His Own Humanity: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré

Even from a huge distance — nearly from space, seemingly — it was obviously a great collection of objects, like a vast landfill where only one specific type of item was allowed. What type that was he didn’t know; though he could see they were all similarly shaped, he wasn’t close enough yet to identify them. But he was nearing, gradually, inexorably, like something floating on an incoming tide. All he had to do was wait patiently, and after not too long he would see…

Cell phones. It was an unthinkably huge collection of phones stretching into infinity and piled to oceanic depth. They were all different brands and models, showing a wide variety of conditions and levels of use. Their one feature universally in common was their stillness and silence. No light shone from the face of any; they might all have been dead, headed for recycling or an actual landfill or whatever heaven existed for cell phones.

But as he drew closer, close enough to make out the numbers and letters on each visible keypad and the staring blank expanses of the touchscreens, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a message somewhere for him, specifically for him. He looked around. It should be easy enough to spot in this desolation.

It was. Like some great mythological creature deep beneath the sea opening a thousand eyes at once, the phones abruptly lit. There was no wave of sudden power and reception spreading from one point to another; it was a spring to life so simultaneous it was as if a new image had been inserted in front of his eyes, obscuring the old, and beneath the new one still lay the dark, powerless expanse. And yet the light was so bright from the combined faces, though there was nothing to illuminate, that it was difficult not to believe in it. Besides, when he caught sight of the origin and purport of the message blazoned across the face of every phone from here to infinity, he had no choice but to believe.

It was from Quatre.

It said simply, Help.

Heero awoke to feel arms clinging to him violently, tight enough almost to hurt; and he found himself nestling against Duo and petting his hair in what he must subconsciously have thought was a soothing gesture before he was even fully awake.

“God dammit,” Duo murmured brokenly as his clutching hands moved desperately, convulsively, across Heero’s body almost as if checking him for injuries.

“I’m sure this will stop eventually.” It wasn’t the first time Heero had offered this reassurance recently, since this wasn’t the first time Duo had awakened like this in a panic. “Just give it time.”

Duo clung tighter. “I’m sorry.”

Heero shifted so as to put both arms around Duo and pull him close. “It’s OK.”

“I don’t want to feel like that again,” Duo whispered harshly. “I can’t do that again. I can’t–”

“You don’t have to. You’re not a doll anymore, and you never have to be again. See?” Heero ran a hand up and down Duo’s back, reminding him that he was here, that Duo could feel him, that this was real. “Never again.”

With a very deep breath, Duo forced himself to calm down, continuing to draw air into his lungs in a slow, deliberate pattern and closing his eyes. Finally he chuckled weakly. “How many times do we have to go through this?”

“As many as it takes,” Heero replied.

He could see only the faintest glint of light from outside the bedroom door on Duo’s eyes as they opened again, but he could hear an equally faint grin in the reply, “I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be comforting or what… but don’t think I don’t appreciate that you’re offering to be there.”

“I always will,” Heero promised.

They lay in silence for a while, the tightness of Duo’s arms around Heero the only indication that he hadn’t gone back to sleep. Finally he said, “I was a doll for a long time, you know.”

“I do know.”

“Longer than I’ve been human, actually.”

“Yeah, it’s going to take some doing to beat that.”

“It’s…” Duo’s voice lowered to an unhappy murmur. “I think it’s possible that I’ll never really get over it. We may have to go through this three times a week for… ever…”

Heero shrugged against the pillow. “As many times as it takes,” he reiterated. Inside, though, he was reflecting that if what Duo feared really did turn out to be the case, some manner of professional assistance would seem advisable. But what kind of counseling did you seek for someone whose issue was that he’d been a doll for eighty-seven years? A therapist that was aware of magic, obviously… in this crazy world with its dangerous hidden facets, such people must exist; it would just be a matter of finding them. He would have to talk to Trowa about it.

In the meantime, he might as well do what he could to try to work through Duo’s worries on his own. So he asked, “Are you nervous about starting work on Monday?”

“Yes,” said Duo emphatically. “I’d be nervous about that even if I’d grown up like a normal human and gone to real schools and everything.”

Though Heero didn’t know if he believed this of the confident Duo, it wasn’t a point worth arguing. “You know you’re going to do fine, though, right? You’ll have training first, so you’ll know exactly what’s expected of you and how to do it.”

“Will you be training me?” Evidently this topic change was working, for Duo’s tone was now, in addition to the concern and agitation Heero was seeking to calm, part wistful — since he knew the answer was no — and also just a little playful or even suggestive.

“I’ll certainly be there if you have any questions. You already email me twenty times a day half the days of the week; you can keep doing that if it’ll make you feel better. But they’ll get you a company email address, probably Wednesday or Thursday… I’m sure it’ll be dmaxwell@winner-plastics.com.”

“Ooh, that sounds so official! And I can send you completely sexually explicit emails from there, at work, with my work email, with both of us at work, and I won’t get in trouble for it?”

“You will get in trouble for it if anyone but me sees them.” Heero’s attempt at sounding severe, battling his urge to laugh, was losing badly. “But PG-rated flirtation should be fine.”

By now Duo had loosened up and stopped clutching at Heero so fiercely, and his voice as he said, “I’ll have to think up some good stuff that won’t get you fired,” had returned to something like its usual level of casual sanguinity.

Deeming it safe, therefore, Heero said, “And I think once you’re working full-time, it’ll be a pretty constant reminder that you’re human.”

“Yeah, I think so too.” Duo’s nod made a rustling sound against the bedding. “And it’ll give me more stuff to think about, so maybe it’ll distract the dreams away.” Despite his obviously greater amount of hope and calm, he still sighed as he added, “Maybe.”

Heero leaned forward with a kiss aimed at Duo’s forehead, but in the darkness found an eyebrow instead. “I can work harder at distracting you, too,” he murmured. “Make sure you have more stuff to think about.”

The warm breath of a faint, appreciative laugh touched Heero’s neck, against which Duo, yawning, then nestled his head. This resulted in his next statement coming out a bit muffled. “You know what? I love you.”

Heero kissed the top of Duo’s head and then rested his chin on it, pulling him closer once again.

After a few more comments against Heero’s skin, increasingly incoherent, Duo fell silent and started breathing deeply and evenly. Though he would eventually, Heero didn’t release him just yet. He liked to imagine that, holding Duo, he could hold off the dreams as well, hold at bay everything that troubled his lover, protect him from a world that had already been unusually unkind to him. If only it were that easy.

Despite this, however, Heero was actually rather pleased with himself. Maybe it was arrogant, but he thought he’d done quite well at helping Duo recover from his nightmare relatively quickly and smoothly. Once again, if only it were always that easy to help Duo in dealing with the aftermath of the curse. The problem was that the damn thing only struck at dark moments when Duo was most vulnerable, usually when Heero couldn’t help him. It didn’t seem fair that sleep, something Heero knew Duo had missed intensely while he’d been a doll, had been tainted by this recurring experience.

Heero would definitely have to talk to Trowa about the possibility of some kind of magical counseling.

For now, though, he just tried to get back to his own sleep and not think about bad dreams or the very high probability of their return, since there really was nothing he could do to stop them. This had been happening fairly regularly for almost two months now, after all, and Heero didn’t know how much he believed the proposed job/distraction theory they’d just discussed. The good news was that he was becoming more and more adept at damage control… he’d gone from the startlement and nearly ungovernable concern of the first few instances to a response so quick it seemed to begin even before he awoke; by now he tended to start attempting to calm and comfort Duo before he’d consciously registered what was going on.

Tonight he’d even been dreaming uncomfortably himself, hadn’t he? –possibly in subconscious response to the signs Duo had been giving. He was reacting more and more quickly, becoming more and more in tune with Duo. Maybe that really would lead to a heightened ability to help one of these nights.

And yet… the specifics of the dream he’d been having were niggling at him, trying to make themselves heard above his other thoughts. The memory of exactly what he’d seen in his sleep was gaining clarity, and Heero found himself frowning in the darkness as he ran through the events — if they could be called that — in his dream. In fact, he was waking again, increasingly worried and perplexed, and he had to struggle not to tense up and squeeze Duo awake as well. It hadn’t begun to occur to him while he’d been busy with his unhappy boyfriend, but… this wasn’t actually entirely about Duo, was it? It couldn’t be.

Because if it had been prompted only by Duo’s distress, to which he’d been responding even before he’d awakened, why had his dream centered around a request for help from Quatre?

Trowa was still a much earlier riser than his longtime best friend, so Duo found it no surprise, when Trowa put his head into Heero’s apartment late Saturday morning, that it looked as if this wasn’t the first time he’d done so. On previous in-peekings, Trowa had probably heard signs first of Duo letting Heero know exactly what he thought of a boyfriend that was so steadfastly comforting and supportive during a period of stress and nightmare, and second of a vigorous shower, but this would be the first time he’d actually seen anyone up and about.

Duo, who was very helpfully helping Heero in the kitchen dressed only in pajama pants, caught the motion of Trowa’s door opening and glanced over in time to see his friend step slowly inside, close the door behind him, and stand somewhat disconsolately against it.

“Hey, Trowa!” he greeted. “Come in and have breakfast!”

“Come in and distract Duo so I can actually make breakfast,” Heero amended quietly.

“I’ll put a shirt on, even,” was Duo’s generous accompanying offer.

When he returned from this errand wearing one of Heero’s tees, he found that Trowa had wandered over to the sofa and sat down somewhat stiffly. His friend was now involved in an unnecessarily arduous discussion about whether he wanted breakfast, how likely he was to suffer if he skipped breakfast, and what, in the event he did want breakfast, he would like for breakfast. Heero was very patiently wringing answers out of Trowa, who was being far more unresponsive than usual; it was a little odd.

“You know Quatre will get on everyone’s case if you don’t eat,” Duo said as he flopped down on the couch.

Trowa stiffened even further at the mention of Quatre’s name, and this was the last sign Duo needed that something was wrong. Normally that sort of remark was everything required to get Trowa to shape up and act like a human being.

“So, what’s going on?” Duo wondered, hoping to spare Trowa’s feelings by letting him be the one to introduce whatever was bothering him. “Planning anything super exciting for your birthday?”

Trowa just shrugged.

“Birthdays count again,” Duo reminded him. “That’s worth celebrating, isn’t it?”

Faintly Trowa smiled. “You’re right about that.”

This wasn’t getting anywhere, so Duo decided to repeat the only word that had gotten a specific reaction thus far. “You and Quatre heading out to someplace extremely romantic?”

Simultaneously Trowa repeated his shrug, sighed a little, and looked away at nothing. “I thought we were,” he said, “but I think plans may have changed.”

This was enough to catch whatever portion of Duo’s attention hadn’t already been riveted on the conversation — not merely because Trowa was unhappy about something, but because words like ‘think’ and ‘may’ had just been applied to a plan involving Quatre. There might be times when Quatre’s plans weren’t entirely certain, but that was generally months before the event in question… and Trowa was turning 112 (or perhaps 25) tomorrow. “What happened?”

Trowa was consideringly silent for a moment. “He was in a bad mood last night.” Clearly he was trying to downplay this, but it wasn’t working.

Thinking back over the five months in which he’d known Quatre, Duo was having a hard time finding any memory to supply the information he wanted. Finally he asked in some interest, “What’s that like?”

“Not very enjoyable for me.”

This, Duo thought, answered his question: Trowa and Quatre had had a little tiff, and Trowa was here to pout and be petted about it. Doubtless Quatre would call or show up later, apologetic and full of plans for tomorrow, and everything would be fine. For now, it was probably best to let Trowa get everything off his chest in his own time.

“I’m worried,” was how Trowa began, in a tone of confession — as if worrying about his boyfriend after an argument was a sign of weakness or something; poor Trowa. “He isn’t answering my phone calls, and he isn’t in his room at his house.”

“Well, he wouldn’t be, if he’s annoyed and off somewhere,” said Duo reasonably. “Heero! Where does Quatre go when he’s annoyed?”

“Swimming,” Heero replied, so promptly that it was obvious he was listening intently to the entire discussion.

“See?” Duo gave Trowa a comforting pat on the shoulder. “He’s not going to answer his phone if he’s in a pool, but I’m sure he’ll call you when he gets out.”

Trowa was still staring blankly at a point halfway up one of the apartment’s largely empty walls. Duo had been meaning to talk to Heero about putting something interesting on some of them… if there’d been a picture there, Trowa would have had something real not to look at instead of having to make do with cream-colored nothing. As it was, Trowa was silent for the moment. Duo was itching to know what he’d done to irritate Quatre, but didn’t think asking — which would be tantamount to accusing — would be terribly kind.

Finally, “He called me a coward,” Trowa murmured.

“What?” This startled demand came from two voices, and suddenly Heero was standing just behind the couch looking down at Trowa with constricted brows and worried eyes.

Now Trowa’s gaze shifted to the floor, as if he couldn’t stand to meet the gaze of either of his friends. “I made him do something I couldn’t do myself. I didn’t force him to — I didn’t even ask him to; he volunteered — but the fact that I couldn’t do it, and that he feels the need to take care of me, made it equal to forcing him. He probably thought he didn’t have a choice, and that’s my fault.”

“And it was so bad that he called you a coward to your face,” Heero said. His face had gone hard, as had his tone, but he spoke softly. Duo had been surprised and concerned at hearing a report of Quatre using such negative language toward Trowa, but at the sight of Heero’s expression and the sound of his voice his concern grew significantly.

Trowa nodded, and said heavily, “He told me I’ve been under the backwards impression that being a powerful magician was all I had left of myself that was worthwhile… and that I was afraid to let that go and live like a normal person… and that was keeping me from fully recovering after the curse. He said that if I’m going to keep being a coward about things, he’s not going to be able to help me.”

It sounded… well, it sounded, Duo had to admit, perfectly accurate. It didn’t sound like anything Quatre would say. Duo remembered comforting himself once with the thought that Quatre was too compassionate ever to be unkindly blunt… but perhaps Trowa had somehow pushed him farther than Duo had ever seen Quatre pushed. Or had Duo simply been wrong in his assessment? In any case, the statement Quatre had made didn’t sound like anything someone merely ‘in a bad mood’ would say.

“He was right,” Trowa said simply, “but normally he’s so much more kind about things like that.”

Duo nodded inadvertently as Trowa essentially verified everything he’d just been thinking. Trowa didn’t even sound petulant now — he wasn’t complaining or looking for sympathy; he was uncomprehendingly hurt.

“I think I apologized for being so much trouble… I barely remember what I said… because he interrupted me and said, ‘You know, Trowa, we spend an awful lot of time talking about you and your problems. It’s not that I don’t want to help you, but it gets overwhelming sometimes.'”

Trowa quoted as if he would never forget the exact words, and Duo simply stared at him. Once again it seemed completely accurate… and completely out of character for Quatre. Of course dealing with Trowa’s issues must get overwhelming at times… but Duo wouldn’t have thought Quatre would ever actually voice that sentiment aloud to Trowa.

“Then he said he was tired, and he went home. I thought he was going to stay,” Trowa added with a slight blush, “and be around today… we hadn’t quite decided between a couple of different options for tomorrow… but he seemed like he was angry with me all of a sudden. And now he won’t answer my calls.”

“It is kinda early still…” Duo offered this excuse only half-heartedly, since it wasn’t actually all that early and he knew Quatre to be a morning person.

Something on the stove was crackling alarmingly, but Heero remained motionless beside the couch. He looked even more worried than before, and Duo thought there was a deep pensiveness and perhaps a touch of anger to his expression as well — and some disapproval, even accusation such as Duo had earlier eschewed, in Heero’s tone as he asked, “What exactly did you have him do for you?”

Sounding even more miserable than before, Trowa ranted quietly. “He’s been bringing it up regularly for months, and I kept putting it off… if I’d just done it myself, this wouldn’t have happened, since I’m sure that’s what caused this. He saw I couldn’t do it and offered to do it for me… I shouldn’t have let him; I should have done it myself… I shouldn’t have been such a coward.”

Silence followed this minor outburst, and Trowa seemed to realize that he hadn’t actually answered the question. With a glance that was unexpectedly expressive of helpless guilt, he finally told them. “The artifact. He destroyed it for me.”

Oddly enough, the tension in the room seemed to lessen a little at Trowa’s pronouncement. He had anticipated anger from his two friends on hearing that he’d allowed Quatre to undertake something so magically involved and potentially dangerous — just as he’d been angry at himself for it ever since last night — but apparently his words had had a different effect.

“So this is a magical thing.” Duo actually sounded somewhat relieved. “The artifact did something to him, and you should be able to clear it up and everything should be fine.”

Not so sure, Trowa said nothing.

Heero, apparently sharing Trowa’s doubts, wondered, “But what did it do to him? I’ve never seen Quatre behave like you’re describing.”

“Yeah, Quatre’s so… nice…” Duo’s expression, at the sound of Heero’s voice, had slowly changed back to a frown.

“He’s not just nice,” Heero said fiercely — a very unusual tone for him. “He almost never speaks without thinking, and even if he has something difficult to say to someone, he says it as kindly as possible. And it takes him forever to say that kind of thing to his boyfriend, even–” here Trowa could feel cold eyes burning the back of his neck– “when his boyfriend deserves it.”

“I know I deserved it.” The slight defensiveness in Trowa’s tone, the fact that he was standing up for himself (in a way) would have pleased Quatre the day before yesterday, Trowa thought. Today? Who knew? “He didn’t say anything that wasn’t perfectly true. It’s him I’m worried about.” Well, there was a touch of us he was worried about too — which, he felt, also would have pleased the normal Quatre. But when the normal Quatre wasn’t around, it seemed almost meaningless. “And he’s not answering his phone.”

Abruptly Heero moved around the sofa and down the hall. For a few moments there was no sound but that of whatever he’d been cooking, which was now beginning to smell a bit smoky. In response to this, Duo reluctantly stood and went to deal with the probably ruined breakfast. Trowa thought there was very little appetite left among the three of them.

“Trowa…” Heero had returned with his cell phone, on which he’d fixed a very odd, pensive look. “About what time last night did this all happen?”

“Early morning.” Wondering why Heero wanted to know, Trowa tried to narrow it down. “Probably around three.”

“Which time zone?”

“Mine. So, midnight here?”

In the kitchen, Duo’s sudden audible shifting suggested this meant something to him. But Heero said nothing, only nodded slightly and turned back to walk down the hall again. Another silence settled, but for Duo rattling cooking utensils, finally followed by the muffled sound of Heero talking to someone on the phone in his bedroom. It didn’t seem a very promising conversation, though — too many questions and long pauses.

This was confirmed when Heero returned, still eyeing the device in his hand strangely, and eventually looked up at where Trowa remained on the couch. “No answer,” he said, stopping in the entry to the hall and pocketing his phone with a reluctant slowness. “I called his house too, and Darryl said he’s still not there. Something is definitely wrong.”

“Why do you say that?” It was actually a little annoying that, after it had already been established that Quatre wasn’t answering Trowa’s calls, Heero would come to the conclusion something was wrong only after he tried and failed to reach his friend.

“Because,” said Heero slowly, still frowning, “last night at 12:15 or so, I woke up from a dream about Quatre asking me for help.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to emerge, startled, from the kitchen, abandoning whatever cooking endeavor was going on there. “You woke up from a dream?”

Heero nodded. “It was a message. I didn’t quite realize that last night, because…” His eyes flicked to Duo and away. “I got distracted. But it wasn’t a normal dream.”

Mimicking the nod, Trowa said wearily, “You’re a communicator.”

“What?” Duo wondered, pulled momentarily from his concern for Quatre. “Is he?”

“I’ve thought so for a while, but I never got around to running a test. Now I don’t have to. The type of connection with a friend that brings dreams like that is one of the definitive signs.” Trowa would be very interested in this at a later time, but at the moment he barely cared. “And you’re right, Heero: it’s also a definitive sign that something is wrong.” As if that weren’t already obvious.

Heero too set aside, for now, the question of his area of magical talent. “And I assume you can’t jump to him, or you would already have done it.” His tone was even, and Trowa got the feeling he was also setting accusation aside in the interest of helping Quatre.

“I haven’t tried jumping anywhere,” Trowa replied, “but I’m sure it will take some time and practice before I can do it again at all… and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use Quatre as a destination again.” And that prospect had been not the least of the reasons he hadn’t been looking forward to giving up the largest portion of his power. Quatre had been right about his cowardice, but at least some of it was specifically related to Quatre himself. The reminder that normal people got around by non-magical means all the time could do little to console Trowa for the loss of the ability to go instantly to his boyfriend whenever he wanted.

“You haven’t tried yet,” Heero murmured very quietly, almost as if to himself. Then, more loudly and very flatly he wondered, “Why are you here, Trowa?”

Trowa opted for complete honesty. “I wanted to see if I was overreacting.”

“If you haven’t tried jumping to him yet, I’d say you’re underreacting.”

“Maybe not, maybe not,” said Duo placatingly from where he’d returned to the kitchen. “We don’t know for sure yet exactly what happened.”

“I,” said Heero, in the same absolutely flat tone as before, “have known Quatre for ten years. And I am telling you both that something is wrong. Trowa, I think you should try jumping to him. If that doesn’t work, I think you should look through those books of yours and see if you can figure out what might have happened to him.”

The I think‘s didn’t make these statements any less commanding, but any sting Trowa might have felt at being ordered around by Heero was drowned in the concern he felt — an emotion he’d been holding back all this time but that had been let loose by Heero’s steely pronouncements. He nodded and stood. “Let me know if you get ahold of him.”

Curtly, Heero returned the gesture.

Duo’s tone in the goodbye he called out as Trowa headed for home was somewhat forlorn. “Good luck!” Trowa heard him add as his door closed.

It didn’t entirely close before it opened again, and he turned, a little surprised, to find that he’d been followed. Heero still looked grim, but something about the grimness had altered slightly. Silently he let the door fall shut behind him as he faced Trowa across the entry, and Trowa waited in equal silence for whatever Heero had remembered or thought of to add.

“This isn’t the best moment to ask,” Heero began slowly, “but I don’t want to wait. Do you know — or could you find — a good therapist who knows about magic?”

Trowa blinked in surprise, but the explanation for the incongruous request presented itself almost immediately: Duo needed help. Professional help. It was in no way any wonder, regardless of how happy Duo seemed in general. And he certainly did seem happy to Trowa… Heero tended to know these more personal things long before Trowa did these days, an idea to which Trowa still hadn’t entirely reconciled himself. Not that now was the time for that.

“I’ll look for someone,” he assured Heero seriously.

“Thank you.” As this evidently formed the completion of the intended exchange, Heero turned and moved to go back to his apartment.

But Trowa couldn’t let him leave without saying something that, he hoped, would reassure (or at least remind) Heero that they two were still friends despite any coldness resulting from odd and uncomfortable circumstances, that Trowa returned concern for concern. It was a little difficult to drag his mind away from the worrisome mystery of Quatre’s behavior, and the next subject in line would certainly be this new suggestion that Duo was still traumatized by the long cursed years, so his words were a little halting as other thoughts continually dragged his attention away from them. “Heero… if communication is your primary skill…” Trowa was fairly sure he was right about that, and even without the artifact, Trowa’s surety was worth quite a bit on magical matters. “If you’re a communicator, and your abilities have awakened… you’re likely to start hearing people’s thoughts.”

“What?” Heero sounded surprised and not entirely pleased.

“Only louder thoughts, in general.” Though it wasn’t Trowa’s main area of talent, so he’d never had this problem, he knew how it usually worked for communicators. “But if you spend enough time with someone, you’ll start picking up anything on the surface of their mind they aren’t actively trying to hide from you.”

“In other words,” Heero muttered, “get ready to start hearing all of Duo’s thoughts, and probably Quatre’s, and maybe yours.”

“Not mine.” Trowa’s tone was a bit dry as he recalled just how much time and power he’d had backing his practice even of skills that were technically secondary to him, little proficiency as he’d still gained in some of them. “And I think Quatre’s… natural organization… may keep most of his thoughts exactly where he wants them.” Just mentioning Quatre’s name distracted him from this topic, but Trowa forced himself to finish. “But Duo… yes, I think you should get ready to start hearing Duo’s thoughts. Surface-level thoughts, at least.”

Heero had turned to face Trowa again, and now he nodded slowly, his pensive expression bearing traces of reluctance. Finally he smiled grimly and said, “I guess that’s the price I have to pay for hanging around you magical people. There’s nothing I can do about this, is there?”

Trowa shook his head. There certainly were options to make Heero’s talent easier for him to deal with, but Trowa was at the end of how far he could discuss this subject right now; having alerted him to the somewhat inconvenient early indications of a communion skill was all he could manage at the moment.

“Well, thanks for the warning.” Heero turned back toward the door once more. Before he opened it he added in a friendlier tone than he’d used to dismiss Trowa from his apartment, “Good luck today.” And once Trowa had returned his thanks, he left.

Trowa sighed as he glanced back and forth between his study and his computer room, trying to decide whether magical experimentation or research (and, if the latter, which branch of research) would be most likely to produce quick and positive results. Eventually he headed into the study with a good deal more to think about than he’d had when he left it earlier — assuming he was capable of thinking about anything besides Quatre.

Duo was examining the outcome of all their diffuse breakfast endeavors with a contemplative frown as Heero came back into the apartment through Trowa’s door, and the most worrisome part was that Duo looked like he was seriously considering eating it anyway. In celebration of the fact that he could eat anything now, Duo would eat anything now.

“I hope you following him in there means you thought of something that explains everything,” he said without looking up.

“No,” Heero half sighed. “I wish it did.”

The expression Duo now turned up toward him was sympathetic, but pretty clearly showed that he wasn’t yet convinced of the full direness of the situation with Quatre. There was some curiosity in it too as he said, “Why’d you go after him, then?”

“Trowa says he’ll look around for a therapist who knows about magic to help you with… your…” Heero found his voice failing at the change that occurred during his words: Duo had stiffened, stilled, and given Heero his complete attention — and none of this in a good way.

“Did Trowa bring this up,” Duo asked quietly, “or did you?”

“I did. Because of your dreams.”

Tightly Duo nodded, and his voice was quiet and nearly emotionless as he said, “Please don’t just go over my head like that.”

“I didn’t sign you up or anything; I just asked Trowa if he knew anyone you could go to.”

Duo moved his attention back to their breakfast as Heero approached somewhat warily. “Well, talk to me first about things like that. Then Trowa.” Actually it didn’t look like he was examining the food at all; he obviously just didn’t want to look at Heero.

In response to Duo’s pointed turning away, Heero stopped at the edge of the kitchen and tried to explain. “I knew you’d just say that no psychiatrist could possibly know what you’ve been through, so I thought before I brought it up I’d check–”

“Please,” Duo reiterated with a firmness that was almost desperate. “Talk to me first.” He gripped the oven door handle tightly as his gaze seemed to be pointed toward the contents of the stove without really seeing them. “You don’t know what I’ve been through either; you don’t know what it’s like to have everyone do everything for you because you can’t do it for yourself.”

Heero couldn’t help being a little hurt by “You don’t know what I’ve been through,” but he struggled not to say so. It was true, after all, at least on a certain level: he had been informed of much of Duo’s history, and had himself been part of Duo’s last month as a doll, but that wasn’t the same as knowing. Even if he’d been there for all of it, he couldn’t really have known what was going on in Duo’s head, how the curse affected Duo on the inside rather than the outside. Of course Duo had shared some of it with him, and there was more Heero could guess at just by interacting with him, but that still wasn’t the same as knowing. And even the knowledge he claimed to have — that therapy would help — was in actuality only a guess.

But if what Trowa had warned him about did come to pass, he might eventually no longer need to guess what was going on in Duo’s head. He might eventually know what Duo had been through. But he pushed that thought away for now.

“Of course. You’re right,” he said at last. “I should have realized.” He meant it as an apology he didn’t quite have plainer words for, and Duo seemed to accept it as such.

“It’s…” Duo released the oven with one hand and swung around, pivoting on the other wrist, still hanging on but looking now at Heero with a serious expression. “Not like I don’t appreciate the thought. OK, well, I don’t really like the thought much either, but…”

Heero winced. Of course Duo wouldn’t enjoy having his boyfriend suddenly suggest that he needed counseling, even if Heero had managed to suggest it in a manner that didn’t tread heavily on Duo’s toes.

“But I appreciate that you’re trying to look out for me,” Duo finished. He gave Heero a smile that, though genuine as Duo’s smiles always were, wasn’t as happy as it could have been, and turned back to the stove. Now he focused properly on the remains of their intended breakfast, and said more or less cheerfully, “I think I’m not hungry enough anymore to eat this. What do you think?”

Heero moved forward to join in the examination, and shook his head.

Wordlessly they set about cleaning up, discarding ruined food and washing dishes in a silence that was like Duo’s smile — not tense or angry, but neither as easy or happy as it could have been.

Finally, scraping the frying pan somewhat over-vigorously, Duo said abruptly, “I don’t need therapy.”

“I’m sorry,” Heero replied. It was an automatic and somewhat defensive response, but at least he’d gotten the words out.

“I made it through eighty-seven years as a fucking doll without going crazy.” Duo, whose voice told what he was feeling far more often than Heero’s did, sounded much more defensive than Heero had. “I don’t need to see someone about a couple of little bad dreams.”

“I’m sorry,” Heero repeated, this time at a murmur. He thought Duo was very specifically incorrect in this instance — Duo’s almost desperate defensiveness spoke pretty eloquently that there were mental issues in there that could use some professional help — but Heero was sorry he’d made him unhappy with his suggestion and his thoughtlessness, and he wasn’t going to press the issue at the moment. He would have to bring it up again eventually, but right now he just wanted Duo to smile properly.

What Duo did instead was drop what he was working on in the sink and fling soapy-handed arms around Heero unexpectedly from behind. “It’s OK,” he said. “Stop sounding like a kicked puppy! How could I be mad at you for doing something you thought was just to help me?”

“Because I did it all wrong?” Heero suggested. Whether or not he still sounded like a kicked puppy — and he had some doubts about having done so in the first place — he couldn’t guess, but he was certainly happier with Duo’s arms around him, even if he was going to have to change his shirt.

Duo nuzzled his face into Heero’s back, and, though he said something muffled about learning from experience and not doing it again, he seemed to be seeking comfort all of a sudden. As if he were asking Heero — the one that had introduced the idea — to reassure him that he wasn’t broken. It didn’t shake Heero’s conviction that counseling would do his lover good, nor did it make him feel less guilty about how he’d botched things; but he did raise a hand to clutch at Duo’s, disregarding suds and char, and squeeze it.

Eventually Duo stood straight, pulling away and clearing his throat, and turned back to the sink as if nothing had happened. “Besides,” he said in a brighter tone than before, which didn’t entirely match his words, “you’re distracted worrying about Quatre.”

This tense little scene with Duo had actually driven thoughts of Quatre far into the rear of Heero’s mind, but it was true that his best friend had been almost the center of his thoughts when he’d followed Trowa. That didn’t excuse having done something he should have known would be hurtful to his boyfriend, and he would have brought this up had he not believed Duo’s mentioning Quatre was a signal that he wanted to talk about something else.

Heero located a towel to run over the front of his shirt and his hands, and then brought out his phone to try Quatre again. This time it went straight to voicemail. Though Heero wasn’t generally one for leaving messages, he was tempted in this instance. That he hadn’t the faintest idea what he could say kept him from doing so.

What next? Conceivably Heero could call the club and see if he could wheedle them into telling him whether or not Quatre was there, but, even if he managed that, what then? It was pretty obvious that Quatre wasn’t interested in talking to anyone right now, and, worried as Heero was, such wishes should be respected. And yet, if there was magic at work, such wishes might have to take lower priority than expedience. But, as with a message, what would Heero say? Very specific concern was sometimes a little difficult for him to convey; something this uncertain would probably be even harder to put into words. But he would definitely feel a lot better if he could talk to Quatre — about anything. Just to hear his voice at this point would reassure Heero, even if it reaffirmed the current bad situation.

He supposed he could visit in person the places he thought Quatre might be… but he couldn’t get into the club except as the guest of an actual member, who had to be present at the front desk; and anywhere else Quatre might go in a particularly and possibly supernaturally bad mood — the office, out jogging, or to Cassidy’s bar downtown — were hit-or-miss at best.

“You’re really seriously worried, aren’t you?” Whether the darkness of Duo’s tone was in response to the referenced worry or a lingering result of the previous conversation, Heero didn’t know. In any case, he was finished scrubbing the frying pan (or at least finished with all the work he was willing to put in on that endeavor at the moment), and wrapping arms around Heero’s chest again. He hadn’t washed his hands, but it didn’t much matter.

“I’m really seriously worried,” Heero confirmed. And perhaps it was impetuous, but he decided suddenly, “And I’m going to go look for him.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Duo at once.

“Thank you,” Heero replied. “Let me change shirts, and we’ll go.” As he left Duo’s arms and headed across the living room toward the hall and his bedroom, he added with a sigh, “This may be completely useless, but it’ll feel better than doing nothing.”

This was like an echo of those long years when he’d been unable to find Duo or get any idea of what he should do once he managed to: he had huge amounts of knowledge and decades of experience, but in the specific area where he was being challenged he was ignorant and powerless.

He’d never been very good at divination, and now, without the artifact to boost his personal power, he was barely getting answers at all. This, he believed, probably arose from having grown too accustomed to that extra power, and that he would, in time, be able to benefit from that branch of magic again… but ‘in time’ didn’t help with figuring out what had happened to Quatre right now.

In the area of communion he’d likewise never been very skilled, and the telepathy that was the hallmark of a communicator’s powers was something he’d never mastered. Good communicators could, with practice, even speak telepathically over a distance, but Trowa didn’t think any amount of practice would allow him to do so. So reaching out mentally to Quatre was out.

Command magic, therefore, was his only option in this situation. Thinking back on how skilled he’d become in this area was reassuring, but his drop in raw power was still a concern, and not a small one. He hadn’t realized how much he’d come to use the artifact as a crutch — even to the point where he’d developed a certain attunement to it that had allowed him to access it from a distance almost without realizing he was doing so — until he was forced to go without it. Once again, however, he believed it was just a matter of time before he learned to look at magic from the different angle of having an almost perfect knowledge of how to work it without the practically unlimited power he’d once commanded.

The last couple of hours, spent first exploring his options and then trying to jump to Quatre, had obviously not constituted the time that it was only a matter of. In teleportation, there was no prior connection to the destination; you only knew you had properly specified the desired location by arriving there. Therefore, there was no scale to measure how well you had a destination in mind: you either arrived at it, or you went nowhere. In this case, it was like reaching, while climbing blind, for a handhold that turned out not to exist. And then the energy already built up for the spell had to be expended, either by initiating the weightlessness of jumping to no purpose where he stood or as a burst of undirected power that threatened destruction around him.

In part for this reason, he’d been attempting this experiment outside in his back yard. Up almost to his knees in weed-choked grass, breathing deeply, eyes often closed, sometimes raising his arms in a gesture meant to focus his energy in the direction he wanted, he would have presented quite a picture to anyone able to see over the six-foot fences, but for once he was completely ignoring the old paranoia about his neighbors.

He was also out here because he suspected a few of the objects in his study of having become artifacts. Because they had formed in conjunction with his use of the lunar artifact, they had previously been merely satellites to it, attuned to it from their inception, and unlikely to interfere with any magic he performed using its power — but now, with the candlestick destroyed, they were free to progress along their own paths and develop their own wavelengths that might interact badly with each other and have unforeseen influences over his attempts at spellcasting. Eventually he would test the items he suspected, and others, to determine which were artifacts and what their nature might be, and decide what to do with them all, but at the moment, not having time for that, he was simply working outside their presence.

Well, it was clear that using Quatre as a destination was simply not going to work. Whether it would at some point in the future, after more extensive and leisurely experimentation, Trowa did not know; right now he had to move on. The next step seemed to be, more simply, jumping to a destination that demanded less focus, less precise conjunction of multiple branches of magic. And the choice of destination wasn’t terribly difficult, given that there were only a few places Quatre was likely to be that Trowa knew well enough to jump to. It was Saturday, yes, but he’d known Quatre to go to work on weekends for reasons less pressing than being magically irritable and wanting a distraction.

From many instances of picking Quatre up after work (whether because he’d taken him there in the first place and Quatre had no other way home, or in preparation for an evening together, or even just, on a couple of occasions, to surprise him), Trowa knew Quatre’s office well enough by now to be confident in his ability to jump to it if he could manage the teleportation spell at all. He tried not to imagine Quatre there, practically waiting for him to appear, with an explanation for his strange behavior and a reassurance that he wasn’t actually angry at Trowa at all. He tried not to picture them making up tenderly and then heading off — after, of course, a reassuring call to Heero — for a birthday celebration that would last the rest of the weekend. He knew he would only be disappointed.

Even as he cast the spell, he felt how extravagant he’d become. He never would have noticed before, with the artifact, but now when he had a much lower level of power it was obvious that he was expending far too much of it on this task simply because he’d never had to worry about conserving energy before. But now, as he landed in the office lit only by the big wall of windows on one side, he actually stumbled as he came to rest, and had to catch the desk to keep from falling. Exhaustion slammed into him along with the realization that he’d used the better part of his power on this one jump, that he certainly wouldn’t be leaving this place magically until he’d had a rest and probably a good hard reflection on how more economically to cast this spell.

And of course Quatre wasn’t here. Despite having striven to avoid getting his hopes up, Trowa was still bitterly disappointed.

After a glance around and coming to the decision that the very comfortable-looking leather chair at Quatre’s big glossy desk would be the best place to regather his strength and give his mind to what needed to be thought about, he moved first, slowly, toward the office door (at what might be considered a hobble) in order to poke his head out into the hallway to ascertain whether he could hear anyone moving around in other parts of the building. And though he thought the fact that lights were on was a good sign that someone else was probably here, he didn’t hear anyone immediately nearby, which was for the best. Then he took a seat, swiveled to face the windows, and stared blankly out at the parking lot and other nearby businesses.

It was strange to feel so drained so abruptly. It was novel, but that didn’t mean he liked it. He felt as if he’d just run a marathon and come in last. Never in his life could he remember being so worn out, and though the bulk of the sensation was not physical, yet a certain measure of physical weariness was dragged along in the wake of his magical depletion. It was depressing and embittering.

The sound of the office door opening startled him enough that he jerked in his seat, and several thoughts went through his head in split-second succession: first, that it must be Quatre; second, that, as it obviously wasn’t Quatre, it was odd that the door should be unlocked for anyone else to get in; third, that he’d probably unlocked the door himself by opening it from the inside; fourth, that his presence here was going to seem strange no matter who it was and why they were entering.

Even as he turned, he heard a woman’s voice begin, “I didn’t know you were here today, but I’m glad–” But she cut off when she saw that it wasn’t her manager in the chair behind the desk.

“Pardon me,” Trowa replied wearily. “I know I’m not who you’re looking for.”

“No,” she said, advancing. “I thought Quatre must have come in without me noticing, and it was a stroke of luck he was here on a Saturday just when I was.” She smiled a little as she approached the desk, and it was obvious that she did think it odd — and probably a little suspicious — to find this stranger here.

For a moment Trowa didn’t know what to say. Not that coming up with excuses for the magical happenings in which he was often involved (indeed, which he often caused) was at all foreign to him; it was because he was momentarily captivated by her face.

It was the strong nose, he thought, and something about the corners of the eyes. She didn’t have freckles, but he thought hers was the type of complexion that might develop them under the correct atmospheric conditions. And the big curls in the reddish-brown hair were certainly part of it.

Not entirely sure what prompted him to do so, he stood up and reached out across the desk, just as if this were his office and he was introducing himself to a co-worker or something, to offer a handshake. “My name is Trowa Barton. I’m Quatre’s boyfriend.” And though simple truth such as this was something he greatly preferred to tell where possible, it was a little surprising even to him that he’d given it so readily here and now.

He thought her eyes were studying his features with just as much interest as his had studied hers, and at the sound of his name her brows went down slightly — not, he thought, with any negative emotion, but in an expression of interest and curiosity. She accepted the handshake with a firm grip and replied, “Well, I’m Catharine Barton. Good to meet you.”

What were the chances, Trowa wondered, of a second child of his mother also having deliberately taken her last name, and both that name and his mother’s features having been carried down several generations and across the country to manifest in a co-worker of his mother’s first child’s boyfriend a century later? Could it be just a coincidental resemblance and sharing of name? He had no idea.

He realized he’d expressed himself equally pleased to meet her almost without knowing he spoke, and now she was asking him, “So is Quatre here after all?”

With a shake of his head designed also to shake himself out of his distraction he replied, “I don’t think so. I came here looking for him, but it seems I’m out of luck as well.”

“That’s too bad,” she replied. Her stance had shifted slightly, and Trowa realized that she was settling in. She probably wasn’t quite sure yet that she believed he was who he said he was, and felt she couldn’t leave the room until her mind had been eased on that point. That was fine — Trowa needed to rest before he could go anywhere anyway, and he might as well do it in someone else’s presence as out of it — but he wanted to sit back down, and felt it would be discourteous to do so with this woman standing across the desk from him; at the same time, it would be awkward to invite her to sit down when this wasn’t actually his office.

The slight awkwardness of the situation was clearly felt by Catharine too, and was probably what prompted her question, “Can’t you call him?”

“He’s not answering,” Trowa replied. “We had a fight.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her sympathy sounded genuine, and also seemed to break the ice a bit; glancing around, she pulled one of the other chairs in the room closer to the desk and sat, much to Trowa’s relief. But she still sounded as if she was floundering a bit for things to say when she added, “You’re lucky you ran into me and not anyone else from sales with that news. I’ve never met a team more gossipy than ours.”

“I’ve heard stories,” Trowa nodded as he too took his seat. “Apparently everyone believes Quatre is dating Heero.”

She gave a smile of regretful amusement, and seemed to relax a bit; Heero’s name (and this bit of gossip) was obviously a password of sorts. “It’s gotten a little confused lately, because–” She lifted her chin and a pointed finger as she interrupted herself: “Now, I want it understood that I don’t work the gossip mill! But it’s impossible not to overhear just about everything.”

Trowa smiled a bit at the mixture of pride and playfulness in her demeanor. “Understood.”

“Well, some people know Heero’s actual boyfriend, and half the building still thinks Heero and Quatre are dating. There’s a lot of whispering about who’s cheating on whom.”

“I wonder how Duo coming to work here will affect that.”

“Duo — that’s Heero’s boyfriend, right? Is he coming to work here?”

“He starts Monday, I believe.”

“It’s going to turn everything upside-down for a while. Always a fun time for those of us who are here to work, not stick our noses into other people’s business.”

The fact that she was here on a Saturday was all the confirmation Trowa needed that she was one of those here to work.

“And even having said that,” she added, leaning forward a bit, “I can’t help asking… where are you from?”

Evidently the family resemblance was not, as Trowa had half thought it might be, a figment of his imagination, if the way Catharine’s eyes were roving his face was any indication. She looked mostly relaxed and unsuspicious now, and would probably be all right leaving him alone in Quatre’s office — but there was no reason they couldn’t try to figure out for sure, first, whether or not they were related. The possibility of his having living relations, whatever their precise degree of connection, was not one Trowa had ever given any thought, and he found that it interested him more than he would have expected. And a distraction from his concern about Quatre, during these moments when he was forced to rest and barred from action, was not unwelcome.

So, falling back somewhat on the old genealogy he’d built for himself to fill up believably the years between his parents and himself, and setting forth his own history in the early 1900’s as that of his great-grandfather, he started to explain where he’d lived and about his family line.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.



He Can Be Taught

He Can Be Taught




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

1
2
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Aoshi, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Yo, tori-atama!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano just grunted.

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

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

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

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

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

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

“All right, Kenshin!”

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

…for a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He started to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, why should they be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano blushed and scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

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

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

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

“Tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

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

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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


His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Somehow Hajime had been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other.

Sano can usually deal with angry shades, but the one that’s currently haunting him is a little different. And though he and the exorcist he’s been referred to manage to solve the problem by the end of Spring Break, it’s a week that may lead to difficult choices.

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Part 0

Wafting incense smoke and the cheerful greeting of the most cheerful of the various cheerful young ladies that worked here assaulted Hajime as he stepped into Forest of Four. He’d grown accustomed to the first — apparently no self-respecting follower of shallow mysticism would set foot in a store that did not reek of incense, and he recognized the need to appease the customer base — and, to be honest, he didn’t mind the smell too much. The second, however, was consistently jarring.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou!” the clerk chirped. Her thoughts, though noisy, primarily related to work, and Hajime could appreciate her professionalism if not her mental control. When he nodded at her, she went on, “He’s with another client right now, but you can wait for him over by the hall.” She pointed to the area in question, with which he was familiar enough, and he nodded again.

The chairs against the wall beside the corridor leading to the employees’ area were, to all appearances, designed for people waiting for friends in the fitting room. Hajime didn’t appreciate being mistaken for the companion of someone that would shop a place like this, but had little choice; fortunately, Aoshi usually didn’t keep him waiting too long. Aoshi didn’t care much for people — living people, at least — and even this circumstance of having two appointments on the same morning was unusual.

It would be an even more unusual circumstance if the medium had three appointments on the same morning, but a young man sat crookedly in the chair closest to the hallway very much as if he too awaited a conference with Aoshi. This was a little irritating; now Hajime would be forced either to sit beside this stranger, one of whose legs was drawn up so the foot protruded under the armrest onto the next chair over, or take the seat closest to the fitting room. Disliking both options, he decided to remain standing. He did give the young man a dark, somewhat annoyed scrutiny, though.

The guy didn’t really seem to fit here. He didn’t sparkle, for one thing. He didn’t have that empty-headed look Hajime had seen on the faces of so many patrons of this establishment — the look that promised to believe (and consequently purchase) anything at all that said ‘cosmic’ somewhere on it. Actually, the best word for this kid was ‘punk’ — assuming Hajime had his subcultural terms straight, that is; he was fairly sure the absurd hair, excessive jewelry, spikes, and chains signified this. In general it strengthened the impression that the young man had come to see Aoshi and not to shop.

The young man had been mirroring the examination, and now asked lazily, “Exorcist?” He gestured casually to the sword in Hajime’s hand.

Hajime nodded, his guess confirmed. Nobody here just for an ‘I do believe in faeries!’ bumper sticker would have made the connection between his weapon and his profession.

Removing his foot from the chairs and stretching spiky-black-jean-clad legs out in front of him, the young man said, “You can sit down… I don’t know what’s taking him so long, but he’s gotta be finished soon…”

Tacitly declining the invitation, Hajime glanced down the hall at the closed door to Aoshi’s office. “You’d think with as much as he prefers to be left alone, he wouldn’t schedule appointments so close together.”

The young man laughed. “You’ve met him, huh?”

“Many times.”

“And here I thought I knew all his regulars.” The young man, Hajime found when he turned back, was gazing thoughtfully up at him. “I must just have missed you every time. You come here a lot?”

“Sometimes.” Hajime’s tone was slightly skeptical at the prying question. He didn’t really care who or what the guy was, or he would already have pushed past the somewhat blaring thoughts into a deeper part of his head to find out, but he couldn’t help feeling a little curious about a punk teenager he’d never seen before that seemed to know Aoshi as well as he did.

“He dig up for work you,” the kid wondered, “or what?”

Hajime raised a brow. “None of your business.”

The young man scowled faintly, coiling back into a less relaxed position. Hajime was interested to see a slight aura appear around him at this, but it faded along with the scowl as the young man shook his head. Then he reached out. “I’m Sano,” he said.

Wondering why they were doing this, Hajime stared at the extended hand for a moment before shaking it and giving his own name.

“I see red,” Sano explained unnecessarily, stretching his legs out again and putting his hands behind his head. “Aoshi keeps me medicated.” His grin turned somewhat harried. “I especially don’t need to be dealing with this shit this week; I’ve got papers to write and finals.”

Hajime nodded his understanding. Sano, he guessed — actually, it was more of a sense by now than a guess — went to the local college, and angry shades were undoubtedly distracting at the end of a semester.

“You really can sit down.” Sano patted the seat next to him.

“I have no desire to sit on your dirty footprints.”

“Wow, fine.” There was that aura again, flaring up with Sano’s annoyance. “Jerk.”

Hajime smirked. “You don’t just see red,” he observed.

“No,” Sano replied, a little wearily. “I absorb ’em for people sometimes; good way to make money, which you probably know, but then I have to find a way to get rid of it all.”

With a disdainful laugh Hajime said, “Stupid of you to absorb anything when you knew you had finals coming up.”

As he’d expected, Sano flamed again. “Hey, I’m not just going to–” But his anger faded as he realized Hajime had done it deliberately. Then he seemed torn between mild appreciation and continued irritation at being manipulated. Eventually he settled on a low simmer, his angry aura minimal and his face merely resigned.

“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.

Sano snorted.

At that moment, the door at the end of the employees’ hallway opened, and they heard someone saying, “Thank you very much, Mr. Shinomori!” in a tone far too bright for Mr. Shinomori to be likely to appreciate. Sano stood and watched the cheerful customer emerge from the hall. Then he turned to Hajime and smiled slightly. “Well, it was good to meet you,” he said with a wave. And for some reason he actually seemed to mean it.

Hajime hesitated, then nodded. He saw no reason not to, since he would probably never run into the guy again.



1>>

Part 1

To dial the number he’d been given, Sano found himself a little hesitant. The man hadn’t exactly been pleasant to him when they’d met before, after all. What eventually convinced him was the reflection that the worst that could possibly happen was Hajime being rude to him again and perhaps hanging up without listening to everything he had to say — whereas the best that could happen was getting rid of this little problem. Sano glanced over his shoulder, grimaced, and hit the ‘send’ key on his phone.

“This is Hajime,” came the voice he’d expected after only a few rings.

“Hey,” Sano began. “You probably don’t remember me, but I met you at Forest of Four, like, last December…” He cleared his throat. “My name’s Sano… I see red… You were there with a sword…” He paused, waiting for Hajime’s acknowledgment. Hajime, however, said nothing, and eventually Sano went on. “Well, Aoshi says you’re good, and I’ve got a problem. There’s this shade that’s been hanging around for a couple of weeks now — I mean hanging around me, specifically, not just around somewhere where I go or anything; it’s like the damn thing is haunting me, but I have no idea who it came from or why it would be — and I can’t get rid of it.”

“Red?” Hajime asked.

“That’s the thing!” Sano turned to face the shade, which was still drifting around his living room. “It’s perfectly red! I should be able to deal with it, but every time I absorb it it just comes back! It’s weird, too; it’s not… solid… like they usually are. There’s this empty shape of a person, and the red’s around that like an outline.”

Hajime’s tone sounded completely different than before as he asked, “When you say you absorb it and it ‘comes back,’ what exactly do you mean?” He seemed far more interested all of a sudden.

“I mean the same anger comes back,” answered Sano in some aggravation. “It’s like it never ends; no matter how much I absorb, there’s always more! And I can’t just keep taking it in, or I get so mad I start destroying stuff!”

“And this shade follows you around?”

“Yeah.”

“No matter where you go?”

“Yeah… to school and everything.”

“Do you know the park off 32nd street?”

“Uh, yeah?” Sano was fairly certain he did, anyway. “The one by that toy store?”

“Can you meet me there in half an hour?”

“Um…” This was not what he’d expected at all. “Yeah, sure.” Of course, he’d been basing his expectations on the one brief conversation they’d had and Aoshi’s warning that Hajime was neither a people person nor likely to want to do any kind of work for free.

“I’ll see you there, then.” And Hajime ended the call.

Sano’s car being a piece of shit, he didn’t greatly appreciate having to drive to a park twenty minutes away, and from the suggestion of locale he guessed Hajime didn’t live in the Asian district. He hadn’t objected, though, since he was the one essentially demanding favors in this situation. He did wish Hajime had named a longer space of time, however; he could have taken the bus.

The place had a playground, a field with a backstop, and its own parking lot. Here Hajime waited, when Sano arrived, beside a really nice car. Although individual jobs tended to pay fairly well, being an exorcist was still an uncertain profession at best, given the inconsistency of the work, and Sano wouldn’t have thought anyone in that trade could afford such a nice vehicle; Hajime must have some other source of income.

As when they’d met at Aoshi’s store, the exorcist wore a suit and tie; it looked great, but Sano had to wonder if he dressed that way all year round. March wasn’t too bad, but in a month or two most days would be far too warm outside for a suit coat. Hajime also carried a sword again, though Sano wasn’t entirely certain it was the same sword.

