Youma

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

Two professional women prepare for their very first night together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–had apparently just arrived on the scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“One that’s open this late?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Salt


The thing about salting Hyottoko’s cooking was that you had to do it when he wouldn’t see, because he insisted everything he concocted was perfect without any additional seasoning, even if it was just leftover potato soup from three nights ago. Hannya had made it to the kitchen first as on most mornings — not solely so he could doctor his soup, but because he ate slowest of all of them; people didn’t realize what an advantage lips gave them in so many areas — but, though he’d added the desired amount of salt and replaced the shaker at a safe and unsuspicious distance in the middle of the table, he hadn’t started eating his breakfast yet; he’d miscalculated the amount of time the stuff needed to stay in the microwave, and was now waiting for the pool of magma in front of him to subside somewhat while the others got settled in gradually around him. This didn’t bother him, since Watching Aoshi Eat Breakfast currently ranked #14 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do.

Aoshi was moving slowly this morning after a night of insomnia, and if he’d been more alert he might have remembered the soup needed salt and given some effort to beating Hyottoko to the kitchen. As it was, he left his sitting in the microwave long after the beep had sounded while he hovered zombie-like over an enormous mug of coffee. Fortunately, Hyottoko didn’t fuss about what they put in their coffee, so Aoshi was allowed to turn his into an abomination of off-white milkiness and Splenda to his heart’s content. He brought it to the table, looked around somewhat blankly, remembered where he’d left his actual breakfast, returned to the microwave, stared at nothing for a long moment, eventually seemed to recollect what he was doing, extracted the bowl and held it cupped in his hands as if to warm them for another long moment, then finally noticed Beshimi waiting with a nervously tapping foot for his turn to use the microwave. He returned to the table at last to take his place beside Hannya, set down his bowl, looked into it, and now at the end of all things seemed to remember the issue of salt.

Aoshi didn’t have facial expressions so much as he had a facial aura you had to take a two-semester course even to begin to interpret; but Hannya had been with him far longer than that, and now was easily able to detect Aoshi’s clandestine worry directed toward Hyottoko across the table. The salt stood prominently between them, and, quickly and dexterously though Aoshi was capable of moving, chances seemed remote that he could grab the stuff and apply it to his soup rapidly enough not to catch the attention of — and offend — the chef. His lips tightened infinitesimally in concentration before he took a deep drink of his coffee and continued to stare with what Hannya recognized as longing at the salt shaker.

“Besh, how much soup is left?” Hannya asked.

Beshimi, leaning against the counter beside the humming microwave, reached over and tilted toward him the tall pot that had been taking up the entire bottom half of the refrigerator for the last three days. “I dunno… some?”

The ruse worked; Hyottoko turned to look over there in some concern. “Should be more than ‘some.’ I made enough to last the week. How much have you guys been eating?”

“How much have you been eating?” Beshimi shot back. “You’re the one always getting high off his own supply.”

Hyottoko rolled his eyes and returned to his breakfast. At any other time of day this would have become a snipe-fest, but there was too much of a mismatch between morning-person Beshimi and decidedly-not-morning-person Hyottoko for him to consider it now.

And during this distraction, as intended, Aoshi had seized the opportunity to freely salt his soup.

Unfortunately, the salt shaker, like, frankly, many things in this house, had come from a thrift store and didn’t work very well. Or, rather, it worked a little too well if you weren’t careful. The requisite quickness of movement while Hyottoko’s back was turned, the enthusiastically open pores of the dented old tin lid, and the minuscule amount of soup in the bottom of the bowl had conspired to provide a salt-to-soup ratio you wouldn’t have to be a slug to find alarming. Aoshi was certainly alarmed as he gazed down at the ominous whiteness already beginning to dissolve into the liquid around the large chunk of potato on which it primarily rested like snow on a mountaintop. Hastily he inserted his spoon and lifted the potato out of the broth to prevent further dissemination of the enormous pile of salt, but his aura turned to one of despair as he surreptitiously took a frantic look around and realized there was nowhere to put the thing except into his mouth or back into the soup — neither of which was likely to solve his problem.

“I ask,” Hannya said, glad he’d started the conversation even if he hadn’t anticipated being able to make further use of it — it was good to be a social engineer — “because I thought Aoshi might’ve taken the last of it, which would explain why he has approximately two mouthfuls in his bowl.”

Protest came from all quarters: Beshimi ranted that no one could survive just on coffee and it was a good thing Shikijou was at the gym because if he heard Aoshi was starving himself again he would start stuffing the fridge with unmanageable chunks of raw meat and they’d been down that road before; Hyottoko remarked in surprised dismay that he’d been under the impression Aoshi had enjoyed the recipe, and wondered if he should change it for next time — more bacon, maybe? And Aoshi himself shot Hannya a quick gleam of aura indicating indecision whether he was more annoyed at his boyfriend for having brought down all this criticism on his head or appreciative of being provided a convenient excuse to obtain more soup and thereby dilute the excessive salt somewhat. In any case he rose with great dignity and returned to the soup tureen, passing a still-grumbling Beshimi on the way.

Though he hadn’t touched his own breakfast yet, Hannya put it off a little longer in order first to reassure Hyottoko that this wasn’t about the quality of his cooking, but rather merely the usual Aoshi-eats-like-a-bird-on-a-crash-diet thing, and the second to keep a careful eye on said Aoshi just in case he decided, piqued, to tip the entire contents of his bowl down the garbage disposal and go to work without any sustenance besides what was essentially four cups of half-and-half with a tablespoon of coffee thrown in. And under Hannya’s baleful eye, Aoshi had no choice but to load up with a decent amount of potato soup this time and put it back into the microwave. Still, fearing treachery (and also maybe a little because Staring At Aoshi ranked #6 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do), Hannya did not remove his gaze from his boyfriend’s blank but dour-aura’d face throughout the entire three minutes the soup spent heating.

Three minutes? Oh, that was way too long.

Aoshi’s demeanor, already a trifle surly at being forced to the unthinkable extreme of eating a rational amount of food, became even more so as, having returned to the table, he stared down at the now significantly larger and untouchably boiling aggregate of soup he was expected to consume. In a mixture of continued weariness and defiance, he took another long drink of his coffee, entirely burying his face in the oversized mug as he tilted it upward. Hannya took advantage of this momentary blindness to replace Aoshi’s soup bowl with his own. As the sinking cup widened Aoshi’s field of vision, his aura became suspicious, and Hannya pretended he’d only been reaching over to stir Aoshi’s breakfast. “It cools faster this way,” he explained, then withdrew his hand and turned his attention to the fresh pool of magma that had belonged to his boyfriend but was now his.

Still appearing extremely dubious, Aoshi nevertheless took up his spoon — originally Hannya’s spoon, and bearing a completely different pattern (they’d bought all their silverware one piece at a time), though in his discontentment about how this morning was going he didn’t seem to notice — and lifted a scoop containing cheesy broth, bacon bits, and potatoes. He stared hard at it, as if screwing himself up to eat it at all after everything he’d suffered to get to this point, then after approximately forever shoveled it into his mouth. And the change to his demeanor as he chewed and swallowed — the contentment that seemed to wash over him, the relief that something had gone right, the sense of reassurance that maybe today wouldn’t be so bad after all — made everything worth it to Hannya.

Scenes like this only served to reinforce how much of Real Life Aoshi wasn’t very good at. Sleep, timeliness, the proper amount of coffee creamer, salt shakers, basic nutrition, microwaves… It was all somewhat beyond him. And perhaps Hannya, in manipulating situations so they went more smoothly for his occasionally clueless boyfriend, was an enabler, but besides the fact that Helping Aoshi Live ranked #3 on Hannya’s List of Favorite Things to Do, honestly it wasn’t as if Hannya had it together much better than Aoshi did. He was a step or two farther down the path toward adult competency, maybe, just far enough ahead to clear the way a bit for anyone behind him. Which was, he felt, the least he could do in exchange for Aoshi forcing himself to go out there day after day and deal with the Real World so Hannya didn’t have to. It was the least he could do for someone he loved so much.

Eventually everyone who didn’t hesitate to leave the house without a mask on prepared to do just that, and there was a bustle of clearing the table (Hannya noticed with some satisfaction that Aoshi had eaten most of his soup), stowing the remaining leftovers (Hannya was going to transfer them to a smaller container as soon as Hyottoko was no longer around to protest that they tasted better out of metal than plastic), and searching for shoes (Hyottoko preferred to go barefoot every moment he was inside the house), jackets (Aoshi had to be reminded he needed one), and today a battered leather case in which Beshimi kept a variety of obscure chemicals (Hannya didn’t ask) before anyone could embark, only running a little late, upon their various tasks.

Before he let Aoshi out the door, Hannya pulled him close to receive his usual goodbye kiss to the incisors or what would have been a labial commissure, and found it, to his satisfaction, delivered with a decent amount of optimism. He thought he’d managed things pretty well this morning. He could never convince Aoshi to pack a lunch for whatever break, if any, he managed to take in the middle of his work day, nor was there any guarantee he would be able to get a healthy amount of dinner into his boyfriend once he got home in the evening… but at least he had breakfast figured out.


This story, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Crying leb because of the tumblr conversations we’ve been having that inspired it. For some author’s notes written not long after the story, see this Productivity Log.



Commonality


Kaoru had just started on lunch, dropping a few grumbling hints that Sano could get up and help rather than lying around waiting for her to do all the work on a meal he was only going to complain about eventually anyway, when Megumi appeared.

After greeting the doctor, looking immediately back to the seasonings she was measuring out, Kaoru added, “Kenshin’s not here right now.”

“Jou-chan sent him out for the usual shit-ton of groceries she doesn’t actually need yet,” Sano elaborated from his prone position on the floor.

“I see!” Megumi gave that amused-with-everyone-for-no-reason-she-would-ever-divulge smile, and, stepping to the stove, lifted the lid on the rice just a fraction and peered in. Expression unchanged, she said, “I might as well give you a hand with this, then,” and crouched to poke at the fire with an immediacy suggesting she thought dire things were or would be happening to the rice at the current temperature.

Appearing somewhat torn, Kaoru said nothing. Sano continued to lift no finger to join in the cooking endeavor.

Finally, after a lengthy silence during which the look on Megumi’s face had gradually shifted to one more pensive as she kept it mostly hidden from the others in attending to the stove fire, she remarked in a tone lighter than her expression, “It’s a shame Ken-san isn’t here… I was going to ask his opinion on something.”

In concert the others protested that this comment seemed to dismiss their opinions as not worth the asking, and Kaoru went on with, “And it isn’t as if you can’t stay until Kenshin comes back!”

Megumi laughed. “I feel so much more welcome around here than I used to!”

Perhaps Kaoru appeared torn again, but she’d bent so far over the fish she was seasoning that it was impossible to tell. At any rate, she said nothing.

“Well, I suppose I will ask your opinions, then,” Megumi said. She went on at once as if it were no great matter, “I feel like someone has been watching me lately.”

Not only did Kaoru’s face snap up in response to this, but Sano propped himself onto an elbow to look at Megumi. Their expressions were startled, but where Kaoru’s had also a touch of concern, Sano’s seemed more annoyed or even angry. “Seriously?” he wondered, in a dark tone as if this confirmed some fear.

“Are you sure?” Kaoru said at the same time.

“No,” Megumi admitted, answering one rather than the other (and possibly ignoring the other entirely, for all the attention she paid him). “I’m not a warrior of any description, of course, but I’ve had a… unique living situation for a while now, and…” She shrugged, still easy even if she had become a little more serious. “You start to pick things up. Or maybe just become paranoid. That’s what I wanted to consult with Ken-san about.”

“But I’ve thought the same thing!” Kaoru gripped the board before her knees as she stared up at Megumi intensely. “That someone’s spying on me or something… I never actually see anyone or anything suspicious, but I can’t shake the feeling!”

Megumi returned her surprise, and now there was some of the same concern in her eyes that already lay in Kaoru’s.

“Me too,” Sano put in before either of them could say anything more, sitting up completely and adding the concentration of his gaze to the one they were sharing. “I’ve been having that same experience for the last week or so.”

Megumi let out a breath. “Then I suppose I haven’t been imagining things.”

“But who is it?” Kaoru demanded. “And why? What do they want? Does Kenshin know? Is he being watched too?”

“I hate to admit it–” and, indeed, Sano sounded reluctant and irritated to be doing so– “but Kenshin would have noticed way before we did.”

The others nodded. “And done something about it,” Kaoru added.

“It could be the type of thing he might not have said anything about to the rest of us,” Megumi mused, “but he would certainly be aware of it if someone were spying on him.”

More nods. “I think he’s gotten over that not-including-us-in-important-dangerous-shit bullshit, though… Seems more likely we’re being spied on and he’s not.”

There was a moment of silence before Kaoru said, “The biggest thing the three of us have in common is…”

“…Ken-san himself,” Megumi finished. “Our friendship with him.”

“Um, and maybe more specifically…” Now Kaoru was visibly flustered as she again stared down at the fish and herbs on the preparation board in front of her. “I think maybe all three of us…”

Another brief silence passed before Sano, clearing his throat, took his turn finishing for her: “…thought we were in love with him for a fucking long time? Uh, yeah.”

Without bothering to deny it, Megumi said, “I doubt that has anything to do with whoever’s spying on us, though; I think it’s common enough among Ken-san’s acquaintances.”

“Do you?” Kaoru looked relieved at this, as if it at least began to lessen the embarrassment of having misunderstood her own heart for, as Sano put it, ‘a fucking long time.’

Appearing a little embarrassed herself, Megumi sought out the vegetables lying nearby, then began looking for a knife. “Ken-san has a tendency to rescue people from whatever is the worst thing in their lives when he meets them.”

“Or at least he’s so damn different from everyone…” Sano scratched his head as if struggling to put his thoughts into words. “People just get this kick in the balls all of a sudden — not literally, I mean — by this guy who’s like nothing they’ve ever met before.”

“He makes such a profound first impression,” Megumi went on, once again almost as if she hadn’t heard Sano’s input, “that I think nearly everyone who becomes his friend believes themselves in love with him for a while at first.”

“I don’t think they even have to become his friend. You guys’ve probably never heard houki-atama over at the police station talk about him.”

Kaoru broke in to clarify. “You mean that Juppongatana guy with the silly hair?”

“Yeah, him. Every time I’m at the police station — I mean, not like I’m there a lot or anything; I just sometimes happen to wander over there for no reason, you know? Anyway, houki’s always talking about Kenshin like… well, he’s always acting all pissed that Kenshin beat him so hard, and going on about how he’d love to have a rematch some time… but it’s totally obvious that Kenshin impressed the hell out of him, maybe even more than he annoyed him… and maybe he wants to meet up with Kenshin again way more than makes sense for just a rematch.”

“He can’t have much hope, though,” Kaoru said dubiously. “Kenshin would never look twice in his direction! Would he? Do you think?”

“Hmm,” was Megumi’s ambiguous opinion.

“I don’t know…” Again Sano sounded reluctant and even annoyed to admit this. “Chou’s a fucking idiot, but the police investigation shit is pretty cool. Something you can admire, you know? He’s on the right side now, doing a job that helps people and shit…”

“Hmm,” said Megumi again.

“No, I just can’t see it,” Kaoru decided, returning to her fish-seasoning endeavor with vigor as if to make up for time lost staring and being surprised. “Not a murderous jerk like that guy. But I think you’re exactly right, Megumi-san–” with a quick and perhaps somewhat appreciative glance in Megumi’s direction as if to congratulate her fleetingly on her excellent assessment– “about people getting the wrong idea about how they feel about Kenshin.

“I never thought about it before, but now that I do… It does seem like everyone who meets him kinda becomes obsessed with him. It’s easy to mistake that for love, especially if he lives with you…” Again she bent her head over her work, possibly to hide a blush, and her next words came out hastily as if she wanted to segue quickly. “Even his master, when we met him in Kyoto, acted a little like a resentful ex… like Kenshin had dumped him and he’d nobly forgiven him but was still a little bitter about it.”

“He did, didn’t he?” Sano gave a surprised laugh, then grinned widely as he evidently thought back to what memories he had on the subject. “He fucking did!”

“I didn’t spend much time with Hiko-san,” Megumi said a little doubtfully. “Do you think he and Ken-san ever did actually…?”

“I don’t know.” Kaoru’s quick statement was accompanied by a definite blush this time. “Kenshin would have been awfully young…”

“I could see the attraction,” Megumi admitted. “Someone who teaches kenjutsu, who works with students and prepares them for the future, is much more impressive than just some brute warrior.” Now she was perhaps coloring a bit herself as she continued with the vegetables. “But, yes, Ken-san would have been very young, wouldn’t he?”

Sano coughed. “Normally I wouldn’t say it’d be a big problem a guy in his teens with a guy in his thirties, but with Kenshin I kinda can’t picture it.”

“And I think Kenshin was fourteen,” Kaoru grimaced. “That’s a little different from seventeen or nineteen…”

There ensued an awkward wordless period wherein total silence was prevented only by the chopping and crunching sounds from the boards. Finally, as if reminded by food and wanting to shift the subject again, Kaoru said, “You know, Tae-san has always been kinda silly about Kenshin too… and she never came to gossip with me nearly as much at the Akabeko before he showed up.”

Megumi appeared happy to have something new to talk about. “I haven’t seen that Ken-san has ever taken any particular notice of her, though.”

“Well, she’s so…” Sano seemed to consider this dangerous territory, and to be wording his sentiment with appropriate care. “Normal, I guess? Don’t get me wrong — she’s a nice girl, and she’s got good business sense and all, but if Kenshin’s going to go for a lady, he’s got you guys around, and you’re way more interesting.”

“Sanosuke!” Megumi’s surprised pleasure might have been genuine, but the degree to which she displayed it was certainly deliberately exaggerated. “That sounded like a compliment!”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get used to it,” was the gruff reply.

“Tae-san is an excellent cook, though,” Kaoru said, blushing harder than before. “And she’s good at that right in the middle of the other work she does… That’s certainly attractive…”

“Well, I don’t think Ken-san is aware of her in that light.” This veto from Megumi was just as decisive as Kaoru’s of Chou had been earlier. “But as long as we’re on the topic of the Akabeko…” Abruptly, startling the other two a bit, she raised her voice. “Yahiko! Yahiko, are you inside?”

Footsteps pounded along the passage, and Yahiko appeared with evident haste. Kaoru looked as if she didn’t know whether to be more resentful that Yahiko was so much more attentive to Megumi’s call than her own or admiring that Megumi commanded her recalcitrant pupil so well.

“Yeah?” he asked as he came in. “What’s up?”

“Hey, kid.” Sano got bluntly to the point before the women could approach the issue with any sort of tact. “Were you ever in love with Kenshin at all?”

Yahiko’s face, ears, and neck went far redder than anyone’s in the room had been thus far, and he stiffened as if someone had run a cold finger up his spine. “What?!”

“Sanosuke, is that any way to ask?” Megumi demanded. “You’ve just lost any credit I gave you for complimenting us before.”

Sano stuck out his tongue. “I don’t talk to get credit from you, you know!”

“Yahiko,” said Kaoru, turning from her work to face her student, “what we mean is… well, actually, what we mean is exactly what Sano said, but… I’ve noticed you and Tsubame-chan definitely like each other, and it’s been a really long time you haven’t done anything about it, and I thought maybe there was some reason for that–”

“Wh-why should I ‘do anything about it?'” Yahiko broke in, still blushing as if his nose might start gushing red at any moment. “Tsubame and me are none of your business, and neither is anything else like that — why would you even ask? What a stupid question!” His fists were clenched, but his entire reaction seemed far more embarrassed than angry. “Kenshin’s a-a hero! He’s someone I want to be like, not– You guys are the ones who– I’m not even old enough for stuff like that! Why would you ask me something so stupid?!” And abruptly he spun and ran from the room as quickly as he’d entered it.

“Well, I think we have our answer there,” said Megumi into a silence that, this time, wasn’t even broken by cooking sounds.

“I’m afraid he’s going to feel a bit betrayed by us for a while,” Kaoru said with some apparent regret, “for prying like that.”

“He may say it’s none of your business,” Megumi replied critically, “but you’re like a mother to him — of course it’s your business!”

“I might have said a sister,” mumbled Kaoru, blushing yet again.

I was the one who asked, anyway,” Sano reminded them.

“Yes, like a complete lout!” Megumi shook her head with an annoyed sigh and went back to dicing vegetables. “Kaoru-chan, you were much kinder, but you were right… Yahiko hasn’t gotten involved with the girl at the Akabeko, and I think there is a specific reason for it.”

Kaoru nodded. “It’s… it’s really hard to consider even trying to get involved with someone… even admitting there might be someone, after…” And she trailed off.

“Hell,” Sano picked up in a tone of agreement, “it was hard enough thinking for a while you wanted Kenshin and wondering what the hell to do about it, and then realizing that wasn’t true and trying to be just friends with Kenshin after you thought you were in love with him. The whole thing’s just really, really…”

“Awkward,” Megumi finished, summing up the group predicament.

