His Own Humanity: That Remarkable Optimism

The number of M&M’s in the bowl was nothing short of comic. It was Heero’s biggest mixing bowl, and barely fit anywhere in his kitchen cabinets to begin with, and here the M&M’s were heaped up above the top of the rim in a colorful mountain that occasionally suffered little clattering avalanches onto the counter or floor.

“How many packages is this?” he wondered in audible amusement.

“Is what?” replied Duo, then, turning, saw. “Oh,” he chuckled. “I dunno… like, eight?”

“How did I not notice you buying, like, eight packages of M&M’s?”

“You were too distracted by my butt.”

“That is probably true. But why did you think you needed that many M&M’s at once?”

“Why wouldn’t I need that many M&M’s all at once?”

Heero conceded the point by scooping up a large number (there was no need for moderation) and cramming them between his teeth. Some moderation might perhaps have been warranted after all, since he then found it rather difficult to chew the unwieldy mouthful, but after several moments of maneuvering he made a pleasant discovery. “Reefa awmun,” he said.

“Yeah, what did you think?”

Rather than attempt to speak again with a largely unusable tongue, Heero worked a bit, swallowed, and eventually said, “I thought they were peanut.”

Haughtily Duo drew himself up. “What kind of infidel do you think I am?”

Heero just took another handful of candy and, before leaving the living room, stepped close to Duo and pecked him on the cheek. “Well, don’t be surprised if I eat seven of your eight packages there.”

“You sure you’re not going to watch with us?” Duo wondered as Heero made his way around the couch. His unspoken thought on the matter was that he’d only asked out of politeness; of course he always wanted Heero with him, but, familiar with Heero’s disinterest in football, didn’t want to pressure him.

“I’m going to see what I can do about the computer.” This reply was somewhat grim, as it was far past time.

Duo laughed. “Good luck!” And even as he said this, a knock at the door signaled the arrival of his guest.

Heero quickened his pace. It wasn’t that he had anything against Sano (or any of Duo’s new friends), but, since he wasn’t going to be actively hanging out with the guy, there was no reason to meet him at the door. He munched on his second handful of M&M’s a couple at a time as he took a seat at the desk, booted up the computer, and listened to the conversation in the living room.

“Hope you don’t mind expired Chinese food,” was Sano’s reply to Duo’s enthusiastic welcome.

“Expired like how?”

“Expired like we’re not allowed to sell it anymore, but it’s still just fine, so we all take it home for free even though we’re technically not supposed to.”

“I love that kind of Chinese food!”

“That is a lot of M&M’s there.”

“I know! I totally have dessert covered!”

“They’re so big, though… are they peanut?”

“Hah! Heero thought that too, but I am so much better than that. They’re almond.”

“Shit.”

The sudden sound of the TV drowned out whatever Duo said next, and the surface level of his head was mostly trying to remember what the channel number for Fox was, but Heero assumed he asked what had prompted Sano’s profanity. Next came a sense of disproportionate disconsolation when Sano apparently revealed that he was allergic to almonds.

Heero spent the following few minutes pondering whether he should head into the other room and grab some more M&M’s for himself. The discovery that Duo’s guest could not enjoy the snack he had so sanguinely provided had prompted such disappointment that Heero, in the hopes of cheering him, would love to prove the purchase of so many almond M&M’s not a waste… but to do so would also, quite possibly, indicate that Heero was aware of just how disappointed Duo was, which would, rather than lessening Duo’s disappointment, merely send it off in a different direction by reminding him that Heero could still, especially when they were at home, hear his surface-level thoughts.

This was excessively frustrating. He wanted to make a nice gesture for his boyfriend (in addition to his simple desire for more M&M’s), and it seemed unfair to have to waffle over it like this. He wasn’t even working on the computer as he’d planned, merely sitting idly debating the relative merits of fetching or not fetching another handful of candy from the next room.

Eventually kickoff provided what seemed a decent distraction. If Duo’s disappointment had faded a bit, he might not make the connection between Heero’s errand and the fact that Heero had just been reading his mind, and Heero might be able to send his boyfriend one message while avoiding another. It was worth a try. So from where he’d accomplished nothing so far Heero rose and went back in there.

Surrounded by the already-separated contents of a six-pack of Coke and Chinese takeout boxes whose multiform scents permeated the living room (though they had not yet crept down the hall), Duo and his young exorcist friend sat on the sofa engrossed in the first quarter of the Oakland Raiders vs. Heero was not quite sure whom. They both looked up as Heero rounded the TV.

“Hey, Heero,” Sano greeted. “Want some Chinese leftovers?”

“No, thanks.” Heero quickly scanned what was already more than a bit of a mess (and probably destined to expand as such), murmuring, “I really just wanted…” His eyes lighted on the colorful mixing bowl where it sat a complete arm’s length from Duo’s end of the sofa as if to keep it as far as possible from Sano, and he resisted the urge to laugh. He approached and bent to retrieve a very large handful of M&M’s this time, paying close attention to Duo’s thoughts as he did so. It seemed he’d succeeded in his purpose: all that crossed his boyfriend’s mind at this point was the somewhat mollified reflection, At least Heero likes them.

Returning to the computer room more or less satisfied, Heero sat down to work through his extensive collection of M&M’s and actually pay some attention to the computer.

One reason (among many Heero was trying to ignore) that Duo’s discomfort with Heero’s magical abilities seemed so unfair was that Heero was not and probably would never be able to control the aspect of it that bothered his boyfriend. He couldn’t stop hearing projected thoughts, especially of someone to whom he was so close, and everything he saw on the internet seemed to indicate this would always be the case. A communicator, it appeared, once his abilities had awakened, was always switched to receive, and the burden fell on others not to send. Heero definitely hadn’t asked for that, and it seemed unfair that Duo was so disturbed by something Heero couldn’t do anything about and had never sought. But Duo was probably just as unable to control his discomfort as Heero to control his communication powers, so there was no use dwelling on it.

At the moment, as he began a search about how he could improve the speed and performance of his computer without having to take too much trouble or spend too much (or preferably any) money, he was also, rather perforce, following the progress of a football game he wasn’t actually watching. The Raiders were up against the St. Louis Rams, who were playing a rookie quarterback that had already been sacked twice in a row.

As little interest as Heero had in football, he was yet familiar with the basics of the sport and had no active disliking of it; additionally, he found the sounds of a football game in progress within earshot cheerful background noise. Therefore, that the combination of announcers from the loud TV and reactions from Duo’s unguarded head were giving Heero a pretty good idea what went on in the game didn’t bother him much. It wasn’t as if the computer endeavor required undivided attention.

While he’d been a doll, Duo had only ever muted the television when trying to pay specific attention to some other aural stimulus, but as a human he had developed the habit of muting it during every commercial break. Heero thought this arose from Duo’s desire to exert his autonomy over as many aspects of life as possible: he wasn’t tied to the television for entertainment to stave off madness anymore, and therefore could be highly selective about what he paid attention to. Heero didn’t complain, as he found the advertising obnoxious in the first place — and in this specific instance, the muting allowed him to overhear more perfectly a conversation he couldn’t make much of while the noisy sounds of the game were mostly drowning it out.

Of course the first two or three commercial breaks were filled with football talk — how the Raiders were performing and which of their quarterbacks would end up the star of the season, the Rams’ status and whether or not their offensive line deserved excellent running back Steven Jackson, and other such relatively uninteresting topics — but eventually, when the TV went silent after Fox’s somewhat threatening-sounding commercial break music, Sano asked half idly, “So how’s your Quatre friend doing?”

“Oh, he’s getting better,” Duo replied. “He’s working hard on trying to make up for everything he thinks he did wrong. Too hard, if you ask me, but that’s what Quatre does.”

“Yeah, he offered to pay me and Hajime, like, double the usual price ’cause he felt so bad about it. Sounded good to me, but of course Hajime said no.” There was a wry grin in Sano’s tone as he added, “That’s what Hajime does.”

“What, turns down money?”

“Well, he’s a real professional, is all… he wouldn’t want to take advantage of a decent guy like that.”

Duo laughed. “So he’d take advantage of somebody who wasn’t decent?”

Sano joined him laughing. “He sure as hell doesn’t try very hard not to take extra money from assholes.”

“That actually sounds like pretty solid business to me.”

“Right?”

The conversation (at least that Heero could hear clearly) was suspended for a bit while the game recommenced, but it wasn’t long before a failed field goal attempt led to another commercial break and Sano resumed the same topic:

“So Quatre’s really OK, then? I know that kind of shit can really mess people up sometimes.”

“Well, I can’t tell you exactly what’s going on in his head…” Contrarily, Heero could tell exactly what was going on in Duo’s head as he said this: he was thinking once more, as he had off and on ever since it had first been brought up so disastrously that one morning, about the possibility — the need, in fact — of therapy for more than one of his friends in addition to himself. The subject hadn’t re-arisen aloud, what with the Quatre business and its aftermath, but Heero thought he would have to prod Trowa about it again at some point.

“But I think,” Duo continued, “he really is getting better. He’ll probably be OK.” He clearly had no idea what he could possibly do if Quatre wasn’t OK, and was trying not to think about it.

“That’s good. Getting rid of the shade’s only half the job a lot of the time.” Interestingly, Sano’s tone sounded as if he felt much the same way Duo did — that, if the situation required more of him beyond the supernatural service already performed, he might be completely lost — and Heero had to appreciate his sympathetic interest.

“Trowa’s helping a lot, I think.” Duo said this not only because he believed it to be true, but because he was so amused at the effect the mention of Trowa had on other members of the magical community. “He knows about this kind of thing.”

“Yeah, I fucking bet!” Sano agreed heartily, after which it was time for more football. Soon, however, the end of the first quarter heralded a slightly longer break than the previous, and Sano proved that his attention to the as-yet-scoreless game had not driven the other interesting topic from his head: “How’d you get to be such good friends with Trowa Barton, anyway?”

Quickly Duo decided what to say. As far as he was aware — and it was something he could probably confirm through conversation this afternoon — Sano didn’t know his history, so he must be sure to break it to him in the most dramatic fashion possible. For the moment he went with simple truth. “We lived in the same city in Michigan for about fifteen years and kinda looked out for each other.”

“Shit, you must be pretty damn good if you were looking out for Trowa Barton! What are you, actually?”

From this Duo was almost certain Sano didn’t know about the curse, but he couldn’t be as intrigued by the fact as the listening Heero was. Because Heero knew that Hajime did know, and was fairly sure Hajime and Sano were dating and equally taken by the living legend that was Trowa Barton. How odd that Hajime hadn’t shared the interesting story with his boyfriend.

“I’m pure command,” Duo said. “Not too bad, but I’m just getting back into practice after a long time not doing magic.”

Heero wished, at least a little, that he could hear anything going through Sano’s head so he could determine how the exorcist had taken that statement, why he said nothing at the moment.

Duo went on, “But you’re a natural, aren’t you? That’s way way cooler than anything. I have literally never met a natural before.” Though Sano wouldn’t be able to appreciate appropriately that phrase with its term of emphasis.

“I don’t know.” Sano sounded annoyed. “Hajime thinks so, but I haven’t been able to get any specific reasons out of him. I thought I was just necrovisual, and then maybe a communicator since it turns out I can talk to familiar animals. I haven’t seen a damn thing to make me think I’ve got divination or command.”

“And command’s pretty hard to miss,” Duo mused. “Maybe there’s a test Trowa can do to find out for sure.”

“Ehh, I wouldn’t want to bug him about something like that.”

Duo jumped on this. “Why not? He helps people out with magic all the time.”

“Uh, I kinda already… think I kinda got on his bad side.”

With a loud laugh partaking of knowledge Sano lacked, Duo assured him, “Oh, believe me, if you were on Trowa’s bad side, you’d totally know it! You don’t even have any idea what that guy can do to you.”

Sano mumbled something to the effect of assuming Trowa Barton could do anything he damn well pleased to anyone he didn’t like, but his exact words were drowned out by the returning sound of the television.

Heero had found some recommendations online about various programs to clean up a hard drive, and was in the middle of reading about registries and what those affected, when he realized he was out of M&M’s. This time he didn’t even question the propriety of his actions, merely got up and headed into the other room. He was just in time to hear from the TV an update on a game in progress elsewhere, between the Broncos (who were winning) and the Seahawks, and Sano’s almost startlingly intense response, “Man, fuck Denver.”

Though Duo complained about the 49ers because they were so close, he’d evidently never bought in much to the real league rivalries, and thus protested now, “Hey, I lived in Denver for, like, three years!”

The look Sano threw him, which Heero caught because he was surreptitiously watching for it as he bent to retrieve his next supply of M&M’s, suggested he was adding up numbers. At the moment it amounted to about fifteen years skilled enough to be looking out for Trowa Barton in Michigan plus enough time to be out of practice in command magic thereafter plus, like, three years in Denver. But all Sano said at this point was, “Well, fuck the Broncos, anyway.”

Duo just laughed.

Heero returned to the computer and started downloading the first program he planned to try, listened to the disappointment in the next room when the Rams were the first to score, then cocked an ear with interest as two commercial breaks separated only by a brief punt provided plenty of time for conversation.

His boyfriend wasted no time jumping back onto the subject they’d left hanging before, since he wanted certain details and felt this was the best way to get them: “Seriously, there’s no way Trowa’s mad at you or anything. Like I said, you’d know.” Duo actually felt a little guilty painting this inaccurate picture, as he knew perfectly well that people Trowa found annoying tended to get avoided and ignored by him rather than made active targets of his malice; but he still wanted answers. “I mean, I know there was some kind of… incident? …at his house that one night…?”

“Heh… yeah… me and Hajime sorta… had sex…”

Duo choked loudly on whatever he was eating, and began to cough. Though Sano gave a sheepish laugh as if to express penitence for having caused this inconvenience, there was no feeling of accusation whatsoever in Duo’s head; he’d been longing to hear this gossip for weeks, and now it was getting started in an even more interesting fashion than he’d anticipated. Finally he managed, “Seriously? I had no idea that’s what it was! Trowa described it as a soap opera, not a porno!”

Again Sano laughed, and again it sounded chagrined — but there was, perhaps, a sly, almost smug edge to it as well, as if, though the circumstance did embarrass him, he also felt a touch of pride at having gotten away with something so audacious. “The part he would’ve overheard was actually all soap opera,” he allowed. “The porn didn’t start ’til after he left.”

“So you went to yell at Hajime,” Duo prompted, amused and eager, “for not telling you where he went, and ended up having drama that ended in sex?”

“Yeah… yeah, that’s pretty much what happened.”

“And now you guys are dating?”

“Yep. Finally.” Heero wasn’t sure whether Sano knew how much he was teasing Duo by not immediately pouring forth the entire story in all its gory details, but in any case Duo probably deserved it for the manner in which he was planning to make the best possible dramatic use of his own interesting experiences.

“How long were you guys not dating?”

“Like, six months,” was Sano’s surly reply. “Because he’s an asshole.”

“Then I can totally see why you’re going out with him,” Duo replied with mock seriousness.

“The thing about Hajime…” Sano’s statement disintegrated into a frustrated sound as the TV came back on and he apparently gave up describing his boyfriend for now. However, a few minutes later, during a quiet stretch of game where a potential foul was being discussed at length and even the announcers had little to say, Sano got started again with the air of one that has been organizing his thoughts for the last while and is now ready to present.

“The thing about Hajime is that he’s really bad at talking to anyone about anything serious in his own damn life. Like, I feel like getting to know him has been spywork this whole time, because he sure as hell doesn’t open up about anything about himself that isn’t completely shallow.”

Duo was thinking that, amusingly, the very fact Sano was saying this indicated something much the opposite about him, as well as that this didn’t really explain why Hajime was an asshole because they hadn’t been dating for six months. However, more curious than ever though he was, he was prevented from prompting for more details by the game’s resumption with the announcement of no penalty. The good news was that it didn’t take much longer for Oakland to call a timeout and commercials to reappear.

Sano hesitated not a whit to continue what was pretty clearly a rant. “Yeah, so I could never figure out whether Hajime was straight or what, because he never lets you know anything about himself if he can help it. Turns out he just isn’t really into relationships or something, but guys are fine? I mean–” he laughed a little as he reconsidered his tone and wording– “obviously guys are fine, but it took me fucking forever to figure that out. I still don’t know what his actual orientation is, and I’m sleeping with him now.”

Duo was starting to put together a hazy picture of Sano’s relationship with his boyfriend and the leadup thereto, and found it partially pathetic and partially amusing — and withal even more interesting than he’d been expecting. On his end, Heero was mostly entertained to observe what a gossip his own boyfriend was.

A sack against Oakland forcing them to punt distracted Duo somewhat, and, though Sano joined him in lamenting the circumstance, it clearly hadn’t been enough to distract him from the rant he still hadn’t fully vocalized. Heero, continually entertained, wondered if Sano complained about his boyfriend like this to all of his friends.

“It’s like he lives behind these walls that he just doesn’t let down for anyone, even his fucking boyfriend… and then at the same time he has this totally unfair advantage since he can read my mind, so I’ve had to practice my ass off learning how to not let him hear shit in there so he’s not a total dick about it, while at the same time all sorts of stuff about him is still this big fucking secret.”

And now, abruptly, the situation had gone from entertaining to extremely uncomfortable. Because there was no way Duo could hear a description like this without being pricklingly aware just how close it was to a description of Heero. ‘Walls,’ he was already reflecting, was even the exact term he’d used in his own assessment of Heero back when he’d been trying to figure him out. He recalled something Quatre had said at some point about how nobody had ever been able to get very close to Heero; he recalled his own surprise and happiness, at a later point, in realizing he’d somehow gotten past some of those walls without knowing how he’d done it.

You weren’t human at the time, Heero reflected with bitter nostalgia.

Of course, Duo’s thoughts went on — all at the same moment, really; it was more of that speed of mind Heero had admired so much in the past — Heero wasn’t like that Hajime guy in any other respect, the situations weren’t the same, and it wasn’t fair to Heero to compare them. But there were walls, and there was an unjust advantage of communication magic. It was close enough.

And Heero, Duo reflected further with a sinking of heart, had probably picked up on all of these thoughts.

Heero had stood from his chair almost without realizing what he did, looking around in something like panic. He and Duo were both suddenly agitated and upset, and the only thing he could think to do about it was leave the apartment. Duo probably couldn’t keep from having or projecting these thoughts, and Heero couldn’t keep from hearing them, so to separate for a little seemed essential. It might also benefit Duo to be free to discuss this with someone in a similar circumstance — one that was close enough, at any rate, to have prompted this unpleasantness in the first place — and he would certainly not be able to do so with Heero twenty feet away.

Hastily Heero went into the living room and, avoiding Duo’s eye, looked around somewhat frantically for his car keys. Finding them on the kitchen counter, he made for them with grasping hands and a stiff neck, saying, “I’m going to run get some groceries,” as he seized them and turned toward the apartment door. It was a stupid thing to say, since they’d been grocery shopping literally last night — when Heero had evidently been too distracted by Duo’s butt to notice the number of M&M packages he was purchasing — but Heero had finally come to accept the fact that inventing excuses was not a skill he possessed.

“OK,” said Duo hoarsely. He knew exactly why this was happening. What he didn’t know was how to feel about it, and his head was in turmoil.

Sano had still been speaking when Heero emerged from the hall, but had ceased abruptly at this exchange, and now silence filled the room as Heero plunged out the door; Heero didn’t think he was imagining the awkwardness and tension of that silence. What exactly they would talk about in his absence he could not guess, but at least Duo would be safe inside his own head for a while.

Whether this had been the right choice Heero had no idea, but he still saw no alternative. In nearly as much mental turmoil as that in which he’d left Duo, he made his way out of the apartment building without seeing it very clearly, heading for his car with no intention whatsoever of turning it on just yet. It was outside that he noticed his feet were clad only in socks, which killed whatever intention he’d had left of driving anywhere eventually. He probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with any groceries he needed anyway, and would most likely have ended up spending a silly amount of money on items randomly thrown into a shopping basket as he blindly walked the aisles of the store.

His thoughts were largely incoherent as he sat behind the motionless steering wheel struggling to become and remain calm and rational. Struggling not to feel bitter or annoyed about this. And eventually, perhaps due to the calming, enclosed atmosphere of the car interior or perhaps in the natural course of the passage of time, he did manage to subdue his agitation to a relatively manageable level. He leaned the seat back and tried to relax. That was frankly impossible, but he could at least repeat to himself for a while that he mustn’t be unreasonable about this.

Duo had been through so much — more than Heero could really comprehend at this point, communication magic notwithstanding. If his response to Heero’s abilities seemed like an overreaction, seemed unfair and even unkind, that was because Heero didn’t yet understand Duo’s frame of mind. Perhaps he would never understand, but that didn’t given him the right to be unreasonable, to be unfair and unkind in return. The thought of being unkind to Duo, whom he loved, after everything Duo had already suffered, made him almost sick — and that feeling must be his strength, must help him remember that Duo was not being unreasonable and that he, too, must not be unreasonable.

He had neglected to check the time when he left the apartment or began this shoeless vigil, so when he did look he couldn’t be sure just how long he’d been out here. In his agitation he felt as if it had been approximately forever, and he longed to go back to Duo and make sure he was all right; but he felt that not only would it be wiser to give his quest for calm and relaxation a little more time and effort, he also knew the game had started at 1:00 and it wasn’t even 2:00 yet. He should give them at least through halftime to discuss whatever they were likely to discuss in there.

It occurred to him that the game, being a local one, must be on the radio somewhere, and that if he could find it, he could gage his timing a little better than by merely watching the clock. So he turned the car halfway on at last and began cycling through stations. When he found what he believed — and after a few minutes confirmed — to be what he was looking for, he turned the volume up and attempted to find a comfortable position in which to listen for a while. This endeavor proved anomalously difficult. He’d spent quite a few lunch breaks sitting in the car alongside Duo with no problem, but apparently when Duo was removed from the equation, so was all comfort. Or perhaps that was just the awareness of the discomfort he’d come out here to escape.

He tried to let himself be distracted, tried to pretend he was an avid Oakland Raiders fan that really cared what was going on and how it would affect the season, but, even adjusting for his indifference to football, this was incredibly hard. He could only muster the mildest interest in the events of the game, and when anything unrelated interrupted to disconnect the tether of his attention, it was next to impossible to think about anything but Duo. He didn’t care about the new burger at Carl’s Jr., he didn’t care about the World Series coverage on this station, and he didn’t care how the Patriots were faring against the Jets. He did care about what might be going on in Duo’s head right now, and the effect that might have on their relationship.

Had he actually been an avid Oakland Raiders fan, he must have been disappointed at the score when, about a hundred years later, halftime finally rolled around. He was not cheated of unpleasant feelings, however, since he already felt mummified by sitting still for so long in a place he didn’t want to be, listening to content he less than half appreciated, and now he had to remind himself that the plan had always been to wait until after halftime — no matter how tedious was the radio announcers’ talk about names Heero barely recognized and assessing plays he hadn’t seen.

Despite how long it had seemed, in reality it had taken no more than about thirty minutes to get to halftime. Getting through halftime, however, a process whose finite span was dictated by the NFL and the same for every game, felt about ten times longer. Heero was reminded vaguely of the days he’d spent at work attempting to exercise even the smallest measure of patience waiting to go home to the doll he had a crush on. Except that in this instance he didn’t even have paying work to distract him — just a boring halftime show — and the concern and agitation he felt now was far different from the anticipation and curiosity he’d felt then.

But just as those long days apart from Duo the doll had each come to an end, so the overlong first half of this damned football game must too come to an end and the second commence. Heero didn’t even pause to reassess his situation, decide for sure whether he thought this was a good time to go back in; he simply turned the car off — and with no slow motions, either — and headed back into the apartment building.

He did give some thought to how he should reenter. Would it be better to pretend nothing untoward had happened, despite the total absence of groceries in his hands to bear out the excuse with which he’d left; or should he make it clear that he did not require any statement from Duo at this time but would probably want to talk to him about these events later? How curious was Sano likely to be, and to what extent should Heero humor that curiosity? Well, the former point probably depended most on what Sano and Duo had discussed in Heero’s absence, and the answer to the latter was, ‘None at all.’ What Duo chose to share with his friends was up to him; Heero didn’t feel like taking part in it.

So it was with a hybrid of the proposed attitudes, and a steeling of self to any possible negativity within, that he re-entered the apartment. There, he was infinitely relieved to receive a smile from his boyfriend along with the picked-up reflections that Duo appreciated the privacy Heero had so precipitously and clumsily offered him.

Whatever the conversation had been about during the bulk of his absence, it was now, for some reason or other, about Hugh Jackman and how hot he was or wasn’t. Heero might almost have thought they’d invented the topic at random so as to have something safe to talk about when he returned, but they’d seemed to be in the middle of it when he entered, and they couldn’t have known when that would happen. At least he thought they couldn’t.

As Heero moved almost automatically to grab some M&M’s, he gave Duo a look he knew could not possibly convey everything — I’m glad you seem to be doing OK; it’s fine if you guys gossiped about me while I was out there; I hope it helped; we’ll talk about it later; I love you — but that he hoped would get at least a little of it across; and received in return a widening of Duo’s smile with a sardonic dimple on one side of the mouth and a reassuring crinkling at the outer corner of each eye that seemed — Heero liked to think he wasn’t imagining it — to respond, Yeah, it’s fine, we’ll talk about it later. He also caught sight, beyond Duo, of an inquisitive expression on Sano’s face. The young exorcist was holding forth on what a perfect Wolverine Hugh Jackman had made, but very obviously couldn’t restrain his look of curiosity about Heero’s actions and attitude as he did so.

Heero too was curious, wanting very much to know what they had talked about while he’d agonized in the car, but with the unspoken promise of discussing it with Duo later for his reassurance, he just took his fresh batch of M&M’s into the computer room to resume his previous task. It actually seemed a little absurd how relieved he was to be back in here within earshot (and mind-reading range) of Duo, but finding it absurd didn’t lessen that relief.

The Hugh Jackman conversation, which had been taking place over the top of the game anyway, was cut off abruptly when something one of the Rams did caused both Duo and Sano to protest loudly. Evidently a penalty call satisfied them fairly well, for they then fell to discussing the quarterback the Raiders had switched to.

The atmosphere in the living room seemed identical to that of the first half of the game before snarls had arisen, and this continued or restored ease made Heero wonder even harder what they’d talked about during those forty-five minutes or so in the middle, but he would just have to find out later. At least that lengthy time away had been enough for the program he’d downloaded to run through an entire cycle of cleaning up his hard drive, so now he could reboot the machine and see what effect it might have had.

The conversation in the living room shifted to how many NFL games each had attended in person, which between them was not an impressive number, and the listening Heero considered that football tickets — especially when the Raiders had not (he believed) been a particularly good team for several years — could not be terribly expensive and might make an excellent gift for his boyfriend at some point.

The next commercial break was spent discussing whether or not the Rams’ offensive line was supporting Steven Jackson the way it should after some comment of the announcer’s that at least Sano seemed to take issue with; and, curious though he still was, Heero’s attention waned. The computer was taking just as tediously long as ever to boot up, and he wanted to know why. He did chuckle quietly a little later when, a touchdown having been scored and a lot of hugging and butt-patting apparently having been featured onscreen, Duo and Sano agreed happily that football was a really gay sport at times, but mostly he was focusing on the computer and its issues.

After another commercial break’s worth of football talk that Heero didn’t really listen to, however, and when the announcers, upon returning, had started teasing a fellow sports analyst with pictures of his shag and mullet hairstyles of decades past, Duo caught Heero’s interest again by commenting with intense disgust, “I don’t even know what people were thinking in the 80’s with that kind of hair. Best decade ever not to go out in public much!”

“OK.” Sano had evidently caught the reminiscent tone in Duo’s expression of hirsute disapprobation, and couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “How old actually are you?”

