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).


His Own Humanity: Plastic 76-80

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.


Heero had accomplished very little at home on Saturday, as he’d been too busy helping Relena get some of her furniture to a consignment store and fondly watching Duo flirt with her. Technically Relena didn’t need to be getting rid of the contents of her apartment just yet, but she was so eager for her wedding and moving in with Colin that apparently certain organizational activities in preparation for that were sometimes the only way she could keep herself from going crazy. So, since she’d known Lindsay would be out most of the day, she’d bribed her brother with pizza to help her make sure the furniture she was selling was clean and in good repair, which had turned into a many-hours-long term of hanging out.

Ironically, when that little party had broken up, it had been so Relena could go off to the dinner with their parents that Heero had claimed a prior engagement to get out of, and Heero could spend the evening not having dinner with his parents. Relena had reminded him that he was going to have to accept the invitation next time or risk insulting their mother, and she threw a surreptitiously thoughtful look at Duo as she said this.

At any rate, this had prevented him from doing much at home besides wasting time and reading to Duo, so his usually weekly cleaning took place on Sunday instead. What he was really concerned about was the vacuuming, which he’d neglected for a while.

As he was getting this done, he came across the doll he’d bought off Amazon a couple of weeks ago in order to divest it of its uniform. He’d completely forgotten it in the midst of Duo’s excitement about the gift, and poor Spock had fallen to the floor and been hidden by the skirt of the sofa in back. Now Heero picked the thing up and looked at it thoughtfully.

“Aww,” said Duo, who was, as often, in Heero’s jeans pocket. “I forgot about him.”

“This one’s an ‘it,'” Heero smirked.

“So it is.” Duo shook his head pityingly. “Put a paper towel on that thing!” He added in a suddenly much-altered tone, as if he was seriously concerned but masking it with casualness, “Unless you’re just going to throw it away.”

Considering how unnerving it would be to see a body that resembled his own tossed carelessly into a trash can, Heero answered immediately, “No, I wouldn’t throw it away; it’s in such good shape. I’ll send Quatre to Goodwill with it; or wait ’til you’re human again, so you won’t have to go, and take it myself.”

“Oh, I think I’d be OK to go to Goodwill if you were there to protect me.”

Heero, who was playing with paper towels and making a skirt for the second time in his life, smiled at this. “You know, I can’t really see you as a damsel in distress.”

“Really?” Duo sounded pleased. “Even though I can barely even move on my own?”

Heero shrugged. “Maybe physically you need some help sometimes, but you definitely don’t have the personality of someone who needs ‘protecting.'” He was heading into the computer room by now, taking Spock to set by his computer so he’d remember to deal with it at some point.

“Well, thanks, Heero!” said Duo in satisfaction. “It’s nice of you to say so.”

Heero liked the way Duo said his name. He couldn’t help contrasting the doll in his left hand with the doll in his right, nor thinking in some interest of how much more real one seemed than the other. Even though he’d never seen Duo except as a doll, even though the Spock figure was modeled after a living person he had seen (on screen, at least), Duo seemed infinitely more human in every possible way. Heero could picture Duo as a human a hundred times more clearly than he could Zachary What’s-His-Name, and he was definitively attracted to one and not the other — hot though Zachary was.

He thought about Duo as a human all too much these days; as he went back to his vacuuming, he was dwelling on the image once again. He wondered how accurate it was. A week from tomorrow night, assuming everything worked properly, he would find out, and he speculated that it might drive him mad. That he would find Duo attractive as a human, whatever he looked like, he had no doubt whatsoever, and he was bracing himself for it. But he feared he could never be adequately prepared for whatever form Duo would present.

Once he’d finished dealing with the carpets and had put the vacuum away in the coat closet where it lived, he pulled Duo out of his pocket and looked at him.

“What?” Duo wondered.

Heero tugged on the untied end of the doll’s little braid. “Was your hair really like this?” he asked.

“Yep!” Duo sounded a little curious, probably wondering where the question had come from, but didn’t seem to mind answering. “I guess the curse liked it too, since it left it like this.”

“That’s a lot of hair,” Heero murmured. He hadn’t really thought about it before, but Duo’s braid went all the way down past his lower back; on a human that would probably equal pounds.

“Yep!” said Duo again, this time in a tone of great pride. “It was the envy of all the lovely ladies.”

“Yeah, I bet. I don’t think I’ve ever met a guy with that much hair.”

“Yes, you have: that super-gay friend of yours.”

“Oh, Zechs?” Heero hadn’t thought of him. “I guess you’re right.”

Deliberately to pet the hair in question as he’d once seen Trowa do Heero did not dare, though his hand longed to feel its texture again. And since he’d never braided anyone’s hair and really had no idea how, he couldn’t even use the excuse of repairing the failing braid. But his brain was flooded with images… he knew what he would be fantasizing about tomorrow in the shower…

“And how ’bout you?” Duo wondered. “Was your hair always all messy and stuff like that? Did you ever bleach it like your sister does?”

“The style’s always been about the same, but…” Heero grimaced slightly. “Quatre once convinced me to bleach part of it, back in high school. Just the top…” He gestured. “He called it ‘frosting’ or something.”

“And you hated it,” Duo guessed, sounding amused.

Heero nodded.

“I want to see pictures!”

Heero snorted. He was looking around now for The Scarecrow of Oz, since continuing to stare lustfully at Duo didn’t seem advisable.

“There must be some,” persisted Duo. “I remember listening to you guys go on and on and on about those pictures of you and Relena at your parents’ house; it sounded like there were about a million.”

I wasn’t going on and on and on.”

“No, you never do. But pictures? Are there pictures of your frosty hair?”

“Probably somewhere,” Heero mumbled. “Do you want Oz?”

“Yooouuu are being evasive. I bet there are a bunch of pictures, and you’re embarrassed about them, and I will totally see them one day and see how your hair looked.”

“I plead the Fifth.”

“You are the Fifth!”

Heero laughed. In actuality, though he hadn’t much liked the bleach effect in his hair back then, he wasn’t particularly embarrassed about pictures from high school — but it amused Duo to believe he was, so Heero let him think that.

“Oh, and I do want Oz,” Duo added.

So Heero, who by then had located the book, headed for the couch to make use of it.


“Do you want to come play with the dogs with me again?”

Quatre had made a policy of not mentioning the whole death thing at all if he didn’t have to — thereby refraining both from reprimanding Trowa and from upsetting himself — but that didn’t mean he wasn’t thinking of it just about every moment he was with Trowa. Little unspoken addendums kept appearing after his statements; this one was, “While you have the chance?”

“Certainly,” said Trowa, setting his book aside and rising. “Let me get ready.”

Aware that he would probably rather not know, Quatre did not ask him what he was working on. He’d been buried in that same book when Quatre had visited earlier on his lunch break, and Quatre simply wasn’t interested in hearing what it contained. Instead, he followed Trowa into the next room.

He seemed to have done a good job getting Trowa into the habit of going to bed at night; Trowa almost always had his contacts out when Quatre came over anymore, and had to put them in if they went anywhere — whereas previously he’d never seemed to remove them, as he’d so rarely bothered with intentional sleep. Now as Quatre watched him insert the lenses, he reflected that, for one reason or another, Trowa probably wouldn’t be needing to buy any more of them.

Once again they managed to sneak through the Winner house without encounter, but soon thereafter their luck ran out. Evidently his parents had either noticed or been alerted to their presence, and had come to investigate; Scrat had barely run out after the ball twice when the back door opened and a hearty voice greeted them from up the path.

“Quatre! This is at least the third time you’ve brought this young man here without offering to introduce him to us!” As Quatre turned toward the house, observing both his mother and his father approaching, the latter continued, “Is this the infamous Trowa Barton?”

“‘Infamous?'” Trowa echoed at a barely-audible murmur as he too turned. Quatre really should have warned him that Mr. Winner was likely to say something like this. He probably also should have mentioned that this confrontation was inevitable, and discussed options. But now there was no time to come up with answers to the questions that would undoubtedly be asked, and Quatre had no idea how this meeting was likely to go.

“Yes,” he said as his parents drew up to them at the edge of the lawn. “This is Trowa, my boyfriend. Trowa, these are my parents, Catharine and Bernard Winner.”

Gravely Trowa stepped forward to shake hands. “I’m very pleased to meet you both. Quatre talks about you quite a bit.”

“Oh-ho!” said Mr. Winner. “All good, I hope!”

“He hasn’t told us anything about you, Trowa,” Quatre’s mother said, smiling warmly. “Do you live in town?”

“He lives out east,” Quatre put in.

“In Lujoso? Or past the county line?”

“Farther than that,” Trowa answered with amusing honesty. “But I travel a lot.”

“What do you do, Trowa?” asked Mrs. Winner.

“I’m a human resources consultant.” This lie had the calmness of boring truth, and Quatre was impressed. It occurred to him that of course Trowa was ready with something to say in situations like this; it had probably never been a lover’s parents before, but this couldn’t be the first time Trowa had needed to explain himself without mentioning magic — and that just because he didn’t like dealing with people didn’t mean he was entirely incapable of it.

Quatre was even more impressed when, upon his mother’s remarking politely that that sounded interesting and his father’s more blunt question about how this economy was treating independent contractors, Trowa responded with specifics about this hypothetical job of his that he must have determined upon at some earlier point.

Actually, he seemed to have taken all his experiences doing magical favors to make people’s lives easier and cast them into a business context so as to pass himself off as an expert on the improvement of employer-employee relationships and workplace convenience — and he was so quietly convincing that even Quatre, who knew the truth, found himself almost believing it, and thinking that Trowa would probably make a very good human resources consultant in reality. If he didn’t die. He wondered if Trowa planned on doing any kind of work after the curse was broken. If he wasn’t dead.

Fascinating as it was to watch Trowa thoroughly con Quatre’s parents, the topic itself was rather dull — as dull as anything spoken in Trowa’s voice could hope to be, anyway — and Quatre was certain that Trowa had chosen this particular fake profession so that people wouldn’t be interested enough to ask too many questions. Even so, Quatre completely lost track of the dogs while listening to the conversation, little part though he took in it.

“It can’t be easy to convince employers there’s a direct correlation between that and turnover,” his father was saying.

Trowa shook his head. “I always conduct a survey a year later, so I have a set of hard evidence.”

Mrs. Winner’s interest in this discussion had by now (understandably) lagged, and, turning to Quatre in the next convenient pause, she asked, “Are you two having dinner here tonight?”

Smiling appreciatively at this let’s-move-on question, Quatre answered, “No, we just came by to see the dogs, and then we’re heading out again.”

“Well, Trowa–” and she turned back to him– “you’ll have to come to dinner sometime. We’d love to have you.”

Trowa nodded. “Thank you. I’d like that.”

“Yes!” Mr. Winner took his wife’s hint and addressed his son. “Bring him by sometime and let him meet everyone.” He shook Trowa’s hand again. “It was excellent to meet you, sir. You two be good!” And, though he didn’t wink or otherwise indicate any secondary meaning, Quatre felt his face heat somewhat.

“I’m glad to have met you both,” Trowa agreed politely, without reacting at all to the potentially embarrassing statement (perhaps without even noticing the potentially embarrassing statement).

“We’ll see you later,” said Mrs. Winner. “Have fun with the dogs.” And with a smile she turned and drew her husband back toward the house.

Once his parents were well inside and out of earshot, “That was amazing,” Quatre commented. “You didn’t miss a beat! You must have been expecting that.”

“Not specifically.” Trowa bent to retrieve Scrat’s ball, and threw it across the yard. “But I always have some answers ready, even if I’d rather not have to lie.” He didn’t seem entirely pleased about it — as a matter of fact he looked fairly drained — but he said it placidly enough.

“But you must have known you’d meet my parents eventually, so it’s good you had a plan.” Just like he had a plan for his potential death seven nights from now. Only less depressing.

“No,” said Trowa, “I didn’t think I was likely to meet your parents.”

Quatre hid his frown and bit back his “Why not?” He didn’t really want to hear Trowa explain that he’d speculated he would be dead before the opportunity to meet Quatre’s parents arose.

Trowa was gazing at him consideringly as Scrat brought the ball to Quatre. “You look like your mother,” he noted.

For the millionth time, Quatre tore his thoughts away from Trowa’s possible impending death, and threw the ball again. He could talk about family resemblances; he would be glad to talk about family resemblances. If it took his mind off what he didn’t want, what he never wanted to think about, he could talk about anything.


Traffic was unusually bad on Tuesday morning, and, even standing up out of his door and trying to peer past the other cars at one point when everyone had been at a standstill in the road for at least a minute, Heero couldn’t tell why. “Probably an accident,” he speculated when even Duo down in the passenger seat, who couldn’t see the congestion, noted how much longer than usual the commute was taking. “Probably going the other direction,” he added wryly, “and everyone’s just slowing down to look.”

“Well, let me look,” Duo requested.

Disregarding how it would appear to anyone that happened to have their eyes turned this direction, Heero lifted Duo up to window height and held him there as long as his second hand wasn’t required for driving — or what passed as driving in this stop-and-go.

“Looks like a bunch of cars,” remarked Duo, sounding disappointed. “I was… hoping… for…” He trailed off.

“What, an accident?”

“Just something interesting…” Duo’s tone was quiet and somewhat odd, but Heero had to put him down at this point and couldn’t really look at him.

“What’s wrong?”

“Pick me up again,” Duo ordered. “Like at the next light or whatever.”

Immensely curious, Heero did so, and, in response, Duo let out a long, wondering sigh. This was always an interesting action to observe, as it was purely aural: no actual air came from Duo’s lips, nor did his chest rise or fall with the supposed breath. At the moment, however, it was less interesting in itself than in its cause. “What?” Heero demanded.

“I can… feel… your hand…” Duo said, a slow grin growing on his little face. “I mean, there’s still nothing — it’s not, like, tactile… but I can feel the temperature difference.” When Heero had to set him down again, he went on in a more excited tone, “Yeah, your hand is definitely warmer than just sitting here. Come on, come on, pick me up again.”

As the traffic hadn’t really sped up, Heero was soon able to comply, and to observe Duo’s renewed grin. “Oh, god,” the doll exulted, “this is so awesome! I can feel it! I can totally feel temperatures! Ha-hah!” After setting him down again, Heero could see, out of the corner of his eye, little plastic arms and legs waving in excitement.

“It’s working,” Heero forced himself to say. “Six more days!” Mentally, though, he was reeling from the buzz he’d gotten hearing Duo talk about the warmth of his hand and being able to feel him; he knew Duo hadn’t meant it that way, but he couldn’t help considering it downright erotic. It didn’t help that Duo’s hands, and the warmth and strength Heero imagined in them, were a constant feature in his fantasies. It was awfully early in the day and awfully far from the shower to be getting aroused by the thought of something he couldn’t have, and he worried about this one in particular because he was sure Duo wasn’t going to let it go.

He was right. When they eventually reached their destination (it had been some kind of emergency road construction slowing the traffic), Duo proceeded to spend the entire workday demanding that Heero pick him up and put him down repeatedly. And, though the majority of his reaction consisted of, “Warm! …cold! …warm! …cold!” — which was too absurd to be arousing, though it was endearing — there were comments here and there that more than made up for it:

“Every time you put your hand on me, it surprises me all over again! I’m so not used to this anymore!”

“I’d forgotten how nice it is to be warm… not that the cold isn’t fun, even if it’s just for contrast, you know? Now, if only I could feel the texture too, it would be perfect.”

“I can feel it on specific areas, even! Like, I can tell where you’re holding me. I could always tell before, but I couldn’t feel it. Now it’s all warm in particular spots.”

Fortunately, Duo was too caught up in the interest and glee of the circumstance to notice the effect it was having on Heero, but a few of Heero’s co-workers weren’t so preoccupied. Among others, Dorothy raised one of her strange eyebrows at him when he answered only absently a question she asked; and (though it was difficult to tell) even Wufei seemed to be able to see, from the distance of his own private planet, that Heero was paying less attention to him than usual when he came around to find out if Heero had ever seen The Wizard of Speed and Time and relay his own thoughts on it.

The day’s tribulations didn’t end after work, either. Duo wanted to feel the heater and the air conditioner and see if he could detect temperature differences among the various rooms of Heero’s home. Most of this was far less maddening than the earlier comments about Heero’s warm hands on Duo’s body, and Heero humored him in the majority of his requests — but drew the line at holding him under hot and cold water.

“You don’t need a bath right now,” he said with a laugh.

“Well, do I get to take a shower with you tomorrow, then?”

“No.”

“But I want to feel the hot water!”

“You’ll just have to wait until next week when you’re human.” Heero was really quite pleased with how placid his tone was in the face of the idea of showering with Duo.

“Next week when I’m human,” Duo sighed happily. “Can I use your shower then?”

That definitely didn’t help with the mental images, but Heero was again quite proud of himself when he managed, “Sure,” without any trace of unsteadiness in his voice.

“You gonna shower with me then?” wondered Duo next, slyly. And it was a good thing that such a jokingly flirtatious remark didn’t really require an answer, because, after the type of day this had been, Heero didn’t think there was any way he could have given one.

It got worse when, as they settled down to read some Oz before bed, Duo demanded a seat in Heero’s lap rather than on the end table. This was simultaneously exactly where Heero would like Duo, and probably the last place he should have him if this continued. Because if Duo made any comment about the warmth of Heero’s lap, the temperature increase was unlikely to stop there.

Heero couldn’t at first think of a decent excuse not to comply with this request, since he had held Duo on his lap before. He couldn’t bring himself to explain that, at this moment, having Duo there would make him feel like some kind of rapist, doll-form notwithstanding. What he eventually came up with — and rather cleverly, he thought — was, “No. I don’t want to read if you’re not going to be paying attention.”

“I’ll pay attention!” Duo protested.

“You can sit here,” Heero allowed, placing him on the arm of the couch and curling a hand around him for stability.

“Ahh,” Duo said, which was almost as bad as anything else. “OK. But do I get to sleep in your bed tonight?”

Heero felt himself flush, and wondered whether the heat would make its way down to his hand and Duo’s attention. There had been days when he’d wondered how he was going to get through the lunar cycle… at the moment he was just wondering how he was going to get through today.

Quatre had once asked whether there were schools for magic, and sometimes Trowa thought their casual time together almost qualified as one. Quatre was charmingly eager to learn what he could about magic and how it worked, especially whenever Trowa cast some type of spell he hadn’t seen before, or when an eager couple of magicians showed up at the door with a pie they just innocently thought Mr. Barton might like.

“That’s the disadvantage of having lived in this house for so long,” he told Quatre in a sigh once he’d gotten rid of the followers without answering most of their questions. “Half of the magical community knows my address.”

“So how did you find Denis Roblund’s daughter?” Quatre asked in great interest, echoing one of the things the followers had wanted to know.

Trowa shrugged. “I just jumped to her.”

“How? I mean, if she needed to be found, I assume nobody knew where she was…”

“If you have a very specific knowledge of someone, you can use them as a destination.”

“And you had a very specific knowledge of Denis Roblund’s daughter?” Quatre’s tone and look expressed playful false jealousy. “Who was this, anyway?”

“An eight-year-old girl. She was kidnapped. It was…” Trowa thought back. “1987. And it was her mother who had the very specific knowledge.”

“Oh, OK. So you just…” Quatre paused with a frown. “And this wouldn’t have worked on Duo why?”

“Because that very specific knowledge you need includes the physical, and he was in a completely new body. Don’t think I didn’t try, though.”

Quatre’s frown lingered for several seconds, but finally he let it go and climbed onto Trowa’s lap in the chair, as he often did at moments like this. “So the kidnapped kid… you locked onto her mom’s mental picture of her like you do on a place I want to go?”

“It’s more difficult with an image of a person; people’s images of other people tend to be far more… subjective… more prone to inaccuracy…”

“OK. So what did you have to do?”

It consistently pleased Trowa to find Quatre so fascinated by the topic he could most easily talk about, and so did the further queries Quatre used in trying to understand. Additionally, such discussions were good exercises in wording magical explanations comprehensibly, which was something Trowa would need to be able to do if he ever actually started writing the book he’d been contemplating. So he enjoyed these conversations very much, and not just because he held them with Quatre.

This evening’s culminated in his evicting Quatre from his lap so he would have the space to cast a spell as a demonstration of the principle he was elaborating upon. Gesturing wasn’t technically necessary, as he clarified to the displaced Quatre, but it sometimes helped a great deal in maintaining concentration — which was necessary, especially for a communion spell.

When he’d finished with the illustration, he found to his disappointment that Quatre did not intend to return to his lap; it was getting late. Quatre did pull him forward by his shirt collar, however, and kiss him slowly. When he withdrew, he reiterated the opinion he had expressed before that Trowa still had a hard time believing: “It is so sexy when you do magic.” With a grin he added teasingly, “I should have had that on my list of criteria for boyfriends years ago.”

“You’ll have to add it for your next one.” Trowa tried to match Quatre’s teasing tone, but obviously some of the dismay he felt at thinking about Quatre’s next boyfriend must have sounded in his voice, for Quatre’s expression gradually turned grim.

“You know,” he murmured, looking up into Trowa’s eyes, “I kept thinking it was just because you’d realized you might die soon…” Quatre shook his head. “But not all of this fits, and some of it started before that.”

“Some of what?” Trowa wondered warily.

“You’re just holding your breath waiting for this to end, aren’t you?”

Trowa frowned and said nothing.

“You assume I won’t care if you drop dead. You assumed you wouldn’t ever meet my parents. You talk about my next boyfriend like it’s something that’s going to happen pretty soon. You always look at me like you’re surprised I’m still around. You’ve never really thought this was going to last, have you?”

Finally Trowa admitted, “No, I haven’t. I’m just glad to be with you while you’re here.”

Quatre took a deep breath. “So what is it you’re thinking about me? That I have a short attention span? Or that I’m too spacy to have any idea what I want and I’ll realize pretty soon here that it isn’t you? Or do you think I’m just using you for sex and I’ll get tired of it one of these days?”

“No!” Trowa was horrified. “Of course I wasn’t thinking anything like that.” He hadn’t even realized that what he was thinking might imply any of that. “I just thought…”

Closing his eyes, Quatre sighed. “You just thought I don’t really know you, and the more I find out, the less I’m going to want to stay with you.”

It didn’t sound like speculation. And since it was perfectly true, Trowa could return nothing but a heavy, “Yes.”

“I don’t know what to do to convince you that you’re really, honestly stuck with me. What is it you’re…” Quatre raised both hands in some frustration and shook them beside his head. “Do you have some dark secret I don’t have any idea about yet? Were you a Nazi or something?”

“No! I… it’s just…” Trowa knew Quatre wasn’t going to like this, but there was no way around it. “Everything about me.”

“I thought it would probably come back to that.” Quatre sighed again, and allowed his hands to fall and clasp Trowa’s arms. “Let me tell you what I know about you so far. You are absolutely persistent and devoted; you’re not the kind of person who abandons a friend even after eighty-seven years, no matter what you personally are going through. You are intelligent and skilled and knowledgeable, and you use that to help and teach other people, and only ask for tiny little things in return. You’re blunt and clever, and you think fast on your feet; you’re fun to be around. You’re interested in talking about just about anything, and you make just about anything interesting to talk about. Not only that, but you’re extremely attractive and fun to have sex with. Should I go on?”

Trowa was definitely blushing, and he’d wanted to break in after every other word and deny it all. “I don’t really think that’s–”

“I know you don’t. And it’s driving me crazy. Why is it that you can believe the curse will be broken and everything will be fine, but you can’t believe that I honestly like you?”

“It took me eighty-seven years to believe the first one,” Trowa reminded him, forcing a weak smile.

“Trowa!” Quatre sounded simultaneously fond and very exasperated. “I’m twenty-four! I’m not going to live eighty-seven more years! I can’t wait that long!”

“I’m sorry,” said Trowa, almost automatically.

“I’m going to ask you for another favor.” Quatre slid his arms back up Trowa’s, and, as he had done on previous occasions, took Trowa’s face in both of his hands. “I know I ask a lot of you, my poor Trowa,” he said, half facetiously, “but I hope you can do this one more thing for me.”

“You haven’t asked much of me.”

“Then you shouldn’t mind doing this.”

“I’ll certainly try, whatever it is.”

“Well, it’s this: even if you can’t see anything good about yourself — yet — can you please try to believe that I do see it? That I’m not just arbitrarily with you because I have nothing better to do?” It was that same tone as before — the one that was both reproving and pleading — and Quatre’s facial expression just about matched… only there was a touch of sadness that was almost despairing to it as well.