After yet another long pause in the conversation, it was Sano’s turn to shake his head as if shaking off the previous subject. With a wry grin he said, “Wow, we really got away from the point, didn’t we? Who the hell is stalking all of us? That’s what we were talking about, wasn’t it?”

Megumi laughed. “Well, we’ve at least determined what we have most in common… and I think it’s been good to get this all out into the open.” She gave Kaoru a smile that looked almost shy, and another touch of color came into her cheeks — a rare look for her — before she reached for a pan and some oil for the final stage of lunch preparation.

“Y-yes,” Kaoru stammered. “I agree. I mean, who the hell is stalking all of us? It can’t have anything to do with us all thinking we were in love with Kenshin, can it?”

“Seems as likely as any other reason…” Sano scratched at the back of his neck. “People either want to kill Kenshin or fuck him.”

Kaoru tittered at the blatant sexual reference. Megumi said sardonically, “Usually both. Not necessarily in that order.”

“But if someone is spying on us because they want to–” Kaoru proved unable to repeat Sano’s wording– “to be with Kenshin, and they think we’re in the way or something… that could be anyone! We just went over a few people off the top of our heads who probably think they’re in love with him, and there could be dozens more!”

“Or it could be a totally different reason,” Sano reminded.

“Yes, it could be the ‘kill’ option,” agreed Megumi. “This could be someone trying to gage the strength of his allies before they attack.”

“Dammit!” Kaoru cried. “I may not be in love with Kenshin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Kenshin! I don’t want to see him attacked again!”

The other two nodded.

At this moment the door into the room slid open, and Yahiko reappeared. Everyone gave him a startled look — they hadn’t expected to see him again so soon — especially as they noted his face hadn’t really returned to its usual color.

“Um, this guy…” Yahiko muttered, and stepped aside. From the shadows of the hall another figure emerged, greatly increasing the surprise of everyone present.

“The fuck are you doing here?” Sano demanded, jumping hastily to his feet and taking a step forward. The two women, though they did not speak and their demeanors were not as completely innervated as his, seemed to be wondering the same thing.

“I came to discuss something with Himura,” replied Saitou, tone mild and bearing entirely noncombative.

“He’s not here,” said Kaoru warily.

“So the young man told me.” Saitou gestured briefly at Yahiko, who had retreated into the shadowed doorway. “It may actually be more convenient this way,” he added with a faint smirk, “since the three of you may be better able to decide what to do with this information.”

“You know who’s stalking us,” Megumi guessed.

“Well done, doctor.” Saitou stepped farther into the room (causing Sano to become, evidently, even more tense and energized than before) and glanced at the lunch preparations as if assessing the Kaoru-Megumi teamwork based on what he saw around the kitchen. “Yes, an old acquaintance, after spying on a number of people in Kyoto apparently to his satisfaction, according to my sources there, has traveled to Tokyo to keep up this antisocial behavior. His targets here are you three and a few random others that nonsensically include myself and my assistant. What his reasons for this or his specific choice of victims are, I can’t begin to guess–” Here Saitou looked back and forth between Kaoru and Megumi, then transferred his sardonic gaze to Sano, where it remained– “but the only person he does not appear to be taking any interest in is your Himura Kenshin.”

“Shit, it’s Aoshi, isn’t it,” Sano muttered, half at a growl, as if trying to decide whether he thought this news was acceptable or something to get angry and worried over. “Shinomori fucking Aoshi.”

“A spark of deductive reasoning.” Like Megumi’s surprise earlier, Saitou’s was clearly deliberately exaggerated.

“We were just talking about this. We knew someone was– wait.” Sano, whose eyes had fallen from Saitou’s, now met his gaze again with a look in which suspicion was trying to deny the presence of concern. “Did you say he’s been watching you?”

“Again, I can’t imagine why,” Saitou replied blandly. And again, when he denied having any idea what might be the motive for Aoshi’s strange behavior, it seemed like a blatant lie. “But since everyone he’s been spying on is either a friend of Himura’s or someone Himura has fought sometime in the last year or so, and since it’s impossible to believe that’s a coincidence, I thought it best that Himura — or at least the inner circle of his fanclub — be apprised of the situation.”

The silence that now fell was more awkward than any previous, probably because of the presence of Saitou, who watched them all with a surface impassivity that didn’t entirely mask his amusement and disdain about the entire situation.

“So, what,” Sano finally demanded belligerently of the cop, “are you waiting around for us to thank you?”

Some gesture of thanks might be appropriate,” replied Saitou easily, “but a police officer learns not to expect it — especially from an idiot like you.”

“Well, thank you anyway.” There was a lilt of amused appreciation in Megumi’s tone, as if hearing Sano insulted lifted her spirits. “We will certainly put this information to good use.”

“I’ll leave the matter to you, then.” With an ironic smile, Saitou turned to depart without any further goodbye. It was probable he would have to escort himself out, since Yahiko was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Sano made a jerky movement toward the door and opened his mouth as if to protest, but eventually said nothing and stopped himself short; so the officer went unhindered.

Presently, “Aoshi…” Megumi murmured. “We should have seen that coming.”

“Yeah, we really should have.” Sano sounded annoyed as he tore himself from his scrutiny of the recently closed door. “He was obsessed with Kenshin from day one. And I could see him taking this long to decide to do something about it. Figure out who his real rivals are and shit, you know?”

Suddenly Kaoru started making an almost frantic gesture of hand as if to request silence and attention for what she was trying to find words to say. “And… and… and you know what?” she finally managed. “I never thought about it before, but Kenshin talks about him more than — more than anyone else I can think of. Definitely more than he talks about anyone else he’s defeated who isn’t around. Like Aoshi is more than just someone he had a conflict with for a while.”

The other two seemed to be rethinking memories, sorting through scenes with Kenshin seeking confirmation of Kaoru’s words. Sano was still frowning. “You know, I think you’re right.”

“Ken-san is so subtle about this sort of thing, but… yes…”

“And it wouldn’t be totally stupid… Aoshi does have that tall, dark, and handsome badass spy thing going on.” With this reluctant statement Sano glanced into the shadows of the doorway again, perhaps expecting to find Aoshi hiding darkly and handsomely there.

“He does have beautiful blue eyes…” Megumi sounded dubious, as if this concession was the greatest she was willing to make.

“I guess I can see it… a little…” Kaoru frowned. “I don’t know him very well, but while we were in Kyoto, he made it obvious that he was going to try to follow Kenshin’s advice and work to atone for what he’d done by living in the best way he could from now on — like Kenshin does — instead of dying, like he’d planned before. That kind of strength is definitely… something I could see being attracted to… But, even so, in Aoshi’s case, he’s tried to kill Kenshin twice!”

“That’s not exactly…” Sano shrugged a little awkwardly, reaching a hand into his gi to scratch an itch on his shoulder. “You live in a warrior’s world, you get used to things like that. It’s not such a big deal anymore, you know?”

“No, I don’t know! Kenshin may have forgiven him, but that should always be a barrier between them!”

“Nah, not really… I mean, I don’t think Kenshin would think of it that way. You get into these big conflicts and shit, and… suddenly it’s like… someone stabbing you or whatever? It’s less serious than it would be otherwise. Like you’re all on a different level, so that kind of shit just doesn’t count like it would for anyone else.”

“I guess you can’t really hang onto every time someone tries to hit you,” Kaoru murmured thoughtfully, as if lost in a memory. “And just because you were rivals at one point doesn’t mean… And with Kenshin… you’re right, I guess he does operate on a more serious level…”

“No, don’t put the vegetables in just yet,” Megumi advised. “Wait until you’ve turned the fish a few times.” She guided Kaoru’s hand — perhaps somewhat unnecessarily — toward the action specified, and remarked as she did so, “There’s one area where Ken-san is on exactly the same level we are — he isn’t pursuing any romance either.” When Kaoru remained uncharacteristically silent in response to this, she went on, “If he is interested in Aoshi, he’s done absolutely nothing about it.”

“That’s ’cause he’s too damn nice,” grumbled Sano. “That’s always been his problem. He probably knows — at least on the inside, even if he doesn’t know consciously or whatever — he knows how people around him think about him, and he feels like it would make him a total asshole to everyone who thinks they’re in love with him if he went and found someone of his own and crushed all their hopes.”

“That does sound like Ken-san…” It was possibly the most seriously Megumi had taken any statement of Sano’s during this entire conversation. “He grasps so firmly at the first decent, unselfish response he sees to a problem… He doesn’t realize there might be a better way.”

Kaoru, having recovered her tongue, agreed critically, “He always thinks the best solution is whatever’s the most inconvenient for him. It would be like him to just assume that denying himself his own romance is doing what’s best for everyone else.”

“…not realizing that if he were to find someone of his own, he would set the rest of us free to do the same.”

“Yeah, that would make things way less awkward, if Kenshin got with someone finally.”

“But…” Kaoru took a deep breath, and her face, in contrast to its previous redness, now paled. “Isn’t it maybe a little selfish to wait around for Kenshin to set us free? When the whole problem came from the fact that we were wrong about how we felt in the first place?”

Sano stared at her, parts of his face shifting in and out of a variety of expression components so that no single emotion showed clearly. “Are you saying we should all go after — I mean, not saying there’s necessarily anyone to go after — but if there was, you think we should all go for it so Kenshin will get the message?”

“It might solve the problem…” Megumi’s voice, which was directed toward the frying fish rather than either of the other two, was quiet and a little hoarse. “It probably couldn’t,” she added, lifting her eyes at last and looking steadily at Kaoru, “have any negative effect.”

“It would show Aoshi-san we’re not his rivals.” Kaoru’s voice was just as hoarse as Megumi’s as she returned the intent gaze. “And it would show Kenshin he wouldn’t be hurting any of us if he went after his own happiness…”

“And our happiness… if we were brave enough to reach for it…” Megumi didn’t seem to intend this as an immediate continuation of Kaoru’s thought, but rather as the beginning of another she didn’t need to finish.

Watching Kaoru’s paleness after her daring suggestion darken back to its prior redness, Sano didn’t bother to point out that the fish seemed to be crackling rather alarmingly in the pan during the wordless few moments that followed. He just waited out that time with his expression still shifting as it had before until finally it settled into one of determination. “I’ll leave the matter to you, then,” he eventually said, and, without further goodbye, headed for the dark doorway behind him with a speed and vigor of movement probably a little excessive for simply vacating the room and perhaps the dojo.

And the two women remained behind in silence, but for the sounds of their lunch starting to burn, staring at each other, wondering whether they had the courage to reach for their own happiness.


I’ve rated this story .

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


In-Law


It was one of those situations in which the person following him was so obvious that the concealment could barely be considered more than nominal, and perhaps existed merely for the sake of anyone else the two of them might happen to pass. It certainly did nothing for Aoshi, who grew more and more impatient for the eventual encounter and had been, for a few minutes now, seeking an appropriate venue.

When he found one — a side street devoid of pedestrian traffic and heavily shadowed in the purpling dusk — he turned to face his tail and smoothly drew a kodachi. He definitely didn’t need two; he might not even need one.

And the voice of his pursuer said, “Please, Shinomori, do you really think, if I planned on attacking you, I would do it this openly?”

“You overestimate your skills,” Aoshi replied, searching for identifying detail in the darkness whence the somewhat familiar voice had come, “if you think you could approach me without my knowing.”

“If you say so.” Discarding any attempt at secrecy, the follower drew Aoshi’s eye directly to him by lighting a match. Briefly it illuminated a harsh face as the man, whom Aoshi now recognized, brought it to the end of the cigarette between his lips. “No,” Saitou went on, “I’m here to advise you.”

“Advise me of what?” Aoshi put his weapon away. He’d been right: he didn’t need it — though apparently not quite for the reason he’d believed.

“You may have a chance with Himura, but the stalking has got to stop.”

Completely blindsided, the former Okashira simply stared.

“Half the city knows you’re there, and many of us are wondering why a man with your abilities can’t be more subtle.”

That was all the time it took Aoshi to recover at least his outward composure. “You’re a police officer,” he said coolly; “what does it usually mean when someone with the ability not to be is consistently near being caught?”

“That he wants to be caught,” Saitou replied with some impatience. “But that’s the wrong way to approach this; you’ll only make things awkward.”

“I’ve tried to kill him twice. ‘Awkward’ is the baseline here.”

“So many people have tried to kill Himura that he considers it a perfectly legitimate form of introduction. I even heard him refer to me as a ‘friend’ recently. So, no, your relationship is not yet awkward enough that it won’t be worsened by the ridiculous stalking act.”

For a long moment Aoshi was silent, pondering this. He had to admit that between the Bakumatsu and the pursuit of Shishio, Saitou had spent more time around Himura than he had and was, perhaps, qualified to offer this admonishment. Why he would do so was a wholly different and rather bizarre question, but maybe he did, at least, know what he was talking about.

“Very well,” Aoshi said at last, in a tone he hoped would convey his willingness to listen but no promise to comply if he didn’t like what he heard. “What do you suggest?”

“As strange as it is to say surrounded by lunatics, you’re going to have to act like a normal, straightforward person. Innuendo won’t do. I’ve been reliably informed that Himura is ‘kindof a dipshit about things like this.'”

Aoshi blinked.

“I don’t know the boring details, but apparently he has some great romantic tragedy in his past, and buried his romantic sense along with the rest of his old life. The way I heard it described was, ‘These days he doesn’t even recognize romance if it swats him on the ass.'”

Though he’d reconciled himself to the fact that he was actually having this conversation, Aoshi didn’t yet feel entirely comfortable asking where these quotations were coming from.

“In other words,” Saitou went on, “Himura sees people almost exclusively as either friends or enemies, and he’s starting to believe you’re an enemy again, thanks to the stalking you’ve been so eager to let him notice. It will, as I said, make things incredibly awkward if that behavior suddenly turns into romantic overtures. You need to become his friend first, then make your romantic overtures in such a way that he can’t possibly misunderstand you. There is no place for stalking anywhere in this.”

“You said he referred to you recently as a friend,” wondered Aoshi suspiciously. “How do I know you’re not purposely giving me incorrect advice to further your own cause?”

Saitou’s laugh in response to this was so derisive as to drive home the sincerity of his subsequent words. “I’m not nearly so imbalanced and depressed yet as to find Himura attractive. He’s only shifted to ‘friend’ for me because I’ve been around him–” and here he added somewhat grudgingly, “and more or less forced to be relatively polite to him — so much lately.”

Irritated but feeling he might as well proceed, Aoshi asked, “Then what do you advise regarding my real rivals? He’s been living at that girl’s dojo for almost a year now.”

You haven’t been there much — under normal, social circumstances, at least — since you came to Tokyo, but what has the weasel you brought with you been up to this whole time?”

“She’s spent nearly every minute of every day with Kaoru; sometimes she even sleeps–” He cut himself short, his eyes widening. From merely relieved that Misao seemed to have lessened the intensity of her attentions to him, he became all of a sudden sharply curious, and a little shocked that this hadn’t occurred to him before. “Do you mean to tell me that they–”

Saitou chuckled. “You’re an excellent spy, Shinomori, but sometimes you’re a little too single-minded.”

Deciding with a struggle to let go that comment on his abilities — or at least to store it away for later examination, along with the question of whether or not he approved of the relationship just implied involving someone for whom he couldn’t help feeling at least a little almost paternal responsibility and fondness, and whether he was or wasn’t completely failing to live up to those sensibilities by failing to notice this earlier — Aoshi asked, “What about Sagara?”

With a skeptical hmming sound as derisive as his earlier laugh, Saitou cocked his head to the side and said, “You think he’s interested in Himura?”

“At the very least I would not be surprised.”

“If you take my word for anything tonight, believe that he is thoroughly otherwise occupied.”

“Very well. And the doctor?”

Now the cop sighed faintly, as if he would rather not be quite so well informed as he was on this score. “Her burgeoning romance,” he said with sarcastic dramatic emphasis, “is even more unfathomable than the concept of anyone being attracted to your noisy protégé.”

“Who–”

“Let’s just say your path is clear. The ladies have lost interest and are looking elsewhere after waiting too long for Himura to make the first move, which we’ve already established will never happen since he is, and I quote, ‘dumbassedly blind to sexy even when it’s trying to kill him.'”

“Who the hell said that.”

Saitou just snorted.

A more pertinent question, which Aoshi could no longer refrain from asking, was, “And why are you, of all people, bringing this up?”

“Himura and I are practically related these days.” It was approximately the same tone as before — as if Saitou didn’t exactly want to be saying this, but had no choice. “I can’t get rid of him, so I more or less have to look out for him. It would be in your best interest to make him happy. It might also be a good idea to be sure this is what you really want before you marry into this family.”

“‘Family?'”

Again Saitou snorted. “Single-minded,” he reiterated. “Take two minutes to stop staring exclusively at whatever it is you find so attractive about Himura, and look at the people around him, and someone with your skills should be able to sort things out. Then go ask him to drink tea with you or something instead of climbing a tree on the Kamiya property and tracking his ki all night ‘like a trench-coat spider trying to figure out what would be the creepiest way to suck Kenshin’s blood.'”

Aoshi didn’t bother to ask how Saitou had known what he’d been planning for this evening.

“I will undoubtedly see you around,” was Saitou’s abrupt, sardonic goodbye as he turned with a facetious wave and disappeared into the darkness.

Silently and in perfect stillness, pondering, Aoshi watched the point of the cigarette vanish from sight. ‘Practically related?’ Why on earth did Saitou have to look out for Himura? What could possibly link them thus? That the officer was bent on safeguarding Himura’s happiness — inexplicable as that might seem — was reassuring, but what did Himura make of such a guardian? This odd tangle Aoshi had blindly walked into by coming to Tokyo with the intentions he had — might it not be better to extricate himself from it while he still could? As Saitou had so cuttingly pointed out, after all, Himura hadn’t the faintest idea of Aoshi’s interest.

And yet, recalling a peculiarly alluring blend of strength and gentleness, a determination to help and heal rather than harm even in bitter extremities, Aoshi couldn’t entertain any thought of giving up, of walking away. Especially now he knew, thanks to a spy more resident than he was (and evidently in some ways he hadn’t quite parsed yet), that those he’d been considering his rivals had already conveniently dropped from the running.

He was not too proud to accept advice when it seemed reasonable, and becoming Himura’s friend first didn’t strike him as preclusively irrational. Aoshi might not be terribly skilled at friendmaking, but Himura was certainly worth taking on that challenge for. Besides, if it didn’t work, or if Saitou (and his anonymous source of slangy Kenshin-wisdom) turned out to be wrong or deliberately deceptive, he could always fall back on stalking.

With new plans forming in his head and a new determination — perhaps slightly less single-minded than before — Aoshi resumed his path toward the Kamiya dojo. He looked forward to attaining his goal, of course, with all his heart, but now he anticipated satisfaction as well from seeing Saitou around and gaining some idea of what was going on with him, possibly even greeting him as a relation for all practical purposes sometime in the not-too-distant future. He would figure it all out; that should be easy enough, really, with the leads he’d been provided tonight.

No one, whatever their reason for being involved in the tangle, would scare him away from this. He would make Kenshin — and himself — happy. It was what he really wanted.


I’ve rated this story . For some fairly inane author’s notes written just after the story, see this Productivity Log.

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


Substantiated


In response to the cheerful knock, Katsu’s voice called down, “Up here, Sano!” The latter therefore, making use of some old crates against the wall that were probably a fire hazard but had been there as long as he could remember, clambered onto the roof where Katsu had a habit of camping when he didn’t want to destroy the delicate balance of too many recently inked papers laid out to dry inside. It seemed late in a rather cold day for sprawling on the roof, but to Katsu a little chill was no great price to pay to keep inadvertent elbows out of his fresh prints.

Katsu never really looked right relaxing, being simply too intense for it. No matter how casually he glanced over at Sano, no matter how lethargic he appeared, it always seemed more as if he was waiting in enforced and somewhat frustrated idleness to return to what mattered than actually getting any real rest. It made Sano grin as he stretched out across the cracked roof tiles beside his friend.

From his recumbent position Katsu raised himself onto an arm and reached over to flick the edge of Sano’s gi aside. Lifting a brow as his eyes moved from one of the bruises on Sano’s chest to the next and the next, he finally fixed his friend with a hard look. “I’m going to have to draw the line at this kind of abuse, Sano.”

Sano laughed. “It’s nothing like that. We just get kinda… rough… sometimes.”

“I’d be interested in seeing how many bruises he has after you guys ‘get kinda rough sometimes.'”

“Nah, that’d make me jealous,” Sano replied, pulling his gi tight shut to keep out the evening air, then pillowing his head on his raised arms (which motion reopened his upper garment almost completely, but it wasn’t worth worrying about).

In the variegated sky, stars were beginning to peek out from between the sparse clouds, and Sano watched contentedly as they became more and more visible. He’d come to see if Katsu wanted to go drink somewhere, but knew well his friend’s unwillingness to leave drying sheets unattended. Not that they were technically attended right now; there seemed to be an acceptable radius of proximity. So Sano would talk to him here for a while and then go drink on his own somewhere. Or maybe go to the police station and harass Saitou about staying at work so damn late.

Almost as if reading his thoughts — though in reality, of course, just belatedly continuing the conversation, “Why do you like that guy, anyway?” Katsu asked.