Hajime didn’t bother with a real greeting, only asked, “Where’s the shade?”

Sano had been absorbing so much angry energy lately, thanks to his unusual visitor, that it was good to have an object on which to release some of it. “Hi to you too!” he said in annoyance, and stalked out of the parking lot toward a bench near the playground. Hajime followed, and as Sano took a seat he informed him with less indignation, “It sometimes takes him a while to catch up when I go somewhere unfamiliar. I tried to lose him that way for a while, but he always found me again.”

“‘He?'” echoed Hajime.

“‘He’ like ‘aitsu,'” Sano shrugged, citing a pronoun that, while it carried a masculine connotation, was not necessarily limited to it.

Hajime nodded. So obviously he belonged to the relatively large segment of the city’s population that spoke Japanese, whether or not he lived in the Asian district. Not that this surprised Sano, given his accent.

“So what’s your deal?” Sano wondered somewhat idly, slumping down so as to lean his head against the back of the bench. “I mean, what do you see?”

“Everything.”

Sano sat up straight. “Really? That’s awesome!” Those that could see shades of all colors were incredibly rare.

Hajime seemed to add, “In white,” almost against his will — as if he felt compelled to be honest but was as irritated at the compulsion as he was at the fact.

“Oh.” Sano sat back again. That made it less significant. Still must be fairly convenient for exorcism, though.

“So tell me about this unusual shade,” said Hajime in a somewhat dictatorial tone.

“He showed up, um…” Sano had to think for a moment.

“You should take better notes on things like this,” Hajime broke in derisively. Sano believed this particular statement was meant to be provoking, and didn’t mind at all. If Hajime could handle his anger, it was definitely a relief to let it out.

“I’m not a pro, OK?” was his irritated retort. “I only take notes at school. Anyway, I think it was just at the end of February… the twenty-fifth, I’m pretty sure. So it’s been almost exactly three weeks — not long enough for him to get used up… except, like I told you, I’ve used him up I think five times now.”

“What were you doing when he showed up?”

Sano scratched his head. “Homework? I think. No,” he corrected himself, “I think I’d finished what I was working on and was just messing around online.”

“Porn?” asked Hajime, without apparent implication.

“What?” Sano was more surprised than anything else. “Is that supposed to make me mad? It was just normal websites and shit.” Who really got their porn from the internet, anyway? That stuff was brutal; no amount of anti-virus or spyware-killing software could make that sex safe.

Hajime smirked, and continued with his interrogation. “Had you done any magic any time beforehand that might have attracted the shade?”

“I don’t really ‘do magic,'” replied Sano, scratching his head. “So, no. Least not that I’m aware of.”

“No friends at your home casting spells? No recent séances?”

“Nope.”

“Have you tried the medicine you get from Aoshi? Does it inhibit your ability to see this shade?”

“Yes and no. I usually don’t take the stuff except when something’s going on I really need to concentrate on, because…” Actually there was no real reason to get into that; Hajime undoubtedly wasn’t interested. “Anyway, yeah, I tried it; it didn’t work. I mean, it worked a little, but not enough. This shade’s pretty strong; I could still feel the anger.”

Hajime nodded, and then unexpectedly asked precisely what Sano had just been thinking he wouldn’t be interested in knowing.

“Oh,” replied Sano with a shrug, “I don’t take it when I don’t have to because it makes my head…” He gestured vaguely to the organ in question. “Fuzzy. Blurs my magical senses, I guess, is the best way to put it.”

“And that bothers you, even though you don’t really do magic?”

“Yeah, it’s like… it’s like having a sinus infection: there’s this unpleasant feeling that maybe doesn’t actually stop you from doing anything, but you can’t ignore it.”

Again Hajime nodded. He was about to say something else (possibly criticize Sano’s incomplete description of sinus infections), but at just that moment Sano felt washing over him the anger that had become all too familiar these days. “Oh, fuck,” he growled, interrupting his companion. “Here he comes.”

Part 2

The shade appeared exactly as Sano had described it. That is to say, to a necrovisually colorblind exorcist, the shade could easily be pictured as exactly what Sano had described. What Hajime actually saw came close enough: a glowing white haze approaching across the park’s green field at that uncannily swift but somehow leisurely speed shades usually moved with; something more oblong than the typical amorphous but generally spherical shape favored by the collections of mindless emotional energy people often left behind when they died — and, indeed, as it drew closer, visibly hollow inside. Once it had begun hovering around their bench, in fact, Hajime thought he could make out the vaguely humanoid shape of its center.

Sano stood and walked a few paces across the sidewalk into the grass. He turned, and, with a scowl, flung out his arms. “Meet my stalker,” he said as the shade moved to resume its orbit around him.

Hajime also stood, unsheathed his sword, and approached. The glowing figure in the air didn’t seem to react to him at all, only drifted slowly and apparently aimlessly around Sano. This was odd; usually angry shades were (predictably enough) aggressive, one of the reasons they were a problem. But this one just floated.

The sword Aoshi had modified for him in December had so far proven worth every one of the considerably many dollars Hajime had spent on it, and did not let him down now. As he drew nearer, the blade smoothly, quickly turned red — at which Sano made an admiring sound, but said nothing. Bracing himself, concentrating on the removal of the shade from existence, Hajime thrust the sword into the glow in front of him.

Whoever had left this anger behind had been strong-willed and persistent, and perhaps a little crazy. The anger itself was fierce and gave the impression, somehow, of being only the tip of the iceberg — wherever it came from, there was a lot more of it. And for all this, it wasn’t a problem to deal with. The aura writhed, clinging to the figure in its center, did not counterattack, and soon gave way to Hajime’s steady desire for its dissipation. Slowly the air cleared; the aura vanished, rendering the floating figure invisible.

Invisible, but not absent. Without the shade anger, in fact, it was discernible on its own, though Hajime couldn’t have described how he sensed its presence. But there was one thing he felt at least closer to certain of now. He returned to the bench and sat down again, thoughtful.

Sano joined him there. “Too easy, huh?” he commented, gesturing to the air where the shade had been. “But then it always comes back.”

Hajime nodded slowly.

“So what do you think?”

“I think…” Hajime said, “that you’ve got a real ghost here.”

Again Sano sat bolt upright in surprise. “What? Are you serious?”

“You notice it doesn’t attack.”

“Yeah, that is kinda weird.”

“And the shape.”

“Shit…”

They sat still for a while, staring at almost nothing — though Hajime thought he could already see a faint glow gathering around the invisible spirit again.

Finally Sano muttered in wonder, “A ghost… a real ghost…”

Shades, Hajime’s stock in trade, were a measurable, understandable phenomenon. But ghosts… ghosts were another story. Nobody knew why, every once in a great while, a human soul with thoughts and emotions and memories intact would remain after its body had died. An exorcist considered himself lucky to hear about a ghost cropping up somewhere during his career. Dealing with a real ghost could make an exorcist’s reputation. Which was why Hajime had come out here to meet Sano at all upon hearing the description of the apparition haunting him.

From the white aura that was definitely gathering again, Hajime looked down to the sword that lay for now across his lap. Interestingly, the blade had never quite lost its red tinge, as if the angry aura had never actually gone.

“But who would be haunting me?” Sano finally wondered.

“You have no idea?”

“No! I haven’t had anyone die any time recently… my grandma went about five years ago, but that’d be way too long for her to be showing up now, and she wasn’t this angry anyway.”

“You’d probably know if it was a close relation in any case.”

Sano nodded, and another long silence followed as they watched the ghost’s aura grow and Hajime contemplated. Finally he said, “I’d like to have my familiars take a look at this.” He had hesitated about this because taking the ghost anywhere would involve taking Sano to the same place, and inviting a client to his own home pushed some boundaries. But so did encountering an actual ghost… and, considering they hadn’t actually discussed services and payment yet, Sano wasn’t exactly a client anyway.

Sano seemed less interested in those particular boundaries, and instead commented, “Don’t think I’ve ever heard of an exorcist with familiars before.”

Hajime shrugged. “I’m more of a communicator than a necrovisual.”

“Oh.” Then Sano sat up straight yet again, demanding, “So does that mean you’ve been reading my mind this whole time?”

Hajime smirked. “Not if I could help it.”

“So why are you an exorcist, then?” Sano asked this in some haste, a little flustered, making a very obvious attempt not to think anything he didn’t want Hajime to hear. When people did this, the result was usually that the thought they wanted to repress got broadcast loudly enough for Hajime to catch it even without trying. In this case, somewhat to his surprise, it was, …probably heard me thinking what a sexy voice he’s got…

Young men finding Hajime’s voice sexy — or, rather, anyone finding anything about Hajime sexy — was an extraordinary (and unsought) occurrence, and he had to admit it threw him off a bit. Fortunately, Sano’s question was one everyone even a little involved in magic asked when they found out he didn’t make his living in the branch where he had the most natural talent, so he had a ready answer. “None of the communication career options appealed to me.”

“I hear the government loves communicators, though.”

“Mostly to monitor and control the general awareness of magic.”

“So you’d rather be beating up shades than brainwashing people?” Sano shrugged slightly. “I guess that makes sense.” Hajime got the feeling Sano thought so because the idea of beating something up was so much more straightforward than that of brainwashing.

This largely pointless exchange had moved them past the bulk of Sano’s nervousness regarding Hajime’s telepathic abilities (as well as the bulk of Hajime’s disorientation regarding Sano’s thoughts about him), so Hajime stood and said, “My familiars may be able to confirm whether or not this is a real ghost.” For good measure he added, “Since you obviously can’t tell.”

It worked. Sano jumped up as well, flaring bright again, and retorted, “Well, neither can you!”

“Why don’t you follow me to my house?”

Sano’s angry aura dissipated and was followed by no notable resurgence; he seemed to have a significant excess of internalized energy that couldn’t possibly be making his day-to-day life any easier. And since it was amusing to watch him get mad, Hajime would gladly try to draw it out. So as he headed toward his car and Sano hastened to catch up, he commented idly, “And try not to rear-end me or anything.”

Part 3

The next thing Hajime said to Sano, a few miles later, was, “You can’t park there.”

“Wha-” Sano looked around and observed the fire hydrant he hadn’t noticed before. “Oh. Well, how long do you think this is going to take?”

“At least long enough for your friend to catch us up,” Hajime replied dryly. “And beyond that, I don’t know.”

“Hmm.” Sano started to consider whether he could get away with leaving his car in a no-parking zone for an afternoon in an area like this, but eventually based his decision on the expression on Hajime’s face. This was the third time now he’d had to start his car today at Hajime’s bidding.

It was a nice old neighborhood, the kind filled with an eclectic blend of housing styles in an equally extensive range of sizes. Hajime’s home didn’t look extravagantly big, and had a very boring, plain front yard, but the property values around here were probably pretty high, so Sano thought the odds were still on Hajime having some kind of income other than what he made chasing shades.

The legal spot he found to park in was halfway down to the next street, so Sano was grumbling by the time he got back to the small driveway entirely occupied by Hajime’s car. The older man gave a condescending smile and gestured for Sano to follow him across a patio to the side door he’d evidently already unlocked.

Hajime was perhaps five feet into the house, and Sano, just closing the door behind them, had barely had a chance to start looking around at the kitchen into which they’d walked, before a cat, jumping off the counter nearest the door, wrapped itself around Hajime’s legs with a long, screeching meow. Hajime nudged the animal out of the way so he could step further into the room to allow Sano to do the same; then he bent and picked the cat up by the scruff of its neck. It didn’t seem to mind; in fact, it immediately climbed onto his arm and ran up to his shoulder, where it began nuzzling his head.

“I’ve told you to stay off the kitchen counters,” Hajime said to it.

The cat gave another high-pitched meow.

“That doesn’t excuse you,” Hajime replied.

A second cat appeared in a doorway that apparently led from kitchen into a hallway. This one didn’t seem nearly as excited as the other, younger cat, and after a brief meowed greeting sat aloofly looking on. It was mottled brown and grey and black, whereas the smaller one on Hajime’s shoulder was black with white paws.

“I’m sure you did,” said Hajime.

Sano could do nothing but stare. Cats? Really? And one of them of a decidedly kittenish nature? These were the familiars of this harsh, suit-clad, sword-wielding exorcist?

Hajime looked over at him with a faint smirk. “What were you expecting?”

Sano didn’t worry much that Hajime had been intentionally prying into his head at that moment; his astonishment and skepticism had undoubtedly been plain on his face. He did, however, try his best to suppress the mental image of a sleek rattlesnake with hypnotic yellow eyes that sprang up in response to Hajime’s question — to no avail, if Hajime’s faint snort was any indication.

Just then, the little cat launched itself unexpectedly from Hajime’s shoulder across four feet of empty space onto Sano. It didn’t fly quite far enough, and scrabbling claws dug into Sano’s shoulder as the animal tried to get onto it. With a noise of surprise and pain, he raised his hands to help the cat up and try to keep it from ruining his t-shirt. Once it had its balance, it bumped its little head into his ear and meowed at him.

“He’s bringing a shade here,” Hajime answered the cat’s question. “I think it may be a ghost, and I want you two to take a look at it.”

The little cat’s whiskers tickled Sano’s ear, and he couldn’t tilt his head far enough away to make it stop. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that the other cat had come into the room and now sat at his feet, looking up at him. “Hey, stop!” Laughter colored his tone despite his best efforts as the little one continued pushing at him.

Smirking again, Hajime let this go on for a while before stepping forward to the rescue. Lifting the cat off Sano with one hand, he said, “This is Misao.” He replaced her on his own shoulder. “And that’s Tokio,” he added, pointing to the other. She gave a dignified meow.

“Hi, cats,” Sano said with a wave.

Misao was still looking at Sano curiously, and now said something in shrill cat-talk.

“Probably not,” Hajime replied. “The shade follows him around, so it will catch up with us soon.”

Bending to pet the older cat, Tokio, Sano continued to listen in bemusement to the conversation he could only understand half of. Misao said something excited, to which Tokio replied disdainfully, and then Hajime said, “Tokio, your self-righteousness isn’t fooling anyone. Misao, you had some this morning.”

Crawling down Hajime’s arm and then dropping to the floor, complaining the entire way, Misao proceeded to jump on Tokio and start wrestling with her rather ineffectually (considering Tokio was at least twice her size).

Sano stood straight with a laugh, withdrawing his hand from what had become a swift-moving bundle of batting paws and gently biting mouths. He had no idea what to say.

Hajime gave him a look that said he didn’t need to say anything, which gave Sano something to say: “Stay out of my head!”

“I’m not in your head,” Hajime replied mildly. “You’re just projecting. Haven’t you had any training?”

The anger abruptly flaring off Sano in response to this clearly stopped the cats’ mock battle (which had ranged to the other end of the kitchen) and caught their interest, for they came over to him again — one eagerly, the other sedately. Misao stopped just in front of Sano’s left boot, and, after a couple of heaving, wiggling motions, leaped straight up to dig her claws into his knee and scrabble upward. Sano made a noise of pain at the same moment the kitten let out a similar protest when her stomach evidently came into contact with the spikes at his knees.

“Explain your pants to Misao,” Hajime commanded, turning away toward the refrigerator.

“My… what?” Sano was helping Misao up onto his shoulder again, though precedent indicated she probably wouldn’t remain there long. Recovering, however, he directed his next words at the little cat. “Yeah, my pants have spikes on them. Probably not the best thing to climb. Can you understand me? I’m not a communicator…”

She gave a chirping mew pretty clearly an affirmative, while at about the same moment Tokio from the floor had something to say as well.

“Now explain to Tokio what you do,” was Hajime’s next instruction. He emerged from the fridge with a couple of cans of beer, one of which he non-verbally offered to Sano.

Accepting the Asahi Dry with surprised gratitude, Sano crouched down to pet Tokio again, setting the can on the floor and opening it absently with his free hand. “I see red,” he told the cat. For all he knew cats made some of the best familiars available, it still seemed strange to be talking to someone whose eyes were slitted and head tilted as he scratched her jaw. “I absorb angry shades, and then I always have extra anger left over. Would you stop?” This last was aimed at Misao, who was bumping again, tickling him with her little whiskers once more as she meowed something right into his ear.

“She wants to know why your pants have spikes,” Hajime supplied from where he leaned against a counter, drinking his beer and watching in amusement.

“Why are my pants important?” Sano wondered, talking half to the cat and half to its human familiar.

“It’s important to her,” Hajime shrugged.

Tokio said something at this point that seemed to irritate Misao again, for once more the kitten flung herself off the shoulder she’d made her seat and attacked the older cat. Sano took up his beer, stood straight, and watched Tokio bat Misao around the kitchen. It might not have been what he’d expected, but this was really funny. With familiars like these, you’d probably never get lonely. Of course, their effectiveness at recognizing ghosts had yet to be seen.

“Tokio’s been with me for four years now,” Hajime said, whether in response to Sano’s unspoken thoughts, or just because he felt the right moment to explain this, Sano couldn’t guess. “Her senses are well developed. She’s never encountered a ghost before, as far as I know, but I have no doubt she’ll be able to tell the difference.”

“And Misao?”

Hajime smirked. “She’s learning.”

Misao clearly realized she’d just been undervalued, for she flung herself at Hajime’s ankle, little claws blazing. Sano laughed as Hajime bent to pick her up again and the cat twisted and clawed her way around his hand onto his arm and up to his shoulder. Hajime’s suit looked nice at a glance, as had the one he’d worn when they’d first met in December, but now Sano bet that a closer inspection would prove them, and probably any other piece of clothing in his wardrobe, full of little claw-pricks and pulled threads.

Misao began batting at Hajime’s ear, which action he placidly ignored. “Let’s go sit down.”

He led Sano into a small front room somewhat sparsely furnished in a mixture of American and Japanese styles. Sano had already guessed the man had either moved here from Japan or at least come from a more strongly Japanese background in America than Sano had, but thought this wasn’t the moment to ask. They sat on the sofa — leather; must have been expensive — and set their drinks on coasters on a chabudai used here as a coffee table. The cats accompanied them, Misao having at some point, unseen by Sano, abandoned Hajime’s shoulder again; and now the little one leaped onto the table, skidded right across its smooth surface, and fell off the other side.

Sano was beside himself with laughter at this sight, Tokio made some disdainful remark from where she sat primly by Hajime’s leg, Hajime reminded Misao she wasn’t allowed on the coffee table either, and Misao herself couldn’t seem able to decide whom to assault first. She leaped at Tokio, who neatly dodged her and jumped up onto the sofa; she dove for Sano’s feet, but was thwarted by his boots; and finally she went for Hajime’s ankles again, since above the tops of his shiny businessman shoes he was unprotected except by cloth. And at about this point Sano’s laughter faded and he started to lose track of the situation when he felt the shade — ghost? — once again drawing near.

The cats sensed it not long after he did. Tokio jumped down from where she’d apparently been waffling over whether or not to sit on Hajime’s lap, and Misao abandoned Hajime’s legs with a perky swiveling of head and pricking of ears. They watched the opposite wall with the taut attention they might have given the sound of a skittering mouse, and Sano half expected them to leap forward to the attack the moment the shade appeared. He only wished it were something as innocuous as a mouse…

Part 4

It was definitely a ghost. So Tokio stated after sitting, placid but for the twitching end of her tail, staring up at the thing as it moved gently across the small living room.

Definitely a ghost, added Misao, who’d been galloping around beneath and occasionally rising onto hind feet. And to the counterance of anyone’s suspicions that she hadn’t sensed this herself but just piggybacked off Tokio’s pronouncement, she added that it was a ghost, but covered in shade.

Hajime nodded, thinking this an apt description. And a ghost covered in shade would probably prove somewhat difficult to deal with.

Sano had been laughing at Misao’s antics, but simultaneously growing more and more tense as the cats examined the glowing form. At Hajime’s nod he demanded impatiently, “Well?”

“Oh, yes,” Hajime said as if he’d just remembered, “you can’t understand them.” He was already developing a theory, though, about Sano the casual necrovisual that claimed not to be a communicator but was comprehensible to familiars and didn’t like to have his magical senses clouded…

When Sano’s usual irritation appeared, Tokio remarked that it was the same as the energy surrounding the ghost.

Hajime replied to her instead of to Sano, just to see if Sano would become more angry. “Yes, he’s been absorbing it trying to deal with this, but it hasn’t been working.”

Tokio believed this no wonder, because… but Hajime couldn’t catch the rest of her statement as Sano interrupted:

“Stop having conversations I can’t fucking understand and tell me what they think!”

Chuckling at the vehemence of the command, Hajime obeyed, briefly. “It’s definitely a ghost.”

Sano turned brown eyes beneath knitted brows toward the glowing shape, which still circled him aimlessly, and commented (not for the first time that day), “Shit.”

Misao complained that she couldn’t hear anything from the ghost, and wondered why it didn’t talk. Which was a good question.

Taking the last sip of beer from the can and replacing the latter on the table, Hajime stood and began to follow the ghost’s slow progress back and forth through the room. Up close, it felt slightly different, and he concentrated on that difference, trying to describe it to himself. Finally he decided that the angry shade energy swathing the ghost and the ghost itself had each a distinct sense about them; and one, in wrapping the other so thoroughly, masked it to the point where the ghost could only be detected through the anger at close proximity.

The anger gave him a headache at that proximity, however, so he finally stepped back. How had Sano lived with this thing for three weeks? Not to mention absorbing all the anger off it five times?

“Well?” the young man demanded again.

Hajime continued pensively watching the object of their discussion. “Now that we know it’s a ghost,” he finally said, “we need to find some way to communicate with it. But the shade energy is probably going to get in the way.”

“How can someone be a ghost and a shade?” Sano was clearly about to elaborate on his confusion, but evidently couldn’t quite articulate it and decided not to try.

Hajime understood him, though: shades were merely leftover strong emotion combined with the energy of death, and, since they were created at the moment of death, were limited to a finite amount. Once that moment of death had ended, no more death force remained to create a shade out of an emotion… so even if the ghost was angry, how did that anger continually translate into a shade? Or did the very presence of a ghost generate an ongoing death energy?

But with so little information documented about ghosts, this made only one of a thousand questions that might be answered if they could just talk to the thing.

Hajime was primarily only familiar with the basic techniques of communication magic: enough to keep his own thoughts in check, access the open surface level of others’, and so on. Though he’d picked up a minor skill or two here and there, he’d never bothered with distance telepathy or brainwashing or skimming power from memories or the like, mostly because he’d never been interested enough in what went on in other people’s heads. He wasn’t sure to what extent any level of talent or practice in communication would help with the undead, and necromancy was a skill he’d never had occasion to develop. But he might as well make the attempt.

Resuming his seat on the sofa, he focused on the ghost even more pointedly than before, working to order his thoughts into a direct channel toward it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t even begin to sense a mind in there, nor any thoughts at all analogous with his own. Whether this was due to the shade energy blocking him, or because his powers of communication simply didn’t work on a ghost, he couldn’t tell. So he resorted to the next best thing, or at least the only thing he could think to try next, which was his line of sight: he simply directed his outgoing message at the figure on a physical basis.

Beside him, Sano shifted restlessly, clearly aware Hajime was up to something but restraining himself (for the moment) from demanding to know what. At Hajime’s outgoing thought (merely a greeting and the idea that he wanted to communicate), he stiffened a little; the cats also reacted, looking over at their human somewhat accusingly. Misao wondered what he was trying to do, Tokio remarked that she didn’t think anything was likely to reach the ghost, and Sano demanded, “What was that?” The ghost, however, as Tokio had predicted, didn’t even seem to receive the thought, let alone respond.

“I’m trying to get through to him,” Hajime explained, frowning. Communicative magic probably wouldn’t work, which meant they might have to do the séance thing, and he didn’t think he had any candles.

“Maybe if you got up close…” Sano suggested.

Hajime nodded and rose from the sofa once more. He didn’t approach the ghost again quite yet, but instead went into the kitchen to retrieve the sword he’d set down on the counter when they’d entered the house. He didn’t plan on getting any nearer to that thing than he had to until after dealing with at least some of the angry shade.

Sano made no comment when Hajime returned, nor did he have anything to say as the exorcist drew the sword and advanced on the ghost — but Hajime got an impression from him that he doubted this would work any better than it had before. Hajime rather thought so too, but it had to be attempted.

As previously, the angry energy, though volatile, was worrisomely easy to defeat; Hajime almost thought he could even have done it without the sword. Having replaced the latter in its sheath and set it aside, he then returned to the now-invisible ghost and raised a hand into the space it occupied.

He could definitely sense its presence, but still no trace of a comprehensible mind. He tried first to send another thought at it, then to open himself up to any message the ghost might be trying to broadcast; but the former had no discernible effect and the latter only gave him an instant headache boost.

“It never all quite leaves,” he muttered. He couldn’t see any remaining shade energy, but when he opened himself as he just had, he felt as if he were being battered by a hot, heavy wind.

Sano stood. “Let me see if I can get the rest of it.” Hajime nodded; a combination of techniques might be exactly what they needed.

The only time the ghost seemed to react to anything was when Sano moved. Hajime had been slowly pacing the room in order to keep right next to it as it drifted, but when Sano approached, the thing finally held still. Could it sense that Sano wanted it to? Perhaps, despite claiming not to be a communicator, Sano might have a better chance than Hajime at talking to it.

Now he’d reached up so his hand hovered in the air near Hajime’s, and his face had taken on an expression of angry concentration. Shades had a certain resonance that varied from one to the next, and people that absorbed shade energy did so by matching that wavelength precisely. It was about the only field where a talent for feeling a particular emotion became a trade skill. And it seemed Sano was particularly good at getting angry — either that or he’d been around this specific spirit so much that it only took him a moment to attune to it and draw off the last remaining shade energy into himself.

But it wasn’t the last. Or at least the action didn’t help. Continued attempts at communicating with the ghost, either giving or receiving ideas, met with the same failure as before, and that sense of being attacked (and the near-migraine that went with it) did not diminish. Hajime still couldn’t begin to sense a consciousness anywhere in there, and not knowing whether or not he should be able to only complicated things.

So did Sano’s increasing anger. The young man hadn’t moved from where he stood facing Hajime (across the ghost, as it were) with his hand in the air, but he’d closed his eyes and was looking — and feeling — more and more angry. The sense of its growing radiation interfered somewhat with Hajime’s concentration on something that wasn’t working anyway; so finally Hajime put his own raised hand over the younger man’s, which had by now clenched into a fist, and pushed it out of the ghost’s space.

“This isn’t working,” he said quietly.

Sano’s eyes started open, the irate gleam in them surprisingly hot and strong. It occurred to Hajime, looking into what seemed at the moment an inferno of unfathomable depth, that Sano might be dangerous if he absorbed too much anger; not that it was likely to be anything Hajime couldn’t handle, but they must remember to keep the lethal weapons out of Sano’s reach at such moments.

Sano jerked away from Hajime and the ghost, turning abruptly to stalk back over to the sofa and throw himself down. “Damn right it’s not,” he growled. “You were right: there’s just no end to the fucking stuff.”

Hajime also stood back, out of the way of the headache-inducing energy, letting his mental shields rise back into place, and nodded again. It looked like they really would have to try silly séance business, candles and all, and it was so hard to get cats to sit still for things like that, and he honestly didn’t think it would work any better than what they’d already done — though, once again, the attempt had to be made.

He glanced at his watch. It was getting to be mid-afternoon already, somehow, and they’d made no progress except to confirm that the thing was, in fact, a ghost. If the lack of results continued and Sano got much angrier, he might decide to take his ghost elsewhere. And though not exactly a paying customer (yet… though Hajime sensed ‘ever’ might be a better term), he’d presented the exorcist with a unique opportunity Hajime didn’t want to lose. He would talk to this ghost, no matter what it took. Which meant he needed to try to keep Sano happy.

“This might take a while,” he said. “How do you feel about ordering Chinese?”

Part 5

Sano had always believed himself persistent, but Hajime was absolutely indefatigable. They had tried everything: they’d used every communicative technique Hajime knew, and looked up others online; they’d performed various types of séance — most of these also gleaned off websites, many of dubious authenticity; Hajime had attempted to get the cats to make some sort of mental connection with the ghost so he could talk through them; and they’d eventually just tried to exorcize the thing rather than communicate with it, which Sano could see annoyed and dismayed Hajime, who wanted very much to get information from the ghost.

This last negated any guilt Sano might have been feeling about essentially asking the exorcist to work for free: Hajime was clearly more than a little eager to interact with the ghost, and didn’t care whether he got anything else out of the situation. This was extremely fortunate, since Sano, who between tuition and rent was always low on funds, didn’t know how much longer he could put up with this angering distraction in his life, but also didn’t know how else he might get rid of it.

Not that any efforts toward dealing with the ghost had paid off so far. Nothing had seemed even the least bit effective, and Hajime’s thin lips had set into a tighter and tighter line as afternoon turned into evening and then night, until he appeared almost as frustrated as Sano was. The two of them had taken to bickering over every little thing, and violence was only barely averted on a number of occasions. Even the cats had become increasingly irritable, and at one point Misao bit Sano’s hand so hard it drew significant blood.

Sano had firmly vetoed the suggestion that they order Chinese (since he worked at a Chinese restaurant and already suffered nightmares about never being able to eat anything else for the rest of his life), so they’d ordered pizza instead and argued heatedly about toppings. Sano had been forced to give in on that score when reminded that Hajime was paying. Then they’d eaten pizza and drunk beer as if they were hanging out having fun instead of futilely and increasingly frustratingly trying to get into contact with a ghost they could very plainly sense in their immediate presence but couldn’t talk to no matter what they tried.

At one point Sano had suggested they attempt inducing possession, and volunteered himself for the process when Hajime evinced obvious distaste for the idea. However, even once Hajime had been reluctantly convinced this was worth giving a try, yet again it hadn’t worked. Sano had been disappointed — he would have said ‘secretly disappointed’ if he hadn’t been in the same room as a communicator — not solely because it was another blocked avenue to getting rid of or at least talking to the ghost, but because he thought it would be pretty cool to be able to say later that he’d been possessed. Even if the outcome might have been unpleasant, it would have been an interesting and unique experience.

It was the damn shade that had unendingly gotten in the way. There was always more of the stuff no matter how much Hajime diffused or Sano absorbed; and no matter how quickly they dealt with it, they couldn’t seem to cause even a momentary break in the flow to allow them through to the ghost beyond. He supposed it wasn’t a bad method of protection, and reflected further that if he were undead, he would probably be wreathed in the same impenetrable anger.

The annoyance he felt at the circumstance must have caused him to project this last thought, for Hajime had remarked in response, “Undoubtedly.”

Eventually, frustrated, aggravated, worn ragged on a magical level, they’d given up — at least on dealing with the ghost under their own power. To Sano, who in calling Hajime in the first place had already admitted this defeat, it hadn’t been as annoying a concession as it obviously was to Hajime. But the exorcist had been the one to suggest the alternative they probably should have had in mind all along: taking the ghost to Aoshi. The latter was a skilled medium; if anyone could talk to this damned thing, it was he.

Unfortunately, Aoshi was unavailable on weekends (and Sano had to work on Sunday in any case), which meant another day of trying to restrain the shade from hovering where other people might unknowingly walk through it and take ill effects from the invisible anger. It was just such a fucking pain.

But now, finally, Monday morning, he’d risen earlier than he generally ever wanted to during Spring Break, and headed toward Forest of Four to meet Hajime there and hope Aoshi had a free moment sometime before lunch. Well, more than a moment: if Aoshi could communicate with the ghost, he and Hajime both were sure to sit there asking it all kinds of questions probably for hours on end. Sano was already bracing himself for a lengthy period of boredom, since, although he believed it would be interesting enough at first, he also knew those two necrovisua nerds would drag it out far past the point of easy endurance. He only hoped they wouldn’t forget about him and his predicament in the process and fail to ask the ghost the all-important question of what they needed to do to get rid of it.

Aoshi’s shop was never terribly busy, and when the little parking lot began to fill up it was usually mostly for the market next door. Sano didn’t see Hajime’s car yet, though, so he loitered around outside. Since this destination was a negligible distance from his apartment, he’d come on foot, and therefore hadn’t outdistanced the ghost. It maintained its customary slow, elliptical orbit as he stood on the curb and looked idly around.

A couple of guys hanging out pointlessly in front of the used CD store on the far side of the market kept glancing over at him, and some market shoppers stared likewise as they emerged with full bags. He wondered if he seemed angrier than usual, or if it was just that he’d used blue gel in his hair today.

Someone actually here to shop Forest of Four gave a startled look to the ghost as she emerged from her car, then a pitying one to Sano; she probably thought he was here for advice on how to deal with a red shade and politely waiting for his appointment time outside where it wouldn’t disturb the business. He was tempted to tell her, as she passed, that he was perfectly capable of dealing with red shades all on his own, thank you very much, but just then Hajime pulled up.

Glad at the prospect of taking out some of his anger on a relatively willing victim, Sano went to meet him at his car. Hajime’s yellow eyes, on stepping from that vehicle, were not on Sano but on the ghost, and he looked a little surprised. “How long have you been waiting?”

“Since nine.” Sano stuck his chin out and did not add, “You know, the time you said to meet you?” Hajime probably took Sano for the unreliable type just out of his teens that was never on time for anything, and therefore hadn’t hurried to get here. Greatly disliking that sort of assumption, Sano was pleased he’d come on foot and already had the ghost with him in order to give the impression of having been here a while.

Unfortunately, Hajime seemed to pick up on this, and, with a glance around the parking lot, which of course did not contain Sano’s vehicle, smirked faintly and gestured they should go inside. Hajime’s car, which reminded Sano a little of gangster cars in movies, was evidently new and well-enough-favored to merit locking and arming, which made Sano faintly jealous as they headed into the store.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou!” The girl at the counter sounded surprised, but no less cheerful for that. They were always cheerful in here — all of them except Aoshi, who seemed to have made it his goal to weigh a personal balance against the combined peppiness of his entire staff.

“We need to see Aoshi as soon as possible,” Hajime told the girl as they drew up to the counter.

Sano, had he been behind that counter, would have reacted to the dictatorial tone with annoyance; all the girl did, however, was widen her eyes a bit as she looked past them both. “Is that–”

“It’s a ghost,” Hajime declared, clearly and perhaps overloudly.

“Really?” the girl breathed. Sano finally remembered her name now: Omasu, who’d turned him down when he’d asked her out the very first time he’d come in here. “An actual ghost?”

Hajime nodded. “I assume Aoshi will be interested.”

“I just bet he will!” agreed Omasu in excitement. She was already pulling up the hinged counter segment and emerging. “Let me run talk to him!”

While she carried out her stated intention, Sano realized with an odd feeling why Hajime had practically announced to the entire store that a real ghost accompanied them. There were only two other visitors at the moment, and although one (the sympathetic woman from outside) had been browsing the books on crystal healing and the other the jewelry, it appeared that by some chance they were both necrovisual. And the moment Omasu was gone, they converged on Hajime without even any polite pretense, demanding to know about the ghost.

Admittedly Hajime handled it very well, never dropping a hint that they’d brought the ghost here because they couldn’t even begin to communicate with it or, almost, affect it in any way. He made it seem, instead, without actually saying so, that he was doing Aoshi a favor by giving him the opportunity to interact with an actual ghost. He didn’t mention Sano at all.

Of course this was only natural; an exorcist’s reputation could be significantly boosted by a situation like this, and Hajime would be an idiot not to take advantage of it. Logically Sano didn’t blame him, and also reminded himself that Hajime was helping him out for free when he might have been working on a paying job — but it annoyed him no less for that.

Worse, it wasn’t even Sano Hajime was taking advantage of here, but, rather, the ghost haunting him. Sano was accessory to the actual person Hajime was using to enhance his professional reputation. What the two eager necrovisuals made of the angry young man emitting the same energy that surrounded the purported ghost, Sano couldn’t guess. Maybe he was lucky and they didn’t see red. In any case, taking cue from Hajime, they largely ignored him.

Hajime ended up giving each of them a business card, and Sano ended up giving each of them a surreptitious gesture with a particular finger. Hajime seemed entertained by this, and was clearly restraining a chuckle as Omasu came hurrying back to them with the news that Aoshi had cleared his schedule for the entire morning in order to see them.

Even as they headed for the office in back, they could hear her starting to make calls to cancel all of her employer’s existing appointments. These probably amounted to no more than two, knowing Aoshi, but even so Sano felt a little bad about displacing them. Not nearly as bad as he would have if he hadn’t been haunted by a ghost he couldn’t get rid of and an exorcist that clearly regarded said ghost with far more interest than he did Sano. It would be nice to get this all dealt with.

Part 6

When they entered Aoshi’s office, the medium was in the act of moving chairs from before and behind his desk into positions facing the center of the room. His quick, vigorous motions declared what his face, morose as usual, could not: that he was excited and interested by the promise of a ghost. Hajime couldn’t help considering that Aoshi would be extremely, possibly dangerously disappointed if for some reason the ghost turned out to be something less than he expected or if by any chance he couldn’t communicate with it; and that he was already so worked up — and, indeed, that the cashier girl had run back so enthusiastically to talk to him — on nothing more than Hajime’s statement showed satisfactorily how much the exorcist’s word was worth around here.

Semi-darkness always hovered in this room, whether to create the atmosphere favored by its gloomy occupant or for legitimate magical purposes Hajime had never known or cared; but there also always seemed to be an unearthly gleam to Aoshi’s eyes even in the shadows. Today it was brighter than usual as he looked up at them. “Whose spirit is it?” he asked — which from him was a fairly typical greeting, since he rarely bothered with polite, meaningless phrases such as ‘Hello’ or ‘Have a seat.’

“We don’t know,” Hajime replied, having a seat. He tilted his head toward the young man entering behind him. “It’s haunting Sano.”

As Aoshi’s eyes shifted to Sano, the latter commented with just a touch of bitterness, “Oh, you want me to tell him?” He’d been annoyed outside about Hajime ignoring him and playing up the ghost to the other customers, but Hajime believed he’d also understood, which explained why he wasn’t flaring as brightly as he could be right about now. By suggesting Sano explain the situation to Aoshi, Hajime hoped to reassure the young man a little that he and his predicament weren’t forgotten.

Sano didn’t get the chance to explain, however, nor was he likely to think himself unforgotten. For at that moment the ghost moved into the office after him, through the door they’d closed behind them, and procured every last bit of Aoshi’s attention.

The pale glow of the shade contrasted enough with the shadowy room actually to illuminate objects that had previously been close to invisible. It was an uncanny light, and all the more eerie to Hajime for the thought that the other two living humans in the room saw it as red, and therefore, undoubtedly, the entire office as tinted by that color (and that many other living humans, had they been present, wouldn’t have been able to see it at all). It made Aoshi’s eyes glow an even brighter blue, but Hajime supposed that, from Sano’s perspective, they must have been purple or even entirely red.

The medium began to circle the ghost like a prowling panther, examining it from all sides meticulously up and down; and whether aware of this scrutiny and deliberately permitting it or for some totally unrelated reason, the ghost held still. Finally Aoshi asked in a half whisper, “Who are you?” It seemed intended as a rhetorical question, as he didn’t wait for an answer; evidently he could already perceive the difficulty with the shade energy.

“We’ve tried everything we could think of,” Sano put in at this point; it was clear by his expression, where he’d seated himself in the chair next to Hajime’s, that he couldn’t be sure whether or not Aoshi would even hear him. He went on anyway. “We haven’t been able to get through to him. There’s just too much shade in the way.”

Aoshi might indeed not have heard him, for all the reaction he gave. He’d gone perfectly still, staring unblinkingly at the ghost now, and looked as if he might remain that way for some time. Hajime caught Sano’s eye and shrugged; Sano, who’d been scowling, relaxed a little and actually smiled. Hajime had to smile faintly too when he caught from Sano the projected thought (deliberately this time, he believed), Should’ve seen this coming. Which was certainly true.

What he also should have seen coming was Aoshi, when he finally moved, beginning to go through the motions Hajime and Sano had exhausted the day before yesterday. He doubted it would take Aoshi nearly as long to realize the futility of standard communication or even standard necromantic efforts, but for the moment he sat back in the uncomfortable chair and watched only idly. Beside him, Sano had extracted from a spike-edged pocket a cheap pre-paid phone and begun texting someone.

Just to see if he still remembered how to do it, Hajime reached out mentally to read the departing message. Apparently Sano was responding with an apologetic negative to a request that he come in to work today, but Hajime couldn’t catch the exact wording — probably for the best, as he abhorred textspeak.

If Aoshi had bothered to listen to what they had to say about the ghost instead of completely shutting them out and wading in on his own, he could have skipped the steps he was working his way through now; but in all probability he would have made the attempt anyway, believing communicator-turned-exorcist Hajime and Sano, whatever Sano might be, weren’t as skilled at contacting the dead as he was — a natural enough assumption.

In any case, while Aoshi tried various methods of talking to the ghost, sometimes with verbal questions but more often in complete silence, Hajime somewhat absently continued to follow Sano’s text conversation. There came a reiteration of the work request and the information that the other maintenance guy had called in sick — apparently X, Y, and Z weren’t going to get done, and this was some sort of disaster — followed by a firmer, less apologetic refusal from Sano and his statement that he didn’t want any extra hours this week since he had a lot to do.

When Hajime caught an incoming message in reply wondering whether this week wasn’t Sano’s Spring Break, he was beginning to get a feel for the exact words in addition to the general meaning — but just then Sano glanced abruptly over at him with a suspicious expression, and Hajime withdrew his mental nets. Interesting that Sano could sense what he was doing when he claimed seeing and absorbing angry shade energy as the extent of his magical abilities. Hajime turned his full attention back to Aoshi.

It took fifteen or twenty minutes for the medium to determine his attempts weren’t going to work; but, despite this being quite a decent time in comparison to the hours Hajime and Sano had spent at similar pursuits on Saturday, Sano was by then shifting restlessly in his chair from one bored-looking position to another, and slowly, gradually, growing angrier. Why angrier? Why would Sano be absorbing the shade at this point? It wasn’t on a large enough scale to be of any use to Aoshi, and otherwise it just seemed stupid.

But Hajime didn’t have a chance to ask or otherwise figure it out, for Aoshi at last appeared to have remembered there were living people in the room besides himself. He’d turned toward where they sat, and, though the engrossed, fascinated gleam hadn’t left his eyes, the latter did seem a little more present now. “You’ve never once been able to communicate with him?” he asked abruptly. It was his usual saturnine tone, but for some reason he spoke Japanese; and this was no ambivalent ‘him,’ but a distinctly masculine pronoun.

“That’s right,” Hajime confirmed in the same language, and reiterated Sano’s earlier statement about the shade energy getting in the way.

Sano had sat up straight, and watched Aoshi with interest now. The medium’s face, lit oddly by the single lamp on the desk and the softer, less pleasant glow of the shade, was impassive as he turned away from the other humans again and regarded the ghost once more. He’d been standing right beside it this entire time, and Hajime wondered at his fortitude. That Aoshi was immune to most normal emotions Hajime had long facetiously speculated, so perhaps the shade didn’t affect him as it would normal people, but surely he must at least be getting a headache over there.

Now Aoshi began searching for something on one of the shelves full of arcane miscellany that lined the office walls. Hajime definitely sensed an eyes-rolling sort of Finally! from Sano, and had to agree; whatever Aoshi sought would undoubtedly be part of a more pointed and expert attempt at ghostly communication, which was, after all, the reason they’d come.

The next thing Hajime picked up from the young man to his left — was Sano deliberately projecting, or really that bad at guarding his thoughts? — was an image of the three of them lit by flickering candle-flame sitting cross-legged on the floor around an intricate set of chalked lines, holding hands, eyes closed, while Aoshi chanted dramatic nonsense. Hajime snorted, and saw Sano’s cheeks twitch against a repressed grin. Clearly he had intended Hajime to see that, and Hajime felt grudgingly impressed: a lot of legitimate communicators couldn’t send ideas that sharply visualized.

The object Aoshi eventually located and withdrew from an unnecessarily ornate wooden box on one of the shelves was small enough to be mostly hidden by his hand and wrist as he turned back toward the ghost. Even when he made a couple of quick motions through the space the ghost occupied — a diagonal slash followed by a quick stab in the same spot — Hajime couldn’t see exactly what it might be. However, Hajime and Sano were instantly on their feet in the wake of Aoshi’s movement, and had both taken a step closer with quick indrawn breaths.

As if whatever Aoshi held had cut a fissure right into the shade energy surrounding the ghost and laid the latter bare along that narrow line, Hajime could suddenly see hints of a human neck and collarbone and shoulder, glowing and translucent, in the midst of the shade. He wondered if it was the same grey-white hue to Sano’s eyes; if so, it must be a striking contrast against the red.

Aoshi’s inward thrust put his hand and the item it clutched inside the constricting fissure, which then closed around the medium’s wrist; it seemed clear he’d made it in; he’d managed to penetrate the shade that had so completely defied Hajime and Sano. The latter two had gone still after leaving their chairs, and only stared as Aoshi’s eyes fluttered closed and his entire body drew up with a deep breath and stiffened into total motionlessness.

Long, tense seconds dragged into one minute, then continued on toward two. Sano was shifting impatiently again, even more agitated now than before, while Hajime attempted to discern what Aoshi held. The shade glow and the darkness of the room combined to make this nearly impossible, but it seemed about the size of a pen.

To anyone not necrovisual this would have looked absurd: Aoshi standing there with one hand raised, appearing to be straining to keep what he held in place in the air; Hajime and Sano also standing, staring at him wordlessly; the atmosphere rigid, expectant. Hajime thought Aoshi’s face was paling somewhat with effort, thought he saw the medium’s frame tremble slightly, and therefore believed himself prepared for what would happen next.

When the break came, when Aoshi shuddered and abruptly jerked his hand back — indeed, jerked his entire body back all at once as if tearing away from some painful adhesion, drawing in another deep, unsteady breath — Hajime stepped quickly forward to support him. And what Hajime hadn’t been prepared for was Aoshi to collapse backward into his arms, eyes rolling up under closing lids, a completely dead weight.

Part 7

Sano knew Aoshi’s dramatic tendencies — indeed, had more than once been required to restrain a grin of mockery or a roll of eyes in the man’s presence — but, if Hajime’s sudden half stagger and evidently somewhat irritated attempt at regaining his balance under Aoshi’s collapsed frame meant anything, this was the real deal. It interested Sano, who had never seen anyone faint before.

He’d been restraining the ghost ever since he’d entered the room, holding it still in order to let Aoshi examine it without having to follow its drifting circle around Sano, but now he released it in favor of moving to help Hajime manhandle Aoshi into a chair. The medium didn’t actually weigh very much, for a guy just under six feet tall, and it was easier than he’d expected to get him into the seat — much more comfortable than the other two in the room — beside the desk. Hajime tilted the chair backward, and adjusted the knobs underneath to make it stay that way, so Aoshi would remain where they’d set him, then looked around.

“It’s so damn dark in here,” he grumbled. “He must at least have some candles somewhere.”

Sano gave a grimace indicating no ideas, glancing at the window that would have let in some additional light if it hadn’t been painted over in black and half-obscured by a bookshelf. When he turned back, he found Hajime taking Aoshi’s pulse.

“Should we get someone?” asked Sano uncertainly. “Or call 911, or…”

Hajime frowned. “I’m not sure what we’d tell the 911 operator. At least his pulse is normal. Look in that fridge and see if he has any water.”

Sano had visited this office a number of times, seated in one of the hard chairs in front of the desk while Aoshi, in the big leather one behind it, questioned him impassively about recent shade-related activity and eventually fetched and counted out the pills Sano needed from a plastic container he kept in a locked cabinet to the left of his desk. But he’d never taken much notice of the small refrigerator beneath the shelves on the opposite side. And he’d certainly never expected to see the eccentric medium lying pale and prostrate in that same big leather chair.

Now, trying to disregard Hajime’s dictatorial tone, he did as he was told. No water was to be found in the fridge, only a salad in Tupperware, seven different flavors of coffee creamer, and a couple of vials Sano probably didn’t want to know the contents of; however, he caught sight of the coffeemaker on a shelf (this one almost more of a countertop in an alcove) above the fridge. The device seemed to have a water line in, and a group of upside-down mugs stood beside it. One of these, full of lukewarm liquid, he handed to Hajime in short order.

As Hajime flicked water in Aoshi’s face, he issued his next command: “Make some coffee too, if you can figure the machine out; he’ll probably need it when he wakes up.”

“Or,” Sano replied crossly, “he’ll get annoyed that we’re messing with his stuff.”

“How often have you seen him in here without a cup of coffee?” countered Hajime.

Sano would have liked to make an angry retort, but unfortunately the answer to Hajime’s question was ‘practically never,’ so argument would be futile. Wanting to let out some anger, though, as he turned he demanded, “And what do you mean, if I can figure out the machine? How hard do you think it is to push buttons on a coffeemaker?”

“For you, or for the average single-celled organism?”

“You know what? Fuck you.” He’d expected an insult like that, however — well, technically, he’d expected something less funny — and it was weird to feel so angry, yet simultaneously relieved and satisfied… and disconcerting to consider this jerk kinda nice to have around, what with his willingness to be offensive and irritating at the drop of a hat, and his sexy voice…

Hajime chuckled quietly, then went silent as Aoshi stirred. From Sano’s angle it was difficult to tell, but he thought Aoshi’s eyes drifted open and his breath came out in a faint sigh. Sano hastened to finish dealing with the coffee package and filter and get the machine going, and, to the sound of its quiet hiss as the brewing cycle started, circumnavigated the big chair to see what exactly was going on.

Aoshi didn’t appear to be processing anything before him, though he had indeed opened his eyes, and Sano was in time to see Hajime grip his shoulder and give him a shake. Slowly a sort of fog seemed to lift from the medium’s gaze, into which the customary glint returned as he focused more and more coherently on the two men in front of him. “Oh,” he finally said. Then he struggled to sit up straight in his chair, and frowned slightly at the odd angle it was set to. He reached down to readjust the knobs Hajime had changed, saying nothing for several seconds, until he’d fixed his seat.

Next he looked around, still a little vague. His eyes fell on the active coffeemaker and seemed to stick there for several seconds as if in confusion as to why coffee was brewing when he hadn’t initiated that process. Then he shook himself slightly, nodded, and turned back.

“You OK?” Sano wondered.

Aoshi nodded again. “I believe I am.” And like the last few things he’d said before passing out, this brief phrase was for some reason in Japanese.

Hajime prodded Sano in the ribs suddenly, and when Sano looked in his direction he found him gesturing for movement. Realizing he probably meant it was a good idea at this point to stop towering over the seated Aoshi and resume their own chairs on the other side of the desk, annoyed at Hajime’s manner of expressing the suggestion but thinking it best to comply, he stuck out his tongue and did so.

Having turned the wooden chairs to face Aoshi and sat down again, they watched him draw close to the desk as if to use it for support against the weariness that was now evident in his face and movements. Then Aoshi fixed his eyes on Sano and said, “This was the shade you contacted me about, correct? The one that collects again even after you’ve absorbed it all?”

Sano nodded.

The quiet, dour gaze moved up and down Sano analytically, undoubtedly taking in the angry aura that lingered around him after his latest irritation at Hajime’s behavior. “It’s vicious shade energy,” Aoshi remarked at last.

“Tell me about it,” Sano muttered.

“Actually, tell us about the ghost,” Hajime corrected. “Were you able to talk to it?”

Aoshi shook his head. “I was only able to get general impressions from him.”

“So he is a guy, then,” said Sano.

When Aoshi nodded, Hajime put in, “And of Japanese descent, I assume.”

“Yes. How–” Aoshi paused, his brows twitching briefly inward. Sano got the feeling he was only just realizing he’d made an unexplained language switch some time ago and the other two had cooperated without protest. “Yes,” he finally went on, now in English again. “I would tentatively guess half Japanese, half American, born and raised in the States in a Japanese-style home, possibly here in this very Asian district.”

“Sounds like me,” Sano mused.

“I couldn’t sense much more about him than that. Even that was a vague impression I might be mistaken about.”

“It seems like a fairly specific impression to me,” Hajime contradicted. “Why that particular information?”

“I am a Japanese immigrant. It’s easier to sense how you’re similar to a ghost than areas in which you’re totally different from him.”

Hajime appeared a little suspicious as he remarked, “You say that as if you’ve met other ghosts.”

“This is the second I’ve encountered,” Aoshi replied.

Though Hajime sat back without another word, Sano couldn’t help thinking somewhat complacently that that news must be annoying the hell out of him; he’d thought he’d found a ghost before Aoshi had, and here Aoshi had been ahead of him all along and was one up on him now.