Duo muted the television for commercials before answering in a tone so studiedly casual that, to Heero at least, it stood out like a conversational beacon, “Hundred and eleven.”

Here was the first instance in Heero’s presence of Sano’s thoughts breaking past their usual restraints — restraints that, Heero now believed, had originally been put in place purely to prevent Hajime from reading Sano’s mind because there was at least a little of the same thing going on between those two as there was between Heero and Duo. But now Heero could easily detect the intense shock and curiosity in Sano’s head, even from the other room, as well as the sudden flood of theories that overtook him in a chaotic shambles. It never occurred to Sano to disbelieve Duo or take his words as a joke; he merely considered somewhat incoherently how it could have come to pass.

And at the same time, of course, he was expressing his astonishment and inquisitiveness aloud to his very tickled companion. “Fuck! A hundred and fucking what? How? Did Trowa Barton let you in on his big secret, or what?”

Heero knew very precisely the grin that was on Duo’s face now, and the exact degree to which Duo would have preferred to repress it in order to maintain the casualness he thought would play better into his desired delivery. And Heero had to smile too; even if part of today’s get-together had led to some unpleasant feelings, at least Duo had this to revel in.

“I was Trowa’s big secret, actually,” he was saying. “If I wasn’t immortal for a while, he wouldn’t have been either.”

“No fucking way.” Despite the profanity, Sano’s reaction to this was clearly positive. “You can’t tell me you’re stronger than Trowa fucking Barton.”

Duo laughed. He was having so much fun now. Heero’s smile, in the other room, had not diminished. “No, I can’t! And I don’t have crazy fans all over the place either!”

“I am not a crazy fan,” Sano protested. “I’m a totally normal fan. I have a friend who’s a crazy fan, though, and he’s going to flip the fuck out when I tell him this. Am I allowed to tell him this? What am I telling him, actually?”

Now Duo was laughing throughout much of what Sano had to say. “I don’t really know how much Trowa’d like you to tell your crazy friend, but I’m guessing ‘nothing.’ He’s pretty private about this stuff.”

“What stuff? How were you guys immortal?” Sano’s tone was buoyantly demanding, and Heero wondered if he was bouncing up and down on the sofa as he said this. His thoughts, however, after that initial burst of wonder that had broken down his barriers, were becoming more difficult to hear as the walls rebuilt themselves. This was interesting to observe, and somewhat promising in relation to Duo’s tendency to project everything that crossed his mind.

Finally Duo presented the meat of the story. “Trowa accidentally cast a curse on me in 1923 that made me a really sucky sort of immortal for 87 years. We only just managed to break it this May.”

“Holy shit! Does that — no, don’t turn that back on yet!” It seemed as if Duo, in his amusement, fumbled the remote, for it was a couple of seconds before the reinstated TV sounds disappeared again. “What really sucky kind of immortal? And why would that make — I know jack-shit about curses.”

“There’s always a kind of backlash to a curse, so the person who cast it is part of it until it’s broken. I couldn’t die because I was made of plastic, so Trowa couldn’t die that whole time either. He didn’t even age.”

“Made of plastic?” Sano echoed, and it was clear that any frustration Duo had felt earlier at Sano not pouring out gossipy details all at once was being amply repaid.

“Yeah, I was a doll.” There was a pause during which some facial expression must have asked the next question, for eventually Duo added, “Like a Barbie doll? Obviously I wasn’t an actual Barbie doll, but I was that same size. I could wear Ken clothes.”

At this statement Sano gave an incredulous laugh. “That sounds like… not a lot of fun.”

“Oh, you don’t even have any idea.”

Duo began to expound, with no great organization of topic, upon his trials as a doll over the many decades — how he’d lacked most physical sensation, the limitations to his personal movement, how he’d been considered a child’s plaything and passed from hand to hand with no stability of home or relationship. The sound on the television remained muted, and no thought of football crossed Duo’s mind; Heero, listening, wondered whether those two even remembered there was a game going on in front of them. Though admittedly the doll story was far more fascinating.

Of course the breaking of the curse had to be touched upon in greater detail as well, and Heero could tell Duo felt awkward talking about Heero’s part knowing Heero heard every word and probably more but wasn’t actually involved in the conversation. Hoping to assuage this, Heero got up and went into the next room under the pretense (and with the actual intention) of getting more M&M’s.

“So of course everyone else who worked there,” Duo was saying, “wondered what that was all about.”

“Yeah, I just fucking bet!” Sano chortled.

“Actually that’s an understatement.” Heero made sure to keep his tone light despite the sardonic nature of his comment, just to be sure Duo knew he didn’t mind the conversation being about him more or less in his absence. “People were visiting my desk nonstop for almost the entire month just to see Duo.” He smiled at his boyfriend as he lifted his fresh handful of candy, then turned to head back to the computer room.

More relaxed, Duo went on about the curse-breaking month. Heero, having been present for its telling once before in different company, already knew it made a pretty good tale — more engaging, at least, than trying to get his computer to run faster. And when it transitioned to a discussion of Trowa’s powers and the artifact — which Sano, of course, was somewhat familiar with after having extracted its leftover energy from Quatre just above a week ago — the talk did not become any less interesting.

The way Duo told the story — even the manner in which he referred to the misery of being a doll and the long years of suffering — made it seem light and funny, as if his tribulations had been no more than the ‘pain in the ass’ Sano remarked they sounded like, tedious and inconvenient and annoying rather than harrowing and traumatizing. Of the gregarious Duo Heero found this a little surprising, but at the same time thought it wise: Duo and Sano probably weren’t close enough yet for that kind of pain to be shared, no matter how (possibly inappropriately) open Sano was about his own relationships and experiences.

And Sano was open. Despite not being able to read his mind at this point, Heero judged him completely straightforward when he eventually remarked, “Shit. And I thought I was special just because I was possessed by a ghost one time.”

Now it was Duo’s turn to be surprised. “What? That sounds pretty special to me! Aren’t ghosts super rare?”

“Yeah, but not as rare as people who get turned into fucking dolls and then live forever!”

“Hey, the curse is broken,” Duo protested. “I’m not going to live forever. I wouldn’t want to!”

“My point is that your experience was really… one-of-a-kind, you know? I was thinking it was pretty cool that I got to do something most people will never do, but you–”

Duo interrupted with, “Hey, you’re supposed to not be a crazy fan, remember? Mine was not cool.”

Sano laughed. “Yeah. Right. Sorry. I wouldn’t want to trade or anything.”

“But how did you manage to get possessed by a ghost? You mean a real ghost, right?”

“Yep, a real ghost.” Sano seemed pleased with himself, and Heero believed he’d really meant that he wouldn’t want to trade, despite probably not fully understanding how not-cool Duo’s experience had been. “This poor guy got killed by — it’s really complicated.” Sano paused for a moment as if considering the best way to relate the information, and Duo waited eagerly for the story. Today was turning out to be a much more compelling and involved meeting with the exorcist than he’d expected, and the fun aspects of it were balancing out the uncomfortable pretty well.

“OK, someone was being threatened,” Sano resumed. “Did you know we have an actual yakuza right here in town?” Duo didn’t seem to know the word, and Sano said, probably in response to a confused expression, “You know, Japanese mafia?”

“Oh, is that the real way you say it?” Duo sounded enlightened. Heero’s laugh wasn’t quite loud enough for them to hear down the hall.

“Yeah, we’ve got one. And there was this… person… being threatened by this yakuza — some of them — and had to kill someone for them to save someone else from being killed.”

“O…K…” Duo thought he’d worked through that statement fairly well, but wondered why Sano was being so vague. Heero guessed it was because murder and other criminal activity had been involved and Sano didn’t want to implicate anyone. In this context it was probably even a client confidentiality thing.

“So this guy who got killed really wanted to make sure the person who killed him knew he wasn’t mad about it. He understood they did it under duress to save someone else’s life.”

“Wow, that’s really big of the guy.” Duo was thinking uncomfortably of the circumstance as he imagined it. “I don’t think I’d be looking out for the person who killed me like that.”

Heero wondered whether that was true. Duo had, after all, always been looking out for Trowa, who had, if not killed him, done about the next best thing. He remembered Duo telling Trowa that he’d forgiven him ‘back in, like, the forties.’ It might take some time for Duo to forgive, depending on the provocation, but he would probably always do so. Proportionally speaking, the twenty or so years that had passed before he’d managed to forgive Trowa for cursing him might translate into a matter of weeks to ‘forgive’ Heero for being able to read his surface-level thoughts. It was an unexpectedly reassuring idea.

“Well…” Sano sounded a little uncomfortable right alongside Duo, though probably for different reasons. “I’m… really oversimplifying here. The point is that he really, really wanted to talk to the person who killed him, which is why he became a ghost, but he couldn’t talk to them because they weren’t necrovisual.”

“So you volunteered, like a badass, to help him.”

The grin was audible in Sano’s tone as he replied, “Yeah, something like that.”

“Was it scary? What does it feel like?”

“It was pretty easy, actually. I mean, I collapsed afterwards, but at the time it wasn’t a lot of work for me. You sort of get… pushed back… like you’re in another room… The ghost just sort of takes over, and you don’t really have to worry about anything that’s going on. Actually it took some effort if I wanted to know what was going on.”

Heero was reminded by this description of the Imperius Curse, but Duo hadn’t read Harry Potter yet and would not, of course, make the same connection.

“So afterwards,” Sano went on, “a lot of the stuff he said I had a hard time remembering, even though he was talking through my actual mouth.”

“Which I guess didn’t matter so much, since it wasn’t you he was talking to,” Duo speculated, “but I bet it was pretty weird anyway.”

“Yeah, it was like some movie I watched forever ago… or more like some movie someone else watched in another room, but over and over and over again so it’s like, ‘I should remember this really well, but I don’t.’ Or maybe–”

At this point, both Sano and Duo interrupted the meandering description to give the first indication since the long-term muting that they were still aware of the television. Their sudden, simultaneous reactions to the body-slamming of a Ram by and over the shoulder of a Raider were loud and enthusiastic; apparently some things were every bit as cool as the details of ghostly possession. Heero gave a rueful smile and shake of head as he listened to them go on about it for a bit.

He’d set the hard drive to defragmenting, a process that would undoubtedly take longer than the rest of the football game and probably Sano’s visit. He sat back in his chair and ate some M&M’s as he listened for further interesting conversation in the next room.

Eventually the body-slam evidently ceased to engross, for when the sounds of exultation had faded Duo finally asked, “So did you get to find out all sorts of interesting stuff about ‘Heaven’ or whatever?”

“You know, I was more interested in getting the guy to move on, because he was haunting me for weeks and weeks and it was a pain in the ass. But Hajime had a long talk with him about that kind of shit, and I don’t think he really learned all that much. I mean, somebody becomes a ghost by not going to the afterlife, so he couldn’t really know all that much to tell Hajime about.”

“But there is an afterlife of some sort.”

“There’s something.” By the sound of Sano’s voice Heero was reminded of Duo’s ‘shrug’ tone, and was given to believe that this subject didn’t interest the exorcist much. “Hajime said the ghost said something was ‘pulling him’ or something. And I know a good medium who likes dead people better than he likes living people. So it’s not like people stop existing when they move on… but that’s all I can tell you.”

“Well, that’s good to know, I guess.” Now Duo sounded unusually pensive, and it seemed that most of what interested him about this lay somewhat deeper in his mind than the superficial level Heero could pick up on. “I never really thought about it before, but I guess some kinds of magic kinda answer some questions about how the world works…”

“Not the really big questions, though,” Sano shrugged. “You still have to decide for yourself about God and shit.”

“Right,” Duo snorted. “God.” There was an unaccustomed bitterness and derision to his tone that made Heero prick up his ears even more than he yet had.

Sano, for his part, chuckled, with just a hint of the same sound to his voice. And Heero found himself slightly jealous that, however little they’d actually touched on the topic, they were in there discussing something he and Duo had never really talked about. He could guess, but he didn’t know precisely what had caused that tone in his boyfriend’s voice — but Sano seemed to understand it. Which of course was a normal and acceptable thing for a friend to do, though Heero had just been thinking Duo wasn’t close enough to this one yet to be sharing a number of personal feelings. But maybe Heero’s ideas of closeness were less than entirely applicable here and in many social situations. He tried to quash his jealousy.

There was little else to incite it. After the nearly shared feelings on God, enough moments of silence passed that apparently both men in the living room thought it appropriate for the television sound to come back on. And though at first they didn’t seem much given to discussing the game or even reacting audibly to it — in fact, Heero could hear Duo in his head turning over the information he’d received today — eventually, gradually, they seemed to grow more and more engrossed. By the time the two-minute warning rolled around, they were enthusiastically discussing football again, assessing the Raiders’ eventually satisfactory performance and the near guarantee of winning at this point.

What currently worried Heero most was that Sano might want to hang out for some indefinite period after the game talking football or curses or possession or whatever. He chided himself for being so selfish, for wanting the guy out of the way so intensely, but that didn’t change the feeling of pre-emptive annoyance at the basically hypothetical thought of not being able to talk to Duo about personal things for so much longer. He would never have guessed Sano’s appearance here could possibly raise such emotional topics that would need to be covered after his departure.

The level of celebration when the Raiders took a knee and the game ended at 16-14 was no more than expected, and there remained only the question of when, now the purpose of hanging out was fulfilled, Sano would get up and leave and Heero could have a nice private chat with Duo. And at first it did seem that what Heero feared would come to pass, for both speakers in the living room sounded relaxed and complacent, as if ending their conversation and their continual snacking on leftover Chinese food was the last thing on their minds. And though after canvassing the Raiders’ prospects for a while they went back to discussing magical experiences, a topic not entirely uncompelling, Heero couldn’t rouse the same interest within himself for eavesdropping as he had before.

Every bit as anxious and impatient as he’d been in the car around halftime, he sat drumming his fingers almost audibly at the computer desk, wishing Sano gone, longing for the intimacy of aloneness and a conversation that would mean a lot more to him than this one did. Eventually he started responding to every statement Sano made with a semi-sarcastic but silent response such as, “Yes, that’s a lot of fun; why don’t you go think about it at home?” or, “Why don’t you go tell your boyfriend that? I’m sure he’ll be interested,” or, “Don’t you have homework to do?”

And at that point he heard Sano say, “Well, I got homework to do, so I better get out of here.” And Heero, recalling what he was and what Sano supposedly was, blushed at the thought that the statements he’d intended as entirely silent and private could possibly have gone out and been heard. No worse than rude they might have been, but still he wouldn’t have said any of them aloud. Attempting some sort of apology would be far too awkward, though, so he planned to stay firmly put in this room until Sano had gone.

The process of Sano getting gone was progressing apace. Often with Duo, a goodbye conversation was really just a continuation of the previous conversation in a different, last-minute-addendum sort of tone, so technically they were discussing football yet, but Heero could sense the goodbye coming. Eventually, though still on about quarterbacks and stats and such, they even removed from the sofa and toward the door. Restraining any further sarcastic remarks, Heero listened intently until finally he heard actual goodbyes and the opening and closing of the egress.

Then he took a deep breath and stood. It was funny how much he could long for something he doubted could be terribly enjoyable. At least there was still approximately a ton of almond M&M’s waiting for him out there.

Duo was waiting for him out there too, staring straight into the hall from which Heero emerged as if, though lacking any mind-reading abilities of his own, he knew perfectly well what Heero was thinking now. Wordlessly they moved into first a hug and then a kiss, then separated; Duo went to flop back down onto the couch, Heero to move the M&M’s bowl onto the end table whence it could be easily reached from the spot beside Duo.

Mostly empty Styrofoam boxes of expired Chinese food stood open here and there on the floor in an arc between sofa and television, and Coke cans were taking up more space than Heero would have thought a six-pack could account for. It would all need to be cleaned up… but not yet. For now he just sat in awkward silence next to Duo and ate M&M’s. He was starting to feel he’d had a few too many M&M’s today.

Duo was reflecting that, if Sano’s conversation about magic and magical experiences was going to lead to uncomfortable topics and panicky tension between him and Heero, maybe Sano, harmlessly fun and amusing as he seemed, wasn’t the best person to be inviting to the apartment.

With great effort, Heero restrained himself from responding to this, waiting for Duo to bring it up aloud so they could hold the conversation properly. But Duo’s thoughts then shifted to how uncomfortable it still was to be aware of Heero reading his mind, and with a sigh and a bit of a frown he said, “I’m starting to recognize the look you get when you’re hearing something in my head but not saying anything about it.”

And there it was again: the unjust resentment. All Duo disliked was the combination of Heero’s ability with his own lack of control, but it sure sounded as if he was complaining about something Heero actively chose to do. Heero didn’t quite know what to say, since much of what he was thinking would have come out sounding bitter and combative if he’d attempted to arrange it in words.

When Heero thus remained silent, Duo continued, “So you might as well just say whatever you wanted to say. About Sano, I mean.”

Struggling to put unpleasant thoughts behind him, Heero did as he was told. “I don’t think you need to keep Sano away. Stuff like that’s probably going to keep coming up until we get this fixed, so there’s no reason to cut yourself off from something that will make you happy.”

“It doesn’t make me happy to see you freaking out.”

“It’s… OK, though.” Heero dropped his head onto the couch cushion behind him, unwilling for the moment to look at Duo. “You weren’t being unreasonable or anything…”

“But why should you have to hear that kind of thing at all? It’s not fair!” Clearly Duo meant this was unfair for both of them, but the reasons he felt this way that flashed across the surface of his mind were so tangled that Heero could barely understand any of it. But he definitely caught a hint of the involuntary mistrust he’d sensed in Duo before; Duo obviously felt, whether he wanted to or not, that Heero spying on his private thoughts — even if Heero received his own punishment in so doing — was a big part of the unfairness of the situation.

Heero wondered whether if, instead of their powers being one-sided, they could each read the other’s mind, all these problems would be alleviated… or doubled. He was certainly glad that just at the moment he was able to hide his resentment at Duo’s feelings. He felt something that echoed Duo’s words somewhat, though — why should he have to feel this resentment at all? Why should this situation exist? It seemed pointless and foolish.

Duo took a deep, frustrated breath. “Anyway, I hope you don’t mind I told Sano about — a little bit about it. I didn’t want to — I mean, it’s funny the way he talks about his boyfriend, but it seems pretty awful too, and I didn’t want to be like that…”

Hastily, looking over again at where Duo was staring down at fidgeting fingers in his lap, Heero assured him, “No, that’s fine. That’s why I left — so you could talk about it with someone who might understand.”

Duo nodded. “I just told him I didn’t like you being able to read my thoughts either, but I haven’t figured out how to control my thoughts to keep them private.”

Heero mirrored the nod. He appreciated Duo’s restraint in this matter, agreeing that, while he truly didn’t mind Duo discussing their issues with someone that might understand, and while there was a certain entertainment value to the way Sano talked about Hajime in the latter’s absence, he wouldn’t like to think Duo was quite that open about him.

“And he said Hajime can probably help, at least a little. If I hang out with Sano and Hajime’s around, Hajime can let me know every time I’m projecting thoughts, so then I can get a feel for how to… not do that.”

It seemed that Sano, when presenting this informal and rather uncertain-sounding plan, had done it as casually as he did most things, and Duo, though he’d accepted the offer and thanked him, hadn’t given it much real thought at that time. Now, in repeating the idea to Heero, though his words had been somewhat listless with lack of investment, he began to reflect upon it properly at last… and, in so doing, awakened in himself that remarkable optimism that carried him through so many trials. All of a sudden he was considering the plan in greater detail and with a growing feeling that it was a really good one. And abruptly he was filled with a hope that was easily — indeed, almost overwhelmingly — detectable in his head.

He didn’t need, after all, full and proper communication training working one-on-one with someone devoted to teaching him everything a non-communicator could possibly master of that branch of magic; he just needed to learn how to stop shouting out his thoughts all the time. And if he could do that without inconveniencing Heero, without constantly reminding Heero of this problem, that would be great. And if he could do it while making a better friend of a sympathetic fellow magician? It sounded perfect.

Duo’s optimism was catching, and in addition to simply feeling better about the entire situation, Heero was, almost against his better judgment, inclined also to think this a very good plan. In fact, beyond some possibility of jealousy on his part that was in no way a deciding factor (nor even something he would ever bring up), he couldn’t see anything wrong with the idea except for one particular. “I don’t know Hajime well,” he said carefully, disinclined to mention this at all in the face of Duo’s (and his!) sudden optimism but feeling he must, “but is he really likely to want to help you with this?” Heero specifically remembered one conversation in which Hajime had made it pretty clear, without actually saying so, that he wasn’t interested in teaching random people about communication magic.

The grin Duo’s mouth spread into was as infectious as his optimism. “Sano said he’s sure he can convince him.”

And Heero, grinning back, had the sudden amusing mental image of Sano and Duo watching football over at wherever Sano and Hajime lived (in Heero’s imagination it was a mirror image of this apartment), with Hajime sitting in the next room at the computer totally disinterested in the game but occasionally poking his head out to let Duo know he was projecting. There would probably even be Chinese food in Styrofoam all over the floor… but certainly no almond M&M’s.

“It sounds great, then,” he said.

Duo reached for Heero’s hand. He was reflecting on how much he wanted to get this problem solved, and Heero thought Duo’s determination toward that end was even greater than his. It seemed to sting Duo even more that he felt this irrational mistrust and irritation than it did Heero to be the victim thereof. But Duo was also still filled with hope and cheer at the thought of a plan that might — that he was sure would — help. And in light of that, though he knew it must be impossible to banish completely from his mind an issue so recurring and provocative, he wanted to try to think about something else. So he said, “You know what we haven’t done in a while? Read Oz.”

That was true. Though they’d read far less together since the curse broke, they had managed to get through a few more installments of the Oz series… but they’d finished the latest one in August and never started the next. And beyond an inherently entertaining and bonding experience, pressing onward would be an excellent method of distraction from anything they might not want to think about — allowing them to share reactions and opinions about story and characters that, though casual and perhaps frivolous, were genuine and often reflected deeper feelings.

It occurred to Heero, as he considered this suggestion on how they should spend their next few hours, that perhaps Duo’s growing autonomy, for all Duo wasn’t as sure of it yet as he would like to be, was to some extent the source of his optimism. As a doll, he couldn’t have had much he could use to reassure himself and maintain his sanity, and therefore his optimism, though a crucial resource, couldn’t have been more than blind, unsubstantiated, ephemeral. But now, as a human free to move and choose, making money and again a part of society in a meaningful way, his optimism could be based in the knowledge that he had the personal power to effect change in his own life — that things could be better because he could work to make them better. Even when his personal power had nothing to do with the situation in question, when he seemed every bit as powerless to deal with some problem as he would have been as a doll in that same situation, the mere knowledge of how much more effective he was overall must boost his optimism regardless of the specific circumstances.

And at the moment, when he had a plan for the future and a plan for the present, it was no surprise he was beginning to feel unstoppable and almost ecstatically cheerful.

“You’re right,” Heero said, smiling and squeezing Duo’s hand. “And we only have four books left, I think.”

“Which one’s next?”

“I think it’s The Lost Princess.” Heero rose and pulled Duo after him.

“Ooh, sounds like more Ozma stuff.” Duo was very fond of Ozma. “Or… maybe not, if she’s lost.”

Heero, who couldn’t quite remember what happened in this particular book, said nothing to confirm or deny, only pulled Duo in a stumbling sort of near-dance across the minefield of food boxes and empty soda cans that was the living room floor toward the computer room and the bookshelves.

“It’ll probably still be awesome either way,” Duo added cheerfully as they went, demonstrating yet again his admirable, semi-inexplicable, to some extent sharable, always wonderful power of, even in the face of frustration and disappointment, becoming and remaining happy.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

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

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

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Part 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Many times.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.

Sano snorted.

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

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



1>>

Part 1

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

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

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

“Red?” Hajime asked.

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

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

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

“And this shade follows you around?”

“Yeah.”

“No matter where you go?”

“Yeah… to school and everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘He?'” echoed Hajime.

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

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

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

“Everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you doing when he showed up?”

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

“Porn?” asked Hajime, without apparent implication.

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime nodded slowly.

“So what do you think?”

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

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

“You notice it doesn’t attack.”

“Yeah, that is kinda weird.”

“And the shape.”

“Shit…”

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

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

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

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

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

“You have no idea?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear the government loves communicators, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cat gave another high-pitched meow.

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

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

“I’m sure you did,” said Hajime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, cats,” Sano said with a wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Misao?”

Hajime smirked. “She’s learning.”

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” the young man demanded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You OK?” Sano wondered.

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

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

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

Sano nodded.

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

“Tell me about it,” Sano muttered.

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

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

“So he is a guy, then,” said Sano.

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

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

“Sounds like me,” Sano mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aoshi shook his head.

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

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

Aoshi nodded.

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

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

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

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

“I was joking!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Occasionally,” the exorcist shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime chuckled. “Only if you lack ambition and drive.”

“And luck!” Sano replied, stung. “People with cool jobs were usually in the right place at the right time.”

“With the right skillsets,” Hajime appended.

“Yeah, well… you can’t go around training for every cool job in the world just in case a good coincidence happens to come along.”

“Fortune favors the prepared.”

“What does that actually mean, anyway?”

“I can see that a strong understanding of the English language isn’t part of any of your skillsets.”

“I understand English just fine, ” Sano said hotly. “Just old sayings and shit don’t always make sense.”

Hajime only laughed at him again.

Sano’s hand clenched tightly around the coffee cup, warping the cardboard with his irate grip, but he strove not to speak angrily. “I mean, like, ‘cutting the mustard?’ What the hell does that mean? Or, why does it mean what it means?”

Derisive smile unfaded, Hajime did at least admit, “You have a point there.”

Someone was about to walk through the ghost again, and Sano stood abruptly as once again he pulled the it quickly toward himself. “Come on. There’s too many people in here; let’s go outside.”

The walk wasn’t exactly picturesque; next door to the coffee shop stood a tire store that filled the air with an intolerable reek of rubber, followed by a gas station and then an apartment complex behind a tall fence. Sano was getting annoyed from dragging the ghost around so much, and it annoyed him to find himself getting annoyed for no good reason, and then he was annoyed at being annoyed at being annoyed. When Hajime evidently found this amusing, Sano at least then had good cause to be annoyed.

It fascinated him how cheerfully Hajime took his abuse. Sano was aware — and grateful! — that the exorcist was and had been provoking him deliberately so he could work off some of the stupid shade anger he’d been absorbing; he figured Hajime would do that for any client. But he seemed to enjoy it. Was he a masochist, or what?

He wanted to know more than this about Hajime. His earlier question about the man’s choice of profession had barely been answered, and he still wondered about the apparent improbable level of income, though perfectly aware it was none of his business.

“I guess if you want to know that desperately, I could tell you,” Hajime mused.

Sano swore under his breath. “I thought I wasn’t projecting that.”

“You were still giving off a general sense,” Hajime told him with a smirk. “That’s harder to control.”

With a growling expression of discontent, Sano threw him a dark look. “So you gonna tell me, or what?”

Hajime shrugged.

Deeming that as good an answer as he was likely to get, Sano tried to decide exactly what to ask.

Part 10

Sano had just opened his mouth for the first of what he inexplicably wanted answered when Hajime interrupted preemptively. “If you ask me something, you have to answer a question too.”

“What?” The startled Sano obviously assumed Hajime meant this as an expression of return curiosity.

“Equal exchange.” In fact, Hajime only wanted to minimize the time he had to spend talking about himself and, with the threat of reciprocation, prevent Sano from asking anything obnoxiously personal.

“O…K…” Sano was still surprised, and seemed to be wondering whether this meant Hajime wanted to be friends or what. He was improving at keeping his thoughts to himself, though, and remarkably quickly at that. Finally he said, “So what made you choose to be an exorcist? And just so you know, ‘It seemed interesting’ is not a real answer.”

