The Test (1/3)



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

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3

“In eleventh grade was when I started pursuing art seriously.”

That’s where you’re starting with this?”

“Yeah… this is going to be a long explanation.”

“If you’re starting in eleventh grade it is!”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t worry about it! I’m totally fine hearing about eleventh grade. So you got into art seriously?”

“Yeah. My parents didn’t want me to. They said there was no future in it. And by ‘future’ I mean ‘money.’ They wanted me to — they still want me to get into law.”

“You know, I think you would make a pretty decent lawyer, if lawyers weren’t all so evil.”

“It would be a very practical way to fund my interest in art. If it were a field that interested me at all.”

“Well, I definitely won’t question you being more interested in art than being a lawyer. That’s like the difference between chocolate cake and stabbing yourself in the eye.”

“Is it?”

“You have to admit it is!”

“I guess… maybe… that’s one way to describe it. Anyway. My parents have never been happy I wasn’t interested in law. Once my mother asked — as if she didn’t want to bring this up at all but I’d forced her to — if my interest in art had anything to do with me being gay. That was the only time they ever came close to giving me a hard time about being gay. The question confused me a little at first, but she explained she thought maybe I was getting into something stereotypically gay because I felt like I needed to reinforce that I was gay… or something.”

Is art stereotypically gay?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe? Gayer than law, I guess. Obviously she thought it was, since she asked. Of course I told her I was interested in it for its own sake. She didn’t ask again. I think they didn’t try to stop me from getting into the art club at school because they hoped I’d discover I wasn’t really interested. Or maybe that I wasn’t good at it. Then I could quit and do what they wanted me to do.

“But I was interested. And I was good at it. Good enough to keep going, anyway. I loved the art club. We met after school, and it was fun and educational. Then I would take the city bus home, and that was how I met Trowa. He was a junior at my school too, and he was taking an after-school guitar class. Since he lived out past me in the same direction, he took the same bus home.”

“Hah! So you were an art student hanging out with a beatnik guitar player who turned out to be totally insane; I bet your parents loved that!”

“I definitely didn’t mention him to them for a while, at least not specifically. They probably would have thought I was dating him if I had. You’re right, they probably wouldn’t have approved.”

Did you ever go out with him?”

“No. He’s not really my type. Don’t get me wrong: he was my best friend for two years of high school, and he’s been one of my best friends ever since. But we were never interested in each other like that.”

“Maybe because he’s out of his fucking mind?”

“He wasn’t always quite so… enthusiastic… about things. Well, actually, he probably was. He just didn’t always have the funding. But the neighborhood he lived in was pretty rough. He grew up knowing how to fight and how to take care of himself, so I guess all of this was… inevitable…”

“And you were both out of the closet?”

“Neither of us had a big social circle. All right, that’s an understatement. We were each other’s only friends, and neither of us wanted more friends. So some people knew and some people didn’t. We didn’t try to hide, but we didn’t exactly broadcast it either.”

“That’s probably better than what I did…”

“What was that?”

“I actually came out by dumping my girlfriend — this was freshman year — because I was thinking I was probably gay when I found myself crushing hard on this one guy who seemed like he liked me back. It was a jerk thing to do to her without any warning like that, and even, like, fourteen years later I still feel kinda bad about it. Especially when I realized I was bi anyway.”

“Did this guy at least actually like you back?”

“Um, sort of… yes? but not in the right way. He had this idea somehow that I was really easy — probably the way I dumped my poor girlfriend didn’t help — and he wanted what he called an ‘open relationship,’ by which he mostly meant he would do absolutely nothing to keep up his half, but he would try to hit me up for sex whenever he felt like it.”

“Wow, in ninth grade?”

“Not going to pretend I wasn’t having sex my freshman year… just mostly not with him.”

“So you were cheating on him.”

“How could I? It was an open relationship! Though mostly he left me in this huge state of annoyance too constantly for me to be in the mood to find anyone else. He would never pay for anything. We’d go places, and he’d always just assume I was paying. God, he was such a jerk. We had so many loud arguments about everything we wanted each other to do before he finally ended it… if you can end something that practically didn’t exist in the first place.”

“I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than my first boyfriend.”

“Oh, yeah?”

***

It was a Monday not quite halfway through the semester when the new and very interesting pictures turned up in the big room where Heero had his drawing class, and, as he’d arrived a bit early, he had a chance to look through them at his leisure. Not everything Ms. Hilde brought in was to Heero’s taste, but they were always worth glancing at, even if just to guess what artistic principle she would be using them to illustrate. These new pieces, however, were very much to Heero’s taste.

For his own part, he preferred to work in graphite or charcoal. Ms. Hilde had facetiously told him that his fixation on monochrome seemed a little psychotic, but he stuck to his guns. That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate colors, though, especially colors like these; the artist seemed fond of brief lines of striking contrast, or bright streaks and swirls of opposites, and the effect was quite nice.

The subjects were all human and all moving, many of them athletes but some wearing street clothes and just randomly in vigorous motion. And nearly every one of them had at least one feature that was conspicuously distorted — an unusually shaped torso, a pair of oversized hands, oddly tiny feet — that helped the figure’s lines fit neatly into the overall composition or drew the eye where the artist wanted it.

There were seven pieces total, and they reminded Heero of nothing so much as Van Gogh, though the similarity lay in little more than a certain sense about the brush-strokes: convoluted, seemingly erratic, they invariably fulfilled their purpose and simultaneously implied a fair amount of insanity in the brain driving the brush. There was a strong sense of mobility — a wildness, almost — about each picture, which kept Heero’s gaze moving from one point to another and allowed little rest. It was almost tiring.

Although Heero guessed it had been laid in thin, diluted layers, the paint was built up thick and hard, and, given how it seemed the brush had moved and the little splattery trails in places, had probably ended up all over more than just the canvas. He imagined the unknown artist, a paint-spattered, off-kilter genius, standing in front of an easel — no, not standing: unable to stand still, dancing slightly in excitement — filling in the background in motions of arm and body far larger than the tiny, manic brush-strokes actually required. He smiled faintly to himself at the thought.

There was an artist’s signature on each of the wild paintings, but, though it looked very nice, it was distinctly unreadable. Curious, he tipped the canvases forward in turn, examining the backs for more information. Finally, on the second-to-last, he found, in a scrawl almost as messy as the signature on the front, the words Duo Maxwell. At least that’s what he thought it said. It didn’t make much difference, though, since he’d never heard of the person. Still, he thought that, as much as he would ever like to meet anyone he didn’t already know (which wasn’t generally a great deal), he wouldn’t mind meeting this artist.

As usual, the class began with an hour of work time. While they plugged away at the current assignment, which had to do with perspective and foreshortening, or caught up on unfinished previous pieces, the students chatted or just worked quietly and listened to the radio, and the teacher walked among them making comments and suggestions.

Despite how personable she was, Ms. Hilde had always intimidated Heero just a little. After all, she was in her late twenties, as was he, but she taught college-level art classes. It wasn’t the most expensive or venerable college in the world, but it was still a college. Beyond this, though modesty or something in her contract prevented her from mentioning it directly, Heero knew she had a relatively successful career as an artist outside this job. Still, these intimidating qualities were also precisely what made her a good teacher — that and her ability to give suggestions in a wonderfully friendly and encouraging manner.

Eventually they all put away what they were working on and sat back for the lecture portion of the class. Heero had been looking forward to this today, interested in the new pictures and what Ms. Hilde would have to say about them; it was always nice to have her point out aspects that he might have missed, to hear her perspective. Today her take provoked just as much thought as it ever did, but Heero had to admit to a slight amount of distraction as he took in once again the details of the paintings he’d been so admiring at the beginning of class.

“You’ll notice this artist is extremely skilled at human proportions,” the instructor was saying as she gestured with two fingers at various spots and along various invisible lines. “That way, when he wants to achieve some effect — like in this one where he sweeps the focus riiight around to here — he can include just a slight deliberate error, just distend the arms a little as you can see, and it’s much more striking in contrast with the rest of the body, which is portrayed entirely accurately; it draws the eye much better than if the entire body were out of proportion.

“With body proportions, just like with everything else we’ve studied, it’s important to have a solid knowledge and the ability to get it right before you deliberately start doing it wrong. Which is why we’ll be doing some figure drawing next. We’ll be mostly working from photos and from each other because of the usual budget nonsense, but — and this is extremely important, so listen up — we will have a real model next week. So you need to be here. If you miss Monday, you are going to be responsible for finding your own live model who’s willing to pose nude for you to draw. I know better than pretty much anyone in the world how awkward it is to ask people to do that, so take it from me: be here.”

There was some laughter, both at the reference to ‘the usual budget nonsense,’ which was a sort of running joke in this class, and at Ms. Hilde’s expression as she touched on the issues inherent in finding nude models. Then, after a few more announcements and one or two final points about the paintings she just couldn’t help making even though she had presumably finished talking about them for now (this was also a running joke), she dismissed them until Wednesday. And Heero wandered out toward his next class with a brain full of the bright colors and unquenchable motion of the unknown Duo Maxwell.

***

“I didn’t really go out with anyone before junior year. I just didn’t know a lot of gay guys.”

“And the one you did know was your best friend you were never interested in like that, and you guys didn’t bother telling people you were gay.”

“Something like that. But that year I met this guy named Evan who was friendly and funny and bisexual…”

“And hot?”

“Yes. I’m an artist. I can’t help it if hot guys catch my eye. Stop laughing at me. Evan was hot, yes, and he had that kind of bright personality that drew people to him. I got drawn. I’m not sure what made him notice me. I don’t think I was really his type. But pretty soon we were going out. I liked it at first… or at least I convinced myself I did… but I think I was lying to myself after not too long, for a long time.

“Trowa never liked him. I swear Trowa is loyalty made into a human being. He’s unfailingly steadfast about things, and he never quits once he’s made up his mind. He made up his mind about Evan, and he wouldn’t give up no matter what I had to say about it. He was constantly telling me I should break up with him. That I ‘deserved better.’ I figured that was the kind of thing a best friend would always say, and ignored it.”

“You must have had it bad.”

“What I definitely had was nothing to compare my relationship to. I guess I didn’t really know how bad it was. Evan… it seemed like Evan just wanted a trophy boyfriend.”

“I didn’t know you could have a trophy boyfriend in high school.”

“He looked better having a boyfriend. I guess having someone at all put him in a higher rank socially. If that person was a guy, it made him edgy or something. And I was a pretty good student who was in the art club, and most people thought I was pretty good-looking.”

“Um, yeah.”

“So I guess I made pretty good arm-candy for him. Looking back on it, I can see perfectly well now — though I never could then — that he was never really interested in me. He hardly ever bothered to hang out with only me. He pretty much just wanted me with him when other people were around, so they could see what a great couple we were. And at those times, the way he talked to me… well, it wasn’t even talking to me half the time. He would talk about me, as if I wasn’t there.

“He said all sorts of embarrassing personal things. We weren’t having sex, but he always made it sound like we were. He’d say things like, ‘And those rumors you hear about Japanese guys not being well-hung? Totally not true.’ Right in front of me, but without really acknowledging that I was there. Without noticing that it embarrassed the hell out of me.”

“Noticing or caring! Wow, I hope you eventually punched his lights out!”

“I’ve never been much for punching people. Not unless they hit me first. Trowa almost did, though. Six or seven times, if I remember correctly.”

“Good for him!”

“Evan would flirt with people right in front of me, too. With practically everyone, really. Looking back, I’m pretty sure now that it wasn’t just flirting, but that’s all he ever did when I was around. Of course at the time I tried not to be hurt by it. I tried to tell myself that was just his nature and he didn’t mean anything by it. But Trowa insisted he was cheating on me with half the school. He was probably right.

“So Evan was using me for cred or whatever and not really bothering to hide the fact that he was cheating on me. But then he would have the nerve to get jealous if I talked to anyone in some way he thought meant I was flirting.”

“Even though you’re not really the flirtatious type.”

“Yeah. But he would get possessive, and actually get angry. And a couple of times he actually tried to fight people over it. Of course he didn’t dare try that with Trowa, because he knew Trowa would have wiped the floor with him. But Trowa was always a sore point. Actually it’s why we eventually broke up. He was trying to pressure me to stop hanging out with Trowa because he couldn’t be sure Trowa and I weren’t ‘doing anything.’ And that was… well, that crossed a line.”

“I bet Trowa was happy.”

“He threw me a party.”

“Hah!”

“Well, he called it a party. But he’d been watching me get dragged out to real parties by Evan for eight months and secretly hate every minute of them. So his ‘party’ was just him and me and some very artsy horror movies and a lot of junk food.”

“Good for Trowa! But, god, you were with that guy for eight months?”

“Yeah, it was just a week before the end of our junior year that I broke up with him.”

“Somehow I get the feeling there’s more to this story once senior year starts.”

“Somehow you might be right.”

***

When Heero’s alarm went off the next Monday morning, he silenced it in an immediate practiced movement and buried his face in his pillow. He wasn’t sure how Sylvia had convinced him to watch that many episodes of whatever anime that had been last night, but at least three hours past the time he should already have been asleep had found him still awake and puzzling through the intricacies of some incomprehensible plot he’d come in on a third of the way through. He was going to be drooping throughout all his classes today.

Of course he could skip the first one and get some more sleep… but that was art, and he couldn’t forget Ms. Hilde’s admonishment of a week ago; how on earth was he supposed to get someone to model for him if he missed today? Quatre could most likely be convinced to do it, but that would open a can of worms for which Heero didn’t know if he was prepared. Trowa would undoubtedly demand to be present, and would look, and would critique Heero’s work with cruelly unfair bias; and Heero could already imagine himself, especially under Trowa’s lethal eye, giving only the most abstract attention to the groinal region, which, being that of a close friend, he wasn’t sure he could even bring himself to draw in the first place. No, no, he’d better go to class. This was just the price he had to pay for letting his curiosity about that weird show get the better of him.

Mostly because of the city bus schedule, Heero was usually about twenty minutes early to his drawing class. This gave him time to set up his workspace at his own pace and to look over any new pieces Ms. Hilde had brought in, or to step out to the coffee vending machine down the hall. Today was (like most days) definitely a day for coffee, but first he had to examine the setup they would be working from.

If he guessed correctly (and his awareness of the art department budget issues made him fairly certain he did), it was a recliner with the arms sawed off under that thin white blanket. He wondered how comfortable it would be for someone to lie unmoving on for two hours. He glanced around, looking for the model, and thought he’d found her upon catching sight of a figure inside Ms. Hilde’s office with extremely long brown hair and apparently wearing a bathrobe; it was difficult to tell through the warbled glass of the office door.

Having returned from his caffeine expedition, he sat down to wait for the overhot drink to cool enough for him to consume it, watching his classmates trickle in and set up their equipment. Another benefit of arriving early was that he always got the choicest spots and never had to crane his neck to see over or around someone else. He hadn’t realized just what a blessing that would be today until Ms. Hilde emerged from her office with the model and the latter became clearly visible for the first time.

It was not, in fact, as the long hair had led Heero to believe, a woman. No, it was probably the most attractive man Heero had ever seen. Bright, sparkling eyes, an even brighter smile, a level of energy that seemed to have some kind of magical draw — Heero, at least, could feel the pull of it! — and he was clearly about to remove that bathrobe. Good lord. Heero had never worked from a nude model before, and this was not the somewhat droopy and moderately, safely unattractive lady of a certain age he’d been expecting.

In addition to his breath, he found himself holding his coffee in two tense hands as the model very casually undid the tie and shrugged out of the white robe. What became of this garment Heero didn’t know, since his eyes were, at the moment, fully occupied. The figure, its back currently turned toward Heero, was long-limbed, almost lanky, but not clumsy in construction or in movement. The skin was uniformly fairly pale, but still had a tannish cast to it; this man would probably turn a brown darker than his hair with the application of some sun, but evidently that was something he didn’t get a great deal of.

The aforementioned hair obscured his entire back and gave only tantalizing hints at buttocks and upper thighs, but in itself was worth looking at. However, even as Heero was doing so, admiring its sheen and evenness, the man turned in order to assume his position on the covered chair, and the breathing Heero had just managed to resume caught and stuck again.

Scrawny was definitely a good look on this guy; the dip beneath his ribcage was, for a few moments, all-absorbing to poor Heero, followed by the region immediately beneath. An inner thigh in that impossible milky tan color couldn’t quite distract from well proportioned genitalia whose specific potential uses Heero could not possibly be ignorant of, but it was still quite a sight. And then the model was settling down onto his side, pulling one leg slightly up so as partially to hide the flaccid but still very inviting penis and at the same time give just a hint at the smooth curve and shadow rearward.

“Duo, did you want this?” Ms. Hilde held out an iPod with headphones dangling, which the model sat up again to accept from her with a grinning thanks as if he’d forgotten and would have regretted it. He had a voice almost glowingly warm, somehow simultaneously mellow but suffused with the same energy that directed his movements.

Heero, however, couldn’t concentrate properly on the voice, so dumbfounded was he by what Ms. Hilde had just said. Duo? Duo?? This incredibly gorgeous naked man he had a specific excuse to study was also the painter of those pictures Heero had been so enamored of last week? The artist he’d been specifically thinking he wouldn’t mind meeting in person? Well, it wasn’t a common name… it had to be the same guy. What a package! –not even euphemistically speaking, either (though that was perfectly true as well).

A ‘blessing,’ had he called his happening to be closer to the model than anyone else? It was a mixed blessing at best, and ‘curse’ might not have been the least appropriate alternate description. How was he going to keep his composure throughout this class? How was he supposed to keep his thoughts professional when he had that in front of him?

Well, by concentrating on technicalities. He was still an artist, after all, regardless of how red-blooded he might be. That didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally stare a lot longer than he really needed to, and he wasn’t entirely sure he never drooled, and whether his finished picture would have any of the elements of the assignment in it was a matter of question, but at least he managed not to get an erection or anything. He wondered if anyone else in the class was having this problem, but didn’t dare look around to find out.

The modeling session seemed simultaneously agonizingly long and teasingly brief; Heero barely felt he’d gotten into the rhythm of the thing (as it were), found a workable plateau for his feelings, when Ms. Hilde was calling it to a halt. A glance at his watch revealed that not only was drawing time ending, the entire class was about over; Heero remembered now that she had said they wouldn’t be having any lecture today… had it really been that long? As his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the model, he realized in some dismay that it had.

His movements sluggish as he put away his stuff, he managed to be the last out of the classroom just as he’d been the first in. He didn’t bother trying to lie to himself about his reasons for doing so. He also didn’t bother trying to restrain his subtly searching eyes from following the model now that he was moving again. Duo had slid from the armchair in an ungraceful motion and reclaimed his bathrobe from wherever it had been; even as Heero watched, the glories between neck and knees were veiled. But if he’d thought this would release him from the spell of motionlessness that seemed to have fallen over him, he was mistaken; the hair Duo swept out from where it had been pinned by the robe, and even just the way he did it, were nearly as captivating as the other sights now hidden.

The model followed the instructor into her office, but didn’t close the door behind them, and Heero found himself shifting slightly, craning his neck so as to see inside. They were conversing cheerfully, but quietly enough that only the sounds of their voices rather than distinct words could be made out by the listener. Heero struggled to turn and walk away, but at first he couldn’t quite.

At last, as he continued to watch them surreptitiously almost against his own will, he saw Ms. Hilde rise partially onto tiptoe to kiss Duo on the cheek. Well, Heero thought, that explained both how she was able to use originals of his wonderful work in her classes and why Duo was willing to model for her. He wondered if she ever got jealous at so many greedy eyes all over her boyfriend’s fabulous body for so long, or if she was simply pleased with herself because, at the end of the day, she was the one that really got him.

Finally Heero tore himself away. The kiss had been the spellbreaker as the robing hadn’t, and now, in a mixture of disappointment and some annoyance at himself for having had any hopes to be disappointed in the first place, he headed for his next class.

As captivated as he’d been, on multiple levels, during his first few hours of school, it wasn’t as if he’d been abruptly and completely smitten with unshakable lust or an interest that overcame all other cognition. He was able, without too much trouble, to concentrate on taking notes in his next class and allowing his thoughts of the attractive artist and model to fade; and by the time he’d gotten through the third and last period of the day and headed off campus toward the bus stop, the circumstances of the morning, agitating as they’d been, had taken an appropriate place in the back of his head.

In fact, as he traversed the downtown sidewalks, he was thinking about an essay he needed to write for his American Art History class, trying to decide which of the prompt questions would be the most interesting to answer, and neither had any thoughts in particular about earlier events nor paid any attention to the car that pulled up to the parking meter beside him as he walked by.

But it became evident the next moment that they weren’t actually parking when a warm voice from that vicinity called out clearly to Heero, “Hey, excuse me! Do you know this neighborhood?”

He turned, prepared to give directions, and was startled to recognize the man in the car’s passenger seat through the half-rolled-down window.

“You’re Duo Maxwell,” he said, and continued before he could stop himself, “the one who did that great blue javelin piece.”

Duo’s fairly thick eyebrows rose in an expression of amused surprise, and, instead of answering Heero, he turned to glance over his shoulder at whoever was driving the car. “That’s a new one.”

“Yeah, wow.” This voice was familiar. Heero hadn’t been planning on rudely bending down to peer at whoever was in the driver’s seat, but at these words he did it anyway — and wasn’t terribly surprised to find Ms. Hilde at the wheel, looking out at him with a thoughtful expression. She said something else to Duo that sounded like, “I say go for it.”

“Roger that,” Duo replied, with a grin to his tone, and turned back to face out the window once more. But again instead of saying anything else to Heero, he opened the car door and got out, stepping long-legged over the gutter onto the curb in front of him.

Fully clothed, Duo fit so perfectly into Heero’s mental niche of the artist that had come up with those images he admired that he almost couldn’t believe he hadn’t envisioned him specifically as he appeared now: unholy mass of hair pulled back in a long, messy braid; lively eyes sparkling over a slightly-too-wide lopsided grin; old tee-shirt bearing a faded and cracked Derain, a couple of holes, and a lot of dried paint; jeans and tennis shoes equally worn and spotted; and a demeanor of boundless energy bordering on wildness. And he was still the most attractive person Heero had ever seen.

“Can I walk with you?” Duo asked.

Utterly nonplussed, Heero just stared at him for a long moment before shaking himself free of his mild stupor and replying, “Um, sure.”

Duo grinned even more broadly and shut the door he’d been holding open with a long arm. Immediately, Ms. Hilde drove off. Heero watched the car move away down the road and pause at the intersection before continuing out of sight. Then he turned back to his new and unexpected walking companion, and found he had no idea what to say.

Instead, Duo spoke. “So you liked my javelin piece, huh?” He thrust his hands into his pockets and started ambling slowly in the direction Heero had been going, and Heero, adjusting his bag strap on his shoulder, hastened to fall in beside him.

“Yeah,” Heero said, eyeing him sidelong. He’d been hoping Duo would have something to say about what the hell was going on, but at least this topic was one Heero could talk about with relative ease. “That was my favorite. I think it was just because those particular colors really clicked for me. But I liked all the ones Ms. Hilde brought in. You’ve got an amazing sense of movement and emotion.

“That guy throwing the javelin didn’t just look like some random athlete. He really looked desperate, as if throwing that thing was the most important thing he’d ever done. And the whole piece was so alive. The lines flowed so well from the immediate focal point out to the end of the javelin. I kept thinking it was going to fly out of his hand any second while I looked at it.”

Duo was beaming. “Well, thanks!” he said, sounding very pleased. “You know, people say things like that about my stuff sometimes, but I never think about it like that while I’m painting it… I just paint whatever I feel like, and then people read stuff into it after the fact.”

Heero gave him another assessing look, simultaneously considering this and enjoying the almost intensely casual way Duo walked. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said at last. “It wasn’t part of what I guessed about you when I first looked at your paintings last week — I was trying to guess what the painter must be like by looking at them — but it fits.”

“Were the rest of your guesses right?” Duo wondered, still grinning.

“So far I think so,” said Heero carefully.

“Except you didn’t expect me to be so young and hot,” declared Duo in a deliberately overdone tone of self-satisfaction.

Feeling himself blushing, Heero realized he was caught and decided not to try to deny it. “No, I really didn’t,” he confessed.

Duo withdrew his hands from his pockets and put them behind his head in an almost triumphant gesture. This meant one of his arms blocked his face from Heero’s view, which was disappointing. “I’ve been modeling for Hil’s art classes every semester for three years now,” he said cheerfully, “and there’s always at least one person who ogles the hell out of me. Not just studying like, ‘What’s the best way to draw this?’ but staring like, ‘Oh, god, I want a piece of that.'”

At this Heero’s blush deepened threefold, and he was torn between stammering out an apology and laughing at the touch of smugness in Duo’s tone.

“I mean,” Duo went on before Heero could resolve on anything to say, “you were pretty subtle about it, but Hil still noticed. She always notices. And that’s always when she runs The Test.”

Hearing the audible capitals Duo had given the phrase, Heero felt a stab of alarm. “‘The Test?'” he echoed, trying not to let what would certainly seem an unexpected and incongruous level of dismay sound in his voice.

“Yeah, the test to see whether or not you’re a creepy pervert,” was Duo’s disarmingly nonchalant explanation, “or if it’s safe to ask you out.” Stunned by these last three words, Heero couldn’t have interjected anything at this point even if Duo had given him time. “It’s usually what you saw — she tracks you down in the car and has me pretend to ask for directions, to see if you recognize my face with me dressed and my hair back and everything. Sometimes it’ll be someone who doesn’t walk much, though, and she has to do something else.”

Heero surprised himself by not asking the first question on his mind. Rather, he said, “But that doesn’t prove anything. Your face is just as–” And this many words were already out before he was able to stop himself.

Duo finally dropped his arms and let Heero see the face in question again. It was pleased and amused. “I’ll pretend you finished that compliment and say thanks,” he grinned. “And, yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t prove much. But it weeds out the worst of the skeeves and makes Hilde feel better. She already feels a little bad about parading me around naked without paying me for it; I think she thinks she’s making it up to me by making sure I don’t pick up another jerk S.O. at the same time.”

Again, somehow, what Heero really wanted to say was not what came out of his mouth. “So Ms. Hilde is your…”

“Sister,” Duo supplied. “Step-sister, technically. And it’s so cute how you guys all call her ‘Ms. Hilde.'”

“She says ‘Ms. Schbeiker’ makes her feel old.”

Duo laughed. “Makes her sound old, too. She’s the same age as me, and nobody calls me ‘Mr. Maxwell.’ I think I’d have to smack them, actually, if they did. Anyway, her dad met my mom at a gallery opening when we were both eight, and now we’re a big happy artist family together.”

“And you model for her classes.”

“Hey, you draw… you know how expensive things are in the art world…” Duo gave a theatrical wincing hiss. “She’s pretty much right at the bottom of the budget list at that school, and if she doesn’t have to pay her model, she can buy an extra set of Prismas or something every semester.”

“That makes sense,” Heero nodded. “Everything in the art department is always falling apart, and I think the easels are from the 70’s.”

“Yeah, you know why she started bringing in original pieces by local artists for her lessons, right? Because the only projector they had broke, so she couldn’t even put art up on that crappy screen anymore.”

“I bet she was always using yours, though,” Heero guessed.

“Well, yeah. Actually, she sometimes asks me to do something specific — like, ‘I need a piece with a really strong complementary color scheme’ — and I try my best, but I told you how I work.” Duo laughed. “Going into something trying to deliberately use a ‘really strong complementary color scheme’ is like working backwards for me.”

Heero was prompted to smile at this, and reflected that it would be an experience worth having to watch Duo work. And here he finally managed to pose the question he’d been wanting to — just as the conversation had moved completely away from the subject, naturally: “Did you say you’re asking me out?”

“Yep.” Duo evidently didn’t mind at all that Heero had brought them wheeling back around to the earlier topic; in fact, he seemed to have been waiting for it. “Do you want to go get coffee or something?” His tone was perfectly unabashed, and Heero simultaneously wondered at and admired his cavalierness — especially when Duo was the one that had been naked under two dozen eyes only a few hours ago. Of course, that had just proven that he had nothing to be ashamed of, hadn’t it?

“Yes,” Heero said without any hesitation, then added, “if you’re satisfied I’m not a creepy pervert.”

“Not really,” Duo grinned. “But you did say all that nice stuff about my paintings. If you’re a creepy pervert, you’re at least a smooth one.”

Heero couldn’t help smiling a little at this. “I’m not going to pretend your paintings were the only things I saw that I liked,” he said with a certain measure of caution. “But they definitely got me interested before I ever saw you in person.”

“There, see?” said Duo, sounding pleased. “Smooth.”

‘Smooth’ wasn’t something Heero was used to being called, but he had to admit that there was an unaccustomed amount of smoothness to this discussion. He was attributing it to Duo, however: something about Duo made conversation remarkably easy, even when Heero was inclined toward discomfort and uncertainty. Something about Duo made him feel as if they were long-time friends rather than just meeting today under somewhat unusual circumstances. Something about Duo was… welcoming.

Which probably attracted exactly the wrong sort of people, especially if Duo was naked when they first saw him. No wonder Ms. Hilde ran that Test of hers. To Heero, who was no stranger to Tests, it made sense.

He cleared his throat. “Do you know Perk Up on Meridian?”

“I’ve seen it,” Duo replied. “Don’t think I’ve ever been in there, though.”

Heero gestured to the bus stop they were approaching. “This bus stops pretty close to it, if you want to…”

***

“Senior year was when Quatre transferred to our school. That’s Quatre Winner, if that means anything to you.”

“Not really.”

“Well, his family owns probably three quarters of this city. A lot of their money comes from being mafia in the 30’s and 40’s.”

“Oh, that kind of Winner! Whoa. Yeah, I’ve heard they were gangsters back in the day — is that really true?”

“Yes. Quatre has specifically confirmed it.”

“So why did he come to your school? Didn’t he have some rich fancy private school, or just an army of private teachers or something?”

“Yeah, he was at a private school before — all the way up until twelfth grade, actually. But he was getting bullied because he was gay, and he was tired of it.”

“A Winner was getting bullied? And the best thing the Winners could come up with to do about it was transfer him to a public school?”

“There were more reasons than just that. He was getting a little tired of that school anyway. He didn’t like the teachers much. Also, at a private school where everyone comes from an influential family with money, I guess being a Winner doesn’t mean the same thing it means around here. He’ll tell you all about it if you ask. All we knew at the time was that this gorgeous blonde guy showed up at our school, and Trowa was… yikes…”

“Love at first sight?”

“I’m pretty sure it was, but it didn’t have to be, since Quatre gave him plenty of chances. We used to eat lunch in this little alcove at the top of the stairs between two buildings. Quatre walked by there right at the beginning of lunch every day. You should have seen it. Trowa’s eyes were glued to him. It was totally unsubtle. He was practically panting.

“That was my first hint that Trowa might be a bit of a… spy, I guess is the nicest way to put it. Because as soon as Quatre was out of sight, Trowa would turn to me and start telling me whatever he’d found out about him lately. It was a little creepy, actually. I’d usually change the subject — a little — by telling him he needed to go talk to him. But he never would, because he was a poor kid from a poor neighborhood who wanted to start a punk rock band that would probably never make him any money.

“And I’d try to talk sense into him and point out that Quatre had come to our school. So obviously he couldn’t care about that kind of thing too much. I remember one time Trowa responded with something like, ‘Did you see those shoes he’s wearing? Those are Brunomaglis!’ I had to look up the brand name. Then I was shocked Trowa knew what it was. So eventually I went and talked to Quatre myself.”

“You did not!”

“Of course I did. Trowa was going crazy.”

“Crazier, you mean. But, seriously, you? The guy who couldn’t break up with his jerk boyfriend for eight months even when your best friend was threatening to kill the guy?”

“If I’ve learned anything about relationships by now, it’s that it’s a lot easier to mess around in other people’s than fix your own.”

“OK, you have a point there. So what did Quatre say?”

“He admitted that — after the first few times — he’d been walking by at lunch every day on purpose. Just out of curiosity whether Trowa would ever do anything besides staring at him. I told him Trowa was afraid of his shoes, and he laughed. But then they’d hooked up by the end of that day.”

“Trowa wasn’t mad at you for going over his head?”

“Mad at me? I thought he’d kiss me.”

“Probably not a good idea when he’d just started going out with someone else.”

“Heh. No. Quatre’s not really the jealous type, but that still probably wouldn’t have been the best way to start their relationship.”

“Speaking of which, who were you dating all this time? I think you’ve been deliberately talking about Quatre to hide things you don’t want me to know!”

“Well, it’s important you know about Quatre. Besides, what about your next boyfriend? Was he as bad as the first one?”

“Yes! I don’t know where they kept getting the idea from that I was just easy sex for the asking. Do I really come across that way?”

“To a jerk, sure.”

“Yeah, well, they’d always act nice at first, like they wanted something real, but pretty soon it would be, ‘So when are you going to put out?’ Usually not quite that polite, of course. I had a whole string of those. I had to take some self-defense classes eventually to keep grabby hands off. But you changed the subject! What are you hiding??”

“Hush. Yes, I had a boyfriend senior year, and I’ll get to that. But Quatre… you have to understand Quatre.”

“OK. He’s gotta be at least as crazy as Trowa.”

“They’re certainly a well matched pair. But the thing about Quatre is that he’s… he loves people. He has an endless supply of love. And once you’re his friend, you’re in. There’s no getting out. At first I was just his new boyfriend’s best friend — though, honestly, that was close enough — but eventually he became one of my best friends too. And Quatre loves people aggressively. He makes friends with you, and then he fixes your life up.”

“That sounds… creepy.”

“It’s… it gets a little stifling at times. I won’t lie. And with Trowa backing him — like I said, Trowa is loyalty incarnate — they’re a force to be reckoned with. But you can’t help loving Quatre back. You can’t not love Quatre once you get to know him. He’s always so genuinely concerned for everyone. He always really wants to solve your problems.”

“And I take it your next boyfriend was a problem.”

“Yeah.”

***

Toward the relatively familiar table alcove behind the fireplace in Perk Up, the big front window beside the ugly mural, the little hallway leading to the bathrooms, and the small dark area with pretensions to arcade status with its four standup video games, Heero was already throwing paranoid glances that he hoped he was able to conceal adequately from Duo’s notice as they entered the cafe and moved toward the counter.

He tried to tell himself there was absolutely no way anyone could know he was on a date; he’d only first seen Duo a few hours ago, and it had been practically a chance encounter that had led them to make the arrangement… but he knew better, by now, than to underestimate his friends.

He wondered if he should warn Duo. He generally didn’t bother, for a variety of reasons, but Duo seemed so nice. Of course, they always seemed nice at first. That was precisely the problem.

“Ooh, a raspberry lemon muffin?” Duo noted with great relish as they drifted to the end of the short line and he looked up at the hand-chalked menu on the board above the bustling service area. “This place looks great!”

Heero glanced sidelong at him (not that he hadn’t already been doing so whenever he wasn’t glancing openly at him), wondering whether Duo was one of those high-metabolism energy people that endlessly stuffed face without gaining any weight. Why that idea should be attractive at the moment was a mystery; was he really crushing so hard already that random insignificant unconfirmed theories were suddenly cute?

Then Duo threw him a sidelong look and asked, “You’re not one of those anti-cofficionado snob people who’ll go anywhere as long as it’s not a Starbucks, are you?”

With a slight surprised laugh at the term ‘anti-cofficionado,’ Heero shook his head. “No, I’m fine with Starbucks. I understand they treat their employees very well. They try to stay environmentally friendly, too.”

Duo’s brows were raised, and on his lips was a skeptical smile. “Those are such unselfish reasons to like Starbucks that I kinda feel like you’re protesting too much.”

“A couple of my roommates are anti-Starbucks snob people, whatever you called them.” Heero smiled sheepishly. “So I’ve looked up some things. Just in case they ever give me a hard time.”

“And you obviously like this place better anyway.”

“Well, it has an ugly mural…” Though he gestured at the wall in question, Heero had no time to explain further, as it was now their turn to order. But Duo was chuckling throughout that process, perhaps at the idea that Heero liked this place specifically because it had an ugly mural.

Not far from and commanding a good view of the latter was where they settled down with their coffee and pastries, and Duo sat staring at its brilliant hues and unusual stylistic choices for a minute or so before turning to face Heero. “Yep, it’s ugly,” he pronounced, and lifted his muffin. Before taking a bite, he glanced back at the colorful wall, then shook his head. “If you base how much you like a coffee shop on how ugly its mural is, I can totally see why this place wins.”

Heero chuckled in return, and took a temperature-testing half sip of his coffee.

“But Starbucks usually has ugly murals too,” Duo pointed out, words muffled a bit by his mouthful of muffin.

“Yeah, but they’re corporate ugly murals. Pre-printed on wallpaper or something.” Again Heero gestured to the nearby monstrosity. “Somebody stood here and painted that. Somebody put their whole heart into that thing.”

“That’s true… it feels a lot more personal when–” here Duo lowered his voice and leaned forward– “whoever did something so terrible might be sitting at the next table or something.”

Again Heero chuckled. “I just like the feeling I get from it. I appreciate it when someone does something so whole-heartedly. So intensely. You can really tell how much of themselves they put into it.”

Duo’s eyes roved across the mural once more, then returned to traverse Heero’s face just as intently. “Yeah,” he said at last. “I can see how that could be pretty attractive. You don’t really get much of that at Starbucks.”

Heero found himself blushing, as if he had been the subject of assessment even more than the ugly mural. He couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed or relieved when Duo removed his intense gaze from his face to look at the painting again.

“I can’t decide whether being commissioned to do a mural in a coffee shop is particularly pathetic or really means you’ve made it.”

“I guess it depends on how you feel about the finished work,” Heero said thoughtfully. “If the artist ended up thinking it was as ugly as we think it is…”

“Yeah, I guess if they like it…” Duo was clearly dubious about the possibility. But he did allow, “Lots of people are going to see it in here, and if the artist got paid for it, I guess that’s about all you can ask, right? We mostly want satisfaction, money, and exposure, right?”

“When you put it that way…”

Duo laughed along with Heero. “It makes us sound like arrogant, greedy bastards. But it could be worse, you know? I could be like, ‘We mostly want to paint five thousand square feet of chapel ceilings that change art history forever.'”

“Have you ever been there?” Heero wondered, too eager to care that he was shifting the subject.

Duo also didn’t seem to care. “No,” was his regretful answer, after which he perked up quite a bit to add, “but I have been to the Louvre!”

“Seriously? That must have been amazing.”

“It was! Seeing originals is — I mean, you expect it to be cool, but it’s way cooler than you even think it’s going to be.”

Heero nodded. “There’s something magical about it, isn’t there?”

Though more physically vigorous, Duo’s nod in return seemed nevertheless to convey an identical enthusiasm. “Like instead of just looking at a picture, you’re looking through a window into some other world, or back in time, or something.”

“And you think about all the people who have looked at that same picture over the last four hundred years. And you feel a sort of connection to all of them. Without having to actually talk to any of them.”

“Yeah, exactly!”

The topic of classic art, and which specimens of it they’d seen in person and where, engrossed them for quite some time. Duo continued to fit the image Heero had developed of him from his paintings by proving largely unable to sit still when he was excited: he tapped his empty coffee cup rhythmically on the table, stacked it on top of Heero’s until both fell, rolled it back and forth between his hands, and used its base to rearrange the crumbs from his muffin. This was cute, and contributed to the engrossing nature of the conversation, so it was no wonder Heero found himself so thoroughly — perhaps detrimentally — distracted when a new development arose.

When he caught sight of it in the direction he happened to be looking, he stiffened — inadvertently but so thoroughly as to catch the attention of Duo, who broke off what he was saying and glanced around. “What?”

Well, it was too late to warn him now, even had Heero been inclined to do so. But this was… a little different than usual. Actually Heero didn’t think it would work. For one thing, the pastel orange of the slightly-too-tight polo Wufei wore was definitely not his color.

“Look who I found,” Wufei said as he sat down. “Heero on a date.” And grudgingly Heero had to admit that his tone was fairly convincing.

Duo threw the newcomer a skeptical look, doubtless in regards to his completely uninvited assumption of the third seat at the little table. But his face smoothed out as Wufei turned immediately toward him. “Heero always brings his dates here,” Wufei said wisely. “He’s very predictable that way.” Then, with a knowing look, he added in a lower tone, “But he can get creative, I promise.”

Heero was used to this type of language, but not from this source; normally he could get through it without blushing, but pretty distinctly not this time. Somewhat comforted he must be, however, by the skeptical expression that popped onto Duo’s face the very instant Wufei looked away from him. It gave him strength to say with a corresponding gesture, “Duo… Wufei.”

As Wufei turned back toward Duo, Heero observed with some amusement Duo’s skepticism forced into relatively polite blankness again. And Wufei said, with seeming obliviousness to the lack of welcome at the table, “What Heero never mentions is that he’s my ex. I can give you all the… inside information.”

At the implication thus presented, Heero blushed even harder, especially when he felt Duo’s eyes on him. Somehow this process was more unpleasant this time around than it usually was; he was going to have to take Wufei to task for it later.

Duo looked as if he wanted to speak, but didn’t get the chance, for Wufei immediately continued, “And I’ll say one thing for him: he always has good taste. I can certainly see why he brought you here.” Heero couldn’t quite manage to look at Wufei’s face at this point; the smirking, self-congratulatory tone was already almost more than he could handle. He thought perhaps Wufei was overdoing it a little… but Duo wasn’t familiar with Wufei’s usual seriousness and wouldn’t know that this smugness was put on.

Finally Duo had a chance to reply. “Yeah, to see the ugly mural,” he said with a gesture. His face was still a studied neutral, but for a moment, as Wufei glanced in the direction he indicated, it took on a look of annoyance and puzzlement.

Wufei too seemed bemused. However well he was performing this role, he undoubtedly hadn’t prepared for all contingencies, and now studied the mural a few moments longer than he needed to, probably trying to decide what to say. Heero, embarrassed and disconcerted though he was, couldn’t help being amused at the disparate reactions of his two companions. And it was about what he’d expected when Wufei finally turned back toward a Duo whose face was only smoothed just in time and said, “So I see you have good taste too.” And he raised his brows as if to suggest that certain appreciations would only naturally follow.

“Heero pointed it out,” Duo replied, and now his irritation sounded faintly in his voice.

“Yes, Heero and his art.” Wufei threw Heero a brief smile, and Heero had to admit he was impressed: both tone and gesture held a mixture of possessive fondness and patronizing dismissiveness Heero wouldn’t have thought Wufei could command. He almost wasn’t embarrassed, he was so impressed. “Heero really is an artist, you know,” Wufei went on, again focusing his attention on Duo as if Heero were not present. “If his style matches your taste, of course. If not… well, plenty of fish in the sea, right?” And he leaned back at an angle in his chair so as to prop an elbow on its back in a studiedly casual ‘Check me out’ sort of gesture.

Duo stood abruptly. “I’m going to grab some napkins,” he said, and moved stiffly away.

Heero didn’t waste time. He thought perhaps Duo was giving him a chance to respond in private to Wufei’s perceived rudeness, but, though this was a good sign, he knew Wufei would not be dismissed by his efforts. What he really wanted to find out… “What are you doing here? Is Zechs sick or something?”

“They don’t trust him after what happened last time,” Wufei murmured in reply.

Unfortunately, that made perfect sense. Drama student Zechs had a thing for ‘getting in character,’ and last time there had been inappropriate touching and an eventual call to the police. And Wufei was doing unexpectedly well in the role of sleazy ex. But still…

“What does Sylvia think of this?”

Wufei’s face reddened just a touch, which was not at all ‘in character,’ and he said almost inaudibly, “She thinks it’s hot.”

Heero rolled his eyes. “Are you wearing Quatre’s clothes?” he wondered next. Polo shirts weren’t typically Quatre’s thing, but pastels like that orange definitely were.

Wufei didn’t have a chance to answer, however, since Duo returned just then with an anomalously large stack of napkins, which he essentially threw down onto the middle of the table. At their loud plopping noise and the subsequent scraping of Duo’s chair as he resumed his seat, Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

“Welcome back,” said Wufei easily.

Duo ignored him, but Heero thought the set of his jaw was still annoyed as he picked up the top few napkins and began wiping debris off the table into yet another napkin he then crumpled up around the crumbs with a vigorous movement. A small spot of spilled coffee came next, and then Duo began to stuff the used napkins into his empty cup without saying a word.

Heero sat in equal silence, hoping Duo didn’t prove one of those too touchy even to get past the first phase. He’d really been enjoying Duo’s company before Wufei showed up, and would like to see him again… but Duo was clearly irritated by Wufei, and, though he hadn’t reacted in any inappropriate manner, Heero wouldn’t be surprised if the weirdness and awkwardness of his purported ex’s advent and behavior drove him away. Supposedly, if it did, that would prove Duo not worth the pursuing, but Heero had never been quite sure he believed that.

Wufei evidently didn’t know what to say now. At this point in the proceedings, Zechs would usually offer his phone number or ask for that of Heero’s date, but Wufei had either forgotten or was himself too overcome by the unease of the scene to take the appropriate next step. In either case, the embarrassing silence dragged on while Duo cleaned up their table, straightened the remaining napkins in the exact center, and finally fixed Heero with a pointed look.

“Didn’t you say you had somewhere to be at 3:00? Or was that tomorrow?”

Again Heero was impressed, this time with Duo’s excellent wording. The question provided a simple excuse if Heero wanted to get away from Wufei; but should that not actually be his desire, he could easily claim that the appointment he’d supposedly mentioned earlier was, in fact, for tomorrow. He shuddered to think what message it would send to Duo if he deliberately chose to continue sitting here with someone making the kind of comments Wufei had been, but felt it was very decent of Duo to give him that option despite how distasteful it probably was. Hopefully Wufei himself had missed none of this.

“Oh, yeah.” Heero found his voice rather weak as he replied to Duo’s question, sat up straight in his chair, and reached for the bag he’d earlier set beside it as if ready to rise and depart. He’d always had a difficult time playing along with his friends’ charades, and found it funny now that it was not theirs but his date’s he was trying to comply with. “Yeah, I better get going.” He stood, shouldering his bag, and, with a deep breath, hoping Wufei didn’t think it a good idea to tail him at this point, said, “See you later, Wufei.”

In a gesture that would have been legitimately creepy and aggravating coming from an actual ex, Wufei put a hand on Heero’s arm and squeezed. “It’s always good to see you again, Heero.” Thankfully, he gave no sign of joining the two that were now both on their feet.

Outside the building, Heero restrained himself yet again from looking around searchingly, this time not so much because he didn’t want to know who might be there as because he was perfectly well aware someone was. Trowa had undoubtedly hidden himself too well for Heero to find him even with a meticulous visual scan anyway.

Three steps from the coffee shop they’d left in silence, Duo threw his hands up and burst out, “Jesus X. Christ, man, what was that about?”

Heero laughed faintly and said, “Thanks for the out. That was… good.”

“What is that guy’s damage? Did you really go out with him?”

Heero avoided the second question by giving a perfectly truthful answer to the first: “He’s not usually that bad.”

“How long were you with him?”

“Not… long…” This was truthful too, in a way.

“Good!” Duo turned a huff into a deep breath as if forcing himself to calm down. “I mean…” He looked sidelong at Heero, still seeming annoyed but now with perhaps a touch of penitence mixed in. “I mean, it’s absolutely none of my business, and I shouldn’t be bugging you about it.”

“Well…” Heero hoped Trowa’s equipment had picked that up. “Thanks for not making a big deal about it in there.”

“It was hard,” Duo admitted, laughing a little. “Does he do that a lot? Just show up when you’re out with someone and start… saying totally inappropriate things like that?”

“Saying inappropriate things has been a problem in the past,” Heero said carefully. “But he’s never shown up before when I was out with someone else.”

“And hopefully he won’t do it again! Where can we go next time to be safe from him?”

Abruptly Heero was lifted out of the dejection and mortification of the last scene into buoyant hope and happiness, so quickly he thought his ears were popping and his lungs cramping. He was smiling as he said, “Campus should be safe.”

Duo must have heard the smile, for he looked Heero full in the face and returned the expression. “OK. What day works for you?”

“Any day, really…” Heero couldn’t turn away from that captivating grin, and found he’d stopped walking perhaps just to stare. He tried to think more coherently, for a moment, than the brightness of that expression was allowing. “Thursday I have a nice big gap between classes in the middle of the day. If you want to have lunch…”

“Sure!” Duo didn’t seem to mind that they were standing on the sidewalk making no progress toward any discernible destination except another date. “Want me to bring lunch from somewhere?”

“Only if you really want to,” Heero replied, self-conscious about making someone pay for both their meals on only the second date. “The cafeteria food’s not bad.”

Duo laughed. “If you say so! OK, cafeteria food it is.”

The tail end of today’s outing involved ambling in the direction from which they’d originally come, determining which bus route would take Duo back from this unfamiliar stop to where he needed to be, solidifying their plans for Thursday, and getting in a few more remarks on classic art. And Heero parted company with his charming new acquaintance in great satisfaction and hope for the future, regardless of what his other friends might have taken from the events of the day.


Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



This story has no chapters, but is posted in sections due to length.

Last updated on May 26, 2019

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The paper itself was of such high quality that, even when Zanza’s decisive hands had crumpled it into a tight, lopsided little ball, it still felt hefty and undefeated as he tossed it away, and clattered noisily into a dusty corner to crouch, bright in the shadows, under an empty jug that he should really take back to the bar he’d gotten it from one of these days.

Grumbling incoherent profanity, he whirled, putting his back to the offending object, and started moving away from it so precipitously he almost tripped over the long sword that nearly bisected his small room. In growing irritation he hopped over the zanbatou and stalked from the apartment. An unsuspecting neighbor immediately outside, attention procured by the slamming of the door and accompanying swearing, took one look at Zanza’s glower and made a quick, judicious retreat back into his own home.

He had no particular destination in mind other than away from that damned letter, and as such he turned more or less randomly at each intersection of narrow, dirty streets; and every time he did so, something in his head urged him to go back, to pull the thing from the dust, smooth it out, and give it another try. He needed money, after all, and it was stupid to get so angry at an apparent job offer that he couldn’t even finish reading it… but for the writer to have employed what seemed like such extravagantly excessive kanji…

In order to get his message to its destination, the guy must have dug Zanza’s address up from somewhere; couldn’t he guess, based on that, at its recipient’s level of education? Nobody in this neighborhood could read that many or that kind of kanji, and that Zanza perhaps knew a few more than his neighbors was due only to his actual origins lying elsewhere — if any of the people around him here could read at all, it was some kind of miracle. Did the letter’s sender want to rub this in, or was he really just that ignorant of what life was like outside his insular world of fancy paper and cultured handwriting?

“Ohayou, Zanza!” Technically it was afternoon, but Yoita, like most of Zanza’s friends, knew that this time of day approximately counted as morning for him.

Without turning, Zanza snarled out something that might have been a return greeting.

Accustomed to the kenkaya’s moods, Yoita didn’t even flinch at the unpleasant sound as he fell into step beside him. Nevertheless, he insured his own safety before he said another word by extracting from the pocket in which he’d been digging a piece of candy wrapped in brown paper and offering it to the kenkaya. “You look pissed,” he remarked as Zanza accepted the premium with a rough gesture. “Landlord been on your case again?”

The sweetness of the candy and the friendliness of the inquiry were already working, and Zanza merely shook his head instead of exploding.

After watching Zanza brood and suck hard on the candy for half a street, Yoita finally remarked, “I guess you’ll tell us all tonight. You are coming to Sochi’s place, right?”

“Maybe,” was Zanza’s surly answer as he considered grumpily that if the engagement proposed in the letter was for tonight, he might never know it.

“Those same girls from last time said they’d be there,” Yoita cajoled.

Suddenly Zanza turned a thoughtful look on his friend. It seemed like a long shot, but not completely impossible. “Hey, do you own a dictionary?”

“What?” Yoita gave a surprised laugh. “Why would I need a dictionary?”

“You suppose any of the other guys have one?”

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

With an irritated sigh that marked the transition from raging to trying to be productive, Zanza explained. “Some guy sent me this long fucking letter, I think wanting me to fight someone, but I can’t read all his damn kanji. I just spent an hour giving myself a headache trying to figure it all out, but I’m obviously going to need a dictionary.”

Yoita made a noise of understanding. “Well, I doubt you’re going to find one anywhere in our group, but you know there’s a charity school just up the street, right? That guy who runs it’s really nice; he could probably help you.”

“Oh, shit, you’re right.” Zanza stopped abruptly, looking around, orienting himself and considering where the school in question was located. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you were mad as hell?” Yoita grinned.

Cheered enough all of a sudden that he was able to return the expression, Zanza gave Yoita’s shoulder a little shake and said, “Thanks, man,” before spinning and setting off at a run back toward his apartment to retrieve the letter.

That it took longer than he’d expected to locate his destination might have been a good thing, because it gave him time to smooth out the abused paper and render it (relatively) legible again. He was even, in his anticipation, considerably less annoyed by the time he reached the big old house with its modest, venerable sign proclaiming its secondary function as an educational establishment, despite the embarrassing circumstance of having gotten lost in what was essentially his own neighborhood.

Thanks to the lack of any formal schooling in his childhood, he entered the place without much thought for time of day, and as a result found himself stared at by at least ten young pairs of eyes bearing expressions ranging from startled and almost frightened to curious to admiring, a few even a bit disdainful. It was unexpectedly nerve-wracking, perhaps creepy, and Zanza was immediately conscious, for some reason, of the state of his clothing and how long it had been since he’d bathed.

“Can I help you?” The voice came from the head of the room, and pulled Zanza’s embarrassed gaze to the man that had evidently paused at the mercenary’s entrance in the dissertation he’d been conducting. He was as Zanza had seen him a few other times in the past: middle-aged, stocky, with an apparent strength subdued by his contemplative calmness.

“Uhh…” Suddenly tongue-tied, Zanza scratched his head. “I need a hand with a… thing… if you’ve got some time when your… class is done?”

Though the instructor raised his brows, there was more friendly inquiry than skepticism in his gaze. “We finish at three, if you want to wait or come back.”

Unexpectedly glad to have a non-living object to transfer his eyes to, Zanza looked at the clock on the wall. “Yeah,” he said. It was just over an hour to the specified time. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll wait outside.” He owned no watch, after all, and had no place else in mind to go for the interim.

Though the kenkaya, eyes still fixed on the minute hand, didn’t see the man’s expression, he could hear the irony in the reply, “Make yourself at home.”

In the warm sun and calm air outside, Zanza’s discomfort quickly faded, and it wasn’t long before the seated position into which he’d immediately sunk on the front porch transitioned into a reclining one and then a dozing flatness. He didn’t necessarily mean to fall asleep, but he’d expended so much energy on anger that it was the inevitable result of having an hour to wait doing essentially nothing else in nice weather.

It put him in a dangerous position, however. He was rudely, almost terrifyingly awakened, when the countdown ended, by schoolkids pouring out around and even over him, many of them shrieking in delight for no apparent reason other than the glee of a school day’s end. He could do nothing against this unexpected onslaught other than roll onto his side and shield his head and neck from the enthusiastic young feet until the shouting and pattering had proceeded far enough down the street to make him believe they weren’t coming back.

He sat up to find the instructor standing before the closed front door looking down at him with an expression of repressed merriment. When the older man observed Zanza’s gaze, he moved forward to take a seat against the pillar beside the steps, patting the adjacent space with a strong hand. “You’re a mercenary, I believe,” was how he began the conversation. “I’ve seen you a few times around; I think you don’t live too far from here.”

“That’s right.” Zanza picked himself up and took the few paces necessary to drop down again beside the other pillar opposite the instructor. Outside the formality of the classroom setting, it was much easier to face and talk to the guy. “I got a problem…” He fished the folded letter, by now very victimized, from a pocket. “I’m pretty sure this guy wants me to fight someone, but I can’t read the damn thing.” He finished at a bit of a mumble, not happy to admit either his deficiency or the fact that it embarrassed him a little. “I was hoping you could help.”

Wordlessly the instructor accepted what Zanza held out, and unfolded it. Above the eyes he immediately turned on the letter, his brows rose to form once again the expression of amused skepticism he’d worn inside the building an hour before. “I can see why,” he murmured.

Feeling vindicated, Zanza made an annoyed noise as the instructor apparently began to read in earnest, and then several silent moments passed while the kenkaya leaned over to watch in anticipation and the eyebrows of the other man did not descend.

Both the amusement and the skepticism seemed to increase as the man made his way through the entire length of the thing; until finally, shaking his head, he laid it on his lap and turned a sort of I-don’t-know-what-to-say expression toward the eager Zanza. What he did eventually say was, “Well.”

“Yeah?” The man’s demeanor had done nothing to lessen Zanza’s eagerness and curiosity.