The coffeemaker had gradually stopped its gurgling, and Aoshi reached for the full mug in a movement so automatic he almost seemed unaware of what he was doing. Once he had the coffee on the desk in front of him, however, he definitively noticed it; and there followed a long process of selecting a creamer from the fridge and stirring it into the dark liquid, carried out in complete silence, that was amusing and frustrating to watch.

Next he unlocked the cabinet to his left and withdrew, rather than some magical pill or powder as Sano had seen him do before, just a bottle of standard painkillers. Sano knew the brand, which was targeted at migraine sufferers and caffeinated, and raised his brows at the amount of the latter chemical Aoshi planned to ingest.

After swallowing three of the pills and beginning to sip what must still be quite hot coffee, Aoshi finally continued in a dark tone. “I wasn’t able to sense more about him because I couldn’t maintain the connection through that intense shade energy — and also because he was projecting his anchor so strongly it overrode nearly everything else.”

“Anchor?” Sano echoed, unfamiliar with the term in this context.

At the same moment Hajime wondered, “Oh? What is it?”

Aoshi sighed faintly. “It’s the same anchor as it was for the last ghost I encountered,” he answered Hajime rather than Sano. “And, as far as I’ve read, for a majority of ghosts throughout human history. A woman, of course.”

Part 8

Aoshi’s theatrical announcement that a woman anchored the ghost to the living world failed to make much of an impression on Hajime. And perhaps Aoshi was a little disappointed that he didn’t gasp and draw back, wide-eyed, in response, but when Hajime instead asked, “What does she look like?” he answered calmly enough:

“A beautiful Japanese woman. It was more a general sense than a visual. I believe she’s in her mid-twenties. She may be a mother. He wants to go to her, and it’s clear he won’t be free until he does.”

“Why doesn’t he just do it, then?” wondered Sano in frustration. “Where do I come in?”

“She probably can’t see ghosts,” Hajime reminded him. “Maybe you were the first person he ran into who could tell he was there.” Though he had to think there was more to it than that.

Sano apparently did too, for he glanced at the ghost with a pensive scowl. Interestingly, it had started drifting around the young man again as soon as Aoshi fainted; Hajime wondered what had stilled it before.

Finally Sano said, “But if he’s so mad at this woman, why doesn’t he go do the usual thing? Give her headaches and make her pissed at the whole world and all that?”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “Because he’s not just a shade, idiot. Most people want the people they’re angry at to know why they’re angry.”

“She probably killed him,” Sano said, and, in the midst of the ire he suddenly gave off at being called an idiot, it was difficult to gage his level of seriousness. “In which case I’m sure she’d know why he’s mad.”

“Maybe,” Hajime pondered, “because you’re so good at getting angry, he thinks you’ll be willing to carry out his revenge for him.”

“Well, he’s got another think coming, in that case.”

Aoshi, who’d been sipping his coffee in silence through this exchange, finally said, “We’ll never be able to communicate with him as long as he’s so violently angry. At least some of that intense shade has to be cleared up first. And obviously this mysterious woman is the key.”

His tone had a rare edge to it, a sharp indicator of continued interest and some of the dangerous disappointment Hajime had idly predicted earlier. The statement had also been something of a command: Aoshi wanted to talk to the ghost even more than Hajime did, and at this point was essentially ordering Hajime and Sano to find the mysterious woman and get the dead man’s anger dealt with. Reminding himself of Sano as he did so, Hajime bristled at this. Unlike Sano would have, however, he didn’t let it show. The ghost had to be handled one way or another, after all, and finding the woman and dispelling the shade energy seemed the logical next step.

“If we do manage to find this anchor of his,” he told Aoshi, “the result will probably be him moving on. I can’t promise you’re going to be able to talk to him on this side.”

Aoshi fixed him with a piercing stare in which were all the same emotions and concepts contained in his earlier tone. “What you can promise,” he said, “is to relay anything you learn from him to me.”

Hajime stifled a sigh. True, they had new information and a new avenue to follow, but he almost regretted bringing the ghost here. Aoshi could be a trifle obsessive, and was unlikely to let this drop until he’d either learned something interesting or become convinced of the impossibility of doing so. Still, Hajime perfectly understood the desire, even if this wasn’t the first ghost Aoshi had ever met. After all, he, too, wanted answers from the dead man… and there would certainly be no harm in passing those answers along to someone that had assisted him. “Of course,” he said. “Anything else you can tell us that might help?”

Aoshi shook his head.

“Hang on…” Sano was obviously a little confused. “Are we going after this woman? Is that the idea here?”

Hajime stood. “That’s the idea here. Thank you for your help, Aoshi.”

Aoshi nodded.

Sano rose, face set in a scowl of annoyance and lack of understanding. “But how the hell are we supposed to know where to even start looking for her? She could be anyone, anywhere — she could be in Japan for all we know!”

Hajime didn’t bother answering the question or pointing out how unlikely it seemed that the woman was in Japan. He just turned away from Aoshi’s desk and moved toward the door, saying, “Do you want to be haunted forever? This is the next step to dealing with your friend, so come on.”

“But if we find the woman, this ghost is probably going to start doing horrible things to her with his stupid shade, and she’ll suffer, and it’ll be our fault.”

It was interesting to find Sano evidently so concerned with the situation itself, and the anonymous people involved, beyond merely as it affected him. Hajime could have responded to his protest in a number of ways, and most of them would probably have to be brought up eventually in any case, but the one he chose at the moment was, “Didn’t you say you thought she killed him?”

“I was joking!”

As they passed across the open space where Aoshi had made the best contact with the ghost of any of them thus far, Hajime glanced down to where the previously unidentifiable object had fallen to the floor when the medium had fainted. On sight of the slightly tapering surgical steel handle and small detachable blade, he nodded slightly; that made sense.

Outside Aoshi’s office and the little hallway that led to it, they were immediately the subject of scrutiny of every eye in the place. Clearly the cashier had been gossiping to the other customers about who the boss had in his office right now, and the effect wasn’t lessened by Sano’s saying, as they walked out of the room, “I don’t want to just sic this angry ghost out of the blue on some innocent woman!” This statement would be enough to pique the interest of anyone that overheard it — and, by the looks of it, most of them had.

Even if Hajime had been planning another round of posing, equivocal ghost-talk, however, Sano wasn’t having it this time. He said distinctly, “Heel!” and then… well, Hajime hadn’t been expecting it and didn’t quite catch what he did. But in response the ghost moved quickly over to Sano and followed beside and behind him — indeed, very like a dog coming to heel — as Sano, scowling faintly, stalked out of the store. Hajime, fighting not to appear startled and immensely curious, hastened to follow.

Outside, Sano took several steps away from the shop entrance before he stopped walking and turned to face Hajime. Whatever hold he had on the ghost he did not release — it maintained its motionless position at his side — and Hajime realized Sano must have been doing this before whenever the ghost had seemed unaccountably still. Moreover, it probably meant he deliberately hadn’t been doing it while Hajime had been absurdly following the ghost back and forth and back and forth through his living room on Saturday. Brat.

But at the moment Hajime was more interested in how Sano did it than why he’d neglected it two days ago. This surely answered the question of why Sano’s anger had been so steadily rising in Aoshi’s office: whatever method he used to hold the ghost still probably siphoned shade energy off into him, more gradually than if he were purposefully absorbing it but eventually to the same effect.

“So where are we going to start looking for our mystery lady?” Despite Sano’s having asked the question relatively calmly, Hajime could easily see and sense he was still annoyed in general; the young man could probably do with releasing some anger.

So in a tone skeptically derisive Hajime asked, “You really can’t think of a single idea?”

Sano flared and scowled, but instead of an irate retort he gave a surprisingly frank answer. “No! Unless by some weird coincidence she happens to go to my school and I run into her and ghostie-guy here reacts, I have no way of finding some random woman I don’t even have a name or description for! She’s Japanese? How’s that supposed to help? You know what kind of Asian population this city has! I mean, look at us — we were three Japanese guys in one room there; four, if you count him–” he jabbed a thumb toward the ghost– “pretty much just by coincidence! What are we supposed to do, just walk the Asian district until some woman comes running out and says, ‘Hey, is that my ghost that I lost?'”

The unspoken but overwhelming complaint behind this rant was, “I’m going to have to deal with this ghost forever. The one way to get rid of him seems impossible, and he’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.” Hajime honestly felt sorry for him, and couldn’t help giving him a less condescending smile than usual.

“Fortunately,” he said, “I do have an idea.”

The startled, open, hopeful look Sano gave him was rather gratifying. “What is it?”

“First, tell me how you’re forcing the ghost to hold still.”

Now Sano glanced at the spirit in question, as if he’d forgotten he was doing that at all. “Oh, uh…” He raised a hand and gestured. “I just sort of… reach in there… same as how I reach to absorb the shade… only instead of doing that…” He twisted his hand as if he were wrapping a mass of something malleable around it and drawing it back toward him. “It sortof opens a channel for the shade energy again, so it’s a pain in the ass to keep doing it… but at least I can keep him from bugging other people that way.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “You do realize that exercising any type of control over a shade like that is conjuration.” That is to say, a totally different area of necrovisual magic than the one Sano claimed solely to be skilled in.

“Yeah, I guess it is.” This tone was equal parts pensive and indifferent, as if this might be a good deal more interesting later when Sano wasn’t as concerned with how they could possibly get rid of the ghost that had been haunting him for weeks. “So what’s your idea?”

At this moment, a couple of customers emerged from Forest of Four. One of them elbowed the other and made what he probably thought was a surreptitious gesture toward Hajime and Sano. A few seconds longer and they would assuredly walk in this direction.

“Let’s go,” Hajime murmured. “It’s too early for lunch, but I wouldn’t mind some coffee.” The smell in Aoshi’s office had been suggestively pleasant, even if Aoshi did take his coffee with insane amounts of bizarrely-flavored additives.

Sano, who had also observed the gawkers at the shop’s door, nodded.

“And I need to make a phone call,” Hajime added.

Part 9

Hajime had one of those in-car hands-free phone systems that automatically synched up the moment he turned on the engine. Sano restrained himself from asking if he could mess around with it, especially when, as Hajime backed out of the parking space, he was already starting his call.

Nobody answered, and Hajime hung up as soon as the voicemail connected, so Sano got no clue as to who might have been on the other end. But, “He’ll call back when he sees my number,” the exorcist said.

“Who?” Sano wondered. But Hajime was glancing thoughtfully from one side of the street to the other as he drove, evidently trying to decide on a destination, and didn’t answer. This was, of course, very annoying, but instead of reiterating the question Sano just remarked, “Aoshi was way less helpful than I expected. I figured he’d be talking to that thing inside of a minute, and keep talking to him for hours.”

“At least he got through to him at all,” Hajime replied grudgingly. “That’s more than we managed.”

“I got all distracted by him fainting and talking about anchors and that woman and all that, and forgot to ask how a ghost can keep putting out shade energy.”

Hajime took his turn looking annoyed. “There were several things he probably could have told us if he hadn’t fallen in love with that ghost at first sight and forgotten we were there.” Sano took this to mean, “I got distracted and forgot too,” which could only make him smile. But if Hajime sensed and resented Sano’s interpretation of his statement, he gave no indication of it.

They ended up at a coffee place Sano had never heard of, though it was just outside the south end of the Asian district. Sano would have sat with idle hands at the table they chose beside the front window — gourmet drinks at pretentious little coffee shops were just too expensive for someone like him — if Hajime, somewhat impatiently, hadn’t insisted on buying him one. Sano never said no to a free… well, anything, really, but it felt a little weird to be accepting another favor from a man he technically should have been paying for his services instead of the other way around.

Hajime picked up on this and said dismissively, “Incidental expenses.”

Sano looked dubiously at his cup. “How often do you buy coffee for your clients?”

“Occasionally,” the exorcist shrugged.

“But they’re usually already paying you money.” Hajime hadn’t even asked if Sano could pay him, which was probably for the best since Sano didn’t think he would have been able to refrain from making an only-mostly-facetious offer of gay sex in place of funds he didn’t have. (He felt he was getting the hang of controlling which thoughts went out and which ones stayed hidden, and to this one Hajime didn’t respond.)

“They also usually don’t give me the chance to talk to a real ghost.”

At this Sano mimicked Hajime’s shrug and decided not to worry about it any further. And the next moment, Hajime’s phone rang.

Sano sat forward, listening eagerly to this side of the conversation and what little he could hear from the other party — which wasn’t much, though he thought the voice was youngish and somewhat belligerent.

“Yes,” Hajime began the discussion. “It took you long enough to call back.” Then, after some apparently equally rude remark from the other end, “Of course. No, that’s over and done with. I need to know if there have been any Japanese men around here who have died lately under unusual circumstances. Yes. No. He’ll have left behind a woman, also Japanese — a wife or girlfriend or maybe a family member — someone close to him. Yes; when isn’t it? No, I’ve got a client being haunted by an actual ghost this time. Yes. OK, thanks.”

As Hajime replaced the phone — it was a nice-looking smart phone with a touch screen — Sano guessed, “So… cop?”

Hajime nodded. “He’s got no magical talent himself, but he’s been a believer ever since I dealt with a yellow shade he picked up somewhere. We have an unofficial arrangement that he can consult me on anything that seems magical, and in return he gives me information when I need it.”

“Sounds good,” Sano nodded. Actually he was more than a little impressed. Having a contact in the police like that was better than just knowing a good medium; not only did it sound like something super-cool out of a TV show, it also rather put Hajime into a higher league of effectiveness. He supposed that was one marked difference between a career exorcist and a guy that just happened, every once in a while, to absorb red shades for his schoolmates.

“So why are you an exorcist, anyway?” Sano had asked this question, or a variant, on Saturday, but now had a hankering for a more complete answer.

“It seemed interesting.” While Sano doubted this comprised Hajime’s entire reason for his career choice, he also got a feeling of truth from the words. But just then the ghost, in its sluggish circling of the table, moved right into the path of a customer getting in line, and Sano reached out and jerked the spirit toward himself to spare the poor woman some discomfort. Once she’d moved out of the ghost’s likely trajectory, Sano let the figure go again. He was conjuring, wasn’t he? He’d never thought about it before; the action had always just seemed to come so naturally…

Hajime, watching him with unreadable eyes, now asked unexpectedly, “What are you going to school for?”

Sano was always a little embarrassed when people hit him with that question. “I haven’t really decided. I’m just getting the general stuff out of the way right now.” He shrugged. “I should probably figure it out pretty soon here… but it kinda sucks how you only have a couple of years to choose what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.”

“You don’t necessarily have to do what you major in forever,” Hajime said with a skeptical expression.

Again Sano shrugged. “It’s easier, though. And it seems like the cooler and more fun a profession is, the less likely you are to ever be able to get into it.”

Hajime chuckled. “Only if you lack ambition and drive.”

“And luck!” Sano replied, stung. “People with cool jobs were usually in the right place at the right time.”

“With the right skillsets,” Hajime appended.

“Yeah, well… you can’t go around training for every cool job in the world just in case a good coincidence happens to come along.”

“Fortune favors the prepared.”

“What does that actually mean, anyway?”

“I can see that a strong understanding of the English language isn’t part of any of your skillsets.”

“I understand English just fine, ” Sano said hotly. “Just old sayings and shit don’t always make sense.”

Hajime only laughed at him again.

Sano’s hand clenched tightly around the coffee cup, warping the cardboard with his irate grip, but he strove not to speak angrily. “I mean, like, ‘cutting the mustard?’ What the hell does that mean? Or, why does it mean what it means?”

Derisive smile unfaded, Hajime did at least admit, “You have a point there.”

Someone was about to walk through the ghost again, and Sano stood abruptly as once again he pulled the it quickly toward himself. “Come on. There’s too many people in here; let’s go outside.”

The walk wasn’t exactly picturesque; next door to the coffee shop stood a tire store that filled the air with an intolerable reek of rubber, followed by a gas station and then an apartment complex behind a tall fence. Sano was getting annoyed from dragging the ghost around so much, and it annoyed him to find himself getting annoyed for no good reason, and then he was annoyed at being annoyed at being annoyed. When Hajime evidently found this amusing, Sano at least then had good cause to be annoyed.

It fascinated him how cheerfully Hajime took his abuse. Sano was aware — and grateful! — that the exorcist was and had been provoking him deliberately so he could work off some of the stupid shade anger he’d been absorbing; he figured Hajime would do that for any client. But he seemed to enjoy it. Was he a masochist, or what?

He wanted to know more than this about Hajime. His earlier question about the man’s choice of profession had barely been answered, and he still wondered about the apparent improbable level of income, though perfectly aware it was none of his business.

“I guess if you want to know that desperately, I could tell you,” Hajime mused.

Sano swore under his breath. “I thought I wasn’t projecting that.”

“You were still giving off a general sense,” Hajime told him with a smirk. “That’s harder to control.”

With a growling expression of discontent, Sano threw him a dark look. “So you gonna tell me, or what?”

Hajime shrugged.

Deeming that as good an answer as he was likely to get, Sano tried to decide exactly what to ask.

Part 10

Sano had just opened his mouth for the first of what he inexplicably wanted answered when Hajime interrupted preemptively. “If you ask me something, you have to answer a question too.”

“What?” The startled Sano obviously assumed Hajime meant this as an expression of return curiosity.

“Equal exchange.” In fact, Hajime only wanted to minimize the time he had to spend talking about himself and, with the threat of reciprocation, prevent Sano from asking anything obnoxiously personal.

“O…K…” Sano was still surprised, and seemed to be wondering whether this meant Hajime wanted to be friends or what. He was improving at keeping his thoughts to himself, though, and remarkably quickly at that. Finally he said, “So what made you choose to be an exorcist? And just so you know, ‘It seemed interesting’ is not a real answer.”

“I’m afraid it’s still the truth.” Hajime gave Sano a moment to get good and angry at this, then continued. “What’s the next reason for anyone’s career choice, after money? Being an exorcist doesn’t pay enough for me to have any reason to do it other than that it’s interesting.”

“Fine,” Sano allowed, very frustrated, “but, I mean, why aren’t you doing something that pays more? Why aren’t you brainwashing people for the government or doing some non-magical job that, you know… pays more?”

“Exorcism seemed more interesting.”

Sano made an angry noise. “I’m about to throw this ghost at you if you don’t quit it.” It was his coffee he raised threateningly, though.

Hajime laughed. “You’re mostly wondering how I can survive on just an exorcist’s paycheck… Why is that such an area of concern for you?”

“I don’t have to tell you a damn thing until you answer my question first.” Sano’s jaw was set as the lowest part of an impressive scowl, and his movements had taken on an amusing angry stalking quality.

“And I don’t have to answer any of your questions,” Hajime pointed out. “Though, technically, I did. So it’s your turn. What’s your issue with money?”

“Can’t you just read my mind if you want to know?”

“I probably could. So what’s your issue with money?”

Through the midst of the bright angry aura that surrounded him by now, Sano suddenly laughed. “This is probably the stupidest conversation I’ve ever had.”

“It is stupid, but I would hesitate to assign a superlative when you’re involved.”

“You would what to what, now?”

“Your issues with money?” Hajime prompted.

Again Sano laughed, this time sounding defeated, though his aura was only fading slowly. “OK, fine. My ‘issues with money.'” He shrugged. “I don’t think I really have any. We never had a lot of money when I was growing up, but we weren’t what I’d call poor or anything… My parents saved so they could help me pay for college, and I didn’t get a lot of cool stuff… and we always had to ‘shop smart’ and shit like that, especially for food and clothes, so I never got to wear what I wanted, which you know what that does to you in high school?

“And my parents — especially my dad — were always lecturing me about how to manage money, like, every single time I got any; and I’ve been working since I was fifteen — do you know, if you work in a restaurant when you’re fifteen, you’re not allowed to go into the walk-in fridge? — and my parents made me save most of it and never get anything I wanted… but, like I said, it’s not like we were poor or anything.”

As Sano listed all these issues with money he didn’t think he really had, Hajime got an impression, from behind the words, of the value Sano’s parents had attempted to instill in him: a rigid frugality totally foreign to his careless nature that therefore manifested now, rather than as any sort of prudence, as more of an undiscriminating miserliness with occasional outbursts of extravagance. Good thing, after such mismanagement, they were helping him with his tuition.

“What are you grinning about?” Sano demanded suddenly.

“Nothing. Go on.”

Though Sano had originally been annoyed at being maneuvered into giving information first, and was currently annoyed at the implication that Hajime found what he had to say funny, he was also not unhappy to be complaining about his parents and this financial business. “My dad won’t leave me alone about money, ever. It’s gotten so I barely even want to talk to him, because every time I do I know there’s a million questions coming that I don’t really want to answer; and it kinda sucks not wanting to talk to your own dad just because of something like that, but, seriously, he needs to lay off!

“I mean, I’m twenty, for god’s sake, and I have my own apartment, even if it is kinda shit. And, yeah, they’re helping me pay for college, but does that really mean I have to do the classes they want me to take? I have to get my general ed out of the way no matter what I do, so it’s not like I absolutely have to decide right away, but my dad won’t stop getting on my case about choosing a major. He wants me to get some kind of business degree — you know, so I can make plenty of money — but I still don’t know if that’s what I want.”

“That’s what I have,” Hajime offered neutrally.

You have a degree in making money, and you’re still an exorcist?” As Hajime drew breath to answer, Sano added quickly, almost in a snarl, “Don’t you fucking dare say it seemed interesting.”

Hajime, who had been about to, instead restrained his grin at how much fun messing with Sano was proving and said seriously, “Yes. My magical talents woke up while I was attending college here in the States, and after I’d graduated and gone back to Japan I spent a couple of years thinking a career in magic would be much more interesting than the family business, where I was expected to stay forever. But in Japan it’s almost impossible to make money as an exorcist if you don’t do things in approved Shinto style.”

Sano gave a Why am I not surprised? laugh, and Hajime smiled a little as he continued. “When one of my grandparents left me a decent inheritance, I moved back here and took up exorcism as a career.”

Despite how little information Hajime had actually given, Sano seemed totally engrossed. Without even looking at the trash can they passed, he discarded the coffee cup he’d by now emptied.

“Let’s cross here and head back,” Hajime suggested, gesturing at the street. Sano complied, still giving him an expectant look all the way along the crosswalk as if Hajime might have forgotten he was in the middle of a story of sorts. Actually, his evident fascination seemed strange; Hajime’s brief narrative certainly wasn’t any more interesting than Sano’s talk of his parents’ financial eccentricities.

“Of course I’ve invested since then, to make sure I always have enough to live on when no one happens to need an exorcist.” With a shrug to indicate just how mediocre he found all of this, Hajime finished, “That’s all there is to it.”

Clearly impressed, Sano said, “So you didn’t just get lucky getting some money from a relative…” He’d obviously been planning on making fun of Hajime for this (to the extent he was capable), but had been forestalled by further information. “You had something in mind and you went for it as soon as you could, and then you made sure you could keep doing it. Damn.” He didn’t even seem to be trying to conceal that he found this simultaneously inspiring and unsettling.

Hajime too was just a trifle unsettled; he wasn’t used to inspiring people, and thought Sano was assigning inordinate weight to insignificant things. So he sought quickly for a reply that would bring their interaction back to a more appropriate level. “It doesn’t mean you need to lean forward and gape at me like that… you look like an orangutan.”

After the predictable (and predicted) reaction from Sano, the latter fumed for a bit and then, as far as Hajime could tell, returned to wondering at Hajime’s apparent equanimity in response to his anger. He was still reading significance into unimportant things, but there was really nothing to be done about that.

The car system announced an incoming call not long after they’d started back from the coffee shop toward Forest of Four, and Hajime answered immediately.

“Didn’t I mention my client is being haunted?” At this greeting, at his side, Sano’s brows went up over a skeptical smile; he obviously couldn’t tell yet that this type of rudeness and accusation was par for the course of these conversations, and assumed, therefore, that those involved must be more antagonistic toward each other than they actually were. Just to add to the effect, Hajime added, “Do you think I have all day?”

“You know I don’t really give a shit about your clients,” was the retort, sounding half lazy and half harried. “Ain’t my clients. And you better have all day, ’cause there’s no way I’m getting this shit done right now. I’ve got other shit to do, since I have a real job, unlike some bullying assholes I know.”

“When do you estimate you’ll have the information?”

“Tomorrow sometime… or not sooner than never if you’re a bitch about it.”

Hajime grinned. “Sooner than never sounds good. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

“Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath.”

“Thanks, Chou.”

As soon as he was convinced the call had ended, Sano laughed. “Wow, that guy sounds like a complete moron!”

“Oh, really?” wondered Hajime. “I was just thinking that he reminds me a little of you.”

“What??” It was terribly entertaining how easily Sano’s buttons could be pushed. “You know, I was just thinking how rude it was that he called you a bitch, but now I think my mind’s changing all of a sudden!”

In a tone of agreement Hajime said, “It can’t weigh too much, so I guess it shifts easily.”

“What does the weight have to do with it?”

“Not too much on it.”

“I think that one was a stretch.” Sano sounded both amused and annoyed, though.

When they reached the Forest of Four parking lot, after only a few more, similar exchanges and nothing of any actual consequence between them, Sano vacated the car with some alacrity, his motions similar to those with which he’d been stalking along the street earlier. With a smirk, Hajime stood out his door and observed his companion over the roof. “I’ll call you as soon as I have information,” he offered.

With a stiffness evidently born of aggravation, Sano nodded and turned away. He hadn’t been holding onto the ghost in the car, and it had yet to catch up; Hajime wondered whether its relatively rapid progress along the street in pursuit of Sano caused any of the inconveniences Sano sought to prevent elsewhere by conjuring it out of people’s paths. He supposed Sano couldn’t be held responsible for everything the ghost did, but it was beginning to be a little odd to see him without the glowing figure close by his side.
After Sano had taken a few steps away and Hajime had begun to move back in order to return to his seat, the young man stopped and turned. This time his stiffness seemed to have another basis entirely. In a voice that was half a grumble, “Thanks for the coffee,” he said.

Part 11

Sano supposed he would just have to get used to being forced to drive around in his car at times and for distances he otherwise would have avoided, at least until this ghost thing ended. And he really wanted this ghost thing to end, so he was probably less annoyed than he might have been when Hajime called him on Tuesday afternoon and requested (more or less; ‘ordered’ might have been a better word) that Sano come to his house to review the information his police friend had emailed him.

He got lost on the way there, of course. Any location he’d visited exactly once was most likely to lead to this result, since he became overconfident about finding a place he’d been to before and didn’t bother asking for helpful reminders such as what street it was on. So he was already angry by the time he finally reached Hajime’s house, and then having to park a block away and hike back didn’t improve matters.

Evidently Hajime recognized his mood (hell, he’d probably picked up on it with Sano still halfway up the street), for on opening the kitchen door at Sano’s none-too-gentle knock, he gave an extremely disdainful look and said, “So you finally decided to show up.”

“You know what?” Sano growled. “Fuck you.” And immediately felt a bit better.

Hajime grinned and let him in.

Misao was suddenly on his knee and climbing before he’d even recognized her presence in the room. And as these pants only had spikes up the sides, she made it through the potentially dangerous area without injury this time. Sano, on the other hand, felt anger flaring again at the painful pricking of her insistent claws all the way up his body; but since he would rather die the most horrible death he could imagine than loose his rage on a kitten, he worked even harder than usual to contain it.

Perhaps sympathizing with Sano, perhaps fearing for Misao’s safety, Hajime came to the rescue of both of them. “Those pants look even stupider than the other ones.”

Misao also said something, in her high-pitched meow, and bumped her head against Sano’s ear, but Sano ignored her in favor of an irate retort to her human: “At least they’ve got some individuality, so I don’t look like some faceless office drone.”

“No, you look like someone who wasn’t allowed to wear what he wanted in high school trying to dress under his age.”

Both because this remark hit close to home and because he couldn’t really turn the matter around effectively when Hajime looked so damn good in those suits he always wore, Sano felt compelled to repeat himself. “Fuck you!” And to make it relevant he added, “I like my clothes!”

Evidently satisfied for the moment, Hajime grinned again and turned away.

Sano found himself now in a fit state to greet the cats. “Hi, Misao.” He lifted her off his shoulder (away from his ticklish ear) and into the crook of an elbow, where she squirmed but allowed him to scratch her head. “Hi, Tokio,” he said next to the older cat that was by now seated with great dignity at his feet.

Whatever Misao had been asking before, she now resumed, and Sano somehow had a feeling Tokio’s more stately meow was a repetition of the question. He glanced at Hajime for a translation.

“They’re wondering where the ghost is.” The exorcist stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, leaning against the frame.

“He’ll probably be here pretty soon,” Sano grumbled, addressing one of the kitchen cupboards rather than the cats since this brought back his annoyance. “All that time I spent trying to find a place to park probably gave him a good chance to catch up.”

At that moment Misao squirmed so intensely and abruptly that Sano dropped her. This seemed to have been her intention, and she twisted in midair, landed on splayed feet with barely a sound, and ran out of the kitchen. Sano hardly had time to wonder what she was up to when she returned, dragging a whippy plastic stick by the little bundle of feathers on one end.

With the latter in her mouth, her meows came out more like squeaks, but evidently they were still intelligible to Tokio, for at Misao’s muffled explanation the older cat said something that sounded disdainful. Well, to Sano, most of what Tokio said sounded, but this one seemed to be specifically meant that way. Misao’s reply had an undaunted tone, however, as she fell onto her side right at Sano’s feet, curling up suddenly and viciously attacking the feathered end of the stick with fore and hind paws.

Regardless of his fluctuating levels of annoyance, Sano couldn’t help breaking into a grin as he watched Misao’s seeming life-or-death endeavor. In particular, the vigor with which her back legs clawed at the toy seemed calculated to disembowel it — or would have, if the thing had possessed bowels — and was pretty funny to watch. After a couple of tries, he got hold of the flailing other end of the stick and began to direct the little cat’s violent endeavors around the kitchen floor.

“She wanted to put you in a better mood,” Hajime explained, sounding amused. “But Tokio speculated she was really more interested in some play for herself.”

Laughing, Sano had to admit that, even if the altruistic purpose had been secondary, she’d succeeded at it.

“Don’t get used to it,” warned Hajime. “Cats aren’t known for their sense of charity; she’s sure to grow out of it.”

Again Sano laughed. It wasn’t as if he’d never been around cats before, but he’d definitely never fully appreciated the twistiness of frame that allowed at least this one to attack with her full body something wiggling just behind her left ear.

Unfortunately, his speculation about the ghost’s probable ability to catch up had been accurate, and he’d been playing with Misao for less than two minutes when the anger she’d done so well at shunting aside loomed once again front and center and full force.

“God dammit,” Sano muttered. He was so tired of being pointlessly angry all the time. Standing abruptly straight, he found Hajime and both of the cats looking past him, but he didn’t turn. He was tired of the sight of the ghost, too. Fucking ghost.

“Let’s see what we can find out about him,” Hajime said, moving back through the doorway out of the kitchen and gesturing Sano to follow.

The combination den and workroom, wherein another comfortable- (and expensive-) looking leather sofa, a TV, a number of bookshelves, and a computer desk were more or less crammed but still quite functional, Sano had already seen on Saturday. Now he stalked in and seated himself heavily on the arm of the couch with a frustrated noise.

“Sit properly or stand,” Hajime ordered as he pulled his own chair out from the desk.

“Fine,” Sano growled, and stood again.

The exorcist removed his dark blue suit jacket and set it carefully aside before taking his seat. This was the first time Sano had seen him make such a concession to his own living space, and he wondered whether it was because Hajime still thought of Sano as a client despite his non-paying status. If so, that was stupid.

Almost absently Hajime murmured, “I wouldn’t really expect you to understand professionalism.”

Sano was annoyed both at the statement and that Hajime had picked up on the thought, but also interested to note that it seemed to be the things more specifically aimed at his companion that went out more readily.

For instance, when, noting Hajime was wearing the third solid-color tie Sano had seen him in, he wondered mentally whether the man owned any patterned ones, Hajime murmured, “One or two” — whereas when Sano then reflected that solid colors were probably cheaper and easily obtained in packages of multiples, Hajime gave no indication of having heard. Of course, that might be merely because it had been a phenomenally boring thought not worth responding to, or because Hajime had pulled up the email from his police friend.

The latter might have come across as a bit of a jackass on the phone, but Sano had to admit this seemed a satisfyingly thorough report he’d put together. There weren’t a lot of names, but Sano supposed that was to be expected: how many Japanese guys could possibly have died under unusual circumstances recently in any given police jurisdiction? But for each one listed there were links to news articles regarding the incidents, and some specifics on the women they’d left behind. This, added to the brief biography of each of the deceased, forced Sano to say in a tone of grudging admiration, “Wow… this is good stuff…”

Hajime smiled wryly. “You’ll also notice he hasn’t given us much, if anything, he could get in trouble for disclosing. We could have found most or all of this online if we’d wanted to spend a week searching. He’s very good at his job, though you wouldn’t guess just by talking to him.”

Sano had stepped closer and was reading the screen somewhat at random. When Hajime obligingly scrolled back to the top of the email, he began reciting the provided names aloud.

It proved easier than he’d expected. The moment he spoke the third item on the short list, he suddenly felt he had the ghost’s attention. How exactly he could tell, he wasn’t sure, but something in the atmosphere of the room had changed. Whether from Sano or from the hovering spirit, Hajime too evidently recognized this. “Is that the one?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” replied Sano. He stared for a moment at the words on the monitor, then turned to face the ghost in the air behind him, looking directly at it for the first time since it had entered the house. “Is this you?” he asked — rhetorically, he supposed, since even having the ghost’s attention probably wouldn’t make it any easier to communicate with. “Are you Kenshin Himura?”

Part 12

“It’s kinda totally unfair,” Sano was grumbling, “that to get anything from this guy we had to take him to a medium who had to cut through the shade energy with a scalpel or something and then fucking fainted after getting impressions from him for, like, two minutes… but ghostie-guy here can pick up on things we say no problem as long as they’re about him or whatever.”

‘Unfair’ wasn’t exactly the word Hajime would have chosen to describe it, but it certainly interested him.

Kenshin Himura, whose short biography provided by Chou matched Aoshi’s assessment of their ghost, had been shot in the head, an innocent bystander in a brief, unexpected gunfight near the bus stop he’d been waiting at one day last November. He had left behind a wife and three-year-old son. And to the verbal mention of this information, the ghost — Kenshin himself, presumably — definitely reacted.

And this seemed to represent an inexplicable aberration from the previously-noted inability for any information to pass the barrier of the shade energy without great effort. They still couldn’t deliberately communicate with Kenshin in any way, despite this development, but Kenshin had become visibly agitated — and, if Sano’s state was anything to judge by, started emitting anger even more strongly than before — at the presentation of facts about his death and surviving kin. Just one more thing to ask the ghost about if they could ever manage to get him to a point where questions and answers were possible.

Toward that end, the next step had not changed: they needed to get in touch with Mrs. Himura, find out what she could tell them about her husband and his death… and take note of how he reacted to her. Why did Kenshin’s anger appear to increase when his untimely end was discussed? If that increase was significant, what did it indicate? Hajime tried not to jump to conclusions when even the mere verbalization of the ghost’s name prompted the same reaction.

With that same seemingly uncharacteristic carefulness Hajime had mentioned to Sano before, Chou hadn’t included contact information for the various people listed in the email, waiting for Hajime to inform him specifically which one he needed to talk to instead of handing out addresses and phone numbers wholesale. As he hadn’t answered when Hajime had called, they were once again sitting around waiting to hear from him, and Sano was very annoyed. Yet only after a few unnecessary comments from Misao about how agitated the ghost was, and an equal number of insults from Hajime aimed at releasing some of Sano’s anger, did his cell vibrate and display Chou’s number.

“Kaoru Himura,” formed the entirety of Hajime’s greeting.

Chou must have had the information to hand, because barely a moment passed before he was reading out the address and phone number. These he followed up with, “And you didn’t get this shit from me.”

“I won’t expose your crooked dealings,” Hajime promised sarcastically.

“Oh, and you’ve gotta tell me about this ghost shit when it’s over.”

“We’ll have lunch sometime.” (Hajime ignored the subsequent unspoken query from Sano, Wow, what does it take to get this guy to ask you to lunch?) He said his fairly rude goodbyes with Chou, pulled the top paper free of the pad on which he’d been writing, and stood. “Let’s go.”

Kaoru Himura lived in an old, drab, but not necessarily uncomfortable-looking apartment complex in the Asian district, a part of town Hajime had been seeing a lot of this week. Sano grumbled when he realized where they were going, and — more from the thoughts the young man didn’t bother to hide than from his mostly-unintelligible verbal complaints — Hajime picked up that he felt like he’d wasted a drive of his unreliable car by going to Hajime’s house in it and then coming all the way back to the Asian district in a different vehicle. Nothing could improve that ironic situation, though, and the grumbling was entirely rhetorical.

While waiting for the ghost to catch them up, they sat around for a while watching apartment-dwellers come and go through the parking lot, arguing about whether they should have called ahead. Hajime won that argument with the dry query, “If you couldn’t see ghosts and probably didn’t know they existed, would you agree to meet two total strangers who called and said they were dragging around your dead husband?”

The afternoon sun shone full on the western side of the building in which the woman lived, rendering the outdoor staircase up to her floor quite warm. Later in the year this place must get intolerably hot. As they climbed and then looked for the correct door, Sano’s jaw gradually set so firmly that the muscles stood out at the corners; he was clearly taking a very hard grip on the ghost so as to prevent it from doing anything he didn’t want. Hajime nodded his approval.

The door, probably metal beneath its drab grey paint, was also hot as Hajime’s knuckles contacted it sharply three, four times. Then the two men stood still. Traffic on the nearby street made it impossible to hear any movement within the apartment, but Hajime had other senses that could inform him of what might be going on in there.

Eventually, after several minutes of tense silence waiting for any response to Hajime’s knock, Sano muttered, “You think she might not be home?” He shifted, uncomfortable and angry. “I mean, it’s the middle of the day… she might be at work or something…”

“No, she’s on the other side of the door,” Hajime stated flatly. “She’s just standing there wondering why people can’t leave her alone.”

Sano craned his neck as if he might see through the door if he looked from an angle that was different by a couple of inches. “She doesn’t know who we are, though!”

“But she knows we want to ask her questions, and she doesn’t want to answer any more questions. It’s a little suspicious.”

“Well, I don’t know about suspicious, but–” Sano cut himself short and turned a puzzled gaze on Hajime. “Why would you think it’s suspicious? It makes sense she wouldn’t want to answer more questions, and she probably doesn’t know we’ve got her husband with her, so…”

Hajime’s brows went down slightly as he attempted to catch any additional idea from the mind on the other side of the door. The woman’s mental guard, at least at the moment, was fierce and desperate; it didn’t feel as if she had formal training, just a solidly protective personality and a strong desire not to share anything with anyone. He shook his head. “She’s much better than you are at keeping her thoughts to herself.”

“Don’t you fucking start with that,” Sano growled, distracted from his suspicion about Hajime’s suspicion. “Not when I’m already practically lifting weights keeping this goddamn thing away from her.”

He was, too. Hajime had been peripherally aware of his struggle, but now, focusing more completely on him, noticed the small beads of sweat that had broken out on Sano’s forehead. Some of them, rolling slowly down from beneath his hairline, were red from where they’d picked up bits of his colored hair gel, and looked a little like blood; but this, while morbid and somewhat interesting, was not relevant. Obviously it cost Sano a much greater effort than usual to restrain the ghost, which was rigid in the air just behind him.

“He wants to go to her, I take it.”

Sano made another growling noise, this one completely inarticulate, but his clearly projected mental reply was, No shit, genius. And it was equally clear that Sano would continue to prevent the ghost from attaining this goal with every ounce of his psychic strength, and that it would be no good for Hajime to suggest he let the thing go just to see what would happen. His control might break eventually, but Hajime didn’t think it wise to test his limits at the moment — mostly because Hajime, for his part, wouldn’t be able conjure the ghost back away from the woman once they’d seen what it planned on doing to her.

Turning, he said instead, “Let’s go, then.”

Sano didn’t slacken his grip on the ghost until they’d made it back to Hajime’s car, and kept it in such a rigidly-controlled position all the way there that Hajime observed for the first time the effect it had on a person moving through it: an apartment-dweller they passed on the way down the stairs, after walking through the ghost and surrounding shade energy, could be heard a moment later swearing vigorously at her keys as she struggled to open her door above.

Even once they’d reached the car and taken their seats inside, Sano kept a dark, careful eye on the presumed Kenshin, obviously still concerned the ghost would want to return the way they’d come and do whatever he wanted to do to his widow. The glowing figure, however, simply took up its usual orbit of Sano in its usual relative calm.

Sano watched Kenshin’s leisurely movements around and through the frame of the car for several moments with furrowed brow and distinct frown. Finally he gave a frustrated noise and turned toward Hajime, his expression bordering on thunderous to match the thick aura of anger around him, which in turn almost perfectly matched that of the ghost.

“Well,” he growled, “what the hell do we do now?”

Part 13

As if deliberately to provoke him, Hajime didn’t answer Sano’s question, elaborate on what he thought the next step was, with any sort of promptness. Instead he just sat there, pensive, his eyes seeming to stare at nothing except whenever Kenshin’s roughly circular drift brought him into the exorcist’s field of vision. Then the golden irises locked onto the ghost’s figure and followed it until it was again out of sight. But still Hajime said nothing, and Sano was about ready to explode.

When Hajime did speak at last, what he had to say was, “She probably saw your stupid hair and decided it wasn’t worth her time opening the door.”

Your hair’s the one that looks like you just bought four separate black extensions and just glued them to your forehead.” Sano could actually feel the angry energy filling the words, departing from him in his voice, dissipating in the air. There remained plenty where that came from, but it was still a palpable relief.

Hajime gave a startled chuckle, as if he’d never heard his hair described quite like that before.

“Besides,” Sano grumbled, “there weren’t any windows.”

“There was a peephole in the door, idiot.” Seeming to judge (quite accurately) that even ‘idiot’ wasn’t enough to work through the worst of Sano’s current level of anger, Hajime added cuttingly, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you weren’t perceptive enough to notice it darken when she looked through it.”

“Yeah, in case you didn’t notice,” Sano growled, “I was too busy holding onto some pissed-off dead fucker to really be watching for things like that.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t come here alone, then; you would have completely botched this.”

“I didn’t botch anything! I didn’t do anything, except hold the fucking ghost! You knocked!”

“Like I said… she probably took one look at you and decided to stay safely inside.”

You’re the one who looks like a CIA agent or something in you stupid suit!”

“No, we established earlier that I look like a faceless office drone. To look like a CIA agent I’d need sunglasses.”

Though Sano remained some distance above even the level of anger he’d been at earlier, this exchange had helped, and the last statement made him laugh. “Well, whoever’s fault it was,” he said in a tone somewhat less irate, “that still totally failed.”

“So the next step is to call her.”

“Just a minute ago you were saying we shouldn’t call her.”

“I said we shouldn’t call ahead,” Hajime corrected. “But now calling is our only option.” He held out the paper on which he’d written Kaoru’s information. “So call her.”

“What, me? You want me to call her?”

“Yes.”

“But… you’re the exorcist. And the one who understands professionalism.” Sano couldn’t help throwing that comment from earlier back at the other man.

“That’s certainly true…” Unexpectedly, the deliberate smugness drained from Hajime’s tone and gave way to a serious pensiveness as he went on. “There has to be a reason this man you don’t know is haunting specifically you rather than anyone else. It doesn’t seem plausible that he just chose you at random; there has to be some kind of connection. It may be that he sees something in you — god knows what — that drew him to you. Some characteristic that might have drawn him to you in life as well.”

“So, what, like, he’s… got a crush on me or something?” Sano wondered dubiously.

“At this point we have no way of knowing exactly why he chose you, but the fact that he did makes you less of a complete stranger to his wife than I am, so you probably have a better chance of convincing her than I do.”

Still uncomfortable with the thought of calling up a recently bereft person — to whom, no matter what Hajime said, he would still come across as a total stranger — and start talking about her murdered husband, Sano broadened the subject. “And what if we can’t convince her?”

“That’s when we start behaving like cads.”

“Like what?” Startled even out of his anger by the unexpected terminology, Sano laughingly repeated, “Behaving like what?”

Hajime smiled faintly. “Just giving up and not talking to her isn’t an option.”

“So we ambush her or something?” Sano wondered with a grimace.

“We’ll be walking a fine line. We have to talk to her, but we also have to be careful not to get ourselves indicted for harassment.”

Sano tried to think of any method of talking to an unwilling stranger that wouldn’t constitute harassment. It was an annoying train of thought, but probably more because of the anger he’d been absorbing than because the prospect was maddening in itself.

Right on cue Hajime said, “I guess I should have expected that the very idea of calling a woman would terrify someone like you.”

“‘Someone like me?’ I’m bisexual! I am not scared of women!”

At that moment there came the buzz of Hajime’s vibrating phone. When he’d glanced at it once it was out of his pocket, he informed Sano, “I have to take this.”

Sano grabbed the paper with Kaoru’s information, which Hajime had eventually set down on the dashboard, and stepped out of the car. They hadn’t circled back to the argument about his being the one to make the call, but he knew it would only have been a matter of time and what the outcome would have been.

At least with Hajime simultaneously on the phone, Sano wouldn’t have to put up with an agitating audience. It would already be difficult enough not letting on how angry he was or how much of a jerk he felt or how stupid he knew it was going to sound. But he couldn’t stand around worrying about those points, or he would lose his chance at making the call in solitude. Before he could change his mind, he forced himself to dial the number.

With each subsequent ring, Sano became more nervous, but the tension eased out of him somewhat when a click preceded a recorded message. It was the default computerized greeting rather than a personal recording; he wondered if Kaoru had been harassed over the phone a lot since her husband’s death, by the media or the police or whatever. That certainly didn’t make Sano feel any better about what he had to say.

Eventually he did have to say it, though. “Hey,” he began. “This is… well, you don’t know me, but my name’s Sano Sagara, and I was at your door just a little while ago with a… friend… and… OK.” He took a deep breath. He really should have planned out his wording before he started. “This is probably going to sound completely crazy to you, and it may hit a nerve or two also, and I’m really, really sorry about that. I swear to god I’m not making this up, so just please hear me out.”

Again he took a deep breath, and began talking quickly. “I have this ghost that’s been haunting me for a while, and I think it may be your husband. We’re pretty sure it’s you that’s keeping him here, so he’s going to have to contact you sooner or later if he’s going to pass on, but we’re having problems actually talking to him, so we need to talk to you and get some information about him and how he died. Obviously if he really is your husband, you’ll want to help for his sake, but you’ll be helping me too, since I can’t get on with my own life when this guy’s hanging around all the time. And I really am so sorry if this hurts you; I promise I would never bug someone about something like this, especially so soon after what happened, if it wasn’t really–”

A beep similar to the one that had signaled him to start now cut him off. Evidently he’d run out of time. He found his breathing a little unsteady as he listened to the options regarding the message he’d just recorded; he’d gotten worked up at the end, there, trying to convince her he honestly regretted any pain he might be causing her, when he should have been trying to convince of the truth of his words. But what more could he say than he already had on that score?

Apparently he had the option to re-record his message if he wanted to try again. Half on impulse, however, he hit the button to send it instead. It was candid, at the very least; if she valued frankness, that might do more to win her over than a smoother and more measured explanation. After a few moments’ thought, though, and a glance through the window of Hajime’s car that confirmed the older man was still on the phone, he did call a second time.

“Hey, it’s Sano again. Sorry if I sounded a little crazy before. This is really important, and I’m not lying or schizophrenic or whatever. Please call me back and at least we can talk things out a little on the phone.”

Hopefully that didn’t seem too… well, OK, it wasn’t likely, in this scenario, he would ever sound not totally weird, unless by some remote chance she happened to be a magician and knew ghosts existed — but in that case, would her dead husband really have been forced to a total stranger? Anyway, Sano left his number and hung up, and couldn’t feel terribly impressed at his own general performance. His one consolation was that at least Hajime hadn’t been there to overhear… though the exorcist would undoubtedly get at the crucial details in any event.

He stood watching the ghost whenever it passed, much as Hajime had a few minutes before, in brooding silence for a while, pondering the wisdom of making another call. Would three be overkill? Two had probably been overkill. Poor woman must already think he was imbalanced and heartless. But he could reiterate the urgency of the matter… maybe mention a little more definitively how difficult this was making his life…

He hadn’t come to any real conclusion when Hajime suddenly stood out his door and asked across the roof of the vehicle, “Are you done?”

“Yes,” Sano grumbled, allowing this to make the decision for him, and got back in the car even as Hajime did. Settling into his seat and glowering out at Kenshin as the latter adjusted his trajectory, he gave an angry sigh and asked, for the second time, “Well, what the hell do we do now?”

Part 14

“I promise you don’t need to.”

They’d relocated to a Denny’s, on Hajime’s dime, when it became obvious that, once again, they were in for a wait on a phone call (which in this case might never come) — and that Sano was extremely hungry but not about to suggest anything more expensive than going back to his apartment and making some ramen noodles. Hajime, trying to pick Sano’s brain on the details of the message or messages he’d left, had only been able to confirm Sano’s embarrassment and more determined blocking than usual. So conversational tactics were in order.

“I don’t know if I trust your promise any more than I trust your ability to leave rational messages about ghosts.”

“You’re the one who said I should do it because I have a connection with him or whatever. Plus I’m the one who’s gotta be haunted by him for god-knows-how-long if we can’t find some way to get rid of him!”

“Did you tell her that?”

A little awkwardly Sano replied, “I told her everything I needed to.”

“I still think I should leave her a follow-up message.”

Unexpectedly Sano went on the offensive. “And what would you say? ‘Hello, Mrs. Himura, this is Hajime…’ what’s your last name, again?”

Amused, Hajime supplied it.

“‘This is Hajime Saitou, and I’m attempting to exorcise your husband’s ghost. I’ve tried a variety of techniques rooted in various cultures, including traditional Shinto rituals, but since nothing seems to be working I thought I’d look you up and ask what his favorite band was so I could play the proper music during my next attempt. And did he like beer? How did he feel about cats?'”

Sano’s voice, for the first few syllables a decent attempt at imitating Hajime’s, had become more and more stilted as this absurdity went on, until finally Hajime actually laughed aloud. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said, but he also stopped trying to get Sano to tell him what he’d said on the phone.

When their slow and somewhat clumsy waitress, her blaring thoughts on stressful home responsibilities barely even partaking of the here and now, finally brought them their order, Sano started in on the strawberry-decked blueberry pancakes on his plate with an immediacy and gusto that would have made up for their price even if Hajime had begrudged it in the first place. He’d seen Sano eat pizza in much the same manner the other day, and at the time had speculated Sano didn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. Now, after longer exposure, he rather thought Sano just loved food that much. The young man certainly didn’t have anything to say for several minutes while he made massive inroads on his breakfast-themed early dinner.

Finally, though, Sano did manage to slow down, and to tear his eyes from the plate long enough to remember that someone sat across from him. His anger was, for the present, at the level Hajime had come to consider standard for his current haunted state, and the food had otherwise put him in a good mood. So his easy tone came as no surprise as he remarked, “So, ‘Hajime Saitou,’ huh? Doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Saitou Hajime’ sounds better, though. Got a nice ring to it.”

He paused, frowning slightly, and Hajime, though without any skill whatsoever in divination, could very clearly see what was coming. “Actually, now I think about it,” Sano said slowly, just as expected, a piece of sausage pausing halfway to his mouth as he pondered aloud, “it sounds… familiar. Saitou Hajime… where have I heard that name before..?”

Hajime sighed slightly, but then grinned as the best possible response occurred to him: “Let me know if you remember.”

Sano flared. It was like having a mobile campfire Hajime could toss fuel onto at any time. “What, you’re not going to tell me? So you admit you might be famous or something, but you won’t remind me where I might have heard your name?”

“That’s right. It’s that old saying, ‘If you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know.'”

I’ve never heard that saying,” Sano protested.

“Then it’s even more applicable.”

Sano fell to speculating. “You must be named after some actor your mom thought was hot. Probably from one of those horrible Japanese dramas I never… oh, but if your parents named you after… it would have been in…” He gave Hajime an assessing look. “The seventies or something. What was on in Japan back then…”

With a dry chuckle, Hajime shook his head. “I doubt my parents have ever watched any of those horrible Japanese dramas.”

