Condition of Learned Helplessness

At this point, all he was doing was tormenting a woman who loved him in order to put up with the violent attentions of a man who didn’t.

Kenshin isn’t sure what he means to Saitou, who’s been raping him for so long it’s become a matter of routine… but finding out and bringing an end to their interaction may be every bit as painful as not knowing and letting it continue.



Kenshin wasn’t afraid anymore. There had been a period, immediately following the period of anger, when he’d been afraid every time this happened. He was through with both of those stages now; he didn’t fear anything anymore. He knew he was strong enough to protect his friends — his fight against Shishio had proven this — and as for himself… he didn’t need to protect himself. He was practically the strongest in Japan, as everyone had recently seen, and practically was close enough for him. So there was no more reason to fear — anything. Not national domination, not local trouble, certainly not his current situation.

He was too jaded to feel fear in his current situation at any rate.

So when Kaoru appeared in the doorway with a purple-blue anemone tucked behind her ear and said, “Saitou was here looking for you, but he’s gone now,” Kenshin did nothing more than smile.

“Thank you, Kaoru.” He had dropped the honorific lately, which seemed to delight her to no end.

“You know, that man is so much nicer than he seems,” Kaoru remarked, loudly enough to be heard as she stepped back into the kitchen and continued her work. Kenshin followed her, face emotionless as she continued. “He gave me a flower!” She looked over at Kenshin, no doubt to see if he was jealous. “I sure hated him at first, but he definitely improves with time.”

“He does,” Kenshin agreed quietly. “But you seem to forget his trying to kill me.”

Kaoru stood on one foot as she chopped the vegetables, rocking her head back and forth as she searched for an answer. “Well, I guess there’s more than one person in the world with something from the past buried inside them.”

Kenshin smiled, forcing the expression to look cheerful rather than wan as it was inclined to be. “Will you need tofu tonight?”

She looked over at him sweetly. “No, thanks; I’ve got everything I need.”

Kenshin paused a moment in thought. “Have you seen Sano today?”

Kaoru shrugged. “I might have seen him around, but that might have been yesterday.”

Kenshin felt the urge to scratch his head. “And Yahiko?”

“He’s practicing. He’s gotten really serious since we came back from Kyoto.”

“And I do not blame him.” Kenshin was still searching his mind. Finally, seeing no viable alternative, he just said, “I believe I will go for a walk before supper — if you don’t mind.”

To his relief, the sweet expression on her face did not change. “All right. It won’t be too long, though, so don’t go far.”

It was strange to him how practiced he’d become at deceiving her. He foresaw a marriage between them soon (they’d even discussed it vaguely at times), and it felt odd considering marrying someone who couldn’t see through even this little lie. He always meekly obeyed her commands during everyday life, knowing that she would bow to his superior knowledge in out-of-the-ordinary situations — and it was a good balance, until you threw deception into the mix. He frowned as he left the dojo and headed purposefully into the woods.

A little clearing held a small pond in the dip between two hills, and a stretch of soft, weedy turf beside it was hidden by cattails but raised enough to stay dry despite its proximity to the water. This was the spot he made for, as he always had, not with any particular haste but not exactly dawdling either. As he drew nearer, he untied the band that held his ponytail, shaking his long, soft locks down around his shoulders and running an absent hand through them. His footsteps were silent, the rustling of his clothes as he walked blending with the slight rustling of foliage in the tiny, shifting breeze.

This same slight wind soon brought him a familiar scent, the one that always greeted him as he approached. Pushing his way softly through the cattails, he emerged onto the little grassy spot beside the pool, and stopped.

Saitou didn’t say anything, just sat there with one leg stretched almost to the water’s edge and the other drawn up to his chin, leaning back on a bare hand while the other, still gloved, held his cigarette to his lips.

Kenshin sat down beside him in equal silence and waited.

They never needed many words, for they were spirits totally aligned to each other. They’d spent so many years of their lives reading others, in almost exactly the same manner, that it was only natural the two of them should understand each other so perfectly. Body position, breathing pace, the slightest facial expression — nothing more than this was needed for either of them to determine the mood, thoughts, and feelings of the other. Kenshin could tell that Saitou was brooding over a difficult case just as easily as Saitou could tell that Kenshin was feeling bad about leaving Kaoru cooking supper for them back at the dojo.

Saitou’s entire demeanor said, I need relief.

And Kenshin’s replied, Let’s get it over with, then.

Finally Saitou reached the filter and tossed it down into the water, stretching out his other leg as he did so. He removed the single glove and set the pair carefully aside atop his folded jacket that lay neatly to his left.

Then, in what seemed an abrupt change of mood, he bore down on Kenshin, pushing the smaller man into the ground with a hand on each shoulder and a mouth pressed against his.

Kenshin fell beneath him, the familiar taste of Saitou’s smoke-flavored breath strong in his throat and the other man’s hot hands sliding up into his hair to stroke and tangle it. Saitou was on his knees, straddling Kenshin’s hips, and their clothed erections were rubbing together with electrifying regularity.

Kenshin’s hands remained motionless on the ground beside him, never so much as twitching. His eyes were lightly closed, his tongue barely responding to Saitou’s as it probed the insides of his mouth. As always. At this point in the game, he was usually too lethargic to react to much of anything — although some reactions he had no control over — until Saitou began hitting or biting him, which, if he was lucky, didn’t happen; it depended on how much of a reaction Saitou wanted on the particular occasion.

As Saitou loosened the ties of Kenshin’s gi, the redhead docilely slid his arms free of the sleeves and submitted to Saitou’s exploration of his naked torso — not that there was anything unfamiliar about it. Kenshin shuddered as Saitou’s lips played over the freshest scar, the bite-mark just beneath his left collarbone. Saitou always had to touch that scar. I wish I had done this, he seemed to say, by which he meant he wished nobody had. It was one of the things Saitou tried to hide, his regret about Kenshin’s fight with Shishio, but at times it surfaced in ways he didn’t even consider.

The moist, burning, nicotine-scented mouth had found a nipple, which prickled now that it was bereft of its customary cloth covering. Kenshin didn’t bother to stifle his moan as Saitou’s teeth pulled gently at him and the older man pushed their crotches more tightly together. The wolf’s hands were now reluctantly leaving the beloved hair behind and moving down to untie Kenshin’s hakama.

Their rapport extended even so far that Kenshin knew how Saitou wanted him; as the wolf stood to shed his own clothing, Kenshin dutifully turned over onto his knees. He laid his left forearm on the ground so his right hand would be free, and closed his eyes. Moments later he felt Saitou’s fingers probing at the opening between his buttocks, pressing inwards and smearing him with unscented oil. After this was finished, Kenshin braced himself. He grunted as Saitou pushed his swollen sex into the narrow cavity, rocked by the strong thrust of the other man’s body against his. Moaning, he waited until Saitou’s hands clamped onto his hips. Drawing from this the conclusion that Saitou was only going to get himself off, Kenshin sighed — more of a breathy moan, really — and reached his own hand down to stroke his throbbing erection. An embarrassing circumstance, but one much better than going unsatisfied and returning to the dojo with bulging pants.

Eventually it was all over; Saitou finished up just after Kenshin did and pulled out with a grunt, letting Kenshin fall. Panting and sleek with sweat as he lay on his stomach in the soft grass, the smaller man did not open his eyes. It was several minutes, in fact, before he moved at all, turning onto his back at last and trying to steady his breathing. Saitou, clothed once again, sat back down beside him and lit another cigarette.

The day had faded, and the soft glow of fireflies over the water illuminated the couple better than the last rays of dusk that tried to pick their way through the trees at the top of the hill. Saitou’s cigarette briefly appeared in the darkness as he took a long drag, then vanished again in a stream of smoke.

“Saitou,” Kenshin said softly.

Saitou glanced down at him.

“I will probably be marrying Kaoru.”

Silence.

Kenshin opened an eye, then another, to look for Saitou’s reaction. The older man was sitting utterly still, staring out over the pond with a slightly narrowed gaze. I will kill her. But all he said aloud was, “Hn.”

Kenshin restrained a sigh, slowly sliding his hands behind his head and closing his eyes again. He did not open them until Saitou was standing, and watched the other man’s back as he stepped toward the wall of cattails. As he put out a hand to make a path for his body, Saitou stopped briefly and cast a slow, burning glance back at Kenshin. “Fifty,” he said.

Kenshin sat up in surprise. You’ve been keeping track?!

Saitou smirked, but only very slightly. Of course.

Once the man was gone, Kenshin began slowly to dress himself again, to smooth his hair and retie it, to make himself presentable. And he wondered all the while exactly what he meant to that man, that strange man who, although so easy for Kenshin to read, was in general still so inscrutable. Fifty times now Saitou had raped him. It made sense that Kenshin would keep count, since he was the one whose pride was ground into the dust with every encounter, but why should Saitou care? Kenshin didn’t for one moment entertain the thought that Saitou considered it an anniversary of any kind… It must be that the heartless spy had a head for numbers and that sort of thing.

Kenshin shook his head, and turned toward the Kamiya Dojo.



He awoke the next morning with moisture running from his eyes; it was not a rare occurrence after such an evening for him to dream of the first time. Saitou had been so utterly brutal, had made it so perfectly clear who would have won that fight between them (earlier that very day) had it been allowed to continue. As all his dignity had been torn and scattered away like a butterfly’s wings ripped off and tossed into the wind, Kenshin had cried. And strangely enough, Saitou had not mocked his tears — seeing, apparently, that he’d broken the younger man, he had only held him tightly and nibbled contentedly on his fiery hair.

Now Kenshin washed his face viciously and went, smiling, to do his morning chores. He did not have the fortitude of Soujirou, however (probably all for his own good at any rate), and his cheerful expression soon faded to one of pensive melancholy.

It seemed strange that, after everything he’d been through, after each former enemy he’d defeated, and despite the fact that through everything he’d always managed to come out on top, he was still so horribly not “on top” in this one area of his life. It stung like the blow of a whip as he looked back at those fifty encounters and watched himself, in his memory, grow weaker and weaker under Saitou’s attentions until finally he just let his eyes glaze over and resisted no more. Despite his seeming timidity, however, his pride had not been swallowed, and with every thrust of Saitou’s hips, every time, another blow was struck to it.

And that was his chief dilemma. It was enough of a wound that he was being raped by Saitou Hajime without his friends’ knowledge. What preventative measures might perhaps have been taken had he opened his mouth, he did not know; it was pointless to think about it since the idea of seeking help was almost nauseating, and after about twenty or so molestations he’d simply given up hope of any change in the near future.

He was Saitou’s sex-slave, and so it seemed he would remain until the former Shinsen grew tired of him, or one of them died. And Kenshin had already tried that one. It was the part of the whole mess that he liked least to think about.

It had been the third time Saitou had approached him that he’d snapped and attacked the older man with all the hatred in the blackest corner of his mind. He’d totally lost himself to blood-lust and rage, and was hell-bent on killing him or dying in the attempt.

And Saitou had backed off.

He’d redonned his jacket and lit a cigarette, starting to walk away. Congratulations, his half-disgusted look had said, you’ve discovered your one unattractive feature.

And with his enemy standing down, Kenshin had slowly pulled himself once more out of the inferno that was Bakumatsu assassin, and just stared after him. It didn’t take long for the theory to crystallize: that Saitou’s actions were all intended to bring Battousai out of repression in preparation for the coming conflict in Kyoto. But this idea had been entirely blown away when Saitou next came and actually seemed relieved as Kenshin managed to control himself. And then there was the fact that it had continued after Kyoto, leaving the victim with the single, unbearable resulting thought that it was Himura Kenshin, not the Hitokiri Battousai, that Saitou wanted to feel beneath him.

“Kenshin!” Kaoru’s voice disturbed his reverie, and Kenshin made haste to bring out the smile again. “Kenshin!”

“Out here, Kaoru!” he replied in a shout, vigorously scrubbing at whatever the hell he was washing.

She approached him with a bucket. “I will need tofu today,” she said. Playfully she bent and kissed him on the cheek before handing him the container. “Don’t take too long!”

For the first time that day, a real smile found its own way onto Kenshin’s mouth as he looked up at her. “All right,” he replied, and softly rubbed the hand she’d placed on his shoulder before rising. He was just so comfortable around Kaoru… As he turned away, he thought of Saitou’s reaction to his words yesterday. Was the man that jealous? He’d done everything he could to keep their ‘relationship’ a secret, even going so far as to come up with a little code whereby he could let Kenshin know he was wanted in their special spot. (Back during the stage where Kenshin had been afraid of their every encounter, just the sight of an anemone, even growing wild, was enough to unsettle him. Now he was, as toward everything else, indifferent.) At any rate, why should Saitou care if Kenshin had an actual, real relationship with someone? It wasn’t as if there were any emotional attachment between the rapist and his victim, so wasn’t Kenshin allowed some comfort? Apparently not. And Kenshin wouldn’t risk Kaoru’s life in the assumption. How to break it to her was going to be the difficult thing.

As he headed into town he brooded further. If he couldn’t get involved with Kaoru, his presence would merely be a source of pain to her, and probably to anyone watching them as well. Which meant that his life in Tokyo was drawing to a close unless he finally came out with the truth about Saitou. Because at this point, all he was doing was tormenting a woman who loved him in order to put up with the violent attentions of a man who didn’t.

At that precise moment he almost turned and went back to the dojo, intent on telling Kaoru everything. But a heaviness beset all his limbs, and a burning flush spread over his face at the very thought of admitting that he’d allowed Saitou to rape him fifty times. With a sigh he trudged onward, the empty bucket swinging in his listless hand. He was trapped.

He had not even realized which route he was taking until he heard the laughter of children and looked up to see neat apartments stretching down the block for quite some distance. It was one of the nicer middle-class neighborhoods, and, incidentally, the street on which Saitou lived. He was certainly dwelling on the man too much for his thoughts to have directed his feet down this road. But he only squared his shoulders and walked resolutely onward. Saitou would probably still be at work at this time of day anyway.

Kenshin let out a sigh as he dully noted the apartment to his left — it looked no different from the rest, and yet was somehow ominous. He’d been inside, of course, several times. He remembered one particular incident near the beginning with painful clarity.

He’d been lying on his back much like yesterday, eyes closed as he tried to deal with the discomfort bordering on pain in his lower half as well as with the bitter wound to his pride. Saitou was naked beside him, lying at his ease, smoking and smiling with his own eyes closed. Kenshin had stared at him with a mixture of anger and curiosity, and had finally said, “Aku Soku Zan.”

