Animal-Handler

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement.

Though the circus has settled in for its winter break, Trowa Barton (acrobat, animal-handler, and werebeast beta) still has his hands full — with a newly acquired lion he’s sure is more than it appears, the return of former romantic partner and current alpha-friend-with-benefits Heero, and tiny niece Relena growing up much too fast.

Unique to this story: a/b/o dynamics

Keeping the circus provisioned while on tour was a balancing act (pun intended) between overloading (which rendered travel difficult) and running short of supplies for all the people and animals that made the whole thing work (which put them at the mercy of the price hikes of the closest general store). By the time they finished their nine months on the road and returned to Springcleft for their season off, they’d usually run pretty low in a desire to travel light on the last leg; and the first thing Andrian and Cathy did, while everyone else got settled in, was drive back down into town and load up on goods to get the winter started. Therefore, Trowa’s heart sank a bit when his sister and brother-in-law returned earlier than expected, not with a truck bed full of food crates, but with only a handful of them beside a large, iron-banded box with what had to be air-holes cut into its sides at various points.

He jogged to meet them, but had to stand off as they circled toward the empty lions’ pen, angling and backing so the bed faced it. That elaborated on the box’s contents, at least. As Cathy jumped out the passenger side, Trowa came closer. “Cubs?”

She shook her head, wide eyes promising a surprise. “It’s a full-grown male, 450 or so.”

Trowa looked again at the box, brows lowering. “How long has it been in that undersized crate?”

“Probably a lot longer than it should have,” said Andrian as he rounded the front of the truck to join the conversation. “You know how Alex treats his animals.”

Trowa nodded. A dealer in imports and exotics often of dubious origin, Alex took advantage of the circus’s compassion for animals by procuring as many unusual examples as he could and housing them in small, shabby cages on short commons, knowing Andrian would pay the asking price just to get them away from him.

“One of these days we’ve got to find a way to make him stop,” Cathy said with a disapproving shake of head.

“It won’t be today.” Andrian gave her a quick squeeze about the shoulders. “We need to unload it and get back into town before the stores close.”

By this time, many of the circus folk had appeared and headed this direction, expecting to unload supplies but not entirely surprised when the truck’s cargo proved to be mostly lion instead. Trowa’s niece Relena, too young to remember the circus’s previous lions clearly, had popped up from somewhere, and danced with excitement to see the new animal. It took long enough, though, to rope the heavy box off the truck bed, down a ramp they used solely for this purpose, and into a position where its door could be opened to allow the creature out into the spacious pen, that the child had wandered off singing a song about lions before the actual lion became visible.

Trowa stood near the tall bars and watched in interest nearly as great as Relena’s had been. He’d missed having lions around, and only hoped this one hadn’t taken too many ill effects from its time in Alex’s clumsy hands.

“Handsome animal, isn’t it?” said Andrian as he joined his brother-in-law observing the acquisition moving slowly out into its new habitat.

Trowa nodded. The creature’s extensive mane appeared tangled, its shaggy body hair matted, and its entire frame covered in dirt and little bits of debris, but it was well formed and not as scrawny as he’d expected. It stretched thoroughly almost the instant its entire body had come free of its constrictive crate, then began to pace around the enclosure; the movements of its limbs were normal, fluid, strong, showing no signs of deformity or injury. Trowa nodded again.

“Work your magic,” Andrian commanded cheerfully, clapping the younger man on the shoulder.

“We don’t have much meat left,” Trowa reminded him.

“We’ll be sure to buy extra.” Andrian turned back toward the truck, which Cathy, once the lion-extracting equipment had been removed, had turned on again and pointed at the front gate. Trowa kept his eyes on the lion.

As a recent tenant of Alex’s, it must certainly be hungry. Once Trowa had satisfied himself that the animal seemed content for the moment simply to wander through the brush and up and down the rocks in its pen, he set off for the meathouse, after requesting that a nearby couple of trapeze artists see to the water trough.

What meat they’d had left at the end of their travels was still being unloaded, so Trowa stood and watched his options go by as Adele, who ran the circus’s fortune-telling tent, walked back and forth between the meathouse and the stack of crates just outside it. Eventually she wondered in a jovially sarcastic tone, “Can I help you, Trowa?”

“I have a lion to feed,” he informed her.

“Since when?”

“Since half an hour ago. Andrian bought it from Alex.”

“How big?”

“Upward of 400.” He didn’t quite agree with his sister’s assessment of 450; she probably hadn’t seen it walking freely.

“Spirits preserve us,” Adele muttered. “I haven’t taken inventory; I’m just doing this grunt-work.” She indicated the crates with a thumb over her shoulder. “But come down and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

A clear none of the raw stuff they inspected looked in any way palatable, though some of it, still on the bone, advertised the type of meal a lion might otherwise enjoy. Trowa settled for several smaller pieces of preserved meat, which he re-wrapped in waxed paper and dumped into one of the crates that had already been emptied. Then, with a gesture of thanks at the fortune-teller, he turned his steps back toward the lions’ pen.

There, he found John and Mary just about finished scrubbing out the water trough, which they’d removed and brought into the open for this purpose. The lions’ pen had its own pool, consistently refreshed by water running in under one set of bars and out under another, but it was some of the most mineral-heavy water that came down from the hot springs Springcleft practically overflowed with, and the previous lions had never approved the taste. A pipeline in from one of the clearer springs in a different direction kept a silo full of drinking and cooking water for anyone else in the circus complex that shared this opinion.

The troughs in the lions’ pen were accessed from an adjoining keeper’s building that had been increasingly used, while they’d had no lions on the premises, for storage. Even had Trowa anticipated the advent of a lion, there wouldn’t have been time between their late arrival yesterday and this afternoon to clean the place out. So he merely squeezed between the recently shuffled boxes near the door into the opener space beyond, and approached the bars where a chute allowed food to slide down into the other, still-present trough.
The chute was set a little high for convenience, even for the tall Trowa, and he had to drag a sealed box over and stand on it in order to peer its length and make sure it hadn’t become clogged with leaves or anything since its last use. He found it relatively clear, but rather dirty: another item he would have scrubbed beforehand if he’d known.

He hopped down and pushed his erstwhile step-stool to the opposite wall, then quickly rearranged some of the others (which he wasn’t sure why John and Mary hadn’t moved entirely aside in the first place) so it would be easier to bring the water trough back in. This they soon did as Trowa began to unwrap the preserved meats, and once they’d gotten it locked into place through the slot at the bottom of the bars, they headed back to the silo for more water to fill it with. Meanwhile, Trowa fed the meats into the chute and thereby into the equally dirty food trough.

Eventually, with food and water provided for the lion and everything in its place, the trapeze artists returned to their own tasks, and Trowa stood at the bars observing the figure at the other end of the enclosure. At the moment it was rolling around in the dirt and scratching at itself all over, and either hadn’t noticed the new amenities or didn’t yet see fit to approach. Trowa watched for a few minutes, pleased at least that the poor thing had room to roam and roll as much it wanted now. More or less satisfied, he finally walked away.

An elderly couple, former bareback rider and strong man respectively, made up the circus complex’s entire human population while the actual circus toured. They ran off would-be trespassers, took care of the animals that, like themselves, had grown too old to travel and perform anymore, and generally made sure everything remained at an acceptable level of readiness for the day at the end of the year when their fellows returned. But this didn’t by any means lessen the amount of work required in as short a time as possible when that event took place.

There were animals to be settled into their long-term habitats, supplies to stow, inventories to take, repairs to be made, and a lot of cleaning to do. So Trowa, like everyone else, kept very busy for the rest of that day, and never had a chance to check whether the lion had found its meal or stopped rolling in the dirt. But since one of his functions in the circus was animal-handler, and he needed to ‘work his magic,’ as Andrian put it, sooner rather than later, he arranged for a good long time to spend with the lion the next day.

With the meathouse stocked to a better level after a proper shopping trip with no lions involved, Trowa was able to select a much better-looking lunch for the animal than yesterday’s. And as he made his way back to the lions’ pen, he recalled its previous inhabitants: a pair of males that had sometimes bickered amicably but for the most part had gotten along fairly well. Middle-aged when Trowa had joined the circus, they’d still been an active part of the show, so Trowa had worked with them quite a bit at first. But they’d progressed into their elderly years and retired, and eventually died within weeks of each other. At times Trowa still missed them; whether the new beast would grow on him as the old ones had, he couldn’t guess.

Today, instead of wandering an enclosure it must be tolerably familiar with by now, it had settled down on a rock in that royally lazy way lions — especially the males — often had, and was soaking up the sun. It lay not too far from the keeper’s building, so Trowa believed he could get its attention fairly easily.

He hefted the large leg of lamb up into the chute and watched it fall wetly into the trough beyond the bars with a splatting thud. Then he called to the lion, “Feeding time,” and watched as the animal rose slowly, stretched leisurely, and moved casually in this direction.

“Hello,” Trowa said as it approached. “I hope you prefer this pen to whatever Alex had you in.” He spoke softly, as he always did when talking to animals and aiming to soothe; this habit had crept into his mannerisms with humans as well, leading many to make some interesting assumptions about him.

The lion looked at him briefly, then turned its full attention to the meat in the trough.

“My name is Trowa Barton,” he went on. It didn’t at all matter what he said; the point was simply to get the lion used to him and the sound of his voice. “I’m 28 years old. I’ve been with the Springcleft Circus for almost nine years — ever since my sister Cathy married Andrian, the owner. They have one child, a daughter named Relena; she’s six this year.”

As the lion tore at the meat and ate the pieces it separated from the bone in surprisingly delicate movements, Trowa went on.

“I’m a werebeast, but my sister isn’t. As far as I know, Andrian is still in the dark about it. I handle the circus animals, get them used to humans, convince them to obey commands and work together with us. Any werebeast could do that, but Andrian thinks I have a magic touch.

“I’m only a beta, but even a beta werebeast can establish an order with animals. You and I, for example…” His already-quiet tone faded to nothing as the lion looked up and met his eyes for the first time.

This was usually all it took — allowing a creature to adjust to his presence, to him, and then a good solid look in the eyes to establish his dominance — and then it would become his servant, or at least (in the case of those more intelligent or dominant themselves) a pliable, receptive associate. This was the ‘magic’ he worked for the circus and for his own satisfaction: not taming animals, precisely, but convincing them of their position relative to himself and the wisdom of complying with his wishes.

But the lion’s eyes seemed beyond intelligent, beyond assertive, and Trowa knew immediately his usual tactic wouldn’t work. He’d never seen eyes quite like that in an animal before. In fact, his surprise prompted him to ask, “Are you a werebeast too?”

The lion gave no indication of having specifically understood him, but continued its unbroken stare.

Trowa shook his head. “Anyway you’re all alpha, aren’t you? You’re never going to submit to me.”

Returning to its meal, the lion terminated the almost uncanny eye contact.

Trowa continued pensively watching. Finally, after a long interval, he spoke again. “What I want is to make sure you’re healthy and happy. If we can become friends, I’d like to arrange for acts in the circus for you. If that doesn’t work out, I’d at least like you to be comfortable and secure here. But if you won’t submit…” He pondered for a moment as the lion began gnawing the last of the flesh off the bone in the trough. Eventually he suggested, “Maybe you can consider me your beta. I don’t mind, if that’s what it takes.” He stood straight from where he’d been leaning against the bars, and swept the dramatic bow he used during his own circus acts.

Abruptly and without warning, the lion dropped the bone, cleared the trough in a quick spring, crouched in the cramped space between it and the bars, and onto one of the latter placed a huge paw.

Trowa took a step backward, not frightened but definitely startled. More than startled at the sudden and unexpected movement, he was very surprised at the comprehension, completely absent prior to this, the lion seemed to demonstrate. With that raised paw, it appeared to be accepting Trowa’s offer of service. It spoke again to the behavior of a werebeast rather than a natural animal.

“If you transformed,” he remarked drily, “we could shake on it.” But when the lion’s attitude remained the same, he raised his tanned hand to place it on the bar across from the darker brown pads. He looked the lion in the eye, searching for signs of humanity. But no clues of body in any animal suggested it might be a werebeast, only of behavior. Trowa had certainly witnessed a few such hints, but they weren’t quite conclusive.

Finally the lion, with the air of getting bored with this, removed its paw, turned its rear end on Trowa, and started nosing around in the food trough again. And Trowa decided that was enough interaction for now.

The next day, he saved the lion for last on his rounds so as once again to give himself plenty of time with it. Of course he couldn’t be certain the animal would even grace him with its presence at the west end of the enclosure where Trowa could talk to it from the comfort of the keeper’s building; and if it did, that didn’t guarantee it would stay long enough for the time to be of any value. But Trowa needed to understand it better, so he would make the attempt.

When he’d dropped off the lion’s supper yesterday evening, he hadn’t seen it. Now, however, the creature paced in front of the food trough as if unusually hungry. When it caught sight of Trowa, it let out an annoyed growl and went still.

“Sorry,” Trowa told it as he used the waxed paper to tip this late morning’s meal into the chute. “You’re on a long list; sometimes you’ll have to wait for breakfast.”

The lion inspected the food briefly, then stood back and shook itself vigorously all over. Debris flew from its dark brown mane, and Trowa stepped back even on the other side of the trough and the bars to escape some of it. Then the lion did as it had yesterday and bounded over the trough to look at the human more closely. It sat down in the dirt and, once sure of Trowa’s attention, began making grooming motions with its left paw.

Trowa watched the huge appendage run up over the lion’s ear, smoothing at its frazzled mane, and wondered what this was about. When the lion ceased this motion and pushed the paw out toward him in what could almost be taken for a pointing gesture, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The lion stood again and, moving forward, pressed the top of its head against the bars essentially right in Trowa’s face.

Trowa too stepped forward, and peered into the grungy hair in front of him. At the sound he made when his eye caught movement therein, the lion stepped back again. It sat, repeated the grooming gesture, and again put out its paw as if to point at Trowa.

“You have fleas,” said Trowa, “and you want me to take care of them.”

For a third time the lion pointed at him. Now that Trowa believed he understood, the gesture came across very much like an order. If this creature wasn’t a werebeast getting its kicks from harassing a fellow, it must be considerably domesticated to know a human could help with its parasite problem.

“I suspect it’s much easier to bathe in human form,” Trowa murmured, then added in a louder tone, “but I’ll go get what we need. You’re going to have to get very wet, and let me scrub you down. A haircut, too; you’re so matted.”

The lion made a grumbling noise, and turned back to the trough and its breakfast.

As Trowa left the keeper’s building and headed toward the shed where flea powder for all the hairy animals was kept, he reflected on his new relationship with this unusual lion. A good beta followed their alpha’s orders perfectly, and acted in every way as a staunch supporter and second-in-command. Of course he didn’t consider the lion his alpha — that honor was reserved for other werebeasts or, very occasionally, exceptionally assertive natural humans — but the lion had obviously decided to take him up on his offer and consider him its beta. And a command even from an animal alpha to whom Trowa had offered a certain level of submission spoke to his natural inclination to obey. Giving a new hairy acquisition a flea bath (and possibly a good barbering) was something he would have done anyway as soon as he believed the animal wouldn’t try to kill him for the offense, but that didn’t alter the aberrant and interesting nature of this situation.

Relena, evidently having escaped all watchful eyes elsewhere in the complex, came running up to him as he left the shed. “Uncle Trowa!!” she shouted, not even breathless yet in her youthful energy. “Wanna see me do five cartwheels in a row?”

“Yes,” Trowa replied, and watched attentively. He resisted he urge to criticize her form, merely saying, “Well done,” when she’d finished.

“I get dizzy if I do more than five,” she informed him, clapping her little hands together so dust flew off them in clouds.

He nodded gravely.

Next she wondered, “What are you doing?”

Trowa lifted the flea powder. “I’m going to give the lion a bath.”

Relena practically shrieked in her excitement. “Can I help??”

“No.” Trowa smiled. “But you can watch.

“OK.” Relena turned to lead the way. “Look how high I can skip!”

The lion observed Relena with apparent interest as she grasped the bars inside the keeper’s building and stared into the pen. It wasn’t the attitude some predators adopted when a small perceived prey stood before them; it seemed rather to contain curiosity and immediate approval. And here Trowa was, already assigning very human interpretations to the lion’s expressions.

“What’s his name?” Relena wondered.

“He hasn’t told me.” Trowa threw the lion a look.

“Can I name him?”

Trowa repeated the gesture. “Sure.”

“OK.” His niece stood on one leg and pondered, still holding a bar and gazing delightedly at the animal. “I’ll name you… MOOMBAH.”

Trowa’s third look at the lion was pretty smug. The creature, he believed, had twitched at the word. “That’s a great name,” he told Relena. “Now why don’t you go outside and down to the far end of the pen so you can see the area where the water goes in and out?”

“OK!” She tried to skip out of the building, but the crates and things that still cluttered it got in her way and she was forced to walk.

Trowa turned back to the lion. “Well, Moombah, shall we get this done?”

The lion growled softly and rolled his head from side to side, then turned around and stalked away. Trowa set down the supplies he’d brought and reached for his keys. This would be the moment of truth. Would the werebeast take revenge on him for encouraging his niece to dole out a silly name? Would the mere animal become aggressive when Trowa invaded its new space and tried to scrub it? Now to find out.

The door, a section of bars that tracked to the side, fastened with two bolts and a chain, and fortunately the roof of the keeper’s building provided sufficient protection from the elements that no rust had developed during the disuse over the last few lionless years. Trowa undid all three locks, slid the bolts back, and opened the door.

Moombah still plodded toward the pool at the other end, and did not turn at the rattling sound of the ingress. The latter Trowa closed and refastened after hauling everything he’d brought through the opening, then followed the lion to the bathing area. Relena had gotten as close, on the outside of the pen, as she could; now she poked her nose through one of the gaps so the bars pulled her cheeks back into a bizarre stretched expression, and watched with avid interest as Trowa drew even with the lion that had taken a seat near the edge of the water.

“I don’t know when anyone last used this bucket,” he remarked as he removed the items he’d been carrying inside the tin container. Moombah glanced indifferently at it, then started pawing at the running water. He tapped the surface delicately, then shook the water from his paw, then licked tentatively at what remained. He showed no signs of wanting to slaughter Trowa, and revealed this momentous fact with casual indifference. Trowa, letting out a silent breath, bent to rinse the bucket.

The land in Springcleft was composed of tier upon tier of various types of rock, and where the hot, mineral-filled waters from the springs wore away the earth between and around them, weirdly shaped holes with uneven layered edges gaped. So it was here in the circus complex wherever streams came down; so it was higher toward the apex where the large hot pools attracted bathers and vacationers; so it was right up the craggy walls of the valley, which might itself once have been completely underwater.

The pool in the lions’ pen went perhaps six feet deep at most, but had a variety of floors at different levels like a miniature of the entire valley. The channels that fed into and led out of it dug deeper and deeper into the ground each year, and one of these times they were going to have to look to the bar supports. But in any case it was sufficient to rinse buckets and keep lions clean, and surprisingly warm even this far from its source.

Moombah turned to regard the act of mixing up a batch of soapy water in the bucket, and Trowa thought that, with an audience such as he had — a lion that might be a werebeast and a small human girl on the other side of the bars — this made for the most eccentric (and possibly the most boring) show in the history of the circus. When he began scrubbing the lion, though, he trusted it became much more interesting. The creature growled and whined and stretched and wiggled under the brush, and Relena giggled incessantly. And when Trowa gave the command, “Rinse!” and the lion obeyed without too much grumbling, leaping down into the pool so water splashed far out past its mineral-crusted edges and onto Trowa, Relena was beside herself with laughter.

With the process finished — flea scrub, several rinses, shearing, and what brushing was feasible — Moombah shook himself thoroughly from head to tail, rendering Trowa wetter than ever, and took off at a run around the pen. Trowa began packing up his equipment, trying to avoid the worst of the mud that had formed over the last half hour, while Relena made gleeful, impressed sounds about how fast Moombah could run. Eventually the lion came her direction, stopped abruptly at a bit of a skid, and shook his unevenly cut mane violently so water droplets sprayed across the little girl and the bars she clung to. Once more she shrieked with laughter as he then tore away again. Obviously Relena had made a new friend.

This observation was borne out over the next several weeks, and Trowa grudgingly added to it the assessment that he had made a new friend as well. Though occasionally imperious, the lion proved consistently companionable and sometimes outright friendly. As the circus settled and began to relax, and the immediate pressing tasks of winter’s beginning were finished, Trowa had more free time in the afternoons, which he usually spent working on his acrobatics… and somehow (it was a mystery) he came to do this habitually in the lion’s pen.

Moombah watched him with apparent interest. Cats of any size were, of course, natural acrobats and contortionists, but this one never tried to imitate Trowa’s moves. One day, however, it did start a completely unexpected wrestling match. Of course it won handily, pinning Trowa to the ground with paws whose claws only barely prickled outward to keep him down, and this seemed the last proof Trowa needed that they truly were friends rather than predator and prey as they might have been.

Another mystery gradually made itself known: how Relena had come to interact as closely with the lion as Trowa did. Trowa’s growing habit, confident in Moombah’s friendliness now, of leaving the bar door inside the keeper’s building open probably had something to do with it; Relena must have wandered in at some point when he wasn’t looking. This worried Trowa as far as his vigilance concerning his niece went, but its results were nothing but pleasant. Moombah allowed Relena to do literally anything to him — play tag, climb all over him, brush his mane, and some kind of private game Trowa didn’t understand that involved pushing each other and only sometimes falling down.

The lion demonstrated gentleness, care, and infinite patience with her. Once, when Moombah deemed she’d gotten too close to the pool at the east end of the pen, he even picked her up by the overalls as he might a rebellious cub, covering her with lion slobber and carrying her, helpless with laughter, away from what he obviously considered a dangerous area. Trowa was impressed. He also believed more than ever that this must be a werebeast, but nothing he could say or do convinced the animal to reveal his human form or even confirm the theory with an unguarded look or movement. So Trowa let that matter sleep for now.

Winter in Springcleft never became more than cool, and usually remained comfortably warm (as opposed to the long span between mid-spring and mid-autumn when the atmosphere resembled the interior of a stew pot), so Trowa tended to spend more time outside than in. They had their own discrete weather patterns, too, and in winter rain only occasionally drove him under cover. At such times he would read two-bit novels, chat with his sister, or help Relena cut out an eclectic set of pictures from magazines to paste onto colored paper for some enigmatic purpose.

It looked as if it would turn into one such day, as the valley’s narrow window on the sky clouded over from northwest to southeast and a faint sprinkling of warm, scented rain already misted his hair and shoulders whenever he stepped out of the lion keeper’s building. He’d finally gotten around to tackling the plethora of nonsense that had collected in there since the previous lions had died. Some of it, relevant to lion husbandry, only needed to be rearranged logically within the small building, but most of it belonged elsewhere in the circus complex. So Trowa grew increasingly damp as he went back and forth during the course of his work. Nearby, Relena played with Moombah in the pen beyond the open bar door into the keeper’s building, undoubtedly becoming much wetter.

“Almost time to go inside, Relena,” Trowa called to her as he explored the detritus at the bottom of another crate. A resistant cry from the human child and a discontented growl from the lion answered him.

Relena got a reprieve, as Trowa became distracted by the roll of old circus posters he found amidst the other junk. He couldn’t help looking through them one by one, remembering those from the years he’d been here and assessing those he wasn’t as familiar with from before his time. It intrigued him to see the change in styles from when the previous artist had retired and handed the job over to newer blood. And some of these featured Relena’s grandmother Vasilisa, Andrian’s mother the previous owner and manager, whom Trowa barely recognized except for the golden-brown hair she’d passed on to her granddaughter.

As he moved to shuffle to the next poster near the end of the roll, he was startled by the flinging open of the wooden door into the building and the rush of a figure, darting past him through the open bar door into the pen, whom he couldn’t quite identify in the speed of their passage. He leapt to his feet, dropping the posters — they fell onto the side of the crate, some tipping into it but some scattering across the floor — and followed.

Trowa arrived just in time to see a man in a denim jacket fling himself between Relena and the lion, yanking the child back and shoving her behind him so she fell into a seated position on the grass with a yelp. Now Trowa recognized him, as well as the assumption he’d logically made upon entering the circus complex and seeing, almost first thing, a lion and a six-year-old together apparently unsupervised in this pen.

“Heero, wait,” Trowa called, hastening forward.

Heero faced the lion in an openly combative pose, though what he thought he could do with human limbs Trowa had no idea. Still, he appeared ready to attack at any moment, or try to hinder the lion if it did. Actually, he seemed ready to transform, if Trowa was any judge; the hands he’d lifted seemed to be drifting toward what garments would be destroyed or hamper his movement if he did, ready to pull them off and reveal his werebeast form to the world in order to protect Relena.

Imitating his friend, Trowa placed himself between human and lion, blocking the latter’s bemused tilt of head from the former’s view and raising his own hands. “Stop,” he commanded. “Don’t.”

Heero’s eyes widened, and a body-wide start gave way to a gradual, reluctant relaxation into a normal standing position, no longer threatening to shed his clothing onto the wet grass in order to change shape. He opened his mouth to speak, but Relena beat him to that punch. Throwing her arms around his legs, she cried, “Uncle Heero! You came back!”

The lion took one step delicately to the side, then one forward, so it could see Heero around Trowa and his outspread arms. Trowa let one of these fall so his hand rested in Moombah’s mane, a gesture of restraint and reassurance for both parties. Heero did not take his eyes off the creature as he tried to unclasp Relena’s hands from his legs, but he did acknowledge her greeting with a gruff affirmative sound.

“This is Moombah,” Trowa said, running his hand through the lion’s dark brown hair.

Heero’s brows went up.

“Relena named him.”

“He’s my friend!” Relena had gotten around in front of Heero and was now jumping up and down. “He’s my uncle, just like you and Trowa! Uncle Moombah!” Almost absently, perhaps in an attempt at calming her, Heero reached down and picked the little girl up, still keeping his eyes on the lion. Relena took advantage of the position to hug him around the neck and plant a big wet kiss on his cheek. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I didn’t see you for so long!”

“That’s a good question,” Trowa murmured.

Heero spoke at last. “I’ll tell you. Let’s get out of this lion pen.”

Trowa nodded, then was forced to stifle a chuckle as Heero literally backed away from the lion, holding Relena and staring at Moombah steadfastly with every step. Trowa had to hasten to guide him around the food trough and through the still-open bar door into the building. There, Heero set Relena down in a slow, careful movement, as if expecting the lion to bound forward and gobble her up once she stood on the floor.

Turning, Trowa observed that Moombah had followed them and taken a seat next to the trough. Interestingly, he stared at Heero as ceaselessly as the human stared at him, though his reasons were far less fathomable.

Relena started bouncing around Heero, but, as usual, the clutter in the keeper’s building got in her way. And halfway through her already broken circle, she noticed the circus posters scattered around a nearby crate, and abruptly dropped to her knees to examine them.

“You always leave this gate open?” Heero asked suspiciously, examining the setup briefly before looking at the lion again.

“When I’m here.” Trowa sat down on the floor and pointed to a place opposite to suggest Heero take it. “Moombah doesn’t cause any problems.”

The other werebeast reluctantly sat. “It’s tame?”

“I… wouldn’t say that. But he’s friendly.”

Heero nodded slowly, and said nothing more.

As usual, it would be up to Trowa to start the conversation. Accustomed to this, he found it no great difficulty, but it was all part of a problem he’d observed for as long as he’d known Heero. “We’re almost six weeks into winter. I didn’t expect to see you at all, especially after you didn’t show up last year.”

Relena wandered over with what must be her favorite poster, and installed herself unceremoniously in Heero’s lap to look at it. It occasionally blocked his vision, at which point he would push it aside in order to keep his eyes locked on Moombah. Trowa again had to restrain that chuckle.

“I went downriver to the coast. I spent the season in the swamps.”

Knowing that by ‘season’ Heero meant ‘mating season’ rather than ‘winter,’ Trowa considered this. He had no chance to ask his next question, though, because Relena cried, “You were in a swamp??”

“That’s right,” Heero replied, taking her by the shoulders and tilting her sideways so the poster moved with her.

Relena squirmed and giggled, and through her glee demanded to know, “Were there alligators??”

Now Heero met Trowa’s eyes briefly, and they both smiled. “Yes,” Heero replied.

“How many alligators? I can count to one hundred, so if there were one hundred alligators, I can count them for you!”

“Thank you,” said Heero gravely. “I didn’t count them.” His eyes flicked to Trowa’s once more as he added, “They were a dirty temptation.”

This was werebeast slang, and Trowa understood now how the beginning of Heero’s previous year had gone: he’d tried to spend his inconveniently intense mating season as an alligator, in an area suited to that shape, in order to circumvent the irresistible attraction he felt to humans in his other form… but the natural alligators in the swamps had been distractingly sexually alluring to him in alligator form. It must have been a maddening, miserable winter.

“How many is that?” Relena was asking, getting her poster in Heero’s face again.

“Relena,” Trowa said suddenly, “Uncle Heero doesn’t believe Moombah is a nice lion. Why don’t you go play with Moombah so Heero can see how nice he is?”

Relena jumped up, nearly bashing her head into Heero’s face, and stumbled out of his lap. “I will!”

“Don’t take the poster into the rain,” Trowa added hastily. For the storm had broken, transforming the drizzle into steady, heavy drops. Relena would be soaked; the adults had better finish their private conversation quickly so they could get her inside for a hot bath.

“Is it really safe?” Heero wondered, setting aside the poster the child had handed him before running out into the wet.

Trowa nodded. He noted that Moombah had come even closer, possibly to avoid the worst of the downpour, so Relena had no great distance to go to start climbing all over him. There was a relatively waterproof sort of den near the north wall of the pen, but evidently Moombah preferred to be here right now, despite how long it would take his fur to dry later.

Trowa turned back to Heero and said, “I’m sorry your swamp experiment failed.”

Heero shook his head, looking grim and somewhat haunted. “I thought this year I’d try something else. But I couldn’t. Nothing seems to work.”

“Heero, you’re welcome here. I’m here all season for you.”

“I know. I’m grateful. But it’s not fair to you.”

“It may not be,” Trowa allowed. “But I don’t mind it. If I ever do, I’ll tell you.”

Heero only frowned. He’d removed his eyes from the lion again to look at Trowa, and now it seemed they were stuck traversing his friend’s seated form. A hunger glowed in those eyes that Trowa had seen many times before, but which now looked famished, desperate; and the tension in his frame conveyed very clearly what it would take to satisfy him. An answering shiver ran through Trowa’s body, as it always did on seeing Heero for the first time after a long absence.

Trowa lowered his tone. “I need to get Relena inside to Cathy, but I can meet you in my room after that.”

Heero drew in a ragged breath. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“You’d better hold your jacket in front of you,” Trowa advised with a glance at Heero’s lap, “and be glad that didn’t happen three minutes ago.”

With a grimace, Heero removed his outer garment, stood, and stepped toward the door. Trowa rose as well, and began to replace all the circus posters in the crate they’d come from so they wouldn’t blow into the rain or otherwise get destroyed. Then he went to the bar door and called Relena, who seemed, in this rain, far more likely to come willingly. He noticed the lion’s eyes followed Heero until he was out of sight.

Trowa missed dinner that night, but since Relena had undoubtedly spread the news of Uncle Heero’s return, and the adults of the circus understood Uncle Heero’s relationship with Uncle Trowa a little better than the child did, he doubted anyone worried about him. They might have worried about muscle strain and cramp resultant upon not having moved in certain ways for quite some time, regular acrobatics entirely notwithstanding — but only if they were thinking far more about his sex life than he would prefer.

Breathless and covered in sweat after the fifth or sixth time, Trowa attempted to rearrange the bedding into some semblance of order. He found himself a little too worn out, at the moment, to do more than tug on the thin patchwork quilt that had fallen half off the bed, and inadvertently induced its complete abandonment of that piece of furniture. The sheet beneath was hopelessly twisted and wrenched from where it had been tucked at the bottom, and this Trowa couldn’t muster the energy to detangle and drape over them properly. So he let his head fall back onto the pillow, near Heero’s, and tried not to care.

They were two very quiet men that rarely disturbed the inhabitants of the rooms to either side. In fact, they might well be considered extremely similar in personality by casual acquaintances. But, Trowa reflected as he listened to Heero’s breaths controlled and silenced much quicker than his own, where his quiet was that of calm, of confidence, of peace and satisfaction with his life, Heero’s quiet was that of repression. A passion and intensity lurked beneath Heero’s surface like the alligator he sometimes was, and a muted frustration at his own denial of it drove him to wander, to seek, rather than settling into a comfortable life somewhere (such as here at the circus).

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement. He’d always done whatever he could for Heero… but he knew by now that such behavior wasn’t what Heero needed. Trowa’s willing submission and second-in-command attitude could not draw out Heero’s intensity the way Trowa (and undoubtedly Heero himself) would like to see it brought to the surface.

Some betas (they’d started calling themselves ‘beta pluses,’ which Trowa considered phenomenally stupid) were constantly challenging their alphas, pushing them, testing boundaries, essentially seeking to topple the dominance order and become alphas themselves. This would never be Trowa’s way, and in fact annoyed him to think about… but perhaps it would better fit Heero’s true needs.

The latter obviously remained unsatisfied. A proud and selective alpha, Heero demonstrated fastidious unwillingness to take to the cities, with their bigger selection, in search of a mate, clinging instead to something he knew met his body’s demands, even while feeling guilty about it. His romance with Trowa had ended amicably some years ago, but Heero always came back here for his mating season. And Trowa would always be there for him, always love him as a friend, always submit to him sexually as Heero so desperately needed him to… but he feared Heero’s lifestyle would never lead either of them to emotional fulfillment.

Physical fulfillment, on the other hand…

Trowa slept little that night, but on subsequent nights (when they hadn’t started so early and therefore went on later) he slept even less. At this time of year, Heero was insatiable; he wore the other werebeast out before every dawn. And Trowa enjoyed the sex, naturally. He too felt lonely in general and longed for a mate, most especially during his own season in spring, but, not nearly as driven as Heero, he generally managed to get by.

“We always know when Heero’s here,” Cathy told him one day, “because you get circus tents under your eyes.” And, though she was clearly teasing, the gentle sympathy showing simultaneously in her face probably pointed toward both her brother and Heero. Despite the transformative gene’s recessiveness in her, she’d grown up in a family of werebeasts, and well understood the devastating toll an intense mating season could take on one without a mate — and those around them. But she didn’t — maybe couldn’t — say this in front of her husband.

He, a very supportive brother-in-law and with genuine good feelings and wishes toward Trowa, believed Heero and Trowa had an on-again-off-again romance, and at this point in the conversation said with comradely sympathy, “Hopefully he’ll stick around this time.”

Relena obviously had the same wish, for reasons of her own, and after not too long Heero appeared to return her affection. The last time he’d been here, his niece had only been four years old, and had mostly stayed with her parents and babysitter. Now, at six, she’d become interactive, and had the freedom to spend time with her uncles, blood and nominal and lion — and Heero didn’t seem at all to mind. Trowa speculated that, being a child and therefore not sexually attractive, Relena made a much better companion for the easily aroused alpha than did any older human, including himself. So they were frequently together, the four of them.

The uneven, grassy ground of Moombah’s pen could not be considered ideal for floor acrobatics. Because of this, Trowa found practicing there helped him adjust quickly to different terrain, a useful skill for someone that never knew how perfectly flat a surface the circus might or might not find for each show on tour. And in all or nearly all of his flips and balancing moves and cartwheels and rolls, Relena imitated him.

“I want to do the trapeze,” she complained one day after failing to pull off even a single flip in imitation of Trowa’s triple. She sat on the grass pouting, having previously brought under control the wailing and tears occasioned by her fall.

“When you’re bigger and older,” Trowa promised, “John and Mary will teach you.”

“But I wanna do it now!”

“He’s right,” said the nearby Heero, who’d been seated in the grass taking care not to watch Trowa’s body and its flexible talents, and who now rose to a crouch. “But come here.”

Relena ran to him, and jumped into his arms. Heero promptly stood straight and threw her into the air. She flailed and let out the expected shriek of mirth, then fell back to his waiting hands. “Again! Again!” she demanded. And Heero complied.

Trowa, standing still for the moment to watch, observed that Relena wasn’t the only thing rising and falling; Moombah’s great maned head swiveled up and down, up and down, following her closely with his big liquid eyes. And whether the lion felt more interest in Relena’s safety or Heero’s physical prowess, Trowa couldn’t guess.

Eventually, breathing hard, Heero caught Relena and did not immediately throw her again, though she kept telling him to. “Too tired,” he said, and unexpectedly swung the girl onto the lion’s back. Her eyes went wide, and she immediately clutched at the brown mane for balance. Moombah too seemed startled for a moment, but almost instantly regained his composure and waited, stock-still, for Relena to get her bearings. Then, as she sat up straight and looked around, clamping her little legs down as best she could onto the deep chest, he began slowly pacing forward.

A huge grin spread across Relena’s face as she discovered she could direct her mount by pulling on his mane in one direction or another, and soon they were wandering all around the enclosure at varying speeds. Heero stood and watched them, and Trowa stood on one hand and watched them, and the atmosphere was nothing but cheerful.

Relena had needed only prompting to become a devotee of lionback riding. Over the next few days, whenever they were in Moombah’s pen, she kept coming up with what she considered new ‘moves’ — different ways of mounting and dismounting, commands for actions on the lion’s part that she kept forgetting, and ringleader-style introductions to her fictional lionback riding act. Heero would throw her in the air until too tired to continue, and then she would demand all eyes upon her while she performed the latest in a string of ideas she’d come up with during the rest of her day.

This was typical Relena behavior, but more in Trowa’s vicinity than usual, and he relied on Heero’s constant concentration to give him any time to practice his own routines. Moombah seemed aware of this small dilemma, and occasionally diverted Relena’s attention away from Trowa’s lack thereof, in ways the werebeast couldn’t in any way believe unpremeditated. He never had persuaded the lion to reveal its human form, though, and had mostly given up trying.

Heero, Trowa believed, exercised this endless patience and show of interest for Relena’s young antics not solely out of desire to do what he could to help Trowa, out of gratitude and some shame for what Trowa did for him; he also truly seemed to care about her, to enjoy interacting with her, and to take real consideration with her for her plans. It touched Trowa’s heart, and made him wonder whether this was an alpha thing, or an aspect of Heero’s personality he’d never had a chance to exhibit before in Trowa’s presence, or maybe a little of both.

A camaraderie of another nature developed between Heero and Moombah. It differed from Trowa’s relationship with the lion too; this much was observable from the merest moment they all spent together. But Trowa didn’t realize just how different it was until the time he saw Heero and the lion wrestling, as Trowa did sometimes with Moombah, and felt the closest thing to a shock he’d had in quite some time.

Moombah snarled and lashed his tail and wrinkled his lips so his enormous teeth showed ruthless and shining, while Heero grappled him with biceps bulging and gritted teeth and an intensity looming in his blue eyes that Trowa had rarely seen there. Claws in, the lion gave Heero a tough bat with his paw and sent him sprawling, into a position from which Heero rolled into a crouching skid and launched himself right back at the animal. There was a seriousness to the sound, the look, the feel of the match that had never been present between Trowa and Moombah.

He shook his head slightly. That one had to be an alpha thing.

Not infrequently during any given day, Heero would become inconveniently aroused by some adult human in his vicinity, and retreat with a grumbling demeanor to Trowa’s room until presentable again. But even on the nights following days when this hadn’t happened, Heero remained insatiable. In earlier life, Trowa wouldn’t have guessed a diminished refractory period might come with the drive of a werebeast alpha, but had definitely seen it demonstrated many times over the years.

In one instance, when they’d fallen out of bed and continued on the floor, and eventually lay half on the hard slats and half on the rug, the sore and panting Trowa happened to glance in the direction of the room’s exit, and sat up abruptly. The pale glow of the minute cracks around the door prompted a broken query, “What time… how long…?”

Though Heero’s expression was invisible in the darkness, just his single syllable, “Oh…” sounded embarrassed.

Rising and stumbling to his bureau, Trowa felt out the lamp and reached for the switch. As the gas hissed and the striker clicked, the room lit up enough to see the clock on the wall, by which he observed it was nearly seven in the morning. He tried very hard not to let his subsequent glance at the naked Heero come across as accusatory.

“Oh,” Heero said again. “I’m sorry.”

Trowa shook his head, stifling a sigh. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No,” insisted Heero, rising and looking sheepish. “This is my fault.”

Unable to deny it, Trowa said nothing, just turned back toward the bureau and opened the top drawer seeking a clean shirt.

“Don’t.” Heero began replacing and straightening the disarrayed bedding. “Get some sleep. I’ll start the chores.”

Trowa smiled faintly at the offer, and nodded at his companion. “I’ll join you later.”

Heero nodded as well, and then, once he’d pulled down the blanket and sheet for Trowa to climb back into bed under, searched for his own clothing and shoes. After not too long, fully dressed, he put out the lamp and left the room.

Trowa squirmed into the bed, half luxuriating in lingering sensations and half resolving soreness and exhaustion. Despite thinking drowsily that it smelled like sex in here just a little more than usual, it wasn’t long before he dozed. And then it wasn’t long before the door cracked open again with a creak of hinges and an in-flooding of dim morning light that startled him awake.

“Trowa,” Heero said quietly, sounding bemused, “why is your alpha following me around?”

Re-closing his eyes against the light, Trowa grumbled out a barely intelligible answer: “Don’t have an alpha. ‘M a lone beta.”

“Why is your lion following me around?”

Trowa lifted himself up onto an elbow and peered at the backlit, messy-haired head peeking through the door at him. “What.”

“Your lion. Moombah. Is following me around.”

Trowa made a noise of indifferent confusion. “Maybe he wants to help you with the chores.” He reclaimed his recumbency and pulled the blanket over his head.

Heero said nothing further, and a moment later the latching and locking of the door sounded. Soon Trowa did more than doze; he’d fallen deeply asleep, and stayed there for several hours.

Though he woke groggy and sorer than usual thanks to the strenuous night and the unusually timed, truncated sleep, curiosity gave him a sharper edge than he’d expected, and eventually he rose, dressed, and issued forth to find out how much work Heero had accomplished and to what extent Moombah might have assisted in that endeavor.

Everything he took note of on his way from the rooms appeared finished, which relieved him since he hadn’t looked forward to completing a miscellany of tasks in this fuzzy state He saw no signs of Heero or Moombah all the way to the latter’s pen, but there he stopped short. Approaching the bars slowly, he felt an unexpected warmth growing inside him.

Stretched out lazily in the winter sun, the lion looked precisely like every other lion Trowa had seen lounging around that habitat in the past — except usually they didn’t have a human man propped up against them, head on mane and arm along golden back, deeply asleep. Those two had bonded indeed, whether it was an alpha thing or not. Trowa would never tell Heero how charming a scene this made, though.

How rarely the bar door into the lions’ pen was ever closed, Trowa doubted anyone besides himself, Heero, and Relena knew. The door into the keeper’s building often stood open as well, so Moombah essentially had free run of the complex and beyond. Because he emerged primarily to follow Heero and Trowa around (not when they were caring for other animals, of course, as the presence of a lion invariably spooked or aggravated those), the rest of the circus simply assumed Moombah to be under their control.

One evening, though, as Trowa and Heero sat with Cathy helping to sharpen a truly startling set of throwing weapons that she’d arranged by size in heaps on a thick tarp spread across the dirt, while Relena hopped and cartwheeled and sprinted in large circles around this business she was strictly forbidden to get any closer to, Cathy remarked, “The way that lion stares at us is unnerving.”

Her brother glanced over to where, some yards away closer to the front gate, Moombah sat, straight and lordly, gazing across at them from behind the bars of his pen. Trowa believed him to be staring at Heero as he often did when not outright following him around, but Trowa refrained from informing Cathy of this.

“Maybe he wants to help,” Heero murmured in between grinds at the spinning stone.

Cathy chuckled. “And have his claws sharpened while we’re at it?”

“He might,” Trowa realized aloud as he noticed the lion’s gaze moving subtly, “be watching Relena.”

Cathy’s expression and bearing became uneasy. She turned entirely toward Moombah and watched him intently, her brows lowering farther every time Relena crossed her field of vision.

“Because he’s worried about her,” Trowa clarified. “He’s afraid she’ll get too close to the edged weapons.”

The look Cathy gave him now blended skepticism with a hint of suspicion. “He knows about edged weapons?”

Trowa reminded her, “I’ve mentioned he must have lived with humans in the past.” In one form or another.

“Yes, but…” She pursed her lips as she fixed worried eyes on her daughter.

“He’s very protective of her.”

Whatever answer Cathy might have given was overridden when Relena, noticing her mother’s fixed attention, shouted, “Mommy, watch me!!” and started cartwheeling again. It was nothing any of them hadn’t seen a dozen times before, but they applauded when she finished, staggering and panting, and started to draw closer at a walk.

“Keep clear of the weapons,” Cathy said.

Relena stopped and sat down at a safe distance. “OK.”

All three adults smiled — for each’s personal definition of the term — as they turned back inward to their work and Relena began to draw in the dirt and sing a song about numbers as she did so. The next time Trowa looked over at Moombah, he found the lion’s gaze fixed… but the animal stood too far away to guess precisely whom it stared at.

Though the surrounding walls loomed about twice as high, the front gate onto the property rose only about five feet — tall enough for basic security, but making no pretensions to an ability to stop, for example, stampeding elephants. It remained fastened by chain and padlock unless someone had left and would return the same day; and on this particular one, the two high divers — a vapid married couple of ladies whose only real talents were looking extremely good in swimwear and no fear of heights — had gone to the lower valley to shop. Though perhaps unlucky for the Springcleft Circus folk, this was a lucky thing for the figure fumbling drunkenly at the gate’s fastening, which never would have given way to his clumsy hands had the chain been in place.

They only noticed their visitor by noticing first that Moombah had moved down to the far end of his pen nearest the complex’s entrance and now stood in a pugnacious pose, fur bristling, watching the man struggle to and eventually, painstakingly enter. Then, attention drawn that direction, they all looked at the big blonde figure stalking toward them with alcohol-fueled determination.

Cathy, as a co-owner and manager of the circus, rose first. She didn’t bother putting down the hand ax she held as she left the tarp and the seats, and her face radiated disapproval. “Relena, please go into the house,” she called over her shoulder before heading toward the newcomer. Then in a louder tone she asked, “What do you want, Alex?”

Alex’s line toward them hadn’t exactly been straight, but the angle changed when Cathy spoke. “I’ll te’you what’s I want!” he shouted in reply. “I tell you, I’ll tell ya!”

Trowa sighed, and looked around at where Relena had, instead of obeying her mother, merely moved back a pace. “Relena, go into the house,” he reminded her quietly. Very reluctantly, the child obeyed, looking over her shoulder every couple of steps and then standing in the open door to the residence hanging from the knob without going any further. At least there she was too distant to hear the language Alex would undoubtedly soon start using.

“Thas my lion, dyhearme? My lion!” Alex gestured furiously at Moombah, who, behind the bars of his pen, had kept even with Alex and maintained his angry stance. “You circus freaks thing you’re better’n me with your big cages an’ shiny tens an’ lectric lights an’ shit, up in this rich fuckin’ valley you don’ even ‘serve t’own landin… Well, thas my lion, yhearme?”

Cathy remained cool and completely uncowed as Alex stumbled up to her and shouted the last declaration directly in her face. “How did you get here in this state?” she wondered, the question more rhetorical than anything. “And how many trees did you hit on the way up?”

As Alex’s ranting became a little more personal, all about how the circus folk lorded it over him but in reality they were just weirdos that couldn’t get real jobs, interspersed with continual insistences that Moombah belonged rightfully to him, Trowa and Heero came to stand on either side of Cathy for solidarity, and hopefully to diminish the amount of spittle she had to deal with on her face by sharing the load.

“You’re very drunk, Alex,” Trowa informed him quietly when he paused to draw breath. “You need to go home.”

“Nah withou’ my lion!”

Trowa followed Alex’s flailing gesture over to Moombah. The lion, observing Trowa’s eyes on him, bared his teeth and made an imperious clawing movement with one paw; and Trowa didn’t doubt — not least because he instinctively twitched to obey — Moombah was ordering him to physically attack Alex. The lion must have been mistreated during his time in one of the unkempt cages in Alex’s filthy warehouse, and now wanted Trowa to take revenge for him. Trowa, however, resisted the loyal beta’s urge to do so, because Heero had stepped forward to deal with Alex in his own way.

Though broad-shouldered and tall — standing at least a head above Heero and even a couple of inches taller than Trowa — and bulked out by muscle and fat, Alex seemed abruptly hypnotized by the close gaze he suddenly had locked with the shorter, more wiry man in front of him. Heero had placed a fist on Alex’s chest, and begun moving forward slowly, forcing Alex to give way. A drunk human ranked little higher than an animal, after all, so no surprise a werebeast alpha, even in this less intimidating form, could impose his will on him.

“You sold that lion to the circus,” Heero said. He spoke even more quietly than Trowa, but his voice held authority and a buried fierceness.

Alex continued moving slowly backward away from Heero’s advance, but protested, “Mueller sol’ the lion! He ‘ad no right!”

“Mueller works for you,” Heero reminded him. “He acts with your authorization.”

“He di’n’ get enouffer the lion! Thas a good lion! You assholes owe me!”

Trowa, moving slowly forward behind Heero, shifted in annoyance. Alex paid this type of call infrequently (and had never done it in Heero’s presence before), but was consistently irritating when he did; and honestly Trowa would like to follow Moombah’s command and give him a good sock to the jaw… but Heero outranked the lion in terms of influence over Trowa, and must be allowed to continue as he wished. Trowa remained poised nonetheless for whatever he would be called upon to do.

Heero’s final word on the matter came with the force of crushing jaws: “You need to leave this property. If the circus wants to deal with you and your illegal animal imports, they’ll come to you. Leave, and never come here again.” He had alpha’d Alex all the way back to near the main gate, and as Alex stumbled over the gate rut and only barely caught himself, he looked around and realized how far he’d come. Trowa could see his crookedly parked truck out beyond, its front bumper buried in a bush. And Alex himself appeared for a moment as if he might actually leave of his own free will, though whether or not he could navigate a motor vehicle down to the larger valley in his current state remained a mystery.

But then he turned again, seeming to rally, glaring at Cathy and Trowa and pointedly avoiding Heero’s gaze. “You thing you’re th’only circus aroun’?” he demanded spitefully. “I’m a circus too, an’ you can’ keep my animals from me! Thas my lion, an’–” But he broke off with a squeal, bloodshot eyes widening in sudden terror, and fell onto his rear end as he attempted to scramble back. For Moombah had obviously tired of the tirade exactly as Trowa had, and emerged through the ever-open bar door of his pen and the keeper’s building to come bounding toward them.

The lion pounced on the screaming Alex, pinning him to the dirt, and roared again, deafeningly, right in the face of the drunk that hadn’t expected any such result of his visit to Springcleft Circus this evening. In the distance, other animals stirred up by the sound added their opinions, particularly the elephants and the monkeys, and the entire north side of the complex shook with cacophony for almost a full minute. Alex, losing the energy or perhaps the strength of lung even to scream, writhed, wet himself, and made incoherent whimpering noises with a pleading timbre to them. The others, at least for a moment or two, merely stood back and watched.

Trowa felt he knew Moombah pretty well by now. He knew how friendly the lion was toward himself and any other human he’d observed approach it thus far; he knew how protective it was of Relena. He speculated, based on Moombah’s apparent order to him, the lion didn’t actually want Alex badly injured or killed. But he wondered whether a line had been crossed, whether the creature would now act like a vengeful lion instead of a sensible werebeast and actually maul Alex here and now. If Moombah chose to do so, they wouldn’t be able to stop him — and attempting to might be dangerous.

But evidently Heero disagreed. At any rate, he appeared mildly annoyed — perhaps that his successful nonviolent maneuvering of Alex had been overridden by the lion’s more vigorous plan — and moved around to look Moombah in the eye. “If you kill him,” he said, in his own tone of command, “the circus will face legal trouble. Back off. Let him go.”

The lion did not obey, only stared defiantly at Heero. Trowa took a few steps to the side so as to see their locked gaze more clearly, then had to resist the urge to shy away from the crackling of alpha energy practically visible in the air between them. And as this contest of wills dragged out, Alex managed somehow to gather his nerve and wriggle from between the lion’s paws. He scrambled away, first on all fours, then, finally gaining his two legs, toward his truck.

It was Moombah’s turn to appear annoyed, and he broke eye contact with Heero at last in order to step to the side and roar at Alex again. Again the elephants trumpeted and the monkeys shrieked, and Trowa believed he heard the zebras making their strange noise as well. Alex ran faster in response, slammed into his driver’s side door, and hauled himself up through its window with a dexterity Trowa wouldn’t have expected from him at this juncture. As he struggled to start the car, Heero grunted and turned away.

“I’ll be in your room,” he said to Trowa, and stalked back into the complex.

Moombah spun with much the same frustrated gesture and stalked back toward the lion keeper’s building. A minute later, having returned that direction themselves, Cathy and Trowa saw him pacing as if still irritated behind the bars of his pen.

Sister and brother looked at each other, and each shrugged faintly. Then they went back to sharpening Cathy’s throwing weapons, their task force diminished by one. Eventually Cathy remarked, “That was a dominance struggle, or I don’t know anything about pack dynamics.”

Trowa nodded. “It wasn’t exactly settled, either.”

Cathy agreed.

Just at that moment, Relena came running out to resume her safe distance from the tarp and the sharpening endeavor, and demanded to know what had happened. So Cathy began to tell her, which had the benefit of allowing Trowa to relive it all and decide what he really thought about it.

The little girl’s impression, as she told them a few days later in Moombah’s pen while Trowa practiced, was glee at the bad man having been scared off by the lion… but some bafflement as well. The idea of fearing Moombah seemed patently silly to her; Moombah was her best friend in the whole world.

Said Moombah rewarded her with an affectionate nuzzle for this statement.

“I want to do an act for the circus to show everyone I’m not scared of Moombah!” Relena went on. “Because a lot of circus acts are things people are scared of, so if people are scared of Moombah, won’t they like to see me not scared of him?”

Trowa landed in a standing position instead of on his hands as he’d planned, and glanced at Heero. They both wore the same thoughtful expression, though his friend’s showed more subtly in brow and corners of the mouth. He looked back at Relena and the lion. “I think that’s an excellent idea for a circus act,” he said.

“Really?!” Relena worried Moombah’s mane, then jumped up and hopped over to Trowa. “I’m going to decide what it’ll be!”

“Are you up for this?” Heero asked the lion.

Moombah just yawned.

“Let’s all decide what it will be,” Trowa corrected Relena. “Then you and Moombah can practice it together.”

Relena’s grin threatened to split her face.

In his own opinion, Trowa had never been the most artistic deviser of circus acts. He made sure to remain expert at a variety of acrobatic moves, but usually allowed one of the other acrobats to put them together into a routine that would dazzle an audience. Thus, coming up with a juvenile lion-tamer’s act that demonstrated how firmly under Relena’s little thumb Moombah was taxed his resources, and Heero had little useful input. They undertook the task, however, with great energy and seriousness not only because they believed this would be a legitimately valuable circus act that audiences would eat up (and therefore they needed at least a prototype of how it would go to present to Andrian), but because if Relena had an honest-to-goodness act to practice that she felt only she could do, it might take the edge off her longing to join the circus in more hazardous ways such as the trapeze, the tightrope, and the high dive. Beyond that, Trowa couldn’t help feeling proud of his niece for her dedication to the family business, and rather suspected Heero felt the same. Everyone seemed likely to come out a winner from this situation.

Once they convinced Relena to stop describing the sequined outfit she wanted, they were able to come up with a sequence of tricks she and the lion could perform together that didn’t seem too badly constructed. Relena’s favorite suggestion, which made her dissolve in giggles more than once, was the idea of pretending to brush Moombah’s teeth and then finding her missing toy inside his mouth. She would need a few props, which Trowa (who knew the inventory better than Heero) went to fetch, and then practice began.

Yet again, Trowa found himself more than a little frustrated at his certainty Moombah was a werebeast without hard proof that would allow him to bring it up to any real purpose with Heero. The lion played his part of the act with precision, excellent memory, and the care for Relena’s wellbeing the others had come to expect of him, and he simply could not have gotten the hang of this so quickly and expertly as merely an especially intelligent lion. But what could Trowa say? Nothing he’d ever tried had convinced Moombah to admit to being a werebeast, and as long as he retained his lion form, nothing changed even if he was.

In fact Moombah seemed willing to continue practicing the routine far longer than Relena did. The attention span of a six-year-old, no matter how devoted to the family business, allowed for no more than a handful of times through and some memorization practice before she wanted to play something else. But they had worked some kinks out, and Relena was over the moon about the plan.

“I want to show mommy and daddy!” she declared, worrying Moombah’s mane again. “Moombah, don’t you want to show mommy and daddy! It’s going to be the best act ever!”

“How about tomorrow night?” Trowa suggested. “You can practice one more day, and then we’ll get them to come to the practice ring and turn on the electric lights.”

Relena’s eyes widened in excitement at the thought of the electric lights, which were the mark of a proper circus act such as actual circus performers did, but she still complained in a silly high-pitched voice, “I want to show them nooowwwwwww!”

“You need to practice more,” Heero admonished. “But come here.”

This had become a catch-phrase in more than one sense, and Relena ran to him to be thrown into the air as many times as Heero’s arms would stand for. Thus he often convinced her to do something she would rather not, or compensated her for a perceived hardship.

The second day went as promisingly as the first, though Relena still took some persuasion to keep at it long enough to truly have the routine memorized and perform it relatively smoothly instead of running off to her parents and dragging them to a premature demonstration. Trowa had recommended not spoiling the surprise by saying anything to them last night, and (though when he’d spoken to them about Relena having something to show them, their knowing looks had suggested she hadn’t been able to keep her mouth entirely shut) he believed she’d at least attempted to take his advice. Andrian and Cathy had set aside a special time in the evening, after the sun had gone down so as to please Relena with the use of the electric lights, to watch her unknown show, and Relena could hardly keep her head attached to her shoulders for excitement and impatience.

The practice ring measured the same distance across as the main ring they set up under the big top while traveling. Trowa didn’t know that Relena, small as she was, would merit a show in the main ring even with the bulky Moombah beside her, but for astonishing her parents there could be no other option. The electric lights, which were the same (and ran off the same generator) they took with them on tour, had been set up in the same pattern they would be on the road: footlights, spotlights, and some with thin colored paint over the outer glass to cast a dizzying rainbow into the ring. It made for an impressive spectacle, and tonight it might well make the highlight of Relena’s year.

With the ring open to the sky and no rear curtain through which performers could emerge, there could be no surprise entrance. And when Andrian and Cathy arrived and took their seats on the lowest of the high-rise benches, Trowa noted Andrian was startled and unhappy to see a completely unrestrained lion off to the side with his six-year-old daughter. Either Cathy hadn’t informed him of Moombah’s friendship with the girl, or he hadn’t believed her when she had. They’d better get this show started, lest Relena’s father call it off and break her little heart.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Trowa strode out into the ring sooner than he’d intended, trying to nip any such intention in the bud. “May I present, for your wonder and delight–” with his level and often solemn tone, he made an abysmal ringleader– “the youngest lion-tamer who ever lived, the fearless and fantastic Miss Relena! With her terrifying companion, the dreaded Moombah!” Also, it was difficult to announce with a straight face anyone named ‘Moombah.’

Andrian looked as if he would stand up and shout his disapproval in immediate response to the announcement, but Cathy took his arm firmly and said something to him in a low tone Trowa didn’t catch. Then she disengaged her hands and began to clap loudly, in which her husband, after a reluctant moment, joined.

Relena, grinning in a manner exactly opposite the calm, professional demeanor wanted for such an exhibition, entered the ring as Trowa bowed himself out and went to stand beside Heero not far from the watching parents. She had one hand in Moombah’s mane, and the lion slowed his steps to match hers. They stopped in the center of the ring and started in on their routine, and Trowa restrained a shake of head. He’d told her they should come farther forward, since the ring was so big the details of their act wouldn’t be seen well from this distance, but obviously she’d forgotten. Still, that she gave commands the lion obeyed with precision and alacrity couldn’t be mistaken, and after not too long Andrian and Cathy were both sitting forward looking intently at her with surprised interest.

The child couldn’t ride the lion at any great speed yet without losing her balance, but her lionback circuit around the perimeter was still impressive, and she remembered (or just happened) to stop this time at a better distance for visibility. Then she began playing fetch with Moombah with a ball they’d brought along for this purpose. It was the weakest part of the act, because Relena didn’t throw very well (even less so when excited), and the lion had to retrieve the ball from various incorrect places after failing to catch it in his mouth. But then they moved on to the finale, and the show was saved.

“Moombah!” Relena announced. “You got so much dirt in your mouth getting the ball! We’re going to have to brush your teeth!”

The lion took his place patiently in front of her, and pulled his lips back in what resembled a terrifying snarl. This time, Andrian really did stand up, and Cathy with him. However tame this animal had proven, they understandably couldn’t believe this part of the routine would go well.

And Relena pulled from her pocket the biggest toothbrush they’d been able to find at short notice, and began placidly rubbing it across Moombah’s big ivory teeth. He made no sound during this process, only sat very still except for the occasional twitch of lips that probably weren’t comfortable holding this position for so long. His jaw certainly remained more fixed than those of the circus managers.

“All done!” Relena declared. “Let me see inside your mouth!” And when Moombah obligingly opened it wide, the alarmed half cries of Andrian and Cathy were drowned out by the girl’s subsequent declaration, “It’s much cleaner now, but look! You still have the ball in there!” Utterly fearless, Relena reached into the dark space (they would have to think about angles and lighting for future performances) and retrieved the slobbery ball. Holding it high in the air, she turned completely toward her parents, who’d taken at least four steps in her direction, and bowed. The gesture was clumsy with the burden in her still-upraised hand, but Moombah mimicked it much more gracefully beside her, and the two of them retained the position for the appropriate count.

