An Unexpected He Could Deal With


Sano was barely through the apartment door when he found himself practically knocked backward by the advent of a phone right in his face.

“What. Is this.” Katsu held his arm out at its full length and very straight, as if at its end lay something disgusting he wanted to keep as far from himself as possible… or a deadly weapon that required great steadiness and stiffness to aim.

It took Sano a moment to regain his balance, then another to focus on the small screen so immediately in front of him, but finally he managed to un-blur and properly parse the text. Then he said, “Oh.”

“Oh?” Katsu echoed.

“Uh, yeah. That happened.”

“‘Sano Sagara is… In a relationship with Hajime Saitou???'” Somehow his roommate managed to enunciate multiple question marks at the end of this statement quoted from his Facebook app.

“Yyyyyeah,” Sano admitted.

“And you were planning on telling your best friend about this when?” Katsu finally withdrew the long arm and allowed Sano far enough into the apartment to close the door, bringing his phone back around toward his own face that now bore an expression both angry and forsaken.

In all honesty, Sano had counted on Katsu’s inconsistent Facebook usage to keep him from seeing the announcement for a while — possibly forever — so he could work him up gradually to hearing about this development. He didn’t plan on all honesty in this conversation, however (unless Katsu got him really worked up, which was always a possibility).

Thankfully, he had a little more time to decide how to break the news, for Katsu was now busy scrolling with a growing scowl on his face. “Who even is this guy. He looks familiar, but I don’t remember where I’ve seen him before. And you’ve never mentioned him–” Katsu looked back up at Sano with accusatory eyes– “but now you’re ‘in a relationship.’ A formal ‘relationship.'”

Sano cleared his throat. “I guess it did happen kinda fast…” he said evasively.

How fast.” Katsu seemed to have used up all his question marks on that earlier demand.

“I met him, like… less than two months ago?” Sano couldn’t recall the exact date. “At that fight outside the courthouse.”

“Don’t call it a ‘fight,’ Sano.” With disconcerting abruptness Katsu spoke with the wearily patient tone of remonstrance he used whenever Sano wasn’t demonstrating enough dedication to The Cause. “It was a riot, and with the amount of media coverage we got, I’d say it was– wait.” His expression, previously reminiscently calculating, suddenly snapped back into very present focus. “You knew everyone there already. Who could you possibly have… The only new people we ‘met’ were…” His eyes had widened just slightly with every word, and now they were very round indeed. “Sano…” he choked as light seemed to dawn. “Sano, please…”

“Please what?” Sano wondered uncomfortably, just as evasive as before.

Please tell me you’re not dating a cop.”

Sano’s gaze dropped to the floor. He really hadn’t been ready for this conversation.

“OH MY GOD SANO.” Katsu fell back a step, tugging at his hair with both hands. “Why– how– what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking it’s none of your business.” He’d known Katsu’s reaction would annoy him, but wasn’t able to stave off the surliness even having seen it coming.

“It is my business! It’s bad enough my best friend has seen this guy I’ve never heard of enough lately to be ‘in a relationship’ with him… but on top of that, he’s a cop?!”

“Geez, Kats,” said Sano, stung, “does it really bug you more that he’s a cop than that I didn’t tell you?”

“Yes, because you only didn’t tell me because he is a cop.” Katsu could dismiss this concern, but not the other. “Because, seriously, Sano — the exact opposite of everything we are?”

“Most of ‘everything we are’ is unemployed, so, yeah, I guess he’s the opposite of that.” And there was some of that honesty in response to some of that getting worked up.

“I am not unemployed! I sell plenty of art! How do you think we pay rent?” Katsu’s righteous indignation shifted from defensive to betrayed in the middle of his retort. “Besides, I thought you wanted anarchy just as much as I do! How can you be dating the enemy like this?”

“Katsu, I don’t think anyone in the world wants anarchy as much as you do. And he’s not ‘the enemy;’ there is no ‘the enemy;’ he’s just a guy doing his job.”

“You’ve become one of them,” Katsu whispered.

“I was only really ever in it for the fighting and the cool t-shirts anyway,” Sano admitted.

“Like your shirt that says, ‘Fuck the police!?'” Katsu burst out.

“Well, maybe I just decided to take that literally.” Sano couldn’t help grinning as he said this, even if he was annoyed.

Katsu made a frustrated sound and, tugging at this hair again, spun away from Sano. The latter watched with some interest — still colored by irritation — as his roommate started making a peculiar sort of rounds about the room. He picked through the magazines on the coffee table, stacking most in the crook of his elbow; tucked all the coasters — most of them falling apart, since they were just the cheap cardboard kind, but all still visibly bearing the anarchy symbol — into his pocket; gathered up the three or four table-bound CD cases from local independent artists that still released to plastic in their attempts at bucking the system; and moved next to the shelves that held books and, farther down, DVD’s.

He’d been mumbling to himself the entire time, and now his words became slightly louder and more comprehensible. “This… and this… and everything by this guy… and this entire series… Most of this is going to have to go…”

“Katsu…” Sano watched in a mixture of amusement and frustration as Katsu piled more and more junk into his already overburdened arms. “What are you doing?”

“If we’re going to have a pig in here on a regular basis,” his friend replied haughtily, “some of this stuff is going to have to move into my bedroom.”

“You don’t have to do that, man.” Though he still found Katsu’s bustle somewhat entertaining, Sano was increasingly annoyed. “You really think I’d bring someone here who’d get you in trouble just for being an anarchist? That’s not a crime by itself, you know.”

Katsu only snorted.

“Besides, who says he’s going to be here in a regular basis?”

In exasperation Katsu pointed out, “You’re probably the most sexual person I know.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have a bed.” Sano slept on an old mattress on the floor, and had no clue when he was likely to upgrade.

“That’s never stopped you before!”

“Except he does have a bed!”

“And if you happen to be in our neighborhood instead of his?”

Sano cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I really want him to see my bedroom.”

Katsu turned to face him, his stack even bigger than previously and his jaw low. “You… finally found someone… whose opinion of your bedroom you care about that much…” His voice rose into an unhappy, incredulous shout. “…and he’s a cop?!

“Yeah, but my point is he’s not going to be around here all that much — and even if he was, he won’t care what your politics are like as long as you’re not actually breaking the law!”

Katsu snorted again and went back to collecting supposedly incriminating items. Sano sighed, having no idea what else to say.

The cumbersome load had risen above the level of Katsu’s mouth when he turned to face the south wall of the living room and gave a (consequently rather muffled) groan of despair. For against that wall, stacked several layers deep, stood his unsold paintings propped up and staring out over the room in all their bloody, symbolic, explosive, revolutionary glory. There really was nowhere else to store them — they took up half the space in here, and, besides, there were already more in both bedrooms and some of the kitchen cupboards — and there was no hiding the anti-government sentiment that had driven their creation. It was an immovable and undeniable monument to Katsu’s anarchism, and he groaned again as he stared at them.

“Katsu… It’s fine.” But for all Katsu seemed to hear him, Sano might as well not have spoken.

“I could throw a sheet over them…” This tone sounded more hopeful than either of Katsu’s groans, though the proposed solution wouldn’t help with the art on the walls (the pieces Katsu, for whatever reason, hadn’t wanted to sell).

In any case he didn’t get the chance to throw a sheet over anything, for at that moment there came a knock at the door. They both jumped, undoubtedly for different reasons, and then Katsu backed away suspiciously while Sano moved sheepishly forward.

“I thought you were just stepping in to grab your cell phone charger.” And there, badge and gun visible and everything, was Saitou, raising his eyebrows at Sano once the latter had admitted him and then looking around the room.

“Yeah, I, uh…” This was not how he had planned to introduce his boyfriend to his roommate, this was not how he had planned Saitou’s first impression of his home life, and this was not how he had planned this afternoon to go.

Katsu, at whom Sano had glanced involuntarily as if in silent explanation of what was taking him so long in here, gave him a scathing I told you so look before transferring the force of his glare over the top of his armful to the newly arrived police officer. Saitou barely looked at him, however; instead his attention seemed to be caught immediately by one of the hanging paintings, and he moved toward it unblinking.

Despite everything he’d said, Sano couldn’t help some nervousness as he watched his boyfriend approach this canvas his best friend had slaved over and liked so much he couldn’t bear to part with. Saitou could be very, not to say excessively harsh at times, and, though Sano truly believed he wouldn’t try to get Katsu into trouble over this, he might make some criticism that would be, in Katsu’s mind, just as bad.

But what he said, astonishing even Sano, was “I remember this one. The military force that has that family cornered looks even more oppressive in person.” He nodded sharply in clear approval. “But my favorite is still…” And he swung around abruptly, quickly scanning the other hanging artwork and then the front row of those stacked against the wall. “…this one, with the dark angel about to exact vengeance on the abusive cop.”

“I’da thought that one would be your least favorite,” Sano chuckled. This wasn’t going as he’d expected, but it was an unexpected he could deal with.

Saitou’s return smile was very grim, and he said in that intense tone that always sent shivers up and down Sano’s spine, “I won’t tolerate abuse of power. If we had an avenging angel on the force, my job would be easier.”

A set of thuds, variegated in sound (as it were), came from behind them, and they turned to find Katsu had completely unburdened himself with arms that seemed to have gone limp in their sockets. Books and magazines and CD’s and DVD’s slid haphazardly off the coffee table where he’d dropped them, but, eyes locked on Saitou and mouth slightly agape, Katsu didn’t seem to notice. “Are you… DireGold…?”

Saitou seemed to really look at Katsu for the first time. “I am. Are you Four Brushstrokes?”

Sano was, of course, still somewhat flabbergasted at finding his boyfriend familiar with the fruits of his roommate’s profession, but his shock couldn’t come anywhere close to Katsu’s. His jaw quivered, and the lips of his open mouth trembled, but no sound emerged, until finally Sano provided the affirmative Katsu was obviously incapable of giving.

Saitou nodded. “Interesting that you’d turn out to be Sano’s roommate. Your art is a much better use of your energy than the political movement it embodies, but at least in either case–” glancing at Sano with a quirk of lips– “you use your energy for something.”

“Hey!” Sano protested, almost drowning out the whisper Katsu managed at last:

“But… you’re a cop… and you’ve commented on so much of my stuff…”

If Saitou’s smirk was any indication, he hadn’t missed how wild a loop Katsu had been thrown for or just how upside-down he’d landed. But all he did was shrug and say, with almost pointed casualness, “I like what I like.” Then, as if to demonstrate, turning toward Sano with the same exaggerated unconcern (which was only making this worse for Katsu, which Saitou obviously recognized), he added, “Do you have your charger? Shall we go?”

Not sure what to think, or whether to laugh or tremble at this new development, or what to expect from the future, Sano hastened into his mattressroom to get what he’d come for. From the adjacent chamber he heard the ridiculously bland comment from his boyfriend, “I might even be interested in buying this one, if it’s for sale,” but all that came from his friend was a sort of choking gurgle. By the time he got back in there, Saitou had stepped to the door and was conspicuously not looking at Katsu again. When he saw Sano returning he said, “Nice to meet you,” in a deceptively polite tone, and stepped out.

As the door swung mostly shut, Sano demanded of his friend, “Are you OK?”

“Yes,” said Katsu hoarsely. “Yes. Don’t let me keep you from your date or whatever.” And, though the look on his face was still entirely poleaxed and the sound of his voice temporarily soulless, the words at least were calm and rational. Sano still hesitated a bit before walking away, but did eventually move to go. And before he made it entirely out of the apartment, he heard his roommate say to himself in a harsh mutter, “I’ve got to think about this…”


This was for leb’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “modern au. extremem anarchist punk sano n katsu. katsu finds out his friend is dating acop n is disappointed. hilarity ensues?????” I don’t know that all that much hilarity actually found its way into this piece, but I still think it’s kinda cute.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

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


Unboxing Party

Saitou might well have dismissed it if he hadn’t reached the conclusion that Sano was serious in this request.

Of gifts for Sano that may have cost Saitou more than just money.


Though Saitou generally walked home from work, using the negligible distance between the station and his house as a cooldown period after the business of the day and to orient himself toward what waited at home, today he hired a carriage. The parcels that had been delivered earlier were too numerous and too unwieldy — individually and in combination — to carry conveniently on foot. He could have had them delivered to the house instead, but hadn’t wanted to spoil the surprise.

Of course, the more leisure he had to stare at the things undistracted by his usual evening walk, the more opportunity there was for doubts to return. He’d never really been sure of this plan; it had taken him months to concoct it, almost as long to decide he wasn’t crazy just for considering it, and another small eternity to act upon it, and he still couldn’t be sure he — its source of inception, initiation, funding, and presumably follow-through — believed it a good idea.

At this point there really did seem little to be done, however; the decision had been made along with the order. There were a few possibilities for backing out, but no pleasant ones, so Saitou might as well just proceed as he’d intended.

The cab driver would have helped him inside with his burdens — out of, Saitou believed, actual courtesy more than the desire for a bigger tip — but the officer, preferring to maintain the privacy of his home as much as possible, declined the offer. It was a bit of a hassle getting all the boxes inside, and Sano was footworking around him like an anticipatory monkey and making almost comparable noises of wild curiosity by the time they were all situated in the bedroom, but eventually Saitou did get the driver paid and dismissed and turned his attention to the evening’s real business.

Sano was crouched next to the largest of the boxes in a position that reminded Saitou of that assumed by children playing chicken-scratch games in the dirt, examining its neat cardboard edges and the foreign logo stamped on its top with great interest. As Saitou reentered the room he commented, “This is some fancy shit! What are these?”

“They’re for you,” Saitou replied. “Are your hands clean?”

Sano’s brows rose as he glanced again at all of the parcels, then down at his hands. These didn’t look too bad, but Saitou wasn’t taking any chances. “Go wash up,” he commanded. “This was all too expensive for you to ruin immediately with your lack of hygiene.”

“Hey, I had a bath just yesterday!” This protest was made only as Sano scrambled to his feet, however; it seemed he was too curious about the contents of the boxes to argue much. He went in haste to the basin and, after staring somewhat suspiciously into it — whether assessing the state of the water or silently resenting the need to wash his hands at all Saitou couldn’t be sure — plunged in halfway up his forearms and splashed around for a few moments. How effective this actually was for purposes of cleanliness Saitou also couldn’t be sure, but since Sano’s hands hadn’t been terrible in the first place, he accepted the young man’s presence next to the parcels again after not too long without complaint.

“All right!” Sano bounced up and down on his knees a little in excitement; he wasn’t used to receiving presents.

“Go ahead.” Saitou pushed the biggest of the boxes, the one Sano had been examining closest before, toward him.

Unnecessarily thoughtless and energetic though he sometimes was, Sano did have the capacity to act like a normal, rational person at times. If Saitou had feared he would damage the packages or their contents in the process of unboxing, his worries were allayed now as Sano undid the fastening strings and lifted the lid with unusual care. A layer of thin, crinkly paper protected the contents, and this too he folded aside with responsible fingers. Then he sat back for a long moment and simply stared.

Since entering the house, nothing had occurred to ease Saitou’s doubts. This had probably been a bad idea from the beginning, and, though he was fully committed to it now, it hadn’t really gotten any better. Except that then, as the full implications of the gift seemed to hit Sano all at once, he looked up at Saitou with a sudden smile and enthusiastic energy as bright and hot as a Tokyo summer, and all the officer’s issues with this decision were abruptly blown away.

On occasion — far oftener than he liked, in fact — Saitou was required to attend gatherings such as private music recitals, European wine-tastings, lectures with drinks and discussion afterward, dances (for god’s sake), and just general-purpose parties held by the rich and influential of Tokyo’s upper crust.

It had started with him grudgingly volunteering to represent the police force at certain official occasions to which they’d been invited to send a delegate — a task he only undertook because such get-togethers had the potential to provide him with useful information about the precise type of people it was his real job to investigate, and a chore he was fairly sure Uramura silently thanked him on a regular basis for accepting as that meant he didn’t have to do it — but eventually, usefully but to his chagrin, Lieutenant Investigator Fujita Gorou had begun to develop a certain reputation as a man that enjoyed a life somewhat above his own and would snap up any classy invitation that happened to come his way.

Loathing the entire business — this impression of himself, the condescending amusement with which many of these nouveau riche treated him as a result, and the necessity of attending these phenomenally dull and overly westernized events in the first place — Saitou accepted the invitations with squint-eyed gratitude and continued to gather incriminating or suggestive evidence from circumstances observable and gossip overhearable.

The first time Sano had appealed to Saitou to take him along to one of these parties, Saitou had dismissed it as a joke and thought no more of it. The second time, however, given how vehemently (for him) he’d just been complaining about the musical revue he’d been forced to attend and the offensive insipidity of the group that had gathered for drinks thereafter, he was shocked Sano would repeat such an entreaty, and in such a straightforward tone; so he was forced to take the request more seriously and wonder aloud why on earth his lover should think he wanted to join him in such a dreadful activity.

Sano had appeared a little embarrassed at the question, but answered readily enough. “Well, you know, I was born dirt-poor… My family lived pretty hand-to-mouth while I was growing up, and I never actually made all that much money in the fighting business… And now I live with you, and you make decent money, and I’m really comfortable here…”

“… freeloading…” Saitou interjected at a murmur.

“Yeah,” Sano allowed. “Yeah. The point is, I’ll never be that person — that guy who gets all dressed up in fancy clothes and goes to a party full of rich people and drinks expensive wine or whatever. I’ll never live that life.”

“And you’d like to see what it would be like to freeload at a higher level,” Saitou finished for him.

Sano’s grin was sheepish, but also perhaps a little wistful. “I just think it’d be cool to see what that’s like.”

“But you don’t need to be that person.” It was as close as Saitou could come to telling him, “I love you exactly as you are.”

Sano had seemed to understand, though; it was remarkable how often he understood the things Saitou couldn’t say. His smile had softened, and as he sat up and shifted over to press himself against the older man, he said, “And the life I do live is pretty damn satisfying anyway.” After which they were too distracted to discuss anything as boring as the previous topic any more that night.

The third time Sano had asked, it had been in a more belligerent tone than previously — “So when are you gonna take me to one of these parties already?” — and Saitou might well have dismissed it once again, as he had in the first instance, if he hadn’t heard Sano’s reasoning the last time this had come up and reached the conclusion that Sano was serious in this request. Odd as it seemed, especially when Saitou had made no secret of how much he hated the things, Sano legitimately wanted to attend one. One was probably all it would take to show him just what he wasn’t missing, but that one seemed to be important to him. And what was important to Sano was, sometimes very grudgingly, important to Saitou.

So now Sano opened box after box containing the various pieces of a fine (and expensive) suit of clothing provided by a French designer currently based in Yokohama: shirt and pants, tailcoat, waistcoat, white tie, gloves, a set of silk handkerchiefs with an embroidered ‘S’ in one corner for versatility, shoes, and an utterly ridiculous piece of headwear called a ‘top hat,’ all of which would fit in impeccably at one of these hyper-European gatherings he was so interested in suffering through.

“I don’t believe this,” he was commenting in supreme glee as he smoothed out the dark grey vest with a huge grin on his face. “Is all this gonna fit me?”

“It fits me,” Saitou replied with half a shrug. They’d long since determined their bodies to be similar enough in shape and size that they could easily wear each other’s clothing — though how this would apply to European garb remained to be seen.

Sano looked up at him with an enchanted smile. “You went and got fitted for all this?”

“I thought it might be useful to have a western evening suit around.” Saitou didn’t bother getting into details of just how uncomfortable it had been dealing with the French couturier. “You can wear it to the party tonight, and then I’ll have it if I need it in the future.” And he also didn’t mention that, although this was perfectly true, he would never even have begun to consider purchasing such a thing if he hadn’t wanted it specifically for Sano.

“Oh, so it’s not really ‘for me.'” Sano didn’t seem at all put off by this information, and continued to grin over their object of discussion with great delight. “It’s really just a loan.”

“That’s right. Now let’s get you into it.”

Sano jumped up with alacrity and began shedding his clothing almost as quickly as he was wont to do under much different circumstances in this room. As he did so he asked, “What are you wearing?”

“My police uniform, as always.” Fujita-kun’s reputation, after all, involved a touch of stuffed-shirtedness.

“All right.” Sano held up the trousers he’d pulled fully from their box. “But I wanna see you in this sometime too.”

Saitou smirked, and they got to work.

At the shop in Yokohama, one aspect of the fitting had been a careful training session on how to wear all these articles. Saitou had wanted to be absolutely certain he could get the things onto Sano and start his festive evening out properly, and just looking at some of them there had been some initial confusion. After that there had been some… well, not embarrassment, exactly, but certainly an enhancement of his discomfort as the French designer and his assistant had obviously discerned without needing to be told that Saitou was ordering these clothes for someone else… and what his relationship with that someone must be. Since the aforementioned two gentlemen seemed to have the same relationship, this had evidently raised him in their opinion… but it had also raised the familiarity with which they treated him, and, given he was half naked much of that time, that had only made things all the more awkward for Saitou.

Sano would never know what his wolf had gone through for his sake, however, since Saitou didn’t plan to mention it. And Sano was certainly in nothing but a good mood now as, with a fair amount of assistance, he donned the pieces in the correct order and manner and made himself into an imitation of a French gentleman of the latest mode. Once his hair was combed out of its chaos and into smoothed-back, shining locks, he was ready for the top hat and a thorough examination from all angles.

“Well?” he wondered when Saitou had prowled all around him twice, eyeing him from head to toe.

Saitou did not immediately reply. Sano looked… well, he looked absurdly handsome and desirable… but also… alien. This ensemble that not only partook of a completely different culture but represented, to Saitou, much of what he disliked about modern times… it suited Sano on one level, the most superficial, but not in any more profound way. Saitou would like nothing better, for more than one reason, than to strip it all off of him again.

At the same time, though, Sano’s delight at his finery and the prospect of attending a party in it was almost luminous. Saitou still didn’t quite understand this desire, but his own confusion, the awkwardness and discomfort he’d gone through, the amount of money he’d laid out to get to this point — even the sight of the person he cared about most wearing, essentially, the uniform of many of his enemies — seemed entirely worthwhile to witness such purity of joy and anticipation in his lover’s face and bearing.

“Very French,” he said at last.

Even Sano’s snort in response sounded happy. “Well, when does the party start?”

“We need to get going. We’re going to be fashionably late as it is.”

Sano’s eyes widened. “‘Fashionably late?’ Is that a thing??”

“Damn,” Saitou muttered, and led the way out of the room.

The rest of the night was certainly going to be interesting. Saitou would introduce Sano to his host simply by name without appending further information, and leave him to his own devices. Then Sano would wander around the place with his thug’s saunter intruding on private conversations; demonstrate that he spoke neither French, English, nor German — nor even particularly good Japanese — in his loud, uncultured accent; eat all the food, possibly commenting uninformedly on its origin and composition, and drink far too much; start arguments and maybe even pick fights; and thoroughly and unabashedly enjoy every last brutish, ignorant second of it. He was going to ruin this party, and Saitou looked forward to it almost as much as he did.


This was for HakuSaitoSan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt “Saito giving in to some unusual want of Sano’s.” There are some moments in this one that make me squee like a little Saitou&Sano-loving mouse.

I’ll give this fic an author’s star rating afterwhile, but in the meantime, what do you think of it?

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


The Test (1/3)

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

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



It's difficult to decide how to format these medium-length stories that don't have chapters. In this case, there are three posts:

1
2
3

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it?”

“You have to admit it is!”

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

Is art stereotypically gay?”

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

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

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

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

Did you ever go out with him?”

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

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

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

“And you were both out of the closet?”

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

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

“What was that?”

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

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

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

“Wow, in ninth grade?”

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

“So you were cheating on him.”

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

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

“Oh, yeah?”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“And hot?”

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

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

“You must have had it bad.”

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

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

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

“Um, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Good for him!”

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

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

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

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

“I bet Trowa was happy.”

“He threw me a party.”

“Hah!”

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

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

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

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

“Somehow you might be right.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I walk with you?” Duo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you model for her classes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Not really.”

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

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

“Yes. Quatre has specifically confirmed it.”

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

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

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

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

“Love at first sight?”

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

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

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

“You did not!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mad at me? I thought he’d kiss me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“To a jerk, sure.”

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

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

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

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

“That sounds… creepy.”

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

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

“Yeah.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you obviously like this place better anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When you put it that way…”

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

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

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

“Seriously? That must have been amazing.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, exactly!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does Sylvia think of this?”

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

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

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

“Welcome back,” said Wufei easily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long were you with him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



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

Last updated on February 10, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

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

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

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

“What did you find out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

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

“You will when you hear my message!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

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

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

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

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime snorted derisively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ultramarine


The thing that had struck him most about Earth the first time he’d gone there was the sky.

It wasn’t the color that surprised him, since you grew up with that. Pictures, narratives, movies… everything reiterated that the sky was blue, with a dogmatic firmness to rival the skepticism of the most visual colony native to whom the sky was indisputably either star-studded black or just… the rest of the colony. No, it wasn’t the blueness that hit him, but rather the size and the openness. No camerawork could ever really capture the apparent endlessness, the almost space-like forever of this sky. No wonder people from Earth didn’t appreciate space as well as they should: they had their own version, and you could breathe in it.

To Duo that sky meant freedom. He’d have thought it would be overwhelming and agoraphobic, but it turned out he was much like a goldfish (or whatever fish it was that kept getting bigger if you put it in a bigger container). Under that sky he felt like he could do anything. And that was the urge he felt: to travel, to go, to do… but there had been that stupid war. He’d promised himself that, as soon as it was all over, he would be free, would live the way he longed to under that sky, at least for a while.

Hilde had invited him to come work the scrap lot with her, but there might be time for that later. Howard had welcomed him back to the salvage business, but Duo wasn’t entirely sure he was interested. And Heero had wanted him to… well, Heero had just wanted him. Oh, he’d phrased it like a request for Duo to come do Preventer work as his partner, but the underlying appeal had been far more concerned with their personal lives. It had not been a comfortable conversation.

“I don’t want to be tied down to anything right now,” Duo had told him. “I’ve been taking orders so long, I just want to be free for a while, you know?”

Heero had looked taken aback, maybe even a little hurt. If Duo’d had to guess why, he would have thought it was because he had just likened their potential relationship to accepting terrorist missions from a mad scientist in space.

“It’s nothing personal,” he’d hastened to add.

“Nothing personal,” Heero had echoed dully.

Feeling that every word he said was digging him deeper down a hole he hadn’t even realized was in his path until he’d tumbled right into it, Duo had tried to explain. “I mean it’s not you. I have to– I need to do things. I need to stop being a soldier for a while.”

At this Heero had given him a skeptical look, as if the concept of not being a soldier was so alien it bordered on the absurd.

“I just need to be free for a while,” Duo had insisted, and even in his own ears it hadn’t really made much sense.

But Heero had nodded slowly and said, “I see.”

And Duo had wanted to say something else, to apologize for hurting him, to try again to explain, to let him know that, if he did have to be tied down, there was no one else in the world that… But words had failed him, and eventually Heero had left, and Duo had set out to taste freedom and live life his own way.

Somehow this had ended up meaning ‘live life as a trucker.’

It was extremely unromantic and not really what he’d envisioned, but it did involve going places and doing things. Mostly roads and warehouses and truck stops, mostly loading and unloading, mostly crashing hard (his body, not his truck) at cheap motels that reminded him of shared missions back in the gundam days undercover with Heero, only without the benefit of actually having Heero around. That still counted as tasting freedom, didn’t it?

