might be a euphemism for more than just religious experience. “All… right…” he finally forced himself to say aloud. “Is it against the rules or something?”

“Oh, man, I can’t believe you don’t know any of this. It’s against the law… but if that doesn’t stop Enishi, why should it stop us?”

“Enishi? He does this thing too?”

They’d entered another room past the antechamber by now, and those already present had evidently caught the tail-end of this conversation. “Does it?” one of them said. “He practically lives off the stuff. Gein and Akira complain nonstop about how often they have to cover for him when he’s out.”

“‘Out?'” Sano echoed.

“All right, enough questions.” Mole-face was still laughing at Sano’s ignorance, though it wasn’t a particularly unkind laugh — more anticipatory than anything, really, as if he sincerely looked forward to introducing Sano to this thing. “You’ll get it soon enough,” he went on, and gestured to the set of lounge cushions where those present were already seated or sprawled as if ready for a nap. “Just sit there; we’ve gotta check if everything’s safe.”

Trying simultaneously not to show his reluctance and to decide whether he would go through with this or back out now while he still seemed to have the chance, Sano obeyed. Frizz-hair and mole-face left the room, evidently heading a different direction than that from which they’d come, presumably to ensure doors were locked and no authority figures present — though if the head of this entire branch of the church partook of this entertainment, how much danger could any of them really be in here tonight?

In a confidential tone, “It’s my first time too,” said the red devoted seated on Sano’s left. She didn’t sound nearly as uncertain as Sano felt, probably because she actually knew what they would be doing.

The middle-aged man on the other side of the young woman leaned forward and addressed both her and Sano. “You guys are going to love this.” Sano was starting to recognize the bright-eyed excitement surrounding this activity. “I’ve done it a few times already, and they say eventually you can actually remember what you saw the next morning.”

“So it’s like being drunk?” If that was the case, Sano thought, it probably wouldn’t be too bad. He also logged away the fact that an overnight stay was the expected aftermath.

“Hmm, a little.” The older man’s thoughtful expression turned to a grin. “Better, though. Much better.”

“All right, well, that sounds good.” Silently Sano added, Maybe.

They’d barely gotten through introductions — the woman was called Lioda, the man Korucun; Sano had not really paid any attention to what other information, such as their family names and what they did around here, they’d given him — before the other two came back.

“All clear,” announced frizz-hair, dropping down at Sano’s side opposite Lioda. He held a tray containing a plethora of small cups and two stoppered ceramic bottles very much like the ones Seijuurou made (only, Sano thought with the loyalty of distance from his annoying former master, not quite as well constructed or elegant-looking). The reminder of Seijuurou and the promise of a drink of some sort eased Sano’s concerns about this process.

Mole-face took the last lounge cushion, on frizz-hair’s far side, and passed toward the latter a plain wooden box with waxed paper protruding from under its lid such as might be used to hold cosmetics or medicines. Frizz-hair accepted the container and set it down next to the bottles before unstoppering one of the latter and carefully opening the former. As Sano had expected, the small box contained powder: pale pink, appearing uniform in texture, clumped somewhat in spots, and topped by a miniature cup on a handle.

Though not eager to continue displaying his ignorance, “What is that?” Sano couldn’t help asking.

“Leftover dye,” frizz-hair replied, and began pouring out water into cups.

“Left over because we made too much,” mole-face grinned.

“We’ll start the newcomers on one portion,” said frizz-hair next, carefully lifting some powder from the box and doling out exactly one scoop each to two of the water-filled cups. “Korucun has graduated to two.” He’d set the cups into a line that matched the line of people on cushions, and now he put two scoops of powder into the one on the end. “And the rest of it for the rest of us.” He gave a matched number of scoops to the remaining two cups, then lifted the paper lining of the box to tip the last of it into what was presumably his own.

“You gotta start small,” mole-face explained as Sano watched in mystification, “but you’ll get up to our level eventually.”

“Right!” said Lioda breathlessly. Her excitement about doing this was a little creepy.

The small cups on the tray numbered twelve, and Sano wondered, as he watched frizz-hair fill five more of them from the second bottle, whether they’d expected another person or just grabbed the whole matching set without concern. This second liquid, by its smell, was hard liquor, and one helping went next to each of the previously readied cups to make five pairs.

“One drink of kereme,” frizz-hair instructed as he began distributing the cups, “one drink of ab’giru. Try to keep them even. Don’t gulp.”

“Keeps your mouth from turning bright red,” mole-face elaborated. And without further ado, he set the example.

Sano accepted his cups with mixed feelings. It was probably too late to back out now, but by this point he was curious in addition to a little concerned. This might be strange and illegal, but he wanted to know what its effect would be, so he didn’t mind giving it a try.

He took his first alternating sips.

The water, into which the powder had dissolved completely, had an unpleasantly bitter, plant-like taste that made Sano assume the dye was derived from some flower leaf or something. The abigiruou was good — he’d always been fond of this potent potato-based drink, but hadn’t always been able to afford it — and hopefully did its job of washing the dye-suffused water into his throat so it didn’t sit around coloring his gums. But that was the extent of the experience until about two thirds of the way down the cups.

They all imbibed in silence except for the sound of Lioda giggling; perhaps she was more of a lightweight than Sano, who was only just beginning to feel something. He concentrated on the sensation as he made his way through his last few drinks.

He was starting to feel very easy, very comfortable. This cushion was extremely nice to sit on. And yet there was a lightness to his frame, a floatiness, that suggested he could jump up at any time, that he was ready for any sort of physical exertion. Yes, there was a bit of buzz in his head and warmth suffusing him, but did that come from the kereme or the abigiruou? He didn’t really care.

By the time he’d emptied his cups, he found himself disappointed there was nothing left. Simultaneously, though, to sit here with good friends and feel so light and dreamy was very nice. Lioda’s laughter fell melodically from her lips, and the two first-wash had struck up a conversation in pleasant voices. Sano was quite content.

And then, as if he’d been wading into the ocean and suddenly reached the dropoff into deep water, everything around him seemed to fade and swish and change. Had it been a room made of wood? He wasn’t sure, and wasn’t sure he cared. Brimful of energy and yet incredibly relaxed, he explored, not quite walking but neither flying; in some manner between the two he moved along, brushing past soft, gentle veils of sweet pastel colors as if he were skimming just above the ground. At the same time he felt as if he were lying down comfortably, both asleep and aware. He smiled lazily.

Faces peeked from the weave of the veils, nice faces that changed and disappeared and reappeared as if playing hide-and-seek with him. They might have been the source of the gentle voices that filled the air with friendly murmurings, and they might not. Sano didn’t really care.

In that type of sudden, comfortable, heavy gust of warm wind that ruffled his hair and made the long ends of his bandanna snap out joyfully behind him, the veils whipped about as if parting just for him as he advanced at an even greater speed, almost carried by the buoyant air. And through the translucent cloth that seemed to sparkle as it fluttered away from him, he saw an unexpected figure. Unexpected, but far from unwelcome.

What was Hajime doing here? Sano wondered. And Hajime, stretching his lean body languidly where he lounged on the cushions, told him not to be stupid, that of course he was waiting here for Sano. What had taken so long? He reached out a strong hand, beckoning.

Hajime was warm and smooth and handsome, and it was lucky and convenient that no rough, troublesome clothing lay between them. Sano couldn’t say what had taken him so long, but he was sure he made some very insolent reply to the question as he floated into Hajime’s arms and into ecstasy.

He awoke with a muffled start, as if he really was quite startled but didn’t have the capacity, at the moment, to feel it as he should. Groggy and hazy-headed, he lay in what he came gradually to realize wasn’t a very comfortable position with someone using his thighs as a pillow and his entire upper half lying on the bare floor, and tried to figure out where the hell he was and why.

His breathing came in uncomfortable wheezes through a congested nose and an incredibly dry mouth, so much that he couldn’t even tell whether or not the air had a flavor to it — which was probably for the best. All his senses seemed dulled, as if each was set apart from the others in thick packing material. And he felt as if he’d had very little actual sleep during his period of unconsciousness. Plenty of time had passed, he believed, but what had gone on during it was a complete blank.

He had on a few occasions (mostly thanks to Seijuurou’s encouragement) been so drunk he’d had a difficult or even impossible time remembering in the morning what he had done the night before, and this was like that in certain respects… The physical symptoms weren’t terribly similar to those of a hangover, but the disorientation, complete lack of recollection of how he’d come to be here, and creeping horror of waking up were.

Traces of sex, he was starting slowly to note, lingered on his nerves, but he couldn’t remember a damn thing about what had happened last night. Presumably whoever clung to the bare skin of his legs had been part of it, and his imperfect hearing seemed to be picking up the sounds of someone else snoring nearby. And were there voices somewhere close? Not too close… indistinct… in another room? How many people had he slept with last night?

Actually, what, in general, had happened last night? What day was today? What had he been working on, and what should he be thinking — worrying — about now? Trying not to panic, he forced himself to lie still and give his best effort to remembering.

At first what he’d been doing during the entirety of yesterday — what he assumed had been yesterday, anyway — was vague and disorganized in his head, but he managed more or less to force it into some kind of focus and meaningful order with strenuous thinking. He recalled wandering around Tomoe’s corner looking for people to talk to… he recalled finding people… but they hadn’t wanted to talk, exactly, had they?

The closer he got to recalling the kereme itself, the more of an empty page his mind was. He remembered some of what had been said about it beforehand, he thought he remembered that the actual substance had been a drink of some sort, and… he’d… enjoyed the experience, hadn’t he? He couldn’t be quite sure, but he thought he had.

Finally he struggled to look around, finding the room unlit rather than that anything was wrong with his vision. His eyes did adjust gradually to some light from another room — candleflame, he believed, not daylight; wasn’t this an interior chamber? — and he was able to make out the shapes around him: a woman, her clothing in great disarray and hardly covering anything, was out cold on the next lounge cushion over, except for her head and shoulders that were haphazardly pillowed on Sano’s lower half; and a man, almost completely naked, lay close to him on the other side, snoring. Sano’s own state of dress looked about as bad: his pants, including his belts and sword, were down around his ankles, his stolen Tomoe shiiya nowhere to be seen (though he assumed it was in the room somewhere); and his shirt had actually been torn down the left side so it sat sadly bunched around his right arm, leaving his chest entirely bare.

Though not as uptight about casual sex as many people, yet he liked at least to know who someone was before he fucked them. Some manner of introduction had taken place last night, but he didn’t remember a word of it now, so that didn’t count. Beyond this, he didn’t have any idea which of the four people he was fairly sure had been there with him he’d actually had relations with. It didn’t bother him that the one he was most certain about was a woman — though he usually didn’t go in for that, whatever you enjoyed at the time, right? — but it did bother him that there were three other strangers that might have taken part, possibly all at once, and he couldn’t remember a minute of it. And hadn’t that frizz-haired devoted looked at him with… a lot of interest?

Actually, the frizz-haired devoted was probably the source of one of the voices coming from the next room, given that he and mole-face had seemed to be the experienced parties and therefore had probably awakened in greater clarity and sense than anyone else. Sano really didn’t relish the thought of confronting those two, of facing their laughing references to last night and how fun it had been when he couldn’t remember it and whether he’d done anything horribly embarrassing. Somebody needed to confront those two with the admonishment that ‘first-timers’ should be warned they might be headed for a night of unrecollected sex upon swallowing that stupid dye stuff, but Sano wouldn’t be the one to do it. It was about time to untangle himself from this pile, from this highly embarrassing situation, find his missing things, and sneak out of here. Sneak out of here and never look back.

“Kereme,” Sano said.

“What about it?” Hajime demanded impatiently.

“Well…”

And all at once, Sano realized there was no way in hell he planned to tell Hajime any of that. There was just no need for the knight to know; ladies could only guess what Hajime would think of him. Even after the indication Hajime had given a few minutes ago of not being nearly so prudish about sexual matters as Sano had expected to find him, he couldn’t imagine admitting he might have had a bit of an orgy but knew neither the details nor, for certain, whether it had happened at all. It was too damned embarrassing. Sano didn’t think he would even be capable of looking Hajime in the eye and saying it aloud.

So what he finally decided on was, “It’s pretty big in Tomoe’s corner, and it seems like her white’s whole life revolves around the stuff.”

Hajime nodded. If he’d noticed Sano had just omitted a huge part of his story, he said nothing about it — which probably meant he hadn’t noticed, since Sano couldn’t imagine him not insisting on hearing it all if he had. “It’s typical for any high-ranking devoted to be suspected of using kereme,” the knight said, “but Enishi always did seem the type more than the rest.”

“Yeah.” Sano was immensely relieved at having successfully evaded discussing his little kereme ‘outing,’ and quickly volunteered more information not related to himself in order to hasten past that uncomfortable topic. “Apparently sometimes it even gets in the way of his duties, and his golds have to cover for him. I guess it just figures, for a guy named after a city.”

“Where did you hear this?”

“From some of the Tomoe lower-wash.” Sano tried not to blush or otherwise signal there was more to it than just that. He also tried to reassure himself there was no way Hajime suspected the truth, since Hajime would absolutely say something if he did. And it wasn’t as if Sano owed Hajime that kind of personal detail, or owed Hajime any kind of restraint of his sexual behavior.

Hajime nodded. “I wonder if it’s true.”

Interest caught, Sano was distracted from his discomfort and wondered, “Why might it not be?”

“A rumor like that could provide excellent cover for any number of other activities. If Enishi and his golds are up to something — they’ve been secretly supporting or guiding Soujirou’s takeover all along, for example — people are less likely to suspect it if they believe Enishi is out of his mind on kereme half the time and his golds are busy trying to cover it up.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered. “You’re right.” He might have thought of that point himself if he hadn’t been so absorbed in other aspects of his own experience. “Sounds like I should try to find out whether Enishi really uses the stuff or not.”

Again Hajime nodded. “I’m not entirely familiar with how kereme works, but the impression I have is that the more someone uses it, the more they need it. If Enishi uses at all, that makes it seem less likely the rumor is just a cover story for something else.”

Sano sincerely hoped this growing need of kereme didn’t take any kind of firm hold after only a single instance, but of course said nothing to that effect. He was trying to put the entirety of that night out of his mind, even if he would have to make inquiries about the stuff the next time he was back in the city, and to this end felt they must stop talking about it as soon as possible. So he nodded his understand and said, “I’ll see what I can find out. I guess I’ll head back in the morning.”

As he’d hoped, this redirected Hajime’s thoughts toward plan-making and what they didn’t know yet. And though that did involve, again, some at least implied reproof of Sano and disregard for his abilities, that was significantly the lesser of two conversational evils at this point.

Chapter 19 – Tangles

Though there was no doubt that Hajime, impatient for news from the capital and unable to seek it on his own behalf, would not allow Sano to sleep far past the time he arose himself, Hajime hadn’t needed to shake or prod Sano awake even once at this inn. Here, something about Hajime being awake had, in turn, awakened Sano even when he might not normally have been inclined to alertness just yet.

So it was this morning: upon opening his eyes and stretching upward from his prone position, Sano noted Hajime too sitting up and looking as if he’d been awake for a short time already. Only the palest of pre-dawn light framed the closed shutters from outside, and the room was very dim, so when Hajime turned toward Sano, his eyes as he faced away from the window were barely visible beneath his brows.

Unable though Sano was to remember exactly what he’d been dreaming, yet he was pretty sure Hajime had been there. It couldn’t have been too terribly unpleasant, either, since Sano found himself in a reasonably good mood upon awakening — much better than last night when, even after distracting unrelated conversation and Hajime leaving the room for a while to take a bath, Sano had still bedded down with a worried and embarrassed feeling about what he’d omitted from his report.

And now he’d gone and thought about that again as pretty much his first reflection of the day.

“Morning,” he said as he pushed the blanket from his naked upper half and swiveled so his legs slid out from under it and off the bed. As a distraction from his unwanted thoughts he added, “Hot water been by yet?”

“Do you see any hot water in this room?” Hajime replied as he rose and went to open the window.

“Well, no, but…” Sano’s words degenerated into a yawn, and he didn’t bother to resume them. Instead he looked around for where he’d dropped last night’s shiiya, which turned out to be on the floor in such a spot that it had been kicked mostly under the bed. He picked it up, but decided not to put it on just yet; he wanted to wash up a little first.

Suddenly, making Sano start, “What happened to your shirt?” Hajime wondered from where Sano had believed him to be looking down into the yard.

Sano had made sure to get ready for bed last night while Hajime was out of the room so as to hide the damaged state of his shirt from the knight’s shrewd eyes, then crumpled the garment up and shoved it into his backpack… but obviously those eyes were even shrewder than he’d realized. Either that or Hajime had noted the unusual circumstance of Sano sleeping entirely bare-chested and was simply curious. No more than simple curiosity sounded in his voice, really, and Sano should probably stop being so paranoid. What, after all, was the worst that could happen if Hajime found out?

Still, he tried for absolute casualness as he answered, “Oh, it’s been threatening to fall apart for months,” and just hoped Hajime had never paid too close attention to the actual state of his shirt. There was no reason he should have.

Hajime’s skeptical expression was visible now in the growing light from the window, but if he intended to say anything, he evidently changed his mind when from outside in the hallway came the call — quiet enough not to be too disturbing to sleepers, but firm enough to be audible to anyone listening for it — of, “Hot water!”

After this Sano was safe, since he could tease Hajime about feeling the need to wash his face even though he’d had a bath mere hours before, respond to Hajime’s return tease about his own personal hygiene that Hajime had no idea when Sano was or wasn’t bathing in town, thank you very much, and generally get ready for the day without further worry. The process overall succeeded fairly well at driving what Sano didn’t want to think about out of his mind, at least for now.