Trowa and Heero, neither of them the sort to stomp and whistle and cheer, yet were capable of applauding loudly; and Cathy and Andrian joined in only a little tardily with half-forced smiles on their faces. In response, Relena came tearing over to the adults and flung herself at each of them in turn for hugs all around. Then, in an excess of exuberance, she began jumping and skipping and cartwheeling from where they stood to the other end of the ring, and the complex wall beyond, and back, laughing and shouting “Hooray!” at intervals as she did so.

When the child had moved out of earshot, Andrian turned to Trowa with lowered brows. “You should be pleased to know you’re a classic uncle.”

“Why?” Trowa wondered a bit awkwardly. Heero too — the other uncle in this scenario — looked puzzled.

Cathy gave a weak laugh. “You couldn’t have warned us?”

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Well, it was that.” Andrian shook his head and took a deep breath. “My heart still hasn’t stopped racing.”

“I apologize,” Trowa murmured.

Andrian’s smile returned as Relena did, and it looked a little more natural this time. He accepted her repeat hug, then watched as she worked her way down the line again. It seemed her energy had only increased in her jaunt to the wall and back, and a glance between Andrian and Cathy took a break from the agitation caused by the lion-taming act to say, “We’re never going to get her to bed tonight.”

Heero, at the end of the queue, pulled Relena out of the hug and into the air above his head, causing her to shout her glee shrilly and (hopefully) expend some excess energy. The others angled themselves to watch — not without a few suspicious glances, on the managers’ part, at where Moombah had relaxed into a comfortable-looking sprawl on the dirt in the same spot he’d occupied before — and began discussing in relatively low voices their feelings about the night’s entertainment.

Andrian and Cathy obviously agreed that, having the matter sprung on them as it had been, they couldn’t assess their own feelings about it very well… but Trowa got the impression that, once they’d calmed down and thought about it a bit, they would see the matter as he did. Trusting Moombah would make a big difference in getting Relena her own circus act, and that could be pretty easily accomplished.

In fact, Trowa was about to suggest they all head over to the lion and interact with him so the others — Andrian in particular — could get to know him and his cooperativeness. But just then, Heero gave a sound of surprise, and the nonspecific gazes of the other three adults focused perforce on the airborne Relena. Or rather, where Relena had been.

Only with great difficulty had Trowa convinced his niece to wear normal clothing for the demonstration. In the absence of an actual costume, she’d wanted to wear her nice dress, and it had been an effort for an uncle to come up with reasons why she shouldn’t. Eventually, he believed, it had been her impatience to get going far more than his powers of persuasion that had won his point. She’d opted to remain clad as she had been all day, in a ruffly shirt and denim pants and leather shoes.

Garments that now appeared unoccupied.

The upward momentum granted them by Heero’s latest throw had not yet faded; and the way the little shoes, no longer inhabited by feet, abruptly flew faster than the other pieces and started their drop sooner held a touch of horror to it. This was only compounded by the sudden unfamiliar shrieking that now sounded from the abandoned clothing as if in mockery of the late cries of delight from its former occupant.

As the pants too slowed in their rise and, fluttering with uncanny emptiness, began to fall, the shirt seemed rather to hang in the air, and from it the noises obviously emerged. And there seemed to be a struggle going on within as it jerked and bulged and moved in ways not entirely in keeping with the toss that had set it aloft.

Then, from beneath the hemline, a chaotically fluttering blur in brown and tan emerged in an explosion of feathers, and Trowa abruptly knew what had happened. The shirt drifted to the ground at last to join its fellows, and Relena, in the form of a small owl, appeared above their heads, awkwardly trying to get her wings to obey.

Her panicked screeching didn’t stop, and in fact she’d become even more frightened than before now she’d emerged from her shirt, since a number of the electric lights that had so delighted her earlier shone into her wide but diminutive owl eyes. And the would-be inviting gestures both Heero and Trowa made and calls they gave to the confused child tripped each other up as they came late and at the same time.

Though it seemed at first Relena would lose control of the wings she’d never used before, her evident desire to get away from the bright lights blinding her must have granted her a boost in fledgling skill. She screeched again and reeled across the practice ring, unfortunately heading toward the complex wall.

“Relena, come back!” Trowa called, but this time was overridden by the frightened cries of Relena’s parents — one of them far more savvy than the other, but both startled and concerned. So Trowa began unfastening his clothing indiscriminately; from the corner of his eye he saw Heero doing the same.

“You never mentioned you had birds in your family line,” the latter commented.

Dryly Trowa replied, “It never came up.”

With an animal form so much closer to human than Heero’s was, Trowa didn’t need to disrobe nearly as far before changing shape. Evidently the mere sight of him shedding his shirt and opening his pants, though, had been enough to give poor mating-season Heero an inconvenient and very badly timed erection, and the last thing Trowa saw before transforming and heading for the wall was Heero turning around as he unfastened his own pants.

Shaggy and rust-colored, Trowa ate up the ground on all four palms, then jumped and caught at the wall and swung himself upward on long arms. His eyes quickly lighted on the still-fluttering figure of Relena heading into the trees at the top of the slope, and he made a series of quick calls while pointing in the direction she flew. Then he threw himself off the wall and went loping after her.

As he ran, he was soon joined by Heero, who’d taken to alligator shape in order to worm his way under the wall rather than seeking out the nearest human exit. Possible lingering erection and definite nudity notwithstanding, Heero changed back to his longer-legged form not long after, but Trowa found it most convenient to remain an orangutan as they entered the trees. He swung up as high as he could go, and managed to catch another glimpse of Relena ahead.

Although they’d left behind the distressing lights of the circus complex, the young owl appeared more panicked in the forest. She probably didn’t know how to perch or come to any kind of safe stop, so, unable to conceive of anything else to do, flew on simply out of desperation, though she had no idea how to navigate among the trees.

Trowa hooted as he followed to indicate the direction, and heard Heero crashing along in the brush beneath. Breathlessly the other werebeast called with his human mouth, “Relena! Stop! Turn around and come back! Come toward my voice!”

Somehow this made Relena fly faster. Was she too frightened to hear and obey? Did she believe the sounds behind her to be unknown enemies? Or did they have another alpha on their hands, and issuing orders would only make things worse?

They came perpendicularly upon a fold in the land down which a small stream ran, where it appeared Relena had made almost a right-angle turn in order to follow the easier, less tangled path up the line of the water. She gained better and better control of herself every moment, until she almost looked like a normal bird in flight as far as Trowa could tell in the shadows, yet she didn’t stop or turn back.

Briefly, dangerously, he changed shape again and, during the rapid moment he spent balanced, naked and precarious, on a branch very inconvenient for a human, called behind him, “Heero! Up the waterway!” He couldn’t retain this shape any longer than that if he didn’t want to lose his grip and fall straight out of this tree, but as he transformed and swung off again, he hooted continuously in case Heero hadn’t heard him clearly.

They needed to catch up with Relena and bring her home or into their direct protection before she either lost them and then herself or some bigger predator noticed the inexperienced owl and took advantage of the situation. How did the relatives of bird werebeasts deal with this problem? Kids often panicked at their initial transformation, but all those Trowa had known had been ground animals — or at least indoors when they’d first changed shape.

It would be convenient if she did lose control of her flight or run into something and fall down, as long as she took no injury, because then she could be scooped up into relative safety. She hadn’t done them this favor yet, though. Trowa was unsure how quickly bird werebeasts learned to fly, but had a feeling this one would be a champion as she grew up if they could keep her alive to do it. No wonder she’d been so fixated on the airborne circus acts, and being throw into the air by Heero!

A splash behind alerted him to Heero’s entry into the water, and a dark form below shot past as the alligator did what he did best and raced forward with powerful lashes of his tail. He probably wouldn’t dare go too far, since he could undoubtedly make out even less, from under water, of Relena’s shape in the air above him than Trowa could in the dark.

Heero confirmed this speculation when he rose, a dripping and muddy human figure pale in the darkness, from the middle of the stream some distance along — ahead of Relena, in fact — and looked around. The owl whirled when she detected him, making a clumsy turn that pointed her straight up what had become a much sharper-angled slope as they’d progressed. Heero waded messily out of the water and plunged into the trees after her, calling another futile command for her to come back; and Trowa, who’d been navigating the trees on the opposite side of the stream, made a reckless swinging leap across and hastened to follow them both.

The earthen forest floor and its foliage swiftly gave way to crag rising almost vertically to one step and then another and another, climbing the valley’s side out of the warm, wet air around the hot springs environs and into the winter chill of the mountain proper. Trowa’s long clinging orangutan fingers and strong, flexible arms made short work of the uneven rock faces, but Relena remained ahead of him — while Heero, lighter but unable to climb nearly as fast, lagged behind.

The owl, who’d screeched in protest or fear when Heero had last called out to her, now flew silently but crazily, wheeling and rising unevenly and struggling not to plow into the rock or any of the bushes, increasingly devoid of leaf, that clung to patches of earth in crevices in the crags. She really must have no idea how to land; she would most certainly run into something eventually, especially as she grew more and more exhausted. Toward that state Trowa too felt himself hastening; even as an orangutan, he couldn’t climb forever, and the increasing cold seemed to be sapping his strength.

He felt the force of it more severely when he changed shape not long after. He’d reached the top of the current crag, and found he’d entirely lost sight of Relena, so he took on his human form with its slightly better night vision and turned quickly around, shivering, trying to locate her.

This step stretched longer and wider than the previous as the mountain began to change shape, and had enough accumulated soil tucked into the cracks in its surface to support a scrubby set of trees and bushes. It still felt hard and rough and frigid under Trowa’s bare feet, though, as he swiveled from side to side. To the southeast he could see the forest below and the lights of the circus complex beyond, and down past that a blanket of cloud hiding the lower valley from view; if it blew over Springcleft, the warm drafts would lift it and melt it to rain temperatures, and they’d have a downpour tonight. To the north the step ended with a cluster of largely leafless foliage, over whose heads the stars stretched up and up.

And above, the rising ground gradually lost both the chaotic distribution of smaller rocks that characterized the crags as well as the crag’s unrelenting verticality, moving skyward at more varying angles; but it also disappeared after no great distance in a lowering cloud-like mist that sheathed the mountain from here to its peak. If Relena had gone into that, she was lost to them.

He breathed deeply, trying to ignore his racing heart and the importunate cold, closing his eyes and listening hard. And perhaps it was his desperation to find his niece that allowed him, in this blundering human form, to hear scrabbling and fluttering from the cluster of trees and bushes to the north. Transforming as he ran so as to have some protection against prickling twigs and the needles of pines that were more prevalent this far up, he took off in that direction.

Once he’d fought his way through the thicket, with care so as not to plunge off some abrupt precipice that could support scrub but not an orangutan, he found what he sought. She’d obviously crashed into a stunted hollygrape bush that grew just at the edge, and hadn’t righted herself; she vibrated and panted visibly at an awkward angle of leg and wing amongst the scraggly red leaves of winter and what berries, rotted to purple-black, she hadn’t knocked to the ground in her crash. She appeared uninjured, and Trowa let out a soft relieved hoot.

Just then there came a snapping of talons and beating of wings in his face, to the tune of a startling long screech clearly meant as a warning. A clawed foot with a wicked opposable digit scratched a bloody stripe across Trowa’s leathery brown face, and he stumbled backward with a startled sound. He tripped right over something that hadn’t previously stood immediately behind him, and felt a large shape wriggling free of his flailing legs. As he righted himself, he was just in time to see the alligator (a shape doubtless assumed, like that of the orangutan, for protection against the vagaries of the thicket) give a half leap and snap his enormous jaws into the air.

Heero missed the duck hawk, as it wheeled upward, by a yard or so, and the raptor gave another cry and, turning, dove at frightening speed for the prey it claimed for itself. Heero’s second lunge at it prevented its talons from closing on any part of Relena in the bush, but only just barely. Black-barred white underside flashing in the starlight, the bird came around for another pass, and Heero hissed out an alligator’s subtle challenge, barely audible over the crashing of Trowa’s heart and the screech of the hungry hawk.

And as the latter started its descent, and Heero’s stubby legs tensed in readiness, the crashing sound abruptly grew louder — loud enough for Trowa to recognize it as coming from outside his chest — and a huge form that glowed a dull gold and seemed to shake the crags with its roar sprang free of the trees and brush and, intercepting the duck hawk mid-flight, crushed it concisely between massive, toothy jaws.

Moombah trotted to a stop after his leap, muscling his way through bushes and turning awkwardly with his right rear leg planted firmly inside one. He gave the duck hawk one worrying shake, then tossed it aside. Licking his bloody lips, he pulled his leg ungracefully free and moved toward Trowa and Heero.

Trowa, quickly changing shape, reached out both arms with a gasp and received Moombah’s big head for a nuzzling hug. “We’ll have a barbeque just for you,” he whispered to the lion. Then he turned, one arm still across the maned neck, toward Relena.

Heero too had transformed, and was moving slowly and carefully right up to the hollygrape bush. Relena hadn’t resumed any attempt at rearranging herself into a more reasonable position, and perhaps was too frightened to move, so Heero shifted his feet a little farther apart as if for balance and reached out cautious hands into the midst of the shrub.

The nearby sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs must have startled Relena, for she began struggling and screeching weakly. The entire bush shuddered, and Heero said in a quiet tone, “Relena. Relena, calm down. It’s me, your Uncle Heero. You’re safe now. Hold still.” It appeared to work, and everyone — including the lion, Trowa thought — breathed more easily as the owl at last followed orders. Gingerly, slowly, Heero’s hands, now streaked with dark berry juice, closed around the little feathered body and began to adjust the wings so as to be able to draw her out of the bush without harm.

He kept shifting his feet, though, and Trowa thought he saw movement in the ground beneath them. Cracks opened in the soil, which appeared to be sliding away and breaking up, and the level of Heero’s head, framed by the stars of the open space beyond, was sinking.

“Heero…” Trowa spoke in barely more than a whisper.

“I know,” Heero replied at the same volume. He did not, however, hasten his movements; if Relena were startled into panic again, the likelihood of catching up with her a second time and rescuing her at last seemed scant. But the earth at this end of the crag was definitely collapsing, sliding toward the drop-off.

After the agonizing patience of Heero’s minute and painstaking progress at getting Relena detangled from clinging twigs and pulling her toward him, when things did move it was as if the passage of time, lulled by the preceding thirty seconds, had suddenly dashed ahead at double speed. Heero flung out his arms to throw the owl toward Trowa precisely as the ground beneath him gave way completely; Moombah darted from under Trowa’s hand and away; and Relena changed shape in midair and hit Trowa full in the chest, knocking him down and backward. The sliding, scrabbling noise of a minor landslide, with the cracking of ill-held roots as they disconnected, the grunts and piteous crying of human voices filled Trowa’s ears; and he disregarded entirely how scored and bloodied his human skin would be when this was over as he awkwardly scrambled around onto his knees facing the disaster with Relena clinging to him like a vise with all four limbs.

And there he saw, lying flat on his belly in the slithering soil, reaching down with both arms past what was now visible as a rocky precipice, free of foliage, over which dirt still poured in little rivulets, naked but for a veritable mane of brown hair, a complete stranger.

Trowa wasted no time in springing to his feet and, wishing he could detach Relena but having no opportunity to think about it, planting his own bare buttocks right on top of the other man’s and digging his heels into the ground in front of him, trying to create a sort of anchor. The other man — no stranger at all, really — grunted again as he felt Trowa’s weight, but said nothing, only hauled upward as best he could. As soon as Heero’s hands in the stranger’s became visible, Trowa leaned forward (very awkwardly) and grasped the wrists beneath them; and together, still to the sound of Relena’s weeping, and with the help of Heero climbing where he could with his bare feet, they pulled their friend up and over and away from the brink of certain death. Then everyone collapsed on the ground a safe distance from the edge, gasping and twitching.

It was the eventual subsiding of Relena’s sounds of confusion and fear, and her removal of her head from where it gave Trowa a crick in the neck, that caused him to sit up at last into a cross-legged position and let her slide down onto his leg. She took deep breaths that calmed gradually, and presently began looking around. Trowa squeezed her and asked, with a quiet born more of shock than of his usual placidity, “Do you feel better now?”

Relena nodded, eyes wide. “I turned into a bird,” she whispered.

“You did,” Trowa agreed.

“And you turned into an animal too.”

“I did.”

“And Uncle Heero…” She rotated, and Trowa looked with her.

Heero and the stranger, both lying on their stomachs, had also both risen to their elbows and were mutually staring in complete silence. It reminded Trowa strongly of the time they’d faced each other as lion and human when Alex had come harassing: there was a crackling intensity, a wordless struggle for dominance, easily discernible in the gaze.

“I knew it…” Trowa murmured.

The stranger gave his head a couple of extensive shakes and tore his eyes from Heero to glance at Trowa. He had a wide, lop-sided grin on a jovial face that also held some regret, if Trowa could be any judge in this light. “Yeah, you called it. You’re too familiar with how natural lions act!”

Heero, not nearly as familiar with how natural lions acted, drew in a deep breath. His eyes had not moved. “I don’t know whether to thank you for your help or throw you off the cliff myself.” He spoke in an unusually dark, intense, accusing tone.

The stranger’s grin became completely teasing as he returned it to Heero. “Trowa promised me a barbeque. But after that we can come back up here all alone, and you can try whatever violence you want to.”

With not a twitch of change to his expression, Heero said nothing. Still it seemed as if something were passing between them, in their moments of wordlessness, that occupied much of their attention.

“Who are you?” Trowa broke in.

“Duo,” replied the lion werebeast. “Duo Maxwell.” And he only glanced at Trowa briefly as he said it before resuming crackling into Heero’s eyes.

“Everyone is naked,” Relena announced with a slightly hysterical giggle.

“We sure are, kiddo.” For Relena Duo obviously was willing to break eye contact with Heero for more than a mere moment, in order to give her the fondest smile ever uncle bestowed upon niece. “Are you OK?”

“Yes… I think so,” said Relena. “I turned into a bird, but now I’m back to being normal. Who are you?”

“I’m Duo Maxwell,” repeated he, then added with a wink, “but you can keep calling me Moombah if you want to.”

“I… never saw you before.” Relena sounded confused and suspicious. “Moombah’s a lion.”

“He sure is.” And abruptly Duo transformed.

Relena jumped and let out a shriek of surprise, but ran to hug her friend with equal rapidity. “Moombah! Moombah, really can you turn into a person just like I turned into a bird???” Her words were barely intelligible through the lion’s mane, and she continued in that vein for quite some time while Moombah, or Duo, returned the embrace with a big paw and nuzzled her with his soft face and wet nose.

Finally Heero interrupted them with the impatient statement, “Don’t think you can just stay in lion form now. We want to know who you are.”

With evident reluctance, Duo pushed Relena away, lay down, and transformed back into a man on his stomach in the dirt. “Why doesn’t Relena know anything about werebeasts?” he demanded.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” said Heero stonily.

“I really want to know!” Duo protested. “Why is all this such a surprise to her? Why hasn’t Cathy explained? She’s old enough for the talk!”

Relena turned toward Heero and wondered, “Are you mad at Moombah?”

“His name is Duo,” said Heero in a kinder tone. Neither he nor anyone else could be harsh with Relena, but Trowa thought, with a shiver of realization, that this statement held more genuine emotion than he’d heard from Heero in a long time.

“He said I can call him Moombah!”

“That’s right, Heero,” Duo grinned, and the air crackled between them again. “I’m still Uncle Moombah. You’re not allowed to call me ‘Uncle,’ though.”

Trowa broke in again. “It’s freezing up here, and we need to get Relena back to her parents. Duo, I think you owe us an explanation first.”

Duo scratched at the dirt near his face. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. “Short version: I’m in season all year.”

The others just waited.

“I mean in season.” Duo grimaced and rolled his eyes toward Relena, clearly loath to be more explicit. “I mean, why are you lying on your stomach, Heero?”

“Oh,” Heero said in surprise.

“I see,” said Trowa. With a slight frown and shake of head he muttered, “In the freezing cold and all scraped up and everything…”

“You know how it works,” Heero murmured back.

Duo gave an embarrassed chuckle. “It’s easier to just live exclusively as a lion, because there really aren’t any other lions around to, you know, be a dirty temptation. This–” he gestured expansively as if to indicate tonight’s adventure– “forced my hand, though. I’d do anything to help our Little Missy, even take three stupid tries to jump over a damned high wall and struggle through a forest that wasn’t designed for lions and climb a mountain that really wasn’t designed for lions.”

“You did that all to save me?” Relena wondered, awed and excited.

“But it wasn’t Relena you gave away your human form and risked your life for,” Heero pointed out. “It was me.”

They were staring at each other again, and Trowa shifted impatiently. But at least Duo’s reply provided information. “When I first saw you, you were willing to fight a full-grown lion to protect Relena. Actually I thought you were about to change shape and give your other form away to do it. As if I could let you outshine me!”

“What do you turn into, Uncle Heero?”

“An alligator.”

Relena shrieked again, this time, with the resilience of childhood, in complete delight and no remaining trace of fear or uncertainty. “Show me! Show me!”

Heero obliged without a word, but didn’t retain the shape long enough for the girl to examine him all over and force him to open his mouth and so on. She did jump around a bit in a furor even after he’d changed back, though.

“Relena,” Trowa said very seriously, and continued repeating it until he had her full attention. “Your mom’s going to have to talk to you about changing shape, since she’s the one–” throwing a quick glance at Duo– “who decided not to tell you about it before. But right now you need to know — when you turn into an owl again, you need to be very careful, and not fly away scared. It’s dangerous out here, and that mean duck hawk almost got you before. Understand?”

Relena nodded solemnly, and before anyone else could speak or start crackling again, Trowa went on. “We need to leave. Duo, I don’t think either of us can carry her down in either form; can you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Are you sure?” Heero demanded. It seemed half concern for Relena and half alpha contrariness.

“I had to find a lion-friendly path up here in the first place, didn’t I?”

“If anything happens to her on the way down–”

“Do you really think I’d let anything–”

“You don’t exactly have a good record–”

“As if you don’t completely understand–”

They were doing it again. Trowa reached out and took Relena’s hand to draw her fascinated attention away from the two men on the ground. “Do you think you could try to turn into an owl again,” he asked quietly, “and follow me while I climb down the crags and go back to the circus? Those two can follow when they’re done arguing.”

“They’re arguing a bunch,” Relena whispered conspiratorially.

“Do you think you could turn into an owl again?”

Relena thought about it for a moment. “I bet I could.”

“You’ll have to try not to be scared, and watch where I go and follow me. Do you think you can do that?”

Relena nodded. “I could tell where everything was really good before.” She waved her hands and squinted into the air around her. “Easier than right now!”

Trowa too nodded. “And you might have to try to land on something, even if you don’t know how yet. Could you try that if you needed to?”

“I can figure out how!” she replied enthusiastically.

“Good. You’re my favorite niece; did you know that?”

“Do you have more nieces?”

“No.”

“Then…” She tried to puzzle through the compliment and determine whether it held water.

“Why don’t you try right now to turn into an owl?”

A mere minute later, to the sound of the argument — or whatever it was — giving way behind them to reactions of surprise, they were off down the crags. Less than half an hour later, they’d successfully made their way back to the circus complex.

Trowa would have liked nothing more than to drop Relena off, take a bath to clean up all his abrasions (some would need bandages), have a stiff drink, and go to bed, where he had no doubt he would sleep alone tonight — but of course this could not be. Had Relena left behind, in her wild flight, only her parent of werebeast descent, it would have been possible, but instead Andrian must be considered.

He was allowed to sit quietly in the parlor of the big house in the clothes he’d left out in the practice ring — which Cathy had brought inside and which weren’t very comfortable over his dirt and scrapes — as his sister explained the concept of werebeasts to her husband. She’d waited to do this until Trowa returned so she could call on her brother to demonstrate, so Trowa left his belt and shoes off and his shirt unbuttoned at first. It took about twenty-four transformations for Andrian to overcome his shock and begin to accept the truth before him; how long it would take to reconcile with the fact that his wife was a dormant werebeast and his daughter an active one, Trowa couldn’t guess. He rather thought Cathy should have explained all of this years ago, but held his peace on that topic. Perhaps, after growing up with a family whose abilities she didn’t share, she’d set out to have a marriage and a new family completely free of the business.

Relena, despite obvious weariness, had no desire whatsoever to go to bed, or even to stop chattering for half a breathless instant, so some time passed before the entire story could be coherently told. Once Cathy got her daughter into her lap and convinced her to stay quiet for a bit so Uncle Trowa could tell them all about it, they only had to bear with a few interruptions from her before she began falling asleep to the lulling sound of Trowa’s calm, quiet tones. Her subsequent unconsciousness freed Trowa to explain, so Andrian could understand, the more adult-oriented parts of the story without resorting to a lot of euphemisms and tilts of head.

And Andrian, still the supportive brother-in-law even in the midst of his bafflement and shock, commented disapprovingly, “So Heero’s just been using you all along?”

Trowa smiled slightly and with a touch of sadness. “Only because he had to. Have you ever seen a cat in heat?”

Andrian threw a considering glance at his wife and began, “My dear–”

“Yes,” said Cathy hastily, blushing. “Yes.” And from this Trowa gathered she had inherited certain aspects of werebeast life even if she couldn’t change shape. He hadn’t really needed to know this about his sister, but he did pity her.

With everything out in the open — some of it several times over — Andrian finally sat back in his chair and rubbed at his beard with a thoughtful thumb. “An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…” He actually chuckled faintly, and Trowa knew he was coming around at last. He also knew that pensive look accompanied by that particular glint of eye. “So that’s how you always handled the animals so well…”

Trowa nodded.

“An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…”

Trowa had always assumed that, whenever someone did get around to informing Andrian he could transform into an exotic animal and retain his human intelligence, he would immediately be worked into a variety of circus acts as an orangutan. And now that Andrian had his sights set on three werebeasts, his thoughts on the matter probably ran on a much larger scale. This wasn’t a bad thing, but could mean a lot of extra work in future.

“Where are Heero and the lion-man, by the way? I would have thought they’d be back by now.”

“I’m sure they are,” Trowa replied. “And I’m sure they thought me better-qualified to handle this conversation.” Assuming they weren’t already very busy with other things.

“You’re their designated human-handler, are you?”

Trowa chuckled.

Relena awoke at this juncture with a start, and for a moment looked around in a panic as if she’d forgotten where she was. Cathy gathered her into a more convenient carrying position and declared, “Bedtime for you, miss!”

And as Relena protested groggily that she wanted to find Moombah and wanted to show her parents how well she could turn into an owl and didn’t want to go to bed and wasn’t tired, all the way out of the room and up the stairs, Andrian came to Trowa and shook his hand. “Thank you again,” he murmured.

Trowa nodded.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, and a lot to talk over with Cathy, but…” He clapped his other hand over the back of Trowa’s that he held and shook it again. “Thank you. For Relena.”

Again Trowa nodded. He felt he’d done less than the other two, but accepted the gratitude for his effort and concern at least. Next he accepted Andrian’s good night, and, after watching his brother-in-law hasten from the room and up the stairs, turned and headed for the front door.

Outside, he found Heero and Duo, both in human form, both naked, seated on the front steps, staring at each other. They appeared to have been deep in conversation, and, as up on the crag, it took a moment before they could look away and acknowledge Trowa’s presence — as if he’d needed further confirmation that this was a done deal. It gave him, as he gazed at his longtime best friend, some forlornness to consider he’d lost this aspect of Heero’s companionship completely, especially just before his own mating season… but that emotion was overshadowed by happiness that Heero seemed to have found at last what he needed. Who’d have thought it would be another alpha?

“Are we forgiven?” Duo wondered, jumping to his feet. His long erection bobbled as he did so, and Trowa turned immediately to Heero, who, more practiced at dealing with the intense-mating-season problem in human form, had risen more slowly. Trowa handed him the clothing he’d left in the ring, gathered along with Trowa’s by the helpful Cathy.

“You are.” Trowa directed his words toward Heero since he faced that way. “But it may be rescinded if you don’t officially join the circus.”

Heero appeared startled, opened his mouth, and closed it again with brows lowered more in pensiveness than disapproval. The problem that had sent him wandering year after year might well now have been solved, after all.

“Moombah is completely up for that,” Duo declared, putting his chin on Trowa’s shoulder in order to look over it into Heero’s thoughtful eyes. “Can’t abandon my beta now we’ve formed such a good bond.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Heero murmured, staring unflinchingly back.

Trowa snorted, both at Duo’s comment about ‘his beta’ and at finding himself in the middle of the crackling now. “Think about it in a guest room,” he suggested as he slipped out from between them, “and let me know in the morning what you decide.”

Heero nodded. “I’ll show you the way to the guest rooms, Duo.”

Perversely — really, how was this alpha-alpha thing going to work? — Duo flipped his hair and turned the other direction. “I already have a room, thank you very much.”

“You can’t spend the night in lion form,” Heero said flatly.

“And you can’t spend the night with Trowa.”

Trowa, letting out a sigh, was yet smiling as he walked away.

The rain he’d foreseen began not long after he’d gone to bed, and between its lulling sound, the bath he’d taken beforehand, a gulp of whiskey, and the lack of any bedroom activities to keep him up, he slept better than he had in weeks. He awoke, if not sexually satisfied as he usually did in the winter, definitely well rested and full of energy, and emerged into the wet and muddy circus complex to do his chores.

First thing, though, he had to make his way straight over to the lions’ pen and discover which alpha had won that argument. He couldn’t peek into each of the guest rooms, after all, but he could look here. And when he eased open the door to the keeper’s building and poked his head around it, he felt no shock at what he saw within.

Heero had probably never put his clothing back on, and the chances Duo even owned any seemed slim. The dirt and berry juice and dried blood of their adventure of the night before, not to mention Duo’s ample provision of hair, must be their substitute as they lay, entwined at various points and clearly exhausted, on the hard floor. They didn’t so much as twitch at the sound of the door opening or the sense of someone watching them.

With a smile, Trowa withdrew. Tarrying in the shade of the roof over the door, he considered. They reminded him so much of the time Heero, worn out from a night of sex and a morning of chores, had curled up with Moombah in the pen… The word ‘adorable’ came to mind.

About to walk away, he paused as movement caught his eye over by the main gate, and he looked that direction just in time to see its closed height cleared in a fluid movement by a gorgeous blonde stag. If he’d had any doubts, after this unusual behavior, that the animal was something out of the ordinary, the bundle strapped to its back told a familiar tale. He leaned against the door and stood still, awaiting the outcome.

The stag swung its proud head, still crowned with fine unshed chestnut antlers, from side to side, seeming to examine the circus complex in front of it. Then, evidently missing Trowa in his shadow and believing itself unobserved, it stepped delicately out of the main thoroughfare and changed shape. In its place stood a gorgeous blonde man, who quickly removed the bundle tied around his waist and began dressing in haste. Trowa had to smile again, because hadn’t they all been there?

Once decent, the stranger took off at a confident stride toward the main house. When he drew level with Trowa, the latter called out, “Hello — can I help you?”

Though briefly startled, the stranger altered course with no less confidence than he’d already exhibited, and moved to stand before Trowa. “Good morning,” he said as he walked, and came to a halt with a winning smile on his face. “I apologize for the intrusion. I think I took a wrong turn in the fog, and now I have no idea where I am!” Charming smile crinkles appeared to the sides of his beautiful grey-blue eyes as he admitted his mistake. “And then there was this low spot in the road full of water, and my engine flooded. Can you please help me? Do you have a telephone?”

Trowa studied him thoughtfully. Despite the ingratiating demeanor and politeness, he got the sense that here was yet another alpha, and he already twitched to do what the man said. Interesting how many alphas came and went through his life, and never to date one willing to stay for the long term.

“We have no telephone,” he said. “But I know the low spot you mean. I’ll bring one of the trucks around, and we’ll see if we can pull you out of there.”

The stranger gave him a full, dazzling smile. “Oh, thank you. I was at my wits’ end!”

“Don’t worry,” Trowa told him as he moved toward the house himself in order to fetch a key for one of the trucks, gesturing for the man to follow. “I’ll take care of you.” And as they walked off together and the stranger began inquiring curiously, and very understandably, what kind of place this might be, Trowa reflected that a good beta’s work was never done.

This story was written for Daiyanerd as part of the Seasons of Anime Exchange 2019. I wish I could find more such exchanges to take part in! I kinda miss my art exchange days, and writing a story for an exchange is even more fun.

Piper, who has joined Waybee in the fine tradition of helping me write stuff, contributed the following:

iukkkkkk888888888888888888888888I



Escape From Reality

Escape From Reality

“Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain.”

Ladybug and Chat Noir face off against an enemy that shows them a variety of unpleasant possibilities… and one that may be a little more pleasant.

Escape From Reality

“They said I play too many video games and don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality…” The akumatized villain, calling herself Dimension, shouted her manifesto as so many of them did. “But I’ll show everyone that any reality can be real enough to change your life… or to end it! Starting with you, Ladybug and Chat Noir!”

She waved an akumatized parody of a motion controller at them in a rapid succession of movements like repeatedly cracking a whip, and in the air around them at each invisible point where the fictional whip’s end would have snapped, a translucent oval of color — red, yellow, black, blue — appeared and began wheeling around and above the two superheroes in unpredictable patterns. Inside the whirling set of hazy-edged shapes, Ladybug and Chat Noir threw each other a glance of bemusement.

“Is your idea of reality to make us look at pretty colors?” Chat Noir scratched his head, then, with a lop-sided grin, threw out an elbow as if to prod Ladybug with it as he added, “I think she really doesn’t know the difference.”

Ladybug had to smile a little, but… “Let’s just make finding her akuma a reality, OK?”

“Of course, milady!” And Chat Noir moved to duck under one of the floating colors and dash toward their enemy. The black, hazy-edged oval caught him in the shoulder, however, and with a loud popping sound like a cork from a bottle, he disappeared.

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug yelped, and jumped backward to avoid the black oval that swerved in her direction. This put her right in the path of the red one, and with both a popping sound and a popping sensation — as if she were the cork — she suddenly found herself somewhere else.

Well, it was still the streets of Paris. But something — everything, in fact — was different about them. The walls and buildings and even the parked cars around her were a confusion of varied hues she couldn’t take in quite yet, and the people had gathered in far different groups than those carefully collected at corners and behind cover to peek around and see what Dimension would do. These onlookers had clustered up at different points seemingly at random, and stood casually chatting. Confused, Ladybug drew closer.

A list of startling items became gradually evident: first, the surrounding chaotic colors were spray-painted onto every available upright surface in an epidemic of graffiti; second, the only thing those that viewed it had to say was a litany of repetitive praise for its artistry and the talent of someone they called ‘Tagger;’ third, they’d been engaged in this activity for a dreadfully long time, if their near-emaciated frames and the human waste on their lower bodies was any indication; fourth, the graffiti — or ‘street art,’ to give it the name used by the enthusiastic, starving audience — had some sort of hypnotic power over those that looked directly at it. Even from the corner of her eye, Ladybug felt the pull: a dizzy, euphoric impression and the creeping alien thought that it really did look nice and the artist really was talented.

She shook her head violently, eyes closed, and when she opened them again she focused steadfastly on the cobblestones beneath her feet. Lucky this ‘Tagger’ hadn’t painted the ground as well! She sidled up to the nearest group of art critics.

“Look at the colors!” one of them was saying rapturously.

Ladybug had, in the short time she’d been here, heard him say this once already, and now, careful to concentrate only on him, she grasped his shoulders and shook. “Hey! Snap out of it!”

When he didn’t reply, nor even turn his head in her direction, she attempted to drag him away or pull him off balance, but he seemed stuck in place and would not budge. She tried putting her hands over his eyes from behind as if playing the ‘Guess who!’ game, but he pushed her arms away and said, “Just look at the way the red melts into the orange!”

“Tagger is so talented,” agreed the elderly woman beside him in a tone of extreme weakness, and even as she made the comment she fell to her knees. Almost in a panic, Ladybug tried to catch her under the arms and ease her away from the soiled spot where she collapsed, but she too proved impossible to move. She just kept staring at the graffiti out of an unhealthily pale face.

These people needed food and water and to be cleaned up and gotten away from here, but obviously Ladybug lacked the power to effect that on her own. Glancing around at everyone clustered all up and down the street, she felt her heart sink slowly but surely into her spotted shoes. She also noticed the swirling colors not far off still doing their unpredictable dance in the air around where she’d originally appeared. The red was missing now, and in its place whirled a white oval whose movements seemed the most darting and random of all. If she understood correctly, those were portals to — as Dimension had hinted — other realities. The red one must lead here, so now it had been replaced by white, which led… where? Back to her own reality? Could she catch it and then come back here with help? She had to try.

The white portal proved far too capricious to catch, however, and she found herself popping through the black one before she even realized what was happening. Well, at least she followed Chat Noir; if she could find him, they could regroup and consider what to do.

A mere moment in the new reality was enough to make her shudder, for the structures of this Paris were covered in cobwebs. It was like the street leading up to the Arc de Triomphe under Anansi’s influence, only far worse. The wispy pale substance stretched from the ledge of one window the next, across doorways, and from wall to street as far as the eye could see. Despite the blue sky, the entire world looked dusty and grey, and in the corners of her eyes she thought she saw skittering movement. What was going on here??

Even as she directed her gaze upward in the immediate vicinity, something like a teardrop made of web detached from a street lamp and fell to the ground. Its outer covering seemed to melt away, and a cluster of huge spiders uncurled, detangled themselves from each other’s legs, and turned their many eyes upon her.

In great agitation, Ladybug looked for something she could fling her yo-yo at in order to swing away… but everything was far too spidery, and she didn’t feel confident connecting with any of it. She did a panicked little dance in place as she watched the spiders approaching, and a squeal escaped her lips as she searched for cover. And then, with a thud that made her shriek out loud, Chat Noir landed in front of her. He wore thigh-high wading boots, for some reason, instead of his usual footwear, but to her relief his staff was extended; he held it like a hockey player ready to bat away a puck and then get into a knock-down-drag-out with some member of the opposing team. Except the puck — and the opposing team! — was a group of spiders.

“Since I ran into myself here just a few minutes ago,” he said over his shoulder, “I assume you’re that other reality’s Marinette!”

“M-M-Marinette?!” was all she could reply, frozen in place more completely than fear of the spiders could hope to leave her.

“Oh!” Chat Noir replied, a bit startled. “Do you not know each other’s identities in your world yet?” The first of the spiders had reached him, and he knocked it away with his staff. It flew twelve feet into the air and disappeared into a swirl of purple and black. They weren’t real spiders, then, but the product of some akuma.

“No!” Ladybug’s head spun, and not merely from the thought of an akumatized villain covering Paris in spiders. “You didn’t tell the other Chat Noir, did you??”

“It didn’t come up,” this Chat Noir assured her, fighting off a thickening wave of arachnids. “I was too busy rescuing him just like this! When the egg sacs open, the spiders inside go for the first person they see. They don’t bite, just swarm all over them — but that’s bad enough! Araña wants to convince everyone that spiders are awesome, but it’s backfired — nobody comes out of the buildings anymore.”

Ladybug was a little easier at the news that this undertaking hadn’t shattered the secrecy between her and her world’s Chat Noir, but horrified at the nature of this dimension’s dilemma. She would have asked why the local Ladybug and Chat Noir hadn’t captured the akuma yet, but believed she already saw the answer: Chat Noir’s movements, even as he defended her against the last of the spiders as if he did this all the time, were stiff, awkward, borderline clumsy. “You’re injured!”

“No.” He grimaced over his shoulder at her. “Just scared to death of spiders.”

“Me too,” she admitted. That would hamper anyone’s ability to deal with a city full of them.

“I know.” He gave her a smart-aleck grin. “And I need to get back to my Ladybug. You should get through your portal before another egg sac hatches!”

Ladybug glanced where he was looking, and indeed saw the whirling set of colorful portals waiting for her. Here, the black portal was missing and had been replaced with the red. “Which one did Chat Noir take?”

“I couldn’t tell.”

“I’ll aim for white, then. Thank you!” she shouted as she darted to try.

But again the chaotic movements of the portals betrayed her; blue filled her vision, and with another popping sound and sensation she was carried to yet another version of Paris. Her running momentum did not slacken at the transition, and she stumbled several more steps forward and smack into Chat Noir. They both tumbled to the ground, she on top of him, and his eyes widened as he recognized her.

“Please tell me you’re my Chat Noir,” she gasped.

“Always and forever, milady,” he said just as breathlessly, probably because she’d knocked the wind out of him. He added, “But if you mean the Chat Noir from the reality where Dimension sent us off to various miserable places covered in spiders, I’m that Chat Noir too.”

“Thank goodness,” Ladybug said, climbing off him and scanning the area. Her brows lowered as she took in the scene, and she asked, “What’s going on in this Paris?” with a sense of great uneasiness.

Chat Noir jumped to his feet and stood beside her, looking grim — or at least as grim as he was capable of. “They’ve got everything they need in there…” He gestured to the pedestrians that resembled walking showers, their bodies circled from head to ankle in opaque curtains. “Food, water, something that keeps them clean, and they can even sleep standing up. They can see out, but nobody can see in. I saw the supervillain putting the things on some construction workers, and they just went back to work without talking to each other. Nobody interacts wearing these things; I think the villain hates all kinds of human interaction, but he didn’t say a word when I saw him!”

“Then us standing here talking is probably going to draw his attention,” Ladybug speculated. “Where are the Ladybug and Chat Noir of this reality?”

“I haven’t seen them. Maybe they got curtained like these people?”

“It would be hard to fight in those things… Should we try to defeat the villain ourselves?”

Chat Noir did a pensive handstand. “I don’t think we have time to go defeating all the villains in these realities… who knows what Dimension is up to back in our reality?”

With a reluctant final look around, Ladybug protested, “I don’t like to leave them like this, though.”

“Always so kind,” said Chat Noir admiringly. “But it’s not as bad as some we’ve seen…”

“You’re right.” She clenched a fist in unhappy determination. “Let’s see if we can get back through the white portal!”

They turned to face the crazy ovals. Ladybug thought she was getting better at predicting their patterns, but the white one remained the fastest and the least calculable among the other available options of yellow, red, and black. As she and Chat Noir dove for it, he got swept up by the red one, while she popped through the black again.

Spider-Paris’ Chat Noir was nowhere in sight, and neither, thank goodness, was any egg sac ready to burst — but that didn’t mean Ladybug wanted to linger. She spun and dashed for the portals again, and this time actually managed to hit the one she wanted. With a pop, the graffiti-covered Paris came back into view, and Ladybug quickly dropped her eyes to the ground.

“Chat Noir!” she shouted. “Where are you?”

His voice came from nearby, but unfortunately its tone was all hypnosis in remarking, “What a cool design! What genius painted this?”

Ladybug looked up just far enough to see the black-clad figure slowly making his way toward a nearby car where bright colors already tugged at the corner of her eye. With a sound of frustration she followed, and, getting around in front of him, put both hands over his eyes and tried to hold him back. And perhaps because he hadn’t yet reached the spot where he would be rooted to the ground immovably, it worked; though he raised his hands to try to remove hers, his grip was lackluster and his steps slowed. He came to a halt, stood still a long moment simply holding her wrists, and finally wondered, “What’s going on?”

“Chat Noir, I’m going to remove my hands,” she told him, “and you can’t look at the graffiti. Look at the sky, or the ground, or — or at me, but not at the graffiti. OK?”

As she did as she’d said, his face wore the grin she’d expected when she’d suggested he look at her. “OK, milady,” he replied, pleased. “I’m always happy to look at you! But what’s with this place?”

“It seems like nobody appreciated the villain’s art. Now everyone who looks at it is hypnotized and can’t leave or talk about anything else. They’re all starving because they’re not allowed to do anything but admire his graffiti nonstop!”

Chat Noir swept a careful low glance around, undoubtedly taking in enough of the people nearby to confirm what she’d told him. “Do you think we’re hypnotized somewhere too?”

“If we are,” Ladybug replied in dismay, “the villain could easily have taken our Miraculous while we just stood there praising his art.”

“Or maybe there is no Ladybug and Chat Noir in this reality. Le Papillon showed up and started stirring up trouble, but somehow we never got our Miraculous and aren’t around to help. Maybe in curtain-Paris too.”

“I can’t decide which idea is worse,” Ladybug grumbled.

He met her eyes again, but this time with a thoughtful, almost sneaky smile that didn’t seem to fit the situation. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“We may not have time and energy to defeat all these villains or even check whether there’s anyone around who can, but maybe we can do something to help. These people need to be fed and cleaned and to get some rest, right?”

“Yeah…?” She stared into his strangely green eyes for a moment, and then suddenly realized what he meant. “Yeah! That’s genius!”

He bowed. “I’m like that sometimes!” And he turned back toward the portals again.

“Wait!” Her cry halted him mid-step. “We keep getting separated; hold my hand!”

Coming back toward her, he took her extended hand and kissed it. “I thought you’d never ask!” Then together they tried to intercept the blue portal.

Yet again they weren’t able to pinpoint the one they wanted. Yellow swallowed them up with a pop, and, hands still tightly clasped, they found themselves elsewhere: not the streets of Paris this time, but an annoyingly familiar suite in an obnoxiously familiar hotel. After a brief glance around, each met the other’s gaze, and they both sighed.

“Chloé?” they queried in unison.

“In here!” came the immediate reply from the next room. The same voice — Chloé’s voice — then went on in frustration, obviously addressing someone else, “Don’t you dare put that on me! That thing is absolutely hideous!” Then there was a loud rustling of paper and a muffled cry, followed by another yell in their direction: “Whoever’s out there, get in here and help me before I puke from this horrible color!”

The scene in the next room was not all together surprising: a clearly akumatized woman whose left hand had been replaced by a pair of scissors was busily cutting outfits from pieces of paper she pulled from a kind of quiver at her back. They grew to life-size as she cut, bore tabs like those used to attach such clothing to paper dolls, and were obviously intended to be worn by Chloé Bourgeois. The latter hung in the air, tied up at wrists and ankles by long strings of simpler, chain-style paper dolls, currently dressed in a fluffy sequined orange dress of which she evidently didn’t approve.

Both the villain and the victim looked over as Ladybug and Chat Noir entered, and mimicked the unison of a moment before in demanding, “Who on Earth are you?”

“And what are you wearing?” Chloé added.

So that basically proved Ladybug and Chat Noir didn’t exist in this reality. Of course there was no reason they couldn’t eventually, but it was still a depressing thought.

“Well, I don’t care who you are,” was Chloé’s next, dismissive comment. “This servant I fired because she brought me ugly clothing turned into a monster and is making me wear hideous rags like this–” the clause ended on a disgusted shriek– “and you need to take care of it! You know who I am, I assume?”

The villain had paused with the next outfit mostly cut out, staring at Ladybug and Chat Noir warily, but as Chloé went on about how the daughter of the mayor of Paris should never be forced to wear such monstrosities and the villain’s taste was even worse as a monster than it had been as a personal assistant, she returned to her snipping without a word.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered. “Let’s find the blue portal.”

Ladybug barely resisted as he pulled her back into the other room. “But Chloé…”

“If the worst that supervillain’s doing to her is making her wear clothing she doesn’t like, she’ll be OK for now.”

With a shrug Ladybug admitted, “At least this one isn’t trying to kill her.” She did feel a little bad about leaving even Chloé at the mercy of an akuma in a Ladybugless Paris, though.

This time they made it through the blue oval and back to the curtain dimension. It looked as it had before: with numerous shrouded white figures moving about in a fairly normal fashion, just completely invisible behind their yards of cloth and never acknowledging the presence of others.

“You said the villain was near here a little earlier, right?” Ladybug asked.

“Yeah. I figure if we keep talking, he’ll show up.”

“It probably helps that we’re holding hands.” She thought she saw a faint blush seep out from beneath Chat Noir’s mask as she said this, and that made her own face heat.

Chat Noir cleared his throat. “This is going to be tough once he does show up.”

“I know. It’s hard enough on our own!”

“We’ll probably want to grab him from both sides so we’re all touching, and then jump. If we miss, don’t think about it — just jump again.”

“Right.” She nodded firmly. “We can do this.”

“Hey! Isn’t this great?” Chat Noir startled her with his sudden yell. “Look how well we’re interacting! We always get along so well! We always want to talk to each other and hold each other’s hands!”

“Uh, yeah!” Ladybug took her turn at the ridiculous taunt. “We hang out all the time! And we get other people involved too!”

Do we?” Chat Noir’s eyes twinkled as he asked this in a low tone.

Ladybug blushed more deeply than before at his implication. “I mean we have a lot of friends!” she cried. “Friends who interact with each other all the time, just like we do!”

“Sometimes we get into arguments!” Chat Noir agreed. “With people we interact with!”

“Oh, yes! There’s all sorts of drama! Sometimes people even get their feelings hurt!”

“Misunderstandings! And deceitful behavior! And insults! And–”

“Chat Noir!” Ladybug freed one hand from where they’d somehow come to be clasping both, and pointed. A ripple in the crowd seemed to be making its way in their direction, and as the pedestrian traffic shifted she thought she could see a different color than the omnipresent white.

“That’s him, all right.” Together they began backing up, her left hand still in his right, until they were about as close to the portals as they could get without risking being hit by one on its forward swing. And before them, a figure wearing a black curtain emerged and plodded slowly toward them. It stopped not far off and, though it said nothing, seemed to be examining them. Several moments passed in silence.

Undoubtedly to speed things along, Chat Noir bent toward Ladybug and asked, “Well, what do you think, milady?”

“I think Chloé wouldn’t approve of the outfit,” Ladybug replied.

The villain struck in a sudden, startling movement. His curtain fluttered upward with the missile that flew from each of his outflung hands, granting them just a brief view of the sad-looking man beneath. But they were too busy dodging the white cloth that had shot toward them, threatening to make them into solitary curtain-wearers probably every bit as lonely as this guy. Their hands had broken apart with their leap, but it didn’t matter; if they couldn’t get hold of him quickly and drag him back in this direction, being separated would be the least of their worries.

More curtains raced toward their new positions; Ladybug jumped while Chat Noir ducked. Then a yo-yo flicked out at the enemy in the hopes of immobilizing him at least briefly. The villain essayed a dodge of his own, but came immediately up against Chat Noir’s extended staff and was caught neatly in the yo-yo’s string. The two superheroes dashed forward, each catching hold of one side of the floating bar above the guy’s head from which his curtains hung. They pulled his stumbling form toward the portals, and Ladybug could feel him straining against the tie in which he was wrapped; it wouldn’t hold him long.

The colors swirled before them, and by now they were definitely parsing the patterns somewhat. The curtain-villain struggled even harder as Chat Noir said, “3…”

“2…” said Ladybug.

“1…”

“Jump!”

With a red pop, they’d succeeded — all three of them landed in graffiti-Paris. Hastily they shoved the curtain-villain forward, Ladybug disengaging her yo-yo, and stepped back themselves. Now to get the all-important answer: could one akumatized villain resist the hypnosis created by another?

The man caught his balance after a step or two, then stood still as he’d done in curtain-Paris just a minute before, seeming to look around without a word at the admirers of Tagger’s street art. He took another step forward as he and the superheroes heard someone nearby make a remark to a neighbor and get a reply: clear interaction. Then white cloth began to fly. Bystanders disappeared one by one, and Ladybug was pleased to see the old woman she’d been so concerned about before rising easily to her feet as soon as she was under the protection of a curtain.

“Come on,” Chat Noir whispered, and drew her backward again. The villain was moving away from them, up the street, curtaining everyone he could see, but if they spoke too loudly he would undoubtedly turn once more. They needed to get through a portal, and right now it didn’t much matter which.

The color turned out to be black, proving it did actually matter which since Ladybug hadn’t really wanted to come back to this version of Paris. She and Chat Noir shuddered in tandem as they realized where they were, and huddled almost unconsciously closer together.

“It worked,” Chat Noir said, still in a whisper though they’d left curtain-villain behind. Doubtless he, like Ladybug, thought attracting the attention of the spiders around here would be every bit as bad.

“At least they’re better off now than they were before,” Ladybug replied in as quiet a tone. And looking around she added, “Now I’m getting an idea…”

“I love your ideas,” Chat Noir told her with a grin obviously tempered somewhat by their surroundings.

But before she could speak again, another voice — this one not bothering to whisper — called out to them. “I thought you might come back, since the portals are still here!” And the other Chat Noir vaulted into view. This time the spider-Paris Ladybug swung in beside him, and Ladybug noticed she too wore tall wading boots. That only made sense, given what this Paris was like, but it did rather spoil the outfit.

“Do you two need some pointers,” alternate Chat Noir went on, “from a more in-tune superhero team?” And he threw an arm around alternate Ladybug’s waist and laid his head on her shoulder.

The gesture and the question combined were so easily understood that Chat Noir’s jaw dropped and Ladybug’s face went burning hot — far worse than earlier. With a squeak she dropped his hand and stepped awkwardly away, stammering as she did so, “No, no, no, of course we don’t need any pointings — pointers — like that! No pointers at all! We’re just fine in-tune the way we are, thanks!”

But, “I think we could use some pointers!” Chat Noir told his double with eager haste. “How did this happen?”

Alternate Chat Noir moved to kiss alternate Ladybug, who pushed his face away with a roll of eyes. “This really isn’t the time for it, kitty-cat.” Then, turning to the others, she added, “Do you need our real help?”

“You’ll figure it out eventually,” alternate Chat Noir whispered loudly behind his hand to his twin.

“Oh, like you did?” wondered alternate Ladybug with affectionate sarcasm.

Alternate Chat Noir allowed, “You’re right, milady.” And to Ladybug and Chat Noir he admitted, “She figured everything out. She’s even more of a genius than I am.”

“Right!” Chat Noir agreed. “I’m always in awe of her powers!”

“What did I do to deserve two of them,” Ladybug muttered. Then, loudly, overriding the two amorous cats, she said, “Actually, Ladybug, you might be able to help us.”

Her Chat Noir’s attention snapped right back from the small distance it had wandered. “You said you had an idea.”

“Yes! I think we can use the same trick twice, and help Chloé!”

The alternate pair echoed, “Chloé?” and, meeting each other’s eyes, sighed.

On the other hand, Chat Noir’s face lit up. “Good thinking!” And he started looking around at the walls and lamp posts.

“So what do you need?” alternate Ladybug wondered. “I suppose Chloé’s gotten herself targeted again?”

“We need to push one of those egg sacs through the yellow portal,” Ladybug explained, “to scare off her villain at least temporarily. But Chat Noir and I can’t use our powers until we get back to our own reality and face our own villain. If we can find an egg sac–”

“There!” Chat Noir’s searching gaze had located one three storeys up a wall above them.

Ladybug gave him a nod of acknowledgment. “–can you two help us get it down and through the portal?”

They all looked at the egg sac, and they all shuddered in unison. Then, eyes falling again, the four of them laughed nervously.

“Yes, of course,” alternate Ladybug assured her, though her voice very naturally wavered a little at the prospect of messing it up and spilling spiders all over them.

“That one doesn’t look ready to hatch yet,” alternate Chat Noir assured her. “Which is a problem we’ll have to deal with once we get it down.”

“But how do we get it down?” Chat Noir wondered.

Alternate Ladybug, frowning upward, took her yo-yo in hand, and Ladybug was intimately familiar with the motion, as well as with the sound of a voice just like hers crying out, “Lucky Charm!” Some things had gone differently in this reality, and the superheroes were wearing wellies, but many things were identical.

A small folding chair without legs — just plastic cushion and back and a couple of hooks on the bottom for attaching it to something — appeared in the air above alternate Ladybug and dropped into her hands. “What is this?” she wondered, sounding as baffled as Ladybug felt.

“It’s a stadium chair,” both Chat Noirs informed her at the same moment. One of them went on, “You bring it to a game to make the seats more comfortable.”

“Well, I’m not sure it’ll make things any more comfortable for us with all these spiders around,” alternate Ladybug muttered, her eyes darting from point to point in another motion Ladybug was eminently familiar with. She decided to join her.

“Um, milady…” Alternate Chat Noir was looking uneasily up the street. “I think I hear the skitter-scatter of a lot of little feet coming our way…”

“One more second,” said alternate Ladybug with a touch of desperation, and then she and Ladybug lighted on the same solution at the same moment. “There!” they both cried, startling the Chats. Then they got busy, each taking her Chat Noir by the arms and arranging him as needed: shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the wall to which the egg sac adhered. Alternate Ladybug stood in front of them, holding the stadium chair so its back was to them, and instructed, “Now, if you each extend your staff to the same length, so they catch the hooks under here…”

“The chair becomes a giant spatula!” gloated one Chat Noir.

“For a super nasty omelette,” the other added.

In perfect synchronization they did as they were told, and alternate Ladybug ducked as the seat was lifted out of her hands by the two extending staffs. It rose smoothly at an oblique angle, and where it hit the wall slid neatly underneath the sac, separating the latter from the stone so it settled down against the seat back and descended gently toward the pavement again as the staffs retracted. They didn’t bring it within arm’s reach, though, seeming to agree tacitly that just beyond was close enough.

“Now…” said alternate Chat Noir, looking up the street again to where the sound of tapping spider claws definitely sounded, “you said the yellow portal, right?”

“Right,” said Ladybug.

“Then take this.” Alternate Chat Noir gestured to his staff, and Ladybug was quick to obey. She and her Chat Noir pivoted, turning the chair with its disgusting burden toward where the portals whirled some distance away. Alternate Chat Noir was already headed in that direction. “Extend!” he called as he ran. Ladybug and Chat Noir did so, struggling to keep the wobbling seat steady as the staffs grew longer. “Cataclysm!” alternate Chat Noir shouted next, raising his hand.

They stopped the chair’s movement just in front of the portals, where alternate Chat Noir halted as well. He watched carefully, then darted his hand out to slap the egg sac off the stadium seat and forward just as the yellow portal swung by. His Cataclysm destroyed the sac’s outer coating of web, and they all barely saw a mass of spiders pushed forward into the portal, where they disappeared — hopefully to swarm over the scissor-handed villain tormenting Chloé and drive her away long enough for Chloé to escape.

Alternate Chat Noir seized the stadium chair and bounded back to his Ladybug, who threw it into the sky to return it to the magic (though it changed nothing, of course, as no akuma had been captured). Her earring spots were already in short supply.

“You two better get out of here,” alternate Chat Noir advised, “before that new group of spiders arrives!”

“You two too,” Chat Noir returned, “before you transform back and can’t do anything to fight them!”

“We have got to take care of Araña,” alternate Ladybug complained.

Ladybug said, “Let me guess… she’s a giant spider?”

“Got it in one,” said alternate Ladybug in a dark tone. In an impetuous movement, she stepped forward and gave Ladybug a kiss on both cheeks. “Good luck with your villain!”

“Yours too!” Ladybug replied, touched. “Everyone, go!” And they split, the local superheroes swinging and vaulting off to safety before they could regain their civilian forms and Ladybug and Chat Noir, finding each other’s hands again, sprinting toward the portals.

“Think we can manage the white one this time?” Chat Noir wondered as they ran.

“No doubt!” was Ladybug’s enthusiastic reply. “I’ve got the kiss of luck on me now!”

“Aww, don’t make me jealous,” Chat Noir pouted, and they came to a brief halt and waited only a few moments before jumping forward again. White enveloped the world, and they popped out right into Dimension’s face.

She appeared more than a little startled, but rallied quickly. “So you made it back, did you? How did it feel to witness your failures in those other realities?”

“We didn’t witness failures,” Ladybug declared, giving Chat Noir’s hand a squeeze before letting it go. “We only saw what’s made us stronger than ever — and you’re going to feel it!” And throwing her yo-yo into the air, she added, “Lucky Charm!”

MangoFox’s second November Quick Fics 2018 prompt was this: “By some shenanigans (time travel, parallel universes, whatever), Marinette and/or Adrien have to view or enter a series of alternate realities in which Ladybug and Chat Noir have been unable (or unwilling) to stop certain villains. In each reality, one akumatized villain, now unopposed, has been able to continue using their powers, taking their method/goal to its logical extreme. Now, Marinette/Adrien are forced to (briefly) deal with the creepy outcomes of each scenario.”

I feared this might be a little too complicated for a quick fic, but then I got an idea how to deal with it, so it happened. I’ve rated it

His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

The number of M&M’s in the bowl was nothing short of comic. It was Heero’s biggest mixing bowl, and barely fit anywhere in his kitchen cabinets to begin with, and here the M&M’s were heaped up above the top of the rim in a colorful mountain that occasionally suffered little clattering avalanches onto the counter or floor.

“How many packages is this?” he wondered in audible amusement.

“Is what?” replied Duo, then, turning, saw. “Oh,” he chuckled. “I dunno… like, eight?”

“How did I not notice you buying, like, eight packages of M&M’s?”

“You were too distracted by my butt.”

“That is probably true. But why did you think you needed that many M&M’s at once?”

“Why wouldn’t I need that many M&M’s all at once?”

Heero conceded the point by scooping up a large number (there was no need for moderation) and cramming them between his teeth. Some moderation might perhaps have been warranted after all, since he then found it rather difficult to chew the unwieldy mouthful, but after several moments of maneuvering he made a pleasant discovery. “Reefa awmun,” he said.

“Yeah, what did you think?”

Rather than attempt to speak again with a largely unusable tongue, Heero worked a bit, swallowed, and eventually said, “I thought they were peanut.”

Haughtily Duo drew himself up. “What kind of infidel do you think I am?”

Heero just took another handful of candy and, before leaving the living room, stepped close to Duo and pecked him on the cheek. “Well, don’t be surprised if I eat seven of your eight packages there.”

“You sure you’re not going to watch with us?” Duo wondered as Heero made his way around the couch. His unspoken thought on the matter was that he’d only asked out of politeness; of course he always wanted Heero with him, but, familiar with Heero’s disinterest in football, didn’t want to pressure him.

“I’m going to see what I can do about the computer.” This reply was somewhat grim, as it was far past time.

Duo laughed. “Good luck!” And even as he said this, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of his guest.

Heero quickened his pace. It wasn’t that he had anything against Sano (or any of Duo’s new friends), but, since he wasn’t going to be actively hanging out with the guy, there was no reason to meet him at the door. He munched on his second handful of M&M’s a couple at a time as he took a seat at the desk, booted up the computer, and listened to the conversation in the living room.

“Hope you don’t mind expired Chinese food,” was Sano’s reply to Duo’s enthusiastic welcome.

“Expired like how?”

“Expired like we’re not allowed to sell it anymore, but it’s still just fine, so we all take it home for free even though we’re technically not supposed to.”