Saitou responded to those words as if to his own name, glancing over at Kenshin quizzically. What about it?

What happened to it?

And Saitou had reached out to pet Kenshin’s hair, smiling sardonically. “Everyone has one point of utter selfishness. You insist on not killing, after all.”

And you rape me.

Of course.

Kenshin was still sighing when he suddenly saw Saitou’s door open. For just the barest fraction of an instant he considered taking off at a sprint up the hill, but that urge faded as impractical and he only started to look away. But the next instant he looked back — for the figure he’d seen emerging from within was not Saitou.

It was an unfamiliar man who didn’t look like a spy or policeman or government employee. Saitou had no friends, and since the man closed the door behind him it was obvious that the wolf was not there with him as host. Who was it, and what exactly was he doing? He looked casual enough, but that might be an act to cover up a robbery, or the preparation for one — setup for an ambush, even.

There was no reason for Kenshin to stick his neck out for Saitou, and fifty very good ones for him not to. And it might be extremely satisfying to see Saitou’s annoyance at having had his own house robbed, especially when Kenshin would be able to describe one of the chief players without hesitation. So why exactly was he veering away from his path toward the man? He asked himself this somewhat desperately as he approached and spoke. “Excuse me…”

“Yes?” The man didn’t look at all frightened or embarrassed, only polite as he turned to face the rurouni.

“What were you doing in there?” Kenshin said bluntly.

The man smiled, and indicated the apartment next door. “I live there. Fujita-san had to leave very suddenly just now, and as I was outside just then, he asked me to take his teapot off the stove and lock the doors.”

Kenshin nodded. “I beg your pardon. But why did he have to leave so suddenly?”

The man shrugged. “Something about his wife, I believe.”

“Thank you,” Kenshin said with a bow. “Sorry to have bothered you.”

“Oh, not at all. Good day.”

The hill suddenly seemed steeper than before, and clouds were rolling across the sun with depressing rapidity. Kenshin bent his steps quickly toward his destination in order to get back home before the rain. And he wondered why he was not smiling. Saitou Tokio lived in Kobe, he understood, and that was a good enough distance away to give Kenshin at least a week and a half of freedom — more, depending on carriage speeds and road conditions. But if possible, he only felt worse than he had before. Probably, he reflected, because he didn’t like to be uncertain where Saitou was concerned. Better to have him there, to know exactly what he wanted and when, than to have no material idea where he was or when was the next time Kenshin was likely to find an anemone grinning at him in some conspicuous spot.

And something about his wife… What could that be? If he had been forced to leave so quickly that he didn’t have time to take a teapot off the stove or lock the door, it must be something serious. Maybe she is having a baby, Kenshin speculated wryly. There really was no reason for this curiosity. But, then, Saitou’s actions always made him curious. Nothing about the man seemed to make sense.



Having brought the tofu back to Kaoru, Kenshin sat down outside and watched the shrieking Ayame and Suzume run from monster-Yakiho. He felt strangely listless, and wondered if it was the rurouni side of his personality making an especially strong bid. Perhaps it really was time to move on. He looked at the little girls and the boy who wasn’t much older, and thought about the sweet young woman only a few years senior to Yahiko who was inside making supper for all of them. He wasn’t sure he could stand hurting her like that.

“Oi, Kenshin.”

He wasn’t sure he could stand to leave him behind either, if only because the big idiot needed Kenshin’s presence just to keep him out of trouble. Still, if Kenshin left, Sanosuke might have a better chance at Megumi’s heart… “Hello, Sano.”

Sano took a seat beside him. “You look stupid today… what’s up?”

“Nothing,” Kenshin replied with a laugh. “What brings you here?”

“Not that smell,” replied Sano with first a shrug and then a wrinkled nose as he looked toward the door into the building. “But free food’s a good thing even if she makes it.”

“You should get a job.”

“I’ve got something…” Sano scratched his head, looking a tad annoyed. “Gonna guard a wagon fulla stuff for some merchant. Actually, I was thinkin’ you might wanna come with… easy money, you know? Guy’s been robbed a coupla times, I guess, but they were just highway-geeks.”

“Where is the merchandise going?”

“Kobe.”

Kenshin stiffened reflexively at the name, relaxing instantly as he knew Sano was watching him. “I will go with you.” There wasn’t any reason to let the thought that Saitou was or would be in Kobe deter him from making some cash with which to pay his way around here… coincidental as the two circumstances seemed, they really had nothing to do with each other.

Kenshin was still telling himself this in two days’ time when he and Sano stood waiting in the early morning at the edge of town for the merchant’s wagon to arrive. Sano was yawning, a fishbone dangling precariously from his stretching lips. Kenshin often wondered where, exactly, Sano got all the fish, but didn’t bother to ask. Sano was not going to take it well when the inevitable announcement of Kenshin’s departure came. The boy loved Kaoru like a sister, not to mention being quite attached to Kenshin himself — no, it was not going to be pleasant. Kenshin expected to leave Tokyo with two black eyes at the very least.

Something of these reflections must have shown on his face, for Sano poked him in the stomach and teased, “Don’t worry, Kenshin — you’ll be back with her after not too long. And we can get fuckin’ sloshed in Kobe to make up for being away from her.”

Kenshin forced an embarrassed smile, waving Sano’s words away and saying something typical that he couldn’t remember the next second. Maybe getting ‘fuckin’ sloshed’ with Sano was a good idea — it might take his mind off Saitou. He only hoped they didn’t run into the wolf in Kobe and ruin everything.

The trip started out as boring as Kenshin had anticipated, but at least Sano did his best to liven it up. An hour out of Tokyo he started singing, and it seemed that he was going to go through every song he’d ever heard before he stopped. The funny thing was, he didn’t have a bad voice, and Kenshin found it quite relaxing to walk along in the sun and listen to Sano’s vulgar chorusing. Sano tried repeatedly to get Kenshin to sing along, when it was obvious that the song was familiar to him, but Kenshin wasn’t about to display his musical abilities (which included a high A) in front of the stranger driving the wagon who’d already made a comment on Kenshin’s effeminate appearance earlier in the day.

Sano broke off from a refrain about huge swords and commented, “I wish I could find another zanbatou.”

“Then you would have to call yourself Zanza again,” Kenshin replied in amusement, though feeling a bit guilty.

“Nah… That was all kindof a show, you know? It was cool and impressive and all, but it wasn’t really me.”

Kenshin smiled. “And the zanbatou was?”

“Well… maybe not…” Sano admitted. “But it got me more respect from the off, you know? People didn’t just look at me and say, ‘oh, it’s just some stupid teenager who thinks he can fight.’ I mean, just carrying the thing proved I was strong.”

“You don’t need to prove you’re strong,” Kenshin said. “Anyone to whom it matters knows it. Even Saitou — ” He cut himself short, brows furrowed. It had come naturally to say it, but hearing the name aloud was a jarring reminder of where they were going.

“That bastard!” Sano spat, though his tone was actually somewhat jovial. “He doesn’t know jack about me.”

“There you are wrong. Saitou respects you more than you realize.”

“How the hell do you know that? Been talking to him lately?”

“Yes.” Kenshin was unwilling to say more, though with the natural way they were conversing he feared the same answer might have slipped out even if Sano had said, ‘Been sleeping with him lately?’

Sano shrugged. “Like I care what he thinks.”

Kenshin smiled. He knew Sano would rather prove himself to Saitou than to anyone else in the world, despite (or perhaps because of) the hatred between the two. Kenshin envied him, for he would have given anything to be in the younger man’s position — with no doubt as to the emotions involved, and the question of strength and respect the only uncertain thing between them.

That night Sano slept first, sprawled out in the grass snoring and keeping the wagon driver, who was at least three yards away, up for several hours. Kenshin sat watch from the wagon, staring up at the stars and thinking not-very-cheerful thoughts about his future and the friends he would be hurting if things turned out the way he feared they must.

At midnight he woke Sano, and went to sleep himself in the soft grass.

“Kenshin!”

He didn’t want to wake up.

“Oi, Kenshin!”

He just felt so good, so warm and comfortable…

Kenshin!!

“What is it, Sano?” he asked as he sat up and shook sleep from him — sleep, and also an inexplicable feeling of contentment. Normally he awoke in an instant into full alertness; he couldn’t imagine why he was so sluggish now.

Sano jerked a thumb at the sunrise. “Mornin’,” he said.

“Thank you, Sano,” he replied, pulling the blanket off as he stood and folding it. He looked around for his shoes.

“That musta been some weird dream you were having,” Sano was saying as he headed for the wagon where the driver was already harnessing the horse.

Kenshin looked up from his now-shod feet, nearly dropping the blanket. The feeling he’d awoken with had held a definite sexual flavor, and a dream could certainly have caused it — what might he have said in his sleep that Sano had heard? “Why?” He tried to sound casual.

“You kept sayin’ weird stuff like, ‘the beginning, please’ or ‘start, please,’ or… something…” Sano shrugged. “And some other stuff I couldn’t hear.”

Kenshin tried not to blush, but, not entirely successful, had to look away. “I do not remember it,” he said. He was overcome with gratitude that Sano had misheard and misinterpreted, but didn’t dare say anything that might lead the boy to dwell on what other meanings ‘hajime’ might have.

Eventually Sano exhausted his store of songs, which seemed to relieve the wagon-driver immensely, and spent most of the rest of the day, in between more intelligent bits of conversation, trying to get Kenshin to sing. Kenshin refused to bend, however, and Sano was pouting when they made camp.

Several nights later, everything went to pieces.

“Let’s go swimming, Kenshin.” They were stopped just next to a large pond, and Sano’s logic was that even if someone did attack while they were in the water, they were close enough to get out and fight them off in plenty of time — and, he added cheerfully, any attacker would be likely to run off in shame at the sight of two such massively-endowed men.

“Sano, that doesn’t make any sense,” Kenshin replied in embarrassment.

“Whatever… let’s go swimming!”

And, as Kenshin had no particular argument against going swimming, he readily agreed. It was an innocent, forgetful mistake, but a serious one.

“You just haven’t been yourself,” Sano remarked as he floated languidly on his back.

“You think so?” Kenshin said. It was all he could say. The true brooding state of his mind could not easily be explained, after all. Beyond that, he was confused as to why his thoughts had gone from worry about hurting his friends in getting away to endless reflections on the man he wanted to get away from. The tall, dark figure with his various unique mannerisms, his forceful ideals, his strange tastes, had dominated the former hitokiri’s brain until he felt he must go insane. Why couldn’t he tear himself away from all of this?

“Maybe you need me to kick your ass to cheer you up, huh?” It was all the warning he had before Sano jumped him and they both plunged under the water.

Kenshin wasn’t exactly in the mood for sparring, but he didn’t have much choice as Sano was holding him down and he did need to breathe. So, with great effort, he managed to extricate himself and push Sano off. Even as he was sloshing away from his light-hearted opponent, he head the young man laughing.

He turned and awaited the next attack, wondering what was so funny. But Sano was lost in mirth and didn’t seem to be planning any more moves just yet. Kenshin straightened in the water, looked around for the source of Sano’s amusement, and finally asked, “What?”

“Now I see why you’re so depressed!” Sano cried, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “I thought it was funny that you missed her so much just being gone for this little while…”

“What are you talking about?” Kenshin wondered in bewilderment.

Sano floated on his back once more, splashing masses of water all over Kenshin as he continued to laugh. “You guys got impatient, huh?”

As Kenshin finally realized what this all must mean, he felt a shiver of fear go through him, and took a furtive glance down at his body to search out what Sano had seen — but found nothing that would suggest what Sano was apparently thinking.

“It’s on your back, man,” Sano giggled, “right below your neck. It’s fading, but don’t think I can’t tell what it is.”

Kenshin unconsciously put a hand to his shoulder, remembering. How could that mark possibly still be there? But then, everything Saitou did left a lasting mark, didn’t it? What was he going to say?

He didn’t have to say anything at first, for Sano had gone into a new fit of laughter at the look on Kenshin’s face. “I didn’t think she would be the one to do that to you…” Kenshin cleared his throat nervously. “But I guess you probably showed her what a man you are right after that, huh?”

Kenshin’s face was burning like the sun, and he made a vain appeal. “Sano…”

“I bet you guys’ve been going at it forever and I never noticed… she probably got sick of being a virgin and tied you up or something!” And that thought made Sano positively wild with laughter.

“Sano!” Kenshin said in a more commanding tone, annoyed that Sano would talk about Kaoru that way. Admittedly, if Sano’s assumptions had been true, Kenshin wouldn’t have minded so much — but with the way things actually stood, he didn’t like Sano guessing. Still, as long as he went on thinking it was Kaoru who’d given him that mark — and why shouldn’t he, if Kenshin kept his mouth shut? — it wasn’t so bad… was it?

It was. For Sano, instead of letting the matter go after that night as Kenshin had expected, continued to tease him with every breath until Kenshin was cringing at the sound of his voice. And Sano could be as vulgar as anything Kenshin had ever heard, bringing images into Kenshin’s head that didn’t need to be there during his current dilemma. The worst part was, Kenshin knew that the teasing wasn’t likely to stop once they got to Kobe, or, worse, once they got back to Tokyo. And then everything would have to come out — unless Kenshin put a stop to it right now. How exactly he was going to do that, he wasn’t sure, but something had to be said to shut Sano’s wild mouth.

Sano was in the middle of an imitation of Kaoru crying out something about Kenshin’s ‘Hiten Mitsurugiryuu’ when Kenshin snapped, seizing him by the arm and growling his name so fiercely that Sano’s full attention was riveted on him in an instant. “Whoa, sorry, man,” he said. “Didn’t mean to make you mad or anything.”

Kenshin took a deep breath. “You didn’t make me mad,” he replied. “It’s just that I wish you would forget about… that…”

The wagon driver snickered softly. He’d been enjoying Sano’s taunting just as much as Sano had.

Sano looked confused for a moment, and then an evil gleam came into his eyes along with a wide grin on his face. “I knew it,” he gloated. “She’s your first, isn’t she?”

Kenshin blushed and immediately cried, “No!”

The driver laughed openly at this.

“I mean, that’s not why,” Kenshin continued, lowering his voice with a slightly annoyed glance at the driver. “I would just appreciate it if you didn’t mention this again.”

