The Test (1/3)

Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

In response to Heero’s tendency to date the biggest jerks on the planet, his friends have developed a screening process for all potential boyfriends. This latest guy seems like he might be up to scratch, but only if he can survive The Test.



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

1
2
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 October 28, 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 . The part where Sano reacts to Saitou reacting to Sano blocking his attempted kiss is my absolute favorite. The rest of the fic is pretty good, but that part is genius, if I do say so myself. Too bad I can’t say the same about the illustration XD

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


His Own Humanity: Guest Room Soap Opera


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

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

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

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

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

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

Disappearance? Hajime made a sudden gesture of understanding.

“So I thought you might appreciate a place to stay for a while. I can offer you somewhere to relax and be sure nobody will bother you until a more convenient time… after all this business with your missing client has been sorted out, for example. It’s an extremely comfortable suite with everything you could need, and there’s more than room for two, if you wanted to bring your partner.”

Now Hajime smiled grimly. Apparently ‘this kind of queer bullshit’ wasn’t so much a problem in this context. He’d known at the time that the homophobic sentiment had been a subconscious one brought out by Gains’s shade-induced anger, something he wouldn’t have verbalized under normal circumstances, but it was still darkly amusing to hear him now offering Hajime a sort of luxury vacation or retreat with his presumed gay lover.

“So call me back and let me know whether or not this would help you out. The offer stands as long as you need it.” Gains left his personal cell number, something Hajime assumed not a lot of people were allowed — his initial call had come in from ‘Restricted’ — and said a friendly goodbye.

Pensively Hajime saved the message, hung up, and pocketed his phone. He had a lot to think about all of a sudden.

So Gains was keeping an eye on him, was he? Looking out for him, apparently, and minutely enough that he knew about things like related police agendas before Hajime himself did. What a lovely thought. Who didn’t want a mob secretary peering silently over his shoulder?

That was all Hajime had time for before his phone vibrated again. If this was Gains with a second try, he was just going to have to leave another message, because Hajime definitely hadn’t decided on a response yet. It was with some reluctance that he withdrew his phone once more and looked at it, but then he answered quickly when he saw the caller’s name.

“Someone is leaking police information to U.S.Seido,” was how he greeted his friend.

“What?” demanded the startled Chou. “How do you know?”

“Because I just got a call from Seido about the police wanting to question me.”

“Shit. Even I just heard about that.”

“I assume this is about Quatre Winner?”

“That’s right.” Chou sounded distracted now; he was probably running through various co-workers in his head, trying to decide who he thought was passing information to the local yakuza. “Yeah, Winner senior reported Winner junior missing, and you talked to the son the last day he was around, I guess? The guys on this just want to ask you some questions — you’re not a suspect or anything — but I figured you’d still want a heads-up before they showed up at your door.”

Hajime thanked him with genuine gratitude. And when Chou said nothing in response, Hajime added a little impatiently, “You do remember I can read minds? If you want to know who’s spying on the police, we can come up with a way to find out.”

“Yeah…” said Chou slowly. “I’m not sure I do want to know. You know we don’t touch Seido unless we absolutely have to.”

“You’d probably be better off knowing anyway.”

“Yeah…” Chou said again. “Yeah. I’ll let you know if I want to set something up.”

“And let me know if you hear anything else about me.”

“Right. Or if that Winner guy turns up.”

“I’ll probably hear about that before you will.”

“What, from Seido?”

“God forbid.”

Chou laughed darkly. “Well, try not to get yourself killed by the mob, OK? I’m already working on a shit-ton of paperwork.”

“I’ll make it as complicated as possible just to keep you late.”

“Yeah, you have a nice day too.”

“I’ll talk to you later.”

Hajime re-pocketed his phone and cast a calculating glance around. He barely noticed, though, such details of the room as Tokio asleep on the couch or the DVD’s of the series he and Sano were currently watching strewn across the coffee table. He had a decision to make, and it needed to be made quickly.

Of course there was the option of just letting the police talk to him. He wasn’t a criminal, after all, and had no reason to fear the law. But the possibility that the specific officers that came to talk to him would happen to be aware of magic and would understand what was going on did not strike him as great — and otherwise, explaining that, carrying a sword, he’d talked to Winner junior the last day he was around because he’d been hoping to exorcize angry supernatural energy from him might provide a reason to fear the law.

If his last few months’ independent study of communication magic had progressed in that direction, brainwashing the police into believing that the completely unsuspicious Hajime Saitou had nothing useful to tell them would have been quick and convenient… but that had never been a technique that interested him much, so he hadn’t looked into it.

Conceivably he could make something up the normal way, invent some other, less magical reason to have visited that Winner Plastics office last week — but if he was going to mislead them, why bother having the conversation at all? They had a job to do, and the missing young man needed to be found in any case (not least so he could be exorcized); rather than complicate things (and probably get himself in trouble later for obstructive behavior), it seemed better to avoid the questions entirely, to fade out of sight until the matter had been resolved.

But did that mean taking Gains up on his offer? In some ways it was tempting — it would certainly be a very neat solution to the problem, and Hajime had to admit to some curiosity about the kind of accommodations Seido would provide — but in others it made his skin crawl. He couldn’t imagine accepting what was essentially a friendly favor from a mob secretary. And yet how would it look to Gains if he refused? U.S.Seido was an organization that needed to be dealt with carefully, and he certainly didn’t want to stir resentment by appearing antagonistic toward them.

What inoffensive excuse, though, could he offer Gains for not accepting? Where else could he go? Of his three friends, one lived across the country, one was the cop he’d just talked to, and one was likely to be visited at home by police looking for Hajime should Hajime not be immediately locatable; he couldn’t stay with any of them. And a hotel would probably not satisfy Gains — why pay for an impersonal room when Gains was offering one much more convenient and luxurious for free? And if Seido people continued watching him, engaging a hotel room and then claiming he was doing something else seemed unwise.

This was irritating. Just when Hajime had been anticipating a happily busy week, something like this had to come up. Now, no matter where he stayed, he would probably have to put off the appointments he’d made, leave people hanging that really did need his help, and probably lose business because of it. Quatre Winner had chosen an inconvenient time to disappear.

It undoubtedly hadn’t been his fault, though: his was a particularly severe case, and the young man couldn’t really be blamed for rash actions under the influence of that anger. Furthermore, the artifact possession added an interest to the situation that made it impossible for Hajime to be annoyed with Quatre personally, despite any inconvenience he might have caused.

And these thoughts had given Hajime an idea. He scrolled through his contacts to the B’s. Then he couldn’t help gazing, motionless, at the name for a moment with an echo of the wonder he’d felt at their first meeting; it seemed impossible that he should really have this person’s number. He remembered hearing him described in college as ‘an immortal magical superhero who can do pretty much anything’ — and now he was about to casually call him. Suggesting to such a person such an imposition as he now had in mind displeased him, but alternatives were scarce.

“Hello?” came the tired voice from the other end.

“It’s Hajime. I understand that boyfriend of yours is missing.”



Sano stared down at the message again in puzzlement and perhaps a bit of annoyance. Can you feed the cats? it said without a word of explanation. And though he’d written back, Sure, why? a good thirty minutes ago, word of explanation was still lacking. At least Hajime had said ‘can you,’ and ended the text with a question mark, rather than making it an order.

Tokio and Misao wouldn’t be expecting their dinner for another hour or so, which gave Sano some time to make plans before he headed over there. Not that his plans took terribly long: he wanted to know what was going on, why Hajime had texted him such an unexpected request and then started ignoring him, and that meant camping until the exorcist came home and explained himself. Sano would only be working on homework (and then probably video games) for the rest of the evening; he might as well do that at Hajime’s house. He was pretty sure he’d left his physics textbook over there the last time he’d used it anyway.

So he packed up what books he did have as well as his 360. This, of course, meant taking his own car, since he wasn’t going to haul around an X-Box on the bus, but he tried not to grumble too much when the circumstance couldn’t be avoided. At least tomorrow’s bus ride to school from Hajime’s house wasn’t a bad route, and quicker than from his apartment.

Misao jumped up his leg and climbed to his shoulder the moment he was inside the door. She always seemed aware, somehow, when someone was approaching the house, and Sano wondered a little whether she had some kind of divinatory ability Hajime knew nothing about. Though with Hajime, it was more likely that he knew perfectly well and just hadn’t mentioned it. He had, after all, gone almost half a year without deigning to tell Sano that he believed him capable of subconsciously using every different branch of magic. Sano still wasn’t quite over that yet.

“Hi, Misao,” he greeted the little cat as she sniffed at his face. “You hungry?”

She replied that she was, and that he should definitely give her a lot of the wet food she liked so much.

Sano laughed, and didn’t bother responding except by heading into the kitchen. Walking with Misao on his shoulder was always something of a challenge — especially because, even in the few months he’d known her, she’d increased in size, and eventually probably wasn’t going to be able to ride up there anymore. At the moment, she splayed out and dug claws into Sano’s flesh. He’d gotten used to this by now, and resigned himself to its effects on his shirts.

As he entered the kitchen, Tokio gave him an indifferent-sounding greeting from where she stood beside her food bowl. Sano bent to retrieve her water dish, at which point Misao jumped down. As he then moved to grab the other one and rinse them both out, he asked, “Do you guys know where Hajime is?” He might have said something like, “Where’s the uncommunicative bastard who normally feeds you?” but had learned that the cats didn’t do very well with sarcasm. In any case, they didn’t know where Hajime was, so it mattered very little how Sano referred to him.

He went through the somewhat complicated process of doling out a specific amount of dry food alongside a specific amount of wet food for each of the animals, then stood back against a counter while they ate. His eyes were turned toward Tokio’s almost manically quick gulping motions, but he wasn’t really watching; he was puzzling, somewhat annoyed, about Hajime.

It wasn’t as if Sano wasn’t a regular fixture of this house these days, well known to the cats and well versed in their care. It wasn’t as if he minded. He would do much more than just feed the familiars for his friend and sometimes professional partner, provided Hajime asked at least relatively nicely… but where was Hajime? Normally a request for Sano to feed the cats came when Sano already knew what Hajime was about. Though admittedly, now that he thought back on previous instances, this had always been because Sano had known beforehand where Hajime would be rather than because Hajime had actually told him at the time of the request.

Assuming that standing around being frustrated and curious would get him nowhere, he wandered into the den and set up his X-Box. To assuage his annoyance, he would play some Madden for a bit before starting his homework. Hajime, though he sometimes watched a game with a compelling atmosphere, could work up no interest in Madden, so it was better to play it when he wasn’t around in any case.

Then a couple of hours passed without Sano realizing, and the next thing he knew, it was 9:30 and he hadn’t actually started his homework and Hajime had never appeared. Swearing for multiple reasons, Sano pulled out his lovely phone and texted, Seriously where the hell are you? making sure to spell all the words out properly so Hajime would not completely disregard the message. Of course he might — today’s precedent suggested he would — completely disregard the message anyway.

Then, reluctant but aware he needed to hurry, Sano turned his attention toward his books.

The next morning, at what felt like a hugely early hour on a day when he didn’t have to work at oh-dark-hundred, he was partially roused by Misao attacking his feet. It took several instances of him shifting so she fell off the couch, her jumping back up, and him grumbling at her to stop before he reached a greater state of consciousness and realized that it must be breakfast time for the cats. Which meant Hajime must never have come home, since he would have fed them by now.

He dragged himself up and into the kitchen, where Tokio was waiting looking reproachful. Waking sluggishly as he moved, Sano set out food and water and gave slow thought to his day. He needed to check his phone for any response to yesterday’s texts, then get ready for school. Maybe Hajime would answer him or come home while Sano was nicely distracted in class. Assuming class was able to distract him at all.

As he was heading back to the den, however, to look at his phone, the doorbell rang, so he turned again in the opposite direction.

To his surprise, it was two police officers. And if the unexpected advent of badges and uniforms at such an early hour hadn’t startled him, “We’re looking for Hajime Saitou” certainly would have.

“What?!” After this outburst and the jump that accompanied it, Sano shook himself. These guys didn’t appear stern or combative — in fact they seemed fairly friendly — but, well, cops were cops. And the fact that they’d shown up here right after Hajime’s already aggravatingly mysterious disappearance was worrisome. He apologized for his reaction, then added, “Hajime better not have stabbed someone.” Though not a joke the officers would fully understand, this might at least make him appear a little less wary.

“I don’t think so,” one of them smiled. “We just needed to ask him some questions; he’s not in trouble.”

This was probably all the information they would relinquish about what they were here for, so Sano would have to deal with the situation based on only that. If Hajime wanted him to relay some specific story or something, he should have left better instructions than, Can you feed the cats?

Sano stepped aside and said, “He’s not actually here right now, but you guys can come in if you want.”

At that moment Misao, from beside Sano’s leg, yowled up at the officers, greeting and demanding attention.

One of them smiled and stepped inside, crouching to the cat’s level to pet her as Sano moved back to allow him to do so. “Well, hey, there,” the cop said. “What a pretty baby!”

Misao remarked that, while she often wondered what non-communicative humans were saying to her, she was well aware that it probably wasn’t anything she would really care about. Sano thought he might tell her sometime and see what she thought about being a ‘pretty baby.’

“So Mr. Saitou isn’t home,” the second cop, less interested in meeting the cat, remarked. “Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“No idea.” Sano looked around for the inevitable appearance of Tokio, and followed her movement toward them as soon as he saw where she was. “He hasn’t answered any of my texts.” This was true, but, without mentioning the original Can you feed the cats?, didn’t give any indication that he was aware Hajime was up to something odd. He shrugged. “He never tells me where he’s going, but he usually doesn’t stay out all that long.”

Now the cat-friendly officer had transferred his attention to Tokio, and said from his crouched position, “So you think he might be back here later?”

“I really don’t know,” Sano answered. “I’m heading off to class pretty soon here, so I won’t be around, but you guys could come back and check.”

The officer nodded as he rose, and at the same moment Sano darted to catch Misao around the ribcage before she could bolt out the front door — something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do but apparently couldn’t resist trying. “Nope,” he told her. She protested, squirming, in his arms.

“Are you his roommate?”

“Nah, just a friend.” Sano tried not to sound bitter; no reason to indicate to the police that he wished he were, in fact, a very specific type of roommate, more than just a friend. “Sano Sagara.”

The first cop nodded, while the cat-friendly officer smiled and said, “Well, we’ll get out of your way. Thanks for your time.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Sano was wrestling with Misao, trying to encourage her up onto his shoulder rather than any other direction, and didn’t look at the face of either policeman.

“Have a good day,” the first said as the two men turned and walked down the front steps.

Sano closed the door behind them, ceasing his struggle with Misao, who batted vengefully at his ear and then started to slide down his arm so she could jump to the floor from a slightly lower altitude. Sano turned to face the house with a frown, looking slowly back and forth between the two cats and feeling the frown grow into a scowl.

“What the hell do the police want with Hajime?” he wondered aloud.

Neither cat entirely understood him, but they picked up on the fact that he was simultaneously angry and concerned, and that both emotions were, to some extent, aimed at Hajime. Misao, losing track of her annoyance about being prevented from leaving the house, wondered whether Hajime was all right; while Tokio, in her superior way, asserted that Hajime was a very effective and powerful being that probably didn’t need anyone to worry about him.

He could hear the alarm he’d set on his phone going off in the next room; he didn’t really have time to pursue this issue right now if he wanted to get to class on time. He made a frustrated noise, which startled Misao, and headed for the den.

Well, if he put off showering until tomorrow, he would have a few spare minutes right now. He decided right away to take this route, and thumbed through the contacts in his phone looking for a specific one.

Though he’d spent some time with Chou and did have his phone number, Sano couldn’t remember ever having called him before. So far they’d gotten along in that way people did where it wasn’t obvious whether or not they actually liked each other, and in fact it could easily be inferred that they didn’t; Sano wasn’t sure what the case actually was, nor how Chou would react to a call from him, but he wasn’t about to refrain when Chou might have some answers.

“Well, this is new,” was how the cop greeted him. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard from you before.”

“Yeah…” Sano wouldn’t have minded some banter with Chou — the guy was kinda fun to mess around —
but it was more important to seek information. “Have you heard from Hajime? Do you know where he is? And why are your buddies coming around bugging about him?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Chou sounded amused.

Sano made a frustrated sound.

Chou laughed openly. “You guys are a trip.”

“So do you know where he is?” wondered Sano impatiently.

“Nope.”

“But obviously you knew he was going somewhere,” Sano insisted, very impatient. “And what do the cops want from him?”

“I don’t know if I should tell you that kind of thing.” Chou’s languid tone was clearly calculated to annoy. “I’m not really supposed to, you know?”

Sano tried very hard to keep from rising to the bait, because the more calmly he could deal with Chou, the sooner he could find out what he wanted to know. “Probably not,” he agreed, sounding annoyed despite his efforts. “But it wouldn’t kill you.”

“Might lose me my job, though.”

Sano took a deep breath. “Come on, you know it won’t. I don’t know where he is, and some cops showed up at his door looking for him and didn’t tell me why.”

“Well, he runs around doing weird shit,” Chou replied lazily, “so that’s no surprise.”

“Seriously,” Sano growled. “If you know where he is, tell me.”

“I already told you I don’t know.”