“I love that kind of Chinese food!”

“That is a lot of M&M’s there.”

“I know! I totally have dessert covered!”

“They’re so big, though… are they peanut?”

“Hah! Heero thought that too, but I am so much better than that. They’re almond.”

“Shit.”

The sudden sound of the TV drowned out whatever Duo said next, and the surface level of his head was mostly trying to remember what the channel number for Fox was, but Heero assumed he asked what had prompted Sano’s profanity. Next came a sense of disproportionate disconsolation when Sano apparently revealed that he was allergic to almonds.

Heero spent the following few minutes pondering whether he should head into the other room and grab some more M&M’s for himself. The discovery that Duo’s guest could not enjoy the snack he had so sanguinely provided had prompted such disappointment that Heero, in the hopes of cheering him, would love to prove the purchase of so many almond M&M’s not a waste… but to do so would also, quite possibly, indicate that Heero was aware of just how disappointed Duo was, which would, rather than lessening Duo’s disappointment, merely send it off in a different direction by reminding him that Heero could still, especially when they were at home, hear his surface-level thoughts.

This was excessively frustrating. He wanted to make a nice gesture for his boyfriend (in addition to his simple desire for more M&M’s), and it seemed unfair to have to waffle over it like this. He wasn’t even working on the computer as he’d planned, merely sitting idly debating the relative merits of fetching or not fetching another handful of candy from the next room.

Eventually kickoff provided what seemed a decent distraction. If Duo’s disappointment had faded a bit, he might not make the connection between Heero’s errand and the fact that Heero had just been reading his mind, and Heero might be able to send his boyfriend one message while avoiding another. It was worth a try. So from where he’d accomplished nothing so far Heero rose and went back in there.

Surrounded by the already-separated contents of a six-pack of Coke and Chinese takeout boxes whose multiform scents permeated the living room (though they had not yet crept down the hall), Duo and his young exorcist friend sat on the sofa engrossed in the first quarter of the Oakland Raiders vs. Heero was not quite sure whom. They both looked up as Heero rounded the TV.

“Hey, Heero,” Sano greeted. “Want some Chinese leftovers?”

“No, thanks.” Heero quickly scanned what was already more than a bit of a mess (and probably destined to expand as such), murmuring, “I really just wanted…” His eyes lighted on the colorful mixing bowl where it sat a complete arm’s length from Duo’s end of the sofa as if to keep it as far as possible from Sano, and he resisted the urge to laugh. He approached and bent to retrieve a very large handful of M&M’s this time, paying close attention to Duo’s thoughts as he did so. It seemed he’d succeeded in his purpose: all that crossed his boyfriend’s mind at this point was the somewhat mollified reflection, At least Heero likes them.

Returning to the computer room more or less satisfied, Heero sat down to work through his extensive collection of M&M’s and actually pay some attention to the computer.

One reason (among many Heero was trying to ignore) that Duo’s discomfort with Heero’s magical abilities seemed so unfair was that Heero was not and probably would never be able to control the aspect of it that bothered his boyfriend. He couldn’t stop hearing projected thoughts, especially of someone to whom he was so close, and everything he saw on the internet seemed to indicate this would always be the case. A communicator, it appeared, once his abilities had awakened, was always switched to receive, and the burden fell on others not to send. Heero definitely hadn’t asked for that, and it seemed unfair that Duo was so disturbed by something Heero couldn’t do anything about and had never sought. But Duo was probably just as unable to control his discomfort as Heero to control his communication powers, so there was no use dwelling on it.

At the moment, as he began a search about how he could improve the speed and performance of his computer without having to take too much trouble or spend too much (or preferably any) money, he was also, rather perforce, following the progress of a football game he wasn’t actually watching. The Raiders were up against the St. Louis Rams, who were playing a rookie quarterback that had already been sacked twice in a row.

As little interest as Heero had in football, he was yet familiar with the basics of the sport and had no active disliking of it; additionally, he found the sounds of a football game in progress within earshot cheerful background noise. Therefore, that the combination of announcers from the loud TV and reactions from Duo’s unguarded head were giving Heero a pretty good idea what went on in the game didn’t bother him much. It wasn’t as if the computer endeavor required undivided attention.

While he’d been a doll, Duo had only ever muted the television when trying to pay specific attention to some other aural stimulus, but as a human he had developed the habit of muting it during every commercial break. Heero thought this arose from Duo’s desire to exert his autonomy over as many aspects of life as possible: he wasn’t tied to the television for entertainment to stave off madness anymore, and therefore could be highly selective about what he paid attention to. Heero didn’t complain, as he found the advertising obnoxious in the first place — and in this specific instance, the muting allowed him to overhear more perfectly a conversation he couldn’t make much of while the noisy sounds of the game were mostly drowning it out.

Of course the first two or three commercial breaks were filled with football talk — how the Raiders were performing and which of their quarterbacks would end up the star of the season, the Rams’ status and whether or not their offensive line deserved excellent running back Steven Jackson, and other such relatively uninteresting topics — but eventually, when the TV went silent after Fox’s somewhat threatening-sounding commercial break music, Sano asked half idly, “So how’s your Quatre friend doing?”

“Oh, he’s getting better,” Duo replied. “He’s working hard on trying to make up for everything he thinks he did wrong. Too hard, if you ask me, but that’s what Quatre does.”

“Yeah, he offered to pay me and Hajime, like, double the usual price ’cause he felt so bad about it. Sounded good to me, but of course Hajime said no.” There was a wry grin in Sano’s tone as he added, “That’s what Hajime does.”

“What, turns down money?”

“Well, he’s a real professional, is all… he wouldn’t want to take advantage of a decent guy like that.”

Duo laughed. “So he’d take advantage of somebody who wasn’t decent?”

Sano joined him laughing. “He sure as hell doesn’t try very hard not to take extra money from assholes.”

“That actually sounds like pretty solid business to me.”

“Right?”

The conversation (at least that Heero could hear clearly) was suspended for a bit while the game recommenced, but it wasn’t long before a failed field goal attempt led to another commercial break and Sano resumed the same topic:

“So Quatre’s really OK, then? I know that kind of shit can really mess people up sometimes.”

“Well, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on in his head…” Contrarily, Heero could tell exactly what was going on in Duo’s head as he said this: he was thinking once more, as he had off and on ever since it had first been brought up so disastrously that one morning, about the possibility — the need, in fact — of therapy for more than one of his friends in addition to himself. The subject hadn’t re-arisen aloud, what with the Quatre business and its aftermath, but Heero thought he would have to prod Trowa about it again at some point.

“But I think,” Duo continued, “he really is getting better. He’ll probably be OK.” He clearly had no idea what he could possibly do if Quatre wasn’t OK, and was trying not to think about it.

“That’s good. Getting rid of the shade’s only half the job a lot of the time.” Interestingly, Sano’s tone sounded as if he felt much the same way Duo did — that, if the situation required more of him beyond the supernatural service already performed, he might be completely lost — and Heero had to appreciate his sympathetic interest.

“Trowa’s helping a lot, I think.” Duo said this not only because he believed it to be true, but because he was so amused at the effect the mention of Trowa had on other members of the magical community. “He knows about this kind of thing.”

“Yeah, I fucking bet!” Sano agreed heartily, after which it was time for more football. Soon, however, the end of the first quarter heralded a slightly longer break than the previous, and Sano proved that his attention to the as-yet-scoreless game had not driven the other interesting topic from his head: “How’d you get to be such good friends with Trowa Barton, anyway?”

Quickly Duo decided what to say. As far as he was aware — and it was something he could probably confirm through conversation this afternoon — Sano didn’t know his history, so he must be sure to break it to him in the most dramatic fashion possible. For the moment he went with simple truth. “We lived in the same city in Michigan for about fifteen years and kinda looked out for each other.”

“Shit, you must be pretty damn good if you were looking out for Trowa Barton! What are you, actually?”

From this Duo was almost certain Sano didn’t know about the curse, but he couldn’t be as intrigued by the fact as the listening Heero was. Because Heero knew that Hajime did know, and was fairly sure Hajime and Sano were dating and equally taken by the living legend that was Trowa Barton. How odd that Hajime hadn’t shared the interesting story with his boyfriend.

“I’m pure command,” Duo said. “Not too bad, but I’m just getting back into practice after a long time not doing magic.”

Heero wished, at least a little, that he could hear anything going through Sano’s head so he could determine how the exorcist had taken that statement, why he said nothing at the moment.

Duo went on, “But you’re a natural, aren’t you? That’s way way cooler than anything. I have literally never met a natural before.” Though Sano wouldn’t be able to appreciate appropriately that phrase with its term of emphasis.

“I don’t know.” Sano sounded annoyed. “Hajime thinks so, but I haven’t been able to get any specific reasons out of him. I thought I was just necrovisual, and then maybe a communicator since it turns out I can talk to familiar animals. I haven’t seen a damn thing to make me think I’ve got divination or command.”

“And command’s pretty hard to miss,” Duo mused. “Maybe there’s a test Trowa can do to find out for sure.”

“Ehh, I wouldn’t want to bug him about something like that.”

Duo jumped on this. “Why not? He helps people out with magic all the time.”

“Uh, I kinda already… think I kinda got on his bad side.”

With a loud laugh partaking of knowledge Sano lacked, Duo assured him, “Oh, believe me, if you were on Trowa’s bad side, you’d totally know it! You don’t even have any idea what that guy can do to you.”

Sano mumbled something to the effect of assuming Trowa Barton could do anything he damn well pleased to anyone he didn’t like, but his exact words were drowned out by the returning sound of the television.

Heero had found some recommendations online about various programs to clean up a hard drive, and was in the middle of reading about registries and what those affected, when he realized he was out of M&M’s. This time he didn’t even question the propriety of his actions, merely got up and headed into the other room. He was just in time to hear from the TV an update on a game in progress elsewhere, between the Broncos (who were winning) and the Seahawks, and Sano’s almost startlingly intense response, “Man, fuck Denver.”

Though Duo complained about the 49ers because they were so close, he’d evidently never bought in much to the real league rivalries, and thus protested now, “Hey, I lived in Denver for, like, three years!”

The look Sano threw him, which Heero caught because he was surreptitiously watching for it as he bent to retrieve his next supply of M&M’s, suggested he was adding up numbers. At the moment it amounted to about fifteen years skilled enough to be looking out for Trowa Barton in Michigan plus enough time to be out of practice in command magic thereafter plus, like, three years in Denver. But all Sano said at this point was, “Well, fuck the Broncos, anyway.”

Duo just laughed.

Heero returned to the computer and started downloading the first program he planned to try, listened to the disappointment in the next room when the Rams were the first to score, then cocked an ear with interest as two commercial breaks separated only by a brief punt provided plenty of time for conversation.

His boyfriend wasted no time jumping back onto the subject they’d left hanging before, since he wanted certain details and felt this was the best way to get them: “Seriously, there’s no way Trowa’s mad at you or anything. Like I said, you’d know.” Duo actually felt a little guilty painting this inaccurate picture, as he knew perfectly well that people Trowa found annoying tended to get avoided and ignored by him rather than made active targets of his malice; but he still wanted answers. “I mean, I know there was some kind of… incident? …at his house that one night…?”

“Heh… yeah… me and Hajime sorta… had sex…”

Duo choked loudly on whatever he was eating, and began to cough. Though Sano gave a sheepish laugh as if to express penitence for having caused this inconvenience, there was no feeling of accusation whatsoever in Duo’s head; he’d been longing to hear this gossip for weeks, and now it was getting started in an even more interesting fashion than he’d anticipated. Finally he managed, “Seriously? I had no idea that’s what it was! Trowa described it as a soap opera, not a porno!”

Again Sano laughed, and again it sounded chagrined — but there was, perhaps, a sly, almost smug edge to it as well, as if, though the circumstance did embarrass him, he also felt a touch of pride at having gotten away with something so audacious. “The part he would’ve overheard was actually all soap opera,” he allowed. “The porn didn’t start ’til after he left.”

“So you went to yell at Hajime,” Duo prompted, amused and eager, “for not telling you where he went, and ended up having drama that ended in sex?”

“Yeah… yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.”

“And now you guys are dating?”

“Yep. Finally.” Heero wasn’t sure whether Sano knew how much he was teasing Duo by not immediately pouring forth the entire story in all its gory details, but in any case Duo probably deserved it for the manner in which he was planning to make the best possible dramatic use of his own interesting experiences.

“How long were you guys not dating?”

“Like, six months,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Because he’s an asshole.”

“Then I can totally see why you’re going out with him,” Duo replied with mock seriousness.

“The thing about Hajime…” Sano’s statement disintegrated into a frustrated sound as the TV came back on and he apparently gave up describing his boyfriend for now. However, a few minutes later, during a quiet stretch of game where a potential foul was being discussed at length and even the announcers had little to say, Sano got started again with the air of one that has been organizing his thoughts for the last while and is now ready to present.

“The thing about Hajime is that he’s really bad at talking to anyone about anything serious in his own damn life. Like, I feel like getting to know him has been spywork this whole time, because he sure as hell doesn’t open up about anything about himself that isn’t completely shallow.”

Duo was thinking that, amusingly, the very fact Sano was saying this indicated something much the opposite about him, as well as that this didn’t really explain why Hajime was an asshole because they hadn’t been dating for six months. However, more curious than ever though he was, he was prevented from prompting for more details by the game’s resumption with the announcement of no penalty. The good news was that it didn’t take much longer for Oakland to call a timeout and commercials to reappear.

Sano hesitated not a whit to continue what was pretty clearly a rant. “Yeah, so I could never figure out whether Hajime was straight or what, because he never lets you know anything about himself if he can help it. Turns out he just isn’t really into relationships or something, but guys are fine? I mean–” he laughed a little as he reconsidered his tone and wording– “obviously guys are fine, but it took me fucking forever to figure that out. I still don’t know what his actual orientation is, and I’m sleeping with him now.”

Duo was starting to put together a hazy picture of Sano’s relationship with his boyfriend and the leadup thereto, and found it partially pathetic and partially amusing — and withal even more interesting than he’d been expecting. On his end, Heero was mostly entertained to observe what a gossip his own boyfriend was.

A sack against Oakland forcing them to punt distracted Duo somewhat, and, though Sano joined him in lamenting the circumstance, it clearly hadn’t been enough to distract him from the rant he still hadn’t fully vocalized. Heero, continually entertained, wondered if Sano complained about his boyfriend like this to all of his friends.

“It’s like he lives behind these walls that he just doesn’t let down for anyone, even his fucking boyfriend… and then at the same time he has this totally unfair advantage since he can read my mind, so I’ve had to practice my ass off learning how to not let him hear shit in there so he’s not a total dick about it, while at the same time all sorts of stuff about him is still this big fucking secret.”

And now, abruptly, the situation had gone from entertaining to extremely uncomfortable. Because there was no way Duo could hear a description like this without being pricklingly aware just how close it was to a description of Heero. ‘Walls,’ he was already reflecting, was even the exact term he’d used in his own assessment of Heero back when he’d been trying to figure him out. He recalled something Quatre had said at some point about how nobody had ever been able to get very close to Heero; he recalled his own surprise and happiness, at a later point, in realizing he’d somehow gotten past some of those walls without knowing how he’d done it.

You weren’t human at the time, Heero reflected with bitter nostalgia.

Of course, Duo’s thoughts went on — all at the same moment, really; it was more of that speed of mind Heero had admired so much in the past — Heero wasn’t like that Hajime guy in any other respect, the situations weren’t the same, and it wasn’t fair to Heero to compare them. But there were walls, and there was an unjust advantage of communication magic. It was close enough.

And Heero, Duo reflected further with a sinking of heart, had probably picked up on all of these thoughts.

Heero had stood from his chair almost without realizing what he did, looking around in something like panic. He and Duo were both suddenly agitated and upset, and the only thing he could think to do about it was leave the apartment. Duo probably couldn’t keep from having or projecting these thoughts, and Heero couldn’t keep from hearing them, so to separate for a little seemed essential. It might also benefit Duo to be free to discuss this with someone in a similar circumstance — one that was close enough, at any rate, to have prompted this unpleasantness in the first place — and he would certainly not be able to do so with Heero twenty feet away.

Hastily Heero went into the living room and, avoiding Duo’s eye, looked around somewhat frantically for his car keys. Finding them on the kitchen counter, he made for them with grasping hands and a stiff neck, saying, “I’m going to run get some groceries,” as he seized them and turned toward the apartment door. It was a stupid thing to say, since they’d been grocery shopping literally last night — when Heero had evidently been too distracted by Duo’s butt to notice the number of M&M packages he was purchasing — but Heero had finally come to accept the fact that inventing excuses was not a skill he possessed.

“OK,” said Duo hoarsely. He knew exactly why this was happening. What he didn’t know was how to feel about it, and his head was in turmoil.

Sano had still been speaking when Heero emerged from the hall, but had ceased abruptly at this exchange, and now silence filled the room as Heero plunged out the door; Heero didn’t think he was imagining the awkwardness and tension of that silence. What exactly they would talk about in his absence he could not guess, but at least Duo would be safe inside his own head for a while.

Whether this had been the right choice Heero had no idea, but he still saw no alternative. In nearly as much mental turmoil as that in which he’d left Duo, he made his way out of the apartment building without seeing it very clearly, heading for his car with no intention whatsoever of turning it on just yet. It was outside that he noticed his feet were clad only in socks, which killed whatever intention he’d had left of driving anywhere eventually. He probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with any groceries he needed anyway, and would most likely have ended up spending a silly amount of money on items randomly thrown into a shopping basket as he blindly walked the aisles of the store.

His thoughts were largely incoherent as he sat behind the motionless steering wheel struggling to become and remain calm and rational. Struggling not to feel bitter or annoyed about this. And eventually, perhaps due to the calming, enclosed atmosphere of the car interior or perhaps in the natural course of the passage of time, he did manage to subdue his agitation to a relatively manageable level. He leaned the seat back and tried to relax. That was frankly impossible, but he could at least repeat to himself for a while that he mustn’t be unreasonable about this.

Duo had been through so much — more than Heero could really comprehend at this point, communication magic notwithstanding. If his response to Heero’s abilities seemed like an overreaction, seemed unfair and even unkind, that was because Heero didn’t yet understand Duo’s frame of mind. Perhaps he would never understand, but that didn’t given him the right to be unreasonable, to be unfair and unkind in return. The thought of being unkind to Duo, whom he loved, after everything Duo had already suffered, made him almost sick — and that feeling must be his strength, must help him remember that Duo was not being unreasonable and that he, too, must not be unreasonable.

He had neglected to check the time when he left the apartment or began this shoeless vigil, so when he did look he couldn’t be sure just how long he’d been out here. In his agitation he felt as if it had been approximately forever, and he longed to go back to Duo and make sure he was all right; but he felt that not only would it be wiser to give his quest for calm and relaxation a little more time and effort, he also knew the game had started at 1:00 and it wasn’t even 2:00 yet. He should give them at least through halftime to discuss whatever they were likely to discuss in there.

It occurred to him that the game, being a local one, must be on the radio somewhere, and that if he could find it, he could gage his timing a little better than by merely watching the clock. So he turned the car halfway on at last and began cycling through stations. When he found what he believed — and after a few minutes confirmed — to be what he was looking for, he turned the volume up and attempted to find a comfortable position in which to listen for a while. This endeavor proved anomalously difficult. He’d spent quite a few lunch breaks sitting in the car alongside Duo with no problem, but apparently when Duo was removed from the equation, so was all comfort. Or perhaps that was just the awareness of the discomfort he’d come out here to escape.

He tried to let himself be distracted, tried to pretend he was an avid Oakland Raiders fan that really cared what was going on and how it would affect the season, but, even adjusting for his indifference to football, this was incredibly hard. He could only muster the mildest interest in the events of the game, and when anything unrelated interrupted to disconnect the tether of his attention, it was next to impossible to think about anything but Duo. He didn’t care about the new burger at Carl’s Jr., he didn’t care about the World Series coverage on this station, and he didn’t care how the Patriots were faring against the Jets. He did care about what might be going on in Duo’s head right now, and the effect that might have on their relationship.

Had he actually been an avid Oakland Raiders fan, he must have been disappointed at the score when, about a hundred years later, halftime finally rolled around. He was not cheated of unpleasant feelings, however, since he already felt mummified by sitting still for so long in a place he didn’t want to be, listening to content he less than half appreciated, and now he had to remind himself that the plan had always been to wait until after halftime — no matter how tedious was the radio announcers’ talk about names Heero barely recognized and assessing plays he hadn’t seen.

Despite how long it had seemed, in reality it had taken no more than about thirty minutes to get to halftime. Getting through halftime, however, a process whose finite span was dictated by the NFL and the same for every game, felt about ten times longer. Heero was reminded vaguely of the days he’d spent at work attempting to exercise even the smallest measure of patience waiting to go home to the doll he had a crush on. Except that in this instance he didn’t even have paying work to distract him — just a boring halftime show — and the concern and agitation he felt now was far different from the anticipation and curiosity he’d felt then.

But just as those long days apart from Duo the doll had each come to an end, so the overlong first half of this damned football game must too come to an end and the second commence. Heero didn’t even pause to reassess his situation, decide for sure whether he thought this was a good time to go back in; he simply turned the car off — and with no slow motions, either — and headed back into the apartment building.

He did give some thought to how he should reenter. Would it be better to pretend nothing untoward had happened, despite the total absence of groceries in his hands to bear out the excuse with which he’d left; or should he make it clear that he did not require any statement from Duo at this time but would probably want to talk to him about these events later? How curious was Sano likely to be, and to what extent should Heero humor that curiosity? Well, the former point probably depended most on what Sano and Duo had discussed in Heero’s absence, and the answer to the latter was, ‘None at all.’ What Duo chose to share with his friends was up to him; Heero didn’t feel like taking part in it.

So it was with a hybrid of the proposed attitudes, and a steeling of self to any possible negativity within, that he re-entered the apartment. There, he was infinitely relieved to receive a smile from his boyfriend along with the picked-up reflections that Duo appreciated the privacy Heero had so precipitously and clumsily offered him.

Whatever the conversation had been about during the bulk of his absence, it was now, for some reason or other, about Hugh Jackman and how hot he was or wasn’t. Heero might almost have thought they’d invented the topic at random so as to have something safe to talk about when he returned, but they’d seemed to be in the middle of it when he entered, and they couldn’t have known when that would happen. At least he thought they couldn’t.

As Heero moved almost automatically to grab some M&M’s, he gave Duo a look he knew could not possibly convey everything — I’m glad you seem to be doing OK; it’s fine if you guys gossiped about me while I was out there; I hope it helped; we’ll talk about it later; I love you — but that he hoped would get at least a little of it across; and received in return a widening of Duo’s smile with a sardonic dimple on one side of the mouth and a reassuring crinkling at the outer corner of each eye that seemed — Heero liked to think he wasn’t imagining it — to respond, Yeah, it’s fine, we’ll talk about it later. He also caught sight, beyond Duo, of an inquisitive expression on Sano’s face. The young exorcist was holding forth on what a perfect Wolverine Hugh Jackman had made, but very obviously couldn’t restrain his look of curiosity about Heero’s actions and attitude as he did so.

Heero too was curious, wanting very much to know what they had talked about while he’d agonized in the car, but with the unspoken promise of discussing it with Duo later for his reassurance, he just took his fresh batch of M&M’s into the computer room to resume his previous task. It actually seemed a little absurd how relieved he was to be back in here within earshot (and mind-reading range) of Duo, but finding it absurd didn’t lessen that relief.

The Hugh Jackman conversation, which had been taking place over the top of the game anyway, was cut off abruptly when something one of the Rams did caused both Duo and Sano to protest loudly. Evidently a penalty call satisfied them fairly well, for they then fell to discussing the quarterback the Raiders had switched to.

The atmosphere in the living room seemed identical to that of the first half of the game before snarls had arisen, and this continued or restored ease made Heero wonder even harder what they’d talked about during those forty-five minutes or so in the middle, but he would just have to find out later. At least that lengthy time away had been enough for the program he’d downloaded to run through an entire cycle of cleaning up his hard drive, so now he could reboot the machine and see what effect it might have had.

The conversation in the living room shifted to how many NFL games each had attended in person, which between them was not an impressive number, and the listening Heero considered that football tickets — especially when the Raiders had not (he believed) been a particularly good team for several years — could not be terribly expensive and might make an excellent gift for his boyfriend at some point.

The next commercial break was spent discussing whether or not the Rams’ offensive line was supporting Steven Jackson the way it should after some comment of the announcer’s that at least Sano seemed to take issue with; and, curious though he still was, Heero’s attention waned. The computer was taking just as tediously long as ever to boot up, and he wanted to know why. He did chuckle quietly a little later when, a touchdown having been scored and a lot of hugging and butt-patting apparently having been featured onscreen, Duo and Sano agreed happily that football was a really gay sport at times, but mostly he was focusing on the computer and its issues.

After another commercial break’s worth of football talk that Heero didn’t really listen to, however, and when the announcers, upon returning, had started teasing a fellow sports analyst with pictures of his shag and mullet hairstyles of decades past, Duo caught Heero’s interest again by commenting with intense disgust, “I don’t even know what people were thinking in the 80’s with that kind of hair. Best decade ever not to go out in public much!”

“OK.” Sano had evidently caught the reminiscent tone in Duo’s expression of hirsute disapprobation, and couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “How old actually are you?”

Duo muted the television for commercials before answering in a tone so studiedly casual that, to Heero at least, it stood out like a conversational beacon, “Hundred and eleven.”

Here was the first instance in Heero’s presence of Sano’s thoughts breaking past their usual restraints — restraints that, Heero now believed, had originally been put in place purely to prevent Hajime from reading Sano’s mind because there was at least a little of the same thing going on between those two as there was between Heero and Duo. But now Heero could easily detect the intense shock and curiosity in Sano’s head, even from the other room, as well as the sudden flood of theories that overtook him in a chaotic shambles. It never occurred to Sano to disbelieve Duo or take his words as a joke; he merely considered somewhat incoherently how it could have come to pass.

And at the same time, of course, he was expressing his astonishment and inquisitiveness aloud to his very tickled companion. “Fuck! A hundred and fucking what? How? Did Trowa Barton let you in on his big secret, or what?”

Heero knew very precisely the grin that was on Duo’s face now, and the exact degree to which Duo would have preferred to repress it in order to maintain the casualness he thought would play better into his desired delivery. And Heero had to smile too; even if part of today’s get-together had led to some unpleasant feelings, at least Duo had this to revel in.

“I was Trowa’s big secret, actually,” he was saying. “If I wasn’t immortal for a while, he wouldn’t have been either.”

“No fucking way.” Despite the profanity, Sano’s reaction to this was clearly positive. “You can’t tell me you’re stronger than Trowa fucking Barton.”

Duo laughed. He was having so much fun now. Heero’s smile, in the other room, had not diminished. “No, I can’t! And I don’t have crazy fans all over the place either!”

“I am not a crazy fan,” Sano protested. “I’m a totally normal fan. I have a friend who’s a crazy fan, though, and he’s going to flip the fuck out when I tell him this. Am I allowed to tell him this? What am I telling him, actually?”

Now Duo was laughing throughout much of what Sano had to say. “I don’t really know how much Trowa’d like you to tell your crazy friend, but I’m guessing ‘nothing.’ He’s pretty private about this stuff.”

“What stuff? How were you guys immortal?” Sano’s tone was buoyantly demanding, and Heero wondered if he was bouncing up and down on the sofa as he said this. His thoughts, however, after that initial burst of wonder that had broken down his barriers, were becoming more difficult to hear as the walls rebuilt themselves. This was interesting to observe, and somewhat promising in relation to Duo’s tendency to project everything that crossed his mind.

Finally Duo presented the meat of the story. “Trowa accidentally cast a curse on me in 1923 that made me a really sucky sort of immortal for 87 years. We only just managed to break it this May.”

“Holy shit! Does that — no, don’t turn that back on yet!” It seemed as if Duo, in his amusement, fumbled the remote, for it was a couple of seconds before the reinstated TV sounds disappeared again. “What really sucky kind of immortal? And why would that make — I know jack-shit about curses.”

“There’s always a kind of backlash to a curse, so the person who cast it is part of it until it’s broken. I couldn’t die because I was made of plastic, so Trowa couldn’t die that whole time either. He didn’t even age.”

“Made of plastic?” Sano echoed, and it was clear that any frustration Duo had felt earlier at Sano not pouring out gossipy details all at once was being amply repaid.

“Yeah, I was a doll.” There was a pause during which some facial expression must have asked the next question, for eventually Duo added, “Like a Barbie doll? Obviously I wasn’t an actual Barbie doll, but I was that same size. I could wear Ken clothes.”

At this statement Sano gave an incredulous laugh. “That sounds like… not a lot of fun.”

“Oh, you don’t even have any idea.”

Duo began to expound, with no great organization of topic, upon his trials as a doll over the many decades — how he’d lacked most physical sensation, the limitations to his personal movement, how he’d been considered a child’s plaything and passed from hand to hand with no stability of home or relationship. The sound on the television remained muted, and no thought of football crossed Duo’s mind; Heero, listening, wondered whether those two even remembered there was a game going on in front of them. Though admittedly the doll story was far more fascinating.

Of course the breaking of the curse had to be touched upon in greater detail as well, and Heero could tell Duo felt awkward talking about Heero’s part knowing Heero heard every word and probably more but wasn’t actually involved in the conversation. Hoping to assuage this, Heero got up and went into the next room under the pretense (and with the actual intention) of getting more M&M’s.

“So of course everyone else who worked there,” Duo was saying, “wondered what that was all about.”

“Yeah, I just fucking bet!” Sano chortled.

“Actually that’s an understatement.” Heero made sure to keep his tone light despite the sardonic nature of his comment, just to be sure Duo knew he didn’t mind the conversation being about him more or less in his absence. “People were visiting my desk nonstop for almost the entire month just to see Duo.” He smiled at his boyfriend as he lifted his fresh handful of candy, then turned to head back to the computer room.

More relaxed, Duo went on about the curse-breaking month. Heero, having been present for its telling once before in different company, already knew it made a pretty good tale — more engaging, at least, than trying to get his computer to run faster. And when it transitioned to a discussion of Trowa’s powers and the artifact — which Sano, of course, was somewhat familiar with after having extracted its leftover energy from Quatre just above a week ago — the talk did not become any less interesting.

The way Duo told the story — even the manner in which he referred to the misery of being a doll and the long years of suffering — made it seem light and funny, as if his tribulations had been no more than the ‘pain in the ass’ Sano remarked they sounded like, tedious and inconvenient and annoying rather than harrowing and traumatizing. Of the gregarious Duo Heero found this a little surprising, but at the same time thought it wise: Duo and Sano probably weren’t close enough yet for that kind of pain to be shared, no matter how (possibly inappropriately) open Sano was about his own relationships and experiences.

And Sano was open. Despite not being able to read his mind at this point, Heero judged him completely straightforward when he eventually remarked, “Shit. And I thought I was special just because I was possessed by a ghost one time.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to be surprised. “What? That sounds pretty special to me! Aren’t ghosts super rare?”

“Yeah, but not as rare as people who get turned into fucking dolls and then live forever!”

“Hey, the curse is broken,” Duo protested. “I’m not going to live forever. I wouldn’t want to!”

“My point is that your experience was really… one-of-a-kind, you know? I was thinking it was pretty cool that I got to do something most people will never do, but you–”

Duo interrupted with, “Hey, you’re supposed to not be a crazy fan, remember? Mine was not cool.”

Sano laughed. “Yeah. Right. Sorry. I wouldn’t want to trade or anything.”

“But how did you manage to get possessed by a ghost? You mean a real ghost, right?”

“Yep, a real ghost.” Sano seemed pleased with himself, and Heero believed he’d really meant that he wouldn’t want to trade, despite probably not fully understanding how not-cool Duo’s experience had been. “This poor guy got killed by — it’s really complicated.” Sano paused for a moment as if considering the best way to relate the information, and Duo waited eagerly for the story. Today was turning out to be a much more compelling and involved meeting with the exorcist than he’d expected, and the fun aspects of it were balancing out the uncomfortable pretty well.

“OK, someone was being threatened,” Sano resumed. “Did you know we have an actual yakuza right here in town?” Duo didn’t seem to know the word, and Sano said, probably in response to a confused expression, “You know, Japanese mafia?”

“Oh, is that the real way you say it?” Duo sounded enlightened. Heero’s laugh wasn’t quite loud enough for them to hear down the hall.

“Yeah, we’ve got one. And there was this… person… being threatened by this yakuza — some of them — and had to kill someone for them to save someone else from being killed.”

“O…K…” Duo thought he’d worked through that statement fairly well, but wondered why Sano was being so vague. Heero guessed it was because murder and other criminal activity had been involved and Sano didn’t want to implicate anyone. In this context it was probably even a client confidentiality thing.

“So this guy who got killed really wanted to make sure the person who killed him knew he wasn’t mad about it. He understood they did it under duress to save someone else’s life.”

“Wow, that’s really big of the guy.” Duo was thinking uncomfortably of the circumstance as he imagined it. “I don’t think I’d be looking out for the person who killed me like that.”

Heero wondered whether that was true. Duo had, after all, always been looking out for Trowa, who had, if not killed him, done about the next best thing. He remembered Duo telling Trowa that he’d forgiven him ‘back in, like, the forties.’ It might take some time for Duo to forgive, depending on the provocation, but he would probably always do so. Proportionally speaking, the twenty or so years that had passed before he’d managed to forgive Trowa for cursing him might translate into a matter of weeks to ‘forgive’ Heero for being able to read his surface-level thoughts. It was an unexpectedly reassuring idea.

“Well…” Sano sounded a little uncomfortable right alongside Duo, though probably for different reasons. “I’m… really oversimplifying here. The point is that he really, really wanted to talk to the person who killed him, which is why he became a ghost, but he couldn’t talk to them because they weren’t necrovisual.”

“So you volunteered, like a badass, to help him.”

The grin was audible in Sano’s tone as he replied, “Yeah, something like that.”

“Was it scary? What does it feel like?”

“It was pretty easy, actually. I mean, I collapsed afterwards, but at the time it wasn’t a lot of work for me. You sort of get… pushed back… like you’re in another room… The ghost just sort of takes over, and you don’t really have to worry about anything that’s going on. Actually it took some effort if I wanted to know what was going on.”

Heero was reminded by this description of the Imperius Curse, but Duo hadn’t read Harry Potter yet and would not, of course, make the same connection.

“So afterwards,” Sano went on, “a lot of the stuff he said I had a hard time remembering, even though he was talking through my actual mouth.”

“Which I guess didn’t matter so much, since it wasn’t you he was talking to,” Duo speculated, “but I bet it was pretty weird anyway.”

“Yeah, it was like some movie I watched forever ago… or more like some movie someone else watched in another room, but over and over and over again so it’s like, ‘I should remember this really well, but I don’t.’ Or maybe–”

At this point, both Sano and Duo interrupted the meandering description to give the first indication since the long-term muting that they were still aware of the television. Their sudden, simultaneous reactions to the body-slamming of a Ram by and over the shoulder of a Raider were loud and enthusiastic; apparently some things were every bit as cool as the details of ghostly possession. Heero gave a rueful smile and shake of head as he listened to them go on about it for a bit.

He’d set the hard drive to defragmenting, a process that would undoubtedly take longer than the rest of the football game and probably Sano’s visit. He sat back in his chair and ate some M&M’s as he listened for further interesting conversation in the next room.

Eventually the body-slam evidently ceased to engross, for when the sounds of exultation had faded Duo finally asked, “So did you get to find out all sorts of interesting stuff about ‘Heaven’ or whatever?”

“You know, I was more interested in getting the guy to move on, because he was haunting me for weeks and weeks and it was a pain in the ass. But Hajime had a long talk with him about that kind of shit, and I don’t think he really learned all that much. I mean, somebody becomes a ghost by not going to the afterlife, so he couldn’t really know all that much to tell Hajime about.”

“But there is an afterlife of some sort.”

“There’s something.” By the sound of Sano’s voice Heero was reminded of Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, and was given to believe that this subject didn’t interest the exorcist much. “Hajime said the ghost said something was ‘pulling him’ or something. And I know a good medium who likes dead people better than he likes living people. So it’s not like people stop existing when they move on… but that’s all I can tell you.”

“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.” Now Duo sounded unusually pensive, and it seemed that most of what interested him about this lay somewhat deeper in his mind than the superficial level Heero could pick up on. “I never really thought about it before, but I guess some kinds of magic kinda answer some questions about how the world works…”

“Not the really big questions, though,” Sano shrugged. “You still have to decide for yourself about God and shit.”

“Right,” Duo snorted. “God.” There was an unaccustomed bitterness and derision to his tone that made Heero prick up his ears even more than he yet had.

Sano, for his part, chuckled, with just a hint of the same sound to his voice. And Heero found himself slightly jealous that, however little they’d actually touched on the topic, they were in there discussing something he and Duo had never really talked about. He could guess, but he didn’t know precisely what had caused that tone in his boyfriend’s voice — but Sano seemed to understand it. Which of course was a normal and acceptable thing for a friend to do, though Heero had just been thinking Duo wasn’t close enough to this one yet to be sharing a number of personal feelings. But maybe Heero’s ideas of closeness were less than entirely applicable here and in many social situations. He tried to quash his jealousy.

There was little else to incite it. After the nearly shared feelings on God, enough moments of silence passed that apparently both men in the living room thought it appropriate for the television sound to come back on. And though at first they didn’t seem much given to discussing the game or even reacting audibly to it — in fact, Heero could hear Duo in his head turning over the information he’d received today — eventually, gradually, they seemed to grow more and more engrossed. By the time the two-minute warning rolled around, they were enthusiastically discussing football again, assessing the Raiders’ eventually satisfactory performance and the near guarantee of winning at this point.

What currently worried Heero most was that Sano might want to hang out for some indefinite period after the game talking football or curses or possession or whatever. He chided himself for being so selfish, for wanting the guy out of the way so intensely, but that didn’t change the feeling of pre-emptive annoyance at the basically hypothetical thought of not being able to talk to Duo about personal things for so much longer. He would never have guessed Sano’s appearance here could possibly raise such emotional topics that would need to be covered after his departure.

The level of celebration when the Raiders took a knee and the game ended at 16-14 was no more than expected, and there remained only the question of when, now the purpose of hanging out was fulfilled, Sano would get up and leave and Heero could have a nice private chat with Duo. And at first it did seem that what Heero feared would come to pass, for both speakers in the living room sounded relaxed and complacent, as if ending their conversation and their continual snacking on leftover Chinese food was the last thing on their minds. And though after canvassing the Raiders’ prospects for a while they went back to discussing magical experiences, a topic not entirely uncompelling, Heero couldn’t rouse the same interest within himself for eavesdropping as he had before.

Every bit as anxious and impatient as he’d been in the car around halftime, he sat drumming his fingers almost audibly at the computer desk, wishing Sano gone, longing for the intimacy of aloneness and a conversation that would mean a lot more to him than this one did. Eventually he started responding to every statement Sano made with a semi-sarcastic but silent response such as, “Yes, that’s a lot of fun; why don’t you go think about it at home?” or, “Why don’t you go tell your boyfriend that? I’m sure he’ll be interested,” or, “Don’t you have homework to do?”

And at that point he heard Sano say, “Well, I got homework to do, so I better get out of here.” And Heero, recalling what he was and what Sano supposedly was, blushed at the thought that the statements he’d intended as entirely silent and private could possibly have gone out and been heard. No worse than rude they might have been, but still he wouldn’t have said any of them aloud. Attempting some sort of apology would be far too awkward, though, so he planned to stay firmly put in this room until Sano had gone.

The process of Sano getting gone was progressing apace. Often with Duo, a goodbye conversation was really just a continuation of the previous conversation in a different, last-minute-addendum sort of tone, so technically they were discussing football yet, but Heero could sense the goodbye coming. Eventually, though still on about quarterbacks and stats and such, they even removed from the sofa and toward the door. Restraining any further sarcastic remarks, Heero listened intently until finally he heard actual goodbyes and the opening and closing of the egress.

Then he took a deep breath and stood. It was funny how much he could long for something he doubted could be terribly enjoyable. At least there was still approximately a ton of almond M&M’s waiting for him out there.

Duo was waiting for him out there too, staring straight into the hall from which Heero emerged as if, though lacking any mind-reading abilities of his own, he knew perfectly well what Heero was thinking now. Wordlessly they moved into first a hug and then a kiss, then separated; Duo went to flop back down onto the couch, Heero to move the M&M’s bowl onto the end table whence it could be easily reached from the spot beside Duo.

Mostly empty Styrofoam boxes of expired Chinese food stood open here and there on the floor in an arc between sofa and television, and Coke cans were taking up more space than Heero would have thought a six-pack could account for. It would all need to be cleaned up… but not yet. For now he just sat in awkward silence next to Duo and ate M&M’s. He was starting to feel he’d had a few too many M&M’s today.

Duo was reflecting that, if Sano’s conversation about magic and magical experiences was going to lead to uncomfortable topics and panicky tension between him and Heero, maybe Sano, harmlessly fun and amusing as he seemed, wasn’t the best person to be inviting to the apartment.

With great effort, Heero restrained himself from responding to this, waiting for Duo to bring it up aloud so they could hold the conversation properly. But Duo’s thoughts then shifted to how uncomfortable it still was to be aware of Heero reading his mind, and with a sigh and a bit of a frown he said, “I’m starting to recognize the look you get when you’re hearing something in my head but not saying anything about it.”

And there it was again: the unjust resentment. All Duo disliked was the combination of Heero’s ability with his own lack of control, but it sure sounded as if he was complaining about something Heero actively chose to do. Heero didn’t quite know what to say, since much of what he was thinking would have come out sounding bitter and combative if he’d attempted to arrange it in words.

When Heero thus remained silent, Duo continued, “So you might as well just say whatever you wanted to say. About Sano, I mean.”

Struggling to put unpleasant thoughts behind him, Heero did as he was told. “I don’t think you need to keep Sano away. Stuff like that’s probably going to keep coming up until we get this fixed, so there’s no reason to cut yourself off from something that will make you happy.”

“It doesn’t make me happy to see you freaking out.”

“It’s… OK, though.” Heero dropped his head onto the couch cushion behind him, unwilling for the moment to look at Duo. “You weren’t being unreasonable or anything…”

“But why should you have to hear that kind of thing at all? It’s not fair!” Clearly Duo meant this was unfair for both of them, but the reasons he felt this way that flashed across the surface of his mind were so tangled that Heero could barely understand any of it. But he definitely caught a hint of the involuntary mistrust he’d sensed in Duo before; Duo obviously felt, whether he wanted to or not, that Heero spying on his private thoughts — even if Heero received his own punishment in so doing — was a big part of the unfairness of the situation.

Heero wondered whether if, instead of their powers being one-sided, they could each read the other’s mind, all these problems would be alleviated… or doubled. He was certainly glad that just at the moment he was able to hide his resentment at Duo’s feelings. He felt something that echoed Duo’s words somewhat, though — why should he have to feel this resentment at all? Why should this situation exist? It seemed pointless and foolish.

Duo took a deep, frustrated breath. “Anyway, I hope you don’t mind I told Sano about — a little bit about it. I didn’t want to — I mean, it’s funny the way he talks about his boyfriend, but it seems pretty awful too, and I didn’t want to be like that…”

Hastily, looking over again at where Duo was staring down at fidgeting fingers in his lap, Heero assured him, “No, that’s fine. That’s why I left — so you could talk about it with someone who might understand.”

Duo nodded. “I just told him I didn’t like you being able to read my thoughts either, but I haven’t figured out how to control my thoughts to keep them private.”

Heero mirrored the nod. He appreciated Duo’s restraint in this matter, agreeing that, while he truly didn’t mind Duo discussing their issues with someone that might understand, and while there was a certain entertainment value to the way Sano talked about Hajime in the latter’s absence, he wouldn’t like to think Duo was quite that open about him.

“And he said Hajime can probably help, at least a little. If I hang out with Sano and Hajime’s around, Hajime can let me know every time I’m projecting thoughts, so then I can get a feel for how to… not do that.”

It seemed that Sano, when presenting this informal and rather uncertain-sounding plan, had done it as casually as he did most things, and Duo, though he’d accepted the offer and thanked him, hadn’t given it much real thought at that time. Now, in repeating the idea to Heero, though his words had been somewhat listless with lack of investment, he began to reflect upon it properly at last… and, in so doing, awakened in himself that remarkable optimism that carried him through so many trials. All of a sudden he was considering the plan in greater detail and with a growing feeling that it was a really good one. And abruptly he was filled with a hope that was easily — indeed, almost overwhelmingly — detectable in his head.

He didn’t need, after all, full and proper communication training working one-on-one with someone devoted to teaching him everything a non-communicator could possibly master of that branch of magic; he just needed to learn how to stop shouting out his thoughts all the time. And if he could do that without inconveniencing Heero, without constantly reminding Heero of this problem, that would be great. And if he could do it while making a better friend of a sympathetic fellow magician? It sounded perfect.

Duo’s optimism was catching, and in addition to simply feeling better about the entire situation, Heero was, almost against his better judgment, inclined also to think this a very good plan. In fact, beyond some possibility of jealousy on his part that was in no way a deciding factor (nor even something he would ever bring up), he couldn’t see anything wrong with the idea except for one particular. “I don’t know Hajime well,” he said carefully, disinclined to mention this at all in the face of Duo’s (and his!) sudden optimism but feeling he must, “but is he really likely to want to help you with this?” Heero specifically remembered one conversation in which Hajime had made it pretty clear, without actually saying so, that he wasn’t interested in teaching random people about communication magic.

The grin Duo’s mouth spread into was as infectious as his optimism. “Sano said he’s sure he can convince him.”

And Heero, grinning back, had the sudden amusing mental image of Sano and Duo watching football over at wherever Sano and Hajime lived (in Heero’s imagination it was a mirror image of this apartment), with Hajime sitting in the next room at the computer totally disinterested in the game but occasionally poking his head out to let Duo know he was projecting. There would probably even be Chinese food in Styrofoam all over the floor… but certainly no almond M&M’s.

“It sounds great, then,” he said.

Duo reached for Heero’s hand. He was reflecting on how much he wanted to get this problem solved, and Heero thought Duo’s determination toward that end was even greater than his. It seemed to sting Duo even more that he felt this irrational mistrust and irritation than it did Heero to be the victim thereof. But Duo was also still filled with hope and cheer at the thought of a plan that might — that he was sure would — help. And in light of that, though he knew it must be impossible to banish completely from his mind an issue so recurring and provocative, he wanted to try to think about something else. So he said, “You know what we haven’t done in a while? Read Oz.”

That was true. Though they’d read far less together since the curse broke, they had managed to get through a few more installments of the Oz series… but they’d finished the latest one in August and never started the next. And beyond an inherently entertaining and bonding experience, pressing onward would be an excellent method of distraction from anything they might not want to think about — allowing them to share reactions and opinions about story and characters that, though casual and perhaps frivolous, were genuine and often reflected deeper feelings.

It occurred to Heero, as he considered this suggestion on how they should spend their next few hours, that perhaps Duo’s growing autonomy, for all Duo wasn’t as sure of it yet as he would like to be, was to some extent the source of his optimism. As a doll, he couldn’t have had much he could use to reassure himself and maintain his sanity, and therefore his optimism, though a crucial resource, couldn’t have been more than blind, unsubstantiated, ephemeral. But now, as a human free to move and choose, making money and again a part of society in a meaningful way, his optimism could be based in the knowledge that he had the personal power to effect change in his own life — that things could be better because he could work to make them better. Even when his personal power had nothing to do with the situation in question, when he seemed every bit as powerless to deal with some problem as he would have been as a doll in that same situation, the mere knowledge of how much more effective he was overall must boost his optimism regardless of the specific circumstances.

And at the moment, when he had a plan for the future and a plan for the present, it was no surprise he was beginning to feel unstoppable and almost ecstatically cheerful.

“You’re right,” Heero said, smiling and squeezing Duo’s hand. “And we only have four books left, I think.”

“Which one’s next?”

“I think it’s The Lost Princess.” Heero rose and pulled Duo after him.

“Ooh, sounds like more Ozma stuff.” Duo was very fond of Ozma. “Or… maybe not, if she’s lost.”

Heero, who couldn’t quite remember what happened in this particular book, said nothing to confirm or deny, only pulled Duo in a stumbling sort of near-dance across the minefield of food boxes and empty soda cans that was the living room floor toward the computer room and the bookshelves.

“It’ll probably still be awesome either way,” Duo added cheerfully as they went, demonstrating yet again his admirable, semi-inexplicable, to some extent sharable, always wonderful power of, even in the face of frustration and disappointment, becoming and remaining happy.

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Veritas

Veritas

There came a time when the truth was more important than the fallout of the truth, and at such a time Heero would simply act.

A recent series of voicemail messages from Duo has brought Heero to a realization… and a decision.

Veritas

Every step of this process had been incredibly difficult: the initial decision to go through with it, reached only after weeks of agony; the plans he’d made as to how, where, and when, drafted, revised, scrapped, and rethought a dozen times; dragging himself to someplace where flowers could be purchased, something he didn’t recall ever having done before; trying to decide on the relative merits of the available options and what each would communicate, and eventually selecting a bouquet of sunflowers and some other things, bright orange and red (he, far from a flower expert, didn’t know exactly what they were); actually buying the flowers and dealing with the cheerful comments of the sales clerk; reentering the car and contemplating turning it on again, and then really thinking about his destination… He couldn’t do this. He just couldn’t.

Twisting the key with perhaps more vigor than was strictly wise — he’d bent a key out of shape and rendered it completely useless once in the past, doing that, and been forced to make his getaway in a different and much less convenient manner — he breathed deeply and started to back out of the parking space at the florist. He was going to do this. He could. In fact, he must.

Nevertheless, he needed some encouragement, and fortunately knew exactly where to get it. The car had by now recognized and synched up with his cell phone, and Heero hit the voice command button on the steering wheel and said, “Voicemail.”

Seven weeks ago, in accordance with the usual rotation designed to keep Preventers from getting burned out, he and Duo had been pulled from fieldwork and assigned more sedate clerical tasks. With this had come a new, regular schedule, with proper weekends off and everything, and that had significantly changed… well, everything.

“You have no new messages,” the computerized voice told him as he left the parking lot and headed up the street toward the highway. “Six saved messages.”

For Heero, the luxury of days off had required some adjustment. It wasn’t as if he had a social life that could occupy his free time, and he was so accustomed to disregarding his own idle desires as to be unsure, at first, how else to spend it.

Duo hadn’t had that problem.

“First saved message,” the monotonous voice announced when Heero didn’t give any command, followed by a date exactly seven weeks ago today. Heero realized suddenly that he wasn’t breathing as he waited for the half-yell-half-drawl he knew was coming.

“Heeyyyy, Heeeeerooooo!”

He let out the held breath in some irritation and self-deprecating amusement. Really, this had become absurd. Well, it had always been absurd.

“I thought you’d answer!” the message went on, with a force of wonder greater than seemed entirely rational and that had, the first time Heero had listened to this, confused him a little. “You always answer!”

He never would have thought of Duo as a drinker. Technically they were still too young to drink legally in most places anyway, but nobody ever said no to Duo. And evidently, once Duo had Saturdays off, alcohol was the order of Friday nights. A lot of alcohol. Well, Heero didn’t know specifically how much it took to get Duo drunk, but his estimate was ‘a lot.’

“I was at the bar, but… I forget… no, I came home from the bar…”

Heero might have worried about this new or apparently new pastime of Duo’s, except that it never seemed to interfere with his work or his health. At least it hadn’t the last six weeks. And unless it crossed that line, it wasn’t Heero’s business what Duo chose to spend his weekends on. Though he might like it to be.

Duo’s voice from the car speakers continued in a cheerful near-slur. “I came home because I wanted to come home, and I totally ordered this food. Did I order it?” Here he paused for a long moment, as if pondering deeply. “I think I made the taxi guy stop so I could get it on the way home, but maybe I ordered it too. Yeah, I think I did both.”

This first dissertation about the food (ordered or stopped for or both) had been recorded by pure coincidence when Heero hadn’t been able to get to the phone in time. In fact he’d been in the bathroom, because mundane circumstances sometimes led to extraordinary ones. Emerging, he’d seen that Duo had called, but assumed he would leave a message or call back if it was important. And leave a message Duo had.

“Yeah, so, this food! It came in a box! A paper box. Like I was going to pack it up and mail it to you. I could put your address — I mean, I did put your address: I took a marker and I really wrote your address right on this box.”

Heero hadn’t been aware that Duo knew his address at all; he definitely hadn’t been aware that Duo knew his address well enough to remember it when drunk. He would have liked to see that take-out box.

“Not like I’m actually going to send it to you, but I could because it’s in a cardboard box — I mean, a paper box; it’s that kind of thick paper that’s like cardboard — and it has your address on it. I wonder what the mailman would think!”

Of course Heero had originally intended to delete the message after listening to it, as he would any other, but, from a certain point onward, that had suddenly ceased to be an option, even had its entertaining nature not prevented him.

“Oh, I have this… I have this!” Evidently abruptly distracted from the box, Duo had begun laughing at its contents. “I have this shrimp. Shrimp is hilarious. It looks like wrinkled fingers or something.” He made a squeaking noise — “ee-ee, ee-ee, ee-ee” — then laughed again. “Oh, you can’t see that, can you? Too bad. It’s like some kind of monster with these fingers is trying to claw its way through the window, only it doesn’t have any claws, because it’s shrimp.” He paused.

“Heero, I want to eat shrimp with you.” This was spoken so levelly, so earnestly, that taken out of context it would have seemed entirely sober. But then he continued at a moaning, pathetic sing-song, “I waaaant to eeeeaaaat shriiiii–” and cut himself off abruptly. “Oh, wait,” he said in an I-just-remembered tone, “you’re allergic to shrimp, aren’t you?”

How he’d known this in the first place, let alone how he’d remembered it at that point, Heero hadn’t the faintest idea.

And when he added almost disgustedly, “I’ll never eat shrimp again,” Heero had to grin.

Whether the misery of this realization had been too much for Duo, whether he’d dropped the phone into his shrimp, or whether something else equally logical had occurred to end the call, Heero would probably never know. In any case, after a few moments the computerized voice announced, “End of message. To delete this message–”

“Save,” Heero cut her off.

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

The second time, though the pattern hadn’t yet been established, Heero had anticipated it and deliberately refrained from answering. After that, with two messages in a row, he’d had no doubt on subsequent Friday nights what he was to expect when his phone rang with Duo’s number.

“I’m drinking coffee.” No greeting preceded this statement, and Duo’s tone was that of someone recently blessed with an epiphany and more than a little enthusiastic to share it. “I mean, it’s coffee, but it’s got, like, raspberry schnapps in it; I wanted some coffee, and the bartender thought I’d like this, and she’s right! Wow!”

Heero hadn’t had much occasion to be around intoxicated people. During an assignment, the presence of such — anyone with judgment and abilities chemically diminished — would usually just make his job easier and quicker, and therefore he could get away from them sooner. During anything other than an assignment… well, as previously mentioned, he had no social life. But he’d overheard enough conversations carried out by drinkers and those that hung out with drinkers to be aware that drunks were typically divided into various more and less desirable classes.

“Have you ever tried this stuff? It’s like coffee, but with raspberry schnapps in it. So I was drinking this coffee stuff and thinking about you… I mean, I was thinking about coffee, and that got me thinking about you, because you know how when you drink coffee it’s usually too hot for the first few drinks, but you try to drink it anyway because you need the caffeine to wake you up and you don’t want to wait or you’re going to be late to work, or you’re just really craving the coffee, so you start drinking it anyway, and you usually burn your mouth so half the time you stop being able to taste the rest of the coffee, and you kinda feel like an idiot because of that?”

Heero had heard people mention ‘weepy drunks’ and ‘angry drunks’ and ‘slutty drunks’ and ‘fun drunks’ and he did not care enough to remember what else. It was pretty clear, without going any farther down the list, that ‘fun drunks’ was the category into which Duo fit. Whether he dallied in any of the other divisions Heero didn’t know, as the only evidence currently available was six voicemails that were undoubtedly mere fractions of the nights of drinking on which they’d come. But of the given descriptions, those voicemails definitely represented ‘fun’ more than any other. It took a lot to amuse Heero enough to make him laugh out loud, but the squeaky shrimp noise, as well as several other moments, never failed to have that effect.

“And then the last few drinks have gotten all lukewarm and gross, and you have to force yourself to drink them because you don’t want to waste the last of your coffee and you need all the caffeine, but you almost feel like you’re going to be sick because they’re just that gross temperature that’s not cold but definitely not hot enough, so you do force yourself to drink the last of it because you just have to?”

Not that Duo had to be drunk to make Heero laugh, or even to be labeled ‘fun.’ In fact Heero could say with a fair degree of surety that Duo was his personal definition of ‘fun,’ and made him laugh out loud on a regular basis. Which was something nobody had ever done before. He’d never had a personal definition of ‘fun’ before. It had never mattered before.

“Well, and in between those there are, like, two drinks in the middle, between where it’s so hot it burns your mouth out and lukewarm and totally gross, and those two drinks are… just… perfect… just the perfect temperature, so they’re absolutely like heaven to drink? They’re exactly what coffee should be like and would be like in a perfect world, like, some world where there wasn’t war and stupid terrorism and nobody needed mobile suits or armed space stations or even thought they did?”

How Duo could have altered Heero’s perspective so completely — so that he had come to value the concept of ‘fun’ and his own ability to laugh — Heero couldn’t begin to think. How could one person change him so much? How could one single person render something he’d previously ignored so valuable to him, make him see an entire concept and part of life in so totally a different light?

“Well, I was drinking this coffee — it’s got, like, raspberry schnapps in it; it’s really good — and I got to those two drinks, and, God, they were just perfect, and I was thinking about the world and how things should be and how we’re always working to try and make them, and I was thinking… you’re those two drinks, Heero. You’re those two perfect drinks from that perfect world. I kinda feel like I don’t even need to drink coffee anymore ever again, since I’ve got you around so much of the time.”

The impression the end of this message always made on Heero, a piercing poignancy and wonder, left him so breathless and fragile that the computerized voice had to prompt him twice, then threaten to disconnect, before he managed to tell her to save it.

“Message re-saved,” she said again. “Next message.”

Having chosen the closest florist, by map, out of what was perhaps an unnecessary sense of precision, he’d made it by now more than halfway to his final destination. He was only going to get through three of the six messages on this brief drive. He hoped they would be encouragement enough.

“I saw these…” Duo began. “Ha ha ha, I saw these flowers! Oh, God, Heero, you have no idea about these flowers. I don’t know if he was proposing to her or if they just come from somewhere or what, but they were at the bar, and she had these flowers, and I just…” He laughed incoherently for several seconds. “They were all white, first of all — I mean the flower part, not the, obviously, not the stem or leaves or whatever — they were all white, but that’s fine; I mean, lots of flowers are all white, right? But these… I swear, they looked just like…”

Evidently what they looked just like was about the funniest thing Duo had ever thought of, because once again he dissolved into helpless laughter. When he went on, it was in a breathless, almost choking tone. “They look just like… crumpled… tissue! Like somebody just blew his nose and… stuck the tissue on the end of a flower stem!”

Heero had never heard Duo laugh this hard in person. He’d observed him in pretty serious mirth at times, but at this point it was clear that tears had gotten involved, and it was possible that Duo was not even upright as he made his borderline-incoherent statements. Where he was — whether he’d completely left the bar or was making a fool of himself in its parking lot or restroom hallway delivering this raucous voicemail — wasn’t even clear.

“God, I would never get you flowers like that,” he eventually continued, coming slowly and painstakingly down off his laughter high. “Maybe, like, sunflowers or something, but… what would it say if I got you flowers that looked like used tissues? ‘Oh, I want to blow my nose on you!’ How meaningful! That is not what I would want to mean.”

It was easily, almost painfully apparent: Duo liked him. Duo perhaps even loved him. The problem was that Duo only seemed to realize this when he was drunk. Whereas Heero, who had never been drunk in his life, realized that he liked Duo, perhaps even loved Duo, and had to deal with that awareness, every single almost painfully sober moment of every day.

“End of message. To delete this–”

Duo’s day-to-day obliviousness of this fact wasn’t just almost painful. Because it wasn’t merely that Duo’s ignorance of his own feelings presented a formidable barrier to action — it was the truly awful question of what that ignorance implied. Why was this state of liking or even loving buried so deep that it took intoxication to bring it out? Was there something about being in love with Heero so disgusting to Duo’s awareness that he’d shoved the entire condition into his subconscious for the sake of self-preservation?

“Save.”

On the other end of the spectrum — and Heero had assessed the entire prospect spectrum meticulously over the last few weeks — lay the possibility that love of Heero had come so naturally and transparently to Duo that there had never been the need for a moment of realization — that Duo simply hadn’t noticed yet because loving Heero was so much a part of him that it would have been like noticing the texture of his own skin. This was very much what Heero’s experience had been, but he hardly dared postulate that Duo might have had a similar evolution of feeling. It seemed improbable in the extreme, far too much to be hoped for.

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

The end point was — how would Duo react to a declaration? The range of apparent possibilities was as great as the spectrum of potential reasons for Duo’s ignorance, and the numbers seemed to be against Heero in terms of the desirable/miserable ratio. And that the numbers had been against him many times in the past without having any impact on his subsequent decisions did not improve the situation. The situation that was extremely different, in composition, probable outcome, and consequences for his future and morale, from every previous.

“Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini,” Duo began, “qui fecit caelum et–” but Heero interrupted with a command to disconnect. He would have preferred to listen to the fourth message — and the fifth and sixth — all the way through, not only because he loved listening to them but for their strengthening effects… but he’d pulled into the parking lot of Duo’s apartment complex and needed to turn off the car. He needed to turn off the car, vacate it, walk up to Duo’s door, and knock. He needed to carry his flowers to Duo’s door, remember his preplanned words, and knock. He needed to knock, present his bouquet, present everything, hazard everything.

He needed to refrain from wasting time. It was Friday evening; Heero had changed clothes at work (what to wear and what message it might send having been weighed and judged to a precise point over the last couple of days), gone directly to the florist, and then come here, specifically so as to stage this scene before Duo had a chance to leave for the weekly alcoholic outing. There wasn’t a huge window in which to sit dithering in the car.