In response to that look, the only thing for Trowa to say was, “All right.” Unwilling to be dishonest, however, he did add, “I’ll try.” He took a deep breath and attempted again to smile. “It isn’t as if it’s an unpleasant thing to try to believe.”

Quatre murmured approvingly, “That’s the attitude I want to see.”


Heero had changed clothes and was just starting to think about dinner on Thursday evening when Quatre called. “Hey, Heero, I’m running some errands with Cairo in the car, and he’s already getting a little carsick… I’m going to let him walk around outside your apartment for a bit. Do you happen to have a bowl you could fill with water and bring out for him?”

“Sure. Are you already here?”

“I’m a block away.”

“OK, I’ll meet you down there.”

As Heero put his phone away Duo asked, “What’s up?”

“Quatre,” Heero replied briefly.

“Oh, is he actually going to pay attention to us today?” Duo grinned.

“Only because his dog’s getting carsick.” Heero also grinned, though he wasn’t entirely cheerful about the question and answer.

Duo probably thought Quatre hadn’t been around much lately because he was busy with work; Heero, on the other hand, was convinced that Quatre had a magic door of his own into Trowa’s house, where he’d been spending most of his extraprofessional waking time (and probably, if Heero knew Quatre, much of his sleeping time as well). It wasn’t a theory he wanted to relate to Duo, though. Unfortunately, it was a theory he needed to relate to Duo, and undoubtedly couldn’t. It fit with the fact that Quatre was currently running errands with his dog, too: he’d probably been neglecting the animal as well as his friends, and now was giving it the unusual treat of riding in the car with him as an apology.

With a Tupperware bowl full of water held carefully in both hands and Duo in his jeans pocket, Heero headed down to the parking lot, having a little trouble managing doors but eventually making it without spilling too much. Outside, Quatre had already let the dog out of the car and was fussing with something in the back seat — possibly simply adjusting the sheet he kept spread over it for Cairo to sit on, and possibly something less pleasant.

Cairo was a calm, pretty creature that didn’t think much of Heero; Quatre had assured him that Cairo was that way with everyone, and it didn’t bother Heero greatly as he’d never really been a dog person anyway. Now Cairo didn’t appear to mind him, however, as Heero set the water down on the sidewalk and called, for he came slowly over, sniffed at Heero’s hand briefly, and began to drink. Heero, not terribly fond of the smell of vomit and speculating it might be part of what Quatre was dealing with over there, sat down on the curb a couple of parking spaces away and set Duo beside him.

“He looks OK,” he said loudly enough for Quatre to hear him. In response, Quatre made a sardonic noise. Heero smirked. “How’s that other one? The hyper one?”

“How many dogs does he have?” Duo wondered.

“She’s fine,” Quatre replied at volume. “I had to have Darryl come out and distract her so I could get Cairo into the car without making her sad.”

“Hoooowwww many dogs?” Duo reiterated.

“You know, if Scrat didn’t have Cairo for company and such a big yard to run around in, I’d say we should get rid of her… Cameron never pays attention to her.” The guilt in Quatre’s tone told Heero he’d been right in speculating recent neglect of Cairo; the nephew’s offense must be pretty severe if Quatre was still mentioning it in the face of his own.

“Just two dogs?” Duo guessed. “And who’s Cameron?”

“Sorry… Quatre’s oldest nephew,” answered Heero. “And, yes, two dogs.”

“Well, this one is a mighty fiiine-lookin’ animal,” Duo drawled.

Heero laughed a little.

“What was that?” Quatre called.

“My voice is too goddamn quiet!” Duo yelled.

It seemed Quatre still didn’t hear him, so Heero replied, “Nothing.”

Duo sighed and turned his attention to Cairo, who was now sniffing about.

“Four more days,” Heero murmured reassuringly. With his little plastic hands, Duo patted appreciatively at the one of Heero’s that was half curled around him where he sat on the concrete; it was a strange sensation.

Meanwhile Quatre was saying, “I still need to go to Carquest and a grocery store; do you guys want to come with me?”

Heero had a secret love of auto parts stores, but was being perfectly honest when he replied, “Not in a car that smells like dog vomit.”

“We could take your car,” was Quatre’s teasing suggestion.

That animal in my nice car?”

“Oh,” said Quatre in mock surprise, “did you get a nice car?”

Duo had been talking nonsense at the dog, to which Heero had been half listening in amusement as he held this distance conversation with Quatre; now, all at once, Duo’s tone changed, and his random noises abruptly became a good deal more intelligible: “Whoah! Hey! Hey, stop! Bad dog!” And at the same moment, Heero felt Cairo’s warm, wet, snuffling nose against the hand he’d had on Duo’s body.

It happened with dizzying quickness. At the sound of Duo’s supplicating but somewhat muffled, “Heero!” the latter looked down in time to see Cairo take the doll by the head, pick him right up, and start to turn away. Heero made a grab for Duo, but missed entirely as Cairo began trotting toward Quatre.

“Hey!” cried Heero in his turn, diving after the dog, missing again, and scrambling to his feet. He never actually did manage to get his hands on Duo, and it was a startled and confused Quatre that pulled the doll from Cairo’s mouth.

“What…” Quatre began.

Heero snatched Duo in a panic and began looking him over for damage, despite knowing that he was supposedly indestructible. As he did this, Duo was swearing continually, and only stopped when Heero’s eyes met his. Breathlessly he asked, “How far was that?”

“I don’t know,” replied Heero, his panic settling into horror. “I couldn’t– Quatre, did you see?”

Quatre’s eyes had gone wide as he’d realized what had just happened, and he shook his head. Then they all simply gazed at each other blankly. Cairo leaned complacently against his master, unaware that he’d caused any trouble.

“Shit,” Duo said again at last, sounding distraught.

“It may not have been too far,” said Heero quickly. However, as even he wasn’t sure how far the dog had gone before he’d caught up, his tone was none too certain.

Duo just stared up at him, painted eyes wide.

Heero held him tighter. “I’m sure it’s all right,” he said, though he wasn’t. “I’m sure I got to you in time.” Though he wasn’t.

“I’m so sorry,” Quatre breathed, one hand on the dog’s head rubbing almost absently at its ears. “I don’t know why he did that. Maybe… maybe he thought… I don’t know…”

Duo took what sounded like a deep breath and spoke in that disconcerting tone of false cheer Heero had heard from him a few times before: “I’ve never known what it is about me that dogs like so damn much. They’re pretty common familiar animals… maybe they sense the magic or something.”

“I guess we’ll find out on Monday.” Quatre clearly wasn’t referring to why dogs liked Duo so much. There was a distant, contemplative quality to his voice, which Heero attributed to his suddenly thinking of Trowa and how this might affect him.

Perhaps Duo was on the same wavelength, for he said, “Don’t anyone mention this to Trowa, OK? He shouldn’t have to worry about it before he has to. Especially if it turns out he doesn’t have to worry about it at all.”

Slowly Quatre nodded, though he didn’t look entirely convinced.

Heero also wasn’t sure what to think. If he were the one under a curse and approaching what he believed to be the end of a long period of suffering, he would want to have clear expectations about the day in question, know whether or not he could anticipate success. On the other hand, Trowa didn’t seem the type to get his hopes up — about anything, really — and Heero didn’t feel it was his place to make the decision when Duo and Quatre were both more familiar with Trowa and more concerned for his well-being. So finally he nodded too. Then they all just stared at each other again, bleak and pensive.

When somebody showed signs of wanting to pull into the parking space they were occupying, Quatre finally stirred. “I’ve got to go,” he said reluctantly, looking around as if he’d forgotten where he was. “I am so sorry about this.” Seeing his human moving again, Cairo climbed up through the car’s open back door without being urged.

Duo shook his head, dragging his somewhat slobbery braid back and forth across Heero’s hand. “Not your fault,” he said. “It’s not exactly something you can train your dog not to do.”

Quatre smiled weakly at Duo, then raised his eyes to Heero. There was in his face that thoughtful expression that suggested he wasn’t saying something he had on his mind. Heero remembered him wearing that look a few days before the email about Trowa; he wondered what Quatre was thinking now, and whether he wasn’t saying it because Duo was present or for some other reason. What Quatre did say eventually was, “Thanks for the water.”

Heero nodded. Their goodbyes were subdued, and then he stood on the curb holding Duo in both hands and watching Quatre drive away.

Duo was very quiet as they returned inside, even once the door was closed and they were alone and out of anyone’s earshot. Heero hadn’t put him back in his pocket, but continued to keep both hands possessively on him as he walked with the bowl under his arm dripping down his side, and now he gazed at the doll in similar silence.

Finally Duo said, “If that just ruined everything…”

“Then we start over,” Heero interrupted tensely. “We start a new month and try again. We try harder.”

“But–”

Heero would not even hear the beginning of an objection. “We start over,” he reiterated.

For a long moment Duo stared at him, his eyes blinking away in their uncannily regular rhythm. And eventually he said, as quietly as before, “Thank you.”

Not trusting himself to answer verbally, Heero nodded.

“And now,” Duo announced next, clearly changing the subject, “I think I really do need a bath.”

Heero forced a smile. “Yes, I think so too.”

“So bring on the hot water! That’ll be my silver lining.”

Smile widening somewhat, if a little sadly, Heero hoped it could be his as well.



So what was going through Cairo’s head? Find out here.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

In case you, like Duo, are curious about Heero’s high school hair adventure, have a look at this excerpt from his senior yearbook that I drew:

It tends to be rather a matter of chance whether or not people I draw look attractive, and I’m often just happy if they look human. In this case, that Heero turned out looking not very handsome I don’t mind specifically because of Duo’s thoughts on the matter in part 74; Duo finds him attractive and doesn’t give a damn what the rest of the world thinks, so it kinda doesn’t matter how he looks when I draw him for this story :D

I really would’ve liked to have Mrs. Winner’s name spelled and pronounced differently in order to state that Quatre was named after her, but “Quatarine” looked way too much like “Quarantine,” and I just couldn’t handle it XD



His Own Humanity: Plastic 26-30

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.



Heero was not a morning person. He did what he had to, of course (part of which was being to work on time at eight every day), but in general the world before ten o’clock seemed to him something like the setting of a horror movie — and the monsters were those perky people that could do equations and complicated analysis and be polite to obnoxious others at only the slightest notice upon awakening. On Saturdays he made sure to stay safely in bed until the coast was clear.

The problem with sleeping late, however, was that, no matter how nice it felt to awaken in his own time without an alarm, he was always rather sluggish for a while unless he had some specific task to see to immediately. Most weekends this didn’t bother him, but right now, with Duo around, he preferred to be a little more alert. So as soon as he was out of bed, he turned on some music a little louder than was his habit, and headed for the kitchen to start his coffee immediately.

“Good morning!” Duo greeted him cheerfully from his end table.

Before replying, Heero reminded himself firmly that Duo couldn’t sleep and therefore could be neither night person nor morning person at this point. “Morning,” he finally said.

Duo had muted the television with the remote lying by his side; as Heero got the coffee going he asked, “So what are we listening to?”

It occurred to Heero that he was a little too accustomed to living alone; he hadn’t even considered that his wakeup music might inconvenience Duo. This, of course, sent his thoughts out to the happy field of ‘living with Duo,’ whence he quickly reined them in because that kind of thinking wouldn’t do anyone any good. “Prisn,” he answered the question.

“Never heard of it,” said Duo promptly.

“Yeah, most people haven’t,” Heero yawned. Turning his back on the gurgling of the coffee-maker, he leaned against the counter and looked at Duo. “So what kind of music do you like?”

“Mexican circus music,” Duo replied after a moment’s thought.

Halfway through another yawn, Heero felt his brows contract in confusion. “What?”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s really Mexican or what…” Duo waved an arm vaguely. “In one place I lived, there was a Mexican family next door, and they used to play this stuff really loud so we could hear it too. Drove my kid’s parents crazy. It was this really cheerful, upbeat stuff that sounded like what you hear in circus scenes in movies, and it was all in Spanish. I think.” As a sort of aside he added, “I speak maybe ten words of Spanish, and that’s Wade Spanish anyway.”

“And that’s…” Heero stared at him. “That’s your favorite music? Something you heard through a wall and didn’t understand?”

“You asked.” It was Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, but there was a grin involved as well.

“But…” Heero couldn’t quite explain why this baffled him so much. How could someone over a century old be so lacking in any decisive opinion about music? “Didn’t you live through the jazz era? Didn’t you pretty much live through the development of all modern styles of music?”

“Well, yeah, but mostly with kids! I mean, if you had to listen to things like Mr. Green Jeans and Muffy Mouse and Hanna Montana for seventy years, you’d appreciate some Mexican circus music too!”

Heero laughed. “OK, I see your point.” Then he moved forward, picked up Duo in the hand that wasn’t holding his newly-filled coffee mug, and headed for the hallway. “But I think this is something we need to fix.”

“Onward!” cried Duo in his small voice as he was carried away from the place he’d occupied for almost the entire time he’d spent in Heero’s apartment.

Entering his bedroom, Heero felt a slight, unaccustomed embarrassment about its state. It was true that he only tolerated mess up to a point, but he knew that sometimes that point was farther along the clutter scale than others’ — certainly farther along than Quatre’s. However, the only thing Duo had to say was, “Ooh, I finally get to see your bedroom.” Which Heero really should have been expecting.

“Yes,” replied Heero calmly, and then just couldn’t help adding, “Remember what I told you about being a very good boy?”

“Is that what we’re doing?” Duo said in a deliberate tone of pleased surprise. “I mean, that’s definitely something we need to fix too, but I thought you were talking about music.”

Deciding that he probably couldn’t get away with the response he was considering, Heero just chuckled again as he set Duo down on his dresser next to his CD player. The doll began swiveling his head back and forth in a wide arc, examining the room. “Oh, you’ve got that cool hands-drawing-each-other picture,” he commented, waving an arm.

Heero nodded, unzipping the binder that held his CD’s and beginning to flip through it. Duo turned his painted eyes in that direction and watched him. “So what do you call this stuff?”

“What stuff?” Heero looked up at him, forgetting that there would be no facial expression from which to obtain a hint about Duo’s meaning. Not that he minded looking at Duo: it was always thought-provoking to see the plastic body in those little clothes Heero had bought beneath the long and bizarrely realistic hair, and Heero still liked to imagine what Duo would look like as a human.

“This music that’s playing,” Duo said.

“Oh. Well, this group’s ten fans,” replied Heero ironically, “call it ‘experimental-hard-rock-slash-neo-classical-fusion.'”

“How pretentious,” remarked Duo in his ‘grin’ tone.

Heero shrugged. “It sounds better than ‘our orchestra has electric guitars.'”

“You know how weird it’s been to watch this whole ‘genre’ thing develop?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s half a million different kinds of just ‘rock’ now, aren’t there? I mean, I remember where all there was on the radio was ‘pop’ — and for a while they were calling all of that ‘rock’n’roll’ — and ‘country-western.'”

“Really?” Heero had found the CD he wanted, and was spinning it somewhat absently around his finger while he waited for the song currently playing to end. “No classical or jazz or anything?”

“Oh, yeah, I guess there was that… But you didn’t hear people talking about ‘trance’ and ‘thrash metal’ and whatever the difference between ‘hip-hop’ and ‘rap’ is… which, by the way, what is it?”

“I’m…” Heero grimaced. “…not really sure…”

“Can’t be important, then,” declared Duo.

Heero’s expression needed very little alteration to go from grimace to grin. “OK, you’ve heard enough Prisn; now listen to this.” And he switched the CD.

“All right,” Duo agreed jovially.

They might not have found Duo a new favorite, or even broadened his musical horizons to any great extent, but Heero at least was enjoying himself so much that he rather lost track of the rest of the world for a while. He was only brought back to it, with something of an unpleasant jolt, when Duo remarked eventually, “Trowa really likes jazz.”

Because it always came back to Trowa, didn’t it?

When Heero had nothing to say in response to this, Duo went on a little wistfully, “At least he used to. He was pretty good at clarinet back in the day. Of course he was almost completely self-taught… we sure couldn’t afford music lessons. I wonder if he still plays…”

So Trowa was musical as well as magical, was he? Heero restrained himself from remarking sourly that he bet Trowa did still play, and had been practicing for ninety years and was now a virtuoso — whereas the extent of Heero’s musical inclinations was occasionally singing along with something when he was absolutely certain nobody could see or hear him.

He looked around, letting life come back into focus, and realized with a start what the time was. “Oh, Quatre’s going to be here soon to watch the game,” he said. “I’d better get dressed.”

“Aw, you’re going to change out of those sexy pajama pants?” Duo complained.

Feeling his face go abruptly hot, Heero glanced down at his cotton pants and their repeating pattern of Optimus Prime’s face. “Yes,” he said, and was pleased at how levelly he managed it.

“Well, do I at least get to watch?”

If Duo’s tone hadn’t been so clearly joking, Heero did not doubt that his own face would have gone even more red than it probably already was. In any case, he took care not to let Duo see it as he picked him up. “No,” he said in the same level tone.

Duo made an exaggerated sound of disappointment as Heero carried him back into the living room and replaced him on his end table. A moment later, before Heero had even reached his bedroom door again, the sound of the TV coming back on floated down the hall. And Heero went to change contemplating how frustrating words could sometimes be that otherwise might have been exactly what you wanted to hear.


So he liked Heero.

Duo had unmuted the television, it was true, but he wasn’t paying it any attention. His view of the hallway was mostly blocked, but he thought what he was doing could still accurately be called ‘looking after Heero.’ And if he’d had the luxury of a facial expression, it would have been pensive indeed.

The last time he’d been even remotely romantically interested in anyone had been eighty-seven years ago. Oh, sure, he’d always been able to recognize attractiveness when he encountered it, and there had been that whole coming-out thing in the 60’s… but it had all been almost more clinical than anything else — observations that led nowhere. And he’d never really thought about why he’d spent so long without anyone specifically catching his eye. But he was thinking about it now. Why exactly had this been the case? Surely over the course of nearly nine decades he should have met someone to interest him…

Admittedly he’d spend a good percentage of that time with children, but he’d gotten to know his fair share of adults as well. Also, he was a doll, but so what? His mind was the same, wasn’t it? Or had Trowa been right, all those years ago — was Duo really so petty and superficial that he couldn’t even fathom liking someone without the possibility of attendant physicality?

And, more importantly perhaps than why it had been like this for so long, what had changed now? Because something had. Was it Duo? Was something inside him maturing to allow a new interest after so long without any? Or was Heero just that overwhelmingly attractive? Perhaps it was more that Duo had some hope of regaining his humanity sometime soon, and so was allowing himself to notice humans in that light again.

He laughed helplessly at himself. This was all just another observation that led nowhere, since Heero was still clearly uninterested. Which hadn’t been a problem when Duo was idly reflecting that he might at some point start thinking of Heero as more than a friend, but could prove somewhat annoying now that he actually had.

Little time was available for him to dwell on this (which was probably for the best), as a knock sounded on the door and Heero reappeared, fully dressed, to let Quatre in. Evidently it was Heero’s turn to provide snacks again, for Quatre was empty-handed. Duo was getting the hang of these sports-oriented get-togethers.

That Duo had gone over a century without ever learning the joys of basketball seemed incredible. It was always interesting (and, to be frank, somewhat annoying) just how many things he’d never seen or done. Immortals were supposed to be knowledgeable and experienced, weren’t they? In the vampire movies, they always spoke a dozen languages and had contacts everywhere and loads of money. Duo spoke only English, could have counted his friends on one hand if his fingers separated, and didn’t even have any way to make money.

But he did like basketball. Movie immortals never did that. And they didn’t know what they were missing.

He liked Heero, too. This fact was rapidly becoming inescapable. The way Heero shook his fist and half-growled out commendations at the team he was supporting, a much less obtrusive celebration than Quatre’s cheers or the victory dances Duo would undoubtedly have done if he’d been capable, had an intense, subtle sort of happiness behind it that Duo enjoyed seeing almost as much as the skillful plays that inspired it.

Perhaps as a direct result of this, Duo was struck with the thought that playing basketball with Heero might be even more fun than watching basketball with Heero. Of course, the idea of playing anything was pleasant, for obvious reasons… but basketball in particular, especially with Heero, seemed like fun. He couldn’t be sure, of course — it had still been a relatively new sport back when Duo might have had the option to play it, and limited mostly to venues he didn’t frequent — and besides that was a pipe dream at this point anyway, but even so he had to express his curiosity on the subject.

During the next commercial break, therefore, he asked, “So do you guys ever play this game?”

“Sometimes,” Quatre replied, while at the same moment Heero said, “Every once in a while.” And they exchanged a look, the spontaneity and mutuality of which was comical even if the expression itself was not.

“What?” wondered Duo, amused.

“Two-on-two is more fun than one-on-one,” Quatre explained with a smile, “but we have a hard time persuading our friends — the friends we play stuff with — to play basketball. They’re fine with tennis–“

“As long as they can use racquets that cost at least $300,” Heero put in.

“–but they don’t think much of basketball. I think they find it a little…” Quatre trailed off as if unsure of the word he wanted.

“Ghetto,” Heero supplied.

Duo laughed, but could question no further as the commercials were over. Once a new set arrived, however, he pursued the subject. “So these snobby friends of yours who won’t play basketball… they wouldn’t happen to be the same ones who are always playing matchmaker at you guys?”

Quatre threw him a surprised look. “Yes, they are.” And he glanced at Heero as if to ask, “What have you been telling him?”

Pleased to have put these pieces together, Duo sat back (figuratively speaking) to enjoy the rest of the game.

Thereafter, Quatre announced his intention to check that Trowa had eaten something today before he went home, much to Duo’s satisfaction. It was silly to worry about not having seen his friend since Thursday when he hadn’t seen him for almost ninety years and Trowa had been just fine, but that didn’t make Duo any less pleased that Quatre was going to check on him.

“And I need to do my laundry,” Heero said as Quatre disappeared into Trowa’s house.

“Ooh, can I come with?” Duo requested.

Heero gave him a very skeptical look and said, “Why?”

“Just to spend more time in your scintillating presence,” Duo replied in a tone that indicated this should have been obvious.

“I don’t think you pronounce the ‘c’ in ‘scintillating,'” Heero said.

“Yeah, maybe not,” Duo allowed. “So can I come with you?”

Heero’s face took on a pensive expression that Duo knew very well. It was the look that said he was pondering the logistics of carrying a talking doll to wherever it was he did laundry — never very promising. What, then, was Duo’s pleasure when Heero suddenly grinned and said, “Why not? You can sit in the laundry basket.”

“I get to sit in the laauundry basket, I get to sit in the laauundry basket,” Duo sang cheerfully as Heero went to fetch what he needed. He had a feeling this was going to be a good weekend.


Quatre awoke on Monday morning at about his usual time, and for a good ten seconds was somewhat distressed and disoriented because his alarm hadn’t sounded. Then he remembered the last-minute plans for a week off, and relaxed. Lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, he thought for a while about what he meant to do today, then finally got up with a smile.

Although the purpose of these days off wasn’t to waste a lot of time doing nothing, Quatre had no objection to adopting a leisurely pace in what he did need to get done. This included jogging, some tidying up at home, his laundry, playing with the dogs for a little while, and, eventually, a trip to a grocery store. But he was anything but leisurely when, late in the morning (EST), he marched into Trowa’s house with his grocery bags and an expression of determination.

“Who’s there?” called Trowa from the study as usual, but Quatre did not enter that room this time. Instead, he identified himself and went straight into the kitchen.

At the store, he’d concentrated on finding things that wouldn’t go bad quickly — crackers and canned food and microwaveable frozen stuff — and was pretty pleased with his results. They certainly made Trowa’s almost completely barren cupboards and freezer look a little less forlorn.

“What are you doing?” Trowa had emerged so quietly that Quatre hadn’t noticed he was in the room until this moment. Quatre turned, a little startled, to find Trowa staring blankly at where he was trying to decide on a good place to put microwave popcorn.

“I brought you food,” Quatre answered.

“Yes… Why?”

Quatre had come prepared for this question. The argument that Trowa would feel better and work better if he ate regularly had thus far been entirely ineffectual, so Quatre had specifically planned on approaching this from another angle. “Do you know,” he said conversationally, “what Duo said yesterday when I told him how often you don’t eat?”

He was beginning to recognize the tiny signs of discontent Trowa gave on occasion, and now saw clearly the very slight drawing-together of brows at his question. “He complained about not being able to eat,” Trowa guessed dully.