“What do you cops want with him?”

“Can’t tell you that.”

“Did he tell you anything?”

“Obviously he didn’t tell you anything.”

With a loud sound of irritation Sano said, “Fuck you!” and hung up. He probably shouldn’t have done that, but he felt like Chou had been deliberately giving him crap and wouldn’t have provided any answers even if he happened to have them. So he went to get ready for school.

On every break during and between the two classes he had that day, he texted Hajime continually. Finally, as he prepared for work, he called. Hajime had never once broken his promise to answer whenever Sano called, and in return, in a sort of unspoken covenant, Sano had refrained from abusing that promise: instead of bothering Hajime whenever he felt like hearing the guy’s voice, he only called when he had a legitimate reason to.

And it was not because he felt his current worry about Hajime’s whereabouts and safety wasn’t a legitimate reason that he had not yet called in this scenario, but because he dreaded initiating the first phone call that would not be answered, dreaded pushing Hajime to break that promise. It felt as if they were progressing toward some sort of crisis… perhaps one that had been long in coming. And now, as his call went directly to voicemail for the first time he could remember, there was a palpable painful clenching of his heart. Agitated, he shoved his phone back into his pocket and headed for the Panda.

He couldn’t bear to try again that day — try calling, anyway; he kept texting at every available opportunity. When he returned to Hajime’s house that night, he tried not to rush inside in the hopes that Hajime might be there, but was still disappointed when he wasn’t. So he just apologized to the cats for the lateness of their dinner and went to bed on the couch in the den again.

Tuesday was much the same, except that he gave up texting about halfway through the day. But by the time he was done with school and work, he was so desperate for answers that he cast about for anything else he might do to get some. He scrolled, aimless and agitated, through his phone contacts again, trying to think who might know anything about what was going on, and stopped at the name of a new friend. It was a long shot, he supposed, but by now he would try anything.

Duo had informed Sano that the number he’d given him was actually his boyfriend’s, since he didn’t currently have a phone of his own, so it was no surprise that it took several rings to get an answer — the taciturn Heero had probably seen the caller name and handed the phone over. And when Duo’s cheerful voice finally answered, Sano got right to the point:

“Hey, this is going to sound weird, but have you heard from Hajime? I haven’t seen him in a couple of days, and weird shit’s happening.”

“He didn’t tell you where he was going?” Duo wondered, sounding immensely curious.

“So you know where he is.” Sano’s irritation at the déjà vu the conversation thus far impelled didn’t allow Duo a chance to reply, as he then burst out with, “No, why should he tell me where he’s going? I’m just the friend who can feed the cats when he’s got something else to do, and talk to the police for him, and go fucking insane worrying about him! Why should he tell me anything?”

“As far as I know, he’s perfectly fine.” Duo’s tone of reassurance sounded no less curious and interested than before. “He’s staying at Trowa’s new house.”

“What?” Sano was so surprised that he’d already followed this up with, “Why?” before the very obvious answer — to keep away from the police — occurred to him. That they’d even met one of the biggest celebrities in the magical world was already hard to believe; that Hajime was staying at his house was next to impossible.

“The security guard at the office last week got his name when he came in,” Duo was answering, “and then when it turned out Quatre had disappeared, she remembered Hajime was there the last day anyone saw him, so then when Mr. Winner called the police, Hajime’s name came up.”

“Oh.” So Quatre failing to show on Friday had been upgraded to a disappearance, had it? And the police wanted to question Hajime about it, and Hajime didn’t want to have to explain that he’d been visiting Winner Plastics to perform an exorcism — yes, officer, I’m perfectly serious; no, sir, they’re just normal cigarettes. It all made sense, even if the involvement of Trowa Barton — the real Trowa Barton — still seemed improbable. But, “Why the hell couldn’t he have told me that?” Sano demanded of no one.

“He wanted you to be able to convince the police that you really didn’t know where he was?” Duo suggested.

“You know,” Sano replied sourly, “I might think that might have been his reason if it wasn’t so totally normal for him not to tell me things. You don’t happen to have Trowa’s address, do you?”

“Going to go give Hajime a piece of your mind?”

“Yeah.”

“Man, I wish I could see that,” lamented Duo. “Hang on.”

Once he had the address and an admonition to ‘break a leg’ that Duo might or might not have known he would be at least a little tempted to take literally, Sano set out with grim purpose. Now he was glad he’d driven to Hajime’s house, since it meant he could (assuming his car would start) head straight to his next destination without working out an unfamiliar bus route and nursing his impatient irritation for however long that would take.

His curiosity about Trowa Barton was mostly referred, but that didn’t mean what he did feel was weak or transient. He was very interested in seeing this new house, since that would indicate Trowa’s financial situation. What kind of money did a super-powerful immortal magician make? What kind of home would he live in? This was secondary to Sano’s feelings in relation to Hajime, however. He was incredibly annoyed with the guy for letting him worry and not telling him anything about what was going on; and in addition to the annoyance, some of the worry still hung around as well for good measure.

The house turned out to be a nice, decent-sized one in a nice neighborhood, with the forlorn look of a newly purchased home. Sano hoped Duo had given him the right address, because he didn’t hesitate to park in the empty driveway and march right up to the door. And perhaps it was rude, but he first rang the doorbell and then knocked — just in case. After not too long a wait and the sound of footsteps descending a staircase inside, the door opened to disclose Trowa Barton, and suddenly Sano was a little embarrassed.

“Hello,” said Trowa. He didn’t look terribly surprised to see someone he’d barely met on his doorstep — he mostly looked tired and unhappy — but Sano had already noticed that his wasn’t the easiest face to read. In any case, Sano had already knocked, trespassing on the property of the Trowa Barton with a minimal acquaintance with the man and a demand that really had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t going to get any less awkward and embarrassing no matter what he said. He cleared his throat, preparing to explain himself.

“You’re here to see Hajime, I assume,” said Trowa in the interim.

“Yeah,” Sano replied, the word emerging hoarse and abashed.

“Come in,” Trowa said unenthusiastically. This only made Sano feel more awkward, but what other option did he have? He must reassure himself that Hajime really was all right before anything else — and if that meant inconveniencing the Trowa Barton, that was what he would do.

Silently Trowa led him up the stairs to the balcony overlooking the entry, onto which three second-floor rooms opened. Two of them were open, and beside one Trowa stopped. Before he pointed down past the second (a bathroom) to the last, closed door, Sano had a chance to see into this first room to note the full bookshelves and paper-littered table within. He wondered what Trowa was working on — the mystery of his missing possessed boyfriend, perhaps — but he didn’t have time or inclination to pursue that curiosity very far at the moment. He said his embarrassed thanks and moved toward the final door.

Here he didn’t bother knocking; he was too worried and annoyed. And though one of these states decreased as he entered and observed Hajime, obviously just fine, seated with a book on an air mattress — the only furnishing in the bare room — the other increased exponentially. Hajime’s phone lay atop a small suitcase, plugged into a charger at the wall beside him, clearly powered off. Moreover, the expression the exorcist turned toward Sano, though slightly curious, was otherwise perfectly calm.

“You complete dick,” was how Sano greeted him, letting the door fall from his hand as he stepped forward.

“Hello to you too,” Hajime replied with a faint smirk, setting down his book.

“Yeah, fucking hello! Good to see you’re not arrested or committed or dead in a ditch somewhere!”

As he got to his feet and stepped off the air mattress, Hajime asked, “Did you really think any of those options were likely?”

Sano threw up his hands in irritation at Hajime’s obtuseness or whatever it was. “I didn’t know what was likely! How could I possibly have known?”

“This situation isn’t nearly as dramatic as you seem to think it is. There was no reason for you to be so worried.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? A client disappears — our client — and you don’t tell me, and the police think you’ve got something to do with it, and you don’t tell me, and then you fucking disappear, and all I get is Can you feed the fucking cats? until the fucking police show up looking for you, and I have no idea where you are or what to say, and two fucking days pass, and you might be in some serious fucking trouble, and you expect me to be not even a little bit worried about this?”

“You’re dragging it out far past its logical end point. Once you found out where I was, you could have stopped worrying.”

“Yeah, maybe, if I wasn’t in love with you.” As these words burst out, unexpected probably to each man in the room, Sano’s heart gave a heavy throb and started to race even as the temperature of his entire body abruptly rose. He plunged on. “Don’t you get that? I love you, so I was fucking worried even after I knew where you were, OK? I love you. You probably don’t want to hear that, but I’ve damn well said it now.”

Hajime nodded slowly, his expression having turned somewhat dark. “And I suppose you expect it to change something.”

“You know…” Sano clenched a frustrated fist. “I didn’t mean to say that. I didn’t come here to talk about this. I came here to make sure you were OK. But now I see you’re goddamn fine, let’s talk about this.”

“All right.”

“So, yes, I expect it to change something when I tell you I love you! I’ve been waiting months to say it, trying not to, wondering what I should do and what’s wrong with you or what’s wrong with me that nothing’s happening, and now it slips out because I’m just that pissed, and, yes, I fucking expect it to fucking change something!”

“Sano. You’re at my house three or four days out of the week, and when your car won’t start you spend the night. And I don’t think most of your textbooks have seen the inside of your apartment for months.” Hajime’s tone held no remonstrance, only perfect seriousness. “I’m not sure what you want to change.”

Taken aback by what seemed a rather strange argument, Sano had no idea what to say next. Was Hajime really unsure what Sano wanted, or just playing stupid to try to avoid the point? Well, that had been the question all along, hadn’t it — had Hajime always been aware, and just opted to be an asshole about it, or was he actually genuinely ignorant? This certainly wasn’t the first time Sano had wished he could read Hajime’s thoughts, but it might be the most intense instance of that desire.

“You’re right,” Hajime said with a faint sigh. He looked simultaneously a little annoyed and somewhat defeated. “I shouldn’t avoid the point.”

“No, you shouldn’t!” Sano seized on the concession as if it were a life preserver and he drowning. “And if you know you’re doing it, you’ve probably known all along, you bastard, haven’t you?”

“That you want a romantic relationship?”

“God, it sounds so… formal… when you say it like that…” Sano shook his head, looking away from Hajime just for a moment as he dealt with the feeling of awkwardness that wording had instilled in him. Hajime and his professionalism…

“How would you prefer to put it?”

“I don’t know… it’s not like that’s not perfectly accurate… but I don’t feel like it covers everything.” Sano’s gaze rose again to Hajime’s steadily somber expression, and he took a step closer. “I want you to want me around!” He sounded almost desperate as he began his list. “I want to feel like, even when we’re annoying the hell out of each other, we’re still happier there than anywhere else. I want to hear you say you like me. I want–”

“I do like you,” interjected Hajime calmly. “Though I’ve never been entirely sure why.”

“I know! I mean, I can tell. You’re a jerk, but somehow I always feel like you do like me. It seems like you do like having me around, and you practically treat me like family… I’m pretty sure I’m closer to you than your actual family is, anyway… It already feels like we are closer than friends, but… but not quite…” Again he shook his head, and took another step toward Hajime. Though he would rather fling himself across the remaining space, he didn’t dare take more than one slow step at a time, as if he feared Hajime would run from him if startled.

“And I want something physical too,” he went on, “and it seems like you wouldn’t even mind that, except nothing ever actually happens. It was, what, like, a week and a half ago when I fell asleep pretty much right on top of you, and you didn’t move me for the whole second half of the movie, and when you did get up… I mean, you kinda suck at being gentle, but you were with me…”

Hajime, frowning faintly, said nothing. He’d agreed to talk about this, but hadn’t actually done much talking thus far.

Sano took a deep breath. “I don’t think we can keep having this both ways. Me liking you and you ignoring it, I mean. This is driving me crazy. We’ve been hanging out forever; I’ve had plenty of time to get over you and just settle down to being friends or whatever, so I think if that was ever going to happen it would have already. I can’t stand wanting you and not having you and at the same time not being able to get over you. I can’t keep going like this. I can’t be just your friend anymore. It hurts too goddamn much. But you’re not into guys,” he speculated, as he had speculated all along, “or you’re not into me, or you’re not…”

Still Hajime said nothing. It fit the pattern so well it made Sano want to scream and punch the bastard in the unmoving mouth. If he would just say something, just explain himself even a little…! That all of Sano’s emotion toward this man, built up to such a strength over the last few months, was not worth a single word of explanation, cut deeper even than the rejection he’d been fearing.

Again he threw a hand up in despairing helplessness, and it came down to clutch at his bowed face, covering his closed eyes. “I can’t figure you out. I’ve never been able to, and you just won’t tell me no matter what I say, and you know what? I can’t do this anymore. I thought it might work, but obviously I was wrong. I mean, I am an idiot. You’re always so fucking happy to remind me of that, but never…”

He shook his head, dislodging the hand, and turned away before he opened his eyes again so as to avoid looking at Hajime even one last time. “I’m done.” Turning fully toward the door, he repeated, “I’m done. I’m glad you’re OK, and I’ll feed the cats, but let me know when you’re coming home, because I don’t want to be there. Just… Bye.” And though it felt akin to tearing himself from something to which he was physically attached, breaking himself mercilessly open in the process, he started to walk away.


Hajime had known this day would come. He’d been bracing himself for it for months. He’d watched Sano’s infatuation stubbornly refusing to fade, and known that Sano would eventually demand more than he could give. And that when he refused, Sano would walk away forever, unable to continue wanting without being able to have. Hajime had known all this would happen, and believed himself ready for it.

What he hadn’t known was that it wouldn’t go that way at all.

“Sano, come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that he wouldn’t be able to let Sano go, no matter what it took to hold onto him.

“Come back.”

What he hadn’t known was that the desire not to hurt Sano and the inverse of wanting to make Sano happy, not to mention the unexpected awareness that his own complacency was somehow inextricably involved with this as well as with Sano’s mere presence in his life, would be too much for him; that watching Sano walking away forever was simply more than he could stand, would take hold of him and force him to offer what he’d thought he could not give. He hadn’t known that he’d never really known how much Sano meant to him and what that realization might impel him to do. He could never have been ready for this.

“If all of that’s what you want, you can have it.”

Sano had paused to look back over his shoulder at the first call, and turned slowly at the second. Now, his expression of near torment unchanged, he stared at Hajime in wariness that bordered on complete disbelief.

Hajime attempted to smirk, and knew it wasn’t working very well. “Change your Facebook status to ‘in a relationship with Hajime Saitou’ if that’s what it takes to make you happy.”

“You know how I feel about Facebook,” said Sano’s mouth; his expression said something more along the lines of, “That type of sarcastic bullshit is especially fucking annoying right now.” But he took a step away from the door back toward Hajime.

“Then at least you can text it to all your friends: ‘I finally got Hajime to go out with me.'”

“They’ll never believe it. Kaoru thinks you’ve been trolling me this whole time and you’re really secretly married or something. Katsu thinks you’re stringing me along to make sure I keep helping you with shades you can’t deal with.” Sano sounded extremely suspicious even as he took another step closer. “Are you serious about this?”

Excising sarcasm completely, with all the earnestness he could command, Hajime said, “I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me. I’ll even give you something physical.” It surprised him to find that it was, more or less, all true. “What else was there?”

“You really are serious.” This half whisper still didn’t sound entirely convinced, and Sano looked wary.

“Come here.”

Before Sano could obey (or indicate that he wasn’t going to), they were interrupted by a knock. Soft though it was, it caused the imperfectly latched door to swing slowly open, revealing the owner of the house lowering his hand. He looked even more haggard than Hajime had seen him yet, and the exorcist realized with a stab of chagrin that Trowa might well have overheard much of their conversation. It hadn’t exactly been quiet, nor the door completely closed.

“I’ll be out for the next few hours,” Trowa said flatly — though there seemed to be both a touch of weary resignation and a subtle sort of accusation to his tone. “If you need anything from me, call my cell phone.” He didn’t give them a chance to respond, but turned away so abruptly it was as if he didn’t want to look at them for one instant longer. Even as he started walking up the hall he was muttering a spell, and presently the sound of his voice and footsteps cut off all at once.

Into the ensuing silence Hajime murmured, “We’ve just embarrassed or annoyed Trowa Barton — the Trowa Barton — out of his own house.”

Sano stared out of the room, mouth slightly ajar. His head was unguardedly busy with a rather comical equation between this scene and Forrest Gump dropping his pants before the president, and simultaneously hoping with a fervent, almost magical intensity that somebody somewhere had the wherewithal to mend Trowa’s mood before he decided to come back and get revenge for this. When Hajime cleared his throat, wanting to get back on track no matter how humiliating the prior circumstance, Sano moved quietly to close the door — properly this time — and turn toward him.

And then, because it was expected of him and what the situation called for, Hajime kissed him.

Sano, who leaned into Hajime and wrapped insistent arms around his neck, probably wouldn’t have liked to know what Hajime was thinking as he went about this task: how in the world had kissing become a thing people did? What couple first decided to press their mouths together, writhe their lips against each other, and tangle their tongues in this more or less nauseating fashion? How had such an unpleasant and unhygienic activity become a sign of mutual esteem?