The instructor opened his mouth, then closed it again as if commentary absolutely defied him. Finally he seemed to give up, and just said, “I’ll read it aloud.” And with a preparatory stiffening, as if for some conflict much more difficult than the oration of a letter, he began.

To you, esteemed Zanza-san, I extend the salutations of the salubriously mild-aired spring day on which I write, a day I believe to be full of auspice in a spring that can only be an amplification of that excellent promise in a year that has already seen so many momentous changes to our collective way of life that, though not every alteration wrought since January can be viewed as propitious for the advancement of our civilization, the year itself nevertheless must be recognized as an adumbration of no idleness of hand! This communication stands in apologue of such an idea, and therefore of the season and year and era in which we live, since in hailing both from and to hands that have never been idle it seeks to effect change just such as the auspicious 1878 has already observed.

At this point, as the instructor took a deep breath to continue, Zanza raised a trembling hand and solicited weakly, “Could you possibly just summarize the rest? Actually, could you possibly summarize all that shit you just read too?”

The man’s mouth twitched into a smile he obviously couldn’t repress. “Well, as for all that shit I just read, he says hello, misrepresents the weather, and that things have happened this year. He goes on to say…” His eyes became more mobile, more searching, as he turned them back to the letter. “He heard about your fight with a swordsmith in Komatsugawa, and the exceptional strength you demonstrated in that fight… there’s a reference to anvils that I don’t quite…”

Zanza chuckled, recalling clearly and fondly the fight and the anvils in question.

Smile widening at this reaction, the instructor went on. “He says he would have dismissed the story as an entertaining exaggeration if the person telling it… here’s some unnecessary detail about the person telling the story and where they were at the time… ah, yes, if the person telling the story hadn’t gone on to mention your reputation as an outspoken critic of the government.”

Interest somewhat aroused, Zanza waited more or less patiently as the other man reread the next section of the letter in silence. “He has a lot to say about the government,” he said at last, “but what it seems to boil down to is that he puts up with it without liking it much.”

“Yeah, don’t we all,” Zanza grumbled, reflecting at the same time that someone rich enough to be naive enough to write and send a letter like this to a street fighter might also be in a position to do something more than unhappily put up with, but he didn’t bother saying it.

“Don’t we all,” echoed the teacher at a murmur, still evidently amused. “Anyway, he reiterates that he heard about your feelings regarding the government, and this got him interested, so he started asking around about you… and apparently you’re always looking for challenging fights..? That seemed perfect to him, because he’s had a plan in mind for a while without seeing any way he could carry it out, and you might be exactly what he needs…”

“All right,” Zanza broke in, losing patience, “what exactly does he need? And why the hell does he think I want his life story on the way?”

Now the instructor laughed out loud. “I can’t possibly answer that second question, but the answer to the first is that he wants to hire you to fight Saitou Hajime.”

Despite having asked for it, the point of the message so neatly encapsulated in so few words took Zanza a bit by surprise, and it was a moment before its meaning really sank in. Then he sat up straight in an almost convulsive movement. “What, Shinsengumi Saitou Hajime?”

“That’s the one. He makes it–” the teacher glanced at the letter again with a wry smile– “very clear.”

Now Zanza jumped to his feet. “Well, why didn’t he just fucking say so in the first place?” Despite this complaint, a wide grin had spread across his face. “If he’s heard so much about me, he’s gotta know of course I’d wanna fight Saitou Hajime — that guy was supposedly super strong, right? And he’s still around? What’s he doing these days? How old is he? I mean, is he even stronger than before, or has he gotten all old and weakened up?”

Again the teacher laughed. “Well, let’s see… as to why he didn’t just fucking say so in the first place, it doesn’t seem to be in his nature to do anything of the sort. And he does seem to be aware that of course you’d want to fight Saitou Hajime — that’s the gist of about half the letter, really. And what is Saitou Hajime doing these days? Working for the police, it appears.”

Excitement suspended for a moment, Zanza wondered if he’d heard that right. “For the police? The police, who’re part of the government? The Meiji government? The same people he was fighting against in the war?”

“That police,” the teacher nodded. “Those same people.”

Snatching the letter back in a rough movement that seemed to startle the other man a little, Zanza snapped it taut in front of his own face and searched, incredulous and angry, for written confirmation of what had just been spoken. Unfortunately, the half-familiar kanji blended together into a headache-inducing mass just as they’d done every other time, and he had no idea what section he and his assistant had progressed into. Resisting with some difficulty the urge to crumple the thing again, he instead let his hand fall angrily to his side, taking the paper fluttering down with it, and stared out into the street.

“Before I… before I actually got involved with shit,” he muttered, reminiscing bitterly, “me and the other kids would play that we were going to Kyoto to fight the Shinsengumi, and we had to take turns playing Kondou. They were fucking legends to us. They represented the old times, and shit staying the way it was… they were the champions of everything the country was that people were fighting about.”

He turned to find the teacher regarding him impassively; this time when Zanza, with an abrupt gesture, threw the letter back down toward his feet, the man didn’t even flinch.

“Not like I started liking the idea of the Shinsengumi any better once I realized what a bunch of backstabbing assholes the Ishin Shishi were… the old days weren’t any better than this bullshit we have today, so I never thought they were heroes or anything… but they were still the champions of the other side! They fought harder against those fuckers than practically anyone, and we all sure as hell saw them as representations of the Bakufu…”

Still offering no attempt at interpretation or judgment, the teacher nodded his comprehension.

“So how could he switch sides like that? Someone who practically was the other side — how could he join up with the fucking Meiji like that??” Zanza’s hands were clenched now into hard fists. He’d never even met this Saitou guy, but a number of unexpected fragments had converged into a very unpleasant picture, and he was angry.

After reaching for the fallen letter, the teacher held it again in his lap without a word, looking down pensively at it and smoothing it out somewhat absently, evidently still listening to Zanza rant. And all the time he maintained a neutrality of expression and bearing that was half encouraging and half irritating. Not that Zanza could possibly be irritated much by anything besides his current fixation.

When his tirade had devolved into little more than apostrophic name-calling that neither helped his mood improve nor advanced the conversation, and his fingers were clenching so tightly in his fists that the knuckles creaked and ached, he forced himself to shut up and calm down. Well, he didn’t calm much, but he did start to focus a little better on his surroundings and situation. He needed more information — a lot more information — and he wouldn’t get it if he didn’t finish the letter. Frankly, he was damned lucky this guy had put up with him for as long as he had; he probably shouldn’t push that luck any further.

So he turned back toward the instructor — he hadn’t even realized he’d been facing the street as if in dramatic soliloquy — took a deep breath, loosened his fists, and said in a sort of enforcedly placid summary (though his teeth were clenched), “So, yeah, I’d really fucking like to fight Saitou Hajime. What do I have to do?”

***

Saitou rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers, trying to alleviate the headache that had developed over the course of the day. Massaging his face seemed unlikely to help when the headache had been idiot-induced, but he did it anyway — as if somehow the motion would get rid of every frustrating police underling in the station, every petty drug dealer on the streets, and every stupid thug in every bar and slum in Tokyo. He longed for some proper sleep, something he hadn’t had much of in the last couple of days and something that would probably be a great deal more effective toward the diminution of his headache than was his gloved hand.

The notes he’d been reading hit the desk with a rustling slap as his eyes slid gratefully off the final line of the final page. He’d predicted he would come to the end of this perusal this evening, and might have read the last few entries a little more quickly than he otherwise would have, but it didn’t matter: it was clear now, if it hadn’t already been, that the entirety of the documented evidence they had on their current subject of investigation was sufficient neither to condemn him in court nor to make Saitou feel justified in assassinating him privately quite yet. That he couldn’t pick out a paper trail here neither surprised him nor made him less suspicious of the man in question; the tips they’d received, though in no way constituting proof, had been too definitive and, to his mind, too reliable not to investigate thoroughly.

He might even end up doing some of said investigating personally this time, depending on what kind of information Tokio brought back. That would be a nice change from the tiresomely lengthy paperwork at the end of the previous job and the beginning of this one that he’d skipped sleep lately trying to get finished. If he must be deprived of sleep, he would much rather it be due to a stakeout or a lengthy chase than because he was writing out the details of whatever he’d just finished doing in the driest language he could command and triplicate.

After reorganizing the notes and fastening a descriptive paper obi around the stack, he locked it away in a drawer, whence he would eventually retrieve it as material supplemental to whatever further facts he obtained during the course of the ensuing inquiry. Then he stood, stubbing out the remaining third or so of his latest cigarette in an ash tray overly full from an overly long stint at the office, put out the lamp, and headed for the door.

The station proper, busy even nearing what might for the rest of the city be considered the end of the day, seemed shockingly hot thanks to multiple bodies often under stress or in vigorous movement, despite the open windows and especially to anyone wearing a police uniform with a heavy jacket (which nearly everyone in the room was), so Saitou hastened through to the main entrance and beyond. There was always at least one idle carriage hanging around outside the police station, Tokyo drivers being well aware of how loath many officers were to walk more than a short distance unless, as on patrol, the walking rather than the arrival was the purpose of the trip. And Saitou supposed hiring a cab to and from work might be considered a lazy habit, but there were some days (possibly most days) when he just couldn’t stand to stick around any longer and had to get away as quickly as possible. So today, as not infrequently, he paid the driver and was whisked away toward home.

As he felt he’d had more than enough of this Rokumeikan business over the last little while, he tried not to think about it on the way, tried to relax and look forward to a quiet evening; this was difficult, however, in that no other compelling subject was jumping to replace Rokumeikan in his mind. There just wasn’t a lot going on for him right now besides work… and there, he supposed, was another subject for thought.

Weeding corruption from the government was not only his primary occupation but his primary source of fulfillment. He required and actively sought nothing more from existence than this. But that didn’t mean he objected to more when it was presented, nor failed to feel its absence when it wasn’t. When the standard policework that occupied his time between more meaningful cases consisted of small-time busts and big-time paperwork, minor investigation after unstimulating minor investigation, the almighty pen far oftener than the much more interesting sword… when sleep was wearily dreamless and solitary, night after similar night, and therefore a luxury frequently dispensed with… If it weren’t for the one friendship he maintained, his one source of enrichment, then that core of his existence, meaningful as it was, would be the barest of bones anyone had ever attempted to called a life.

He turned these reflections over like something interesting but largely irrelevant. There might have been a touch of amused self-denigration to them, but no sense of importance. He was, after all, fulfilled even if he wasn’t terribly enriched. This was merely a mild method of entertainment to get him through his carriage ride.

And the carriage was slowing, drawing to a stop. At the hasteless speed they’d been maintaining, Saitou knew they hadn’t yet reached his house, but at the sound of the voice speaking to the driver outside he knew the reason for their halt. A moment later there was a weight on the steps, and the door opened to admit the figure of his wife, who sank onto the seat opposite him with a sigh of relief and weariness.

“Going home so early!” she remarked. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

She made a darkly understanding sound, but answered in an easy tone. “It’s so early, I couldn’t even be sure I had the right cab. I’d have been nicely embarrassed if I didn’t!”

He felt no surprise that she’d deduced his presence in the carriage, but did perhaps feel some that the driver had stopped for her. Tokio sometimes faced difficulties getting people to do as she asked when she was in uniform, and at the moment she wore the relatively unobtrusive kimono-hakama combination she favored when spying; it was some surprise the driver had even noticed her. She didn’t appear entirely respectable, either, and Saitou commented as the carriage got underway again, “I can’t say I like the new style.” He drew a couple of gloved fingers through his own hair to indicate his meaning.

The hand she then ran up to her frazzled bun dislodged the two leaves he’d been specifically referring to, and she laughed faintly. “I’m pretty sure I know the privet shrub on the east side of Rokumeikan’s house much better than his gardener does by now.”

“What did you find out?”

“I was going to wait until tomorrow to file my report.”

“I’m not asking you to file anything, just for a general overview.”

“Oh, fine.” She rolled her black eyes at him. “I was thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home, but I know perfectly well you never notice what you’re eating anyway.” When her husband, rather than rising to the bait, just lifted an impatient brow, she went on in a more businesslike tone, “He has some kind of influence with the Karashigumi. I couldn’t figure out exactly what he is to them, but I think he has some real power there.”

The surprised Saitou, unable quite to recall, asked, “Who’s their leader?”

“A guy named Eisatsu. But it looks like he answers to Rokumeikan on the sly, so…”

“No wonder those accounts weren’t leading anywhere,” Saitou murmured.

Tokio nodded. “If they’re doing all his dirty work…”

“We’ll want to deal with them all at once.”

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

He understood her sarcasm; going up against yakuza was complicated and frustrating, and something they didn’t deliberately undertake unless it specifically related to a pre-existing case. Here, if a politician was using organized crime to raise money and influence, it was wisest to take out both his manpower and the criminal society’s leadership all in one sweep.

This time when the carriage drew to a creaking stop, it had been plenty long enough to get home, so Saitou and Tokio each slid sideways toward the door that presently opened at the hand of the courteous driver. But as Saitou paid the latter, he frowned slowly. Something nearby, the sense of which grew as he focused on it, was angry, aggressive, and directed toward him.

“Must they come to the house?” Tokio murmured, sounding tired and annoyed.

As the cab driver moved to resume his place on the box and depart, Saitou replied, “Better than the station.” And he turned to see who it was, following both Tokio’s gaze and the sense he had of angry ki to where a young man stood in the shadow of the property wall with the air of one waiting with waning patience for the occupants to come home. Or undoubtedly, in this case, just one of the occupants.

Tokio was giving the stranger a calculating look. “Ten minutes, you think?”

Watching with similar calculation the young man beginning to emerge from the shadows, Saitou thought it best to say, “Better make it fifteen.”

“Don’t push it.” Tokio turned toward the house. “I want to go to bed.”

He knew she meant by this, “You probably won’t bother with supper if I don’t force you to, so I won’t go to bed until I’ve seen you eat.” It was a common enough contention between them, so Saitou merely nodded. Then he turned from where she’d begun making her way inside and faced the approaching mercenary.

Zanza, that was the name. Of course the police kept tabs, more or less, as they had time and resources, on the prominent mercenaries in town, but Saitou wouldn’t have remembered what this one called himself if it hadn’t pretty clearly been taken from the sword he reputedly only used when he believed the battle would be worth getting it out for. Evidently he thought this one would be, so at least Saitou Hajime still had some reputation among mercenaries and those that hired them.

The light of the nearest streetlamp brought out details of face and figure as the young man neared, and Saitou’s interest was caught even as he reflected that Tokio might have found it worthwhile to put off starting supper and remain out here, tired though she was. He might not recall everything he’d heard about this kenkaya, but he believed with some surety he would have remembered if anyone had ever given an adequate description of how very attractive he was.

Zanza’s right arm curled up behind his head holding the long, cloth-wrapped sword that lay across his shoulders, and thus his gi was pulled wide away from his smoothly muscled chest. Under the yellowness of the lamp, his skin looked golden-tan and of a superb texture, though even in this imperfect lighting there was some scarring visible; really, that just added piquancy to the view. And the young man’s face was of excellent shape, its features masculine yet beautiful, bearing an active, eager, angry expression that promised something diverting at the very least.

Overall, it was quite a pleasing picture, and Saitou could think of several things he’d rather do with this person than fight. But thugs didn’t hang around Saitou Hajime’s house waiting for him to get home for nearly so satisfying a purpose, so Saitou would have to deal with him as he always did those sent by his enemies (or old comrades that now had the wrong idea).

Ceasing his advance, which was evidently meant to be threatening, at a decent combat distance, Zanza fixed Saitou with a glare the officer could not remember having done anything to earn but which he didn’t particularly mind. The kenkaya’s fighting ki was raw and rough, straightforward and strong, and Saitou found he rather liked this too.

“Former captain of the Shinsengumi’s third unit Saitou Hajime,” Zanza announced clearly, “I’ve come to pick a fight!”

“So I see,” Saitou replied, withdrawing his cigarette case from the breast pocket of his jacket without removing his eyes from Zanza. It was indulgent, yes, but he had to smile as he looked him over again.

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

“You. What makes you think I want to fight you?”

“You will when you hear my message!”

“And what,” Saitou inquired in a bored tone, lighting the cigarette he’d extracted, “does Yonai Fumihiro have to say?” Though not exactly a shot in the dark, this was no more than an educated guess based on the awareness of Yonai’s recent move to Tokyo… but when Zanza’s scowl deepened, Saitou knew he’d been right. He went on before the mercenary could answer. “That I’ve betrayed the principles of the Shinsengumi and the long history of the Bakufu, and I’m not going to get away with it? Probably in not so few words?”

Zanza looked even more annoyed than before, which was saying something. “Well… all right… but that’s just half the message!”

Flicking away the first ash of his fresh cigarette, “If you insist,” Saitou said, “I’ll have the rest of it too. But before you unveil your precious partner, let’s find a better place than the middle of my neighborhood street.”

Now Zanza looked a bit taken aback, perhaps at how much was known about him personally in addition to his errand, and this seemed to make him even angrier; but he followed willingly enough, and gave no indication of being about to attempt a surprise attack, as Saitou turned his back and began leading the way down the road. This neighborhood opened out onto a pleasant wooded area not far off, and a clearing in the beeches was wide and yet private enough for their purposes. As a matter of fact, it was where Saitou had fought the last two mercenaries sent against him. This particular mercenary should consider himself lucky Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion; Zanza’s attractiveness and ready tailing of a complete stranger to a secluded place combined into quite a temptation.

For obvious dramatic purposes, Zanza waited until Saitou had reached the far end of the clearing and turned before grasping at the wrap on his sword and pulling it away in a practiced gesture. Laughable as the blade was — an oversized club disguised as a sword, really — it did seem appropriate to its bearer: strong, conspicuous, and sadly in need of honing. Saitou liked the way Zanza’s muscles bulged and his body shifted as he took its long, thick haft in his hands and swung it off his shoulders into what he probably thought was a stance.

Finishing a last once-over of the beautiful young man, visible now in the light of a rising moon, Saitou placed a languid hand on the hilt of his own sword. He was promising nothing, but Zanza seemed to twitch forward in anticipation; that was interesting. In a level tone, neither mocking nor threatening, Saitou said, “If you come at me, I’m not going to go easy on you.” He always wondered at these arrogant young men that came to attack him for money and generally didn’t depart with their dignity or combat abilities intact even when Saitou left them their lives. He might have been a tad more curious than usual about what drove this one — if he remembered correctly, Zanza had a passion for good fights — but still it seemed so suicidal.

Very much to the confirmation of both of these last thoughts, Zanza now hefted the zanbatou above his head and tensed for action, growling out as he did so, “You’d better fucking not!”

***

Now that Zanza had actually met the guy, what he felt was more than merely anger at a defector that had run to the heartless government for a high-paying position under a false name. He didn’t like the indication given by the house he’d seen in the neighborhood he’d been waiting in as to just how high-paying was the position Saitou had attained. He didn’t like the way this Meiji bastard looked at him, those freaky golden eyes glinting even in the growing darkness, somehow calculating and dismissive at the same time. He didn’t like the jerk’s careless manner of holding that cigarette as if he weren’t about to get his head bashed in by an eighty-pound horse-and-rider-slaying weapon. He didn’t like the casualness with which Saitou had suggested they step into the trees as if for a quiet conversation rather than a battle.

But most of all (and it probably shouldn’t have been most of all, since it had nothing to do with how seriously Saitou was or wasn’t taking him, but he really couldn’t help it), he didn’t like those weird bangs. What was going on at that hairline? Was is deliberate? What was Saitou trying to say with a look like that? Zanza would definitely enjoy kicking this guy’s ass.

No definitive sign indicated the beginning of the battle, but Saitou, in his evident complete lack of concern for what was coming, obviously wasn’t about to make the first move, and Zanza had never been the least concerned with dueling etiquette. He gritted his teeth and charged, putting all his strength into the first swing not because he thought he might be able to end things before they really got started but because he wanted to effect an abrupt and startling change in Saitou’s attitude toward him.

It felt amazing to have his weapon out again. There were so few opponents around these days (or at least so few opponents around these days against whom people wanted to pit him for money) of the caliber to stand up to a zanbatou, and the poor thing had been collecting dust for far too long. The shift of it in his hands with unexpected speed as the blade raced downward; the air rushing by with a hollow-sounding, metallic whistle; the weight and balance that challenged both muscle and stance; the techniques he looked forward to using again after what seemed like forever — these all delighted and invigorated him despite his anger.

It was obvious his blow had missed even before the great sword’s contact with the ground sent a mess of dislodged earth, twigs, and leaves exploding out in all directions from the point of impact. What had been far less obvious was the movement by which Saitou had dodged; he’d been there one instant, absent the next. Zanza wrenched the sword back up, looking for his enemy, his shouldered weapon giving a sound of rushing metal as it spun with him. And there behind him was Saitou, standing still and smoking as before.

“Draw your sword!” Zanza demanded, irate that, even after such a decisive first strike as he’d just made (whether it had connected or not), Saitou could still be so casual about this. He charged the man again, making the swing of his own sword part of his approach in a fluid horizontal attack.

He thought he’d been pretty quick, but as the zanbatou swept at the officer, the latter crouched with surprising speed (though Zanza at least saw the movement this time) beneath the trajectory that, sadly, could not be altered mid-swing, then stood calmly again — still smoking and not even appearing to notice the rain of twigs and small branches that had been occasioned around him.

The sound of Zanza’s teeth grinding as he again shouldered his weapon seemed loud in the quiet clearing. This bastard was just like the damn government he represented: untouchable and annoying as hell. “Draw your fucking sword!” Zanza growled.

“Why?” Saitou replied, blowing smoke in the kenkaya’s direction. “It’s more entertaining watching you.”

What the hell did he mean by that? “I’m not here for your entertainment!” To drive his words home, Zanza struck — horizontally again, just in case Saitou might think he would always alternate — but found once more that Saitou had thwarted him, this time moving swiftly back out of the zanbatou’s reach.

“That doesn’t lessen your entertainment value,” the cop said, finally flicking away his current cigarette and — yes! — laying the now-vacant hand on the hilt of his sword. Yet again, however, he made no move to draw the weapon.

Zanza had to get this guy to fight. First of all, he was going exactly nowhere with the one-sided attacks, and might have better luck if his enemy’s attention was split between defense and reciprocation. Secondly, he’d been hired to fight Saitou Hajime, not charge endlessly at Saitou Hajime and marvel at how adeptly he got out of the way. Thirdly, by now he really wanted to see how strong this smug bastard was; he was beginning to long to see the grip of a sword in that gloved hand and observe some of the techniques he’d been hearing about lately during his inquiries about this man. And lastly, he wouldn’t have any idea how much payment to ask for this if it remained the aforementioned charge-and-miss routine.

So he said the most calculated thing he could in this state of annoyance: “Are all Meiji cops too chickenshit to actually fight, or just the ones who betrayed the Shinsengumi?”

Based on a slight shift in Saitou’s stance, Zanza thought he’d scored the first hit of the evening, and the man’s response seemed even more promising: “Strong words from a teenager.”

The implication was clear: Zanza had no room to speak, having been nothing more than a child back when Saitou had done his betraying (as far, of course, as that betraying could be considered a single-instance action and not an ongoing process that had continued this entire past decade). In any case, Saitou’s words meant he didn’t know quite everything about Zanza, even if he knew who had sent him, what that guy had to say, and even how verbose he’d been about saying it… but this was small comfort to the kenkaya when it was all too painfully common for no one to know the truth about the Sekihoutai.

Not only that, but, despite his apparently being a bit stung by Zanza’s remark, Saitou still didn’t draw, and the next swing of the zanbatou (vertical this time) was as ineffectual as all the previous had been. Zanza wasn’t entirely sure what to say next.

Finally he stood back, scowling, as if in recognition of an impasse, and tried, “I’m going to have to tell Yonai it’s worse than he even thinks: you didn’t just betray the Shinsengumi; you turned into a complete coward.” And he struck out again, a quick, hard surprise blow. At least he’d thought it was.

“You can tell him whatever bullshit you want and he’s sure to believe it,” Saitou replied from behind him. “Yonai always had more money than sense.” At least now he sounded distinctly annoyed; Zanza was, perhaps, finally getting somewhere.

“I wouldn’t wanna go by your idea of sense,” the kenkaya persisted, whirling, “since you obviously just join up with whoever’s stronger at the time to keep your own ass safe!”

Though it was absolutely the truth, he’d really only said it to anger the man, and at an impatient movement given by the cop he thought he’d succeeded. He leaped forward with another great heave of his sword, hoping this time for a better response. And it was with a darkly gleeful sense of anticipation that he heard at last the rasp of Saitou’s weapon leaving its sheath. It was a purely aural indication that he might finally get what he wanted, as not only did the swinging zanbatou obscure his vision somewhat, Saitou still moved startlingly fast.

Unexpectedly, Zanza felt the clash and slide of sword against sword as his blow was diverted with a screech down an oblique path formed by a diagonally-held blade. Not many people were willing to go head-to-head with a zanbatou using a mere katana, and of those that were, even fewer could actually do it instead of failing miserably at the attempt, so Zanza was already impressed.

He was even more surprised at the next blow, which, despite the strength with which he aimed it, was not only pushed aside but actually entirely thrown off. Losing his balance, he staggered away and nearly tripped, but had regained his footing almost immediately. His heart, he found, was pounding harder than the mere exertion of battle could explain, and the blood throbbing in his ears was all he could hear. Because nobody had ever done that before; nobody had ever met a zanbatou attack so skillfully, so forcefully.

The sight of the treacherous, motionless officer, blurring with the shadows in his dark blue uniform but for the brighter line of his casually-held nihontou, angered Zanza but excited him too. He’d wanted to know what Saitou’s combat abilities might be, and now that he’d had a taste of what seemed to be a fairly remarkable answer to that question, he wanted more. This might prove to be one hell of an awesome fight. Zanza charged again.

Blow after blow fell and was repelled, the air grew thick with earth tossed up from the churning ground and the noise of ringing collisions, and Zanza drew closer and closer to what he sought, what he always sought from battle — beyond making money, a point, or a reputation, beyond even surviving. It looked as if he’d finally found the opponent he needed: someone strong enough to engage every aspect of his skill and activity so as to drag him forcefully away from everything else in his life. He hadn’t entirely anticipated this, but with the prospect of any battle against an apparently skilled opponent, he hoped.

It was like taking in the heavy scent of some exquisitely delicious dish: there was an unmistakable promise of the meal he could almost taste that, even while it teased nearly unbearably, was yet intrinsically enjoyable. Coming close to losing himself completely in battle, though not as fulfilling as that completion, was yet a marvelous experience. Zanza’s hands on the haft of his weapon tingled like the rest of his energized body, and for a few glorious moments, he felt as if he could do anything, could rise above pain and uncertainty and reclaim what he’d lost.

Proof of how much conscious thought had already slipped from Zanza’s movements was that he went for an apparent opening in Saitou’s guard without even considering how little he wanted this battle to end. The huge sword descended, certain to connect this time, and battles had been ended by far less decisive blows of a zanbatou. Well, it was a shame, but he’d still enjoyed himself here more than he had in a very long time; Yonai would be getting a huge discount on this fight.

But for some reason, as a wrenching, steel-shearing sound filled the air, Zanza found himself staggering forward instead of being stopped by the shock of impact or the alternate option of his zanbatou driving into the dirt. He stumbled, and for some reason was unable to right himself as he would normally have done by pressing his weapon into the ground. In the disorientation of falling and seeming to lack a resource he usually counted on, he could not for a moment determine exactly what had just happened.

His eyes widened in shock and he drew in a sudden gasping breath of surprise as the answer embedded itself deeply into the earth before him with a thud. His startled gaze ran down the haft of his weapon to where the blade had been severed near its point of origin so that only about six inches of metal remained at the end of the wooden grip. For a moment, he could do nothing but stand and gape, his body still pulsing with excited energy as if it hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

“And your idea of sense, it seems,” Saitou remarked, resuming the conversation as if it had never been interrupted, “is to engage in meaningless battles for nothing more than the childish pleasure of fighting.”

At the sound of this statement from behind him, whose calm tone almost belied its disdainful purport, Zanza felt that excited energy, which had been buoying him up so delightfully thus far, curdle into a sick sort of rage. He rounded on Saitou with a roar. “My sword! My fucking sword!”

Saitou gave his own weapon a slight swish and no indication that he’d exerted himself at all in the previous skirmish. “You were the one who insisted I draw mine.”

In contrast with the coolness of this sarcasm, the entire world went hot and red in Zanza’s perception. Tossing aside the haft of his beloved and now useless zanbatou, he clenched his fists. “Do you know how hard it is to get ahold of one of those fucking things?”

“Yes, they are rather rare these days, aren’t they?” Saitou replied conversationally. “But it’s an idiot’s weapon to begin with, so I don’t know why anyone would take the trouble.”

Not only had Saitou destroyed a precious possession, he was now mocking it — and through it, mocking its wielder in that easy, disdainful tone of his. It was about the best example of ‘adding insult to injury’ Zanza could think of. He charged.

Even through his anger he was conscious of astonishment and subsequent suspicion as Saitou remained motionless, sword still pointing toward the discomposed earth, and barely even seemed to brace himself before deliberately receiving the punch to his high cheekbone. Even as Zanza sprang back immediately after connecting, anticipating some trick, he noted the officer’s nod that seemed to suggest he’d just had some theory confirmed. And at the total lack of concern in Saitou’s demeanor after a considerably strong blow to the face, Zanza couldn’t help glancing briefly down at his own fist, wondering if something was wrong with him.

In the past he’d defeated enemies with a single hit. He was one of the few people he knew of that could even carry a zanbatou with any degree of ease, let alone use it in battle. But this guy… this Saitou Hajime… first he threw off full-strength blows from the biggest sword in the world, and now he completely ignored an enraged punch from Zanza’s not inconsiderable fist? How could anyone be that strong? Was Zanza in way over his head here?

If that was the case, however, didn’t it mean he could retrieve that glorious battle intensity he’d been so achingly close to just a few minutes ago? He could take it back, pick up where he’d left off, and feel that elusive oblivion at least briefly before this fight ended. With this thought, far from being discouraged by Saitou’s evidently superior strength, he pounded his fists together with a grimace and attacked again.

Saitou, however, after testing Zanza’s punch or whatever he’d been doing, had evidently decided to go back to the constantly-dodging style of responding to the kenkaya’s blows. How did a man about the same size manage to move so much faster than Zanza could? How could he read seemingly all of his opponent’s intended moves?? The strongest blow from the hardest fist imaginable wouldn’t do much good if it never landed!

Eventually, burning with frustration that threatened to build into rage at the promise of the fight he wanted that never came to fulfillment, Zanza fell back a pace and stared at Saitou with angry, unblinking eyes.

“You’re as strong as the rumors say,” the officer remarked. The faint smirk on his face widened as he continued, “But I hope you understand that that’s Meiji-era strength. In Bakumatsu’s Kyoto, these little punches you’re throwing would have been completely meaningless.”

He’d been so close… so close to what he really wanted… How had he gotten Saitou to fight him properly before? Through his rising anger Zanza sought for the right words. “Good to know you haven’t forgotten everything from those days.” He clenched his fists again, preparing for another attack. “Yonai’ll be glad to hear it.”

“There is one thing you can tell him,” replied Saitou as he deftly caught the flying right hand in his own left, knocking away Zanza’s other fist with his opposite elbow, and abruptly driving his sword into the kenkaya’s shoulder. With a quick half roar of pain and a flailing of limbs, Zanza was borne to the ground. There, he was held down by the foot Saitou placed on his chest as he yanked his weapon free. “You can tell Yonai Fumihiro,” he went on, again almost conversationally as he stepped back and sought out a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his sword, “that a wolf is always a wolf, Shinsengumi or otherwise, and that in this Meiji era I continue to act as I always have by hunting down evil wherever it is found. There is no better way to do so than as one of the government’s own agents, fighting corruption within the system itself. You’re welcome to tell him all of this,” he reiterated, sheathing his nihontou and turning, “if you can get up.”

The actual words — whether they were surprising or enraging or puzzling or merely incredible — Zanza would have to think about later. His body was full of pain and his head was full of the awareness that he’d been toyed with. This incredibly strong man, who could have given him exactly what he wanted where few others could, had instead refused to take him or his errand seriously, mocked and belittled him, destroyed the object he prized most, and then badly wounded him (just how badly was yet to be seen) without seeming to think anything at all of it. In fact he was now daring to walk away from a fight as if the entire thing didn’t fucking matter.

Zanza wasn’t defeated yet. He would never lose like that, to someone like this. With a grunt, streaming blood, he jumped to his feet, clapped a hand over his wounded shoulder, and faced his enemy’s calm back with fire in his eyes. “Wait one goddamn second, you fucking bastard!” he roared. “I’m not finished with you yet!”

The expression on the face that glanced back over a blue-clad shoulder suited the words, “I’m getting bored with this. You’ve delivered your message, and I’ve given my reply. We have no further business together.”

Clenching his left hand even more tightly over his injured right shoulder so he saw little shining points at the edge of his vision, Zanza threw himself after the retreating figure.

The same indifference with which he’d made many a move this evening marked Saitou’s reaction: he turned easily, blocked Zanza’s punch, and replied with one of his own straight into the wounded shoulder just as the extension of Zanza’s arm caused his left hand to slip from it. A moment later he followed up with a gloved palm to the kenkaya’s brow, hurling him once again to the ground in a violent motion.

Zanza bellowed out his pain and anger as his opponent thus took advantage of the wound already inflicted, but the noise fell to a whimper as he hit the dirt hard — so hard, in fact, that the next moment he found everything fading to black around him. And he swore into the growing darkness that he’d get the bastard for this if it was the last thing he ever did.

***

Tokio glanced at the clock as her husband entered the room. Thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds. Given the forty-five or so seconds that had passed between his pronouncement of how long would be required and her first instance of looking at the timepiece, that made for around fourteen minutes total.

“Looks like your estimate was about a minute off,” she said.

“I got tired of humoring him,” Hajime replied shortly. He seemed annoyed, and stood in the doorway almost indecisively for a moment as if considering just going straight to bed from here.

To prevent this, Tokio said hastily, “Set the table.”

Hajime’s lips tightened a fraction and his frame stiffened infinitesimally, which was a typical reaction to any direct order from his wife, even after all these years; but it was only a moment before he complied. After placing his sword on the rack and his jacket on the peg, he removed his gloves — Tokio, still watching to make sure he did as he was told, noted that one of them was red across the entirety of what might be called its punching surface — and washed his hands before reaching for dishes. His motions were all fairly quick, and seemed to bear out the impression of annoyance she’d already formed.

Curious about a fight that could have left Hajime in this sort of mood, she asked as she turned back to her cooking, “So who hired this one?”

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

She had to ponder a moment. A good memory for personal details was essential in her line of work, but she didn’t think Hajime had mentioned this name more than a few times before. “Wasn’t he in your division?”

“Yes,” said Hajime, even more shortly than before.

“I suppose it was the usual story, then? Somehow he heard who Fujita Gorou really was, and assumed…”

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

A moment of silence passed during which Hajime was undoubtedly giving her a sarcastic look of some sort — probably, if she knew him, glancing down at his unharmed body as if to say, “How do you think the fight went?” Tokio, however, was familiar with his ways and could often defeat the sarcastic looks by the simple tactic of anticipating them and turning away in time to avoid seeing them. So Hajime was more or less forced to answer aloud if he wanted to convey his scorn: “How do they ever go?”

“Well, I can see you’re unharmed.” With food in her hands ready to set on the table, she turned and gave her husband a pointed look that he was not quite in time to avoid. “And annoyed. What happened, exactly?”

“I destroyed his sword,” Hajime replied succinctly as Tokio set her burdens in their places and took her seat opposite him. “I stabbed him and knocked him out.”

That did sound like the usual story for such a battle. But normally mercenaries sent to fight Hajime didn’t leave him in so grouchy and pensive a mood. And since she got the feeling he wasn’t likely to say any more unless she worked to drag it from him, she set about, as they ate, that very work. Either she would get more information, or she would punish him for being so laconic.

“He must have brought you some message from Yonai that annoyed you,” was her first suggestion.

“It was the same message as always.” Hajime was not, Tokio believed, eating quickly in an attempt to get away from her questions, but that didn’t mean much, since he always ate quickly.

“Then you must have cared for Yonai’s opinion more than I thought.”

Hajime snorted derisively.

“The mercenary can’t have managed to actually insult you somehow?”

Now the sound from Hajime’s nose sounded like a faint laugh. Unfortunately, Tokio had never been able to read him very well, and how to interpret this noise she wasn’t sure.

“Maybe he knows some secret from your past,” she persisted, “that he brought up at just the wrong moment.” When Hajime made no reply she went on, “And you’re trying not to admit how much it bothered you, but…”

“Don’t be stupid,” he finally said, and she knew she’d succeeded in annoying him.

She went on with a grin. “And it was so bad, you really would rather have killed him. You bloodthirsty thing. But the kanji on his silly outfit was an outright lie — a promise he couldn’t keep.”

Hajime set bowl and chopsticks down with a clink and said shortly, “It ought to say ‘souzen’ on his back.”

Perhaps, then, the young man had merely annoyed Hajime with an unusually forcefully presented personality. A lot of people’s personalities annoyed Hajime, and, though it might take some doing to make him show it like this, it didn’t seem impossible.

“So since your enemy wasn’t properly Evil, the great gods of Aku Soku Zan–” she drew out the syllables with portentous drama– “could not justify a killing, and you just had to put up with him for as long as it took to destroy his sword, stab him, and knock him out.”

Hajime, taking a last long drink of his tea, made no answer.

“No wonder you came in here so distracted and annoyed! Having to put up with someone you couldn’t kill for that long…”

The very fact he was ignoring her now, she thought, was a sign that she’d achieved her goal — if not the goal of goading him into speech, at least of getting her revenge. He disliked being prodded about Aku Soku Zan, as if she didn’t know and respect how much it meant to him, every bit as much as she disliked having emotional details kept from her by one of the few people she’d ever met whose feelings she couldn’t pretty easily read most of the time.

Now he rose coolly, setting down his teacup, and made his way to where a folded newspaper waited for him on the kitchen counter. Normally, if he intended to read the paper at all before bed, he would do so where he could discuss interesting news items with her; it seemed she’d punished herself along with him by her nonsense, and as he left the room without a word she reflected in some annoyance of her own that perhaps she should have tried a little harder to ask straightforwardly before resorting to obnoxious conversational tactics. She sometimes made things a little too much of a contest between herself and her husband. She sometimes did that with most men.

She fully expected this to be the end of it. Hajime would not bring it up, so she would never solve the mystery of his mood after that fight; and she was unlikely ever to catch sight of that mercenary ever again. It was irritating, but she resigned herself to disappointment — and also strove to remind herself that it wasn’t really that important.

In fact she’d completely stopped thinking about it by the time she realized it hadn’t ended there, which subsequently came as a bit of a surprise. Several days after the mysterious fight — enough that she didn’t even consider exactly how long it had been — she was on patrol when the matter arose again. This was perhaps her least favorite police duty, and felt like a waste of her talents, but she was doomed to it whenever not actively occupied by some task relevant to their current case. And since Hajime was making use of what agents the police had in place that could obtain any information about the Karashigumi, in order to determine better that group’s connection with Rokumeikan, she would walk a beat today. At least she’d been allowed to choose an area of town that was generally acknowledged to be Karashigumi territory, little as she was likely to pick up about them while wandering the streets in uniform.

The other benefit to this mostly uninteresting pursuit, at least today, was that the leisurely but watchful progression of her patrol took her, without any deliberate detour, right past (or, rather, right to) the stand of an art vendor whose wares she was very happy to have an excuse to look over. She’d been here several times before, and always appreciated this particular vendor’s taste in stock, though she rarely actually purchased anything. Today she tried to make her perusal brief, but almost immediately realized how difficult that was going to be.

New to the shelves since the last time she’d been here were a number of prints by some truly excellent artist she wasn’t familiar with. All his subjects seemed to be war heroes rendered with the accuracy either of personal experience or excellent research, and there was a feeling of intensity or investment to the work that seemed, at least to Tokio, to indicate a personal interest in these subjects beyond merely how best to put them to paper. She wondered if this artist had as great a fascination as she did with war heroes, or with anyone that had fought with all their heart during any of the conflicts that had marked Japan’s recent history.

She was actually holding in her hand a particularly tempting piece depicting Hachirou Iba in battle, marveling at how well the artist had managed to confer beauty on so brutal a scene, when she realized that somebody — someone other than the solicitous and indulgent vendor — was watching her. Being a spy herself, she could generally tell when this was the case, but in this instance he made no attempt at concealing his presence or his attention, so as she turned to look she easily spotted him. That would have been easy anyway: with his predominantly white garments and unruly hair, he did rather stand out. And as he, noting her attention, began to approach, she caught sight of another attention-grabbing feature: the bandages across his chest and shoulder that were visible as his apparently just-washed gi flapped open. They seemed more extensive than a single stab-wound could account for, and she wondered if Hajime had understated the amount of harm he’d done this young man the other night. Though the mercenary did at least appear to be moving without much trouble or discomfort at this point, which in itself was impressive so soon after any wound Hajime had dealt.

“Hey, police lady,” he said as he drew near. For all the currently near-growling tone, he had a pleasant voice that, though deep, sounded simultaneously young.

She looked up into his attractive face and responded with an interest almost too pert to be polite, “What can I do for you?”

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

Smoothly she cut him off before he could say the entire name. “Fujita’s, yes.” And musingly, with a smile, she finished the statement by listing its various possible endings. “Friend? Roommate? Personal chef? I suppose the aspect of our relationship you’re most interested in is ‘partner.'”

The mercenary appeared embarrassed — probably because she was being so personable; he hadn’t expected that, and perhaps regretted his somewhat rude greeting — and simultaneously interested in his turn. “Uh, yeah,” he said, seemingly thrown off course.

“I’m Takagi Tokio,” she told him, her smile broadening. “And you, I believe, are kenkaya Zanza.”

“You’ve heard of me?” he wondered, some pleasure creeping into his tone and onto his face.

“Probably nothing to crow about,” replied Tokio. “I am a member of the police force, however ineffectual.”

His brown eyes gave her a glance up and down that was clearly exaggerated. “Ineffectual? You look like you could knock the pants off of just about anyone.” And she didn’t think the potentially flirtatious nature of this wording was an accident.

“Well…” Her grin turned wry and reluctant without much trouble, since, however facetious their exchange, this comment was entirely straightforward. “I am a woman.”

“Oh, I noticed that,” he assured her. “Anyone’d have to be blind to– oh, wait, you mean people give you shit about that.” And the pleasantly flirtatious atmosphere was abruptly dispelled.

Since this was the case, Tokio moved back toward the point. “But you didn’t come to discuss my troubles…”

The young man’s face darkened right back to its previous morose irritation, and he reached up to scratch under a bandage on his chest as if one of the hurts Hajime had done him suddenly itched in reminder. “No, I didn’t.”

“So what,” she asked again, as bright as before despite the shift in mood, “can I do for you?”

“I want to fight him again,” was Zanza’s dark answer. He added in unnecessary clarification, “Your partner.”

“That’s hardly something you need to tell me. He’s the one in charge.” Though there was a touch of irony to her tone, she managed to restrain herself from making the lengthy sarcastic follow-up comment to which she was tempted about how a woman, after all, was only an acceptable police officer if carefully kept under close male supervision, and even then only because that close male happened to be highly independent and intimidating.

Whatever, if any, of this Zanza picked up on, he did give her another once-over that seemed more aimed at actual assessment this time. “Why the hell would a nice-looking girl like you be partner to an asshole like him, anyway?”

To the attitude willing to call a woman six or seven years his senior a ‘girl’ Tokio chose not to respond. Instead she said, with a decidedly flirtatious grin this time, “So you did come to discuss my troubles.”

There was a faint answering grin on his face even as he spoke again darkly. “I mean, you seem a lot nicer than him… I wanna fight him again, but I don’t wanna have to talk to him again. So I thought maybe you could arrange it for me.”

He was cute, and she decided she liked him: a little less urbane than men she was generally interested in, but funny and very good-looking. She set down at last the print she’d been holding all this time and turned fully to face him. “And what do I get out of this?”

“Um…”

“You really can’t think of anything you could do for me?”

“Well, nothing I’d really wanna say in front of… you know…” He gestured around, and briefly at the art vendor that had listened to this entire exchange with a bemused smile. “People.”

Yes, she reflected as she laughed aloud at this statement, definitely cute. “How about this,” she said: “I set up your fight in exchange for–” here she too glanced at the merchant with a grin– “a night out sometime that would be totally appropriate to mention in front of… people.”

He seemed a bit surprised — possibly that her flirtation had been serious and not merely an idle method of amusing herself somewhat at his expense — and also a bit taken aback as he replied, “You mean, like, I pay for dinner or something?”

“You must not be…” But here Tokio’s words faded and died as she saw the abrupt change in his expression. Something just past her had caught his attention, and his entire demeanor had altered all at once: his brows lowered over suddenly widened eyes and his body tensed. She glanced to the side to see what could possibly have had this effect on him even as he reached for it: one of the prints on display at the stand they were more or less monopolizing with their stationary conversation.

Trying to read him, very curious, she stared at him as he stared at the paper in his hand. Agitation, surprise — astonishment, even — and a growing something like anger but that she believed was really just a tendency toward intense activity were all very evident in his face and bearing. And after not too long that last burst out in the form of a growlingly intense demand directed at the vendor: “Where does he live?”

“I’m–” The merchant had been listening to the conversation with benign puzzlement this whole time, and was very startled to be all of a sudden addressed. “–sorry?”

The kenkaya stepped forward and seized the front of the vendor’s kimono, hauling him up to eye level and almost bellowing, “The artist!” He had released his grip and let the man fall into an unsteady standing position before Tokio could even put out a hand to try to detach him. “The guy who made this print!” He rattled the paper in the merchant’s face. “Where does he live?”

Even as he stammered out, “Th-the Dobu Ita rowhouses,” the vendor was shooting Tokio an appealing look. She could tell, however, that Zanza meant the man no harm — was desperate, not angry — and probably wouldn’t lay hands on him again. “But he never — he never sees anyone — he barely even talks to me — I don’t know if you can–“

“He’ll see me,” Zanza interrupted in a tone of finality, and, whirling, stalked away without another word.

More curious than ever, Tokio watched his swift, purposeful steps until he turned a corner and disappeared. “Well!” she said, and with a somewhat confused smile turned back to the vendor. He hadn’t resumed his seat, but was also looking after the mystifying kenkaya with a helpless expression and a slow but ongoing shaking of the head. “What on earth was that about?” Tokio wondered next as she began searching her pockets for something with which to pay for the print Zanza had just made off with — it was either that or arrest him for theft the next time she saw him, which might ruin their planned date.

Still shaking his head, the merchant set a hand down gently on the stack of remaining prints from which Zanza had taken the one that had gotten him so worked up. “That Bakumatsu group that claimed it was a government-sponsored volunteer army — this is a portrait of the leader.” And they both looked down pensively, as he removed his hand, at the top picture in the stack. “Though now I look closer,” the merchant murmured, “this boy next to him in the picture…”

“…could possibly be a much younger Zanza,” Tokio finished, equally quiet. She began counting out coins.

“Thank you very much,” said the vendor in relief as he accepted the payment and resumed his seat, looking a bit worn out. A small pipe, extracted from a pocket, might help to soothe him once he got it filled and lit, and he focused on that task as he added, “That’s literally the first I’ve ever sold of that one. I don’t know why that artist insists on making them.”

“My guess is I’m soon going to find out.”

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

“And I thought this patrol was going to be boring,” Tokio grinned. Then, with a friendly nod at the merchant, she turned and bent her steps in the same direction Zanza had gone.

***

It was one of those days when people had been in and out of Saitou’s office almost nonstop as long as he’d occupied it; and while some of them were his own agents with reports (though not always particularly productive reports), the rest had been unrelated to his current case. That didn’t mean they weren’t on important business, just that they dragged his thoughts constantly from what he actually wanted to think about. So with some irritation he glanced up when the door opened yet again in the afternoon, but when he saw that the latest visitor was his wife he calmed. She wouldn’t have left her patrol if she didn’t have some important or at least interesting news for him.

Tokio smiled when she saw his expression. “You look like you’re having a lovely day,” was her greeting.

He snorted faintly. “Information on the Karashigumi is coming in at a trickle. We may have to send someone to infiltrate.”

“Or we could just concentrate on Rokumeikan and forget about the yakuza.”.

Since there really wasn’t much to say in response to that bit of mutual wishful thinking, “Why are you here?” Saitou asked.

Her smile grew into a look he recognized as intrigued amusement. “I had a run-in with that bishounen you fought the other day.” Saitou raised his brows at her word choice, but waited silently for her to continue. “He’s dead-set on fighting you again, but that’s not nearly as interesting as the rest of what I found out.”

Saitou wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, but this tantalizing beginning had him hooked. What could she have discovered that wasn’t common knowledge? The level of interest he had in learning more about Zanza was unprecedented; though he hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the young man since their battle, the few times Zanza had crossed his mind over the last several days was far more than usual for some mercenary sent by an ex-comrade to fight him.

“You’ve heard of the Sekihoutai?” she went on when he remained silent. He nodded. “Zanza was a member. Well, he must have been nine or ten years old at that point, so ‘member’ is maybe… but he was obviously close to their leader, Sagara, a sort of assistant to him; and it seems like he looked up to him like family.”

Saitou frowned. “Sagara was executed, wasn’t he?”

With a nod she confirmed, “For false promises in the name of the Ishin Shishi to win the loyalty of his volunteers.”

“But would a nine- or ten-year-old have seen it that way?”

“Exactly.” Tokio’s demeanor was a funny mix of pitying and amusedly interested. She loved this kind of emotional drama. “It explains why he’s so determined to fight you again, doesn’t it?”

It at least started to. A child might not have understood what was going on at the time, nor recognized the crimes his captain was committing; to Zanza, it must merely have appeared that the Ishin Shishi, supposedly his allies, had murdered someone he loved and respected like family. And even in the young adult of later years, though he might in hindsight better understand what had happened, the bitterness and hatred born in him earlier in life could be far stronger than any logical recognition of justice. He would have every reason to hate the government the Ishin Shishi had become, and to despise especially someone that had originally fought against it and then joined its ranks.

“How did you discover this?” Saitou asked at length.

She told him about the incident with the print, and how she’d followed Zanza to the artist’s home. “The artist — he’s going by ‘Tsukioka Tsunan,’ but Zanza calls him ‘Katsu’ — he was in the same position as Zanza as a child with the Sekihoutai. He seems just as angry as Zanza, but more focused. They kept referring to ‘Sagara-taichou’s betrayal’ and ‘the betrayal of the Sekihoutai’ — so, as you said, a nine- or ten-year-old…” When Saitou nodded his understanding, she finished, “They were still talking about the past — half nostalgia and half bitterness — when I left. I got the feeling they’re going to be reminiscing all night.”

Saitou sat back in his chair and thoughtfully lit a new cigarette, staring at nothing in particular as he took the first few long, contemplative drags. It seemed a shame to let an undeniably strong young man like Zanza run around without any purpose to his life beyond reminiscing bitterly and picking meaningless fights to scrape out a living that couldn’t possibly be worth (or, sometimes, even pay for treatment of) the damage he occasionally took from opponents like Saitou Hajime. The latter had felt the potential in those blows; some signs of their effectiveness were even visible on his face and the arms hidden by his jacket. With proper training, the kenkaya could be formidable. He wasn’t entirely stupid, either; even through his obvious anger and battle-lust, he’d still managed to throw out attempted insults, in order to achieve his ends, that had been far more effective than Saitou would have expected from him.

“You’re planning something,” Tokio remarked with a curious grin, “and in this context I’m not sure…”

“We need,” replied Saitou slowly, “to determine how best to go up against the Karashigumi.”

Tokio’s brows rose as she picked up on the idea. “Zanza would be pretty well placed for that… Joining them might not work when he’s already so high-profile, but he’s in just the right walk of life to make the right friends and find out useful information…”

“But…?” Saitou caught this unspoken word in his wife’s musing tone.

“But he’s a loose cannon,” she said bluntly, “and he already hates you.”

Saitou smiled wryly. “So we give him the second fight he wants, and then a chance at working against a corrupt agent of the government he hates so much.”

She nodded slowly. “I think it could work. It’s worth a try, at least. Any particular time you’d like to fight him again?” When he shook his head, she straightened from where she’d been propped on one gloved hand against his desk. “All right, then, I’m back to patrol. I’ll see you tonight.”

In her absence, Saitou remained leaning back in his chair, puffing at his cigarette, pondering. What little useful information he’d received so far about the Karashigumi, and what he could make of it, suddenly held no interest for him, and he thought he might take a few minutes’ break to think about this new idea before forcing himself to return to that.

As Tokio had said, recruiting Zanza as a temporary agent was at least worth a try. The mercenary was well placed for the purpose, and strong enough to take care of himself should a certain amount of trouble arise. Just how willing he would be to enter into the project was another story, since, as Tokio had also pointed out, he already seemed to have a disproportionate amount of antipathy toward Saitou; but Saitou had a feeling Zanza’s situation and attitudes could be turned to their advantage.

And it was that feeling that had him a little worried, because he feared he might be allowing his personal interest to cloud his judgment. Was he letting his desire to know more of Zanza, to make something of Zanza, and his undeniable sexual attraction to him, lead him to believe the kenkaya could be of more use to him professionally than was actually the case?

He hadn’t had a lover for years, and most of the time this didn’t bother him; or at least he believed it didn’t. But just the other evening he’d been thinking about how stripped-down his life was, how little enrichment he had… and then this incredibly attractive and intriguing young man had appeared as if on cue, as if to fill that void; it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Saitou’s subconscious had taken that timing as a sign and started looking for ways he could involve Zanza in that bare bones of a life of his.

Why, beyond the obvious physical attraction, he should be interested in an uneducated urchin that named himself after a stupid weapon, wore tacky clothing, and engaged in meaningless combat for a living, he couldn’t be sure. Having a history of being picky about his lovers made him listen to his instincts when he did feel an interest in someone… and perhaps those instincts were compromising the others, the ones that now said he could make professional use of the young man as well.

He would simply have to be careful. At the moment there didn’t seem to be any way to divine the truth — whether he honestly believed recruiting Zanza would benefit his case, or whether certain parts of him were finding reasons to do what they hoped would further an entirely different agenda — but he’d already made the suggestion, set the thing in motion. He would fight the stubborn young man again, and he would have a thing or two to say at that time to try to get Zanza’s attitudes into better alignment with his own needs. That was probably something that needed to happen in Zanza’s life in any case, and Saitou might as well be (in fact rather wanted to be) the one to do it.

But before that (and now he wished, just a little, that he had specified time and date for the encounter so as to give himself some working space), he would forewarn himself; he would go to that fight armed with all the information he could find so as to make the best decision he possibly could about what he wanted to happen afterward — personally and in regards to the Karashigumi. That seeking this information might well be yet another thing his unprofessional desire and interest was foisting on his professionalism under the guise of a job-related need he was well aware, and not terribly concerned.

The fact was, he’d been bored half to death today playing the role of coordinating spymaster waiting around for other people to bring him news and receive updated orders; some actual research on his own, even if it involved merely heading over to one of the government offices to dig up what files there might be on this Sekihoutai he only vaguely remembered hearing about in the past, would be a vastly welcome change.

This story is a rewrite of the one I began in 2002, whose first story arc was completely finished and second well underway before I realized it needed more than just touch-ups in all its older sections. For some author’s notes on the segments in this post, please see all these Productivity Log posts.


First Kiss

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

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


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

Saitou certainly had a good sense of timing.

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

And now he was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In between dodging it,” Saitou nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You really thought I’d care, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, no, also–”

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

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

“All right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You and your stupid dedication,” Sano snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


One Year, Two Minutes (1/3)



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

1
2
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Heero.

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

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

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

“What?” Heero demanded in a tone half scornful and half surprised. “For who?”

“More like he’s saving himself for all the more experienced guys he’s expecting to meet at Harvard.”

“I am not going to Harvard.”

Quatre finally decided to step in. Most weeks Heero had to take care of himself, since this happened too frequently for Quatre to be saving his hide every time, but Quatre was feeling generous today. “You know, you guys, it could actually be that he’s telling the truth — that he’s not interested in dating because he’s focusing on his grades and getting into the school he wants.”

They turned on him. “You should talk! You guys hardly ever come out with us either!”

“Yeah, but that’s because we’re…” He threw just the briefest look at Trowa, gave just the tiniest clearing of his throat. “…busy… on weekends.”