“Well, yes,” Quatre conceded. “But he also said that somebody needs to come over here and force you to start eating on a daily basis. Obviously he can’t do it,” he added with a bright smile, “so here I am.”

Trowa stared at him for a long moment, and finally said, “Fine. What’s for lunch?”

“Um…” Quatre reopened the freezer and pulled out the first box to hand. “Looks like… shrimp scampi.”

“Fine,” said Trowa again, his entire demeanor now subtly, indefinably defeated. Then he added, “But you’ll have to join me. You cannot stand there and watch me eat again.”

“OK,” Quatre said happily, and opened the cold box in his hand.

The wisdom of this particular purchase was confirmed in the ease of preparation, though the flavor had yet to be ascertained. Once Quatre had figured out the buttons on the excessively dated microwave, he leaned against the counter and again looked at Trowa, who hadn’t left his place at the edge of the kitchen. “So how’s your progress?” he asked. “Any new ideas for Duo?”

Trowa turned abruptly away and moved toward the table. “No,” he said shortly.

After a few moments of contemplation during which the microwave was the only sound, Quatre said, “So tell me about curses. What is a curse, exactly?”

“A curse,” Trowa answered slowly, flatly, “is a malicious spell that causes a set of circumstances to take effect and can only be reversed when another set of conditions is met. Cursing is considered a branch of command magic.”

“You sound like a textbook,” said Quatre with a smile.

Trowa made a faint, sardonic sound. “I’ve had quite some time to think about the nature of magic, especially curses, and organize my thoughts on the subject.” He paused, then went on more quietly, “I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book… but I haven’t felt motivated to do so.”

“We know what you’ll be working on once you’ve cured Duo, then!” said Quatre cheerfully.

Trowa was silent.

“So there’s an entire branch of magic dedicated to curses?” Quatre was determined to keep this conversation going.

“There are five branches of magic. Cursing is a subcategory of one of them.”

“‘Subcategory,'” Quatre murmured as he began pulling out the dishes they would need. “That makes it sound so organized.” And he knew so little about magic that any question he could think to ask on the subject was essentially a shot in the dark. That didn’t matter much, though. “So are there… specialists in these subcategories? Experts at cursing who’ll curse someone for you if you pay them?”

“Yes. They’re not very nice people.”

Quatre laughed. “Really?”

“Not just because they’re willing to curse others for money,” Trowa went on seriously. “A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

Under cover of bringing dishes to the table, Quatre stared surreptitiously at Trowa. The unhealthily pale skin, the strange eyes, the overall sickly glow… were these parts of Duo’s curse, as Quatre had vaguely assumed prior to this, or did Trowa’s knowledge of the nature of curses come from more extensive experience than just Duo? It would make sense, he thought, for Trowa to have experimented with curses over the years in order to be better prepared for meeting with Duo again… but what a miserable thought. Quatre wasn’t entirely certain he would blame him, but also wasn’t entirely ready to know for certain.

So instead he asked, “So what is it about Duo’s curse that’s giving you trouble?”

Trowa sighed faintly. “Someone who deliberately casts a curse has a limited control over and understanding of what is required for the curse to be broken. But this wasn’t meant to be a curse; it was the artifact that twisted my spell into one. I have no idea what needs to happen for Duo to be human again.”

“And your divinations haven’t answered the question,” Quatre finished for him, “and your research hasn’t given you any answers either.” He’d finished spooning shrimp and sauce onto two plates, and was now bringing these back to the table.

Trowa nodded in response to Quatre’s words, and turned his eyes to the food in front of him. “Thank you,” he murmured.

Quatre made a noise of acknowledgment, and sat down nearby — not too near, but not at the opposite end of the table, either. And it soon became evident that, as far as microwaveable frozen food went, he’d made a good choice on this. He noticed after not long, however, that Trowa was staring down at his plate without moving. Bracing himself for another debate, Quatre asked, “What’s wrong?”

Trowa looked up, then over at the kitchen. “Did you buy all of this?”

“Yes,” replied Quatre, raising his brows slightly and wondering what Trowa thought the alternative was.

“How much did you spend? I’ll pay you back for it.”

Quatre shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Trowa set down the fork he’d picked up but hadn’t yet used. “I am perfectly capable of doing my own shopping.”

Matching Trowa’s flat, steely tone, but laying a sheen of cheerfulness over the top, Quatre replied, “Of course you are. But since you don’t…”

Trowa stared at him hard for a moment, and Quatre got the feeling he had other arguments he would have produced if he felt like continuing to argue at all. Instead he simply said, “Half, then. I’ll pay you half.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Quatre said, “OK. It was about sixty dollars.”

Trowa nodded, then finally began eating.

After several silent moments Quatre asked thoughtfully, “Where do you get money, anyway? You don’t seem to have a job…”

“No.” At least Trowa appeared to be enjoying his lunch, whatever he might say. “Eighty-seven years of investment and interest.” He went on in a ‘before you ask’ sort of tone, “According to official records, I am Trowa Barton the third and was born in 1970.”

“You’re your own grandpa, huh?” Quatre grinned. But as the reference seemed to go right over Trowa’s head, he added, “Well, you certainly look good for someone who was forty at last count.”

To his surprise, Trowa actually smiled. It was faint and sardonic, yes, but it made Quatre’s heart leap. “And a hundred and eleven at a more accurate count,” he said, and bit into one of his shrimps.

Quatre left Trowa’s house later feeling that this endeavor had gone very well. Admittedly it was a little difficult to tell, but Trowa had seemed to be in a better mood after eating than before. And Quatre was obviously going to have to come back every day this week and make sure Trowa ate again in order to get him into the habit, but it wasn’t exactly a task he minded. Indeed, the memory of that little smile, brief and ambivalent though it had been, would undoubtedly have bolstered him through any number of much less palatable undertakings.


“I really don’t know how you stand this,” Heero remarked conversationally. “Some TV is fine, but this is insane.” They’d essentially spent the whole of Monday in front of the television, and Heero didn’t think he could handle a repetition on Tuesday; he wondered how Duo could.

“Oh, I have a special power,” replied Duo mysteriously, “which allows me to watch TV for days on end without doing anything else.”

Heero looked over at him, curious.

Duo explained. “It’s called ‘having no other choice.'”

Heero winced. There were just so many ways being a doll must be miserable; it didn’t quite seem fair that even Duo’s primary source of entertainment formed one of them. Remind me never to piss Trowa off, was Heero’s immediate reaction to this thought, but he forebore from saying it aloud. Duo had been complaining lately that Trowa hadn’t come to see him for so long, and Heero didn’t feel like bringing the subject up if it wasn’t already on Duo’s mind.

Instead, he stood abruptly and said, “No. We’re going to find something else to do.”

“‘Something else to do?'” Duo echoed in an eyebrow-waggling sort of tone.

Firmly, Heero took the remote control from where it lay next to Duo on the end table, and turned the TV off. “Yes,” he said. “Anything but more TV.”

“‘Anything?‘” said Duo in that same suggestive tone.

Heero gave a monosyllabic laugh and rolled his eyes. He was already pondering what kinds of pastimes besides television-watching were available to someone that couldn’t hold, eat, or drink anything, couldn’t stand under his own power, whose knees and elbows didn’t bend, and who would be considered more than a little bit anomalous to the world in general. (He couldn’t deny that a little voice in the back of his head added, ‘and whose entire groin is a solid piece with no movable parts,’ but he did brush the thought away as entirely unhelpful.) He hadn’t come up with anything yet when his reflections were interrupted by the ringing of his phone.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to cell phones,” Duo remarked as Heero dug into his pocket.

It was one of his parents calling. Heero took a deep breath, bracing himself mentally, before picking up.

His mother always greeted him, “Heero?” in a questioning tone, as if someone else might be answering his phone.

“Yes,” he replied. “Hello. How are you?”

“We are very well,” said his mother with her usual businesslike, almost brusque cheerfulness and faint trace of disapprobation. “Relena and Colin are coming over for dinner on Sunday, if you’d like to come too.”

Heero counted the days since he’d had dinner with his family, and saw very plainly that he could not turn down this particular invitation. If only they’d planned this for Monday, so he could plead Final Four… Stifling a sigh, he said, “Yeah, that would be great. Six thirty?” Because no dinner at the Yuy household had ever happened at any other time.

His mother confirmed this, then proved that, as usual, she didn’t have much else to say besides what she’d specifically called for. She wasn’t very good at chatting on the phone, a trait Heero had inherited from her — but at least he didn’t try. She asked what he’d been up to lately without really wanting to hear the answer, which was good, since he didn’t really want to give the answer.

He could just imagine telling his mother, “Well, I found a talking Ken doll in the gutter and have since developed a crush on him, but he’s already got a 100-year-old boyfriend.” She might, at least, be glad to hear that Quatre was chasing someone else; she was just sure that, any day now, Heero was going to announce he’d started sleeping with his best friend.

They exchanged a few more somewhat stiff comments, and finally hung up, with the reiterated promise of a meeting on Sunday that Heero wasn’t particularly looking forward to. A couple of months ago he wouldn’t have minded, but at the moment there were few places more awkward and uncomfortable to be on a Sunday evening than at his parents’ house with his sister and her fiance.

“I didn’t know you were bilingual!” said Duo, sounding impressed, as Heero put his phone away.

“Oh. Yeah.” Heero shrugged slightly. His family tended to speak Japanese among themselves, which included phone conversations; Heero didn’t really think much about it.

“Well,” Duo went on matter-of-factly, “that is extremely sexy, and I am totally jealous.”

Heero laughed briefly. “Didn’t you say you spoke some kind of Spanish, though?”

“I said I spoke maybe ten words of Wade Spanish, which doesn’t even start to count.”

Looking down thoughtfully at the doll, Heero said, “You keep mentioning this ‘Wade.'”

“That was what they called the neighborhood Trowa and I lived in growing up.” Duo’s plastic head was swiveled upward to return Heero’s gaze, and his eyes blinked with unnerving regularity, like an animation in an old video game or something. “See, the city was right up against this shallow river, and there was this big old sort of shantytown on the other side… a bunch of poor people lived there, mostly non-white, the kinds of people that got kicked around most back then.”

“Has that changed?” asked Heero with light dryness.

“It was worse back then,” promised Duo somewhat flatly. “Anyway, it was quicker for them to wade the river than walk a couple of miles to a bridge to get into the city, so they got called ‘Waders’ and the part of town where most of them worked — hell, it was practically the only part of the city a lot of them could get work — but that part next to the river got called ‘the Wade.’ I mean, this all started before I was born; I always knew it as the Wade.”

“And what was it like?” Heero asked curiously.

In response to this question, Duo laughed. “You know, there’s this thing I see happen on TV,” he began in an amused, pensive tone, “and you probably know about it too, if TV hasn’t been lying to me like it sometimes does.”

“Yes?” Heero prompted, returning to his seat on the couch and facing Duo.

“Someone’ll find out that someone else speaks another language — say, Spanish — and they’ll say, ‘Oh, oh, say something in Spanish for me!’ And the other person suddenly has no idea what to say.”

Now Heero laughed too. “OK, yes, I do know about that.” He was certain, however, that Duo, if he found himself in that situation and did happen to speak Spanish, would be one of those smartasses that just translated the words ‘something in Spanish’ into Spanish.

“Because you know about a billion words in that language, right?” Duo said. “And how are you supposed to decide just at a moment’s notice which ones will represent the language and how it sounds to someone who doesn’t speak it?”

“Are you sure you haven’t experienced this personally?” Heero asked, eyebrows raised.

“Well, I think that’s about what it feels like when you ask me what the Wade was like.” Duo said this in some triumph, as if he’d just made an irrefutable point in an intense debate.

“Oh,” said Heero, understanding, and laughed a little again.

“I mean, I could tell you a million things about life there, but there’s no quick and easy way to tell you ‘what the Wade was like.’ What would you say if I asked you what this city was like?”

“All right, I see your point,” Heero conceded. For, while there were a lot of concise answers he could have given to the proposed question, none of them would really paint a reliable picture of the city in general. “How about this, then: do the movies get it right? I guess that’s more about era than location,” he admitted immediately, “but still…”

“Well, sometimes…” Duo went on in a ‘scratching his head’ sort of tone. “As right as anyone can get it when they’re trying to cram all the social changes and attitudes and stuff of an entire decade into an hour and a half. They always try to capture ‘the spirit of the times’ in movies, but that’s something you can only do after the fact, I guess. I mean, I don’t think I ever did anything that embodied the progressive and inventive spirit of the 1910’s, and I definitely never looked around and thought about it. But sometimes the movies do get sets that look pretty good.”

Again Heero nodded his understanding, and couldn’t help thinking about how movies a hundred years from now would portray this decade; what ‘spirit’ might they attempt to capture? “OK,” he said. “Then tell me one of the million things you could tell me about life in the Wade.”

And as Duo obeyed, leading them into a fascinating, lively, and long-lived conversation, Heero wondered why he’d ever been under the impression that they lacked interesting things to do.



Evidently Trowa was getting used to this routine Quatre was imposing on him, for, when Quatre came over for lunch on Wednesday, he found Trowa closing the book he’d been reading as if he’d been specifically waiting for a reason to do so. Actually, that wasn’t at all uncommon; Trowa seemed to be more than pleased at any excuse to set aside his research. Given how many hours a day Trowa was spending buried in books or on the internet, and to no avail, Quatre found this completely understandable.

They had some kind of breakfast-like affair involving sausage and potatoes — not the best of the frozen meals with which Quatre had stocked Trowa’s freezer — and their conversation somehow found its way to hiking and the local opportunities therefor. Local to Quatre, that is, but since he was the one that did most of the talking this was not inappropriate. Trowa always seemed to listen somewhat grudgingly to what Quatre had to say, as if he’d rather be doing or thinking something else but couldn’t help being interested. This simultaneously amused and bothered Quatre, but, as he wasn’t really sure what to do about it, he simply continued as he had done.

After lunch, Trowa returned to his study and, as far as Quatre could tell, the same book he’d been perusing before, but instead of reading it he only sat still in his horrible armchair and stared at the nearby table. He had that pensive little half frown on his face again, and Quatre decided to make him some tea before he left him to his work.

Almost the only food-like item present in Trowa’s kitchen before Quatre had forced half a grocery store on him had been a package of cinnamon orange tea. Having observed this, Quatre had bought him some more, but had also picked up a couple other flavors he thought Trowa might like. Of course someone that generally didn’t eat or drink anything, and that quite possibly had an entire century’s worth of tea experimentation under his belt, could probably be trusted to know of his one culinary indulgence what flavors he did and didn’t like without help from anyone else… but Quatre speculated — it was just a feeling, really, but an instinct he trusted — that it was the caffeine Trowa really sought, and the taste was irrelevant.

Wild mint seemed a good choice for today, so Quatre got a cup of that ready and returned with it to the study. There he found Trowa continuing to stare at nothing, the book evidently untouched in his lap, a slight frown still on his otherwise unreadable face. The magician did not even seem to notice when Quatre set the teacup in its neat little saucer down at the other end of the table.

Was Trowa staring at nothing, though? As Quatre’s eyes left the object he’d brought into the room and roved over the others on the cluttered table, he began to rethink this assessment. Trowa’s gaze seemed to be directed at an old, tarnished silver candlestick devoid of a candle that stood among the books and papers and other items. It occurred to Quatre that it had always been there, but he had never really taken notice of it before; and simultaneously that, even in a house full of mismatched articles from a variety of eras, this particular piece looked out of place.

He leaned closer to examine it. It was obviously very old, much too old to be any relic of the early twentieth century, or even — though he was far from an expert on the subject — of the late nineteenth. And then, with a faint, quick intake of surprised breath, he noticed the pattern of tiny moons, progressing from the merest sliver to round and full, carved delicately into the sides of the square base.

“Is that…” he began, and found his voice coming out in a murmur, almost a whisper, as if he were asking Trowa to divulge some serious secret.

For a long moment Trowa did not move or speak, as if he hadn’t heard Quatre’s beginning of a question and had, in fact, forgotten he was there. But finally with a deep breath he tore his eyes from the candlestick and turned them on Quatre. He wasn’t wearing his contacts today, and Quatre had already noticed that the moon must be starting to wane at the moment. Now the moons in Trowa’s face regarded him emotionlessly for a moment before returning to their previous object of scrutiny.

“Yes,” Trowa said.

Quatre also turned back to peer intently at the artifact. “It’s a… candlestick…” he said at last.

“Yes,” Trowa said again.

“I’d expected it to be… something…” Quatre shrugged and laughed faintly. “Something more, I guess. Something that seemed more magical.”

“Any object can become an artifact,” Trowa reminded him, “if enough magic is performed around it.”

Quatre nodded, then murmured, “So it was Trowa in the study with the candlestick.”

Here was another reference that seemed to go right over Trowa’s head. “It was created by a group of moon-worshiping magicians around 1760 in France,” he explained seriously. “It’s been difficult to find records of its history, but, as far as I can gather, it was created by accident — most artifacts are — when the group used to cast spells at an altar where this and another, matching candlestick stood.”

“So there are two of them.”

“I don’t believe so. Apparently both became magical artifacts, but when the group noticed how much magic the candlesticks were absorbing, they began deliberately channeling their own power into one of them; so it became extremely powerful, while the other remained a standard artifact. Well, perhaps a little more powerful than a standard artifact, but nothing in comparison to this one.” Trowa gestured at the candlestick on the table, from which Quatre’s eyes had wandered to his companion’s much more interesting face.

“Why did they put their power into it?” Quatre wondered, looking back at the candlestick as seemed to be indicated by Trowa’s movement. “I can see where such a powerful artifact would be useful, but did they know that’s what would happen?”

Trowa surprised Quatre by snorting in derision. “I doubt it. I can’t be sure, but the feeling I get is that they did it just to see what would happen. Just for fun.”

“Really?” wondered Quatre, amused. “Not to… appease the moon spirit… or something?”

“The changing nature of this group is interesting to watch in retrospect. I would let you see the records, but you wouldn’t be able to read them.”

“I’m fairly good with French, actually,” Quatre informed him.

For the second time that week, Trowa smiled, just a little, and again Quatre’s heart-rate seemed instantly to increase at the sight. “I’m not,” he said simply. “I can’t even pronounce the name this group called themselves. But one of the conveniences of magical skill is the ability to understand the magical language, which is universal to everyone who also has magical skill.” Now he gestured to the book in his lap, across whose pages were marked the indistinct and unfamiliar characters Quatre had noticed a few times before in books here. “Almost all of the records of note are written in the magical language.”

“Ohh,” Quatre said, a little disappointed. “Well, what do they say that’s so interesting?” He was pleased at getting Trowa to talk to so much, but also had to admit that the subject was not without interest in its own right.

“The group was not a serious undertaking at the beginning,” answered Trowa sardonically. “They were all or almost all magicians, yes, but they were not people who used magic for anything. They were aristocrats: rich, idle people who thought it would add some spice to their pointless lives to start a secret society and pretend to worship the moon in made-up ceremonies. I gather that it was mostly an excuse to show off useless magic and have drunken orgies.”

This startled a laugh out of Quatre, and inside he couldn’t help reflecting that, while he’d certainly never expected it, hearing the word ‘orgies’ from Trowa’s pale lips was every bit as pleasant as he would have thought it might be if he’d ever thought about it at all.

“But there were a few who took it seriously,” Trowa went on, unaware of the fascinating train of thought onto which he’d put Quatre for a few moments. “The second generation of members, you might call them — people who actually felt a connection to the moon which they wanted to enhance. They were the ones who wrote all the records, and they were the ones who transformed the group into a real cult after it had been nothing more than an exclusive club for several years. They continued pouring their energies into the artifact, and using it in rituals related to the moon and its cycles, which eventually gave it an affinity with the moon.”

“What happened to the cult?” Quatre asked.

Trowa shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find any records later than 1785. As I understand,” he added a little wryly, “that was a bad time to be an aristocrat in France. I’m lucky to have found any records at all.”

“How long have you been researching this?”

After a moment’s thought Trowa answered, “Sixty-two… no, sixty-three years. I thought if I could find something that would tell me more about the artifact, I might learn something that would help break the curse.” He sighed faintly, and said nothing more, though the lament was clear: he had learned more, and it had been fascinating research, but so far it hadn’t helped. He reached out a pale, slender hand to the candlestick and ran one long finger up and down its tarnished side.

Quatre watched without blinking. Trowa had a sort of stark, lean sexiness about him that was only augmented by his strangeness and sadness, and which Quatre could really do without noticing at moments like this. He was afraid he’d caught his breath just a little, too, as he watched Trowa’s cold, almost caressing movement toward the artifact, for Trowa looked over at him again abruptly.

Blushing as if Trowa were able to read his thoughts — Quatre assumed Trowa couldn’t read his thoughts, anyway — he said quickly, “Well, I made you some tea,” realizing even as he said it that it probably wouldn’t be hot anymore… not that Trowa ever seemed to care… “Maybe today will be the lucky day when you find your answers.”

Trowa returned to staring at the candlestick beneath his fingertips as he murmured, “How many times I’ve thought that…” The hopelessness in his tone was almost overwhelming.

Quatre wanted very much to hug him, but still didn’t quite dare. Instead he smiled as brightly as he could and said bolsteringly, “Well, it has to happen sometime — why not today?”

With a faint sound of doubt that was almost disdainful, Trowa turned his eyes downward to the book in his lap once again, and Quatre reluctantly deemed it time to leave. Without a word of goodbye, which was becoming customary at the ends of these visits, he moved toward the door. A look back before leaving the room showed him that Trowa’s gaze had already strayed from the book and was once more riveted on the artifact on the table, staring blankly into the past.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

And here’s a picture of Trowa playing his clarinet (not entirely relevant to this part, but he never actually plays the thing during the course of the story, so here’s as good as any):

I actually drew this for Zombie Girl’s 2010 birthday, since, as I’ve mentioned, the whole story is for her and Trowa is her favorite. I screwed up the damn angles, and I can’t fix things like that on paper very well, so the clarinet got all super long, but ZG didn’t seem to mind.



Falling Snow

This is an illustration for a story Zombie Girl was writing. She decided after the first chapter that she wasn’t actually wasn’t going to write it after all, so now nobody but me ever gets to read about Quatre finding Trowa poisoned in the snow and rescuing him and giving him a haircut and falling in love with him. This is sad. Here is a detail of Trowa:

Heretic’s Reward 5-8

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

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

Chapter 5 – Warrior’s Coma

Sano had managed successful meditative communication perhaps twice before, and each time had been so pleased and excited at getting it right, he’d spoiled his own concentration and broken the connection. So he had only an imprecise idea of what it was like — but that idea yet allowed him to recognize where he was now.

Well, not ‘where.’ He was nowhere, and if he tried to focus on the nonexistent background that seemed to be comprised of pure mood, he felt everything around him start to waver as if his attention threatened the very existence of the universe. Physical sensations were vague too. The feelings of walking, of breathing, of an itch on his face and the pull of gravity, were washed out and seemed to fade somewhat whenever he didn’t specifically think about them. If he remembered correctly from Seijuurou’s lectures, this was due to his mind fabricating them to accompany the false physicality of his spiritual manifestation; he wasn’t actually experiencing anything of the sort.

Beneath these fake sensations were the real ones, the ones his body actually felt: he could just barely make out the hard floor of Seijuurou’s house, the somewhat uncomfortable position in which he lay on it, and the soreness in the back of his skull. But he knew if he sought after that too energetically, he would wake himself up. Instead, he looked around for his trainer and the knight. And the moment he did, their voices reached him.

“Who are you? Where’s the boy?”

“The boy is somewhere about, probably. He’s incapable of maintaining a meditative state, so he put you in more qualified hands.”

Once Sano had heard them, it was simple enough to locate the visual aspect of their manifestations. Seijuurou appeared mostly as he did in life, with just a touch of greater presence, shinier musculature where his skin showed, and more eye-grabbing beauty here than there to set this manifestation apart from reality. The stranger wore his royal knight’s shiiya again, implying that his membership in that organization was a crucial part of his identity — crucial enough to overcome the knowledge Seijuurou and Sano had that he was currently topless, which would otherwise have forced him to appear here as they knew he did in outer life.

“The real question is, who are you?” Seijuurou was asking. “And what quest was so important you had to drive yourself into a coma for it?”

The knight seemed suspicious and a little irritated. “Why should I answer your questions when I have no idea who you are?”

At this point Sano broke into the conversation with, “Hey, what’s the big fucking idea hitting me on the head like that?”