“Oh, yeah, they sent you here for college, didn’t they? So maybe they were watching horrible American shows. In the seventies — and I’m just guessing, here,” he added proddingly, “since I’m not that old — wouldn’t it have been… Saved By the Bell? But they wouldn’t have gotten a name like ‘Hajime’ out of that…”

“Wrong decade. And sitcoms wouldn’t really have appealed to my parents either.”

Sano caught at the sardonic tone of Hajime’s statement and, completely abandoning the name issue, wondered, “Oh, really? What do they watch instead?”

“If they watch anything, it’s not for entertainment. Stock market analysis is more their speed.”

“Oh, you’ve got one of those stereotypical Japanese business families.”

“Says the son of miserly immigrants.”

“Only my mom’s an immigrant,” Sano protested angrily, “and only my dad’s a miser.” Based on what Sano had told him yesterday, Hajime didn’t think the second point entirely true, but it didn’t matter; he’d wanted to bait Sano more than compare stereotypes.

As Sano calmed a little after his flare-up, Hajime admitted, “But you’re right. My parents are both top executives in the company my paternal grandfather owns, and we were all expected to join in as soon as we were old enough.”

“‘We?’ So you’ve got siblings?”

Hajime nodded. “An older brother and sister.”

“And did they both go into the family business like good little offsprings?”

Again Hajime nodded. And again he felt just a little nonplussed. Glad though he was to have avoided the ‘Saitou Hajime — where have I heard that before?’ conversation, which he’d had enough of by the time he’d turned twelve, he still considered Sano more than justifiably interested in his past and his family.

“So if they were already doing the thing,” Sano mused, “there probably wasn’t as much pressure on you to do it too?”

“You might think so…” At the memories, Hajime smiled distantly and wryly. “But two out of three wasn’t enough for my parents.”

“Well, yeah, that’d be a failing grade on an assignment…”

“And my parents are ruthless; it comes from the type of work they do: petty hostile takeovers and driving rivals out of business… I wasn’t the only one in the family who didn’t like it.”

“Funny…” Sano set down his glass after a sip of soda, and looked at Hajime with a thoughtful grin. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the type to not like ruthlessness.”

“Oh, no.” The smile Hajime returned Sano, he’d been informed in the past, made him appear rather evil. “I have no personal objections to ruthless tactics in a good cause.” He rolled his eyes slightly and tried not to sigh. “But this is telecommunications. Whatever my parents may think, this is not a beleaguered band of heroes fighting oppression and tyranny. They make cell phones. There are appropriate times and places for ruthlessness, and this isn’t one of them.”

And there he’d gone and impressed Sano again. It was almost embarrassing.

“So what’d they do, send the yakuza after you or something?” Sano was only half joking, his eyes wide with interest and admiration.

“I wouldn’t put it past them.” Hajime too was only half joking. “Though that’s more my brother’s style than my parents’. But, as I’ve mentioned, it was my mother’s father who helped me out. He never approved of the way my parents did business, and he could see I was on his side… the money he left me could almost be considered a bribe; he was paying me to get away.”

“This is why your parents didn’t watch horrible Japanese dramas: your whole family was a horrible Japanese drama.” Sano’s attempt at scraping the last of the syrup and grease off his plate wasn’t working very well, mostly because he was using a fork, and this in addition to his conjuration of the ghost out of the path of staff and patrons in the increasingly busy restaurant was evidently building his anger up again.

Once more Hajime chuckled wryly, and they fell silent as Sano finished his Dr. Pepper and Hajime bent his attention to the remainder of his own dinner.

Finally, “Do you really think she’s going to call back at all?” Sano asked, and the quietness of his tone did little to hide his shifting mood.

“That depends on what you said to her.” Calculatedly Hajime added, “If it was as stupid as I’m inclined to believe, probably not.”

They threw that topic back and forth for a while to work off some of Sano’s anger. He sometimes had surprisingly clever retorts, which combined with the constant and almost measurably predictable ire to make him an unexpectedly enjoyable conversational companion (when he wasn’t gaping over some perceived trait or accomplishment of Hajime’s as if he’d never met another human being before). But eventually, unfortunately, they had to talk business again: they’d both finished eating, and it would be best to let Sano take the ghost somewhere less full of innocent bystanders.

“Whatever nonsense you left Mrs. Himura on her voicemail, it will probably take her a while to decide to call you back, if she doesn’t just decide you’re insane and try to ignore you. We need to give her some time, so I suggest we both go home for now.”

Of course Sano had to argue this too, as they left their table and moved to pay for the meal and exit the restaurant; and since he didn’t bother to lower his voice, his frank mention of the ghost haunting him won them some looks on the way out both skeptical and interested.

Despite the United States government taking a dim view of the idea of widespread knowledge on the topic, talking about magic in public generally wasn’t considered dangerous or inappropriate, since anyone unaware that magic actually existed simply didn’t believe the discussion serious… but such conversations did sometimes have interesting, even entertaining results. Once, after the conclusion of some business arrangements on the phone, Hajime had been approached by an unfortunate homeless gentleman that had overheard him discussing exorcisms and wanted to tell about all the dead celebrities that wouldn’t leave him alone. Hajime’s diagnosis had been ‘crazy and malnourished’ rather than ‘haunted.’

Sano, who was the opposite, continued to grumble as they headed back to Hajime’s house, and rather on a whim Hajime decided to relate the aforementioned experience. It proved a good thought, since the ensuing conversation distracted Sano all the way to their destination; he didn’t even have time to complain again about the condition of his car. He did recover some of his annoyance when instructed to contact Hajime the moment Kaoru Himura called him (if she, in fact, did so), but still the two men parted in relative peace. And Hajime went inside thinking the day not entirely wasted.

Part 15

Technically, cell phones weren’t allowed out at Imperial Panda II for anyone on the clock. But aside from the current manager’s love affair with her Blackberry that inclined her toward leniency, the maintenance guy pretty much went his own way all day and didn’t have a lot of critical eyes looking over his shoulder. And no way in hell would Sano be away from his phone in case that woman called him back.

She didn’t. As Sano unloaded the delivery truck and kept the ghost away from people, shelved the load and kept the ghost away from people, organized the dry stock area for the second time in the last ten days and kept the ghost away from people, fixed the oven again and kept the ghost away from people, then went on lunch break to eat an uninspiring free meal, keep the ghost away from people, and look forward to the second half of his day, he grew increasingly impatient and concerned. And this was largely in response to the apparent increasing impatience and concern of the ghost.

Yesterday’s approach of Kaoru Himura, Sano thought, had made Kenshin more restless. It was difficult to tell for certain when the ghost seemed so aimless in general, but Sano believed dragging his unwanted guest out of people’s paths required more effort and led to a quicker and more intense buildup of anger today than previously. Kenshin never made any move to leave Sano, to go anywhere or do anything other than what he’d been doing all along, but pretty clearly he wanted to do something; and Sano was sure it had something to do with his widow.

What had Hajime said they would do if she never called back? ‘Start behaving like cads,’ hadn’t it been? At least Sano had that fairly hilarious memory to cheer him up a bit, even if the referenced caddishness, seeming more and more likely with each passing hour, was little to his taste. He didn’t want to think about the effect it might have on the unfortunate woman if they started more or less stalking her. What a miserable idea.

Of course the alternative was to think about his own situation. How long could he keep working so hard to prevent Kenshin’s angry aura from harming and enraging people around him before he decided he just didn’t give a shit and let the ghost do whatever it wanted to anyone that came near him? Or, worse, got so angry himself that he actually started deliberately conjuring Kenshin in the direction of others?

The last couple of weeks had been difficult and frustrating, especially at school where there were a number of innocent bystanders in a small space for hours at a time; and studying and homework had been practically impossible… and that had all been before their visit to Kaoru’s apartment had kicked things to a higher level. If they didn’t manage to get this solved before Spring Break ended… if Kenshin kept acting like this… Sano might as well drop all his classes, quit his job, and move out onto a secluded island right now.

When Imp Panda finally turned him loose that afternoon, he managed to make it all the way home before his frustration got the better of him and directed his fingers to dial Hajime’s number. This waiting had been the exorcist’s idea, after all; the least he could do was suffer alongside Sano.

“I actually expected to hear from you much earlier,” was Hajime’s greeting.

“I was working,” Sano replied angrily. “I kept my phone on through my whole shift — nine hours! — and she never called.”

“We already acknowledged that possibility,” Hajime reminded him. “She may never call.”

Remembering what would happen in that case, Sano demanded, “Isn’t there some way we can do this without bugging her? I mean, you’re a communicator; why can’t you just read her mind?”

“Getting past someone’s shields and reading their mind when they don’t want you to is difficult and takes a lot of practice.”

“Practice you haven’t had,” Sano finished bitterly, “because you’ve been playing with shades instead.”

Hajime said nothing, as if he just wasn’t going to bother with an answer to that.

The noise Sano made, half whine and half growl, sounded so much like a dog that even he was taken aback… and maybe a little amused, which helped. “I don’t want to,” he said next, “but… do you think I should call her again? Or maybe we should go back to her place and see if she’ll talk to us there this time?”

“No and no. If we’re too persistent, she’ll call the police. There’s only so much Chou can smooth over for me.”

“What good are you, then?” A second silence came from the other end, and the vacuum of that silence eventually dragged out of Sano a grumbled, “I mean… what the hell am I supposed to…” And again he made an angry sound, even more frustrated now because he was too annoyed to offer the apology he felt he probably should for his unfair implication. Without Hajime, after all, his chances of finding out the identity of the ghost and locating the widow would have been practically nonexistent.

Now Hajime spoke, and, instead of calling Sano on his rudeness or even continuing on the topic they were more or less discussing, he said, “You grew up around here, didn’t you?” And while Sano in surprise worked to change gears Hajime added, “For a given value of ‘grew up.'”

“Sortof,” Sano replied, wondering why Hajime wanted to know and bristling at the casual insult. “We moved here when I was just about to turn fourteen.”

“From?”

“Paso Robles, down south.”

“And were you born there?”

“Nah, we moved there when I was two or three; I was born in Carson City.”

“Did you like Paso Robles?”

Sano thought he understood now: this was distraction, pure and simple. Well, fine; he could handle that. “It was OK. Not a big Japanese population, so I got most of my heritagey culture from anime.” At Hajime’s derisive laugh, Sano continued determinedly in a tone that sounded incongruously angry. “The best part was right when we moved out, actually; this earthquake hit pretty much the same day we were loading up the moving van.”

“And that was a good thing?”

“Well, not for the people who died, obviously, but it was pretty damn cool anyway. It was a 6.5, and it made this fucking enormous sinkhole open up in the library parking lot. I just checked online, like, a week ago, and they still haven’t fixed that thing, seven years later.”

“You’re so attached to the town that you’re still checking on it?” Maybe because of the level of investment Sano had displayed in the subject, Hajime too actually sounded interested.

“Not the town, just the sinkhole. Sinkholes are awesome.”

“Are they?”

“Yeah. And earthquakes. I mean, they’re bad for people, but they’re still… cool. This one hot spring under the town used to be totally dead, but the quake brought it back to life. You know what kind of seismic activity that takes?”

“A 6.5, presumably.”

“Well, yeah, but, I mean, there’s a specific combination of circumstances to get a hot spring going again to the surface and have it stay that way; it’s not something that happens every day.”

Now a third silence emanated from Hajime’s end of the phone, though Sano thought he caught the distant sound of one of the cats — Misao, probably — asking a question. And this silence didn’t seem designed to abash Sano or make him rethink his words; rather, it sounded pensive. Finally Hajime asked, “And why aren’t you studying geology?”

“Oh. Well. Not as much money there as where my dad wants me.”

“Do you have reliable statistics on that?”

“Not off the top of my head!”

“Maybe you should look it up.”

“Yeah, sure, maybe I should… if this goddamn ghost will let me do anything without wanting to put my fist through the monitor.”

Hajime laughed, which was annoying. “It’s at least something to think about while you wait for Mrs. Himura to call.”

“I am so fucking tired of waiting for phone calls.”

“Better not get into big business, then.”

With another annoyed noise — Sano had always been good at those, but lately he’d been taking the art to new levels — he said in frustration, “I’ll call you again later,” and abruptly hung up.

He found his mood more mixed than before: just as angry, certainly, but now with an added restlessness born of interested thoughts. As he’d talked to Hajime he’d been pacing the linoleum of his tiny kitchen with a heavy step; when at some point in the process the ghost had joined him, he’d taken — as he not infrequently did at home — to turning gradual circles as he moved to and fro so as to keep his back to the thing at all times. The anger seemed to grow more slowly when he wasn’t looking at it. Now, however, he’d stopped moving and turned to face the computer on his cinder-block-and-particle-board desk across the room.

Truth to tell, he hadn’t given geology any conscious thought, but in the back of his head always figured it was one of those science things that taught you a lot of interesting stuff but didn’t provide a lot of career opportunities unless you happened to live in Antarctica. But it would be kinda cool. OK, more than kinda; he was excited and cheered just thinking about it.

Well, if he was careful and got up and away from the computer the moment he felt the rage building too far, it was worth checking, right? He’d been assuming all along geology wasn’t a viable option, so he couldn’t discover anything worse than what he’d already thought. And what else did he have to do right now? Get pissed off… play video games and eventually throw the controller in the toilet… maybe call Hajime back and try to abuse him… Except Hajime had made this pleasant suggestion, so that didn’t quite seem fair. Of course it had simply been in an effort to keep Sano distracted and occupied until either the woman called back or the exorcist decided they’d waited long enough… but Sano couldn’t help feeling grateful, which was an intriguing contrast to his still-present anger.

At the very least, as the man had said, this gave him something to think about.

Part 16

One of the impressions Hajime had already gotten about Sano without actually having it confirmed for certain was that he didn’t rise early by choice. Therefore, when the exorcist’s phone rang at around eight o’clock on Thursday morning and displayed Sano’s number, Hajime could only consider it a good sign. And when Sano’s greeting was a somewhat breathless, “She left me a message,” it was as if he’d had a divination confirmed.

“She called at, like, three in the morning,” Sano went on. “It woke me up, but I didn’t get to the phone in time, but it’s fine ’cause she left a message.” He sounded almost giddy, and once again Hajime had to sympathize a little; given the current situation, it was no wonder this progress in their attempt at getting rid of the ghost pleased the young man so much.

“What did she say?”

“She wants us to meet her at Isei Park at noon. That’s not too far from my apartment — actually I used to hang out there all the time when I was a kid; do you know where it is?”

“I’m sure I can find it.” Hajime was grinning somewhat, almost in spite of himself, at Sano’s tone: it was so unusually happy, but without having lost any of its customary underlying anger, which made for an intriguing sound.

“Well, I’m going to head over there right away.”

“Four hours early?”

“I straight-up called in sick to work, so I’ve got the whole day. I’ll take my books and see if I can get some studying done, and probably grab some breakfast on the way over at that place next to…” Suddenly seeming to decide that Hajime probably didn’t really care what his exact plans were — which assumption, though logical, was not entirely true — Sano finished abruptly, “So anyway, I’ll see you there around noon, right?”

The answer Hajime had planned on giving was overridden by Misao making her insistent way around his neck to the hand that held the phone, and yowling into it as best she could while trying, at a bad angle, to keep her balance.

“Hi, Misao,” Sano was chuckling from the other end even as Hajime lifted her off his shoulder and set her on the floor.

“She has nothing real to say,” Hajime translated. “She just likes phones.”

Sano was still laughing. “Yeah, I got that.”

“Did you?” Without allowing Sano to reiterate that he had, Hajime continued, “Anyway, I’ll meet you at the park later.”

“Right. See you then.”

Hajime set the phone on the floor for Misao to yell into until she realized there was no one on the other end, and stood a few moments in silent thought. Although the upcoming meeting with Kaoru Himura might be significant and productive, there was no guarantee it would be. He didn’t for an instant believe the ghost’s anger would just suddenly dispel and the ghost himself fly off to the afterlife the moment they encountered his wife; Kenshin undoubtedly had something he wanted to say — probably a maudlin goodbye not worth nearly the amount of trouble he’d been giving Sano — and of course he couldn’t communicate with her while all channels were blocked by the shade. So today’s talk with his widow was little more than an exploration of another possible avenue to getting rid of that shade, and might prove disappointing for nearly everyone involved.

Well aware of this, Hajime felt it would be wise to talk to Sano about it before Mrs. Himura showed up — to give him a cautionary reminder that this was just one step in a longer process and he shouldn’t expect too much. Sano, it seemed, excelled at emotions in general; of course his constant anger had amused Hajime all along, and just now his happiness and excitement over the phone had been almost infectious… but, interesting as it might be, the exorcist didn’t really feel any desire to see Sano in a state of despair.

Actually, Hajime had the most unaccountable inclination to go to Isei Park right now to annoy Sano for the next few hours. It had nothing to do with the ghost; he just wanted, essentially, to poke Sano and see what he did. He’d never had such an entertaining client before. Of course, he’d never had a client with a disembodied soul floating around him; Sano couldn’t help being unusual.

Well, nothing would keep him from it. He had no other cases on — he’d lined up a meeting for next Monday with what sounded like a blue shade victim (though it might turn out to be perfectly natural clinical depression; those situations often did), but at the moment it was all Sano — and he’d cleaned his entire house yesterday. He’d even already had breakfast. And surprisingly little noise came from his conscience in response to this desire deliberately to bother another human being for no better reason than his own pleasure.

As it happened, he didn’t set out right away. He spent a good twenty minutes wearing Misao out with the laser pointer while Tokio watched with a put-on disdain that couldn’t hide her desire to join in, then about the same amount of time answering an email and paying a couple of bills. But it was barely nine o’clock when he did leave the house, and not even nine thirty when he arrived at the park near the center of the Asian district and started looking around for Sano.

Even this early in the day, the convoluted concrete skating area was alive with mobile, shouting kids — it must be Spring Break for more than just Sano. The latter, with his blue-gelled hair, enormous backpack, and glowing undead friend, was easy to spot on a bench nearby. Perhaps this had been where Sano used to hang out; his current look might even partake somewhat of the skater style, but Hajime, unclear on fine subcultural distinctions, couldn’t be sure.

To test the young man’s mood, Hajime greeted him with, “Trying to reconnect with your fellow childish idiots?”

“Wow, that was harsh even for–” Sano attempted simultaneously to turn toward Hajime (who’d approached him from behind), look at his cell phone to see the time, check that the ghost wasn’t making any trouble, and give an angry gesture — all without dislodging the messy arrangement of textbooks and notebooks across his lap and the bench beside him. And in keeping with this, he attempted to say several things at once. “What time– why are you already– are you trying to say skaters are– I’m not even–” And at last, inevitably, he dumped his things all over the ground, and, swearing, jumped up to recover them.

Hajime leaned against the bench and looked down. He might have considered lending a hand, since the spill had to a certain extent been his fault, but it was more amusing just to watch. Sano’s previous level of investment in his studying struck him as negligible in any case. Anger, perhaps — the usual anger — had kept him from better concentration; but Hajime also thought he observed a certain measure of that same excitement and happiness he’d heard over the phone in Sano’s somewhat jerky movements gathering up his stuff from the grass. Yes, they would definitely need to have a talk about today’s prospects; Sano’s optimism pleased him, but he needed to be prepared for its inevitable dispelling.

It turned out Hajime was in for a bit of a surprise. For by the time Sano had gotten himself resettled on the bench and begun stowing his school things away in his backpack in a clear indication he didn’t plan on attempting to make any further use of them right now, he was already well into a dissertation that revealed the cause of his current mood to have far less to do with Mrs. Himura than Hajime had assumed.

“So after you bugged me about it yesterday,” he was saying, “I went online and looked up stuff about geologists and the kinds of jobs available for them and shit… and you were totally right…” Admitting to this didn’t seem to be the slightest problem, so pleased was Sano. “I really needed to look before I decided about that!”

“Of course you did, you idiot.” Though not having expected the friendliness of his own tone, having thus started, Hajime decided he might as well continue; so, with no real concept, himself, of the career options of an aspiring geologist, he went on in some legitimate interest, “Good news?”

Sano twisted to face him, pulling one leg up entirely onto the bench and placing both arms on its back as he gave Hajime a grin almost childlike in its enthusiasm. “So you know oil, that thing everyone’s fighting over all the time? Guess who those companies hire.”

“And that fact never occurred to you before?” Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Hajime either, but he wasn’t the one with an apparently long-standing fascination with weird underground activity.

Sano’s brows twitched a little at the sarcasm, but it sidetracked him not one step. “I’m not really all that interested in finding oil, because that sounds boring and stupid; I’d rather be taking readings inside live volcanoes or something… but there are jobs like that too, and the point is, I can tell my dad about the oil thing, and he’ll totally go for it.”

“So you’ve decided on this?” For the brevity of this statement, the skepticism of its delivery compensated by adding a heavy, unspoken, “Already?”

This time Sano did emit some anger in his response. “I make fast decisions, OK? Nothing wrong with that.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” murmured Hajime. And he truly wasn’t. He wasn’t terribly condemnatory, either; to his understanding, most people changed their majors several times before any permanent fixation, so the distance of the conclusion to which Sano had jumped would likely make little difference in the long run.

“Besides, I’ve kinda wanted to do this for years.” While still defensive, Sano’s tone was creeping back toward the excitement of only moments before, which seemed to be the resilient sort. “It wasn’t just the stuff in Paso… you can’t live by the San Andreas most of your life without getting interested in earthquakes!”

“I think most normal people can,” Hajime said easily.

Sano made one of those frustrated noises he was so good at, but even this held a note of interest and enthusiasm. “Well, normal people are stupid.”

Hajime had to agree.

“Seriously, though, online yesterday, I found all sorts of interesting shit about volcanologists and stratigraphists and people who specialize in just one specific geological era, and…”

And as Hajime settled in to listen to Sano’s ongoing raving, he reflected that, though he hadn’t planned on this precisely, he didn’t at all regret his decision to come to Isei Park two and a half hours early.

Part 17

To what extent he’d been going on and on about yesterday’s internet discoveries, and, perhaps even more intriguingly, to what extent Hajime had been indulging him in that, Sano didn’t realize until the ghost gave a sudden stiffening or intensifying and seemed to shift its orbit somewhat in the direction of the parking lot and the playground. The usual heat-wave overtook him at this increased ghostly activity, all the greater because his internal anger had, to a certain extent, been pushed aside for the last couple of hours. Of course Hajime had been making rude interjections all along in order to draw it out, but Sano’s excited happiness had been dampening that outlet.

Now he experienced a second instance of the futility of trying to look around behind him and check both the time and the ghost all at once; but Hajime, who had eventually joined him on the bench, announced that it was 11:40 and Kaoru Himura had just emerged from a car over in the parking lot.

“How do you know that’s her?” Now Sano too looked over at the woman, who was distant enough that her features couldn’t be made out in detail.

“Don’t be stupid. She’s an Asian woman arriving near noon, looking around nervously, and getting a three-year-old out of her car.”

Since she hadn’t been doing either of the latter activities when Hajime had made his initial pronouncement, and since being Asian didn’t signify anything when nearly everyone here was, Sano said pointedly, “So you mean you guessed.”

“The man with her is her father.” Ignoring the accusation, Hajime continued to gaze thoughtfully across the grass. “At least she had the sense not to come alone, in case we do turn out to be psychopaths.”

“You’re still guessing.” Sano’s heart wasn’t in it this time, though, as his attention had been entirely caught by the little boy the presumed Kaoru Himura was doing something to the shoes of in preparation for turning him loose in the playground. Even from here the bright red of the kid’s hair drew the eye, in stark contrast to the mother’s black. What was it Aoshi had said about Kenshin? ‘Half Japanese, half American?’ It showed in his son. Sano snorted faintly. ‘American;’ what kind of description was that? He never would have inferred red hair from that.

The man Hajime had identified as Kaoru’s father, closing the passenger door of the car they’d come in, was talking to her with some rapidity, even urgency. Hajime supplied, “He thinks this is a bad idea.”

With a skeptical glance at his companion, Sano wondered, “How can you get that from over here?”

“I can only get a very vague impression,” admitted Hajime, “but that’s more because of all the people around than the distance. But look at his body language.”

He had a point; the man pretty clearly wasn’t happy about the whole situation. Kaoru must have told him the purpose of this trip, and the ‘psychopaths’ scenario suggested a moment ago probably seemed the most likely to him. Apparently, however, having decided to do this, Kaoru would not be to be talked out of it, for she replied with an evident determination despite her body language that suggested she still didn’t feel entirely sure about this course of action.

The little son tugged at his grandfather’s hand, eager to get to the playground; meanwhile, Kaoru gestured quite clearly in the direction of Hajime and Sano over by the skate park, and the man shook his head. “She knows who we are,” Sano muttered. With the ghost twitching in the direction of its wife, tugging enthusiastically at Sano’s psychic hand, he thought he knew exactly how that grandfather felt.

“Your hair,” said Hajime in a tone of reminder, and got to his feet facing the distant party as if acknowledging a greeting. Presently, thinking vaguely mutinous thoughts (he liked his hair), Sano joined him standing. Eventually the three by the parking lot broke up; Kaoru Himura came in their direction, while her father and son moved off toward the playground.

With every step the woman took toward them, the force of the ghost’s straining against Sano’s hold grew perceptibly stronger, just as it had as they’d approached her apartment the day before yesterday. It felt like restraining a large, increasingly excited and persevering dog, assuming it was a dog that couldn’t keep from rendering him more and more irate as minutes went by. He wondered what precisely would happen if he simply let go.

As Mrs. Himura drew nearer, Sano tried to distract himself from the growing anger by studying her face and figure. She was fairly short, with black hair and blue eyes, and he couldn’t really work up much more of a mental description than that. ‘A beautiful Japanese woman,’ Aoshi had said, but Sano thought this had come more from the woman’s husband than the medium, because Kaoru, while not ugly or anything, definitely had a sort of girl-next-door look that Sano would not have described as ‘beautiful.’ And actually, that was interesting, because why– But she’d reached them and, with the stiffest backbone Sano had ever seen, offered the following greeting:

“I haven’t decided I don’t think you’re crazy, or I’m not crazy for being here, but I’m giving you a chance.”

“Thank you,” Hajime nodded. “Of course we understand your reservations, and we appreciate you coming to talk to us at all.” He extended a hand. “I’m Hajime Saitou, an exorcist. And you’ve already heard from Sano.”

Sano hadn’t observed this particular professional act in Hajime before, probably because Sano himself was an abnormal sort of client, and he found the polite, slightly obsequious tone a little creepy. Kaoru, however, seemed somewhat reassured, for just a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders, and she shook Hajime’s hand before turning to Sano.

Although no physical movement was involved in holding the ghost, still Sano felt as if he rendered his grip less secure by giving Kaoru his hand; but he also felt, first, that it would be counterproductive to start this conversation by being rude or unfriendly, and, second, that he didn’t want to be outdone by Hajime. “Good to meet you,” he said as he returned the woman’s firm handshake. Then, because that had already sounded a little angry, he added less darkly, “Glad you came.”

She heard the anger, and the subsequent enforced cheer did not prevent her from tensing up again. It wasn’t merely uncertainty about a weird meeting that showed in her bearing and visage, but unhappiness and weariness too… a weariness of long standing, and an unhappiness that had etched delicate lines around her eyes before this. It made Sano even angrier just seeing it; he couldn’t stand idea of contributing to her pain. And this further increase in ire she noticed too, and stiffened even more.

Hajime stepped in. “Let’s have a seat and talk.”

As if reluctant not to keep wary eyes on the dangerous one at all times, her gaze left Sano sluggishly, followed Hajime’s gesture to the bench, then moved to the exorcist’s face. Without budging she asked, “You say my husband is here right now?”

For the answer Hajime glanced at Sano, who said, “Yeah, he’s…” Helplessly he indicated, knowing how it would look and sound. “He’s right here.” He tried very hard to speak calmly as he added, “I’m working hard holding him still, so we’ll let Hajime do most of the talking.”

Kaoru stared at what surely looked to her like a normal empty patch of air, her eyes directed at a point where she probably guessed the face would be, but which, with the height at which her husband floated, was actually chest or stomach level — assuming this form of the ghost corresponded with his actual physical attributes (which would mean Kenshin, like his wife, was pretty short).

With an expression like a brittle surface that must eventually crack, she abruptly turned away from the ghost and sat down on the bench.

Hajime took the place beside her, though he didn’t look at her, and said, “I’m sorry to have to ask, but what can you tell us about your husband’s death?”

Sano, who hadn’t returned to the bench himself but stood, every bit as stiff as Kaoru, at its end looking down obliquely at her, now glanced at Hajime with a surprise that momentarily cut through his growing anger. No, Hajime’s tone wasn’t gentle or comforting — despite only having known him for a week, Sano already believed with assurance that the world might come to an end at any gentle or comforting tone from Hajime — but in the calm, low voice there was an audible (to Sano) desire not to wound or even disturb more than necessary… and this, from that source, seemed extraordinarily thoughtful.

Whether Kaoru recognized the unusual consideration, Sano could not tell. In any event, she took a deep breath and, staring down at the clenched hands she’d laid on her knees, began speaking very rapidly, perhaps feeling that if she didn’t get through her story quickly she wouldn’t be able to get through it at all.

Part 18

“I don’t know how much you already know, since I don’t know how you found me, but if you’ve read the articles or talked to the police you probably know as much as I do. On November 23rd last year, Kenshin was taking the bus home from work — he worked at the Humane Society, which you probably know is way across town from here, but we lived a little closer to it then; I only moved back here to be near my parents after…” She gave a pained-sounding clearing of throat and paused for a moment before going on at the same pace as before. “He was on his way home, waiting for his connecting bus, and there was a gunfight in the street near the stop. It was a gang thing.

“They said he must have tried to take shelter down a little street behind the bus stop, because that’s where he was found. It’s not the best area — it was the stop at Hamlet and 11th, if you know it, which is statistically the worst part of the city for gang activity — and though there aren’t a lot of gunfights, they do happen, and there does happen to be a bus stop right there, so it was inevitable that eventually someone would…”

Her face had been growing more and more brittle throughout this dissertation, her voice tighter and tighter. Something was going to crack, and the result would surely be sobbing and tears and probably a good deal less coherence. She cleared her throat again and took a deep breath not entirely steady.

“He didn’t always take the bus to work; we do have a car. It was perfect coincidence that I needed it that day.” Her voice sank as she added in a self-accusatory tone, “But of course I didn’t need it. I work from home… I didn’t have to go shopping that day… if I hadn’t kept the car — I didn’t need it — he wouldn’t have been at that bus stop. He would never have been at that bus stop.” Tears were definitely starting to surface; it was difficult to see her eyes, still turned down as they were toward her knees and the hands clenched thereon, but the intonation could not be mistaken. She was on the verge of losing the careful control she’d undoubtedly built up painstakingly over the last few months of repeating this story.

She was also lying.

This frustrated Hajime to a pitch that heightened with every word she spoke. Exactly what she was lying about, exactly why she’d chosen to lie, and exactly how it pertained to the current situation and her husband’s ghost, he could not begin to determine, but she couldn’t hide from him the general sense of untruth behind her words.

What she could hide from him was just about everything else. She guarded so fiercely, he couldn’t even get at completely unrelated thoughts in her head. Moments like this made him regret never training more thoroughly in communication, and he decided then and there how he would be spending his spare time after this ended, so bothersome was it not to be able to reach a truth that would, presumably, help everyone present.

“He was actually shot twice,” she went on, surprisingly with no great increase in breakdown of control: “once just behind his right ear, and the other just in front of it. He was unconscious when he was found and taken to the hospital, and it took him less than an hour to pass away. I didn’t even make it over there before… I didn’t get a chance to…” After another trembling breath she went on more steadily, “They said, if there was any pain, it was probably over with quickly.”

Throughout this discourse Sano had been shifting restlessly, and, though Hajime doubted the young man could sense the concealment, clearly the woman’s words — especially these last — did nothing to help decrease the already significant level of anger he struggled to deal with. But Kaoru, gaze still fixed on her knees, appeared to notice none of this.

“The police also said the sweatshirt he was wearing might have contributed, since he’d pulled the hood up, probably to hide his face and hair in the dark or something, and that might have made him look more like a member of one of the gangs. I always thought he should wear a jacket that didn’t look so… young… he was thirty-two, but you’d never guess… and it was mine in the first place; I mean, it was grey, but it was a woman’s hoodie…” Evidently these somewhat rambling details were more difficult to relate than the physicalities of the death itself, and the tears now stood visibly on her face. Hajime deemed her distress genuine, but couldn’t pass judgment on the accuracy of her account.

“He was always doing that: wearing my clothes without realizing anyone would think it was weird. And the really weird thing was they looked just fine on him — usually better than they did on me. But I still used to give him a hard time about it, because of Kenji and the neighbors and because he never seemed to notice it was a little weird.” Her words became more and more difficult to understand as sobs broke into her sentences and a constricted throat marred her pronunciation. “For a while after… last November… I kept thinking, ‘If I could just have him back, I’d never get on his case about that again. He could wear anything he wanted — not just jeans and things, but dresses or whatever — if he would just come back.’ And every time I realized I was thinking that way, I got so angry at myself for being so stupid… but it still took a while to stop.”

This latest set of revelations Hajime believed to be totally honest, since it had nothing to do with Kenshin’s death, and the overwhelming sense of deception had faded somewhat from Kaoru’s demeanor. But whether she was making a subtle attempt to get away from the topic about which she felt the need to lie, or whether she really had been sidetracked in her grief by memories of her late husband’s quirks, the exorcist couldn’t guess. In any case, it got them nowhere.

“Mrs. Himura,” he began, in the cool tone of a lecturer, “the problem here — at least the first problem that needs to be dealt with — isn’t so much your husband himself as the angry energy surrounding him. When someone is haunted by this type of energy — which is called a shade — it has a number of negative effects on them; headaches and an extremely bad mood are the most common. As you can see, Sano is currently suffering these effects because, for some reason, your husband has been haunting him for three weeks.”

He’d been ready to go on for as long as she remained silent until the entire situation was laid before her, but at this point she broke in. “Why?” She sounded a little desperate. “Why would he go to a complete stranger?” With an uncertain glance at Sano she added, “Or did he know you and just never mention you?”

Sano, clearly beyond the ability to speak, shook his head. Hajime almost expected a countdown to appear in big visible red numbers above the spiky blue-gelled hair at any moment, and continued his explanation to Kaoru more quickly. “That’s one thing we’d like to figure out. But besides the effects on Sano, just the fact that your husband is still here at all needs to be addressed. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in this world after death, and whatever is holding him here needs to be dealt with.

“But the shade energy is blocking all attempts to communicate with him. We can’t find out what exactly is holding him here if we can’t talk to him — and it’s more than likely that some sort of communication is what he needs in order to move on anyway. So the most important point at the moment is why he’s so angry. If we can dispel the anger, we can move on to the next step in this process. And the probability that his anger is related to the circumstances of his death is overwhelming.”

Her tears were in abeyance for the moment, and she looked faintly confused and equal parts wary; in her mind, the walls seemed to have become thicker and rougher than before. “OK,” she said slowly and relatively levelly. “I can see why that would be important.”

Abruptly Hajime stood, and the movement made Mrs. Himura shy back toward her end of the bench. “I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “As I mentioned, we appreciate that you came out here at all to talk to us. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared to tell us the truth, I’m afraid you’re not going to be any help to us.”

The barriers suddenly doubled, and her level of agitation increased perceptibly. He would never have deliberately put her back up like this — it would have been so much more politic to continue the conversation on a non-threatening level and try to work the answers out of her — but to his left he could sense Sano about to explode. What direction the young man’s anger currently pointed didn’t matter; he might do something everyone would regret after not much longer.

“What–” Kaoru was saying, rising hesitantly from where she’d been seated, wringing her hands.

But in favor of looping one arm through the straps of Sano’s backpack, taking Sano’s elbow in a firm grip with the other hand and pulling him away along the sidewalk, Hajime gave every indication of completely ignoring her.

Part 19

The entire world seemed to exist behind a thick filter of intense red that fluctuated between the color of fresh strawberries and that of clotting blood. Sano recognized nothing around him, and didn’t entirely know what was going on, like in a video game where half the time you were in a mirror of reality that only corresponded vaguely with it, and the controls had gone all twisted and frustrating. His body trembled; his blood pounded so noisily he couldn’t hear a thing above it. He also didn’t realize for some time — he didn’t know how long — that he was moving.

More than once he’d wondered what the anger would be like when it became ungovernable, but now (Unfortunately? He would have to decide later) his frame of mind disallowed analysis. Nor could he tell exactly what his status might be. Prior to this there had been a sort of scale or gradient by which he could measure the level of his wrath and its probable effects on his behavior, but this had risen right off the chart.

He was walking. With the tenacity of someone in shock not knowing what he clung to, he maintained his grip on the ghost, and every step he took jarred the anger in him as if he were filled with liquid to the brim and about to be shaken into spilling. The anger was all the worse in that it had no object, no rationale. Of course it had been that way all along, but this… he needed an object… he needed a reason for this overwhelming rage. And why was he walking? Hadn’t they been talking to Kenshin’s wife, whom he couldn’t decide if he was angry at or just angry about? Hadn’t they been working on dealing with this problem, not walking away from it?

‘They?’

He turned.

Through the film he saw Hajime, who looked distant and sinister and very red. Hajime, the disdainful jerk still pretty clearly more interested in some dead guy he’d never actually met than in Sano.

Suddenly the wrath had an object.

He realized Hajime had hold of his arm only when he wrenched free. Turning to face him, fists clenched… well, he meant to demand what the fuck was going on, where they were, where Mrs. Himura was, and any number of other things… but the noise that broke from him had no words and practically no semblance of humanity.

Hajime spoke, but to Sano he was every bit as incomprehensible as Sano had probably been to him just now. All that came across was the insufferable calm and indifference with which Hajime always seemed to treat him, and that caused a critical mass. Whether or not he could measure his current level, whether or not he could judge its probable effects, there had clearly been a line, and it had clearly been crossed. With a burst of increased tension that set his muscles creaking and straining, Sano charged the other man with flying fists.

No impact came, but the next thing he saw, as he caught himself and whirled, was Hajime slipping quickly out of his jacket, which he dropped onto what appeared to be Sano’s backpack standing on the grass, and loosening his tie. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to look concerned that Sano had struck at him; on his harsh face appeared merely a sort of bored, almost passive determination to do what had to be done. It was maddening.

The next blow met flesh as Hajime raised an arm to prevent it reaching its real target. The one after that went wide as Hajime retaliated into Sano’s ribs with his left. Pain felt absurdly good at the moment, and there was a bizarre accompanying sensation as if he were slicked over with a liquid coating of anger and the punch had splashed a certain amount of it right off of him. But that was nothing compared to the astonishing, glorious release in tension when his subsequent attempt connected with Hajime’s shoulder and seemed to deliver anger along with kinetic force.

So tightly was he packed with rage that he felt he must literally explode and decorate the park with viscera and pressurized blood. He was so heavy and overheated, his movements seemed reeling and clumsy… and yet somehow, simultaneously, pointed and devastatingly impactful as he drove an elbow toward Hajime’s neck and a knee toward his abdomen. And, though not precisely what he’d been going for, it was hardly any less a release of anger when neither connected and, in fact, Hajime half sidestepped and gave him such a hard hit to the shoulder that he spun past and crashed to the ground.

After half a hot breath, barely enough to bring him the red scent of the grass beneath, Sano stood on his feet again, twisting to throw another punch at the man that seemed to have been waiting for the attack without taking advantage of the fall. This time Hajime’s raised arm didn’t move quickly enough to prevent a hit to his high cheekbone, and to Sano this felt so good that he let out a growl of satisfaction at the cracking contact. It wasn’t unanswered, though, as, in a spray of released anger, that hard left of Hajime’s slammed next into Sano’s face in almost precisely the same spot.

Chaos roared in his hearing like a riotous crowd, and the waves of pain rippling from the point of that last hit temporarily affected his vision as well, but the driving impulse of forward and against kept him active. Hajime blocked him, blocked him again, hit him in the stomach, dodged and kicked and sent him sprawling a second time, but Sano was undaunted. His craving for the feeling of his knuckles against Hajime’s face had not been satisfied by one instance.

Through the haze of rage and adrenaline, as he struck out once more and was denied, he wondered vaguely how Hajime seemed so good at this. Hadn’t he seen Hajime with a sword on more than one occasion? What kind of martial arts training did the bastard have? Had he ever mentioned? But attempting to remember things like that not only taxed Sano extremely in his current state of mind — though, he thought, it became slightly easier as moments passed — it was also dangerously distracting with fists flying, and probably what won him the next couple of blows to his chest.

The diminution of his anger had been steady and gradual, but the realization that he was within measurable levels again struck him abruptly and startlingly. The result was a sudden winding down as if a power source had shut off, and he found the arm he’d raised for a punch sinking along with the adrenaline and the desire for further violence. His fist loosened as his wrist came to rest on Hajime’s shoulder instead of progressing as he’d intended. Hajime’s movement also ceased as he perceived Sano’s changing state, and he was looking much less crimson.

“Back, are you?” he wondered, and Sano rejoiced to find the words relatively comprehensible.

His reply that he believed so emerged with no great smoothness, because he turned out to be panting and shaking like a drug addict, but Hajime, at least, evidently understood. He nodded, then gave Sano one final punch across the face.

The unexpectedness of the hit increased the amount of anger it caused Sano to release, and he swore loudly as he sprawled back onto his ass on the ground. But he was seeing clearly now, hearing accurately, and, he thought, properly aware of his surroundings and situation for the first time in he didn’t know how long.

For example, he realized he and the grim-faced man standing over him weren’t alone. Hajime’s thoughtful frown was sufficiently engrossingly infuriating that it took some doing to drag Sano’s attention away from it, but this was accomplished by the recognition of a group of kids loosely surrounding them: primarily the skate park crowd, past whom Hajime had probably paraded Sano to get here, and some of whom looked as if this was the best day of their lives. He doubted they often got to see two grown men (one in a suit!) beat each other up right in the park in front of them. Some still cheered, some laughed; a few, seeing the fight had ended, were analyzing it — evidently Sano had pretty clearly lost — while others stood in interested or even horrified silence.

As the pain of the various instances of successful application of Hajime’s fists began asserting itself, now without nearly as much satisfaction attached as earlier, Sano turned back to the source of this discomfort. Hajime had retrieved his jacket and folded it over one arm; he seemed unmoved by the seam at the shoulder of his shirt that had split or the dark spot already intensifying on his face.

Sano remained quite angry, and was readier than not to turn and roar at the gawking kids if they didn’t shut the hell up — and Hajime had no exemption from this wrath… but the sight of those results of the fight summoned up a simultaneous sensation of almost affectionate gratitude. How many people, even in the pursuit of a significant source of interest in their career, would fall so readily into a fist fight with an non-paying client just to work off some excess anger? When Hajime held out a hand to help Sano up, Sano reached for it thankfully, and, upon standing, clasped it briefly in both of his own in lieu of a verbal expression of appreciation that probably wouldn’t have come out very coherently at the moment.

Beginning to be convinced the entertainment had drawn to a close, the kids were dispersing. This was for the best, since Sano had no clear idea where the ghost was, and he didn’t want breaking up a brawl among a bunch of suddenly incensed little skaters to be the next thing he had to do today.

“You’re quite the thug,” Hajime remarked, sounding unsurprised.

Assuming his mental shields had taken just as much of a beating as his body, and that Hajime could therefore pick up on his memory of just how many fights he’d been in during high school, Sano didn’t bother explaining, only said, “You’re pretty damn good yourself,” as he went to retrieve his backpack from the grass.

Hajime also neglected explanation, which annoyed Sano since he couldn’t read the exorcist’s mind. Scanning the area, presumably watching the kids returning to their previous activities, Hajime straightened his tie in a seemingly unconscious movement. Sano too looked around, and found the ghost not far off doing its usual thing. He gave an angry sigh and addressed Kenshin at a grumble: “Fucking ghost making me randomly attack people… You’re going to owe me big when this is over…” Then he frowned and turned back to Hajime. “Hey, did I hear you say the lady was lying or something?”

“She was. Come on.” The exorcist gestured. “It’s not a good idea for us to be here much longer after that.”

Unsure what the gesture referred to, too annoyed to ask, Sano yet didn’t mind following. Well, it annoyed him to follow, but he did it anyway.

Hajime began to explain, as they walked, about the finale of the conversation with Mrs. Himura that Sano had been too irate properly to mark. That Sano, under Kenshin’s stupid influence, had essentially blown their only chance at getting information out of her could only irritate him further; and as soon as he had the gist of what Hajime detailed, he couldn’t help breaking in with, “Big fucking waste of time today’s been.”

Hajime made a thoughtful sound even as he raised a hand to the growing bruise on his face. “It might not have gone as badly as you think,” he said cryptically, and walked on.

Part 20

The things Hajime had discovered so far that could distract Sano from his rage were humor, food, and this new excitement over the possibility of geological pursuits. Of course the rage still needed to be released, but Hajime thought it was easier on Sano to insinuate outlets for it during more pleasant interactions. So, since they were essentially killing time again right now, he attempted to make use of at least two of the aforementioned three. And the restaurant across the street had a patio with a few outdoor tables, ideal for both a man with a ghost orbiting him and a man that wanted to keep an eye on the park nearby.

Sano presented an amusingly contradictory attitude inside when a small internal war seemed to arise between his protest that Korean food was too similar to Chinese food for his tastes (a point Hajime would have to debate with him sometime) and his pleasure at being bought any kind of food by anybody. But eventually they were seated and waiting for any number of things, and Sano looked as if he might return to fuming. To head this off, Hajime had been planning on introducing immediately the topic that had so engrossed them this morning, but Sano beat him in starting the conversation abruptly on another subject:

“Hey, did you think she was pretty?”

Though convinced Sano’s reasons for asking this were serious and mostly not frivolous, Hajime had to reply, “Hmm… for a second there I thought you had something rational to say.”

“I am being rational!” Sano insisted. “And I really want to know — did you find her attractive?”

“No,” said Hajime bluntly, not bothering to add that he didn’t really find anyone attractive.

Somewhat to his surprise, Sano grumbled, “You probably don’t find anyone attractive. So take it from me — I’d call her a five. Maybe a six at best. Average, you know?”

Hajime just raised a brow at him, feeling no desire to comment.

“So why did Aoshi describe her as ‘beautiful?’ That’s a pretty strong word that I don’t think really fits her.”

“No accounting for tastes — yours or Aoshi’s.”

Sano snorted. “Well, if we’re talking about Aoshi’s taste…” He shrugged. “My gaydar could be off because he’s such a total weirdo, but I never thought he was the type of guy who’d overexaggerate a lady’s prettiness.”

Wondering how Aoshi’s sexual orientation had come into this, Hajime asked, “So?”

“So he was probably getting that impression from Kenshin.” Sano gestured to the drifting ghost. “Because Kenshin’s idea of his wife that Aoshi picked up on was that she’s so beautiful because he still loves her that much.”

Now Hajime saw his point, and glanced also toward the ghost, which floated at that moment in the orbital spot about the most convenient for this. Unexpectedly, much sooner than he’d anticipated, a server appeared with their food, stepping right into the space his gaze occupied and startling him a bit. Though friendly and obliging, both her demeanor and the extreme curiosity she suddenly projected evinced her wonder at all the evidence of recent vigorous activity between these two customers; for this reason and others, their interaction with her wasn’t entirely natural.

When she’d left and the slightly awkward scene had ended, Hajime said, “So you think Kenshin’s anger isn’t aimed at his wife.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Sano surveyed his plate with much more optimism than his earlier complaints could have predicted (probably because this was nothing like Chinese food). “If it was her he’s mad at, you’d think he wouldn’t be giving off this impression of her being so beautiful when she’s not.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “It’s not a bad assessment, but you can’t be sure.”

Pausing with chopsticks halfway to his mouth, Sano frowned. For a moment he remained still and silent, and finally shook his head. “No, I am sure. Don’t even start asking me how, but I’m sure. He’s not mad at her. He sure as hell is mad, but not at her.”

“You’re the one he’s haunting,” Hajime allowed. Actually he was inclined to believe Sano’s assertion without any more evidence than had been offered, but still felt the need to raise one more point. “But doesn’t his anger increase when he’s around her?”

Again Sano shook his head. “I thought so at first, but that’s not it. He gets more intense when she’s nearby… he wants to go to her and do whatever… so then I have to work harder to deal with him, so I soak up more of that shit… but I don’t think there’s actually any more of it just because she’s around.”

Hajime nodded again, accepting the explanation, and ate his lunch in silence. The idea that the dead man’s vicious anger might not be directed at his anchor was intriguing and probably important, but it didn’t advance them at the moment. The truth about Kenshin’s death remained the crucial information, and, while Hajime didn’t despair of getting at it, the slow proceedings were somewhat annoying.

Eventually, as even the nothing-like-Chinese food couldn’t keep Sano’s brow from darkening and his grip on his chopsticks from tightening detrimentally to his ability to use them, Hajime deemed the moment right to ask, “What will you need to do at school to get into geology?”

Sano seemed surprised, and once again to be considering this apparent sign of interest, rather than solely a distraction technique, a gesture of friendship… and maybe he wasn’t so far from the truth this time. And he didn’t hesitate answering. “Well, like I said, I’ve already been working on getting all my general stuff out of the way… and I’m actually already in the first chemistry pre-req I’ll need for the geology program. It’s seventy-five credit hours, and then I can look into getting my masters somewhere else; there’s some really good schools for it…”

The topic wasn’t interesting — school plans never could be, except perhaps among relatives (and, Hajime thought, not frequently even then) — and yet he found himself interested. An unignorable difference came over Sano’s demeanor when he discussed this subject: the directionlessness, the waste of energy, the carelessness and frustrated frame of existence Hajime had begun to consider characteristic of him seemed entirely to disappear, to be replaced by a vigorous and unvarying determination.

Of course he couldn’t be certain how long it would last — this whole resurgence of geological fixation might be no more than a flash in the pan — but at the moment Hajime had to rethink or at least put on hold his earlier idea that Sano would probably eventually change his mind about this. And certainly this new sense of purpose Sano radiated was engaging.

So too was the rapidity with which he’d gathered such thorough information Of course an ability to look things up online set no records for effectiveness — though Hajime knew both the lack of internet conversance of a large portion of the population and the frustratingly unintuitive nature of college websites — but listening to Sano’s description of what he’d wondered and how he’d found out, Hajime was irresistibly reminded of the question-and-answer pattern of divination.

As engrossed as Hajime wouldn’t deny he was, this entire leisurely process of lunch and conversation had a purpose other than distracting Sano from his anger for a while or even proving to Hajime that his companion might not be as much a waste of space as he’d previously thought. And when Sano abruptly stiffened and scowled, simultaneously reminded of his anger by some sudden movement of the ghost and dismayed because he’d believed himself finished with the higher levels for the day, Hajime had to struggle not to smile. He enjoyed giving Sano hell, but had no reason (at the moment) to be grinning in the face of his misfortune… yet he did like knowing he’d been right about something.

Suspicious and angry, Sano scanned for the reason behind the ghost’s change in motion and attitude, but that reason had already moved from his line of sight. And by the time he’d stopped craning his neck and turned back to a proper position in his chair, Mrs. Himura had come through the restaurant and stood before them on the patio.

Part 21

In a funny mixture of hesitation and bravado, Kaoru pulled out one of the vacant chairs, took a seat, and looked back and forth between the two men. She hadn’t said a word yet, but Sano thought he could feel her eyes on his facial bruises as palpably as if she’d been using her fingers. A glance at Hajime showed him studying Kaoru as intently as she studied them, and it would have made sense to assume the exorcist wanted to determine whether the woman felt ready to tell the mysterious truth he was so sure she’d been withholding… but for some reason Sano had the impression Hajime actually examined her features trying to decide on her level of attractiveness. Sano stood by his five.

Kenshin, meanwhile, struggled to approach his wife, which meant all the effort Hajime had expended to get Sano back down to a manageable level of anger would be negated as Sano had to restrain the guy all over again.

The deep breath Kaoru eventually drew in preparation for speech partook of the same mixture of boldness and uncertainty as had her motions sitting down, but her voice was steady as she said, “I may be ready to believe you.”

“Oh?” was all Hajime replied. He seemed to have been expecting this; jerk could have mentioned that.

“I followed you when you walked away. I saw you fighting. I think it’s pretty obvious that either what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe it is.”