Of course the conversation, as it so often did, shifted gradually to a reiteration of everything they still needed to know that Sano was trying to figure out in town, and, despite the usual apparent lack of confidence on Hajime’s part, it was an acceptable topic. Having pretty thoroughly covered any new ideas yesterday after Sano’s report, they had no fresh ground to tread, and the familiarity of everything they came up with to say actually, oddly, made the subject more or less comfortable.

But Sano noticed, while smoothing out his hair as best he could with his fingers and some of the water that had by now settled into tepidity, that Hajime seemed annoyed. Given that the knight not infrequently seemed annoyed about something or other, this didn’t immediately strike Sano; but after observing it over the course of the next several comments back and forth between them, he began to wonder why it should be the case now. They weren’t discussing anything particularly provoking — no more provoking than it usually was, anyway. And eventually so much of Sano’s attention was bent toward trying to figure out what was bothering Hajime that it caught Hajime’s attention. He broke off what he was saying to ask, “What are you making faces about?”

Abandoning subtlety and settling for asking directly, Sano retorted, “What are you making faces about? What’s got you so annoyed?”

“You think I need a reason beyond your mere presence?” It was the type of exaggerated sarcasm too over the top to be even a little cutting.

“I might not think so,” replied Sano, rolling his eyes, “if you always made that kind of face every time I was around… but these are new annoyed faces today. I can’t believe it’s just me.”

With a twitch of lips Hajime admitted, “It’s your stupid hair that’s annoying.” And his audible reluctance seemed somewhat at odds with the straightforward insult. The mismatch of sound and statement was so palpable, in fact, that Sano couldn’t even get annoyed himself; he was too busy trying, now more intensely than ever, to figure out what was really bothering his companion.

Hajime, to a certain extent, explained. “Your scraggly hair is too attention-grabbing, and we should have done something about it before the first time you ever went into the city.”

Reflecting hard, adding together the reluctant tone and an irritation that couldn’t possibly be centered on this alone, Sano stared at Hajime — at his hair, long and unbound, clean and still damp but lacking the sleek evenness that had marked it before.

“Combs aren’t expensive,” Hajime went on. “We should have bought one the first day here and taken care of your stupid look. It would have made you stand out far less.”

Reaching a conclusion at last, Sano shook his head. “No, this isn’t about my hair, is it?” he said pensively. “At least mostly not. This is about your hair.” And though Hajime’s instant scowl said, “Don’t be stupid,” his voice said nothing, so Sano’s confidence in the idea increased. “I seriously never figured you for the vain type–” he was grinning now– “but I guess if I had hair like yours I might be pretty happy with it too — and maybe want to comb it with an actual comb every once in a while!”

Perhaps he was merely grasping at what evidence he could of the correctness of his hypothesis (since the knight obviously wasn’t going to speak up and offer any verbally), but he thought there was a touch of redness to the irked darkening of Hajime’s face. Impetuously he stood, grin undiminished. “So obviously the answer is to run to the market and buy you a comb. I can grab some stuff to mend my shirt at the same time.”

Hajime too got to his feet, and this time he really did say, “Don’t be stupid. You need to get back into Elotica.”

“This won’t set me back more than an hour, and an hour’s not going to hurt anything.”

“Something so frivolous isn’t worth even an hour,” Hajime insisted irritably.

Sano wasn’t sure why, but he was overcome with a giddy impulse to have his own way in this. Maybe he’d been dedicating himself too completely to following Hajime’s orders lately and needed to strike out on his own, however minor the activity. Or maybe he just liked the thought of buying Hajime a present, however insignificant. In any case, he laughed as he reached for the door. “I’ll be able to make my hair look more respectable, and you’ll have something else to entertain you while I’m in town.”

“I do not entertain myself by combing my hair!” was Hajime’s final argument, sounding by now rather exasperated by the absurdity of the situation — and his own protest — than truly irritated. He preferred not to be seen outside the inn room more than necessary, though, and certainly wouldn’t draw attention to himself by staging a conflict in the hall, so this was as far as he could go.

Sano too appreciated the absurdity, and was laughing again as he waved a cheeky goodbye to the scowling face watching him through the crack of the door and turned to head toward the stairs. His steps were buoyant as he left the building.

Though Hajime hadn’t actually confirmed Sano’s guess, neither had he openly denied it, which was as good as a confession to Sano. And there was something unexpectedly endearing about Hajime longing to give his neglected hair a good combing. Sano loved it when Hajime offered such proofs that he wasn’t merely a royal knight dedicated at the expense of everything else to the restoration of Kenshin’s throne, but also a normal person with some interests and desires that might be, in his own words, frivolous. And admittedly some really nice hair that probably deserved more attention than he’d been able to give it lately.

In a town this size, the markets tended to get going quite early, as Sano had already noticed when he’d passed through on his way to and from Elotica. He was certain, as he made his way into the busy, chattering crowd around the various stands lining the streets, that it wouldn’t take long — or too extravagantly much money — to get exactly what he needed here. He should have told Hajime half an hour.

He’d become so accustomed, over the last couple of weeks, to listening carefully whenever he was in a group for any even remotely interesting or useful snippet of informative conversation or gossip that he’d started doing it without conscious thought. Only when certain provocative words lodged in his brain too firmly for him not to give them complete and intense attention did he start deliberately listening, and then his attitude changed swiftly from the unaccustomed but welcome cheer of the morning’s silliness to one far more somber and intent. He was back to the inn in under an hour, but he brought more than what he’d set out to retrieve.

Perhaps Hajime hadn’t believed Sano’s time estimate and had anticipated a longer wait, for he was reading when Sano entered the room. Or maybe the book was just that engrossing, and Hajime couldn’t wait to return to it. Sano, not being much of a reader, couldn’t guess, and it didn’t matter. The instant the door was closed and Sano advancing across the small room, he said in a low tone, “The market’s going crazy with news from town. Misao’s white’s been murdered.”

“What?” Hajime looked up and around with an expression of sudden concern — not, Sano thought, for the murdered devoted personally, but for what the event implied and what the political ramifications might be. “By whom?”

“Nobody knows! They can’t even agree whether it was one person or a group or a man or a woman or what. All the whites were attacked, people are saying, but all of them are fine except Nenji. And I guess the attacker got away every time.”

“Any more details than that?”

“No. Not floating around the market, anyway.” Sano took the last step forward and set the comb he’d bought down on the table.

Hajime, his expression very serious, did not reach for it. “And we can’t even guess how this may change things. You’ll have to be even more careful in town than before.”

“You think so?” Sano retreated to his bed and sat. “I bet everyone’ll be talking about it; it won’t be a problem for me to ask straight out.”

Swiveling on his stool to face Sano completely, Hajime did not lighten his sober look. “I mean you’ll have to be careful about wandering around in a devoted shiiya when there’s an assassin loose who’s targeting devoted.”

At the concerned sound of the statement, Sano was surprised. “What, you think this guy’s gonna come after me? When I’m dressed as a red? Why?”

Hajime shook his head as if he either had no concrete reason for his concern or simply didn’t want to voice it — neither of which seemed much like him — and finally moved to exchange the book in his hand for the comb on the table. Abruptly he stood from the stool and nudged it forward with one foot. “Come sit here,” he ordered.

“You’re really going to comb my hair?” Sano wondered skeptically. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had performed that service for him, but had an idea it might have been his mother back before she’d died. As such, it felt a little odd to think of Hajime doing the same.

“It’s more important than ever now that you don’t stand out too much,” the knight replied, gesturing to the stool.

Figuring he might as well, Sano obeyed. “You really think there’s a threat to me,” he said as he took the seat in front of Hajime.

“I think it’s a possibility we would be foolish to ignore.”

“I guess…”

Hajime’s fingers working at the knot of Sano’s bandanna startled the younger man for only a moment, but then he accepted the loosened red tie and held it on his lap as Hajime began combing. It started out, and remained, a difficult process.

“When was the last time you took an actual comb to this?” Hajime muttered presently.

“Uh… before I left Eloma, I think. Maybe at Seijuurou’s house…”

“No wonder, then…”

The weird feeling of having set Hajime parallel to his mother in his thoughts faded as the gulf of difference between the two experiences rapidly expanded. As a child with attentive parents, Sano had worn his hair as smooth as Hajime’s normally was, and the act of combing it had been a soothing morning and bedtime ritual. As an adult with defiantly untamed locks, he found the taming thereof an uncomfortable and wearisomely lengthy business.

At least Hajime knew what he was doing, starting from the ends and working the tangles out with sure, patient movements. Sano actually wondered a bit what he would look like when the process was finished, but there was no looking glass in the room to consult on the subject and he doubted Hajime would be accurately descriptive.

After a fairly lengthy silence that was surprisingly free of awkwardness, Hajime returned to their previous topic by asking, “When did the attacks take place?”

“Yesterday, I think.” Sano was continually trying not to grimace at the tugging of his hair. “Maybe the night before? Over the last couple of days, I guess… you know how gossip like that is; nobody knew for sure, and people make shit up when they want to be the first person to tell the news.”

“Hmm.”

“Why? What are you thinking?”

“You were out in public yesterday and the day before. If any of the attacks took place on those days, why did you only hear about it today?”

“That’s… true…” Sano said slowly. “What does that mean?”

Hajime also spoke slowly, pensively, as his hand holding the comb continued to move over Sano’s head. “If all the attacks occurred at the same time, it would make sense to hear about them all at once as well. It would also indicate a group of enemies able to coordinate their attacks. But if the attacks really did take place over the last couple of days, it could have been the same attacker or attackers every time — someone talented enough to get at whites wherever they were and escape without leaving much information — which is worrisome, but probably less worrisome than a larger group with those same skills. But why, in that case, would we only have heard about it today?”

“Maybe,” Sano suggested, “the other whites besides Nenji just didn’t bother mentioning they were attacked? They’re mostly warriors, or they’ve got warriors around to keep them safe… maybe they just didn’t take it very seriously until someone actually died?”

“That sounds like how you might respond in that situation,” said Hajime dryly. “But all of the current white devoted must be aware of their political importance, especially in the current climate, and wouldn’t let an attempt on their lives go unremarked. I think it’s more likely that the news came out only when it could no longer be suppressed; or that the gossips are simply wrong about the time frame, and all the attacks happened at about the same time.”

“Which doesn’t help us at all,” Sano grumbled.

Darkly Hajime agreed. “Nor,” he added, “do we have any idea what this assassin is after or whose side they’re on.”

“So add ‘anything I can find out about the assassin’ to my list of shit to look for.”

“Yes. I think, however…” It seemed clear that Hajime didn’t want to say this. “It might be wise if you didn’t go back into Elotica immediately.”

Again Sano was startled. “Why?”

“Even if you are dressed as only a red, we know for a fact that devoted have been attacked. Besides, you’re a newcomer who’s been asking questions and possibly making people suspicious even if they haven’t been showing it to your face. It’s probably best if you don’t show up again until this news has had time to fade a bit from everyone’s mind.”

Though Sano grasped Hajime’s meaning, he almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Not even that long ago you were complaining about me taking a whole hour to go buy shit we needed before I headed into town! Now you’re saying I should wait — how long?”

Hajime sighed in frustration. “I don’t like it. But I think you — and our cause — will be safer if we give it a day or two before people start noticing you again.”

Sano did not miss the placement of his safety before that of the cause — or, indeed, that the two were listed separately at all — but that wasn’t the aspect of Hajime’s statement he felt the immediate need to comment on. “So today and tomorrow? I know this is going to sound weird from me to you, but do you have the patience for that?”

Hajime chuckled faintly, darkly. “Even longer would be safer, I think, but, no, I probably wouldn’t have the patience for that. This is the best compromise I can come up with.”

And that the single-minded royal knight was willing to compromise at all in this matter that seemed to mean the entire world to him was… significant, Sano thought. Hajime’s hands had stilled, and the tugging at his hair had ceased, so Sano twisted where he sat to look up at the other man. He couldn’t quite read his expression, except to observe that it was very serious and not very happy.

Abruptly Sano stood and held out a hand. “So obviously it’s pointless for you to be messing with my hair right now.” He shook his head, feeling an unusually smooth swishing sensation against his chin and neck, and grinned. “Here, let me do yours instead.”

Hajime raised his brows not so much in his usual disdainful skepticism as in genuine, straightforward surprise. Drawing back he said simply, “Why?”

“Well, you said earlier that combing your hair doesn’t entertain you or whatever, but it obviously needs to be done, and now it turns out I don’t have anywhere to be anytime soon. So give it here.”

Hajime’s hand holding the comb had pulled back so far now that it actually lay against his chest, and on the man’s face was a frown. There was also, however, a discernible touch of reluctant, dubious amusement to demeanor and expression. “I don’t believe you even know how to comb hair.”

“That’s… fair…” Sano admitted. “But we’ve got a lot of hours ahead of us that you’re not allowed to spend sitting by the window reading books and ignoring me. And, yeah, I’ve got a shirt to fix, but that’s not going to take all that long — even if I have to pull all the stitches out halfway through because they suck and start over. So we can spend a little while seeing if I’m any good at combing hair, and if I’m balls at it, there’s plenty of time for you to teach me how to do it right.”

Sano still believed the theory he’d concocted earlier — that Hajime was discontented with the state of his hair and would be happier after a good combing — and for some reason wanted to be part of that… especially now that he wasn’t going to be able, any time soon, to contribute to easing the uptight knight’s mind with his usual method of searching out information in the capital.

Whatever Hajime’s real thoughts and source of discontentment, by the end of Sano’s defiant statement he was smiling with just one corner of his mouth, as if against his will — as if, in fact, he genuinely couldn’t believe he found this funny, and wasn’t quite sure what to make of the fact that he did. But at last he held out the comb, and when Sano took it moved forward to sit down on the stool Sano had vacated. “I suppose if you make a hopeless mess of my hair, you can always go back to the market for a pair of shears and some more gossip.” His sarcasm took a darker turn as he added, “Brace yourself, though… you don’t have any idea just how boring it gets around here during the day.”

Chapter 20 – Thirteen Years Later

Despite Hajime’s warning, the first day of waiting wasn’t terribly bad to get through. Yes, they argued on and off throughout its extent, but Sano had reached a point where arguing with Hajime felt about the same as having less combative conversations with him, so that didn’t matter much.

He managed to wheedle Hajime into telling him what was so special about the book he was reading, and, though it didn’t sound like anything Sano would be even a little interested in reading for himself, he had to admit (not aloud) to a surprising level of enjoyment and interest at hearing Hajime talk about it. However annoying Hajime could be at times, he was also insightful to an impressive degree about a lot of things, and there was an unexpected passion about him — which perhaps shouldn’t have been so unexpected, given Hajime’s behavior in relation to the usurpation — that Sano found very engrossing; besides that, Hajime’s sarcasm made his descriptions endlessly interesting. Sano thought he could have listened to Hajime talk about any number of otherwise-boring-sounding books.

That did not, of course, stop Hajime from making snide comments about Sano’s level of literacy and ability to comprehend what he was saying. Which didn’t necessarily bother Sano, just led him to retaliate with unflattering suggestions about Hajime’s ability to make friends neither fictional nor historical.

As Sano set about mending his torn shirt and Hajime watched with eyes that expressed skepticism about the younger man’s needle skills but no verbal comment on the subject, they considered whether Sano should head back into the market and see if he could hear anything else useful. Sano marveled a little at the way they could turn a discussion without sides into an argument when they both expressed the idea that to seek more information tomorrow — whether through another trip into the market during a second day of lying low here in Enca, or through the usual methods in Elotica — would be wiser than to possibly draw attention to himself with a second trip in on the same day that wouldn’t end with any purchase as an excuse for his presence. How, he wondered, could they conjure confrontation, this tension between them, when agreeing on something? Sometimes there was no word for their conversations other than ‘silly.’

When supper time eventually rolled around, Hajime again gave Sano his sweetbun, and it occurred to Sano to ask what Hajime did with the things — which seemed to be a regular fixture of the meal included in the price of the room — when Sano was not present. And when Hajime grudgingly admitted that he ate them himself under those circumstances, Sano was led to a further set of questions about what meals were like at the royal palace. Did some comparatively spectacular dessert item there render the meager sweetbuns of the Enca Inn North more of a chore than a treat?

So then Hajime maintained, with an air of perfect disdainful seriousness, that a small-towner like Sano must obviously have no taste whatsoever, and it would be a waste of breath to discuss capitol cuisine with him. Which Sano interpreted (aloud) to mean that there was some dessert concocted by the palace chefs that Hajime was embarrassed to admit his excessive liking for. And Hajime reiterated that Sano, with his penchant for excessive sweetness that led him to actually enjoy the buns at this inn, would not understand the subtle appeal of finer cooking. To which Sano protested that Hajime too had been eating the inn’s sweetbuns when Sano wasn’t around. And Hajime informed him almost primly that, yes, this was true, but he scraped that overpowering glaze off them first. Then Sano had his really good laugh for the day while Hajime tried to look stern in the wake of that conversation.

At several moments throughout this downtime, but at greatest length just before bed, their talk came back to the assassin. This was never particularly useful, no matter the length of the conversation, since they’d already touched on every point they could based on what little they knew. Clearly Hajime was torn, longing for more data but worrying about the potential outcome of sending Sano to seek it. Sano continued to feel surprise that Hajime was so worried, but couldn’t honestly object to this day of relaxation, nor the one Hajime grudgingly decided he really must take tomorrow as well. So they went to their beds in a strange mixture of emotions and thoughts regarding the future. Or at least Sano did.