Seijuurou barely turned to look at him with the comment, “There you are.” His succinct answer to the question was, “The off chance it would get you here, of course.”

“‘The off chance??'” echoed Sano, irate.

“I wanted to see this anomaly for myself,” Seijuurou explained placidly. “I knew your energy runs wild when you’re unconscious, but even I couldn’t have predicted this.”

The knight, who had been studying Sano with a somewhat skeptical expression, now gestured to him and asked Seijuurou, “Who is this idiot?”

Anger transferring immediately from his master to the knight, Sano raised a fist at the man and said, “‘This idiot’ just saved your life, you ungrateful asshole!”

“You didn’t save his life,” Seijuurou corrected him. “People don’t wake up from warrior’s comas. This idiot,” he went on, turning back to the knight and mimicking the latter’s gesture toward Sano, “is my latest worthless student. I assume my previous worthless student sent you to find me because he’s messed things up again.”

“Then you are Seijuurou,” stated the knight.

“Obviously.” Seijuurou’s eyes sparkled as he said this, something more than a figure of speech when the eyes in question were no more than a manifestation of a very arrogant spirit.

Sano rolled his own eyes. “Sounds like you two are gonna get along.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will.” Seijuurou flashed a suggestive smile at the knight, who looked away in annoyance. The keonmaster’s face returned to its previous serious expression as he went on to ask, “So what kind of foolishness is going on in Elotica?”

“The king has been usurped,” replied the knight, still not looking at Seijuurou.

The latter folded his arms and said flatly, “Predictable. By whom?”

Sano snorted quietly at the implication that Seijuurou had seen this coming. If the country were to be overrun by giant hedgehogs for whose nourishment worms began raining from the sky, Seijuurou would claim he’d seen it coming.

The knight, unfamiliar with Seijuurou’s ways, simply answered the question seriously. “A prince of Gontamei, of course. We knew there was some sort of conspiracy, but we hadn’t been able to pinpoint the powers behind it, and the king didn’t want random arrests.”

“He always has been too soft,” Seijuurou nodded. Sano, despite having just been reflecting on his master’s pretense of omniscience, was a little startled at the knowing tone. Was it possible Seijuurou really was familiar with the king? “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…” he’d said before. Did that mean…?

“Yes,” the knight was agreeing a little helplessly. “The best I could do was stay at his side as much as possible and keep my eyes open. That wasn’t enough, but at least I was present when it happened.” He shifted slightly, and all of a sudden Sano was seeing his memories.

The knight had been sitting in some room in the royal palace — a sunlit, mural-decorated chamber larger than Sano’s entire house — in a carved chair probably worth more than everything Sano owned put together, reading something. From the awareness in the memory Sano got the vague impression that the room’s original purpose had been as a sort of morning lounge, for a great, intricately-worked bay window looked east over a fine courtyard, but these days it was used as an office. Shelves full of books and papers lined the walls, hiding great chunks of the murals, and much of the remaining floor space was occupied by a large table at which the king sat.

Sano had never seen the king, nor, as he cared little about him, wondered what he might look like, but couldn’t help some surprise at the image the memory presented: he seemed remarkably short and small, though his arms where the sleeves of his shining royal shiiya fell from them were tan and toned. His hair was strikingly red, unusual among Akomerashou, the scar on his left cheek nearly the same color.

King Kenshin and his knight had evidently just finished a brief conversation and fallen silent, and now footsteps could be heard outside in the hallway. The knight seemed to tense at the sound, but before he could do more than rise from his seat, the doors had burst open. Several men entered, carrying drawn swords and clad in royal knight shiiyao that bore the crest of the other royal family, Gontamei.

When six of them had fallen into lines of three on either side of a path from the door to Kenshin’s table, another person appeared. Like the king he wore a shining royal shiiya, and he was followed by two more armed men. By this time, the king’s knight had, of course, approached to stand protectively beside his liege, keon sword drawn and the energy blade bright and long.

The Gontamei prince, who looked to be no older than Sano, raised a hand in a cheerful wave as he stopped in front of Kenshin’s table, and, smiling brightly, said, “Good morning, highness!”

“Good morning, Soujirou,” replied the king, who still held the papers he’d been drawing up as if this were nothing more than a temporary interruption. “From the looks of things, you have grown tired of waiting.”

Soujirou, still smiling, placed a hand on the table and leaned forward to peer at what the king was working on. “I do beg your pardon,” he said. “But you must be aware of what a weak king you are… this was inevitable.”

“Well,” replied Kenshin, tapping the stack of papers against the desk to straighten them and then setting them down on a nearby pile, “that may be true. Will you be killing me, then?”

“Oh, no!” Soujirou protested, raising his hands as if to ward off the suggestion. “Kill a prince of Baranor’mei? No!” He almost seemed to be laughing at the idea. “You will be my honored guest until I decide where to send you.”

Kenshin nodded, pushed back his chair, and stood. “Then I will surrender for now.”

At a gesture from the prince, Soujirou’s men began making their way around the table to lay hands on the king; at the same time, Kenshin turned to the knight at his side and said something so brief and quiet that, despite this being the knight’s own memory and the knight presumably having understood the words, Sano didn’t catch it. Then the scene abruptly faded.

Sano shook his head to clear the lingering images of the memory from his vision, and demanded as soon as he could, “What was that? He surrendered without even a fight?? There were two of you! And isn’t the king supposed to be this great swordsman?”

The knight also shook his head. “Ever since the Refugee Issue,” he explained, “the king only wears an empty sheath. It’s supposed to be a symbol of peace. He probably didn’t want to risk my life by essentially asking me to take on all nine of them by myself.”

“Thereby rendering your presence there entirely purposeless,” remarked Seijuurou.

“Or maybe he has something in mind that I can’t guess.” The knight sounded confused and perhaps a little bitter as he added, “All he said was, ‘Find Seijuurou.'”

“I can’t imagine why,” Seijuurou said.

The knight definitely sounded bitter as he muttered, “I’m beginning to agree with you.”

“How did you know where to find him?” Sano asked.

“The king has mentioned his mentor to me many times, as well as where he lives,” said the knight with a slight sigh. “But since there was a good chance others in the court knew as well, I thought it would be best to come as soon as possible.”

“And put yourself into a coma,” Seijuurou added critically.

Annoyed and possibly somewhat discouraged, the knight again looked away for a moment before continuing. “Soujirou sent half of his men away with the king; I have no idea where they might have gone. Then he tried to convince me to join him. I think my reply was more eloquent than his offer.”

Sano got a brief image of the knight kicking the entire large, heavy, book-and-paper-covered table over in Soujirou’s face, then jumping through the glass of the bay window into one of the trees in the courtyard below, and couldn’t help being rather amused and somewhat impressed at the drama and decisiveness of the knight’s ‘reply.’ That explained all the little cuts on his arms, too.

“They weren’t able to pursue me immediately,” the knight went on, “and Soujirou doesn’t know about the King’s Flight, so escape from the palace wasn’t difficult. Getting out of the city wasn’t either, though Soujirou’s takeover seems to have been coordinated across Elotica and many areas were already openly under his control.”

“Yeah, sounds like it was all real easy,” Sano said sarcastically, then asked in genuine curiosity, “What’s a King’s Flight?”

The knight showed him a quick memory of a long, narrow spiral staircase, completely dark but for the light of the energy on his keonblade, as he answered, “The hidden exit from the palace.”

“When did this all happen?” asked Seijuurou.

Pensively the knight said, “What day is it now?”

“Kahyou.” Seijuurou, for all he lived like a country hermit, always used the terms of the new calendar… which was probably for the best when talking to a knight from the capital.

“Three days ago, then,” the knight said.

“Three days?” Sano repeated in loud incredulity. “How in Kaoru’s name did you get up here so fast?”

“Soujirou sent at least two groups of men after me, so I didn’t feel I could afford to stop anywhere for long. I was able to change horses a few times along the way, so I traveled almost without rest.” A string of very brief images flashed past Sano’s awareness as the knight spoke. It seemed he had lost his pursuers, then been overtaken by them, twice, and blows had been exchanged both times. In the second instance, when the forest landscape surrounding him in the memory had become quite familiar to Sano, he had been unseated and wounded and had barely escaped.

“Which is why you’re now in a coma,” Seijuurou finished for him.

“A fact I don’t need to be reminded of again,” said the knight tightly.

“‘At least two groups?'” wondered Sano. “You must be pretty damn import–” And abruptly he cut his own words short as a thought occurred to him. “Wait… how far did they follow you? Did they know where you were going?”

“It’s not unlikely; I lost them on Torosa.”

Of course; otherwise the knight wouldn’t have been able to make it as far as that crossroads before collapsing after being wounded. That was why that last remembered image had looked so familiar to Sano. He swore, suddenly tense. “They’re gonna come looking for you in Eloma and hear I had you there last night!”

“Even if they track him here, are you really worried?” Seijuurou wondered skeptically.

“Not about us,” was Sano’s impatient reply. “What they might do over there if they can’t find him!” He gestured wildly, probably in entirely the wrong direction, trying to indicate his village and his friends that might even now be in danger. In this communicative unreality, he was undoubtedly projecting images of Eloma and the people there far better than he could indicate those concepts even in words.

“And what do you think there is to be done about that?” The knight’s tone was as skeptical as Seijuurou’s, but with a touch more derision. “Aren’t you unconscious?”

Sano rounded on him angrily. “At least I’m gonna wake up sometime!”

“To the world’s great benefit, I’m sure,” the knight responded dryly.

With a snort, Sano turned back to his master. “Seijuurou! Wake me up already!” he commanded, reaching out to pull at a long lock of Seijuurou’s shining black hair to make absolutely certain he had his attention.

“And how do you propose I do that?” Seijuurou said disinterestedly as he disengaged Sano’s hand and smoothed his hair back into place.

“I don’t care; just do it!” Sano insisted.

Seijuurou gave a brief smirk that had an unpleasantly suggestive edge to it, then abruptly vanished from the mindscape. Sano barely had time to notice the different aura the non-place took on once Seijuurou’s presence and mood were removed from it before he felt… something else. It was a real sensation, something happening to his actual body out there in the real world, not one of these things his head was supplying to add verisimilitude to the experience of manifesting via spiritual energy. As Sano realized exactly what it was, his eyes went wide and he felt a blush creeping over his face. Seijuurou was really unbelievable. With this knight here and everything!

But at least it worked. It wasn’t a sensation he could easily ignore, after all. The skeptical look the knight was giving him, as well as the knight himself and all lingering images from the memories they’d shared, were fading abruptly as Sano found himself racing toward consciousness again.

>5 Interlude

“You didn’t save his life. People don’t wake up from warrior’s comas.”

It wasn’t the kindest way to break to someone that he was dying, especially given that the statement hadn’t even been directed at him. Still, the manner of revelation didn’t make much difference, in the long run, to the dying man. It did say something, and not something particularly complimentary, about the speaker; at least he’d found him, though.

Seijuurou, to judge by the image manifested by his spiritual energy, seemed every bit as strong and effective as Kenshin believed, but Hajime wasn’t sure how much help he was actually going to be. At the very least, the man had little sympathy for Kenshin’s plight… or for Kenshin in general, it appeared. The king had always spoken of his former master fondly… and Hajime had always known that Kenshin was entirely too lenient with people he was attached to.

But the king had given an order — possibly his final order in that position, certainly his final order to Hajime — so the knight had obeyed. Obeyed to the point of suicide, which wasn’t an idea he balked at but also wasn’t something he’d anticipated. That type of loyalty to one’s king was perfectly appropriate, but he’d assumed either to see his death coming before it came and to prepare for it, or to die suddenly and unexpectedly. This was neither here nor there.

He’d never even heard of a “warrior’s coma” until Seijuurou explained it to him at needless length. Hajime had always known he had an exceptional level of control over his spiritual energy — there was a reason he’d become the chief of the king’s knights so quickly, after all — and his current state, apparently, was just further proof of that. How consoling Seijuurou expected it to be that Hajime’s strength of spirit had actually caused his current dilemma, Hajime wasn’t certain.

It was very much like being half-asleep, and aware that he was half-asleep: if he concentrated, he could ‘awaken.’ Unlike a typical awakening, however, this was merely a more complete awareness, not an actual change in circumstances. Still, as there was something vaguely, paradoxically agitating about the drifting state, that greater awareness was a definite improvement. And having someone else around, having something specific to concentrate on helped.

He wondered if concentrating would speed up or slow down his death. He also wondered when and if he would feel the answer to that question. At the moment he didn’t feel like he was dying, despite the pain (now relatively quiet with assimilation) that still throbbed at him from whatever connection he retained to his body. But simultaneously he couldn’t really sense the passage of time, so not only had he no concept of how long it had been since he’d collapsed on the forest road, he also couldn’t guess how swiftly or slowly he might be approaching the end of his energy. And when he reached that end… would he be snuffed out like a candle, or ebb like spilled water?

Seijuurou hadn’t mentioned quite a few details like that. Of course, Hajime didn’t know if, even in a spiritual state, he could have stomached any more of Seijuurou’s pompous details, pedantic and interspersed among pointlessly suggestive comments as they had been. Even that boy’s ignorant ranting would be better.

They’d both gone now, the boy running off to his village in a panic and Seijuurou ‘to try some things,’ so Hajime was alone again in this haze that felt like a dream but wasn’t.

Dreams… That was a topic he kept coming back to, despite the fact that his approaching demise really ought to have been more engrossing. But those dreams…

Exactly how much had come from his own subconscious and how much had been a product of the boy’s he didn’t know. Possibly because of Hajime’s disorientation, the boy’s influence had certainly been strong, especially at first — strong and sensory. Hajime could remember the smell of the inexplicably calm ocean water among the stepping stones, the chill claustrophobia of the spiral tower’s interior. He very rarely had dreams so rich in that sort of detail.

Only because of this comparison, in fact, was he now aware of just how surreal his own dreams usually were… a permeating sensibility or an understood concept to which any physical events portrayed were secondary. Normally what his body was feeling at this time would manifest itself almost preclusively in his dreams, so that if someone asked, “What did you dream about?” the answer would simply be, “Pain.”

Whereas, connected to that strange boy, it manifested rather as chains of blood growing from the wound and entwining him like hot, strangling vines. And the urgency that would normally, for him, have been simply an omnipresent mood, and that mood the core and substance of the dream, instead took physical shape… a straight hallway, a specific pillared lane to be followed, and forbidding darkness beyond the path’s boundaries.

Whether the fact that Hajime hadn’t technically been asleep made a difference, he didn’t know; what effect came of his attempts at talking to the boy, rather than just letting the dreams play out, he didn’t know. It was an entirely incomprehensible situation, from beginning to end, brought about by a strange and unanticipated link. He wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that sudden, uncanny intimacy with a complete stranger, but it certainly had been the most unusual experience he could remember.

Given that spiritual energy was turned entirely inward during sleep, he’d never heard of keonmasters — even the strongest, which the boy quite obviously wasn’t — communicating via dreams… Hajime’s current state was anomalous, of course, which could account for any number of things… but, he felt, still couldn’t explain the boy.

Well, really, for all the mysterious facets of the situation, the boy was unimportant, and irritating in any event. But the fact remained that the bizarreness of unexpectedly sharing dreams with someone hadn’t really improved Hajime’s mental condition, nor put him in an appropriate state of mind to learn that he wasn’t going to wake up again. And the continued agitation called up by the memory of it wasn’t doing much to help him accept his fate.

The truth was, he felt about as cheerless and helpless right now as he possibly could. And any such sensations always inevitably reminded him of the last time he’d felt so completely ineffectual and unhappy. But that, even as his end approached, he preferred not to recall. Dreams or death or a quest unfulfilled — anything was a better topic than that.

He wasn’t afraid of dying. Actually, his thoughts on the subject had always been something of a blank, and in this disjointed reality they were even less substantial. But dying like this, slowly, vaguely, alone… not to mention dying while his mission was incomplete… that wasn’t his ideal way to go.

Kenshin’s two-word order hadn’t conveyed much information: whether the king believed Seijuurou would be willing to assist in this matter; what he might be able to do if he did; or even whether Hajime was actually supposed to be finding him to help or for some entirely different purpose. Hajime had made the assumption he thought the most logical and acted upon it, and now feared that all his effort might have been for nothing. That his death might be for nothing.

For Seijuurou certainly didn’t seem overly eager to help. Given that what he did seem was entirely content to sit around on the same mountain he’d apparently occupied for the last twenty years teaching some inept orchard-hand how to have sensory dreams rather than meditate, and making licentious comments at dying knights, Hajime didn’t have much hope for spurring him into action on anyone’s behalf… least of all someone Seijuurou referred to as his ‘previous worthless student.’

And, given what Hajime had observed of the man’s personality beyond those facts, Seijuurou wasn’t really someone he would have chosen to have by his side as he died, either.

Well, if he had a choice, he wouldn’t die at all.

Still, since he had to, he couldn’t quite decide whether the idea of expiring alone in this inbetween place or without fulfilling the king’s last request was bothering him more. If only he could get through to someone else — anyone else — he might be able to convey a warning about the state of things in Elotica to someone that might be able to do something about it. The multiple mights in that statement might be worrisome… but it didn’t matter, since he couldn’t do it. He’d already tried.

Normally — conscious, that is — the method by which he used his spiritual energy to contact someone was to hone that energy through meditation and reach out toward the other person. It only worked if they were expecting it and in a similar meditative state; their energy would meet his, and conversation could ensue. Right now, however, rather than feeling the energy inside him like blood in his veins ready to be tapped, taken control of, and shaped to his will, he felt as if he were submerged in a sea of it — he could just as easily take the actual ocean in his hands as direct this ubiquitous force.

Seijuurou had been able to reach out to him easily enough, it seemed; but Hajime was simply and completely unable to do the same. Even if, by some impossible chance, there were someone (besides Seijuurou) in a meditative state to whose energy he might have been able to connect, it was a moot point as he couldn’t even reach out in the first place.

If he had been able to, that boy and his bizarre dreams would probably have blocked him anyway.

What was that boy — besides unfathomable and intractable? What qualified him as the student of a man that had trained one of the greatest warriors Hajime had ever met? Was Seijuurou just bored? Going senile, perhaps? Or was the training the privilege of a lover? Hajime had gotten that feeling from them, to a certain extent… but he’d also gotten the feeling that Seijuurou wasn’t exactly the righteously monogamous type. He couldn’t really bring himself to trust most of the impressions he’d formed since falling unconscious, however, and the matter wasn’t exactly consequential.

The impressions he did trust — his general concepts of Seijuurou and the boy — were bleak enough: that both of his new acquaintances would, very likely, prove useless. The former was a sophomoric grouch, the latter all emotion and little purpose or thought.

Still… it might have been weakness, or it might have been completely natural — he didn’t know; he’d never died before — despite the master’s self-important disparagement and the latest worthless student’s defiant stupidity… Hajime wished they would come back.

Chapter 6 – The Defense of Eloma

Sano didn’t think he’d ever made such good time between Seijuurou’s house and his own, but running nearly the entire way rendered him almost useless by the time he reached the village. This was fortuitous, as he was forced to slow down about when crossing the irrigation bridge into Eloma; he hadn’t been thinking very clearly most of the way over, and would probably have flung himself immediately, sword drawn, at anyone he didn’t recognize once he arrived, so being compelled to ease up for a few minutes and be rational was undoubtedly for the best.

He took the same back route he had last night, avoiding the center of town, toward his house, letting his lungs and various muscles stop burning as he proceeded a little more slowly and carefully. This path provided him no sight of outsiders or anything dangerous, but as he approached his home from behind, he heard quite clearly a dismaying crashing noise within.

From around in front someone said loudly, “There’s nobody here!”

Quietly Sano moved to the corner of his residence and peered out to where exactly what he’d feared was evidently going on. The angry speaker wore what he’d seen on the men in the memories: the white shiiya of a royal knight with the blue-green ocean wave symbol of Gontamei in the diamond on the chest. And the object of his ire was the father of one of Sano’s friends, a grey-bearded man that appeared, at the moment, rather distressed. Even as Sano watched, the Gontamei knight took the man by the front of his shiiya and pulled him roughly closer.

“Have you been lying to me, old man,” he demanded, “or are you just blind and stupid?”

“No, master,” replied Genji’s father a little unsteadily, struggling as the other pulled him off balance, “I saw him come home last night carrying someone on his back! It must have been who you’re looking for.”

“Well, they’re not here now. If someone here’s hiding them…” The knight gave Genji’s father a threatening shake.

“He may have left again when nobody was looking,” suggested the old man helplessly.

Abruptly, in a motion almost more a shove, the knight released the old man so the latter fell hard to the ground. Turning to someone Sano couldn’t see, he gestured widely and angrily. “They can’t have gone far if Hajime had to be carried. Search every house! Search the orchards! And be thorough about it!”

Judging by the crash he’d heard as he’d approached, this last command implied free destruction throughout the village. And since the person they sought definitely wasn’t here, it probably wouldn’t end after only a few houses.

Genji’s father must also have realized this, for from his seat on the ground he said, hasty and desperate, “Please, master, I swear we don’t know where they are! The boy comes and goes on his own–”

But Sano had a better way of keeping the false knights from doing any more damage — at least to the property of those uninvolved. Stepping forward, drawing his sword, he interrupted the old man loudly, “Fucking right I do.”

The knight that had been giving the orders whirled to face him. He reached for his sword, but never managed to pull it more than a few inches free of its sheath. Sano’s energy blade, full and bright now with the strength of his rage, cut a long red line into the man’s arm, and Sano had brought the thick, round pommel down on the man’s head and knocked him senseless before the knight could even raise his other hand to clutch at the new wound.

Eager for another target, he turned, but what he saw made him pause even in his anger. Previously hidden from his view by the house, perhaps ten more men in Gontamei royal knights’ shiiyao were gathering slowly into a tighter group from where they’d probably been dispersing to follow orders. They all stared at him, evidently surprised by how quickly and easily he’d taken care of their leader.

On seeing just how many of them there were, Sano’s immediate reflection was, Seriously, how important is this Hajime guy? He didn’t really have time to think about it, however, since the men were drawing their weapons and eyeing him darkly. Instead, determined to make the first move, he pressed forward, sword flashing.

On the rare occasion when not annoyed with Seijuurou, Sano was willing to admit he hadn’t learned nothing from the man. True, he was still about as far from keonmastery as he had been before meeting Seijuurou, but his general swordsmanship skills had increased quite a bit. And if this hadn’t been the case, he would have gone down almost immediately in this situation.

Of course, ten on one was still pretty bad. Seijuurou could have taken them with no problem, but Sano found himself slowly forced into retreat, and would soon have his back to the wall of his own house, or possibly worse. Probably worse. In fact, worse was definitely about to come to worst in the form of one of the Gontamei knights charging Sano with sword raised while Sano was busy blocking a strike from another.

This attack, however, was turned away by the haft of an axe placed fortuitously in its path by Genji, who joined the fight at just this moment. Almost simultaneously, in the corner of his opposite eye, Sano noted the appearance of his other friend Tomo with what looked like the pole of a long lopper — which didn’t seem like a very comfortable thing to have slammed into the side of your head, if the way one of the false knights went down was any indication.

Sano kicked out at his primary opponent and sent him staggering back, then took a step backward himself to stand more firmly between his two friends. They had a momentary breather as the knights regrouped, glaring at him and his newly-arrived allies, and Genji leaned toward Sano a bit (rather than actually turning his direction), and demanded, “Sano, what the hell is going on? I swear to Yumi, if this is your fault…”

“I have practically nothing to do with this!” Sano protested.

“‘Practically?'” echoed Tomo.

Clutching at his sword with one hand and a cut in his shoulder with the other, one of the knights called out, “You country boys need to mind your own business!”

“Anyone else notice these guys are assholes?” Tomo said conversationally.

I noticed when they threw my dad on the ground,” replied Genji.

“Yeah, apparently their boss usurped the king or some shit,” said Sano.

“Guess it’s really not your fault, then,” Tomo allowed, backing up against Sano as the knights began closing in again.

“That explains the shiiyao,” Genji remarked, doing much the same.

The fighting resumed, and was even more chaotic than before now the numbers had changed. However, neither Genji nor Tomo was terribly proficient in combat, and when their weapons were designed to cut wood and prune trees they simply couldn’t hold out. Even Sano’s keonblade would fail here eventually, as soon as the anger settled a bit. He experienced a fresh burst of this emotion at seeing both of his friends fall — not dead, he thought, and hopefully not even too badly injured, but very distinctly defeated — but that circumstance also freed up more of the knights to attack him. He couldn’t last much longer.