“Or we’re thorough con artists,” Hajime added.

“Or that,” she agreed, evidently rendered a little easier by the acknowledgment of this possibility.

“Yeah…” Sano looked at her askance. “Not to argue against ourselves or anything, but seeing us fighting… doesn’t really prove anything.”

She sighed. “No, I guess not. But I already wanted to believe you. No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to believe my husband is haunting you and can’t pass on, or that he’s so mad he’s making you try to beat up your friend… but I think I do believe you. Because what you were saying before?” She turned to Hajime. “About the usual effects of having an angry ghost around? That happened to me.

“I don’t know why it didn’t start until December — late December, almost January — when he died in November, but it was just like you described. I had non-stop migraines, and I was just so angry all the time… I had to send Kenji, my son, to my parents’ house practically every day because I was afraid I was going to take it out on him. Sometimes I took it out on people I met — people at stores, and friends, and even my own parents sometimes — and on things, like the furniture and my car, and…” She was beginning to look distraught again. “I thought I was just angry about what had happened, but now that you’ve mentioned what ghosts do to you…”

Sano had actually opened his mouth to repair her conflation of ghosts with red shades, but decided that being pedantic at this point might do more harm than good. Besides, his anger was swiftly growing again, and he probably wouldn’t be able to say it without sounding inordinately unkind.

So after a moment or two she went on uninterrupted. “Eventually I noticed it starting to fade, but it’s only about a week and a half ago that I’ve really started to feel like myself again. But I realized it was probably about three weeks ago that it started fading. Because that was when he left and went to you, wasn’t it?”

Sano nodded as she looked at him again.

“Probably because he couldn’t get through to you,” Hajime mused, “and got tired of trying. Why he went to Sano, specifically, we still have no idea, but it seems logical for him to have gone to someone else when he found he wasn’t getting anywhere with you, who can’t see ghosts.”

“Is this something that happens a lot?” Kaoru wondered next. “Do lots of people get haunted by other people’s husbands?” Sano considered this question a sign of the authenticity of her stated readiness to believe.

Hajime shook his head. “What I usually deal with are shades, which are just leftover emotions, not people. Real ghosts are very rare. If you were wondering what my part in all of this is,” he added in much the same tone he’d used for the earlier con artist comment, “I’m essentially just waiting around to talk to your husband in order to get some more information about ghosts.”

Kaoru gave a confused half smile. “I wasn’t wondering; I assumed he was paying you.” She glanced from one of the men to the other and back. A new interest showed in her face, but Sano thought she was forcing it in order to avoid thinking about something else. And when she asked, “Are there a lot of exorcists?” it sounded like someone making polite conversation. If she needed this as a strengthening routine in order to move on to a more difficult subject, Sano didn’t want to discourage her… but he was once again becoming angrier with every moment he spent near her as Kenshin strained against his hold, and her delays could only worsen the situation.

Hajime seemed all patience, however. “I’m currently the only professional exorcist in this city, which is why I moved here. For this population, one tends to be enough — though there are certain types of cases I have to use a specialist for.”

Though she listened with ostensible attentiveness, Kaoru yet seemed caught up in something else she would rather not think about. “So the leftover emotion things keep you busy enough,” she asked somewhat hastily, “to make a living?”

Sano rearranged his sore body in the chair. He’d picked up his cloth napkin for something to do with his hands, and now realized he was pulling it badly askew. It didn’t seem in danger of tearing — yet — but long stretch-marks indicated where he’d been tugging at it.

“More or less,” Hajime was answering with a glance at the younger man. “But listen, Mrs. Himura: you need to understand what it does to Sano to have you sitting here.”

She too glanced at Sano, with dark eyes and a frown, then searched the air around him for a moment before returning her gaze to his angry face. Her brows contracted and she swallowed. Softly she said, “I’m just trying not to think about the idea that he’s really here when he shouldn’t be.” It was clear that by ‘he’ she didn’t mean Sano, though she continued looking at him as she spoke. “Ghosts are really rare, you say… so I guess only a very unusual situation can turn someone into one.” Her voice sank even farther. “No wonder he’s so angry.”

Seeing the tears welling again in her eyes, Sano wanted to share with her his theory that she was not the object of Kenshin’s wrath, but he couldn’t without making her the object of his. He wished Hajime would bring it up, but he obviously believed doing so would destroy the progress they’d made toward getting at what they needed to know.

“Why should he be angry at you?” the exorcist asked quietly.

Kaoru shook her head rapidly as if trying to rid herself of some clinging aura (and probably failing). Again she looked from one man to the other. After a deep breath she said, “You were right. I wasn’t telling the truth before.”

Hajime’s gaze intensified, but he said nothing.

Kaoru’s hands on the table clenched as she looked down at her white knuckles as she had earlier. “If I believe you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to believe you and I don’t want to tell you… but I feel like I have to believe you, and I do want to tell someone. I’m so tired of this…” As she looked up again, her expression confirmed this last statement, and the breath she drew in sounded much the same. “I will tell you… but you have to promise not to go to the police.”

She really did kill him, Sano sent to Hajime, not so sure he was joking this time.

Hajime nodded slowly in response to the thought, but his expression did not change. “I can’t promise you that,” he told Kaoru gravely. “We want and need to hear your story, but if there’s been a crime I feel I have to report, I will report it.”

She gave him a long look, then eventually turned to Sano. “And you?”

Sano forced himself to answer, though none too pleased with the growl in which his words emerged. “I could promise, but it wouldn’t matter: this bastard reads my mind, so he’d get at it anyway.”

The woman seemed taken aback, though whether at the roughness of the statement or the revelation she was seated next to a mind-reader Sano couldn’t guess. Her eyes dropped, and for several moments she sat in tense silence staring at her hands. Finally she reached a decision, as evinced by the determined hardening of her expression and the set of her shoulders. “All right,” she said. “I’m probably crazy, but I’m going to trust you. I’ll tell you everything.”

Part 22

With the type of resolution that feels it might as well get a necessary evil over with as quickly as possible, Mrs. Himura stood from the table and announced, “But not here. Come sit in my car where people can’t hear me.”

Her car, Hajime reflected, was probably the safest of any relatively private places she could have chosen for a couple of strange men to accompany her to, but that they really weren’t psychopaths or con artists was also fortunate. Perhaps personal safety didn’t mean much to her anymore.

Though Sano hadn’t eaten anything since the woman had appeared at their table and necessitated he start holding onto the ghost again, still he cast a disappointedly annoyed glance at what remained on his plate as he stood. Nothing to be done for it; the service here seemed very quick, but Hajime didn’t want to wait for to-go boxes; he already planned to force payment for the meal on whichever employee he ran across first inside.

Finished with that, they started back toward the park in tense silence. More than one of them glanced around in some discomfort: Kaoru was probably concerned her father would see them and make very understandable trouble; while Hajime worried that, after the fisticuffs earlier, he and Sano might be personae non gratae in this location at least for a while (or perhaps a little too gratae among the former spectating kids). Sano himself, evidently, was too busy keeping a firm hold on both the ghost and his own rising temper to think much about either issue. And his lack of attention eventually proved justified when they reached and entered the Himura car without event.

Gripping the steering wheel behind which she’d seated herself as if craving something to cling to, Kaoru let out a sigh both defeated and preparatory. Then, for a second time that day, she began speaking at a rapid pace as if she feared she wouldn’t be able to make the confession if she didn’t talk fast.

“I killed my husband,” was how she started. “And I don’t mean that the way people do when they’re trying to find some way to blame themselves for something they didn’t want to happen, no matter what I said before about keeping the car that day. I mean I shot him twice in the head with a Taurus .38 Special.”

She fell abruptly silent at this point, and Hajime didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she awaited their reactions. And perhaps she needed those reactions — the surprise and the horror she expected — to contribute to the order she was trying to set up for herself to regulate her emotions and situation… but unfortunately, Hajime and Sano, already having guessed at what she’d just confessed, could not provide. Hajime merely nodded, and Sano’s scowl did not alter.

“It started in October,” she finally went on, perhaps taking revenge for their lack of interested response by not specifying what ‘it’ was. “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was late in October because we’d just bought Kenji a Halloween costume when we were out shopping one night, and the next morning he was asking me questions about Halloween. Somehow he had it confused with Christmas, and he thought if he dressed up that meant he needed to give away presents. He was deciding who was going to have which of his toys, and I thought it was so sweet… just like his dad…”

She’d begun rambling again, apparently. Hajime thought a point was being progressed toward, but Sano obviously couldn’t tell. He shifted uncomfortably even more than before in the back seat, which he’d occupied without a word when Hajime had taken the front.

“Then later that same day,” Kaoru went on, “a note appeared out of nowhere on my refrigerator. It said something like, ‘You have a very generous son. If you want him to live long enough to give away his toys for Halloween, follow these instructions exactly: burn this note and cut up an apple for him to dip in peanut butter.'”

Now she got the reaction she’d previously been anticipating. Sano gave a surprised growl or grunt, and Hajime’s brows went down over narrowed eyes. This news came as an unexpected shock, and the eventual outcome of the story after such a beginning seemed unpleasantly guessable.

“Apples in peanut butter is one of Kenji’s favorite snacks, and anyone could have known that. But the conversation about his toys on Halloween I hadn’t told anyone about yet. But at first I thought the note must be a practical joke, even if it wasn’t very funny, because you just don’t think about that kind of crime-drama thing actually happening in real life — at least not to you or anyone you know. So I looked around for someone maybe hiding in the house, but it wasn’t a big house… Kenji thought it was a game and helped me look; I was so shaken up, I couldn’t get him to sit still in the kitchen and wait for me.

“Then I thought I’d call Kenshin and see if he had something to do with it, even though it obviously wasn’t the kind of joke he would do… but when I reached for the phone, the doorbell rang. I thought whoever it was at the door would probably have the explanation, but when I got there there was no one there, just another note. These were typed notes, by the way. Like, printed notes. This one said something like, ‘It’s a better idea not to tell anyone about this. No one will answer the phone anyway.’ And then it went on telling me about exactly what Kenshin was doing — it even mentioned the specific breed of dog he was working with right then — and the exact movie my parents had just walked into.

“My first thought was to lock myself and Kenji in the bathroom — because it had no windows — and call the police, but there were too many problems with that idea. What if I couldn’t grab the phone and get in there in time? What if they really were watching Kenshin and my parents at the same time, and weren’t just bluffing to scare me? How could I convince the police I really was in danger? And what if, by the time the police got there, whoever was leaving these notes had just disappeared?”

Hajime might have expected, in the telling of such a tale, even more tears and incomprehensibly choked diction than before, but found it otherwise. Though there was in her voice a faint echo of the terror and desperation she must have felt on that first day, the full course of events she detailed must eventually have inflicted upon her a sense of helplessness beyond activity and bordering on numbness, and this last sounded most prominently in her dull pronouncement, “So I burned the notes and cut up an apple for Kenji.”

Another silence fell, a heaviness and reluctance for this tale to progress any further toward its inevitable conclusion… but in glancing at Sano, Hajime guessed they had only a few more minutes before another intervention would need to take place. “And then?” he prompted.

More, apparently, out of weariness than anything else, Kaoru sighed. “There were several notes during November, mostly to make sure I knew whoever they were really were watching me and my family and that I really would do whatever they asked. I don’t know what kind of ninja was putting these things in the places I found them, but they must have been pretty amazing, because I never saw anyone, and the notes kept appearing in places like on the refrigerator or the bathroom counter, and once in my jewelry box on my dresser. And they never asked me to do anything unusual — nothing that wouldn’t be completely natural for me to do, but what I might not necessarily have done just then if they hadn’t told me to.

“And I don’t know what kind of network they had watching my husband and my parents, but they kept giving me little hints about what they were doing — things I always found out later were true, just like my parents really were at that Amelia Earhart movie that first day and Kenshin really was assisting on a min pin spay. It was… it was so freaky… I got so scared whenever I found out that something one of the notes told me was true, and each time was worse than before.

“They were conditioning me — I could see even then that that was what was happening — but I didn’t know what for. They were getting me ready for something by making sure I was good and scared and ready to do whatever they asked. You can’t know what that’s like…” Her voice sank to an almost contemplative murmur; the horror, presumably, had either passed or taken such deep hold that it had been assimilated into normalcy, and only this dullness remained.

“Not knowing who’s watching you when or where, or when you might do something wrong or what they might do then. Or how to protect the people you love, or even if that was even possible… And imagining all sorts of horrible things and not knowing whether I was exaggerating or what. I got so paranoid I had no idea what was realistic and what was me overreacting.

“I tried not to show it, but that was completely impossible almost right from the beginning, because it was like I became a totally different person.” She gave a faint, frustrated huffing noise. “Between that month and the trauma after and all the anger in January and February, I’m surprised anyone even recognizes me anymore.

“I got into the habit of trying to stay between Kenji and the window, no matter what room we were in, even though I didn’t really think that would do any good. And I didn’t see any way we were going to survive this, even with me doing every little thing they told me. We were hostages, was really what we were, and do you know what hostage survival rates are like?

“I didn’t dare do anything that might even look like I was trying to find out who these people were or trying to do anything about them; no matter where I went, I assumed they were watching through crosshairs. I didn’t want to…” She cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t sleep with my husband. Of course he was desperate to know what was wrong with me — not just because of that, I mean, but because of the entire way I was acting. He tried everything… he tried asking in every way he could, and guessing even the craziest ideas, and bringing me presents because he thought I was upset with him… god, his last month alive, and he thought I was upset with him…” This tangent brought on the tears the main story hadn’t been able to prompt, and Mrs. Himura was for a few moments overcome.

Assuming the tale was going the direction Hajime believed it must be, he perfectly understood this behavior — in fact, he thought, it bordered on miraculous she could talk about this at all, or function in general. She was a tougher person than he’d believed; he should have realized it from the mere presence of natural mental shields strong enough to keep him out apparently indefinitely.

He had no time to ponder this, or to attempt in his inexpert way to offer some kind of consoling statement that might be able to draw out the remainder of what she had to relate. For it was time to see to Sano again.

Part 23

Sano didn’t recognize the motions he used to get out of the car, didn’t feel the handle under his fingers or hear the sound of the door closing, barely even registered the parking lot around him. He knew only the huge, hot, overwhelming certainty of what the end of Kaoru’s story must be. He was so angry he couldn’t think; he was so angry he practically couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t quite call it worse than before, because it was different than before, but he couldn’t quite say anything, because all that would come out was an inarticulate roar.

Sure, it was no surprise, after all the speculation (serious or otherwise), that Kenshin’s wife had been his killer… but Sano had expected as the cause a concealed callousness, or a moment of lost control during an argument, or some kind of infidelity or other marital intrigue… If he’d had any idea threat and coercion had been involved… He raged at himself for ever having joked about it.

The sight of Hajime’s bright red figure emerging from the passenger side of the unfamiliar red car was the first event or part of his surroundings to log coherently (relatively) in Sano’s head, and he felt his hands clench immediately into tingling fists. Of course he still raged at Hajime, for all the same reasons as before — the aloofness and evident disinterest, the blame Sano laid on him (unfair, even now he knew) for the slowness of proceedings and the fact that he still had a maddening ghost attached to him — but this time he also recognized, somewhere deep in the molten rock of his thoughts and emotions under Kenshin’s influence, that Hajime wanted to help him, that Hajime was willing to do anything necessary. This time, as Sano staggered toward him with intentions every bit as violent as earlier, he did so with nearly as much needy hopefulness as anger.

It went as before: Hajime encouraged him off behind one of the other cars in the parking lot — a big old SUV, Sano vaguely classified it, which could provide at least a little privacy — and essentially beat him up until Sano had reached a more propitious frame of mind. And this time, when yet another hard-knuckled blow from the exorcist opened the return doorway to rationality, when Sano staggered backward to stumble (not for the first time in the last couple of minutes) over the curb that bordered the lot on this side and sit down heavily in the small strip of grass between that and a tall fence, he ran a hand across his face and let out a frustrated sigh. His statement that he hoped they wouldn’t have to go through this again today lacked about half its intended words.

Hajime snorted but said nothing. Both shoulders of his shirt, Sano noted, were now split open, and at least one of the buttons across his chest had torn through its hole; his jacket he must have left in Kaoru’s car, since it wasn’t visible anywhere around. The newest bruise on his face induced simultaneous guilt and satisfaction in Sano.

Calming his panting breaths and trying in vain to smooth away his scowl, Sano growled, “Thank you.”

Returning to their interviewee after not too long, Sano in some weary dismay at the feeling of the anger still growing as he continually had to restrain Kenshin, they found Kaoru staring at the steering wheel with a dry face but despairing eyes. These she turned only briefly on Sano as he resumed his place in the back seat; then she returned quickly, with a wince, to what she’d been regarding before.

“He’s mad at me,” she whispered. “Kenshin. He wants revenge. He isn’t — wasn’t — isn’t that kind of person, but… but I think anyone would react like that. I killed him… me, the person he should have been able to trust most… I took everything from him… and now his son is being raised by a murderer. Of course he would have to do something about that. Anyone would.”

“Then he’s a fucking dick,” Sano growled, “and he can damn well just stop haunting me right now, because fuck that.”

Neither of the others responded directly to this largely incoherent statement. Instead, Hajime said in what Sano believed he intended as a sympathetic tone, “What’s the rest of the story?”

After the same preparations for unpleasant speech they’d seen her make a couple of times already today, Kaoru continued. “These notes had me so tense and miserable and worried that I didn’t even blink when they told me they needed me to kill someone. The note said I’d never hear from them again if I did it, and I was so relieved at that thought that at first even murder didn’t seem like too much. That’s how far they’d pushed me.

“Obviously after a while I was horrified by what they were asking me to do, but even then I couldn’t see any way out of it, and I think I accepted the idea and how helpless I was a lot more easily than I should have. It’s something to remember, I guess… how easy it is to make someone a murderer. It’s not a certain type of person; it’s any type of person in the right situation. You’d never look at me and think, ‘She seems like someone who’d shoot a man twice in the head,’ but here I am a murderer.

“Kenshin and I had agreed I wouldn’t have any guns in the house until Kenji was old enough that we could count on him not hurting himself by accident. Obviously whoever they were knew that, because they told me where to go to find a gun to use for the job they wanted me to do: they left it in a box behind a dumpster in one of the streets on the way to where they wanted me to go. It was — I told you — it was a Taurus .38 special, snub-nosed, hammerless, with a — god, what does that matter? I’ll remember every little detail of that gun for the rest of my life, but you guys probably don’t need to know.”

“I’ll admit,” said Hajime, looking at her with slightly raised brows, “that description didn’t actually mean anything to me.”

“Sorry.” It was half a laugh and half a sob. “Not everyone’s a fan of guns. Including me, now. But I’ve been shooting since I was little… actually, I’ve always wanted to be a policeman. Not much chance of that now, is there?”

As Kaoru took a moment to get hold of herself as she admitted to a lifelong dream thus shattered, Hajime filled the near-silence with the query, “Is that why they chose you for this? Because you’ve had the practice and are familiar with guns?”

She shook her head slowly. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this — god knows I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this, even if I wasn’t thinking very clearly some of that time — and I think that was only the reason they had me do it the way they did. If I wasn’t a good shot and familiar with guns, they’d’ve had me poison him or something. And if they just… if they just wanted him dead and not cared who did it, they already had whoever it was who was sneaking notes into my house, who I’m sure would have… would have done it better than I did anyway.”

“So you think this was a deliberate form of torture or revenge?” Although Hajime seemed to be interjecting at this point to allow Kaoru another moment to calm her misery, his tone also had the steel-cool determination of someone that loathes what he’s heard and has plans for doing something about it.

With a nod, a deep breath, and an obvious effort, she elaborated. “They wanted me to do it because — I’m just sure of this — they thought it would be the best way to hurt us both. They didn’t care whether I got caught or what happened afterwards… they were completely anonymous the entire time, so even if I did get caught and I told everything, the police wouldn’t be able to get at them and I’d probably still be charged with accessory to murder or something.

“I think I did better than they thought I would, though,” she added with the hint of a bitter smile. “I followed their instructions about the route to take and the best position to be in to wait for the victim, and I wore what they suggested, and I got rid of the gun exactly how they told me. They promised to provide cover fire in the street, and they even did that. It went so smoothly, it was just like I’d practiced it, like I’d been doing this forever.”

They had probably been doing this forever,” said Hajime.

“Did you…” Sano could barely get the words out. “Did you know who…”

“No,” Kaoru whispered. “Do you think I would have — do you think I could have done it if I’d known? Even to protect my son, even to save my own life, do you think I would have been capable of…”

“And it was a dark little back street and he had his hood up,” Sano finished for her in a tone as low as hers but far more rough. “I bet you never even saw his face.”

“I didn’t even know until the phone call came. But… but even not knowing who it was… from the moment I pulled the trigger for the first shot, I felt sick… and cold… and just… terrible like I can’t even describe… and when I saw him fall on his face, I knew I’d done something I could never take back. And even thinking about how I’d done it to save Kenji didn’t help, because I knew I’d turned into something I…” Whatever she said next was completely unintelligible in a storm of body-wracking sobs.

Sano didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Exhausted and aching all over, he doubted he could handle another fist fight today… and yet the anger grew even more quickly than before as he watched the suffering of this poor woman and thought of whoever had put her through this torment. He wanted to find them and do to them the most horrible things he could come up with, force them to endure what Kaoru had endured. His heart hurt even more than his body, and the horror of the circumstance she described was overwhelming.

Eventually, as her sobbing diminished, Hajime asked, “And did you get any more notes?” When she shook her head, he nodded. Even from the back seat, Sano could make out the set of his jaw and his brow, and he realized with an odd sense of clarity and certainty that Hajime entertained much the same thoughts and vindictive desires he did. On the topic of what should be done about Kaoru’s abusers, evidently, they were in complete accord.

A long period of brooding wordlessness followed, during which Sano tried to decide how much longer he could stay in this car and how he could comprehensibly express, through this rage, his resolution and pity. Finally, though, Kaoru spoke again, apparently determined to finish what she’d started even if her story had rather fallen apart halfway through.

“So you can see why it makes perfect sense for Kenshin to be so angry. I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whatever he needs to see happen so he can move on. I’ll shoot myself in the head if he wants. If it weren’t for Kenji, I probably would have done it already.”

Part 24

Finally, Sano managed to say what Hajime knew he’d wanted to for some time: “He’s not mad at you. I swear to fucking god on whatever you want me to swear on that it’s not you he’s mad at.” Of course with the way he said it, it sounded as if Sano was mad at Kaoru, but by now she must understand his situation.

She remained utterly still for a long moment, body frozen, expression locked, apparently not even breathing. Then, finally, letting the air out of her lungs in another uneven sigh, she shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.”

“Mrs. Himura.” Even Hajime’s own voice sounded a little angry. The object of his wrath remained distant and unfocused, but that didn’t alter the emotion. “Whoever was sending you those notes was the murderer of your husband. There’s no specific word for what they did to you, but you were the victim, not the criminal. If your husband has the intelligence of a fly, he’s aware of that. He’s obviously angry not at you, but at the people who forced you into this situation.”

Again she shook her head, but this time said nothing; it seemed she had no ability to argue against a point of view she would greatly have preferred to espouse and yet was convinced, down to her bones, could not be true.

Though not the type to wish to be anything besides what he was, there were times Hajime couldn’t but be aware that other states of being, other states of mind he could never attain, would work more effectively toward certain ends.

Having been coerced, the woman was innocent, or at worst guilty only of prioritizing the life of the son for whom she was responsible over that of, as she’d believed, a total stranger. Perhaps a higher social consciousness would have dictated a complete refusal to commit murder under any circumstances, but, inasmuch as doing so might have been considered equally murderous — in that case of a dependent — he could not condemn the decision she’d made.

She hadn’t, as she believed, become evil; she’d had evil thrust upon her, and it was a shame she couldn’t feel more secure in her blamelessness. Not that it came as any surprise, human nature being what it was. If he’d been a different kind of person, he might have been able to reassure her; as his personality stood, he just sat still and silent in her passenger seat while she wept.

That her mental walls remained as impenetrable as ever made a point of interest that vied with the misfortune of the situation for his attention. It was often all or nothing with the untrained; she’d probably spent the months since that first note fighting so hard against the idea of discovery, which would endanger the life of her son, that even now, when she’d confessed all, she couldn’t relax her defenses. They’d become a default.

Sano, on the other hand, flashed like a beacon in the back seat: he projected pity and horror, in addition to the usual ever-expanding rage, so clearly that his radiating emotions almost colored the air; though he’d become capable of keeping Hajime from what he didn’t want detected under many normal circumstances, the emotional ups and downs of this day had rendered him perfectly easy to read. It was about time to get him out of this setting.

Somewhat abruptly Hajime said, “Reporting this to the police wouldn’t do anyone any good. We need to find out who might have had a reason to do something like this to you and your husband. Do you have any idea?”

“No,” said Kaoru. “No, not at all.”

Hajime had expected as much; with all the time she’d already mentioned she’d had to think about this, she would certainly have come up with an answer if one had been available.

“Everyone has people who don’t like them,” she went on helplessly, “but I can’t think of anyone who would hate me that much. And Kenshin… there were things about his past I know he never told me, but going through his legal documents and records hasn’t found anything.”

Sano, suddenly distracted slightly from his anger by wonder at the thought of a long-term relationship involving withheld information or even deceit, added curiosity and some disapproval to his lineup of noisy emotions.

Completely disinterested, for his own part, in how healthy Kaoru’s marriage had been, “I’m glad to hear that you’ve been looking, at least,” Hajime said.

“What else could I do? I haven’t heard from them since then, but I feel like if I leave town I might get their attention again… but if I had any idea who they were… I couldn’t investigate them in any way I could think of, but nobody would be suspicious of me looking at my husband’s records. But there’s nothing there that gives me any ideas.”

Hajime nodded. “If you find anything that might help…” From the pocket of the jacket that lay across his lap he withdrew a business card. As he handed it to her he added, “And we’ll use the resources we have to look for information as well.”

She also nodded, staring at the card with only the second or third smile he’d seen on her face. Like the previous, it was faint, and held no trace of happiness or entertainment. He thought it stemmed from bemusement at the circumstance of such a dryly professional business card for an exorcist.

“Thank you again for coming to talk to us today,” Hajime said formally. “We’ll keep you updated.”

As he slid slightly sideways and reached for the door, she looked over at him abruptly. Her movement and the expression on her face both seemed surprised, as if she hadn’t realized her conversational companions were leaving so soon — or perhaps that they were leaving at all — and in her eyes he made out the desperation of someone that, having just found a source even of slight relief from her pain, shied from returning to the latter yet or even doubted she could. It must have meant a lot to her to be able to unburden herself the way she had.

Hajime stilled. Little comfort as he knew she was likely to take from anything he could offer, he had to say something; Sano was in no state to do it, and something had to be said. Eventually he decided on, “Remember that you had no choice. Try to believe your husband isn’t mad at you. Hope that when we find out the truth it will help you both.”

The act of steeling herself to go on with business as usual showed in the movement of her body, and sounded in the long, slow breath she drew. And her voice was perfectly steady as she said, “Thank you.”

Outside the car after that intense conversation, Hajime suddenly found himself wanting a cigarette, as he occasionally did when his emotions were aroused. But he pushed this urge firmly away and began crossing the parking lot toward his own vehicle. “I’ll drive you home,” he told Sano.

“It’s not far,” the young man growled. “I’ll just walk.”

“And harass everyone you meet on the way? Don’t be an idiot.”

Without any further protest Sano gave in — there’d been no reason to refuse in the first place besides his angry desire to be contrary — but as he got into Hajime’s car with the ghost firmly in tow, he still scowled. Hajime believed his level could be dealt with verbally instead of through further violence, though, which relieved him since they were both by now a little ragged.

But before Hajime could start in on a calculated barrage of insults so as not to leave Sano in a worse state than when he’d found him, Sano had a comment of his own to make: “That was good.” With his crossed arms and his bruised and glowering face, the words sounded amusingly out of place. “It was good,” he went on very gruffly, “that you tried to make her feel better. I mean, it didn’t make her fucking feel better, but… it was good that you tried.”

Oddly, surprisingly, Hajime found himself… pleased… by this somewhat inarticulate expression of approbation. He wouldn’t have thought Sano’s opinion could mean much to him on this or any topic, yet his spirit distinctly lifted. Therefore it was ironic that he replied with the most cutting insult he could come up with. And he wondered, possibly for the first time, to what extent Sano understood he did this mostly to deal with the anger rather than out of any real desire to tear him down.

It was not, indeed, very far to Sano’s apartment, though they would have reached the place quicker if its resident had been in any fit condition to give proper directions. Still, reach it they did, eventually, and Hajime took his initial look at Sano’s ‘kinda shit’ home. He’d mostly expected this: old, disrepaired, undoubtedly cheap, creeping toward complete disrespectability. He circled the lot until he located Sano’s car (whose general appearance matched that of the apartment complex with entertaining precision), and pulled into the space next to it.

Several moments had passed since either of them had said anything, and now Hajime gave Sano an assessing look in continued silence. With a slight nod as he decided Sano had probably resumed or at least neared his standard levels, he reached out and hit the voice command button next to the radio. “Call Chou,” he ordered.

Sano, who had been about to open the passenger door, subsided with a grunt to listen.

To the surprise of both men (and possibly of Chou himself), the police officer actually answered after only two rings. “You wouldn’t be shit without me on this case, would you?” was his somewhat taunting greeting. “I don’t remember the last time you called me this much. Or is this a new ghost today?”

Sano snorted, but Hajime lifted a hand to silence him. As funny as he thought it would be to see what happened if he let Sano voice his developing opinion of Chou, he couldn’t risk alienating his police contact just now. “No, still the same case,” he responded calmly. “Listen. Kenshin Himura was probably just made to look like an innocent bystander during the gunfight that killed him; he might actually have been a deliberate victim. Do you have any more information about him? Anything that might have connected him to the gangs involved, or anyone involved with them?”

Chou made a reluctant noise like a verbal headshake, but promised to look into it. “I’ll get back to you probably in the morning,” he added, “since I still got shit to do.”

“Thank you,” Hajime replied.

With another noise, this one a sort of ‘Whatever,’ Chou hung up.

Sano shook his head, opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head again and said nothing.

“I’ll call you when I hear from him,” Hajime offered as Sano reached for the handle.

“Good.” Sano stood from the car and winced as he slung his backpack from the floorboards onto his sore body, then caught the door halfway from the closure he’d jerked it toward. He bent and regarded Hajime through it as if for a proper goodbye, yet still had nothing to say. In fact his mind boiled so furiously that Hajime couldn’t even pick up a definitive parting thought; it had been quite a day for him so far, and probably wouldn’t get much better now they were, yet again, waiting on a phone call.

And unexpectedly the thought drifted across Hajime’s consciousness that they didn’t necessarily have to wait separately for that call; they could just as easily return to his house, tease the cats, discuss the situation, drink some beer, order pizza again once dinner time rolled around…

But Chou wasn’t likely to call until tomorrow, and Hajime had better things to do than babysit an angry non-paying client until then.

Just as if Sano had been reading his mind, he nodded abruptly and, backing away, closed the door. And the exorcist was left to watch him stalk toward the building, dragging the apparently unresisting Kenshin behind him, in a mixture of emotions and a solitude he suddenly felt more keenly than he thought even the events of the day entirely accounted for.

Part 25

Very rarely did Sano wake before his alarm went off, or refrain from grumblingly curling into a tight blanket ball and going determinedly back to sleep if he did, but, as Kaoru had suggested yesterday, an unusual situation could lead to rare happenings. Today he lay in bed observing the slow growth of faint light in the room, noting the stiff soreness of his entire body, watching Kenshin circling with a placidity that belied the fury surrounding him that could so easily be transferred to Sano.

Not that Sano required superfluous external anger to madden him. The mere fact that he had a stranger so close, so undismissable, twenty-four hours a day was enough to keep him just as consistently annoyed even before the supernatural influence. He felt like he’d become the star of a reality show against his will; he felt like he had a chaperone, a jailer, in this unknown man over a decade his senior whose eyes were, perhaps, on him non-stop.

Waking up from angry dreams to find himself trying to tear his pillowcase apart felt especially stupid and frustrating when he knew he had an audience. Doing anything in the bathroom embarrassed him hugely. The state of his apartment from one moment to the next was almost enough to raise a blush, but the idea of straightening up in Kenshin’s presence smacked of catering — caving! — to the presumed tastes and desires of someone he didn’t want around in the first place. And it wasn’t necessarily appropriate to be thinking about the sex life of a brand new and as yet not-terribly-close acquaintance, but Sano couldn’t help making comparisons between Kaoru’s stated reluctance to sleep with her husband when she’d known she was being monitored and his own change in intimate personal habits when he’d realized he was being haunted by more than just a shade.

Not that the inconvenience of his situation, great as it was, could even begin to compare with the misery of hers. Of course he needed to be free of Kenshin in order to get on with his life, and no consciousness of disparity between his predicament and someone else’s could change that, but, even haunted, that life could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe if he kept that thought in mind and stopped concentrating so much on his own difficulties, things would go more smoothly.

So what if he was irrationally, sometimes destructively angry all the time? So what if some guy he didn’t know was watching him every time he took a piss? So what if he’d developed a crush on someone whose sexual orientation he couldn’t parse? At least he’d never been coerced into killing his husband.

He sat up and looked at Kenshin, turning his head to follow the ghost’s progress around him. He really had been thinking a lot about himself, hadn’t he? Kenshin, central to this affair, had barely registered as more than a problem to be solved, a nuisance to be gotten rid of by whatever means — certainly never fully as an individual with driving needs and memories and (as Sano should have good reason to know) human emotions.

What thoughts and feelings might Kenshin be entertaining now? How had that intense meeting with his wife affected him? What did he really want accomplished? Was he eager to move on, or would he prefer to remain a ghost?

Angrily, Sano sighed. How unfortunately easy it had proven to ignore the humanity of someone so unreachable in every way! There’d been no picture of Kenshin in the email report; Sano didn’t even know what he looked like, beyond that apparently ‘good in women’s clothing’ was part of it. He definitely knew nothing about Kenshin’s personality, except that Kaoru thought him pretty much the nicest guy in the world — which, even ignoring the probable bias, didn’t mean a lot. And though he could guess the dead man wanted to tell Kaoru he didn’t blame her for what she’d been forced to do, he couldn’t be sure.

None of these reflections helped or pleased him: overall, an annoying way to start the day. He wondered when he could expect Hajime to call. How early did that bullshit cop go into work? Sano lay back down and closed his eyes, but after a moment rolled onto his stomach and reached over the side of the bed. Not wanting to repeat the experience of a few days ago when he’d been too disoriented coming out of sleep to answer a call in time, he’d left his phone on its charger on the floor within arm’s length. Now he unplugged it and dragged it into a teddy bear position as he curled up on his side and rearranged the blanket he’d completely disarrayed.

He didn’t sleep, but neither did he think profoundly; he just lay there, nonspecifically angry, conscious of every bruise Hajime had given him yesterday, listening hard for any noise from the phone cradled against his chest. Eventually, though, as the morning became more visible, he did call in sick to work again. That he endangered his state of employment thus was an unavoidable fact, which made him feel sorry for anyone that legitimately got sick for two days in a row, but he had a feeling he would need the free time today. And he was satisfied with his effort at not sounding too irate talking to the opening manager.

Next, giving up on doing nothing any longer, he tried to choose an appropriate ringtone for Hajime’s number, but this frustrated him because all he had to work with was the pre-loaded lineup of generic jingles, and none of them seemed to fit. A few songs came to mind that would be very appropriate — a couple angry, one plaintive — but to buy them as ringtones cost something like two dollars each. He was pondering the issue, considering whether or not he should authorize the expenditure, and on the verge of giving in, when Hajime actually called and spared him the decision (for now).

“Kaoru was Kenshin’s second wife.”

So busy trying to decide whether it augured promise or disappointment that he now apparently rated a complete absence of greeting just like that dumbass policeman, Sano barely took in the meaning of this initial statement, and responded only with an inarticulate sound.

“His first wife, Tomoe,” Hajime went on, “died in a car accident in Fresno back in ’99 after he was married to her for less than a year. Kenshin was driving that car, and speeding at the time, which made the accident worse — she might have survived if he hadn’t been going thirty over the speed limit.”

“OK,” said Sano slowly. “That sucks…”

“Her maiden name was Yukishiro. Sound familiar?”

It did, actually, but Sano couldn’t place it. Something he’d heard in the news at some point not too long ago…

“Enishi Yukishiro,” Hajime filled in the silence, “was her younger brother.”

That name was even more familiar, but Sano still didn’t quite have it. “OK, I give up,” he admitted at last.

Hajime helped him out with, “CEO of U.S.Seido?”

“Yes!” said Sano as he remembered, but then sobered as he finally recalled the news reports he’d been trying to dredge up. “But didn’t he die, like, last year?”

“Just at the end of last year,” Hajime confirmed, “near the beginning of January.” And he paused to let this sink in.

“Right when… right when Kaoru started having red shade problems?” Sano had no idea what it meant, but it didn’t sound like a coincidence.

“What would you say to the theory that the anger we’re dealing with isn’t Kenshin’s at all?”

Sano had been in the act of shoving his blanket aside in order to rise, probably to start pacing in some agitation, but as Hajime’s suggestion hit him he stilled, and gradually sank back to rest against the wall. “Shit,” he murmured. “That would…” So simple an idea, yet not even a hint of it had ever crossed his mind. “Yeah…” He’d never heard of a ghost being affected by someone else’s shade, but, honestly, how much did he know about ghosts in the first place? “That’s a…” If this Enishi guy had still somehow been angry enough a decade after his sister’s death to plan the kind of bullshit that had gone on last year, his anger must be both prolific and tenacious… and wasn’t that exactly what they’d been noticing about this shade all along?

Sano’s trailing remark finally finished with, “…really good… theory…” Despite the inconclusiveness implied by this last word, a certainty was growing in his mind as if being built up by an outside source, and that source an authority. He believed this idea. Soon, he felt, he would be past the point where he could entertain any other.

Hajime apparently awaited an end to the contemplative, almost shocked silence, and it came as no less of a shock to Sano to realize the exorcist also awaited a more definitive response from him… that Hajime had proposed this as if Sano were the authority here. In a way, being the one haunted by Kenshin and most closely connected with the shade in question, he was the authority… but he wouldn’t have expected Hajime ever overtly to recognize that. So it was with a sudden and unexpected warmth in his gut, and as a result none of the cautious restraint he might otherwise have used, that he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on. When that guy died, he left some kind of huge shade behind, and it’s been wrapping around Kenshin ever since and keeping us from talking to him.”

“I always thought there was a little insanity in that shade.” Hajime sounded incongruously pleased, and Sano had to grin a bit at this further evidence that the exorcist reveled in being right about things. “To get revenge ten years later…”

“Yeah, seriously.”

In a more businesslike tone suggesting they would definitely want to retouch that branch of the conversation later, Hajime went on, “But that’s not all the information Chou had for me. The rumors that Seido is practically a stateside yakuza are true, apparently — in addition to their legitimate business, they’re more than suspected of money laundering, smuggling, and other, less pleasant things. Chou wasn’t happy to find out they might be involved in this. According to him, the police don’t touch Seido unless they’re absolutely sure they’ll come out on top of the transaction.”

“I don’t think I’m happy finding out about this,” said Sano, now a little uneasy. “I don’t really want to get involved with any yakuza either.”

“I’m not exactly ecstatic about it myself,” Hajime admitted. “But this is significant progress. Seido sometimes makes use of one of those gangs that provided the cover fire when Kenshin died, and you may have heard about that Seido secretary who was a person of interest in the investigation of Enishi’s death because of unusually aggressive behavior that started the same day Enishi died.”

Nothing of this latter story had reached Sano, and he admitted as much in some surprise.

“I’m sure you did hear that Enishi’s death was eventually ruled suicide, so this secretary wasn’t charged with anything. But apparently he’s been on a leave of absence ever since because he’s too angry to get any work done.”

“I’m an asshole for saying it–” and in fact Sano had a hard time stifling a grin as he did so– “but it’s kinda nice to know I’m not the only one whose life’s been fucked up by this.” Then, quickly repenting his choice of words, he added, “I mean, obviously Kaoru and Kenshin in the first place, but still…” He cleared his throat. “So you think the next step is to find this secretary guy and get the shade out of him?”

“And see what he can tell us about Enishi and his grudge against Kenshin,” Hajime confirmed. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to answer at least some questions; when I talked to him just now, he seemed desperate to find any solution to his current problem and very ready to believe he was being haunted by his late boss’s anger.”

“You talked to him just now?” Sano had eventually followed his original plan of rising to pace his apartment, and at this point he stopped on the kitchen linoleum and threw up his free hand. “God, you are so disturbingly efficient!”

Hajime sounded smug as he replied, “Well, unlike you, I like to actually do my job.”

Although he hoped that in general he wasn’t becoming immune to the very useful power of insult from Hajime, Sano gloried in the feeling of camaraderie between them.

“Don’t think it was extremely easy, though,” Hajime went on somewhat regretfully. “It took every corporate connection I have and all my personal charm to get someone at Seido to put me through to this man Gains, and he was so angry it was hard to get anything rational out of him.”

“‘Personal charm,'” Sano echoed, and whether his accompanying snort sounded more amused or derisive he wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure Hajime had set that one up deliberately, though.

“Anyway, if you want to come with me to meet him, which I assume you do, be ready for me to pick you up in half an hour.”

“Oh! Yeah! OK.” Sano could only be glad at Hajime’s efficiency — and also that he himself had been awake enough fully to appreciate this whole conversation. Some unusual happenings were better than others.

“See you then,” was Hajime’s goodbye.

As Sano’s hand holding the phone fell to his side, he stared at the ghost drifting through both hallway walls in its pattern around him. He still struggled to think of Kenshin as an individual and not an inconvenience, but this next step might help. Sano shook his head as he returned the phone to its charger, and headed toward the bathroom for a quick shower. Having done so yesterday, he hadn’t planned on showering today merely for the sake of a work shift, but for the sake of sitting in Hajime’s passenger seat he suddenly felt the need. Ghost or no ghost.

Part 26


“You look like one of those metal brain teaser puzzles,” Hajime announced as Sano slid into his passenger seat.

Sano glanced down at his weird pants with a frown, but the expression gradually turned from angry to thoughtful. “You mean the kind where you have to figure out how to get the rings apart from the other part or whatever? Yeah, I can see that.”

“I don’t know what kind of security measures they’re going to put us through at this place, but if there’s a metal detector we may have a problem.”

“Where exactly are we going?” the startled Sano asked.

“Seido headquarters.” And at his companion’s blankness, Hajime mentioned the part of town where this was located.

“Did you bring your sword?” Now there was suspicion and defiance in Sano’s tone.

“Yes, but an exorcist’s sword is relevant to an exorcism. Those pants are not. Neither are all those earrings, to be perfectly honest.”

“Yeah, like it’s such a huge pain in the ass for you to be perfectly honest about anything that–” Breaking off abruptly, Sano sat back with folded arms and a twist to his mouth that was turning it gradually into an angry-looking grin. “So you want me to take off my pants, huh?” he growled with deliberate suggestive slowness.

Though not particularly practiced at dodging flirtation, Hajime didn’t see this instance as terribly difficult to get around. “And the boots,” he said sternly. “And all the metal jewelry. Don’t you own any sane clothing?”

Sano looked even more irritated than before. Instead of answering the question, he made an angry noise, got out of the car, and walked back across the parking lot and into the apartment building. Hajime watched in the rear-view mirror, wondering if he should perhaps have worded that differently. The possibility of Sano’s clothing combining unpleasantly with the postulated metal detector did exist, but any opinion about said clothing on Hajime’s side (apart from the one he’d already expressed, that Sano’s choices in dress made him look as if he was trying to relive his teenage years) did not. But it was too late now; any pleasant atmosphere that had arisen during their phone call earlier was lost, probably beyond recall.

The Sano that returned was a bit of a shock, and Hajime found that maybe he did have an opinion after all. Stripped of jewelry, in a plain t-shirt, dark jeans, and tennis shoes, Sano looked a lot less like he was parading a past he couldn’t let go of, and a lot more… respectable. More real, perhaps. Even the spiky hair, considering that whatever gel he’d used today didn’t add any unnatural color, was acceptable; even the bruises, in this context, could more easily be presumed the results of some unfortunate accident instead of signs of a reckless and wasteful life. Sano was striking, suddenly, in a way he’d never been before, which was ironic when his usual attire seemed to scream for attention.

He was also still clearly annoyed with Hajime. He didn’t respond to the older man’s placid, “Better,” only donned his seat belt in brief motions and looked out the window as they started off. And this annoyance seemed a little different from the usual low-level anger that was the result of normal time at home with Kenshin. Was it because Hajime had refused to flirt with him? Well, he was just going to have to get over that; Hajime simply didn’t flirt.

Nevertheless, the exorcist thought they had a lot to talk about, given all the information they now possessed. There were, he believed, several connections to be made and theories to be turned over, some of them before they reached the Seido building. So when their drive had proceeded in perfect silence for three or four minutes, he asked directly, “What are you thinking about?”

Whatever it was, Sano seemed to pull himself from it with some difficulty and then face some uncertainty as to what to say. He was shielding, but not quite to the point where, when he replied, “Whether or not we’re getting in way over our heads,” Hajime wasn’t conscious that the statement wasn’t quite an accurate answer to his question. It probably hadn’t been far behind Sano’s actual thoughts, but it had definitely been no more prominent than secondary.

Only a brief glance in Sano’s direction could Hajime spare at the moment, and this told him nothing. In the interest of a legitimate discussion that was not about Sano’s emotions (whatever they might be), he decided to let the matter of concealed thoughts go. “You didn’t hesitate to come, though.”

“No.” Sano’s tone was dark. “But I’m a little pissed that it looks like the guy behind all that shit Kaoru went through’s already dead. I was kinda hoping to kill him myself.”

Aware that this was hyperbole (barely), Hajime replied only, “You’re ‘a little pissed?'”

Sano gave a bitter laugh and fell silent again.

“You’re probably less pissed than Enishi was, anyway,” Hajime admitted by way of transition.

“Seriously,” Sano agreed in a tone half marveling and half irate. “If he’s really our guy, why the hell did he wait ten years to get revenge? And how was he even still that mad after so long?”

“His secretary may be able to answer that.”

“Or he may not,” said Sano darkly. “At least I hope the whole stupid group wasn’t in on torturing some poor woman.”

“It’s an interesting point,” Hajime mused, “that the wife has probably suffered more from this than the husband who actually killed Enishi’s sister.”

“The wife who replaced Enishi’s sister?” Sano interjected doubtfully.

Hajime acknowledged this decent point with a slow nod even as he went on with his own train of thought. “Though that might only have been the case because Kenshin actually died. They — he, if it was Enishi — may not actually have expected Kaoru to succeed in killing her husband. Kenshin might have suffered more if Kaoru had just appeared to be upset with him, eventually threatened him with a gun, and refused the entire time to tell him why. Or, if she had decided to try to get out of that somehow, Enishi always had the option of murdering the son. No matter how it ended, the situation was likely to result in the destruction of Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship, possibly legal trouble, possibly the death of their son, and probably psychological trauma for whoever survived. It was a win-win situation for whoever set it up, since there didn’t seem to be any way for Kenshin and Kaoru to get out of it together without suffering in one way or another.”

“It still seems like there might have been a better way to make sure Kenshin was the one who really suffered, though, and leave Kaoru and the kid out of it.”

“Well, as you just pointed out, Enishi may have had some kind of grudge against Kaoru and the kid too.”

“If Enishi really did all this.”

“It seems like a logical assumption at this point, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the anger Gains is dealing with is the same that’s surrounding Kenshin — assuming Gains is actually haunted. That should tell us fairly conclusively whether Enishi is our culprit.”

“What is this Gains guy’s actual job in this fake-company-yakuza-thing?”

“Bridgestone Gains,” Hajime replied, giving the name the very precise enunciation he felt it deserved, “was Enishi’s administrative assistant, and I get the feeling he’s on an influential level with the–”

Here Sano interrupted with, “Bridgestone Gains?” in a voice completely altered by skepticism and amusement from his previous surly growl. “You sure he’s not the executive officer of the yakuza’s designer men’s clothing line or something?”

Hajime actually laughed out loud, glad to find that Sano agreed with him on this point.

The good humor of that moment was unfortunately short-lived, as their conversation returned soon after to the topic of Enishi’s presumed revenge and long-lasting vindictiveness, as well as the haunted secretary (regardless of his name) and the possibilities of the day. They didn’t have time for a thorough canvass of all the information and all the inferences that were now available, but they managed to discuss enough to satisfy Hajime before they reached the Seido building.

The wrathful Gains, on the phone, had not been entirely coherent, but had at least struggled commendably to arrange things to Hajime’s convenience in visiting; he’d offered a place in the headquarter’s gated multi-level parking complex for the duration, but Hajime had declined as politely as possible. There was something distasteful to him about having his car swallowed up in the darkness of a yakuza garage, so he opted for meter parking on the street and the building’s main entrance. On being acquainted with this plan and the reason for it, Sano commented on the irony of Hajime refusing to leave his ‘mafia-looking car’ in the care of yakuza; Hajime, who’d never considered his car particularly mafia-looking, just rolled his eyes.

“Not that I don’t feel you.” If this choice of idiom on Sano’s part was another attempt at flirtation, it was certainly delivered in as unflirtatious a tone as he could possibly have used: his voice was heavy with uneasiness as the two of them left the vehicle and set off to cross the street toward the looming Seido building. “Of all the ways I never thought I’d finish up my Spring Break…”

Hajime nodded grimly. “The alternative is to give up.”

Sano threw him a sidelong look. “You know, you don’t have to be here at all. I’m not paying you… Kaoru’s not paying you… Kenshin sure as hell isn’t paying you to be here…”

Just as grimly, Hajime smiled. “Giving up isn’t actually an alternative for me.” By now it wasn’t merely the prospect of talking to a ghost; after hearing Kaoru’s story, even after seeing how Kenshin’s presence was affecting Sano’s life, Hajime could not back out of this. Solving this type of problem was what he’d become an exorcist for.

Mimicking the smile, though his was a bit more contemplative, Sano murmured, “No, I guess not.” And it was as clear as if it had been stated aloud that he appreciated both Hajime’s determination and the support it led to.

Inside the main entrance, the appearance of the Seido building was nothing too unusual. The mirror-like marble floor, the lofty ceiling, and the man-sized urns overflowing with greenery (which probably required a discrete employee’s entire day to care for) seemed a tad excessive for the entry to the main office of a business purportedly — and, according to Chou, at least 40% in reality — devoted to data analytics, but the décor, if a trifle overwhelming, was at least tastefully put together. But the feeling of the place had Hajime instantly more on his guard even than he’d already been.

The hushed awkwardness of everyday activities being conducted in the presence of death, the wariness of an already uncertain situation steeped in the possibility of betrayal, the awareness that less than half of what went on here was in any way aboveboard and that it would be hugely inconvenient both to the collective and to the individual at fault should the wrong desk be crossed, the tension of change and unusual circumstances and the accompanying strain of not quite knowing how to deal with them — all of this and more Hajime picked up immediately upon entry, and at first he could only see a single person.

Sano too had stiffened and begun to scowl as he’d taken his first step across the shiny, veined marble. But there was no time for further discussion of how little they liked being here, for the receptionist at the semi-circular marble-topped desk had fixed them with a polite but very studious look. “Good morning,” she greeted. “Are you here to see Mr. Gains?”

Hajime nodded, stepping forward toward her. This woman had a mind as tightly guarded as any he’d expected to find in such a place, and he guessed more than sensed that she was well armed where he couldn’t see. Her eyes, however, never once moved toward the sheathed sword in his hand, or even the bruises on his face; instead she just gestured and said, as courteously as before, “Dae-hyun will take you up.” Her smile was convincingly warm.

The area to which she’d gestured was a large corner of the room that hadn’t been visible, behind a sort of wall of potted plants, until they were near the desk; and it was inhabited by a man whose presence had previously been impossible to observe, or else who had just entered by the door they could now see in the rear wall. This person held out his hand in a welcoming fashion and gave them a smile just as professional and almost as friendly as the receptionist’s.

“Good morning,” he said as Hajime and Sano moved toward him. “Mr. Gains let us know you were coming. I’ll carry your sword upstairs.”