Not that Heero was the type to vacillate once he’d made up his mind, no matter the apocalyptic potential of certain possible outcomes of the venture. There came a time, after all, when the truth was more important than the fallout of the truth, and at such a time Heero would simply act, difficult as it might be.

Perhaps that this was so difficult made it a little easier, nonsensical as that seemed. Enough of his original training and brainwashing remained with him still that, when confronted with the seemingly impossible and a situation that spoke directly to his sympathetic nervous system, adrenaline appeared just where he needed it, self-preservation curled up and receded behind whatever he perceived as duty under the circumstances, and he suddenly found himself ready, willing, and able to do whatever he had to do.

Of course that meant he regressed somewhat into a robot, but if that was what it took… Certainly his movements were a bit stiffer (if no less effective) than usual as he closed the car door behind him, taking care not to catch the large bouquet in it, and walked away, but as long as there was no actual sound of grinding gears, he was fine. And as long as his voice didn’t actually have a metallic ring to it, it didn’t matter much if the words he’d chosen and was rehearsing in his head came out sounding scripted. If he could love Duo even knowing what Duo was like when drunk, perhaps Duo could love him even knowing what he was like when a robot.

Toward the building — he was grateful Duo’s apartment was on the opposite side so as not to have treacherous windows looking over this parking lot — past a couple of flower beds laid out and maintained with institutional care — no crumpled tissues here, only boring carnations of a type he’d rejected at the florist — up the concrete stairs to the second floor past doors that interested him far less — was he imagining the smell of coffee brewing behind at least one of them? — and down to the end, to a door that technically looked no different from any of the others yet seemed to glow with life-altering potential like something radioactive, he made his somewhat jerky way.

At this point it was all about the mission. And it wasn’t really as different as he’d considered it before from missions he’d carried out in the past. Failure simply meant the end of the world. That failure, in this case, depended far less on his own performance and far more on outside circumstances lightened the burden somehow.

He arranged the bouquet in front of him against his chest in as casual a hold as he could manage. He forced himself to breathe easily, naturally. He lifted his other hand and knocked in a motion that, though it perhaps lacked grace, certainly lacked hesitation. And with ears far more sensitized than they’d ever been even to the sounds of enemies stealthily approaching through the brush, he caught the sounds within of footsteps approaching, then the deadbolt undone, then the knob turning.

And then the door opened.

I’ve rated this fic .

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

His Own Humanity: Guest Room Soap Opera

His Own Humanity: Guest Room Soap Opera

Part 1

The amount of work available to an exorcist at any given time was completely unpredictable. Hajime could — and sometimes did — go weeks without hearing from anyone, and feel grateful that he had another source of income a little less fickle. And then, because that was the way the world moved, he would get multiple requests for help in a single day, and send a fifth call to voicemail because it came in the middle of the fourth. This was satisfying, and, as he connected to listen to the message the last caller had left, his mood was complacent as he looked forward to an upcoming week of work.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou. This is Bridgestone Gains at U.S.Seido.”

Hajime stiffened. It had been an ongoing relief not to hear anything from Seido for the last five months, but just under that relief lay always the awareness that it wasn’t impossible that he might. He’d been keeping his ears open for any news about the yakuza that might concern him, such as any hint of haunting of premises or possession of persons — since, after the service he and Sano had rendered them back in March, any subsequent necrovisual problems were sure to prompt Seido to contact no one but him — but as yet hadn’t heard anything to worry him. He’d carefully kept himself from anticipating never having to deal with them again, and was glad now that he hadn’t allowed hopes to arise that would have been dashed today.

“It has come to my attention,” Gains went on, “that the police want to question you.”

Hajime’s frown deepened. This was news to him, and hadn’t been one of the reasons he’d conceptualized for Gains to be calling him.

“They can be so inconvenient…” The old man’s voice was easy and fairly cheerful, so very different from how he’d sounded when Hajime had interacted with him before. “Especially when there are important parts of your life they just wouldn’t comprehend.” Gains chuckled. “It’s like a drama class exercise just talking to them! I very well understand the position you’re in: even if you had nothing to do with the young man’s disappearance, there are a lot of questions you’d rather not answer. I have certainly been there.”

Disappearance? Hajime made a sudden gesture of understanding.

“So I thought you might appreciate a place to stay for a while. I can offer you somewhere to relax and be sure nobody will bother you until a more convenient time… after all this business with your missing client has been sorted out, for example. It’s an extremely comfortable suite with everything you could need, and there’s more than room for two, if you wanted to bring your partner.”

Now Hajime smiled grimly. Apparently ‘this kind of queer bullshit’ wasn’t so much a problem in this context. He’d known at the time that the homophobic sentiment had been a subconscious one brought out by Gains’s shade-induced anger, something he wouldn’t have verbalized under normal circumstances, but it was still darkly amusing to hear him now offering Hajime a sort of luxury vacation or retreat with his presumed gay lover.

“So call me back and let me know whether or not this would help you out. The offer stands as long as you need it.” Gains left his personal cell number, something Hajime assumed not a lot of people were allowed — his initial call had come in from ‘Restricted’ — and said a friendly goodbye.

Pensively Hajime saved the message, hung up, and pocketed his phone. He had a lot to think about all of a sudden.

So Gains was keeping an eye on him, was he? Looking out for him, apparently, and minutely enough that he knew about things like related police agendas before Hajime himself did. What a lovely thought. Who didn’t want a mob secretary peering silently over his shoulder?

That was all Hajime had time for before his phone vibrated again. If this was Gains with a second try, he was just going to have to leave another message, because Hajime definitely hadn’t decided on a response yet. It was with some reluctance that he withdrew his phone once more and looked at it, but then he answered quickly when he saw the caller’s name.

“Someone is leaking police information to U.S.Seido,” was how he greeted his friend.

“What?” demanded the startled Chou. “How do you know?”

“Because I just got a call from Seido about the police wanting to question me.”

“Shit. Even I just heard about that.”

“I assume this is about Quatre Winner?”

“That’s right.” Chou sounded distracted now; he was probably running through various co-workers in his head, trying to decide who he thought was passing information to the local yakuza. “Yeah, Winner senior reported Winner junior missing, and you talked to the son the last day he was around, I guess? The guys on this just want to ask you some questions — you’re not a suspect or anything — but I figured you’d still want a heads-up before they showed up at your door.”

Hajime thanked him with genuine gratitude. And when Chou said nothing in response, Hajime added a little impatiently, “You do remember I can read minds? If you want to know who’s spying on the police, we can come up with a way to find out.”

“Yeah…” said Chou slowly. “I’m not sure I do want to know. You know we don’t touch Seido unless we absolutely have to.”

“You’d probably be better off knowing anyway.”

“Yeah…” Chou said again. “Yeah. I’ll let you know if I want to set something up.”

“And let me know if you hear anything else about me.”

“Right. Or if that Winner guy turns up.”

“I’ll probably hear about that before you will.”

“What, from Seido?”

“God forbid.”

Chou laughed darkly. “Well, try not to get yourself killed by the mob, OK? I’m already working on a shit-ton of paperwork.”

“I’ll make it as complicated as possible just to keep you late.”

“Yeah, you have a nice day too.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

Hajime re-pocketed his phone and cast a calculating glance around. He barely noticed, though, such details of the room as Tokio asleep on the couch or the DVD’s of the series he and Sano were currently watching strewn across the coffee table. He had a decision to make, and it needed to be made quickly.

Of course there was the option of just letting the police talk to him. He wasn’t a criminal, after all, and had no reason to fear the law. But the possibility that the specific officers that came to talk to him would happen to be aware of magic and would understand what was going on did not strike him as great — and otherwise, explaining that, carrying a sword, he’d talked to Winner junior the last day he was around because he’d been hoping to exorcize angry supernatural energy from him might provide a reason to fear the law.

If his last few months’ independent study of communication magic had progressed in that direction, brainwashing the police into believing that the completely unsuspicious Hajime Saitou had nothing useful to tell them would have been quick and convenient… but that had never been a technique that interested him much, so he hadn’t looked into it.

Conceivably he could make something up the normal way, invent some other, less magical reason to have visited that Winner Plastics office last week — but if he was going to mislead them, why bother having the conversation at all? They had a job to do, and the missing young man needed to be found in any case (not least so he could be exorcized); rather than complicate things (and probably get himself in trouble later for obstructive behavior), it seemed better to avoid the questions entirely, to fade out of sight until the matter had been resolved.

But did that mean taking Gains up on his offer? In some ways it was tempting — it would certainly be a very neat solution to the problem, and Hajime had to admit to some curiosity about the kind of accommodations Seido would provide — but in others it made his skin crawl. He couldn’t imagine accepting what was essentially a friendly favor from a mob secretary. And yet how would it look to Gains if he refused? U.S.Seido was an organization that needed to be dealt with carefully, and he certainly didn’t want to stir resentment by appearing antagonistic toward them.

What inoffensive excuse, though, could he offer Gains for not accepting? Where else could he go? Of his three friends, one lived across the country, one was the cop he’d just talked to, and one was likely to be visited at home by police looking for Hajime should Hajime not be immediately locatable; he couldn’t stay with any of them. And a hotel would probably not satisfy Gains — why pay for an impersonal room when Gains was offering one much more convenient and luxurious for free? And if Seido people continued watching him, engaging a hotel room and then claiming he was doing something else seemed unwise.

This was irritating. Just when Hajime had been anticipating a happily busy week, something like this had to come up. Now, no matter where he stayed, he would probably have to put off the appointments he’d made, leave people hanging that really did need his help, and probably lose business because of it. Quatre Winner had chosen an inconvenient time to disappear.

It undoubtedly hadn’t been his fault, though: his was a particularly severe case, and the young man couldn’t really be blamed for rash actions under the influence of that anger. Furthermore, the artifact possession added an interest to the situation that made it impossible for Hajime to be annoyed with Quatre personally, despite any inconvenience he might have caused.

And these thoughts had given Hajime an idea. He scrolled through his contacts to the B’s. Then he couldn’t help gazing, motionless, at the name for a moment with an echo of the wonder he’d felt at their first meeting; it seemed impossible that he should really have this person’s number. He remembered hearing him described in college as ‘an immortal magical superhero who can do pretty much anything’ — and now he was about to casually call him. Suggesting to such a person such an imposition as he now had in mind displeased him, but alternatives were scarce.

“Hello?” came the tired voice from the other end.

“It’s Hajime. I understand that boyfriend of yours is missing.”



2>>

Part 2

Sano stared down at the message again in puzzlement and perhaps a bit of annoyance. Can you feed the cats? it said without a word of explanation. And though he’d written back, Sure, why? a good thirty minutes ago, word of explanation was still lacking. At least Hajime had said ‘can you,’ and ended the text with a question mark, rather than making it an order.

Tokio and Misao wouldn’t be expecting their dinner for another hour or so, which gave Sano some time to make plans before he headed over there. Not that his plans took terribly long: he wanted to know what was going on, why Hajime had texted him such an unexpected request and then started ignoring him, and that meant camping until the exorcist came home and explained himself. Sano would only be working on homework (and then probably video games) for the rest of the evening; he might as well do that at Hajime’s house. He was pretty sure he’d left his physics textbook over there the last time he’d used it anyway.

So he packed up what books he did have as well as his 360. This, of course, meant taking his own car, since he wasn’t going to haul around an X-Box on the bus, but he tried not to grumble too much when the circumstance couldn’t be avoided. At least tomorrow’s bus ride to school from Hajime’s house wasn’t a bad route, and quicker than from his apartment.

Misao jumped up his leg and climbed to his shoulder the moment he was inside the door. She always seemed aware, somehow, when someone was approaching the house, and Sano wondered a little whether she had some kind of divinatory ability Hajime knew nothing about. Though with Hajime, it was more likely that he knew perfectly well and just hadn’t mentioned it. He had, after all, gone almost half a year without deigning to tell Sano that he believed him capable of subconsciously using every different branch of magic. Sano still wasn’t quite over that yet.

“Hi, Misao,” he greeted the little cat as she sniffed at his face. “You hungry?”

She replied that she was, and that he should definitely give her a lot of the wet food she liked so much.

Sano laughed, and didn’t bother responding except by heading into the kitchen. Walking with Misao on his shoulder was always something of a challenge — especially because, even in the few months he’d known her, she’d increased in size, and eventually probably wasn’t going to be able to ride up there anymore. At the moment, she splayed out and dug claws into Sano’s flesh. He’d gotten used to this by now, and resigned himself to its effects on his shirts.

As he entered the kitchen, Tokio gave him an indifferent-sounding greeting from where she stood beside her food bowl. Sano bent to retrieve her water dish, at which point Misao jumped down. As he then moved to grab the other one and rinse them both out, he asked, “Do you guys know where Hajime is?” He might have said something like, “Where’s the uncommunicative bastard who normally feeds you?” but had learned that the cats didn’t do very well with sarcasm. In any case, they didn’t know where Hajime was, so it mattered very little how Sano referred to him.

He went through the somewhat complicated process of doling out a specific amount of dry food alongside a specific amount of wet food for each of the animals, then stood back against a counter while they ate. His eyes were turned toward Tokio’s almost manically quick gulping motions, but he wasn’t really watching; he was puzzling, somewhat annoyed, about Hajime.

It wasn’t as if Sano wasn’t a regular fixture of this house these days, well known to the cats and well versed in their care. It wasn’t as if he minded. He would do much more than just feed the familiars for his friend and sometimes professional partner, provided Hajime asked at least relatively nicely… but where was Hajime? Normally a request for Sano to feed the cats came when Sano already knew what Hajime was about. Though admittedly, now that he thought back on previous instances, this had always been because Sano had known beforehand where Hajime would be rather than because Hajime had actually told him at the time of the request.

Assuming that standing around being frustrated and curious would get him nowhere, he wandered into the den and set up his X-Box. To assuage his annoyance, he would play some Madden for a bit before starting his homework. Hajime, though he sometimes watched a game with a compelling atmosphere, could work up no interest in Madden, so it was better to play it when he wasn’t around in any case.

Then a couple of hours passed without Sano realizing, and the next thing he knew, it was 9:30 and he hadn’t actually started his homework and Hajime had never appeared. Swearing for multiple reasons, Sano pulled out his lovely phone and texted, Seriously where the hell are you? making sure to spell all the words out properly so Hajime would not completely disregard the message. Of course he might — today’s precedent suggested he would — completely disregard the message anyway.

Then, reluctant but aware he needed to hurry, Sano turned his attention toward his books.

The next morning, at what felt like a hugely early hour on a day when he didn’t have to work at oh-dark-hundred, he was partially roused by Misao attacking his feet. It took several instances of him shifting so she fell off the couch, her jumping back up, and him grumbling at her to stop before he reached a greater state of consciousness and realized that it must be breakfast time for the cats. Which meant Hajime must never have come home, since he would have fed them by now.

He dragged himself up and into the kitchen, where Tokio was waiting looking reproachful. Waking sluggishly as he moved, Sano set out food and water and gave slow thought to his day. He needed to check his phone for any response to yesterday’s texts, then get ready for school. Maybe Hajime would answer him or come home while Sano was nicely distracted in class. Assuming class was able to distract him at all.

As he was heading back to the den, however, to look at his phone, the doorbell rang, so he turned again in the opposite direction.

To his surprise, it was two police officers. And if the unexpected advent of badges and uniforms at such an early hour hadn’t startled him, “We’re looking for Hajime Saitou” certainly would have.

“What?!” After this outburst and the jump that accompanied it, Sano shook himself. These guys didn’t appear stern or combative — in fact they seemed fairly friendly — but, well, cops were cops. And the fact that they’d shown up here right after Hajime’s already aggravatingly mysterious disappearance was worrisome. He apologized for his reaction, then added, “Hajime better not have stabbed someone.” Though not a joke the officers would fully understand, this might at least make him appear a little less wary.

“I don’t think so,” one of them smiled. “We just needed to ask him some questions; he’s not in trouble.”

This was probably all the information they would relinquish about what they were here for, so Sano would have to deal with the situation based on only that. If Hajime wanted him to relay some specific story or something, he should have left better instructions than, Can you feed the cats?

Sano stepped aside and said, “He’s not actually here right now, but you guys can come in if you want.”

At that moment Misao, from beside Sano’s leg, yowled up at the officers, greeting and demanding attention.

One of them smiled and stepped inside, crouching to the cat’s level to pet her as Sano moved back to allow him to do so. “Well, hey, there,” the cop said. “What a pretty baby!”

Misao remarked that, while she often wondered what non-communicative humans were saying to her, she was well aware that it probably wasn’t anything she would really care about. Sano thought he might tell her sometime and see what she thought about being a ‘pretty baby.’

“So Mr. Saitou isn’t home,” the second cop, less interested in meeting the cat, remarked. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“No idea.” Sano looked around for the inevitable appearance of Tokio, and followed her movement toward them as soon as he saw where she was. “He hasn’t answered any of my texts.” This was true, but, without mentioning the original Can you feed the cats?, didn’t give any indication that he was aware Hajime was up to something odd. He shrugged. “He never tells me where he’s going, but he usually doesn’t stay out all that long.”

Now the cat-friendly officer had transferred his attention to Tokio, and said from his crouched position, “So you think he might be back here later?”

“I really don’t know,” Sano answered. “I’m heading off to class pretty soon here, so I won’t be around, but you guys could come back and check.”

The officer nodded as he rose, and at the same moment Sano darted to catch Misao around the ribcage before she could bolt out the front door — something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do but apparently couldn’t resist trying. “Nope,” he told her. She protested, squirming, in his arms.

“Are you his roommate?”

“Nah, just a friend.” Sano tried not to sound bitter; no reason to indicate to the police that he wished he were, in fact, a very specific type of roommate, more than just a friend. “Sano Sagara.”

The first cop nodded, while the cat-friendly officer smiled and said, “Well, we’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your time.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Sano was wrestling with Misao, trying to encourage her up onto his shoulder rather than any other direction, and didn’t look at the face of either policeman.

“Have a good day,” the first said as the two men turned and walked down the front steps.

Sano closed the door behind them, ceasing his struggle with Misao, who batted vengefully at his ear and then started to slide down his arm so she could jump to the floor from a slightly lower altitude. Sano turned to face the house with a frown, looking slowly back and forth between the two cats and feeling the frown grow into a scowl.

“What the hell do the police want with Hajime?” he wondered aloud.

Neither cat entirely understood him, but they picked up on the fact that he was simultaneously angry and concerned, and that both emotions were, to some extent, aimed at Hajime. Misao, losing track of her annoyance about being prevented from leaving the house, wondered whether Hajime was all right; while Tokio, in her superior way, asserted that Hajime was a very effective and powerful being that probably didn’t need anyone to worry about him.

He could hear the alarm he’d set on his phone going off in the next room; he didn’t really have time to pursue this issue right now if he wanted to get to class on time. He made a frustrated noise, which startled Misao, and headed for the den.

Well, if he put off showering until tomorrow, he would have a few spare minutes right now. He decided right away to take this route, and thumbed through the contacts in his phone looking for a specific one.

Though he’d spent some time with Chou and did have his phone number, Sano couldn’t remember ever having called him before. So far they’d gotten along in that way people did where it wasn’t obvious whether or not they actually liked each other, and in fact it could easily be inferred that they didn’t; Sano wasn’t sure what the case actually was, nor how Chou would react to a call from him, but he wasn’t about to refrain when Chou might have some answers.

“Well, this is new,” was how the cop greeted him. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard from you before.”

“Yeah…” Sano wouldn’t have minded some banter with Chou — the guy was kinda fun to mess around —
but it was more important to seek information. “Have you heard from Hajime? Do you know where he is? And why are your buddies coming around bugging about him?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Chou sounded amused.

Sano made a frustrated sound.

Chou laughed openly. “You guys are a trip.”

“So do you know where he is?” wondered Sano impatiently.

“Nope.”

“But obviously you knew he was going somewhere,” Sano insisted, very impatient. “And what do the cops want from him?”

“I don’t know if I should tell you that kind of thing.” Chou’s languid tone was clearly calculated to annoy. “I’m not really supposed to, you know?”

Sano tried very hard to keep from rising to the bait, because the more calmly he could deal with Chou, the sooner he could find out what he wanted to know. “Probably not,” he agreed, sounding annoyed despite his efforts. “But it wouldn’t kill you.”

“Might lose me my job, though.”

Sano took a deep breath. “Come on, you know it won’t. I don’t know where he is, and some cops showed up at his door looking for him and didn’t tell me why.”

“Well, he runs around doing weird shit,” Chou replied lazily, “so that’s no surprise.”

“Seriously,” Sano growled. “If you know where he is, tell me.”

“I already told you I don’t know.”

“What do you cops want with him?”

“Can’t tell you that.”

“Did he tell you anything?”

“Obviously he didn’t tell you anything.”

With a loud sound of irritation Sano said, “Fuck you!” and hung up. He probably shouldn’t have done that, but he felt like Chou had been deliberately giving him crap and wouldn’t have provided any answers even if he happened to have them. So he went to get ready for school.

On every break during and between the two classes he had that day, he texted Hajime continually. Finally, as he prepared for work, he called. Hajime had never once broken his promise to answer whenever Sano called, and in return, in a sort of unspoken covenant, Sano had refrained from abusing that promise: instead of bothering Hajime whenever he felt like hearing the guy’s voice, he only called when he had a legitimate reason to.

And it was not because he felt his current worry about Hajime’s whereabouts and safety wasn’t a legitimate reason that he had not yet called in this scenario, but because he dreaded initiating the first phone call that would not be answered, dreaded pushing Hajime to break that promise. It felt as if they were progressing toward some sort of crisis… perhaps one that had been long in coming. And now, as his call went directly to voicemail for the first time he could remember, there was a palpable painful clenching of his heart. Agitated, he shoved his phone back into his pocket and headed for the Panda.

He couldn’t bear to try again that day — try calling, anyway; he kept texting at every available opportunity. When he returned to Hajime’s house that night, he tried not to rush inside in the hopes that Hajime might be there, but was still disappointed when he wasn’t. So he just apologized to the cats for the lateness of their dinner and went to bed on the couch in the den again.

Tuesday was much the same, except that he gave up texting about halfway through the day. But by the time he was done with school and work, he was so desperate for answers that he cast about for anything else he might do to get some. He scrolled, aimless and agitated, through his phone contacts again, trying to think who might know anything about what was going on, and stopped at the name of a new friend. It was a long shot, he supposed, but by now he would try anything.

Duo had informed Sano that the number he’d given him was actually his boyfriend’s, since he didn’t currently have a phone of his own, so it was no surprise that it took several rings to get an answer — the taciturn Heero had probably seen the caller name and handed the phone over. And when Duo’s cheerful voice finally answered, Sano got right to the point:

“Hey, this is going to sound weird, but have you heard from Hajime? I haven’t seen him in a couple of days, and weird shit’s happening.”

“He didn’t tell you where he was going?” Duo wondered, sounding immensely curious.

“So you know where he is.” Sano’s irritation at the déjà vu the conversation thus far impelled didn’t allow Duo a chance to reply, as he then burst out with, “No, why should he tell me where he’s going? I’m just the friend who can feed the cats when he’s got something else to do, and talk to the police for him, and go fucking insane worrying about him! Why should he tell me anything?”

“As far as I know, he’s perfectly fine.” Duo’s tone of reassurance sounded no less curious and interested than before. “He’s staying at Trowa’s new house.”

“What?” Sano was so surprised that he’d already followed this up with, “Why?” before the very obvious answer — to keep away from the police — occurred to him. That they’d even met one of the biggest celebrities in the magical world was already hard to believe; that Hajime was staying at his house was next to impossible.

“The security guard at the office last week got his name when he came in,” Duo was answering, “and then when it turned out Quatre had disappeared, she remembered Hajime was there the last day anyone saw him, so then when Mr. Winner called the police, Hajime’s name came up.”

“Oh.” So Quatre failing to show on Friday had been upgraded to a disappearance, had it? And the police wanted to question Hajime about it, and Hajime didn’t want to have to explain that he’d been visiting Winner Plastics to perform an exorcism — yes, officer, I’m perfectly serious; no, sir, they’re just normal cigarettes. It all made sense, even if the involvement of Trowa Barton — the real Trowa Barton — still seemed improbable. But, “Why the hell couldn’t he have told me that?” Sano demanded of no one.

“He wanted you to be able to convince the police that you really didn’t know where he was?” Duo suggested.

“You know,” Sano replied sourly, “I might think that might have been his reason if it wasn’t so totally normal for him not to tell me things. You don’t happen to have Trowa’s address, do you?”

“Going to go give Hajime a piece of your mind?”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I wish I could see that,” lamented Duo. “Hang on.”

Once he had the address and an admonition to ‘break a leg’ that Duo might or might not have known he would be at least a little tempted to take literally, Sano set out with grim purpose. Now he was glad he’d driven to Hajime’s house, since it meant he could (assuming his car would start) head straight to his next destination without working out an unfamiliar bus route and nursing his impatient irritation for however long that would take.

His curiosity about Trowa Barton was mostly referred, but that didn’t mean what he did feel was weak or transient. He was very interested in seeing this new house, since that would indicate Trowa’s financial situation. What kind of money did a super-powerful immortal magician make? What kind of home would he live in? This was secondary to Sano’s feelings in relation to Hajime, however. He was incredibly annoyed with the guy for letting him worry and not telling him anything about what was going on; and in addition to the annoyance, some of the worry still hung around as well for good measure.

The house turned out to be a nice, decent-sized one in a nice neighborhood, with the forlorn look of a newly purchased home. Sano hoped Duo had given him the right address, because he didn’t hesitate to park in the empty driveway and march right up to the door. And perhaps it was rude, but he first rang the doorbell and then knocked — just in case. After not too long a wait and the sound of footsteps descending a staircase inside, the door opened to disclose Trowa Barton, and suddenly Sano was a little embarrassed.

“Hello,” said Trowa. He didn’t look terribly surprised to see someone he’d barely met on his doorstep — he mostly looked tired and unhappy — but Sano had already noticed that his wasn’t the easiest face to read. In any case, Sano had already knocked, trespassing on the property of the Trowa Barton with a minimal acquaintance with the man and a demand that really had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t going to get any less awkward and embarrassing no matter what he said. He cleared his throat, preparing to explain himself.

“You’re here to see Hajime, I assume,” said Trowa in the interim.

“Yeah,” Sano replied, the word emerging hoarse and abashed.

“Come in,” Trowa said unenthusiastically. This only made Sano feel more awkward, but what other option did he have? He must reassure himself that Hajime really was all right before anything else — and if that meant inconveniencing the Trowa Barton, that was what he would do.

Silently Trowa led him up the stairs to the balcony overlooking the entry, onto which three second-floor rooms opened. Two of them were open, and beside one Trowa stopped. Before he pointed down past the second (a bathroom) to the last, closed door, Sano had a chance to see into this first room to note the full bookshelves and paper-littered table within. He wondered what Trowa was working on — the mystery of his missing possessed boyfriend, perhaps — but he didn’t have time or inclination to pursue that curiosity very far at the moment. He said his embarrassed thanks and moved toward the final door.

Here he didn’t bother knocking; he was too worried and annoyed. And though one of these states decreased as he entered and observed Hajime, obviously just fine, seated with a book on an air mattress — the only furnishing in the bare room — the other increased exponentially. Hajime’s phone lay atop a small suitcase, plugged into a charger at the wall beside him, clearly powered off. Moreover, the expression the exorcist turned toward Sano, though slightly curious, was otherwise perfectly calm.

“You complete dick,” was how Sano greeted him, letting the door fall from his hand as he stepped forward.

“Hello to you too,” Hajime replied with a faint smirk, setting down his book.

“Yeah, fucking hello! Good to see you’re not arrested or committed or dead in a ditch somewhere!”

As he got to his feet and stepped off the air mattress, Hajime asked, “Did you really think any of those options were likely?”

Sano threw up his hands in irritation at Hajime’s obtuseness or whatever it was. “I didn’t know what was likely! How could I possibly have known?”

“This situation isn’t nearly as dramatic as you seem to think it is. There was no reason for you to be so worried.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? A client disappears — our client — and you don’t tell me, and the police think you’ve got something to do with it, and you don’t tell me, and then you fucking disappear, and all I get is Can you feed the fucking cats? until the fucking police show up looking for you, and I have no idea where you are or what to say, and two fucking days pass, and you might be in some serious fucking trouble, and you expect me to be not even a little bit worried about this?”

“You’re dragging it out far past its logical end point. Once you found out where I was, you could have stopped worrying.”

“Yeah, maybe, if I wasn’t in love with you.” As these words burst out, unexpected probably to each man in the room, Sano’s heart gave a heavy throb and started to race even as the temperature of his entire body abruptly rose. He plunged on. “Don’t you get that? I love you, so I was fucking worried even after I knew where you were, OK? I love you. You probably don’t want to hear that, but I’ve damn well said it now.”

Hajime nodded slowly, his expression having turned somewhat dark. “And I suppose you expect it to change something.”

“You know…” Sano clenched a frustrated fist. “I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t come here to talk about this. I came here to make sure you were OK. But now I see you’re goddamn fine, let’s talk about this.”

“All right.”

“So, yes, I expect it to change something when I tell you I love you! I’ve been waiting months to say it, trying not to, wondering what I should do and what’s wrong with you or what’s wrong with me that nothing’s happening, and now it slips out because I’m just that pissed, and, yes, I fucking expect it to fucking change something!”

“Sano. You’re at my house three or four days out of the week, and when your car won’t start you spend the night. And I don’t think most of your textbooks have seen the inside of your apartment for months.” Hajime’s tone held no remonstrance, only perfect seriousness. “I’m not sure what you want to change.”

Taken aback by what seemed a rather strange argument, Sano had no idea what to say next. Was Hajime really unsure what Sano wanted, or just playing stupid to try to avoid the point? Well, that had been the question all along, hadn’t it — had Hajime always been aware, and just opted to be an asshole about it, or was he actually genuinely ignorant? This certainly wasn’t the first time Sano had wished he could read Hajime’s thoughts, but it might be the most intense instance of that desire.

“You’re right,” Hajime said with a faint sigh. He looked simultaneously a little annoyed and somewhat defeated. “I shouldn’t avoid the point.”

“No, you shouldn’t!” Sano seized on the concession as if it were a life preserver and he drowning. “And if you know you’re doing it, you’ve probably known all along, you bastard, haven’t you?”

“That you want a romantic relationship?”

“God, it sounds so… formal… when you say it like that…” Sano shook his head, looking away from Hajime just for a moment as he dealt with the feeling of awkwardness that wording had instilled in him. Hajime and his professionalism…

“How would you prefer to put it?”

“I don’t know… it’s not like that’s not perfectly accurate… but I don’t feel like it covers everything.” Sano’s gaze rose again to Hajime’s steadily somber expression, and he took a step closer. “I want you to want me around!” He sounded almost desperate as he began his list. “I want to feel like, even when we’re annoying the hell out of each other, we’re still happier there than anywhere else. I want to hear you say you like me. I want–”

“I do like you,” interjected Hajime calmly. “Though I’ve never been entirely sure why.”

“I know! I mean, I can tell. You’re a jerk, but somehow I always feel like you do like me. It seems like you do like having me around, and you practically treat me like family… I’m pretty sure I’m closer to you than your actual family is, anyway… It already feels like we are closer than friends, but… but not quite…” Again he shook his head, and took another step toward Hajime. Though he would rather fling himself across the remaining space, he didn’t dare take more than one slow step at a time, as if he feared Hajime would run from him if startled.

“And I want something physical too,” he went on, “and it seems like you wouldn’t even mind that, except nothing ever actually happens. It was, what, like, a week and a half ago when I fell asleep pretty much right on top of you, and you didn’t move me for the whole second half of the movie, and when you did get up… I mean, you kinda suck at being gentle, but you were with me…”

Hajime, frowning faintly, said nothing. He’d agreed to talk about this, but hadn’t actually done much talking thus far.

Sano took a deep breath. “I don’t think we can keep having this both ways. Me liking you and you ignoring it, I mean. This is driving me crazy. We’ve been hanging out forever; I’ve had plenty of time to get over you and just settle down to being friends or whatever, so I think if that was ever going to happen it would have already. I can’t stand wanting you and not having you and at the same time not being able to get over you. I can’t keep going like this. I can’t be just your friend anymore. It hurts too goddamn much. But you’re not into guys,” he speculated, as he had speculated all along, “or you’re not into me, or you’re not…”

Still Hajime said nothing. It fit the pattern so well it made Sano want to scream and punch the bastard in the unmoving mouth. If he would just say something, just explain himself even a little…! That all of Sano’s emotion toward this man, built up to such a strength over the last few months, was not worth a single word of explanation, cut deeper even than the rejection he’d been fearing.

Again he threw a hand up in despairing helplessness, and it came down to clutch at his bowed face, covering his closed eyes. “I can’t figure you out. I’ve never been able to, and you just won’t tell me no matter what I say, and you know what? I can’t do this anymore. I thought it might work, but obviously I was wrong. I mean, I am an idiot. You’re always so fucking happy to remind me of that, but never…”

He shook his head, dislodging the hand, and turned away before he opened his eyes again so as to avoid looking at Hajime even one last time. “I’m done.” Turning fully toward the door, he repeated, “I’m done. I’m glad you’re OK, and I’ll feed the cats, but let me know when you’re coming home, because I don’t want to be there. Just… Bye.” And though it felt akin to tearing himself from something to which he was physically attached, breaking himself mercilessly open in the process, he started to walk away.

Part 3

Hajime had known this day would come. He’d been bracing himself for it for months. He’d watched Sano’s infatuation stubbornly refusing to fade, and known that Sano would eventually demand more than he could give. And that when he refused, Sano would walk away forever, unable to continue wanting without being able to have. Hajime had known all this would happen, and believed himself ready for it.

What he hadn’t known was that it wouldn’t go that way at all.

“Sano, come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that he wouldn’t be able to let Sano go, no matter what it took to hold onto him.

“Come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that the desire not to hurt Sano and the inverse of wanting to make Sano happy, not to mention the unexpected awareness that his own complacency was somehow inextricably involved with this as well as with Sano’s mere presence in his life, would be too much for him; that watching Sano walking away forever was simply more than he could stand, would take hold of him and force him to offer what he’d thought he could not give. He hadn’t known that he’d never really known how much Sano meant to him and what that realization might impel him to do. He could never have been ready for this.

“If all of that’s what you want, you can have it.”

Sano had paused to look back over his shoulder at the first call, and turned slowly at the second. Now, his expression of near torment unchanged, he stared at Hajime in wariness that bordered on complete disbelief.

Hajime attempted to smirk, and knew it wasn’t working very well. “Change your Facebook status to ‘in a relationship with Hajime Saitou’ if that’s what it takes to make you happy.”

“You know how I feel about Facebook,” said Sano’s mouth; his expression said something more along the lines of, “That type of sarcastic bullshit is especially fucking annoying right now.” But he took a step away from the door back toward Hajime.

“Then at least you can text it to all your friends: ‘I finally got Hajime to go out with me.'”

“They’ll never believe it. Kaoru thinks you’ve been trolling me this whole time and you’re really secretly married or something. Katsu thinks you’re stringing me along to make sure I keep helping you with shades you can’t deal with.” Sano sounded extremely suspicious even as he took another step closer. “Are you serious about this?”

Excising sarcasm completely, with all the earnestness he could command, Hajime said, “I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me. I’ll even give you something physical.” It surprised him to find that it was, more or less, all true. “What else was there?”

“You really are serious.” This half whisper still didn’t sound entirely convinced, and Sano looked wary.

“Come here.”

Before Sano could obey (or indicate that he wasn’t going to), they were interrupted by a knock. Soft though it was, it caused the imperfectly latched door to swing slowly open, revealing the owner of the house lowering his hand. He looked even more haggard than Hajime had seen him yet, and the exorcist realized with a stab of chagrin that Trowa might well have overheard much of their conversation. It hadn’t exactly been quiet, nor the door completely closed.

“I’ll be out for the next few hours,” Trowa said flatly — though there seemed to be both a touch of weary resignation and a subtle sort of accusation to his tone. “If you need anything from me, call my cell phone.” He didn’t give them a chance to respond, but turned away so abruptly it was as if he didn’t want to look at them for one instant longer. Even as he started walking up the hall he was muttering a spell, and presently the sound of his voice and footsteps cut off all at once.

Into the ensuing silence Hajime murmured, “We’ve just embarrassed or annoyed Trowa Barton — the Trowa Barton — out of his own house.”

Sano stared out of the room, mouth slightly ajar. His head was unguardedly busy with a rather comical equation between this scene and Forrest Gump dropping his pants before the president, and simultaneously hoping with a fervent, almost magical intensity that somebody somewhere had the wherewithal to mend Trowa’s mood before he decided to come back and get revenge for this. When Hajime cleared his throat, wanting to get back on track no matter how humiliating the prior circumstance, Sano moved quietly to close the door — properly this time — and turn toward him.

And then, because it was expected of him and what the situation called for, Hajime kissed him.

Sano, who leaned into Hajime and wrapped insistent arms around his neck, probably wouldn’t have liked to know what Hajime was thinking as he went about this task: how in the world had kissing become a thing people did? What couple first decided to press their mouths together, writhe their lips against each other, and tangle their tongues in this more or less nauseating fashion? How had such an unpleasant and unhygienic activity become a sign of mutual esteem?

He already knew, from experiences such as Sano had mentioned a minute ago involving close proximity on the sofa, that Sano’s body operated at a slightly higher temperature than most people’s. He could have guessed that Sano would taste like Chinese food, though he hadn’t guessed and would rather not have known, since what someone’s mouth tasted like should be, in Hajime’s opinion, exclusively that someone’s business. But at least Sano seemed to be enjoying this. However he felt about kissing, Hajime did enjoy Sano enjoying something. And it couldn’t last forever in any case; there was more conversation to be had.

“But, seriously, why now?” This came out in a near whisper as Sano withdrew, apparently with some reluctance, from Hajime’s lips and looked into his eyes, but the rest of the demand rose into more of a rant. “It’s not like it’s been a big mystery all along that I wanted you like this, even though I’ve been trying to be subtle about it — I mean, more subtle than I usually am about things — because it seemed like I got better results when I wasn’t outright flirting or whatever… but I think it’s still been pretty obvious. But you’ve been ignoring it all along, I have to think on purpose. So why’ve you changed your mind now?”

“Because I don’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing. But for you I’m willing to make an exception.” This fragment of the real explanation might be misleading, but at least it was true.

Sano let out a breathy laugh that was more indicative of surprise than anything else, and there sprang up out of nowhere a horizontal pink patch stretching from one of his ears all the way around to the other. “Really?” As he searched Hajime’s face, clearly wondering whether the words were a lie meant to placate and distract him, this pink stripe intensified and spread. “Just for me, huh?”

Solemnly, Hajime nodded.

Though it hadn’t actually been a lie, it did appear to have placated and distracted Sano, who now, instead of asking why Hajime didn’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing, leaned up — almost sprang up — and kissed him again. The new volume of blood in his face seemed to have perceptibly increased the already high temperature of his lips, which was interesting; that, combined with an accompanying interest in the ferocity of Sano’s movements brought on by the intensity of his emotion, made the action less tedious and distasteful than before. There was something about the fierce demonstration of Sano’s desperate pleasure at being the exception that rendered that demonstration, if not precisely enjoyable, at least acceptable to its recipient.

This time when Sano withdrew, the expression he turned up toward Hajime had a touch of something that seemed almost like drunkenness about it; and the idea that Hajime specifically was a sort of intoxicant to him… well, that wasn’t so bad either.

Leaning forward again, Sano ran moist lips across Hajime’s face to his ear and half whispered, “You’re going to fuck me now, right?” And before Hajime could even draw breath to answer, Sano reiterated, “Right?” in a tone that made it clear he was accepting no refusal. So like Sano to discount entirely the possibility that agreeing to enter upon a romantic relationship did not equate to being immediately ready for sex.

“If you insist,” Hajime replied. Deciding that this wording sounded almost as reluctant as he actually was for the proposed activity, he added, “I’ll do whatever you want.” Which he really would, even if it killed him. He did feel the need to remind Sano, however, “Don’t forget we’re in someone else’s house, though.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.” Sano drew back once more, embarrassed and determined. “And if I told Katsu I finally hooked up with you in Trowa Barton’s house, he’d laugh my ass right out of the room. But you know what? I don’t fucking care where we are. You’re going to make up for all those months you made me wait and jack off all the fucking time without having any idea how you’d actually do it if you were really there.” He was grinding against Hajime now, his words coming in a breathy growl. “You’re going to make me come hard enough to make up for trolling me all this time.”

Unsavory as was the scenario Sano described and the pictures beginning to bleed through from his eager imagination, not to mention the stirrings of reaction in Hajime’s own body to the grinding, Hajime couldn’t help but be somewhat amused by his new boyfriend’s wanton phraseology. “I told you I wasn’t trolling,” he murmured, “but I’ll see what I can do.”

Sano stepped back and threw a calculating look around, and at the idea Hajime was hearing pretty clearly from his head the exorcist said his name in a sharp, remonstrating tone.

“What?” Sano demanded. “I want you to fuck me for real, and Trowa Barton’s as gay as all fuck.”

“He’s not likely to have any–” Hajime began, but Sano had left the room before he could finish the sentence. With a sigh, he reseated himself and began to remove his tie while he waited for the younger man’s return.

He wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into by agreeing to this. It wasn’t, after all, just a one-time occurrence: he couldn’t grit his teeth and get through the coming sexual scene and then be done with the whole thing. A relationship meant a long-term commitment to a way of life and a set of behaviors he’d never planned on having to deal with again. He didn’t know if he would be capable of it and hadn’t merely put off the time when things would fall apart.

But he felt no temptation whatsoever to go back on his word. His realization and ensuing statements had been completely true: he couldn’t let Sano go. Whether he could return the love Sano claimed to feel for him, whether he could maintain the sort of interaction Sano wanted, whether this whole thing he was entering upon wasn’t or wouldn’t become an elaborate deception, he didn’t know, but he did know that Sano was important enough to him that he was perfectly willing to move out of his comfort zone to make sure he kept Sano in his life.

And that apparently meant he would be having sex with Sano in Trowa Barton’s house, of all places, on an air mattress he’d purchased on the way over when said Trowa Barton had informed him of a nearly complete lack of furniture. Well, he could grit his teeth and get through that, in the interest of knowing what he would be up against in the future. Though presumably, in the future, the severe embarrassment of being at Trowa Barton’s house would be absent.

Emotional scenes tended to break down Sano’s mental defenses, so Hajime picked up on the success of Sano’s venture before the younger man made it back to the room with a bottle of what appeared to be actual lube designed for sexual purposes. Based on what Hajime had understood of Trowa’s current circumstances — the burning of his previous house and the absence of his boyfriend since before the occupation of this new one — he really hadn’t expected Sano to find anything of the sort here… but he supposed that not only wasn’t it even a little of his business, he should also be glad of it, since it would (in more senses than just the literal) help things go more smoothly now.

Sano, certainly pleased about it, held up the bottle with a wickedly smug arrangement of lips and brows — which look, however, changed rapidly to one of slightly irritated disappointment. “You already took off your tie,” he protested as he again made sure the door was completely closed behind him and moved forward with no hesitation. “I wanted to do that!”

Hajime had read this desire in Sano’s head on a couple of previous occasions, and if he’d remembered it today, he might have allowed Sano to live out that peculiar little fantasy. Instead, as Sano dropped to a crouch and began to puzzle with spiky boots, he said, “Maybe next time.”

The thrill these words gave was just as evident in Sano’s thoughts as from his deep but sharply indrawn breath. And if Sano was really that happy at the prospect of removing Hajime’s tie… well, that was no difficult indulgence to offer him. Certainly easier than the probable sequel.

Sooner that could have been expected given the numbers of buckles and laces involved, Sano kicked his absurd footwear aside and began crawling across the air mattress toward Hajime. He came to rest — though ‘rest’ was a very inaccurate term — on top of the older man, legs straddling hips, fingers immediately busy with shirt buttons, and lips seeking out Hajime’s again. Hajime responded as best he could, running his own hands up Sano’s sides, considering reciprocating on the undressing front, and trying to ignore how uncomfortable Sano’s resumed grinding made him feel. At least Sano’s choice of pants today was not as dangerous as the boots; this could have been a good deal more uncomfortable.

Though the sexual stimulation frankly irritated, it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to have Sano’s body against his in a more general sense and to explore it with his hands. He could appreciate the casual muscularity, the admirable symmetry, the warmth, without too much trouble — but far more than that, he could appreciate the eagerness Sano displayed that was very clearly directed specifically at Hajime. It was, he supposed, only natural to respond positively to someone else’s adoration of and desire for you, even if those feelings were somewhat alien, difficult to understand, and probably impossible to return. He slid his hands under Sano’s shirt.

Eventually, after further kissing and grinding that Hajime was struggling to deal with, some tugging manipulation of clothing, and some squirming that, at least on Sano’s side, was calculated to move things along, they were fully horizontal and closer to naked. And even nakedness was nothing particularly onerous… it was what people would insist on doing with it that galled. In this situation, however, Hajime was forcing himself to acclimatize.

Actions that further reiterated Sano’s eagerness to be with him bore a certain unexpected charm. It was palpably awkward that Sano, who had shifted half off of Hajime onto his side in order to reach a lubed-up hand down the back of his own loosened pants, was groaning as he presumably prepared himself for penetration; but the way Sano simultaneously rolled his shoulders toward Hajime as if trying to hug him even when that was impossible, trying to stay close and inclusive, and mouthed his arm and chest in tickly, moist, almost desperate kisses showed just how much Sano associated with Hajime the pleasure he was actually giving himself, how good it was to be here with him.

And though, when that was finished, the strong fingers that found their way past Hajime’s zipper and clasped the erection there made Hajime want to push Sano off of him and walk away, the satisfaction evident in Sano’s thoughts — as if he’d just attained some long-sought goal — mollified the older man somewhat. He allowed himself to be stroked into greater hardness, heard his own breaths coming less evenly as moments passed, with solid forbearance, because it was what Sano wanted, because Sano obviously wanted it so much.

This was, after all, not about getting through something unpleasant; it was about giving Sano what he wanted. Making Sano happy… which, in turn, for some inscrutable reason, made Hajime happy. As such, Hajime needed to start tailoring his own actions toward optimal enjoyment for Sano. So he rolled over on top of him and tried both to engage Sano in the kind of kiss Sano had thus far been the one to initiate, and to ignore that they were now right at the edge of the air mattress and liable to fall off at any time.

The latter circumstance was rectified after not too long when they were forced to separate, panting, in order to remove their remaining garments. Had Hajime been in the frame of mind he believed generally accompanied this sort of activity — the hazy, lust-driven mood that filled Sano’s head like a hot, oily mist — he had to think it would have been disrupted by this awkward procedure. Apparently this was no problem for Sano, though he did laugh rather charmingly at the flopping removal of pants and underwear before making a grotesque sound of anticipation at the sight of Hajime’s exposed erection.

And then he was sliding close against Hajime again, encouraging Hajime on top of him and lifting a bare leg up over Hajime’s back. Though not unwilling to take charge once more, ready to grind for a while and tolerate Sano’s noises in response before getting on to the actual penetration, Hajime very much wished for a couple of condoms at the moment. He wondered whether there hadn’t been any wherever Sano had found the lube, or whether Sano simply hadn’t considered them important. He rather doubted he could have brought himself to explore Trowa Barton’s taste in condoms in any case, and supposed this was just another part of the sacrifice he was making… and perhaps a sign of how far he returned Sano’s trust.

Sano was kissing him at random, much in the same manner Hajime was thrusting against various surfaces lower down, and the young man’s current thought was perceptible in his mind — with accompanying visuals and sharply anticipated sensations — before it emerged as a muffled, breathless verbal demand against Hajime’s neck: “Come on, I am so fucking ready to go.”

“Are you?” — an inane question, and perhaps a reflexive attempt at putting off the big moment.

In response, Sano only groaned at first, scraping his teeth against Hajime’s skin as Hajime’s penis scraped against the space between his buttocks and picked up some of the apparently excessive lubricant that had been applied to the area. But then he managed, “Fuuuck meee,” in a tone equal parts silly insistent drawn-out vowels and growling desperation.

“All right.” Hajime found himself in the odd position of being rendered increasingly uncomfortable by the demand and simultaneously unable to keep from smiling. Sano could be winning and entertaining even at such a moment; nobody else in the world, probably, could have pushed Hajime into doing this.

It was a dozen years since the last time he had done this, and, though he’d never anticipated doing it again, he remembered well enough, and it wasn’t exactly rocket science in the first place. With one hand supporting his weight on the air mattress and the other on his erection, he guided himself to Sano’s anus and pushed inward. He might have worried a little about hurting Sano with his unlubricated penis, but evidently Sano had used a gallon or so of the stuff on himself and felt nothing but thorough enjoyment at the entrance.

“Oh, fuck, Hajime,” he groaned, clutching at the man above him and thrusting upward to hasten the process. Whatever he said next was too inarticulate to interpret, but the flood of mental adoration that poured from him was perfectly comprehensible.

Here was the remembered slimy tightness, and, as Hajime began pumping in and out, the stimulation grew steadily enough to make him believe he could probably orgasm eventually — which, despite his achievement of an erection, had been a matter of question. Perhaps he was aided by the awareness of how Sano would be likely to react if Hajime wasn’t able to maintain and enhance his arousal during their very first sexual encounter.

To his own surprise, however, Hajime found himself distracted from such gloomy thoughts when he was actually, after a few minutes, somewhat enjoying the experience.

He didn’t like the way Sano’s fingers dug desperately, bruisingly into him; he didn’t like the way Sano’s body writhed beneath him, always straining for more, more intense sensation; he didn’t like the animalistic timbre of the noises that broke from Sano’s trembling lips… and yet he loved the message all of these combined to send, which was echoed emphatically in Sano’s mind: that this contact, this apparent proof of Hajime’s returned regard, was practically everything Sano had ever wanted, that some profound and very specific need was being gloriously, perfectly fulfilled by Hajime’s actions right now.

Mentally, Sano was giddily, overwhelmingly happy; physically, as he rose toward his sexual climax, still he was already satisfied as he had never been before. And to make him feel these things, to see himself as their sole and exclusive cause, Hajime too was happy and satisfied. It almost completely overrode his disgust at the expanding tension in his groin. This awful friction, these awkward movements, the suffocating smell of sweat and pre-ejaculate — none of it was too high a price to pay to make Sano feel this good. And that was something of a shock.

Sano’s groaning whispers might have been repetitions of Hajime’s name, and then again might have been as meaningless as they sounded. Even his thoughts were becoming little more than a mess of positive emotions thrown over and over at Hajime like a tangled ball of yarn in a soft, absurd, repetitive beating. Sano was drawing closer and closer, and something attempting to shout louder than the chaos in his head, still struggling for coherency, urged him to wait for Hajime, to try to achieve that romanticized and highly improbable mutual orgasm.

“Don’t hold back,” Hajime murmured, and kissed him. Not only had he no desire to draw this out more than necessary, he also looked forward to Sano reaching his peak for more reasons than just that it would be the penultimate milestone on this ambivalent road.

Again Sano groaned, in another apparent attempt (failure) at saying something intelligible, and was clutching even more greedily than before; in fact he’d wrapped both legs around Hajime’s waist for an awkward entwining that would have been logistically inconvenient had the air mattress not deflated slightly and put them in a sort of trough that was perfect for their present positioning and movements.

Hajime supposed he should have been paying attention to things like hip angle and what specific arrangement of bodies Sano enjoyed most, so as to make this even better for him, but that kind of nonsense really was asking too much of him during their first sexual encounter. It also didn’t seem to matter; as Sano’s clinging kept Hajime in such close, swift-moving contact with himself at every moment, it was evidently enough. He stiffened, arching upward, crying out, spasming in his pleasure.

The mental feeling of Sano’s orgasm wasn’t nearly as interesting as Hajime had hoped; instead of a burst of joy to correspond with the burst of bodily ecstasy, it was a white blankness that, while certainly happy, was more distracted by the physical than involved with it. Even so, he was pleased to have induced such feelings in Sano.

The latter now loosened his grip, grinning slackly up, gripping with his legs yet but content to lie back somewhat and let out another string of breathy vowels in time with Hajime’s continued thrusts. His eyes, bright even in the shadow Hajime cast over him, blinked only occasionally to interrupt their rapt stare at Hajime’s face. They were such a rich shade of brown, these eyes, sparsely lashed but perfectly shaped, and Hajime did not at all mind returning their gaze as he tried to finish up this business. Sano was still so happy.

He’d also tightened abominably around the foreign organ inside him; Hajime remembered this increased pressure as one of the worst parts of being the penetrator in anal sex, and hoped he could get through it. He believed, inexpert a judge as he must be, that he was fairly close to his own orgasm but that concentrating on it would be counterproductive. So he concentrated instead on the returning order in Sano’s mind, the untangling of all those positive emotions and the straightening out of all those happy thoughts — none of which suffered any diminution for their increased clarity. He let Sano’s happiness wash over him and distract him from everything, and eventually the moment came.

He couldn’t quite help a deplorable grunting sound, but did manage to withhold any indication of his distaste at both the sensation and the positively gruesome awareness that he’d just shot semen up into Sano’s rectum. Then he took a deep breath and stilled, forcing himself not to pull out so quickly that his discomfort would be evident in the movement. Simultaneously he was congratulating himself on surviving this ordeal.

But the ordeal hadn’t quite ended. Sano was petting his hair and neck, still breathing loudly and happily, and Hajime was pricklingly aware that one of those hands of Sano’s had, not long ago, been exploring regions significantly less hygienic. In fact a general desire to make use of the bath in the next room was growing with shudder-inducing quickness and intensity in Hajime. A cigarette would be delightful as well, but he had neither any with him nor permission to smoke in this house. With an iron will he restrained his urge to get up and leave.

He did, however, ease his penis out from where he felt it should never be (but where it would undoubtedly spend some time in the future), slide his arms around Sano again, and settle into a more comfortable position. Some standards of cleanliness (no petting of hair with fingers that had recently occupied anyone’s ass!) would have to be established for future encounters, but at the moment he wasn’t going to ruin Sano’s enjoyment of the scene.

And his own, really. This hadn’t been so bad. Well, it had been bad, but not intolerably so, and its wonderful aspects had at least balanced if not outweighed the horrible. At the moment Hajime was actually fairly content; if he could ignore the discomfort of what people that liked this sort of thing called ‘afterglow’ and of his awareness of sexual fluids potentially leaking or smearing onto his proposed bed for the night, he even enjoyed lying here with Sano in his arms feeling Sano’s intense satisfaction and anticipation of times to come.

“I hope that made up for the trolling,” Hajime murmured at last.

“Mmm, not really.” Sano stretched, rubbing his body languidly against Hajime’s as he turned his face toward him. “But it was a good start.” And he kissed Hajime just as languidly. This prevented him from finishing his statement verbally, but Hajime caught, faintly, the remainder of it in his head, around which the shields had been gradually reforming: I mean, it was really good, but it only lasted, like, ten minutes or something, and I bet we could go twenty times that long.

Thankfully Sano hadn’t said this aloud, since how to respond would have been an unpleasant mystery Hajime might not have been able to solve. He was impressed with himself for managing to orgasm after only, like, ten minutes of stimulation, and simultaneously appalled at the idea of having to attempt to put up with sex for twenty times that long. And what else would Sano demand of him? He would probably want to do the penetrating on occasion, and then there was fellatio and anilingus and god only knew what. Well, Hajime would just have to draw a line somewhere.

But it wouldn’t be a line debarring sex entirely. He wouldn’t deny Sano that. And maybe this wouldn’t have to be as much of a deception as Hajime had been fearing. He had, after all, legitimately enjoyed some aspects of tonight’s encounter, and felt he could manage to make sex with Sano a part of his life. He could and would do what was required to keep Sano with him, to keep Sano happy.

Finishing at last the lingering kiss that had allowed Hajime time for all these thoughts, Sano drew back a bit and sighed contentedly. “Yeah,” he said in a luxuriating tone, “I think I could stand to do that a fucking lot from now on.”

And he undoubtedly didn’t recognize the complete lack of facetiousness in Hajime’s reply, “I think I could too.”



If you’re curious where Trowa went when he left the house, see Consummate Timing.

Part 4

The most infuriating thing was that then Sano had to go home. Back to Hajime’s house, anyway. He’d run off in such an outraged state of worry and confusion, he hadn’t given any thought to the cats’ dinner — and if he had thought about it, he would never have guessed that a situation might arise wherein he would be tempted to put off returning to the hungry familiars in favor of having sex with Hajime again. And then maybe again.

The other problem was that Hajime pretty clearly didn’t take much pleasure from the fact that they’d celebrated the upgrade to their relationship in somebody’s guest room — especially given who that somebody was — and probably wouldn’t have been willing to have sex again (and then maybe again) in that venue in any case. Though he’d seemed ready enough to cuddle Sano on the air mattress for a good long time, he’d also seemed to want a shower very much as well. Evidently he was going to be a fastidious lover; Sano couldn’t say he was surprised.

And the cats still needed to be fed. This and the awareness of morning class (for which all his things were at Hajime’s house) had forced the very reluctant Sano out.

Despite the severe annoyance of having to drive home, Sano barely remembered the drive home. There had probably been stoplights and other motorists and… gasoline… and stuff. Obviously his car had started without too much trouble. Hopefully he’d worn his seat belt. It was all more than a bit of a blur. At the moment he was standing in Hajime’s kitchen, not quite sure how he’d arrived there, watching the cats eat food he wasn’t quite sure when he’d given them, grinning in a mixture of dreaminess and triumph and savoring the last of the sensations fading throughout his body.

“For you I’m willing to make an exception.”

The sensations in his heart weren’t fading.

He was tempted to do what Hajime had suggested and text an all-caps, possibly multi-message announcement to everyone that had ever put up with his complaints about his lack of progress in this area — or even actually sign onto Facebook for once and change his relationship status. But he held off for the moment. He was thinking about Hajime’s lips on his neck. He would, of course, relate the gleeful news to his friends after while, and rejoice in so doing and in their reactions, but right now it was too close, too precious to share with anyone.

“I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me.”

It wasn’t as if Sano had never been in a relationship before, never believed himself in love before. But he’d never had to wait this long for someone he liked this much, and he’d never had anyone make so much of a concession for him. Though it hadn’t been overtly stated, he thought he had the answer to the question he’d been silently asking for so long: his interest had been ignored all this time because Hajime disliked relationships.

That… that Sano really should have predicted. Hajime had moved to a different country to get away from his family and admitted, as far as Sano knew, a total of two friends. Maybe two and a half. And yet, when push came to shove, he would go against his own evidently fairly strong disinclination and accept Sano as his lover. Make an exception just for Sano. Who knew perfectly well that Hajime Saitou wasn’t much given to making exceptions.

“Don’t hold back.”

If he concentrated, he could still call up the sensations of Hajime touching him, kissing him, fucking him… he could still smell him. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that he was in Hajime’s home, but the memories were so visceral it seemed like more than merely that.

A shower here to supplement the handwash Hajime had insisted upon at Trowa’s house might have been a good idea, but that scent Sano swore he could still detect all over his own body was, at the moment, something he could not bear to lose. Besides, such considerations barely registered through the preoccupied felicitous haze in which he currently operated. Maybe tomorrow. For now, happily brazen, he stripped off his clothing for the second and less interesting time tonight and, after a trip to the toilet that was as far as he was willing to recognize mundanity, crawled into Hajime’s bed.

With hands behind his head on the pillow, he stared up toward the ceiling, but his line of sight was broken by memories like visions that arose in front of his eyes: Hajime’s expression when he called Sano back, having finally made the choice to accept him in full spite of his own habits… Hajime waiting for him on that air mattress, having done the unthinkable and actually removed that uptight tie of his… Hajime’s gorgeous eyes boring into Sano’s from above as he finished inside him, having just made him come if not quite hard enough to make up for all the lonely masturbation at least pretty damn satisfyingly.

“I do like you.”

“You really do, don’t you?”

Misao, who had curled up beside Sano on top of the blanket at some point completely unnoticed by him, wondered now what he meant. He reached down to pet her, scratching her head absently as he replied that he hadn’t been addressing her.

He’d begun mentally reliving the entire evening, in the level of detail with which only that kind of exquisitely indelible event can be recalled — earlier, more aggravating parts not excluded — and gotten as far as the extremely embarrassing entrance of Trowa, when noise arose from the pocket of his pants on the floor.

The tone he’d set for text messages from Hajime, a cheesy harp sound that had come pre-loaded on the phone, had felt appropriate not even remotely for Hajime’s personality but for the silly sense of romantic longing it seemed to convey. Hearing it now, Sano let out a cry of triumph and joy. He would have to change it — he would definitely change it to something more befitting his official boyfriend — but at the moment it carried vindication of his long wait and congratulations for tonight’s events.

Misao expressed annoyance at being disrupted from her comfortable position as Sano scrambled up and leaned over the side of the bed to find his forgotten phone, but his placating reply trailed off into distraction as he unlocked the device and read the message Hajime must have sent once he was done with his much-desired shower:

Thanks for the 67 texts. I apologize for being inaccessible. It won’t happen again.

The same stupid grin Sano was pretty sure he’d been wearing since he’d left Trowa’s house now widened perceptibly as he typed, I can forgive you for just about anything right now.

So if I wanted to stab you again… Hajime suggested.

Sano wished he could convey an eyebrow vigorously pumped, or at the very least a licentious tone, with his reply, Depends on what kind of stab we’re talking.

Idiot, Hajime sent.

Sano flopped onto his back again, laughing out loud in his delight and then continuing to grin up at the phone he now held above him. This is so high school. Where you go to a friend’s house whose parents aren’t home so you can fuck and YOUR parents won’t know, and then you go home before curfew and text about it all night?

Somehow I’m not surprised you were doing that kind of thing in high school.

And YOU weren’t? Immediately he’d sent this he rethought it. No, of course you weren’t, kouhasan, why would I even ask.

Idiot. Sano had liked being called ‘idiot’ by Hajime (some of the time) for quite a while, since it had often seemed, counterintuitively, a sign of friendship. But he’d never thought he would come to love the sound (or in this case the look) of it quite this much.

