Fate is Found in Faeryland

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

What do two dwarves (one going through sexual maturation and the other seemingly without a personality), a liberated human dairymaid, and an orc with a talking sword have in common? They’ve all, more or less, been Cursed by the monarchs of Faeryland. Can they break their Curses and retrieve what was lost? Are they in for valuable lessons about friendship and magic? Will they all get married in the end? Find out in this totally serious epic fantasy adventure!

Unique to this story: faeries can change their physical sex at will, so any characters that are faeries in this story (Trowa, Megumi, Quatre, Tomoe, and more) will present as whatever sex they feel like at any given time, and are all the same gender or lack thereof. There are also references to canonically male-presenting characters being pregnant (though it’s not mpreg as such) and canonically female-presenting characters impregnating others.

Unique to this story: cameos from various other fandoms and real life

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

Chapter 1 – Heero Gets Tickled

With the continuance of his search, there came a certain sense of rightness. It did not equate to pleasure as it once might have, yet it remained a distinctly positive feeling. He did not search out of a need for this feeling, but it seemed an extra validation of a journey he would have pursued in any case. The list grew shorter and shorter, and with every item he recovered, the correctness increased.

As he moved along his way, his peg foot crunching decisively into the fallen leaves that had dried to a fragile red at their edges and a sickly pinkish-grey at their centers, he believed an impression was at last forming in his head. He paused, steadying himself against the dark pink bole of an oak-like tree, and closed his eye.

Immediately he felt the flutter of Trowa’s wings against his face, and guessed the faery had flown from his shoulder to watch him concentrate at a better angle. Finally his Guide wondered, “Anything?”

“Yes,” Heero replied. “It’s dry and cool. There’s a… tickling sensation. Irritating.” He looked again, and found Trowa hovering in front of him, as he’d suspected. He’d only ever seen Trowa present as sexless, without clothing except for jewelry; and the faery’s pure purple skin and darker hair of the same hue contrasted brightly with the pink forest surrounding them — though whether the combination would normally please the dwarven eye, Heero could not say. They had already traveled some distance together across Faeryland, but had not visited the purple realm, so Heero had become accustomed to Trowa appearing out of place. He added, thinking of distances, “It’s faint. It’s probably far away.”

“It sounds like sand,” remarked Trowa with a nod. “It could be anywhere under the right circumstances, but I think all the sandiest places in Faeryland are along the east side of the mountains, which are far away. Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Dorothy first? There may be an easier way.”

“I’m sure.”

With a slightly huffing sigh, Trowa said, “If we continue traveling west, and cross the river and the plains, we’ll reach the Eintopf hills. By then you should have a clearer sense.”

Heero returned the nod, considering this course of action a logical one. “You continue to be a satisfactory Guide,” he said — the closest he could come to expressing what he thought were feelings of obligation and gratitude but could only catch a distant, fleeting awareness of. Trowa had counseled him to talk to Dorothy more than once, but always did him the courtesy of not pressing the issue. Heero appreciated receiving advice the giver believed to be logical, but also appreciated having his decisions respected.

Trowa gave a monosyllabic laugh, with what emotion Heero could not guess and did not try to. “Thank you,” le said. “You should rest.”

Heero said simply, “Travel will be less tiring when we strike the road.”

Though Trowa at first raised a minute eyebrow, eventually le just settled back onto Heero’s shoulder as the dwarf continued to stump through the forest in a southwesterly direction. After not too long, Heero could hear lir shifting, and then the sound of lir flute like birdsong close to his ear.

It made no real impression on him one way or another. In fact he only recognized it as music in that, unlike so many of the other noises heard on a journey through Faeryland, it indicated nothing he needed to take into consideration or even pay any attention at all.



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Chapter 2 – Kaoru Can’t Kill Combative Creatures

Unable to catch herself as she stumbled, Kaoru actually fell on her butt in the questionable dirt of the inn-yard. Moments later, her walking stick shot out the door like a javelin straight toward her, and she barely deflected it in time to avoid a lump on her head; and not long after that, an upstairs window screeched open and, before she’d even finished directing her eyes toward it, her backpack came thudding down into the dirt nearby, followed more slowly and gracefully by her cloak fluttering through the evening air.

“I was just trying to stop them harassing that poor man!” she protested as the innkeeper began to retreat into his establishment. “I don’t see you kicking them out!”

“You weigh less,” he replied shortly.

She shouted at the closed door he left behind, “That’s because I’m human!” Then she climbed to her feet, brushed off her sore buttocks, and bent to retrieve her pack. Having cleared the dirt (or whatever it was) from that too, she slung it across her back and grabbed her cloak to throw over the top. Last she took up her staff and, after shaking a huffy fist at the inn, turned away.

Her plan had been to get a good night’s rest and some food in her belly, then cover the last few miles to Faeryland in the light of day; now she determined to finish the journey immediately and look for accommodations on the inside. Perhaps not the best idea, but she was frustrated.

Past the last straggling town buildings, over a little bridge and onto the straight road toward Faeryland, she thought she could see it — either that or the failing light playing tricks on her: a level darkness ahead like a great wall, stretching off in both directions as far as she could make out. She’d heard that a line of enormous trees formed the border of Faeryland on all sides, and it appeared now those rumors were true.

After a little rise, the road ran relatively flat for the remainder of the distance, and lights showed ahead. Kaoru peered and strained her eyes, but could at first distinguish little more than that they were lights; but after another half mile or so, she thought she could make out large lamps flickering on either side of a dark opening in the massive trees. Figures moved there, and Kaoru felt a shiver go all through her. She’d reached Faeryland at last; at last she could begin her search. But what kind of reception could she expect? And how much success?

Her attention was caught by something that seemed to stumble from a cluster of bushes at the side of the road and collapse on the cobbles. It appeared unusually pale in the growing darkness, and did not immediately rise from its fall. Kaoru, frowning in concern, hurried on toward it. Perhaps she was mistaken, and it was nothing more than a bedsheet off someone’s washline that had blown here, but she had to know for sure.

Then the living creature contracted and got to its feet, and as the human approached she could definitely make out a human-like shape. It began to stagger forward at an odd lurch, as if in pain. Kaoru found herself shuddering at the movement, for it didn’t look natural. If someone had chosen it as an artistic statement, she would have said it represented a difficult repression of the self-loathing that would otherwise prevent someone from doing something necessary they deplored. It might work pretty well, actually, but it still seemed weird.

Reluctant though she’d become to get any closer, she began to jog.

Then the thing looked up and saw her. The lurching stopped abruptly, or, rather, transformed instantaneously into a forward sprint so unexpected that Kaoru halted in confusion and sudden fear. She barely had time to get her walking stick into a defensive position before the creature was on her.

She didn’t fight well, never having trained and knowing nothing of it, but she’d found on her journey so far that her strength exceeded her expectations. Evidently hauling heavy cans of milk, churning butter, and helping with calving did something for a woman’s fitness in any case. She’d even held her own in that bar fight earlier — or would have, if her opponents hadn’t been trolls. But all they’d possessed was overwhelming size and a genetic propensity for irrational unprovoked harassment; this creature differed from them entirely.

In the heat of the moment, she couldn’t take in many more details than she’d been able to see all along: human-sized, human-shaped, very pale. But she could feel its claws when they raked her, smell its putrid breath as it attempted to tear her throat out. Her flailings with the staff made little difference, and when her enemy let out a horrible, animalistic screech of aggression, she nearly dropped the makeshift weapon. Was this what her quest of recovery would come to? Dying in terror within sight of the entrance into Faeryland without ever having set foot past the trees?

Some other sound rushed toward and around the two combatants, and suddenly a blast of wind seemingly from directly above knocked Kaoru right off her feet. She scrambled backward, losing hold of her walking stick, getting caught on her cloak, and soiling the seat of her skirt for the second time that night. And she felt the expression of shock and fear on her face intensify as she saw what had happened: a dragon had swept down from the sky and scattered the fight, landing directly between the prostrate Kaoru and her similarly discomfited opponent.

Starlight glittered and gleamed off horn and scales and half-spread wings, and off an enormous eye that turned toward Kaoru as the dragon shouted, “Get on!”

With no time to think about this, to consider whether she trusted what must be a faery in the animal form to which they were limited outside the borders of Faeryland, or to decide whether she really believed, as briefly crossed her mind, that a dragon made for a nobler death than the smelly whatever-it-was, Kaoru struggled to her feet and ran to obey. At the same time, the pale creature had also risen, and was attempting to attack the dragon with the same reckless aggression it had shown toward Kaoru. A large wing kept it off, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t find a way around eventually.

Though only slightly bigger than a farm-horse rather than building-sized as the human would have expected, the dragon at first presented no obvious place to sit, and certainly didn’t look comfortable. Kaoru made do, however, throwing a leg in a flutter of skirt over the spiny neck and leaning forward to cling with her arms as well. She only missed her walking stick once they’d taken off, but thought that not too great a price to pay for her life (if she was indeed saved).

How far they flew she had no idea; it was terrifying and uncomfortable no matter the distance. She hadn’t imagined her entry into Faeryland as quite so ignoble and awe-inspiring at the same time, and she just hoped she wasn’t screaming like a baby without realizing it. After a heart-stopping dive that stole the breath from her lungs even if she was, they thudded back to earth with a jolt so hard that Kaoru’s cheekbone bounced against the dragon’s spines and began bleeding. Eyes streaming with sudden tears and squinting against the stinging pain in her face, Kaoru could see basically nothing as she followed the dragon’s next instruction and dismounted, stumbling blindly forward. Tangled in skirt and cloak, she would have fallen for a third time if arms hadn’t caught and steadied her.

“Everyone!” called a voice very close by. “Please get out there and capture that Distorted!”

As the running steps and fluttering wings of what Kaoru believed must be ‘everyone’ passed them and abruptly changed to the sounds of animal paws and hooves and the more familiar flapping of bird wings, Kaoru caught a few comments and questions, the most common thought being, “How did it get past us?”

She straightened her clothing and adjusted her feet to wobble less, then brushed tears from her right eye so she could open it fully again, leaving the left closed. The cut on her cheek hurt almost more than the scratches the Distorted had given her (if she had that name right), but she could think about that after she’d figured out where she’d arrived and who had brought her.

The woman was the first faery Kaoru had ever seen in non-animal form, so she thought staring might not be as rude as usual. The abnormally steady flames of the lamps to either side of the entrance cast an orange glow over the area, but could not disguise the pinkness of the faery. From her dark pink pony-tail to her strawberry-colored eyes to her creamy pink skin to her translucently pink wings, she seemed to embody the very spirit of pinkness. Kaoru was reminded of her foster sister, who’d always dyed her hair that color and might be very happy to do her skin as well.

Even the amulet on its elaborate silver chain around the faery’s neck was pink, but, oddly enough, her clothing was purple. Kaoru wondered if that was really allowed. In any case, the woman looked ready for action in a close-fitting tunic cinched with black at the waist over tight black pants and tall boots, with a warmer purple cape to top it all off. The unfortunate effect of the garments conforming so well to her body was that her head appeared a trifle disproportionately large… though Kaoru wondered if that might not be simply a faery thing.

This had taken only a moment or three to observe, and before either she or her rescuer could say a word, Kaoru suddenly found herself swarmed by buzzing, darting shapes and demanding voices.

“Are you looking for a Guide, Visitor?”

“What’s your destination, human? I’ll get you there quicker than anyone else!”

“Excellent Guide rates here, Visitor! Better than any of these others!”

“If you’re looking to join a Quest, I can find you one!”

“What brings you into Faeryland? You’ll need a Guide to get it done!”

Ducking her head back slightly and raising her arms, the disconcerted Kaoru began batting at the flying things, trying to clear the air around her. But the pink woman caught her wrists and stilled her before confusion could turn to panic, and advised her briefly, “These are people.” Then to the flitting nuisances she cried, “Please give this woman some space! You can talk to her once she’s feeling better!” She turned back to Kaoru with a thoughtful expression and added, “It is ‘woman,’ isn’t it? And ‘her’ and ‘she?'”

Taken aback by the odd questions, Kaoru nodded dumbly.

“Good,” the faery smiled. “I’d hate to get it wrong.”

The flock retreated to a safe distance. Some of them, Kaoru observed in surprise, grew to full-size in an instant, allowing her to see they were indeed all faeries of different colors. They waved and smiled at her as she looked at them.

A distant call of “Sofia!” grabbed the attention of the stranger, who turned her reddish-pink eyes back out toward where she’d sent her people on a dangerous errand. Then she looked the other direction, toward a building standing not far off on the other side of a low stone wall that seemed, at least at first, to mark the path farther into the forest. “Please take this human inside and let her rest and clean up!” she ordered. Then she dashed away, transforming effortlessly back into a pink dragon at the very moment she stepped from between the great border trees.

Perhaps Kaoru had been wrong to consider Sofia the embodiment of her color, for the guard that came over to escort her inside the building, waving the other importunate faeries away far less politely than Sofia had, was every bit as pink. Kaoru watched his pale pink hair in its multiple braids bounce slightly as he walked ahead of her, and reflected that her foster sister would definitely be jealous.

The apparent guardhouse, though constructed of bright pink stone and with an unusual number of ornate flourishes, looked enough like a non-faery building that Kaoru’s racing heart began to calm as they walked inside. There, the guard showed her to a room where she could sit in peace, and promised to send some water in.

Her first action, once alone, was to seat herself on one of the plain pink chairs, push out a bit from the plain pink table, and bend over to put her head between her knees. Soon she could feel the trickle of blood on her face reversing its course, which added a tickling sensation to the stinging pain of the injury, but she stayed in that position until it had traversed her left eye and started soaking her brow. Her throbbing pulse had calmed, and she breathed evenly, so she finally sat up just as a faery entered the room with a basin of steaming water and a couple of towels. The basin, Kaoru noticed as she thanked the faery, was glazed white, but she wondered what color the ceramic might be underneath. The towels were grey. She feared she might be specifically noting the colors of things for a while here.

Alone again, she tested her equilibrium before standing fully, then stepped over to the table. With a corner of the first towel dipped in the hot water, she began dabbing at the cut on her cheek. It probably wasn’t as worrisome a wound as the scratches on her arms and chest, but the blood all over her face bothered and agitated her.

“May I help you with that?” came a voice from behind. Kaoru gasped, dropped the towel, and spun, all her hard work at getting her heart rate down suddenly for naught.

This full-size faery embodied a different color: soft green like new leaves in her skin, green so dark it seemed almost black in her braided crown of hair, laughing green eyes that looked almost human, and wings that reminded Kaoru of a dragonfly’s. She wore ranger-like clothing in a brown leather Kaoru believed came from ordinary, extra-Faeryland cows, but somehow appeared too beautiful and gentle for the role these garments implied. She smiled as she reached out a hand to further her offer of assistance.

“Who are you?” Kaoru wondered breathlessly. “How long have you been in here?”

“My name is Imugeme, and I’m a healer,” the faery replied. “Please, let me help you with your wounds.”

“That doesn’t answer how long you’ve been in here.” Kaoru really had no problem letting someone else tend to painful injuries she couldn’t see very well, but she felt suspicious of everyone in this new place, and a green faery most of all. She seated herself once again and looked up at the woman with one defiant eye.

Imugeme took the towel Kaoru had dropped and resumed the cleaning of blood off her face with small, purposeful movements. She chuckled as she did so — a rich, self-satisfied little laugh — and then spoke again. “You’ll have to forgive me for disobeying the guards and not keeping back with the other Guides. I thought I could help you better than any of them.” She laughed again; it was an almost musical sound. “And if that gives me a better chance of making a pact with you, so much the better.”

Kaoru noticed Imugeme still hadn’t truly answered the question, but decided to let it slide since at least her intentions had been clarified. “What is a Guide?” she asked, trying to give the term the audible capital she’d heard these faeries using.

“It’s very difficult and dangerous for Visitors to try to find their way around Faeryland alone. A Guide will lead you right and keep you out of trouble.”

“I have a map.”

“Maps of Faeryland,” the green faery said with another chuckle, “are notoriously unreliable. And there are always dangers of various kinds that don’t show on a map anyway.” She’d apparently finished with the blood, for she set the towel aside. Kaoru’s face felt cleaner, but the pain had only heightened, and she winced as the first of Imugeme’s fingers touched her cheek near the cut. The faery’s hand slid into full contact with her face, and Kaoru stilled, holding her breath, at the sensation of warmth and gentleness in it. Imugeme smoothed a thumb out across the spot, and the pain faded. Another sliding movement of her green hand, fingers lingering and trailing, made it obvious that the cut had disappeared entirely.

The human let the air out of her lungs all at once and gaped slightly, slowly opening her left eye to see with more complete vision the woman smiling down at her in satisfaction. She’d been unsure whether to trust this faery at first, whether to take her at her word about the difficulties of travel through Faeryland and the necessity of a Guide, but her uncertainty had been eradicated along with her wound.

“Now for these others,” Imugeme said. “The Distorted cause nasty injuries, so these will be a little trickier.” She seemed to relish the challenge.

“What do you charge for being someone’s Guide?” Kaoru wondered as Imugeme helped her out of her vest and shirt. Where the cloth had torn and grown sticky with blood, the removal was particularly painful.

“Your firstborn child,” Imugeme replied. Then she laughed heartily at the expression on Kaoru’s face. “That’s a joke, my dear! You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries!”

Kaoru weakly returned the laugh. “Well, then, what do you actually want?”

“Candied fruit. And that’s not a joke. But if you have none, I’ll take a silver piece a week.”

“Silver?”

“You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries,” Imugeme repeated, and ran her hand over the scratches on Kaoru’s right arm.

“But a silver piece a week is…” The healing felt so nice, almost hypnotically so, that Kaoru ran out of words.

“That’s my price; take it or leave it. But I should add that having a pact with a Guide will translate the speech of everyone around you, so language won’t be a problem.”

Kaoru had planned to protest that a silver piece a week was a ridiculously low rate for what appeared to be a major service around here. Instead she protested, “I’ve understood everyone so far!” They had accents — even Imugeme — but these hadn’t obfuscated their words.

Imugeme moved on to the next injury, across Kaoru’s chest and right collarbone. The water had cooled a bit, but Kaoru didn’t mind. “Anyone stationed at the border tends to speak some outside language. But the further in you go, the less likely you are to encounter anyone you’ll understand.”

“You’re right, then; I would like a Guide. I’ll take your offer.”

Imugeme withdrew from her task and placed the towel back on the table. Reaching down, she drew one of Kaoru’s hands up to her lips and then her forehead, and Kaoru felt a little thrill go through her at the touch. “The pact is formed,” Imugeme stated. “I’m your Guide now.”

Kaoru smiled. “Thank you.”

The faery gently pressed her warm, soothing palm onto Kaoru’s chest. As she smoothed away this set of scratches, she said, “I can also offer you the Protection of the green faery monarch, if you want. It will provide some physical protection, and help you avoid this kind of thing.” She lifted two fingers to tap the spot she was healing.

“Does that cost extra?” Kaoru wondered, thinking a little anxiously of her budget despite the inexpensive nature of Imugeme’s pact.

“Not at all. I just happen to be able to offer it, and I think it would do you good.”

“Then I’ll take it.”

Imugeme smiled, then bent again, this time to kiss the startled Kaoru on the forehead. The thrill that went through her in this instance felt almost like the healing, but somehow deeper, and she squirmed as the sensation settled in.

“And now,” the faery said in a businesslike tone, “while I finish with these, why don’t you tell me what’s brought you to Faeryland?”

Chapter 3 – Duo Buys A Sex Toy

Emerging from the pink trees into a more open space, Duo stopped just behind the low wall that bordered for some distance the road he’d come upon. Setting his hands on its pink bricks, he looked around with eyes that grew wider and wider as they took in the details he had expected but hardly dared to hope for. Then, his bubbling joy requiring some outlet, he began to caper in place, stamping the fallen leaves and singing snatches of a song in his own language that came immediately to mind.

His dance attracted the attention of the idle Guides that haunted every entrance into Faeryland, and ley flew immediately over to investigate. Since Duo did not intend to move a single step from this spot until he’d made a pact, he welcomed leir approach with waving arms. “Yes, I need a Guide!” he shouted. “I absolutely need a Guide!”

Ley fluttered around him making leir pitches, but he mostly ignored leir words in favor of studying leir faces and figures. When he saw one he thought he recognized, he pointed a big dwarven finger at lir and said, “Quatre, isn’t it? You were one of the Guides for that Quest worried about their Cursed crops, right?”

“How word gets around!” Quatre seated lirself on the wall and went full-size. Le crossed lir legs and placed lir warm gold chin in one similarly colored hand. “You don’t usually need a Guide — Duo, I believe? What can I do for you?” Le presented as female at the moment, or at least had breasts, probably the better to fill out the flattering sleeveless green dress le wore, and this relieved Duo mightily; if Quatre had appeared male, with lir handsome face and short pale gold hair, even Duo’s general attraction primarily to other dwarves might not have saved him from an embarrassing scene. Of course he wore a protective device inside his trousers, but he would still have known (and suffered all the uncomfortable consequences).

“A pact,” was his answer to the faery’s question. “I’ll explain everything, but just make a pact a fast as you can.”

The other Guides, seeing Duo had chosen, flew off with discontented mutters. He caught one of lem remarking that he wasn’t even a proper Visitor, which he supposed to be true, but he didn’t really care what ley thought of him at this point.

Quatre, smiling, hopped down from the wall and reached for Duo’s hand. “All right,” le said equably. “As fast as I can it is.” And after making the usual gestures and sending the usual little tingle of magic through the dwarf, le added, “What’s going on?”

Duo sighed loudly in relief, and sat down unceremoniously in the greyish-pink scatter of leaves. “I’ve been lost in this forest for a month, and that’s after wandering the plains for even longer. If you can keep me from getting lost, I’ll really owe you one.”

“I was under the impression you knew Faeryland better than any non-faery there is.” Quatre joined him on the ground, seating lirself gracefully with crossed legs under lir long skirts and leaning against the wall.

“I do! But Relena Cursed me so I can’t find my way any-damn-where! I’m half starved and haven’t slept in a bed in weeks, and…” But he stopped short of enumerating all his current problems just yet.

“So le literally told you to ‘get lost,'” Quatre mused. “What did you do?”

Duo grumbled, “Killed too many Distorted for lir to ignore. You know how le is.”

“Well, I can get you to the pink enclave — for two silver pieces a week, of course — but I can’t enter. Won’t you get lost inside and wander out again without being able to find lir?”

“I’ll deal with that when I get there,” said Duo. “Up ’til now I haven’t even been able to get there. Or anywhere! You have to help me.”

“Or we could dissolve this pact and you could find a pink faery to be your Guide,” Quatre suggested.

“But I know you. You’re reliable. You did great work with that Quest, which was why word got around, and I trust you.”

Quatre bowed from lir seated position. “I hope you know I don’t take praise as payment,” le said with a smile, “but I do appreciate it. Where would you like to go first?”

Duo gave a grunt of frustration and broke into a rant. “I’ve been working in Faeryland for fifty years without ever having a problem like this! Fifty years! And I don’t think I’ve ever needed a Guide more than twice before!”

“Every Visitor gets Cursed eventually,” said Quatre consolingly.

“I’m not even a proper Visitor. I live here!” Duo sighed, dropped his head back to look up into the trees, and tugged at his braided beard. “Well, first, you can take me to a pleasure-house somewhere.”

Quatre blinked. “If you’ve been lost for months, can you even afford that right now?”

“No,” Duo admitted dejectedly. “I haven’t been able to visit a bank in all this time, because I couldn’t find one! And faeries aren’t really my thing anyway. But I haven’t had sex in longer than I can remember, and I’m getting pretty desperate!”

“You must be going through kil’ak’brük.” Quatre somewhat astonished Duo by pronouncing the name for dwarven sexual maturation correctly and in so sympathetic a tone. “I imagine that’s hard on a dwarf in Faeryland.”

“Yeah,” Duo agreed intensely.

“Well, I’ll do what I can for you.”

“Are you offering to fuck me yourself?”

Quatre laughed. “Postre is much closer than the pink enclave — I’d say about three days’ travel, for a dwarf. You can visit a bank and sleep in a bed… and, though I don’t know that there’s a pleasure-house in town, I do know ley have some specialty shops that might help you.”

“Yes.” Duo leaped to his feet. “Yes, that’s perfect. Let’s go!”

Turning small-size, Quatre echoed facetiously, “Let’s go!” and took up a position on Duo’s shoulder.

The prospect of solutions to some of his issues invigorated Duo, but so also did the new convenience of traveling rationally with a Guide. Quatre tugged on his ear or his hair whenever he attempted to walk the wrong direction, keeping him on the correct path for leir destination. Instead of going by at random, and sometimes again and again as he moved in zig-zags and spirals, the landscape passed with a reasonable progression, and whenever the road dipped, Duo could gleefully count on it coming up again to the same rise he’d seen before it began to descend. So greatly did this improve matters that he felt he’d never enjoyed a walk through any part of Faeryland this much.

He still had to request, during the few hours of rest he took each night, that Quatre give him some privacy so he could try to find sexual release as best he could on his own… but what he really needed was a dick up his ass, or his own in someone else’s, so he rather wondered why he bothered. Happy he was to see the large town of Postre before him at the end of a long, downward-sloping stretch of road on the evening of the third day.

He’d been here before, of course, but had never considered its amenities along current lines. He knew it boasted a spacious inn with plenty of full-size rooms, and before he could allow his enthusiasm (with Quatre’s help) to lead him into the market, he secured a place there for the next few days. Then he stood solidly where he was, not daring to take a step, so as not to get lost while Quatre went out to inquire after the type of shop he wanted. Finally, looking forward most heartily to a bed and some hot meals, if not something even better tonight, he ventured forth with his Guide in search of what he so desperately needed.

If faeries were anything as an aggregate, it was very open and accepting on sexual matters. The shop, called, curiously enough, ‘Have Some of Dis Pie,’ occupied a place of prominence between a full-size milliner’s and a stack of domestic goods stores for small-size homes. And while plenty of colors decorated many of the other buildings in the area (though the wood and stone was usually local), Have Some of Dis Pie had embraced the pink pinkness of the pink faery realm. From the fluffy pink curtains to the pink silk on which certain pink items showed to advantage in the widows to the pink confetti periodically exploding over them and falling in pink swirls, what to expect inside was immediately clear.

Duo attempted to make a sharp left turn at the door and walk laterally down the line of shops, but Quatre set him right, and he managed to enter. A pink bell rang as he stepped inside, but the proprietor happened to be in the main room at the time and didn’t need its pink-sounding tinkle to alert lir of his presence. Le came bouncing up to him, full-size.

“Welcome to Have Some of Dis Pie! What can I help you find today? Actually I can help you find anything we have here, because I own the shop! Are you looking for some coochie-coochie-coo? A cherrychanga with whipped cream? A charming cha-cha? It’s almost winter — do you need a muff? A purse for your treasure? A hot box for your meat? Do you want to go beaver-hunting? You’re hairy enough to be a bear; would you enjoy a honey pot? Or if you’re just the opposite, we’ve got some nice bear-traps here! Or–”

Duo, grinning in spite of himself and the arousal he already experienced just looking at some of the items for sale, raised his hands and attempted to break in. “I actually need–”

“A nice noodle? Some sexy sausage? A tra-la-la ding-ding-dong? Are you in the mood for a prize fight? Gathering firewood? Picking cucumber? Do you need a soldier who can stand at– wait!!”

The products le showed him in quick succession had done nothing convenient for his own example of all these terms, but now abruptly le stopped, eyes wide. “You’re a dwarf!!”

“Um, yes,” Duo said.

Every part of lir, from lir giant fluffy pink curls to lir ample breasts to lir chubby belly, bounced at differing speeds as le vibrated with excitement. “Wait here!” And, giggling, le ran off into the back room. Le didn’t seem to use lir wings much, just hopped and skipped and jumped. In lir absence, Duo looked around for Quatre and, finding lir, gave an incredulous look. Quatre only replied with a shrug.

The shopkeeper returned carrying a pink box. Essentially shoving it right into Duo’s face, le opened the lid. “I think this is perfectly perfect for you! I got it from a merchant who came through town a couple of weeks ago, and le was selling cheap because le knew there wouldn’t be a lot of interest, and I said, ‘I’ll take it! I think it’s perfectly perfect!’ So I gave it a nice bubble bath, because you never know where it’s been, or where the merchant’s been, and you always want…”

Lir chatter continued, but faded into obscurity in Duo’s ears as his eyes ran greedily over the velvet-cushioned dildo inside the box. The shape of a dwarf penis could not be mistaken for anything else, and this was as finely crafted as anything he’d ever seen: accurate in form and color and apparent texture, and with a sturdy handle of hard golden wood for ease of use. He longed to touch it, but figured that would be inappropriate until he actually owned the thing.

“…curves upward when it gets erect! Not too far, but a little — like a lithefruit! It doesn’t ejaculate anything, because it doesn’t come with testicles, but it does go soft after a while — I found that out while I was washing it!” Le giggled.

“There can’t be…” Duo had to pause to clear his throat. “There can’t be much demand for a replica dwarf penis in these parts.”

“It’s a niche item,” le admitted. “Get it? Niche item?”

“I’ll take it.” He still sounded a bit hoarse.

“Okie-dokie-lokie! Twelve silver pieces! Do you want to add some lubricant? I’ll throw it in for 25 copper!”

One gold piece, worth fifteen silver, was all the money Duo had left. But since he’d already paid for his room at the inn (for this very reason), he didn’t hesitate to pull it out. The combination of that very room, a dwarf in kil’ak’brük, and this marvelous magical toy promised bliss for the next few nights at the very least.

Chapter 4 – Sano Argues With His Sword

The novelty of everything’s being pink had not yet faded, and still particularly satisfied Sano whenever he found an especially large pile of fallen leaves to jump in. He loved the crunching sound and the cushioning feel to them; he loved their sharp, autumnal smell. Faeryland wasn’t really all that bad so far. He’d already had one fairly interesting fight, and the landscape, so different from that of home, entertained him.

That didn’t mean his mood was one of unalloyed pleasure. His reason for coming into Faeryland gave him continual regret, though he tried not to think about it and certainly never brought it up aloud; and he kept experiencing a sort of itching on the back of his head that he would have thought, by now, should have gone away.

“I still feel like someone’s following us,” he declared, spinning around, walking backwards for a moment, then bending for a rock he could throw into the forest the way he’d come.

“You made yourself enough of a nuisance in that last town,” said the sword at his side, “that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were coming after you for revenge.”

Sano turned his lanky form again to face southwest. “I’m serious! I really think someone’s following us! And you know I didn’t raise enough ruckus for it to be just some farmer or whatever.”

“‘Just some farmer’ wouldn’t follow us into Faeryland in any case. Do you really think anyone would? Nobody comes here except on business.”

Annoyed at the condescending tone, the orc deliberately knocked the sheathed weapon against the next tree. “Yeah, so maybe someone’s business is following us!”

“You really think you’re that important?”

“Just a second ago you said you wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted revenge for whatever you think I did in Deserville or whatever it was called.”

“Even a villager’s well merited annoyance at you wouldn’t be enough to bring them past the border of Faeryland. They’re probably just outside waiting for you to come out again, and then they’ll mob you.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “That sounds like fun. Brawling with humans is like…” He cast about for an appropriate simile, and was lucky enough to find one physically present. “Like jumping in leaves! Crunch, crunch, crunch!” He demonstrated, flailing into the pile and scattering it with wild kicks of his booted feet.

The sword began some comment Sano didn’t catch over the noise of his play, but when eventually the orc settled down and moved toward where his Guide hovered patiently not far ahead, the remark started again. “If you’re really worried about someone following us, you’re a fool to leave such an obvious trail for them to track.”

“I’m more worried about getting you to believe there’s someone following us!” Sano broke into an impatient jog.

“In that case, you’re definitely a fool. What good would that do you?”

“Um, getting you to admit you’re wrong?” Sano said this in a tone proclaiming it to be the most obvious thing in the world.

The sword made a scoffing sound. “Your ambitions are so lofty. And what exactly do you want me to admit?”

Sano grunted in frustration. “Haven’t we been talking about this for days or some shit? I want you to admit you’re wrong about someone following us!”

“But have I ever said specifically that I don’t believe there’s someone following us?”

Abruptly Sano drew the sword and held it before his face as if looking for some visual clue as to the exact meaning of that question. But of course all he saw, in the finely polished steel that accepted no stain, was his own scowling tusked face. “You’re trying to weasel out of this!” he accused. “When it turns out someone’s been following us all along and they attack and kick my ass and I’m laying there dying, you’re going to say, ‘Well, I never actually said I didn’t believe you, so I wasn’t wrong about anything’ just because you didn’t say the exact words even though you’ve been arguing against the idea this whole time!”

“You think you’ll die, do you?” the sword, voice louder out in the open like this, asked easily.

“Don’t change the subject! You’re doing that politician thing again — messing around with words so you can deny everything later!”

The sword gave a brief laugh. “I’m surprised you even recognized it.”

“You are such an asshole.” Sano thrust the sword back into its sheath and quickened his pace.

“If it’s any comfort to you, when you do get your ass kicked and are lying there dying, I’ll send you off by admitting I was wrong about something.”

Surprisingly, this did comfort Sano a little. “Really?”

“If you admit at the same time that you’re a fool.”

Sano grunted again. “I might be a fool, but there’s still someone following us.”

“Why would someone follow us all the way into Faeryland?”

“Well, maybe someone was following us outside Faeryland, and now someone different’s following us inside Faeryland.”

“That seems extremely unlikely.”

“My people have a connection with trees,” Sano insisted. “Why do you think we’re green? I know when someone’s following me through a forest!”

“More like a connection with hops. ‘Your people’ are the street urchins of Drury Crossing, who come from all different races and backgrounds, none of which is a forest. Besides, you’ve already mentioned multiple times that the trees here are pink.”

At being so successfully countered, Sano practically roared with irritation. “Tomoe will back me up!” he cried. “Tomoe! Aren’t we being followed?!” And he sprinted forward to catch up with his Guide and settle the matter.

Chapter 5 – Tomoe Already Can’t Even With This

Tomoe resisted the urge to massage lir temples, sigh loudly, break the pact and fly away, or any of the other relieving things le was tempted to do. Le only said, in response to Sano’s question, “There are certainly other Visitors in the area. Whether any of lem — them — are following you, I can’t say.”

“See?” said Sano.

“You see?” said his sword at the same moment. Evidently each had taken the unhelpful statement as confirmation of his point of view.

“No, you see!” the orc insisted. “There are other Visitors in the area! Even she–” (echoing Tomoe’s error) “–le can’t be sure if someone’s following us!”

“Exactly. Le can’t be sure.” The sword never had a problem with the local pronouns. “You’d think a faery would be more certain, wouldn’t you?” This was not really true, but Tomoe didn’t bother to set him right.

“The point is, it’s absolutely possible.”

“I never said it wasn’t possible, just that it’s unlikely.”

“So? Unlikely shit happens all the time! You just don’t want to admit it because it’s my idea.”

“Do you think you’ve given me much reason to have faith in your ideas?”

“Well, can you prove there’s nobody following us?”

“That’s a remarkably foolish question, even for you.”

Even from a position far enough ahead to keep them on track and stay beyond the fast-moving orc, Tomoe could still hear them clearly. They’d done this every waking moment le’d known them, and showed no signs of stopping any time soon; but le hadn’t learned to tune them out yet.

Relatively new to Guidework, Tomoe couldn’t be quite sure how the rules applied in this situation. That they weren’t magically binding, for the most part, left lir to lir own devices how to interpret them, and le felt consistently anxious about it. The sword gave every sign of being a person, and Sano conversed with it as if it were; but he’d been remarkably unforthcoming about his reason for entering Faeryland, so Tomoe could only assume. Lir assumption was, of course, that some friend of his (for a flexible definition of the term ‘friend’) had been Cursed, and Sano had for some reason taken it upon himself to rectify the situation.

That seemed perfectly normal, and why Sano didn’t just admit to it, Tomoe had no idea. More pertinently, a Guide was supposed to refrain from talking to lir Visitor in the presence of others, and Tomoe had made a pact with Sano, not with the sword. Did a person that was technically an object count as someone le shouldn’t be talking in front of? Should le have made a dual pact? A sword had no hands, so le didn’t know if le could have… but the verbal agreement could have been altered to include the sword if Sano had explained his circumstances better. And as things stood, was Tomoe breaking the rules every time le spoke to them both? Le hadn’t been able to decide.

Lir preoccupation didn’t help. Le’d been over this many times in lir head, but never conclusively. With 189 days remaining to lir other source of worry, le didn’t much anticipate a useful answer to lir musings on the subject of Guide rules.

“Hey, Tomoe!”

Drawing a deep breath, Tomoe returned to an easier speaking distance from the orc.

“Are we going the right direction for the black faery place?”

Before Tomoe could even decide how to word lir answer, the sword broke in. “You’ve asked lir that a hundred times already, fool. You’re like a child on a long trip wondering ‘Are we there yet?’ every half hour.”

“What do you know about kids on long trips?” Sano demanded, distracted from his question.

“Yes, we’re going the right direction,” said Tomoe, and flew back to lir previous spot as the bickering continued.

Le didn’t know how le was going to put up with this for as long as the journey must take. And who knew what Sano would need to do after talking to the black faery monarch? Le was in for months of this at the very least. Only the thought of lir triple pay — for the naive orc had accepted lir unusually high rate without shopping around at all — determined lir on proceeding.

After some thought, though reluctant to do so, le allowed Sano to catch lir up. The orc had started running, as he sometimes did in his evident impatience to get where they were going, and his long legs covered the ground strikingly quickly; he ran nearly as fast as le could fly. Now le kept pace with him, waiting for a chance to break into the conversation with lir latest suggestion.

Finally one appeared, and le said quickly, “I believe a Quest might help you, since there are other Visitors in the area.”

“Aren’t I already on a quest?”

“Le explained this at the entrance,” said the sword with a sigh.

Le explained again. “A Quest is a group of Visitors who travel together and help each other with their goals.”

Sano pondered this for half a second. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound too bad. It’d be nice to have some allies in here, especially since somebody’s obviously following us.”

More importantly, it would prevent Sano — assuming he remembered the rules — from harassing Tomoe every few minutes with stupid questions. Given his reticence on the topic of his own goals, it might even cut down on his endless fruitless debates with the sword. “We’re going the right direction for that too,” le informed him. “Keep moving.” And le resumed lir place some yards ahead, looking very much forward to the moment they could unite with other Visitors and shut lirs up a bit.

Chapter 6 – Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros

Duo’s new acquisition was nothing short of a miracle of specialized magic design. Since starting kil’ak’brük three years before, he’d never had a lasting relationship, only random encounters and short-term dalliances; so it was entirely possible that these had been the best three nights he’d ever spent at an inn.

His lack of funds, however, had cut the party short. The bank in town had turned out not to be the one he used, and the process of a transfer from a branch of his own elsewhere had already outlasted the number of days he’d prepaid for. So now he sat on a barrel in the inn yard thinking longingly of his toy, with nothing much else to do since he’d already checked the status of his transfer today and been disappointed.

Pink faery after pink faery after pink faery walked or flew past him, full-size and small-size, in all variations of sexual presentation and an even greater variety of attire. As people-watching went, it could have been worse, but even so it grew monotonous after a while. So when a green orc, appearing elongated in his tall, lanky muscularity, passed by apparently talking to himself, Duo sat up and took notice.

Even this far into Postre, the orc had not ceased to look around in wonder, and the expression on his pleasant tusked face was one of gormless interest. He wore leathers rather than proper armor, and a sword that might have been a child’s plaything on his big frame. Apart from ragged brown hair sticking out in every direction (which might have been a fashion statement rather than negligence), he appeared competent enough.

He was ranting with no evident audience, however. Talking so openly to his Guide wasn’t manners, but what had Duo been doing the last fifty years if not helping people fit into Faeryland better? Yes, this fellow might be a useful asset to a Quest.

So busy gawking he either didn’t note or didn’t recognize the potential of the dwarf’s presence, the orc walked right past Duo and disappeared around a corner of the inn. Duo immediately jumped up and looked around for Quatre. This could be a problem; his Guide was nowhere to be seen, and he couldn’t go far in the right direction without lir. He soon found he had no need to worry, though.

“Did you just see a dwarf back there?” came what must be the stranger’s voice from where he’d apparently halted just beyond the corner.

“I have no eyes,” was the rather odd reply. Surely that was never a faery’s voice!

“Yeah, you’ve got no mouth either, but you don’t have a hard time talking shit about–”

Don’t pull out a weapon on a public street again, you fool! You remember what happened last time?”

“No, he’s gonna love this! I know the exact right dwarf thing.” And the sound of his suddenly pounding feet was the last warning Duo had. As he rounded the corner with his sword raised, he let out a roaring approximation, not half bad, of a Mur’kaltulk warlord’s vik’talzis or semi-formal battle greeting. Granted, Duo had only heard a vik’talzis two or three times in his life, but he thought the orc did a pretty good imitation. And it was quite decent of him, really, to take the trouble of approaching a stranger like this.

Duo met the attack with a ready axe, glad to have something to do and an opportunity to meet a fellow non-faery and potential Quest-sharer. Beyond that, the orc’s skill showed from the very beginning, and Duo enjoyed the feeling of steel against steel. He thought the crowd that grew around them was drawn not so much by the talents of the combatants, though, as by amusement at a couple of Visitors having it out next to the inn like the savages they were.

“I’m pleased to meet you!” Duo cried through the ringing and screeching of metal that filled the air. It proved tricky to block the thrusts of a small straight blade with the big rounded edges of a battle-axe, so that was fun.

“Yeah, you too!” replied the orc with a grin. Then, addressing nobody Duo could see, he added, “See, I told you he’d love it!”

Duo did rather love it. He’d been so bored. And presently, when another of his sweeps had been twisted aside by his opponent, he wondered affably, “Isn’t that a human-sized sword you’re using? And some kind of human style?”

To his surprise, it seemed to be the sword itself, rather than its wielder, that answered him with, “Good eye.”

Prodding the situation further, Duo went on, “I hope your dick isn’t as small as your sword!”

A ripple of laughter moved through the crowd, but the orc appeared annoyed. “Why do other warriors always gotta talk about penises all the time!”

Startled, since he’d never met a warrior physically equipped as he was that didn’t enjoy a good dick joke, Duo explained, “Just trying to bond with you, man.”

“All right,” replied the orc, looking wary around the blade of his sword currently locked against the dwarf’s axe. After they’d managed to repel each other without injury, he added, “Well, I hope I can say you’ve got a damn cool axe without you thinking it’s some kind of gross comparison.”

What a strange man! Just to tease him Duo said, “It is a long shaft with two roundish bits at the end.” More laughter from the faeries around them.

The orc gave a growl of frustration and charged again. The sword remarked, “This is a stupid fight. You’re both likely to get arrested or something.”

Duo commented, “Your sword’s not much fun, is he?” And he spun into a centrifugal attack he hoped would knock the weapon from the other’s green hands.

But just then they were interrupted.

Chapter 7 – Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation

The quickening of blood, the wind of swift movement, the clash and screech of steel, the wonderful sharing of skill and technique, the dwarf’s grin, the feeling of having found a friend in this alien place — it seemed as if a bucket of freezing water had been dashed over all these things when all of a sudden there was just this frail little human woman throwing herself between the combatants with arms outspread and shouting for them to stop.

The sword’s descent halted awkwardly half an inch from driving through her shoulder. If Sano had been berserk, he couldn’t have done it in time. Maybe there was something to be said for all that restraint bullshit after all. If so, this woman could use some!

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Sano demanded. At the very same moment, the dwarf, thrown off-balance in his attempt not to chop her in half horizontally, wondered, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?!”

“What do you two think you’re doing?” she said in return, looking back and forth defiantly between them. “As if it isn’t hard enough to travel through Faeryland! Visitors should be allies, not enemies!”

“Calm down, ma’am,” the dwarf advised, raising burly arms to replace his axe in its straps. When the human shot him a look from which sparks seemed to fly, he took a step back with a half-sheepish grin.

“Yeah, take it easy,” Sano said. “We were just having a traditional dwarven greeting!”

“Wellll, technically,” said the dwarf somewhat regretfully, “it’s only Mur’kaltulk dwarves who use the vik’talzis. I’m Ghabak’nik myself.”

Chagrined, Sano made a great business of sheathing the sword, unsure what to say.

Appearing to take notice of this, the dwarf hastened to assure him, “Not that it wasn’t shaping up into one hell of a fight! We’ll have to try again sometime! Maybe with less of an audience.” For, though the faeries that had gathered around them were beginning to disperse, some evidently believed the show hadn’t yet ended and still stood at leir ease, listening and laughing.

And the human was giving the dwarf that look again — not merely reproving, but almost condemnatory. The dwarf hurried on. “But I agree with the lady! We might make excellent companions! What do you say we all head inside–” he gestured toward the inn– “and talk about it?”

The woman seemed to relent. “That’s a good idea.”

“You gonna buy me a drink?” Sano grinned. “Because you were about to lose?”

“My good man, I think you would have found you were about to lose,” the dwarf replied, moving forward and clapping Sano on the (lower) back. “Besides, I have no money.”

Sano snorted.

The dwarf, presumably by right of earlier residence, moved to lead the way; but as he rounded the corner and approached the front entrance, having pushed past a faery or two to do so, he suddenly veered off to the right away from the door.

Sano ran after him and clapped a green hand on a mail-clad shoulder. “Where you going, dwarf?”

The latter glanced around, and puffed out his lips in irritation, making his brown mustache ripple and a sound like a horse. “Nowhere,” he said. “Just… keep your hand right there until we get inside, will you?”

Sano complied with this unusual request, and it won them an odd look from the human woman where she waited beside the door, but they all made it into the common room and sat down without further incident.

Like much of what he’d seen in Faeryland so far, the furniture had a lot of unnecessary scrolls and flourishes and leaf-shaped little extra bits and shit. But the room itself interested him. The ceiling was low — or maybe average, for faeries — and made of a sort of latticework that in places revealed the second, smaller dining and drinking area above for when ley went all small the way ley did. Servers from time to time left the bar or the kitchen, shrank down as they flew upward, and darted out of sight. He wondered if Tomoe had settled at a table up there.

“Geez, you two, you don’t have to pop your eyes out,” the dwarf grumbled, and Sano lowered his gaze to find the human woman doing the same. She must never have been inside a faery inn either.

“Well, Duo–” the voice from the center of their table made them both jump– “got some more money at last?”

“Not a single piece!” the dwarf replied cheerfully to the small-size faery that had landed before him. “But my new friends here are going to buy me a drink!”

The faery turned lir entire sexless pink body, naked but for an apron, toward Sano and the human. “And what will you be treating our good dwarf to, my Visitors?”

“Uh, what do you have?”

Duo grinned wryly and broke in before the bartender or innkeeper or whatever le was could answer. “I’ll have the same as before. And just beer for these two, for now. They’ll have plenty of time to get to know your better stuff later!”

Sano’s heart warmed at the word ‘beer’ as well as at the prospect of ‘better stuff,’ and he didn’t even mind pulling out his money pouch and paying the tab for all three of them.

When the faery had left them, the dwarf sat back comfortably in his chair. “So I’m Duo, you probably noticed. Duo Axewielder, at your service.”

“Axewielder?” the human wondered. “Isn’t that a little…”

“On the nose? Yeah, it’s about the most common dwarf family name there is. You humans have your Smiths, and we dwarves have our Axewielders.”

Sano raised a hand. “I’ve got one of those too! Sano Sabertusk here. You ever visit Drury Crossing, you’ll think I’m related to half the orcs there.”

“Well, mine is Kamiya,” said the woman with some satisfaction. “Kaoru Kamiya.”

“Who has a death wish,” Duo appended.

Kaoru made a huffing sound. “If people are going to fight, it should be for a good reason!”

Sano thought he heard agreement from somewhere around his hip, but it was mostly drowned out by his own and Duo’s laughter.

“And what’s your sword’s name, Sano?” the dwarf wondered next.

“He’ll speak up if he decides he wants to talk to you,” Sano grumbled.

There was a moment of expectant silence. Kaoru looked curious.

When no introduction was forthcoming, Duo went on. “And what are your goals in Faeryland?”

Sano’s mumble, in which only the word ‘Curse’ might have been heard, was overridden by Kaoru’s more forthright explanation. “A green faery stole something from me, and I need to get it back.”

Duo looked impressed. “So you’re not Cursed? If you came into Faeryland just to get some stolen item back, you really must have a death wish! Or was it valuable?”

Appearing somewhat embarrassed, Kaoru said, “It was valuable to me.”

Poking his lips out thoughtfully and tugging on his beard, Duo mused, “Sentimental value…” He looked Kaoru up and down assessingly, and Sano believed he was sizing her, and the situation, up in a professional sense. But then his expression changed, and he made a frustrated sound. “I’m still thinking about all this like a bodyguard.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard!” Sano protested, feeling a little betrayed.

“No, what you need is a brainguard.”

Kaoru definitely heard this statement. Observing that neither of her companions were startled as she was, she bent down with a suspicious expression to peek under the table. Her mouth had opened to inquire before she’d sat up entirely, but just then the faery from before returned, full-size, with their drinks on a tray.

Sano poked at the foam on his and licked it off his finger. It smelled like beer, and the preliminary taste seemed fine, but something about it… A long gulp satisfied him that, though there was an unexpected spiciness and kick to it, the qualities he looked for on the inside of a tumbler were all present. He shook his head with a pleased grunt.

“See,” Duo was saying as Sano went through this process and Kaoru eyed hers uncertainly, “I’ve made my living for the last fifty years as a bodyguard to Quests, helping them with their Curses. Fifty years! And I never got Cursed once. But now all of a sudden here I am the one who’s Cursed and needs help with it. You wouldn’t believe how frustrating that is!” And he took a swig of whatever was in his cup — something frothy and pink — and frowned as only a dwarf could. He brightened the next moment, however, in asking Sano, “So what’s your Curse?”

Sano felt a slight blush on his face, lifted his tumbler again in an attempt at covering it, and mumbled, “I don’t want to talk about it,” his eyes flicking away from his companions.

“We’re talking about forming a Quest, aren’t we?” Kaoru wondered. “To help each other out? I don’t think we can help each other if we don’t know what we’re helping with.”

“Or do you need someone to dig it out of your green hide with an axe?”

“Don’t people get Cursed all the time?” Kaoru tentatively lifted her tumbler. “I don’t think it’s anything to be embarrassed about.”

“That’s right,” said Duo encouragingly. “You’re no stupider than the rest of us!”

“That’s debatable. Sano, I’ll tell them. Put me on the table.” At this command, which had startled Kaoru again, Sano looked down. Reluctantly, he mended his posture a bit — these carved-up pink chairs weren’t designed for long orc bodies — drew the sword, and laid it in front of him. He thought it might be best to concentrate entirely on his beer for a little while.

“My name is Saitou,” said Saitou. Sano noticed he didn’t give his family name, which happened to be Smith. “I was human until this fool got me Cursed by harassing the black griffon who lives just outside Drury Crossing.”

Sano swallowed his latest gulp and, still staring into his tumbler, muttered, “You were yelling just as loud as I was.” He knew Saitou would be expecting this protest, so he made it; it seemed more natural than falling apart in a mess of guilt, anyway.

“At least I didn’t try to pluck lir feathers,” Saitou said dryly.

“I was drunk.” Sano sank back down in his chair, trying to find a convenient place beneath the table for his outstretched legs.

“That’s your excuse for everything, and it’ll be your excuse for dying when that day comes.”

Duo was guffawing, and when Sano glanced up he found even Kaoru smiling, seemingly against her will. Once he’d calmed down, though, the dwarf remarked, “So you two need to talk to the black faery monarch to find out how to break this Curse.”

“Yeah,” said Sano grumpily. At the same moment Saitou said, “So it would seem.”

“And are you hoping–” turning to Kaoru– “to go to the green enclave and talk to the monarch there?”

Kaoru had been sipping at her beer. “This is good,” she remarked. It cheered Sano a bit to hear her say so; he’d rather believed, just looking at her and knowing her distaste for pointless fighting (one of his other favorite activities), that she might be the type to turn her little tan nose up at the idea of drinking. But then she shook her head. “I heard the green monarch is away, and nobody knows when she’ll be back. I thought I’d just describe the thief to people and see if anyone knows who he is or where he might have gone.”