“Why do you like Megumi?” Sano retorted. He’d long since tired of interrogation about his relationship with Saitou, and had begun asking prying questions of his own in return — taking advantage of the fact that Katsu had been developing a serious interest in the lady doctor and that his condition became discernibly (to Sano) worse each time he happened to meet her.

“None of your business.” Katsu always looked somewhat angry when he blushed; it was kinda funny.

“Then neither’s mine.”

“All right,” Katsu conceded with a snort both frustrated and amused. “I’ll tell if you will.”

“But I’ve already told you!” was Sano’s next protest. “You’ve asked me practically every day since him and me first got together!”

“Let’s do a compare and contrast instead, then.”

That sounded a good deal more interesting than the defensive Sano usually found himself put on. “All right, fine. You start.”

“I asked first!”

“Yeah, you’ve asked a million times, and it’s annoying. So you start.”

Katsu made a sort of huffing noise, but then his expression turned gradually contemplative, abstract, as he sought words for his thoughts. “She… she knows exactly what she wants and how she intends to get it. Not only in being a doctor, but in everything she does.”

“Yeah, that does sound like her,” Sano nodded. “She goes right for whatever she wants.” He’d only ever seen her flummoxed about what she hoped to gain from life back when he’d first met her, including the time she’d spent desiring Kenshin but observing his clear preferences elsewhere. Of course Sano was not about to mention this to Katsu, who would only mope over that old attachment and start morbidly looking for signs of its continued existence. Instead he remarked, “Saitou does that too.”

“Yes, I remember,” Katsu said dryly, “how he went right for you when you guys first met.”

“I wish he had! Oh, you mean with a sword.”

Katsu snorted again.

“But that’s still part of the same thing, though… he was trying to make a point, and he just went right for the best way to make it. And, you know, he could have killed me.”

“Oh, yes, I’m convinced. You like him because he didn’t kill you when he had the chance. Good reasoning.”

“It’s more than just that, bakayarou. These things he goes right for, they’re always good things. He always wants what’s best for the country and shit, and he just does whatever he has to to get to those goals. Maybe he’s an asshole about how he does it sometimes, but he always wants what’s right. He’s always got the big picture in his head, and things always turn out better because of what he does, even if it seems like some of the little things along the way make him a jerk.”

“But how can you–”

Sano interrupted him. “No, it’s your turn again, buddy. You suggested this compare and contrast thing, and then you barely said anything about Megumi; don’t try to weasel out of it and just give me shit about Saitou like always.”

“All right… fine…” Katsu sounded annoyed, but also as if he couldn’t refute Sano’s logic. After a moment he started again slowly. “Megumi-san is… well, she’s the opposite of what you just described, really. For her it’s not about the big picture; it’s always the details. She’s concerned with how she can make this particular person feel better right now. She’s not worried about changing the world, or how what she’s doing will affect society overall, just how she can save or improve one life, even a small one.

“But she’s also similar, in that that’s what she believes is right, and she doesn’t let anything — not anyone else or their ideas about a way of life that might be better — stop her from doing exactly what she thinks she should be doing. She’s so dedicated to what she believes is her calling that, whenever I see her doing something else — which is mostly when I see her — she looks as if she’s forcing herself to take a break and would really rather be back at the clinic. She knows the health benefits of pacing herself, but she doesn’t really relax and enjoy anything.”

Once again, Sano was not about to mention to Katsu that, back when Megumi had still thought there might be a chance at winning Kenshin’s heart and therefore that there was a point beyond maintaining her own health to the time she spent at the dojo, she’d seemed to enjoy her periods of rest much more and get a lot more out of them. Which was not to imply Megumi had no feelings of friendship for the dojo inhabitants, but these days Katsu’s assessment of her activities rang true: lacking a secondary purpose to pursue in her moments of relaxation, her primary purpose of helping and healing constantly drew her thoughts back to it when she was supposed to be giving herself a break.

Sano also wasn’t about to laugh out loud at how similar to his own interpretation of Katsu, so avid in researching political issues and writing and distributing his newspaper, was Katsu’s interpretation of Megumi. A new secondary purpose, Sano thought — to wit, a reciprocated romantic interest — would benefit them both, enrich both their lives. If something managed to arise between them, hopefully they could encourage each other in the proposed down-time, relax together and focus for brief periods on something other than their driving goals. Katsu obviously already observed that need in Megumi — surely she, with her medical acumen, would see it just as easily in him.

But Sano didn’t necessarily have words in which to express all these thoughts, and anything even distantly referencing Megumi’s former interest in Kenshin must be absolutely taboo anyway. So what he said was, “Saitou’s kinda like that too. He’s a total workaholic, and sometimes he loses track of things he really should be doing for his own sake when he’s busy trying to dig up dirt on some politician he just knows is crooked or something. It’s good to kinda force him to do fun shit sometimes.” He grinned reminiscently. “But at the same time, you can’t help admiring that kind of drive. It makes me feel like I could be doing better myself at, you know… making things better. He lets me help him with his work sometimes, and that always… makes me feel like a better person too. A little, at least.”

Katsu’s sigh seemed equal parts resigned and confused. “All right, I guess I can see why you enjoy that…” There was no way, after all, he could deny the appeal of helping to improve society, given that his own personal goals and beliefs tended in that direction. “But I still don’t understand how you can bear to stay with him. Because even recognizing good points about him doesn’t change the fact that he’s also harsh and demanding and unfeeling.”

“Yeah… yeah, he definitely is those things,” Sano admitted. “And I never said it was easy or anything. I mean, he does drive me crazy pretty much every damn day… but he’s also got all those good things about him and it kinda… balances out, you know? I’m happy. Plus, there’s also…”

He paused. They’d been discussing this with so much freedom that he’d started this last statement without really meaning to. It wasn’t actually a point he wanted brought up… but he was unsurprised when Katsu didn’t just let it go.

“Also?”

Sano made a dismissive noise.

“Sano, I want to know. What is it about that guy that makes you so adamant to stay with him?” And when Sano remained reluctantly wordless, Katsu pressed, “Is it the fighting? I know you’ve always had an unhealthy obsession with anyone who’s able to beat you up…”

Sano snorted.

“Or the sex? You can’t tell me that’s the deciding factor. Seriously, how does it balance out?”

“All right… fine… all right…” In for a rin, in for a yen, he supposed. “I’ll tell you… if you promise not to tell anyone else.”

“Of course.”

Sano propped himself up on an elbow in order to stare suspiciously at his friend’s face, searching for any hint that Katsu had merely made the promise in order to get answers out of him. Finding only earnestness, concern, and curiosity in Katsu’s demeanor, he lay down again, looking into the sky once more. “I don’t know why…” he began at last. “But I’m sometimes afraid, way deep down under knowing better, that my friends are just putting up with me. That they don’t really like me, and just let me hang around out of the goodness of their hearts, because they’re too nice to tell me what they really think of me… too nice to tell me to get lost.

“I mean, I pretty much forced myself on the dojo back at first, and then everyone just sort of got used to the way things were. What real reason does Kenshin have to be my friend — because I started following him around? Why should the others like me — because Kenshin puts up with me? And the guys around town? I’m convenient to roll dice and get drunk with, but really they could do that with anyone.”

Katsu had been making protesting noises, but Sano overrode any actual statement. “That’s the shit that goes through the back of my head sometimes: that nobody has any real reason to be my friend, and they probably don’t really give a shit about me, but they’re just too nice to say so. I know it’s not true — probably — and it’s not like it bothers me most of the time… but sometimes I can’t help thinking that way.”

“Well…” Katsu remarked slowly after a few moments of silence. “Setting aside how troubling this weird fear of yours is, what does it… have to… do… with…” His words slowed as he made the connection himself. “Saitou’s not the type to put up with anyone he doesn’t really like out of the goodness of his heart.”

“Yeah, exactly. He’s too much of an asshole to politely put up with something, so I know he really does like me. I know it better than I know anyone else does.”

Katsu sat up and stared at his friend with an inscrutable expression. Presently he spoke, and it was difficult for Sano to decide whether the words sounded more like laughter or groaning. “Sano, I’m not certain that’s entirely healthy. You realize you’re essentially saying you like him because he treats you like shit?”

“That’s not why I like him,” Sano sighed. “Well, I mean, that’s not what I like about him.” At Katsu’s look he protested, “I just got done telling you some of the things I like about him, and you even agreed you were kinda starting to see my point. But then there’s this added bonus of knowing he likes me back. Knowing for sure, without having any little stupid doubts about it in the back of my head like I do about some of my friends. Maybe it’s not healthy, but I really like it. There’s this security about the situation that… it’s pretty great.”

Slowly Katsu mimicked Sano’s earlier gesture, lying down again onto the rooftop and returning his gaze to the sky as if not entirely content but aware this was the best he would get. “‘Security…'” he said, testing the word. “So you’re saying you feel… safe… with this guy who once stabbed you in the shoulder.”

“Um, yeah,” Sano confirmed. “It’s weird as shit, I know, but… yeah.”

A long and seemingly rather dissatisfied silence followed, until finally Katsu asked quietly, “Are you afraid I don’t really like you?”

Despite having known his confession might distract Katsu from the obnoxious and seemingly endless subject of all the problems he saw in Sano’s relationship with Saitou, Sano yet hadn’t been entirely eager to make it for fear it would actually be a less comfortable topic than the other. Still, having taken the step and brought it up, he had braced himself for this question and been ready with its answer.

“Nah, not you,” he said fairly easily. “I mean, after I promised to go along with you on your little raid last year and then basically backstabbed you…”

“Punching in the stomach is almost the literal opposite of stabbing in the back,” Katsu put in at a murmur.

Sano cleared his throat. “My point is that, after that, only a real friend would be willing to hang out with me all the time and worry about whether I’m happy with my boyfriend and shit.” He’d had this answer prepared, and thought it came out rather well, but not until he actually said it did he realize how emphatically, how profoundly he meant it.

“It took a real friend to punch me in the stomach just then at all,” was Katsu’s reply, solemn, as if he too felt the touched-upon connection between them. “You were looking out for me then, and I’m trying to look out for you now.”

“I know.” Sano’s tone held equal solemnity as he acknowledged, beyond merely the surface meaning of Katsu’s words, the true nature of Katsu’s friendship and his own awareness of it, to some extent newly deepened.

“And if you’re really happy…” Katsu sighed, and shrugged his shoulders an inch or so up the roof tiles beneath them. “I guess I should stop giving you a hard time about it.”

Sano whooped and punched a victorious fist into the air. Of course it meant a lot that Katsu was so concerned for him, annoying as it had been, but it meant even more that he was willing, even in the face of that concern, to trust Sano and let it go. So when his friend made a derisive sound in response to Sano’s display of triumph, he said cheerfully, “It’ll be way easier for you when you’re distracted by making out with Megumi all the time.”

Again Katsu sighed. He probably blushed too, but Sano wasn’t looking and couldn’t tell. “I’m glad one of us is confident that’s ever going to happen…”

“I know you feel totally awkward talking to women. Well, to anyone you’re interested in,” Sano corrected, given that Katsu’s tastes (if not necessarily his actual pursuits) were even less restrictive than Sano’s. “And it’s kinda hilarious watching you try sometimes…”

“Bakayarou.” Katsu struck out in Sano’s direction with a clenched hand, but Sano rolled slightly out of the blow’s path, laughing.

“Seriously, you’re fucking adorable, man… you get so focused, it’s like a little kid trying to write a formal letter.”

“You mean like you trying to write a formal letter?”

“Shut up. What I was going to say is, it’s a good thing you’ve totally fallen for a lady who’s not likely to wait around for a guy she likes to say something. I mean, we established just a minute ago she goes right for whatever she wants. So it doesn’t matter much whether you’re any good at talking to women!”

Katsu made a very discouraged noise. “That’s really not comforting, Sano, considering she hasn’t gone anywhere in my vicinity.”

“Yeah, but I think she’s starting to notice you; the other night when you were both over at the dojo, I definitely saw her looking at you a few times like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting.'”

“Did you? Was she?” Katsu sat up again with an expression of childlike hope that melted quickly into a forlorn disbelief.

“She sure as hell was,” Sano assured him. What he didn’t voice was his new determination to help bring about this desirable match in any way he could — to help an important friend find happiness with another friend far more similar to and compatible with him than Sano had realized until this very conversation.

“She’s so… beautiful…” Katsu sighed, flopping down onto his back once more in dramatic despair.

And at that moment, a voice called out from down below near the front door, “Tsukioka-san? Is that you up there?”

This time, rather than rising in the normal way, Katsu convulsed into a more upright position with a choking sound of startled recognition. The moonlight that was by now the primary source of illumination for the scene didn’t allow for fine color distinctions, but Sano, who also sat up, believed with some certainty that Katsu was blushing harder than he’d ever done in his friend’s presence before. A couple of surprised, chagrined questions were practically hovering in writing above his head, too — “How long has she been there?” and “What might she have heard?”

For his part, with a grin, Sano scrambled down to the edge of the roof and peered at the woman below. “Hey, Kitsune!” he greeted as she met his gaze with a smile. Though Sano had never really thought about it before, Katsu was right; she was beautiful — not Sano’s type, but definitely good-looking. Glancing over his shoulder he called out, “Katsu, come see who’s in your vicinity!” Then, because Megumi was not alone in the street in front of his friend’s door, he flung himself off the roof, crying, “Think fast, cop!”

Saitou demonstrated surprise for only half an instant; then the whites of his eyes showed as he rolled them and stepped swiftly aside. Sano, who’d expected this (this, or possibly a blow as he descended, depending on Saitou’s mood), managed (mostly) to stick his landing. Then he turned, still grinning, and moved to throw an arm around Saitou’s shoulders and address Megumi again:

“I didn’t expect to ever see you hanging out with this bastard!”

Complacently she replied, “The delinquent cop–” gesturing at the officer that had accepted Sano’s familiarity as well as the insulting epithets of both speakers with no trace of reaction– “happened to mention that he planned on looking for you here, so I decided to come along and make sure Tsukioka-san didn’t drink himself sick like you did the other night.”

“I wasn’t sick,” Sano protested. “Or,” he added with a sheepish widening of grin, “I was only sick while I was passed out, so I didn’t notice it.”

Katsu had been descending from the roof using a more traditional method than Sano’s, and now joined the group in front of his door with a somber expression and the polite greeting, “Good evening, Takani-sensei.” Given that he didn’t seem to have entirely stopped blushing yet, it was a significant mark of courage that he’d come down at all; god knew that if they’d been discussing Saitou rather than Megumi just when those two had appeared, Sano might have jumped from the other side of the roof and taken off across town rather than face the possibility that Saitou had heard his thoughts about him and their relationship.

“Good evening, Tsukioka-san,” Megumi returned, but Sano broke in loudly before she could say anything else:

“Looks like we’re going to have to cancel our dinner plans that we made, Katsu. Maybe you better take Megumi instead, so she can lecture you about drinking too much.” He glanced at Saitou. “I have to go get stabbed.”

“Ahou.” Saitou elbowed Sano in the chest so hard that the younger man detached from him, coughing, scrunched over in discomfort, and staggered back. In response, Megumi gave her characteristic laugh and Katsu made a noise of protest.

“Yeah… see…?” Sano gasped, gesturing at Saitou as he attempted to stand straight again. “I got shit to do.”

Katsu shook his head. “All right,” he said. And he shook his head once more, closing his eyes, with a sound that was exasperated but perhaps just a little amused as well.

And Sano took hold of Saitou’s hand and started attempting to drag him away down the street. “Bye, you two! Kitsune, don’t give him too hard of a time!” The officer, with another roll of eyes, shook off Sano’s grip but went with him willingly enough.

When the goodbyes of those they left behind had faded, Sano muttered to Saitou, “You didn’t have to hit me that fucking hard, asshole… I might not have meant anything sexual by ‘get stabbed’ at all, you know!”

“That had nothing to do with it,” Saitou replied. “It was because you’re such an abysmal actor with no sense of subtlety. Anyone could see what you were trying to do from a mile away. Tsukioka’s not likely to consider you his friend for poor attempts like that.”

“Oh, I dunno…” Sano glanced back to where Megumi had drawn closer to Katsu and engaged him in a much more active conversation in their freshly attained privacy. “I think Katsu and me have this friendship thing pretty much down.”


I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes written before the fic was complete, see this Productivity Log.

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


Ficlet time! (from prompts)

Once I requested ficlet prompts and then wrote some stuff.


hishighnesshiko‘s prompt (“Hiko/kiln”):

Kenshin did not have the temper for true resentment, but had accepted his punishment of an extra thousand repetitions of the move he was supposed to be learning with as little grace as possible. He didn’t think he deserved this, disagreed with Hiko completely on the point that a twelve-year-old wasn’t qualified to criticize a grown man’s fashion sense even if that man was not his kenjutsu instructor (let alone if he was), wasn’t even entirely sure why such annoyance had been occasioned by his remark about Hiko’s cloak, and still thought the thing was very ugly. So he waved his shinai in the prescribed movement with more vehemence than correctness, actually almost hoping to annoy his master further with his carelessness.

Instead, it seemed his behavior had instigated a circumstance that it had also at certain times in the past: Hiko, looking extremely irritated, heading for his kiln and the seat in front of it to do something that would inevitably clear up the invisible thundercloud of distemper that seemed to hover about him when Kenshin had stepped out of line.

What exactly this cheering activity was Kenshin really had no concept. Hiko only did it when he was annoyed with Kenshin, and as such Kenshin was, whenever Hiko did it, relegated to the corner of the yard where punishments were traditionally carried out — from which spot he had no view past the bulk of the kiln. Hiko wasn’t firing anything, for he carried no clay; and he wasn’t drinking, for he carried no jug. As to what else he could possibly be doing there, Kenshin could not guess.

Despite his high level of curiosity, he couldn’t ask… Neither when Hiko was busy doing whatever it was and still in a bad mood nor when he was finished and had somehow put himself into a better seemed a judicious moment — one because it would undoubtedly worsen the situation, the other because it threatened a return of the anger that had for the moment been so relievingly averted.

But Kenshin’s hearing was getting better, especially as far as he was able to use his growing ki-reading ability to augment it, and he hoped this time to be able to discern something more than he had last time — something, perhaps, to give him some kind of clue as to what was going on over there.

His master seemed to be speaking — he usually did while at this pursuit — but, strain his ears as he might, Kenshin could not make out the words. Some seemed to have a good deal of breath in them, others a good deal of vowel, but none were distinguishable. His remaining senses were equally useless; though he stood on tiptoe and craned his neck, he simply could not see the other side of the kiln, and wasn’t good enough yet at getting more than a generalized impression of what someone was about through their ki. So, though his curiosity did serve, in large part, to distract him from own annoyance, yet it went unsatisfied.

Eventually Hiko became visible again, appearing a good deal more cheerful, moving around the kiln and walking toward Kenshin. The latter resolutely did not look at him, and (having abandoned along with his pique any desire to irritate his master further) simply concentrated on doing his practice properly in the hopes that Hiko might let him off the remaining five hundred repetitions.

No such luck, but the man did say in a perfectly equable tone, “Well, you might as well finish after supper. Come inside.” He didn’t smile — he rarely did when he wasn’t talking about himself — but was quite clearly now in a much more amiable mood: the whatever-it-was had had its usual effect. Kenshin was pleased at the prospect of eating before he continued his punishment, but still more than a little curious what activity could wreak such a profound change on his master’s temper.

Well, maybe next time he would throw caution to the wind and just walk over there and see.

Next is fe‘s prompt (“more Yae”):

A relatively decent frame of mind was depressed somewhat when, turning a corner, Yae came upon a corpse immediately in his path. The blood from the gunshot wounds was clotted, and everything anyone could possibly use had already been stripped away, but he got the feeling nonetheless that it hadn’t been there long: the rats hadn’t found it yet. It did smell rather terrible, though; he might have anticipated its presence if he’d been paying attention to that particular sense.

Frowning down at it and reflecting on the rudeness (if it could be called such) of leaving one’s victim entirely choking up one side of the street, he tried to recall what he had done with the last dead body he had occasioned. Well, that body had still had stuff on it for people to take; really it should be the responsibility of the last plunderer to move the thing. And as for this one… well, he was here now; he might as well do it.

He wasn’t about to touch it with his hands; Downside was not exactly clean in general, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t get more than an earful if Cai ever found out he’d been voluntarily pushing dead people around. After another moment’s thought, he started nudging it with his boot. Once there was room between the body and the wall for him to stand, he braced himself against the latter and put both his feet against the mottled flesh of the corpse. His back sliding slowly down the slimy stone behind him, he caused the body also to slide, leaving a dark, shining fluid trail across the brickwork as it moved. Eventually it toppled over the edge of the walkway into the thick, variegated water with no discernible splash. Standing straight, he watched the viscous liquid swallow it up entirely.

“Why would you do that?” asked a somewhat tremulous voice from the opposite walkway.

Wondering who would ask such a stupid question, Yae looked up and across. His incredulity didn’t last, however, as it was evident at a glance that she was very new. There was an Exit in this sector, he was fairly sure; she might even have made the transition within the last few hours. So he merely shrugged and replied, “No reason to feed the rats.”