“I’m afraid it’s still the truth.” Hajime gave Sano a moment to get good and angry at this, then continued. “What’s the next reason for anyone’s career choice, after money? Being an exorcist doesn’t pay enough for me to have any reason to do it other than that it’s interesting.”

“Fine,” Sano allowed, very frustrated, “but, I mean, why aren’t you doing something that pays more? Why aren’t you brainwashing people for the government or doing some non-magical job that, you know… pays more?”

“Exorcism seemed more interesting.”

Sano made an angry noise. “I’m about to throw this ghost at you if you don’t quit it.” It was his coffee he raised threateningly, though.

Hajime laughed. “You’re mostly wondering how I can survive on just an exorcist’s paycheck… Why is that such an area of concern for you?”

“I don’t have to tell you a damn thing until you answer my question first.” Sano’s jaw was set as the lowest part of an impressive scowl, and his movements had taken on an amusing angry stalking quality.

“And I don’t have to answer any of your questions,” Hajime pointed out. “Though, technically, I did. So it’s your turn. What’s your issue with money?”

“Can’t you just read my mind if you want to know?”

“I probably could. So what’s your issue with money?”

Through the midst of the bright angry aura that surrounded him by now, Sano suddenly laughed. “This is probably the stupidest conversation I’ve ever had.”

“It is stupid, but I would hesitate to assign a superlative when you’re involved.”

“You would what to what, now?”

“Your issues with money?” Hajime prompted.

Again Sano laughed, this time sounding defeated, though his aura was only fading slowly. “OK, fine. My ‘issues with money.'” He shrugged. “I don’t think I really have any. We never had a lot of money when I was growing up, but we weren’t what I’d call poor or anything… My parents saved so they could help me pay for college, and I didn’t get a lot of cool stuff… and we always had to ‘shop smart’ and shit like that, especially for food and clothes, so I never got to wear what I wanted, which you know what that does to you in high school?

“And my parents — especially my dad — were always lecturing me about how to manage money, like, every single time I got any; and I’ve been working since I was fifteen — do you know, if you work in a restaurant when you’re fifteen, you’re not allowed to go into the walk-in fridge? — and my parents made me save most of it and never get anything I wanted… but, like I said, it’s not like we were poor or anything.”

As Sano listed all these issues with money he didn’t think he really had, Hajime got an impression, from behind the words, of the value Sano’s parents had attempted to instill in him: a rigid frugality totally foreign to his careless nature that therefore manifested now, rather than as any sort of prudence, as more of an undiscriminating miserliness with occasional outbursts of extravagance. Good thing, after such mismanagement, they were helping him with his tuition.

“What are you grinning about?” Sano demanded suddenly.

“Nothing. Go on.”

Though Sano had originally been annoyed at being maneuvered into giving information first, and was currently annoyed at the implication that Hajime found what he had to say funny, he was also not unhappy to be complaining about his parents and this financial business. “My dad won’t leave me alone about money, ever. It’s gotten so I barely even want to talk to him, because every time I do I know there’s a million questions coming that I don’t really want to answer; and it kinda sucks not wanting to talk to your own dad just because of something like that, but, seriously, he needs to lay off!

“I mean, I’m twenty, for god’s sake, and I have my own apartment, even if it is kinda shit. And, yeah, they’re helping me pay for college, but does that really mean I have to do the classes they want me to take? I have to get my general ed out of the way no matter what I do, so it’s not like I absolutely have to decide right away, but my dad won’t stop getting on my case about choosing a major. He wants me to get some kind of business degree — you know, so I can make plenty of money — but I still don’t know if that’s what I want.”

“That’s what I have,” Hajime offered neutrally.

You have a degree in making money, and you’re still an exorcist?” As Hajime drew breath to answer, Sano added quickly, almost in a snarl, “Don’t you fucking dare say it seemed interesting.”

Hajime, who had been about to, instead restrained his grin at how much fun messing with Sano was proving and said seriously, “Yes. My magical talents woke up while I was attending college here in the States, and after I’d graduated and gone back to Japan I spent a couple of years thinking a career in magic would be much more interesting than the family business, where I was expected to stay forever. But in Japan it’s almost impossible to make money as an exorcist if you don’t do things in approved Shinto style.”

Sano gave a Why am I not surprised? laugh, and Hajime smiled a little as he continued. “When one of my grandparents left me a decent inheritance, I moved back here and took up exorcism as a career.”

Despite how little information Hajime had actually given, Sano seemed totally engrossed. Without even looking at the trash can they passed, he discarded the coffee cup he’d by now emptied.

“Let’s cross here and head back,” Hajime suggested, gesturing at the street. Sano complied, still giving him an expectant look all the way along the crosswalk as if Hajime might have forgotten he was in the middle of a story of sorts. Actually, his evident fascination seemed strange; Hajime’s brief narrative certainly wasn’t any more interesting than Sano’s talk of his parents’ financial eccentricities.

“Of course I’ve invested since then, to make sure I always have enough to live on when no one happens to need an exorcist.” With a shrug to indicate just how mediocre he found all of this, Hajime finished, “That’s all there is to it.”

Clearly impressed, Sano said, “So you didn’t just get lucky getting some money from a relative…” He’d obviously been planning on making fun of Hajime for this (to the extent he was capable), but had been forestalled by further information. “You had something in mind and you went for it as soon as you could, and then you made sure you could keep doing it. Damn.” He didn’t even seem to be trying to conceal that he found this simultaneously inspiring and unsettling.

Hajime too was just a trifle unsettled; he wasn’t used to inspiring people, and thought Sano was assigning inordinate weight to insignificant things. So he sought quickly for a reply that would bring their interaction back to a more appropriate level. “It doesn’t mean you need to lean forward and gape at me like that… you look like an orangutan.”

After the predictable (and predicted) reaction from Sano, the latter fumed for a bit and then, as far as Hajime could tell, returned to wondering at Hajime’s apparent equanimity in response to his anger. He was still reading significance into unimportant things, but there was really nothing to be done about that.

The car system announced an incoming call not long after they’d started back from the coffee shop toward Forest of Four, and Hajime answered immediately.

“Didn’t I mention my client is being haunted?” At this greeting, at his side, Sano’s brows went up over a skeptical smile; he obviously couldn’t tell yet that this type of rudeness and accusation was par for the course of these conversations, and assumed, therefore, that those involved must be more antagonistic toward each other than they actually were. Just to add to the effect, Hajime added, “Do you think I have all day?”

“You know I don’t really give a shit about your clients,” was the retort, sounding half lazy and half harried. “Ain’t my clients. And you better have all day, ’cause there’s no way I’m getting this shit done right now. I’ve got other shit to do, since I have a real job, unlike some bullying assholes I know.”

“When do you estimate you’ll have the information?”

“Tomorrow sometime… or not sooner than never if you’re a bitch about it.”

Hajime grinned. “Sooner than never sounds good. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

“Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath.”

“Thanks, Chou.”

As soon as he was convinced the call had ended, Sano laughed. “Wow, that guy sounds like a complete moron!”

“Oh, really?” wondered Hajime. “I was just thinking that he reminds me a little of you.”

“What??” It was terribly entertaining how easily Sano’s buttons could be pushed. “You know, I was just thinking how rude it was that he called you a bitch, but now I think my mind’s changing all of a sudden!”

In a tone of agreement Hajime said, “It can’t weigh too much, so I guess it shifts easily.”

“What does the weight have to do with it?”

“Not too much on it.”

“I think that one was a stretch.” Sano sounded both amused and annoyed, though.

When they reached the Forest of Four parking lot, after only a few more, similar exchanges and nothing of any actual consequence between them, Sano vacated the car with some alacrity, his motions similar to those with which he’d been stalking along the street earlier. With a smirk, Hajime stood out his door and observed his companion over the roof. “I’ll call you as soon as I have information,” he offered.

With a stiffness evidently born of aggravation, Sano nodded and turned away. He hadn’t been holding onto the ghost in the car, and it had yet to catch up; Hajime wondered whether its relatively rapid progress along the street in pursuit of Sano caused any of the inconveniences Sano sought to prevent elsewhere by conjuring it out of people’s paths. He supposed Sano couldn’t be held responsible for everything the ghost did, but it was beginning to be a little odd to see him without the glowing figure close by his side.
After Sano had taken a few steps away and Hajime had begun to move back in order to return to his seat, the young man stopped and turned. This time his stiffness seemed to have another basis entirely. In a voice that was half a grumble, “Thanks for the coffee,” he said.

Part 11

Sano supposed he would just have to get used to being forced to drive around in his car at times and for distances he otherwise would have avoided, at least until this ghost thing ended. And he really wanted this ghost thing to end, so he was probably less annoyed than he might have been when Hajime called him on Tuesday afternoon and requested (more or less; ‘ordered’ might have been a better word) that Sano come to his house to review the information his police friend had emailed him.

He got lost on the way there, of course. Any location he’d visited exactly once was most likely to lead to this result, since he became overconfident about finding a place he’d been to before and didn’t bother asking for helpful reminders such as what street it was on. So he was already angry by the time he finally reached Hajime’s house, and then having to park a block away and hike back didn’t improve matters.

Evidently Hajime recognized his mood (hell, he’d probably picked up on it with Sano still halfway up the street), for on opening the kitchen door at Sano’s none-too-gentle knock, he gave an extremely disdainful look and said, “So you finally decided to show up.”

“You know what?” Sano growled. “Fuck you.” And immediately felt a bit better.

Hajime grinned and let him in.

Misao was suddenly on his knee and climbing before he’d even recognized her presence in the room. And as these pants only had spikes up the sides, she made it through the potentially dangerous area without injury this time. Sano, on the other hand, felt anger flaring again at the painful pricking of her insistent claws all the way up his body; but since he would rather die the most horrible death he could imagine than loose his rage on a kitten, he worked even harder than usual to contain it.

Perhaps sympathizing with Sano, perhaps fearing for Misao’s safety, Hajime came to the rescue of both of them. “Those pants look even stupider than the other ones.”

Misao also said something, in her high-pitched meow, and bumped her head against Sano’s ear, but Sano ignored her in favor of an irate retort to her human: “At least they’ve got some individuality, so I don’t look like some faceless office drone.”

“No, you look like someone who wasn’t allowed to wear what he wanted in high school trying to dress under his age.”

Both because this remark hit close to home and because he couldn’t really turn the matter around effectively when Hajime looked so damn good in those suits he always wore, Sano felt compelled to repeat himself. “Fuck you!” And to make it relevant he added, “I like my clothes!”

Evidently satisfied for the moment, Hajime grinned again and turned away.

Sano found himself now in a fit state to greet the cats. “Hi, Misao.” He lifted her off his shoulder (away from his ticklish ear) and into the crook of an elbow, where she squirmed but allowed him to scratch her head. “Hi, Tokio,” he said next to the older cat that was by now seated with great dignity at his feet.

Whatever Misao had been asking before, she now resumed, and Sano somehow had a feeling Tokio’s more stately meow was a repetition of the question. He glanced at Hajime for a translation.

“They’re wondering where the ghost is.” The exorcist stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, leaning against the frame.

“He’ll probably be here pretty soon,” Sano grumbled, addressing one of the kitchen cupboards rather than the cats since this brought back his annoyance. “All that time I spent trying to find a place to park probably gave him a good chance to catch up.”

At that moment Misao squirmed so intensely and abruptly that Sano dropped her. This seemed to have been her intention, and she twisted in midair, landed on splayed feet with barely a sound, and ran out of the kitchen. Sano hardly had time to wonder what she was up to when she returned, dragging a whippy plastic stick by the little bundle of feathers on one end.

With the latter in her mouth, her meows came out more like squeaks, but evidently they were still intelligible to Tokio, for at Misao’s muffled explanation the older cat said something that sounded disdainful. Well, to Sano, most of what Tokio said sounded, but this one seemed to be specifically meant that way. Misao’s reply had an undaunted tone, however, as she fell onto her side right at Sano’s feet, curling up suddenly and viciously attacking the feathered end of the stick with fore and hind paws.

Regardless of his fluctuating levels of annoyance, Sano couldn’t help breaking into a grin as he watched Misao’s seeming life-or-death endeavor. In particular, the vigor with which her back legs clawed at the toy seemed calculated to disembowel it — or would have, if the thing had possessed bowels — and was pretty funny to watch. After a couple of tries, he got hold of the flailing other end of the stick and began to direct the little cat’s violent endeavors around the kitchen floor.

“She wanted to put you in a better mood,” Hajime explained, sounding amused. “But Tokio speculated she was really more interested in some play for herself.”

Laughing, Sano had to admit that, even if the altruistic purpose had been secondary, she’d succeeded at it.

“Don’t get used to it,” warned Hajime. “Cats aren’t known for their sense of charity; she’s sure to grow out of it.”

Again Sano laughed. It wasn’t as if he’d never been around cats before, but he’d definitely never fully appreciated the twistiness of frame that allowed at least this one to attack with her full body something wiggling just behind her left ear.

Unfortunately, his speculation about the ghost’s probable ability to catch up had been accurate, and he’d been playing with Misao for less than two minutes when the anger she’d done so well at shunting aside loomed once again front and center and full force.

“God dammit,” Sano muttered. He was so tired of being pointlessly angry all the time. Standing abruptly straight, he found Hajime and both of the cats looking past him, but he didn’t turn. He was tired of the sight of the ghost, too. Fucking ghost.

“Let’s see what we can find out about him,” Hajime said, moving back through the doorway out of the kitchen and gesturing Sano to follow.

The combination den and workroom, wherein another comfortable- (and expensive-) looking leather sofa, a TV, a number of bookshelves, and a computer desk were more or less crammed but still quite functional, Sano had already seen on Saturday. Now he stalked in and seated himself heavily on the arm of the couch with a frustrated noise.

“Sit properly or stand,” Hajime ordered as he pulled his own chair out from the desk.

“Fine,” Sano growled, and stood again.

The exorcist removed his dark blue suit jacket and set it carefully aside before taking his seat. This was the first time Sano had seen him make such a concession to his own living space, and he wondered whether it was because Hajime still thought of Sano as a client despite his non-paying status. If so, that was stupid.

Almost absently Hajime murmured, “I wouldn’t really expect you to understand professionalism.”

Sano was annoyed both at the statement and that Hajime had picked up on the thought, but also interested to note that it seemed to be the things more specifically aimed at his companion that went out more readily.

For instance, when, noting Hajime was wearing the third solid-color tie Sano had seen him in, he wondered mentally whether the man owned any patterned ones, Hajime murmured, “One or two” — whereas when Sano then reflected that solid colors were probably cheaper and easily obtained in packages of multiples, Hajime gave no indication of having heard. Of course, that might be merely because it had been a phenomenally boring thought not worth responding to, or because Hajime had pulled up the email from his police friend.

The latter might have come across as a bit of a jackass on the phone, but Sano had to admit this seemed a satisfyingly thorough report he’d put together. There weren’t a lot of names, but Sano supposed that was to be expected: how many Japanese guys could possibly have died under unusual circumstances recently in any given police jurisdiction? But for each one listed there were links to news articles regarding the incidents, and some specifics on the women they’d left behind. This, added to the brief biography of each of the deceased, forced Sano to say in a tone of grudging admiration, “Wow… this is good stuff…”

Hajime smiled wryly. “You’ll also notice he hasn’t given us much, if anything, he could get in trouble for disclosing. We could have found most or all of this online if we’d wanted to spend a week searching. He’s very good at his job, though you wouldn’t guess just by talking to him.”

Sano had stepped closer and was reading the screen somewhat at random. When Hajime obligingly scrolled back to the top of the email, he began reciting the provided names aloud.

It proved easier than he’d expected. The moment he spoke the third item on the short list, he suddenly felt he had the ghost’s attention. How exactly he could tell, he wasn’t sure, but something in the atmosphere of the room had changed. Whether from Sano or from the hovering spirit, Hajime too evidently recognized this. “Is that the one?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” replied Sano. He stared for a moment at the words on the monitor, then turned to face the ghost in the air behind him, looking directly at it for the first time since it had entered the house. “Is this you?” he asked — rhetorically, he supposed, since even having the ghost’s attention probably wouldn’t make it any easier to communicate with. “Are you Kenshin Himura?”

Part 12

“It’s kinda totally unfair,” Sano was grumbling, “that to get anything from this guy we had to take him to a medium who had to cut through the shade energy with a scalpel or something and then fucking fainted after getting impressions from him for, like, two minutes… but ghostie-guy here can pick up on things we say no problem as long as they’re about him or whatever.”

‘Unfair’ wasn’t exactly the word Hajime would have chosen to describe it, but it certainly interested him.

Kenshin Himura, whose short biography provided by Chou matched Aoshi’s assessment of their ghost, had been shot in the head, an innocent bystander in a brief, unexpected gunfight near the bus stop he’d been waiting at one day last November. He had left behind a wife and three-year-old son. And to the verbal mention of this information, the ghost — Kenshin himself, presumably — definitely reacted.

And this seemed to represent an inexplicable aberration from the previously-noted inability for any information to pass the barrier of the shade energy without great effort. They still couldn’t deliberately communicate with Kenshin in any way, despite this development, but Kenshin had become visibly agitated — and, if Sano’s state was anything to judge by, started emitting anger even more strongly than before — at the presentation of facts about his death and surviving kin. Just one more thing to ask the ghost about if they could ever manage to get him to a point where questions and answers were possible.

Toward that end, the next step had not changed: they needed to get in touch with Mrs. Himura, find out what she could tell them about her husband and his death… and take note of how he reacted to her. Why did Kenshin’s anger appear to increase when his untimely end was discussed? If that increase was significant, what did it indicate? Hajime tried not to jump to conclusions when even the mere verbalization of the ghost’s name prompted the same reaction.

With that same seemingly uncharacteristic carefulness Hajime had mentioned to Sano before, Chou hadn’t included contact information for the various people listed in the email, waiting for Hajime to inform him specifically which one he needed to talk to instead of handing out addresses and phone numbers wholesale. As he hadn’t answered when Hajime had called, they were once again sitting around waiting to hear from him, and Sano was very annoyed. Yet only after a few unnecessary comments from Misao about how agitated the ghost was, and an equal number of insults from Hajime aimed at releasing some of Sano’s anger, did his cell vibrate and display Chou’s number.

“Kaoru Himura,” formed the entirety of Hajime’s greeting.

Chou must have had the information to hand, because barely a moment passed before he was reading out the address and phone number. These he followed up with, “And you didn’t get this shit from me.”

“I won’t expose your crooked dealings,” Hajime promised sarcastically.

“Oh, and you’ve gotta tell me about this ghost shit when it’s over.”

“We’ll have lunch sometime.” (Hajime ignored the subsequent unspoken query from Sano, Wow, what does it take to get this guy to ask you to lunch?) He said his fairly rude goodbyes with Chou, pulled the top paper free of the pad on which he’d been writing, and stood. “Let’s go.”

Kaoru Himura lived in an old, drab, but not necessarily uncomfortable-looking apartment complex in the Asian district, a part of town Hajime had been seeing a lot of this week. Sano grumbled when he realized where they were going, and — more from the thoughts the young man didn’t bother to hide than from his mostly-unintelligible verbal complaints — Hajime picked up that he felt like he’d wasted a drive of his unreliable car by going to Hajime’s house in it and then coming all the way back to the Asian district in a different vehicle. Nothing could improve that ironic situation, though, and the grumbling was entirely rhetorical.

While waiting for the ghost to catch them up, they sat around for a while watching apartment-dwellers come and go through the parking lot, arguing about whether they should have called ahead. Hajime won that argument with the dry query, “If you couldn’t see ghosts and probably didn’t know they existed, would you agree to meet two total strangers who called and said they were dragging around your dead husband?”

The afternoon sun shone full on the western side of the building in which the woman lived, rendering the outdoor staircase up to her floor quite warm. Later in the year this place must get intolerably hot. As they climbed and then looked for the correct door, Sano’s jaw gradually set so firmly that the muscles stood out at the corners; he was clearly taking a very hard grip on the ghost so as to prevent it from doing anything he didn’t want. Hajime nodded his approval.

The door, probably metal beneath its drab grey paint, was also hot as Hajime’s knuckles contacted it sharply three, four times. Then the two men stood still. Traffic on the nearby street made it impossible to hear any movement within the apartment, but Hajime had other senses that could inform him of what might be going on in there.

Eventually, after several minutes of tense silence waiting for any response to Hajime’s knock, Sano muttered, “You think she might not be home?” He shifted, uncomfortable and angry. “I mean, it’s the middle of the day… she might be at work or something…”

“No, she’s on the other side of the door,” Hajime stated flatly. “She’s just standing there wondering why people can’t leave her alone.”

Sano craned his neck as if he might see through the door if he looked from an angle that was different by a couple of inches. “She doesn’t know who we are, though!”

“But she knows we want to ask her questions, and she doesn’t want to answer any more questions. It’s a little suspicious.”

“Well, I don’t know about suspicious, but–” Sano cut himself short and turned a puzzled gaze on Hajime. “Why would you think it’s suspicious? It makes sense she wouldn’t want to answer more questions, and she probably doesn’t know we’ve got her husband with her, so…”

Hajime’s brows went down slightly as he attempted to catch any additional idea from the mind on the other side of the door. The woman’s mental guard, at least at the moment, was fierce and desperate; it didn’t feel as if she had formal training, just a solidly protective personality and a strong desire not to share anything with anyone. He shook his head. “She’s much better than you are at keeping her thoughts to herself.”

“Don’t you fucking start with that,” Sano growled, distracted from his suspicion about Hajime’s suspicion. “Not when I’m already practically lifting weights keeping this goddamn thing away from her.”

He was, too. Hajime had been peripherally aware of his struggle, but now, focusing more completely on him, noticed the small beads of sweat that had broken out on Sano’s forehead. Some of them, rolling slowly down from beneath his hairline, were red from where they’d picked up bits of his colored hair gel, and looked a little like blood; but this, while morbid and somewhat interesting, was not relevant. Obviously it cost Sano a much greater effort than usual to restrain the ghost, which was rigid in the air just behind him.

“He wants to go to her, I take it.”

Sano made another growling noise, this one completely inarticulate, but his clearly projected mental reply was, No shit, genius. And it was equally clear that Sano would continue to prevent the ghost from attaining this goal with every ounce of his psychic strength, and that it would be no good for Hajime to suggest he let the thing go just to see what would happen. His control might break eventually, but Hajime didn’t think it wise to test his limits at the moment — mostly because Hajime, for his part, wouldn’t be able conjure the ghost back away from the woman once they’d seen what it planned on doing to her.

Turning, he said instead, “Let’s go, then.”

Sano didn’t slacken his grip on the ghost until they’d made it back to Hajime’s car, and kept it in such a rigidly-controlled position all the way there that Hajime observed for the first time the effect it had on a person moving through it: an apartment-dweller they passed on the way down the stairs, after walking through the ghost and surrounding shade energy, could be heard a moment later swearing vigorously at her keys as she struggled to open her door above.

Even once they’d reached the car and taken their seats inside, Sano kept a dark, careful eye on the presumed Kenshin, obviously still concerned the ghost would want to return the way they’d come and do whatever he wanted to do to his widow. The glowing figure, however, simply took up its usual orbit of Sano in its usual relative calm.

Sano watched Kenshin’s leisurely movements around and through the frame of the car for several moments with furrowed brow and distinct frown. Finally he gave a frustrated noise and turned toward Hajime, his expression bordering on thunderous to match the thick aura of anger around him, which in turn almost perfectly matched that of the ghost.

“Well,” he growled, “what the hell do we do now?”

Part 13

As if deliberately to provoke him, Hajime didn’t answer Sano’s question, elaborate on what he thought the next step was, with any sort of promptness. Instead he just sat there, pensive, his eyes seeming to stare at nothing except whenever Kenshin’s roughly circular drift brought him into the exorcist’s field of vision. Then the golden irises locked onto the ghost’s figure and followed it until it was again out of sight. But still Hajime said nothing, and Sano was about ready to explode.

When Hajime did speak at last, what he had to say was, “She probably saw your stupid hair and decided it wasn’t worth her time opening the door.”

Your hair’s the one that looks like you just bought four separate black extensions and just glued them to your forehead.” Sano could actually feel the angry energy filling the words, departing from him in his voice, dissipating in the air. There remained plenty where that came from, but it was still a palpable relief.

Hajime gave a startled chuckle, as if he’d never heard his hair described quite like that before.

“Besides,” Sano grumbled, “there weren’t any windows.”

“There was a peephole in the door, idiot.” Seeming to judge (quite accurately) that even ‘idiot’ wasn’t enough to work through the worst of Sano’s current level of anger, Hajime added cuttingly, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you weren’t perceptive enough to notice it darken when she looked through it.”

“Yeah, in case you didn’t notice,” Sano growled, “I was too busy holding onto some pissed-off dead fucker to really be watching for things like that.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t come here alone, then; you would have completely botched this.”

“I didn’t botch anything! I didn’t do anything, except hold the fucking ghost! You knocked!”

“Like I said… she probably took one look at you and decided to stay safely inside.”

You’re the one who looks like a CIA agent or something in you stupid suit!”

“No, we established earlier that I look like a faceless office drone. To look like a CIA agent I’d need sunglasses.”

Though Sano remained some distance above even the level of anger he’d been at earlier, this exchange had helped, and the last statement made him laugh. “Well, whoever’s fault it was,” he said in a tone somewhat less irate, “that still totally failed.”

“So the next step is to call her.”

“Just a minute ago you were saying we shouldn’t call her.”

“I said we shouldn’t call ahead,” Hajime corrected. “But now calling is our only option.” He held out the paper on which he’d written Kaoru’s information. “So call her.”

“What, me? You want me to call her?”

“Yes.”

“But… you’re the exorcist. And the one who understands professionalism.” Sano couldn’t help throwing that comment from earlier back at the other man.

“That’s certainly true…” Unexpectedly, the deliberate smugness drained from Hajime’s tone and gave way to a serious pensiveness as he went on. “There has to be a reason this man you don’t know is haunting specifically you rather than anyone else. It doesn’t seem plausible that he just chose you at random; there has to be some kind of connection. It may be that he sees something in you — god knows what — that drew him to you. Some characteristic that might have drawn him to you in life as well.”

“So, what, like, he’s… got a crush on me or something?” Sano wondered dubiously.

“At this point we have no way of knowing exactly why he chose you, but the fact that he did makes you less of a complete stranger to his wife than I am, so you probably have a better chance of convincing her than I do.”

Still uncomfortable with the thought of calling up a recently bereft person — to whom, no matter what Hajime said, he would still come across as a total stranger — and start talking about her murdered husband, Sano broadened the subject. “And what if we can’t convince her?”

“That’s when we start behaving like cads.”

“Like what?” Startled even out of his anger by the unexpected terminology, Sano laughingly repeated, “Behaving like what?”

Hajime smiled faintly. “Just giving up and not talking to her isn’t an option.”

“So we ambush her or something?” Sano wondered with a grimace.

“We’ll be walking a fine line. We have to talk to her, but we also have to be careful not to get ourselves indicted for harassment.”

Sano tried to think of any method of talking to an unwilling stranger that wouldn’t constitute harassment. It was an annoying train of thought, but probably more because of the anger he’d been absorbing than because the prospect was maddening in itself.

Right on cue Hajime said, “I guess I should have expected that the very idea of calling a woman would terrify someone like you.”

“‘Someone like me?’ I’m bisexual! I am not scared of women!”

At that moment there came the buzz of Hajime’s vibrating phone. When he’d glanced at it once it was out of his pocket, he informed Sano, “I have to take this.”

Sano grabbed the paper with Kaoru’s information, which Hajime had eventually set down on the dashboard, and stepped out of the car. They hadn’t circled back to the argument about his being the one to make the call, but he knew it would only have been a matter of time and what the outcome would have been.