Duo nodded. “Makes sense. And I could use an un-Cursed Visitor like you. Relena, the pink monarch, Cursed me so I get lost all the time, so I can’t find my way into the pink enclave to talk to her.”

“That’s why you tried to wander off when we were just coming in here!” Sano realized.

“I wondered about that,” commented Saitou, who could only judge by what he heard.

“That’s right,” Duo confirmed glumly. “Sometimes it only takes a couple of steps, and, boom! I’m at the north pole.”

Sano paid him back for laughing at him a minute before.

Kaoru shot the orc a reproving look. “I’ll be happy to help you, Duo.”

“Is the pink place on the way to the black place, though?”

“They’re practically in opposite directions,” Duo informed him. “The pink enclave is a little closer.”

“But–” Sano lifted his eyes again, this time from the depressingly bare bottom of his cup.

“Don’t make snap decisions,” Saitou reminded him.

Duo sighed. “I’m stuck here in town for at least another day anyway, until my money transfer comes in from my regular bank. So you’ve both got some time to decide whether you want to make a Quest out of this, and where we should go first if you do.”

Sano wouldn’t say so, but Saitou was right: giving this some thought seemed better than just turning Duo down offhand and rushing off alone again. He already liked this little guy, and didn’t think he’d mind traveling with him… as long as it didn’t delay his business. “All right, so obviously right now there’s only one thing to do,” he declared. And when the others looked at him expectantly he finished, “Order another round!”

Chapter 8 – Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs

It interested and amused Quatre to observe that, though the orc and the human were taking in every possible detail their greedy eyes could gather of the unfamiliar faery inn, they seemed not to notice its dirtiness and disrepair. Granted, the young man might not have observed a far greater level of neglect; but the young woman, le would have thought, should have seen it.

As for Quatre lirself, le had grown perfectly accustomed to staying in second- and third-rate inns during the course of Guidework. Some of the fare here wasn’t too bad, despite the dubious condition of the dishes; and the lumpy bed in lir room, though it smelled faintly of sweat, did technically provide a slightly better night’s rest than a tree branch or the cold earth.

Another thing Quatre had grown accustomed to was picking out fellows even in a crowded room. Le’d seen this one around and knew lir for a Guide; and based on lir solitary state beside the opening through which, if Quatre judged the angle correctly, Duo’s table below could most easily be seen and heard, le might soon become Quatre’s companion in more than just profession.

“May I join you?” the gold faery asked the pink, casting a pointed look downward at the Visitor party.

The other, wearing a female presentation, blouse, and trousers, appeared distracted for a moment, then startled. Lir somber face, framed by dark fuchsia hair, swiveled first in the direction Quatre had glanced, then at the table before lir, and finally at Quatre lirself. It seemed to take lir rather longer than it had Quatre to recognize another Guide — and no wonder; Quatre knew lir to be fairly new at this.

But finally the pink faery shook lirself and said, “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Before pulling out a chair, Quatre set down the drink le’d brought over, gave lir name and origin, and offered a golden hand — something le couldn’t publicly have done under other circumstances. The taboo relating to cross-color interaction deeply bothered lir, and the treatment le received in an establishment like this — pink faeries providing lir with whatever le paid for but simultaneously doing leir best to pretend le didn’t exist — only drove home how needlessly segregated faery societies had become. But Guide traditions were sacrosanct; even feuding monarchs couldn’t keep Guides from interacting as openly and amicably as ever.

“Tomoe of Frollino,” replied the other, standing to grip Quatre’s hand.

The introduction complete, both faeries settled at the table and looked down once more into the full-size room. The Visitors had placed drink orders and were talking animatedly about their names, which Quatre filed away as they came up. Then, briefly, le glanced around the small-size terrace again. “There should be one more of us, but nobody else here seems like a Guide.”

Tomoe made a noise of agreement, mimicked Quatre’s scan of the room, and shook lir head.

“It must be a green faery,” Quatre went on, “since that woman is under a green Protection, but I don’t see any green faeries in here at all.”

“No,” Tomoe agreed.

Quatre shrugged and returned lir attention to the party below. Le didn’t see much benefit to these three forming a Quest, except the greater safety of numbers, and perhaps the greater amusement they would provide as a group to their Guides. The latter seemed a not inconsiderable benefit, though; le laughed aloud at something one of them had just said, drained lir drink, and glanced at Tomoe to see if le found this as entertaining as Quatre did. But the focus of Tomoe’s eyes appeared to fade long before it settled on the scraggly head of lir orc Visitor.

“This will be a fun Quest,” Quatre said proddingly. And when Tomoe only made a faint sound of acquiescence, Quatre stared at lir more interestedly. Le seemed completely preoccupied, presumably with something engrossing enough to distract lir entirely from the display below.

Evidently feeling Quatre’s eyes, Tomoe looked suddenly over at lir with a start. As if shaking lirself out of a reverie, le sat up straight, glanced downward, peered into lir cup (apparently still partially full), and offered, “I’m sorry; what did you say?”

Quatre altered the statement, speculating kindly, “You have something on your mind other than this Quest.”

Tomoe gave a wan smile and said briefly, “My spouse is pregnant again.”

Filled with understanding and the beginnings of pity, Quatre inquired, “What attempt is this?”

Tomoe sighed. “Lir third, our sixth.”

And the way le said it made Quatre guess, “No success?”

“None.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. I hope your Visitor’s goals will be accomplished quickly so you can get back to lir.”

“Thank you,” said Tomoe with a slightly warmer smile, and pretty clearly returned to lir reverie.

Quatre looked on with distinct sympathy now, but couldn’t help thinking, at the same time, that Tomoe might have done better not to take on a Visitor le wouldn’t be able to pay proper attention. But perhaps le and lir spouse needed the money; if ley were trying one of those expensive new pregnancy assistance courses, this Guidework might be essential to lem. Quatre wouldn’t judge. Le did wonder whether Tomoe was a devotee of Relena’s policies on the Distorted, though.

It took some time, and quite a few drinks, for the Visitors to separate. The orc Sano appeared fairly inebriated, and, berated by the sword Saitou for wasting money and brain cells on becoming so, wandered off to find a privy. Tomoe, sighing with a different emotion from when le’d mentioned lir pregnant spouse, bade Quatre goodbye for now and followed. Quatre took from this that there was more to Tomoe’s disinclination to pay lir Visitors much attention than merely being distracted by the situation at home. Le had to admit, they might prove a handful for even a more experienced Guide.

The human Kaoru, seeming much of Saitou’s mind about Sano’s behavior but leaving all the remonstrance to him, went to arrange for a room. She’d agreed to pay for Duo’s as well while they waited for his money to come in, which Quatre knew Duo must appreciate more than the human could possibly guess (or, probably, want to know). Most likely thereafter she would head out into the town to ask about her green faery thief.

Duo himself remained at the table, glancing up and around the moment his new acquaintances had gone. Quatre flew to him just as immediately and sat down with lir back to the dwarf’s latest tankard. “Well, you’ve found yourself the least helpful quest you possibly could have!”

“You think so?” asked Duo in surprise. “I know Sano seems kinda… thoughtless… but I like him already, and Kaoru–”

“‘Thoughtless?'” Quatre laughed. “Who’s the one under a pink Curse who wouldn’t go back for a pink Guide?”

“That’s totally different; you know that! You know I wanted someone I could trust!”

“I’d be flattered if I weren’t pretty sure that’s stubbornness talking instead of any real attachment to me.”

Duo dodged the point and went back to the previous. “But I like Kaoru too, even if she’s likely to be a little uptight about things. Why do you think they won’t be helpful?”

Quatre shook lir head with a smile. Le supposed the pink Guide business wasn’t really worth emphasizing any further. “Kaoru is under a green Protection.”

“Dammit!” said Duo. “Why didn’t she tell us?”

“She doesn’t seem to understand how things work around here,” Quatre speculated. “I think you could help her much more than the other way around.”

“Sano should still be able to help me, though. He’s not actually Cursed himself.”

“I didn’t get the feeling he’s likely to put that sword down any time soon; did you?”

Without answering the question, Duo tugged at his chestnut-colored beard. Quatre thought he did this not so much out of pensiveness as because he really liked his beard. At least he spent enough time brushing it out and braiding it every day. But presently he leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Well, at least that solves the problem of where to go first. The black enclave it is!”

“So you’re still going to join this Quest?” Quatre wasn’t as surprised as le might have been.

The dwarf shrugged. “I don’t have anything better to do, do I? And before you suggest going back to the border and finding a pink Guide, just… don’t… suggest that.” He didn’t seem to mind this weak finish, but signaled for service.

Quatre chuckled as le flew back to the upper terrace and sat at the edge of an opening, dangling lir feet and looking down. Duo, it seemed, felt more at home in a Quest than out of one, and would probably cling to that with every bit of dwarven stubbornness he possessed, just as he did to the idea of not going back for a pink Guide. Quatre didn’t mind. It would only make the journey more entertaining. And after all, le’d become a Guide in the first place to be able to interact with more than merely lir own people, the faeries subject to the monarch least interested in cooperation and acceptance.

Chapter 9 – Sano Has No Sense

Postre had not yet ceased to fascinate Kaoru. Its mixture of full-size and small-size buildings allowed for a much bigger population than she’d expected when she’d first arrived, and its elaborately decorated pink shops and market stalls seemed fancy enough for a capital city. She wondered what actual faery capitals looked like, if a small town like this was so casually embellished.

She’d had no luck so far in picking up the trail of the thief she was after. Most of the faeries she asked responded politely, and some were even friendly — especially those that had either seen or heard about her throwing herself into the middle of a fight between an orc and a dwarf yesterday — but none of them recognized the description she gave or had any idea (beyond recommending she head into green territory) where to find what she sought. And her inquiries were often met with some bemusement or even confusion that she didn’t understand.

Imugeme seemed shy of being seen by other faeries. She’d explained, that first day, about the privacy Guides traditionally kept to, and Kaoru supposed that was the reason, but it made her difficult to talk to sometimes; the human would look around for her with some comment on the tip of her tongue, only to find her nowhere in sight.

At the moment, though, as Kaoru made her way around the northwest side of town closest to the river, in which at some distance she could see an unexpectedly great number of pink faeries splashing, Imugeme sat on her shoulder. The road was largely unpeopled, but every time a faery passed by, the green Guide would dart away somewhere.

“In all the towns outside, I always saw some foreigners,” Kaoru remarked. “In the human towns, there would be other races and other species… and I went through a dwarf town where I wasn’t the only human. Even in my little dairy hometown, we had a troll family. But here I’ve seen almost nothing but pink faeries. Why is that?”

“Faeries of different colors don’t mix much,” Imugeme replied. “It’s different with Guides, of course, but in everyday life this is what you should expect.”

“That seems like a shame.”

A little sadly, Imugeme agreed. “There’s nothing to be done about it around here, though.”

“How far off is the green realm?”

“At least two weeks’ travel northwest to the border, and almost as long again to the green enclave. It will be winter before we can possibly get there.”

“I wonder if the queen will be back in that amount of time…”

“Monarch,” Imugeme corrected. “And I suppose it’s possible. Are you thinking of going there by yourself?”

“Probably not. Until we actually know the green monarch is at home, it seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it? And Sano and Duo need help.”

“It’s kind of you to think of them.”

“I’m just trying to be sensible! Sano seems like he needs that. And poor Duo, getting lost everywhere… I really think non-faeries need to stick together in here.”

“I still admire your kindness.”

Kaoru blushed and glanced around. “Look, this is a home neighborhood; I don’t want to bother people here. Can you help me find shops and things again?”

“Of course, my dear.”

Postre had a second inn, cleaner and more comfortable than the one Kaoru and her new friends were staying in, and at first she’d considered raising the idea of moving there for the rest of their time in town. But having gone inside and inquired into prices, she’d realized why Duo had chosen the third-rate establishment over this one. She was nearly out of money, and must reserve what remained to pay Imugeme and feed herself. The reflection embarrassed her, but this made for another good reason to join a Quest: she needed better-off companions if she hoped to get anywhere.

And the next day, Duo’s money really did arrive. Kaoru had wondered whether it would, or whether Duo hadn’t been deceiving them in the hopes that the others (or at least Sano) would get impatient to leave and declare their intentions of funding the trip themselves. Granted, Duo seemed perfectly honest, but Kaoru still didn’t trust plenty of what she encountered in Faeryland.

The dwarf spent a lot of time in his bedroom at the inn, doing what Kaoru had no idea, but he’d emerged this morning, as yesterday, to visit the bank and check on his transfer; and now he’d found both of his new companions and brought them back to the common room for further discussion.

“I’ve been saving for years,” he said somewhat glumly once they’d placed their orders for breakfast and drinks with the innkeeper. “I’m what you might call filthy rich. Probably a good thing, too, but I wasn’t looking forward to blowing it all on a long journey. How are you guys’ finances?”

“Uh… not great?” Sano replied, appearing embarrassed. “I gotta keep paying my Guide, and I’ve never seen any of the flowers le wants, so it’s gotta be money. I can’t afford much else except food and shit.”

“You’ve never been good at handling money,” Saitou remarked. Kaoru still wasn’t entirely used to that disembodied voice from somewhere around Sano’s thighs.

Duo nodded, then looked at the human.

“I’m about the same.” She felt less embarrassed admitting it than she would have if Sano’s emotion hadn’t seemed enough for the both of them.

Duo repeated his nod, even more glum. “Then I guess I’m the financial backer of this expedition. Well, it’ll help me in the end! I’ll just have to start saving again. I’ll give you two some money, and we’ll all go out into town and stock up for the trip.”

“And then we can leave for the black place?” Sano wondered, brightening. “I can’t wait to see a bunch of black trees and rocks and shit!”

“You’ve never been a good team player,” said Saitou.

“Shut up,” Sano grumbled.

Somewhat to Kaoru’s surprise, Duo agreed with the orc. “Yeah, let’s head west. You won’t see a bunch of black trees, though; the black realm is completely underground. The entrance is in a town in the Eintopf hills at the border of the pink realm, so that’s where we’ll make for. It’s been a long time since I was there! That won’t be so bad.”

Kaoru wondered why Duo had decided on this course of action rather than visiting the closer pink enclave first. Perhaps it was because she might eventually want to continue on into the green realm, and that too lay far to the west. Perhaps it was just to placate Sano and keep him from breaking the Quest up before it had even truly formed. They needed to do something with Sano’s energy; she thought he and Duo had already been fighting behind the inn when she wasn’t around (and when the dwarf wasn’t busy in his bedroom). So she asked, “What’s the land like between here and there?”

“Plains,” he replied. “Farmland, grazing land, and some wild meadowlands. There’s a road all the way. Should be pretty easy travel.”

She nodded. “Should we plan to leave in the morning, or do you think we’ll do all right leaving a little later today, after we’ve shopped?”

Duo considered this for a moment, and his eyes roved around the common room briefly before he decided. “Tomorrow. Best to get one last good sleep in a bed before it’s back to sleeping on the ground, eh?”

Kaoru completely agreed, but Sano seemed impatient. “Let’s go shopping, then!” he declared.

“Finish your breakfast,” the human commanded, pointing to the pink salad she wouldn’t have expected someone of his species to favor for that meal.

“Yes, mom,” he said with a roll of eyes, and started shoving leaves into his mouth.

Probably because of Saitou’s comment on Sano’s ability to handle money, Duo seemed to give him less than he did Kaoru. He instructed the two of them to buy whatever they needed — with an emphasis on that last word — except food, which he would take care of. Then they dispersed to the market streets and shops of Postre, an area with which Kaoru was becoming increasingly familiar.

She’d brought multiple changes of clothing with her — all she owned, in fact, that was suited to an adventure like this; so the only garment she purchased was a vest of pinkish-brown leather for some added protection. She traded her backpack and paid the difference for a bigger, sturdier one of that same material, and she obtained a new walking staff.

At Imugeme’s suggestion, she bought some bandages and salves, since, though she could count on her Protection to keep her out of most harm’s way, and on her green Guide to heal her if she did suffer some injury, her companions seemed the sort to get wounded and require more mundane attention. She also increased her sewing supplies for mending purposes, including a large, strong needle and thick thread for use on leather. And, reminded by Duo’s reference to sleeping on the ground, she improved her bedroll. All in all, it was a satisfying few hours in the market that she never could have afforded a quarter of on her own.

While at this, she asked around again about the green thief, but met with no more success than before. Then, since she had nothing better to do and no desire to watch Duo and Sano sparring like idiots or whatever they called it, she spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the bridge that led out of town to the west — the one they would cross in the morning — talking to Imugeme. The latter had many funny and touching stories to tell of her childhood in the green realm, for which Kaoru paid her in kind with tales of growing up with sometimes-ridiculous foster-parents and -sister on a dairy farm.

As usual, Duo retired early to his room that evening, leaving Sano and Kaoru to finish their dinner and drinks in the common room without him. The orc soon became too intoxicated for the human to get any enjoyment out of his company, and too loud for her to converse with Saitou conveniently, so eventually she left instructions with the innkeeper as to what should be done with Sano if he grew as disruptive and belligerent as she feared he must, and also went early to bed.

The next morning, rather to her surprise, she and even the hungover Sano were awake, breakfasted, and ready to leave before Duo emerged from his room. The dwarf didn’t hold them up much longer, though; he bought some meat buns for eating on his feet, settled the final account with the innkeeper, and, with a wistful look back toward the bedrooms, proclaimed himself at their disposal. Kaoru wondered whether he just loved sleep that much.

Across the bridge, the road sloped upward for about half a mile through brush and lingering trees she’d gotten a good look at yesterday, then leveled out, and Kaoru had her first sight of faery farmland. At first she couldn’t help goggling, for it appeared so different from any such land she’d ever seen. All the plants’ being pink came as no surprise, but they were so unusual in themselves, and had been harvested in a manner so foreign to her, she simply didn’t know what to make of it.

Then, there were so few full-size buildings! As far as the eye could see, no habitations presented themselves — not one single farmhouse met her searching gaze. Barns, yes, stables (for what animal she couldn’t quite tell), and livestock pens, but no homes. Duo had to inform her a few hours into their walk that faeries found it safer and more convenient to live small-size out in the open like this, though most of their work must be carried out full-size.

They came upon fields full of cows in a variety of pink-like colors — mostly smaller and less solidly built than those on the dairy back home, and with thicker creamy pink horns — and even some horses in the same hues that otherwise looked more or less like the horses she might have seen anywhere. They passed a small lake where waterfowl such as she’d never encountered called and splashed, but more often they saw V’s of unfamiliar birds heading out on some mysterious migratory pattern that took them she knew not where.

So fascinating did their surroundings prove that Kaoru paid little attention to her companions or even the passing hours, but somewhere in her subconscious lay the awareness that Sano was equal parts interested and bored, and that Duo kept attempting to wander off in the wrong direction but was consistently tugged back on course by some little gold flash pulling on one of his braids.

He informed them at lunchtime, as they sat in the imperfect shade and the fallen leaves of some pink tree resembling a maple, that the road swung farther north than their direct westward path in order to hit the town of Yabloko, but that he advised sticking to it for a few reasons: first, that by the time they could, they would certainly want to spend a night or two in a civilized settlement; second, that leaving the road meant making their way across various people’s lands, for which they might get in trouble; and third, that they should take advantage of a paved path while they had it, as they would miss it later. Kaoru, who admired his knowledge of Faeryland geography and had no problem with staying on the road, believed he laid out these reasons so carefully in order to head off Sano’s potential complaints, in which endeavor he succeeded.

Evening and even full night under constellations that, for a change, were not pink came much sooner than Kaoru had expected; but when she could no longer make out details in the pale starlight, and eventually began to stumble and yawn, her attention returned firmly to the mechanics of the journey. She’d been so engrossed in looking around her, the time had flown. She doubted she could count on any subsequent day’s going by so rapidly, but she appreciated it as a good start.

At a particularly egregious near-fall, “Humans,” Duo remarked with a shake of his head. “I don’t know how you guys ever get anywhere.” And indeed, he’d shown no signs of flagging, and still maintained the same pace he’d set out at this morning.

“We ride horses,” Kaoru yawned.

“You wanna keep going?” Sano wondered skeptically.

“Oh, I could walk another eight hours without needing to sleep,” Duo replied with a barely-visible smug smile. And if that was true, Kaoru thought, maybe he’d been saving up on sleep at the inn in Postre.

“Well, I could cover way more ground in the time we’ve been going,” was Sano’s defiance in return. “Orcs are damn fast runners, you know.”

“They’re at least good at running their mouths,” said Saitou.

Kaoru giggled. “I can’t run fast or travel for a long time without sleep. I guess I’ll always be the bottleneck.”

“We’ll look for a good place to stop,” Duo assured her.

After not too much longer, the shadow of a full-size building began to loom up on their left, appearing a short distance off the road past the stout pink fence that had been flanking them for the last several miles. They hadn’t paid any heed to such places all day, except for Kaoru to study them with interest, but now it seemed they approached a potential shelter for the night. This land had obviously been set aside for the growing of some type of grain or grass, which had been harvested in the usual incomprehensible spiral pattern, so the building was probably stuffed full; but there should be room for three travelers, Kaoru thought.

However, as they drew nearer, she suddenly felt a sharp tugging at first her pony tail and then the hood of her cloak — a stronger pull than she would have expected from Imugeme (for she it must be) apparently intent on dragging her to the right side of the road away from the barn. If the little yelp Sano gave was any indication, he’d had the same experience with his own Guide. With one accord, they all stopped moving.

“Looks like that won’t do,” said Duo, his tone as dark as the night around them and his braided hair swinging.

“Why?” Sano wondered, and his voice, on the contrary, was filled with curiosity. “What’s over there?”

The dwarf answered briefly, “Something our Guides don’t like,” and resumed his walk at a sharp angle to the right.

“Now I really wanna know, though!” Sano took off down the road toward the unidentified building. Difficult as it was to make out in the shadows, Kaoru thought he really did run very fast.

“Sano, stop!” Duo shouted after him. “Come back, damn you! It’s probably demon-infested!” But only Sano’s laughter came floating back to them. “What’s the point of having Guides if you don’t let them guide you??” He let out a frustrated grunt, turned his back on the direction in which Sano had disappeared, and drummed his thick dwarven fingers on the haft of his axe.

“Come on,” Kaoru said. “We’ve got to go after him.”

“Look, I’m just as fond as the next guy of rushing into danger, but in Faeryland, doing that can get you worse than dead.”

“We’re a Quest now,” said the human reprovingly. “We need to look out for each other.”

Duo stared at her for a moment, then grinned, his teeth bright in the darkness. “You’re right!” he admitted. And they started after the miscreant orc.

Just as they’d clambered over the fence and properly approached the barn, watching the stars ahead of them blotted out by its rising blackness, a hideous screech arose from around it on their left where the entrance probably stood. Kaoru stumbled, caught herself on her staff, and wavered for a moment in fear, for she knew that sound; Duo only ran on. Next a roar undoubtedly from the throat of a combative orc split the night, another screech, and a horrible squelching, crunching noise. By the time Kaoru and Duo had picked their way over a wrecked wagon hiding in tall weeds and around to the front of the building, it was all over.

“You bloodthirsty fool,” the sword in Sano’s hand was saying harshly as the starlight gleamed off the liquid that covered his blade. “You complete idiot. Are you deaf? Just once in your life, could you think about what you’re planning before you do it?”

Panting, Kaoru halted a few steps away from Sano at the sight of the pale, twisted figure oozing at his feet. “Sano, what did you do?” she demanded breathlessly.

“This one was way easier to kill than that one we met the first day,” Sano said in a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment. “Barely scratched me! Looks like it was half starved.”

“Sano! Didn’t they explain this to you at the entrance? Didn’t your Guide explain? It’s illegal to kill these things in the pink realm!” She slammed her staff angrily into the ground. “If you’re going to get us in trouble like this, you can damn well go to the black enclave on your own!”

Duo spread his hands and said, more or less jovially, “They’re right; you’re a fucking idiot.”

Scowling, Sano replied, “Oh, go impale yourself.” The verb carried the very specific connotation of being run through on a sharpened stake of wood driven at an angle into the ground for the defense of an orc war camp. He did have the grace to look somewhat sheepish at the same time, though. “But on the bright side, we can definitely sleep in this barn now!”

“I am not sleeping anywhere near that dead body,” Kaoru declared. “Besides, there might be more inside.”

“Nah, I think this guy–” kicking the fallen Distorted with a booted foot– “was trying to get in looking for food. See, the lock’s still on the doors.”

“If someone comes along and finds us with that body, we’ll be arrested.”

“Yeah,” said Duo, and, turning, gestured. “Let’s get going. We’ll cover a few more miles and then make camp.”

With a snort, Sano began cleaning off the sword on the edge of his tunic, and followed. They climbed the fence again and continued down the road in a fairly awkward silence. Sano eventually sheathed the weapon and stuffed his big hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders over in what Kaoru believed to be a state of surly guilt.

She took a deep breath. “They’re called the Distorted,” she began quietly, struggling to strip all accusation from her tone. “Or some people call them demons. They’re children of faeries who come out all wrong — crazy and aggressive. The monarch around here is trying to figure out how to save them, which is why it’s illegal to kill them in this area. You’re supposed to alert her or something, and she sends people out after it.”

“That does sound kinda familiar,” Sano mumbled.

“Because our Guide told us all about it when you made the pact,” Saitou snapped. “But you’ve always made a habit of conveniently forgetting laws.”

“Hey, cheer up!” Duo said. Sano’s chastised-puppy air seemed to have done the job for him very well. “Live and learn, right? As long as you actually live. Nobody’s likely to find that one until at least tomorrow morning, and we’ll be long gone. Just, you know, don’t do it again.”

As a new silence fell, Kaoru could see Sano observing her dragging steps and reliance on her walking staff. Finally, penitently, he said, “Want me to carry you?”

Before Kaoru could do more than smile at the idea, Duo broke in. “I don’t hear you offering to carry me.”

“Oh, go impale yourself,” Sano repeated. But now there was a grin in the words.

Chapter 10 – Tomoe Laments

Despite the human’s evident weariness, the dwarf had pushed them on for another two hours after the grisly scene at the barn. But once they’d settled down at the side of the road around a fire, Tomoe felt free to give lirself up to grief.

The previous Distorted Sano had encountered had attacked him in the forest to the northeast not far from the border. Tomoe had sensed it, of course, and advised Sano to run, but he, stubborn as always, had not obeyed. Even so, for all the illegality of the killing, and for all the orc had enjoyed it, a claim of self-defense would not be out of place.

Tonight had been different.

On a large, nearly horizontal bough of a tree that, standing alone near the road, had lost all of its leaves to autumn winds, le crouched and put lir head in lir hands. Lir sorrow rarely had physical manifestation, but that almost made it harder to bear. Le would have preferred to weep. In Kenshin’s company, le might have been able to let it out, but as it was, le could only clutch at the pain, grappling for mastery, in perfect silence.

Presently le felt a hand on lir shoulder. It could only be Quatre’s, and, though Tomoe would rather have a longtime friend than anyone currently nearby, le appreciated the gesture. Le braced lirself, gathered what strength le could, and stood up. Turning to face the other faery, le drew in and let out a deep breath.

To lir surprise, le found tears on Quatre’s face along with the expression of deep concern. “I’m so sorry,” le said. Then, adding a formal statement that indicated a motive of unromantic friendship, le pulled Tomoe into a hug.

The pink faery stiffened, unused to this kind of comfort from a recent acquaintance and never having expected such compassion from a gold faery, but after a moment le returned the embrace. This was almost enough to free the tears, but not quite — yet lir appreciation deepened, and lir pain sank just a little. “Thank you,” le whispered.

Quatre released lir and took a step back. Then le took one more, and dropped into a seated position, looking down at the Quest below. The invitation to stay and unburden couldn’t be more clear, and Tomoe was very grateful. After a moment le too sat, drawing lir knees up to lir chin, but gazed up instead of down. Le didn’t want to see Sano right now.

After a while, le turned lir eyes back toward Quatre. The gold faery had changed clothing and presentation at some point when Tomoe hadn’t been looking, and now wore a long, flowing sleeveless tunic over tight trousers, bare feet, and a flat chest. The intermingled fiery red and orange of lir garments looked bright even in the darkness, and seemed incongruously but not unwelcomely cheerful.

Barely loud enough to be heard over the night breeze, Tomoe said, “It could have been one of my children.”

“Were you trying that early?” Quatre wondered.

Tomoe nodded. “Our first three attempts came before the monarch’s decree. We kept lem with us as long as we could — ley’re not aggressive at first, you know…”

“I have heard that.”

“But eventually ley even turn against leir parents. We hoped that maybe, if we showed lem enough love and gentleness, ours would be different… My spouse is a champion of love and gentleness.” Le almost smiled at the thought. “But it was no good. One by one, we had to set lem down near others of leir kind. We had to fly away and leave lem. We’ve never known if ley lived or died.”

“I’m so sorry,” Quatre said again.

And Tomoe likewise repeated, “Thank you.” Le sighed, and once more felt the tears close but not quite within reach. “It got a little easier once Relena started taking in Distorted babies. It still hurt to fly away, but at least we were leaving lem in better circumstances, or so we’ve always hoped. But nothing can ever make it hurt less…” Le pulled lir knees even tighter against lir. “…hurt less to go through years of pregnancy and finally deliver a… someone who’ll never love you, someone who’ll try to kill you…”

“I can only imagine,” said Quatre very softly. And the starlight seemed to sparkle off the paths of moisture down lir face even more than it did off lir gold skin.

“It’s so kind of you to cry for me,” said Tomoe even more quietly. Especially since le was unable to do so for lirself.

Quatre gave a faint laugh that held amusement, frustration, and some self-deprecation all at once, and swiped at lir eyes and cheeks. “I can’t help it. It’s just too damn awful.”

It was. There was nothing else to be said. It was just too damn awful.

“I think it’s incredibly brave of you and your spouse to keep trying, though. I don’t know if I would have that kind of strength.”

“You’ve never borne a child?”

Quatre shook lir head.

“It takes something out of you. Something transfers from you into the baby. With normal children, it seems to me that ley repay it over and over again, but with a Distorted child… you lose something you never get back. If you’re planning on having children, I’d advise you to wait until the Distorted problem has been solved.”

The slight frown that crossed Quatre’s face made Tomoe wonder whether le’d struck a nerve with this last. If so, le regretted it, but could do little to make amends — especially when Quatre asked after only the briefest pause, “Do you believe in what Relena’s doing?”

“I have to,” Tomoe sighed. “Le’s the only one trying to determine how to fix the whole situation.”

The nod of Quatre’s golden head came slowly, and lir lips were pursed. Again Tomoe wondered what le was thinking.

Finally le asked, “And you? Do you believe in what Dorothy is doing?”

“Exterminating all Distorted in lir realm? I’ve been withholding judgment, but…” Le smiled wanly at the pink faery. “I’m grateful for your perspective. It helps me see things more clearly.”

This wasn’t precisely an answer, but Tomoe let it go. “I’m grateful for you listening,” le said instead of inquiring farther.

“Any time.”

Several minutes passed in silence. Tomoe watched the distant clouds drift across the stars from southwest to northeast, trying to scrub from her interior vision the sight of that poor Distorted, emaciated and hopeless, pierced by a sword so deeply through its chest that ribs cracked in both front and back. Le knew the memory would blur in time, though it would never bother lir less, but le would like it to depart sooner and more completely than it possibly could. Le didn’t dare try to sleep, and couldn’t decide whether that was because le feared it wouldn’t work… or that it would.

At last, with another sigh, le glanced over at Quatre, and found lir looking down as before at the sleeping Quest. As if dragged along the line of the gold faery’s gaze, Tomoe at last turned lir eyes in the same direction.

Duo had put out the fire before he, restless and the last to settle, had gone to sleep: a wise decision, as the firepit was now choked with leaves and half scattered across the little campsite. The moon had begun to rise, however, revealing whatever the starlight hadn’t illuminated. The dwarf lay with his hands behind his head and his braided hair pulled forward onto his chest, snoring, but shifted onto his side with a mumble even as Tomoe watched.

Kaoru, whose Guide never had appeared, slept the sleep of one struggling to accustom herself to the new demands placed upon her. She’d curled up on her side inside her bedroll and begun snoring on what must be a relatively soft pile of leaves, but, drained as she’d been, Tomoe doubted she would have noticed even the hardness of the bare ground until morning.

And Sano… Tomoe forced lirself to look at him. He sprawled out on top of rather than inside his own bedroll, as le’d seen him do ever since the border despite the chilly autumn, long green limbs flung every which-way, snoring. He never removed his sword-belt, even to sleep, and on more than one occasion le’d observed him roll over onto the sheathed sword and half awaken in confused discomfort.

The sight wasn’t as hateful as le had anticipated. Le couldn’t say le liked him right now, or would ever, but there was at times something very childlike about him, and to this le was drawn. Even so… “I don’t know if I can keep my pact with him,” le murmured.

Quatre apparently started out of a half doze. “I’m sorry?”

“Sano. I don’t know if I can continue as his Guide. He doesn’t listen to me, and tonight…”

For a second time, Quatre smoothed away a frown almost as soon as it appeared on lir face. “I can understand why you’d want to leave him,” le said. Le didn’t bother enumerating the reasons it wouldn’t be a good idea, only added, “But I do think Kaoru and Duo will get the management of him.” Then le yawned.

“Maybe…” Tomoe shook lir head. “He listens to Saitou sometimes, and that’s a good sign…”

“Do you know what Saitou was like as a human?” It seemed more drowsy curiosity than continuance of the previous topic. “I have to admit, I think he must have been attractive.”

“I have no idea.” Tomoe didn’t mind changing the subject. “Strong, evidently; and Sano teases him about his hair sometimes, though he gets as good as he gives. That’s all I know.”

Quatre yawned again, then said, “I hope I get to see him sometime. As a friend.”

“Do you have someone already? Or are you just not interested in Visitors?”

“No… no, not really.” Quatre didn’t specify which question these words and lir wan smile answered, only yawned a third time.

“Why don’t you sleep?” Tomoe suggested. “I’ll watch.”

“You’re not leaving?”

“Not until we reach a town at least. I won’t abandon him in the middle of nowhere.”

“You run the risk of seeing something like tonight again.”

“I know. I know.” Le pressed a balled hand to lir forehead. And le had no idea what to say besides, again, “I know.”

Chapter 11 – Heero Has No Sensibility

Whenever Trowa was forced to leave him on other business, Heero kept to the road. It curved a little too far northward for his precise needs, but the need to avoid disaster outweighed the need to reach his destination as quickly as possible. Even making camp in a copse several yards from the track was a risk, but it was a risk he had evaluated and considered worth the greater physical comfort provided by the area more sheltered from the wind. He couldn’t travel as fast or as far at a stretch as had been the case before his Curse, and he required the best sleep he could attain.

It would be an inconvenience if something were to attack him, given he also couldn’t fight as well as before — and that never a very high standard to begin with — so he remained very alert while waking. He had warmed himself beside a small fire, but now it had fulfilled its function and could be put out to prevent attracting attention. There was nothing left for him to do besides sleeping in any case. He rose and moved to kick dirt over the flames, then paused as his ears picked up something coming this way from the direction of the road.

He had passed faeries occasionally as he walked; a few had even tried, unsuccessfully, to start a conversation with him. Faeries could travel much faster than anyone else in Faeryland, and everyone he’d met had been driving animals or carts. What he heard now sounded like the footsteps of a party of travelers, but without the accompaniment of animal noises or creaking wheels to explain their lesser speed. Probably other Visitors, then, with unknown intentions. Instead of putting out the fire, Heero put his back to it. He did not draw his knives, as he believed it would be unwise to present a threatening aspect to the newcomers, but they were ready should he need them.

“See, I told you!” a man’s voice said.

“Yes, I certainly see,” said another, slightly muffled.

They pushed their way through the trees and bushes. In the shady copse and with a figure between them and the fire, details were difficult to make out, but Heero assessed what he could: a dwarf man that looked Ghabak’nik, obviously more a warrior than Heero was, armed with something whose heavy haft alone could be seen over his shoulder — most likely a battle-axe; a tall orc man, green-skinned and tusked, wearing a sword that appeared a trifle too small for him; and a human woman with a staff in her hand that could be intended for combat or merely for walking. In either case, Heero’s knives would be of no use here.

The orc, catching sight of Heero, halted mid-gesture; he had evidently meant to indicate the fire. The human looked as if she’d been on the point of saying something, but she too stopped short on seeing the stranger. The dwarf, on the other hand, seemed prompted to speech. He advanced with a fist outstretched, smiling.

“Evening! It’s so great to see another dwarf around here!” He glanced around. “Are you traveling alone?”

“I am,” Heero replied. Deeming it wise to accept the casual Ghabak’nik greeting, he reached out to touch fists with the other man.

“Do you mind if we share your camp?” The unknown dwarf smoothed down his thick braided beard as he dropped his hand. “Safety in numbers!”

Heero believed the probability not great that these Visitors — obviously a Quest — would want to do him harm. If the improbable occurred, he had already calculated he could do little to fend them off, warriors as at least two of them appeared to be, and this consideration would apply just as much to the options of refusing the request or relocating himself. And, as the stranger said, he would be safer in their company — especially without his Guide — should they prove well disposed.

“You may,” he answered, and moved to resume his previous place sitting beside the fire.

The other dwarf approached and shed his bulky pack. He did not appear tired, and Heero assumed the Quest was resting for the benefit of the other two. Eyes fixed on Heero, he sat, and leaned back against the discarded article. “You have a Guide, I hope?”

“I do.” Heero thought he detected in this other dwarf, even at this early stage, a reaction similar to that of nearly everyone he had met since being Cursed: some confusion and negative emotion. It would, he believed, be wise to gain favor with these Visitors that would be sharing his campsite, so he added to his statement. “Are you a Quest?” He knew his toneless brevity formed at least part if not all of why others reacted negatively to him, but he could come up with no embellishment to the question.

The other, apparently deciding to ignore his own feelings for now, replied, “Yes. We’ve got some problems that can only be solved in Faeryland.”

“Hey,” the orc said at this juncture in a loud whisper, “can I greet this dwarf with the vik’talzis thing?”

In just as loud a whisper, the human answered, “Don’t be a jerk! Can’t you see he’s wounded?” And Heero made mental note of her ability to discern that something was physically wrong with him after so brief and distant an examination.

“Come sit down, you two,” the other dwarf urged his companions without a glance at them; his gaze still seemed locked on Heero. He wondered next, “Are you Cursed too?”

“I am,” said Heero.

“Which monarch?”

“Dorothy.”

The other dwarf sucked in a breath. He hadn’t stopped looking Heero over, and the latter wondered whether it was a gaze of assessment. Perhaps the man wanted Heero to join this Quest. But what he said was, “Have you been to talk to lir yet?”

“No. I already know what I need to do to break the Curse. Visiting Dorothy seemed unnecessary.”

The orc addressed him for the first time. “You’re two steps ahead of the rest of us, then!”

“Do you mean you don’t know how to break your Curses?” Heero turned his head in that direction as he spoke.

The orc too had dropped his pack and leaned against it, but appeared as if he didn’t know how to interpret Heero’s mannerisms, and less relaxed than his dwarf companion. “Yeah, that’s right. We’re headed to the black faery place, where I should be able to figure out mine.” For some reason, he laid a hand on the sword at his side.

“Do you mean the black enclave?” Heero asked.

“Yeah, that.”

Heero considered for a moment. Then he said, “I’m also traveling southwest. I believe it would be wisest if I joined you.”

The strangers all stared at him, then glanced at each other. Heero believed the other dwarf reacted positively to the suggestion, but none of them appeared to have been expecting it. Perhaps he’d made it too early in the conversation.

Trying to mitigate the effect in the interest of good relations, he added, “I may be required to leave you at any time if I sense the presence of one of the objects I’m looking for in another direction.”

At this, the others seemed a little easier, and the human woman finally sat down beside the fire, but no one spoke immediately. Heero probably should have approached the subject more circumspectly, but at this period he found it almost impossible to converse casually or irrelevantly.

“Well, I think that sounds fine,” the other dwarf said at last. “What do you guys think?”

The orc merely shrugged, then put his hands behind his head and leaned even farther back. The human looked Heero over again and said, “I don’t mind. Maybe I can help you with your injuries.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Heero replied.

The woman had some kind of negative reaction to this, and silence fell again.

After an interval, Heero said, “My name is Heero Silvertrade. I need to find a number of objects to break my Curse. They must be found in a certain order. I have some clues to their whereabouts, and I can sense them when I get close.”

The other dwarf had resumed staring at him. It looked as if he had a hard time determining that Heero had finished speaking, but after a wordless second or two he said, “Yeah, ‘Fetch me 10 items that I could just as easily have collected for myself’ is a pretty standard requirement for breaking a Curse — and actually not too bad for Dorothy! It sounds like le must have Cursed you in person.” When Heero nodded, he went on. “I’m Duo Axewielder, by the way, at your service! My Curse is from Relena, and I get lost all the time.”

“He means all the fucking time,” the orc put in, throwing a small twig at Duo.

“I haven’t talked to her yet,” Duo went on with a gesture of hand directed at the orc. “I’m helping Stupid here get to the black enclave first.”

Heero knew friends sometimes made negative comments to each other that weren’t intended to be taken seriously, but he’d lost the ability to distinguish between those and the ones that were; therefore, he couldn’t be sure whether or not Duo and the orc had mutual positive feelings. He also had no time to dwell on it, for a brief laugh that evidently did not come from any of the three other Visitors caused him to search for its source.

“That’s Saitou,” the orc explained. He lifted his sheathed sword. “He’s this sword.”

“Technically I’m the one Cursed,” the sword said. “Sano here is just my idiot courier.” And Heero believed the orc, Sano, had a negative reaction to this.

“Turning people into objects is a pretty standard Robin Curse, now I think about it,” said Duo. “Le loves making things.”

“The sword existed before the Curse,” the disembodied voice from the weapon in question contradicted. “It’s been handed down for generations in my family. It’s unbreakable, and very valuable.”

“No wonder it looks so cool,” Duo said.

‘Cool’ was a concept Heero had never understood.

Sano looked as if he might speak, but seemed to decide against it. Instead, the human woman said, “Well, Heero, I’m Kaoru Kamiya. I’m looking for something too, but in my case it’s only one thing, and I can’t sense anything about it.” She smiled across the fire, trying, Heero believed, to make an emotional connection with him.

In this he could not meet her, but he did come up with something else to say. “Where do you need to go to break your Curse?”

“It’s not actually a Curse. I just had something stolen from me by a green faery, and I want it back. I’ve been describing the thief to people, but nobody seems to have heard of him. I’ll probably need to talk to the green monarch eventually. For now–” she gave a particularly wide smile, indicating what emotion Heero could not assess– “I’m helping Duo help Stupid get to the black enclave.”

Heero nodded.

“Hey!” said the orc loudly. The sword at his hip — Saitou — laughed again.

It might, Heero reflected, weary his mind more than his body to travel with these people. They all expressed so much emotion, and interacted in ways he could not comprehend. The simplest solution would be not to try, but because there was a rightness to understanding the world around him just as there was to finding the items he needed, and because knowing his allies as well as possible seemed logical, he would try whether it tired him or not.

It would tire his body too. He was already tired, and had postponed getting any rest in order to talk to these new companions. Now he stood, and said, “I plan to sleep now. I’ll leave putting out the fire to you.”

Before he turned fully away from them and toward his bedroll, he believed he again detected signs of negative reactions, perhaps to his abruptness. He didn’t know for certain, and wouldn’t have had any conception what to do about it if he had.

Chapter 12 – Trowa Proposes Marriage For The First Time In At Least Three Weeks

On this threshold of winter, Tomoe had changed into thicker clothing and added a plum-colored coat with squorrel fur at collar and cuffs. This last had been tailored in the small size and would not expand, but le didn’t anticipate needing to go full-size any time soon. Anyway le lacked Quatre’s apparent skill at summoning items from home without much effort, and had chosen lir favorite coat to wear until le next felt it necessary to expend the energy to summon something else.

Sano, le noticed, still slept on top of his bedroll despite his breaths being visible once the sun had gone down; but he sprawled less and curled up more, lying on his right side so as not to awaken with a sword-shaped dent in his left. Kaoru and Duo slept as they usually did, though the dwarf seemed more restless than usual tonight. And the other dwarf… this new Heero person… he slept like the dead. He appeared battered and exhausted, and Tomoe wondered if that explained his strange demeanor.

“Any sign of Kaoru’s Guide yet?” Quatre wondered as le joined Tomoe in the small branches of a leafless shrub and gazed out over the Quest. The gold faery too had changed clothing, as le did fairly often — this time into a turquoise cloak that buttoned across lir flat chest and gave the impression almost of a uniform. Tomoe reflected a little forlornly that Quatre looked good in everything le wore and every presentation le adopted; some people had all the luck.

“No,” le said in response to the question. “None at all.”

“Le must be the antisocial sort,” Quatre remarked in a pointedly louder tone, lir eyes darting here and there as if to catch sight of someone hiding just behind the next clump of weeds.

Tomoe nodded. “Or maybe,” le speculated after a moment, “she has no Guide. Maybe she couldn’t afford the ongoing rate, and bought a Protection instead.”

“I suppose that’s possible… but then how could she have found her way so far before she joined the Quest?”

Tomoe answered with only a shake of lir head. Le was studying Heero again where he lay, the farthest from the fire and the others, sleeping like a stone in a bedroll that appeared lighter than any of his companions’. Le wondered whether he, like Sano, didn’t mind the cold as much as Duo and especially Kaoru did; or if he simply didn’t have the physical strength to add the weight of extra blankets to his baggage. And also… “I wonder who Heero’s Guide is.”

Quatre agreed. “He claimed to have one… Maybe le’s the antisocial sort too!” Lir cheerful smile sounded in lir next statement: “What an interesting Quest we’ve found!”

Ley said nothing more, and Tomoe, at least, fell into a doze, propped up at various points by the twigs into which le’d more or less nestled, only occasionally opening lir eyes for a quick sweep of the camp. Le half-contemplated, half-dreamed of Kenshin, alone at home dealing with pregnancy without lir, and some time passed. Le’d reached the stage where a voice in lir head had begun nagging that this wasn’t really comfortable and le should find a better place to get some real sleep, when Quatre startled lir fully awake by jumping up and fluttering into the air. It required not much visual scanning to see another faery approaching, and Tomoe too, yawning, rose and flew.

The newcomer, light purple of skin and with darker hair that swept over lir face on one side, wore simple clothing and no sexual presentation, and was most probably Heero’s Guide. The only thing that stood out about lir, Tomoe noticed as le came up to them and stopped at a hover before Quatre, was the filigree silver sheaths decorated with gems of red and green and white that adorned both of lir ears. They had the appearance of wedding jewels, though it seemed unusual for someone to be wearing both the left and the right, and must have cost the stranger a pretty penny.

“Trowa!” Quatre did not actually raise lir voice, but lir tone was that of a shout. “I’m so glad to see you!”

Wordlessly, the purple faery unlatched one of the ear-sheaths, slid it free, and held it out with both hands to the gold faery. Tomoe’s brows rose. If this was a marriage proposal, it was the strangest le’d ever seen.

Quatre laughed and reached up to close Trowa’s fingers over the offering. “I’d rather have you play for us,” le said lightly. And as Trowa replaced the jewel on lir ear, Tomoe somehow got the feeling ley’d been through this ritual many times, which perhaps explained its complete lack of ceremony. But if it had been a marriage proposal, how realistically did Trowa mean it? Le had demonstrated no emotion thus far — which, Tomoe reflected, made lir particularly suited for Heero’s Guide — and Quatre, for all lir apparent openness, proved surprisingly difficult to read. Had le refused because this was merely a recurring game between lem, or because of the difficulties of intercolor marriage in the current climate, or because le wasn’t interested?

The pink faery couldn’t help thinking back to lir engagement with Kenshin, which actually made lir smile. They’d taken part in an initiative of Relena’s to build and settle a new town in a spot where the monarch particularly wanted one not far from the gold border. It had so happened that the others involved had been nearly all married couples, and Tomoe and Kenshin, as close friends, had naturally been believed among that number. Eventually Kenshin had suggested, half jokingly, that ley too get married so reality would match assumption. The subsequent redness of each face had forced lem, unexpectedly, to deal with the subject a good deal more seriously.

“Let’s find a spot in the trees,” Trowa said, speaking for the first time and gesturing upward.

As they flew, Quatre remarked, “You look exhausted.”

Trowa landed on a branch and glanced around, then back at Quatre, and nodded.

“Trust a purple faery to be Guiding more than one Visitor at a time!” Quatre said with a smile. As Trowa found a seat beside the bole of the tree, le dropped down next to lir with the air of nothing more than a friend. Tomoe, though le believed le would sleep elsewhere and give these two leir privacy, just in case they needed it, sat cross-legged nearby for now.

“‘Trust a purple faery,'” Trowa echoed. “That’s not something I often hear a gold faery say.”

Quatre laughed. “Here’s your opportunity to hear it from a pink faery too! This is Tomoe of Frollino. Tomoe, this is Trowa of Romãgarden.” And Tomoe had to get to lir feet again in order to clasp hands with Trowa, though le didn’t yet offer the suggested statement of faith in someone that might very well be a spy.

“And I’d better tell you about the Quest,” Quatre went on, observing Tomoe’s silence with a momentary drawing-together of brows that smoothed immediately. Trowa nodded. “You know Duo, of course.”

“The dwarf bodyguard?”

“That’s the one. I think we’ve all wondered what he would be like as a member of a Quest instead.”

“Is he Cursed, then? I’ll owe Cathy some glass.”

Again Quatre laughed. “I should have made my own bet when I had the chance!” And le went on to describe Duo’s Curse and his resultant attitude, as well as Kaoru and her situation. “You should have heard her trying to make friends with your strange dwarf!” he finished.

“I assume that didn’t work,” Trowa said with a faint smile.

“What’s wrong with him?” Quatre reached behind to scratch a molting spot on one wing.

“It’s private. You’ll have to wait until he chooses to explain.”

Tomoe was a little disappointed, if not exactly surprised, at this answer.

“Tomoe,” Quatre asked courteously, “would you prefer to tell Trowa about Sano?”

The pink faery, seated closer to the curve of the branch, looked down once more at lir Visitor and listened to his distant snoring for a moment. Then le shook lir head.

“Sano…” Quatre began, and broke off to chuckle as if le couldn’t help it. Le grinned all through lir description of the orc, the sword, and their Curse and their acrimony, and eventually declared that the reality was far more amusing than le could tell it.

Trowa thanked lir for the information, and asked who Kaoru’s Guide was. And after a brief exchange on that subject, ley fell silent. Presently Trowa, perhaps remembering Quatre’s request, produced a flute and began to play.

Tomoe recognized the melody; the lyrics that went with it discussed the narrator’s desire for the ‘beautiful soul’ of the object of lir affection. It had been quite popular a few years ago, and, in addition to enjoying it so well performed now, le wondered whether it was as pointed a gesture of courtship as it seemed. Fearing that, if le remained where le sat, le ran the risk either of being lulled to sleep in an awkward place or adding lir voice uninvited to the compelling music, le stood and looked around for a better spot to rest.

Quatre rose as well, and came to lir side. “We’re in a position now to have at least two Guides with the Quest most of the time,” le murmured — “maybe even three, if Kaoru’s is hiding somewhere near. If you want to go check on your spouse from time to time, I’m sure we could handle things here.”

“That’s generous of you,” said Tomoe gratefully in return. “You don’t mind taking the first watch, do you?”

“Not at all,” le smiled.

Tomoe nodded, and flew upward into the smaller branches.

‘Beautiful soul’ described Kenshin so well: so gentle and kind-hearted, so firm of purpose yet so conciliating of manner… exuding a peace le could sink into even in times of hardship. And ley’d certainly had times of hardship. Tomoe could only hope that, at least when le was around, le provided a similar level of strength and emotional support.

And now le believed, as a friend, that Quatre merited the same description, whether or not le could be easily read. Gold faeries were known as harsh, insular, and grasping, but Quatre seemed to be none of these things. In addition to the thoughtfulness le had shown Tomoe all along in relation to lir situation, le seemed to be in favor of good relations among the colors (something Tomoe too should probably support, though le had other things to think of at this juncture); and le’d talked about the Quest just now with good-natured rationality, and with a knowledge of the racial divisions of other intelligent species that had impressed Tomoe (and that Trowa, le believed, had shown some hint of fondly admiring).