Sano’s brows lowered, bringing the red of his headband right down above his eyes, at the serious tone in his friend’s voice. “All right, Kenshin,” he agreed slowly. “If you and jou-chan wanna it kept a secret, I guess I can…”

“Don’t mention it to anyone,” Kenshin said, trying hard not to let his voice shake and looking away quickly to hide another blush whose cause was a bit different from that of the previous.

Sano stopped walking abruptly, staring wide-eyed at the other man, his hands slowly clenching into fists. “Kenshin…?” he whispered, and in his tone was not only bewilderment but accusation.

Oh, he’d really done it now, hadn’t he? It was probably the worst thing he could have said. He turned to face Sano, letting out a long breath as the wagon progressed along the road without them. “Sano,” he said slowly, “don’t think that way. Please.”

Sano’s face was twisting into a familiar expression. “What the hell am I supposed to think?” he demanded, his voice rising toward the end of his sentence. “Why the fuck wouldn’t you want me to fucking mention that to jou-chan if you’re not having a fucking affair!?”

The wagon had creaked to a halt several yards beyond them, and the driver was looking back curiously.

“Sano…” Kenshin said again, feeling helpless. He took a step forward, his expression appealing. Don’t make me tell you, he begged mentally. Just trust me.

“Who was it?” Sano hissed. “Who’re you planning on breaking her heart for?” His eyes narrowed. “Megumi?”

“Sano!” It was almost a squeak in response to a new accusation that Sano was obviously taking more seriously than he let on — Kenshin could see the fear and betrayal in his eyes, surpassing even the anger in his voice.

“I’m waiting.”

Kenshin’s shoulders drooped, and he began to walk toward his friend slowly, his head turned downward in despair. “I’ll tell you,” he said softly, “but you mustn’t overreact. It’s totally different than what you’re thinking.”

Despite his anger, Sano’s trust in Kenshin made him pause and examine his friend’s demeanor. “What is it?” he asked quietly, raising a hand to Kenshin’s shoulder.

Kenshin could not lift his burning face as he uttered the single word, “Rape.”

“Rape?” Sano repeated in a whisper, his eyes widening once again. “But… who…” He seemed almost in shock, and Kenshin’s heart felt like it had stopped. Had he shattered all of Sano’s faith in him? “Who could be strong enough…” Suddenly Sano gripped Kenshin’s shoulders with his hands and shook him, probably harder than he’d meant to. “Who was it!?” he shouted, and as Kenshin unwillingly raised his eyes, he saw tears in Sano’s — tears of rage, perhaps, or disillusionment; he didn’t know. All he knew was that Sano was not going to let him slip away from this without an answer. An answer which Kenshin was infinitely reluctant to give, and inexplicably for more reasons than just the terrible, terrible wound to his pride.

He took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and never broke his eye contact with Sano as he said the name.

Sano’s hands dropped to his sides as his face darkened and he began to shake uncontrollably. Kenshin could see his muscles tensing, could sense the blow that was about to land — somewhere.

Unexpectedly, Sano bent and slammed his fist into the ground, an unmistakable Futae no Kiwami that made Kenshin stagger as it rained him with shattered earth. Sano’s roar disintegrated into a cursing shout that used every obscenity Kenshin had ever heard and then some, and lasted for almost a minute.

The wagon driver had prudently turned and begun ignoring them.

“But why didn’t you stop him?”

This was most certainly not the next thing Sano said; however, it was the next coherent thing he said. It was about an hour later, actually, when Kenshin’s frantic, horrified efforts had finally managed to calm his friend’s frenzy. Kenshin had never seen Sano so angry. And he knew, no matter how little he felt like discussing the issue further, that if he didn’t answer Sano’s questions, the calm wasn’t going to last. But what could he say?

“Kenshin…?” Sano prompted him in a growl.

Kenshin looked up at the sky and shook his head. This was a moment he’d been dreading: the moment when he was forced to say aloud what he’d been fearing all along yet not wanting to admit he’d been fearing at all. “Sano, I’m not as strong as he is.”

And Sano’s reaction was also exactly as he’d feared, for instead of defending him hotly, Sano only dropped his eyes to the ground and fell silent.

Kenshin’s face was burning, and his movements felt awkward and stiff as he inwardly combated shame, anger, and fear. Shame at his weakness, anger at his foolishness, and fear of what might be going on in Sano’s head. Disillusionment? Horror? Would he scorn his friend now?

Shaking himself, Kenshin tried to dispel these thoughts. He’d always told himself that he didn’t care about being the strongest, but that had obviously only been the response of his logical mind to a subconscious desire to be just that. How petty, to worry about which of a handful of men was at the top in terms of physical strength and samurai abilities! How childish, to be afraid to admit that he wasn’t as skilled at fighting as someone else! How pathetic, to be worried what other people thought of him! He didn’t need those kinds of considerations.

“I’m going to kill him,” Sano said.

Kenshin tensed abruptly. This was, of course, the natural progression of events, but for some reason he hadn’t anticipated it. He found himself replying, “No!” before he even realized what he was saying. After a moment he wondered why he’d even said it.

Sano was wondering too, although he had his guesses. “What,” he asked in a surly tone, “you think I’m not strong enough?”

Kenshin knew he wasn’t strong enough. Sano knew it too, and knew that Kenshin knew. But what could he say? The fact was, that wasn’t the reason at all that he didn’t want Sano to try to kill Saitou, but he wasn’t sure what the reason was. He was so confused, it was a wonder he was walking straight. “It’s not that, Sano, it’s just that I… I want to deal with this myself.”

And once again, Sano didn’t have a reply. They kept walking in a silence like a subdued thunderstorm that could break again at any moment.

After quite some time Sano abruptly said, “But couldn’t you just have…”

Kenshin interrupted him, surprising himself with the harshness of his tone. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Needless to say, the rest of the trip to Kobe was every bit as unpleasant as this day had been. Sano, despite Kenshin’s desire that the subject be dropped altogether, started making guesses: when the first time had been, how many times it had happened since then, when it had happened when he’d been around and just hadn’t realized, and myriad other uncomfortable conjectures that threatened to drive Kenshin mad. The first sight of their destination was like a fresh wind through stagnant air.

Sano mumbled something as they accompanied the wagon down the hill into town, but Kenshin did not catch what it was. He turned a quizzical eye on his friend, who repeated himself at top volume in a tone of reckless and somewhat bitter abandon. “I’m gonna go get drunk. You can get our pay if you want, or whatever, and I’ll see you later.” Without waiting for an answer to this statement, he stalked off at a quick and heavy pace into the crowd.

“I guess I’ll do that, then,” Kenshin muttered, feeling abandoned. “Let’s go,” he added in a louder tone to the wagon driver, trying to act more cheerful than he felt.

The man shook his head, and urged the horse into movement once more.

Less than an hour later and somewhat richer than he had been, Kenshin found himself on the Kobe streets wondering what to do. The plan had been for him and Sano to get drunk together… now he didn’t even know where Sano was. He was a bit annoyed, actually, that Sano hadn’t bothered to make arrangements with him, as the ex-gangster probably didn’t have any money on him and would need to rejoin Kenshin just to get a room for the night.

He found his thoughts wandering into dangerous areas, such as where Saitou might be right now and, again, why he’d come to Kobe. It was understandable, but Kenshin didn’t like the way he just couldn’t get the older man out of his head lately.

Sighing, he decided that the best course of action would be to find the area of town with the most bars and gambling houses and search methodically through them for Sano. It might take all night, but it might also take his mind off things he didn’t really want to be thinking about. And it was better than finding Sano in the morning and trying to dredge out of his friend’s hung-over state where he now owed money and how much. Besides, he’d be up all night worrying if he didn’t locate Sano. Though that might be better than being up all night worrying about other things. He sighed again; there were no pleasant prospects for the rest of the trip.

Unfortunately, just as on that day when Saitou had left Tokyo, Kenshin’s feet (or subconscious mind) had different plans than his head did, and he found himself after not too long wandering a neighborhood in which he was certain not to find Sano, and more likely to find someone else. Although the chances of that couldn’t be particularly great, could they? How could he think just because it looked appropriate that this was the neighborhood in which Saitou Tokio lived? It was just because it was so similar to Saitou’s street in Tokyo, he assumed, that his wanderings had taken him in this direction. Still, it was unsettling. As much as he could be unsettled from a mental state that was already akin to an earthquake.

He stared absently at the fine, small houses, feeling his footsteps slow with every one he passed as if progress down the street were difficult for him somehow. A few leaves, dried since their fall from some shaken tree, skittered past him on a light breeze, and he raised a hand to his face against the intrusion of hair into his eyes. And finally his sluggish pace brought him to a halt entirely, directly in front of a house that looked no different in any respect from the others. He turned to face it fully, wondering why he’d stopped. There was simply no way he could know, but here he was before of a home that was entirely unremarkable, quite still in his tracks as if this were the exact place he had come to Kobe to visit.

He was truly foolish. He didn’t even want to see Saitou, and here he was standing in the middle of an unknown street wondering if it was the right place. But somehow he couldn’t move from the spot. Moment after moment he spent telling himself that he was about to turn and walk away, but for every repetition of the sentiment, his feet seemed to root themselves more firmly in place. Maybe he had something he wanted to say or do?

Or maybe he was just a glutton for punishment.

Not that he hadn’t considered that possibility before, in regards to the entire situation with Saitou. He honestly didn’t think it was the case, but had to admit that he hadn’t yet dismissed the idea as entirely implausible. There’d always been a kind of guilty haze in his mind through which he viewed just about everything; it was something he’d long since resigned himself to, as the crimes of his youth dictated it without a doubt. No matter how he lived his life, he would never be entirely free of the sensation; he doubted he even should be. And perhaps… just perhaps… it was in response to this that he had not yet worked to extricate himself from this dilemma. But he didn’t think so.

For one thing, what crime did this punishment fit??

Now he was going to turn and walk away.

The door in front of him opened.

He should feel sick. He should feel affronted. He should feel angry, or afraid, or even sad. He should feel something in response to the flash of happy surprise that showed on Saitou’s face for half a second, anything other than totally numb.

What are you doing here?

Kenshin had no answer. He didn’t even know how he’d found the place, let alone what he was doing here. And he certainly didn’t want to be here. At least now he could move, although he hadn’t intended to go in quite that direction.

Saitou didn’t like to show surprise, Kenshin knew, which was why, as the tall man stepped aside to allow Kenshin to pass him through the door into the house, he acted no differently than usual, as if he’d been expecting him. But the surprise had been there, only moments earlier, and they both knew it. That, and the fact that Saitou was glad to see Kenshin. Actually emotionally pleased by Kenshin’s mere presence.

He looked around the comfortable home with eyes that perceived very little physical detail but took in quite a bit of implication. There was no way Saitou could live in a house this… warm. He certainly had not had any say in its decoration or arrangement. Somehow… somehow a certain tightness somewhere inside Kenshin was eased. He told himself this was because he was suddenly doubting that there was a wife who loved Saitou that could be being hurt by the situation with Kenshin.

Despite seeming somewhat out of place, Saitou played a deft host. It was the same grace Kenshin had always known him to display, when he had a reason to display it or a deceptive face to put on, and yet different somehow. Perhaps it was just the contrast of seeing him in this unknown setting.

“What are you doing here?” Saitou finally questioned aloud when they were seated in a commodious chamber with bright windows and doors on all sides.

“Sano and I took a job guarding a shipment of goods from Tokyo.”

“Ah.”

They were both very still, not looking at one another, and this in itself was a statement. Kenshin could not quite read it, however. “Why are you here?” he asked at length.

Saitou stirred a little, in a motion that tended toward the door to the left. “My wife is ill.”

“How ill?”

“Her situation was reported as very grave, but by the time I got here she had recovered to the point where there’s no longer any need to worry. I may still be here for a while, though.” Kenshin marked Saitou closely during this statement — idle curiosity at work — and noted that Saitou spoke of his wife very clinically. Kenshin looked at the door to the left in a clear request for more information, but Saitou’s slight withdrawal of intention to speak as he answered briefly, “She is asleep,” told Kenshin plainly that the subject was not interesting enough to discuss.

For some considerable time after this, they sat still in a silence so profound that only those to whom communication is as simple as breathing can attain; no ideas were exchanged between them in any manner. Kenshin could feel Saitou’s eyes on him, calm and unflagging, but he had ceased to look at the other man.

Time wore on, accompanied by very slowly mounting tension. The scene felt surreal, almost dreamlike — the circumstances by which he’d arrived at it tended toward unreality, and nothing would have been better than to believe he was asleep and would at any moment awaken to find himself… anywhere but here. It was a silence that felt somehow like a wound to which he’d grown accustomed: as long as he didn’t move, it wouldn’t hurt him. Kenshin was on the verge of believing that it was all right to remain there wordlessly with Saitou until the end of time, and suddenly he remembered Sano.

It was not worth the effort to consider the issue — whether he should bring it up, whether Sano’s rage weighed more in his worried mind than the safety of this silence — for the moment the thought crossed his mind, Saitou perceived his agitation and became subtly but overbearingly inquisitive. Well, it would only be a small break in the silence to mention it and then let the matter drop.

“Sano knows,” he said softly, and although his tone was certainly not apologetic, Saitou would not fail to hear how sorry Kenshin was that the event had taken place.

The officer, however, after a brief frown, did not look particularly concerned. Doubtless he knew Sano well enough to realize what the boy’s reaction would be.

“I don’t want him hurt any more,” Kenshin insisted in an even quieter tone than he’d used before — although since he’d spoken once, a second statement was easier to make.

“And when he attacks me, what do you expect me to do?” Saitou wondered. His tone was almost blank: neither mocking, nor overly somber — nor anything else Kenshin could place.

As he had noted about Saitou’s demeanor as they’d entered, something was incomprehensibly different about this entire conversation from any other time they had interacted that Kenshin could remember. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar environment or the other man’s restrained manner; perhaps it was the fact that Kenshin felt he was for the first time in this matter defending someone other than himself. Whatever the reason, something was building inside him and suggesting that now might be a good moment to say some of the things he’d always wanted to say, the things he sometimes murmured aloud to himself at night, pretending Saitou could hear them. The silence was still a strong opponent, but when Saitou could obviously once again sense that Kenshin wanted to speak, and looked at him with calm attention, it suddenly became almost easier to break it.

“Saitou, we are not at war.”

Saitou looked mildly surprised and curious — still with no trace of mockery, nor of particular earnestness.