Even from across the channel he could see her shudder. She was flattened against the wall, looking bright, clean, and vulnerable. At the moment she didn’t seem even remotely capable of the kind of thing they supposedly sent people Down here for — though he’d long since stopped trying to understand the logic of their system — and would probably be dead by the end of the day, if Yae was any judge. But she was obviously trying to sound brave and disinterested as she said, “I guess it’s a nice thing to do, then… the only funeral anyone ever gets around here.”

Yae nodded, and turned to walk away.

“Wait!” she cried in an almost pleading tone. When he looked back at her, he saw she’d stepped forward nearly to the edge, her fists clenched. “You haven’t tried to kill me,” she said all at once, evidently trying to make it seem light-hearted. “Can you help me?”

The poor stupid things always asked for help when they hadn’t seen him fight yet (if they had seen him fight, they usually just ran). “Could still try to kill you,” he pointed out.

“Well…” Again she was attempting to speak cheerfully, with very little success. “That’s better than having it come out of nowhere when I turn a corner. Please can you help me?”

The next difficulty was, “How?”

Now she looked almost on the verge of tears at being forced to try to think of a way a complete stranger could help her in this miserable place that was beyond help. After a desperate moment she finally said, “Can I walk with you for a while? I’ll… I’ll give you… anything I have…”

He knew that, for the moment at least, she meant it to the fullest extent of the term, though she probably didn’t understand to what unfortunate point he could take advantage of the promise if he were so inclined. He wasn’t so inclined, but neither was he eager to let her walk with him. He always felt bad for them, of course — especially the Fallen, which she rather seemed to be — but he didn’t need Upsiders (or the closest thing thereto) trailing around cluelessly after him.

Unfortunately, he could never bring himself to say no.

He shrugged again. “For a while,” he acceded.

For some reason her expression of intense relief made him feel a little guilty, as if there were something more he could be doing for people like this — people that didn’t have a clean, safe home with a food synthesizer and working showers and lights to go to — and he wasn’t doing it. He knew there wasn’t anything more. They’d tried to do more, once upon a time, and it had just gotten everyone killed.

She was already making her way down the street to a bridge and coming across to join him, noisy and pitiful and grateful. Yae knew she’d be like all the rest: she’d find a protector she preferred to him and leave, she’d get herself killed sometime when he was otherwise occupied and couldn’t prevent it, or he would leave her when he decided he felt like going home.

“And will you…” Which of the three options she considered most likely was evinced by her next request. He thought her continued tone of forced bravado was very badly-done, but preferred it to anything that might inspire him to one of his clumsy attempts at comfort. “Will you push my body into the… water… when I get shot?”

He grunted his assent. That he would definitely promise her; it was what he’d do for anyone.


And honestly I still kinda think the Hiko one is more messed up XD

Then franzeska prompted “Sano and hilarity,” and I was going to do a little ficlet for that, but it turned into an idea for a real story instead, which can be read here.



No Reservations

From the moment Saitou had stepped into that dojo knowing more than Shinomori did, a subdued air of competition had reigned between them and marked their every meeting.

Has Aoshi really invited Saitou to a private interview because he has case-related information? Or is this a complicated cover for something else entirely?


It had always been a contest of sorts, ever since they’d first met. Though never any good reason for it, there it was: from the moment Saitou had stepped into that dojo knowing more than Shinomori did, a subdued air of competition had reigned between them and marked their every meeting. And so far, they were about even. Saitou had consistently been better-informed than the Okashira during the Shishio affair, but while trying to deal with Yukishiro in Tokyo, Shinomori had generally been one step ahead.

Which was what made Saitou so wary now.

He paused before knocking on the blue-roofed building’s side door, the staff entrance, as he’d been instructed. He really had no idea what to expect within. This was an odd situation, more even than usual when a possible informant requested a private conversation with an investigator — and that was saying something. The offer was not entirely on the level, and it was a sense of intrigue about that that had drawn Saitou here more than that it might be a useful lead for his case.

“Oh, hello, officer,” said the young woman who answered when he did knock. “Shinomori-san is expecting you.”

He said nothing as she bowed him inside and led him upstairs to one particular room of several on the third floor. There she rapped at the shouji, waited for the quiet welcome from within, and left him.

Saitou entered. Contrary to what he would have expected of the former Okashira of the Oniwabanshuu, it was a bright, comfortable room, at whose other end Shinomori stood looking out a half-open window. Despite this orifice, the air was somewhat heavy with a rather oppressive-smelling incense, but otherwise the scene was not unpleasant. Rather than being relaxing, however, this rendered the wolf all the more cautious.

“Saitou.” Shinomori turned. “Hisashiburi.” He wore a yukata pulled close, which, especially against the daylit window, marked the almost unhealthy-looking slenderness of his figure. With the light to his back, his eyes beneath his long bangs appeared very dark.

“Good morning,” Saitou replied, watching him, and calculating the accuracy of the ninja’s greeting: indeed, they hadn’t really spoken since the end of the Yukishiro incident, though they’d seen each other often enough since Saitou had transferred to Kyoto.

Shinomori moved from the window, walking past the officer to the door and listening at it for a moment before locking it. He then seated himself beside a tea service. “Join me.”

As he complied wordlessly, Saitou’s tension was rising, and he kept a careful watch on the other man without letting it appear that he was doing so.

“Youngest child of a rich family abducted,” Shinomori was saying succinctly as he poured tea for them both, “and a government spy assigned to the case because the only existing clue is a name overheard from one of the kidnappers that matches that of a recently-subdued and supposedly-dissolved revolutionary group.”

Saitou had to appreciate this kind of conciseness; he wished the people he worked with could command half as much. “You seem to have a decent grasp on the issue,” he nodded, accepting the cup from the ninja’s slender hand.

“Better than you do,” Shinomori replied.

“Which is why I’m here.”

A placid nod. “The kidnapper was once a bitter enemy to the Oniwabanshuu.”

That, perhaps, cleared things up a bit, but Saitou still couldn’t believe that the other man was really being anything like candid.

“He is dangerous,” Shinomori continued, “and what’s more, he knows who you are.”

Saitou pretended to sip his tea. It didn’t smell unusual in any sense, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Shinomori wouldn’t bring him here without a specific purpose, and so far the information provided only bordered on useful. “It’s true there are more that do than I’d like, but it usually doesn’t make much difference.”

Still impassive, the ninja went on. “It might. You could defeat him in battle, it’s true. But he knows this. He won’t be straightforward; he won’t come at you fairly.”

“I’m used to that,” Saitou remarked, then added with a slight smirk, “I’m not altogether straightforward or fair myself.”

Shinomori brought his own cup slowly to his finely-formed lips; Saitou didn’t think he actually drank, either, though. “What’s important to understand about this person is that he has an obsessive nature, and absolutely no reservations when it comes to getting what he wants.”

“That’s true of most people on some level or other.” Growing a little tired of the excessive incense in the air, Saitou lit a cigarette. Shinomori must burn the stuff all day and all night, to be inured enough to sit right next to it with the smoke floating up into his face like that.

The Oniwaban didn’t seem to care that the officer was smoking in his private chamber without bothering to ask permission. “This man has not only motive and drive, but ability and resources, to get what he wants.”

So far this felt like either a diluted warning or a very abstract tip; neither was likely to be particularly helpful, nor could Saitou believe that such roundabout information could possibly be Shinomori’s reason for inviting him here. Maybe a more straightforward treatment of the exact nature of this exchange would get better results. That had been Saitou’s main point of curiosity in coming, after all — what Shinomori would demand in return for his communications, whatever they were. And perhaps once that was established they could get down to names and other actual facts… if there were any. Well, depending on what the ninja wanted and how Saitou felt like responding to it. Which latter idea had been another point of curiosity that had brought him here.

“You’re getting impatient,” Shinomori observed calmly. “But what if I tell you that you are this man’s target?”

Well, that did get Saitou’s attention, as it was obviously meant to. Still, “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“But you might not escape this time.”

Saitou noticed the very faint upturning of Shinomori’s lips in the same instant he reflected that his cigarette tasted odd — the flavor of the tobacco combining with the incense creating an unusual sensation in his throat — and that his limbs felt strangely and increasingly sluggish.

The tea had been a distraction; that idea had crossed his mind, but as a distraction from what, he had not been able to discern. He hadn’t considered the incense a threat, given that Shinomori was closer to it than he was. And he rarely gave his own cigarettes a second thought, which, of course, Shinomori had counted on. But all this reflection was too late now.

“And his name I believe I can guess,” he said quietly, finding every word more difficult as what resembled a great weariness began to spread inexorably through his body.

“By now I hope you can,” Shinomori replied, reaching out and catching the cigarette as it fell from Saitou’s lips. It was the last thing the officer saw.

Any doubts he’d had about the intentions with which he’d been summoned here were erased when he began to regain consciousness.

He didn’t think he’d been out long, for he could not yet move, could not even open his eyes. His breathing was shallow, and he felt somewhat dizzy even lying still. His senses were vaguely in tact, however, so he was aware of lying stretched out on his back on a soft surface — a futon, if he was not mistaken — of Shinomori beside him — right up against him, actually, with a hand on his chest — of a significant lack of clothing — yes, both of them seemed to be naked — and of certain things that had been done to him while he was unconscious — namely, he seemed to have been… washed. Since he didn’t think Shinomori had a general cleanliness fetish that went quite as far as drugging people in order to clean them up, the intent here must be sex.

No reservations indeed.

The ninja, apparently noting Saitou’s return to awareness, sat up; though still in darkness, Saitou could feel the movement and sense its direction. Shinomori did not speak, which came as no surprise, only grazed his palms over Saitou’s chest. A slow, soft caress, it awoke in Saitou instant frustration that he could not move, and gradually changed to a more pointed touch as the Oniwaban’s fingers began languidly to explore the contours of the officer’s stomach and chest. A few of Saitou’s muscles twitched slightly under this treatment, and a shiver ran through him as the dragging fingertips circled almost carelessly one of his taut nipples.

He was momentarily preoccupied with the gentleness, the apparent fragility, of Shinomori’s hands. They were long and warm and seemed more like those of an artist than someone who practiced heavy kenpo. But there was not much time for such thoughts, as their actions at the present moment must be infinitely more engrossing than their shape. For, moving slowly farther and farther down his body to brush and probe and lag along his hips and thighs, their almost delicate application became more teasing, more maddening, with each passing moment.

Abruptly the touch ceased entirely, and Saitou shivered again as echoes of the tantalizing sensation crept over him like remembered pain from an age-old wound. Then breath moved across his face and Shinomori’s lips, unexpectedly soft but decidedly purposeful, descended onto his.

Saitou couldn’t respond to the kiss, and wasn’t entirely sure he would have if he’d been capable — to show willingness in this situation would be unbecoming — but Shinomori’s talent at it left little to be desired, considering the motionlessness of Saitou’s own lips. He was quite impressed, actually, that a kiss so necessarily one-sided could be so enjoyable. And with the action heightening the responsiveness of his own body and thereby, perhaps, hastening his recovery from the drug, he finally managed to open his eyes. He found himself staring into bright blue, and was amused (and not particularly surprised) at the little jolt of sensation that went through him at the sight.

The ninja drew back slightly, trailing his tongue over Saitou’s lips as he did so and maintaining the lock between their eyes. He stayed away only long enough to remark, “I would prefer you more responsive, but that isn’t an option,” before, closing the distance once more, he ran one of those exceptionally fine hands down Saitou’s body and gave him something he might have wanted to respond to. Whatever his chemical state was, Saitou had no trouble becoming very erect at the touch.

The ninja worked his hardening length slowly and methodically from base to tip as he began unhurriedly traversing Saitou’s jaw and neck with his agile mouth. The officer’s breathing, previously the deep consistence of a sleeper’s, rapidly shortened to a quick and audible cadence, a marked contrast to Shinomori’s deliberate, measured movements.

As the kisses moved down Saitou’s chest and the ninja’s skilled grip made him harder and harder, the older man also began to wish he could be a little more responsive, regardless of whether it would be appropriate voluntarily to give a positive response. He was glad of his inability to show surprise the next moment, however, when, without warning, oiled fingers pressed slowly inside him. Why this should be a surprise he wasn’t sure; it made perfect sense, given the situation. It was just that he’d never been penetrated before, and had become so accustomed to being on top that he had perhaps started to take for granted the way things worked.

And suddenly Shinomori’s tongue was gliding along Saitou’s erection, meticulously-rubbing fingers close in its slick wake. He never actually took him fully in his mouth, and Saitou was certain that this, along with the unnecessarily leisurely process of preparation, was just another deliberate torment and reiteration of the ninja’s complete control. Yes, the former Okashira played this getting-what-he-wanted game very well. So well that, torment notwithstanding, Saitou was not wasting any effort at the moment considering what he was going to do when this was over.

Shinomori added another finger. The sensation was odd, but elating, and increased the pleasure of his attentions elsewhere in a way Saitou would not have guessed. Should have guessed, given that he’d been on that end of this sort of exchange often enough, but still could not entirely have fathomed without experiencing. The other caresses were slowing, however; Shinomori evidently didn’t want him to come yet, and must be aware that Saitou could have less control of it in his current state.

For all he was enjoying this, lying still did not make for the most satisfying sex. Saitou’s body, whether aided by his will or not, was exhausting itself straining to work through the chemical influence and regain control, while Shinomori, with the utmost patience, systematically continued his arousing preparations. Saitou heard himself moan inarticulately, and thought that was probably a good sign. Shinomori apparently thought that was the signal for the main event.

As the ninja drove slowly into him, Saitou could hear his own voice again, wordless but unmistakably approving. His lips had managed to move somewhat this time, and when Shinomori’s again closed over them the kiss was much closer to mutual than the previous had been. Though unable to reciprocate when his mouth was worked open and thoroughly overrun by Shinomori’s tongue, he could feel thus the muffled groan from the Oniwaban’s throat that indicated just how good it was to be inside him.

He could never have guessed from the symptoms exhibited by his partners in the past how this would feel. The clinical awareness that it was tight and uncomfortable as well as almost overwhelmingly thrilling and stimulating could never encompass his present sensations. He wondered what it would be like when he had control over his body; for the moment, however, he dismissed this thought, as well as the subsequent query as to whether he was planning on finding out.

Shinomori was stroking him again, and Saitou’s clarity of mind was deteriorating; it was a short-lived reflection that his inability to move and imperfectly-parted legs couldn’t make for a very convenient position, that it was lucky the younger man was so flexible. The rhythm into which Shinomori had smoothly guided them, the building tension and pleasure, was overcoming logical thought.

Twitching fingers longed to clutch at and test the texture of the skin above him, but Saitou’s arms were still too heavy and unresponsive. Authority over his muscles was returning, however, gradually but certainly; how much time passed before he was able to reach up sluggishly and grip the ninja’s rocking body he did not know, but as his climax approached he was aware that his nails were digging into the scarred flesh of Shinomori’s sides.

Evoking a low cry that did not sound even slightly drugged, the white-hot rush of orgasm spread through him. He could feel himself tightening almost painfully around Shinomori, who groaned and quickened his pace with hands bracing against the futon. Not long after, even before the clenching sensation throughout Saitou’s body had fully dissipated, Shinomori let out a long, unsteady sigh that ended in a slight moan, and grew still. He dropped his form back onto Saitou’s and lay panting against the officer’s shoulder for some time.

Well, this had certainly been an entertaining and unique experience, and now that its intenser moments had passed Saitou had opportunity to contemplate its ramifications. He wasn’t really sure what he planned on doing; this was so much more than anything he’d expected in coming here… though at the same time not entirely surprising. But if Shinomori thought he was going to take it lying down (in the figurative sense, of course), he was very much mistaken.

The ninja raised his head and kissed Saitou languidly as he slowly drew out. Here was another unfamiliar sensation that the wolf found rather pleasurable than otherwise, the constriction and return to normal configuration of that particular opening; but, though he returned the kiss to the greatest extent of his current ability, he did not otherwise react. Shinomori’s eyes, staring into his, were equally devoid of communication; they were exceptionally bright, though, and the flush on the former Okashira’s face was particularly attractive.

Finally Shinomori sat back with a soft, contented sigh, and, leaning away, busied himself with something Saitou did not care to make the effort to look at. After a few moments the officer felt something cool and wet touch his chest, and shivered inadvertently. As Shinomori continued to sponge him off fastidiously and almost, he might have thought if he’d been given to such fancies, affectionately, Saitou reflected that this fixation with cleanliness seemed eminently typical of the younger man. It was amusing and perhaps somewhat charming.

Once they were both cleansed to the Oniwaban’s satisfaction, Shinomori took the water basin away somewhere and, returning, pulled Saitou up with both hands. Saitou found that the drug had worn off so far as to allow him to sit unswaying with little trouble, but he was still dizzy. Of course Shinomori, placid and apparently emotionless, was aware of this, and, logically, had no fear of retaliation at this point.

He had produced a neatly stacked and folded set of clothing — Saitou’s uniform — and was shaking the articles out in preparation for helping the officer into them. Saitou did not refuse the assistance, nor, when he was fully dressed, did he object to Shinomori giving him a hand up. As the ninja donned his yukata again in continued silence, Saitou concentrated first on maintaining his equilibrium in this precarious standing position, then on fastening his upper garment.

But fine motor function was still beyond him, it seemed, and after a moment Shinomori pushed his hands away and buttoned the jacket for him. As he did so he finally spoke, quietly: “The boy will be returned to his parents this evening; they will find him unhurt and probably the better for our hospitality.”

Saitou made a noise of acknowledgement; then, as the ninja’s deft fingers finished their task and the imperturbable gaze rose to meet the officer’s, he decided to try for something with a few more syllables. “You do realize…” But as even this short phrase left his reluctant tongue in more of a slur than he would prefer anyone to hear from him at any time, he broke off there.

Shinomori’s eyes narrowed slightly, and the corners of his mouth twisted upward by a fraction; it was obvious he didn’t need the I’m not just going to let this go spoken aloud. “Of course.” Leaning up, he touched a brief kiss to Saitou’s lips. “It’s your turn.”

After a moment, Saitou returned the pseudo-smile and nodded slightly. Then, very slowly at first so as to accustom himself both to the foreign ache in his lower half and the precautions necessary for walking in his still-slightly-blurry state, he turned and headed for the door. He was fairly sure that before he would run into anyone, he had the entire length of the hallway beyond and a staircase to make sure his movements would not betray the events that had just transpired. He did not throw so much as a glance behind him as he left the room.

So his case was closed. The dangerous, roundabout, obsessive former enemy of the Oniwabanshuu had had his way, and the only question remaining now was what Saitou was going to do about it. The officer’s emotions were mixed, to say the least.

By the time he’d reached the street below, he had resumed, if not his usual brisk stride, a natural enough gait. This disturbing dizziness would certainly pass; the bemusement was sure to take more time, the animated scheming that had already gripped his brain even longer.

Though he wanted a cigarette, he didn’t consider himself up to the task of extracting and lighting one just yet. He glanced back at the third-floor windows of the Aoiya, but, though a little disoriented, didn’t think Shinomori’s room was on this side of the building. Noting that his enunciation was still somewhat inhibited he murmured, “My turn…”

The possibilities were endless.



I’ve rated this story .



One Nightfall

At first it still felt a little odd to be kissing Chou, of all people, but that was only before the grinding started.

Chou and Sano don’t like each other; they just want to have sex. Being forced to endure each other’s company as they attempt to find a place to do the deed makes for an interesting night.


Sano shouldn’t have been surprised at Chou’s presence in the bar; he hadn’t had enough to drink yet to overlook the logic that although he didn’t like Chou, Chou did live in Tokyo too and could show up at any bar he wanted to — but for whatever reason, Sano was surprised. Maybe it was because when he’d eyed the broom-head suspiciously, Chou had said in a mocking tone, “Whatcha starin’ at, tori-atama? You lookin’ to get laid?” Or maybe it was because Sano had then examined Chou’s pleasant slenderness and promising hands and replied casually, “Yeah.” Or it could have been because Chou, instead of laughing, had immediately returned Sano’s appraising scrutiny and said, “Me too.”

Now they were grinning at each other, both frankly surprised and amused at how quickly and easily they’d reached that agreement — possibly the first time they’d ever agreed on anything.

“Let’s go back to my place,” Sano started to say, but halfway through it changed into “Oh, shit” as he remembered why he was out drinking (and recklessly embarking upon a one-night stand with a rival) in the first place. “I got evicted.”

Chou echoed the “Shit,” chewing his lip. “An’ we can’t go to my place ’cause I got four roommates in one tiny rat-hole of an apartment, and” — he lowered his voice as if he were telling an incredibly dirty secret — “they’re all so inta women it’s scary.”

Sano grimaced. Then they looked at each other for several moments, baffled.

He wasn’t about to waste the price of a hotel room just to fuck someone he didn’t like, and he didn’t have the money anyway — he’d been planning on sleeping at the dojo himself, Kenshin’s guest notwithstanding, and… “Hey! We could go to the dojo!”