Though the pink faery’s thoughts remained primarily with lir spouse as le curled up, shivering a little, in a recess of the tree, le also reflected briefly and sincerely that if Trowa wanted to marry Quatre, that seemed perfectly understandable.

Chapter 13 – Duo Doesn’t Discern Dude’s Dilemma

Traveling with Heero was strange. He limped along at about a human’s pace, sometimes appearing tired or uncomfortable but never appearing to have any emotional state to correspond with the physical. He complained not at all, only mentioned as an indifferent fact, when he reached that point, that he couldn’t go much further. And while he responded to anything directed at him, he rarely attempted to start a conversation, and never made remarks in passing. Everything he did say was spoken with the same toneless abruptness as everything he’d said when they’d first met.

So Duo supposed he should amend his thought and declare that Heero himself was strange. For a variety of reasons, he would prefer not to, but he just couldn’t get a handle on the other dwarf. He’d taken an immediate liking to Sano and Kaoru, which had increased his general sanguinity about the journey; but Heero had been on the road with them for five days now, and Duo knew him not a whit better than he had at the start. Duo doubted Heero would ever get in their way, but would he actually be any use?

Well, that wasn’t quite true, for Heero did get in the way.

He was Onkoltuk, a race somewhat darker and distinctly less hairy than Duo’s, and had revealed that he came from Azh’krizh, a small, mostly underground kingdom northwest of Duo’s original homeland in the Southern Rog’kik Range. No surprise his family name was Silvertrade. He didn’t look like a miner, though; in fact Duo had rarely seen so smooth a skin on a dwarf before. Heero’s mustache and beard, though growing out scraggly on this leg of the journey between towns, appeared to have been originally just as smooth. And his eyelashes… they swept in a luxurious body to the side above an eye like a deep pool without ripples. He had not seen fit to reveal what had happened to the other eye, only mentioned, when asked, that eventually he would be able to remove the patch.

His figure also seemed unusually smooth. Of course he was broad, as a dwarf should be, but there was something about him a little narrower and more lithe than Duo. The latter got the feeling that, once the unspecified injuries had healed — especially whatever had happened to his left foot, the obvious source of his limp — Heero would be downright graceful.

And all of this did dreadful things to Duo’s penis.

Of course he’d grown up hearing horror stories about kil’ak’brük, along with recommendations of certain meditation techniques designed to strengthen the mind over the needs of the body in time to meet with calmness and fortitude the approximately decade-long period of wild desire. He’d never practiced the meditation, and three years into his sexual maturation seemed too late to start. But he’d had no idea it could get this bad, having long assumed his elder siblings’ warnings exaggerated for effect.

His parents had given him The Talk about halfway through his second century, but because he’d never demonstrated any interest in women and therefore pregnancy wasn’t a concern (and such preferences were usually borne out by kil’ak’brük), their advice had amounted to, ‘If you’re not ready to withstand the physical need you’re going to feel, make sure you have an arrangement with someone for those ten years.’ He shook his head looking back, but you couldn’t change the past. One of his letters home, though, after about fourteen months of kil’ak’brük, had certainly been full of his thoughts on how inadequately young adults were prepared for the experience. The answer had been, essentially, ‘This is your fault for deciding to live permanently in Faeryland instead of with other dwarves like a normal person.’

Since he’d started, he’d run in with a few compatible dwarven Visitors sympathetic to his plight, and a couple of faeries that enjoyed what amounted, for a non-dwarf, to fucking a rock… but no one that could help him in the long term. His dildo was a lifesaver, but he couldn’t bring himself to use it anywhere besides the privacy of an inn room. They couldn’t reach Yabloko soon enough. In good conscience he wouldn’t be able to urge his companions to stay for more than one night, but they did need to stock up on winter goods, which might delay them…

And now here was this unbelievably handsome dwarf man traveling with them, sleeping not a dozen feet from Duo at night, moving just awkwardly enough when he walked to catch Duo’s eye again and again… Under normal circumstances, Duo would have flung himself at Heero’s feet, explained his problem, and begged for sex with no strings attached; but Heero’s strange behavior rendered these circumstances far from normal. How could Duo proposition someone like that? Someone with no apparent grasp of proper interaction with others? Would Heero even understand the request? It made Duo uncomfortable just thinking about it. Maybe not as uncomfortable as the hypersensitive skin of his erection grinding against his protective cup or the subsequent (eventual) pressure and pain in his testicles, but in a more meaningful way.

The group had been doing what most Quests did by taking time each morning before getting started to separate — far enough to satisfy tradition but near enough for safety — and talk to their Guides. And today, after awakening from a dream of clamping down hard on the hips of a Heero on hands and knees (a position that might be easier on him than straddling the root of a tree, which had been the previous dream), he was determined to get some answers if he could. The difficulty of keeping active fantasies about Heero out of his head while awake was great enough; visions he couldn’t control and the accompanying knowledge that he could do nothing to resolve the issue might well drive him crazy.

“Any idea what’s going on with Heero?” he demanded of Quatre, who’d gone full size to talk to him (probably to show off lir white gown with its purple embroidery and fur trim).

The gold faery looked as if le knew the motive behind Duo’s question. “None, I’m sorry to say.”

Frustrated, Duo pursued, “Any insight, even? Any useful thoughts?”

Quatre’s brows lowered and lips pursed pensively. “I have met people in the past — some faeries, some Visitors — who were very… unusual in the way they dealt with others. It seemed as if they saw the world differently from everyone else, and once you accepted that and learned their ways, it didn’t create any problems. But they all demonstrated that they felt things, in response to what was going on around them or just in their own heads. Heero doesn’t seem to feel anything… and I don’t know how much is going on in his head. I suspect he’s not like those others, and there’s actually something wrong with him.”

“Like his Curse did something to him?”

Quatre nodded. “I couldn’t say what, though.”

Duo couldn’t be contented with this, but grumbled his way into, “Thanks for that, anyway.”

“I think you’ve been very ethical in your treatment of him,” the faery said seriously.

Duo gave a bitter laugh. “Yes, thank you for that too.”

“And it’s only another few days until Yabloko.”

The dwarf nodded. “If I can survive that long.”

“You’re strong,” said Quatre with a smile. “I’m sure you can.”

Despite how open faeries were about sex, it seemed odd to be discussing, even obliquely, his intense sexual attraction to a fellow Visitor with a faery. Odd, but somewhat relieving. “Thanks,” Duo said again with a smile of his own.

“Any time.”

Chapter 14 – Imugeme Acts As Lady’s Maid

Kaoru submerged, stretched her limbs luxuriously, and let her hair seaweed out. She couldn’t remember when she’d last been so happy to get into hot water, though she could easily foresee the next instance: cold as it was outside now, the perpetual chill in her feet would only grow as they traveled into winter, and her delight in a hot bath along with it. She sighed out some explosive bubbles, and sat up with a splash.

Once she’d pushed the streaming water off her face and hair, but hadn’t even opened her eyes yet, she heard Imugeme’s voice — full-size, by the sound — commenting from not far off, “You’re a human after my own heart.”

“Imugeme!” Kaoru protested. “I don’t need a Guide in the bath!” But, blinking her vision clear, she observed the green faery sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back to the elaborately tiled inset tub.

“I’ve never peeked at you naked,” Imugeme chuckled. “But, my dear, you really must learn to think less of these things if you’re going to get on in Faeryland.”

“Yes, I guess I better…” Because she was determined to track down that thief, Kaoru didn’t complain that she had no real desire to get on in Faeryland. She lay back, raising her knees and reaching for a bottle of hair-soap. As she worked it all through and rubbed up a lather, she sighed in contentment again despite Imugeme’s impudent presence. Then she asked, “Why am I a human after your own heart?”

“Oh, bathing is so important to so many of us,” the faery replied lightly. “It’s used in many of our rituals. It’s good to see a human taking as much pleasure in it as I do.”

“Magical rituals?”

“Sometimes. Most ritual magic is beyond most faeries, though. The monarchs do plenty of it, but the average person isn’t so gifted.”

“Let me rinse my hair,” Kaoru said. She slid down fully into the water again, reflecting as she did so that her Guide’s hair was so beautiful — that dark, dark green so lustrous in the light and black in the shadows — and probably, when free of its braids, longer than her own, it came as no surprise that the faery valued bathing as much as she did. For some reason, the thought made her blush, as if she were treading forbidden territory in thinking compliments about Imugeme, and she abruptly felt overheated. She hastened to finish her rinse so she could sit up again.

To dispel the strange sensation, she asked, when she could be sure of hearing the answer, “What kind of magic can the average person do?”

“We’re innately magical creatures, so a lot of what we do is magical without even thinking about it. We can change size, and travel quickly, change our bodies, put on clothing so it automatically accommodates our wings…”

That must be convenient,” Kaoru murmured.

Imugeme gave her rolling laugh. “I can’t even begin to imagine life without it!”

Kaoru chuckled too, but then sobered. “So do you think,” she began slowly, “when the green monarch comes back from whatever she’s busy with, she’d be willing to use magic to find the faery who robbed me?”

“Probably,” said Imugeme briefly, “but listen; I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this for a while. You must learn to refer to faeries correctly.”

Awkwardly Kaoru asked, “You mean ‘le’ and… all that?” She stretched out her legs again, and bent forward to touch her toes.

“That’s right.” Imugeme’s tone had a hint of severity to it. “You’ve been in Faeryland for over a month; you should be able to use these words properly.”

Kaoru, feeling appropriately chastised, swished some of the bubbles left over from her hair.

“I assume you’re going to shop after this, and ask around about your thief,” Imugeme went on when the human didn’t speak. “You’re likely to have more success if you can remember to use ‘le’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ People will think better of the Quest, too, if you don’t come across as so insensitive.”

Being or even seeming insensitive Kaoru wanted to avoid as much as she wanted more success and an improved image for the Quest. “And it’s ‘lir’ instead of ‘him’ or ‘her,’ right?”

“You see, you know the words!” The faery’s tone held both encouragement and a teasing condescension. “You just need practice using them!”

“I’ve been… nervous… about trying,” Kaoru admitted. “I’m afraid I’ll get it wrong.”

“Yes, you probably will,” Imugeme laughed. “Most Visitors do at first. But you’re in luck: you have the chance to practice on me.”

Kaoru blushed again. “You want me to sit here in the bath talking about you to your back?”

“Yes,” said Imugeme matter-of-factly.

“You look so much like a woman, though!”

Imugeme chuckled again. “And that kind of thinking is what you need to get over. I would offer to change for you, but my shoulders are a little too broad for this shirt when I put on a penis, and I’m afraid you would have just as difficult a time with seeing me naked.”

Now Kaoru really blushed. But since Imugeme was right about everything, she took a deep breath. “Imugeme,” she began haltingly — it was like practicing another language, which Kaoru had done very little of — “Le wants me to talk about her– lir behind lir back.”

The faery commended her good start.

“Le could change shape,” Kaoru went on as if reciting, “but lir shoulders are too broad for lir shirt.”

“Kaoru thinks Imugeme looks like a woman, but faeries are different. Ley have no gender like humans do. Ley have physical presentation ley change like clothing.”

“That’s not fair,” Kaoru mumbled.

“Isn’t it?”

“If I could have changed my gender like clothing while I was growing up… Well, everyone was always calling me a tomboy, and I know my mom wished I would be cuter and more feminine…” She didn’t exactly know what she was trying to express.

“What is a ‘tomboy?'”

“People call girls that when they think they’re not girly enough.”

“Hmm. I suppose that’s something a faery can’t understand very well.”

“I’m sure something like that happens with faeries!” She wanted Imugeme to understand, or at least to try. “Aren’t some faeries expected to be some way because they were–” she checked and amended “–because ley were born purple or pink or something? And then what if someone isn’t that way?”

The green head nodded. “Of course; you’re right; I wasn’t thinking. Green faeries are expected to be skilled at healing, and if one of lem isn’t, le’s likely to be called ‘bloody hands,’ among other things.”

Satisfied, Kaoru began rubbing scented cream into her hair. “When you’re a kid, you don’t think twice about making fun of someone because they’re not what you expect them to be. But as an adult… I don’t think it’s very nice. By the way… what word should I use to refer to a mixed group? Faeries with non-faeries?”

“Your ‘they’ and ‘them’ are acceptable coming from you. I would use ‘ley’ and ‘lem.'”

“Imugeme would use ‘ley’ and ‘lem’ because le’s a faery.”

“Kaoru is going to be an expert at talking about faeries soon!”

“Kaoru is going to rinse her hair again.”

Underwater, she considered that it would be nice if she could let go of her embarrassment about being seen, or seeing others, unclothed. She enjoyed talking to Imugeme, but there had been a slight stiffness about the entire conversation, undoubtedly arising from the faery’s being forced to keep her back turned. If they could just chat casually with none of that restraint between them, everything would be so much more comfortable. As it was, Kaoru still blushed at the thought of Imugeme turning to look at her, or ‘putting on a penis.’

When she came up for air and deemed her bath about finished, she said regretfully, “I wish I could live here.”

“In Faeryland?” Imugeme sounded startled — the first time Kaoru had heard that tone from lir.

“No! In the bath! Why is it called ‘Faeryland,’ anyway? I’ve never heard of a ‘Humanland’ or ‘Dwarfland.'”

“That’s a long story,” the faery answered somewhat gravely. “Are you getting out?”

“I better. I still need to go shopping.”

Imugeme rose and moved farther away from the edge of the bathtub. “I’ll dress your hair for you so it won’t drip down your collar so much.”

Interested, Kaoru asked as she wrung out the same, “In a faery style?”

“Of course!”

“I’d love that.” And she reached for a towel.

Not long after, fully clothed and less inclined to blush (perhaps only because she now had to think about it less), she sat in an ornate chair in her own small inn bedroom with Imugeme behind her seeing to her hair. The cream provided in faery inns consistently made combing much easier, wet or dry, and she made a mental note to obtain a recipe before she left the country. She was glad she’d managed to reply with only limited insulting negativity to Imugeme’s suggestion that she wished she could live in Faeryland, but she had encountered one or two things here she would regret.

All over again, Kaoru was struck with the warmth and gentleness of Imugeme’s hands. Le never pulled the human’s hair uncomfortably, and when the faery’s skin brushed hers, Kaoru wanted to lean into it. And she was blushing again, once more not entirely sure why. Could Imugeme feel the growing heat of her face and neck? She used the same tactic as before to muscle through. “This kind of work isn’t really in a Guide’s job description, is it?”

Imugeme laughed. “I have many talents. I might as well use them.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Kaoru replied, somehow even more embarrassed than previously.

“I give excellent advice as well,” Imugeme added smugly.

“You’ve already done that today.”

“Yes, well, you should switch to trousers. You’ll curse your skirts once it starts snowing!”

“I guess you’re right. Again.” Kaoru tried to look down, but stopped when Imugeme tugged her head back into position by the hair. She had to sigh, though. So many customs of the human world she came from did not apply here; and, while she found nothing to complain of in people that looked like women wearing trousers, and thought she might rather enjoy it herself, she felt lost. Foreign. Which she was. Should she even be here? She’d rearranged her entire life for this, and determination still filled her, as strong as ever… but wasn’t she in a little over her head?

Imugeme, apparently finished with Kaoru’s hair, laid lir warm hands on the human’s shoulders. “My dear,” le said gently, and went on as if le’d read Kaoru’s mind, “I may not understand the expectations humans have for their different genders, but if you’re worried that wearing trousers will make you look… less womanly… I suppose all I can say is that I think you’re very beautiful, and pants won’t change that.”

Heart suddenly racing, Kaoru raised one hand to place it atop Imugeme’s. “Thank you,” she said. “That makes me feel a lot more confident.”

“You see? I have many talents.”

Kaoru blushed again, and laughed. “I better go shop and ask around while I still have time.” Her next sigh had a different sound to it than all the previous. “I feel bad using so much of Duo’s money, though.”

Imugeme’s laugh lasted longer than Kaoru’s had. “He’s been hoarding money in Faeryland for fifty years; let him do some good with it for once!”

Kaoru couldn’t help grinning. She squeezed the faery’s hand before releasing it and standing up. “The first thing I need,” she said, turning, “is a mirror, so I can see how talented Imugeme really is!”

Chapter 15 – Sword!Saitou Seeks Solace, Suffers Subjugation

The night sounded windy again, and Kaoru had earlier remarked how glad she was she’d purchased heavier clothing in the last town, so Saitou assumed the weather to be cold, even stormy. He’d never been fond of winter, and had to admit that not being forced to put up with it provided some consolation for being trapped inside, or transformed into, or whatever the specifics of the magic might be regarding his own heirloom sword.

Sano’s suggestion, when they made camp, that they all go to sleep without lighting a fire had been met with outrage from Duo and Kaoru, and the remark from Heero that sleep would more effectively rest their bodies if they were more comfortable. And when Saitou had inquired why his foolish companion wanted to avoid a fire, it had come out that Sano still believed — indeed, now more than ever — some Visitor was following them. They’d met plenty of faeries on the road, the conversations with whom Saitou had listened to with some interest, and this traffic could easily have explained Sano’s sensations, but, no, he was determined: someone was following them, and it wasn’t a faery.

This far into their journey, Saitou could no longer dismiss this intuitive conviction as offhandedly as he had before; and when Duo, who obviously knew Faeryland better than perhaps any Visitor, agreed to its possibility, Saitou retreated entirely from his previous stance. This occurred only in thought, though, since aloud he had to continue giving Sano a hard time about it. It had become unexpectedly important to argue with and harass Sano.

In Drury Crossing, this resident hooligan orc had never once failed to meet and exceed Sherrif Smith’s enthusiasm for conflict between them, had never lacked a retort to any insult Saitou chose to throw at him. But here in Faeryland, Sano responded to Saitou with greater restraint, and only during an argument could Saitou hope to draw from him anything like the fiery reactions he’d always given before. He found this troubling.

He might have believed it a good sign — that Sano was finally learning some self-control and maturity — if he hadn’t guessed it stemmed rather from guilt at Saitou’s condition that was entirely his fault. Such a feeling was natural and just, but Saitou didn’t think he liked Sano’s change in attitude toward him. For one thing, it seemed to have little effect on the orc’s general behavior — he took just as many unnecessary risks and behaved just as thoughtlessly as he ever had.

The others, to a certain extent, were able to exert some control over the foolish young man, and this effect increased gradually as the group dynamic improved. Beyond that, however, Saitou didn’t place any significant faith in the benefit of traveling in a Quest. It complicated the journey, gave them too many goals to meet, and seemed only considered a necessity because of a deep-rooted fear of being alone in Faeryland. Sano, a competent warrior (and at this time assisted by Saitou’s knowledge and skill whenever he fought with the sword), could surely make his way across this strange land with only the help of Tomoe, a competent Guide.

He thought of the demons Sano had already killed, and mentally sighed. Perhaps not.

Nights were very boring as a sleepless sword. In Drury Crossing, he’d never been bored. Even if he’d had nothing particular to do at a given moment, he’d always been able to go out looking for troublemakers to arrest — and had almost always found some. Often Sano had been involved. No, he’d never been bored at home. But now, stripped of that option as well as every other besides listening to his companions snore and thinking dreary thoughts, he felt particularly dull — which was ironic, given that he’d become a rust-resistent sword.

He could hear, as on many other nights, the quiet, distant sound of the Guides conversing. Though he knew he wasn’t supposed to, he’d managed to pick up names — Quatre, Duo’s Guide, and Trowa, Heero’s — and he sometimes caught snatches of leir talk. These had been too broken to give him much real information, but it was better than nothing. And now he decided, almost on a whim, to seek some interaction of his own.

“Tomoe,” he called. Sano gave a grunt and seemed to shift position, but Saitou didn’t think he’d awakened him or anyone else.

He didn’t need to call again. Immediately a fluttering of wings like a large moth met Saitou’s nonexistent ears, and Tomoe’s quiet voice greeted him. “Yes?”

Saitou didn’t waste time with small talk. “Realistically, what are the chances of getting this Curse broken?”

Le sounded sympathetic as le answered. “Curses happen all the time. Visitors usually deal with them without too much trouble.”

“If this is not much trouble,” Saitou replied dryly, “I’d hate to see what you would consider a lot of trouble.”

Tomoe hesitated, then said, “I suppose you’re right. But the first Visitor I made a pact with, just over a year ago, had a much harder time. He was a troll who was Cursed when he convinced a group of his friends to refuse some needed assistance to a black faery at their local Grove.”

“In other words, he was behaving like a troll,” Saitou put in.

With a brief, regretful laugh, Tomoe agreed. “He was ugly to begin with — though I suppose I don’t know what makes a troll beautiful — but his Curse made him look like one of the Distorted, which to faeries is even worse.” Le sighed. “It was particularly difficult for him to navigate Faeryland.”

“I can certainly see how that would be the case.”

“When we reached the black enclave, Robin told him that to break the Curse, he needed to fall in love with a black faery and earn lir love in return.”

“That is a horrifying abuse of power.”

Again the faery hesitated. “Yes,” le said at last, “yes, I suppose it is. But that’s not all. The troll’s friends, who had gone along with his unkindness to the Glade Ambassador, were Cursed too. They were transformed like you, but into household items, knick-knacks and whatnots. He had to carry them with him, and was responsible for breaking the Curse for all of them. They all bickered constantly… You and Sano remind me a little of that situation, though in their case I had everything explained to me from the beginning.”

Saitou chose not to comment on that aspect of the story. “What was the outcome?”

Tomoe sighed again. “He fell into despair, and lost all hope, and didn’t believe any faery could ever learn to love a Distorted. He dissolved our pact and sent me away. As far as I know, he’s still living in Gulaš, the city outside the black enclave.”

“So a faery monarch placed an unreasonable Curse on an entire group of people,” the sword summarized, “then demanded an unreasonable task to break it, destroying the lives of everyone involved and making it impossible for you to do your job properly.”

“Yes.”

“The deplorable state of relations between faeries and non-faeries is the most horrifying part of all this.”

Now the faery sounded pensive and distant. “The Rainbow Accession was almost 500 years ago… I think the monarchs take more liberties now than they did then.”

“What was laid out in that treaty beyond preventing the borders of Faeryland from expanding?”

“The monarchs maintain the border, and don’t leave Faeryland. Any common faery that leaves Faeryland is limited to lir animal form, except in the Groves.”

“And what did the non-faeries provide in exchange?”

“I don’t know. That’s all I can remember.”

“In any case, it’s clear the monarchs’ magic reaches out through the Groves to affect the non-faery world, in a way the Accession certainly never had in mind. We’ve all taken for granted the way we interact with faeries, and you faeries have probably done the same regarding us… but the truth is it needs to change.”

“You may be right,” le granted. “That and other things…” Le didn’t sound particularly hopeful.

“And if I have some plan for changing things,” Saitou interpreted, “you’d love to hear it.”

“We should focus on getting your Curse broken first.”

Saitou took this to mean that Tomoe’s job was to help with that goal, not work toward large-scale sociopolitical reform, and le would rather get on with that. All along, since they’d met, le’d seemed distant and largely professional, and Saitou doubted this conversation would make much difference. “Thank you for the information,” he said formally. “I’ll let you get back to the other Guides.”

“Good night,” le bade him, and evidently flew off, leaving Saitou with thoughts, if not less dreary than before, at least more extensive.



<<14

During this pandemic (as at other times XD), the only thing I have to offer is art. So I’m starting to write and post this story far earlier than I originally planned. In order to give bored, depressed people in isolation something to read on a regular basis, I hope to update it frequently, and as such will be using a quicker writing and editing process than usual; so it’ll be a little rough.

There are no sex scenes planned for this story. I’ve given it a rating of 4 because some of the sexual references will be pretty explicit. I hate writing sex scenes and don’t do it if I can possibly avoid it… but I’ve been known to forget that policy any time someone buys me $15 worth of ko-fi. I would probably be pretty open to requests from Patrons, too.

I wasted a lot of time on this:

Now your job is to guess who everyone is (despite none of the faeries having wings), which ones I think look decent and which ones made me laugh uproariously, and how many bangs options are available in Rinmaru Games Mega Fantasy Avatar Creator. There were ZERO hair options for Sano, and no tusks at all, and I was laughing too hard to keep trying to make one for him.

Displaced, of Unknown Provenance

Displaced, of Unknown Provenance

She’d begun to think this chimerical business might be less crucial than she’d felt it was for the last fifty years.

A woman that’s spent all her life in fruitless search is ready to give up the quest and her only remaining symbol of it.

Displaced, of Unknown Provenance

Dry leaves scrabbled their way across the car park in a chilly wind out of nowhere, reminding Marjorie of her own ambitions: sapped of vitality, newly aimless, soon to crumble away entirely.

They’d gone surprisingly easily, in fact, after a lifetime’s devotion to them, especially given how she’d ramped up her efforts in the last few years. She’d considered — perhaps only subconsciously — that, pushing 60 as she was, it was now or never… and that here in the 90’s, with information so much better stored and readily available, her chances were greater than they’d ever been.

But when everything she’d believed might be a lead had fallen through, and her constant absences to chase them had cost her a job she hadn’t much cared for but that paid the bills, she’d begun to think this chimerical business might be less crucial than she’d felt it was for the last fifty years.

She glanced down at her wrist, as she’d done reflexively maybe twice a waking hour nearly her entire adult life. Obscured though it was by the sleeve of her coat, she could picture what lay beneath so clearly it was as if her vision could penetrate the plum-colored wool. And she really didn’t mind. For decades the idea of giving up would have broken her heart, but now, after losing everything to this, she found it didn’t bother her to lose this as well.

Funny she hadn’t been able to take if off, though.

The wind picked up, and Marjorie tried to pull her coat tighter, around a body that had lost at least a stone recently as she’d gradually run out of money for food, without upsetting the holdall into which her remaining belongings had condensed when she’d officially moved out.

The signs of approaching winter seemed less the normal progression of seasons in nature’s long repeating song, and more ominous portents of days to come — a threat, almost, a warning that things would get worse before they got better. If they ever got better. You’ll only become more and more cold, they told her. More and more indifferent, like the world around you. Well, she was fine with that.

Marjorie had chosen this antique shop for her first try not because she’d heard it recommended, but because it stood so close to the flat she’d occupied until yesterday, and she’d passed it regularly on the way to the tube when she’d had somewhere to go regularly. Its old brick exterior, the somewhat tacky fake flowers in window boxes, its warm gold lighting through the warbly paned glass, the car park it shared with the bakery next door — it was all so familiar as to be almost comforting, to seem almost comradely in the overcast autumn dimness.

She nearly smiled when a cheerful bell announced her entrance as if greeting someone it was happy to see. She might as well consider a shop she’d never been into a friend, since she had no real ones. Anyone she’d ever sought closeness with, after all, had eventually drifted away from her driving obsession, and now even her more casual acquaintances from work weren’t likely to bother keeping up with her anymore. But a shop couldn’t drift away; it was always right where you looked for it. Then she really did smile — faintly — as a voice from across the room called out, “Good morning!”

“Good morning,” she replied, and moved farther inside.

In here she already felt at home. This building was full of objects just like her: old, displaced, of unknown provenance, sometimes worn, usually entirely mismatched. Appropriate surroundings for her indeed; she felt she could settle in among the Georgian furniture, the bric-a-brac, the china tea services and ivory tableware, stand still like a statue and let the dust cover her among all these other unwanted things, and that nobody would ever notice.

Ambling up and down uneven rows of miscellany with steps that seemed to have nowhere else to go though she had entered for a specific purpose, she came upon a wall covered in picture frames of various shapes, sizes, and levels of ornate bad taste. Some contained old paintings, some simple printed sheets giving their history (if available) and measurements, while one right in the middle held what looked like a Year 9 art project. Marjorie stepped closer to examine it.

“My granddaughter did that,” said the same voice that had greeted her not long before. Marjorie barely glanced over to see the woman about her age that had joined her in looking at the picture. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it?”

Now Marjorie definitely had to smile, because it was, rather. “How old is she?”

“Fourteen. She painted it for school and gave it to me as a gift. I use it as a demonstration in picture frames that are the right size, and she thinks that’s wonderful.”

“That’s kind of you.”

The painting showed a family gathering — it had probably been copied off a photo — containing, apparently, three generations, some with relatively human features but most of whom could most charitably be described as ‘abstract.’ Marjorie stared longest at what she believed was a toddler on the lap of one of the middle figures, reflecting that this generation didn’t even know how lucky it was not to be comprised of war orphans that would never be adopted unless they were handsome, gregarious, and not too traumatized by whatever they’d gone through before losing their families.

“Is there anything specific you were looking for?” the woman beside her asked.

Anything specific she was looking for. Hadn’t she just spent half a century looking for something specific? “No, thank you,” she replied — and why? “I’m only browsing.” She was here for a reason, not to browse; why not say so?

“All right,” was the woman’s friendly response. “Let me know if you have any questions.” And she headed back to her counter.

“Thank you,” Marjorie murmured, and turned again to the painting.

She found she didn’t really mind it. Yes, it made her think of her lonely childhood in a succession of orphans’ homes and curious psychiatrists’ dark-leather offices; yes, it was a reminder of the loving family she’d never had and never been able to locate so much as a clue toward finding; yes, it was like studying all over again the many, many old paintings and photos in various strangers’ collections searching for familiar features from the right era… but she simply didn’t care anymore. She’d given that all up, that weary and unsuccessful search, that long-running pursuit, that current of longing that had run beneath everything she thought, everything she was, for so many decades. She’d let everything go, and was on the brink of a new life. She was satisfied.

So why did she remain on this spot, staring at a fairly terrible painting in a frame she had no interest in, instead of going up to the counter and asking her real question?

Finally she forced herself to move. Somehow, though, even in motion again, she still couldn’t point herself in a direct line toward her goal. A glass display case full of jewelry, which by rights should have encouraged her since several pieces inside were of a style promisingly familiar, instead of prompting her to walk on with a greater spring in her step, rather caused her to dally pointlessly for several minutes wondering what their prices might be and just gazing down without much in the way of reflection at all.

But eventually she did reach the counter. The employee, who’d been reading a paperback on a tall stool behind the cash register, placed a bookmark and asked, “Did you find something you like?”

“I had a question for you, as it happens.” Marjorie was surprised to find her voice a little uncertain as she began, as if she weren’t perfectly at peace with this course of action. In a motion much the same, she shook her coat sleeve back, pushed her bracelet forward over her bony wrist, and laid her hand on the counter. “I’m wondering if you appraise and purchase jewelry. I’m looking to sell this.” She did not add that she needed to sell it if she was to find a place to stay tonight.

The woman’s breath caught audibly, and she reached out her own hands — warmer and plumper, but with the same prominent veins as Marjorie’s — one to steady the fingers pointed in her direction and the other to examine the bracelet. “Where did you get this?” she whispered.

It seemed an oddly significant moment, a moment in which the world of dusty objects around them grew even more silent as if holding in a great, anticipatory inhalation, and Marjorie found herself whispering in response for no reason she could recognize: “I’ve had it as long as I can remember.”

Delicately the woman twisted the upper half of the piece, which contained a Wedgewood cameo of Queen Victoria set in silver with blue and white stones in the chain around it, upside-down to reveal the one hopeful sign Marjorie had ever possessed that she might be able to track down someone, anyone of her bloodline: the initials MH inside a heart, tarnished from a lifetime of silver polish refusing to reach inside the tiny tight lines, etched into the back of the cameo.

“M.H.,” the woman said, and now her eyes were turned up toward Marjorie’s face rather than the bracelet she still held two fingers against like a blind reader against a line of braille.

“The orphanage named me ‘Marjorie Hughes’ because of it.” She finally returned the other’s gaze, and then she too caught her breath.

“It stands for Morris Hadleigh.” The woman’s hair, dyed a brown not quite natural to hide the grey, had those same wispy and probably uncontrollable spots over the ears. “He had it engraved on each of the four bracelets he’d inherited from his mother, since he had no sisters, and he gave one to his first wife and one to each of his daughters.” Her eyebrows were sparse at their ends disproportionately to their midsections, and she’d filled them out somewhat with pencil the same way Marjorie did hers. “He and one daughter were separated from his wife and the second daughter during the Blitz…”

Terrifying darkness, flashing light directly into her eyes, high wailing and screams and whining and crashes too loud to bear, confusion, loss… brown leather and deep brown wainscoting in one psychiatrist’s office after another… no one wanted to adopt so disturbed and inward-focused a child…

“They identified the mother’s body eventually…” The woman’s lips, telling the halting story, had the same wrinkles around them, the same deep creases down the outsides. “But her bracelet was destroyed in the attack.” Her nose had the same freckles, and — though it was hard to tell from this angle — the same slightly crooked left nostril. “And eventually a step-sister was born to a second wife, so she received the fourth bracelet.” Her eyes, with the same crinkles at their corners and veins in the lids, were a startlingly familiar shade of hazel as they stared in wonder at Marjorie. “But the third bracelet — and the second daughter — were never seen again.”

Something was building inside Marjorie: something huge and overwhelming threatening to break out when it reached the limits of what she could keep tamped down. Was it merely those suddenly wakened incomplete memories of horror and fear from her earliest childhood, eventually put in their proper place but never completely forgotten, that had been triggered by the unexpectedly spoken password ‘the Blitz?’ Or was it something else?

The woman released Marjorie’s hand and shook her own in an eye-catching movement. Tearing her gaze from the stranger’s face was like tearing herself open, but Marjorie looked, and saw the woman’s sleeve fall back to expose a mirror image of what had been the prized possession of her life, the one thing she’d vowed not to part with even in greatest need. “They never found my twin sister,” the woman finished shakily, turning her wrist so Queen Victoria’s matte white face and the shining facets of the blue and white jewels caught the light.

And Marjorie realized, as the hitherto-unknown something broke out in a violent sob like the tears that spontaneously poured down her trembling face, that she did care. The desire to find her family, to discover who she was and where she came from, had never left her or diminished one tiny bit — she’d merely buried it as deeply as she was capable, tried to tell herself it didn’t matter, in the hopes that she could move on to a new and less fixated era. And maybe giving it up, or believing she had, had been the sacrificed required of her to reach the goal she’d so long sought and had lately been so certain she no longer wanted.

The woman — her twin sister — gave an echoing sob and started clutching at her, trying to embrace her across the counter, marvelously unsuccessful and crying just as hard as Marjorie was. They drew back, each with a shaky wet laugh, and the woman jumped down from her stool and came racing around to meet her on the other side for a proper hug that was just as moist.

“Marjorie,” the woman said thickly into her shoulder. “Your name’s Marjorie?” And when her sister made a muffled sound of confirmation, she added, “Mine’s Gladys. Gladys Cross. Née Hadleigh.” And they pulled apart again, holding hands, staring at each other with baffled smiles and tearstained faces. “Where have you been living?”

“Just up the street for the last several years,” Marjorie admitted. “I’ve walked past your store every day. But before that I had a job in Swansea for long while.”

“I can hear it,” Gladys laughed in her much purer RP. “But to think you were in London for so long too — and right around the corner?” She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head at the irony of it all. “Where are you living now?”

“Nowhere. I came in here hoping to make enough money for a B&B for tonight, and tomorrow it’s looking for a new job.”

Gladys stared at her with a slightly open mouth, and her eyes fell to the holdall Marjorie had set down beside the counter when she’d first made her way over here. “You’re really… you’re really without a home and without work just today? Just when you came in here and found me?”

Marjorie nodded. Prior to this meeting, she would have been embarrassed to admit it, but now… now it simply seemed right. As if she’d done exactly what she needed to in order to prepare for this without knowing it. As if the new life she’d hoped for had been specifically lined up for her, ready to start the instant the old one ended — only she hadn’t known what it was yet.

Her sister squeezed her hands and released them. “I’m going to close up. You’re coming home with me this instant to see your new room and meet your new family.” And as Gladys disappeared into the back and the lights began to go down from some rear switch before she returned with coat and handbag, Marjorie looked around the darkening shop again with blurry eyes. She recalled the welcoming feeling she’d had upon entering that had never diminished, the sense that she belonged here as a kindred spirit to everything that had no place, no ties, no history.

It seemed she’d been right about the sensation, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

For November Quick Fics 2018, my co-worker Danielle gave me the following prompt:

There was an old sad woman who was raised in an orphanage, and knew nothing about her family history. She spent her lonely life searching for anyone who may have had ties to her past, and longed for any sense belonging. She tried to be happy with her life, but always had an empty space that she hoped would eventually be filled with love. She possessed only one small token that represented her obscure past, a unique handcrafted silver bracelet with encrusted jewels and intricate details. The initials “**” were engraved on the inside of the bracelet, but the woman was clueless as to their meaning. She cherished this object more than anything else she owned, and it was her only comfort when she grieved for her lost family that she may never find. She eventually fell upon hard times: losing her job, failing health, and a recent break-up that only added to her ever-present feeling of abandonment. Eventually she succumbed to poverty and misery, and in desperation made the most difficult decision she ever made. She decided to sell her treasured bracelet in hopes that it would be worth enough money to buy food and possibly shelter for a little while. She took the bracelet to an antique shop to see if they could appraise the bracelet and maybe even find a buyer for her. When she came into the shop, an older woman greeted her with a friendly smile, and asked how she could assist her. The woman took out her bracelet, and the shopkeeper gasped. The shopkeeper’s eyes filled with tears as she asked, “Where did you get this?” Her hands trembled as she reached out to touch the bracelet. The woman replied, “Unfortunately I’m not sure… I’ve had it ever since I was young, ever since I can remember.” The shopkeeper rolled up her sleeves, and revealed an almost identical bracelet. The old woman’s heart fluttered, as she thought this shopkeeper may somehow be able to help her find her family. “Could you tell me any information about these bracelets and where they come from?” asked the old woman timidly. “These are the only 2 bracelets like this in the world. The were made by my father for myself and my sister. My mother and sister were tragically lost in one of our city’s bombings during the war. My mother’s body was eventually found, but we never found my sister…” The two women looked at eachother, realizing the remarkable similarities in their facial features, eyes, and even hair. “My father’s name was “**” explained the shopkeeper, and the old woman realized now what the initials in her bracelet represented. The women immediately knew that they were meant to be reunited, and embraced tightly for several minutes while they both sobbed tears of joy. After several hours of conversation, it was settled that the old woman would come home with the shopkeeper, and be integrated into the wonderful, loving family that she had waited for all this time.

It’s my first original NQF, so that’s cool. I’ve rated it

Silly and Pointlessly Difficult

Silly and Pointlessly Difficult

After work, Saitou found Sano had taught himself how to leap up and perch on the top of the tallest vertical slat of the bridge near home, standing still high up like a long-leggèd crane or posturing ninja. He looked absurd, his gi and bandanna flapping in the evening breeze. But he jumped down, as Saitou began to cross, with a satisfied grin.

Of course Saitou must mock him for devoting so much time and effort to so silly and pointlessly difficult an undertaking, but even as he did, he realized the exercise was not only one of balance, which could benefit future combat, but it let Sano catch sight sooner, from that elevated situ, of Saitou’s figure coming t’ward him and the house they shared as of late through the growing dusk. It seemed meaningless, but the superficial hid unexpected depth.

Such too was Sano: an exterior often foolish and aimless screening intentions and a depth of character admirable and even delightful. This unexpected treasure in mind, somewhat to the bemusement of that same young man so complex and yet so simple, Saitou took his hand as they walked along, and said, “I love you, ahou.”

For author’s notes, check out this Productivity Log. I’ve rated this fic .

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

One Year, Two Minutes



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……


Angles – The Color of 120°

Angles – The Color of 120°

Chapter 1 – Something

There was something in those eyes, something uncanny that, while not feeling inherently wrong, still frightened him; something at once alien and shockingly familiar — and perhaps it was his struggle to name it that had put him so badly off guard. That wild golden something had been directed at him, surely, as if those eyes were pistols aimed straight into his own.

Debris crowded his vision, flying dust that obscured the object of his curiosity. He couldn’t manage to get up again, no matter how he tried, and a shadow fell over him so he couldn’t even see the light. But then those eyes were clearly before him…

“What does he see in you?”

The world spun and blackened…

There was blood everywhere, agony in his shoulder and the back of his skull…

Pressure… a fiery touch… the taste of…

But, no, this was familiar pressure, gentle, and a taste he knew well.

“Kenshin…” he groaned into his lover’s mouth as warm, bright colors swam before him and pain exploded again in his shoulder. Kenshin’s lips quickly withdrew, and Sano opened his eyes.

“Sano.” Kenshin hovered close, staring at him worriedly. “Sano, you’re finally awake.”

Remembering at the last moment that his right shoulder had been impaled — yesterday? a week ago? how long had it been? — Sano lifted instead his left hand to touch the scarred face. “Yeah,” he grunted once he was certain Kenshin was actually there.

“How do you feel?” Kenshin inquired in the same tone as before.

“Like shit,” Sano replied hoarsely. “And maybe like I’m going crazy,” he muttered as an afterthought, thinking of the dream from which Kenshin had just awakened him. “And some guy’s out to get you.”

“I know,” Kenshin replied grimly.

Sano studied Kenshin’s expression, immediately apprehensive. He’d never seen the redhead so visibly anxious before. “What is it?” He was recovering his voice a little, but his whole body ached, and breathing deeply enough to lend the question any volume was not worth the pain it occasioned. Still, Kenshin knew he seriously wanted an answer.

“I am at a loss why he would have attacked you.”

Sano’s state of mind wasn’t exactly placid to begin with, between his pain and the agitation of half-formed recollection that might (not?) have been a dream, but it made everything so much worse that Kenshin didn’t seem upset in quite the way he should be. Of course he was concerned for Sano’s health and safety, and unhappy that Sano had been hurt, but when he said ‘he,’ something else showed in his face — something like confusion, like memory, like… like whatever had been in those eyes that Sano had never successfully been able to name.

“You know who he is, don’t you?” Sano managed to ask this a bit more loudly than his previous question.

Kenshin nodded, his face still rather bleak.

That his lover did not immediately elaborate made Sano a hundred times more worried than before, and he felt that, having been on the receiving end of the unknown enemy’s sword (and an unwanted kiss? …no, he wouldn’t believe that had actually happened until he had more concrete evidence), he deserved to know. Still, seeing what a strange effect the events seemed to have had on Kenshin, he felt it would be kinder not to get angry. “What,” he said in a somewhat teasing tone, trying to lighten the mood by reaching out to squeeze Kenshin’s knee where he knew him to be ticklish, “you afraid he may be able to kick your ass?”

Kenshin took Sano’s hand in both his own as he nodded gravely.

Sano was so startled that he almost sat up, but his shoulder hurt too much for that. “What?!”

“The man who attacked you is one of the few I have ever fought that I was unable to defeat.” And Kenshin broke their shared gaze and looked slowly away.

Sano’s eyes widened. The tone in his lover’s voice was… different… somehow… from anything he’d ever heard. That anything spoken by Kenshin, his Kenshin, could be… an audio version of what he’d seen and failed to understand in that other man’s eyes… almost terrified him. And watching his lover’s face, he shivered slightly as he saw, or perhaps (hopefully?) only imagined, a splash of gleaming amber dot the customary violet of Kenshin’s eyes: a gilded flash identical in hue to the last thing he’d seen before he’d passed out after being stabbed by the as-yet-unnamed man — their mutual enemy? Or something else? What was that something he could not define? Why did his lover share it with the stranger that had attacked him?

He had a feeling everything was soon going to change.

***

“He’s about seven years older than me.” He didn’t get into the irrelevant details of Saitou’s exact date and place of birth and the names of all his family. “He was the captain of the Shinsengumi’s third division during the war.” Exactly when Saitou had joined, what his position had been at first, the name Yamaguchi Jiro, and a few other trivialities Kenshin happened to know were equally certain not to interest Sano, so he didn’t mention them either. “He is quite a skilled swordsman, as you probably noticed.” Sano’s statement that he wouldn’t go back to sleep until Kenshin told him everything he knew about Saitou was quite an ambiguous threat, really; Sano couldn’t possibly want to know all about the Hirazukiryuu, could he?

“The move he used on you is called gatotsu; it is his personal variation of the Shinsengumi’s most famous technique.” And surely Sano didn’t care what Kenshin knew of Saitou’s various stances. “I fought him a few times, but we were always interrupted by circumstance, and so never reached a real conclusion as to who was stronger.” No need to tell him the well remembered details of any of those encounters, was there? Just because he hadn’t forgotten them didn’t mean Sano wanted to hear them. “However, there was one thing we were certain of in regards to each other: that we each fought for what we thought was right.”

Sano was watching him intently; could he tell how much Kenshin was leaving out? “So even though you were enemies, you both knew the other was fighting for what he believed, ‘zat it?”

Kenshin nodded. “Our fundamental beliefs differed very little in those days, and we respected each other for that.”

“What beliefs were those?” Sano asked softly; it seemed he couldn’t tell Kenshin was omitting large parts of his account — but was obviously very interested anyway. “And what changed?”

I changed,” Kenshin admitted softly, and wondered why he felt uncomfortable thinking about it possibly for the first time since he’d made the decision not to kill, all those years ago. “One of the basics of the Shinsengumi code was something that he wholly embraced, and to which he devoted himself — Aku Soku Zan.”

Sano frowned in understanding, and moved his hand to squeeze Kenshin’s comfortingly — although also, Kenshin thought, perhaps in slight need of comfort himself. “Is that why he’s after you now? Because he thinks you’ve become evil or something?”

“I do not know,” Kenshin replied grimly. “I haven’t seen him since those days, so I do not know how he might have changed.” And that he attacked you is worrisome, he didn’t add. What is he thinking?

Sano closed his eyes with a sigh, still holding Kenshin’s hand. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I believe in you. You won’t lose, no matter how strong he is.”

Sano’s faith didn’t seem as optimistic as it generally did, and failed to bring the usual warmth to Kenshin’s heart. Was it because Sano sensed Kenshin’s confusion? Was it because he could sense Kenshin had once been…

No. Sano was just concerned because he’d already had concrete proof of what a strong enemy Kenshin faced, not because he thought Kenshin was thinking too much about things, remembering too many details but not sharing them.

The redhead bent and kissed the younger man gently on the mouth. “You should go back to sleep now.”

Sano grunted his assent, returning the kiss until Kenshin withdrew. No, there was no way Sano could guess Kenshin was… well, no, because Kenshin wasn’t.

Savvy, yes. Detail-oriented, certainly. Observant, by habit and necessity, definitely. But if there was one thing Himura Kenshin was not, and certainly had not been as a younger man, it was obsessive.

Especially not where Saitou Hajime was concerned.

His lover had no reason to worry.

***

Some believed dreams were carried out in shades of grey, while others held they were accurately colored; some believed it could go either way depending on the dream, some that it depended on the dreamer. It was a ridiculous debate he’d heard among philosophers at times before, but its importance in anyone’s life was the point none of them ever brought up.

His dreams were all in varying hues of yellow and violet anyway.

Yellow — gold as some fancifully called it, amber as other insisted, or very light brown to the pragmatic that denied such an eye-color as yellow could exist — was familiar. It was safe. Yellow was what he saw in his sword’s blade when he caught sight of his own reflection, what he had seen there since he could remember having looked. Yellow was how he viewed the world. Yellow was surely the color of justice.

Violet — orchid for that same crowd that wanted to name every color after an object, purple for those that fancied themselves modern, or warm blue for those in denial — was also familiar. But it was less safe. Violet was what he had seen beyond his sword’s blade when he found himself caring to look, what he had always hoped to see there since the first moment he had. Violet was a door into a different world. Violet was surely the color of indulgence.

And these were the two extremes that, without exception, colored his every dream.

Or had, up until very recently.

He’d talked to an artist once, incidentally at some point in the line of work; he hadn’t paid much attention at the time, as the conversation had been merely a cover for whatever he’d actually been doing — but somehow he recalled the man’s ramblings on the subject of color better than that vaguely remembered activity. The spectrum was arrayed in a circle, the artist had said, in which each hue had a perfect opposite: red and green, orange and blue, yellow and violet. When blended, two opposites would produce a neutral central color.

Thence the brown that had recently touched his dreams with its unexpected tint.

Yes, that was the logical answer. The yellow and violet to which he had so long been accustomed had simply melted together and added a third color — definitely a neutral color — to the spectrum of his nightly visions. There was no significance in it whatsoever. Even if there were, he was not a jealous man: let the brown intrude; he had no particular attachments to the exclusive combination of yellow and violet.

So why, he wondered as he found his fingers creeping to his lips yet again, was he always so confused when he awoke?



Chapter 2>>

Chapter 2 – No Security

He was drifting in and out of painful dreams again. Or was it still? Did the state of painful-dream-drifting restart after each period of wakefulness, or did it count as ‘still’ if he just took up where he’d left off whenever he went back to sleep? At any rate, this time he was conscious of Kenshin’s absence at his side. And he wouldn’t notice Kenshin wasn’t beside him unless Kenshin had been gone for more than about ten minutes. It was this eventual realization, coupled with the sound of Kaoru’s spoken inquiry on the same topic just outside the room in which he lay, that awakened him completely.

“Where is Kenshin?” She sounded curious and a little worried, and probably with good reason. “I haven’t seen him for at least an hour, and he hasn’t been gone that long since before Megumi-san left.” Sano began immediately to share her feelings, but with a much less concrete apprehension than Kaoru’s pragmatic and probably superfluous fear for Kenshin’s physical safety. Though there was something to be said for practicality, for realism — how could he state, after all, that his worry was centered around the color of his lover’s eyes and the possible reasons it kept changing, and stemmed from dreams of transforming faces and unfairly effective stab-wounds?

Yahiko probably didn’t realize that Sano, if awake, could easily hear them through the shouji as he answered, “He said he had some errands and that he’d be late, but I saw him reading a letter or something earlier.”

“Errands… A letter?” Kaoru repeated, sounding by now quite confused. Sano, who was propped up on one elbow (the one that didn’t cause him serious pain to prop himself up on, obviously), had to agree with that sentiment. As far as he knew, Kenshin had no friends, beyond the little circle that had collected around him here in Tokyo, that would send him a letter that could drag him away from Sano without any notice or explanation. But Sano was beginning to fear that ‘as far as he knew’ was about as far as he could toss a feather when drunk. Kenshin could have any number of friends he’d never so much as mentioned. He was a wanderer, after all, or had been up until recently, and although Sano knew (thought he knew) Kenshin hadn’t made a habit of stopping long in any particular place over the past ten years, he might have made all sorts of friends along the way. Or it might be a friend from before, from the old days.

Or an enemy. There were some of those from those days too.

But would any of them send him a letter?

Perhaps they might, if there was an affinity, somewhere, of golden eyes and respected beliefs.

But what would that letter say? And how would Kenshin respond to it?

Taking a deep breath, Sano sat up entirely, gritting his teeth against the raging hurt in his shoulder. Really, for a wound that had been precise enough to cause so little major damage, it had kept him in bed and amazing pain for far too long. It had been almost two days now since that man had stabbed him, and he was getting sick of lying here. And now he felt he had a real reason to get up, there was very little that could have kept him in bed.

***

“Yahiko thinks you’re sneaking out to see some secret girlfriend; ‘tsa bad example to set for a kid, you know.” This was almost Kenshin’s first warning of Sano’s approach, which was rather disconcerting; was he really so lost in thought?

“Sano!” He jumped to his feet, hurrying worriedly to where his lover was pushing through the grove of tall bamboo toward him. “You shouldn’t be up yet!”

“Like hell I was just gonna lie there with you gone.”

Kenshin carefully embraced him. “How did you know where to find me?”

Sano’s tone indicated he was frowning. “You always come here to practice or meditate, so I figured you’d come here if you were worried about some letter or something too.”

Startled, Kenshin kept his face pressed against the younger man’s chest so Sano wouldn’t see his expression. He hadn’t planned on telling him about the letter, as he knew Sano had been unusually worried about the whole thing. Well, and also because he was worried about it. He’d come here to sort out his feelings, to see if the suddenly stirred emotions of a decade ago were at all compatible with those he’d built up over the last few months. His words were muffled by Sano’s gi as he said, “It is a challenge.”

Something like an unusual tenseness seemed to dissipate from the air as Sano relaxed somewhat, but there was still quite a bit of tension left both around them and in Sano’s taut form. “Thought so.”

But did you really, Sano? “I don’t know whether I will go to meet him or not.” That Sano hadn’t asked meant Kenshin didn’t have to state who ‘he’ was.