Only then there had been the stupid hostage situation in that one stupid town. He hadn’t meant to get involved, wasn’t really sure how he had gotten involved, but it had just kinda happened… the local force wasn’t very good at dealing with that sort of thing, and Duo was very good at dealing with that sort of thing (though, he had to admit, when it came time to try to soothe hostages, he wished he had a bit of Heero’s endless logical calm), and, next thing he knew, he was a hero, and it was a chore just to get out of being awarded keys to the city.

And then by total coincidence he’d somehow gotten dragged into that gang thing in practically the next town. OK, well, it had technically been a couple towns away and an entirely different country, but it was within a few days of the previous incident. The little rival criminal groups were wreaking havoc on legitimate businessmen like honest Duo, and their little street fights were making life (particularly the act of retaining it) difficult for everyone; he just couldn’t stay out of it.

So that one had been his own fault for sticking his neck out, but it hadn’t been his fault when some radical had attempted to assassinate the president of the next city-state he’d visited right when he happened to be in a good place to stop it. Well, maybe it was his fault for choosing to stop it, but you didn’t just let presidents get assassinated in front of you if there was something you could do about it. A memory, hailing from early in his acquaintance with Heero, of a horrified voice and a nearly suicidal demeanor in response to a mistaken assassination simply would not let him.

He hadn’t realized the entire world was still so damn violent, even after everything that had happened. And he’d had no idea that violence was going to be so damn difficult to stay out of. He was a trucker, for god’s sake; he didn’t need to be jumping on people out of windows, wrenching guns from their hands, maybe laughing a bit at their surprise but then giving a longsuffering sigh when they, seeing how young and fresh-faced he still somehow was, decided his success thus far must have been luck and it was OK to attack him despite the fact that he was now holding their gun. What he did need to be doing was getting his deliveries done without wondering whether he couldn’t perhaps help prevent the recurrence of this kind of incident if he just had a brief coaching session with the local authorities. Not that they were likely to listen to him, despite his impressive past achievements, given his lack of current credentials.

And now he lay atop his trailer staring into a fading sky and wondering what freedom really meant. Whatever it was, he was pretty sure he didn’t have it.

He’d been trying to avoid admitting this to himself for a while: that his attempt at living his own life, at doing the doing he’d been longing for and seizing at the freedom he’d always seen hazily in the distance during the war, was failing spectacularly. It shouldn’t have been difficult to admit… some things just didn’t work; it wasn’t the end of the world. Perhaps it was the thought of everything he’d turned down and walked away from to make an experiment that had subsequently miserably failed that called up this stubborn reluctance to admit that this wasn’t working and he should probably give it up.

Against this idea he squeezed his eyes tight closed, shutting out the sight of a sky and an offer of freedom that he, apparently, was unable to grasp. The sun was almost gone anyway; that freedom would soon be invisible to him as the sky turned colony-black, and he wasn’t sure he could stand to see it right now.

Why couldn’t he get away from what he’d been through and what he’d been, both during the war and leading up to it — why couldn’t he rise above all of that, be free of it? He couldn’t, evidently, build a new life for himself, and at the same time couldn’t deal nearly as efficiently as he had during all his life preceding this with the remnants that clung of everything that had gone before. He was caught in between, trapped, and he didn’t even know exactly what by. It was frustrating, dismaying… There was something he just wasn’t doing right, something that, if he could only recognize and rectify, would make everything else snap into place and this troublesome unfulfillment begin to fade.

When he opened his eyes again, his next move was to catch his breath suddenly, harshly. The memory of a different set of eyes — no, not one memory, but a multitude of memories of those eyes, in every variation of expression and condition — was suddenly before him… because the sky above him — that vast and beautiful sky, that expansive, unending, unsurpassable sky that had always, always meant freedom to him — the sky, in the gradual wake of sunset, had turned a very precise shade of blue that he would never forget.

And it occurred to him abruptly that having responsibilities, that answering to an authority you specifically chose to place yourself under, did not necessarily entail a lack of freedom… that there were different types of freedom, and one of them definitely involved putting yourself into the right kind of situation so that what it turned out you were going to be doing anyway got done right. An establishment and taking orders and following protocol might seem restrictive, but when it gave him the opportunity to do what he thought needed to be done in the most effective manner — not to mention the chance to be with someone he’d missed a lot more than he cared to admit — it was really just a means to an end, wasn’t it?

This was no more than had always been the case. The sky had always turned that color just after sunset; he’d always longed to go back; he’d always needed that specific type of freedom. It had taken him a while to see it; that was all — to be looking up and out, to have the correct train of thought already running, just at the right instant.

Though it was a distended moment of realization that seemed forever long, stunning, still, and silent, its immediate aftermath was all activity. Duo scrambled up and flung himself down over the side of his trailer, catching at the support bar beside the door and tugging the latter open before his fall had even entirely stopped. Mere seconds later he was buckled in with the engine roaring to life beneath him.

His head was awhirl with thoughts — contract details, who was expecting him where and when, the quickest cross-country routes, who might be in need of a rig like this right about now, and whether or not what he’d at one point considered a failed experiment might better be looked at as a breather between other phases of life — a spinning storm of ideas, crackling with the lightning of excitement and realization, whose distant eye, the one clear spot beyond the churning vortex, winked freedom at him. As he stepped on the gas he pictured himself shooting out, as if from a tunnel, into that clarity, as if onto a placid lake from the plunging rapids leading to it. And he headed back, back to what he probably should have been doing all along… back to Preventer Headquarters… back to where his freedom lay waiting in Heero’s eyes.


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Veritas

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Duo hadn’t had that problem.

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

“Heeyyyy, Heeeeerooooo!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Save,” Heero cut her off.

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“End of message. To delete this–”

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

“Save.”

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

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the door opened.


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This story is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook.



His Own Humanity: La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré 0-5

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.

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.



One Year, Two Minutes (1/3)



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

1
2
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Heero.

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

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not going to Harvard.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe he’s got performance anxiety.”

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

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

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

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

Every head turned toward him; everyone went silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

This place was strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually it turned out he didn’t have to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Totally hot; I just said!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good! ‘Cause I’m really curious.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, cool. Do you speak Japanese?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh. Weird.”

“So you showed up and of course everyone–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What guy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Then what did I just say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not gay,” she said immediately.

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

“He’s bi,” Sylvia broke in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s bi,” she corrected.

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

I would!”

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

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

***

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

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

“Triple-space it,” Heero suggested.

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

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

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

“Have you chosen a topic?”

“I was thinking the Civil War.”

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

“Way too General Lee?”

Heero rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solemnly Heero nodded.

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

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

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

“I didn’t realize you were interested.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Blood Contingency 1-5



This story was last updated on December 30, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

He straightens up and pulls empty hands out of the pockets of his jacket. They’re unnaturally pale in front of the black leather and even the blue jeans they fall against as they drop to his side. He’s now looking me very intently in the face; I think that staring into his eyes, which are, like his skin, uncannily bright, might well and probably should increase the irrational fear, but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, the effect is rather the opposite.

“There’s a lot of things you could do for me, Joe,” he says after a long moment of silence. “It’s gonna be up to you like always, though.”

I wonder briefly if I’m being sexually propositioned, but dismiss the notion as implausible at best. Even the boldest prostitutes don’t wait for police officers outside their own homes and then make their advances in cryptic, stalker-like language — and this isn’t the neighborhood for it at any rate. It’s also far from the center of what little gang activity there is in this city, as well as the worst areas of drug-related intrigue. Thus I’m really at a loss what this young man who knows my name and address could possibly want from me here at night with empty hands and an aura of danger.

But, once again, I am far from cowardly. “I think you’d better tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here.”

He gives a wry smile — almost rueful, I think — and shakes his head. “You’ll find that out one way or another,” he says. “This is your first chance.”

“Are you threatening me?” I ask, my cool tone far from a reflection of my state of mind.

He shrugs. “Kinda. I’ll be back in a week.” And, replacing his hands in his pockets, he turns and begins to walk away.

I’m surprised and annoyed. That someone should show up like this outside my home, frighten me as nothing has for a decade, and then walk so carelessly away after making such incomprehensible remarks… it isn’t merely unsettling and bizarre, it’s irritating. However, as I’m opening my mouth to tell him to come back and explain himself, my entire attention is arrested by something — yet another inexplicably disconcerting object that really should mean nothing to me — something that sends another shiver up my spine.

There is a large symbol in white on the back of the stranger’s jacket: some sort of Japanese character, I think, though this is just my default guess because I happen to have a Japanese-American girlfriend. But something about it freezes me to the spot and silences whatever protest or demand I was about to make. It isn’t an innately frightening sign; it doesn’t convey any meaning to me whatsoever; it certainly does not, in its design or general aspect, have any sort of hypnotic effect; but somehow it’s riveting. Because it’s… familiar…?

When the young man’s back has disappeared from my sight around the corner, releasing me from the disturbed and absorbed contemplation of the symbol thereupon, my presence of mind returns instantly and informs me that it would be absurdly foolish to let him walk away like that.

However, darting around the corner with quiet, determined footsteps, I find the parking lot completely empty — empty, silent, and calm under the peaceful moon. My eyes stray from one part of my placid and familiar surroundings to the next, my ears straining for any sound out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood, for a good five minutes before I turn with yet another shiver and make my way back to the apartment.

Inside, in the comforting skepticism of an air-conditioned and linoleum-floored kitchen, I analyze the confrontation as I mechanically seek out something microwaveable for dinner. I’m realizing now, in even greater annoyance than I was feeling a few minutes ago, that I wasn’t really afraid so much as disturbed by the stranger’s aspect and presence. Something inside me doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy, even look at him. Of course there’s a certain amount of fear involved in this, but the primary reaction was and is reluctance. As if I really do know, and disapprove of, who he is and what his appearance signifies. Which seems impossible, but there it is.

And then that symbol… what did it mean? And what did it mean that I found it so terribly fascinating that I couldn’t look away or say a word while it was in view? Turning from the busy microwave, I seize a paper towel and the nearest available writing utensil, and do my best to reproduce the image; having a good eye for detail, I think I’ve done fairly well, but it means no more to me now than it did then.

A glance at the clock confirms that it isn’t too late for a phone call, but I can’t decide for a moment whether or not that would be overreacting. Eventually I opt for better-safe-than-sorry and dial Renee’s number.

“You’re calling me on a Wednesday?” she greets me. “What’s the big occasion?”

Ignoring her sarcasm I command, “Grab something to write with.”

“OK,” she says gamely, then, a moment later, “Go ahead.”

I study the figure I’ve jotted down, realizing just how stupid this is going to sound. “Draw a tic-tac-toe board,” I begin.

“Is this our date for the week?” she wonders, but I can hear the scratch of a pencil.

“Yes,” I deadpan. “Now put lines across the top and bottom about the same length as the other horizontal lines.”

“OK…”

“Then add a wide letter U or smile underneath.”

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, but it’s not really a fair game… you don’t know any kanji, which means I never get a turn. Where are you seeing this one?”

I find myself oddly reluctant, suddenly, to tell her about the strange young man. Am I hesitant to admit how much he disturbed me? Though unsure if this is my actual motive, the impulse not to mention him is too strong to resist. So I put her off with, “I wasn’t finished.”

“Well, with dashes around and inside the ‘smile,’ and the sides of the ‘tic-tac-toe board’ closed off” — she obviously finds this quite amusing — “you’ve got ‘waru’ or ‘aku,’ which means ‘evil.'”

“Evil,” I repeat slowly. Somehow I’m not surprised. Then, in response to her expectant silence I explain, “I saw it on someone’s jacket and wondered what it meant.”

She laughs. “People wear kanji all over the place and have no idea what they actually say. At least it wasn’t a tattoo.”

“Or a shirt that says, ‘Let’s Begin To Love Myself Over Again?'” I can’t help bringing that up; I never can.

“May I remind you that that was a birthday present?” She’s laughing. “I didn’t buy it.”

“And yet you still wear it.” I really don’t feel like further banter, though, so before she can retort I add, “Thanks for the translation; I have to go.”

She must have observed that my tease was half-hearted, for after noting that I sound tired and promising to call me on Saturday for a date that will not involve tic-tac-toe, she lets me go.

I stand in the kitchen staring at the paper towel for who knows how long, eventually make slow progress with my warmed-up leftovers to the table, and turn on the TV. I don’t pay any more attention to the news than I do to my dinner, however. It’s irritating but predictable: I can’t stop dwelling on the stranger. He was giving me a chance… to do what? He’ll be back in a week… why? And what was it he thought I could do for him? It’s pointless to speculate; if he does come back, presumably I’ll find out… but I hate being left in the dark, sitting back and waiting for my turn to know until it’s too late for action.

Most engrossing, though probably not most important… why was I so perturbed by him? I didn’t know the meaning of the symbol on his back until after he was gone, so why did I find it so riveting, so nearly horrifying? But he probably couldn’t answer those questions even if I felt like making a fool of myself asking them.

The next question is why such a minor event is still bothering me so much now that it’s over. It’s understandably annoying that I was disturbed enough not to act as I logically should have, but why I should be feeling echoes of that agitation even now… why I should be feeling traces of some kind of superstitious premonition, as if that brief encounter was a herald of upheaval… why I should be feeling like there’s something I should remember but that’s just past the edge of my conscious mind… I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.

I’m certain that going to bed is not likely to improve my state of mind, but I’m not about to change my habits or disrupt my sleep schedule for some stranger who shouldn’t really be at all unsettling.

It was probably just a prank anyway, and I’ll never see the guy again.

“Saitou,” she said. “With a mysterious, bloodthirsty psychopath murdering his way through Tokyo, I really should have been expecting you.”

“Good morning to you too, doctor,” I returned the greeting. “I’m not surprised to find you here.”

“No,” she replied sardonically, “considering I’ve managed to examine five of these things so far.”

I wasn’t about to mention how lucky I found these combined circumstances. I hadn’t yet had opportunity to examine much physical evidence, so I’d been less upset than I might have at another murder — and far from upset that Takani-sensei, who had no selfish motives or class biases and who knew me better than most, had once again been the closest doctor to the crime. The fact that the pattern had been significantly broken this time was another point in the incident’s favor.

Hironaku was getting excited over the signs of violence, which hadn’t been present at any of the previous scenes. He seemed to be missing the fact that, as usual, the victim had evidently gone peacefully without a struggle — that the smashed dishes, broken table, and dented wall had not been part of the murder — but he’d been with this case since the first corpse and had watched two other investigators make nothing of it, so his enthusiasm was reasonable. As subordinates went, he was a greater combination of tolerable and competent than most; I would probably keep him.

Takani was still kneeling beside the body, looking understandably disheveled. This certainly wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been summoned to an unusual murder scene in the early morning without even the consolation of being a police doctor. I wasn’t entirely without sympathy, but was still glad she and not some other physician was present.

A few drops of blood on the floor that had evidently come from the victim’s single wound were the only indication as to where the body had originally fallen and how it had lain. Apparently the wife, in her understandable but damnable hysteria at finding her husband the latest of possibly the most bizarre string of murders in Tokyo’s history, had dragged him out of place and might have caused more harm to the scene had her frantic screaming not alerted the neighbors and, subsequently, the police.

Only by chance had there been an officer in the vicinity at all; it wasn’t the type of neighborhood that got much attention from our upstanding and unbiased justice system. And that was the most significant deviation from the pattern here. The murders thus far had fallen into two categories: successful businessmen killed in their own homes, apparently by design; and unemployed lowlifes or homeless killed in the streets, apparently at random. This man had been an unemployed lowlife, yet, by all appearances, had still been specifically tracked to his home and deliberately murdered.

“What can you tell me?” I asked the doctor once I’d finished my methodical look around the room.

“He’s the same as all the rest,” she reported dully, “just fresher. Exsanguination and no trauma as far as I can tell. At least this time you found him soon enough for a proper autopsy.” The last remark was clearly made without much hope that she wouldn’t be the one performing it.

“Time of death?”

“He has no blood,” she reminded me flatly. “That throws everything off. Until the autopsy, I can only guess. Three hours ago, maybe more.”

I nodded as I stared down at the corpse. I hadn’t disbelieved the reports regarding the cause of death, but I hadn’t exactly believed them, either. Not until I’d seen it for myself could something so outlandish seem at all real. And I found myself a good deal more disturbed than I typically was at a murder scene. It wasn’t the abnormally pallid, dry-looking flesh and emaciated, slightly twisted frame that made it so much more horrific than usual… I’d seen bodies barely recognizable as such, turned inside out or strewn in pieces across large expanses, seen rooms so drenched in blood as to make me go temporarily colorblind. This was the exact opposite, and somehow just that… the mere absence, the complete absence of blood… that made it worse than all the rest.

Only the most puerile investigators jumped immediately to insanity as the likely motive for a crime, but this… this had the mark of a madman. Though still a madman with specific goals. The theory the previous investigators had been working with was that we had on our hands a disgruntled, jealous, overly ambitious businessman who’d hired an assassin to give him an edge and had set the killer on a few unrelated victims as well in order to cloud the issue. Not a bad hypothesis… but, typically, its flaws had either never occurred to my predecessors or had been willfully overlooked. Significant among these was a question they had entirely ignored: what would a businessman — or even an assassin — want with such a large volume of blood?

I’d been in town and on the case for several days now and still had no solid theories, and that was a deviation from pattern of another kind. Nothing we knew so far was remotely conclusive; indeed, every new clue we turned up seemed to point in a different direction from the last.

The final deviation was the witness. Every previous victim seemed to have been killed in complete solitude, and a few of them hadn’t even been discovered for days. But this man had been entertaining at the time of death — a guest who’d been knocked hard into a wall and fallen thence onto the table where the sake they’d been sharing had rested… but who might have seen something before that, who might be able to explain why a struggle had been necessary to subdue him but not the man actually being murdered.

I worked my way through the scene once more. I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps that some of this was making more sense to my subconscious than to the surface of my mind. Either way, I didn’t think I was likely to learn anything more from the room at the moment. “Let’s get him out of here. Takani-sensei, you’ll perform the autopsy?”

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

“Of course,” the doctor answered, heavily but unhesitating, as she rose. She wasn’t happy about this; it was rather outside the boundaries of what she usually dealt with, her connection to the Kamiya dojo notwithstanding… but she was resigned, and not lacking in the aplomb necessary for her profession.

I’d sent for a closed wagon to transport the body, and at my orders a few of the men who waited outside got the latter wrapped and loaded onto the former. “The wife was taken to the south station?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have arrangements made for her for the next couple of days, and one of you stay here to keep the curious off. I’m going to look this place over again after I’ve questioned the witness.” He repeated his acknowledgment, and I left him discussing with the others who would return to the station and who would stand guard.

“I doubt your ‘witness’ is going to have anything to say for some time,” Takani warned me quietly.

“On the off chance that he’s awake and coherent and happened to see something, I’m going to look in on him.”

She was giving me an odd eye, and it seemed she might have something useful to say, but eventually she merely shook her head and remarked, “I won’t have you jeopardizing his recovery.”

I had no answer for this, since each of us knew that, if it came to it, the other would press their side of the issue — and probably knew equally well who would prevail.

By the time I handed the doctor into the cab and took the spot beside her, Hironaku was already seated looking over his notes. While I preferred to keep my thoughts organized in my head where troublesome people couldn’t get their hands on them, I had to appreciate his dedication.

“This murder method…” he remarked as the carriage began to move, then abruptly glanced at the doctor. His expressive face was as plain as a direct question whether he should discuss his theories in front of her. She wasn’t looking at either of us. I nodded.

“It reminds me of some things yakuza bosses have done to scare their people into sticking with them,” he continued slowly. “Or something similar: someone trying to send a message to someone…”

“With as much specific aim as anonymously tacking signs up on lamp-posts,” I replied. “If it’s a message, it could be meant for just about anyone, and that anyone isn’t likely to step forward.”

He sighed. “In any case, we’re dealing with one sick bastard.”

“Or more than one,” I reminded. “Don’t get too caught up in speculation until after we find out what the other man knows.” Not that I wasn’t speculating. I just wasn’t doing it aloud.

With an expression of perturbation, Hironaku nodded. In actuality I feared he might prove a little too emotionally fragile to last long… He hadn’t shown signs of excessive brittleness, but he seemed the type that might crack all at once when things piled up. Still, someone relatively competent for a short while was better than someone hopeless I couldn’t get rid of. Perhaps I could increase his longevity by letting him handle most of the paperwork. That would be doubly useful.

“I do wonder why the other man is alive at all, though,” he murmured thoughtfully after several silent moments. “Our murderer has killed eight people so far… why not this other man?”

“If you’ll allow me to speculate…” Takani had looked up abruptly. “‘Your murderer’ seems to be interested in collecting blood, not committing murder.” It was only very slight, but in her voice was the tone of someone patiently explaining something obvious. Hironaku’s expression in response was slightly amusing; it seemed this thought really hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe I wouldn’t keep him.

“If he was equipped to extract blood from only one man,” Takani continued, “and had no idea there was anyone else there until he entered…”

“Oh?” Now I was curious, and turned to regard her with a raised brow, wondering what she thought she knew. “Why would he assume his victim was alone?”

“Oh?” she echoed. I got the feeling she was somewhat darkly pleased at having information that I lacked. “None of your fine officers were able to identify the other man?” Finally I comprehended her earlier odd expression as she added pointedly, “I doubt anyone besides the victim knew Tsukioka-san was there, or would be there, at that time. He’s not the type to let people know what he’s planning.”

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

“…of all the stupid things. A degree in criminology, and they’ve got me hunting vampires.”

Overhearing this at the station the next day is not exactly comforting. Nor is the fact that I make mental connections as fast as I do.

“I don’t know what else to call them, though… I’ve never seen murders like this before, and neither have you.”

Curious as I am — and I am — I decide not to ask. Better not to know the details of this elaborate hoax. It isn’t my case anyway, and it certainly won’t help keep my mind off the strange, pale visitor of last night.

The latter, as I somewhat anticipated, is in and out of my head throughout the day. The same questions I’ve been asking about him all along arise and are steadfastly ignored while I get what I need to do finished. Even more assiduously I ignore the movie lines that keep popping up in my head trying to distract me… things like, “You know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality, how quickly they perish of their own will?” and, “The vampires didn’t realize you were following a human… did they?” and, best of all, “You’re not a full vampire until you’ve made your first kill. You were supposed to be mine… but I couldn’t…” Only then do I realize just how many stupid vampire movies I’ve actually seen. It’s very annoying.

I wonder how the stranger would react if he knew these thoughts. Vaguely putting myself in his place (assuming some sort of reasonable motive for the mysterious behavior), the idea is actually slightly amusing, in a god-forbid sort of way.

The question from last night that returns the most persistently is why this matter continues to bother me so much. Mere unusualness is not enough to justify this kind of devotion of thought. I try to tell myself that it’s the natural result of boring paperwork, that as soon as I’m out on a new case I’ll forget it entirely… but not even boring paperwork has ever led me to reflections this firmly locked on a seemingly unimportant subject before.

Eventually, thinking to drown the fixation with excess information, I give in and ask someone to enlighten me on the ‘vampire’ business. My precinct is given to gossip like some proverbial group of old women, so he’s only too happy to do so — and what I hear is no more than I expected: a couple of apparently-related killings by some unknown whose MO matches what one must assume a vampire’s would be if such creatures existed, right down to the presence of foreign DNA in the neck wounds. Predictably, keeping the press off the occurrences is taking up half my colleague’s energy at the moment.

For all our gossipy habits (and, yes, sadly, I’m forced to include myself in this description), the tales don’t leave the station; as such, the number of people outside the police force who are likely to know about this matter is small (for now, while the press is still in the dark). Therefore, little as I want to assume there are two similar hoaxes going on simultaneously in the same vicinity, I have to believe this is unconnected with my visitor — mostly because if the circumstances were connected, that complicates and darkens something I thought simply unusual.

Wait; similar hoaxes? Why, I wonder in annoyance, am I connecting them at all? Why has such a fantastic concept as vampires attached itself so tenaciously to the visitor in my head? Because he was pale, because he moved quickly and quietly, because I was disturbed by him? How utterly childish of me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately. I wonder briefly when I can next take vacation time. Renee would like that, anyway.

“I fucking hate vampires.”

I roll my eyes, and, with an effort of will, force myself to stop thinking about it. And once I’ve torn myself away, I manage, if not entirely without further struggle, to stay away for the rest of the day.

Leaving rather late, having lost track of the time in enthusiasm(?) for my paperwork, as is often the case, I find the parking lot dark and sparse when I finally emerge. Not even the faintest glow of sunset remains on the city-obscured horizon, and I parked in a spot where the lot lights don’t touch. It’s from the shadows near my car, which I haven’t quite reached, that a woman’s voice unexpectedly speaks: “You’ve been contacted.”

Simply because of the brazen oddity of the greeting, yesterday’s occurrence — and all related reflection — springs immediately back into my mind.

Stepping forward into the full light, she displays pale Asian features and bright eyes. When she catches sight of my face she stops moving. “Oh,” she says in a tone of understanding.

Two encounters with washed-out, glowing-eyed, cryptic Asians on two consecutive days is no coincidence — especially given the news, I can’t help but think — so I’m immediately tense, ready to make sure she doesn’t run off. “‘Oh,’ what?” I demand.

Her face takes on a sad expression. “He hasn’t reminded you yet.”

Assuming she’s referring to the young man, and considering he didn’t tell me anything, I have to assume she’s correct.

She looks even more somber at my silence. “I know you’re confused,” she says quietly, “and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I can assure you you’ll know everything in time.”

“Everything?” I echo wryly. “Not something I ever wanted to know.”

Her smile matches my tone. “And you won’t want to know most of this. But I’d like at least to assure you that we don’t have any criminal intentions towards you.”

I frown, unable to keep from becoming suspicious at this carefully-worded statement. “Who are you?”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, almost indecisive. Finally she says, “Megumi.”

A Japanese name, I know; Renee is a fan of some trembly-voiced singer called the same thing. That doesn’t tell me much, but it’s better than no information at all. “And your friend’s name?”

Another wry smile. “‘Friend?’ Hmm. Well, his name… I’ll leave that up to him.”

This is getting frustrating. I’m tempted to return to the prank theory, but there’s something about her that seems too serious to disregard. “And what do you want?” I wonder next.

“I want nothing from you,” she says, and her slight emphasis of the word ‘I’ again makes me frown.

“And him?”

“Again, that’s up to him,” she replies.

There’s very little more I can ask her, given that this is not an interrogation and she’s basically told me she isn’t going to tell me anything. And as the silence lengthens, she shakes her head and turns. I don’t feel I should let her walk away, but can’t think of anything to make her stay.

Then, as she puts her back to me but before her first few steps take her out of the ring of light, I see very clearly, slung over her shoulder, a sort of leather holster that contains, unless I’m very much mistaken, a neat row of wooden stakes.

By now even my better judgment is starting to give way, and only my desire to consider this a hoax allows me to keep doing so.

Sagara answered after I’d knocked about four times, opening the door sluggishly and blinking at me for several moments. Then he scowled. Grunting, he withdrew, leaving the way free for me to follow. “I figure if you’re here to kick my ass,” he explained at a grumble, “you might as well do it inside where you won’t wake up all my neighbors.”

“How considerate of you,” was my reply as I shut the door behind me.

“Since when are you in town?”

“Since last week; I’m here for a case.”

“Then I guess I can forgive you for not showing up earlier to kick my ass.”

“Unfortunately, I have business other than kicking your ass today.”

It was the first time I’d been inside his home, and I found it a little neater than I’d expected… mostly because he didn’t seem to own very much. What he did have was enough, however, to provide sufficient clutter that his search for the upper garment he lacked was taking some time. “I thought all your Tokyo cases involved kicking my ass,” he said as he hunted.