Appreciative laughter spread through the group, and Quatre gave Heero a pointed glance to see if he’d gotten the message: that it wasn’t what you said, but how you said it. Trowa and Quatre both usually worked Saturday and Sunday, and did homework the rest of the time; and, though it was true that a weekend rarely passed without their seeing each other at least briefly, it was pure myth that they spent two straight days in bed together or out on exotic dates — myth perpetuated by perfectly true little phrases like ‘we’re busy on weekends’ spoken in the right way and accompanied by the right gesture.

Heero returned the look with a faint, thoughtful scowl. Obviously he wasn’t terribly pleased at how easily Quatre was able to get around the problem he faced on a weekly basis, but at the same time seemed to be struck with an idea; perhaps he really had gotten the message.

“Maybe he’s got performance anxiety.”

“Yeah, he’s afraid he wouldn’t actually be able to ask anyone out, because it would take too many words.”

“You could write ’em a note, Heero… you know, like in middle school?”

Do you want to go out with me this weekend? Check Yes or No.

His brows lowering a trifle, Heero took a deep, quiet breath. “OK, fine, you guys. I’ll tell you the truth.”

Every head turned toward him; everyone went silent.

“I didn’t like to say,” he went on, “because I didn’t want people bugging me about it all the time, but this–” he gestured around– “is worse.”

“What?” Relena was leaning forward eagerly. “What is it? Do you actually secretly have a long-distance boyfriend?”

Heero turned startled eyes in her direction. “How did you know?”

“What?! You really do??” She jumped up. “Oh, my god, Heero, you have to tell us all about him!”

This opinion was immediately ratified by most of the rest of the group; Quatre thought that, Friday tradition notwithstanding, most of them couldn’t actually imagine Heero ever going out with anyone.

“Well,” Heero said slowly, apparently very aware that everyone was suddenly hanging on his every word, “I met him in April… he lives in Gearing…”

And thus began the biggest, most complicated, and by far the coolest and most collected lie Quatre had ever heard Heero Yuy tell.

***

This place was strange.

Oh, the classrooms and hallways and lockers and the way people dressed and the way the teachers treated the students and the schedules and the curriculum were all perfectly normal, as far as Duo could tell, but in what world did everyone you encountered seem to be talking about you behind your back from almost the moment you walked in the door ’til the time you finally managed to locate where you’d left your bike that morning and went home?

Of course it was a little weird — unfortunate, even — for someone to switch schools in the middle of his senior year. Duo would have wondered about anyone in that situation too. Then, his circumstances were pretty interesting… but how many people here could possibly know anything of them yet? Yeah, there were plenty of reasons for most of the school to be whispering about him, but this was just too early. It had started halfway through his second class, for god’s sake! What was going on here?

Applying himself devotedly, on his second day, to picking up what he could of the whispers, he thought he caught an unfamiliar name mentioned in conjunction with his own (to the confirmation that they really were talking about him): Heero Yuy. What he couldn’t figure out was who this Heero Yuy was, what he had to do with Duo, and why this talk had all started up so soon. Presumably the guy had answers, but Duo hadn’t yet been able to determine where and when he might be able to find him, and hadn’t felt like asking directly.

Sometime somebody would have to say something straight out. High-schoolers could keep up gossip in a vacuum far longer than any other group, but eventually they needed concrete to build on. And when someone finally approached him, whatever they had to say would surely tell him what he needed to know.

But it didn’t. Some clues, perhaps, were conveyed by the breathless demand, “So is he a good kisser?” but no real answers. “Nobody here,” the unfamiliar girl in the hall went on, “has been able to find out!”

Duo could have demanded information at this point, but his smartass instinct took over and what he ended up saying was, “Wouldn’t you like to know!” At which point the girl ran off giggling.

So obviously he was supposed to have kissed this Heero Yuy. Being a perverse individual, Duo was unsurprised that his first thought upon learning this was to wonder whether or not Heero Yuy was a good kisser. But his second instinct was annoyance at still being almost entirely in the dark, and after that came even greater curiosity than before.

His third day at his new school (Friday, since the semester had kicked off on a Wednesday) was as provoking as the previous two had been, and the fact that the widespread interest in him and his doings and his apparent connection with the oddly-named stranger didn’t seem to have died down at all was really making him quite wild to find out what the hell was going on. With continued perverseness, however, he was even less interested in asking anyone outright unless that person was Heero Yuy himself. Where to find Heero Yuy was the problem, since it was a big school, and asking someone where to find him would be tantamount to asking everyone why they thought he’d kissed the guy. He would snap eventually, though.

Actually it turned out he didn’t have to.

His new trigonometry class didn’t seem to be quite as far along as they’d been in the old one, so paying strict attention wasn’t yet a matter of great importance. It would be nice to have some homework that was just review, too, for a little while: grab a bit of a break while he got used to everything else here. Things like being endlessly talked about, and Heero Yuy, and all that.

He didn’t realize just how badly his attention had waned until class took him by surprise by ending. Suddenly everyone else was standing and walking out when he hadn’t even started packing. Hastily he shoved loose papers into his notebook and closed the latter, which action knocked his pen to the floor. When he returned from bending to retrieve the dropped article, a new and unfamiliar object lay on top of his things.

Immediately recognizing, from much experience, a private note, Duo looked hastily to see not what it said but, rather, who had left it. And though the guy was moving quickly, rejoining the other students leaving the classroom, Duo could tell he was the one, and got a fairly good look at him before he disappeared.

He’d actually noticed this person earlier — though he hadn’t paid him any particular attention — because of the weird hair. At first glance it looked like a deliberately emo style, but the lack of an outfit or makeup in that vein seemed to contradict such an assessment — which actually made the long hair over the face even weirder. Not that Duo saw a great deal of the face; the guy didn’t turn even slightly back in this direction to see if he’d found the note, and soon was out of sight.

With rising excitement, Duo reached for the folded paper. Was it possible that not-quite-emo guy had been the mysterious Heero Yuy himself, and here was an explanation of all the strange goings-on? This hope was dashed, however, even as a new one arose, when Duo finally opened the note.

It read, Heero Yuy’s locker is B-213, if you’re looking for him.

***

Without having to take in anything more than what the corner of his eye could show him, Heero knew exactly who it was that had appeared so abruptly next to him at his locker. He hadn’t caught sight of the guy prior to this, but knew very well what he looked like, and that he must have good reason to seek Heero out before too long. As a matter of fact, Heero really should have sought him out sometime earlier than Friday afternoon, but hadn’t really had his thoughts in order yet. Well, time to face the music.

The first he’d heard of it had been in his third class on Wednesday. Sylvia, who had been present that unfortunate lunchtime back before break when Heero had made up all that nonsense, sat behind him, and, coming in late, had barely had time to hiss at him before the teacher called them all to order, “Heero, why didn’t you tell us your boyfriend was transferring here?! He’s in my history class, and it surprised the hell out of me!”

There had been no time for Heero to express his shock or issue a denial at this point, as class was beginning. Since the teacher had only a fairly brief greeting for them, however, before getting them started on an assignment she’d written on the board, there was leisure for quiet conversation after not too long.

“Heero has a boyfriend?” was how it started. Heero didn’t know the name of the girl that sat behind Sylvia, but he could tell just from the skeptical tone of these murmured words that she, like the rest of the school, had a hard time accepting the idea.

“Yeah, he’s totally hot.” He could hear Sylvia shifting in her chair to deliver this reply to her rear, but he himself kept absolutely still; if the teacher was going to throw a dry erase marker at anyone for gossiping instead of completing their assignment, it wasn’t going to be at him.

“You saw him?” the whispered conversation went on. “What’s he like?”

“Totally hot; I just said!”

“Yeah, but what does he actually look like? Maybe I’ve seen him in the halls!”

Sylvia poked Heero in the back of the head, which was very annoying. “He looks just like Heero described him.”

Sincerely doubting that, Heero flipped through his notebook, seeking out the page on which he’d written in neat bulleted lines, just in case he ever needed to continue the deception, the points he’d made about his utterly fictional long-distance boyfriend back in December. As they continued talking behind him, he stared down at the improbable list.

“He’s got the longest hair in the world. He’s got it braided today; you can’t miss him.”

Subtly, Heero put a tiny checkmark next to Good-looking, and another beside Hair down to his thighs.

“And he doesn’t exactly have what I’d call purple eyes… they’re blue, but it’s a sort of purpley-blue that I bet you’d definitely call purple if you were going out with him and wanted to make him sound all exotic.”

The other girl giggled madly, and Heero, somewhat reluctantly, checked off Purple eyes.

“He said he just moved from Gearing when he turned eighteen; I bet he came just to be with Heero.”

Sadly, Heero checked off Lives in Gearing while simultaneously trying to shut his ears to the “Aaww!” of the other girl before Sylvia added the final point:

“I think he said he did, like, three different sports at his old school; too bad it’s too late for him to really do anything here.”

Athletic went the way of the rest of the list as the other girl mused, “Well, he could still go for–”

“Ladies, I somehow get the impression you’re not discussing the assignment back there.”

Heero was grateful for the teacher’s intervention, but had a hard time turning his own concentration toward searching for similes and metaphors in the short story they were currently studying. It was obvious that the damage had been done: if Sylvia had jumped to the conclusion that this handsome, purple-eyed, long-haired athlete from Gearing was Heero’s fictitious boyfriend, even if she hadn’t spread the news to everyone she knew, others might well have made the same connection. How on Earth had someone matching all of those improbable criteria shown up here so soon after Heero had invented them? And what was Heero going to do about it?

This question had occupied him throughout the last three days, and he’d never arrived at a satisfactory answer. It would be, he’d thought, good manners to give the newcomer a heads-up… well, it was probably too late for that, but at least an explanation of the weird treatment he was undoubtedly already receiving would be appropriate. But Heero had procrastinated because it seemed so odd a thing to have to confess and he’d never decided how to word what needed to be said. And meanwhile the gossip had only heightened, and the comments people threw him in passing become more and more embarrassing; god only knew how the stranger was taking it.

And now here was this same Duo Maxwell, having very understandably tracked Heero down, standing casually next to him at his locker, giving him an appraising look and exuding an air of curiosity and expectation with maybe just a touch of righteous indignation thrown in.

“You know,” he said at last, “I’ve had a lot of really weird experiences in the past… but having a boyfriend I’ve never met is a new one.”

Heavily, Heero shut his locker and turned toward him. “I can explain.”

“Good! ‘Cause I’m really curious.”

Heero looked around at their fellows, many of whom were surreptitiously watching them. “Not in here, though.”

“That’s fine,” said Duo affably. “I’ve gotta get my bike anyway, from the entrance that I thiiiiink is this way…” He pointed, though he looked a little lost.

Both in agreement and to confirm Duo’s guess as to which direction the bike racks were, Heero nodded. When he turned away and started walking, Duo hopped after and fell into step beside him.

As they moved through the halls, Duo’s glances in Heero’s direction seemed to indicate that he was about to start asking questions, despite Heero’s not yet having allowed the time and place to be right. Heero braced himself. Those selfsame glances, however, seemed to have informed Duo that Heero still wasn’t ready; instead of what Heero had expected, what came out of Duo’s mouth when it opened was, “So, ‘Heero Yuy’ — that’s, what, uh, Martian?”

“Japanese,” Heero informed him, grateful to have this to talk about and a few more minutes to try to come up with a way to explain things that wouldn’t make him sound like a total idiot.

“Oh, cool. Do you speak Japanese?”

“Yes.”

“Awesome! Say something for me! In Japanese, I mean.”

Heero sighed faintly, and wondered, in Japanese, why people always made that request.

Duo was grinning appreciatively. “That’s awesome,” he reiterated. “I’ve seen some of those Japanese cartoons, but they’ve always got the voices all redone in English. Oh, bikes! You found them!” He gave a gesture of mock admiration and gratitude to Heero for the feat of having led them out the correct door to locate the bike racks, and moved to unlock a fairly new-looking grey one from the midst of the line.

Standing back and watching, Heero tried, almost frantically now, to get his thoughts in order. It didn’t help that this Duo Maxwell fellow was… well, ‘totally hot’ on Sylvia’s part had been an understatement. And supposedly he was an athlete too? If Heero had been looking for a boyfriend, this guy would have been way out of his league.

Bicycle extracted, Duo rejoined Heero, cheerfully wheeling the vehicle alongside. “OK, where should we go?”

Heero pointed. “I live that direction; I usually walk home.”

“Oh! Well, I live that way too! Lucky coincidence.” In a slightly louder tone he announced, “Means I can walk you home, boyfriend.”

Somebody nearby giggled. Heero didn’t look around to see who it was or put his burning face on further display.

A brief discussion of relative locations as they left school property revealed that Duo lived a couple of miles past Heero’s neighborhood, which was itself a mile and a half from the school. No wonder he would be biking there and back rather than walking. More of a wonder was that the place was an apartment belonging to Duo and a roommate, that Duo had moved to town without parents or anything. But before Heero could question him on the interesting circumstance, Duo glanced around to verify that none of their schoolmates were nearby and then said, “So what’s the deal? With you and me, I mean. Why does everyone think we’re dating when I haven’t even ever seen you before today?”

Heero never had thought of a good way to put this, so there was nothing for it but just to confess. “It’s because I made you up last December.”

Duo started theatrically. “Are you telling me that I’m a figment of your imagination? And that all my memories of my life never actually happened? And that if something happens to you, I’ll totally cease to exist???”

Unable to remain unamused by this, Heero nevertheless explained seriously. “What I mean is, I made up a fake boyfriend to get some friends to leave me alone about finding a real one, and what I described turned out to match you perfectly.”

“Really?” Duo looked a little skeptical. “Because, not to sound conceited or anything, I’m pretty unique.”

“I know. I don’t know how it happened. I chose the most improbable things I could think of off the top of my head — the long hair, the purple eyes… I was trying to describe someone who didn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

“Huh. Weird.”

“So you showed up and of course everyone–”

“Thinks I’m your boyfriend, yeah. My eyes are blue, though.”

“It’s kindof a purpley blue,” said Heero helplessly.

“So why’d you invent me? Your friends wanted you to find a boyfriend?”

“It’s more like they’re always bugging me to find a date and go out with the group on weekends… but I’m not interested in dating right now. I don’t know how anyone can be, with the amount of homework we get.”

Duo chuckled. “OK, I get it. So you invented a fake boyfriend. Lemme guess — I was from out of town and you only saw me on weekends or something, so it was a perfect excuse not to go out with your friends.”

“You…” That pronoun was a little awkward, actually, in this context. “‘He‘ was from Gearing.”

“Oh, wow. It just keeps getting weirder.”

“Well, we do sometimes get people transferring in from Gearing — and Steppe and Coachroad — because of the whole gay thing… That part wasn’t as weird as the rest of it.”

“Yeah, how’d you manage to get my hair and everything?”

“I have no idea.” Heero shook his head, more helplessly than ever. “And I would never have said all of that,” he added in sincere apology, “if I’d known someone would show up who matched it all so well. I didn’t mean to make everyone think you were my boyfriend, I promise.”

“Not everyone thinks that, though… The guy who told me where your locker was couldn’t have thought we were dating, or else why would he have thought I… didn’t know where your locker was?”

“What guy?”

“Some guy with weird hair.” Duo dug through one of his pants pockets with his free hand, and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “He handed me this in trig.”

Heero opened the note; half a glance was all it took to solve the mystery. “This is Quatre’s handwriting,” he said dismissively. “The guy you saw was probably Trowa, his boyfriend, running errands for him as usual. Quatre is a sort of… social guru. He knows who everyone’s dating, and everyone’s schedule, and a lot more about the entire school than he should. Of course he knows you aren’t actually my boyfriend.”

After a long, pensive silence, Duo said slowly, “Well… I don’t see why I can’t be.”

Heero found himself blushing hot all of a sudden. “What?” He barely got the word out coherently in his surprise and embarrassment.

“Not for real,” Duo assured him hastily, undoubtedly marking Heero’s flustered reaction. “But if everyone already thinks we’re together, why not let them keep thinking that? Then your friends wouldn’t keep bugging you to find a date, you wouldn’t have to admit you made the whole thing up, and you could get on with your life in peace.”

“That… that sounds like a perfect setup.” Having regained his composure, at least outwardly, Heero was able to speak in a fairly businesslike tone. “But… not to sound ungrateful or anything… why?”

Duo shrugged. “We’re already going the same direction to get home… I’m going to be working most days, and if you’re going to be doing homework, why not let people think we’re spending all our time together after school?”

“And…” It was a fantastic-sounding plan, but there was a side to it that Duo hadn’t touched on. “And at school?”

“Well, you seem like a decent guy, and I never mind having new friends to hang out with.” Duo grinned. “But even if we don’t hang out all that much at school, it won’t look weird if it still looks like we’re going home together every day, right? And if it turns out we really can’t stand each other at all, we can claim we broke up and just end the whole thing.”

So overwhelmed was Heero by the abruptness of this unbelievably fortuitous idea and the apparent quickness of Duo’s resolve, he couldn’t for a moment say anything. Finally, though, he managed, “But why would you do this? It’s… it seems really nice of you… and you just met me…”

Again Duo shrugged. “Why not? I’m going to be busy too; it’ll be nice if people aren’t bugging me about dating either.”

“But what if you want to go out with someone?”

“Why should I? Truth is, I got a lot going on: I’ve already got hours of homework after only three days, and I have a full-time job.” He gave a nod of satisfaction so brisk it made his braid bounce. “No, I think this will work out really well. I mean,” he added with a sidelong glance at Heero, “if you want to. Don’t let me push you into it if you’d rather just–”

“No, no!” Heero broke in hastily. “You’re right; it seems perfect. I just…” He scratched his head a little nervously. “Just can’t believe my luck.”

“It does all seem kindof astrology or whatever, doesn’t it?” In a deep, portentous voice Duo announced, “The stars aligned that day to throw together two strangers on the path of destiny.” Then his demeanor changed entirely as he asked casually, “What’s your sign?”

“Uh…” Thrown off-balance by Duo’s sudden alteration of tone, Heero struggled to remember. “Pisces, I think?”

“Hmm. No good for a Saggitarius like me. Good thing we won’t really be dating.”

Heero supposed that was as valid a reason as any to be glad they wouldn’t really be dating. “So you’re interested in astrology?” he asked cautiously.

“Sortof. It’s fun to follow. I like reading horoscopes and seeing how stupidly general they are. Like every single one of them could probably apply to anyone, no matter when you were born. The one I just read for myself the other day — no, actually, it wasn’t for myself, sorry; it was for Cancer — it was talking about relationships, and……”

The next mile, spent discussing astrology and Duo’s semi-satirical interest in it, was enough to convince Heero that some stars must indeed have aligned in order to bring them to this pass: his new fake boyfriend, with whom he would, presumably, be spending at least some time on a regular basis for a while, wasn’t just quickly decisive and unexpectedly understanding and helpful; he was also very entertaining. Heero was enjoying the conversation so much that he found himself a little reluctant to stop at the corner where he needed to break away from Duo’s homeward path.

“I have to go this way,” he said, pointing.

“Oh.” Duo looked in that direction, then on down the street where he needed to go. “Hey, I don’t have to work today, and I’m just going to go home and do homework… do you want to actually hang out? Might as well do homework together as separately, right?”

Marveling at the ease with which Duo suggested so friendly an activity to someone he’d just met, but seeing nothing wrong with the idea, Heero said, “Yeah, why don’t you come to my house?” He added somewhat warningly, “If you’re serious about doing homework. Because I have a lot of it.”

“Now, what would make you think I’m ever not totally serious about anything?” Duo demanded in the most innocent of tones as he followed Heero around the corner.

***

Duo had rather hoped to coincide with Heero on the way to school on Monday, but thought the difference in timing between a walker and a cyclist was a decent enough explanation for why he didn’t. Although he’d never hated school the way some people did, it wasn’t exactly his favorite pastime either — but today he was actually quite interested in being there. Having a secret was always fun, as was putting on a show for people; and becoming better acquainted with the quiet, intelligent Heero had its attractions as well.

Besides, this time when someone Duo didn’t know came up to him in the hall and asked what struck him as an extremely rude personal question having to do with the accuracy of the portrayal of Japanese men’s anatomy in anime porn — an inquiry whose significance would have gone completely over his head just a few days before — he was able to reply immediately and cheerfully that he would be quite willing to dole out punches to the face of anyone else that was curious.

The weather was cold, but evidently Heero’s group of friends wasn’t going to let a little thing like January deter them from eating in their customary outside spot. Anything to maintain their territory and avoid freshmen, Duo supposed. And the central courtyard was pretty nice, if a bit of a walk from the cafeteria if you happened to be buying school lunches (which, Duo had determined after some calculations, were cheaper in the long run than trying to figure out something else every single day). So the only problem left was coming up with an explanation for why he hadn’t eaten lunch with Heero last week, why he was eating with him today, and why he might not be again in the future.

Interestingly, Heero was more taciturn with his friends than he had been with a complete stranger on Friday, and evidently they’d been unable to get a thing out of him last week regarding his newly-arrived boyfriend. Since Heero had mentioned in some embarrassment that he’d put off seeking Duo out because he hadn’t been sure what to say to him, it shouldn’t be too great a surprise that he hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone else either. But it also meant that his lunch crowd was even more curious than they might otherwise have been because of the perceived secrecy.

They mobbed Duo the moment he appeared, a little later than most of them due to the aforementioned walk from the cafeteria and a disorientation about the layout of the school that he hadn’t yet quite overcome. Space was made beside where Heero sat unobtrusively in a corner so Duo could squeeze in next to him — right next to him, which was a pleasant warmth in the cold outside air, but Duo couldn’t help wondering how Heero felt about it.

The reason he gave, in response to the immediate questions about why he’d been neglecting his boyfriend, was that he’d been checking out lunch venues throughout the school — which he in fact had. His response to the information that Heero had been unhappy here without him was a serious inquiry of Heero whether or not this was true, to which Heero replied with a slight quirk of a corner of his lips that he’d been fine. His astonishing answer to the demand that he eat lunch here with Heero and the rest of them from now on was something silly to the effect of his being an itinerant at heart and unable to stay in one place long or consistently.

Then, in order to cover up the whispering that started as they all tried to wrap their brains around this and began to speculate what it would probably mean for his relationship with Heero, Duo asked to be introduced to everyone. When it became obvious that Heero wasn’t about to take this task upon himself, it was performed instead by a girl named Relena. Duo was interested to note both the all-knowing Quatre and lackey Trowa among the group, and also that Heero didn’t actually seem terribly friendly with most of these friends of his. It made Duo wonder how it was that he’d come to eat lunch with them every day at all.

Once Relena was finished rattling off names (and accompanying facts that were probably designed for further identification but that meant nothing to Duo), she settled down against one of the large concrete squares stationed throughout the courtyard. These had undoubtedly been intended by their builders as benches, but the one in this corner was used by this group as a shelf and a seat-back; Relena’s current position in relation to it put her near and directly facing Duo in what almost resembled the attitude of an interrogator across a table from an unwilling informant.

“Now,” she said in a complacently authoritative tone, “you have to tell us everything: how you guys met, what it’s been like being long-distance, what made you decide to move up here — everything!”

Duo had actually given a fair amount of thought to this during the long hours he’d worked over the weekend, and entertained himself making things up; though he hadn’t consulted Heero yet about the stories he’d concocted, he deemed it unlikely that Heero had fabricated anything too terribly complicated on his own that would contradict what Duo had to say. However, though Heero might not object, within the context of the scam, to Duo waxing eloquent on their supposed relationship, he might mind for other reasons. The briefest glance in Heero’s direction showed him already blushing faintly just at hearing the questions asked; the answers, fictitious or otherwise, couldn’t improve his condition.

“You know,” Duo said instead, with a grin, “I’d rather not take all the mystery out of that story by telling it all at once; it’ll be so much better if I just give you little hints over time. So for now, how about I tell you all about the fabulous Duo Maxwell instead?”

Relena’s expression of slight discontent was the first hint Duo had that she was perhaps less interested in him personally than as he related to Heero. But all she said was, “OK, fine.”

So he spent a happy lunch hour complaining about how his foster parents hadn’t really wanted a son, but, rather, a minion they could shape and control; how they’d pressured him for as long as he could remember to prepare himself for a military career, and how he’d never been interested; how he’d put up with their demands and insistence for a few years and then rebelled, and how tense things had been thereafter; about the nuclear-level explosion he’d occasioned by announcing that he was bisexual; and, finally, about his lengthy and careful preparations, during the year he would turn eighteen, to get himself out the moment that happy event took place. That had been last December, and as soon as school had halted for the winter break he’d moved away from Gearing.

“I came here — I mean here specifically — because of Heero, obviously,” he concluded, joggling his ‘boyfriend’ slightly with his elbow. “But also because I knew this school was all famous for being so gay-friendly. I read that one article in that magazine–”

“You and everyone else in the world,” someone put in laughingly.

Duo grinned. “Yeah, the one where they said this was probably the only school in the country where you could get beaten up for being a homophobe — and I was like, ‘I am so there.’ I figured even transferring schools in the middle of my senior year would be worth it to come here for a while.”

“And he didn’t tell me any of this,” Heero put in unexpectedly. It was the first time he’d spoken in quite a while.

“What do you mean?” Relena sounded incredulously amused. “He didn’t tell you he was moving here?”

Heero shook his head.

Taking the cue, Duo grinned broadly and expanded on the subject. “It was pretty much the best surprise ever, if I do say so myself. Whenever I was complaining before about how much I hated living at home, Heero would remind me that high school was almost over, if I could just hold on a little longer…” This fictitious advice seemed consistent with what Duo had observed of Heero so far. “He had no idea I was already planning on getting out before high school was over!”

“So you just showed up here with, what, a truck full of stuff or something…” Incredulity now tinged with delight, Relena turned to Heero. “And that was the first you knew he was coming here?”

“Something like that,” Heero mumbled. He looked embarrassed, maybe because he was so bald-facedly lying, but Duo thought this had been a good move on Heero’s part: it would at least partially explain why he’d been in a weird mood last week — anyone might be a little stunned if his long-distance boyfriend suddenly joined him in his hometown without warning.

“So if you and Heero met and started going out last April…” This was the very innocent- and harmless-looking little blonde Quatre, and he had Duo’s immediate attention. “And you were getting ready to get away from your parents all of last year… that means you already knew you’d be moving and changing schools before you even met him. Did you have this school in mind then?”

Duo wondered where Quatre, who knew the truth, was going with this question. Maybe he was just trying to guide the topic back to something that would embarrass Heero less. Perfectly happy to accept the subject shift in that or any case, Duo nodded. “Yeah, ever since I read that article…”

“So you were already interested in this school,” Quatre mused, “and then you met Heero.” His pointed yet half-veiled gaze indicated his awareness that, with the way he’d worded it, this was totally accurate. “It’s kinda like destiny or something.”

Duo remembered his own comment last Friday about stars aligning, heard the giggles and charmed noises of some of the girls in the group, and grinned as he leaned over the very small distance it took him to rub his shoulder against Heero’s. He still wasn’t sure what Quatre meant by that line of inquiry, and didn’t know that it was likely to embarrass Heero any less, but he didn’t hesitate to agree, at least verbally.

It turned out he needn’t have worried so much about Heero’s level of embarrassment. On their way home that afternoon, almost immediately they were down the street away from the school and the ears of fellow students, Heero brought it up.

“I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t happy not to have to get into relationship talk over lunch,” he said, “but I’m not fragile. You’re obviously a better actor than me, so you’re welcome to choose what we talk about to everyone, and I’ll just try to keep up.”

“Well, I thought you did fine,” Duo assured him. “That idea that I supposedly didn’t tell you I was moving out here was pretty funny, and I thought you pulled it off perfectly.”

“Thank you.” Heero smiled slightly; it was the first time Duo had seen him do it, and it was remarkable what a striking, attractive change the expression made to his face. “This is…” The smile turned into a bit of a grimace as he admitted the unpalatable fact. “Well, I didn’t think I was going to like this, but actually it’s been kinda nice so far.”

Duo wondered whether this unobtrusive person had ever received so much positive attention at school before. “Even if some of it was embarrassing?”

“I said I’m not fragile,” said Heero, now somewhat irritably. “Just because I get a little embarrassed about something doesn’t mean anything changes.”

Now Duo had to wonder whether anyone around here took Heero at all seriously in a social sense. He was an exceptionally good student — Duo knew that quite well even after such a short time — and there was a general tendency among people their age to equate that with a lack of social skills. Maybe that was at least part of the reason everyone had been so interested to discover Heero ‘had a boyfriend.’

Anyway, Duo didn’t feel like trying to analyze Heero’s place in the high school strata right now. “We’re only a day in,” he said instead with a grin that was both cheerful and warning. “It could get better or worse from here.”

“And if it’s worse,” Heero said calmly, “we can always ‘break up.'”

It wasn’t real; since they weren’t actually dating, they couldn’t actually break up. But Duo couldn’t help considering this — particularly Heero’s self-reassuringly cool manner of delivery — rather cold. No wonder, again, everyone had so marveled at the idea of Heero with a boyfriend!

After this, however, they moved on to Heero’s favorite topic (homework), with the occasional mention thrown in of Duo’s job at a restaurant not far from his apartment, and Duo pretty much forgot he’d ever felt put off.

***

“So it ended up 37-20, and they’re obviously in. With Manning in there, they’re practically unstoppable. That guy can find a receiver every single time, no matter what kind of heat’s on him; it’s fucking amazing. There’s no way in hell San Francisco can… god, are you even listening?”

“Yes,” Sylvia replied abstractedly, “and I totally agree.”

“Then what did I just say?”

“That you’ve got a crush on Eli Manning,” she replied promptly, finally turning her eyes back toward him.

“Not funny,” Alex growled. “That’s what’s wrong with this fucking school… everyone assumes everyone’s fucking gay.”

“I was totally joking,” she assured him. “But you have been talking about football a lot.”

“Well, what would you rather talk about?” he demanded in that exasperated ‘Oh, my god, why can’t girls ever make sense?’ tone guys sometimes used, glancing around to see what kept grabbing her attention past his left shoulder. Evidently he couldn’t tell what she was looking at, for he turned back to her with no enlightenment on his face.

“Look again,” she commanded, grinning. “Aren’t they totally cute?”

His expression darkened. “I’m not looking again if it’s just to see something ‘cute.'” Then, briefly, a flicker of puzzlement crossed his face and, contrary to his words, he did look again. “Oh, god,” he said as he slowly turned back. “You’re talking about that new guy Duo and that nerd guy, aren’t you? Please, Sylvia, please tell me Duo’s not gay.”

“He’s not gay,” she said immediately.

Alex breathed a huge, exaggerated sigh of relief. “Good, because he’s in my P.E. class, and if I thought–”

“He’s bi,” Sylvia broke in.

“So he is gay! Goddammit, he’s probably been staring at my ass in the locker room ever since he got here!”

Sylvia tried not to laugh. Alex actually seemed angry, but she couldn’t feel sorry for him. “I totally wouldn’t blame him if he did,” she said. “And why would he anyway? He’s together with Heero.”

Alex appeared somewhat consoled by her flirtatious remark, and also curious in spite of a very strong inclination not to be. “Is he? I heard he played soccer at his old school… and Heero’s in, like, five different Honor Societies… why would they–”

“Duo’s totally got a 3.8,” Sylva said, proud of her inside knowledge. “Or at least that’s what he had at his old school; I don’t know about here. I think Heero’s got, like, a 4.7 or something, but anyway they’re both really good students. Probably,” she added in satisfaction, “because they spend, like, every day after school at Heero’s house doing homework.”

“You sure that’s what they’re doing?” Alex asked darkly.

“No,” she tittered. “But they won’t come out with us on Fridays, and they always go home together. Duo doesn’t always eat lunch with us, because I guess he’s already got a lot of friends all over the school, even though it’s been, what, like, three weeks? And I think Heero misses him at lunch, but with Heero you can never tell.” She laughed again. “Anyway, they always go home together.”

“Why are you so interested in this?” Alex’s tone was suspicious as he closed his locker, gave the couple they were discussing one last, somewhat venomous look, and turned away to walk down the hall.

Following him, Sylvia answered cheerfully. “Because I’ve been eating lunch with Heero practically every day for two years now, and we’ve never seen him go out with anyone, and we always thought it would be cool if he did, and now he finally is!”

“I can’t believe that Duo guy’s gay.” This was more in muttered apostrophe than as any sort of reply to Sylvia.

“He’s bi,” she corrected.

“Oh, come on, like any girl would go out with a guy who’d been with another guy,” he said harshly.

I would!”

“God, would you? Have you? Seriously, if you say yes, you are not getting a ride home.”

That, Sylvia thought, was a terribly rude comment, but she had to admit that she never had gone out with a bisexual guy… and she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of a date with Alex on Friday by calling him on his homophobia. She did, however, as a sort of passive rebellion, keep talking about Heero, and how pleased she was to see him with the very likeable Duo, all the way out to the student parking lot and half the way home.

***

The previous three Januaries had been the heaviest homework months of the school year, as if the teachers were trying to make up for the long winter break and get the new calendar year started off right, and this January had sustained that trend admirably.

“And you know how many pages he wants?” Duo was complaining as they made their usual way out one day near the end of the month. “Freaking ten! That’s practically a book! And he was very specific about margin widths and font sizes, too, so we can’t cheat.”

“Triple-space it,” Heero suggested.

Duo stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. “You’re a genius!”

Heero, who didn’t stoop to such tactics himself but somehow knew them all, and who moreover had written two seven-page essays this month and was inclined to feel sorry for his companion, gave a sympathetic look.

“But, seriously, I’ll still end up having to write eight or nine pages,” Duo groaned. “Who does that?”

“Have you chosen a topic?”

“I was thinking the Civil War.”

Heero laughed. “You can’t just do ‘the Civil War.’ That’s way too general.”

“Way too General Lee?”

Heero rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’ll figure something out. Stupid research paper.”

“Just wait ’til college. We’ll be writing twenty-page research papers, and we won’t have nearly as long to finish them.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. How’s it going with Stage, by the way?”

Willum Stage University, located in a town called Placette only a couple of hours’ drive from here, was the school Heero had in mind, and he’d just finished the application process earlier this week. For this he was duly congratulated, after which they fell silent for a block or so — one of them, presumably, still mulling over the paper that had been assigned in his history class today. But it was just occurring to Heero to wonder something about Duo.

Finally he asked. “Where do you want to go to college? I’ve never heard you mention.”

Duo pushed out his lips in a silly, almost pouty way and looked sidelong at Heero. “Iiiii don’t know if I do want to go to college,” he said a little reluctantly.

Surprised, Heero said, “Really? You’re a good student; I thought…”

“Yeah, that’s how everyone reacts,” Duo mumbled, “which is why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Everyone does tend to assume we’ll all be doing the same things once we’re done with school,” said Heero carefully, “but… some people work for a while first… some people travel… I guess some people don’t go to college at all…”

Duo made a weary, protesting noise. “You make it sound like it’s a really weird concept.”

“College has been my goal for as long as I can remember,” Heero admitted apologetically. “What do you have in mind instead?”

“I kinda want to be a chef.” Duo apparently didn’t have a great deal of hope that this would be in any way acceptable; his parents probably had something to do with that.

It sounded fine to Heero; he didn’t even have to give it much thought. “So, a culinary school, then?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Evidently heartened by the lack of immediate condemnation from Heero, Duo went on more enthusiastically. “What I think would be really cool is to have a combination restaurant and car repair shop so people could drop off their cars for whatever and then come inside and eat! Except I don’t actually want to run the place, I just want to do the cooking. I might take a few business classes just so I’ll have some idea what’s going on, but mostly my plan is to do some other cooking jobs so I can get really good at that and save up enough money to find a partner who can handle the business end of things while I make all the awesome food. And of course we’ll need a really good mechanic who…” He paused. “I lost you at ‘combination restaurant and car repair,’ didn’t I?”

Trying very hard to stifle his laughter and speak seriously, Heero said, “No, no, I think it’s a great idea.” In truth he considered it a remarkably childlike idea: something not necessarily impractical or inappropriate, but that few adults would come up with. Obviously one of those few was Duo, whom Heero couldn’t help considering, in light of this, rather adorable. Forcing calm upon himself he reiterated, “Really. Not a bad idea at all.”

Across the bike that separated them, Duo peered suspiciously at Heero. “You mean it?”

Solemnly Heero nodded.

Breaking into a brilliant grin, Duo exulted, “Hah! You’re the best ‘boyfriend’ ever!”

With a slight blush Heero said, “Who you should really talk to is my mom. She sometimes does catering. Just for small events, because it’s just her and a friend doing the cooking, but she still knows some things about the business…”

“Oh! That explains why she always has the Best Snacks Evar for us whenever I’m at your house doing homework! I meant to get the recipe for those little potato skin things, but I forgot. How come you didn’t tell me she did catering??”

“I didn’t realize you were interested.”

Duo frowned. “It’s probably not good that we ‘boyfriends’ don’t know all this stuff about each other. I mean, what if someone asked? Anyway, it’s definitely not good that we real, actual friends don’t know.”

Unexpectedly pleased at having Duo refer to him as a real, actual friend, Heero suggested, “We should have a question and answer session.”

“Yes! Yes, we should! OK, let me think of questions.”

This activity occupied them the rest of the way to Heero’s house. There, because Duo wanted to harass Heero’s mother and Heero wanted to do his homework, they agreed that the best way to go about this was for each of them to write down a list of questions, which they would then exchange and answer in between their other tasks as they had time and inclination.

Between the culinary discussion in which Mrs. Yuy was happy to indulge Duo for quite some time and the homework that Duo, who wasn’t nearly as irresponsible as he sometimes acted, started in on afterward, it wasn’t until nearly two hours later that they gave each other their questions. And then, not for the first time that day, Heero had to try to stifle his laughter.

1. What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?

2. What was one thing you used to want to be when you grew up that totally changed?

3. If you could take the characters from any movie and put them into a new movie about a DANCE COMPETITION, which movie and characters would you choose and why?

4. If you could have any animal in the world for a pet (and it would be friendly to you no matter what it was), what would you choose?

5. Do you have any awesome tattoos, and how do you feel about tattoos?

These weren’t really the sort of questions Heero had had in mind, and totally dissimilar to his list, which was about things like politics and important formative experiences… but honestly he was rather looking forward to answering them. Not only that, but it struck him after a few moments of thought that Duo actually had the right idea: Heero had conveyed plenty about his plans for the future and other such serious topics; it was the extracurricular aspects of his personality Duo would know least about at this point — and vice versa for Heero about Duo.

So, setting aside for the moment the book he was reading for English and the notes he was taking thereon, he centered Duo’s sheet of questions in front of him and set down his pencil without looking in order to choose one at random. Upon rereading it, he decided he would need more space than what Duo had allowed him, and extracted a fresh sheet of paper.

Am I limited to animals? he began writing. Because if it will be friendly to me no matter what it is, a banyan tree……


Blood Contingency 1-5



This story was last updated on May 12, 2019

I’m so rarely afraid of anything that when I do happen to encounter something that scares me, I hardly know what to do about it.

It would be easier to decide on a course of action if the source of my fear were something that might reasonably frighten a normal man — but this sudden, irrational wariness of the teenager leaning against the wall near my apartment door isn’t really something I know what to do with. I stop, under the pretense of checking something in the car before I get out, to examine the stranger.

About my height, though he’s slouching and that estimate could be off; a pale, Asian face with dark-lashed eyes; shaggy brown hair — I can’t tell how long, as it’s pulled back; seems fairly lanky, though not a lightweight; and could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two-or-three. He doesn’t appear threatening — at least not in any way I, as a cop, would normally consider threatening; there are, of course, any number of things that could be hidden under the jacket he’s wearing, but his bearing doesn’t suggest him ready to attack at any moment. So why does the very sight of him send a chill through my entire body?

Afraid I may be, inordinately and unusually so, but a coward I am not. I’ve already determined that he doesn’t mean to attack me, and, besides that, I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest and have a gun and a nightstick at my side. Closing the car door with no more firmness or haste than I normally use, I head up the sidewalk toward the building without hesitation. “Can I help you?” I ask the young man casually.

“I was waiting for you, actually,” he replies, and though on the surface his tone is equally casual, there’s something immovably… hard… in the voice… some cold note I can’t quite place, but which sends a slight shiver up my spine and puts me even more on my guard.

“And what can I do for you?” I ask, stopping before the stranger without a flinch.

He straightens up and pulls empty hands out of the pockets of his jacket. They’re unnaturally pale in front of the black leather and even the blue jeans they fall against as they drop to his side. He’s now looking me very intently in the face; I think that staring into his eyes, which are, like his skin, uncannily bright, might well and probably should increase the irrational fear, but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, the effect is rather the opposite.

“There’s a lot of things you could do for me, Joe,” he says after a long moment of silence. “It’s gonna be up to you like always, though.”

I wonder briefly if I’m being sexually propositioned, but dismiss the notion as implausible at best. Even the boldest prostitutes don’t wait for police officers outside their own homes and then make their advances in cryptic, stalker-like language — and this isn’t the neighborhood for it at any rate. It’s also far from the center of what little gang activity there is in this city, as well as the worst areas of drug-related intrigue. Thus I’m really at a loss what this young man who knows my name and address could possibly want from me here at night with empty hands and an aura of danger.

But, once again, I am far from cowardly. “I think you’d better tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here.”

He gives a wry smile — almost rueful, I think — and shakes his head. “You’ll find that out one way or another,” he says. “This is your first chance.”

“Are you threatening me?” I ask, my cool tone far from a reflection of my state of mind.

He shrugs. “Kinda. I’ll be back in a week.” And, replacing his hands in his pockets, he turns and begins to walk away.

I’m surprised and annoyed. That someone should show up like this outside my home, frighten me as nothing has for a decade, and then walk so carelessly away after making such incomprehensible remarks… it isn’t merely unsettling and bizarre, it’s irritating. However, as I’m opening my mouth to tell him to come back and explain himself, my entire attention is arrested by something — yet another inexplicably disconcerting object that really should mean nothing to me — something that sends another shiver up my spine.

There is a large symbol in white on the back of the stranger’s jacket: some sort of Japanese character, I think, though this is just my default guess because I happen to have a Japanese-American girlfriend. But something about it freezes me to the spot and silences whatever protest or demand I was about to make. It isn’t an innately frightening sign; it doesn’t convey any meaning to me whatsoever; it certainly does not, in its design or general aspect, have any sort of hypnotic effect; but somehow it’s riveting. Because it’s… familiar…?

When the young man’s back has disappeared from my sight around the corner, releasing me from the disturbed and absorbed contemplation of the symbol thereupon, my presence of mind returns instantly and informs me that it would be absurdly foolish to let him walk away like that.

However, darting around the corner with quiet, determined footsteps, I find the parking lot completely empty — empty, silent, and calm under the peaceful moon. My eyes stray from one part of my placid and familiar surroundings to the next, my ears straining for any sound out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood, for a good five minutes before I turn with yet another shiver and make my way back to the apartment.

Inside, in the comforting skepticism of an air-conditioned and linoleum-floored kitchen, I analyze the confrontation as I mechanically seek out something microwaveable for dinner. I’m realizing now, in even greater annoyance than I was feeling a few minutes ago, that I wasn’t really afraid so much as disturbed by the stranger’s aspect and presence. Something inside me doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy, even look at him. Of course there’s a certain amount of fear involved in this, but the primary reaction was and is reluctance. As if I really do know, and disapprove of, who he is and what his appearance signifies. Which seems impossible, but there it is.

And then that symbol… what did it mean? And what did it mean that I found it so terribly fascinating that I couldn’t look away or say a word while it was in view? Turning from the busy microwave, I seize a paper towel and the nearest available writing utensil, and do my best to reproduce the image; having a good eye for detail, I think I’ve done fairly well, but it means no more to me now than it did then.

A glance at the clock confirms that it isn’t too late for a phone call, but I can’t decide for a moment whether or not that would be overreacting. Eventually I opt for better-safe-than-sorry and dial Renee’s number.

“You’re calling me on a Wednesday?” she greets me. “What’s the big occasion?”

Ignoring her sarcasm I command, “Grab something to write with.”

“OK,” she says gamely, then, a moment later, “Go ahead.”

I study the figure I’ve jotted down, realizing just how stupid this is going to sound. “Draw a tic-tac-toe board,” I begin.

“Is this our date for the week?” she wonders, but I can hear the scratch of a pencil.

“Yes,” I deadpan. “Now put lines across the top and bottom about the same length as the other horizontal lines.”

“OK…”

“Then add a wide letter U or smile underneath.”

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, but it’s not really a fair game… you don’t know any kanji, which means I never get a turn. Where are you seeing this one?”

I find myself oddly reluctant, suddenly, to tell her about the strange young man. Am I hesitant to admit how much he disturbed me? Though unsure if this is my actual motive, the impulse not to mention him is too strong to resist. So I put her off with, “I wasn’t finished.”

“Well, with dashes around and inside the ‘smile,’ and the sides of the ‘tic-tac-toe board’ closed off” — she obviously finds this quite amusing — “you’ve got ‘waru’ or ‘aku,’ which means ‘evil.'”

“Evil,” I repeat slowly. Somehow I’m not surprised. Then, in response to her expectant silence I explain, “I saw it on someone’s jacket and wondered what it meant.”

She laughs. “People wear kanji all over the place and have no idea what they actually say. At least it wasn’t a tattoo.”

“Or a shirt that says, ‘Let’s Begin To Love Myself Over Again?'” I can’t help bringing that up; I never can.

“May I remind you that that was a birthday present?” She’s laughing. “I didn’t buy it.”

“And yet you still wear it.” I really don’t feel like further banter, though, so before she can retort I add, “Thanks for the translation; I have to go.”

She must have observed that my tease was half-hearted, for after noting that I sound tired and promising to call me on Saturday for a date that will not involve tic-tac-toe, she lets me go.

I stand in the kitchen staring at the paper towel for who knows how long, eventually make slow progress with my warmed-up leftovers to the table, and turn on the TV. I don’t pay any more attention to the news than I do to my dinner, however. It’s irritating but predictable: I can’t stop dwelling on the stranger. He was giving me a chance… to do what? He’ll be back in a week… why? And what was it he thought I could do for him? It’s pointless to speculate; if he does come back, presumably I’ll find out… but I hate being left in the dark, sitting back and waiting for my turn to know until it’s too late for action.

Most engrossing, though probably not most important… why was I so perturbed by him? I didn’t know the meaning of the symbol on his back until after he was gone, so why did I find it so riveting, so nearly horrifying? But he probably couldn’t answer those questions even if I felt like making a fool of myself asking them.

The next question is why such a minor event is still bothering me so much now that it’s over. It’s understandably annoying that I was disturbed enough not to act as I logically should have, but why I should be feeling echoes of that agitation even now… why I should be feeling traces of some kind of superstitious premonition, as if that brief encounter was a herald of upheaval… why I should be feeling like there’s something I should remember but that’s just past the edge of my conscious mind… I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.

I’m certain that going to bed is not likely to improve my state of mind, but I’m not about to change my habits or disrupt my sleep schedule for some stranger who shouldn’t really be at all unsettling.

It was probably just a prank anyway, and I’ll never see the guy again.

“Saitou,” she said. “With a mysterious, bloodthirsty psychopath murdering his way through Tokyo, I really should have been expecting you.”

“Good morning to you too, doctor,” I returned the greeting. “I’m not surprised to find you here.”

“No,” she replied sardonically, “considering I’ve managed to examine five of these things so far.”

I wasn’t about to mention how lucky I found these combined circumstances. I hadn’t yet had opportunity to examine much physical evidence, so I’d been less upset than I might have at another murder — and far from upset that Takani-sensei, who had no selfish motives or class biases and who knew me better than most, had once again been the closest doctor to the crime. The fact that the pattern had been significantly broken this time was another point in the incident’s favor.

Hironaku was getting excited over the signs of violence, which hadn’t been present at any of the previous scenes. He seemed to be missing the fact that, as usual, the victim had evidently gone peacefully without a struggle — that the smashed dishes, broken table, and dented wall had not been part of the murder — but he’d been with this case since the first corpse and had watched two other investigators make nothing of it, so his enthusiasm was reasonable. As subordinates went, he was a greater combination of tolerable and competent than most; I would probably keep him.

Takani was still kneeling beside the body, looking understandably disheveled. This certainly wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been summoned to an unusual murder scene in the early morning without even the consolation of being a police doctor. I wasn’t entirely without sympathy, but was still glad she and not some other physician was present.

A few drops of blood on the floor that had evidently come from the victim’s single wound were the only indication as to where the body had originally fallen and how it had lain. Apparently the wife, in her understandable but damnable hysteria at finding her husband the latest of possibly the most bizarre string of murders in Tokyo’s history, had dragged him out of place and might have caused more harm to the scene had her frantic screaming not alerted the neighbors and, subsequently, the police.

Only by chance had there been an officer in the vicinity at all; it wasn’t the type of neighborhood that got much attention from our upstanding and unbiased justice system. And that was the most significant deviation from the pattern here. The murders thus far had fallen into two categories: successful businessmen killed in their own homes, apparently by design; and unemployed lowlifes or homeless killed in the streets, apparently at random. This man had been an unemployed lowlife, yet, by all appearances, had still been specifically tracked to his home and deliberately murdered.

“What can you tell me?” I asked the doctor once I’d finished my methodical look around the room.

“He’s the same as all the rest,” she reported dully, “just fresher. Exsanguination and no trauma as far as I can tell. At least this time you found him soon enough for a proper autopsy.” The last remark was clearly made without much hope that she wouldn’t be the one performing it.

“Time of death?”

“He has no blood,” she reminded me flatly. “That throws everything off. Until the autopsy, I can only guess. Three hours ago, maybe more.”

I nodded as I stared down at the corpse. I hadn’t disbelieved the reports regarding the cause of death, but I hadn’t exactly believed them, either. Not until I’d seen it for myself could something so outlandish seem at all real. And I found myself a good deal more disturbed than I typically was at a murder scene. It wasn’t the abnormally pallid, dry-looking flesh and emaciated, slightly twisted frame that made it so much more horrific than usual… I’d seen bodies barely recognizable as such, turned inside out or strewn in pieces across large expanses, seen rooms so drenched in blood as to make me go temporarily colorblind. This was the exact opposite, and somehow just that… the mere absence, the complete absence of blood… that made it worse than all the rest.

Only the most puerile investigators jumped immediately to insanity as the likely motive for a crime, but this… this had the mark of a madman. Though still a madman with specific goals. The theory the previous investigators had been working with was that we had on our hands a disgruntled, jealous, overly ambitious businessman who’d hired an assassin to give him an edge and had set the killer on a few unrelated victims as well in order to cloud the issue. Not a bad hypothesis… but, typically, its flaws had either never occurred to my predecessors or had been willfully overlooked. Significant among these was a question they had entirely ignored: what would a businessman — or even an assassin — want with such a large volume of blood?

I’d been in town and on the case for several days now and still had no solid theories, and that was a deviation from pattern of another kind. Nothing we knew so far was remotely conclusive; indeed, every new clue we turned up seemed to point in a different direction from the last.

The final deviation was the witness. Every previous victim seemed to have been killed in complete solitude, and a few of them hadn’t even been discovered for days. But this man had been entertaining at the time of death — a guest who’d been knocked hard into a wall and fallen thence onto the table where the sake they’d been sharing had rested… but who might have seen something before that, who might be able to explain why a struggle had been necessary to subdue him but not the man actually being murdered.

I worked my way through the scene once more. I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps that some of this was making more sense to my subconscious than to the surface of my mind. Either way, I didn’t think I was likely to learn anything more from the room at the moment. “Let’s get him out of here. Takani-sensei, you’ll perform the autopsy?”

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

“Of course,” the doctor answered, heavily but unhesitating, as she rose. She wasn’t happy about this; it was rather outside the boundaries of what she usually dealt with, her connection to the Kamiya dojo notwithstanding… but she was resigned, and not lacking in the aplomb necessary for her profession.

I’d sent for a closed wagon to transport the body, and at my orders a few of the men who waited outside got the latter wrapped and loaded onto the former. “The wife was taken to the south station?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have arrangements made for her for the next couple of days, and one of you stay here to keep the curious off. I’m going to look this place over again after I’ve questioned the witness.” He repeated his acknowledgment, and I left him discussing with the others who would return to the station and who would stand guard.

“I doubt your ‘witness’ is going to have anything to say for some time,” Takani warned me quietly.

“On the off chance that he’s awake and coherent and happened to see something, I’m going to look in on him.”

She was giving me an odd eye, and it seemed she might have something useful to say, but eventually she merely shook her head and remarked, “I won’t have you jeopardizing his recovery.”

I had no answer for this, since each of us knew that, if it came to it, the other would press their side of the issue — and probably knew equally well who would prevail.

By the time I handed the doctor into the cab and took the spot beside her, Hironaku was already seated looking over his notes. While I preferred to keep my thoughts organized in my head where troublesome people couldn’t get their hands on them, I had to appreciate his dedication.

“This murder method…” he remarked as the carriage began to move, then abruptly glanced at the doctor. His expressive face was as plain as a direct question whether he should discuss his theories in front of her. She wasn’t looking at either of us. I nodded.

“It reminds me of some things yakuza bosses have done to scare their people into sticking with them,” he continued slowly. “Or something similar: someone trying to send a message to someone…”

“With as much specific aim as anonymously tacking signs up on lamp-posts,” I replied. “If it’s a message, it could be meant for just about anyone, and that anyone isn’t likely to step forward.”

He sighed. “In any case, we’re dealing with one sick bastard.”

“Or more than one,” I reminded. “Don’t get too caught up in speculation until after we find out what the other man knows.” Not that I wasn’t speculating. I just wasn’t doing it aloud.

With an expression of perturbation, Hironaku nodded. In actuality I feared he might prove a little too emotionally fragile to last long… He hadn’t shown signs of excessive brittleness, but he seemed the type that might crack all at once when things piled up. Still, someone relatively competent for a short while was better than someone hopeless I couldn’t get rid of. Perhaps I could increase his longevity by letting him handle most of the paperwork. That would be doubly useful.

“I do wonder why the other man is alive at all, though,” he murmured thoughtfully after several silent moments. “Our murderer has killed eight people so far… why not this other man?”

“If you’ll allow me to speculate…” Takani had looked up abruptly. “‘Your murderer’ seems to be interested in collecting blood, not committing murder.” It was only very slight, but in her voice was the tone of someone patiently explaining something obvious. Hironaku’s expression in response was slightly amusing; it seemed this thought really hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe I wouldn’t keep him.

“If he was equipped to extract blood from only one man,” Takani continued, “and had no idea there was anyone else there until he entered…”

“Oh?” Now I was curious, and turned to regard her with a raised brow, wondering what she thought she knew. “Why would he assume his victim was alone?”

“Oh?” she echoed. I got the feeling she was somewhat darkly pleased at having information that I lacked. “None of your fine officers were able to identify the other man?” Finally I comprehended her earlier odd expression as she added pointedly, “I doubt anyone besides the victim knew Tsukioka-san was there, or would be there, at that time. He’s not the type to let people know what he’s planning.”

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

“…of all the stupid things. A degree in criminology, and they’ve got me hunting vampires.”

Overhearing this at the station the next day is not exactly comforting. Nor is the fact that I make mental connections as fast as I do.

“I don’t know what else to call them, though… I’ve never seen murders like this before, and neither have you.”

Curious as I am — and I am — I decide not to ask. Better not to know the details of this elaborate hoax. It isn’t my case anyway, and it certainly won’t help keep my mind off the strange, pale visitor of last night.

The latter, as I somewhat anticipated, is in and out of my head throughout the day. The same questions I’ve been asking about him all along arise and are steadfastly ignored while I get what I need to do finished. Even more assiduously I ignore the movie lines that keep popping up in my head trying to distract me… things like, “You know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality, how quickly they perish of their own will?” and, “The vampires didn’t realize you were following a human… did they?” and, best of all, “You’re not a full vampire until you’ve made your first kill. You were supposed to be mine… but I couldn’t…” Only then do I realize just how many stupid vampire movies I’ve actually seen. It’s very annoying.

I wonder how the stranger would react if he knew these thoughts. Vaguely putting myself in his place (assuming some sort of reasonable motive for the mysterious behavior), the idea is actually slightly amusing, in a god-forbid sort of way.

The question from last night that returns the most persistently is why this matter continues to bother me so much. Mere unusualness is not enough to justify this kind of devotion of thought. I try to tell myself that it’s the natural result of boring paperwork, that as soon as I’m out on a new case I’ll forget it entirely… but not even boring paperwork has ever led me to reflections this firmly locked on a seemingly unimportant subject before.

Eventually, thinking to drown the fixation with excess information, I give in and ask someone to enlighten me on the ‘vampire’ business. My precinct is given to gossip like some proverbial group of old women, so he’s only too happy to do so — and what I hear is no more than I expected: a couple of apparently-related killings by some unknown whose MO matches what one must assume a vampire’s would be if such creatures existed, right down to the presence of foreign DNA in the neck wounds. Predictably, keeping the press off the occurrences is taking up half my colleague’s energy at the moment.