At least with Hajime simultaneously on the phone, Sano wouldn’t have to put up with an agitating audience. It would already be difficult enough not letting on how angry he was or how much of a jerk he felt or how stupid he knew it was going to sound. But he couldn’t stand around worrying about those points, or he would lose his chance at making the call in solitude. Before he could change his mind, he forced himself to dial the number.

With each subsequent ring, Sano became more nervous, but the tension eased out of him somewhat when a click preceded a recorded message. It was the default computerized greeting rather than a personal recording; he wondered if Kaoru had been harassed over the phone a lot since her husband’s death, by the media or the police or whatever. That certainly didn’t make Sano feel any better about what he had to say.

Eventually he did have to say it, though. “Hey,” he began. “This is… well, you don’t know me, but my name’s Sano Sagara, and I was at your door just a little while ago with a… friend… and… OK.” He took a deep breath. He really should have planned out his wording before he started. “This is probably going to sound completely crazy to you, and it may hit a nerve or two also, and I’m really, really sorry about that. I swear to god I’m not making this up, so just please hear me out.”

Again he took a deep breath, and began talking quickly. “I have this ghost that’s been haunting me for a while, and I think it may be your husband. We’re pretty sure it’s you that’s keeping him here, so he’s going to have to contact you sooner or later if he’s going to pass on, but we’re having problems actually talking to him, so we need to talk to you and get some information about him and how he died. Obviously if he really is your husband, you’ll want to help for his sake, but you’ll be helping me too, since I can’t get on with my own life when this guy’s hanging around all the time. And I really am so sorry if this hurts you; I promise I would never bug someone about something like this, especially so soon after what happened, if it wasn’t really–”

A beep similar to the one that had signaled him to start now cut him off. Evidently he’d run out of time. He found his breathing a little unsteady as he listened to the options regarding the message he’d just recorded; he’d gotten worked up at the end, there, trying to convince her he honestly regretted any pain he might be causing her, when he should have been trying to convince of the truth of his words. But what more could he say than he already had on that score?

Apparently he had the option to re-record his message if he wanted to try again. Half on impulse, however, he hit the button to send it instead. It was candid, at the very least; if she valued frankness, that might do more to win her over than a smoother and more measured explanation. After a few moments’ thought, though, and a glance through the window of Hajime’s car that confirmed the older man was still on the phone, he did call a second time.

“Hey, it’s Sano again. Sorry if I sounded a little crazy before. This is really important, and I’m not lying or schizophrenic or whatever. Please call me back and at least we can talk things out a little on the phone.”

Hopefully that didn’t seem too… well, OK, it wasn’t likely, in this scenario, he would ever sound not totally weird, unless by some remote chance she happened to be a magician and knew ghosts existed — but in that case, would her dead husband really have been forced to a total stranger? Anyway, Sano left his number and hung up, and couldn’t feel terribly impressed at his own general performance. His one consolation was that at least Hajime hadn’t been there to overhear… though the exorcist would undoubtedly get at the crucial details in any event.

He stood watching the ghost whenever it passed, much as Hajime had a few minutes before, in brooding silence for a while, pondering the wisdom of making another call. Would three be overkill? Two had probably been overkill. Poor woman must already think he was imbalanced and heartless. But he could reiterate the urgency of the matter… maybe mention a little more definitively how difficult this was making his life…

He hadn’t come to any real conclusion when Hajime suddenly stood out his door and asked across the roof of the vehicle, “Are you done?”

“Yes,” Sano grumbled, allowing this to make the decision for him, and got back in the car even as Hajime did. Settling into his seat and glowering out at Kenshin as the latter adjusted his trajectory, he gave an angry sigh and asked, for the second time, “Well, what the hell do we do now?”

Part 14

“I promise you don’t need to.”

They’d relocated to a Denny’s, on Hajime’s dime, when it became obvious that, once again, they were in for a wait on a phone call (which in this case might never come) — and that Sano was extremely hungry but not about to suggest anything more expensive than going back to his apartment and making some ramen noodles. Hajime, trying to pick Sano’s brain on the details of the message or messages he’d left, had only been able to confirm Sano’s embarrassment and more determined blocking than usual. So conversational tactics were in order.

“I don’t know if I trust your promise any more than I trust your ability to leave rational messages about ghosts.”

“You’re the one who said I should do it because I have a connection with him or whatever. Plus I’m the one who’s gotta be haunted by him for god-knows-how-long if we can’t find some way to get rid of him!”

“Did you tell her that?”

A little awkwardly Sano replied, “I told her everything I needed to.”

“I still think I should leave her a follow-up message.”

Unexpectedly Sano went on the offensive. “And what would you say? ‘Hello, Mrs. Himura, this is Hajime…’ what’s your last name, again?”

Amused, Hajime supplied it.

“‘This is Hajime Saitou, and I’m attempting to exorcise your husband’s ghost. I’ve tried a variety of techniques rooted in various cultures, including traditional Shinto rituals, but since nothing seems to be working I thought I’d look you up and ask what his favorite band was so I could play the proper music during my next attempt. And did he like beer? How did he feel about cats?'”

Sano’s voice, for the first few syllables a decent attempt at imitating Hajime’s, had become more and more stilted as this absurdity went on, until finally Hajime actually laughed aloud. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said, but he also stopped trying to get Sano to tell him what he’d said on the phone.

When their slow and somewhat clumsy waitress, her blaring thoughts on stressful home responsibilities barely even partaking of the here and now, finally brought them their order, Sano started in on the strawberry-decked blueberry pancakes on his plate with an immediacy and gusto that would have made up for their price even if Hajime had begrudged it in the first place. He’d seen Sano eat pizza in much the same manner the other day, and at the time had speculated Sano didn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. Now, after longer exposure, he rather thought Sano just loved food that much. The young man certainly didn’t have anything to say for several minutes while he made massive inroads on his breakfast-themed early dinner.

Finally, though, Sano did manage to slow down, and to tear his eyes from the plate long enough to remember that someone sat across from him. His anger was, for the present, at the level Hajime had come to consider standard for his current haunted state, and the food had otherwise put him in a good mood. So his easy tone came as no surprise as he remarked, “So, ‘Hajime Saitou,’ huh? Doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Saitou Hajime’ sounds better, though. Got a nice ring to it.”

He paused, frowning slightly, and Hajime, though without any skill whatsoever in divination, could very clearly see what was coming. “Actually, now I think about it,” Sano said slowly, just as expected, a piece of sausage pausing halfway to his mouth as he pondered aloud, “it sounds… familiar. Saitou Hajime… where have I heard that name before..?”

Hajime sighed slightly, but then grinned as the best possible response occurred to him: “Let me know if you remember.”

Sano flared. It was like having a mobile campfire Hajime could toss fuel onto at any time. “What, you’re not going to tell me? So you admit you might be famous or something, but you won’t remind me where I might have heard your name?”

“That’s right. It’s that old saying, ‘If you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know.'”

I’ve never heard that saying,” Sano protested.

“Then it’s even more applicable.”

Sano fell to speculating. “You must be named after some actor your mom thought was hot. Probably from one of those horrible Japanese dramas I never… oh, but if your parents named you after… it would have been in…” He gave Hajime an assessing look. “The seventies or something. What was on in Japan back then…”

With a dry chuckle, Hajime shook his head. “I doubt my parents have ever watched any of those horrible Japanese dramas.”

“Oh, yeah, they sent you here for college, didn’t they? So maybe they were watching horrible American shows. In the seventies — and I’m just guessing, here,” he added proddingly, “since I’m not that old — wouldn’t it have been… Saved By the Bell? But they wouldn’t have gotten a name like ‘Hajime’ out of that…”

“Wrong decade. And sitcoms wouldn’t really have appealed to my parents either.”

Sano caught at the sardonic tone of Hajime’s statement and, completely abandoning the name issue, wondered, “Oh, really? What do they watch instead?”

“If they watch anything, it’s not for entertainment. Stock market analysis is more their speed.”

“Oh, you’ve got one of those stereotypical Japanese business families.”

“Says the son of miserly immigrants.”

“Only my mom’s an immigrant,” Sano protested angrily, “and only my dad’s a miser.” Based on what Sano had told him yesterday, Hajime didn’t think the second point entirely true, but it didn’t matter; he’d wanted to bait Sano more than compare stereotypes.

As Sano calmed a little after his flare-up, Hajime admitted, “But you’re right. My parents are both top executives in the company my paternal grandfather owns, and we were all expected to join in as soon as we were old enough.”

“‘We?’ So you’ve got siblings?”

Hajime nodded. “An older brother and sister.”

“And did they both go into the family business like good little offsprings?”

Again Hajime nodded. And again he felt just a little nonplussed. Glad though he was to have avoided the ‘Saitou Hajime — where have I heard that before?’ conversation, which he’d had enough of by the time he’d turned twelve, he still considered Sano more than justifiably interested in his past and his family.

“So if they were already doing the thing,” Sano mused, “there probably wasn’t as much pressure on you to do it too?”

“You might think so…” At the memories, Hajime smiled distantly and wryly. “But two out of three wasn’t enough for my parents.”

“Well, yeah, that’d be a failing grade on an assignment…”

“And my parents are ruthless; it comes from the type of work they do: petty hostile takeovers and driving rivals out of business… I wasn’t the only one in the family who didn’t like it.”

“Funny…” Sano set down his glass after a sip of soda, and looked at Hajime with a thoughtful grin. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the type to not like ruthlessness.”

“Oh, no.” The smile Hajime returned Sano, he’d been informed in the past, made him appear rather evil. “I have no personal objections to ruthless tactics in a good cause.” He rolled his eyes slightly and tried not to sigh. “But this is telecommunications. Whatever my parents may think, this is not a beleaguered band of heroes fighting oppression and tyranny. They make cell phones. There are appropriate times and places for ruthlessness, and this isn’t one of them.”

And there he’d gone and impressed Sano again. It was almost embarrassing.

“So what’d they do, send the yakuza after you or something?” Sano was only half joking, his eyes wide with interest and admiration.

“I wouldn’t put it past them.” Hajime too was only half joking. “Though that’s more my brother’s style than my parents’. But, as I’ve mentioned, it was my mother’s father who helped me out. He never approved of the way my parents did business, and he could see I was on his side… the money he left me could almost be considered a bribe; he was paying me to get away.”

“This is why your parents didn’t watch horrible Japanese dramas: your whole family was a horrible Japanese drama.” Sano’s attempt at scraping the last of the syrup and grease off his plate wasn’t working very well, mostly because he was using a fork, and this in addition to his conjuration of the ghost out of the path of staff and patrons in the increasingly busy restaurant was evidently building his anger up again.

Once more Hajime chuckled wryly, and they fell silent as Sano finished his Dr. Pepper and Hajime bent his attention to the remainder of his own dinner.

Finally, “Do you really think she’s going to call back at all?” Sano asked, and the quietness of his tone did little to hide his shifting mood.

“That depends on what you said to her.” Calculatedly Hajime added, “If it was as stupid as I’m inclined to believe, probably not.”

They threw that topic back and forth for a while to work off some of Sano’s anger. He sometimes had surprisingly clever retorts, which combined with the constant and almost measurably predictable ire to make him an unexpectedly enjoyable conversational companion (when he wasn’t gaping over some perceived trait or accomplishment of Hajime’s as if he’d never met another human being before). But eventually, unfortunately, they had to talk business again: they’d both finished eating, and it would be best to let Sano take the ghost somewhere less full of innocent bystanders.

“Whatever nonsense you left Mrs. Himura on her voicemail, it will probably take her a while to decide to call you back, if she doesn’t just decide you’re insane and try to ignore you. We need to give her some time, so I suggest we both go home for now.”

Of course Sano had to argue this too, as they left their table and moved to pay for the meal and exit the restaurant; and since he didn’t bother to lower his voice, his frank mention of the ghost haunting him won them some looks on the way out both skeptical and interested.

Despite the United States government taking a dim view of the idea of widespread knowledge on the topic, talking about magic in public generally wasn’t considered dangerous or inappropriate, since anyone unaware that magic actually existed simply didn’t believe the discussion serious… but such conversations did sometimes have interesting, even entertaining results. Once, after the conclusion of some business arrangements on the phone, Hajime had been approached by an unfortunate homeless gentleman that had overheard him discussing exorcisms and wanted to tell about all the dead celebrities that wouldn’t leave him alone. Hajime’s diagnosis had been ‘crazy and malnourished’ rather than ‘haunted.’

Sano, who was the opposite, continued to grumble as they headed back to Hajime’s house, and rather on a whim Hajime decided to relate the aforementioned experience. It proved a good thought, since the ensuing conversation distracted Sano all the way to their destination; he didn’t even have time to complain again about the condition of his car. He did recover some of his annoyance when instructed to contact Hajime the moment Kaoru Himura called him (if she, in fact, did so), but still the two men parted in relative peace. And Hajime went inside thinking the day not entirely wasted.

Part 15

Technically, cell phones weren’t allowed out at Imperial Panda II for anyone on the clock. But aside from the current manager’s love affair with her Blackberry that inclined her toward leniency, the maintenance guy pretty much went his own way all day and didn’t have a lot of critical eyes looking over his shoulder. And no way in hell would Sano be away from his phone in case that woman called him back.

She didn’t. As Sano unloaded the delivery truck and kept the ghost away from people, shelved the load and kept the ghost away from people, organized the dry stock area for the second time in the last ten days and kept the ghost away from people, fixed the oven again and kept the ghost away from people, then went on lunch break to eat an uninspiring free meal, keep the ghost away from people, and look forward to the second half of his day, he grew increasingly impatient and concerned. And this was largely in response to the apparent increasing impatience and concern of the ghost.

Yesterday’s approach of Kaoru Himura, Sano thought, had made Kenshin more restless. It was difficult to tell for certain when the ghost seemed so aimless in general, but Sano believed dragging his unwanted guest out of people’s paths required more effort and led to a quicker and more intense buildup of anger today than previously. Kenshin never made any move to leave Sano, to go anywhere or do anything other than what he’d been doing all along, but pretty clearly he wanted to do something; and Sano was sure it had something to do with his widow.

What had Hajime said they would do if she never called back? ‘Start behaving like cads,’ hadn’t it been? At least Sano had that fairly hilarious memory to cheer him up a bit, even if the referenced caddishness, seeming more and more likely with each passing hour, was little to his taste. He didn’t want to think about the effect it might have on the unfortunate woman if they started more or less stalking her. What a miserable idea.

Of course the alternative was to think about his own situation. How long could he keep working so hard to prevent Kenshin’s angry aura from harming and enraging people around him before he decided he just didn’t give a shit and let the ghost do whatever it wanted to anyone that came near him? Or, worse, got so angry himself that he actually started deliberately conjuring Kenshin in the direction of others?

The last couple of weeks had been difficult and frustrating, especially at school where there were a number of innocent bystanders in a small space for hours at a time; and studying and homework had been practically impossible… and that had all been before their visit to Kaoru’s apartment had kicked things to a higher level. If they didn’t manage to get this solved before Spring Break ended… if Kenshin kept acting like this… Sano might as well drop all his classes, quit his job, and move out onto a secluded island right now.

When Imp Panda finally turned him loose that afternoon, he managed to make it all the way home before his frustration got the better of him and directed his fingers to dial Hajime’s number. This waiting had been the exorcist’s idea, after all; the least he could do was suffer alongside Sano.

“I actually expected to hear from you much earlier,” was Hajime’s greeting.

“I was working,” Sano replied angrily. “I kept my phone on through my whole shift — nine hours! — and she never called.”

“We already acknowledged that possibility,” Hajime reminded him. “She may never call.”

Remembering what would happen in that case, Sano demanded, “Isn’t there some way we can do this without bugging her? I mean, you’re a communicator; why can’t you just read her mind?”

“Getting past someone’s shields and reading their mind when they don’t want you to is difficult and takes a lot of practice.”

“Practice you haven’t had,” Sano finished bitterly, “because you’ve been playing with shades instead.”

Hajime said nothing, as if he just wasn’t going to bother with an answer to that.

The noise Sano made, half whine and half growl, sounded so much like a dog that even he was taken aback… and maybe a little amused, which helped. “I don’t want to,” he said next, “but… do you think I should call her again? Or maybe we should go back to her place and see if she’ll talk to us there this time?”

“No and no. If we’re too persistent, she’ll call the police. There’s only so much Chou can smooth over for me.”

“What good are you, then?” A second silence came from the other end, and the vacuum of that silence eventually dragged out of Sano a grumbled, “I mean… what the hell am I supposed to…” And again he made an angry sound, even more frustrated now because he was too annoyed to offer the apology he felt he probably should for his unfair implication. Without Hajime, after all, his chances of finding out the identity of the ghost and locating the widow would have been practically nonexistent.

Now Hajime spoke, and, instead of calling Sano on his rudeness or even continuing on the topic they were more or less discussing, he said, “You grew up around here, didn’t you?” And while Sano in surprise worked to change gears Hajime added, “For a given value of ‘grew up.'”

“Sortof,” Sano replied, wondering why Hajime wanted to know and bristling at the casual insult. “We moved here when I was just about to turn fourteen.”

“From?”

“Paso Robles, down south.”

“And were you born there?”

“Nah, we moved there when I was two or three; I was born in Carson City.”

“Did you like Paso Robles?”

Sano thought he understood now: this was distraction, pure and simple. Well, fine; he could handle that. “It was OK. Not a big Japanese population, so I got most of my heritagey culture from anime.” At Hajime’s derisive laugh, Sano continued determinedly in a tone that sounded incongruously angry. “The best part was right when we moved out, actually; this earthquake hit pretty much the same day we were loading up the moving van.”

“And that was a good thing?”

“Well, not for the people who died, obviously, but it was pretty damn cool anyway. It was a 6.5, and it made this fucking enormous sinkhole open up in the library parking lot. I just checked online, like, a week ago, and they still haven’t fixed that thing, seven years later.”

“You’re so attached to the town that you’re still checking on it?” Maybe because of the level of investment Sano had displayed in the subject, Hajime too actually sounded interested.

“Not the town, just the sinkhole. Sinkholes are awesome.”

“Are they?”

“Yeah. And earthquakes. I mean, they’re bad for people, but they’re still… cool. This one hot spring under the town used to be totally dead, but the quake brought it back to life. You know what kind of seismic activity that takes?”

“A 6.5, presumably.”

“Well, yeah, but, I mean, there’s a specific combination of circumstances to get a hot spring going again to the surface and have it stay that way; it’s not something that happens every day.”

Now a third silence emanated from Hajime’s end of the phone, though Sano thought he caught the distant sound of one of the cats — Misao, probably — asking a question. And this silence didn’t seem designed to abash Sano or make him rethink his words; rather, it sounded pensive. Finally Hajime asked, “And why aren’t you studying geology?”

“Oh. Well. Not as much money there as where my dad wants me.”

“Do you have reliable statistics on that?”

“Not off the top of my head!”

“Maybe you should look it up.”

“Yeah, sure, maybe I should… if this goddamn ghost will let me do anything without wanting to put my fist through the monitor.”

Hajime laughed, which was annoying. “It’s at least something to think about while you wait for Mrs. Himura to call.”

“I am so fucking tired of waiting for phone calls.”

“Better not get into big business, then.”

With another annoyed noise — Sano had always been good at those, but lately he’d been taking the art to new levels — he said in frustration, “I’ll call you again later,” and abruptly hung up.

He found his mood more mixed than before: just as angry, certainly, but now with an added restlessness born of interested thoughts. As he’d talked to Hajime he’d been pacing the linoleum of his tiny kitchen with a heavy step; when at some point in the process the ghost had joined him, he’d taken — as he not infrequently did at home — to turning gradual circles as he moved to and fro so as to keep his back to the thing at all times. The anger seemed to grow more slowly when he wasn’t looking at it. Now, however, he’d stopped moving and turned to face the computer on his cinder-block-and-particle-board desk across the room.

Truth to tell, he hadn’t given geology any conscious thought, but in the back of his head always figured it was one of those science things that taught you a lot of interesting stuff but didn’t provide a lot of career opportunities unless you happened to live in Antarctica. But it would be kinda cool. OK, more than kinda; he was excited and cheered just thinking about it.

Well, if he was careful and got up and away from the computer the moment he felt the rage building too far, it was worth checking, right? He’d been assuming all along geology wasn’t a viable option, so he couldn’t discover anything worse than what he’d already thought. And what else did he have to do right now? Get pissed off… play video games and eventually throw the controller in the toilet… maybe call Hajime back and try to abuse him… Except Hajime had made this pleasant suggestion, so that didn’t quite seem fair. Of course it had simply been in an effort to keep Sano distracted and occupied until either the woman called back or the exorcist decided they’d waited long enough… but Sano couldn’t help feeling grateful, which was an intriguing contrast to his still-present anger.

At the very least, as the man had said, this gave him something to think about.

Part 16

One of the impressions Hajime had already gotten about Sano without actually having it confirmed for certain was that he didn’t rise early by choice. Therefore, when the exorcist’s phone rang at around eight o’clock on Thursday morning and displayed Sano’s number, Hajime could only consider it a good sign. And when Sano’s greeting was a somewhat breathless, “She left me a message,” it was as if he’d had a divination confirmed.

“She called at, like, three in the morning,” Sano went on. “It woke me up, but I didn’t get to the phone in time, but it’s fine ’cause she left a message.” He sounded almost giddy, and once again Hajime had to sympathize a little; given the current situation, it was no wonder this progress in their attempt at getting rid of the ghost pleased the young man so much.

“What did she say?”

“She wants us to meet her at Isei Park at noon. That’s not too far from my apartment — actually I used to hang out there all the time when I was a kid; do you know where it is?”

“I’m sure I can find it.” Hajime was grinning somewhat, almost in spite of himself, at Sano’s tone: it was so unusually happy, but without having lost any of its customary underlying anger, which made for an intriguing sound.

“Well, I’m going to head over there right away.”

“Four hours early?”

“I straight-up called in sick to work, so I’ve got the whole day. I’ll take my books and see if I can get some studying done, and probably grab some breakfast on the way over at that place next to…” Suddenly seeming to decide that Hajime probably didn’t really care what his exact plans were — which assumption, though logical, was not entirely true — Sano finished abruptly, “So anyway, I’ll see you there around noon, right?”

The answer Hajime had planned on giving was overridden by Misao making her insistent way around his neck to the hand that held the phone, and yowling into it as best she could while trying, at a bad angle, to keep her balance.

“Hi, Misao,” Sano was chuckling from the other end even as Hajime lifted her off his shoulder and set her on the floor.

“She has nothing real to say,” Hajime translated. “She just likes phones.”

Sano was still laughing. “Yeah, I got that.”

“Did you?” Without allowing Sano to reiterate that he had, Hajime continued, “Anyway, I’ll meet you at the park later.”

“Right. See you then.”

Hajime set the phone on the floor for Misao to yell into until she realized there was no one on the other end, and stood a few moments in silent thought. Although the upcoming meeting with Kaoru Himura might be significant and productive, there was no guarantee it would be. He didn’t for an instant believe the ghost’s anger would just suddenly dispel and the ghost himself fly off to the afterlife the moment they encountered his wife; Kenshin undoubtedly had something he wanted to say — probably a maudlin goodbye not worth nearly the amount of trouble he’d been giving Sano — and of course he couldn’t communicate with her while all channels were blocked by the shade. So today’s talk with his widow was little more than an exploration of another possible avenue to getting rid of that shade, and might prove disappointing for nearly everyone involved.

Well aware of this, Hajime felt it would be wise to talk to Sano about it before Mrs. Himura showed up — to give him a cautionary reminder that this was just one step in a longer process and he shouldn’t expect too much. Sano, it seemed, excelled at emotions in general; of course his constant anger had amused Hajime all along, and just now his happiness and excitement over the phone had been almost infectious… but, interesting as it might be, the exorcist didn’t really feel any desire to see Sano in a state of despair.

Actually, Hajime had the most unaccountable inclination to go to Isei Park right now to annoy Sano for the next few hours. It had nothing to do with the ghost; he just wanted, essentially, to poke Sano and see what he did. He’d never had such an entertaining client before. Of course, he’d never had a client with a disembodied soul floating around him; Sano couldn’t help being unusual.

Well, nothing would keep him from it. He had no other cases on — he’d lined up a meeting for next Monday with what sounded like a blue shade victim (though it might turn out to be perfectly natural clinical depression; those situations often did), but at the moment it was all Sano — and he’d cleaned his entire house yesterday. He’d even already had breakfast. And surprisingly little noise came from his conscience in response to this desire deliberately to bother another human being for no better reason than his own pleasure.

As it happened, he didn’t set out right away. He spent a good twenty minutes wearing Misao out with the laser pointer while Tokio watched with a put-on disdain that couldn’t hide her desire to join in, then about the same amount of time answering an email and paying a couple of bills. But it was barely nine o’clock when he did leave the house, and not even nine thirty when he arrived at the park near the center of the Asian district and started looking around for Sano.

Even this early in the day, the convoluted concrete skating area was alive with mobile, shouting kids — it must be Spring Break for more than just Sano. The latter, with his blue-gelled hair, enormous backpack, and glowing undead friend, was easy to spot on a bench nearby. Perhaps this had been where Sano used to hang out; his current look might even partake somewhat of the skater style, but Hajime, unclear on fine subcultural distinctions, couldn’t be sure.

To test the young man’s mood, Hajime greeted him with, “Trying to reconnect with your fellow childish idiots?”

“Wow, that was harsh even for–” Sano attempted simultaneously to turn toward Hajime (who’d approached him from behind), look at his cell phone to see the time, check that the ghost wasn’t making any trouble, and give an angry gesture — all without dislodging the messy arrangement of textbooks and notebooks across his lap and the bench beside him. And in keeping with this, he attempted to say several things at once. “What time– why are you already– are you trying to say skaters are– I’m not even–” And at last, inevitably, he dumped his things all over the ground, and, swearing, jumped up to recover them.

Hajime leaned against the bench and looked down. He might have considered lending a hand, since the spill had to a certain extent been his fault, but it was more amusing just to watch. Sano’s previous level of investment in his studying struck him as negligible in any case. Anger, perhaps — the usual anger — had kept him from better concentration; but Hajime also thought he observed a certain measure of that same excitement and happiness he’d heard over the phone in Sano’s somewhat jerky movements gathering up his stuff from the grass. Yes, they would definitely need to have a talk about today’s prospects; Sano’s optimism pleased him, but he needed to be prepared for its inevitable dispelling.

It turned out Hajime was in for a bit of a surprise. For by the time Sano had gotten himself resettled on the bench and begun stowing his school things away in his backpack in a clear indication he didn’t plan on attempting to make any further use of them right now, he was already well into a dissertation that revealed the cause of his current mood to have far less to do with Mrs. Himura than Hajime had assumed.

“So after you bugged me about it yesterday,” he was saying, “I went online and looked up stuff about geologists and the kinds of jobs available for them and shit… and you were totally right…” Admitting to this didn’t seem to be the slightest problem, so pleased was Sano. “I really needed to look before I decided about that!”

“Of course you did, you idiot.” Though not having expected the friendliness of his own tone, having thus started, Hajime decided he might as well continue; so, with no real concept, himself, of the career options of an aspiring geologist, he went on in some legitimate interest, “Good news?”

Sano twisted to face him, pulling one leg up entirely onto the bench and placing both arms on its back as he gave Hajime a grin almost childlike in its enthusiasm. “So you know oil, that thing everyone’s fighting over all the time? Guess who those companies hire.”

“And that fact never occurred to you before?” Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Hajime either, but he wasn’t the one with an apparently long-standing fascination with weird underground activity.

Sano’s brows twitched a little at the sarcasm, but it sidetracked him not one step. “I’m not really all that interested in finding oil, because that sounds boring and stupid; I’d rather be taking readings inside live volcanoes or something… but there are jobs like that too, and the point is, I can tell my dad about the oil thing, and he’ll totally go for it.”