He already knew, from experiences such as Sano had mentioned a minute ago involving close proximity on the sofa, that Sano’s body operated at a slightly higher temperature than most people’s. He could have guessed that Sano would taste like Chinese food, though he hadn’t guessed and would rather not have known, since what someone’s mouth tasted like should be, in Hajime’s opinion, exclusively that someone’s business. But at least Sano seemed to be enjoying this. However he felt about kissing, Hajime did enjoy Sano enjoying something. And it couldn’t last forever in any case; there was more conversation to be had.

“But, seriously, why now?” This came out in a near whisper as Sano withdrew, apparently with some reluctance, from Hajime’s lips and looked into his eyes, but the rest of the demand rose into more of a rant. “It’s not like it’s been a big mystery all along that I wanted you like this, even though I’ve been trying to be subtle about it — I mean, more subtle than I usually am about things — because it seemed like I got better results when I wasn’t outright flirting or whatever… but I think it’s still been pretty obvious. But you’ve been ignoring it all along, I have to think on purpose. So why’ve you changed your mind now?”

“Because I don’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing. But for you I’m willing to make an exception.” This fragment of the real explanation might be misleading, but at least it was true.

Sano let out a breathy laugh that was more indicative of surprise than anything else, and there sprang up out of nowhere a horizontal pink patch stretching from one of his ears all the way around to the other. “Really?” As he searched Hajime’s face, clearly wondering whether the words were a lie meant to placate and distract him, this pink stripe intensified and spread. “Just for me, huh?”

Solemnly, Hajime nodded.

Though it hadn’t actually been a lie, it did appear to have placated and distracted Sano, who now, instead of asking why Hajime didn’t really do this ‘relationship’ thing, leaned up — almost sprang up — and kissed him again. The new volume of blood in his face seemed to have perceptibly increased the already high temperature of his lips, which was interesting; that, combined with an accompanying interest in the ferocity of Sano’s movements brought on by the intensity of his emotion, made the action less tedious and distasteful than before. There was something about the fierce demonstration of Sano’s desperate pleasure at being the exception that rendered that demonstration, if not precisely enjoyable, at least acceptable to its recipient.

This time when Sano withdrew, the expression he turned up toward Hajime had a touch of something that seemed almost like drunkenness about it; and the idea that Hajime specifically was a sort of intoxicant to him… well, that wasn’t so bad either.

Leaning forward again, Sano ran moist lips across Hajime’s face to his ear and half whispered, “You’re going to fuck me now, right?” And before Hajime could even draw breath to answer, Sano reiterated, “Right?” in a tone that made it clear he was accepting no refusal. So like Sano to discount entirely the possibility that agreeing to enter upon a romantic relationship did not equate to being immediately ready for sex.

“If you insist,” Hajime replied. Deciding that this wording sounded almost as reluctant as he actually was for the proposed activity, he added, “I’ll do whatever you want.” Which he really would, even if it killed him. He did feel the need to remind Sano, however, “Don’t forget we’re in someone else’s house, though.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.” Sano drew back once more, embarrassed and determined. “And if I told Katsu I finally hooked up with you in Trowa Barton’s house, he’d laugh my ass right out of the room. But you know what? I don’t fucking care where we are. You’re going to make up for all those months you made me wait and jack off all the fucking time without having any idea how you’d actually do it if you were really there.” He was grinding against Hajime now, his words coming in a breathy growl. “You’re going to make me come hard enough to make up for trolling me all this time.”

Unsavory as was the scenario Sano described and the pictures beginning to bleed through from his eager imagination, not to mention the stirrings of reaction in Hajime’s own body to the grinding, Hajime couldn’t help but be somewhat amused by his new boyfriend’s wanton phraseology. “I told you I wasn’t trolling,” he murmured, “but I’ll see what I can do.”

Sano stepped back and threw a calculating look around, and at the idea Hajime was hearing pretty clearly from his head the exorcist said his name in a sharp, remonstrating tone.

“What?” Sano demanded. “I want you to fuck me for real, and Trowa Barton’s as gay as all fuck.”

“He’s not likely to have any–” Hajime began, but Sano had left the room before he could finish the sentence. With a sigh, he reseated himself and began to remove his tie while he waited for the younger man’s return.

He wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into by agreeing to this. It wasn’t, after all, just a one-time occurrence: he couldn’t grit his teeth and get through the coming sexual scene and then be done with the whole thing. A relationship meant a long-term commitment to a way of life and a set of behaviors he’d never planned on having to deal with again. He didn’t know if he would be capable of it and hadn’t merely put off the time when things would fall apart.

But he felt no temptation whatsoever to go back on his word. His realization and ensuing statements had been completely true: he couldn’t let Sano go. Whether he could return the love Sano claimed to feel for him, whether he could maintain the sort of interaction Sano wanted, whether this whole thing he was entering upon wasn’t or wouldn’t become an elaborate deception, he didn’t know, but he did know that Sano was important enough to him that he was perfectly willing to move out of his comfort zone to make sure he kept Sano in his life.

And that apparently meant he would be having sex with Sano in Trowa Barton’s house, of all places, on an air mattress he’d purchased on the way over when said Trowa Barton had informed him of a nearly complete lack of furniture. Well, he could grit his teeth and get through that, in the interest of knowing what he would be up against in the future. Though presumably, in the future, the severe embarrassment of being at Trowa Barton’s house would be absent.

Emotional scenes tended to break down Sano’s mental defenses, so Hajime picked up on the success of Sano’s venture before the younger man made it back to the room with a bottle of what appeared to be actual lube designed for sexual purposes. Based on what Hajime had understood of Trowa’s current circumstances — the burning of his previous house and the absence of his boyfriend since before the occupation of this new one — he really hadn’t expected Sano to find anything of the sort here… but he supposed that not only wasn’t it even a little of his business, he should also be glad of it, since it would (in more senses than just the literal) help things go more smoothly now.

Sano, certainly pleased about it, held up the bottle with a wickedly smug arrangement of lips and brows — which look, however, changed rapidly to one of slightly irritated disappointment. “You already took off your tie,” he protested as he again made sure the door was completely closed behind him and moved forward with no hesitation. “I wanted to do that!”

Hajime had read this desire in Sano’s head on a couple of previous occasions, and if he’d remembered it today, he might have allowed Sano to live out that peculiar little fantasy. Instead, as Sano dropped to a crouch and began to puzzle with spiky boots, he said, “Maybe next time.”

The thrill these words gave was just as evident in Sano’s thoughts as from his deep but sharply indrawn breath. And if Sano was really that happy at the prospect of removing Hajime’s tie… well, that was no difficult indulgence to offer him. Certainly easier than the probable sequel.

Sooner that could have been expected given the numbers of buckles and laces involved, Sano kicked his absurd footwear aside and began crawling across the air mattress toward Hajime. He came to rest — though ‘rest’ was a very inaccurate term — on top of the older man, legs straddling hips, fingers immediately busy with shirt buttons, and lips seeking out Hajime’s again. Hajime responded as best he could, running his own hands up Sano’s sides, considering reciprocating on the undressing front, and trying to ignore how uncomfortable Sano’s resumed grinding made him feel. At least Sano’s choice of pants today was not as dangerous as the boots; this could have been a good deal more uncomfortable.

Though the sexual stimulation frankly irritated, it wasn’t necessarily unpleasant to have Sano’s body against his in a more general sense and to explore it with his hands. He could appreciate the casual muscularity, the admirable symmetry, the warmth, without too much trouble — but far more than that, he could appreciate the eagerness Sano displayed that was very clearly directed specifically at Hajime. It was, he supposed, only natural to respond positively to someone else’s adoration of and desire for you, even if those feelings were somewhat alien, difficult to understand, and probably impossible to return. He slid his hands under Sano’s shirt.

Eventually, after further kissing and grinding that Hajime was struggling to deal with, some tugging manipulation of clothing, and some squirming that, at least on Sano’s side, was calculated to move things along, they were fully horizontal and closer to naked. And even nakedness was nothing particularly onerous… it was what people would insist on doing with it that galled. In this situation, however, Hajime was forcing himself to acclimatize.

Actions that further reiterated Sano’s eagerness to be with him bore a certain unexpected charm. It was palpably awkward that Sano, who had shifted half off of Hajime onto his side in order to reach a lubed-up hand down the back of his own loosened pants, was groaning as he presumably prepared himself for penetration; but the way Sano simultaneously rolled his shoulders toward Hajime as if trying to hug him even when that was impossible, trying to stay close and inclusive, and mouthed his arm and chest in tickly, moist, almost desperate kisses showed just how much Sano associated with Hajime the pleasure he was actually giving himself, how good it was to be here with him.

And though, when that was finished, the strong fingers that found their way past Hajime’s zipper and clasped the erection there made Hajime want to push Sano off of him and walk away, the satisfaction evident in Sano’s thoughts — as if he’d just attained some long-sought goal — mollified the older man somewhat. He allowed himself to be stroked into greater hardness, heard his own breaths coming less evenly as moments passed, with solid forbearance, because it was what Sano wanted, because Sano obviously wanted it so much.

This was, after all, not about getting through something unpleasant; it was about giving Sano what he wanted. Making Sano happy… which, in turn, for some inscrutable reason, made Hajime happy. As such, Hajime needed to start tailoring his own actions toward optimal enjoyment for Sano. So he rolled over on top of him and tried both to engage Sano in the kind of kiss Sano had thus far been the one to initiate, and to ignore that they were now right at the edge of the air mattress and liable to fall off at any time.

The latter circumstance was rectified after not too long when they were forced to separate, panting, in order to remove their remaining garments. Had Hajime been in the frame of mind he believed generally accompanied this sort of activity — the hazy, lust-driven mood that filled Sano’s head like a hot, oily mist — he had to think it would have been disrupted by this awkward procedure. Apparently this was no problem for Sano, though he did laugh rather charmingly at the flopping removal of pants and underwear before making a grotesque sound of anticipation at the sight of Hajime’s exposed erection.

And then he was sliding close against Hajime again, encouraging Hajime on top of him and lifting a bare leg up over Hajime’s back. Though not unwilling to take charge once more, ready to grind for a while and tolerate Sano’s noises in response before getting on to the actual penetration, Hajime very much wished for a couple of condoms at the moment. He wondered whether there hadn’t been any wherever Sano had found the lube, or whether Sano simply hadn’t considered them important. He rather doubted he could have brought himself to explore Trowa Barton’s taste in condoms in any case, and supposed this was just another part of the sacrifice he was making… and perhaps a sign of how far he returned Sano’s trust.

Sano was kissing him at random, much in the same manner Hajime was thrusting against various surfaces lower down, and the young man’s current thought was perceptible in his mind — with accompanying visuals and sharply anticipated sensations — before it emerged as a muffled, breathless verbal demand against Hajime’s neck: “Come on, I am so fucking ready to go.”

“Are you?” — an inane question, and perhaps a reflexive attempt at putting off the big moment.

In response, Sano only groaned at first, scraping his teeth against Hajime’s skin as Hajime’s penis scraped against the space between his buttocks and picked up some of the apparently excessive lubricant that had been applied to the area. But then he managed, “Fuuuck meee,” in a tone equal parts silly insistent drawn-out vowels and growling desperation.

“All right.” Hajime found himself in the odd position of being rendered increasingly uncomfortable by the demand and simultaneously unable to keep from smiling. Sano could be winning and entertaining even at such a moment; nobody else in the world, probably, could have pushed Hajime into doing this.

It was a dozen years since the last time he had done this, and, though he’d never anticipated doing it again, he remembered well enough, and it wasn’t exactly rocket science in the first place. With one hand supporting his weight on the air mattress and the other on his erection, he guided himself to Sano’s anus and pushed inward. He might have worried a little about hurting Sano with his unlubricated penis, but evidently Sano had used a gallon or so of the stuff on himself and felt nothing but thorough enjoyment at the entrance.

“Oh, fuck, Hajime,” he groaned, clutching at the man above him and thrusting upward to hasten the process. Whatever he said next was too inarticulate to interpret, but the flood of mental adoration that poured from him was perfectly comprehensible.

Here was the remembered slimy tightness, and, as Hajime began pumping in and out, the stimulation grew steadily enough to make him believe he could probably orgasm eventually — which, despite his achievement of an erection, had been a matter of question. Perhaps he was aided by the awareness of how Sano would be likely to react if Hajime wasn’t able to maintain and enhance his arousal during their very first sexual encounter.

To his own surprise, however, Hajime found himself distracted from such gloomy thoughts when he was actually, after a few minutes, somewhat enjoying the experience.

He didn’t like the way Sano’s fingers dug desperately, bruisingly into him; he didn’t like the way Sano’s body writhed beneath him, always straining for more, more intense sensation; he didn’t like the animalistic timbre of the noises that broke from Sano’s trembling lips… and yet he loved the message all of these combined to send, which was echoed emphatically in Sano’s mind: that this contact, this apparent proof of Hajime’s returned regard, was practically everything Sano had ever wanted, that some profound and very specific need was being gloriously, perfectly fulfilled by Hajime’s actions right now.

Mentally, Sano was giddily, overwhelmingly happy; physically, as he rose toward his sexual climax, still he was already satisfied as he had never been before. And to make him feel these things, to see himself as their sole and exclusive cause, Hajime too was happy and satisfied. It almost completely overrode his disgust at the expanding tension in his groin. This awful friction, these awkward movements, the suffocating smell of sweat and pre-ejaculate — none of it was too high a price to pay to make Sano feel this good. And that was something of a shock.

Sano’s groaning whispers might have been repetitions of Hajime’s name, and then again might have been as meaningless as they sounded. Even his thoughts were becoming little more than a mess of positive emotions thrown over and over at Hajime like a tangled ball of yarn in a soft, absurd, repetitive beating. Sano was drawing closer and closer, and something attempting to shout louder than the chaos in his head, still struggling for coherency, urged him to wait for Hajime, to try to achieve that romanticized and highly improbable mutual orgasm.

“Don’t hold back,” Hajime murmured, and kissed him. Not only had he no desire to draw this out more than necessary, he also looked forward to Sano reaching his peak for more reasons than just that it would be the penultimate milestone on this ambivalent road.

Again Sano groaned, in another apparent attempt (failure) at saying something intelligible, and was clutching even more greedily than before; in fact he’d wrapped both legs around Hajime’s waist for an awkward entwining that would have been logistically inconvenient had the air mattress not deflated slightly and put them in a sort of trough that was perfect for their present positioning and movements.

Hajime supposed he should have been paying attention to things like hip angle and what specific arrangement of bodies Sano enjoyed most, so as to make this even better for him, but that kind of nonsense really was asking too much of him during their first sexual encounter. It also didn’t seem to matter; as Sano’s clinging kept Hajime in such close, swift-moving contact with himself at every moment, it was evidently enough. He stiffened, arching upward, crying out, spasming in his pleasure.

The mental feeling of Sano’s orgasm wasn’t nearly as interesting as Hajime had hoped; instead of a burst of joy to correspond with the burst of bodily ecstasy, it was a white blankness that, while certainly happy, was more distracted by the physical than involved with it. Even so, he was pleased to have induced such feelings in Sano.

The latter now loosened his grip, grinning slackly up, gripping with his legs yet but content to lie back somewhat and let out another string of breathy vowels in time with Hajime’s continued thrusts. His eyes, bright even in the shadow Hajime cast over him, blinked only occasionally to interrupt their rapt stare at Hajime’s face. They were such a rich shade of brown, these eyes, sparsely lashed but perfectly shaped, and Hajime did not at all mind returning their gaze as he tried to finish up this business. Sano was still so happy.

He’d also tightened abominably around the foreign organ inside him; Hajime remembered this increased pressure as one of the worst parts of being the penetrator in anal sex, and hoped he could get through it. He believed, inexpert a judge as he must be, that he was fairly close to his own orgasm but that concentrating on it would be counterproductive. So he concentrated instead on the returning order in Sano’s mind, the untangling of all those positive emotions and the straightening out of all those happy thoughts — none of which suffered any diminution for their increased clarity. He let Sano’s happiness wash over him and distract him from everything, and eventually the moment came.

He couldn’t quite help a deplorable grunting sound, but did manage to withhold any indication of his distaste at both the sensation and the positively gruesome awareness that he’d just shot semen up into Sano’s rectum. Then he took a deep breath and stilled, forcing himself not to pull out so quickly that his discomfort would be evident in the movement. Simultaneously he was congratulating himself on surviving this ordeal.

But the ordeal hadn’t quite ended. Sano was petting his hair and neck, still breathing loudly and happily, and Hajime was pricklingly aware that one of those hands of Sano’s had, not long ago, been exploring regions significantly less hygienic. In fact a general desire to make use of the bath in the next room was growing with shudder-inducing quickness and intensity in Hajime. A cigarette would be delightful as well, but he had neither any with him nor permission to smoke in this house. With an iron will he restrained his urge to get up and leave.

He did, however, ease his penis out from where he felt it should never be (but where it would undoubtedly spend some time in the future), slide his arms around Sano again, and settle into a more comfortable position. Some standards of cleanliness (no petting of hair with fingers that had recently occupied anyone’s ass!) would have to be established for future encounters, but at the moment he wasn’t going to ruin Sano’s enjoyment of the scene.