It was a long, long, high, steep hill, but what he couldn’t quite figure out was whether they were at the top or the bottom. They had to get to the other end — they would, inevitably, get to the other end — but would that prove a helpless careen or a wearying climb? He supposed it didn’t really matter much; they would see everyone along the way in either case. The idea of houses and businesses lined each side of the road and, like some cog-driven mechanism, it was clear that the people would emerge from each of these as Sano and Hajime passed their places of dwelling or employ.

In fact, the first had already appeared from the small home that was as neat as he could keep it in his near poverty. He was an old man, and clearly defeated. He’d worked hard and honestly all his long life only to receive proof at this late stage that other means might yield greater rewards. He looked at them with dull eyes and said, “I’m ruined.”

The next, stepping from the door of a boarding house, was a middle-aged woman with a number of responsibilities destined now to be more difficult than ever. She looked at them with weary bitterness and said, “We all trusted him.”

The next, coming from where he still lived with his parents, was a young man — very young; a boy, really — too young, maybe, for romance of any kind, and certainly for coupling with someone much older than himself. He looked at Sano and Hajime with embarrassment and perhaps some shame and said, “I thought I was something special to him.”

The next was a fellow city guard, as characteristic a citizen of Emairi as could be imagined. He looked at them with anger and said, “It was my entire savings.”

The next was a draftsman, the leader of a group of builders from Elotica. She looked at them in frustration and said, “He promised us work.”

On they plodded, up the difficult grade that was almost a climb, lungs and muscles burning. On they plunged, precipitously down the steep decline, loath to see and hear more but unable to stop.

“His plan sounded like such a good idea.”

“I thought he really wanted to help.”

“We trusted him with everything.”

“He really seemed like he loved me…”

The faces blurred together and the voices blended. They were, after all, conveying the same emotions, speaking the same ideas. Every one of these people — these allies, these relative innocents — had suffered the same thing. They’d committed time and effort and money to a plausible, desirable project; they’d given trust and love to a man that had promised improvements and services and, in some cases, his love in return. And they’d all been burned when the project had turned out to be a con, the man a fraud, the promises lies.

Sano felt he could hardly lift his feet to walk further up the tiring slope, so heavily weighed down was he by pity and despair. Simultaneously a burning and growing rage drove him onward, throwing him down the clifflike path as if he were weightless. Besides that, Hajime was obviously desperate to find something — to find someone. None of these people was unimportant — they had all suffered — but none of them was the specific victim Hajime needed to reach.

It was no surprise that their road ended with that specific victim, that she waited at the top or the bottom of the long hill. This house sat squarely, centrally at the cessation of the pavement, bringing their journey to an abrupt and decisive halt. There was something familiar about it — the kind of deep, aching familiarity that marks an old home under new ownership — and at the same time a discomfort, almost a horror, that grew as they drew closer. They would find only further suffering inside.

And she, like the old man that had been their first encounter, was utterly defeated.

“He made me think I was the only one.”

Unlike the previous victims, she was cool and calm. She assessed rather than lamenting.

“I can see now he made everyone feel that way — like they were the most important contributor, or the one he’d come to care about most.”

Her strength was remarkable, deeply admirable. She focused on analysis and planning rather than the hurt and betrayal.

“That’s how he got everyone to give just a little bit more… of whatever they were giving.”

Yet she had been hurt. Somehow, even in her placidity, the pain and the resulting bitterness came across even more clearly and intensely than it had from any previous interviewee. Only her strength made it endurable to witness, and that only barely.

“He acted his part well, but I should have seen through him sooner.”

Hajime was reaching out to touch her, to embrace her… but his hand never quite made contact with her form. He didn’t know how to offer comfort, or feared his efforts might be inadequate, in the face of this disaster.

“I should have realized that his willingness to be with someone outside the church as a second-wash indicated a disregard for the church’s policies and prioritization of his own desires.”

Hajime’s despair and anger at not being able to do even the slightest thing to help in this situation was almost as palpable as the woman’s sorrow and sense of betrayal; the calmness that nevertheless somehow expressed these emotions was shared between them.

“I should have seen what he was; then I could have helped prevent all of this.”

She put a hand to her belly, where an outward curve was just starting to show even beneath her shiiya.

“But love really is blind.”

Sano blinked awake as abruptly as if he’d been physically shaken. And though it wasn’t the irrational fear-heat of nightmare, still he felt overwarm from his emotional reactions to the dream. His fingers curled into fists in the bedding, but, tempted though he was to throw it off to cool down, he forced himself to remain still and silent.

As in every dream he’d shared with Hajime since the knight’s coma, sensory details had been unclear: the woman’s face had not been distinctly delineated, and Sano probably wouldn’t know her if he saw her again; the ideas of her calmness, her hurt and bitterness, had been far more present than any specific sound to her voice conveying them; and the mere knowledge of her progressing pregnancy had confirmed the fact better than any hazy visual indicator. The concepts inherent in the dream had been its strongest feature, and those concepts were what stayed with Sano now, firing his emotions.

He had no way of knowing, in the completely dark and noiseless room, whether Hajime had also awakened, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to discuss this with him right away… or ever. He never had been able, after all, to determine to what extent these dreams were a shared experience — mostly because he’d always felt too embarrassed to ask — and if it turned out that Hajime wasn’t aware of Sano’s continued window into his head at night, this particular dream seemed like a bad place to start. Because this one had felt so personal.

No wonder Hajime disliked the church so much! Reading that dream as a sort of abstract memory or summation of actual events — and Sano didn’t know how else to interpret it — it became clear that some church official had at some point hurt and taken advantage of Hajime’s entire community, including someone he particularly cared about. That might even have been a cornerstone to his heresy, since it had happened so long ago.

Thirteen years. That this had all occurred thirteen years in the past had been a sense present throughout the dream as well, as if the number was of special significance… or perhaps as if the dreamer was pointedly aware of every year that had gone by since then. Was Hajime deliberately holding onto the bitterness he’d taken from that experience, never wanting to forget? What had happened to that woman he’d loved, who’d been conned and heartbroken? What had happened to that devoted, who had deceived her along with so many others? Had justice ever caught up with him? Had any member of the community besides Hajime ever acknowledged that a religious system full of people like that was both logistically flawed and no indication of a divine guiding hand?

And why, Sano wondered almost more than anything else, was Hajime dreaming about this now? Did that vision come to him intermittently, and this just happened to be the first time Sano had been present for it? Or was there some reason — beyond Sano’s current power to guess — that it had arisen tonight? He wanted to sit up and ask, to wake Hajime if necessary and ask why he’d had that dream, what it had meant, and whether there was anything Sano could…

But he couldn’t ask. He’d asked Hajime about his parents, he’d talked to him about religious beliefs, he’d discussed his own sex life; hell, he’d combed Hajime’s hair… but somehow he couldn’t pry into the details of an event that had so hurt someone Hajime loved and damaged his community, that Hajime was still carrying with him to this day.

He felt his fingers clench even more tightly into the bedding, his jaw clench against the pillow. He wanted to be able to ask. Sure, he’d come on this venture to help get Kenshin back onto the throne, to do legwork for Hajime in a (thus far) covert political struggle… but it wasn’t unreasonable to want to help Hajime with something a little more personal, was it? After all, Sano and Hajime were both heretics; they should stick together, right?

Of course if he were to question Hajime on such a subject, to offer good wishes and sympathy, Hajime would probably just snipe at him and refuse to answer straightforwardly. And with this hypothetical reaction in mind, Sano, scowling, wondered why he was interested in asking.

Yet they were both heretics. Sano certainly knew what it was like to be bitter about the church, if not for exactly the same reasons. Surely there was scope for discussion, for close understanding of each other here. Sano felt that, for some reason or other, he would… like that.

But Hajime probably wouldn’t. So Sano would just stick to the job he’d come to do.

As such, he felt an abrupt surge of impatience to get back into Elotica, to get on with things. Who was this assassin, this new player that had emerged onto the scene, and whose side were they on? Was Sano really likely to become a target, as Hajime so bizarrely thought possible?

Some answers — or at least further information that might suggest some — might be uncovered tomorrow when he went gossip-hunting at the Enca market again. More answers might be forthcoming when he went back into Elotica the day after. But none of those answers would be about Hajime and that woman he’d loved. Unless Sano could bring himself to ask that personal question, to pry into a matter it was possible he should never have become acquainted with at all, he should probably resign himself to ignorance.

And that might make tomorrow a good deal more difficult to get through than he’d been anticipating after the relative success of today.

This old picture wasn’t actually drawn for the drug trip scene, but the effect I believe I intended as rain back then does make it a little surreal, so here it is.


One Year, Two Minutes (1/3)



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

When Quatre sat down in his usual place one Friday near the end of the semester, opening his lunch on his knees and leaning against Trowa for warmth in the chilly December air, he noted in a mixture of amusement and pity that his friends had already started the customary Pre-Weekend Harassment Of Heero.

“It doesn’t have to be someone from this school, you know.”

“Though good luck finding another school with this many gay guys.”

“And it doesn’t even have to be someone you really know well, either!”

“Yeah, you should meet more people anyway. Make more friends.”

“And if you don’t like the guy, it’s not like anyone’s forcing you to go out with him again.”

“You know I could find someone for you if you don’t want to bother looking.”

“No, thank you.” Heero would, Quatre knew, eventually drop the ‘thank you.’

Given the clockwork-like prevalence of this conversation — on some Fridays a word-for-word repetition of last week’s — it was a wonder Heero even ate lunch with this group anymore. Force of habit, Quatre thought. Well, and they would probably realize why he was avoiding them and track him down anyway, if he happened to try to find some other, solitary place to enjoy the free period.

“You don’t even have to find someone good-looking! It’ll be dark!”

“Plus it’s a really good movie; I already saw a bootleg before it came out.”

“Yeah, it’ll give you plenty to talk over with someone!”

“Pff, like Heero ever talks things over with anyone.”

“But a movie and dinner aren’t serious enough for you to worry about getting all serious with someone!”

“Yeah, it’s just a casual thing! Come on, man, you’ve gotta come!”

“No,” said Heero.

Quatre hadn’t known Heero well sophomore year — OK, really, Quatre still wouldn’t say that he knew Heero well, but at least these days he referred to him as a friend rather than just a guy he had a few classes with — but it had been obvious even then that Relena was the reason Heero had come out of the closet. Quatre thought Heero would have been perfectly happy to keep the fact that he was gay as quiet as the rest of his personality, despite how friendly the school was toward gay students, if Relena hadn’t been pestering him constantly back then to go out with her.

Of course that hadn’t really stopped; it was just that now she tried to get Heero to join the group dates she was always setting up, whereas before it had pretty clearly been one-on-one time she was soliciting.

“What is your problem?” she was wondering now. “Did you get your heart broken? And you haven’t recovered yet, and you just can’t bear the thought of going out with anyone else, even on a group date with no strings attached just for fun? It is fun, by the way, and you’d really enjoy it.”

Heero looked over at her with an expression that held a trace of ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ but which in general was just his usual nearly emotionless look. “Relena. I’m seventeen.”

“So?”

“So, no, I did not ‘get my heart broken.'”

“You say that like you haven’t had time or something!”

Someone else put in slyly, “I think he’s saving himself for Lady Gaga.”

“What?” Heero demanded in a tone half scornful and half surprised. “For who?”

“More like he’s saving himself for all the more experienced guys he’s expecting to meet at Harvard.”

“I am not going to Harvard.”

Quatre finally decided to step in. Most weeks Heero had to take care of himself, since this happened too frequently for Quatre to be saving his hide every time, but Quatre was feeling generous today. “You know, you guys, it could actually be that he’s telling the truth — that he’s not interested in dating because he’s focusing on his grades and getting into the school he wants.”

They turned on him. “You should talk! You guys hardly ever come out with us either!”

“Yeah, but that’s because we’re…” He threw just the briefest look at Trowa, gave just the tiniest clearing of his throat. “…busy… on weekends.”

Appreciative laughter spread through the group, and Quatre gave Heero a pointed glance to see if he’d gotten the message: that it wasn’t what you said, but how you said it. Trowa and Quatre both usually worked Saturday and Sunday, and did homework the rest of the time; and, though it was true that a weekend rarely passed without their seeing each other at least briefly, it was pure myth that they spent two straight days in bed together or out on exotic dates — myth perpetuated by perfectly true little phrases like ‘we’re busy on weekends’ spoken in the right way and accompanied by the right gesture.

Heero returned the look with a faint, thoughtful scowl. Obviously he wasn’t terribly pleased at how easily Quatre was able to get around the problem he faced on a weekly basis, but at the same time seemed to be struck with an idea; perhaps he really had gotten the message.

“Maybe he’s got performance anxiety.”

“Yeah, he’s afraid he wouldn’t actually be able to ask anyone out, because it would take too many words.”

“You could write ’em a note, Heero… you know, like in middle school?”

Do you want to go out with me this weekend? Check Yes or No.

His brows lowering a trifle, Heero took a deep, quiet breath. “OK, fine, you guys. I’ll tell you the truth.”

Every head turned toward him; everyone went silent.

“I didn’t like to say,” he went on, “because I didn’t want people bugging me about it all the time, but this–” he gestured around– “is worse.”

“What?” Relena was leaning forward eagerly. “What is it? Do you actually secretly have a long-distance boyfriend?”

Heero turned startled eyes in her direction. “How did you know?”

“What?! You really do??” She jumped up. “Oh, my god, Heero, you have to tell us all about him!”

This opinion was immediately ratified by most of the rest of the group; Quatre thought that, Friday tradition notwithstanding, most of them couldn’t actually imagine Heero ever going out with anyone.

“Well,” Heero said slowly, apparently very aware that everyone was suddenly hanging on his every word, “I met him in April… he lives in Gearing…”

And thus began the biggest, most complicated, and by far the coolest and most collected lie Quatre had ever heard Heero Yuy tell.

***

This place was strange.

Oh, the classrooms and hallways and lockers and the way people dressed and the way the teachers treated the students and the schedules and the curriculum were all perfectly normal, as far as Duo could tell, but in what world did everyone you encountered seem to be talking about you behind your back from almost the moment you walked in the door ’til the time you finally managed to locate where you’d left your bike that morning and went home?

Of course it was a little weird — unfortunate, even — for someone to switch schools in the middle of his senior year. Duo would have wondered about anyone in that situation too. Then, his circumstances were pretty interesting… but how many people here could possibly know anything of them yet? Yeah, there were plenty of reasons for most of the school to be whispering about him, but this was just too early. It had started halfway through his second class, for god’s sake! What was going on here?

Applying himself devotedly, on his second day, to picking up what he could of the whispers, he thought he caught an unfamiliar name mentioned in conjunction with his own (to the confirmation that they really were talking about him): Heero Yuy. What he couldn’t figure out was who this Heero Yuy was, what he had to do with Duo, and why this talk had all started up so soon. Presumably the guy had answers, but Duo hadn’t yet been able to determine where and when he might be able to find him, and hadn’t felt like asking directly.

Sometime somebody would have to say something straight out. High-schoolers could keep up gossip in a vacuum far longer than any other group, but eventually they needed concrete to build on. And when someone finally approached him, whatever they had to say would surely tell him what he needed to know.

But it didn’t. Some clues, perhaps, were conveyed by the breathless demand, “So is he a good kisser?” but no real answers. “Nobody here,” the unfamiliar girl in the hall went on, “has been able to find out!”

Duo could have demanded information at this point, but his smartass instinct took over and what he ended up saying was, “Wouldn’t you like to know!” At which point the girl ran off giggling.

So obviously he was supposed to have kissed this Heero Yuy. Being a perverse individual, Duo was unsurprised that his first thought upon learning this was to wonder whether or not Heero Yuy was a good kisser. But his second instinct was annoyance at still being almost entirely in the dark, and after that came even greater curiosity than before.

His third day at his new school (Friday, since the semester had kicked off on a Wednesday) was as provoking as the previous two had been, and the fact that the widespread interest in him and his doings and his apparent connection with the oddly-named stranger didn’t seem to have died down at all was really making him quite wild to find out what the hell was going on. With continued perverseness, however, he was even less interested in asking anyone outright unless that person was Heero Yuy himself. Where to find Heero Yuy was the problem, since it was a big school, and asking someone where to find him would be tantamount to asking everyone why they thought he’d kissed the guy. He would snap eventually, though.

Actually it turned out he didn’t have to.

His new trigonometry class didn’t seem to be quite as far along as they’d been in the old one, so paying strict attention wasn’t yet a matter of great importance. It would be nice to have some homework that was just review, too, for a little while: grab a bit of a break while he got used to everything else here. Things like being endlessly talked about, and Heero Yuy, and all that.

He didn’t realize just how badly his attention had waned until class took him by surprise by ending. Suddenly everyone else was standing and walking out when he hadn’t even started packing. Hastily he shoved loose papers into his notebook and closed the latter, which action knocked his pen to the floor. When he returned from bending to retrieve the dropped article, a new and unfamiliar object lay on top of his things.

Immediately recognizing, from much experience, a private note, Duo looked hastily to see not what it said but, rather, who had left it. And though the guy was moving quickly, rejoining the other students leaving the classroom, Duo could tell he was the one, and got a fairly good look at him before he disappeared.

He’d actually noticed this person earlier — though he hadn’t paid him any particular attention — because of the weird hair. At first glance it looked like a deliberately emo style, but the lack of an outfit or makeup in that vein seemed to contradict such an assessment — which actually made the long hair over the face even weirder. Not that Duo saw a great deal of the face; the guy didn’t turn even slightly back in this direction to see if he’d found the note, and soon was out of sight.

With rising excitement, Duo reached for the folded paper. Was it possible that not-quite-emo guy had been the mysterious Heero Yuy himself, and here was an explanation of all the strange goings-on? This hope was dashed, however, even as a new one arose, when Duo finally opened the note.