“It isn’t appropriate — it isn’t necessary — to hurt people in order to get what you want,” Kenshin explained softly. “But maybe you still think of life as a battle where anything is fair…”

Long moments passed while they again avoided looking at each other, but now the air was thick with apprehension, anticipation.

“At first it was,” Saitou replied at length. “It was a battle, or a message. And then…” He fell silent, clearly reluctant to continue on the subject. This seemed odd; Saitou had been almost flippant about this the last time it had come up. Kenshin, surprised, wondered where the composure had gone.

Following another long pause Saitou began again, this time, it seemed (but only at first), on a different topic. “During my youth I was a heavy drinker, but after the Bakumatsu I gave it up. That was… a challenge.” Kenshin did not have to look up to sense that this was an understatement. “A few years ago I attempted to quit smoking as well, and at the time I was unable to do so. I have yet to try again. And–”

He broke off abruptly, as if he couldn’t bring himself to say any more. Kenshin didn’t exactly feel sorry for him; moreover, he thought he understood where it was leading, and he wondered if Saitou was fool enough to think understanding would equal forgiveness.

Although Saitou could probably discern that unspoken query, he didn’t choose to reply to it directly — but what he did say, after an interval that was probably at least a minute long, was answer enough: “You’re welcome to stay here while you’re in town…” …as if you would ever want to. Kenshin had finally raised his eyes, only to find Saitou’s turned away from him and on the wolf’s face an inscrutable smile that might have been described as one of self-mockery.

Kenshin was frozen where he sat. Confusion immediately obliterated any thought of a reply he might have entertained, and after a moment he found himself rising almost clumsily to his feet and making for the door — as if his body knew better than his baffled mind that everything that needed to be said had been said. Indeed, more had been said just now than at any previous meeting, and he should be aware of that fact even if he wasn’t aware of what the results would be. Still, somewhere in the back of his thoughts he felt that perhaps his exit was a little too precipitous, that there could be one or two things left to say.

Whatever might or might not be going on in the rest of his head, eventually his eyes became aware of the sight of the dark street into which he’d fled, and his ears delivered to him belatedly the report of Saitou’s last words before he’d left the house: “I won’t hurt your friend.” What was the tone? He almost wished he’d paid a little better attention, for his memory couldn’t be coloring those words correctly; Saitou never regretted anything.

He should probably keep looking for Sano now, but somehow once he’d realized he’d left Saitou’s house, he couldn’t bring himself to move. At least, not for a very long time.


It had to be around midnight when Kenshin at last ran into Sano, somewhere down some turning in some area of town… he’d entirely lost track.

Sano seemed to have been looking for him as well, for he quickened his pace to stand before Kenshin, then stopped and went motionless. Kenshin was still trying to decide what to say when Sano at last grumbled, “I’m a dick.”

“Sano, it’s all right,” Kenshin replied automatically, and it was mostly true.

“No, really, I’m a dick,” Sano insisted. “I can’t believe I forced you to listen to me guessing and shit… and then I ran off like that…”

Kenshin looked away. “You were upset. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m still a dick.”

“Only a little.”

Sano seemed to relax a bit as Kenshin finally agreed with his self-assessment, but he still appeared to feel very awkward. “Hey, if you… wanna talk… or anything… I mean, if you need anything… now or whenever…”

Kenshin wasn’t sure how he felt about this offer; he knew that at another time, he would be grateful for the concern behind it, but he still wished with all his heart that Sano had never found out. But he couldn’t be upset with him for that… And at the moment all he really wanted was to go to sleep; there, after all, he had at least a small chance of being able to think about something else. “Thank you,” he forced himself to say. “Let’s go find a place to stay.”

And Sano was a model of self-restraint as they did so.

The trip back to Tokyo started out very quiet, and it wasn’t long before Kenshin was cursing Saitou and circumstance for driving this wedge into his friendship with Sano. But the boy was less socially maladroit (less of a “dick”) than he gave himself credit for. After the first day and a half of awkward silence, he began a bold conversation project wherein he delved with a semblance of cheer that eventually became almost real into every topic he could think of that had nothing to do with any subject neither of them wanted to discuss. It was undeniable that he was not light-hearted enough for singing, but his efforts were not without effect.

Tokyo did not seem particularly welcoming. Of course Kaoru was pleased and relieved to see them, Yahiko eager to hear that they’d encountered and defeated robbers on the way to Kobe (but not particularly disappointed that they hadn’t), and their other friends glad as always of their presence. But Kenshin didn’t really feel, anymore, that he was at home. Sano’s awareness of his plight heightened the sensation that none of his acquaintances really knew what he was feeling from day to day, or even really knew him. And while it did seem that having someone with him would make telling the others easier, still thinking back to the reaction of the same always made him reconsider. Beyond that, there was a new, perverse little voice in his head that was insisting he shouldn’t have to tell them: that he was unhappy, that he was conflicted over something this momentous should be discernable to those who claimed to be his close friends, who purported to love him.

And yet, now that Sano knew, it seemed things would be so much simpler and clearer if everyone else did as well. And what pride did Kenshin have left anyway? Thus his indecision was as bad as it had ever been, and he wavered between yes and no like the wind chime on the porch, with about as much weight to what swayed him.

So caught up in this debate was he that he almost forgot to dread Saitou’s homecoming, and it was some time — a month, perhaps, since he and Sano had returned — before he began to wonder where the policeman was. Surely he could not still be in Kobe? It wasn’t that Kenshin wished for his presence, by any means; again, it was merely that he would prefer to know exactly where his tormenter was at any given moment, so he could know what to expect. He began to keep his eyes open when he was in town — indeed, wanting the information sooner rather than later, he found excuses to be in town rather often. And what he discovered — sooner rather than later — was somewhat surprising, even startling: that Saitou was in Tokyo, apparently had been there for some time, and had simply not made his presence known.

Kenshin did not dare — could not afford to believe that this meant what he wanted it to mean. Still, weeks wore on and it was as if Saitou Hajime did not exist and Kenshin’s none-too-untroubled life had been further twisted by an illusion only. As he knew this was not the case, and could hardly think that Saitou’s libido had suddenly dropped off, the only other logical explanation was… but still Kenshin refused to believe it. It was of all the plausible events he could imagine the one he desired most, and he would not set himself up for such crushing disappointment. But the air of freedom has a distinctive scent, and eventually even the most prudent denial must give way to happy truth.

No. ‘Happy’ was not the right term. All the end of the affair did was raise more questions — now less likely than ever to be answered — and change the tense of the old ones: ‘Should he tell them it had happened?’ ‘What had he meant to that man?’ and so on.

Well, the answer to the latter could perhaps now be guessed at with more certainty, as Saitou had hinted at it himself. But despite the so-called happy resolution to the issue — he was not complaining — it did little for Kenshin’s self-assurance to reflect that he had been just another part of Saitou’s one weakness and been dropped accordingly.

And how had Saitou come to that decision, anyway? After so many times, to stop so suddenly… Kenshin wouldn’t mind thinking that his own words had had something to do with it, but felt it more likely that Saitou had been moved by some reflection stemming from the situation with his wife, entirely independent of his victim. Or perhaps it hadn’t been sudden at all; perhaps it had just taken Saitou that long to rally his will-power. Maybe now he would make another attempt to quit smoking.

No, Kenshin could hardly be expected to find anything pleasant in that area of thought. In addition, as time and accompanying hindsight brought clarity to the concluded circumstance, Kenshin’s shame rather grew than lessened. He’d always known that there were ways out of his predicament if he’d only been willing to take them, but only now as he began to regain, perhaps, a part of his old self-confidence did he see just how far into indifference he’d sunken, how easy it might have been to free himself. His prior helplessness, whose name and nature he did not know, was just one more thing he could not understand. Looking back, Kenshin almost did not recognize himself.

Disturbing as this was, and much as Kenshin came to loathe the thought of that apathy that had for so long taken the place of happiness in his life, it was slightly heartening to consider that as he was changing, moving away from the void of impassivity he’d let his existence become, happiness must surely follow. That it had not, as yet, was not, as yet, a matter of concern.

Kaoru had not sensed the change in him, just as she had never sensed his discontent; she could not discern his gradual and largely detached realization that he did not love her, could never marry her. Well, he could… but he could picture himself after a few years making a statement like, Her situation was reported as very grave, but by the time I got here she had recovered to the point where there’s no longer any need to worry, with an uncaring voice and no desire to continue the conversation on that topic. He’d once thought… he’d long thought… but it was clear by now that Kaoru could never make him happy.

Sano was around almost all the time now. Whether or not he could guess any of the finer points of Kenshin’s reflections of late, he made sure Kenshin knew he was there for him, stubbornly remaining the same quiet (quiet in respect to the situation, at any rate), relentlessly cheerful friend he’d become since the return from Kobe. And Kenshin was grateful for that, and wondered why, with such companionship, he couldn’t be happy.

Time wore on, and it became increasingly difficult for him to deny that he’d outgrown his life at the Kamiya dojo. He didn’t know whether he should be angry with Saitou for bringing this about, for he wasn’t sure that it hadn’t been inevitable — but as he pinned all his problems, mentally, on Saitou and his damned objectifying addiction, he didn’t mind the anger when it came. Anger was the antithesis of helplessness, Kenshin was certain; if he’d just kept his anger from the beginning… well, it was too late for ‘if-only’ thoughts, and he’d been down that path too many times anyway.

And then, suddenly on a cool morning in late October as he was hastening to get the laundry hung so it could dry during the sun’s highest hours, the anger was gone when he most expected, would have welcomed, its presence.

He knew who it was even before the outer door opened, but he didn’t know what to do. As many times as he’d thought out this encounter in his mind, still he had no clear idea of how to react. Except that he knew he must not ‘react,’ for therein lay the helplessness. And he was not helpless. The door slid open, and the doors across his heart slid shut. He would not give Saitou the advantage this time.

He’d unconsciously let down his sleeves and stepped forward to meet the visitor, as he always did, and so it was that they faced each other on the path before the dojo doors. It was a long minute of complete silence as their locked eyes exchanged no information or sentiments and their stiff frames held no indication of any desire to communicate.

Finally Kenshin forced himself to speak, if only to prove that he was not the man he had been. “No flowers today, Saitou?” His voice was cold — so cold — colder than the day around them. He couldn’t be regretting those words even as he spoke them, and yet he was… it was all so pointless. The moment he and Saitou came into contact, everything just became… meaningless.

Saitou didn’t seem to want to look as displeased as he did look, and strove to contain his expression before he spoke. “I’ve been transferred to Hokkaido,” he finally said shortly, and his tone held the same chill as Kenshin’s. “I wanted–” If in that beginning of a phrase there was any softening, any drop from the height of absolute disinterest Saitou was maintaining, or if there would have been in its remainder, Kenshin was never to know.

For at that moment the dojo door burst open and Sano blazed out. “You bastard,” he seethed as the shoji fell from its tracks behind him. The hatred and anger burning in his voice was baffling, and his bearing was that of one who moves to kill. “How dare you show your face here? How dare you fucking talk to Kenshin? As if…” But it seemed that words had failed him, for those were the last to push their way through his gritted teeth, and he threw himself forward with fists trembling.

Kenshin wasn’t sure why, but Sano’s motion had suddenly made it possible for him to move, and before the boy could land more than one hit on the officer who had for some reason remained still (I won’t hurt your friend?), Kenshin had gripped his arms and was holding him back with all his strength. “Sano, Sano,” he was saying desperately, “stop!”

Saitou spared Sano not even a glance; his eyes never strayed from Kenshin’s. He raised a hand to where the kenkaya’s punch had landed, and then turned and walked quickly, almost stiffly, away. If he’d made any further motion — shaken his head, given one hint of a facial expression — Kenshin might have been able to tell… but it was too late. I wanted— Wanted what?

“Let me go, Kenshin,” Sano was growling. “I’m going to fucking kill him. I know you won’t, so I’m going to kill him for you.”

“Sano, no,” Kenshin was saying; “it’s all taken care of; it’s all right.” He found he was not really hearing his words, because he was not really saying what he wished to. Saitou’s name was the one he should be shouting, to bring the man back here to finish that sentence. Why had he come here? Why, after so long, had he reawakened this thing? What did he want, or what had he wanted?

As the doors closed behind the wolf, Kenshin’s grip slackened; fortunately when Sano threw him off he did not pursue the enemy, only turned to face his friend. “I don’t understand this!” he growled. “Why don’t you– why can’t you– dammit, Kenshin, what the fuck is wrong with you? I thought…”

“Sano, it’s over,” Kenshin replied in something near a growl; he suddenly just found himself so desperate for Sano not to be involved in this… He forced himself to say more calmly, “Let it go.”

Sano was shaking his head, slightly as if the motion were difficult, and the look on his face was now one of barely-suppressed horror. “Kenshin,” he said, and it was almost a whisper. “Let it go? the fuck… how can you let it go?”

This was almost too much. Kenshin had to turn away, under the pretense of checking the dojo grounds for anyone who might be listening, to keep Sano from seeing the expression on his face. He wasn’t entirely sure, himself, what that was, which was all the more reason for concealment — Sano didn’t need to know his confusion. Not now when it was all certainly, unmistakably, irrevocably over.

“Kenshin…” The younger man’s voice had calmed a bit, quieted, and sounded now almost hesitant. “You told me the most important thing I ever heard in my life, so now I’m gonna tell you something, and you can judge whether it’s the truth or just some bullshit from a stupid kid.”

Sano paused, as if waiting for Kenshin’s permission to go on, so Kenshin nodded.

“Long as I’ve known you, and I bet even longer than that, you’ve been letting yourself get used. Not–not… not like…” He stammered in shock at his own phrasing. “I mean, you help people and you give everything you have and… and… and you let people… well, someday you’re gonna be used up, and there won’t be any happiness left for you ’cause you’ll have given it all away or let it get taken away or… shit, I’m not making any sense, but what I mean is that you fucking deserve to be happy, and you shouldn’t just let things happen to you because you think… you shouldn’t think you have to just ‘let it go…’ you should be happy, Kenshin. That’s all.”

This had taken longer for Sano to say than it would have seemed it should have, but it was all right; it had given Kenshin a chance to slow his heart and smooth his breathing. He wasn’t sure that he was really taking the words in just yet, but Sano’s desire to help him, Sano’s fierce devotion, he felt clearly. He stepped forward and embraced his friend, which Sano had evidently not been expecting, and murmured something that neither of them, probably, could understand, but which was meant as an expression of appreciation and most likely received as such.