And his own, really. This hadn’t been so bad. Well, it had been bad, but not intolerably so, and its wonderful aspects had at least balanced if not outweighed the horrible. At the moment Hajime was actually fairly content; if he could ignore the discomfort of what people that liked this sort of thing called ‘afterglow’ and of his awareness of sexual fluids potentially leaking or smearing onto his proposed bed for the night, he even enjoyed lying here with Sano in his arms feeling Sano’s intense satisfaction and anticipation of times to come.

“I hope that made up for the trolling,” Hajime murmured at last.

“Mmm, not really.” Sano stretched, rubbing his body languidly against Hajime’s as he turned his face toward him. “But it was a good start.” And he kissed Hajime just as languidly. This prevented him from finishing his statement verbally, but Hajime caught, faintly, the remainder of it in his head, around which the shields had been gradually reforming: I mean, it was really good, but it only lasted, like, ten minutes or something, and I bet we could go twenty times that long.

Thankfully Sano hadn’t said this aloud, since how to respond would have been an unpleasant mystery Hajime might not have been able to solve. He was impressed with himself for managing to orgasm after only, like, ten minutes of stimulation, and simultaneously appalled at the idea of having to attempt to put up with sex for twenty times that long. And what else would Sano demand of him? He would probably want to do the penetrating on occasion, and then there was fellatio and anilingus and god only knew what. Well, Hajime would just have to draw a line somewhere.

But it wouldn’t be a line debarring sex entirely. He wouldn’t deny Sano that. And maybe this wouldn’t have to be as much of a deception as Hajime had been fearing. He had, after all, legitimately enjoyed some aspects of tonight’s encounter, and felt he could manage to make sex with Sano a part of his life. He could and would do what was required to keep Sano with him, to keep Sano happy.

Finishing at last the lingering kiss that had allowed Hajime time for all these thoughts, Sano drew back a bit and sighed contentedly. “Yeah,” he said in a luxuriating tone, “I think I could stand to do that a fucking lot from now on.”

And he undoubtedly didn’t recognize the complete lack of facetiousness in Hajime’s reply, “I think I could too.”



If you’re curious where Trowa went when he left the house, see Consummate Timing.


The most infuriating thing was that then Sano had to go home. Back to Hajime’s house, anyway. He’d run off in such an outraged state of worry and confusion, he hadn’t given any thought to the cats’ dinner — and if he had thought about it, he would never have guessed that a situation might arise wherein he would be tempted to put off returning to the hungry familiars in favor of having sex with Hajime again. And then maybe again.

The other problem was that Hajime pretty clearly didn’t take much pleasure from the fact that they’d celebrated the upgrade to their relationship in somebody’s guest room — especially given who that somebody was — and probably wouldn’t have been willing to have sex again (and then maybe again) in that venue in any case. Though he’d seemed ready enough to cuddle Sano on the air mattress for a good long time, he’d also seemed to want a shower very much as well. Evidently he was going to be a fastidious lover; Sano couldn’t say he was surprised.

And the cats still needed to be fed. This and the awareness of morning class (for which all his things were at Hajime’s house) had forced the very reluctant Sano out.

Despite the severe annoyance of having to drive home, Sano barely remembered the drive home. There had probably been stoplights and other motorists and… gasoline… and stuff. Obviously his car had started without too much trouble. Hopefully he’d worn his seat belt. It was all more than a bit of a blur. At the moment he was standing in Hajime’s kitchen, not quite sure how he’d arrived there, watching the cats eat food he wasn’t quite sure when he’d given them, grinning in a mixture of dreaminess and triumph and savoring the last of the sensations fading throughout his body.

“For you I’m willing to make an exception.”

The sensations in his heart weren’t fading.

He was tempted to do what Hajime had suggested and text an all-caps, possibly multi-message announcement to everyone that had ever put up with his complaints about his lack of progress in this area — or even actually sign onto Facebook for once and change his relationship status. But he held off for the moment. He was thinking about Hajime’s lips on his neck. He would, of course, relate the gleeful news to his friends after while, and rejoice in so doing and in their reactions, but right now it was too close, too precious to share with anyone.

“I’m into you. I’m happier with you around even when you’re annoying the hell out of me.”

It wasn’t as if Sano had never been in a relationship before, never believed himself in love before. But he’d never had to wait this long for someone he liked this much, and he’d never had anyone make so much of a concession for him. Though it hadn’t been overtly stated, he thought he had the answer to the question he’d been silently asking for so long: his interest had been ignored all this time because Hajime disliked relationships.

That… that Sano really should have predicted. Hajime had moved to a different country to get away from his family and admitted, as far as Sano knew, a total of two friends. Maybe two and a half. And yet, when push came to shove, he would go against his own evidently fairly strong disinclination and accept Sano as his lover. Make an exception just for Sano. Who knew perfectly well that Hajime Saitou wasn’t much given to making exceptions.

“Don’t hold back.”

If he concentrated, he could still call up the sensations of Hajime touching him, kissing him, fucking him… he could still smell him. Of course this might have something to do with the fact that he was in Hajime’s home, but the memories were so visceral it seemed like more than merely that.

A shower here to supplement the handwash Hajime had insisted upon at Trowa’s house might have been a good idea, but that scent Sano swore he could still detect all over his own body was, at the moment, something he could not bear to lose. Besides, such considerations barely registered through the preoccupied felicitous haze in which he currently operated. Maybe tomorrow. For now, happily brazen, he stripped off his clothing for the second and less interesting time tonight and, after a trip to the toilet that was as far as he was willing to recognize mundanity, crawled into Hajime’s bed.

With hands behind his head on the pillow, he stared up toward the ceiling, but his line of sight was broken by memories like visions that arose in front of his eyes: Hajime’s expression when he called Sano back, having finally made the choice to accept him in full spite of his own habits… Hajime waiting for him on that air mattress, having done the unthinkable and actually removed that uptight tie of his… Hajime’s gorgeous eyes boring into Sano’s from above as he finished inside him, having just made him come if not quite hard enough to make up for all the lonely masturbation at least pretty damn satisfyingly.

“I do like you.”

“You really do, don’t you?”

Misao, who had curled up beside Sano on top of the blanket at some point completely unnoticed by him, wondered now what he meant. He reached down to pet her, scratching her head absently as he replied that he hadn’t been addressing her.

He’d begun mentally reliving the entire evening, in the level of detail with which only that kind of exquisitely indelible event can be recalled — earlier, more aggravating parts not excluded — and gotten as far as the extremely embarrassing entrance of Trowa, when noise arose from the pocket of his pants on the floor.

The tone he’d set for text messages from Hajime, a cheesy harp sound that had come pre-loaded on the phone, had felt appropriate not even remotely for Hajime’s personality but for the silly sense of romantic longing it seemed to convey. Hearing it now, Sano let out a cry of triumph and joy. He would have to change it — he would definitely change it to something more befitting his official boyfriend — but at the moment it carried vindication of his long wait and congratulations for tonight’s events.

Misao expressed annoyance at being disrupted from her comfortable position as Sano scrambled up and leaned over the side of the bed to find his forgotten phone, but his placating reply trailed off into distraction as he unlocked the device and read the message Hajime must have sent once he was done with his much-desired shower:

Thanks for the 67 texts. I apologize for being inaccessible. It won’t happen again.

The same stupid grin Sano was pretty sure he’d been wearing since he’d left Trowa’s house now widened perceptibly as he typed, I can forgive you for just about anything right now.

So if I wanted to stab you again… Hajime suggested.

Sano wished he could convey an eyebrow vigorously pumped, or at the very least a licentious tone, with his reply, Depends on what kind of stab we’re talking.

Idiot, Hajime sent.

Sano flopped onto his back again, laughing out loud in his delight and then continuing to grin up at the phone he now held above him. This is so high school. Where you go to a friend’s house whose parents aren’t home so you can fuck and YOUR parents won’t know, and then you go home before curfew and text about it all night?

Somehow I’m not surprised you were doing that kind of thing in high school.

And YOU weren’t? Immediately he’d sent this he rethought it. No, of course you weren’t, kouhasan, why would I even ask.

Idiot. Sano had liked being called ‘idiot’ by Hajime (some of the time) for quite a while, since it had often seemed, counterintuitively, a sign of friendship. But he’d never thought he would come to love the sound (or in this case the look) of it quite this much.

Idiot’s going to sleep in your bed by the way

Feel free.

Mentioning the bed had raised a question. Also by the way, why Trowa Barton’s house? If you went to a hotel, we could be fucking again right now.

No, we couldn’t. You wouldn’t have found me at a hotel.

Not with you not answering your damn phone!! So you went to TB’s house SO I could find you?

No, it was because Gains from Seido called and offered me a place to stay while the police want to talk to me. I had to be able to tell him I was already staying with a friend.

On reading this, Sano sat up again, giving the not-so-good news the first frown he’d worn since before Hajime had kissed him. He supposed Hajime’s choice made some sense, under the circumstances… though he could already think of other options that might have been more convenient. At some point he would have to ask Hajime why Trowa Barton’s house in particular had seemed the best place to go. Not right now, though; anything to do with Seido was a spectacular buzz-kill. So the only remonstrance Sano offered at the moment was, You should TELL ME about shit like that instead of making me worry.

Are you saying you’re dissatisfied with how tonight has turned out?

Haha no. Now he was able to smile again, and to pet Misao when she crawled into his blanketed lap. The message he then composed one-handed would certainly have made him blush if he’d been saying it face-to-face, but in writing seemed calmly straightforward: I hope you’re happy with it too

Hajime’s reply was gratifyingly immediate: I am.

I meant when I said I love you, Sano told him.

This time the response was not quite so quick. I hope you know that saying that puts you at risk of not having it said back.

Sano didn’t stop smiling at this, but he felt the expression go a bit wan. He hadn’t really expected Hajime to pour out his heart or whatever… but he wouldn’t have objected. Well we already figured out that you suck at telling me stuff.

And yet you love me anyway.

Here Sano made an indignant sound, which was echoed by the cat in his lap at his cessation of caresses. He didn’t resume just yet, though, since he wanted both hands to hasten the composition of his protest. Hey, it is completely unfair to say you can’t say you love me and then turn around and give me shit about saying I love you.

Your definition of “unfair” is so elastic.

Sano wasn’t sure how to reply to this, and a little annoyed at the turn of the conversation — which feeling threatened to translate to dismay under the current circumstances. But he’d barely resumed petting Misao, and hadn’t yet decided what to say, when another message arrived:

Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life.

Just as if Hajime had actually been in the room speaking aloud, Sano could hear the words in his boyfriend’s deep voice, Japanese accented, perfectly serious, devoid of any of the sarcasm that often colored it. And while not a declaration of love, still the statement meant the world to him. He wondered if Hajime knew just how much it meant to him.

I guess that will do for now, he sent. Then, staring at the words, he found another frown on his face as he decided he was not at all satisfied with that reply. Wow, that looks so cold, was his addendum. I mean I’m really happy to hear that, it really IS good enough for now. After another moment’s thought he added, REALLY good. And then, REALLY REALLY GOOD.

Does each “REALLY” have a cumulative effect? Now it was amusement Sano could hear in Hajime’s words as easily as if he’d actually been there.

Yes, 10x, he replied at once.

So is that 100x or 1000x good?

Again Sano laughed out loud. Now YOU’RE being an idiot

You must be rubbing off on me. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

DON’T YOU DARE, Sano texted fiercely, replying with very serious insistence to what he believed (hoped!) had been only a facetious threat.

All right, fine, Hajime answered. But I AM going to stop texting you so you can go to sleep. I know you have class in the morning.

First tell me I won’t wake up and find out this was all a dream.

You tracked me down intending to (try to) beat me up, then embarrassed the hell out of me in front of Trowa Barton. That sounds more like a nightmare to me.

While this was actually a fairly reassuring response to Sano’s demand, part of it had to be picked at. What’s that (try to)?

Consider the last time we fought. Actually consider every time we’ve fought.

You’re a bastard.

And you still claim to love me.

Sano wondered if this teasing regarding his professions of love was going to become a problem. At the moment it didn’t significantly bother him; in fact he was glad of the banter, and glad to have his true feelings out in the open at last… but if Hajime kept it up, it might become somewhat painful. It seemed to imply a real disdain for the emotion, which in turn implied that not only was whatever Hajime felt for him at this point not love, it might never be.

But Sano refused to think about that right now. And in fact the next message from Hajime, on the heels of the more worrisome one, distracted him: Go to sleep. I’ll call you in the morning. What time do you want to wake up?

It was exactly the promise Sano needed, and probably the only thing that could get him to abandon this conversation instead of continuing literally all night. Seven, he replied.

I’ll talk to you then. Good night.

Good night. There was something oddly and delightfully intimate about exchanging these wishes after what had evolved between them. Even via text, ‘good night’ meant something different now. It meant what Sano had always wanted it to mean.

He wondered, as he set his phone on the nightstand and then lay down again, how long Hajime would stay at Trowa Barton’s house — how long it would be before Sano could make the use of this very bed that he’d yearned to since March… undoubtedly, somewhat depressingly, not until some new development occurred in the situation with Quatre Winner. Between now and then, it seemed unlikely that any further sex could occur between him and his lover. Indeed, Sano wasn’t sure he could bring himself even to visit Hajime at that place, could manage to look Trowa Barton in the face any time soon after having searched his sparse bedroom for lube and actually found it.

But knowing that Hajime did care about him, knowing what had already passed and what would come to pass, made him strong. Phone calls and texts, probably limited to off-hours when the police weren’t likely to try calling, would do for a while. Sano, it is very important to me to have you in my life, he felt, would make him remarkably patient.

Again absently, he petted once or twice the cat that had settled against his stomach when he’d turned onto his side. He’d believed he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep with so much to think about, with the memories of this evening still so strong and the scent of Hajime still so perceptible around him, but found as he closed his eyes that he was surprisingly drained — a good kind of drained that seemed ready to pull him straight into placid depths.

And, though in his startlement at the unaccustomed ringing of his phone at 7:00 in the morning he did not immediately recall how beautifully everything had changed, it all came rushing back to him when the first thing he truly comprehended upon awakening was a beloved voice saying, “Good morning, idiot. It wasn’t a dream.”



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.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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.

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



He Can Be Taught (1/3)




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

1
2
3

A serious dreariness had been creeping over Sagara Sanosuke of late, and had proven extremely difficult to talk himself out of or even shake by more vigorous methods. He shouldn’t be so melancholy, now Shishio was defeated and so-called peace had returned to the country, now they were finally going back to Tokyo to see all their friends and settle down again. Really, with as well as things had turned out, especially contrary to many of their expectations, Sano should have been quite happy, perhaps extremely happy. Placidly happy, at the very least. But he couldn’t even manage to be moderately satisfied.

He tried to believe his depression was based in a right hand that would probably be messed up for the rest of his life. He experimented with the concept of disappointment that he’d never get his rematch against Saitou in order to prove himself to the skinny bastard. He even played with the theory that he was annoyed with Chou for beating him home and presumably waiting there rubbing his hands together in evil anticipation of aggravating Sano farther as part of the Tokyo police force. But not one of these was the true cause of Sano’s dejected state.

The fact was that he loved Kenshin, and couldn’t have him.

Those gorgeous violet eyes, their expression veiled partially by the charming ragged bangs that fell carelessly across them and more completely by the mysterious yet not unfriendly reserve that was one of Kenshin’s most engaging features, were enough to melt Sano with a single glance. He longed to seize that compact form, bury his hands in that luscious mass of hair, and envelope Kenshin’s strong lips with his own. What would follow he tried not to imagine, at least in public, since it seemed injudicious to be getting aroused any old time, but even in the presence of others his fancy ran free with tamer thoughts of holding Kenshin in his arms, kissing him, watching the sun set…

And then Kaoru would open her damn mouth and shatter all his dreams. And Sano would have to face the truth: Kenshin would never be his.

So life wasn’t as beautiful for him as it seemed for all of his companions, particularly the one whose apparent confidence in the return of her affections was actively tearing down any hope Sano might have in the return of his. The only solace he’d found thus far had been in drinking himself silly at the numerous victory parties Misao and the rest of them (well, mostly just Misao) had insisted on holding at the Aoiya. For this excess nobody seemed to blame him; they all assumed he did it out of relief rather than misery.

The situation would not gall quite so much, he thought as he watched Kenshin and Kaoru walk in front of him hand in hand on their way to the train station, if his object of affection were to act as hopelessly trapped as Sano believed (or wished he could believe) he was. He couldn’t be unconscious of the irony in the thought that a show of discontentment from Kenshin would make Sano feel less discontented, but he didn’t spend long dwelling on it. The point was that Kenshin gave every indication — every indication such a constrained character as his could give, anyway — of actually being very fond of Kaoru.

Sano couldn’t quite comprehend this. He loved her, of course, but that stemmed merely from being around her all the time; you just came to love people like that, as long as they weren’t too annoying (like Saitou). But a closer look at Kaoru revealed very little that could induce someone to spend a lifetime with her. She was pretty, yeah, but nothing out of the ordinary. She didn’t have any real talents besides kenjutsu, which made her a bit brutish anyway. Certainly she wasn’t a good cook. What did Kenshin see in her?

“Are you listening to me?” Yahiko demanded from his side.

Sano realized that, during the last few minutes he’d spent staring engrossedly at the couple in front of them, he hadn’t heard a word his young companion had said. So he replied bluntly, “No. It’s not like you’re saying anything worth listening to.”