It read, Heero Yuy’s locker is B-213, if you’re looking for him.

***

Without having to take in anything more than what the corner of his eye could show him, Heero knew exactly who it was that had appeared so abruptly next to him at his locker. He hadn’t caught sight of the guy prior to this, but knew very well what he looked like, and that he must have good reason to seek Heero out before too long. As a matter of fact, Heero really should have sought him out sometime earlier than Friday afternoon, but hadn’t really had his thoughts in order yet. Well, time to face the music.

The first he’d heard of it had been in his third class on Wednesday. Sylvia, who had been present that unfortunate lunchtime back before break when Heero had made up all that nonsense, sat behind him, and, coming in late, had barely had time to hiss at him before the teacher called them all to order, “Heero, why didn’t you tell us your boyfriend was transferring here?! He’s in my history class, and it surprised the hell out of me!”

There had been no time for Heero to express his shock or issue a denial at this point, as class was beginning. Since the teacher had only a fairly brief greeting for them, however, before getting them started on an assignment she’d written on the board, there was leisure for quiet conversation after not too long.

“Heero has a boyfriend?” was how it started. Heero didn’t know the name of the girl that sat behind Sylvia, but he could tell just from the skeptical tone of these murmured words that she, like the rest of the school, had a hard time accepting the idea.

“Yeah, he’s totally hot.” He could hear Sylvia shifting in her chair to deliver this reply to her rear, but he himself kept absolutely still; if the teacher was going to throw a dry erase marker at anyone for gossiping instead of completing their assignment, it wasn’t going to be at him.

“You saw him?” the whispered conversation went on. “What’s he like?”

“Totally hot; I just said!”

“Yeah, but what does he actually look like? Maybe I’ve seen him in the halls!”

Sylvia poked Heero in the back of the head, which was very annoying. “He looks just like Heero described him.”

Sincerely doubting that, Heero flipped through his notebook, seeking out the page on which he’d written in neat bulleted lines, just in case he ever needed to continue the deception, the points he’d made about his utterly fictional long-distance boyfriend back in December. As they continued talking behind him, he stared down at the improbable list.

“He’s got the longest hair in the world. He’s got it braided today; you can’t miss him.”

Subtly, Heero put a tiny checkmark next to Good-looking, and another beside Hair down to his thighs.

“And he doesn’t exactly have what I’d call purple eyes… they’re blue, but it’s a sort of purpley-blue that I bet you’d definitely call purple if you were going out with him and wanted to make him sound all exotic.”

The other girl giggled madly, and Heero, somewhat reluctantly, checked off Purple eyes.

“He said he just moved from Gearing when he turned eighteen; I bet he came just to be with Heero.”

Sadly, Heero checked off Lives in Gearing while simultaneously trying to shut his ears to the “Aaww!” of the other girl before Sylvia added the final point:

“I think he said he did, like, three different sports at his old school; too bad it’s too late for him to really do anything here.”

Athletic went the way of the rest of the list as the other girl mused, “Well, he could still go for–”

“Ladies, I somehow get the impression you’re not discussing the assignment back there.”

Heero was grateful for the teacher’s intervention, but had a hard time turning his own concentration toward searching for similes and metaphors in the short story they were currently studying. It was obvious that the damage had been done: if Sylvia had jumped to the conclusion that this handsome, purple-eyed, long-haired athlete from Gearing was Heero’s fictitious boyfriend, even if she hadn’t spread the news to everyone she knew, others might well have made the same connection. How on Earth had someone matching all of those improbable criteria shown up here so soon after Heero had invented them? And what was Heero going to do about it?

This question had occupied him throughout the last three days, and he’d never arrived at a satisfactory answer. It would be, he’d thought, good manners to give the newcomer a heads-up… well, it was probably too late for that, but at least an explanation of the weird treatment he was undoubtedly already receiving would be appropriate. But Heero had procrastinated because it seemed so odd a thing to have to confess and he’d never decided how to word what needed to be said. And meanwhile the gossip had only heightened, and the comments people threw him in passing become more and more embarrassing; god only knew how the stranger was taking it.

And now here was this same Duo Maxwell, having very understandably tracked Heero down, standing casually next to him at his locker, giving him an appraising look and exuding an air of curiosity and expectation with maybe just a touch of righteous indignation thrown in.

“You know,” he said at last, “I’ve had a lot of really weird experiences in the past… but having a boyfriend I’ve never met is a new one.”

Heavily, Heero shut his locker and turned toward him. “I can explain.”

“Good! ‘Cause I’m really curious.”

Heero looked around at their fellows, many of whom were surreptitiously watching them. “Not in here, though.”

“That’s fine,” said Duo affably. “I’ve gotta get my bike anyway, from the entrance that I thiiiiink is this way…” He pointed, though he looked a little lost.

Both in agreement and to confirm Duo’s guess as to which direction the bike racks were, Heero nodded. When he turned away and started walking, Duo hopped after and fell into step beside him.

As they moved through the halls, Duo’s glances in Heero’s direction seemed to indicate that he was about to start asking questions, despite Heero’s not yet having allowed the time and place to be right. Heero braced himself. Those selfsame glances, however, seemed to have informed Duo that Heero still wasn’t ready; instead of what Heero had expected, what came out of Duo’s mouth when it opened was, “So, ‘Heero Yuy’ — that’s, what, uh, Martian?”

“Japanese,” Heero informed him, grateful to have this to talk about and a few more minutes to try to come up with a way to explain things that wouldn’t make him sound like a total idiot.

“Oh, cool. Do you speak Japanese?”

“Yes.”

“Awesome! Say something for me! In Japanese, I mean.”

Heero sighed faintly, and wondered, in Japanese, why people always made that request.

Duo was grinning appreciatively. “That’s awesome,” he reiterated. “I’ve seen some of those Japanese cartoons, but they’ve always got the voices all redone in English. Oh, bikes! You found them!” He gave a gesture of mock admiration and gratitude to Heero for the feat of having led them out the correct door to locate the bike racks, and moved to unlock a fairly new-looking grey one from the midst of the line.

Standing back and watching, Heero tried, almost frantically now, to get his thoughts in order. It didn’t help that this Duo Maxwell fellow was… well, ‘totally hot’ on Sylvia’s part had been an understatement. And supposedly he was an athlete too? If Heero had been looking for a boyfriend, this guy would have been way out of his league.

Bicycle extracted, Duo rejoined Heero, cheerfully wheeling the vehicle alongside. “OK, where should we go?”

Heero pointed. “I live that direction; I usually walk home.”

“Oh! Well, I live that way too! Lucky coincidence.” In a slightly louder tone he announced, “Means I can walk you home, boyfriend.”

Somebody nearby giggled. Heero didn’t look around to see who it was or put his burning face on further display.

A brief discussion of relative locations as they left school property revealed that Duo lived a couple of miles past Heero’s neighborhood, which was itself a mile and a half from the school. No wonder he would be biking there and back rather than walking. More of a wonder was that the place was an apartment belonging to Duo and a roommate, that Duo had moved to town without parents or anything. But before Heero could question him on the interesting circumstance, Duo glanced around to verify that none of their schoolmates were nearby and then said, “So what’s the deal? With you and me, I mean. Why does everyone think we’re dating when I haven’t even ever seen you before today?”

Heero never had thought of a good way to put this, so there was nothing for it but just to confess. “It’s because I made you up last December.”

Duo started theatrically. “Are you telling me that I’m a figment of your imagination? And that all my memories of my life never actually happened? And that if something happens to you, I’ll totally cease to exist???”

Unable to remain unamused by this, Heero nevertheless explained seriously. “What I mean is, I made up a fake boyfriend to get some friends to leave me alone about finding a real one, and what I described turned out to match you perfectly.”

“Really?” Duo looked a little skeptical. “Because, not to sound conceited or anything, I’m pretty unique.”

“I know. I don’t know how it happened. I chose the most improbable things I could think of off the top of my head — the long hair, the purple eyes… I was trying to describe someone who didn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

“Huh. Weird.”

“So you showed up and of course everyone–”

“Thinks I’m your boyfriend, yeah. My eyes are blue, though.”

“It’s kindof a purpley blue,” said Heero helplessly.

“So why’d you invent me? Your friends wanted you to find a boyfriend?”

“It’s more like they’re always bugging me to find a date and go out with the group on weekends… but I’m not interested in dating right now. I don’t know how anyone can be, with the amount of homework we get.”

Duo chuckled. “OK, I get it. So you invented a fake boyfriend. Lemme guess — I was from out of town and you only saw me on weekends or something, so it was a perfect excuse not to go out with your friends.”

“You…” That pronoun was a little awkward, actually, in this context. “‘He‘ was from Gearing.”

“Oh, wow. It just keeps getting weirder.”

“Well, we do sometimes get people transferring in from Gearing — and Steppe and Coachroad — because of the whole gay thing… That part wasn’t as weird as the rest of it.”

“Yeah, how’d you manage to get my hair and everything?”

“I have no idea.” Heero shook his head, more helplessly than ever. “And I would never have said all of that,” he added in sincere apology, “if I’d known someone would show up who matched it all so well. I didn’t mean to make everyone think you were my boyfriend, I promise.”

“Not everyone thinks that, though… The guy who told me where your locker was couldn’t have thought we were dating, or else why would he have thought I… didn’t know where your locker was?”

“What guy?”

“Some guy with weird hair.” Duo dug through one of his pants pockets with his free hand, and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “He handed me this in trig.”

Heero opened the note; half a glance was all it took to solve the mystery. “This is Quatre’s handwriting,” he said dismissively. “The guy you saw was probably Trowa, his boyfriend, running errands for him as usual. Quatre is a sort of… social guru. He knows who everyone’s dating, and everyone’s schedule, and a lot more about the entire school than he should. Of course he knows you aren’t actually my boyfriend.”

After a long, pensive silence, Duo said slowly, “Well… I don’t see why I can’t be.”

Heero found himself blushing hot all of a sudden. “What?” He barely got the word out coherently in his surprise and embarrassment.

“Not for real,” Duo assured him hastily, undoubtedly marking Heero’s flustered reaction. “But if everyone already thinks we’re together, why not let them keep thinking that? Then your friends wouldn’t keep bugging you to find a date, you wouldn’t have to admit you made the whole thing up, and you could get on with your life in peace.”

“That… that sounds like a perfect setup.” Having regained his composure, at least outwardly, Heero was able to speak in a fairly businesslike tone. “But… not to sound ungrateful or anything… why?”

Duo shrugged. “We’re already going the same direction to get home… I’m going to be working most days, and if you’re going to be doing homework, why not let people think we’re spending all our time together after school?”

“And…” It was a fantastic-sounding plan, but there was a side to it that Duo hadn’t touched on. “And at school?”

“Well, you seem like a decent guy, and I never mind having new friends to hang out with.” Duo grinned. “But even if we don’t hang out all that much at school, it won’t look weird if it still looks like we’re going home together every day, right? And if it turns out we really can’t stand each other at all, we can claim we broke up and just end the whole thing.”

So overwhelmed was Heero by the abruptness of this unbelievably fortuitous idea and the apparent quickness of Duo’s resolve, he couldn’t for a moment say anything. Finally, though, he managed, “But why would you do this? It’s… it seems really nice of you… and you just met me…”

Again Duo shrugged. “Why not? I’m going to be busy too; it’ll be nice if people aren’t bugging me about dating either.”

“But what if you want to go out with someone?”

“Why should I? Truth is, I got a lot going on: I’ve already got hours of homework after only three days, and I have a full-time job.” He gave a nod of satisfaction so brisk it made his braid bounce. “No, I think this will work out really well. I mean,” he added with a sidelong glance at Heero, “if you want to. Don’t let me push you into it if you’d rather just–”

“No, no!” Heero broke in hastily. “You’re right; it seems perfect. I just…” He scratched his head a little nervously. “Just can’t believe my luck.”

“It does all seem kindof astrology or whatever, doesn’t it?” In a deep, portentous voice Duo announced, “The stars aligned that day to throw together two strangers on the path of destiny.” Then his demeanor changed entirely as he asked casually, “What’s your sign?”

“Uh…” Thrown off-balance by Duo’s sudden alteration of tone, Heero struggled to remember. “Pisces, I think?”

“Hmm. No good for a Saggitarius like me. Good thing we won’t really be dating.”

Heero supposed that was as valid a reason as any to be glad they wouldn’t really be dating. “So you’re interested in astrology?” he asked cautiously.

“Sortof. It’s fun to follow. I like reading horoscopes and seeing how stupidly general they are. Like every single one of them could probably apply to anyone, no matter when you were born. The one I just read for myself the other day — no, actually, it wasn’t for myself, sorry; it was for Cancer — it was talking about relationships, and……”

The next mile, spent discussing astrology and Duo’s semi-satirical interest in it, was enough to convince Heero that some stars must indeed have aligned in order to bring them to this pass: his new fake boyfriend, with whom he would, presumably, be spending at least some time on a regular basis for a while, wasn’t just quickly decisive and unexpectedly understanding and helpful; he was also very entertaining. Heero was enjoying the conversation so much that he found himself a little reluctant to stop at the corner where he needed to break away from Duo’s homeward path.

“I have to go this way,” he said, pointing.

“Oh.” Duo looked in that direction, then on down the street where he needed to go. “Hey, I don’t have to work today, and I’m just going to go home and do homework… do you want to actually hang out? Might as well do homework together as separately, right?”

Marveling at the ease with which Duo suggested so friendly an activity to someone he’d just met, but seeing nothing wrong with the idea, Heero said, “Yeah, why don’t you come to my house?” He added somewhat warningly, “If you’re serious about doing homework. Because I have a lot of it.”

“Now, what would make you think I’m ever not totally serious about anything?” Duo demanded in the most innocent of tones as he followed Heero around the corner.

***

Duo had rather hoped to coincide with Heero on the way to school on Monday, but thought the difference in timing between a walker and a cyclist was a decent enough explanation for why he didn’t. Although he’d never hated school the way some people did, it wasn’t exactly his favorite pastime either — but today he was actually quite interested in being there. Having a secret was always fun, as was putting on a show for people; and becoming better acquainted with the quiet, intelligent Heero had its attractions as well.

Besides, this time when someone Duo didn’t know came up to him in the hall and asked what struck him as an extremely rude personal question having to do with the accuracy of the portrayal of Japanese men’s anatomy in anime porn — an inquiry whose significance would have gone completely over his head just a few days before — he was able to reply immediately and cheerfully that he would be quite willing to dole out punches to the face of anyone else that was curious.

The weather was cold, but evidently Heero’s group of friends wasn’t going to let a little thing like January deter them from eating in their customary outside spot. Anything to maintain their territory and avoid freshmen, Duo supposed. And the central courtyard was pretty nice, if a bit of a walk from the cafeteria if you happened to be buying school lunches (which, Duo had determined after some calculations, were cheaper in the long run than trying to figure out something else every single day). So the only problem left was coming up with an explanation for why he hadn’t eaten lunch with Heero last week, why he was eating with him today, and why he might not be again in the future.

Interestingly, Heero was more taciturn with his friends than he had been with a complete stranger on Friday, and evidently they’d been unable to get a thing out of him last week regarding his newly-arrived boyfriend. Since Heero had mentioned in some embarrassment that he’d put off seeking Duo out because he hadn’t been sure what to say to him, it shouldn’t be too great a surprise that he hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone else either. But it also meant that his lunch crowd was even more curious than they might otherwise have been because of the perceived secrecy.

They mobbed Duo the moment he appeared, a little later than most of them due to the aforementioned walk from the cafeteria and a disorientation about the layout of the school that he hadn’t yet quite overcome. Space was made beside where Heero sat unobtrusively in a corner so Duo could squeeze in next to him — right next to him, which was a pleasant warmth in the cold outside air, but Duo couldn’t help wondering how Heero felt about it.

The reason he gave, in response to the immediate questions about why he’d been neglecting his boyfriend, was that he’d been checking out lunch venues throughout the school — which he in fact had. His response to the information that Heero had been unhappy here without him was a serious inquiry of Heero whether or not this was true, to which Heero replied with a slight quirk of a corner of his lips that he’d been fine. His astonishing answer to the demand that he eat lunch here with Heero and the rest of them from now on was something silly to the effect of his being an itinerant at heart and unable to stay in one place long or consistently.

Then, in order to cover up the whispering that started as they all tried to wrap their brains around this and began to speculate what it would probably mean for his relationship with Heero, Duo asked to be introduced to everyone. When it became obvious that Heero wasn’t about to take this task upon himself, it was performed instead by a girl named Relena. Duo was interested to note both the all-knowing Quatre and lackey Trowa among the group, and also that Heero didn’t actually seem terribly friendly with most of these friends of his. It made Duo wonder how it was that he’d come to eat lunch with them every day at all.

Once Relena was finished rattling off names (and accompanying facts that were probably designed for further identification but that meant nothing to Duo), she settled down against one of the large concrete squares stationed throughout the courtyard. These had undoubtedly been intended by their builders as benches, but the one in this corner was used by this group as a shelf and a seat-back; Relena’s current position in relation to it put her near and directly facing Duo in what almost resembled the attitude of an interrogator across a table from an unwilling informant.

“Now,” she said in a complacently authoritative tone, “you have to tell us everything: how you guys met, what it’s been like being long-distance, what made you decide to move up here — everything!”

Duo had actually given a fair amount of thought to this during the long hours he’d worked over the weekend, and entertained himself making things up; though he hadn’t consulted Heero yet about the stories he’d concocted, he deemed it unlikely that Heero had fabricated anything too terribly complicated on his own that would contradict what Duo had to say. However, though Heero might not object, within the context of the scam, to Duo waxing eloquent on their supposed relationship, he might mind for other reasons. The briefest glance in Heero’s direction showed him already blushing faintly just at hearing the questions asked; the answers, fictitious or otherwise, couldn’t improve his condition.