Idiot’s going to sleep in your bed by the way

Feel free.

Mentioning the bed had raised a question. Also by the way, why Trowa Barton’s house? If you went to a hotel, we could be fucking again right now.

No, we couldn’t. You wouldn’t have found me at a hotel.

Not with you not answering your damn phone!! So you went to TB’s house SO I could find you?

No, it was because Gains from Seido called and offered me a place to stay while the police want to talk to me. I had to be able to tell him I was already staying with a friend.

On reading this, Sano sat up again, giving the not-so-good news the first frown he’d worn since before Hajime had kissed him. He supposed Hajime’s choice made some sense, under the circumstances… though he could already think of other options that might have been more convenient. At some point he would have to ask Hajime why Trowa Barton’s house in particular had seemed the best place to go. Not right now, though; anything to do with Seido was a spectacular buzz-kill. So the only remonstrance Sano offered at the moment was, You should TELL ME about shit like that instead of making me worry.

Are you saying you’re dissatisfied with how tonight has turned out?

Haha no. Now he was able to smile again, and to pet Misao when she crawled into his blanketed lap. The message he then composed one-handed would certainly have made him blush if he’d been saying it face-to-face, but in writing seemed calmly straightforward: I hope you’re happy with it too

Hajime’s reply was gratifyingly immediate: I am.

I meant when I said I love you, Sano told him.

This time the response was not quite so quick. I hope you know that saying that puts you at risk of not having it said back.

Sano didn’t stop smiling at this, but he felt the expression go a bit wan. He hadn’t really expected Hajime to pour out his heart or whatever… but he wouldn’t have objected. Well we already figured out that you suck at telling me stuff.

And yet you love me anyway.

Here Sano made an indignant sound, which was echoed by the cat in his lap at his cessation of caresses. He didn’t resume just yet, though, since he wanted both hands to hasten the composition of his protest. Hey, it is completely unfair to say you can’t say you love me and then turn around and give me shit about saying I love you.

Your definition of “unfair” is so elastic.

Sano wasn’t sure how to reply to this, and a little annoyed at the turn of the conversation — which feeling threatened to translate to dismay under the current circumstances. But he’d barely resumed petting Misao, and hadn’t yet decided what to say, when another message arrived:

Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life.

Just as if Hajime had actually been in the room speaking aloud, Sano could hear the words in his boyfriend’s deep voice, Japanese accented, perfectly serious, devoid of any of the sarcasm that often colored it. And while not a declaration of love, still the statement meant the world to him. He wondered if Hajime knew just how much it meant to him.

I guess that will do for now, he sent. Then, staring at the words, he found another frown on his face as he decided he was not at all satisfied with that reply. Wow, that looks so cold, was his addendum. I mean I’m really happy to hear that, it really IS good enough for now. After another moment’s thought he added, REALLY good. And then, REALLY REALLY GOOD.

Does each “REALLY” have a cumulative effect? Now it was amusement Sano could hear in Hajime’s words as easily as if he’d actually been there.

Yes, 10x, he replied at once.

So is that 100x or 1000x good?

Again Sano laughed out loud. Now YOU’RE being an idiot

You must be rubbing off on me. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

DON’T YOU DARE, Sano texted fiercely, replying with very serious insistence to what he believed (hoped!) had been only a facetious threat.

All right, fine, Hajime answered. But I AM going to stop texting you so you can go to sleep. I know you have class in the morning.

First tell me I won’t wake up and find out this was all a dream.

You tracked me down intending to (try to) beat me up, then embarrassed the hell out of me in front of Trowa Barton. That sounds more like a nightmare to me.

While this was actually a fairly reassuring response to Sano’s demand, part of it had to be picked at. What’s that (try to)?

Consider the last time we fought. Actually consider every time we’ve fought.

You’re a bastard.

And you still claim to love me.

Sano wondered if this teasing regarding his professions of love was going to become a problem. At the moment it didn’t significantly bother him; in fact he was glad of the banter, and glad to have his true feelings out in the open at last… but if Hajime kept it up, it might become somewhat painful. It seemed to imply a real disdain for the emotion, which in turn implied that not only was whatever Hajime felt for him at this point not love, it might never be.

But Sano refused to think about that right now. And in fact the next message from Hajime, on the heels of the more worrisome one, distracted him: Go to sleep. I’ll call you in the morning. What time do you want to wake up?

It was exactly the promise Sano needed, and probably the only thing that could get him to abandon this conversation instead of continuing literally all night. Seven, he replied.

I’ll talk to you then. Good night.

Good night. There was something oddly and delightfully intimate about exchanging these wishes after what had evolved between them. Even via text, ‘good night’ meant something different now. It meant what Sano had always wanted it to mean.

He wondered, as he set his phone on the nightstand and then lay down again, how long Hajime would stay at Trowa Barton’s house — how long it would be before Sano could make the use of this very bed that he’d yearned to since March… undoubtedly, somewhat depressingly, not until some new development occurred in the situation with Quatre Winner. Between now and then, it seemed unlikely that any further sex could occur between him and his lover. Indeed, Sano wasn’t sure he could bring himself even to visit Hajime at that place, could manage to look Trowa Barton in the face any time soon after having searched his sparse bedroom for lube and actually found it.

But knowing that Hajime did care about him, knowing what had already passed and what would come to pass, made him strong. Phone calls and texts, probably limited to off-hours when the police weren’t likely to try calling, would do for a while. Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life, he felt, would make him remarkably patient.

Again absently, he petted once or twice the cat that had settled against his stomach when he’d turned onto his side. He’d believed he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep with so much to think about, with the memories of this evening still so strong and the scent of Hajime still so perceptible around him, but found as he closed his eyes that he was surprisingly drained — a good kind of drained that seemed ready to pull him straight into placid depths.

And, though in his startlement at the unaccustomed ringing of his phone at 7:00 in the morning he did not immediately recall how beautifully everything had changed, it all came rushing back to him when the first thing he truly comprehended upon awakening was a beloved voice saying, “Good morning, idiot. It wasn’t a dream.”



<<3

I’ve rated this story .

Eloquent



I would get naked for Heero Yuy anytime, anywhere, no matter what was going on. Back alley? Sure. Open street? Why not? Fire fight? Bring it on. Space battle? Well, you get the picture.

OK, I may be exaggerating just a little. I might have to give him an I.O.U. if I was on a mission at the time. But you’d better believe that when he comes in, dirty, ragged, sweaty, tired, to the motel room we just happen to be sharing (absolute coincidence, I swear) and gives me that look, I’m not about to hold back.

Just because I’ve finally managed to get him to open up to me in certain ways doesn’t mean I can usually get him to talk about whatever this is that we’ve got going here, and it’s a little frustrating not knowing whether or not there’s actually an us in this situation because he always avoids the subject. He’s very good at avoiding subjects. But then sometimes he gives me that look, and there’s no need for words.

I hustle him out of his clothes and equipment and into the shower, mostly just because I don’t know what he’s been crawling through, but I can’t even wait for him to half get started cleaning up before I join him. It’s probably a good idea anyway; the hot water available in this place is limited, so it’s better for us both to get clean at the same time before it runs out. Not that I’ve really got anything ‘clean’ in mind at this point. This braid can last without attention for another couple of days.

Despite the fact that he gave me that look, really the only way I can tell he doesn’t mind what I’m doing is the lack of any actual objection. If he didn’t want me putting my hands all over him, if he didn’t want me pushing him up against the plasticky shower wall and sucking on his neck, if he didn’t want my fingers wandering quite so far down his body, he’d tell me, undoubtedly by means of a bullet or two.

I haven’t been able to decide whether I like it better when he tops or when I do. I know that what I like best is both in a row, but that’s not a frequent occurrence. We just don’t have that kind of time, even when we do happen to, absolutely coincidentally, be sharing a motel room because we’ve both got missions in the area. We need sleep — actually, I should have been in bed hours ago, but I was waiting around for him — so there’s no opportunity for doing things the way I’d really prefer.

I don’t have the faintest clue which he likes better either, but usually when he gives me that look, it means that he wants to take it from me. OK, I don’t really know that it does mean that; just that’s how things end up, and he doesn’t complain.

In fact I never get any feedback on this from him. Slower? Faster? Harder? Softer? Different angle? Different position entirely, maybe? It seems like it’s all the same to him, and if I ask, he just turns red and mumbles something I can’t understand; if I insist, he gets angry. But I must be doing something right, since he spreads his legs a little wider and shifts his hips with just the faintest groan of pleasure, and over my hand that’s braced against the wall he puts his own, his fingers pressing at mine as if he wishes they could be interlocked.

If only I knew, though, whether he really likes it like this or if there’s something else I could be doing. I’d do anything he asked, if he’d just ask. I mean, I’m noisy as Hell when he’s the one taking the lead, and he tends to do whatever I ask… I’d love to return the favor… But maybe he really is OK with it like this. I just wish I knew.

He doesn’t seem to have any problems orgasming, anyway.

And, God, neither do I, when he tightens up around me like that.

So afterwards there actually does turn out to be some real getting cleaned up. I just can’t help lavishing attention on my beautiful Heero, even if it is only with this crappy little hotel soap and a tiny travel bottle of shampoo that I could have used on myself but would rather use on him.

And sometimes… sometimes… I even get the feeling that he likes it. That’s probably wishful thinking on my part, though, since I don’t really know how I ever manage to get that impression. Not that Heero isn’t extremely good at subtle cues; I just never thought I was all that good at picking up on them.

I still don’t bother with any washing of myself beyond just the basic standing under the spray, since I’ve spent my entire allowance of hot-water-time on Heero; anyway, since I’ll be the one crawling through mud and God-knows-what-else in the morning, it doesn’t really matter. And I’d much rather get to the toweling-Heero-off phase quicker anyway.

Even when he’s tired out and obviously not terribly happy, there’s only so much coddling a guy like Heero can take before he pushes my hands away with a grumble and does the rest on his own. I don’t mind; actually, I think I would seriously worry if he let me do too much for him. But he doesn’t object to me checking the bed for parasites, turning off the lights, and half tucking him in before I lie down beside him. And then we sort of sink into each other in this nice kind of melty way where our breathing is almost synchronized and we are, if not totally relaxed, at least fairly comfortable together.

I love this more than anything, and it’s not just that the sex is incredible — though it definitely is. For a few hours in a cheap motel that thinks we’re a couple of illegal immigrants trying to keep our heads down and find work and a more permanent place to stay, before we have to go separate ways that are pretty much guaranteed to lead to gunshots and explosions and mobile suits battles, I can pretend to forget about the rest of the sphere.

I can pretend to forget that I have no idea who’s going to suffer because of what I’m doing, and the fact that nothing’s going to change that; Hell, they might be suffering already as I’m doing it; innocents might be hurting right now, and I can’t even offer them a quick death, because I have no idea who or where they might be. And at the same time, the fighting is so often invigorating and fun, and maybe it really shouldn’t be; maybe I’m turning into someone who enjoys hurting other people; maybe I’m not doing any of this because I think it’s going to help, but how the Hell can I even tell? Is the specific destruction I cause going to do any good, short-term or long-term? Maybe this whole damn plot is just an insane and pointless string of terrorism that’s actually just making everything worse… and maybe I don’t care. I don’t even know anymore.

But in here, things are different. Here, I can be with someone I definitely do care about, and concentrate on the good feelings between us. Here I know for a fact that I’m fulfilling a need of someone I maybe kinda sorta love. The simplicity and positivity are so totally opposite everything else I have to deal with in this shitty Hell of a war, it’s like we’ve shifted into another dimension entirely.

He’s clinging a little tonight, and I cling right back; we huddle together in the bed more like a couple of kids protecting each other from the dark than a couple of soldiers who happen to be ambiguous lovers taking a momentary break from a war. And, really, I guess that’s what we are… just kids who don’t know what we’re doing. But at least we have each other. I think.

“So what brought this on?” I wonder eventually, so quietly that he probably feels my words through his skin more clearly than he hears them. “Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

Heero takes an almost inaudible deep breath and actually answers the question, which is a bit of a surprise. In that forced tone he sometimes uses when (I’m fairly sure) what he has to say isn’t something he’s reluctant about, necessarily, but something he’s not entirely certain how to articulate, he murmurs, “Out there, everything is… twisted. Here, with you, it’s right.”

I wonder if he can feel my increase in heart-rate as he says it. Miserable as the sentiment itself is, at least in part, it’s fucking glorious to realize that he was thinking the same thing I was, even if he took about two hundred fewer words to express it.

“Yeah,” I whisper. “You’re absolutely right.” And I hold him tighter.

It’s funny how just a short little phrase like that can make me feel so much better about everything. I still may not be entirely sure about the degree of us I’ve got to work with here, I still definitely have to go back out and play Death God tomorrow, and, really, nothing in the world has changed… but somehow this kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing is suddenly a little less afraid of the dark. And I fall asleep relatively content, thinking that, for all I complain about the amount of effort it sometimes takes to get things out of him, at other times Heero really is every bit as eloquent as he needs to be.


Holy Tolkien, did I write something in the canon setting? It looks like I did. It’s a fairly generic soldiers-comforting-each-other-with-romance-or-the-next-best-thing kind of plot, but everyone has to write at least one of those, right? I think I’d read one of those in the GW world before I’d even ever seen the series XD I’ve rated this story .

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


You Won’t Regret It

You Won’t Regret It

Why did he treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?


Having been slaves for most of their lives, they know that love is both a luxury and a weakness they can’t afford; with Sano obsessing over a guard and Katsu enchanted by a newly-arrived fellow slave, however, they may not be able to help themselves. But something bigger than that is going on around them, and their growing feelings may be the least of their problems.

Unique to this story: shallow treatment of very serious topics

You Won’t Regret It

Chapter 1

Two figures trudged silently up a long, gentle, brush-covered hill that was dotted with small trees on either side of the dirt road. There were no clouds that day, and the burning harvest sun never ceased its barrage of scorching rays despite its near-hidden state behind the forested horizon. The young men were covered in dirt the same color of dark brown as that beneath their bare feet, and sweat ran over round muscle in bright lines through the grime they’d accrued from their day’s work. Their plain, sleeveless shirts, rumpled and filthy like their equally plain, baggy pants, were balled in their hands, baring the tattoo that each bore on his right shoulder-blade: a simple logo consisting of two fisted hands pressed knuckle-to-palm and the letters ‘KL’ above a ten-digit number.

The more muscular of the two was brown-haired and brown-eyed, his locks shorn close so they prickled in every direction. He was tall and lanky, his frame filled out with muscle and perfectly trim, his skin golden. His name was Sanosuke.

The other was only slightly shorter, stockier and less well-developed but still undeniably strong from the huge amount of hard labor he and his fellow slaves performed day after day. His long black hair was tied up to keep it out of his face, which visage was somewhat gaunt and tired-looking. His skin was darker than his friend’s, his eyes clear blue. This was Katsuhiro.

As they began to speak, it was with perfectly mixed accents; they had lived in the slave complex for so long that their national origins could no longer be determined; it was possible that they themselves did not remember what those were.

“I know what you’re thinking about.” Katsu was looking anywhere but at his friend — at a lizard skittering across a rock nearby, at the half-obscured tire tracks in the dust beneath their feet, at his own work-hardened hands as they swung beside him.

“Fuck,” was all Sano replied. His gaze was steadily forward, but he didn’t seem to see anything — at least, not anything actually ahead of him.

Katsu sighed. “I know it hurts you to watch her like that, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Throwing him a dour look, Sano replied, “So I should just forget it, huh?”

Katsu’s eyes fell again to the ground they walked. “I don’t know.”

“I swear that bastard did it on purpose!”

“Did what?”

“They told him Kaoru was Kenshin’s woman, and he bought just Kenshin on purpose to hurt them both.”

“He did seem pretty cold-hearted,” Katsu admitted.

“Cold-hearted? The man was a fucking sadist!”

Katsu sighed again. “Sano, this isn’t helping.”

“I’ve gotta do something, though… she’s still sick, and now they’re making her work the fields already!”

“Sano, I told you, there’s nothing you can do!”

Sano seized his friend by the shoulders and shook him. “What the hell are you saying, man? What would Souzou think to hear you say that?!”

“Why do you think Souzou’s dead, idiot?” replied Katsu in a defensively loud tone, pain filling his eyes.

Sano’s face contorted in an angry growl. “Coward!”

“Is there a problem?”

Both slaves turned to look at the source of the deep, Sorratian-accented voice, and observed a guard watching them. He’d obviously been heading down to the fields from the barracks for the night watch, for the crisp cloth of his uniform was as yet unmarred by any of the dust that would certainly stripe it by the end of the night. He’d apparently come upon them just as the shaking and yelling had begun; fights between slaves were absolutely not tolerated, and the guard was touching his holstered gun, slung left-handed, in silent warning.

Slowly the two calmed and shook their heads, resuming their steady pace toward their sleeping quarters. But as they passed the grey-clad enforcer, Sano could feel the guard’s eyes carefully and approvingly traversing his body before the man chose to walk on.

Now I’ve done it,” Sano grumbled.

Their brief argument was forgotten. “Hey, he was looking at me too,” Katsu reassured him. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I’ve never seen him around here before.” Sano fought the urge to look back at the tall, unfamiliar figure. “Suppose he’s new?”

“I guess.” Katsu gave in to the temptation Sano had resisted and turned his head to glance at the man. He snorted. “If they’re going to let their guards use us as their personal whores, they should at least get good-looking ones.”

Sano was startled. “I thought that guy looked pretty good; you didn’t?”

“He was freaky… didn’t you see? his eyes were yellow.”

Sano had seen, and shrugged. “Not like it matters much once they’re fucking you.” And he thought no more of it, for his mind had returned to the disturbing matter of Kaoru.

His heart ached for her, seeing her weakening daily from her mysterious illness. The doctor hadn’t been able to give any real diagnosis, which was why the slavers were forcing her to continue work, but Sano knew exactly what she was suffering from: a broken heart. Ever since that white-haired bastard had shown up looking for a strong but pretty man and taken Kenshin away from her forever, Kaoru’s spirit was entirely broken. Sano knew she couldn’t last long. He’d seen it before, in the years he’d spent here, but it had never hurt him like this. Kenshin had been a good friend to him, and Kaoru was like a sister, despite the fact that he’d only known the two of them for just under a year. It was difficult that no matter what he did, Kenshin was destined to live out a life of slavery to some rich sadist somewhere never knowing that his lover had wasted away without him.

Today she had collapsed in the field shortly after noon, and though they had not feared for her life — she’d been open-eyed and relatively lucid as she’d been helped back to the quarters by a couple of grumbling guards — naturally Sano and Katsu were worried that her condition was worsening. And of course there was no communication between slaves in one part of the complex and those in another, so they had no idea how she’d fared for the rest of the day.

As they drew nearer to the cluster of slave quarter buildings that semi-circled the mess hall, their pace subtly increased as they threaded their way through the influx of people to the latter and headed for their own quarters instead.

The building, identical to the other four, was a plain rectangle divided into two long rooms succeeding a small set of chambers that belonged to the quarter-warden. The main rooms contained little more than the rows of cots on which the slaves slept; as nobody stayed in the complex long before being sold, there were few belongings to be seen, and no personalization whatsoever. And everything, even what had started out another color, had faded to the same uniform grey.

Against this, Kaoru’s dark hair and pale skin stood out, as did the similarly dark hair of the stranger that sat beside her on the cot. Sano and Katsu slowed momentarily as they entered the room, surprised. Kaoru looked up at them and smiled slightly. Deciding for the moment to ignore the unfamiliar young man at her side, the two hurried over to her.

“You’re sitting up; you look OK,” Sano said as they reached her.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “It was just the heat, I think.”

“I hope you’ve been drinking lots of water,” Katsu said.

She nodded, and gestured to the stranger, who, they noticed, was holding a half-full glass bottle. They both took the time now to study the fine features and short, even black hair of the young man that looked to be about their age. He must have been well-treated, wherever he came from.

“You new?” Sano asked him.

“My name is Soujirou,” the newcomer replied with a nod, and even in these few words his Touschan accent was clear. “I just got here today, and they didn’t give me anything to do, so I’ve just been sitting with her since she came.”

“Thanks for helping her,” Katsu replied seriously. “I’m Katsu and this is Sano.”

“You feelin’ up to supper?” Sano asked Kaoru after he’d completed his half of the introduction with a nod to Soujirou.

“I think I could manage it,” she said softly, the only problem with the statement being that she didn’t seem to care whether or not she ate that night or ever again. Sano, deciding to ignore this and how helpless and miserable it made him feel, extended a hand to help her up, and at her side Soujirou also stood.

“Anyone show you the way to mess hall yet?” Sano asked as he started toward the door.

“They pointed it out to me,” Soujirou admitted, “but I’m a little disoriented now.”

“You must have come from someone nice,” Katsu commented as he fell into step at Soujirou’s side.

Soujirou nodded. “Actually, I’m a little nervous about all this… I never had to do much hard work…” A slightly shaky laugh accompanied this statement, and Sano couldn’t help pitying him. He’d find out soon enough what real slave labor was.

There wasn’t a day when the topic of escape didn’t come up at some point, facetious, sardonic, or hopeless as such conversations usually were. The mess hall was usually the setting of this, and, despite having a new addition to their little circle, tonight was no exception. This discussion was led, as was quite often the case, by Yahiko, a boy that usually shared their company and always had a grand scheme for getting out.

“No, I swear it would work,” he was insisting, emphatically waving a piece of bread at the skeptical Katsu beside him. “All we’d have to do is get to the top of the windmill and–”

“Listen, kid,” Sano interrupted him with a shake of his head, “don’t get your hopes up with crazy plans like that. Unless we come up with something that would actually work, we’re not likely to ever escape from here, and that’s reality.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Kaoru chided, observing the eleven-year-old’s downcast expression with pity. “I’m sure there’s some way out.”

Katsu only shook his head as Sano had done.

Yahiko was determined not to despair even in the face of jaded discouragement. His was a strong spirit that had yet to be broken, he having been here only a few months or so after the relatively kind owner he’d been born serving had died. He idolized Sano, for some reason, to the point even of trying to imitate his hairstyle, though his locks were black. And he was determined to escape. “No, seriously, hang-gliders work really good — you strap it to your back and glide for a mile or something.”

Sano smiled wanly. “Don’t you think they’d notice if we took all our blankets outside and started tying them onto sticks and stuff?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Kaoru said.

“See?” Yahiko demanded.

Soujirou, who had been listening in intent silence, now joined the conversation. “If you could escape, though, where would you go?”

“Yeah, exactly,” Sano said.

“Back to Touscha, of course,” said Yahiko hotly.

“How would you get there, though?” Soujirou pursued. “This place is in the middle of nowhere between Touscha, Baiza, and West Sorrat, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Katsu confirmed, a little surprised; most slaves didn’t have any clear idea of the complex’s geographic location.

“Wouldn’t it be a long, hard hike, then?” Soujirou asked. “And what would you eat? And what if something ate you?”

Seeming a little dismayed at these questions, Yahiko struggled to find answers.

“And if you got to Touscha,” Soujirou pressed on, “what then? Do you know how to live like a free man? Could you blend in well enough that when Ketterect Labor came looking, they wouldn’t suspect you were an escaped slave?”

This was another surprise; few slaves knew what the KL on their backs stood for.

“And how would you support yourself? Touschans don’t hold jobs until they’re eighteen, you know.”

“Is this really necessary?” asked Kaoru quietly. Katsu noticed absently that she hadn’t eaten much.

Sano sided with Soujirou. “No, he’s just being realistic.” And though it did seem odd that Soujirou could play devil’s advocate so persistently with that mild smile on his face the entire time, Katsu had to agree that realism shouldn’t be argued against. A lot of the time — as in this situation, evidently — those that had just arrived were the most pragmatic; anyone that lasted longer, went through a couple of dealer cycles without being sold, often had their perspective skewed. As for Katsu and Sano… he didn’t know whether their history at this place rendered their perspective dead-on, or skewed even worse than most.

Yahiko was staring at his plate unhappily; Katsu found his eyes lingering on the boy for quite some time. The prudence of practicality notwithstanding, maybe the newcomer had been a little too blunt. Katsu’s gaze rose to find that young man, and discovered Soujirou looking similarly at Yahiko. The smile was gone from his face, and the expression there in its stead was one of sorrow and pity that Katsu couldn’t help but appreciate; maybe Soujirou also thought he’d been too hard on the kid.

As if feeling Katsu’s gaze, Soujirou looked up and caught his eyes, and the light smile returned, the sadness vanishing as if it had never existed. Katsu thought this odd, but there was no use staring any further; he was finished eating and had somewhere to be.

“Well,” he announced as he stood and picked up his tray, “I’ve got barracks-call.”

“Oh?” Sano looked up quickly. “That guy?”

“He was on night-patrol, remember? It’s Akamatsu, of course.”

“Oh,” Sano glowered.

“Yeah. See you all tomorrow.”

After tubbing his dishes, Katsu headed for the doors, glancing back at his friends as he exited. He found Soujirou watching him very steadily, and gave a little wave. Soujirou didn’t seem to have any idea what he’d meant by ‘barracks-call,’ and waved back with that same smile. Katsu sighed as he trudged away from the mess hall up the hill toward the guards’ quarters. He’d find out soon enough.



2>>

Chapter 2

The next day, Sano couldn’t help thinking a little wistfully about Yahiko’s hang-glider plan as he walked with Katsu and Soujirou past the windmill on the way to the fields in the clear dawn. The kid was always thinking up crazy ideas like that; in some ways it was refreshing, and in others terribly frustrating.

Yahiko was also constantly talking about the outer world as he’d known it. Sano had never been to Touscha, at least not as far as he could remember, and therefore those stories were interesting almost to the point of being painful. For what was the likelihood of Sano’s ever being able to find out for sure whether or not Yahiko was making them up?

It didn’t make matters any better that Soujirou was new to the complex and had all sorts of nosy questions. Some weren’t so bad… the ones about how the farming here worked and whether KL sold the grain to anyone or just used it to feed the slaves and the guards, and whether they knew which country KL bought the commodities they couldn’t produce from (incidentally, Katsu did know, because he had a seemingly superhuman ability to pick things like that up and remember them), and whether there was ever any recreation for the slaves, and all sorts of other irrelevant things… Sano just listened as Katsu patiently answered it all, in between the comings and goings of guards, until Soujirou happened upon a subject neither of them were going to want to discuss.

“Your friend Yahiko seems hell-bent on escaping. Has anyone ever escaped from here before, that you know of?”

Both Katsu and Sano shook their heads.

“In Touscha, slavery is a very touchy issue,” Soujirou remarked. Sano found his smile, at such a moment, almost uncanny. “It’s technically legal, but lots of people are against it… if something big were to come up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it banned. That’s why I was wondering — if there were to be a mass break-out, it would stir things up there and might accomplish something… Has anyone ever tried anything like that?”

“Yes,” Sano and Katsu answered at once.

Soujirou paused, looking at them. Sano only saw this out of the corner of his eye, as he’d become very intent on his work and guessed Katsu had as well. Undoubtedly they were both trying to keep their faces from betraying the pain that still lingered.

“What… happened?” Soujirou wondered a little hesitantly. He was obviously no fool, and had read enough in their mutual tone, even in that single syllable of affirmation, to make him cautious.

Neither of the others answered for a long moment until finally Katsu said briefly, “Almost everyone involved was killed.”

“Oh.” Soujirou cleared his throat and then made a slight and obviously deliberate change of subject. “Lately — before my master went bankrupt, anyway — I was hearing about some anti-slavery groups doing things like kidnapping slaves and supposedly taking them to West Sorrat and conditioning them for free life. He worried about sending me on errands outside his property!” he added with a slight laugh, clearly unaware that a guard had appeared not far off, that he was talking too much. “I heard that not much was being done about these people because–”

“Would you shut the hell up already?” the guard said as he stepped forward and gave the cheerful young man a rough shove. “You new fucks with your stupid chatter. God.”

“Sorry, sir,” Soujirou said unnecessarily, turning his unfaltering smile toward the guard.

“Yeah, yeah, just get back to work.” The guard was perhaps taken somewhat aback by that incongruous expression — which, Sano thought with a faint touch of amusement, was maybe its point — and only eyed Soujirou a bit more before continuing his walk of the field.

Soujirou, still smiling, did as he was told. Sano was a trifle relieved.

Like all newcomers, Soujirou would undoubtedly become accustomed to this place very quickly, Sano reflected, and not by asking a lot of questions — just because no day was ever any different from any other, and the nights were similarly all the same. Week after week it was nothing but work while the sun was up (Soujirou had proven today that he was capable of that); get fucked by some guard at night (Soujirou undoubtedly had the face and figure for that); and hope to survive to see the next season roll in.

Soujirou, in that last area, was a matter of question. He was too obviously accustomed to being treated well, and was therefore a little too flippant toward the guards. Not that slaves were routinely killed by guards, but the enforcers would go out of their way to make sure they didn’t get any attitude from those they ruled. Sano had seen some slaves die of pure indifference as their spirits were thus broken. He wasn’t to that point yet, though he didn’t know why — his must have been a stronger spirit than most — but he could see the day coming. And he wasn’t looking forward to watching it happen to yet another person that had joined their little group. Soujirou had better smooth himself out before someone else did it for him.

Kaoru seemed worse than usual that night, and Sano fervently hoped that the guards would forget about him for just this evening. Just let him sit by her side a little longer. If he couldn’t bring Kenshin back, the least he could do was try to fill the void, however inadequate he was. Yahiko seemed to be out of ideas for the moment, Soujirou was weary and quiet on the cot behind Sano, and silence reigned in their part of the room.

Kaoru was very pale as she lay curled up on her side in the little cot, eyes open but unmoving, and she shivered occasionally. Sano and Katsu had given her their own thin blankets, but she never seemed to be warm enough at night, even in these sweltering months. Sano’s face was blank as he stared down at her, but his mind wasn’t. Thoughts raced through his head like suicidal flying creatures — crashing into each other, into the ground, into trees, until he thought he was going crazy. Just like every night.

His reverie was broken when Kaoru sat up slowly. “Water?” she mumbled a little blearily.

“I’ll get it,” Katsu replied, stilling Sano and rising. He walked down the long line of cots past other slaves, who ignored him, to the end of the room. Pausing for a moment to stand directly in front of the electric fan that was all the ‘air conditioning’ they were allowed, he then moved on to where a few buckets sat in the corner full of water for their use. Sano watched him tiredly, for no particular reason, and when Katsu held up an empty bucket for him to see and headed for the door, he nodded absently.

“Katsu’s going to the pump,” he assured Kaoru. “It’ll just be a minute.”

“Thanks,” she replied, and her vision seemed to drift away to something she couldn’t actually see. He was sure it had something to do with a red-haired, violet-eyed man with pale skin and a gentle demeanor. Tears slowly filled her eyes as she closed them, and she brushed fitfully at the few that slid out down her cheeks.

Sano took her hand and squeezed it, knowing he could give no real comfort but wanting her to feel his presence. It was awkward and more than a bit painful watching a woman cry when there was nothing he could do about it, though, and he let his eyes drift around the room.

As it generally did at this time of day, the false serenity of weariness lay over the slave quarters — over the small group of companions as well as the others that sat massaging their feet or lay exhausted on their cots. The noise level, as always, was low; conversation during the work-day was discouraged, and the fear of reprisal carried even into the night when no guards were present. There were a few children in one corner carrying on some kind of quiet activity with their backs to the adults, but even their game — or whatever it was — was nearly devoid of energy.

Katsu, stopping just inside the doorway to set down his burden and observing the subdued scene, reflected that, in his eyes at least, his friends were the only part of the room that had any color; everything else appeared hopelessly dull. He wasn’t sure what he would do in a place like this, would have done all these years, without those he’d become close to — even coming and going as they always did — and especially Sano.

He transferred the big metal drinking ladle from an empty bucket to one of those he’d just filled, and went over to Kaoru. She accepted the ladle gratefully and drained it slowly. When she was finished, she sighed and returned the utensil to Katsu. Glancing from his face to Sano’s and then down to Yahiko, she remarked, “You all take care of me so much. Thank you.” Sano nodded, but couldn’t say anything. Yahiko, sitting on the floor, was looking down, sad and awkward, at his crossed legs and feet. Katsu nodded, like Sano, and went to put the ladle back in the bucket.

“I heard some guards talking,” he said quietly when he was seated at Kaoru’s side again, “out there. There was water in the trough, so I didn’t have to use the pump and they didn’t hear me. They were on the porch, and didn’t know anyone could hear them.”

They waited for him to continue, Kaoru easing herself down onto the cot once more and Yahiko watching him curiously.

Katsu looked around to make sure no one else was listening. Soujirou was evidently not paying attention (though Katsu felt fairly sure he could trust the newcomer anyway), and nobody else was within earshot. Finally he continued. “I didn’t hear everything, but they did say something about a break in the perimeter — out across the east field.”

Sano’s brow furrowed. “What do you think?” he asked.

Katsu shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. It sounds dangerous, but it could be our best chance yet.”

Yahiko opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak, but then didn’t say anything.

Sano was nodding slowly. “But we’d have to do it soon… they won’t let something like that sit for more than a day or so.”

“Oh, I forgot…” Their attention was all drawn to where Soujirou had stood up abruptly. “A guard told me to come to his room after dinner. I guess I’m late.”

Katsu and Sano exchanged unhappy glances.

Soujirou’s own face went slightly pale at sight of that. “I heard what you were saying yesterday… Does that mean…”

“Yeah,” Sano said quietly. “Sorry, man.”

“But, I…” Soujirou bit his lip.

“No choice,” Katsu said darkly. “Hopefully it was one of the nicer ones, and not Akamatsu.”

“I heard you say his name last night too,” Soujirou faltered. “Is he…”

“He’s a horny pervert and a complete bastard,” Sano said.

“Gets off on making our lives hell,” added Katsu.

“What does he look like?” Soujirou asked, even more faintly.

“He’s short, kinda big,” Sano informed, “got all kinds of scars on his face.”

The young man let out a breath of relief. “It wasn’t him, then. But… what happens if I don’t go at all?”

“You’ll probably get beaten then raped,” Sano told him grimly. “Best to just go and get it over with.”

Soujirou took a deep breath, then nodded. “Good night, then,” he said in a tone that was evidently struggling to sound strong as he turned for the door and headed off to face his doom.

“Poor guy,” Katsu muttered. “Second night here, too.”

“At least he’s old enough…” But despite the pity in his tone, Sano evidently couldn’t keep his mind on that matter. “Anyway, what about that break? Do you think we should go for it?”

“Yes!” Yahiko said, a little too loudly. His eyes were sparkling. “We could get out and make a run for it!”

“You should,” Kaoru agreed, and Katsu saw that her wide-open eyes were clear and filled with some emotion he hadn’t observed there for some time.

“We’ll go get help,” he said. “Soujirou was saying earlier–” He didn’t have time to explain it, though. “Well, we’ll find something, come back, and get you out.”

She smiled. “I don’t need your promises,” she said softly. “Just get yourselves out.”

Sano frowned. “No, we will come back for you.” But she shook her head. His frown deepened at that, and Katsu thought he was slightly hurt. “Fine, don’t believe it. But we will.” Turning to Yahiko then he said, “I’m sorry, kid, but we can’t take you with us.” He continued swiftly, not allowing the protest to make its way out of the boy’s mouth. “You know if we get caught trying to escape they’re likely to kill us, and I refuse to have your death on my conscience, even if I’m dead too. Plus, you’re not strong enough or fast enough to keep up with us.”

Yahiko gritted his teeth with an angry blush, abruptly fighting back tears. But not only was there no argument against Sano’s blunt points, he probably believed the insistence that Sano and Katsu would return to rescue them — maybe even more than either of them did. Finally he nodded.

Sano pulled him against his chest in a sudden hug. “I’ll miss you, kid,” he said.

“If we get out, it’ll be worth it,” Katsu nodded, reaching out to ruffle Yahiko’s hair.

“Yeah,” Yahiko stammered.

Sano then leaned down and kissed Kaoru on the brow. “Goodbye,” he said.

“We’ll be back,” Katsu promised again, squeezing her hand.

“Goodbye,” she replied, and closed her eyes so as not to see them rising and heading for the door… given that she obviously believed she would never see them again.

They planned quietly as they made their stealthy way across the dirt yard between the slave quarters and the guard barracks and onward. Heading north, they determined that they would cut through the orchard and come onto the field from the south, crossing it at the lower end where they would less easily be seen by patrols. Thence it was into the thick, hostile forest that surrounded the complex, and hopefully they could find the break in the perimeter fence soon enough to slip through and start running before someone realized they were gone.

After that, they had no idea what to do. It was only logical to assume that, as the complex lay at the juncture of three nations, whatever direction they chose to take would eventually lead them to one of those… Touscha would be preferable, given what Soujirou had said about slavery there, and they understood that it was to their northwest — but while northwest was easy enough to find in a place they’d known for a decade, things would be very different in a dark forest with many hours before dawn. With this in mind, they resolved not to be too particular about where they ended up, as long as it was somewhere other than here, and not dead.

But as Soujirou had pointed out last night, what then? Ketterect Labor Complex had been their home for ten years, and of what lay beyond they really had no concept other than what they’d been told and what they vaguely remembered from their childhood. Would they be capable of blending in, coming up with some way to support themselves, and finding help for their friends here in time?

They could not allow themselves to doubt that somewhere in the great beyond would be help for Kaoru. At the very least, if they could raise enough money somehow, they could buy their friends and bring them to freedom. And perhaps someone would have heard of a mistreated red-headed slave that pined for a love lost at the hands of a cruel white-haired man. Or even if that could not be, if they could get her out, Kaoru could receive better medical attention. The taciturn doctor that tended to the slaves was gentle and fairly adept, but cold and distant, wrapped up in thoughts no one could guess.

They had one close call as they scaled the orchard wall and Katsu nearly fell, but the guard below merely walked on without noting them. “This would be a lot easier,” Sano grumbled a bit later, when he could without being heard, “if they didn’t wear dark grey and we could see them better.”

Katsu shook his head with a wry smile. “Idiot.”

They crossed the orchard with little trouble, and darted across the dirt road between it and the sunken level of grain that was the east field. This was going to be a bit more difficult, as guards actually patrolled up and down the lanes between the plots, and it was there Katsu and Sano also had to walk — as going through the grain itself would make too much noise on this windless night and could not be risked. By the time they made it to the ditch that separated the field from the forest, they were sweating as much as if they’d been working in the field, not sneaking through it, but they remained unseen.

Clambering across the ditch, they took one last look around before plunging into the forest.

“Do you think we’re actually going to make it?” Katsu asked when they were a few minutes into the dense foliage, fighting their way forward with determination.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, looking for a path through a particularly nasty tangle. “But I’ve gotta try. For Kaoru. And Kenshin.”

“And Souzou,” Katsu added softly.

Sano nodded.

The perimeter was drawing nearer, and the frenzy of Katsu’s heart spread to a flush throughout his entire body. This could be the moment he’d dreamed of his entire captive life, the amazing moment when he looked for the first time beyond the pale of slavery into freedom. Of course, all he was likely to see was forest, but that was immaterial. Now, if only they could find the break!

The tall, imposing barbed-wire electric fence appeared suddenly in front of them, the trees cleared away around it and the foliage hacked back. They peered cautiously out from the forest’s shelter, and saw what they were looking for off to their right: a tree had fallen into the fence, snapping wires and creating a bridge to freedom. It wasn’t obvious how the tree had been tipped, but they weren’t about to argue with such good fortune. Scanning the area for any sign of life, they both looked again at the fallen trunk, then at each other, and slowly moved forward.

“Did you two idiots really think there wouldn’t be a guard here?”

The unexpected sound stopped them short just a few yards from their destination. They might have risked the chance that the speaker was armed and run onward if the voice had not come from in front of them — indeed, from exactly where they were heading.

The guard stepped casually from behind the fallen tree, where boughs and shadows had combined with his dark uniform and black hair to render him completely invisible.

“Shit,” Sano growled.

It was the same guard that had been admiring them yesterday. Despite the blackness, his golden eyes glowed with a deadly gleam. He stood nonchalantly regarding them, a cigarette marking the darkness in his right hand, his left lying lightly on the holster at his hip.

Sano didn’t waste time between his next phrase, “Let’s take him down!” and his sudden sprint toward the man, but neither did the guard waste time in drawing and calmly firing a single perfect shot that flew straight into Sano’s shoulder.

Katsu was less inclined than Sano to physical combat, and so had held back at first, but upon seeing his friend fall to the ground in a burst of blood he leapt forward. However, the guard had, with the same calmness, pointed the gun directly at him, and was advancing slowly.

“K-katsu…” Sano choked out, grimacing as he clutched at his shoulder and tried to rise. “Run… get out…”

“Idiot!” Katsu replied in a desperate hiss, falling to his knees at his friend’s side when he saw that attacking an armed man was futile. “I’m not going without you!”

The guard loomed over them, a tall shadow stretching up to two amber points. What little light there was in the lee of the great trees gleamed off the barrel of his gun as it was leveled at Katsu’s head. “Get away from him,” he commanded.

“If you want to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first,” Katsu replied, leaning over Sano protectively.

“That would be easy enough,” the infuriating voice drawled out of the dark. “But if I wanted to kill him, don’t you think I might have aimed for a more vital area?”

There wasn’t really a logical answer for this, and the next moment a long arm snaked around the obstruction Katsu presented to seize Sano’s shirt and pull him all at once out of his friend’s clutching grasp. The guard lifted Sano easily and slung him over his shoulder. Sano must have blacked out, for he made neither protest nor attempt to escape, and his arms hung limp.

“What are you doing?” Katsu demanded, jumping to his feet.

The man looked at him briefly. “He’s bleeding; he needs to be treated. What do you think I’m doing?”

Katsu stared at him, baffled. “But… what should…”

The guard gestured at the fallen tree. “You’re free to continue your escape attempt if you wish to do so without your companion. Otherwise, I would advise you return to your quarters before dawn.” And with these words he turned and walked away calmly into the trees, carrying Sano with him.

Chapter 3

The pain was terrible, and in large part, he thought, stunting his progress toward full consciousness. Combined with this, the other sensations of soft bedsheets around him and something grazing the bare skin of his chest left him at a total loss as to where he was or what was happening to him. The last feeling, as if someone’s hand were slowly running over him in a light, almost absent caress, he dwelt on longest; it was soothing, especially compared to the agony in his shoulder.

Wait… he’d been shot, hadn’t he? Because… because he’d been trying to escape, and Katsu…

Sano sat up, giving a grunt at the increased pain and surprise at suddenly being completely awake, his hand flying immediately to his wound as a soft blanket slid down his body and a set of infinitely familiar objects came into focus: the plaster ceiling and walls, plain light fixture, and brown door of a barracks interior. “What the…? Where am I?”

“In my room.”

Sano started away from the guard that was seated immediately beside him on the bed, leaning against the wall behind them and barely looking up from the magazine he was reading. The startled motion nearly made Sano fall to the floor, and preventing himself from doing so caused him quite a bit of discomfort. “Ow… shit…”

His first thought was that the guard must have brought him back here to have his way with him before he turned him in for trying to escape, but it was obvious that he hadn’t been raped in his sleep. Beyond that, as he took stock of himself, he found that his gunshot wound had been cleaned and bandaged. For all the pain he was in, the way his shoulder and arm were moving led him to guess that the bullet had missed everything vital and left him to heal back to what would probably be a normal muscular condition. It must have been an amazingly precise shot to do so little damage.

Dizzy and confused, he lay down again, flat on his back, looking up at the other man. “Why?” he asked softly.

“Because I didn’t feel like treating your wound outside on the ground in the middle of the night.” Once more, the guard didn’t even look at him as he answered.

“Where’s Katsu?”

“If your friend has any sense, he’ll have gone back to his quarters long before this.”

It felt like a stupid thing to ask, but, given the circumstance, Sano couldn’t forebear — “Are you gonna turn us in?”

“No.”

“Why?”

The man put his magazine down at last, and regarded Sano with his uncanny golden eyes. “I’ve been watching you and your friend for several days now,” he said, but his words didn’t seem to be meant as any sort of answer to Sano’s question. “How did you come to be here?”

Although confused, Sano saw no reason not to tell him, so he replied, “Katsu and I were living on the streets in LeMere in Baiza, and these guys picked us up.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Ten years? Eleven? Something like that.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I find it hard to believe than a strong and attractive young man wouldn’t have been sold in such a length of time.”

“Those are the exact reasons I wasn’t. I’m strong, so I’m useful for all kinds of work…” Sano’s eyes flicked up toward the ceiling rather than the man’s face as he blushed. Why exactly he was blushing, he couldn’t be quite sure; it might have been because of what he was about to explain, but why that should be, when it was something he basically took for granted, he didn’t know. “And I’m attractive, I guess, so I’m useful for all kinds of other stuff too. I’ll never get sold. Matter of fact, somebody always locks me and Katsu up when the dealers come by, just to make sure we don’t. I don’t think the higher-ups know they do that, though.”

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen, I think.”

There was a brief silence, and Sano was almost afraid to look over again, but did so anyway. He found the man staring down at him with a piercing gaze that he did not understand. “Are you saying,” the man asked, with peculiar emphasis, “that these guards have found you ‘strong and attractive’ since you were nine years old?

Sano was blushing even more than before. Maybe it was just that no one had ever really talked to him about it like this; it had always just been… the way he lived. “Yeah. Well, not like it’s been the same guards all this time. You guys come and go too.”

More silence. Then finally, “How many slaves would you say there are here?”

“About a hundred.”

“And how long do they usually stay — the ones who don’t routinely get raped?”

“I’ve never known anyone to stay more than a year, but sometimes they go after a month even. The dealers come all in a group once a year and pick out lots of people, but sometimes individual ones come some other time when they’re running low or whatever.”

“Do you know anything about where the slaves get sold to?”

“Nah… usually the buyers don’t come up here in person. The dealers take the slaves they pick back to wherever they do whatever they do, and the buyers get what they need from there. Every once in a while a buyer wants more selection, and’ll turn up here looking for something specific, but that doesn’t happen much.” He thought of the asshole that had bought Kenshin.

The yellow-eyed man was nodding. “And when do most of the dealers come?”

“After harvest. Won’t be more’n about a month now.” Sano, by this point, was really at a loss to explain all these questions, which reminded him vaguely of Soujirou’s endless curiosity earlier this very day (for all it felt like weeks ago)… didn’t guards get briefed on all this stuff when they took the job? Maybe not. Maybe he was just too accustomed to the ones that had been here long enough to figure it all out.

“Do you know the date?”

“It’s just… after harvest…”

“I mean, do you know today’s date?”

“Um, no…”

The guard’s lips tightened. Sano was confused.

Abruptly the man stood and set his neglected magazine down on the table, then reached up to tug on the chain that turned off the light. The interrogation was probably over, then, and it was time to get on with the reason Sano was sitting here naked. A strange feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach at that thought, a sensation he didn’t quite recognize. It was almost as if he didn’t feel ready for it, despite the fact that he was as ready as he ever was any night.

But all the man said next was, “Go to sleep.”

Sano blinked several times into the darkness, recognizing by the shifting of the bed and the blankets that the man had lain down beside him. “What?”

“I said, go to sleep.”

“Yeah, I heard you, but…”

“Or stay awake all night, if you think that will help you heal quicker.”

“I thought… Aren’t you going to fuck me?”

He might have been imagining things, but it seemed there was a pause that felt almost indecisive before the man replied in a tone half amused and half… something else… “Why; do you want me to?”

“No!”

“Why would you ask, then?”

“I wasn’t asking you to do it; I just figured you were already going to.”

“Why?”

“Well, you obviously want to…” At least, that was how Sano was reading the man’s expressions and tones.

“So?”

Baffled, Sano had absolutely no answer to this.

“You’re injured,” the guard said, as if that explained everything.

Sano was motionless with shock. No guard in the history of the slave complex would have cared that he was injured — indeed, to some it would have been an added bonus. And this one, while not bothering to deny that he wanted it, didn’t plan on taking him just because of a clean and well-treated wound in his shoulder?

“Who are you?” he managed to ask at last.

“A guard, idiot.”

“Yeah, I know that, but when did you get here? I never saw you before yesterday. What’s your name? Why did you ask me all those questions? Why didn’t you turn us in?”

“You’re noisy. Go to sleep.”

But Sano, feeling strangely fearless, was not going to relent just yet. “If you didn’t plan on fucking me or turning me in, why did you stop me escaping?”

The guard said nothing; it seemed he didn’t intend to answer.

Finally, despairing of finding out what he wanted to know, Sano lay down with a slight sigh followed by a grunt of pain. He was acutely conscious of the warmth of the man immediately to his left; the guard still wore a robe and had his back to Sano, yet the arrangement felt very… intimate… and without the activities that generally preceded going to bed thus side by side, that intimacy was disconcerting. Sano wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to sleep like this. He couldn’t even turn away from the other man, as that would put him on his hurt shoulder.

It didn’t help that he was inexplicably naked.

Why was he naked, if the guard hadn’t planned on fucking him?

This question nagged at him until he was forced to ask it aloud.

“Your ratty clothing was covered with blood,” was the reply whose tone seemed to suggest that the answer was obvious and Sano should really shut up.

“But they won’t issue me any more clothing until–”

“I’ll make sure they do,” the man interrupted. “I’ll tell them in the morning that my gun went off by mistake and wounded you.”

“You really aren’t going to tell anyone that we tried to escape, are you.” Sano hadn’t been aware, up until this point, that he hadn’t really believed it up until this point.

“No, I’m not. It would be a good idea for you not to mention it to anyone either.”

“No shit… But I still don’t get why you stopped us. It doesn’t seem like you care whether we escaped or not.”

“Maybe I just wanted some company for the night.” By now the guard sounded exasperated.

“You could have had anyone!” Sano’s tone was very similar, but his was tinged with desperation, maybe even anger.

“I wanted you.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to.”

“But you could have had someone who wasn’t trying to escape, dammit!”

“I told you; I’ve been watching you for days. I didn’t want anyone else. I wasn’t going to let you escape.”

“What the hell kind of motive is wanting my company for keeping me from my freedom?”

There was a long silence, and Sano thought the man was once again not going to answer him, until finally the reply came out of the darkness in the softest tone the guard had yet used: “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

The words made him shiver, for some reason, and that strange sensation in the pit of his stomach was growing. “Why?” he wondered, almost in a whisper.

“You ask too many questions.”

Sano had to give a snort of laughter. After the day he’d had… “I ask too many questions?”

But this time there really was no answer.

Once he’d resigned himself to the conversation’s end, he found discomfort, irritation, curiosity, and confusion fading, or at least going temporarily dormant, as he drifted away from consciousness much sooner than he’d expected.

The pre-dawn wake-up siren brought him to his senses in an empty bed; reflexively he sprang up before remembering the events of the night, then sat down again abruptly with a combination sigh and moan. His shoulder roared with pain, and his entire body felt stiff. He wondered if he’d moved even once the entire time he’d been asleep.

He looked around, but the guard was gone. Back to Sano came the oddly serious and almost gentle words that had been nearly the last thing he’d heard before going to sleep: “You won’t regret it. I swear.” Logically, he should be feeling regret, should be bitter or irate… but, besides the pain of his wound, the only sensation of which he was conscious was a strange sort of coldness that was more like an emotional void than anything brought on by the chill of morning. He touched the bandage on his shoulder gently and wondered where he would be by now if yellow-eyes hadn’t stopped them. He didn’t really know how to feel.

But the sun was certainly rising, and he would have time to think as he worked. Not that he was particularly looking forward to harvesting grain with this throbbing pain. He stood again, slowly, moving his arm a bit to test the muscles and grimacing at the result. No, not looking forward to it at all.

At that moment, the door opened, and a blank-faced girl entered without preamble. She didn’t seem to care that Sano was totally naked, only held out the bundle she had brought. “Here,” she said emotionlessly.

Sano knew well the look in the kid’s eyes, having seen it many times in countless faces since he came here: total, soul-deep apathy. He didn’t have to know her personally to be aware that she always did exactly what she was told, rolled with every blow, and could not care less where her life was going. It was the ultimate face of slavery: the death of all that was human in an individual.

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Yeah, buddy, you’re gonna hafta work pretty damn hard to live up to that one, Sano reflected harshly as he looked at the girl and thought of so many others like her, not to mention those that hadn’t yet reached this point, whose wills could still be saved, that might have been helped by his escape. He thought of Kaoru…

“Thanks,” he said, taking the clothes, old and used but clean and new to him.

“Coord’ told me to tell you to work in the wash-house ’til you’re OK.”

Sano nodded and began to dress as the girl turned and left.

As he stepped from the room and closed the door behind him a few minutes later, listening to the click of the latch with an indescribable rising emotion, the first of the morning, stretching out his healthy arm with a yawn, his attention was drawn to movement at his left. A guard had been standing very still close by and was now approaching.

“What’s your name?” the man asked in a flat tone; his accent was Sorratian like that of the other guard.

“Sano,” he replied promptly, puzzled and a little worried. Was he in trouble after all? He refrained from searching the man’s face, as guards generally didn’t like that, but from the short dark hair and cold blue eyes he’d taken in with his first glance he knew he’d never seen this man before.

“Quarter 4-12 tonight,” the stranger informed him in the same tone.

“Yes, sir,” Sano said dully, and watched in minor stupefaction as the guard turned and walked away without another word. They’re lining up for me outside each other’s doors now, he was reflecting, not without a touch of weary amusement, but how the fuck did he even know I was in there? He would have had to… well, maybe yellow-eyes told him this morning… Even with this explanation, though, it was disconcerting. But he’d deal with it as he always did.

Noting that the sun was by now risen, the slave made haste away from the barracks and down the hill toward the wash-house, hoping the excuse of having been wounded and needing to wait for new clothes would be enough to keep him out of trouble for being late.

Chapter 4

Katsu’s endless horrified conjectures about what had happened to Sano last night, and what might happen to both of the would-be escapees today, were to a certain extent interrupted by a very pale Soujirou joining him on the way to the fields just before sunrise. Looking a little lost and a bit the worse for wear, he fell into step quietly at Katsu’s side.

The latter was far too inured to the way they lived here to feel any intense remorse for Soujirou’s plight, but that didn’t make him totally unsympathetic. “Good morning,” he offered softly. “Are you all right?”

“I…” Soujirou’s face was blank.

Katsu put a hand on his shoulder, knowing full well that there was nothing he could say that would really mean anything.

Apparently attempting to rally his spirits, Soujirou managed a faint smile and, “Where’s Sano?”

Katsu tried not to frown. If Soujirou had been three minutes earlier, had come to the quarters, Katsu could have told him. Out here, however, with more guards around and so many slaves moving in the same direction, it was difficult to determine who was or wasn’t listening. “A guard came in for him right after you left last night,” he lied. “He’s probably already in the field.”

“So, how often should I expect… that…?” Soujirou wondered in response to this, trying to keep his voice even.

Katsu had to admit that he was somewhat glad of the distracting conversation. “Sano and I are their favorites,” he replied, “and we don’t usually get called up more than about three or four times a week during warmer parts of the year.”

Soujirou looked away with wide eyes, and Katsu, glancing over, could see him mouth the words, ‘four times a week’ with an air of disbelieving stupor.

“That’s actually not all that often, if you think about it.” Katsu tried to reassure him a little by explaining the system as he understood it. “There’s about forty guards, so it could be a lot more. But most of them don’t like men, I think. So since sex between women and men isn’t allowed here — because pregnant slaves don’t sell as well, and it isn’t like there’s a shop around the corner selling condoms — those ones don’t bother us. And except for Akamatsu, the rest of them don’t all feel like fucking every night.”

Whether or not Soujirou was reassured, he did seem a little calmer. “You really know how this place works, don’t you?”

“I have been here most of my life.”

“Most of your life?” Soujirou echoed in surprise. “How can you have gone so long without being sold?”

“I told you Sano and I are their favorites,” Katsu replied a little grimly. “Like they’d ever let us go.” Though that could have been subverted last night if not for that strange guard. And where was Sano? Katsu was scanning the field for him without any luck.

Soujirou, who hadn’t had any reply to Katsu’s last statement (for what was there to say?), followed his gaze across those that had already started working, then those just arriving, and shook his head. “I don’t see him.”

Tried to sound casual, Katsu agreed and added, “I wonder where he is…” And he continued to look.

“Katsu, the guards are watching.” Soujirou tugged on his arm. “Let’s go.”

Katsu couldn’t think that Soujirou’s indifference toward the guards’ influence had been completely reversed already, but evidently the barracks-call had taught him something. He allowed the younger man to pull him away from his search.

Once they were safely working and no guard was immediately nearby, Soujirou asked, “Why wouldn’t he be here?” Of course not knowing the story of the previous evening, his tone was nothing more than curious.

The only answer Katsu could come up with was that Sano was in bad enough condition that he couldn’t work the fields — but he couldn’t say that to Soujirou without explaining everything that had happened and risking being overheard… “I don’t know,” he replied at length, not bothering to hide his concern; Soujirou should be able to understand it, if he picked up on it, even without all the details.

Katsu caught a glance from the other slave that suggested he had picked up on it. “How long have you known him?” Soujirou asked deliberately, perhaps attempting to cheer Katsu up or at least distract him.

“As long as I can remember.” Katsu was not averse to being cheered up or at least distracted. “We met as orphans in LeMere and watched each other’s backs for a few years before KL found us.”

“You were homeless, then? Without any living relatives?”

“I see you know how it works.”

Soujirou smiled and rolled his eyes. “If the laws are the same in Baiza as they are in Touscha, yes. They claim anyone would rather be a slave than be homeless with no one to go to.”

With a shake of his head, Katsu remarked darkly, “I wonder if any of the people who make laws like that have any idea what it’s like to be either a slave or homeless. Anyway,” he continued, “Sano always claimed he had an uncle somewhere, but we were kids… even if he wasn’t making it up or remembering wrong, we didn’t have much of a chance at finding the guy. We were barely just staying alive.”

“And given the choice between barely staying alive and slavery, what would you take?”

Katsu had to smile a little, wryly, as he answered. “That isn’t a fair question to ask me. It may not look like much of a life I’ve got here, but compared to the horror stories I’ve heard from so many people–” He cut himself short and turned wholly to his work as a guard went slowly by.

As soon as the grey figure was gone, Soujirou broke into protest with a skeptical smile: “Katsu, men like that rape you three or four times a week. How can you say you have a better life than anyone?”

With a sighing laugh Katsu replied, “I can tell you came from a nice master who let you do things like not get raped, easy work, and keep up with national politics, so you obviously don’t know what it’s like for most slaves. Sure, I’m a free whore, but I don’t get beaten much, I don’t get starved, I’m capable of the work I’m assigned, my ownership isn’t going to change hands once every sixth months when my master gets tired of me… Most of the slaves I meet here can’t say any of that.”

“But wouldn’t you like to take a chance at finding a good master?”

“I don’t want any master.” He said it more fiercely than he’d thought he would. “I’d take a chance at freedom — nothing less.”

“For some reason, that’s exactly what I expected from you,” Soujirou said thoughtfully.

Katsu turned to find the other slave regarding him with a pleased smile, and somehow felt like he’d just received a flattering compliment; he returned to his work unexpectedly gratified.

Sano never appeared. Katsu hadn’t really expected him to, after the first half hour, but couldn’t stop watching for him. Soujirou didn’t miss this endless, worried impatience, and succeeded in distracting him from it yet again by asking sometime in the late afternoon completely out of the blue, “Is Sano your lover?”

“No!” said Katsu in surprise. “No… we’re really more like brothers.”

And Soujirou nodded, still, of course, smiling. Katsu spent the rest of the workday wondering why he’d wanted to know.

He was more anxious than usual to get back for dinner, as he anticipated answers there, good or bad, to the day’s questions. Soujirou hurried along at his side without a word as he strode through the twilight in that direction.

“Katsu!” Yahiko cried from where he waited on the mess hall porch. He didn’t shout anything further, as the door guard turned to glare at him just for the name. As the two field-workers joined the boy where he stood, Yahiko said quietly, “Sano’s not in there, and I haven’t seen him.”

“Neither have I,” Katsu admitted.

“Do you think he’s–”

“Are we eating tonight,” the guard interrupted almost at a growl, “or having a party on the porch?”

At this insistence, they all turned reluctantly to enter the building. Soujirou was inside and Katsu was just about to step through the doorway when Yahiko looked back over his shoulder, then hurled himself from Katsu’s side with a cry of “Sano!!!

Katsu whirled at the name to see Yahiko hugging the person in question, who looked as if he hadn’t even known the kid was there until just now. Sano’s shoulder was bandaged, and other than that he seemed unharmed.

“Where the hell have you been?” Yahiko was demanding.

Sano hugged him back, looking to Katsu and then to the door guard. “Come on,” he said. “I’m starving, so I’ll tell you inside.” The armed man, though glowering, was looking simultaneously curious, so Sano continued over-loudly, “Some guard’s gun went off and wounded me, so I got treated last night and worked in the wash-house today.” And pulling Yahiko off him, he moved from the post-dusk darkness into the dimly-lit interior of the mess hall.

“What did he do?” Katsu asked immediately when they were inside and making their way across the crowded room. Soujirou was already several spots ahead of them in the line, and gave a smile and a shrug when Katsu caught his eye.

“He did this,” Sano was answering, pointing to the bandage on his shoulder. “Then he asked me a bunch of questions, mostly… about this place and the people here, and me…”

“But why didn’t he…” Katsu began in a marveling whisper, cutting himself off before saying anything possibly incriminating in a crowded room. “If he just wanted information, he could have gotten it from any other guard, or the staff.”

Sano shook his head. “I have no idea. It was confusing as hell.” And, indeed, he had an air about him of underlying perplexity like Katsu had never seen.

Once they had their thick bread and thin soup, they made their way over to where Kaoru sat at the end of a bench saving places for them; Soujirou had found a spot across from her, and the two were conversing quietly. Katsu still couldn’t help but appreciate the concern Soujirou seemed to show for Kaoru. She looked paler than usual this evening, but her unhappy face took on an amazingly relieved expression when she saw Sano.

“Hey, missie,” the latter said softly as he took his seat beside her.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” she remarked. “I was getting ready to go find that guard and beat him up.”