And that was when he caught sight of a nearby figure bending slowly to retrieve from the grass the weapon of one of the fallen knights. Sano lost track of the battle for half an instant of intense surprise, and was lucky he didn’t die right then.

It was Yahiko.

With a pensive frown, the boy straightened, holding a sword almost as long as he was tall. He seemed to be muttering something to himself. Then, in a movement so fast Sano barely even saw it, he darted forward, lifting the weapon. There came a rushing like heavy wind, a great deal of motion, startled and pained cries all around, and then it was over as quickly as it had begun.

What had taken only a few moments to accomplish took at least twice as long for Sano’s brain to assimilate. He felt his arm drop limp, pointing his sword at the ground. The latter was strewn with what had been his opponents, most of them now in various states of bleeding pain or unconsciousness. Just before him, almost at his feet, one of them sat staring at the ruined remains of his shattered sword, while beside him another lay unmoving. As Sano looked haltingly around, he saw the man whose swordtip had been at Genji’s throat clutching now at a long cut across his chest, and the one that had been keeping Tomo at bay not only weaponless but in fact without a hand — the appendage, still uselessly holding the hilt of a sword, lay on the ground behind him.

Sano turned again to stare at Yahiko, who returned the gaze with a sad, determined look while his sword dripped blood onto the grass.

“Yahiko?” Sano faltered at last.

Yahiko nodded slowly. “What’s going on?”

Baffled, Sano shook his head, trying and failing to get a better mental grasp of the situation. “No,” he finally managed, “what’s going on with you? How the fuck did you just do that?”

With a frown, Yahiko drove the red point of the sword he held into the dirt, perhaps as an excuse to break eye contact with Sano, and released the weapon. “We should make sure your friends are all right,” he said evasively.

Sano couldn’t decide whether he was more afflicted by annoyance at not having his question answered or the amazement at what he had just witnessed. So for the moment he simply did as Yahiko suggested; resheathing his sword, he walked over to Genji. The knights he passed did nothing to stop him; some of them were getting slowly to their feet, and amid the groans of pain from those that were wounded, a muttering had begun.

“You all right?” Sano asked as he reached down to help his friend.

“Nothing a little explanation won’t fix,” Genji replied, accepting the hand up.

His father had approached, doubtless to see that Genji was all right, and now said to Sano, “It was you I saw last night, wasn’t it?”

Sano tried not to look guilty.

“Fuck, Sano,” said Tomo as he also drew near, “this is your fault?”

Three distinct groups were beginning to form of the various people involved in or watching the fight: first, Sano, Yahiko, Tomo, Genji and his father, and a couple of other villagers that had been nearby, clustered together to discuss the matter; second, the knights, gathering into a little knot to give what treatment they could to the worst wounded and decide what to do next; lastly, what looked like the entire remainder of the village, which had undoubtedly been so permeated by the sounds of clashing steel and shouting as to leave nobody peacefully ignorant.

“Look,” Sano began in response to Tomo’s comment, “there’s some kind of bullshit going on in Elotica.”

“Those guys don’t look too happy,” Genji’s father remarked uneasily, eyeing the huddled knights.

Sano also threw a glance in that direction, and thought he caught the words ‘demon child’ from one of the strangers.

Genji, who’d evidently also heard it, asked, “Who the hell is this kid?”

“I’m–” Yahiko began, but Sano interrupted him impatiently, still wanting to explain himself:

“Listen, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I guess the king’s been overthrown, and these are the new guy’s men. If he’s anything like them, we’re all in for some rough times.”

Tomo made a gesture of helpless exasperation. “You know, honestly, Sano, I don’t care what’s going on in Elotica. What the hell are we supposed to do now? We’ve got a whole bunch of knights or something here that we’ve managed to piss off, and–”

“I don’t know, all right?” Sano broke in, stung. “I told you I don’t really get what’s going on; I just came rushing back here because I thought there might be someone here making trouble and you guys might need a hand.”

“And started a completely unnecessary fight,” said Genji’s father severely.

Sano turned his wrath on the man. “Uh, maybe you forgot, but that guy was right in the middle of pushing you around when I showed up. Oh, yeah, and you were right in the middle of selling me out.”

“Hey–” said Yahiko.

“I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted!” the old man protested, scowling.

“Oh, so you just figured it’d be fine to send them to my house.”

“They’re looking for someone else… some royal knight… I thought they would just ask you the same things they asked me.” Genji’s father really didn’t seem to think he’d been in the wrong.

“Sano–” said Yahiko.

“And what if I was really hiding the guy, huh?” Sano took an irate step toward the old man, fists clenched. “Did you think of what they might do then?”

Here Genji jumped to his father’s defense. “Ladies, Sano, cut it out. He didn’t mean you any harm.” One of his own fists was clenched as he threw out an arm to stop Sano’s forward progress.

“Not much good, either,” Sano growled at him. “Nobody cares what happens to the town heretic, do they?” This accusation, admittedly rather unfair, caused the others all to speak at once:

Genji’s father said hotly, “That had nothing to do with it. You know we’ve never cared about that.”

Tomo groaned, “Oh, seas, Sano, don’t drag that into it.”

And Genji said, “You can’t blame him for trying to get guys like that off his back. It had nothing to do with you personally!”

Sano was drawing breath for another angry retort, when suddenly Yahiko said, “Hey!!” in a tone so loud and carrying that everyone in the group looked down at him, startled. He appeared anxious and unhappy, and glanced around with that same skittishness Sano had observed in him when they’d first met. He said, “Sano, I think you and I should leave here right now.”

Surprised, Sano said, “What? Why?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” murmured Genji’s father.

“Because,” said Yahiko firmly, “those guys are going to want to start fighting again pretty soon, and I really don’t want to have to kill anyone.” He gestured over at the knights, still grouped tightly a few yards off. “Besides, they’re after somebody you’ve got hidden somewhere else, right?”

Sano’s brows rose in continued surprise. “You pick up shit pretty fast.”

“They’ll leave the town alone once they know he’s not here, won’t they?” Yahiko prompted.

Sano turned toward the Gontamei knights, who were throwing dark glances over their shoulders at everyone else — especially at Yahiko — and still evidently discussing what to do next. The other villagers, none of them appearing terribly happy with what had happened here today, were doing the same. Sano thought very little of the way they looked at him in particular. He realized suddenly that if the rest of Eloma felt the way Tomo did — that Sano had just helped to make them the enemies of a group of royal knights or whatever they were from the capital — none of them were likely to feel very sympathetic toward him at the moment.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he finally said somewhat reluctantly. He turned back to his friends. “Sorry about the trouble, guys.”

They all stared at him, uncertain and unhappy. After a long, hesitant moment, Genji’s father cleared his throat and said, “It’s probably best if you don’t come back.”

“Somehow I figured you’d say that,” Sano muttered. Despite this having been the case, actually hearing the words seemed to drop a cold weight onto his heart that he didn’t know when or if he would be able to shake off. After so many years, even relatively happy years, in this town, after everything that had happened to him here, he must say goodbye to Eloma.

He turned abruptly and began to walk away.

“Sano…” said Genji sadly behind him.

“Sano–” said Tomo, almost desperately.

Sano didn’t look back. Yahiko had joined him, and together they moved away from the now-nearly-silent people of the village. Nobody else called after him, and his friends had nothing else to say.

At the point in his path closest to the huddled knights, Sano stopped briefly. Without looking over at them, he announced loudly, “You guys are looking for that knight Hajiwhatever, right? Well, he’s not here. Follow us if you want to die.” At the moment these words were not just bravado; Sano was so angry, he was absolutely certain of his own powers at least to make these men sorry they’d ever laid eyes on him — and that was before taking into account Yahiko’s presence. Still, as the purpose of the statement was to draw the knights away from the village, he corrected himself. “I mean, if you want to find him.”

Then he and Yahiko continued wordlessly away from Sano’s house and out of town.

Chapter 7 – Alleged Miracles

In an attempt at distracting himself from just having been essentially banished from his home of nearly a decade, and in light of the fact that the knights didn’t follow them out of the town, Sano turned his entire attention on Yahiko as they walked up the mountain road. The boy, however, seemed disinclined for conversation and wouldn’t answer any of Sano’s questions. So Sano was even more frustrated than before by the time they reached his master’s home.

Seijuurou waited in the second room beside the bed, drinking, and looked over immediately when Sano entered with Yahiko in tow. His eyes fell from Sano’s unhappy face to Yahiko’s, and his brows rose. “Oh, was this all you could save?” he asked.

“Yeah, very funny,” Sano growled, closing the door behind them. “This is Yahiko; he helped me fight off some guards or knights or something that trashed my house and were threatening to do more if somebody didn’t tell them where me and that knight were.”

“Well, you need to get ‘that knight’ out of here,” Seijuurou said, gesturing with his bottle before raising it to his lips again. “He’s no good in my bed in his current state,” he added before taking another drink.

“Yeah, sure,” said Sano vaguely. “First, though, Yahiko keeps avoiding my questions.” He turned toward the boy, sank into a crouch, and put his hands on Yahiko’s shoulders. “Yahiko, seriously, how in Tomoe’s name can you fight like that?”

Yahiko avoided his gaze, staring instead at the door through which they’d just come. “I told you I learned from my dad,” he mumbled.

“Not that you didn’t,” insisted Sano. “Not at your age. I never saw anyone fight like that. I bet you could even beat Seijuurou here.”

At this Seijuurou looked quickly over, his true attention finally procured. “What was that?”

Sano rolled his eyes, though this was about what he’d expected. “Yeah, now you’re interested. You shoulda seen him.” He stood, addressing his next few earnest statements to Seijuurou, who’d gotten to his feet, set down his bottle, and come into the front room. “It was fucking amazing. He beat something like ten guys in maybe five seconds. I swear I’m not exaggerating.”

Seijuurou looked down at Yahiko for a long moment, and finally said simply, “Well?” And while Yahiko might have resisted Sano’s questioning, it took some serious backbone to stand before the mountainous bulk of keonmaster Seijuurou and be anything but totally honest.

“…Kaoru…” Yahiko said almost inaudibly.

“Speak up,” Seijuurou urged. “What about Kaoru?” His tone indicated unequivocally that the kid had better not be swearing randomly.

Finally Yahiko’s face rose, and he met Seijuurou’s eyes with that suddenly defiant manner Sano had seen him display once or twice before. “I prayed for power to fight and I got it,” he said clearly.

Violently Sano started. “I thought you said you’re a heretic!” he burst out before Seijuurou could say anything.

Yahiko glanced at him sidelong. “I lied.”

“And I think you’re still lying,” said Seijuurou, crossing his arms and continuing to look down critically from his great height on Yahiko. “Or at least not telling the whole truth.”

“The divine ladies talk to me,” Yahiko replied, a little wearily.

“The divine ladies talk to anyone who’ll listen, child,” was Seijuurou’s impatient reply.

His defiance returning, Yahiko elaborated, “I mean they all talk to me. I can pray to any of them and get whatever blessings I need, as much as I need.”

“That’s quite a claim.”

Sano snorted. “No shit.” And he stalked into the other room.

After the day he’d had, this latest revelation was more of a blow than it might otherwise have been, but in no case would he have liked it. He’d felt so sympathetic toward Yahiko; he’d compared him to his dead brother, for Yumi’s sake! And now to discover Yahiko was the exact opposite of what he had claimed to be… of what Sano was… Well, no wonder he hadn’t stuck around last week.

Seijuurou’s admonishing voice spoke to him from the doorway between the two rooms: “Don’t be petty. Didn’t he help you?”

“Whatever,” Sano growled.

A long period of quiet followed, and Sano got the feeling both Seijuurou and Yahiko were looking at him, waiting for him to turn and face them. He didn’t feel like it, though; instead, he let his eyes fall to the unconscious knight on the bed. The man’s form remained perfectly still but for the very slight movement of his chest occasioned by his shallow breathing, and his face bore an expression of pain.

Sano stared down at him while the silence mounted, thinking vaguely about Eloma and how he could never go back there. Finally, these disheartening thoughts becoming just a little too much for him, he forced himself to say something aloud to change the subject. “So what do we do with His Knightliness here?” It came out sounding almost angry, which was really no surprise.

“Hajime,” Seijuurou informed him, coming to stand beside the bed again and look down. “Apparently he’s the leader of Kenshin’s knights.”

“Right, whatever,” Sano grunted. “What do we do with him?”

“‘We?'” Seijuurou raised a brow. “He’s your problem. But I plan on sleeping in this bed tonight.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do with him?” demanded Sano impatiently.

“I’ve never heard of someone waking up from a warrior’s coma,” Seijuurou remarked, rubbing at his chin contemplatively with one hand. “Though nobody in a warrior’s coma prior to this has ever had me around…”

“Yeah, maybe he just needs your cock,” Sano muttered, rolling his eyes.

Seijuurou smirked faintly. “Maybe he does.”

Again they fell silent, staring down, Sano considering the situation morosely while Seijuurou resumed drinking. However unpleasant it was to be banished, Sano was reflecting, it beat having your life slowly ebb away in a state somewhere between waking and death that yet was not sleep.

“Is he really just gonna die?” he finally asked quietly.

“If he can’t wake up, he’ll starve to death, or worse,” was the grim reply. “You might as well get a pyre ready. Unconsciousness seems to be an unusually stable way for you to connect your energy with his, so, if you want, I can knock you out again and you can find out if he has any last words.”

“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do… we can’t just stand around waiting for him to die…” It seemed such a sorry way to go. Sano didn’t much like what he’d seen of the knight so far, but the man surely deserved better than that.

“You could just burn him now,” Seijuurou suggested with dry facetiousness. “That would be faster.”

“It’s not funny!” said Sano hotly. “He came all the way out here to find you, and now you can’t do anything for him?”

Seijuurou shook his head. “I can’t. It’s unfortunate, but every great once in a while even I encounter something that can’t be defeated. While you were gone I tried everything I could think of to wake him up, and nothing worked. It would probably be kindest to end it quickly for him.” He lifted the bottle to his mouth again as he added, “But not in my bed.”

“I can’t accept that!” Sano insisted. Because he would be damned if he couldn’t get something to go his way today.

“You’ll have to,” Seijuurou said once he’d lowered his angiruou. “Stubbornness won’t wake him up. It was his choice to push himself beyond what his body could handle out of loyalty to that foolish king of his; now he’s paying for it.”

“But–” Sano began. He stopped abruptly, however, when Yahiko moved forward.

The kid’s voice was hesitant as he said, “Hey…” but it was enough to seize Seijuurou’s attention as well. He looked up at them nervously, then took another step between them, toward the bed.

Wordlessly and with mirrored expressions of surprise, the two men stood back a pace as Yahiko moved forward and reached out to place an uncertain hand on the knight’s bare chest. The boy did not look at them again, so he didn’t see Sano’s disparaging skepticism or Seijuurou’s interested curiosity; instead, he closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly.

“Megumi, lady of life,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, “please use my hand to heal this man and wake him up.” Then he went silent and motionless.

Hajime opened his eyes. His face smoothed out somewhat from its previous expression of pain, but only for a moment; then his brows drew together again in confusion. He lifted a hand to touch his side where the injury had been, then ran one arm slowly over the other, along smooth skin that had mere seconds before been covered in small cuts. Finally he sat up.

Yahiko had by this time stepped back a few paces, putting himself behind Sano and Seijuurou, and would not meet Sano’s eye. Seijuurou, on the other hand, had drawn a step closer and was again fingering his chin thoughtfully, this time with a slight smile. “Well, well, well…”

Hajime looked at each of them in turn, then spoke. “How…” But he faltered in amazement after that single word.

Sano gestured. “Yahiko here healed you with his magic powers.”

Slowly Hajime swung his legs over the edge of the bed, taking a deep breath, and looked where Sano indicated.

“It’s not magic!” Yahiko was protesting. “I told you–”

“Right,” interrupted Sano a little bitterly. “Just like you beating a whole group of knights almost by yourself wasn’t magic either. The divine ladies all talk to you and give you whatever the fuck you want.”

Appearing hurt and agitated, Yahiko turned abruptly and went into the other room. Hajime watched him go, then gave his attention again to his own chest and side. He began untying the frayed strips of cloth that had served him up until now as bandages. Sano watched in silent wonder, noting not even a trace of blood on these.

Finally Hajime glanced up once more, this time at Sano. “You did this?” he asked.

“Yeah. You kinda collapsed in the forest, and I didn’t have anything else.” More quietly and mostly to himself Sano added, “That reminds me I left my backpack buried out there somewhere…”

Hajime finished removing the bandages and bunched them in his hand, staring down at them with a slight frown. To Sano it was understandable that, having gone from the edge of death to what seemed like perfect health in a moment, the knight would be somewhat disoriented.

Seijuurou did not seem nearly so understanding. “So, are you staying in my bed all night?”

Sano gave his master a look part skeptical and part angry. “Fucking Yumi, man, he’s been awake all of half a minute! He probably can’t even get up yet.”

But all Hajime said was, “No,” possibly contradicting both of them, as he then got up. He moved slowly at first, perhaps uncertain of his balance, but soon was walking purposefully out of the room.

“Thank you for healing me,” Sano heard him say to Yahiko.

During the silence that followed, Sano too made his way into the next room, where he saw Yahiko touching the front door as if he was, or had been, about to leave. Even as Sano appeared, though, the kid dropped his hand and turned to face Hajime. “You’re welcome,” he said quietly, with a faint smile.

A little stung, Sano demanded of the knight, “What, I don’t get a ‘thank you’ for bandaging you up and dragging your ass all over the place?”

Hajime turned toward him, but, though his yellow eyes flashed analytically over Sano from head to toe, he said nothing in response. Instead, he looked past Sano to where Seijuurou stood in the doorway between the two rooms. “And now, master Seijuurou,” he began somewhat acridly, “if you don’t mind having me in your house a little longer–”

“You misunderstood my question if you thought I minded,” interrupted Seijuurou easily.

Sano rolled his eyes.

“–I need to make plans for getting back to Elotica,” Hajime finished. And, after a quick glance around the room, he moved toward the table and pulled out a chair.

Sano mimicked him, seating himself near the knight and studying him with interest. Despite having been healed, Hajime still looked exhausted; Sano supposed the whole coma thing hadn’t been anything like a proper rest, which essentially meant Hajime hadn’t slept in, what? four days?

“So you’re just gonna head back right away?” he asked.

Hajime shook his head. “Not into Elotica immediately, no. I can’t just walk back into the capital; I’m too well known there.”

“At the palace and shit, sure,” Sano allowed, “but would normal people on the street recognize you?”

Drumming his fingers briefly on the tabletop, Hajime gave a sigh of annoyance. “Probably, since the king’s tournament a few months ago.”

“Tournament…” Seijuurou snorted in quiet contempt.

“Oh, I remember hearing about that,” Sano said in great interest. “I thought about going over there and joining, even, but…” Well, the truth was that he’d daydreamed of entering with a keonblade, but had known perfectly well he wasn’t up to the task. “I didn’t feel like walking that far,” he finished somewhat weakly.

“You?” Both of Hajime’s brows rose in obvious doubt.

“Hey, I’da done great!” Sano said hotly, in spite of what he’d just been recalling about the situation.

“Yes, I’m sure,” said Hajime flatly, and moved on before Sano could protest further. “Anyway, I’ll need to find out exactly how things stand before I know what to do next.”

Distracted from his annoyance, Sano wondered, “What’s to find out?”

“Soujirou is a follower, not a leader. He has provided good service to the king in the past, and is an excellent swordsman, but I don’t think this is the kind of thing he could or would do on his own. Someone is standing behind him giving orders, or at least suggestions, and that’s going to be my real enemy.”

“Any ideas who it is?”

“Several. Which is what I need to investigate.”

By this time Sano had made up his mind, and now stated it decisively. “Well, I’ll come with you.”

Hajime’s brows shot up again, this time more honestly disbelieving than derisive.

“No need to look like that about it, asshole.” Sano scowled at him. “I didn’t fight in your stupid tournament, so nobody knows me in the capital. I can get information a lot easier than you can.” Besides, it wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go, now…

Again Hajime’s tone went entirely flat as he declared, “I am not taking you anywhere.”

“He might as well go with you,” Seijuurou put in unexpectedly. “I’m certainly not.”

Turning quickly toward him, Hajime asked, “Why not?”

Disinterestedly Seijuurou explained. “For Kenshin to run off and deliberately ignore my advice is his own business, but he cannot expect me to come to his rescue every time what I told him not to do gets him into trouble.”

“And what was it you told him not to do?”

“Rule the country, of course. He isn’t right for it. He’s too soft, too easily influenced by the appearance of suffering — but at the same time has an unfortunate tendency to believe that every idea in his head is his own and absolutely right. It’s a bad combination for a king.”

Thin lips pursed, Hajime looked at the table, appearing very displeased but evidently unable to argue. The question of who Seijuurou believed should rule Akomera went unasked, probably because of the knight’s discomfort.

“I see you’re aware of his flaws,” said Seijuurou with a sharp nod. He leaned against the doorframe again and crossed his arms. “Well, do what you like to put him back on the throne; that’s your job, after all. But I see no reason to rush to his assistance.”

“You would disobey a direct order from the king, then?” Hajime seemed somewhat irritated, but simultaneously closer to resigned than Sano would have expected.

“My authority over him predates his over me,” Seijuurou shrugged. “Besides, he hasn’t ordered me to do anything. All he did was tell you to find me.”

I’ll help you,” Sano put in emphatically. “That Soujirou guy has it coming for what his men did in Eloma!”

Hajime looked at him, this time with less scorn and more straightforward appraisal. “What did they do?”

“They were pushing people around and threatening to destroy shit if they didn’t tell where I was — since they knew I’d hidden you somewhere — and now I’m kinda… kicked out… because of it…” The weighty awareness of that fact, which he’d successfully pushed from his mind in the light of other interesting topics, came abruptly and heavily back down onto him, and he found himself frowning more deeply than before.

“Predictable…” Seijuurou murmured.

“Anyway…” Sano struggled to pull himself together and finish what he had to say. “Yahiko and I had to fight ’em off.” He gestured again to the kid, who had at some point during this discussion drifted over to the corner formed by the fireplace and wall, seated himself in silence, and commenced listening.

Hajime glanced dubiously from Sano to Yahiko and back, and asked, “And how much good do you think you’ll do me — a boy in training who can’t even meditate and needs help from a kid to defend his hometown?”

“Who gives a fuck about meditation?” Slamming a fist down on the table, Sano insisted, “I can fight well enough! I woulda done fine without Yahiko even!”

“You would not,” said Yahiko quietly.

Sano jumped up, knocking the chair over in his haste, and drew his sword. The blade flashed out, translucent, bright, and long, as he glared at the knight across from him.

“You know what will happen if you damage my furniture,” was Seijuurou’s warning murmur from across the room.

But Hajime rolled his eyes. “Put that away; you’re not proving anything.” And as if to show just how little he cared for Sano’s wordless challenge, he stood, turning away from him, and moved toward Yahiko. “But you…”

The kid looked up at him wordlessly.

“I’m curious about this power of yours,” Hajime went on. “What exactly can you do?”

A little uncomfortably, Yahiko answered, “I dunno… whatever… I ask the ladies for whatever I need…”

“Show me,” commanded Hajime.

Yahiko appeared even more uncomfortable at this, and nestled back farther into his corner. “It… doesn’t really work that way,” he said. “I can’t do it just to show off.”

“I see,” said Hajime thoughtfully.

Sano broke in, impatient and somewhat irritated that his drawn weapon had been so coolly ignored. “He already healed you from some coma you weren’t supposed to wake up from. Isn’t that enough?”

Yahiko turned toward him an expression half defiant and half surprised. “You say that like you believe me or something.” He sounded faintly surly.

“Well, you obviously have some kind of power,” Sano allowed. “I never saw anybody kick ass like you did; no way can I not believe in that.”

Hajime nodded decisively. “Which is why he’s coming with me.”

“What??” This surprised outcry came from Sano and Yahiko both.

“I’m sure there’s at least one divine house involved in this,” Hajime explained, returning wearily to his chair. “Soujirou has been close to several of the high-level devoted for years. And if I know anything about the people of this kingdom, and Elotica in particular, neither side of this struggle will get much support from the population until somebody has told them what to think. Which means, sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming Soujirou’s claim to the throne in order to buy the loyalty of the flock.” He glanced at Yahiko again. “Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

“I just told you it doesn’t work like that!” Yahiko protested. “I’m not a circus act!”