Yahiko bristled. “Dammit, Sano, it’s a funny story!”

“Yeah, yeah, you better start over,” Sano replied, giving a final glance to his desire and his rival, then settling in for whatever Yahiko was babbling about. “I’ll try to pay attention this time.”

“So I was saying–” Yahiko now looked and sounded annoyed– “how Okon and Omasu decided at the same time they wanted Hiko-sama, and when they found out they both wanted him and realized only one of them could have him — though I think he probably would have taken them both if they’d asked — they each decided they were going to outdo the other and get his attention. So Omasu was planning to make him this amazing meal…”

This time when Sano stopped listening, it wasn’t because Yahiko’s words weren’t interesting, but because they were so interesting that they’d struck him like lightning, and he’d become deafened to anything else by an entire unrelated world of thunderous thought. ‘Outdo the other and get his attention,’ had he said? Why the hell hadn’t he thought of it before?

Sano was very good-looking. This strong internal conviction was born not of vanity, but of the experience of many years spent in colorful venues where whistling at and even casually propositioning a passing bishounen wasn’t considered inappropriate behavior for denizens of either sex. And he had talents. At least he thought he did. More than that obnoxious girl, anyway — specifically, some she pointedly lacked.

He grinned widely. Kamiya Kaoru, you’d better watch yourself, he reflected. Zanza has just entered the game.

Yahiko, misinterpreting the grin, went off on a tangent in his story.

But how to go about it? Unlike Hiko, Kenshin probably wouldn’t take them both if they asked, and one thing Kaoru had that Sano definitely lacked was the former Battousai’s attention and a good head start. Sano would have to do something flashy just to get Kenshin to begin noticing him and the qualities that set him above Kaoru, and that something couldn’t be merely show; he would really have to impress him.

Considering all the things he’d ever seen impress Kenshin in the past, he determined that, in his case, the first thing to do was to learn to defend himself properly. This would mean swallowing his pride, actively amending his fighting style, and engaging in some real training with someone, none of which struck him as even a little bit fun — but would certainly be worth it to attain his end. A display of such personal improvement would not only grab Kenshin’s eye, get him thinking about Sano in a very serious light, it would prove that Sano was a responsible adult worthy of affection, that Sano was willing to change for the better for the man he loved. Where he would find someone to train him was a mystery at this point, since it would ruin the surprise and send entirely the wrong message if he asked Kenshin himself, but he would deal with that concern later.

And eventually, obviously, he would have to seduce him. Of course that would come only after he’d gotten his attention, gotten him thinking about all of Sano’s multiform, scintillating points of attraction and contrasting them with Kaoru’s deficiency, but it would be a crucial sort of capstone to Sano’s efforts. To prove he was more desirable than Kaoru meant showing Kenshin he was superb in bed, whereas she would probably alternate between demanding and demure and have any idea what she was doing in neither state.

The only problem here was that Sano, pickier and more circumspect about romance than anyone might have thought to find him, had never slept with anyone, woman or man. Though the solution to this problem too was a concern to be dealt with later — much later, since it was a secondary stage in his plan at earliest — he still found himself laughing a little as he wondered how, exactly, he could assert his superiority in an area where had no experience.

Yahiko laughed along with him, and continued talking, unheard, all the way to the train station.

***

“No, no, no, no, no, no.” The first ‘no’ held the kind of genuine, straightforward annoyance Sano could relate to, but by the sixth, the statement had degenerated into a sneer for which he had much less patience. “Are you completely deaf? You can’t tense up like that.”

Sano ground his teeth against a counterproductive snarling reply. During this training session — which had lasted, so far, all of twenty-five minutes — Arakaki had insulted Sano’s powers of sight, hearing, and comprehension several times; but honestly what bothered Sano most was the supercilious tone and the use of labels like ‘thug’ and references to ‘the streets’ that (while not necessarily inaccurate) made it clear how far above his pupil Arakaki considered himself. If there was one thing Sano hated more than (well, perhaps on a similar level to) the Meiji government, it was people that tried to perpetuate the old class system whose abolition or at least partial breakdown was one of the few decent things the revolution had accomplished.

Genji had sworn up and down that Arakaki’s training worked absolute miracles, but Sano had yet to feel particularly inspired by it. It wasn’t just the classism; it was the nasality of Arakaki’s tone on a purely aural basis, as well as the fact that he had yet even to touch the sword he wore so boldly at his hip. He’d talked and talked, harping on Sano’s stance and breathing patterns and the arrangement of fingers in his fists (for fuck’s sake), and become more and more offensive while doing so.

Yet this was the first step in Sano’s plan to impress Kenshin. That Arakaki was the best he’d been able to come up with in his quest to learn better defensive techniques was not terribly promising, but he couldn’t quit so soon after starting just because the man was incredibly irritating and not actually very educational so far. Wasn’t part of the point of all of this to demonstrate he was a responsible adult capable of deliberate improvement? He would just have to try harder.

Unfortunately, his annoyance had caused him to tense up even farther. Observing this, Arakaki leaned back and crossed his arms, foot tapping impatiently, with an exaggerated sigh. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” he wondered aloofly.

“I’m paying you good money,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Just get on with it.”

“You’re paying me borrowed money, I believe. I could just as easily find someone to work with who’ll pay me out of his own pocket, if this is all a little beyond you.”

At this, Sano felt his resolve to put up with this asshole dissolving. He could do better than this. Surely there was some option that wouldn’t make him want to pull his hair out — or perhaps pull Arakaki’s hair out in big, painful, bloody clumps. The only salvage he thought he could make of this scene was to get at least some of his borrowed money’s worth out of Arakaki by forcing him into a fight that might be interesting even if it wasn’t particularly edifying. So, as he growled, “Like hell you can!” he hurled himself at the other man.

But somewhat to his surprise and even dismay, Arakaki’s expression went from startlement at Sano’s sudden move to blankness as Sano’s fist connected solidly with his cheekbone. Without ever a twitch toward his weapon, Arakaki went down.

In some bemusement, not quite grasping what had just happened or what to do with the energy he’d built up for combat that now obviously wasn’t going to take place, Sano stood over the fallen form, staring. A thunderous scowl grew on his face as the truth dawned on him, and curses presently began pouring from his mouth. More in belated response to Arakaki’s sneering than anything else, Sano kicked his fallen ‘mentor’ a couple of times, then searched through the man’s pockets until he found the money that had been meant to pay for this and future lessons. Finally he stalked away to look for Genji, intending to give him a good backhand for hooking him up with a defense trainer that was all talk.

Halfway across town, however, and upon further reflection, his anger at his friend had cooled. He hadn’t actually specified that he was looking for someone more skilled than himself, someone that could easily defeat him. That would have been a difficult requirement to meet in any case. And even if Genji should really have known that book-learning and teaching thereby didn’t mean shit to Sano, such methods probably meant something to someone. All that nasal absurdity about stance and breathing and proper arrangement of fingers surely had its place, and Genji shouldn’t be blamed if he thought that place might be in a training session with Sano.

But Genji also didn’t know how much of Sano’s heart was wrapped up in this, how much of Sano’s future happiness depended on his following through with his plan. What to do now?

He thought back through the major conflicts he’d taken part in, listing one by one the people that had managed to defeat him during his adult life as a warrior: Kenshin, Aoshi, Saitou, Shishio… it was not an extensive list, and even less so in the possibilities it presented for a new defense tutor. Kenshin was, self-evidently, unfeasible. Shishio and Saitou were dead. Which left only Aoshi. Which meant going back to Kyoto, damn it all.

As if subconsciously seeking an excuse not to return to a place he associated with very few pleasant memories and that was, additionally, two hundred and fifty miles away, he found his mental vision filled with Aoshi’s frigidity of glance and strange gaunt figure, his mental hearing with the Okashira’s hushed, almost eerie voice. That man gave him the utmost creeps, and how likely was he to want to help Sano anyway? During the weeks between the defeat of Shishio and the Kenshingumi’s return to Tokyo, Aoshi’s attitude had struck Sano not so much with penitence toward Kenshin as something much more… covetous. It could have been his imagination, but he wouldn’t be surprised to find that Aoshi thought of Kenshin very much as Sano did.

Not Aoshi, then.

Sano’s thoughts kept returning to Saitou. If only that bastard hadn’t been fried to a crisp and presumably flattened like an okonomiyaki back in Shishio’s fortress, he would be absolutely ideal. Sano wasn’t quite sure where this concept of Saitou’s perfection for the job came from, but figured it had something to with the officer’s casual willingness to beat him up. Why the fuck hadn’t Saitou done something back there? He’d never seemed the type to give in, but he’d just lit a cigarette and walked straight to Hell; it had practically been deliberate suicide. Of course there wasn’t much chance he could have jumped that damn chasm, but he could at least have made the attempt…

On the spur of an annoyed and bitter moment in the midst of these thoughts, Sano decided just to go get drunk with the money Genji had loaned him for defense tuition. Maybe if he found a crowded bar full of toughs as volatile as himself, he could start a brawl that might teach him a thing or two. But even as he turned his feet toward the best area of town for this activity (which he knew well from long experience), he was rolling his eyes at the recollection of fight after fight with large groups of men that hadn’t taught him anything but arrogance.

The plausibility of the ideas he came up with as he drank lessened with each degree of sobriety that slipped from him. There was Heihachiro-sensei, who’d always been a friend to Sano even if he was a bit washed up… Hiko Seijuurou, an ass Sano didn’t particularly ever want to see again… that Shigure guy that had caused so much trouble right after they’d come back from Kyoto and was, of course, dead… For one silly drunken moment, Sano even seriously considered tracking down that psychotic Soujirou kid, who’d definitely known how to fight like a fucking badass even if he was completely out of his mind… but finding him would be even more trouble than going back to Kyoto and trying to convince an equally out-of-his-mind Aoshi that Kenshin was better off with Sano than with a depressed necrophiliac that had twice tried to kill him.

Sano demanded more sake of the bar staff by the time-honored method of slamming down his current empty jug so hard it cracked. If only fucking Saitou were alive! Sano’s anger at the absent police officer seemed to increase alongside, but separate from, his anger at the situation in general. What was he going to do? Only a little way into his plan and he was already at an impasse! An impasse he would never have hit if Saitou were just around, damn him!

Nobody had brought him any more sake, but it didn’t matter; he seized a jug from the tray of someone passing nearby, who was too afraid of him in his current state to protest. The room suddenly felt dim and stuffy, much too small to house his mood that expanded like a roiling stormcloud. He seemed to have grown huge, bloated with anger, and as he stood he felt like he was dwarfing the other customers as well as the staff–

–when in actuality he was reeling, falling back to his seat and almost losing hold of his latest provision of drink as he tried to catch himself. Damn. He pushed up again heavily with his free hand against the table, took another gulp for increased steadiness, and, once he’d gotten his legs, staggered toward the exit. A red haze floated around him and supported him to a certain extent; it was, he thought, the buoyant energy of his hatred for everything in the world except Kenshin — maybe even Kenshin, who’d dared to capture his heart without his permission and put him into this irate quandary. Damn that peace-loving redhead!

Sano’s shoulder hit the doorframe with his ill-aimed attempt at departure, and this distracted him from his rage long enough to hear the proprietor’s voice– “Sir, your bill…?”

Yes, he should probably pay, since he had money for once. He’d forgotten why he had money, but there was no reason to drag others down into his miserable state when he did have the means to interact properly. Fumbling in his pocket, he extracted what he had and dropped it somewhere before staggering out the door.

An intense desire was building inside him much more potently than the distant awareness that this upright posture was pushing his alcohol-saturated blood throughout his body in such a way that he wasn’t likely to remain upright all that much longer. There was something he specifically wanted to do… what was it… fight someone? Yeah, that was it. His aching fist was pleading for a skull, and as he swallowed more sake he could have sworn that the jug was speaking its concurrence with each glug.

But it wasn’t just anyone he wanted to fight… not Kenshin or Gohei or Anji — these were the names that came blearily to mind, only to be dismissed by a rakish wave of hand in the dark street. There was someone he specifically wanted to fight, someone he desperately wanted to give a good thrashing. Someone whose fault it was that he was so miserable tonight.

In the shadows ahead, beside an object his increasingly wavering vision eventually recognized as a wall, he thought he saw him: tall, slim, clad in dark blue and black, nihontou worn high at his side, the man he so intensely sought. Smoke curled hazily from somewhere beneath two gleaming gold spots; yeah, that was the bastard. He grinned — at least he thought he grinned; some of his muscles either weren’t responding to his brain or just weren’t reporting what they were up to — and stumbled forward, hands clenching into fists.

His charge gained momentum, but even as he heaved his weight into a solid punch to the head that would fucking show him, that would pay him back for going off and dying and leaving Sano in a dilemma like this, he felt his eyelids falling inexorably closed and an irresistible leadenness overtaking his entire frame. Too late, too late. Too much sake, too angry, too stupid, too late. As he crumpled, he cursed himself: Of course Saitou’s not there, ahou; he’s… But even as he mentally formed Saitou’s pet name for him, everything went black.

And the tall figure that had sidestepped his punch leaned casually, quickly, and caught him with one arm before he hit the ground. The other hand flicked away the butt of a cigarette, then smoothed out, as if to see it better, the rumpled kanji covering the limp back. A faint, monosyllabic laugh came from the darkness beneath the golden gleams. “Ahou ga.”

***

As Sano awoke to a splitting headache fueled by the rush of light into his suddenly opened eyes, he tried to remember where he was, why he was wherever that was, and whether anything had happened last night that he might need to answer for. Memory came trickling back, and he groaned. Imagine attacking a wall thinking it was Saitou! To have believed even briefly that Saitou was somehow alive and just happened to be not only in Tokyo but on the very street that held the bar where Sano had been drinking, Sano must have had more to drink in that bar than he’d realized — a theory that, as he blinked slowly and experimentally once or twice, was fully sustained by the flare of nauseating pain in his head.

Though well aware that he might be happier in ignorance, he turned sluggishly to see if he couldn’t figure out where he was. There had been instances in the past when this fact had remained a mystery for some time after his awakening, and in those cases his inability to recognize his surroundings had presented a source of interest that could at least distract from even if it didn’t override the discomfort of the hangover. Unfortunately, this small bare chamber separated from the hallway beyond by thick bars provided no such interest. The knowledge that he’d been incarcerated, rather than distracting him, could only add to his current feelings of general wretchedness. After he got out of here, he was going to need another drink.

“Yo, tori-atama!”

Fucking shit… he was definitely going to need another drink.

“The hell d’you want?” he demanded, directing his face toward the ceiling again and reclosing his eyes.

“Just thought you might wanna know why you’re in here, is all.” Chou leaned casually against the bars, grinning as he peered inside at Sano with one eye.

A lamp mounted on the wall across the hallway was placed so as to shine as fully as possible into the cell for optimal inmate visibility; Sano knew from experience how many of these lined the corridor, and that the cops only lit each one when its corresponding cell was occupied. At the moment, though Sano certainly wasn’t about to point it out, Chou stood precisely in the right spot to block the light from falling onto this inmate’s sensitive eyelids — a circumstance that made an unusual love-hate relationship out of one generally a good deal more straightforward.

“Like it’s never happened before,” he finally muttered in reply to Chou’s flippant comment.

“What,” the broomhead wondered, “you attacking a police officer in the middle of the night?”

Sano sat bolt upright, his heart suddenly, inexplicably pounding, eyes wide despite the stabbing discomfort. “At-t-tacking a policeofficer?”

Squint momentarily not so tight, Chou stared at him in bemusement. “Yeah… officer patrolling over in Akasaka says you came out of a bar drunk as a fucking dog and tried to attack him for no reason, but–” chuckling derisively– “you passed out before you could even get in one single hit.”

Fucking hell. Sano lay back down on the hard bench, closing his eyes yet again and breathing deeply despite how rancid the air currently tasted and smelled thanks to whatever had gone on inside his mouth and nasal passages while he’d been unconscious.

Now the story was told, lack of detail notwithstanding, Sano felt foolish and more than a bit confused at his own reaction to Chou’s original statement. He wouldn’t even try to pretend he hadn’t taken those words as an immediate confirmation that it had actually been Saitou, and he wondered both where he’d gotten such a foolish notion as well as why that foolish notion had so roused him. Obviously he would have liked to think Saitou might be available to train him in defense so he could impress Kenshin… but why had he seemed, to himself and possibly to Chou, just plain excited at the thought of Saitou alive?

“Whatever,” he said, trying to sound casual.

“‘Whatever’ won’t get you out of this, ahou,” Chou laughed.

Sano sat up again, as if hearing himself called ‘ahou’ in an unaccustomed voice pricked him more than it ever had when Saitou had said it. “Don’t call me that.”

Chou shrugged, still laughing. “Whatever you say, bakayarou. You know, I had no idea you were so fucking famous around here! Seems like the whole force knows who you are, and nobody was even a tiny bit surprised when you got dragged in last night.”

Sano just grunted.

“That’s good, though, ’cause you ain’t getting out of here for free this time.” The broomhead grinned broadly. “So it’s a good thing this is like your second home, huh?”

On the extremely uncomfortable bench, Sano turned toward the wall, putting his back decidedly to Chou. The latter, at this futile gesture of denial, walked off with another laugh.