Sano smiled. “Getting some of your spirit back, I see,” he said amusedly. “But he really wasn’t so bad.”

“I missed what happened,” Soujirou said with a smile of his own. “What guard are we beating up?”

“The one Sano spent the night with,” Katsu said quickly. “His gun went off by accident, and you can see the result.” He jerked a thumb at his friend.

Sano took the hint that Soujirou was not in the know and added, “But it’s really OK. I get to work in the wash-house for a while instead of baking in the sun.”

“The wash-house…” Soujirou said thoughtfully. “So you’ve been doing laundry all day? Please tell me they don’t make you do it by hand.”

“Nah, there’s machines in there,” Sano assured him. “Just no dryers. We gotta hang out all the clothes, with clothespins and everything, only it’s inside so nobody steals ’em, and the whole place smells like… well, wet laundry. Then we take the dry stuff down and fold it and organize it by size in this huge wall of compartments. It’s boring as shit, and I was getting my ear talked off all day too.” He gave a slight chuckle at the end of this explanation, but Katsu thought his mind was not entirely on this conversation, that something was wrong.

“By those nice old ladies, right?” Kaoru asked, looking amused in her turn.

“Well, yeah, and there’s some new girl too who just went on and on the whole day.” Sano started to reach up with his right hand, winced, and switched to his left to scratch his head. “She wasn’t actually talking to me, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t hear her.”

“Oh, I think I know who you’re talking about,” Yahiko put in. “I saw her the other day when they were assigning her — the one with the long black braid?”

“Yeah, that’s her.”

“Well, I’m done,” Soujirou declared suddenly, standing and stepping back over the bench, then looking down at Katsu. “You coming?”

“You eat too fast,” Katsu replied with a slight grin. “We’ll be there when we’re done.”

“OK.” Soujirou leaned over suddenly and kissed Katsu on the mouth before turning and walking away.

Katsu was speechless for a very long moment while that brief pressure seemed to linger teasingly, worrisomely on his lips and the others stared at him, their previous conversation entirely forgotten.

“Katsu…” Sano began in a worried tone.

“I…”

“Katsu, don’t,” Sano said. “You know what’ll happen.”

“It was just unexpected, that’s all!” Katsu protested. “And he’s only been here a couple days! It’s not like…”

“Yes, it is like,” Kaoru contradicted. “I can tell.”

“You know what’ll happen,” Sano repeated darkly. He did not add what Katsu knew he must be thinking: Don’t make me watch another one of my friends go through that.

“It’s nothing,” Katsu assured them, especially Sano, attempting at the same time to assure himself of the same thing. “Don’t worry about me, OK?” And he turned his full attention to eating as silence fell heavily among them.

Eventually they all finished, and with very few words rose together and left the hall — each of them, from what Katsu could gather by furtive glances, pensive with a different emotion: Yahiko seemed to feel awkward at that last exchange, not knowing what to think or say on the subject; Kaoru appeared very sad, even paler than before and moving at a slow pace — she understood better than anyone why Katsu should be careful; and Sano still looked confused, maybe a bit angry on top of it, and rather worried.

Katsu went to walk at his best friend’s side. “Are you all right?” he asked in a low tone. “You seem…” But he didn’t quite know how to describe it.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Katsu thought Sano’s reply was a little absent.

“Are you sure? That weird guard… did he rape you?”

“No…” Sano said slowly, thoughtfully.

“But..?”

“But nothing. It was just strange and confusing is all.” Sano seemed to shake himself out of his reverie, for a few moments at least, long enough to reiterate his warning. “You just worry about yourself and pretty boy over there.”

“I told you, it’s nothing,” Katsu said with a slight frown. “You notice I didn’t tell him about last night.” OK, so that was a misleading statement, but if it made Sano feel better…

It appeared to. “Yeah. Good.” Sano had slowed, and now as Yahiko and Kaoru caught up with them he stopped walking entirely. “I’ve got call tonight, so I’ll see you all at showers tomorrow. Well, except you,” he added with an emotionless smile at Kaoru. “You I’ll see at dinner.”

Katsu shook his head sympathetically. A barracks-call was going to be even worse than usual for Sano with a shoulder he could barely use. “Good night,” he said.

As the other two echoed the goodbye, Sano turned away in the direction of the guards’ quarters while Katsu continued toward his own. It was troublesome that so few of the questions he’d awakened with today had been answered… not only that, but a new and totally unexpected issue had come to light: on top of being worried still that the guard might report what they’d been trying to do, now he had to figure out whether Soujirou might not already have led him onto the road to heartbreak.

Chapter 5

The blank door opened at his knock to reveal the equally blank face of the guard within.

“Hey,” Sano greeted him, trying not to sound too unenthusiastic. The guard gestured him inside without a word, then returned to the task of undressing in which Sano had apparently interrupted him.

There was always a tired, almost morbid curiosity in Sano’s mind regarding the sexual organs of a good-looking guard that hadn’t fucked him before, so he waited in watchful silence to find out how well this one was hung. But for some reason, the man stopped at his boxers and turned to the slave. “Sit there,” he said in an emotionless tone, pointing not to the bed as Sano had expected but to the chair that every guard had in his room and few seemed actually to use.

“OK,” he replied, obeying.

The man looked him over slowly, not a trace of what he was thinking evident on his face. Finally, just when his scrutiny was beginning to make Sano a bit nervous, he spoke again. “My name is Aoshi. I expect you to do everything I say.”

Sano nodded. That was normal.

“You can sleep in that chair,” Aoshi continued, reaching up and turning off the light. “Just stay quiet.”

Sano blinked. That was not normal. He opened his mouth to question as he heard the unmistakable sound of the guard getting into bed, then forbore. It seemed as unwise to go against what Aoshi had just commanded as it seemed completely illogical for the guard to have called Sano here for no reason in the first place.

As he adjusted his position in the uncomfortable chair, his head was slowly starting to ache. Up until twenty-four hours ago, his life had been so straightforward… he hadn’t been confused about anything since Yahiko had tried to explain triangle geometry math to him a couple of months ago. And now…

He’d spent the day trying to ignore both the pain in his shoulder as he worked and the chattering braid-girl, and the whole time a wheel of confusion had been endlessly turning, endlessly repeating, in his tired mind:

Why would a guard that was willing to shoot him casually through the shoulder, willing to prevent him escaping this whorehouse of a life, hesitate to fuck him, though obviously wanting to, just because he was hurt? There was always the possibility that yellow-eyes found injuries or blood a turn-off, but he hadn’t seemed the squeamish type to Sano… and otherwise, such consideration seemed so nice… or at least reasonable…

But wouldn’t it also have been nice or at least reasonable to let him escape? Or if he wasn’t going to allow that, wouldn’t it have made sense to turn them in like a normal guard would? Well, some normal guards… Akamatsu wouldn’t have turned his favorite sex toys in to be executed. But yellow-eyes hadn’t wanted sex. No, even less comprehensibly, he had wanted it — as if Sano couldn’t tell after all these years when somebody did! — just hadn’t taken it. It really didn’t add up.

The answer, he thought, lay in that impossible promise. But that was as easily decoded as the rest of the man’s behavior. Why wouldn’t Sano regret it? What lay in his future important enough that it was worth shooting him to be sure he was here for, and not turning him in to be sure he was alive to see? Something that yellow-eyes knew about and would swear by, as if he, a mere guard, could personally guarantee it? Something better than freedom? And why, if it seemed so offhandedly impossible, was Sano inclined to believe it? He had no reason to trust the man, and several reasons to be suspicious of him…

But what exactly was there to suspect him of, when he’d done no worse than any other guard would have done, and in at least one respect better? Maybe Sano just wanted to believe, because it was better than the despair he might have felt at having been thwarted three yards from escape. But how could he believe something that he didn’t even understand?

He started to sigh, but then, remembering his situation, restrained it. Why the hell was he here, anyway? Of course Aoshi probably had no idea that Sano had already had one inexplicably sex-free night in a guard’s room and more than enough confusion for one week… but what in the world was the point of calling him here and then telling him to sit in a chair all night anyway? Did that turn him on or something?

This was an unpleasant way to try to sleep. Sano couldn’t say he’d rather have been raped, and at least in this case it wasn’t totally nonsensical — as Aoshi had shown no signs of actually wanting him — but still he could have done without additional strange behavior after last night. For a few moments he toyed with the notion that there might be some connection between the two circumstances, but abandoned it when he couldn’t come up with anything logical. Of course, none of this was logical…

Aoshi had probably just changed his mind about finding Sano attractive. But that wasn’t logical either, for not only had no other guard ever done so (or at least bothered to tell him, or not fuck him, if they had), but wouldn’t it also have made more sense to send Sano back to his quarters at this point?

If they’d been successful in escaping, Sano wouldn’t have had to puzzle over Aoshi’s behavior. He wouldn’t be desperately confused about anything. He wouldn’t be in quite so much pain; he wouldn’t be brooding in the dark over, of all stupid things at this moment, whether he was becoming less attractive and was that good or bad? and he certainly wouldn’t have a hole in his shoulder. But, then, he wasn’t going to regret all that.

Sitting like this really wasn’t the best way to encourage his wound to heal, and besides, he’d love to spend a couple of nights with his friends just to keep an eye on things. He restrained another sigh. This timing…

He’d seen the attraction between Katsu and Soujirou yesterday, but hadn’t really recognized it as such until today when Soujirou had startled him into looking back a little more critically. And though he should trust his best friend not to make any stupid mistakes, Katsu seemed to be in denial about it. Sano wasn’t sure what there was to be done, especially as Soujirou was in their quarters, but he just couldn’t let Katsu get attached to someone that was going to be sold in a month. It was as much for his own sake as for Katsu’s — how could he watch another friend break and fade away?

Of course, if they’d managed to escape, that wouldn’t have been a problem, now, would it? They would be on their way to Touscha or something, and Soujirou would be forgotten. Guess I’m not supposed to regret that, though, he reflected bitterly, ’cause you’ve got something better than not watching my friend get hurt, right?

“Damn you,” he whispered inadvertently.

In the darkness, Aoshi stirred, but whether he was actually awake and disturbed by Sano’s comment, the slave could not tell.

With yet another stifled sigh, he rearranged himself again and wondered for the second night in a row if he was going to get any sleep.

This question was answered when for the second morning in a row he awoke to the siren alone in the room. He groaned as he stood, for his shoulder was in agony. Today was a bathing day, and after that he thought he should go see the doctor again. He’d gone yesterday — she’d taken a quick look, applied some desperately painful alcohol of some sort, and changed the bandages — but he thought it was actually hurting more now than it had before. “Thanks a lot, Aoshi,” he grumbled.

The showers building adjoined the wash-house; it was a noisy, wet facility that always smelled of soap and mold and was a pain in the ass to clean if you happened to be assigned to it. Sano usually enjoyed bathing, which only happened every three days, but today he was uncertain about what to expect. What he found, though, wasn’t too surprising.

“Good morning, Sano!” Why did Soujirou have to be so damn cheerful? Especially when he was making no visible effort not to ogle Katsu?? The latter greeted him with a nod as Sano deliberately stood between them. Sano couldn’t help noticing that Katsu’s glance strayed more often than not in Soujirou’s direction as well.

Damn naked bathing was going to fuck everything up. Sano couldn’t help noticing also that Soujirou, though he finished cleaning up about twice as quickly as the others, stuck around for no apparent reason other than watching Katsu. Of course Yahiko was relatively oblivious to what was going on, but even he could sense the tension, and didn’t say much.

It was difficult for Sano to clean his shoulder without getting the bandages soaked, so he was doubly frustrated as well as in pain by the time he was finished. Well, at least he knew what he needed to do. Not that the doctor was likely to lessen the pain, and not that letting Soujirou know exactly how things had to be was likely to lessen the frustration… but it was better than nothing, wasn’t it?

It was a relief when everyone was dressed again, and just as they were all leaving the building was Sano’s moment. “Soujirou.”

The latter must have recognized the trouble in Sano’s tone, for his smile was worried as he turned toward him.

Sano gestured him three steps back into the entryway, making sure Katsu and Yahiko were out the door before speaking. “I like you, OK? But you’re exactly the kinda guy who’s gonna get sold first the next time there’s a dealer up here. So I want you to leave Katsu alone. See, I’ve already got one friend who’s dying from being lonely. I don’t think I can handle two.”

Soujirou nodded with a very serious expression. “I understand. All I can tell you is that you’re going to have to trust me.”

“What?” Sano glowered.

“Trust me,” Soujirou reiterated. “There’s no way I’m letting Katsu get hurt.”

The really strange thing was that with the way the guy said this, Sano had this uncanny urge to believe him. That actually made him angrier. “I don’t know where you came from and what kind of freedom you had there, but around here you ain’t in charge of whether or not someone else gets hurt. There’s no way you can promise not to let him get hurt and make it mean anything to me.”

Soujirou’s face did not change. “I’m sorry, Sano,” he said softly. “You really are just going to have to trust me.” And with that he turned and walked away.

“Soujirou!” Sano growled. “Who do you think you are? Dammit, Soujirou, come back here!”

When he did not find his order obeyed, Sano ran out the door after him. He came up short just outside, though, finding Katsu there and Soujirou standing with him. Well, it was no good continuing now; it would only start a fight for which he had neither the energy nor the heart. He merely let out an angry breath and hastened heavily away.

Katsu watched him head off toward the other side of the building with a frown, his heart heavy. He’d heard everything that had just been said; he wasn’t sure Sano had even attempted to keep it from his ears. And now he found he couldn’t quite turn toward Soujirou.

“Let’s go,” the latter said, taking a few steps in the direction of the fields.

The long-haired slave was torn between following Sano and following Soujirou. It didn’t help that either choice would end in awkwardness. He just didn’t know how he felt about this. On the one hand, he perfectly understood Sano’s reasoning and appreciated his concern; on the other, he also perfectly understood how things worked around here and wished Sano would have a little more faith in him. He wasn’t sure where the fact that he did like Soujirou fit in…

Finally, with an unhappy shake of his head, he joined Soujirou.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made things difficult for you,” the latter said after several silent paces.

Katsu sighed. “It’s OK. Sano always gets — Sano and I both always get pretty protective of each other.”

“I do like you a lot, you know,” Soujirou smiled over at him.

Was it a good or a bad sign that this made Katsu’s insides feel so damn warm? He cleared his throat. “That’s kind of… sudden.”

“We’re slaves,” Soujirou replied. “We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.”

“Sano’s right, though… you’re sure to get sold after harvest. Not falling in love at all is a better option.”

“And if we could escape?”

Katsu had to laugh, bitterly, at this unexpected and absurd question. “Don’t you start with that too. It doesn’t work. Period.”

With a return of that careful tone that suggested he wanted to know but wasn’t going to push too hard for it, Soujirou remarked questioningly, “You’ve had some kind of personal experience with that.”

Not sure he’d rather be discussing this than the philosophy of romantic attachment between slaves, Katsu was silent until they were safely working and he could make a reply with his back to Soujirou and no guards immediately present.

“When Sano and I first came here, we didn’t want to trust anyone. We’d been on the streets with only each other for so long… We were miserable and scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to us, and we had this attitude that anyone around us was out to make things worse for us somehow. But there was this man in our quarters named Souzou… He was just a slave like everyone else; I think he was from West Sorrat, and he’d been a slave all his life like most people… he wasn’t better educated than anyone else… didn’t have any particular abilities more than the rest of them…” Katsu trailed off with a slight shrug, feeling the ache that always accompanied this subject and surprised he’d even managed to get this far.

“But he was special somehow,” Soujirou prompted after a few moments, “right?”

“Yeah.” Katsu struggled to continue. “He didn’t seem like a slave. When you were around him, you didn’t get the sense that he belonged to someone, that his whole life had to be directed by a master of some kind. It was like he was a free man who was putting up with slavery, for now, for some very good reason of his own. It wasn’t anything he said or did; it was just the way he was. Of course we couldn’t stay away from a guy like that.”

“Of course,” Soujirou echoed. “And he gave you the same attitude.”

“You think so?”

“You and Sano don’t seem so much like slaves either, you know.”

Katsu smiled faintly. “I don’t know if that’s because of Souzou or just because we’ve been here so long. We’re practically part of the staff these days.”

“True,” admitted Soujirou. “But go on.”

“Well, Souzou sort of took us in. He was like a father, almost, though as old as we were it really would be more like an older brother, I think. He helped us adjust, made us feel like part of a family with him and his friends. You wouldn’t think you’d want to feel like part of a family at a place like this, but it turns out it’s better than feeling like everyone you see is out to get you. Anyway he was better family than anything Sano or I had had, and we loved him like we were really related to him. We weren’t the only ones, either.”

Soujirou maintained a patient, anticipatory silence.

“Eventually,” Katsu continued, steeling himself for the rest of the account, “he and some of the other adults started making plans to escape. A lot of them were thinking what you were talking about the other day: if there was some kind of mass break-out, the governments wouldn’t be able to ignore the issue anymore, or people would speak out against slavery, or something. A lot of the people in the quarters were going to go along with it, and it seemed like it was going to work pretty well… until we got near the main entrance and…” Even if a guard hadn’t passed by at that very moment, Katsu would not have been able to articulate the rest of those events.

“So you were actually there,” Soujirou marveled pityingly, quietly. “When you said before that almost everyone involved was killed, I guessed it must have been somebody close to you, but…”

“Yeah, we got to watch.” Katsu wondered if this pain lingered so much because of that — the first and most traumatizing event in his life — more than any other reason. He couldn’t say another word for a while, and Soujirou did not make any further inquiries.

“The only reason we survived,” continued Katsu at last, figuring he might as well finish the story, “is that Souzou sent us off into the trees when he realized what was about to happen. We didn’t want to go — Sano especially didn’t want to leave him — but what could a couple of kids do? It would probably have been better if Souzou hadn’t let us come along in the first place.” He added quietly, “Or maybe if we’d been shot along with him.”

“You don’t really think so,” Soujirou answered immediately in the same quiet tone. “You don’t really think you’d be better off dead, or you wouldn’t be here.”

At this assessment Katsu gave a wry smile. “I can’t say that for sure. It’s possible I just never thought about it enough to know one way or another.”

“Or maybe you live for people like Kaoru and Yahiko.”

This idea was a slight surprise that Katsu had to ponder for a while. And into his thoughtful silence Soujirou continued, “Because you must realize that you’re doing the same thing for Yahiko that that man did for you…”

Right down to trying to escape and getting shot, even. But things had gone better for them than they had for Souzou; did that mean there was more hope for Yahiko? It was a fanciful idea that smacked of some kind of silly karmic theory or other, and yet it was, strangely enough, vaguely comforting.

“Maybe,” Katsu admitted with a smile as he continued working in an oddly improved mood. “Maybe.”

Chapter 6

Sano beat his friends to the mess hall by several minutes, and was already eating by the time Katsu, Kaoru, and Soujirou sat down around him.

“What’s wrong?” asked Katsu immediately.

Sano glowered. “I ran into that guard again.”

“That does happen sometimes with people who work here,” Katsu replied carefully.

But Sano was no in mood for caution. “He asked me how my shoulder was!”

“So?” wondered Kaoru.

Unsure why his companions were not getting it, “He’s messing with me!” Sano explained in irritation. “How can he shoot me and then confuse the hell out of me and then ask me how I am?!”

“How did he confuse you?” Soujirou inquired. Sano had forgotten that the newcomer didn’t know all the details.

Sparing Sano the trouble of answering, Yahiko joined them just then with the announcement, “I have a great idea!” Making no objection to the subject change, Sano sat back and brooded in silence as the kid detailed his latest escape plot.

But as Soujirou began again systematically to shoot him down with a smile (though Yahiko seemed to have thought it through better this time, and was putting up more of a fight), Katsu leaned over to Sano and murmured, “I think you’re worrying too much about this.”

“No, I’m not!” Sano protested. “I can’t tell if he’s threatening me or what!” His voice dropped to a quiet, intense hiss. “He said he wasn’t going to turn us in, asked me a hundred questions he could have found out the answers from anyone, and said he wasn’t going to fuck me because I was hurt. Then he shows up in the wash-house like he’s coming specifically to ask about my shoulder, and gives me this look like I think he still wants me, but…”

“Oh, god, Sano, is it the sex thing that’s bothering you?” Katsu demanded incredulously.

“It’s everything about him!” replied Sano vehemently. After a moment he added, “Still, though, when was the last time a guard took you to his room and then didn’t fuck you?”

“He’s probably planning to wait until your shoulder’s better and then do it.”

“But it doesn’t make sense! Nothing he did makes sense!”

“I’m not saying I don’t see your point… there’s just nothing you can do about it. If you keep worrying, it’s just going to drive you crazy.”

“Maybe it already has,” Sano muttered. “But I don’t think I can just let it go when the guy knows…”

“That puts the ball in his court,” Katsu replied firmly. “You’re just going to have to wait for whatever he wants to do. You can’t go harassing a guard.”

Sano really had nothing more to say. Despite the soundness of this admonishment, he wasn’t sure Katsu was right — but at the same time, what could he do to press the issue, to find out anything more than he already knew? The answer to that was obvious, and the next question was whether Sano would rather pursue peace of mind by taking potentially life-threatening chances or a good friend’s concerned and reasonable advice. At the moment he was leaning toward the life-threatening chances, but it took a while for him to decide.

It was one of those rare nights when both he and Katsu got to sleep in their own cots in their own quarters and not get fucked by anyone. With Soujirou around and also without barracks-call, the occurrence was that much more unusual. And though Sano would never actually wish the guards’ attentions on his friends, it was a bit of an unfortunate coincidence, as their presence could only weaken his resolve and Katsu specifically was sure to object.

But though Katsu might be able to talk him out of it, he couldn’t stop him if Sano had a head start…

The quarter-warden hadn’t closed the doors yet, as usual, letting the cooler air into the consistently-uncomfortable building, but she had already done her nightly count — ‘inventory,’ she called it — after which it was very difficult to convince her that you had barracks-call: you’d be late by then, and few slaves were stupid or absent-minded enough to keep a horny guard waiting. Sano was debating now whether it would be better to tell her he had call and risk her not believing him (and keeping a closer eye on things for the rest of their awake time), or to attempt sneaking out (which would have worse consequences if he were caught). Either option had its advantages in keeping Katsu from following him with dissuading logic.

Presently the decision became easier when the conversation among his friends turned simultaneously lively and exclusive of him just when the warden had stepped into the next room. There was no time for further consideration; Sano rose quietly, glad he wasn’t sitting in the middle of the group, and slipped out the door.

Hurrying up the hill toward the barracks, he only looked back once. Though nobody followed, he still felt nervous. Well, of course he felt nervous: he was sneaking out to pay an unsolicited visit to a man that could bring about his death in a variety of ways and didn’t seem to have any logical reason not to have done so already.

And this was his door…

His knock was answered immediately, yellow-eyes was staring down at him, and suddenly Sano had no idea what to say. Katsu had been right, of course: deliberately seeking out a guard with the idea of demanding anything was phenomenally stupid.

The man’s expression slowly turned skeptical as Sano continued to say nothing, until finally he stepped aside and gestured the slave to come in. Closing the door he remarked, “I don’t recall inviting you here.”

“You didn’t invite me the other night either,” was all Sano could come up with.

The guard nodded as he bent and continued to untie his half-unlaced boots.

Sano watched uncertainly for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Look. I wanna know…” What did he want to know? Everything. How to ask was the more difficult part. “Who are you?” he finished lamely.

The guard glanced at him a little skeptically as he set his shoes aside and began to unbutton his heavy grey shirt. “I believe I answered that one last time.”

Sano was heartened by the casualness of this response, and retorted, “You didn’t do a very good job.”

Curtly drawing his gun, the guard startled Sano into stepping hastily back with a racing heart and a hot rush of fear. But yellow-eyes was merely putting the weapon away in the safe, it seemed. Still, the awareness that Sano shouldn’t push his luck was reinforced by the action; this man had shot him once without blinking, after all.

But he’d come to get answers. “You’re not a normal guard.”

“Thank you,” yellow-eyes replied, laying his shirt over the back of the chair to his right. “Get in the bed.”

The strange sensation Sano had felt in the pit of his stomach the last time he’d talked to this guard abruptly returned. “I didn’t come here to sleep with you,” he said hoarsely.

“It’s past curfew,” the guard replied, removing his belt to lay it also on the chair and seating himself on the bed. “You can’t go back to your quarters now.”

Sano couldn’t argue with that point. “Not without getting in trouble, anyway,” he muttered, going to the other side of the bed. At least yellow-eyes was on the left this time, which meant Sano could lie on his good shoulder and not face the man. And maybe he could yet obtain some answers.

But as he was removing, slowly and painstakingly, his own dirty shirt and tossing it onto the floor, very conscious of the presence close at his back, yellow-eyes questioned, “What kind of punishment is usual here?” And he reached up to turn off the light.

Sano pulled back the blankets and lay down as close to the mattress’ edge as he could. “Why do you want to know?” He was braver in the dark, but only for half a second —

For as the guard settled down beside him and replied, “I asked first,” Sano could feel the words almost in his ear, and the man’s warmth just behind him, partly against him.

His heart was pounding, and that feeling in his stomach was steadily increasing. Uncomfortably he hastened to answer. “It depends on who’s giving it, what you did, what time it is, shit like that. Some guards’ll just smack you around some; some of ’em’ll drag you into a corner and make you give ’em a blow job or something. If it’s staff, quarter-warden or something, you’ll probably end up with some really shitty cleaning project you have to get done along with your regular work.”

“And what if you’ve done something more serious than just breaking curfew?”

“Still depends. If it’s not bad enough to kill you over, you might end up in solitary for a while. They don’t feed you much in there, and you get beat a lot.”

Yellow-eyes was silent, and the air was tense. Still, Sano interpreted the quiet to mean that it was his turn. “So, why’d you want to know?”

“I’m calculating how much I’ve saved you from,” came the reply.

Saved me?!” wondered the slave angrily. “You fucking shot me!”

“You wouldn’t have survived long enough out there to get to any country. I saved your life.”

“What kinda life is this? And how do you know I wouldn’t have survived?”

“Didn’t Souzou’s experience teach you not to put faith in escape attempts?”

Startled, Sano couldn’t reply for a few moments. Finally he asked in a near-whisper, “How do you know about him?”

“You’re not the only one who was here back then,” yellow-eyes answered.

Sano was wordless, baffled. Who besides him and Katsu was left from that time? Some member of the staff, no doubt… but who could it be? And if the guard was getting detailed information from that person, what need was there to question Sano? But while this would probably have been the perfect moment to inquire about that, the unexpected mention of Souzou’s name had thrown him drastically off balance.

It had been so long, and he still couldn’t help but be deeply disturbed by the thoughts of those events. But, then, he’d long known that time didn’t move the same for him as it did for others. Sometimes — not often — he almost wished he were just a normal slave. Might not that be a better life than stagnating in painful memory? But if he was going to wish for anything, he might as well wish for freedom. Or…

“You could at least have let me die like him,” he whispered.

“I saw no need for you to die,” yellow-eyes replied immediately.

“There was no need for him to die either, but at least he got away from here…”

“If you wanted to be like him in that sense, you wouldn’t be here.”

“If you hadn’t stopped me, I wouldn’t be here.”

“True.”

And finally Sano managed to ask the question he most wanted answered: “Why won’t I regret that?”

“Because I won’t allow it.”

Sano laughed bitterly. “What if I’m already regretting it?”

“Then you need to be distracted.” Suddenly the man’s arm had crept over his body to run fingers across his chest.

Sano’s breath caught in his throat, his shoulder throbbed, and his stomach twisted… and, oddly enough, none of these necessarily in an unpleasant way. “So you’re gonna actually fuck me this time?”

The guard had shifted so he was pressed fully against Sano’s back, and now replied in the slave’s ear, “Do you want me to?”

“No,” Sano gasped as the man’s hand slid into his pants, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if yellow-eyes hadn’t heard him at all. And as the guard began stroking him, he didn’t think he had the ability to reiterate his negative. The last time he’d gotten an erection without having to concentrate on doing so was… he couldn’t remember… Had a guard’s touch ever done it before? He didn’t think so…

He knew he shouldn’t let the man’s overtly-stated intention of distracting him be fulfilled, but the unusual sensation of being deliberately pleasured by somebody else was too overwhelming. And as yellow-eyes, who seemed unfairly good at this (though what did Sano know?), wasn’t in any hurry to finish him off, there was plenty of time for Sano to lose track of everything except the skilled fingers working him toward orgasm, and to forget everything he’d come here intending to find out.

While all this was going on, Katsu, who might otherwise have prevented it, found himself equally distracted. Having emerged from the building too late to stop or even catch sight of the missing Sano, he spent a moment contemplating the relative merits of chasing his reckless friend versus sneaking back inside before the quarter-warden closed the doors.

“Katsu, what’s happening?” Soujirou had followed him.

“Sano’s being stupid,” Katsu sighed.

“I heard some of what you were saying… he’s having trouble with a guard, right?”

Katsu nodded. “The guy who shot him the other night was unusually nice to him, that’s all. Sano doesn’t know how to deal with people being nice when he doesn’t expect it.” Hell, who did?

“Maybe this is a good way for him to learn, then.”

“Bothering a guard isn’t a good way to do anything except get yourself in trouble.”

“Is the guard likely to do anything worse to Sano because of it than he would do anyway, though? Or, if he’s nice…”

“I don’t know that he is; I’ve never talked to him.” Though his tone was still grim, Katsu’s tension was draining. Soujirou made a very good point: what could the guard do to Sano at this point that was any worse than what they were already fearing might happen? Hell, maybe the guy would fuck Sano for his trouble, and Sano’s confusion would end. Not that Katsu would ever really wish that on his friend.

“Hey,” Soujirou said softly, breaking Katsu from his thoughts. “I’m sure it’ll be all right. Who knows better than Sano how things work around here?”

“I do,” Katsu replied wryly, “and I’m the one who’s worried.”

Soujirou put his hand on Katsu’s shoulder, drawing his gaze. “It’ll be fine,” he reiterated, leaning up and kissing Katsu briefly.

The latter watched the blue eyes as they drew back. He wasn’t sure why, but somehow when Soujirou said things like that, Katsu was inclined to believe it. “I hope you’re right,” he said in a lighter tone, looking back in the direction of the guard barracks. I hope you find some answers, he told Sano silently.

Soujirou said his name suddenly, and on turning Katsu found himself locked in a longer and much more intense kiss. And perhaps it was not the best display of friendly loyalty, but with Soujirou’s soft lips against his, he couldn’t stay worried for long.

The younger slave’s arms slid around Katsu’s back to pull them closer together, and even in the warm summer night the heat of proximity was not unpleasant. Katsu laced his fingers though Soujirou’s hair and savored the feeling of the other’s body against his.

And then the voice he hated most in the entire world spoke from several yards away: “Nothing I like better’n slaves sneaking out of their quarters at night to fuck.” Akamatsu was approaching swiftly as he said this, opening his pants. “Don’t mind me, guys,” he grinned licentiously as he halted.

Katsu tried to keep what would have been a very detrimental expression of horror off his face. He couldn’t say he was surprised at this turn of events — standing around outside carelessly kissing another slave could bring only a few results — but was vehemently cursing his luck and foolishness.

Soujirou did not appear any better pleased at the prospect of providing this kind of entertainment for a third party, but after a moment his visage hardened in determination and he put his mouth to Katsu’s ear. “Looks like we have no choice; might as well make the best of it.”

“We can’t do this…” If he’d had time to explain, he would have had more objections than just the audience. He’d never had a relationship, because he hadn’t wanted to find himself in Kaoru’s situation or that of those he’d known before her… and the fact that something about Soujirou was more intensely attractive than anything he’d ever felt from anyone else he might have liked was all the more reason to want to do things right… if there was a right way for one slave to get involved with another that was likely to be sold away from him within a few weeks. And he wasn’t sure he knew how to have sex the right way, the way where both parties supposedly enjoyed it.

Soujirou said very seriously, almost as if reading more than one of these objections in Katsu’s few words, “You won’t regret it if I enjoy it, though?”

“But, in front of him?” Katsu murmured, aghast. It wasn’t as if he’d never done anything like this in front of a guard before — indeed, this guard — but he assumed Soujirou really hadn’t.

“Just pretend he’s not there.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

Akamatsu’s impatient tone broke into their debate. “Are you guys gonna get on with it, or do you need my help?”

Katsu was not about to answer that out loud. Slowly he drew Soujirou to him once more and wondered not only whether he could do as he was urged — ignore the guard and enjoy this — but what kind of animal it would make him if he did. Most likely, merely more the kind he already was. He tried to console himself, to placate his conscience, by reflecting that this was probably better, at least, than either of them having Akamatsu’s attention solely on himself… but in the end the most placating circumstance arose from his body, not his mind.

It was some time — indeed, it was about the middle of the night — before they went back inside their quarters. That they were going to be unusually tired tomorrow was the least of Katsu’s concerns.

Chapter 7

Supper was very hushed the next day, but the nuances of the wordlessness were eluding Katsu. They’d had to rouse the warden to let them back into the quarters last night; she’d not been quiet in her wrath and assignment of punishment — it didn’t help that she found distasteful the activities they’d fairly obviously been engaged in outside — so Yahiko and Kaoru knew.

Kaoru was very disappointed; she seemed to think Katsu should have been stronger than that against temptation. She’d worked alongside him and Soujirou throughout most of the nearly-silent day, unhappy and without enough energy for the annoyance she might otherwise have displayed. Katsu hadn’t bothered to explain that Akamatsu had encouraged them into it, given that he wasn’t entirely sure something similar wouldn’t have happened without the guard’s help.

Yahiko was uncomfortable with anything sexual, being at the age where such things were still relatively null in his mind, but, simultaneously, living in an environment where it was present around him at most times and where he also had to worry that he might be growing into a more attractive young man than was good for him. He understood fairly well the potential dangers of involvement with another slave, having seen Kaoru’s symptoms as plainly as the rest of them, but evidently didn’t feel qualified to discuss the matter.

How much Sano deduced by the atmosphere among them Katsu couldn’t tell. He’d never come back yesterday, so presumably he’d spend the night with that guard again. And whatever had occurred between them didn’t seem to have improved the situation, for Sano was even more broody and tense than before. Whether this preoccupation extended so far as to keep him from noticing that Kaoru was sad and disapproving, Yahiko silent and embarrassed, and that Soujirou couldn’t look at Katsu without his smile turning all silly, there was no way to tell.

Not knowing exactly what his own opinion about last night was, Katsu didn’t feel up to trying to make conversation, and the meal proceeded without much comfort. He also couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to ask Sano about the outcome of the ill-thought venture, whether it had accomplished anything more than getting friends in trouble: such a discussion would undoubtedly lead to what Katsu and Soujirou had gotten in trouble for, and why they’d been out after the door was locked… he feared Akamatsu’s involvement wouldn’t entirely avert Sano’s protectiveness and worry. Yet Sano was sure to find out sooner or later, and, for all Katsu’s engrossment in his own situation, he was concerned enough about Sano’s not to want to wait.

Kaoru had hardly any appetite, and walked heavily and slowly away with Yahiko after not too long. This didn’t help the tension much, but, as Katsu thought it would be best to question Sano with less of an audience, he didn’t complain. Once the two of them were done eating (Soujirou, of course, having finished before anyone else, as usual), they all rose and left the building wordlessly. Katsu found that Sano turned immediately toward the guard barracks outside the door.

“You’re going back to him?” he asked without thinking.

Sano stopped and turned. Soujirou, almost as if Katsu had specifically requested it, did not halt, but walked on a few paces, giving the two of them almost complete privacy. Sano sighed and said, “No… the other confusing guy.”

“The othe– oh, the one who had you sit in a chair the other night?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what the hell he wants me up there again for.”

With a shake of his head and a shrug Katsu changed the subject. “So what happened last night?”

Sano scowled, and at first it seemed he wasn’t going to answer at all. This was not a good sign. Finally he said, “Not much. He asked me more questions…”

“And then…?”

“And then he jacked me off.”

This, Katsu had to admit, was strange… but he was sure Sano was making more of it than it merited. “Why?” he asked.

“I don’t know!” Sano exploded. “I don’t understand one fucking thing he’s done!”

Katsu shook his head again. “Neither do I… and I also don’t understand why you’re complaining when it’s better than what you’re used to.”

“I’m not used to being confused,” Sano insisted heatedly. “I’m not used to–”

And just then Soujirou called out, “Katsu, don’t forget we need to scrub the bathrooms!”

The conversation was derailed and Sano was frowning at him. “Why do you guys have to scrub the bathrooms?”

It was Katsu’s turn to sigh, and Sano’s frown grew; evidently he hadn’t gone through dinner time completely oblivious. “Last night I went outside after you, and he followed… then Akamatsu showed up and demanded some slave porn. We didn’t get back in for a while.”

The expression on Sano’s face was disturbing. He obviously didn’t know what to say, or probably what to feel. Finally he forced a very unconvincing grin and said, “Better than that bastard doing you himself, right?”

Katsu, miserable at his friend’s concern — all the more because it was perfectly justified — seized him by his good shoulder. “Look, I don’t want you to worry yourself to death about me when you’re already driving yourself crazy over some guard who’s suddenly decided you’re his boyfriend.”

“It’s not that I–”

“I know exactly why you’re worried,” Katsu broke in, “and I appreciate it. But you’re going to have to trust me to take care of myself, OK? I’m not going to… I’m not going to fall in love with him and waste away and abandon you. I promise.” And he shook Sano slightly.

Sano took a deep breath as if steeling himself. “OK.” He didn’t sound entirely convinced, but he did make a brave attempt to smile.

“I won’t let you down.”

Sano nodded.

“I’ve gotta go scrub toilets. Good luck with that weirdo.”

“Have fun,” Sano said, with another gratifying effort at greater cheer. He turned and walked away. Katsu watched him for several moments with a heart in turmoil.

“Everything OK?” Soujirou asked in what seemed a deliberately casual tone as they started toward their quarters again.

“Relatively speaking,” was Katsu’s dry reply.

“I don’t want this to come between you guys,” Soujirou said softly.

“I don’t know that there is a ‘this,'” answered Katsu just as quietly.

Soujirou nodded his understanding, his smile wan.

It wasn’t long before, armed with old and somewhat ragged scrub-brushes and diluted but still foul-smelling tile cleaner, they were sequestered in the first bathroom. There were two bathrooms, of course, at the back of the building, connected by a door that was usually locked; tonight they had they key so they could detail clean both sides without bothering the other slaves, and easily vacate the women’s half when someone needed to use it. Having a key to anything was an unusual amount of responsibility, but this was not exactly consoling.

As they went at the streaked, disheveled sinks with less than perfect vigor, a somewhat awkward silence hung in the air; the last exchange they’d had outside was just as palpable between them. Katsu wasn’t sure it was a good idea to say anything; doing so might give rise to expectations or even assumptions he didn’t want to encourage — in both of them. But at the same time, he couldn’t just say nothing… because neither did he want to promote the idea that there wasn’t anything between them.

Finally, “So how much of this type of work did you have to do with your old master?” He gestured at the brush in his hand. He thought this was a fairly safe topic.

“Some,” Soujirou shrugged. “More towards the end when he was selling the others. I can’t say I like it very much.”

Katsu gave him a skeptical smile. “Does anyone?”

“Well,” Soujirou pondered, “I think it wouldn’t be so bad if it were my bathroom.”

Katsu had to smile again. “So you do want freedom.”

Mimicking Katsu’s skeptical expression of a moment before, Soujirou wondered, “Doesn’t everyone?”

“You and that smile could fool anyone. You seem like you’re happy all the time no matter what.”

Soujirou laughed. “I guess I’m just an optimist.”

“You’ve been pretty optimistically shooting down all of Yahiko’s escape plans,” Katsu pointed out, still quizzical.

“Even an optimist can be practical!” Soujirou protested. “I wouldn’t want to try anything stupid, but I’m always sure things will get better somehow.”

Somehow, sure,” replied Katsu darkly. “It won’t be because of anything you did, though; it’ll still be someone else making changes in your life. Someone doing you a favor, or you being in the right place at the right time.”

Soujirou considered this and nodded slowly. “You’re right; a slave’s happiness isn’t the same as a free man’s happiness…” Not surprisingly, he broke into another smile. “Either way, I’m still usually pretty happy.”

Katsu experienced an abrupt clenching in his heart at this. He had to admit, he couldn’t understand the concept of practical optimism… and whether what he felt now was more worry for the moment of Soujirou’s disillusionment or a hopeless desire to share in the sanguine attitude, he could not tell. So much for a safe topic.

The conversation lapsed as they each attacked one of the two toilets with quiet sighs.

“Come look at this,” Soujirou said suddenly, after several minutes. “It won’t come off, and I swear it’s moving.”

Katsu joined him in the next stall, and, both of them on their knees, they scrutinized the spot on the toilet Soujirou indicated. It was faintly green with bright orange blobs, and it did almost seem to be pulsing on the slick porcelain as they looked at it.

“Watch,” Soujirou advised, and, bending down, scrubbed at it hard. When he pulled his brush away, the stain had undergone no change; indeed, it had quite possibly become more pronounced. He gave a helpless laugh. “It looks like an octopus having spasms.”

Katsu, who only vaguely knew what an octopus was, peered more closely and replied, “Or a dancing spider.”

“It’s an indestructible toilet monster!”

Katsu chucked; then, sitting back up, found himself very close to Soujirou.

The latter had opened his mouth to say something more, but refrained as they were suddenly staring into each other’s eyes. Katsu wondered why he felt like he’d never seen that precise shade of blue before. Some silly reason, no doubt.

Hands clammy with tile cleaner sought each other as their lips met almost desperately, and they were kneeling next to a toilet and the smell was unpleasant and they’d just been discussing some kind of fungal discoloration and it was about as far from romantic as anything he could imagine and Katsu could not stop. His hands were moving to Soujirou’s body, trying futilely to pull him closer or at least to feel as much of him as possible. Soujirou’s were likewise engaged.

And then came the unmistakable sound of the door opening.

They jerked apart and scrambled up. The girl that had entered was looking curiously at the open door into the other bathroom, and gasped when they emerged from the far stall.

“Sorry,” Soujirou smiled a little breathlessly. “We’re cleaning the bathrooms; we’ll step out.” As he grabbed Katsu’s arm and they hastened through the door, the girl nodded her comprehension. She didn’t appear any too sympathetic, and Katsu assumed she’d been awakened last night, as many had, by the quarter-warden yelling at them.

He swung the door closed and leaned against it, and presently found his companion leaning against him looking up into his face. Soujirou didn’t say anything, only smiled.

Katsu sighed, but also didn’t really have anything to say. Actually, there wasn’t much to do other than kiss him again and not let go until they heard the girl exiting the other side.

Sano’s night, not surprisingly, involved a good deal less scrubbing, but also a good deal less kissing. Which he would have considered himself happier to forego, under the circumstances, was a matter of question.

Aoshi responded immediately to the knock, and ushered him in without a word. Once the door was shut, Sano found his entire figure the subject of the guard’s intense, silent scrutiny. For several moments the cold eyes roved over him, and Sano was actually a little startled when Aoshi spoke. “Take off your clothes.”

Sano did as he was told, wondering if this night would end up a little more normal than the last one had. But he found when naked that Aoshi was still doing nothing more than staring. It almost seemed he was looking for something. After what felt like a very long time, and without giving any hint at what he was thinking, Aoshi turned. “Sleep in the chair. Put your clothes back on if you want.” Sano opened his mouth. “And keep quiet.”

A little annoyed, Sano began pulling on his pants as darkness fell and he heard Aoshi getting into bed. He fumbled his way to the chair and sat down.

Here we go with another comfortable night, he grumbled silently. Way to make sense again. What the hell was wrong with this guy? It was almost like he was punishing Sano for something. This was just like the other night, only everything he was sitting here contemplating had escalated since then. Stupid fucking guards.

“…some guard who’s suddenly decided you’re his boyfriend…”

Sano just didn’t want to think about any of it. He was very close to wishing he were in some normal guard’s room, so at least he might have something to distract himself. Some guard that didn’t pretend not to want him or pretend to want him and not fuck him either way and what the hell did it mean?!

Then a new theory struck him, and he stared through the darkness to where he knew Aoshi lay. I bet… he considered slowly, and a slight grin spread across his face. Bet ‘e can’t get it up. He’s hauling me in here and doin’ his best, but even I can’t do it for him.

Maybe it was the stress he’d been under lately, or maybe it was because this explanation lessened the burden of confusion on his mind, but somehow, the more Sano thought about the theory, the funnier he found it — until he had his head laid against the back of the chair and tears leaking from his eyes in silent laughter, and drawing breath quietly was difficult. He can’t get it up, and sending me back to quarters would be good as admitting he couldn’t… so he keeps me here in the chair and goes to sleep all frustrated.

He hadn’t expected to find any relief here tonight, but after not too long was falling asleep in a much better mood.

Chapter 8

Days passed with no more perturbing guard-related events than sitting twice in Aoshi’s chair and being checked on fairly routinely by yellow-eyes. Though he still wanted answers, Sano was, somewhat against his will, beginning to get used to this. Aoshi’s strange behavior kept him out of random beds on at least those nights, anyway; and constant confusion, while not technically pleasant, was technically better than his interaction with most guards.

The one disconcerting moment of the week (guard-related, that is) was when yellow-eyes, ‘coincidentally’ encountering him yet again, asked whether he had barracks-call that night. Sano’s eyes flew instantly to the man’s hand, currently holding a cigarette, his thoughts to the feeling of that hand touching him, and that same strange twisting sensation in his stomach kept him for a moment from answering. Was the guy giving in? Had he actually decided to fuck Sano? It didn’t matter, since Sano did have a call for that night, but he spent the day in renewed mystification.

Katsu was no help at all, for a few reasons. First, Sano had yet to hear from coordination and was still separated from his friends during the days as he did laundry and they worked the fields. Second, Katsu still thought Sano was making too much of this, and from a logical standpoint Sano couldn’t even argue. Third, there was still Soujirou. Sano wasn’t sure how, but he was certain the two of them were finding opportunities to be alone and… do whatever. What disturbed him most was how cheerful this made Katsu. Increased happiness on the part of any of his companions would, of course, normally be a good thing, but here he feared it meant that Katsu was falling more and more for the smiling newcomer.

Katsu knew Sano’s worry, and continually insisted that he could take care of himself. He seemed to think Sano’s ‘obsession’ (as he called it) was a greater problem. The evening after yellow-eyes made his disconcerting inquiry, when Sano had told his friend about the conversation and wasn’t even bothering trying to disguise his intentions for the night, Katsu nearly snapped.

Why, Sano?” He looked like he might very readily have punched Sano if they hadn’t been indoors.

“I have to know what the hell he meant by that,” Sano grumbled, at once guilty and defensive. “I have to try at least one more time to get answers.”

“Goddammit,” hissed Katsu in desperate frustration, “don’t you realize that it’s not just your own ass you’re risking here?”

“If he was gonna turn us in,” Sano insisted, lowering his voice with a glance around at the others, “he’d have done it already. He’s got something else going on, and I wanna know what it is.”

“It probably has nothing to do with you!”

“Then why didn’t he turn us in?”

“Who cares?” Katsu exploded. “Since when is it your business what he does or doesn’t do?”

“I think I’ve gone crazy,” was Sano’s muttered admission. “Or if I haven’t, I will if I don’t figure this guy out.”

“You realize he didn’t actually tell you to come to him; he just asked if you were going to anyone else. It’s not necessarily the same thing.”

“I know. But I have to go.”

Katsu pursed his lips and nodded. “Be careful,” he said hopelessly.

Sano had been planning on merely stopping by the quarters to check on Kaoru, who hadn’t come to supper, but between waiting for a moment when Soujirou wasn’t listening and the subsequent debate with Katsu, he found the quarter-warden locking the door by the time he approached it; she didn’t even ask, tonight, where he thought he was going, only let him out with a sneer of, “You’ve been busy lately.”

He just nodded, and left as quickly as he could.

But as he made his way up the hill, he found himself dawdling, hesitant. Katsu was right: yellow-eyes hadn’t told him to come. Though the guard hadn’t been angry the last time Sano had shown up uninvited, was Sano pushing his luck? Just asking for the man to snap? Or what if… what if yellow-eyes had somebody else with him in there? What would he do to the upstart slave that came pounding on the door like a suspicious lover?

Something cold and hard seemed to grow in Sano’s chest, and still he wavered. He couldn’t go back now, even if he wanted to. He could spend the night outside; he’d done it before, and knew it was possible… but what he’d told Katsu had been true as well: not knowing was going to break him.

The dilemma was eventually solved for him. “What’re you doing out, there?”

At first Sano thought he was caught: outside after curfew, having lied (at least by omission) to his quarter-warden, with no actual barracks-call to excuse his slow, loitering walk… and the voice, of course, was Akamatsu’s… The blood rushed to his face as he stood suddenly still. But a split-second later he realized that the guard, a few yards away, was addressing another slave and Sano, concealed in shadow, had gone unnoticed as yet.

It was the braid-girl from the wash-house. “I… I…” She’d barely begun to stammer out an excuse when the guard interrupted her:

“Never mind, sweetie, just come with me.”

“Where?” The girl’s voice was a frightened squeak.

“We’ll just head back to my room and not worry about curfew.” Not for the first time, Sano wondered whether Akamatsu ever did any actual guarding or just wandered around looking for slaves to molest. He hadn’t been aware that the asshole liked girls, though.

“But, sir, I–” Now it was a horrified squeak.

“C’mon.” He grabbed her arm. “I’m lettin’ you off easy here.”

“No!” She was standing her ground.

Won’t do you any good, Sano told her silently, repressing a sigh and remembering.

“Don’t give me no attitude, there,” the guard growled.

“But…”

“You gonna keep fighting me? Do I hafta show you your place right here outside, then?”

Sano couldn’t take this. He’d been fairly sure this girl was new around here since the first time he’d seen her; he couldn’t stand to watch her dragged off to be raped — or, worse, raped right in front of him on the ground — when all it would take to save her was a ‘Hey, guy, she ain’t worth your time… wanna try something tighter and ready to go?’ He was about to go over there and work his charm when the situation suddenly turned on its head.

“Bastard,” the girl said in a clear and completely different tone, and, apparently without effort, threw the man to the ground.

Sano wasn’t exactly sure what she’d done — he certainly didn’t see any weapon — but the man did not get up again. And now the girl was looking straight at him. “Come over here and help me,” she commanded.

Sano did so, having not the faintest idea what to expect, his eyes on the fallen guard. “Did you… is he…”

“I just knocked him out, but it’s going to be a big problem. Can you carry him for me?”

Eyes widening and brows lowering, Sano demanded, “Just what do you think you’re doing? This… this is gonna get you killed, you know that? I can’t… I mean, not that I haven’t always wanted to kick this guy’s ass, but…”

She gave him a flat stare that said very clearly, I know what I’m doing. Which Sano couldn’t believe, but she was doing it rather convincingly. “Just come on,” she ordered.

For some unfathomable reason, Sano found himself obeying. “I’m gonna get fucking killed,” he muttered as he hoisted Akamatsu onto his back and tottered after the girl, who was now leading the way. “I always feel bad for you gals and do stupid shit.”

She threw a grin over her shoulder at him. “Trust me.”

“Why do people keep saying that?” Sano grumbled, then added under his breath, “This bastard always stinks…”

Braid-girl was keeping them close to the trees, watching carefully for anyone approaching from any direction; she moved almost noiselessly, and her vigil looked like it was unerring. Sano wondered, very curious, what kind of work she’d done for her previous master.

She stopped them suddenly, as they were about to leave the cover of the little belt of forest, and scanned their surroundings even more cautiously than before. Sano was becoming increasingly nervous… they were approaching the guard barracks, and he had an unconscious rapist on his back. “Where are we going?” he wondered in the quietest tone possible.

“There,” she replied, pointing — he must be seeing things — straight at the barracks in front of them.

“Are you fucking crazy?” he demanded, stepping back a few paces and almost stumbling under his load. “What the fuck is your–”

She glared at him. “I’m not suicidal and I’m not stupid. Do you think I’d be doing something like this if I didn’t know what I was doing?”

“Um…” Sano shook his head, baffled. “I don’t know you from fucking Juno! How should I know if you would or not?”

“Well, I wouldn’t,” she said impatiently. “Are you going to trust me and come with me, or am I going to knock you out too?”

“Betcha can’t drag us both,” he said defiantly.

She turned fully to face him with an annoyed scowl. “Just trust me. Bring him, and everything’ll be OK.” After a long moment she turned away again and continued checking for watchers.

Thinking he must have gone completely insane, Sano stepped after her as she hurried across the open space toward the building. His frown deepened as he realized that he knew which room she was approaching. But… it couldn’t be… why?

She glanced around yet again, furtively, when she reached the door. Indeed, it was the door. She knocked softly, and, indeed, it was yellow-eyes that opened and, with only a fleeting look of surprise, gestured for them both to come inside.

Sano was by now far over his head in puzzlement and trepidation. He entered mutely, and at braid-girl’s gesture dumped the unconscious body on the floor.

“I’m sorry…” the girl was saying, giving Akamatsu a look of contempt. “I shouldn’t have… but you said not to let any of them touch us.”

Yellow-eyes nodded shortly; then, to Sano’s utter shock and dismay, he knelt beside the prostrate guard and, in a concise movement and with a quick, sickening series of snapping crunches, twisted the man’s head violently almost a full one hundred and eighty degrees.

“H-holy… fucking…” The slave was gaping, shaking his head, feeling bile rise in his throat and his entire body flush with horror. He’d witnessed deaths before, but this was… different… and the fact that he’d fantasized seeing exactly that for at least a year actually made it worse.

“Look away if it bothers you,” said yellow-eyes shortly. Then he turned immediately back to braid-girl and told her, “Go spend the night in Aoshi’s room; tell him what’s happened. We may have to move sooner than we’d planned because of this; we’ll need to see how this man’s absence is taken.”

Even through the shock he was in, Sano didn’t fail to note the smile that flickered across braid-girl’s face at Aoshi’s name. Aoshi? Aoshi??

“Yes, sir,” braid-girl said, and was out the door.

“Um…” Sano stood rooted to the spot, his gaze fixed on a point where he could still see the corpse in the corner of his eye. “What is going on?”

“You’ll need to spend the night here,” yellow-eyes told him. Sano was compelled to look at his face, but, as always, could not read the expression there.

“That doesn’t really tell me what’s going on,” he protested weakly. Although, provided something was done with the dead body, spending the night here was not nearly as disagreeable a thought as it might or probably should have been.

“You don’t need to know what’s going on,” yellow-eyes said. “Just forget everything you saw tonight.” He had pulled the blanket from the bed and was busy stripping the sheets.

Sano didn’t like this at all. “You can’t just expect me to really do that,” he protested. “You just fucking killed a guy… a guy who’s been raping me for, like, a year, yeah, but…”

“He’s been worse than most, hasn’t he?” Yellow-eyes’ voice was stony.

“How the hell did you know that? Yeah, he has… but…”

“I’m sorry if it disturbs you,” said the man grimly, “but someone like that deserves it.”

“He does… he did… but… What the fuck are you? You and that girl and… and that other guard, Aoshi… you’re all working together to do something here, aren’t you?”

“How do you know who Aoshi is?” yellow-eyes asked curiously as he bent and began tightly wrapping the sheet around the corpse.

“He keeps calling me up to his quarters and then just having me sit there all night not doing jack-shit. Confused the hell outta me before, but maybe I get it a little now.”

For some reason, yellow-eyes looked annoyed at this. “Not as much as you think you do,” he replied darkly.

“What do you mean? And what are you guys all here for?”

Yellow-eyes just shook his head as he finished his task.

Frustrated but by now familiar with how nearly impossible it was to get information out of this man, Sano made one last attempt to put the pieces together. Knowing that there was some kind of conspiracy, some kind of organization toward whatever end yellow-eyes had in mind, was not nearly as helpful as he would have thought it should be. The only answer he could come up with, eventually, was, “Are you here to steal slaves?”

Looking up at him impassively, yellow-eyes replied shortly, “Yes.”

Surprised that his guess had been correct, Sano frowned for a moment before making another. “And I’m one of the ones you want.”

The guard was briefly silent as he lifted the body, then stood straight with a slight smirk and said, “You are the one I want.”

“What, you’re each only taking one?” Suddenly the man’s behavior up until now came frighteningly close to making sense. But… yellow-eyes, braid-girl, and Aoshi… that was only three… if they were each hand-picking one slave, then… Sano scowled abruptly. “I won’t let you.”

Yellow-eyes quirked an eyebrow. “You’re not going to have a choice.”

“So was this why I wasn’t supposed to regret not escaping?” Sano demanded irately. “Because you stealing me was going to make up for it?” The idea was somehow more painful than anything else he’d imagined during the long days that had passed since the fateful escape attempt. Sano’s rising voice overrode whatever the guard might have been about to say. “You fucking asshole, you’re just like all the other guards here… fuck that, you’re worse… you’re worse than that stiff you’re holding!”

The look of mild and relatively patient annoyance on the man’s face as he let Sano have his say was just too much. In what the slave hoped was an unexpected movement — not that the guard was in much of a position to stop him, burdened as he was — Sano yanked the door open and bolted.

Lucky he was that he didn’t encounter anyone, for he ran almost blindly — first in the general direction of his quarters, then, in a brief moment of greater presence of mind, into the nearby belt of trees. There, he threw himself down half in a bush and closed his eyes.

He didn’t know where to go. Straight to another guard, to report the crime brewing in their midst? No, he couldn’t… no matter what the man’s motives had been, yellow-eyes hadn’t turned him in for trying to escape — nor, perhaps more to the point, Katsu — and Sano didn’t think he could just turn around and betray him after that. But he couldn’t allow himself to be stolen…

The mere thought of that man’s attitude and behavior was bitterly painful to him. Why it should be so he was not sure… Because, despite his technical status as a slave, he yet was unaccustomed to being so blatantly objectified? Because, now that he knew the inadequate reason for its prevention, the thwarted escape attempt was haunting him? Because the faith he’d had, in defiance of all logic, in that mysterious promise was now shattered? And why was it that knowing the truth raised more questions than it answered?

The sex thing, for example, still made no sense. Did yellow-eyes plan on continuing to ask him, ‘Do you want me to?’ once Sano had become his personal property? Did he assume Sano would eventually succumb to his… charms… and answer yes? That would fit, Sano thought, with the arrogance and selfishness of a man under the impression that belonging to him would be better than freedom.

Sano buried his face in the dusty cloth that covered his knees, as if by hiding it he could hide from the emotional turmoil it displayed. He feared he wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight.

Chapter 9

In the showers the next morning, it was readily evident to Katsu that Sano was, true to form, even worse off than he’d been before going on his third (or was it fourth?) quest for answers. This obsession of his had to reach a breaking point eventually… Katsu could only fear that, as Sano himself had once suggested, it might well be Sano’s breaking point. Today he didn’t even appear to notice the interaction between Katsu and Soujirou, which otherwise Katsu assumed would have worried and angered him.

Sano seemed exhausted and unhappy, but more distressing than that was the blankness of his eyes — and nothing Katsu thought of to say could really pull him from his evidently very unpleasant thoughts. He wished they would be going to the fields together; if he’d had all day to work on him, his efforts might have had some better effect. As it was, the time for their separation came all too soon, and Sano made for the other side of the building and his laundry with almost no farewell.

Katsu watched him go with a feeling of pained frustration, then turned toward his own day’s work. But as his eyes swept past the belt of forest that ran behind the wash-house and the mess hall and on up the hill, he caught sight of a tall grey figure standing in the shadows of the trees, from all appearances watching the slaves emerging from the wash-house very intently. And, though the features were obscured by distance and shadow, somehow Katsu knew who it was.

Maybe he was feeling reckless; maybe the memory of the conversation he’d overheard at the showers the other day inspired him to greater protectiveness of his friend than prudence could restrain. Whatever the impelling madness, he said quietly to Soujirou at his side, “Wait here a second,” and jogged over to the guard.

The latter gave him an aloof quizzical look and said nothing, only sucked on a cigarette, as he approached. That was somewhat promising.

“What are you doing to Sano?” Katsu demanded, taking care not to precede the question with a deep breath that would indicate just how nervous he was.

“I don’t see him around, so I’d have to say nothing,” the man replied with a touch of sarcasm.

Sarcasm, however, was far from the hostility Katsu would have expected from a guard thus accosted, and this gave him courage. “Every time he goes to you, he’s confused and upset the whole next day. He hasn’t been himself at all since that night you stopped us.”

“Sounds like a personal problem to me,” said the guard.

“A personal problem you’ve been causing!” Katsu protested. “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing he didn’t want or enjoy.”

By this statement Katsu was taken aback, and a frown grew on his face as he remembered Sano’s slow and thoughtful ‘No…’ when Katsu had asked if the guard had raped him. Did that mean… could it be possible… that something had happened to make Sano like this man? That would explain everything very neatly, Katsu thought. And if it indeed was the case, it made Sano’s situation even more complicated and unfortunate than Katsu’s. Who had ever heard of a slave becoming attached to a guard?

Still, he couldn’t be sure from the uncertain information the taciturn man had given him. He was about to demand more answers when the guard cut him off with, “You need to get to work.”

“Yes,” Katsu replied in a colder tone than he thought he’d ever used with a guard before, and added for good measure, “sir.” Then he turned to obey the command.

“What was that?” Soujirou wondered as Katsu rejoined him and they set off.

“Me being suicidal,” sighed Katsu in reply. “Sano’s rubbing off.”

Soujirou glanced back. “Oh, was that the guard that Sano’s worried about?”

“Yeah.” A harshly helpless feeling was growing in Katsu’s chest as they walked. Was that really the best he could do for his friend? A couple of questions and then a quick step back into line? He’d had the guy there, conveniently located and at his ease… yet all he could manage was to invite retribution while obtaining almost no answers and definitely not making his point. “Goddammit,” he muttered.

“If he upset you so much,” Soujirou remarked, “I’m surprised your conversation was so short.”

“As if I had any choice,” replied Katsu in a growling sigh. “There’s not much else you can say to ‘You need to get to work’ than ‘Yes, sir.'” He kicked at a rock, but didn’t bother to go back for it when he missed and half-stumbled past it. “It doesn’t matter what we do,” he added softly, bitterly. “Whether we try to stand up to them or just give up and do whatever they say… they’re miles above us. It’s like they’re a different species.”