Hajime’s eyes were very serious as they narrowed slightly at the kid. “There’s a real need for your power here,” he said slowly. “Are you going to run away from that?”

Yahiko frowned, and didn’t seem to know what to say.

“He’s right, you know, boy.” It was the first time Seijuurou had spoken for a while, and his tone was as somber as Hajime’s. “You may have been brought here just now for a purpose.”

“Purpose…” Sano put in under his breath. “Not your cock, I hope…”

Hajime threw him a somewhat confused sidelong glance, but said nothing.

“I’ll… think about it…” Yahiko finally answered, staring down at his crossed legs in apparent agitation.

“Think quickly,” Hajime said imperiously. “I’m leaving soon.”

“And I’m coming with you,” Sano declared.

Yet again Hajime gave him an assessing look that seemed more than half scornful. Sano scowled defiantly back. Finally Hajime’s gaze flicked away from him in a movement that was almost a roll of eyes, but all he said was, “Fine.”

In some triumph and some irritation, Sano also looked away, and found Seijuurou staring at him with what seemed to be mild interest. Staring, more precisely, at the sword Sano still held. And with a start Sano realized why: somehow, even through the parts of the conversation that hadn’t angered him, Sano had managed to keep the energy blade firmly in place. Was it because of all the fighting he’d done earlier? There really was no way to tell. In any case, he didn’t need it at the moment, so he put it away.

At that motion, Seijuurou stood straight and sighed somewhat theatrically. “I suppose this means you’ll all be sleeping in my house tonight.”

>7 Interlude

Slowly opening the bottle in his hand, Seijuurou watched the tiny points of light brighten in the deepening blue-black beyond the edge of the roof. The space between the latter and the tops of the trees that hemmed his property was narrow, but what he could see was as satisfying as if the entire sky were open to his view. Parts of some constellations were already visible, and only becoming sharper.

After settling where and how his guests were to sleep, he’d come out for some quiet thought to his usual spot before the light had entirely faded; now he sat on the bench among the shelves in near-complete darkness. Early autumn evenings were always pleasantly warm, especially in this fine weather, even in the shadows, and it might be a while before he went back inside; but, then, it might have been a while before he went back inside even if it had been dead winter or a rainstorm. His clarity of thought was not dependent on any particular circumstance, but there was no shame in wanting to enjoy his angiruou in peace.

And the stars reminded him…

There were some things that just didn’t change — not in twenty-three years, nor, he thought, forever. Fortunately, one of those was the taste of alcohol and its effect on melancholy memories. He smiled faintly as he took and savored a long drink, tracing nonexistent lines between the stars just as he had back then, and remembering the remarks that had been made at that point.

Unfortunately, the remarks that had been made this evening were more present and of greater concern to him at the moment, less interesting though they were. Kenshin was in trouble again, and Seijuurou couldn’t help feeling a sort of vaguely paternal interest in Kenshin’s welfare. He’d given the king the warnings he had, back when they’d parted after nearly seven years of training, to guard against just such a circumstance. Kenshin, however, had too high an opinion of his own mental and moral resources to think much of the advice of others. Admittedly he always meant well… he just didn’t always choose well.

Such a man could do nothing better, if he was indeed bent on trying to rule a country, than to surround himself with equally well-meaning but more clear-headed people whose influence, if not overt, would still be significant. He could undoubtedly have benefited from Seijuurou’s presence in the capital long before this… but Seijuurou did not fancy living in Elotica and dealing with people in Elotica and being constantly reminded of his younger days in Elotica. And as for uprooting at a moment’s notice to run off to Elotica and rescue Kenshin from what might after all turn out to be a very transient threat…

That single-minded knight seemed effective enough for the purpose, at any rate, and, if Sano’s assessment of the little boy’s power was accurate, the child would be helpful too. As for Sano himself… Well, Sano was fairly good at filling Seijuurou’s shopping list every week… and at sex… and presumably at picking apples and oranges and whatnot… but at keonmastery he was still a near-complete failure, almost in proportion to his desire not to be. And then there was his propensity to champion unpopular attitudes as brazenly as possible…

Until he got over his heretic phase, Sano was likely to find most people even more ready than the inhabitants of Eloma to ostracize him or worse, because the general populace wasn’t capable of leaving well enough alone and allowing someone to believe stupid things in peace. Of course, there were multiple sides to every issue; if Seijuurou knew Sano at all, the latter had gone charging into that town attacking the guards without any strategy or even thought, giving the villagers little choice but to turn him out or appear antagonistic toward the new regime… the whole thing was undoubtedly a mess.

Still, a mess didn’t seem a good enough reason to hasten from home. Indeed, the result of Sano’s poor planning (and, hypothetical though his theory was, Seijuurou didn’t doubt that was what had taken place) was an even greater recommendation for rational forethought.

Just then Seijuurou looked around, broken from his thoughts. What sounded like a party of horsemen was approaching up the road. He couldn’t see them yet, but the noise of hooves and tack and muted voices was already audible. With the educated guess that this must be the guards defeated by the little boy earlier, he sat back, continuing to sip at his liquor, and waited calmly.

The glow of a lantern through the trees was the first visible sign of their approach, and eventually its light broke onto the clearing in which Seijuurou’s house stood and showed select details of the group behind the man that held it. The usurper, Seijuurou noted, had at least managed to get his followers looking like real knights; in the swaying light, their white-clad torsos seemed to float disembodied over their black trousers and boots, and the symbol of Gontamei was green on each chest. He wondered whether that prince had actually knighted them all or simply dressed them up for the occasion.

They’d certainly taken their time finding the place; Sano had come back from the village hours ago, and he’d been on foot. Given the bandages most of these men were wearing, they’d evidently had concerns other than following immediately, but still Seijuurou couldn’t think they took their mission terribly seriously. Though perhaps the supposed miracle had genuinely frightened them.

Two could ride abreast on the narrower way up the mountain from the crossroads, and now only the first couple of pairs filed off the road onto Seijuurou’s property before they all reined up. Seijuurou could sense, however, that there were ten or more of them all told, and wondered for the first time just how important this Hajime knight was (or was thought to be) down at the palace.

The newcomers looked around at the house, the kiln, and at Seijuurou himself in a mixture of anger and wariness. It was a mark of some sort of decent training that they saw him at all in the darkness under the roof, but his general impression of their abilities wasn’t terribly favorable. Finally one — in the forefront, but not the man with the lantern — rode forward a pace and addressed Seijuurou without dismounting: “Good evening, master!” His tone, however, was not nearly as polite as his words.

“Evening,” Seijuurou replied.

The man didn’t waste time. “We’re looking for some people. Have you seen either a royal knight in the Barenor’mei dress or a young man in red with brown hair?”

“They’re both inside,” Seijuurou confirmed with a gesture.

Either the frankness of the answer startled the stranger, or the latter hadn’t really been expecting to find what they were looking for here. It seemed to take him a moment of blank staring, after his initial start, to grasp the meaning of what Seijuurou had said. Then he dismounted, gesturing at the lantern-bearer beside him, and moved forward, hand on hilt.

“You haven’t had enough fighting today?” wondered Seijuurou mildly. “With that injury to your sword-arm, I doubt you can hold your weapon up for very long.”

Looking sourly at him, “That’s beside the point,” the leader said. It seemed evident he would much rather reply that, yes, they had — and possibly that, no, he couldn’t. “They’re wanted criminals, and we have a duty to do.”

“How patriotic of you,” Seijuurou replied, stoppering his bottle and setting it down beside him on the bench. “Our new king must be a generous man. But, no–” and here, leisurely, he finally stood– “I meant, haven’t the eleven of you had enough of getting beaten within an inch of your lives by a single person today?” And in a movement very much like a stretch, he took one of the swords that hung from hooks on the wall and slowly drew it.

The group shifted, clearly nervous. Ordinarily such a seemingly foolhardy challenge would be met with skepticism at the very least; that here it was not seemed to confirm Sano’s story about the fight in the village. Finally the leader asked in a tellingly shrill attempt at bravado, “Are you in league with that demon child?”

“I don’t know any demon child,” Seijuurou replied, “but I have heard about your defeat earlier. It’s going to be embarrassing enough, I think, reporting that to that king of yours; a second defeat in the same day may mean the end of your careers. But that’s up to you, of course.” He raised his sword slightly into the earliest suggestion of a combative position, his overall demeanor still relatively casual.

The guards shifted further, looking indecisively at each other in the uneasy lantern-light.

Not long after, Seijuurou was again seated on his bench, alone, sipping angiruou and watching the stars. No, he really couldn’t take this great threat to the kingdom terribly seriously.

Chapter 8 – Departure

The high walls were built of orangewood, and a citrusy scent hung in the air as Sano and Hajime made their way down the short corridors and around the many corners of the maze. By now Sano hadn’t the faintest idea where they were, or how far they might be from the exit, but they had to keep going; they had to get through this.

He was fairly certain others had done so, as a faint murmuring of voices came from somewhere… Sano couldn’t quite tell if it was far or near, and the direction in which it lay was equally ambiguous, since it seemed somehow just around the corner no matter how far or which way they walked. But he couldn’t help thinking of it as a hopeful sign.

Hajime remained wordless at his side, not so much in contemplation or concentration as in a seeming attempt to ignore Sano completely. This was rather irritating, but they moved so quickly through the convoluted hallways that Sano didn’t really have time to comment. But then they emerged into a more open space whence at least five separate paths led, and were forced to stop and consider their path more carefully.

The voices seemed distinctly louder from a narrow opening just to Sano’s right; he leaned slightly that direction, trying to hear them more clearly, and nodded. “This way,” he said with certainty.

Hajime barely glanced at him. “Why in Kaoru’s name would I take advice from you?” he wondered disdainfully, and headed immediately toward the opening he’d been examining to his left.

“Fine!” Sano glared at him. Determined, however, that they should not be separated, after a moment he jogged to catch up. “Asshole,” he muttered as they plunged back into the depths of the maze.

Sano awoke on a hard surface looking up at Seijuurou’s ceiling, and was at first rather disoriented. The ceiling was nothing unusual, but the hard surface was. Then, glancing around, he remembered: he hadn’t felt comfortable taking his usual place in the bed — and Seijuurou had been so annoyed anyway — and therefore had stretched out on the floor in the front room beside Yahiko. The latter was curled up to Sano’s right, the only one of them with a blanket over him, and to his right lay Hajime on his side. Sano, evidently the first to awaken, sat up.

Across the room — which, when full-length figures occupied a third of its width, wasn’t very far — Seijuurou stood arranging something or things on the table.

Curiously Sano asked, “What’s that?”

Seijuurou’s head twitched only slightly in Sano’s direction — just as Hajime’s had done in that dream just now — and he didn’t answer the question, so Sano got to his feet and went to see. The motion by which he picked up the first item to hand, which turned out to be one of Seijuurou’s spare shiiyao, turned into a stretch; Sano found himself rather stiff from having slept on the hard floor, especially given that, the night before last, all the sleep he’d gotten had occurred in a sitting position. Then he held out the old-fashioned, blue-grey garment at arm’s length, examining it.

Seijuurou finally deigned to offer an explanation. “You’re going to need to wear something other than that target you call a shiiya,” he said brusquely, “and your friend over there needs something, period.” Evidently he wasn’t entirely recovered from his annoyance of last night.

Looking over the remaining array of objects on the table, Sano felt his brows lower in some confusion. Besides the shiiya he now held, there was another, as Seijuurou had implied; a decent collection of food — mostly orchard fare, but a loaf of bread as well, which would leave Seijuurou with practically nothing; one of the larger, sturdier ceramic bottles Seijuurou made, corked and ready to go; a box Sano recognized as having come from the cabinet across from the fireplace and containing bandages; and, more to Sano’s shock than anything else, a small pouch of money. For someone claiming to be disinterested in the fate of — and upset with! — the king, Seijuurou certainly was doing a lot to help the people setting out to help Kenshin.

“Why–” Sano began, but was immediately overridden by his trainer:

“Why don’t you go retrieve your backpack from the forest?” It was a tone that would not be gainsaid, especially accompanied by Seijuurou’s folded arms, solid stance, and expression not simply guarded but visibly ready for all-out siege.

“Yeah…” This didn’t stop Sano from eyeing him suspiciously. “Why don’t I.”

From the crossroads, it took some thinking just to come up with a vague idea of the direction he’d taken to get Hajime away… was that two days ago now? At any rate, Sano wasn’t even remotely certain until he actually found the spot where he’d left his backpack that he would be able to locate it again. And the entire way, his head went around and around with bitter reflections about the entire situation and all of his companions:

How the hell did I get into this? I’m not even sure why I want to go with this Hajiguy on this quest or whatever it is. He’s a jerk. Hell, I might not even bother going if I had anywhere else to go… or anything better to do… Something about this is bothering Seijuurou, too… I wonder if he would’ve eventually agreed to go if I hadn’t volunteered so quick. And what’s with the kid? Someone who lies about being a heretic can’t be a very good follower of the damn pretend ladies…

Backpack rediscovered and retrieved with far less aimless wandering in the general vicinity than he’d expected, he turned to go back. He only encountered one other human on the road: a horsewoman, appearing totally local and totally innocent, nodded politely at him as she passed, and therefore didn’t worry him much. So he returned to Seijuurou’s house in good time, and reentered in the middle of a conversation.

“–for the three of you, a couple of days,” Seijuurou was saying. “You’ll have to stock up at Egato, dangerous as it may be to let anyone see any of you.”

Sano glanced from Hajime, who was combing out his unbound hair and evidently the main recipient of Seijuurou’s remark, to Yahiko, who sat motionless on the floor where he’d slept. “The three of us? So you’re coming, Yahiko?”

“Yeah, I guess…” Yahiko shrugged.

“And a sword?” Hajime was asking, putting his hair back up with a practiced hand.

“Outside,” said Seijuurou, and headed for the door. Hajime, following him, set the comb on the table and seized in exchange one of the shiiyao Seijuurou had laid out for them. Whether by chance or choice, he took the black one.

Sano put his backpack down and pulled from it the bottles he’d intended to fill for Seijuurou as usual come next weekend. Seijuurou would have to go into town himself to do his own shopping now, something he seemed to dislike intensely, and the thought made Sano grin a little. He started packing the things his master had provided for them, and eventually could ignore the remaining shiiya no longer.

As his eyes fell on it and his hands stilled after dropping the last orange into his backpack, Sano’s lips pursed. He touched the device on his chest and stared at the blue cloth on the table. The thought of taking off his red shiiya and leaving it here, of being no longer recognizable as a proud heretic to anyone that saw him, didn’t strike his fancy. After all, he’d had this one made specifically so people would know exactly what he was, that he wasn’t like them, that he didn’t believe all that nonsense they did and didn’t live by the same silly rules — that, if they were inclined to treat him badly for it, they might as well start immediately they met him. Leaving that behind would be… well, it would be a little like leaving a part of himself behind.

But Seijuurou was right, damn him… they were heading out on a sort of secret mission here, and the red shiiya with its great white empty teardrop did rather stand out (that was the point). And it wasn’t as if relinquishing it would force him to acknowledge any sort of belief in the nonsense or start following the silly rules. And he could always get it back later. With a grimace, he pulled the shiiya off and exchanged it for the one on the table.

Next he looked around, somewhat disconsolate at the flashes of grey-blue in the corners of his eyes from his own shoulders. Yahiko, he saw, had stood up and was standing uncertainly almost in the corner.

“Hey,” Sano said, pointing, “bring those blankets over here.

Yahiko glanced down at his feet, at the one blanket that had covered him and the other that had been spread out beneath the three of them. “He didn’t say anything about these…”

Sano snorted. “Guy can spare his extra blankets.”

Protesting no further, Yahiko did as he was told, and Sano stuffed the blankets into his backpack. It was a tight fit with all the other things in there, but at least the overall load wasn’t too miserably heavy — though he would probably think differently after a day’s walk with it on his back.

“Wouldn’t it be better to fold them?” wondered Yahiko.

“Why?” Sano looked at him in some surprise. “We’d just have to unfold them later anyway.”

Yahiko shrugged.

“All right,” said Sano, hefting the bulging backpack onto his shoulders, “are you–” But as his eyes fell again on the boy, he frowned. Yahiko was still barefoot, still wearing that disreputable-looking, overlarge shiiya with just the one sleeve. “Uh, didn’t Seijuurou have anything for you?”

Yahiko appeared a little uncomfortable as he answered, “I’m fine.”

“If you say so,” Sano shrugged, settling the backpack more snugly as he did so. “Let’s go.”

Outside they found Hajime, now clad entirely in black, examining one of the longswords Seijuurou kept around for practice. Just as Sano and Yahiko emerged from the house, he was remarking, “This will do,” and returning the weapon to its sheath. The latter he then threaded onto his belt in place of the empty keonblade sheath he’d been wearing since Sano found him. Finally, apparently ready to depart, he threw a pointed glance at Seijuurou and said, “And we should go, if that’s the end of master Seijuurou’s magnanimous assistance on behalf of king and country.”

Turning away from him so abruptly that his hair whirled out behind him in a shining wave, Seijuurou said haughtily, “You’re welcome.” He didn’t walk away, though; he’d only turned toward the wall beneath the roof to take down another of the swords that hung there. “And Sano, remember–” he began.

Sano cut him off with a roll of eyes that was part sarcasm and part teasing; this was goodbye, after all. “What, your cock? Sure, fine.” And he grinned just slightly.

Seijuurou’s eyes narrowed as his glance flicked toward his erstwhile student and he returned the faint grin. “As if you could possibly forget that.” Then he held out the sword in his hand. “No, remember that a weapon you can’t master will do you more harm than good. Take this.”

“What?” Sano half yelped. “No!” Hands raised to ward off the offering, he backed away angrily. “I don’t need that! Why are you so sure I can’t–”

“Never mind, then.” This time Seijuurou’s scornful swivel away from them was more decisive and had an air of finality to it. “Get going, all of you.”

“Ladies, way to just kick us out,” Sano grumbled, watching his trainer head back into the house.

Seijuurou’s official farewell, without even a wave, was, “And tell Kenshin, if you see him, that I told him so.”

“Right…” Sano waited until the door had closed, then shook his head as he moved to join Hajime and Yahiko in walking away toward the road.

There was silence among them for some time as they went down the mountain. Sano was thinking how strange it seemed that he didn’t feel worse about leaving home like this, saying goodbye to Seijuurou and practically everything else he knew. He’d never been farther than Egato in his adult life, after all, and never to the capital; he’d certainly been unhappy last night about the prospect of never seeing Eloma again; and he’d expected to be at least a little moved by his parting with Seijuurou.

But he found now he was rather more excited than anything to be heading for Elotica; it would be so interesting to see the great stone city he’d always heard about, and (hopefully) to meet the king. Beyond that, that Soujirou bastard really did have it coming; doing something about him would be very satisfying. And as for Seijuurou… well, to be perfectly honest, Sano had never really liked him all that much. It would be nice not to have to do chores for him anymore, or put up with that grating I’m practically divine attitude of his.

Sano grinned. He discovered he was, in fact, not at all unhappy to be starting this journey now. He was even a good deal less upset with Yahiko than he had been last night, no matter what the kid claimed to hear — so much that, as Sano watched him walking there by his side, he felt prompted to resume their last topic of discussion.

“Seijuurou really didn’t have another shiiya you could use?”

“Yeah, he did,” Yahiko said, very reluctantly, tugging at the wide collar of his ragged outer garment, “but…”

“‘Cause anything’s better than that thing you’re wearing,” Sano added.

Finally Yahiko confessed, “It was just too creepy that he had clothes my size hanging around.”

On Yahiko’s other side, Hajime lifted one of the sleeves of the shiiya he wore. “Judging by the style of what he gave us, they’re probably his clothes from the Age of Knights.” Cuffs such as the one now pinched between Hajime’s fingers were long since out of fashion, as were the attached hoods that both his and Sano’s shiiyao bore.

“Yeah,” Yahiko agreed with a grimace, “and that’s creepy too.”

“Misao,” Sano chortled, “he probably is that old…” Because no matter how Sano had asked, Seijuurou had never been willing to confide his age. The Age of Knights, however, had ended seventy-three years ago, and Sano was thoroughly pleased at the implications of Hajime’s sarcastic statement.

“Incidentally,” Hajime wondered, looking sidelong at the laughing Sano, “what was all that about his… cock?”

Sano turned his eyes abruptly away, pointlessly scanning the trees to his right, mostly ironwood and oak, as they slowly passed. “The stupidest inside… thing… you never wanted to know.”

“I see,” said Hajime in a tone of understanding. “You two are lovers.”

“Not… exactly…” Sano shrugged. “That’s just how I pay him for the training.” He still did not turn his eyes back toward his companions, and fought to keep down a hard blush. However, the silence to his left stretched on so long that eventually he had to look. He found both of them staring at him with an expression he only ever saw on the faces of those raised in a society that didn’t look kindly on sexual relations between the unmarried.

“What?” Sano demanded hotly, feeling the blush rising despite his best efforts. “Something wrong with that? Not like I’m gonna accept charity even if he was nice enough to train me for free. I ain’t a beggar! I make good money! Just… not enough to afford a keonmaster.” He knew making such a fuss would have the opposite of its desired effect, and cursed himself and the situation silently. He didn’t want to be embarrassed about it, since he thought that particular rule was a load of bullshit invented and enforced by hypocritical church officials, but he’d never quite been able to escape some of the attitudes absorbed during childhood.

“Somehow,” Hajime murmured, “I think whatever you made would never be quite enough.”

“What do you mean by–” Although Sano was genuinely curious about the statement, which hadn’t been at all what he’d expected, it occurred to him belatedly that what he would most like was a complete change in subject. So he cut his question off abruptly and asked instead, “Hey, is this really something we should be discussing in front of a kid?”

“I’m not a kid,” said Yahiko at once.

“I wonder…” Hajime said thoughtfully.

Evidently under the impression that this had been in response to his declaration, Yahiko insisted more loudly, “I’m not!”

Hajime ignored his protest. “The king studied with Seijuurou when he was younger,” he said, still in that thoughtful tone, casting a meaningful glance over Yahiko’s head at Sano. “I wonder if…”

Sano immediately understood. “What?” he laughed. “No way! That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard! You should ask him!”

You’re welcome to,” Hajime told him with a roll of eyes, “if, as I suspect, you enjoy making a fool of yourself.”

Not at all put off, Sano cried, “I will! Soon’s I see him, that’s the first thing I’m gonna say: ‘Did Seijuurou get your royal ass in exchange for training?'”

Apparently having altered his stance on whether or not he was a kid — or at least on what he wanted discussed in front of him — Yahiko said in a low, sardonic tone, “Yeah, you guys could change the subject any time.”

Sano thought he saw Hajime hide a slight smile behind a raised hand, and triumphed in the revelation that this allegiant royal knight was willing to talk about his king in such a fashion. However, instead of pursuing it, he complied with Yahiko’s wishes and found a new topic of conversation. “Soooo…. you said you think one of the divine houses is behind all this trouble?”

Any trace of amusement immediately fled Hajime’s face as he answered. “There’s more of society and politics than religion about how the heads of the houses interact with the nobility in Elotica. Soujirou has been close to most of them for as long as he’s been at Kenshin’s court. But to say I think one of the houses is behind this is going too far. Whenever Barenor’mei is in power, there’s always someone in Gontamei who thinks the rulership should go back to the original ruling family.”

“So what you’re really saying,” Sano summarized for him, “is you have no idea.”

Hajime hesitated a moment in apparent discontentment before answering briefly, “Yes.”

“Good thing I’m coming with you, then!” Sano grinned.

“Yes,” Hajime replied very dryly. “Good thing.” And almost imperceptibly he quickened his pace.

Although Sano hadn’t traveled very far, he had traveled fairly often, and knew the road to Egato quite well. He’d gone there probably every third week or so for the last several years, since running such errands for his fellow villagers quelled the restlessness that often afflicted him and rendered more bearable a rather dull routine of daily orchard-work. (Was he really going to miss Eloma? it occurred to him to wonder as he thought back on this.)

Currently they moved at a slower walk than Sano by himself usually did, to accommodate Yahiko’s shorter stride, but every step of the way was still familiar enough that Sano knew exactly where they were when evening fell; he didn’t need the old battered sign at a small crossroad to know Egato was 8ni down the left-hand way. He also knew of a good camping spot just off the road not far from the crossing, and there he suggested they stop for the night.