“You know,” Duo said instead, with a grin, “I’d rather not take all the mystery out of that story by telling it all at once; it’ll be so much better if I just give you little hints over time. So for now, how about I tell you all about the fabulous Duo Maxwell instead?”

Relena’s expression of slight discontent was the first hint Duo had that she was perhaps less interested in him personally than as he related to Heero. But all she said was, “OK, fine.”

So he spent a happy lunch hour complaining about how his foster parents hadn’t really wanted a son, but, rather, a minion they could shape and control; how they’d pressured him for as long as he could remember to prepare himself for a military career, and how he’d never been interested; how he’d put up with their demands and insistence for a few years and then rebelled, and how tense things had been thereafter; about the nuclear-level explosion he’d occasioned by announcing that he was bisexual; and, finally, about his lengthy and careful preparations, during the year he would turn eighteen, to get himself out the moment that happy event took place. That had been last December, and as soon as school had halted for the winter break he’d moved away from Gearing.

“I came here — I mean here specifically — because of Heero, obviously,” he concluded, joggling his ‘boyfriend’ slightly with his elbow. “But also because I knew this school was all famous for being so gay-friendly. I read that one article in that magazine–”

“You and everyone else in the world,” someone put in laughingly.

Duo grinned. “Yeah, the one where they said this was probably the only school in the country where you could get beaten up for being a homophobe — and I was like, ‘I am so there.’ I figured even transferring schools in the middle of my senior year would be worth it to come here for a while.”

“And he didn’t tell me any of this,” Heero put in unexpectedly. It was the first time he’d spoken in quite a while.

“What do you mean?” Relena sounded incredulously amused. “He didn’t tell you he was moving here?”

Heero shook his head.

Taking the cue, Duo grinned broadly and expanded on the subject. “It was pretty much the best surprise ever, if I do say so myself. Whenever I was complaining before about how much I hated living at home, Heero would remind me that high school was almost over, if I could just hold on a little longer…” This fictitious advice seemed consistent with what Duo had observed of Heero so far. “He had no idea I was already planning on getting out before high school was over!”

“So you just showed up here with, what, a truck full of stuff or something…” Incredulity now tinged with delight, Relena turned to Heero. “And that was the first you knew he was coming here?”

“Something like that,” Heero mumbled. He looked embarrassed, maybe because he was so bald-facedly lying, but Duo thought this had been a good move on Heero’s part: it would at least partially explain why he’d been in a weird mood last week — anyone might be a little stunned if his long-distance boyfriend suddenly joined him in his hometown without warning.

“So if you and Heero met and started going out last April…” This was the very innocent- and harmless-looking little blonde Quatre, and he had Duo’s immediate attention. “And you were getting ready to get away from your parents all of last year… that means you already knew you’d be moving and changing schools before you even met him. Did you have this school in mind then?”

Duo wondered where Quatre, who knew the truth, was going with this question. Maybe he was just trying to guide the topic back to something that would embarrass Heero less. Perfectly happy to accept the subject shift in that or any case, Duo nodded. “Yeah, ever since I read that article…”

“So you were already interested in this school,” Quatre mused, “and then you met Heero.” His pointed yet half-veiled gaze indicated his awareness that, with the way he’d worded it, this was totally accurate. “It’s kinda like destiny or something.”

Duo remembered his own comment last Friday about stars aligning, heard the giggles and charmed noises of some of the girls in the group, and grinned as he leaned over the very small distance it took him to rub his shoulder against Heero’s. He still wasn’t sure what Quatre meant by that line of inquiry, and didn’t know that it was likely to embarrass Heero any less, but he didn’t hesitate to agree, at least verbally.

It turned out he needn’t have worried so much about Heero’s level of embarrassment. On their way home that afternoon, almost immediately they were down the street away from the school and the ears of fellow students, Heero brought it up.

“I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t happy not to have to get into relationship talk over lunch,” he said, “but I’m not fragile. You’re obviously a better actor than me, so you’re welcome to choose what we talk about to everyone, and I’ll just try to keep up.”

“Well, I thought you did fine,” Duo assured him. “That idea that I supposedly didn’t tell you I was moving out here was pretty funny, and I thought you pulled it off perfectly.”

“Thank you.” Heero smiled slightly; it was the first time Duo had seen him do it, and it was remarkable what a striking, attractive change the expression made to his face. “This is…” The smile turned into a bit of a grimace as he admitted the unpalatable fact. “Well, I didn’t think I was going to like this, but actually it’s been kinda nice so far.”

Duo wondered whether this unobtrusive person had ever received so much positive attention at school before. “Even if some of it was embarrassing?”

“I said I’m not fragile,” said Heero, now somewhat irritably. “Just because I get a little embarrassed about something doesn’t mean anything changes.”

Now Duo had to wonder whether anyone around here took Heero at all seriously in a social sense. He was an exceptionally good student — Duo knew that quite well even after such a short time — and there was a general tendency among people their age to equate that with a lack of social skills. Maybe that was at least part of the reason everyone had been so interested to discover Heero ‘had a boyfriend.’

Anyway, Duo didn’t feel like trying to analyze Heero’s place in the high school strata right now. “We’re only a day in,” he said instead with a grin that was both cheerful and warning. “It could get better or worse from here.”

“And if it’s worse,” Heero said calmly, “we can always ‘break up.'”

It wasn’t real; since they weren’t actually dating, they couldn’t actually break up. But Duo couldn’t help considering this — particularly Heero’s self-reassuringly cool manner of delivery — rather cold. No wonder, again, everyone had so marveled at the idea of Heero with a boyfriend!

After this, however, they moved on to Heero’s favorite topic (homework), with the occasional mention thrown in of Duo’s job at a restaurant not far from his apartment, and Duo pretty much forgot he’d ever felt put off.

***

“So it ended up 37-20, and they’re obviously in. With Manning in there, they’re practically unstoppable. That guy can find a receiver every single time, no matter what kind of heat’s on him; it’s fucking amazing. There’s no way in hell San Francisco can… god, are you even listening?”

“Yes,” Sylvia replied abstractedly, “and I totally agree.”

“Then what did I just say?”

“That you’ve got a crush on Eli Manning,” she replied promptly, finally turning her eyes back toward him.

“Not funny,” Alex growled. “That’s what’s wrong with this fucking school… everyone assumes everyone’s fucking gay.”

“I was totally joking,” she assured him. “But you have been talking about football a lot.”

“Well, what would you rather talk about?” he demanded in that exasperated ‘Oh, my god, why can’t girls ever make sense?’ tone guys sometimes used, glancing around to see what kept grabbing her attention past his left shoulder. Evidently he couldn’t tell what she was looking at, for he turned back to her with no enlightenment on his face.

“Look again,” she commanded, grinning. “Aren’t they totally cute?”

His expression darkened. “I’m not looking again if it’s just to see something ‘cute.'” Then, briefly, a flicker of puzzlement crossed his face and, contrary to his words, he did look again. “Oh, god,” he said as he slowly turned back. “You’re talking about that new guy Duo and that nerd guy, aren’t you? Please, Sylvia, please tell me Duo’s not gay.”

“He’s not gay,” she said immediately.

Alex breathed a huge, exaggerated sigh of relief. “Good, because he’s in my P.E. class, and if I thought–”

“He’s bi,” Sylvia broke in.

“So he is gay! Goddammit, he’s probably been staring at my ass in the locker room ever since he got here!”

Sylvia tried not to laugh. Alex actually seemed angry, but she couldn’t feel sorry for him. “I totally wouldn’t blame him if he did,” she said. “And why would he anyway? He’s together with Heero.”

Alex appeared somewhat consoled by her flirtatious remark, and also curious in spite of a very strong inclination not to be. “Is he? I heard he played soccer at his old school… and Heero’s in, like, five different Honor Societies… why would they–”

“Duo’s totally got a 3.8,” Sylva said, proud of her inside knowledge. “Or at least that’s what he had at his old school; I don’t know about here. I think Heero’s got, like, a 4.7 or something, but anyway they’re both really good students. Probably,” she added in satisfaction, “because they spend, like, every day after school at Heero’s house doing homework.”

“You sure that’s what they’re doing?” Alex asked darkly.

“No,” she tittered. “But they won’t come out with us on Fridays, and they always go home together. Duo doesn’t always eat lunch with us, because I guess he’s already got a lot of friends all over the school, even though it’s been, what, like, three weeks? And I think Heero misses him at lunch, but with Heero you can never tell.” She laughed again. “Anyway, they always go home together.”

“Why are you so interested in this?” Alex’s tone was suspicious as he closed his locker, gave the couple they were discussing one last, somewhat venomous look, and turned away to walk down the hall.

Following him, Sylvia answered cheerfully. “Because I’ve been eating lunch with Heero practically every day for two years now, and we’ve never seen him go out with anyone, and we always thought it would be cool if he did, and now he finally is!”

“I can’t believe that Duo guy’s gay.” This was more in muttered apostrophe than as any sort of reply to Sylvia.

“He’s bi,” she corrected.

“Oh, come on, like any girl would go out with a guy who’d been with another guy,” he said harshly.

I would!”

“God, would you? Have you? Seriously, if you say yes, you are not getting a ride home.”

That, Sylvia thought, was a terribly rude comment, but she had to admit that she never had gone out with a bisexual guy… and she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of a date with Alex on Friday by calling him on his homophobia. She did, however, as a sort of passive rebellion, keep talking about Heero, and how pleased she was to see him with the very likeable Duo, all the way out to the student parking lot and half the way home.

***

The previous three Januaries had been the heaviest homework months of the school year, as if the teachers were trying to make up for the long winter break and get the new calendar year started off right, and this January had sustained that trend admirably.

“And you know how many pages he wants?” Duo was complaining as they made their usual way out one day near the end of the month. “Freaking ten! That’s practically a book! And he was very specific about margin widths and font sizes, too, so we can’t cheat.”

“Triple-space it,” Heero suggested.

Duo stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. “You’re a genius!”

Heero, who didn’t stoop to such tactics himself but somehow knew them all, and who moreover had written two seven-page essays this month and was inclined to feel sorry for his companion, gave a sympathetic look.

“But, seriously, I’ll still end up having to write eight or nine pages,” Duo groaned. “Who does that?”

“Have you chosen a topic?”

“I was thinking the Civil War.”

Heero laughed. “You can’t just do ‘the Civil War.’ That’s way too general.”

“Way too General Lee?”

Heero rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’ll figure something out. Stupid research paper.”

“Just wait ’til college. We’ll be writing twenty-page research papers, and we won’t have nearly as long to finish them.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. How’s it going with Stage, by the way?”

Willum Stage University, located in a town called Placette only a couple of hours’ drive from here, was the school Heero had in mind, and he’d just finished the application process earlier this week. For this he was duly congratulated, after which they fell silent for a block or so — one of them, presumably, still mulling over the paper that had been assigned in his history class today. But it was just occurring to Heero to wonder something about Duo.

Finally he asked. “Where do you want to go to college? I’ve never heard you mention.”

Duo pushed out his lips in a silly, almost pouty way and looked sidelong at Heero. “Iiiii don’t know if I do want to go to college,” he said a little reluctantly.

Surprised, Heero said, “Really? You’re a good student; I thought…”

“Yeah, that’s how everyone reacts,” Duo mumbled, “which is why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Everyone does tend to assume we’ll all be doing the same things once we’re done with school,” said Heero carefully, “but… some people work for a while first… some people travel… I guess some people don’t go to college at all…”

Duo made a weary, protesting noise. “You make it sound like it’s a really weird concept.”

“College has been my goal for as long as I can remember,” Heero admitted apologetically. “What do you have in mind instead?”

“I kinda want to be a chef.” Duo apparently didn’t have a great deal of hope that this would be in any way acceptable; his parents probably had something to do with that.

It sounded fine to Heero; he didn’t even have to give it much thought. “So, a culinary school, then?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Evidently heartened by the lack of immediate condemnation from Heero, Duo went on more enthusiastically. “What I think would be really cool is to have a combination restaurant and car repair shop so people could drop off their cars for whatever and then come inside and eat! Except I don’t actually want to run the place, I just want to do the cooking. I might take a few business classes just so I’ll have some idea what’s going on, but mostly my plan is to do some other cooking jobs so I can get really good at that and save up enough money to find a partner who can handle the business end of things while I make all the awesome food. And of course we’ll need a really good mechanic who…” He paused. “I lost you at ‘combination restaurant and car repair,’ didn’t I?”

Trying very hard to stifle his laughter and speak seriously, Heero said, “No, no, I think it’s a great idea.” In truth he considered it a remarkably childlike idea: something not necessarily impractical or inappropriate, but that few adults would come up with. Obviously one of those few was Duo, whom Heero couldn’t help considering, in light of this, rather adorable. Forcing calm upon himself he reiterated, “Really. Not a bad idea at all.”

Across the bike that separated them, Duo peered suspiciously at Heero. “You mean it?”

Solemnly Heero nodded.

Breaking into a brilliant grin, Duo exulted, “Hah! You’re the best ‘boyfriend’ ever!”

With a slight blush Heero said, “Who you should really talk to is my mom. She sometimes does catering. Just for small events, because it’s just her and a friend doing the cooking, but she still knows some things about the business…”

“Oh! That explains why she always has the Best Snacks Evar for us whenever I’m at your house doing homework! I meant to get the recipe for those little potato skin things, but I forgot. How come you didn’t tell me she did catering??”

“I didn’t realize you were interested.”

Duo frowned. “It’s probably not good that we ‘boyfriends’ don’t know all this stuff about each other. I mean, what if someone asked? Anyway, it’s definitely not good that we real, actual friends don’t know.”

Unexpectedly pleased at having Duo refer to him as a real, actual friend, Heero suggested, “We should have a question and answer session.”

“Yes! Yes, we should! OK, let me think of questions.”

This activity occupied them the rest of the way to Heero’s house. There, because Duo wanted to harass Heero’s mother and Heero wanted to do his homework, they agreed that the best way to go about this was for each of them to write down a list of questions, which they would then exchange and answer in between their other tasks as they had time and inclination.

Between the culinary discussion in which Mrs. Yuy was happy to indulge Duo for quite some time and the homework that Duo, who wasn’t nearly as irresponsible as he sometimes acted, started in on afterward, it wasn’t until nearly two hours later that they gave each other their questions. And then, not for the first time that day, Heero had to try to stifle his laughter.

1. What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?

2. What was one thing you used to want to be when you grew up that totally changed?

3. If you could take the characters from any movie and put them into a new movie about a DANCE COMPETITION, which movie and characters would you choose and why?

4. If you could have any animal in the world for a pet (and it would be friendly to you no matter what it was), what would you choose?

5. Do you have any awesome tattoos, and how do you feel about tattoos?

These weren’t really the sort of questions Heero had had in mind, and totally dissimilar to his list, which was about things like politics and important formative experiences… but honestly he was rather looking forward to answering them. Not only that, but it struck him after a few moments of thought that Duo actually had the right idea: Heero had conveyed plenty about his plans for the future and other such serious topics; it was the extracurricular aspects of his personality Duo would know least about at this point — and vice versa for Heero about Duo.

So, setting aside for the moment the book he was reading for English and the notes he was taking thereon, he centered Duo’s sheet of questions in front of him and set down his pencil without looking in order to choose one at random. Upon rereading it, he decided he would need more space than what Duo had allowed him, and extracted a fresh sheet of paper.

Am I limited to animals? he began writing. Because if it will be friendly to me no matter what it is, a banyan tree……


One Year, Two Minutes (3/3)



This story has no chapters, but has been divided into three posts due to length.

1
2
3

“We’ve got a problem.” This was Heero’s rather dire-sounding greeting when he met Duo after school.

“Uh-oh,” said Duo. “Is someone on to us?”

“Prom,” Heero replied flatly.

“So you mean we’ve got a Promblem. Is Prom a problem?”

Rolling his eyes and trying to stifle a grin at the idiotic joke, Heero nodded. “Are we going to… you know… do all that?”

“Go to Prom, you mean?” Duo seemed to give the matter the first serious consideration he’d offered during this conversation; it ended with him shrugging, as Heero had rather expected. “Yeah, we probably should.”

Heero swallowed, and reminded him reasonably, “It’ll be expensive. We’ll need tuxedos, and you’re expected to go out to dinner first, and…”

“It’ll look weird if we don’t go,” was Duo’s just-as-reasonable counterargument.

“And I can’t dance,” Heero finished pathetically.

Kindly Duo smiled at him. “Everyone can dance. It’s only funny shy people like you who decide they can’t.”

Blushing faintly, Heero had to return the smile, just a little, but still also to protest. “I’m pretty sure some people really can’t. Some people have no sense of rhythm, and some people are just clumsy…”

“Not you,” stated Duo, simultaneously positive and dismissive. “So don’t worry about that. I still think we should go. How would it look if people saw us two great boyfriends not going to Prom?”

“Especially after I said it’s our one-year anniversary,” Heero muttered.

“Did you? Well, that’s good to know. Yeah, so, anniversary date at Prom. Besides, you only get one Senior Prom in your whole life; it’d be stupid to miss the chance just because we’re not really together.”

The cavalier manner in which Duo made statements like ‘we’re not really together’ bothered Heero, but there was nothing to be done about it… especially when he was the one uninterested in dating anyone. There was no way he could admit now that he secretly wanted to go to Prom with Duo, even if he honestly was uneasy about the public social nature of the event and the dancing required. All he could do was agree in terms of their subterfuge.