This Dae-hyun, though short, was built very solidly beneath his tailored suit, and seemed extremely competent and unhesitating, in the manner of a bodyguard, beneath his veneer of politeness. Hajime handed over his nihontou without protest. If he and Sano were in any danger here, the temporary lack of that archaic weapon would not make much difference.

Smile unwavering, Dae-hyun gestured again, this time toward the door through which Hajime could see a deep-carpeted and oak-wainscoted corridor. “After you; please turn right.” Obediently, Hajime took the several strides down this hall necessary to reach an elevator whose doors were oak-fronted to match the walls around them, and stopped. A keycard, he noted when Dae-hyun joined them after having waited a couple of steps to follow, was required to access this conveyance, and after that had been accomplished they embarked, in a silence that was no less tense for being so polite, on an upward journey toward the fifteenth floor and Bridgestone Gains.

Part 27


The air here tasted angry. Sano doubted anyone not as precisely attuned to it as he was would have been able to sense it until they were much closer, but he was aware by the time the elevator had ascended only a few floors that they were in the right place. Somewhere in this building was shade energy — to which they were drawing closer and closer — that matched exactly the energy that had been plaguing Sano for the last month. Its influence strengthened with every moment, and he was bracing himself for what must come.

“We’re perfectly happy to assist Mr. Gains wherever it’s most convenient,” Hajime was remarking to Dae-hyun in that creepily polite tone Sano had heard from him once before, “but maybe you can tell me something I didn’t want to ask him on the phone: what is he doing at his office when he’s in such bad shape? I understood he was on a leave of absence.”

Dae-hyun, who resembled nothing so much as a smiling brick, nodded his understanding of the question and replied in a pleasant tone like something from a training video. “Besides being a very valuable and highly respected member of our organization, Mr. Gains is also an artist. He has a studio here in the building where he spends much of his free time.”

Yes, having this somewhat ambiguously ranked assistant to the CEO readily available must be very convenient to the organization, Sano reflected. As he couldn’t quite decide whether he would rather have come to this tense and unnecessarily posh-looking office than visit a possibly paranoid and definitely irate yakuza secretary at his own home, Sano couldn’t quite decide either how he felt about the existence of this so-called studio. It made no difference; he was already here.

But for a few more totally fake (but very well delivered) remarks between Hajime and Dae-hyun about the sparkling success of U.S.Seido, the elevator ride was conducted in silence. Sano didn’t have to watch the numbers to track their approach of the fifteenth floor; he could feel the angry shade more strongly with every passing moment. He couldn’t imagine how much was up there for him to be so aware of it at this distance, but he feared that stepping from the elevator at the top was going to be like entering a war zone.

At what point Hajime had noticed the shade and its effects on Sano, the latter couldn’t guess, but the exorcist had taken half a step, made just a slight shift in the way he was standing, that seemed to indicate solidarity, and for that Sano was grateful. Hajime really didn’t have to be here, but here he was, ready, as ever, to do what he must. Sano just wondered what that would end up being in this situation.

He also wondered if and how Kenshin would react to this volume of shade energy. The ghost hadn’t caught Sano up yet, which was more of a relief than anything, but if he followed his usual pattern he must eventually; what would happen then? Did Kenshin know whose anger it was? Did you find things out after death that you hadn’t known before? Or perhaps Kenshin had known before he died of the possibility of his brother-in-law’s seeking revenge, and was held in this world by the guilt he felt at never having warned his wife.

Such speculation was useless at the moment. Sano just tried to block himself off against absorbing any shade energy before it was absolutely necessary, took a deep breath, and watched the elevator doors slide open. This time their escort led the way instead of gesturing them to precede him, and, as the presence of the huge red shade more or less hit Sano in the face from in front of him to the left, it was a significant relief that Dae-hyun took them to the right. The awareness of the shade didn’t greatly diminish by the time they’d reached the door they were apparently to enter, but Sano was still glad not to have to confront the thing immediately.

In response to Dae-hyun’s knock, the heavy, paneled door was jerked open almost at once, and the visitors got their first look at Bridgestone Gains; the fact that the man in front of them was most definitely haunted by the same shade as was Sano verified his identity even before Dae-hyun’s polite greeting could do so. Other than the red energy rising from him, as his precipitous opening of the door expended some of it, there was nothing terribly remarkable about him except an apparent vigor and athleticism of movement perhaps a little unusual for a man evidently in his late sixties.

“Come in,” ordered Gains curtly, interrupting whatever was being said by Dae-hyun. The latter didn’t appear at all put out by this, just handed Hajime his sword and walked away with smile and imperturbability intact. Sano listened for the sound of the elevator as he followed Hajime through the door in front of him, but heard nothing. So this floor, at least, was being guarded as long as they were here, even if Dae-hyun wouldn’t actually be in the same room. He supposed it was no surprise.

What was a surprise was that same room. Sano hadn’t even begun to take the term ‘studio’ seriously, and if he had would have envisioned easels and canvasses and paints. This mixture of workshop and laboratory, fitted with sinks and gas jets in a couple of high tables, scattered with a number of somewhat disturbing-looking instruments such as might be used by a sculptor, and decorated by several much more disturbing-looking products of these tools, was nothing he would have expected even if he’d bought the description of ‘artist’ for the man they were here to see.

The figures — sculptures? — though they had indentations and curves reminiscent of certain more extreme contortions of the human body, were yet not exactly human in shape, and Sano would need a little more time than he had right now to decide what he thought they actually looked like. Just the glance he was allowed at the moment, though, before turning his attention toward Gains, told him that the most disturbing thing about them was not so much their shape as their composition; whatever they were made of didn’t seem to be stone or clay, but something a good deal more… fleshy. The light in the room definitely hit them the same way it did the skin of the three people present.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime was saying in his obsequious tone that, compared with the creepiness of this room, was positively reassuring at this point, “I can see just by looking at you that it’s a good thing we came, if you’ll excuse me saying so. I’m Hajime Saitou — we spoke on the phone — and this is my partner Sano Sagara.”

Hajime had a gift for making remarks that knocked Sano right out of whatever else he was thinking or feeling, if only for a moment. Partner?? It was staggering, and if Hajime hadn’t wanted Sano to react to it with the full-body jerk and whiplash glance in his direction he gave on hearing it, he should have warned him beforehand.

Examining them both briefly up and down with a scowl, and certainly not missing Sano’s start, “It looks like that’s as true as it is believable,” Gains replied in a sneering tone. Scorn, Sano had found, often arose from an impulse to hurt that was itself a product of anger… and this was a very familiar anger. Only imperfectly did he recognize it, however, so caught up was he yet in the unexpected effort of trying to quell the tingly feeling that had suffused him at the idea of being any kind of partner to Hajime.

“And this is a data analytics business,” the exorcist said dryly, “whose CEO committed suicide.”

It was well done, Sano thought. He’d already been trying to counter the aforementioned tingly feeling with the stern reminder that Hajime’s introduction of him as a partner would have been less complicated and perhaps more dignified than explaining who he actually was — but now, in implying something between the two of them he didn’t want to mention outright, Hajime had managed to create a sort of parallel of concealment that must help to raise fellow feeling. He’d essentially suggested to Gains, “Let’s work together on the understanding that we each know the other has a secret, and are both politely not prying.”

However angry he might be, Gains evidently understood, for he nodded sharply. “Well, and what can you two do for me?” he asked irritably, crossing wiry arms whose liver spots were bared by the rolled state of the sleeves of his black button-up. “It’s been almost three months since Enishi’s ‘suicide;’ if he’s haunting me, how do you get rid of him?”

As always, the uninitiated assumed ghosts when all that really plagued them was shades. Unless, Sano reflected with a slight shudder, Enishi’s ghost was hanging around just like Kenshin’s was. Maybe he was in the next room, hovering in the midst of his anger, waiting for Sano to bring Kenshin to him and stage a final, dramatic, undead confrontation or something.

But that couldn’t be. One ghost was rare enough; the statistical likelihood of encountering two at once must be practically nonexistent. Sano shook himself back into sense and shelved these thoughts alongside the daydreams he fully planned on entertaining later about being Hajime’s partner. Which left only the overwhelming urge to ignore the current conversation, and instead examine this crazy room, to try to repress.

Hajime was reassuring Gains with, “Sano can extract the angry energy from you, so you’ll be able to go back to your normal activities.” And he proved that he too was curious about the contents of the room in which they stood by throwing a quick glance around at it as he spoke the last words. Sano’s contribution was a nod; he doubted it would be any kind of problem to absorb all the shade that had Gains so tetchy — or at least it wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish… what might happen afterward, if there was enough of the stuff to give Sano another critical mass, he didn’t know.

“Do it, then!” Gains ordered, glaring at Sano. Actually he seemed far less angry, in general, than Sano had expected; he must have found a way to expend some of the shade before they’d arrived. The disarray of the equipment in here, as if someone had inflicted upon it a very bad mood and then only imperfectly straightened up, might explain that.

“First,” Hajime said smoothly, “tell me: what’s over there?” He gestured with the hilt of his sword off to their left, past a couple of painted folding screens that were distinctly out of place in here but that probably looked congruous enough from the other side; between them, Sano could see through to what appeared to be a sort of lounge done up in a mixture of oriental styles. It was beyond this space, probably past the far wall he could only get a limited glimpse of from this angle, that the feeling of red shade was emanating most strongly. Hajime wanted to head straight for the source of all this trouble, and, unpleasant as Sano feared it would be, he couldn’t but agree.

Gains jerked his gaze in the direction Hajime indicated, and scowled. “I assume you mean Enishi’s office, since you can see the kètīng perfectly well for yourself.”

“Enishi’s office,” Hajime repeated thoughtfully, ignoring Gains’s grouchy tone (and not bothering to ask what a kètīng was even if he, like Sano, wasn’t entirely sure). “We’ll need to take a look around in there.”

“Nobody but me goes in there,” Gains snapped. “Not until we have a new CEO.”

Hajime’s tone was as smooth and soothing as before as he answered, “And I’m afraid that’s the reason you’ve been so angry for so long. You’ve been picking up more angry energy every time you go in there, and probably just by spending so much time here in your studio next door.”

Again Sano nodded his concurrence. Somebody or other would have been affected eventually by the shade under any circumstances, but Gains had hastened and worsened the process by hanging out so close to it ever since Enishi’s death. And his leave of absence, rather than helping him recover, had probably actually exacerbated his condition by giving him so much more time to spend in his studio.

At Hajime’s words and Sano’s nod, Gains’s face twisted into an expression almost of rage, and Sano wondered whether this was because he didn’t like to be dictated to by strangers, or because the aforementioned appointment of a new CEO — something that had obviously already been a long time in the works — was a touchy business that caused him to get defensive about the old one’s office and effects, or because he’d been closer to his late boss than they’d had any idea. But he didn’t strike at either of them, as Sano had half expected, nor even lash out verbally. “All right,” he said instead, teeth gritted. He turned abruptly and moved toward the other half of the room and the room beyond, pulling a keycard from the pocket of his black slacks as he did so. “But you can’t touch a damn thing in there.”

Part 28


Everything Hajime had been thinking about — his curiosity regarding Gains’s exceptionally strange art, his residual amusement at having thrown Sano so completely off-balance with the ‘partner’ remark, even his ongoing underlying concern at being in a yakuza headquarters dealing with someone that could probably have them killed with a single word and seemed hateful enough to do it — all of it crowded right into the background of his mind and huddled there, subdued, as he took his first step into Enishi’s office.

Whether or not this room contained the matching antique furniture, expensive ornamentation, and relatively classy mixture of eastern and western decorating he’d expected, he had no idea. He couldn’t see a thing through the almost pulsing brightness of the wall-to-wall shade that filled his vision like a roiling acidic mist. It blinded him, pounded at his magical senses, battered his consciousness with anger and pain. He’d never encountered a shade anywhere near this large and powerful, and even having made what he thought were logical mental preparations based on what he’d known it must be like beforehand, he could never have been prepared for this.

Holy shit,” came a murmur, quiet but intense, from behind him.

“Sano, get back,” he ordered, taking two more slow steps onto what felt like firm carpet or perhaps a rug atop tile. “Stay outside the room. I’ll deal with this.”

“What, are you trying to be a hero all of a sudden?” Sano, still right behind him, growled. “This is way fucking more than–”

“You’re already absorbing it.” It was getting to Hajime too, if the angry tone in which he’d just said that was any indication, and he wasn’t even the one that was deliberately attuned to it. He attempted to speak rationally as he went on, “You’ll need to deal with Gains after all of this is gone, which you won’t be able to do if you stay in here much longer.”

“Ah, fuck,” Sano muttered, and retreated.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime said next, “it would be better if you waited outside the room as well.”

Gains sneered, “And leave you to poke around in here? I think not.”

“I’m not here to dig up secrets on your organization,” Hajime snapped. “But if you want to stay, get into a corner and be ready to move if I come near you.” Lifting his sword as an indication of the danger this situation posed, yet he didn’t wait to see if Gains followed his instructions — indeed, he couldn’t see anything of the sort — but unsheathed the weapon. The blade was an intense red, a bloody-looking contrast to the bright white that surrounded him, but he hadn’t needed that to tell him what he was up against.

Falling into the pattern of breathing he’d found worked best for the use of kendo as exorcism, Hajime closed his eyes to the whiteness and probed outward with his mind. If he’d had any doubt that this astonishing shade belonged to the former inhabitant of this office, he would have been convinced upon noting that the energy was mostly confined to the acknowledged limits of the room; shades, which were not technically inhibited by physical barriers like walls or windows, generally only adhered to them in reflection of a human’s awareness of a space — and the person most aware of a room’s boundaries was usually that room’s primary resident.

As strong as he’d anticipated, the shade was also even more insane. Though it wasn’t quite fair to maintain that, in order to keep up this level of anger for an entire decade, someone would have to be insane, and though Enishi must have functioned rationally in most areas in order to head up an organization like this, there had definitely been some madness there, which had accompanied the anger in becoming this shade. Hajime concentrated on the defeat of both.

Earlier Sano had remarked that he wished he could have killed Enishi, and Hajime rather had to agree. Perhaps this was a foolish way to feel about someone he’d never even heard of until the man’s death, but he thought the desire must help him in this situation. He didn’t know what number and variety of evils Enishi had perpetrated as the head of a criminal organization; all he was familiar with was Kaoru’s story — and the fact that Enishi had been her tormenter wasn’t 100% verified even yet… but he was certain that Enishi’s death had done little but good for the world.

And now the dissipation of his shade, at Hajime’s hands, would do a more specific good for a smaller subset of the world. For Sano, whose entire life was practically on hold. For Kaoru, who’d been forced to commit an act foreign to her nature. For Kenshin, about whom Hajime really knew nothing. Even for this strange Gains man about whom Hajime cared nothing.

With this knowledge and desire strengthening his intent, focusing all his will on breaking up and destroying the shade, he opened his eyes and thrust his sword into the nearest intense patch in the fluctuating mass of angry energy.

It was a shock, stronger than when he’d last exorcised any of this shade by a much greater margin than he could have expected merely by reckoning proportions based on size at the source. It almost left him stunned, and only by holding onto the awareness and determination previously fixed upon did he keep it from completely overwhelming him. Had he been a disinterested party here to perform this professional service for a client, he might have been defeated in this first moment, so it was lucky for everyone concerned that he was not so disinterested. If it could be called luck.

When the patch on which he’d focused finally gave up its attempt to out-will him, wavered, and dissipated, he swept his sword out to the right after a second segment without pause. His movement toward a third was slower, but he thought the overall intensity of the shade throughout the room was fading.

The work was exhausting, and the clash of wills that comprised it was like nothing else he’d ever experienced. He thought perhaps it could be compared to the process of two people attempting to outmaneuver each other in an organization just such as this, using all their cunning to get the better of each other and staying on their toes every moment of every day in the fear of betrayal over the course of long months or even years — but all packed into the space of a few minutes. As he’d never done any such thing, however, he couldn’t be certain.

His head ached, and he felt ready for a long rest by the time the furniture around him was becoming visible. He’d already discovered the chairs facing the desk during his movements through the room, but now he began to be able to make out the carved patterns in their wooden backs.

Gains had shouted more than once, quite possibly about taking care not to damage things with what to him must have appeared a randomly and wildly swinging blade — Hajime had been concentrating too hard to note exactly what he had to say — but by the time it was all over he’d fallen silent, perhaps in recognition of the futility of his words. And Hajime sagged into that silence, looking slowly around for any further traces of shade he’d missed and breathing somewhat hard.

To locate the source of the last remaining shade he was sensing didn’t take long; it was small, but it glowed as brightly white in his vision as any part of the huge shape that had previously filled the room: an object that stood at the far end of the desk he could now properly make out. Trying to decide exactly what it was through the light of the energy that suffused and surrounded it, he peered at it as he circled the desk to the sound of Gains’s now much more irate reiteration that he touch nothing.

The general balance of the desk suggested a picture frame set up in symmetry with the one on the opposite corner. The latter held a photo of an elegant-looking Japanese woman that Hajime assumed to be the long-dead sister; who was likely to be the subject of another such frame he could not guess, unless it was a second instance of the same person. He knew so little of Enishi, however, that he might be wrong on all counts here. Whatever this item was, it had been suffused with shade energy to the point where he could almost call it an artifact — though he’d pity anyone trying to do magic with its assistance or even in its presence.

Gains must have realized what Hajime’s target was when he raised his sword one more time, for the secretary recommenced shouting. Clearly just the few minutes he’d spent in here, even with Hajime cleaning up the shade, had affected him, for his tone was extremely angry and his language abusive. Hajime ignored him. Invoking his full force of will and concentration once again, he brought the blade down on the glowing object on the desk, taking a grudging care not to allow the blow to continue any farther than was required precisely to destroy the thing so as not to damage the furniture.

Two halves of whatever it was clattered apart and fell to the floor where he couldn’t see them, and Hajime was by now so worn out that he didn’t feel like retrieving them immediately to confirm or disprove his guess. He just sheathed his sword and leaned on the desk, around which Gains, still yelling, was approaching. “That was one of Enishi’s prized possessions, you brainless fraud! What the hell are you thinking, when I told you not to touch anything in here, destroying things without even explaining what the hell you’re doing?”

“The goddamn thing was packed full of shade!” Sano, now attempting to shout Gains down from the doorway, had apparently followed Hajime’s order of retreat no farther than would yet allow him to watch. “It wouldn’t have done you any fucking good to have the room cleared if that thing was still left!”

Perhaps not having heard (and undoubtedly not having understood), Gains continued his tirade right into Hajime’s ear. The exorcist continued mostly ignoring him, but the loud tone wasn’t exactly diminishing his headache. He did stand straight, however, when Sano, having entered the room, bent to collect the broken pieces from the carpet and bring them around.

It was a picture frame, or had been. It had matched the other one; the expense of the set was one of Gains’s current points of protest. And the photo, now sliced diagonally down the middle into fairly neat, nearly triangular halves, showed a red-haired man with Japanese features marred by the type of meandering pink scar-lines one might obtain from a car accident.

“This is… Kenshin…” Sano muttered. “Isn’t it.” There wasn’t really any interrogative quality to the remark.

“How the hell do you know who he is?” demanded Gains, who must have been paying better attention than the others had believed.

Shaking his head, Hajime didn’t bother to answer the question; nor to comment that the picture, depicting Kenshin and being suffused with Enishi’s shade, had undoubtedly acted as a sort of focus or channel allowing that shade to transfer continually to Kenshin’s ghost; nor to wonder aloud at hatred so obsessive it led to the keeping of a photo of its object exactly parallel to one of somebody for whom the possessor, presumably, felt the opposite emotion.

Instead, he tore his eyes away from the severed image and fixed them on one of the men at his side. “I believe it’s your turn, Mr. Gains.”

Part 29


Whatever look Hajime had given Gains, along with the admittedly ambiguous declaration in an unexpectedly threatening tone that it was ‘his turn,’ must have been particularly scary, for even in the midst of his newly increased wrath the secretary took two steps back and raised his hands defensively. Sano didn’t wait for whatever bullshit Gains had to say at the moment, however; he broke in with, “No, it’s not; it’s your turn.”

A startled and even angry expression turned toward Sano as he set down the two halves of the ruined picture frame with greater care than he would have given them had they contained no broken glass. “What do you–” Hajime began, but evidently the amount of anger just in those three words was enough to prove to him that he needed some attention.

“Yeah,” said Sano, enjoying while he had the chance a Hajime angrier than he was. “I’m probably going to need some help from you after I’ve dealt with him. Can’t have you already half as pissed as I am. Come sit down and let me–” It flashed across his mind to say, ‘let me suck it out of you,’ but decided just in time that the situation and company called for different phrasing. “–absorb this shit,” was what he went with instead.

“I should have you two con artists shot.” As Sano led the surprisingly willing Hajime out of the office and toward one of the low sofas in the little lounge next door, Gains was trailing after them with clenched fists and red energy pulsing around him in waves. “I should just kill you both myself,” he seethed. “How dare you threaten me? Destroying things in the CEO’s office, you goddamn spies!”

“Shut the fuck up, would you?” It wasn’t that Sano didn’t think Gains could kill them or have them killed as easily as snapping his fingers; it wasn’t that he couldn’t sympathize about the type of anger Gains was trying to deal with right now; it was just that he had very little patience for anyone that could watch Hajime’s magnificently performed exorcism in the other room and then call him a brainless fraud.

“Sano,” said Hajime sharply. He’d taken a seat without protest, but didn’t appear to approve of Sano antagonizing the client. Or whatever Gains was. “If you’ll wait just a minute, Mr. Gains,” he went on in the most rigid, enforcedly polite tone Sano had ever heard, “Sano will help you.”

“Why the hell can’t you do it?” Apparently, despite the fact that Hajime had supposedly threatened him with a deadly weapon, Gains still trusted him over the younger man that had done nothing here so far except tell him to shut the fuck up.

Hajime’s politeness cracking, he replied, “I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.” It was the last of his unusual anger, though, for as this exchange had taken place Sano had seated himself beside the exorcist, put a hand on his suit-jacketed shoulder, and drawn the shade right out of him. It had come unexpectedly smoothly and easily, and the increase in Sano’s ire it caused might have been a good thing in that it kept him from dwelling on how well he’d become attuned not just to this particular shade, but to Hajime.

“Thank you.” The gold eyes turned in his direction were tired, but Sano thought it was a temporary weakness at worst.

So he replied with an angry grin and a murmured, “Just let me know when you think you can handle me.”

“I can handle you any time, idiot,” Hajime answered in the same tone. “But if you mean a fist fight, give me just a couple of minutes.”

Sano’s voice dropped even further as, situation and company notwithstanding, he simply couldn’t help remarking, “I think you just flirted with me.”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “And I think you really are an idiot.”

“Is this what you came here for?” Gains’s impatient derision broke into the quiet conversation. “To stink up my rooms with this kind of queer bullshit?”

Sano was on his feet, fists clenched, stalking toward the secretary, before he realized he was even moving. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”

“Sano,” said Hajime again, and this second remonstrance was every bit as hard as his grip on Sano’s arm; he too had stood, and was clearly ready to restrain his companion by whatever means necessary.

There was a very tense moment of silence as two men faced off and a third awaited the outcome. Sano thought he saw something like a mirror of his own struggle in Gains as each of them, with an effort of will, attempted not to release his rage on the other. Sano knew perfectly well that reacting to the old man’s remark would be — and Gains probably knew perfectly well that what he’d said had been — utterly counterproductive.

“Just a couple of minutes,” Hajime reiterated quietly behind Sano… and he was, in fact, so close behind Sano that these words provided a sudden but pointed distraction. Whether Hajime had intended this Sano couldn’t guess, but his next words of distraction, directed over Sano’s shoulder, were clearly meant as such: “Mr. Gains, would you tell us a little about your unusual art?”

Judging by his face, Gains too was aware of the purpose of this request, but, just as Sano had been on multiple previous occasions, he was willing to play along. He began pacing and speaking quickly, first irately but gradually more calmly as his anger was in some measure repressed or circumnavigated by the interest of his topic. Sano found himself dragged backward into another sitting position on the sofa beside Hajime, who gave him a warning look. So with a deep breath and fists yet unclenched, he listened.

To capture the beauty of the human body in its essence rather than its technicality — whatever that meant — was apparently Gains’s artistic motivation, flesh his particular fascination, and achieving the precise look and feel of flesh combined with the durability and longevity of more traditional sculpting material such as stone his ultimate ambition. The application of other media to imitate the effects of human skin had never satisfied him, so he’d been experimenting with amalgamations.

Myriad combinations of sculpting materials and flesh-like substances were available, but so far none of them had been able to answer both his aesthetic desire and the artificial aging process he applied to test the endurance of the finished product. He’d found that the use of actual skin (obtained whence he did not mention) tended, predictably, to produce the best visual and tactile results, but that he could much more easily chemically integrate his sculpting material into artificial flesh grown in his lab — and that in either case, decomposition became an issue. Nylons and rubbers were more readily manipulated and lasted longer, but lacked the verisimilitude he wanted. And that wasn’t even beginning to touch on the differing degrees of chemical compatibility of different sculpting materials with all these substances or the gradient of longevity of the resulting compounds.

He’d been working on this for many years, and felt he’d at least developed a smooth and meticulous system of experimentation that must allow him, eventually, to hit on the result he wanted. It was only a matter of time.

Little as Sano had expected it to be, this was all quite interesting, and the next time he took any stock of his surroundings and his own mood he found that even his anger had been pushed back a bit by the discourse. Additionally, it had been at least the couple of minutes Hajime had requested, which meant that hopefully it was time for Sano’s big scene and then they could get the hell out of here. A glance at the exorcist won him a nod of confirmation, so he jumped to his feet.

“That,” he said in sincere admiration, pointing at Gains, “is cool. Creepy, but cool.”

Gains didn’t seem to know quite how to take this, and only glowered at him.

“Now, just hold still for a sec.” After cracking his knuckles, Sano reached out again toward the secretary. Gains flared red at the approach, shifted a bit, but held his ground. “It doesn’t hurt or anything,” Sano assured him as he came within arm’s length and put a hand on Gains’s bony shoulder.

It didn’t hurt, but it was much rougher than it had been with Hajime. Sano tried not to think about that, especially since it was becoming clear that he was going to have to focus hard in order to make it through the entire length of this process. Damn, there was a lot of this stuff. He pulled and pulled, trying not to look at anything, not even at what he was pretty sure were dentures in Gains’s mouth, because at the moment even false teeth were enough to break his concentration and send him into a blood frenzy, and there was still more of this shade. That Gains had been able to be distracted away from it at all was a shock; it was probably because he was so old and had more practice at controlling his emotions, but even so, there was a lot here.

Combined with what Sano had already absorbed, both in the office and from Hajime, this was going to leave him with a greater amount of internalized shade energy than he thought he’d ever carried at once before. And there was still more. The world was turning red, Sano’s thoughts were melting away as if in a hot or corrosive substance, and still there was more. Something deadly, fueled by the shade, was pushing out from his mind in a gradual, unstoppable wave, and somehow there was more. He was ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, and still there was more.

Everything he knew, everything he was, everything seemed to be exploding in exquisitely excruciating slow motion.

And still there was more.

Part 30


Hajime had never slept on the sofa in his den. He knew it was comfortable enough to sit on, but, though he had once or twice dozed off during a DVD he’d thought would be more interesting, he hadn’t ever had occasion to test this seat’s functionality as a bed before. And perhaps this was why, though he’d been attempting to take a much-needed nap, he just couldn’t lie still. He had to rise, again and again, and go back to his bedroom to check on the young man he’d installed in his own, actual bed.

After a while, though, he was forced to face facts: this really had nothing to do with the comfort level of the sofa. Had it been merely that keeping him awake, he might have made himself useful — might have contacted Kaoru to let her know things were progressing, or might at least have tried to find Kenshin to attempt to see exactly how much more progress they needed to make. But, no, all he could bring himself to do was look in, over and over, at the motionless figure of Sano, and long to smoke a cigarette.

Finally he gave in to the unhealthy urge. He usually didn’t smoke inside the house, but at the moment he couldn’t quite bear to go farther away from his bedroom than just across the hall, in case Sano woke up. So he opened the windows in the den and hovered beside them at one end of the sofa as he poisoned himself and the air around him.

When next his inability to stand still brought him to face the interior of the room, he found Tokio looking up at him with an air both skeptical and a little concerned. He waved his free hand in the direction of the bedroom and asked, “Is Misao still in there?”

She began to lick a paw as she explained that Sano had a very high body temperature.

Hajime wondered if this was natural or if the young man had a fever. A fever was only to be expected. A fever could be controlled.

Tokio cocked her head. She’d been under the impression that Hajime was the one that had hurt Sano — but if he’d done it deliberately, why was he fretting about it?

Turning back to the window, stabbing the remainder of his cigarette into the ash tray on the sill, trying to combat the desire to light another, Hajime said harshly, “Yes, I was the one. I had no choice.”

But that wasn’t quite true. There might have been some other way to exorcize the greater-than-usual amount of shade Sano had absorbed. Though it was a technique he’d never really used, Hajime might have been able to attune himself to the energy and absorb some of it to take part of the load off Sano. But could he have figured it out in time? Or what they’d done before — the insults and the arguments and the actual fighting — might have worked just as well as ever, once Sano had awakened from the faint his unusual level of absorption had induced. But that had been the difficulty: it had rather seemed as if Sano never would awaken. The much-diminished pulse and respiration rate, the rapidly cooling extremities, and, worst of all, the completely inaccessible psyche behind an impenetrable barrier of shade…

Hajime didn’t remember ever having been so worried. And though his desperate measures had had the desired effect, had brought Sano back, that had only changed the shape of his worry. And Tokio was picking up on it.

Was this, she queried, one of those behaviors pack animals like humans engaged in? Had Hajime hurt Sano in order to establish dominance, and now he worried that he hadn’t gotten his point across thoroughly enough?

“Oh, I’m sure I made my point.” Then, in spite of his better judgment, he asked, “Why would you think I’d want to establish dominance?”

Tokio replied that it would be to make certain Sano knew whom he belonged to.

“And what makes you think he belongs to me?”

She stretched out so that the markings on her back seemed to ripple along her long body, which was her equivalent of a shrug. She’d never seen him this invested in another human before, so she’d just assumed that Hajime wanted to keep Sano as his mate. Humans sometimes kept mates of the same sex, she added wisely as she began walking out of the room. She personally didn’t see the attraction, but neither did she understand cars or bathtubs or why she and Misao were supposed to stay off the kitchen counters; Hajime undoubtedly knew all about human things like that. Then she added that it smelled bad in here, and was gone.

Hajime gave a soft, bitter laugh. So now even his familiar’s thoughts pointed that direction, did they?

He lit another cigarette.

He wasn’t blind to what Sano wanted. How could he be? Little as he’d ever been interested in anything of the sort, he wasn’t unaware of its existence or its importance in the lives of others. And Sano hadn’t exactly been discreet. His interest had developed rapidly — for all the hours they’d spent together, it had still been only a single week — but Sano himself had admitted that he made fast decisions, and Hajime supposed there had been wilder and hastier ones.

This would all be much simpler if Hajime could claim he didn’t like Sano, as that would neatly solve this little problem. But he did, in fact, like Sano. It was odd… he didn’t like many people… but he liked Sano, enough that he didn’t think he could bring himself to lie about it.

He liked the way Sano seemed to live so intensely and yet so lazily, somehow, at the same time. He liked Sano’s sense of humor. He liked that, aimless as Sano often appeared, still he had standards he passionately adhered to. He even liked the way Sano grumbled so much despite simultaneously seeming pretty happy with his life.

And perhaps some of this had been brought to Hajime’s attention only by the sight of Sano’s blood on his hands.

Insulting Sano, annoying Sano, even thinking badly of some of Sano’s life choices… that was one thing. But today’s experience had proven to Hajime that the idea of losing Sano was uncomfortable and agitating enough to be called, perhaps, painful.

But wasn’t he, in thinking thus, trying to hold onto something he’d never actually had? Maybe Tokio was right, and he was trying to establish ownership. Because though their relationship wasn’t exactly professional, they weren’t exactly friends either.

At some point during these thoughts, Hajime had finished his second cigarette and drifted yet again to his bedroom door. The room’s interior was dim, but still he could make out certain aspects of Sano’s face, and the faint light from the hallway on the curve of shoulders — one bare, one bulked up by white bandage — just above the blanket. Misao was visible as a perfect black circle at the young man’s side.

Friendship, though a rarity in Hajime’s life, was nothing distasteful. Friendship with Sano, he thought, was even specifically desirable. He would like to get to know a Sano that wasn’t enraged all the time. He would like to see where Sano’s geological fixation went, how the skinflint father would take the news. He would like to gather more evidence for or against his theory about Sano’s magical talents. He would like to talk to Sano about… well, anything, really. He could easily envision a lot of time spent with Sano with little more to do than what he believed people generally called ‘hanging out.’ He just… wanted Sano around.

But Sano obviously wanted more than that. At this point, assuming he didn’t hate Hajime forever when he woke up and learned what had happened, Sano might even believe he was entitled to more than friendship. And though that was nonsense, still Hajime didn’t like the idea of disappointing him.

Of the type of relationship Sano probably had in mind, however… of the type of emotions that would prompt someone to form such a relationship, or at least would be expected to develop once they had… Hajime simply wasn’t sure he was capable. Even the more simplistic concept Tokio had suggested, that of seeking a mate — at least in the sexual sense — was something completely alien to him. And any sense less intimately involved than that, he was afraid Sano would not accept.

He didn’t want to hurt Sano, but, just as he had earlier today, he feared there was no other option.

“I have to say, it is nice to finally see what he looks like. I believe I never saw him during my life.”

Though the soft voice immediately to Hajime’s left and a little above him was unexpected, the exorcist thought he managed to hide his startlement fairly well as he turned to regard the ghost that had at some point appeared silently at his side. “You might not recognize him right now even if you had,” he replied; “he’s unusually dressed today. The bandages aren’t normal either. I think.” And as he said this, he took his first real look at Kenshin Himura.

Part 31


Kenshin Himura was taking his first real look at the man he was fairly certain had been around him quite a bit just recently. The narrow eyes that currently returned his scrutiny were an unsettlingly light brown or even gold, and, like the other harsh features surrounding them, distinctly Japanese. Figure tall and lean, hairstyle odd and angular, clad in stark black and white, the man wasn’t the most friendly-looking of all the people Kenshin could have had his first post-dissolution conversation with. So happy was Kenshin, however, to be able to have a conversation with anyone that he wasn’t going to complain.

When the man finished his examination of the ghost and turned back to regard the sleeper in the room beyond, Kenshin was reminded of the topic on which he’d started the aforementioned conversation. “Is he all right? I missed what happened to him.”

“He’ll be fine,” said the tall man briefly. After a moment he glanced at Kenshin again. “So you didn’t go into the building, then. Sano was wondering why it was taking you so long to catch up.” Sano, Kenshin noted, was the name of the man they were discussing — the one he’d been haunting for… he wasn’t really sure how long.

“The place the red mist was coming from?” he answered the question, shaking his head and smiling wanly. “No. I think it’s safe to say I have had enough of that for one afterlife. When I got close to where Sano had stopped and felt how much more of it there was, I waited at a distance. And then… I was already under the impression that Sano was trying to help me, but I wasn’t ready for the red mist just to disappear all of a sudden.”

Though he spoke calmly, he knew he would never forget as long as he… existed… the abrupt withdrawal of the angry shroud that had kept him for so many uncounted days or weeks or months largely cut off from the world. He’d found he’d almost forgotten what that world was even like in his near-complete lack of ability to sense it properly. Suddenly able to see and hear and smell and taste again (though touch, it appeared, was not to be restored), he’d gone a little crazy for a while: losing track of his priorities, he’d floated aimlessly in sensory overload until the moment he’d realized Sano was once more on the move; then he’d retraced his… path… and followed Sano as he’d been doing since he’d first found him, and eventually come to this house.

“I did that, actually.”

This curt pronouncement dragged Kenshin back out of intense memory to the present, and prompted him to reply, “Then thank you very much.”

The man nodded slightly, then murmured, “Not that Sano wasn’t useful.”

It was a little odd how precisely Kenshin still seemed able to mark his own movements and gestures when he lacked a sense of touch. Consciousness of remembered muscular impulse, perhaps? It didn’t really matter; all that did was that he now found himself smiling slightly as he followed the man’s intent gaze back to the sleeping Sano in the bedroom. “He is a remarkable person, you know.”

Shifting, raising a hand to the doorframe, then stilling again, the man said nothing.

“I know you have talked to my wife,” Kenshin began a little more quietly, “so you may know that I was haunting her for a while…” He paused. He’d meant this as a comment about Sano, but he realized quickly that it was going to become an explanation or even a story, and had to backtrack and start at an earlier point. “When I died, I was not sure why I became a ghost. I was drawn to Kaoru, almost pulled towards her, which I thought was only natural; but there were no other ghosts around, so being one could not be entirely natural. I thought maybe I was allowed to stay so I could learn why she was so upset with me during that last month of my life. I thought maybe I was being punished for whatever I did to her… or maybe,” he added contemplatively, “for something I did years ago…”

All the intensity of the amber gaze had transferred to Kenshin now, though the man made no move to leave the doorway where he stood and still did not say a word. In the face of such obvious interest, Kenshin could but go on, though going on at this point was not necessarily easy.

“I watched her suffering… I watched her trying to be strong for everyone else, for Kenji — trying to decide how much to tell him and how to answer his questions — but she could not hide how much pain she was in from me, since I saw her when nobody else was looking.” Were the tears on his face just some sort of astral projection? Merely a memory of tears? And how, exactly, was he even aware that they were there, when he couldn’t feel them? He took a deep, false breath into lungs that, he supposed, no longer really existed.

“There has always been a sort of… pulling… feeling… I’m afraid I have no way to describe it any better than that, but it has been there since the beginning — since the moment I realized I was dead: something pulling me, trying to pull me away from here, I guess into whatever comes next. And Kaoru was what held me back. Watching her in so much pain and wanting to talk to her, to try and help her somehow, kept me from ever responding at all to that pulling… thing. And it got worse when I finally found out what really happened that night when I died.

“You would think a ghost would know all about his own death. Doesn’t it seem unfair to die and not know anything more than you did when you were alive? But I didn’t know the truth until I heard her say it out loud. I think it was the only time she has said it out loud since it happened, unless she told you…”

“She did,” the man — whom Kenshin was beginning to regard as his audience — nodded. “And don’t be concerned that she’ll get in any trouble for it; we don’t intend to tell anyone.”

“Thank you,” said Kenshin, intensely and sincerely. His first impression (more or less) of this harsh stranger wasn’t a very good one, but he deeply appreciated that the man had made this reassurance immediately and unbidden. He went on with his story. “She said it like a sort of prayer, as if by saying it out loud she might be able to get control of what happened and how she felt about it. It didn’t work, but it let me hear the truth about how I died and what happened before that.

“When I knew Kaoru felt like a murderer because of what she had done, I wanted even more than ever to talk to her somehow. I wanted to let her know I did not — that I could never blame her, and that actually I knew what it… well…” No reason to pour out, in his wife’s absence, everything he wanted to say to her. “That kind of thing. I knew then that that was why I became a ghost. I can’t move on, no matter how hard it pulls me, until I tell her.

“But she could not hear me or see me; she had no idea I was there. I don’t know how long that went on. I don’t think I am aware of time the same way I was when I was alive; I have no idea how long I spent trying to communicate with her without being able to get even the smallest response from her.”

The man snorted quietly. “That sounds familiar,” he murmured, and left Kenshin to interpret the remark as he would.

“And then the red mist came. It appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden and completely covered me. I had no way of knowing what it was or where it came from, and, though I did not like it, at first I also did not consider it a problem.”

“It didn’t make you angry?” the man wondered with a raised brow.

“Not me,” replied Kenshin ruefully.

“Interesting.”

“All it did to me was cut me off from everything. I couldn’t see or hear anything around me through the mist, except for… well, I could still sense my wife and son, but it was not the same as before. Before, I saw and heard everything just like I did when I was alive, just like I can now. But through the mist, it was… a different sense. Something that was probably there all along, but that I never noticed until it was the only way I could find them.”

“A psychic connection.” Though the man’s tone was contemplative, the little nod he gave had no doubt in it. “Even people without any magical skill form bonds like that with others.”

Not entirely pleased with a pronouncement as of expertise from someone that hadn’t actually been part of this experience, but not wanting be impolite, Kenshin merely accepted the diagnosis with a nod of his own and continued. “Whatever it was, I was able to ‘see’ Kaoru and Kenji even through the mist, and there were even a few things relating to them that got through normally — whenever one of them mentioned the other out loud, I could still hear it — but most of what they were actually doing and saying I usually couldn’t make out. I can’t say for sure how long it took me to realize that the mist was affecting Kaoru — or, even once I did notice, how long it took me to decide that it really was the mist, or possibly me, and not some other cause.

“You probably know what it did to her. Yes?” Kenshin shook his head, remembering in powerless pity and frustration. “I never wanted to talk to her any less, to tell her everything I wanted to tell her… and inside the mist I felt that pulling sensation even less than before… so for me, nothing had changed except maybe to make me want to stay with her even more. But I couldn’t stay with her and keep making her situation even worse than it already was and her even more unhappy. I had to leave. I had no idea where I could go or what I would do, or even if I would ever see my wife again, but… I couldn’t stay.”

Again the man nodded, this time in a manner that suggested he’d had guesses confirmed by this. At the same time, his interest seemed to intensify as Kenshin was finally approaching what had been the point of his long narrative from the beginning.

“I just started wandering,” he said, “aimlessly.” Helplessly he lifted his spectral hands. Trying to describe the emptiness, the hopelessness, the misery of a search without an object, a path without a destination, of knowing he’d left everything he loved behind in more pain even that he felt… he wasn’t going to bother with the attempt. Instead, he let his hands fall to his sides and glanced into the bedroom. “And then I sensed Sano.

“I had already found that Kaoru and Kenji were not the only ones I could sense through the mist. There were people here and there, when I was moving around without any real place to go, who I could sense, a little. But Sano was… amazingly clearer, and more something I was drawn to, than anyone else. He was almost as clear as Kaoru and Kenji. I never met him while I was alive, so it probably wasn’t any kind of psychic connection — at least not one that I had already made. I think what I felt was… potential.

“He was not my friend, but he could have been. He was the kind of person I could have been friends with, best friends with. He was somebody I could have loved. I think I was drawn to him because I could sense all sorts of things about him, maybe things that would have taken me a lot longer when I was alive. It was like…” Kenshin paused, pensive, trying to think how to describe it, and eventually settled on a metaphor.

“Imagine flying over a tropical island completely covered in mist. You know there is a jungle beneath you; you know exactly what kinds of plants and animals are down there, but you can’t see anything through the mist. And then ahead of you, rising out of the mist and glowing, you see a volcano. That was what finding Sano was like.” Though certain misleadingly visual terms rendered this not entirely satisfying, Kenshin left it as it was, mostly because of the expression it had occasioned on his companion’s face.

“A volcano.” For some reason, the man had just the faintest trace of a glower between his eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth, and Kenshin got the oddest feeling that this guy was jealous because he hadn’t thought of the description first. “Yes, that’s Sano.”

“He could see me. He was the first person I encountered after I died who could, and that meant a lot. I thought it was ironic that I could not see him, or figure out much about him from what I sensed — not his name, or how old he was, or anything like that… but part of the feeling I had about him, that drew me to him, was that he could help me. I felt like he had the potential — whatever kind of magical powers you folks have that could help me, I felt like he had them — and that he was the kind of person who’d be willing to try.”

The man had gone back to staring into the bedroom. “I can’t be sure yet,” he said thoughtfully, “but I think he’s what we call a natural — someone who subconsciously uses all branches of magic, and masters anything he consciously tries to learn very easily. Naturals are very rare.”

“He’s certainly something special,” Kenshin agreed with a nod. “If I had not found him, I have no idea where I would be now. Though,” he added politely, “as you mentioned, I have you to thank for getting rid of the red mist.”

“That still wouldn’t have happened without Sano,” the man admitted. And now, finally, he moved away from the bedroom door, turning fully to face Kenshin and fixing him with a pointed gaze. “But there is a way you can repay the favor.”

Though Kenshin was more than a little impatient to get back to Kaoru now that the mist was gone and he’d explained himself to at least one of the people here, there was nothing to be said in response to that remark but, “I will do whatever I can.”

“I’m an exorcist.” A more thorough introduction, Kenshin thought, would have been appropriate at this juncture, but the man evidently didn’t agree. “Anything more I can find out about your current state would be professionally useful to me, if you wouldn’t mind answering some questions.”

An exorcist, was it? Probably about as close to the polar opposite of a ghost as you could get. Perhaps it was natural, then, for Kenshin to dislike this man, so he didn’t have to bother trying not to. “I’ll be happy to tell you anything I can,” he promised politely.

“Come with me, then,” the man commanded. And with one last glance in at the sleeping Sano, he moved away purposefully down the hall.

Part 32


A number of points had Sano just a little worried when he properly regained consciousness.

He’d been swimming through the very uncomfortable type of chaotic and incoherent half-awake dream state he generally only ever experienced when his brain was muddled by medication, which was bad enough… but usually he found himself in his own bed upon his unsettled full awakening. This bed was completely unfamiliar — and the immediate would-be cheerful thought in the back of his head that it smelled like Hajime was rather more disquieting than comforting, since he wasn’t aware that he knew what Hajime smelled like.

Similarly, he could swear up and down that he’d been hearing Kenshin’s voice while he slept, much more clearly and realistically than any noise his dreams could have provided… but he didn’t know what Kenshin’s voice sounded like. He didn’t even know where Kenshin was, and hadn’t for… how long had it been?

Then, something was… off. Something was different, something was missing. That he recognized this so distinctly and certainly, but could in no way define precisely what had changed, was frustrating and simultaneously surreal. The knowledge was barely beyond his grasp, and that made him doubt it was actually there, doubt his own senses. All but one.

For the factor that gave him the most unease was the pain. He thought this was specifically what had awakened him, since it had been increasing for some time and must just have reached a level where he couldn’t sleep through it anymore. Which made sense, since it was a raging ache that at first seemed to have his entire upper body in a hot, tight grip. As he breathed shallowly and slowly turned his head, however, he came gradually to realize that it was centered in his right shoulder.

Actually, movement brought him a few answers. When he noticed the tiny warm body curled into an impossibly tight spiral at his side, her furry flanks expanding gently with each sleeping breath, he was convinced beyond any doubt that he was in a bed that might reasonably be expected to smell like Hajime — whatever that might smell like. Then, the nightstand nearby was host to a green plastic bottle with a big, otherwise-blank white label across which was scrawled, as with a Sharpie on an inconveniently curved surface, Percocet — which explained the drug dreams.

This nightstand was — thank god! — on his left. Some discomfort resulted even from moving his left arm, but he could at least do so. What he couldn’t do, yet, was sit up in order to avail himself of the glass of water that was neighbor to the green bottle. He almost wasn’t capable of getting the bottle open, one-handed, horizontal, and barely coherent as he was, but fortunately it didn’t seem to be the most medically official prescription ever dispensed and lacked a child-proof lid. The viciously disgusting flavor of the two pills he fished from inside and attempted to swallow made him long for the water, but that was an unattainable ambition for now. So he lay still trying not to think about the taste in his mouth or the sensation of the bulky pain killer moving slowly down his esophagus.

What the hell had happened to him was something he would rather like to figure out, but, though the bandages on his right shoulder seemed a good place to start, he wasn’t quite up to the amount of movement or probing of the painful area that would be required to seek the answer. Instead, he concentrated on another answer he was slowly becoming aware of.

He wasn’t angry. At all. That was the large-scale change he’d been sensing since waking. He’d come so close to forgetting what it felt like not to be angry, not to have at least a little red shade tainting everything he thought or did, that it had taken him this long to recognize its absence.

They’d done it. He was free. He was no longer haunted by a shade.

Whether or not he was still haunted by a ghost was a different story. Where was Kenshin? Had he really been there, talking, while Sano slept? Perhaps he’d said goodbye; perhaps Sano would never see him again — never truly see him except in a ruined photograph in the office of the man that had caused his death and set all of this in motion.

What had happened back at the Seido building? How had Sano gotten from there to Hajime’s house minus shade but plus some kind of really painful injury? Had Gains perhaps decided that Sano, uncontrollably irate after absorbing so much angry energy, was a threat to security, and had him shot? And in that case, had something unpleasant happened to Hajime as well? Where was Hajime?

Logically, being in Hajime’s house, Hajime’s bed, meant that Hajime himself must be present and well enough to have arranged those circumstances. But still the thought that he as well as Sano might have been hurt at the Seido headquarters was enough to galvanize Sano into much more vigorous activity than he’d previously been planning for any time soon. He jerked the blanket aside, startling a protest out of the suddenly awakened Misao, and sat up.

The Percocet definitely hadn’t kicked in yet; the pain radiating from his shoulder made his head feel dizzy and pressurized and his stomach nauseated. But he fought through it, swiveling his legs off the side of the bed and propping himself on his left hand.

Misao had wormed her way out of the bedding that had been thrown over her, and now was stretching toward him looking bleary and perhaps a little annoyed that he’d so abruptly interrupted her nap. Not quite ready to rise, Sano reached out the hand on which his weight had previously rested, feeling a little precarious as a result, and clumsily scratched the little ridgey area between the cat’s ears. “Hey, Misao,” he said. It came out in a rough whisper. “Where’s your familiar?”

She sat down beside him, eyes half open as she accepted the caress, and replied that Hajime was in the den across the hall.

The fact that he’d perfectly understood her meow was something he would have to wonder about later. For the moment, he drew a deep breath in preparation for forcing himself to stand. This turned out to have been a mistake, for the swelling of his chest also affected the injured shoulder and left him reeling where he sat for a few pain-blinded instants. But as his legs seemed unhurt, he forced them to lift the rest of his body into an upright position. Immediately he stumbled unstably forward into the nearest wall, but he didn’t seem to be in any danger of actually falling, and with such a solid guide could make his way around to the bedroom door, the hallway beyond, and the other door across from him.

It seemed to be evening, as the house without any lights turned on was dim. A clock stood on Hajime’s nightstand, but even had Sano been at a better angle to read the red numbers while looking in that direction, he’d been too focused on the pain killer to note the time. But at least there was enough fading daylight through the windows behind the couch in the den to show him the sleeping figure of Hajime.

Against Sano’s bare skin, the coolness of the doorframe that was currently supporting him after what had almost been a leap across the hall made him wonder vaguely what had happened to his shirt. But mostly he was just sagging in relief at the sight of Hajime unhurt before him. Of course the fear that Hajime might have been hurt had been a fantastic one in the first place, but that didn’t make the relief less palpable, less emotionally overwhelming, or even, at this point, physically problematic. He couldn’t move an inch; he was sure he really would fall to the floor this time. So he just let the painted wood continue to support him, and stared as the light faded.

‘Crush,’ he feared, was no adequate term. It didn’t matter that it had only been a week; he was seriously into this guy. Which was funny, since Hajime’s behavior hadn’t given Sano any overwhelming reason to like him.

But he couldn’t help it. Hajime was so admirably, drivingly purposeful that it was as if Sano, breathless and unable even to protest, was just caught up and swept along. Hajime always seemed to know exactly what needed to be done, and didn’t hesitate to do it. Similarly, he always knew exactly what he wanted — what he wanted to do, what he wanted to learn, what he wanted to be — and pursued it without reference to anything or anyone. He’d chosen to work in the branch of magic he liked best rather than the one in which he had the most natural skill; he’d chosen the profession he wanted, the way of life he wanted, in spite of the overbearing desires of his family. He was all about will, all about choice, and the things he willed and chose always seemed to be fundamentally right.

‘Nice’ wasn’t exactly a word Sano would have used to describe Hajime… and yet, though he would never postulate as much aloud to the man himself, he believed that Hajime had chosen exorcism not merely because the actual work involved was interesting, but because he still wanted somehow to help people, to better lives by eliminating some of the evils that arose in them, even if those people and those lives were not really to his taste. It was a backward sort of charity that Sano probably shouldn’t have found as intriguing and attractive as he did.

Because, god, Hajime’s taste… what was Hajime’s taste? If he preferred to disdain everyone, to put on politeness like a creepy mask in order to interact with a world he wasn’t interested in being a real part of just for the sake of destroying shades and then retreating… then this little infatuation of Sano’s was undoubtedly hopeless. He thought they’d had some fun together; he thought Hajime had shown signs of enjoying Sano’s company… but perhaps that had only been a businessman making the best of time he was forced to spend with a non-paying client in the pursuit of gathering information about a potential asset. All just professional.