“Hn.” I would have had a better reply for this, but I really was here on business — business he was probably going to find even less pleasant than his speculations. “Hurry up and get ready.”

He straightened, his gi in one hand, and threw me a black look. “Like I’m going to take orders from you.”

“You are if you want to hear what happened to your friend.”

The gi dropped to the floor. “Which friend? What happened?!”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

Hastily now he recovered the article of clothing and shrugged into it, demanding, “On the way where? You didn’t come in a stupid carriage, did you?”

“No. Come on.”

He followed me out the door, not bothering to lock it behind us. Of course, I didn’t know if he ever bothered to lock it.

“Well?” he demanded as we started up the street.

“Have you heard about the recent attacks?” I began.

With a snort he replied, “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that… think about where I live.”

He hadn’t heard, then; he’d have known what I meant without any elaboration otherwise. “Eight people — so far — have been killed by having large quantities of blood drained from their bodies.”

“Eight?? What the fuck are you cops doing? Is one of my friends one of ’em?!”

One of his questions was a very good one, but not one I felt like addressing right now. “He isn’t dead,” I replied. “He was found unconscious next to the body of the latest victim. He’s the first potential witness to any of the attacks.”

Sanosuke drew a deep, angry breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that? Scaring the shit of out me like that for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm broken, and he has a concussion.”

“My god, you are an asshole… Why the hell didn’t you say that before?”

“He’s also incoherent and won’t talk to me.”

“I fucking wonder why,” muttered Sanosuke. “So that’s what this is all about. You want me to help you question one of my friends because you can’t do it yourself. I’d never have known he was hurt otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure you’re his only real friend, and probably as close to family as he has at this point,” I replied coolly; “you’d have been notified if he died.”

“Shit, it’s Katsu, isn’t it?” His tone had taken on an edge of much greater concern. “Why didn’t you just say so?” When I did not reply he went on in a surly tone, “So what do I get out of this?”

I raised a brow. “Safer streets?” I suggested. “The opportunity to talk to him at all?”

“Ch…” He’d only asked in order to be perverse, I was certain; we both knew he wouldn’t refuse to help in a situation like this. “Hurry the fuck up, then,” he added.

The only reason I hadn’t taken a carriage was that I recalled how difficult he’d been the last time I’d tried to get him to ride in one. The walk between the clinic and his neighborhood took more time than I really wanted to waste, but I’d decided that keeping him in a relatively compliant mood was probably worth it. Still, my impatience to get back and get on with things led me to accede quite easily to his demand that I ‘hurry the fuck up.’

Eventually he recognized the direction we were going. “So he’s at kitsune’s clinic?”

I nodded. “Takani has been lucky enough to examine most of the bodies so far, including this latest one.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen her around lately…” Sagara murmured thoughtfully. I was vaguely surprised at the implication that he saw her around enough to know the difference; I hadn’t thought they got along that well.

As we finally approached the clinic, I broke the silence again. “He has no reason to trust me. But if you can convince him he’s safe in telling you anything that might be related to this matter–”

“Dyou realize what you’re doing?” Sagara broke in.

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

“You’re counting on me,” he stated. Though his tone was nearly flat, it had the air of a defiant announcement. “I’m doing something important for you, and you’re trusting me to do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” I replied, by which I meant (and he knew it) that if there had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him.

His face darkened briefly, then cleared, and he grinned slightly. “I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“Do as you please.”

We’d reached the door, and here Sanosuke paused. “All right, so what am I finding out if I can?”

“Anything he remembers about the attack, anything he thinks might be related to it. The series of events, what the killer was like, and any guess he might have about why the killer chose that victim.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” wondered Sagara sarcastically.

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

It took much longer than I expected. Whether this meant Tsukioka had a lot of information to relate, or that he wasn’t lucid enough to relate it quickly, or that Sagara was dominating the conversation talking shit about me, I couldn’t guess — though presumably I would find out soon enough.

The lady doctor, who’d left to get some rest after the autopsy, returned while I was waiting. She didn’t look particularly rested, however; actually, I thought the darkness beneath her eyes was even more pronounced than before. But I restrained myself and didn’t speculate about nightmares or anything less appropriate that might have interrupted her sleep, merely nodded to her.

With a grim expression she glanced from the door to where I was leaning against the wall looking out at the yard. “You found Sanosuke?” she guessed.

I nodded again.

“You know I don’t approve,” she said flatly.

“And you know it’s necessary,” I answered in a similar tone.

She held my eye for a second and then replied more lightly, “I meant your smoking just outside my clinic.” Evidently she knew better than to argue further against disturbing her patient.

I smirked slightly, darkly, as I took another drag. “That’s necessary to keep me from going insane.”

“Yes, this case of yours is enough to have that effect on anyone.” She sounded simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated, though mostly tired. “Just don’t bring it inside.”

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

Eventually Sanosuke emerged. He was moving slowly, with an unusual restraint on all his limbs, as if he were a patient here and suffering from some invisible wound; but when he looked up and met my gaze, I could see in his face a deep anger just waiting to invigorate him against some unsuspecting target. Breaking eye contact, however, he sat down on the edge of the porch with his back to me.

After several long moments of silence he said abruptly, “He doesn’t know anything.”

I lit another cigarette and waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I requested that he should.

“You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing,'” he retorted, though I felt that, for once, he wasn’t really angry at me. He sighed slightly and went on. “He doesn’t know that the dead guy — Irutou’s his name, right? — had any enemies in particular. Apparently the guy was always going on about some big shot he used to work for named Tomizawa, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Katsu prints. But Katsu loves gossip whether he prints it or not, so it’s no wonder they were drinking together. Everything was normal, and then the next thing he knew somebody was knocking him into a wall.”

“What did he see?”

“Almost nothing, I guess… shadows… he said the lamp had gone out. Though apparently whoever attacked him moved really fast and was pretty normal-sized.” Sanosuke shrugged. “He doesn’t remember it very clearly, but it sounds like even if he did he probably didn’t see anything helpful.”

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“And that’s all he said.” This statement had a fatalistic edge to it, as if Sagara’s friend had died after saying all of this.

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

Sanosuke made a noise like a snort or a grunt, bitter and angry, and said nothing; so I turned my thoughts to the minimal information he’d provided.

Though I did appreciate the artist’s remembering it, the name Tomizawa was not likely to be terribly useful. For though Tomizawa — whoever he was — might not be aware that the victim’s information on him wasn’t the sort of thing Tsukioka was interested in printing — thus providing a motive for the murder — that would not explain any of the other killings, the blood thing, or, most significantly, the fact that Tsukioka was still alive. Still, it was a name; I would have Hironaku look into it.

Sagara interrupted this brief reverie with the very stiff-sounding pronouncement, “Thanks for coming to get me.” Turning my eyes back to him, I could easily mark the further stiffness in his figure as he stared out across the yard at nothing.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“So this person,” he began again presently, in what I might have called a careful tone if I could have thought him capable of that.  “This person who hurt my friend… he’s killed eight people, right?”

As I realized why he was asking this, I was a little surprised at my own reaction: an abrupt sinking of heart.  I was certainly taking care as I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, you always get to play with the psychopaths, don’t you?”

“The doctor made much the same comment.”  I was still wary, not daring to hope the danger had been averted.

And it hadn’t.  “So what do you know about the guy so far?”

“Nothing.”  Normally I wouldn’t be so quick to admit such a complete lack of results even on a case I had only very recently taken, but I didn’t want to give him anything he might see as a clue lest he… get in my way.

“Nothing?” he echoed suspiciously.  “You’ve been in town since last week and you just found a fresh corpse yesterday, and you still don’t know anything about the murderer?”

I must have been tired from staying up all night: his skepticism was slightly flattering; I wouldn’t have guessed he thought so highly of my abilities.  That didn’t change the situation, however, and I threw back his earlier words: “You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing.'”

He rose and turned to face me, staring me in the eye much as Takani had earlier. But unlike her, Sagara had no issues with arguing. “You’re lying,” he stated flatly.  “You’d be way more annoyed if you really didn’t know anything.  You’re lying ’cause you think it’s none of my business.”

“It is none of your business,” was my cool response.  Of course he’d really only been skeptical because he didn’t want to believe I had no information.  “It’s police business.”

“Bullshit,” he said emphatically.  “You wouldn’t tell the families of the victims that it’s none of their business, and you said yourself I’m as close as Katsu’s got.”

“I would tell them that, if they were likely to get in my way.  But I’m not lying,” I added before he could retort.  “Whether you choose to believe me or not is your own business, but all I have at this point is speculation… and that won’t give you any skulls to crack.”

“Well…”  It seemed I’d convinced him, for his anger had cooled.  Or at least his specific annoyance at me had. “What do you speculate?”

He’d grown much stronger since our last don’t-get-involved argument, but somehow my desire for him not to get involved was also that much stronger.  And while I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to him to accomplish that, there was no lie in this situation that was likely to be as effective as the truth.  So I answered immediately, hoping to give the impression of compliance despite fully intending to give him more questions than answers.  “Your friend’s presence would complicate even the most straightforward investigation.  A political journalist doesn’t become a witness to a murder like this by coincidence.”

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

“But did they mean to leave him alive? If so, why?  Does he have some information they want to see published, or is there another reason?  If not, why do they want him dead?  Does he know something they don’t want to get out?  And why did he survive?  Is the murderer simply sloppy?”

My companion’s face was now very serious and contemplative, and, given that rare circumstance, I thought I could be forgiven for staring.  He didn’t seem to notice or care.  “I’m surprised you’re not in there questioning him to death,” he finally remarked.

“If he does know something that’s related to this, he’s not aware of it, or he would have told you; I’m sure he trusts you enough for that.  Our only option is to keep an eye on him in case the murderer really does want him dead.”

Sanosuke took the bait.  “Oh, believe me, nobody’s gonna touch him again,” he vowed darkly.  “And if somebody tries… well, I’ll solve the case for you.”

I gave him an assessing look, not because I was considering options but because I wanted him to think I was.  This should keep him out of my way at least for a while, let him think he was helping, and (I thought) put him in no more danger than he would already have been in.  I agreed with Takani’s assessment — the murderer, who was primarily after blood, hadn’t expected to find Tsukioka there and, in getting him out of the way, hadn’t cared whether he lived or died.

“Fine,” I said at last.

Sagara’s expression turned skeptical again.  “What, you’re gonna let me do that?”

“I can hardly keep you from hanging around your friend, and you’ll probably be a much more competent bodyguard than anyone I could assign from the police force.”

This time he frankly gaped.  “Did you just call me ‘competent?'”

“It was relative, but, yes, I believe I did.”

“Holy shit…”  He had looked down, and I might have been mistaken, but I thought he was blushing slightly.  I was probably mistaken.


As early as the next day, I’m forced to think about the ‘vampire’ issue again. A new body has turned up, this one in a small grocery store dumpster used for the disposal of old frying oil. Cause of death was the same, but a little more care was given this time to the subsequent disposition of the corpse, and the shape of the container and the weight of the victim make it unlikely that only one person was involved in hiding the body… These facts make my colleague somewhat wary of assuming he’s even dealing with the same murderer. But how many murderers with vampiric aspirations can there possibly be in this city? And if one or more of the crimes was imitation, which was the original? Interesting as it is, I’m grateful this isn’t my case.

Unfortunately, this discovery has been largely publicized. Last night’s news (which I, regrettably, skipped watching) talked about it, for one thing, and before I get the real details at work that day I’ve heard of it from no fewer than three of my neighbors. Whether they’re trying to comfort themselves with the reminder that they have a cop in the near vicinity, see if they can be the first to tell that cop about a murder, or just garner my approval on the plans that are evolving in the area, I don’t know.

Because plans are certainly evolving. The murder wasn’t precisely in the neighborhood, but close enough that the families in my apartment complex are thrown into a subdued panic of carpool and neighborhood watch arrangements. I know that fervor will die down after a few uneventful weeks — possibly even a few uneventful days; it always does. People strive for complacency, after all, to the point of disregarding a real threat the moment they’ve ‘done their part’ to prepare for it.

Besides instilling in my neighbors the aforementioned paranoia, this affects my life by shutting down the closest grocery store, probably for several days. Which is why Friday evening finds me walking to a convenience store just around the corner, rather than wasting the gas it would take to drive all the way to the next-closest grocery store, in search of macaroni and cheese.

Renee would certainly tease me about venturing forth on foot in the middle of a murder scare to buy what she calls fake food, but the shopping I planned to do tonight now isn’t going to happen. Of course, I would have bought macaroni and cheese at the grocery store anyway; it isn’t an inability to cook real food that makes this item a regular in my kitchen, but rather a hypersensitivity to the pointlessness of spending much time or effort making anything complicated for myself alone.

The local juvenile-delinquents-in-training that are always at the gas station pretending to be some variety of hardcore, knowing me for a cop, slink off as I approach, leaving the exterior of the store vacant and silent. Silent, that is, except for a couple of voices I can just hear conversing quietly around the corner of the building. It seems an unlikely place for a drug deal — though god (and the entire precinct) knows that well-off neighborhoods like this can produce some phenomenally naïve dealers — but since it also seems an unlikely place for any entirely innocent conversation, I stop to listen for a moment before going inside.

“–know you were back in the country until today,” a woman is remarking in a chiding tone. “You need to get a new cell phone.”

“Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed,” replies a man’s voice, “I’m not in much position for a credit check, and the prepaid ones don’t cover half the places I go.”

Startled and experiencing abruptly some of the same agitation as a few nights before, I stiffen and listen harder. It’s that vampire boy.

I have no idea when I started thinking of him that way.

“There are channels…” Having identified the young man, it isn’t difficult to recognize the other as the woman who approached me last night. Megumi.

“Fuck them,” says the young man, dark and vehement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

“Besides, they’ve figured out my connection to you across the whole damn country by now; they wouldn’t do a thing for me.”

She laughs mirthlessly and then (to judge by her tone) changes the subject. “So do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here?”

“No clue.”

“I thought the police might be farther along than they usually get when I felt the touch on one of them, but it was just…” Here she seems to trail off in some sort of hesitation.

“Yeah,” the other puts in abruptly, harshly. “Just him.”

Silence ensues, and lasts so long I think the conversation must be over. But then the young man goes on, now in a tone that sounds so close to tortured as to be entirely absorbing, “He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

“I know,” she replies quietly.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–”

“I know,” she repeats, interrupting. “I know.” Without missing a beat she goes on in Japanese, and he answers in the same language.

This transition doesn’t make their conversation any less comprehensible, but I have no doubt that I am the ‘fucking cop’ and that they’ve stopped using English because they know I can hear them. They know I’m here. I haven’t made a sound; I haven’t stepped forward or even moved; I feel I’m barely breathing in my efforts to catch every word… yet somehow they know I’m here.

Which means there’s no reason to keep pretending I’m not.

Walking quickly around the corner, I find myself in a sort of alley between the store and the car wash, the kind of place that seems to have been built deliberately for the kind of young men with nothing better to do that my approach spooked just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been constructed with much else in mind, given that it’s too narrow to house anything beyond a few large trash cans and a lot of grime.

And it’s empty.

That my first thought is, Of course it’s empty; they can probably fly, isn’t even my greatest source of chagrin; rather, it’s that it takes me nearly a minute to recognize that this was my first thought and react to it with proper disdain.

Normally this kind of stupid semi-subliminal fixation with an absurd idea would somewhat irritate but mostly amuse me; that I’m more disturbed by it than anything else in this situation suggests that it has taken far more hold of my subconscious than I really want to admit. It almost makes me angry to find myself searching the rooftops of the two buildings with my eyes, to admit thus that I don’t find it totally illogical to think the speakers might have escaped in that direction.

But, really, where they’ve gone is probably the least compelling question of the evening. Questions… I need more questions, don’t I? I feel like I should be writing them down, there are getting to be so many of them.

Beyond merely wondering at the meaning of that strange conversation, I wonder that I caught it at all. Either they deliberately allowed me to hear, or they didn’t notice at first that I was there. And since what I heard meant almost nothing to me, I have to assume the latter… and therefore that this place is a customary haunt for the young man. A block from my home.

So it appears that it isn’t his intention merely to give me an ultimatum and come back when the time is up; he’ll be watching me through this week of his. Why? Does he expect some specific reaction from me? Or is he just curious how I’ll behave under these strange circumstances? Perhaps I’ve become the subject of an undeclared, unethical psychological experiment, and there will be a reward once it’s all over if I get through with sanity intact.

Why does it bother him so much that I’m a cop, though, and what did he mean by ‘again?’ There was something in his tone as he made that remark that was completely riveting. Despite Megumi’s comment about the police being ‘farther along than they usually get,’ which logic suggests should be the most interesting part of the exchange, my mind keeps returning inexorably to the pain in the young man’s voice as he seemed to deplore my being a cop. ‘Again.’ It was the manner of one struck unexpectedly with a tragic memory, and I simply can’t think what it might mean.

If he really were a vampire… But I cut that thought off before it can bloom into absurdity. It wouldn’t provide an explanation anyway.

How long I stand in that little alley I’m not sure, but it must be quite a while; when I leave it I find that the loiterers have returned. And the irritation on my face must be rather severe, for at my appearance they scatter even faster than before.

It’s reassuring, at least, how easily I can transition from thinking about vampires to shopping for macaroni and cheese, as I’m fairly certain that means my subconscious really isn’t as convinced as some of my thoughts seemed to indicate it is; surely I would not be able so smoothly to return to the mundane of the familiar world if I truly believed I was being stalked by vampires.

I am being stalked, though, and what I should do about it (if anything) I don’t know. The woman assured me that they have no ‘criminal intentions’ toward me, but do I believe that?

“He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

Perhaps the young man has done this before to others — whatever it is that he’s doing — and I’m not the first policeman in his lineup. The anguish in his tone, though, which would seem to indicate that he finds it an unpleasant, even painful task to carry out makes that theory incompatible with ‘no criminal intentions.’ Other than this, I have no theories.

And why should I continue to theorize, when the issue is so obviously beyond my comprehension at this point? Personally, there’s nothing I can do about this: they are clearly capable of evading me with apparent ease; legally, I still don’t really have a basis for action, and in any event just the thought of the phone call to the precinct to report the supposed crime makes me almost shudder with chagrin; mentally, persisting in my speculations will get me worse than nowhere: if I keep up at the rate I’m going, I might well have some sort of breakdown before the week is over.

Presumably the latter will bring the answers I need. It had better, I find myself thinking grimly as I head back home with my pseudo-groceries. And despite the resolution I’m forming about this entire affair, I still have to force myself not to look behind me at every other step to see if I’m being followed. Not that I would probably see them anyway, even if they happen to be there.


His Own Humanity: Reciprocity

It wasn’t really possible for an object lacking voice or facial features to express emotions, but somehow, looking at it, Heero was reading annoyance and frustration pretty clearly without needing a human face to read them in. He couldn’t help smiling; hand-held can openers were a bit of a bother before you figured them out. The electric kind were so unreliable, though, that he’d sworn them off years ago. Duo was just going to have to get used to it.

He hadn’t heard a sound since he’d entered the apartment, but didn’t think it likely that Duo was out; so he recovered the can opener from where it had evidently been tossed down with some force into the corner at the far side of the counter, and started his search. Before he could even peek into any of the rooms down the hall, though, he caught sight of what he sought on the balcony at the end.

As he drew nearer, he observed that Duo, seated against the outside wall beside the glass door, was eating black olives from a can, so there was one mystery solved. The G.E.D. study guide he’d had for only a couple of weeks but that was already somewhat ragged-edged lay across his lap, and his new sparkly green iPod sat on top of that. His bare feet, down at the end of long, full-stretched legs, twitched rhythmically back and forth, presumably to the beat of whatever he was listening to — he’d been downloading anything and everything in the last few weeks — and as Heero was opening the door Duo added to this time-keeping operation by tapping out the rhythm on his book with the highlighter in his hand.

“Oh, hey!” Duo looked up with a surprised smile as Heero stepped onto the balcony. He pulled the headphones from his ears, and would have risen if Heero hadn’t dropped down beside him as he closed the door. “Is it that late?” Duo added, sounding pleased to find that it was, after which his mouth was busy and he couldn’t say anything more for several long moments. He tasted like olives.

Finally Heero sat back from the hello kiss and remarked, gesturing at the can, “You got them open eventually, I see.”

With magic,” Duo replied belligerently. “That goddamned torture device was not cooperating.”

“This one?” Heero held up the can opener.

“Yes!” Duo yelped. “Can I throw it?”

Heero laughed. “No. Here, let me show you…” He pulled the olives closer, then slowly demonstrated how the can opener worked — incompletely, of course, since this particular can was already open.

Duo watched with suspicious eyes, and eventually remarked dubiously, “It kinda crawls along there, doesn’t it? Sorta eats its way around the top of the can.” He sounded as if he wanted to give the device another chance, but had been too wounded by its betrayal to trust again so soon.

“Now you try,” Heero urged, reaching for one of Duo’s hands to place it on the rubber-coated handles of the can opener.

Grumbling and still suspicious, Duo nevertheless allowed Heero to guide his fingers through the process a couple of times. He seemed to develop some reluctant admiration for the object’s design, but obviously remained a little wary of it even when the tutoring session was over.

“I may keep opening stuff with magic for a while,” he said, and for a few tense moments he followed the can opener with his eyes as Heero set it aside next to the nearly-depleted olives. “Speaking of which…” Relaxing, Duo leaned to move the two items entirely out of the space between himself and his boyfriend — his touch on the can opener, the amused Heero noted, still gingerly — and gestured. “Now come here.” And he tugged at Heero’s arm.

Heero obeyed, and found himself, at Duo’s direction, leaning close against him. When Duo said, “I’ll show you something,” Heero could feel the vibrations of his speech through the hand that Duo had pulled to his chest.

“All right.” It came out in a murmur, which seemed somehow to fit the snugness of their new position.

Duo went on, but now he was no longer speaking English. “Let me say, everyone who’s got magical abilities has a magical or psychic center ’round about here.”

Heero had no problem at all understanding the magical language, and as Duo spoke he could sense something a little different than before through his palm and fingers. It was similar to the vibrations of Duo’s regular speech, but it was as if Heero was feeling them on another, deeper level.

“Let me say, if you can find that center in yourself and sorta talk through it, it’ll come out in the magical language, and anyone with magical abilities will be able to understand you.”

It made him shiver, and, as Duo continued, Heero couldn’t help feeling as if they two were connected on a new and deeper level as well. He remembered ascribing a certain intimacy to the idea that Duo had been the one to awaken his magical abilities; it looked as if he hadn’t been too far off the mark.

“Let me say, you have to speak through your magical center to cast spells, too, so finding it’s pretty important if you’re going to be doing magic.”

Heero dropped his head to rest against Duo’s shoulder and closed his eyes. He thought he could feel a faint resonance inside his own chest responding to that in Duo’s; it was interesting and exciting and disconcerting.

“Let me say, can you feel that?”

“Why do you keep starting all your sentences like that?” Heero wondered quietly, eyes still closed.

“Let me say, to make sure I don’t cast any actual spells by accident. Let me say, this way I’m structuring my sentences so they’re pretty much just a spell commanding me to say what I’m saying.”

Heero nodded minutely. “Why is the magical center in the chest?” he asked next. “Is it associated with a particular organ?”

In English this time, Duo answered, “You’d have to ask Trowa about that one…”

Heero raised his head again to look Duo in the eye with a slight smile. “I prefer learning from you,” he said, and kissed him.

Some time later, still in English, Duo echoed Heero’s earlier suggestion: “Now you try it.”

“Do what, exactly?” It didn’t sound in his voice, but Heero was a little nervous about this. He had, after all, recently witnessed the tail-end of a conspicuous example of magic gone very, very wrong. That Duo himself wasn’t more wary of amateur magic use at this point might have been a surprise if Heero hadn’t already become perfectly accustomed to his attitude.

“Just try to feel your magical center,” Duo was replying somewhat vaguely, “and see if you can talk through it.”

“All right…” Heero closed his eyes again and concentrated, simultaneously silently predicting that his nervousness would render him completely unable to pull this off. He thought he was still aware of the not-entirely-physical area of his chest that he’d felt vibrating in response to Duo’s earlier words, but he couldn’t quite get mental hold of what it would take to ‘talk through it.’ “Say something else,” he requested of Duo, who complied.

And as Duo started to “Let me say” through the lyrics of some absurd song that was popular at the moment, which sounded even more idiotic when chanted in the magical language, and placed a hand over Heero’s heart to mirror the one of Heero’s that lay atop his own, Heero found that nervousness was not the emotion likely to get in the way here. He tried to concentrate again on the resonance Duo’s speech was causing within him, but Duo’s voice and his warm hand were simply too distracting.

Finally Heero gave a faint, helpless laugh. “I don’t think this is going to work right now.”

Duo broke off his lyric recitation and wondered, “Oh?”

“Because it’s making me want you like mad,” Heero confessed.

“Justin Bieber?” wondered Duo skeptically. “I’ll have to remember that.”

Heero chuckled. “Let’s just say that even he couldn’t make me not want you.”

“Oh, well done!” Duo complimented this statement with a laugh. Then he asked slyly, “So what are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing, at the moment,” Heero sighed. “We’ll have to try this again later when we have more time.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Duo recollected in disappointment: “suits.”

Heero nodded against Duo’s shoulder; then, because he simply couldn’t help it, he turned to mouth Duo’s neck.

Duo let out a pleased breath and said in a tone that was half serious, half silly, and all suggestive, “We’ll put off the magic ’til tonight, then.”

Relena’s wedding was less than a month away, and Heero and Duo had fittings scheduled today for the necessary attire. Tempting though it was to forget all about that and pursue, as Duo had said, magic of various types, Heero knew his mother would go into meltdown if she found out he’d put off reserving his tux.

“Consider yourself booked for tonight, then,” he said, withdrawing reluctantly from his comfortable position against his lover and moving to rise.

Duo groped him on the way up. “Consider it considered.” After which, thankfully, they managed to get Duo shod and the both of them out of the apartment without too much more Justin Bieber, though Heero had a sinking suspicion he hadn’t heard the last of that.

A preference for jewel tones had already been established on Duo’s part, and Heero was beginning to suspect him of a preference for the jewels themselves as well as Duo oohed and ahhed over a line of shirts with sparkly decorated collar points. Finished with his own fitting, which had been quick and easy, Heero watched Duo’s with a smile but without a word. He wasn’t going to try to talk Duo out of the blingy shirt he had his eye on (nor the tie and vest with glittery stripes to match), and in fact was ready to buy him whatever he wanted.

Duo looked so damn good in everything, and watching him try things on was a wonderful experience — and not just because Heero adored every detail of his body. Duo struck poses for the mirrors and quoted movie lines he thought were appropriate (though they usually weren’t) and generally made an adorable goof of himself. And the dawning realization displayed by the employee helping him that this was a gay couple he had in his dressing room was amusing too — in a different, tiresome sort of way.

Near the end of the process, oddly enough, Billy Joel’s My Life began playing from Heero’s pocket. In some confusion he fished out his phone while Duo tried for a straight face as he said, “That’s one of your parents.”

Heero did remember eventually that Duo had been playing with his phone the other night, and was impressed at what a quick learner his boyfriend was. Duo had once said he didn’t think he’d ever get used to cell phones, and now here he was assigning custom ringtones.

Despite its unexpected trappings, the call itself was no surprise. Mrs. Yuy considered all wedding preparations as being her immediate jurisdiction, and the acquisition of suits was no exception even though it technically had nothing to do with her. Naturally she would want to check to make sure this phase of the operation was proceeding according to plan.