“That’s not true, and you know it.” Soujirou’s tone was quiet, serious, and just a little startling. Glancing at him, Katsu noticed that, although his rarely-absent smile was in its customary place, it was more rigid than usual. Walking purposefully and quickly as always, Soujirou was looking down at the ground… but Katsu thought there was something tight about his movements; a completely different emotion than the ones superficially suggested by his expression showed in every other aspect of his figure. “Anyone who’d be willing to guard a place like this is less of a man than you are.”

Katsu stared. He’d never heard Soujirou talk like that, but somehow it reminded him of the pitying look he’d caught him giving Yahiko his first night — if only because of the apparent incongruence of each circumstance. “I’m still usually pretty happy,” Soujirou had commented when they’d discussed their attitudes toward their situation, and his constant smile testified of that statement’s truth… yet moments like this did not. Was there something about Soujirou, something hiding behind that smile, that Katsu was missing?

Aforementioned smile rose, once again beaming innocent complacence in almost jarring transformation now that Katsu was paying attention. “But you’re probably right about not provoking the guards; you know how this place works better than I do, after all. Do you think Sano’s gotten himself in trouble with that guy?”

With a slight chill Katsu recognized the technique: transition away from the revealing comment, compliment to distract, and question on a topic that won’t be ignored. Was he imagining things? Or else how many times had Soujirou directed his conversation thus since arriving at the complex? And, more importantly, why? To conceal strong anti-slavery sentiments that could get him killed if they were even hinted at aloud? Or something less harmless? Not that Katsu could imagine anything one slave might have to conceal from another that would require such behavior…

“I don’t know,” he said, not bothering to make his answer sound less darkly contemplative; let Soujirou think Katsu was brooding about Sano. Hell, let him think Katsu was onto him; it didn’t make much difference. Still, favoring the first impression slightly, he added with a little more attention, “I don’t think so. The guard didn’t sound angry.”

“Well, that’s good, at least,” Soujirou smiled, and asked no more questions.

Having a lot to think about wasn’t entirely bad, despite the unsettling nature of the two subjects: the day seemed to fly by when both his head and his hands were occupied. He took little part in the conversation between Soujirou and Kaoru, who was working in their area as she did whenever she could; and the apparently innocuous nature of Soujirou’s half of the discussion only lengthened Katsu’s internal debate: was he imagining things? There was more to anyone he was likely to meet than he would be able to comprehend in the amount of time he’d known Soujirou; just because he’d had sex with someone didn’t mean he knew everything there was to know about him. Was he borrowing trouble just so he wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble he already had?

Not that he wasn’t thinking about Sano, but there was nothing new in those reflections. The very novelty of the suspicions Soujirou’s words had awakened was, for the moment, almost equal to his worries about his best friend, so there was a fairly steady alternation of topic throughout the course of his work — to absolutely no purpose. The aforementioned suspicions were not concrete enough to approach Soujirou with, and the aforementioned worries, as Katsu was fully aware, got him right to the middle of a bleak and frustrating nowhere. It made for a disheartening day.

Near the end of the latter, he was distracted from both of his engrossing subjects by a couple of guards that stopped nearby to talk in low voices. What caught his attention in specific was the question asked by the one that had apparently initiated this not atypical breach in protocol: “So, did you hear about that pervert scarred guy?”

Katsu moved a few quiet steps closer. It was his habit to listen to any conversation he was able to overhear between guards, and here he had the added incentives of a distraction from unpleasant reflections and finding out what the other guards thought of Akamatsu.

That opinion didn’t seem to be too high. “The one who’s got a slave up to his room every fucking night?” the second guard snorted. “No, what happened?”

“He’s gone,” replied the first. “Last night, I guess; never showed up this morning, and his stuff’s gone from his room and everything.”

This was such a shock of good news that Katsu could scarcely believe it.

“Man, I never thought he’d leave… all the free faggy sex he wanted here; where else was he gonna go?”

“That’s the best part… seems like he found himself a real boyfriend.” The first guard’s tone was sardonic and amused. “That new guy — the one with the yellow eyes — he’s gone too.”

Katsu’s brows lowered. He’d seen the man just this morning… and now they said he was gone? Unless there was some other new guard with yellow eyes…

The second speaker burst out laughing at the first’s suggestion. “You’ve gotta be shitting me! Those were the two scariest-looking guys in this place!”

“Funny coincidence, though, them both leaving on the same day, isn’t it?”

Just at that moment the siren calling the end of the work-day sounded from the distant opposite end of the complex, and Katsu jumped. Hastily he stepped away from the guards and put his back to them to make sure he didn’t appear to have been doing what he’d been doing.

Soujirou gave him a curious smile, but Katsu shook his head slightly. Not until they’d stowed their tools in the shed and left the immediate supervision of the field guards for the greater privacy of the road did he speak. This gave him time to decide whether to confide in Soujirou at all, and, if so, how much. The conclusion he came to was that, even if there was something untoward about Soujirou, this particular piece of news probably wouldn’t do any harm — and would undoubtedly reach his ears after not too long anyway.

Soujirou’s comment on the story was very much along the lines of what Katsu had been wondering since hearing it himself: “But if he supposedly left before work, why did we see him hanging around the wash-house this morning?”

Katsu shook his head. “Who knows?”

Kaoru, who hadn’t witnessed the morning’s encounter, had to have it explained, which was fortunate — although Katsu had been willing to relate what he’d overheard, his thoughts in response to it were something he didn’t feel like sharing, and this was a good way to avoid doing so.

The guard had seemed to be waiting or watching for something outside the wash-house — if not necessarily for a rendezvous of some sort, at least to confirm someone’s presence or state. Perhaps that had been his final item of business before leaving the complex? And where did Akamatsu fit in? Would he also be showing up for one final item of business?

With a sigh (and a slight shudder at that last concept), Katsu reflected that he was soon likely to be as bad as Sano if he kept puzzling over things like this. Overall, it was good news that the yellow-eyed man had left, whenever he’d gone: whatever Sano might or might not feel for the guard, he would be better off without him around. And Akamatsu’s departure must be, beyond simply good news, a cause for outright celebration.

Kaoru was agreeing aloud with this unspoken sentiment as they approached the mess hall, but, naturally, quieted as soon as they were within earshot of the guard on the porch. “Sano will be happy to hear it,” she did add, however, in an undertone, as they entered.

Katsu wasn’t so sure about that. Based on what he’d seen this morning and the logical destination of the road Sano’s spirit had been traveling lately, he feared even the news that the world was going to end tomorrow might not have roused Sano from the stupor into which he’d fallen. Yet he pondered how to bring the subject up. Although, in perfect accordance with his theory, Sano’s eyes were just as blank over his soup and bread as they had been in the showers, Katsu’s surety of his friend’s current dullness wasn’t so great as to assume that the news of the yellow-eyed guard’s departure would have no affect on him.

Conforming to the pattern of the day, he was distracted from one issue by another when he noticed the odd way Soujirou was holding his soup spoon. Of course the slaves weren’t given knives or forks — not that they needed such things for their simple meals — and the spoons were too flimsy to be used as weapons… but their edges tended to be somewhat rough, and it seemed this was causing Soujirou some discomfort.

Curious, Katsu abandoned his scrutiny of Sano’s blank face for the moment in favor of watching Soujirou’s hands surreptitiously. It didn’t take too long to discern that their undersides, from wrist to fingertip, were covered with raging red blisters and cuts, which were apparently aggravated today more than previous days by the basic motions of eating. Indeed, Soujirou’s typical speed at that activity was hampered somewhat by the care he was taking not to hurt himself more than he had to.

Soujirou had mentioned that his work for his late master had been ‘white-collar.’ Katsu’s wasn’t entirely clear on that concept, but knew it placed Soujirou in the category of indoor slaves. Therefore the havoc that the rough, heavy harvesting tools had been wreaking on Soujirou’s hands was no surprise at all. What did come as a surprise was that Katsu hadn’t seen it before today. Usually he was quite good at noticing things like that — at noticing things in general, actually — and in this specific case, the hands in question had touched him rather intimately on several occasions. That he hadn’t taken note of their injured state seemed to suggest Soujirou had been taking care to keep it hidden. And did that mean he had deliberately allowed Katsu to see it tonight? But why would he do either?

Or was Katsu still imagining things, fitting this circumstance into the network of doubt he was now continually developing in reference to the other slave? Soujirou might merely be embarrassed to have his weakness known, or in some sort of quiet denial about the circumstances that had caused it, or undesirous to add to the others’ existing unhappiness. And it was quite possible that Katsu was simply slipping — that this thing with Sano had blinded him, to a certain extent, to extraneous facts, and caused the state of Soujirou’s hands to escape him. Or perhaps the blisters hadn’t been this visible until tonight? There were plenty of logical reasons Katsu might not have noticed besides Soujirou having some kind of dark secret.

In any case, the sight reiterated a fact Katsu had been largely trying to ignore all day: whatever Soujirou was or might be hiding and why, Katsu cared about him. Not as much as he cared about Sano and in a decidedly different way… but he did care, and he couldn’t deny it. He would have to talk to Soujirou about it later; it could be that the latter simply wasn’t aware there was treatment (however perfunctory) available, and had opted to suffer in silence.

“Katsu.” Kaoru brought him back to the here and now with her quiet call. She was looking at Sano worriedly — and when a woman wasting away of heartbreak looked at someone like that, it was time to pay attention. “Are you going to tell Sano the good news, or should I?”

“Good news?” Sano said vaguely, his eyes still unfocused.

With a deep breath, Katsu tried to put on a smile as he nodded. “I heard some guards talking…” He trailed off for a moment as he was reminded of the last time he’d used this exact phrase and what had happened that night. Were they headed for further disaster? But that was superstitious and irrelevant. “Akamatsu’s gone,” he finished with all the cheer he could muster. It wasn’t quite as much cheer as he could have mustered if he hadn’t had additional news he was less eager to relate, but it didn’t sound too bad.

“Aka… ma…” To all appearances, Sano wasn’t even aware that he was repeating the name; it was as if his mouth were acting independently of his brain in an attempt to bring the rest of him up to speed.

His moment of realization, as abrupt as the firing of a gun, was clearly visible and equally puzzling to all of them: the color drained from his face, and his body straightened with a jerk that caused the tray beneath his hands on the tabletop to clatter and shift. He stood without a word and started to make a swift, ungraceful path through the crowd toward the door. For one baffled moment they all stared after him, unmoving. Then Katsu, his mind and consequently many of his actions in complete disarray, jumped up clumsily and followed.

He hadn’t really believed Akamatsu’s departure had anything to do with the other guard’s, but for Sano to react thus forced him to rethink that assessment — though any logical guess at the connection between the circumstances was beyond the pales of Katsu’s imagination. But now his curiosity had risen to the level of his concern, and both were at fever pitch. He was not surprised, on leaving the building, to see Sano heading up the hill toward the guard barracks. Nor was he surprised to hear Soujirou’s footsteps behind him as he gave chase.

“Sano,” he called out as he drew close. He didn’t think Sano would deliberately ignore him, especially not when he spoke in a tone so serious; he suspected that Sano was in this case so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even heard. “Sano!” he said again, more loudly.

“This is the last time.” Sano replied with a sure finality that yet held the same lack of attention that had marked all his previous statements of the evening. He didn’t even look around or slow as he said it.

It wasn’t even really a protest at Sano going to see that man again, not this time; Katsu just wanted to know what the hell was going on, both physically and in Sano’s head. But it was discouragingly obvious that a question to that purpose would get him absolutely no response. So he said the only thing he was sure would stop his friend’s absent yet determined steps:

“He’s gone, Sano.”

“What?” Sano finally looked back, the blankness lifting somewhat from the eyes he turned toward his friend.

“He’s gone,” Katsu repeated quietly. “He and Akamatsu both. The guards I overheard mentioned them at the same time.”

The maelstrom of emotions that flashed momentarily across Sano’s face made Katsu alternately want to shake him until he came to his senses or hug him to that exact same purpose. But in the next instant Sano shook himself, turned again, and took off at a run in the same direction he’d been going.

Squeezing his eyes closed, Katsu raised his face toward the sky in frustration and pain. He could only hope — and without even much of that confident emotion — that this really would be the last time, that the man really was gone and that Sano would be able to let him go. Because otherwise… He didn’t know, couldn’t guess what would happen to all of them; in his mind it was an impenetrably black void of despair.

Soujirou laid a comforting hand on Katsu’s shoulder and squeezed slightly. There wasn’t really anything he could say, but Katsu appreciated the gesture — and it reminded him…

He couldn’t help himself. Taking the hand gently in his own, he examined the palm briefly before lifting it to his lips and kissing the only spot that was still relatively unhurt. But he too had nothing to say, so next he merely let go and turned back toward the mess hall. Soujirou, whose eyes had been very bright during those few wordless moments, followed in silence.

Chapter 10

Braid-girl hadn’t been there — transferred, supposedly, to the workshop — but somehow in his confused state of mind Sano hadn’t been able to connect this with the events of the previous night. Had completely lost track of it, in fact, in the whirlpool of thought and emotion that passed for his brain these days.

As far as he knew, the washing machines into which he’d been stuffing clothing were the only actual whirlpools he’d ever encountered, and he’d certainly never attempted to swim — but he imagined this must be what drowning felt like. His thoughts, normally allies if not necessarily friends, now dragged at and overwhelmed him. If he tried to think about something else or sought the solid ground of a blank mind, the other matter sucked him back down with crushing surety.

Even within the topic to which they were restricted, his thoughts were limited. He might have realized the significance of braid-girl’s absence if he’d been able to think about her at all. He might have been able to guess what was coming if his reflections had been a little broader. But the only thing in his head — practically the only thing in his world — was that man, the things he’d said and done, and the sense Sano was trying desperately to make of it all.

Well, really, it all would have made sense easily if not for his emotions that had to attach varying significance to anything and everything that had happened between them, and to any inference Sano could draw therefrom.

Yellow-eyes was here to steal slaves — or, rather, a slave. Why had he fixed on Sano among all the rest? He’d seemed angry when he’d spoken of the guards finding Sano strong and attractive… for what other attributes, then, could he desire to possess him? Or was it all right as long as he didn’t plan on raping him? As long as Sano was the property not of a faceless slave-trafficking corporation but of a single person, someone that was willing to ask him, ‘Do you want me to?’

Someone that wanted him badly enough to shoot him rather than let him escape?

Part of Sano’s heart — a dark, secret part hiding behind his rational thoughts — also wanted it, desperately wanted it. Couldn’t stop imagining what it would be like… couldn’t keep from reflecting on the romance of it… couldn’t help thinking that there was no way in hell it could be worse than the life he’d led up until now.

He was bitterly ashamed of this, but could not entirely repress it. Did that mean he was giving in? That he was past caring about having a master so long as that master was intriguing and good with his hands? So long as that master was that man?

To further his shame, the same part of him that would gladly belong to that man forever was more than willing to sacrifice everything else that mattered to achieve that end. In a way, he felt, this was a sort of mirror to what he thought the other man’s desires were… Sano almost ready to lose everything he valued in himself in order to be with him, and yellow-eyes ready almost to kill him to similar purpose.

Still, the whole thing seemed strange, and not just to his emotions that had their own mysterious agenda. People had work and responsibilities out there, after all… could someone really afford to waste the amount of time and effort yellow-eyes was evidently putting into this on a venture that wasn’t likely to repay either? For Sano couldn’t consider the acquisition of a single personal slave of much practical use… Really, the more he thought about it — and god knew he couldn’t stop thinking about it — the more insane it seemed… like some things he’d heard in stories about eccentric masters with too much money. But, while yellow-eyes was like nobody else Sano had ever met, he’d never seemed insane

Perhaps, then, Sano had misinterpreted the man’s intentions. What exactly had the guard told Sano, after all? That he was here to steal a slave, and had selected Sano. He hadn’t, Sano realized with a sudden constriction in his chest, said anything about keeping him. If the man was merely a merchant of sorts, and Sano was the stolen item yellow-eyes thought would fetch a good price… if the merchandise agreed to sleep with the merchant along the way, well, that would be a nice perk, wouldn’t it? –but if it didn’t, not much of a disappointment. Sano felt cold and small and miserable thinking of such a possibility.

But it still didn’t make sense! He didn’t know much about business of any kind, but even he was fairly certain that putting bullets into the wares was not good business. Besides, yellow-eyes had — no, Sano just couldn’t convince himself he’d been imagining it, however beneficial it might have been to his state of mind — yellow-eyes had as good as stated a strong personal interest in him. No, Sano really couldn’t doubt that the guard meant to keep him. So there must be another explanation for the apparent incongruity of shooting him in the shoulder but not fucking him without permission.

Perhaps yellow-eyes was a collector? Maybe he made a habit of stealing attractive slaves, and had an entire harem at home to satisfy him if Sano continued to say no? Come to think of it, Sano had no real way of knowing that the man did intend to steal only him. He’d been interpreting “You are the one that I want” that way, but desire and intention weren’t necessarily the same thing — as yellow-eyes had already proven by denying himself, for some obscure reason, pleasures he quite clearly wanted.

Goddammit, none of this made any sense, and Sano’s theories were getting more far-fetched by the moment. He really should stop speculating before he worked himself into an inventive frenzy; the truth was that he just didn’t have enough information, what he did have was ambivalent at best, and the added confusion of his twisted emotions could only continue to complicate things until he lost track of what little he was certain of.

Which was why he had to go back. One last time. And if he didn’t get his answers this time, he would… well, he didn’t know what he would do. Go entirely insane and run screaming into the electric fence, most likely. But he had to try, or just go ahead with that suicidal run right now.

And then…

“He’s gone, Sano.”

He couldn’t believe it. Katsu’s further information notwithstanding, somehow the fact did not register in Sano’s mind as something that was actually possible; it entered into the whirlpool and was immediately flung out again, rejected. Still, Sano found himself moving at a dead run toward the barracks, those words echoing in his head and taking longer than they should have to fade. He’s gone, Sano. He’s gone.

Some part of him — the same fatalistic part, probably, that considered the electric fence a viable alternative to a continuation of the way he’d been living lately — must have believed it, for he didn’t bother knocking when he reached the door that looked, somehow, completely different from the other, identical doors along the barracks wall. Nor did he bother coming up with anything to say — greeting, excuse for his presence or precipitous entrance, or even just a better way to phrase the questions that so far had gone unanswered.

And the room was empty.

It was unmistakably evident. The bed was made with military precision; the chair was pushed neatly up to the table; the strongbox was sitting open and the key lying on top. The only sign that anyone had ever lived in this cold, lifeless space was the full ash-tray that still gave off a scent he felt he would never forget.

The ash tray was the only thing that was full. Emptiness like the room ate at Sano, until only one thought rang through the void that was his head and heart:

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Now more than ever he couldn’t understand what he was feeling. It reminded him vaguely of what he’d experienced when Kenshin had been sold — as if someone that cared about him was gone; as if yet another beloved friend had been taken from him — but this was worse, somehow… perhaps because he didn’t know if yellow-eyes had cared about him, or because it seemed like the man had purposely abandoned him. Whatever the situation was, Sano was in sudden and severe pain, and not just in his shoulder.

No, he couldn’t lie to himself. Not anymore. He knew the real reason he was hurting so intolerably. The man’s behavior had hinted to him how life could be, how things could feel. He’d been like a lover, a real lover, something Sano had never had. He doubted real lovers were supposed to shoot you in the shoulder; but, at the same time, nobody had ever expressed the kind of interest and concern in Sano that yellow-eyes had.

He had cared; Sano knew he had; he would be damned if he would believe otherwise. But now… now? Why was he gone? Why had he left without even trying to contact Sano? Had he been forced to abandon his plans because of last night’s events? Or had he simply decided that Sano wasn’t worth the trouble? Sano couldn’t think; he couldn’t guess. He just didn’t know.

Stock still, staring silently at some vague point in the empty room, Sano was bizarrely conscious of the grain of the wood of the door he clutched in his raised hand as if to support himself. Everything that had happened here, everything that had begun in this room, everything he’d hoped for or feared that had arisen from that man’s presence… it was like something out of a dream. And that’s exactly what it was… a dream… an illusion, a vision he would never see again.

Now that he’d had a glimpse… now that he had experienced, however briefly and incompletely, something more… he could never just go on as he had. He’d always known with his intellect, but now, staring into this barren room with the rough wood under his whitening fingers, remembering strange sensations that made him shudder with a mixture of emotions even now, feeling the cold of this empty space seeping into his bones and seeming to make them brittle and render him more breakable than he’d ever felt… it came home to him suddenly, brutally, inescapably, just how miserable his life was.

Nothing had actually changed, but his new awareness made that same life a hundred times worse than it had been, could ever have been before. Why did that man treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?

Who are you? he inquired in silence of the stranger that had done this to him. What am I supposed to do now that you’ve fucked up my life?

But the man’s only answer was, “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

What the hell kind of promise is that? Sano queried desperately. What does it mean?

But the same six words, cool and mocking, were the only reply.

Chapter 11

A loud pounding on the outer door of the quarters in the middle of the night startled a good half of the sleeping slaves awake, including Katsu. Anyone that remained asleep was probably awakened by the subsequent discussion; even through the wall Katsu could hear every word.

“What the hell do you want?” This was the quarter-warden; she had absolutely no qualms being incredibly rude to the guards if she thought the situation warranted it. Apparently being dragged out of bed at some dark hour of early morning warranted it.

“This one’s yours, isn’t he?” This guard was familiar enough to Katsu, his voice rough and annoyed. A thudding sound accompanied the question.

“Yeah; what’d he do?”

“We found him hanging around an empty barracks room. Trying to avoid earning his keep; who knows how much he’s been doing it lately?”

Katsu had a sudden sinking feeling that he knew who ‘he’ was.

“He’s been out a lot lately,” the warden said in disgust, and by this time Katsu had rolled from his cot and crept to the doorway between the two rooms.

“Don’t let him out anymore unless one of us comes for him,” the guard was saying as Katsu peered around the doorframe. It was as he’d feared: Sano, red spots of recent blows on his face and redder spots of blood on his shoulder, crouched or knelt on the floor as if he’d been thrown there. Half bent over and motionless in the incomplete light from the door of the warden’s room, he looked almost dead.

Even as Katsu’s eyes fell on him, the guard that had brought him gave him a hard kick. “You hear me?”

At once Sano answered in a dull tone, “Yes, sir.”

“And I’ll be by for you tomorrow night when I’m not on patrol. I’m not done teaching you your lesson yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Sano repeated, and Katsu found himself shuddering. That tone, that repetition…

The guard gave Sano a parting shove before turning to leave; Sano fell forward onto all fours and remained there. With a snort, the warden turned her disgusted gaze from him to where Katsu stood watching, as if she already knew she would find him. “Get him to bed,” she ordered. “Clean him up first if you want, but if I hear one sound out of any of you you’ll be scrubbing this place until your fingers fall off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Katsu murmured, hastening forward. The presence of Soujirou at his side briefly startled but did not really surprise him. The newcomer couldn’t assist much in raising Sano, given that only one of the latter’s shoulders was a workable support, but his willingness to be of service was comforting.

Another, deeper shudder chilled Katsu as they got into the bathroom and full light. Sano stood still, swaying slightly, exactly where he was placed, gaze angled downward and shoulders slumped. He didn’t seem to feel the pain of his reopened injury or the blows he’d evidently taken to other parts of his body, and he didn’t say a word as Katsu pulled the loose shoulder of his shirt aside to see how bad the damage was.

It wasn’t as dire as Katsu had feared — well, as far as he could tell; admittedly his medical knowledge was next to nonexistent — and he hoped that, once the blood was cleaned off and the bandages retightened, Sano might not suffer too much.

“What happened?” Soujirou asked, hovering to one side.

For a moment Sano did not even seem to have heard the question, but finally he stirred a little — though still staring blankly at the floor — and murmured, “I should have closed the door.”

At first Katsu couldn’t think what his friend meant by this, and silently continued wiping the blood away from Sano’s shoulder with a wad of toilet paper. As he threw the latter into the garbage, however, he guessed, “Of the room that guard found you in?”

“Yeah,” Sano replied in the same quiet, listless tone. He didn’t wince as Katsu yanked the bandages back into place and fastened them in a tight knot. But he did look up, meeting his friend’s gaze, as he added, “His room.”

Katsu drew in a sudden rough breath and took an inadvertent step back as a painful, desperate panic whirled through him. “Sano…!” The word had the tone of a shout but was as quiet as a whisper. His hands reached out, clutching tightly at his friend’s shoulders as he moved back toward him. “Sano!” he said again, shaking him.

“That hurts,” Sano replied vaguely, pulling away from Katsu’s grip and moving past him. “I’m going to bed.” And without another word he left the room.

Katsu stumbled blindly to the nearest hard surface and, without even thinking what he did, pounded a fist against it. A muffled gasp told him he’d found the door between the two bathrooms and startled someone on the other side, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care whether whoever it was alerted the warden and he got in trouble. How could this be happening? How could this be happening??

Soujirou’s hand was on his shoulder. “Katsu, what’s wrong?” The worry in the tone seemed born more of confusion than sympathy.

But how could Katsu answer? How could he possibly explain to someone as carefree as Soujirou, someone without a history of being mistreated, someone that had not lived his life among the most miserable members of the human race, that the dullness he had seen in Sano’s eyes was the first downward step on the path to utter soullessness? And how could he admit the secret belief he’d cherished all along that he would be the first to break? That he would never have to deal with Sano breaking because he would almost certainly go first? That he wasn’t ready for this?

But Soujirou’s hand was still on him, gripping him tightly, silently expressing a desire to know and to help… as if there were anything he could do to help… Katsu had to say something.

He leaned his forehead against the cold wall and squeezed his eyes closed. “This is how it starts. I know the signs.” His tone was hoarse, almost harsh. “That’s how they act when they’re starting to break. If he keeps going like that, he won’t be Sano anymore. He won’t be anyone anymore.”

Soujirou drew in a deep breath, and Katsu held his own. He’d chosen his words carefully — as carefully as he could in this frame of mind — because he didn’t think he could stand it if Soujirou argued with him; he simply could not handle a debate at this point. But what the other finally said, quietly and slowly, was, “If that’s true, then it’s even more important now not to give up hope.”

It sounded so trite, so meaningless in the face of what Katsu couldn’t help regarding was something like the end of his world… and yet somehow, when he stood straight and looked over at Soujirou and saw the sad smile on his lips, he felt, if not exactly reassured, at least steadied: aware that he wasn’t alone. Still, his tone was unmistakably bitter as he replied, “You and your optimism.” After which he found Soujirou’s arms around him — strong arms, stronger than he’d really been aware before — holding him tightly as if to say that, while Soujirou might not entirely understand, still he would not let go. And if Katsu’s reciprocal gesture was more of a clinging grasp than a return embrace, neither of them much cared.

The amount of sleep Katsu got for the rest of that night was phenomenally low, if not actually nonexistent. When he wasn’t staring at Sano’s motionless back in the next cot, he was tossing and turning with his eyes squeezed shut, unable to fight off a parade of cruelly dismal thoughts about the future. And every once in a while, when he was turned that direction, he would catch sight of Soujirou on his other side watching him in the darkness with expressionless eyes.

Katsu felt somewhat comforted that he was not the only sleepless worrier… but also got the impression, though he could not have explained why, that Soujirou was just as much keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t do anything impetuous as offering moral support. He remembered the suspicions he’d formulated about his would-be lover… but at the moment couldn’t bring himself to give that matter much thought.

The morning came with some consolation. Although Katsu could still barely get a word out of Sano before they went their separate ways, Sano’s blankness seemed to reflect contemplation rather than true absence of mind. Katsu should have known better than to think Sano would go all at once… but it was only a slight relief, given that the genesis had unmistakably taken place even if Sano was fighting it.

As for Sano, he could only hazily remember what had happened after his disastrous visit to that empty room last night. As a matter of fact, except for certain repetitive trains of thought that seemed to have him in an unshakeable taloned grip, everything was a little hazy in his head. The world seemed simplified somehow… he was confused, he was unhappy, but beyond that he didn’t seem to care about — or, to a certain extent, even recognize — anything.

It was not so much any sort of external inhibition of his senses as an internal disinclination or even inability to rouse himself to any particularly complex thoughts or emotions. And he found he couldn’t really object. There was pain and confusion; here was relative peace. If he could just not care for a while, things would undoubtedly work out.

The dullness made the day drag, each load of laundry seeming to take an hour just to get into the washing machine and the muscular impulses required to accomplish this task unusually difficult — but the apathy rendered him indifferent. The increased pain in his shoulder from the beating he’d taken last night, augmented by the work of the day, could not rouse him; even the memory that he was in disfavor with the quarter-warden and had what would probably be an unusually unpleasant barracks-call tonight could not rouse him.

His senses were dulled along with his thoughts: he didn’t really hear the murmur of the other slaves in the mess hall, nor taste his supper, and saw his friends only as if from far away, their faces unusually featureless. If they held any conversation while they ate, he didn’t notice.

The one event of the entire day that threatened to shake him was when Katsu very deliberately kissed Soujirou as the newcomer rose to leave the room once he’d finished eating… but even that was not quite enough. Why worry about a situation for which there was no help? Besides, Sano’s mind felt like it had shrunken past the point of holding anything but the unpleasant reflections, now hazy, that had plagued him since yesterday. Eventually, he thought, even those must fade.

He hardly noticed the quarter-warden’s disdainful insults when he came in after supper, and once again the dull time passed smoothly away before his uncaring eyes as he waited for the guard that was going to ‘finish teaching him his lesson’ tonight.

The crispness of the man’s grey uniform, freshly-laundered today, was something of a jolt, but the guard lacked the leanness of figure and precision of movement that would have really bothered Sano. At another time, in another frame of mind, that expression combining lust and anger might have worried Sano… but not tonight. This was just another thing he had to do; it meant nothing. So, though Katsu gave him a stricken look as the guard led him out and the others appeared no less grim, Sano didn’t feel there was any real need for worry.

He was right. Rough, almost brutal, though the guard was with him, Sano found it even easier, as the day progressed toward its end, not to care. It was just another task, and if he could get through it he could sleep. And the simplest way of getting through it was not caring.

He didn’t care how thoroughly or painfully the guard wore him out. He didn’t care that the man then made him sleep on the floor. He didn’t care that his shoulder and ass were bleeding. He didn’t care that the doctor was tired of seeing him and might get him in trouble when he went to her in the morning. He didn’t care that he was going to be in even greater pain as he worked tomorrow.

Abstractly he wondered why he hadn’t ever tried this before. Life would have been so much easier, could have moved so much more quickly and smoothly toward its end like this. He wasn’t entirely certain yet whether or not he wanted to remain thus indefinitely, but at the moment it didn’t seem a half-bad idea. Forget yellow-eyes and the confusion he’d induced, forget the idea of a better way of living, and just not care.

For tonight at the very least, in any case, he planned on staying in this peaceful, hazy place, and it was unlikely there was anything in his little world that could possibly drag him out of it.

Chapter 12

The alarm siren was pounding through his brain like a stake driven by a mallet as he and Katsu hid in the trees, shaking, clutching at each other in terror — fear that was all the worse for being unusual and unconquerable. They wouldn’t have been afraid at all if it hadn’t been for the desperate, hopeless tone in Souzou’s voice as he ordered them away. “You’re too young to die,” he’d said. “I’m sorry.” They knew now what he’d known all along: that the approaching footsteps were armed guards out for the kill.

Sano awoke in outright tears, curled up on the floor clutching at his chest as if he could pull himself into a tighter ball and thereby avoid notice, as if he were still that frightened child of ten years prior.

Weapons at the ready, the grey-clad enforcers appeared all at once from practically every direction. Obviously by prearrangement, they did not speak or otherwise allow for confrontation. They merely opened fire.

This was what he got for trying not to care, for thinking nothing in the world could rouse him.

Sano would have liked to look away or close his eyes, would have liked to run to avoid the stray bullets that tore the air around him and splintered the tree trunk behind him… but he couldn’t… he couldn’t move or even blink as the slaves before him — all of them good men and women that had been kind to him during his brief time in this awful place — were mercilessly slaughtered in a shower of gunfire and blood. As he watched Souzou fall, he screamed.

This could always rouse him, no matter what else he’d suffered, no matter how he felt. The day the memory of Souzou’s horrific, pointless, glorious sacrifice failed to move him was the day he truly lost his humanity.

After a few moments, silence fell over the gory scene, broken only by the weeping of two young slaves — boys that, a moment later, were spared their companions’ fate only because they were too young and too pretty to kill.

Fighting viciously to subdue the fear and misery that kept him from functioning correctly, it took Sano a moment to recognize what had caused him to dream of that distant scenario: outside, the alarm siren was blaring for perhaps the first time he could remember since that tragic night.

The guard was gone, apparently having run out in a hurry to see what the alarm was about, leaving the door half-open. Sano had managed to pull himself off the floor and had just located his shoes when the shooting began.

Against the backdrop of the alarm siren, it was almost too painfully similar to the events of his dream for him to bear, and he was tempted to curl up on the bed and squeeze the pillow around his ears until it was all over. But he was braver than that, so he put his head cautiously through the door.

Looking out from the south side of the building on the first floor, he was facing the slave quarters and facilities. Guards were running here and there in a pattern he only recognized very vaguely: the complex seemed to be going into lockdown in response to the shooting, which was coming from up the hill to the north in the vicinity of the staff buildings and the main entrance. He left the room and headed around the corner.

He didn’t feel like himself. He wasn’t sure what “feeling like himself” was anymore, but he didn’t feel like it. The pain of which he’d been barely conscious last night was present, the thoughts he’d pushed aside all day yesterday were audible in his head, and yet this awareness was different from the usual: the current situation, whatever it was — the sounds of the siren and the guns, the memory that was so inextricably connected with them — superceded everything else. He was himself, but it was more the self of years ago than the self of today or the day before yesterday.

“Sano!”

He looked up to see Katsu running toward him from the direction of the slave quarters, looking haggard and desperate. It was no surprise that Katsu had felt the need to seek Sano out in the midst of what must be for him just as emotionally chaotic as it was for Sano, but the latter doubted it was a good idea.

Reaching him, Katsu took him by his good shoulder and met his eyes, panting. The look on Katsu’s face showed plainly that he’d been awakened in the exact same manner Sano had, but also that he hadn’t forgotten how Sano had been acting yesterday and wasn’t sure now in what state he would find his friend. Sano was sorry for that. At least he was able to convey with a single glance that he had returned, though it did little to alleviate the pain in Katsu’s gaze.

“What’s going on?” Katsu asked unsteadily.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, reaching up to take hold of and squeeze the arm with which Katsu was gripping his shoulder — as much for his own comfort as to reassure Katsu.

The latter pushed his messy, unbound hair out of his face, and together they turned to look toward the noises. They could still see nothing through the trees that separated the sprawling barracks from the staff buildings, but they could hear that the gunfire hadn’t lessened.

“Hey, you two!” A guard startled them in their watch by turning the corner and almost running into them. “What the hell are you doing standing around here? Are you fucking deaf? Get in–”

Sano and Katsu, turning, saw it where the guard could not, and their mutual expressions of surprise were not in time to warn him, even had that been their intention. His eyes went as wide as theirs before closing as he slumped forward to the ground. They stepped back to avoid his falling figure, staring, and Sano was sure Katsu was wondering, just as he was, whether the man was still even alive.

“You left so fast,” Soujirou greeted Katsu with his usual smile, lowering the hand that had felled the guard, “I almost couldn’t figure out where you went!”

“I… had to find Sano…” Katsu was shaking his head disbelievingly. “Did you… is he dead?”

Sano sympathized with his friend’s evident inability to grasp what was going on, but thought he understood better than Katsu could. Had he not questioned — in almost those same words, even — a similar action performed by another newcomer only days before? The same mysterious motion, the same fortuitous timing… Sense was suddenly blossoming out of confusion… and, with it, anger.

You’re part of all of this too, aren’t you?” he demanded, stepping toward Soujirou without minding that he trod on the arm of the fallen guard. “You could have answered my questions all along, and you fucking pretended to be just like us!”

Soujirou raised a hand as if to stave off further recrimination or even physical retaliation, though Sano hadn’t planned on the latter. “I’ll explain on the way; we need to get back to the quarters.”

“Like hell we do.” Sano stood his ground, growling. “What the fuck is going on? Who are you, or what are you, or whatever? Where is… where’s that guy? That guard?”

“Sano, what the hell are you talking about?” Katsu was demanding at about the same moment.

“He’s probably in the middle of the shooting,” Soujirou answered Sano’s question. “You’ll have to wait until this is all over.”

Turning immediately, Sano tried again to guess via sound where exactly the aforesaid middle of the shooting was likely to be. Behind him Katsu gave a shaky sigh and remarked, “With as long as you’ve been here, I should think you’d know Sano better than that.”

Glancing back, Sano saw that Soujirou’s smile was wry, probably because he’d realized that actually answering the question had been a mistake of sorts. “If you go over there and get yourself shot, he’ll be angry,” he told Sano.

“He fucking shot me already,” Sano replied flatly. “I’m going to find him.”

“Sano…”

Sano almost couldn’t bear to face Katsu, nor could he help reflecting that there were a lot of diverse and fascinating ways to be a complete dick to someone. He had no idea what his friend must think of him by now, after all the stupid and crazy things he’d been doing lately, after everything he’d put him through, after yesterday… but this, he hoped, would be the end. The end of everything.

Why it was so imperative for him to brave the crossfire and chaos that was presumably going on over there was more difficult to say… but he felt he was being drawn, impelled, so that every moment he spent standing still here for whatever reason was almost painful to him. There was no way he could make Katsu understand this, however, so he remained silent.

He might have had more faith in his friend. True, it was only uncertainly and decidedly unhappily that Katsu smiled at him and spoke, but his words were just, “Be careful, OK? Stay in the trees or something.” And whether this was more akin to his saying, You’re an idiot, or, I forgive you, Sano seemed to sense a certain weight lifting off his heart. Honestly he didn’t feel entirely justified in going on this suicidal pursuit, leaving his friends at this critical moment, especially when he knew Katsu — like himself — must still be feeling the awful burn of memory, but the fact that he had to, and that Katsu understood, made the necessity easier.

“By now,” Soujirou said slowly, “he may be in the staff buildings… but I can’t be sure.”

“Thanks,” Sano nodded. And after looking Katsu in the eye one last time, he turned and ran off, heading for the end of everything.

As Katsu watched his friend depart, fully aware that he might never see him again (alive), his heart was clenching tighter and tighter with compounded worry and grief. And he couldn’t decide whether this conscious, feeling, still-obsessed Sano was better than yesterday’s Sano slipping toward oblivion.

However, he had very little time to consider this before Soujirou was tugging at his arm. And as he looked at the smiling, agitated other, Katsu’s eyes seemed to focus or lock onto Soujirou as if he’d forgotten he was there. As if he’d forgotten that he’d been right, that there had been something suspect about Soujirou all along, that there were more strange situations in the complex than just Sano’s.

He gave Sano’s disappearing form another glance before turning to follow Soujirou. However foolish it might be — even more so than Sano going in the first place — Katsu wanted to follow his friend, die with him if need be. He wanted all of this to end. But he also desired, with a fervor only secondary to the aforementioned, to find out who and what Soujirou really was and what was going on. And somebody needed to check on the other slaves. Katsu wasn’t entirely ready to abandon Kaoru and Yahiko just yet.

“So explain,” he commanded tersely as he fell into step beside Soujirou.

“We’re vigilantes,” replied Soujirou promptly. “Or terrorists, depending on which news stations you watch — fighting for human rights that aren’t available to people by law. Our goal on this mission is to completely destroy Ketterect Labor and relocate all slaves to safe locations throughout the three countries.”

Involuntarily Katsu drew in a hissing breath at the ambitiousness of this project. On the surface, in fact, it seemed impossible, except perhaps by the power of a very large, well-funded organization. Given that Soujirou did not seem to be joking or exaggerating, Katsu had to believe that such was the situation, had to take this seriously… but still it was almost too much to wrap his brain around. It meant the total annihilation of his entire world, however he felt about that.

Their swift pace had allowed them to reach the quarters after only so many words and reflections, but when Soujirou went to open the door Katsu held him back. “I assume you’ve taken care of any guards inside already.” He was a little surprised at how bitter his tone already was when he hadn’t even neared the bitter part of his discourse yet.

Soujirou nodded.

“Then we have a minute.”

Although Soujirou threw what might be called a calculating (if still smiling) glance at the door, on looking back at Katsu he seemed to read the seriousness in the latter’s expression. “All right,” he said.

“I knew you were hiding something,” Katsu began, “but this I wouldn’t have guessed.”

Soujirou nodded without saying anything; he was watching carefully all around them, although he did not seem tense.

“All that talk about laws and public opinion wasn’t just talk,” Katsu went on at a murmur. Still Soujirou did not seem inclined to reply, at least not until Katsu continued pointedly, “But the rest of it was.”

“The rest of it?”

“‘I really do like you,'” Katsu quoted harshly. “‘We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.'”

“That wasn’t just talk.” Soujirou actually seemed a little startled at the accusation. “I do like you.”

“So much that you’d take advantage of me and lie to get what you wanted from me.” Outwardly Katsu was a good deal calmer than inwardly, but he didn’t think there was a tone that could have expressed just how betrayed he felt at this point.

“I had to lie.” Soujirou, too, was calm — almost agonizingly so. “Those were my orders.”

“Your orders,” Katsu said very dryly, “were to find a slave you liked and seduce him?” For all he didn’t actually believe Soujirou’s orders had been anything of the sort, still he felt as if the entire time he’d been nothing more than an objective… a quota…

Now Soujirou’s smile was gone, and tone and expression were entirely serious. “My orders were to make friends with slaves, find out information, and steer them away from anything that might lead them to guess something was going on.”

“You did it to distract me, then?” If anything, this was an even cheaper excuse than the previous, and Katsu was almost inclined to discontinue the conversation. On top of everything else, this was simply too painful.

“I did it because I like you,” said Soujirou quietly. “If I didn’t like you, there were other ways I could have distracted you.”

“But you preferred playing games and feeding me lines.”

“Katsu, they weren’t lines; it wasn’t a game.” Soujirou shook his head emphatically. “I wouldn’t have taken it as far as Akamatsu made us go, but I really have been sincere.”

Katsu also shook his head, protesting, almost in denial of this situation. “Didn’t you ever think that my feelings might be different if I knew what was going on?” he demanded. “Maybe I’d like to know I really do have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love? That I might actually have a choice?” He was finally starting to sound angry now, the hot, upset emotion breaking at last through the shock and confusion. “That my new option isn’t like everyone else, and neither is the situation?”

In response to Katsu’s tone, Soujirou looked away and said quietly, “I thought… you liked me…”

Katsu stared at him. How could someone so intelligent still be so clueless? Because it was clear that Soujirou simply did not understand the magnitude of what he’d done. And seeing finally that the mistake arose not from callousness but from genuine (if completely unexpected) naivete, Katsu couldn’t help feeling just a little less betrayed.

“People get into relationships with different attitudes,” he explained with a sigh. Soujirou looked up at him again immediately, hopefully, at the apparent abatement of anger. “If you’re assuming it’s going to be brief,” Katsu went on, “or if you get into it with the idea that this is the only option when you happen to be horny, it’s not going to be the same as if you know you have a choice, both about the person and how long you’re going to be with them. It’s going to be a totally different relationship; it won’t mean as much.”

Now Soujirou was staring, and his smile had returned — but it was a sad, wan expression. “How is it that you’re an expert on this too?” he murmured, seeming a little confused. “How do you know so much about everything when…”

Flatly Katsu finished the question for him. “When I’m a slave? I’m only a slave when people treat me like one… keeping me in a place like this, or raping me four times a week… or letting me think that I have no choice but to like them or stay lonely. I can still keep my eyes and ears open and learn whatever I can.”

Soujirou bowed his head again, now as if in defeat, his smile even sadder. “You really are like him…”

If Katsu hadn’t already had Souzou on his mind — admittedly in the background, behind the separate dramas of Soujirou and Sano — he might not have realized what Soujirou meant. As it was, he couldn’t help feeling, as he had the last time Soujirou had compared him to his late role model, a little gratified. As such, his tone was gentler than it had yet been during this conversation as he asked, “Does it bother you that a slave might know more about relationships than you do?”

“Only a little…” Again Soujirou raised his head and gave Katsu a forlorn smile. “I’ve always known I’m hopeless in that area. It just makes me like you more, knowing how impressive you really are.”

Although this seemed honest and still a bit sad, there was more than a hint of pleading ingratiation about the words. Katsu had no doubt that Soujirou really did like him… but all that did was make the situation more complicated and more potentially painful. Here all over again was the dilemma he’d faced when he’d started suspecting Soujirou, only on a larger scale. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the right moment to puzzle through his own heart and what he could or could not forgive; they really couldn’t afford to spend any more time standing around out here. Still, looking into the almost hopeless face turned up toward him, Katsu couldn’t bring himself to be too harsh just yet.

“Maybe if you get me out of here alive,” he said, “we can start over.”

Chapter 13

On entering the slave quarters ahead of the watchful Soujirou, Katsu halted in shock when he found himself face-to-face with the barrel of a familiar gun. The quarter-warden had always been rather proud of her weapon, and had been given, periodically, to sitting in a comfortable chair just outside her rooms cleaning it ostentatiously with the nervous slaves looking on in silence. But now the quarter-warden was nowhere in sight, and was certainly not the one leveling the gun at the door.

Katsu stared, blank, unblinking, almost unbreathing at the rigid form of Kaoru, who lowered the weapon when she saw who he was. Her other hand held a second gun; this one looked like it probably belonged (had belonged) to a guard. Although tears ran down in two unbroken trails, her face was of better color than he’d seen for weeks, even months; her bearing was upright and steady; her voice was like iron — hard, strong, white-hot — as she met his astonished gaze and said calmly, “Katsu… I’m going to see Kenshin again.”

Until that moment, Katsu hadn’t really felt anything in regard to the current situation — his reaction to Soujirou’s revelation had overridden it. But now it rushed in at him all at once like a whirlpool, and his entire body seemed suddenly weak. Freedom… Not just for himself, but for all of them. Everyone he loved and every last hopeless, miserable person in this hopeless, miserable place. Ten years of nightmare would end at last.

His somewhat inane agreement came out nearly a whisper: “Yes… yes, you are.”

How much longer he might have stood still in the doorway, staring at Kaoru’s unshaking hands holding those guns as if fully confident of her willingness and ability to use them, Katsu could not have guessed. But Soujirou’s hand on his shoulder reminded him that they were supposed to be entering the quarters in order to take cover. Mutely he moved out of the way.

A confused noise arose among the other slaves at the sight of Soujirou; it sounded very much like it wanted to be a cheer. God knew slaves weren’t very practiced at that particular sound, but it shook Katsu out of his shock to some extent.

With a modest nod, Soujirou turned to Kaoru and reached out. Once she’d given him the second gun, she had a hand free to wipe the tears from her face — a futile gesture, since they just kept coming.

“You’ll dehydrate yourself like that,” Soujirou smiled, then offered the gun to Katsu.

The latter’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never–”

“It’s very simple,” Soujirou assured him. “Just point and pull the trigger.”

“I wouldn’t hit a damn thing!” Katsu took a step backward.

Soujirou moved closer and, with that uncanny speed and dexterity of his, took Katsu’s hand, pressed the gun into it, curled Katsu’s fingers around it, and stepped back again.

“But… what about you?” Katsu stared uncomfortably at his own hand, which had the gun pointed resolutely downward and held it only loosely.

“I don’t need one,” Soujirou smiled.

Before Katsu could protest further, a new voice broke into the conversation with a demand both energetic and uncertain: “Where’s Sano?” It proved an adequate distraction, since not only did it send Katsu’s thoughts flying immediately to his friend, it also called his attention to Yahiko, who’d joined them and asked the question.

Wondering if Sano was even still alive at this point, Katsu shook his head.

Kaoru drew in a startled breath. “He’s not–”

“I don’t know,” said Katsu quickly. “He went off after that same guard again.”

“What?” Kaoru looked and sounded incredulous and almost angry. Yahiko, who’d edged to her side, appeared horrified.

“The guard’s part of this too,” was Katsu’s helpless reply. “God knows how many others there are.”

“Almost fifty,” Soujirou smiled. “Apart from the people who stayed outside who’re attacking now, there were three ‘guards,’ and at least one ‘slave’ in every quarters building. Our assignment at this point is to keep all of you inside until someone comes for us. And take care of any guards that might show up, of course. That could happen any time, if things are going our way up the hill; they might come running down this way to try and hide in one of these buildings or take slaves hostage. So,” he added, still smiling somewhat unnervingly, “keep your eyes on the door.”

Kaoru nodded.

Soujirou had done it again, Katsu noted wearily as he turned, like Kaoru, to face the door: neatly diverted their attention from a troubling issue — this time perhaps to keep them on task, prevent excessive worry about Sano, or stave off further questions… Katsu couldn’t be sure. He wasn’t sure of anything at the moment, and in order to avoid catching Soujirou’s eye he watched the door very steadfastly and listened hard.

The room was not quiet. True, the uneasy conversations behind him were conducted at the lowest possible volume, but since it seemed that everyone in the room was talking, it added up. It did not, however, mask the sounds of gunfire outside that were drawing nearer by the moment. This wasn’t the same gunfire as before, though; it was far more diffuse. Katsu guessed that whatever primary assault had been carried out by Soujirou’s ‘people who stayed outside’ had ended in a rout of the defenders, who were now being pursued into and through the complex. Soujirou was right; they might be seeing guards seeking sanctuary inside the building any time now. Little as he felt qualified for it, Katsu finally tightened his grip on the gun in his hand.

Beside him, Kaoru still stood solid and unshaken, still crying and still with that brilliant light in her face. She hadn’t been seduced by a terrorist. She didn’t have to worry how she felt about Soujirou. She hadn’t seen what another member of this mysterious group had done to Sano. To be quite honest, she didn’t care as much about Sano as Katsu did. Not that she didn’t care at all… but at the moment, Katsu was certain, all she did care about was the prospect of seeing Kenshin again. And who could blame her? When love was as straightforward as that — she loved him, she missed him, she would do anything to be reunited with him — why seek out unnecessary complications?

It was a question he might well ask himself. Of course he was worried about Sano and perturbed about Soujirou, but why did he find himself so unbearably, increasingly agitated about the situation itself? It was, after all, no more complicated than Kaoru’s: he was a slave, he would prefer not to be, and soon he would have his freedom — something he’d dreamed about every night and planned for every day for a decade. Why should he be standing here in utter turmoil, not knowing what to think or how to feel?

He knew why. It had nothing to do with the potential dangers of frantic guards or stray bullets. It was in response to a single looming question: once he was free… what then?

He was not worried about the technical aspects of it — whether or not this breakout would achieve the social and legal revolution Soujirou had mentioned so hopefully, whether he would remain free. There was no doubt in his mind that a group capable of orchestrating an operation like this could keep him safe and hidden until the proper time.

No, though he would not have liked to admit it, what really concerned him was freedom itself. Concerned him? It downright terrified him. Of course they’d always talked about escape, and had even attempted it once or twice… but had they ever really thought past that? Thought past what it meant to give up a life that, while fairly miserable, at least offered a measure of certainty? In the countries beyond, there were laws he didn’t know, social customs he didn’t know, work he didn’t know, human nature he didn’t know, life he simply did not know. Would he even be capable of living as a free man?

He wondered whether, and to what extent, Soujirou’s organization had taken this into account. Because it occurred to Katsu at that moment, with this overwhelming realization in mind, that not all slaves were likely to want to be freed.

But he wanted it. When it came right down to it, the fear and uncertainty were nothing compared to his boundless desire to leave this life behind. He wanted to work honestly for his own sake, to get paid for it, to go where he pleased and do as he chose. He wanted his friends around him, no guards, and no guns. And whether he liked it or not, he wanted Soujirou with him.

Still unready to think about that, however, he shifted into a more solid stance and once again directed his eyes at the door.

The morning’s emotional turmoil had been no less severe for Sano than it had been for his friend, though the components were different. For one thing, there was a dead body in the foliage in front of him, and his heart simply would not stop racing.

It wasn’t just that he’d been agitated by the memory of Souzou; it wasn’t just the sight of figures, some in the grey uniform of guards and some in foresty camouflage, running and shooting; it wasn’t just the danger to himself or the worry about his friends… it was the fact that soon he would have answers. Finally. His confusion and turmoil would end. It was this that kept him on his feet and kept the blood rushing so frantically through his veins.

Well, and it was all that other shit too.

He’d never moved so fast in his life, he thought: around the barracks and up the hill in what felt like an instant. Only when he’d reached the staff buildings and the gunfire had seemed to explode practically in his ears had he remembered Katsu’s admonition. He’d plunged into some trees, the last cover available before the main entrance, paused to get his bearings — and, if possible, calm his racing heart — and was now ducked down low in the bushes.

The guard’s body that sprawled beneath another bush almost within arm’s reach was a nerve-wracking indicator that Sano wasn’t the first to take cover in this particular spot. However, he thought the danger had passed from this immediate vicinity; most of the movement he could see was past the corner of the nearest building, and the noises of gunshots and shouting were loudest from that direction.

The gates of the complex lay to his left, but it would take several paces through the trees to see them clearly; he didn’t think he could hear any gunfire thence, but it was difficult to tell. From his current position he could see most of the staff buildings, however, and he had a good view to the right and down the hill. Whether because neither of the combative groups intended the actual slaves any harm or purely by luck, Sano seemed to have made his way straight through the midst of several small firefights; the turmoil appeared now to have spread out all the way down past the guard barracks.

This is stupid and I didn’t think it through, he was reflecting. The same fluttery nervousness that kept him from looking too closely at the nearby corpse was whispering, with a franticness to match his pulse, that he should go back to his quarters before he got himself killed — killed for no good goddamn reason, killed without ever seeing his friends again or even knowing what had become of them — or at the very least flatten himself onto the ground and wait this out.

But the thought that yellow-eyes was around here somewhere, that the answers he wanted were so close, coupled with the fact that he’d gotten this far, aroused in Sano a stubborn unwillingness to retreat. He did, however, wish he’d asked Soujirou just a few more questions about what was going on, where people were likely to be and to go, and whether or not they were likely to kill him on sight.

If he could just get into that closest building, surely he would be safe. Safer, at least, than he was here. He could probably sprint to the door on this side before anyone was likely to notice or try to shoot him. Circumnavigating the dead body, he moved to the very edge of the trees and peered to the left and right. Nobody seemed to be nearby, nor did anyone within his range of vision seem to be looking his direction. This was the moment.

He sprang forward, and, as predicted, reached the door two seconds later. However, within that span of time, the crack of a shot sounded just above him. It was so startling, acting on his already-pounding heart and strained nerves almost as severely as if the bullet had actually struck him, that his last two steps were a stumble and his hands could barely manage the door that was his object.

Inside, he immediately took the staircase that lay just past the small entry, and put his back to the wall so he could face both the stairs he’d just practically jumped down and the continuing descent. It wasn’t the most tactically strategic position, but he had to give himself a few seconds to calm down. He was shaking, and at the moment he thought only the wall against which he leaned was keeping him upright.

How could he have forgotten?? The staff buildings, unlike all the other buildings in the complex, had windows — windows that opened (or could be broken) and therefore through which people could easily shoot at anything that approached. And just because Soujirou had said yellow-eyes would probably be in the staff buildings by now didn’t mean he was guaranteed to be in this one or that all the staff buildings would be safe to enter!

I really didn’t think this through. Sano drew an unsteady arm across his face as this reflection heralded a wave of giddy amusement, of all things. Stability was returning, and he thought he would soon be able to move again — but perhaps before that, he should give some serious consideration to what the hell he was doing.

He didn’t have time for that, however, as he heard footsteps on the stairs above his head, coming down from the second floor. “Shit,” he muttered, and stood straight. Yes, his legs would do what he told them to now. He told them to run.

The basement contained a short corridor with a door to either side and at the far end. It was very dark, but the light switch didn’t have any effect when Sano turned it; he guessed that the whoever-they-were’s had disabled the complex’s power. It would probably be more difficult to find or shoot him in the dark, anyway, if that was the intention of his presumed pursuer.

Panic began to take hold of him once again when he found the first door locked and the second leading only to a small office in which (as far as he could tell in the limited light) it would be impossible effectively to hide. The third door, however, opened onto a large storage room that seemed to fill the entire remaining basement space.

He couldn’t see a thing once the door was closed, and he fumbled with outstretched arms for anything large enough to conceal him from sight. What it was that he eventually found he couldn’t identify, but it was solid and tall enough to duck behind; after that he concentrated on holding still and controlling his breathing. The latter wasn’t exactly coming out in gasps, but it wasn’t exactly unobtrusively quiet, either.

Strain his ears how he might, though, he couldn’t hear a thing. This was almost, he thought, more disconcerting than distant sounds of gunfire. The building — or at least this room — must be well-insulated. Even more disturbing, perhaps, was the lack of footsteps from the hall he’d just left. Was it possible that whoever had been coming down the stairs hadn’t been looking for him after all? Or had they realized they’d set him to flight and quieted? And if nobody appeared, what then? At least he’d have time to give this situation a little more thought.

Not that he really had any idea what he’d do if someone did appear.

Then he heard it: the slight click of the doorknob turning, though unaccompanied by any sounds of human movement. A low grey light, filtered down the stairs and the hallway and through the opening, vaguely illuminated a few dim shapes out past whatever Sano was hiding behind. It shifted slightly, growing, distorting, shrinking, and then disappeared entirely. The door clicked shut. Complete silence fell as Sano held his breath and his movement in rigorous check.

Someone was there.

Sano had never been so still or silent in his entire life. His lungs felt likely to explode, his legs were cramped from crouching, his entire body was tense almost beyond endurance ready to run again, and the only thing going through his head was the continued reiteration of his own stupidity and utter, suicidal lack of forethought.

Another, unexpected light appeared suddenly — this one the brief orange flare of a match, sending strange, unidentifiable shapes jumping into view for half a second and then dying down again. The sound of its striking was accompanied by that of an indrawn breath, and was followed by a calm statement that pierced the darkness as effectively as the light had:

“There’s no need to hide from me.”

Sano knew that voice.

Chapter 14

“Y-you…!” He gasped the word out along with the breath he’d been holding. “God fucking damn you, you scared the shit out of me!” His burning legs gave way and he collapsed into a sitting position on the floor, raising his hands to clutch as his hair as almost the only way he could express his relief and the abrupt withdrawal of adrenaline from his system.

The man chuckled, and this time Sano could clearly hear his footsteps approaching; apparently he only moved silently when he felt the specific need. “Making your way up here in the middle of a firefight doesn’t scare you, but this does?” Sano could tell when the man had neared him, not only by sound but by the sight of a small point of orange light in the darkness. The scent of cigarette smoke informed him what this must be. “I should have known you wouldn’t stay safely in the slave quarters until this was over. I suppose Soujirou told you where to find me?”

“He… I…” It would take too many words to explain, and Sano felt that he was really the one that was owed an explanation here. Because suddenly he was angry. Angrier than he’d been in a very, very long time — perhaps his entire life. What right had this man to treat him the way he had, then walk in here and scare him half to death and laugh at him and ask him questions so coolly? It brought Sano to his feet in an instant.

“You better fucking have some good explanations ready.” It was a little like the first time they’d lain in yellow-eyes’ barracks bed together — the darkness seemed to embolden Sano — and this time on a much larger scale. In fact, knowing what he now knew, he felt all of his inhibitions dissolving and all his fears erased, and nothing but the desire for answers present in his mind.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?” he burst out. “Who the hell gave you permission to fuck with my head like that? Do you know how fucking confused I’ve been about you and what was going on? Why would you let me think you were here to ‘steal slaves’ without just fucking telling me what you were really doing? Why would you make me think you were going to just take me away from my friends — and that was confusing as hell too because you acted like you hated all the fucking guards — and why would you act like you fucking cared about me and then just make it look like you’d left without even saying anything to me?” Here he ran out of breath; this and the nagging reflection that he wasn’t expressing himself very well forced him to pause.

A long silence followed, during which the end of the man’s cigarette glowed brightly for a moment as he took a drag, then faded back to its former, duller red. Finally, “I knew you must be confused,” came the voice of the darkness, “but I didn’t realize it would bother you that much.”

“You shot me,” Sano replied, striving for a level tone, determined that it should make sense this time. “You stopped me from escaping but didn’t turn me in. You wanted to fuck me but never did. You acted like you cared about me specially but wouldn’t ever answer any of my questions. Then you killed a guy right in front of me, claimed you were here to steal me, and then disappeared. If you’d just told me what you were doing here, I’d have gotten it. Instead I just about fucking lost my mind.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But I couldn’t have told you without jeopardizing the mission.”

“‘Jeopardizing the mission…'” Sano repeated it at a whisper. “Jeopardizing the fucking mission…” Then, because he simply couldn’t help himself, he began to laugh.

Suddenly, as if something that had been tightening all morning had snapped inside him, he felt exhausted and strangely limp. He took two steps forward, and yellow-eyes steadied him as Sano pressed against his body and continued laughing into his chest. He seemed to be shaking a little more than the laughter could account for, and there was a touch of hysteria in the sound.

“I’m sorry,” the man said in his ear. “It’s all over now.” He even sounded fairly sincere.

“You…” Sano murmured when he could speak again. “You are a fucking asshole…”

One of the man’s arms went around Sano for support as he answered, “Probably.”

Sano noted distantly, pointlessly, that the cloth against his face was not the stuff the guards wore — infinitely familiar as he was with that — but something a touch rougher and not so stiff. Yellow-eyes had probably changed into the same camouflage the rest of his group had on. “I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about you nonstop for so fucking long. That was all I really needed to figure out: that you’re a fucking asshole.”

Yellow-eyes chuckled again. “Then you understand everything now.”

“Not quite.” Sano remained where he was, with his head bent and his words muffled by the man’s garment; he wasn’t ready to move quite yet. “You wanted me all along, but you didn’t fuck me because you wanted to be better than the other guards because you’re not really one of them and all that. That makes sense now, I guess. But then why the hell did you jack me off that one time?”