For all our gossipy habits (and, yes, sadly, I’m forced to include myself in this description), the tales don’t leave the station; as such, the number of people outside the police force who are likely to know about this matter is small (for now, while the press is still in the dark). Therefore, little as I want to assume there are two similar hoaxes going on simultaneously in the same vicinity, I have to believe this is unconnected with my visitor — mostly because if the circumstances were connected, that complicates and darkens something I thought simply unusual.

Wait; similar hoaxes? Why, I wonder in annoyance, am I connecting them at all? Why has such a fantastic concept as vampires attached itself so tenaciously to the visitor in my head? Because he was pale, because he moved quickly and quietly, because I was disturbed by him? How utterly childish of me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately. I wonder briefly when I can next take vacation time. Renee would like that, anyway.

“I fucking hate vampires.”

I roll my eyes, and, with an effort of will, force myself to stop thinking about it. And once I’ve torn myself away, I manage, if not entirely without further struggle, to stay away for the rest of the day.

Leaving rather late, having lost track of the time in enthusiasm(?) for my paperwork, as is often the case, I find the parking lot dark and sparse when I finally emerge. Not even the faintest glow of sunset remains on the city-obscured horizon, and I parked in a spot where the lot lights don’t touch. It’s from the shadows near my car, which I haven’t quite reached, that a woman’s voice unexpectedly speaks: “You’ve been contacted.”

Simply because of the brazen oddity of the greeting, yesterday’s occurrence — and all related reflection — springs immediately back into my mind.

Stepping forward into the full light, she displays pale Asian features and bright eyes. When she catches sight of my face she stops moving. “Oh,” she says in a tone of understanding.

Two encounters with washed-out, glowing-eyed, cryptic Asians on two consecutive days is no coincidence — especially given the news, I can’t help but think — so I’m immediately tense, ready to make sure she doesn’t run off. “‘Oh,’ what?” I demand.

Her face takes on a sad expression. “He hasn’t reminded you yet.”

Assuming she’s referring to the young man, and considering he didn’t tell me anything, I have to assume she’s correct.

She looks even more somber at my silence. “I know you’re confused,” she says quietly, “and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I can assure you you’ll know everything in time.”

“Everything?” I echo wryly. “Not something I ever wanted to know.”

Her smile matches my tone. “And you won’t want to know most of this. But I’d like at least to assure you that we don’t have any criminal intentions towards you.”

I frown, unable to keep from becoming suspicious at this carefully-worded statement. “Who are you?”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, almost indecisive. Finally she says, “Megumi.”

A Japanese name, I know; Renee is a fan of some trembly-voiced singer called the same thing. That doesn’t tell me much, but it’s better than no information at all. “And your friend’s name?”

Another wry smile. “‘Friend?’ Hmm. Well, his name… I’ll leave that up to him.”

This is getting frustrating. I’m tempted to return to the prank theory, but there’s something about her that seems too serious to disregard. “And what do you want?” I wonder next.

“I want nothing from you,” she says, and her slight emphasis of the word ‘I’ again makes me frown.

“And him?”

“Again, that’s up to him,” she replies.

There’s very little more I can ask her, given that this is not an interrogation and she’s basically told me she isn’t going to tell me anything. And as the silence lengthens, she shakes her head and turns. I don’t feel I should let her walk away, but can’t think of anything to make her stay.

Then, as she puts her back to me but before her first few steps take her out of the ring of light, I see very clearly, slung over her shoulder, a sort of leather holster that contains, unless I’m very much mistaken, a neat row of wooden stakes.

By now even my better judgment is starting to give way, and only my desire to consider this a hoax allows me to keep doing so.

Sagara answered after I’d knocked about four times, opening the door sluggishly and blinking at me for several moments. Then he scowled. Grunting, he withdrew, leaving the way free for me to follow. “I figure if you’re here to kick my ass,” he explained at a grumble, “you might as well do it inside where you won’t wake up all my neighbors.”

“How considerate of you,” was my reply as I shut the door behind me.

“Since when are you in town?”

“Since last week; I’m here for a case.”

“Then I guess I can forgive you for not showing up earlier to kick my ass.”

“Unfortunately, I have business other than kicking your ass today.”

It was the first time I’d been inside his home, and I found it a little neater than I’d expected… mostly because he didn’t seem to own very much. What he did have was enough, however, to provide sufficient clutter that his search for the upper garment he lacked was taking some time. “I thought all your Tokyo cases involved kicking my ass,” he said as he hunted.

“Hn.” I would have had a better reply for this, but I really was here on business — business he was probably going to find even less pleasant than his speculations. “Hurry up and get ready.”

He straightened, his gi in one hand, and threw me a black look. “Like I’m going to take orders from you.”

“You are if you want to hear what happened to your friend.”

The gi dropped to the floor. “Which friend? What happened?!”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

Hastily now he recovered the article of clothing and shrugged into it, demanding, “On the way where? You didn’t come in a stupid carriage, did you?”

“No. Come on.”

He followed me out the door, not bothering to lock it behind us. Of course, I didn’t know if he ever bothered to lock it.

“Well?” he demanded as we started up the street.

“Have you heard about the recent attacks?” I began.

With a snort he replied, “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that… think about where I live.”

He hadn’t heard, then; he’d have known what I meant without any elaboration otherwise. “Eight people — so far — have been killed by having large quantities of blood drained from their bodies.”

“Eight?? What the fuck are you cops doing? Is one of my friends one of ’em?!”

One of his questions was a very good one, but not one I felt like addressing right now. “He isn’t dead,” I replied. “He was found unconscious next to the body of the latest victim. He’s the first potential witness to any of the attacks.”

Sanosuke drew a deep, angry breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that? Scaring the shit of out me like that for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm broken, and he has a concussion.”

“My god, you are an asshole… Why the hell didn’t you say that before?”

“He’s also incoherent and won’t talk to me.”

“I fucking wonder why,” muttered Sanosuke. “So that’s what this is all about. You want me to help you question one of my friends because you can’t do it yourself. I’d never have known he was hurt otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure you’re his only real friend, and probably as close to family as he has at this point,” I replied coolly; “you’d have been notified if he died.”

“Shit, it’s Katsu, isn’t it?” His tone had taken on an edge of much greater concern. “Why didn’t you just say so?” When I did not reply he went on in a surly tone, “So what do I get out of this?”

I raised a brow. “Safer streets?” I suggested. “The opportunity to talk to him at all?”

“Ch…” He’d only asked in order to be perverse, I was certain; we both knew he wouldn’t refuse to help in a situation like this. “Hurry the fuck up, then,” he added.

The only reason I hadn’t taken a carriage was that I recalled how difficult he’d been the last time I’d tried to get him to ride in one. The walk between the clinic and his neighborhood took more time than I really wanted to waste, but I’d decided that keeping him in a relatively compliant mood was probably worth it. Still, my impatience to get back and get on with things led me to accede quite easily to his demand that I ‘hurry the fuck up.’

Eventually he recognized the direction we were going. “So he’s at kitsune’s clinic?”

I nodded. “Takani has been lucky enough to examine most of the bodies so far, including this latest one.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen her around lately…” Sagara murmured thoughtfully. I was vaguely surprised at the implication that he saw her around enough to know the difference; I hadn’t thought they got along that well.

As we finally approached the clinic, I broke the silence again. “He has no reason to trust me. But if you can convince him he’s safe in telling you anything that might be related to this matter–”

“Dyou realize what you’re doing?” Sagara broke in.

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

“You’re counting on me,” he stated. Though his tone was nearly flat, it had the air of a defiant announcement. “I’m doing something important for you, and you’re trusting me to do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” I replied, by which I meant (and he knew it) that if there had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him.

His face darkened briefly, then cleared, and he grinned slightly. “I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“Do as you please.”

We’d reached the door, and here Sanosuke paused. “All right, so what am I finding out if I can?”

“Anything he remembers about the attack, anything he thinks might be related to it. The series of events, what the killer was like, and any guess he might have about why the killer chose that victim.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” wondered Sagara sarcastically.

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

It took much longer than I expected. Whether this meant Tsukioka had a lot of information to relate, or that he wasn’t lucid enough to relate it quickly, or that Sagara was dominating the conversation talking shit about me, I couldn’t guess — though presumably I would find out soon enough.

The lady doctor, who’d left to get some rest after the autopsy, returned while I was waiting. She didn’t look particularly rested, however; actually, I thought the darkness beneath her eyes was even more pronounced than before. But I restrained myself and didn’t speculate about nightmares or anything less appropriate that might have interrupted her sleep, merely nodded to her.

With a grim expression she glanced from the door to where I was leaning against the wall looking out at the yard. “You found Sanosuke?” she guessed.

I nodded again.

“You know I don’t approve,” she said flatly.

“And you know it’s necessary,” I answered in a similar tone.

She held my eye for a second and then replied more lightly, “I meant your smoking just outside my clinic.” Evidently she knew better than to argue further against disturbing her patient.

I smirked slightly, darkly, as I took another drag. “That’s necessary to keep me from going insane.”

“Yes, this case of yours is enough to have that effect on anyone.” She sounded simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated, though mostly tired. “Just don’t bring it inside.”

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

Eventually Sanosuke emerged. He was moving slowly, with an unusual restraint on all his limbs, as if he were a patient here and suffering from some invisible wound; but when he looked up and met my gaze, I could see in his face a deep anger just waiting to invigorate him against some unsuspecting target. Breaking eye contact, however, he sat down on the edge of the porch with his back to me.

After several long moments of silence he said abruptly, “He doesn’t know anything.”

I lit another cigarette and waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I requested that he should.

“You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing,'” he retorted, though I felt that, for once, he wasn’t really angry at me. He sighed slightly and went on. “He doesn’t know that the dead guy — Irutou’s his name, right? — had any enemies in particular. Apparently the guy was always going on about some big shot he used to work for named Tomizawa, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Katsu prints. But Katsu loves gossip whether he prints it or not, so it’s no wonder they were drinking together. Everything was normal, and then the next thing he knew somebody was knocking him into a wall.”

“What did he see?”

“Almost nothing, I guess… shadows… he said the lamp had gone out. Though apparently whoever attacked him moved really fast and was pretty normal-sized.” Sanosuke shrugged. “He doesn’t remember it very clearly, but it sounds like even if he did he probably didn’t see anything helpful.”

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“And that’s all he said.” This statement had a fatalistic edge to it, as if Sagara’s friend had died after saying all of this.

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

Sanosuke made a noise like a snort or a grunt, bitter and angry, and said nothing; so I turned my thoughts to the minimal information he’d provided.

Though I did appreciate the artist’s remembering it, the name Tomizawa was not likely to be terribly useful. For though Tomizawa — whoever he was — might not be aware that the victim’s information on him wasn’t the sort of thing Tsukioka was interested in printing — thus providing a motive for the murder — that would not explain any of the other killings, the blood thing, or, most significantly, the fact that Tsukioka was still alive. Still, it was a name; I would have Hironaku look into it.

Sagara interrupted this brief reverie with the very stiff-sounding pronouncement, “Thanks for coming to get me.” Turning my eyes back to him, I could easily mark the further stiffness in his figure as he stared out across the yard at nothing.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“So this person,” he began again presently, in what I might have called a careful tone if I could have thought him capable of that.  “This person who hurt my friend… he’s killed eight people, right?”

As I realized why he was asking this, I was a little surprised at my own reaction: an abrupt sinking of heart.  I was certainly taking care as I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, you always get to play with the psychopaths, don’t you?”

“The doctor made much the same comment.”  I was still wary, not daring to hope the danger had been averted.

And it hadn’t.  “So what do you know about the guy so far?”

“Nothing.”  Normally I wouldn’t be so quick to admit such a complete lack of results even on a case I had only very recently taken, but I didn’t want to give him anything he might see as a clue lest he… get in my way.

“Nothing?” he echoed suspiciously.  “You’ve been in town since last week and you just found a fresh corpse yesterday, and you still don’t know anything about the murderer?”

I must have been tired from staying up all night: his skepticism was slightly flattering; I wouldn’t have guessed he thought so highly of my abilities.  That didn’t change the situation, however, and I threw back his earlier words: “You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing.'”

He rose and turned to face me, staring me in the eye much as Takani had earlier. But unlike her, Sagara had no issues with arguing. “You’re lying,” he stated flatly.  “You’d be way more annoyed if you really didn’t know anything.  You’re lying ’cause you think it’s none of my business.”

“It is none of your business,” was my cool response.  Of course he’d really only been skeptical because he didn’t want to believe I had no information.  “It’s police business.”

“Bullshit,” he said emphatically.  “You wouldn’t tell the families of the victims that it’s none of their business, and you said yourself I’m as close as Katsu’s got.”

“I would tell them that, if they were likely to get in my way.  But I’m not lying,” I added before he could retort.  “Whether you choose to believe me or not is your own business, but all I have at this point is speculation… and that won’t give you any skulls to crack.”

“Well…”  It seemed I’d convinced him, for his anger had cooled.  Or at least his specific annoyance at me had. “What do you speculate?”

He’d grown much stronger since our last don’t-get-involved argument, but somehow my desire for him not to get involved was also that much stronger.  And while I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to him to accomplish that, there was no lie in this situation that was likely to be as effective as the truth.  So I answered immediately, hoping to give the impression of compliance despite fully intending to give him more questions than answers.  “Your friend’s presence would complicate even the most straightforward investigation.  A political journalist doesn’t become a witness to a murder like this by coincidence.”

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

“But did they mean to leave him alive? If so, why?  Does he have some information they want to see published, or is there another reason?  If not, why do they want him dead?  Does he know something they don’t want to get out?  And why did he survive?  Is the murderer simply sloppy?”

My companion’s face was now very serious and contemplative, and, given that rare circumstance, I thought I could be forgiven for staring.  He didn’t seem to notice or care.  “I’m surprised you’re not in there questioning him to death,” he finally remarked.

“If he does know something that’s related to this, he’s not aware of it, or he would have told you; I’m sure he trusts you enough for that.  Our only option is to keep an eye on him in case the murderer really does want him dead.”

Sanosuke took the bait.  “Oh, believe me, nobody’s gonna touch him again,” he vowed darkly.  “And if somebody tries… well, I’ll solve the case for you.”

I gave him an assessing look, not because I was considering options but because I wanted him to think I was.  This should keep him out of my way at least for a while, let him think he was helping, and (I thought) put him in no more danger than he would already have been in.  I agreed with Takani’s assessment — the murderer, who was primarily after blood, hadn’t expected to find Tsukioka there and, in getting him out of the way, hadn’t cared whether he lived or died.

“Fine,” I said at last.

Sagara’s expression turned skeptical again.  “What, you’re gonna let me do that?”

“I can hardly keep you from hanging around your friend, and you’ll probably be a much more competent bodyguard than anyone I could assign from the police force.”

This time he frankly gaped.  “Did you just call me ‘competent?'”

“It was relative, but, yes, I believe I did.”

“Holy shit…”  He had looked down, and I might have been mistaken, but I thought he was blushing slightly.  I was probably mistaken.


As early as the next day, I’m forced to think about the ‘vampire’ issue again. A new body has turned up, this one in a small grocery store dumpster used for the disposal of old frying oil. Cause of death was the same, but a little more care was given this time to the subsequent disposition of the corpse, and the shape of the container and the weight of the victim make it unlikely that only one person was involved in hiding the body… These facts make my colleague somewhat wary of assuming he’s even dealing with the same murderer. But how many murderers with vampiric aspirations can there possibly be in this city? And if one or more of the crimes was imitation, which was the original? Interesting as it is, I’m grateful this isn’t my case.

Unfortunately, this discovery has been largely publicized. Last night’s news (which I, regrettably, skipped watching) talked about it, for one thing, and before I get the real details at work that day I’ve heard of it from no fewer than three of my neighbors. Whether they’re trying to comfort themselves with the reminder that they have a cop in the near vicinity, see if they can be the first to tell that cop about a murder, or just garner my approval on the plans that are evolving in the area, I don’t know.

Because plans are certainly evolving. The murder wasn’t precisely in the neighborhood, but close enough that the families in my apartment complex are thrown into a subdued panic of carpool and neighborhood watch arrangements. I know that fervor will die down after a few uneventful weeks — possibly even a few uneventful days; it always does. People strive for complacency, after all, to the point of disregarding a real threat the moment they’ve ‘done their part’ to prepare for it.

Besides instilling in my neighbors the aforementioned paranoia, this affects my life by shutting down the closest grocery store, probably for several days. Which is why Friday evening finds me walking to a convenience store just around the corner, rather than wasting the gas it would take to drive all the way to the next-closest grocery store, in search of macaroni and cheese.

Renee would certainly tease me about venturing forth on foot in the middle of a murder scare to buy what she calls fake food, but the shopping I planned to do tonight now isn’t going to happen. Of course, I would have bought macaroni and cheese at the grocery store anyway; it isn’t an inability to cook real food that makes this item a regular in my kitchen, but rather a hypersensitivity to the pointlessness of spending much time or effort making anything complicated for myself alone.

The local juvenile-delinquents-in-training that are always at the gas station pretending to be some variety of hardcore, knowing me for a cop, slink off as I approach, leaving the exterior of the store vacant and silent. Silent, that is, except for a couple of voices I can just hear conversing quietly around the corner of the building. It seems an unlikely place for a drug deal — though god (and the entire precinct) knows that well-off neighborhoods like this can produce some phenomenally naïve dealers — but since it also seems an unlikely place for any entirely innocent conversation, I stop to listen for a moment before going inside.

“–know you were back in the country until today,” a woman is remarking in a chiding tone. “You need to get a new cell phone.”

“Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed,” replies a man’s voice, “I’m not in much position for a credit check, and the prepaid ones don’t cover half the places I go.”

Startled and experiencing abruptly some of the same agitation as a few nights before, I stiffen and listen harder. It’s that vampire boy.

I have no idea when I started thinking of him that way.

“There are channels…” Having identified the young man, it isn’t difficult to recognize the other as the woman who approached me last night. Megumi.

“Fuck them,” says the young man, dark and vehement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

“Besides, they’ve figured out my connection to you across the whole damn country by now; they wouldn’t do a thing for me.”

She laughs mirthlessly and then (to judge by her tone) changes the subject. “So do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here?”

“No clue.”

“I thought the police might be farther along than they usually get when I felt the touch on one of them, but it was just…” Here she seems to trail off in some sort of hesitation.

“Yeah,” the other puts in abruptly, harshly. “Just him.”

Silence ensues, and lasts so long I think the conversation must be over. But then the young man goes on, now in a tone that sounds so close to tortured as to be entirely absorbing, “He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

“I know,” she replies quietly.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–”

“I know,” she repeats, interrupting. “I know.” Without missing a beat she goes on in Japanese, and he answers in the same language.

This transition doesn’t make their conversation any less comprehensible, but I have no doubt that I am the ‘fucking cop’ and that they’ve stopped using English because they know I can hear them. They know I’m here. I haven’t made a sound; I haven’t stepped forward or even moved; I feel I’m barely breathing in my efforts to catch every word… yet somehow they know I’m here.

Which means there’s no reason to keep pretending I’m not.

Walking quickly around the corner, I find myself in a sort of alley between the store and the car wash, the kind of place that seems to have been built deliberately for the kind of young men with nothing better to do that my approach spooked just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been constructed with much else in mind, given that it’s too narrow to house anything beyond a few large trash cans and a lot of grime.

And it’s empty.

That my first thought is, Of course it’s empty; they can probably fly, isn’t even my greatest source of chagrin; rather, it’s that it takes me nearly a minute to recognize that this was my first thought and react to it with proper disdain.

Normally this kind of stupid semi-subliminal fixation with an absurd idea would somewhat irritate but mostly amuse me; that I’m more disturbed by it than anything else in this situation suggests that it has taken far more hold of my subconscious than I really want to admit. It almost makes me angry to find myself searching the rooftops of the two buildings with my eyes, to admit thus that I don’t find it totally illogical to think the speakers might have escaped in that direction.

But, really, where they’ve gone is probably the least compelling question of the evening. Questions… I need more questions, don’t I? I feel like I should be writing them down, there are getting to be so many of them.

Beyond merely wondering at the meaning of that strange conversation, I wonder that I caught it at all. Either they deliberately allowed me to hear, or they didn’t notice at first that I was there. And since what I heard meant almost nothing to me, I have to assume the latter… and therefore that this place is a customary haunt for the young man. A block from my home.

So it appears that it isn’t his intention merely to give me an ultimatum and come back when the time is up; he’ll be watching me through this week of his. Why? Does he expect some specific reaction from me? Or is he just curious how I’ll behave under these strange circumstances? Perhaps I’ve become the subject of an undeclared, unethical psychological experiment, and there will be a reward once it’s all over if I get through with sanity intact.

Why does it bother him so much that I’m a cop, though, and what did he mean by ‘again?’ There was something in his tone as he made that remark that was completely riveting. Despite Megumi’s comment about the police being ‘farther along than they usually get,’ which logic suggests should be the most interesting part of the exchange, my mind keeps returning inexorably to the pain in the young man’s voice as he seemed to deplore my being a cop. ‘Again.’ It was the manner of one struck unexpectedly with a tragic memory, and I simply can’t think what it might mean.

If he really were a vampire… But I cut that thought off before it can bloom into absurdity. It wouldn’t provide an explanation anyway.

How long I stand in that little alley I’m not sure, but it must be quite a while; when I leave it I find that the loiterers have returned. And the irritation on my face must be rather severe, for at my appearance they scatter even faster than before.

It’s reassuring, at least, how easily I can transition from thinking about vampires to shopping for macaroni and cheese, as I’m fairly certain that means my subconscious really isn’t as convinced as some of my thoughts seemed to indicate it is; surely I would not be able so smoothly to return to the mundane of the familiar world if I truly believed I was being stalked by vampires.

I am being stalked, though, and what I should do about it (if anything) I don’t know. The woman assured me that they have no ‘criminal intentions’ toward me, but do I believe that?

“He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

Perhaps the young man has done this before to others — whatever it is that he’s doing — and I’m not the first policeman in his lineup. The anguish in his tone, though, which would seem to indicate that he finds it an unpleasant, even painful task to carry out makes that theory incompatible with ‘no criminal intentions.’ Other than this, I have no theories.

And why should I continue to theorize, when the issue is so obviously beyond my comprehension at this point? Personally, there’s nothing I can do about this: they are clearly capable of evading me with apparent ease; legally, I still don’t really have a basis for action, and in any event just the thought of the phone call to the precinct to report the supposed crime makes me almost shudder with chagrin; mentally, persisting in my speculations will get me worse than nowhere: if I keep up at the rate I’m going, I might well have some sort of breakdown before the week is over.

Presumably the latter will bring the answers I need. It had better, I find myself thinking grimly as I head back home with my pseudo-groceries. And despite the resolution I’m forming about this entire affair, I still have to force myself not to look behind me at every other step to see if I’m being followed. Not that I would probably see them anyway, even if they happen to be there.


His Own Humanity: Plastic 0-5

Plastic

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

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

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”



“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”


Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”


“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



Notice


Duo came up the stairs to his dorm hallway with an overloaded backpack and frozen hands, still stomping snow off his feet and wishing he hadn’t lost his gloves. At least it was warm in here. Actually it was a little too warm, since whoever was in charge of the heating and air conditioning in this building had a penchant for stark opposites, but you couldn’t have everything.

The not-unusual sight of Heero sitting on the floor outside the door to his room with a computer on his lap and a textbook open beside him met Duo’s eyes as he approached, and Duo chuckled. “At it again, are they?”

Heero looked up at him, threw a quick glance at the warning rubber band hanging from the doorknob, and nodded with a slight rolling of eyes.

Carefully avoiding getting his wet shoes anywhere near Heero and what he was doing, Duo circumnavigated him to reach the door of his own room just diagonally across the hall from Heero’s. “I keep telling Quatre he should switch with you, but apparently breaking two rules is waaaay worse than breaking just one.”

Heero gave a faint snorting laugh. “And Trowa thinks it would be too distracting to share a room with Quatre.”

“Did you want to come in?” Duo invited him as he unlocked his door. “You can sit at Quatre’s desk instead of on the floor.”

With a glance at the time, Heero shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve got to go in a couple of minutes anyway.”

Duo acknowledged this and went inside, but he’d only set his backpack down beside the bed before he stepped out again. “Hey, did I hear right? You’re staying here for break?”

“Yeah.” Heero was putting his things away now, getting ready to head off to whatever class he had this afternoon. “My parents are going on a cruise, so I thought I’d just stay here and get some work done.”

Awesome. I was afraid I was going to be bored out of my skull all alone in this place.”

“Didn’t Quatre invite you to have Christmas with his family?”

“Yeah, but that was before he decided he wanted to take a certain person home to meet mommy and daddy… I wouldn’t want to get in the way of their romantic holiday.”

Heero smiled. “Well, yes, I’ll be here.”

“Excellent. See ya!” And Duo went back into his dorm room and closed the door. He removed his coat and tossed it onto the chair at Quatre’s desk, then flopped down on his bed, letting his feet hang off the end so as not to get it wet, and reached for the backpack. Somebody had left him what appeared to be an honest-to-goodness Christmas present in his mail cubby downstairs, and he was eager to get at it.

The wrapping paper was a very tasteful pattern of red ribbons intertwined among big white and gold flowers on a deep green background. Duo always wondered where people found wrapping paper like this; whenever he went to buy some, he ended up with something truly horrible with the worst-looking cartoon Santas imaginable on it. Of course it didn’t help that he was drawn to the ugliest and most nauseating choice in any given selection… but still he didn’t think he’d ever seen wrapping paper this nice at any store he’d been to. Maybe he just didn’t know where to shop.

White and gold ribbons were tied around the package in an off-center double line, the crux covered by a huge white bow that was rather crushed from having been in his backpack. Duo probably would have used red ribbon with paper like this, and, looking at the fine effect of this color choice, thought he probably would have been wrong to do so. He’d never been very good at wrapping presents.

The one aspect of the package Duo thought he could have done better than whoever had actually wrapped it was the tag. Because there wasn’t one. He’d turned it over three times and looked under the ribbons, but no indication was to be found of who had sent the thing — not even a spot where an existing tag might have been torn off. In fact, if these dorms hadn’t happened to have separate mail cubbies for all the students, Duo couldn’t even have been sure the gift was intended for him and not his roommate.

Of course he was also curious about what was inside, but, since it was obviously a soft-cover spiral-bound book of some sort, this was of less driving interest for the moment than the question of the anonymous sender and their mad wrapping skills — not to mention the fact that he rarely got Christmas presents. But eventually he gave up trying to glean any extra knowledge from the exterior of the package, and tore it open.

It was a sketchbook — one of those green ones with a picture of dancing pencils on the cover. This was a little strange, Duo thought, and what made it even more interesting was that it seemed quite well used. He lifted the somewhat ragged cover, turned the first, blank page of relatively thick drawing paper, and found himself unexpectedly looking into his own face.

Duo didn’t often think much about it, but he was, like most people, familiar enough with what he would see in a mirror if he bothered to check. And he found it strange, bordering on uncanny, to have that experience mimicked suddenly by this anonymous present. For the artist seemed to have captured perfectly every detail of Duo’s face in this rich pencil, right down to the almost invisible little scar on his right cheekbone just in front of his ear. And the Duo on the page was grinning up at him as if there were nothing at all odd about this.

Further information was probably needed before he could decide exactly how he felt about this, so he turned to the next drawing. In a much better display of what Duo expected of sketchbooks, this image was a house with trees and a lake: a very picturesque landscape in the same soft pencil, its lines fading to nothing as they approached the edges of the paper. Duo nodded slightly and moved on.

The next page was a collection of small, random sketches that appeared to have been doodled during class. Except that, unlike when Duo doodled during class, these did not involve battling dinosaurs or noses with feet or flying blenders, nor did they look like crap. They were quick little drawings, but very good nonetheless, mostly of faces in various positions and expressions and shown from various angles — classmates, perhaps? None of them were familiar to Duo except for the four (out of twelve or so) that were his face.

Still attempting to reserve judgment, he turned to the next page. Here was a nicely-shaded rendering of the modern art statue thing outside one of the science buildings. The artist had done an excellent job, Duo particularly noted, giving the idea of the grass that surrounded the base without actually drawing a lot of grass. That meant this had probably been drawn back before snow and whatnot. Which meant that the previous images, including the ones of Duo, had probably been drawn even before that…

He was not particularly surprised to find another picture of himself on the next page. In this one, he was looking over his shoulder and apparently in the middle of saying something cheeky (to judge by the expression on his face); the shirt was identifiable as one that he actually owned, too, not just some random artist’s invention or a fadeout.

With a deep breath, staring down at his own penciled face on the thick paper, Duo allowed himself to think the thought that had been hovering at the edge of his mind since the very first page: this was officially really weird. Someone had been watching him closely enough to draw him repeatedly with excellent skill and accuracy, and then had given him their sketchbook as a Christmas present.

He bypassed a picture of a car without much attention to its fantastic light-on-chrome effect, and found one of himself holding — and ill-protected by — the ragged umbrella he’d finally been convinced to throw away last month when rain had given way to snow.

Then there was another page full of smaller sketches — this time mostly hands and ears, perhaps for practice — followed by an extreme close-up of Duo’s broadly-grinning face that showcased the artist’s knowledge of the fact that Duo was missing a canine on top. The resulting empty space between lateral and bicuspid had closed up on its own before Duo had reached college age, so it wasn’t something people usually noticed at a glance, but the artist obviously knew all about it. Well, the artist probably didn’t know about the childhood bike accident that had caused it, but the tooth’s absence had certainly been accurately noted in the picture.

Actually, Duo reflected as he proceeded through an orderly set of blotches that looked like some kind of experiment in shading or contrast, and another picture of himself — this one full-length from behind, with a good deal of attention given to his braid — he wouldn’t be surprised if this artist did know the reason for his missing tooth.

A key sounded in the door, and Duo found himself hastily closing the sketchbook and shoving it under his pillow. He didn’t really feel like explaining to Quatre that he seemed to have an extremely artistic stalker.

His roommate entered with that look he often wore these days, of clothing just straightened and a bright flush just diminished, trying to appear casual and innocent and failing utterly. “Hi, Duo,” he said with excessive cheer.

“Hi,” replied Duo in a very knowing tone. “Have fun?”

“Well, yes,” Quatre said, blushing. “Quite a bit.” He seized Duo’s coat and hung it from the doorknob of Duo’s little closet, then took its place in the chair at his desk.

“Good job.” Duo reached for his backpack again and dug out his laptop, then shifted into a seated position. He didn’t know how much he was going to be able to concentrate on homework at the moment, but he might as well make the attempt — at least while Quatre was in the room.

Two minutes in, exactly what he’d anticipated took place: the mental images of what he’d seen in that sketchbook swallowed up his ability to work, and, in fact, his very awareness that there was even work to be done. His hands stilled on the keyboard as he stared blankly at the screen, seeing nothing but what he was picturing in his head.

From what he’d observed so far, the artist could be anyone. It didn’t even necessarily have to be a student, though that, he thought, was most probable. But anyone that, for instance, lived in the vicinity of the school, or worked close and perhaps passed nearby on their way home, could have seen him often enough. Hell, it could be someone that worked at the school… it could even be a teacher… That was a weird thought. It really was probably a student, though.

Whoever it was, they seemed to have more than a passing interest in Duo. That little scar, the missing tooth… his friends usually knew about these eventually, either because they spent enough time with him to notice or because it came up in conversation… but Duo wasn’t aware that any of his friends drew. Besides, if any of them liked him that much, they’d surely just tell him, wouldn’t they?

Which made the whole thing that much weirder.

He might be making a big deal over nothing; there might be a message with a perfectly good explanation further on in the sketchbook. He needed to look at it again. He wanted to look at it again. Aside from itching to solve the mystery and dying to know what else was in there, there was also the simple fact that the art was really good — and, strange and possibly extremely creepy as the situation was, there was something flattering about having been the model of someone so talented so many times, about being drawn so frequently in such loving detail…

Had he really just thought of it as ‘loving detail?’ Yes, this situation was definitely creepy.

Quatre, who had seated himself at his desk and was typing cheerfully away at what from here looked like an email — Probably to Trowa, Duo thought, since it’s been soooooo long since they had any sort of interaction — had his back to Duo and was humming to himself. Watching him carefully, Duo slid a cautious hand under his pillow and slowly extracted the sketchbook. Quatre might well overlook a nuclear apocalypse at this stage of afterglow, Duo was quite aware, but there was no point taking risks. The sketchbook and the news that Duo had a stalker would inevitably call up a We need to report this!! reaction in his roommate, and Duo thought it was still a bit early for that.

Quietly, he opened the book again behind his computer screen, ready to close it and shove it underneath the moment Quatre showed signs of emerging from his happy little world. Flipping through the pages, he took up where he’d left off.

A zebra… a fantasy swordsman… another car… a praying mantis… an old, cracked flowerpot containing one lonely geranium… a pair of beaten-up tennis shoes… a direct copy of Boston’s Third Stage album cover… a barn standing among dead trees… a basket of fruit set up for a very deliberate, dull still-life… a receding street Duo recognized as being downtown not far from here… a wolf… Leonardo DiCaprio…? a shotgun… a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand drawing a hand…

And in addition to all of this, at least fifteen more pictures of Duo, one on every other page. But Duo was past being astonished by now, and was simply looking for clues as to who the hell was behind this.

The earlier drawings were all in pencil — graphite, actually, he guessed it was called — but eventually some color entered the scene, and the artist was just as good at that. Every five or six pages, with interesting regularity, there was another collection of doodles (though the word hardly seemed to fit), which indicated to Duo that the artist really was a student and had a particularly boring class every so often.

In one of the pictures of him, he was in the cafeteria eating some of the disquieting stuff they called pizza down there, and the figure next to him, though only a collection of faint, squiggly lines, might almost have been Quatre. From this he inferred that the artist wasn’t Quatre, but he hadn’t really thought it was. Still, he filed the fact away.

Then in another, he was in pajamas. This was one of the color pieces, as the artist evidently hadn’t wanted to miss the chance to capture the fluorescence of the bright little electric guitars that covered the long-sleeved flannel shirt and footed pants. Duo wondered if the artist also knew that these glowed in the dark, and felt he could safely narrow down the pool of possibilities to students living in this particular dorm. At least he didn’t think he’d ever worn those pajamas outside…

One image on which he lingered particularly long was that of a nude model posing on a mess of shiny, rumpled cloth. He’d already guessed, from various previous pieces, that there was an art class involved in this business somewhere, and this seemed to confirm it; he was fairly sure you didn’t get nude model setups like this in other contexts.

The man faced away from the viewer, and either was rather well-formed or had been touched up by the artist, who had given most of his attention to the back and buttocks and thighs. And as for the head…

No, the artist hadn’t quite gone so far as to pretend that the model was actually Duo… but, as on a few earlier pages, there were some light, meandering lines that suggested… and what they suggested here was a long braid draped over the cloth-covered whatever-it-was the model was lying on. It probably wouldn’t have been noticeable if Duo hadn’t specifically been looking for it, but it was fairly obvious what the artist had been thinking about while drawing.

So who did he know that took an art class?

Who did he know that took an art class and totally had a hard-on for him?

OK, well, it could be a woman; this was a co-ed dorm. No need to assume this was a gay man just because he was bisexual until he had some real indication of the artist’s sex.

That indication came at the end of the book.

The last page had been carefully removed along the perforated line, and lay loose against the back cover. It was another full-color piece and nothing short of exquisite — if Duo did say so himself, since it was another picture of him. It was one of those portraits that faded out just below the shoulders, and he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how anyone could draw something melting out into the white nothingness of the paper like that, especially in multiple colors. But it was impossible for this or any other aspect of the picture to hold his attention for very long, for this time the artist had signed his work.

Duo sat back against the wall, his eyes locked on the neat little signature but not really seeing it anymore, his mouth hanging slightly ajar. He must have made some sound — some squeaky, choking sound of astonishment and disbelief — for Quatre turned, and Duo only barely had the presence of mind to act upon the plan he’d had in place all along against these circumstances. He just hoped Quatre didn’t see him frantically hiding the sketchbook underneath his laptop.

In response to his roommate’s curious look he managed, “The internet is so stupid sometimes.”

“I’d say all the time,” Quatre grinned. “And I can see you’re hard at work.”

“Hey, finals don’t start ’til next week.” Banter could cut into any thoughts, no matter how serious. “Besides, I’m not the one wasting time getting laid twice a day.”

It was so easy to make Quatre blush… but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a very good retort. “Obviously you’re not getting laid, Duo, or else you wouldn’t call it a waste of time.”

“Ouch!” Duo cried, laughing.

“Yeah, you walked right into that one.” Quatre turned his grin back toward his computer.

So Duo was safe for the moment, but he couldn’t be sure it would last. He needed to think about this good and hard; he needed to get out and think about this. The little room felt suddenly very cramped and restrictive. Of course it was very cramped and restrictive, but usually this didn’t bother him.

Swiftly he strategized as he quietly closed his computer, laid it aside, and began pulling the heavier books out of his backpack. He was fairly sure Quatre did not have class this afternoon, and, although Quatre now appeared to be doing homework rather than sending love notes, if Duo announced that he was going somewhere interesting Quatre would probably volunteer to accompany him. But to get outside, he needed his coat, and taking it would rather prevent his pretending he was just going to the bathroom. Damn this weather.

In the end, his ‘strategy’ consisted of stuffing the sketchbook into his backpack, gathering this and his coat as hastily as possible, and mumbling something incoherent when Quatre asked where he was going. Then, coat flapping out behind him like a superhero’s cape, he pelted down the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building, startling but managing not to run into at least five people on the way.

Outside, he made a noise of disapprobation as the cold hit him, and quickly shrugged first into his coat and then his backpack. Shoving his gloveless hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders, he set off at a brisk walk in some direction across one of the snow-covered lawns. He should probably have kept to the sidewalk, as his shoes really weren’t made for this, but he preferred not to have to spare any thoughts for avoiding other pedestrians.

So…

Heero…

All this time, when their little group had been studying together, eating together, just hanging out, putting up with the vagaries of the dorm amenities, watching the ongoing drama between Quatre and Trowa, playing stupid pranks on each other… all that time, quiet, serious Heero had been watching Duo from whatever corner he was sitting in, with those eyes of his that missed nothing, and had half-filled a sketchbook with pictures of him.

Duo had been surprised at first, but, now that he thought about it, found it made perfect sense. Heero was always around, but nobody much paid attention to what he was doing; it would have been quite easy for him to study Duo — or anyone else — and draw at his leisure. And actually it seemed just like Heero to have done something like that… something that quietly tested his observational skills and his ability to represent coherently what he’d observed. Heero was always observing.

The thorough precision of the shading combined with the subtle effectiveness of the faint suggesting lines seemed just like Heero too. Everything Heero did he did perfectly; it was no wonder he turned out to be such a great artist as well.

Winter afternoons swiftly turned into winter evenings, and Duo could already see his breath as a heavy white mist on the darkening air. His ears and nose were frozen, and his toes were beginning to complain very seriously. He paused, frowning, and, with vague thoughts of hot coffee at a restaurant, turned his steps toward the edge of campus and the shopping district beyond.

So Heero liked him, apparently. Duo couldn’t imagine the obsessive attention paid to him in that sketchbook meaning anything else. Heero liked him. Did Heero even like guys? Duo realized that, though some memory or other seemed to answer in the affirmative, he couldn’t quite dredge up any instance where it had been definitively stated. The fact that he’d never known Heero to date… or flirt with… or express even the remotest interest in anyone certainly didn’t help.

But, then, Heero wouldn’t do any of that if he had a crush on Duo, would he? But why hadn’t he said something? How long had this been going on? How long had Heero been surreptitiously studying his dorm-mate, drawing these brilliant pictures of him, and wishing… what? Without a word to Duo…

Again, as he thought about it, Duo couldn’t really say that much surprise was called for. Somehow, pining in lonely silence seemed absolutely typical of Heero. Against this, however, his mind rebelled a bit. Because, sure, Heero was quiet, but was he really that shy?

Well, yes, Duo thought, he really was. He’d never considered it before, but of course Heero was shy. It wasn’t that stupid kind of stammering, obnoxious shyness you saw in movies and stuff; it was a cool, self-aware disinclination for certain aspects of social interaction, probably born of a sense of inability, that barred Heero from even attempting what he perceived as beyond him. And perhaps telling Duo he liked him had simply been beyond him. At that point, the ability to hide his inclination — so expertly, so completely that the object of it would never even begin to suspect — must be considered an adaptive related trait.

Because, god, Duo had just talked to him in the hall, and hadn’t had any idea. He talked to Heero fairly frequently, in fact, and had never had any idea. But now, as he looked back, he was beginning to realize that, although he talked to Heero a good deal more than Heero talked to him, still Heero talked to him a good deal more than Heero talked to anyone else.

The restaurant on the corner closest to campus made its fortune off the students with its twenty-four hour service and its overpriced coffee. Duo had grumbled about the prices on numerous occasions, but would probably continue to patronize the establishment just as long as they served that mint cappuchino he particularly liked because they put green food coloring in it.

The dining lobby was tackily hung with tinsel and lights, and cheerful secular Christmas music issued from the speakers overhead. Duo, humming absently along, looked around as he found a seat, remembering several instances of eating here with his friends — including Heero. On one particular occasion just before mid-terms, they’d pulled an all-nighter in this very corner, almost more for the sake of being able to say they’d done it than because they were desperate for more study time. At least, that had been Duo’s motive. Quatre and Trowa, at that point, had been happy to spend all night giving each other significant looks and avoiding admitting that they were madly infatuated; their other few friends had been legitimately studying for some class they shared (though there was also a lot of unrelated chatter involved); and Heero had, as usual, been buried in…

No… he hadn’t… he hadn’t had his nose in a textbook, though there had been one on the table beside him. Duo had thought at the time that he was taking notes of some sort, without considering the fact that Heero almost never wrote anything by hand and hadn’t had his laptop out. Heero had been drawing, hadn’t he? Just sitting there in the midst of them (well, OK, in the corner seat where nobody could see what he was doing, with one knee pulled up so that they couldn’t even make out what kind of notebook he was working in, but still…) drawing Duo right under Duo’s nose.

Somewhat unexpectedly, these new realizations pertaining to that innocent memory made Duo smile. Wasn’t that just like Heero… hiding in plain sight…

It was quite flattering, really. Heero was some kind of genius, after all… sometimes Duo thought he only studied because that was what was expected of the perfect student, but that he could probably maintain his position on the Dean’s List without it. Though, actually, given how much time Duo now knew Heero spent drawing (him), maybe he didn’t really study quite as much as everyone thought he did.

Whatever the case, Heero was still a genius physics major that had probably never failed a test in his life. And now come to find out he was an incredible artist too… Duo wasn’t about to start letting his opinion of himself be affected by who had a crush on him, but the interest of someone like Heero couldn’t but give him a sort of warm internal glow. Though maybe that was just the coffee.

Besides, Heero was really nice, too, in his subtle way. He was a private tutoring army unto himself, ready to help anyone in the dorm with whatever subject they were struggling with, whether or not he was actually taking it. Duo didn’t know how many times he’d run into Heero and some random acquaintance in some quiet corner bent over some unexpected textbook, one drawing attention to some unnoticed point to the sound of the other’s sudden understanding “Ohh!”

This willingness to help people out at such short notice, Duo thought, much more than the fact that Heero was roommate to someone being courted by one of the most outgoing guys in the dorm, was what had made him known to and welcome among such a wide and diverse circle despite his being not at all social. And this was the person that had drawn Duo thirty times in a secret sketchbook.

More than just flattering, Duo thought, it was a bit of a triumph. Because Heero might be kind, and Heero might be shy, but Heero didn’t put up with nonsense. And Duo was not infrequently all nonsense. Did that make him the exception to the rule? The one nonsense Heero could tolerate? A sort of nonsense, in fact — Duo was thinking of his absurd pajamas that Heero had captured down to the last bright, silly detail — that Heero actively enjoyed?

The last few slurps of his drink, which if they hadn’t been so deliciously minty he would have called ‘dregs,’ disappeared down Duo’s throat, and he set down the cardboard cup with a tap on the table as he reached epiphany.

No, ‘epiphany’ wasn’t quite right. In much the same way certain other aspects of this situation hadn’t been very surprising as soon as Duo seriously bent his thoughts toward them, so it was also no great shock to realize that the idea of Heero liking him — or, more accurately, the idea of what might come of that — was not at all unpalatable. Actually he found that the greatest surprise was that this had never occurred to him before. It was almost as if he’d liked Heero all along and had simply forgotten, and was now remembering — remembering both that he liked him and, to his chagrin, that he’d forgotten.

Which brought him to the topic of what to do about all of this. Normally, on finding that he was interested in someone, his immediate action was to ask them out — or at the very least start flirting with them pointedly until things ran their natural course. But Heero was…

Heero was a special case. Heero was special. He obviously hadn’t intended to confess this to Duo… probably assumed Duo wouldn’t respond well, and who could blame him for that? Duo had always been friendly to him, sure, but had never given even the slightest indication that he might be amenable to anything more than that. If Duo went up to him now and said something to the purpose of, “I know you have a crush on me; let’s go out,” it would probably discomfort and embarrass Heero, and Duo didn’t like the thought of doing that to him, even in bringing him what would presumably be good news.

But if he went up to him a week from now (OK, well, thirteen days from now, when finals were over) and asked him out, pretending he’d come to the idea independently, knew nothing of Heero’s existing interest, and was unsure of the outcome of this venture… that might work. Well, it would be a torment to watch Heero coming and going all week without saying anything, but Duo supposed it was about his turn. Yes, that would probably work. They could get together and try things out, and Duo wouldn’t have to say anything that would make Heero feel bad. There was no reason at all even to mention the sketchbook.

The sketchbook…

He pulled it out of his backpack and began looking through it again. It really was quite marvelous work; Duo particularly liked the pictures of animals, and thought the praying mantis was his favorite. And, to be honest, there were a number of pictures of him that he enjoyed seeing too — although, despite being aware now who the artist was and having worked through how he felt about that, gazing down at his own face so accurately depicted was still a little uncanny.

So this was the last mystery of the whole affair: who had stolen Heero’s sketchbook, wrapped it up like a Christmas present, and dropped it off in Duo’s mail cubby? Duo had no doubt that the motivation for this had been to alert Duo to Heero’s feelings for him… but who else knew, was busybody enough to want to advance things manually, and had the ability to carry out this devious plan?

Well, anyone that had seen inside the sketchbook could undoubtedly have figured it out just as Duo had. Obviously Heero didn’t leave the thing lying around, or Duo would have noticed it at some point before this; but he also probably didn’t take it with him everywhere, so someone that had been into his room with Trowa while Heero was out might have had access to it.

Trowa himself, of course, was a suspect, and therefore so, by extension, was Quatre. They were awfully busy these days getting busy in between classes, but, if they ever managed to engage in coherent conversation at any point, Duo could see them conspiring to hook their roommates up in some tricky manner just like this. He could even see Quatre picking out that elegant rich-boy wrapping paper.

What he couldn’t see was either of them being so insensitive. Trowa probably knew Heero better than anyone in the dorm; he must, if he was aware of Heero’s feelings at all, be aware of Heero’s disinclination to share them. And Quatre, Heero’s friendly rival in the genius department, could undoubtedly come up with a better way to get them to notice each other (or, rather, to get Duo to notice Heero) than stealing personal possessions and giving away secrets.

Duo ran through the other members of their group of friends, and then through everyone he could think of in the dorm. Breaking into someone’s room was not generally difficult even if you didn’t have a key, and, given that the school never changed the locks, functional dorm room keys were fairly easy to come by. In the end there was a dismaying number of people on the ‘Might Have Done This’ list; and he feared the list was still incomplete, given how many in Heero’s art class that Duo didn’t even know could also meet the criteria.

It irked him that he might never find out. The idea of this misbegotten Samaritan smugging around behind their hand at the thought that they’d put things right, that nobody would ever know, made Duo’s fists clench. Apart from the general dickishness of the plan, nobody got the better of Duo without being pranked equally in return.

Well, he would definitely have to keep his eyes open for anyone in the dorm that seemed to be unusually interested in his or Heero’s doings. That would probably be beneficial, too, because it would help keep him occupied and from showing his unusual interest in Heero before the time came. He had a feeling the next week and a half was going to be something of a trial.

And now it was about time to get back to all of that trial and week and dorm stuff. This wasn’t how he’d expected to spend his free evening, but, overall, he couldn’t really say he was terribly unhappy about it. Having his eyes opened about Heero had been unforeseen, but was already proving fascinating, and would (he hoped) end positively. Standing, he returned the sketchbook to his backpack, then took his cup to the trash on the way out of the restaurant.

The next day, Friday, he had a small number of classes and a great number of work hours, which meant he wasn’t in the dorms most of the day and didn’t catch sight of Heero until late that evening. It didn’t mean he didn’t think about Heero, though. Class had some efficaciousness as a distraction from social life, and the student bookstore where he worked kept him fairly busy, but neither could wholly strike from his mind the sketchbook, Heero’s state as revealed thereby, his own growing interest, and the future’s related possibilities.

And none of this really readied him for actually laying eyes on Heero later. For the moment he caught sight of the messy dark hair, the smooth tan skin, and the slender figure (most particularly those tight jeans), he found himself stopping in his tracks at the top of the stairs and simply staring, overwhelmed by the shocking realization that Heero was, if not the hottest guy he’d ever seen, at least in the top five. How the hell had he failed to notice this before? Why had it taken a stolen sketchbook and several hours of reflection to see something he should have been availing himself of forever ago??

It looked as if Trowa was heading for the showers, and Heero had stopped him just outside their room for some discussion or other. Duo, wide eyes still running frantically up and down Heero’s body, did not at first take in anything they were saying, but eventually, as he began to get himself under better control, he was able to make out the words.

“For the last time, no.” Trowa sounded a little frustrated.

“You’re absolutely sure?” Heero, on the other hand, sounded as calm as usual — but if this was really ‘for the last time,’ it was probably something he had bothered his roommate about on previous occasions, which meant he was actually quite concerned.

“Heero, I’m not blind,” Trowa insisted. “I know what it looks like; I would know if I’d seen it.”

Duo suddenly had an uncomfortable suspicion that he knew exactly what they were talking about.

“But–”

“I’m sorry. I know it’s a nightmare to lose something you need for class. But I really can’t help you.” And Trowa turned away from Heero and moved on toward the bathrooms.

Slipping into the other hallway, which ran to the right from the top of the stairs, where Heero would not see him, Duo leaned against a wall and didn’t budge until he heard a door close around the corner, trying to work through all of this.

He needed it for a class? God damn this luck! Duo was tempted to add, ‘And god damn whoever had stolen the thing from Heero in the first place,’ but couldn’t quite bring himself to. Despite not appreciating being put in this position, seeing Heero put in this position, despite how much of a tactless jerk he thought that anonymous person must be, Duo couldn’t regret having been brought to his senses where Heero was concerned — because how long, otherwise, might it have taken him to notice and appreciate Heero fully? He might never have.

But Heero needed his sketchbook for class. Apart from wondering what the professor was likely to make of the prolificacy of Duo within — or had stalking been part of the assignment? — Duo was now wondering what was the best way to get the thing back to Heero without embarrassing the hell out of him. He peeked around the corner, and, seeing no one in the perpendicular hall, hurried down it toward his own room to think about things in greater comfort there.

He was not at all even a little surprised to find Quatre all bathrobed up and ready for a shower when he entered his room, and was glad that he would be alone for the next… however long it took. After wishing his roommate a suggestive farewell, he flopped down on the bed just as he had yesterday, pulled the sketchbook out, and stared at it, trying to decide what to do.

Well, there was a lost-and-found in the building, but it was historically unreliable as a means of somebody actually recovered their own lost property. And there was always the option of giving it to someone else and asking them to deliver it to Heero, but, besides that seeming equally unreliable when he wanted to make good and sure Heero actually got it in time for whatever class called for it, whom could he entrust with such a task?

He’d never really fully cleared his closest friends of suspicion, and, besides, how could he word the request without making it sound strange and underhanded? They would undoubtedly mention to Heero that Duo was the one that had found the missing sketchbook, and that was precisely what he was trying to avoid.

Much the same problems were associated with his outer circle. What if he handed the thing off to the very person that had originally stolen it? What if whoever he asked to return the sketchbook looked inside it, came to the same conclusion Duo had, and spread the word throughout the dorm that Heero Yuy on the second floor was obsessed with Duo Maxwell across the hall?

No, no, no, no, no. Duo couldn’t let that happen. He would just have to sneak in there and deliver it himself. Quatre had a key, of course, which Duo was sure he could easily appropriate… If he sat around quietly here before work tomorrow, keeping his ears open, he could mark when both Trowa and Heero went out — he was fairly sure Heero worked Saturday mornings, and Trowa was likely to go somewhere with Quatre — and then he could creep over there, let himself in, drop off the sketchbook, and retreat with none the wiser.

He nodded decisively. Good plan.

Taking advantage of Quatre’s in-building absence from the room, he set about locating the key. Actually, there wasn’t much ‘setting about’ involved; Quatre’s things were always organized, and his keychain lived on a push-pin on the little bulletin board that hung above his desk. Duo wasn’t sure whether he would notice the absence of one key among four or five (what they all unlocked Duo hadn’t the faintest idea), but he hoped to sneak it back on there as soon as possible and didn’t really worry about it.

Then, having arranged this to his satisfaction, he sat down and went through the entire sketchbook again. This was probably quite vain of him, since it was almost like reading and rereading a list of compliments, but he simply couldn’t resist. His favorite picture of himself, he decided, was the one in which he was gesticulating wildly and making a funny face. There was so much life and movement in the piece, and Duo was certain it wasn’t just because there was so much life and movement in him. He wondered what Heero had been thinking as he’d drawn it. Someday maybe he would be able to ask him.

Although… the more he looked… he remembered this. Of course he couldn’t be certain, but he thought the last time he’d worn that shirt with those jeans had been when they’d all gone to that stupid movie… the one they’d gotten free tickets to from that Independent Records store, that terrible one where the main character had worn clothes something like Duo’s (which was why he remembered at all).

In the restaurant afterward, Duo had mocked the show mercilessly, and Heero had helped him. That just meant, most of the time, that Heero nodded his agreement, or smiled at Duo’s dumb jokes at the movie’s expense, but occasionally he offered some derisive jest of his own. As Heero was quite clever, these had all been very amusing. Why hadn’t it occurred to Duo at the time that Heero hardly ever joked with anyone? That Heero was paying Duo exclusive attention and enjoying Duo’s attention in return? Why had Duo then drifted off to argue with his other friends, who’d liked the movie and kept referring to him by the name of the main character because of his stupid outfit?

And Heero had retreated back into his usual corner to capture Duo’s gesture and expression on paper. Heero bringing a messenger bag full of homework (or what was generally perceived as homework), even to a social event, was so standard that no one looked twice or questioned; no wonder there were so many candid pictures of Duo in this sketchbook.

He left it open to that piece as he changed into pajamas — the plaid ones, not the ones featured in the book — and then put it carefully away in his backpack again before turning off the lights and getting into bed. Knowing he would have to let a loudly-humming Quatre in after not too long, he didn’t bother trying to sleep just yet, but put his arms behind his head, looked up into the dark, and thought about Heero.

The next day he was awakened, as was often the case, by the sounds of Quatre cheerfully getting ready for whatever romantic outing he had planned. Normally this caused Duo to grumble fairly volubly from the muffling warmth of his pillow about rich kids that didn’t have to work, morning people in general, and anyone so incapable of getting enough of his damn boyfriend that he had to annoy his roommate with his stupid weekend schemes at uncouth early hours… but today he just turned toward the wall with a grouchy noise (only partially to keep up appearances) and listened.

Quatre took an inordinately long time to get ready, for someone that didn’t wear makeup or use hair product, but eventually he finished his whatever and left. Then there was the sound of Heero and Trowa’s door opening and closing, voices, receding footsteps, and then silence. So that was Trowa gone.

Yawning, in no kind of hurry, Duo rose and dressed, still listening. It did occur to him that Heero might already have left before this vigil even started, and Duo might now be waiting for a sound that would never come; in that respect, he was fully willing to admit, this wasn’t the best of plans. But he figured he’d head over there and knock if ten o’clock came and he still hadn’t heard anything; if Heero was in there, he could just pretend he needed to borrow a calculator, and then he would know, and could keep listening.

Wait, what was that? A couple of people walking by, talking… Shut up! You’re making it impossible to hear! Except then one of them said quite distinctly, “Oh, hi, Heero.” Duo didn’t catch Heero’s reply, but he did hear the door across the hall close and the voices continue toward the stairs. Then there was silence. Hah.