Sano lowered his head so his face was buried in Kenshin’s hair, tightening his single-armed hug on Kenshin’s back. “You do whatever you think’s best.” But his voice sounded worried… so worried… much too worried…

“I will not let him hurt anyone,” Kenshin murmured almost automatically, in a soothing tone. Why Sano? Why had it been Kenshin’s best friend, rather than Kenshin himself, that had been the initial target? And did the fact that Sano was also his lover have anything to do with it?

Sano drew back, one hand still on Kenshin’s shoulder holding him close, but far enough away that they could look into each other’s eyes. “I’m not worried about him hurting anyone but you,” he said softly, still frowning, and Kenshin could see plainly that what he’d taken for worry was actually barely-controlled terror.

“Sano…” Asking what Sano was afraid of would be like deliberately insulting him. But how could he reassure where he didn’t know what was wrong? “When I said I was never able to defeat him, it was–” He didn’t get to finish, for Sano leaned down and kissed him.

Kenshin couldn’t help but respond to any kiss from Sano; he was like walking fire, and never failed to bring out all the passion and energy that so often lay dormant in Kenshin’s heart. But this kiss was a little different than normal… somehow it seemed desperate, but not sexually so: it felt as if Sano was demanding something of him, begging for it in the only way that would not compromise his dignity, letting Kenshin taste all the fear he was feeling without actually explaining what its object was.

Once Sano pulled reluctantly away and rested his forehead against Kenshin’s, they stood silent with their eyes closed for several moments. Finally Kenshin asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yeah…” Sano sounded tired, and there was some additional timbre to his voice that could not quite be given a name. Kenshin imagined that if Sano were ever to back down from a fight, this would be the sound of his call for retreat. “I just… I’m just afraid you’re fighting a battle without me.”

Kenshin hesitated to answer, for it seemed Sano meant something else beyond what he’d said, and Kenshin wasn’t sure exactly what. “We have supported each other through all of our battles,” he finally replied softly. “Ever since we met.”

“Yeah,” Sano said again. “Even when it was just a battle in our head about something that happened way back before we met.”

“Even then,” Kenshin agreed, his heart sinking as he finally understood what his lover meant.

“So don’t leave me out of this one,” Sano whispered.

And Kenshin made no reply, not liking to promise where he wasn’t sure of his own power to fulfill.

***

He laid his left hand flat on the floor so close beneath him, to remind himself it was there. His sword was always a comfort at his side, but it was good to know the floor also supported him. He continued listening to the conversation not far off.

“What do you mean, he’s not here?”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“Am I to believe three of you couldn’t handle the task of keeping one wounded boy in bed?”

“Kenshin went somewhere, and Yahiko and I thought he was sleeping!”

Women were annoying. He touched the floor again, then laid his sword across his knees, anticipating the moment when he could finally draw it. It felt as if he hadn’t drawn it for years.

“Where did Ken-san go?”

“I don’t know. It must have been important, though, for him to leave Sano.”

“It may have something to do with what that policeman said.”

“Yes, and I’m worried.”

“Don’t be… Ken-san can take care of himself, and we’ll be safe with that officer here.”

“I think I’ll go outside and wait.”

He lifted the sheath onto his lap and pulled the sword a few inches out. Even seeing the fine, well-cared-for edge of the blade gleaming before his face did not give him the feeling of having drawn the sword. It wasn’t real. But soon…

“Wow, I thought policemen carried sabers.”

He barely looked toward the voice as he slid the sword back into place and the light it had caught faded. “Sabers are brittle and unreliable,” he replied shortly, setting the sword down again and tapping his gloved fingertips briefly against the floor just to see if it was still flat and made of wood.

“Isn’t it against the rules to have a nihontou, though?”

“I have special permission to carry this.”

“And Japanese swords are really better than those western ones?”

“Of course.”

Kids were annoying. And they were kids until they were at least twenty-five, no matter how good they looked or tasted.

Tasted? That seemed to have jumped in at the last moment, just as the thought was ending, and sent his hand to the floor again, making sure it was there. It wasn’t that he’d lost his equilibrium, or that the floor had made any threats recently to disappear (although this was someone else’s home, and the floor here might be less stable than at his own); he just wanted certainty.

“Kenshin! Sanosuke!” He only heard this because it was shouted; whatever followed was inaudible. He gripped his sword-hilt in cool expectation. It was just a sword, really, but it was always there, and soon he would draw it. The end of the sheath tapped reassuringly on the floor.

“What?!”

The door had opened.

“Where did you hear something like that?”

Footsteps were approaching.

He stood slowly. He turned, and although he knew perfectly well what he was turning to face, from what he already knew and the voices he heard and the spirit he felt, it was as if this was the first true confirmation of who they were, what they were to each other, and what he planned to do. He was holding his breath as he finally set eyes on them, standing there together with that girl at the other end of the room gazing in startlement back at him. He held his sword tightly in his left hand, and stared, wondering where the floor had gone.

Chapter 3 – Chaos (ScornBloodConfusion)

It had been troubling before, when Kenshin had asked him to stay hidden, but then, at least, Kenshin had been conscious of his presence. Now, with the enemy actually before them and visible — the real enemy, not some troublesome decoy — now… this was downright painful. For Kenshin to prefer him uninvolved showed Kenshin cared what happened to him. For Kenshin to ignore him completely, stepping forward with that calm tension that meant he was already more than prepared for battle, showed he cared… about something else.

Already Kenshin was fighting without him.

“You had trouble with Akamatsu, I see. You have become weak.”

Sano loved Kenshin. He hadn’t quite managed to tell him yet, but he did love him, more than he’d ever loved anybody in his life. But he’d seen… and he wondered whether the man he loved was the true Kenshin or just a beautiful and inevitably temporary façade. It frightened him that he didn’t know.

“It has been ten years.”

But what frightened him even more was that there existed anywhere a man that didn’t even have to be present, only brought to mind, to effect the change from the Kenshin Sano loved to… the other one. And perhaps he was also a little frightened by the fact that that same man had kissed him. (Or that he’d dreamed he had; that Sano might have thought it up out of his own head was equally disturbing.)

“Ten years, yes. Two simple words, those, but a long time to live through.”

“Yes. Long enough for someone to become rotten.” He couldn’t see Kenshin’s face, couldn’t see his lover’s eyes. But Kenshin’s voice was gilded, and that was all Sano needed. “In the old days, you would consider it beneath you to attack an opponent’s friends in order to intimidate him, or to set a dog on him and take hostages while he was occupied. You cannot be the Saitou Hajime I respected as a warrior.”

Sano’s attention shifted abruptly at the speaking of the man’s name, and he began to feel slightly guilty. No matter what or who Kenshin was, or had been, or even would become, the fact remained that he was likely to fight a very difficult physical battle right now, and Sano should support him (and think about settling his own score later).

Saitou was laughing. The sound sent a shiver through Sano as if he’d been touched by something unexpectedly painful. Not an unexpected pain, but rather something that seemed like it shouldn’t have hurt. Now he’d begun to look at Saitou, Sano couldn’t remove his gaze from the lean, blue-clad figure. He wasn’t close enough to see if that uncanny something was still in the man’s narrow yellow eyes, but he didn’t want to know. Didn’t need to see to know, actually, as he felt the same inexplicable discord in his thoughts just by being in the room with Saitou.

“You think Akamatsu was a dog? Ridiculous. He’s far too weak.”

He was studying Saitou’s face as the policeman said this, and for some reason felt that somehow the expression thereon was incompatible with the speech. The laughter, he realized, had sounded much the same. But there was no real physical evidence of this, and he couldn’t decide what exactly he thought he saw.

“The Shinsengumi fought the hitokiri Battousai many times,” Saitou continued; “we knew his strength. But you had trouble fighting Akamatsu. Your notion of a rurouni who doesn’t kill has taken that strength from you.”

It was true the fight Kenshin had just finished had given him a bit of trouble, but that was more because he’d been trying to get information out of the freak than because the stitched-up man had really been difficult to defeat. Certainly it didn’t earn Kenshin such a moniker? Yahiko and Kaoru seemed quite shocked by the suggestion, and Sano was somewhat disturbed at the finality in Saitou’s tone… but Kenshin’s answer seemed to indicate he didn’t much care:

“The only strength I need now is that of the rurouni who protects others. I don’t need the hitokiri’s strength I once had.”

“If your rurouni’s strength is all you need, I’m here to tell you you’ve failed.” It was something about the heavy scorn in Saitou’s voice, Sano decided. Something… “While you were busy fighting Akamatsu, I was here waiting for you. Since I presented myself as a police officer, your friends let their guard down.” Saitou gestured at Yahiko and Kaoru, whose shocked expressions, if possible, intensified. “I could have killed them as I pleased.”

Sano was too busy searching for the answer to his solidifying question to partake much in the others’ fearful outrage at this statement. He was still pursuing the scorn idea. It was truly felt, not a playact; that seemed fairly obvious. Just something was… off… somehow… about the way Saitou delivered his words. “And that wasn’t the only time,” the dark man continued. “With Jin’ei, with Kanryuu… during every battle, the one you were trying to protect fell into the enemy’s hands. You even let that fool Raijuta scar someone for life.”

This last shook Sano out of his attempted analysis, and he stared at Saitou in surprise and growing consternation. The police hadn’t been involved with…

Something caught at his mind as the anger that usually followed such emotions washed through him, but he ignored both it and the anger in favor of the other two feelings. To think Saitou had been watching Kenshin so closely for so long… it was frightening in more ways than one. What were Saitou’s motives? Obviously he wanted to fight Kenshin, but why all this extraneous nonsense, all these other things Saitou had done? In Sano’s mind, a fight was a fight, and such trappings were not only unnecessary but also a confusion of the issue (not to mention disconcerting in the present situation, especially given Saitou had… well, he wasn’t going to think about that now).

“Having only a part of your strength is equal to having no strength at all. Your words are pure hypocrisy; you make me sick.”

Sano’s rage was growing, and he wanted desperately to retort at the top of his lungs, to refute Saitou’s contemptuous accusations… but he found he couldn’t say — or shout — a single word. To begin with, Kenshin was still simply standing there, offering no defense… and though Sano loved him and could hardly bear to hear him insulted, he feared that silence. What did it mean? Did Kenshin not consider a response necessary? Was he trying to decide what was best to say? Or did he agree with the accusations? And if so, what would his answer be then? Would it be a verbal answer, or something more meaningful? If he concurred, what did that say about who he was? And why didn’t Sano know what was going through his lover’s head?! Dammit… he didn’t, he couldn’t understand any of this, and it frightened him. Which only made him more angry.

And that was the other reason he couldn’t find a word to say — there was something about his anger, his typical response-to-fear-and-confusion irate state, that brought him closer to the answer he sought about Saitou.

He needn’t have worried about defending Kenshin; he’d forgotten there were others present willing to do so. “What are you talking about?!” Yahiko was demanding angrily. “Every time, ’cause Kenshin was there, nobody died!”

Saitou nodded grimly, and replied with the same inscrutable scorn as before. “But tell me… how long will that last? How long can you trust luck to fill in the gap between your current strength and your potential?” The utter derision in his voice — therein lay the answer, somewhere… “I thought you, Battousai, would understand merely by this example with Akamatsu, but as you said, ten years is long enough for someone to become rotten. This rurouni who does not kill is too comfortable with his pseudo-justice. How can the hitokiri Battousai protect without killing?”

Fists clenched and twitched, but Sano was rooted to the floor where he’d stopped upon entering the room, his back to the door that nobody had yet remembered to close. Anger rose like a storm inside him — his usual, familiar protection against the black (or, in this case, gold) unknown — but because it was giving him his answer, he couldn’t do a thing except ponder.

“Aku Soku Zan — this was the one truth that the Shinsengumi and the hitokiri shared. I can’t stand to see what you’ve become.” This statement provided Sano with the final piece of evidence he needed, as the tone it was spoken in was just slightly more scathing even than the rest of Saitou’s words. The bitter drip of his voice contrasted harshly with the dry rasp of his sword leaving its sheath — but still Sano could do nothing.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.” The look on Saitou’s face as Kenshin uttered this calm rebuttal only confirmed further what Sano had begun to believe — and he could not move, perhaps because of this or perhaps in spite of it.

For it was clear now, to Sano at least, that Saitou wore scorn just as Sano wore anger — to protect himself from something he didn’t want to feel, to hide that feeling from the rest of the world. It was not a falsified emotion, not a show… but it was deliberately conjured to guard against something else. Nobody that didn’t shield in such a manner could tell, Sano guessed, but even from this brief conversation that didn’t involve him it seemed obvious. Perhaps that had been what he’d seen in Saitou’s eyes the other day when…

“Is that so? Then come,” Saitou challenged. And what was he trying to hide? What was it he didn’t want to feel? Sano thought his contempt increased tenfold as he added, “I deny everything you are.”

***

It was the same stance. Kenshin never forgot a technique that was shown to him, and this one he remembered particularly well. It was that straightforward stabbing move that could be modified into just about any swing after its commencement, like truth that could become a lie at any moment or perhaps even a lie that could become truth. And he was willing to meet it. He drew his own sword.

“Are you going to involve your lover in this?” Saitou asked, making just the slightest gesture with his head.

The words hit Kenshin like a blow, for he had… forgotten… that Sano was there. Sano, whom he loved, whom he wanted to stay with for the rest of his life… he had forgotten him. It hurt. He dared not turn around, lest Sano should realize this was the case. He feared it was too late.

He stepped slowly away from the door and the two people behind him.

“Kenshin…” Sano growled softly.

Kenshin couldn’t tell whether his tone was one of warning, of fear, of supplication, or something else. Why couldn’t he tell? He’d been with Sano long enough that he could usually read everything from a single word… why didn’t he know now what his lover was thinking?! “Sano, please stay back.” His own voice sounded surprisingly calm, flat even, much like… it always had… back then… “This is inevitable.”

“But, fighting like this… you promised…”

He’d forgotten Sano’s tendency to read oaths into simple words or actions; Kenshin had never promised him anything. “It will be all right.” He glanced over at Sano finally, now he was far enough away, hoping his words were enough to keep Sano out of the fight. But he couldn’t tell. He might as well never have set eyes on his own lover before this, for all he could anticipate Sano’s intentions. And the reason for that was… he was already looking through the eyes of a hitokiri: Sano, as a non-threat, was practically invisible. Which might be a good sign, as far as Sano’s planned involvement in the upcoming battle, but…

But now Kenshin was angry.

How dare Saitou have such an affect on him?!

That carefully-locked-away part of himself should not be so easily, so quickly accessed by another; Kenshin should have a chance to fight it at the very least. He almost felt violated as that assassin’s internal fire rose again within him and he clenched tighter at his sword hilt. He was already battling the desire to kill Saitou, to spatter blood all across the floor and walls of the dojo — and the fight had not yet begun. He could not engage Saitou with that impulse in his veins… could not.

But Saitou was not leaving him that option.

The policeman charged in his first gatotsu stance, and Kenshin jumped to avoid the stab. The warring desires of slaughter and decency slowed him, however, and before he could move into a Ryuu Tsui Sen, Saitou had altered the trajectory of his blow and jumped upward to meet him. Kenshin barely managed to block, avoiding being impaled straight through the chest, but still felt his ribs grazed as the sword pierced his flesh on the right. Saitou twisted the blade to the right and slashed it out across Kenshin’s chest in a burst of pain and blood, spinning to kick him in the stomach in the same movement.

Kenshin fell to the floor, struggling within himself. The taste and smell of blood were exciting him dangerously; the desire to kill was growing. He got to his knees, then his feet, watching Saitou fall into his first stance again. As the wolf charged, Kenshin went forward to meet him, almost staggering as something twitched within him, urging him toward destruction. They engaged midway, vying until Saitou managed to get in a quick but forceful slash across Kenshin’s chest, knocking him backward. Hitting the wall so hard he could hear plaster crack, holding his stomach with a grimace, Kenshin fought to stay upright. He… didn’t want… to want… to kill him… but that battle he was losing. Standing again, he really did stagger this time, making one last attempt to bring his enemy down before he himself was lost. Saitou was ready to meet him with a second-stance gatotsu; Kenshin slipped around behind him, but Saitou turned and kicked him in the face, knocking him away in another splash of blood.

And suddenly everything was colored thus, deepening until there was only red and black as Kenshin flipped backward to land in a crouch some distance off, panting, staring at Saitou who seemed pleased and who charged in his second stance again. And Kenshin dodged to the left, blocked the slash that Saitou moved into, then ducked down beneath the level of Saitou’s sword to spin around backward into a Ryuu Kan Sen. And there was harsh contact between blade and skull, a guttural cry, and Saitou was thrown through the wall. Certainly that hurt, but unfortunately did not kill.

Sword resheathed, ready for Battoujutsu, watching Saitou’s second stance again, meeting its charge and forcing the other blade away to the right, feeling the heat between bodies drawn close together, then ducking beneath Saitou’s sword and throwing it off entirely. Speeding forward low with a rising sweep, feeling the tension as Saitou blocks him again in a clash of metal and they’re forced close to each other once more, an attempted blow from Saitou’s right fist, and with evasion they’re apart again.

A jump into a half-formed Ryuu Tsui Sen that Saitou dodges, but push upward from the resulting crouch with a sweep that Saitou blocks, and suddenly Saitou is restraining his sword-hand and sweeping his own weapon at him simultaneously, but a high leap can dodge the swing and free the hand at the same moment, then charge forward again, I’m going to kill him, but it’s blocked and now the heat is there again between two close bodies locked by flashing swords between until Saitou pulls back and swings downward but if I jump again I can dodge that as well as the next, onto the ceiling, sheathe the sword again, push off toward the wall, propel from there into an aerial Battoujutsu that he blocks on his right, so I roll forward through the air and push off another wall, spinning, regaining my bearings, stabbing at him, falling backward as he blocks and pushes me back, he’s so close and the beautiful edge of that sword is near my cheek I’m going to kill him so I kick his face, flipping over and launching myself above his head backwards to land facing him as I resheathe my sword again, he isn’t waiting but he’s back in his first stance, which I meet with Battoujutsu and break his sword, so now we’ll see who’s going to die I’m going to kill him he’s charging again the fool without a weapon block the broken hilt he throws at me blood from my left hand pain in my sword-hand his belt? sword falls to the left blows all over my chest and stomach behind me damn him jacket? can’t breathe can’t pry the thing off choking slam iron sheath into his chin jump tear away the jacket smells like cigarettes crouching panting going to kill him those eyes kill him love those eyes ready for the next stand kill he’s aiming kill this is the end

Stop!!

***

He’d never deluded himself into thinking he would walk into that dojo and make an impartial judgment of Himura’s level of strength, but he hadn’t expected it to go quite as far as it did. The moment he’d started to fight, all surroundings had shattered and they’d been lost in a void of heat and movement and the desire for one another’s death that was far from any era but farthest from the Meiji. And on his part, it was weakness. He couldn’t speak for Himura, but that battle was exactly what Saitou had been wanting for years — to be able to fight with abandon and still be in danger of his life. He’d experienced nothing so thrilling since the Bakumatsu — not in the Boshin wars and certainly not during his time with the police, even as a spy. But it was weakness. He was not here to sate his long-repressed desire, but rather to test the former Battousai’s strength for more important matters. And he’d given in.

And yet he couldn’t regret it.

He’d shown them — shown them all — what Himura was really like — shown that boy. That boy that thought he knew Himura so well, that was stupid enough to think his foolish existence was sufficient to feed the fire of a hitokiri’s soul. Certainly Saitou had proven him wrong on both counts. Although why he felt so triumphant at the thought of having done so, he did not know. As if he cared what kinds of playmates Himura sought out these days.

As if he’d ever cared.

He wasn’t paying attention to the conversation going on around him; he’d barely even noticed the other woman was there in the room, didn’t know when she’d entered. He was concentrating dually on the presence outside the window and his own thoughts. As he felt more than heard Akamatsu slip away, presumably to run to Shibumi with his whipped tail between his legs and his ears down (although hadn’t Saitou just finished saying Akamatsu could never be strong enough to merit the canine title?), the room came back into focus. He hadn’t realized his unseeing eyes had been directed at the boy Sagara the entire time, but apparently they had. He wondered how long Sagara had been staring back at him the way he was now.

“Hmph.” He made the noise only to draw attention to himself as he bent and retrieved his jacket. Slinging the latter over his shoulder, he directed his following statement at Himura: “I’d love to stay and play, but I have real work to do. We’ll finish this some other time.”

“Your life has been spared,” Himura replied in that even, emotionless tone Saitou remembered so well.

“Rather, yours has,” Saitou replied with a smirk. These were the typical words of men whose battle has been prematurely terminated: meaningless noise. Only in actual combat could such things be determined. He continued toward the door.

“Saitou!”

Kawaji. Saitou probably wouldn’t hate him so much tomorrow as he did now; at the moment he was still reeling internally from the abrupt withdrawal of his battle-drug that Kawaji’s voice had caused, despising his short employer for dragging him back into this era that he loathed. He paused, resisting the urge to say something pointless and nasty to the little man, and decided what he would say. Halting thus put Sagara immediately to his right, and before answering Kawaji’s stern demand he turned his head briefly in that direction to give the boy a glance that if he’d ever told Sagara anything would have been an ‘I told you so.’ “Mission report,” he finally stated succinctly: “Himura Kenshin is worthless. Himura Battousai may suffice. End report.” And he stalked out the door.

Oddly enough, as he walked away, replacing and buttoning his jacket and wiping the blood from his face with gloves he then folded and put in his pocket, he couldn’t quite decide whether he’d succeeded or not. Obviously he’d done what he’d been assigned to do — tested Himura’s strength and determined whether or not the former assassin was suitable for the task Ookubo wanted to set him at — but as for his own personal goals… he couldn’t be sure whether he’d met them or not, as he wasn’t entirely certain he even knew what they had been.

Chapter 4 – The Beginnings(?) of Distraction

Sano was about ready to go into a rage and start throwing things. Every last little aspect of this situation made him nervous and unhappy, and his anger, as a response, was phenomenal. The only thing stopping him was the reflection that his shoulder, which already hurt like hell, would not stand for it.

What had that look been for? Any of those looks? Why had Saitou been looking at Sano anyway, if the bastard was so fixated on stabbing Kenshin to death? On taking Kenshin away…? (Sano was determinedly focusing all his anger on Saitou so as not to have to think about Kenshin at all.) Was Saitou maybe trying to rub in the fact that Sano didn’t understand his eyes and whatever that nameless-but-familiar thing in them was trying to tell him? Yeah, that’d be a great reason to stare at someone like they’re your next meal.

And just who the hell was Saitou, anyway?? Working for Ookubo and Kawaji and crap explained a couple of things, but not why the jerk had stabbed Sano through the shoulder or fucking kissed him. He doubted that had been part of Saitou’s mission briefing. Then Saitou’s whole demeanor, Sano thought, had been this understated cry of check-me-out-I-may-be-a-freak-but-I-can-kick-Battousai’s-ass-I-am-so-cool, right down to the casual way he’d strolled out the door after informing Kenshin he’d be dealing with him later, then looked straight at Sano with that… that… that look. That look saying who-fucking-knew-what. Was it, See how great I am? Or I’ll be dealing with you later, too? Or…

Wait…

Sano felt the blood drain from his face at his new thought. Was that what Saitou wanted? In other words, was he what Saitou wanted? That would explain why Saitou had obviously intended to kill Kenshin rather than just test him as Ookubo and Kawaji insisted had been the original idea… That would explain why Saitou had kissed Sano… That would explain the looks, probably… That would… not explain “What does he see in you?”

I am so fucking confused…

A sudden movement startled him into looking at Kenshin again, against his inclination, as his lover abruptly punched himself in the face, and it took Sano actual willpower not to step back in surprise. He just didn’t want to think about…

“I am not the only one involved in this,” Kenshin said darkly as he raised his bloody face. “We will all hear what you have to say.”

“…sessha hitori dewa gozaran…”

A wave of heat ran through Sano at the sound of the words, and he stopped breathing entirely. No, he hadn’t been thinking about Kenshin, but in reality… he’d been thinking quite a bit about Kenshin. And now it was like a physical sensation, the relief he felt at knowing that Kenshin, his Kenshin, had returned. From the sharp intake of breath at his side, Kaoru had evidently noticed as well… but she, not being in love with the confusing redhead, couldn’t possibly feel it the way Sano did. “Megumi-san?” she requested in a tone that, despite the tension of the scene, was almost calm. Sano wouldn’t have been able to say anything calmly even if he’d wanted to try.

Megumi nodded and hurried over to Kenshin. One look and with a shake of her head she said, “Come over here and sit down. This will take a minute.”

“Yahiko, will you find cushions for everyone?” Kaoru said.

Sano was barely paying attention to the sudden air of business that had filled the room; he stepped after Kenshin as the latter went to have his wounds tended, knowing this interval would not be long and soon Ookubo would be saying what he’d come to say. And in that time, Sano wanted to — needed, actually, to hear Kenshin’s voice again, talking just to him. He told himself it didn’t matter what that voice was saying as long as it was speaking and it was his Kenshin, but he wasn’t sure at all if that was true.

***

It had all been a test, of course. There was no deep, mysterious motive behind Saitou’s behavior; he was following orders as usual, presumably for some good cause, probably something fair and rational Kenshin would hear about in a minute or two, something in the pursuit of the destruction of evil. Yes, it all made sense now. Kenshin laid it out carefully in his mind thus:

Saitou had been assigned to seek Kenshin out. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have, as he would have had no reason to do so. Saitou had a few points to make as part of this assignment, but no emotional involvement in any of them — the points were related to whatever Ookubo and Kawaji wanted to use Kenshin for, undoubtedly something unpleasant and difficult. Saitou had striven to prove that Kenshin’s friends were weak and he couldn’t protect them, that Kenshin himself was too trusting and easygoing. Was too different from the way he had been. Yes, Saitou had worked very hard to demonstrate that. And even if the old days had jumped up around them as they fought, that was just a natural result of such a battle — it was still merely part of the test, the assignment. Everything had been; it made sense.

And then from the end of the battle until the moment he’d left the dojo, Saitou had looked at nothing… but… Sano…

And all of Kenshin’s neatly-organized reasoning was blown away, as if each step in the process were written on a slip of paper on the floor and the door had suddenly been opened.

It meant nothing.

It proved nothing.

It said nothing to either of them.

Didn’t it?

Or had it meant something to Sano?

It almost seemed like it had.

Saitou hadn’t appeared threatening, particularly. Smug, perhaps, and calculating — Kenshin hadn’t been able to read him. Had Sano? Why would Saitou look at Sano like that anyway? Kenshin was trying so hard to believe the only thing going through Saitou’s head was the assignment, the duty in the name of justice. So why, when Kenshin had been the one at whom were aimed the cutting words, “I can’t stand to see what you’ve become” — words obviously meant to goad him into anger so Saitou could fight him and carry out that same duty — why did Saitou stare at Sano?

It wasn’t that Kenshin cared whether or not Saitou could stand it; it was just that the statement did seem to indicate Kenshin was the focus of this drama. Why should Sano be a target? Especially when it had already been proven that Sano was weaker than both of them and therefore a relatively easy one? Saitou didn’t know, and therefore could hardly have any grudge against or interest in Sano… as far as Kenshin could see, Sano’s part in all of these dealings had ended the moment he hit the dojo floor the day Saitou attacked him. Why would Saitou have been staring at him??

Kenshin was jolted into awareness of a question perhaps even more important by a hand on his shoulder that was not Megumi’s: Why, if he was so very worried about his lover, had he forgotten entirely Sano was there, sitting beside him?

***

As far as Saitou knew (and he knew rather a lot, as when he’d become a spy for Kawaji he’d gained access to all sorts of new information sources), Himura, a disturbingly young man wielding a legendary kenjutsu style whose actual existence many doubted, had shown up out of nowhere in 1863 in Choushu’s Kiheitai and become an assassin at Katsura Kogorou’s request for the specific purpose of using his skills to help build a new era in which the weak would no longer suffer.

Perhaps some would object to such a portrait of one that killed in the shadows for a revolutionary group, but from the few existing accounts of those that had known him at the time, it was undoubtedly true. Not that Saitou needed any such proof: it had been evident to him from the first time he’d crossed blades with the hitokiri Battousai. Well, perhaps the particulars of Himura’s morale hadn’t been evident: there was no way he could have read something so complex in another’s eyes alone. But what was obvious was conviction, whole-hearted devotion to a well-understood cause — and that was admirable in and of itself. The accounts Saitou heard later regarding what, more exactly, Battousai believed had only strengthened his respect for his one-time enemy. Clearly Himura Kenshin, during the Bakumatsu at least, had been fighting for the good of Japan and its people using all his strength of body and will.

And what was he now?

Saitou didn’t like to admit how often he’d wondered, during the past ten years, just what had happened to Himura at the commencement of the Meiji era. It was nothing unnatural to wonder, of course, about the fate of someone so interesting to so many, but after the first couple of years the curiosity really should have faded just as it had about the other few that had captured his interest during the war. What was there about Himura, after all, so much more intriguing than about any other young warrior from those days that fought with conviction and spirit? Well, other than that Himura could battle Saitou evenly and most of the rest hadn’t even come close?

At least that was still true of him, if nothing else was.

The first report, given by the unflagging spy he’d set to watch Himura from the moment the former Battousai set foot in Tokyo, had been a surprise. Subsequent reports had been dismaying. Actually, Saitou had not really believed them. The man these accounts represented was sloppy, passive, acquiescent — it could not be the same he had known. But now he had no choice but to believe. Now he’d been informed definitively that ten years was enough time to change someone completely. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much.

But was it really a change? Had Himura really transformed into something nearly unrecognizable, or was this rurouni merely an aggravating and hopefully temporary façade? Did Saitou hope, as it really seemed he did despite the indifference he continually declared to himself, that the latter was true? Presumably the answer to these questions would not be long in coming to light.

Saitou assumed the reason he cared was because there were so few people left that he’d known at all during the war, even fewer he’d respected, and he would like to understand what had happened to this one — whether he could continue to respect him, or whether he would be forced to add him to the ever-growing ranks of those he utterly scorned, on which he was often tempted simply to list ‘mankind as a whole’ and be done with it. But even given that sort of understandable curiosity, this kind of musing seemed slightly… no, no, it wasn’t worth that title. He liked to see, to know and understand what was going on around him, down to minor details, but that didn’t make him obsessive. Really, it was just the week thing that was bothering him.

Either Himura was still, underneath the fluffy exterior of this ridiculous decade, the precise and steadfast warrior he had once been; or he was, in spite of the strength of purpose with which he’d once burned, truly a lost and faded soul doomed to die some obscure death unworthy of his former status. The offer of a week to such a man was pointless.

The hitokiri would not need a week to accept the task.

The rurouni could take a year and still be coming up with excuses not to go.

And Saitou should not care so damned much either way. Why should those seven days seem like such a long time to wait?

Chapter 5 – Other Beginnings

The next few days were not pleasant.

Kaoru was in a bad mood in general due to recent events, and therefore when Megumi came over the two of them fought more than ever. Not that Megumi was in a particularly good mood herself. Yahiko had been pestering Sano ever since that day to give him the details of his relationship with Kenshin, about which the kid hadn’t known until Saitou’d had to go and refer to Sano as Kenshin’s lover in front of him. And Yahiko was too young to hear details like that, but too persistent to let the subject drop. And as for Kenshin… Kenshin was spending a lot of solitary time, among chores and shopping trips, in his secluded bamboo practice-hole.

He didn’t exactly say he didn’t want Sano around, but Sano, with all the willful irritation an insecure lover can muster, assumed. And as his shoulder still hurt, he spent most of his own time lying around in Kenshin’s room or just outside it, dozing or thinking. Mostly thinking. Kaoru, who hated it when Sano stayed at the dojo for extended periods of time and seemed in her annoyance to have forgotten he was still wounded, presumed him sleeping — and truly he would have preferred to be. He abhorred trying to work things out in his head, because they only seemed to get more twisted, and as he got deeper and deeper inside his own confused mind he just got more and more angry.

If there was anything worse than the confusion, it was this tense monotony. Kenshin made no sign, whenever he returned from his meditative outings, that he’d chosen one way or another. Sano didn’t care what Kenshin chose, as long as Kenshin was still Kenshin, but he would have liked to know what was going on under that red-thatched roof. Not knowing was surely as bad as whatever Kenshin eventually decided.

And he still had another four days of this to deal with.

Rather than in or near Kenshin’s room as he mostly had been for the last seventy-two hours, he was lying now on the front porch of the dojo. Actually, it seemed he’d gravitated slowly in that direction from day to day, or even nap to nap. It took him a while to notice, and when he did, he sat up and stared. He didn’t like to think he was drawn toward the as-yet-unpatched hole in the wall, but that was where he seemed to have stopped.

And he knew why he’d awakened, this time: he felt something. He didn’t always know what people were about to do the way Kenshin did, but he damn well knew when there was an enemy hanging around outside the dojo walls. He jumped up, ignoring the pain the action occasioned, and crossed the yard. He flung open the doors with a scowl and one clenched fist, and stopped short.

Any enemy but this he had been ready for. Now he didn’t know what to do.

***

Kenshin hadn’t been able to decide whether to walk up to Saitou and ask what he wanted, or to ignore him and enter the yard a different way. The choice was taken out of his hands, however, when Sano burst out the front doors ready to do battle and stopped short when he saw who his enemy was.

“Calm down, boy; I’m not here to see you.” Saitou sounded unexpectedly amused. Kenshin would have liked to see his face, but if he moved any closer Saitou would certainly realize he was there. Perhaps he already knew.

“You weren’t the first time either.” Sano, on the other hand, sounded agitated — and for good reason, Kenshin supposed. He could feel his lover shifting into a more solid combative stance.

“Is it my fault you spend your entire life lying around on someone else’s porch?” The sound of a match striking accompanied this question: Saitou remained casual.

“Shut up!” Sano growled. “Just tell me what you’re doing here!”

“You are aware that shutting up and telling you anything are mutually exclusive?”

“Tell me what you fucking want before I kick your ass!” Sano was becoming more and more angry and disturbed; he probably thought Saitou once again had some violent intention here at the dojo. Kenshin knew better: if Saitou intended violence, he would already have carried it out and would not be wasting time talking with Sano. Still, Kenshin couldn’t help being a little worried. Why was Saitou talking with Sano like this, casually but for Sano’s high level of tension?

“Indeed, what do I want?”

“What are you staring at, you psychopath?” Kenshin was startled at this demand, brows lowering at its implications. Saitou seemed to stare at Sano quite a bit, and if that meant what he thought it might… The idea bothered him, more than he would guess it should. “Hey, cut it the hell out! Like I’m some shunga or something…” Sano obviously didn’t much like the attention either. Kenshin found himself thinking at the same moment both that he should be relieved at this and that to feel so would be an insult to his lover.

He felt similarly about Saitou’s scorn-laden reply: “What makes you think you look that good?”

Now Sano was angry again, and, although the uncertainty wasn’t entirely gone from his voice, it had diminished quite a bit. “All right, just why the fuck are you here?”

“To talk to Himura, if you must know,” Saitou answered easily, adding, “though it’s hardly any of your business.”

“Listen up, bastard: it is my business if it has to do with Kenshin!” Here was Sano’s typical tone of righteous indignation, but with an added depth to it of whose nature Kenshin could not quite be sure.

“Is it really?” Had Saitou picked up on that extra edge to the tone as well, and understood it better than Kenshin had? He seemed to know exactly what to say to render Sano speechless. And that question… Kenshin didn’t like this. Not at all. What did Saitou think he knew? No, what did Saitou know, that he could use to make Sano so uncomfortable with just a few words? Actually, Kenshin had his guesses… and he didn’t want to think about them.

He moved forward, stepping around the corner. “What do you want, Saitou?”

Saitou was already looking in his direction. “Are you going to Kyoto?” he asked.

“Thought your part in that shit was just trying to kill everyone.” Sano, who had obviously found his voice again, moved to stand next to Kenshin even as Kenshin took his stolid place before the open door.

“Then you have been misinformed on several counts.” Saitou did not even remove his eyes from Kenshin as he said this, almost as if Sano’s presence didn’t matter anymore.

“Ookubo isn’t expecting my reply for two more days,” Kenshin said calmly.

“I’m asking now, out of curiosity,” Saitou returned just as calmly. There was no challenge in his words.

“I have not made my decision yet,” Kenshin said after a moment, not pleased with how much he found himself inexplicably shaken by the question. Why did Saitou want to know? Surely, as Sano said, his involvement in the whole affair was over?

Saitou frowned. “Putting it off, are you?”

Kenshin disliked the heavy scorn in the tall man’s voice. “No,” he replied firmly, “debating possibilities.”

Saitou stared down at him wordlessly, and Kenshin wondered, not for the first time, what was going on behind those metallic eyes. He would instantly have been able to tell if Saitou intended something other than standing there levelly meeting his gaze, but as to what the wolf was thinking… Finally with a sneer, Saitou took a drag on his cigarette and turned.

Sano let out an angry breath as the police officer began to walk away. “What the hell are you so worried about?!” he shouted after Saitou a moment later. “Bastard, like it has anything to do with you!” His volume was fading as he added, “Like Kenshin won’t do the right thing…”

Kenshin looked at him in surprise. “Sano…”

“Sorry,” Sano grumbled. “I just can’t stand him looking at you like that. Who does he fucking think he is?”

How was it Sano could assign any interpretation to that unreadable expression? Let alone that interpretation? And then, if Sano was so angry, why didn’t he act as he usually did and try to fight Saitou? Kenshin didn’t think for one moment Sano was learning any self-preserving restraint… perhaps the younger man saw something else in Saitou that Kenshin could not? The thought was unaccountably disturbing. “Come inside,” Kenshin urged, taking Sano’s hand and moving through the doorway, away from Saitou and the mystery he presented.

Because it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter what Saitou was thinking or feeling, or who knew about it or how they knew.

It just wasn’t important.

***

Ookubo’s murder was not much of a surprise to Saitou. He wasn’t exactly thrilled it had happened, but couldn’t exactly say he hadn’t seen it coming some time in the indefinite future, either — especially given the way Ookubo liked to run around without an escort of any kind. No, not much of a surprise.

He wasn’t thrilled… it was terrible news… he wished he could have prevented it… but he wasn’t torn to pieces over it either. Because he hadn’t seen that look in Himura’s eyes — that absolute determination fueled by some flame within that could not be extinguished — in a number of years he didn’t like to count… and it was the knowledge Ookubo had been assassinated by some agent of Shishio’s that had inspired it. Whether Himura’s mind had been changed at the last moment or his resolve merely strengthened, the former Battousai was going to Kyoto.

Himura’s little troupe of friends, though… that was a different story. Saitou had no idea whether Himura had really understood his demonstration or not. And even if the point had gotten across to him, it was too much to hope that the headstrong Sagara would remain in Tokyo, regardless of what Himura chose to do. The other fools were mostly directionless without Himura around, so Saitou didn’t worry as much about them, but Sagara was likely to be a problem. A problem Saitou was almost looking forward to taking care of, although he didn’t quite know why. Probably because the boy was irritating.

The best way to find out how Himura planned to deal with those friends of his was to keep a close eye on him until the rurouni left the city, and as Saitou had very little business remaining in Tokyo at the moment, he could easily make that his first priority. Therefore, as soon as he could get away from Kawaji, he discreetly made his way to the Kamiya dojo to find out what he wanted to know.

Chapter 6 – Fallout

Kenshin had been gone all day.

It seemed so cold out. Unseasonable. Sano frowned.

It couldn’t take this long, could it? Unless… but, yeah, right. Seriously, Kenshin certainly wasn’t going to accept this stupid assignment. So all he would have needed to do was find Ookubo and explain he wasn’t going. Couldn’t take more than a couple hours at the most, no matter how much the old guy argued. Kenshin should have been back long before this.

It wasn’t really actually all that cold out, now he thought about it. It just felt that way, a little bit. He went inside, into Kenshin’s room, and sat down, staring at the door.

All right, so maybe he was worried. Kenshin and his damned sense of responsibility… As if this Shishio thing were his fault in any way, shape, or form. As if he had any obligation whatsoever to go to Kyoto and clean up the damn government’s mess.

But, no. There was just no way. Because, no matter how Kenshin felt about the issue, the thing involved killing, and that wasn’t Kenshin. Not anymore. And Kenshin would never, never go back to those days.

Not even with some guy around who seemed to want to pull him back. Some guy with really haunting eyes and…

Sano got up and left the room again. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking; it wasn’t cold, it was hot. And it was way too stuffy in there. He sat outside on the porch and stared absently into the twilight.

But what if…

No way.

He clenched a fist and slammed it down into the wood beneath him. He would really love to continue reassuring himself that his rurouni wasn’t going anywhere, but he couldn’t keep up lying to himself much longer. Because in the last little while he’d come to realize just how much he didn’t know about Kenshin and just how likely it was he could be mistaken about his lover’s intentions and, more frighteningly, the effect that the past could have on the former assassin. The truth was that he just didn’t know what conclusion had been the end of Kenshin’s week’s musings. Kenshin hadn’t confided in him, not even with the smallest hint.

It hurt, and he wasn’t reluctant to admit it. But even worse was this inescapable fear. Something important like this, and Kenshin didn’t say one word of his thoughts or plans to his lover… It made Sano wonder… how much did he really mean to Kenshin? Before this thing had started, he’d really been beginning to think Kenshin loved him. Would love him after not too long, at any rate. But now that he began to rethink the equation of Sano plus Kenshin, the answer was coming to something more like diversion than love — something useful that would take up time until Kenshin’s past came back to claim him. Until he

“Motherfucker, I am not gonna start thinking like that,” Sano growled, standing up abruptly. He went back into Kenshin’s room. The wind out here was a little chilly anyway.

He trusted Kenshin. He believed in Kenshin. He loved Kenshin. He didn’t sit around thinking stupid, traitorous, faithless, jealous, irrational thoughts about Kenshin.

But Kenshin had been gone all day.

Sano tensed abruptly as he heard footsteps outside. He was up and bounding toward the door in an instant, but before his hand reached it he realized it couldn’t be Kenshin. Too much weight, too much height. For all Kenshin sometimes looked and sounded really girly, he didn’t walk like a woman. Certainly not one that tall. Megumi, Sano guessed, coming to gossip with Kaoru.

To his credit, he didn’t go straight to sleep after he’d unrolled Kenshin’s futon and thrown himself down onto it — he lay around reflecting that love had to be more than just a word when the combination of uncertainty and an absent lover’s scent could make a heart hurt so desperately. Could drive someone that hadn’t cried in ten years so perilously close to tears.

***

It had taken him nearly an hour to come up with the words. Granted, that deliberation had been interspersed with contemplation on other subjects, so it might not have been such a lengthy process had he been undistracted. But even hearing the voice of the person that had murdered Ookubo had not taken his mind entirely from the difficult matter.

No matter what he said, it was going to upset Sano, so to choose what would hurt his lover least had been the dilemma. He hoped he’d gotten it right, but he wouldn’t know until he next saw Sano. And when that would be he did not know; he was on his way to Kyoto now, and had no idea how long he would remain there.

There hadn’t been anything he’d wanted to take with him: he’d spent what few yen he had on some food for the journey, and a decade as a wanderer had acclimated him to owning very little. Besides, Sano had been asleep in his bedroom, and although Kenshin could move as quietly as any spy, he just couldn’t risk his lover awakening. So he’d slid his note through the crack in the door and departed.

He was glad it was summer. He was taking any comfort he could get at this point, after all, and the thought of how much worse this would have been had it occurred in winter… well, it didn’t really do anything for him. But at some point it might.

The others, he felt sure, would forgive him. Kaoru and Megumi had each other, whether they knew it or not (and he was fairly certain they still thought of each other only as fellow members of the Women-Kenshin-Doesn’t-Want Club); and though they might be outraged at first, Megumi’s sense and Kaoru’s activity would soon help them both recover. And Yahiko admired him too blindly to be angry at him for long. Beyond that, even if they all understood he’d left alone for their protection, they would not hold it against him.

Sano, on the other hand…

Kenshin wouldn’t really want Sano calmly to accept that he wasn’t strong enough to accompany the rurouni on this dangerous venture; that just wouldn’t be Sano, and so compliant a lover would not appeal to Kenshin. But the concept was going to hurt him more than Kenshin could bear to consider. It was too much to hope Sano wouldn’t eventually figure it out, too (and, once again, Kenshin wouldn’t really want him not to), although the note certainly hadn’t elaborated on it; he could only hope Sano would not hate him for it.

His footsteps seemed difficult, somehow, as if the very act of walking had become a chore. He had to smile a little, wryly, at his predicament in general: he’d left his friends and lover, hurt them, in order to accept the request of a murdered man to do something he didn’t want to do and had, in fact, sworn he would never do again. And where was the benefit?

Well, certainly he would be aiding the country, fulfilling his own sense of responsibility, doing in part what he had dedicated himself to doing when he took up his sakabatou — and that had to be enough. But he didn’t feel it. And the thought that there might be one or two other rewards, which he probably didn’t want any more than he wanted the assignment in the first place, was vaguely disturbing. No, he didn’t even want to think about that… but the alternative was thinking about Sano, and there was too much heartache associated with those thoughts. So what could he think about, on this long and lonely walk?

The weather was always a good topic.

He reflected, most steadfastly, that it would have been a much finer day out if this chilly wind would stop.

***

Saitou was now even more curious than before, and it annoyed him because he’d rather not be curious at all. He just couldn’t help wondering what Sagara’s response to Himura’s note would be — not to mention what that note said — and it irritated him that he cared so much. He could probably have rationalized that he needed to know what message Himura had left and see first-hand the boy’s reaction to it the better to plan what he should do and say to keep Sagara from following Battousai all over creation… but the fact was simply that he was curious, and he wasn’t bothering to deny it.

The problem, for all of that, was that he really had no desire to sit around outside the dojo waiting for Sagara to wake up and find Himura’s message. And the problem with that was that he had nothing better to do. Dealing with Himura’s stubborn lover was Saitou’s final task in Tokyo, after all. But though he wanted to make sure he did it right, he didn’t want to waste much time on it. Still, he didn’t think walking into Himura’s bedroom and kicking Sagara awake in order to tell him he couldn’t go to Kyoto would be quite as effective as waiting and holding a slightly more conventional conversation with the boy. So he waited.

All night.

After this Shishio thing was over, he was going to sleep for a week.

The Kamiya girl and the child were up long before Sagara ever stirred, and even the doctor woman found her way to the dojo relatively early. As Himura hadn’t spoken to any of them the previous evening, they were all anxious to know the outcome of yesterday’s events, and kept walking past Himura’s bedroom door apparently in the hopes someone would emerge from it if they made enough noise…

Kenshin usually doesn’t sleep this late, but maybe he had a rough night, or maybe Sanosuke kept him up, giggle giggle, or maybe he isn’t in there at all, but someone’s obviously in there, it might be Sanosuke, should we knock? that would be too rude, but what if we were bringing him breakfast? maybe he’s thinking and doesn’t want to be disturbed, he does that sometimes, what do you think he said? and so on and on and on. How did Himura stand them?

Saitou was getting impatient. After battle or a long stint without rest it would make sense, but how could any ordinary person sleep this late? Especially in the middle of something this important to him? Granted, Saitou couldn’t exactly think of Sagara as an ordinary person anymore… the kid was strong and beautiful enough to have caught Himura’s attention, although whether that could possibly be anything more than a purely sexual relationship Saitou doubted. Still, how could the boy sleep so long??

There was always the possibility that Sagara had already awakened and read the thing and was sitting in there considering it or something, but Saitou was counting on an initial reaction explosive enough not to miss. Thoughtfulness didn’t really fit with what he’d seen of Sagara so far, let alone the reports he’d been given before that.

He was partially correct. Around noon Sagara finally appeared, flinging the door open so hard it bounced and sprang from its track and fell askew. In the boy’s free hand was clenched, crumpled, what must be Himura’s note, but the expression on his face was not what Saitou had expected. There was anger in it, and some pain, yes, but more than that some kind of confused look neither pleased nor unhappy. What did that damned note say?

This was very irritating. Saitou had sat around all night waiting for an entertainment, not for the stupid boy to be completely ignorant of what he was feeling. And now the officer had to go talk to him like that… Sagara was really an idiot. It was vaguely disappointing to think Himura had such poor taste — but then, as before, it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement for which he could more easily be forgiven; the physical attraction, after all, Saitou could readily understand (although when he’d come to that conclusion he wasn’t quite sure).

In bursting from the room, Sagara had startled the passing doctor woman into screaming, which in turn had brought the Kamiya girl running outside, but the kenkaya pushed past them both without a word as if he were only half conscious of their presence.

“Sanosuke!” they both protested, but, seeing they were being ignored, turned in synchronization toward Himura’s room. The boy, who’d obviously seen them after all and evidently knew they would seek answers from him when they found the chamber empty, took off at a run the moment their backs were to him, and was out the main doors of the dojo before they’d turned again.

Saitou followed, determined to have his questions answered and the remainder of his Tokyo duties carried out within the hour.

Chapter 7 – Confrontation, Confession

He wanted to tear the damn thing up, wanted to burn it, wanted to throw it in the river where the ink would bleed away and the paper would wash downstream out of his sight forever. And he wanted to keep squeezing it and never let go, wanted to take a needle and sew it into the skin just above his heart, wanted to frame it and hang it somewhere where he’d see it every day when he awoke. He wanted to kiss it, but he was afraid in doing so he might rip it to shreds with his teeth. He wanted to grind it into the dust with his heel and walk away, but he knew he would only turn around and pick it up and hug it and apologize to it, and then it would be difficult to get the dirt off.

He wanted to stop being ridiculous, but he really had no choice.

He had no idea what he was thinking or feeling, or where he was going or what he was planning. He was so angry, he wanted to track Kenshin down and punch him in the face. Or shake the little guy and demand just why the hell he’d thought Sano needed to suffer like this. He was so happy, he wanted to fly after Kenshin and kiss him halfway to death. Or talk to him, tell him everything, anything he could think of, all his secrets and stories and thoughts and ambitions and anything, just because he wanted to share himself. Tell him he loved him. But not until after he hit him, to let him know how much he was hurting. Or kissed him, to let him know how much he missed him already.

All right, so he did have some idea what he was thinking and feeling and where he was going and what he was planning. He wanted to see Kenshin. He wasn’t staying here. He was going to Kyoto. But what he would say to his lover once he found him… about that he really had no idea.

To Kyoto… He would need traveling food, and that meant money. And since he’d just annoyed Kaoru and Megumi, no way was he going back to the dojo or to the clinic. Besides, they would want to know how he knew Kenshin was gone, and that would bring up the note, and then they’d demand he tell them what it said, and then they would be the ones annoying him, and they’d probably want to go with, and… no, that just wasn’t an option. He would never, never, never show that horrible note to another living soul. It was the treasure of his heart, and not for anyone else’s eyes.

Katsu was his best option. Katsu would lend (give) him money without asking questions. Well, Katsu probably wouldn’t need to ask questions. Ever since he’d started the whole newspaper thing, he knew everything, and he would probably take one look at Sano and say, “You’re going to Kyoto after Himura, aren’t you? Do you need money?”

The problem was that Sano had been walking randomly through town without looking where he was going, and was now far from Katsu’s apartment. And although it would be quicker just to keep on the way he was going and leave the city right now, he knew he shouldn’t depart without some supplies. He forced himself to stop and consider. Trekking all the way to Katsu’s apartment before heading out would make visiting his own only a small detour, so there was no excuse not to pack a couple of things. He could still be out of here in a couple of hours, which amount of time couldn’t possibly make any real difference except to his impatient mind. So that’s what he would do. He turned, pleased with himself for being reasonable.

“Shit!” This wasn’t really in response to anything specific, just an exclamation of surprise at finding he was not alone. “Fucker!” This one was aimed more specifically. “How long’ve you been following me?”

“Longer than anyone should be able to follow someone else without being noticed,” Saitou replied dryly. “But I suppose the usual rules of attentiveness and sense don’t apply to you, do they?”

“Shut the hell up. What do you want this time? Shouldn’t you be off to Kyoto anyway? Got big murder plans and shit to take care of, don’t you?”

“I believe I’ve already explained that if I shut up I can’t answer your questions. You’ll have to choose one or the other.”

Sano growled, clenching the paper in his hand more tightly. “You think this is all going great, don’t you? You think everything’s worked out just exactly how you wanted it.”