As he drew back, he said more clearly, “Thank you, Sano. I think everything will be all right now.”

And Sano’s earnest face replied silently that he was desperate to believe it would be, and almost convinced that he did.

So. Whatever he could or could not discern, Sano knew that Kenshin was not happy, and his tone of near remonstrance as he insisted that it should be otherwise surprised the rurouni. Was that the solution, then, and Sano knew it better than Kenshin did — that the helplessness was his inability to feel happiness when he logically should? For this, as for so much else, Kenshin had no answer.

It was less than a week later. Returning in the evening from some meaningless, galling errand for Kaoru as usual, finding her smiling and sweet and loving and oblivious and insufficient as always, it was not quite as much of a shock as the ambiguous visit had been, but disconcerting still, when she held out the folded paper toward him. “I don’t know who it’s from,” she was saying a little suspiciously. “The kid who delivered it wouldn’t say.”

“Thank you,” Kenshin replied as he took it. It was very small; men of few words do not need epistles, after all.

Kaoru looked at him with suppressed eagerness, obviously hoping he would open and read it immediately and ease her curiosity. Kenshin turned from her with the routine expert calm deception, but was a little unsettled as his eyes immediately met Sano’s. No curiosity there, only grimly subdued anger. But Kenshin could do and say nothing before Kaoru. With movements almost stiff he turned again, this time toward the door. “Excuse me.”

Kaoru was clearly more curious than ever now, but would obviously content herself with the report she was sure he would give later. Little did she know — about anything that really mattered. But Sano was not so easily thrown off. Kenshin was barely out of the dojo and starting somewhat aimlessly across the yard, the note clenched tightly, unopened, in one hand, before he felt the boy’s agitated presence behind him.

“Sano…” He came to a slow stop, watching the puff of his breath disperse on the heavy, dusk-darkened air.

“Kenshin,” Sano replied, in much the same tone of uncertainty and concern.

“Sano, I have not forgotten what you said last week.” Kenshin found suddenly that he could not bear to face his friend; there was something significant about this exchange, and he feared… he did not know what, exactly, he feared. “I appreciated it.” Now he did not know what, exactly, he was saying. “Thank you for being such a good friend to me.”

Seeming to relax slightly, as if he’d been expecting something else that he would have liked less, Sano replied quietly, “I meant it. You do whatever you need to do to be happy. It’s your turn.” He sounded sad, and Kenshin wondered, again, if perhaps Sano comprehended things better than Kenshin did at this point. It wouldn’t surprise him.

“Thank you.” Still without looking back, Kenshin walked slowly into the shadowy woods to read.

It was very dim by the pool, and as night approached the air was growing frigid. Almost without thought on the location Kenshin seated himself at the water’s edge, in a spot that was so familiar and yet in this greyness, this chill, seemed as alien as the paper in his hand. After not too long, the pond would probably freeze over, but it could scarcely make him feel any colder.

He opened the note.

There was no greeting, nor was there a signature, but for these there was no need. The words on the paper were simply, “I’m sorry,” but, meeting the infallible standard, there was more to it than that. So much more.

Kenshin stared at it until he could no longer see it, wondering at the effect of one man’s impatience on minds and lives and fates, wondering at the clement emotions that would name selfish cruelty ‘impatience.’ As the stars, painfully clear, sparked into life in the sky, he looked out over the water at their reflection and recalled that the last time he had done so, he had not been alone. It was a hated memory, but he wished it were not. He realized after a moment that he had torn the note to shreds with numb, absent, vengeful hands.

He did not know how long he sat motionless among the cattails in the moonless dark, thinking about a thousand things that might have been and wondering where the true helplessness lay… was it in the pain, in the desire, or in the belief that things had happened the only way they could have? Perhaps he’d always been helpless, and happiness would therefore always be just beyond his grasp.

He counted the times he’d acted on someone else’s will. He counted the times he’d allowed himself to feel one way or another just because it was easier. He counted the times he’d said ‘yes’ when he meant ‘no.’

He counted the times he’d waited for happiness to blow into his hands, a statue trying to catch flower-petals in a high wind.

You should be happy, Kenshin.

I’m sorry.

He stood up. In the midst of all that he did not and could not know, one thing he understood well was that while some scars never healed, others at times did so unexpectedly. Perhaps if he could counter impatience with patience, he would learn which type of wound this was, and discover what he should do next; if it had healed, if the clemency remained…

It was possible that patience was helplessness, another name for passivity or cowardice, but although right now he felt he couldn’t comprehend any of it, he believed he could take that chance.

He stepped to the edge of the bank and reached out his hand. Stiff with cold and unwilling to unclench, it took some effort to let go, but once he opened it, his heart seemed lightened somehow as the bits of paper fluttered silently toward the still, black, star-flecked water. I’m sorry, they said, even long after they’d disappeared. I’m sorry.

So am I, Kenshin replied, and turned away into the darkness in the opposite direction of the dojo.

The case Saitou had been sent here to solve, though engrossing and distracting, had been soon closed, and after that had come the usual small-time nonsense he could deal with in his sleep. It was almost as if destiny had arranged the transfer specifically to give him time and opportunity to think about everything he’d been consistently pushing to the back of his mind for the last few months.

He had never begged anyone for anything in his life, least of all forgiveness. But if he’d had Himura Kenshin in front of him, he would have done it.

This Sapporo office was no different from any other office he’d ever inhabited, and his desk here was just as neat as any other he’d ever used. Paperwork and written evidence organized in easily-accessible stacks seemed to build a wall around him as he sat, protecting him from the stupidity of his subordinates, the prying of other investigators, and the meaningless appeals of the masses. It also boxed him in like a prison, keeping him and his thoughts in a tightly-enclosed space, forcing him for long hours on end to look at himself and what he’d done.

It hadn’t been necessary. He’d never considered it necessary. That had merely been his excuse, and that only at the beginning. He’d just… wanted him… so much and so unexpectedly that he’d jumped on the justification “I’m doing this to prove a point” without admitting that there were ways of proving that point, other means to that end, that were infinitely more worthy of him.

And why? Why had he given in to his desire so easily, and in a manner so heinous? The desire itself, which, though unprecedented, was perfectly natural, wasn’t the source of his shame; rather, it was the laziness that marked taking as easier than being given, and the cowardice that lauded it as a much surer thing.

He was filling out a report by rote as he entertained these thoughts — which had also become well-trodden territory, though without the paperwork’s subsequent potential for being almost completely ignored. But now as he looked down, he couldn’t help noting the coincidence of just having written “diligence” (in reference to a slightly less-than-incompetent subordinate) and used one of the same kanji he would to write “lazy.”

Since when had he ever been lazy or cowardly? It was almost impossible to believe, and looking back he did not know himself. But there it was: the possibility of rejection — the probability, more accurately — had led him not even to make the attempt. Too impatient to wait for a better moment to offer, too self-centered to look beyond his own desires — but in the end, he felt, it all came back to laziness and cowardice. He lazy. He a coward. He, Saitou Hajime. It was what he told himself on a daily, perhaps hourly basis, but it was still a struggle just to see that perspective, let alone believe.

The second stage of his crime, at least, made sense, though it did him just as little credit. Pride and an accompanying self-deception had upheld what laziness and cowardice had instigated. He’d pretended he still thought he was adhering to his “point,” he’d pretended it was the only way to keep Himura in line. He’d pretended, now that he thought about it, that Himura wanted it as much as he did but was too weak to admit it — that Saitou was the only thing between the two of them and the tragic loss of a good thing.

A good thing…!

At times like this, he often found his hand moving seemingly of its own volition to the breast pocket of his jacket and stilling when it found nothing there. He didn’t smoke anymore, which was more a form of self-punishment than any consideration of health. Now, fist clenched against his breast as if to mark the beating of his faithless heart, he sat still as the dark reflections marched inevitably onward.

The awareness of his own infamy had been all along growing steadily and subtly, while he played games with Himura — sometimes verbal, sometimes otherwise — in which he could refer to their unfortunate situation carelessly, with levity even. Had he convinced himself that Himura’s half of those word-games were in that same facetious spirit? Himura was also not the type to beg for things, and Saitou should have known that. Had known that. But he simply had not been able to admit, even to himself, that he’d done wrong, had stubbornly persisted in that wrong even when the self-loathing had risen to just beneath his skin, determined to prove himself right.

And even now he could not admit he’d been entirely at fault. He couldn’t suppress the belief that there had been something… he couldn’t write off as self-delusion the signs that Himura had given of wishing, not that it would cease, but that it could be different. Yet since that played straight into the frame of mind that had kept the thing going for so long, Saitou pushed it away with all the force of logic he could muster.

With a deep breath, he took up his pen again, compelling himself to finish the performance assessment he was writing. After that there was the recent robbery case review to look over before he submitted it.

He had never been a compassionate man, but he was not immune to the sensation. And as the knowledge of the true nature of his behavior had come closer and closer to the surface, and as he had become more and more deeply attached to his victim (god, it was hard even now to think of him that way), that little-used sensibility of consideration for the feelings of others, that awareness of and response to the suffering of another person — not of Himura’s physical status or usefulness or even the mental distinction between Kenshin and Battousai — had come into greater prominence.

It was a new take on an old exercise — putting himself in someone else’s place, now not to predict their next move or use their mental or emotional state against them, but simply to try to feel what they were feeling, to understand their point of view. And the reactions that should have been fundamentally obvious suddenly took on new dimensions and hit home: the shame, the anger, the helplessness, the despair….

Saitou thought it was safe to say that Himura was stronger than he was.

His one consolation was that he had managed to give it up at last. When it had finally gotten through to him that clinging to this behavior was doing more than simply retaining for himself a pleasure he ought to have earned rather than stolen, that he was, in fact, continually wounding the one person he’d ever understood to that extent, the one person that had ever moved him to that level of pure compassion, the one person he’d ever…

No, he didn’t dare use that word. He wasn’t worthy of it.

But at least he’d given it up.

Some consolation.

How he got through each day with thoughts like these, with the awareness of what he’d done and what he was bombarding him, he didn’t know. It never stopped. Investigations and reports and the mundanities of everyday life and sometimes even the awareness of his surroundings all vanished behind it; it was before him and around him and atop him, a crushing weight he would not have felt it appropriate to shrug off even if he could have.

There was a persistent voice in his head telling him that seppuku was his only honorable option at this point.

To this a louder (for now) mental voice replied impatiently that he was no longer in the Shinsengumi. His work was important; it would be stupid to leave the world while he could still do so much good. Moreover, it would be selfish.

And yet, wondered the first voice, how could he continue to give himself more quarter than he gave his enemies?

Aku Soku Zan. What happened to it?

An unexpected voice pointed out that even an honorable suicide could hardly be a decent apology to a man that had chosen life as atonement for his sins.

Another voice merely laughed bitterly at the irony of Saitou Hajime committing seppuku over the Hitokiri Battousai.

He didn’t know which of these voices was right — if any — but he was fairly certain atonement didn’t, couldn’t enter into his considerations. He would do anything, anything, if he thought there was anything to be done. But there wasn’t. He could not atone for his crimes… and, as such, seppuku seemed a meaningless gesture. So for the moment, whatever was or wasn’t right, he was going with the option that had him getting on with his work.

If he’d had this attitude-altering experience as a younger man, lives might have been saved.

Not that he called this much of a life… hating himself, regretting the last year’s worth of choices, and having decided to live only for now, only for his work, with no anticipation of future happiness…

Like ears listening so hard for a summons that they fabricated the sound over and over and over long before it came, he was constantly under the impression that he sensed Himura’s presence nearby when he didn’t and never would again. It was trivial and little more than irritating, but it was just one more part of his endless punishment: a falsification of sense that would never let him forget, never allow him to let go.

And yet today… There was movement in his office, but he had no desire to look up and greet whoever was intruding on his dubious peace — and not even so much because his subordinates were all so incompetent as because he couldn’t bear having the illusion shattered again, having his deceptive senses corrected about the identity of his visitor. The robbery case review couldn’t really hold his attention, but it was better than looking up.

“Sir?” He knew he’d become more irritable and inscrutable to the general police force than ever before, but even that couldn’t account for the hesitance and confusion in the voice that hailed him now. Vaguely curious, he finally looked up. He rarely remembered their names anymore; it was the man with the receding hairline and the overbite. But now Saitou barely took in even these identifying details as his eyes were dragged to and locked on the man’s open hand.

For in the latter lay a large, perfect blood-red anemone to which the entire world seemed suddenly to have narrowed in an abrupt, heart-stopping constriction.

“Where did you get that?” His voice sounded choked and distant.

“Someone sent me to give it to you with a message.”

“What message?” It was almost a whisper now, since he had no breath left in him and couldn’t seem to draw any. His lungs, like the rest of him, were paralyzed.

“He told me to tell you, ‘It’s your turn,’ sir.”

A very long silence followed.

He knew down to the very last detail what that meant. It wasn’t a possibility he’d ever considered as part of his willingness to “do anything,” probably because even from Himura he hadn’t expected this degree of clemency. For some time he sat rigidly still and silent, while the other man fidgeted and looked confused.

The naysayers were those thoughts and emotions that couldn’t agree on a better solution, and in favor was the one emotion for which he’d never blamed himself — all equally incoherent. But Saitou wasn’t really engaged in any legitimate decision-making process during this time, consequent upon his faculties being in some kind of severe shock. So it was perhaps fortunate that in the end it wasn’t really much of a choice.

He found himself standing, with little to no recollection of having willed himself to do so.

He found himself setting aside his work as if it had never existed.

He found himself reaching out, taking the anemone in a hand that almost didn’t seem to be his own, though the coolness and texture of the flower was more precisely apparent to him than it had ever been before.

He found himself with no clear idea of what the future held, only of what he must and would do.

“Where is he?” he asked.

For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log. I can’t decide what to rate it, so it gets a . What do you think of it?


Pride of her Parents 1

…a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness…

A simple Shapierian thief finds herself become something she never wanted to be, and must embark on her own quest across Glorianna to redeem herself and reunite with the Hero she loves.


Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue



1
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
2
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
3-4
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
5-6
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
7
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
8
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
9
Chapter 9 - On the Road
10
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
11
Chapter 11 - New Quests
12
Chapter 12 - Silmaria
Chapter 13 - Looking Forward
Chapter 14 - Various Ends
Chapter 15 - Forms of Hell
Chapter 16 - Horror and Heartache
Chapter 17 - Dance of Destinies
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels


Chapter 1 – A Mistake

“We think you are ready to learn the thief sign,” announced Manta as the day’s training commenced, looking and sounding somber as usual. In careful, slow demonstration, he crossed his eyes, put his thumb to his nose, wiggled the remaining fingers of that hand, and rubbed his stomach with the other.