“It probably would look weird. I guess you’re right.”

“I’m glad you think so…” Duo looked down at his bike, flexing the fingers of his left hand out to encompass the brake and retracting them again in a movement that almost seemed nervous. “‘Cause I… kinda… already bought us tickets.”

“Did you.” It was half annoyed demand and half amused acknowledgment.

Duo looked sheepish but unrepentant. “One of us should probably still officially ask the other, though. People expect that.”

“I’ve noticed,” Heero muttered. He sighed slightly, but once again (as was not infrequently the case around Duo) couldn’t help smiling a bit too. “Well, let me take care of that.”

“Really?” Duo sounded startled.

Wryly Heero said, “I’ve got to pull my weight sometime.”

“OK, then! I’ll try my best to be surprised at whatever you have in mind.” Duo was grinning as if his expectations were not terribly high, and undoubtedly with good reason.

Because what Heero had in mind was not likely to be particularly surprising, given that it was exactly what he’d done before — or rather, what Duo had done for himself in Heero’s name. The student council, as he’d been informed earlier by just about every single one of his friends while discussing Prom, had once again set up a service by which flowers, candy, and miscellaneous romantic items could be delivered to classmates in the middle of school in front of everyone. Heero was going to take full advantage of it this time to try to assuage his bitterness at not having done so before.

The only way this course of action could be regarded as original or romantic was with the knowledge that Heero hadn’t actually been the one to send Duo roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day, and regretted it. And since Duo would take the offering as just another playact in their long deception, and wouldn’t know of Heero’s regret, it was likely to look pathetic and uncreative to everyone. But Heero was going to do it anyway. He was going to order Duo the biggest bouquet they offered and a whole box of the type of chocolates he’d liked best in the sampler last time, and he was going to mean it.

***

Duo wasn’t terribly surprised when Heero’s idea of a surprising method of asking him to Prom turned out to be to mimic Valentine’s Day. Heero hadn’t seemed too enthusiastic about the idea of going to Prom at all, and couldn’t be expected to waste much thought on a clever way of requesting that Duo accompany him. Actually, Duo considered himself lucky that Heero hadn’t been annoyed at him in the first place for buying tickets without any prior discussion, or even flatly refused to attend.

He’d definitely gone all-out, at least. He was probably trying to outdo ‘himself’ from last time, for there was an entire planet’s worth of flowers (which Duo didn’t have any idea how he was going to get home) and a big box of the caramel pecan things Duo had so passionately adored at Valentine’s Day.

By coincidence, these romantic offerings were delivered during the same class in which the latter holiday’s had been. At least Duo assumed it was coincidence, since he doubted the student council was interested in minute schedule coordination. Anyway the teacher, obviously remembering the already-extravagant presents of that instance that were, improbably, outdone by today’s, raised her brows at him. Duo just shrugged and grinned.

She kept throwing him skeptical looks, though — or what she could see of him past the flowers taking up most of his desk — so it was several minutes before he felt safe attempting to read the folded sheet of notebook paper that had been delivered along with the more colorful items. He’d seen at a glance what it was, but class was almost over before he managed to apprise himself of what it said.

1. How familiar are you with the Metric System, and do you think switching to it on a nationwide level is a good idea?

2. If you could assassinate one person without any type of consequences to yourself, would you do it?

3. Will you go to Prom with me?

4. Do you think solar energy is a viable renewable energy source for the majority of the world’s population (sometime in the future)?

5. What are your thoughts on other methods of fortune-telling besides astrology?

Somewhat to his own shock, Duo felt the beginnings of tears in his eyes. He wasn’t in any danger of actually crying over this, but there was a definite prickle back there. Damn Heero and his attractive cleverness that could make this repetitive gift suddenly fresh, and his desire not to really go out with anyone, and his unexpected sweetness that made Duo wish more than ever before that it could be otherwise.

Trowa had been right — this little game was stupid. It was the type of thing that got people hurt. Never again would Duo do anything like this, neither to keep himself free to get things done nor out of pity on anyone else.

But he was definitely going to Prom with Heero. At least he would have that to look forward to, and to look back on after this was all over. With a careful glance at the teacher, he reached for a pencil with which to answer the questions on the paper, starting with #3.

***

Zechs had only an unclear idea of what his roommate and the ‘boyfriend’ were doing out in the tiny apartment living room, but so far it had been pretty hilarious to listen to.

“It’s just clinging to each other and kinda shuffling in a circle,” Duo was saying reassuringly; “it’s not hard.”

“I do know how it’s technically done,” the grim-voiced Heero replied. “It’s not like it’s a ball or something.”

“It’d be pretty cool if it was, though.”

“No. It would not. If it were a ball you would not catch me within a hundred miles of it.”

“So you’d actually travel away from here to make sure you weren’t that close?”

“I’d take a Greyhound.”

Duo laughed. “OK, fine, no ballroom dancing for you. But you’re going to have to come here and prove you do know how to do it before I let you out of this room.”

“You can’t just take my word for it?”

“Not with Prom on Saturday!”

This was one of those reminders Duo sometimes inadvertently delivered… In light of how accountable he was and the fact that he hadn’t been late or short on his half of the rent even once, the fact that Duo was still in high school sometimes escaped Zechs. Actually the discovery had made for a very pleasant surprise; Zechs had been leery at first at the idea of a roommate so young, but at that point he’d had to have some roommate or find a cheaper apartment, and Duo’s timing had been just right… and he’d never regretted it.

For all Duo seemed childishly easygoing on the surface, he was perfectly responsible underneath; this faux-boyfriend thing, Zechs thought, was his only real immaturity. Why not just actually date the guy? Heero wasn’t necessarily what Zechs would have considered Duo’s type, but he was definitely good-looking.

And a little awkward, which was what made the pseudo-couple’s occasional visits to the apartment so funny to overhear.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Heero was still trying to get out of what Duo was trying to get him to do. “Don’t you have anything to eat around here?”

“Probably not,” Duo admitted. Which was true: he got a free dinner at his restaurant every time he worked, bought lunches at school, and sometimes ran culinary experiments at home, but the result of this was that all he ever stocked the kitchen with was ingredients that would take an hour to turn into an actual meal; everything immediately edible in there right now probably belonged to Zechs. “And you’re not really hungry; you’re just making excuses.”

“Yeah, well…” Heero’s tone, Zechs thought, was one that acknowledged the truth of Duo’s statement but insisted perversely on arguing anyway. “Why today? I’ll probably repress this traumatic memory by the time Saturday gets here.”

“So harsh!” protested Duo, sounding dramatically wounded. “How could you say something like that to your very own boyfriend?? Besides,” he added, abruptly switching back to a normal voice, “I have to work for the rest of the week, so there won’t be time. So come over here.”

Heero laughed faintly, but it didn’t sound as if he obeyed the command just yet.

Really, it was idiotic those two weren’t actually together. The impressive Duo, who was successfully juggling his last semester of high school, a full-time job, a cooking hobby, and a fake relationship while managing to remain energetic and optimistic, seemed to have met his equal in the hard-working, intelligent Heero that had gotten himself accepted to the college of his choice and had the steady upward route of the next several years of his life meticulously planned out. They were fools not to be together.

But of course it wasn’t any of Zechs’ business, except as far as he enjoyed laughing disdainfully at them from the next room.

“I need to get my mom’s car back home. I already feel bad about taking it from her all day.”

With this topic, it sounded as if Heero had successfully distracted Duo from whatever his nefarious purpose was, for Duo said sincerely, “It was nice of you to think of bringing it.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to give you all those flowers and then make you try to carry them home on your bike.”

“You are so thoughtful,” Duo crooned. Then, in a very different tone, “Gotcha!”

There was some shuffling and a few noisy footsteps. Zechs couldn’t be sure what trick his roommate had used to get the ‘boyfriend’ to… whatever he’d gotten him to do… but that foul play of some variety had been involved he did not doubt, especially when Heero said in a mixture of amusement and bitterness, “You’re a sneak.”

“Yep!” Duo agreed cheerfully. “And now you’re going to prove that you know how to dance!”

Given that Zechs’ classes were in the afternoons and evenings — as a matter of fact, he needed to be leaving pretty soon for today’s — and Duo barely even came here except to sleep and make the occasional staggering mess of the kitchen, they didn’t actually run into each other very often. This only enhanced Zechs’ opinion that someone as faithfully industrious as his roommate deserved a little fun (read: romance) in his life. He was fairly sure the only reason Duo wasn’t actually dating Heero was that he was so busy, and that was stupid. Greater difficulties than that were surmounted in the name of love on a daily basis.

For this very reason, to set a good example for the misguided young men, Zechs had overcome his own romantic difficulties (namely a vicious, determined rival that he’d been a little worried might actually offer him bodily harm) and struck up a thus-far-very-rewarding relationship with one of his classmates.

Well, he might have had more reasons for this than just wanting to prod Duo. But that had definitely been at least some fraction of his motivation.

Out in the living room, Duo had started loudly singing some slow love song from twenty years ago. Whether his lack of adherence to its key was deliberate Zechs had no idea, but at least he kept the timing right in order to have a beat to dance to. Halfway through the first verse, however, he cut off abruptly. “You don’t have to be so stiff, you know.”

“Sorry,” Heero replied. “But it’s hard to do right with you yelling that awful song right in my ear.” Zechs didn’t have to see him to detect the stiffness Duo objected to; the statement might have been written in block print on a piece of plywood for the tone in which it was uttered.

“OK, how about this one–” Duo started in on a different song, this one hip-hop and a good deal faster.

“No!” Heero said vehemently, now sounding very flustered. “No! I’ll do slow dances because it’ll look weird if I don’t dance at all. But not fast ones.”

“OK, fine. One more slow one, then.”

Perhaps because the threat of the faster piece had been so much worse, Heero acquiesced without argument this time. Duo toned down both the volume and the (apparently purposeful) out-of-tune nature of his singing, and evidently they managed to get through the rest of the song.

“I knew you could do it,” Duo said when he’d finished his more musical vocalizations.

“Then why did you make me do that?” Heero demanded.

“Because you didn’t think you could do it,” was Duo’s soulful answer. “But you just had to believe in yourself!”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘believe in yourself’ mean ‘be forced into it.'” Sardonic though he was, Heero seemed much less stiff and unhappy now that the ordeal was apparently over.

“You’ve been a very good boy,” Duo commended him.

Dryly Heero wondered, “What’s my prize?”

“You get to do homework with me for the rest of the day!”

Heero laughed. “You are incorrigible.”

“I’m sure I am,” was Duo’s complacent reply. “And I just remembered… I think I do actually have some Swiss Cake Rolls left, if Zechs hasn’t stolen them.”

Zechs, who had, jumped up quietly and headed quickly for the door.

***

Heero had cut it rather close with his asking; they’d discussed going to Prom weeks before, but he hadn’t actually asked Duo until five days prior to the dance. Fortunately, they’d long since agreed on colors and gotten fitted for their tuxedos, and Duo had put in his request for time off work plenty early; so the asking was a mere formality — one that needed to be observed, yes, but not something that would throw a wrench in any plans if it came a little late.

Actually, it was probably for the best that Heero had sent the stuff essentially at the last minute, since that minimized the amount of time to be survived between that and the dance. Because Duo wasn’t bothering to lie to himself and try to pretend he wasn’t hugely looking forward to the event. Roses and homespun dancing practice at his apartment on Monday got him good and excited, and then four long school and work days had to be endured before the big Saturday — but at least it wasn’t eleven or seventeen.

All the upperclassmen were, of course, talking about Prom, and a student council member just might have approached Duo with instructions regarding one particular aspect of it, and these facts didn’t help him get through those four days at all; he had to struggle not to be absolutely useless in every subject and annoy all his teachers by paying the poorest attention he’d ever done; not to mention twenty-four hours of work that he couldn’t remember a single minute of afterward… but somehow he did manage not to explode throughout the rest of the week, and finally Saturday came.

Heero had obtained the loan of his mom’s car for the night — she was always so obliging about that, though that might have been because Heero didn’t ask very often — and arranged to pick Duo up at seven. They’d discussed a price range for dinner, and then Heero had chosen a restaurant without yet telling Duo which one it was; if it turned out to be as unexpectedly romantic a surprise as his gifts on Monday, Duo knew he was in for a great night.

He was looking forward to a great night no matter where they ate, to be honest. This was as close as he was going to get to a proper romantic outing with Heero, and he planned on making the most of it. And as such, he’d fussed over his toilette more than he had in he didn’t remember how long. He’d spent an awfully long time in the shower, especially considering the standalone water bill; he’d brushed his teeth as if his life depended on it; he’d agonized over cologne and body glitter far longer than any such decisions should ever take; and he’d had some actually-rather-too-enthusiastic assistance with his hair from Zechs, who was going to beauty school to be a stylist.

After this Zechs had informed him pointedly that he would be out all night on a real date with his real boyfriend, so if Duo, for whatever unexpected and totally unforeseen reason, happened to want privacy in the apartment after the dance, he would have it. Then Zechs had swept grandly out, leaving Duo to wait in solitary agitation for his fake boyfriend to arrive for their fake date.

He spent that time trying to prepare himself mentally for the sight of Heero in a tuxedo. Like practically everyone, Heero wore t-shirts and jeans to school, and he looked damn good in those; Duo had never seen him in anything more formal, and was afraid that his first encounter with such a remarkable sight might be overwhelming if he wasn’t braced for it. So he was lost in a fluttery daydream of angelic beauty when the real thing appeared to prove or disprove the mental image.

The latter had been deliberately extreme, but still the former almost lived up to it. Which was a little silly… there was no real reason for the sight to have such an effect. It was just a guy in a tuxedo. Duo already knew what Heero looked like, already knew what tuxedos looked like. There was no real reason for his lungs to refuse to function and his heart to try to make up for that by working double-time and his whole body to heat up like a furnace. Just a guy in a tuxedo.

Just a guy he really, really liked in professionally-fitted formalwear of glossy black with accessories in a particularly flattering shade of red. Heero had steadfastly resisted Duo’s attempts to get him to wear a red tuxedo, and not merely because it would have been more expensive than the black one, but at least he’d agreed to that as a secondary color.

As Duo was attempting to get hold of himself and not drool all over the floor, Heero was returning the examination with an eye easily as minute, if a good deal steadier. Evidently he approved, for he nodded shortly. Then he produced a boutineer in a clear plastic box, and handed it informally to Duo.

The latter was relieved to see that this item was no more fancy or attractive than the one he’d bought; he’d somehow managed to forget completely about that particular tradition until just yesterday, and when he’d placed his order at the grocery store floral department, the harried old man there had given him a little lecture about timely planning.

They spent the next few minutes wordlessly helping each other pin the tiny flower arrangements in place. It was unusually quiet, actually: Heero, who was probably bracing himself for an evening he didn’t want to spend the way he was going to spend it, was even more taciturn than usual; and, busy with admiration of his attractive companion and working hard not to express this and other forbidden thoughts aloud, Duo didn’t say much more than Heero did.

Before they left the apartment, however, he insisted on snapping some pictures — just a few at arm’s-length with the camera in his crappy phone — since they’d opted not to do any formal Prom photos. The expense seemed unnecessary in their situation, but Duo would be damned if he came away from this with nothing by which to remember Heero in a tux. He had no rational excuse to offer Heero for this behavior, but evidently the casual bravado with which he carried it out served him well enough, for Heero did not protest. And then it was off to dinner.

It was the first time he’d been at a restaurant with Heero since Valentine’s Day, and perhaps Heero’s choice of Japanese cuisine was a sort of small revenge against Duo for that incident. Not that Duo had any objection to trying new things or foreign foods, but he certainly felt as out of his element here as Heero obviously had in that party restaurant back in February. Why weren’t there chairs at this table? What were the damp cloths for? How the hell did you eat with chopsticks?

Or perhaps Heero had just chosen it because he’d heard that a group of school acquaintances would be eating there as well; he’d been getting better, of late, keeping an eye on their visibility as a ‘couple.’ He didn’t acknowledge their classmates, but Duo exchanged waves and ‘You look great!’ greetings with them before sitting down.

By tacit mutual consent they did not discuss Prom or any other aspect of their fake relationship over dinner. Instead, they talked about race relations, Heero’s experience as a Japanese-American, attitudes, stereotypes, Duo’s complete inability to manage chopsticks, and so on. This might by anyone else have been considered potentially more awkward and agitating than the other subject, but here it was worlds better. In fact they were so absorbed in the interesting conversation that they barely noticed the passage of time, and, before they knew it, not only was the restaurant closing but they were past due for the beginning of the dance.

“Well, that was pretty delicious,” Duo said as they headed for the car. “Good choice!” He was trying to keep things at the same level of ease as inside the restaurant, but unfortunately his endeavor failed. Heero, obviously slipping back into the greater-than-usual silence of earlier now that he was once again being forced to think about the ordeal ahead, just nodded. And as Duo couldn’t think of anything more to say at the moment, he found himself quickly following suit.

***

Heero had been to exactly one school dance prior to this, during his freshman year when his mom had convinced him to give them a try before making an indiscriminate entry on the list of events in which he was actively disinterested, and that had been nothing like this. For one thing, that had taken place in the larger of the school’s gyms, whereas this was in a nice hotel’s ballroom with a grand staircase and everything. For another, there hadn’t in that previous instance been nearly so many emotional complications.

He wished he could say that the room they entered now looked good and the setting promisingly romantic, but in fact the decorations were overdone to the point of tackiness, the refreshments on the sideboard made the place look like a kid’s birthday party, and the music was too loud. But, then, it had never been the dance itself he’d been looking forward to, just the opportunity of attending it with Duo.