“Hello, mama,” Heero greeted her, more or less amiably.

“Heero? Hello. How are you doing?”

“Great,” he replied truthfully. “How are you?”

“We’re well. Your father has decided to take up golfing. Are you getting your tuxedo today?”

Unfazed by her topic roulette, which was nothing atypical, Heero told her he was at the store right now.

“No problems getting the same style as your father’s?”

“No.” They’d only been over this a dozen times.

“And your friend is there too? Getting his suit?” She rarely used Duo’s name, and the term ‘boyfriend’ was absolutely beyond her, but that she was acknowledging his existence at all was something of a miracle.

“That’s right.”

“Good. You wrote down the colors to match?”

“Yes, mama. There won’t be any problems.”

“Good. And you two are coming to dinner on Sunday, aren’t you?”

There was an even bigger miracle. Heero marveled at how happily he was able to give an affirmative when just two months before it had made him cringe.

So far it turned out that the steady-boyfriend theory had been correct, and things had progressed very much as Relena had predicted: stiff and awkward, though not necessarily antagonistic, at first, and then (more quickly than he would have dared hope) increasingly easy.

Whether it was because his parents were charmed by Duo’s persistently ingratiating and entertaining ways, or because they saw how happy Heero was with him, or because they just didn’t have the energy to hold out in the face of Heero’s determination to live the way he thought appropriate (not to mention the support of those around him), or some combination of these, things were gradually, miraculously getting better. And now they’d even reached the point where Mrs. Yuy would declare it “Good” in her sharply friendly tone that he and Duo were coming to dinner.

Of course it would have been impossible for them not to like Duo himself, so that was nothing spectacular; and they still seemed to avoid thinking of him as Heero’s boyfriend as much as they could, treating him rather as if he were just a good friend of both their children, which was less than ideal… but there was no denying that things were getting better.

Duo could tell, too. When Heero hung up from the conversation with his mother, he found him grinning, and clearly not just because of the sneakily altered ringtone. As usual, Duo had been able to pick up the mood of the discussion despite its being in Japanese and only half audible, and approved of what he’d heard.

Heero smiled back. He was extremely grateful to Duo for this circumstance, which just added another item to a growing list of reasons he was ecstatic to have Duo in his life. It wasn’t exactly a favor Duo had done for him — except as far as Duo went out of his way to be even more likeable than usual around the Yuy parents — but that fact did not lessen Heero’s gratitude. He would share all of this with Duo one of these days, but not yet — at least not in these terms — since he feared it would correspond undesirably with an unfortunate attitude he already thought he perceived in Duo.

That perception was only strengthened when he paid the bill at the outfitters. Heero was renting his tux, since he didn’t exactly have a routine need for it; but a nice suit was something useful to own, so he was buying one for Duo… and Duo was making the same face he always did when Heero spent money on him or assisted him in some aspect of human life — be it as significant as helping him get registered as a patient at a doctor’s office or as small as demonstrating proper handling of a can opener.

The expression was one of displeasure, almost disapproval, that overrode Duo’s simultaneous gratitude and fondness and seemed to be immediately calculating how to shift the balance of the situation. And if the setting had been right he would have tried: shown Heero something magical or volunteered for some household chore… actions not at all objectionable in themselves, but the motives behind which Heero was beginning to question.

It was time they did something about this.

*

Heero was onto him.

Even after a month and a half, Duo had not yet readjusted to humanity and having facial expressions and all that, and he hadn’t been able to hide it, and Heero had noticed. That was his impression, anyway, based on the look Heero gave him on the way out of the store. But instead of commenting, at least for the moment, Heero just paused outside and glanced around.

“You’ve never had bubble tea,” he declared. He didn’t have to ask; to a certain extent — particularly when it came to food — he was familiar with Duo’s entire range of human experiences.

“Nope. Never heard of it.”

Heero pointed to the strip mall’s next business over, which was, indeed, labeled ‘Bubble Tea’ in puffy colorful lettering. “Want to try it?”

“Yes,” replied Duo at once. “What is it?”

Heero began walking in the direction of the adjacent shop. “It’s weird,” he said unhelpfully. “I think you’ll like it.”

The little store was decorated in an eclectic style that Duo associated with Chinese restaurants, and featured a complicated list of flavors that occupied him for several minutes. Though he wasn’t entirely sure, yet, what he was ordering, he eventually chose strawberry-banana, and the lady behind the counter set to work making some kind of smoothie for him in addition to the avocado-vanilla one Heero had already requested. He and Heero were discussing weddings, not terribly intensively, while the woman worked, until Duo suddenly broke off what he was saying to hiss, wide-eyed, at his boyfriend, “What is she putting in there? What is that stuff?”

Heero just smiled enigmatically.

The cup he eventually received had a thin sheet of plastic sealed across the top, which made it possible for Duo to turn it all around, peering suspiciously inside, without worrying about spilling. This didn’t prevent him from pouting a bit (for all he tried not to) as he watched Heero pay for the drinks, but soon he returned his attention to the mysterious objects at the bottom of the smoothie. They looked like black marbles.

After offering Duo a hugely wide, green-striped straw, Heero headed out the door into the warm June dusk once again. Duo nearly tripped on the mat and ran into someone as he followed, so riveted was he on the drink in his hand. Once outside (and out of the path of other customers), they paused so Heero could demonstrate how to puncture the plastic covering with the pointed end of the straw. Then he stood still sipping his own drink and watching Duo expectantly.

It tasted like strawberry… strawberry-banana… banana… and then…! Duo choked, trying to drink, chew, and laugh through his surprise at the same time. This only made him laugh (and choke) more, which induced a nearly similar reaction in Heero as the latter handed over a couple of napkins he’d had the prescience to obtain inside.

“They’re… squishy… what the hell…” Without looking, Duo was mopping up what he’d spewed down his front, still laughing and coughing.

“You missed some,” Heero grinned, pointing.

It was a good thing they’d already gotten the fitting-room portion of the day out of the way. As he entered a second round of napkin application to his newly-spotted shirt, Duo finally managed a complete sentence. “What are those?”

“It’s tapioca.”

“Like in pudding?” Duo laughed. “Whose idea was it to put that in a drink?” And he looked askance down his straw; now he realized why it was so big.

Heero shrugged. “Do you not like it?”

Thoughtfully Duo took another drink, at the same moment tossing the napkins into a trash can by the door. And after a very intense and serious assessment, he laughed again, less disastrously this time, and commented, “Yes, I like it! It’s hilarious! But I think ‘weird’ wasn’t quite strong enough, before.”

“Good,” Heero said with a smile. Then he gestured to stop Duo from taking a seat at the little table just outside the shop. “Let’s go sit in the car.”

Duo tried not to wince as he agreed. The only reason Mr. Privacy would want to go sit in the car was for the sake of a personal conversation. Which meant he really had noticed. And Duo wasn’t going to try to keep anything from him; he probably shouldn’t have kept it to himself to begin with — they’d had enough of that back in April.

Despite bracing himself, as they crossed the parking lot, for a discussion in which he would probably have to disclose feelings that might bother or even hurt his boyfriend, Duo simply could not help laughing every time he got another of the tapioca balls in his mouth. Severely amusing beverage additives did not balance quite equally against potentially uncomfortable conversation — though, admittedly, for someone that only a couple of months before had been unable to enjoy any kind of beverage, it came closer than it might for anyone else — but the tapioca was very present, while the conversation was only pending as yet. So it was in an oddly mixed frame of mind that he slid into the passenger seat and closed the door behind him.

And as Heero did the same on the driver’s side, Duo asked, mostly facetiously, “Am I in trouble?”

Heero smiled briefly and took Duo’s free hand. “No,” was his serious answer. “I’ve just noticed something you’ve been doing more and more since the curse was broken, and I wanted to talk to you about it.”

“I am in trouble,” Duo grimaced.

Squeezing the hand he held, Heero said, “I promise you’re not. It’s just that…” He took a deep breath. “I love you.”

Duo knew by now that Heero was neither accustomed to nor terribly expert at saying this phrase aloud; if you counted as a single instance the repetitions Duo had dragged out of him the night after the first time, this was only the second time he’d managed it in this relationship.

“And I’m happy having you around,” Heero went on, blushing faintly. “Having you living with me. But I can see that you feel bad about me supporting you. I want you to know that you don’t have to. You don’t need to feel like it’s inconvenient for me, or that you have to try to pay me back.”

This might be a little awkward no matter how it went, and therefore Duo didn’t feel at all bad starting out his end of it by waggling an eyebrow and asking in a exaggerated suggestive tone, “Not even with sex?”

Heero grinned slightly. “Sex with you is wonderful,” he said sincerely, “but if I thought you were actually doing it because you thought you had to to pay me back for anything, I would be extremely uncomfortable.”

Duo returned the grin. “Well, don’t be, ’cause I’m not.” Then he sobered entirely as he faced down the explanation he needed to give. “The thing is… I still don’t feel much like a real person yet. I mean, physically I do — and it’s great — but socially, I guess, not so much. It’s not something I ever expected; I thought once the curse was broken and I could feel and smell and taste, I’d be able to consider myself a human being again… but I don’t, really. And a big part of that is the fact that you’re still taking care of me so completely.

“Don’t think I resent that or anything! Because I totally love you too, and I love living with you… but it’s not like I would have much of a choice at this point even if I didn’t. I might as well still be a doll, because you’re still practically carrying me around.”

Swiveling his cup at an oblique angle in his hands, Duo watched the remainder of the tapioca balls at the bottom swish through the melting smoothie as he continued. “And I know I got excited about you buying me things right at first, because I could own things and use things again; and having them meant a lot, because it was so different from before and they were such a strong proof that I’m human again. I don’t want you to think I don’t like you buying me things. It’s just that if you didn’t, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to buy them for myself.

“And you do a lot of things for me that I can’t do for myself, either because I don’t know how yet or because it’s something that takes money that I don’t have yet. It’s like I’m a little kid; I’m having to totally rely on you for everything.”

At the sight of Heero’s expression of perturbation and concern, Duo hastened on. “Don’t look like that! I really don’t want you to feel bad about this. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the way things have to be after the curse. Just… if I do act like I’m trying to pay you back a little for everything you do for me, it’s not so much because I feel like I owe you as because it makes me feel more like a real person who has a choice about what he does and where his life is going.”

Heero was silent for several moments, and looked as if he was turning this over thoroughly in his head. Finally he nodded. “I see what you’re saying,” was his serious assurance. “At least I think I do. And of course I want you to do whatever you need to to feel better, about everything and yourself. Don’t let me make you feel like you can’t… tell me if I ever do, OK?”

Now it was Duo’s turn to squeeze Heero’s hand.

“But also,” Heero added with a solemn smile, “don’t get into the habit of trying to find some way to pay me back for every little thing, or thinking you have a debt piling up. I take care of you because I love you, not because you’re then obligated to do something in return. We’re not business partners.”

That was two I love you‘s in one conversation; Duo wondered how he’d so lucked out. Actually, on a larger scale, he wondered (and definitely not for the first time) how he’d so lucked out as to find someone like Heero — someone that could, after only what Duo considered a very imperfect explanation of his feelings under these circumstances, comprehend what he was going through, or at least act as if he did, and someone he loved so very much.

He felt he did owe Heero, more than he could ever repay, for what Heero had done to break his curse. He knew perfectly well that Heero hadn’t done it in the expectation of a reward of any kind, but he didn’t think his own resulting desire to give Heero everything, do everything he could for Heero — not because he had to but because he wanted to, out of gratitude and love — was at all unhealthy or inappropriate. But he certainly wasn’t about to say that now, since it would undoubtedly be counterproductive in this discussion.

Instead he said, “You’re the best, you know that?” He took another drink of the hilarious smoothie and added, “And so is this stuff.”

Heero smiled.

Duo wasn’t quite finished with the previous topic, though, much as he would like to be. “Of course the real next step toward being a real person is to get that test taken so I can get a job. I think I’m about ready… hopefully the grammar parts won’t kill me…”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Heero reassured. “Even on the grammar parts. You’ve been studying that book until it’s falling apart, and highlighting half of every page.”

“That,” Duo admitted sheepishly, “may be just because I like the highlighter colors.”

“I knew that.” Fondly Heero grinned at him. “Why do you think I bought them for you?” At Duo’s faint wince his smile turned rueful, but his follow-up statement was added more or less smoothly: “And once you have a job, you can buy your own highlighters, in every color you can think of. But for now, do you want to go practice driving?”

Heero really was the best; his suggesting they work on something that furthered the cause of Duo’s autonomy (not to mention something Duo thoroughly enjoyed in itself) indicated both that he really did understand and that he wasn’t hurt by what Duo had told him. “Yes, please!” Duo said heartily.

As Heero navigated toward the large, usually empty parking lot where he’d been teaching Duo to drive in spare moments, Duo concentrated on finishing his drink so as to have both hands free. At the bottom, he had to suck up the weird little squishy balls deliberately one at a time, which was extremely entertaining. Once again, Heero had treated him to a marvelous experience, and Duo was cheerfully grateful.

By the time he’d fished out the last of the tapioca from the floor of the cup, they were parked and idling at their destination. And after a quick but very sincere kiss that constituted a strange blending of flavors after their respective smoothies, they left their seats in order to switch places and give Duo a turn at the wheel.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

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

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

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

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

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



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

This story is included in the His Own Humanity: Through July ebook.



Eloquent



I would get naked for Heero Yuy anytime, anywhere, no matter what was going on. Back alley? Sure. Open street? Why not? Fire fight? Bring it on. Space battle? Well, you get the picture.

OK, I may be exaggerating just a little. I might have to give him an I.O.U. if I was on a mission at the time. But you’d better believe that when he comes in, dirty, ragged, sweaty, tired, to the motel room we just happen to be sharing (absolute coincidence, I swear) and gives me that look, I’m not about to hold back.

Just because I’ve finally managed to get him to open up to me in certain ways doesn’t mean I can usually get him to talk about whatever this is that we’ve got going here, and it’s a little frustrating not knowing whether or not there’s actually an us in this situation because he always avoids the subject. He’s very good at avoiding subjects. But then sometimes he gives me that look, and there’s no need for words.

I hustle him out of his clothes and equipment and into the shower, mostly just because I don’t know what he’s been crawling through, but I can’t even wait for him to half get started cleaning up before I join him. It’s probably a good idea anyway; the hot water available in this place is limited, so it’s better for us both to get clean at the same time before it runs out. Not that I’ve really got anything ‘clean’ in mind at this point. This braid can last without attention for another couple of days.

Despite the fact that he gave me that look, really the only way I can tell he doesn’t mind what I’m doing is the lack of any actual objection. If he didn’t want me putting my hands all over him, if he didn’t want me pushing him up against the plasticky shower wall and sucking on his neck, if he didn’t want my fingers wandering quite so far down his body, he’d tell me, undoubtedly by means of a bullet or two.

I haven’t been able to decide whether I like it better when he tops or when I do. I know that what I like best is both in a row, but that’s not a frequent occurrence. We just don’t have that kind of time, even when we do happen to, absolutely coincidentally, be sharing a motel room because we’ve both got missions in the area. We need sleep — actually, I should have been in bed hours ago, but I was waiting around for him — so there’s no opportunity for doing things the way I’d really prefer.

I don’t have the faintest clue which he likes better either, but usually when he gives me that look, it means that he wants to take it from me. OK, I don’t really know that it does mean that; just that’s how things end up, and he doesn’t complain.

In fact I never get any feedback on this from him. Slower? Faster? Harder? Softer? Different angle? Different position entirely, maybe? It seems like it’s all the same to him, and if I ask, he just turns red and mumbles something I can’t understand; if I insist, he gets angry. But I must be doing something right, since he spreads his legs a little wider and shifts his hips with just the faintest groan of pleasure, and over my hand that’s braced against the wall he puts his own, his fingers pressing at mine as if he wishes they could be interlocked.

If only I knew, though, whether he really likes it like this or if there’s something else I could be doing. I’d do anything he asked, if he’d just ask. I mean, I’m noisy as Hell when he’s the one taking the lead, and he tends to do whatever I ask… I’d love to return the favor… But maybe he really is OK with it like this. I just wish I knew.

He doesn’t seem to have any problems orgasming, anyway.

And, God, neither do I, when he tightens up around me like that.

So afterwards there actually does turn out to be some real getting cleaned up. I just can’t help lavishing attention on my beautiful Heero, even if it is only with this crappy little hotel soap and a tiny travel bottle of shampoo that I could have used on myself but would rather use on him.

And sometimes… sometimes… I even get the feeling that he likes it. That’s probably wishful thinking on my part, though, since I don’t really know how I ever manage to get that impression. Not that Heero isn’t extremely good at subtle cues; I just never thought I was all that good at picking up on them.

I still don’t bother with any washing of myself beyond just the basic standing under the spray, since I’ve spent my entire allowance of hot-water-time on Heero; anyway, since I’ll be the one crawling through mud and God-knows-what-else in the morning, it doesn’t really matter. And I’d much rather get to the toweling-Heero-off phase quicker anyway.

Even when he’s tired out and obviously not terribly happy, there’s only so much coddling a guy like Heero can take before he pushes my hands away with a grumble and does the rest on his own. I don’t mind; actually, I think I would seriously worry if he let me do too much for him. But he doesn’t object to me checking the bed for parasites, turning off the lights, and half tucking him in before I lie down beside him. And then we sort of sink into each other in this nice kind of melty way where our breathing is almost synchronized and we are, if not totally relaxed, at least fairly comfortable together.

I love this more than anything, and it’s not just that the sex is incredible — though it definitely is. For a few hours in a cheap motel that thinks we’re a couple of illegal immigrants trying to keep our heads down and find work and a more permanent place to stay, before we have to go separate ways that are pretty much guaranteed to lead to gunshots and explosions and mobile suits battles, I can pretend to forget about the rest of the sphere.

I can pretend to forget that I have no idea who’s going to suffer because of what I’m doing, and the fact that nothing’s going to change that; Hell, they might be suffering already as I’m doing it; innocents might be hurting right now, and I can’t even offer them a quick death, because I have no idea who or where they might be. And at the same time, the fighting is so often invigorating and fun, and maybe it really shouldn’t be; maybe I’m turning into someone who enjoys hurting other people; maybe I’m not doing any of this because I think it’s going to help, but how the Hell can I even tell? Is the specific destruction I cause going to do any good, short-term or long-term? Maybe this whole damn plot is just an insane and pointless string of terrorism that’s actually just making everything worse… and maybe I don’t care. I don’t even know anymore.

But in here, things are different. Here, I can be with someone I definitely do care about, and concentrate on the good feelings between us. Here I know for a fact that I’m fulfilling a need of someone I maybe kinda sorta love. The simplicity and positivity are so totally opposite everything else I have to deal with in this shitty Hell of a war, it’s like we’ve shifted into another dimension entirely.

He’s clinging a little tonight, and I cling right back; we huddle together in the bed more like a couple of kids protecting each other from the dark than a couple of soldiers who happen to be ambiguous lovers taking a momentary break from a war. And, really, I guess that’s what we are… just kids who don’t know what we’re doing. But at least we have each other. I think.

“So what brought this on?” I wonder eventually, so quietly that he probably feels my words through his skin more clearly than he hears them. “Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

Heero takes an almost inaudible deep breath and actually answers the question, which is a bit of a surprise. In that forced tone he sometimes uses when (I’m fairly sure) what he has to say isn’t something he’s reluctant about, necessarily, but something he’s not entirely certain how to articulate, he murmurs, “Out there, everything is… twisted. Here, with you, it’s right.”

I wonder if he can feel my increase in heart-rate as he says it. Miserable as the sentiment itself is, at least in part, it’s fucking glorious to realize that he was thinking the same thing I was, even if he took about two hundred fewer words to express it.

“Yeah,” I whisper. “You’re absolutely right.” And I hold him tighter.

It’s funny how just a short little phrase like that can make me feel so much better about everything. I still may not be entirely sure about the degree of us I’ve got to work with here, I still definitely have to go back out and play Death God tomorrow, and, really, nothing in the world has changed… but somehow this kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing is suddenly a little less afraid of the dark. And I fall asleep relatively content, thinking that, for all I complain about the amount of effort it sometimes takes to get things out of him, at other times Heero really is every bit as eloquent as he needs to be.


Holy Tolkien, did I write something in the canon setting? It looks like I did. It’s a fairly generic soldiers-comforting-each-other-with-romance-or-the-next-best-thing kind of plot, but everyone has to write at least one of those, right? I think I’d read one of those in the GW world before I’d even ever seen the series XD

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

This story is included in the Gundam Wing Collection ebook.



His Own Humanity: Plastic 0-5

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”



“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”


Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”


“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



Heretic’s Reward 1-4

Heretic’s Reward

“Sooner or later, whoever’s behind the usurpation will have to make some kind of ‘divine’ display affirming his claim to the throne… Having my own source of miracles will even the playing field somewhat.”

Orchard-hand Sano is pulled from his small-town life to assist royal knight Hajime in restoring the usurped throne to Kenshin, the rightful king, and the two of them may find a connection beyond only this quest.



This story was last updated on July 29, 2018

1-4
Chapter 1 - Heretics
Chapter 2 - Purpose and Awareness
>2 Interlude
Chapter 3 - Another Homeward Encounter
Chapter 4 - Not Stable
5-8
Chapter 5 - Warrior's Coma
>5 Interlude
Chapter 6 - The Defense of Eloma
Chapter 7 - Alleged Miracles
>7 Interlude
Chapter 8 - Departure
Chapter 9 - Egato 8ni Kasun
>9 Interlude
Chapter 10 - Torosa Forest Road
>10 Interlude
Chapter 11 - Proxy's Son
Chapter 12 - Yahiko's Burden
Chapter 13 - Enca Inn North
Chapter 14 - First Report: Kaoru, Tomoe
Chapter 15 - First Report: Megumi, Misao, Yumi
Chapter 16 - Nine Years Later
Chapter 17 - Second Report
Chapter 18 - The K
Chapter 19 - Tangles
Chapter 20 - Thirteen Years Ago
Chapter 21 - Third Report: Purple Sky
Chapter 22 - Third Report: Wishes That May Be Prayers
Chapter 23 - Wanted
>23 Interlude
Chapter 24 - Playing Thieves Guild
Chapter 25 - A Small Gathering of Malcontents
Chapter 26 - The Visitant
Chapter 27 - At the Sanctum Doors
>27 Interlude
Chapter 28 - Twitch
Chapter 29 - As-Yet-Unknown Powers
Chapter 30 - Unoppressed Light
Chapter 31 - Final Report
Chapter 32 - Known Powers


Chapter 1 – Heretics

It often took the entire walk home for Sano’s hair to dry, but that did rather depend on the weather. During this transition between summer and autumn, provided the rain hadn’t started, by the time he’d reached the crossroads it was already at that itchy stage where any lingering moisture felt like sweat instead of the remains of a bath. He hated that stage, especially when he was already a little annoyed, but scratching his head or running his hands through his hair would only necessitate another bath sooner than if he didn’t, so he kept them clamped tightly around the straps of his backpack to prevent it.

A distraction from his irritated thoughts was not at all unwelcome, which was probably the only reason he even noticed the sound of running feet as he neared the crossroad — bare feet, apparently, approaching him up the perpendicular way, which the trees currently blocked mostly from view. He paused, waiting to see what entertainment the Torosa Forest Road would afford him today, watching what little he could make out through the corner of foliage. Something grey flashed past, and a figure came hurtling around the bend onto his road, where it promptly ran right into him.

It wasn’t a proper, solid collision, but rather more of a ricochet; a shoulder made contact with Sano’s ribcage, sending the figure spinning off behind him and falling awkwardly to the ground. And once it was still, Sano, turning, saw a shoeless boy in an overlarge, frayed shiiya that was missing a sleeve.

“You all right, kid?” Sano reached out a hand to help the boy up. “What’s your hurry?”

Instead of accepting the assistance, the boy looked him over quickly with eyes that widened perceptibly at something he saw, then scrambled backward and to his feet. With one last nervous glance at Sano, he turned and dashed off the road into the trees, where he quickly disappeared.

“Huh,” said Sano.

If it hadn’t been evident from the kid’s demeanor that he was being pursued, the sound of more running feet and hard breathing from around the bend would have confirmed it. Sano turned back toward the crossing and waited. Presently a pair of devoted, a man and a woman in mismatched pants and red shiiyao bearing the black and purple lotus emblem, came hurrying into view and stopped in front of him. The man, evidently pleased at the momentary pause in their progress, bent over, rubbing at his side and panting.

The woman, forward of her companion and not as badly winded, looked quickly around at the road in both directions and the surrounding trees, then at Sano. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she caught sight of the heretical device on his chest. “Did you see the boy?” she demanded abruptly. “Where did he go?”

“Dunno,” Sano shrugged. He then added in the mildest tone he could command, “I’m blind.”

The second devoted, slowly standing upright again, looked at Sano in greater interest. “Blind?” he echoed.

Still hanging onto his straight face, Sano replied, “That’s what you devoted are always telling me, anyway.”

The woman’s brows lowered, and one of her hands formed a fist “Are you getting fresh with us, heretic?”

“Come on.” The man stepped quickly forward, reaching for the woman’s arm to pull at and restrain her. “We don’t have time for this.”

Sano ignored this relatively pacific statement and responded instead to the woman’s threatening question. “And if I am? What are you gonna do about it?” He couldn’t help grinning a bit as he laid his hand on the hilt of the keonblade at his side. Baiting religious folk was just so much fun.

“We don’t want any trouble,” the man insisted.

The woman was also ignoring her companion. Seeing Sano’s motion and the small sword he wore, she rolled her eyes and commented derisively, “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.”

Please,” said the man loudly, clapping an emphatic hand on the woman’s shoulder and looking across it at Sano with a weary expression. “Master, we really don’t want any trouble; we just need to find that kid.”

For a long moment Sano contemplated telling both of them to go fuck themselves, but eventually decided against it. The man hadn’t been so bad, after all; besides, if Sano didn’t send them off wrong, they might accidentally go the right direction. “He ran off that way,” he finally said, pointing up the sloping road whence he’d come. “Looked pretty tired, too — nice of you guys to wear the poor kid out like that. You should have no problem catching him up if you hurry, unless he leaves the road.”

Without even acknowledging this ‘help,’ the woman turned and, towing the man, headed off immediately the way Sano pointed. The man turned back toward Sano briefly and began, “Five times…” Then, realizing the semi-religious idiom probably wasn’t entirely appropriate, amended, “Well, thank you.” After which he moved quickly to fall in beside his companion. Before they were out of sight or earshot, Sano heard him asking, “Why do you have to be so belligerent?”

“Why do you have to be so soft?” retorted she. “Heretics need to be put in their place.” And she broke into a run. Soon they had both disappeared around a curve in the road.

Sano looked after them for nearly a minute, making sure they weren’t coming back, before he turned and studied the nearby foliage. He thought he could make out a spot of pale grey among the greens and browns, and waved slowly at it. “All right, kid, you can come out… They’re ’round the bend by now; they won’t hear us talking back here.”

The grey patch moved and grew, and became the undyed clothing on the small frame of the boy. Hesitantly he emerged through the bushes, peered up the road, then turned suspicious eyes back on Sano. “Why’d you do that?” he wondered. “They might have rewarded you.”

Sano made a derisive sound. “They wouldn’t have given me nothing.” He grinned darkly as he added, “Besides, I like messing with devoted.”

The boy was studying him from head to toe again, still appearing a little uncomfortable. “Because you’re a heretic, right?”

“Right,” nodded Sano.

“Me too,” said the boy quickly, withdrawing his gaze from Sano — most particularly from Sano’s chest and the emblem thereupon — and looking around again.