Saitou nodded once, smiling slightly, but Sano could see the heavy scorn in his eyes. What emotion was Saitou repressing that he had to… well, Sano shouldn’t really try to figure that kind of thing out. First of all, he could have been wrong with that hypothesis he’d made back in the dojo a week ago and now be looking for something that wasn’t there. Secondly, he didn’t want to stand here staring into Saitou’s eyes puzzling over scorn and repression when Kenshin was somewhere waiting to be punched in the face and kissed half to death. Third, he hated Saitou anyway, so what the hell did he care how scornful the bastard was?

But the half smirk was beginning to enrage him, so he finally growled out, “Listen to me, you freaky-eyed jerk: no matter what you think, just ’cause Kenshin’s going to Kyoto doesn’t mean he’s gonna kill anyone.”

“I suppose you’re going to stop him.” Saitou’s tone was still threateningly casual, but he wasn’t fooling Sano.

“No, dumbass, he doesn’t need anyone to stop him! He’s strong enough to keep his own promises.” Except for the one about not wandering off without me, an unexpected infidel thought interjected.

“Promises? He promised you he wouldn’t kill Shishio?”

Sano didn’t quite know what to make of this question. “He didn’t have to… I already knew… that’s just how he lives…”

Saitou’s smirk grew. “So you have nothing to hold him to.”

Sano wasn’t sure why he was even still standing here discussing this kind of topic with this kind of man… maybe it was because he couldn’t bear anyone speaking badly of Kenshin, or maybe just because Saitou seemed to be playing off his own specific worries and Sano wasn’t going to take it. Either way, he demanded angrily, “Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time? Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it. But I guess you wouldn’t know about shit like that, would you?”

The older man was contemplating him now with undisguised disdain, and what did it mean? “And if the rurouni you know is only a hiatus, a step out of his regular lifestyle?”

Sano glared, but truthfully, when this was exactly what he’d been worrying about lately, Saitou’s bringing it up did more to frighten than anger him. “But for me–” he began, but Saitou interrupted him:

“What makes you think you’re worth a second thought when it comes to what direction he decides his life is going?”

It stung about twice as much as Sano would have expected. Illogical as it was, he didn’t think it could have hurt all that much more even if Kenshin himself had said it. But at the same time, it infuriated him to the point where he wasn’t even sure what he did next. It felt as if he was trying to punch Saitou, but he found after a moment that he’d shoved Kenshin’s note into the other man’s face. “That fucking does,” he growled. “Read it, asshole, and just try to say that again.”

Saitou took the crumpled message between two fingers, smoothed it halfway out with two more, and scanned it briefly before handing it back. “Ahou.”

Sano snatched it, bristling. “What?!”

“You let a few words on a piece of paper blind you… you really can’t see the reason he left you behind, can you?”

“He said it right there, dipshit,” Sano retorted. But this entire conversation was leaving him with a dreadful sinking feeling, as if there were a lot of things out of his control and Saitou knew it.

With a short, derisive laugh Saitou replied, “Even if he hasn’t abandoned you in order to return to the way he once was without your interference, it’s obvious he doesn’t want you around because you’re a liability to him.”

Sano stared, dumbstruck. He was a… But Saitou couldn’t possibly… But it made sense… And Kenshin would never say something like that, might even say something else to lead Sano away from the idea…

As Sano stood stunned, Saitou continued. “The first rule in any fight is to know your opponent’s weak points. If you were to go to Kyoto, Shishio would immediately find a way to use you. Battousai knows he can’t protect you; I showed him that. That’s why he left you here.”

The scales were tipping heavily toward punching Kenshin rather than kissing him, although at the moment Sano could do nothing but stand perfectly still waiting for the first wave of pain to subside. He wasn’t really seeing anything in front of him, only Kenshin’s face and the question of how he felt about it. But as things began slowly to come into focus around him, it was extremely irritating to find Saitou still standing there, silent and staring. He frowned, and in a sudden movement pushed past the other man and started walking swiftly away.

“Where are you going?” Saitou asked.

“Where do you think I’m going, bastard?” Sano stopped and glanced back; Saitou had not moved. “I’m going to Kyoto to hit Kenshin. Got a problem with that?”

“Kyoto is the other way,” Saitou replied mildly, walking toward Sano with calm purpose. “And, yes, I do have a problem with it. I can’t have an amateur like you underfoot; this is too important for you to get in the way.”

Sano turned to face Saitou, eyes blazing with the rage these words had awakened. “I’ve had about enough of you,” he snarled. “I’m going to Kyoto whether you like it or not!” And he hurled himself at his enemy to prove his point with his fists.

But Saitou dodged the blow, and, in a movement that seemed to indicate he’d been ready to fight all along despite his casual demeanor, slammed his own gloved fist into Sano’s exposed underarm, seized the wrist that sailed past him, and used the intended strike’s momentum to throw Sano dizzyingly to the ground.

The disorientation of this move did not distract Sano from the agonizing sensation of barely-healed flesh ripping open and blood abruptly soaking the gi Kenshin had just washed and mended for him. By the time he hit the ground, though, the anger was blocking out any other pain — until Saitou’s heel ground down on his torn shoulder and pain took over again for a moment. Then anger regained the upper hand as the bastard stepped back and spoke. “You see how easily your weakness is used against you. Do what’s best for everyone and stay here.”

Sano staggered to his feet. The battle between anger and pain within him continued, but the unbeatable pain — the one that wasn’t physical — was returning with new force and threatening to overwhelm all. Weakness… Was he really…? He just… No, it seemed his rage still had a chance, as he felt it surge up again and break over him, sending him hurtling forward a second time. And even though Saitou was his target, some of the anger was directed at Kenshin, giving Sano new resolve.

Saitou blocked the punch with raised arms, and, although he skidded back, it didn’t seem to have affected his balance. Evidently, however, his composure was slowly wearing away. “What is this going to prove?” he wondered in obvious annoyance as Sano postured for combat. “Especially when I’ve already beaten you once?”

“You can’t say that,” Sano returned in a growl. “You didn’t fight fair.”

Saitou glowered. After a moment he reached down and lifted his sheathed sword out of its holster on his belt and tossed it aside. “You won’t have that excuse this time. If I use your own sorry way of fighting to beat you, you’ll see what your own limitations are whether you like it or not.”

“You’ll never make me think I’m anyone’s fucking weakness,” Sano replied as he charged. Although he wasn’t sure he believed it.

At the moment, much as he would like to do some serious damage to Saitou, what he really wanted was for the jerk to back off so he could go to Kyoto without any trouble. So all he needed was to prove he was stronger than Saitou thought, that he had some tricks (fair tricks!) up his sleeve that would ensure he was not a liability. So he showcased his new idea, one he’d actually formulated while watching Saitou fight Kenshin: he laid into the man with a seemingly endless barrage of tight punches, forcing Saitou to stay entirely on the defensive (if he didn’t want his ribs pummeled into his lungs) and never giving him a chance to get in a hit of his own. A messy technique, but effective.

Or so he’d thought. But he found, as he fell back slightly to observe the effects of the prolonged attack, that his blows didn’t seem to have connected. Saitou would have nicely bruised forearms from blocking them all, but that would be the sole damage. Sano could only stare.

Saitou’s smirk was heavy with contempt, but also rather irritated. “You still don’t get it, do you?” He lowered his arms, the sleeves over which were shredded from elbow to wrist, and indeed he did not seem to have taken a single hit. “You may be considered strong in your little Tokyo fighting circles, but the Kyoto we’re talking about is a different world. Compared to Battousai and me you’re nothing but a child.”

Sano’s fists clenched again, but the depth of his ire was not so great as it had been. It was appalling, the way Saitou said ‘Battousai.’ Sano had heard Kenshin’s enemies say the old assassin’s name before, and of course he’d heard Saitou speak it both to Kenshin and when discussing Kenshin with Sano… but when mentioning him so casually like this, it was different from anything Sano had ever heard. Especially given the context, it sounded so familiar, so knowledgeable… as if Saitou were infinitely accustomed to speaking that name as well as perfectly justified in passing judgment on that man.

“That’s not his name anymore,” Sano said tensely, trying not to seem illogically defensive. Saitou started to make some undoubtedly smart reply, but Sano immediately continued, loath to listen. “And even if he did decide to start killing people again, it still wouldn’t be his name because the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

A brief — barely momentary — flicker of contemplation passed through the yellow eyes before Saitou replied, “Even so, you’re nowhere near his level. Kyoto is no place for you.”

Sano’s only response was to ready himself to fight again.

“You don’t know when to give up,” Saitou remarked darkly, and attacked.

Sano gritted his teeth and struggled just to keep his balance as Saitou mimicked his move from a few moments before — copying it perfectly except that he connected nearly every time. It didn’t make any sense! The blows were the same speed, coming at Sano with the same strength, but he was lucky if he could block one out of four. What was the difference?

It didn’t take Saitou long to knock Sano to the ground again, this time with a painfully shocking hit to the jaw that wrenched his neck and sent paralyzing tremors through his entire body. Of course Sano immediately struggled to rise, but just at first he couldn’t find anything like balance.

“Do you understand yet?” Saitou was saying. “Even at your own game, you can’t win. Shishio is going to be playing something completely different; if you go, you’ll jeopardize the entire operation and be killed.”

Perhaps it was the mixture of determination and rage flooding him that helped Sano finally stand. Saitou looked annoyed as the former kenkaya steadied himself and declared, “I’m going to Kyoto.” His tone was surprisingly calm, the words far more level than any he’d yet used as he added, “No matter what you or anyone else says.”

Saitou frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Give up.” There was a chilling finality to the statement, and as he made it he took what looked like a gatotsu stance without a sword. “You can barely stay standing.” Sano returned the dour expression, silently still and challenging. “It doesn’t matter how stubbornly you keep this up; you’re still just an inexperienced child.”

This was not a blow Sano could afford to take, and he knew it, but not until the last possible moment did he see any way out of it. Then as Saitou’s fist was about to meet his face, he slammed his own fists together with Saitou’s arm between them, applying all the force he could without knocking himself over. And it worked: Saitou was stopped mid-charge, staring surprised at Sano. There was a long moment of silence during which a slow, dark, triumphant smile spread over Sano’s face. “This inexperienced child could break your arm right now,” he finally said. “What do you think of that?”

“Kisama…” Saitou, for the first time, really looked like he’d been thrown for a loop. And this helped Sano find the words he needed.

“You keep saying I’m nothing compared to you and Kenshin, but so what? You guys didn’t start out that strong, or get like that just overnight… you had a war and then ten years to practice and get better and crap. But that doesn’t mean everyone who hasn’t had that kind of experience is a weakling. I may have a long way to go, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t at a pretty good place right now.”

Saitou’s expression had gone back to its usual sneer, but he made a frustrated sound. Sano thought he was going to say something, but instead the older man caught him unexpectedly with a right hook that knocked Sano away. “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed.”

“I am not gonna ‘get myself killed!'” Sano retorted, watching irately as Saitou turned and started to walk away.

Saitou looked over his shoulder. “A fool who thinks he’s strong and doesn’t know the first thing about defense isn’t going to survive long.”

Sano kept his eyes on Saitou’s back until the other man was out of sight, and he found he was trembling. Possibly with pain, but he doubted it, as that sensation was mostly forgotten. He found all he could think of was how he could get stronger and prove to that bastard he wasn’t some loser weakling. He didn’t even bother to wonder why it mattered so much that he prove this, why he cared what Saitou thought. He just had to; he just did. In that moment, there was nothing else in the world besides Saitou and Sano and something one of them really needed to learn.

After a while, of course, reality came trickling back, and Sano turned and headed toward Katsu’s place again. He felt a little tired now, although he hadn’t really expended all that much energy in the fight… it was the conversation, rather, that seemed to have drained him. He didn’t want to think about anything, not even how he was supposed to become stronger in so short a time; he just wanted to leave and start walking. He’d have to figure something out on the way.

***

He never really considered that it wasn’t quite natural for there to be two of them. It was just one of those things that seemed perfectly normal in the dream and wouldn’t strike him as odd until he awoke in the morning. That there were two was just another part of his trial anyway.

I’ll tell the locals they’re twins. And that I’m only married to one of them. Except that he was married to both of them, because they were the same woman but there were two of her.

But I don’t want either of them. The person I love is… somewhere else. It’s been a long time… So long he almost couldn’t remember who it was. And the women wanted him. Why is that? I killed their fiance… They should hate me. They both should. But, actually, he didn’t know yet that he’d killed their fiance. So why should they hate him?

Still, I can’t love them, obviously; all I want is to protect them. He didn’t much think about protecting people, usually; it was his job to kill, and although there was a philosophical, indirect sort of protection involved in that, it was far from his thoughts when he drew his sword. But now I just want to make sure they’re safe and happy. That was clearly impossible, though. They wanted him to be something other than what he was, and they weren’t going to allow him to protect them.

Yes, that’s exactly how it happened. Are they destined to die, then?

He awoke to the sound of someone approaching through the trees.

***

He’d always been rather partial to the ocean, as much as he’d ever really been partial to anything. He enjoyed the fact that for all its changes in form and attitude, it remained blue, remained vast and unstoppable despite the years’ movements. He was appreciating this idea in the back of his mind as he stood at the rail and only half observed the rocking tide around him. The ship swayed more and more as they truly got underway, but it felt steadier to him than anywhere he’d stood for weeks. And still it rolled beneath him.

“…the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

He never would have thought that after so long, after all the changes that had touched both their lives, he would trust Battousai. Trust Himura, he corrected himself with a surprising lack of bitterness. It made no sense for him to trust the man in the first place; they had never been anything but enemies — mortal enemies. Well, perhaps there had been some rivalry there, a slight sense of competition… but it was a strange world in which a man could trust his enemy over his friends. But Saitou had no friends, so perhaps it was he that was strange. Certainly he was foolish. He and Himura had tried to kill each other too often for this kind of sensation. He must be mistaken.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.”

Perhaps out of desperation, a final act of rebellion against something he knew he couldn’t deny much longer, he searched his memory for any evidence of the animosity that should logically be the basis of his relationship with that man. Ah! Why had he gone to the dojo after the fight, he demanded of himself triumphantly, if he trusted Himura so much? Shouldn’t he have assumed the former assassin would make the right choice?

“Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it.”

The truth was that he had assumed. He’d never really believed Himura would turn down Ookubo’s request. Feared it, perhaps, but only in the irrational way an adolescent still fears the monsters in his closet. And he’d gone to the dojo simply because he wanted… he wanted…

He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know why he’d gone there that day.

It’s been said that a filthy man cannot smell the stench that clings to him. But Saitou was beginning to smell his own denial. Or perhaps that was only the sea, which at the moment was looking disturbingly far from blue.

Sanosuke– I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you. –Kenshin

So there was obviously more to it than physical attraction. But Saitou wasn’t ready to admit just yet that he could see any basis for emotional appeal. Then, Sagara was clearly not as pathetic as Saitou had thought at first, but there was certainly no reason for… But Himura loved the boy, so there certainly was a reason.

Saitou no longer had the energy to ask himself why he cared.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time?”

No. No, he didn’t know much about having a normal life, and he didn’t want to. He hated it all. He hated being confused. He hated this rocking ship. He hated Himura and Sagara and their damned voices in his head and however he actually felt about either of them. He hated this hellish, changing grey sea most of all.

Chapter 8 – Stronger Distraction

He’d been a little off in his prediction. Upon opening the door, Katsu had skipped the small talk and gone straight to the point with, “How much do you need?” But then, Sano had made his prediction before he’d had a bloodied shoulder and freshly bruised face. At any rate, departure from Tokyo hadn’t taken long. Neither had getting lost.

He sat wearily against a tree and tried not to think about anything. He’d never run so fast for so long before — pushing his body to its limits until his lungs threatened to dissolve and his legs finally declared their simple decision not to run anymore today — but he’d wanted to escape. Perhaps that was what had gotten him lost, but he didn’t really care. Just… he’d escaped… now…

Or had he? Naturally, once he went still and his rasping breaths were calming, the thoughts began to return. He wished he could run forever — well, run all the way to Kyoto in one stretch, anyway, so there would be no gap, no moment when he was forced to sit against a tree to save his lungs from being ripped to shreds and his legs from turning to some kind of highly useful bean paste not terribly effective at holding his weight. The gap let the thoughts in again, and now he was exhausted on top of it.

If he could sleep, he could lose them, and when he awoke he would be rested enough to run from them again. He pushed away the mental query about what he would do if his dreams followed the same pattern as his thoughts, as they seemed likely to do. It didn’t matter, though; he couldn’t sleep just yet anyway.

He pressed his hands against his chest and looked down at them with a scowl. The knuckles were split, every one, the fingers bruised, and dried blood lay in thin, halted lines down to his wrists. He probably shouldn’t have done that… but he’d been so furious!! He’d had to take his rage out on something, before he started running, and it had felt so good to watch huge trees splinter and go crashing down among their fellows to cause absolute havoc among the animals and birds. Trees looked nothing like Saitou, but still, somehow, it felt good.

And now he’d admitted why he’d bloodied his fists, the thoughts came pouring in. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree-trunk, hoping sleep would take him soon but not very optimistic about it.

. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . His reflections flowed along in time with the beating of his heart. . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . that bastard . . . stronger . . . why did every fucking thing he had to say have to be true?. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but it wasn’t all true . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . no, ’cause Kenshin’s still Kenshin, no matter what Saitou says . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll make that asshole respect me, if it’s the last thing I do . . . stronger . . . and I’ll prove to Kenshin I’m not a fucking liability, too . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t even know how . . . stronger . . . but I fucking will . . . they’ll see . . . stronger . . . both of them with their ten years of experience since the war, all better than me and everything . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . they’ll see, and then they’ll . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t know . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but I won’t be left behind again . . . stronger . . . I’m not a fucking baby . . . stronger . . . even if he did say I’m a child, and so what if I am compared to those old men? . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them . . . I will get stronger . . . stronger . . . Saitou has to . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . Kenshin has to . . . stronger . . . they both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’m not just . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . had ten years . . . stronger . . . . . . . stronger . . . . . . . . I will . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It seemed he was closer to sleep than he’d originally imagined. Either that or this pleasant lullaby had eased the transition from waking to dreaming much more quickly than he’d fancied it could.

***

“…and they were all laughing like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard!” She reminded him a little of Sano. “And it was true, but it’s good for onmitsu to be small, right?” Not that Sano ever chattered like this. “But when I said so, they just kept laughing!” A certain restlessness about her was somewhat like Sano when he was actually interested in what he was doing. “I got so mad…” Misao’s energy level was slightly higher than Sano’s even then. “Then, I guess to prove their point or something, Hyottoko grabs me and throws me in the air!” He wondered if she had lazy spells the way Sano did. “So I’m looking for a good way to kick him in the face as I’m coming down, just to show them all that just because I’m small doesn’t mean they can toss me around…” Her lazy spells would probably exceed Sano’s in lethargy just as much as her activity did his in exuberance. “And then my grandpa decides to get his old self involved.” She didn’t seem to do anything by halves, and therein lay the real resemblance. “He isn’t really my grandpa, actually, did I mention?” Beyond that, she seemed prone to bouts of swift-passing anger much like Sano was. “My real grandfather was Okashira before Aoshi-sama.” But once again, Sano didn’t go on like this. “He was killed at the beginning of the Bakumatsu and I never met him.” Actually, her talk was becoming a bit tiresome. “Anyway, so here I am falling and Jiiya decides to show off that he still knows what he’s doing even though he’s so old.” Not that he would tell her she was annoying him… yet. “Actually, it was a pretty good lesson for me, because of course I was so silly back then — you know, eleven years old and all, and thinking anyone over thirty is washed up — so it was good to learn that old Jiiya still had it in him.” He liked energetic people perfectly well. “I hope I’m still that good when I get that old!” He didn’t like chatter, and he found women’s voices a little irksome. “So where was I? Oh, flying through the air, and then Jiiya jumps up and grabs me before I can manage to kick Hyottoko in the face.” Sano would probably put up with her a little better… “And he and Hannya-kun start playing this game like I’m a ball or something.” Sano and Misao might turn out to be two peas in a pod, really. “Every time I manage to get something ready — like a kick or a punch, and once I had a really good one for Hannya-kun’s crotch — whoever was holding me would hand me off to the other guy.” He could be wrong, though; they might rub each other entirely the wrong way for being so similar in some points. “So they’re jumping around off the courtyard walls passing me back and forth in the air, and Beshimi’s rolling on the ground laughing.” Saitou would not like her at all. “I mean literally rolling on the ground laughing!” Not that Saitou and Misao were likely ever to meet, but it might be interesting if they did. “And the worst part of it was that — I mentioned I was eleven at this point, right? — it was actually kinda fun to be thrown around like that, and I was trying not to laugh myself!” He wondered idly what Saitou would have to say to her. “Anyway, like I said, that was the last time I saw Aoshi-sama smile.” Or about her, if Saitou considered it not worth his time to address her directly. “And the time before that was — hey, did you hear something?”

***

Before they’d even become aware of him, Shishio Makoto had built up one of the largest criminal empires in Japanese history, as well as a fighting force that could not be dismissed as some mere gang. His organization had eventually grown so big that despite how well it was maintained it could no longer be hidden from the government. But by then, he was firmly established and unshakeable, and had already quietly begun his takeover. It seemed incredible, but the possibility that he could have the entire country under his control within the next year was real. The worst part of it was that the whole affair, when looked at in the light, appeared so implausible and fantastic that there was little chance of much resistance from the general populace. Moving thus so efficiently in the shadows, Shishio was a greater danger than any other kind of revolutionary. That was why they had to combat him in kind: quietly and subtly.

And, really, in the midst of something like that seemed a very odd time for a government agent to indulge in self-defeating behaviors.

Though he was still technically denying that he… well, denying things… he wouldn’t have used that phrase for it. ‘In denial’ implied there was an awareness not readily apparent, that the knowledge being denied was subconscious — whereas what he denied now had been parading itself through his head for the last few days; he was merely pushing it away, not claiming it didn’t exist. He had been in denial, and now he was simply being stubborn. He would not admit… what was begging to be admitted.

Stubbornness — persistence for persistence’s sake apart from any justice involved in the issue — was a perfectly useless, often dangerous, and almost always ridiculous frame of mind, and one he would generally avoid. But everyone had to let themselves go somewhere, sometime… it was just a vacation of sorts. Although right now really did seem like an odd time for it.

But then, none of this had anything to do with Shishio and the state of the nation… allowing himself to play at being stubborn or in denial or whatever he was might as well happen now as any other time, as long as it didn’t interfere. Actually, keeping things from interfering might be one of his motives. He had no time, he had no energy, he certainly had no patience for things like that right now. Also, he could think up a number of very specific reasons why he shouldn’t admit…

Or maybe that was denial again? Considering, he couldn’t decide whether these excuses he was making, though they seemed quite logical, were part of the stubbornness, or part of another attempt to claim he didn’t…

Or maybe they were both really the same thing? He’d admitted that he was being stubborn, but maybe it was just a new label for the denial? He could be in stubborn denial about being in denial, stubbornly claiming he was merely stubborn rather than in denial.

And if that wasn’t the most ridiculous thought he’d ever had, he didn’t know what could possibly have been.

He hated this. It gave him a headache every time he thought about it, which meant he’d had a headache for… a week? Or had it been longer than that? But this headache, actually, was probably different from the headache he’d had before he’d realized… Time to think about something else. Perhaps saving the country would be a sufficiently distracting subject. Starting with whatever was going on in this sorry little village.

Himura appeared to have found yet another shrill and obnoxious friend just when it seemed he’d managed to escape the last batch. Saitou could see merely by the hyper glint in her eyes that he would probably regret after not too long having saved her just now. But he couldn’t look at her for long, because Himura was out there fighting in the main square of the little town.

Himura had very red hair, that is, and the contrast against the grey and miserable tableau drew Saitou’s gaze. That was the reason he looked at him.

(…self-defeating…)

“Hey,” Saitou called, in a slightly darker tone than he’d intended. No, actually, it was good to talk to him like that. That was what Himura needed to hear. “What are you doing wasting time around here?”

“Saitou…” The way Himura said his name was… well, it wasn’t interesting at all. It was not at all different from the way anyone else said his name. Similarly, Himura’s eyes that turned toward him in surprise were nothing remotely fascinating. Just like his hair, they provided an unexpected contrast to the colors around them and drew Saitou’s own eyes.

(…useless…)

“What are you doing here?” Himura didn’t seem to care, asking this, that he hadn’t answered Saitou’s very similar question.

Saitou explained concisely. It was good to talk business, but when it was Himura he was talking to, it didn’t really help.

“The boy’s brother must have been the man you speak of.”

Saitou followed Himura’s brief glance toward the two desecrated bodies that hung in the center of the square and then at the boy behind him and nodded slowly. “Mishima Eiichirou was a native of this town; I thought he could get in without raising suspicion, but apparently he was discovered. The fool should have waited for me before trying to get his family out.”

The anonymous girl had drawn closer, and now burst out, “How can you say something like that about one of your own men?!”

“Oi…” Saitou glanced sidelong at her, marking smallness, swiftness, bared teeth, and a pointed nose. Not to mention a peculiar annoying quality that, as it was already displayed in this the third thing he’d heard her say, was sure to heighten to a painful degree. Certainly this was not a companion Himura had chosen of his own accord! “Who is this weasel-girl?”

The little one went into a violent tantrum, and Himura restrained her and said some pacifying things, but Saitou had what he wanted: that quirk of the former assassin’s mouth, the glint in those violet eyes, that told him he’d been correct.

Which knowledge, of course, he only wanted because he needed to be sure Himura’s judgment was still intact.

(…dangerous…)

And he wasn’t tempted to test Himura’s tact by saying something else that would invite the redhead to join him in teasing the girl possibly without her knowledge, thus making a sort of inside joke out of the scene.

(…ridiculous…)

“Please calm down, Misao-dono.” Himura was still trying to keep the girl from attempted murder. “That is merely the way he talks; if you become angry with everything he says, we will be here for eternity.”

Saitou snorted, but Himura still had half of half of a grin hanging around the edge of his lips, so he could not be entirely displeased. Anyway, it was the truth…

“Besides that,” Himura added, his tone growing less pleasant as he turned slowly back toward the square, “we have more important things to attend to right now.”

Saitou had never rued his low level of compassion. But at the same time, he had never particularly disliked the emotion on the occasions he did feel it, nor minded it in others. Of course he believed having too much of it, or none at all, could be blinding, but it was generally something he didn’t give much care or consideration. Certainly he’d never admired it… before…

But the combination of deep pity and rage in Himura’s eyes as he fixed them on the hanging bodies, Saitou was realizing, suited him extremely well. Not the same as the purpose with which they’d glowed ten years ago, no… but somehow, that was all right. Different, but still…

Yes, fine, he admitted it. It was a little irritating, but he conceded he’d probably been wrong in assuming the changes Himura had undergone were entirely bad. That didn’t mean much, though. They still needed Battousai’s superior strength for the coming conflict.

(…and his subconscious could stop with the tirade any time…)

Himura was approaching the corpses, his hand on the hilt of the sword he’d resheathed. As his intent became clear, a protest rose from some member of the crowd that had gone only half-noticed as it gathered at the other side of the square. Saitou, Himura, and the girl Misao looked to where an old man, surly in his fear, stood spokesman for the equally surly and frightened other men of the town.

“You can’t cut them down,” he said. “You’ll anger Senkaku-sama, and we can’t allow you to do that. Without his permission, those bodies stay where they are.”

“Will you listen to yourself?” the girl sprang forward shouting. Saitou expected her to go up in flame at any moment like the slip of paper she almost resembled. “Are you going to let this Senkaku get away with this, just like that?!”

“Defying Senkaku-sama means death. Obeying him means life.” There was hardly anything in the old man’s eyes as he replied… a trace of weariness, a spot of fear, perhaps… but beyond that, nothing. He barely even seemed human. “All of you must leave at once, for the sake of the village. Eiji, do you hear me?”

Little Misao was trembling with anger, apparently shocked that anyone could act like this. Ah, young disillusionment. Not that the situation was any less abhorrent to someone twice her age. Saitou stepped forward quickly, putting a hand on her head and startling her out of whatever she’d begun to retort. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Few people are willing to put honor and dignity over their own lives. If your only goal is to survive, after all, those things are useless. Give them up and live like an animal, and you’ll live.” Intentionally he spoke loudly enough for everyone present to hear him, but he knew it would have little effect. Men that had allowed themselves to sink so far could rarely be brought back by mere words.

And, indeed, it only made them angry. Mutters spread through the little crowd, but even so it was a washed-out murmur: a little anger, a little guilt, but mostly just noise for the sake of it. Truly, they were little better than animals.

“No matter what you say,” the old man finally insisted, “we can’t allow you to remove the bodies, and you must leave at once.”

Himura stepped forward without a word, and Saitou found himself watching breathlessly, taking in every slight motion of that small frame with a rising feeling of pleasure. Yes… yes… he’d been wrong. So very wrong. The fire had never gone out, nor even waned. The flames had just shifted hue, so Saitou had not at first been able to make them out — but he was beginning to see them again, a figurative light around the former assassin. That was why he really stood out.

Purposefully displaying his uncanny speed in the action, Himura severed the ropes that held the two corpses, his sword vanishing back into its sheath before anyone present except Saitou could mark its movement. Then, kneeling, heedless of the blood and not flinching at the touch of cold flesh, he began to untie the ropes from the dead couple’s necks.

Saitou walked toward him, finding as he did so that any desire he’d been harboring to keep up his stubborn denial about this particular matter had been swept away. It was about time he admitted that this Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai; that Saitou wanted him just as much now as he had ten years ago and even, as long as he wasn’t in denial anymore, every day for that long decade.

He toyed with the idea of admitting some other things as well, but he didn’t think he was ready for that yet. The concession he’d just made had been quite enough for one day.

The girl was cheering, the villagers protesting loudly, but Himura, who had straightened and looked away from them all, ignored the sounds, his face grim and determined. Saitou stopped at his side, his gaze directed at the villagers rather than Himura for fear he might say the wrong thing. “You see how the people of this place have degraded themselves,” he remarked softly. “If Shishio has his way, the same will happen to all of Japan. People will be controlled through fear and violence, and in struggling just to survive they’ll forget the real reasons they were living in the first place.”

“Saitou,” Himura said quietly, “did the government truly abandon this town?”

With a frown and a sigh Saitou replied, “It isn’t just this one. At least ten villages have been lost to Shishio and his men. The police have given up all efforts at recovering them.”

“I don’t get it,” the girl said. She’d drawn closer as Saitou spoke. “If the police can’t do anything, why not just send in the army?”

“Ahou,” he replied, not even bothering to look at her. “It’s barely been half a year since the Seinan War. If the army were to be mobilized again so soon, it would show every foreign power exactly how weak we are at the moment.”

“How can you say something like that, you heartless–” her shrill voice came from his side, but he cut her off sharply:

“Even if that weren’t the case, we’d never get the authorization for any kind of military action. Nobody who’s in a position to give the order wants to share Ookubo’s fate.”

“I see,” Himura nodded. “The army could certainly retake this and the other villages, but whoever planned the operation would undoubtedly be assassinated in retaliation.”

Saitou finally looked at him. “You of all people should know how little the government can do to prevent such things,” he replied quietly. Then more loudly, “In the end, politicians and officials are only human. They all value their lives and hope someone else will handle the problem.”

“Someone else?” the girl shrieked, waving her arms. “Someone else?! Who else is there? Who’s going to help this place, and avenge that kid’s family?!”

“Who else indeed?” Saitou asked, and Himura would know the question was directed at him. “The village, the police, the army, the government… nobody can stand up to Shishio Makoto.” He met Himura’s eyes, and finally let his gaze stay there as he saw that the former assassin had come to the same conclusion Saitou was vocalizing: “That’s why men like you and me are needed for something like this.”

He was searching for any sign that Himura had also come to the conclusion Saitou did not vocalize– That’s why I had to hurt you and your lover. It was never random… never malicious –an avowal he wouldn’t have bothered to make even mentally if he hadn’t decided to leave his comfortable denial. But apparently he was looking for too much, on this occasion, for the only glint in Himura’s eyes was that of determined purpose.

The girl must have wondered why they were just standing there staring at each other, for she was making impatient, angry noises like some kind of trapped rodent. Saitou realized in that moment that it might be every bit as dangerous having admitted what he had as the denial had been before. He was already starting to get a little distracted by these ideas, and it had barely been ten minutes.

“We’ve located the inn where Shishio is currently staying,” he said, resolving not to think about any of it right now when it was potentially perilously intrusive; he would resolve this later. “I think a visit is in order. Will you be coming with me?”

Himura was silent for a long moment, but it didn’t seem he was deliberating… or at least, it didn’t seem he was trying to decide how to answer that question. Finally he replied with a simple, intense, “Yes.”

Chapter 9 – Still Not Obsessive

The last time he’d been left behind by someone he loved because he wasn’t strong enough, that person had then been beheaded.

That this was a different kind of love and different kind of situation didn’t make any difference; the worry was the same. Not that he’d actually worried at the time, ten years ago — he’d never expected what had happened, as he’d been steadfastly convinced Sagara-taichou was invincible. But during the nights when those events repeated themselves in his dreams, he did worry… he hoped things might play out to another ending this time around. But by the time he awoke, they never had. And he had the same firm belief in Kenshin’s infallibility as he’d had as a child in his captain — a belief perhaps equally childish. No one could exist without taking a defeat at some point, and it was about Kenshin’s turn, no matter how good he was.

The point was that Kenshin might need all the help he could get. The point was that Sano didn’t want to be left alone again. The point was that he would get stronger and keep things from happening like they had ten years ago. He just didn’t quite know how yet.

He was still lost, and sweltering in the spots between tree-shadows. And he couldn’t get his mind to stop bouncing around like a hyper child in a small room. It was a little sad, but more annoying, that even after having cooled off somewhat, slept, stopped punching trees, ceased picturing Saitou’s face everywhere he looked… still the moment he exhausted that minute’s store of Kenshin-thoughts, they were replaced by thoughts of Saitou.
It was perfectly clear to him now that he must get stronger just as much to prove to Saitou he was worth something as to prove to Kenshin he wasn’t a weakness. Less clear was why these were so equally weighty in his mind… something about that man’s derisive eyes, and “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed…”

So he walked on and on, his thoughts moving in an endless circle of Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou, the link between them that same tiresome, inciting mantra of stronger, stronger, stronger that had punctuated his mental process since he left Tokyo. He couldn’t get any of it off his mind, and it was giving him a headache. Again. Still.

Please wait for me.

“I can see I’m wasting my time with you.”

An idea had suggested itself to him so subtly that he hardly recognized it at first. But once he did, he fought against it with vigor and ire. Obviously he was dealing with this emotionally, because he was an emotional person… but even he didn’t just react at random. There were sensible reasons he felt the way he felt, and it was logical to want what he wanted. Hadn’t he just finished reflecting how possibly similar this was to the situation of ten years ago? And he wasn’t dwelling on this too much; it was natural for him to be thinking the way he was. Anyone would do the same in his shoes. And that stupid idea could just go jump of something high and precipitous.

Yeah, he was scarred. Yeah, he was therefore maybe a little overreactant. Yeah, he was in love and, yeah, he was incensed. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was obsessive.

***

There were times he felt totally convinced, and there were times he was less sure. He couldn’t recall ever having lost faith, but on occasion he was tested. It was a distinctly different pair of mind-sets: the one in which he felt he was doing the right thing with his life and could be strong in the resolve he’d made no matter what kind of pressure was on him, external or internal; and the one in which he feared he was fighting an unwinnable battle for principles that were perhaps wrong and useless. The first feeling, which was greatly strengthened by the support of those he loved and respected, he’d come to associate very much with Sano. The second… he was beginning to connect quite a bit with Saitou.

However, despite Saitou’s proximity and Kenshin’s overwhelming consciousness of his presence, this was nothing he could afford to dwell on during as important an event as his first confrontation with Shishio. Still, with Saitou standing beside him undoubtedly wishing he would spring forward and decapitate their enemy, it was a difficult thing not to dwell on. The scene was certainly tense to begin with, but it became even more so because of this.

He didn’t think Shishio could tell there was something on his mind that had only a minor connection to the matter at hand, but he felt sure Saitou could. It was a bit bothersome, though. He didn’t need Saitou’s approval and didn’t want to want it, but he did want it, and couldn’t help thinking that if Saitou would just accept the way he was, things would be a lot easier. But it was Saitou’s job at this point to expect a killer of him, wasn’t it? Kenshin found this rather annoying.

He didn’t always enjoy fighting, but the conflict with Senkaku was a welcome release. But when even Shishio, who didn’t even know him, started in on his ideals, Kenshin found himself wishing, just a little, that Sano were here. Not because he needed someone to defend him when his lifestyle was questioned, but because this whole affair was so dreary and almost demoralizing that some happiness, some increased confidence in himself, would have been a comfort. He didn’t like going into battle feeling like a champion of a lost cause — though the exchange of sword-blows with Soujirou did not turn out to be quite as much of a ‘battle’ as he had been expecting.

And now his sakabatou was broken. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he was dreading it, but he didn’t look forward to Saitou’s comments on that. Then he was somewhat distracted by Eiji, as there were things that could not go unsaid and it wouldn’t do to be selfish (and he was fairly certain Saitou wasn’t going to say them), but soon enough he had returned to his own problems. Saitou, too, seemed distant, and his orders to his subordinates, as those men cleaned things up around Shingetsu and took Senkaku away, were curt. Even genki-genki Misao seemed to have been put in a dark mood by the proceedings.

“This village is my home,” Eiji was remarking. “I’m glad something good could happen to it.”

“That reminds me,” Kenshin said. “What is Eiji going to do?”

“I’ll take him to stay with Tokio,” Saitou replied absently. “He can determine what he wants to do from there.”

“Tokio?”

Saitou looked over at him, and, though Kenshin could have been imagining things, for some reason he appeared slightly startled. But it passed quickly, and he answered calmly, “My wife.”

It was such a shock that Kenshin could not even complete his first resultant reflection, I thought I knew everything about… Saitou was married? He wasn’t sure why it was such a surprise, given that there were several years of the man’s life he hadn’t followed obsessively, and a wife could easily have entered the picture during that time… but… Saitou was married?! Kenshin couldn’t quite figure out, also, why the thought of Saitou being with a woman was so strange — unsettling, even — but it was. He supposed he’d just always assumed that… well, he didn’t know what he’d always assumed.

He was lucky Misao was equally shocked, as otherwise his prolonged staring silence in response to the revelation might have seemed more than a little odd. As it was, he found himself absently responding to her whispered comment with something that was probably unduly insulting to Saitou — not that he cared. Actually, the man seemed rather amused by whatever Kenshin and Misao were whispering, so Kenshin struggled for a moment to remember what it was — something about saints… Saitou was married?!

Misao was having a relatively cheerful conversation with Eiji now, and Saitou had taken two steps toward Kenshin with that usual inscrutable expression on his face. “You go straight to Kyoto,” he said. “And it should be obvious to you after that fight — you couldn’t even take Shishio’s advisor: you can’t fight Shishio the way you are now.” Kenshin braced himself for censure, irritated once again at the same time that this man had such an effect on him. But Saitou’s next words were the second shock of the last few minutes: “We need your old strength, so figure out some way to get it back even if you don’t plan on killing him.” And with a hand laid briefly on Kenshin’s shoulder, his leave-taking was at an end and he was walking away, calling Eiji to follow.

This time, Kenshin managed to recover much more quickly, quite possibly thanks to a self-preservation instinct reminding him that Misao’s list of insistent questions would probably double in length if she caught him staring after Saitou like… like… he didn’t fancy any of the analogies that came to mind, and didn’t think Sano would either.

But Saitou… well, it would be silly to say he approved or agreed or anything so positive, but obviously he suddenly didn’t mind the way Kenshin was. Kenshin had no idea how the wolf could possibly have come to that conclusion during the events that had just transpired, but… Had he been thinking it would ‘make things easier’ to have Saitou’s acceptance?

What a weak description.

He was elated.

And he didn’t care anymore that that might be an overreaction.

***

Just a minor slip of the tongue, really. It happened sometimes when he was distracted, though only in the presence of those he didn’t really worry about telling things. In other words, it rarely happened at all. And now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He’d known this would be distracting, but he hadn’t counted on it being quite this distracting. He just couldn’t get the image out of his head of Himura’s shocked face. And, try as he might, he couldn’t stop dwelling on it and wondering whether this was a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, Himura’s surprise had apparently not been of the pleased variety. And surely there was hope if Himura disliked the idea of Saitou being married! Not that he needed to be thinking about hope or the furtherance of his desires… but he was. On the other hand, supposing Himura’s inclinations had ever tended toward him at all (and Saitou could not help thinking perhaps they had), in a mind such as Himura’s, the knowledge that Saitou was already spoken for would only add to the weight of moral obligation to forget him. And there obviously hadn’t been opportunity to discuss the details.

It was fortunate Eiji was being quiet. Saitou didn’t think he had the patience to answer a lot of questions at the moment.

All very irritating, the whole affair. Why, in the first place, did such feelings have to develop and get in the way of sense and activity? This desire he now had, to explain to Himura the entire situation with his wife, seemed unlikely to go away; most likely it would plague him throughout his dealings with the other man until he found some way to fulfill it. But he just didn’t have time, at the moment, to make any attempt at winning Himura over, and how if not in such a light could he bring up such a subject? He supposed he could possibly…

This was no good. A certain kind of philosophical pondering was one thing, but this sort of pointless speculative musing was entirely another. And he was stronger than this anyway. With painful determination, he wrenched the greater part of his thoughts from the topic they most wanted to hover around and sent them with great force toward the much more important business of saving the country. Which is not to say they all went obediently, but at least for the moment he could be pleased with his level of self-control.

***

He was lying on the ground in exhaustion, taking a break, just a brief break, from his training — he deserved it after three unflagging days — holding Kenshin’s note above his face and rereading certain words over and over again without really taking in their individual meanings.

Sanosuke Sanosuke –

He had to hold it carefully, to avoid getting the paper dirty with the blood that ran from his mangled knuckles; he’d gone at that last set of rocks a bit carelessly.

…I feel I I I feel feel…

Of course, blood could only make the words brighter, because to have earned the love of someone like Kenshin was…

…go go go to…

He wasn’t making sense.

…I feel I…

Too tired, no doubt.

…must I must must feel I must…

They all had duties… why, when there was love, did those duties have to conflict? Or did they only think they did?

…go to Kyoto go to Kyoto go to go to…

Yes, he was going to Kyoto. He’d show them both.

Please Please Please Please…

Kenshin didn’t really need to beg him.

…protect protect protect the…

How could he protect anyone if he couldn’t even master something so simple as hitting a rock twice and making it shatter?

…the others protect the others…

But it wasn’t for Kenshin that he wanted to do that, was it? There was an other, indeed.

…while I’m gone…

No, Kenshin, nothing happened while you were gone… I still love you…

…wait wait wait…

The words seemed almost accusatory. I swear I still love you…

…wait for me…

Desperate, maybe? Even if I…

…please wait…

Even if I…

…for me for me for me me me…

Even if there’s maybe something…

I love you.

…someone…

– Kenshin Kenshin Kenshin

It was about time to get up and start working on that Futae no Kiwami thing again.

Chapter 10 – In Another Light

He’d never really intended to come back here. He didn’t feel that subjecting himself to an endless stream of horrific memories was necessary to his penance, and this city was the Bakumatsu to him. It was here the path of his life had led down through a pool of blood and forever colored his footprints. It was here he’d met Tomoe, who had represented at once a victim of and someone to be protected by his sword; represented everything terrible he was and everything noble he could become. As little as he’d actually felt anything in those days of repression, she had almost been his first love… except that it was here he’d first seen… well, he hadn’t ever intended to come back to Kyoto. And yet here he was.

The girl seemed pleased. No, ‘seemed’ was an unnecessary description for Misao at any time, since she let everyone know exactly what she was thinking and feeling in a manner so unambiguous — indeed, often so overstated — as to put the matter beyond speculation. And she did make him smile a little. But not much. Kyoto was too sobering, and he was beginning to see things in the colors of the old days — deep blues and bloody reds and all with edges of gold. It was like being plunged into a dream more corporeal than anything he’d ever experienced, while at the same time real life went on all around him — to a certain extent: he saw and heard and spoke, accepting the help of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu in finding the people he knew he must seek, but not really conscious of any of it.

It was his own fault for allowing the spirit of the past thus to overcome him, but he couldn’t remember having felt this lonely for years.

***

The Kyoto chief of police was giving him a lot of unnecessary details he already knew and that probably weren’t relevant to the interrogation he was about to conduct, but to which he couldn’t object as, firstly, he personally wasn’t infallible and was capable of forgetting things; and, secondly, he personally wasn’t infallible and had of late been in an inordinate state of distraction that could do with a good healthy dose of unrelated data.

And really didn’t need to be aggravated by the sight of Sagara Sanosuke sitting, glowering but at his ease, in the shadows of one of the lesser cells.

He’d already come to a halt in front of the latter even before Sagara greeted him, even before he’d decided that stopping and looking toward the boy was a bad idea. Having halted, having decided, there was then not much to do besides throw his impassive gaze at an angle between the slats of the wooden door and try to be as ambiguous as possible about whether or not he was listening to what the boy was saying.

And only half listening he was in reality, as certain thoughts from previous days reiterated themselves with alarming mental volume. It was the first time he’d seen Sagara, had that aspect of recent realizations (or admissions) forced onto his mind, since those realizations or admissions had taken place, and perhaps he wasn’t as well prepared for the ensuing reflections as he could have been.

…it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement… Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai… pointless speculative musing… I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you…

Oh, come, now! He wasn’t… This little pathetic nineteen-year-old didn’t have that power over him, did he? With that perfect body and those warm eyes and that unguarded, passionate nature that seemed to be just exactly what Himura needed these days…

No, no… As Saitou looked him over again, he resisted the urge to shake his head. If he were jealous, he would certainly be experiencing different sensations here and now, especially having entered this encounter entirely unaware and unprepared as he had. He would surely be conscious of a much more lively, bitter disliking of the young man before him than the same passive disdain that (he was fairly sure) had been his attitude toward Sagara’s existence ever since the beginning of the roosterhead’s association with Himura…

Indeed, the only distinct feeling he could admit to now, besides the aforementioned disdain, was the other he’d had since the beginning: curiosity as to what in the world a man like Himura could see in a boy like Sagara… at least, what he could see that would hold him, would prompt him to write such words as he had. It was an unforeseen desire, strong enough for its vigor also to be rather surprising: to find out what there was to the idiot beyond what met the eye and ear… to know, if it came to that, exactly what he was up against. A strategic desire, but simple… and unmistakably ill-timed.

Perhaps his recent acknowledgment had not been inappropriate, but, as he’d reminded himself more than once, anything that purported to move beyond mere mental acceptance into the realm of planning or actual deeds was totally out of place at this point. He had neither time nor opportunity to do whatever it was this new and rather odd attitude toward Sagara was prompting him to do — get to know him better or be nicer to him or any such thing. He tried to tell himself he didn’t want to either, but denial was getting stale and he didn’t relish it as much as he used to. He had other things to do.

Pulling forcibly out of these reflections, he found himself, as he had once before, staring fixedly into Sagara’s dark eyes. And though he would not go so far as to say it was startling, the sudden recollection that, somehow, Sagara had on certain recent occasions been able to read him better than Himura had left him abruptly just the tiniest bit unsettled. Not that he had any fears regarding the privacy of his thoughts and feelings… but this was a potent reminder, more even than his own remonstrances to himself, that he didn’t have leisure to try to define the look in Sagara’s eyes.

So when the police chief ventured into the thick silence, “Do you know him?” Saitou merely replied, “No, not at all,” and walked on. And while he wasn’t entirely thrilled at having done it, such was necessity.

***

Had Kenshin been aware someone somewhere was consistently struggling not to think about him, he might have been comforted. He’d been thinking about himself all night, struggling not to think about Sano.

Hiko had said there was something wrong with him, something he was missing… this was not exactly news, and though its bearing on his ability to master the technique was as much a mystery to him as it was, he couldn’t be surprised at the necessity of facing whatever it was before he could complete his training.

But he couldn’t contemplate the state of his life, the interior of his soul, without thinking about Sano. Much as his lover had to do with those things, Kenshin was sure this issue was deeper within himself than Sano could reach — or at least could have reached by this point — and thinking about him was therefore outside the purpose of the night’s meditation. It was also outside his ability to avoid. Without throwing any blame on Sano, Kenshin blamed this for his lack of results. Not that he’d ever really needed any additional reason for having no answer to What is wrong with me?

Hiko had shed his mantle. Kenshin didn’t remember ever having seen him do this with sword in hand, and a shiver ran through him so heavy it left him feeling almost paralyzed.

He shook himself, trying to break free of the spell. Why should I be afraid? he demanded. Either I master the technique, or he kills me. I have already said I’m willing to die for this… why should I fear his killing me?

The answer to that came a little more easily than whatever other answer he was seeking: there rose immediately into his mind with piercing clarity faces… words… experiences, past and cherished, future and anticipated…

“I believe in you. You won’t lose.”

“That’s why men like you and me are needed.”

Obviously, then, it wasn’t the act of dying he feared, but the separation it would bring about from a certain person… certain people… he’d rather not part from so soon. It was selfish, certainly… he, with the blood of so many on his hands, should not hesitate to die for a righteous cause just because he wanted…

And then it hit him, swifter and harder even than a blow from his master — that no matter who or what he was, what he’d done, what he deserved, he did not want to die. It was something he’d never considered, the difference between being willing to die for the protection of the weak, if it came to it, and having entirely lost the will to live. For this, it struck him in a half-moment as that fine difference came to him all at once, he had not done.

It was not selfishness to desire life; it was a basic human instinct… and, in trying to repress it, had he not repressed a part of his own power and ability along with it? He hadn’t realized it, as he’d never thought about it, but he knew now, suddenly, almost overwhelmingly… he was not going to die if it could be helped. He wanted to see them again. He wanted to live. He would live. Hiko Seijuurou was not going to kill him here.

He put his hand to his sword hilt.

***

Saitou had pretty much continued being just as much of an asshole as usual, but somehow it wasn’t bothering Sano like before.

For one thing, the cop was confident they would meet Kenshin soon; though volunteering very little information, from what he had said Sano got the impression there was a kind of general police lookout on for Kenshin throughout Kyoto ever since he’d trashed that Chou guy and caused a commotion outside some shrine.

For another thing, Sano couldn’t help thinking of the way Saitou had looked at him downstairs in the cells — both right at first and then in that unexpected moment of total agreement after talking to Chou. Something had changed. There was something in Saitou’s bearing toward him now that seemed to imply, however strange it might be, that Sano had been just then truly noticed by Saitou for the first time. This really made no sense, as Saitou had paid him plenty of attention in the past… what with the stabbing, staring, beating, and possibly kissing… and Sano really should be mad that even after all of that it was only now Saitou saw him as something other than an object — either tool or obstruction. He should be mad, but he couldn’t… for though Saitou’s overtly displayed opinion of him didn’t seem to have changed, and though he still refused to fight Sano again, it had been from the moment of Sano’s Futae no Kiwami on the cell door that Saitou had ceased to make any real objections to Sano’s coming with him. Which meant Sano’s efforts had made Saitou take him more seriously, and how could Sano be angry in such a moment?

While he didn’t think he’d won a particularly large amount of respect, having won any at all just confirmed how much he wanted more. Of course he still hated the bastard, but at the same time found himself elated even with such an understated rising esteem. In fact, he had a rather stupid, childish urge to make the first thing he said to Kenshin, when he saw him again, “I showed him!!!” After he punched him, of course. He cracked his knuckles with a grin.

“You’re in a very good mood for someone who’s been in a jail cell all day,” Saitou remarked dryly, looking at Sano over the top of the paper he’d been studying with a grim expression.

Sano thought this an oddly conversational (that is, relatively un-insulting) remark, and was not averse to answering. But there was no way he was going to admit the already somewhat disturbing fact that his good mood had a lot to do with Saitou himself. “I’m looking forward to punching Kenshin in the face,” he said.

“How affectionate,” murmured Saitou.

Sano only bristled mildly at the scornful tone. “Like you’d know,” he muttered.