En Shevil, despite the long years she’d waited to learn the gesture that would be nearly the final step in her journal toward being an official thief, just could not help but giggle at the sight. The sound had barely left her mouth when Kylur was at her side, startling her. En Shevil’s early memories were of Manta and Kylur teaching her stealth, but even after eighteen years she was still unused to them appearing next to her at any given moment. Naturally they were completely silent — katta were like that, after all.

“This is a very serious thing, child,” said Kylur. “If you do not know the sign, you run the risk of a knife in your back.”

“I know,” En Shevil replied, putting a hand over her mouth to hide her amused smile. “I wish you’d taught it to me earlier…”

“We couldn’t have you running around making the sign to people until we felt you were old enough to handle yourself properly. Anywhere that there is no guild, one must be more cautious.”

En Shevil had often thought that the couple who had raised her were just about the only dishonest katta in all of Shapier. Manta had explained once that in the old days, there had been a sophisticated thievery system among the katta of Shapier, which had then been abolished when humans had muscled their way into the country. Now En Shevil planned to revive thievery in the city of Shapier, if she could, although she was a human. And perhaps it was this lofty ambition that had led her parents to be so wary of letting her spread her thiefly wings before they were sure of her ability — in any other country, she was sure, she would have learned something as essential as the thief sign years ago. Or perhaps it was just the guild thing.

“Try it,” said Manta, showing her the sign again. She attempted to copy him, but fell to giggling once more. “Very well,” sighed her foster-father, as always making a bigger deal of it than En Shevil would have thought he should. “We will do something else until you have regained your self-control.”

“I’m sorry,” she said with enforced calmness. “I’m ready to try seriously.” For a second time she made the sign.

“Move your fingers more regularly,” said Kylur sharply. En Shevil tried again, accustomed to her parents demanding perfection in even the simplest things but still laughing inwardly.

Once she had mastered the ridiculous move by their exacting standards, she was guided through the same process with the countersign and left to her own devices to practice. And as she had no desire to sit around in the back room at home doing this, she headed out to wander the streets.

She smiled at the guards as they passed her. There were usually guards patrolling Jamal Darb, it being so close to the palace. She hurried down that street and turned onto Hawa Darb, whence she went with a light step to the Plaza of the Palace.

There she loitered, watching people pass by and trying not to make eye contact with the merchants, any of whom would talk your ear off if you let them get started. She’d once tried to rob the silly jewel merchant by slipping into his window at night; however, he had awakened and she’d been forced to retreat. If Manta and Kylur had ever found out about that one…

Well, once she earned her lockpick — then she’d really have fun. Her foster-parents would not give her a lockpick until she had proven herself capable of using, concealing, and caring for one to their satisfaction. This, of course, was because there was no Thieves’ Guild in the city and therefore no aid for the hapless thief who got careless and got caught. Well, that and her revival ambition.

She decided to practice her latest skill. No one responded. With a sigh, she headed down Sultan Darb toward the Fountain Plaza. She made the thief sign to everyone she met along the way, but no countersign.

Oh, wonderful, she thought sarcastically as she reached the plaza. Omar… There, indeed, sat the ridiculous poet on a rug by the western door, spouting out some rhyming nonsense about honor. Just like every time she looked at him, she got the feeling she had seen him somewhere before, but it didn’t exactly matter as she couldn’t stand to be around him for more than five seconds. Next to him stood Ja’afar, the tall man who ‘translated’ the old idiot’s blather into plain language. His eyes seemed to be everywhere, and he always looked as if he had a secret.

Having no desire to put up with any of the old man’s sad excuse for poetry, En Shevil hurried away. A little annoyed at being denied her favorite spot, she ambled on through the city, slowly and leisurely, practicing the thief sign to kill time before she could return.

When she did so, Omar was gone from the plaza. On the ground where he had been, something glinted. En Shevil thought as she bent to pick it up, Stupid old man! I don’t think he’s ever done a reading here and not left something behind. Still, his loss was her gain, so she didn’t exactly curse his stupidity.

It was a pin, the kind commonly made by katta and very lovely — and better yet, rather expensive-looking. She glanced around casually to see that everyone was busy with their own affairs, and shoved it into her pocket. Quite a prize for a sharp-eyed thief.

When she reached the Plaza of the Palace on her way home, the sun had set and the merchants were gone. She sped up, eager for the night’s practice. Since Manta and Kylur’s legal trade was cushionry, a stand in the bazaar was out of the question, there being simply not enough room to display their wares, so they worked out of their own home. Thus, thievery lessons could only be conducted after dark when the door was locked for the night. Of course, Manta sometimes taught her the odd skill, as today, in the back room on slow days, but usually En Shevil was put to work doing chores, sewing, or running errands.

She bowed politely as she passed a late-staying customer at the door, and Manta locked the latter as she closed it. “Your mother has only finished dinner,” he said. “As usual, you’re just in time.”

They went into the kitchen and sat at the table while Kylur brought over their food on trays. “Lamb felafas again?” groaned En Shevil.

Kylur laughed as she took her place at the table, for this was an old complaint. “You know they’re your father’s favorite.”

“I know,” sighed the girl, poking reluctantly at her tray.

“Tonight’s task is a bedroom robbery,” said Kylur after supper.

“Wonderful,” replied En Shevil. She loved this type of exercise.

“You need to go in, find anything of value, take it, and get out. Manta will be the sleeping resident.” Kylur handed En Shevil a lockpick. “Go!”

She concealed most of the tool in her hand as she worked, bent over the lock on the bedroom door, ready to pull out and look innocent should Kylur decide to play guard. Quicker than it ever had before, the lock snapped and the door opened. En Shevil stepped quickly into the dark room and shut it softly, lest the light from outside waken the ‘sleeper.’ She paused to let her eyes adjust.

Here, she knew, katta had an advantage over humans with their ability to see in the dark and their sharper senses. However, with the techniques her parents had taught her, the darkness grew clearer, and she began to pick her way across to a chest in the corner.

Scouring the room took her less than two minutes, and soon she was out with the valuables in her pockets and arms. “You made very good time,” began Kylur as En Shevil spread the items before her, “and it looks as if you found everything.”

“That is not all she’s done,” said Manta, emerging from the bedroom.

“Oh, wonderful,” groaned En Shevil. “What now?” Manta was always more strict than Kylur. But as she looked at him, she realized that his expression was one of amazement.

“If I hadn’t been watching you the whole time, I would not have known that you were there. I don’t know where you found the time to practice, but it’s certainly paid off. I don’t think we need do any more stealth exercises.”

En Shevil was hard-pressed to conceal her astonishment. Though she would never argue with praise, this was beyond her. Practice? Not she! And though she felt she had done remarkably well that night, she couldn’t believe she had been quiet enough to evade katta hearing.

“Oh, yes,” she said absently, handing the lockpick to Kylur. “Here.”

“Keep it,” the woman said, looking at Manta for confirmation that he swiftly gave. “You’ve earned it.”

The thrill of this soon faded, however: she found after not many days that most people barred their doors, and she would have to earn a whole different set of tools to get past that barrier. Those that did not take this caution rarely owned anything worth money, but she soon taught them to be more scrupulous.

She didn’t know how or where her parents fenced the goods she brought them, but she was content for now with the small income she was bringing in. The one thing she could never bear to part with was the pin she had found.

There was something fascinating about it. It was shaped like a griffin with a blue gem in its chest and obviously very valuable, but somehow she did not want to sell it; it seemed precious to her somehow, although she could not tell why. She took to wearing it on her shirt wherever she went, removing it only when Omar was seen in the Fountain Plaza.

Nearly two months, and six robberies, later, she was wandering Shmali Tarik and happened to look down to that strange purple door with the eye painted on it. She knew the sorceress Aziza lived there, but En Shevil had never seen her. On a whim, she grinned and altered her course. I wonder what kind of valuables a sorceress keeps.

She slid her lockpick from the metal band that held her blonde hair. The latter, a color unusual to desert-dwellers, had always made her suspect that she had been born of parents from somewhere north and east, specifically Spielburg. Because of this, she had always kept up with the news thence, and it was a point of interest to her that recently the long-lost daughter of Stefan von Spielburg had finally been returned to him. But En Shevil did not know the details — something to do with brigands — and hadn’t been able to hear them anywhere.

Returning to the task at hand, the thief pushed the pick gently into the lock and gave it a slight twist as a test. There was a snapping sound, and an abrupt jolt of unexpected pain stabbed through her. She jerked back her hand as she fell to the ground, her fingers closing reflexively over the tool. The pain seemed to echo in her body, throbbing sullenly and slowly fading. Clutching the lockpick tightly, she lay curled up on the street for how long she knew not.

Teach me to mess with a sorceress, she thought painfully. Chest pounding, she hauled herself up the wall, slipping halfway and sluggishly growing stronger. As she finally stumbled to her feet, she conjectured that another attack like that would kill her. She decided it would be wise to go home. Throwing a look over her shoulder at the door, she shuffled haltingly back up the street, bent over and holding her chest with her left arm while replacing her lockpick with her right. She had only gone a few paces when she was forced to stop and lean, gasping, against the wall once again. Movement awakened physical memories of that pain. And all the while she was wondering whether the door had merely been enchanted or if Aziza had been watching her the entire time. She fervently hoped the first, rather than the second, to be true. And thus, slowly, she made her way home.

After being confined to the house for a week, partly as punishment for being so foolish and partly so that she could recover, she was finally free again, and so she went out to wander the streets. She noted with interest a new inn at Gates Plaza, but decided to defer making her first curious visit to a later date. She was in a thoughtful mood, and preferred not to meet people. So she mostly avoided the plazas.

She did not pay attention to where she was until she turned a corner and suddenly heard shouting. She looked around, realizing that she stood on Dinar Tarik and that around the next turn was the shop of the money changer, who seemed to be having an argument with someone.

En Shevil crept to the meeting of the walls, crouched, and peered around. In front of Dinarzaad’s window stood a disgustingly muscular, half-clothed man with no hair. Even the money changer’s guard, standing close by with sword drawn, looked dwarfed by him. En Shevil realized that she had seen him somewhere before. Yes… he kept one of the shops in town.

“–talk to you however I want!” he was shouting.

“Issur, I won’t, and that’s my last word,” responded Dinarzaad, her tone equally loud.

“Yes, you will!” said Issur, whom En Shevil finally remembered to be the weapon maker from the Fighters Plaza.

“All right, that’s it,” said Dinarzaad, spreading her arms out on the sill. “We’re through. No more relationship. The End.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it,” he jeered, “but remember — you got mad at me, I never got mad at you.” He pointed at himself and her with the appropriate words. This statement did not seem to En Shevil particularly intelligent, relevant, or true, and she guessed that it concerned a previous argument, or the part of this one that she’d missed.

“I want my pin back,” said Dinarzaad.

“No way,” said Issur immediately. “That was a gift.”

“It was a loan!” she protested, her voice rising once again.

“You wanna take it to the sultan?” snarled Issur. “Fine. Hope he don’t ask where you got it. Or look too close at it.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded, pointing.

“Fine,” he snapped. “And remember, I’m not mad.”

En Shevil had barely time to press herself into the corner before Issur stormed past. Fortunately, he was too not-angry to notice her presence. Only when he was a safe distance down the street did she move, and to the sound of Dinarzaad’s near-scream of frustration walk into the tiny dead end Issur had just left.

“I’m closed,” the woman said sharply, reaching for the shutter of her window.

“Wait!” En Shevil said, stepping hastily up to the sill. She leaned forward. “I can get your pin back for you.”

Dinarzaad laughed darkly. “I like that. And I suppose you’re going to find Arus al-Din, may he live forever, as well?” En Shevil made the thief sign, just for good measure, as she prepared to speak again. Then she noticed that Dinarzaad was staring at her. “Where did you get that pin you’re wearing?” the woman asked softly. En Shevil glanced nervously at the guard who had replaced his sword and stood now by the wall. “Don’t worry,” the money changer assured her, “Franc does not speak or write. He knows my business. So, effenda thief, where did you get that?”

“I found it,” said En Shevil cautiously. “Why?”

“It’s a match to mine,” said Dinarzaad. “Mine which that jackass Issur has.”

“I can get it back for you,” said En Shevil eagerly, “if you’ll tell me where to go. And also, why is it so special?”

“I’ll tell you why they’re special if you can bring mine back, and I’ll also give you a hundred dinars.”

“Deal,” said the thief with excitement — Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective employer, Kylur had drilled into her, but it was difficult to restrain how thrilled she was at having received her first commission at such a high price.

Dinarzaad, who seemed rather amused at En Shevil’s eagerness, proceeded to give her directions. “One more thing,” she added as the girl turned to leave. “What’s your name?”

“En Shevil,” replied she.

“Pretty name,” said the money changer, repeating it. “That’s the old katta language, isn’t it? What does it mean?”

“‘Pride of her parents,'” said the thief.

The dark-haired beauty at the window smiled. “Would your parents be proud of you if they knew what you’re planning?”

“Oh, they would,” En Shevil assured her.

***

“Hey, kid!” En Shevil grabbed the arm of a hooky-playing child who ran past her at the eastern end of the Plaza of the Fighters.

“Leggo,” protested the child.

“Wait. Can you read yet?” En Shevil glanced towards the Guild Hall and back down at the kid. Then she looked up again, briefly. Before the hall stood a familiar rig of stands and rope; Agi the Agile was back to mock the uncoordinated Shapierians yet again.

“‘Course I can,” said the child proudly.

En Shevil let go his arm and crouched down to his level. “I’ll give you two dinars if you’ll take this into the Guild Hall and read it to Uhura.” And she held out a scrap of paper.

The kid stuck out his chin and looked at her. “Two fifty.”

“All right, fine, whatever,” said En Shevil impatiently, wanting very much to watch Agi: someone had accepted his challenge. “I’ll give you half now and half when you come back.” She counted the money out from her pocket and handed it to the kid, who scampered off in the same direction En Shevil now took.

It was the day after she had acquired her first official job as a thief, and being made to run errands all morning did not serve to take her mind off of it. At least she had escaped seeing Uhura. She joined the small, disinterested crowd around Agi’s tightrope. On the first platform stood a man whom she could only assume was the newly-arrived “Hero.” His hair was the same color as hers, and he looked slightly taller than she was.