“That’s kinda kinky,” replied Chou, clearly not thinking much of this suggestion. “You plannin’ on an orgy or what?”

“Kenshin’s weird master’s in town,” Sano explained; “I dunno why. They’re taking him to dinner or something tonight, and the guy drinks like a fucking fish… they’ll be out forever, and when they do get back they’ll all be plastered.”

Chou grinned wickedly. “Le’s go, then.”

They didn’t really feel any need to talk on the way to the dojo; not only was the winter air too frigid for much conversation, they weren’t exactly friends and didn’t really care what was going on in each other’s life.

Sano had long since commandeered a key to the dojo’s outer doors, and he let them in without any trouble. He stopped short, however, forcing Chou to run into him, with an, “Oh!” at the sight of Kenshin in the yard. “Oh. Hey, Kenshin.” He knew that being surprised and at a loss for words made him look incredibly guilty, but there it was.

Kenshin raised an eyebrow. “Hello, Sano.” He looked from Sano’s reddening face to Chou and back, and said nothing more.

Sano cleared his throat. “Where’s the big guy? Thought you were all going out for dinner or something.”

Looking hard-pressed to conceal a sudden smile of understanding, Kenshin replied, “He disappeared hours ago and hasn’t come back. I didn’t think he had any friends in Tokyo, but…” He shrugged in an I’ve-never-really-understood-Hiko-despite-having-lived-with-him-for-seven-years gesture.

“Well, I was just… I mean, I ran into houki-atama here, and…” He could sense Chou’s mirth behind him, and that didn’t make it any easier not to blush.

Kenshin was evidently about to fail similarly in his effort not to smile, when suddenly Kaoru’s voice came floating out of the building: “Kenshin, dinner’s almost ready! Is that Sano I hear out there?”

“Shit, we gotta get out of here,” Sano said in a panic. “If she catches us, she’ll make us both eat.”

“Izzat bad?” Chou wondered, even as Kenshin turned away with a wave and a laugh toward the house.

“Like you would not believe,” Sano insisted, seizing the sword-collector’s gloved hand and pulling him out of the grounds and back into the street. Once the doors were safely closed behind him he gave a sigh of relief and leaned against the wall, only to stand straight again as the plaster was freezing cold. “Now where?” he wondered.

“Well…” Chou said slowly, “there’s Saitou’s house…”

“The fuck…?” It was Sano’s turn not to think much of the suggested locale. “Now who’s thinking kinky shit?”

“He’s got a date tonight.” Chou’s emphasis of the word and significant raise of eyebrow showed how very amusing he found that concept.

Sano guffawed his agreement with that sentiment. “You mean there’s someone in the world old cricket-face doesn’t hate?”

Chou grinned. “Anyway, so he shouldn’t be home…”

“I guess…” Sano agreed, still rather reluctant but unable to think of anyplace else.

Chou proceeded to lead the way; their only conversation this time was a brief query-and-explanation on the quality of Kaoru’s cooking.

Sano had never seen Saitou’s house before, but it was about what he would have expected of the man. He watched in mild admiration as Chou deftly picked the lock and let him inside.

But something was not right. “Hey, why’s there light down there?” He pointed to an open room at the end of the hall.

In alarm, Chou turned from closing the door to look where Sano indicated.

“I can’t think you’d be stupid enough to try to rob me,” came Saitou’s voice, sounding none too happy, from the room in question, “so what are you doing here?”

“Shit,” Chou muttered, and headed in that direction. Very hesitantly, Sano followed.

They found Saitou sitting alone in the room at the end looking more sour even than usual. Sano, who had never seen the officer out of uniform except for that long-ago first time they met, stared at the strangely normal-looking clothes the man was wearing. “Well?” Saitou wondered irritably.

“Thought you’d be out with what’s-‘is-name,” Chou mumbled.

“Well, obviously I’m not,” Saitou said acidly, “and that doesn’t explain what you were doing breaking into my house.”

Chou cleared his throat. “Well…”

Saitou looked up, practically for the first time, glancing at Sano; his expression, if possible, became even more annoyed. “If you ever,” he told Chou, “even consider using my house for that kind of thing again, I will cut your balls off.”

Chou blanched. “Well, we just…”

“Hey,” Sano broke in, completely unable to contain his raging curiosity for even half a moment longer, “so who’s your boyfriend, Saitou?”

Saitou stared at him, his expression not so much angry as incredulous. “I’d tell you it’s none of your business, ahou,” he said at last, “if I weren’t so amazed that you don’t know.”

“Like I keep tabs on your love life,” Sano snorted. “C’mon, who is it?”

With a mirthless laugh Saitou shook his head. “Do you mean to say that for all the time you spend at that dojo with Himura, you’re not aware of the reason his master is in town?”

Chou appeared startled; evidently he also had not connected the circumstances, though his realization was probably the converse of Sano’s.

“Wait… no way…” Sano stared at him, wide-eyed and flabbergasted. “You’re… no way… Hiko is your boyfriend?!”

Saitou merely rolled his eyes.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”

“Why are you still in my house?”

“So, where is he? Kenshin said he’s been gone for hours… you two were supposed to go out tonight, right?” Though he had to wonder what ‘going out’ meant to a pair like that. “What happened, you get in an argument?”

Saitou looked away, and the very great irritation on his face confirmed this guess.

“All right, well, I just have one question and then we’ll let you mope,” Sano asked, making the same attempt that Kenshin had earlier to keep a straight face. “Do you ever suck him off?”

Chou choked, by all appearances nearly going into shock, and his disbelieving look seemed to inquire, ‘Did you really just ask Saitou if…’ No, even the facial expression could not complete that thought.

Saitou’s look was much the same, except that the unfinished half involved less admiration and a lot more potential drawn-out suffering for Sano.

“I just want to know if you can get drunk off his cum.”

Chou seemed about ready to pass out and possibly die.

“Or at least if it tastes like sake…”

Saitou’s hand moved to his sword.

Chou seized Sano’s arms from behind and dragged him a half-step backward. “We’ll jus’ get outta–” he began, but cut himself off as a noise from the front door seized everyone’s attention.

Sano, who was still facing Saitou, couldn’t help but see on the latter’s face something he never would have thought to find there: a pleased, hopeful look as of sudden happy surprise. It flickered only briefly, however, before being replaced by an even more dreadful scowl than before. He had to admit, in that moment, a little sympathy for Saitou — he couldn’t imagine trying to keep up that kind of relationship with Hiko. Putting the shoe on the other foot, though, he really couldn’t imagine trying to keep up that kind of relationship with Saitou, either.

Chou had put on a devious expression that matched the tone in which he now unexpectedly spoke, much more loudly than before: “Di’n’ want you to be lonely, so we thought we’d come see if you wanted any… you know… company for the night.”

“What?!”

Both Sano and Chou turned to face Hiko, who was traversing the hall swiftly from the front door. And if Sano had thought Saitou was good at looking fucking terrifying… He was glad it was mostly Chou at which the caped man’s glare was directed. Still, impressively, Chou managed a tolerable show of disdain as he said, “Oh, it’s you.”

Saitou had risen, murderous eyes also turned toward Chou. Hiko pushed past the two younger men into the room to face the police officer. “Are you in the habit of sharing ‘company’ like this?”

Chou answered before Saitou could say a word. “‘Scuse me,” he drawled in an offended tone, “I was jus’ offerin’ Saitou here a favor he obviously needed.”

Hiko looked Chou over briefly, though more meticulously than before, and snorted. “I thought you had better taste than this,” he remarked to Saitou.

“Of course I do,” Saitou replied, clearly irritated by Chou’s all-too-convincing playact but also a little uncertain as to where it was going.

“Hey, tori-atama here happens to be the best sex in Tokyo,” Chou protested, clapping Sano on the shoulder.

Hiko’s eyes shifted to Sano (who was again trying not to blush), took in every detail of his form from hair-tips to toes, and narrowed dangerously as they lingered about his lower half. He then put himself two steps closer to Saitou, a movement Sano thought was downright possessive — almost frighteningly so — despite the lack of physical contact between them. “You’re one of baka deshi’s friends, aren’t you?”

Sano nodded, not sure what to say.

“And the best sex in Tokyo?”

Sano knew even less what to say to that, but fortunately Chou jumped in with, “You can’t ask him that; how the fuck should he know? You’ll hafta take my word for it.”

“Well,” Hiko replied, his glare becoming closer and closer to lethal with every passing instant, “as far as I know, Saitou doesn’t settle for anything less than the best sex in the world, so unless you think you can provide that, I suggest you leave.”

“God, aren’t we fuckin’ pleased with ourselves,” Chou muttered as he turned away. “C’mon, tori-atama, le’s get outta here.”

Sano didn’t need any urging.

Chou managed to keep from laughing until they were out of Saitou’s yard. “Best sex in the world!” he kept repeating.

Sano couldn’t help joining him. “And he was serious about it, too!” And they wandered aimlessly up the street, still laughing, breathlessly predicting the outcome of that little exchange.

As they eventually calmed down, Sano remarked, “That was really sneaky, you know that?”

“Those big intense warrior-types!” Chou replied with a grin. “All you gotta do is make ’em a little jealous.”

“It was really nice, too,” Sano pursued.

Chou shrugged. “Happier the boss is, less shitty my job is.” But the self-satisfied expression did not leave his face, and Sano couldn’t help but think the con had been less self-serving than Chou implied.

Sano laughed again and then recalled the reason he was still freezing his ass off out here with Chou in the middle of the night. “Hey!” he said. “We could go to the clinic!”

“Could work,” Chou agreed, “long’s we’re quiet.” And he cast a slow look over at Sano, raking his body leisurely with one suggestive eye and unexpectedly making the former kenkaya’s skin tingle.

Shit, Sano thought in amazement, is it just me or did he just suddenly get hot?! Of course Chou had never been unattractive, but also had never called up that kind of reaction in Sano before. Probably because his annoying personality got in the way of any physical admiration.

They hurried toward Gensai’s.

No discernable lights burned in either clinic or house, though this time the prospective couple peered vigilantly at every window for several moments before hopping the gate and making their way across the yard. Chou once again demonstrated the cleverness of his fingers, and soon they were inside a shadowy room examining an uncomfortable-looking patient bed surrounded by equally unpleasant medical items.

“Well,” Sano said, scratching his head, “it’s not the best place in the world, but…”

Chou shrugged, glancing around. When he turned back to Sano, both his eyes were open and narrowed, and his slow smile drew Sano immediately to him. Their lips met and raged against each other, their tongues engaged in a more intense argument than they had ever conducted verbally; at first it still felt a little odd to be kissing Chou, of all people, but that was only before the grinding started.

After not too long, Sano was on the bed half-reclining, sucking on Chou’s neck with force proportionate to how insistently the back of the broom-head’s hand was running over his crotch. “Shit,” Chou said as he heaved himself up to straddle Sano and resume grinding, even harder this time, “why di’n’ I fuck you back in that jail cell?”

“With Saitou watching?” Sano replied, gasping mostly from sensation rather than shock at the idea.

“It’d be worth it,” Chou replied nearly unintelligibly, just before their mouths converged again.

Sano had never given much thought to the subject of Chou’s ass, but was finding it now not only to have a very pleasant texture through the red cloth but also very useful as a tool to increase pressure between their hardening groins. The blonde’s hands were tugging at the wrappings over Sano’s stomach with the interesting feeling of warmed leather against skin, and suddenly the door opened.

There was an extended moment of relative quiet in which Chou and Sano sluggishly shifted their attention from each other’s appendages and oral fluids to the figure in the entry.

“Oh my god…” Megumi murmured, her emotional state impossible for anyone not privy to her thoughts to define.

The young men freed their tongues and attempted somewhat frantically to disentangle, but only ended up on the floor with their limbs even more muddled.

The door closed.

Chou and Sano stared at each other, wide-eyed.

“This room doesn’t have everything I need,” they heard Megumi saying, and though she was doing her best to sound natural, at least Sano couldn’t help but catch the odd tone to her voice. “That one there.” Other voices sounded, worried and quick, and feet pounded toward another room.

“She jus’ covered for us!” Chou marveled.

Sano buried his face in writhing hands. “Oh, shit, I am never, never, never, never, never going to hear the fucking end of this one…”

“C’mon, le’s get the fuck outta here before she comes back.” Chou climbed to his feet and pulled Sano after him. This brought the rooster-head up against him abruptly, and at the contact of their bodies Chou shuddered briefly and added, “Damn shitty bad timing…”

Sano was still too overcome with horror to say anything.

They vacated the room and the property with all possible haste, setting out once again in no particular direction through the frigid night.

Presently, Chou began to laugh.

“It’s not funny!” Sano groaned.

“I won’t say I ain’t pissed,” Chou replied, “but didja see her face?”

“No,” said Sano, curious in spite of himself.

“She couldn’a been more surprised if it’d been Battousai with a harem of monkeys!”

Sano couldn’t help bursting into laughter of his own at this unexpected image. “She musta looked pretty damn surprised, then!” But the amusement could not long overcome the discomfort. “But, shit, man, I wasn’t telling her I only like guys because I think she likes me and I didn’t want to make her feel bad!”

It was Chou’s turn for a surprised laugh. “It was good timin’, then, after all, so you can stop leadin’ her on!”

“I wasn’t leading her on!” Sano protested. “I never did anything to make her think I liked her!”

“Sure, but long as you let her think y’might start to like her one of these days, that’s what we call leadin’ her on.” Chou smacked the back of Sano’s skull lightly as he said this.

Sano gave Chou’s head a blow in return. “Since when do you know so much about this kind of shit?”

“Hey,” Chou replied, jerking a thumb at his chest, “you’re lookin’ at an expert at leadin’ people on! It’s a great game when you’re bored… ‘cept she’s your friend, right?”

“Yeah…”

Chou shrugged. “Better not to fuck with’er head, then.”

They walked on — Sano contemplating Megumi as well as the surprising realization that Chou, in his own bizarre way, had a streak of maturity in him — until all of a sudden the broom-head cried, “Hey!” and pointed excitedly ahead of them.

“What?” Sano wondered in confusion, looking at the row of shops and seeing nothing to merit such an exclamation.

Chou quickened his pace. “That restaurant there… the owner was doin’ drug deals and all sortsa shit out his back door, so we arrested him’n’ shut the place down.”

“So?”

“So… nobody’s gonna be there for days!” Chou threw Sano a leer over his shoulder. “Think a coupla days’ll be long enough for us to get finished?”

Sano mirrored the licentious expression and hurried to catch up.

The lock on this particular door gave Chou a little more trouble than the last two had, and standing still watching was both very cold, motionless in the winter air, and very hot, as Sano pictured being on the receiving end of Chou’s… lock-picking.

Once inside the building, they didn’t waste much time looking around as they had in the clinic, only chose a booth near the far side of the room to crawl into and went at each other’s clothes with determined frenzy.

They hadn’t really established who was going to be on top, but there wasn’t much need to discuss it — Chou’s ungloved, saliva-covered finger in Sano’s ass once the broom-head got the rooster-head’s pants halfway off, coupled with the memory of the lock-picking fantasy of minutes before, were enough to establish the order of things fairly quickly. Sano was moaning into Chou’s neck, trying to figure out the blonde’s somewhat complicated outfit, his hips twitching as Chou ran teasing fingers over his erection. The sword-collector cursed loudly as Sano finally found his way in and skin met skin. He latched onto Sano’s mouth and added a second finger as Sano stroked him hard, and they squirmed in lip-locked ‘silence’ for a few moments.

Suddenly, panting, Sano broke away from the kiss and looked around with a frown. “Is it getting really hot in here?”

“No shit, gorgeous,” Chou murmured before beginning to suck on Sano’s shoulder and giving more concentrated attention to his partner’s lower half.

“Oh, god,” Sano gasped, struggling to hold onto reason and not buck his hips. “Hey,” he whispered, “I think the restaurant’s on fire.”

“I don’t care,” growled the other.

Despite the implied compliment that Chou didn’t mind burning to death as long as Sano’s hand was on his cock, Sano could not be entirely satisfied with this reply. “Chou!” he tried again, giving the shaft in his hand a hard squeeze to get his attention.

“Oh, shit, Sano…” Chou groaned, arching into him.

Sano couldn’t help a heated moment’s reflection that his name, which he didn’t remember ever having heard Chou say before, sounded really nice like that. Still, “You weren’t supposed to enjoy that, asshole,” he hissed, releasing Chou’s member entirely.

No longer being groped, Chou seemed to regain a measure of his senses. “Huh?” Then his eyes widened. “Shit, the fuckin’ room’s on fire!”

“C’mon, let’s go!” Sano urged, not without some irritated disappointment. They scrambled up.

They had no clue whence the fire had come, but it was spreading rapidly; the building was not likely to survive. This fact, the already uncomfortable heat, and the increasingly unbreathable atmosphere induced them not to worry about their disarray of attire until they were safely across the street.

“What the fuck is going on?” Sano complained as he tied his pants. They were still distinctly bulging.

Chou, no less bulging but closer to fully dressed, was looking around with an irate, attentive eye for the answer to that question. “Hey!” he roared suddenly, startling Sano’s attention away from the rising flames, and took off down a nearby side-street. Being about decent by now (at least clothing-wise), Sano followed. It soon became evident what they were doing, but whether Chou thought the three figures they were chasing had something to do with the fire, or whether he was just taking out his frustration on random passersby at being interrupted, was more difficult to determine. Sano had no scruples left, however, once, emerging onto a brighter street, their prey became more visible and the matching kanji on their backs could be read.

“You didn’t say the guy had yakuza enemies,” Sano protested to Chou as they caught up with the strangers.

“Course he had yakuza enemies!” Chou replied as he caught one of the gangsters by the back of his gi and yanked him hard to the ground.

“So you just decided it would be a good idea to go get all off-guard in a place that had yakuza troubles and might get burned down any time??” Sano demanded, seizing the second of the men around the neck and pummeling him in the side.

You weren’t comin’ up with any place!” Chou retorted as he drew a sword and attacked the third man, who’d stopped to support his comrades.

“It was your turn!” Sano yelled as he kicked the legs out from under his struggling opponent and rapped him unconscious.

“Only ’cause your stupid clinic idea fuckin’ sucked!” Chou growled back as one of his enemies hit the ground in a spray of blood.

Sano noted vaguely that there seemed suddenly to be more people involved in this little fight than the original five, but that hardly mattered. “Like yours was any better!” he bellowed as he drove his elbow into someone’s chest.

I di’n’ suggest goin’ somewhere where we might get walked in on by someone who’s got a fuckin’ crush on me!” Chou returned as he whirled to slice three surrounding gangsters at once.

“No, only by the scariest man I know!” Sano cried , kicking someone in the face and punching someone else in the ribs.

“Don’ be such a fuckin’ pussy, tori!”

“Thought you didn’t like women, houki — if I’m such a pussy, why’d you want to fuck me?”

You di’n have to take me seriously!”

“So you just go with anyone who’s willing to have sex with you?”

“Why the fuck not?”

“Always knew you were a fucking slut.”

“Well, then, why’d you want me to fuck you?”

It was at this moment that they realized they were shouting in each other’s faces, quite close together, which seemed to imply that their enemies were either defeated or in retreat. Glancing around, they found this to be true; except for quite a few less-than-sentient figures on the ground, they were alone. There was shouting not far off, apparently in the direction of the burning building; no smoke or flame was visible from here, so perhaps the fire was contained.

They each released the front of the other’s attire and brushed themselves off. Looking back, each gaze falling to immediately to the other’s crotch, they both scowled. The cold and the rush of blood in other directions during the fight had effectively taken care of the bulging. It was far from comfortable.

Chou gave a sigh of defeat. “Le’s go back to the bar,” he said, giving one of the fallen yakuza a frustrated kick.

Sano echoed the sigh, scratching the back of his head, and followed.

“We could jus’ break into random buildings ’til we found someplace empty,” Chou was grumbling as they walked, “but with our luck tonight, I think we might get struck by lightnin’ next. And I gotta be at work in the mornin’ anyway.”

Sano had been just about to suggest that they return to the dojo, wait until everyone there was asleep, and then sneak inside, but Chou’s last complaint shot that idea down and he had no others.

The bar was more crowded than it had been when they’d originally coincided there, and they practically had to fight for space and service. That was fine; they’d been fighting already anyway, and the faint smell of blood that hung about at least Chou warded off most of the smaller ones, letting them drink away what little money they had (and credit they could wrangle) in black, undisturbed silence.

It wasn’t the ending to the night that Sano would have liked, but at first it seemed it might be prove at least to be relatively acceptable. The drinks were good and with that, their moods began slowly to improve.

As if fate really did have something against them, though, there seemed to spread through the room an atmosphere of barely-controlled hormones. When the third couple in a row — male couple — stood to leave together, this one even managing a significant amount of on-their-feet groping before they got out the door, Sano slammed his jug down irritably and rose. “Gonna take a piss,” he grumbled. “Watch my shit.”

Chou acquiesced in a similar tone as Sano headed for the side exit.

Finished with his business and steeling himself for whatever further public displays of affection he would have to witness inside, the rooster-head found his return path unexpectedly blocked by an unfamiliar woman.