Though Saitou’s eyes had turned back to whatever he was reading, Sano thought they flashed as he answered, “And how would you know what I know?”

The younger man snorted. “Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” He found Saitou’s response strange, though, and a little unsettling. Certain worries regarding Saitou and relationships had never entirely been cleared from the back of his mind, and the confusion of the dojo was suddenly beginning to reawaken.

“My wife would probably agree with you,” Saitou nodded without looking up again.

This didn’t do much to keep the confusion off.

“Your… wife…?”

After a few moments, Saitou set aside his paper and stood in an abrupt movement. Withdrawing a cigarette case and going about the business of matches, he left Sano in inexplicably agitated suspense for nearly a minute. Then, through a fresh haze of smoke, he answered in a still oddly casual tone. “She’s been trying for a ‘relationship’ with me for years. Either I’m not good at it, or she’s not nearly as attractive as she thinks.”

Sano was skeptically horrified. “So she likes you but you don’t like her?” What was wrong with this man?! “Why the hell’d you marry her?”

Saitou snorted but had no other answer. Actually, Sano was surprised such a topic had even come up at all, that he’d gotten even that much of a response to such a question. But he had to admit, their last conversation in Tokyo (if an argument that ended in blood could be called a conversation) had also concerned rather personal serious subjects. Sano had even shown him that note he hadn’t been planing to show to anyone, hadn’t he? This, perhaps, made them even, in that case. Sano liked that thought somehow, but at the same time, it threw Saitou’s wife into contrast with… Sano couldn’t help remarking, “Figures you’re even a bastard to your wife.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow and preceded his response with a long drag of his cigarette, as if sustaining himself through the unpleasant subject. “And it figures you’d blame me for not returning some stubborn idiot’s feelings.”

“Well, I bet you didn’t even try,” Sano retorted a little huffily.

“Should I have?”

“You said ‘years!’ A woman’s in love with you for years and you can’t even try to like her back?”

“Would you apply that logic to anyone?”

“What do you mean?” Sano asked a little warily.

“If someone you didn’t like was in love with you, would you try to like them back?”

“Of course,” insisted the uneasy Sano.

“Even if you already loved someone else?” The glance Saitou threw him as he said this, though brief, was piercing, and Sano’s confusion was great. At first he was, as Saitou seemed to be admonishing, putting himself in the unfortunate position of being in love with and promised to one and sought after by another… but after a moment the particular significance of that statement as made by that speaker struck him.

“Wait, so, you do?”

“Hn.” Saitou returned to the desk.

Sano watched him, unsure how to react. Short as it had been, that discussion had given him much food for thought. Saitou’s words and behavior could add up to a couple of conclusions, but they were in areas of Sano’s mind he’d pretty much forbidden himself to enter, and now he was agitated. He was angry, too, with Saitou for bringing it up and then leaving it hanging — but what more could he do besides reiterate a question that was maybe (hopefully) none of his business, that would lead him to thoughts he definitely didn’t want?

And what the hell did it mean that Saitou had entered so readily into such a conversation, anyway? In the middle of police shit, too, with a plot afoot to burn down Kyoto, why would Saitou waste time on a totally irrelevant discussion? That didn’t seem like him. He must have had some specific purpose…

Sano suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Exceptionally quiet, this police station. After they’d finished questioning Chou, Saitou had consulted briefly with the fat chief, most of the cops who weren’t out already had been ordered off on different assignments, and the building was left big and echoing and empty. Except for this room where Saitou was doing whatever he was doing — some kind of research or something, combined with a stack of local reports of some kind; Sano didn’t really have any concept what the prospective result was — in here the air was thick with the hovering remains of that conversation, with thought and implication, mostly ideas Sano wanted to avoid.

After several tense minutes passed in silence but for the shifting of papers, the chief bustled back in and, with a curious and slightly disapproving glance at Sano that matched the ones he’d given him before, started talking to Saitou about patrol patterns and something else that sounded like it might actually be interesting if Sano cared to listen. Instead it seemed that he, only half-realizing what he did, was taking the opportunity to slip out of the room. As he resumed a leaning position against a shadowy wall in the corridor, he found it wasn’t much more comfortable out here than it had been in there. In fact, if anything, he felt more restless and agitated than before, because now he had the vague sensation of having somehow backed down from something, retreated from some challenge. Which was stupid, since there hadn’t been anything of the sort within… just Saitou and the totally immaterial and extraneous fact that he had a wife he didn’t love and maybe a love he hadn’t admitted to.

Eventually the chief emerged, gave Sano the same expression of confused disapprobation, and hastened off about some other task. Sano fixed his eyes on the door and contemplated moving toward it, but somehow never did.

Whether his thoughts kept to the same tether was another business entirely.

Chapter 11 – Angles

He could go in there and comment, “Yeah, pretty serious shit you didn’t want my help with, ain’t it?”

He’d taken a restless little walk around the station, and had been trying to decide whether or not to go back into that office and talk to Saitou again, only to hear, upon his return, through the door of said room, Kenshin doing exactly that. His lover’s surprised and horrified voice crying “Kyoto Taika?!” sent shivers up Sano’s spine. It seemed much longer than a mere couple of weeks since he’d seen him, seemed like a lot had changed. He hadn’t set eyes on the rurouni since before reading the words I love you, and he was sure their meeting would mean more than a standard reunion; he still wasn’t certain whether he felt angrier or happier with Kenshin. And “Yeah, pretty serious shit…” seemed like a decent way to enter the conversation. But for some reason he didn’t do it.

Saitou was explaining, his tone relatively devoid of emotion, how he’d learned of Shishio’s arson plans. Saitou was all business, of course. Lives and the country were in danger, and Saitou wasn’t dragging personal shit into it. Even if he had brought up his wife for no good reason just a little earlier. Sano couldn’t quite admonish himself to follow Saitou’s example, but, even so, perhaps a less pointed opening remark, such as, “With shit like this going down, seems like you can use all the help you can get,” would be better.

“It seems strange,” Kenshin remarked pensively.

“Strange like going on an epic quest without your boyfriend?” That would also be a good interjection… but still Sano didn’t move.

“You think so too?” wondered Saitou.

Sano frowned and leaned against the door in order to catch every word more fully. Not that it was important that Saitou and Kenshin had some similar unfathomable thought; he just didn’t want to miss any of what was certainly an important conversation.

“No matter how strong Shishio’s organization is,” mused the wolf, “we still have an overwhelming advantage of numbers. So their tactics will have to emphasize surprise attacks and assassination, and this Kyoto Taika will have to rely on the same things. If their plans aren’t kept a complete secret, they can’t accomplish anything nearly that big. Their security should be so tight that information leaks are a matter of life and death, so I thought someone would be sent to eliminate Chou before he could be brought to tell what he knows. I set up a close watch down in the cells… but there was no sign of anyone, and it turns out you can get anything out of Chou without much effort.”

Sano snorted. It made sense, though; in that light, it did seem strange. Sano surely would have noticed if he hadn’t been distracted. It was about time he made his entrance.

“There must be something behind the Kyoto Taika that is a secret even to the Juppongatana,” Kenshin agreed.

“Well, going places and doing shit without your allies is popular these days,” Sano could say, if he walked in there right now.

“There must be some other target.”

“Either that or there’s some other…” But that was going a little too far; he wouldn’t say that.

Sano didn’t know the reason for his continually increasing anger as he listened. It wasn’t as if anything inappropriate was going on behind this door, or as if anything had happened to render him more annoyed than he had been before Kenshin had arrived… but… couldn’t Kenshin tell he was here?

“This is modeled after the Ikedaya affair,” Saitou said decisively. “Since Shishio is taking over the country and taking revenge at the same time, he’s probably playing a game of some sort with the Kyoto Taika and this other target.”

Playing a game with an ostensible objective and a second, concealed one. That concept was just… Yeah, it must be Shishio Sano was so angry at.

There was silence for a few moments. Sano could head in there and berate Kenshin for his mean trick right now, but… what exactly would he say?

“In the battle of Tobafushimi,” began Kenshin, his words slow, dark, and thoughtful, “Tokugawa Yoshinobu deceived his own allies by retreating by ship from Osaka Bay to Edo. This maneuver was the main reason for the government victory. It would be ironic if Shishio could somehow mirror that tactic for his own victory… Here!” Sano was startled by the vehemence and volume of the sudden exclamation. “The Kyoto Taika is only the first stage of his plan! His true objective is a marine bombardment of Tokyo!”

Sano’s frown had by now become an irate glower; again, the logic in there was flawless, this conclusion even less pleasant than the last. And he couldn’t help thinking he could easily open the door and say, “Tokyo? What, you mean that place I was supposed to stay so I wouldn’t get involved?”

“I see…” Saitou sounded pretty glowery too. “The Kyoto Taika is an opening move that will draw all eyes to where Shishio’s forces are meeting head-on with the police in a flashy battle. He deliberately released the information about it to draw attention from his real target: the seat of the government and a place that can’t be put out of harm’s way.”

“Tokyo will not be able to combat a marine attack!” was Kenshin’s energetic worry. “That’s the one thing they cannot avoid! There’s no time! Hurry!”

“Hurry to leave me behind again?” He could say that. Or… could have. It was too late now. The door was opening. Actions spoke louder anyway.

***

Himura really didn’t seem to have seen it coming, truly didn’t seem to have noticed Sagara’s presence in the hall. Saitou wasn’t sure how this could be possible when the boy was so conspicuous that his mere presence in the building was like having a bonfire glowing just out of the corner of one’s eye; should he consider it significant that Himura had been so preoccupied?

The crack of fist meeting face was nearly concurrent with Himura’s startled gasp and followed by the rustle of cloth as he stumbled and Sagara caught him. It hadn’t been a light punch, and, Saitou suspected, the unfamiliar circumstance of its taking Himura entirely by surprise made its impact all the stronger. Then Sagara hauled the redhead upright and kissed him, and the poor man looked completely stunned.

Well. ‘Poor man’ was not an apt description.

Saitou didn’t bother trying not to stare, to study the contact of their lips, their clutching arms and hands. He’d never actually seen them behave like lovers before, and, though there was nothing particularly surprising about the display, he felt something that seemed a little like surprise. Strikingly unexpected was that he couldn’t quite define the feeling, which was intense, a dizzying mix of pleasant and unpleasant, and not quite jealousy. He’d feared this would be too distracting, and he’d been right. He really didn’t have time to analyze such things right now, or to put up with useless displays of affection… and yet he did nothing to break up the unorthodox reunion.

As the kiss ended and Sagara’s eyes opened, the boy caught sight of the assiduous watcher. And his expression as their gazes met over Himura’s shoulder was about as unfathomable to Saitou as the emotion the previous action had produced. Sagara himself had literally shoved the status of his relationship with Himura in Saitou’s face at one point, and therefore shouldn’t have much room to complain of feeling intruded upon; Saitou got the impression he probably would anyway. But that wasn’t the look the boy was giving him now.

Nor was it the frenetic I have him and you can’t defiance he would have expected had he thought Sagara had any idea… It wasn’t even angry. Saitou couldn’t think him at peace, even in his lover’s arms; it must be that, having accomplished what he’d intended, his fury had abated. But why he seemed to be including Saitou in his brief period of contentment — or at least not actively excluding him — the wolf couldn’t understand. Was it simply Himura’s long-sought company that had made him momentarily so unhostile?

“Sano!” Once Himura had his breath back, his astonishment was great. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?”

The strange instant had passed as Sagara’s eyes returned to his lover. “I came with him,” he said — somewhat misleadingly, Saitou thought, and was that deliberate? — “to help you.”

Saitou abhorred having such a limited grasp on the nuances of a situation, even if it was merely the personal aspect that he shouldn’t be allowing to distract him so much in the first place. “Don’t you mean get in our way?” he asked caustically, and was pleased to feel the entire mood shift at once.

Sagara broke from Himura with clenched fists and an irate face that also looked, oddly enough, vaguely betrayed. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. Saitou just smirked.

Himura’s admonition, “Calm down, Sano,” didn’t seem to be the primary impetus for the boy’s subsequent deep breath and angry sigh, but in any event Sagara did calm down, somewhat, and turned pointedly away from Saitou back to his lover.

“Anyway, I got a lot to tell you while we run; we should get going.”

“You’re going to run to Osaka, ahou?” Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to go over there and hit the boy on the head. “We’ll take a carriage.”

“Is there some reason–” Sagara began, but Himura interrupted him:

“I need to send a message to some allies here in Kyoto; Saitou, can you have someone deliver it immediately?”

A little surprised by the request because it didn’t seem Himura had only made it to diffuse the argument, Saitou nevertheless merely pointed to the office they’d just vacated and said, “Hurry. I have a telegram to send as well; I can have someone take yours at the same time.”

He’d expected a much greater delay to aggravate him before they could be on their way, especially given the current status of the Kyoto police force, but they managed to get their tasks finished quickly, and the carriage was ready for them soon thereafter. Then Sagara seemed oddly hesitant about climbing into the equipage, as if he had some other course of action in mind. Surely he didn’t really think he could run to Osaka…? But he sat down next to Himura without complaint, and they were off. As their rapid journey commenced, they all seemed to breathe a silent sigh and settle into their seats as if for a much-needed rest. Which is not to say the air among them was at all relaxed.

It was too late for the Osaka police to set up roadblocks despite the telegram; Saitou was agitatedly aware they were departing late, that at best they couldn’t arrive until nearly midnight, and he said so. “And if we have to search for him randomly once we get there,” he added, “we have no chance of success.”

“He will undoubtedly have his ship disguised as something unobtrusive and hidden among the others,” Himura replied logically, “but it will have to be a certain size and ready to depart. If we can get there in time, I’m certain we can find him without trouble.”

The officer nodded darkly. ‘If we can get there in time’ was the key point.

Sagara was looking between them with a scowl. “Why the hell are you two so gloomy? So we don’t make it… it’s not like Tokyo can be destroyed by just one ship.”

Again Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him… and, really, that he was indecisive in such a matter was significant.

“Shishio is not trying to destroy Tokyo,” Himura explained patiently. “Remember that the appearance of the black ships in Kaei 6 threw Edo into panic and led to the opening of the country and the Bakumatsu. Even though Edo has become Tokyo, the terror and uncertainty of that time and of the war still lingers in people’s hearts. If an unfamiliar ship suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay and opens fire, the city will, without a doubt, fall into total chaos.”

“The government doesn’t have the power to stop it,” Saitou agreed. “Tokyo will become a lawless region, paralyzing the government in a single stroke. Especially,” he added, “with so many of the Tokyo police relocated to deal with the other problems Shishio is causing.” The man was playing this all exceptionally well.

“Yeah, I see,” Sagara muttered. “It gets worse and worse.”

“How many policemen are in Kyoto?” asked Himura.

“Five thousand,” Saitou replied. “That’s ten times as much manpower as Shishio has. With that alone we should be able to hold off the fire.” Then, as an afterthought, he inquired, “What was that message you sent?”

Sagara looked at him sharply — Saitou wasn’t sure why — but said nothing. The wolf thought the boy was just as curious anyway.

“The police can hold off 500 soldiers,” was Himura’s answer, “but they cannot stop 500 sparks. To fight the Kyoto Taika, we need the help of the people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu.”

Saitou smiled slightly. “Which people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu?”

“The Oniwabanshuu,” was Himura’s reply.

“What?!” cried Sagara.

With a raised brow, Saitou wondered, “So Shinomori has decided to let you live?”

Himura also gave a small, reluctant smile. “Not as far as I know. This group is no longer under his leadership.”

“I shoulda known there’d be more of those bastards…” Sagara grumbled.

Himura’s smile grew. “These are mostly women, Sano.”

“As I thought,” Saitou frowned, “that girl…” He’d realized eventually what her clothing implied, but hadn’t really been willing to believe it.

Himura nodded.

“What girl?” wondered Sagara. Suspicion sounded in his tone, and Saitou didn’t entirely understand it. If Sagara suspected Saitou’s preference, surely his reaction — his entire demeanor — would be a good deal less calm. But why would that suspicion arise if not from jealousy about the time Himura and Saitou had spent together while Sagara hadn’t been around? Perhaps the boy just hated him. That would make sense on more than one level… but somehow, despite all evidence provided by their interaction up to this point, Saitou didn’t think so.

Himura had begun to explain about the girl Misao and the other members of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, Sagara was listening somewhat skeptically, and Saitou watched them both. Once the account was completed, nobody introduced a new topic of conversation, and the ride continued in increasingly tense silence.

***

Kenshin wasn’t sure what had prompted him to pay specific attention to the way Sano and Saitou interacted, but by the time they reached Osaka he was tracking it minutely. He toyed with the idea that he wanted to reassure himself that Saitou had no further plans for wounding Sano, but that couldn’t be it; a mere half-minute’s observation made it clear there was no murderous (or even semi-murderous) intention in Saitou’s attitude toward Sano — quite the opposite, in fact. Though what exactly would be the opposite of stabbing him in the shoulder, Kenshin couldn’t guess. Perhaps to Saitou, simply allowing Sano to accompany him was the opposite.

Osaka Bay necessitated these thoughts move from center stage, but he couldn’t help marking the desperately frustrated tone in which Sano wondered why Saitou had to find fault with everything he said… the way Saitou, after surfacing from the dive off the ruined pier, glanced back almost inadvertently to where Sano had barely missed being struck by the cannon shot…

In his own horror for his lover’s safety and the easement thereof at Sano’s nearly miraculous survival in the face of a gattling gun, he almost missed the stricken look that flashed across Saitou’s face and the profound relief that replaced it… but still he caught them. He just didn’t know what they meant.

He couldn’t help noticing, also, the immediacy of Saitou’s withdrawal from combat-intent at his urging… but that was entirely different.

Or was it? Once Shishio had gone, Kenshin was at leisure to be surprised at the sound of Saitou’s “Ahou…” and the glance at the ranting Sano that accompanied it. It wasn’t that Saitou didn’t mean it, but it lacked intensity. He might almost have called it… indulgent… if that would have made any sense at all. It was at the very least a good deal more tolerant than the disposition Saitou had previously displayed toward Sano. Or had Kenshin been misreading that? There had been the staring… Or else what had changed to make the officer so accepting?

Largely experimentally, Kenshin said, “You are being too harsh. Without Sano, this would not have turned out nearly so well. He’s more reliable than you think.”

Saitou specifically turned away as he replied, “I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.” But it wasn’t so much the facial expression Kenshin couldn’t see as the action he could — Saitou extracting a cigarette he could not possibly light and smoke after the swim across the bay — that led the rurouni to suspect there was more to the words than the wolf really wanted to express.

Kenshin wasn’t sure what to think or feel about that. But maybe this level of acceptance was simply the opposite he’d been wondering about earlier. And it didn’t mean much, really. A little more acceptance from Saitou still meant a disdainful ‘ahou’ for Sano.

The latter was definitely standing next to the former, though, a good five feet behind Kenshin, as they looked out over the railing of the sinking ship for any signs of fire in Kyoto.

Chapter 12 – A First Time For Everything

Toward wherever Kenshin was taking them they walked through town in an indefinable silence. It was almost as if they couldn’t say anything, as if they were both trying but it just wasn’t working. And why should that be? Well, the previous day and night had been tiring; although it would have felt more natural to talk about what had happened than to maintain this unusually wordless state, people did odd things when they were worn out.

They both, Sano noticed, seemed to be looking around them diligently at the bustle and arrangement of the city. Searching for signs of fire and destruction in the Kyoto streets was an excellent excuse not to talk. That they weren’t finding any must be a source of joy and relief, but must also eventually lead to the discussion they were trying to avoid. Were they trying to avoid a discussion? He’d believed they were just tired.

Saitou had been preoccupied when they’d left him, busy with the police chief, with numbers and reports and the wounded from last night’s anti-arson efforts, and Sano felt the situation to be a little unfair: he and Kenshin were heading for some inn presumably to rest, while Saitou didn’t seem likely to get any sort of break or sleep in the near future. Whatever he was, his dedication to this cause deserved a better reward than that.

“So…” Kenshin remarked in a tone that was almost casual. “You seem to have made up with Saitou.” Obviously Kenshin’s thoughts had been on the same topic as Sano’s.

The rush of emotion the younger man felt at this was nothing he could describe. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t embarrassment, it wasn’t fear; yet it partook somewhat of each, and he was certainly agitated. Yes, they had been trying to avoid a discussion, and this was that discussion; it would be fruitless to deny in the face of this reaction that prompted a tenseness in Sano’s frame and caused his fists to clench and twitch as if he really were angry.

He certainly sounded angry when he demanded in a growl, “Why the fuck would I have made up with that asshole?” And why did that seem like such a… backlash? Sano tried very hard not to answer that question.

Kenshin didn’t look at him, and they said no more. The silence was now palpably awkward. Why awkward? There was no reason for — no, Sano didn’t even want to think about it.

“God, I’m fucking hungry,” he growled in nearly the same tone as his previous statement, little as he thought that would really help. “This place we’re going to’s an inn, you said? I hope they’ve got some good service.”

Kenshin shook his head slightly and spoke in the tone of one forcing himself onto the cheer of an innocuous topic. “Yes, it is, and yes, they do.” He smiled faintly. “And I am certain you will find the staff entertaining.”

“Oh, really?” There wasn’t much else to say.

“Yes. This branch of the Oniwabanshuu is very different from the ones we met in Tokyo.”

“Great.”

Oh, god, this was polite conversation. Even a reference to a shared experience — an emotional one at that — hadn’t been enough to turn it into a real conversation. Why… how… he needed to say something now to dispel this unprecedented atmosphere, to smash through this goddamn awkwardness that had come up out of fucking nowhere. When had he ever been this uncomfortable with Kenshin?

Did it really come up out of nowhere, though? a surprisingly sedate voice in his head wondered suddenly. Think back, it said. When did it start?

I know perfectly fucking well when it started, was his surly reply.

Then it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why it started, the voice admonished calmly. He wasn’t given to such cool and logical self-counsel, but there was a first time for everything; he must have been a little too much under the influence of…

I’m not even fucking going there, he shot back.

Eventually you’re gonna have to. You’re gonna have to think about him, and you’re gonna have to admit–

I am not fucking gonna have to fucking admit anything I don’t fucking want to!!! It was the mental equivalent of a bellow, and some of it must have leaked out his mouth, for Kenshin looked toward him.

“Did you say something?” he asked, his tone still insufferably polite and benign.

“No,” Sano muttered.

Could he keep this up? There was a distinctly rebellious tone to that collected and rational voice in his head — which, after all, was merely part of his own consciousness and pointing out things he knew already; how long could he really resist it? Could he keep his thoughts under control enough not to start suspecting, to start blaming, to start resenting? Wasn’t he already cracking just by admitting the possibility of those frames of mind? And what else might he find if he allowed himself to look at this situation from all angles, as he was beginning to ache to do? Did he even want to admit there was a ‘situation?’

He felt guilty already. Determining why he did would blow the issue open, since he was fairly sure the reasons were manifold and branched out through everything else he was feeling. And the only plausible reaction to this frame of mind was an anger more profound than he’d experienced for some time.

Time… yes, that was what it would take, wasn’t it? If he could keep himself together until this ended… once Shishio was defeated, they would surely return to Tokyo and the way things had been, and he could let go and forget. Distraction, aspersion, confusion — it would all vanish once this mess was over.

Hah! It was his damned head again. Haven’t you heard? ‘You can never go back.’ And the distraction isn’t just gonna go away on its own, for you or for him.

Shut the fuck up, he told himself, but it was no use.

‘Once Shishio’s defeated?’ it demanded. You know what has to happen before that. You know what has to happen tomorrow morning.

God fucking dammit. He really had nothing else to say. He could argue as stubbornly as anything — against someone else. Against his own private logic, it was a battle lost almost before it started. Denial (and perhaps a subconsciously encouraged obtuseness) could only protect him for so long. Eventually he had to admit to himself that facts would have to be faced once they… well, tomorrow morning. But, hell, if he couldn’t find something to distract himself with until then, he might well not be sane enough to face those facts when the time came; there were a lot of weary, pensive hours between now and then.

“Here we are,” Kenshin said, and probably had no idea just how good his timing was.

***

Saitou felt as if he’d been wading carefully downstream in the shallows of a raging river, but had now misstepped and been swept away in its powerful currents — in the direction he wanted to go, admittedly, but with absolutely no control over how or how quickly. And why not? he wondered with grim abandon. Why not let all hell break loose in this matter? What was at stake, after all? Only the fate of the nation.

It was useless to try not to take so much upon himself. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t alone in this endeavor; if they failed, the responsibility would still rest with him. And he was in a dangerous state of mind.

The boy had been brilliant.

No, not brilliant — he’d been telling himself that all day, but somehow the adjective persisted. Yes, Sagara had been innovative and effective and had managed to keep himself from getting killed at the same time… all in that flashy, jarring way of his where every move was unexpected and eye-catching, but not… Well, maybe, in a symbolic, luminescent sense of the world, ‘brilliant’ wasn’t too bad a description.

No, it was still a bad description. The moron had gotten the bombs from somebody else and wouldn’t even have known how to use them properly if Himura hadn’t reminded him of the properties of gunpowder. And he’d nearly given a couple of people a heart attack with his antics. Sagara was still an impetuous child unworthy of someone like the former Battousai.

But weren’t practical use of the tools available and the ability to adapt one’s plans at the last moment traits of a proficient warrior? No matter how sloppy the technique seemed, if the desired outcome was attained and the performer remained relatively unscathed, Saitou could not reasonably object.

It was no good trying to drag his thoughts away from this topic. Now that he’d been pulled into the flood, he had very little choice left in the matter. He could let it overpower him and interfere with his duties, or he could assimilate the unavoidable — he could sink, or he could swim, but there was no getting out of the water.

And there was no denying he’d asked for it. “What does he see in you?” he’d wondered of Sagara back when — it seemed bizarrely long ago, now — he’d knocked him through the wall of the Kamiya dojo. He shouldn’t ask questions if he wasn’t ready for the answers. Of course, that had been before he’d admitted how he felt about Himura, when he’d still thought he was strong enough to open an emotional issue in the midst of the other and keep it from getting in the way.

Perhaps, in response to the half-formed resolution he’d made in the jail to find out what he wanted to know, he’d been subconsciously attempting to look at Sagara as Himura must, and was therefore being easier on him than he otherwise might… but the reason why was neither problem nor solution. The problem was that he was starting to see what Himura saw in the passionate kenkaya, and it threatened to be one distraction too many. And the solution? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

This feeling of nearly complete lack of control, of being a breath away from drowning, was irritating, agitating… And if the tasks of the day hadn’t been engrossing enough to keep his thoughts relatively well balanced, it would also have been overwhelming. Fortunately, he had enough to do in cleanup after the events of last night and preparation against further assault from Shishio that he could have continued working without pause from the moment they got back to Kyoto until it was time to depart for the mountain the next morning; how fortunate he should really consider the general ineptitude of the police force was a matter of debate, but it was convenient for purposes of distraction.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life?” This time, somewhat disturbingly, these remembered words only made Saitou smirk slightly, ruefully, and shake his head.

He had to rest eventually. God knew how much fighting, and what else besides, he would have to do tomorrow… but it was almost as if he dreaded the cessation of his work day. Though he’d never been given to brooding insomnia, there was a first time for everything, and this was just the situation to bring about that sleepless state.

“Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” Well, he knew they were damned inconvenient. Even when it was only someone else’s relationship that wasn’t his business in the first place.

Midnight had come and gone before he found his bed in the cheerless inn near the police station. Sleep did not elude him as he’d feared it might, but uncomfortable images of rushing water in which he sometimes thought he could see figures and faces followed him relentlessly there and throughout the rest of the night.

***

Why was it so cold? Kenshin already sat as close to the fire as was prudent; why was there still such a deep-set chill in his body? He rubbed absently at one arm with the other as he stared at the low flames and felt goosebumps rise across his flesh. Was it an after-effect of the swim in Osaka Bay? Had he caught something?

The door slid open and then closed again, and quiet footsteps crossed the floor.

The shiver that ran through Kenshin at the sound of Sano entering their shared room was not the usual one; it was neither pleased nor aroused, but rather… uncomfortable. Anxious, even. Why? It couldn’t be Sano’s mere presence he worried about… but, rather, interaction with him, a continuation of the atmosphere that had marked that interaction all day.

Sano was trying not to show how disturbed he felt, and had been avoiding Kenshin — or at least being alone with Kenshin — ever since they’d entered the Aoiya. Even now he did not greet him, and walked as quietly as he was able (which, as always in Sano’s case, wasn’t particularly quiet). But surely he didn’t think Kenshin hadn’t noticed. Every last word they’d said to each other had been forced, uncertain, stilted, ever since… well, all day. Sano had used the reunion with Kaoru and Yahiko and getting acquainted with the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu as his unstated excuses for saying as little as possible to his lover, and Kenshin had accepted that… but it couldn’t continue. Not when they had a potential deathmatch tomorrow. Not when dawn would bring… No, Kenshin couldn’t just let this go without at least trying to work things out.

Seeming somewhat indecisive, Sano now stood in the middle of the room. Kenshin’s back was to him, but he could sense the younger man’s perfect stillness. That stillness seemed to bring with it a fresh coldness, as if Sano were a door to the starry night, and Kenshin wanted to draw even closer to the fire. But that coldness, he could tell, lay only in the space between the two of them; no one else would have felt such a low temperature radiating from Sano. He feared Sano must be feeling the same from him.

After seconds had dragged by without word or movement from his lover, Kenshin said his name quietly. “Are you upset with me?”

“No!” Sano replied, with so much vehemence and so much haste that the rurouni, heart sinking, immediately doubted the insistence. “Upset with you for what?”

“For… leaving you behind in Tokyo.”

“Oh.” In that one syllable, why did Sano sound so relieved? As if he’d perhaps thought Kenshin would suggest something, confess something else Sano might be angry at him for? But was Sano worried Kenshin would admit having suspected him of… something… or admit to… that same something on his own part?

No, that was impossible. That something was only a fragmentary thought in Kenshin’s head in the first place; its very wild improbability was the only thing that even brought it to mind, and therefore made for a self-fulfilling prophecy: his search for the awkwardness that would certainly characterize it if it were true had caused awkwardness to develop.

Yes, he was the cause of this strange atmosphere between them, he and his… what could he call it but an overactive imagination? He wasn’t generally given to that sort of fancy, but there was a first time for everything… and the vague ideas he avoided directly scrutinizing couldn’t have any basis in reality. He needed to stop thinking about it, stop looking for signs of its presence, and then things would improve. And he never should have mentioned…

“No,” Sano finally said. “No, I’m not mad at you for that anymore. Or for anything else.” It was a stiff pronouncement, and ended on a note of indecision. “Just tired and tense,” he added in an obvious and ineffectual attempt to put a graceful end to the fledgling conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Kenshin nodded, and forced himself to say good night in as warm a tone as he could command. After that he could sense Sano’s increased agitation, and he thought the kenkaya even reached out a hand toward him that fell back before making contact. Then came the shuffling noises of Sano preparing for bed, and at last quiet breathing. No reminder of the need for them both to be rested, no invitation to join him. Not that Kenshin thought Sano wasn’t worried about his well-being or didn’t want him at his side; he just wouldn’t say it at this point, because of… whatever had come between them. And Kenshin found he couldn’t insist on a more explicit discussion.

He wondered that he wasn’t feeling worse about this. Slight apprehension, yes, but nothing that would keep him awake when he eventually joined Sano on the futon. Certainly such unnatural communication with his lover should be a source of greater worry… and yet he found his only sensation was one of nearly emotionless cold. A clinging mist seemed to surround him, surround them both… well, if he was going to be honest about it, surround all three of them… in his mind — but it was only cold, not frightening.

Something was changing, certainly, though he couldn’t quite see what it was… but he didn’t sense that it would end in loss. The mist would clear, he would have all the facts and understand the situation more precisely; he was sure of it. For the moment he simply had to weather the adherent chill until the warm sun shone again.

Eventually, when Sano’s breathing turned to snores, Kenshin undressed and lay softly down by his side, sliding an arm around Sano’s chest. They would overcome this as certainly as they had other difficulties. Whether his surety arose from faith in Sano or some subconscious understanding he already possessed, he didn’t know; but his conviction was unfailing. He put his face against his lover’s smooth shoulder and closed his eyes.

Chapter 13 – Wait

Sano wasn’t sure how much sleep he’d managed to get, nor entirely sure why he felt such a massive wave of relief at finding Kenshin warm at his side in the early-morning darkness to which he awoke. He tried not to think about either issue.

His movement, slight as it was, roused Kenshin immediately. There followed a moment of almost panicked apprehension as he remembered last night and the awkwardness — but as they both sat up and looked immediately at each other as if seeking concord by mutual consent, Kenshin only smiled at him. And it was there, in Kenshin’s eyes — forgiveness? contrition? simple understanding? — Sano couldn’t quite define it, but it was there.

Immensely cheered, he leaned over and kissed Kenshin gently and briefly. It almost seemed, just for that moment, that the strange, cold atmosphere of the night before hadn’t really existed except in his suspicious or guilty imagination, that perhaps he’d only dreamed the discomfort, the tension. But during the next few minutes as they rose and prepared for the day (as much as anyone could prepare for the kind of day they anticipated), he realized how wrong he was.

Things hadn’t gone back to how they’d been (I told you so, whispered that unrelenting voice in the back of his head); the tension and discomfort were just as real as they really had been last night. The air between the lovers had merely settled into a sort of resigned patience — as if they both knew their situation hadn’t finished changing yet, that they could do nothing to halt the metamorphosis, and therefore they might as well just wait and see how things turned out.

Sano wasn’t sure he liked this — in fact was almost positive he didn’t — but rejoiced, at least, that Kenshin was here with him. Whatever had changed, whatever would change, they still loved each other. Sano would just have to hold onto his faith in that, believe it was enough to get them through whatever was coming.

From downstairs, the yard outside the window, and other rooms even on this level, noise indicated they were not the only ones in the Aoiya up before dawn. Sano had spent yesterday assiduously hearing what their Tokyo friends had to tell and getting to know the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, and he wouldn’t even try to deny he’d done it specifically so he wouldn’t have to talk to Kenshin about the whatever. Now, with this tacit agreement to wait for things to stabilize and figure everything out once the dust cleared, it almost seemed cowardly to fall back on that same tactic — but, while it appeared Kenshin could get dressed and wash his face in perfect silence without feeling at all awkward, Sano couldn’t stand this.

“So they all really did come,” he commented, cocking an ear at the distant sounds to indicate which ‘they’ he meant.

Kenshin’s smile at this was somewhat bittersweet, his tone a mixture of light chiding, amusement, and resignation. “You were the one I trusted with keeping them away.”

Sano was unsure to what extent Kenshin’s attitude still bothered him. On the one hand, Kenshin had done and said nothing to indicate his reason for wishing Sano to remain in Tokyo had been anything other than what his note had indicated — protection for the others in his absence — or to validate Saitou’s theory that Sano was a source of vulnerability to his lover; on the other hand, Sano couldn’t help thinking someone would have to be fairly cold-blooded not to want the person they loved beside them going into a battle that might be their last, and he knew Kenshin wasn’t that heartless. Kenshin was that selfless, though…

Last night, at any rate, Sano had declared his forgiveness and lack of anger for being left behind, and he didn’t want further contemplation on the subject to make him a liar. It was too complicated to think about anyway. So he just answered casually, “Yeah, you shoulda known better.”

Kenshin laughed softly. “I suppose so.”

“Hell, if Saitou kicking my ass couldn’t get me to stay in Tokyo–” Breaking off almost in the middle of the last syllable, aghast, Sano found himself stiffening with horror at what he was saying, what he had almost said. The unspoken half of the sentence hung in the air — what would Kenshin hear? “There’s no way you could?” Worse, more explicit, “No way just a note from you, even if it did say ‘I love you,’ ever could?” Holy god, he hadn’t meant anything like that; he hadn’t meant to contrast those two influences; hadn’t meant to bring up Saitou. Fucking idiot, he told himself harshly. Why didn’t you fucking stay in Tokyo? All you’re doing here is screwing shit up.

Just like Saitou said.

Out of nowhere there was a tight, heavy knot of unhappiness in his chest, so abrupt and startling that he jerked reflexively toward Kenshin as if to reach out and cling to him, close his eyes and have Kenshin hold him until it went away. But part of the sudden sadness, he knew, was the feeling that he might very well have cut himself off from that source of comfort by his own stupidity.

“Sano,” Kenshin said. It was a firm but largely emotionless tone.

The only acknowledgment Sano could manage was a deep breath. He couldn’t even bring himself to look around.

“We will probably be leaving here in just under an hour for Shishio’s headquarters.”

Sano understood: Kenshin was admonishing him to set all of this aside for the moment. The overwhelming impression of the morning thus far was that he needed to wait. There were direly important deeds to be done today; this simply wasn’t the time to be distracted.

But patience was nothing Sano had in surplus, and he didn’t know that he was strong enough to stay entirely focused when the source of distraction was so close, so vital to him.

Wait. Not strong enough?? Was he giving up, then? Giving up on his desire to prove he wasn’t a liability, that he could handle this; on his desire to continue improving simply for his own sake? That is, was he giving up on the just respect of Kenshin, Saitou, and himself?

Fuck, no.

He could feel his fists clenching in determination almost inadvertently as he made his resolution: he would remain steadfast, would keep his mind on the mission, would deal with the confusion later. It helped that Kenshin obviously believed he was up to this; it helped a lot.

Finally he acknowledged his lover’s remark. “Right.” And as proof of his bravery, he turned to face Kenshin without hesitation. Although he didn’t entirely understand the expression on the scarred face, he could at least see that Kenshin wasn’t upset with him — and that was enough for now. They would get through this. Impulsively Sano said, “I love you, Kenshin.”

If Kenshin was surprised at hearing this phrase spoken aloud for the first time at what was perhaps an odd moment, he didn’t show it. He simply smiled gently and replied, “And I love you.”

And Sano found that in a heart on fire there really wasn’t much room for doubt.

***

Kaoru and Misao brought them breakfast and chatter, and eventually Yahiko joined them, ensuring they were adequately cheerful on this important day; between this thoughtful gesture and having heard Sano speak the words ‘I love you,’ Kenshin could hardly be otherwise.

He could tell Kaoru was working to keep her voice steady as, when most of them had finished eating, she reached out to him and said, “Kenshin… take this.” The object she held turned out to be a floral-patterned tin from which a faint medicinal smell rose as it changed hands.

“I brought it on Megumi-san’s behalf,” Kaoru explained, “but I haven’t had a chance to give it to you. It’s her way of saying she hopes you come back safely. She’s not the only one; we all want you to come back safely.” She looked him in the eye, and, as he’d not infrequently noticed, there was a subdued dismay in her gaze that seemed to ask almost against her will, Is there really no chance for me? But it was far weaker than the last time he’d seen it, and it occurred to him that this journey — the journey from which he’d sought to bar her — might have been very beneficial for her as well. Her being Megumi’s designated messenger in this situation (not that Megumi had had much choice) might show progress on that front as well.

Kenshin smiled and thanked her, but his words were drowned out by Misao’s: “That’s the hundredth time you’ve mentioned this Megumi-san — who is she, exactly?” And as Kaoru went on to describe Megumi in terms that might have surprised her if she’d been listening to herself, Kenshin thought that, yes, some progress had been made on that front.

Under the cover of this discussion, “Kenshin,” Yahiko said urgently and quietly. He glanced around to see if anyone was listening — Sano was, but apparently Yahiko didn’t mind him — then went on with a touching sort of nervous defiance, “Please let me come with you!”

Kenshin shook his head. They’d been through this yesterday, but not thoroughly enough, it seemed.

“Since we got here, I haven’t missed a day training!” protested Yahiko in a hiss. “I’m a lot stronger than you think!”

Reaching out to place a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Kenshin prevented him continuing. “I know that. And I am not just arbitrarily ordering you to stay here. Tomorrow when we fight the Juppongatana–” he gestured to Sano and himself– “it’s likely Shishio will send others to attack the Aoiya, and you will not be able to avoid fighting. I need you to be ready for that; you must remain here on guard.”

Yahiko bit his lip and looked at once flattered and disappointed. After a thoughtful moment, he nodded. “But busu’s right,” he added pensively. “It’s not just the girls who want you to come back safe.” He looked away as he said it, lowering his voice even farther, as if embarrassed to be admitting affectionate concern for the leader of the little group he’d named into existence in the first place. He was at that age…

Despite Yahiko’s quiet tone, Kaoru’s ears seemed to have a special setting for the word ‘busu,’ and she broke off what she was saying to Misao in order to attack Yahiko with the usual string of angry reactions.

Kenshin watched the scene with a mild smile. True, Kaoru worried more than she was letting on, and lamented that she couldn’t be Kenshin’s primary source of comfort; Misao still lacked the level of confidence Kenshin would have preferred in his ability to deal with the Aoshi situation; Yahiko might have been more hurt than he was willing to show by Kenshin’s treatment of him; Saitou’s arrival, which could occur any moment, was going to throw Kenshin and Sano back toward the awkwardness of last night and put to the test the silent resolutions they’d made together this morning; and of course the prospective battle or battles of the day, all the more ominous for their obscurity, were a looming threat to his tranquility as to his person. But all this he pushed aside for the moment, concentrating on having a good meal with people he loved in relative peace.

Breakfast and their primary, lengthier goodbyes were over and the sun had just parted with the horizon when they made their way outside to wait. Standing in silence with his friends around him in the cool morning, Kenshin reflected that, worried though he was for their safety, he wasn’t sure he really regretted their following him here, if only for this — this last measure of strength he could draw from them in preparation for the end. Whether he was equally glad Sano had followed him was more complicated — but, as it partook of matters he’d decided not to think about until a more opportune time, he pushed the question away.

He couldn’t help noticing the way Sano shifted when Saitou appeared, or smiling slightly as he recognized Sano’s air as that of a man ready for combat. Of course Kaoru and Misao evinced a certain level of displeasure and agitation at the sight of the officer as well, but, for more reasons than one, it couldn’t be anything to what Kenshin and Sano felt.

Turning, Kenshin smiled at his friends. “Goodbye,” he said simply, and moved forward to meet Saitou. Behind him, Sano did much the same.

Saitou was smoking a cigarette and appeared largely unrested, and his greeting was a slow study of the both of them, almost as if looking for something, before he spoke. “I hope you haven’t wasted the night.”

At the tone even darker than usual, Kenshin had a sudden sad vision of Saitou, lonely and bitter, working himself half to death and wondering how Kenshin and Sano were wasting their night. Still, there was nothing to be said; he had a feeling Saitou didn’t really want to know the answer to the question implicit in his statement anyway.

“So…” Sano’s reflections were probably similar to Kenshin’s; he spoke with some effort, and the rurouni didn’t think Saitou could fail to notice. How he would interpret Sano’s demeanor was another story. “No carriage today?”

“The road to the shrine is too narrow,” Saitou replied with a shake of his head; Kenshin thought he was glad to have business to discuss. “Rokutsurane-Torii-Hokora is a good place to conceal the entrance to a secret headquarters, since it isn’t visited much anymore.”

Sano grunted acknowledgment and fell silent. And that silence went unbroken nearly their entire trip.

***

Saitou had thought the carriage ride to Osaka awkward, but realized now that he hadn’t known the meaning of the term until today.

For one thing, there was an air of finality about this venture, more than there had been during any of their previous interactions, as if they really didn’t expect to return this time; it sobered and stiffened their every word and gesture. The problem was that it seemed somehow too personal for Saitou to bring up, given the uncertain relations among them. And from the impersonal distance he was forced at this point to maintain, any sort of reassurance he could offer would seem asinine and fake.

For another thing, he got the feeling Himura knew. Exactly how much he knew or how Saitou knew he knew it, he wasn’t prepared to guess… but still he didn’t doubt the impression. Obviously the clues must be there, and Saitou could undoubtedly piece together what had led him to the conclusion, but for the moment he was more concerned with Himura’s reaction. In fact, he was concerned enough with Himura’s reaction that he could think of almost nothing else as they walked, silent and tense, through and out of the city. But except for the increase in moroseness (and consequent tension) that had gripped all three of them, Himura, to all outward appearances, was behaving as he always did.

As if after listening intently to silence he’d been startled by a loud noise, Saitou didn’t realize just how hard he was concentrating on reading Himura’s every slightest change of expression or gesture until Himura made one worth reading. Sagara had commented meaninglessly on some aspect of the walk, and Himura, after a brief reply, had thrown a glance back at Saitou as if to see whether he wanted to be included in the conversation.

And what was in that look? For Saitou fancied it had been alive with emotions. Did Himura want him included in the conversation? Did he want to drag him into such mundane exchanges and minutiae? Did he believe Saitou desired that sort of interaction, and pitied him its lack?

He wanted to take Himura by the shoulders and shake him, to tell him ‘I don’t want your sympathy,’ to state emphatically — though he doubted even he could find words sufficiently acerbic properly to convey the disdain such a statement would require — that this sort of pretentious attempt at understanding was something he neither needed nor desired.

Except that he did desire it.

His one consolation at the moment was that Himura didn’t yet seem to have shared his realization with Sagara. There were so many divergent reasons Himura might have done this, and the implications connected to them so varied, that Saitou could postulate nothing with any certainty, but he was glad Himura apparently hadn’t said anything; it would further complicate an already stupidly tangled situation, and escalate the awkwardness perhaps beyond enduring. If he had been in Himura’s position, he probably wouldn’t have said anything yet either.

It was surprisingly, dismayingly, appallingly easy to imagine himself in Himura’s position. Why, why had Saitou thought it necessary to try to see Sagara as Himura must? Hadn’t he considered the possible consequences?

He was aware — once again, through clues so subtle he might as well simply have called it intuition — of Sagara’s desire to prove himself to him. Looking back over what had passed between them since their first meeting, it wasn’t terribly surprising. And perhaps it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising, either, to recognize his own growing desire for Sagara to understand him, to lose the misconceptions he’d formed thus far, to comprehend and vindicate his motives. Or, to put it another way, a desire to prove himself to Sagara that was or would be, quite possibly, as strong as Sagara’s corresponding wish.

This might have been embarrassing — irritating, even — at another time and under different circumstances, but by now Saitou had given up applying the logic of his life prior to recent times to the current situation. And he’d given up as well trying not to admit he wanted more from Sagara than just understanding… though he couldn’t quite put exactly what more he did want into words just yet.

And from Himura… well, that was much easier to specify, since it had developed so much farther. It should be; it had had a good decade longer in which to form, repression notwithstanding.

He wasn’t generally the type to find himself at a loss for words. This was probably because he rarely had anything to say that didn’t directly concern business of some sort, or at least rarely cared what the effect of his words might be if he did. A situation like this, where he had more than a passing desire to say something but feared whatever he came up with would be either too little or too much — or at least be construed as too much by one of the people to whom he wanted to say it — was unheard of.

And yet he spent most of the latter portion of the walk trying to think of something to say.

He also wasn’t the type to give up easily or for no good reason. After all, he didn’t undertake something in the first place if it wasn’t worth a certain measure of trouble. Of course he hadn’t precisely undertaken this; it had, rather, overtaken him. But that didn’t mean he was prepared to expend any less effort on it than he felt it deserved. Than he felt they deserved.

And yet he could think of nothing to say.

As the path widened at the end of the trees and they emerged into the sunlight, as they started climbing a slope of cracked flagstones under the six arches, as that woman they’d earlier observed with Shishio came into sight standing before a giant pair of doors, Saitou knew it was time to give up. At least for now.

He’d told himself perhaps a dozen times since this whole mess had started that this wasn’t the time for it. Wait! was the message — by now rather emphatic, almost desperately so — that his better judgment continually delivered to his less practiced and therefore less self-assured romantic sense. And for the moment he obeyed. He just hoped the chance he was waiving now to express even a touch of what he felt wouldn’t prove to have been his last.

Chapter 14 – Difficult As Hell

One aspect of love, Kenshin reflected, was the ability to restrain yourself and stay out of something you would really much rather be involved in. Would rather take over completely in order to spare your lover the less pleasant effects of the situation.

It had very little to do with faith in Sano’s combat prowess; Kenshin wasn’t sure whether or not he believed Sano could win this fight, but certainty either way would not have changed his behavior. It had very little to do with the fact that Kenshin would be over this railing with sword drawn the moment Sano’s life seemed in legitimate danger; he would do that for anyone. What he might not do for anyone was let it get to that point.

He probably would not have stood by watching Kaoru, for instance, battle a stronger opponent. Assigned her the task of dealing with a particular enemy while he faced some other threat, perhaps; been aware that she was elsewhere fighting and quietly worried, certainly. But stood still observing? Actually watched her fight someone he wasn’t certain she could defeat? Probably not. Allowing Sano this chance without protest or interference was a mark of respect he might not even be capable of showing just anyone.

And even in this case it was difficult as hell.

The huge monk was obviously a world ahead of Sano in mastery of the interesting two-hit move they called Futae no Kiwami, and his ki was every bit as ragingly angry as Sano’s. The latter’s superior agility would only get him so far. More promising — to Kenshin, who believed in the influence of attitude in combat — was the fact that when faced with the corruption and misery of the world, one of them had chosen destruction while the other (with some encouragement) had chosen life. But even this could not be entirely reassuring.

Then a hard voice to his left called down in the direction of the combatants, “Do you want me to take your place?”

Kenshin glanced over, very startled. He certainly hadn’t forgotten Saitou was there… but in his concern for Sano, Saitou had blurred into a vague, comforting essence of strength and solidity.

Comforting?

Yes, comforting. Why bother denying it?

“Shut the hell up!” Evidently Sano didn’t find him comforting.

Startling as it had been, the suggestion did not surprise him. Kenshin had suspected — strongly suspected — and now he knew; it was the elbow that gave Saitou away, really. The offer could just as easily have been exactly what it seemed — a condescending jab at Sano’s abilities — but Saitou’s elbow rested in his other hand as if needing support, and the hand seemed clenched tighter than was strictly necessary. One arm lay close across his body as if he wanted to project his subtly defensive stance at Sano, the other raised a cigarette to his lips. Kenshin had noticed that Saitou normally took no more than a drag or two on any cigarette before tossing it away. This one was steadily shortening, almost as if he didn’t notice himself smoking it.

Then there was the fact that Saitou had voiced concern even before Kenshin could. No, there could be no question now.

Did Kenshin resent this sudden apparent worry where none had been present before? Did he consider telling Saitou to mind his own business? Did he look down at Sano with new jealousy in his gaze, unsure whether he envied more the circumstance of being the object of Saitou’s concern or the one feeling it for Sano?

No. He knew any or all of these could have been his reaction, but the only thing he could do was appreciate Saitou’s attitude even as he felt the same. In fact, Saitou’s presence rendered a little less painful the unendurable thoughts of what if? that hovered just beyond the bright areas of his mind. It didn’t matter what each of them was to Sano; the fact that they stood here side by side, both with his well-being in mind, made all the difference.

“Sano!” he called out, feeling minutely better about things all of a sudden and wishing to share that, if possible, with his lover. “Even in kenjutsu, a man with two swords is not necessarily stronger than one with only one! I am sure you can find a way to win!”

Though not as fierce as the one he’d directed at Saitou a moment before, Sano’s reply to this encouragement was definitely a scowl. Realizing belatedly that his words, though kindly meant, might seem to imply a surety of the monk’s superior abilities, Kenshin felt a little sheepish, and was actually rather glad to busy himself in a brief, meaningless exchange with Yumi about the suitability of cheering Sano on.

He was watching avidly the next moment, though, when Sano landed a hit. Both the spectators were, Kenshin thought, interested in the effects of Sano’s new move on a human body — Kenshin probably with a good deal more speculative horror than Saitou — and they both, he knew, were shocked at the result. Though it seemed feasible to cancel out the energy of the blow, the precision with which the opposing force would need to be directed to avoid damage to self would demand an incredible level of mastery. To see Sano’s opponent displaying such expertise could only dishearten.

Despite Sano’s swift retreat from striking distance, the monk’s big fist grazed his stomach. Kenshin clutched hard at the railing as Sano staggered a step back and coughed up a handful of blood. At his side, Saitou shifted.

“Retreat,” the monk said darkly. “I’ll let you go this time.” It sounded more like an order than an offer, and it seemed to upset Yumi quite a bit. She and the monk argued the point for a few moments before Sano broke in with a glib and rather insulting comment on Anji’s self-proclaimed authority over life and death.