But Hajime did have at least one friend; that was how Sano had interpreted the suggestion of lunch with that Chou guy, anyway. And if he had at least one friend, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have at least two. And if he had at least two friends, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have a boyfriend. Unless he wasn’t into men at all, which was a topic of research on which Sano hadn’t been able to make any progress whatsoever. Not by action, attitude, or anecdote had Hajime given a single hint as to what his sexual orientation might be. He didn’t read as gay, or bisexual, or straight; he didn’t read as anything. On that score Sano was utterly confounded, and hadn’t quite had the nerve to ask outright.

Hopeless, then?

So long did Sano stand in the doorway of the den with eyes and thoughts directed intensely at the man on the couch that any sunlight from outside had completely faded and the Percocet had started to take effect before he remembered where he was. Misao had abandoned him at some point, having yawningly remarked that he was boring and gone back into the bedroom. And Sano had straightened, he found; as the pain had faded somewhat he’d mostly stopped leaning on the doorframe. Now he looked interestedly down at his bandaged shoulder.

Gingerly with his left hand, he sought out the tape that held in place the outer wrap circling his shoulder and armpit. Peeling it carefully back, he was able to loosen it so as to get at the layers beneath. The bottom one was taped directly to his skin, and painful to work free far enough to see under, and even when he’d managed it he couldn’t make out a thing in the current darkness.

Returning to Hajime’s bedroom and closing the door, he flipped on the light and took another look. A bathroom mirror might have been a better option, as this angle wasn’t the most convenient, but he was going to lie back down in a second here and didn’t feel like leaving the room again.

He’d never been shot, and only had Hollywood’s word on what a gunshot wound looked like… and on this evidence he determined that such was not the nature of this hurt. Beneath the stitches, the injury ran in a neat, perfectly straight line such as might have been formed by a precise hand holding a scalpel.

Or an equally, or perhaps even more precise hand on the hilt of a sword.

“I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.”

Oddly, and maybe at least in part because the Percocet was making him a little weird in the head, his initial reaction to this discovery was weak, breathy, and nearly uncontrollable laughter as he sat down on the bed, clumsily re-sealed the tape, and re-tightened the outer layers and the wrap around his shoulder. There was, he couldn’t help thinking, some irony in finding this just after he’d been reflecting on how and why he liked Hajime so damn much.

So that was how… that was why… yes, that explained just about everything. And everything suddenly just seemed really funny and stupid. He staggered back up, with a lot more pain than sound in the breaths that expanded his chest, and moved to turn the light off and crack the door in case Misao wanted out while he slept. This last was something it was definitely time to be doing.

Part 33


Necromancy, though it had turned out to be within his abilities, was nothing Hajime had ever practiced before, which meant that just about every word Kenshin had spoken yesterday had required specific concentration on Hajime’s part to understand, and the entire ordeal had left him even more mentally spent than he’d already been. He’d slept long and hard, so much that he’d arisen with no clearer idea of the comfort level of the den sofa than he’d had yesterday afternoon. And now it was Saturday morning, a little later than he usually rose, and he was going through a headachy process of making breakfast for two when he wasn’t quite sure when or if the second party would want it.

The cats had remarked leadingly that the sausage smelled interesting, then been distracted from that topic by their own breakfasts, and Hajime had taken some aspirin with his coffee as he started the meal on his own, before he heard noises from the hall. Slow footsteps sounded on the wood floor toward the bathroom, the door to which opened and closed.

Then (unsurprisingly, as Misao had galloped out of the kitchen the moment she’d detected signs of Sano’s wakefulness) the bathroom door opened and closed a second time, accompanied by a grumble that sounded something like, “I’ve had enough of people in the bathroom with me lately.” Sano would probably be equal parts relieved and irritated to learn that Kenshin usually hadn’t been able to see or hear his normal activities during the period of haunting.

A few minutes later, a rumpled-looking young man, hair plastered into a smooth slope in back so it came to a sort of jagged point at the top, entered the kitchen. Hajime, leaning against the counter beside the stove, set down his breakfast plate and braced himself.

Sano aimed a single finger at him and said just as pointedly, “Peacemaker Kurogane.”

This was not at all the greeting Hajime had expected, so he just raised a brow.

“I was in a shit-ton of pain last night,” Sano explained, “because for some reason it kinda looks like somebody might have stabbed me with a sword…” He paused with a frown. “And I swear I’ve heard that in a movie somewhere. Anyway, every time the Percocet wore off, I got up and wandered around for a little before the next one kicked in and I could sleep again. And I was looking through your shelves, and I discovered your dirty little secret.”

“Where you’ve heard my name before?”

“Well, yeah, that too, but I mean that you like anime. Yes, Misao, hi. Sorry I wouldn’t let you in the bathroom. Good morning.” Though the little cat had been meowing nonstop for Sano’s attention, she didn’t actually have anything to say; so once he’d satisfied her by bending briefly, stiffly, to pet her, she shut up and headed for Tokio’s food bowl in case her elder had left anything behind for her to steal.

Hajime wasn’t going to point out that, to have been looking through the shelves his DVD’s were kept on, Sano would have to have been in the den — hovering near the sleeping Hajime, in other words, which was something the waking Hajime didn’t really want to discuss. So he just said, “I like some anime. Sometimes.”

“Yeah, well, you made it sound before like you thought it was all stupid or something. But this is a series I’ve even seen — because my name’s in there too — and here you have it on DVD, and I remember now it has you in it, seeing ghosts and everything.”

Hajime didn’t feel like checking the inordinate amount of pleasure Sano was taking in this perceived triumph; in fact, he had to smile a bit at the suggestion that he himself actually featured in the series in question, and the indirect idea that he’d been named after an anime character rather than the historic figure that character represented. He did feel the need to point out, however, “All I implied before was that getting all your Japanese culture from anime was stupid.”

“Yeah, OK, fine.” Sano started to shrug, winced visibly with an audible intake of breath, and canceled whatever he’d been planning on saying next. Hajime thought it was something about never having been to Japan, but couldn’t be entirely sure when the walls were up.

“Do you want breakfast?” He turned toward where he’d kept the second half of the meal warm. “It’s eggs and rice with sausage.”

“Is that your way of apologizing for stabbing me in the shoulder?” Sano wondered, stepping forward to join Hajime at the stove and look down into the pan.

“It might be,” said Hajime neutrally. He couldn’t quite bring himself to apologize for something he really had believed was necessary, but he was sorry that so much discomfort had been the unavoidable result.

Sano’s immediate, “Then I accept,” came as a bit of a surprise, and Hajime turned just as quickly to search the young man’s face for any insincerity, for suppressed resentment. He found none. Moreover, Sano gave him half a grin and continued in a quieter tone, “It’s kindof extreme, but you wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to. It hurts like all kinds of hell, but…” Apparently he barely remembered in time to restrain a second shrug. “It’s kinda cool too.”

Hajime didn’t bother trying not to feel intensely relieved at this reaction. “Idiot.”

“Yeah, well…” Sano’s grin twisted to demonstrate just how much pain he was still in — as if Hajime couldn’t already tell. “I’ll probably punch you in the face for it next time I’m mad. And don’t do it again, OK?”

“I’ll try not to.” Hajime gestured to the dishes he’d set out for Sano’s use and changed the subject. “I have coffee or orange juice, if you’re interested. Or there’s water. I don’t recommend mixing beer with pills.”

“Yeah, I’m already spacey enough. Though it’s not so bad when I’m not laying down. Uh, water sounds good. I think orange juice or coffee would make me sick right now.”

Though Hajime had previously been eating bachelor-style standing up beside the stove, he now transferred his things to the dining table beyond the doorway out of the kitchen while Sano dished himself the remainder of the breakfast mess and filled his cup from the tap. When he joined Hajime at the table, Tokio immediately took up a place beside his chair and started demanding that he give her sausage.

Hajime vetoed this with, “It’s not good for cats.” Then to Sano he remarked, “Those stitches have to stay in for at least a week. I’ll pay for you to see a doctor, since I assume you won’t want to go back to the U.S.Seido on-site surgeon.”

“Guh, yeah, was that who put these in?” said Sano through a full mouth. “I mean, not like he didn’t do a good job or anything, but…” He shook his head. “I guess a yakuza would have a surgeon on their payroll just hanging around, wouldn’t they…” When Hajime nodded, he added, “No wonder that Percocet bottle looks so black-market.”

Hajime didn’t bother to mention that he’d double checked with Gains how quickly a qualified medical professional could be summoned before going through with his extreme measures; nor that he’d rubbed down the end of his sword, before touching Sano with it, with some chlorhexidine solution he hadn’t wanted to ask why Gains had on hand; nor did he wonder what Sano’s prior experience with black-market Percocet might be. He just reached out at a hand in the next convenient interval and touched the startled Sano’s forehead.

“You don’t feel feverish,” he said as he compared the temperature with his own.

“Nah,” said Sano, recovering quickly from his surprise. “Just in pain and kinda stupid.”

Hajime forbore from taking advantage of this opening, and continued his breakfast in silence.

Presently Sano asked, “You got any ketchup for this?”

With a skeptical look, Hajime gestured wordlessly toward the refrigerator in the next room.

“Oh, I see how it is,” said Sano as he rose. “Apology only goes so far.”

“Any moron who wants to ruin good cooking with ketchup can go get his own.”

“And yet I see you have ketchup here.” The grin was audible in Sano’s voice as he made what he believed was a clever follow-up to this remark: “What I haven’t seen yet is any good cooking.”

Hajime snorted faintly. Then he ignored the casual way Sano, upon returning to the table, picked a piece of sausage off his plate and offered it to Tokio. Then he ignored the laughing way Sano, having thus mortally offended Misao, dug out an even bigger piece for her by way of amends. It wasn’t improbable that each cat would find she didn’t like sausage very much anyway.

“That’s an interesting tattoo you have,” the exorcist said at last, thinking of the shirtless, muscular back that had just been turned on him as Sano had rummaged through the fridge.

“Oh!” Sano started, then winced as the motion must have hurt his injury. It was clear he’d completely forgotten about his tattoo, or at least never considered that Hajime would have seen it by now. At the same time, Hajime was picking up on some embarrassment on the topic strong enough to leak through the barriers in Sano’s head. “Uh, yeah…”

Pursuing this advantage, “You must really think you’re a badass,” Hajime said with a smirk.

“I am a badass,” replied Sano defiantly. “And you better have a new shirt for me.”

“Somehow I got the feeling that one you had on yesterday wasn’t exactly one of your favorites. Tokio, stop that.” Having, as Hajime had expected, deemed the sausage uneatable, she’d been trying to bury it, and the scraping of her paws on the wood floor was getting annoying. Neither the cat’s behavior nor Sano’s attempt at changing the subject, however, could keep Hajime from centering right back on the real topic at hand. “What in the world made you think it was a good idea to put the kanji for ‘evil’ permanently on your back? Especially that big?”

Shifting abashedly and looking at his plate, Sano explained. “Well, I’d just turned eighteen and gotten a pretty big tax return… I wanted to do something that would prove I was an adult and… an individual… and all that… I thought some kanji or other would be a good way to, you know, express my Japanese heritage or whatever… and this one looked cool… and plus it was kindof a rebellion against my parents, since they think only bad people get tattoos at all…”

Glancing up and finding Hajime still smirking at him, Sano frowned and went on in a more serious tone. “I can’t be sorry for the kind of person I was in the past, even if I did decide to write it really big on my back for some reason. You don’t get where you are without having been where you were.”

Impressed that Sano had made it through that last verbal tangle, Hajime withheld his remark that he didn’t believe the young man nearly as far removed from the rebellious teenager phase as Sano himself apparently did. He merely nodded his agreement with the totally just sentiment.

Now Sano was blushing faintly. “Plus it still looks cool,” he mumbled in conclusion. Following up a quick shoveling of the last of his breakfast into his mouth with a long gulp of water, he rose hastily and added, “I need to go take some more Percocet.”

Part 34


The first thing Sano had to say when he came back into the kitchen where Hajime was loading the dishwasher was, “Where’s Kenshin, by the way?” He’d been so distracted by Hajime himself that he hadn’t gotten around to asking. Which was funny, when Kenshin was so important, but, Sano supposed, not exactly unprecedented.

“He went back to his wife,” Hajime answered. “I told him we’d meet him there to help him talk to her as soon as you were feeling up to it.”

Sano would have remarked, ‘As soon as you find me a shirt to wear,’ but feared that would lead back to the topic of his tattoo. So instead he said, “I’m glad he’s doing OK now.”

“If you call being dead ‘doing OK.'”

“Better than being dead and breaded with someone else’s crazy anger.”

Hajime laughed.

“Did you get to talk to him? About the afterlife and everything, I mean? Find out all sorts of stuff that’ll make Aoshi totally jealous?”

Closing the dishwasher with what Sano thought was unnecessary firmness, Hajime looked annoyed. “Aoshi… I’m going to have to call him, aren’t I.”

“You did promise,” Sano reminded him, though not without sympathy. And then a much-belated thought struck him in response to the word ‘call.’ “Hang on,” he said with a frown of his own. “What time is it?” Starting to panic just a little, he spun completely around, searching the kitchen for a clock.

“9:24,” said Hajime, and then — Sano could sense and guess more than see that this was the case — watched in amused skepticism as Sano began frantically patting down his pockets and cursing.

Remembering eventually that he’d seen some of his personal effects on the nightstand, beside the clock that might have prevented this disaster if he’d taken note of it earlier, Sano hastily left the kitchen. Trying not to think about the necessity of Hajime’s having put his hands into Sano’s pants pockets in order to empty them of wallet, keys, and cell phone so Sano could sleep more easily, he ran to the nightstand and grabbed the last of these items.

It was dead, of course. These days, if he didn’t charge it overnight, that was always the case in the morning. He swore.

“You had a couple of texts yesterday,” Hajime volunteered from where he’d followed to the doorway of the bedroom and now was watching Sano’s frustrated efforts at getting his phone to turn on. “It seems like your excuses for not going out with your friends lately haven’t been very good.”

“No, they haven’t,” Sano agreed. “I’ve been saving all my good excuses and terrible lies for right now this very minute. Can I use your phone?”

With a smirk Hajime retrieved it from his pocket and handed it to Sano. Then he walked away, presumably to offer some privacy, and soon after Sano heard what sounded like the front door. Privacy was unlikely, however, as two cats had entered the room, taken a seat on the bed, and were now watching him with interest. He turned his back on them and, after the few seconds it took to dredge up a number he usually relied on programmed contacts to remember, called work.

No less than eight minutes and one somewhat disastrous climbing cat adventure later, he went back into the kitchen and returned the phone to its owner, who was now sorting through what must be yesterday’s mail. With a sigh Sano leaned against a nearby counter and said, “Well, I don’t think they’ll fire me. Sucks for them I know it’s more trouble to train another new maintenance guy than put up with this kind of bullshit from me… but the manager who’s in there right now is pissed.

“He wouldn’t believe I got in a huge fight and got stabbed and then I was too high on Percocet to call two hours early this morning like you’re supposed to. I’m going to shove this shoulder and all these stupid bruises in his face the next time I see him. God, and it’s going to suck working with this,” he added with a groan. “You know how much lifting I have to do? I can barely even move this arm yet.”

“The Seido doctor wanted to put it in a sling,” Hajime informed him, not looking up from the mail, “but I didn’t think you’d appreciate that.”

Sano thought about it, and decided he was probably right. He preferred even a slight amount of usability, painful though it was, to having that arm completely immobile. Work was still going to hurt for a while, though.

“This may help if you do get fired,” was Hajime’s next statement, handing Sano an envelope.

With what the exorcist was currently doing in mind, Sano was for an instant extremely confused; but then he saw that the envelope was entirely blank and realized that Hajime had not, in fact, randomly given Sano some of his own mail. He pulled the unsealed flap out from where it was tucked, and extracted the contents. Observing the back of what was clearly a check, he flipped the little piece of grey-blue paper around and examined it.

The elbow he’d propped against the counter (the left elbow, of course) slipped somehow, and he staggered sideways, then forward. It took a surprising amount of time and effort to catch himself and reach a balanced upright position again.

“Holy fuck!” he managed finally from right in the center of the kitchen. The vehemence of the exclamation startled Misao, who had already retreated to the doorway when he’d stumbled, into darting into the hall and out of sight.

“Gains wrote one for each of us,” explained Hajime, who was clearly entertained at Sano’s astonishment. “I did remind him what my actual rates are, but I didn’t try very hard to argue him down.”

“Holy fuck,” Sano said again, staring unblinking at the digits in the box. Just in case he might suspect that the amount was written incorrectly, there it was in letters on the adjacent line too. He knew that at some point his mind would start racing over all the possibilities that came with this much money, but at the moment it was mostly blank with shock.

“You’ll note it’s dated the 26th.” Hajime, finished with his mail, was now just looking at Sano as he held up a matching unlabeled envelope that presumably held his share of the absurd payoff of yesterday’s adventure. “Gains isn’t stupid. He warned me that if we played some kind of hypnotic trick on him to make him feel better just temporarily, it would be in our best interest not to attempt to cash these. But if the next week goes by and he hasn’t had any kind of relapse — which, of course, he won’t — the money will be there.”

Sano’s tone was still breathless with disbelief as he wondered, “You sure he wasn’t just completely lying? I mean, this is– shit! This is a fuckload of money here! And he wrote another one for you? Who has that kind of money?”

“He wasn’t lying.” Hajime shrugged. “Of course he might change his mind between now and next week, but he was sincere enough at the time. He was mentally exhausted and not guarding very well.”

“Oh?” Sano was interested, but he couldn’t look away from the check in his hand even as he spoke. “What else did you pick up from him?”

“Among other things, that Enishi knew he was going to die. Gains didn’t know how Enishi knew, but he was sure he did.” Now Hajime set down the envelope and walked across the room. Pausing at the door, he added, “It was another yakuza member who assassinated him, by the way. We both guessed that, but Gains’s thoughts confirmed it.”

Sano followed him almost without realizing what he did. But he forced himself to tear his eyes from the check in order to navigate the hallway, and in doing so was also able to participate a little better in the conversation. “So Enishi saw that coming, and that was probably why he did that shit to Kaoru and Kenshin just before.”

Hajime nodded in grim agreement as he stepped into his bedroom and went to open the closet.

“Do you think he knew Kenshin would become a ghost?”

“I don’t know,” Hajime said slowly. “If he was a diviner, he might have. And if he did, it makes his revenge less limited than we thought.”

“You know… I bet… I bet that wasn’t even the revenge he really wanted. Just the best he could do on short notice when he realized someone in the organization was going to kill him. I bet he had something a thousand times worse in mind, but he just couldn’t pull it off in the time he had left.”

“You may be right. Here.”

Between thinking about crazy Enishi and horrible revenge and the check that seemed to be burning hot in his hand, Sano had noticed neither what Hajime was doing in the closet nor what that closet contained — and the latter, he realized now, was something he really was quite interested in and should have looked into last night during his painful interludes of aimless snooping around. Now the time it had taken to work through his distractions, and to realize that what Hajime held out toward him was a shirt, had been long enough for the exorcist to have closed the closet door and prevented Sano’s seeing anything inside.

“Thanks,” said Sano a little blankly, accepting the offering. A moment passed before it even occurred to him to examine it, but, to his disappointment, the scenario that popped into his head at the same time — wherein Hajime had nothing but nice dressy stuff he didn’t want to give Sano, and therefore had been forced to dig back to the back of his closet where he kept all the embarrassing remnants of his youth like hair-band concert shirts, one of which Sano now held — did not appear to be playing out. It was merely a short-sleeved and rather casual-looking black button-up. He did wonder what kind of music Hajime liked, though.

“Soundtracks,” said Hajime succinctly, with twitching lips. In a bit of non sequitur he went on, “Oh, and Gains formally apologized for any offensive remarks he might have made under the influence of shade anger.”

As he sought the least painful method of pulling the right sleeve onto his arm and shoulder, Sano snorted. “Funny how that doesn’t make him less of a homophobic dick.”

“The truth about people comes out when they’re that angry. It’s one of the reasons red shades are such a problem; people don’t want that kind of truth coming out.”

Glad that Hajime had stepped away so Sano now had his back to him, and therefore the exorcist couldn’t see his concerned biting of lip at this statement, Sano recalled uncomfortably that he’d been even angrier than Gains on a few occasions in Hajime’s presence; he’d been stupid and irrational and violent, and he would really rather not have it known how much he suddenly feared Hajime thinking this was his true nature.

But Hajime either read the thought — he’d picked up that one about music just a bit ago, after all — or guessed it some other way. “Don’t worry,” he said. “All I’ve learned about you is that you’re an idiot. And I could have figured that out without any help.”

Deeply relieved, relaxing from a tenseness he hadn’t even realized he’d adopted — actually, that was probably what had given him away, and it also hurt his shoulder — Sano grinned. “You know, there’s no shade left to get me to work off… you don’t have to keep calling me an idiot.”

“It seems to have stuck, though. Everyone needs a nickname.”

The buttoning process was slow and painful with a right arm that would really rather not move at all, but Sano continued to grin anyway. Because a nickname, however rude, implied a continued acquaintance. Friendship, even. Maybe? He sought to test the theory: “I’ll have to come up with something just as nice to call you, then.”

And Hajime was definitely smiling as he replied, “Let me know when you decide on something.” He took two more steps away, apparently in preparation for leaving the room. “Your shoes are on the other side of the bed. Are you ready to go meet Kenshin?”

Still fumbling with buttons, Sano answered that he would be as soon as he’d had a chance to fix his hair, then listened to Hajime’s footfalls moving around the house. Some too-low-to-be-intelligible exchange with at least one of the cats in another room reminded him that he’d forgotten to bring up the matter of an apparent communication skill he’d never realized he had, but that could wait for another time. At the moment he was too busy for it — too busy reflecting that maybe things weren’t quite as hopeless as he’d been thinking they must be.

Part 35

Another triumph Sano appeared to be taking pleasure in that Hajime didn’t feel like thwarting was that this time they’d called ahead before showing up at Kaoru’s apartment. It didn’t really relate to not having done so the last time, nor make Hajime regret that circumstance, but Sano seemed to think it did.

When she opened the door to them — today without hesitation — Hajime noted that Kaoru looked every bit as weary as she had two days ago, but that in her dark-ringed eyes there was also the faintest trace of hope. He hadn’t told her that her husband was, as far as he knew, already here, but he had mentioned that he and Sano brought news as good as anything that could be expected out of this situation.

“Come in,” she said at once. “Sit down.”

The apartment was sparsely furnished and decorated, and Hajime speculated that Kaoru had lacked the energy or desire, when she’d moved, to set up all the things she’d brought from the house she’d shared with her husband. Additionally, the current state of cleanliness was not the best — Hajime, whose own housekeeping was more or less impeccable, couldn’t help but notice — and, once again, absence of will and energy in disaster’s wake was probably to blame. He wondered whether she was struggling financially as well; he remembered her saying she worked from home, but had she been in any fit mental state for that since Kenshin’s death?

Two other people were present in the small, drab living room: the red-haired child they’d seen from afar the other day at the park, and that child’s red-haired, undead father. Not that the redness of Kenshin’s hair was visible in his current state, but it was easy to imagine. He had apparently been watching his son play with a couple of tiny police cars beside the couch, but now they both looked over at Hajime and Sano. Up close, Hajime thought he could see a resemblance to both parents in the child’s face.

“Hey, Kenji,” Kaoru said, with a decent facade of joviality over the dullness in her voice, “I’m going to move you into your room to keep playing, OK?” And with impressive ease she scooped up both the three-year-old and his toys and carried them out of the room.

Hajime, as had been suggested, found a seat in the chair beside the sofa, but Sano had approached Kenshin with obvious interest. “Hey!” he was saying. “Good to finally see you at last!” He made a face at the redundancy of his statement, but did not amend it.

“Yes, it is,” agreed Kenshin warmly. “I would shake your hand, but…” Instead, he bowed in the Japanese style. “Ageku yoroshiku.” And once Sano had repeated that last word with a grin, Kenshin went on, “Now I can apologize for all the trouble I have given you in particular.”

Sano, who unsurprisingly didn’t appear to need to expend much effort to understand everything Kenshin said, started to lift his right hand, winced, and made his dismissive wave with the left instead. “Don’t worry about it.”

“And I can thank you for all your hard work.”

The lop-sided grin on Sano’s face said pretty clearly (to Hajime, at least), “You don’t have any idea how much trouble and hard work it’s actually been.” What he said aloud was, “No problem.” So apparently he did have some understanding of professionalism.

“I wanted to wait for you to wake up yesterday,” Kenshin said next, apologetically, “but I was too impatient to come back here.”

“I was a little loopy whenever I did wake up, so it’s probably better you didn’t.” Sano added at a mutter, “I’m not exactly super awake right now, actually…” Which was true: all earlier interaction with Hajime and apparent energy notwithstanding, Sano had been dozing in the car on the way over. How much he’d taken in of Hajime relating what Kenshin had told him last night could not be guessed.

Politely Kenshin said, “I hope you are feeling all right, though,” with a brief glance at the exorcist. Hajime had eventually been required to explain to the ghost what he’d been forced to do to Sano, and Kenshin had never seemed quite approving. Not that it was any of his business.

“Yeah… except for the one little thing–” and here Sano too threw a glance at Hajime, though his accusation was far more facetious than Kenshin’s– “I’m actually better than before. No offense, but I’m looking forward to getting back to school without taking you with me.”

Kenshin had a very gentle smile that was probably a manifestation of the kindness Kaoru had always liked so much about her husband, but that Hajime couldn’t help considering irritatingly wishy-washy.

Now Kaoru herself reappeared in the doorway, and seemed a little confused when she saw Sano standing in the middle of the living room with the manner of one involved in conversation but turned half away from the only other person she could see. When she realized what this must mean, her eyes flew to Kenshin (or, from her perspective, the empty air where she assumed he must be), and her hands flew simultaneously to her mouth.

“Could you let her know I’m here?” Kenshin requested quietly.

Resisting the urge to point out that Kaoru had clearly already realized this, Hajime let Sano do the honors.

“Yeah, he’s here,” the young man said, turning toward the woman. “And we can talk to him now. The shade’s all gone.”

Kaoru’s breathing abruptly became unsteady, as if she was fighting off sobs. Continuing to stare toward her husband, she finally let her hands sink from before her face, though they clasped and remained just in front of her neck in a classic dramatic pose. Hesitantly and with evident difficulty she began, “Kenshin, I… I don’t…” Then glancing at Sano she asked, “Can he hear me?”

Moving in his wife’s direction, Kenshin said her name in a pitying tone.

Hajime answered before Sano could. “He can. And I know there are things you need to say to each other, but I think it would be better if we told you what we’ve learned before you two become too emotional.”

Kaoru, glancing again at where Kenshin had been before he’d come closer to her, took a deep breath and nodded. Then, with reluctant movements, she walked over to the sofa and sat down; her husband went to hover by her elbow. This left the other half of the couch unoccupied, but Sano opted to mirror Kenshin and come stand near Hajime’s chair. The exorcist considered offering to trade places with him, to let Sano sit and rest while they talked, but, doubting Sano would really appreciate being treated like an invalid and thinking there wasn’t really time to waste right now annoying him deliberately, decided against it.

Kaoru was watching them both closely — not, Hajime thought, because she was the least bit interested in anything either of them might do for its own sake, but because she wanted to follow their gazes to determine where Kenshin was.

“Mrs. Himura,” Hajime began. “I spent a lot of time talking to your husband yesterday, but it was mostly about subjects that are professionally interesting to me. I saved the information Sano and I learned to tell you both at the same time.” When Kaoru nodded again, he went on. “The anger that was keeping us from talking to him, and that affected you so unpleasantly in January and February, was not your husband’s at all.”

“Did you think it was?” asked the startled Kenshin.

“Yeah,” Sano provided. “For a while we thought you were just really mad at her.”

Briefly everything became incoherent as Kaoru first wondered what Sano meant, then realized he’d been answering a question she hadn’t heard, then started crying about how it was only natural for Kenshin to be mad at her — and Kenshin, all the while, tried futilely to reassure her that he wasn’t and never had been angry. He kept trying to touch her, obviously with no great success.

Hajime eventually cut them both off by stating loudly, “We’ll get to all that in a minute. The person who actually left behind the angry shade when he died was Enishi Yukishiro.”

The name, rather than Hajime’s volume, was what really silenced the Himuras. Kenshin went stiff and wordless in an instant, clearly extremely startled; Kaoru looked blank.

“Since you obviously don’t know,” Hajime addressed Kaoru alone, “Enishi was the brother of Kenshin’s first wife.”

Kaoru blinked once, twice, then simply stared; the blankness hadn’t really gone. Kenshin’s eyes, on the other hand, slowly closed as he bowed his head in a movement that was almost a nod of understanding and had a touch of resignation to it as well. Under other circumstances, Hajime might have given Kenshin this news separately and confirmed how much he wanted shared with others before telling anyone else; but in this case, Hajime felt Kaoru had a right to the information regardless of Kenshin’s feelings on the subject.

“Enishi…” Kenshin murmured. “Enishi. I never thought I would hear from him again.”

“Kenshin’s…” Kaoru spoke in the tone of someone trying her hardest to remain completely rational and neutral, and she managed fairly well. “Kenshin’s first wife.”

“He never could forgive me for–” the ghost was recalling, but cut himself short in order to say regretfully, “I would have told you; I would have told you.”

Again Hajime jumped in before this could go any farther. “Kenshin’s first wife died ten years ago in a car accident, and her brother blamed Kenshin for it.”

“No reason to try to exonerate me,” said Kenshin quietly. “It was my fault. Enishi had an unhealthy obsession with his sister, yes, but his belief that I killed her was completely accurate.”

Hajime paused for a moment before, deciding this was relevant enough to transmit, he said, “Kenshin wants it understood that he agrees it was his fault.”

“Oh, Kenshin.” Kaoru was crying again, and Hajime thought it had something to do with the discovery that she wasn’t the only one in this marriage to have committed (or at least to consider herself guilty of) mariticide.

In conjunction with what he’d already known, Hajime relayed what he’d just found out: “Enishi was obsessed with his sister, and never could forgive Kenshin for her death. He was the one who organized the events that led to Kenshin’s death, and when Enishi himself died, it was his leftover anger that surrounded Kenshin and made him impossible to communicate with.”

“How did Enishi die?” Kenshin wondered.

“So the…” Kaoru said at the same moment. “The man who threatened my son… and made me murder my husband… is dead?”

“He was killed by another member of his criminal organization,” Hajime nodded.

Kaoru started to sob. She probably felt as if she was in the center of a web of murder and intrigue, and no better than anyone else tangled in it.

“I need to talk to her,” Kenshin said somewhat desperately. “Face to face. Sano, I think I can see how I might be able to, if you would do me this one last favor…”

What Hajime wanted to say, accusingly, was, “You didn’t mention yesterday that you’d figured out how to possess people.” But somehow what came out of his mouth instead, concernedly, was, “Sano’s in no condition to try that.” Which was odd, because he usually didn’t have that kind of intention/delivery mismatch.

It didn’t matter anyway; one look at Sano’s face told him that. The stubborn, reckless young man had even remarked once (well, thought loudly) that it would be cool to be able to say he’d been possessed. Now he stepped forward with, “Yeah, sure.”

“I am afraid,” Kenshin said levelly, glancing at Hajime as he responded to his protest, “that it would not work with you.”

So at least Hajime knew he’d been right in thinking that he and Kenshin, only barely acquainted though they were, didn’t really like each other. How much it would mean if this procedure ended in disaster he didn’t know, but at least he had that slight consolation to bolster him.

Part 36


Kenshin’s first wife.

The man that had threatened her son was dead.

Criminal organization.

Kaoru was so overcome with such a variety of emotions and accompanying ideas that trying to get hold of herself took most of her attention, and she didn’t mark what was going on in the room for several moments. Since she was unable in any case to detect her husband’s presence or hear his contributions to the conversation, it could be no surprise that she didn’t take much trouble to try to follow the latter once she had so much to think about.

But now Sano was approaching where she sat on the couch, and something had changed.

Little as she had wanted to believe these men, a combination of logic and intuition had dictated that she must… but there’d always been a part of her that had treated this as a sort of sick game she was playing to distract herself, and that wouldn’t have been surprised to find the whole thing an elaborate hoax (though it would simultaneously have been interested to discover what benefit the perpetrators could possibly derive from such a deception). Overall, though, she’d been taking this very seriously.

She hadn’t been at all prepared for certainty, though.

When Sano dropped to his knees in front of her and said, “My lady,” it didn’t matter that it was possible he was just a really good actor that had somehow found out the nickname her husband used to call her in private, and it didn’t matter that she barely knew Sano at all — she was certain, instantly freed from any doubt, that this was not Sano. The inflection of those two words, the expression on his face, especially the eyes — though nothing was physically altered, and though anyone that did know Sano would easily have recognized him, still everything had changed.

And that certainty burned away her tears, eradicated her discomposure, and left her with only the adrenaline calm of emergency. There was no time to waste dithering now.

“Kenshin,” she said.

He took her hands. “It is difficult to begin a conversation I know has to end with me leaving you, but I had to talk to you one more time.”

She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t ask him not to go, though that was the desire of her heart; and the painful joy of talking to him again, of being granted this chance, this goodbye, was too great for expression.

“I would have told you about Tomoe, my first wife,” he went on. “That was not something I planned on hiding from you forever.”

That he was apologizing to her seemed farcical, under the circumstances, and she shook her head. This wasn’t how she’d envisioned a conversation like this going.

“And I want you to know that the reason I didn’t tell you was not that I didn’t trust you or didn’t want to share myself with you. It was because…” He too shook his head.

Even with as few words as he’d spoken thus far, Kaoru had already mostly lost track of the fact that it was actually Sano’s voice saying them, Sano’s head being shaken, Sano’s hands clasping hers. In a sense not precisely visual or aural but very definitely real, Sano had mostly melted away. It was like forgetting about the device she held during an intense phone conversation; the means of connection was irrelevant in the face of that connection.

“After my reckless driving killed Tomoe,” Kenshin finally went on, “I felt like a murderer. For the next few years, every time I looked in the mirror and saw the scars from that accident, I hated myself as much as Tomoe’s brother ever could hate me. But then I met you, and you looked at my scars and said, ‘Anyone who doesn’t think scars are beautiful has never survived any pain of their own and become stronger because of it.'”

Kaoru laughed weakly along with her husband as he added, “And I know you got that line from a movie, but what mattered to me was that you meant it. You always saw the good I could become and never worried about what I was before. You made me feel like it was all right to go on living and enjoying life even after what I had done. And I felt like I had to do whatever I could to leave behind the person I once was and try every single day to be more worthy of somehow having found love a second time.”

“I never thought you–” Kaoru paused with a faint smile and corrected herself. “I never would have thought you weren’t worthy of that. You’re a wonderful person, Kenshin — a good, great, kind, thoughtful, wonderful person.”

For her smile he returned that one of his that was so beautifully mellow and yet, as it often had been in life, faintly sad. “Thank you. You were always making me feel like that, like I could be better. I was more and more at peace with myself the longer I spent with you, and I decided that as soon as I reached a point where the past no longer hurt quite so much, I would tell you all about Tomoe and how much you had changed me. It was no secret, just… something I wasn’t quite ready to share yet.”

“I never worried about the things you didn’t tell me,” she assured him seriously. “I always knew you had your reasons. I’ve never not trusted you.”

“Then right now,” he replied just as seriously, “I need you to trust me one last time. You were not the one who killed me.”

She let out a breath that was almost another sob as the conversation shifted so abruptly from what Kenshin felt she might blame him for to just the opposite.

She could still feel the weight of the gun; she’d felt it every night in her dreams for months, and doubted it would ever really leave her hand. She could still remember with sickening precision the sight of him jerking and falling, and the ocean of self-loathing that had swept over her at that moment, soaked deep into her until she was saturated.

“There is no part of me that even begins to blame you for what you were forced to do. You protected Kenji; how could I possibly blame you for that? Don’t you think that, if I had known what was going on, I would still have gone down that alley and let it happen to keep you both safe?”

That was an angle from which she hadn’t considered things. Kenshin hadn’t had any choice in the matter, had been an unsuspecting and unprepared victim, but she’d never thought about what his choice might have been if he’d been offered one. Of course the fact that Kenshin would gladly lay down his life for his son did not change the fact that she’d taken his life without warning or consultation… but if the positions had been reversed… there was no question that she would unquestionably consent to die rather than see her son harmed.

Perhaps he recognized that, while this point had not been unproductive, it couldn’t really alter a state of mind, a depression of spirit, that was by now so deeply ingrained. He’d always excelled at detecting what she was thinking and feeling — which had undoubtedly made his inability to do so (or at least to make sense of what he saw) while she was being threatened all the more confusing and painful for him — and he must see now that the best he could do here was attempt to put her on the path to self-forgiveness and recovery. Unfortunately, Kaoru wasn’t sure that was a path her feet could ever find.

He probably recognized that doubt too, for he said in a tone of urgent sorrow and supplication, “Please, Kaoru. I know what it feels like to take everything away from someone you love. I know what murder feels like.”

Finally she managed to speak, to break in before he could come to his point. “But you only said ‘reckless driving!’ That’s not murder; that’s just a stupid mistake!”

“Just as much murder as killing someone to protect your son,” said Kenshin quietly. “I was reckless; you were afraid. Both of us might have had a different choice, but in the end, for both of us, someone still died. So I know how it feels. I know how it feels to blame yourself, and wonder what you could have done differently — and then blame yourself even more for not doing it differently — and to think about how the one person you might be able to talk this out with — the one person who could comfort you, the person you miss more than anything in the world, so much it physically hurts — that person is not there to talk it out with you because of something you did. I know how much it hurts, and how hopeless it is, and how tempted you are just to kill yourself and get rid of it all.

“I know how all that is, and I am begging you: let it go.”

She didn’t want to appear to be making light of such a serious subject, and she believed Kenshin would know that she really wasn’t, but she couldn’t help laughing a little, wretchedly, at the simplicity of his advice. “You said you couldn’t do that until–”

“Until I met someone stronger than I was,” he interrupted intensely. “And if there is anyone in the world I believe can recover from something like this all on her own, it’s you.”

Again she gave a miserable little laugh, both painfully touched at his opinion of her and continually daunted by the seeming impossibility of what he wanted her to do.

Hearing this, his smile took on an even more regretful look as he added pragmatically, “Though I think some therapy might help too.”

Now she laughed more straightforwardly, though there was still a bitter edge to it at the idea of attempting to get any therapist anywhere to believe what she’d been through.

“I hope you will do whatever you have to to be happy again,” he went on. “All you ever did during our time together was make me happy; I can’t stand to leave knowing that you can’t be happy yourself.”

Throughout this whole conversation, something huge and heavy had been building inside Kaoru, contributing to her constriction of throat and becoming steadily more painful. Now, at the word ‘leave’ she realized what it was: the awareness, increasingly sharp and unignorable, that he really had to leave, that these really were their last few moments together until… she didn’t know when or how or even if they would meet again. She supposed he didn’t either.

“I… I’ll try…” she choked out, and the panic that was growing along with the awareness sounded in her voice. “But, Kenshin, I–” She couldn’t stop his going; she couldn’t take back what had been done even if she did manage to stop blaming herself for it. So what was there to say? That she couldn’t continue without him? Perhaps she did feel like that at the moment, to some extent, but she simply couldn’t throw his statement of faith in her strength back in his face. So in the end there was nothing to say but, “I love you so much.”

“And I love you,” was his passionately quick reply, “more than I can even tell you. I have no words for how much I love you and how much you changed my life. But if I know you will try to be happy, I can go to wherever I’m supposed to go now and…” Gently releasing her hands, he spread his and smiled. “And rest in peace.”

As he stood, Sano’s height a brief but quickly-forgotten reminder that the body, at least, was not actually Kenshin’s, Kaoru felt the panic take hold of her so firmly that she couldn’t say a word as she too jumped unsteadily to her feet.

“I feel it pulling me again,” Kenshin said, looking briefly up and over his shoulder. “I wish I could say goodbye to Kenji, but there’s no time.”

Desperately she managed to say his name, but no more.

He shook his head. “I am sorry. I would never leave you or Kenji if had the choice, but Enishi did not give me that choice. Please tell Kenji how much his daddy loves him, always. I know he will be a good person, with you raising him.”

She flew at him, gripping, crushing, clutching as if somehow she could manually hold him in the world, keep him with her. And it didn’t matter that the height was off and incorrectly-shaped arms pulled her against an unfamiliar chest; she was embracing her husband, the man she’d fallen in love with and never stopped loving, the father of her child, the source of both the greatest happiness and the greatest pain she’d ever known, for the last time.

Gently he pushed her from him after only a moment — not long enough, not nearly long enough, but his strength was irresistible. “Thank you for everything you have done for me,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, even as he backed slowly away from her. “And goodbye.”

Teeth gritted, breaths hissing through them in sobbing gasps, she tried to detect some sign of his actual departure, but there was none. Kenshin was gone. There was only Sano, whose face smoothed from Kenshin’s expression into blankness and whose frame shuddered and went limp as, his eyes drifting closed, he pitched forward toward the floor.

Part 37


“–probably find it interesting, at least, that he’s fainted twice in twenty-four hours.”

This latter half of a statement, from Hajime, was the first thing Sano heard upon awakening. But if Hajime thought the interest of having fainted twice in twenty-four hours was the first thing Sano would feel, he was dead wrong. Well, it was interesting — earlier this week he’d been reflecting on how he’d never actually seen someone faint, and now he’d done it twice himself — but not nearly as engrossing as the sensation of what couldn’t be anything but Hajime’s arms around him, Hajime’s body against his.

Just as he’d suspected, it was a hard, wiry body that could probably do with eating more pizza on a regular basis, and the arms had an unrelenting grip. Given that they were both more or less upright, Sano guessed that Hajime had caught him as he’d fallen, and he was impressed at their positioning: Hajime must have dragged Sano’s left arm across his own shoulders, leaned slightly, and pulled Sano against him with an arm around his ribcage — thus avoiding as best he could the wounded right shoulder while still taking most of Sano’s weight on himself.

Not that the shoulder wasn’t rather excruciating at the moment. It felt a little as if someone far more concerned with the extremely emotional conversation he was having than the state of the body he was borrowing had used that right arm and shoulder indiscriminately for a while. No real resentment could possibly arise from this, though; it was how things had to be. Honestly, Sano just wished he’d had a chance to say goodbye to Kenshin.

It was strange to think of Kenshin as gone after so long having him around but inaccessible. Sano had barely gotten any opportunity to talk to the guy between the nuisance stage and the farewell, and that recognition of Kenshin as an individual that he’d hoped to accomplish at some point had never really come to pass. During their brief exchange, he had felt as if this was someone he really would like to get to know, but it was too late now, and he couldn’t help regretting it.

Not exactly gently, but certainly with no deliberate roughness, Hajime was now setting him in the chair beside the sofa. Sano tried not to be quite so dead a weight as Hajime attempted to arrange him, but motor function was not available to him at the moment. It seemed the control of his body he’d relinquished to Kenshin was not something that would return on its own: he had to find it and actively take it up again. And the strangest thing about this state was that it didn’t particularly worry or even frustrate him; it was only a matter of reconnecting, which might be a little while but would definitely happen.

The feeling of breath on his face simultaneously galvanized him toward greater ability and froze him where he sat; but then Hajime drew away, out of contact with Sano entirely, leaving behind a racing heart that must be instrumental in a return to activity. Still, when control did begin to trickle back, it did so subtly enough that he barely noticed; it was as if he’d never been without it, and the open-eyed state he’d been wanting was achieved before he even knew he had the power to attain it.

Hajime stood nearby, watching Sano calmly. His expression was so calm, in fact, that for a moment Sano was a little annoyed. He’d fainted! Surely that merited some concern, especially given that he was still wounded. But then it occurred to him that his thoughts had become relatively coherent full minutes before he’d been able to move — which meant Hajime would have had evidence that Sano was all right long before Sano had been able to open his eyes and note the exorcist’s face. So maybe Hajime had worried at least a little. He’d apparently made a point of catching Sano before he could hit the floor, after all.

At this, Hajime rolled his eyes and turned away. There was just the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips, though.

Kaoru had returned to her seat on the sofa, whence she was staring at nothing with streaming eyes. She didn’t seem aware of her surroundings, and, though Sano guessed she must have spoken to Hajime at least once to have prompted his comment about Sano fainting twice, he doubted she really remembered there was anyone else in the room.

Her conversation with her husband was more like a dream than a proper memory to Sano, since being possessed had turned out to be a little like dreaming. Hell, compared to this process of recovering from being possessed, it had been downright lazy. He’d felt as if he was floating in a comfortable haze, not required to do or say or think anything, barely even aware of what his body was up to; and all the events around him he’d observed with the detachment of a spectator only slightly invested in the proceedings.

So now, in order to decide what he thought about that farewell discussion, he had to concentrate on it, run through it line by line and force it to solidify in his memory. And still it was a memory of someone else entirely; the fact that most of the words had been spoken with his mouth and many of the gestures given with his body didn’t really register.

He emerged from his musings at last with two very distinct impressions: first, that he was extremely glad Kaoru had made at least a little progress toward a better frame of mind; and, second, that he regretted more than ever not getting to know Kenshin. It seemed somewhat ironic and almost cruel that they’d been thrown together the way they had, inconveniencing Sano for so long during a very difficult time for Kenshin, but never been allowed to become friends and help each other through those difficulties as friends would.

Well, it wasn’t as if they’d been no help to each other. Sano had done his part getting rid of the shade that had been plaguing Kenshin, and Kenshin… well, if he’d never begun haunting Sano, the latter would never have felt the need to call up an exorcist, would he?

A third very distinct impression, actually, accompanied Sano out of the reverie about Kenshin’s departure: his shoulder hurt a fucking lot. So his first real movement was to reach into his pocket in search of a couple of pills he’d stashed there before leaving Hajime’s house. He was probably taking more of this stuff than he really should, but he could cut back on it later when he was free to lie around and not be possessed or stabbed by anyone.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting here regaining control of his body and pondering the friend he’d almost had, while Kaoru mirrored him on the couch trying to regain control of her emotions and pondering the husband she’d lost, but Hajime was stoically waiting for one or the other of them to say or do something.

I don’t think she’s going to be up to much more from us, Sano sent, and was surprised at how weary even his mental communication sounded. Evidently he wasn’t going to be up to much more either. Possession really took a lot out of you, probably even if you weren’t injured to begin with.

Hajime nodded slightly. Give her another minute, he replied. I have a few more things to tell her. Somewhat irritably he added, I would have said them earlier, but Kenshin just had to talk to her that second.

It didn’t appear, however, that an appropriate moment for reopening conversation with Kaoru was likely to arise any time soon; she was so deep in thought that her awareness of their presence actually seemed to be decreasing as minutes passed. Sano found it all too easy to lose track of the others around him in his own reverie about Kenshin and everything that had happened, so he could only imagine how profoundly embroiled in contemplation Kaoru must be.

Though Hajime was outwardly still and silent, waiting with apparently limitless patience for the right moment to resume the discussion, Sano was aware that he was increasingly impatient within. It came as no real surprise that Hajime was the type of person much more interested in the active pursuit stage (even if that active pursuit sometimes involved sitting around waiting for a phone call) than the emotional aftermath of a job like this. Of course he would not have given Kaoru any hint of this even had she been in a state to recognize hints, but he wanted to wrap this up.

Eventually, clearly with his desire to be gone and his unwillingness to harass the client both in mind, in a tone just a touch louder than he might normally have used to get the attention of someone in the same room, Hajime said, “Mrs. Himura.”

Though a portion of his attention had been on Hajime all along, still Sano started a little at the sound, which motion of course jarred his shoulder. But Kaoru turned only slowly toward the speaker and seemed to be emerging gradually and with some difficulty (and, in the end, no more than partially) from her contemplation. She looked at Hajime as if there was a whole world of things she might want to say, but eventually said nothing at all.

“We’ll leave you to your thoughts,” Hajime said, and again Sano believed he was aiming for a gentle tone he just didn’t quite have the capacity for. “But there are a few more things you need to hear before we go.”

She nodded almost absently; her current level of attention was probably the best they were going to get from her right now.

“The criminal organization your husband’s brother-in-law was the head of was U.S.Seido, a company you’ve probably heard of, and we got most of our information from a man named Gains, who was Enishi’s secretary. I would have preferred not to mention you specifically, but I wanted to know what your status with them is right now. Gains assured me that whatever revenge Enishi was working on against your family was being conducted with his personal resources, not the company’s, and that he was using independent agents not directly employed by U.S.Seido. You’ll have to decide how safe you feel knowing there are probably still a few people who were working for Enishi who know what really happened last year, but as far as the organization is concerned, you and your son are not targets and not being watched.”

Kaoru nodded slowly, her expression blank. Sano guessed this was more than she could process right now, and its meaning and implications would not sink in until later. Probably much later.

At that moment there issued from the hallway that led from this room the command, “Stop making mommy cry!”

All eyes turned that direction, toward where a little red-headed boy stood hugging the wall looking simultaneously rebellious and somewhat nervous. And as Sano gazed at the son Kenshin hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to and saw this courageous concern for the mother’s feelings even at so young an age, he couldn’t help thinking that Kenshin had been right: Kenji was sure to be a good person. At the very least, he might be able to break the pattern of murder and guilt his parents had established.

Kaoru had held out her arms to her defensive child, who had gone willingly to sit on her lap and be held tightly by her but continued to stare defiance at the two men he perceived as the current cause of his mother’s sorrow. It was about time to leave.

“I… I don’t know what to say,” Kaoru murmured, half into her son’s hair, as Sano stood slowly from the chair and leaned on it for balance.

“Don’t try,” Hajime advised. This seemed somewhat rude, but it was also probably the best option for her at the moment.

Still, Sano felt the need to wish her a friendlier goodbye. “You have my number if you need to talk or anything,” he said, perhaps a little awkwardly. Meeting the angry gaze of Kenji still on his mother’s lap, Sano was prompted, against pretty much every feeling on every side of this situation, to smile. “Good luck,” he added before turning and following Hajime out of the apartment.

Part 38


“So what do you think?” Sano had sunk into the passenger seat of Hajime’s car with a sigh and leaned limply against the headrest before asking this question.

Knowing that the latter was intended as, “What do you think about Kaoru’s prospects for health and happiness?” Hajime made a brief shake of the head precursor to looking behind him in order to back out of the parking space. “It’s not promising.”

“You think so?” Evidently Sano was surprised at Hajime’s pessimism, but didn’t have the energy to express it at greater length.

“There probably isn’t a single part of her life that hasn’t been affected by this experience. Her entire life has essentially been broken.”

“You don’t think she can fix it?”

“At best she’ll end up living for her son. It won’t be her own life anymore.”

“I think… you’re wrong. I mean, it makes sense. But I think she’ll be OK.” And there it was again: that unaccountable surety Hajime had heard from Sano on a few previous occasions, as if Sano was privy to more information than Hajime, as if Sano was able to know rather than guess. As if Sano was divining without being aware of it. And when he added, “Anyway I hope she will,” the statement, rather than seeming, as it might have, a retreat from that certainty, seemed only a general expression of good will not at all incompatible with the absoluteness of the previous. Hajime could give no reply but a slight nod.

Tired and pained though he was, Sano’s mind was full and active. Perhaps a little too active, in fact; he was obviously thinking and feeling a number of things at once, which Hajime thought was sure to wear him out even faster. He needed to lie down for a while, sleep if possible; removal from Hajime’s presence might be beneficial as well. Since Hajime wasn’t going to dump him at home without his Percocet, however, he was currently heading back to his own house to retrieve it.

At the moment Sano was thinking about Kenshin, and feeling guilty for being so pleased that Kenshin was no longer haunting him. Now he could freely do all sorts of things he’d been less than entirely thrilled about performing for an audience (even if Kenshin had rarely been conscious of what Sano was up to), and get back to a daily life that didn’t involve perpetual rage. But of course he still found the circumstances of Kenshin’s death last year horrendous, pitied Kaoru profoundly, was glad he’d been able to help in any way, and wasn’t sure to what extent he should allow himself to rejoice that the ghost was gone.