“Oh, really? You look a little young to have decided that.” Falling into a crouch, which put him just below the boy’s eye-level, Sano returned the favor of precise examination. The kid’s black hair was shorn shaggily close to his head, which couldn’t possibly make him many friends wherever he went, and he was probably around ten years old. The shiiya he wore had obviously been made for an adult, for it extended all the way down past his knees, and the one remaining sleeve hung almost as far. He had a somewhat skittish demeanor that matched the nervous expression and the continually shifting red eyes.

In response to Sano’s statement, the boy fixed him with a direct glare. “Don’t talk to me like I’m young and you’re old.”

“Well, how old are you?” wondered Sano, amused.

“Eleven!”

Sano poked him in the chest teasingly. “You seem more like– Sweet Kaoru, you’re scrawny!” Because he really shouldn’t have been able to feel ribs quite so prominently with just a little poke like that.

The boy scowled, and so did Sano. Pulling his backpack off one shoulder, Sano fished through it with the opposite hand. As it was nearly empty, this being the end of the weekend, he easily found what he sought. “Eat this quick before you drop dead!” he said, handing an apple to the boy. The latter couldn’t quite hide a covetous widening of eyes and intake of breath as he reached out to accept. No surprise there: he probably hadn’t eaten in days.

Sano stood straight again, readjusting the backpack straps and rolling his shoulders. “And you better come this way,” he said, “in case those devoted come back.” The boy, already three huge bites into the apple, now followed him without hesitation.

They walked in silence for a while as the kid devoured the apple down to the narrowest core, at which he still looked rather wistfully before he hefted it out into the trees beyond the edge of the road. Watching him almost made Sano hungry, and reminded him very much of his own eleven-year-old days.

“So what’d you steal?” he asked at last, tossing the second apple he’d retrieved from his pack into the air and catching it.

“What?” The boy’s eyes followed the flying object like a predator its prey.

“I ain’t stupid, kid.” Sano let the apple go motionless in his hand in the hopes of commanding a greater share of the boy’s attention. “Those were Tomoe devoted, and the closest Tomoe shrine’s in Egato. No way would they chase you this far just for a heretic hunt.” Ladies knew the devoted liked a good heretic hunt, though; that woman he’d met just now had been a classic example. Whatever the kid had stolen from them had probably been a welcome excuse for them to harry him halfway around Torosa.

“It…” The boy’s eyes lingered for a moment on the now-stationary apple before turning away entirely. “It was just… some food.”

The kid seemed so uncomfortable about this that Sano, wanting to put him at ease, replied immediately and heartily, “Well, I can’t blame you for that! I did my share of it when I was a kid.” He held out the apple. “Here, have another.” And, as he watched the boy tear into it with just as much enthusiasm as the first, he added thoughtfully, “Tomoe knows a shrine’s the best place to steal food from.”

“You know,” said the boy, his tone solemn despite his mouth being full, “the ladies don’t like it much when you keep throwing around their names like that.”

Sano stared at him for a second, amazed at the serious straight face and the somber voice. Then he burst out laughing. “You sound just like a devoted!”

The boy smiled sheepishly at him before returning his attention to the apple.

Sano reached out and ruffled the kid’s scraggly hair. “I like you!” he declared. “What’s your name?”

“Yahiko,” said the boy without looking up.

“I’m Sano. You need a place to stay for the night?”

Now Yahiko did look up, but only with his eyes; it was a glance to which all the suspicion and nervousness had returned. “Yeah…” he said cautiously, and the tone was almost more that of a question.

“Well, you got one. I don’t own much, so I won’t worry about you robbing me, and there’s good work around here if you wanna make some honest money before you run off wherever.” He tapped the white teardrop on his chest knowingly as he added, “They even hire heretics.”

“Uh, thanks,” mumbled Yahiko reluctantly, then fell silent. He stared at his mostly eaten apple, and made his way through the last few bites with an unprecedented slowness. Finally he ventured, “Um… you’re not thinking I’m…” He was looking sidelong at Sano again, with just his uncertain eyes. “I’m not gonna have to, uh… ‘pay’ you for this, am I?”

Sano shrugged. “Well, if you have any…” But he trailed off as the particular tone Yahiko had used belatedly struck him. “You mean…” For a moment he went wordless as shock and outrage filled him.

Yahiko was studiously watching the passing trees on the side of the road opposite Sano, and said nothing to confirm the half-voiced guess. What in the world had this kid been through? How often had he been expected to ‘pay’ for things in the manner Sano was fairly certain he meant? It seemed obvious, however, that Yahiko would rather not discuss the matter with a complete stranger, and with this in mind Sano forced himself to finish his statement as casually as possible. “Nah, I like older men.”

“I like girls,” Yahiko said in a very small voice, still not looking over.

“Nothing wrong with that,” Sano said, far more jovially than he felt, clapping the kid on the shoulder. But the outrage was still present, and needed some expression, lest it force itself into the open in some inappropriate fashion. “But if anyone you don’t like comes bugging you like that,” he added, drawing his sword and letting the energy blade flash long and bright with the strength of his anger, “you just let me know.”

For the first instant, Yahiko had shied visibly away from him and looked like he might be about to bolt again. But as he took in Sano’s words and saw the weapon in his hand, his face broke into an animated smile. “You’re a keonmaster?”

Through Sano’s head rang immediately the voice of that damned devoted woman just now: “As if a heretic could ever hope to fight with a spiritual weapon.” He scowled a bit as he let the energy blade recede and resheathed the short sword. “Well, not exactly a master yet…” he admitted.

“My dad was, back when he was alive,” said Yahiko enthusiastically. “He was really good.”

“Did he teach you any moves or anything?”

“Only a little.”

“I was actually on my way back from my trainer’s when you ran into me today,” Sano said with some enthusiasm of his own. “If you stick around all week, I can take you up to his house. I usually stay up there on weekends.” But no sooner were these words out of his mouth than he realized everything that could potentially go wrong in that scenario. “Though… well…” He felt himself blushing slightly as he backtracked. “Maybe that’s not the best idea… He’s this grouchy old… well, older guy, and, well…”

The town had been growing larger and more visible before them for a while now, and their emergence from the trees was a very welcome occurrence. In the light of the setting sun it looked very homey and welcoming, Sano thought… though that might merely have been because of the potential change of subject it provided. He cleared his throat and gestured. “This is Eloma, by the way — in case you didn’t know where you were.”

Yahiko, evidently sufficiently distracted from Sano’s awkward lack of real explanation, looked first at the town and then behind them somewhat anxiously. “What if the devoted come here looking for me? Wouldn’t it be better if nobody saw me with you?”

“You pissed them off that bad?” Sano was impressed. “Nice work!”

Again Yahiko smiled sheepishly, and said nothing.

“Everybody in a town this size knows everything right after it happens no matter what you do anyway, though,” Sano went on, “so it’s no use hiding. But if anyone comes after you, I’ll deal with them.”

With an uncertain nod, Yahiko accompanied Sano over the irrigation bridge into town. He seemed to loosen up a trifle as he saw the villagers going about their usual tasks without taking any notice of them except to offer the occasional more or less amiable greeting. Sano waved at some friends where they sat under the roof of the inn, and stopped briefly to pet one of the local dogs, but otherwise had little interaction with anyone as they progressed — and this seemed to comfort Yahiko somewhat.

“And here we are,” Sano announced cheerfully as they approached his house in the southeastern corner of the town’s center. “Ain’t much, but it’s close to the orchards I usually work, and it’s really mine since I won the deed fair and square at chips.” He was still rather pleased with himself for that, and just couldn’t help mentioning it.

Yahiko didn’t seem impressed. “No, it really… ain’t much…” he murmured in something like horror. Sano was neither surprised nor particularly disturbed by this, and grinned as he fished out the key to his front door to let them in.

Inside, he managed to locate his fire-starter with only a little trouble in the dark, and lit the candle on the table. “There should be some clean water out back, if someone hasn’t thrown something in it,” he told Yahiko, gesturing at the back door, “if you want to wash up or anything.”

Yahiko was looking around at the small single room. “Oh, yeah… thanks…” he said a little absently, and moved toward the door.

“You still hungry?” wondered Sano as he removed his backpack and tossed it carelessly onto the bed.

“Yeah,” Yahiko replied, in a tone suggesting he didn’t want to ask for more food but was indeed very hungry. He was fumbling with the door, and managed to figure out both lock and latch after a few more moments.

Sano looked through his cabinet. “I got some bread…” He picked up the heavy half loaf, unwrapped it, and examined it on all sides. “Still looks good.”

“Thanks…” came Yahiko’s voice from just outside.

After setting the loaf down on its cloth wrap on the table and laying his knife beside it, Sano moved to the bed. He yanked the top blanket out from under his backpack and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply.

“There’s not much water here,” Yahiko called in to him.

“Is it enough?” asked Sano.

“Yeah, if you don’t mind me using all of it.”

“Go ahead. Probably one of the neighbors was too lazy to go aaaalllll the way to the irrigation. I’ve done it.”

A faint laugh from Yahiko was followed by splashing.

Satisfied that his blanket didn’t smell too terribly bad to be offered to his guest, Sano tossed it onto the rug that lay before the fireplace, and sent his pillow to follow. Then he bent to unlace his boots.

Bare to the waist, shaggy hair dripping, Yahiko reentered the room as Sano was removing his shiiya and stuffing it into the cabinet. Sano looked at him and noted not only just how scrawny he really was but also that his pants were belted with a length of string. Instead of commenting on this, however, he said, “Man, they had to practically tie me up and throw me in the river to get me to clean up when I was your age.”

Yahiko grinned. “But you weren’t on the run, were you?”

Sano returned the grin and shrugged. “Well, no, I guess not.” Turning back to the cabinet, he reached in and brought out the old, much-patched shiiya he only kept around these days as a backup. “Here, why don’t you wear this to sleep in. Yours looks like it could use a break.”

“Thanks,” said Yahiko, and pulled the garment over his head. Then, spreading his arms out and looking down at it, he remarked a little skeptically, “This… isn’t much better than mine.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty beat up, I know.” Sitting down on the bed again after making sure the back door was securely closed, Sano yawned. “It took me a while to save up for the red one,” he went on, “and meanwhile I never bothered much about that one. Then I had to find someone who didn’t think they’d be damned if they made me a new one with a heretic symbol on it.” And it still hadn’t turned out quite the same red as the devoted shiiyao… but that was a minor complaint.

“People seem to like you here, though,” Yahiko said.

“It’s ’cause I kinda grew up here, so they liked me already before I turned heretic. You should see how people from out of town look at me. But you’re probably already starting to get that, huh?”

Yahiko hesitated a moment before agreeing.

“Well, I gotta work in the morning,” Sano said as he lay back, “so I’m going to sleep.” He reached out a foot past the end of the bed to point at the rug and its fresh dressings. “I made a ‘bed’ for you, see? Not very nice, but probably better than sleeping outside on the bare ground, right?”

From where he’d been looking at the bread on the table, Yahiko turned to see what Sano was indicating. “Right,” he said, with no trace of discontent. “Thanks.”

Pillowing his head on his arm and pulling the remaining blanket up to his shoulder, Sano turned to face the wall as he said, “Stop thanking me, kid. We heretics gotta stick together, you know?” He yawned again. “So just help yourself to that bread, and put the candle out when you’re done, all right?”

“Sure,” said Yahiko.

A long period of quiet followed during which Sano, drifting toward sleep, hoped Yahiko ate as much bread as he wanted. But after a few minutes, Yahiko said softly, irresolutely, “Hey, Sano…”

“Yeah?”

Even more uncertainly, “Are you really a heretic?” Yahiko asked.

“What else would I be?” wondered Sano, a little surprised at the question.

“I mean, you really don’t believe the same things other people do about the ladies?”

“I don’t believe in the ladies at all, kid; it’s pretty simple.”

“Well,” Yahiko said in a sort of shrugging tone that seemed to imply this wasn’t actually all that important, “I know some heretics don’t really think about it at all… they just use being a heretic as a…” But he didn’t seem willing to complete that particular phrase.

“As an excuse to live like complete assholes?” Sano finished for him, turning slightly in the kid’s direction again. “I know. They make it hard on the ones of us who have real reasons not to believe.”

“What are your real reasons?” Though Yahiko asked quietly, Sano thought there was a certain eagerness to his tone that hadn’t been there before.

“Misao, kid, where did this come from?” Sano turned all the way over and propped himself up on an elbow to look at Yahiko in the shadows cast by the lone flame. “Aren’t you hungry and tired and shit? Haven’t you been chased all day?”

“Yeah, but…” Yahiko quickly faced the table again, as if reluctant to meet Sano’s gaze. “I’ve never met a real — another real heretic before, and I just want to…” He shrugged slightly.

“Yeah, well, we can talk about it tomorrow, all right?” Sano yawned again and subsided back into his previous position. “Not like there’s any hurry or anything.”

“Right,” agreed Yahiko quietly, and said nothing more.

When Sano got up the next morning just before dawn, the sight of the boy fast asleep curled under the blanket on the hearth rug made him pause. He couldn’t help reflecting that Yahiko was about the same age Outa would be if Outa had lived this long — not to mention about the same age Sano had been when he’d turned his back on the divine ladies, no matter what he’d said about Yahiko seeming a little too young to have made that decision. And if Sano hadn’t, almost entirely by luck, had a place to stay and a few people vaguely looking out for him back then, he’d have been running from everything just as Yahiko was now. Poor kid. What other hardships was he likely to encounter if he continued running?

Sano’s thoughts kept to this track throughout the day; orchard work didn’t demand much of the mental faculties, so he had plenty of opportunity to ponder how he might help Yahiko on a more long-term basis than just a few nights’ rest on his floor and some food. When he returned home, however, he found that all his planning was to come to nothing. For the little house was dark and quiet, and the only sign of a guest’s erstwhile presence was the single shining coin Yahiko had left on the table.

Chapter 2 – Purpose and Awareness

Like many provincial areas of Akomera, Eloma lived by the old calendar and the ten-day week. And though Sano hadn’t exactly forgotten the unfortunate Yahiko, he’d mostly stopped wondering if he would return by Gonhyou, the fifth day of the week that was by tradition only a half day of work. And by the time he headed back up the mountain on Hayohyou evening for his usual weekend training, he had relegated the kid’s visit to the mental area of unimportant past events.

Juhyou morning, Sano stood as he often did in the front room of his master’s house, both hands on his downward-pointed sword, attempting to keep the energy blade extended in the shape he wanted. As usual, it wasn’t working very well; including the thoughts in his own head, everything else in the world was just too interesting and distracting to allow him to concentrate on his spiritual energy and its release through his keonblade.

And the remark, “You’re up early,” from the doorway into the other room wasn’t likely to help much.

Sano acknowledged the truth of this with a single syllable and without opening his eyes. He might have remarked that, having awakened briefly at one point not long before, he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep with that snoring right in his ear — but he’d been thrown out of the house the last time he’d said something like that aloud.

“Why are you practicing that with the sword?” Seijuurou wondered next.

Pointedly not answering this question, Sano removed one hand from the weapon and gestured across the room. “I left you some breakfast.”

But Seijuurou was probably the stubbornest person Sano knew. “Why are you practicing with the sword?” he asked again. “I told you you have to master basic meditation first.”

Sano finally opened his eyes, dropping his meditative stance and glaring at the broad back of his keonmaster, who was now moving toward the table and the aforementioned breakfast. “Because what’s the point?” he demanded. “I still don’t see any connection between the stupid meditation and actual fighting!”

Seijuurou leaned across the table to push the windows’ shutters open and let in more of the morning light and the sound of the surrounding forest. “If you can’t concentrate on your purpose when you’re standing around doing nothing,” he said, “how do you hope to keep hold of it during battle?”

With a frustrated noise, Sano strode to the other set of windows, flung them open, and leaned on the shelf just beneath to look outside. “Stop talking about purpose already,” he grumbled.

“Yours isn’t strong enough,” said Seijuurou. “You never have more than a fleeting goal that only helps you fight for a short time.”

“I have plenty of goals!”

Now seated at the table and spreading preserves on a slice of bread, Seijuurou rolled his eyes. “You have nothing to live for,” he said severely, “so your purpose gets crushed by your awareness. You need more than just ‘wanting to kick ass.'”

Sensing already that Seijuurou was shifting into lecture mode, Sano sighed and, turning, leaned back against the shelf to listen, slapping his sword quietly and rhythmically against his empty hand somewhat impatiently as he did so.

“Awareness is essential to a regular swordsman,” said Seijuurou seriously, “but a keonmaster needs to balance it with purpose or he’ll never get anywhere.” He took a bite of his breakfast, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. “Let me put it this way: when you pay me to train you — which you do a good deal better than you actually train — you do so by letting me shove my cock into your ass, correct?” And, setting down his bread, he made a colorful descriptive hand gesture to accompany this introduction to his point.

“Uh… yeah…” Having not the faintest idea where Seijuurou might be going with this, Sano watched him warily.

“So think of your purpose as my cock,” Seijuurou went on, wiggling his finger. “It’s firm and unyielding, with a specific, undeviating aim. And your ass is the awareness — it’s malleable and encompassing, yet still technically solid. But they’re two distinct objects; your ass certainly would never overwhelm my cock, would it? So you must be aware of your situation without letting that overwhelm or distract you from your purpose, and your purpose must be unshakeable.”

For a long moment Sano simply gaped at him. Then he collapsed limply against the counter in a torrent of laughter. “That’s…” he gasped. “That’s the stupidest… fucking thing… I’ve ever heard!”

Eyes narrowed, Seijuurou rose imperiously from his seat and swept toward the door. “You’re never going to get it.”

“What?!” In Sano’s burst of annoyance at Seijuurou’s comment, the energy blade of his sword flashed out fully before sinking back to just above the length of the metal again.

Seijuurou paused in the act of opening the front door and looked over at Sano, gaze resting on the keonblade in his hand. “You see how your emotion only gives you power for a moment?” he said placidly. “You’re not an essentialist playing with fire… what you need is something lasting. You can’t count on a momentary surge of anger in battle.”

“I can’t really count on your cock in battle either.”

Despite the fact that Sano had muttered this retort, Seijuurou heard him and replied. “It would be better than what you’ve been working with so far. Now clean up those dishes and come outside.” And the door closed behind him.

Washing and putting away the breakfast things, searching for his shoes and belts, and getting ready for further practice outside were all carried out over a quiet stream of curses. Seijuurou was an unbelievable swordsman, and about as good in bed, but Sano couldn’t help thinking he wouldn’t be here if there were anyone else to teach him. Especially since he was pretty sure he’d barely improved since he’d started his training.

Outside, Seijuurou was pulling two longswords from where they hung on the wall under the roof, obviously intending a more standard spar, such as they often had, without any attempt at channeling spiritual energy at least for now. Sano, still irritated, muttered when he saw the regular swords, “Fuck those,” to no particular purpose.

“If you want to take the metaphor that far,” Seijuurou grinned, handing Sano his weapon.

With a frown Sano stared down at the hilt he now held, drawing only slowly. He was thinking again of the words of that devoted last week. It had been a shot in the dark on her part, and had hit closer to home than she’d probably had any idea. He’d been remembering it on and off ever since, the desire to bring it up to his master growing with each mental repetition of the woman’s statement. If he planned to ask at all this weekend, it needed to happen now.

“Someone… suggested…” he said slowly, “that the fact that I don’t believe in the divine ladies is why I can’t master this thing.”

Seijuurou, obviously aware that by ‘this thing’ Sano meant not the sword in his hand but keonmastery, said, “Nonsense.” He began moving away from the house to the open area where they usually practiced; Sano followed him. “All things divine are spiritual, but the reverse is not true. Your state of heresy is foolish, but it’s not what’s holding you back here.”

Sano might have believed, after so many years, he would have ceased being annoyed by phrases like ‘your state of heresy is foolish,’ but it hadn’t happened yet. “Maybe it’s that your explanations make no sense,” he said sourly, “whether you mention your stupid cock or not.”

Ignoring him completely, Seijuurou went on thoughtfully, “Though the two are probably not unrelated: the complete lack of control over your spiritual side that keeps you from keonmastery may have also been what caused you to become a heretic.”

Facing his trainer now across the little open space near the kiln, Sano tossed the sheath of his sword aside in continued annoyance and raised the weapon into a combative position. “People always talk about ‘becoming a heretic’ like it’s some big, unnatural change that happened because of something or other. As far as I can see, that’s a better description of you guys who believe in all the lady bullshit.”

His speech might as well have been internal for all Seijuurou reacted to it. Lazily the master drew his own sword, though he never bothered to adopt much of a stance of any kind when sparring with Sano. “Remember to regulate your force,” he advised.

Sano inhaled deeply, then exhaled in something that lay halfway between irritated sigh and preparatory controlled breathing. “Right.” And he attacked.

Seijuurou twisted neatly away from Sano’s initial thrust, stepped back to avoid the second, and remarked, “You’re doing it again.”

Sano plunged forward with a sweeping strike that he found once more dodged without any difficulty. At the same moment, Seijuurou’s sword grazed his arm slightly and very precisely, leaving a tiny line of blood like a bad paper cut. Sano hissed with surprise and pain and attacked again, but the next moment found himself stumbling over Seijuurou’s outthrust foot and crashing to the ground.

“Putting all of your strength into all of your attacks makes you extremely vulnerable,” Seijuurou reminded him for perhaps the millionth time.

Sano glared down at the cut on his arm and back up at his master before scrambling to his feet and throwing himself forward again with even more determination.

“You’re still doing it,” Seijuurou said after blocking or dodging a few more times.

“No, I’m–” Sano began to protest, but was cut off as Seijuurou slammed the hilt of his sword into Sano’s stomach. Doubled over, backing away, Sano coughed twice and scowled even more fiercely at Seijuurou.

“You’ve been studying with me for how long?” the latter was wondering disdainfully. “And still you can barely follow my instructions.”

Forcing himself to ignore the discomfort in his midsection and stand straight, Sano strode forward again, but found his assault immediately repelled. “That’s because–” he began, but Seijuurou cut him off.

“But you carry around a keonblade as if it’s going to do you some good in actual combat.” As he said this, he thrust his own weapon out over Sano’s shoulder in a clear indication that he could easily have beheaded him if he’d wanted to.

“Hey,” Sano protested, “I–“

Again Seijuurou interrupted as he effortlessly blocked Sano’s next few attempted hits. “You might as well exchange it for a regular sword — or, better yet, given your level of combat subtlety, a club.”

“What?!” Sano demanded, ready to toss the sword aside and fly at the man with his fists.

Seijuurou smiled faintly. “All right. Draw.”

Ah, yes. Of course. It had all just been aimed at getting Sano sufficiently angry to maintain an energy blade for enough time that he could use it to spar. “I fucking hate it when you do that!” he growled, driving the longsword into the ground and yanking his keonblade from its sheath. At least it worked, though; the blade flashed as he drew it, and extended to a workable length.

They fought. And though Seijuurou didn’t exactly put much more effort into it when Sano was fighting with an unbreakable translucent blade than he did when Sano held three feet of steel, he did at least seem to pay a little more attention. Sano’s inability to concentrate on his spiritual energy remained, however, so the spar didn’t last long. As Sano watched the blade shrink back to just a slight glow around the hilt, he muttered, “Shit.”

“One of these days,” Seijuurou said easily, “you’re really going to have to figure it out. I’m going to get bored of insulting you into results.”

“No, you’re not,” Sano contradicted him flatly. There were plenty of good reasons he needed to figure this out, but the very unlikely possibility that Seijuurou might tire of teasing him during training before that happened was not one of them.

“Well, maybe not,” Seijuurou grinned. “Let’s go have something to drink.”

Still swearing under his breath, Sano resheathed his keonblade and stalked after his master, heading back toward the house.

>2 Interlude

Seijuurou had been aware of the horsemen concealed in the trees as he’d passed, but they hadn’t seemed to care about him. There were only a few reasons for people to be hiding thus, waiting silently on either side of the road in a such a dense area of the forest, none of which he particularly liked, so he’d left the lane just after t
he next bend and made his way back quietly through the trees to keep an eye on things. He could simply have confronted them about their suspicious behavior, but was interested in seeing how the scene would play out if there turned out to be one.

Presently a wagon came lumbering around that same bend, loaded high with cargo and manned by a couple of relatively sturdy, middle-aged women whose conversation, though not particularly loud, would probably keep them from hearing anything from those that lay in wait until it was too late.

Such proved to be the case. Their horse came to an abrupt halt, jerking the equipage to a similarly precipitous stop, as the two others that had burst from the trees perpendicular to the road blocked the latter neatly by facing each other across it. A long moment of silence followed as the women watched the riders warily and the horsemen, completely ignoring the merchants, examined the wagon’s contents and construction with easy, pleased expressions. The sword in the hand of one and the other’s bent bow made their intentions clear.

The women, unable to produce weapons of their own for fear of being shot, shifted uneasily. “What do you want?” the driver finally demanded, her tone and bearing impressively unintimidated.

“Get down and walk away from the wagon.” The man gestured with his sword. “Just down the road a bit, where we can still see you.”

“And if we don’t care to?” replied the driver coolly.

“Then we’ll still take your wagon,” the second man said, tightening his drawn bowstring, “only you won’t walk away.”

The second woman murmured something to the first, whose grip on the reins slackened somewhat, but neither moved. “I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement,” the driver said.

The first bandit glanced at the second with an expression of feigned confusion. “Didn’t we just explain the agreement?”

“I think we did,” the second concurred seriously; he didn’t look away from his targets.

“My mistake,” said the woman with a tight smile.

“All is forgiven,” the bandit replied mockingly.

“I thought the king took care of all you Ayundomei bandits in this area,” the driver went on, almost conversationally.

“We’re new to the business,” answered the first man somewhat smugly.

“But you are from Ayundome?”

The bowman opened his mouth to answer this, but the swordsman cut him off. “That’s right! Born and raised in Celoho, but we heard there was easy pickings here.” This was obviously untrue — judging by the man’s accent, he couldn’t have been born and raised anywhere other than this very region — but the bandit was just as obviously not stupid enough to admit where he and his companion were actually from.

The wagon driver didn’t care, though. She was just trying to keep the men talking and distracted long enough for her companion to reach slowly behind her without being noticed. Then things would get ugly.

“We’re headed for Eloma,” she continued. “City goods fetch a good price out here.”

“Oh, don’t I know it,” grinned the bandit. “But you’re not taking nothing to Eloma.”

“This is stuff they need,” the merchant protested.

“Sure it is,” the man agreed. “Only now they’ll pay us for it, not you.”

The other woman’s hand was slowly closing around the hilt of a long knife that lay half-concealed behind her in the high-piled cargo. Which meant it was time to intervene; no matter how skilled she was with the weapon, the odds were badly against her, especially with that nocked arrow pointed so surely at the other’s chest.

Seijuurou, who didn’t fancy seeing the women get shot or robbed blind, stood straight from where he’d been leaning against a tree to watch. But before he’d taken a single step, a new voice joined the conversation beyond.

“Some reason you’re blocking the road here?”

It was a loud, annoyed, suspicious tone, and a familiar one. Seijuurou’s view of the newcomer was obstructed by a tree, but he recognized the voice and the accompanying energy; it was Eloma’s resident heretic, the boy with the ragged hair and angry expression. At the inn where Seijuurou had been restocking his liquor, he’d overheard that voice conversing with the innkeeper’s, accepting an errand to Egato, which explained the young man’s presence on the forest road. He must have left shortly after Seijuurou, and had now arrived, shortly after Seijuurou, at the miniature, confrontational roadblock just in time to provide the distraction the merchants needed.