“I shouldn’t have done that,” was the answer — so immediate that Sano thought yellow-eyes must already have had this on his mind.

“It didn’t help with me being confused as hell, you know.”

“Do you want me to apologize again?” These words were somewhat dry, but Sano got the feeling the man would apologize again if Sano demanded it.

He considered for a moment. “Nah,” he finally said. “You just did it ’cause you felt like it?”

He could feel the man nod.

Sano nodded also, withdrawing slightly. He felt a little less shaky now, but still very tired. He doubted it was an hour since he’d arisen, but he could probably sleep a whole night’s worth if he lay down now.

Yellow-eyes made no effort to keep him close; in fact, in a businesslike tone he remarked, “I’ve been down here too long. Come with me.” The glowing ember of the cigarette fell to the concrete floor and disappeared under an invisible foot.

Sano reached out and caught at the man, finding an arm to hold onto, afflicted by a sudden, childish fear of losing him in this darkness. But if yellow-eyes picked up on this, he said nothing, only led Sano unfalteringly to the door. Notwithstanding his lack of tension up until this moment, he opened it quietly and cautiously. Once Sano’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light pouring through the slowly-widening aperture, he could see that yellow-eyes had his hand on his holstered gun and was, in fact, wearing the camouflage Sano had observed on the other invaders.

The hallway was empty, and no sound came from up the stairs. As they stepped out of the storage room and yellow-eyes closed the door behind them, Sano paused to look at him. It was the same face — the same high cheekbones and narrow eyes, expressive lips and thin brows — but something was different about him now, something more than a mere change of raiment could explain. Perhaps it was that, after that conversation in utter darkness, Sano felt he knew the real man a little better, that some of the mystery was repealed. Perhaps it was only the absence of the previous turmoil through which Sano had been viewing the other all along.

Whatever it was, he found himself moving almost without conscious effort, taking the handsome face in his hands, and leaning up to kiss him.

His anger was mostly gone, and though he didn’t know what would happen next or exactly how he felt about this man, there was undeniably something between them. Yellow-eyes responded by pulling him close, and they stood thus for quite some time.

When Sano finally broke away, the man quirked a half-smile at him and said, “Trying to pay me back for confusing you so much?”

“You’d deserve it if I did.” Sano wasn’t quite sure what he meant, though.

Evidently in response to Sano’s uncertain tone, “I’m a fucking asshole,” the man explained, “but you kiss me?”

Sano grinned. “Yeah, why don’t you just headache about it for a while before I tell you?”

Yellow-eyes’ smirk widened as he shook his head slightly, released Sano, and turned again. His cautious demeanor and the hand again on his gun told Sano they were moving on.

“So you’re in charge of all of this?” Sano asked quietly as they climbed the stairs.

The man looked for a moment as if he wasn’t going to answer, was perhaps going to advise wordless progress, but then — perhaps realizing that Sano might explode if he tried that shit again — answered just as softly, “Our organization has three teams; I’m in charge of one of them.”

“And what the hell are you guys trying to do?”

They’d reached the second floor, and here, upon seeing another camouflage-clad person crouched beside a potted plant in the corridor to which the stairs led, yellow-eyes relaxed somewhat. Acknowledging the watcher with a nod, he answered Sano’s question as they continued down the hall. “Our goal is to annihilate Ketterect Labor and free all the slaves.”

Although this was what Sano had guessed, he couldn’t help shivering slightly at hearing it. If he hadn’t seen all the people with guns… if he didn’t know this man was in charge of at least part of the operation… he would have thought it an impossibly grandiose scheme likely to get more of them killed than freed.

“What are you going to do with me?” he asked next.

“We’ve arranged for temporary homes for all the slaves; it was the longest and most difficult part of the preparation for this mission. You’ll all be acclimatized to free society, and hopefully during that time the laws will change.”

“No, I mean, what are you going to do with me.”

Yellow-eyes paused outside the door they were evidently about to enter and looked back at him. “Whatever you want me to,” he said.

In response to Sano’s somewhat baffled expression, the man smirked faintly and explained. “It’s really up to you whether you want to put up with me after this.” He held Sano’s gaze for a moment, and Sano really didn’t know what to say. “For the moment,” he finally continued, turning back to the door, “I’m going to work on keeping you alive long enough to decide.”

Sano followed him unhesitatingly into the room. This might prove to be a rather long day, but he wasn’t sure he minded.

Katsu also felt he was in for a long day. The lights had gone out, leaving them in near-complete darkness in the windowless slave quarters, and, while he and Kaoru maintained their dubious cover of the door, the other slaves bombarded Soujirou with questions.

Just listening — on the outside now, as it were — Katsu could clearly see how easily and glibly Soujirou answered only exactly what he wanted to and evaded the rest. Some of what the other slaves wanted to know, Katsu guessed, might indeed be dangerous or demoralizing; but not all of it was, and there seemed no good reason for evasion. He wondered whether this repressiveness was simply Soujirou’s nature. In any case, it didn’t seem to be hurting the other slaves’ opinion of him; there was already a touch of hero-worship to their interaction with him. Katsu tried very hard not to let this make him jealous.

Every moment that passed seemed like an hour as he held the gun, watched the faint glint of tears on Kaoru’s face, and felt the tension grow; eventually he lost all concept of the passage of time. There was no way to see outside without opening the door, there were no clocks, and the questions being posed by his fellows to Soujirou were getting disconcertingly repetitive. Katsu felt he was beginning to go a little crazy. Was it morning or afternoon? Or another day or year? Or had time stopped completely?

The gunfire, at least, had stopped completely, after a gradual diminution, and it had been some time since Katsu had heard anything beyond the increasingly loud noise here inside the building. Their little set of rooms might have spun out from the rest of the world for all he knew, and he might stand here pointing this gun at that unmoving rectangle of dim light at the other end of the chamber for the rest of eternity.

Even these thoughts seemed removed by an incomprehensible gulf of time from the eventual sounds at the door.

The room fell gradually quiet as the realization that someone was outside filtered through its inhabitants. Most of them, Katsu thought, were turned toward Soujirou in apprehensive appeal by the time the knock came.

It was a peculiarly rhythmic knock, obviously a signal of some sort, and in response Soujirou’s smile widened. “Looks like it’s over,” he said cheerfully, and moved toward the door. Gratefully, Katsu lowered his gun.

The sunlight that streamed into the room seemed almost alien after the shadows, but the hour of day, at least, could now be guessed at. Katsu couldn’t be surprised at seeing what looked like the light of mid-afternoon, given that he’d had no idea what time it was.

“Hey, Sou,” said the figure that entered, partially blocking the light.

“All clear,” Soujirou replied.

“We’re on to Phase 4,” the man’s voice said. Katsu couldn’t make out any details beyond his silhouetted figure in the open doorway, but felt predisposed to like the person. The combination of his seeming informality and the words ‘Phase 4’ seemed strange, but it really made little difference. “We’ll take over for you here, if you wanna report to the captain at the office building.”

Soujirou tilted his head curiously. “Why?”

“Captain’s informant wants to hear his friends are safe or something. Said you’d know who to take up there.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Katsu always heard everything, he might not have caught the second sentence. Overwhelmed with relief at the implications of the first, he let out a breath like a sigh and felt suddenly rather weak. Beside him, he could sense much the same reactions from Kaoru and Yahiko.

“Sounds good.” This time Katsu didn’t just hear the smile in Soujirou’s voice, but saw it on his face along with a glint of blue eyes as Soujirou turned toward him and gestured. “Katsu, why don’t you come with me?”

Quickly Katsu joined Soujirou at the door, through which the latest arrival had moved into the room. “Hey, folks,” the man was saying to the other slaves. “How you doing?”

Outside, shielding his eyes against the sun, Katsu found himself facing a number of people clad in camouflage the colors of the forest and carrying various firearms. He couldn’t help stopping to stare for a moment, though Soujirou just waved and started up the hill. They stared back, some of them smiling, some grim, some curious.

Katsu shook himself and jogged to catch up with Soujirou.

The latter remarked as Katsu reached him, “It’s good to hear that Sano’s all right, isn’t it?”

Yes,” replied Katsu emphatically. He glanced back at the slave quarter buildings as they moved farther up the hill, taking note of the number of camouflage figures he could see and their movements. After a few more paces he felt compelled to comment, “Your organization seems really… informal.”

“I guess,” Soujirou shrugged. “It works, though.” He added with a slight laugh, “People don’t disobey the captains.”

“That guard of Sano’s…” Katsu had to pause to grimace briefly at his own choice of words. “He’s one of the captains?”

Soujirou nodded. Katsu thought he understood why people didn’t disobey, in that case.

Although there were two staff buildings that contained offices, apparently Soujirou knew what to understand by ‘the office building,’ as he was headed unerringly to the one nearer the complex entrance. Everywhere Katsu looked there were more camouflaged people, standing around, moving purposefully somewhere or other, watching him and Soujirou… It made him a little nervous — not that he was exactly free of that emotion to begin with — and when they reached the doors to the building he was actually relieved to find not a single one in sight (from that angle at least). There were sure to be more inside, though.

A desire had been growing in the back of his head all the way up here, and now as Soujirou reached for the door handle Katsu took a deep breath and said his name. When Soujirou turned a questioning smile on him Katsu said, “Hey, listen.” But that wasn’t really what he meant. Frowning, reaching for Soujirou’s hand to pull him close, Katsu bent and kissed him briefly and almost reluctantly.

Soujirou looked a little surprised. “Does that mean you’re not mad at me?”

“Not necessarily,” replied Katsu. He sighed, letting his head fall back to look up at the underside of the roof that overhung the doors so he wouldn’t be tempted to kiss Soujirou again. “I’m not really sure what it means. Just… thanks.”

Squeezing Katsu’s hand briefly and probably smiling, Soujirou released him and said, “Let’s go find Sano.” Katsu looked down to see him turning back toward the door and again reaching for the handle. He took a deep breath and followed.

Chapter 15

Time didn’t seem to be passing any more quickly for Sano and Katsu once they were together, but they didn’t mind. As a matter of fact, they might have said fairly positively that they were content now to weather out the long day watching the comings and goings of the operatives around the complex.

Yellow-eyes — whose rank of “captain” apparently allowed him to stay in one place and give orders rather than run around like everyone else — was the only consistent sight throughout the afternoon; even Soujirou had to go do something at some point, throwing a bright smile at Katsu before he left.

Realizing that here was another question he could probably get answered now, Sano strolled over to yellow-eyes’ side once Soujirou was out of the room. “So were his orders to seduce Katsu, or what?” Hearing his friend behind him make a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, Sano guessed Katsu and Soujirou had already been over this.

Turning fully to face them both with a frown that seemed to indicate existing suspicions now confirmed, yellow-eyes answered, “No.”

Katsu sighed again. “Is that going to get him in trouble?”

“We’ll see,” replied yellow-eyes darkly.

But with taking cryptic, uninformative statements from this man Sano was finished. “We’ll see what?” he demanded. Yellow-eyes was unable to answer, however, since at that moment someone entered the room to make a report (or something) and he became busied in a professional conversation.

“It’s probably a little difficult for him to decide,” Katsu speculated, “when he’s pretty much guilty of the same thing.” Sano could clearly hear the disapproval in his barely-lowered voice, and felt his own expression tauten into what might have been called a rueful grin.

“I don’t wanna say I think he did something horrible to me,” he murmured reluctantly. His words grew even quieter as he continued, glancing over at yellow-eyes to see if he was still occupied with the other person. “I was really pissed at him earlier, and I don’t know exactly how I feel about him or what I want to do… but… well, I dunno.”

Katsu snorted. “That’s about how I feel about Soujirou.” Then he sighed again, and returned Sano’s rueful grin as he shook his head. Whatever he might have said next was prevented, though, by the return of yellow-eyes to their end of the room and his full attention to them.

“I also,” the latter remarked as if he’d been part of their discussion all along, “have to take into consideration exactly what he did and to what extent it could have been consensual.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sano, a little suspicious.

Katsu gave the false guard an appraising look. “He means,” he explained slowly, “that the more mindless he finds me, the less forgivable whatever Soujirou’s done will be.”

Yellow-eyes nodded briefly and turned back to his perusal of some of the paperwork he’d rounded up from the various offices. Sano had no idea what he was looking for — but, then, he really had no idea what kind of paperwork the staff kept in their offices. To be honest, he almost had no idea how to read.

He also had no idea how he felt about what Katsu had just said.

They sat in silence for a while, Katsu at the chair from one of the room’s large desks and Sano atop the latter, Sano watching yellow-eyes work and Katsu staring out the window. From this room there was a good view of about two thirds of the complex, which Sano thought was probably the reason yellow-eyes had chosen to remain there.

Everyone that entered drew Sano’s attention — as much because he wanted to watch their interaction with yellow-eyes as that he wanted a better idea of what kind of people these were. For the latter… well, that he had no real idea what ‘normal people’ were like or what to expect from them did occur to him, but he thought most of the members of this group could pass for a fairly good approximation. For the former… it didn’t surprise him to find that yellow-eyes was something of a jerk to his subordinates, nor that they obeyed his orders without argument or hesitation.

All except Aoshi.

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at the other false guard when he entered. Aoshi didn’t look at him, and kept his conversation with yellow-eyes low — neither of which surprised Sano either. Aoshi seemed to have a sort of passive-aggressive one-man rebellion going on against yellow-eyes’ authority, which yellow-eyes tolerated with crumbling patience. This also didn’t surprise Sano, given what he’d learned earlier.

Aoshi did cast a cold-eyed and unreadable look at Sano before he left the room, and Sano didn’t even bother trying not to laugh. Understandably, he found Katsu bemused and curious when he returned his eyes to his friend.

“That’s sit-in-a-chair-all-night guy,” he explained. “Aoshi.”

“Oh!” Katsu glanced at the door through which Aoshi had disappeared, then back to Sano. “Did you figure out what his deal was?”

“I’d completely forgot about him earlier, with all this other shit going on, or else I would have asked yellow-eyes there,” Sano began in a low voice, once again glancing at the third man in the room to see if he was listening. He didn’t appear to be, but that didn’t really mean anything. “But then Aoshi came in here, a little before you showed up, and I remembered. He acted all worried about whatever yellow-eyes was ‘doing with me,’ like I wasn’t even here or couldn’t hear what he was saying. He asked if yellow-eyes was really in love with me after less than a month and’d decided to keep me.”

Katsu blinked widened eyes, apparently uncertain whether to be more annoyed or surprised at the words.

“Yeah,” Sano agreed. “And yellow-eyes said he didn’t have to explain anything, and Aoshi says something like, ‘Of course you don’t have to. But I think you’re lonely and you’re trying to fill the gap with someone you just met, and it’s not going to work.’ Then — this is the best part — yellow-eyes says, ‘Lonely? You have a very high opinion of yourself.'”

Katsu’s eyes widened even further as the implications of this exchange struck him immediately. “So that’s why…” A grin similar to Sano’s was beginning to pull at his mouth.

Sano nodded. “I laughed. Right out loud. You shoulda seen the look Aoshi gave me.”

“It’s good to know people other than slaves can have relationship issues.” It was only a partly facetious comment, and Katsu’s grinning, head-shaking expression was half-pained.

Sano just grinned back.

Sobering completely, Katsu noted, “You were glad he was jealous.”

“Maybe I was,” Sano agreed, and couldn’t even regret admitting it. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed yellow-eyes smirking faintly.

Eventually out the window they could see the other slaves exiting the quarters in fairly placid, organized lines, and at this point yellow-eyes announced it was time to go down. Looking forward to seeing how Kaoru and Yahiko were doing, they followed him from the building. Perhaps because of their greater understanding of the situation, the time they’d spent away from their other friends seemed like an age or more.

By the time Sano, Katsu, and yellow-eyes reached them, the slaves were milling about at the entrance to the complex. They were still roughly organized by quarters division, probably simply for convenience, and a kind of count or roll call was being conducted by some of the camouflaged operatives.

Whether deliberately or otherwise — Sano wasn’t going to ask — yellow-eyes led them to a spot very near where their friends stood, then turned pointedly away to converse with one of his own people. Sano didn’t have time or inclination to attempt to listen in, since at that moment Kaoru and Yahiko staged a sort of hugging-and-talking-at-once attack on him.

“Ah! shit! shoulder!” Sano grunted in reminder.

With an apology Kaoru drew back far enough to stop hurting him and to look up into his face, and actually startled him with hers. She’d obviously been crying, and that didn’t do much for anyone’s complexion — but somehow, despite the red blotches that were her cheeks and the puffiness around her eyes, she looked better than he’d seen her in months. She looked, in fact, more like the strong and determined Kaoru he’d met a year ago than he’d ever thought to see her again.

With a shock, staring at her uplifted expression, he realized suddenly that he’d never expected her to survive this far. Perhaps her lack of faith in her friends’ ability to escape and come back to rescue her had been in response to their lack of faith in her. Perhaps slaves couldn’t ever really have faith in each other. He didn’t know. But now… now everything had changed, and in an instant a totally unanticipated and overwhelming joy filled him. He pulled her back into the hug she’d abandoned, ignoring the pain.

Things became very noisy for a while as all the slaves seemed to be discussing this turn of events at once, shouting to friends from other quarters or sometimes, it seemed, just for the pleasure of shouting without repercussion. Kaoru and Yahiko were not the only ones to be checked on, and for a while Sano and Katsu were pleasantly busy. Marveling, plan-making, weeping, speculation, congratulation: it assaulted them from every side. Not everyone was happy, and most were nervous if not downright terrified… but the general air was of relief, wonder, and joy. This, Sano thought, was what a holiday must feel like.

As the sky began to blacken, even the redness of sunset fading from the close forested horizon, a number of buses pulled up in a neat row just outside the entrance of the complex and reilluminated the scene with their bright headlights. Sano barely remembered buses, and these looked bigger and a lot nicer than the ones he recalled hazily from the LeMere streets so long ago, but at the moment very little he saw could fail to give him pleasure — especially anything that would help remove the slaves from this place, hopefully never to return. So he grinned at the buses and at the operatives once again calling the crowd to order.

Turning, he found yellow-eyes watching him from nearby. Sano had rather lost track of the man in the last couple of hours, though in the back of his thoughts never really misplacing him or the indecision connected with him. Now Sano moved toward him a few steps, for no real reason other than a certain feeling of being drawn by the sight of him.

He wanted to say something, but this wasn’t really the moment for all of his serious reflections that tended toward working out the aforementioned confusion. Eventually what came out, pointless but at least something, was, “So… buses…”

Yellow-eyes nodded.

“Where are you taking us?”

“A number of different sites. It isn’t safe or practical for everyone to relocate to the same place.” Now it was Sano’s turn to nod. Most likely, naming the destinations here in front of everyone also wasn’t safe or practical, and the names probably wouldn’t mean anything to Sano anyway… but he couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed. It must have shown on his face, too, for yellow-eyes smirked slightly and said, “I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Tell him what?” Katsu wondered as he appeared at Sano’s side — probably in response to Soujirou, who’d just appeared beside yellow-eyes.

“Exactly where we’re going,” Sano answered. “And where everyone is going,” he added as an afterthought. “And all the details of this project of theirs that he hasn’t told me yet. Like where they got buses from and shit.”

Yellow-eyes snorted. “You certainly don’t ask much.” The sarcasm wasn’t meant to cut, though.

“You specifically told me I ask too many questions, actually.” Sano stared up into the man’s face, more flippant than defiant but not willing to be denied his answers. The yellow eyes rolled.

“So…” began Katsu. He glanced from Soujirou, at whom he’d been looking fairly steadfastly, to a nearby operative that was shouting orders to the slaves in the immediate vicinity. “Do we get on the bus with them?”

Yellow-eyes’ mouth tightened, and Soujirou’s smile turned a little self-conscious. “That depends,” the false guard said at last.

Sano and Katsu just waited.

“You two are a… special case.” Yellow-eyes shook his head, and the expression on his face seemed to reflect an almost helpless sort of frustrated amusement that held a touch of self-deprecation. Neither he nor Soujirou, after all, had probably expected to find what they had at Ketterect Labor Complex; Sano was sure neither of them was entirely satisfied with his own behavior. “We’ll probably bring you with us in one of the trucks… back to our headquarters instead of to a relocation site, and then… you two are free now; it depends on what you want.”

“Free…” Had Sano ever really understood that word before? It tasted strange on his lips, sounded unfamiliar in his ears. He glanced from the interesting look on yellow-eyes’ face to Soujirou’s tentative smile to Katsu, and saw the same uncertainty in his friend’s expression that was probably in his own. They had Kaoru, Yahiko, and others to consider, not to mention the ambiguity of their own attitudes toward their deliverers. “I… don’t know,” Sano answered at last. Katsu shook his head to indicate similar feelings.

“Well, you have three hundred miles to think about it,” Soujirou smiled.

Yellow-eyes nodded.

Glancing at Katsu again, Sano couldn’t help smiling too. The one thing he could be sure of was that, whatever strange complications had arisen thus far, neither of them would regret these events or even meeting these men, whatever they decided. They had three hundred miles — and more — to think about it; Sano believed, at this point, that neither Soujirou nor his superior officer would pressure either of the two former slaves.

They had all the time in the world. This was what Souzou had wanted; this was what Souzou would always have wanted for them. They were free — free — to come to their own decisions, to determine their own future.



<<14

When I first got an account at fanfiction.net in 2002 and started posting things there, the popularity and the headiness of multiple reviews per chapter provided a rush of motivation, and I produced eleven rickety chapters of a story called You Won’t Regret It in record time. And perhaps it was the haste with which I wrote it, or possibly a special kind of naivete that fanfiction.net didn’t help, but it really sucked. It was so full of implausible circumstances and so incredibly shallow and fangirly that a few years later I took it down.

But having a finished story eleven chapters long sitting around not posted really bothered me, and eventually I decided to rewrite the thing and see if I could manage to hate it less. And here is the result: a rewrite barely less spurious than it was before, even more hedonistic in places, consisting for many chapters mostly of recycled text from the original with other shit added and some slight pretext of dealing with some of these serious issues just a touch less shallowly. If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed… and actually kinda feel I should apologize. Still, it has its moments; one of these days even their sad glitter may fade, and then it’ll come down.

I’ve rated this story (though the last few chapters, the best parts of the fic, merit more like a ).

A Run of Good Luck



It didn’t seem the type of day for the fulfillment of secret desires. If Sano had been asked to guess, when he woke up in the mid-to-late morning or when he got up in the mid-to-late afternoon, what type of day it would turn out to be, he wouldn’t have been able to come up with anything specific. It was just another day, mediocre. He wasn’t wounded or starving or any richer or happier than usual, Tokyo wasn’t any better or worse than ever a place to live, and the weather was mild. Still, he was in a good mood as he ambled out of his run-down apartment and took to the street with no particular purpose; that boded well, as a good mood meant a run of good luck with the dice. Well, sometimes.

Greeting people he knew, smiling at people he didn’t, and grinning at people that whistled at him (it happened twice), he made his leisurely way in the general direction of his favorite gambling area, keeping a sharp eye open for anyone likely to want to treat him to a free meal on the way. He stopped to talk to someone about something, didn’t get any food out of it, and eventually moved on as the sun began to set.

Encountering a group of little boys among whom he ranked as a favorite, he was quickly talked into racing them down to their hideout a few streets over. After giving them a good head start, he took off after them with a roar he knew would make them run even faster.

At the corner he was just catching them up, but found, as he turned it, an unexpected volume of pedestrian traffic that he was not nearly so good at infiltrating as his small friends were. He dodged a sour-looking lady shouting at all of them, stumbled over someone else, and slammed into a third as the boys, laughing, outdistanced him and disappeared around another corner.

He was yelping an apology even as he lost his balance and fell. He had to consider himself rather the victim, however, as the other person didn’t go similarly tumbling or even seem to waver; indeed, it was almost like running into a brick wall. Oddly and unexpectedly, however, he found himself pulled back up again by a strong hand almost before hitting the ground. This wouldn’t have been quite so bizarre and disconcerting if the gesture hadn’t been accompanied by the remark, “Clumsier than usual today, ahou?”

Sano couldn’t speak; there were no words to express his sensations in response to this. He simply stared at the officer, dumbfounded. Saitou, smoothing out his jacket, seemed to be giving him time to think of a comeback… but Sano had none. Seeing this, the taller man smirked at him and strode on around the corner, leaving Sano still overwhelmed and motionless where he stood.

Saitou had just… been nice to him.

True, he’d hauled Sano to his feet roughly and much like a sack he intended to toss over his shoulder, but the result was the same: he’d helped him up. And though he’d mocked him immediately, there had been more amusement than ridicule in the tone. And that smirk… certainly one of derision, yes, but friendly derision. Almost good-natured, it all had seemed… if that didn’t feel so much like blasphemy against the god of assholes, and an insult against nature…

With a monumental effort recovering his wits and power of motion, though entirely forgetting his young cohorts and their race, Sano turned and ran back around the corner after Saitou.

The officer did not slow his pace when Sano reached him, only glanced at him without change of expression. “Hello again.”

Sano was nearly rendered speechless a second time. Who ever heard of Saitou saying ‘hello’ to him? Or even greeting him at all except with an insult? “Hey,” he finally managed, which, in its effectiveness in promoting conversation or conveying his wonder, was certainly close enough to having no clue what to say.

Saitou gave no reply, but Sano thought, looking at him, that more of a smile was riding those lips than he’d ever seen there for more than two moments together in all the time he’d known him.

Growing easier after walking half the length of another street with no sign that Saitou was trying to trap him somehow by feigning amiability and then turning suddenly and stabbing him, Sano ventured experimentally in a conversational tone, “Nice weather today, ain’t it?”

“It is,” Saitou agreed with a nod.

“All right,” the younger man demanded, having received the last indicator he needed, “what the hell is wrong with you?”

“Interesting you should ask that,” Saitou replied, bemused, “considering you’re usually the first to point it all out.”

Sano shook his head as if trying to clear away growing confusion and doubt. “You’re being nice to me!” It was half explanation, half protest.

“Am I? That is a problem.” And Saitou only barely rolled his eyes as he said this.

“Shit…” Sano stared him up and down as the only possible solution to this mystery slowly dawned on him and seemed confirmed by all the evidence he’d collected thus far. “I didn’t know it was possible for you to be in a good mood!”

Saitou merely smirked.

Examining this along with the rest of the older man’s face in continued surprise and possibly some growing bemusement of his own, Sano kept on at Saitou’s side. “You got blood on your ear,” he eventually remarked. “‘Zat why you’re so happy? You been out giving some Aku the old Zan?”

“If you want to put it that way.” Saitou extracted from a pocket an already bloodstained glove and rubbed his ear with it.

Sano watched critically. “It’s not coming off. Looks like it’s dried.”

Saitou shrugged.

“So who’d you kill?” Sano asked next.

“You’ll have heard it by tomorrow.”

“Being all pleased with yourself about it ain’t gonna make me less curious, you know…”

“You’d better try to think about something else, then.”

Sano was still unable to get his brain around the concept of Saitou so nice. Well, nice for Saitou. “Sure,” he complained, “but I was asking because I was trying not to think about what you were making me think about before.”

Saitou raised a skeptical brow at him.

“See, I hate to mess up the first good mood I’ve ever seen you in, but it’s just too good of an opportunity, and you’re kinda asking for it not answering my questions…” And without further warning, Sano put a hand on Saitou’s shoulder, leaned in, and kissed him soundly. Then he took off running once again.

Saitou was left in the middle of the street as motionless as Sano had been earlier, watching the young man rapidly disappearing and the entertained expressions of a few other pedestrians that had witnessed the exchange.

“Ahou,” he murmured after a moment when he took to walking again.

What a nice day this was turning out to be.


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme is #12, “In a good mood.” As you can see, 30_kisses was a fabulous way to come up with utter pointlessness XD

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


I Dream I Know Not How

I Dream I Know Not How

“When he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

Eventually he stirred from his motionless stare, and his limbs felt heavy and sluggish. It took more effort than it should have to haul himself up onto the railing. The water appeared even closer now, despite its being technically a few feet farther from him. He glanced around at the rest of the dark world. Why did it seem he was expecting something? Expecting someone? Expecting… Saitou… to say something… What would Saitou say?

Well, he probably wouldn’t bother trying to stop Sano, but he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to mock him. What are you doing, ahou?

“What does it look like I’m doing, old man?” Sano replied to the hypothetical question out loud.

And just what do you intend to accomplish with that?

He had no answer.

Do you think you’ll be helping anyone? Saitou would persist. Do you think the state of the world will improve? Do you think anything you’ve ever lived for will be carried out in that kind of death?

“Well, no, but…” That would be a fairly good point.

But what?

“I… don’t know…”

A typically well formulated justification.

“Pretty sure you’re dead, bastard,” Sano growled, as if Saitou could really hear it. “Why do I have to justify myself to you anyway?”

It makes no difference to me, of course. Rushing into things without thinking is what you’re best at. This will be particularly glorious — something you’re not even sure about but can’t take back once it’s done. Yes, you’ll really outdo yourself here, boy.

“You just don’t want me to come bug you in the afterlife.”

That could be.

“Well, if you still hate me so damn much, why don’t you just stop haunting me?”

For this the fictional Saitou had no answer. But suddenly, whether it was the hazily imagined conversation, the thought of Saitou actually haunting him — watching him, demanding concrete reasons for this course of action — or something else entirely, the blackness in the water below did not look nearly so enticing. Staring down, Sano’s eyes grew wide and he began to shake. That’s right… it wouldn’t help anything… it would only make things worse. What had he been thinking?

Oh, were you thinking something?

“Shut up… just shut the hell up…”

He imagined he could hear Saitou chuckling.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat. But as he still dreaded further questioning, it was at least another day before he tried. That made it he did not know how long since he’d had any food; he couldn’t imagine how he looked to the others in the scummy little restaurant to which he eventually dragged himself… since he had no problem getting a meal on credit, it must have been either intimidating or pitiable. At any rate, he wasn’t disturbed as he ate, and his mood slowly grew less black.

He started leaning toward the ‘intimidating’ theory, however pathetic he felt, when on the way out the door he nearly ran into an incoming restaurant patron whose reaction was to yelp, jump, and scurry out of the way. Normally Sano would stop and talk to the guy — make sure he was all right, probably tease him for being twitchy, find out if he wanted to buy a drink for the ex-mercenary that had startled him so badly — but today he didn’t feel up to it, and moved on without looking back.

He’d already muttered, “I’m as scary as you, I guess,” before he even realized he was thinking of Saitou again. Still.

You’ve always been somewhat frightening, Saitou replied easily, as if he’d been expecting Sano’s remark perhaps more even than Sano had, if only because of your terrifying fashion sense…

“Hey, now,” Sano grunted, but did not continue as Saitou went on.

But I think a drug-addict river rat like that would probably jump the same way no matter who he bumped into. It could be that shy little girl from the Akabeko and he’d still probably piss himself if she surprised him.

The image of Tsubame scaring a man twice her size out of his self-control just by appearing in a doorway was unexpectedly hilarious, and the laughter it induced unexpectedly relieving. “Shit, I can just picture her face,” Sano chortled. “Tsubame…! I love you…”

His laughter stopped along with his movement and breathing.

Had he really just said that out loud?

He hadn’t meant it like that; it had merely been an expression of appreciation, albeit a stronger one than he might normally have used — his tone must have been enough to convey this — but once the words were out, he found himself frozen in place with his head spinning. Because now that he thought about it…

Now that he’d said it, couldn’t take it back, couldn’t help but think about it…

Now that he’d slipped…

“Maybe I really do,” he whispered.

He’d been anticipating ridicule for the original statement alone; in response to this addendum he didn’t know what to expect. Certainly he did not hope. It was a foolish thing to have admitted so carelessly, to have realized so late. So… late…

Suddenly he did not feel at all well.

He stood very still, waiting for Saitou’s derision.

It did not come.

His breathing returned to normal and the nausea receded gradually, yet he heard nothing but the wind. He couldn’t say that whatever cruel remark he’d been expecting was worse than this, but no response at all he simply could not deal with. “Saitou?” he queried.

Still no answer.

Sano looked slowly around. Of course he saw nothing more than he ever did… but he felt very much alone.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know.

The state of his body, half-forgotten on the way out in his previous frame of mind, reiterated itself now as he tore himself from the bridge and threw himself toward home, and his walk turned almost to a stagger. “Goddammit,” he grumbled breathlessly, “I might as well be dead.”

Too weak to handle a little pain?

“Thought I told you to shut up,” Sano snarled, as if Saitou, living or otherwise, would actually do as Sano told him.

Which hurts more, came the easy tone, the pain or the truth about yourself?

“I didn’t go through with it, did I?”

You had to be talked down.

“Not like it’s totally unheard-of for someone to get suicidal.”

Yes, you’re perfectly normal… very mainstream… You help people in ways that will get them killed, you try to kill yourself and don’t know why, and you talk to dead cops.

“Guess that makes us pretty damn similar, then, since you did the same thing and did get yourself killed so you are a fucking dead cop who doesn’t seem like he’s got anything better to do than hang around talking to me!”

Nobody ever suggested I was normal.

“Ch…” Sano was home by now, and fell to his futon gratefully, dragging an arm across his eyes although there was no light in the room to block them against. He lay silent for a long time, getting his breath back and letting the trembling stop. He needed something to eat and then he would certainly be all right.

Even before Saitou wondered idly, Nothing more to say? Sano could not feel entirely alone in the room, but with his vision obscured it almost did seem the other man was actually present.

“Hey,” Sano asked in a weary and nearly indifferent tone, “are you really here?”

Of course not. When was the last time you talked to a ghost?

A little startled by the question, Sano paused in the slow act of sitting up, supported on one elbow and still half recumbent. “Not too long ago, actually…” He hauled himself up and glanced around at the empty apartment. “But I still don’t think I believe this.”

Do as you please.

“Yeah, I always do.” Sano stood and shuffled to a cupboard to see if he had any food.

You know it’s empty. You’ve checked it every day since you came home.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. What he did say was, “Seems like it’s gonna get real crowded around here pretty quick.”

If you had a job, you could afford a bigger apartment.

“Fuck you,” Sano replied, turning toward the door to go find somewhere to freeload.

Telling his buddies the story of his wounds did not appeal to him. Katsu undoubtedly already knew about the kidnapping-related events, and talking to him about it didn’t really appeal to Sano either. Obviously the dojo was out of the question. This was going to take a little more effort than usual.

But more effort was exactly what he didn’t have to expend. For the night was different now, colder and heavier — so heavy, in fact, it seemed to weigh on Sano’s shoulders and slow his steps until walking became useless for as far as it was likely to get him before he inevitably collapsed. He felt suddenly very weak. Weak in more ways than he’d often worried about in all his energetic days.

The sky looked like the water had: black and ready to swallow everything. He faltered to a complete halt as he stared up. There was a feeling of grasping emptiness to it that matched his soul, or perhaps it was just that the coldness of his frame and the coldness of the stars seemed to be one and the same. And he was still in pain.

Even if he wanted to ignore certain conclusions, wanted to forget certain emotions, the wounds would not let him… so he gave up, gave in, and started to ponder the last few weeks: the news, the coincidence, his own decisions, the bridge… Had Saitou actually had some hand in those events? Had he actually shown up, just at the right time in the right place to keep Sano from suicide? Was he still here, still near Sano, even now?

It didn’t really matter.

“Thank you,” Sano told the man, wherever and whatever he was, in a gruff murmur, forcing his gaze now toward the ground rather than that disturbing sky. Then, almost as if he couldn’t contain the words, he added, “You know, I don’t really hate you. I never did.”

There was no answer.

He stumbled back home.

Of course he would have to make further effort eventually… he did have to eat.

If Saitou were here, he would ask why Sano had done it. But it wouldn’t mean quite the same thing coming from him.

This was Sano’s first coherent thought, though Sano himself was far from coherent. It seemed too much of an effort to struggle for real consciousness, and he didn’t mind how disordered and incohesive was the parade of images marching past his mind’s eye, the play of sounds that did not always match.

Kenshin, solemn and quiet, telling him the news. There was no ambiguity this time. There could be no mistaking the matter. There was no misunderstanding, misinformation, or misinterpretation. Kenshin had seen the body.

His head hurt so much. Someone was talking, but he couldn’t quite hear any words just yet.

Footsteps, swift and urgent, coming his direction. They pounded across the bridge on which he stood. He looked up.

“…boy and his fiance were killed…” There were the words at last, still a bit distorted.

He’d been the only one Kenshin had told, because he’d been the only one Kenshin had thought would care. In that supposition he was wrong, of course. Sano had never cared.

“…should have gone to the police…” He wondered if he’d taken a blow to the side of his head that might have done something to his hearing.

The river beneath him. That was the only real reason the news was so unsettling — because the river he looked out on was gilded by the sunset to just the color of Saitou’s eyes. He’d thought that old man would never go. Well, he’d thought that old man was invincible. But Kenshin had been in Kyoto by coincidence just then, and had seen the body. Had made sure to see the body, so there could be no mistake this time.

His chest hurt; he thought he was breathing shallowly, out there on the other side of consciousness where he could not quite reach.

Although he didn’t care, he questioned Kenshin rather carefully about circumstances, as he’d been deceived once and didn’t want it to happen again. Kenshin gave explicit answers to the best of his knowledge.

Apparently Saitou had gone alone to attempt the rescue of a abducted child, feeling he would have a better chance at infiltrating the kidnappers’ hideout by himself. But he’d been discovered and the enemies’ numbers had been greater than was generally supposed. Greater even than Mibu no Ookami could handle on his own. Although Kenshin did hint that Saitou might have been more aware of that beforehand than he’d let on. That perhaps there had been more… bravado… in the act than many others believed. At any rate, he was killed, as was the hostage; the police were still looking into the affair, but now there was no longer any hope of recovering the abductee, the case was likely to be dropped rather quickly.

Sano could see it all, even when only half awake. He could picture every detail: Saitou striking blow after deadly blow but slowly hemmed in by an overwhelming group of thugs, falling finally of many wounds… the last justice the wolf would ever deal out.

“…what was he thinking?”

The bridge. The figure of a much-distressed youth whose rich fiance had been kidnapped from under his nose. It was just too tempting, too perfect — too coincidental. Did you set this up, old man? Sano wondered. But Saitou would not have answered such a stupid question. “Don’t bother with the police,” he said. “They fuck everything up. I’ll go get her out.”

“But why did he do it?” That was the question the voices all kept asking. Saitou would have asked that too, if he were here. If he were still alive. Except that Saitou wouldn’t mean it the way they did. Saitou saw through everything, and Sano knew he would know.

The light that shone on his closed eyelids was as golden as the river had been.

The river. He knew what Saitou would say if he saw him here, watching the shining water roll away beneath him endlessly in the long dusk and thinking fixedly of a rival he would never see again. It would be something to the purpose of, Ahou — because that was how it always started — why don’t you find something productive to do?

And he probably should. After all, it wasn’t as if he cared. But then the sun set completely, and the water seemed to burn for a moment and then go black, like a bright flame suddenly extinguished. And Sano wondered… had it been like that? Had the fire in Saitou’s eyes gone out that abruptly? From gold to crimson to sable in an instant, just so?

Saitou would mock him: A little fanciful, are we? But Sano couldn’t help thinking that so it must have been. Also that it was terribly inviting, such a deep black color of death. He couldn’t blame Saitou for having accepted it. The best way to go would be to flame and burn out; would Saitou have thought so too?

And perhaps now…

And then the footsteps.

Too convenient, he reflected at the thought of the circumstance and its timing. You really must have set this one up.

“…should have known it was too big for him to handle alone…” He wondered if voices had asked the same questions, made the same comments, if in perhaps more hushed tones, after Saitou’s failure. Although he noticed Kenshin had no input. Kenshin probably saw through it too; he alone knew how similar Sano’s situation had been to the one he’d described earlier that very day. He must have his guesses as to why Sano had been so foolish.

“Hey, bro, haven’t you heard of me? You’ve got Zanza on your side now!” The young man seemed to perk up at this, and didn’t mind so much the idea of leaving the police out of the business. But still he insisted on coming along too. Well, that was fine. Sano could show off a little.

His body hurt all over: bruised, he thought. Lots of heavy bruises. As soon as he woke fully, he would be able to move and figure out if he had any cuts or broken bones.

There were too many of them, and the girl was too front and central for him to get her out first and then go down fighting. He’d left behind the days when he’d refused to admit he was dangerously outnumbered, and now he knew perfectly well this was not a battle he could win.

Saitou must have known that too.

“…but I don’t understand why he…”

Yes, if Saitou were still alive, he would surely say the same. Except that he would have seen the answer to the immediate question and would be asking something a bit more profound:

There were better ways you could have chosen to be like me. Why would you want to die like I did?

And Sano would have no answer for him.

No more than for the other question Saitou would probably ask — Why did you want to die at all?

He was waking up now, slowly, finally. He must have made some noise, probably a groan at the heightening pain as consciousness approached, for the conversation whose bits and pieces had been reaching him through the haze abruptly ceased. Or perhaps more time had passed than he realized, and they’d all gone away.

He could open only one of his eyes; the other ached and stung, obviously swollen. His throat ached with dryness, so much that he could make nothing more than a croaking sound when he tried to speak.

Megumi appeared, blurry and overly bright, and gave him a little water. She spoke no word, but her eyes were like books, and what Sano read in them made his heart sink. It was more than just Why did you? — it was You shouldn’t have. As if she were at all qualified to make that judgment when she didn’t know why… but he might be imagining things.

“Sano,” Kenshin’s voice said.

Now to see if Kenshin saw through it. He didn’t always see things the way Saitou had, so maybe he couldn’t tell.

“Yeah,” Sano rasped. “Hello.”

“I’m glad you are awake,” Kenshin said.

Sano honestly couldn’t bring himself to say the same. Despite the chaos of his jumbled thoughts, being halfway conscious had been a good deal less painful than being fully so. And he didn’t like Kenshin’s tone. So the only answer he made was inarticulate and low.

“Sano, please do not do that again.” It was a tone that tried not to be hurt or reproving, and failed.

For several moments Sano was tempted to reply, “Do what, Kenshin?” as if he didn’t know perfectly well his friend had him figured out. But he had a sneaking suspicion, somehow, that pretending ignorance, forcing Kenshin to explain it to him plainly, would not make him feel much better. So finally he merely said, “I won’t.” And didn’t add, Unless another coincidence like that pops up. Actually, he tried not to admit that thought even to himself.

“Thank you,” said Kenshin softly.

That was the worst it got, but the next step down was almost less tolerable for being more protracted. Megumi, Kaoru, and Yahiko, not to mention the other friends that came to visit, were ignorant of the true depth of the circumstances, so all they could do was ask why… but that was enough.

“Let’s have a look at this thick skull of yours,” Megumi would say, sardonically pleasant, then add silently, with real darkness, “Why did you give me more work for no good reason?”

“I brought you lunch, Sanosuke!” Kaoru would chirp, turning severe with, “And don’t you say a word about how it tastes!” But her true comment was, “Why did you ruin everyone’s peace?”

“If you don’t hurry up and get better, I’m gonna move into your place,” Yahiko threatened. What he really meant was, “Why did you let me down?”

Sano pretended to need a lot more sleep than he was actually getting.

Kenshin saw through this, of course, and his ever-present and far more penetrating “Why?” was the worst of all.

Saitou hadn’t heard, then. He didn’t know. But, again, now he’d been forced by his own carelessness to think about it, Sano couldn’t decide whether this was good or bad. Did he want Saitou to know? It was too late now anyway, and what could Saitou possibly say in response? Even if he didn’t tear Sano to pieces for his foolishness, it was still… too late. A certain nausea, the same that had twisted his stomach the first time, again threatened his already-dubious physical well-being every time he considered the matter, and this as well as everything else that had happened lately made Sano doubt himself. He wasn’t as certain of the clarity of his own reflections as he would like… should he really share them with someone else, someone so… capable of hurting him… if he wasn’t sure?

He lay awake, or half-awake, meandering through pain and dreams and contemplating this question for hours in the darkness… and eventually reached the conclusion (a conclusion he perhaps should have expected and therefore reached much sooner) that some things needed to be said regardless of the outcome. Regardless of his state of mind.

Coming out with something like that, seriously saying it aloud, premeditated and deliberate, wasn’t as easily done as it was decided upon, however. Days passed before he managed to work up the requisite resolve (he couldn’t quite call it nerve, as he couldn’t quite call what held him back fear), and during that time he grew restless and agitated. It didn’t help that Saitou said little and Sano had no hint of a clue about what the response might be when he finally managed to tell him.

Eventually he forced himself out of the quiet apartment and took to the streets. He had no idea where he was going, but the impetus to movement had something to do with not wanting to see or be seen by anyone. Anyone living, that is. He felt his confession nearly ready, that it was creeping up on him, and he didn’t want to be around people when it burst out.

A field he came upon in a sparse, quiet, distant area of town beckoned him to its center, for the wind-ruffled yet empty feeling that hung about it seemed appropriate somehow. He wandered across, steps slowing in the rustling grass. Finally he stopped and took a long look all around him.

You’re more aimless than usual today, Saitou commented, and it was as good an opening as any.

“I… wanted to talk to you,” Sano admitted, feeling foolish.

You spend most of your time talking to me. Your neighbors think you’re insane.

“Well, none of them are here right now, are they? That’s kinda the point.”

Ahou.

“Why’d you just leave the other night, anyway? Didn’t even say goodbye or anything.”

Do you think I’m at your disposal? That I have nothing better to do?

“Course not. Not like I have any real idea what you do these days, but still… you… missed what I had to say.”

Hmm, what an extraordinary pity.

Sano gave a sigh, amused and exasperated. “Well, listen now, all right? Don’t go running off, or floating off, or whatever you do at this point.”

In exchange, try not to make it too boring.

Sano chose not to respond to this jab either. “Look, what I want to tell you is…” Even without having to meet an intense golden stare while making this statement, it was difficult to spit out. “You’ve changed me. You held me to your standard while you were alive — I practically had no choice but to be a better person — and even after you were dead you wouldn’t let me throw my life away. So it’s like you saved me twice. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get to your level. The only thing I can ever really do is wish for it and want to touch it and want…” Finally, finally he came to the point. “And want you. Not like that’s possible now, I know, but at least I want you to know… I love you. And I’d kinda like to know how you feel about me back.”

There was a very long, and to Sano very tense silence. Eventually Saitou simply remarked, Hn…

“What does that mean? Is ‘I love you’ too boring, or what?”

Maybe, when you’ve said it twice before.

“What the– you did hear me then? Why didn’t you say anything?”

Saitou had no reply.

“Any chance you could stop being an asshole and say something? Right, like you could ever stop being an asshole. Why the hell do I love you, anyway? Could you at least tell me that?”

Still no answer.

“Guess it bothers you to hear me say it, huh? Well, suck it up, bastard. I love you, I love you, I love you. You hear me?” And he flung his gaze into the sky, shaking an irate, clenched fist upward. “I love you!!”

Startled by a soft noise behind him, he whirled suddenly, and found himself looking unexpectedly into the face of an uncertain Kenshin.

“Shit,” he muttered, lowering his hand and letting it go lax. He hadn’t considered how loudly he’d been talking; he hadn’t felt the need. Had Kenshin heard the whole thing? Sano must sound certifiably crazy at this point.

Such seemed to be the case, for the look in Kenshin’s eyes that the rurouni was not very well able to conceal seemed to be one of pitying horror.

“Kenshin…” he began. “Hey… this…”

“Sano,” whispered Kenshin with a minuscule shake of his head. “Sano, I am so sorry.”

“Sorry?”

It appeared Kenshin didn’t quite have words to convey his feelings or thoughts at the moment.

“Kenshin, look,” Sano said, trying to sound reasonable. “I know that sounded kindof… um, crazy… but, seriously, I’m not. It’s… it’s just something…” There wasn’t really any way to explain it, though, that wouldn’t sound just as insane as the overheard one-sided conversation must have.

“This is my fault… I never should have told you…”

“Told me what?” Sano demanded, a little impatiently. He didn’t like that expression of Kenshin’s, the one of sympathetic despair. “I’d have known he was dead soon enough when he started haunting me, wouldn’t I? It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“Sano, I never thought your liking him was a good idea. He didn’t think so either, so–”

“What, he knew??” Sano broke in. “He knew I liked him?!” The fist clenched again. “That fucking asshole,” he muttered, looking away so as not to direct his pained rage straight into Kenshin’s face. “He knew before I even knew and he didn’t say anything, and he won’t say anything now even when I fucking tell him straight up.”

“Sano… Sano, Saitou is not–”

“Don’t even go there, Kenshin. I’m not crazy. I know perfectly well nobody else can hear him. Doesn’t make me crazy. I’ve met ghosts before; doesn’t make any difference that I just hear him and don’t see him this time.”

“Sano…”

“Dammit, just leave me alone, Kenshin,” Sano commanded, a little wearily. “I’m pissed enough as it is.”

Appearing helpless and desperate, Kenshin seemed to be contemplating a variety of things to say; finally he just shook his head. “All right.” And he turned and walked away.

Days wore by without another encounter with the rurouni. Of course Sano hadn’t been around him much lately anyway, but now he didn’t even see him, walking through town, as he usually did. “Guy must really think I’m crazy,” Sano remarked on this at a mutter after a week had passed, “and he’s avoiding me now.”

You were ranting like a lunatic, was Saitou’s helpful, amused-sounding comment. Himura’s tolerance level is high, but everyone has to draw the line somewhere.

“If you goddamn heard me ranting like a lunatic, you could have answered my fucking question,” Sano protested.

Hn. He still sounded amused, but at the same time somewhat disinterested. Obviously Saitou didn’t feel like answering, and what exactly did that mean? What did it mean that he was willing to stick around, to converse with Sano at all hours of the day, to share inside jokes with him and comment carelessly on almost every aspect of Sano’s private life… but unwilling to respond to what might be the most important statement Sano had ever made, the most meaningful question he’d ever asked?

Because Sano wouldn’t like the answer? He couldn’t believe that; Saitou would not have so much consideration for him. Why, then? He didn’t understand.

And perhaps the reason Saitou didn’t answer was part of the reason Sano didn’t understand… some deficiency in him that rendered the answer as well as Saitou’s motives incomprehensible? He’d never been good enough; that almost made sense.

But of course Sano could not accept it.

He couldn’t run. Despite the fact that, figuratively, that was exactly what he was doing — running from an array of accusing eyes and pursed lips and soft voices asking endlessly why, why, why?? — he was still too weak actually to run. He thought a few more good nights’ sleep would have him up to a decent level of strength again, but he wouldn’t spend them at that quiet, accusatory clinic. So he stumbled home.

He felt sure he knew what Saitou would say if he saw him stagger into his dirty little apartment and hit the futon like he weighed a ton with a grunt to match. Well, Saitou would just call him some rude name. But if he were in a mood to elaborate, he would surely mock Sano for being so weak he couldn’t handle a little disapprobation in order to get the medical attention he needed. And Sano would insist he didn’t need any medical attention, and Saitou would probably point out the worst of his wounds and ask facetiously if they were cosmetic.

Sano couldn’t help grinning up at the ceiling a little at the thought.

Here he could sleep, for there was no interminable conversation of why‘s on the other side of consciousness to invade his dreams. Soon he would be completely well again, if left alone like this. That was all he really wanted: to be alone.

You’re lucky you didn’t get sick, then, Saitou would say. The words would be a disinterested observation, but the tone would be sarcastic. If a fever had come with those bruises of yours, you wouldn’t be able to make it on your own.

And that was true. Sano was glad he didn’t have a fever. He wouldn’t have much to say in response to that.

The passage of time eluded his comprehension. When he awoke, he couldn’t remember what part of the day it had been when he’d left the clinic, and therefore couldn’t determine how long he’d been asleep. His head still hurt. He was excessively hungry.

Forcing himself to sit up, however laborious and painful the process, he slowly checked his bandages. Some had come loose, and they could probably all do with a change. When he would have the energy to wash the used ones, though, he didn’t know. He hoped he had enough of his own to keep himself alive until then.

Saitou would certainly have something to say, on observing this, about Sano’s forethought, and Sano muttered preemptively, “Shut up…” as he lay back down. Then he contemplated, for a very long time, sitting up again. He needed to change the bandages so he wouldn’t get infected, but somehow all he could give any serious thought to was the memory of the bridge and approaching footsteps just as the sun set.

“That guy’s dead now.” He didn’t realize he was talking to Saitou until he added, “Dead as you are.”

He thought that if Saitou were feeling relatively light-hearted, he might inquire into Sano’s assignment of degrees of deadness. Otherwise he would probably just comment that most people died eventually.

“Most of the time it ain’t my fault, though.”

Maybe it is, and you’re just not aware of it, Saitou might say.

And Sano laughed quietly, painfully, at the thought of expecting any kind of comfort from that man. He fell asleep again.

How many days passed in similar manner he couldn’t tell, and probably didn’t want to. His own convalescence might have served as some type of measure — how at first even taking stock of his condition exhausted him, but eventually he was actually able to stand and move — but he did not heed it, not wanting to risk Saitou’s hypothetical derisive comments on his recovery rate.

Eventually his apartment and the heavy awareness of what he had done or hadn’t done, not to mention the why‘s in his own mind, became too oppressive, and he stumbled out for a walk despite the pain. He couldn’t bear bright sunlight just yet, so he waited until dusk; in the cool evening he found there was a sensation vaguely like freedom about escaping his empty room and moving about as if he were perfectly well in mind and body, and this almost made him able to forget or ignore his condition. Thus he walked farther than he’d intended, farther than was probably healthy, and found himself after not too long, unexpectedly and yet so appropriately, on that bridge again. He couldn’t quite say this was where it had all started, but still it fit so well to revisit this spot.

The water was now even blacker than it had been that day, its increased darkness in some ways more enticing and in some more horrific. It stretched like a shadow, a deep endless shadow you could easily blend into… or, at least, somebody with dark hair and dark clothing could. Sano would stand out, a blemish on the water, until he sank and was entirely forgotten, not by choice but because he just wasn’t good enough.

But of course Sano could not accept it. Time slipped by, however, without any possible solution occurring to him. He didn’t exactly have a history of getting likeable answers out of Saitou, and Saitou’s current state just made things more difficult.

Kenshin was around town again. Sano saw him once or twice, but avoided his eye, and Kenshin did not solicit his company. Sano didn’t regret this; he was avoiding all of his friends right now while he grew more and more agitated within himself, felt more and more helpless and trapped and just unutterably stupid. He took to going on a lot of long, aimless walks, greeting or even looking up at nobody he passed.

And then, not to his surprise but perhaps a little to his dismay, he found himself again in the field where he’d made his first deliberate confession. As he looked around and remembered that day, a frown formed slowly on his face.

Saitou, who had been rather quiet during that walk, now commented sardonically, Returning to the scene of the crime, are we?

“What crime?” Sano demanded, instantly incensed. He definitely hadn’t come here to revisit the previous conversation, as he’d yet to determine how to word what he wanted to say, hadn’t actually figured out whether he really wanted to know… but, as was or had been often the case, a statement seemingly casual on Saitou’s part was unbearably stabbing to Sano; it set him off, and, all hesitation and uncertainly flung aside, he plunged on without thinking:

“Is it so wrong I finally figured out how I feel about you? I know it was fucking stupid that it took me so long, so go ahead and mock me for that… but first you better tell me one thing straight out: what the hell do you think about me?” Trying to calm down wasn’t working. “Did we ever have a chance?” He wasn’t sure whether he sounded (or felt) more angry, sad, or confused. “And if you like me, why didn’t you ever say anything? And if you don’t, why the hell do you still hang around?”

No reply, only a tense, foreboding feeling in the air as it stilled; in no part of the field did the wind move, and the anxiety heightened as Sano continued to wait for a rejoinder that never came. It seemed to him that whatever was about to happen here would change everything — there was something dark and ominous in the stillness — but that it simply wasn’t going to happen, for better or worse, if Saitou didn’t want it to; it was Saitou’s move.

“Why is this the one thing I say that you can’t answer?” Sano burst out at last, his blood heating even further. “Anything else I say or do you’ve got some smart-ass comment on, but the one thing I really want you to respond to makes you suddenly shut up? I think it’s pretty damn important, when somebody tells you they love you, to give them an answer at least! Especially when… goddammit, Saitou, you’re fucking dead! I know you can’t hang around here forever, so at least tell me if…”

As his voice faded, thick, pensive silence again enveloped the field, and Sano’s heart-rate and desperation increased. “You set up that stupid coincidence, with the kidnappings and all,” he growled. “Almost like you wanted me to go like you did and join you; then you started hanging out around me when that didn’t work, when there’s gotta be better afterlife shit you could be doing… If you don’t care about me, why would you go to all that trouble? Why would you still be here?”

At the continued strained quiet, Sano crouched and pounded the ground in anger, sending a slight tremor out a dozen feet around him and causing the grass to ripple. “Dammit, Saitou, answer me!”

He stood straight again, staring ahead of him with wild, unblinking eyes, as if by gazing hard enough he could cause the outline he envisioned to materialize, even if in a non-corporeal form, force his will on Saitou and get his questions answered. “You can’t go forever without saying anything!” he shouted. “Do you think I’m just going to let it drop, stop bugging you about it? Saitou!!”

Into the next silence he gave a frustrated roar as he fell to his knees and slammed both fists into the ground this time. “Damn you!” he gritted out. “Damn you.” His hands opened to lie flat against the earth as his voice sank to a whisper. “Damn you… even if you fucking hate me, doesn’t it mean anything to you that I love you? Can’t you even have the decency to let me know, let me stop wondering? Are you gonna make me go forever not knowing what I mean to you, why you had to get into my head while you were alive and why you decided to haunt me now you’re dead?” His hand clenched again, clawing at the dirt as his eyes squeezed shut against tears that wanted to fly from them as his head dropped to face the ground.

For the next few moments, his ragged breaths were the only sounds to disturb the thick and sober atmosphere, until finally a slight breeze shifted the air in his direction. Startled, he drew in a gasp and opened his eyes, for it seemed he suddenly smelled cigarette smoke.

“S-saitou?” he stammered.

“Himura was right, it seems. What he thinks I can do about it, I’m not entirely sure, but when he said you’d gone completely mad, he wasn’t exaggerating.”

Sano’s eyes grew wide with disbelief, and he found he couldn’t quite get his shaking body to move, to stand as he wanted it to. So like an animal he clawed his way around on his knees to face the sound of that voice, that voice whose source he had to find, because it had come not from the hazy nothingness of the afterlife as he was accustomed to, but from just behind him at a normal human level, with normal human tone and volume.

He scrambled the one hundred and eighty long degrees, all the breath gone from his body, his mind at once numb and exploding, his gaze unblinking but faltering badly as every part of him shook except his abruptly motionless heart, to look up — up what seemed a hundred miles past despair and insanity and denial — up into the eyes of a very present, very real, very living Saitou Hajime.


Would God I could awaken!
For I dream I know not how,
And my soul is sorely shaken
Lest an evil step be taken, —
Lest the dead who is forsaken
May not be happy now.

–Edgar Allan Poe

This story, which I’ve rated , was dedicated to MsJadey because I originally discussed the idea with her and because it was just the kind of tragic and messed-up take on this pairing that she always seemed to like.

Sano didn’t feel like explaining that in repressing the awareness of the cupboard’s emptiness and going to look as if it might contain something, there was a pleasure, if not equal to eating, better at least than lying around realistically contemplating the lack of food in his possession. And therein, to great extent, lies the theme of this fic. Unhealthy and unhappy, isn’t it?

But it’s only partly the fault of this attitude of Sano’s; Kenshin and Saitou are very much to blame as well. Apparently Kenshin hasn’t yet learned his lesson — that he shouldn’t try to interfere in the Saitou/Sano thing. At least Saitou was in on the heinous plot this time. Of course, if he hadn’t been, I would have succeeded in writing a Saitou/Sano story that did not actually feature Saitou.

I commissioned a sort of illustration/concept piece for this fic of Link Worshiper:

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

Autosite

“What’s with that look?” Sano wondered as he slid into the booth across from the scowling man and immediately stole his nearly expended cigarette.

Used to this, Saitou snatched it back before Sano could take more than half a drag, and asked in reply, “Are you aware of how fast you came into the parking lot?”

“Yeah, so?”

“I can give traffic tickets, you know.”

“You would, too, wouldn’t you? You live to make my life difficult.”

“Is it really that difficult to follow the speed limit?”

“Yeah, it is! It’s fucking frustrating! People get all up on your bumper like ‘Hurry the fuck up!’ and then they roar past you and’re gone.”

Saitou smirked. “And then you turn on your lights and siren and watch them twitch because they didn’t know you’re a cop.”

Sano gave him the finger and in the same movement snagged the new cigarette Saitou had just lit. “Yeah, I bet you do enjoy that,” he said, trying to keep the stolen item away from the officer and smoke it at the same time, and failing at both. “But some of us aren’t cops, in case you forgot.”

“So ride with me.”

“You better be careful what you’re offering, pig! Your car’s a lot nicer than mine; I might never wanna drive myself anywhere again.”

“You’d better be careful what you’re calling me, idiot, or I might retract the offer.” The cigarette dodged Sano’s pursuing fingers as it made its way back from the ash tray to the officer’s mouth. “I’ve seen the kind of trash can you make your car into, after all, and you’re not doing that to mine.”

“I could probably not throw shit on the floor…” Leaning back and putting his hands behind his head — mostly in order to look innocent — Sano finished with a grin, “if I got to choose the radio station.”

“And make me suffer that senseless noise you call music?” Saitou sniffed.

“Well, I guess we could throw in some of that whiny ‘classic rock’ shit you like sometimes too,” the younger man shrugged, “when I’m feeling nice.”

“I’m not a chauffeur. You’ll have to wash the car every week, and taking it through a cheap car wash won’t do. It’ll need waxing, too.”

“Fine, but I ain’t pumping gas; I hate the way that shit smells.”

“I wouldn’t trust you with it anyway.”

“Hey, how do you think I get around now?!”

“I don’t like to think about that.”

“But you’ll really pull people over so I can laugh at ’em?”

“Remember who you’re talking to.”

Sano grinned broadly. “I could handle not speeding forever, in that case.”

“Good,” said the cop with a smirk.

At an unexpected darting movement from Sano, the cigarette changed hands again. This time, though, the contented Saitou just brought out another one and lit it, trying to trace the conversation