“So you’ve decided on this?” For the brevity of this statement, the skepticism of its delivery compensated by adding a heavy, unspoken, “Already?”

This time Sano did emit some anger in his response. “I make fast decisions, OK? Nothing wrong with that.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” murmured Hajime. And he truly wasn’t. He wasn’t terribly condemnatory, either; to his understanding, most people changed their majors several times before any permanent fixation, so the distance of the conclusion to which Sano had jumped would likely make little difference in the long run.

“Besides, I’ve kinda wanted to do this for years.” While still defensive, Sano’s tone was creeping back toward the excitement of only moments before, which seemed to be the resilient sort. “It wasn’t just the stuff in Paso… you can’t live by the San Andreas most of your life without getting interested in earthquakes!”

“I think most normal people can,” Hajime said easily.

Sano made one of those frustrated noises he was so good at, but even this held a note of interest and enthusiasm. “Well, normal people are stupid.”

Hajime had to agree.

“Seriously, though, online yesterday, I found all sorts of interesting shit about volcanologists and stratigraphists and people who specialize in just one specific geological era, and…”

And as Hajime settled in to listen to Sano’s ongoing raving, he reflected that, though he hadn’t planned on this precisely, he didn’t at all regret his decision to come to Isei Park two and a half hours early.

Part 17

To what extent he’d been going on and on about yesterday’s internet discoveries, and, perhaps even more intriguingly, to what extent Hajime had been indulging him in that, Sano didn’t realize until the ghost gave a sudden stiffening or intensifying and seemed to shift its orbit somewhat in the direction of the parking lot and the playground. The usual heat-wave overtook him at this increased ghostly activity, all the greater because his internal anger had, to a certain extent, been pushed aside for the last couple of hours. Of course Hajime had been making rude interjections all along in order to draw it out, but Sano’s excited happiness had been dampening that outlet.

Now he experienced a second instance of the futility of trying to look around behind him and check both the time and the ghost all at once; but Hajime, who had eventually joined him on the bench, announced that it was 11:40 and Kaoru Himura had just emerged from a car over in the parking lot.

“How do you know that’s her?” Now Sano too looked over at the woman, who was distant enough that her features couldn’t be made out in detail.

“Don’t be stupid. She’s an Asian woman arriving near noon, looking around nervously, and getting a three-year-old out of her car.”

Since she hadn’t been doing either of the latter activities when Hajime had made his initial pronouncement, and since being Asian didn’t signify anything when nearly everyone here was, Sano said pointedly, “So you mean you guessed.”

“The man with her is her father.” Ignoring the accusation, Hajime continued to gaze thoughtfully across the grass. “At least she had the sense not to come alone, in case we do turn out to be psychopaths.”

“You’re still guessing.” Sano’s heart wasn’t in it this time, though, as his attention had been entirely caught by the little boy the presumed Kaoru Himura was doing something to the shoes of in preparation for turning him loose in the playground. Even from here the bright red of the kid’s hair drew the eye, in stark contrast to the mother’s black. What was it Aoshi had said about Kenshin? ‘Half Japanese, half American?’ It showed in his son. Sano snorted faintly. ‘American;’ what kind of description was that? He never would have inferred red hair from that.

The man Hajime had identified as Kaoru’s father, closing the passenger door of the car they’d come in, was talking to her with some rapidity, even urgency. Hajime supplied, “He thinks this is a bad idea.”

With a skeptical glance at his companion, Sano wondered, “How can you get that from over here?”

“I can only get a very vague impression,” admitted Hajime, “but that’s more because of all the people around than the distance. But look at his body language.”

He had a point; the man pretty clearly wasn’t happy about the whole situation. Kaoru must have told him the purpose of this trip, and the ‘psychopaths’ scenario suggested a moment ago probably seemed the most likely to him. Apparently, however, having decided to do this, Kaoru would not be to be talked out of it, for she replied with an evident determination despite her body language that suggested she still didn’t feel entirely sure about this course of action.

The little son tugged at his grandfather’s hand, eager to get to the playground; meanwhile, Kaoru gestured quite clearly in the direction of Hajime and Sano over by the skate park, and the man shook his head. “She knows who we are,” Sano muttered. With the ghost twitching in the direction of its wife, tugging enthusiastically at Sano’s psychic hand, he thought he knew exactly how that grandfather felt.

“Your hair,” said Hajime in a tone of reminder, and got to his feet facing the distant party as if acknowledging a greeting. Presently, thinking vaguely mutinous thoughts (he liked his hair), Sano joined him standing. Eventually the three by the parking lot broke up; Kaoru Himura came in their direction, while her father and son moved off toward the playground.

With every step the woman took toward them, the force of the ghost’s straining against Sano’s hold grew perceptibly stronger, just as it had as they’d approached her apartment the day before yesterday. It felt like restraining a large, increasingly excited and persevering dog, assuming it was a dog that couldn’t keep from rendering him more and more irate as minutes went by. He wondered what precisely would happen if he simply let go.

As Mrs. Himura drew nearer, Sano tried to distract himself from the growing anger by studying her face and figure. She was fairly short, with black hair and blue eyes, and he couldn’t really work up much more of a mental description than that. ‘A beautiful Japanese woman,’ Aoshi had said, but Sano thought this had come more from the woman’s husband than the medium, because Kaoru, while not ugly or anything, definitely had a sort of girl-next-door look that Sano would not have described as ‘beautiful.’ And actually, that was interesting, because why– But she’d reached them and, with the stiffest backbone Sano had ever seen, offered the following greeting:

“I haven’t decided I don’t think you’re crazy, or I’m not crazy for being here, but I’m giving you a chance.”

“Thank you,” Hajime nodded. “Of course we understand your reservations, and we appreciate you coming to talk to us at all.” He extended a hand. “I’m Hajime Saitou, an exorcist. And you’ve already heard from Sano.”

Sano hadn’t observed this particular professional act in Hajime before, probably because Sano himself was an abnormal sort of client, and he found the polite, slightly obsequious tone a little creepy. Kaoru, however, seemed somewhat reassured, for just a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders, and she shook Hajime’s hand before turning to Sano.

Although no physical movement was involved in holding the ghost, still Sano felt as if he rendered his grip less secure by giving Kaoru his hand; but he also felt, first, that it would be counterproductive to start this conversation by being rude or unfriendly, and, second, that he didn’t want to be outdone by Hajime. “Good to meet you,” he said as he returned the woman’s firm handshake. Then, because that had already sounded a little angry, he added less darkly, “Glad you came.”

She heard the anger, and the subsequent enforced cheer did not prevent her from tensing up again. It wasn’t merely uncertainty about a weird meeting that showed in her bearing and visage, but unhappiness and weariness too… a weariness of long standing, and an unhappiness that had etched delicate lines around her eyes before this. It made Sano even angrier just seeing it; he couldn’t stand idea of contributing to her pain. And this further increase in ire she noticed too, and stiffened even more.

Hajime stepped in. “Let’s have a seat and talk.”

As if reluctant not to keep wary eyes on the dangerous one at all times, her gaze left Sano sluggishly, followed Hajime’s gesture to the bench, then moved to the exorcist’s face. Without budging she asked, “You say my husband is here right now?”

For the answer Hajime glanced at Sano, who said, “Yeah, he’s…” Helplessly he indicated, knowing how it would look and sound. “He’s right here.” He tried very hard to speak calmly as he added, “I’m working hard holding him still, so we’ll let Hajime do most of the talking.”

Kaoru stared at what surely looked to her like a normal empty patch of air, her eyes directed at a point where she probably guessed the face would be, but which, with the height at which her husband floated, was actually chest or stomach level — assuming this form of the ghost corresponded with his actual physical attributes (which would mean Kenshin, like his wife, was pretty short).

With an expression like a brittle surface that must eventually crack, she abruptly turned away from the ghost and sat down on the bench.

Hajime took the place beside her, though he didn’t look at her, and said, “I’m sorry to have to ask, but what can you tell us about your husband’s death?”

Sano, who hadn’t returned to the bench himself but stood, every bit as stiff as Kaoru, at its end looking down obliquely at her, now glanced at Hajime with a surprise that momentarily cut through his growing anger. No, Hajime’s tone wasn’t gentle or comforting — despite only having known him for a week, Sano already believed with assurance that the world might come to an end at any gentle or comforting tone from Hajime — but in the calm, low voice there was an audible (to Sano) desire not to wound or even disturb more than necessary… and this, from that source, seemed extraordinarily thoughtful.

Whether Kaoru recognized the unusual consideration, Sano could not tell. In any event, she took a deep breath and, staring down at the clenched hands she’d laid on her knees, began speaking very rapidly, perhaps feeling that if she didn’t get through her story quickly she wouldn’t be able to get through it at all.

Part 18

“I don’t know how much you already know, since I don’t know how you found me, but if you’ve read the articles or talked to the police you probably know as much as I do. On November 23rd last year, Kenshin was taking the bus home from work — he worked at the Humane Society, which you probably know is way across town from here, but we lived a little closer to it then; I only moved back here to be near my parents after…” She gave a pained-sounding clearing of throat and paused for a moment before going on at the same pace as before. “He was on his way home, waiting for his connecting bus, and there was a gunfight in the street near the stop. It was a gang thing.

“They said he must have tried to take shelter down a little street behind the bus stop, because that’s where he was found. It’s not the best area — it was the stop at Hamlet and 11th, if you know it, which is statistically the worst part of the city for gang activity — and though there aren’t a lot of gunfights, they do happen, and there does happen to be a bus stop right there, so it was inevitable that eventually someone would…”

Her face had been growing more and more brittle throughout this dissertation, her voice tighter and tighter. Something was going to crack, and the result would surely be sobbing and tears and probably a good deal less coherence. She cleared her throat again and took a deep breath not entirely steady.

“He didn’t always take the bus to work; we do have a car. It was perfect coincidence that I needed it that day.” Her voice sank as she added in a self-accusatory tone, “But of course I didn’t need it. I work from home… I didn’t have to go shopping that day… if I hadn’t kept the car — I didn’t need it — he wouldn’t have been at that bus stop. He would never have been at that bus stop.” Tears were definitely starting to surface; it was difficult to see her eyes, still turned down as they were toward her knees and the hands clenched thereon, but the intonation could not be mistaken. She was on the verge of losing the careful control she’d undoubtedly built up painstakingly over the last few months of repeating this story.

She was also lying.

This frustrated Hajime to a pitch that heightened with every word she spoke. Exactly what she was lying about, exactly why she’d chosen to lie, and exactly how it pertained to the current situation and her husband’s ghost, he could not begin to determine, but she couldn’t hide from him the general sense of untruth behind her words.

What she could hide from him was just about everything else. She guarded so fiercely, he couldn’t even get at completely unrelated thoughts in her head. Moments like this made him regret never training more thoroughly in communication, and he decided then and there how he would be spending his spare time after this ended, so bothersome was it not to be able to reach a truth that would, presumably, help everyone present.

“He was actually shot twice,” she went on, surprisingly with no great increase in breakdown of control: “once just behind his right ear, and the other just in front of it. He was unconscious when he was found and taken to the hospital, and it took him less than an hour to pass away. I didn’t even make it over there before… I didn’t get a chance to…” After another trembling breath she went on more steadily, “They said, if there was any pain, it was probably over with quickly.”

Throughout this discourse Sano had been shifting restlessly, and, though Hajime doubted the young man could sense the concealment, clearly the woman’s words — especially these last — did nothing to help decrease the already significant level of anger he struggled to deal with. But Kaoru, gaze still fixed on her knees, appeared to notice none of this.

“The police also said the sweatshirt he was wearing might have contributed, since he’d pulled the hood up, probably to hide his face and hair in the dark or something, and that might have made him look more like a member of one of the gangs. I always thought he should wear a jacket that didn’t look so… young… he was thirty-two, but you’d never guess… and it was mine in the first place; I mean, it was grey, but it was a woman’s hoodie…” Evidently these somewhat rambling details were more difficult to relate than the physicalities of the death itself, and the tears now stood visibly on her face. Hajime deemed her distress genuine, but couldn’t pass judgment on the accuracy of her account.

“He was always doing that: wearing my clothes without realizing anyone would think it was weird. And the really weird thing was they looked just fine on him — usually better than they did on me. But I still used to give him a hard time about it, because of Kenji and the neighbors and because he never seemed to notice it was a little weird.” Her words became more and more difficult to understand as sobs broke into her sentences and a constricted throat marred her pronunciation. “For a while after… last November… I kept thinking, ‘If I could just have him back, I’d never get on his case about that again. He could wear anything he wanted — not just jeans and things, but dresses or whatever — if he would just come back.’ And every time I realized I was thinking that way, I got so angry at myself for being so stupid… but it still took a while to stop.”

This latest set of revelations Hajime believed to be totally honest, since it had nothing to do with Kenshin’s death, and the overwhelming sense of deception had faded somewhat from Kaoru’s demeanor. But whether she was making a subtle attempt to get away from the topic about which she felt the need to lie, or whether she really had been sidetracked in her grief by memories of her late husband’s quirks, the exorcist couldn’t guess. In any case, it got them nowhere.

“Mrs. Himura,” he began, in the cool tone of a lecturer, “the problem here — at least the first problem that needs to be dealt with — isn’t so much your husband himself as the angry energy surrounding him. When someone is haunted by this type of energy — which is called a shade — it has a number of negative effects on them; headaches and an extremely bad mood are the most common. As you can see, Sano is currently suffering these effects because, for some reason, your husband has been haunting him for three weeks.”

He’d been ready to go on for as long as she remained silent until the entire situation was laid before her, but at this point she broke in. “Why?” She sounded a little desperate. “Why would he go to a complete stranger?” With an uncertain glance at Sano she added, “Or did he know you and just never mention you?”

Sano, clearly beyond the ability to speak, shook his head. Hajime almost expected a countdown to appear in big visible red numbers above the spiky blue-gelled hair at any moment, and continued his explanation to Kaoru more quickly. “That’s one thing we’d like to figure out. But besides the effects on Sano, just the fact that your husband is still here at all needs to be addressed. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in this world after death, and whatever is holding him here needs to be dealt with.

“But the shade energy is blocking all attempts to communicate with him. We can’t find out what exactly is holding him here if we can’t talk to him — and it’s more than likely that some sort of communication is what he needs in order to move on anyway. So the most important point at the moment is why he’s so angry. If we can dispel the anger, we can move on to the next step in this process. And the probability that his anger is related to the circumstances of his death is overwhelming.”

Her tears were in abeyance for the moment, and she looked faintly confused and equal parts wary; in her mind, the walls seemed to have become thicker and rougher than before. “OK,” she said slowly and relatively levelly. “I can see why that would be important.”

Abruptly Hajime stood, and the movement made Mrs. Himura shy back toward her end of the bench. “I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “As I mentioned, we appreciate that you came out here at all to talk to us. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared to tell us the truth, I’m afraid you’re not going to be any help to us.”

The barriers suddenly doubled, and her level of agitation increased perceptibly. He would never have deliberately put her back up like this — it would have been so much more politic to continue the conversation on a non-threatening level and try to work the answers out of her — but to his left he could sense Sano about to explode. What direction the young man’s anger currently pointed didn’t matter; he might do something everyone would regret after not much longer.

“What–” Kaoru was saying, rising hesitantly from where she’d been seated, wringing her hands.

But in favor of looping one arm through the straps of Sano’s backpack, taking Sano’s elbow in a firm grip with the other hand and pulling him away along the sidewalk, Hajime gave every indication of completely ignoring her.

Part 19

The entire world seemed to exist behind a thick filter of intense red that fluctuated between the color of fresh strawberries and that of clotting blood. Sano recognized nothing around him, and didn’t entirely know what was going on, like in a video game where half the time you were in a mirror of reality that only corresponded vaguely with it, and the controls had gone all twisted and frustrating. His body trembled; his blood pounded so noisily he couldn’t hear a thing above it. He also didn’t realize for some time — he didn’t know how long — that he was moving.

More than once he’d wondered what the anger would be like when it became ungovernable, but now (Unfortunately? He would have to decide later) his frame of mind disallowed analysis. Nor could he tell exactly what his status might be. Prior to this there had been a sort of scale or gradient by which he could measure the level of his wrath and its probable effects on his behavior, but this had risen right off the chart.

He was walking. With the tenacity of someone in shock not knowing what he clung to, he maintained his grip on the ghost, and every step he took jarred the anger in him as if he were filled with liquid to the brim and about to be shaken into spilling. The anger was all the worse in that it had no object, no rationale. Of course it had been that way all along, but this… he needed an object… he needed a reason for this overwhelming rage. And why was he walking? Hadn’t they been talking to Kenshin’s wife, whom he couldn’t decide if he was angry at or just angry about? Hadn’t they been working on dealing with this problem, not walking away from it?

‘They?’

He turned.

Through the film he saw Hajime, who looked distant and sinister and very red. Hajime, the disdainful jerk still pretty clearly more interested in some dead guy he’d never actually met than in Sano.

Suddenly the wrath had an object.

He realized Hajime had hold of his arm only when he wrenched free. Turning to face him, fists clenched… well, he meant to demand what the fuck was going on, where they were, where Mrs. Himura was, and any number of other things… but the noise that broke from him had no words and practically no semblance of humanity.

Hajime spoke, but to Sano he was every bit as incomprehensible as Sano had probably been to him just now. All that came across was the insufferable calm and indifference with which Hajime always seemed to treat him, and that caused a critical mass. Whether or not he could measure his current level, whether or not he could judge its probable effects, there had clearly been a line, and it had clearly been crossed. With a burst of increased tension that set his muscles creaking and straining, Sano charged the other man with flying fists.

No impact came, but the next thing he saw, as he caught himself and whirled, was Hajime slipping quickly out of his jacket, which he dropped onto what appeared to be Sano’s backpack standing on the grass, and loosening his tie. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to look concerned that Sano had struck at him; on his harsh face appeared merely a sort of bored, almost passive determination to do what had to be done. It was maddening.

The next blow met flesh as Hajime raised an arm to prevent it reaching its real target. The one after that went wide as Hajime retaliated into Sano’s ribs with his left. Pain felt absurdly good at the moment, and there was a bizarre accompanying sensation as if he were slicked over with a liquid coating of anger and the punch had splashed a certain amount of it right off of him. But that was nothing compared to the astonishing, glorious release in tension when his subsequent attempt connected with Hajime’s shoulder and seemed to deliver anger along with kinetic force.

So tightly was he packed with rage that he felt he must literally explode and decorate the park with viscera and pressurized blood. He was so heavy and overheated, his movements seemed reeling and clumsy… and yet somehow, simultaneously, pointed and devastatingly impactful as he drove an elbow toward Hajime’s neck and a knee toward his abdomen. And, though not precisely what he’d been going for, it was hardly any less a release of anger when neither connected and, in fact, Hajime half sidestepped and gave him such a hard hit to the shoulder that he spun past and crashed to the ground.

After half a hot breath, barely enough to bring him the red scent of the grass beneath, Sano stood on his feet again, twisting to throw another punch at the man that seemed to have been waiting for the attack without taking advantage of the fall. This time Hajime’s raised arm didn’t move quickly enough to prevent a hit to his high cheekbone, and to Sano this felt so good that he let out a growl of satisfaction at the cracking contact. It wasn’t unanswered, though, as, in a spray of released anger, that hard left of Hajime’s slammed next into Sano’s face in almost precisely the same spot.

Chaos roared in his hearing like a riotous crowd, and the waves of pain rippling from the point of that last hit temporarily affected his vision as well, but the driving impulse of forward and against kept him active. Hajime blocked him, blocked him again, hit him in the stomach, dodged and kicked and sent him sprawling a second time, but Sano was undaunted. His craving for the feeling of his knuckles against Hajime’s face had not been satisfied by one instance.

Through the haze of rage and adrenaline, as he struck out once more and was denied, he wondered vaguely how Hajime seemed so good at this. Hadn’t he seen Hajime with a sword on more than one occasion? What kind of martial arts training did the bastard have? Had he ever mentioned? But attempting to remember things like that not only taxed Sano extremely in his current state of mind — though, he thought, it became slightly easier as moments passed — it was also dangerously distracting with fists flying, and probably what won him the next couple of blows to his chest.

The diminution of his anger had been steady and gradual, but the realization that he was within measurable levels again struck him abruptly and startlingly. The result was a sudden winding down as if a power source had shut off, and he found the arm he’d raised for a punch sinking along with the adrenaline and the desire for further violence. His fist loosened as his wrist came to rest on Hajime’s shoulder instead of progressing as he’d intended. Hajime’s movement also ceased as he perceived Sano’s changing state, and he was looking much less crimson.

“Back, are you?” he wondered, and Sano rejoiced to find the words relatively comprehensible.

His reply that he believed so emerged with no great smoothness, because he turned out to be panting and shaking like a drug addict, but Hajime, at least, evidently understood. He nodded, then gave Sano one final punch across the face.

The unexpectedness of the hit increased the amount of anger it caused Sano to release, and he swore loudly as he sprawled back onto his ass on the ground. But he was seeing clearly now, hearing accurately, and, he thought, properly aware of his surroundings and situation for the first time in he didn’t know how long.

For example, he realized he and the grim-faced man standing over him weren’t alone. Hajime’s thoughtful frown was sufficiently engrossingly infuriating that it took some doing to drag Sano’s attention away from it, but this was accomplished by the recognition of a group of kids loosely surrounding them: primarily the skate park crowd, past whom Hajime had probably paraded Sano to get here, and some of whom looked as if this was the best day of their lives. He doubted they often got to see two grown men (one in a suit!) beat each other up right in the park in front of them. Some still cheered, some laughed; a few, seeing the fight had ended, were analyzing it — evidently Sano had pretty clearly lost — while others stood in interested or even horrified silence.

As the pain of the various instances of successful application of Hajime’s fists began asserting itself, now without nearly as much satisfaction attached as earlier, Sano turned back to the source of this discomfort. Hajime had retrieved his jacket and folded it over one arm; he seemed unmoved by the seam at the shoulder of his shirt that had split or the dark spot already intensifying on his face.

Sano remained quite angry, and was readier than not to turn and roar at the gawking kids if they didn’t shut the hell up — and Hajime had no exemption from this wrath… but the sight of those results of the fight summoned up a simultaneous sensation of almost affectionate gratitude. How many people, even in the pursuit of a significant source of interest in their career, would fall so readily into a fist fight with an non-paying client just to work off some excess anger? When Hajime held out a hand to help Sano up, Sano reached for it thankfully, and, upon standing, clasped it briefly in both of his own in lieu of a verbal expression of appreciation that probably wouldn’t have come out very coherently at the moment.

Beginning to be convinced the entertainment had drawn to a close, the kids were dispersing. This was for the best, since Sano had no clear idea where the ghost was, and he didn’t want breaking up a brawl among a bunch of suddenly incensed little skaters to be the next thing he had to do today.

“You’re quite the thug,” Hajime remarked, sounding unsurprised.

Assuming his mental shields had taken just as much of a beating as his body, and that Hajime could therefore pick up on his memory of just how many fights he’d been in during high school, Sano didn’t bother explaining, only said, “You’re pretty damn good yourself,” as he went to retrieve his backpack from the grass.

Hajime also neglected explanation, which annoyed Sano since he couldn’t read the exorcist’s mind. Scanning the area, presumably watching the kids returning to their previous activities, Hajime straightened his tie in a seemingly unconscious movement. Sano too looked around, and found the ghost not far off doing its usual thing. He gave an angry sigh and addressed Kenshin at a grumble: “Fucking ghost making me randomly attack people… You’re going to owe me big when this is over…” Then he frowned and turned back to Hajime. “Hey, did I hear you say the lady was lying or something?”

“She was. Come on.” The exorcist gestured. “It’s not a good idea for us to be here much longer after that.”

Unsure what the gesture referred to, too annoyed to ask, Sano yet didn’t mind following. Well, it annoyed him to follow, but he did it anyway.

Hajime began to explain, as they walked, about the finale of the conversation with Mrs. Himura that Sano had been too irate properly to mark. That Sano, under Kenshin’s stupid influence, had essentially blown their only chance at getting information out of her could only irritate him further; and as soon as he had the gist of what Hajime detailed, he couldn’t help breaking in with, “Big fucking waste of time today’s been.”

Hajime made a thoughtful sound even as he raised a hand to the growing bruise on his face. “It might not have gone as badly as you think,” he said cryptically, and walked on.

Part 20

The things Hajime had discovered so far that could distract Sano from his rage were humor, food, and this new excitement over the possibility of geological pursuits. Of course the rage still needed to be released, but Hajime thought it was easier on Sano to insinuate outlets for it during more pleasant interactions. So, since they were essentially killing time again right now, he attempted to make use of at least two of the aforementioned three. And the restaurant across the street had a patio with a few outdoor tables, ideal for both a man with a ghost orbiting him and a man that wanted to keep an eye on the park nearby.

Sano presented an amusingly contradictory attitude inside when a small internal war seemed to arise between his protest that Korean food was too similar to Chinese food for his tastes (a point Hajime would have to debate with him sometime) and his pleasure at being bought any kind of food by anybody. But eventually they were seated and waiting for any number of things, and Sano looked as if he might return to fuming. To head this off, Hajime had been planning on introducing immediately the topic that had so engrossed them this morning, but Sano beat him in starting the conversation abruptly on another subject:

“Hey, did you think she was pretty?”

Though convinced Sano’s reasons for asking this were serious and mostly not frivolous, Hajime had to reply, “Hmm… for a second there I thought you had something rational to say.”

“I am being rational!” Sano insisted. “And I really want to know — did you find her attractive?”

“No,” said Hajime bluntly, not bothering to add that he didn’t really find anyone attractive.

Somewhat to his surprise, Sano grumbled, “You probably don’t find anyone attractive. So take it from me — I’d call her a five. Maybe a six at best. Average, you know?”

Hajime just raised a brow at him, feeling no desire to comment.

“So why did Aoshi describe her as ‘beautiful?’ That’s a pretty strong word that I don’t think really fits her.”

“No accounting for tastes — yours or Aoshi’s.”

Sano snorted. “Well, if we’re talking about Aoshi’s taste…” He shrugged. “My gaydar could be off because he’s such a total weirdo, but I never thought he was the type of guy who’d overexaggerate a lady’s prettiness.”

Wondering how Aoshi’s sexual orientation had come into this, Hajime asked, “So?”

“So he was probably getting that impression from Kenshin.” Sano gestured to the drifting ghost. “Because Kenshin’s idea of his wife that Aoshi picked up on was that she’s so beautiful because he still loves her that much.”

Now Hajime saw his point, and glanced also toward the ghost, which floated at that moment in the orbital spot about the most convenient for this. Unexpectedly, much sooner than he’d anticipated, a server appeared with their food, stepping right into the space his gaze occupied and startling him a bit. Though friendly and obliging, both her demeanor and the extreme curiosity she suddenly projected evinced her wonder at all the evidence of recent vigorous activity between these two customers; for this reason and others, their interaction with her wasn’t entirely natural.

When she’d left and the slightly awkward scene had ended, Hajime said, “So you think Kenshin’s anger isn’t aimed at his wife.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Sano surveyed his plate with much more optimism than his earlier complaints could have predicted (probably because this was nothing like Chinese food). “If it was her he’s mad at, you’d think he wouldn’t be giving off this impression of her being so beautiful when she’s not.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “It’s not a bad assessment, but you can’t be sure.”

Pausing with chopsticks halfway to his mouth, Sano frowned. For a moment he remained still and silent, and finally shook his head. “No, I am sure. Don’t even start asking me how, but I’m sure. He’s not mad at her. He sure as hell is mad, but not at her.”

“You’re the one he’s haunting,” Hajime allowed. Actually he was inclined to believe Sano’s assertion without any more evidence than had been offered, but still felt the need to raise one more point. “But doesn’t his anger increase when he’s around her?”