Of course various people — the majority of them from the lunch group — ganged up on the ‘couple’ the moment they walked in, and their excitement bombarding Heero from all sides made him long to escape out the open double doors at the far end of the room onto the patio or into the garden beyond. People had either to shout or lean close to him to make themselves heard, and then the only thing they had to say was how glad they were to see him there or how nice he looked in his tuxedo. Neither of these bright and original sentiments did much for him, but it only got worse after a few songs had played and they turned to queries about why he wasn’t dancing.

Honestly, he feared dancing poorly less than he feared dancing with Duo at all. He was absolutely certain he would, under those circumstances, transform instantly into a slack-jawed, glaze-eyed, tripping-over-his-own-feet, unable-to-force-anything-from-his-mouth-but-drool stupid idiotic moron, and this was something he wanted to avoid at all costs — even the cost of actually nerving himself to ask other people to dance instead.

Relena was the obvious first choice, since she was certain to be enthusiastic about accepting, but it was still a little difficult — and not because of the slight glower this won him from Wufei. Fortunately, it soon became easier. The actual dancing turned out not to be a problem (as Duo had said, it really was ‘just clinging to each other and kinda shuffling in a circle’), and Relena talked so happily and incessantly, about the song and the decorations and the refreshments and where she’d found her dress and how happy she was to see Heero and Duo there and probably some other things, that Heero wasn’t really required to speak.

The ice thus broken, further forays onto the dance floor were less of a problem (though Heero still couldn’t say he really enjoyed them). His friends were pleasantly surprised to be asked by him, and, seeing that he was willing to dance, some of them asked him where apparently they hadn’t originally planned on bothering to try. He even danced with a couple of straight guys; being comfortable with gay people was the cool thing to do around here, and though that didn’t stop them from being about as nervous and awkward as Heero was, he appreciated their willingness to make the attempt.

So he was pretty thoroughly booked, and thought he was doing rather well. But he also came more and more to question the expediency of this strategy. Surely it seemed strange to everyone else that he never danced with his ‘boyfriend…’ and hadn’t he been looking forward to this because it would be a romantic night with Duo even if they weren’t in an actual romantic relationship? Yet here he was avoiding him like mad.

Still he couldn’t bring himself to risk it. He met Duo sometimes between slow songs (he absolutely refused to attempt dancing to fast ones under any circumstances), and then they partook of the refreshments and chatted in just as friendly a manner as ever… but it must look weird, and Heero really wished it could be some other way.

Duo sometimes danced the aforementioned fast numbers, and at these times Heero’s eyes were glued to him from afar. Because when the dance didn’t consist solely of kinda shuffling in a circle, Duo… Duo danced like a complete dork. He flailed maniacally, did silly moves based on various ungraceful gestures such as fishline-casting, dragged people around him into his absurdity, and made everyone laugh.

And Heero adored every moment of it. That was his fearless, energetic Duo, who a few minutes later would come grinning back to Heero’s side to guzzle some punch and calm his breathing, and whom Heero could never quite manage to compliment properly. And still Heero fled him during slow songs.

Eventually, when it felt they’d been going through this for an ambivalent eternity, and after dancing with everyone else in his lunch crowd and, in fact, practically everyone he knew — including a teasing Quatre that seemed to comprehend precisely why he was avoiding Duo, a very stonily silent Trowa that obviously didn’t want to be here, and a couple of extraneous lesbians (one at a time, of course) whose names he barely remembered and that seemed to have some inside joke or something regarding him and Duo — Heero came to be dancing with Sylvia. And her odd behavior was enough to drag him, finally, away from his thoughts about his predicament and the guy he’d come here with.

“Why do you keep looking around like that?” he wondered, trying not to sound uncomfortable. Was she counting down the moments until she could get away? Was his dancing that bad? Clearly he was too distracted.

“I’m…” She gritted her teeth. “I’m kinda worried about how the rest of the night’s going to go.”

“Why?” Heero should have known he wasn’t the only one likely to be having problems at Prom. Promblems.

“I’m… I’m breaking up with Alex tonight.”

“Sylvia!” He did something he had done maybe once throughout the entirety of high school, and he couldn’t even remember when before that: he voluntarily hugged someone. Of course it wasn’t a huge change in relative position, given that they were already pretty close for the dance, but it was a pointed gesture that couldn’t but shock her practically out of her wits.

He drew back to find her blushing and gaping. “My god, Heero,” she stammered. “Did you just hug me?”

“Yes,” he said. “Sorry.”

“No!” Her expression turned to an astonished grin, and Heero thought she might start to cry at any moment. “That totally makes me feel more confident. I’ve been really worried about it.”

Getting the feeling they were being stared at, Heero tried to encourage Sylvia to start dancing again.

As she complied, she went on. “Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you hug anyone — not even your boyfriend.”

Heero cleared his throat. “Well, it was good news.”

She beamed at him. “I kept seeing the way you and Duo are together… you guys are always so… like… considerate of each other… and I started thinking that maybe a guy just being cute and whatever isn’t enough. And I know Alex wants to have sex tonight,” she went on, blushing more deeply, “and when I say no he’s going to be a jerk about that, and I just… I’m tired of it. So I’m going to tell him at the end of the dance, and go to Relena’s after-Prom.”

Heero couldn’t quite decide how he felt about the fact that his ‘romantic relationship’ with Duo had set that kind of example. Was it delightful or painful? Honestly, if it had helped Sylvia to this resolution, he didn’t care. “That’s fantastic,” he reiterated. “Let me know if you don’t want to go to after-Prom, and I’ll give you a ride home. Do you mind if I tell Duo?” Because he couldn’t wait; Duo was going to be ecstatic.

“No,” she said, “but don’t let it go any further, OK?” He wondered how many people she’d said that to tonight. Not that it mattered.

His promise that he would keep quiet, and hold Duo to the same, came just as the music began to shift into a different song — a faster one this time — so they wandered off the dance floor and parted in warmer friendship than they two had ever before shared.

When Heero located his ‘boyfriend,’ he pulled him back into a corner in order to tell him the good news. The latter was received by Duo with as great a joy as (and, indeed, a much greater show of excitement than) it had been by Heero, and they stood discussing the matter happily throughout the next couple of songs.

Then, as another slow number began to play, Heero suddenly realized that there was nobody else around for him to dance with and therefore that Duo might ask him at any moment. Shifting uncomfortably, forgetting the conversation they’d just been engaged in and how incongruous his question might seem in its wake, he asked, “How much longer is this thing?”

Duo glanced at his watch, but Heero got the feeling he wasn’t checking for the answer to that question. When he raised his eyes to Heero’s face again, it was with a deep breath and a slightly nervous expression. “Actually, we… kinda need to… go over there.”

“Go over where for what?” Heero demanded suspiciously.

“Promise you won’t kill me,” was Duo’s urgent reply.

“I won’t kill, but I reserve the right to maim.”

“I guess that’s the best I’m going to get…” With another deep breath Duo spilled his secret. “We… may have gotten elected Prom Kings.”

Heero felt the blood draining gradually from his face. “Please,” he faltered, almost inaudibly, “tell me you’re joking.”

Duo looked at him somewhat miserably and shook his head.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Heero was still unable to speak above a whisper — well, the equivalent of a whisper in a room this loud.

“I’m sorry… You wouldn’t have wanted to come at all if you’d known… and I really wanted to…”

Heero got a grip on himself. No use admitting that, despite his utter horror at the idea of being Prom King and whatever that would require of him, that last statement on Duo’s part was all it would have taken. Which didn’t mean Heero wouldn’t be contemplating some appropriate manner of revenge in the future, but at the moment it would probably be best to steel himself and get this over with.

“All right,” he said calmly. “What do we have to do?”

On the face of it, the procedure didn’t seem too terribly bad, if he concentrated on keeping his nerve up. They would have to wear sashes and jewel-encrusted plastic crowns and walk out on the stairs in front of everyone, but at least this would take place to the tune of their various scholastic achievements being announced. And if Heero had to make a spectacle of himself, while having his academic prowess acknowledged was certainly the best time to do it.

He wasn’t surprised that Duo, so charming and so celebrated in so many circles, had won this particular popularity contest, which of course dragged Heero along in his wake; what did surprise him was that Duo had managed to keep it a secret from him. Didn’t people… talk about… the Prom Court? Shouldn’t Heero have had to… sign something… or something? He tried to recall what he knew about that, exactly, or what he’d heard in previous years, and realized he really had no idea. Which, he supposed, was what he got for generally ignoring gossip and those that purveyed it.

There was one other thing to be said for this parade that was about to take place: Duo looked fantastic in that silly sash and crown. It was such a little thing that shouldn’t have made much of a difference, but it had a remarkable effect. Duo really resembled royalty with that strip of red velvet across his chest. Its glittery gold edging wasn’t the only thing that sparkled; he’d obviously also combed something shimmery through his hair, which hung loose except for a well-placed couple of small braids.

Heero had managed sufficiently to admire the effect of a sparkly-haired Duo in a cream-colored tuxedo earlier, when he’d arrived at Duo’s apartment, without too much brain-dead foolishness on his own part, and thought he’d been ready for the rest of the night… but here, in this mixture of shadow and light, at the top of the stairs getting ready for this Prom Court presentation nonsense, he couldn’t take his eyes off him. He just knew he was going to trip over something on the way down, and somebody was sure to get a picture of it. If Duo was also in the picture, Heero didn’t even think he would mind; he would have a much better excuse for requesting a copy than he would asking for the ones Duo had taken earlier.

Somehow, whether it was the buzz he got from holding Duo’s arm and walking beside him, or the sincere sound of the applause and cheers as the announcements were made, or just that this really wasn’t as difficult as he’d convinced himself it must be, he made it through the introductions without disintegration or spontaneous combustion or any of the other fates he’d vaguely feared upon being informed that he had to do this. The rest of the Court was composed of people Heero didn’t know very well, and none of them had the type of academic accomplishments to their record that he did. This, combined with the fact that he and Duo were the only gay couple in the lineup, filled Heero with a sort of pride of exclusivity that probably helped him through the ceremony as much as anything else.

And he’d just thought of himself and Duo as an actual couple.

Eventually all the names and credentials had been listed, a lot of pictures had been taken, and Heero had begun to think this wasn’t so bad, and in any case must be about over. But he realized the next moment what a very false sense of security this was when the girl doing the announcing (another senior he recognized but didn’t really know) said, “And now your Prom Court will perform the traditional Royal Dance!”

“The what?” Heero hissed in a panic.

“Just a normal dance,” Duo whispered in reply. Then, stepping back, he made Heero a deep bow that would have been more elegant and courtly if he hadn’t turned a grin beneath twinkling eyes up at Heero at the last moment.

That answer had not dispelled Heero’s panic. Obviously this, more than any dance prior, was the reason Duo had insisted he practice on Monday, but Heero didn’t think he was ready for it… and that had nothing to do with how much practice he’d had. He and Duo had never taken their charade as far as close physical contact, which was not only in-character for Heero but also the most morally appropriate way to handle a pretend relationship; so the closest he’d ever been to Duo all along had been sitting against him sometimes at lunch and the occasional instance of Duo throwing an arm across his shoulders, which was really more friendly than anything else. And even those had been growing more and more difficult to deal with calmly as the weeks went by. He’d barely survived the dancing practice… here, in this much more serious setting, with everyone watching, he was sure he couldn’t do it. He was going to fall apart. He was going to make a complete fool of himself. He was going to–

And then Duo reached for him.

***

Sometimes it seemed as if everyone in the entire school knew everything about everyone else — or at least all the wrong people knew all the things you’d rather they didn’t. Things like the fact that Relena had pursued Heero through half of freshman and sophomore year and only given up perforce when he came out of the closet. It wouldn’t have been a problem for them to know this if they hadn’t then whispered viciously to each other that the only reason she was going out with Wufei was that he, as another Asian guy, was a stand-in for Heero, whom she’d never gotten over.

It was more insulting to Relena than to Wufei, the latter thought, which meant there wasn’t much he could do about it. He’d noticed that intelligent girls didn’t like having a guy try to defend their honor. And anyway, Relena was here with him, and Heero (even if he had made a rather suspicious beeline for her when he’d entered) had that long-haired boyfriend of his. Everything was going fine.

Of course, Relena was watching Heero now, but just about everyone else in the room had been at one point or another, including Wufei himself. Duo had made such a splash on the social scene, and seemed like such a polar opposite to Heero, it was difficult not to be at least a little interested in their relationship. Besides, though he considered himself straight, Wufei was confident enough that he could acknowledge the attractiveness of others of his sex, and had to admit that both of them were good-looking (and even better-looking in combination).

Still, he didn’t much care who the Prom King and Queen were — or in this case, he supposed, Prom King and King — and he’d been fidgeting (at least mentally) through the presentation ceremony. He wanted to dance with Relena, but, despite the fact that others had taken up this pastime after giving the Court a verse or so to get started, she insisted they wait until the Royal Whatever was finished. Which meant there was nothing much to do at the moment besides watch Relena watching Heero and Duo and be discontented at how rapt she was at the sight. His consolation must be that she wasn’t the only one.

Those two just were not that interesting… though their visual contrast did rather draw the eye. They’d gone with this cheesy inverted-colors scheme, and… well… it actually looked pretty good. Wufei supposed that was one benefit to wearing the same type of garments your date was; god knew it was a hassle to try to find a cummerbund to match what your girlfriend described as ‘peacock blue…’ if you could both order your outfit from the same place, it would probably be much easier. He wondered if they’d notified the student council in advance that they would be dressed in black and off-white and red so whoever was setting up the Prom Court thing would know to get crowns with red jewels.

This was stupid. Why was he standing here analyzing some dudes’ clothing when he could be dancing with Relena — whom, incidentally, peacock blue suited extremely well? He shifted irritably. She didn’t even seem to notice.

Heero and Duo were certainly into each other out there. They looked like they’d forgotten everyone else in the room, and their gazes were locked together with easily as much steadiness and fascination as half the room’s gazes were locked on them. Then, there was something about the way they moved… they weren’t any more graceful than any other couple on the floor (though, honestly, ‘graceful’ wasn’t a word that could generally be applied to this type of dancing), but they seemed to fit together, somehow, better than anyone else currently visible. Ah, the profundity of true love at a high school dance. Now if they would just stop being so damned interesting so the rest of the attendees could have some too…

The song was finally coming to an end, and the slow, small circles made by the gyrating couples were halting as well. Wufei, who’d given up trying not to watch the same thing Relena was, had to admit that it was rather nice to see the distance between Heero and Duo close and their lips meet. From what he knew of Heero, it wasn’t a gesture many outsiders were likely ever to see again; those two must really have forgotten where they were.

At the sounds of applause and cheering and some wolf-whistling — most of it, probably, in response to the successful conclusion of the ‘Royal Dance,’ but some of it, definitely, specifically aimed at the kissing couple — they parted. It wasn’t an abrupt separation, but, rather, a gradual drawing away as if they were only slowly realizing there was a world beyond themselves. An intense but glazed look on the face of each, they hadn’t yet broken their eye contact.

Heero said something that presumably no one but Duo could hear, and then, taking him by the hand, drew him out of the mob in the center of the room toward the open doors onto the veranda and into the garden.

At last Relena turned toward Wufei once more. The expression on her face was the same he’d observed there, in the past, at the happy endings of various movies, and he definitely liked it in this context; it seemed to him a pretty good indication that she really wasn’t interested in Heero anymore (romantically speaking) if she was so pleased to see him making out with someone else.

“Thanks for humoring me,” she told him, and kissed him on the cheek. “Now let’s dance.”

It may have been a little pathetic on his part, but he found himself completely mollified. Far greater amounts of annoyance than he’d just suffered could be wiped away by a kiss from Relena.

***

Duo couldn’t believe he’d just done that. Could not believe it. Well, OK, actually, he could easily believe it. He’d been soaring back there in Heero’s arms, moved by music with Heero so close against him, riding on the energy of everyone’s approval of their togetherness, feeling as if that togetherness was something real, something Heero was feeling too, something they could keep forever; it had been entirely natural, almost subconscious or instinctual, to kiss him in the midst of sensations like that. And the kiss itself had been so sweet and so perfect, he could never have believed it anything but real and pure and a promise of a future every bit as wonderful as these last few minutes had been.

But Heero’s solemn face and vulnerable eyes — unhappy eyes, wounded eyes? — and the low, serious tone in which he’d immediately announced that they needed to talk had brought Duo crashing down from his romantic high into painful uncertainty and growing fear.

He had started this whole thing. At the time, he hadn’t known Heero well enough to realize that he should be a little gentler with his suggestions; maybe Heero had never really wanted to do this at all. Duo had press-ganged him into it in the first place; then he’d tricked him into a variety of public scenes, dismissed all his concerns about Prom (for which he’d gone over Heero’s head to buy tickets), deliberately neglected to tell him about the Court thing, and then kissed him in front of everyone. He’d been pushy and inconsiderate throughout their entire acquaintance, and the fact that he had a huge crush on Heero was not a valid excuse. Now Heero was going to let him know that he didn’t appreciate this kind of behavior and that they needed to ‘break up.’

Duo had had a lot of really weird experiences in the past, but being dumped by a guy he wasn’t even dating was a new one.

Heero still held his hand, pulling him along to wherever he thought would be the best venue for a heart-shattering breakup conversation, and Duo concentrated on the warmth and strength of that hand around his own while he had the chance. If only he’d said something earlier, before he’d made Heero uncomfortable multiple times in front of half the school. If only he’d controlled himself better and not kissed him.

And yet he couldn’t regret that kiss. It had been so amazing, so much what he wanted. At least he would have that to remember, to cling to once this was over and he was miserable and lonely and bereft of Heero for the rest of his pathetic life.