Both of the bandits looked around, startled, for a mere fraction of a moment, and that fraction was all it took for the woman to draw and throw her knife.

The bowman cried out, weapon falling from his now-bleeding hand and the suddenly-loosed arrow flying harmlessly high into a tree. The other woman shook the reins and called out shrilly to her horse, which leaped forward; the bandits’ startled mounts protested and fell back as the wagon thundered by. Seijuurou, who had advanced nearly to the road’s edge, observed the young man from Eloma spring aside to avoid being trampled, then return quickly to the center of the lane to confront the furious thieves.

He was now holding a sword, and Seijuurou noted with some surprise that it was a keonblade. Given the inexpert grip on the hilt and the shortness of the energy blade, Seijuurou might well have thought him yet another bandit, this one with a stolen weapon he didn’t know how to use, if he hadn’t already been aware (in general) who the young man was. He doubted the real bandits knew much about keonmastery, however, and wasn’t surprised that they were now eyeing the rough-looking, irritated heretic in blood-red with easily as much caution as anger. It took guts, after all, to stand up to two armed, mounted men, and it took guts to walk around in public dressed like that.

“I fucking hate bandits,” the young man announced.

“And I fucking hate little shits who think they’re big enough to get in my way,” the swordsman replied, kicking his mount into motion. The bravado in his tone, matching that of the heretic, really didn’t do much for him; it wasn’t difficult to be brave facing a man on foot when you were on a horse.

The boy, to his greater credit, stood his ground, scowling, as the animal and its murderous rider bore down on him. At the last second the horse, no more anxious for a collision than the heretic probably was, despite its superior size, swerved aside. The swordsman swept the weapon in his hand at his target, but the latter dodged and struck out at the bandit’s leg with the pommel of his own sword. Seijuurou couldn’t quite see everything clearly through the mess of branches that still concealed his presence, but the blow must have connected, for the bandit roared and was overly slow in halting and wheeling his horse.

Meanwhile, the young man had turned toward his second enemy, who had been groaning over an injured hand and attempting clumsily to wrap it up with something. The bow still lay on the earth where it had fallen, and the bandit looked on warily as the heretic bent and picked it up; his expression changed to one of slight dismay as he watched the boy toss the object into the air without a word and swing his sword at it with shocking force. The bow did not break all the way through, but there was a loud cracking sound as the blade made contact, and a second similar noise as the ruined weapon hit the ground hard. The young man kicked it away, toward the edge of the road and the trees, then turned to face the swordsman again. The latter was now even angrier than before and ready for another charge.

Now it was really time to intervene. Though the bandit’s anger would likely make him even more careless, the fact that he was mounted still put the Eloma boy at a disadvantage — and the other man might not sit there nursing his hand forever. Seijuurou stepped from the trees and drew his own sword, allowing it to flash slightly as the blade extended. “This has gone far enough,” he declared. “It’s time for both of you to go back to wherever you came from and rethink your way of life; if you continue to prey on travelers in this area, you will not live long.”

All three of the others present stared at him in surprise; as the bandits looked him over, this, in their case, changed to trepidation. Seijuurou met the gaze of the swordsman without emotion, and it wasn’t long before the bandit broke eye contact and looked away, then urged his animal uncomfortably past Seijuurou and the heretic to join his companion.

Horse or no horse, it was a little more difficult to be brave facing Seijuurou than it had been to face the younger man.

After a muttered conference, the bandits took off up the road at a brisk trot. The first man, who’d sheathed his sword, did look back once as if he wanted to make a defiant parting remark, but seemed to think better of it. Seijuurou watched until they were out of sight, then put his own weapon away and went to retrieve the knife that the merchant had thrown and been forced to abandon. When he returned to where the heretic was standing and looking a little baffled, he said, “It was a good thought, but a trifle suicidal.” And he held out the knife.

“What do I want that for?” the boy asked.

“You’ll be in Eloma again sooner than I will,” explained Seijuurou. “If they’re still there, you can return it. If not, keep it; they owe you that much at least.”

Slowly the young man reached out and took the knife, then turned to stare up the road in the direction the riders had gone. “I would have pounded both their asses into the dirt if you hadn’t scared ’em off,” he grumbled discontentedly.

With a raised brow Seijuurou said, “Not with that weapon, you wouldn’t have.”

“What? Why the hell not?” The heretic glanced down at his keonblade, his scowl not diminishing, then sheathed it.

“Come on,” the bigger man gestured. “It’s going to rain soon.” There was no mistaking the heavy, wet scent and feel of the air, and Seijuurou wanted to get home. He hadn’t planned on having his walk back from town interrupted by stupid criminal activities. When the boy caught up with him a few paces later he went on, “I’d recommend taking some lessons before you run into someone who actually knows how to use a keonblade.”

“Someone like you?”

Seijuurou nodded. “Fortunately, I’m not inclined to kill you at the moment.”

“Well, who says I wasn’t just holding back on purpose? Those guys woulda been too easy to beat with a full blade.”

I say,” replied Seijuurou with a roll of his eyes. “Where and why did you get a keonblade if you don’t know how to use one?”

“Someone who came through here a couple of months back had one for sale. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to figure out. Since when are you an expert on this, anyway? Aren’t you that potter who lives all alone up past the crossroads?”

“Yes. My name is Seijuurou. And I’ve been a keonmaster since before you were born.”

“How fucking young do you think I am?” the boy retorted skeptically, perhaps not realizing that he was inadvertently complimenting Seijuurou with his incredulity. “And if you’re so great, why are you living all alone in the middle of the forest?”

“How young do you think I am?” wondered Seijuurou mildly, entirely ignoring the young man’s second question. “And what’s your name?”

“Sano,” replied the other.

“You’re a heretic, I understand.”

“Yeah… that a problem?”

“Only for you.”

Sano rolled his eyes.

“I was impressed by your little performance today,” Seijuurou informed him, “and that doesn’t happen often. If you’re interested in learning how to use that second-hand weapon of yours, we could probably make arrangements.”

Now Sano’s eyes widened. “What, just like that? You’ve been coming into town every couple of weeks to buy shit for as long as I’ve lived there and never once talked to me, but all of a sudden when you see me swinging some crappy keon sword around you’re willing to train me even though I’m a heretic?”

“That about summarizes it,” Seijuurou nodded. “Of course it won’t be free, but I’m sure we can agree on reasonable terms.”

Sano opened his mouth, looking concerned, but Seijuurou interrupted him, gesturing at the road ahead as he spoke. “Here’s where we part. I don’t feel like standing around talking to you in the rain, and you need to get moving if you’re going to be back from Egato before Mis’hyou. If you’re interested, come to my house when you do get back; you can’t miss it if you keep on up this road.”

They’d reached the juncture where the way to Egato met the road up the mountain from Eloma. With a slight nod at the somewhat bemused Sano, Seijuurou didn’t break his stride as he left the young man standing uncertainly at the crossroad and continued on toward home.

“I’ll… see you then, then…” Sano called from behind him.

Chapter 3 – Another Homeward Encounter

He’d left Seijuurou’s house a little earlier than usual this time, under the rather flimsy excuse that it looked like rain and he wanted to get home before that, when the real motivator was simply his annoyance. Seijuurou had undoubtedly seen right through this, but had graciously allowed Sano his illusion; they’d had their usual bath in the river, and Sano had taken his surly leave.

So now, in a moment uncannily similar to one he’d experienced in this exact spot a week ago, Sano found himself at the crossroads on the way home, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck, irritated and ready to be distracted, hearing swift footsteps on the connecting road. This time, however, Sano wasn’t close enough yet that the unknown runner was likely to collide with him, and the tread sounded heavier and more erratic than Yahiko’s had.

Again he stopped to see what would come around the corner, watching through the trees that blocked his view of the Torosa Forest Road, waiting. And this time, rather than a frightened-looking little boy, it was a full-grown man that half-ran-half-stumbled abruptly into view. Before his stagger failed entirely and he fell to his knees, one arm clenched tightly across his bloody side and chest, the device of the Baranor’mei royal family was clearly visible on his shiiya, which had previously been pure white. Breathing harshly, he seemed to struggle for a moment to rise again.

Startled, Sano moved toward him, calling out, “Hey, there — you all right?”

The man looked up, fixing Sano with an unexpectedly piercing yellow gaze. “Do I look ‘all right?'” he growled, and collapsed.

Sano finished closing the distance between them at a run, falling to his knees at the stranger’s side with a fast-beating heart. He reached out to haul the man up and turn him over, confirming he’d gone unconscious. “What in Misao’s name happened to you?” he wondered rhetorically. “Is someone…”

He glanced up from the motionless face, looking at the Torosa Forest Road. Nothing moved as far as he could see, but he couldn’t see very far. The normal noises of bird, beast, and weather seemed suddenly menacing. “Is someone after you?” he finished at a whisper. That did seem to be the trend… But this was no barefoot kid running from peevish devoted. This man, wearing the uniform of a royal knight and a sheath that looked like it belonged to a keonblade, had been badly wounded and exhausted; whoever was chasing him, whoever had bloodied him up, seemed unlikely to be seeking minor punishment for small-scale theft.

Sano half stood and slung his backpack around to his chest, pulling the straps onto his back. Then, awkwardly and with no inconsiderable difficulty, he hauled the unconscious man up. How far he could walk like this he didn’t know; the backpack was already slipping, and the man was very inconvenient to carry… but he’d be happy just to get far enough away to feel a little more secure.

“Random heretic thief kids running off and random knights passing out in front of my face in the fucking forest…” he grumbled as he trudged off the road straight into the thickest foliage. “Don’t know what’s with that crossroads…”

He moved obliquely away from the crossroads in question, stumbling through the undergrowth and over rocks, breathing hard as he forced his way up hills and down into dells around the trees and through the bushes. He’d never given much thought to just how thick and healthy Torosa Forest was, but never before had he tried to carry through it someone a little larger than himself.

Finally he stopped. Whether he’d come far enough or not he didn’t know, but he didn’t really feel like walking a single step more. Unceremoniously he dumped the stranger onto the ground and propped him against a tree, flung his backpack down nearby, and took a seat against another trunk.

“Well,” he remarked breathlessly, staring at his unconscious companion, “maybe the king’ll give me a reward for saving you from whatever.” Looking back over his shoulder the way he’d come, he added darkly, “I just hope ‘whatever’ isn’t too good at tracking shit through a forest.”

As he caught his breath and let his muscles cool, he studied the stranger. The man’s face seemed very harsh, though that could simply be an expression of pain. Sano had already seen his eyes open, if only briefly, and had occasion to know just how tall and well shaped he was. And he was definitely a royal knight, and definitely wounded. Beyond a number of little cuts covering both of his arms as if he’d been shielding his face from a hail of sharp, tiny objects, there was a gash along the man’s side at the bottom of his ribcage, as if he’d only just failed to dodge a low sword-thrust. Sano would have to do something about it if he intended to help the guy.

The typical shape of a keonblade, that of a short sword or long knife, was useful in situations like this where a full-sized sword would have been awkward. Admittedly Sano didn’t keep the metal blade very sharp, since it functioned merely as a channel for a much sharper energy blade, but it was enough to cut the man’s shiiya and shirt off of him. Once he’d peeled these gently away from the gash, the latter began bleeding more freely, and Sano tried to hurry.

As a close acquaintance of Seijuurou, Sano never lacked a bottle when he needed one. At the moment, in fact, he had four on him, all of them nicely worked ceramic from the hands of the master himself — three to be refilled with angiruou in town and returned to Seijuurou next weekend, but the fourth fortuitously full of water. This Sano used to soak the unbloodied sleeve he’d cut off the man’s shiiya, with which he then set about cleaning the wound as best he could. Once this was done, he cut what remained unstained of the shirt and the shiiya into strips and tied them together, and with these makeshift bandages bound up the cut.

Then he sat back against his own tree again, his eyes fixed on the face of the other man, who had remained limp and unresponsive the entire time Sano had been assisting him. The wound didn’t look lethal, but, for all Sano knew, his efforts had been in vain and the knight would never awaken. He’d certainly seemed worn out in those few moments Sano had observed him conscious.

“What happened to you?” murmured Sano, studying again the long legs, muscular bare chest, and pained unconscious face of the stranger. “Bandits?” was his guess; they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they had been in years past, but they still showed up around here at times. What a royal knight was doing alone so far from the capital Sano couldn’t begin to imagine, but that was less his business than were bandits in the area. He hated little more than bandits, which gave him an automatic sense of sympathy for this man that had apparently been their victim.

He considered the matter. A messy skirmish with some of those assholes would be very satisfying at the moment, but he wasn’t sure how he could manage both to locate and engage these hypothetical villains and assist this unconscious knight. The latter would be a liability in any fight with more than one opponent, but if Sano left him he ran the risk of being unable to find him again, or of finding him dead. Little as he liked it, he reached the conclusion that it would be best to forego the fight, wait here for a while until whoever was after this guy had (hopefully) moved on, and take him to town.

“Well…” he said, leaning back and making himself as comfortable as he could amidst the knobbly tree roots and prickling grass, “try not to die just yet.”

A lane of carved stone pillars ran out into invisibility in the darkness ahead of him; the deep blood-red of the floor beneath his feet reflected dully on their glossy gold surfaces, but the ceiling overhead was indistinguishable in the shadows. Likewise, nothing could be made out beyond the pillars, where even the floor seemed to disappear into blackness. It didn’t matter; the pillars marked a clear path from which he had no desire, at the moment, to deviate.

Perhaps down that path he would find another chain. Lovingly he ran his hand over the one he already had where it lay over his shoulder and chest, crushing somewhat the fine black and red cloth of his royal shiiya. This chain was a smooth warm grey, made of some exceptionally attractive metal, and so well crafted that each link seemed to be a continuous piece with no rough joint or signs of welding. If he could locate another like this, he would have a matched set, and for such a reward he would gladly walk this dark, pillared path.

There was, however, a strange tension in the dry air. It was as if he was aware of being followed, and trying to stay just out of sight of his pursuer — either that or aware he would presently encounter something unpleasant, and bracing himself for it. Strange, that, when he was almost certain he would find another chain somewhere around here soon. But the feeling could not be ignored, and only grew with every step he took forward, until he was walking with great caution, setting his feet in their golden shoes down as quietly as he was capable.

And there was his chain. It dangled above his head from something he could not make out in the shadows, but he knew if he tugged on it once and then let go, he could detach it and take it with him. Pleased, he stopped just beneath it and reached up with a smile. But even as he did so, something over to his left caught his eye — something not the dull gold or dark red of the rest of his surroundings. He turned his head in that direction.

The knight, dressed, like Sano, in red and black of royal design, stood between two pillars. No, ‘stood’ wasn’t the right word. For from out of the open wound in his side, glowing a brighter crimson even than his kingly garb, chains of blood stretched to wrap around the pillars at either side of him and return to snake around him — around his arms and chest and waist and even around his neck, holding him firmly upright. Yellow irises were visible, but he evidently saw nothing, and his entire frame was limp. Yet he could not be dead, for Sano could feel his pain. He could also feel a swiftly growing sense of wrongness to this entire scene. The tension of before was escalating, blossoming into a hot, jittery panic and an almost uncontrollable horror.

He awoke with what felt like a jerk, though he hadn’t actually moved except to open his eyes. His heart raced; he was hot and uncomfortable.

With a deep breath he shook his head slightly, calming himself and looking around. The air smelled strongly of rain, though no moisture seemed yet to have fallen; the forest sounded no different than usual; and the unconscious knight still reclined against the tree opposite, appearing the same as before. Sano stared at him for a long moment, wondering why in the world he should have had a nightmare about this man.

When his heart had slowed to its normal pace and his breathing evened out, he turned away from the knight and laid his face against the rough bark of the tree, looking at nothing. He wasn’t particularly trying to go back to sleep, but wasn’t exactly fighting it either. And eventually his eyes closed once again.

On an ocean without waves, without wind, without currents — without, in fact, any motion whatsoever — the noises of gentle breakers and breezes were sourceless, inexplicable. Sano raised his head, feeling the long, long ends of his bandanna brush the back of his bare neck, and took in the salty scent of the warm, still air. It was very light and open; the sky seemed to extend upward forever in a smooth, perfect paleness several shades lighter than the blue of the ocean.

The stepping-stones also seemed to go on forever. They spiraled out from a big one in the center, featureless like the rest, in larger and larger circles into distant invisibility far off where sea met sky. Walking them was a lengthy, repeating, ever-widening pattern, and Sano wished he could simply jump from one ring to the next; it would be so much faster. Unfortunately, the rings were just a touch too far apart for him to have a chance of making such a leap.

Looking into the tranquil water, he followed the sides of the stepping-stones with his eyes, down into the dark depths, until he could no longer make out their shapes in the intense blue-black beneath him. There would be no swimming in this ocean. So he simply took the path laid out for him.

But suddenly he was uneasy. Each long step he took onto another smooth grey rock increased his discomfort; something was wrong. And the feeling of wrongness grew quickly into a more troubling sensation, something more like fear. But there was nothing here to fear; as a matter of fact, there was almost nothing here.

Or was there? Now Sano looked around more pointedly than his absent, horizon-sweeping gaze of before, he realized he was not alone. For on the spiral’s next ring out, on the stone corresponding with Sano’s in this ring, stood the knight.

Although his otherwise pure white shiiya held no visible rent, his side was still bloody and evidently very painful. He seemed, however, to have this, as well as his exhaustion, under better control now; fully conscious, standing under his own power, he stared at Sano intensely. His long, sleek hair was unbound and fell down his back; the red-orange kouseto, symbol of the king he served, was bright and unstained; and his presence there on that rock on this ocean seemed in every way, somehow, impossibly, dreadfully wrong.

The man reached out a hand in a gesture seemingly designed to catch Sano’s attention and stop him moving, and spoke. The words were garbled past understanding, but the intent was a little clearer: the man wanted Sano to listen to him… wanted something from him…

Just this much communication from the figure that seemed so horrifyingly out of place here was enough to startle Sano into an ill-advised step backward. He couldn’t be sure he hadn’t already hit the water before he even fell, since he seemed to be soaking wet, but, in any case, he stumbled back off the stone–

–and awoke again abruptly. It was raining, and, even allowing for cloud cover and forest shadows, seemed darker around him than before. He sat up straight, for a second time taking a deep breath and trying to calm a pounding heart.

Once again he looked over at his unconscious companion. Two inexplicable nightmares in a row about the guy, and he wasn’t even scary! Rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness caused by napping up against a tree, Sano moved over to the other man and looked closely at him. “It’s this face of yours…” he muttered, reaching up to brush a few drops of rain off a high cheekbone, trace the side of a narrow nose, and lay his fingertips on a precisely well-formed pair of thin lips. It was a demanding face; no wonder Sano had gotten the impression of something being required of him in that second dream.

The knight gave no response whatsoever to Sano’s light touch, and was breathing rather shallowly. Sano looked around at the darkening forest, reflecting that it had probably been long enough; whoever the knight’s enemies were, he doubted they were anywhere near the crossroads now. He hadn’t really meant to sleep at all, but it certainly had been an effective way to kill time.

He buttoned up his sleeves against the rain, and pulled out his leather hood and put it on. Then, having no desire to walk anywhere ever again with his back encumbered by a man and his chest by a backpack, he set the latter in the crook of two tree roots and scraped up a bunch of forest mulch against it so it blended in with the undergrowth. Of course he couldn’t be certain he would be able to find it later, but it had just been such a pain before… Well, if he never saw it again, perhaps the knight could be convinced to pay him for a new one, if he survived.

The forest and the road on his way back were quiet, as was Eloma when he reached it; even those townspeople that might have been out in the evening darkness had sought their houses in this rain. Still he decided to go the long way around to his own place so as not to be visible from any of the inn’s windows. For it had occurred to him that the knight’s enemies might have come to the village seeking him, perhaps posing as regular travelers in order to get beds for the night. If Sano could secure the injured man in his house without anyone seeing, he could head over to the inn and find out if any strangers were present or had passed through.

The rain was coming down harder than ever as he finally reached his door and struggled mightily to get at his key without dropping his burden. Inside, he let the man slide off his back onto his bed, then stood, panting, looking down at him critically for several moments even before arranging the knight’s limbs into a more comfortable position than they’d initially taken on falling.

“You know, I’m not even sure why I’m helping you,” he told the unresponsive man as he removed his hood and tossed it onto the floor. “Like I care about the king or his fucking knights.” He pulled off his shiiya, which was soaked, and sent it to follow the hood. “Course, whoever’s after you might be a good fight…” He shook his head and moved to light his candle so he could see what he was doing.

Though not as bad as Sano’s shiiya, the knight’s remaining garments were still rather wet. Sano, however, drew the line at removing the pants of a total stranger if he didn’t have to. Instead, he pulled both of his blankets from under the recumbent form and tucked one around the man. The other he bunched up and threw onto the stool that sat beside his table. Then he stood back and considered whether or not he should build a fire. Eventually he decided not to; rain notwithstanding, it was a warm enough night, and he didn’t want to attract more attention to his home than necessary until he knew exactly what was going on.

Looking back down at the knight’s face, he felt drawn once again to run his finger over one of those high cheekbones. He remembered that feeling in his dream, of the man needing something from him. This was all very odd — odder, he thought, than it really ought to be.

He turned. He looked down at his wet things on the floor. He listened to the pounding rain above his head. He definitely wasn’t going back outside in this downpour. He would wait until it let up a bit.

He should have known better. Seated on his stool and leaning, more or less comfortably, in the corner formed by his cabinet and the wall, with the blanket tucked up around his chest, watching the unconscious knight and listening to the rhythmic rain, it wasn’t long before his eyelids and head both drooped and he fell asleep again.

Chapter 4 – Not Stable

Sano’s legs burned, especially the knees as he forced them to bend and straighten again and again and again. The stairs just went on and on, winding around the tower into eternity, it seemed. He had no way of telling how high it might be, since when he looked up he only saw the next level of stairs. In fact, if the steps hadn’t gradually changed color from red to orange to yellow, he might have believed he was repeatedly climbing the same ones. But he couldn’t stop.

Out to his right lay only blackness; the tower, perhaps, stretched so high as to have abandoned all light, even the stars. To his left was a curving, neverending wall, punctuated by the occasional window paned with impossibly large sheets of glass that showed a narrower, darker staircase inside the tower to mirror the one without. And as he passed these windows, Sano kept getting the feeling that something was in there, climbing along with him on the other side of the wall… but at first he only caught the movements out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he looked directly through the glass he saw nothing.

Then, like a hot wind blowing up out of nowhere and warming the area only slowly, not even overtly perceptible at first, the familiar feeling that something was wrong crept over him. Uncomfortable, he forced his unhappy legs to move even faster, hoping to reach some kind of conclusion to this journey. True, the wrongness somehow didn’t seem as wrong as it had in the past, but he would very much like it to stop. He must climb these stairs; he didn’t need things out of place distracting and worrying him.

Suddenly a thudding knock echoed through the interior of the tower to his left. Looking in that direction, Sano found the source of the wrongness on the other side of the nearest window: the exasperated knight stood in the darkness and pounded on the glass. Even as Sano met his eyes, he called out. The meaning came across as something simultaneously demanding and insulting, but the words themselves were muffled and only half audible. It didn’t matter, though, since nothing could be accomplished thereby… just the appearance of the man had startled Sano so he’d jerked back, lost his footing at the edge of the stairs, and plunged out into the black abyss.

The stool, which he’d been unconsciously tipping on two of its legs while he slept, clattered out from under him as he flailed, sending him thumping heavily to the floor with a startled cry. For a moment, disoriented, he sat still feeling his tailbone smarting and his heart pounding before he let out an irritated sigh of recognition and scrambled slowly up.

Again he hadn’t intended to fall asleep, and thus had left the candle alight. Some time must have passed, as it was burning considerably lower now than before, excess grease setting out across the table in a valiant attempt at reaching the other side. Perhaps he would make the knight pay for a new candle as well.

Sano turned toward the man. He still lay in the bed in the same position as before, unmoving, breathing quiet and face inscrutable. Sluggishly Sano went to stand beside him, staring down with a scowl and rubbing his sore ass. “How is it you can startle me awake for no reason I can see,” he grumbled, “but nothing wakes you up?”

The man in the bed did not reply.

Sano’s eyes fell next upon his shiiya and hood, still heaped on the floor beside the table, and he remembered his plan to go to the inn and see if there were any bandits around. Wearily he shook his head. No way. He turned back to his little corner, blew out the candle, righted the stool, took up the blanket, and sat down again. Arranging the blanket over himself once more, he leaned back, put his head against the wall, and closed his eyes.

It wasn’t just grime, or something someone had spilled; it was paint, long since dried and hardened, that needed to be cleaned from the floor in its entirety. And since the floor was made of colorless glass, even the tiniest speck of remaining paint would be readily visible: there was no way to half-ass this job. His hands were already sore — both of them, since he’d been alternating which one held the hefty scrub-brush — and wrinkled and clammy from repeated dipping in his water bucket.

He looked out in front of him in dismay. Whoever had done this painting, he’d been damnably enthusiastic… the bright, blinding orange stretched out across the floor as far as the eye could see. “Yumi, there’s so fucking much of it…”

It was terribly appropriate for him to be clad entirely in red; red devoted were constantly relegated to this kind of drudgery. Normally nobody would mistake him for a man of the church with this empty teardrop on his chest, but when he was bent over in working his fingers to the bone, his chest wouldn’t be visible. The possibility someone might think him a devoted as he went about this onerous task added insult to injury, really.

But there was nothing for it. Grumbling, he kept on, scrubbing hard and watching the paint lighten to a paler orange and then gold before it gave way and dissolved into nothing. And there was something satisfying about seeing the clear patch he worked on grow larger and larger, but he knew if he looked up he would only be discouraged by how little relative progress he’d made so far.

With one particular scrub, something became visible down in the glass underneath. It was flesh-colored, and with the sight of it came that good old feeling of wrongness again. This latter wasn’t nearly as pronounced as before, however. Sano had sat back, stilling his hands and staring, the moment the object came into view, feeling the usual panic start fluttering up inside him, but now he leaned forward again slowly and concentrated on getting the paint off that spot. He was fairly sure he knew what the thing underneath must be, and he was fairly sure it shouldn’t be here, but he couldn’t be certain until he’d uncovered it completely.

And perhaps the slow buildup to certainty was what allowed him to assimilate and overcome the horror that came with the sense of wrongness. No, those fingertips, that hand, that arm — they were not supposed to be there. But that didn’t mean he needed to panic, did it? By the time he’d gotten all the paint off the glass above the shoulder and was starting on the chest, he was breathing normally, and didn’t think he would be startled away any time soon.

The chest, as he’d rather been expecting, bore the device of the king’s knights: the Baranor’mei family symbol on a grey diamond shape. After he’d uncovered this, he moved on to the neck and head. He found the eyes open and seemingly able to see him, but it was clear the knight couldn’t move; he was entirely trapped within the glass floor.

He could speak, however. “B..y, ..an ….u h….r me?” he demanded.

Sano was still nervous, though not for any concrete reason he could perceive, and sat back up, farther away from the face beneath the glass, as he heard these words. And in that moment he realized he was dreaming. He was also struck with another thought simultaneously: “You’re really talking to me, aren’t you? I’m not imagining this.”

The dream was already fading; they usually did when you realized you were having them. The knight seemed to recognize this, for he spoke quickly. “D..e..ms ..re ..ot st..bl.. eno..gh fo.. th..s… ca.. y..u m..d..tat..?”

“Uh…” Of all the things in the world he could have asked Sano to do…

“…us..le..s…” complained the knight, even as everything disappeared.