Again Sano shook his head. “I thought so at first, but that’s not it. He gets more intense when she’s nearby… he wants to go to her and do whatever… so then I have to work harder to deal with him, so I soak up more of that shit… but I don’t think there’s actually any more of it just because she’s around.”

Hajime nodded again, accepting the explanation, and ate his lunch in silence. The idea that the dead man’s vicious anger might not be directed at his anchor was intriguing and probably important, but it didn’t advance them at the moment. The truth about Kenshin’s death remained the crucial information, and, while Hajime didn’t despair of getting at it, the slow proceedings were somewhat annoying.

Eventually, as even the nothing-like-Chinese food couldn’t keep Sano’s brow from darkening and his grip on his chopsticks from tightening detrimentally to his ability to use them, Hajime deemed the moment right to ask, “What will you need to do at school to get into geology?”

Sano seemed surprised, and once again to be considering this apparent sign of interest, rather than solely a distraction technique, a gesture of friendship… and maybe he wasn’t so far from the truth this time. And he didn’t hesitate answering. “Well, like I said, I’ve already been working on getting all my general stuff out of the way… and I’m actually already in the first chemistry pre-req I’ll need for the geology program. It’s seventy-five credit hours, and then I can look into getting my masters somewhere else; there’s some really good schools for it…”

The topic wasn’t interesting — school plans never could be, except perhaps among relatives (and, Hajime thought, not frequently even then) — and yet he found himself interested. An unignorable difference came over Sano’s demeanor when he discussed this subject: the directionlessness, the waste of energy, the carelessness and frustrated frame of existence Hajime had begun to consider characteristic of him seemed entirely to disappear, to be replaced by a vigorous and unvarying determination.

Of course he couldn’t be certain how long it would last — this whole resurgence of geological fixation might be no more than a flash in the pan — but at the moment Hajime had to rethink or at least put on hold his earlier idea that Sano would probably eventually change his mind about this. And certainly this new sense of purpose Sano radiated was engaging.

So too was the rapidity with which he’d gathered such thorough information Of course an ability to look things up online set no records for effectiveness — though Hajime knew both the lack of internet conversance of a large portion of the population and the frustratingly unintuitive nature of college websites — but listening to Sano’s description of what he’d wondered and how he’d found out, Hajime was irresistibly reminded of the question-and-answer pattern of divination.

As engrossed as Hajime wouldn’t deny he was, this entire leisurely process of lunch and conversation had a purpose other than distracting Sano from his anger for a while or even proving to Hajime that his companion might not be as much a waste of space as he’d previously thought. And when Sano abruptly stiffened and scowled, simultaneously reminded of his anger by some sudden movement of the ghost and dismayed because he’d believed himself finished with the higher levels for the day, Hajime had to struggle not to smile. He enjoyed giving Sano hell, but had no reason (at the moment) to be grinning in the face of his misfortune… yet he did like knowing he’d been right about something.

Suspicious and angry, Sano scanned for the reason behind the ghost’s change in motion and attitude, but that reason had already moved from his line of sight. And by the time he’d stopped craning his neck and turned back to a proper position in his chair, Mrs. Himura had come through the restaurant and stood before them on the patio.

Part 21

In a funny mixture of hesitation and bravado, Kaoru pulled out one of the vacant chairs, took a seat, and looked back and forth between the two men. She hadn’t said a word yet, but Sano thought he could feel her eyes on his facial bruises as palpably as if she’d been using her fingers. A glance at Hajime showed him studying Kaoru as intently as she studied them, and it would have made sense to assume the exorcist wanted to determine whether the woman felt ready to tell the mysterious truth he was so sure she’d been withholding… but for some reason Sano had the impression Hajime actually examined her features trying to decide on her level of attractiveness. Sano stood by his five.

Kenshin, meanwhile, struggled to approach his wife, which meant all the effort Hajime had expended to get Sano back down to a manageable level of anger would be negated as Sano had to restrain the guy all over again.

The deep breath Kaoru eventually drew in preparation for speech partook of the same mixture of boldness and uncertainty as had her motions sitting down, but her voice was steady as she said, “I may be ready to believe you.”

“Oh?” was all Hajime replied. He seemed to have been expecting this; jerk could have mentioned that.

“I followed you when you walked away. I saw you fighting. I think it’s pretty obvious that either what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe it is.”

“Or we’re thorough con artists,” Hajime added.

“Or that,” she agreed, evidently rendered a little easier by the acknowledgment of this possibility.

“Yeah…” Sano looked at her askance. “Not to argue against ourselves or anything, but seeing us fighting… doesn’t really prove anything.”

She sighed. “No, I guess not. But I already wanted to believe you. No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to believe my husband is haunting you and can’t pass on, or that he’s so mad he’s making you try to beat up your friend… but I think I do believe you. Because what you were saying before?” She turned to Hajime. “About the usual effects of having an angry ghost around? That happened to me.

“I don’t know why it didn’t start until December — late December, almost January — when he died in November, but it was just like you described. I had non-stop migraines, and I was just so angry all the time… I had to send Kenji, my son, to my parents’ house practically every day because I was afraid I was going to take it out on him. Sometimes I took it out on people I met — people at stores, and friends, and even my own parents sometimes — and on things, like the furniture and my car, and…” She was beginning to look distraught again. “I thought I was just angry about what had happened, but now that you’ve mentioned what ghosts do to you…”

Sano had actually opened his mouth to repair her conflation of ghosts with red shades, but decided that being pedantic at this point might do more harm than good. Besides, his anger was swiftly growing again, and he probably wouldn’t be able to say it without sounding inordinately unkind.

So after a moment or two she went on uninterrupted. “Eventually I noticed it starting to fade, but it’s only about a week and a half ago that I’ve really started to feel like myself again. But I realized it was probably about three weeks ago that it started fading. Because that was when he left and went to you, wasn’t it?”

Sano nodded as she looked at him again.

“Probably because he couldn’t get through to you,” Hajime mused, “and got tired of trying. Why he went to Sano, specifically, we still have no idea, but it seems logical for him to have gone to someone else when he found he wasn’t getting anywhere with you, who can’t see ghosts.”

“Is this something that happens a lot?” Kaoru wondered next. “Do lots of people get haunted by other people’s husbands?” Sano considered this question a sign of the authenticity of her stated readiness to believe.

Hajime shook his head. “What I usually deal with are shades, which are just leftover emotions, not people. Real ghosts are very rare. If you were wondering what my part in all of this is,” he added in much the same tone he’d used for the earlier con artist comment, “I’m essentially just waiting around to talk to your husband in order to get some more information about ghosts.”

Kaoru gave a confused half smile. “I wasn’t wondering; I assumed he was paying you.” She glanced from one of the men to the other and back. A new interest showed in her face, but Sano thought she was forcing it in order to avoid thinking about something else. And when she asked, “Are there a lot of exorcists?” it sounded like someone making polite conversation. If she needed this as a strengthening routine in order to move on to a more difficult subject, Sano didn’t want to discourage her… but he was once again becoming angrier with every moment he spent near her as Kenshin strained against his hold, and her delays could only worsen the situation.

Hajime seemed all patience, however. “I’m currently the only professional exorcist in this city, which is why I moved here. For this population, one tends to be enough — though there are certain types of cases I have to use a specialist for.”

Though she listened with ostensible attentiveness, Kaoru yet seemed caught up in something else she would rather not think about. “So the leftover emotion things keep you busy enough,” she asked somewhat hastily, “to make a living?”

Sano rearranged his sore body in the chair. He’d picked up his cloth napkin for something to do with his hands, and now realized he was pulling it badly askew. It didn’t seem in danger of tearing — yet — but long stretch-marks indicated where he’d been tugging at it.

“More or less,” Hajime was answering with a glance at the younger man. “But listen, Mrs. Himura: you need to understand what it does to Sano to have you sitting here.”

She too glanced at Sano, with dark eyes and a frown, then searched the air around him for a moment before returning her gaze to his angry face. Her brows contracted and she swallowed. Softly she said, “I’m just trying not to think about the idea that he’s really here when he shouldn’t be.” It was clear that by ‘he’ she didn’t mean Sano, though she continued looking at him as she spoke. “Ghosts are really rare, you say… so I guess only a very unusual situation can turn someone into one.” Her voice sank even farther. “No wonder he’s so angry.”

Seeing the tears welling again in her eyes, Sano wanted to share with her his theory that she was not the object of Kenshin’s wrath, but he couldn’t without making her the object of his. He wished Hajime would bring it up, but he obviously believed doing so would destroy the progress they’d made toward getting at what they needed to know.

“Why should he be angry at you?” the exorcist asked quietly.

Kaoru shook her head rapidly as if trying to rid herself of some clinging aura (and probably failing). Again she looked from one man to the other. After a deep breath she said, “You were right. I wasn’t telling the truth before.”

Hajime’s gaze intensified, but he said nothing.

Kaoru’s hands on the table clenched as she looked down at her white knuckles as she had earlier. “If I believe you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to believe you and I don’t want to tell you… but I feel like I have to believe you, and I do want to tell someone. I’m so tired of this…” As she looked up again, her expression confirmed this last statement, and the breath she drew in sounded much the same. “I will tell you… but you have to promise not to go to the police.”

She really did kill him, Sano sent to Hajime, not so sure he was joking this time.

Hajime nodded slowly in response to the thought, but his expression did not change. “I can’t promise you that,” he told Kaoru gravely. “We want and need to hear your story, but if there’s been a crime I feel I have to report, I will report it.”

She gave him a long look, then eventually turned to Sano. “And you?”

Sano forced himself to answer, though none too pleased with the growl in which his words emerged. “I could promise, but it wouldn’t matter: this bastard reads my mind, so he’d get at it anyway.”

The woman seemed taken aback, though whether at the roughness of the statement or the revelation she was seated next to a mind-reader Sano couldn’t guess. Her eyes dropped, and for several moments she sat in tense silence staring at her hands. Finally she reached a decision, as evinced by the determined hardening of her expression and the set of her shoulders. “All right,” she said. “I’m probably crazy, but I’m going to trust you. I’ll tell you everything.”

Part 22

With the type of resolution that feels it might as well get a necessary evil over with as quickly as possible, Mrs. Himura stood from the table and announced, “But not here. Come sit in my car where people can’t hear me.”

Her car, Hajime reflected, was probably the safest of any relatively private places she could have chosen for a couple of strange men to accompany her to, but that they really weren’t psychopaths or con artists was also fortunate. Perhaps personal safety didn’t mean much to her anymore.

Though Sano hadn’t eaten anything since the woman had appeared at their table and necessitated he start holding onto the ghost again, still he cast a disappointedly annoyed glance at what remained on his plate as he stood. Nothing to be done for it; the service here seemed very quick, but Hajime didn’t want to wait for to-go boxes; he already planned to force payment for the meal on whichever employee he ran across first inside.

Finished with that, they started back toward the park in tense silence. More than one of them glanced around in some discomfort: Kaoru was probably concerned her father would see them and make very understandable trouble; while Hajime worried that, after the fisticuffs earlier, he and Sano might be personae non gratae in this location at least for a while (or perhaps a little too gratae among the former spectating kids). Sano himself, evidently, was too busy keeping a firm hold on both the ghost and his own rising temper to think much about either issue. And his lack of attention eventually proved justified when they reached and entered the Himura car without event.

Gripping the steering wheel behind which she’d seated herself as if craving something to cling to, Kaoru let out a sigh both defeated and preparatory. Then, for a second time that day, she began speaking at a rapid pace as if she feared she wouldn’t be able to make the confession if she didn’t talk fast.

“I killed my husband,” was how she started. “And I don’t mean that the way people do when they’re trying to find some way to blame themselves for something they didn’t want to happen, no matter what I said before about keeping the car that day. I mean I shot him twice in the head with a Taurus .38 Special.”

She fell abruptly silent at this point, and Hajime didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she awaited their reactions. And perhaps she needed those reactions — the surprise and the horror she expected — to contribute to the order she was trying to set up for herself to regulate her emotions and situation… but unfortunately, Hajime and Sano, already having guessed at what she’d just confessed, could not provide. Hajime merely nodded, and Sano’s scowl did not alter.

“It started in October,” she finally went on, perhaps taking revenge for their lack of interested response by not specifying what ‘it’ was. “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was late in October because we’d just bought Kenji a Halloween costume when we were out shopping one night, and the next morning he was asking me questions about Halloween. Somehow he had it confused with Christmas, and he thought if he dressed up that meant he needed to give away presents. He was deciding who was going to have which of his toys, and I thought it was so sweet… just like his dad…”

She’d begun rambling again, apparently. Hajime thought a point was being progressed toward, but Sano obviously couldn’t tell. He shifted uncomfortably even more than before in the back seat, which he’d occupied without a word when Hajime had taken the front.

“Then later that same day,” Kaoru went on, “a note appeared out of nowhere on my refrigerator. It said something like, ‘You have a very generous son. If you want him to live long enough to give away his toys for Halloween, follow these instructions exactly: burn this note and cut up an apple for him to dip in peanut butter.'”

Now she got the reaction she’d previously been anticipating. Sano gave a surprised growl or grunt, and Hajime’s brows went down over narrowed eyes. This news came as an unexpected shock, and the eventual outcome of the story after such a beginning seemed unpleasantly guessable.

“Apples in peanut butter is one of Kenji’s favorite snacks, and anyone could have known that. But the conversation about his toys on Halloween I hadn’t told anyone about yet. But at first I thought the note must be a practical joke, even if it wasn’t very funny, because you just don’t think about that kind of crime-drama thing actually happening in real life — at least not to you or anyone you know. So I looked around for someone maybe hiding in the house, but it wasn’t a big house… Kenji thought it was a game and helped me look; I was so shaken up, I couldn’t get him to sit still in the kitchen and wait for me.

“Then I thought I’d call Kenshin and see if he had something to do with it, even though it obviously wasn’t the kind of joke he would do… but when I reached for the phone, the doorbell rang. I thought whoever it was at the door would probably have the explanation, but when I got there there was no one there, just another note. These were typed notes, by the way. Like, printed notes. This one said something like, ‘It’s a better idea not to tell anyone about this. No one will answer the phone anyway.’ And then it went on telling me about exactly what Kenshin was doing — it even mentioned the specific breed of dog he was working with right then — and the exact movie my parents had just walked into.

“My first thought was to lock myself and Kenji in the bathroom — because it had no windows — and call the police, but there were too many problems with that idea. What if I couldn’t grab the phone and get in there in time? What if they really were watching Kenshin and my parents at the same time, and weren’t just bluffing to scare me? How could I convince the police I really was in danger? And what if, by the time the police got there, whoever was leaving these notes had just disappeared?”

Hajime might have expected, in the telling of such a tale, even more tears and incomprehensibly choked diction than before, but found it otherwise. Though there was in her voice a faint echo of the terror and desperation she must have felt on that first day, the full course of events she detailed must eventually have inflicted upon her a sense of helplessness beyond activity and bordering on numbness, and this last sounded most prominently in her dull pronouncement, “So I burned the notes and cut up an apple for Kenji.”

Another silence fell, a heaviness and reluctance for this tale to progress any further toward its inevitable conclusion… but in glancing at Sano, Hajime guessed they had only a few more minutes before another intervention would need to take place. “And then?” he prompted.

More, apparently, out of weariness than anything else, Kaoru sighed. “There were several notes during November, mostly to make sure I knew whoever they were really were watching me and my family and that I really would do whatever they asked. I don’t know what kind of ninja was putting these things in the places I found them, but they must have been pretty amazing, because I never saw anyone, and the notes kept appearing in places like on the refrigerator or the bathroom counter, and once in my jewelry box on my dresser. And they never asked me to do anything unusual — nothing that wouldn’t be completely natural for me to do, but what I might not necessarily have done just then if they hadn’t told me to.

“And I don’t know what kind of network they had watching my husband and my parents, but they kept giving me little hints about what they were doing — things I always found out later were true, just like my parents really were at that Amelia Earhart movie that first day and Kenshin really was assisting on a min pin spay. It was… it was so freaky… I got so scared whenever I found out that something one of the notes told me was true, and each time was worse than before.

“They were conditioning me — I could see even then that that was what was happening — but I didn’t know what for. They were getting me ready for something by making sure I was good and scared and ready to do whatever they asked. You can’t know what that’s like…” Her voice sank to an almost contemplative murmur; the horror, presumably, had either passed or taken such deep hold that it had been assimilated into normalcy, and only this dullness remained.

“Not knowing who’s watching you when or where, or when you might do something wrong or what they might do then. Or how to protect the people you love, or even if that was even possible… And imagining all sorts of horrible things and not knowing whether I was exaggerating or what. I got so paranoid I had no idea what was realistic and what was me overreacting.

“I tried not to show it, but that was completely impossible almost right from the beginning, because it was like I became a totally different person.” She gave a faint, frustrated huffing noise. “Between that month and the trauma after and all the anger in January and February, I’m surprised anyone even recognizes me anymore.

“I got into the habit of trying to stay between Kenji and the window, no matter what room we were in, even though I didn’t really think that would do any good. And I didn’t see any way we were going to survive this, even with me doing every little thing they told me. We were hostages, was really what we were, and do you know what hostage survival rates are like?

“I didn’t dare do anything that might even look like I was trying to find out who these people were or trying to do anything about them; no matter where I went, I assumed they were watching through crosshairs. I didn’t want to…” She cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t sleep with my husband. Of course he was desperate to know what was wrong with me — not just because of that, I mean, but because of the entire way I was acting. He tried everything… he tried asking in every way he could, and guessing even the craziest ideas, and bringing me presents because he thought I was upset with him… god, his last month alive, and he thought I was upset with him…” This tangent brought on the tears the main story hadn’t been able to prompt, and Mrs. Himura was for a few moments overcome.

Assuming the tale was going the direction Hajime believed it must be, he perfectly understood this behavior — in fact, he thought, it bordered on miraculous she could talk about this at all, or function in general. She was a tougher person than he’d believed; he should have realized it from the mere presence of natural mental shields strong enough to keep him out apparently indefinitely.

He had no time to ponder this, or to attempt in his inexpert way to offer some kind of consoling statement that might be able to draw out the remainder of what she had to relate. For it was time to see to Sano again.

Part 23

Sano didn’t recognize the motions he used to get out of the car, didn’t feel the handle under his fingers or hear the sound of the door closing, barely even registered the parking lot around him. He knew only the huge, hot, overwhelming certainty of what the end of Kaoru’s story must be. He was so angry he couldn’t think; he was so angry he practically couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t quite call it worse than before, because it was different than before, but he couldn’t quite say anything, because all that would come out was an inarticulate roar.

Sure, it was no surprise, after all the speculation (serious or otherwise), that Kenshin’s wife had been his killer… but Sano had expected as the cause a concealed callousness, or a moment of lost control during an argument, or some kind of infidelity or other marital intrigue… If he’d had any idea threat and coercion had been involved… He raged at himself for ever having joked about it.

The sight of Hajime’s bright red figure emerging from the passenger side of the unfamiliar red car was the first event or part of his surroundings to log coherently (relatively) in Sano’s head, and he felt his hands clench immediately into tingling fists. Of course he still raged at Hajime, for all the same reasons as before — the aloofness and evident disinterest, the blame Sano laid on him (unfair, even now he knew) for the slowness of proceedings and the fact that he still had a maddening ghost attached to him — but this time he also recognized, somewhere deep in the molten rock of his thoughts and emotions under Kenshin’s influence, that Hajime wanted to help him, that Hajime was willing to do anything necessary. This time, as Sano staggered toward him with intentions every bit as violent as earlier, he did so with nearly as much needy hopefulness as anger.

It went as before: Hajime encouraged him off behind one of the other cars in the parking lot — a big old SUV, Sano vaguely classified it, which could provide at least a little privacy — and essentially beat him up until Sano had reached a more propitious frame of mind. And this time, when yet another hard-knuckled blow from the exorcist opened the return doorway to rationality, when Sano staggered backward to stumble (not for the first time in the last couple of minutes) over the curb that bordered the lot on this side and sit down heavily in the small strip of grass between that and a tall fence, he ran a hand across his face and let out a frustrated sigh. His statement that he hoped they wouldn’t have to go through this again today lacked about half its intended words.

Hajime snorted but said nothing. Both shoulders of his shirt, Sano noted, were now split open, and at least one of the buttons across his chest had torn through its hole; his jacket he must have left in Kaoru’s car, since it wasn’t visible anywhere around. The newest bruise on his face induced simultaneous guilt and satisfaction in Sano.

Calming his panting breaths and trying in vain to smooth away his scowl, Sano growled, “Thank you.”

Returning to their interviewee after not too long, Sano in some weary dismay at the feeling of the anger still growing as he continually had to restrain Kenshin, they found Kaoru staring at the steering wheel with a dry face but despairing eyes. These she turned only briefly on Sano as he resumed his place in the back seat; then she returned quickly, with a wince, to what she’d been regarding before.

“He’s mad at me,” she whispered. “Kenshin. He wants revenge. He isn’t — wasn’t — isn’t that kind of person, but… but I think anyone would react like that. I killed him… me, the person he should have been able to trust most… I took everything from him… and now his son is being raised by a murderer. Of course he would have to do something about that. Anyone would.”

“Then he’s a fucking dick,” Sano growled, “and he can damn well just stop haunting me right now, because fuck that.”

Neither of the others responded directly to this largely incoherent statement. Instead, Hajime said in what Sano believed he intended as a sympathetic tone, “What’s the rest of the story?”

After the same preparations for unpleasant speech they’d seen her make a couple of times already today, Kaoru continued. “These notes had me so tense and miserable and worried that I didn’t even blink when they told me they needed me to kill someone. The note said I’d never hear from them again if I did it, and I was so relieved at that thought that at first even murder didn’t seem like too much. That’s how far they’d pushed me.

“Obviously after a while I was horrified by what they were asking me to do, but even then I couldn’t see any way out of it, and I think I accepted the idea and how helpless I was a lot more easily than I should have. It’s something to remember, I guess… how easy it is to make someone a murderer. It’s not a certain type of person; it’s any type of person in the right situation. You’d never look at me and think, ‘She seems like someone who’d shoot a man twice in the head,’ but here I am a murderer.

“Kenshin and I had agreed I wouldn’t have any guns in the house until Kenji was old enough that we could count on him not hurting himself by accident. Obviously whoever they were knew that, because they told me where to go to find a gun to use for the job they wanted me to do: they left it in a box behind a dumpster in one of the streets on the way to where they wanted me to go. It was — I told you — it was a Taurus .38 special, snub-nosed, hammerless, with a — god, what does that matter? I’ll remember every little detail of that gun for the rest of my life, but you guys probably don’t need to know.”

“I’ll admit,” said Hajime, looking at her with slightly raised brows, “that description didn’t actually mean anything to me.”

“Sorry.” It was half a laugh and half a sob. “Not everyone’s a fan of guns. Including me, now. But I’ve been shooting since I was little… actually, I’ve always wanted to be a policeman. Not much chance of that now, is there?”

As Kaoru took a moment to get hold of herself as she admitted to a lifelong dream thus shattered, Hajime filled the near-silence with the query, “Is that why they chose you for this? Because you’ve had the practice and are familiar with guns?”

She shook her head slowly. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this — god knows I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this, even if I wasn’t thinking very clearly some of that time — and I think that was only the reason they had me do it the way they did. If I wasn’t a good shot and familiar with guns, they’d’ve had me poison him or something. And if they just… if they just wanted him dead and not cared who did it, they already had whoever it was who was sneaking notes into my house, who I’m sure would have… would have done it better than I did anyway.”

“So you think this was a deliberate form of torture or revenge?” Although Hajime seemed to be interjecting at this point to allow Kaoru another moment to calm her misery, his tone also had the steel-cool determination of someone that loathes what he’s heard and has plans for doing something about it.

With a nod, a deep breath, and an obvious effort, she elaborated. “They wanted me to do it because — I’m just sure of this — they thought it would be the best way to hurt us both. They didn’t care whether I got caught or what happened afterwards… they were completely anonymous the entire time, so even if I did get caught and I told everything, the police wouldn’t be able to get at them and I’d probably still be charged with accessory to murder or something.

“I think I did better than they thought I would, though,” she added with the hint of a bitter smile. “I followed their instructions about the route to take and the best position to be in to wait for the victim, and I wore what they suggested, and I got rid of the gun exactly how they told me. They promised to provide cover fire in the street, and they even did that. It went so smoothly, it was just like I’d practiced it, like I’d been doing this forever.”

They had probably been doing this forever,” said Hajime.

“Did you…” Sano could barely get the words out. “Did you know who…”

“No,” Kaoru whispered. “Do you think I would have — do you think I could have done it if I’d known? Even to protect my son, even to save my own life, do you think I would have been capable of…”

“And it was a dark little back street and he had his hood up,” Sano finished for her in a tone as low as hers but far more rough. “I bet you never even saw his face.”

“I didn’t even know until the phone call came. But… but even not knowing who it was… from the moment I pulled the trigger for the first shot, I felt sick… and cold… and just… terrible like I can’t even describe… and when I saw him fall on his face, I knew I’d done something I could never take back. And even thinking about how I’d done it to save Kenji didn’t help, because I knew I’d turned into something I…” Whatever she said next was completely unintelligible in a storm of body-wracking sobs.

Sano didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Exhausted and aching all over, he doubted he could handle another fist fight today… and yet the anger grew even more quickly than before as he watched the suffering of this poor woman and thought of whoever had put her through this torment. He wanted to find them and do to them the most horrible things he could come up with, force them to endure what Kaoru had endured. His heart hurt even more than his body, and the horror of the circumstance she described was overwhelming.

Eventually, as her sobbing diminished, Hajime asked, “And did you get any more notes?” When she shook her head, he nodded. Even from the back seat, Sano could make out the set of his jaw and his brow, and he realized with an odd sense of clarity and certainty that Hajime entertained much the same thoughts and vindictive desires he did. On the topic of what should be done about Kaoru’s abusers, evidently, they were in complete accord.

A long period of brooding wordlessness followed, during which Sano tried to decide how much longer he could stay in this car and how he could comprehensibly express, through this rage, his resolution and pity. Finally, though, Kaoru spoke again, apparently determined to finish what she’d started even if her story had rather fallen apart halfway through.

“So you can see why it makes perfect sense for Kenshin to be so angry. I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whatever he needs to see happen so he can move on. I’ll shoot myself in the head if he wants. If it weren’t for Kenji, I probably would have done it already.”

Part 24

Finally, Sano managed to say what Hajime knew he’d wanted to for some time: “He’s not mad at you. I swear to fucking god on whatever you want me to swear on that it’s not you he’s mad at.” Of course with the way he said it, it sounded as if Sano was mad at Kaoru, but by now she must understand his situation.

She remained utterly still for a long moment, body frozen, expression locked, apparently not even breathing. Then, finally, letting the air out of her lungs in another uneven sigh, she shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.”

“Mrs. Himura.” Even Hajime’s own voice sounded a little angry. The object of his wrath remained distant and unfocused, but that didn’t alter the emotion. “Whoever was sending you those notes was the murderer of your husband. There’s no specific word for what they did to you, but you were the victim, not the criminal. If your husband has the intelligence of a fly, he’s aware of that. He’s obviously angry not at you, but at the people who forced you into this situation.”

Again she shook her head, but this time said nothing; it seemed she had no ability to argue against a point of view she would greatly have preferred to espouse and yet was convinced, down to her bones, could not be true.

Though not the type to wish to be anything besides what he was, there were times Hajime couldn’t but be aware that other states of being, other states of mind he could never attain, would work more effectively toward certain ends.

Having been coerced, the woman was innocent, or at worst guilty only of prioritizing the life of the son for whom she was responsible over that of, as she’d believed, a total stranger. Perhaps a higher social consciousness would have dictated a complete refusal to commit murder under any circumstances, but, inasmuch as doing so might have been considered equally murderous — in that case of a dependent — he could not condemn the decision she’d made.