Once he determined Chou had really gone — gone, undoubtedly, to annoy someone else, though leaving behind a sinking feeling that this hadn’t been his last appearance down here — Sano gave a sigh, rolled onto his back again, put his hands behind his head, and crossed one leg over the other. This position put his closed eyelids into the direct path of the light Chou no longer blocked, but he had to get used to it sooner or later. And he felt he might be able to go back to sleep if he lay still enough. As he drifted in and out of a hangover-hazed doze, he imagined…

“Yes, Sano, I love you. Of course I love you.” Kiss, kiss. “I was immediately interested when we first met at the Akabeko, and by the time we first fought, I was in love. Maybe I did not know it then, but I was. It broke my heart when you and Katsu were planning on bombing that government building. I thought it was simply because you were my friend, but the truth is… I already loved you then. As I do now… as I always will…” Kiss, kiss, kiss. “And when I was unconscious in Shishio’s fortress, it was the memory of you that brought me back from the brink of death… yes, you were the one that saved me then. I love you, Sano.”

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

“Ah, Sano! Now make love to me like the violent animal you are.”

“All right, Kenshin!”

Eventually Sano turned his back again to the barred doorway so as to imagine the next part more freely…

…for a week.

By the seventh day, he’d been through this imaginary process more times than he could count, and, though he didn’t scruple to attach the label ‘masterpiece’ to some of his mental compositions and the brilliant concurrence of physical sensation he was able to orchestrate as he came up with them, he was just about ready to throttle someone. Why the hell was he still here?? Why hadn’t one single person he knew shown up at least to ask what it would take to get him out of jail if not immediately volunteer the required money? Every hour he was forced to stagnate here was one hour more Kaoru had to get a tighter squeeze on Kenshin’s heart and one hour less Sano had to work on his plans for conquest. Where was everyone?!

He supposed he should consider himself lucky that, after public drunkenness leading to unwarranted aggression against a police officer, he should be facing merely detainment until a fine could be paid; and admittedly there was more surety of a daily meal here (however unappetizing and undernourishing) than at home… but it would take circumstances immeasurably more desirable than these to make up for the lack of attention from his friends and the presence of attention from goddamn Chou. Sano was almost to the point where if getting out required fucking up his damaged hand even farther in breaking the bars, so the hell be it.

And then one day they let him go. Half asleep, as wasn’t infrequently the case where he had no other pastime, he was dreaming about Kenshin in a manner he wouldn’t have dared had he been crashing at the dojo (even his subconscious having a very healthy fear of discovery in that area), when the sound of Chou’s impudent voice and the rattling of the bars burst through the beautiful images in Sano’s head like a runaway horse crashing through a silk merchant’s stall: bright fragments scattered abruptly in every direction, fluttering into obscurity.

Starting, jumping up with clenched fists, Sano didn’t concern himself with the disorientation of awakening, only growled out an incoherent oath as he looked around murderously for whoever had interrupted him and Kenshin. But Kenshin wasn’t there. Sano was still in jail. And being bothered by Chou for the eight millionth time.

Now what the hell do you–” But as full wakefulness snapped into place and Sano became conscious of sights other than the gallingly bright clothes and hair of his personal plague, he realized Chou had unlocked and opened the door and was standing aside watching Sano with a faint, contemplative grin. “It’s about fucking time!” Sano roared, not hesitating to stalk out of the cell and direct his anger at Chou in order to work off the worst of it. “If I never have to see your stupid face again, it’ll be too fucking soon.”

Then he turned to loose what he considered a very appropriate remaining amount of wrath on whoever had only bothered to show up to get him out of jail after seven goddamn days, but he found the hallway empty except for the customary officers assigned to watch the prisoners. These men, possibly aware that they might fall next on Sano’s list of potential objects for his rage if they weren’t careful, or possibly just in an attempt to keep straight faces, affected the stoniest and most oblivious guard-stare directly before them that Sano had ever seen.

With a scowl he whirled to face Chou again. “How the hell am I out?”

Chou shrugged, his grin widening. It was an expression he’d worn on and off all week during his absolutely pointless visits; maddeningly, it declared without words that Sano was being mocked for some reason he did not comprehend. “Fine’s paid,” he said in a deceptively mild tone.

“By who?”

Again Chou shrugged. “Someone who’s sick of watching you lay there jacking off all day, I guess.”

Momentarily thrown off-balance and losing track of his anger, Sano fought a violent blush. Was that just a careless figure of speech, or did Chou or someone else actually know what Sano had been doing all week?

One side of Chou’s crooked grin pulled up even farther as he moved to close the cell door, and Sano didn’t know what this meant. In any case, it wasn’t a topic he wanted to dwell on, so as soon as he had control of his voice again he demanded, “But who?” Who would pay his fine but not stick around to tell him they’d done it?

The glimpse of Chou’s expression Sano caught when the broomhead turned back toward the hallway’s exit past the stone-faced guards proved that the mockery hadn’t faded. “I guess you do have a friend somewhere after all, eh?”

“No, seriously,” Sano insisted as he followed, “if you know who it was, fucking tell me!”

But Chou, continually with that stupid teasing grin on his stupid face, refused to answer — and he was (somewhat surprisingly, actually) slick enough in dodging the question that Sano wasn’t sure whether it was a proper refusal or a real lack of information. And since he likewise couldn’t be sure whether or not Chou knew some of the specifics of Sano’s idle pastimes over the last week, and honestly would rather not be sure, he felt it was dangerous to continue prying. Besides that, the cops were all staring at and whispering about him in the rooms of the station through which he dogged Chou’s footsteps, and he had other business elsewhere anyway. So eventually he left.

***

All the way through town away from the main police station, across the river into Asakusa, and up the hill to the Kamiya Dojo, someone followed Sano. It was unmistakable, even from the distance necessary to maintain secrecy, that Sano was filthy from an unwashed week in prison, and this in combination with his loud grumbling to himself and his murderous gait served both to ward off others and to inhibit Sano’s ability to notice his tail. And the chances were infinitesimal that anyone else would notice the two of them and come to the conclusion that one was following the other.

Outside the main doors, which Sano had already flung (and left) open in order to stalk inside, the follower paused. It took a few moments to determine that, with Sano crossing the dojo grounds in a direction unpropitious for entering any of the buildings, the entertainment to be had in spying on him was not yet at an end. So the follower moved around the perimeter to locate a tree that would allow good visibility over the wall into the yard, and arrived at that height just in time to observe Sano heading purposefully for a red-headed figure busy with a couple of tubs of water and a basket of washables.

“Good morning, Sano,” Himura said, in a friendly enough tone but without looking around. Whether he could sense the watcher in the tree as well as the approaching young man was neither evident nor terribly important; possibly the purely idle curiosity of one was completely masked by the distinctly combative aura of the other. In any case, Himura finished hanging up the latest garment extracted from the second tub, and began to turn to greet Sano properly. “You’ve been–” But here, as he ducked in a movement so reflexive, apparently, that his surprise at the blow he dodged was synonymous with his surprise at his own motion, his feet twisted in the muddy results of the current chore, and he ended up putting one hand and one knee down into the stuff in order to keep from falling.

Though Sano withdrew the fist that had struck out against Himura, he didn’t unclench it, as if still contemplating another try if the moment and his emotions seemed to call for it. As he watched Himura stand again and look ruefully down at the mud, he demanded, “What the fuck is the big idea? Leave me sitting in jail for a week like you don’t fucking care?”

The distress mingled with the anger on Sano’s face was easy for the hidden watcher to read, but Himura, being somewhat oblivious to emotion that didn’t pertain to combat, either missed it entirely or misinterpreted it. “Jail?” he echoed in a surprised squeal. He’d been about to plunge his hand into the soapy water, but paused with the dirty appendage poised comically just above the top of the tub as he looked at Sano with wide eyes.

“You didn’t notice.” The flat resignation of Sano’s tone barely cracked with the faintest touch of unhappiness.

“Why were you in jail?” Now Himura completed his intention of washing his hand — he had to get the other one involved as well — and then started rubbing ineffectually at his soiled knee.

Sano sighed. “You didn’t even know I was there.”

Without ceasing to rub, Himura looked Sano over more carefully than he’d yet done. “I see it now,” he said. “And smell it,” he added a bit reluctantly. “You have been in jail for a week?”

As Himura’s eyes rose to where they would have met Sano’s, the younger man looked away. “Oh, who fucking cares? I’m out now, no thanks to any of you guys.”

“Well, I apologize for neglecting you.” The sense that Himura was attempting to placate and humor Sano with this placid statement was, the watcher thought in some amusement, unlikely to do much good in this situation.

“Sanosuke!”

Sano’s cringe at the sound of Yahiko’s voice from across the yard was visible even from afar — but perhaps not visible to Himura, who’d turned back to his work. It was almost as clear as if Sano had said it aloud: he regretted making this visit at this time, in this mood, and had no desire to talk to Yahiko right now.

“Where have you been?” the kid wondered as he came running up.

“Jail,” was Sano’s grumpy reply. “And since none of my ‘friends’ bothered to notice I was gone for a week, I only just got out.”

“Wow, you must have done something really stupid,” laughed Yahiko, “if they actually kept you for a whole week… don’t they usually let drunks out once they’re sober?”

The glance Sano threw now at the house was as easy to read as his wince at Yahiko’s appearance: “Kaoru might show up any time, and I don’t want to be here when she does.” Though Sano called her ‘jou-chan,’ didn’t he? In any case, he answered briefly as if to facilitate the haste of his departure: “I attacked a police officer.”

This retrieved Himura’s attention. “Did you? Why?”

Sano toed the earth near where it turned to mud around the laundry project. It seemed he didn’t really want to answer, but, having been asked by the honesty-inducing rurouni, couldn’t help himself. “I was really drunk. Thought it was Saitou.”

With a sour expression and an emphatic nod, Yahiko said, “I don’t blame you, then.”

In some concern, Himura was looking Sano over again. Eventually, not having found any serious injuries, “But I suppose it was not actually Saitou,” he said.

“Um, no…” Sano gave his friend a strange look. “Unless it was his ghost. That would be just my fucking luck.”

For a moment Himura appeared confused, but then made a sound of understanding. “You didn’t know that he is still alive.”

Sano’s reaction — the abrupt stiffening of his body, the slow, convulsive reclenching of his hands into fists, the twisting snarl that took his features — would have made the whole evening after work watching him worth it, even if it hadn’t already been so entertaining. It was almost enough to prompt vocal laughter in the tree.

“You are fucking kidding me.” The young man had stepped back a pace, his complexion cycling through various shades, some more natural than others. “You cannot be fucking serious.”

Himura just gave him a mild look as if to ask, first, what could be prompting this extremity of emotion and, second, why Sano thought he might have invented something like that.

And Sano seemed to tremble from head to toe, his anger clearly having increased to an improbable and inexplicable degree from the not inconsiderable level it had been at when he’d entered. Slamming a fist wordlessly into a palm, he whirled and stalked away out of the dojo grounds.

***

If he’d been asked why he was so angry, Sano couldn’t have explained — possibly because his attitude made even less sense to him than it would have to anyone else. To find that Kenshin, far from feeling curiosity or concern about his whereabouts, had not even noticed his absence over the past week had hurt, and this emotion should, logically, dominate… but for some reason, rage against Saitou had swallowed up everything else he might have been feeling. Perhaps, having learned that the officer yet lived, he had subconsciously adopted Saitou as a better object than Kenshin against which to channel all the pent-up aggression of seven days in jail.

This explanation, the only that came to mind, didn’t quite seem sufficient to cover the circumstance. Though there was also the fact that it was practically Saitou’s fault Sano had gone to jail in the first place. At least, Sano enjoyed heaping the blame on an absent, irrelevant party with whom he’d clashed in the past rather than on a violent fool mooning over a guy he couldn’t have, spending borrowed money to drink himself irrational, then staggering into the street and attacking uninvolved strangers at random.

And at the moment, stalking haphazardly through town without any clear idea where he was going or what his next step must be, irate at most of the world again — particularly Saitou — he found himself about as unreasonably emotion-driven as he had been that drunken night when the trouble had started.

Saitou. That was the next step, wasn’t it? –find Saitou and get him to train Sano with some of that supposed superiority of his. Too bad Sano hadn’t questioned Kenshin farther, found out if he knew the officer’s current whereabouts, before he slammed the doors and raged off impetuously into town. Not much point having a plan of any sort if he was always too thoughtless to carry it out effectively. Would he ever learn? Maybe he should just go get drunk again and…

He stopped himself with a bitter laugh. No, it seemed he wouldn’t ever learn. What he actually needed next was a bath, a wash of clothes, probably some decent sleep on a soft surface for the first time in a week, and definitely a meal. Then, with all of that done, he could go look for Saitou. He had to be reasonable.

But he was still fuming, and more specific cogitation than the jumble of desires and provocations that had come out of his time in a cell led him to more specific annoyance at the cop. How could someone allow his allies to believe him dead and just go on with his life like everything was fine? Even worse, possibly, than letting all his allies believe him dead, tell only a select few of them he’d survived as if the rest weren’t worth informing? What a prick!

Sano’s reflections, their tone alternating between accusation against Saitou and pity for himself, went on much along these lines as he scrubbed and then soaked at the expense of the bath-house owner, whom he promised to pay back before the month was out though he was damned if he knew what with. Once up to his neck in hot water, having removed the dried sweat and grime of a week of… what he’d been doing in jail all week without bathing… once his knotted muscles loosened and the relaxing, soap-scented humidity started to have the same effect on his mind, he began gradually to calm.

Why, after all, should he be angry with Saitou? The guy was alive; that should make Sano happy. Not informing his allies he hadn’t died in Shishio’s fortress still seemed like something an asshole would do — nothing could change that — but his continued existence removed what had seemed a serious blockage from Sano’s path.

He started to plan.

“Hey, Saitou! Good to see you’re still alive after all even though I totally thought you were dead for a while. Kindof a long time, actually — it’s been, what, three months since Shishio’s fortress? Funny how you never bothered to let me know you were alive, though I notice you told Kenshin. Anyway, ever since you kicked my ass way back when, I’ve been thinking about what you said, and thinking maybe, since it was your idea in the first place, you could teach me to defend myself better?”

Wow, stupid. Just walk up to him and admit I was wrong, huh? And maybe I shouldn’t dwell so much on the not-being-dead thing.

“Hey, bastard, you owe me big for kicking my ass; why don’t you teach me better defense so you can’t do it again?”

That sounds a little bit better, but I think I have to at least mention the not-being-dead thing…

“Hey, wow, it’s Saitou totally not dead! When were you planning on telling me? Yeah, that’s right, you owe me! Uh-huh, yeah, I think you’ll have to train me in defense to make up for it!”

Hmm, almost there… but he owes me for way more than just that.

“Hey, Saitou, I need a favor. I need to learn better defense, and you seriously owe me for kicking my ass twice — once when I didn’t even ask for it! — and then insulting me all the way to Kyoto and then making it seem like you were dead when you actually weren’t. How about it?”

Yeah, that might work. No way could he have any argument against all that.

Having determined what points he would raise when he found Saitou, he set off to actually find him. This wasn’t likely to be as easy as saying it, since he had no idea where to start his search or even whether or not Tokyo was the most likely place. Saitou could still be working in Kyoto, for all Sano knew, or, really, anywhere else in the country, and where to look first was… Where to look first was the police station, of course.

“Damn,” he muttered. After what he’d just been through, the police station ranked extremely low on his list of places he would like to revisit, and on a list of people he was interested in encountering, Chou did not feature at all. Of course, a few hours had passed since he’d left, and Sano had noticed several of the officers leaving for the evening; Chou might not even be there…

Who do I think I’m kidding? Chou has as much of a life as I do; of course he’ll still be there. It took him only a moment to reassess that. More of a life, actually — he’s got a job. Indecisive and not terribly happy with his unexpected self-condemnation, he loitered aimlessly outside the bath-house, irritably putting off for as long as possible a trip back to the police station. Lengthy shadows stretched from the west, and the sun had shrunken to a sliver, by the time he overcame his reluctance and started off.

This would be easier if he could count on no one at the station recognizing him as a prisoner that had just been released earlier that day… but not only did most of the police know him far too well for that, he also owned only one outfit, and that not exactly tailored for subtlety. Maybe, though, he could just stand around outside in a shadow, waiting to jump Chou when he emerged and demand to be told where Saitou was. No wonder Chou joined up, Sano reflected as he walked. One bastard attracts the next, and soon they’re all together in one building wearing the same clothes.

In annoyance he kicked hard at a stone, then hopped into a mud puddle. Brown water splashed everywhere, including his pants all the way up to the knees. Though he’d bathed his person, his clothes hadn’t yet been washed, so what was a little more dirt? Perhaps if he provided Chou such an obvious target of mockery, he could avoid the more precisely irritating jibes against other aspects of his character.

And then a voice off to his left drawled, “Are you having difficulties walking, ahou, or is your aim as bad with stones and mud as it is with punches and kicks?”

Fists formed automatically. Sano’s body pivoted on a muddy point. Everything sensible he’d earlier planned on saying spiraled as abruptly from his mind as if a plug had been pulled from a disproportionately large drain. Only a messy growl emerged from his mouth as he hurled himself at the nearby calm, irritating shape in blue.