Hajime at first wanted to continue while there was any light left, but Sano eventually managed to convince him not only that they wouldn’t find a better spot to camp in that amount of time and should take advantage of this one while they could, but that, with only the one break they’d taken earlier for lunch, they’d made good time so far and could afford to turn in a little early. So they went aside into the trees where Sano indicated, and soon had come to a halt in a little clearing around a well used fire pit in the gathering darkness.

This palace mural, obviously, depicts Tomoe, the divine lady of death, who is often referred to as “the veiled one” or “she of hidden intent” because of the mystery that death represents to humans.

Divine lady Kaoru. As you can see, the symbol used to represent her is an erupting volcano, since she is (among other things) the lady of righteous wrath. Here’s the full-color version as well:

Imau (an original character) is Kenshin’s mother and the former queen of Akomera.


Pillow Talk


Sano wasn’t sure which aspect of his hangover woke him, just as he wasn’t sure which was the worst, or which the most familiar; it would have been like trying to describe the wetness of water. Very disgusting water that left him still thirsty.

Every new hangover — at least lately — felt like the worst he’d ever had. Today’s surpassed even that ever-growing record by seeming like the worst experience he could possibly have in waking up. But that was only until he managed, with some difficulty, to drag his lids open and force his eyeballs to focus — and saw the woman lying in the bed beside him.

“Oh, god,” he groaned, burying his face in the blanket again immediately. It was one thing to get so drunk he couldn’t remember what he’d done the night before; it was another entirely to wake up in bed with what he didn’t remember. Not that this was by any means the first time it had happened to him lately. Usually, though, it was merely signs that someone else had been there, not the someone herself. And none of the reasons they ever stuck around until Sano awakened were good.

“If you’re hoping for breakfast,” he mumbled at last into the linen, “you’re out of luck.”

“That’s just what you said last week,” she replied complacently.

Sano was so relieved she hadn’t said something like, “You promised to pay in the morning,” it took him a moment to comprehend what she had said.

“Last week?” Was he supposed to know this girl?

“You don’t remember? Guess I’m not surprised. This is the second time for us.”

Sano sighed and raised his face slightly so his voice wasn’t quite as muffled as before. “At least one of us must be a pretty good lay.”

He could hear the grin in her reply, “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks, but since we haven’t actually fucked…”

Already grimacing, Sano could not express his confusion with a frown, but he did turn his eyes toward her with a little more attention.

She was fairly pretty, a couple of years his senior, and already had that world-weary shadow in her expression that he knew would eventually turn to dull blankness as she went about her seductive trade entirely by rote. For now, though, she evidently had energy and enthusiasm enough. She looked back at him from where she sat in the tangle of blankets at his side, eyes sparkling with curiosity. That she wore underclothes seemed to bear out her latest remark, and Sano struggled futilely to remember what they had done last night.

“You’re everyone’s favorite client, you know,” she went on, “just ’cause of that. Getting paid for a night of almost no work…”

“‘Everyone’s?'” Sano sat up now, noting he was fully clothed, and that his hangover was every bit as bad as it had seemed at first.

The woman raised a brow at him. “Every one of us you’ve hired recently, yeah. We’ve started rolling dice to decide who gets to go with you whenever you show up.” She laughed a pleasant, musical laugh.

Considering the method by which Sano raised the funds necessary to pay for this entertainment, there was something ironic in the idea of the entertainment rolling dice over him. Dismissing this, however, along with the depressing thought of how much money he must have spent on absolutely nothing lately, he listened to her next comment.

“We’ve got some bets going on you, too. We thought, since we were already gambling…”

Again he merely echoed her word, “‘Bets?'” and wasn’t really surprised at how blank his voice sounded.

She propped her elbow on her knee and leaned forward to rest her chin in her hand, fixing him with an intense gaze. “Well, some of us think she must be European… an exotic foreigner, you know? Some, including me, are sure she must be an older woman… there’s even one gal with her money on it being a warrior of some sort.” Again she laughed, and her eyes sparkled. “We’re all sure she must be a real looker, so there’s no money in that.”

Sano had believed his somewhat bewildered state was due to his hangover, but was beginning to retreat from this point of view. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Her expression softened slightly as she replied, “The woman who broke your heart.”

Sano blinked. “What?”

The musical laugh was a little gentler this time. “For weeks now you’ve been coming over stone drunk and paying for us and then never actually fucking any of us, like you just want somebody to sleep next to. If that ain’t the behavior of a heartbroken man…”

“Oh.” Sano wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh. He supposed once a group of complete strangers started telling him he was clearly heartbroken, it was about time to admit it to himself. Especially given how ineffectual it was proving getting drunk enough not to remember the nights and making sure he had a distraction for the mornings.

Eventually he did laugh, albeit somewhat bitterly. “None of you are gonna be able to collect on your bets,” he told her; “sorry. Well, except whoever guessed a warrior. Maybe. If you guys decide it still counts.”

Now it was the prostitute’s turn to appear bemused.

Like his laugh, Sano’s grin was rather bitter. “No woman broke my heart,” he said, the bluntness of his tone belying the ambivalence of his words.

She had him figured out, though — either that or she thought she was teasing him with the suggestion, “A man, then?”

Sano nodded.

Again she laughed. “And if I thought the news of a beautiful woman was going to stir the girls up…”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Sano half-snarled, tempted to rebury his face in the bedding after telling this nosy woman to go to hell.

Her next laugh, however, was actively sympathetic. “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s funny at all! Someone as lonely as you…”

“Who says I’m lonely?” Sano responded automatically, sullenly, and entirely futilely.

“And we ain’t helpin’.”

“No, you sure as hell aren’t,” Sano agreed.

She stared at him thoughtfully for a moment, then asked in a conversational tone, “So did he die?”

“No!” Sano felt a little cold at the thought, and answered more vehemently than the question really required.

Now she was looking at him expectantly. “So if he isn’t dead…”

“You know, it’s really none of your business,” Sano replied.

She chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But we’ve all been so curious… and talking about it would be good for you.”

Examining her eager face, Sano couldn’t really bring himself to believe his wellbeing was any great part of her motives… but that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t right. It certainly couldn’t be any less effective than what he had been doing.

“Fine,” he sighed a little grouchily, lying back down and raising his arms to use as a pillow. Eyes closed to facilitate the ebb of his headache, he wondered where to start.

Well, hell, why not at the beginning? “We were sortof enemies at first. Well, we were on the same side, but he didn’t want me around. Thought I wasn’t good enough to be there. I wanted to prove him wrong so fucking bad… I got so used to obsessing about it and thinking about him, I don’t even have a clue when I started liking him… but at some point I did.”

“But what’s he like?” she asked impatiently. “What does he look like? What does he act like?”

Sano huffed, also somewhat impatient, but couldn’t see any reason not to provide this peripheral information. “Well, he’s thin… I mean, he’s got muscle, but he’s also got a sorta narrow body. His face is kinda harsh; he’s got these high cheekbones so there’s always these shadows…” He traced the spots on his own face. “And his eyes…” Here he trailed off, unable to give the details he’d had in mind. The pain abruptly blossoming in his chest had nothing to do with his hangover. Finally, though, he forced himself to complete the broken sentence. “His eyes are gold.”

A long silence followed. He’d been half expecting her to laugh again, and appreciated that she didn’t.

Eventually, when the silence began to weigh on him unbearably, Sano went on. “And how he acts… pretty much like an asshole most of the time.” Now she did laugh, and he didn’t mind. “He’s a good person,” he explained, “a really good person… he’s just not a very nice person.”

A more pensive silence followed, and eventually Sano murmured almost to himself, “I guess it makes sense. Obsessed with the guy and then getting to know what a good person he really is… I kinda had no choice, you know? Not fair, really…”

“If he’s an asshole, then, no, it really ain’t fair,” she agreed. It was a prodding tone, urging him to go on, and at the same time she was trying to hide her amusement.

Again Sano considered telling her to go to hell — or at least get out of his home and stop rubbing salt in his wounds — but, having disclosed this much, unless he finished the story, he had probably doomed himself to endless questioning from every prostitute he hired from now on. Which, given his track record, he wasn’t likely to stop doing, once he got drunk, no matter how much this one annoyed him.

“Yeah…” he went on at last, “so, eventually somehow when I was trying to get his attention it wasn’t because I wanted to fight him anymore. And I guess I was pretty annoying, because he gave in finally.”

“He gave in finally because you were… annoying?” Sano could hear the skeptical laughter hiding behind the careful neutrality of this statement.

“Yes.” His tone was surly. “He was always annoyed with me. Always telling me to get lost, acting like I was in his way all the time, even when he was fucking me…”

“So he was fucking you at one point.”

“Yeah, for a while. A lot, actually.” He added with a wry grin, “See, I really am a good lay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she chuckled. “So he must’ve liked you at least a little, then.”

Sano’s arms weren’t in the best position for a shrug, but still that was the tendency of his shoulders as he answered bitterly, “If you call acting like he never wants me around and always calling me names and saying that everything I say is stupid and basically being a jerk to me in every possible way all the fucking time signs that he likes me at least a little, then, sure, maybe he did.” At her repeated sympathetic laugh he added decisively, “No, the whole thing was just sex to him, and I should’ve never let it get more than that for me.”

After another long moment she asked, “How did it end?”

“He left,” Sano sighed. “Got transferred out to Niigata.”

“So it wasn’t even a real break-up? That’s almost worse…”

“Well, it was… I dunno. He did say I could come with him if I wanted… like that actually meant anything.”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, Sano got the feeling the woman went utterly still where she sat. “So…” she said after a tense moment. “This guy you’re in love with…” With a grunt Sano protested her word choice, but she went on. “You always wished he’d stop acting like he didn’t want you around, and he’s not the type of guy to show he cares about someone…”

“Right, right,” said Sano impatiently.

“So this guy who never acts like he likes you — and you wish he would — asks you to come with him when he gets transferred…”

“Yeah?”

“And you say no?”

“Course.”

At her sudden movement he opened his eyes, in time to see her roll onto her side and press the blanket against her face to muffle her sudden torrent of laughter. It was loud and it was musical, and it was quite clearly derisive.

“God, shut up,” he grumbled, stung. “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

“I do!” She pulled the blanket away from her face long enough to laugh out these words. “It’s just you’re such a fucking idiot!”

If he’d thought her capable of holding her own against him in a fist fight, he would have started one. Instead he merely tried to defend himself in a raised voice. “Look, I don’t know why he even said that, but it wasn’t like I was going to jump at the chance to go with someone who only wants me around to fuck whenever he feels like it. Even if I do… really like him.”

For some reason this sent her into a fresh spasm of laughter, and by now Sano was sitting up watching her mirthful writhing in annoyance. She did manage to ask, however, through her amusement, “What exactly… were you waiting for… from him?”

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded.

With a succession of deep breaths she strove to calm herself, and answered in a more level tone, “Guys who are bad at showing they care about their boyfriends and all don’t change overnight… he ain’t just gonna come out and say ‘Oh, I love you’ all of a sudden. He’s gonna show it by doing something.”

“What, you think he said I could come with him because he was in love with me or some shit?” Somewhat to his surprise, Sano actually found himself rather angry at the idea. How could she even suggest such a stupid thing?

Evidently following his mood, she sobered completely. “Why the hell else would he do it, if he’s such a jerk?”

She did have a point… but even so, the theory was utterly absurd. Not to mention… a little painful to think about, given how quickly he’d said no.

“And did you ever think to ask him why he was inviting you like that?” she pursued. “Or did you just assume that, just ’cause he doesn’t read you poetry, he only wanted you to come along as his fuck-buddy?”

“Yes!” Though this emphatic answer was almost loud enough to be a shout, it sounded more discouraged than angry. “Why the hell should I think anything else? I mean, he was never nice to me; I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Lord save me from the like,” she murmured with a rueful grin toward heaven. Then, returning her eyes to him, she went on in a calm, placating tone. “Course I don’t know all the details, and I don’t know the guy, and, hell, I don’t really know you. I’m not gonna try to talk you into seeing it my way… but do you really think you handled it right?”

“How is asking me that not trying to talk me into seeing it your way?” Sano wondered. Then, as she only looked at him, he added, “I have no fucking clue whether I handled it right or not!”

“Well, neither do I,” she shrugged.

Sano was surprised to feel a surge of annoyed disappointment at this; had he really been expecting some wise advice or something from this complete stranger? “Why the hell did you even ask, then?”

“Well, what I do know is that you shouldn’t just end a relationship without talking about it first.”

“Wasn’t a fucking relationship,” Sano grumbled. “It was just fucking.”

“People don’t invite their fuck-buddies to come with them when they transfer,” she replied dismissively.

“Maybe nice people don’t.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems like you wasted an opportunity, and I hate that.”

“Yeah, sure, an opportunity to keep dealing with the hardest situation to deal with and the biggest jerk ever.”

“People who want real relationships do deal,” she said sternly. “I know because the rest buy whores.”

“God!” Sano protested, “you say that like I’ve got some kind of responsibility or something and I’m not doing it right.”

“That’s kinda exactly what I’m saying. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing people like you who can do things and go places I never can throwing away their chances.”

“What do you mean? What chances do I have that you don’t?”

She gave him a hard look. “You think I’ll ever have someone ask me to go with him when he gets transferred? Hell, do you think I’m ever likely to leave Tokyo… do anything besides what I’m doing now for the rest of my life… however long that turns out to be…? That’s why you people who ain’t whores really oughta make the best of your choices, ’cause not everybody has any.”

“What?” Sano stared at her. “The hell you don’t have any choices! Who says you can’t leave Tokyo? Who says you have to stay a whore?”

“My contract and a million other things.”

“A contract? Shit, that’s nothing.”

“See, it seems really easy to you… Nobody thinks about what I’d have to do to give up this life.” She raised a hand and began counting off points on her fingers. “I’d have to sneak out, move to a new town, leave all my friends and all the stuff I know… change my name, probably change the way I look… I’d have to learn a real job to support myself and actually work it… practice talking all correct, probably…” She laughed. “And you think it’s hard to deal with your boyfriend.”

“You’d think so too if you met him! Besides, I’d have to travel and go find him. And then what if I was right? What if he didn’t want to talk to me or see me or whatever? At least your thing would make your life better; I’d be maybe making things worse.”

With a slight laugh she acknowledged this to be true. “But the point is that you could.”

“So could you!” he countered. “You listed all that stuff, but all you really said was that it would be hard to leave. Maybe harder than me talking to him, sure, I’ll give you that, but you could do it.”

She tilted her chin upward and looked shrewdly down her nose at him. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. You go talk to him and find out how he really feels about you, and I’ll come with you and start a new life in Niigata.”

Sano gaped at her, at first unable to speak. Finally he managed, “You’re kidding.”

“No!”

“But… why…?”

Now the look she gave him was skeptically disdainful. “You think I want to stay like this forever?”

“No, but… going all the way to Niigata…” Sano scratched his head.

“‘Sas good a place as any, ain’t it?”

“Well… I guess…”

“So is it a deal?”

“I…” Sano’s mind had gone somewhat blank the moment she’d suggested he go look for Saitou, but now he had to think quickly and intensely. He couldn’t deny that he would like almost nothing in the world better than to see him again, but what would such a meeting entail? All he could think of was Saitou’s coldest tone, narrowed eyes, and most indifferent gesture as he wondered why Sano had come all this way for nothing. And yet… and yet… there was that small seed of uncertainty that had already existed, buried deep, even before this woman had started pouring water and sunshine on it. Was he sure he’d interpreted everything correctly? Was he sure he knew how Saitou felt about him? And wasn’t his uncertainty almost worse than the rejection he assumed would be the result of the proposed venture?

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

***

Saitou turned toward the wall, pulling the crumpled blanket up to his hips. His breathing was returning to normal, the sweat cooling, and the haze receding, which meant the usual host of importunate thoughts was coming forward from the background — whence it had been hounding him all along — to hound him up close.

He’d stopped attempting to keep these thoughts away — the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret — because even if he put his hands over the spring, it welled up inexorably through his fingers. The result was that he felt defeated and ineffectual on a daily basis at his inability to control what went on in his own head, and then had to deal with the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret on top of that. And moments like this were the absolute worst.

“Hajime,” came Tokio’s soft voice from behind him.

Saitou pulled the blanket up farther and stared at the wall.

“Ha-a-ajime,” she called him again.

He ignored her as best he could. As if she hadn’t commanded plenty of his attention a few minutes ago.

She wasn’t having it, though. She crept sideways to press herself against him, and slid a delicate hand up over his arm around to his chest. “It’s funny,” she said into his ear, in that vague, airy way of hers. “You’ve always been distant when we made love, but lately you’re even worse. You’re just an empty, handsome shell. Your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Saitou had nothing to say to this; it was true enough.

“I wonder why that could be,” she went on, dragging out ‘wonder’ in a way that clearly stated, “Tell me, or else I’ll speculate. Aloud. At length.”

He wasn’t about to tell her, however. Masochistic this might be, since she didn’t threaten idly, but he didn’t care.

Once several moments had passed and it was evident he wouldn’t be admitting anything, “I suspect you’ve left your heart in Tokyo,” she said.

Saitou stifled a groan, but couldn’t quite restrain the accompanying sigh. It was a little ironic, considering what they’d just finished doing, how penetrating she was. Of course she’d managed to hit on the real answer on her first guess. And, as was often the case, she did it with an air of simultaneous absence and intensity that made it seem as if she were the one a hundred miles away and yet had never been more invested in anything in her life than she was in this — as if her interest were, in fact, being transmitted from a hundred miles away, like a discussion carried out by telegraph but without the stops and ungrammatical brevity.

“Funny thing, your heart,” she mused. “Some would say it doesn’t exist.” She chuckled her distracted-sounding laugh. “Especially that poor man who runs errands for you at the station. I know I’ve certainly never gotten at it.” She ran her fingertips up and down his arm, again as if waiting for him to add something to the thus far one-sided conversation.

Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t his responsibility to provide her with entertainment; Tokio was perfectly capable of finding alternate sources, and routinely did so when he was otherwise occupied. She would never have come bothering him if Sano had been here.

If Sano had been here…

“I wonder what it takes…” she went on eventually. “Since you are, in fact, very passionate, I believe you must love very well. Very skillfully. And I don’t just mean your skills in bed. I can get into your bed because of our legal bond, but what kind of person can get into that heart of yours?”

She always reminded him of the ‘legal bond’ at times like this, reveling (as much as someone like Tokio could ever revel in anything) in the fact that he had a sense of honor that wouldn’t allow him to deny his wife her marital dues.

“I think it must be someone a little older than you,” she speculated: “someone who’s had a chance to steady out like you have and who’s savvy and jaded like you; someone cool and calm who won’t annoy you.”

“Is there a point to this chatter?” Saitou wondered, prodded into impatient speech at last by this spectacularly inaccurate assessment.

“Well, let me know if I’m right…”

“Not even close.”

“I thought so,” she said. The complacence in her tone brought him to the irritating realization that she’d been baiting him with a false picture of what she thought his lover must be like; she knew him better than that. “You would prefer someone younger, whom you can order around, but probably not somebody who actually obeys all your orders; someone who still has something to learn, because you’d like to help; someone who enjoys life the way you can’t, but still knows what the world is really like; someone as passionate as you are, and probably just as stubborn.”

After a long silence, he had to admit with grudging admiration, “That’s about right.”

“The world’s a funny place,” she said thoughtfully and with half a sigh. “That someone like you exists somewhere, and then it turns out someone like him does too.”

She even knew it was a man. Why did he bother trying to hide anything from her?

“And yet you didn’t bring him here with you when you transferred…” Her voice was even more pensively musing than usual at this.

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? That there had been someone in the world for someone like him, and then, all of a sudden, there hadn’t been. Because evidently, despite all steadily growing impressions to the contrary, Saitou hadn’t been right for him.

“I offered,” he said, and didn’t bother to try hiding his bitterness; she would pick up on it anyway. “He refused. That was the end of it.”

“Perhaps he didn’t really like you.”

Resisting the urge to snarl, Saitou said tightly, “That was the conclusion I came to.” Not that Sano had said so, exactly… but he’d laughed when Saitou had offered to bring him here.

“You ‘came to that conclusion?'”

He grunted assent.

“That’s funny,” she said, and left it at that.

She let him steep for a few minutes in his frustrated disappointment, and then almost repeated her last phrase. “It’s funny…” She dragged out the word in a you really want to know what I have to say sort of way, then waited a moment in placid silence. Finally, “You have a tendency to run people’s lives,” she said. “I think I’m almost the only person you don’t expect to jump when you tell them to, and you still tried it for the first year we were married.”

Out of morbid curiosity as to what her point could possibly be, Saitou asked, “Why is that funny?”

“You didn’t insist on him coming with you, but you’re still thinking about him now.” How she could read so much from the motionless back turned toward her he could never tell; sometimes it was uncanny how much she knew without any evidence as to how she knew it. Occasionally the thought had crossed his mind that he should recruit her as a spy, but the gulf of attendant horror always swiftly drowned it.

“Funny,” she went on, “that you care so much about him, but wouldn’t insist.”

“I wasn’t about to force the idiot to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

“Of course not. So it’s lucky you have me around to take his place, isn’t it?”

The implication was clear: he might be thinking of someone else, but as long as he couldn’t physically produce that person, Tokio had free rein. No great surprise there.

He couldn’t help reflecting on this conversation the next day when she dragged him shopping. With Sano around, days off had seemed to have a purpose; he’d actually enjoyed being away from work. But here with Tokio, it was all boring errands and wondering (on good days) what was going on at the station or (on worse days) what was going on in Tokyo. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just put in seven days a week and avoid all of this. Oh, wait, yes, he was: Tokio wouldn’t let him. If either of them had had another lover around, she would leave him alone, but as it was…

“Well?” she was wondering in her gentle tone that suggested she’d never been impatient or annoyed in her whole life.

“Go with the orange,” he replied absently. “The white doesn’t suit you.”

She smiled her thanks at the advice and turned back to the merchant.

Saitou also turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at the stall and fearing he must go insane if he had to pass judgment on one more set of options for his wife’s new kimono as if he in any way cared what she wore. And that was when he saw, some distance off coming up the crowded sidewalk in this direction… but it couldn’t be… Sano.

Outwardly, of course, Saitou remained as collected as ever — though he was glad Tokio was doing business just at that moment, as it provided a good excuse for him to be standing there still as stone — but inside he seethed with turmoil and confusion. What was Sano doing here? What would happen if they met? Why was Sano in Niigata in the first place? What could Saitou possibly say to him? What was Sano doing here? And who was that smart-looking woman walking next to him?

Sano was busy talking to the woman with that over-animation of his that simultaneously animated others — Saitou recognized it with painful precision — and evidently hadn’t noticed him yet. There didn’t have to be a confrontation. Saitou could turn and walk away right now and hope never to be tormented again by the unexpected sight of Sano with a beautiful woman on his arm. Or by the sight of Sano, period. Just a glimpse of him like this in a crowded market street did things to Saitou’s head and heart, and it would be better for all concerned if it simply didn’t happen again.

At that moment, as if on cue, Tokio appeared and took his arm, making some remark about the order she’d just placed. She couldn’t fail to note his rigidity, though, and the fixed stare he hadn’t yet managed to withdraw. “Hajime?” she wondered placidly. “What’s wrong?” She leaned slightly toward him, looking where he looked, and said, “Ohhh.” He could hear the calm smile in her next words, but the words themselves blurred as his attention strayed — for at that moment Sano noticed him.

Accident or coincidence, Saitou had thought, must be unlikely here. What business could Sano have in Niigata that didn’t involve Saitou — Sano, to whom ‘business’ generally meant ‘finding someone to buy him a drink?’ And yet the look on the boy’s ingenuous face now was so honestly shocked, it didn’t seem possible he’d been specifically looking for Saitou — because why, in that case, should he be shocked at seeing him? In any case, he and his woman formed a sort of mirror to Saitou and Tokio: standing still in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic, staring, each man evidently ignoring the words of his companion.

Perhaps Sano was simply here to show off this new ladyfriend of his. She was certainly pretty, and had a self-sufficient, down-to-earth air Saitou thought must appeal to the young man. And yet he didn’t believe he’d ever done anything to Sano to deserve such retribution, nor that Sano was capable of such deliberate cruelty.

“Who is that woman?” Tokio asked. Obviously she’d decided on who Sano was — actually, Saitou might well have told her without noticing, that and god knew what else, while he was distracted — and she thought the woman might be an acquaintance as well.