She hadn’t, as she believed, become evil; she’d had evil thrust upon her, and it was a shame she couldn’t feel more secure in her blamelessness. Not that it came as any surprise, human nature being what it was. If he’d been a different kind of person, he might have been able to reassure her; as his personality stood, he just sat still and silent in her passenger seat while she wept.

That her mental walls remained as impenetrable as ever made a point of interest that vied with the misfortune of the situation for his attention. It was often all or nothing with the untrained; she’d probably spent the months since that first note fighting so hard against the idea of discovery, which would endanger the life of her son, that even now, when she’d confessed all, she couldn’t relax her defenses. They’d become a default.

Sano, on the other hand, flashed like a beacon in the back seat: he projected pity and horror, in addition to the usual ever-expanding rage, so clearly that his radiating emotions almost colored the air; though he’d become capable of keeping Hajime from what he didn’t want detected under many normal circumstances, the emotional ups and downs of this day had rendered him perfectly easy to read. It was about time to get him out of this setting.

Somewhat abruptly Hajime said, “Reporting this to the police wouldn’t do anyone any good. We need to find out who might have had a reason to do something like this to you and your husband. Do you have any idea?”

“No,” said Kaoru. “No, not at all.”

Hajime had expected as much; with all the time she’d already mentioned she’d had to think about this, she would certainly have come up with an answer if one had been available.

“Everyone has people who don’t like them,” she went on helplessly, “but I can’t think of anyone who would hate me that much. And Kenshin… there were things about his past I know he never told me, but going through his legal documents and records hasn’t found anything.”

Sano, suddenly distracted slightly from his anger by wonder at the thought of a long-term relationship involving withheld information or even deceit, added curiosity and some disapproval to his lineup of noisy emotions.

Completely disinterested, for his own part, in how healthy Kaoru’s marriage had been, “I’m glad to hear that you’ve been looking, at least,” Hajime said.

“What else could I do? I haven’t heard from them since then, but I feel like if I leave town I might get their attention again… but if I had any idea who they were… I couldn’t investigate them in any way I could think of, but nobody would be suspicious of me looking at my husband’s records. But there’s nothing there that gives me any ideas.”

Hajime nodded. “If you find anything that might help…” From the pocket of the jacket that lay across his lap he withdrew a business card. As he handed it to her he added, “And we’ll use the resources we have to look for information as well.”

She also nodded, staring at the card with only the second or third smile he’d seen on her face. Like the previous, it was faint, and held no trace of happiness or entertainment. He thought it stemmed from bemusement at the circumstance of such a dryly professional business card for an exorcist.

“Thank you again for coming to talk to us today,” Hajime said formally. “We’ll keep you updated.”

As he slid slightly sideways and reached for the door, she looked over at him abruptly. Her movement and the expression on her face both seemed surprised, as if she hadn’t realized her conversational companions were leaving so soon — or perhaps that they were leaving at all — and in her eyes he made out the desperation of someone that, having just found a source even of slight relief from her pain, shied from returning to the latter yet or even doubted she could. It must have meant a lot to her to be able to unburden herself the way she had.

Hajime stilled. Little comfort as he knew she was likely to take from anything he could offer, he had to say something; Sano was in no state to do it, and something had to be said. Eventually he decided on, “Remember that you had no choice. Try to believe your husband isn’t mad at you. Hope that when we find out the truth it will help you both.”

The act of steeling herself to go on with business as usual showed in the movement of her body, and sounded in the long, slow breath she drew. And her voice was perfectly steady as she said, “Thank you.”

Outside the car after that intense conversation, Hajime suddenly found himself wanting a cigarette, as he occasionally did when his emotions were aroused. But he pushed this urge firmly away and began crossing the parking lot toward his own vehicle. “I’ll drive you home,” he told Sano.

“It’s not far,” the young man growled. “I’ll just walk.”

“And harass everyone you meet on the way? Don’t be an idiot.”

Without any further protest Sano gave in — there’d been no reason to refuse in the first place besides his angry desire to be contrary — but as he got into Hajime’s car with the ghost firmly in tow, he still scowled. Hajime believed his level could be dealt with verbally instead of through further violence, though, which relieved him since they were both by now a little ragged.

But before Hajime could start in on a calculated barrage of insults so as not to leave Sano in a worse state than when he’d found him, Sano had a comment of his own to make: “That was good.” With his crossed arms and his bruised and glowering face, the words sounded amusingly out of place. “It was good,” he went on very gruffly, “that you tried to make her feel better. I mean, it didn’t make her fucking feel better, but… it was good that you tried.”

Oddly, surprisingly, Hajime found himself… pleased… by this somewhat inarticulate expression of approbation. He wouldn’t have thought Sano’s opinion could mean much to him on this or any topic, yet his spirit distinctly lifted. Therefore it was ironic that he replied with the most cutting insult he could come up with. And he wondered, possibly for the first time, to what extent Sano understood he did this mostly to deal with the anger rather than out of any real desire to tear him down.

It was not, indeed, very far to Sano’s apartment, though they would have reached the place quicker if its resident had been in any fit condition to give proper directions. Still, reach it they did, eventually, and Hajime took his initial look at Sano’s ‘kinda shit’ home. He’d mostly expected this: old, disrepaired, undoubtedly cheap, creeping toward complete disrespectability. He circled the lot until he located Sano’s car (whose general appearance matched that of the apartment complex with entertaining precision), and pulled into the space next to it.

Several moments had passed since either of them had said anything, and now Hajime gave Sano an assessing look in continued silence. With a slight nod as he decided Sano had probably resumed or at least neared his standard levels, he reached out and hit the voice command button next to the radio. “Call Chou,” he ordered.

Sano, who had been about to open the passenger door, subsided with a grunt to listen.

To the surprise of both men (and possibly of Chou himself), the police officer actually answered after only two rings. “You wouldn’t be shit without me on this case, would you?” was his somewhat taunting greeting. “I don’t remember the last time you called me this much. Or is this a new ghost today?”

Sano snorted, but Hajime lifted a hand to silence him. As funny as he thought it would be to see what happened if he let Sano voice his developing opinion of Chou, he couldn’t risk alienating his police contact just now. “No, still the same case,” he responded calmly. “Listen. Kenshin Himura was probably just made to look like an innocent bystander during the gunfight that killed him; he might actually have been a deliberate victim. Do you have any more information about him? Anything that might have connected him to the gangs involved, or anyone involved with them?”

Chou made a reluctant noise like a verbal headshake, but promised to look into it. “I’ll get back to you probably in the morning,” he added, “since I still got shit to do.”

“Thank you,” Hajime replied.

With another noise, this one a sort of ‘Whatever,’ Chou hung up.

Sano shook his head, opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head again and said nothing.

“I’ll call you when I hear from him,” Hajime offered as Sano reached for the handle.

“Good.” Sano stood from the car and winced as he slung his backpack from the floorboards onto his sore body, then caught the door halfway from the closure he’d jerked it toward. He bent and regarded Hajime through it as if for a proper goodbye, yet still had nothing to say. In fact his mind boiled so furiously that Hajime couldn’t even pick up a definitive parting thought; it had been quite a day for him so far, and probably wouldn’t get much better now they were, yet again, waiting on a phone call.

And unexpectedly the thought drifted across Hajime’s consciousness that they didn’t necessarily have to wait separately for that call; they could just as easily return to his house, tease the cats, discuss the situation, drink some beer, order pizza again once dinner time rolled around…

But Chou wasn’t likely to call until tomorrow, and Hajime had better things to do than babysit an angry non-paying client until then.

Just as if Sano had been reading his mind, he nodded abruptly and, backing away, closed the door. And the exorcist was left to watch him stalk toward the building, dragging the apparently unresisting Kenshin behind him, in a mixture of emotions and a solitude he suddenly felt more keenly than he thought even the events of the day entirely accounted for.

Part 25

Very rarely did Sano wake before his alarm went off, or refrain from grumblingly curling into a tight blanket ball and going determinedly back to sleep if he did, but, as Kaoru had suggested yesterday, an unusual situation could lead to rare happenings. Today he lay in bed observing the slow growth of faint light in the room, noting the stiff soreness of his entire body, watching Kenshin circling with a placidity that belied the fury surrounding him that could so easily be transferred to Sano.

Not that Sano required superfluous external anger to madden him. The mere fact that he had a stranger so close, so undismissable, twenty-four hours a day was enough to keep him just as consistently annoyed even before the supernatural influence. He felt like he’d become the star of a reality show against his will; he felt like he had a chaperone, a jailer, in this unknown man over a decade his senior whose eyes were, perhaps, on him non-stop.

Waking up from angry dreams to find himself trying to tear his pillowcase apart felt especially stupid and frustrating when he knew he had an audience. Doing anything in the bathroom embarrassed him hugely. The state of his apartment from one moment to the next was almost enough to raise a blush, but the idea of straightening up in Kenshin’s presence smacked of catering — caving! — to the presumed tastes and desires of someone he didn’t want around in the first place. And it wasn’t necessarily appropriate to be thinking about the sex life of a brand new and as yet not-terribly-close acquaintance, but Sano couldn’t help making comparisons between Kaoru’s stated reluctance to sleep with her husband when she’d known she was being monitored and his own change in intimate personal habits when he’d realized he was being haunted by more than just a shade.

Not that the inconvenience of his situation, great as it was, could even begin to compare with the misery of hers. Of course he needed to be free of Kenshin in order to get on with his life, and no consciousness of disparity between his predicament and someone else’s could change that, but, even haunted, that life could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe if he kept that thought in mind and stopped concentrating so much on his own difficulties, things would go more smoothly.

So what if he was irrationally, sometimes destructively angry all the time? So what if some guy he didn’t know was watching him every time he took a piss? So what if he’d developed a crush on someone whose sexual orientation he couldn’t parse? At least he’d never been coerced into killing his husband.

He sat up and looked at Kenshin, turning his head to follow the ghost’s progress around him. He really had been thinking a lot about himself, hadn’t he? Kenshin, central to this affair, had barely registered as more than a problem to be solved, a nuisance to be gotten rid of by whatever means — certainly never fully as an individual with driving needs and memories and (as Sano should have good reason to know) human emotions.

What thoughts and feelings might Kenshin be entertaining now? How had that intense meeting with his wife affected him? What did he really want accomplished? Was he eager to move on, or would he prefer to remain a ghost?

Angrily, Sano sighed. How unfortunately easy it had proven to ignore the humanity of someone so unreachable in every way! There’d been no picture of Kenshin in the email report; Sano didn’t even know what he looked like, beyond that apparently ‘good in women’s clothing’ was part of it. He definitely knew nothing about Kenshin’s personality, except that Kaoru thought him pretty much the nicest guy in the world — which, even ignoring the probable bias, didn’t mean a lot. And though he could guess the dead man wanted to tell Kaoru he didn’t blame her for what she’d been forced to do, he couldn’t be sure.

None of these reflections helped or pleased him: overall, an annoying way to start the day. He wondered when he could expect Hajime to call. How early did that bullshit cop go into work? Sano lay back down and closed his eyes, but after a moment rolled onto his stomach and reached over the side of the bed. Not wanting to repeat the experience of a few days ago when he’d been too disoriented coming out of sleep to answer a call in time, he’d left his phone on its charger on the floor within arm’s length. Now he unplugged it and dragged it into a teddy bear position as he curled up on his side and rearranged the blanket he’d completely disarrayed.

He didn’t sleep, but neither did he think profoundly; he just lay there, nonspecifically angry, conscious of every bruise Hajime had given him yesterday, listening hard for any noise from the phone cradled against his chest. Eventually, though, as the morning became more visible, he did call in sick to work again. That he endangered his state of employment thus was an unavoidable fact, which made him feel sorry for anyone that legitimately got sick for two days in a row, but he had a feeling he would need the free time today. And he was satisfied with his effort at not sounding too irate talking to the opening manager.

Next, giving up on doing nothing any longer, he tried to choose an appropriate ringtone for Hajime’s number, but this frustrated him because all he had to work with was the pre-loaded lineup of generic jingles, and none of them seemed to fit. A few songs came to mind that would be very appropriate — a couple angry, one plaintive — but to buy them as ringtones cost something like two dollars each. He was pondering the issue, considering whether or not he should authorize the expenditure, and on the verge of giving in, when Hajime actually called and spared him the decision (for now).

“Kaoru was Kenshin’s second wife.”

So busy trying to decide whether it augured promise or disappointment that he now apparently rated a complete absence of greeting just like that dumbass policeman, Sano barely took in the meaning of this initial statement, and responded only with an inarticulate sound.

“His first wife, Tomoe,” Hajime went on, “died in a car accident in Fresno back in ’99 after he was married to her for less than a year. Kenshin was driving that car, and speeding at the time, which made the accident worse — she might have survived if he hadn’t been going thirty over the speed limit.”

“OK,” said Sano slowly. “That sucks…”

“Her maiden name was Yukishiro. Sound familiar?”

It did, actually, but Sano couldn’t place it. Something he’d heard in the news at some point not too long ago…

“Enishi Yukishiro,” Hajime filled in the silence, “was her younger brother.”

That name was even more familiar, but Sano still didn’t quite have it. “OK, I give up,” he admitted at last.

Hajime helped him out with, “CEO of U.S.Seido?”

“Yes!” said Sano as he remembered, but then sobered as he finally recalled the news reports he’d been trying to dredge up. “But didn’t he die, like, last year?”

“Just at the end of last year,” Hajime confirmed, “near the beginning of January.” And he paused to let this sink in.

“Right when… right when Kaoru started having red shade problems?” Sano had no idea what it meant, but it didn’t sound like a coincidence.

“What would you say to the theory that the anger we’re dealing with isn’t Kenshin’s at all?”

Sano had been in the act of shoving his blanket aside in order to rise, probably to start pacing in some agitation, but as Hajime’s suggestion hit him he stilled, and gradually sank back to rest against the wall. “Shit,” he murmured. “That would…” So simple an idea, yet not even a hint of it had ever crossed his mind. “Yeah…” He’d never heard of a ghost being affected by someone else’s shade, but, honestly, how much did he know about ghosts in the first place? “That’s a…” If this Enishi guy had still somehow been angry enough a decade after his sister’s death to plan the kind of bullshit that had gone on last year, his anger must be both prolific and tenacious… and wasn’t that exactly what they’d been noticing about this shade all along?

Sano’s trailing remark finally finished with, “…really good… theory…” Despite the inconclusiveness implied by this last word, a certainty was growing in his mind as if being built up by an outside source, and that source an authority. He believed this idea. Soon, he felt, he would be past the point where he could entertain any other.

Hajime apparently awaited an end to the contemplative, almost shocked silence, and it came as no less of a shock to Sano to realize the exorcist also awaited a more definitive response from him… that Hajime had proposed this as if Sano were the authority here. In a way, being the one haunted by Kenshin and most closely connected with the shade in question, he was the authority… but he wouldn’t have expected Hajime ever overtly to recognize that. So it was with a sudden and unexpected warmth in his gut, and as a result none of the cautious restraint he might otherwise have used, that he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on. When that guy died, he left some kind of huge shade behind, and it’s been wrapping around Kenshin ever since and keeping us from talking to him.”

“I always thought there was a little insanity in that shade.” Hajime sounded incongruously pleased, and Sano had to grin a bit at this further evidence that the exorcist reveled in being right about things. “To get revenge ten years later…”

“Yeah, seriously.”

In a more businesslike tone suggesting they would definitely want to retouch that branch of the conversation later, Hajime went on, “But that’s not all the information Chou had for me. The rumors that Seido is practically a stateside yakuza are true, apparently — in addition to their legitimate business, they’re more than suspected of money laundering, smuggling, and other, less pleasant things. Chou wasn’t happy to find out they might be involved in this. According to him, the police don’t touch Seido unless they’re absolutely sure they’ll come out on top of the transaction.”

“I don’t think I’m happy finding out about this,” said Sano, now a little uneasy. “I don’t really want to get involved with any yakuza either.”

“I’m not exactly ecstatic about it myself,” Hajime admitted. “But this is significant progress. Seido sometimes makes use of one of those gangs that provided the cover fire when Kenshin died, and you may have heard about that Seido secretary who was a person of interest in the investigation of Enishi’s death because of unusually aggressive behavior that started the same day Enishi died.”

Nothing of this latter story had reached Sano, and he admitted as much in some surprise.

“I’m sure you did hear that Enishi’s death was eventually ruled suicide, so this secretary wasn’t charged with anything. But apparently he’s been on a leave of absence ever since because he’s too angry to get any work done.”

“I’m an asshole for saying it–” and in fact Sano had a hard time stifling a grin as he did so– “but it’s kinda nice to know I’m not the only one whose life’s been fucked up by this.” Then, quickly repenting his choice of words, he added, “I mean, obviously Kaoru and Kenshin in the first place, but still…” He cleared his throat. “So you think the next step is to find this secretary guy and get the shade out of him?”

“And see what he can tell us about Enishi and his grudge against Kenshin,” Hajime confirmed. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to answer at least some questions; when I talked to him just now, he seemed desperate to find any solution to his current problem and very ready to believe he was being haunted by his late boss’s anger.”

“You talked to him just now?” Sano had eventually followed his original plan of rising to pace his apartment, and at this point he stopped on the kitchen linoleum and threw up his free hand. “God, you are so disturbingly efficient!”

Hajime sounded smug as he replied, “Well, unlike you, I like to actually do my job.”

Although he hoped that in general he wasn’t becoming immune to the very useful power of insult from Hajime, Sano gloried in the feeling of camaraderie between them.

“Don’t think it was extremely easy, though,” Hajime went on somewhat regretfully. “It took every corporate connection I have and all my personal charm to get someone at Seido to put me through to this man Gains, and he was so angry it was hard to get anything rational out of him.”

“‘Personal charm,'” Sano echoed, and whether his accompanying snort sounded more amused or derisive he wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure Hajime had set that one up deliberately, though.

“Anyway, if you want to come with me to meet him, which I assume you do, be ready for me to pick you up in half an hour.”

“Oh! Yeah! OK.” Sano could only be glad at Hajime’s efficiency — and also that he himself had been awake enough fully to appreciate this whole conversation. Some unusual happenings were better than others.

“See you then,” was Hajime’s goodbye.

As Sano’s hand holding the phone fell to his side, he stared at the ghost drifting through both hallway walls in its pattern around him. He still struggled to think of Kenshin as an individual and not an inconvenience, but this next step might help. Sano shook his head as he returned the phone to its charger, and headed toward the bathroom for a quick shower. Having done so yesterday, he hadn’t planned on showering today merely for the sake of a work shift, but for the sake of sitting in Hajime’s passenger seat he suddenly felt the need. Ghost or no ghost.

Part 26


“You look like one of those metal brain teaser puzzles,” Hajime announced as Sano slid into his passenger seat.

Sano glanced down at his weird pants with a frown, but the expression gradually turned from angry to thoughtful. “You mean the kind where you have to figure out how to get the rings apart from the other part or whatever? Yeah, I can see that.”

“I don’t know what kind of security measures they’re going to put us through at this place, but if there’s a metal detector we may have a problem.”

“Where exactly are we going?” the startled Sano asked.

“Seido headquarters.” And at his companion’s blankness, Hajime mentioned the part of town where this was located.

“Did you bring your sword?” Now there was suspicion and defiance in Sano’s tone.

“Yes, but an exorcist’s sword is relevant to an exorcism. Those pants are not. Neither are all those earrings, to be perfectly honest.”

“Yeah, like it’s such a huge pain in the ass for you to be perfectly honest about anything that–” Breaking off abruptly, Sano sat back with folded arms and a twist to his mouth that was turning it gradually into an angry-looking grin. “So you want me to take off my pants, huh?” he growled with deliberate suggestive slowness.

Though not particularly practiced at dodging flirtation, Hajime didn’t see this instance as terribly difficult to get around. “And the boots,” he said sternly. “And all the metal jewelry. Don’t you own any sane clothing?”

Sano looked even more irritated than before. Instead of answering the question, he made an angry noise, got out of the car, and walked back across the parking lot and into the apartment building. Hajime watched in the rear-view mirror, wondering if he should perhaps have worded that differently. The possibility of Sano’s clothing combining unpleasantly with the postulated metal detector did exist, but any opinion about said clothing on Hajime’s side (apart from the one he’d already expressed, that Sano’s choices in dress made him look as if he was trying to relive his teenage years) did not. But it was too late now; any pleasant atmosphere that had arisen during their phone call earlier was lost, probably beyond recall.

The Sano that returned was a bit of a shock, and Hajime found that maybe he did have an opinion after all. Stripped of jewelry, in a plain t-shirt, dark jeans, and tennis shoes, Sano looked a lot less like he was parading a past he couldn’t let go of, and a lot more… respectable. More real, perhaps. Even the spiky hair, considering that whatever gel he’d used today didn’t add any unnatural color, was acceptable; even the bruises, in this context, could more easily be presumed the results of some unfortunate accident instead of signs of a reckless and wasteful life. Sano was striking, suddenly, in a way he’d never been before, which was ironic when his usual attire seemed to scream for attention.

He was also still clearly annoyed with Hajime. He didn’t respond to the older man’s placid, “Better,” only donned his seat belt in brief motions and looked out the window as they started off. And this annoyance seemed a little different from the usual low-level anger that was the result of normal time at home with Kenshin. Was it because Hajime had refused to flirt with him? Well, he was just going to have to get over that; Hajime simply didn’t flirt.

Nevertheless, the exorcist thought they had a lot to talk about, given all the information they now possessed. There were, he believed, several connections to be made and theories to be turned over, some of them before they reached the Seido building. So when their drive had proceeded in perfect silence for three or four minutes, he asked directly, “What are you thinking about?”

Whatever it was, Sano seemed to pull himself from it with some difficulty and then face some uncertainty as to what to say. He was shielding, but not quite to the point where, when he replied, “Whether or not we’re getting in way over our heads,” Hajime wasn’t conscious that the statement wasn’t quite an accurate answer to his question. It probably hadn’t been far behind Sano’s actual thoughts, but it had definitely been no more prominent than secondary.

Only a brief glance in Sano’s direction could Hajime spare at the moment, and this told him nothing. In the interest of a legitimate discussion that was not about Sano’s emotions (whatever they might be), he decided to let the matter of concealed thoughts go. “You didn’t hesitate to come, though.”

“No.” Sano’s tone was dark. “But I’m a little pissed that it looks like the guy behind all that shit Kaoru went through’s already dead. I was kinda hoping to kill him myself.”

Aware that this was hyperbole (barely), Hajime replied only, “You’re ‘a little pissed?'”

Sano gave a bitter laugh and fell silent again.

“You’re probably less pissed than Enishi was, anyway,” Hajime admitted by way of transition.

“Seriously,” Sano agreed in a tone half marveling and half irate. “If he’s really our guy, why the hell did he wait ten years to get revenge? And how was he even still that mad after so long?”

“His secretary may be able to answer that.”

“Or he may not,” said Sano darkly. “At least I hope the whole stupid group wasn’t in on torturing some poor woman.”

“It’s an interesting point,” Hajime mused, “that the wife has probably suffered more from this than the husband who actually killed Enishi’s sister.”

“The wife who replaced Enishi’s sister?” Sano interjected doubtfully.

Hajime acknowledged this decent point with a slow nod even as he went on with his own train of thought. “Though that might only have been the case because Kenshin actually died. They — he, if it was Enishi — may not actually have expected Kaoru to succeed in killing her husband. Kenshin might have suffered more if Kaoru had just appeared to be upset with him, eventually threatened him with a gun, and refused the entire time to tell him why. Or, if she had decided to try to get out of that somehow, Enishi always had the option of murdering the son. No matter how it ended, the situation was likely to result in the destruction of Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship, possibly legal trouble, possibly the death of their son, and probably psychological trauma for whoever survived. It was a win-win situation for whoever set it up, since there didn’t seem to be any way for Kenshin and Kaoru to get out of it together without suffering in one way or another.”

“It still seems like there might have been a better way to make sure Kenshin was the one who really suffered, though, and leave Kaoru and the kid out of it.”

“Well, as you just pointed out, Enishi may have had some kind of grudge against Kaoru and the kid too.”

“If Enishi really did all this.”

“It seems like a logical assumption at this point, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the anger Gains is dealing with is the same that’s surrounding Kenshin — assuming Gains is actually haunted. That should tell us fairly conclusively whether Enishi is our culprit.”

“What is this Gains guy’s actual job in this fake-company-yakuza-thing?”

“Bridgestone Gains,” Hajime replied, giving the name the very precise enunciation he felt it deserved, “was Enishi’s administrative assistant, and I get the feeling he’s on an influential level with the–”

Here Sano interrupted with, “Bridgestone Gains?” in a voice completely altered by skepticism and amusement from his previous surly growl. “You sure he’s not the executive officer of the yakuza’s designer men’s clothing line or something?”

Hajime actually laughed out loud, glad to find that Sano agreed with him on this point.

The good humor of that moment was unfortunately short-lived, as their conversation returned soon after to the topic of Enishi’s presumed revenge and long-lasting vindictiveness, as well as the haunted secretary (regardless of his name) and the possibilities of the day. They didn’t have time for a thorough canvass of all the information and all the inferences that were now available, but they managed to discuss enough to satisfy Hajime before they reached the Seido building.

The wrathful Gains, on the phone, had not been entirely coherent, but had at least struggled commendably to arrange things to Hajime’s convenience in visiting; he’d offered a place in the headquarter’s gated multi-level parking complex for the duration, but Hajime had declined as politely as possible. There was something distasteful to him about having his car swallowed up in the darkness of a yakuza garage, so he opted for meter parking on the street and the building’s main entrance. On being acquainted with this plan and the reason for it, Sano commented on the irony of Hajime refusing to leave his ‘mafia-looking car’ in the care of yakuza; Hajime, who’d never considered his car particularly mafia-looking, just rolled his eyes.

“Not that I don’t feel you.” If this choice of idiom on Sano’s part was another attempt at flirtation, it was certainly delivered in as unflirtatious a tone as he could possibly have used: his voice was heavy with uneasiness as the two of them left the vehicle and set off to cross the street toward the looming Seido building. “Of all the ways I never thought I’d finish up my Spring Break…”

Hajime nodded grimly. “The alternative is to give up.”

Sano threw him a sidelong look. “You know, you don’t have to be here at all. I’m not paying you… Kaoru’s not paying you… Kenshin sure as hell isn’t paying you to be here…”

Just as grimly, Hajime smiled. “Giving up isn’t actually an alternative for me.” By now it wasn’t merely the prospect of talking to a ghost; after hearing Kaoru’s story, even after seeing how Kenshin’s presence was affecting Sano’s life, Hajime could not back out of this. Solving this type of problem was what he’d become an exorcist for.

Mimicking the smile, though his was a bit more contemplative, Sano murmured, “No, I guess not.” And it was as clear as if it had been stated aloud that he appreciated both Hajime’s determination and the support it led to.

Inside the main entrance, the appearance of the Seido building was nothing too unusual. The mirror-like marble floor, the lofty ceiling, and the man-sized urns overflowing with greenery (which probably required a discrete employee’s entire day to care for) seemed a tad excessive for the entry to the main office of a business purportedly — and, according to Chou, at least 40% in reality — devoted to data analytics, but the décor, if a trifle overwhelming, was at least tastefully put together. But the feeling of the place had Hajime instantly more on his guard even than he’d already been.

The hushed awkwardness of everyday activities being conducted in the presence of death, the wariness of an already uncertain situation steeped in the possibility of betrayal, the awareness that less than half of what went on here was in any way aboveboard and that it would be hugely inconvenient both to the collective and to the individual at fault should the wrong desk be crossed, the tension of change and unusual circumstances and the accompanying strain of not quite knowing how to deal with them — all of this and more Hajime picked up immediately upon entry, and at first he could only see a single person.