“Hey,” she said as she stepped in front of him, “you’re Sagara, right? I’ve been hearing about you ever since I got into town.”

“So?” Sano had very little patience for flirtatious females at this point.

“So, I was just wondering about you and Chou.” She lifted one of the flaps in the doorway and looked briefly inside. “Are you two lovers, or is this just a one-night stand?”

“If you can even call it that,” Sano muttered, though he was a bit curious at this out-of-the-blue question.

“Maybe you don’t need me to warn you after all,” she laughed at his dour expression.

“I’ve known since I met him that he’s a stupid jerk, if that’s what you mean.”

“You probably don’t know the half of it,” she replied with a shake of her head. “My name’s Kamatari; you may have heard of me.”

“Oh!” Sano exclaimed, understanding.

The cross-dresser nodded. “I’ve known Chou for years, and let me tell you, he’s worse than you think. He and I were interested in each other at one point — or so I thought — and when I finally got him over to my place, do you know what he did? He demanded a blow job before anything else! Can you believe it?”

“I can probably manage to,” Sano replied grimly. “What’d he do then?”

“Came and went,” Kamatari sniffed.

“You mean…”

“I never even got to take my clothes off.” Judging by his tone, Kamatari was still somewhat bitter about this experience. “I decided to give him another chance, but I found out that the address he’d given me and claimed was his was actually a smelly fish shop down by the docks; it was creepy.”

During this last addition to the story, Sano took a turn peeking past one of the door flaps, and was not surprised to see Chou deep in serious flirtation with some very drunk-looking guy. “Fuck this,” he muttered, letting the flap fall to. “Shoulda known better in the first place.” Turning, he stalked away from the bar.

“Good night!” Kamatari called after him cheerfully.

Waving a hand without looking, Sano called back, “Thanks for the tip!”

He found himself more angry at these circumstances than was really logical. He’d never liked Chou, and shouldn’t be particularly shocked at hearing such a black account of him. Maybe it was just the coldness of the night and the blueness of his balls talking.

The Kamiya dojo was not a comforting prospect, but slamming the outer door on his way in was slightly and briefly mollifying. It proved to be more trouble than it was worth, though, as Kaoru emerged immediately from within one of the buildings with a cry of, “If you slam my doors like that again, I swear I will booby-trap it, Sanosuke, do you hear me?”

Sano, already making his way toward the room he usually slept in when he freeloaded here, was trying to ignore her.

“Sano!” She was following him. “You can’t just come onto someone’s property and just do whatever you want! Are you listening? Sano!!”

While he couldn’t but appreciate the irony of her admonition, given what he’d spent the last while attempting to do, he really wasn’t in the mood for her screeching lectures at the moment. “Look,” he said, stopping and turning around so abruptly that she nearly ran into him, “I’ve had a shitty night, and I’m already pissed as hell, so maybe you shouldn’t make it worse.”

She was obviously about to retort angrily, but looking into his face seemed to realize that what he said was true, and relented slightly “Well, what happened?” she asked, in a tone still less than entirely friendly but that implied she was giving him a chance.

There was no way Sano was going to elaborate on the events of the night, so all he said was, “Just a really stupid string of bad luck.” Though he had to consider, given what Kamatari had said, that perhaps it had actually been good luck that just didn’t seem like it to his frustrated body.

“Ohhh, you were out gambling, weren’t you?” Kaoru said icily. “You think that’s a good excuse for storming in here and just expecting to be allowed to freeload?”

“I wasn’t–” Sano began, but was cut off as their attention was drawn to the outer doors slamming open as violently as Sano had just closed them.

“Hey!” Kaoru protested.

“Sorry,” Chou replied, scratching his head and looking at the doors in surprise. “Di’n realize they weren’t locked…”

“What are you doing here?” Kaoru demanded next.

“Lookin’ for tori-atama,” Chou replied, pointing.

“Thought you had to be at work in four hours,” Sano said coldly, pointedly.

Kaoru was glancing back and forth between them. “Sanosuke, is he what you’re mad about?”

Chou approached from the doorway. “An’ what was with you just leavin’? Bartender took your sake back, even.”

“You two were drinking together?” Kaoru marveled.

“Looked to me like you’d found someone you liked better,” Sano answered. “Someone who maybe had a room you could go to.”

Kaoru’s eyes widened. “Were you guys going to…” She blushed.

He started it,” Chou protested. “I practically hadda beat his head to get him off!”

“Isn’t that how it’s usually done?” Sano wondered caustically.

“Sano!” Kaoru cried in shock.

“Look, you may’ve decided I’m a slut–” Chou began, annoyed.

You’re the one who said that leading people on’s a great game,” Sano broke in, angry. “Maybe I just got sick of that.”

“Were you leading Sano on?” Kaoru demanded of Chou.

“No!” Chou protested, by now as angry as Sano. “I wasn’t serious about that, you fuckin’ idiot!”

“That’s not what Kamatari said,” Sano retorted.

“Kamatari? In Tokyo?” Kaoru wondered, surprised.

“Oh, fuckin’ shit,” Chou said in exasperation. “All right, hit me — what’d that stupid bitch have to say about me?”

“Seems like you took that ‘stupid bitch’ for a real fun ride once upon a time,” Sano said. “That what you had planned for me too?”

“You guys were going to…” Kaoru blushed even more.

“Whatever he said’s complete bullshit,” Chou sneered. “He’s a fuckin’ cunt who can’t–”

“Yeah, you’re an expert on cunts,” Sano interrupted.

“Would you quit that?” Chou bellowed. “It’s justa fuckin’ word.”

“I find it offensive,” Kaoru sniffed.

Would you stay out of this?!” Sano and Chou shouted at once.

Kaoru’s face darkened, and as she drew herself slowly up like a storm-cloud about to burst, the arguing couple took an inadvertent step back. “No, I will not stay out of this!” she roared at them. “You two can’t just burst into my home, probably ruin my front doors, start a yelling match right in front of me about one of my friends’ love lives, and expect me not to get involved! You’ve probably woken up half the neighborhood, and since you’re on my property I’m probably going to get blamed, and somebody’s got to stop your noise! Besides, I don’t even know what’s going on with you two, and still this situation is so obvious it’s hurting my head to listen to your stupid argument! You two must be the biggest morons in Tokyo, I swear! You really think I can keep from commenting on it? Why don’t you stop playing this idiotic he-said-he-said-he-said game and admit you like each other and just go have sex already and leave the rest of us in peace?!”

A very long silence followed this as the high color slowly faded from Kaoru’s face and she caught her breath, and Sano and Chou avoided looking at each other.

Finally the sword-collector cleared his throat. “What exactly did Kamatari claim I did?”

“Said you ran out on him after he blew you,” Sano replied concisely. “You led him on,” he added.

“Oh, my,” Kaoru said, recovered from her outburst but clearly not accustomed to having blow jobs discussed in front of her.

“Yeah, but did’e tell you why he was givin’ me head in the first place?”

“Said you demanded it before anything else.”

“That’s… rude…” Even Kaoru could see that this was a sexual faux pas.

“Fuckin’ liar!” Chou growled. “He offered, an’ you know why he offered? Because he was puttin’ on a fuckin’ show for fuckin’ Shishio who couldn’ get his own crispy dick up without watchin’ someone else get some first.”

“Eew!” Kaoru said.

Sano, who had actually seen Shishio, had to agree with and surpass that sentiment.

“It was the closest thing to sex that connivin’ little whore ever got outta Shishio, but did he bother tellin’ me first that we were doin’ a live shunga for the boss? Hell, no! Soon’s I realized what was goin’ on… um, and got my rocks off… I got the fuck outta there! Like I wanted to show off my shit like that to Shishio…”

Kaoru, wide-eyed, was nodding.

Sano, similarly disturbed and sympathetic, had by now about relented. The fact that Chou had followed him here, Kaoru’s… advice, and this not-unbelievable revision of Kamatari’s story were enough to have sapped his anger entirely. It didn’t mean he actually liked Chou, though — just that if they had managed to have sex, he wouldn’t be regretting it at this point. “Well, all right,” he said, a little stiffly.

“Yeah, so that’s… what really happened,” Chou replied, in much the same tone. “He’s been pissed at me ever since.”

The next silence was marked by Kaoru looking back and forth between them again, her eyebrows lowering.

“Shouldn’t you get home and go to bed?” Sano said quickly as he saw her face darkening once more. “You never know what mood Saitou’s gonna be in in the morning… if they had another fight, he’ll kill you if you’re late.”

“Or cut my balls off,” Chou agreed.

“And I don’t know that Megumi’d be too happy to treat that.”

“And y’know I’m gonna have all sortsa extra work to do tomorrow ’cause of all that yakuza-fire shit.”

They couldn’t help grinning at each other for a few moments.

“All right.” Chou backed away a few slow steps. Then, “G’night,” he said abruptly, and turned.

“Night,” Sano replied.

Kaoru was swelling again, and Sano was debating whether to grab her and see if he couldn’t cover her mouth with his hand when Chou suddenly stopped and turned back. “Hey, if you ever wanna… come over…” He shrugged. “I live in those shitty apartments behind the police station.”

Kaoru held her fire for the moment, looking wary.

“Thought you said your roommates were…” Sano trailed off.

“They are… I mean, just to hang out…”

“Well, if… sure, why not?”

“Great. See y’round.”

“Yeah, bye.”

And then Chou was really gone.

“Sano!!” Kaoru protested, aghast and angry. “Sano, what is your problem?? I can’t believe you just let him leave like that!”

“Hey, you’re the one who didn’t want him on your property arguing with me,” Sano replied, a little absently. He was smiling. Stretching, he turned and began a languid walk toward the room he’d originally intended to borrow.

“But… you two could have…” She blushed again as she followed him. “I mean, it’s all right if you use one of my rooms every once in a while…”

He grinned over his shoulder at her. “That’s sweet of you, jou-chan, but he and I’ll figure something out; I know where he lives.”

“But, Sano,” she said worriedly, “I don’t think there are apartments behind the police station.”

This had been a momentary concern for Sano as well, given prior intelligence on the subject of Chou’s address. But having walked a mental path in that direction, he found he could actually picture the place; ‘rat-hole’ was too kind a term. “Hey, don’t worry about that,” he told her as he opened the door to where he’d be sleeping tonight — alone — stepped inside, and prepared to close it in her face. “He’s not big — well, yeah, he’s pretty damn big — but he’s not big on leading his friends on.”


This story was inspired by Trick, but whereas the guys in that movie that hooked up for a one-night stand had never met before, here they’ve met plenty of times and simply don’t like each other much. I think it still works pretty well.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Rurouni Kenshin Collection ebook.



Irresolute

Whether a disappointed, unkissed Kamatari is better for me than a happy one who’s attained his disturbing goal, I can’t quite say.

Kamatari’s New Year’s Eve tradition of collecting kisses from every guy at the party is likely to bother Katsu a lot more this year, now that he’s realized he’s in love with him.



Looking back with my usual critical eye on the year, I can’t help but see a host of missed opportunities. This is normal for me, for my life, and though there are obviously regrets, I can’t say that it’s an unexpected state not to have fulfilled every goal — well, most of the goals — with which I set out in January. But this year having introduced a whole new brand of these thrown chances was worse than usual. Of course, if during the six years I’ve known him I’d noticed how I feel any time before this February, I might have been able to lay better plans and… but I think I’m digressing before I even start in on my real point.

My real point is, or was going to be, that because I’ve spent most of the evening pondering what a frustrating year it has been, what with the inconveniently belated realization about Kamatari, I forgot about his New Year’s tradition. Which is something I really should have remembered, considering how much pain it’s likely to cause me this year. At previous celebrations to herald in the bright, promising new annum (always bright and promising to him, which is enough for me), I just laughed and shook my head and marveled at how successful he was at this game. But this time… when he grabs my arm after only two minutes at the party and says, “C’mon, let’s go kiss-collecting!” my heart sinks like the proverbial stone.

Not that I haven’t seen him kiss quite a lot of people before. He’s a model and I’m his primary photographer, after all. (He also poses for most of my own art, though I’ve never drawn him kissing someone… I suppose the reason for that is obvious, though I haven’t really thought about it before.) Anyway, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of kissing in his life. Not to mention the fact that he’s done this little New Year’s Eve thing for every year I’ve known him. But when he’s on a stage or in front of a camera or even out there beyond my easel, it’s different. Quite different. Entirely different. And at previous New Year’s Eve parties I haven’t been in love with him. Or haven’t realized it, at any rate.

This is going to kill me. I can’t watch him do this. But I really don’t have much choice.

And this dilemma is my own fault anyway.

Naturally he’ll head for the newcomers first, and that means Shishio, the owner of a magazine he did some cover shots for this past year. No, not the editor — the businessman doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body, I think — just the owner. He’s a recent addition to our circle, and there’s some tension between him and Kenshin, but he’s nice enough if you can get over his utterly calculating nature.

“Shishio-sama!” Tari loves calling him that, he told me once, because it makes Shishio practically preen visibly — stand a little taller, smile a little wider. Now he shouts it out in his most cheerfully enticing tone as he hip-swings his way into the rather formal-looking front room and over to where Shishio is sitting casually on a wicker loveseat with a red-haired woman at his side. (Not looking at those hips. I’m really not. And despite the fact that I’ve seen him in less, it doesn’t help that Tari’s wearing that little purple dress…)

“Happy New Year!” Tari stops just in front of them and raises his slender arms in a celebratory pose as he flashes a bright smile at the seated couple. Putting on a show already, and the night’s barely started. He can’t have any idea how I feel when he does that; how I itch to take him home and (no, not that; what are you thinking?) capture his dramatic posturing on canvas for some world other than this… right now he would look very good as the elegant queen of a nation on the edge of war, announcing benevolently to her adoring people that peace has been attained through her diligence and they need not march to battle. A long, clinging gown, perhaps of white satin with pale gold bands and billowing sleeves blowing from those upraised arms — but I’m supposed to be narrating a scene here, I recall.

“Happy New Year to you too,” Shishio replies jovially, though even his friendliest greeting always seems to carry a shrewd edge. And he’s drinking already.

“I’m so glad you could come,” Tari says happily, though still in a tone I recognize as having a slight touch of showmanship. “I was sure you’d have some big party of your own and not be able to make it.”

“And miss a chance to make Himura uncomfortable?” Shishio laughs. “Oh, have you met Yumi?”

Tari turns and smiles at the red-head, who smiles back a tad less graciously. I draw from this the conclusion that she is Shishio’s woman, or wants to be, and that Shishio really was as enthusiastically impressed with those cover shots as rumor says. I have to say that I sympathize with her. “I’m Honjou Kamatari; yoroshiku!

“Yes, I recognize you from Kagami,” she replies, maybe a little coldly. Actually, I think that, beyond just this potential rivalry to annoy her, we’ve also interrupted something; they were sitting in here alone before we entered, after all… “Komagata Yumi; yoroshiku.”

With that finished, Tari gets down to business, clapping his hands together once in a let’s-get-started manner. “Well, since you’ve never been to one of Kenshin-san’s New Year’s Eve parties before, you don’t know about my tradition! Every year, I try to collect as many kisses as I can from the all the fabulous men I know before the night ends!”

Yumi stiffens visibly. “Well, that’s interesting,” she says tightly, obviously attempting to remain polite and not start a cat-fight just yet. But seeing the smile on Shishio’s face, she’s losing her cool pretty quick. I can’t say that I like it much either.

Tari seats himself beside Shishio, primly on the edge of the loveseat but with all the suggestion he can command with such a simple movement. “So, can you help me?” he smiles.

Yumi is as stiff as a board and staring at me in order to avoid looking at them (which is exactly the same reason I’m returning her bladed gaze); if Shishio is anything but frighteningly obtuse, he’ll speak up at this point and prevent a disaster, or he’ll probably find himself cut off tonight.

“No,” he says, and I give him points for smoothness in the face of terribly alluring Kamatari, “I’m afraid not.” He leans over to Yumi and plants a semi-suggestive kiss on her ear. “Unless third-party kisses count.”

Tari pouts. “No, they don’t.”

“Why don’t you just kiss your friend there?” Yumi suggests, mostly placated, gesturing towards me. I was attempting to get over the phrase ‘third-party kisses’ that only a businessman could think up, so I’m perhaps not as guarded as I’d like to be. I try not to let it show in my eyes that it’s more than just slight surprise I’m feeling at her words, but I think she’s figured me out. I’m not the only observant person in the world, I sometimes forget, though it’s a pretty close thing.

“Oh, Katsu’s straight,” Kamatari says easily, jumping up and leaning against me with an arm over my shoulders. “Right?” And why does he have to fit there so well?

“Right,” I reply calmly, looking away from the now-curious glinting eyes of the woman who sees right through the lie. It’s only been a lie since February, you know, but it’s a statement I was making so frequently before I realized it wasn’t true that I’m quite practiced at it. Enough to fool Tari and anyone else who asks. Didn’t I mention that this entire dilemma is my fault?

“Well, have fun!” Tari calls over his shoulder, regaining his cheer, as he pulls me away; “I’ll find someone else!”

The thing is, I’m a recluse. I’ve never been in a romantic relationship in my life, and I never really thought about deciding whether I preferred men or women until my friend Sano (whom I did not at all like in that way) started hitting on me a couple of years ago. The easiest way to get out of that was to insist that I’m straight, which is what I’ve done ever since. It isn’t so easy to get out of that, though.

“Who’s that outside?” He points towards the glass side doors.

“I don’t know.” Normally I like to get an idea of who’s at a party before I start running around talking to everyone (not that I’m much of a party person in the first place, but Tari insists), but he hasn’t given me the chance this evening.

“Well, let’s go see.”

But halfway toward the patio, we can’t help but notice sounds coming from a room to our right, and even I have to smile. We know who that is. Every year, he wreaks havoc in Kenshin’s kitchen almost as if it’s his own personal New Year’s Eve tradition. Kenshin only invites him at all because he’s Sano’s best friend, but I think he’d prefer if he had somewhere else to be.

“Chouuu-chan!” Tari sings out as he detours through the swinging doors into the kitchen. “Raiding Kenshin-san’s fridge again?”

Chou pulls a plastic tub from the second shelf and sways a little as he peers through its transparent side trying to determine the contents. And I wish him luck in the endeavor, as he’s obviously so drunk he probably couldn’t correctly identify his own body parts, let alone some nameless culinary concoction of Kenshin’s. Actually, Chou appears rather ill, possibly because of the color of the casserole-looking stuff in that tupperware. “Thslooks good,” he slurs. “Whacha thing?”

“I think you’re drunk,” Tari laughs, “and probably shouldn’t eat that.”

Chou doesn’t quite take this in, as now he’s attempting to open the tub — but the mysteries of the air-tight lid are eluding him. “Oh, heeyyy!” he says suddenly, almost dropping the item with his shift in attention. “I know why yer here! Doin’ that slutty Nnear’s thin again.”

Slutty?! At this I nearly break my silence. Flirty Kamatari certainly is, and perhaps the behavior of a model can easily be misconstrued as an indication of promiscuity, but I know him — he doesn’t sleep around, isn’t even seeing anyone right now! and Chou has no right to —

But Tari, of course, has already laughed it off. He can take an insult like no one I’ve ever seen. Well, most of the time. And really, I guess I need to lighten up (as usual) and consider that Chou probably didn’t mean to offend and is drunk anyway. Yes, calm down, Katsu.

“Wll, c’mere,” Chou says, setting the tupperware down on the counter. He misses, though, and Tari dives to catch the falling dish. “Nice,” Chou attempts to say, and by now he’s leaning against the counter for balance. He gazes around blearily for a moment as if he’s forgotten where he is, and his unfocused eyes settle on a glass bottle nearby. I guess he lost track of it when he started looking through the fridge, but he remembers it now and gulps down its remaining contents with a triumphant smile. He then grabs Kamatari’s arm and pulls the model up against him.

That look in Chou’s eyes is just too much for me. It’s obvious that he thinks of Tari as exactly what he said — a slut — and he’s going to treat him accordingly. Funny how the truth comes out when you’re drunk, isn’t it? Bastard. I take Tari by the shoulders and pull him right back again. “What?” he asks, turning towards me in confused annoyance.

It’s easy to come up with an excuse, but if this is going to be the trend of the evening, I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep thinking of reasons. “He’s much too drunk for you to–”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Tari waves my concern away. “It’s New Year’s Eve! I’ve kissed drunk people before.”

“But it isn’t a good idea to–”

Again he interrupts me, this time with, “Don’t be so dreary! It’s really OK!”

I make my last attempt. “Kamatari, I–”

This time it’s Chou who interrupts me, but not exactly in words. Unless ‘blyaaahhh’ has been added to some dictionary somewhere. Actually, I’d like to see the kanji for that one. Tari and I step back and look away as Chou loses whatever he’s been eating and half of what he’s been drinking all over Kenshin’s previously-immaculate kitchen floor. Our eyes meet, and Tari’s stricken pair are clearly saying, That could have been me. “Thanks,” he whispers as we sneak quickly away the next moment.

“What are friends for?” I reply.

In the hallway, Tari looks around with a frown. “Now I feel all icky,” he mutters.

I can’t help but laugh, just a little.