So he thought until, upon reaching the very private lee of a giant grey urn full of trailing vines, Heero paused, released Duo’s hand, and turned to face him. Even in the shadows of the low-lit garden at night, it was not difficult to see that Heero’s eyes were more vulnerable and worried than before. Obviously Duo could regret that kiss; he suddenly found himself blathering without remembering when the impulse to speak had arisen.

“Heero, I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have kissed you without making sure it was OK with you first. That was totally–”

“No, stop,” Heero broke in firmly. “Don’t apologize.”

Duo fell silent, staring at him hopelessly, waiting for what he knew must come.

After a deep breath, without breaking eye contact, in a perfectly level tone that still seemed, somehow, to contain all the hesitance and concern that showed in his eyes, Heero said, “Duo, I really like you — in a romantic way, I mean. I want–”

“What?!” Duo cried. “What??”

“I know I got into this as a trick to fool everyone else,” Heero went on hurriedly, probably misinterpreting Duo’s surprise. “I know I said I wasn’t interested in dating. And I know I sound like a complete idiot now, after specifically saying that, turning around and telling you I like you. But I can’t keep it to myself anymore. Not after you kissed me like that.” He gave a weak and wary smile. “If you kissed me at all. I thought it was more me kissing you. Anyway, I want–”

Again Duo interrupted without really meaning to. “Heero, you are unbelievable!” He gripped Heero’s black-clad shoulders, staring into his face with what expression on his own he couldn’t quite tell, and went on breathlessly, almost wildly. “Why the hell would I think you were an idiot for saying that when I’ve been doing the exact same thing all along? You didn’t want to date anyone, and I was so damn busy, and we’d agreed this was all for show, so I felt like telling you I was madly in love with you would just be really stupid, but I swear, it’s been since at least Valentine’s Day — god, maybe since we first met; I don’t even know!”

Heero’s tentative smile had spread into a disbelieving grin as Duo spoke. “If we’re complete idiots together,” he whispered, “I guess it’s OK.” His eyes had lost all trace of the discomfort that, Duo realized now, had been in anticipation of the confession he was worried about making, not because Duo had been too forward. “I want–” he began again. But Duo kissed him.

It was even better than before. Heero, obviously no expert in this area, was a little clumsy, but, far from objecting to this, Duo thought it rather enhanced the experience. As his lips moved avidly against Duo’s, Heero’s hands ran up Duo’s back and into his hair, where they knocked his crown free; abstractly Duo heard it clatter to the ground, but didn’t give it a thought since the movement of arms had pulled Heero’s body right up against his.

Duo’s own arms snaked around him, hands clutching, never wanting to let go. Even when they finally separated to stare into each other’s eyes again, Duo didn’t allow Heero farther away than a few inches. He loved to be so close, to see every little detail of Heero’s wondering face, the glint of his wide eyes, to feel the panting breaths emerging from between faintly-smiling lips. Only after several moments of this near-silent beauty, and then only gradually, did he remember…

“I am a terrible person,” he declared. “I’m so damn pushy, and I keep interrupting you. What were you going to say you want? Tell me everything you want.”

“‘Everything’ sounds about right.” Heero’s voice was intense and unusually cheerful, and Duo loved the sound of it. “I want all sorts of things I probably can’t have. I want you to be my boyfriend for real; I want you to let me spend the night at your apartment sometime; I want you to come live with me in Placette when I go; I want you to marry me someday.”

“Wow, you don’t ask much, do you?” Despite the lightness of his tone, Duo’s face was very hot and probably very red. “But I don’t see why you can’t have all of that.”

Heero’s grip on him tightened, and his smile became wider and even more full of overjoyed astonishment. “Really?”

“Yes! Yes! Anything you want!” Loath as Duo was to let him go even for a moment, there was motion to which he was irresistibly compelled. He broke away from Heero and spun around giddily, laughing. “My god, this makes me so happy!” Heero was watching him with a grin, and once Duo had finished his wild demonstration of glee he was drawn back to him as if by a magnetic force. “Speaking of which,” he said as he moved close again, “happy anniversary.”

With a slightly derisive chuckle Heero said, “We can stop lying about everything to everyone now.”

“This isn’t a lie!” protested Duo. “We’ve been together for two minutes! That’s, like, the air molecule anniversary! It may not be gold or platinum or whatever, but it’s still important!”

Leaning over so his forehead came to rest against Duo’s and their eyes, very close, locked through the shadows once more, Heero let out a soft, warm breath that brushed gently against Duo’s lips. “Happy anniversary, then,” he said quietly. And Duo, overcome with joy and affection, slipped forward into his arms again, squeezing him tightly.

“I think, though,” said Heero, a little breathless in Duo’s crushing hug but still with his usual precision, “that’s it’s been more like six or seven minutes by now.”

Duo laughed. “I guess it depends when you’re counting from.”

“From that kiss inside, obviously.”

Perfectly happy to debate the matter, Duo replied, “From there I think it might have been more like eight… maybe even ten minutes.” The conversation could have been plenty more inane than this, with his head on Heero’s shoulder, and he wouldn’t have minded. Actually, if the felicity of the circumstance became any more overwhelming, his brain was probably going to turn to jelly and the conversation would become plenty more inane. And he still wouldn’t mind, as long as Heero’s arm was around him like that.

“We’ll probably never know for sure,” said Heero with mighty solemnity.

Again Duo laughed. Seeking another kiss, he straightened, but in doing so had his eyes caught by the stars that shone in the sky past Heero’s beautiful profile. As he turned his gaze even farther upward to see them he murmured, “I think some stars really did align for us.”

“I don’t care what it was,” Heero said. “The result would have been the same.”

“Yeah, that’s destiny for you,” grinned Duo. And, letting his eyes fall back from the bright constellations to the beloved face near his own, he kissed his boyfriend again.

***

Quatre had stationed himself firmly beside one of the double doors, where it would very logically seem, in the growing heat of the room, that he was enjoying some of the cooler air from outside, rather than waiting for anyone in particular to return from an unexpected foray into the garden and soothe his curiosity. Nobody would ask him to dance as long as Trowa continued to brood beside him with that palpable aura of discontent and scorn, and, anyway, if the song currently playing wasn’t the last, it must at least be part of the final countdown — so he deemed himself safe to carry out his purpose.

After a dance during which a clear connection had been made and a very public kiss that hadn’t appeared to be at all for show, there were only a few reasons Quatre could think of for a couple of Prom Kings that weren’t actually a couple to escape into the garden alone, and he was more than a little eager to find out which it had been and what would be the result. He had his theory — a very logical and orderly theory based on careful observation of Heero and Duo since January, and one he fervently hoped would prove true — but there was always the possibility that this was just another part of the deception and they were platonically talking homework out there… or, worse, that one or the other of them had gone too far and they were now ‘breaking up.’

Even if he hadn’t been so interested, personally, in the outcome of this situation, still he would have been waiting here to see it. Since he and Trowa were — as far as he knew, which was generally pretty far — the only ones in the room aware of the true nature of the relationship between Heero and Duo, they must also be the only ones to understand the potentially momentous changes that might be taking place out there in the garden. Such an important moment — or at least its immediate aftermath — required witnesses; Quatre would not shirk his social duty.

But he was personally interested. He’d been entertained by this affair from the moment Heero had unwittingly described Duo to the lunch crowd last December; he’d been hoping for a legitimately romantic outcome almost as long. And he was on tenter-hooks now waiting for their reappearance from the garden. He could see it all: the dramatic mutual confession, the fall into each other’s arms, and… whatever might follow. If only that was indeed what was happening out there!

He wasn’t so lost in his warm and fuzzy mental images that when the wanderers actually did return he was in any danger of missing them… but they were obviously lost enough in their warmth and fuzziness entirely to miss him. In fact they came through the very door he was standing beside, but his little wave and wide smile of greeting seemed to go completely unnoticed as they passed without so much as a twitch in his direction.

The only aspect of their appearance that didn’t tally perfectly with his hopeful predictions was that, although Duo had lost his crown somewhere and Heero didn’t appear aware that his was askew, they were in general less disheveled than Quatre had expected… but he supposed, when Heero was involved, there was only so far to go in a place so public. Everything else — eyes so bright they practically produced their own light, a smile of the most exquisite happiness on each face, buoyant steps, clasped hands — everything else was precisely what Quatre had anticipated and wished for.

Several of the other members of the lunch crowd, observing their reentry, moved toward them like a group of paparazzi with noisy jocular comments about their time in the garden and questions about which (if any) party they would be going to from here, but the newly-minted couple sublimely ignored every one of them and moved to take up the dance for however much longer it lasted. And now they appeared even more detached from the rest of creation than before, even more enthralled by each other, even more perfectly fitted.

Quatre was satisfied and delighted.

“You know, if I didn’t know you as well as I do,” Trowa murmured suddenly, darkly in his ear, “I might get just a little jealous at the way you’re always staring at other guys.”

“I stare at girls too!” Quatre reminded him with a grin.

“Yes,” Trowa allowed flatly. “You do. Can we leave yet?”

“Yes… our work here is done.” Quatre had to laugh at his own tone and wording, since he really hadn’t had any part in this except for observing it from beginning to end and perhaps dropping a helpful hint here and there. But that complete observation gave him a feeling of gratification almost as great as if he’d indeed taken a personal hand in the matter.

He turned toward Trowa, looking up into green eyes almost desperately bored, and his grin widened as his own eyes narrowed. “Let’s go find you something more interesting to do.”

This was written for the 2012 Moments of Rapture contest, whose theme was “anniversary,” but it might have been better suited to the previous contest that was all about cliches, because I think this is the tritest thing I have ever done. Seriously, make a trope drinking game out of this and let me know at what point in the story you pass out. Especially when one major concept here was directly inspired by The Materializing of Cecil by L. M. Montgomery (which may be read via Gutenberg here).

That doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied with it, however. I had fun writing it, and I’ve had fun rereading it. There are some tropes I will probably never get tired of, and the fake dating thing is one of them.

Here you can take a look at the gorgeous cover/title illustration, drawn by the amazing hasu, without the lines and words:

Of course at that point in the story, technically, they’re wearing their sashes and crowns, but since that would be a minor spoiler to have in the title image, I did not request it when I commissioned the artist. I mean, just the fact that they dance together in tuxes at some point is a minor spoiler, but it is is a high school AU, after all…

I’ve rated this story . For the ebook, this .zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats.


Eloquent



I would get naked for Heero Yuy anytime, anywhere, no matter what was going on. Back alley? Sure. Open street? Why not? Fire fight? Bring it on. Space battle? Well, you get the picture.

OK, I may be exaggerating just a little. I might have to give him an I.O.U. if I was on a mission at the time. But you’d better believe that when he comes in, dirty, ragged, sweaty, tired, to the motel room we just happen to be sharing (absolute coincidence, I swear) and gives me that look, I’m not about to hold back.

Just because I’ve finally managed to get him to open up to me in certain ways doesn’t mean I can usually get him to talk about whatever this is that we’ve got going here, and it’s a little frustrating not knowing whether or not there’s actually an us in this situation because he always avoids the subject. He’s very good at avoiding subjects. But then sometimes he gives me that look, and there’s no need for words.

I hustle him out of his clothes and equipment and into the shower, mostly just because I don’t know what he’s been crawling through, but I can’t even wait for him to half get started cleaning up before I join him. It’s probably a good idea anyway; the hot water available in this place is limited, so it’s better for us both to get clean at the same time before it runs out. Not that I’ve really got anything ‘clean’ in mind at this point. This braid can last without attention for another couple of days.

Despite the fact that he gave me that look, really the only way I can tell he doesn’t mind what I’m doing is the lack of any actual objection. If he didn’t want me putting my hands all over him, if he didn’t want me pushing him up against the plasticky shower wall and sucking on his neck, if he didn’t want my fingers wandering quite so far down his body, he’d tell me, undoubtedly by means of a bullet or two.

I haven’t been able to decide whether I like it better when he tops or when I do. I know that what I like best is both in a row, but that’s not a frequent occurrence. We just don’t have that kind of time, even when we do happen to, absolutely coincidentally, be sharing a motel room because we’ve both got missions in the area. We need sleep — actually, I should have been in bed hours ago, but I was waiting around for him — so there’s no opportunity for doing things the way I’d really prefer.

I don’t have the faintest clue which he likes better either, but usually when he gives me that look, it means that he wants to take it from me. OK, I don’t really know that it does mean that; just that’s how things end up, and he doesn’t complain.

In fact I never get any feedback on this from him. Slower? Faster? Harder? Softer? Different angle? Different position entirely, maybe? It seems like it’s all the same to him, and if I ask, he just turns red and mumbles something I can’t understand; if I insist, he gets angry. But I must be doing something right, since he spreads his legs a little wider and shifts his hips with just the faintest groan of pleasure, and over my hand that’s braced against the wall he puts his own, his fingers pressing at mine as if he wishes they could be interlocked.

If only I knew, though, whether he really likes it like this or if there’s something else I could be doing. I’d do anything he asked, if he’d just ask. I mean, I’m noisy as Hell when he’s the one taking the lead, and he tends to do whatever I ask… I’d love to return the favor… But maybe he really is OK with it like this. I just wish I knew.

He doesn’t seem to have any problems orgasming, anyway.

And, God, neither do I, when he tightens up around me like that.

So afterwards there actually does turn out to be some real getting cleaned up. I just can’t help lavishing attention on my beautiful Heero, even if it is only with this crappy little hotel soap and a tiny travel bottle of shampoo that I could have used on myself but would rather use on him.

And sometimes… sometimes… I even get the feeling that he likes it. That’s probably wishful thinking on my part, though, since I don’t really know how I ever manage to get that impression. Not that Heero isn’t extremely good at subtle cues; I just never thought I was all that good at picking up on them.

I still don’t bother with any washing of myself beyond just the basic standing under the spray, since I’ve spent my entire allowance of hot-water-time on Heero; anyway, since I’ll be the one crawling through mud and God-knows-what-else in the morning, it doesn’t really matter. And I’d much rather get to the toweling-Heero-off phase quicker anyway.

Even when he’s tired out and obviously not terribly happy, there’s only so much coddling a guy like Heero can take before he pushes my hands away with a grumble and does the rest on his own. I don’t mind; actually, I think I would seriously worry if he let me do too much for him. But he doesn’t object to me checking the bed for parasites, turning off the lights, and half tucking him in before I lie down beside him. And then we sort of sink into each other in this nice kind of melty way where our breathing is almost synchronized and we are, if not totally relaxed, at least fairly comfortable together.

I love this more than anything, and it’s not just that the sex is incredible — though it definitely is. For a few hours in a cheap motel that thinks we’re a couple of illegal immigrants trying to keep our heads down and find work and a more permanent place to stay, before we have to go separate ways that are pretty much guaranteed to lead to gunshots and explosions and mobile suits battles, I can pretend to forget about the rest of the sphere.

I can pretend to forget that I have no idea who’s going to suffer because of what I’m doing, and the fact that nothing’s going to change that; Hell, they might be suffering already as I’m doing it; innocents might be hurting right now, and I can’t even offer them a quick death, because I have no idea who or where they might be. And at the same time, the fighting is so often invigorating and fun, and maybe it really shouldn’t be; maybe I’m turning into someone who enjoys hurting other people; maybe I’m not doing any of this because I think it’s going to help, but how the Hell can I even tell? Is the specific destruction I cause going to do any good, short-term or long-term? Maybe this whole damn plot is just an insane and pointless string of terrorism that’s actually just making everything worse… and maybe I don’t care. I don’t even know anymore.

But in here, things are different. Here, I can be with someone I definitely do care about, and concentrate on the good feelings between us. Here I know for a fact that I’m fulfilling a need of someone I maybe kinda sorta love. The simplicity and positivity are so totally opposite everything else I have to deal with in this shitty Hell of a war, it’s like we’ve shifted into another dimension entirely.

He’s clinging a little tonight, and I cling right back; we huddle together in the bed more like a couple of kids protecting each other from the dark than a couple of soldiers who happen to be ambiguous lovers taking a momentary break from a war. And, really, I guess that’s what we are… just kids who don’t know what we’re doing. But at least we have each other. I think.

“So what brought this on?” I wonder eventually, so quietly that he probably feels my words through his skin more clearly than he hears them. “Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

Heero takes an almost inaudible deep breath and actually answers the question, which is a bit of a surprise. In that forced tone he sometimes uses when (I’m fairly sure) what he has to say isn’t something he’s reluctant about, necessarily, but something he’s not entirely certain how to articulate, he murmurs, “Out there, everything is… twisted. Here, with you, it’s right.”

I wonder if he can feel my increase in heart-rate as he says it. Miserable as the sentiment itself is, at least in part, it’s fucking glorious to realize that he was thinking the same thing I was, even if he took about two hundred fewer words to express it.

“Yeah,” I whisper. “You’re absolutely right.” And I hold him tighter.

It’s funny how just a short little phrase like that can make me feel so much better about everything. I still may not be entirely sure about the degree of us I’ve got to work with here, I still definitely have to go back out and play Death God tomorrow, and, really, nothing in the world has changed… but somehow this kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing is suddenly a little less afraid of the dark. And I fall asleep relatively content, thinking that, for all I complain about the amount of effort it sometimes takes to get things out of him, at other times Heero really is every bit as eloquent as he needs to be.


Holy Tolkien, did I write something in the canon setting? It looks like I did. It’s a fairly generic soldiers-comforting-each-other-with-romance-or-the-next-best-thing kind of plot, but everyone has to write at least one of those, right? I think I’d read one of those in the GW world before I’d even ever seen the series XD I’ve rated this story .

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