“I have no idea,” he said briefly.

“She’s very pretty,” Tokio remarked, then went on in a dreamy tone about the woman’s kimono, but Saitou was mostly ignoring her again. For Sano’s face had twisted and he was turning away. He didn’t seem terribly pleased at seeing Saitou, and evidently also thought they didn’t really have to talk just because they’d (almost) run into each other again. Maybe it truly was a coincidence.

Saitou found himself excessively relieved, and simultaneously overcome with fresh bitterness and disappointment. Of course it made sense that, if Sano had never cared about him and even had a new interest now, he might not be inclined to say a single word to Saitou… After all, outside of being lovers they’d practically been enemies… It made sense, but it hurt.

Now there seemed to be some sort of active discussion or even argument going on between Sano and his companion, and presently the latter broke away and turned. Moving purposefully through the others on the sidewalk, she made her way back the direction they’d previously been walking. Sano whirled, looked after her with an exclamation of some sort, then followed in what seemed to be a thick mixture of reluctance and anger.

“Oh, she’s coming over here,” Tokio observed unnecessarily.

The woman walked directly to Saitou and stopped, an intention that had been obvious from her determined expression. The latter disappeared entirely, however, behind a mask of suggestive playfulness as she looked up at him. He’d seen that practiced putting-on of coquetry before, and knew what it meant, but in this situation — at this time, in this place, and given who he assumed she was — it seemed so utterly incongruous and inexplicable that he was completely unprepared for what she said to him:

“Hello, handsome. You look so hot… how about a quick dip and something to eat?” And it wasn’t so much the words as the inflection that emphasized their secondary over their straightforward meaning.

“That sounds like fun,” Tokio smiled placidly. “Am I invited?” And the worst part was that she knew what she was saying just as well as the other woman did.

“Course you are, honey.” The woman flashed his wife a seductive smile. “Always a discount for pretty ladies on the side.”

Between the proposition out of nowhere and Tokio’s frank response, Saitou found himself at a loss for words. He probably appeared every bit as nonplussed as Sano did; the latter had caught up just in time to hear his friend’s unusual offer, and apparently was taken as much by surprise as Saitou was. Now, consciously avoiding meeting Saitou’s eyes, he took the last step forward to seize his woman by the arm and drag her away.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as they went. They were moving rapidly out of earshot, so Saitou only caught part of the woman’s response, and even less of Sano’s subsequent statement.

“Hey, if you ain’t gonna…your half…deal…don’t…mine.”

“…think…obvious…goddamn wife…”

Saitou didn’t really want to hear more, especially once the word ‘wife’ got involved. Let them have their little private, intimate conversation there with their heads so close together and Sano still gripping her arm like that. It didn’t matter what stupid game the idiot was playing, parading his sweetheart (or whatever she was) around here like this and sending her to flirt so clumsily with Saitou. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, he had to admit, it had been… nice… to see Sano again. Even if nothing good could come of it, even if it exacerbated his condition… a part of him was lighter for the encounter. Another part of him, the coldest and most pragmatic part, hoped it would be their last.

As he turned to leave, he found himself facing Tokio, who had evidently anticipated him and somehow gotten right into the path she knew he would tread. She had a gift for making herself seem to take up a good deal more space than she actually did, and he stopped after only a step, scowling at her.

“It’s funny,” she said in her softest, blandest tone, “the look on your face when you saw him. Well, really, it’s more funny that you’re walking away now, when you obviously desperately want to talk to him.”

“I don’t ‘desperately’ want to do anything,” he said stonily, “and there’s no reason for me to talk to him at all.”

“I think you’re wrong,” replied Tokio calmly. And then she just stared up at him with those wide eyes whose appearance of vacancy could fool anyone into thinking there was very little going on behind them. She did not intend to move. And pushing past or circumnavigating her would take so much more than just the relatively easy physical motion involved. How had he ever ended up married to someone like this?

He turned again and looked at Sano, who was still arguing with the unknown woman some distance off. Both seemed upset. Turning yet again toward Tokio, he found her unbreakable stance unchanged. When he faced Sano again, he found him coming toward him with that same expression of angry reluctance he’d worn before. Sano didn’t meet Saitou’s gaze, only stared defiantly at the ground as he drew up to him. There he stood solidly and said nothing.

Saitou wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, nor entirely sure he wanted to be, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Tokio just smiled at him. He found Sano having a similar experience — except that, instead of smiling, Sano’s woman glowered and gestured emphatically across the street. There a neat row of trees stood that might provide a bit of privacy for any two people wanting a personal conversation away from the market crowd. Assuming there were two such people around. And perhaps this was starting to make a little more sense.

Sano’s head swung around, and his eyes met Saitou’s for the first time. Scowling, he looked away again quickly, muttered something unintelligible, and headed off across the street. The scowl wasn’t his angry one, though; it was the I can’t see this ending well expression he used for unpleasant situations he couldn’t get out of. And if he was that averse to talking to Saitou, he could damn well just… but, no, Tokio still stood there smiling benignly; Saitou had no choice either. With a sigh he crossed the street after Sano.

Behind a tree that didn’t really hide them from most people’s sight but that they could at least pretend did, they stared at each other for a long moment without a word. And finally Saitou said, “It seems I’m not the only one plagued by helpful women.”

Sano laughed sardonically. “So’s that your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She’s hot.”

Saitou snorted, and another long silence fell. Knowing Tokio wouldn’t allow him to leave for a while yet, he eventually forced himself to ask, “What are you doing here?” And he was surprised, after all the effort it took to get started with the question, how excessively easy it was to continue and finish.

“I…” Sano’s voice dropped so that his words were nearly inaudible; Saitou caught them, however: “I was looking for you.”

Saitou’s heart had been beating a little faster than usual ever since the moment he’d set eyes on Sano, and now, hearing this, it fluttered abruptly and alarmingly. “Why?”

Standing stiff and motionless, looking away, Sano took a deep breath. “I made this deal…” he began. “See that woman over… Well, ever since… I mean, I wanted to…” With each new abortive phrase he sounded less uncertain and more irritated. “I guess I can keep acting like a fucking idiot,” he murmured gruffly, “or just fucking ask you and get it over with.”

As no question was immediately forthcoming, “So you wanted to ask me something…?” Saitou prompted.

“Yeah, she was getting on my case for never… But, I mean, you could have told me sometime without me having to… one way or the other…” Abruptly Sano turned his face toward Saitou and looked him straight in the eye, his fists clenching as if for a fight. The idiot was always ready for a fight, even in the middle of a scene like this. Whatever kind of scene this was. He managed to get his question out fairly levelly, though: “What exactly do I mean to you?”

The heart that had hastened unduly now seemed ready to stop beating. After so many weeks of separation, after so emphatically denying what Saitou wanted and parting with him so cavalierly, was Sano really here — could he really be here, now, asking a question like this? Saitou found his own voice surprisingly, disturbingly subdued as he said, “You came all the way here to ask me that?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was similarly soft, almost a whisper. And his answer to this question, Saitou thought, also provided an answer to another Saitou could have asked, had he been inclined to wonder. Sano added a little more strongly, “And I want the truth, Saitou.”

“When have I ever lied to you?” Saitou’s smirk struck him as very weak and somewhat out of place at the moment.

“Um, whenever you fucking felt like it?” It was the same glare as always, wonderfully hot and direct; but there was a look of desperation to it as well that demanded the truth in more forceful terms even than Sano’s words had. Not that Saitou could possibly want to play with him at the moment — not when Sano’s mere, unexpected presence had already brought more lightness into Saitou’s day, whatever had been going on with that woman notwithstanding, than anything had since the transfer. Not when he might have a chance to get back what he’d let go, to return to the happiness he’d had and lost.

“What impression have you been under all along?” he wondered quietly.

“That I was just convenient sex,” replied Sano, flat and equally quiet, looking away again as if he couldn’t bear to meet Saitou’s eyes as he said it, in case it might be true.

And suddenly everything made sense.

“No.” It came out as something of a horrified whisper. “I…” Saitou took a deep breath, and said what he realized now he should have said back then — said every day — and the lack of which had come so close to costing him everything. “I love you.”

Sano’s head snapped back around, his face going white, and it seemed he postponed inhaling for an unnaturally long span. Then, in a flash, he had flung himself at Saitou and was kissing him for all he was worth — which, Saitou was inclined to think, was a good deal more than he had ever realized.

“Well, that’s about done it,” said one woman, coming to stand by the other and join her in looking across the street.

“I believe so,” the other smiled.

“And all it took was some basic communication,” the first said, somewhat exasperated. “Dunno what men find so damn hard about that.”

“Some men think they’re safer if they defend everything like a secret,” said the second.

“I think we’ll need to keep an eye on ’em still for a while,” the first frowned. “I can totally see them turning around and doing the same thing to each other again if we don’t.”

“You may be right,” said the second woman. She looked around, and added pensively, “I’m hungry. Shall we discuss it over lunch?”

The first woman agreed gladly. Introductions ensued, and two new friends — or perhaps co-conspirators, or even business partners — walked off arm in arm.


I’ve rated this story . The idea was kicking around for literally years before I actually wrote it. I think it’s pretty sweet. Also, you know Tokio and that ex-prostitute are going to hook up now. Maybe I should write a story about them

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


Fascinating

I wanted a Heero/Duo icon for my other lj to use with the Blue October line, “I want to show you just how fascinating kissing it,” so I drew this. I love how Heero’s hand looks all puffy.

Clinical Treatment


The force with which Saitou threw Sano to the floor of the treatment room at the Oguni clinic sent blood spattering from the gash across his chest to the wood on which he now sprawled. Sano didn’t mind a little rough handing, especially from Saitou, but being practically dragged along the ground all the way from the bar to the doctor was something he didn’t much appreciate.

At their abrupt entry into the room Megumi had started a little, but now she only watched, calm and wordless, as Sano swore incoherently at Saitou. It was neither the first time this had happened nor particularly uncharacteristic.

“I told you I could get here just fine on my own!” was the first thing Sano managed to articulate properly. It was a pointless statement, however, since he had told Saitou that several times on the way over, and Saitou hadn’t listened then any more than he was likely to now.

“I’m not done with you,” the officer answered ominously.

“Shouldn’t you be dealing with the rest of that brawl?” wondered Sano, surly but not honestly wishing Saitou were anywhere but here.

“The men can earn their pay for once.” Saitou was glowering down at Sano as the latter shifted into a kneeling position and glared back. “Do you have any idea who that was I pulled you off of back there?”

“Yeah, I–”

“Sugiyama Shinichiro is an influential tradesman with connections all over the country. He’s one of the richest men in Tokyo and one of the most ruthless. A word from him could have you killed and your body hidden so no one would ever find you, and a second word would make sure nobody even looked.”

“Well, isn’t it your job to take care of guys like that?”

Saitou completely ignored this remark. “Just because his brother is every bit as worthless a deadbeat as you are does not make him a good target for your idiotic weekend games.”

“He wasn’t a ‘target!'” Sano protested with, he thought, a fair imitation of honest outrage. He was outraged, of course, but it was just the usual anger at Saitou’s treatment of him, not because the accusations were untrue. “He just happened to be there when that fight got started, and–”

“Just shut up, ahou. This is the fifth time in the last two months you’ve gotten yourself into this kind of trouble and I’ve had to get you out of it; I’m sick and tired of wasting my influence on you. You can’t just stick to lowlifes like yourself, can you?” Sano had rarely seen Saitou this irritated; it was very picturesque. “No, you have to seek out and start pointless fights with the highest-profile people you can find and get yourself into situations you need a government agent to get you out of alive.”

“It’s not like I go out looking for them,” Sano lied. He had struggled to his feet by this point, but here Saitou stepped forward and shoved him to the floor again.

“Is there some reason you keep doing this?” the officer demanded harshly, towering over Sano with fists clenched. “Some reason that fits into any logical human rationale? Or are you really every bit as brainless as I’ve always thought you?”

It was consistently marvelous to Sano how Saitou could enrage and electrify him at the same time; how Sano could have come to crave emotions he normally would have considered negative simply because they were the best he could expect from that source, desire this rough treatment only because it was closer to what he wanted than anyone else’s gentleness… and yet grow irate when he received it. Although he opened his mouth to answer, he couldn’t be sure what he planned on saying. He certainly wasn’t about to admit the reason he kept doing this, whether or not it would fit Saitou’s idea of ‘logical human rationale.’

But Saitou didn’t give him a chance to say anything at all. “This is the last time I step forward to help you out of a mess like this; do you understand?”

Sano tried not to show just how much of a stab this statement was. “But I thought the commissioner said–”

“I don’t care that you came to Kyoto and I don’t care that you’re Himura’s friend; it’s not my job to clean up after you, so next time you can just get yourself hanged so we can all be free of your idiocy.”

Sano had scrambled back and was moving to stand again, in response to which Saitou took a menacing step toward him, but at last Megumi spoke. Her tone was placid, and the spark in her eyes expressed plainly that the delay in her intervention was no accident. “Now, now, I can’t have you worrying my patient to death.”

“It would save you a considerable amount of trouble,” Saitou replied. He stared down at Sano with burning eyes for a long moment before striding abruptly from the room.

Once it had slammed shut, Sano tore his gaze from the door with an effort and rallied himself not only for the remonstrance he knew Megumi expected him to make but also for the entire conversation that must follow.

“You couldn’t have stepped in before he started ripping me a new one?”

“No,” she replied brusquely, “because then I would have had to do it, and I have enough to do with you tonight as it is.” Her hands were gentler than her tone, however, as she helped him to the patient bed and began examining his injuries. “Besides,” she added with a somewhat evil smile, “he’s so good at it. It would have been a shame to interrupt him.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “Yeah, he’s made an art out of being an asshole.”

“Trouble attracts trouble, I suppose,” she said with a slight sigh.

“Yeah, I wish,” Sano muttered.

She’d been muttering something of her own at the time — “I’m going to have to stitch this,” he thought — and hadn’t heard him. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“But really,” she went on as she washed her hands in the basin by the door, “have you noticed we only see him when something goes wrong?”

“Yeah, it sucks.”

The glance she shot him was more confused than anything else, but there might have been a hint of suspicion to it.

“That I keep having to be helped by him,” Sano explained quickly.

“Well,” she sniffed, “maybe you should get a clue and stop getting into this kind of trouble.”

“Yeah…” Sano murmured, glancing again at the door. Then he added more quietly, “Where do you s’pose they took that Sugiyama guy…?”

“It’s probably best not to ask,” Megumi replied. “And lie still.”

There was something a little untrustworthy about her tone, and Sano speculated immediately, “He’s here, isn’t he?”

Megumi laughed musically and, Sano thought, a little uneasily. “Why would someone like that come to this clinic when he undoubtedly has a private doctor back at his estate?”

“Because it’s closest. Ow! shit! warn me before you stick fucking needles into me!”

She made a disdainful noise and continued stitching up his worst injury.

“Anyway,” Sano grunted, “he was only half-conscious when I last saw him, and he didn’t seem to have enough of a brain to get himself to the right place even when he wasn’t drunk off his ass and kinda beat-up… by me…”

There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Megumi said with a roll of eyes, snipping off her thread deftly and concisely wiping the blood away from the newly-sewn-up wound. “And don’t jump to conclusions.”

Contemplatively Sano watched her apply bandages to the fresh stitches and what other of his hurts required them. “If they’d brought him here, he’d probably be in the opposite corner room,” he mused.

Rolling her eyes yet again, Megumi stood abruptly. Applying pressure to a rather uncomfortable spot on his chest, she forced him to lie down. “You are more trouble than you’re worth,” she remarked, and went to wash her hands again.

“Pretty sure you’re not the only one who thinks so,” Sano grinned, putting his arms casually behind his head.

“And now if you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to look in on.”

“Including Sugiyama, right?” Sano abandoned his relaxed pose almost immediately after assuming it, sitting up.

“You need to lie still for a bit,” she admonished, not entirely without the air of one making excuses, as she reached for the door.

“Why should I lie around at all?” demanded Sano, a triumphant grin growing on his face. “You didn’t give me any drugs or nothing. You’re running off to get him out of here before I can get at him, aren’t you?”

She drew herself up with dignity. “As I said, I have other patients to look in on. It has nothing to do with you. And you need to lie down because I’m your doctor and I said so.”

Sano jumped up, fully prepared to follow her wherever she was going and see if his guess was correct. As if to escape him, she opened the door quickly and took a step forward… but then fell back a pace with an inadvertent gasp. Even Sano’s progress was stopped in his surprise.

“I’ll handle this, doctor,” Saitou said, stepping through the door past Megumi, his dark, irritated gaze locked on Sano’s face.

Megumi could recover her presence of mind quicker than anyone Sano knew. “I would appreciate that,” she smiled. “Thank you, officer.” And she was gone.

Saitou closed the door and advanced. He did not look happy.

Sano was torn between pleasure that Saitou had returned (or perhaps never left) and wondering if Saitou might actually deliberately injure him this time and give Megumi more work. But all he said, in a tone of relatively indifferent defiance, was, “What are you doing still here?”

“Making sure you don’t do exactly what you’re trying to do right now.”

“Oh, really? What do you think I’m doing that’s so awful it requires your personal attention?”

Saitou gave a frustrated sigh. “You weren’t angry enough tonight to justify a follow-up visit to that overdressed idiot, so the only reason I can think of for you to be stalking him now is to draw attention to yourself again.”

“Draw attention to myself?” Sano echoed, trying to sound surprised at the accusation and, he feared, failing. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“I don’t know, ahou; why don’t you tell me? I’ve had the feeling you were getting yourself into trouble on purpose all this time, but even of you I almost couldn’t believe it. How is it possible for you to be that stupid? Or are you suicidal?”

“Something like that,” Sano muttered. When Saitou’s impatient, irritated glare indicated the insufficiency of this answer, it was Sano’s turn to sigh. “You’re the investigator,” he said. “You should be able to figure it out.”

He wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret the narrowing of Saitou’s eyes at this. There wasn’t, he believed, any way Saitou could really be completely in the dark about his motives… unless he did simply think Sano suicidally stupid. Well, Saitou had said this was the last time he would help him out of a situation like tonight’s, which meant this little game had to end here. So, Sano figured, he might as well finish digging his grave before trying to evade it. He’d known, after all, that this moment had to come eventually; he hadn’t really been prepared for it (if that was even possible), but he’d certainly known.

“I noticed you help me out way more than makes sense unless… And I thought, ‘Well, maybe he really…'” Sano gave a half laugh and shrugged. “The truth is,” he said after a deep breath, “I kinda li–”

The confession, the very syllable was cut off by Saitou’s hand over his mouth as another clamped down on his arm to hold him in place. Sano’s eyes went wide in surprise as he half-choked in the cigarette scent of the glove and stared into Saitou’s face that was suddenly very near his own. This behavior at another time might have angered him, but with Saitou so close, and Sano just having said (or started to say) what he had, all he could feel was the overfast pounding of his heart.

“Ahou,” the wolf admonished in a low, intense tone, “think, for once in your life, before you speak. Think about who you’re talking to before you finish that statement.” For a long moment he paused, while Sano waited breathlessly to see where he was going with this. “Because if you invite,” Saitou finally continued, “I’m not going to refuse.” Feeling his eyes widen and his pulse intensify even farther, Sano wondered why on earth Saitou was phrasing this like a warning. “But if you’re looking for something soft and romantic,” the officer finished, “you’re better off with that woman.”

Sano wasn’t quite sure what woman Saitou could possibly be referring to. As a matter of fact, he really only had an amorphous concept of what a woman was at this point, given that the world had narrowed to the hot, expectant space he and Saitou occupied and nothing else seemed to exist.

The hand over his mouth pulled slowly away. As his lips were grazed slightly by Saitou’s fingers in this movement, Sano found his face tilting forward slightly as if to ask them to stay. And now he couldn’t think of anything to say. Saitou’s caution, after all, was valid enough; Sano knew perfectly well that, the moment this moment was over and the strangeness and anticipation had passed, he was certain to be irate at the cop again for something or other.

But, hell, that would be then. This was now.

“I’ve been starting brawls and getting myself stabbed just to get you to show up,” he replied hoarsely, “and you think you’re gonna scare me off with a vague little threat like that?”

The smile that spread slowly across Saitou’s face sent an intense, prickling shudder running through Sano’s entire body. Though not much different on the surface from the man’s usual predatory smirk, yet it somehow suggested he was deeply satisfied with Sano’s answer — as if his warning had been a test and Sano had passed particularly well.

And then Saitou descended on him like some force of nature made flesh, kissing Sano suddenly and fiercely. Rough gloved hands gripped him, pressing painfully against his injuries; possessive arms encircled him, making him feel always just a little off-balance and, for the moment, utterly dependent; and at their uppermost point of connection Saitou seemed to be attempting to devour Sano alive and whole. Sano didn’t think he’d ever felt anything so wonderful.

“I shouldn’t be rewarding you for your stupid ideas,” Saitou murmured after a while against Sano’s lips.

“Admit it,” Sano triumphed (though perhaps that was the wrong word when he could still hardly believe this was happening) — “you couldn’t stand the idea of me getting hanged or whatever, so you kept showing up to help me even when it annoyed the hell out of you.”

Saitou hmphhd and went back to kissing Sano thoroughly.

“That’s an unusual way of handling it,” Megumi commented suddenly from the door.

It was like that old story where the guy got a look at heaven only to find years had passed during the brief glimpse. Surely it hadn’t been long enough for Megumi to deal with some other patient — possibly to the point where he could be discharged — and decide it was safe to come back into a room where Saitou was supposedly raging? And why didn’t she look nearly as surprised as Sano thought she should?

Meanwhile, Saitou had, very unfortunately, released him and turned an amused expression on the doctor. “Nevertheless, the situation is under control,” he said.

“The end always justifies the means with you, doesn’t it?” Whether the disapproval in her voice was real or feigned, or to what exactly it referred, Sano couldn’t quite tell.

“In this case a more accurate idiom would be ‘killing two birds with one stone.'”

Megumi looked as if she had some issue she wasn’t vocalizing, and in any case she didn’t smirk nearly as well as Saitou did — but she still definitely had her own style. “I trust, then, I won’t be seeing him in here again.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow with a brief laugh. “I’m taking him in hand, not miraculously giving him a brain. You still have the pointless fights he’s always getting into, self-inflicted injury, and whatever I do to him to deal with.” At this point Sano protested rather loudly, but they both ignored him as Saitou finished, “Situations like tonight’s, however, you no longer need to worry about.”

“Then I suppose I won’t have to move Sugiyama-san after all.”

“No,” laughed Sano. “Matter of fact, give him my best.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded wryly. “You’ve had all the clinical treatment you need for one night.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Sano glanced slyly at Saitou, who seemed unable to restrain a faint smirk at the suggestion. Signs were good that Saitou had been in much the same state of mind Sano had ever since Kyoto, and Sano’s pleasure at the cleverness of his own plan (stupid as it had seemed all along) was overshadowed only by his pleasure at its outcome.

Megumi snorted and rolled her eyes. Then she fixed the latter somewhat severely on Saitou. “I’d better not see him back in here tonight, at least. I have other things to do.”

“Nah…” Sano felt suddenly a bit sheepish about all the trouble he’d given Megumi over the last couple of months in pursuit of an end he’d never really considered very likely. “Got no reason to go looking for fights now.” Especially since he could probably find one with Saitou now any time he wanted, and not even need to go to extreme measures to get the man’s attention.

As if reading his thoughts, Saitou punched him in the arm none too gently. “Ahou. That’s not what she meant.”

“God, asshole, that’s no reason to fucking hit me!” Sano’s hand went from rubbing the spot on his arm to striking out against Saitou, who stepped easily aside. “What the hell did you think she meant?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Saitou smirked. “Come on.” And he started toward the door.

“Where are we going?” Sano jogged after him.

“I’ll explain that too.”

“Hey, see you, kitsune!” Sano whirled, walking backward for a few paces, to wave at Megumi. Stumbling, his back running hard into the doorframe, he was soon forced to resume normal movement; but before he turned he saw her standing still watching them leave, arms crossed, rolling her eyes at him again.

She was smiling, though.


I’ve rated this story .

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


Lotus

Yup, it’s a lotus. I like the way the colors on the leaves turned out, back then when I had no greens. I drew this at school (denty style).

Blue and Pink Hairs

I drew this at school (denty style school). Well, and partially after school in front of the used book store waiting for a friend. I’m not entirely sure how much I like it anymore.