He pushes me lightly. “I’m serious! I’m going to the bathroom.” And he disappears through the door to the latter not far off. “Oh, look, it’s January!” I hear him say the next moment, and he peeks out and hands me a magazine. “Tell me what you think.” And then he’s inside again.

I lean against the wall and flip through the new year’s first Kagami. Tari’s in here somewhere, but as it wasn’t my work I haven’t seen it yet. I find it near the back, before the pages and pages of paid ads: “Great mirror gift,” it says in English, then continues in Japanese: “Give Kagami to a friend: a fourteen-issue subscription for only ¥2700!” God, this picture is terrible. I mean, Tari looks good, of course, but whoever took this needs to be strangled with his own film.

(New Year’s Resolution: Never let anyone else take pictures of Kamatari ever again.)

He told me once that I make him feel beautiful. Obviously he doesn’t realize that in his case, I just work with what’s already there. When I draw him as an angel, only the wings are fictional, and honestly I can never get them to look as good as they should; his face outshines them a hundred times and leaves them paltry and dull in comparison. I just wish he’d said those words to me after I made my big realization rather than long before. His follow-up statement as he snaked a casual arm around my waist to break the pensive atmosphere was, “It’s too bad you’re not gay… someone who can make a guy feel like that could probably get anyone he wanted.”

But in reality, he’s the one who makes me feel beautiful. He’s better at showy stuff or light, witty conversation, flirty talk, than any sort of deep artistic discussion, but his silence is eloquent enough when he looks at something of mine and just falls entirely wordless; I watch his eyes flicking over it taking in every detail, and his slight nods… and then he’ll smile at me and say, “I like it,” and that’s enough. I would never have thought that I could be satisfied with such an unspecific response to something I’ve done, but with him I invariably am.

“Hey, space cadet, what do you think?” He’s rattling the magazine in my hand and smelling freshly of whatever really nice perfume he’s been wearing lately. Makes me want to lean closer and find out exactly where he’s applied it.

“I think Shishio-san’s photographers need to be fired,” I reply with a wry smile, closing the magazine and handing it to him.

“So glad you agree!” Tari replaces it where he found it (you know, it’s just like Kenshin to have magazines in the bathroom), and gestures for me to follow him. “That girl was so clueless,” he goes on as we head down the hall toward the patio doors again. “I don’t trust these big company photographers anymore; they’re just not artists. I think I’m going to tell people from now on that you and I are a package deal.”

That phrase and the accompanying smile might be — probably would be enough to bring my confession tumbling out, if only we found ourselves alone on the patio. As it is, I have to think of my cursed self as a bird of some sort: frightened into flight by the mere presence of another.

“Package deal? I thought you were straight, Tsukioka-san,” is the pleasant-sounding knell of my doom, its ominousness well-punctuated by an ensuing sneeze.

“He meant professionally,” I reply. “And bless you.”

“Soujirou-kun!” Tari chirps. “How are you?” And though part of why he says it is that Soujirou likes to see that people care about him and is more likely to kiss him if he asks, Tari also genuinely wants to know. Soujirou is an intern at the hospital, under Kenshin, and being apparently quite the prodigal young doctor is rather overworked; thus we rarely see him. I’m glad he managed to get New Year’s Eve off for some well-deserved relaxation.

“Catching a cold,” Soujirou replies ruefully. “I’ve been living off of cough drops all week.”

“Then why are you out here?” Kamatari laughs. “You’ll only make it worse!”

Soujirou glances around. “I just thought I saw something. I was just about to go back inside and tell Himura-san.”

I scan the bushes; I’m fairly sure I know what he saw.

“Well, I’m collecting kisses, so before you do…” Tari makes a little pouty face that would clearly speak begging-to-be-kissed even in a context where its intent had not just been announced.

Soujirou shakes his head. “I’d make you sick.”

“Oh, not with just one little kiss!”

“Honjou-san,” Soujirou says very seriously, “there are at least twenty-four types of bacteria that normally live in a healthy human mouth. Once a bacterial illness has been contracted, there may be as many as–”

“All right, all right, all right.” Tari cuts him off before he can really get going. “Don’t spoil my game with that kind of talk!”

“Sorry,” Soujirou smiles. He’s eyeing the shrubbery.

“Why don’t you go give Kenshin-san the crazy neighbor alert?” I suggest quietly.

Soujirou nods and slips into the house.

Tari silently joins me watching the bushes rustle, and although this is the perfect opportunity, I just can’t bring myself to say anything. Partly because it’s just occurred to me that even beyond the embarrassment of retracting a statement I’ve been making so emphatically for years, I’ve got Tari’s response to worry about as well. Coward.

Kenshin emerges onto the patio after not much longer anyway, frowning.

“Happy New Year,” Tari greets him, as this is the first we’ve seen of him since letting ourselves into his house.

“Happy New Year,” he replies. “Where is he?” I point, and Kenshin starts slowly across the lawn. “Yatsume-dono,” he calls out politely, “please come out of the bushes.”

The contingent of amorously hopeful women that hangs out around Kenshin at almost all times has now crowded out the patio doors and is standing behind us to watch; Kenshin’s eccentric old neighbor has been a subject of entertainment to all of us for years now.

“Don’t come closer!” rasps a voice from the bushes.

“It’s cold out,” Kenshin says soothingly. “You should be inside your house.”

“I don’t want advice from you!” the man in the bushes replies. “You filthy doctor… it’s your fault my whole family is sick and dying in Hokkaido!”

Kenshin is right in front of the bushes now. “Yatsume-dono, your family isn’t sick, and they don’t live in Hokkaido. Now let’s get you home.” And with a sudden, swift movement, he pulls the man out from the greenery where he was hiding.

“No!” shrieks the old lunatic, waving his unusually long arms around his bald head. “You mustn’t look at my face!”

Kenshin calmly relieves him of the pruning shears he’s flinging about dangerously in one big hand. “Come on; I’m sure your family is worried about you.” And with a look of resigned amusement at those of us assembled on the patio, he leads the raving man back through the bushes, across the river rock that marks the property line, and up towards the house next door. One of these years the Yatsume’s really are going to have to find a better way to keep their grandfather indoors and out of the neighbor’s back yards.

With laughs and various comments on the formidable ninja bush-hiding powers of the old man, the party on the patio disperses back into the house, Tari along with them, so I follow.

“I wonder what would happen if you took a picture of that guy,” he’s speculating.

“Oh, he’d probably try to kill me,” I reply. “It would be a violation of his onmitsu honor.”

Tari has stopped moving in the middle of my statement. The women continue back into the living room, leaving us in the hallway. I follow Tari’s gaze up the stairs and see that we’re not quite alone.

“Where is Kenshin?” asks the descending figure, sounding not at all pleased.

A slow smile has taken Tari’s face as his eyes traverse the muscular body without shame, and I grab his elbow in a silent warning. This man is not one he needs to be hitting on.

“He went to take Yatsume-san home again,” I answer.

“And who are you?”

Tari steps forward to the foot of the stairs to block any escape, although I’m frantically trying to keep him back. “I’m Honjou Kamatari,” he says prettily, “and this is Tsukioka Katsuhiro.”

“We’re friends of Kenshin-san’s,” I add, maybe a little too quietly.

“What are you doing here? What’s all the noise?”

“It’s a New Year’s Eve party, sir.” By now I’ve attracted Tari’s curiosity with my polite tone. “Tari,” I say pointedly in explanation, “this is Niitsu Kakunoshin.”

Tari’s eyes widen as he turns back to the man. “Oh, you’re Niitsu-sama? Katsu never stops talking about you!” Well, that’s hyperbole, but not a lie… I do hope I’m not turning red now. Thank you, Kamatari.

Niitsu only looks slightly less annoyed than before. “Then you probably have more artistic understanding than my stupid nephew.”

Now that is certainly true. Kenshin is glad to have his uncle staying with him during this end of Niitsu’s museum tour, (mostly because Niitsu is apparently so reclusive he makes me look like a noisy attention whore), but the doctor doesn’t really appreciate the sculptor’s amazing talent the way he should.

Niitsu is pushing past us now. I wish I could think of something to say to him that wouldn’t be really stupid… maybe ask for an autograph or tell him how many times I’ve been to see his exhibit, except those would both make me sound like a groupie… oh, actually, for now I think I’ll settle for keeping Kamatari off him.

(New Year’s Resolution: Practice some intelligent statements for future possible meetings with famous people)

“Niitsu-sama,” Tari’s saying, “I wonder if you would do me a favor…” He has no fear. Haven’t I made it clear to him that this is the biggest artistic name he and I are ever likely to see? Just because the guy is Kenshin’s uncle doesn’t mean… and he’s obviously not in the best mood to begin with… and he’s way too good-looking, his hair just too similar to mine; if Tari manages to get a kiss out of this guy, I’m going to be seriously jealous.

“Tari!” I hiss, but he ignores me. He puts himself between Niitsu and the front door, for which the sculptor is obviously heading, and starts to explain his tradition. I can’t see Niitsu’s face, but the impatient way he turns aside and opens the coat closet makes it evident that he doesn’t appreciate being detained.

OK, that cape is the flashiest thing I’ve ever seen. Where’s he going, some kind of premier? Call out the press! God, for such a talented artist, that’s quite a tacky fashion statement…

The front door opens from without, forcing Tari to move away. “Oh, Hiko,” Kenshin says as he steps inside, “are you going somewhere?”

“What do you mean by having a party here without warning me first?” Niitsu replies dourly. “I’ve got Americanized cross-dressers making eyes at me.” He glances at Tari with a frown. “What’s next — women?” And he stalks out the door without waiting for a reply.

Kenshin laughs weakly and shakes his head to the sound of Niitsu’s candy-apple red BMW convertible revving up outside (I swear I did not put my hands all over that thing on the way in). “Don’t mind him, Kamatari. He’s a little…” And he trails off, not really having an excuse for his uncle’s behavior.

“Looked like a pretty big to me,” Tari replies in amusement. “But what a grouch!”

Well, that could have gone better. But it also could have gone much worse. I let out the breath I was holding. At least I got to meet Niitsu at all; I’ve been trying to wrangle that ever since I heard he’d be staying with Kenshin for a week. Plus I’ve made the interesting discovery that Niitsu is a pseudonym. Well, it’s interesting to me. I’m a bit of a gossip, you know. Anyway, add that to the fact that Kamatari hasn’t actually kissed anyone yet, and tonight hasn’t really been so bad.

“Kenshin-saaaan,” Tari is asking in a wheedling tone, following Kenshin past where Shishio and Yumi are making out in the front room (part of Shishio’s scheme to make Kenshin uncomfortable, or are they just drunk?) toward the living room. I hasten to join him. “I know you don’t like men, but I’ve had really bad luck so far this year, and–”

“Kamatari-san, are you trying to get Kenshin to kiss you?!” This is Kaoru, one of the amorous females I mentioned, who is seated on the floor with a bag of potato chips in her lap. She teaches fifth graders, and now she’s using that Stern Recess Monitor tone on Tari, though the effect is somewhat lessened by the guacamole on her face.

“You may as well give up now,” adds Megumi from the couch. I’m surprised she’s here at all, really; she’s a family doctor, and just as overworked as Soujirou. But I suppose, like Shishio, she would never miss a chance to mess with Kenshin’s head. Since she knows she can never have him. At least, that’s my theory. The reason for that is Tomoe, of course, another emergency room doctor that we all think (OK, I think) has the best chance with Kenshin. She’s closer to his age and a good deal quieter than the others, not to mention she spends more time with him. She has nothing to say about Tari’s request, but just sits there smiling on the other end of the couch.

“Kenshin-san won’t kiss anyone,” puts in Tae from her spot on the floor not far from Kaoru. “You should have heard him lecturing Soujirou-kun the other day about how much bacteria lives in a healthy human mouth!” Everyone laughs, and I ponder. Maybe Tae actually has a chance at Kenshin… better than Megumi and Kaoru at least… Kenshin loves to cook, and Tae runs a restaurant… oh, well, whatever. I really don’t care. Kenshin doesn’t have any problems about his orientation and whatnot.

“It was an interesting lecture!” Soujirou protests from his seat on the hearth, and sneezes.

Tari is pouting again, and it’s rather disturbing to see that by now the expression is starting to contain some real disappointment rather than coquetry alone. I’m torn between wishing he’d give the game up and wishing someone would kiss him just to make him feel better.

“Speaking of kissing,” Kaoru remarks slyly, “Aoshi-san and Misao-chan have been in there a long time.” But only she would be clueless enough not to realize that Aoshi is as gay as Tari is and Misao has no chance.

“Kamatari-kun,” Tomoe suggests in her calm, elegant voice at about the same moment, “why don’t you get Katsuhiro-kun to kiss you?” Yes, there’s another woman who sees things. Women scare me sometimes.

“Katsu’s different,” Kamatari sniffs, and I restrain a bitter sigh. Yes, Katsu’s different. You can use the phrase, ‘I know you don’t like men, but…’ with Kenshin, but not with Katsu. It’s just too obvious that Katsu is straight because Katsu’s been so stubbornly emphatic about it. Katsu would never want to kiss you. Katsu’s a fucking idiot. “Did I hear someone mention Aoshi-san?” And now Katsu’s almost glowering, because if Tari gets at Aoshi…

“He’s in the office,” Kenshin laughs as he sits down on the couch between Megumi and Tomoe, accepting the chips from Kaoru who has immediately moved closer. Tae has commandeered the guacamole and imitated her… the entire scene looks like some kind of emperor surrounded by his courtesans, especially with the two on the floor holding up their food items like some kind of desperate offering. Rather picturesque, actually, if you can get over the modern elements; it would be better, though, if Tae had black hair like the rest of the females. “Misao-dono claimed she had a secret to tell him.”

Everyone laughs again, and I’m beginning to think there must be something funny here beyond just the usual innuendo. Kamatari looks around, a little disoriented, and I point him towards Kenshin’s study (Sano hangs out here sometimes, and drags me with him, whereas Tari’s only ever here for parties). On the way there, though, he gets sidetracked.

“Oh, Enishi-kun!”

“No.”

“But you–”

“Go away.”

“You won’t–”

“Your dress is dry-clean only?”

“Well, yes…”

In a threatening manner, Enishi holds up the very red and possibly corrosively spicy salsa that he and Soujirou are sharing with a bowl of tortilla chips.

Tari dances backwards away from the hearth and sticks out his tongue. “Spooiiil-sport!” he sings as he heads for Kenshin’s office once again.

(Oh, and don’t let that fool you — Tomoe’s brother is a nice guy, really. Very blunt, yes, and has some strange self-esteem issues, but not bad once you get to know him. He likes parties about as much as I do, however, and only comes because his sister is. Well, and Soujirou, lately. I think.)

As Tari peeks through the glass of the study door, I turn back to the group. “By the way, Kenshin-san, Chou-san had a little accident in the kitchen.”

Kenshin sighs, and most of the women giggle.

“Nice dress,” Tari is murmuring, but there’s that disappointed tone in his voice again.

“What?” I join him looking through the door.

Did I say Misao had no chance with Aoshi? I meant she had no chance with a sober Aoshi. At least, getting him drunk is the only way I can think of that he’d be making out like that with a female college student at least ten years his junior. In the chair at Kenshin’s desk, no less. It would explain why everyone is so amused, too. Aoshi may have a seriously difficult time getting rid of Misao from now on, though. Worse than usual, I mean. And the really sad thing is, I think he likes Kenshin. All these doctors that work together and develop unrequited crushes… they should start a soap and give ER a run for its money.

Tari sighs. “I’m not even going in there.”

“Good idea,” I agree.

“Oh, they’re so cute!” Kaoru, Tae, and Megumi have crowded around us to watch through the doors as well, and Tari and I are forced to push through them. Tari surveys the room, biting his lip: Kenshin and Tomoe are gone, probably to inspect the kitchen, and Soujirou and Enishi are deep in conversation by the fire. Noises are coming from downstairs, and he brightens a little as he pulls me in that direction.

However, the big downstairs rec. room where the rest of the guests are playing pool or watching a volleyball game on TV (or is it taped? I don’t follow sports, so I’m not sure) does not afford him any lip-locking action, although he applies to every man in the place except for this creepy old guy Saizuchi, Kenshin’s neighbor on the opposite side from the Yatsume’s who shows up uninvited to every gathering. Tari doesn’t have to ask him; he offers. And Tari replies that he doesn’t kiss anyone with false teeth. When Saizuchi replies that they’re real, Tari suggests a good dentist. Everyone else has reasons not to kiss Kamatari or circumstances that prevent it even if they’re willing. And we go back upstairs.

Tari is quite despondent by now, and it’s depressing. I’ve never seen him have luck this bad; it’s like fate is against him. Or maybe on my side for once, though whether a disappointed, unkissed Kamatari is better for me than a happy one who’s attained his disturbing goal, I can’t quite say.

“Why do I feel like I’ve missed someone important?” he muses as Shishio brushes past him on a cell phone. The group in the living rooms seems to be playing some kind of loud guessing game now, so the house is rather noisy all ’round.

I point at the figure looking out the window in the entryway. Actually, I’m also wondering how we’ve missed him all along. Certainly he’s been here all night same as we have; coincidentally bad timing, I guess. And, you know, it’s kinda sad that I don’t like him like that. Well, no, it’s not, really, but he does look nice leaning casually against the wall with his face turned steadfastly out the window… there’s this charmingly impatient hopeful attitude about him like he’s a convalescent soldier waiting for the return of his triumphant companions from the battle front… he wishes he could have been with them, but at the moment he’s just glad they’re coming back. That’s how I would paint it, anyway.

Tari brightens amazingly. “Sanosuke!” he cries. “Just the person I was looking for!” He lets the put-on girlish tone leave his voice almost entirely (so only the natural girlish tone remains) as he approaches Sano. (Scary how he knows and can adapt to exactly what everyone likes, isn’t it? And yet he’s still the same person the entire time. Amazing.)

Sano laughs as he turns to face us. “You ain’t gettin’ a kiss from me this year, Kamatari; you do know that, right?” Secretly I’m thanking him already for sticking with the trend. (Or, more appropriately, thanking his new boyfriend who is undoubtedly the reason for this declaration)

“Why not?” Tari pouts.

“Are you kidding? Hacchan would kill me!”

Tari and I both wince. “Does he know you call him Hacchan behind his back?” I ask, knowing that we’re both thinking of the harsh face of Sano’s lover and how that man would probably react to this nickname.

“Nope,” Sano grins.

“Well, he’s not here now, is he?” Tari sidles up to Sano and snuggles against him.

Sano gives Tari a friendly hug before pushing him away. “He’s picking me up soon so we can go to his place and, um, celebrate his birthday. I don’t wanna smell like your perfume…”

“I’ll stand back,” Tari suggests. “C’mon, he’ll never know!”

“Oh, he will,” Sano replies, perfectly serious. And he’s probably right, too. That Saitou guy is strange. Sometimes I think the only reason they’re together is that Sano got desperate. I mean, a cop he met when he was being questioned about damage done in a brawl that he probably started at a nightclub back in July…? The thought is a little disturbing, considering that I was what he wanted for the longest time. And it makes the idea of admitting now that I’m gay all the more disturbing. It’d be like saying I was just waiting for Sano to get out of the way or something. How am I supposed to do that to my friend?

“Well, fine,” Tari decrees. “I’ll just ask him when he gets here.”

Sano looks startled. “You’re gonna try to kiss Hajime? Or you’re gonna ask him if you can kiss me?”

“Both.”

“He’s gonna be in a real shitty mood, you know. People are idiots on New Year’s Eve.”

Tari lifts his chin defiantly. “He can’t be worse than that Niitsu was.”

“Oh, you met Kenshin’s uncle, didja?” Sano laughs. “Yeah, he’s a real character. But, um, Hacchan might be worse, actually — oh, there he is.” Sano goes to the door, then looks back at Tari uncertainly. “Um, are you really gonna…”

“Yes!” Tari pronounces, and follows him outside. I’m close at his heels. Saitou is a police officer, and therefore probably won’t actually hurt Kamatari, but I’m a little nervous nonetheless.

Sano is bouncing over to the cop car parked in the driveway. Once there, he glances back at us and gestures for Saitou to get out. The man merely rolls down his window. “What?”

“Konbanwa, Saitou-san!” Kamatari greets him with a wave.

“You remember Kamatari, right?” Sano says.

Saitou nods. This does not look promising.

“Well, um, he’s trying to kiss all the guys at the party, and–”

Saitou’s eyes narrow. “Get in the car.”

Sano looks at Kamatari with a shrug. “Toldja he’d be in a bad mood.”

“I’m not in a bad mood,” Saitou growls. “Just get in the damn car.”

Sano grins. “See? That’s what happens when you give too many speeding tickets and book too many cheap drunks.”

Saitou scowls. “Every damn New Year…” And he rolls up his window.

There’s that pout again. “Oh, Sanosuke, you’re not persistent at all,” Tari protests.

“I’m just not suicidal,” Sano replies as he vaults over the hood of the car. “But I’ll have him feelin’ better in no time. Night, you guys. Happy New Year!”