Between Hajime and Kenshin there had been immediate disliking, but Sano’s experience with the dead man had been just the opposite. And that fact, along with the knowledge that Kenshin had been haunting him specifically because he’d recognized the potential for serious friendship between them, led Sano to feel a forlorn regret that was unexpectedly intense.

Sano hated the thought that he’d entirely missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Kenshin, that there was nothing he could do about it now and might never have been… and he anticipated an even stronger and deeper regret if, so close on the heels of that disappointment, he likewise missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Hajime. Opportunities seemed to be slipping from his grasp right and left.

Though Sano hadn’t said any of this aloud, it was entirely possible he’d wanted Hajime to hear it all. Either that or he’d been having a long moment of ineptitude attempting to keep his thoughts to himself. There were still times when it almost seemed as if Sano was incapable of that, though that assumption would not have been strictly accurate.

Sano had been improving on guarding his thoughts — and at a rate Hajime would have considered impossible for someone not actively training as a communicator — but somehow Hajime had also been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other. Which meant that Hajime still picked up on as much of the surface level of Sano’s brain as he ever had. Perhaps more.

But this latest thought was nothing Hajime could respond to at the moment. Because he still wasn’t sure yet what he was going to do about Sano. If they became friends, would Sano’s continual attempts to become something more irritate Hajime too much? Would Hajime’s continual evasion of those attempts hurt Sano too much? Would it be a good idea to proceed in spite of that danger? Should Hajime plainly state that his interests lay in friendship alone, or just hope that Sano’s romantic attachment would fade in time if nothing was said? Or perhaps not risk continuing the acquaintance at all? But he wanted

This social nonsense was the type of thing he just didn’t have time for. Was it any wonder he lived with only non-human roommates five thousand miles from everyone he’d grown up with?

What really bothered him was that he wasn’t usually this indecisive. Was the question of whether or not to be Sano’s friend really so important, so potentially life-altering, that he could still be dwelling on it after so long, could still have made so little significant progress in reaching a solution to the problem?

Whether or not he’d meant to project his latest set of thoughts, Sano had obviously been using his wordlessness as a period of rest for a more involved verbal conversation, and now as they pulled into Hajime’s driveway he sat up straighter and opened his eyes. But Hajime wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to have the conversation Sano was undoubtedly planning.

“Are we, um…” Pausing, Sano cleared his throat. From his look toward the house and back, it would have been easy to assume he was merely wondering what their plans for right now might be, and that he’d left most of the mundane question unspoken out of simple weariness.

Hajime could not assume. But he pretended to. “You wait here,” he said, just as if he weren’t interrupting at a possibly crucial moment and had no idea Sano had been about to (at least attempt to) say something significant. “I’ll be right back.”

Inside, he first threatened Misao with a return of the spray-bottle if she didn’t stay off the kitchen counters, then ignored her subsequent noisy questions about where Sano was and when he would be coming back. She’d really taken a liking to Sano, apparently. It was a shame she wasn’t the only one.

The young man looked as if he was ready for fresh start at his intended question when Hajime returned to the car, and if Hajime had managed to make up his unusually untidy mind he might have allowed it. As it was, he handed over the green bottle he’d retrieved from his nightstand and asked immediately, “Did you leave anything else in my house?” And he really hadn’t intended to sound cold or deliberately uninviting with this totally legitimate question, but apparently his intentions didn’t matter much.

“No, I don’t think so.” This somewhat defeated-sounding pronouncement from Sano was the last thing either of them said for a while.

The earlier reflections must indeed have been meant for Hajime to hear, for the walls were up full force now and very little was getting through. As they headed back to the Asian district and drew closer and closer to Sano’s apartment, the only mental voice Hajime was hearing was the one in his own brain urging him to invite Sano out to lunch between classes on Monday. Or something. Anything.

But what if Sano thought he meant it as a date?

Would even that really be so bad?

The parking space beside Sano’s car was available as it had been the other day, and Hajime pulled into it in continued silence. He hesitated, considering turning off the car, but thought better of the message that might send.

“I’ll probably sleep all afternoon,” was Sano’s muttered introduction to his real goodbye.

“Probably a good idea,” Hajime replied.

“So I guess…” When Hajime turned a little reluctantly to face him, Sano went on very seriously. “Thanks for everything.” He smiled weakly as he said, “Even stabbing me. I mean, this has all really been a huge big deal. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t helped.”

“Neither do I,” Hajime smirked.

Sano gave a faint laugh at the insulting implication, but didn’t specifically respond to it. Instead he said, “I feel less bad about not paying you since Gains gave us both money, but you didn’t know that was going to happen… so… thanks for the free help.”

“It would have been worth it even without the money, since I had the chance to talk to a ghost.”

This statement, while perfectly true, seemed to serve as serious discouragement to Sano. Hajime was fairly sure this had all been leading up to another attempt at some suggestion regarding the future of their acquaintance, but now Sano’s usual straightforwardness appeared to have momentarily abandoned him. Funny how that quality and Hajime’s decisiveness both seemed in abeyance when it came to this one particular matter…

“Try not to overdose on that Percocet,” Hajime said after what could only be called an awkward silence.

Sano forced a laugh. “Guess that depends on how much it hurts.” And with this ambiguous remark he reached for the door.

Once standing on the pavement, he bent slightly and looked back into the car just as he had the last time Hajime had dropped him off here. And just like last time, Sano didn’t quite seem to know what to say. His brows lowered a trifle, as with determination, and he opened his mouth… and Hajime, almost without thinking, shot down his last attempt.

“Thank you for an interesting professional experience.” It felt like a defensive move, a sort of reflex against the idea of even discussing a potential romantic relationship.

“Yeah,” said Sano dully. “Sure.” He stood straight again so that his face was hidden as he added, “See you around.” And he closed the door without further ado and began walking away.

As this movement was being conducted rather slowly, and as Hajime thought the awkwardness would not be improved by his sitting here watching Sano’s long path toward the building, the exorcist put his car in reverse after only a few moments and vacated the parking space. He threw one last look at Sano’s retreating figure before leaving the lot and probably leaving Sano to think, despite the optimistic wording of his goodbye, that they would never meet again.

Whether or not that was true, Hajime simply didn’t know yet.

Part 39


On a Friday afternoon like most Friday afternoons — most Friday afternoons before Kenshin, that is — just as Sano was headed out of class, as usual, toward the bus stop, already pondering what he was going to have for lunch and whether homework or the playing of video games was likely to come first today, the phone he’d just barely powered back on started to ring.

Looking at the number, Sano frowned. It seemed familiar, but wasn’t one of his contacts, nor something he immediately recognized. He didn’t think he had any bills overdue, so this probably wasn’t anyone he would be too annoyed talking to. So he went ahead and answered.

“Sano?”

It took him a second to recognize the voice, not only because he’d never talked to her on the phone before but because something was different in her tone.

“Kaoru?”

“Yeah. Hi.” She sounded simultaneously less hopelessly miserable than every time he’d been around her, and a lot more hesitant and uncertain. She probably thought he would think her weird for calling almost a week after everything had ended.

“Hi,” he echoed in immediate concern and desire to put her at ease. “How are you doing?”

“As good as you could expect… maybe a little better than before. I’m calling because I was hoping I could… talk to you…”

“Yeah, of course,” he assured her earnestly.

“Have you talk to me, mostly, actually. I know I was a little… out of it… when you guys left on Saturday. I was hoping you would tell me everything that happened that I couldn’t really listen to before.”

“Yeah, sure.” He looked around. Not about to be That Guy having a phone conversation during his entire bus ride — especially a conversation about the ghost that had been haunting him and the mob secretary he’d met during the course of dealing with it — he made for a nearby bench. As he threw down his backpack he began, “Actually a lot of the stuff you’ll want to hear I only got from Hajime; I didn’t see it myself. But I’ll try to make it interesting anyway.”

“OK.” She sounded grateful and just the tiniest bit amused. Which was a very good sign, as Sano had never heard even that tiniest bit from her before.

He gave her all the details of the visit to Gains at the U.S.Seido headquarters, including what had happened after he’d passed out; this led to an explanation of how he and Hajime had come to investigate that seemingly very random avenue in the first place, which led to a hasty reassurance about what the police did and didn’t know, including, to the best of Sano’s ability, a word-for-word imitation of what Hajime had said to Chou about Kenshin’s death. He also relayed much of what Hajime had told him about his discussion with Kenshin, omitting only the parts that would be of interest solely to someone with a magical talent for interacting with the dead. This all took a while, and his phone had done that heating-up thing it sometimes did on lengthy calls before he was finished.

When he concluded, “And I’m pretty sure that’s everything that happened that you’d want to know,” she gave a drawn-out sigh. He was also pretty sure she’d been crying through at least part of what he’d had to say.

Now she said, “Thank you so much. This has all been really strange and horrible for me, and I really appreciate you talking to me about it.”

“Any time,” he replied. And to underline his sincerity he added, “And I mean that. I don’t know how much it’s likely to help, but, seriously, call me whenever you want to talk.” After all, though he hadn’t managed to get to know Kenshin in time to be his friend, there was no reason he couldn’t get to know Kaoru and be hers.

“Thank you,” she said again. “I think I’ll probably have to, some time.”

“‘Have to?'” he echoed. “I’m not that bad to talk to!”

And without a sour edge to it for the first time he’d heard, she laughed. “No, sorry,” she said. “It’s just… I may need a lot of talking before…”

“Yeah, definitely,” he agreed. “I totally understand.” Just as he had at her apartment last week, he felt a little awkward trying to offer the dubious service of his conversation to someone with as long and hard an upward road as she had before her, but he didn’t shrink from the task. “Seriously, call me any time.”

She thanked him yet again, and added, “And say thank you to your friend for me, too, would you? I have his card still, but… I don’t know… it seemed like…”

“He’s a lot more professional than me?” Sano tried to keep the bitterness of the last five days out of his tone.

“Well, he was polite and everything, but… yeah, professional’s a good word. It was all just work to him; it seemed like you cared more.”

This was such a pricklingly accurate summary that Sano could barely confirm it and promise that he would, nevertheless, relay her thanks to Hajime. If he ever happened to talk to him again.

“I’ll let you go,” she said next. “Thanks again.”

“No problem at all.”

When the call had ended and Sano sat staring unseeingly at the phone he didn’t want to put back in his pocket until it had cooled down a bit, he found himself in an ambivalent mood. This conversation, he felt, had been a very good thing; Kaoru now had all the information available, which would surely help in her recovery — not to mention, for what it was worth, the awareness that Sano was there for her whenever she needed him. And she even seemed to be doing a little better than the last time he’d seen her. This was all calculated to please him… but then, naturally during the course of such a conversation, Hajime had come up, and thinking about Hajime right now was not calculated to please. Not that Sano hadn’t been doing it all week; but he’d at least been free of it (mostly) for the last several hours.

That Hajime could possibly be ignorant of Sano’s interest in him, Sano could in no way bring himself to believe. Therefore, the fact that he’d heard nothing from the man since their awkward goodbye on Saturday could only be, he thought, an indication of Hajime’s specific disinterest. Which shouldn’t be even the tiniest bit surprising: that was what Sano had believed of him pretty much the entire time. As Kaoru had said, it was all just work to him.

But they hadn’t known each other very long… how could Hajime dismiss him with so much surety after only a week’s acquaintance? Of course that same limited time period meant Sano didn’t know that it wasn’t just as likely things really wouldn’t ever work between them, but that was no reason not to give it a try! All Sano wanted was a chance; was that too much to ask?

Or, if Hajime really was dead-set against the idea — didn’t like men, for example (which, Sano had to admit, would be a pretty solid reason to dismiss him with so much surety) — he damn well could have said something to that effect.

Not that Sano had actually said anything. He’d been on the verge of doing so a number of times, but hadn’t ever gotten the words out. Somehow the casual statement of interest he’d never had a hard time giving anyone else had just been really difficult with this guy that was comradely one minute and all business the next. And now he hadn’t heard from him for six days. It seemed that ship had sailed.

And that was when the phone in his hand began to play the mournfully angry song his pique halfway through the week had authorized him to purchase as a ringtone for Hajime’s number.

His heart-rate seemed instantly to double and time simultaneously to slow as the name appeared on the screen just when he’d convinced himself that would never happen again. His fingers fumbled unbearably across the keys, nearly initiating a couple of different ‘reject call’ options by accident on the way to answering. And his “Hello?” definitely came out a good deal more quiet and hoarse than he could have wished.

“You don’t have call waiting.” Still no actual greeting. Sano had never decided whether or not he thought that was a good sign, but at least nothing had changed.

“Yeah,” he found himself explaining at unnecessary length, “for some reason, my crappy service charges, like, two dollars extra a month for that. Same with call forwarding and voicemail. You’d think those would all be basic features, but I guess if they can make some extra money on ’em, why not?”

“You need a new provider.”

“I’ll think about that as soon as this phone dies. It’s still got a couple months left.”

“You should be able to afford a new one sooner than that; it’s the 26th.”

“Oh, yeah, it is! Shit!” Sano wasn’t sure whether he was more astonished or amused to find that, in light of his annoyed disappointment about Hajime, he’d actually managed to forget the massive check that was currently sitting on his kitchen counter.

“So you need to cash a check and see a doctor,” Hajime said, and it was clear that amusement was his foremost reaction. “I thought you might want a ride.”

Well, so far, so professional — both of those things had to do with the ordeal last week, and the offer of a ride was probably merely another part of Hajime’s unspoken apology for stabbing Sano in the shoulder. Sano wasn’t going to tell him just yet that he’d pulled the stitches out himself because they’d become annoying, and that therefore Hajime didn’t need to pay any doctor to do it for him. Though it probably would have hurt less if he had.

“So you called to offer to drive me around,” Sano said probingly.

“That, and ask if you wanted to assist in a job I’m working on.”

Sano bit back the immediate affirmative that sprang into his throat, and asked instead, “What kind of job?”

“People shouldn’t move into a house where someone has recently died without having the place checked out first,” Hajime remarked, sounding a little irritated despite the fact that such people kept him in business. “I took care of the red shade in the house, but one of the children had already internalized enough of it to cause some serious problems.”

“And you don’t want to stab the kid,” Sano grinned.

“Not particularly. There’s a share of the fee in it for you, if you’re interested.”

‘Interested’ was a bit of an understatement. Just the thought of doing that kind of real, official work in the field of necrovisual magic with Hajime made Sano almost giddy. He remembered Hajime referring to him as his partner a week ago and the rush that had given him at the time… and now Hajime was essentially asking Sano to fulfill that function. Either that or ‘using a specialist’ as he’d also mentioned once in Sano’s hearing. In any case, it was money and work he didn’t hate and recognition of his abilities and time spent with Hajime all in one. Of course he was interested.

On the other hand, the offer, obviously even more than the ones that had preceded it, still fell very much in the realm of the professional. There was no saying that Hajime would have called him, that Sano would ever have heard from him again, if there hadn’t been last week’s business to clean up and this week’s business to pursue. This was all about business, and that was a huge puncture in Sano’s ballooning glee.

But that didn’t mean he was going to make the same mistake twice. Not after he’d spent the entire week wondering whether he should call Hajime to say what he hadn’t managed to say on Saturday. The level of discouragement Hajime had doled out — deliberately or otherwise Sano had never been able to decide — had made it pretty evident that a direct statement such as, “I’d kinda really like to make out with you,” was probably not a good idea… but now that this line was open, he wasn’t going to hang up until he’d at least said something.

“You know a share of the fee’s not all I want, right?” And maybe even that was too direct, but he’d said it now.

“There may be some pizza and beer in it for you as well,” Hajime replied.

It wasn’t just the words, but their immediacy — Hajime’s complete lack of hesitation in speaking them — that flooded Sano with a hot, energizing excitement and happiness. This seemed a pretty clear indication that Hajime was not averse to giving Sano a chance at winning him over — or, at the very least, that he would be happy to spend time with him. Because there was no promise of a ghost now. Nothing professional. Just Sano. Hajime had already specifically established, in fact, that Sano was not even a little bit professional.

“And anime?” Sano didn’t bother trying to keep his emotions out of his voice.

There was a hidden grin in Hajime’s reply, “That depends on what I’m in the mood for. It may be Law and Order.”

“I can handle that. And what about lunch right now?” With this he was pushing just for the sake of pushing.

“You are a worthless freeloader,” Hajime declared. “And I’ve already had lunch.”

“I can’t absorb shade on an empty stomach!”

“We’ll find you a drive-thru on the way to the clients’ house.” It didn’t even sound as if Hajime was giving in, merely adjusting his plans as required.

The ecstatic Sano would have adored to continue this conversation right up until the moment Hajime actually appeared in the flesh in front of him, but the beeping that had arisen in his ear forced him to say, “Hey, my phone’s about to die. You know how to get to the school?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’m in front of the Statton Building.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“My pants have big red chains on them that match my hair today; you can’t miss me.”

“Idiot.” And Hajime hung up.

Sano squeezed his phone and shook it in a gesture of triumph and delight, laughing simultaneously under the same influence. A chance was what he’d wanted, and a chance, it appeared, was what he was getting. Well, he had wanted, and still wanted, more than that, but a chance was all he’d thought it totally reasonable to ask for. And now he had it: proof that this wasn’t actually hopeless, and an opportunity that he was certainly going to make the most of. That exorcist was going to find Sano capable of haunting just as tenaciously as any ghost.

Huge happy smile undiminished, Sano nudged his backpack onto the ground, lay down onto the cool bench with one arm behind his head, turned his gaze up into the cloudless blue of the sky, and waited for Hajime.



<<38

Plastic was written, along with its first follow-up, Reciprocity, when I started toying with some ideas. There had long been a few things I’d wanted to write about Saitou and Sano: asexual Saitou and how that would clash with a very sexual Sano; Saitou as a paranormal investigator helping Sano out of a supernatural difficulty; Saitou owning/taking care of cats Tokio and Misao (familiars or otherwise); and police procedural featuring (you guessed it) Saitou. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt I could combine all these elements (with some tweaking) in a story set in the same world as Plastic, which at that time, I believe, did not have a title.

It proved to fit remarkably well, rounding out the magical system I had created and dropping a few little hints that the stories took place in the same city (which is essentially a fictionalized version of San Jose, Californa). It also provided crucial concepts that helped me shape the plot of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, which was, back when I wrote it, the first instance of crossover between the Gundam Wing characters and the Rurouni Kenshin characters.

On that topic, I find it interesting that, while I strove to include every possible GW character I could in Plastic, Seeing Red has only the RK characters necessary for its precise story. I’ve been honing over many years the art of stripping Saitou & Sano fics down to as close to “only Saitou and Sano fics” as they can get, and this carried over even into this broader universe where the disposition of many other characters must be of interest.

I didn’t manage to hook Saitou and Sano up in this one, though, which somewhat surprised me at the time. The problem was simply that this Saitou believes himself to be aromantic as well as asexual. He is, in fact, panromantic, but not aware of that for a while, which makes the anticipated clash I mentioned above all the more complicated and fraught when it comes.

Saitou as paranormal investigator also didn’t work out exactly as I’d daydreamed. I had envisioned him as being a more general-purpose investigator into supernatural events, but needed to give him a far more specific job in order to fit him into this world of semi-secret magic. I’m still pretty tickled by the idea of this pretty harsh guy with a sword showing up to take care of invisible energies in someone’s new house XD

Unlike the rest of the points, the cats turned out very precisely what I had imagined, and I had a ton of fun writing them.

And as for the police procedural… well, this story’s procedure isn’t nearly as intensive as in a police investigation, but I still think I managed to produce a decent mystery and the steps it takes to solve it. And the good news is that I haven’t checked any of these things (except maybe the cats) off my list of potentials for future stories, so I may write an honest-to-goodness police mystery AU, with Saitou at the helm, one of these days.

I’m excessively attached to this story. I think it’s quite good and very interesting, and I love the unique dynamic it has between Saitou and Sano. You would think, then, that I’d be quicker with the big sequel that will smooth out their relationship and get them where they need to be! But in any case, I’ve rated this .

His Own Humanity: Plastic

His Own Humanity: Plastic

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”



“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”


Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”


“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



Canine Impulses

He could have made a list of problems that afflicted him on a day-to-day basis, and right there between ‘having to pay rent’ and ‘the Meiji government’ would be ‘inability to look at or think about Saitou Hajime without getting insurgently aroused.’

Realizing Saitou is to-die-for sexy (in addition to being a complete jerk) is likely to drive Sano out of his wits, which may be exactly what Saitou intends.


Panting, trying to control movements that had originally been a bit panicky, Sano slowed, then finally drew to a halt. The night air, cool as steel, instantly chilled the sweat that was no longer renewed by effort, and he shivered. Turning, staring hard with searching eyes in the direction he’d come, he could detect nothing… but that didn’t mean nothing was there.

When after an additional few paces the high building walls let in a greater amount of light, he glanced around more searchingly. This seemed like a dead end; wasn’t that just his luck? And at the very moment he came to this conclusion, he heard again those calculated steps approaching up the street, cutting off any escape.

His heart was doing funny things, and he told himself very firmly not to be stupid. But at the same time, he found himself backing away, eyes locked on the impenetrable darkness he’d just left, until he really did come up against a wall and undeniable proof that he could flee no farther. He tried again to catch his breath, rallying for the final confrontation. He hadn’t wanted to get involved — which was why he’d run — but now it had come to this, he would not go down without a fight.

The pursuer appeared. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen Saitou Hajime detach himself from all-concealing shadow, a flesh and blood extension of the night, but it was the first time the sight had caused him to shiver so uncontrollably. He’d never thought Saitou could be so damn scary until being chased by him… until realizing just how sneaky and quick the cop truly was. He’d never been scared of him at all before, actually… Honestly, for all the stabbing and name-calling, they’d always technically been allies. Now Saitou had some purpose that didn’t necessarily put Sano on his side… that, considering Sano really had been in the way back there, even if merely by coincidence, quite possibly made Sano a target.

The officer emerged fully from the darkness and paused a moment in the pale light from the slivered moon. He raised an eyebrow as Sano fell silently, breathlessly into a fighting stance. “Your logic is so animalistic,” he remarked, beginning to move forward again with steps so slow they seemed almost languid.

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded. He should have known Saitou wouldn’t just kill him; he had to torment him first, of course.

“You’re like a dog. You sniff around in things that aren’t your business, you run off when you’re startled, and you turn and fight when you’re cornered.”

“So what?” If Saitou’s aim had been to make Sano angry, he’d succeeded. It hadn’t been Sano’s fault he’d stumbled on that shit just when the police were about to crack down on it; they should mark their stake-outs better. And hadn’t he tried to get out of their way as quickly as possible? Sure, that did make him look kinda guilty, but still…

Saitou was stalking toward him yet. “Aren’t you even going to protest you had nothing to do with that deal?”

“What good would it do when you never listen to anything I say anyway?” was Sano’s surly answer. He was just waiting for the damn cop to get within striking distance.

“And you think running from me and then attacking me is a better indication of your innocence,” concluded Saitou as that distance closed and Sano flew at him with clenched fists. Sano’s only reply was a sort of roar.

Saitou dodged most of his blows, blocked a few of them, returned several, and suddenly had Sano pinned against the wall in an iron grip. The young man struggled, panting and growling out half-intelligible profanities, but could not get free. He could only gasp in the scent of cigarettes as Saitou’s face came close to his and the older man said in a low tone, “This is what happens when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Sano’s angry retort took a moment developing as he worked through the logic. “Wait… you knew I wasn’t involved and you chased me anyway?”

That insufferable smirk spread across Saitou’s face. “You ran.”

“Like I was going to stick around when you showed up!” Sano squirmed, angrier than before at Saitou’s nonsensical answer, but the other held him nearly still against the rough wall. “And, what, would you chase me whenever I ran?”

“Of course,” replied Saitou immediately.

“Weren’t you after those other guys, though?” Sano demanded. “Do you really have time to chase someone who’s not involved?”

“My men had them before you were halfway down that street; there was no harm in my entertaining myself for a while.”

“Figures your idea of entertainment is to make my life miserable. I thought the only thing you enjoyed was destroying evil shit.”

Saitou’s smirk widened.

Sano’s eyes did likewise, and again he strained in vain to get free. “You really are gonna kill me this time, aren’t you?!”

“Something like that.”

“Something…” Sano began, annoyed and confused, then trailed off both at the sudden flash in Saitou’s narrowed gaze and the fact that the latter was drawing very close. Sano, not sure what to think or feel in response to this, tried to back away, but he was already against the wall and there was nowhere to go. Saitou’s mouth closed over his, and Sano’s struggling ceased as if he were paralyzed. Saitou, who he’d always thought hated him, or who seemed to like nothing better than belittling and annoying him, or who at best didn’t really acknowledge his existence… that same Saitou… was kissing him. Was, moreover, working his mouth open with an insistent and far too dexterous tongue, pressing against him with a firm and far too hot body, and holding him in place with gloved and far too motionless hands.

This last condition made Sano disregard any potential pleasure in the action and break away violently — for however tightly those hands had clamped onto his hips, it was a less restrictive hold than the previous. He staggered two paces, fingers over his lips and rage swirling like the noisy blood through his body, and whirled, glaring death. His heart was racing, his skin burning, and he was sure his face must be bright red. And whether it was worse that Saitou Hajime had kissed him or that he’d really liked it, he couldn’t say.

“You asshole,” he snarled. “You think you can just do whatever you want whenever you please! Stab me or chase me or fucking kiss me or whatever the hell you feel like!”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “Can’t I?”

“No!! You can’t just–“

“Do you really mean ‘can’t?'” Saitou broke in, still with that same expression on his face. Overriding whatever Sano might have planned to say in return, he continued, “Do you really mean to say that if I wanted to throw you down and have my way with you right here and now, there would be anything to stop me?”

Sano was absolutely horrified at the hot shudder that ran through his entire body at this; since when was he even remotely sexually attracted to Saitou? Since being kissed by him, apparently. “Like I’d ever let you touch me.”

The officer’s evil smirk did not diminish, but he rolled his eyes as he again began moving toward Sano. “You wouldn’t have any say in the matter.”

Sano couldn’t believe this. Was Saitou actually going to… to… And what was this burning that ran down his chest, twisted briefly in his stomach, and settled, tingling, in his groin? How could he possibly be having feelings like that in a situation like this?? As a result, he became more irate. He hated Saitou and his stupid ideas of entertainment and his stupid random threats and his stupid sexy eyes. There really wasn’t much to say, though, so he just attacked again.

Saitou proved even more slippery than before; Sano didn’t think a single one of the hits he threw connected, whereas Saitou bounced him off the wall a couple of times and eventually knocked him to the ground. Sano found himself unable to move, bruised, bloody, exhausted, with Saitou on top of him. The cop straddled his hips, leaning over him holding his arms above his head pinned to the ground, their faces close together. Sano didn’t close his eyes or attempt to look away as Saitou’s mouth again descended, but it wasn’t exactly a kiss; Saitou was saying, “You see?” — though the murmur was barely audible over Sano’s gasping breaths; and Sano could barely concentrate on the words as he was too busy fighting the traitorous impulse to raise his head and capture more of Saitou’s lips than just this light brushing against his own.

It was an effort even to remember that he abhorred this bastard, and several moments of staring breathlessly into searing gold before he managed to grate out, “Just get it over with.” This show of resistance would be entirely belied in a few moments, though, if the heat of Saitou against him down there didn’t diminish quickly.

“Get what over with?” Saitou wondered in a casual tone as he released Sano’s wrists and began to stand. “I think I’ve made my point.”

Disbelieving and irate, Sano sat up. Saitou was watching him impassively and lighting a cigarette, and, when Sano didn’t have anything to say just yet, smirked and turned. “Good night.”

Staggering to his feet, Sano felt his hands tingle as he clenched them. “Wait just one fucking minute, you son of a bitch!” This demand rose to a roar by the time it was finished, but Saitou did not pause or respond. And Sano, for all his rage, simply could not move. He trembled with a mixture of severe emotions, trying to come up with anything he could say that might bring Saitou back so he could kick his ass. Provided he could move at all, and provided that movement didn’t involve flinging himself on the older man and stuffing his tongue down that stupid throat.

That image — of Saitou melting out of the darkness once more, coming back over here, and again grinding Sano into the wall with a scorching kiss — was the last thing needed to send Sano’s blood rushing downward; skin prickling, head spinning, he tried to come to grips with the fact that Saitou Hajime had just given him a hard-on and the idea that either the asshole had some uncanny seductive powers… or Sano had been repressing something rather serious for quite some time.

“Goddammit,” he growled, turning unsteadily and slamming a fist into the wall behind him in a jerky motion. His other hand was threatening to wander to the frustrated bulge in his pants, so he clenched it as well and punched the wall again with an inarticulate angry noise.

He couldn’t believe that guy. What kind of person chased someone around for no good reason, kissed him, threatened to rape him, and then didn’t go through with it? Not a fucking normal person! Not that Sano wanted him to go through with it, but why did Saitou have to be such an equivocal freak? If he was going to get Sano in trouble for being ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ he should just arrest him and be done with it; if he acknowledged Sano was an innocent bystander, he should leave him the hell alone! If he wanted Sano he should fucking say so; if he didn’t, he should keep his hands off.

What was Sano thinking? He should keep his hands off, period. His hands and his damn mouth.

Unattended, one of Sano’s own hands had crept exactly where he didn’t want it, and with the realization that it had came the similarly infuriating realization that he didn’t want Saitou to keep his hands — or his mouth — off.

His night was obviously ruined beyond any hope of repair. He was ready to kill something, literally kill, tear it apart and blood and guts and everything; he was that angry. And what made it a hundred times worse was that he couldn’t be entirely certain this hypothetical violence was directed at Saitou. For all Sano wanted to do any number of horrible painful things to the officer, he was still combating the desire for the officer to do any number of horrible pleasurable things to him.

When he got home, it was a natural impulse to deal with his not-so-little problem, but the very idea of finishing what Saitou had started was infuriating and wrong. Giving in to what Saitou had made him feel would be making Saitou the winner, handing him a victory without a fight. Most of Sano’s body, though, was wondering who, exactly, was the winner here and who was the loser.

So he lay in bed with clenched fists and clenched teeth and tried not to think about anything exacerbating. There were two difficulties with this: first, that he wasn’t used to restraining himself when he was horny, and trying to keep from jacking off was an unusual and engrossing exertion; second, that he’d never been able to keep Saitou out of his head when the cop made him angry. It had been a problem even before thinking about the bastard had rendered Sano inexplicably, uncontrollably aroused.

If Sano had entertained any hopes that a good night’s rest would put the whole thing behind him, it didn’t take long to clear up the misconception. The maddening events of the night before immediately captivated him again upon awakening, and he had a sneaking suspicion his morning wood was really more of a carry-over from then. Still, he studiously didn’t touch it.

Whatever he’d been planning to do that day — if anything — was entirely forgotten in his frustration, but staying home lying around thinking about things offered far too many temptations. Once he’d cold-watered himself into presentability, he dragged himself up and out, and began wandering aimlessly.

Daylight (and people who didn’t know or care that he’d spent the night trying not to want to bang his arch nemesis) helped, and, when he ran into Katsu (who definitely didn’t know and definitely wasn’t going to), he had increasing hopes for a tolerable day.

“Morning, Sano,” the artist yawned.

“Morning,” replied Sano, trying to sound like nothing was going on. He was very bad at sounding like nothing was going on when something was going on, and Katsu threw him an immediate quizzical glance. But Katsu was very good at reading people, and apparently realized Sano didn’t feel like admitting something was going on — and therefore, good friend that he was, did not question. Yet. Sano, a little annoyed with his own lack of circumspection, feared it would not take much to change his mind. Still, he put on a brave face and added to his greeting, “You look like you been up all night.”

“So do you,” Katsu said mildly, with only the barest rise in the level of his left eyebrow.

Sano cleared his throat. “Yeah, well…” He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked around. “So what are you up to?”

“Trying to get my shopping done before I collapse.” Katsu had adopted his So we’re pretending everything’s normal, are we? tone. “I haven’t slept in a few days.”

“New issue’s all done, though?” Sano guessed, trying very hard to be and sound interested.

Katsu nodded with a slight smile. “And since you’re here, we might as well find some lunch before I finish shopping.”

Of course this caused Sano to brighten a bit almost in spite of himself, and he agreed readily. The idea of free food even took his mind off… everything else… for about five minutes, and during these minutes he actually managed some natural, rational conversation… until, when they’d nearly reached the restaurant they’d agreed upon, the matter intruded on his relative peace rather forcibly once again.

“No drug deals today, I see.”

Sano wasn’t sure why he turned. It wasn’t as if he needed confirmation of who was speaking, or wanted to see him. But turn he did, and — perhaps not so unexpectedly this time — felt a hot shiver run up and down his spine and then dissipate to tingle across his entire body. Why was he suddenly noticing how Saitou walked like a predatory beast always ready to pounce, continually waiting for, but never actually finding, worthy prey? Why did Sano seem to see for the very first time the almost teasing way Saitou’s jacket bunched slightly at his belt and that the man had the most amazingly nice-looking legs conceivable? He didn’t care about any of that, and he didn’t want…

Well, he did want. That was the problem.

He realized he’d been staring, silent, for several moments while Saitou, smirking, came to a halt.

Sano, burning with rage and whatnot, turned without a word and stalked away.

“What the hell was that?” Katsu wondered, catching up with him and sounding like he was waffling between amusement and worry.

“What the hell do you think?” Sano growled. “It’s Saitou.”

“Yeah, but when don’t you have anything to say to him?”

“I’m more pissed than usual, all right?”

“Why, what’s he done now?”

“Nothing,” Sano grated out truthfully; it was what Saitou hadn’t done.

Katsu was evidently baffled, but just as evidently entertained. “Well, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were checking him out just now. But of course I know better.”

Sano barely restrained himself from exploding. This would normally make him angry, of course, and Katsu would be expecting some sort of irritated outburst — but anything Sano said in reply at this point would be too angry, so he tried not to respond. But the fact was, he had been checking Saitou out, and he wasn’t very good at restraining himself, so as he walked a string of indistinct growling complaints leaked from between his clenched teeth.

So much for that good day. Just when he’d thrown Katsu off the scent, too. God damn that fucking bastard. Now he couldn’t even have lunch with his friend like he’d planned, which meant he either had to go hungry or find some other source of nourishment in an unstable frame of mind. Oh, and it meant he had to find some excuse for deserting Katsu, too. In that same unstable frame of mind.

“You look really tired, man,” was what he eventually came up with. “Why don’t we do lunch another day? You should go home and get some sleep.”

And although Katsu accepted this and let him off, his expression — slightly concerned, definitely amused, and penetrating overall — told Sano exactly how much he bought it as the actual reason for not having lunch together.

That Katsu was too good at figuring things out, combined with evidence that Saitou intended to plague Sano with this bullshit, meant Sano wouldn’t be hanging out with his friend until this issue was resolved. Exactly what resolution he anticipated he couldn’t be certain, but in the meantime he didn’t need Katsu’s knowing glances and ‘casual’ remarks.

This doomed him largely to solitude. He had other friends, of course, who were less perceptive, but their pursuits and the circumstances under which he generally interacted with them were too unhurried, left too much time open for reflection. Similarly inadequate was any part-time work he might have taken on, as the only type for which he qualified made good use of the muscles but small use of the brain. Opportunity for thought was the last thing he needed. He needed a distraction… something Katsu, what with politic talk and art talk and general banter, usually provided. Damn Saitou and his bastardly timing. The only real option was to try to keep himself occupied watching and interacting with the general populace of Tokyo and hope the problem would go away if he ignored it.

He should have known, though, how unlikely a circumstance that was. A few days after the brief but aggravating meeting with Saitou in the street, as Sano was trying to determine whether he was likely to fall asleep any time soon if he lay down in bed or whether he oughtn’t to go back out and find something to entertain him until it was a little later, there came a knock at his door. Without much thought he answered it.

His first impulse was to pretend nobody was there and slam it shut again, but this impulse only arose after a moment of shock that lasted long enough for Saitou to come inside and close the door himself. Sano’s second impulse was to attack immediately, but he didn’t act on that either. “What the fuck are you doing here?” he growled instead as Saitou stepped leisurely onto his floor and looked around.

“What do you think I’m doing here?” the other replied without looking back at him.

“Maybe you came to apologize.” Sano thought some sarcasm of his own was not ill-placed; he really couldn’t imagine Saitou actually apologizing for anything.

Neither could Saitou, apparently. “Apologize for what? I don’t think I’ve done anything to you lately.”

“You sure as hell made it seem like you were gonna.”

Saitou threw Sano a piercing glance over his shoulder. “Would you prefer I had?”

“No!”

“Then there’s obviously nothing to apologize for,” the cop shrugged. “No, I’m just here because I’m curious how you live.”

This was entirely incredible, and Sano wanted to say so, but there was no way he could accuse Saitou of actually being here to torment him further… for that would mean admitting that, ever since that night, the very sight of the man — almost the very thought of him — was enough to set Sano’s entire body on fire, to say nothing of the effect of having Saitou here, in his home, so damn close to his bed. Eventually all he said was, “So now you’ve seen it.”

“Yes,” replied the older man with a slight sneer. “It’s exactly what I expected.”

Sano had already voiced a defiant, “Oh?!” before the thought crossed his mind that he didn’t really want to hear Saitou’s assessment of his living conditions.

“You really are like a dog.”

Incensed, Sano seized him by the shoulder and yanked him around. “What the fuck is your problem, asshole? Is it really that much fun to give me this kind of shit all the time? Why don’t you find some other way to get your damn rocks off?!”

At Saitou’s casual glance up and down Sano’s figure, and at the latter’s deep shudder that couldn’t be invisible to those penetrating gold eyes, Sano became painfully aware of just how badly he’d worded that.

“I’m sure I could if I looked,” was Saitou’s reply.

Sano absolutely must cut this short before it ended like their last close encounter, so he commanded with as much collection as he could, “Get the hell out of my house.”

“Good night, then,” Saitou smirked as he nodded and obeyed. And that he’d gone so docilely could not make up for the ache that developed rapidly in Sano’s groin at the inadvertent study of the way Saitou’s lips curled and the unwanted ensuing mental image. They weren’t even nice lips, and Sano definitely didn’t want them sucking on him anywhere.

He tried to restrain the urge to make one of his usual destructive demonstrations of anger, not merely because he would prefer not to damage his own home but also because he was tired of Saitou dictating how he felt. Avoiding the demonstration did not negate the feeling, however, and that only made it worse. Additionally, neither ire nor restraint could change or lessen this intense arousal.

How could he be almost hard again after a mere couple of minutes? A few words, a few glances — how could that be all it took? It hadn’t happened before… he could only imagine (in horror) how much trouble it would have caused if Saitou had had this kind of effect on him back when serious events had forced them together so much… but Saitou had never kissed him back then… had never pressed against him like forge-hot iron conforming to the shape of Sano’s body…

And what was he supposed to do about it? Just get used to the fact that he could barely look at the man anymore without getting any number of obscene images in his head and similar urges all through his body? It wasn’t fair! He shouldn’t have to get used to something like that! He didn’t want to have sex with Saitou; he didn’t want to have anything to do with Saitou. He hated Saitou. It wasn’t fair to have his brain invaded with fantasies of the stupid cop shoving Sano down on the stupid hard floor and shoving his stupid hard cock into Sano’s ass, and it wasn’t fair how much he liked the idea. And he wasn’t curious how big it was, either, whether those fantasies were doing it justice.

“Fuck,” he growled, and said it again for good measure.

Obviously he couldn’t go to bed now. Gambling, drinking, fighting, anything… he had to find something else to do. In a nearly uncontrollable rage he stormed from his house, very possibly causing the same damage he’d tried to avoid only minutes before.

So evidently this problem wasn’t going to go away just because he ignored it. For one thing, Saitou wouldn’t let him ignore it. For another, neither would his own damn hormones. And Sano’s options — at least the ones that didn’t involve letting someone else dictate a major change in his life — were running out.

Something had to be done, though, as it was becoming a disturbingly routine issue. He could have made a list of problems that afflicted him on a day-to-day basis, and right there between ‘having to pay rent’ and ‘the Meiji government’ would be ‘inability to look at or think about Saitou Hajime without getting insurgently aroused.’ Such issues he usually learned to deal with if they seemed insurmountable, but, aside from Saitou striking him as very mountable, the very idea of learning to deal with something like this sent him into fresh spasms of anger whenever he considered it.

He was never surprised to see Saitou anymore; the bastard showed up anywhere and everywhere, whenever was least convenient for Sano to lose his presence of mind. The sequence of events was always very much the same: Saitou ‘coincidentally’ appearing wherever Sano happened to be with some perfect excuse for being there; announcing himself with a sarcastic comment that usually had some damnable double meaning; giving Sano any number of ambiguous looks while ostensibly ignoring him, until Sano’s body was on fire and his tongue completely tied; then making a smooth retreat back to his asexual life of police spying and hypocritical condemnation of evil. After a couple of weeks of this, Sano was beginning to feel like a high-strung puppet manipulated expertly by gloved hands.

The thought did cross his mind that perhaps it wasn’t Saitou specifically that had him so worked up — maybe he was just starved for sex in general, Saitou’s odd behavior had opened his eyes to that condition, and Saitou himself was merely taking advantage of what must, to him, seem an amusing situation. The theory held water; it had been a while since Sano had gotten any. He’d always been somewhat picky about lovers, despite being in no position for such an attitude.

For one blissful day of unrestraint this idea stayed with him and allowed him to believe he really could escape. Although he didn’t relish the thought of finding some random source of satisfaction for this need, he liked it better than that of living this way any longer. Throughout his mostly unsuccessful foraging for lunch among his acquaintances, his somewhat uninteresting barroom brawls in the afternoon, and his largely unproductive gambling in the evening, the inspiration carried him. All the way to the appropriate district he rode a wave of impending freedom, up until the very moment he found himself, not entirely without abashment as he’d never done it before, surveying the selection… and wondering disconsolately why they were all so young and pretty, and not a gold eye among them.

Damn that fucking asshole! As if it wasn’t bad enough for him to grab Sano’s attention, did he have to take all of it? Twist Sano around his little gloved finger, flick him away like ash, and leave him unfit for anything or anyone else? God fucking damn him!!

Well, Sano wasn’t sure he would have been able to go through with it anyway; he’d never slept with a whore (that he was aware of), and didn’t know that this was the best way to start.

Even so, damn fucking Saitou to fucking hell.

Of course, in the search for something — anything — to take his mind (mind?) off the subject that had lately wrought utter destruction on his stability as a person, eventually the dojo and its inhabitants became candidates. They were poor candidates at best; he would have to expend so much energy making sure they didn’t sense anything was wrong, he might end up keeping a very firm mental hold on the issue and defy his purpose… and this was a good indication of how desperate he’d become.

The outer doors had been repainted since the last time he’d been here — how long ago? He rarely came here anymore unless he thought he could get something out of it, and recently he’d been too distracted even to consider it. But he realized now that the last time might actually have been on that day. Which meant it had been… but, no, it didn’t matter; counting the time since that night would just imply he cared.

When nobody was immediately apparent in the yard, he entered the house. At the minimal lighting and utter silence, he might have assumed they were gone — at the Akabeko or rescuing someone or whatnot — if the outer doors hadn’t been unlocked. So he made a quick search through the halls and rooms, until he found himself unexpectedly staring up at a calendar on the wall. It was Saturday the nineteenth.

“Three fucking weeks,” he muttered. Twenty-one days he’d wanted to get into Saitou’s stupid pants. How the hell could it have lasted that long?

“Oh, hello, Sanosuke.” Kaoru smiled at him from the doorway. “What’s three weeks?”

“Nothin’,” he replied gruffly, turning from the hateful calendar and attempting to look casually at the young woman. “So where is everybody?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing; I just got home.”

Examining her more closely, he noted the clothes patchily dark with sweat and face bright-flushed with exercise. To his absolute horror, his reason (if it could be called that) skipped right over the shouldered shinai and came up with a completely different explanation for her dishevelment than ‘teaching at another dojo.’ And this was Kaoru. God, even if he didn’t have an entirely one-track mind, it sure as hell didn’t stray far. Would visit be at all worth it? His tone was still rough as he suggested, “Let’s go find them.”

Yahiko was practicing while Kenshin finished up the day’s chores. The rurouni had, of course, been aware of Sano’s presence but, not wanting to interrupt his work so close to its end, hadn’t come to greet him. They had a bath ready for Kaoru, and, once she was thus safely out of the way (after criticizing Yahiko’s stance), found themselves free to sit down and talk.

“We have not seen you for a while,” was Kenshin’s opening remark. “What have you been up to?”

Sano bit his lip against the immediate reply, Trying not to want to fuck Saitou, and, with a little more difficulty, managed to come up with, “Same old shit.” No… so far this didn’t seem worth it. Gathering up his energy, however, he proceeded boldly. “What about you guys?”

“Very little is new here,” Kenshin smiled. “I am sure you saw the doors.” And he went on to describe the other minutiae of recent changes to dojo life. It was a topic he never lacked words to discuss, which always bewildered Sano. It made a certain amount of sense that Kenshin preferred a placid and even rather boring existence to living under constant attack, but Sano just couldn’t quite wrap his head around the concept of so much complacency. Kenshin was happy for things to remain exactly as they were for as long as that state could be preserved; no wonder Kaoru hadn’t managed to get him into the sack.

God dammit.

Eager to abandon that train of thought, “And what about you, kid?” Sano forced himself to ask next. He knew this attention to the lives of the dojo menfolks might appear slightly unnatural, but was drawing a blank trying to dredge up any other subject (besides Saitou, or sex, or sex with Saitou) to introduce.

“Not much new with me either,” Yahiko shrugged. He seemed, Sano had noticed, consistently on the edge of defiance when talking to any of them. This was no surprise, given the treatment he received, at least on a superficial level, from the adults with whom he generally interacted — Kenshin kindly patronizing, Kaoru impatiently critical, and Sano blatantly teasing — but it seemed a bit out of place when merely describing the day-to-day trivia of the Akabeko. Sano wondered if he still talked to Tsubame like that; girl wasn’t likely to be giving it up if he did.

God fucking dammit.

Apart from and beyond his complete inability to divorce random sexual thoughts from innocent remarks and ensuing reflection, Sano found himself simply impatient with his friends’ conversation. It was as if they had a responsibility to entertain him and weren’t delivering. Everything they said struck him as profoundly boring, to a degree far closer to utterly intolerable than usual, and he found himself continually holding his breath for something more exciting — an inevitably futile expectation.

For a while the very oddity of this frame of mind carried him, but eventually the knowledge of exactly what kind of excitement he would prefer became too present to ignore, and his mood soured.

“I meant to ask,” Kenshin said suddenly as Yahiko had just finished up his narrative, “why you did not accompany Kaoru-dono to the Maekawa dojo today. You finished your work at the Akabeko early enough that you could have gone with her.”

“She’s only going over defensive moves I already know,” Yahiko grumbled. “I don’t need to hear her harping on that again.”

“A good defense is critically important,” Kenshin reminded the boy.

“Fuck that,” Sano muttered with vehement understanding of Yahiko’s plight. Trust that to come up just now.

Kenshin smiled placidly, aware of why the subject bothered Sano but not of the extent to which it did.

“Well, I’m gonna get going,” Sano declared, standing abruptly. He really had no excuse to offer for not staying, so he didn’t bother trying. “I’ll see you guys around.”

They didn’t question, and the robed appearance of Kaoru from the bath to issue orders was enough to distract Kenshin from any concern he might have felt at Sano’s behavior. So the young man was able to slip out with a wave and no further conversation.

Outside the pristine doors, he let out a long sigh. More trouble than they’re fucking worth, he reflected bitterly as he took off up the street toward home.

All such ungenerous thoughts about his friends (and, indeed, all his rational or semi-rational thoughts on any subject) were obliterated when he turned a corner and found Saitou, not a block from the dojo, smoking calmly alone and watching the lane in the direction Sano was headed.

This really was too much. Most of the previous encounters had been set up to look like chance, at least on their rudimentary surface level and to others, but now here was Saitou deliberately standing around at some random point on Sano’s route home very obviously waiting for him. It was more than he could bear.

Clenching his fists, he stalked over to the wolf and demanded, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

Saitou turned toward him coolly. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.” The tone was that of a question.

“It turns into my goddamn business when you quit even pretending it’s a fucking coincidence we keep running into each other. What do you fucking want?”

“From you?” Saitou asked, his narrowed eyes giving Sano the slow once-over to which Sano was becoming sadly accustomed. “Absolutely nothing.”

“Right.” Yet again Sano had to grit his teeth against the desire to call Saitou on this utter bullshit. “Of course.” If the cop didn’t want anything from him, he wouldn’t be here deliberately tormenting him… but, again, to raise this point would require admitting it did torment him. “Why would I think you standing around here like you’re waiting for me actually has anything to do with me?” Knowing Saitou was already quite aware of Sano’s condition and admitting to that condition were two completely different things.

“I wouldn’t care to guess why you think anything you do,” Saitou answered disdainfully. The motion he made as he said this, tossing his cigarette down and turning slightly as if to watch it fall, drew Sano’s eyes first to his unusually bare hand, then to the spot just beneath his ear where neck and jaw met. But Sano tore his gaze away before he could start reflecting on the harsh elegance of Saitou’s physical attributes.

“Yeah, same here,” he muttered, and even he wasn’t sure whether he was attempting to throw the insult back at Saitou or agreeing about the futility of trying to comprehend his own mental state.

“And if I wanted anything from you,” the wolf continued, “I could have had it long ago.”

Sano, who had turned to escape, pleased with himself for getting out of this situation so quickly, was frozen abruptly where he stood by this statement. It wasn’t so much the words themselves — maddening though they were — as the way they’d been spoken: a softer, more intimate tone than any he’d ever heard from Saitou, containing an undeniably personal sound — a feeling of you know what I mean — and an edge… Sano could only call it… seductive… He hadn’t thought Saitou capable of that, but it made perfect sense the officer would only employ it in saying something so antithetic to seduction.

Not that it mattered what he’d said; he could have been reading a grocery list in that tone and it would have stopped Sano in his tracks, dragged him back, set his heart pounding wildly. Entirely against his will the younger man turned again and looked at the older. The latter was a mere step away, much closer than Sano had thought; he could easily close the distance and…

“Yes?” Saitou said mildly, watching Sano with smirking unconcern, as if they’d just had some sort of normal conversation and Sano turning back at this point merely indicated something he’d forgotten to mention and not a nearly unconquerable desire for public sodomy.

Sano, captivated by the glint in Saitou’s narrowed eyes, had nothing to say.

Observing this, Saitou’s twisted smile grew. “Well, good night,” he remarked, and started to turn.

To this Sano did have a reply. “Goddammit, I fucking hate you so much,” he burst out in ultimate frustration. Clenching a fist, he intended to hit Saitou full-force, for all the gesture was more defeated than challenging, but Saitou raised his own hand and caught Sano’s with little effort.

“So I’ve noticed.”

At the hot tremor that moved through Sano’s form as Saitou’s ungloved hand kept hold of his, Sano by now could not be remotely surprised. He took a shuddering breath and closed his eyes. “Fuck you,” he whispered.

The very solid heat of Saitou’s body moving forward almost against Sano’s made him stifle a gasp; he felt like he was swaying, about to fall over, dizzy with the burning and the desire, divided between wishing that Saitou would do a whole hell of a lot more than just stand very close to him and that Saitou would fucking die and go to hell this very moment. A hand gripped his shoulder, pulling him even closer, and breath moved across his face; Saitou was going to kiss him. Sano, in a sort of continual shudder, found his face tilting upward without having willed his muscles to do so; his lips parted and he tasted the cigarette flavor of Saitou’s proximity as he drew breath.

And then nothing happened.

He opened his eyes to find the infuriating golden ones of the other man very close to his, the officer’s narrow, sculpted lips half an inch from his, and on Saitou’s face an expression that was unalloyed rage-inducing smugness.

Sano tore away, his own face twisting irately, his legs weak, his heart pounding violently much like the throbbing in his prominent erection. Stumbling backward, he clenched both hands into fists. He wanted to punch Saitou; actually, he needed to punch Saitou, several times, right in his goddamn smirking face, but he didn’t dare go close to him. “Fuck you,” he said again in a hoarse growl.

If anything, Saitou’s smile widened.

Sano backed up another three faltering steps, his eyes locked on Saitou’s and his entire body threatening to shrug off his mental control and do