“Yare, yare.” Saitou easily sidestepped Sano’s blow. “Don’t forget what happened the last time you tried to attack me like this.”

Since Sano had completely failed to deliver his planned opening speech for whatever reason (if ‘reason’ was any accurate description of the apparent commandeering of his entire being by overwhelming and already not-completely-logical emotion), he had planned on saying nothing, at least until he could get a grip on himself. But now, unable to stop it, he blurted out, “That was you?”

“As observant as ever, I see.” A gloved hand smoothly caught Sano’s next blow, and the young man was slammed to the ground. Before he could rise, Saitou had pressed a foot to his chest and applied much of his weight, leaning on his knee and looking down. “And as skilled,” he added, blowing smoke into Sano’s face.

“And you’re an even bigger bastard than before,” snarled Sano as his struggle to free himself proved unsuccessful. The features above him were just as he remembered — just as harsh, as if they’d been chiseled by a skilled but maladjusted sculptor, just as infuriating — right down to the fine eyebrow that rose at Sano’s words.

“You think so? I’m being much gentler than the first time we met.”

“Fuck you, Saitou,” Sano spat, trying even harder to remove the foot that dirtied his chest and probably bruised it at the same time. “It was too much effort for you to let your allies know you were still alive?”

An expression of mild surprise crossed Saitou’s face as he continued to lean thoughtfully on his raised knee and smoke his cigarette. “And why should they care?”

Wondering exactly how to answer that, Sano paused. Because they need you to help them seduce each other, was his first thought, but Saitou might well believe him drunk again if he said it. “Did you ever think some people might be worried about you?”

“Again, why should they be?”

“Fuck it, you bastard, get the hell off me so I can talk to you like a normal person!” Sano lost patience, lost track of his points again, and started beating at Saitou’s leg with both fists, flailing his own legs at the same time to try to interfere with the officer’s balance.

The cigarette in Saitou’s hand was nearly spent, but its end glowed threateningly as he brought it close to Sano’s face. This stilled the young man and forced him to cease attacking the blue-clad leg holding him down as he switched his efforts to trying to keep the burning stub away from his skin. And as he did so, Saitou remarked, “Start behaving like a civilized person, and perhaps I will consider your request.”

“You’re holding me down in the fucking mud and trying to burn my fucking face with a fucking cigarette!” Sano swatted frantically at the latter as Saitou teased him as a child might a cat (though hopefully not with a burning cigarette). “How the fuck is that civilized?!”

Saitou appeared extremely entertained. “You attacked me for no reason. Again, I might add. I’m just defending myself. The burden of reopening civilized communication is yours at the moment.”

Having finally managed to knock the cigarette butt away and been about to start thrashing around again, Sano forced himself instead to lie still. Saitou, goddamn fucker, had a point. With several deep breaths, Sano pressed his hands flat to the ground. “Will – you – please – get – off – me,” he said between gritted teeth.

“That’s better.” Finally Saitou withdrew his foot and stood back. As if nothing had happened out of his ordinary routine, he produced his cigarettes and extracted a new one. The package, Sano noted, though paper and having been in Saitou’s pocket, was uncrushed and crisp-looking — much like Saitou himself, damn him.

By now on his feet, Sano brushed dirt awkwardly from his back as best he could. He supposed he deserved this, to some extent, for having muddied Kenshin earlier — though it would have been more appropriate for Kenshin, not Saitou, to exact that revenge. And he still needed to wash his clothes in any case.

“And what did you have to say?” Saitou inquired.

Sano knew he’d had good phrases planned, but, having by now forgotten them, just came clean. “I want you to teach me better defense.”

“Ahou ga.” Saitou gave a short laugh. “You practically live with the former hitokiri Battousai and you’re asking me…” But he stopped, looking Sano over with calculating eyes. “Sou ka?” he drawled at last, his mouth spreading into a wide smirk. He appeared to be reading Sano, putting together facts — and possibly, if the activity of thought in his expression was any indication, more facts than just Sano’s sudden blush at his words about practically living with Kenshin. “You want to learn better defense to impress Himura,” he summarized, “as your inevitable infatuation with him has finally developed.”

Sano couldn’t think of any response to this besides ‘Fuck you,’ which he’d already said enough this evening, so he just glared. This wasn’t going as planned.

Looking both thoughtful and as if he found all of this extremely amusing, Saitou turned and began walking down the street, skirting the mud puddle and holding his fresh cigarette at a thoughtful angle from his face. “You want me to teach you because… if you asked Himura, you would lose your element of surprise, you don’t trust Shinomori not to be after the same thing you are, and everyone else is either dead or inaccessible.” He glanced back as if questioning why Sano wasn’t following. “Am I right?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was surly as he hurried to catch up.

“And that explains your anger that I didn’t inform you I was still alive.”

“That’s only part of it! We were all in it together — you, me, Kenshin; even Aoshi, once he got a clue; and there were other people who weren’t in the fortress with us but who were fighting too — we were all allies against Shishio together. Why would you just tell Kenshin you weren’t dead? You assumed none of us would care, sure, but you still told him…”

“I see one of your problems already.” Saitou’s sidelong amused smugness was extremely annoying. “Anyone looking at your little group might assume that telling Kenshin was the same as telling all of you, but apparently he doesn’t share with you nearly as much as an outsider would think… or as much as you would like.”

Sano blushed and scowled.

“And as a matter of fact, I didn’t tell him I was still alive. But he was bound to notice when I ran into him during that little uprising a month ago. His surprise was almost comical.”

“Oh.” Sano couldn’t exactly say he liked this piece of information, since Saitou was being an aloof jerk and making fun of Kenshin in the same breath, but for some reason it still fell relatively pleasantly on his ears. That Saitou hadn’t, at least, thought Kenshin worth more consideration than the rest of them — even if Sano himself might have agreed Kenshin was — relieved Sano unexpectedly.

This moment of pensiveness gave Saitou a chance to return to their previous topic. “So you want my help with your substandard defensive abilities so you can get this Kenshin of yours to notice you.” In response to Sano’s noise of affirmation, Saitou nodded slowly. His mocking expression did not bode entirely well, but he seemed to be taking the subject seriously enough for the moment. “It’s not a bad idea. And by that I mean it’s an idiotic idea, but I suppose it might work. The question is, what are you willing to do in exchange for my services?” He still sounded far too entertained, which still felt a little worrisome.

“I’ll pay you,” Sano said hesitantly. However mocking Saitou might or might not be, this was probably the longest conversation that had ever taken place between them at this level of placidity, and as such Sano considered himself in uncharted waters.

“With what money?” was Saitou’s immediate, dismissive response.

Sano would have retorted that he did sometimes do work and get paid for it, and that, being a decent guy unlike some people he knew, he also had friends willing to extend him loans — he’d borrowed money just recently specifically to pay for defense training! But he remembered even as the words formed in his head that he’d spent all of that money to get drunk and was now as broke as usual.

“No,” Saitou went on, “I think you’ll have to do my housework for me.”

“Where the fuck did you get–” Sano stopped short of throwing another fit as he recalled that he was supposed to be behaving like a civilized person — that Saitou was doing just that, more or less, and was probably owed, for once, some degree of politeness. “Uh, you came to that conclusion quickly,” he corrected himself.

“It’s the only logical one,” Saitou explained with a narrow-eyed smile. “I can’t afford to spend time with you unless I get something out of it. You have no job, and won’t have time for one if you’re training as hard as you’ll have to be in order to learn anything from me. You can spend what spare time you have on my laundry and dishes.” These words were calculated to make Sano grimace, and in response to the expression Saitou added, “I rather think I’ll be getting the worse end of the bargain still.”

Laundry and dishes. Despite the accuracy of Saitou’s assessment, Sano couldn’t help fuming at how easily he’d been second-guessed and outmaneuvered. What had happened to Saitou being in his debt for all that shit? He decided to bring it up and get some leverage. “Hey, what about all that crap you gave me? You kicked my ass twice for no reason, you know, and then dumped shit on me the whole time in Kyoto, and then pretended to be dead. What about all that?”

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

Saitou spared him another amused glance as he led them around a corner and down a residential street. “I owe you because I defeated you? I have to admit, I was grateful to find you there just when I needed a gift for Himura, but that was hardly more than coincidence.”

“‘Grateful,'” Sano snorted. “As if you didn’t plan it all.”

“I planned to hurt one of his friends, yes,” replied Saitou somewhat grimly, “to make an important point about the dangers of trying to challenge an enemy and look out for weaker fighters at the same time. If you hadn’t been that friend, who do you think would have been?”

With a faint shiver, Sano tried not to contemplate the answer to that question. For a fleeting instant — as if, seated on a fast-moving carriage, he had caught a glimpse of scenery lining up perfectly for a sudden, piercing clear view straight into some distant scene that was normally hidden from his eyes — he could see Saitou’s point of view, see the ruthless measures he was willing to adopt in his pursuit of evil and for the sake of Japan… but this provided him no comfort. Understanding was not the same as concurrence. “I don’t agree with your extreme methods,” he insisted, “so that doesn’t make up for the fucking wound in my shoulder.”

Saitou shrugged. “And yet the country is free from Shishio, and here we all are back to our normal lives.”

And there was the second time — in the street outside Katsu’s place? You were a total asshole there, you know.”

“If you still haven’t grasped the point I was trying to make, there’s nothing I can do about it. Unless,” he added, “you’d like me to reopen your shoulder again.” When Sano’s only answer was a snort, Saitou went on. “I did what I thought was necessary to try to prevent you from following Himura. You did prove useful in the end, but another time I might still take the same steps.”

For a moment Sano was shocked into silence. Was this Saitou admitting that Sano had been useful at some point? That he, Saitou, had been mistaken? In his surprise, Sano couldn’t find words for his next argument. (He knew what Saitou would probably say anyway — that Sano had been belligerent enough to merit every bit of shit Saitou had dished out in Kyoto, a fact Sano couldn’t exactly dispute.)

Finally, in lieu of this, Sano tried to pull himself together and revisit his final point. “But what about pretending to be dead? That’s pretty fucked up, if you ask me, to go along helping people and then suddenly just let them think you died.”

Apparently they’d reached their destination, for Saitou did not immediately answer as he headed for the door of a small but comfortable-looking house in the equally comfortable-looking lane along which they’d been walking. He unlocked it, creating a deep rectangle of darkness and gesturing Sano to enter before him. As the door shut behind them, immersing them for several moments in near-blackness, Saitou finally replied. “You shouldn’t assume my escape from Shishio’s fortress was easy. I wasn’t in any state to see anyone for some time after the battle.”

Sano felt his annoyance fading, though at the concise defeat of his last argument he really ought to have been more angry with the slippery bastard. But the tone in Saitou’s voice held just the tiniest bit of strain — so faint Sano could barely hear it, and only noticed because it contrasted so pointedly with the amusement that had colored nearly all of the officer’s previous comments. Still, Sano didn’t give up easily. “Couldn’t you have sent a message?”

“Hn.” Saitou’s soft footsteps sounded through the darkness down what seemed to be a short hallway, then paused at its end. “Dear Himura-tachi– Not that you’ll care, but I am not dead, only horribly burned. Do not come see me. Do not send that doctor with the intolerable laugh to look at me. As a matter of fact, you might as well forget I exist. But I’m not dead. –Saitou. Would that have made you feel better?”

“‘Horribly burned?'” Sano echoed, curious, hastening the removal of his shoes so he could follow.

Another rectangle appeared, this one of light, as Saitou slid open a door at the end of what did, in fact, turn out to be a short hallway. Sano barely had time to look around at the two other closed doors to left and right before Saitou’s form blocked the light again as he entered the far chamber. The younger man hurried after.

This great room filled the back half of the house and was divided between a neat kitchen and an open living area with a fireplace. Saitou walked immediately into the former with the querying statement, “I assume you’re hungry.”

Sano’s stomach jumped excitedly, thoughts of food wiping out all others. It had been over a week since he’d enjoyed a proper meal. “Yes!” he replied eagerly. “Hell, yes!”

“Since I also assume you can’t cook, I’ll make supper for both of us, and then we can agree on the details of our arrangement.”

Just as at the dojo, Sano saw no reason to mention here that he wasn’t a bad cook himself. What Saitou’s skills in that area might be he had no idea, but still he made a grateful noise at the prospect of real food.

At the sound, Saitou rolled eyes in Sano’s direction. “Sick of that stuff we serve at the station, are you?”

These words triggered a memory. “Hey,” Sano wondered, “you don’t happen to know who paid the fine to get me out of there, do you?” Actually it was a little annoying to think about having been held for a fine just for attacking Saitou; some random officer, sure, but Saitou was an old acquaintance that knew perfectly well Sano wanted to fight him again. But there was nothing to be done about it now, and Saitou might not even have had anything to do with the assignment of that punishment. “It wasn’t any of my friends, as far as I know.” He tried to keep the bitterness from his tone as he recalled how Kenshin hadn’t seemed to have noticed or cared about Sano’s absence.

“Your haphazard life is certainly funnier to watch when you’re out of jail than when you’re in it,” Saitou mused from where he’d been unwrapping some thin strips of beef he hadn’t appeared surprised to find on the kitchen counter. “And Chou is completely useless when there’s someone in the cells he wants to bother on a regular basis. There are a number of reasons someone besides your friends might have paid the fine or tried to get it dropped.” He shrugged as if out of suggestions.

Sano supposed he might as well get used to the idea that he would never know for sure, and to assuage his annoyance started to admire the room. It was furnished in cherrywood, which set off the red ink of the paintings hanging on the walls, and in general much cozier than Sano would have expected Saitou’s home to be. “Nice place you got here,” he commented eventually.

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

Whistling some random notes, Sano obeyed the suggestion and returned to the hallway, where he tried to reach the two closed doors simultaneously but couldn’t quite. Once separate movements had opened both, he observed that he hadn’t been mistaken, from outside, about the size of the house. “Hey, you only have three rooms!” he remarked, loudly enough to be heard by Saitou in the kitchen.

“I was aware of that,” came the wolf’s dry answer.

“So this is your bedroom?” Sano wondered next as he poked his head into the tidy chamber on the right. The red ink paintings must have been a series, as there were a few more in here.

“No, it’s just a room with a bed in it,” Saitou replied.

“And what the hell is this?” Sano stepped into the last room, glancing around in some surprise at the full shelves and the desk that looked like it had seen a lot of use.

“A study, ahou, not that I would expect you to know what that is.”

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

Feeling no need to examine anything in great detail when he would, presumably, have plenty of opportunity to do so in days to come, Sano returned to the great room. “Nice place,” he said again.

With the bucket he now held, Saitou gestured toward the door leading outside. “Refill this from the well by the gate.”

Sano nodded, accepting the container, and stepped outside. “Hey, this is nice!” he shouted back into the house as he crossed the yard. “You cops make some pretty good money, huh?”

Saitou’s answer from the kitchen was barely audible: “Why don’t you announce it to the whole neighborhood?”

After glancing over the private bath and the adjoining properties that compared unfavorably to Saitou’s, Sano located the well and fetched what he’d come out for. Then he headed back inside. “Who did that rock gardening?”

“I did.”

“I’m impressed! You’ve got a-whole-nother side to you I never would have guessed.”

“We can’t all be as one-dimensional as you are.” Some of the water Sano had brought went into a teapot and was set to boil next to whatever else was cooking on the stove.

Rather than reply in annoyance to the accusation of being one-dimensional, Sano only found himself wondering whether Kenshin too thought of him that way. This reminded him of the reason he’d come here in the first place, and he glanced around the room again with an eye specific to the potential chores involved in its layout. “So you want me to clean stuff for you, huh? And do your laundry? How much laundry can a guy like you possibly have? And dishes? I mean, you only eat here a couple times a day, don’t you?”

“I am a bit picky about the state of my house. It may be more work than you’re anticipating.”

Sano scratched his head. “I hate to say it, but it seems like what you said — I’m getting the better end of this deal.”

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

“I’m just wondering what’s in this for you.”

From where he stood at the stove, Saitou turned just enough for Sano to catch the positively evil twinkle in his eye. “The chance to beat your sorry ass again, perhaps?”

Sano felt a strange shiver go through him, almost as if he were looking forward to that. This scared him to the point where only the promise of food kept him from bolting out the door. In a tone that tried for casualness as he looked quickly away from Saitou, “All right, so when do you start beating my ass again?” he asked.

“Tomorrow.”

Now Sano looked quickly back at Saitou. “Shit, you’re really serious about this!”

“Did you think I would bring someone like you into my house just to feed you?”

“I never know what to think of a bastard like you,” Sano shrugged. “And I’m thinking tonight you must be drunk or something, ’cause you’re being all nice to me and shit. I almost can’t believe my luck.” Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “Hey, you’re not going to change your mind all of a sudden when you sober up, are you?”

“Ahou, if I were drunk, you wouldn’t be alive right now.”

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

Saitou threw him an exasperated look. “You’re not likely to learn anything from me if you can’t take me seriously.”

A little surprised by this remark, Sano moved a pace closer and leaned on the kitchen counter next to the board where Saitou had previously been chopping vegetables. “I thought I was taking you seriously,” he said. “But since all I really know about you is that you’re a heartless asshole who likes to stick swords in people and then batter them and taunt them and trick them into thinking he’s dead–”

“I believe we already discussed this,” Saitou interrupted shortly.