She watched his blue-clad back as he began to walk the rope. En Shevil, four years ago, had taken Agi’s challenge, and had spent the entire day earning bruises and a bump on the head before she’d learned it. Usually now, each time he appeared, she would accept near the end of the day, provided no one else had, just to show his audience that it could actually be done. She was the only one in town, though, who had bothered to master this fairly useless skill. Now it seemed she had competition. She was amazed, really, at how well he did this, certain he must have learned it somewhere else and was just showing off. She would have waited for him to finish to ask him about it, but her child-helper emerged from the Guild Hall when the Hero was only halfway across the rope.

“She said, ‘that fine,'” the kid told her.

“Thanks, that was a real help,” said En Shevil, giving him the rest of his money. “Now, you better get to school before some guard finds you.” Shapierian children usually attended school until they were ten. Then, if they wanted further education, they would have to go elsewhere or seek an apprenticeship.

The child skipped off happily, and En Shevil hurried towards home and the rest of her chores, with only a brief backward glance at the man from Spielburg. He had reached the other platform and was climbing down the rope.

He must have done it before.

After dark that night, En Shevil crept from her house and headed in a state of high anticipation for the Fighters Plaza. At the doorway to Saif Darb, she paused, taking a deep breath and looking around. The plaza was shadowy, the brown-yellow stone appearing almost blue in the moonlight. As all spring nights were in the desert, the evening was warm, but a cool breeze floated down from the tops of the mountains, and she shivered — but that might have been with excitement.

There was a sudden noise to her right, and she jumped back into the doorway as a stream of light fell onto the ground from the door of the Guild Hall. She laughed at herself for being so nervous. It couldn’t be more than some idle traveler who had lingered talking to the Simbani woman.

Besides her glimpse that morning, En Shevil had heard only sketchy reports of the Hero, she having never been one for gossip, and her curiosity was merely idle interest in the fact that he came from Spielburg. But all of that changed when she had a close view of him, for he was by far the handsomest man she had ever seen.

Before he could escape her, she stepped from the street and said clearly in the merchants’ common tongue, “Good evening, effendi.”

He looked startled, and turned to face her. Then with a half smile he said, “Good evening.” She was glad now that she had managed to pick up on the language used by merchants worldwide during her time helping Manta and Kylur’s foreign customers. Neither of them had ever bothered to teach her. “Why out so late?”

“Well, I…” she found herself tongue-tied, and could not have explained why. Seeing her expression, he raised his hands, and, to her total amazement, made the thief sign. Shocked, she clumsily made the countersign, and as if with one accord they both headed out of the plaza and onto Saif Darb where they could talk.

“I saw you earlier today… what’s your name?” he asked.

“En Shevil,” she said, trying not to notice how pleasantly muscular he was — in a laid-back, active way, not like Issur’s carefully-developed body.

“I’m Achim, from Spielburg.”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “I’ve been wondering about you.” That was a lie — at least it would have been two minutes earlier — but it was a way to get him talking. “Did you really save Elsa von Spielburg from brigands?”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said, rubbing his neck thoughtfully. “It’s rather a long story.”

“Well, do you have time?” she asked. He looked at her, and she got the impression that he found her attractive. Good.

“Why not?” he said. “See, I was born in the northern part of Spielburg, not near the actual town or the barony at all. I wanted to be a Hero, so I applied to the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School……”

His story went on, and eventually shifted into talk and laughter between them. Suddenly En Shevil was conscious that the greenish light from the torches on the walls was not responsible for the glow around them. “Sunrise!” she exclaimed, jumping up. “I’ve got to get home!”

Achim yawned. “I suppose I should get some sleep.” He looked up at her. “I’m sorry I took you from your — er — job,” he said. “Can I see you again some time?”

“Of course!” she replied, probably with too much enthusiasm. Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective romantic interest, she chided herself, but, hey, she’d never been this attracted to a guy before.

“What about tomorrow — I suppose it’s tonight, now — here, at sunset?”

“Wonderful!” she said, and then changed her mind. “No, I really need to get this job done. What about, well, really tomorrow?” She had lowered her voice, hearing the bustle of the merchants in the brightening plaza beyond.

He stood up and looked down at her with a most engaging half-smile. “All right. Goodbye.” The smile turned into a grin that made her heart beat faster, then headed out into the plaza along with the rest of him. When he was gone, she realized she had forgotten to say goodbye.

That day dragged on, and on, and on, anticipation for the coming robbery making the time stretch terribly. Also, she was unused to staying out all night, so she was abnormally tired. There was no escape from her work, either: the forerider of a caravan that would arrive tomorrow or the day after had ordered a whole set of light sleeping-cushions, the kind generally used by large caravans going a long way.

Fortunately, she wasn’t imprisoned in the workroom the entire time; her parents did have a few errands for her. It was mid-afternoon, and she had been shopping for about three quarters of an hour, when she stopped by Gates Plaza to visit the forerider at the inn with some questions. She almost dropped the bundle she was carrying, though, when she reached the end of Junub Tarik and looked out onto the plaza.

The merchants were gone, along with their stands and blankets; not a soul was visible. The plaza’s on fire! Of course the plaza was not “on fire,” it being constructed primarily of stone — but fire was rife before her eyes in a roughly man-shaped pillar of flame that raced, dancing, from wall to wall.

En Shevil stood enraptured, staring at the beautiful flickering figure that seemed aimless, without thought, as it circled the plaza again and again. Until the voice spoke in her ear a second time she did not even mark its presence. “En Shevil?”

“Uh?”

“I did get it right, didn’t I? En Shevil?”

It was Achim. “Yes,” she said in a slightly gasping tone, turning to find his face disconcertingly close to hers.

“An elemental.” He pointed out around her to the plaza.

“I noticed.”

“Omar warned about it the other night, and I didn’t take him seriously.”

She giggled. “Who could?”

He echoed her reaction. “I have to… I’m the Hero.” Striking a pose, he put his hand to the hilt of one of the daggers sheathed at his side.

She giggled again. “So that means you’re going to get rid of it, right?”

He looked sheepish. “Do I have to?”

“Of course!” Then she reconsidered. “Well, maybe you should let some wizard handle it.”

“But… I’m the Hero.” He jumped from his second, more dramatic pose into a jog out to the middle of the plaza. Withdrawing a waterskin from his pack, he fell into step behind the creature and attempted to douse it.

With an angry flare the elemental sparked and spun violently away from him, not diminishing in size. En Shevil was afraid for a moment that it was going to return and attack him, but it only continued its random movement from wall to wall. Achim stuck out his lip in annoyance and went after it again. After three or four fruitless attempts to corner and extinguish, Achim retreated to the security of the street once again. “I’m out of water,” he said, scratching his head.

“I don’t think it’s going to work anyway,” she replied. “It’s too strong for a little bit of water.”

“No, it’s just too fast. I need to get it into the street where it can’t dodge around.”

En Shevil backed away from the door onto the plaza. “Wonderful idea… count me out.”

“I don’t know how to do it anyway,” he replied with a shrug, turning and following her. “I’ll go get some more water.”

With a glance back at the brightly-lit plaza, she walked beside him.

As Achim filled his waterskin at the fountain, En Shevil looked around, trying to think of a way to help. The sign above the apothecary’s door caught and held her eye. “Harik,” she murmured.

“What was that?”

“The apothecary’s name is Harik; that means ‘fire.'” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, I guess…”

“But any clues I could gather would help,” Achim finished.

“I’ll stay here,” En Shevil said nervously, sitting down on the side of the fountain as Achim headed towards the red-brown door of the apothecary’s shop. A moment later she moved to the other side to avoid the sparkling glare that the sun cast into her eyes off of the brass merchant’s extensive wares. Thus her back was to him when he reemerged, flicking her ear for attention. “Any luck?”

“Hmm…” He held up a metal box that smelled of incense. “He said I should try and lure the thing with this. Hopefully once it’s in the street, I can get rid of it.”

En Shevil, who was looking at the sun, said ruefully, “I’d come and watch, but I’ve gotta get going — more errands for my parents.”

“You’ve got to let me meet your parents sometime,” was his unexpected response. “All that stuff you said about them last night was interesting.”

She blushed and jumped up. “Well, tell me about how you dealt with that thing tomorrow, all right?”

“All right. Goodbye.”

That night, after practicing the finding and securing of valuables quickly in a dark room to improve her speed, she bolted for the door. “Where are you going?” asked Kylur.

“Out,” replied En Shevil, standing on one foot with agitation. She had been taught not even to tell her parents what she was planning in the way of thievery, if she could avoid it, so that if she were caught they could truthfully say in the face of magic-wielding judges that they had not known of her plans.

“Where?” asked her mother nevertheless.

“To rob someone, where else?” said En Shevil, dying to be gone.

“Well, don’t stay out all night again,” said Kylur. “And don’t get caught!” she added. But En Shevil was already halfway down the street.

Saif Darb was quiet and stuffy, the torches burning silently in the heavy air. En Shevil, excited, was practically skipping down the street, counting doors until she reached Issur’s house. She paused, listening, raising her hand to her hair band but not removing her lockpick. No noise, no light. That made sense, as it was after midnight. She pulled out her lockpick and set to, opening the door in almost no time at all.

Her brow furrowed as she saw the room. Ridiculously Spartan, it consisted of a door in the right and left walls, a wooden table with chairs against the opposite, a stool, and a large cabinet next to the door on the left. Swords, spears, maces, axes, scimitars, and so on leaned against the walls or stood neatly stacked on the floor. He uses his home as a warehouse! she thought in wonder; how inconvenient!

She went first to the cabinet, but inside she found only mail shirts hung in rows. She decided to try one of the two doors, and randomly chose the one to the right. Silently she opened it, and crept into the bedroom beyond. It was quite different from the room preceding.

Though the only furnishings, a bed and a round-topped chest, were as plain as those in the main room, the walls were crowded with ornate shields, matching sets of beautifully-designed weaponry, and a huge embroidered banner bearing the letters “EOF.” She was startled to notice that the bed was empty, but she wasted no time wondering. Going to the chest against the wall and picking the padlock, she thought, How strange: He doesn’t bar his door but puts a padlock on the chest in his bedroom.

A sickening smell of must and sweat arose as the lid creaked open. Inside was clothing she did not pause to examine, thrown in haphazardly along with a few other miscellaneous items of no value clustered in heaps under the smelly cloth. She did not spare a thought on them. Instead she let the lid down gently and snapped the padlock shut. She stood and went to the bed. Underneath she found a trap door, but surmised that to lift the heavy wooden square would require moving the bed, something she doubted she could do at all, let alone quietly.

On one side was a small fireplace she had not noticed, unused until the mild nighttime cold of winter. In the deep black of its interior, something glinted, which was impossible since there was no light in the room. She took a step closer, and the glint was repeated, and this time she started as it was answered by a tiny flash from the pin on her shirt. After recovering from her surprise, she began to think that this was rather cute — they were talking to each other. Wonderful.

She knelt by the fire and reached hesitantly in. Her hand contacted something just below the first layer of fire debris, and she grasped it and drew it out, the ash falling from it as she shook her hand. It was indeed the pin, she knew, for it flashed once more. It seemed an exact replica of hers, save that the gem was red. She shoved it hastily in her pocket, stood and headed for the other room.

She had hardly closed the door, however, when she knew something was wrong. She could see far too well. Light flooded in, diffusing from its horizontal origin under the other door, as well as the sound of harsh voices laughing. Whence had they come? Not from the street — En Shevil would have heard them from the bedroom. There must be another exit in the left-hand room. Who would have imagined the weapon maker to have — or want — such a large house?

Unfortunately, En Shevil lingered too long wondering. She was suddenly blinded as the door opened in a burst of light. She could see nothing for a moment, but heard Issur’s surprised, “What?” Then he roared, “Thief!” and sprang at her. It was only by pure luck that she evaded his huge arms and reached the outside door, but as she flung it open and bolted, a hand reached for her and snapped on her shirt, the semi-gauzy cloth of which ripped as she pulled away. She guessed that she had left a piece of it in her pursuer’s hand.

Clutching the front of her torn garment, she raced off Saif Darb, onto Askeri Darb, Nisr, Trab, Tarik of Rafir, and down Naufara Darb to the Fountain Plaza. All the way was the sound of pounding feet behind her, several heavy men. Somehow they did not catch up to her, and En Shevil got the feeling that they were slightly drunk and had a bit of trouble negotiating corners. She wondered why they didn’t shout, though she was glad they refrained: an entire neighborhood, angry at being awakened in the middle of the night, would have been even more difficult to escape.

At the Fountain Plaza she had an advantage. She knew that if she could hide, the men would search for her down the streets and she could slip away home or wait them out. She looked around desperately. A window? No, not enough time: climbing in haste, she might fall and kill herself. Having little other choice, she stepped into the bowl of the fountain and curled herself around the middle. Water splashed out onto the ground for a few moments before the magical spring adjusted to the new level. Balling her hands and placing them under her head, she raised her mouth out of the water.

She realized suddenly that her ruined top was floating loosely about her, and she made a slow movement to clamp it down. “Where is she?” asked a loud voice nearby, making her jump just the littlest bit. With the fountain noises all around her she had not heard the men come up.

“I got a piece of ‘er shirt,” said a slurring voice. Chortles and suppressed snorts of drunken laughter followed.

“We’ll split up,” said a calmer tone — Issur’s. “And don’t wake anybody.” Apparently then the men dispersed, but En Shevil dared not move for quite some time.

The Dark Hand was high and the moon was bright, but suddenly a shape — a man looking down at her, hands on hips — blocked her view. She reacted immediately. Splashing him first in the face and giving him a mild push, she sprang from the bowl in a spray of water, banging various parts of her body against various parts of the fountain. He grabbed for her, but only barely scraped her arm as she began to run. “En Shevil!” he said, and she stopped with a gasp. It was Achim.

She turned again, clutching her chest with relief, to face the dripping Hero. But she felt as she did so the tatters of her shirt hanging forlornly from her shoulders. She blushed; though nothing was exposed, it was still embarrassing. She quickly located her pin and used it to secure the two torn edges of her shirt-back as best she could. “Come with me,” said Achim, taking her hand when she was done and pulling her towards the western arch. His touch gave her goose-bumps, or perhaps that was merely the light breeze against her wet skin. She started shivering.

Without question she followed him. “You’ve been getting into trouble!” he said, still pulling her down the corridor.