Hastily Duo pulled out the sketchbook and retrieved the key he’d left sitting in one of his shoes last night, but forced himself to slow down and wait a few minutes. No reason to rush things, after all; he didn’t work until one.

Eventually he deemed it to have been long enough, and probably couldn’t have waited much longer in any event. The sketchbook was too big to burn a hole in his pocket, but his hands certainly felt on fire as he held it.

Nobody was around in the hall when he stepped out, but there were noises from other parts of the floor. He doubted anyone would think twice about his entering someone else’s room even if they happened to know which was really his, but somehow he didn’t want to be seen. So he bounded across, pressed as close as he could to the door as he unlocked it at top speed, and dashed inside.

He’d opened and closed the thing so quickly that, at the crappy little table Heero and Trowa used in lieu of desks at the far end of the room, the seated Heero was only just beginning to look up when Duo noticed he was there.

He could have bolted. He might even have made it back out into the hallway before Heero realized who his unexpected visitor was. He could have tossed the sketchbook down on one of the beds and made a break for it. But he found that Heero sitting there in the sunlight — they had a window in here, unlike in Duo’s room — his serious eyes bent studiously downward and his dark hair falling into his face, was one that it was almost painful to abandon. He wanted those eyes to look up at him, for he found himself uncertain as to their precise color. Blue, certainly, but exactly what kind of blue, he was ashamed to admit, he’d never noticed.

But even as his wish was granted — and they were the most spectacular cornflower he’d ever seen — he realized with a sinking heart that his plan had failed. Here he was, here was Heero, here was the sketchbook. They would have to have it out here and now; there was no escaping.

Heero was greeting the person he thought had entered before he’d even fully turned: “That was the quickest breakfast I’ve–” But he cut his words off abruptly when he saw who it actually was.

“Hi,” said Duo. “I used Trowa’s extra key he gave Quatre, but I didn’t think you were in here; I heard the door close twice, and I thought you guys were both gone.”

Heero was looking at Duo curiously and a little warily; knowing what he now knew, Duo thought there were other emotions in that gaze as well, but so expertly concealed that they were only visible to someone that knew specifically to look: hope, desire, fear, despair…

“I walked downstairs with them, but decided I didn’t want breakfast.” Heero’s tone sounded a little as if he was humoring the madman that had burst into his room and started talking about how many times he’d heard the door close. “So I came back in here.”

Wow. If Duo had been trying to arrange a private conference with Heero in his room alone, rather than essentially the opposite, he couldn’t have done better. He took a deep breath. “Well, I came to return your sketchbook.” And he held it out.

Heero seemed to reach for the object very stiffly and reluctantly; he’d probably already seen it in Duo’s hand, and knew what this must mean. “Thank you,” he said as he set it on the table in front of him and turned his eyes upon it. His voice was level and cool, and it occurred to Duo all of a sudden what he might be thinking — especially given the use of the word ‘return.’

“I wasn’t the one who stole it!” Duo said hastily. “Somebody left it in my mailbox all wrapped up like a Christmas present with no tag, probably trying to–” But he stopped with something of a jerk; wasn’t he supposed to be not saying embarrassing things?

“Trying to what?” Heero’s tone was still calm, and his eyes, as he glanced over at Duo again, were piercing. Captivating.

“Well…” Duo scratched his head, wanting to look anywhere but at the searching eyes and yet never wanting to look away. “I did go through it, and I couldn’t help noticing…” Noticing what an interesting and attractive guy you really are… noticing that, even if I haven’t had a crush on you all along, I really should have…

Finally those eyes withdrew as Heero let his gaze fall once again to the table and the book between his hands. “Yeah,” he said shortly. And his voice was still cold.

“Well, listen,” said Duo after an awkward silence. And perhaps the difficulty of the conversation thus far prompted him to phrase his sentiment in a way he otherwise might have avoided. “I think secretly drawing someone a million times is probably the most passive-aggressive way I’ve ever heard of to express your interest in them, and I’ve gotta say… if it was anyone but you, it’d be really creepy. Since it is you, though…” He paused. He’d seen Heero’s shoulders go rigid at his last words, and knew that Heero was anticipating intensely what else he had to say. “Since it is you,” he resumed at last, slowly, “it’s actually kindof adorable.”

Abruptly Heero stood from his chair and turned to face Duo, taking a step toward him with a hard, riveting look. It was a look that said alternately, “Don’t you dare play games with me,” and, “Please don’t break my heart.” But what his mouth said was, “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I wish you’d just told me, because–” But that was as far as Duo got; quite obviously, it had been enough. He wasn’t sure which if either of them moved first, faster, or farthest; they seemed to meet in the middle, and were suddenly kissing as if they’d been magnetically drawn.

And it wasn’t like a typical first kiss, where they were getting used to each other and figuring stuff out and still hesitant about any number of things… it was more like the reunion of long-separated lovers, each reminded in a blaze what he loved about the other, tasting with curiosity and undismayed by the changes time had wrought, settling joyfully into each other again.

When they eventually broke apart, Duo remained hovering close to Heero’s face, his breathing somewhat hastened, surprised and delighted at what he’d found here. Heero looked as if he felt much the same, though to his expression there was also an overtone of ecstatic disbelief.

“My god,” Duo whispered, “your eyelashes… I’ve never noticed before what amazing eyelashes you have.”

Heero smiled.

“And your smile!” Duo went on, seeing this. “I’ve seen you smile a million times before, but I’ve never really noticed.” And he kissed him again.

His next query was, “Why am I not surprised that you’re perfect at kissing too?”

“If that is the case,” Heero said with impossible calm, “it’s a surprise to me.”

Duo bent so his forehead rested against Heero’s. “You and your perfect face and your perfect grades and your perfect kisses and your perfect art…”

“I’m glad you liked it.”

“Liked which?”

Heero actually laughed, a rare sound at any time, and one that now sent shivers up Duo’s spine. “All of it. But especially the art.”

“I couldn’t stop looking at it,” Duo confessed, “but it mostly just made me think of you.”

“Why did you want to bring it back when I wasn’t in here?”

Taken a little by surprise, it was a moment before Duo could shift gears and answer this question. “Oh, I figured since you hadn’t told me all along, it’d probably embarrass you if you knew I had it, so I thought I’d just drop it off here anonymously so you wouldn’t know I knew.”

“And skip this conversation entirely?”

“No way! I was planning on asking you out after finals! I just didn’t want to make you feel bad!”

Heero smiled a curious little smile and said, “Well, I appreciate the thought. Really. But I think you were underestimating me.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s true–” and he sounded rather displeased with himself admitting it– “I couldn’t figure out how to tell you I liked you in person, but I had decided I was going to tell you somehow… I was ready for however you responded.”

“But you still didn’t actually tell me!”

“Yes, I did. I gave you my sketchbook.”

“You… what?” Duo released him so he could more properly gesture his surprise and skepticism. “You? You did not!”

“I did.”

You took your own sketchbook and — no, you did not. I don’t believe it.”

Without a word, Heero pushed past Duo and crouched beside his bed to retrieve something from beneath it. When he stood again, he placed in Duo’s hands a roll of wrapping paper: green, red-ribboned, covered with gold and white flowers.

“I should have known,” said Duo in a murmur of wonder, staring down at it. “Of course this is really your style.” But he hadn’t noticed, before, that he had any idea what Heero’s style was. “And the way you wrapped it… all neat and nice-looking… I’m going to make you wrap every present I give to anyone from now on.”

“I would be glad to,” said Heero solemnly.

Duo lifted his eyes from the paper, grinning at Heero suddenly. “And it’s all or nothing with you, isn’t it? You can’t just tell me, ‘I’m interested in dating you,’ but apparently you can tell me, ‘Look! I drew you thirty times!'”

Now Heero did appear somewhat embarrassed. A little hoarsely he said, “I wanted you to know how much I…”

That embarrassed look on that usually-so-impassive face was just too charming; Duo tossed the wrapping paper aside, stepped forward, and pulled Heero into another embrace. “I guess it’s no weirder than writing someone a love sonnet or something,” he allowed. He was moving to kiss Heero again, but this thought made him pause a breath away from Heero’s lips to ask a little suspiciously, “You don’t write poetry too, do you?”

“I may have tried it a few times,” Heero replied noncommittally, and forestalled any further questioning by leaning in to claim the kiss Duo had postponed.

The next point to be brought up once articulation was again available was, “Without a tag, though? I mean, you had me all up in arms trying to figure out who would be such a jerk to steal your stuff and blow your secrets!”

Heero looked surprised and pleased. “You really were worried about embarrassing me.”

With an exaggerated expression of reproving austerity Duo said, “I think now you’re underestimating me.”

“I won’t do it again,” Heero promised with a slight smile.

Really, it shouldn’t be much of a shock if Heero considered him a little thoughtless, given how long Heero had been largely invisible to him despite being pretty much everything Duo wanted. Maybe Duo was a little thoughtless. Maybe this was a lucky break the like of which he would never see again. Maybe he should take advantage of this opening of his eyes to look around him more seriously in case there was anything else important going on that he was missing.

He would have to think about this later, though; none of it was answering his question.

“So why anonymously?” he reiterated. “You knew I’d find out at the end who’d drawn it all; what was wrong with letting me in on who’d sent it, too?”

Once more Heero looked somewhat embarrassed as he shrugged and said, “I guess that was just another passive-aggressive thing. I thought about putting a tag on it, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m pathetic, I know.” It was remarkable how he could make such statements so placidly, so coolly. And he was pathetic — or, at least, if Duo didn’t precisely feel sorry for him, he at least felt sorry

Throwing his arms around Heero again, he said, “I so wish I’d noticed before this how interesting and sweet and hot you are! We wouldn’t have had to go through all of this!”

“I wouldn’t have had to try and fail to approximate a perfectly normal human interaction?” Heero wondered dryly. He seemed to be blushing a little — his face felt suddenly hot where Duo’s was pressed against it — whether at his own misanthropy or at Duo’s compliments could not be guessed.

“Well, now you’ve learned your lesson,” Duo laughed. I’ve learned my lesson, anyway.

“Yes: passive-aggressiveness gets me everything I want.”

Again Duo laughed, simultaneously amused by the joke and pleased at being referred to as everything Heero wanted. “OK, one more question,” he said, “and then we can make out all weekend.”

“With a promise like that,” said Heero seriously, “I’ll tell you anything.”

Duo grinned. “OK. So what’s the symbol for the curl operator in Maxwell’s equations?”

Heero blinked. “An upside-down triangle and an X… Where have you even heard of Maxwell’s equations?”

“Some nerds outside one of the science buildings were talking about it,” Duo shrugged, “and it had my name in it so I listened. I just wanted to see if you really would tell me anything.”

“Yes, but now you’ve asked your one question.”

“I’m going to ask you another one anyway, though.”

“I may not answer.”

“Then I may not kiss you again.”

“Fine; what is it?”

“Was Trowa in on all of this? All that, ‘For the last time, I haven’t seen it!’ stuff? Or was that something else you’d actually lost?”

“Oh, that.” Heero cleared his throat. “That was a show, at least on my part. Trowa doesn’t know. But I saw you coming–” he gestured to the window– “and I wanted you to know that I needed it for class.”

“So I’d make sure to get it back to you soon and not keep you in suspense,” Duo finished for him.

“Well,” Heero said a little sheepishly, “and I do need it for class.”

“You… sneaky… manipulative… underhanded…” If Duo’s affectionate tone didn’t assure Heero that there was no malice in the statement, the coined noun with which he eventually finished must have: “…adorableguy!” He put his hands on his hips. “No more of that, OK? Just because you can trick me into doing things doesn’t mean you’re allowed.”

“No more,” Heero agreed gravely.

“And I,” Duo went on expansively, “promise in return never to ignore you again the way I’ve been doing pretty much ever since we met.”

With a rueful smile, “I’m just naturally invisible, I think,” remarked Heero.

Duo shook his head. “Not to me,” he said firmly. “Not anymore.”

Heero’s smile warmed.

“And now…!” Duo wanted and fully intended to make good on his promise of prolonged kissing, but this needed to be done first. “This… is mine.” He turned to the table and snatched up the sketchbook.

“I do have to turn it in on Monday.”

“But you gave it to me. You wrapped it up and gave it to me. It was a present, and I like it way too much to give it back!”

“It’s an eighth of my grade in that class.” Heero reached for the book.

“You should have thought of that before you just gave it away!” Duo laughed as he jerked out of Heero’s reach.

“Duo!” Heero was grinning somewhat too now as he dove again for the item in Duo’s hand.

“It’s mine!” Duo insisted, jumping aside and almost crashing to his doom against the table; the small dorm room wasn’t made for this kind of game. As Heero made another lunge he therefore added, “Maybe I’ll let you borrow it if you ask nicely.”

At this Heero straightened and met Duo’s eyes with such a fervid gaze that Duo also immediately stilled. Heero reached out again, this time not for the sketchbook but for the collar of Duo’s shirt, with which he pulled him close and then guided him into a seated position on his bed. “Please,” he said, almost against Duo’s lips.

“OK,” Duo managed weakly. The object of their discussion was already well on its way to being completely forgotten; it fell from his hand to the floor as Heero’s arms slipped around him and Heero’s lips pressed insistently against his. Duo slid his hands into Heero’s hair, pulling him closer as he deepened and intensified their kiss; and Heero was clasping him, warm and strong, as he let Duo in. And then–

“This is unexpected.”

At least this time Duo wasn’t the only one not to have noticed things going on around him; he thought Heero was just as startled as he was at Trowa’s impassive voice from the door he hadn’t even heard being unlocked.

“I like it, though.” Quatre, at Trowa’s side, looked and sounded both thoughtful and pleased. He took his boyfriend’s hand. “Let’s give them some privacy.”

“It is their turn.”

“We can go to my room.”

Trowa nodded. With an ironic salute in Heero’s direction, he allowed himself to be dragged out, and the door closed.

Once again Duo flung his arms around Heero for a ferocious hug, laughing heartily. “We have been judged!” he cried.

“And found worthy,” Heero added in amusement. He paused, and when he spoke again it was in a tone simultaneously pensive and more playful than anything Duo had ever heard from him. “I say we move them in together over break.”

Duo’s eyes went wide at the consummate genius of this idea, but the aspect of it on which he chose to comment was, “Heero, I think you just asked me to move in with you.”

“I think I did,” Heero nodded.

“Could get awkward if we break up…”

“You think we won’t even last one semester?” Though his tone was light, still Heero was discernibly disappointed.

Maybe it was just beginning-of-the-relationship giddiness, but somehow, when Duo thought about it, he actually saw them lasting a lot longer than that — and he said so. He’d been reminded, too, by Heero’s suggestion, of the fact that the winter break was approaching and he and Heero would be here practically alone throughout. Settling his arms around Heero’s waist, Duo added happily, “This is going to be the best Christmas ever.”

“I think so too.” Heero pulled him close again for another kiss.

And from the floor beside them, another Duo, in exquisitely detailed colored pencil and bearing the neat signature of Heero Yuy in pen, smiled up at them approvingly.


Oh, Heero. Nothing says love like being a manipulative stalker, right? He’s lucky Duo’s so generous (and likes him too), because, generally, the appropriate reaction to this kind of behavior is not to make out with the guy.

Also, don’t even ask me what kind of bike accident knocks out a canine but leaves the lateral untouched…

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

This story is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook.



I Am the Mask You Wear


The surest way to command Heero Yuy’s full attention was to begin a sentence with the word ‘Duo.’ If advertisers had known this, they would undoubtedly have taken ruthless advantage: “(Duo) Worried about your mortgage? (Duo) We can help!” or “(Duo) What’s the only difference between our paper towels and the leading brand? (Duo) The price!” Fortunately, they didn’t know this strange and inconvenient weakness of Heero’s — and neither, he was fairly certain, did his friends. They probably thought he had let them in because he was glad of their company, not because they’d indicated an intention of relating some sort of news about his object of intense fascination.

Well, and he was glad of their company. But he was more interested in what they had to say about Duo.

“He’s been running around biting people.” Quatre always had such an inappropriately apologetic air, as if (in this instance) he were the one running around biting people. Heero often wanted to reassure, tell the always-conscientious Quatre that he was one of the least offensive people he knew, but the comment seemed too… personal… somehow, and thus went unsaid.

So back to the matter of Duo running around biting people. It actually took Heero’s brain a moment to assimilate the information and present a (relatively) rational explanation. “In costume?” he asked.

Quatre nodded.

It sounded… well, it sounded just like Duo. Not content to wait for the office costume party tomorrow evening, or perhaps eager for some practice in his role of classic vampire, he had taken up a relatively harmless but doubtless rather annoying pursuit and made the other apartment-dwellers his innocent victims.

Heero assumed it must be annoying his neighbors, anyway. He based this assumption on the rather dubious evidence of Trowa’s facial expression and the accompanying reflection that (if being bitten by Duo didn’t seem like it would be inordinately fun) Heero himself would have found the behavior very annoying as well.

Trowa was Quatre’s boyfriend, and Heero would have gone so far as to say the guy had no personality whatsoever if he weren’t aware how disturbing it was to be on the receiving end of that assessment. Trowa’s face wasn’t a very good indicator of anything, at least, since it rarely changed. Still, he did seem to be looking a little less pleased than usual, so Heero’s assumption went unchallenged as yet.

“What have you done to stop him?” he asked Quatre.

“Well, we’ve tried asking him politely,” replied the latter, grimacing slightly, “and asking him… less politely.”

“How less politely?” Heero persisted.

“He dodged.” It was the first thing Trowa had said since entering Heero’s apartment. He wasn’t always quite this reticent; he must be annoyed. It was also a rather amusing statement. Trowa was like that sometimes, giving every indication of detached indifference until he suddenly said something bluntly, concisely clever. Heero had often thought of mentioning — just casually, of course — how much he enjoyed this aspect of Trowa’s hypothetical personality… but, unfortunately, he wasn’t terribly good at casual compliments.

Quatre’s laugh sounded helpless and — predictably — apologetic. “And then he pulled his cape up to his face and said something about how only a stake through the heart works against him… and ran off again.”

There was a long moment of silence while Heero pored over this entertaining mental image. He could already hear Duo’s voice in his head quoting lines from bad vampire movies and laughing maniacally as he darted through the deepening shadows across the lawn. It almost made Heero smile. Almost.

It also occurred to him, belatedly, to wonder, “Did you two come up here just to warn me about this?”

“We thought you might have an idea how to stop him,” explained Quatre. “You know him better than we do.”

While this statement was accurate in that Quatre, working in Human Resources, had less contact with Duo on a day-to-day basis than Duo’s cubicle neighbor Heero, the fact remained that the three of them were still co-workers and lived in the same apartment complex. He thought he knew what Quatre meant, though; it had more to do with the borderline-stalkerish behavior Heero alone exhibited toward Duo at times. Heero was fairly certain Quatre knew exactly how he felt about Duo, too, and simply didn’t say anything out of tact. Quatre was good at tact; on occasion Heero wished he could thank him for that… but never managed, somehow, to find the right words.

His face a little hot, Heero looked away from his friends. His eyes fell on his own party costume, which he hadn’t touched since Relena had laid it out on the sofa yesterday evening, and suddenly an idea was beginning to form in his head. Only a stake through the heart… It was a ludicrous idea, but it gripped Heero unexpectedly tightly and he found he could not shake it off. It strengthened, fleshed out, reiterated itself, and demanded to be suggested.

“We…” began Heero slowly, “need to play his game.”

Quatre, always uncannily quick to pick up on things, speculated, “Dress up and hunt him down?”

Heero nodded.

“That,” Trowa declared flatly, “is a terrible idea.”

This was pretty much what Heero had been thinking: it was a terrible, unhelpful, embarrassing idea, and he couldn’t believe he had thought of it. Only a strange, inexplicable desire to go out and chase Duo around in costume like a little kid or a nerdy college student, maybe see if he could get Duo’s mouth onto his neck, had insisted he suggest it at all. Now that Trowa had criticized it, however, Heero felt compelled to defend it.

“You tried to hit him and he ignored you.” He could state relevant facts just as stonily as Trowa could, after all. “If you had used a stake, he would have pretended to die and come back inside with you for a beer.”

Quatre chuckled. “I think you’re right, Heero… but we don’t have any stakes.” He glanced at Trowa and asked facetiously, “Do we have any stakes?”

“Not unless there are some in the boxes I haven’t unpacked yet.” Trowa’s tone was a complete deadpan but for the very slightest touch of dryness.

The remark made Quatre blush a little, as did most references to the recently-taken step of having-the-boyfriend-move-in, but, unashamed, he grinned at Heero and reiterated, “We don’t have any stakes.”

Heero shook his head. “That isn’t the point. He would probably be satisfied with any dramatic defeat.”

Quatre nodded slowly. “Yes, that sounds like Duo…” He raised worried eyes to meet Heero’s. “But do you think we can manage it?”

Of this Heero wasn’t entirely certain. He’d never really considered himself much of an actor — but, then, he’d never really made any attempts at it. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “But that’s my only idea.”

“I guess it’s worth a try…” Quatre seemed pensive.

After a long moment of silence during which nobody moved, Trowa finally said, “We aren’t really going to do this.” Heero thought he meant it as a question, but Trowa said things with such finality it was sometimes difficult to tell.

“We’re certainly open to other suggestions,” Quatre smiled wryly.

Heero said nothing. He wasn’t entirely sure Trowa was wrong. True, something inside him really wanted to do this, but it was a something that was easily squelched, beaten into submission by the same repressive instincts that wouldn’t let him be as open as he wished with his friends. Of the four of them, Duo was really the only one with the sufficiently devil-may-care attitude required to put on a costume and run around outside biting people without regard to his own dignity. Heero would simply feel too silly… unless he had a good, specific reason for doing it.

He guessed the others felt the same: if there was a reason (an excuse, his better judgment corrected, at least in his case), it wouldn’t be nearly so bad. Even stoic Trowa, he thought, could put on a mask and a goofy outfit and make a fool of himself as the means to the right end.

Apparently Trowa didn’t have any better ideas, for he was shaking his head. He looked a little grim; obviously he was aware that if Quatre decided to do this, he would have to as well. This, Heero knew from having observed the two of them for so long, was not because Quatre was the one in charge (though in many ways he was) but because Trowa was innately supportive. It was rather charming… though of course Heero could never tell them so.

Nobody, Heero noticed, had suggested that this might not really be their concern. Technically it wasn’t; Duo was an adult and not their responsibility. But they all knew that Heero’s interest in the matter changed at least his perspective on it. Which was, of course, part of the reason they’d come to him at all. Beyond that, they were all Duo’s friends…

“Well, somebody’s probably going to call the police on him if we don’t do something soon,” Quatre said, voicing aloud the exact reason their friendship demanded action in this particular case. “Come on, Trowa.”

Trowa gave a quiet sigh and stood up heavily alongside his boyfriend.

“We may see you outside,” was Quatre’s goodbye to Heero as he left the apartment behind the unspeaking Trowa.

Heero wandered over to the sofa. Staring down at his costume, he felt a frown growing on his face as he pondered. He wished he could be like Duo, be able to do silly things without a valid reason. Hell, quite often he wished in vain that he could do sensible things for a valid reason — things like vocalizing his nice thoughts to his friends rather than keeping them inside all the time. At the moment he wasn’t really debating, either; he was just trying to work up the necessary… nerve? …to put this thing on.

It was an old-fashioned evening suit with a cloak of some sort, almost all of it entirely in black, accompanied by a white mask that looked like porcelain but was actually lightweight plastic. As he understood, it referred to some character from a book or movie that Relena was fond of — and probably, if he knew Relena, corresponded with her intended character. She’d chosen it all, of course; he wouldn’t know where to begin selecting a costume for a party he wasn’t entirely eager to attend in the first place, and it was apparently her right as self-destined eventual girlfriend to find one for him.

One of these days he really was going to have to tell her that he wasn’t interested. What with needing to find the right moment, find the right words, find a way to break past his innate reluctance for any such conversation — not to mention having to arrange it so that he could speak his peace without letting her think he was getting ready to say exactly the opposite… he just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Well, he had never put this thing on; who was to say it would even fit? In that light, it seemed worth at least trying. Or at least that was a decent excuse to get into it. Once he’d managed to put the costume on, then he could think about showing his face in public in it.

Except he wouldn’t be showing his face in it, would he? He held up the mask, examining it once again, this time with more interest.

Relena was obviously aware that he would feel easier in costume if a mask was involved, and he wasn’t sure whether to find this fact comforting or even more disturbing. The end result was that he had a mask, but it was brought about by Relena knowing him better than he liked to think. Discovering that the suit fit perfectly brought on a similar mixture of emotions. How on earth had she known…?

Well, when Duo was outside biting people’s necks, there was really no reason to be inside thinking about Relena. Heero swept the cape from the couch and fastened it around his shoulders, and took up the mask again and put it on. There was a length of rope tied into a noose of some sort that went along with the costume, which he had vague hopes of using to defeat Duo dramatically (though he was damned if he knew how); he picked this up as well and turned toward the door.

Despite his momentary burst of determination regarding this plan, it was still with some hesitation that he peered out into the corridor onto which a few different apartments besides his own opened. The sun hadn’t quite gone down yet, which made Duo’s masquerade that much more absurd but would also, presumably, make locating and detaining him that much easier. And for the moment, thankfully, there was no one in sight.

He hadn’t even left the corridor, however, before he got his first strange look; he’d been expecting this, and bracing himself against it, but found now that the mask provided a sort of buffer against embarrassment. It helped, somehow, that his neighbor couldn’t see his face; hell, she might not even recognize him if she hadn’t seen which door he’d come from. That made everything easier, and Heero descended the stairs to ground level with greater confidence.

Now if only he had any idea where to start…

Well, Duo would have gotten his costume on in his own apartment and emerged thence for his biting spree… where might he have gone from there? Heero supposed it depended on how long Duo had been at this, and cursed himself for having neglected to get this detail from Quatre. As it was, he supposed that his best bet was still to head over to the building Duo lived in and see if he couldn’t pick up his trail there. So with this in mind, he started across the complex.

The first of his friends he encountered was Quatre, who seemed to have the same idea or at least to be walking in the same direction. On seeing each other, they immediately moved to meet and speak, but on drawing near gave a moment to mutual costume examination before doing so.

Heero wasn’t entirely certain who Quatre was supposed to be, though he’d heard it mentioned probably more than once. The outfit consisted of a tunic-thing over fairly tight pants and under a short cape and some type of odd-looking flat cap, all of it in rather gaudy colors and patterns, including gold trim. His eyes fell last to the sword Quatre wore hanging from his braided belt, and his brows rose. It looked so… real.

Quatre followed the direction of his gaze and laughed. “Not exactly accurate, I know, but I don’t have a rapier.”

Heero nodded slowly, accepting this explanation despite how little it meant to him, and said, “You look great.” Though this was true, it was also rather surprising; he was generally so unable to separate a compliment on physical appearance from attempts at flirtation that he found himself completely unable to deliver the former for fear of being suspected of the latter. He was rewarded by one of Quatre’s warm smiles, however, and certainly wasn’t unhappy to have been able to speak his mind for once.

“Thanks!” Quatre said. “I had to come up with a design that would look fairly accurate but that Trowa would be willing to wear too. No hose, in other words.”

Now Heero did remember Quatre saying something about matching costumes, but he still couldn’t remember the names of the characters they were dressed as. “Well, it looks really good,” he reiterated, surprising himself again. “Is Trowa out here too?”

Quatre looked a little sheepish. “I feel like I bullied him into it, but, yes.”

Under his mask, Heero smiled slightly. “He won’t mind if he gets to pretend to stab Duo.”

With a chuckle Quatre agreed. “Anyway, I told him we should probably split up, and I still think that’s a good idea.”

Heero nodded. “I was going to look around Duo’s building. Hey, how long has he been running around doing this?”

“We ran into him–” Quatre glanced at his wrist, realized he’d removed his watch for costume purposes, and shook his head. “Maybe half an hour ago?”

Heero nodded.

“I’ll go over to building three.” Quatre turned in that direction and took two steps, then paused. “What are you planning if you find him?”

“I’m… not sure,” answered Heero. He held up his prop noose and said, “I’m still trying to think how this might be any good against a vampire.”

Quatre gave that apologetic smile of his and said, “Your costume is unfortunate for fighting vampires.” Turning again and once more beginning to walk away he added with a wave, “You could try singing him to death…”

Heero really had no idea what he meant by that, and instead of concerning himself about it moved on toward Duo’s apartment.

There was no sign of Duo thereabouts, but Heero hadn’t really expected any; there was, though, an annoyed-looking man standing on the patio of one of the ground-floor units, rubbing his neck and gazing out across the lawn.

“Where did he go?” Heero asked without preamble as he approached.

“What, your dumbass friend with the makeup on? Your gay friend was already here asking.”

“We’re all gay,” Heero replied coolly, which was interesting since he usually couldn’t make that statement nearly so easily. Inwardly he was hoping that Duo had bruised this guy. “Which way did the vampire go?”

The man stared at him for a moment, looking very annoyed and at first totally unwilling to comply. But eventually, probably realizing that his revenge would never be enacted if the costumed vigilantes were unable to locate his attacker, he pointed. Heero nodded, judging the man unworthy of verbal thanks, and went immediately in that direction.

After wandering for some time and finding no sign of either Duo or of any other of his victims, Heero was starting to get frustrated. His stark suit, cape, and mask, not to mention the lasso, had received a number of strange looks from denizens of the apartment complex as he moved around the various buildings, and, although this had been a great deal less unpleasant than he’d expected, so far his fortitude seemed to be wasted. Perhaps this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Well, he’d never thought it a particularly good idea… just one that might get Duo’s mouth onto his neck.

He was approaching the playground that lay in the center of the complex, where the equipment cast long, spidery shadows in the setting sun, when he heard the voice he’d been waiting to hear and, moving toward the far end of the sandy area, saw the figure he’d been longing to see.

“Do you really think that will hurt me, mortal?” It was Duo all right, giving his words every bit as much dramatic emphasis as Heero had been expecting. He was standing down at the far end, one foot on the concrete and the other in the sand.

Heero had known Duo was planning on dressing as a vampire, but hadn’t actually seen the costume until now. Though he wasn’t sure that vampires routinely wore leather pants, he was inclined now to believe they always should. He didn’t think he’d ever seen any sight in his life that he liked quite so much as Duo’s lower half at this moment. The black silk button-up open partway down his chest was nice too, and certainly the high-collared, red-lined cape and white face-paint were very vampiric… but for the moment Heero’s eyes were riveted on the pants.

Quatre, it seemed, had located their target first, which was for some reason not terribly surprising. He was facing off against Duo at the edge of the sand, sword in hand. The foil gleamed in the light of the setting sun, looking dangerous despite its blunted end, and only the knowledge that Quatre was exceptionally skilled and responsible with the weapon kept Heero from feeling some slight concern.

“Here’s that shall make you dance,” Quatre said, and swept his sword at Duo. An odd phrase, that; it must be related to his costume. Heero did seem to remember Shakespeare being involved.

Duo, appearing a little surprised at the attack (or the statement, or both), leapt backward just in time to miss being slapped across the stomach. Then a broad grin spread over his face, baring the fake fangs he’d acquired for the occasion. As Heero drew slowly closer, he could see that these fangs had gotten to Quatre already — there was a red spot and a slight smear of white on the latter’s neck just above the blue-and-gold braid that held his cape in place; now that he’d actually set eyes upon Duo, this sight made Heero more jealous than ever.

“Hah!” Duo cried. “You’re no match for my vampire speed!”

“By my heel, I care not.” And Quatre thrust at him again.

Duo dodged in a movement that was more like retreat. Everyone present knew that he couldn’t keep this up; Quatre was hampered by the inability to stab directly at him for fear of actually injuring him, but eventually he must score what even Duo would have to be satisfied with as a dramatic killing blow.

But Quatre had a different sort of blow in mind. “You made that little girl cry!” he said severely.

Heero hadn’t noticed the little girl at first, thanks mostly to the leather pants, but now he did: perhaps six years old, she’d evidently been playing innocently in the sand when happened upon by a wandering vampire. Now she was sitting still and weeping quietly — a good deal more quietly than Heero was under the impression children generally did — her chubby, sandy hands continually rubbing at her tear-stained face. Duo was really going to get himself in trouble if he was attacking children and having this effect on them.

In response to Quatre’s accusation Duo had the grace to look somewhat sheepish. “I didn’t mean to,” he protested. “I just thought–”

“I will bite thee by the ear for that jest!” interrupted Quatre, slipping back into Shakespeare-speak and attacking again.

This time Duo barely escaped the intended blow. It was probably because he was too busy with his gleeful retort, as Quatre’s latest statement had evidently eradicated his embarrassment about the little girl and thrown him into a state of triumphant pleasure. “But I already bit you by the ear!” he cried.

“Ay, ay,” Quatre allowed, “a scratch, a scratch.”

“No, this fight is over!” insisted Duo obstinately, his dramatic declaration colored by laughter. “You’re already defeated!” And, his laugh becoming positively malignant — he must have been practicing — he turned to run off. As he spun, his cape flew out and up so that Heero could see beneath it… and if he’d thought the tight leather pants had been riveting from the front, well, they were absolutely spellbinding from behind.

Both Quatre and Heero would have followed at once, but at the very same moment they were distracted. The door to one of the nearby ground-floor apartments burst open in a noise of children, two of which came running out toward the playground with incoherent shouts. At almost the same moment, a little dog with a bow in the topknot between its ears bounded out after them. A split-second later a distressed-looking pregnant woman appeared in the door.

“You let the dog out!” she cried in irritated despair, watching the creature dart away.

The moving children didn’t hear her, as they’d approached the crying girl in the sand, who seemed to be the sister of at least one of them, with shouts of their own — mostly with the goal of informing her repeatedly that it was time to come inside for the night. Their remarks quickly changed to demands to know why she was crying and taunts on that account, and one of them began kicking sand at the poor thing and laughing.

Quatre glanced at the fleeing figure of Duo, the abusive children, and the little dog in quick succession, nodded briefly, and said, “Heero?”

Heero, understanding him, also nodded, and darted off after the dog. Some effort was required to get his hands on the obnoxious thing, and undoubtedly in the few minutes it took for him to catch it Duo had long since escaped. Of course Heero wouldn’t have neglected someone obviously unable to pursue her own runaway pet, but that didn’t prevent him from feeling rather bitter toward the horrid yorkie for cutting into his Duo’s-leather-pants-time.

By the time Heero returned to deliver the creature to its owner with a silent, ironic bow, Duo had indeed disappeared. Frustrated, Heero went to join Quatre at the playground. On the way, he passed the three children, now making their way inside as instructed. The older two looked deeply troubled and perhaps a little pale, but the girl that had previously been crying was smiling. Heero wondered what on earth Quatre had said to them.

Quatre sighed as Heero approached, and murmured, “A plague o’ both your houses… I am sped.” Looking up he added more audibly, and also somewhat apologetically, “Well, we lost him.”

Heero watched him thoughtfully. Yes, they’d lost Duo, but only because of other, more pressing concerns. Quatre had analyzed the situation, made an instantaneous decision on what their priorities must be, and acted upon it. Sure, it hadn’t been a particularly dire situation, but it had been a miniature of Quatre’s behavior and abilities in all other fields; he was a born strategist.

Quatre was staring at him now with widened eyes, and Heero realized suddenly with a severe shock that he’d said at least some of that out loud. His face was instantly burning, but the cool mask atop his hot flesh was a solid reminder that Quatre couldn’t tell.

“I… wow,” the latter said, slowly smiling. “Thanks.”

Heero, every bit as astonished as Quatre that he’d said anything of the sort, merely nodded.

Quatre cleared his throat. “Well, let’s split up and see if we can find him again.”

Once more Heero nodded.

Noting that the sun had set entirely, he began to wonder whether Duo even had any potential victims left. Sometimes on Friday and Saturday evenings there were still children playing outside after dark, or the occasional barbecue or patio party, but this was Thursday. Which meant, quite possibly, that Duo would be forced either to go inside and give up this pursuit, or to focus exclusively on Heero, Quatre, and Trowa. And since Duo wasn’t really the type to give up, well… that was promising.

The next to locate the troublesome vampire was Trowa, and once again Heero joined the program already in progress. He approached in time to hear Duo saying something about Trowa being a much more appetizing victim even than his boyfriend — “Who I totally just defeated, by the way.”

Trowa, whose costume resembled Quatre’s in every particular but color, drew his sword. Again Heero felt the beginnings of concern at the use of a real weapon against unarmed Duo — especially as Trowa, unlike the foil’s owner, did not fence — but he found himself distracted and, indeed, riveted by a totally unexpected source.

“Now,” said Trowa stonily, “by the stock and honor of my kin, to strike you dead, I hold it not a sin.”

Duo responded with a laugh as he dodged the inexpert thrust of the sword. “My enemies are determined to Shakespeare me to death,” he declared. “But I am immune to Shakespeare!” As he had been with Quatre, he seemed positively tickled by the scene.

“Immune?” Trowa echoed. Despite his straight face, Heero thought he was enjoying the little drama almost as much as Duo was. “I hate the word, as I hate hell, all vampires, and thee: have at thee, coward!”

Heero saw that, once again, he needn’t have worried about Duo’s safety when Trowa’s next attempted blow was as neatly dodged as the first had been. “You’re just jealous that I’m immortal and you’re not!” was Duo’s next pronouncement.

“Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries that thou hast done me,” was Trowa’s fierce reply.

Knowing (or at least thinking he knew) how reluctant Trowa had been to get into this costume, Heero was surprised to discover how well he seemed to know the lines. More than that, however, he was shocked at just how well Trowa delivered them. That Trowa was a fan of Shakespeare wasn’t particularly surprising, but the passion and intensity with which he recited, rendering the words at once natural-sounding and fascinating — that was unexpected. Whatever Heero thought of the bard (or thought he thought of him), he would pay money for a performance like that. It was almost as absorbing as Duo’s pants (if in an entirely different way), and that was saying something.

Though it would undoubtedly not have been dramatic enough for Duo’s tastes, Trowa would have been better off sticking with his fists. An excellent addition to the costume the sword may have been, but an unfamiliar weapon only slowed him up and never once made contact with Duo’s person. And eventually Duo managed to circumnavigate it and Trowa both, seizing him by the shoulders from behind.

The sight of Duo’s mouth closing onto Trowa’s neck was enough to rouse Heero from his Shakespeare-induced hypnosis. He moved forward from where he’d only been watching, rapt, up until now. Duo, however, jumped back from his victim as Trowa struck out (wisely, with his elbow this time), glanced at each of them in turn, then ran off laughing into the bushes.

Trowa and Heero both took off after him immediately, but again Trowa’s unaccustomed weapon got in his way, this time tripping him so that he fell rather violently onto the mulch that surrounded the bushes flanking the sidewalk. Heero, following too closely, stumbled likewise and barely kept himself from falling directly on top of his friend. Sitting up from where he’d landed on the pavement, he looked hastily around for Duo… but they’d lost him. It didn’t help that, at this level, the bushes entirely blocked 180 degrees of his view.

Appearing more annoyed than ever, Trowa also sat up, disentangling himself from his foil and rubbing at his neck. He too looked around for Duo, with something of a deadly gleam in his eye, but could see as well as Heero could that the vampire had eluded them. In a tone of irritation and self-reproof he muttered, “His fault concludes but what the law should end.” A little more loudly he added, “I told you this was a terrible idea.”

Rather than defend an idea that had yet to be proven anything other than what Trowa stated, Heero found himself, somewhat unexpectedly as the two of them got to their feet and dusted off their costumes, pouring out his opinion of Trowa’s ability to recite Shakespeare.

By the time he finished, Trowa was looking at him with one eyebrow raised. This didn’t cause quite as severe a sense of embarrassment in Heero as Quatre’s surprise had, since this time Heero remembered he was wearing a mask. And Trowa said briefly, “I got roped into understudying the part once.”

“So you’ve never actually performed it?”

Trowa shook his head.

Heero thought that was a shame, and said so.

Trowa just stared at him.

Clearing his throat, Heero turned. “I think he went this way.”

“No, he went around the building.”

“Well, you go that way, then,” Heero commanded impatiently, certain it was wrong. “I’m going this way.”

“Track down this murderer; he must be found,” said Trowa sardonically.

Having nothing to say in response to this odd statement that didn’t sound much like Shakespeare or Trowa, Heero just turned and headed off in the direction he believed Duo had gone. He was wondering as he did so what had ever possessed him to gush like that. Of course it had all been true, he didn’t think he’d expressed himself badly, and he couldn’t really object to having expressed himself at all… it was just so strange. It was, however, a less consuming topic than that of Duo.

Because it occurred to him that Duo had probably bitten both Quatre and Trowa before the three of them had gotten into costume. But then he’d bitten them both again once they were chasing him. Did that mean that he considered them different people — fresh, unbitten victims — once they were dressed up? And was the logical conclusion that if Heero encountered Duo now, then went back inside and came out again in normal clothing, he might possibly get bitten twice as well? If he changed his outfit again after that, could he pose as a third unbitten bystander? It was something to keep in mind.

Unproductive minutes felt forever long on this hunt, and the apartment complex seemed twice as big as usual. Every hint of movement anywhere caught his eye and made him jerk in that direction before he realized that it was just some innocent neighbor entering their apartment or heading for their car. He found that he rather liked the way his evening cloak or whatever it was swished around him as he moved, especially if he turned abruptly, but that wasn’t really helping him locate Duo.

He did locate something, drawn by sounds that seemed promising in the little space between a cluster of bushes and the apartment office building. He pushed his way through the bushes as quietly as it was possible to push through bushes while wearing a cape, and stopped abruptly two steps from emerging when Quatre and Trowa became visible. They hadn’t found Duo this time; apparently they’d just found each other.

Heero wasn’t sure how this scene had started, but he was in time to see Quatre take Trowa by two handfuls of his tunic and practically slam him up against the wall. “If love be rough with you,” Quatre was saying, “be rough with love.”

Trowa, making no resistance whatsoever to this rough love, nevertheless pointed out, “This isn’t helping us find Duo.” He didn’t much sound like he was objecting, though.

“Humors! madman! passion! lover!” Quatre grinned. “Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh: speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied.”

You have all the lines about love,” protested Trowa softly, a faint smile appearing on his own face.

Quatre’s grin widened as he raised it toward Trowa’s lips. Heero didn’t think there was any way they could be unaware of his presence, but the energy with which they kissed — the very personal way Trowa’s arm snaked around Quatre’s waist to pull him closer, the intimacy of the touch when Quatre’s hand ran up Trowa’s face to bury itself in his hair and knock his hat right off — suggested they thought they were currently, if not the only people on Earth, at least the only ones that mattered.

That they could be that to each other, that two men so different could combine their differences to such a satisfactory end, could thus complement and support and invigorate each other, was uplifting and inspiring. They always made Heero feel that the world wasn’t quite so lonely and hopeless as he was sometimes inclined to believe, and that perhaps he wasn’t quite so far from attaining this kind of happiness as he often feared.

And he’d said all of this out loud again, hadn’t he?

“Aren’t you supposed to be looking for Duo, my clever friend?” Trowa wondered, in a tone that implied some annoyance at being interrupted but was yet so mild that Heero thought he was actually teasing. Quatre just grinned into Trowa’s jawbone, blushing.

And Heero found that he was not embarrassed. He probably would be later, when he looked back at this and wondered how the hell any of that had come out of his mouth, but by this point in the escapade he had attained a perfect state of disinhibition. At the moment he felt he could have told them anything, no matter how personal, without even faltering, if he’d wanted to.

He didn’t want to. But he could have. What he did say was, “Yes. You two have fun,” and turned to depart.

“What’s wrong with him?” he heard Trowa wondering in a near-whisper behind him.

“Nothing plainer,” Quatre replied, by his tone evidently still grinning: “He is clearly quite insane.” And the last thing Heero heard of their conversation as he made his way through the bushes away from them was Quatre changing the subject with a return to Shakespeare. “This field-bed is too cold for me to sleep: come, shall we go?”

How much further assistance he could expect from those two he didn’t know, but he had his doubts. Also, as he was the only one of the three that hadn’t yet been bitten, it was most certainly his turn to run into Duo before anyone else. It was a little unfair, actually, that he hadn’t yet, when he was the one that wanted to get bitten.

At last he got at least part of his wish. Just on the other side of the swimming pool enclosure, on one of the lawns through which sidewalks snaked between the various apartments, a rustling sound startled him into turning abruptly to find Duo approaching through a cluster of bushes. Why he couldn’t use the sidewalk like normal people Heero didn’t know; undoubtedly it was a vampire thing. Not that Heero was really one to talk, he supposed.

Heero took a deep breath and intoned, “We meet at last.” Immediately he decided that this was entirely worth it when he saw how pleased Duo was by the greeting.

Duo moved out of the bushes, his hips swaying in a hypnotic swagger that was completely un-vampire-like and completely wonderful. “So it is to be war between us,” he said. “I’ve destroyed all your allies; what makes you think you can defeat me?”

“My…” Heero really had no idea what to say, other than to protest that ‘destroyed’ seemed something of an overstatement. “My secret weapon,” he finished somewhat weakly.

“Ooh, what is it?” wondered Duo excitedly.

“It’s a secret!” Heero remonstrated.

Drawing himself up dramatically Duo told him, “Only a stake through the heart can kill me! Whatever this weapon is, it will have no effect!” And with a flip of his cape he was charging at Heero.

Of course their dialogue could never reach the dramatic heights of Quatre’s or Trowa’s, but just this brief stupid exchange had seemed fun. It wasn’t only a means to an end or an excuse to admire Duo in tight pants; it was fun in and of itself. Trust Duo to have orchestrated such a situation; really, all things considered, Heero should have been expecting it. Everything was fun with Duo. But then everything changed.

For Duo was suddenly close enough that the heat of his body was palpable, gripping Heero’s arm to keep him still while the other hand slid beneath his collar, pushing it aside to bare his neck. Warm breath hazed across Heero’s skin, and he felt himself go stiff as his heart suddenly started racing. He couldn’t help it; as Duo’s lips brushed his neck, he shuddered uncontrollably. Suddenly the cool evening seemed burning hot, and it was all he could do not to reach out and seize Duo in a crushing grip.

There was no conceivable way Duo could overlook this reaction. Heero watched with a slight sense of panic, not to mention a great deal of disappointment, as Duo jerked away abruptly. He was staring at Heero now with widened eyes, one hand creeping up to his mouth where the white makeup was slightly smeared. In stunning contrast to this, his ears had gone bright red. Well, the rest of his face probably had too, but its color was invisible under the paint.

“Duo…” Heero whispered, aware that the atmosphere had changed but not exactly sure how. And where had all that liberation of a few minutes ago gone? Evidently the mask could shield him only so far, and after that it was back to the usual inhibitions and awkwardness.

Duo straightened, and the agitated expression on his face smoothed out. “My name is Nosferatu Lord Maxwell!” he cried, and stepped back as if he planned on darting away into the bushes again. He paused with an indecisive movement, however, his eyes locked on Heero.

Nosferatu Lord Maxwell? Really?

Struck with a sudden inspiration, Heero repressed his laugh at the name and said hastily, “Well, my lord, how did you like that vampire poison I had on my neck?”

Again Duo’s ears went red, which made Heero’s stomach do funny things. “Oh, is that what that was?” he wondered.

What it really had been Heero rather wondered too. “It was made of garlic,” he said, “and…” But he couldn’t come up with what else was supposed to hurt vampires. Duo would just have to forgive him his inability to think clearly at the moment.

Duo choked out the single syllable, “You…” and staggered forward. “You betrayed me!” He stumbled right into Heero, who reached out automatically to catch him despite knowing it was just an act. Duo clutched at him with strong, clawing hands, and Heero’s arms didn’t seem inclined to let go, so when Duo sank to the ground he took Heero with him. “I thought…” Duo gasped. “I thought you were my friend.” His expression was tragic, but one corner of his mouth was twitching wildly.

It was less difficult for Heero to keep a straight face — not that Duo could see his face — as he was distracted by his efforts not to take improper advantage of the situation. As such, when he replied, “I had to stop you,” if felt more real, somehow, than it probably should have, and his tone was genuinely apologetic.

The way Duo twitched and writhed would have made Heero laugh if Duo hadn’t at that moment been in his arms on the ground. It was a good thing they had this silly drama to play out; otherwise, Heero feared, once he had Duo in his arms he wouldn’t know what to do with him there. Duo was so firm and so warm… even his harsh, fading whisper, “I just wanted… to be the… best vampire… ever…” couldn’t drag Heero’s attention from the fact that this was the closest he’d ever come to what he’d wanted for so long. Nor could Heero tear his eyes from Duo’s; the latter were half-closed, looking up at him pitifully… but at the same time sparkling with glee.

“Good… bye…” Duo gasped faintly, then closed his eyes and went limp. Well, a fair imitation of limp, anyway, beyond the repressed laughter Heero could feel shaking his chest.

Let him go, Heero’s better judgment was instantly commanding. Put him down! Except he couldn’t. You really don’t want to still be holding him when he opens his eyes. Except he did.

Duo opened his eyes. His ears abruptly turned red again. Heero dropped him and stood.

Stretching out flat on the ground, Duo put his arms behind his head and grinned impishly up at Heero. “So,” he said, “you don’t happen to have any beer in that stuffy apartment of yours, do you?”

Their walk inside was wordless, though Duo was evidently in a very good mood. Seeing nothing of Trowa or Quatre, Heero guessed they’d given up (for whatever reason) and gone back inside as well. Which was preferable, since Heero didn’t feel like tracking them down and letting them know the hunt was off.

He unlocked his door and ushered Duo ahead of him into his stuffy apartment. That description must have had to do with something other than the layout, as his one-bedroom was built to the same design as Duo’s. He wondered what that said about him. He also wondered exactly what had just happened, and whether it had been good or bad. Sure, on the surface it seemed like maybe the best thing that had ever happened, but what was the meaning of that blush Duo kept producing?

After stepping into the dim entry and closing the door behind him, he turned to find Duo standing just in front of him.

“Take that mask off,” Duo commanded. “I want to see your face.”

Heero’s hand moved protectively to the object in question, pressing it comfortingly against his cheek — which, he feared, was as red now as Duo’s ears had been a few minutes before. “That’s not fair. You still have face paint on.”

Duo leaned forward, peering into Heero’s eyes through the holes. “I have never seen you act like this,” he said.

“Like what?” Heero wondered uneasily, taking a half-step backward.

Following him that same half-step, Duo didn’t break eye contact. “Honestly I can’t believe all three of you got dressed up and chased me around outside,” he grinned, “but you especially. You’re not a bad actor, you know that? Except usually you keep everything bottled up like you’ve got something to hide. Which I guess is just more proof that you’re actually a good actor. But here tonight you’re telling Quatre that he’s a born strategist, and Trowa that you’d pay to see him perform Shakespeare, and almost telling me…” He paused. He didn’t trail off hesitantly; rather, he seemed to be toying with the words.

Heero could, at this point, have expressed his wonder that Duo had heard any of that, if his ability to express anything hadn’t been temporarily revoked.

“Almost telling me…” Duo repeated. His ears were red again (or perhaps still), but despite his embarrassment he was very clearly in control of this situation.

Another retreating step brought Heero’s back up against the door. He wasn’t even sure why he was moving; he certainly didn’t dislike the thought of Duo closing the distance between them. Perhaps, over the course of the evening, he’d developed a fear of vampires.

“It’s that mask, I think,” Duo said pensively. “If you think people can’t see your face, it’s easier for you to say things you couldn’t otherwise. I should have thought of that forever ago. Except I didn’t know, and if I had you wouldn’t have needed to tell me.”

“That… makes no sense,” Heero said hoarsely.

Duo laughed, and abruptly pressed himself full up against Heero, wrapping his arms around Heero’s waist and filling Heero’s limited field of vision with bright indigo. “Take that mask off,” he murmured. “I want to see your face.”

This time Heero obeyed without question, and immediately Duo kissed him.

Earlier he’d been reflecting that he might not know what to do if he ever got Duo into his arms in some context other than vampire-slaying; it turned out not to be a problem. His hands seemed almost of their own accord to thread through the braided hair of Duo’s head to pull him closer, then disentangle and slide down to feel the contours of Duo’s back, still pulling at him; finally they settled on the smooth roundness of his buttocks in those pants. Oh, those pants.

Meanwhile Duo kissed him enthusiastically and messily, squirming as Heero tugged at him, tasting slightly of grease paint, his own hands making a very similar exploration of Heero’s body all the while. Finally with a moan he broke away, panting, to stare into Heero’s face very intently once again.

Lips swollen and red, eyes shining, he gasped, “Wow, Heero. I mean… wow.” And without waiting for a reply — assuming Heero could have come up with one for this articulate statement or even at all — he kissed him again.

When they separated, Heero’s head was spinning, and he felt the only reason he didn’t fall right over was the fact that he was pinned between Duo and the door. “Yeah…” he agreed faintly. “Wow.”

Duo nuzzled his face against Heero’s ear and jaw. “How long have you wanted this?” he wondered.

“I don’t know…” Heero scrambled to find the answer in a brain that didn’t seem to be functioning properly. “Months… a year… I don’t know…”

“And here I only just noticed,” Duo chuckled huskily. “Hey, say something nice about me. I want to see if you can do it without that mask on.”

“I think…” Heero struggled to comply, but it wasn’t working very well. “…you…” It wasn’t just his usual inability to say such things; it was also that one of Duo’s legs was between his. “…you… were the best vampire ever,” he finally managed.

You certainly seemed to enjoy being my victim,” Duo grinned, drawing back to look Heero in the eye once again.

“You didn’t actually bite me, though,” Heero pointed out.

“No, I didn’t.” Duo pulled his lips even farther apart and snapped his teeth together audibly, all the while holding Heero’s gaze with narrowed eyes. He was deliberately teasing now; Heero had to ask for it if he wanted it.

Giving in to the unspoken demand with a blush, “I wish you would,” Heero whispered. “That was the main reason I came out after you in the first place.”

Duo looked pleased. “To get me to bite you?”

Heero nodded. “Quatre told me you were running around biting people, and… I…” But he trailed off as Duo’s lips, for the second time that night, came into contact with his neck and his breath spread out over Heero’s prickling skin in a hot mist. As if searching for the precise spot he wanted, Duo’s mouth crept slowly along, slightly open, accompanied by the occasional scrape of teeth or the brief wet trailing of his tongue.

Groaning softly, Heero let his head fall back against the door. Duo made a thoughtful, interested humming noise against his neck, and then began nipping gently at the latter. The costume fangs dug sharply into Heero’s flesh, causing him to gasp at the sudden and wholly welcome pain. Duo made the humming noise again, then began sucking on the spot he’d bitten.

This combined with the grinding that had been going on slowly and subtly all along down where their hips pressed hotly against each other was enough to complete what the kissing had started, and Duo did not fail to notice. With a chuckle he removed his lips far enough to remark, “That’s all it takes, huh?”

This was one of those moments when Heero would have particularly liked to say something clever or complimentary, but it was absolutely beyond his power. Once again, he couldn’t really blame this on his own taciturn personality, but rather on Duo’s intoxicating nearness that robbed him of his ability to articulate. A somewhat ragged syllable in the affirmative was all he managed.

Duo chuckled again, somewhat raggedly himself, and, taking hold of one of Heero’s wrists, guided his hand down to where his own lower garment was bulging just as much as was Heero’s. Then he returned to kissing Heero invasively, leaving the hand to do what it would. And what it would was fulfill Heero’s several-months’ wish of getting into Duo’s pants. He didn’t really tell it to; it just went on its own. Given the way Duo angled his hips to give Heero better access, it was evident he didn’t object.

There was a button and a zipper, which presented all sorts of trouble for a moment, but the rewards were well worth it. Beyond the last remaining barrier of soft boxer briefs, the flesh of Duo’s erection was smooth, fine, and very hot, and the breathy groan that fell from Duo’s lips as Heero touched him made the blood pound into Heero’s groin at the speed of his rapidly beating heart.

Evidently the old-fashioned suit Heero wore had given Duo even more trouble, but he also persevered. And as his hand threaded through curling hair and found what it sought, he gave a little sigh half of triumph and half of growing satisfaction, and began mouthing Heero’s neck again. Heero felt himself go simultaneously stiff and weak at the knees as Duo slowly explored his erection from one end to the other with creeping fingers and nibbled at the flesh beneath his ear with sharp fangs. He could feel the unevenness of Duo’s breathing against his neck, and his own was coming in short gasps. His unoccupied left hand clutched at Duo’s back, crumpling the red-lined vampire cape into a mass of cheap polyester wrinkles.