“Whatever you say,” Sano grinned. “My point is that I don’t know much more about you than all that, so when you give me a macho line about how you’d have killed me by now if you were drunk…” Well, actually, based on those very characteristics Sano had just listed, a remark like that should logically be more threatening from Saitou than it would have been from anyone else. Sano cleared his throat.

The set of Saitou’s shoulders looked somewhat triumphant, but he didn’t pursue the topic any farther. Instead, he pointed out where he kept his table settings, and instructed Sano to lay them out.

The table itself, a neat little red rectangle that couldn’t have seated more than two, proved Saitou wasn’t in the habit of entertaining, and Sano quickly centered it (roughly) in the living area and started loading it up. Then it was only a few minutes more before Saitou brought over what he’d cooked, arranged their supper, and took a seat. Feeling a bit nervous all of a sudden for what reason he didn’t quite know, Sano joined him.

The noodles and steamed vegetables and beef weren’t as delicious as Kenshin would have made them, but Sano had to admit that Saitou was no mean hand in the kitchen. And as they ate, the officer enumerated the specific tasks he wanted done on a daily and weekly basis, with details on how they were to be performed. He told about the foodstuffs he had regularly delivered since he apparently didn’t like shopping much; and about the neighbors that shared access to the well and which of them would make themselves obnoxious if Sano gave them the chance. He also explained his own schedule, what time he was likely to be home on most days in order to engage in regular training sessions, and what events might occasionally delay him. It all sounded very reasonable, and the idea that Sano was getting the better end of the bargain hadn’t yet been challenged.

After everything had been elaborated upon and agreed to, they finished their meal in silence, but the nature of that silence eluded Sano’s probing curiosity. It wasn’t what he would call ‘friendly’ or ‘comfortable,’ but not exactly ‘cold’ or ‘stiff’ either. Perhaps ‘polite’ would be the best word for it — hardly an expression he would think to apply to anything between himself and Saitou. Maybe the best way to describe it would be ‘businesslike,’ since business associates were what they’d now become.

“So, want me to get started right away?” he asked eventually, gesturing to the table. Saitou gave a bit of a smile and a silent nod as he poured himself another cup of tea. “These are some nice dishes you got here,” Sano remarked, mostly just for the sake of having something to say, as he began to clear up. “You better hope I don’t break ’em.”

Saitou’s withering look was palpable on the back of Sano’s neck. “You had better not.”

“I’m kidding!” Sano could laugh, because Saitou’s threatening statement had restored a more accustomed atmosphere between them. “Loosen up, why don’t you? You’re in your own house, after all!”

“Not everyone can be as loose as you are — something has to get done somewhere in the city.”

“Then at least pull that damn stick out of your ass.”

“You put things in the most interesting way,” was Saitou’s bemused reply.

At the sound of a match striking behind him, Sano finished pouring the remaining water from the bucket into the basin where he’d stacked the dishes, and turned. “Give me one of those?” he requested, leaving the kitchen and approaching the table again.

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

“Doesn’t everyone? I just can’t afford it like some loaded cops I know, so you won’t see me doing it very often.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

“A little.” Sano grinned at him brazenly. “Not enough to get a real job.”

“Ahou ga.” Despite this verbal response, Saitou brought out his cigarettes again and handed Sano one from the package. He even went so far as to light it for him. “Don’t expect any more of these. I’m not buying double just so you can freeload.”

Sano made a noise of acquiescence, took a long drag, and sighed blissfully. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, and even as the word left his mouth realized it was the first time he’d ever thanked this man for anything. He rose quickly from where he’d been kneeling to receive the somewhat unexpected present, and moved toward the kitchen again to wash the dishes with his back turned.

***

The next day was rainy and grey, and Sano awoke at home with bleary eyes and little recollection, at first, of what he’d been doing the previous night. Trying to remember had to be postponed, however, since reluctant curiosity about why he felt so wet must form his primary concern. Even as his vision focused enough to observe that his ceiling had apparently decided to spring a significant leak in not one but two spots immediately over his bed, he also found his other puzzlement increasing as he noted in himself an absence of hangover and the inexplicable flavor of good tobacco in his mouth. Well, it was stale by now, but it tasted like it had been good at the time.

As he sat up, it all came back to him, and the next thing he wondered was whether Saitou’s mouth tasted like this in the mornings. Not much difference would be made even if it did; Saitou never seemed to have any end of cigarettes, and would just smoke a fresh one to override the old.

So this was Sano’s first day of work for the guy. Despite how strangely he felt the entire thing had turned out, he was pleased with it in equal measure; actually, it had all fallen into place with unexpected neatness and convenience, regardless of how he felt about Saitou. He might as well get up and head over to the bastard’s house to prove or disprove the theory about who’d gotten the better end of the deal.

He whistled as he set out across town, and offered a cheerful wave and mocking greeting to some of his friends in a dockyard he passed. They had to spend the day in the rain, whereas he would be nice and dry doing much easier work. His pity for them fled his thoughts after not too long, though, as he began to remember last night’s dreams: lovely visions of being held in warm arms in a comfortable atmosphere. This had probably contributed to his confusion upon waking, but such a contribution was totally worth it.

By the time he reached Saitou’s house, his head swam in warm, misty thoughts of Kenshin and their future together. This was the first step toward that happy ending, odd as it might seem to be doing a psychopath’s laundry in order to win the heart of the man he loved. He felt almost giddy at the thought of stepping so definitively onto the path to his goal.

Opening Saitou’s door with the key he’d been provided last night gave him an unexpected little thrill. It wasn’t everyone that could boast access to the home of a former Shinsengumi captain, now, was it? Of course, anyone personally acquainted with Saitou’s obnoxiousness probably wouldn’t have boasted of such a circumstance, but it was an interesting rarity nonetheless. And, hey, Sano was even doing this to get closer to the former hitokiri Battousai, an even greater rarity and certainly more thrilling than Saitou could ever be!

Sano’s smile at these thoughts slowly faded as he walked through the little house again and started to think seriously about the actual labor involved in this job. True, the load didn’t seem too heavy, but was more than he’d voluntarily done on a regular basis for quite some time. There was a reason, after all, that he didn’t hang around the dojo on any given day longer than it took to get his Kenshin fix. But since this was for Kenshin, he steeled himself and got to it.

Dusting the study took longer than he’d expected, for he found the motion of his hand falling to almost nothing as the titles and the eye-wearying unfamiliar characters of many of the books distracted his eye. This room was something of a pain to sweep, too, what with all the crevices formed by desk and shelves, none of which could be moved; he was glad he wasn’t expected to scrub the floor in here unless Saitou specifically requested it.

On the other hand, practically nothing needed to be done in the bedroom. Saitou, every bit as neat as Sano had expected, had left his bedding folded in the same chest that held the rolled futon, and, as this bedding only wanted washing once a week, it required no attention today. Some laundry waited in a basket by the door, but the continued rainfall outside rendered this, perforce, a task for later.

So he washed the breakfast dishes, straightened up the kitchen to the extent this was required, and swept the great room floor while he waited for the weather to clear. When it still hadn’t quite, he decided he might as well do some scrubbing; since this wasn’t technically necessary today, his efforts at it might have been somewhat lackluster, but it did, at least, pass the time relatively constructively until the rain finally stopped. Then he went outside to wash and hang the laundry.

All right, so maybe Saitou hadn’t been lying when he’d said this would be more work than Sano expected. If the young man hadn’t arisen so late in the morning, it wouldn’t be too long after lunchtime now; but since he had, by the time everything was finished, the day’s progress had been marked by the appearance of the market boy that delivered meat and vegetables for Saitou’s supper. Sano was a little surprised — Saitou had mentioned the kid usually showed up in the late afternoon or early evening; had so much time really passed? — and a little flustered as he tried to think how to introduce himself, especially when the boy referred to ‘Fujita-san’ and assumed Sano was ‘the new help.’

Whatever Sano’s job title (assuming he had one) and whatever name his ’employer’ chose to use, obviously this work was going to dominate a good part of his daylight hours in the weeks to come. And any hours that remained would probably have to be devoted to practice — Saitou had mentioned this would be the case, and Sano wasn’t such a fool as to disbelieve him. Having already dismissed the effectiveness of book-learning, he must embrace vigorous practice as essential to his quick grasp of the concepts he needed to know. He could probably pick up better defensive techniques just by watching, eventually, but ‘eventually’ wouldn’t do when a tanuki-girl lurked insidiously around the man Sano wanted to seduce.

To this eventual seduction, Sano deliberately avoided giving any real thought just yet. Such things were really the last he needed to be worried about while hanging Saitou’s clothes out to dry — and in fact were surprisingly easy to set aside, as Saitou’s clothes proved bizarrely engrossing. The blue police pants and jackets were only interesting in that Sano thought he and Saitou were almost exactly the same size and he could therefore borrow one of these uniforms for any number of mischievous or even nefarious purposes, were he so inclined; but the other contents of the laundry basket, though their mere presence there indicated they’d been worn recently, Sano simply could not imagine the uptight officer in.

This red yukata, for instance — who ever heard of Saitou wearing a warm color? Obviously he must own a yukata or two, but if Sano had ever for an instant considered such a thing, he would have assumed them to be black or a boring dark brown… possibly blue, like the uniforms, but definitely still a subdued example of that color. Never red.

The silver kimono and dark grey hakama appeared more the wolf’s style, having about them a stark, subtle sort of elegance, but still Sano struggled to picture Saitou in them. No, he corrected himself as he pensively hung them to dry, it wasn’t that he couldn’t picture Saitou in them, but that the resulting mental image looked too unexpectedly good to be plausible. He’d never really thought of Saitou as handsome, but in those… he might well turn out to be just that.

So now he had something to tease Saitou about this evening. What did he get all dressed up for in silver? Was he embarrassed enough about wearing red — a closet fan, perhaps? — that he only wore it around the house? And did he start to lose track of who he was whenever he put on anything besides the somewhat appalling number of uniforms he seemed to own? True, there wasn’t much fodder for teasing in any of this, but Sano wanted to tease him, so anything would do. He would certainly need some kind of edge when training began.

Whether he looked forward to or dreaded the upcoming session he couldn’t quite decide, especially remembering the strange sensation of last night in response to the gleam in Saitou’s eye when he’d mentioned pleasure at the prospect of beating Sano’s ass. Sano must really be pining for Kenshin, to have seen that ruthlessly eager sparkle, heard that casually deadly tone, and still be here.

The time remaining before the officer would arrive home was small enough that Sano decided just to stick around waiting for him. (This choice was definitely not influenced at all by the idea that Saitou might be willing to feed him again, an opportunity the very hungry Sano would surely miss if he went somewhere and came back later.) He stretched out on the floor of the great room, which had by now dried, and stared, lazily contemplative, at the ceiling.

Acting so freely in the home of someone he’d always thought of as his rival, even his nemesis, seemed odd to him — odd, and yet somehow natural. Presumably this naturalness arose from the knowledge that this was all part of his plan to get at Kenshin, and therefore potential awkwardness was set aside. With this explanation in mind, he didn’t worry about dozing off in the midst of some of his usual daydreams.

Perhaps he should have worried. A dull pain awakened him, a rhythmic pounding against his left hip; and as his eyes sluggishly opened, he yelled aloud when he saw the length of the sword stretching up from where its tip just brushed the skin of his neck to the gloved hand on the hilt. The pain — which he recognized now as a heel, still very solid even just in a sock, slamming down repeatedly — continued for a few moments just for good measure. “Lesson one,” Saitou said from above him: “never fall asleep in enemy territory.”

The victim of this bastardly behavior moved to slap the blade away from the vicinity of large veins, but Saitou pressed it closer so that it cut minutely into him, and Sano was forced to lie still. “Right, fine,” he said. “I get it. Lesson learned. Stop that!”

With that mocking smile of his, Saitou drew back and sheathed his weapon. “I suppose I’m not surprised to find you don’t even know that.”

“This isn’t what I’d normally call ‘enemy territory,'” Sano grumbled as he climbed to his feet.

“Isn’t it?”

What Sano had just been thinking before his little nap recrossed his mind; no, despite all prior indications, this really wasn’t what he would consider enemy territory. But he certainly wouldn’t admit to Saitou just how at-home he’d come to feel here after the course of a mere day. Next he’d be admitting that, in defiance of all logic, he suddenly didn’t really think of Saitou as ‘the enemy’ anymore either.

Especially when he noticed that the officer had apparently gotten through most of the supper-cooking process before deciding to awaken him.

Observing Sano’s pointer-like gaze into the kitchen, Saitou rolled his eyes. “Set the table,” he ordered. “Keep in mind, though,” he added as he turned away, “that if you gorge yourself now and then vomit it all onto my floor while we’re training, you’re the one who’ll be cleaning it up.”

“Oh, it takes more than some hard training to get food back from me,” Sano told him, relatively cheerfully, as he brought the little table out into the middle of the room.

“I thought that might be the case: adaptive for your subspecies.”

Though the words thus arranged meant little to him, Sano could tell this was an insult. With great difficulty, however, he refrained from demanding to know what Saitou meant; the jerk was undoubtedly waiting for him to ask, and therefore Sano would disappoint his disdainful hopes by not doing so. He thought he even made out the traces of that disappointment on Saitou’s face as he fetched dishes from near where the officer stood, and that was a sort of triumph.

Their meal consisted of the same mixture of awkwardness and unexpected ease as last night’s had, alternating mostly between that odd silence Sano had noticed then and the usual exchange of insult and rudeness. When they’d finished, Saitou instructed him to clear the table but leave washing the dishes for later or tomorrow. And once the table itself was out of the way, there was ample space for practice.

As Saitou announced that they would start with hand-to-hand, he examined Sano up and down with thoughtfully lowered brows; it made the kenkaya a little uncomfortable. In response to this feeling, Sano backed away slightly and took up a combative position, smacking a fist into a palm. “Bring it on, old man.”

Saitou’s expression slowly worked its way toward that look of evil he’d more or less terrified Sano with yesterday, and, despite his bravado, Sano suddenly felt a resurgence of that emotion. Surely he was staring pain in the face and encouraging it! But Saitou only said with innocent levelness, “Let’s look at this stance of yours first.”

***

The moron had initially been extremely reluctant to follow Saitou’s instructions, but the officer had discovered after a while a more or less forgivable reason for it: Sano feared, in consequence of the statement about stance, that these lessons would resemble those he’d attempted to engage in with some supposed expert trainer not too long ago. His worry on this point had entirely disappeared the moment Saitou started punching him. It was funny how often punching things seemed to solve problems where Sanosuke was concerned.

A whim, based on how entertaining Sano had been to watch in jail and upon his release from it, had led Saitou to enter into this arrangement in the first place, and so far he was nothing but pleased with the circumstance. His chores would be done for free by someone on whom he could, if he wished, take out all the frustrations of his day at work — someone, in fact, specifically asking for it — and Sano continued to be pretty consistently entertaining, if at times equally annoying. Saitou hadn’t quite decided yet whether he believed Sano capable of improvement under his tutelage, but he would be interested in seeing what progress did take place, and what (if any) affect the display thereof would have on Himura. Yes, Saitou would definitely keep this up for a while.

When Sano hit the floor with a full-body thud after an intense couple of hours, Saitou dropped his fists and stood straight, watching the young man carefully in case he might be faking to gain an advantage. But it seemed weariness and that last blow really had done the job; Sano was out cold. So Saitou lit a cigarette and walked away.

He went first into the yard, where he found, as he’d suspected, damp laundry still hanging. He would need to have a word with Sano on the subject of using his brain (if he had one) about weather patterns and what time of day he hung clothes out. Saitou would have to bring these inside now, because if he left them overnight they would probably be soaked by rain before either he or Sano awoke in the morning. But they did seem to have been washed and hung properly; the moron wasn’t completely ignorant.

This task finished, Saitou locked the back door and went to his bedroom. A spare blanket, rendered unnecessary by the current weather, he retrieved from the chest and, returning to the great room, shook open with one hand so it fluttered down over Sano. Then he put out the gas, shut the hallway door behind him as he left the comatose young man on his floor, and moved silently through darkness toward bed.

With a smile that lingered unusually, he prepared his futon, undressed, and lay down. Perhaps sleep came quickly for him, after his hectic day at work and the exercise he’d subsequently taken — not a gleam issued from his eyes in the blackness, and his breathing was soft and regular. But perhaps he lay awake for a time, his thoughts pleasantly busy with… something.


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 November 26, 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.


When I originally started writing this story approximately forever ago, what are now odd- and even-numbered parts formed the halves of chapters. Eventually I decided I liked it better this way, since previously there was some implied connection between the specific events in the halves of each chapter, and I didn’t like giving that impression.

The idea to have the modern parts in present tense was also a later decision. I think it’s an interesting way to differentiate the timelines and the narrating voices.


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.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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 . I wrote most of it in the car during a family vacation to Santa Fe when the interstate stopped due to feets of snow. The back seat of my dad’s car is not a comfortable place to sleep.

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


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, whose theme was a whole long list of cliches. I’ve rated the story .

My 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.

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


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 September 1, 2019.

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
33-
Chapter 33 - Before (or After) the Storm


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 th