Though Kenshin focused primarily on the debate that would undoubtedly return to blows any moment, he couldn’t help noticing Saitou’s increasing tension. The wolf now had his free hand in his pocket, and had started another cigarette. Noting Kenshin’s attention he murmured, “I meant it when I offered to take his place. He’s not going to get through this with that attitude.”

Kenshin might have been inclined to agree with the statement had Sano not at that moment been voicing sentiments both convincing and familiar: a combination of what he’d told Kenshin bitterly when they’d first met and his more enlightened later thoughts on the state of the country, culminating in the defiant and utterly self-assured declaration, “I absolutely won’t lose to you!”

Letting out a deep breath, Kenshin turned a slight smile on Saitou, whose face now barely even concealed the worry he felt at the recommencing fight. “Sano said that to me when he and I first fought,” he remarked quietly. “‘I absolutely won’t lose…’ But this time it means a lot more.”

For a long, dark moment Saitou stared at Kenshin, brows drawing together and some kind of struggle going on behind his eyes. Saitou, Kenshin was fairly sure, had a hard time feeling faith in anyone besides himself; how lonely that must be. But he was also a very strong man, just as capable of changing himself for the better as he was of changing the world. Finally he too let out his concerned breath, his face relaxing and smoothing slightly as it turned back to watch the action below. He didn’t say anything, but Kenshin knew he’d decided to take the reassurance seriously.

Now to see how long they could endure in silence.

***

With his body aching from head to toe, the halls they walked were a claustrophobic nightmare. Why the pain should make such a difference Sano wasn’t sure — nor could he guess why, under such circumstances, he should want to draw closer to his companions as they walked rather than further away.

He flexed his hand and let out an involuntary sound of pain. Trying to avoid worries about the long-term ramifications of this damage — worries that, even in the midst of this very present turmoil and the need for concentration, would continue nagging at him — Sano stretched and contracted his fingers again, forcing himself to adjust to the unpleasant sensation. He wasn’t out of the action yet; he needed his fist to function.

Saitou at his side kept looking at him. For a moment Sano avoided his eyes, not really wanting to endure any more derisive comments than he already had, but eventually the fleeting (and, admittedly, somewhat irrational) thought that this might be his last chance to look into Saitou’s eyes overcame his reluctance. And the pensive, serious expression he found there, far different from the irritating disdain he’d expected, could not but surprise him.

In direct contrast, Saitou’s words were no surprise whatsoever: “If you’re hurt, you’re only going to get in the way. You should leave now.” What Sano did not anticipate, however, was the way they were spoken. Sure, it sounded like Saitou’s usual jerk-face attitude, but something about the suggestion was… off… somehow.

For a few moments just a minute ago, after Anji’s news, Sano had been stupidly determined to turn back. Sense had returned, but the burning cold fear in his heart for their friends at the Aoiya had not disappeared. Was Saitou subtly trying to convince him to give in to that? Well, no, that didn’t make much sense; what would Saitou care about their friends at the Aoiya? If it had been anyone else, Sano might have thought there was some concern for his concern… but this was Saitou; he would no more care that Sano cared than care in his own right. Right? Sano was probably just imagining things anyway. He’d spent far too much time lately trying to solve puzzles in the light of Saitou’s uncanny eyes.

But perhaps Saitou simply didn’t want him to get hurt. Because of Kenshin, that is, of course; that would make sense. Saitou knew — better than any other third party, probably — the effect it would have on Kenshin if anything serious happened to Sano. The latter couldn’t help recalling the way his two companions had stood together looking down at him as he fought Anji… neither seeming any more or less worried about him than the other… and Saitou’s offer to take his place…

Yes, that was undoubtedly the answer: Saitou was simply looking out for Kenshin, who was, after all, the government’s specific answer to this Shishio situation. That was Saitou, all right: just doing his job; nothing personal about it.

Sano found himself making another little pained noise. He’d been flexing his hand throughout these reflections, and didn’t think it was getting any better for it.

Saitou snorted, evidently accepting this non-verbal answer for the dismissal of his suggestion that it was. “This is what you get for ignoring what I told you and neglecting your defense,” he said.

Sano made a face at him. Disinclined to repeat the responses he’d already given to the admonition, however, he merely said, “Hey, fuck you.”

“Here and now? I wonder what Shishio’s thoughts on that would be.” Though Saitou’s murmur was carrying, evidently meant to be heard by the two people walking down the hall in front of them, Sano chose to interpret it at being directed toward Yumi alone. She didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, and her huffy, stiff-shouldered response was pretty funny… a good deal more than the thought of the remark having been aimed at Kenshin and what that might mean.

“Could only make his day better,” Sano replied with a shrug and a grin… and realized even as he said it that, while there was nothing wrong with levity in general, these particular words were probably not the wisest. They could only bother Kenshin and bring to mind things neither of them were supposed to be thinking about at the moment. Honestly, he was a little shocked he’d even said such a thing to Saitou. Hell, he was shocked Saitou had said what he had to him.

He couldn’t help being surprised as well at how amiable that brief exchange had been. Perhaps Saitou was surprised too, for he raised a brow and gave Sano a lopsided smile. It was a strange look, holding something more than skepticism and amusement, and it gave Sano the strangest feeling. There was something of finality in Saitou’s eyes all of a sudden… finality and acceptance. Seeing that expression, Sano almost expected the man at any moment to say goodbye and just disappear.

Earlier on in this venture, Sano would have been glad of the disappearance and told Saitou to skip the goodbye. Now… Well, it would probably get in the way of all that waiting he’d resolved to do if he thought about what he would prefer now. Break his concentration on the tasks at hand, complicate things with Kenshin, and all that.

But after the oddly friendly moment of banter and those looks, and in this current silence that (according to Sano’s earlier, admittedly irrational fear) might be his last chance, it was difficult as hell not to think about this sort of thing.

Kenshin glanced back at them just then, the very nonexistence of his expression expressive. He looked like a man holding his breath, reminding his companions that the air would slowly poison them if taken in. There was no trace of what Sano knew he must be feeling, the worry and confusion and god knew what else… only the determination to finish what he’d started, to complete the accepted task. Not even the awareness that their friends at the Aoiya were in worse danger, perhaps, than anyone here in the fortress — a fact that, quite frankly, Sano was trying his best simply to ignore, though it lingered under everything else he did or said or thought as a live current of potentially detrimental concern… not even that showed in Kenshin’s face.

Sano smiled faintly at his lover, then stared at his back when Kenshin turned away again. Kenshin was so strong… strong in ways Sano had never thought about — never been aware of, really — until recently, until Kenshin himself had made him recognize them. Sano admired and loved Kenshin as much for teaching him these things he might not otherwise have learned as for bearing that strength in himself. And observing Saitou’s fixed, serious stare in the same direction as his own, Sano couldn’t help thinking…

No. No. He could help thinking that, because he wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything but this situation here and now at the fortress. Sano might not be as strong as Kenshin was in many ways, but he’d be damned if he let him down here and now by getting distracted and jeopardizing the endeavor. He returned his attention very pointedly to the continual, painful flexing of his hand.

“We’ve arrived,” Yumi announced at last, drawing to a halt in front of another pair of doors in a particularly dark stretch of corridor. “Inside is your second opponent. Once you enter this room, you won’t be allowed to turn ba–”

“Enough,” Kenshin interrupted her, somewhat fiercely, and, to Sano’s surprise, kicked the doors down. They clattered to the floor a few feet into the room beyond.

The latter, as dim as this length of hallway, was decorated with stylized eyes on floor and wall and ceiling. In the solid circular center of one of these a man, blindfolded and bearing a large-headed spear and a shield, wore more of the same symbol on his clothing and sandals. He didn’t sit; he crouched, evidently ready to spring into action at any moment. Piecing together certain things Misao and Chou had said, Sano identified this as Mouken no Usui.

“One… two… three…” the man counted. He raised a hand and pointed at the people in the doorway, skipping Yumi but indicating the rest of them one by one with a precision that made Sano a little uncomfortable. Was the guy blind or wasn’t he? Surely he couldn’t see through the damn blindfold in any case…! “Anji couldn’t even get rid of one of you?” Usui put a hand thoughtfully to his smiling face. “Well… that’s fine, that’s fine.”

“We don’t have time for your bravado,” Kenshin replied in an even harsher tone than his previous. Glancing at him, startled, Sano noticed he was already prepared to draw and fight. “Will you step aside and let us pass? Decide quickly.”

Sano struggled to fight off a deep, cold shiver. He knew that voice. It was Kenshin’s first-step-down-Battousai-path voice. Perhaps the news of the planned Aoiya massacre was affecting him more than Sano had thought; or perhaps Kenshin, in steeling himself for the eventual encounter with Shishio, was inadvertently (inadvertently, Sano hoped to god inadvertently) pushing himself into Battousai territory.

“Kenshin–” he began uncertainly, but cut off in surprise as Kenshin’s forward momentum brought him into sudden, unexpected contact with Saitou’s abruptly outstretched arm. Kenshin stumbled back a step, staring at Saitou just as Sano was.

“It’s good that you’re angry,” Saitou explained, his eyes never moving from the still figure of Usui, “but don’t waste it on him.” His tone was utterly flat as he continued, “Go on and leave this one to me.”

“Saitou…” Kenshin’s voice was a great relief, for it had returned to normal; and the expression he gave Saitou, as he touched briefly the spot where the officer’s fist had met his face, was all Kenshin. Silently Sano sighed. Was it all right to feel grateful to Saitou for this? Kenshin could undoubtedly have taken care of it himself, but the fact remained that the wolf had deliberately pulled him back from those first steps.

“Go,” ordered Saitou, and suddenly the import of his previous statement struck Sano. Go? Leave him here to fight alone? Move on to whatever came next without him? Just like that?

Sano opened his mouth, but found himself devoid of words.

Kenshin nodded. “Excuse us,” he said to Yumi, and took off at that improbable speed of his toward the far doors.

“Hey, wait!” the woman protested. “You can’t just–”

Deeming it best to bring her along, given the likelihood of their getting lost without her, Sano hefted Yumi up into his arms as he moved to follow Kenshin. “You’re coming too!”

Through the door Kenshin had flung open, carrying the struggling, loudly protesting Yumi, Sano had time for nothing more than the briefest glance back. And he couldn’t even deny to himself the painful clenching of his heart as he took in the lean, tense, motionless figure in blue that they were leaving behind perhaps never to see again.

The room stank of blood, but Saitou did not rush to leave it; unnecessary haste would only set him back at this point. He was quick about treating his injuries, though… It probably would have been better to bandage his legs under his pants, but, squeamish as he wasn’t, the thought of removing the garment in the presence of the pinned and blindly staring half body on the wall was unpalatable to him.

“Could only make his day better,” he seemed to hear in Sagara’s tones, and he smirked faintly to himself. He still couldn’t quite believe they’d said those things to each other.

After retrieving his sword with some difficulty from aforementioned corpse, he finally left the room. As he lit a cigarette outside, covering up the last traces of the bloody scent, he spent several moments staring down the corridor to the right. Based on what he’d heard earlier, he believed his companions had gone that way. Unfortunately, based on what he remembered, he needed to go the other way. To be sure, he traded his cigarette case for the map in his pocket.

It would be a struggle to concentrate on the information he needed to collect when he wanted so badly to follow Himura and Sagara. Supposedly only Seta Soujirou remained to be defeated before Shishio himself, but, even assuming he believed those really were the only dangers left to face, he wasn’t terribly happy letting the others face them alone. He knew part of this was his usual, deeply-ingrained disinclination to delegate difficult tasks; he was always surer of things he did himself. He knew what the rest of it was too — he could finally even admit it to himself — but it was no good thinking about that right now.

He headed down the hallway to the left. Careless haste was still to be avoided, but he could hope to wrap up this part of his task quickly and rejoin the others before too long. And if either of them had been seriously hurt during this separation…

He took a long drag on his cigarette. He needed to visit three areas of the fortress before he could do what he really wanted to do, so, though it was difficult as hell, he pushed Himura and Sagara from his mind (as far as that was possible) and moved, purposeful and silent, toward his first duty.

That things went smoothly was not, he thought, in this instance, a bad sign. The complex was practically uninhabited — emptied, perhaps, toward the unsuspecting Aoiya — and those that remained were too distracted by the presence of Himura to notice Saitou. So it was with relative ease he found what he sought — none of which could occupy his mind anywhere near as thoroughly as the emptiness he was enforcing in place of what he didn’t need to be worrying about at the moment.

On the way to the last and largest office-like room he intended to inspect, a door stood ajar. A glance at his map confirmed it led to a library, but even half a hallway away Saitou could tell that its recent purpose had been something very different. Moving even more stealthily than before, he stepped inside to have a look.

The two rooms he’d seen in which the prearranged battles had taken place had been specifically suited for that purpose, tasteless personalized decorations aside. This chamber, with its narrow, shelf-walled lanes, was not suited for the purpose, so presumably this battle had not been prearranged. Saitou had been wondering all along, in the back of his head, about the location of almost the only unknown factor in this great equation; therefore, the presence in the dark chaos inside the doors of one Shinomori Aoshi was not terribly shocking. Nor was the fact that Himura had been able to defeat him.

It was one hell of a relief, though.

Judging by Shinomori’s state and that he was just getting to his feet and moving as if to leave the room, Saitou judged that it couldn’t have been too long since the end of this bout. The Okashira actually moved two steps forward before observing Saitou’s presence; Saitou wished very much he could have seen the battle that had left him in this condition.

During the few moments before Shinomori noticed his presence, Saitou debated whether or not to speak to him. Time was nothing could spend extravagantly, but he was so pleased to see Himura had won this battle that he actually felt rather positive toward Shinomori at the moment. Additionally, the Oniwaban’s presence in the fortress had surely contributed to the general distraction of which Saitou had been able to take such convenient advantage… and the man might even have a further use against Shishio, assuming Himura had managed to convince him of the error of his ways. Since Himura could probably convince Enma of the error of his ways, Saitou was assuming.

So, when Shinomori signaled by a barely visible start that he was finally aware of Saitou’s presence, looking up from the wreckage of slashed books and shattered shelves he attempted to navigate, Saitou greeted him. “I see you got your ass kicked again.”

“Saitou Hajime.” Shinomori didn’t seem terribly pleased to see him, but it was a little hard to tell.

“Hm?” Saitou lit a fresh cigarette. “You should know me as Fujita Gorou.”

“That Seta boy told me you were here,” Shinomori replied shortly.

“Sou ka,” said Saitou even more shortly, smirking at the other man.

“You’ve been taking your time.” Shinomori seemed somehow even less pleased now than before. “Battousai’s long gone.”

Saitou nodded. “Everything’s going according to plan.” Now he essentially had confirmation in Shinomori’s own words of Himura’s victory, he could get back to work in relative contentment. The Okashira was fading as an object of any interest, but he might still be useful. So Saitou pulled his map again from his pocket and flicked it at the other man.

Shinomori caught the paper and snapped it open with a hand that was evidently regaining its vigor. As his eyes took in the fine lines representing the rooms and passages surrounding them, he managed by some means or other to appear almost astonished with no visible change of expression.

Saitou turned to leave with another satisfied smirk. “Your intelligence network is effective,” he answered Shinomori’s surprise, “but the government’s system is the best in the country. It’s one of the reasons I work for them.” He gestured briefly. “I don’t need that now; it will lead you to Shishio, if you’re interested.”

“So you’re using Battousai as a decoy.” The Okashira’s flat statement made him pause.

“Something like that.” It certainly had been the plan all along; it was still the plan… it was just that Himura had become so much more since that encounter in the Kamiya Dojo. This was nothing he felt like explaining to Shinomori Aoshi, though. “This battle will decide the future Japan,” he forced himself to go on. “Nothing can come before that.” And he was not so much expressing the opinion as trying to convince himself he actually believed it. He’d known this would happen; he could only hope, now, that he really was as strong as he’d told himself he was.

“Then what about your match?” Shinomori wondered next. “The grudge between you and Battousai from the Bakumatsu? If he dies here, what will you do?”

Saitou wasn’t certain whether Shinomori was trying to reiterate the efficacy of his network by showing how much he knew, or if he was aware that these questions would be bothersome and was just lashing out since Saitou had caught him in such a vulnerable position. Either way, Saitou considered remarking cryptically that the Okashira’s information was outdated, and leaving it at that… but the thought of Himura dying here — the thought of losing what he’d only just allowed himself to admit he cherished — was too disturbing for him to answer quite so facetiously, even if Shinomori didn’t understand.

“Then whoever lives wins,” he said flatly. Under normal circumstances, it would be true, which made it a good response. But he was less pleased with Shinomori upon leaving the room than when he’d entered it.

Everything he needed to know was not readily available here in the fortress, but he hadn’t really expected it to be. He’d still learned enough to justify the trip, and after the office near the library felt it was all he was likely to. Which meant he was free to rejoin the others and, hopefully, see the end of this drama.

A large space that had appeared on the map to be an arena of some sort lay outside these dark corridors in a valley that cut right through the underground fortress; Shishio having already displayed an eye for showmanship, Saitou believed the battle against him would take place there. Picturing the route he must take to reach it required no particular effort of memory, since, under the assumption that Himura and Sagara were or would soon be there, his eyes had inevitably traced it every time they’d fallen to the map; he could probably walk it without looking.

Anticipation and concern tensed his body further with every step he took along aforementioned path, until finally he turned the last corner. Daylight flooded this corridor… more of a room, really, where the hallway opened out into an atrium of sorts before a giant set of riveted metal doors that stood open. But while the real, natural light of the sun served as a pleasant reminder of the world outside this dreary fortress and the events taking place therein, the fresh air that should have accompanied it from the valley or gorge beyond the doors was tainted by a hot, acrid smell he didn’t quite recognize at first.

Uncertain though he was at what he might find beyond them, he took the fact that the doors were open at all as a confirmation of his guess about the final battle’s location. He had only to step through and learn what was going on. Now for the end; now to hope his other duties, which it would have been impossible for him to shirk and which he was yet inclined to curse as he thought about the amount of time he’d spent away from Himura and Sagara, hadn’t delayed him too long.

Chapter 15 – The Point of Strength and Fire

Saitou had reached a point he had never thought to see, had experienced something that, for all his careful planning, all his meticulous calculations of possibilities and the outcomes of various paths, he had never anticipated — nor would quite have known how to deal with if he had. The shock of this, he thought, did him little good at this point. It increased his pain, clouded his thoughts, and further reduced his ability to get hold of himself and the situation.

It wasn’t his failure that took him so much by surprise, for even that possibility was part of his calculations. The manner of his defeat was also no great surprise, as he’d been very aware of what a threat Shishio’s strength posed. No, while it could dismay, this in general could not surprise him. Nor was he entirely willing to classify this as ‘failure’ yet in any case. But a number of other aspects of what was happening found him so thoroughly off guard he thought he must spend the rest of his life — however much longer that was likely to be — wondering at them, at this point he never would have expected to reach.

He would never thought he could regret so deeply a plan of his own concoction, nor wish so desperately he could have altered or even abandoned it. Not that he would have — his level of dedication to the country and its good lessened for no man (or men) — but that he wished to was enough to startle him. And as he’d stood behind the closed arena doors listening, striving to keep his intentions neutral and suppress the ki that might otherwise betray him, taking in the unmistakable sounds of a battle not proceeding in Himura’s favor, he could do almost nothing but wish it could have been otherwise — that some other decoy could have been found or some other arrangement made to give them an advantage. Hell, even a straightforward battle with no gimmicks would have been better than this.

When had he ever wished, honestly, for a battle to be straightforward?

He’d never thought to reach the point where a difficulty he had anticipated would prove a genuine setback. That unexpected hurdles would arise he accepted perforce; he planned as best he could, and considered himself by no means deficient in foresight, but the unexpected would always take a part, for good or ill, in any venture. But for something he had foreseen, something he had specifically expected and readied himself to combat, nothing that had taken him blind but something of which he’d been long aware — for such a thing to have become a stumbling block he almost could not believe.

And yet, despite his awareness that his growing unrelated emotions might interfere with his ability to carry out his duty, despite his belief that he had this under control, the sound and feel of Himura’s defeat on the other side of those doors and the far worse sight of Himura senseless and bleeding on the ground had absolutely undone him. Which begged the question of just how much under control he really had things; of just how foresighted he really was when he hadn’t predicted or even considered this.

Or perhaps he simply hadn’t realized the strength of his own emotions. If that was the case, it was yet another surprise.

For one vital moment, all he’d been able to think or feel was the desire to kill Shishio. Of course killing Shishio had been the objective all along, but if Saitou had had his head about him, hadn’t been so utterly overcome, he might have aimed more responsibly. He didn’t entirely believe, in general, that emotion was the antithesis of rational thought, but it certainly had been in this scenario. It had been utterly irresponsible of him to fail in the sneak attack that had been the purpose of the whole operation, and the blame rested with his overactive sensibilities.

And now as he fell, unable to stop his descent, unable though he struggled to regain any sway over his injured form, conscious of almost no physical sensation beyond overwhelming pain, the last thing he heard as everything plunged into agonized darkness was Sagara’s cry of rage and despair. At least he had not yet fallen. There was little hope he would remain standing, so the emotion resultant upon hearing the shout partook very little of that foresight Saitou still believed himself to possess — but for the moment, thank god, Sagara had not yet fallen.

Saitou would never have thought to reach the point where comfort so destined to fail, as doomed to fall as Sagara was, could mean so much to him.

***

“This is my fight,” Kenshin had said, with that distant look of ten years past, that look Sano hated more than anything, that look that spoke of a responsibility that really shouldn’t have been his. This had faded somewhat, though, as Kenshin had taken in Sano’s expression. “I must ask you…” And he’d trailed off and smiled faintly, silently acknowledging his inability to continue under that stare.

Sano had known Kenshin wanted to ask him to stay out of the coming battle, both because of that damned unfair sense of responsibility and because he was still trying to protect him. But that was absurd; Sano hadn’t come this far to watch. And the impossibility of Sano giving the promise Kenshin wanted had translated into impossibility of Kenshin even asking it. But even if words could not, the concern in Kenshin’s eyes had demanded something of Sano. With an effort the latter had said, “I’ll do my best.”

Then they’d stared at each other for a long moment, and Sano had fought off the temptation to pull Kenshin to him for what might be their last kiss or remind him that he loved him. They were not going to die here, and any statement or gesture of such finality as to imply he thought they might could only have lowered morale.

As if understanding and concurring with this unspoken thought, Kenshin had nodded and turned toward the walkway. He certainly had understood Sano’s words, brief though they’d been — that Sano would try to stay out of the battle, try to let Kenshin handle it… but that he had his limits.

It turned out his limits lay just below the sum total of what he felt at seeing the two people most important to him cut down in front of him.

Seeing either fall singly, he thought, would have caused the same shock, the same body-and-spirit-encompassing leaden despair that had gripped him when Kenshin’s limp form hit the ground. But seeing them both fall, whichever fell first, was enough to inspire a hotter rage, a deeper pain, and a greater need to move, to fight, to kill, than he in his nineteen years had ever before felt.

With a scream he launched himself, fists clenched and aching, with no more complex motive than this desire to destroy and very little awareness of anything beyond his anger and his agony. Anger and agony were all he took into the collision, and were all he found there, and the only additional reflection that could pierce the chaos and the blackness that swiftly began to swallow him as he hit the wall and saw the world dimming in a spray of blood was that Shishio was right — he really wasn’t strong enough for either of them.

***

He couldn’t sense them.

Kenshin was half dead of blood loss and pain, more unconscious than otherwise, battered and shaken and anguished, and he couldn’t sense them.

He could feel Aoshi’s presence, weary but undaunted, and Shishio’s looming black-hot ki; he could vaguely make out the presence of the other two people on the platform. He could even hear a little of their discussion, though it was distant and garbled and incomprehensible as if he listened from under water. But Sano… where was Sano? Somehow Kenshin was sure Saitou was here too… how he knew this was less important a question than where Saitou was. Kenshin knew they were there, but he could not sense them.

He had to… he had to

Why couldn’t he sense them?

In a movement of will closer to slow and steady than passionate or determined, he pushed against the haze that shrouded him. With growing awareness came an increase in pain, which only paved a quicker path to full consciousness, and still he could not sense them.

Working, struggling, battling to awaken, straining for any indication past Aoshi’s chill and Shishio’s heat that Sano and Saitou were still with him and still alive, Kenshin forced his senses back into place and his eyes to open.

One glance was all it took to tell the tale: what Shishio had done, what Aoshi had done and why… what Saitou had done, what Sano had done… what Shishio had done to them. The blood running from Sano’s brow down his cheek onto his neck and chest… the wounds to Saitou’s legs and torso as he lay motionless… their pained, insensible faces… Saitou’s fallen sword, Sano’s limp fist…

Kenshin had felt all along that this was his fight, but only by extension of old loyalties and events of ten years past, only because a burden he’d taken on his shoulders during the Bakumatsu had seemed to include a certain responsibility for the actions and choices of some of his confederates.

Now Shishio had made it personal.

Kenshin could burn too. It was time to see who burned hotter, to test the black flame against the white. It was time to save them, to put all his desire to protect on the line and see if it measured up.

It was time to end this.

Chapter 16 – The Color of 120°

Gazing across the gap in the path that was clearly too wide to jump, Saitou watched as everything wavered in the rising heat that here and there even gave way to high-springing flame, and wondered how in such conditions he could possibly be so cold. How could he look over there, meet Sagara’s eyes across that divide, take in the devastation Himura’s body had undergone, and say nothing, do nothing in response? Sagara was screaming at him in a tone of such despair that his emotions were borne across the burning chasm as clearly as his voice was; how could Saitou listen to those words, those feelings, and respond by lighting a cigarette and smiling?

Had he been this cold watching from the deck of the Rengoku as Shishio ordered Sagara gunned down? Had he been this cold bursting through the arena doors to see Himura lying motionless on the ground?

No, never this cold. Tense, breathless, irate, bloodthirsty, horrified, terrified. No, never cold at all, except perhaps on the exterior, and even that had cracked at least once in both instances.

But in both instances, it had been they, not he, in danger of their lives. Had been a member of a pair that should not be separated, that he could not bear to see separated. This time it was merely a lone wolf that was only in the way. He’d done his job as best he could, considering the terrible dual distractions, and now could fade away — die perhaps — and leave them to each other as they were meant to be. This was the best of all possible endings, after all.

He was going to miss them, though, if he got out of this alive. More than just a little, if the pang that went through his heart at his final glance at Himura’s unconscious face was any indication. Still, he’d played a game against each of them and lost — lost more than he’d ever thought he had to lose — and he knew it.

“Ahou,” he remarked softly as Sagara finished his tirade in a voice that would echo in Saitou’s ears forever. I expected him, but not you, he did not add out loud as he took one last look and turned away into the rising flames and billowing brown smoke.

***

The closer Kenshin drifted toward the shores of consciousness, the greater the pain. But with the memory of the battle against Shishio and those preceding it fresh even in his hazy mind, this was no surprise to him. However, innumerable glimpses of Sano’s worried face and tortured eyes, indistinct and half viewed through barely opened lids as he repeatedly struggled and failed to reach the waking world — that was something he could not entirely explain. They’d come through the ordeal together alive, regardless of what state he would find himself in when he was at last able to take stock. Why should Sano appear so miserable? Kenshin didn’t think he was dying… but why else would that utterly forsaken look be so constantly painted across his lover’s face?

Unless… unless something had happened to one of their friends, and Sano was just waiting for Kenshin to regain lucidity enough to break the news. But how — when, even — could that have happened? Soujirou had informed them that the Juppongatana had been defeated at the Aoiya. Could he have neglected to mention it had not been a perfect defeat? Then, Kenshin remembered both Aoshi and Saitou standing, if not entirely healthy, well enough to walk and converse, after the battle on the platform. Might something have happened to one of them after Kenshin had blacked out? But though Sano would regret it, he wouldn’t worry so much communicating bad news about Aoshi — would not harbor such terrible pain in his eyes over that loss. Nor, Kenshin had to admit, about Kaoru or Yahiko or anyone else involved in this except for…

But Saitou was…

Kenshin knew he must have lost quite a lot of blood. Because Saitou was not invincible, and anything even approaching such a protest spoke of muddled thoughts.

His struggles for consciousness redoubled, and eventually through sheer force of will he managed to rouse himself sufficiently to whisper to Sano, who was seated at his side still with that horrifying pain in his gaze, “What happened?”

“Kenshin,” Sano whispered, “Saitou…”

Kenshin took a deep, tremulous breath, closing his eyes and sinking back into the haze.

He floated through memories, distant and recent. Blue haori and headbands mingled with blue police uniforms and cigarettes, a haughty smile presiding over all. A smile that had been turned toward Kenshin in genuine pleasure — there was no mistaking it — as he disembarked from that carriage at the police station and Saitou greeted him from the window. A smile whose absence had been conspicuous during the ride to Osaka, in as awkward a silence as three men could possibly attain and that had answered more questions than any words could. A smile that had never changed over all those years. A smile he would not be seeing again.

When he was finally able to open his eyes and look around without immediately falling back onto the pillow in profound exhaustion, he wondered what the point had been, as, excepting (thankfully) Sano, all the colors in the world seemed to have faded to a dull brown.

***

Sano couldn’t think clearly, and he didn’t know why. He couldn’t remember having been in this much pain at any time during his entire life. And he couldn’t be sure whether the pain was due more to the agony in his hand and his head — the memory constantly replaying itself of that walkway, explosions, fire, and unexpected loss — or the look in Kenshin’s eyes, as if the older man had just been stabbed, when Sano had told him.

He didn’t know whether or not seeing Kenshin hurting was worse than the loss he felt in his own heart, and it didn’t seem to matter much anymore whether or not that represented unfaithfulness.

Hugging himself in the corner of a window-seat in the room he was sharing with Kenshin in the Aoiya’s upper level — not the same room as before, as that had been destroyed in the battle — Sano stared blankly through the glass at the failing day. He felt so cold.

Of course no one could be invincible. He’d reminded himself of that fact when Kenshin had left Tokyo, but still somehow then put Saitou in another class, in a different category than Sagara-taichou and his lover. Possibly because he’d thought for so long that he hated Saitou, and therefore whether Saitou lived or died had less to do with Sano… or something like that. He couldn’t even think straight, and it was all Saitou’s fault.

He remembered how Saitou had looked at him through the door of that cell, the first time they’d seen each other since Tokyo. How after that incident it had seemed a matter beyond question that Sano would be accompanying Saitou at least until they found Kenshin, if not… well, forever…

“Damn you,” he whispered, letting his head fall so his face rested against the cool glass.

He was startled just then by Kenshin’s hand on his shoulder, the first sign of the other man’s presence. Sano looked up in silent surprise to meet his lover’s weary eyes, that gaze that seemed to hold every bit as much pain as he thought his own must. Kenshin touched his face wordlessly and joined him on the window-seat, curling up with him, his head against Sano’s chest, breathing laboriously just from the effort of moving here from his futon in his current condition. “You are thinking about Saitou.”

Sano nodded with a sigh.

Kenshin echoed the latter, but didn’t seem to have any further comment.

“I’m just so…” Sano growled out an inarticulate syllable before he concluded, “…pissed!” That wasn’t the right word at all, actually. “I just can’t believe he… he’s… dammit…” But there was no way he could finish that thought.

“Sano, you do not have to try to hide that you loved him.”

Pressed against him as he was, Kenshin might have felt Sano’s heart stop beating completely, but would not have been able to see how pale Sano’s face went or how his lips moved silently not knowing what to say.

The tone had been soft, containing no accusation or reproof, nor any more pain in particular than anything else Kenshin had said since their return from the fortress — and yet how could Sano answer? How did you reply when your lover told you he knew you were in love with someone else? Sano should probably start by reassuring Kenshin that he didn’t love him any less or any differently, which was quite true… but no matter how he began or what he professed, it would eventually come down to confessing that he had also loved Saitou so desperately that even with Kenshin here now, his heart was breaking. How did he admit to that kind of duplicity? He couldn’t stand the thought of hurting Kenshin any further, and yet… he just couldn’t deny what his lover had said, any more than he would have been able to deny that he loved Kenshin.

He took a deep breath, still unsure of what he was about to say… and suddenly found Kenshin’s hand gently covering his mouth, halting him. The redhead had raised himself and was looking Sano in the face, solemn and sorrowful.

“I loved him too,” he said, and his eyes closed slowly as he laid himself once more against Sano’s chest.

Neither one spoke again, for the true comfort they could offer each other was love and mutual understanding and this tight embrace. Their torn hearts beating out the same rhythm, they sat in the glow of a sunset that really seemed somehow more brown than crimson, and watched it fade slowly away.



<<15

Once upon a time, Aletsan was writing a fic called Healing Broken Things (though that was not its title at the time), and this story she updated every single day. Thinking this would be an interesting challenge, I too decided to write a story I would update every single day. As you can probably guess, each segment of this resulting fic was one of these daily updates, except for one or two that were long enough that I split them and wrote the halves on consecutive days. And it was an interesting challenge. It led to a story that felt different from anything else I’d ever written.

Of course the fic is steeped in hyperdrama from beginning to end and is chock full of hit-or-miss gimmicks. The first chapter sets the groundwork, and then it gets a lot… I don’t want to say ‘worse,’ because I find I like this story surprisingly much for all that. But it gets a lot… more.

At some point around the early teens (as the chapters currently stand), I decided I didn’t feel like writing any more of this story and gave up on it. Then I resumed it a few years later, writing whole chapters at a time instead of little scenes and not bothering with the daily-update stuff. I honestly can’t remember where that occurred, though, so make your best guess.

In addition to being illustrative, the picture at the end of Chapter 12 was drawn in exchange for this.

I’ve rated this story .

Constructive Nostalgia

— with that piece of junk? — I found it at my folks’ house while I was there; trashy-looking, ain’t it? — Why are you recording? — I used to spend hours recording stupid shit on this thing! — I have no doubt you did — It was awesome! I’d pretend to be a DJ introducing a song, and then record some random thing off the radio… or I’d make up my own song and sing it as loud as I could and bang on random stuff for drums. Or I’d fill a whole side of the tape seeing how loud I could belch, and then laugh my ass off at it and… hey, quit rolling your eyes, bastard! I was a little kid! — You’re very entertained by something you admit to be childish — Well, normal people enjoy laughing at shit they did when they were kids. You can’t tell me you didn’t do any stupid stuff when you were little — I certainly never belched on tape — But you did something. Don’t even try to tell me you sat around reading cop handbooks when you were ten — I read Tom Clancy — You did not — I did — Not when you were little! — I read The Hunt for Red October when it first came out — OK, fine. But that wasn’t all you did when you were a kid. Come on, what kinds of games did you play? — Why is this important? — Because you made fun of mine — We played Capture the Flag — ‘We?’ — The other kids in the neighborhood and I. We played it obsessively. Almost every day after school, and all weekend, until I got into paintball as a teenager — Hah! I’m not surprised. I bet you guys snuck out at night so you could play in the dark — Yes — And wore camo and face-paint! — Yes — Heh heh — You never did explain why you’re recording — Oh, yeah. I just wanna make sure it still works. I figure if I liked it as a kid, your kids might like it too — Oh, yes, please pass your immaturity on to my children — If you were really worried about that, you wouldn’t live with me — Hmph — Hey, at least I ain’t teaching ’em to defy authority. I never snuck out at night — Idiot, do you expect me to believe that? When do you ever respect authority? — Depends on what it’s telling me to do — Come over here — Yes, sir! — Turn that thing off first, moron. I don’t want our —


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #14 “Radio-cassette player.” Unusual formatting, but I think it’s pretty cute. I envision it as taking place in the same continuity as Fourteen Strange Looks.

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


漸進的 な 会得 – Gradual Understanding

漸進的な 会得
Gradual Understanding

These people Saitou and Sanosuke, they’re not him and me, and we don’t live in Japan, and none of this has anything to do with our relationship.

A string of bizarrely realistic dreams in a language he doesn’t speak about some old-timey Japanese people has absolutely nothing to do with his relationship and possible breakup with his boyfriend, no matter how much Sano and Saitou remind him of the two of them.

Unique to this story: narrating voice is disparaging of psychiatric patients and treatment.

漸進的 な 会得 – Gradual Understanding

It’s always thirty billion degrees when I get home from class, because he has the air conditioner set not to run when neither of us is here. Saving money or something. So the first thing I have to do is turn it up all the way. Then I toss my backpack next to the couch and my keys somewhere nearby, and sit down to yank my shoes off, humming the song that was playing on the radio in the car. I swear some of those songs from the 50’s only still get played because they get stuck in your head so easy. Some people might call that ‘catchy,’ but I call it fucking annoying.

There’s nothing quick to eat in the kitchen; there never is. I bug him to buy better food, but he goes for all that ‘sensible’ bullshit. And there’s only so much a poor college student like me can afford to buy on his own.

I end up drinking the rest of the milk, then flop down on the couch. I find my keys again that way somewhat painfully, and throw them on the floor. With a yawn I arrange the cushions better and close my eyes. Hopefully I won’t wake up until he’s home and making dinner… or maybe if I wake up right when he gets home I’ll be able to convince him to make grilled cheese sandwiches. With that happy thought, I drift off.

Almost the moment I’m really asleep and nothing’s left of my actual surroundings, it starts: I find I’m sitting somewhere I don’t recognize on some wooden steps — or a porch, I guess — my chin in my hands. It seems like I’m annoyed; I think I came into this dream a little late and missed stuff. Maybe a lot of stuff. I’m staring at some funny walls and doors that look like… something out of Crouching Tiger or something.

I yawn and mutter incoherently, and although it’s definitely the familiar feeling of me moving, I don’t have any sense of really being in control, of having sent the commands from brain to body to do those things. Guess I’m just along for the ride here, then.

One of the doors opens — slides open — and someone comes in. Well, this is outside, but he comes through the door. I recognize him right away, except he looks all Chinese. And he’s wearing some goofy outfit with a… skirt… I swear it is.

I realize I just said something to him. I don’t think I was making fun of the skirt, though, which is what I’d actually be doing if I were in charge here. Anyway, somehow it doesn’t seem to bug me that he answers in a language I don’t know: “始めまして. 私 石田散薬 という 妙薬 を 扱っている 多魔 の 薬売りで 藤田 五郎 と申します.” He’s pretty close in front of me now, opening this box he had on his back and holding up this paper sack. He sounds like a total yuppie, too, as he keeps talking about it; I think he’s selling it. Door-to-door salesman’s not something I ever would have thought to see him as; it’s pretty funny.

“待った 待った,” I tell him, whatever that means. “俺 は ここ の 者 じゃねーよ.” I guess I don’t want any of the paper bag stuff. “ここ の 者 は 留守 だぜ みんな.”

He looks kinda pleased with this. “そうなんですか…”

Something besides his funny clothing is obviously wrong here, because whatever I say next sounds pretty suspicious.

He just laughs, though, giving me a bright and somewhat creepy smile as he replies, “この 目 は 生まれつきな もんで.”

But evidently I’m not taking that answer. I can feel my eyes narrow — though not to the extent of the squint he’s got going — and I reach out and grab his wrist. “そう か い じゃお,” I growl accusingly. “薬売りにゃ全然 似合わね この竹刀 ダコ. これ は 生まれつじゃねえよな. てめ 何者 だ?”

Smiling, he just looks at me for a moment. Then he lets up on his squint and murmurs very pointedly, “なかなか 鋭い男 なんですね, 相楽 佐之助君.”

The uncanny color of his eyes has always been riveting, but at the moment I don’t have time to be captivated. His words are a jolt, and I’m jumping backward quickly and warily. For good reason, too: as he continues to speak in a dark tone, he’s pulling from almost nowhere — well, from his back — a real, actual sword.

This shit keeps getting weirder.

Still, I don’t seem to be as surprised as I reasonably should be at my pedemarketer-boyfriend pulling a sword out of nowhere or his back. I’m just making some grim comment and tensing up like I’m getting ready to fight him. Maybe I’ve got a sword too?

And then, I guess in response to my remark, he — I swear I’m not kidding — licks the sword. What the hell kind of kinky shit is this?! Isn’t he afraid he’s going to cut his tongue? God! “いいだろうよ,” I growl at him, not caring much for this behavior. I slam my fists together menacingly. “受けて 立つぜ!” Wait… am I going to fight him with my bare hands?? “てめえ の 正体 は この 拳 で 聞いて やろ!” I assert, and charge. I guess I am. Well, the adrenaline I think I might have conjured out of nowhere (from my back, maybe?) convinces me pretty well that I know what I’m doing. And the punch I throw at his face seems pretty effective.

At least, for about five seconds it does, until it becomes obvious he wasn’t knocked away by it, he stepped away to get his own attack ready. “成程,” he says. “ケンカ 一番と噂される だけおって いい 拳打 を しているよ. だが…” As he pulls the sword back and holds it funny, he finishes in this irritatingly disdainful tone, “それも 明治 という 泰平 の 世 で の 話 幕末 の 京都 に 於いて は この 程度 の 拳打 は 全く通用しない.” Apparently the meaning of the words is just as annoying as the tone, if my rush of indignation at them is any indication, but again I don’t really have time to react, because — shit, he’s fast!! — he’s suddenly racing at me with the sharp end of that sword pointed where I’d really rather not have it.

I try to dodge, but my movements seem sluggish and meaningless compared to his. Holy shit, that fucking hurts! Right into my shoulder goes the sword, and right through something hard and solid goes my entire body with the force of his attack. I skid and crash to a halt on my side, grating across the wooden floor of whatever building this is, pummeled with rubble from the smashed wall, losing sight of him somewhere even when the dust and the haze of pain allow me to see anything at all.

Oh, and I’m pissed off now. I’ve barely stilled before I’m hauling myself to my feet with a roar, swaying just slightly with pain and the loss of equilibrium. “どこ を 向いてる, 細目野郎?” I demand, catching sight of his back as I stand. “まだ 終わっちゃいねえぞ!”

“威勢 が いい な. だが…” He turns casually toward me; the sword is gone from his hand, probably because the snapped-off end of it’s still sticking out of my screaming shoulder. “大人しく 寝ていた 方 が 身 の 為 だったな,” he says; “致命傷 に 至らなかったとは 言え 深 傷 に は 代わない.” And though I don’t understand, it’s no surprise I’m not pleased by the admonition.

“るせい!” I bellow. “深 傷 は 負ったが てめえ の 刀 も 砕けた! 勝負 は これ から だ!” With this I rush to attack him again.

If I thought my chances were better now he’s got no sword, boy, was I wrong… he half dodges, half blocks my punch and at the same time slams the protruding end of the broken weapon into my shoulder. Through the agony this occasions, only a hot blur is his hand on my face, his harsh command “寝ろ,” and my swift descent.

I jerk awake as my skull should hit the floor, and I think I’m making some kind of funny gasping sound. Disoriented for a second, it takes me a bit to realize I’m in my apartment on the couch and nothing unusual is going on. My heart’s pounding like mad, though, and I swear for a split second I can feel ghostly echoes of the pain from my dream.

He’s sitting in the chair across from me reading the paper and looking as American as ever, and I can’t help staring at him for a bit. He raises an eyebrow at me as he turns a page. With a frown that melts into a yawn, I get up and go over and smack him.

He looks up at me skeptically.

“That’s for stabbing me,” I tell him.

The eyebrow goes higher, so I take his paper, throw it on the floor, and climb onto his lap. “You’re just as big a asshole in my dreams as you are in real life.”

“And I’m sure you’re just as big an idiot,” he replies, groping my ass.

“Well, I guess you thought so, ’cause you fucking stabbed me.” But I’m frowning as I say this. The more I think about it, the weirder that dream seems — because I usually dream about things I’m familiar with, you know? And I’m familiar with him, of course, and his bastardliness, but I don’t know anything about katanas or whatever, and I definitely don’t know any other language.

“You probably deserved it.”

“Maybe I did.” Maybe it was some kind of psychic message. That would be cool, except… why would I get a psychic message about my boyfriend stabbing me? Of course there’s the obvious sexual meaning, but it didn’t feel like that kind of dream. Maybe it was a warning, letting me know that everything I’ve been worrying about lately’s been right on target.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, with more curiosity than concern.

“Nothing.” I jump up. “I’m gonna take a shower.” Pulling off my shirt, I head down the hall.

I can hear him following, and soon he’s standing at the bathroom door watching me strip. Obviously he picked up my shirt on the way — which was mostly why I dropped it in the hall — but he doesn’t say anything about me throwing the rest of my clothes all over the bathroom. I’ll never get it — how is the hall different from the bathroom, when they’re both places you’re not supposed to throw clothes? He’s weirdly picky like that.

I close the shower curtain and turn on the water, but don’t get in just yet. First I have to say over my shoulder, “You coming?” As if I really need to ask. The sex is the one thing in this relationship I could never complain about. Hell, that’s probably why I’ve stayed as long as I have. That and the money. Which is really sad. Anyway, I step into the shower as he starts to unbutton his shirt.

It’s hard to use up all the hot water in a big apartment complex like this, but we’ve done it, like, three times now. I’m really tired by the time we’re finished, and neither of us says much of anything as, vaguely and mostly as if it doesn’t matter, we get ready for bed. And I’ve pretty much stopped thinking about the dream by the time I’m curled up beside him in a nice haze and falling asleep.

I can’t help but remember it the next day, though.

He’s almost always up and gone a lot earlier than I am — I’m not one for morning classes — so I come to alone, as usual. The new images in my head are already dimming, but that doesn’t mean I’m forgetting them. Having a second dream like that so soon after the first is more than a little startling.

I was still in pretty bad shape, and had to lean real hard on this woman’s shoulder to stand up. He was fighting some little red-headed guy in a dress, and none of the people watching seemed very happy about it. I’m not sure who was winning, though, and I woke up pretty soon after making some fatalistic-sounding comment in Chinese or whatever again. “無理 だぜ 嬢ちゃん… 俺達 には 止められねエ…”

I lie in bed for a bit and watch the image of the blue outfit he was wearing this time — a much better choice than his previous thing — blur into the ceiling as the dream fades. I have to wonder, really wonder, what this all means. Two in a row is no coincidence, and non-coincidental dreams are pretty much always important and trying to tell me something, right? And in this case the message seems fairly obvious.

My boyfriend’s a freak.

I’m broken from the downward spiral of this reverie by the grumbling of my stomach, and I remember the other thing I forgot last night: the dream and the shower distracted me from the fact that I didn’t have any dinner. Jerk probably had his own while I was getting beat up by him inside my head, and didn’t bother to wake me up for it. Or, I amend with a little more charity, lost track of the fact that he was human and forgot to eat entirely. Because he does that sometimes too.

With an inarticulate remark I’m fairly sure is about food — see, I make as much sense in English as I do in whatever-dream-language — I finally haul my ass out of bed and go to see which of my guesses is correct.

The issue bugs me on and off all day, but not so much that I can’t pay attention at school. Or at least not so much that I pay any less attention than I ever do. Between classes, I’ve got to dodge/hide from the poster people who want me to come to the environmental club thing and the campus improvement panel thing and the association of gay-bi-les-whatever students thing. Drive-time I’m too distracted trying to choose a new radio station (hopefully one that won’t annoy the shit out of me) to think about dreams. But once I get home, it’s on my mind full-force once again. I turn up the air conditioner and, after another futile glance through the fridge, plop down on the couch to do some homework.

I should know better. Know better than to look in the fridge and better than to think I’m going to get any homework done.

“なかなか 鋭い男 なんですね, 相楽 佐之助君.” I still don’t understand a word of it, but phrases are replaying in my head like they should mean something. “幕末 の 京都 に 於いて は この 程度 の 拳打 は 全く通用しない.” The image of my fist meeting his face, of him charging at me with that sword. “俺達 には 止められねエ…” Him fighting that other guy and me just totally despairing of a good outcome… And what’s the significance here, anyway? That I had two of these dreams? If I went to sleep now, would I have another one?

But there’s no way I can take a nap today, I remind myself dejectedly… I already put off studying for my marketing test, which is tomorrow, by wasting yesterday evening. And I don’t have time to dwell on dreams either, I add firmly. With a sigh I go back to the couch from the random pacing I was doing, dig out my notebook, and find that my marketing book isn’t in here. It’s probably in the car.

With an annoyed groan I lean my head onto the back of the cushion and glower at the ceiling. I don’t want to walk all the way out to the car through this heat… why the hell can’t I bring stuff in when I get home?

I turn on the TV.

The TV’s not mine, I reflect as the somewhat comforting noise fills the room. Practically nothing in here is. If I break up with him, everything’s going to be really empty for a while… Not that I’ll have leisure for TV, since I’ll have to go full-time just to pay rent. I probably won’t eat for a while, too.

I close my eyes and frown. Is that why I’m still here? Because I’m too fucking lazy not to keep leading him on if it means more work for me? Am I that big a half-assing jerk? That’d make me way worse than he is. He doesn’t deserve that…

The first commercial break makes me wonder suddenly what the hell I’m doing, and I flip to my marketing notes. I don’t take very good notes; I need the book. This is probably why, after several minutes, my attention drifts again.

Why’d he stab me, anyway? Was he there specifically to stab me, or was he just mad that I didn’t want to buy anything? Deranged door-to-door salesman… perfect… And why didn’t he kill me, then? I was obviously still alive to see the thing with the red-head, who it seems like he did intend to kill… why him and not me? Did he need me alive for something? Why through my shoulder like that? Why would he go to the trouble of kicking me around so badly, but not kill me, when he’s evidently Mr. Super Violent?

More importantly, why am I not studying?

I look to my notebook again.

He gets home after I’ve been following this pattern for a few frustrating hours without ever going out to get the textbook, and, given the prevalent topics of the day, I’m only half glad for the distraction of his presence.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to turn the air conditioner up? Just hit the ‘occupied’ button.”

“Yeah, good to see you too.”

“I’m serious; is it that difficult?”

”’bout as difficult as it is for you to be nice.”

“Grouchy today?” he wonders a little testily, and neither of us says anything more for a while.

I find I can’t stop looking at him, trying to pin down the exact differences between his real face and his face in my dreams. A certain annoying-as-hell quality definitely exists in both. And he’s hot either way, but who the hell cares about that when he’s stabbing you or harassing you about the air conditioner?

Eventually, of course, he has to start again. “You drank all the milk, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, so?” I look studiously back at my notebook, but he’s got to know I’m not actually reading it.

“So, if you tell me, I can buy more before we need it.”

“What do you ‘need‘ milk for?” I ask skeptically.

“A case I’m working on,” is his very sarcastic reply. “For dinner, idiot; what do you think?”

“Well, since you’re so smart, I’m sure you can figure out something to make that doesn’t need milk.”

He snorts. “Or you could.” And he leaves the room; pretty soon I hear the shower starting. I echo his grunt and jump up to go get my book from the car finally.

I’m not sure whether I think it’s a good thing that I end up sitting awake half the night studying and then sleep so hard there’s no room for dreams. Do I want more dreams? Do I really believe they’ve got some deeper meaning, that I’m going to find some answer in them? Or do I want them to stop? Do I think they’re getting in my way, clouding the issue, that I need to make up my own mind without this weirdness? Oh, give me a break. I don’t have time for this; I’ve got a test today.

It doesn’t go too badly, considering. Well, OK, it goes badly. But I don’t have to find out exactly how badly until next week, and then there are other tests this semester to make up for it. I try not to think about it. Not too difficult, when I’ve got plenty else to keep my mind off it. A little too much, really. I’m not the most gung-ho student ever, but this is getting annoying. They’re just dreams, probably induced — oh, yeah, why didn’t I think of this before? — induced by the stress of indecision about leaving my boyfriend.

I experience an almost-tangible wave of relief as this occurs to me. Of course there’s no secret, no message… it’s natural to have unpleasant dreams about him at this stage, right? It makes me feel so much better, that thought… for about two seconds, before some stupid voice in my head answers, Not in Chinese, it’s not. Not with swords and blood and shit. That’s not normal at all.

So I keep going back and forth between thinking the dreams mean something and that they don’t… that they’re the cause of my anxiety and that they’re just caused by it… and the point I keep coming back to is the language thing. Two dreams in a row in a coherent-sounding language I don’t speak has to mean something. But what the hell is that?

If I take any notes this whole day, they’re going to be hilarious to reread when this is all over… a painful, I’m-going-to-fail-all-my-Wednesday-classes funny.

My homework efforts this evening are just as laughable. Too bad I’m not laughing.