I wave goodbye as they back out of the driveway and head off up the street much faster than a cop who’s just been pseudo-complaining about speeders should drive.

“Fine.” Tari kicks a rock into the street and turns towards the door.

“Hey, you two, come in here and be on my team!” Tae calls to us from the doorway into the living room just as we’re reentering the house. This is a good idea, as Tari needs cheering up. So we join her without much reluctance, and while away the time rather pleasantly for what remains of the night.

But the year’s final minutes find us again wandering the house in a frenzy, Tari newly determined to be kissed or die in the attempt — especially since he hasn’t found anyone with whom to share the all-important midnight kiss. I have no clue where he gets these ideas about kissing on New Year’s Eve — from America or something, probably — but it really does mean something to him just because he’s been doing it for so long. But still no luck. And finally we’re down to the very end of the day, and utterly kissless. Kamatari throws himself on the bottom step of the upward staircase and mopes.

“Almost midnight,” he grumbles.

His sorrow is interesting. It’s nothing like the heavy, mundane melancholy through which I plod day after day (and have occasionally idly thought might be clinical depression, but I won’t get into that). His is like something fragile, a coating of dark glass or maybe ice that spreads over him so I want to touch him very gently and breathe only the softest breaths. But he always shatters it with a smile or a laugh; he never stays sad for long, and as he dispels his own I invariably feel mine begin to lift just a little. And, really, he isn’t sad tonight. He wouldn’t let a little thing like kisses on New Year’s Eve really get him down. But I can’t stand to see him even like this.

And maybe it’s that that finally gives me the courage I need. No, don’t start thinking I burst out with a passionate revelation or anything; but I do realize that a kiss and a confession are two different things, especially when Kamatari’s first happiness of the year is at stake. So I sit down beside him and say his name; elsewhere in the house I can hear the countdown to midnight commencing.

Tari’s not stupid. He knows what I mean. And he doesn’t wait for me. Smiling, he leans forward and presses his lips against mine. And everything else in the world just melts away: the cheers of those downstairs who aren’t kissing someone as midnight marks the passing of the previous twelvemonth (though they might be cheering about the game for all I know); Shishio’s continual business-talk on his cell phone not far off while Yumi grumps because she isn’t being kissed either; my curiosity as to whether any of those women managed to engage Kenshin in midnight kissing in the living room (or whether Misao will claim tomorrow that Aoshi’s drunken kisses were some kind of contract; or whether Enishi’s worked through his confused mind enough to kiss Soujirou; or whether Chou is drunk enough to attempt making out with himself or perhaps some of Kenshin’s cooking utensils in the kitchen, unless he’s passed out already; or whether Niitsu ever kisses that pretty car of his when nobody’s looking) …yeah, so even the stuff I’m not thinking about involves kissing. Kissing is the whole world right about now. Although I have to admit that I may be just a little conscious of the at least twenty-four types of bacteria that are happily mixing inside our mouths. But all in all, my first kiss with Kamatari is an experience that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

It isn’t as deep and doesn’t last as long as I’d like, but I have to remember that Tari still thinks I’m straight and is aiming to be polite. I try desperately to keep my face composed as he pulls away from me; I do have to admit this thing at some point, but as a speechless googly idiot is not how I plan on doing it.

Tari’s smiling again. “You’re a sweetheart, Katsu,” he says, and squeezes my knee. “Not many straight guys would do that, you know.”

I couldn’t ask for a better moment than this if I’d been arranging the evening to my specifications all along; it’s a paint-by-number from here. And the look in his eyes really gives me hope that I won’t be rejected. He’s got to like me at least a little, doesn’t he? Otherwise he wouldn’t put up with such a dreary, misanthropic, artistically-obsessed man, right? Sure, it could be because I take great photographs, but still… Well, we’ll find out now. I take a deep breath, ready to acknowledge everything…

but somehow all I manage to say is…

“What are friends for?”

And the moment is gone.

Tari leans against my shoulder, and I long to put my arm around him. But I lost my chance, and it’ll have to wait. “Happy New Year,” he says, and all the cheer has returned to his voice. Which makes me want to cry, though not all of the tears would mean the same thing.

“Happy New Year,” I reply instead, calmly and without letting it sound in my tone that there’s anything in the world I desperately want to say to him and just can’t.

(New Year’s Resolution: Tell Kamatari that I love him. Somehow.)

And for all the ambivalence of the scene, I consider this a happy ending.


I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Rurouni Kenshin Collection ebook.



RKAIM

You have just entered room “Kaoru’s Chat Room.”

Now see how many conversations you can follow at once.




Sexy Fox Bitch – Instant Message
Kenjutsu Komachi: Megumi-san!!!
Sexy Fox Bitch: What’s up, girl?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
same as always

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You mean Ken-san isn’t paying attention to you?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
:O

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Shut up

Sexy Fox Bitch:
ho ho ho

Kenjutsu Komachi:
you’re in Aizu so you it’s not like he’s paying attention to you either

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*sighs* You’re right :

Sexy Fox Bitch:
But it’s OK, because I may be hooking up with a guy here

Kenjutsu Komachi:
That’s great! *hugs*

Sexy Fox Bitch:
He’s a friend of the family. He IS a little older than me, but I don’t mind…

Kenjutsu Komachi:
awesome!! older guys are the best!!!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!! – Instant Message
Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*glomps*

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
Kaoru-san!!!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Hold on, let me start a chat

Chat Room – Kaoru’s Chat Room

You have just entered room “Kaoru’s Chat Room”
Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!! has entered the room
Sexy Fox Bitch has entered the room


Kenjutsu Komachi:
Now we’re all together!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*waves* HI!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
How are you, Misao-chan?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
Great!! How are you?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
:D I’m eating leftover rice-balls that Kenshin made!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Fine… Kaoru-san, it’s no surprise that you’d prefer even a leftover rice-ball Kenshin made to one of your own

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
lol, Sexy!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Well, at least he makes rice-balls for ME

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
Ouch!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Let’s invite him to chat

Kenjutsu Komachi:
what he’s on? oh he is!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
…inviting…

Kenjutsu Komachi:
No, I will!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Too late

Rurouni has entered the room


Kenjutsu Komachi:
Kenshin!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ken-san!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*glomps* Himura!!!!!!

Rurouni:
My… I seem to be very popular here!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-snuggles Rurouni- Of course you are! You’re the only mane we know with red hair!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*man

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*pulls out shinai* hey, bitch…!

Rurouni:
Umm… I’m inviting Sano in, OK?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-readies scalpel- What is it, Komachi dear?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!!!:
Yay, Kenkaya!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*laughs at scalpel* I jsut wanted you to come over here

Kenkaya Zanza has entered the room


Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*glomps Zanza* Hi!!!!!!!!!!

Kenkaya Zanza:
feeling outnumbered by women, rurouni?

Kenkaya Zanza:
hi aoshi’s girl

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-holds onto Rurouni- I’d rather sta yover here, thanks

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*stay over

Rurouni:
Yes, Sano, I was

Rurouni:
Oro?!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Misao-chan, can I borrow your kunai?

Super Samurai 94783 has entered the room


Kenkaya Zanza:
i’m afraid to get online cause some sycopath is stalking me

Super Samurai 94783:
Hi, everyone

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
lol *hands Komachi kunai*

Rurouni:
Who’s stalking you, Sano?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*holds up kunai* well, Bitch, you can stay there if you want…

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
There’s nothing wrong with stalking people online!!!!!

Kenkaya Zanza:
i dont know if he’s relaly stalking me, but i see him everywher and he’s so rude

Kenkaya Zanza:
yes there is aoshi’s girl what the hell are you talking about?????????

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho, you can’t throw those!

Rurouni:
But who is this stalker, Sano? Maybe I know him.

Amber Wolf has entered the room


Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT THE FUCK THAT’S HIM WHO THE HELL INVITED HIM??????????

Kenjutsu Komachi:
what do you mean, I can’t throw them? Sano, get over it!

Super Samurai 94783:
This is my friend Amber Wolf, Kaoru you don’mind do you?

Super Samurai 94783:
don’t

Amber Wolf:
I do seem to know how to make an entrance… thank you for the all-caps greeting, Zanza

Rurouni:
Oro? Zanza, this is your stalker?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You’re such a terrible shot, Komachi, you’ll hit Rurouni if you throw those!

Kenkaya Zanza:
YES

Super Samurai 94783:
Wolf, are you stalking Zanza?

Rurouni:
Please don’t throw kunai at me….

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
I’m an online stalker too!!! Good to meet you, Amber Wolf!!! ^.^

Amber Wolf:
Stalking, is it?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
this is a chat room, so my aim is improved like you won’t believe!

Kenkaya Zanza:
amber wolf, i think u must be gay

Rurouni:
Aoshi’s Girl, I think you are maybe too hyper to be a real stalker.

Super Samurai 94783:
Speaking of gay…

Amber Wolf:
Zanza, I think you must be mentally retarded.

Rainbow Scythe has entered the room


Sexy Fox Bitch:
-laughs- Will you risi it, though?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*risk

Rainbow Scythe:
Hi, all!! :: glomps Super Samurai ::

Rurouni:
I can see why you don’t like this ‘stalker,’ Zanza!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
hi, Rainbow! you’re Yahiko’s friend, aren’t you?

Kenkaya Zanza:
amber wolf is such a bastard

Rainbow Scythe:
:: smiles seductively at Super Samurai :: Oh, I’m much more than just his friend!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Bitch, I have a new idea. *grabs Zanza’s sword* now I can reach you from here without throwing anything!

Super Samurai 94783:
What?! Rainbow, you’re going to make these poeple think I’m as gay as you are!

Kenkaya Zanza:
what, kenjutsu, you’re grabbing my sword? i thought it was rurouni you liked!

Super Samurai 94783:
people

Amber Wolf:
Super Samurai, do you mean to say that you *aren’t* gay?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Oh ho ho ho!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
lol, Amber Wolf!

Rurouni:
Oro??

Super Samurai 94783:
What?!?!?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
roflol, Zanza!

Rainbow Scythe:
:: pouts :: Well, do you mind if I invite my REAL boyfriend in, then?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza, you’re an idiot! Rainbow, I don’t mind.

King Of Hell has entered the room


Kenjutsu Komachi:
Bitch, let me rephrase. *grabs Zanza’s ZANBATOU*

Queen Of Hell has entered the room


King Of Hell:
I found you guys again! Did you think you could have a chat without me?

Kenkaya Zanza:
who the HELL r u 2?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You don’t scary me with that thing… you can barely lift it!

Rainbow Scythe:
:: glomps King of Hell, kisses ::

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*scare

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL, Zanza!

Queen Of Hell:
Don’t talk to him like that! Rainbow Scythe, get off him!!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza, have you never meet the King and Queen of Hell before?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
I wish Aoshi-sama would get online…

Kenkaya Zanza:
what kinds of names is King of Hell and Quen of Hell?

Rainbow Scythe:
:: laughs at Queen of Hell :: Your dress is falling off, hon.

Kenjutsu Komachi:
well, it IS a stupid kind of sword, but it’s the only heavy weapon in the room!

King Of Hell:
What kind of a name is “Zanza?”

Kenkaya Zanza:
a fucking cool one!!! kenjutsu, are you inslting my zanbatou???

Rainbow Scythe:
:: laughs again and tosses Kenjutsu his scythe :: Look out for the ball-and-chain!

King Of Hell:
And if I’m really the king of hell?

Kenkaya Zanza:
why would u call yourself what u really r? kinda goes against the point of being online

Amber Wolf:
Yes, we couldn’t do that…. then Zanza would be “Complete Idiot.”

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*catches the scythe* wait, are you Kamatari?

Queen Of Hell:
Amber Wolf, LMAO!

Kenkaya Zanza:
shut the fuck up, wolf

Amber Wolf:
Or perhaps “Constantly Intoxicated.” And Kenjutsu seems remarkably quick at picking up on things.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: blows kiss, winks :: Of course I am!

King Of Hell:
Wolf, good call.

Kenjutsu Komachi:
hey! how was I supposed to know?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-snuggles Rurouni-

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
*whines* I wonder where he is….!

Kenkaya Zanza:
then wolf would be ‘ugly bastard.

Amber Wolf:
“Unable to Type” …Kenjutsu, I think “Rainbow Scythe” was somewhat of a giveaway.

Rurouni:
Oro?

King Of Hell:
roflol

Rainbow Scythe:
Good idea, Sexy…. :: snuggles King of Hell ::

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL! Stop picjing on Zanza!

Super Samurai 94783:
pickin

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Samurai, he deserves it. Who do you think is paying for his internet connection? Besides, Amber’s picking on me too. Bitch, don’t make me come over there!

Super Samurai 94783:
picking

Queen Of Hell:
*glowers at Rainbow Scythe* You’ve got three seconds to get off my man, you queer pervert!

Amber Wolf:
“Cognitively Defunct”

Kenkaya Zanza:
for your information, i’m at katsu’s place

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-beckons, hugs Rurouni tighter- Come right over, tanuki-girl!

King Of Hell:
Amber Wolf, I like the way you think.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: grins, feels up King of Hell ::

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza, mooching off of HIS connection? *runs, attacks Bitch with scythe*

Queen Of Hell:
*counts:* THREE Hey, Constantly Intoxicated…

Kenkaya Zanza:
DON’T CALL ME ANY OF THAT CRAP

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-ducks behind Rurouni, starts mixing chemicals-

Rurouni:
Oro??? Don’t attack me, Kenjutsu Komachi!

Super Samurai 94783:
Aoshi’s Girl Forever, do you have Aoshi’s other address?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*ducks around Rurouni to find Sexy Fox Bitch* don’t try to hide!

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
OTHER ADDRESS??!?!?!?!?!??!?!??!?!??!?!??!?!?!??!?!

Kenkaya Zanza:
heh, I can balance the mouse on one finger

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-throws acid in Kejutsu’s face-

Amber Wolf:
Thank you, your majesty. *bows* And Zanza, you never cease to fail to amaze me.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: kisses King of Hell repeatedly ::

King Of Hell:
Amber Wolf, you don’t have to mock me like that… I really AM the king of hell… *is losing patience with Rainbow Scythe*

Queen Of Hell:
*counts:* TWO

Kenkaya Zanza:
wolf, can U balance the mouse on one finger, huh? huh?

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*dodges the acid, strikes with scythe* (and you spelled my name wrong)

Super Samurai 94783:
Yeah, it’s Midnight_Okashira@angelfire.com

Amber Wolf:
Is there nothing better to do in Hell than this? Zanza, if I were so pathetic as to attempt to best you in such matters, I certainly wouldn’t admit it in a public chat.

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-dodges the strike, prepares a syringe- (oh, I did… ‘Komachi’ is much easier to type)

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
OMG, THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!

Rainbow Scythe:
:: starts to disrobe King of Hell ::

Rurouni:
Ladies…. um….

Queen Of Hell:
ALL RIGHT, YOU FAGGOT! I’VE HAD ABOUT ENOUGH OF THIS!!!

King Of Hell:
Kamatari, I think that’s enough.

Kenkaya Zanza:
fuck u, wolf

Super Samurai 94783:
Yeah, he’s got an Angelfire website too, didn’t you know?

Rainbow Scythe:
I guess it’s time to kill Yumi at last! :: looks around for scythe :: (lol, Zanza, yes! you should! yummy!)

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*attacks Bitch again* wait, Rainbow, do you need this back?

Amber Wolf:
Rainbow Scythe, was that an invitation?

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
OMG OMG OMG OMG!!! WHERE IS IT?????

King Of Hell:
*sighs* She’s already dead, you idiot. She can’t fight anyway. *draws sword*

Super Samurai 94783:
www.angelfire.com/shinomori/okashira/.

Rainbow Scythe:
:: kisses Amber Wolf :: I was just thinking it would be fun to watch. Kenjutsu, yes, please. King Of Hell… if I can beat you, will you go out with me?

Super Samurai 94783:
Minus the .

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
looking… Thank you so much!!! *glomps Yahiko*

Kenkaya Zanza:
rainbow i can’t believe u just did that!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*returns the scythe to Rainbow*

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-jumps on Komachi while she’s not looking, injects her-

Rurouni:
Oro?

Amber Wolf:
Rainbow Scythe, I did NOT ask you to kiss me.

King Of Hell:
And if I can beat YOU, will you leave me alone?

Super Samurai 94783:
No prob.

Amber Wolf:
King Of Hell, I suggest that if you can defeat him he should transfer his affections to Cognitively Defunct.

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*rips needle out of arm* what the hell was that?

Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT THE FUCK?!?

Rainbow Scythe:
:: winks at Zanza :: Hey, that’s a good idea! I get a boyfriend either way!

Sexy Fox Bitch:
You just look so tense, Komachi… I thought you could use a sedactive.

King of Hell:
Once again, Amber Wolf, I like the way you think.

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*sedative

Kenjutsu Komachi:
I need a weapon! Somebody give me a weapon!

Kenkaya Zanza:
NO

Rainbow Scythe:
Yay! :: dances ::

Amber Wolf:
I would, Kenjutsu, but I’m afraid you’d accidentally hurt someone important.

Queen of Hell:
For god’s sake, Rainbow, stop dancing.

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL, Wolf

King of Hell:
Amber Wolf, the only important people in here are well-capable of defending themselves.

Rurouni:
Kenjutsu, Fox, why are you two fighting anyway?

Kenkaya Zanza:
I M NOT A PRIZE FOR U RAINBOY SCYTHE

Rainbow Scythe:
All right, here we go! :: attacks King of Hell :: (Rainboy, Zanza? that’s a pretty good name for me!)

Amber Wolf:
You do have a point, your majesty, but she might also accidentally destroy the weapon while she was at it.

King of Hell:
*easily evades Rainbow Scythe’s clumsy attack*

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Rurouni, if you don’t know, I don’t think either of uss will explain it to you. And you know you can call me Sexy, right?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
*us

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Amber, just give me your sword before I kick you out of my chat!!

Queen of Hell:
Kenjutsu, I have a tantou you could use…

Rainbow Scythe:
Ah, but don’t forget that the ball will swing and strike you even if you evade the attack!

Kenkaya Zanza:
she just calle du Amber

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-snuggles Rurouni-

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Thanks, Queen, but not enough range. I want Amber’s sword.

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Amber Wolf:
Zanza, what is so interesting about that word?

King of Hell:
*cuts the ball off Rainbow Scythe’s chain*

Kenjutsu Komachi:
BITCH!

Rurouni:
Oro

Kenkaya Zanza:
cause it’s a girl’s name

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Yes?

Super Samurai 94783:
LOL, Zanza

Rainbow Scythe:
No! Not my ball and chain!! :: attacks King of Hell again ::

Amber Wolf:
Hmm, you’re right.

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
YAHIKO >.<

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Kenjutsu Komachi:
GET

Kenjutsu Komachi:
OFF

King of Hell:
*dodges again, makes sword flame*

Super Samurai 94783:
What, Aoshi’s girl?

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!! Do you really mean that, Komachi??

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
WEASELS AND THEIR NATURAL PREDATORS?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Kenjutsu Komachi:
NOT LIKE HTAT

Kenjutsu Komachi:
THAT

Rainbow Scythe:
I knew you were as flaming as I am! Hee! :: attacks ::

Amber Wolf:
That’s getting annoying, Zanza.

Sexy Fox Bitch:
Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
Zanza stop that

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
IS THIS A JOKE DO YOU THINK IT’S SO FUNNY TO SEND ME TO A WEBSITE ABOUT THAT WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM YOU LITTLE BRAT *THROWS 999999 KUNAI AT YAHIKO AND BEATS HIM UP*

Queen of Hell:
Not funny, Rainbow.

Kenkaya Zanza:
Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber Amber

Sexy Fox Bitch:
-kisses Rurouni-

King of Hell:
*slices Rainbow Scythe to pieces*

Super Samurai 94783:
Hey, Aoshi’s girl, I never looked at the site just sent you to it! It’s Aoshi’s damn website, not mine!! *beats Aoshi’s girl with shinai*

Amber Wolf:
*stabs Zanza*

Kenjutsu Komachi:
BITCH I will fight you with my bare hands!!

Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT u can’t stab me!! i’ll kick your ass with my ZANBATOU

Aoshi’s Girl Forever!!!:
DIE, YAHIKO!!!!!

Kenjutsu Komachi:
*attacks Bitch*

Rainbow Scythe:
Hey!

Amber Wolf:
*kills Zanza*

King of Hell:
*sets fire to Rainbow Scythe’s corpse*

Kenkaya Zanza:
WHAT

Rurouni:
ORO?!

This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down


Originally this was going to be a graphic fic, but it was too much of a pain in the ass to make, so it ended up just prose. The one thing I regret about that is that in the graphic version, you got to see Aoshi’s screen name — “Not Misao’s Man” — on the list of Kaoru’s contacts that weren’t signed on.

Over the years since this was first posted, many people have been under the mistaken impression that this is an actual transcript from a chat where various people were casually role-playing RK characters. While this is flattering to me (sort of), it’s not the case. I wrote this. The typos, stylistic differences, and idiocy are all intentional. If it feels like a real chat, I win.

I’ve rated this story . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Rurouni Kenshin Collection ebook.