Except for a slight trembling that moved through him like a storm, Heero was absolutely still at Duo’s haphazardly roving mouth on his ear and jaw and neck and collarbone. He felt as if he was flying high up through a cloud of pleasure, and not just physical (though that certainly was a significant part of it), racing through lightning and thunder like a kite whose taut string was held in Duo’s skilled grip. He pulled at the flesh in his own hand, and Duo writhed against him with an inarticulate gasping groan before kissing him hard on the mouth once more.

A pulsing, aching core of arousal was largely central to the universe at the moment, but it was dimly surrounded by other sensations: the rapid beat of Duo’s heart, the scent of Duo’s sweat rising in the heat between them, the taste of the paint on Duo’s face and the unique flavor of his mouth. And yet, through all this, it was the knowledge, largely unconnected to his five senses, that Duo was here, with him, holding him, touching him, as Heero had so long wished, that was doing the most to accelerate him through waves of pleasure toward a bright grand finale.

Erratic though his motions were, he stroked Duo’s erection purposefully, loving the way the sensations he was giving seemed to mirror those he was receiving. And when the lips against his broke away as Duo’s face lifted upward in a little spasm of ecstasy and moaned out Heero’s name, it was all he could take. With a loud, shuddering sigh, he climaxed hard onto Duo, clutching at him with digging fingers as he did so.

Duo’s outcry had been an indicator of how close he was, and soon, heralded by noisy huffing breaths and a groan, he came as well. Then he went limp against Heero so that they were both in danger of slumping down to the floor, tugging somewhat absently at Heero’s hair with his right hand and letting his breathing steady against Heero’s neck as he made a soft contented noise in the back of his throat. Heero returned the evening’s favor by mouthing Duo’s neck and occasionally scraping his teeth against the hot flesh.

Eventually, after a deep, pleased breath, Duo’s incoherent sounds turned into murmured words. “So…” he said, and then repeated his earlier, “That’s all it takes, huh?”

Breathily Heero chuckled against Duo’s carotid and said, “Yeah.”

Drawing back, Duo kissed him briefly one more time before looking at him with a smile that was half thoughtful and half playful. “I have to say I’m flattered.”

“I guess I should be too, then,” Heero replied, “since you only took about ten seconds longer.” He was blushing, but also so flushed in general that he doubted it could be distinguished.

Duo’s smile widened into a grin, and he detached himself from Heero with the reluctance of something firmly glued. He looked around rather sluggishly, seeming only slowly to regain his awareness of the rest of the apartment. Holding his pants closed with his right hand and slowly swiveling his hips as he walked as if reveling in a very pleasant leftover sensation, he crossed the room. A box of Kleenex on the kitchen counter seemed, understandably, to be his destination. He examined his left hand and the sleeve just beyond it as he went, and announced, “I’m going to have to wash this shirt if I want to wear it to the party.” He didn’t seem to be complaining, though.

“Yeah…” Heero agreed, looking down and taking stock. “My pants…”

“I got some of this paint on your jacket and stuff, too,” Duo said as soon as he was finished laughing triumphantly. “Supposedly it comes off in the washer, but we’ll see, I guess.” Once he’d righted his own attire, he brought a couple of tissues back to help tidy Heero, who was still leaning weakly against the door.

As Duo’s eyes were bent downward, he kicked at something on the floor. “You never got a chance to use your Punjab lasso.”

“My what?”

“I think that’s what it’s called…”

Heero followed Duo’s gaze to his prop rope, which had dropped from his hand the moment the latter had found better things to hold onto. “Oh, that. I never figured out how I was going to use it anyway.”

Duo looked back up at him, eyes flashing through his bangs and a devilish grin on his lips. “I bet we could think of one or two ways,” he said. He bent and retrieved the object in question, then stroked one end of it slowly down Heero’s face before he put it in his hands. “You know what else I’m looking forward to? Is you wearing that mask again.” Duo nudged it with his toe where it too had fallen forgotten to the floor.

Heero smiled at him. “I don’t really need it anymore, though.”

“Maybe not with me, but I can’t wait to see what you have to say to everyone at that party tomorrow with it on.” Duo looked rather tickled at the thought, and went on enthusiastically. “Because I can just see you telling Schbeiker that we all know she’s the one who eats all the extra donuts in the break room on Fridays but nobody says anything because she’s so touchy about her weight; or that obnoxious old man who sits down at the other end that he needs to stop leering at you because you wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole, especially now that you’ve got a boyfriend.”

Heero laughed, but had to protest. “I don’t think it makes me say nasty things.”

“Well, tonight’s been mostly just your friends. Of course you’re going to say nice things to us. People at work, though…” Duo became even more excited as he continued. “And everyone’ll stare at you because they have no idea where this all came from, and you can say, ‘Why so silent, good messieurs?’ and then boom! turn to Treize from accounting and tell him that he needs to get over himself already because he just isn’t that hot. I swear I would jump you right then and there.”

“Well, when you put it that way, it’s almost tempting.”

“Almost?” Duo echoed, disappointed, as he picked up the mask as well and added it to the rope in Heero’s hands.

“All right, it’s definitely tempting,” admitted Heero. “I guess we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

Duo gave a grin of self-satisfaction. “Seriously, though,” he said, “we’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for, Mr. Doesn’t-Bother-To-Tell-Me-He-Likes-Me. I’ve known you for, what, a year? and the more I think about it, the more I think I’ve liked you all along without realizing it.”

This brought a sudden warmth to Heero’s chest and a smile to his face. It was a slow, almost tentative expression; this was so much more than he’d expected tonight when he’d set out to try to get Duo to bite him and relieve just the tiniest bit of his pent-up frustration and hidden desire. It was almost incredible that they’d come this far.

Duo also seemed to be marveling, simultaneously surprised and delighted at Heero’s smile. “You are so cute…” he said wonderingly.

Heero didn’t know that ‘cute’ was the word he would most like to have applied to him, but couldn’t really object when it impelled Duo to kiss him again.

“Now,” said Duo at last, drawing away, “I seem to remember somebody promising me beer.”

I seem to remember Nosferatu Lord Maxwell inviting himself over for it,” Heero replied mildly.

Duo grinned. “You can’t tell me you didn’t want me to come.”

Heero thought he was once again blushing a little at Duo’s word choice, but still so flushed that it probably wasn’t visible. “Well, take a look in the fridge,” he said.

“Excellent!” Duo swept his cape out dramatically as he turned and headed for the kitchen once again.

Heero paused before following, his gaze falling from Duo’s figure to the objects in his hands. Contemplatively he stared at them for a long moment. “Duo…” he said.

Duo paused just past the microwave and looked over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

Face taking on a serious frown, Heero continued to scrutinize his props. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course.” Duo moved two steps back toward him, mirroring Heero’s expression with a slight worried wrinkling of his brow at the pensive tone.

At last Heero looked up at him and said, “Who the hell am I dressed as?”


This was written for the 2010 Moments of Rapture contest. It is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook.

My best friend Zombie Girl provided the suggestion that Quatre and Trowa dress as Mercutio and Tybalt of Romeo and Juliet. I’m not a huge fan of the play (though it’s a lot more enjoyable when the titular couple are offstage), but I wanted matching costumes that would provide them with the opportunity for dramatic dialogue, and those characters worked perfectly. The one line that doesn’t belong to either of them is, “His fault concludes but what the law should end,” which is originally one of Lord Montague’s.

Incidentally, though Heero’s narration never really had a chance to get into it because of flow and all that, Shakespeare is something of a mask for Trowa: in much the same way the actual mask allows Heero to express himself more openly, the memorized lines and the concept of performance allow Trowa to show a good deal more emotion than he otherwise could.

Obviously all the other quoted lines are from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera. I have mixed feelings about his adaptation of what has long been one of my favorite books, but people tend to know the musical much better, so I felt it logical to have the other characters quoting that rather than the book. I wanted to balance this out just a little by giving the story a title from the book rather than the musical (which title would also then have been a bit less obvious), but, although there are several lines featuring the word ‘mask’ in Gaston Leroux’s original (OK, a translation of Leroux’s original), none of them said what I wanted, so there you go.

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



Heretic’s Reward 1-4

Heretic’s Reward

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

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



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

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


Chapter 1 – Heretics

It often took the entire walk home for Sano’s hair to dry, but that did rather depend on the weather. During this transition between summer and autumn, provided the rain hadn’t started, by the time he’d reached the crossroads it was already at that itchy stage where any lingering moisture felt like sweat instead of the remains of a bath. He hated that stage, especially when he was already a little annoyed, but scratching his head or running his hands through his hair would only necessitate another bath sooner than if he didn’t, so he kept them clamped tightly around the straps of his backpack to prevent it.

A distraction from his irritated thoughts was not at all unwelcome, which was probably the only reason he even noticed the sound of running feet as he neared the crossroad — bare feet, apparently, approaching him up the perpendicular way, which the trees currently blocked mostly from view. He paused, waiting to see what entertainment the Torosa Forest Road would afford him today, watching what little he could make out through the corner of foliage. Something grey flashed past, and a figure came hurtling around the bend onto his road, where it promptly ran right into him.

It wasn’t a proper, solid collision, but rather more of a ricochet; a shoulder made contact with Sano’s ribcage, sending the figure spinning off behind him and falling awkwardly to the ground. And once it was still, Sano, turning, saw a shoeless boy in an overlarge, frayed shiiya that was missing a sleeve.

“You all right, kid?” Sano reached out a hand to help the boy up. “What’s your hurry?”

Instead of accepting the assistance, the boy looked him over quickly with eyes that widened perceptibly at something he saw, then scrambled backward and to his feet. With one last nervous glance at Sano, he turned and dashed off the road into the trees, where he quickly disappeared.

“Huh,” said Sano.

If it hadn’t been evident from the kid’s demeanor that he was being pursued, the sound of more running feet and hard breathing from around the bend would have confirmed it. Sano turned back toward the crossing and waited. Presently a pair of devoted, a man and a woman in mismatched pants and red shiiyao bearing the black and purple lotus emblem, came hurrying into view and stopped in front of him. The man, evidently pleased at the momentary pause in their progress, bent over, rubbing at his side and panting.

The woman, forward of her companion and not as badly winded, looked quickly around at the road in both directions and the surrounding trees, then at Sano. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she caught sight of the heretical device on his chest. “Did you see the boy?” she demanded abruptly. “Where did he go?”

“Dunno,” Sano shrugged. He then added in the mildest tone he could command, “I’m blind.”

The second devoted, slowly standing upright again, looked at Sano in greater interest. “Blind?” he echoed.

Still hanging onto his straight face, Sano replied, “That’s what you devoted are always telling me, anyway.”

The woman’s brows lowered, and one of her hands formed a fist “Are you getting fresh with us, heretic?”

“Come on.” The man stepped quickly forward, reaching for the woman’s arm to pull at and restrain her. “We don’t have time for this.”

Sano ignored this relatively pacific statement and responded instead to the woman’s threatening question. “And if I am? What are you gonna do about it?” He couldn’t help grinning a bit as he laid his hand on the hilt of the keonblade at his side. Baiting religious folk was just so much fun.

“We don’t want any trouble,” the man insisted.

The woman was also ignoring her companion. Seeing Sano’s motion and the small sword he wore, she rolled her eyes and commented derisively, “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.”

Please,” said the man loudly, clapping an emphatic hand on the woman’s shoulder and looking across it at Sano with a weary expression. “Master, we really don’t want any trouble; we just need to find that kid.”

For a long moment Sano contemplated telling both of them to go fuck themselves, but eventually decided against it. The man hadn’t been so bad, after all; besides, if Sano didn’t send them off wrong, they might accidentally go the right direction. “He ran off that way,” he finally said, pointing up the sloping road whence he’d come. “Looked pretty tired, too — nice of you guys to wear the poor kid out like that. You should have no problem catching him up if you hurry, unless he leaves the road.”

Without even acknowledging this ‘help,’ the woman turned and, towing the man, headed off immediately the way Sano pointed. The man turned back toward Sano briefly and began, “Five times…” Then, realizing the semi-religious idiom probably wasn’t entirely appropriate, amended, “Well, thank you.” After which he moved quickly to fall in beside his companion. Before they were out of sight or earshot, Sano heard him asking, “Why do you have to be so belligerent?”

“Why do you have to be so soft?” retorted she. “Heretics need to be put in their place.” And she broke into a run. Soon they had both disappeared around a curve in the road.

Sano looked after them for nearly a minute, making sure they weren’t coming back, before he turned and studied the nearby foliage. He thought he could make out a spot of pale grey among the greens and browns, and waved slowly at it. “All right, kid, you can come out… They’re ’round the bend by now; they won’t hear us talking back here.”

The grey patch moved and grew, and became the undyed clothing on the small frame of the boy. Hesitantly he emerged through the bushes, peered up the road, then turned suspicious eyes back on Sano. “Why’d you do that?” he wondered. “They might have rewarded you.”

Sano made a derisive sound. “They wouldn’t have given me nothing.” He grinned darkly as he added, “Besides, I like messing with devoted.”

The boy was studying him from head to toe again, still appearing a little uncomfortable. “Because you’re a heretic, right?”

“Right,” nodded Sano.

“Me too,” said the boy quickly, withdrawing his gaze from Sano — most particularly from Sano’s chest and the emblem thereupon — and looking around again.

“Oh, really? You look a little young to have decided that.” Falling into a crouch, which put him just below the boy’s eye-level, Sano returned the favor of precise examination. The kid’s black hair was shorn shaggily close to his head, which couldn’t possibly make him many friends wherever he went, and he was probably around ten years old. The shiiya he wore had obviously been made for an adult, for it extended all the way down past his knees, and the one remaining sleeve hung almost as far. He had a somewhat skittish demeanor that matched the nervous expression and the continually shifting red eyes.

In response to Sano’s statement, the boy fixed him with a direct glare. “Don’t talk to me like I’m young and you’re old.”

“Well, how old are you?” wondered Sano, amused.

“Eleven!”

Sano poked him in the chest teasingly. “You seem more like– Sweet Kaoru, you’re scrawny!” Because he really shouldn’t have been able to feel ribs quite so prominently with just a little poke like that.

The boy scowled, and so did Sano. Pulling his backpack off one shoulder, Sano fished through it with the opposite hand. As it was nearly empty, this being the end of the weekend, he easily found what he sought. “Eat this quick before you drop dead!” he said, handing an apple to the boy. The latter couldn’t quite hide a covetous widening of eyes and intake of breath as he reached out to accept. No surprise there: he probably hadn’t eaten in days.

Sano stood straight again, readjusting the backpack straps and rolling his shoulders. “And you better come this way,” he said, “in case those devoted come back.” The boy, already three huge bites into the apple, now followed him without hesitation.

They walked in silence for a while as the kid devoured the apple down to the narrowest core, at which he still looked rather wistfully before he hefted it out into the trees beyond the edge of the road. Watching him almost made Sano hungry, and reminded him very much of his own eleven-year-old days.

“So what’d you steal?” he asked at last, tossing the second apple he’d retrieved from his pack into the air and catching it.

“What?” The boy’s eyes followed the flying object like a predator its prey.

“I ain’t stupid, kid.” Sano let the apple go motionless in his hand in the hopes of commanding a greater share of the boy’s attention. “Those were Tomoe devoted, and the closest Tomoe shrine’s in Egato. No way would they chase you this far just for a heretic hunt.” Ladies knew the devoted liked a good heretic hunt, though; that woman he’d met just now had been a classic example. Whatever the kid had stolen from them had probably been a welcome excuse for them to harry him halfway around Torosa.

“It…” The boy’s eyes lingered for a moment on the now-stationary apple before turning away entirely. “It was just… some food.”

The kid seemed so uncomfortable about this that Sano, wanting to put him at ease, replied immediately and heartily, “Well, I can’t blame you for that! I did my share of it when I was a kid.” He held out the apple. “Here, have another.” And, as he watched the boy tear into it with just as much enthusiasm as the first, he added thoughtfully, “Tomoe knows a shrine’s the best place to steal food from.”

“You know,” said the boy, his tone solemn despite his mouth being full, “the ladies don’t like it much when you keep throwing around their names like that.”

Sano stared at him for a second, amazed at the serious straight face and the somber voice. Then he burst out laughing. “You sound just like a devoted!”

The boy smiled sheepishly at him before returning his attention to the apple.

Sano reached out and ruffled the kid’s scraggly hair. “I like you!” he declared. “What’s your name?”

“Yahiko,” said the boy without looking up.

“I’m Sano. You need a place to stay for the night?”

Now Yahiko did look up, but only with his eyes; it was a glance to which all the suspicion and nervousness had returned. “Yeah…” he said cautiously, and the tone was almost more that of a question.

“Well, you got one. I don’t own much, so I won’t worry about you robbing me, and there’s good work around here if you wanna make some honest money before you run off wherever.” He tapped the white teardrop on his chest knowingly as he added, “They even hire heretics.”

“Uh, thanks,” mumbled Yahiko reluctantly, then fell silent. He stared at his mostly eaten apple, and made his way through the last few bites with an unprecedented slowness. Finally he ventured, “Um… you’re not thinking I’m…” He was looking sidelong at Sano again, with just his uncertain eyes. “I’m not gonna have to, uh… ‘pay’ you for this, am I?”

Sano shrugged. “Well, if you have any…” But he trailed off as the particular tone Yahiko had used belatedly struck him. “You mean…” For a moment he went wordless as shock and outrage filled him.

Yahiko was studiously watching the passing trees on the side of the road opposite Sano, and said nothing to confirm the half-voiced guess. What in the world had this kid been through? How often had he been expected to ‘pay’ for things in the manner Sano was fairly certain he meant? It seemed obvious, however, that Yahiko would rather not discuss the matter with a complete stranger, and with this in mind Sano forced himself to finish his statement as casually as possible. “Nah, I like older men.”

“I like girls,” Yahiko said in a very small voice, still not looking over.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Sano said, far more jovially than he felt, clapping the kid on the shoulder. But the outrage was still present, and needed some expression, lest it force itself into the open in some inappropriate fashion. “But if anyone you don’t like comes bugging you like that,” he added, drawing his sword and letting the energy blade flash long and bright with the strength of his anger, “you just let me know.”

For the first instant, Yahiko had shied visibly away from him and looked like he might be about to bolt again. But as he took in Sano’s words and saw the weapon in his hand, his face broke into an animated smile. “You’re a keonmaster?”

Through Sano’s head rang immediately the voice of that damned devoted woman just now: “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.” He scowled a bit as he let the energy blade recede and resheathed the short sword. “Well, not exactly a master yet…” he admitted.

“My dad was, back when he was alive,” said Yahiko enthusiastically. “He was really good.”

“Did he teach you any moves or anything?”

“Only a little.”

“I was actually on my way back from my trainer’s when you ran into me today,” Sano said with some enthusiasm of his own. “If you stick around all week, I can take you up to his house. I usually stay up there on weekends.” But no sooner were these words out of his mouth than he realized everything that could potentially go wrong in that scenario. “Though… well…” He felt himself blushing slightly as he backtracked. “Maybe that’s not the best idea… He’s this grouchy old… well, older guy, and, well…”

The town had been growing larger and more visible before them for a while now, and their emergence from the trees was a very welcome occurrence. In the light of the setting sun it looked very homey and welcoming, Sano thought… though that might merely have been because of the potential change of subject it provided. He cleared his throat and gestured. “This is Eloma, by the way — in case you didn’t know where you were.”

Yahiko, evidently sufficiently distracted from Sano’s awkward lack of real explanation, looked first at the town and then behind them somewhat anxiously. “What if the devoted come here looking for me? Wouldn’t it be better if nobody saw me with you?”

“You pissed them off that bad?” Sano was impressed. “Nice work!”

Again Yahiko smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.

“Everybody in a town this size knows everything right after it happens no matter what you do anyway, though,” Sano went on, “so it’s no use hiding. But if anyone comes after you, I’ll deal with them.”

With an uncertain nod, Yahiko accompanied Sano over the irrigation bridge into town. He seemed to loosen up a trifle as he saw the villagers going about their usual tasks without taking any notice of them except to offer the occasional more or less amiable greeting. Sano waved at some friends where they sat under the roof of the inn, and stopped briefly to pet one of the local dogs, but otherwise had little interaction with anyone as they progressed — and this seemed to comfort Yahiko somewhat.

“And here we are,” Sano announced cheerfully as they approached his house in the southeastern corner of the town’s center. “Ain’t much, but it’s close to the orchards I usually work, and it’s really mine since I won the deed fair and square at chips.” He was still rather pleased with himself for that, and just couldn’t help mentioning it.

Yahiko didn’t seem impressed. “No, it really… ain’t much…” he murmured in something like horror. Sano was neither surprised nor particularly disturbed by this, and grinned as he fished out the key to his front door to let them in.

Inside, he managed to locate his fire-starter with only a little trouble in the dark, and lit the candle on the table. “There should be some clean water out back, if someone hasn’t thrown something in it,” he told Yahiko, gesturing at the back door, “if you want to wash up or anything.”

Yahiko was looking around at the small single room. “Oh, yeah… thanks…” he said a little absently, and moved toward the door.

“You still hungry?” wondered Sano as he removed his backpack and tossed it carelessly onto the bed.

“Yeah,” Yahiko replied, in a tone suggesting he didn’t want to ask for more food but was indeed very hungry. He was fumbling with the door, and managed to figure out both lock and latch after a few more moments.

Sano looked through his cabinet. “I got some bread…” He picked up the heavy half loaf, unwrapped it, and examined it on all sides. “Still looks good.”

“Thanks…” came Yahiko’s voice from just outside.

After setting the loaf down on its cloth wrap on the table and laying his knife beside it, Sano moved to the bed. He yanked the top blanket out from under his backpack and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply.

“There’s not much water here,” Yahiko called in to him.

“Is it enough?” asked Sano.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind me using all of it.”

“Go ahead. Probably one of the neighbors was too lazy to go aaaalllll the way to the irrigation. I’ve done it.”

A faint laugh from Yahiko was followed by splashing.

Satisfied that his blanket didn’t smell too terribly bad to be offered to his guest, Sano tossed it onto the rug that lay before the fireplace, and sent his pillow to follow. Then he bent to unlace his boots.

Bare to the waist, shaggy hair dripping, Yahiko reentered the room as Sano was removing his shiiya and stuffing it into the cabinet. Sano looked at him and noted not only just how scrawny he really was but also that his pants were belted with a length of string. Instead of commenting on this, however, he said, “Man, they had to practically tie me up and throw me in the river to get me to clean up when I was your age.”

Yahiko grinned. “But you weren’t on the run, were you?”

Sano returned the grin and shrugged. “Well, no, I guess not.” Turning back to the cabinet, he reached in and brought out the old, much-patched shiiya he only kept around these days as a backup. “Here, why don’t you wear this to sleep in. Yours looks like it could use a break.”

“Thanks,” said Yahiko, and pulled the garment over his head. Then, spreading his arms out and looking down at it, he remarked a little skeptically, “This… isn’t much better than mine.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty beat up, I know.” Sitting down on the bed again after making sure the back door was securely closed, Sano yawned. “It took me a while to save up for the red one,” he went on, “and meanwhile I never bothered much about that one. Then I had to find someone who didn’t think they’d be damned if they made me a new one with a heretic symbol on it.” And it still hadn’t turned out quite the same red as the devoted shiiyao… but that was a minor complaint.

“People seem to like you here, though,” Yahiko said.

“It’s ’cause I kinda grew up here, so they liked me already before I turned heretic. You should see how people from out of town look at me. But you’re probably already starting to get that, huh?”

Yahiko hesitated a moment before agreeing.

“Well, I gotta work in the morning,” Sano said as he lay back, “so I’m going to sleep.” He reached out a foot past the end of the bed to point at the rug and its fresh dressings. “I made a ‘bed’ for you, see? Not very nice, but probably better than sleeping outside on the bare ground, right?”

From where he’d been looking at the bread on the table, Yahiko turned to see what Sano was indicating. “Right,” he said, with no trace of discontent. “Thanks.”

Pillowing his head on his arm and pulling the remaining blanket up to his shoulder, Sano turned to face the wall as he said, “Stop thanking me, kid. We heretics gotta stick together, you know?” He yawned again. “So just help yourself to that bread, and put the candle out when you’re done, all right?”

“Sure,” said Yahiko.

A long period of quiet followed during which Sano, drifting toward sleep, hoped Yahiko ate as much bread as he wanted. But after a few minutes, Yahiko said softly, irresolutely, “Hey, Sano…”

“Yeah?”

Even more uncertainly, “Are you really a heretic?” Yahiko asked.

“What else would I be?” wondered Sano, a little surprised at the question.

“I mean, you really don’t believe the same things other people do about the ladies?”

“I don’t believe in the ladies at all, kid; it’s pretty simple.”

“Well,” Yahiko said in a sort of shrugging tone that seemed to imply this wasn’t actually all that important, “I know some heretics don’t really think about it at all… they just use being a heretic as a…” But he didn’t seem willing to complete that particular phrase.

“As an excuse to live like complete assholes?” Sano finished for him, turning slightly in the kid’s direction again. “I know. They make it hard on the ones of us who have real reasons not to believe.”

“What are your real reasons?” Though Yahiko asked quietly, Sano thought there was a certain eagerness to his tone that hadn’t been there before.

“Misao, kid, where did this come from?” Sano turned all the way over and propped himself up on an elbow to look at Yahiko in the shadows cast by the lone flame. “Aren’t you hungry and tired and shit? Haven’t you been chased all day?”

“Yeah, but…” Yahiko quickly faced the table again, as if reluctant to meet Sano’s gaze. “I’ve never met a real — another real heretic before, and I just want to…” He shrugged slightly.

“Yeah, well, we can talk about it tomorrow, all right?” Sano yawned again and subsided back into his previous position. “Not like there’s any hurry or anything.”

“Right,” agreed Yahiko quietly, and said nothing more.

When Sano got up the next morning just before dawn, the sight of the boy fast asleep curled under the blanket on the hearth rug made him pause. He couldn’t help reflecting that Yahiko was about the same age Outa would be if Outa had lived this long — not to mention about the same age Sano had been when he’d turned his back on the divine ladies, no matter what he’d said about Yahiko seeming a little too young to have made that decision. And if Sano hadn’t, almost entirely by luck, had a place to stay and a few people vaguely looking out for him back then, he’d have been running from everything just as Yahiko was now. Poor kid. What other hardships was he likely to encounter if he continued running?

Sano’s thoughts kept to this track throughout the day; orchard work didn’t demand much of the mental faculties, so he had plenty of opportunity to ponder how he might help Yahiko on a more long-term basis than just a few nights’ rest on his floor and some food. When he returned home, however, he found that all his planning was to come to nothing. For the little house was dark and quiet, and the only sign of a guest’s erstwhile presence was the single shining coin Yahiko had left on the table.

Chapter 2 – Purpose and Awareness

Like many provincial areas of Akomera, Eloma lived by the old calendar and the ten-day week. And though Sano hadn’t exactly forgotten the unfortunate Yahiko, he’d mostly stopped wondering if he would return by Gonhyou, the fifth day of the week that was by tradition only a half day of work. And by the time he headed back up the mountain on Hayohyou evening for his usual weekend training, he had relegated the kid’s visit to the mental area of unimportant past events.

Juhyou morning, Sano stood as he often did in the front room of his master’s house, both hands on his downward-pointed sword, attempting to keep the energy blade extended in the shape he wanted. As usual, it wasn’t working very well; including the thoughts in his own head, everything else in the world was just too interesting and distracting to allow him to concentrate on his spiritual energy and its release through his keonblade.

And the remark, “You’re up early,” from the doorway into the other room wasn’t likely to help much.

Sano acknowledged the truth of this with a single syllable and without opening his eyes. He might have remarked that, having awakened briefly at one point not long before, he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep with that snoring right in his ear — but he’d been thrown out of the house the last time he’d said something like that aloud.

“Why are you practicing that with the sword?” Seijuurou wondered next.

Pointedly not answering this question, Sano removed one hand from the weapon and gestured across the room. “I left you some breakfast.”

But Seijuurou was probably the stubbornest person Sano knew. “Why are you practicing with the sword?” he asked again. “I told you you have to master basic meditation first.”

Sano finally opened his eyes, dropping his meditative stance and glaring at the broad back of his keonmaster, who was now moving toward the table and the aforementioned breakfast. “Because what’s the point?” he demanded. “I still don’t see any connection between the stupid meditation and actual fighting!”

Seijuurou leaned across the table to push the windows’ shutters open and let in more of the morning light and the sound of the surrounding forest. “If you can’t concentrate on your purpose when you’re standing around doing nothing,” he said, “how do you hope to keep hold of it during battle?”

With a frustrated noise, Sano strode to the other set of windows, flung them open, and leaned on the shelf just beneath to look outside. “Stop talking about purpose already,” he grumbled.

“Yours isn’t strong enough,” said Seijuurou. “You never have more than a fleeting goal that only helps you fight for a short time.”

“I have plenty of goals!”

Now seated at the table and spreading preserves on a slice of bread, Seijuurou rolled his eyes. “You have nothing to live for,” he said severely, “so your purpose gets crushed by your awareness. You need more than just ‘wanting to kick ass.'”

Sensing already that Seijuurou was shifting into lecture mode, Sano sighed and, turning, leaned back against the shelf to listen, slapping his sword quietly and rhythmically against his empty hand somewhat impatiently as he did so.

“Awareness is essential to a regular swordsman,” said Seijuurou seriously, “but a keonmaster needs to balance it with purpose or he’ll never get anywhere.” He took a bite of his breakfast, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. “Let me put it this way: when you pay me to train you — which you do a good deal better than you actually train — you do so by letting me shove my cock into your ass, correct?” And, setting down his bread, he made a colorful descriptive hand gesture to accompany this introduction to his point.

“Uh… yeah…” Having not the faintest idea where Seijuurou might be going with this, Sano watched him warily.

“So think of your purpose as my cock,” Seijuurou went on, wiggling his finger. “It’s firm and unyielding, with a specific, undeviating aim. And your ass is the awareness — it’s malleable and encompassing, yet still technically solid. But they’re two distinct objects; your ass certainly would never overwhelm my cock, would it? So you must be aware of your situation without letting that overwhelm or distract you from your purpose, and your purpose must be unshakeable.”

For a long moment Sano simply gaped at him. Then he collapsed limply against the counter in a torrent of laughter. “That’s…” he gasped. “That’s the stupidest… fucking thing… I’ve ever heard!”

Eyes narrowed, Seijuurou rose imperiously from his seat and swept toward the door. “You’re never going to get it.”

“What?!” In Sano’s burst of annoyance at Seijuurou’s comment, the energy blade of his sword flashed out fully before sinking back to just above the length of the metal again.

Seijuurou paused in the act of opening the front door and looked over at Sano, gaze resting on the keonblade in his hand. “You see how your emotion only gives you power for a moment?” he said placidly. “You’re not an essentialist playing with fire… what you need is something lasting. You can’t count on a momentary surge of anger in battle.”

“I can’t really count on your cock in battle either.”

Despite the fact that Sano had muttered this retort, Seijuurou heard him and replied. “It would be better than what you’ve been working with so far. Now clean up those dishes and come outside.” And the door closed behind him.

Washing and putting away the breakfast things, searching for his shoes and belts, and getting ready for further practice outside were all carried out over a quiet stream of curses. Seijuurou was an unbelievable swordsman, and about as good in bed, but Sano couldn’t help thinking he wouldn’t be here if there were anyone else to teach him. Especially since he was pretty sure he’d barely improved since he’d started his training.

Outside, Seijuurou was pulling two longswords from where they hung on the wall under the roof, obviously intending a more standard spar, such as they often had, without any attempt at channeling spiritual energy at least for now. Sano, still irritated, muttered when he saw the regular swords, “Fuck those,” to no particular purpose.

“If you want to take the metaphor that far,” Seijuurou grinned, handing Sano his weapon.

With a frown Sano stared down at the hilt he now held, drawing only slowly. He was thinking again of the words of that devoted last week. It had been a shot in the dark on her part, and had hit closer to home than she’d probably had any idea. He’d been remembering it on and off ever since, the desire to bring it up to his master growing with each mental repetition of the woman’s statement. If he planned to ask at all this weekend, it needed to happen now.

“Someone… suggested…” he said slowly, “that the fact that I don’t believe in the divine ladies is why I can’t master this thing.”

Seijuurou, obviously aware that by ‘this thing’ Sano meant not the sword in his hand but keonmastery, said, “Nonsense.” He began moving away from the house to the open area where they usually practiced; Sano followed him. “All things divine are spiritual, but the reverse is not true. Your state of heresy is foolish, but it’s not what’s holding you back here.”

Sano might have believed, after so many years, he would have ceased being annoyed by phrases like ‘your state of heresy is foolish,’ but it hadn’t happened yet. “Maybe it’s that your explanations make no sense,” he said sourly, “whether you mention your stupid cock or not.”

Ignoring him completely, Seijuurou went on thoughtfully, “Though the two are probably not unrelated: the complete lack of control over your spiritual side that keeps you from keonmastery may have also been what caused you to become a heretic.”

Facing his trainer now across the little open space near the kiln, Sano tossed the sheath of his sword aside in continued annoyance and raised the weapon into a combative position. “People always talk about ‘becoming a heretic’ like it’s some big, unnatural change that happened because of something or other. As far as I can see, that’s a better description of you guys who believe in all the lady bullshit.”

His speech might as well have been internal for all Seijuurou reacted to it. Lazily the master drew his own sword, though he never bothered to adopt much of a stance of any kind when sparring with Sano. “Remember to regulate your force,” he advised.

Sano inhaled deeply, then exhaled in something that lay halfway between irritated sigh and preparatory controlled breathing. “Right.” And he attacked.

Seijuurou twisted neatly away from Sano’s initial thrust, stepped back to avoid the second, and remarked, “You’re doing it again.”

Sano plunged forward with a sweeping strike that he found once more dodged without any difficulty. At the same moment, Seijuurou’s sword grazed his arm slightly and very precisely, leaving a tiny line of blood like a bad paper cut. Sano hissed with surprise and pain and attacked again, but the next moment found himself stumbling over Seijuurou’s outthrust foot and crashing to the ground.

“Putting all of your strength into all of your attacks makes you extremely vulnerable,” Seijuurou reminded him for perhaps the millionth time.

Sano glared down at the cut on his arm and back up at his master before scrambling to his feet and throwing himself forward again with even more determination.

“You’re still doing it,” Seijuurou said after blocking or dodging a few more times.

“No, I’m–” Sano began to protest, but was cut off as Seijuurou slammed the hilt of his sword into Sano’s stomach. Doubled over, backing away, Sano coughed twice and scowled even more fiercely at Seijuurou.

“You’ve been studying with me for how long?” the latter was wondering disdainfully. “And still you can barely follow my instructions.”

Forcing himself to ignore the discomfort in his midsection and stand straight, Sano strode forward again, but found his assault immediately repelled. “That’s because–” he began, but Seijuurou cut him off.

“But you carry around a keonblade as if it’s going to do you some good in actual combat.” As he said this, he thrust his own weapon out over Sano’s shoulder in a clear indication that he could easily have beheaded him if he’d wanted to.

“Hey,” Sano protested, “I–“

Again Seijuurou interrupted as he effortlessly blocked Sano’s next few attempted hits. “You might as well exchange it for a regular sword — or, better yet, given your level of combat subtlety, a club.”

“What?!” Sano demanded, ready to toss the sword aside and fly at the man with his fists.

Seijuurou smiled faintly. “All right. Draw.”

Ah, yes. Of course. It had all just been aimed at getting Sano sufficiently angry to maintain an energy blade for enough time that he could use it to spar. “I fucking hate it when you do that!” he growled, driving the longsword into the ground and yanking his keonblade from its sheath. At least it worked, though; the blade flashed as he drew it, and extended to a workable length.

They fought. And though Seijuurou didn’t exactly put much more effort into it when Sano was fighting with an unbreakable translucent blade than he did when Sano held three feet of steel, he did at least seem to pay a little more attention. Sano’s inability to concentrate on his spiritual energy remained, however, so the spar didn’t last long. As Sano watched the blade shrink back to just a slight glow around the hilt, he muttered, “Shit.”

“One of these days,” Seijuurou said easily, “you’re really going to have to figure it out. I’m going to get bored of insulting you into results.”

“No, you’re not,” Sano contradicted him flatly. There were plenty of good reasons he needed to figure this out, but the very unlikely possibility that Seijuurou might tire of teasing him during training before that happened was not one of them.

“Well, maybe not,” Seijuurou grinned. “Let’s go have something to drink.”

Still swearing under his breath, Sano resheathed his keonblade and stalked after his master, heading back toward the house.

>2 Interlude

Seijuurou had been aware of the horsemen concealed in the trees as he’d passed, but they hadn’t seemed to care about him. There were only a few reasons for people to be hiding thus, waiting silently on either side of the road in a such a dense area of the forest, none of which he particularly liked, so he’d left the lane just after t
he next bend and made his way back quietly through the trees to keep an eye on things. He could simply have confronted them about their suspicious behavior, but was interested in seeing how the scene would play out if there turned out to be one.

Presently a wagon came lumbering around that same bend, loaded high with cargo and manned by a couple of relatively sturdy, middle-aged women whose conversation, though not particularly loud, would probably keep them from hearing anything from those that lay in wait until it was too late.

Such proved to be the case. Their horse came to an abrupt halt, jerking the equipage to a similarly precipitous stop, as the two others that had burst from the trees perpendicular to the road blocked the latter neatly by facing each other across it. A long moment of silence followed as the women watched the riders warily and the horsemen, completely ignoring the merchants, examined the wagon’s contents and construction with easy, pleased expressions. The sword in the hand of one and the other’s bent bow made their intentions clear.

The women, unable to produce weapons of their own for fear of being shot, shifted uneasily. “What do you want?” the driver finally demanded, her tone and bearing impressively unintimidated.

“Get down and walk away from the wagon.” The man gestured with his sword. “Just down the road a bit, where we can still see you.”

“And if we don’t care to?” replied the driver coolly.

“Then we’ll still take your wagon,” the second man said, tightening his drawn bowstring, “only you won’t walk away.”

The second woman murmured something to the first, whose grip on the reins slackened somewhat, but neither moved. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement,” the driver said.

The first bandit glanced at the second with an expression of feigned confusion. “Didn’t we just explain the agreement?”

“I think we did,” the second concurred seriously; he didn’t look away from his targets.

“My mistake,” said the woman with a tight smile.

“All is forgiven,” the bandit replied mockingly.

“I thought the king took care of all you Ayundomei bandits in this area,” the driver went on, almost conversationally.

“We’re new to the business,” answered the first man somewhat smugly.

“But you are from Ayundome?”

The bowman opened his mouth to answer this, but the swordsman cut him off. “That’s right! Born and raised in Celoho, but we heard there was easy pickings here.” This was obviously untrue — judging by the man’s accent, he couldn’t have been born and raised anywhere other than this very region — but the bandit was just as obviously not stupid enough to admit where he and his companion were actually from.

The wagon driver didn’t care, though. She was just trying to keep the men talking and distracted long enough for her companion to reach slowly behind her without being noticed. Then things would get ugly.

“We’re headed for Eloma,” she continued. “City goods fetch a good price out here.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” grinned the bandit. “But you’re not taking nothing to Eloma.”

“This is stuff they need,” the merchant protested.

“Sure it is,” the man agreed. “Only now they’ll pay us for it, not you.”

The other woman’s hand was slowly closing around the hilt of a long knife that lay half-concealed behind her in the high-piled cargo. Which meant it was time to intervene; no matter how skilled she was with the weapon, the odds were badly against her, especially with that nocked arrow pointed so surely at the other’s chest.

Seijuurou, who didn’t fancy seeing the women get shot or robbed blind, stood straight from where he’d been leaning against a tree to watch. But before he’d taken a single step, a new voice joined the conversation beyond.

“Some reason you’re blocking the road here?”

It was a loud, annoyed, suspicious tone, and a familiar one. Seijuurou’s view of the newcomer was obstructed by a tree, but he recognized the voice and the accompanying energy; it was Eloma’s resident heretic, the boy with the ragged hair and angry expression. At the inn where Seijuurou had been restocking his liquor, he’d overheard that voice conversing with the innkeeper’s, accepting an errand to Egato, which explained the young man’s presence on the forest road. He must have left shortly after Seijuurou, and had now arrived, shortly after Seijuurou, at the miniature, confrontational roadblock just in time to provide the distraction the merchants needed.

Both of the bandits looked around, startled, for a mere fraction of a moment, and that fraction was all it took for the woman to draw and throw her knife.

The bowman cried out, weapon falling from his now-bleeding hand and the suddenly-loosed arrow flying harmlessly high into a tree. The other woman shook the reins and called out shrilly to her horse, which leaped forward; the bandits’ startled mounts protested and fell back as the wagon thundered by. Seijuurou, who had advanced nearly to the road’s edge, observed the young man from Eloma spring aside to avoid being trampled, then return quickly to the center of the lane to confront the furious thieves.

He was now holding a sword, and Seijuurou noted with some surprise that it was a keonblade. Given the inexpert grip on the hilt and the shortness of the energy blade, Seijuurou might well have thought him yet another bandit, this one with a stolen weapon he didn’t know how to use, if he hadn’t already been aware (in general) who the young man was. He doubted the real bandits knew much about keonmastery, however, and wasn’t surprised that they were now eyeing the rough-looking, irritated heretic in blood-red with easily as much caution as anger. It took guts, after all, to stand up to two armed, mounted men, and it took guts to walk around in public dressed like that.

“I fucking hate bandits,” the young man announced.

“And I fucking hate little shits who think they’re big enough to get in my way,” the swordsman replied, kicking his mount into motion. The bravado in his tone, matching that of the heretic, really didn’t do much for him; it wasn’t difficult to be brave facing a man on foot when you were on a horse.

The boy, to his greater credit, stood his ground, scowling, as the animal and its murderous rider bore down on him. At the last second the horse, no more anxious for a collision than the heretic probably was, despite its superior size, swerved aside. The swordsman swept the weapon in his hand at his target, but the latter dodged and struck out at the bandit’s leg with the pommel of his own sword. Seijuurou couldn’t quite see everything clearly through the mess of branches that still concealed his presence, but the blow must have connected, for the bandit roared and was overly slow in halting and wheeling his horse.

Meanwhile, the young man had turned toward his second enemy, who had been groaning over an injured hand and attempting clumsily to wrap it up with something. The bow still lay on the earth where it had fallen, and the bandit looked on warily as the heretic bent and picked it up; his expression changed to one of slight dismay as he watched the boy toss the object into the air without a word and swing his sword at it with shocking force. The bow did not break all the way through, but there was a loud cracking sound as the blade made contact, and a second similar noise as the ruined weapon hit the ground hard. The young man kicked it away, toward the edge of the road and the trees, then turned to face the swordsman again. The latter was now even angrier than before and ready for another charge.

Now it was really time to intervene. Though the bandit’s anger would likely make him even more careless, the fact that he was mounted still put the Eloma boy at a disadvantage — and the other man might not sit there nursing his hand forever. Seijuurou stepped from the trees and drew his own sword, allowing it to flash slightly as the blade extended. “This has gone far enough,” he declared. “It’s time for both of you to go back to wherever you came from and rethink your way of life; if you continue to prey on travelers in this area, you will not live long.”

All three of the others present stared at him in surprise; as the bandits looked him over, this, in their case, changed to trepidation. Seijuurou met the gaze of the swordsman without emotion, and it wasn’t long before the bandit broke eye contact and looked away, then urged his animal uncomfortably past Seijuurou and the heretic to join his companion.

Horse or no horse, it was a little more difficult to be brave facing Seijuurou than it had been to face the younger man.

After a muttered conference, the bandits took off up the road at a brisk trot. The first man, who’d sheathed his sword, did look back once as if he wanted to make a defiant parting remark, but seemed to think better of it. Seijuurou watched until they were out of sight, then put his own weapon away and went to retrieve the knife that the merchant had thrown and been forced to abandon. When he returned to where the heretic was standing and looking a little baffled, he said, “It was a good thought, but a trifle suicidal.” And he held out the knife.

“What do I want that for?” the boy asked.

“You’ll be in Eloma again sooner than I will,” explained Seijuurou. “If they’re still there, you can return it. If not, keep it; they owe you that much at least.”

Slowly the young man reached out and took the knife, then turned to stare up the road in the direction the riders had gone. “I would have pounded both their asses into the dirt if you hadn’t scared ’em off,” he grumbled discontentedly.

With a raised brow Seijuurou said, “Not with that weapon, you wouldn’t have.”

“What? Why the hell not?” The heretic glanced down at his keonblade, his scowl not diminishing, then sheathed it.

“Come on,” the bigger man gestured. “It’s going to rain soon.” There was no mistaking the heavy, wet scent and feel of the air, and Seijuurou wanted to get home. He hadn’t planned on having his walk back from town interrupted by stupid criminal activities. When the boy caught up with him a few paces later he went on, “I’d recommend taking some lessons before you run into someone who actually knows how to use a keonblade.”

“Someone like you?”

Seijuurou nodded. “Fortunately, I’m not inclined to kill you at the moment.”

“Well, who says I wasn’t just holding back on purpose? Those guys woulda been too easy to beat with a full blade.”

I say,” replied Seijuurou with a roll of his eyes. “Where and why did you get a keonblade if you don’t know how to use one?”

“Someone who came through here a couple of months back had one for sale. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. Since when are you an expert on this, anyway? Aren’t you that potter who lives all alone up past the crossroads?”

“Yes. My name is Seijuurou. And I’ve been a keonmaster since before you were born.”

“How fucking young do you think I am?” the boy retorted skeptically, perhaps not realizing that he was inadvertently complimenting Seijuurou with his incredulity. “And if you’re so great, why are you living all alone in the middle of the forest?”

“How young do you think I am?” wondered Seijuurou mildly, entirely ignoring the young man’s second question. “And what’s your name?”

“Sano,” replied the other.

“You’re a heretic, I understand.”

“Yeah… that a problem?”

“Only for you.”

Sano rolled his eyes.

“I was impressed by your little performance today,” Seijuurou informed him, “and that doesn’t happen often. If you’re interested in learning how to use that second-hand weapon of yours, we could probably make arrangements.”

Now Sano’s eyes widened. “What, just like that? You’ve been coming into town every couple of weeks to buy shit for as long as I’ve lived there and never once talked to me, but all of a sudden when you see me swinging some crappy keon sword around you’re willing to train me even though I’m a heretic?”

“That about summarizes it,” Seijuurou nodded. “Of course it won’t be free, but I’m sure we can agree on reasonable terms.”

Sano opened his mouth, looking concerned, but Seijuurou interrupted him, gesturing at the road ahead as he spoke. “Here’s where we part. I don’t feel like standing around talking to you in the rain, and you need to get moving if you’re going to be back from Egato before Mis’hyou. If you’re interested, come to my house when you do get back; you can’t miss it if you keep on up this road.”

They’d reached the juncture where the way to Egato met the road up the mountain from Eloma. With a slight nod at the somewhat bemused Sano, Seijuurou didn’t break his stride as he left the young man standing uncertainly at the crossroad and continued on toward home.

“I’ll… see you then, then…” Sano called from behind him.

Chapter 3 – Another Homeward Encounter

He’d left Seijuurou’s house a little earlier than usual this time, under the rather flimsy excuse that it looked like rain and he wanted to get home before that, when the real motivator was simply his annoyance. Seijuurou had undoubtedly seen right through this, but had graciously allowed Sano his illusion; they’d had their usual bath in the river, and Sano had taken his surly leave.

So now, in a moment uncannily similar to one he’d experienced in this exact spot a week ago, Sano found himself at the crossroads on the way home, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck, irritated and ready to be distracted, hearing swift footsteps on the connecting road. This time, however, Sano wasn’t close enough yet that the unknown runner was likely to collide with him, and the tread sounded heavier and more erratic than Yahiko’s had.

Again he stopped to see what would come around the corner, watching through the trees that blocked his view of the Torosa Forest Road, waiting. And this time, rather than a frightened-looking little boy, it was a full-grown man that half-ran-half-stumbled abruptly into view. Before his stagger failed entirely and he fell to his knees, one arm clenched tightly across his bloody side and chest, the device of the Baranor’mei royal family was clearly visible on his shiiya, which had previously been pure white. Breathing harshly, he seemed to struggle for a moment to rise again.

Startled, Sano moved toward him, calling out, “Hey, there — you all right?”

The man looked up, fixing Sano with an unexpectedly piercing yellow gaze. “Do I look ‘all right?'” he growled, and collapsed.

Sano finished closing the distance between them at a run, falling to his knees at the stranger’s side with a fast-beating heart. He reached out to haul the man up and turn him over, confirming he’d gone unconscious. “What in Misao’s name happened to you?” he wondered rhetorically. “Is someone…”

He glanced up from the motionless face, looking at the Torosa Forest Road. Nothing moved as far as he could see, but he couldn’t see very far. The normal noises of bird, beast, and weather seemed suddenly menacing. “Is someone after you?” he finished at a whisper. That did seem to be the trend… But this was no barefoot kid running from peevish devoted. This man, wearing the uniform of a royal knight and a sheath that looked like it belonged to a keonblade, had been badly wounded and exhausted; whoever was chasing him, whoever had bloodied him up, seemed unlikely to be seeking minor punishment for small-scale theft.

Sano half stood and slung his backpack around to his chest, pulling the straps onto his back. Then, awkwardly and with no inconsiderable difficulty, he hauled the unconscious man up. How far he could walk like this he didn’t know; the backpack was already slipping, and the man was very inconvenient to carry… but he’d be happy just to get far enough away to feel a little more secure.

“Random heretic thief kids running off and random knights passing out in front of my face in the fucking forest…” he grumbled as he trudged off the road straight into the thickest foliage. “Don’t know what’s with that crossroads…”

He moved obliquely away from the crossroads in question, stumbling through the undergrowth and over rocks, breathing hard as he forced his way up hills and down into dells around the trees and through the bushes. He’d never given much thought to just how thick and healthy Torosa Forest was, but never before had he tried to carry through it someone a little larger than himself.

Finally he stopped. Whether he’d come far enough or not he didn’t know, but he didn’t really feel like walking a single step more. Unceremoniously he dumped the stranger onto the ground and propped him against a tree, flung his backpack down nearby, and took a seat against another trunk.

“Well,” he remarked breathlessly, staring at his unconscious companion, “maybe the king’ll give me a reward for saving you from whatever.” Looking back over his shoulder the way he’d come, he added darkly, “I just hope ‘whatever’ isn’t too good at tracking shit through a forest.”

As he caught his breath and let his muscles cool, he studied the stranger. The man’s face seemed very harsh, though that could simply be an expression of pain. Sano had already seen his eyes open, if only briefly, and had occasion to know just how tall and well shaped he was. And he was definitely a royal knight, and definitely wounded. Beyond a number of little cuts covering both of his arms as if he’d been shielding his face from a hail of sharp, tiny objects, there was a gash along the man’s side at the bottom of his ribcage, as if he’d only just failed to dodge a low sword-thrust. Sano would have to do something about it if he intended to help the guy.

The typical shape of a keonblade, that of a short sword or long knife, was useful in situations like this where a full-sized sword would have been awkward. Admittedly Sano didn’t keep the metal blade very sharp, since it functioned merely as a channel for a much sharper energy blade, but it was enough to cut the man’s shiiya and shirt off of him. Once he’d peeled these gently away from the gash, the latter began bleeding more freely, and Sano tried to hurry.

As a close acquaintance of Seijuurou, Sano never lacked a bottle when he needed one. At the moment, in fact, he had four on him, all of them nicely worked ceramic from the hands of the master himself — three to be refilled with angiruou in town and returned to Seijuurou next weekend, but the fourth fortuitously full of water. This Sano used to soak the unbloodied sleeve he’d cut off the man’s shiiya, with which he then set about cleaning the wound as best he could. Once this was done, he cut what remained unstained of the shirt and the shiiya into strips and tied them together, and with these makeshift bandages bound up the cut.

Then he sat back against his own tree again, his eyes fixed on the face of the other man, who had remained limp and unresponsive the entire time Sano had been assisting him. The wound didn’t look lethal, but, for all Sano knew, his efforts had been in vain and the knight would never awaken. He’d certainly seemed worn out in those few moments Sano had observed him conscious.

“What happened to you?” murmured Sano, studying again the long legs, muscular bare chest, and pained unconscious face of the stranger. “Bandits?” was his guess; they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they had been in years past, but they still showed up around here at times. What a royal knight was doing alone so far from the capital Sano couldn’t begin to imagine, but that was less his business than were bandits in the area. He hated little more than bandits, which gave him an automatic sense of sympathy for this man that had apparently been their victim.

He considered the matter. A messy skirmish with some of those assholes would be very satisfying at the moment, but he wasn’t sure how he could manage both to locate and engage these hypothetical villains and assist this unconscious knight. The latter would be a liability in any fight with more than one opponent, but if Sano left him he ran the risk of being unable to find him again, or of finding him dead. Little as he liked it, he reached the conclusion that it would be best to forego the fight, wait here for a while until whoever was after this guy had (hopefully) moved on, and take him to town.

“Well…” he said, leaning back and making himself as comfortable as he could amidst the knobbly tree roots and prickling grass, “try not to die just yet.”

A lane of carved stone pillars ran out into invisibility in the darkness ahead of him; the deep blood-red of the floor beneath his feet reflected dully on their glossy gold surfaces, but the ceiling overhead was indistinguishable in the shadows. Likewise, nothing could be made out beyond the pillars, where even the floor seemed to disappear into blackness. It didn’t matter; the pillars marked a clear path from which he had no desire, at the moment, to deviate.

Perhaps down that path he would find another chain. Lovingly he ran his hand over the one he already had where it lay over his shoulder and chest, crushing somewhat the fine black and red cloth of his royal shiiya. This chain was a smooth warm grey, made of some exceptionally attractive metal, and so well crafted that each link seemed to be a continuous piece with no rough joint or signs of welding. If he could locate another like this, he would have a matched set, and for such a reward he would gladly walk this dark, pillared path.

There was, however, a strange tension in the dry air. It was as if he was aware of being followed, and trying to stay just out of sight of his pursuer — either that or aware he would presently encounter something unpleasant, and bracing himself for it. Strange, that, when he was almost certain he would find another chain somewhere around here soon. But the feeling could not be ignored, and only grew with every step he took forward, until he was walking with great caution, setting his feet in their golden shoes down as quietly as he was capable.

And there was his chain. It dangled above his head from something he could not make out in the shadows, but he knew if he tugged on it once and then let go, he could detach it and take it with him. Pleased, he stopped just beneath it and reached up with a smile. But even as he did so, something over to his left caught his eye — something not the dull gold or dark red of the rest of his surroundings. He turned his head in that direction.

The knight, dressed, like Sano, in red and black of royal design, stood between two pillars. No, ‘stood’ wasn’t the right word. For from out of the open wound in his side, glowing a brighter crimson even than his kingly garb, chains of blood stretched to wrap around the pillars at either side of him and return to snake around him — around his arms and chest and waist and even around his neck, holding him firmly upright. Yellow irises were visible, but he evidently saw nothing, and his entire frame was limp. Yet he could not be dead, for Sano could feel his pain. He could also feel a swiftly growing sense of wrongness to this entire scene. The tension of before was escalating, blossoming into a hot, jittery panic and an almost uncontrollable horror.

He awoke with what felt like a jerk, though he hadn’t actually moved except to open his eyes. His heart raced; he was hot and uncomfortable.

With a deep breath he shook his head slightly, calming himself and looking around. The air smelled strongly of rain, though no moisture seemed yet to have fallen; the forest sounded no different than usual; and the unconscious knight still reclined against the tree opposite, appearing the same as before. Sano stared at him for a long moment, wondering why in the world he should have had a nightmare about this man.

When his heart had slowed to its normal pace and his breathing evened out, he turned away from the knight and laid his face against the rough bark of the tree, looking at nothing. He wasn’t particularly trying to go back to sleep, but wasn’t exactly fighting it either. And eventually his eyes closed once again.

On an ocean without waves, without wind, without currents — without, in fact, any motion whatsoever — the noises of gentle breakers and breezes were sourceless, inexplicable. Sano raised his head, feeling the long, long ends of his bandanna brush the back of his bare neck, and took in the salty scent of the warm, still air. It was very light and open; the sky seemed to extend upward forever in a smooth, perfect paleness several shades lighter than the blue of the ocean.

The stepping-stones also seemed to go on forever. They spiraled out from a big one in the center, featureless like the rest, in larger and larger circles into distant invisibility far off where sea met sky. Walking them was a lengthy, repeating, ever-widening pattern, and Sano wished he could simply jump from one ring to the next; it would be so much faster. Unfortunately, the rings were just a touch too far apart for him to have a chance of making such a leap.

Looking into the tranquil water, he followed the sides of the stepping-stones with his eyes, down into the dark depths, until he could no longer make out their shapes in the intense blue-black beneath him. There would be no swimming in this ocean. So he simply took the path laid out for him.