“It’s not what it looks like,” she replied earnestly.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I find you in the fountain with your shirt half-off, and a drunk guy after you — what am I supposed to think?”

“Wha…? You–? I don’t…” She was finally speechless for some moments as they turned off Naufara Darb onto Dinar Tarik. Then she gasped, “You thought I… oh!” she ended with a cry of indignation as he began to laugh. Finally he pulled her onto Centime Tarik and pushed his wet hair back, leaning against the wall and still laughing.

“I saw Issur storming out of the money changer’s alley and had to tell his fists that I hadn’t seen you. I don’t think he’ll be back this way tonight. I’ve never seen him so mad, not even when I made the thief sign to him. What did you do?”

En Shevil, still supremely annoyed at his earlier joke at her expense, said shortly, “I can’t tell you.”

“As I thought,” he replied lightly.

Why is he staring at me like that? she thought. What she said was: “I have to go see the money changer. I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I? And tell you all about it?”

“Certainly,” replied Achim quietly. He grinned as he had the night before, and En Shevil was suddenly hot. “If you don’t get into any more trouble.

He kissed her lightly on her upturned mouth and walked away.

In a complete daze En Shevil moved cautiously down the street towards Dinarzaad’s shop. Though she was shivering slightly and her pants were chafing her, her mouth felt hot.

“Well!” said Dinarzaad as she came into sight. “I suppose this is what I get for dealing with such an obvious amateur!”

En Shevil’s mouth opened, but Dinarzaad laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I know it wasn’t your fault. But with all these men running about after you, I think I’m going to have to break my own rule and invite you inside. That is, if you still want to know why the pins are so remarkable.”

“Wha — in there? Yes, of course I do.”

“Very well. Hop in.” She moved away from the window. En Shevil clambered over the sill, trying not to look too curiously around her at the fairly sparse, claustrophobic shop of the money changer. The walls were mostly hidden by locked cabinets, and a table stood by the window with a few oddments on top and underneath. There were no chairs, and Dinarzaad indicated that she should sit on the large chest in the corner. She must have seen the way En Shevil looked sidelong at all this, for she smiled wryly and explained, “I do my best to make up for the lack of a Thieves’ Guild around here. So of course I need some extra storage. And now I really must know what happened at Issur’s.”

“Well,” began En Shevil slowly, “the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I got in at all — why his door wasn’t barred, I mean. Most people’s are, even during the day.”

“Oh,” said Dinarzaad dismissively. “That’s my doing. I always made him keep it unbarred so I could get in. He probably just got into the habit.”

“Well, I had no trouble finding it,” continued En Shevil, pulling the pin from her pocket and looking at it. “But then, in the other room, there were men. They were having a party or something, and I think they were drunk.”

“That was probably EOF,” said the money changer. “It’s their stupid ‘secret’ group. They only have meetings in the middle of the night, and usually parties afterwards. I should have warned you.”

“It’s all right,” said En Shevil a little dryly (as dryly as she could say anything when she was soaking wet). “I love adventure.” And otherwise, she thought, I wouldn’t have seen Achim. “Now what about these pins?” She handed the red-chested griffin to the woman. She noticed then that the griffin’s head was turned to the right. If she remembered correctly (she could not see it), the head on hers faced left.

“These pins were — where is yours?”

En Shevil blushed and rolled her eyes backwards to indicate. “It’s holding my shirt on. I really did have a narrow escape. And then I had to lay down in the fountain to get rid of them.”

Dinarzaad burst out laughing. She laughed, apparently uncontrollably, for minutes on end, her face turning red as she attempted to catch her breath. “Excuse me,” she said at last, letting a tear roll onto her finger and flicking it off. “So that’s why you’re soaking wet. Well, that is a story… All right.” She cleared her throat, shaking her head. “When humans started ruling Shapier, a clan of katta, to prove their loyalty to the new Sultan and Sultana, made for the first royal couple these matching pins. The red was for the Sultan and the blue for his wife. They had the power to augment any talent of the bearer’s that he or she was focusing on using.”

“Oh!” exclaimed En Shevil, eyes wide. “Oh! So that’s why… Well — go on.” This explained the amazing performance by which she had won her lockpick.

“The red one would only work for a man, the blue one for a woman. They were passed down the generations until the time of Rashid bin Hawa, who as you know was the father of our present Sultan (may he live forever) and Emir (he as well). A master thief broke into the palace to steal them, but lost the woman’s pin on the way out. I’m curious as to how you got yours, but I assume you would rather not tell, as is the situation with me.”

En Shevil was shocked. So that was why Omar looked so familiar! The poet himself, she was guessing, was Harun al Rashid — though why he would be carrying around the woman’s pin she could not guess. “You’re right,” she said. “But what I want to know is about you and Issur.”

“What about us?”

“Well, you don’t exactly seem like the ideal couple.”

“There’s really little to tell. At first it was mostly a joke, but then he began getting possessive and over-demanding. We didn’t last long, so now I’m looking for a replacement.” This last was said with an airy tone that reminded En Shevil of her friend Thalanna. The katta girl had been flirtatious, mischievous, vivacious (but law-abiding and unaware of the practices of her aunt, uncle, and adopted cousin)… Her family had moved to Rasier a few years ago, and now with all the katta driven out of that city, En Shevil had been terribly worried, as she had heard nothing from her.

“Do you have anyone in mind?” she asked teasingly, still thinking of Thalanna.

“You know, that Hero-man is pretty fine-looking. Achim, that’s his name?”

“Yes,” said En Shevil numbly, sorry she had asked. The last thing she needed was Dinarzaad, the patent desert beauty, going after her Hero. At about that same moment, the full implications of the night’s events were beginning to hit her, and she started to shake, just a little. “I really need to go home and change,” she said weakly.

“All right,” said Dinarzaad sympathetically. She left her place against the wall by the window and went to a cabinet, producing a large set of keys from absolutely nowhere. She opened the doors to reveal rows of small drawers. She unlocked one and collected in her hand some coins. They fell with a chink into En Shevil’s.

“Thanks,” the girl said blankly, shock and weariness combining to cloud her vision as she looked at the ten ten-dinar pieces and stood up. She went to the window. “Well, it’s been fun, but I probably won’t be seeing you again.”

“Goodbye,” said the money changer. “Thanks.”

En Shevil pushed herself out the window and headed home, her mind foggy with the terrible realization that had hit her: she would have to leave Shapier. Issur at least, if not some of his party, had seen her in his house, and whether or not he would recognize her face, there were few other blondes in the whole country, let alone the city. In fact, she knew of only one: some strange man that everyone thought was crazy who walked the streets with a drum. She smiled slightly at the thought of him, too strung for a laugh.

By this time she had reached home, and with a deep breath she entered. She stood in the dark for some time, looking through at nothing. The world was calm and surreal here, a peaceful place of safety and familiarity where she could not stay. But she was beyond emotion now, numb and dull. So she went to bed.

The next day was quiet. They had resigned themselves to the tragedy, following an explosive and somewhat traumatic conversation in the early morning. By a mutual unspoken agreement, they did not talk about it, did not try to convince themselves aloud that it was their only option. That if Issur determined to bring En Shevil down, they could not hide her forever, or keep themselves clean in doing so, especially as it seemed that, given the information from Dinarzaad about EOF, Issur would go after her covertly rather than through the proper authorities.

So instead of dwelling on their sorrow, they brought up amusing stories from the past, humorous events or just important ones: the time Manta and Kylur had decided to take in the orphan baby brought by a caravan almost eighteen years earlier; the night En Shevil and Thalanna had repainted the shop signs and street-direction markers in Fountain Plaza and collapsed in laughter the next day as confused katta and map-bound tourists became helplessly lost as they thought north was south and east west; the year Kylur had been struck with a sickness that confined her to bed for nearly the whole summer, Manta and En Shevil putting in extra hours to make up for her absence; the time, just before Thalanna’s family had left, that, on a dare, En Shevil had told a newly-arrived Uhura that “humor” was the Shapierian word for “supplies.” Uhura, trying to furnish the Guild Hall to her tastes, had instead received only bad jokes in response to her carefully-worded inquiries.

So the family laughed as they worked, finishing up the sleeping cushions for the caravan, with which it was now determined that En Shevil would depart, to end up in Anzhad or Darun or another of the southern Shapierian towns. But their laughter was subdued, and carried behind it an audible sadness at the thought that they might never be together again. And En Shevil writhed inwardly with the thought that she was the cause of this misery. Had she only fled Issur’s house more quickly, all would now be well. But in her parents’ eyes she read their reassurance that to them it was no more than an unfortunate accident that took her from them.

Near sunset she told them quietly that she must say goodbye to her friends. They nodded silently, the expressions on their faces enough to break En Shevil’s heart. She left the house with a heavy step. Walking warily and avoiding what sounded like footsteps, she eventually crept onto the Fighters Plaza just as Rakeesh was gathering up his rug to go inside for the night.

She watched for a moment as the day’s last light glinted off his golden fur, then stepped out to halt him. “Wait!”

He turned to look at her. “Good evening, my friend,” he said. “Why so downcast?”

“I’m leaving Shapier tomorrow, probably for Darun.”

“You have fallen into trouble, I see,” said the Paladin shrewdly.

“Y-yes,” she admitted, knowing he would not betray her trust. And that she could not have deceived him at any rate. “So I came to say…” En Shevil choked suddenly and was amazed at herself. She had not imagined that this parting would be difficult; she enjoyed talking to Rakeesh, but there always the barrier that necessarily existed between thief and Paladin kept them from becoming particularly close. And now her words were all falling out on top of each other, “…goodbye, and… thank you for all your advice — and tell Uhura I’m sorry for the word thing, and please don’t think badly of me!”

“I seldom think badly of anyone, for all have their path in life. The Paladin way is not for everyone. You however…” He began the tirade to which she had paid little heed before, though the words struck her peculiarly now, “…you — if you would only take the road of Honor, you could become one of the great ones, an Erana of the night.” He smiled his ferocious lion’s grin and stepped towards the Guild Hall doors. “May you leave the path of dishonor you have chosen and go on to the glory for which you are meant. Farewell, En Shevil.” And he was gone.

En Shevil noticed that tears were picking their tickling way down the sides of her nose. “I’m sorry,” she told the doors for no reason.

She ducked onto Khaniar Tarik as she saw the door to Issur’s shop open and the bald man emerge. She didn’t take her eyes off him until he was safely gone down Saif Darb. But even then she felt nervous about going there to meet Achim.

Apparently he guessed this, and as it began to darken he came striding across the plaza to find her. “Fully-clothed this time, I see,” he said. “No rendezvous with Issur tonight?”

She gave him a scathing look. “I can’t stay long,” she said. “I leave before sunrise.”

“What!? Leave where? The city?!”

She opened her mouth to tell him, but suddenly he seized her shoulders and pulled her bodily around behind him. He drew a knife, whirled, and met the onslaught of a red-faced man in a turban with a large sword who was charging with surprising silence straight towards them. En Shevil took a step backwards in surprise, for she had not seen him come up behind her. The man seemed to want to get past Achim, and she realized that he must be from EOF.

Now she saw Achim in action, the greatest feat of skill she had ever witnessed, though much too close for her comfort. He dodged the sword-thrusts of the warrior, who seemed to outmuscle him two-to-one, and the blows he could not avoid he parried — with a dagger! Then he would dart behind the huge man’s guard to stab, but was always thrown off. Ever the attacker tried to maneuver himself around so that he could break away and go for En Shevil.

She was amazed and frightened at this persistence. If every member of EOF was as obstinate as this man and they had, as she feared, been alerted to her, then her consternation was justified and it was wise of her to go. And now had she pulled Achim into her troubles? The large man gave a strangled cry, biting his lip to silence himself, as Achim’s blade contacted his bare arm, drawing a long gash that immediately welled up red.

En Shevil crouched and pulled her own dagger free of her pant leg, ready to help if needed, though her only skill was in throwing. Kylur, the all-time Shapierian dagger-casting champion, had insisted she drill constantly at target practice, both still and moving with various knife makes and sizes, saying that a thief was not a thief who could not throw. But would it do her any good in practice?

The warrior bore down on Achim so fiercely, of a sudden, that the Hero was forced to meet the attack with his knife raised above his head. The weapons clashed, and the dagger screeched along the sword blade to the hilt so that the tip of the latter was barely above his head, gold by the reflection of his hair. The two men came up against each other, arms above their heads, weapons locked. En Shevil watched in dismay as Achim was forced slowly downward by the man’s strength alone. Then she regained confidence and threw her knife.

He growled as it tore into his underarm and blood jetted out. His right hand released its grip. His left arm was flung and his sword clanged against the wall as Achim threw it off and slashed across his enemy’s stomach. Still the warrior made no noise, which frightened En Shevil even more: if EOF, silly as Dinarzaad had implied it to be, could breed such self-restraint, they would indeed be menacing foes. When would this fight end?

Her question was answered as the man spun and ran, taking her dagger with him. He turned the corner and was out of sight. En Shevil began to shake so violently that she had to lean against the wall just to stand. She had just essentially stabbed somebody. She had seen the blood from the wound. She had a set of very dangerous enemies in her hometown, which she was soon to leave, perhaps forever. She might never see her parents again. And that’s when it hit her: she was afraid. Absolutely terrified of leaving home. She had never been out of Shapier within the time she could remember, and she was petrified.

She began to sob, and felt Achim’s comforting arms around her, helping her to sit. “Yy-you see why I hhave to go,” she said, still shaking. “But I don’t — ” she choked. After a moment she went on, “…want to go.” He said nothing, only held her and let her cry. Then she thought of something else. “And-and now I’ve gott’n you in trouble with EOF. They-they’re a group of fighters that’s after me, and now they’ll… they’ll go after you too.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “But where are you going?”

“Darun,” she answered. She was calming now, and feeling foolish for her outburst. She moved to stand and he released her. “I must go home.”

“I’ll walk with you,” said the Hero.

“Thank you,” En Shevil replied sincerely, not looking at him. At the door to her house, she turned to him, her eyes dry though probably red. “Thank you for saving me,” she said. “Twice.”

“It was my pleasure,” he murmured, putting his hand on her face. “Come back to me soon.” And then he slid his arm down to her back and, pulling her close, kissed her. She noticed after a moment that her arms were around him as well. They stood thus for some time. “Goodbye,” he said when he finally released her.

“Goodbye,” she returned, but her voice was barely a whisper.