I give up the attempt when he gets home, but he’s late and tired and I’m grouchy… and, rather than argue again — though I remembered to hit the stupid ‘occupied’ button this time and he’s bought more milk — we’re quiet for the rest of the evening. More quiet than usual, actually, for after such a little argument. I mean, we fight all the time, and usually we’ve forgotten it the next day, unless we need make-up sex (which is pretty much always). But tonight we end up in bed with the lights off and no indication of wanting to do anything more than sleep. Is this because of my indecision, or it is the natural death of a relationship that was never meant to be?

I’m almost nervous as I close my eyes, and, probably because of that, it takes me a while to fall asleep. Then I’m standing very suddenly in a narrow street. It’s got the same type of look as the last place, just a lot shabbier. There’s an intermittent hot breeze, and by the smell carried on it, this neighborhood is every bit as run-down as it looks. I feel incredibly tense; I’m staring steadily, angrily in front of me… I guess I came into this one late too.

Barely a yard away, he’s facing me with a somewhat annoyed expression, and saying severely, “抜刀斎 に とって お前等 の 存在 など 弱点 以外 の 何でも ないんだ.”

For some reason, these words come as a painful shock, and for a moment I can’t make any reply. I don’t know who Battousai is or why I care so much what he thinks of me, but evidently it hurts to have this pointed out. He goes on, but I barely hear any of his harsh explanation and remonstrance. I’m shaking, breathing hard, battling a huge wave of anger.

I find, though, as I begin to speak, that I sound a good deal calmer than I really feel. “そう か… 俺 は 剣心 の 弱点 で… 守り きれない から あいつ は 独り で 旅立った って 訳 か…” Again with this Kenshin person who seems to be the center of this issue… that red-haired guy… who left me behind… and my stabbing boyfriend here agrees with that decision. My attempts at staying calm failing utterly at this thought, rage explodes through my chest as I clench my fists and shift toward him. “それ を 聞いて 尚更 あいつ を ブン 殴りたく なったぜ!””

He looks like he expected this, and says nothing.

“どけ 斎籐!” I order him angrily. “どかなきゃ, 力ずくで いくぞ!” Of course I’m not going to put up with this type of treatment; I’ll make him get out of my way.

“その 言葉… そっくり 返すぜ,” he replies grimly, tossing my threat right back at me. But I’m not afraid of him — actually, considering what he did to me last time we ‘fought,’ I’m probably a little too not afraid of him — and I’m racing at him, ready to do battle.

He doesn’t take the hit this time, but dodges almost faster than I can see. With a disdainful expression, he grabs me by the sleeve of the weird black-and-white thing I’m wearing, and punches me in the armpit. It must be not too long after the stabbing, because my shoulder’s obviously not healed yet. This Holmesian deduction that puts the scene into better perspective doesn’t do much to distract me from the sensation of shit tearing that’s really better off in one piece, blood gushing abruptly, and my whole body suddenly flying through the air as he throws me.

I slam into the ground with a pained grunt. A voice I don’t recognize is yelling something about that not being fair, but with the wind knocked out of me and my shoulder reopened I’m not in any condition to state my agreement. A moment later as his shadow looms over me and one of his heels slams unexpectedly down into the aforementioned shoulder, I’m not in any condition to do much more than scream.

He waits until I’m good and recovered from that shock — or at least have stopped screaming and can listen to him — before starting to explain why he won’t leave my damn shoulder the hell alone. The other voice (which, I finally recognize indistinctly, belongs to one of the people who were watching the fight with that Kenshin dude) is arguing the point. I override them both as I struggle to my feet. “痛かねエ…”

Oh, look at that — he’s surprised. He didn’t think I could still get up. He thought his point was made. Ha. Still, if I’m not mistaken, I just claimed this wound doesn’t hurt. I know I’m all for bravado, but, uh, it does hurt. Like hell, actually. But then I go on to explain that something having to do with Kenshin hurts a thousand times more, and I guess that makes sense… I may not have much idea what’s going on here, but I can damn well feel all this emotional turmoil. Using the latter to power my movement, I charge him again, and this punch connects hard.

Looking startled, he blocks it, but is still knocked backward. “Out of the way, Saitou!” I command again. “I’m going to Kyoto! 京都 で 俺 が ヤツ の 力 に なれるって この 拳 で あかしてやるぜ!”

“身 の 程 知らず が,” he replies tensely, almost angrily, looking me up and down. Then he puts a hand to his chin and says with grim thoughtfulness, “よく 言うぜ この 前 は 俺 に ボロ負けしたくせして.”

This makes me so irate I want to rip his throat out, but the sight of him removing his sword from his belt and tossing it aside calms me. Is it possible he’s going to take me a little more seriously now? But then, “So you won’t have any excuse about me having a sword,” he says, pretty much disproving that theory. “This fight will be on your terms — 拳 の 勝負 だ.”

I’ve noticed this blue outfit he’s got on, with the way the jacket-thing’s shaped, still kinda looks like he’s wearing a skirt. A mini-skirt this time. Too bad I’m too busy being pissed at him and preparing to get my ass kicked again to make fun of it.

He has a brief exchange with the kid, who’s trying to warn me about something, but I’m not really listening. I’m watching his hands as he gets ready to fight me. But as he finishes with, “No matter how stupid he is, he’ll understand how weak he is when I beat him at his own game,” I can’t help paying attention to his words.

I’m angry as all hell, but I think being about to fight helps me control it better (because I know I’m about to let it all out?) “Interesting,” is all I say through my clenched teeth, then slam my fists together and hurl myself at him with a growl.

Scornfully, and in a motion that looks almost slow compared to my wild rush, he blocks. Apparently exasperated, he opens his mouth, doubtless to tell me why that punch sucked — but I’ve got more up my sleeve this time. Without warning — and I think it’s a surprise to both of us — I follow up the first blow with a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth… countless more hits… I just don’t stop, my arms working like machinery, and there’s no way he’s blocking all of them… What a good idea! I’m pleased with myself. As long as I don’t relent, he’ll never have a chance to hit me back, and eventually I’m sure to get enough through to take him down. Seems messy and slow, but, hell, if it works…

It’s a flurry of heat and movement and the thump of flesh-and-bone contact, and after a while, arms burning, I guess it’s OK to let off and stand back to see how it went. Looks like I’ve forced him to retreat a couple steps, and completely shredded the sleeves of his jacket… but as he straightens from his defensive stance, I can see… Shit, it doesn’t look like a single one of my million or so punches actually connected with his body. What the fuck? Ruined sleeves shows what nice forearms he’s got, sure, but if that was the only effect of my great attack, even I have to admit it was a waste of energy. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about it.

“Finished?” he asks in that infuriating tone, advancing. He raises his gloved hands, and…

I needed more pain today, right? I needed fists like iron slamming into my face and chest over and over and over, right? It’s another unintelligible flurry of motion and impact, this time with a lot more hurting mixed in, as he returns my attack — only it works for him. Why the hell am I not blocking?

A jarring blow to the jaw knocks me right off my feet, and I barely feel myself falling to the ground through the stunning tremors from the hit. I’m definitely tasting blood, and the image of him standing over me wavers slightly. I find I’m not yet able to move.

“Do you understand?” he demands, then, ironically, adds, “お前 は 俺 や 抜刀 には実力斎 も 経験 ありと あらゆる 面で 遠く 及ばない. 俺達 から すれば お前 など 口 うるさい だけ の ヒョッコ過ぎん.”

During this little speech I’ve mostly regained my mobility, though my voice still sounds slurred as I shout, “Shut up! So what?” I force myself up, feeling unsteady, planting my feet firmly apart to keep my balance. “I’m going to Kyoto no matter what anyone says!” But I find even as I make the defiant statement that, though I’m standing, my ability to do just about anything else is not great. As a matter of fact, I may fall over again if I even try.

He’s evidently aware of this, and knows I know. As he draws back, stretching his right arm out and holding his left fist tight at his side, he says in a tone of grim command, “You cannot go to Kyoto.”

I don’t need the noisy kid’s warning to recognize the danger I’m in. The stance reminds me of the one he used to stab me before; he’s like clockwork, wound up tight and ready to strike. Problem is, I don’t think there’s really much I can do to avoid taking this hit. So like him to save his worst attack for after he’s already worn me out.

“No matter how hard you try,” he tells me disdainfully, then finishes as he begins his charge, “you’re still nothing more than an amateur!”

In the next flashing instant I seem to be concentrating on three things at once: trying to roll with his incredibly painful blow, avoiding getting knocked off my feet again, and doing something with my arms. It only takes a moment to find out what the latter is, even with the blood now running down my face and hazing across my eyes: I’ve caught his arm, as he drew it back, between my fists, and am applying what has to be an uncomfortable amount of pressure.

He looks unpleasantly shocked, and I feel a rush of satisfaction as I growl, “Your arm could have been broken by an amateur — how does that feel?”

“きさま…” But he doesn’t go on. I guess he’s actually going to hear me out.

“You’ve been having fun with your ‘amateur, amateur…'” I continue, drawing closer to him but not loosening my hold on his arm. “Maybe you and Kenshin are stronger than me, but you didn’t start out that way. Maybe I didn’t fight in the Bakumatsu ten years ago, or help build the Meiji era… Maybe I am an amateur, but that doesn’t mean I’m weak.”

It seems for half a moment like he’s contemplating my words, but before I can even begin to hope, he just makes a contemptuous sound and punches me across the face with his free hand. Which, now that I think about it, kinda is the tactical drawback to pinning one of his arms with both of mine.

“Bastard!” I shout at him as he moves to walk away.

Without pausing he replies, “I’m finished with you.”

“What?!” I demand, incensed.

“Trying to keep an idiot from doing idiotic things is a waste of time. Go to Kyoto if you want. You’ll die soon enough.”

“何イ?!?” I cry, even more furious than before.

He turns briefly to look back at me. “Any moron who relies on his current strength with no thought of defense can’t possibly survive very long.” Then he keeps walking.

I wake up with what sounds like a growl to find myself tense in a tightly wound sheet. However much I must have moved to get it so twisted up, I don’t seem to have bothered him; he’s got his back to me and the entire blanket.

I find I’m still pissed. He didn’t think I was good enough for whatever was about to go down in Kyoto, wherever the hell that is. I don’t know why I wanted to help with whatever it is at all, considering he stabbed me in the shoulder, and I don’t know anything about this Kenshin person, but obviously the whole thing meant a lot to me, so why did he have to be such an asshole about it? It seems so typical, though…

OK, this has to be some kind of warning message. Why else would I dream about him kicking my ass repeatedly just now when I’m wondering whether to leave him? He’s never hit me or anything — well, not seriously like in the dreams, and definitely not with a sword — but imagining him getting abusive isn’t too hard, even if the idea does kinda bug me.

As I struggle to escape the sheets, some of the grunts escaping my lips sound like curses against him, and I’m not quite sure they’re not. Finally free, lying still at last, I stare at his back and wonder. How many days can it possibly take me to make up my mind or work up my nerve or whatever? I mean, why am I still here? My reasons for being with him are stupid, he’s not a nice guy, and my subconscious seems to have an even bigger problem with him than my conscious. But here I am…

Maybe it’s just that I’m not quite sure how to do it. Not that I think he’ll be heartbroken or anything — yeah, right! — but what the hell exactly do I say? ‘Hey, man, we gotta break up because I’m just a horny gold-digger and I dream about you beating me up in Korean or something?’

I sigh and bury my face in the pillow.

It doesn’t even really strike me until I’ve lain still for a while trying not to think about it that I understood a good half of the dialogue in that one. The words were still… whatever language… but it wasn’t a problem for me any more. It felt so natural at the time, it didn’t seem at all strange to be slipping into comprehension… but it sure doesn’t clear up the issue. Yeah, I know a bit more about what’s going on in dreamland, but what does that imply here? My first thought would be that my brain is starting to make sense of its own nonsense… but that would have to mean I’m getting closer to some kind of real understanding — and I certainly don’t feel even the beginnings of enlightenment.

It takes a while to get back to sleep, and then thankfully I don’t have any more stupid dreams before waking up the next day. But what’s the difference at this point? Three of them is enough to mean whatever it means… that I need to leave him… that I need to stay with him… that I’m fucking stupid and don’t even understand myself

I go to school dully and without much hope of getting any higher education out of the day. The phrase ‘going through the motions’ comes to mind… an expression that’s often used, coincidentally, to describe failing relationships. Perfect. And for some reason, “No matter how stupid he is, he’ll understand how weak he is when I beat him at his own game,” keeps echoing through my head. The anger comes and goes, but mostly the day is just apathetic.

A new idea occurs to me when a psychology class empties into my hallway as I’m heading for the shuttle back to the parking lot. I’ve never thought about it before, but we’ve got to have some kind of psychology therapy counsely person on campus somewhere. Don’t most schools have those? And wouldn’t that person maybe be able to interpret my dreams for me? That’s what they’re there for, right? Assuming they’re there at all? They could help with the stupid dreams and the stupid big question.

Or would I just get handed off and become an unwitting contributor to some psychiatry major’s thesis?

No, I’m not even remotely distrustful and bitter about this place because of how much they charge me for the privilege of doing homework and having no life.

It’s the beginnings of an idea, though, and I give it some serious thought as I drive home. But I haven’t really reached a decision by the time I get there (which is so typical of me these days, isn’t it?), because… well, going to a therapist seems so extreme. They’re just dreams. And couples break up all the time without having to see shrinks. Simultaneously, though, I remind myself that if they were really just dreams, they wouldn’t be bothering me this much… and that no breaking up has actually occurred yet, just a lot of thinking about it. And if I can’t deal with something on my own, isn’t it about time to get help?

The idea of ‘getting help,’ however, is distasteful. It suggests I really think there’s something wrong with my head that I can’t work out. And I don’t think that, do I? God, I hope not. But as I seem to hear again, “Trying to keep an idiot from doing idiotic things is a waste of time,” and feel the same rush of anger in response as I did then, I grab the phone book.

Staring at the list of doctor names and numbers, running my finger absently over them again and again, I wonder if I’m really going to do this. Am I overreacting? I’m really just a very normal person who’s had a couple of abnormal dreams coinciding with a difficult decision, that’s all. Do I really need therapy? What if they want to give me drugs? Despite my misgivings, I’m drifting toward the phone. If I call, they’ll probably want me to schedule an appointment. Then if I change my mind later, I can just not show up. This isn’t a commitment to being crazy; I’m just testing the water. I pick up the receiver.

What meets my ear is the manic-sounding quick tone that means there’s a voicemail. Without even thinking, I dial in to listen to it.

“I’m going to be working late.” He always sounds so brusque on the phone… “There’s some cash on the dresser.” You’d never guess it was his boyfriend he was calling… “You can order pizza for dinner, and make sure to put what’s left in the fridge.”

I delete the message, hang up the phone, and go flop down on the couch. ‘Working late’ means ‘working really late,’ usually because of something exciting and dangerous, or at least some important development in some case. He’s got a pretty cool job.

Idly I wonder how he would react if he came home late after tracking down and arresting and processing some serial killer and found me and all my stuff gone. It’s actually a really disturbing scenario. No matter what I end up choosing, I won’t do it that way. He’ll know, and he’ll know why. Which brings me back to the question of what I am going to choose.

I don’t call a therapist.

After some pizza that isn’t nearly as exciting as pizza usually is and should always be, I head to bed. Yes, I remember to put the leftovers in the fridge. No, I haven’t touched a textbook since I got home from class. Yes, I’m going to regret that another day.

There’s no way I’ll fall asleep quickly. I’m not tired — hell, what-all have I done today? — and I’m sincerely nervous about having another dream, and hours pass with me tossing and turning and thinking almost nothing, never allowing myself to relax. When he finally gets home and moves quietly to get undressed and into bed in the dark, however, I force myself to breathe deeply and lie still. The last thing I want right now is a conversation.

Hmm, is that really the last thing I want? Is discussing whatever we would end up talking about really worse than getting beaten up by him once I’m asleep?

Now I’m almost tempted to speak.

Obviously, I don’t. And forcing myself to relax makes a difference. I don’t even realize for a while that I’m back there again until a chill starts settling over me and I notice that I’m seated on a hard surface rather than lying in bed. I open my eyes.

It looks like a jail cell. How the hell I got myself into jail I don’t know, but it kinda makes sense given how much violence I seem to be part of around here. I’m sure it has something to do with him, too.

As if in response to this thought, he appears. Well, I don’t see him just yet, but a door opens somewhere off to my left and I can suddenly hear him talking to someone else as they move in my direction. I get the feeling he doesn’t have any idea at all that I’m here, so I’m almost kinda looking forward to the moment he gets to my cell and sees me.

There he is now, walking alongside some short guy with a mustache and the same uniform he always wears. Guy’s talking about me, which seems like a good cue to jump into the conversation.

“Just like I thought,” I say loudly, triumphantly. “Instead of stumbling around in the dark, I made some trouble for the police so I could find you. Seemed like the quickest way of finding Kenshin.”

“You…” He only glances over his shoulder briefly, but I’m pretty sure he’s both surprised and displeased to see me here.

“おうよ,” I grin around what seems to be a feather or something in my mouth. “Sagara Sanosuke’s magnificent arrival in Kyoto.” After a moment’s pause, as he turns more fully toward me, still silent, I add thoughtfully, “Well, it was a gamble, actually… I didn’t know whether you’d come to Kyoto yourself or not. When I thought about it, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t just sic Kenshin on him and stand back.”

He still doesn’t say a word, so I get up and advance on the bars. “You could look a little happier to see me. I did do some training along that damn Nakasendou. Actually, I got pushed a lot farther than I needed to go by this one guy, just because I got lost…” It seems like I’m rambling, but my follow-up is more to the point. “Anyway, Saitou, I’m gonna show you the results of my training!”

The short dude asks Saitou if he knows me. “いえ, 全く,” he replies, and, turning, they both start to walk away.

“Hey!” I bellow, watching them through the bars. “Wait just a second, you!”

“It’s easy to mistake people when you’re angry,” he says. “He’s in the way, so just leave him down here for a while.”

Oh, I am so not going to take that. “Running away, you bastard?!” I demand at the top of my lungs. “Open this door or I’ll open it myself! Do you hear me?!” And when he only barely glances back before continuing down the hall, I actually do it.

Wow. Holy shit. I just totally trashed that thing! I punched it, but it wasn’t a normal punch… the wood’s half turned to sawdusty powder all over the floor, and the other pieces are splintered and small. And I did it. With my hand. I’m… I’m fucking awesome!! Guess I really did do some training on the damn Whatever-it-was. This’ll show him! It’s got to. Hell, that was so cool, I missed whatever I just said.

He watches me for a moment, then, “Chief, I will deal with this,” he tells the little fat guy (who’s not looking happy). “Please wait for me upstairs.” Notice he’s never that polite to me. Of course, I probably wouldn’t really like it if he was.

Once the other dude’s gone, he starts stalking toward me with this dark and very pointed stare. And I have to admit, even when I’m annoyed as hell at him for pretending not to know me and trying to walk away, he looks pretty hot like that. He also looks like he might want to kick my ass again. This is apparently what I want too, given what I’m saying to him: “I’ve got a lot of things I want to ask you, but first we settle the fight we started in Tokyo!” Why do I have the feeling this is going to hurt again?

Except that he’s not paying attention to me.

How is he not paying attention to me?!

“コラア!!”

He kneels down and examines the wreckage of the door, speculatively analyzing the technique. Which, I guess, is better than ignoring me completely. Except he doesn’t seem to be impressed by it at all. How the hell can he not be impressed?!?

Suddenly he stands and looks over at me. And although it’s a fixed gaze, I can’t help thinking he seems rather indifferent. Tired. “And what about the basics of defense I told you to practice?”

I shrug, grinning. Even from the inside I can tell it looks stupid, and he certainly isn’t pleased with me. Annoyed, he grabs the edges of my shirt and drags me toward him… but he doesn’t have words, apparently, for his frustration, so I speak instead, angry again: “Since when do I have to do what you tell me?” Dislodging his hand from my lapels or whatever they are, I continue, “Defense just isn’t my thing! I’ll fight my own way!”

He gives his hand a little shake, as if to get rid of the sensation of touching me, makes an exasperated sound, and turns away. “I don’t have any men to spare, but even so, you’re useless to me.”

I stare after him, fists clenching. “You’re running away again!”

“I’m very busy; I don’t have time to play with you.”

Frustrated but trying hard to keep my tone fairly casual, I take a deep breath and answer loudly, “Well, then, I guess it’s my win by default.”

“If that’s what you want to think,” he replies indifferently, not even slowing.

I think it’s the surge of pure rage at this behavior that jolts me to consciousness this time. Though I can’t even begin to piece together what the hell is happening in these dreams, one thing I’m sure of: he never takes me seriously, he never thinks I’m good enough for this big project of his. Seems like I’d even gotten stronger — which is kinda cool, especially since it felt like I was pretty damn strong before — and he still totally blew me off.

Of course, it doesn’t seem like we’re exactly lovers in this little sword story, so he’s not under quite so much obligation to take me seriously.

But half the time, he doesn’t take me seriously in real life either.

Shit, this is so messed up. Dreams are not something you base important, relationship-altering decisions on. At least they shouldn’t be… but these ones of mine are getting to that point…

I can’t stop thinking about it now. Not at home or school or anywhere. In fact, I skip my first class of the day to go to the computer lab and try to find some of the words I’m picking up. This isn’t all that educational, though, except to confirm that it’s Japanese. Whatever that should mean to me. Did I watch some movie in Japanese at some point and store away all these words in my subconscious or something? Because there’s just no way my brain’s coming up with all of this on its own… unless I’m really going crazy.

Yeah. Maybe he’s driving me crazy.

With this thought I start wandering around campus without much intention of going to any of my classes… and possibly no intention of going home, either. Home? Shit.

Maybe it’s about time I discussed this with someone else. Not a shrink, like I was thinking yesterday; that idea’s definitely out of the question now, though I’m not even sure why. But what are friends for, other than paying for dinner and driving you home when you’re drunk?

Once in the car out on the street, though, my confidence in that idea drains away. I’m still heading in the general direction of the place where a couple of my pals live, but I’m changing lanes at random and taking what could be considered the scenic route. Because none of my friends like him, but at the same time they’re all way pro-relationship in general… it’d be impossible to get an unbiased answer out of any of them, and no way in hell am I bringing up the dreams. What am I expecting to say or to hear? And what do I think I’m going to make of it? I know perfectly well I’m too hard-headed to take advice anyway.

Which is a really bad thing, I realize, if the dreams are some form of advice, whether from my subconscious or from the mystic ethereal lands of whatever.

I end up driving aimlessly for a long time. Briefly I play with the idea of just continuing to drive and seeing where I end up, but I don’t live in a movie where I’d coincidentally run into exactly what I needed to fix the situation at a little gas station twenty miles outside of town. I’ve got things to do and a boyfriend waiting either to be dumped in a face-to-face, not-spineless way or… not. So I stick to city limits.

I skip eating; contrary to the impulse that set me driving in the first place, I’m not in the mood to talk to people, and the process of ordering food seems overly complicated and not worth the trouble.

The best part of all this is that it’s not helping. I’m not resolving issues or comparing pros and cons… I’m just driving endlessly, wasting gas, my mind almost entirely blank, annoying myself with oldies on the radio again for some reason (though the instant some pansy ass starts crooning, Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream, dream, dream, dream, I turn the damn thing off). The occasional fleeting thought that has a shred of meaning is usually just a retread of everything that’s been bothering me all along, and what’s that going to accomplish?

And yet I don’t go home until it’s way later than I ever get home without letting him know where I am. Which seems blatantly rude considering just yesterday he let me know where he was when he was going to be home late… but it’s done now. The apartment’s dark; evidently he didn’t wait up for me.

It’s too much to hope that I can sneak into bed without disturbing him, since he’s such a light sleeper, but I do my best. He doesn’t sit up or even move as he asks, “Where have you been?” His tone is pretty neutral, but I get the feeling he wasn’t even asleep.

“Out.” I don’t snap it, but a one-syllable answer is always going to sound a little tetchy.

“That much I had noticed,” he replies dryly.

Since that’s not a question, I decide I’m not required to respond, and just settle into my place in the bed and close my eyes.

“Hey,” he says after a moment. Great, now he’s going to demand I tell him.

“Yeah?”

“Are you OK?”

He’s… Dammit, I’m just not sure… Of course he’s noticed something’s going on with me; he’s not stupid… he’s probably even guessed what I’m trying to decide… and he’s not a complete jerk… I just don’t… I don’t know.

“Yeah,” I lie.

It’s a thick silence, like he wants to say something else, but eventually it’s clear he’s decided not to. We go to sleep with our backs to each other.

Next morning I’m thinking maybe it was my increased uncertainty and discomfort caused by this brief exchange that brought on a dream with a slightly different focus. It wasn’t so much that he was an overt asshole this time… just that he was still undervaluing me. I blew up an entire fucking battleship singlehandedly, by being awesome, and kept from getting shot in the process, and he still didn’t have a word to say to me. I would say it’s like I don’t exist, but I sure as hell seem to when he wants to beat someone up.

So I’m angry again; seems I’m always waking up angry now. I’m getting into this way too much. As real as it all feels, and as much continuity as I’ve come up with, they’re just dreams, right? These people Saitou and Sanosuke, they’re not him and me, and we don’t live in Japan, and none of this has anything to do with our relationship. Just because I’ve got some fixation with impressing him — I mean, just because Sano has some fixation with impressing Saitou in my dreams — doesn’t make any difference in my real life… right?

I don’t even go anywhere at all today. Normally Saturday is a time for me to sleep in (more than usual), lounge around for a while, then go do stupid shit and find my friends… but what’s the point? I’d just be moody and annoying, and it’s about time to make up my mind once and for all anyway. If I’m staying with him, I need a good reason why. If I’m leaving him, I need to do it, stop leading him on and driving myself crazy. I need to figure out what these dreams mean, what they’re telling me. If anything.

First I lie on the bed and then the couch, watching sunlight creep through the apartment through open blinds. Then I eat something… not sure what… Eventually I find a deck of cards somewhere and deal myself a game of solitaire, or maybe more than one… I don’t know. I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing, but at the same time my thoughts are just going around and around and not accomplishing much either, like yesterday. What does he really mean to me? What do I mean to him? Am I brave enough to go? Or do I want to stay and I’m just being childish? And where in all this mess do the fucking dreams come in?

It’s inevitable that, spending so much time doing jack, I’m going to fall asleep at some point. At multiple points, actually, though they’re really just cat-naps. Long enough, though, for a broken string of brief images to hound me through the day:

Him and me talking as we walk up some steep path under these red arches in some mountain forest. He’s calling me an idiot again, of course.

Him volunteering to take my place as I fight some big guy in kinda gothy makeup. Obviously he still doesn’t think I’m good enough, and I’m surprised he cares whether I get my ass pounded.

Him getting ready to fight some weirdo in a blindfold while I run off, picking up some woman (oddly enough) and carrying her away before I throw a look back at him. I’m worried about him.

Yeah, so it all makes even less sense than before, but I’ve given up trying to follow the story, if there is one. The point, again and again and again, is that he doesn’t think I’m worth anything, but even so I

Well. I don’t know. Or maybe I do know and I’m just denying it.

He’s quiet and thoughtful this evening — worried, I think, probably about something at work connected with what kept him late the other day. Normally I would ask, but right now I’ve got my own concerns. We don’t really say much of anything, actually, and dinner is quiet and a little awkward. Then we watch TV for a while in continued silence.

After the news, we both get up to go to bed as if we’ve discussed it. I feel dull, and as if physical stuff like what I’m wearing to sleep just doesn’t matter at all… and he probably gets the wrong idea from me sitting down on the bed in nothing but boxers, because the next second he’s leaning against me, mouthing my shoulder and running hands around to my chest.

I fight off a shudder, trying hard not to show how much I’d like to… because I really don’t need this right now. Pushing his hands away, I say a little stiffly, “I don’t feel like it.”

He pulls his arms back immediately. “Fine.” Considering I’ve not once ever ‘not felt like it,’ I actually expected more of a reaction than that neutral tone, but not having to explain is a good thing. I lie down with my back to him and return to my thoughts.

Tomorrow is his day off, and of course I have no classes on Sundays. Normally when our days off coincide, we find something fun to do, and I’m wondering… would one last day and night together be a nice parting gift, or just leading him on more? I guess it depends on how much I really think he likes me. Which, when it comes down to it, I’m just not sure about. And maybe I’m only finding excuses to stay. Because, when it comes down to that, I don’t think I’ve even really made up my mind yet.

This isn’t the best mood or train of thought for falling asleep, but eventually I’m as worn out fussing about it as I would have been if I hadn’t stopped him, though not as pleasantly, and I slip uncomfortably off.

The scene I come into smells like shit and doesn’t feel much better. I could say it’s nice to get here after the ass-beating for once, but actually I find I prefer to know where all this raging pain came from before I experience it. As it is, it takes me a bit to focus on anything else — but eventually I do become aware that we’re standing on a stone bridge overlooking… I’m not sure… napalm or something… a canyon, I guess, filled with fire and billowing, rancid smoke.

I’m holding the Kenshin guy, who’s unconscious and, wow, he’s so short… Nearby is some sad-looking dude in a glowing trench-coat, and on my other side, of course, is Saitou. He’s… he’s hurt pretty bad, it looks like… bleeding heavily all over his chest and both his legs. Somehow I don’t think I did that to him, so it’s a fair guess I look about ten times worse. Of course, I don’t really have any idea what I look like at all around here.

I know what I sound like, though, and I think it’s the remains of my desperate annoyance echoing in the air as we stare at a giant pair of heavy-looking metal doors starkly closed in front of us. There’s a feeling here like everything’s almost over; I think the battle’s been fought and all we have left to do is get the hell out, which probably means getting through these things. Seems ample cause for frustration.

“Out of the way.” Rude as always, even when we’re all dying. But I shift aside to let him pass, noticing as I do so that he’s drawn his sword.

“Hey, you’re wounded too,” I object. It makes sense he’s almost as bad-off as Kenshin: he was pretty much in charge of this whole thing, I think, and he’s too dedicated to just let someone else do the hard work. But what is he up to now?

I don’t seem to be nearly as surprised as I should be to see him charging at the doors in that silly-looking attack position of his. There’s no way he’s going to be able to…

Well, I guess there is.

Wait, I took one of those to the shoulder? What the hell am I made of?!

He stands back in this kind of ‘after you’ gesture, satisfied with the jagged hole he just created as an escape route. Hell, I’d be pleased with myself too. I can’t help but notice, though, that the blood seeping through the bandages on his legs has increased quite a bit, and his face looks grim. But all he says, I guess in response to my protest of a moment ago, is, “I’ve gotten through more of these situations than you have.”

And then shit starts happening fast. As everything begins rumbling so violently it’s almost difficult to keep my feet, I glance back and see that some building thing behind us — sticking out of the opposite canyon wall or something — is starting to explode in places with loud booms and bursts of fire. Fire is likewise flaring around us from below, and in the next instant a huge pillar of it roars up just in front of me, right through the stone I’m standing on, scorching my hair (I think) and making my sudden gasp burn all the way down my throat into my lungs. Then in an instant it dies down again.

Panic leaps up inside me with the explosion just as abruptly, and is quelled just as quickly with its dissipation; it’s replaced by a very sharp sense of relief when I see he’s OK… if you can call it ‘OK’ when a twenty-foot gap has been blown through the bridge and he’s on the other side. “Sa- Saitou!” I call out to him, aghast.

“How annoying.” He isn’t shouting back exactly, but purposely says it loud enough for me to hear over here, I’m sure of it. Then, casually as if he’s not standing on the edge of a hundred foot drop into a fucking inferno, he pulls out matches and cigarettes and lights one. He lifts his eyes again, looking us over in that damn calculating way… and a moment later, starts to turn.

I can feel my eyes widening, my heart-rate increasing until I think my chest must burst, my breaths coming short, hot, and angry. Where does he think he’s going? There’s no way he can survive over there! “Saitou!” I’m screaming, and I can easily hear the internal desperation leaking through into my voice. “You bastard, are you trying to run out while you’re still ahead? Saitou!! What about our fight? Answer me!!”

What is wrong with me?! ‘What about our fight?’ What the hell kind of question is that? Can’t I think of anything else to bring him back here, get him to try to save himself?

“As I just told you,” he says, turning again and sucking on his cigarette as he glances back right at me, “I’ve gotten through more of these situations than you have…” His lips curl into that derisive smile as the cigarette leaves them and he adds decisively, “…idiot.” Then he walks away into a rising chaos of flame, rubble, and smoke as more of the world falls apart, explodes inescapably — most pointedly the place where he was standing just moments ago.

The sound of my own voice screaming his name as if I were the one dying is, I think, what wakes me up.

I’m struggling hard. I don’t remember for a couple seconds that it was just a dream, that nobody’s died, that I don’t need to save anyone. He’s holding onto me tight even though I was probably kicking him, and the room feels uncomfortably hot. Still, as soon as I’m awake enough to stop struggling, I cling to him, trying to calm down. I can’t get the images out of my head; my heart is pounding, and I don’t want him to let go.

“These dreams of yours are getting out of hand, it seems.”

Trying not to seem so childish and out of control, I attempt to laugh it off, but it comes out shaky and weak. I’m planning on asking whether he’s been wakened up and bothered by all my weird dreams lately, or at least something comparably reasonable, I really am… but I find as I bury my face in his chest, the only words that come out of my mouth are, “I love you. I love you, and I’m not going to leave you.”

A startled silence falls over us, interrupted by my rasping breaths against his skin.

“I’m… glad to hear it,” he finally says.

“Are you?” I ask shakily. I’m glad to hear it too. Guess I’ve got my answers.

“You were thinking about it, weren’t you?”

“Only because I’m an idiot.”

After that we just hold each other for a while; I’m calming down and adjusting to the heat in the room, which I think may actually be more internal than anything else — remembered heat from that platform thing. Finally I’m relatively rational, and with a deep breath I speak again as if there hasn’t been a lengthy silence between statements. “You and me, we’re… we’re not in a good place. We both have things we need to change about ourselves and the way we treat each other.”

After a pause not quite as long as the previous, but still taut and anticipatory in the warm darkness, he says, “I agree.”

The clutching of my arms around him intensifies as I declare with a strength of purpose, almost a desperation, that surprises even me, “But I think it’s worth trying to get right.” I stop myself just short of admitting that the idea of losing him, of letting go of what we have or could have without even attempting to fix it, is horrifying beyond endurance — a dramatic avowal that, even in this intimate, accepting atmosphere, might get me laughed at a little.

He returns the tightening of embrace, and, with an intensity to match mine, repeats, “I agree.” And he presses a kiss to my temple before we both loosen our grip in order to lie more comfortably. “In the morning,” he goes on more levelly, “I’ll make you a mushroom omelet and we can talk about it.”

“Thank you,” I whisper — and my gratitude relates much more to his immediate willingness — earnest desire, even — to work with me on this than to his offer of my favorite breakfast. He hasn’t specifically told me he loves me back, but I think I’ve got it pretty much figured out now. Closing my eyes, I bury my face in his chest. I’m exhausted, as if I really did just fight a major battle. And escape from the fiery fortress really is in view: I feel I can rest properly, dreamless and optimistic in his arms, now I know he’s going to try to save himself. Now I know we’re going to try to save us.

As I’m falling back toward sleep, however, he pulls me out, briefly, with a quiet statement: “I do have one question right now, though.”

“Hmm?”

“Who the hell is Saitou?”

I chuckle just as quietly against the soft cloth of his t-shirt, shaking my head in a nuzzling motion and grinning slightly as I reply, “It’s a long story.”

This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #6 “the space between dream and reality,” and dedicated to FarStrider.

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

Serious Risks to Your Health



It was pouring rain, which formed a decent enough excuse to take shelter under the awning of a large open-air restaurant even though he didn’t plan on buying anything. Well, Saitou was here; Sano could just pretend he had business with him.

The cop said nothing as Sano came to stand beside him, and even his facial expression appeared fairly neutral. This was his typical greeting these days, and, though technically pleasanter than his previous manner, it disquieted Sano. The latter could easily tell they weren’t what they had been to each other, but he was proportionally uneasy in not knowing exactly what they’d become. Their harsher animosity had faded, but into what? What did this subdued, sometimes even restrained show of mutual disdain signify? It made him uncomfortable to think about it. So, with an attitude of avoidance that, being so different from his usual confrontational style of dealing with things, seemed a miniature of the entire affair, he had developed a tendency to focus deliberately on some other, minor aspect of their interaction.

Today it was Saitou’s smoking, and its interesting prolificacy, on which his mind fixed. He noticed now concretely, which before he had never been overtly conscious of but must have seen, that Saitou lingered over the withdrawing of each new cigarette, the setting it to his lips, the striking of the match… and that once these tasks were accomplished, the object’s purpose was evidently fulfilled… that he rarely finished them before tossing them away. This behavior puzzled Sano, especially given that each new cigarette followed the half-spent last with such unflagging consistency.

It didn’t take long for Saitou to notice Sano paying minute attention to the smoking process. Perhaps mistaking the purpose of this stare, Saitou silently offered him one.

Bastard probably thinks I’ve never smoked before, Sano reflected, though more wry than annoyed, and just wants to watch me choke. This theory was corroborated when Saitou, instead of offering to light it for him, merely handed him the matches.

Sano stared at the little white cylinder. It was not an unfamiliar object by any means; even if he hadn’t smoked plenty of them, he’d seen enough in Saitou’s hands to last a lifetime. And, knowing as he did just how expensive they were, that the taste was not exactly compelling, and that they made your hands and breath stink, he had to wonder…

For him, in the world he knew and his level in it, smoking formed more a social ritual than anything else. It was a symbol of camaraderie to offer or accept a cigarette in settings where the need for a clear head made an equivalent offer of sake inappropriate. It wasn’t something he did obsessively like Saitou did, and he didn’t feel the craving he knew developed if you had too many of them. Not addicted thus, he found the entire thing an enigma. What made this little thing in his hand so appealing?

“Something wrong?” Saitou wondered casually, obviously waiting for what he believed would be an entertaining show.

Sano shrugged and lit the cigarette, then handed the match-box back without allowing himself the grin toward which he was inclined. This was just as well, for if Saitou was disappointed he didn’t show it.

Bitter. Harsh, bitter, potentially dangerous… There was no logical reason for the attraction. It didn’t make sense and didn’t seem healthy. The buzz just didn’t last that long. Why, then…?

He sucked slowly on the filter and, between drags, studied the object’s shrinking length pensively. He could feel Saitou’s eyes on him perhaps as steadfastly as his own had been on the officer a minute ago. The question why in regard to the cigarette still engrossed his mind far beyond the pale of logical inquisitiveness. Everything rational spoke against these things, and the rewards were few… why did anyone — why did he like them?

Slowly he came to a conclusion he had to find rather unpleasant: that the allure actually lay in everything that was unpleasant about them. They were foreign, alien, but this merely made them exotic; they were dangerous and went against common sense, but that only made them a challenge; they were expensive, but didn’t that just mark their buyer as having selective and therefore presumably good taste?

The appeal of a harsh obstacle with questionable dividend might be contested by some, but Sano thought he understood — and it made it all the more unfortunate that just in time for them to lose that allure — as they became commonplace, as the anticipated danger went unvisited, as the challenge was met and forgotten — then the addiction was felt, and what were you left with? A costly habit of mediocre appeal that you would probably still be better without, but by then could not do without.

Somehow this entire concept bothered him a good deal more than it reasonably should have. Yes, he found for some reason, as he kept his eyes locked on the shortening cigarette, he almost couldn’t stand the idea of running the risk of an inescapable addiction for the sake of an attraction that didn’t even make sense and was quite possibly based on everything that condemned it. It was… frightening… disheartening… and he had the urge to toss the thing to the ground, grind it out, and walk away without a word into the rain. Why it should disturb him so very much he didn’t care to consider.

He looked over at Saitou, thinking to say something but unsure what. Saitou still watched him, appearing inquisitive and bemused, smoke drifting from his slightly upturned lips. That was such a familiar sight, it only struck Sano after several moments… of course Saitou had more experience in this area, more information on this disquieting subject than Sano did, and could perhaps answer his questions.

“So,” he asked at length, “how long have you been smoking these nasty things?”

“Several years,” answered Saitou in a tone that echoed the curiosity on his face.

“You still like ’em?”

The cop glanced skeptically down at the cigarette in his hand, then over at Sano. “Yes?” It was a very derisive and now demandingly curious answer.

Sano took a long drag of his own caustic but oddly satisfying cigarette, and found his own lips forming a smile as it left them. He wasn’t sure why, just as he hadn’t been sure why he’d originally been so distressed, but he found himself entirely comforted.


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #13 “Excessive chain.”

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


Just That Bored

This wasn’t a topic that would normally make the least bit of difference to Saitou.

Saitou tries to keep himself from dying of boredom by looking for the answer to a seemingly unimportant question.



“Saitou? What are you doing here, de gozaru ka?”

“Oh?” wondered the officer with heavy sarcasm. “Wasn’t I invited?”

Himura cleared his throat.

With a roll of eyes Saitou explained. “The police chief asked me to patrol around the dojo to make sure this party of yours isn’t disturbed.”

Now Himura looked skeptical.

“I did remind him that with the kind of people you and that girl were likely to invite, the only danger would be from each other… but he insisted.”

With a slight smile Himura nodded his understanding. “The chief of police is very attentive.”

Saitou rolled his eyes again.

“Well, you’re welcome to come inside if you want.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “So I am invited.”

“And I’m sure you’re as pleased to know that as Kaoru-dono will be.”

“No need to alarm her,” Saitou replied dryly. “I won’t be coming inside.”

Himura, who’d already assumed as much, just nodded and smiled as he turned back toward the door; Saitou began his ‘patrol,’ looking forward to an exceptionally dull night.

Contrary to his avowal, however, the temptation to enter at least the grounds became after not too long acute, for he found that traversing the streets around the Kamiya dojo was about the most tedious thing he’d ever done. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if there had been any point to it other than that the chief of police had a hopeless crush on Himura; as it was, even the headache he must acquire from the presence of those within would be better than this monotony. He let himself through the main doors.

Patrolling the inside of the wall was at first just as boring as the outside, but eventually the party spilled from the building and there was at least something to watch. Saitou was actually fairly surprised at the presence of certain of the guests; those that noticed him were surprised at his presence as well. And given the caliber of some of them, about a third of those attending must be aware of his shadow-prowling vigil. Let them find out from Himura why he was here, though, if they were curious.

He didn’t think he could stomach drawing close enough to catch any of their conversations — though some of them (any that included the Oniwaban chibi in particular) reached his ears anyway — but at least watching kept the tediousness from driving him mad. Some of it was even faintly amusing. He had to reflect, for instance, as he observed the looks the tanuki constantly threw Himura, that if such a girl had been giving him that treatment, his reaction might actually have been legitimate fear.

The truly frightening thing about these glances, though, was that the rurouni appeared to enjoy them. In which case he was being remarkably slow about things… How long had he been living here, and no progress between them? Of course, all of the members of the pitiable Kenshingumi had been single for a very long while, it seemed. Obviously this wasn’t a topic that would normally make the least bit of difference to Saitou, but at the moment he was just that bored. And, really, it was a little sad how relationship-challenged this group appeared to be. That Sagara boy, for instance, who was currently entertaining a small cluster of friends with a gesture-filled anecdote… shouldn’t he have snagged that doctor woman by now?

Well, the pointy-eared medic, for all her manhandling ability, wasn’t strong enough for someone like Sagara. The boy would be better off with Himura himself… except that the redhead was so short and annoying and enamored of an even more obnoxious girl. The latter might actually have been a decent match for the doctor, but she also wouldn’t do for the roosterhead.

Shinomori might be a good option… or perhaps not… even if Super Angstman could escape the jealous clutches of the Shrieking Sidekick, there was no way Sagara could long put up with someone that dull. The Okashira might do well for Himura, though. And the weasel might match Sagara’s energy fairly closely, but the boy definitely didn’t have the patience it would require to tolerate her for any great length. Saitou didn’t think anyone did. It might be amusing to watch someone try, though: the kenkaya or — sudden thought, even better — Chou. How long would the weasel last once the broomhead snapped? And what kind of damage would she inflict on him before he killed her?

Come to think of it, Chou himself might not be the worst choice for Sagara. Well, if the stupid phallic-symbol-collector had the stamina for more than a two-day relationship and an attitude focused just a little more outward, that is. And maybe a better hairstyle.

So perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise that Sagara didn’t have anyone, when there seemed to be something that unsuited each of them for him. But for some reason Saitou kept thinking there was somebody around that was suited for him… somebody so obvious it was actually a little difficult to figure out who it might be… who was he missing? He looked around at the remainder of the party guests.

Of course there was always Himura’s eccentric master with the odd taste in clothing… Saitou wasn’t overly familiar with that person, but from the little he’d seen so far it seemed the caped giant was in love with himself to the point where bringing somebody else in would make it a threesome and someone was bound to get jealous, possibly the man himself.

Sagara’s quiet friend with the long hair was probably the one Saitou was thinking of. The officer didn’t know much about him either, other than what he did for a living (and otherwise), but… it still didn’t seem right. The man always looked so gloomy… that wouldn’t do for Sagara. Not in a romantic sense, anyway. It might for Shinomori, though…

This was no use. A question whose answer eluded him so completely was almost worse than the boredom it was supposed to replace. And yet nothing else would occupy his mind. Well, there was that restaurateur… Sagara was fond of a good meal, of course, but there wasn’t much to Sekihara beyond business; she probably wouldn’t be able to hold his attention anywhere but at a dinner table.

And then there was that overdressed scythe-wielder that was supposed to be in England… Saitou wouldn’t even have considered him, but he was running out of choices; still, it was obvious offhand that Honjou wouldn’t do: Sagara might look decent with a woman prettier than he was, but never with a man. Maybe the psychotic Tenken was a better former-Juppongatana candidate… but, no, the last thing Sagara needed was somebody that compliant; Seta’s smiles would only egg Sagara on in every one of his foolish behaviors.

There had to be someone else. Why did it seem the answer was there, but barely beyond his reach? The most annoying part was that it didn’t matter… it was just something to keep him from insanity… it shouldn’t be this frustrating…

Eventually, after what felt like several ages, the party began to break up, and goodbyes were said to those not staying at the dojo. Saitou was fairly sure his presence was even less required at this point than it had been before, and gladly slipped away for home before the guests really started to leave.

The question about Sagara, and the conviction that he was forgetting someone, bothered him still, but that was fading along with the overriding need to stave off boredom. And once he stopped thinking about it all together, the answer was sure to come to him.

Actually, considering it had to do with that perverse roosterhead, it was likely to strike him at the least convenient moment possible — just when he’d fallen asleep, or some such.

Stupid boy was troublesome like that, even when he wasn’t around.


I’ve rated this story .

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


Fate and/or the Radio


Saitou didn’t usually listen to the radio, especially not when he had a headache, especially not in his car, and especially not when he was on the phone.

…one day, summer afternoon, just me, nothing much to do…

But the fact that he’d dialed the number mostly against his will, calling someone he didn’t want to be thinking about in the first place but hadn’t been able to stop thinking about all day, had made him desperate — his scheme was that, even if the moron was awake and decided to answer, and even if he sounded completely irresistible over the phone, the music would be distracting enough that Saitou would be able to get away with just giving him a hard time, annoying and confusing him, and not asking him out.

…then he swayed on by me, brown hair and a wicked body…

Saitou changed the station with a frown. The main reason he didn’t listen to the radio was that he hated just about everything everyone played.

…my love, my love, where have you been? my love, my love, where did you go?

Three rings. One more would be a good excuse to hang up.

No such luck. A tired voice, frustrated and surprised: “It’s fucking midnight, man, and I already told you everything I know, like, a hundred times, and you even wrote it down… what the hell do you want now?”

…my love, my love, what have you seen? my love, you’re such an idiot…

“I don’t recall giving you my cell number.” If ever man spoke in the tone of a raised eyebrow, it was Saitou. “How did you know it was me calling? Or do you always answer the phone like that?”

An uncomfortable silence ensued on the other end of the line, followed by the slight clearing of a throat.

…like an idiot… I run around like a chicken with its head cut off…

“You are aware that stalking is a felony?” Saitou pursued with a smirk that, like the raised eyebrow, was evident in his voice; he changed the radio station again.

…you’re too young to love me, and I’m too old for you…

“Well, I just…”

…at least that’s what they tell us; it’s in their book of rules…

“What exactly did you think to accomplish by stealing my cell number? You can’t have been planning to call me at any point.”

…that you’re too young, too young, baby, you’re too young…

Saitou changed the station again even as the other voice said in gruff embarrassment, “Well, maybe I…”

…oh my pretty, pretty boy, I need you…

“Unless there’s some detail you neglected to mention in reference to my case?”

…oh my pretty, pretty boy, I do… let me inside…

Saitou jabbed the ‘seek’ button a little harder than usual this time.

“No! man! I told you! I’m so fucking sick of that shit… I even told you what kind of shoelaces the bastard had… can’t you fucking leave me alone?”

…when you look at me with those brown eyes, what do you want to do?

“If you wanted me to leave you alone, why ever did you have my number?”

…do you have to have me the way that I want you?

“OK, why the fuck did you call me? I mean, did you have anything real to say, or did you just want to give me shit like always?”

…I want you…

He changed the station again, but it was obviously futile. As hard as he’d tried not to have anything real to say, it seemed fate and/or the radio had other ideas. So much for his great strategy of distracting himself. “As a matter of fact, I was calling to see if you wanted to go eat somewhere; I just finished work.”

Silence.

“Kid, I know you can’t say no to free food and possibly alcohol.”

“I don’t… want to say no… I’m just trying to figure out if you’re seriou–hey, you’re a cop and I am so too young to drink.”

“Too young to purchase alcohol. And I’m an investigator, not a street cop.”

“Close enough.”

“Hn. Are you at home?”

“Why; you know where I live?”

“You’re a witness; of course I have your address on file.”

“You know stalking’s a felony, right?”

…here they come to snuff the rooster…

“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

…yeah, here come the rooster…

“I’ll be ready.”

…you know he ain’t gonna die…

Ending the call with a shake of his head and a slight smile, Saitou set the phone down and turned the radio up.



The first time I heard that song about snuffing the rooster, I was like, Hmmm, how can I use this? And finally the idea came to me of driving Saitou crazy with songs that would remind him of Sano. Now, how likely it is that Saitou would actually find all or even most of these songs playing on any station anywhere (not to mention why nobody was on commercials as 90% of radio stations are 90% of the time), I don’t know. I just used what I needed. In order of appearance, those are:

Brown Haired Boy by Sweetbox, Idiot by Coldplay, Too Young by Elton John, Pretty Boy by M2M, Brown Eyes by Fleetwood Mac, and Rooster by Alice in Chains.

I’ve rated this story .

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


Saitou’s Secret Fetish

Saitou’s Secret Fetish

Two men in a slightly darkened room.

An air between them of surprise, tension, secrecy.

A worried tone.

“You swear you won’t tell anyone?”

A look.

“I swear.”

The shaking-out of folded garments; the rustle of fine cloth.

A floral pattern, sparkling gold stitching. Crimson and gilt.

Eyes widen. Disbelief that he’s actually going to put that thing on.

“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

A dumbfounded nod.

The black yukata goes before, the sable obi and golden sash after.

A box is opened by precise gloved hands; one of the men gapes. “You’re not seriously…”

A silencing look.

Cool white cream smooths over warm skin, hiding all natural coloring.

A whisper. “‘Jime, I can’t believe you’re actually doing this.”

Rouge.

A young man by now very much discomfited. “I had no idea you were into this kind of stuff.”

A black pencil around already-dark eyes.

“I mean, you of all people…”

A harsh look, a remembered agreement.

A sweep of gemlike scarlet across puckered lips.

Finished.

A mirror held up in satisfied gloved hands.

A tori-atama actually trembling. “I don’t believe what I’m seeing.”

An amused reply. “You look lovely; besides, you agreed to it, in exchange for–”

“Yeah, yeah, I know… but when do I get to wash this crap off?”

“After we’re done.”

A licentious look. “Fine. But is this what I gotta let you do to me every time I wanna top you?”

This was written for Queen Yokozuna’s Sizzle and Burn s a i s a Fanfiction Challenge, for the cross-dressing bonus category. These days it teeters on the edge of being downright hateful, so I’ve rated it .

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