But suddenly he was uneasy. Each long step he took onto another smooth grey rock increased his discomfort; something was wrong. And the feeling of wrongness grew quickly into a more troubling sensation, something more like fear. But there was nothing here to fear; as a matter of fact, there was almost nothing here.

Or was there? Now Sano looked around more pointedly than his absent, horizon-sweeping gaze of before, he realized he was not alone. For on the spiral’s next ring out, on the stone corresponding with Sano’s in this ring, stood the knight.

Although his otherwise pure white shiiya held no visible rent, his side was still bloody and evidently very painful. He seemed, however, to have this, as well as his exhaustion, under better control now; fully conscious, standing under his own power, he stared at Sano intensely. His long, sleek hair was unbound and fell down his back; the red-orange kouseto, symbol of the king he served, was bright and unstained; and his presence there on that rock on this ocean seemed in every way, somehow, impossibly, dreadfully wrong.

The man reached out a hand in a gesture seemingly designed to catch Sano’s attention and stop him moving, and spoke. The words were garbled past understanding, but the intent was a little clearer: the man wanted Sano to listen to him… wanted something from him…

Just this much communication from the figure that seemed so horrifyingly out of place here was enough to startle Sano into an ill-advised step backward. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t already hit the water before he even fell, since he seemed to be soaking wet, but, in any case, he stumbled back off the stone–

–and awoke again abruptly. It was raining, and, even allowing for cloud cover and forest shadows, seemed darker around him than before. He sat up straight, for a second time taking a deep breath and trying to calm a pounding heart.

Once again he looked over at his unconscious companion. Two inexplicable nightmares in a row about the guy, and he wasn’t even scary! Rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness caused by napping up against a tree, Sano moved over to the other man and looked closely at him. “It’s this face of yours…” he muttered, reaching up to brush a few drops of rain off a high cheekbone, trace the side of a narrow nose, and lay his fingertips on a precisely well-formed pair of thin lips. It was a demanding face; no wonder Sano had gotten the impression of something being required of him in that second dream.

The knight gave no response whatsoever to Sano’s light touch, and was breathing rather shallowly. Sano looked around at the darkening forest, reflecting that it had probably been long enough; whoever the knight’s enemies were, he doubted they were anywhere near the crossroads now. He hadn’t really meant to sleep at all, but it certainly had been an effective way to kill time.

He buttoned up his sleeves against the rain, and pulled out his leather hood and put it on. Then, having no desire to walk anywhere ever again with his back encumbered by a man and his chest by a backpack, he set the latter in the crook of two tree roots and scraped up a bunch of forest mulch against it so it blended in with the undergrowth. Of course he couldn’t be certain he would be able to find it later, but it had just been such a pain before… Well, if he never saw it again, perhaps the knight could be convinced to pay him for a new one, if he survived.

The forest and the road on his way back were quiet, as was Eloma when he reached it; even those townspeople that might have been out in the evening darkness had sought their houses in this rain. Still he decided to go the long way around to his own place so as not to be visible from any of the inn’s windows. For it had occurred to him that the knight’s enemies might have come to the village seeking him, perhaps posing as regular travelers in order to get beds for the night. If Sano could secure the injured man in his house without anyone seeing, he could head over to the inn and find out if any strangers were present or had passed through.

The rain was coming down harder than ever as he finally reached his door and struggled mightily to get at his key without dropping his burden. Inside, he let the man slide off his back onto his bed, then stood, panting, looking down at him critically for several moments even before arranging the knight’s limbs into a more comfortable position than they’d initially taken on falling.

“You know, I’m not even sure why I’m helping you,” he told the unresponsive man as he removed his hood and tossed it onto the floor. “Like I care about the king or his fucking knights.” He pulled off his shiiya, which was soaked, and sent it to follow the hood. “Course, whoever’s after you might be a good fight…” He shook his head and moved to light his candle so he could see what he was doing.

Though not as bad as Sano’s shiiya, the knight’s remaining garments were still rather wet. Sano, however, drew the line at removing the pants of a total stranger if he didn’t have to. Instead, he pulled both of his blankets from under the recumbent form and tucked one around the man. The other he bunched up and threw onto the stool that sat beside his table. Then he stood back and considered whether or not he should build a fire. Eventually he decided not to; rain notwithstanding, it was a warm enough night, and he didn’t want to attract more attention to his home than necessary until he knew exactly what was going on.

Looking back down at the knight’s face, he felt drawn once again to run his finger over one of those high cheekbones. He remembered that feeling in his dream, of the man needing something from him. This was all very odd — odder, he thought, than it really ought to be.

He turned. He looked down at his wet things on the floor. He listened to the pounding rain above his head. He definitely wasn’t going back outside in this downpour. He would wait until it let up a bit.

He should have known better. Seated on his stool and leaning, more or less comfortably, in the corner formed by his cabinet and the wall, with the blanket tucked up around his chest, watching the unconscious knight and listening to the rhythmic rain, it wasn’t long before his eyelids and head both drooped and he fell asleep again.

Chapter 4 – Not Stable

Sano’s legs burned, especially the knees as he forced them to bend and straighten again and again and again. The stairs just went on and on, winding around the tower into eternity, it seemed. He had no way of telling how high it might be, since when he looked up he only saw the next level of stairs. In fact, if the steps hadn’t gradually changed color from red to orange to yellow, he might have believed he was repeatedly climbing the same ones. But he couldn’t stop.

Out to his right lay only blackness; the tower, perhaps, stretched so high as to have abandoned all light, even the stars. To his left was a curving, neverending wall, punctuated by the occasional window paned with impossibly large sheets of glass that showed a narrower, darker staircase inside the tower to mirror the one without. And as he passed these windows, Sano kept getting the feeling that something was in there, climbing along with him on the other side of the wall… but at first he only caught the movements out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he looked directly through the glass he saw nothing.

Then, like a hot wind blowing up out of nowhere and warming the area only slowly, not even overtly perceptible at first, the familiar feeling that something was wrong crept over him. Uncomfortable, he forced his unhappy legs to move even faster, hoping to reach some kind of conclusion to this journey. True, the wrongness somehow didn’t seem as wrong as it had in the past, but he would very much like it to stop. He must climb these stairs; he didn’t need things out of place distracting and worrying him.

Suddenly a thudding knock echoed through the interior of the tower to his left. Looking in that direction, Sano found the source of the wrongness on the other side of the nearest window: the exasperated knight stood in the darkness and pounded on the glass. Even as Sano met his eyes, he called out. The meaning came across as something simultaneously demanding and insulting, but the words themselves were muffled and only half audible. It didn’t matter, though, since nothing could be accomplished thereby… just the appearance of the man had startled Sano so he’d jerked back, lost his footing at the edge of the stairs, and plunged out into the black abyss.

The stool, which he’d been unconsciously tipping on two of its legs while he slept, clattered out from under him as he flailed, sending him thumping heavily to the floor with a startled cry. For a moment, disoriented, he sat still feeling his tailbone smarting and his heart pounding before he let out an irritated sigh of recognition and scrambled slowly up.

Again he hadn’t intended to fall asleep, and thus had left the candle alight. Some time must have passed, as it was burning considerably lower now than before, excess grease setting out across the table in a valiant attempt at reaching the other side. Perhaps he would make the knight pay for a new candle as well.

Sano turned toward the man. He still lay in the bed in the same position as before, unmoving, breathing quiet and face inscrutable. Sluggishly Sano went to stand beside him, staring down with a scowl and rubbing his sore ass. “How is it you can startle me awake for no reason I can see,” he grumbled, “but nothing wakes you up?”

The man in the bed did not reply.

Sano’s eyes fell next upon his shiiya and hood, still heaped on the floor beside the table, and he remembered his plan to go to the inn and see if there were any bandits around. Wearily he shook his head. No way. He turned back to his little corner, blew out the candle, righted the stool, took up the blanket, and sat down again. Arranging the blanket over himself once more, he leaned back, put his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t just grime, or something someone had spilled; it was paint, long since dried and hardened, that needed to be cleaned from the floor in its entirety. And since the floor was made of colorless glass, even the tiniest speck of remaining paint would be readily visible: there was no way to half-ass this job. His hands were already sore — both of them, since he’d been alternating which one held the hefty scrub-brush — and wrinkled and clammy from repeated dipping in his water bucket.

He looked out in front of him in dismay. Whoever had done this painting, he’d been damnably enthusiastic… the bright, blinding orange stretched out across the floor as far as the eye could see. “Yumi, there’s so fucking much of it…”

It was terribly appropriate for him to be clad entirely in red; red devoted were constantly relegated to this kind of drudgery. Normally nobody would mistake him for a man of the church with this empty teardrop on his chest, but when he was bent over in working his fingers to the bone, his chest wouldn’t be visible. The possibility someone might think him a devoted as he went about this onerous task added insult to injury, really.

But there was nothing for it. Grumbling, he kept on, scrubbing hard and watching the paint lighten to a paler orange and then gold before it gave way and dissolved into nothing. And there was something satisfying about seeing the clear patch he worked on grow larger and larger, but he knew if he looked up he would only be discouraged by how little relative progress he’d made so far.

With one particular scrub, something became visible down in the glass underneath. It was flesh-colored, and with the sight of it came that good old feeling of wrongness again. This latter wasn’t nearly as pronounced as before, however. Sano had sat back, stilling his hands and staring, the moment the object came into view, feeling the usual panic start fluttering up inside him, but now he leaned forward again slowly and concentrated on getting the paint off that spot. He was fairly sure he knew what the thing underneath must be, and he was fairly sure it shouldn’t be here, but he couldn’t be certain until he’d uncovered it completely.

And perhaps the slow buildup to certainty was what allowed him to assimilate and overcome the horror that came with the sense of wrongness. No, those fingertips, that hand, that arm — they were not supposed to be there. But that didn’t mean he needed to panic, did it? By the time he’d gotten all the paint off the glass above the shoulder and was starting on the chest, he was breathing normally, and didn’t think he would be startled away any time soon.

The chest, as he’d rather been expecting, bore the device of the king’s knights: the Baranor’mei family symbol on a grey diamond shape. After he’d uncovered this, he moved on to the neck and head. He found the eyes open and seemingly able to see him, but it was clear the knight couldn’t move; he was entirely trapped within the glass floor.

He could speak, however. “B..y, ..an ….u h….r me?” he demanded.

Sano was still nervous, though not for any concrete reason he could perceive, and sat back up, farther away from the face beneath the glass, as he heard these words. And in that moment he realized he was dreaming. He was also struck with another thought simultaneously: “You’re really talking to me, aren’t you? I’m not imagining this.”

The dream was already fading; they usually did when you realized you were having them. The knight seemed to recognize this, for he spoke quickly. “D..e..ms ..re ..ot st..bl.. eno..gh fo.. th..s… ca.. y..u m..d..tat..?”

“Uh…” Of all the things in the world he could have asked Sano to do…

“…us..le..s…” complained the knight, even as everything disappeared.

Sano awoke angry. Who did that guy think he was, calling Sano useless? “Shoulda known you’d be more trouble than you’re worth,” he growled, getting to his feet in the darkness. Arms crossed in annoyance, he glared in the direction he knew the bed and the knight lay, though he couldn’t see them. Who did that guy think had gotten him away from the crossroads out in the forest, patched him up, kept an eye out for the bandits or whoever they were, and dragged his ass all the way to safety?

Sano’s anger faded somewhat, however, in the face of the sheer strangeness of this situation. So the knight maintained dreams were not stable enough for this kind of communication. Sano had never heard of people communicating via dream at all, so it made sense they wouldn’t be very stable. And the knight wanted him to meditate so they could talk properly, but…

“Fuck that,” he grumbled, then sighed as he began fumbling for his fire-starter in the darkness to relight what remained of the candle. There really was only one thing to be done, under the circumstances. “You owe me for this, bastard.”

An hour and a half later, Sano staggered into the clearing around Seijuurou’s small house. The knight had seemed to become heavier with every step up the mountain road, and what was normally a forty-five minute walk had taken twice as long. The sun had already risen by the time he reached the place, and Sano would have been ready to curse at the top of his lungs at his master or anyone else he encountered if he hadn’t been breathing so heavily.

Seijuurou was out early today, evidently watching the sun rise from the seat among the shelves under his roof. The act of raising a bottle of angiruou to his lips was interrupted when he saw Sano come trudging around the last of the trees toward him, and a skeptical expression crossed his face.

“Every time I think you can’t do anything to inconvenience me further,” he remarked in a carrying tone, standing and taking a step forward to lean on the roof support and direct his skepticism out at Sano, “you come up with something new… like dragging a dead body onto my property and giving me that look like you expect me to do something about it.”

“Shut up!” Sano growled, drawing tediously closer. “You have any idea how lady-damned hard it was to drag his ass all the way up here?”

Seijuurou enjoyed the drink he’d put off before, then said, “I wonder why you took the trouble. I don’t know what you were expecting.”

Sano struggled both not to explode and not to dump the knight onto the ground right here. “I need your help with him.”

“A threesome’s not a bad idea,” Seijuurou replied in a mild tone of agreement, “but find someone alive for the third part.”

“He’s not dead yet, asshole. Just tell me where I can put him.” Sano’s back ached from walking all this way bent so far over, and his arms were falling asleep from clutching at the knight in the same position for so long.

Seijuurou shrugged. “Anywhere,” he said carelessly.

“Fine,” Sano snapped, and pushed his way into the house. They’d see if Seijuurou was so indifferent when the knight was occupying his bed.

Once he’d unloaded, Sano started stretching out his back and tingling arms with a groan, while Seijuurou sauntered in to join him looking down at the unconscious man. After another drink of his angiruou the keonmaster finally said in a leading tone, “So…”

Sano stopped flexing his hands and stood still. “I ran into him on the way home yesterday,” he explained. “I got the feeling someone was after him, so I got him cleaned up in the forest and took a nap ’til dark so they’d get off his track. His wound doesn’t seem too bad, but even after I got it bandaged he didn’t wake up.”

While Sano said this, Seijuurou corked his bottle and set it down on the floor, then bent over the knight. In quick succession he checked the man’s pulse, pulled up an eyelid to see the white beneath, lifted the bandages slightly to examine the injury, and finally lay a hand on the man’s chest as if to feel its rise and fall. When he was finished with this and Sano had gone silent, he looked up and said, “It’s a warrior’s coma.

“Sometimes,” he went on, standing straight and turning back to Sano, “when a strong keonmaster lets his purpose drive him past what his body can handle, to the point where he would normally pass out, he unconsciously channels his spiritual energy to keep him on his feet. Typically someone strong enough to do this also has the level of control required to shut off that channel before it becomes–”

“All right, all right, all right,” Sano interrupted. He could usually listen to most of Seijuurou’s lectures all the way through, but at the moment, still tired and sore from his walk and eager to figure out this mysterious knight’s history, his tolerance for his master’s pompous explanatory style was very small. “I thought I was telling the story here.”

“Well, don’t blame me when this little project of yours falls apart because you have no idea what’s going on.”

“Anyway,” continued Sano loudly, “I kept seeing him in my dreams — more than I would expect, I mean — and I started to think… well, that it was really him and not just me imagining shit.”

“Interesting.” And, judging by his manner of crossing his arms and turning his eyes down toward the knight again, Seijuurou actually was interested. “What did he say?”

“He told me dreams are unstable and asked if I could meditate.”

Seijuurou smirked. “And since you are unforgivably hopeless at that, you brought him to me. What makes you think I’m at all interested in talking to him?”

“Well, he’s one of the king’s knights… who was doing something he thought was damn important, if he was pushing himself that hard…”

Having expected Seijuurou to be disinterested in helping the random stranger Sano had dragged onto his property, Sano had prepared this argument beforehand. What he hadn’t expected was for this argument to catch his master’s attention so completely. For when Seijuurou repeated, “One of the king’s knights?” there was an absolutely unprecedented note of engrossment in his voice, and a sudden look in his eye Sano had never seen there.

“His shiiya had that royal kouseto on it,” Sano confirmed.

Seijuurou made a thoughtful sound, gazing down at the knight more intently than before and fingering his chin. He continued thus for several long moments, face unreadable, reflections unguessable.

Finally, impatiently, Sano demanded, “So you gonna talk to him, or what?”

“I suppose I’d better,” Seijuurou replied in a slow tone that was half annoyance and half that same intense contemplation. And as he shifted into a meditative stance, one hand curled around the other fist at chest-level, he murmured as if to himself, “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…”

Sano started. “Wha- him? You know this guy?”

Seijuurou glanced over at Sano as if he’d forgotten he was there. “No,” he said almost absently, “I’m referring to someone else.” And he turned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Wait,” demanded Sano, “how am I supposed to hear what he tells you?”

Again Seijuurou made the thoughtful noise, then said, “Let’s try this.” And, without even opening his eyes to check his aim, he reached out with a sure hand and struck Sano so hard on the back of the skull that darkness instantly overwhelmed him.

Divine lady Tomoe. The black lotus represents death, which Tomoe (among other things) does as well. Here’s the full-color version too:

Why is she in a yoga pose? I’m not entirely sure. Just what I thought looked cool back when I drew the picture, I guess XD

Divine lady Misao. Her symbol is a rabbit because she is, among other things, particularly fond of small, quick animals. Here’s the full-color version as well:


Subtext

The absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was.

When the victim of Sano’s prank texting turns out to be an intimidating cop, Sano’s friends are every bit as amused as Sano is terrified.


When Katsu got home from work, he found his roommate chortling on the floor. Sano’s head was under the coffee table, his legs up on the couch, and he held a cell phone in the air above his face. The moment Katsu entered and looked at him, he rolled onto his side in a spasm of laughter — the sort of laughter that sounded like a relapse, as if he’d just managed to get himself under control and Katsu’s appearance had set him off afresh.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Katsu remarked as he closed the apartment door behind him.

At first Sano could not answer except with further paroxysms, but he did sober enough to read the text message that presently chimed in to his phone. But if Katsu expected an explanation thereafter, he was disappointed, for the message sent Sano into another rolling fit of amusement.

Being a patient young man, Katsu moved off into his own bedroom to change from his work uniform and turn on his computer; he left the door open, though, in case Sano should recover to the point of volunteering information.

Eventually he did. “I’ve been prank-texting this dude for, like, an hour now,” he explained at a shout. “Pretending to be some chick named Sandra.”

“Oh, god,” was Katsu’s (not entirely unamused) response.

“I asked him out and everything. He thinks I’m a girl…” And Sano lost it again.

Katsu shook his head, rolling his eyes and grinning. “And who is this guy?”

“I dunno… Chou gave me his number.”

“Are you sure it’s smart to be randomly texting somebody Chou gave you the number of?”

“I dunno. It’s just some–” The phone chimed again, appropriating all of Sano’s attention. “Oh, he says he’s going to–” But again the phone cut him off, this time with a genuine ringtone. Sano’s mirth quickly turned to consternation as he realized, “Oh, shit, my voicemail! What do I do?”

“You should have thought of that before.”

With a deep breath, Sano answered the call.

Now Katsu had to bury his face in a couch cushion, for at the first sound of, “Hey, Sandra here!” in the most unconvincing falsetto he’d ever heard, he simply could not contain himself any longer.

As soon as Katsu emerged again he saw Sano waving violently at him in a gesture that clearly communicated, It’s hard enough for me to keep from laughing without you doing that. “No, I’m not,” he was saying into the phone, still in that awful fallacious tone. “I lost my voice for a few days and it’s just coming back, so if I sound weird that’s why. Hmm, oh, really? That sounds so sexy. Ooh, that sounds totally sexy too! What? No, those are hot too. Ha ha, no. I love a car with good gas mileage.”

Whether this was a euphemism and what they could possibly be talking about Katsu couldn’t guess, but the absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was. Every little while, Sano would turn aside and let out a string of muffled guffaws into his sleeve, and Katsu wondered what the stranger thought of these breaks in the conversation.

“He keeps getting all quiet for, like, a minute at a time,” Sano explained in a choked whisper on seeing his roommate’s expression at this. “What do you think he’s–” But he was forced to return to the phone at this point, his stupid falsetto even less convincing than before. “Oh, no, sugar, I was talking to the TV. I told you I was bored…” Sometimes a random little accent crept in too, and Katsu wasn’t sure whether Sano even knew it was happening. “What else do I have to do when I don’t have a man to keep me busy? Oh, can’t you guess? Well, I’ve been told I give really good blow jobs. Hmm? Oh, yeah, any time.”

Things had gone so far that just about everything Sano said was too much for Katsu, and eventually he would surely betray his friend by laughing more loudly than the pillow could stifle or too suddenly to hide it. Besides, he had other things to do. However, he’d barely reached his room again when there came a knock at the apartment door. Assuming Sano was too busy — and in no fit state — to answer it, Katsu reemerged.

“Dude, he stopped talking again,” Sano was chortling as Katsu turned the dead-bolt and then the knob.

“Yes, he did,” said the man at the door in a carrying tone, ostentatiously snapping shut the cell phone he held.

Sano sat up abruptly, dropping his own phone. He dove for it, found the confirmatory evidence of the call’s having ended on its screen, and stared at the man again in growing dismay.

“A word of advice for you,” the stranger remarked as he stepped inside unhindered by any motion of Katsu’s. “Chou isn’t a very good accomplice. He can’t keep a straight face.”

Katsu restrained a snorting laugh.

“And the fact that he works at a police station should have given you some idea of the type of people he’s with all day.” The man pulled aside his jacket to display the badge he wore on a lanyard around his neck.

This time Katsu couldn’t contain it; the laughter burst out of him. “Oh, god, Sano, you do know how to pick them.”

“So what?” demanded Sano, worried and obviously trying to cover it up with surliness. “Are you gonna press charges or something?”

“Harassment is a fairly serious charge,” the cop agreed with a smirk, “but I’m more inclined to take you up on your offer.”

“What offer?” Sano wondered blankly.

The officer held up his phone again and answered blandly, “Among other things, you asked me out.”

This was almost too much for Katsu. And if the pronouncement itself hadn’t been enough, Sano’s stunned expression — as if he’d just been shot in the middle of a laugh — certainly would have been.

“That was… that was just a… I wasn’t serious!”

“Still, you did offer.”

“I have a girlfriend,” Sano stated defiantly.

“Of course,” was the cool reply. “And that poster there was her idea of a joke.”

Katsu almost lost it again as the man indicated with a gesture the half-naked Speedo model adorning the wall. The interlocking rainbow male symbols that formed the poster company’s logo didn’t help.

“Yeah, OK, it’s a boyfriend.”

The cop glanced at Katsu, who was still struggling not to collapse bonelessly onto the floor as he shook his head without a word.

“Katsu!” Sano yelped in protest at this betrayal.

The stranger’s mouth twisted into a smile. “So it appears you have no legitimate cause to object to our arrangement.”

“Except that it was just a joke! I was just messing with you!”

“So you would rather I pressed charges for harassment?”

“I…” Sano’s brows went down over wide, astonished eyes. “That’s blackmail! Isn’t that just as illegal?”

“It’s called ‘settling out of court,'” the stranger corrected. “You’ve had your fun; now it’s my turn.”

Katsu thought Sano went a little pale at this.

“Come on,” the man insisted, jingling his keys. He added with a smirk, “I thought you wanted to see my car.”

Sano took a step toward him, jerkily, as if drawn against his will. “Katsu…” he said helplessly.

“Have fun, Sano,” Katsu grinned.

With a look at his friend half stricken and half irate, Sano began to move a little more naturally: evidently he realized he had no choice in the matter. Stopping just short of arm’s length of the stranger, however, he turned to Katsu and said darkly, “If I’m not back in a couple of hours, call the…” He threw a glance at the policeman and amended his statement. “Call someone.”

“I may call a pizza place and order something to eat…” Katsu offered.

“Oh, fuck you,” Sano said. And then they were gone.

Katsu didn’t have long to laugh himself sick over all of this while wondering desperately and impatiently what was going on; he should have known Sano would keep him posted. The first text arrived only a few minutes later: I’m going to fucking die!

What are you guys doing? Katsu inquired in return.

We’re going to play pool, I guess, was Sano’s answer.

That’s not so bad.

It is with THIS psychopath! Now he’s asking if I’m harassing someone ELSE, so I’ll tell you more later.

Katsu sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be too much later, since this was funnier than anything he could have found on TV, and had made his day a good deal better not only than it had been but than any recent day he could think of or future day he was likely to have. Living with Sano was always an adventure.

This guy kicks ass at pool, was the next message, after perhaps half an hour.

Better than you? wondered Katsu.

I’ll beat him pretty soon, Sano replied evasively, but Katsu could hear the irritated determination as clearly as if they’d been talking rather than texting.

Relative pool skills were all well and good, but what Katsu was mostly interested in hearing about… Is he still being creepy?

Not really. He bought me some snacks. This didn’t tell Katsu much, since Sano was so fond of being bought snacks that he might overlook a good deal of creepiness on the part of the buyer.

Another twenty minutes or so passed before Katsu heard anything more. Then it was, I’m going to kill Chou. He TOLD this guy who I was after my FOURTH text. He told him I was gay and everything.

And probably that you were his neighbor, too.

You should totally hear this guy talk about him, though. Shit’s hilarious.

“Oh, Sano,” Katsu murmured, laughing as he read this and refraining from making the obvious reply.

The next communication, after another interval spent impatiently on Katsu’s end trying to find anything that hadn’t gone bad in the fridge, was a call. Of course he picked up immediately. “Sano?”

“Shit, man, I don’t know what to do!” Sano sounded panicked “You gotta help me!”

“Calm down! I can’t do much to help you from here. What’s going on?”

“He… this guy…” Sano’s voice echoed somewhat; since the signal was fine and the words otherwise undistorted, Katsu guessed him to be making the call from a restroom.

“Is he assaulting you, or what?”

“Well, sortof… I mean, he keeps saying things…”

“That’s quite an accusation, Sano.”

“He keeps saying… flirty… things.” The word didn’t really seem an appropriate descriptor for the man, briefly as Katsu had met him, but the concept at least was clear.

“You guys are on a date,” Katsu pointed out. His tone was mild, but it was probably a good thing Sano couldn’t see his face.

“Only because he forced me!” Sano sounded far more confused than anything else.

“What’s really bugging you is that you’re enjoying this.”

“What?! I am not! Just ’cause he’s… How could I possibly–” At this moment Sano made an indescribable and very undignified sound, and his phone clattered as it evidently fell to the floor. Hastily Katsu turned off the TV and pressed his own phone hard against his ear so as not to miss a word of the subsequently distant conversation.

“What are you doing in here?!” This was Sano, startled and angry.

“Seeing what’s taking you so long,” said the man’s voice; he sounded amused. “You just can’t stop harassing people with that phone, can you?”

“I’m not–”

“And what are you promising this one?”

“It’s just–”

“I seem to recall you promising me a ‘really good blow job.'”

“I… what?!” Sano sounded a little hysterical. Or perhaps ‘giddy’ was a better term. “I didn’t… No!”

Even from here, Katsu could tell that the man was teasing just as easily as he could tell that Sano didn’t mind the idea nearly as much as he claimed to.

“Then I think you owe me a kiss at least.”

The guy was probably giving Sano some kind of look Katsu couldn’t appreciate from afar, for Sano was obviously very flustered. “Not… not… not on the first–”

There came a scuffling sound, during which the transmitting device was apparently kicked into a corner or something, followed by a long silence. Finally, almost inaudibly now (thanks to the phone’s new position? or the man’s lowered tone?), the police officer said, “That wasn’t so bad.” And whether the statement aimed at reassuring Sano or commenting on his performance Katsu couldn’t tell.

“You are the worst cop I’ve ever met,” Sano responded with relative distinctness — and relative calm, too, especially for how breathless he sounded; it really must not have been so bad.

“That’s quite an achievement, considering you’ve met Chou.”

“And he backstabbed me.” This grumble of Sano’s was suddenly a good deal louder as he evidently bent to retrieve his phone.

“I don’t know what else you were expecting,” the man said, a sentiment with which Katsu had to agree.

Some profane statement of Sano’s cut off as he hung up the phone without a goodbye, and again Katsu waited for the next update on the edge of his seat (figuratively, as he was, rather, sprawled on the couch in weariness from laughing so much and never having found anything readily edible in the kitchen).

Sano’s eventual comment was, So he’s a good kisser.

So I gathered, Katsu replied.

And he’s actually pretty hot.

I noticed that too.

And he bought me ice cream.

Plying you with dessert, is he?

He’s still an asshole.

I’m sure he is.

During the next information lapse, wherein Katsu tried futilely to pay attention to the show he was supposedly watching but kept checking his phone so frequently he might as well just have turned the TV off again, there came a knock at the door. A little irritated at an interruption he doubted could be anywhere near as interesting as the ongoing drama, Katsu went to answer it. He knew who it must be, however, when the knock was repeated and elaborated upon before he’d made it halfway to the door.

“Hiya, Katsu,” Chou greeted him, craning his neck to look past into the apartment.

“He’s not here.” Katsu gestured Chou inside, shut the door behind him, and checked his phone again. “And you’re lucky he’s not, because at the moment he wants you dead.”

Chou grinned broadly. “Hey, I tried not to give him away… but it was just too fucking funny.”

“It’s better than you think.” Katsu couldn’t help promising great things with his own grin. “At this very moment they are out on a date.”

“What?!” yelped Chou. “You’re shitting me! No way!”

“Last I heard–” Katsu held up his phone– “your boss or whatever he is was buying Sano ice cream.”

Chou staggered over to the couch and collapsed onto it, breathless and helpless with laughter. “Do you…” he panted eventually. “Do you know… what he came over here… to do…?”

“Threaten Sano with death if he ever did something like this again?”

“Yeah, something… something like that…” Chou buried his screwed-up face in the same cushion Katsu had been using all evening to muffle his own laughter.

“Well, he pretty much took one look at Sano and changed his mind.”

When Chou could speak again he said, “Oh, we live in a fucking insane world.” His posture having returned to more or less upright, he’d freed up the other half of the sofa; Katsu came to sit next to him and give a more detailed account of what was going on somewhere else in town — including reading out all the messages sent and received thus far.

At the end of the tale, Sano’s newly arrived comment on the proceedings could be appended: I guess we’re done now.

Did you ever beat him? Katsu wondered.

I would have if he wasn’t so distracting, Sano answered, to the great amusement of his friends.

“‘Distracting,'” Chou chortled. “God, of all the fucking weirdness I never expected…”

Katsu shook his head. “This is so typical of Sano.”

“This is so not typical of my boss,” replied Chou.

“You’d better get back downstairs,” Katsu advised. “I don’t know where they went, but it might have been that pool hall just up the street, and if Sano gets back and finds you here…”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Chou grinned, rising. “Thanks for the entertainment, though.”

“I think I should be thanking you. Sano probably should too, but I doubt he ever will.”

Chou’s grin broadened, and he turned in the exit. “You’ve got my number, right? Let me know if more fun shit happens.”

“Roger that.” And Katsu shut the door behind him.

His speculation regarding Sano’s date venue was pretty much confirmed when Sano arrived, solitary and angry, after only a few more minutes.

“He didn’t walk you back in?” Katsu wondered, fighting to keep his face grave; his levators and zygomatics were aching enough as it was.

Sano’s answer was a short, irritated negative.

“Did he at least try to molest you in his car?”

“He didn’t even kiss me again,” was Sano’s reply, and exactly what the surliness of his tone was aimed at was rather up in the air.

“Well, I’m glad you survived,” Katsu said placatingly.

Sano snorted and threw himself down onto the couch.

Gradually the apartment grew quiet, except for the continued chime of incoming texts to Sano’s phone. Katsu, moving around straightening things up and getting ready for bed, wondered whether Sano was threatening Chou or continuing his ‘distracting’ interaction with the other cop. Eventually, too curious to refrain from being nosy, he stepped to the couch and looked down over it, and Sano’s shoulder, from behind.

It was fun, said the latest message Sano had received. Despite the angle, Katsu saw the conflict in the lip-biting scowl on his friend’s face. He also saw that Sano had created an actual contact for the man. The name confirmed what Katsu had guessed at seeing the man’s face: another gay Japanese guy. How did Sano keep finding them?

Finally, Yeah, I guess, Sano replied.

Katsu rolled his eyes, and didn’t move. His quiet patience was rewarded, soon thereafter, by the sight of another message from the cop: Same time next week?

Sano made a What the fuck, man? sort of gesture, and suddenly noticed Katsu. “God!” he cried, startled. “How long have you been standing there?”

Katsu grinned. “A while. What are you going to tell him?”

Sano grimaced at him, and got up in something of a huff. “I don’t know!” He headed for his room, and Katsu watched him complacently, still grinning.

He was pretty sure he knew what Sano’s answer would be.


So there’s a dumbass story behind this story. It is, in fact, based on actual events: Saitou and Sano really are a perfect couple actual prank-texting that happened at one point. It was my brother in real life, pretending to be a girl and asking some guy from school to homecoming and whatnot. It happened very much like this, too: the dude eventually called, my brother realized that his voice on the voicemail recording would give him away, and falsetto conversation ensued.

So, yeah, Sano would definitely chatspeak, abbreviate, typo, and misspell all over anyone he texted (especially with T9 and whatnot, which is the era this story is set in; ah, nostalgia), but there was no way in hell I was going to write it like that. Consider this a translation.

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Clinical Treatment


The force with which Saitou threw Sano to the floor of the treatment room at the Oguni clinic sent blood spattering from the gash across his chest to the wood on which he now sprawled. Sano didn’t mind a little rough handing, especially from Saitou, but being practically dragged along the ground all the way from the bar to the doctor was something he didn’t much appreciate.

At their abrupt entry into the room Megumi had started a little, but now she only watched, calm and wordless, as Sano swore incoherently at Saitou. It was neither the first time this had happened nor particularly uncharacteristic.

“I told you I could get here just fine on my own!” was the first thing Sano managed to articulate properly. It was a pointless statement, however, since he had told Saitou that several times on the way over, and Saitou hadn’t listened then any more than he was likely to now.

“I’m not done with you,” the officer answered ominously.

“Shouldn’t you be dealing with the rest of that brawl?” wondered Sano, surly but not honestly wishing Saitou were anywhere but here.

“The men can earn their pay for once.” Saitou was glowering down at Sano as the latter shifted into a kneeling position and glared back. “Do you have any idea who that was I pulled you off of back there?”

“Yeah, I–”

“Sugiyama Shinichiro is an influential tradesman with connections all over the country. He’s one of the richest men in Tokyo and one of the most ruthless. A word from him could have you killed and your body hidden so no one would ever find you, and a second word would make sure nobody even looked.”

“Well, isn’t it your job to take care of guys like that?”

Saitou completely ignored this remark. “Just because his brother is every bit as worthless a deadbeat as you are does not make him a good target for your idiotic weekend games.”

“He wasn’t a ‘target!'” Sano protested with, he thought, a fair imitation of honest outrage. He was outraged, of course, but it was just the usual anger at Saitou’s treatment of him, not because the accusations were untrue. “He just happened to be there when that fight got started, and–”

“Just shut up, ahou. This is the fifth time in the last two months you’ve gotten yourself into this kind of trouble and I’ve had to get you out of it; I’m sick and tired of wasting my influence on you. You can’t just stick to lowlifes like yourself, can you?” Sano had rarely seen Saitou this irritated; it was very picturesque. “No, you have to seek out and start pointless fights with the highest-profile people you can find and get yourself into situations you need a government agent to get you out of alive.”

“It’s not like I go out looking for them,” Sano lied. He had struggled to his feet by this point, but here Saitou stepped forward and shoved him to the floor again.

“Is there some reason you keep doing this?” the officer demanded harshly, towering over Sano with fists clenched. “Some reason that fits into any logical human rationale? Or are you really every bit as brainless as I’ve always thought you?”

It was consistently marvelous to Sano how Saitou could enrage and electrify him at the same time; how Sano could have come to crave emotions he normally would have considered negative simply because they were the best he could expect from that source, desire this rough treatment only because it was closer to what he wanted than anyone else’s gentleness… and yet grow irate when he received it. Although he opened his mouth to answer, he couldn’t be sure what he planned on saying. He certainly wasn’t about to admit the reason he kept doing this, whether or not it would fit Saitou’s idea of ‘logical human rationale.’

But Saitou didn’t give him a chance to say anything at all. “This is the last time I step forward to help you out of a mess like this; do you understand?”

Sano tried not to show just how much of a stab this statement was. “But I thought the commissioner said–”

“I don’t care that you came to Kyoto and I don’t care that you’re Himura’s friend; it’s not my job to clean up after you, so next time you can just get yourself hanged so we can all be free of your idiocy.”

Sano had scrambled back and was moving to stand again, in response to which Saitou took a menacing step toward him, but at last Megumi spoke. Her tone was placid, and the spark in her eyes expressed plainly that the delay in her intervention was no accident. “Now, now, I can’t have you worrying my patient to death.”

“It would save you a considerable amount of trouble,” Saitou replied. He stared down at Sano with burning eyes for a long moment before striding abruptly from the room.

Once it had slammed shut, Sano tore his gaze from the door with an effort and rallied himself not only for the remonstrance he knew Megumi expected him to make but also for the entire conversation that must follow.

“You couldn’t have stepped in before he started ripping me a new one?”

“No,” she replied brusquely, “because then I would have had to do it, and I have enough to do with you tonight as it is.” Her hands were gentler than her tone, however, as she helped him to the patient bed and began examining his injuries. “Besides,” she added with a somewhat evil smile, “he’s so good at it. It would have been a shame to interrupt him.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “Yeah, he’s made an art out of being an asshole.”

“Trouble attracts trouble, I suppose,” she said with a slight sigh.

“Yeah, I wish,” Sano muttered.

She’d been muttering something of her own at the time — “I’m going to have to stitch this,” he thought — and hadn’t heard him. “What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“But really,” she went on as she washed her hands in the basin by the door, “have you noticed we only see him when something goes wrong?”

“Yeah, it sucks.”

The glance she shot him was more confused than anything else, but there might have been a hint of suspicion to it.

“That I keep having to be helped by him,” Sano explained quickly.

“Well,” she sniffed, “maybe you should get a clue and stop getting into this kind of trouble.”

“Yeah…” Sano murmured, glancing again at the door. Then he added more quietly, “Where do you s’pose they took that Sugiyama guy…?”

“It’s probably best not to ask,” Megumi replied. “And lie still.”

There was something a little untrustworthy about her tone, and Sano speculated immediately, “He’s here, isn’t he?”

Megumi laughed musically and, Sano thought, a little uneasily. “Why would someone like that come to this clinic when he undoubtedly has a private doctor back at his estate?”

“Because it’s closest. Ow! shit! warn me before you stick fucking needles into me!”

She made a disdainful noise and continued stitching up his worst injury.

“Anyway,” Sano grunted, “he was only half-conscious when I last saw him, and he didn’t seem to have enough of a brain to get himself to the right place even when he wasn’t drunk off his ass and kinda beat-up… by me…”

There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Megumi said with a roll of eyes, snipping off her thread deftly and concisely wiping the blood away from the newly-sewn-up wound. “And don’t jump to conclusions.”

Contemplatively Sano watched her apply bandages to the fresh stitches and what other of his hurts required them. “If they’d brought him here, he’d probably be in the opposite corner room,” he mused.

Rolling her eyes yet again, Megumi stood abruptly. Applying pressure to a rather uncomfortable spot on his chest, she forced him to lie down. “You are more trouble than you’re worth,” she remarked, and went to wash her hands again.

“Pretty sure you’re not the only one who thinks so,” Sano grinned, putting his arms casually behind his head.

“And now if you’ll excuse me, I have other patients to look in on.”

“Including Sugiyama, right?” Sano abandoned his relaxed pose almost immediately after assuming it, sitting up.

“You need to lie still for a bit,” she admonished, not entirely without the air of one making excuses, as she reached for the door.

“Why should I lie around at all?” demanded Sano, a triumphant grin growing on his face. “You didn’t give me any drugs or nothing. You’re running off to get him out of here before I can get at him, aren’t you?”

She drew herself up with dignity. “As I said, I have other patients to look in on. It has nothing to do with you. And you need to lie down because I’m your doctor and I said so.”

Sano jumped up, fully prepared to follow her wherever she was going and see if his guess was correct. As if to escape him, she opened the door quickly and took a step forward… but then fell back a pace with an inadvertent gasp. Even Sano’s progress was stopped in his surprise.

“I’ll handle this, doctor,” Saitou said, stepping through the door past Megumi, his dark, irritated gaze locked on Sano’s face.

Megumi could recover her presence of mind quicker than anyone Sano knew. “I would appreciate that,” she smiled. “Thank you, officer.” And she was gone.

Saitou closed the door and advanced. He did not look happy.

Sano was torn between pleasure that Saitou had returned (or perhaps never left) and wondering if Saitou might actually deliberately injure him this time and give Megumi more work. But all he said, in a tone of relatively indifferent defiance, was, “What are you doing still here?”

“Making sure you don’t do exactly what you’re trying to do right now.”

“Oh, really? What do you think I’m doing that’s so awful it requires your personal attention?”

Saitou gave a frustrated sigh. “You weren’t angry enough tonight to justify a follow-up visit to that overdressed idiot, so the only reason I can think of for you to be stalking him now is to draw attention to yourself again.”

“Draw attention to myself?” Sano echoed, trying to sound surprised at the accusation and, he feared, failing. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“I don’t know, ahou; why don’t you tell me? I’ve had the feeling you were getting yourself into trouble on purpose all this time, but even of you I almost couldn’t believe it. How is it possible for you to be that stupid? Or are you suicidal?”

“Something like that,” Sano muttered. When Saitou’s impatient, irritated glare indicated the insufficiency of this answer, it was Sano’s turn to sigh. “You’re the investigator,” he said. “You should be able to figure it out.”

He wasn’t sure exactly how to interpret the narrowing of Saitou’s eyes at this. There wasn’t, he believed, any way Saitou could really be completely in the dark about his motives… unless he did simply think Sano suicidally stupid. Well, Saitou had said this was the last time he would help him out of a situation like tonight’s, which meant this little game had to end here. So, Sano figured, he might as well finish digging his grave before trying to evade it. He’d known, after all, that this moment had to come eventually; he hadn’t really been prepared for it (if that was even possible), but he’d certainly known.

“I noticed you help me out way more than makes sense unless… And I thought, ‘Well, maybe he really…'” Sano gave a half laugh and shrugged. “The truth is,” he said after a deep breath, “I kinda li–”

The confession, the very syllable was cut off by Saitou’s hand over his mouth as another clamped down on his arm to hold him in place. Sano’s eyes went wide in surprise as he half-choked in the cigarette scent of the glove and stared into Saitou’s face that was suddenly very near his own. This behavior at another time might have angered him, but with Saitou so close, and Sano just having said (or started to say) what he had, all he could feel was the overfast pounding of his heart.

“Ahou,” the wolf admonished in a low, intense tone, “think, for once in your life, before you speak. Think about who you’re talking to before you finish that statement.” For a long moment he paused, while Sano waited breathlessly to see where he was going with this. “Because if you invite,” Saitou finally continued, “I’m not going to refuse.” Feeling his eyes widen and his pulse intensify even farther, Sano wondered why on earth Saitou was phrasing this like a warning. “But if you’re looking for something soft and romantic,” the officer finished, “you’re better off with that woman.”

Sano wasn’t quite sure what woman Saitou could possibly be referring to. As a matter of fact, he really only had an amorphous concept of what a woman was at this point, given that the world had narrowed to the hot, expectant space he and Saitou occupied and nothing else seemed to exist.

The hand over his mouth pulled slowly away. As his lips were grazed slightly by Saitou’s fingers in this movement, Sano found his face tilting forward slightly as if to ask them to stay. And now he couldn’t think of anything to say. Saitou’s caution, after all, was valid enough; Sano knew perfectly well that, the moment this moment was over and the strangeness and anticipation had passed, he was certain to be irate at the cop again for something or other.

But, hell, that would be then. This was now.

“I’ve been starting brawls and getting myself stabbed just to get you to show up,” he replied hoarsely, “and you think you’re gonna scare me off with a vague little threat like that?”

The smile that spread slowly across Saitou’s face sent an intense, prickling shudder running through Sano’s entire body. Though not much different on the surface from the man’s usual predatory smirk, yet it somehow suggested he was deeply satisfied with Sano’s answer — as if his warning had been a test and Sano had passed particularly well.

And then Saitou descended on him like some force of nature made flesh, kissing Sano suddenly and fiercely. Rough gloved hands gripped him, pressing painfully against his injuries; possessive arms encircled him, making him feel always just a little off-balance and, for the moment, utterly dependent; and at their uppermost point of connection Saitou seemed to be attempting to devour Sano alive and whole. Sano didn’t think he’d ever felt anything so wonderful.

“I shouldn’t be rewarding you for your stupid ideas,” Saitou murmured after a while against Sano’s lips.

“Admit it,” Sano triumphed (though perhaps that was the wrong word when he could still hardly believe this was happening) — “you couldn’t stand the idea of me getting hanged or whatever, so you kept showing up to help me even when it annoyed the hell out of you.”

Saitou hmphhd and went back to kissing Sano thoroughly.

“That’s an unusual way of handling it,” Megumi commented suddenly from the door.

It was like that old story where the guy got a look at heaven only to find years had passed during the brief glimpse. Surely it hadn’t been long enough for Megumi to deal with some other patient — possibly to the point where he could be discharged — and decide it was safe to come back into a room where Saitou was supposedly raging? And why didn’t she look nearly as surprised as Sano thought she should?

Meanwhile, Saitou had, very unfortunately, released him and turned an amused expression on the doctor. “Nevertheless, the situation is under control,” he said.

“The end always justifies the means with you, doesn’t it?” Whether the disapproval in her voice was real or feigned, or to what exactly it referred, Sano couldn’t quite tell.

“In this case a more accurate idiom would be ‘killing two birds with one stone.'”

Megumi looked as if she had some issue she wasn’t vocalizing, and in any case she didn’t smirk nearly as well as Saitou did — but she still definitely had her own style. “I trust, then, I won’t be seeing him in here again.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow with a brief laugh. “I’m taking him in hand, not miraculously giving him a brain. You still have the pointless fights he’s always getting into, self-inflicted injury, and whatever I do to him to deal with.” At this point Sano protested rather loudly, but they both ignored him as Saitou finished, “Situations like tonight’s, however, you no longer need to worry about.”

“Then I suppose I won’t have to move Sugiyama-san after all.”

“No,” laughed Sano. “Matter of fact, give him my best.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded wryly. “You’ve had all the clinical treatment you need for one night.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Sano glanced slyly at Saitou, who seemed unable to restrain a faint smirk at the suggestion. Signs were good that Saitou had been in much the same state of mind Sano had ever since Kyoto, and Sano’s pleasure at the cleverness of his own plan (stupid as it had seemed all along) was overshadowed only by his pleasure at its outcome.

Megumi snorted and rolled her eyes. Then she fixed the latter somewhat severely on Saitou. “I’d better not see him back in here tonight, at least. I have other things to do.”

“Nah…” Sano felt suddenly a bit sheepish about all the trouble he’d given Megumi over the last couple of months in pursuit of an end he’d never really considered very likely. “Got no reason to go looking for fights now.” Especially since he could probably find one with Saitou now any time he wanted, and not even need to go to extreme measures to get the man’s attention.

As if reading his thoughts, Saitou punched him in the arm none too gently. “Ahou. That’s not what she meant.”

“God, asshole, that’s no reason to fucking hit me!” Sano’s hand went from rubbing the spot on his arm to striking out against Saitou, who stepped easily aside. “What the hell did you think she meant?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Saitou smirked. “Come on.” And he started toward the door.

“Where are we going?” Sano jogged after him.

“I’ll explain that too.”

“Hey, see you, kitsune!” Sano whirled, walking backward for a few paces, to wave at Megumi. Stumbling, his back running hard into the doorframe, he was soon forced to resume normal movement; but before he turned he saw her standing still watching them leave, arms crossed, rolling her eyes at him again.

She was smiling, though.


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This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


The Eyes in the Mirror

Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

Days keep slipping by while Heero, who desperately wants to step up his relationship with Duo, the taxi driver that always takes him to work, continually puts off confessing that he likes him.



Monday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab almost fifteen minutes later than his usual time, shook off and half-closed his umbrella, and tossed his briefcase onto the empty beige seat beside him with what would have been a grumble, or perhaps a sigh, if he’d given it any volume. Despite the relative subtlety of this expression and the complete muting by the rain of any sound he might inadvertently have let escape his lips, Duo, of course, noticed his mood.

“Moving a little slow today?” he said cheerfully, throwing an understanding grin over his shoulder from the driver’s seat. Only someone that knew Heero well enough to read the signs of his discontent would have been able to guess at its cause… Duo had driven Heero to work almost every day for the past few months, and had learned to read the signs earlier than most people.

“Yes.” Heero gave him a hard look, though not necessarily an angry one. He was irritated, but only at himself for getting off to such a late start; he supposed there probably were circumstances under which he could be angry at Duo… but he hadn’t found any yet.

Duo’s grin widened as he glanced back the other direction and pulled away from the curb. “You’re my third fare of the day who’s been running late. The first guy’s basement flooded, and then this lady told me an awesome story about her kid taking his diaper off and putting it all over his room, and she had to clean it up before she could leave for work.” He chuckled. “Think your excuse can top theirs?”

“No.” There was a touch of surliness to this answer, since Heero would much rather have had such an excuse, unpleasant as either situation would have been to deal with, than the infinitely weaker ‘couldn’t get to sleep for hours and then didn’t hear the alarm once sleep finally came.’ However, he found himself, for some reason, explaining this to Duo despite its lameness.

“Well, I think this is the first time I remember you coming down late,” the driver answered him in an easy, reassuring tone. “Nobody can be on time every day. I mean, me, the earlier I get up, the later I’m likely to be. If I have to be to class at eight and I get up at six, I’ll be late; but if I get up at seven fifteen I’m fine.”

At this Heero couldn’t help smiling a little; if he’d had to guess what Duo’s morning routine was like — and he spent more time guessing about Duo’s personal life in general than Duo probably had any idea — this would certainly have been part of it. He could easily picture Duo snooze-buttoning himself into rising five minutes before he needed to leave, then getting ready in forty-five seconds and showing up to work as dapper as usual.

Except for… “How long does your braid take?” The words were out of his mouth almost before he’d even fully formed the question, long before he’d consciously decided to ask it. That sort of thing happened a lot in Duo’s cab; Heero was almost used to it.

Duo shrugged. “A minute? Two minutes? Maybe?”

Heero raised a brow at the indigo eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I don’t believe you,” he said, and noticed, as he often did, how serious his voice sounded — as if he were denying, rather than the length of time Duo claimed it took to do his hair, the possibility of a heinous crime he knew Duo incapable of committing, or the likelihood of some hideous natural disaster he would rather not believe had happened. No wonder they kept him off the phones at work.

Duo, however, far from objecting to Heero’s incongruously dire tone, seemed inclined rather to build on it. “I swear it’s true, your honor!” he protested, the edge of his face that Heero could see wrinkling in amusement as he squeaked out this appeal. “Don’t send me back to jail!”

“All right,” Heero answered, “I’ll let you off this time.” And though he still sounded unnecessarily serious, the slight grin that had taken hold of his mouth almost in spite of himself added a touch of warmth to his tone that he was sure Duo would pick up on.

“Seriously, though,” Duo went on, “it doesn’t take very long: pull it out, brush it, put it back in.” With a facetiously rakish expression that was discernable even from this angle he added, “It’s not like I have to spend forever in the bathroom to look fabulous.”

Heero pursed his lips against the response he was tempted to make — to wit, that he had no doubt this was the case. Fortunately, he was saved the trouble of coming up with an innocuous response when Duo turned a corner rather sharply and noticed Heero reeling a bit behind him.

“Seat belt!” the driver commanded, and Heero dutifully complied. Duo watched him in the mirror, eyes narrowed and jaw jutting out in an exaggerated expression of authoritative determination, until something on the road drew his gaze to where it probably should have been all along.

Heero was never quite sure whether he should worry when Duo looked at him rather than traffic, as he did rather value his life… but he certainly couldn’t complain if Duo wanted to look at him — even if it was only to be sure he was donning his seat belt as commanded — and Duo did have a remarkable talent for weaving through the lanes and avoiding other vehicles that often made Heero wonder vaguely if, with coordination like that, he might not be a very good dancer. So it was unlikely that Heero would protest until Duo actually wrecked them — and even that Heero might overlook, provided the circumstance was resultant upon Duo fixing him with that unexpectedly firm gaze in the mirror or half-turning to say something adorable over his shoulder.

Yeah, Heero had it pretty bad.

When Duo’s attention returned to him, both face and voice were companionable once again. “So are we still going to hang out on Friday?”

To Heero this was a somewhat awkward question, since his reply, “If you’re free,” was not what he actually wanted to say. He wasn’t really given to blushing, but he did busy himself with shaking the rain off his umbrella onto the floor beside his feet so as to avoid, just for the moment, meeting the eyes in the mirror.

“Only if you promise not to stand me up again,” Duo said.

Truly, obviously, Duo had no idea. ‘Stand me up’ was such a date term. And Friday’s arrangement — their second attempt, after last Friday’s cancellation on Heero’s part thanks to the demands of overtime, to turn the customer-client relationship into something more — was definitely not a date. Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

“Not this time,” he promised. “I told them I wouldn’t be working any overtime this week.”

Duo winced theatrically, amusement sparkling in his eyes. “If you told them with that face, I’m not worried!”

“What face?” Heero wondered, resisting the impulse to raise a hand to the area in question to attempt ascertaining with fingers the answer to his.

“That face where if you said, ‘I told them I wouldn’t be on the planet this week,’ I would totally believe you,” Duo chuckled. “And so would they. Man, when you get serious, you really get serious! You should ask for a raise with that face. I mean tell them you want a raise with that face. Or tell my boss I want a raise with that face.”

Heero laughed. This happened occasionally in Duo’s cab; he was almost used to that too. He did have to wonder, though, whether, if the driver had watched his face enough to know it so well, Duo had really never suspected…

Well, Heero reflected, his face probably wouldn’t show it. He wasn’t exactly a stereotypical gay man. The fact that he didn’t think he’d ever actually met a stereotypical gay man didn’t negate his belief in their existence, since his social circle — so called — was not wide enough to encompass any other gay men, and therefore he had no living model besides himself to compare with the mythos of television. But he hoped he was able to perceive the status he claimed for himself in others, if it existed — at the very least in someone he’d watched carefully — and he hadn’t yet observed any symptoms in Duo. And evidently Duo didn’t recognize it in him, either.

Which was why Friday’s meeting wouldn’t be a date.

…unless Heero managed to establish it as such before the time in question, and Duo accepted the arrangement — the chances of which seemed at the moment to range from slim to none, given that Heero hadn’t been able to bring himself yet to confess his crush and Duo probably wouldn’t be interested even if or when he did. Would probably, in fact, become uncomfortable, and would stop showing up conveniently outside Heero’s apartment at 7:45 every morning knowing he was guaranteed a fare that at least up until that point he’d seemed to enjoy talking to. That’s what Heero thought he would do in a similar situation, anyway.

“So Friday…” He began this phrase in the hope of tricking himself into finishing it without realizing. Generally he didn’t speak impetuously or lose control of what he was saying, but the moment he was in Duo’s cab he had a tendency to blurt things out spontaneously — which might lead, if he timed it correctly, to his saying exactly what he wanted to say and hadn’t yet been able to. His ingrained reticence and reluctance to emotional commitment won out over Duo’s influence, however, and he found himself unable to proceed.

“Yeah?” Duo wondered.

With an effort Heero forced out, “I’ll get that movie.”

“Cool.”

They were approaching the office now, so it wasn’t really the right time for a conversation beginning with an unprecedented declaration of gay admiration. He would prefer to have a little more leisure to discuss it, and be more adequately braced for possible rejection, in any case. Still, it wasn’t with a great amount of hope, as Duo swiped his card and then bid him a friendly farewell, that Heero reflected, Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab with every intention of getting the big question out before they reached the interstate. He’d spent breakfast working himself up to it, considering variants of phraseology on his part and possible responses on Duo’s as well as what he would say and do if Duo utterly rejected him. However, he was completely distracted from his purpose, as he pulled the door shut, by the heartily bizarre greeting from the driver: “Welcome to my dog!”

“What?” wondered Heero blankly.

“Oh, in the book I’ve been reading…” Duo began as he inserted the taxi smoothly into traffic.

“The same one?” Heero guessed.

In response to the slight skepticism in the query Duo just laughed. He’d been working on this particular book for almost two months now, if Heero was remembering correctly, ever since a class he’d been taking had studied excerpts and gotten him interested. “Well, it’s, like, a thousand pages,” he reminded Heero, without even a trace of shame at taking so long or at the subsequent admission, “and some parts of it are really boring.”