Sano awoke angry. Who did that guy think he was, calling Sano useless? “Shoulda known you’d be more trouble than you’re worth,” he growled, getting to his feet in the darkness. Arms crossed in annoyance, he glared in the direction he knew the bed and the knight lay, though he couldn’t see them. Who did that guy think had gotten him away from the crossroads out in the forest, patched him up, kept an eye out for the bandits or whoever they were, and dragged his ass all the way to safety?

Sano’s anger faded somewhat, however, in the face of the sheer strangeness of this situation. So the knight maintained dreams were not stable enough for this kind of communication. Sano had never heard of people communicating via dream at all, so it made sense they wouldn’t be very stable. And the knight wanted him to meditate so they could talk properly, but…

“Fuck that,” he grumbled, then sighed as he began fumbling for his fire-starter in the darkness to relight what remained of the candle. There really was only one thing to be done, under the circumstances. “You owe me for this, bastard.”

An hour and a half later, Sano staggered into the clearing around Seijuurou’s small house. The knight had seemed to become heavier with every step up the mountain road, and what was normally a forty-five minute walk had taken twice as long. The sun had already risen by the time he reached the place, and Sano would have been ready to curse at the top of his lungs at his master or anyone else he encountered if he hadn’t been breathing so heavily.

Seijuurou was out early today, evidently watching the sun rise from the seat among the shelves under his roof. The act of raising a bottle of angiruou to his lips was interrupted when he saw Sano come trudging around the last of the trees toward him, and a skeptical expression crossed his face.

“Every time I think you can’t do anything to inconvenience me further,” he remarked in a carrying tone, standing and taking a step forward to lean on the roof support and direct his skepticism out at Sano, “you come up with something new… like dragging a dead body onto my property and giving me that look like you expect me to do something about it.”

“Shut up!” Sano growled, drawing tediously closer. “You have any idea how lady-damned hard it was to drag his ass all the way up here?”

Seijuurou enjoyed the drink he’d put off before, then said, “I wonder why you took the trouble. I don’t know what you were expecting.”

Sano struggled both not to explode and not to dump the knight onto the ground right here. “I need your help with him.”

“A threesome’s not a bad idea,” Seijuurou replied in a mild tone of agreement, “but find someone alive for the third part.”

“He’s not dead yet, asshole. Just tell me where I can put him.” Sano’s back ached from walking all this way bent so far over, and his arms were falling asleep from clutching at the knight in the same position for so long.

Seijuurou shrugged. “Anywhere,” he said carelessly.

“Fine,” Sano snapped, and pushed his way into the house. They’d see if Seijuurou was so indifferent when the knight was occupying his bed.

Once he’d unloaded, Sano started stretching out his back and tingling arms with a groan, while Seijuurou sauntered in to join him looking down at the unconscious man. After another drink of his angiruou the keonmaster finally said in a leading tone, “So…”

Sano stopped flexing his hands and stood still. “I ran into him on the way home yesterday,” he explained. “I got the feeling someone was after him, so I got him cleaned up in the forest and took a nap ’til dark so they’d get off his track. His wound doesn’t seem too bad, but even after I got it bandaged he didn’t wake up.”

While Sano said this, Seijuurou corked his bottle and set it down on the floor, then bent over the knight. In quick succession he checked the man’s pulse, pulled up an eyelid to see the white beneath, lifted the bandages slightly to examine the injury, and finally lay a hand on the man’s chest as if to feel its rise and fall. When he was finished with this and Sano had gone silent, he looked up and said, “It’s a warrior’s coma.

“Sometimes,” he went on, standing straight and turning back to Sano, “when a strong keonmaster lets his purpose drive him past what his body can handle, to the point where he would normally pass out, he unconsciously channels his spiritual energy to keep him on his feet. Typically someone strong enough to do this also has the level of control required to shut off that channel before it becomes–”

“All right, all right, all right,” Sano interrupted. He could usually listen to most of Seijuurou’s lectures all the way through, but at the moment, still tired and sore from his walk and eager to figure out this mysterious knight’s history, his tolerance for his master’s pompous explanatory style was very small. “I thought I was telling the story here.”

“Well, don’t blame me when this little project of yours falls apart because you have no idea what’s going on.”

“Anyway,” continued Sano loudly, “I kept seeing him in my dreams — more than I would expect, I mean — and I started to think… well, that it was really him and not just me imagining shit.”

“Interesting.” And, judging by his manner of crossing his arms and turning his eyes down toward the knight again, Seijuurou actually was interested. “What did he say?”

“He told me dreams are unstable and asked if I could meditate.”

Seijuurou smirked. “And since you are unforgivably hopeless at that, you brought him to me. What makes you think I’m at all interested in talking to him?”

“Well, he’s one of the king’s knights… who was doing something he thought was damn important, if he was pushing himself that hard…”

Having expected Seijuurou to be disinterested in helping the random stranger Sano had dragged onto his property, Sano had prepared this argument beforehand. What he hadn’t expected was for this argument to catch his master’s attention so completely. For when Seijuurou repeated, “One of the king’s knights?” there was an absolutely unprecedented note of engrossment in his voice, and a sudden look in his eye Sano had never seen there.

“His shiiya had that royal kouseto on it,” Sano confirmed.

Seijuurou made a thoughtful sound, gazing down at the knight more intently than before and fingering his chin. He continued thus for several long moments, face unreadable, reflections unguessable.

Finally, impatiently, Sano demanded, “So you gonna talk to him, or what?”

“I suppose I’d better,” Seijuurou replied in a slow tone that was half annoyance and half that same intense contemplation. And as he shifted into a meditative stance, one hand curled around the other fist at chest-level, he murmured as if to himself, “Foolish boy’s probably gotten himself in trouble again…”

Sano started. “Wha- him? You know this guy?”

Seijuurou glanced over at Sano as if he’d forgotten he was there. “No,” he said almost absently, “I’m referring to someone else.” And he turned his head back and closed his eyes.

“Wait,” demanded Sano, “how am I supposed to hear what he tells you?”

Again Seijuurou made the thoughtful noise, then said, “Let’s try this.” And, without even opening his eyes to check his aim, he reached out with a sure hand and struck Sano so hard on the back of the skull that darkness instantly overwhelmed him.

Divine lady Tomoe. The black lotus represents death, which Tomoe (among other things) does as well. Here’s the full-color version too:

Why is she in a yoga pose? I’m not entirely sure. Just what I thought looked cool back when I drew the picture, I guess XD

Divine lady Misao. Her symbol is a rabbit because she is, among other things, particularly fond of small, quick animals. Here’s the full-color version as well:


Pillow Talk


Sano wasn’t sure which aspect of his hangover woke him, just as he wasn’t sure which was the worst, or which the most familiar; it would have been like trying to describe the wetness of water. Very disgusting water that left him still thirsty.

Every new hangover — at least lately — felt like the worst he’d ever had. Today’s surpassed even that ever-growing record by seeming like the worst experience he could possibly have in waking up. But that was only until he managed, with some difficulty, to drag his lids open and force his eyeballs to focus — and saw the woman lying in the bed beside him.

“Oh, god,” he groaned, burying his face in the blanket again immediately. It was one thing to get so drunk he couldn’t remember what he’d done the night before; it was another entirely to wake up in bed with what he didn’t remember. Not that this was by any means the first time it had happened to him lately. Usually, though, it was merely signs that someone else had been there, not the someone herself. And none of the reasons they ever stuck around until Sano awakened were good.

“If you’re hoping for breakfast,” he mumbled at last into the linen, “you’re out of luck.”

“That’s just what you said last week,” she replied complacently.

Sano was so relieved she hadn’t said something like, “You promised to pay in the morning,” it took him a moment to comprehend what she had said.

“Last week?” Was he supposed to know this girl?

“You don’t remember? Guess I’m not surprised. This is the second time for us.”

Sano sighed and raised his face slightly so his voice wasn’t quite as muffled as before. “At least one of us must be a pretty good lay.”

He could hear the grin in her reply, “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks, but since we haven’t actually fucked…”

Already grimacing, Sano could not express his confusion with a frown, but he did turn his eyes toward her with a little more attention.

She was fairly pretty, a couple of years his senior, and already had that world-weary shadow in her expression that he knew would eventually turn to dull blankness as she went about her seductive trade entirely by rote. For now, though, she evidently had energy and enthusiasm enough. She looked back at him from where she sat in the tangle of blankets at his side, eyes sparkling with curiosity. That she wore underclothes seemed to bear out her latest remark, and Sano struggled futilely to remember what they had done last night.

“You’re everyone’s favorite client, you know,” she went on, “just ’cause of that. Getting paid for a night of almost no work…”

“‘Everyone’s?'” Sano sat up now, noting he was fully clothed, and that his hangover was every bit as bad as it had seemed at first.

The woman raised a brow at him. “Every one of us you’ve hired recently, yeah. We’ve started rolling dice to decide who gets to go with you whenever you show up.” She laughed a pleasant, musical laugh.

Considering the method by which Sano raised the funds necessary to pay for this entertainment, there was something ironic in the idea of the entertainment rolling dice over him. Dismissing this, however, along with the depressing thought of how much money he must have spent on absolutely nothing lately, he listened to her next comment.

“We’ve got some bets going on you, too. We thought, since we were already gambling…”

Again he merely echoed her word, “‘Bets?'” and wasn’t really surprised at how blank his voice sounded.

She propped her elbow on her knee and leaned forward to rest her chin in her hand, fixing him with an intense gaze. “Well, some of us think she must be European… an exotic foreigner, you know? Some, including me, are sure she must be an older woman… there’s even one gal with her money on it being a warrior of some sort.” Again she laughed, and her eyes sparkled. “We’re all sure she must be a real looker, so there’s no money in that.”

Sano had believed his somewhat bewildered state was due to his hangover, but was beginning to retreat from this point of view. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Her expression softened slightly as she replied, “The woman who broke your heart.”

Sano blinked. “What?”

The musical laugh was a little gentler this time. “For weeks now you’ve been coming over stone drunk and paying for us and then never actually fucking any of us, like you just want somebody to sleep next to. If that ain’t the behavior of a heartbroken man…”

“Oh.” Sano wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh. He supposed once a group of complete strangers started telling him he was clearly heartbroken, it was about time to admit it to himself. Especially given how ineffectual it was proving getting drunk enough not to remember the nights and making sure he had a distraction for the mornings.

Eventually he did laugh, albeit somewhat bitterly. “None of you are gonna be able to collect on your bets,” he told her; “sorry. Well, except whoever guessed a warrior. Maybe. If you guys decide it still counts.”

Now it was the prostitute’s turn to appear bemused.

Like his laugh, Sano’s grin was rather bitter. “No woman broke my heart,” he said, the bluntness of his tone belying the ambivalence of his words.

She had him figured out, though — either that or she thought she was teasing him with the suggestion, “A man, then?”

Sano nodded.

Again she laughed. “And if I thought the news of a beautiful woman was going to stir the girls up…”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Sano half-snarled, tempted to rebury his face in the bedding after telling this nosy woman to go to hell.

Her next laugh, however, was actively sympathetic. “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s funny at all! Someone as lonely as you…”

“Who says I’m lonely?” Sano responded automatically, sullenly, and entirely futilely.

“And we ain’t helpin’.”

“No, you sure as hell aren’t,” Sano agreed.

She stared at him thoughtfully for a moment, then asked in a conversational tone, “So did he die?”

“No!” Sano felt a little cold at the thought, and answered more vehemently than the question really required.

Now she was looking at him expectantly. “So if he isn’t dead…”

“You know, it’s really none of your business,” Sano replied.

She chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But we’ve all been so curious… and talking about it would be good for you.”

Examining her eager face, Sano couldn’t really bring himself to believe his wellbeing was any great part of her motives… but that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t right. It certainly couldn’t be any less effective than what he had been doing.

“Fine,” he sighed a little grouchily, lying back down and raising his arms to use as a pillow. Eyes closed to facilitate the ebb of his headache, he wondered where to start.

Well, hell, why not at the beginning? “We were sortof enemies at first. Well, we were on the same side, but he didn’t want me around. Thought I wasn’t good enough to be there. I wanted to prove him wrong so fucking bad… I got so used to obsessing about it and thinking about him, I don’t even have a clue when I started liking him… but at some point I did.”

“But what’s he like?” she asked impatiently. “What does he look like? What does he act like?”

Sano huffed, also somewhat impatient, but couldn’t see any reason not to provide this peripheral information. “Well, he’s thin… I mean, he’s got muscle, but he’s also got a sorta narrow body. His face is kinda harsh; he’s got these high cheekbones so there’s always these shadows…” He traced the spots on his own face. “And his eyes…” Here he trailed off, unable to give the details he’d had in mind. The pain abruptly blossoming in his chest had nothing to do with his hangover. Finally, though, he forced himself to complete the broken sentence. “His eyes are gold.”

A long silence followed. He’d been half expecting her to laugh again, and appreciated that she didn’t.

Eventually, when the silence began to weigh on him unbearably, Sano went on. “And how he acts… pretty much like an asshole most of the time.” Now she did laugh, and he didn’t mind. “He’s a good person,” he explained, “a really good person… he’s just not a very nice person.”

A more pensive silence followed, and eventually Sano murmured almost to himself, “I guess it makes sense. Obsessed with the guy and then getting to know what a good person he really is… I kinda had no choice, you know? Not fair, really…”

“If he’s an asshole, then, no, it really ain’t fair,” she agreed. It was a prodding tone, urging him to go on, and at the same time she was trying to hide her amusement.

Again Sano considered telling her to go to hell — or at least get out of his home and stop rubbing salt in his wounds — but, having disclosed this much, unless he finished the story, he had probably doomed himself to endless questioning from every prostitute he hired from now on. Which, given his track record, he wasn’t likely to stop doing, once he got drunk, no matter how much this one annoyed him.

“Yeah…” he went on at last, “so, eventually somehow when I was trying to get his attention it wasn’t because I wanted to fight him anymore. And I guess I was pretty annoying, because he gave in finally.”

“He gave in finally because you were… annoying?” Sano could hear the skeptical laughter hiding behind the careful neutrality of this statement.

“Yes.” His tone was surly. “He was always annoyed with me. Always telling me to get lost, acting like I was in his way all the time, even when he was fucking me…”

“So he was fucking you at one point.”

“Yeah, for a while. A lot, actually.” He added with a wry grin, “See, I really am a good lay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she chuckled. “So he must’ve liked you at least a little, then.”

Sano’s arms weren’t in the best position for a shrug, but still that was the tendency of his shoulders as he answered bitterly, “If you call acting like he never wants me around and always calling me names and saying that everything I say is stupid and basically being a jerk to me in every possible way all the fucking time signs that he likes me at least a little, then, sure, maybe he did.” At her repeated sympathetic laugh he added decisively, “No, the whole thing was just sex to him, and I should’ve never let it get more than that for me.”

After another long moment she asked, “How did it end?”

“He left,” Sano sighed. “Got transferred out to Niigata.”

“So it wasn’t even a real break-up? That’s almost worse…”

“Well, it was… I dunno. He did say I could come with him if I wanted… like that actually meant anything.”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, Sano got the feeling the woman went utterly still where she sat. “So…” she said after a tense moment. “This guy you’re in love with…” With a grunt Sano protested her word choice, but she went on. “You always wished he’d stop acting like he didn’t want you around, and he’s not the type of guy to show he cares about someone…”

“Right, right,” said Sano impatiently.

“So this guy who never acts like he likes you — and you wish he would — asks you to come with him when he gets transferred…”

“Yeah?”

“And you say no?”

“Course.”

At her sudden movement he opened his eyes, in time to see her roll onto her side and press the blanket against her face to muffle her sudden torrent of laughter. It was loud and it was musical, and it was quite clearly derisive.

“God, shut up,” he grumbled, stung. “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

“I do!” She pulled the blanket away from her face long enough to laugh out these words. “It’s just you’re such a fucking idiot!”

If he’d thought her capable of holding her own against him in a fist fight, he would have started one. Instead he merely tried to defend himself in a raised voice. “Look, I don’t know why he even said that, but it wasn’t like I was going to jump at the chance to go with someone who only wants me around to fuck whenever he feels like it. Even if I do… really like him.”

For some reason this sent her into a fresh spasm of laughter, and by now Sano was sitting up watching her mirthful writhing in annoyance. She did manage to ask, however, through her amusement, “What exactly… were you waiting for… from him?”

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded.

With a succession of deep breaths she strove to calm herself, and answered in a more level tone, “Guys who are bad at showing they care about their boyfriends and all don’t change overnight… he ain’t just gonna come out and say ‘Oh, I love you’ all of a sudden. He’s gonna show it by doing something.”

“What, you think he said I could come with him because he was in love with me or some shit?” Somewhat to his surprise, Sano actually found himself rather angry at the idea. How could she even suggest such a stupid thing?

Evidently following his mood, she sobered completely. “Why the hell else would he do it, if he’s such a jerk?”

She did have a point… but even so, the theory was utterly absurd. Not to mention… a little painful to think about, given how quickly he’d said no.

“And did you ever think to ask him why he was inviting you like that?” she pursued. “Or did you just assume that, just ’cause he doesn’t read you poetry, he only wanted you to come along as his fuck-buddy?”

“Yes!” Though this emphatic answer was almost loud enough to be a shout, it sounded more discouraged than angry. “Why the hell should I think anything else? I mean, he was never nice to me; I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Lord save me from the like,” she murmured with a rueful grin toward heaven. Then, returning her eyes to him, she went on in a calm, placating tone. “Course I don’t know all the details, and I don’t know the guy, and, hell, I don’t really know you. I’m not gonna try to talk you into seeing it my way… but do you really think you handled it right?”

“How is asking me that not trying to talk me into seeing it your way?” Sano wondered. Then, as she only looked at him, he added, “I have no fucking clue whether I handled it right or not!”

“Well, neither do I,” she shrugged.

Sano was surprised to feel a surge of annoyed disappointment at this; had he really been expecting some wise advice or something from this complete stranger? “Why the hell did you even ask, then?”

“Well, what I do know is that you shouldn’t just end a relationship without talking about it first.”

“Wasn’t a fucking relationship,” Sano grumbled. “It was just fucking.”

“People don’t invite their fuck-buddies to come with them when they transfer,” she replied dismissively.

“Maybe nice people don’t.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems like you wasted an opportunity, and I hate that.”

“Yeah, sure, an opportunity to keep dealing with the hardest situation to deal with and the biggest jerk ever.”

“People who want real relationships do deal,” she said sternly. “I know because the rest buy whores.”

“God!” Sano protested, “you say that like I’ve got some kind of responsibility or something and I’m not doing it right.”

“That’s kinda exactly what I’m saying. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing people like you who can do things and go places I never can throwing away their chances.”

“What do you mean? What chances do I have that you don’t?”

She gave him a hard look. “You think I’ll ever have someone ask me to go with him when he gets transferred? Hell, do you think I’m ever likely to leave Tokyo… do anything besides what I’m doing now for the rest of my life… however long that turns out to be…? That’s why you people who ain’t whores really oughta make the best of your choices, ’cause not everybody has any.”

“What?” Sano stared at her. “The hell you don’t have any choices! Who says you can’t leave Tokyo? Who says you have to stay a whore?”

“My contract and a million other things.”

“A contract? Shit, that’s nothing.”

“See, it seems really easy to you… Nobody thinks about what I’d have to do to give up this life.” She raised a hand and began counting off points on her fingers. “I’d have to sneak out, move to a new town, leave all my friends and all the stuff I know… change my name, probably change the way I look… I’d have to learn a real job to support myself and actually work it… practice talking all correct, probably…” She laughed. “And you think it’s hard to deal with your boyfriend.”

“You’d think so too if you met him! Besides, I’d have to travel and go find him. And then what if I was right? What if he didn’t want to talk to me or see me or whatever? At least your thing would make your life better; I’d be maybe making things worse.”

With a slight laugh she acknowledged this to be true. “But the point is that you could.”

“So could you!” he countered. “You listed all that stuff, but all you really said was that it would be hard to leave. Maybe harder than me talking to him, sure, I’ll give you that, but you could do it.”

She tilted her chin upward and looked shrewdly down her nose at him. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. You go talk to him and find out how he really feels about you, and I’ll come with you and start a new life in Niigata.”

Sano gaped at her, at first unable to speak. Finally he managed, “You’re kidding.”

“No!”

“But… why…?”

Now the look she gave him was skeptically disdainful. “You think I want to stay like this forever?”

“No, but… going all the way to Niigata…” Sano scratched his head.

“‘Sas good a place as any, ain’t it?”

“Well… I guess…”

“So is it a deal?”

“I…” Sano’s mind had gone somewhat blank the moment she’d suggested he go look for Saitou, but now he had to think quickly and intensely. He couldn’t deny that he would like almost nothing in the world better than to see him again, but what would such a meeting entail? All he could think of was Saitou’s coldest tone, narrowed eyes, and most indifferent gesture as he wondered why Sano had come all this way for nothing. And yet… and yet… there was that small seed of uncertainty that had already existed, buried deep, even before this woman had started pouring water and sunshine on it. Was he sure he’d interpreted everything correctly? Was he sure he knew how Saitou felt about him? And wasn’t his uncertainty almost worse than the rejection he assumed would be the result of the proposed venture?

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

***

Saitou turned toward the wall, pulling the crumpled blanket up to his hips. His breathing was returning to normal, the sweat cooling, and the haze receding, which meant the usual host of importunate thoughts was coming forward from the background — whence it had been hounding him all along — to hound him up close.

He’d stopped attempting to keep these thoughts away — the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret — because even if he put his hands over the spring, it welled up inexorably through his fingers. The result was that he felt defeated and ineffectual on a daily basis at his inability to control what went on in his own head, and then had to deal with the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret on top of that. And moments like this were the absolute worst.

“Hajime,” came Tokio’s soft voice from behind him.

Saitou pulled the blanket up farther and stared at the wall.

“Ha-a-ajime,” she called him again.

He ignored her as best he could. As if she hadn’t commanded plenty of his attention a few minutes ago.

She wasn’t having it, though. She crept sideways to press herself against him, and slid a delicate hand up over his arm around to his chest. “It’s funny,” she said into his ear, in that vague, airy way of hers. “You’ve always been distant when we made love, but lately you’re even worse. You’re just an empty, handsome shell. Your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Saitou had nothing to say to this; it was true enough.

“I wonder why that could be,” she went on, dragging out ‘wonder’ in a way that clearly stated, “Tell me, or else I’ll speculate. Aloud. At length.”

He wasn’t about to tell her, however. Masochistic this might be, since she didn’t threaten idly, but he didn’t care.

Once several moments had passed and it was evident he wouldn’t be admitting anything, “I suspect you’ve left your heart in Tokyo,” she said.

Saitou stifled a groan, but couldn’t quite restrain the accompanying sigh. It was a little ironic, considering what they’d just finished doing, how penetrating she was. Of course she’d managed to hit on the real answer on her first guess. And, as was often the case, she did it with an air of simultaneous absence and intensity that made it seem as if she were the one a hundred miles away and yet had never been more invested in anything in her life than she was in this — as if her interest were, in fact, being transmitted from a hundred miles away, like a discussion carried out by telegraph but without the stops and ungrammatical brevity.

“Funny thing, your heart,” she mused. “Some would say it doesn’t exist.” She chuckled her distracted-sounding laugh. “Especially that poor man who runs errands for you at the station. I know I’ve certainly never gotten at it.” She ran her fingertips up and down his arm, again as if waiting for him to add something to the thus far one-sided conversation.

Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t his responsibility to provide her with entertainment; Tokio was perfectly capable of finding alternate sources, and routinely did so when he was otherwise occupied. She would never have come bothering him if Sano had been here.

If Sano had been here…

“I wonder what it takes…” she went on eventually. “Since you are, in fact, very passionate, I believe you must love very well. Very skillfully. And I don’t just mean your skills in bed. I can get into your bed because of our legal bond, but what kind of person can get into that heart of yours?”

She always reminded him of the ‘legal bond’ at times like this, reveling (as much as someone like Tokio could ever revel in anything) in the fact that he had a sense of honor that wouldn’t allow him to deny his wife her marital dues.

“I think it must be someone a little older than you,” she speculated: “someone who’s had a chance to steady out like you have and who’s savvy and jaded like you; someone cool and calm who won’t annoy you.”

“Is there a point to this chatter?” Saitou wondered, prodded into impatient speech at last by this spectacularly inaccurate assessment.

“Well, let me know if I’m right…”

“Not even close.”

“I thought so,” she said. The complacence in her tone brought him to the irritating realization that she’d been baiting him with a false picture of what she thought his lover must be like; she knew him better than that. “You would prefer someone younger, whom you can order around, but probably not somebody who actually obeys all your orders; someone who still has something to learn, because you’d like to help; someone who enjoys life the way you can’t, but still knows what the world is really like; someone as passionate as you are, and probably just as stubborn.”

After a long silence, he had to admit with grudging admiration, “That’s about right.”

“The world’s a funny place,” she said thoughtfully and with half a sigh. “That someone like you exists somewhere, and then it turns out someone like him does too.”

She even knew it was a man. Why did he bother trying to hide anything from her?

“And yet you didn’t bring him here with you when you transferred…” Her voice was even more pensively musing than usual at this.

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? That there had been someone in the world for someone like him, and then, all of a sudden, there hadn’t been. Because evidently, despite all steadily growing impressions to the contrary, Saitou hadn’t been right for him.

“I offered,” he said, and didn’t bother to try hiding his bitterness; she would pick up on it anyway. “He refused. That was the end of it.”

“Perhaps he didn’t really like you.”

Resisting the urge to snarl, Saitou said tightly, “That was the conclusion I came to.” Not that Sano had said so, exactly… but he’d laughed when Saitou had offered to bring him here.

“You ‘came to that conclusion?'”

He grunted assent.

“That’s funny,” she said, and left it at that.

She let him steep for a few minutes in his frustrated disappointment, and then almost repeated her last phrase. “It’s funny…” She dragged out the word in a you really want to know what I have to say sort of way, then waited a moment in placid silence. Finally, “You have a tendency to run people’s lives,” she said. “I think I’m almost the only person you don’t expect to jump when you tell them to, and you still tried it for the first year we were married.”

Out of morbid curiosity as to what her point could possibly be, Saitou asked, “Why is that funny?”

“You didn’t insist on him coming with you, but you’re still thinking about him now.” How she could read so much from the motionless back turned toward her he could never tell; sometimes it was uncanny how much she knew without any evidence as to how she knew it. Occasionally the thought had crossed his mind that he should recruit her as a spy, but the gulf of attendant horror always swiftly drowned it.

“Funny,” she went on, “that you care so much about him, but wouldn’t insist.”

“I wasn’t about to force the idiot to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

“Of course not. So it’s lucky you have me around to take his place, isn’t it?”

The implication was clear: he might be thinking of someone else, but as long as he couldn’t physically produce that person, Tokio had free rein. No great surprise there.

He couldn’t help reflecting on this conversation the next day when she dragged him shopping. With Sano around, days off had seemed to have a purpose; he’d actually enjoyed being away from work. But here with Tokio, it was all boring errands and wondering (on good days) what was going on at the station or (on worse days) what was going on in Tokyo. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just put in seven days a week and avoid all of this. Oh, wait, yes, he was: Tokio wouldn’t let him. If either of them had had another lover around, she would leave him alone, but as it was…

“Well?” she was wondering in her gentle tone that suggested she’d never been impatient or annoyed in her whole life.

“Go with the orange,” he replied absently. “The white doesn’t suit you.”

She smiled her thanks at the advice and turned back to the merchant.