Heero restrained his head-shake. Duo was so enthusiastic about things — about life in general, it seemed — that even in something he did purely for recreation he enjoyed a challenge. Heero couldn’t help but admire the intensity as well as the intelligence that fitted Duo for such a pursuit… For any thousand-page book he wasn’t required to read that didn’t entirely hold his interest, Heero didn’t think he would have the fortitude.

It wasn’t that he objected to a challenge… just not when he was trying to relax. Maybe that was why he found it so difficult to relax most of the time: it was too damn challenging, so he avoided it. As if that made sense at all. Duo obviously had no such problem. Still, Heero might not necessarily want to be like that… but he definitely knew he wanted to be with that. There was about Duo an almost uncanny air of ease and simultaneous boundless energy that was somehow galvanizing and restful at the same time.

“Anyway,” Duo continued, “I got to this part last night where they called a dog a ‘cab’ — part of this thieves’ dialect-thing that was really interesting for almost the whole time the author went on and on about it — and it made me think I should name my car ‘Spot’ or something. It’s got those checkers on it; I think it’d make a good ‘Spot.'”

Heero had considered, on occasion, bringing with him on his taxi rides a little notebook in which to document the number of times Duo made him smile unexpectedly. “Do people name their dogs ‘Spot’ anymore?”

“Well, it needs to be a name people know is a dog’s name, or else the joke won’t work.”

“I think your ‘joke’ is a little too obscure for it to matter.” God, would he ever be able to respond to Duo’s carefree conversation with matching lightness, or was he doomed forever to this overly-serious tone? He struggled for greater levity of expression as he added, “You might as well choose a name you like better than ‘Spot.'”

As usual, Duo didn’t seem to mind Heero’s solemn tone; eyes crinkling with his pleased expression, he looked at his passenger in the mirror and said, “Well, and it’s a translation, too, so I guess that makes it even more obscure. We didn’t read this part in class, so I don’t even know if ‘cab’ was actually the word they used — so maybe the joke doesn’t even really work. Someday I’ll try the original and find out… but my French isn’t good enough for that yet, so I’m sticking with the English version for now.”

Had Heero been a more flirtatious man, or one possessed of easier powers of socialization — or, possibly, even just a bit more surety of his success in the present case — he might have tested on Duo the only French phrase he knew: asked for a translation in all innocence, or simply thrown it out as the admitted extent of his conversance, and gauged the reaction. As it was, he kept his voulez-vous coucher avec moi to himself. That, and admired Duo’s inclination and ability to learn a foreign language at all — something Heero had never managed. Unless programming jargon counted.

Heero had been fortunate enough to complete an accredited technical training program just out of high school on a grant, and had been making decent money in a relatively stable career field ever since. Duo, on the other hand — as far as Heero understood based on their conversations up until this point — had been painstakingly working his way through a four-year degree at the local college for the last decade, paying every penny of tuition himself by driving cabs and waiting tables. Heero, while not thinking of himself as overly transient in his interests or pursuits, couldn’t help looking up to that kind of long-term determination.

And now, as Duo inquired whether Heero had finished ‘that train robbery book’ (the most recent novel he had mentioned reading), there really was no way to introduce the topic Heero had entered the taxi determined to bring up; it would seem too jarring against the clever joviality of Duo’s book talk. Heero could only hope that they were not like that as well: too different ever to mesh, and in more ways than mere orientation (which information neither possessed, currently, about the other to any degree beyond assumption).

Heero knew perfectly well that he was gloomy and far too serious… or, at the very least, too outwardly serious for his own good. It made other people take him seriously, which was to his advantage, but it didn’t necessarily make anyone like him. And Duo was so cheerful… Still, Heero thought he had noticed — only a few times during their acquaintance, since taxi drives to work, however consistent, rarely afforded occasion for such — a deeply shadowed side to Duo’s vehemence of personality with which he thought he could readily identify. There was a well-rounded awareness of the often painful realities of life under that attractive grin; Duo simply chose to be cheerful on top of it.

The facts that they could probably connect on that level, that Duo’s sanguinity so often increased Heero’s, and that Duo didn’t seem to be bothered by Heero’s lack in the first place, surely made them perfectly suited for each other. Heero certainly saw it that way… but would Duo?

So the question went unasked that day as well; instead they discussed Michael Crichton until pulling up at the office and parting.

Wednesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab already on the phone. It was never a good sign when his work day started before he’d even left the apartment, and Duo apparently agreed; as the latter moved them out into the street, evidently realizing this was a business call, his face took on first a look of sympathy and then a dramatic expression of suffering and despair.

It was a statement almost never made of Heero that he could not keep countenance, but, as he explained the details of the current project (admittedly somewhat complicated) to his coworker, and Duo began responding to everything he said with increasingly exaggerated feigned misery, rarely if ever watching his driving, it grew more and more difficult not to laugh out loud.

It got so bad that Relena finally asked, “Is something wrong?” She’d probably never heard him smile over the phone before.

“No,” Heero assured her, tearing his eyes away from those in the mirror with some effort and smoothing over his grin. “But if you’re in the area this afternoon, I’ll talk to you then. Just make sure you call us if you do hear from him.”

She assured him that she would and said goodbye.

Almost before the call had even ended, Heero had again sought out the gaze of the taxi driver, who grinned unrepentantly at him. “Good thing I don’t charge for the entertainment!” said Duo, laughing at himself. “Good morning! Now that you’re done sweet-talking your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” Heero shook his head at the idea as he snapped his phone shut and put it back into his briefcase. Then, in one of those disturbingly unguarded bursts of madness that Duo’s cab seemed so often to induce, he added, “I don’t date women.”

He felt the blood drain from his face and then return in a rush for an honest-to-goodness, hot-burning blush. Why the hell had he said that?? He could have explained the situation in so many other ways — ‘She’s seeing someone;’ ‘We’re just friends;’ ‘I’m not interested in her’ — all of them perfectly true and all of them a good deal less burst-out-of-the-closet-from-nowhere startling.

But all Duo said was, “Oh! That makes a difference, doesn’t it?” And while he did appear a little surprised, it faded quickly and was neither accompanied nor followed by any look of disapproval. Heero thought, though, in a stiff fit of ragingly awkward, conflicting feelings, that the driver’s eyes were turned away from the mirror a good deal more than usual throughout the rest of the journey.

Obviously the latter could no longer reasonably hope to contain the specific conversation Heero had wished it would. As a matter of fact, he almost felt like jumping out of the cab and walking the rest of the way from the next light, melodrama level of that gesture notwithstanding.

It was not heartening that he felt this way about a fairly smooth admission of homosexuality that could only bring him closer to his goal. The statement had, for all its serious tone, had the kind of unassuming, personal, yet not indelicate sound he would precisely have wished for… a sound he doubted he could conjure anywhere but here or probably to anyone but Duo, if he could come up with it at all. If this relatively well-delivered and well-received confession was attended by so much embarassment and confusion, what hope on earth was there for his planned ‘let’s-make-this-a-date‘ speech?

That this was really a fortuitous event he kept telling himself with all the firmness he could command. This meant one thing fewer to worry about getting off his chest; maybe it would make the asking easier. And wasn’t it a good sign that Duo hadn’t freaked out? Now he had merely to propose casually that they rename the get-together on Friday, no preamble required. It would no longer be a surprise on top of another surprise; the two shocks were divided conveniently onto separate days. Surely this was a good thing.

So he kept telling himself.

And yet he wished he could fall through the seat and into the road like one of those superheroes that went intangible at will.

He was hardly aware of a word they spoke during the remainder of that drive. Duo, after a minute or so of silence, reverted to that completely harmless conversational staple of his, amusing anecdotes about anonymous passengers — but Heero would certainly not remember any of them later. As usual when this subject arose, he did wonder vaguely and somewhat dejectedly whether he might not be the hero of any of these stories when someone else was in the back seat, but for once Duo’s pleasant cabbie chatter could not wholly engross him. Staring out the window, uncertain whether or not he was still blushing, he tried to make for his agitation a sort of balm out of the wordless sound of Duo’s voice that was all he could hear behind the noise of his reflections. He thought he gave noncommittal interjections occasionally, too.

By the time they reached the office, Heero had straightened his head out somewhat. Whether he actually believed it or not, he was ready at least to believe that this had been a step forward, and he was fairly sure the usual tan of his face had returned. And at least his expression (as far as he could tell) hadn’t changed this entire time to betray his embarassment and turmoil. There was something to be said for stoicism.

His emotions were still rather augmented, but hadn’t really changed. So, although he didn’t exactly expect it, the half-hopeful, half-painful throb his heart gave when Duo smiled at him as he said goodbye didn’t really surprise him.

Thursday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab somewhat damp, as it was raining rather torrentially today; even with an umbrella, just the walk from the apartment lobby doors to the curb could not but discomfort.

“Good morning,” he said.

…there was another thing Duo’s cab did to him: made him offer a greeting (to Duo) before he’d been greeted. Which only happened occasionally, since Duo pretty consistently got to it first.

Through vigorous repetition of all the positive thoughts he’d tentatively entertained yesterday, Heero had come to grips with his inadvertent confession and was relatively calm. Whether he was at all ready to ask Duo about tomorrow was an entirely different story, but he thought he could at least converse with some degree of normalcy.

Duo, on the other hand, seemed out of sorts. His good morning was lethargic, and he yawned expansively before pulling out into the street. The eyes in the mirror looked tired, the planes beneath them unusually dark, the friendly opening comments that usually accompanied their gaze markedly absent.

After a few minutes of pathetic silence Heero wondered, “Not feeling well?” Here was where the austere tone did him the most disservice: there was no way he could sound concerned with that voice. He could only hope Duo would read his sincerity some other way.

The driver threw a rueful smile over his shoulder. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Heero replied, and stifled a sigh at how stiff and purely conventional it sounded.

“Thanks,” said Duo. His smile, visible in the mirror as he tilted his chin up to get a clear look at the right lane, widened into something more like his usual transmittable grin; this comforted Heero a little for his inability to express himself the way he wished to… he wasn’t sure whether it was merely Duo’s professionalism that led him to act as if he didn’t care about Heero’s social deficiencies, or whether he truly didn’t mind — and this lack of certainty was a large part of why Heero was so reluctant to speak — but it was comforting. Even when he was sick or tired or both and not inclined to converse, Duo was a wonderful person to have around.

Whatever the case was, Heero forced himself to say something else to reiterate (perhaps to prove) his genuine sympathy. “I sometimes unexpectedly get insomnia, and I hate it. And I don’t even go to school,” he added, considering how that would complicate things.

Duo nodded, his expression still weary and rueful.

“Does it happen to you often?” Heero persisted.

“No,” answered Duo. “No, not very often.”

“Well, that’s good, at least.” And Heero could think of nothing more to say. Well, he could think of plenty to say; he just doubted his ability to say it naturally enough that it wouldn’t sound somewhat creepy. One didn’t suggest a certain type of pajamas and a glass of warm milk to one’s taxi driver unless one was a good deal smoother or outwardly friendlier than Heero was. Or just a little closer to said driver.

Which brought him uncomfortably hard up against the very solid and unpleasant reflection that perhaps it would be unwise, even unkind, to attempt a transition from business associates straight to guys that are dating without even a nominal stop at friends.

How well did he know Duo, really? How well could he expect Duo to know him at this point? Was it really such a good idea to try to initiate a more romantic relationship without finding out? And wouldn’t he be putting an awful lot of pressure on Duo by asking him to take that step without giving him the chance to get to know Heero under less businesslike circumstances than these taxi rides to work?

He didn’t know. How did most people go about this sort of thing? Maybe Duo would just provide some reasonable contingency involving a forerunning period of friendship. Heero could accept that. It would drive him crazy — closer even than the current arrangement, yet still not what he wanted — but he could accept it.

It was stupid, though, even to contemplate Duo’s specific response to the idea of dating him without knowing how Duo felt about dating other males in general. What was the latest word on population percentages? Two out of a hundred American men identified as gay? Seriously, what were the chances that out of, say, the hundred men on this stretch of interstate right now, the two gay ones were sitting in the same taxi?

Heero wasn’t the type to shy — for long — from something he was reluctant to do… he knew he would confess, he would ask, at some point. But it certainly wasn’t going to be today, and it might very well not be tomorrow either. Duo’s mood made it utterly impossible today, and tomorrow… well, he simply wasn’t sure it simply wasn’t too early for all of this.

There were moments in this cab, however, when he felt he could spill out all the words requisite to forming the confession and ensuing question, if not necessarily in perfect order, at least in some semblance of coherency. At these moments he really had no idea what was holding him back, and his agitation was extreme. He was fairly certain it still didn’t show in his face or sound in his voice if he happened to speak just then — and it might have been better if it had — but these were some of the most discommodious moments of any time spent with Duo. And this was definitely one of them.

It was not an entirely silent trip following the brief opening exchange; even through the bleak mood that had gripped him in his exhaustion Duo still had an apparently unquenchable urge to say certain things that came to mind. It was clear, however, that he was not inclined toward ongoing conversation, nor in the best humor with the rest of the world; he grumbled a few fairly rude comments in apostrophe at other drivers on the road — which comments were nothing unusual in themselves, only rendered so by the lack of the cheery volume and forgiving affability that generally accompanied them. He wasn’t exactly unpleasant to Heero, but the atmosphere remained far from what it normally was.

Still, he did make a visible effort at smiling and rendering his goodbye pleasant when Heero had paid and was readying his umbrella. “Have a good one,” Duo bade him wearily.

“You too,” replied Heero, and hesitated. After a surreptitiously heavy breath he added, “I hope you feel better. Get some sleep.”

Duo’s smile deepened, and just that was worth the effort of the extra, personal words. “Thanks,” he said sincerely.

Heero smiled a bit too, and got out of the cab.

Friday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab in a state of almost frantically desperate determination he seldom reached, knowing today was the day if any was. Yesterday’s doubts hadn’t made any significant difference to his overall resolve; he’d decided to try it today, if he could. For one thing, he thought it more than likely that he couldn’t, and therefore saw no reason to put it off since it would probably be put off for him anyway. For another… well… he really, really liked Duo, and didn’t want to turn him into a distant courtly love. Heero wasn’t the happiest person in the world, but simultaneously had little patience for that sort of counterproductive self-pitying lethargy.

Duo’s wonderfully cheerful, amusing, enticing demeanor was back in place today in full force. Before Heero could even begin to think how to work the discussion around to what he wanted to talk about, he found himself engrossed in some topic that with anyone else would have been utterly dull but with Duo was funny and interesting — yard work and gardening, he thought. He was afraid he was an even worse conversational companion than usual, though, since his mind was on such a different track. Duo, as always, didn’t seem to mind.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t notice. His eyes were fixed on Heero in the mirror more often than on most days, and with a curiosity he didn’t bother to disguise. Heero thought that some of the agitation might actually be showing for once; it was certainly growing moment by moment — or, rather, street by street as they drew closer and closer to their usual goal of Heero’s place of employ and watched his opportunity shrinking.

And then, with a splash in the gutter beside the curb and a tenfold increase of inner turbulence, they had arrived. Duo put the car in park and turned a smile on Heero as he always did. “So I’ll call you tonight after class and make sure–”

Heero cut him off. “About tonight.”

Duo tilted his head slightly, wordless, his smile undiminished.

“I was wondering.” He sounded like a goddamn robot, absolutely flat and emotionless. “I was wondering,” he said again, feeling a bit faint. Apparently ‘I was wondering’ wasn’t the right way to start, though, since no other words wanted to emerge thereafter. He tried a different approach. “I’ve had a…” No, that wasn’t it either. “I have a…”

Duo’s brows went up, though he was still smiling.

And that was what did it, really. Rather than appear incompetent — especially to someone he liked so much — rather than keep dithering like an idiot — or, worse, start actually stammering or stuttering — Heero would bear all the rejection in the world. “I’ve liked you for a long time,” he said, coolly, clearly, and with perfect calm. “And I wanted to know if we could possibly call tonight a date instead of just ‘hanging out.'”

There. There was an end of that. He didn’t know if he could speak ever again, but there, at least, was an end of that. Now Duo would let him down gently and drive off out of his life.

For a long moment Duo stared at him with no change in the unconcerned expression on his face. Finally he said, “Yeah, sure, I guess we could.”

Dumbfounded, certain his face had gone white and that he had quite possibly stopped breathing entirely, Heero sat frozen, staring back. After what seemed like forever in the steady beat of the rain and the windshield wipers and the noise of cars outside and the stunned silence within he managed, “‘Yeah, sure?’ Just like that?” And again with the level, serious tone. Not that the flabbergasted squeak in which these words would have emerged from many another person’s mouth was what he wanted… but it probably would have been better to convey just a little of the utter shock that had overtaken him at Duo’s response.

Duo’s smile turned sympathetic. “If it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t this calm about it on Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” Heero repeated. “When I…”

“Said that bit about not dating women? Yeah. I hadn’t even guessed! And I remembered on Monday you said ‘About Friday’ or something all hesitating…”

“You remember what I said on Monday,” Heero put in blankly.

“Well, unlike most people in this city, you say interesting things; I usually remember it. Anyway, on Wednesday I was pretty shocked, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it… I realized that you might want tonight to be a date and just hadn’t told me, and I didn’t really know…” He laughed a little helplessly. “I didn’t know what to do about that.”

“That’s why you were in a weird mood yesterday.”

“Yeah… sorry if I took it out on you… Wednesday wasn’t quite long enough to decide; it took me half of yesterday too.”

“And now…” This was really nothing like anything Heero had expected; he felt as if, in this conversation, he was largely along for the ride. How appropriate.

Duo shrugged. “I’ve had this thing in the back of my head for a while about whether or not I might like men, but it’s hard to decide that these days in this understanding country of ours.” He accompanied his airy tone with a casual wave of the hand, as if to indicate that this was a largely unrelated matter. “So since you’re an interesting guy, like I said, I figured you’re the perfect way to find out for sure.”

“I’m an interesting guy…” Heero’s voice trailed off into silence, probably a better indication of what he was feeling than anything he’d said to Duo all week.

“Yeah.” Duo grinned as he added, “Didn’t you know that?”

Heero saw no reason to try to fight off the infectiousness of that grin — though his own expression was more of a baffled half-smile. “No, not really.”

“You expected me to say no, didn’t you?” This was spoken a little more quietly than the previous statements, and the look in Duo’s eyes had softened a trifle.

Heero nodded.

Duo reached over the seat — which was awkward, yes, but neither of them really cared — and took Heero’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re a brave man, Heero Yuy,” he stated solemnly. It was absurd that even his deliberate solemnity couldn’t match Heero’s most casual tone.

Feeling suddenly warm all over and the beginnings of an overwhelming, adrenaline-withdrawal-like jittery joy, Heero held onto Duo’s hand for a moment and just smiled.

“So I really will call you when I’m out of class,” Duo went on, returning the pleased expression as he pulled his arm back over the seat, “and let you know I’m on my way. Don’t forget to rent that movie.”

“I won’t,” Heero assured him, pulling his briefcase onto his lap. As he opened it and reached for his wallet, Duo waved dismissively.

“This ride’s on me,” he said.

Afterward (Saturday)

Heero slid into Duo’s arms where they welcomed him onto the sofa in the midst of a nest of rumpled blankets. They’d been up so late last night after the movie, talking about nearly every subject under the sun until even the laconic Heero was hoarse and dry-throated, that Duo had opted to stay the night — chastely, on the couch in the living room, since (even if Heero had been) he really wasn’t ready for any more intimate arrangement just yet. Apparently he was ready for some small-scale cuddling, though, and Heero felt no reluctance whatsoever — felt, in fact, a clinging, overwhelming eagerness — at settling into the mess of spare bedding beside and against him and returning the half-embrace.

“Good morning,” Duo said, a charming half-grin quirking his mouth. He brought his face very close to Heero’s as the latter echoed the greeting; Heero could feel Duo’s breath warm against his skin, and his own respirations seemed to have gone all uneven and shallow as Duo’s eyes roved meticulously across his features and that adorable little grin faded into a more absent, contemplative smile. Then, abruptly, Duo pushed forward and kissed Heero briefly but firmly without closing his eyes.

“This gay stuff isn’t so hard,” he murmured as he drew back.

For a long moment Heero had no power to respond, and Duo’s traditional hearty grin blossomed beneath his amused, crinkling bright eyes.

Finally Heero said, “No, apparently it isn’t.” He didn’t even bother lamenting the serious tone now.

Duo raised a brow. “‘Apparently?’ You’re the experienced one here, aren’t you?”

Heero’s own brows went down slightly. “I’ve only ever dated a couple of guys before,” he admitted, feeling a little awkward and suddenly hoping Duo wasn’t anticipating all-encompassing expert knowledge from him. “And it was never very… physical.”

Nodding his understanding and giving no sign of disappointed expectations, Duo asked, “And women? Did you ever see any women before you realized?”

“A few,” said Heero with a shrug. “It was pretty much the same with them.”

Again Duo nodded. “Well…” Again he moved his parted lips and intoxicating breath toward Heero’s face, and again Heero’s own breath became almost embarassingly erratic. Before they touched, though, Duo finished his statement, “At least this part’s pretty easy.”

He kissed him harder this time, and with a sort of shifting, caressing pressure that was almost more exploratory than anything else. Heero, through the hot steam of indigo and tan and golden-brown that seemed to have overtaken his vision and blurred his thoughts, felt the entire universe narrow to the circumference of the space they occupied; everything more than an inch beyond the boundaries of their bodies ceased to exist, and even the forest-green couch cushions on which they sat and leant and the blankets tucked around them were dimming.

Duo’s left hand running slowly up and down his arm; Duo’s right hand on his back, fingers bending and unbending in a sort of small massage against his pajama shirt; Duo’s thigh, clad only in shorts he’d been wearing beneath his jeans last night, the smooth tanned flesh of a shapely leg intermittently visible through the parted folds of the blanket, flush against Heero’s, warm and firm; Duo’s lips pushing against his in incomprehensibly world-melting patterns — this was really all there was to anything… and all with the tacit promise of an exponentially greater level of intensity once Duo got his bearings.

Heero was not ready to stop kissing Duo when Duo pulled away, but neither was he for several moments in a sufficiently lucid state verbally to request a return of Duo’s lips to his. During those moments, Duo brought one hand near his face and spoke into an imaginary sound recorder in a stodgy, mustached accent. “March 20, 2010. Experiment Report. Test subject responding favorably to prolonged oral contact with minor peripheral stimulus. Scientist responding pretty well too. Propose increasing complexity of interaction, but not today since scientist has to be driving at 11:30 and has probably already been here too long.” By the time he reached the end of this little dissertation, his voice had worked its way back to its usual sound.

Heero, meanwhile, had regained his composure, vision, and (to some extent) clarity of thought, and had overcome the urge to push Duo down onto his back and jump on him. Instead, he just grinned in response to Duo’s performance and said, “We should schedule another experiment, in that case.”

“Well, do you want to play basketball with me on Wednesday?”

“Yes,” Heero found himself saying, almost before the precise nature of the invitation had actually registered. He had a feeling that his answer to ‘Do you want to [verb] with me?’ spoken by Duo would be an unmitigated ‘yes’ for an indeterminate period of time to come. Once the meaning of Duo’s words did sink in, though, he added, “But we can get together next Friday too, can’t we?”

Duo grinned; perhaps he could sense Heero’s keen interest in the proposal even through the inadvertent facade of solemnity, now that he was aware of Heero’s keen interest in general. And if that was the case, Heero thought, there really was no logical reason to try to abandon that facade for the rest of the world.

“We have all week to discuss it,” Duo said.

“Or put off discussing it,” Heero replied with a smile.

To judge by his expression, Duo — like Heero — already knew what conclusion they were most likely to come to.


This story was written for Sharon as part of the “Help Haiti” auction in 2010. I’ve rated it . What do you think of it?

I don’t think the perspective is correct in that picture, but whatever… if I were worried about anything in it, it would be the less-than-perfectly-straight lines of seat and dashboard that I couldn’t be arsed to use a ruler for.

This story is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook.



Biting Off (Something Presumably Worse)


It felt a shame to spend any time in jail as a result of such a boring brawl, but he was too central to the affair, physically and in terms of culpability, to dodge the police now; and he’d had enough dull fighting for the night that the idea of knocking any of them down and making his escape wasn’t particularly palatable. So he remained seated on the floor in approximately the middle of the room, with a broken table on one side and an unconscious opponent on the other, and waited for the officers to work their way through the various results of the melee to the guy that had started it all. And even the waiting wasn’t much more boring than the fight had been.

Eventually, after the man to his left had been hauled off and the table dragged out of the way so the police could stop tripping over it, one of the officers laid a heavy hand on Sano’s shoulder and commanded, “On your feet.” The other floor-bound participants had been asked if they were able to stand, but the police knew perfectly well who Zanza was and that he undoubtedly had no debilitating injuries. Sano had never been able to decide, in situations like these, whether such treatment was compliment or insult, but he didn’t much care. At the moment he just looked up placidly, ready to acquiesce.

A familiar voice from the other side of the room, however, disrupted that placidity completely: “Leave that one.”

Sano’s head whipped around toward the door and the officer in command of this raid or whatever it was. Not that he wouldn’t recognize that voice any time and anywhere, but his body didn’t quite obey his mental command not to make the unnecessary effort in looking. He decided, at least, to stay where he was, to forget entirely about getting up and going peacefully.

“Sir?” (It must, Sano reflected, take some guts for a normal cop to question Saitou’s orders, even with a single, polite syllable.)

“Leave him to me,” Saitou said, unmoved and unmoving.

“Sir, this is–” (Guy must be new.)

“I know who he is,” interrupted Saitou. “Just get the rest of them out of here.”

“Yes, sir.”

So Sano was allowed to continue sitting on the floor in perfect tranquility — except for the thought of what Saitou might do to him once the others were gone — while the police hurried around him removing all the rest of the brawlers. More than half of the latter, Sano knew, would be given a dark eye and a talking-to and released immediately; only those with a history of this type of violence would be held for any length of time.

And he would certainly have been among those sleeping on a hard cell cot for the night if Saitou didn’t have something presumably worse planned for him. Briefly he toyed with the idea of trying to escape now the room was starting to clear out, but found he was actually somewhat morbidly curious about Saitou’s intentions. At the very least, it might turn into a fight that would be a hundred times more entertaining than the one that had brought the wolf here in the first place.

Except then Saitou would start going on about defense again, lecturing and making all sorts of points that hit even closer to home than his iron blows… Sano wasn’t sure if the fight was worth it. Saitou got under his skin like nobody else he’d ever met; was it really a good idea to sit here calmly waiting for that? Hell, Saitou might well be keeping him back just to lecture him and would then deliver him to the police station.

Why the hell did Saitou care about Sano’s ability to defend himself anyway? Like it had anything to do with him anymore. Or maybe this was what Saitou did when he got bored: pretended to be a regular policeman just so he could track Sano down — Sano specifically — and lecture him about defense. What a dumb hobby.

At a sound of finality in Saitou’s latest orders, Sano looked up and noticed the last of the other officers, towing a distraught bartender that wanted to remain behind and assess the damage, leaving the room. And as the door, half-broken from someone having been thrown against it at some point, screeched closed behind them, Saitou turned to face Sano. Languidly, tossing away a spent cigarette as he came, he moved across the mayhem-cluttered space to stand before him.

Sano didn’t allow Saitou the first word. “I know what you’re going to say, so just fucking don’t.”

“Oh, do you?”

“Yes,” Sano grumbled. “Get lost.”

“After specifically arranging privacy for this conversation,” wondered Saitou, still in that perfectly unperturbed tone, “do you really think I’m going to just ‘get lost?'”

Sano sighed slightly. “All right, fine, get it over with.”

“What is it you think I’m going to say?”

“You know and I know, so why bother?” Stubbornly Sano was staring at the floor between his knees, but he could hear the faint amusement growing in Saitou’s tone, and fancied he could picture the exact arrangement of the man’s mouth.

“Maybe I want to hear you say it.”

“Well, maybe I’m not going to give you the pleasure, asshole.” Sano’s tone, on the other hand, had become almost a snarl.

“Your ineptitude is no pleasure of mine.”

“Coulda fooled me…”

Nearly audible over the long silence that followed was a sort of countdown to the moment Sano gave in.

“Better defense or whatever wouldn’t have helped here anyway,” was his eventual surly mutter.

“Oh?” Saitou seemed only calmly pleased at having dragged it out of him, as if this were simply the natural progression of the conversation and nothing to be particularly enthusiastic about.

“This was just a brawl, not a real fight.”

“Ignoring that staggering lack of logic for the moment, you’re still missing the point.”

Sano looked up in vague curiosity to find Saitou staring down at him with a much more serious expression than he’d anticipated. Though quite aware he would probably regret it, he couldn’t resist: “What do you mean?”

“You didn’t enjoy this.” Saitou gestured to the pervasive destruction around them.

Climbing to his feet and avoiding the gaze of the far too perceptive officer, Sano finally responded, “No.”

“But I understand you started it. Care to explain?”

“Guy pissed me off.”

With a nod Saitou said, “That’s what I thought.”

“So?”

“So, when I say you need better defense, I don’t just mean in battle. You’re too reactive, too open to attack in every area. You allow yourself to be manipulated emotionally because you don’t guard yourself against it.”

Brushing fruitlessly at rumples in his clothing, Sano looked warily over at the other man. This wasn’t the usual lecture, and he didn’t quite see Saitou’s point, but wasn’t eager to say so.

“For example,” Saitou continued, taking two steps. “If I…” And unexpectedly — indeed, it was the last thing in all time and space Sano could have expected — he seized Sano’s jaw in a firm grip, yanked his face forward, bent down slightly, and kissed him hard.

It was as if lightning had struck.

The impossibly enjoyable physical sensation was nothing to the others that came rushing over and around Sano with incredible speed: the shock that kept him still and let Saitou wreak havoc on his mouth; the surprise at his own reactions and belated realizations; the thought of who and what Saitou was and how Sano really felt about that; the longing for Saitou to put his arms around him and not let go, to take him home, to keep him — it all swept up in an instant’s fraction, forming an impenetrably swift whirlwind of sudden comprehension and confusion and desire at whose center Sano was dazed and helpless.

But the most intense part of this rapid, unstoppable cavalcade, the most overwhelming and engrossing thought, was the relentlessly baffled and angry query, How did Saitou know? How did he know when I didn’t even know?

Sano stumbled back and nearly fell when Saitou let go. Everything still flurried through him at speeds that kept him from regaining anything like a sense of composure or balance, and he could do nothing more than stare, open-mouthed, at the other man.

The latter was smoothing out the collar of his jacket where Sano had unconsciously been clutching it. “Not only couldn’t you have stopped that if you’d wanted to,” he said, “but when you realize I only did it to make a point…” He left the statement eloquently unfinished as he stepped abruptly away.

There was a half moment of recognition, which Sano could perhaps have used to brace himself if he’d had the presence of mind, before it hit home. He was conscious of something twisting and perhaps snapping inside him, which was doubtless what caused the twisting change of expression on his face, and then…

As quickly as it had all come, it all vanished. And it left behind merely a sort of chilling vacuum that echoed vaguely of the previous hurricane. This didn’t exactly hurt, he thought abstractedly; it was more like the sensation a child might feel at the sudden removal of a promised treat they’d never anticipated and that had been in the first place a little incredible. He hadn’t even had time to get used to the idea, and now it was withdrawn. And in that remaining void — the eye of the storm? — he found his thoughts unusually clear and moving at a speed similar to that of his emotions just moments before.

Watching Sano’s writhing expression settle, Saitou evidently interpreted it to his satisfaction, for he smirked briefly, then turned and began walking away without so much as a goodbye. He was searching out a new cigarette, and lit it as his measured steps carried him toward the door.

Sano was surprised at the sound of his own voice as he said, “All right, I get it.” Yes, there was a hint of anger, a touch of hurt, but overall it was simply level and serious.

“Good,” Saitou replied without stopping.

“At least, I get the point you were trying to make just now. What I don’t get is why you bother.”

Pausing and turning again, Saitou regarded him, unreadable and wordless.

“You go to so much trouble trying to make sure I get things like that,” Sano continued when it was obvious Saitou didn’t intend to reply. “You track me down just to lecture me, you beat me up, you go out of your way to do all sorts of stupid shit to let me know what’s wrong with me and how you think I should be instead.” He felt somewhat detached — as if he knew this should, eventually would affect him emotionally, but for the moment was riding a current of pure logic to an unknown conclusion. “Why? What’s so important about this, Saitou? Why should it matter to you whether I stay the way I am or turn into whatever you want me to be?”

Finally Saitou spoke. “Who says it does matter?”

You do. Over and over and over again. Every time you show up somewhere and show me some ‘example’ of why the way I am doesn’t work. Obviously it bothers you. Why? Why do you care? Why is this important? I’m not getting in the way of someone you’re trying to send to Kyoto, or involved in some case of yours where you don’t want me to screw up, or even really connected with you in any way at all… so why do you want to change me so bad?”

Saitou said nothing, only looked at him with those inscrutable golden eyes, so Sano was left to ponder the answers to his own questions in silence. What seemed the obvious explanation and would have been his first guess had, with Saitou’s dismissal of a passionate kiss as solely ‘to make a point,’ been denied before the questions even arose… but that, Sano realized, was the exact and only explanation he wanted. He didn’t want some other bullshit excuse for why Saitou felt the need to prod him continually on his skill levels and way of life… though Saitou doubtless had one.

But he wouldn’t make more a fool of himself than he already had. However much he would like to believe Saitou’s concern was a sign of his personal interest in Sano, he couldn’t — not after the sight of the wolf’s cold, unmoved face after a kiss that had changed Sano’s world but had really been intended merely to prove how emotionally assailable he was. And yet what other explanation was there?

Saitou hadn’t said anything. Obviously he had no enlightenment to offer, so why was he still here? He’d made his goddamn point and more, so why didn’t he just go? Or did he plan on forcing Sano to give some admission of edification again? Irritation swelled in Sano at the thought, and he muttered rebelliously, “You’re so fucking sure you can do it, too…”

“You think so?”

“It makes sense, I guess. Arrogant bastard like you probably thinks he can change anything in the world. It explains your job and everything.”

“If I thought I could change anything I wanted to,” Saitou replied evenly, “would I be wasting my time on you?”

“I don’t know,” was Sano’s frustrated response. “You tell me.”

Saitou smirked.

The brief and inexplicable calm was over. Sano could feel the full force of his emotions returning, filling the void with throbbing, rushing pain, anger, and confusion that swiftly became a storm as rapidly churning as the last had been. “Listen to me, bastard,” he seethed, all his levelheadedness vanishing like the smoke of Saitou’s cigarette into the air. “I’ve worked really fucking hard not to be the kind of person I was turning into because of the shit I went through as a kid and growing up. I finally figured out what I do want to be, and there is no way in fucking hell you are going to change that; you are not going to change me, so you might as well just give up now.”

“So you think you have no room for improvement?” Eyes flashing, Saitou took a step away from the door, toward Sano again. Evidently the younger man’s words had provoked him, but he also looked distinctly surprised. Honestly, Sano was distinctly surprised he’d let slip something so personal.

“I didn’t say anything like that,” Sano snapped, a burning urge (born partially of chagrin) to be yelling right in Saitou’s face pushing him a step forward as well. “But why the hell do you think it’s your business to point that out in the first place?”

“You keep asking me that,” replied Saitou darkly. “Why don’t you figure it out?”

“You think I haven’t?” Sano growled. “You think I asked because I don’t already know?” And then, despite every screaming warning from his better judgment, he really did say it. “You want me, but since I’m not your type and you’re too much of a bastard just to get over it, you’re trying to change me into whatever the hell is your type so you can justify to yourself being interested!”

As he waited for the crushing riposte, the reminder that the kiss hadn’t meant anything he wanted it to, the assertion that being pathetic and desperate didn’t excuse jumping to conclusions, he noticed they were within a pace of each other now, their demeanors combative and tense. Perhaps he only observed this because he refused ot meet Saitou’s eyes. Moments dragged by more and more heavily, and he became increasingly disbelieving he’d actually said all of that. Or any of it.

Finally the blow fell.

“You’re right.”

Another few moments dragged by while Sano wrestled with an entirely different disbelief before he managed to look up into Saitou’s serious and still slightly annoyed face. And he found that the rushing was back, this time removing his latest turmoil and replacing it with another confusing set of thoughts and emotions. He was apprehensive, he was skeptical, he was perplexed, he was hopeful…

“What did you just say?” he managed at last.

“I said you’re right,” Saitou replied bluntly, speaking those unspeakable words again. “You’re on the right track, at least, which for you is close enough: I can’t justify being only statically interested in potential like yours.”

Sano stared at him, the new vortex in his head and chest whirling at even faster rates and, he thought, making his heart pound and his body heat up unnaturally. Because when Saitou put it like that, it almost seemed… flattering. Still… “If my ‘potential’ is the only thing you’re interested in, you can just fuck off.” It came out hoarsely, angrily, and yet somehow invitingly. Or at least Saitou seemed to think so, for, yet with the air of one grudgingly giving in to something he’s long known to be inevitable, he closed the distance between them for the second time during that encounter and pulled Sano into another harsh kiss. And this time arms clutched tightly and forms pressed together and didn’t separate even when their swollen lips did.

“And if you tell me that was just to prove a point,” Sano gasped, “I swear I will smash your fucking head.”

“Though I doubt you’re capable of it, no, it wasn’t.”

“The other one wasn’t either, was it?”

“Yes, it was.”

The furious tension between them, augmented by close proximity, had become pricklingly tangible. It wasn’t sexual (though Sano had a feeling it could be used in much the same way); rather, it more closely resembled anger, building up like electricity at their contact. Typical.

“But there were other ways you coulda made that point,” he persisted; “it didn’t have to be a kiss.”

“Maybe I wanted to see how it would change things.” It was so irritating when Saitou started statements about his own damn motivations with ‘maybe,’ as it always gave Sano a feeling of being toyed with. In this situation, however, the rest of the sentence was more gripping.

“You and your changing things,” he grumbled.

“It’s not going to stop, you realize.”

“Yeah, I think I get that now.” Sano didn’t bother expressing the growing impression, directly in contrast to what he’d thought all along, that Saitou’s desire to improve him was actually somewhat complimentary now he felt Saitou didn’t entirely disapprove of him. “But you realize changing me is way more than you can handle?”

“Or maybe you’re in over your head trying to prevent it,” Saitou snorted.

Or we’re just going to drive each other fucking crazy and when they find our bodies they’ll have to pry our cold dead hands off each other’s throats.”

“I’ve never considered that unlikely,” replied Saitou as he released him. Their separation was like that of two objects charged with static: although the field of violent energy surrounding Sano’s body did technically feel less fierce, there seemed to be a sort of crackling around them both, most chaotic where they were closest, invisible sparks of continued strain.

“How did you know, anyway?” It was embarrassing to admit, but he was painfully curious. “I had no idea until…”

With a raised brow Saitou replied, “You really don’t realize how easy you are to read, do you?” Sano flushed, but before he could retort Saitou went on. “It’s very tempting to tell you this was all just an extension of my original point, and see how you take it.”

Open-mouthed, Sano stared at him. The wolf was lighting yet another cigarette, replacing the one he’d dropped for the second kiss. “You wouldn’t,” Sano said in a low tone that would have been deadly if it were at all possible for Saitou to feel threatened by him.

“Not to you, no,” Saitou agreed.

“What does that mean? You’d do it to someone else?”

“Let’s go. I’m sure the bartender is more than anxious to get back in here and see how much of his property you’ve destroyed.” And Saitou headed again for the exit.

Sano hastened after him, annoyed. “No, seriously, what do you mean ‘not to me?’ You better not mean you go around doing this kind of bullshit all the time — setting people up like you’re interested in starting something and then tell them it was all a fucking act?! Saitou!!”

The expression that turned toward Sano’s passionate demand was sardonically amused. “Vulnerable,” was all Saitou said, in a tone both of irritation and reminder.

“Hey, fuck you,” Sano growled. “I really wanna know.”

“At least having you around more often should make beating you into shape a little easier,” Saitou smirked darkly as he gestured Sano to precede him through the open way.

“I already told you…”

Their voices faded as the door screeched shut.


This was done for 30_kisses theme #17 “kHz.” I’ve rated it . What do you think of it?

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Silent Sunrise

Saitou has a thing for sunrises, and watching them brings out his (for lack of a better term) nice side.

Sano reminisces on the circumstances that finally brought him and Saitou together.



Everyone knew about the first stage. Anything that starts with a stabbing and someone getting shoved through a wall is pretty memorable, and then the rest of it was so visible and loud: they’d fought — literally fought as well as arguing — for months. Sano won’t even pretend he wasn’t every bit as unreasonable as Saitou throughout, and he’s sure everyone was sick of their drama by the time it ended.

But then they were all surprised and concerned when the third stage started. And that’s reasonable: they didn’t see the second, so to all appearances things just suddenly went from arguing and fighting to arguing and fucking. It must have seemed pretty unprecedented.

Well, and even if they had seen the second stage, they still might not get it.

Sano was a little short on cash around that time — more than usual, that is — so he’d taken a job as a night guard at a warehouse. This happened to put him walking home right at sunrise. And it turned out Saitou really likes sunrises.

That particular day, he’d taken what he thought would be a shortcut through a relatively nice neighborhood to get to his own crappy one, and he came upon Saitou standing on a hill between houses looking out east. He’d never thought about where Saitou lived, but wasn’t surprised to find him in this area.

He was feeling fine; work wasn’t difficult or too boring (yet), and he’d gotten his first pay that day, so things (including his mood) were pretty good. Still, the encounter might have gone very differently if Saitou had given him the type of caustic greeting he usually did. But (as previously mentioned, but which at that point Sano didn’t know yet), Saitou has a thing for sunrises, and watching them brings out his (for lack of a better term) nice side. Which just meant he glanced at Sano without a word and went back to what he was examining.

Sano also stopped to look. He doesn’t have a thing for sunrises, in particular, nor did he particularly desire Saitou’s company, but the burning colors on the horizon and Saitou’s shape against them reminded him so much of Shishio’s fortress, the explosions, the officer’s disappearance… Sano had been so angry at the time, at Saitou for not trying to save himself and at himself for being unable to help; on finding out Saitou was still alive he’d almost been angrier, that time solely at the bastard for not telling everyone. He never really did get around to realizing he was glad Saitou hadn’t died. Until now. And he was suddenly curious…

“Hey, Saitou.”

Saitou looked at him again.

“How’d you escape Shishio’s fortress?”

With a raised brow Saitou wondered, “Is that what you’re here to ask me?”

“I’m not ‘here to ask you’ anything,” Sano protested. “I just happened to see you, and I wondered…” He added something at a mutter about the colors that undoubtedly didn’t further the explanation at all.

“Of course Shishio had an emergency escape route from his arena,” Saitou replied, looking slightly amused at this nonsense. “I had a map.”

Shaking his head Sano demanded, “That’s it? That was your great escape? You ‘had a map?'”

Saitou’s smile widened a little. “That’s it,” he confirmed sardonically. “Though if it’s any consolation to you, it was very unpleasant.”

Closing his eyes a moment, Sano gave a short laugh that was half a snort, and after that neither of them said anything: Saitou because he’d gone back to watching the sunrise and smoking one of those stupid cigarettes he loves so much, Sano because a strange feeling was rising in him like the dawn. He’d just had a real conversation with Saitou, and, short as it had been, it had opened his eyes: he wouldn’t mind having more real conversations with Saitou; when they weren’t trying to kill each other, even the silent moments afterwards were not unpleasant. This was a revelation he was completely unprepared for.

Eventually, startled and sobered, he walked away without another word. But he came that way again the next day. There was probably some denial in there at some point — Sano claiming he still thought this was a shortcut or whatever — but it didn’t last long: the instant he saw Saitou was there, he headed straight for him like he’d never had any other purpose in taking that street.

Saitou looked over again, and again offered no greeting. And Sano found he had nothing to say either. But somehow he couldn’t walk away. He wasn’t used to not talking around Saitou, though, and it felt weird. Beyond that, the sensation from yesterday had heightened; it seemed so strange and wonderful that he could be with him without getting angry or even really having a reason to be there… maybe that wasn’t such an amazing thing in itself, but this was Saitou. It was almost uncanny to be watching a sunrise with him in a silence that resisted being broken more stubbornly than Sano ever did anything… so he just stood there. And, eventually, just like yesterday, walked away without a goodbye.

Saitou gave a skeptical glance when Sano showed up the next day; but whether he also felt the silence as something bigger than both of them, or he simply didn’t care why Sano was there, he didn’t ask. And Sano still couldn’t say a word.

So that was how it went. It didn’t last too long, but it was like no other period in Sano’s life. That weird feeling changed or grew into some kind of longing he either didn’t understand or pretended not to… but he gradually came to accept that it was more than only reasonable conversation and benign silence he wanted from Saitou. Don’t think that means he was able to say a word, though; speak up and admit that?

To this day Sano doesn’t know what was going on Saitou’s head during those sunrises. Obviously Sano had intruded on a daily ritual, but somehow Saitou had accepted it… maybe he was farther down the road to the obvious than Sano was. If he wasn’t, Sano still can’t imagine what Saitou must have been thinking when he kept showing up and standing there alongside him not saying anything; Sano still hasn’t really had the nerve to ask. Maybe someday he will. Anyway, though, the result was the same: Saitou realized or decided he didn’t hate Sano as much as he might have thought. And he was the first one to break the silence.

“Come with me.” It was more of an order than an invitation, one day after they’d watched more sunrises together than Sano had ever seen in his entire life before that.

“Where?” Sano wondered.

“Breakfast,” Saitou replied.

It was a policy of Sano’s never to refuse free food, but the leap his heart gave at that point really had nothing to do with the prospect of eating. Those few words seemed momentous, life-altering (and they were) — probably because silence was something relatively unheard of in his life and therefore the breaking of it felt all the more significant to him.

Of course it took them only about five minutes to start arguing again, and the arguing hadn’t changed at all — but everything else had. And after that it was like Sano had been released from some kind of spell… the job got boring and he quit, and there was no more sunrise-watching. But the damage (if you will) was done; they’d started running into each other elsewhere and having more than just breakfast.

So maybe his friends wouldn’t understand even if they’d seen it. Honestly, Sano’s never really known if he understands; that second stage of his relationship with Saitou was like something out of a dream. But looking back, it’s pretty clear that the whole thing was as inevitable as the sun coming up every single day since the beginning of time, and if what it took to get started was a couple weeks of uncharacteristic silence… well, whatever.


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

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook:


Helpless


It was stupid and crazy and he knew it. After a day of chaos and a night of worry and little rest, he was barely cleaned and patched up, and decidedly exhausted. Beyond that, he had to evade a doctor, several concerned friends, and a house full of fucking onmitsu just to get to the door. And that was all before taking into account his terrible sense of direction. But despite everything, here he was sneaking from the half-ruined Aoiya, pockets stuffed with spare bandages, heading out of town.

There wasn’t much he could do to deny the reasons for this foolishness, but he didn’t really want to think about it, so he concentrated on walking, on the physical pain, on not thinking about too much of anything. One foot in front of the other, don’t stumble, try to keep to a relatively straight line.

But a burning image was seared across the insides of his eyelids every time he blinked, and an unusually ambiguous rage tore at his heart. He might have identified that anger if he’d wanted to; might have associated it with memories, with missed opportunities — none of them from too long ago, yet all bearing the mental stamp of circumstances deliberately distanced from associated recollection because they were too painful to consider.

He would have stayed if he’d been the only one, or even if Kenshin hadn’t needed him quite so desperately.

Walking. Physical pain. Not thinking about anything. Not getting lost.

Smoke rose from the site; it was visible from the edge of town, but soon hidden again by trees. His progress was slow, and he found himself pushing, frustrated, for greater speed, as if there were something up there that couldn’t wait. As if there were anything up there at all.

He couldn’t be sure, after not too long, that this was the right direction, but he kept moving. The sun was high and the path bright between the trees’ shadows: the perfect day for a nap, something Sano was certainly in a condition to appreciate… but instead here he was plodding up a mountain, probably killing himself, looking for…

…nothing.

Eventually he lost track of how long he’d been walking; awareness of a lot of things was fading, actually, and it was perhaps this general dimness that prompted the worried voice in the back of his head that vaguely suggested he stop. Or perhaps it was something else. For, slowing to a standstill as he rounded a bend, he raised his gaze from where it had preceded his footsteps along the ground and saw before him, among the mountain foliage and the imaginary gloom created by his own weakness, what he took at first to be a hallucination. For a while he merely stared. It was almost as if he’d been expecting it, for there was no surprise at the sight… no surprise, only a slow, magnificent fury.

How could he make an ambiguous exit like that and then get out just fine? Finally play the hero and then just walk away??

“Asshole,” Sano growled. Everything about Saitou was so maddening, from the indifferent expression to the slow way he stood straight from the tree he’d been leaning against as if Sano was barely worth his attention, that the young man could not restrain himself. He would show that arrogant bastard…

Saitou twisted so Sano’s arm passed over his shoulder, and unexpectedly met him chest to chest, his weight driving them both back a pace. Thus Sano’s fist barely brushed the bark of the tree, and his eyes went wide. If Saitou had answered his attack any other way, a very solid trunk would have met the very sensitive hand about which Sano himself had, in the ire of the moment, almost forgotten.

“I doubt that’s the way you want to fight me,” Saitou murmured.

Sano could find no answer. This guy knew everything; he’d been unconscious when Shishio had crushed Sano’s hand, yet had noticed at some point and now had the presence of mind to spare Sano further injury.

Also, he was still pressed against Sano for some reason, seeming almost limp.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Sano, nonplussed.

“Didn’t you know?” Saitou replied in what was barely an echo of his usual tone. “This is my new hobby.”

This was the first intimation that Saitou might not be fine, and at that thought Sano’s rage drained instantly away. Returning common sense seconded the supposition: Saitou had been wounded in the fortress; getting out of the fortress, through that inferno, couldn’t have improved his condition. In a movement almost panicky, arms rose to clutch at Saitou’s form. Now that Sano was paying attention, he could smell charred clothing and flesh, and he thought something wet was soaking through Saitou’s jacket onto his chest. For half a moment he had no idea what to do.

“Make yourself useful, ahou,” Saitou commanded faintly.

Annoyance restored Sano’s presence of mind. “I’m waiting to see if you’re gonna die before I waste my time on you,” he retorted, though his voice sounded nearly as weak as Saitou’s. Honestly, just supporting the other man’s weight as well as his own was almost more than he could handle. Trying to remember how far back along his path lay the nearest potential place of rest and medical care was futile; he could barely remember how far he’d come from the city, let alone what he’d passed along the way. “How far can you walk?” he asked doubtfully.

“If I could still walk, do you really think I’d be leaning on you?” Saitou’s sarcasm was distinctly blunted under these circumstances.

Sano snorted. “Fine,” he muttered, looking around for a decent place to… what? Make camp? Play doctor? Preferably not in the middle of the path.

Eventually he chose a somewhat clear spot among the trees to their left and helped Saitou to the ground. The officer really didn’t look good. Beyond merely wondering, Sano was baffled as to why he hadn’t noticed at first. His emotional response at finding Saitou still alive at all might have been some explanation — if he wanted to think about that.

Before he could do anything else, he had to take some rest himself. Both of his hands hurt desperately, the pain in his skull was steadily growing again, and his entire body ached. He felt he could sleep for a year — and probably would, forgetting Saitou and everything else in the world, if he lay down. But, though there were times when it seemed forgetting Saitou would make his life a good deal easier, that didn’t strike him as the best plan at the moment. So he leaned against a tree and drew an arm across his face, closing his eyes in search of comfortable darkness.

His breathing, which he hadn’t realized was so uneven, became gradually more regular, and the sounds of the wooded mountain were soothing — until he felt himself tilting, succumbing to gravity, falling asleep on his feet. Straightening, dropping his protective arm, he opened his eyes to the somewhat jarring day. Surprisingly, he did actually feel rested — readier, at least, for the task at hand. His steps weren’t as steady as he could have wished, however, as he made his way back to Saitou.

The officer’s eyes had closed, but Sano thought he was still conscious. And at least he didn’t seem to have any respiratory problems. “Any idea what’s worst here?” Sano asked almost conversationally as he knelt at Saitou’s side and began unbuttoning the man’s jacket. It was almost a pointless exercise — the front of the thing was a mess, the dexterity of Sano’s fingers far from its usual level — but he didn’t want to start destroying clothes before he had to.

Saitou took a breath as if to answer, but then let it out without a word; Sano guessed he’d had some unhelpful sarcastic impulse that he’d thought better of, and had nothing to say in its place. He did open his eyes, though, and these seemed alert enough for the moment.

“Holy fuck,” was Sano’s next remark. He was taking in the extent of the wounds on Saitou’s chest as he started to peel the jacket away from them. “How’d you even make it this far?”

“Good question,” Saitou replied, and it was nearly a whisper; Sano thought he was perhaps trying to cover up his hiss of pain as torn, bloody cloth that was already hardening onto similar bloody tears in his flesh tugged at the latter.

“Water…” Sano muttered. He wasn’t going to get much farther without it.

“Listen,” admonished the officer, and just in that single, weary word the implication was strong: “You should have thought of that earlier.”

It was true, and there was no purpose getting annoyed about it now. Sano closed his eyes, alert this time and concentrating. His head was pounding, and it interfered somewhat with the pursuit of distant sound, but he forced himself to perceive past it, and restrained his breathing until he felt he must faint; never in his life had he listened so hard. And Saitou was right, of course: he did hear water, some way ahead and to the left — whatever direction that actually was.

It took him longer to physically locate his goal than it had to perceive it, and by the time he reached the little stream he was frustrated and tired. But the thoughts of rest he entertained as he sank again to his knees were dispelled when he glanced down and saw Saitou’s blood patterned across his borrowed gi. Having no container of any kind, after some thought he pulled off the garment and held it in the water until it was entirely soaked. Then, wadding it up and trying to keep it as much as possible from dripping, he rose and returned (after a few false starts in wrong directions) to where he’d left the other man.

Although Saitou’s eyes were again closed, he was still obviously awake, and Sano grudgingly had to admire that; lying flat, Sano would long ago have been out cold. The officer even went so far as to grunt and speak an entire sentence when Sano wrung out one corner of the waterlogged gi over his chest: “Do you have… any idea… what you’re doing?”

“Yes,” Sano replied indignantly. “Any decent street-fighter knows how to treat wounds… basically.”

“‘Decent…'” Saitou muttered, eyes still closed.

“Hey, fuck you,” Sano shot back, responding to the disdain he assumed Saitou intended; “I could just leave you here.” But somehow, facetiously as he’d meant it, this was a disturbing idea, so he added more seriously, “But don’t worry. After I get you cleaned up and you have some rest, we’ll get you down to a real doctor. In the meantime, I’ve got all sorts of bandages.”

Now one of Saitou’s eyes cracked open, but it seemed all he could manage was a very faint expression of skepticism and consternation. “I’m not sharing your dirty bandages, ahou.”

“No,” protested Sano, piqued again, “I grabbed a bunch from the Aoiya before I left, just in case–” He broke off, his face heating for some reason.

Saitou, even in his present state, didn’t miss it. “‘In case–?'”

Choosing to ignore this, a luxury he didn’t often have with Saitou, Sano bent his full attention to the duty before him. His stupid blush was undoubtedly answer enough anyway.

It was a laborious process conducted mostly in silence. Sano was forced, after all, to use the nihontou from the officer’s belt to cut free the front sections of shirt and jacket, and getting these out of the clotting wounds was an ordeal for both of them. Sano’s hands didn’t fancy the exertion, and obviously it was a good deal less pleasant for Saitou. But eventually it was done, and the newly-cleaned cuts were beginning to ooze fresh blood, which, after the mélange of blackening cloth, looked positively healthy.

Sano hastened to empty his pockets of the various rolls of bandages he’d managed to pick up on his way out on this absurd quest. Presently he found that he’d either overestimated the amount he’d brought or underestimated how much length was required to treat any significant hurt, for by the time he got Saitou’s chest sufficiently wrapped, very little remained. He could only hope, as he turned his attention to Saitou’s lower half, that the officer had no other severe injuries. The hastily tended wounds on his thighs were obvious and should probably be re-wrapped, but other than that he couldn’t tell.

“Don’t,” Saitou murmured as Sano’s hand touched his belt. Glancing back at the wolf’s slitted eyes, Sano got the impression Saitou’s struggle against unconsciousness was nearly lost.

To see Saitou like that, vulnerable and hurting, gave Sano the oddest feeling and the oddest impulses. His bandaged fingers had reached out and grazed the harsh face before he even realized what he was doing. “Just checking for other shit you might die from,” he replied softly, trying to fight off another blush at his own foolishness. “Didn’t figure you for the modest type.”