Saitou also turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at the stall and fearing he must go insane if he had to pass judgment on one more set of options for his wife’s new kimono as if he in any way cared what she wore. And that was when he saw, some distance off coming up the crowded sidewalk in this direction… but it couldn’t be… Sano.

Outwardly, of course, Saitou remained as collected as ever — though he was glad Tokio was doing business just at that moment, as it provided a good excuse for him to be standing there still as stone — but inside he seethed with turmoil and confusion. What was Sano doing here? What would happen if they met? Why was Sano in Niigata in the first place? What could Saitou possibly say to him? What was Sano doing here? And who was that smart-looking woman walking next to him?

Sano was busy talking to the woman with that over-animation of his that simultaneously animated others — Saitou recognized it with painful precision — and evidently hadn’t noticed him yet. There didn’t have to be a confrontation. Saitou could turn and walk away right now and hope never to be tormented again by the unexpected sight of Sano with a beautiful woman on his arm. Or by the sight of Sano, period. Just a glimpse of him like this in a crowded market street did things to Saitou’s head and heart, and it would be better for all concerned if it simply didn’t happen again.

At that moment, as if on cue, Tokio appeared and took his arm, making some remark about the order she’d just placed. She couldn’t fail to note his rigidity, though, and the fixed stare he hadn’t yet managed to withdraw. “Hajime?” she wondered placidly. “What’s wrong?” She leaned slightly toward him, looking where he looked, and said, “Ohhh.” He could hear the calm smile in her next words, but the words themselves blurred as his attention strayed — for at that moment Sano noticed him.

Accident or coincidence, Saitou had thought, must be unlikely here. What business could Sano have in Niigata that didn’t involve Saitou — Sano, to whom ‘business’ generally meant ‘finding someone to buy him a drink?’ And yet the look on the boy’s ingenuous face now was so honestly shocked, it didn’t seem possible he’d been specifically looking for Saitou — because why, in that case, should he be shocked at seeing him? In any case, he and his woman formed a sort of mirror to Saitou and Tokio: standing still in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic, staring, each man evidently ignoring the words of his companion.

Perhaps Sano was simply here to show off this new ladyfriend of his. She was certainly pretty, and had a self-sufficient, down-to-earth air Saitou thought must appeal to the young man. And yet he didn’t believe he’d ever done anything to Sano to deserve such retribution, nor that Sano was capable of such deliberate cruelty.

“Who is that woman?” Tokio asked. Obviously she’d decided on who Sano was — actually, Saitou might well have told her without noticing, that and god knew what else, while he was distracted — and she thought the woman might be an acquaintance as well.

“I have no idea,” he said briefly.

“She’s very pretty,” Tokio remarked, then went on in a dreamy tone about the woman’s kimono, but Saitou was mostly ignoring her again. For Sano’s face had twisted and he was turning away. He didn’t seem terribly pleased at seeing Saitou, and evidently also thought they didn’t really have to talk just because they’d (almost) run into each other again. Maybe it truly was a coincidence.

Saitou found himself excessively relieved, and simultaneously overcome with fresh bitterness and disappointment. Of course it made sense that, if Sano had never cared about him and even had a new interest now, he might not be inclined to say a single word to Saitou… After all, outside of being lovers they’d practically been enemies… It made sense, but it hurt.

Now there seemed to be some sort of active discussion or even argument going on between Sano and his companion, and presently the latter broke away and turned. Moving purposefully through the others on the sidewalk, she made her way back the direction they’d previously been walking. Sano whirled, looked after her with an exclamation of some sort, then followed in what seemed to be a thick mixture of reluctance and anger.

“Oh, she’s coming over here,” Tokio observed unnecessarily.

The woman walked directly to Saitou and stopped, an intention that had been obvious from her determined expression. The latter disappeared entirely, however, behind a mask of suggestive playfulness as she looked up at him. He’d seen that practiced putting-on of coquetry before, and knew what it meant, but in this situation — at this time, in this place, and given who he assumed she was — it seemed so utterly incongruous and inexplicable that he was completely unprepared for what she said to him:

“Hello, handsome. You look so hot… how about a quick dip and something to eat?” And it wasn’t so much the words as the inflection that emphasized their secondary over their straightforward meaning.

“That sounds like fun,” Tokio smiled placidly. “Am I invited?” And the worst part was that she knew what she was saying just as well as the other woman did.

“Course you are, honey.” The woman flashed his wife a seductive smile. “Always a discount for pretty ladies on the side.”

Between the proposition out of nowhere and Tokio’s frank response, Saitou found himself at a loss for words. He probably appeared every bit as nonplussed as Sano did; the latter had caught up just in time to hear his friend’s unusual offer, and apparently was taken as much by surprise as Saitou was. Now, consciously avoiding meeting Saitou’s eyes, he took the last step forward to seize his woman by the arm and drag her away.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as they went. They were moving rapidly out of earshot, so Saitou only caught part of the woman’s response, and even less of Sano’s subsequent statement.

“Hey, if you ain’t gonna…your half…deal…don’t…mine.”

“…think…obvious…goddamn wife…”

Saitou didn’t really want to hear more, especially once the word ‘wife’ got involved. Let them have their little private, intimate conversation there with their heads so close together and Sano still gripping her arm like that. It didn’t matter what stupid game the idiot was playing, parading his sweetheart (or whatever she was) around here like this and sending her to flirt so clumsily with Saitou. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, he had to admit, it had been… nice… to see Sano again. Even if nothing good could come of it, even if it exacerbated his condition… a part of him was lighter for the encounter. Another part of him, the coldest and most pragmatic part, hoped it would be their last.

As he turned to leave, he found himself facing Tokio, who had evidently anticipated him and somehow gotten right into the path she knew he would tread. She had a gift for making herself seem to take up a good deal more space than she actually did, and he stopped after only a step, scowling at her.

“It’s funny,” she said in her softest, blandest tone, “the look on your face when you saw him. Well, really, it’s more funny that you’re walking away now, when you obviously desperately want to talk to him.”

“I don’t ‘desperately’ want to do anything,” he said stonily, “and there’s no reason for me to talk to him at all.”

“I think you’re wrong,” replied Tokio calmly. And then she just stared up at him with those wide eyes whose appearance of vacancy could fool anyone into thinking there was very little going on behind them. She did not intend to move. And pushing past or circumnavigating her would take so much more than just the relatively easy physical motion involved. How had he ever ended up married to someone like this?

He turned again and looked at Sano, who was still arguing with the unknown woman some distance off. Both seemed upset. Turning yet again toward Tokio, he found her unbreakable stance unchanged. When he faced Sano again, he found him coming toward him with that same expression of angry reluctance he’d worn before. Sano didn’t meet Saitou’s gaze, only stared defiantly at the ground as he drew up to him. There he stood solidly and said nothing.

Saitou wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, nor entirely sure he wanted to be, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Tokio just smiled at him. He found Sano having a similar experience — except that, instead of smiling, Sano’s woman glowered and gestured emphatically across the street. There a neat row of trees stood that might provide a bit of privacy for any two people wanting a personal conversation away from the market crowd. Assuming there were two such people around. And perhaps this was starting to make a little more sense.

Sano’s head swung around, and his eyes met Saitou’s for the first time. Scowling, he looked away again quickly, muttered something unintelligible, and headed off across the street. The scowl wasn’t his angry one, though; it was the I can’t see this ending well expression he used for unpleasant situations he couldn’t get out of. And if he was that averse to talking to Saitou, he could damn well just… but, no, Tokio still stood there smiling benignly; Saitou had no choice either. With a sigh he crossed the street after Sano.

Behind a tree that didn’t really hide them from most people’s sight but that they could at least pretend did, they stared at each other for a long moment without a word. And finally Saitou said, “It seems I’m not the only one plagued by helpful women.”

Sano laughed sardonically. “So’s that your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She’s hot.”

Saitou snorted, and another long silence fell. Knowing Tokio wouldn’t allow him to leave for a while yet, he eventually forced himself to ask, “What are you doing here?” And he was surprised, after all the effort it took to get started with the question, how excessively easy it was to continue and finish.

“I…” Sano’s voice dropped so that his words were nearly inaudible; Saitou caught them, however: “I was looking for you.”

Saitou’s heart had been beating a little faster than usual ever since the moment he’d set eyes on Sano, and now, hearing this, it fluttered abruptly and alarmingly. “Why?”

Standing stiff and motionless, looking away, Sano took a deep breath. “I made this deal…” he began. “See that woman over… Well, ever since… I mean, I wanted to…” With each new abortive phrase he sounded less uncertain and more irritated. “I guess I can keep acting like a fucking idiot,” he murmured gruffly, “or just fucking ask you and get it over with.”

As no question was immediately forthcoming, “So you wanted to ask me something…?” Saitou prompted.

“Yeah, she was getting on my case for never… But, I mean, you could have told me sometime without me having to… one way or the other…” Abruptly Sano turned his face toward Saitou and looked him straight in the eye, his fists clenching as if for a fight. The idiot was always ready for a fight, even in the middle of a scene like this. Whatever kind of scene this was. He managed to get his question out fairly levelly, though: “What exactly do I mean to you?”

The heart that had hastened unduly now seemed ready to stop beating. After so many weeks of separation, after so emphatically denying what Saitou wanted and parting with him so cavalierly, was Sano really here — could he really be here, now, asking a question like this? Saitou found his own voice surprisingly, disturbingly subdued as he said, “You came all the way here to ask me that?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was similarly soft, almost a whisper. And his answer to this question, Saitou thought, also provided an answer to another Saitou could have asked, had he been inclined to wonder. Sano added a little more strongly, “And I want the truth, Saitou.”

“When have I ever lied to you?” Saitou’s smirk struck him as very weak and somewhat out of place at the moment.

“Um, whenever you fucking felt like it?” It was the same glare as always, wonderfully hot and direct; but there was a look of desperation to it as well that demanded the truth in more forceful terms even than Sano’s words had. Not that Saitou could possibly want to play with him at the moment — not when Sano’s mere, unexpected presence had already brought more lightness into Saitou’s day, whatever had been going on with that woman notwithstanding, than anything had since the transfer. Not when he might have a chance to get back what he’d let go, to return to the happiness he’d had and lost.

“What impression have you been under all along?” he wondered quietly.

“That I was just convenient sex,” replied Sano, flat and equally quiet, looking away again as if he couldn’t bear to meet Saitou’s eyes as he said it, in case it might be true.

And suddenly everything made sense.

“No.” It came out as something of a horrified whisper. “I…” Saitou took a deep breath, and said what he realized now he should have said back then — said every day — and the lack of which had come so close to costing him everything. “I love you.”

Sano’s head snapped back around, his face going white, and it seemed he postponed inhaling for an unnaturally long span. Then, in a flash, he had flung himself at Saitou and was kissing him for all he was worth — which, Saitou was inclined to think, was a good deal more than he had ever realized.

“Well, that’s about done it,” said one woman, coming to stand by the other and join her in looking across the street.

“I believe so,” the other smiled.

“And all it took was some basic communication,” the first said, somewhat exasperated. “Dunno what men find so damn hard about that.”

“Some men think they’re safer if they defend everything like a secret,” said the second.

“I think we’ll need to keep an eye on ’em still for a while,” the first frowned. “I can totally see them turning around and doing the same thing to each other again if we don’t.”

“You may be right,” said the second woman. She looked around, and added pensively, “I’m hungry. Shall we discuss it over lunch?”

The first woman agreed gladly. Introductions ensued, and two new friends — or perhaps co-conspirators, or even business partners — walked off arm in arm.


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Subtext

The absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was.

When the victim of Sano’s prank texting turns out to be an intimidating cop, Sano’s friends are every bit as amused as Sano is terrified.


When Katsu got home from work, he found his roommate chortling on the floor. Sano’s head was under the coffee table, his legs up on the couch, and he held a cell phone in the air above his face. The moment Katsu entered and looked at him, he rolled onto his side in a spasm of laughter — the sort of laughter that sounded like a relapse, as if he’d just managed to get himself under control and Katsu’s appearance had set him off afresh.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Katsu remarked as he closed the apartment door behind him.

At first Sano could not answer except with further paroxysms, but he did sober enough to read the text message that presently chimed in to his phone. But if Katsu expected an explanation thereafter, he was disappointed, for the message sent Sano into another rolling fit of amusement.

Being a patient young man, Katsu moved off into his own bedroom to change from his work uniform and turn on his computer; he left the door open, though, in case Sano should recover to the point of volunteering information.

Eventually he did. “I’ve been prank-texting this dude for, like, an hour now,” he explained at a shout. “Pretending to be some chick named Sandra.”

“Oh, god,” was Katsu’s (not entirely unamused) response.

“I asked him out and everything. He thinks I’m a girl…” And Sano lost it again.

Katsu shook his head, rolling his eyes and grinning. “And who is this guy?”

“I dunno… Chou gave me his number.”

“Are you sure it’s smart to be randomly texting somebody Chou gave you the number of?”

“I dunno. It’s just some–” The phone chimed again, appropriating all of Sano’s attention. “Oh, he says he’s going to–” But again the phone cut him off, this time with a genuine ringtone. Sano’s mirth quickly turned to consternation as he realized, “Oh, shit, my voicemail! What do I do?”

“You should have thought of that before.”

With a deep breath, Sano answered the call.

Now Katsu had to bury his face in a couch cushion, for at the first sound of, “Hey, Sandra here!” in the most unconvincing falsetto he’d ever heard, he simply could not contain himself any longer.

As soon as Katsu emerged again he saw Sano waving violently at him in a gesture that clearly communicated, It’s hard enough for me to keep from laughing without you doing that. “No, I’m not,” he was saying into the phone, still in that awful fallacious tone. “I lost my voice for a few days and it’s just coming back, so if I sound weird that’s why. Hmm, oh, really? That sounds so sexy. Ooh, that sounds totally sexy too! What? No, those are hot too. Ha ha, no. I love a car with good gas mileage.”

Whether this was a euphemism and what they could possibly be talking about Katsu couldn’t guess, but the absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was. Every little while, Sano would turn aside and let out a string of muffled guffaws into his sleeve, and Katsu wondered what the stranger thought of these breaks in the conversation.

“He keeps getting all quiet for, like, a minute at a time,” Sano explained in a choked whisper on seeing his roommate’s expression at this. “What do you think he’s–” But he was forced to return to the phone at this point, his stupid falsetto even less convincing than before. “Oh, no, sugar, I was talking to the TV. I told you I was bored…” Sometimes a random little accent crept in too, and Katsu wasn’t sure whether Sano even knew it was happening. “What else do I have to do when I don’t have a man to keep me busy? Oh, can’t you guess? Well, I’ve been told I give really good blow jobs. Hmm? Oh, yeah, any time.”

Things had gone so far that just about everything Sano said was too much for Katsu, and eventually he would surely betray his friend by laughing more loudly than the pillow could stifle or too suddenly to hide it. Besides, he had other things to do. However, he’d barely reached his room again when there came a knock at the apartment door. Assuming Sano was too busy — and in no fit state — to answer it, Katsu reemerged.

“Dude, he stopped talking again,” Sano was chortling as Katsu turned the dead-bolt and then the knob.

“Yes, he did,” said the man at the door in a carrying tone, ostentatiously snapping shut the cell phone he held.

Sano sat up abruptly, dropping his own phone. He dove for it, found the confirmatory evidence of the call’s having ended on its screen, and stared at the man again in growing dismay.

“A word of advice for you,” the stranger remarked as he stepped inside unhindered by any motion of Katsu’s. “Chou isn’t a very good accomplice. He can’t keep a straight face.”

Katsu restrained a snorting laugh.

“And the fact that he works at a police station should have given you some idea of the type of people he’s with all day.” The man pulled aside his jacket to display the badge he wore on a lanyard around his neck.

This time Katsu couldn’t contain it; the laughter burst out of him. “Oh, god, Sano, you do know how to pick them.”

“So what?” demanded Sano, worried and obviously trying to cover it up with surliness. “Are you gonna press charges or something?”

“Harassment is a fairly serious charge,” the cop agreed with a smirk, “but I’m more inclined to take you up on your offer.”

“What offer?” Sano wondered blankly.

The officer held up his phone again and answered blandly, “Among other things, you asked me out.”

This was almost too much for Katsu. And if the pronouncement itself hadn’t been enough, Sano’s stunned expression — as if he’d just been shot in the middle of a laugh — certainly would have been.

“That was… that was just a… I wasn’t serious!”

“Still, you did offer.”

“I have a girlfriend,” Sano stated defiantly.

“Of course,” was the cool reply. “And that poster there was her idea of a joke.”

Katsu almost lost it again as the man indicated with a gesture the half-naked Speedo model adorning the wall. The interlocking rainbow male symbols that formed the poster company’s logo didn’t help.

“Yeah, OK, it’s a boyfriend.”

The cop glanced at Katsu, who was still struggling not to collapse bonelessly onto the floor as he shook his head without a word.

“Katsu!” Sano yelped in protest at this betrayal.

The stranger’s mouth twisted into a smile. “So it appears you have no legitimate cause to object to our arrangement.”

“Except that it was just a joke! I was just messing with you!”

“So you would rather I pressed charges for harassment?”

“I…” Sano’s brows went down over wide, astonished eyes. “That’s blackmail! Isn’t that just as illegal?”

“It’s called ‘settling out of court,'” the stranger corrected. “You’ve had your fun; now it’s my turn.”

Katsu thought Sano went a little pale at this.

“Come on,” the man insisted, jingling his keys. He added with a smirk, “I thought you wanted to see my car.”

Sano took a step toward him, jerkily, as if drawn against his will. “Katsu…” he said helplessly.

“Have fun, Sano,” Katsu grinned.

With a look at his friend half stricken and half irate, Sano began to move a little more naturally: evidently he realized he had no choice in the matter. Stopping just short of arm’s length of the stranger, however, he turned to Katsu and said darkly, “If I’m not back in a couple of hours, call the…” He threw a glance at the policeman and amended his statement. “Call someone.”

“I may call a pizza place and order something to eat…” Katsu offered.

“Oh, fuck you,” Sano said. And then they were gone.

Katsu didn’t have long to laugh himself sick over all of this while wondering desperately and impatiently what was going on; he should have known Sano would keep him posted. The first text arrived only a few minutes later: I’m going to fucking die!

What are you guys doing? Katsu inquired in return.

We’re going to play pool, I guess, was Sano’s answer.

That’s not so bad.

It is with THIS psychopath! Now he’s asking if I’m harassing someone ELSE, so I’ll tell you more later.

Katsu sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be too much later, since this was funnier than anything he could have found on TV, and had made his day a good deal better not only than it had been but than any recent day he could think of or future day he was likely to have. Living with Sano was always an adventure.

This guy kicks ass at pool, was the next message, after perhaps half an hour.

Better than you? wondered Katsu.

I’ll beat him pretty soon, Sano replied evasively, but Katsu could hear the irritated determination as clearly as if they’d been talking rather than texting.

Relative pool skills were all well and good, but what Katsu was mostly interested in hearing about… Is he still being creepy?

Not really. He bought me some snacks. This didn’t tell Katsu much, since Sano was so fond of being bought snacks that he might overlook a good deal of creepiness on the part of the buyer.

Another twenty minutes or so passed before Katsu heard anything more. Then it was, I’m going to kill Chou. He TOLD this guy who I was after my FOURTH text. He told him I was gay and everything.

And probably that you were his neighbor, too.

You should totally hear this guy talk about him, though. Shit’s hilarious.

“Oh, Sano,” Katsu murmured, laughing as he read this and refraining from making the obvious reply.

The next communication, after another interval spent impatiently on Katsu’s end trying to find anything that hadn’t gone bad in the fridge, was a call. Of course he picked up immediately. “Sano?”

“Shit, man, I don’t know what to do!” Sano sounded panicked “You gotta help me!”

“Calm down! I can’t do much to help you from here. What’s going on?”

“He… this guy…” Sano’s voice echoed somewhat; since the signal was fine and the words otherwise undistorted, Katsu guessed him to be making the call from a restroom.

“Is he assaulting you, or what?”

“Well, sortof… I mean, he keeps saying things…”

“That’s quite an accusation, Sano.”

“He keeps saying… flirty… things.” The word didn’t really seem an appropriate descriptor for the man, briefly as Katsu had met him, but the concept at least was clear.

“You guys are on a date,” Katsu pointed out. His tone was mild, but it was probably a good thing Sano couldn’t see his face.

“Only because he forced me!” Sano sounded far more confused than anything else.

“What’s really bugging you is that you’re enjoying this.”

“What?! I am not! Just ’cause he’s… How could I possibly–” At this moment Sano made an indescribable and very undignified sound, and his phone clattered as it evidently fell to the floor. Hastily Katsu turned off the TV and pressed his own phone hard against his ear so as not to miss a word of the subsequently distant conversation.

“What are you doing in here?!” This was Sano, startled and angry.

“Seeing what’s taking you so long,” said the man’s voice; he sounded amused. “You just can’t stop harassing people with that phone, can you?”

“I’m not–”

“And what are you promising this one?”

“It’s just–”

“I seem to recall you promising me a ‘really good blow job.'”

“I… what?!” Sano sounded a little hysterical. Or perhaps ‘giddy’ was a better term. “I didn’t… No!”

Even from here, Katsu could tell that the man was teasing just as easily as he could tell that Sano didn’t mind the idea nearly as much as he claimed to.

“Then I think you owe me a kiss at least.”

The guy was probably giving Sano some kind of look Katsu couldn’t appreciate from afar, for Sano was obviously very flustered. “Not… not… not on the first–”

There came a scuffling sound, during which the transmitting device was apparently kicked into a corner or something, followed by a long silence. Finally, almost inaudibly now (thanks to the phone’s new position? or the man’s lowered tone?), the police officer said, “That wasn’t so bad.” And whether the statement aimed at reassuring Sano or commenting on his performance Katsu couldn’t tell.

“You are the worst cop I’ve ever met,” Sano responded with relative distinctness — and relative calm, too, especially for how breathless he sounded; it really must not have been so bad.

“That’s quite an achievement, considering you’ve met Chou.”

“And he backstabbed me.” This grumble of Sano’s was suddenly a good deal louder as he evidently bent to retrieve his phone.

“I don’t know what else you were expecting,” the man said, a sentiment with which Katsu had to agree.

Some profane statement of Sano’s cut off as he hung up the phone without a goodbye, and again Katsu waited for the next update on the edge of his seat (figuratively, as he was, rather, sprawled on the couch in weariness from laughing so much and never having found anything readily edible in the kitchen).

Sano’s eventual comment was, So he’s a good kisser.

So I gathered, Katsu replied.

And he’s actually pretty hot.

I noticed that too.

And he bought me ice cream.

Plying you with dessert, is he?

He’s still an asshole.

I’m sure he is.

During the next information lapse, wherein Katsu tried futilely to pay attention to the show he was supposedly watching but kept checking his phone so frequently he might as well just have turned the TV off again, there came a knock at the door. A little irritated at an interruption he doubted could be anywhere near as interesting as the ongoing drama, Katsu went to answer it. He knew who it must be, however, when the knock was repeated and elaborated upon before he’d made it halfway to the door.

“Hiya, Katsu,” Chou greeted him, craning his neck to look past into the apartment.

“He’s not here.” Katsu gestured Chou inside, shut the door behind him, and checked his phone again. “And you’re lucky he’s not, because at the moment he wants you dead.”

Chou grinned broadly. “Hey, I tried not to give him away… but it was just too fucking funny.”

“It’s better than you think.” Katsu couldn’t help promising great things with his own grin. “At this very moment they are out on a date.”

“What?!” yelped Chou. “You’re shitting me! No way!”

“Last I heard–” Katsu held up his phone– “your boss or whatever he is was buying Sano ice cream.”

Chou staggered over to the couch and collapsed onto it, breathless and helpless with laughter. “Do you…” he panted eventually. “Do you know… what he came over here… to do…?”

“Threaten Sano with death if he ever did something like this again?”

“Yeah, something… something like that…” Chou buried his screwed-up face in the same cushion Katsu had been using all evening to muffle his own laughter.

“Well, he pretty much took one look at Sano and changed his mind.”

When Chou could speak again he said, “Oh, we live in a fucking insane world.” His posture having returned to more or less upright, he’d freed up the other half of the sofa; Katsu came to sit next to him and give a more detailed account of what was going on somewhere else in town — including reading out all the messages sent and received thus far.

At the end of the tale, Sano’s newly arrived comment on the proceedings could be appended: I guess we’re done now.

Did you ever beat him? Katsu wondered.

I would have if he wasn’t so distracting, Sano answered, to the great amusement of his friends.

“‘Distracting,'” Chou chortled. “God, of all the fucking weirdness I never expected…”

Katsu shook his head. “This is so typical of Sano.”

“This is so not typical of my boss,” replied Chou.

“You’d better get back downstairs,” Katsu advised. “I don’t know where they went, but it might have been that pool hall just up the street, and if Sano gets back and finds you here…”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Chou grinned, rising. “Thanks for the entertainment, though.”

“I think I should be thanking you. Sano probably should too, but I doubt he ever will.”

Chou’s grin broadened, and he turned in the exit. “You’ve got my number, right? Let me know if more fun shit happens.”

“Roger that.” And Katsu shut the door behind him.

His speculation regarding Sano’s date venue was pretty much confirmed when Sano arrived, solitary and angry, after only a few more minutes.

“He didn’t walk you back in?” Katsu wondered, fighting to keep his face grave; his levators and zygomatics were aching enough as it was.

Sano’s answer was a short, irritated negative.

“Did he at least try to molest you in his car?”

“He didn’t even kiss me again,” was Sano’s reply, and exactly what the surliness of his tone was aimed at was rather up in the air.

“Well, I’m glad you survived,” Katsu said placatingly.

Sano snorted and threw himself down onto the couch.

Gradually the apartment grew quiet, except for the continued chime of incoming texts to Sano’s phone. Katsu, moving around straightening things up and getting ready for bed, wondered whether Sano was threatening Chou or continuing his ‘distracting’ interaction with the other cop. Eventually, too curious to refrain from being nosy, he stepped to the couch and looked down over it, and Sano’s shoulder, from behind.

It was fun, said the latest message Sano had received. Despite the angle, Katsu saw the conflict in the lip-biting scowl on his friend’s face. He also saw that Sano had created an actual contact for the man. The name confirmed what Katsu had guessed at seeing the man’s face: another gay Japanese guy. How did Sano keep finding them?

Finally, Yeah, I guess, Sano replied.

Katsu rolled his eyes, and didn’t move. His quiet patience was rewarded, soon thereafter, by the sight of another message from the cop: Same time next week?

Sano made a What the fuck, man? sort of gesture, and suddenly noticed Katsu. “God!” he cried, startled. “How long have you been standing there?”

Katsu grinned. “A while. What are you going to tell him?”

Sano grimaced at him, and got up in something of a huff. “I don’t know!” He headed for his room, and Katsu watched him complacently, still grinning.

He was pretty sure he knew what Sano’s answer would be.


So there’s a dumbass story behind this story. It is, in fact, based on actual events: Saitou and Sano really are a perfect couple actual prank-texting that happened at one point. It was my brother in real life, pretending to be a girl and asking some guy from school to homecoming and whatnot. It happened very much like this, too: the dude eventually called, my brother realized that his voice on the voicemail recording would give him away, and falsetto conversation ensued.

So, yeah, Sano would definitely chatspeak, abbreviate, typo, and misspell all over anyone he texted (especially with T9 and whatnot, which is the era this story is set in; ah, nostalgia), but there was no way in hell I was going to write it like that. Consider this a translation.

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

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