Sano too had stiffened and begun to scowl as he’d taken his first step across the shiny, veined marble. But there was no time for further discussion of how little they liked being here, for the receptionist at the semi-circular marble-topped desk had fixed them with a polite but very studious look. “Good morning,” she greeted. “Are you here to see Mr. Gains?”

Hajime nodded, stepping forward toward her. This woman had a mind as tightly guarded as any he’d expected to find in such a place, and he guessed more than sensed that she was well armed where he couldn’t see. Her eyes, however, never once moved toward the sheathed sword in his hand, or even the bruises on his face; instead she just gestured and said, as courteously as before, “Dae-hyun will take you up.” Her smile was convincingly warm.

The area to which she’d gestured was a large corner of the room that hadn’t been visible, behind a sort of wall of potted plants, until they were near the desk; and it was inhabited by a man whose presence had previously been impossible to observe, or else who had just entered by the door they could now see in the rear wall. This person held out his hand in a welcoming fashion and gave them a smile just as professional and almost as friendly as the receptionist’s.

“Good morning,” he said as Hajime and Sano moved toward him. “Mr. Gains let us know you were coming. I’ll carry your sword upstairs.”

This Dae-hyun, though short, was built very solidly beneath his tailored suit, and seemed extremely competent and unhesitating, in the manner of a bodyguard, beneath his veneer of politeness. Hajime handed over his nihontou without protest. If he and Sano were in any danger here, the temporary lack of that archaic weapon would not make much difference.

Smile unwavering, Dae-hyun gestured again, this time toward the door through which Hajime could see a deep-carpeted and oak-wainscoted corridor. “After you; please turn right.” Obediently, Hajime took the several strides down this hall necessary to reach an elevator whose doors were oak-fronted to match the walls around them, and stopped. A keycard, he noted when Dae-hyun joined them after having waited a couple of steps to follow, was required to access this conveyance, and after that had been accomplished they embarked, in a silence that was no less tense for being so polite, on an upward journey toward the fifteenth floor and Bridgestone Gains.

Part 27


The air here tasted angry. Sano doubted anyone not as precisely attuned to it as he was would have been able to sense it until they were much closer, but he was aware by the time the elevator had ascended only a few floors that they were in the right place. Somewhere in this building was shade energy — to which they were drawing closer and closer — that matched exactly the energy that had been plaguing Sano for the last month. Its influence strengthened with every moment, and he was bracing himself for what must come.

“We’re perfectly happy to assist Mr. Gains wherever it’s most convenient,” Hajime was remarking to Dae-hyun in that creepily polite tone Sano had heard from him once before, “but maybe you can tell me something I didn’t want to ask him on the phone: what is he doing at his office when he’s in such bad shape? I understood he was on a leave of absence.”

Dae-hyun, who resembled nothing so much as a smiling brick, nodded his understanding of the question and replied in a pleasant tone like something from a training video. “Besides being a very valuable and highly respected member of our organization, Mr. Gains is also an artist. He has a studio here in the building where he spends much of his free time.”

Yes, having this somewhat ambiguously ranked assistant to the CEO readily available must be very convenient to the organization, Sano reflected. As he couldn’t quite decide whether he would rather have come to this tense and unnecessarily posh-looking office than visit a possibly paranoid and definitely irate yakuza secretary at his own home, Sano couldn’t quite decide either how he felt about the existence of this so-called studio. It made no difference; he was already here.

But for a few more totally fake (but very well delivered) remarks between Hajime and Dae-hyun about the sparkling success of U.S.Seido, the elevator ride was conducted in silence. Sano didn’t have to watch the numbers to track their approach of the fifteenth floor; he could feel the angry shade more strongly with every passing moment. He couldn’t imagine how much was up there for him to be so aware of it at this distance, but he feared that stepping from the elevator at the top was going to be like entering a war zone.

At what point Hajime had noticed the shade and its effects on Sano, the latter couldn’t guess, but the exorcist had taken half a step, made just a slight shift in the way he was standing, that seemed to indicate solidarity, and for that Sano was grateful. Hajime really didn’t have to be here, but here he was, ready, as ever, to do what he must. Sano just wondered what that would end up being in this situation.

He also wondered if and how Kenshin would react to this volume of shade energy. The ghost hadn’t caught Sano up yet, which was more of a relief than anything, but if he followed his usual pattern he must eventually; what would happen then? Did Kenshin know whose anger it was? Did you find things out after death that you hadn’t known before? Or perhaps Kenshin had known before he died of the possibility of his brother-in-law’s seeking revenge, and was held in this world by the guilt he felt at never having warned his wife.

Such speculation was useless at the moment. Sano just tried to block himself off against absorbing any shade energy before it was absolutely necessary, took a deep breath, and watched the elevator doors slide open. This time their escort led the way instead of gesturing them to precede him, and, as the presence of the huge red shade more or less hit Sano in the face from in front of him to the left, it was a significant relief that Dae-hyun took them to the right. The awareness of the shade didn’t greatly diminish by the time they’d reached the door they were apparently to enter, but Sano was still glad not to have to confront the thing immediately.

In response to Dae-hyun’s knock, the heavy, paneled door was jerked open almost at once, and the visitors got their first look at Bridgestone Gains; the fact that the man in front of them was most definitely haunted by the same shade as was Sano verified his identity even before Dae-hyun’s polite greeting could do so. Other than the red energy rising from him, as his precipitous opening of the door expended some of it, there was nothing terribly remarkable about him except an apparent vigor and athleticism of movement perhaps a little unusual for a man evidently in his late sixties.

“Come in,” ordered Gains curtly, interrupting whatever was being said by Dae-hyun. The latter didn’t appear at all put out by this, just handed Hajime his sword and walked away with smile and imperturbability intact. Sano listened for the sound of the elevator as he followed Hajime through the door in front of him, but heard nothing. So this floor, at least, was being guarded as long as they were here, even if Dae-hyun wouldn’t actually be in the same room. He supposed it was no surprise.

What was a surprise was that same room. Sano hadn’t even begun to take the term ‘studio’ seriously, and if he had would have envisioned easels and canvasses and paints. This mixture of workshop and laboratory, fitted with sinks and gas jets in a couple of high tables, scattered with a number of somewhat disturbing-looking instruments such as might be used by a sculptor, and decorated by several much more disturbing-looking products of these tools, was nothing he would have expected even if he’d bought the description of ‘artist’ for the man they were here to see.

The figures — sculptures? — though they had indentations and curves reminiscent of certain more extreme contortions of the human body, were yet not exactly human in shape, and Sano would need a little more time than he had right now to decide what he thought they actually looked like. Just the glance he was allowed at the moment, though, before turning his attention toward Gains, told him that the most disturbing thing about them was not so much their shape as their composition; whatever they were made of didn’t seem to be stone or clay, but something a good deal more… fleshy. The light in the room definitely hit them the same way it did the skin of the three people present.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime was saying in his obsequious tone that, compared with the creepiness of this room, was positively reassuring at this point, “I can see just by looking at you that it’s a good thing we came, if you’ll excuse me saying so. I’m Hajime Saitou — we spoke on the phone — and this is my partner Sano Sagara.”

Hajime had a gift for making remarks that knocked Sano right out of whatever else he was thinking or feeling, if only for a moment. Partner?? It was staggering, and if Hajime hadn’t wanted Sano to react to it with the full-body jerk and whiplash glance in his direction he gave on hearing it, he should have warned him beforehand.

Examining them both briefly up and down with a scowl, and certainly not missing Sano’s start, “It looks like that’s as true as it is believable,” Gains replied in a sneering tone. Scorn, Sano had found, often arose from an impulse to hurt that was itself a product of anger… and this was a very familiar anger. Only imperfectly did he recognize it, however, so caught up was he yet in the unexpected effort of trying to quell the tingly feeling that had suffused him at the idea of being any kind of partner to Hajime.

“And this is a data analytics business,” the exorcist said dryly, “whose CEO committed suicide.”

It was well done, Sano thought. He’d already been trying to counter the aforementioned tingly feeling with the stern reminder that Hajime’s introduction of him as a partner would have been less complicated and perhaps more dignified than explaining who he actually was — but now, in implying something between the two of them he didn’t want to mention outright, Hajime had managed to create a sort of parallel of concealment that must help to raise fellow feeling. He’d essentially suggested to Gains, “Let’s work together on the understanding that we each know the other has a secret, and are both politely not prying.”

However angry he might be, Gains evidently understood, for he nodded sharply. “Well, and what can you two do for me?” he asked irritably, crossing wiry arms whose liver spots were bared by the rolled state of the sleeves of his black button-up. “It’s been almost three months since Enishi’s ‘suicide;’ if he’s haunting me, how do you get rid of him?”

As always, the uninitiated assumed ghosts when all that really plagued them was shades. Unless, Sano reflected with a slight shudder, Enishi’s ghost was hanging around just like Kenshin’s was. Maybe he was in the next room, hovering in the midst of his anger, waiting for Sano to bring Kenshin to him and stage a final, dramatic, undead confrontation or something.

But that couldn’t be. One ghost was rare enough; the statistical likelihood of encountering two at once must be practically nonexistent. Sano shook himself back into sense and shelved these thoughts alongside the daydreams he fully planned on entertaining later about being Hajime’s partner. Which left only the overwhelming urge to ignore the current conversation, and instead examine this crazy room, to try to repress.

Hajime was reassuring Gains with, “Sano can extract the angry energy from you, so you’ll be able to go back to your normal activities.” And he proved that he too was curious about the contents of the room in which they stood by throwing a quick glance around at it as he spoke the last words. Sano’s contribution was a nod; he doubted it would be any kind of problem to absorb all the shade that had Gains so tetchy — or at least it wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish… what might happen afterward, if there was enough of the stuff to give Sano another critical mass, he didn’t know.

“Do it, then!” Gains ordered, glaring at Sano. Actually he seemed far less angry, in general, than Sano had expected; he must have found a way to expend some of the shade before they’d arrived. The disarray of the equipment in here, as if someone had inflicted upon it a very bad mood and then only imperfectly straightened up, might explain that.

“First,” Hajime said smoothly, “tell me: what’s over there?” He gestured with the hilt of his sword off to their left, past a couple of painted folding screens that were distinctly out of place in here but that probably looked congruous enough from the other side; between them, Sano could see through to what appeared to be a sort of lounge done up in a mixture of oriental styles. It was beyond this space, probably past the far wall he could only get a limited glimpse of from this angle, that the feeling of red shade was emanating most strongly. Hajime wanted to head straight for the source of all this trouble, and, unpleasant as Sano feared it would be, he couldn’t but agree.

Gains jerked his gaze in the direction Hajime indicated, and scowled. “I assume you mean Enishi’s office, since you can see the kètīng perfectly well for yourself.”

“Enishi’s office,” Hajime repeated thoughtfully, ignoring Gains’s grouchy tone (and not bothering to ask what a kètīng was even if he, like Sano, wasn’t entirely sure). “We’ll need to take a look around in there.”

“Nobody but me goes in there,” Gains snapped. “Not until we have a new CEO.”

Hajime’s tone was as smooth and soothing as before as he answered, “And I’m afraid that’s the reason you’ve been so angry for so long. You’ve been picking up more angry energy every time you go in there, and probably just by spending so much time here in your studio next door.”

Again Sano nodded his concurrence. Somebody or other would have been affected eventually by the shade under any circumstances, but Gains had hastened and worsened the process by hanging out so close to it ever since Enishi’s death. And his leave of absence, rather than helping him recover, had probably actually exacerbated his condition by giving him so much more time to spend in his studio.

At Hajime’s words and Sano’s nod, Gains’s face twisted into an expression almost of rage, and Sano wondered whether this was because he didn’t like to be dictated to by strangers, or because the aforementioned appointment of a new CEO — something that had obviously already been a long time in the works — was a touchy business that caused him to get defensive about the old one’s office and effects, or because he’d been closer to his late boss than they’d had any idea. But he didn’t strike at either of them, as Sano had half expected, nor even lash out verbally. “All right,” he said instead, teeth gritted. He turned abruptly and moved toward the other half of the room and the room beyond, pulling a keycard from the pocket of his black slacks as he did so. “But you can’t touch a damn thing in there.”

Part 28


Everything Hajime had been thinking about — his curiosity regarding Gains’s exceptionally strange art, his residual amusement at having thrown Sano so completely off-balance with the ‘partner’ remark, even his ongoing underlying concern at being in a yakuza headquarters dealing with someone that could probably have them killed with a single word and seemed hateful enough to do it — all of it crowded right into the background of his mind and huddled there, subdued, as he took his first step into Enishi’s office.

Whether or not this room contained the matching antique furniture, expensive ornamentation, and relatively classy mixture of eastern and western decorating he’d expected, he had no idea. He couldn’t see a thing through the almost pulsing brightness of the wall-to-wall shade that filled his vision like a roiling acidic mist. It blinded him, pounded at his magical senses, battered his consciousness with anger and pain. He’d never encountered a shade anywhere near this large and powerful, and even having made what he thought were logical mental preparations based on what he’d known it must be like beforehand, he could never have been prepared for this.

Holy shit,” came a murmur, quiet but intense, from behind him.

“Sano, get back,” he ordered, taking two more slow steps onto what felt like firm carpet or perhaps a rug atop tile. “Stay outside the room. I’ll deal with this.”

“What, are you trying to be a hero all of a sudden?” Sano, still right behind him, growled. “This is way fucking more than–”

“You’re already absorbing it.” It was getting to Hajime too, if the angry tone in which he’d just said that was any indication, and he wasn’t even the one that was deliberately attuned to it. He attempted to speak rationally as he went on, “You’ll need to deal with Gains after all of this is gone, which you won’t be able to do if you stay in here much longer.”

“Ah, fuck,” Sano muttered, and retreated.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime said next, “it would be better if you waited outside the room as well.”

Gains sneered, “And leave you to poke around in here? I think not.”

“I’m not here to dig up secrets on your organization,” Hajime snapped. “But if you want to stay, get into a corner and be ready to move if I come near you.” Lifting his sword as an indication of the danger this situation posed, yet he didn’t wait to see if Gains followed his instructions — indeed, he couldn’t see anything of the sort — but unsheathed the weapon. The blade was an intense red, a bloody-looking contrast to the bright white that surrounded him, but he hadn’t needed that to tell him what he was up against.

Falling into the pattern of breathing he’d found worked best for the use of kendo as exorcism, Hajime closed his eyes to the whiteness and probed outward with his mind. If he’d had any doubt that this astonishing shade belonged to the former inhabitant of this office, he would have been convinced upon noting that the energy was mostly confined to the acknowledged limits of the room; shades, which were not technically inhibited by physical barriers like walls or windows, generally only adhered to them in reflection of a human’s awareness of a space — and the person most aware of a room’s boundaries was usually that room’s primary resident.

As strong as he’d anticipated, the shade was also even more insane. Though it wasn’t quite fair to maintain that, in order to keep up this level of anger for an entire decade, someone would have to be insane, and though Enishi must have functioned rationally in most areas in order to head up an organization like this, there had definitely been some madness there, which had accompanied the anger in becoming this shade. Hajime concentrated on the defeat of both.

Earlier Sano had remarked that he wished he could have killed Enishi, and Hajime rather had to agree. Perhaps this was a foolish way to feel about someone he’d never even heard of until the man’s death, but he thought the desire must help him in this situation. He didn’t know what number and variety of evils Enishi had perpetrated as the head of a criminal organization; all he was familiar with was Kaoru’s story — and the fact that Enishi had been her tormenter wasn’t 100% verified even yet… but he was certain that Enishi’s death had done little but good for the world.

And now the dissipation of his shade, at Hajime’s hands, would do a more specific good for a smaller subset of the world. For Sano, whose entire life was practically on hold. For Kaoru, who’d been forced to commit an act foreign to her nature. For Kenshin, about whom Hajime really knew nothing. Even for this strange Gains man about whom Hajime cared nothing.

With this knowledge and desire strengthening his intent, focusing all his will on breaking up and destroying the shade, he opened his eyes and thrust his sword into the nearest intense patch in the fluctuating mass of angry energy.

It was a shock, stronger than when he’d last exorcised any of this shade by a much greater margin than he could have expected merely by reckoning proportions based on size at the source. It almost left him stunned, and only by holding onto the awareness and determination previously fixed upon did he keep it from completely overwhelming him. Had he been a disinterested party here to perform this professional service for a client, he might have been defeated in this first moment, so it was lucky for everyone concerned that he was not so disinterested. If it could be called luck.

When the patch on which he’d focused finally gave up its attempt to out-will him, wavered, and dissipated, he swept his sword out to the right after a second segment without pause. His movement toward a third was slower, but he thought the overall intensity of the shade throughout the room was fading.

The work was exhausting, and the clash of wills that comprised it was like nothing else he’d ever experienced. He thought perhaps it could be compared to the process of two people attempting to outmaneuver each other in an organization just such as this, using all their cunning to get the better of each other and staying on their toes every moment of every day in the fear of betrayal over the course of long months or even years — but all packed into the space of a few minutes. As he’d never done any such thing, however, he couldn’t be certain.

His head ached, and he felt ready for a long rest by the time the furniture around him was becoming visible. He’d already discovered the chairs facing the desk during his movements through the room, but now he began to be able to make out the carved patterns in their wooden backs.

Gains had shouted more than once, quite possibly about taking care not to damage things with what to him must have appeared a randomly and wildly swinging blade — Hajime had been concentrating too hard to note exactly what he had to say — but by the time it was all over he’d fallen silent, perhaps in recognition of the futility of his words. And Hajime sagged into that silence, looking slowly around for any further traces of shade he’d missed and breathing somewhat hard.

To locate the source of the last remaining shade he was sensing didn’t take long; it was small, but it glowed as brightly white in his vision as any part of the huge shape that had previously filled the room: an object that stood at the far end of the desk he could now properly make out. Trying to decide exactly what it was through the light of the energy that suffused and surrounded it, he peered at it as he circled the desk to the sound of Gains’s now much more irate reiteration that he touch nothing.

The general balance of the desk suggested a picture frame set up in symmetry with the one on the opposite corner. The latter held a photo of an elegant-looking Japanese woman that Hajime assumed to be the long-dead sister; who was likely to be the subject of another such frame he could not guess, unless it was a second instance of the same person. He knew so little of Enishi, however, that he might be wrong on all counts here. Whatever this item was, it had been suffused with shade energy to the point where he could almost call it an artifact — though he’d pity anyone trying to do magic with its assistance or even in its presence.

Gains must have realized what Hajime’s target was when he raised his sword one more time, for the secretary recommenced shouting. Clearly just the few minutes he’d spent in here, even with Hajime cleaning up the shade, had affected him, for his tone was extremely angry and his language abusive. Hajime ignored him. Invoking his full force of will and concentration once again, he brought the blade down on the glowing object on the desk, taking a grudging care not to allow the blow to continue any farther than was required precisely to destroy the thing so as not to damage the furniture.

Two halves of whatever it was clattered apart and fell to the floor where he couldn’t see them, and Hajime was by now so worn out that he didn’t feel like retrieving them immediately to confirm or disprove his guess. He just sheathed his sword and leaned on the desk, around which Gains, still yelling, was approaching. “That was one of Enishi’s prized possessions, you brainless fraud! What the hell are you thinking, when I told you not to touch anything in here, destroying things without even explaining what the hell you’re doing?”

“The goddamn thing was packed full of shade!” Sano, now attempting to shout Gains down from the doorway, had apparently followed Hajime’s order of retreat no farther than would yet allow him to watch. “It wouldn’t have done you any fucking good to have the room cleared if that thing was still left!”

Perhaps not having heard (and undoubtedly not having understood), Gains continued his tirade right into Hajime’s ear. The exorcist continued mostly ignoring him, but the loud tone wasn’t exactly diminishing his headache. He did stand straight, however, when Sano, having entered the room, bent to collect the broken pieces from the carpet and bring them around.

It was a picture frame, or had been. It had matched the other one; the expense of the set was one of Gains’s current points of protest. And the photo, now sliced diagonally down the middle into fairly neat, nearly triangular halves, showed a red-haired man with Japanese features marred by the type of meandering pink scar-lines one might obtain from a car accident.

“This is… Kenshin…” Sano muttered. “Isn’t it.” There wasn’t really any interrogative quality to the remark.

“How the hell do you know who he is?” demanded Gains, who must have been paying better attention than the others had believed.

Shaking his head, Hajime didn’t bother to answer the question; nor to comment that the picture, depicting Kenshin and being suffused with Enishi’s shade, had undoubtedly acted as a sort of focus or channel allowing that shade to transfer continually to Kenshin’s ghost; nor to wonder aloud at hatred so obsessive it led to the keeping of a photo of its object exactly parallel to one of somebody for whom the possessor, presumably, felt the opposite emotion.

Instead, he tore his eyes away from the severed image and fixed them on one of the men at his side. “I believe it’s your turn, Mr. Gains.”

Part 29


Whatever look Hajime had given Gains, along with the admittedly ambiguous declaration in an unexpectedly threatening tone that it was ‘his turn,’ must have been particularly scary, for even in the midst of his newly increased wrath the secretary took two steps back and raised his hands defensively. Sano didn’t wait for whatever bullshit Gains had to say at the moment, however; he broke in with, “No, it’s not; it’s your turn.”

A startled and even angry expression turned toward Sano as he set down the two halves of the ruined picture frame with greater care than he would have given them had they contained no broken glass. “What do you–” Hajime began, but evidently the amount of anger just in those three words was enough to prove to him that he needed some attention.

“Yeah,” said Sano, enjoying while he had the chance a Hajime angrier than he was. “I’m probably going to need some help from you after I’ve dealt with him. Can’t have you already half as pissed as I am. Come sit down and let me–” It flashed across his mind to say, ‘let me suck it out of you,’ but decided just in time that the situation and company called for different phrasing. “–absorb this shit,” was what he went with instead.

“I should have you two con artists shot.” As Sano led the surprisingly willing Hajime out of the office and toward one of the low sofas in the little lounge next door, Gains was trailing after them with clenched fists and red energy pulsing around him in waves. “I should just kill you both myself,” he seethed. “How dare you threaten me? Destroying things in the CEO’s office, you goddamn spies!”

“Shut the fuck up, would you?” It wasn’t that Sano didn’t think Gains could kill them or have them killed as easily as snapping his fingers; it wasn’t that he couldn’t sympathize about the type of anger Gains was trying to deal with right now; it was just that he had very little patience for anyone that could watch Hajime’s magnificently performed exorcism in the other room and then call him a brainless fraud.

“Sano,” said Hajime sharply. He’d taken a seat without protest, but didn’t appear to approve of Sano antagonizing the client. Or whatever Gains was. “If you’ll wait just a minute, Mr. Gains,” he went on in the most rigid, enforcedly polite tone Sano had ever heard, “Sano will help you.”

“Why the hell can’t you do it?” Apparently, despite the fact that Hajime had supposedly threatened him with a deadly weapon, Gains still trusted him over the younger man that had done nothing here so far except tell him to shut the fuck up.

Hajime’s politeness cracking, he replied, “I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.” It was the last of his unusual anger, though, for as this exchange had taken place Sano had seated himself beside the exorcist, put a hand on his suit-jacketed shoulder, and drawn the shade right out of him. It had come unexpectedly smoothly and easily, and the increase in Sano’s ire it caused might have been a good thing in that it kept him from dwelling on how well he’d become attuned not just to this particular shade, but to Hajime.

“Thank you.” The gold eyes turned in his direction were tired, but Sano thought it was a temporary weakness at worst.

So he replied with an angry grin and a murmured, “Just let me know when you think you can handle me.”

“I can handle you any time, idiot,” Hajime answered in the same tone. “But if you mean a fist fight, give me just a couple of minutes.”

Sano’s voice dropped even further as, situation and company notwithstanding, he simply couldn’t help remarking, “I think you just flirted with me.”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “And I think you really are an idiot.”

“Is this what you came here for?” Gains’s impatient derision broke into the quiet conversation. “To stink up my rooms with this kind of queer bullshit?”

Sano was on his feet, fists clenched, stalking toward the secretary, before he realized he was even moving. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”

“Sano,” said Hajime again, and this second remonstrance was every bit as hard as his grip on Sano’s arm; he too had stood, and was clearly ready to restrain his companion by whatever means necessary.

There was a very tense moment of silence as two men faced off and a third awaited the outcome. Sano thought he saw something like a mirror of his own struggle in Gains as each of them, with an effort of will, attempted not to release his rage on the other. Sano knew perfectly well that reacting to the old man’s remark would be — and Gains probably knew perfectly well that what he’d said had been — utterly counterproductive.

“Just a couple of minutes,” Hajime reiterated quietly behind Sano… and he was, in fact, so close behind Sano that these words provided a sudden but pointed distraction. Whether Hajime had intended this Sano couldn’t guess, but his next words of distraction, directed over Sano’s shoulder, were clearly meant as such: “Mr. Gains, would you tell us a little about your unusual art?”

Judging by his face, Gains too was aware of the purpose of this request, but, just as Sano had been on multiple previous occasions, he was willing to play along. He began pacing and speaking quickly, first irately but gradually more calmly as his anger was in some measure repressed or circumnavigated by the interest of his topic. Sano found himself dragged backward into another sitting position on the sofa beside Hajime, who gave him a warning look. So with a deep breath and fists yet unclenched, he listened.

To capture the beauty of the human body in its essence rather than its technicality — whatever that meant — was apparently Gains’s artistic motivation, flesh his particular fascination, and achieving the precise look and feel of flesh combined with the durability and longevity of more traditional sculpting material such as stone his ultimate ambition. The application of other media to imitate the effects of human skin had never satisfied him, so he’d been experimenting with amalgamations.

Myriad combinations of sculpting materials and flesh-like substances were available, but so far none of them had been able to answer both his aesthetic desire and the artificial aging process he applied to test the endurance of the finished product. He’d found that the use of actual skin (obtained whence he did not mention) tended, predictably, to produce the best visual and tactile results, but that he could much more easily chemically integrate his sculpting material into artificial flesh grown in his lab — and that in either case, decomposition became an issue. Nylons and rubbers were more readily manipulated and lasted longer, but lacked the verisimilitude he wanted. And that wasn’t even beginning to touch on the differing degrees of chemical compatibility of different sculpting materials with all these substances or the gradient of longevity of the resulting compounds.

He’d been working on this for many years, and felt he’d at least developed a smooth and meticulous system of experimentation that must allow him, eventually, to hit on the result he wanted. It was only a matter of time.

Little as Sano had expected it to be, this was all quite interesting, and the next time he took any stock of his surroundings and his own mood he found that even his anger had been pushed back a bit by the discourse. Additionally, it had been at least the couple of minutes Hajime had requested, which meant that hopefully it was time for Sano’s big scene and then they could get the hell out of here. A glance at the exorcist won him a nod of confirmation, so he jumped to his feet.

“That,” he said in sincere admiration, pointing at Gains, “is cool. Creepy, but cool.”

Gains didn’t seem to know quite how to take this, and only glowered at him.

“Now, just hold still for a sec.” After cracking his knuckles, Sano reached out again toward the secretary. Gains flared red at the approach, shifted a bit, but held his ground. “It doesn’t hurt or anything,” Sano assured him as he came within arm’s length and put a hand on Gains’s bony shoulder.

It didn’t hurt, but it was much rougher than it had been with Hajime. Sano tried not to think about that, especially since it was becoming clear that he was going to have to focus hard in order to make it through the entire length of this process. Damn, there was a lot of this stuff. He pulled and pulled, trying not to look at anything, not even at what he was pretty sure were dentures in Gains’s mouth, because at the moment even false teeth were enough to break his concentration and send him into a blood frenzy, and there was still more of this shade. That Gains had been able to be distracted away from it at all was a shock; it was probably because he was so old and had more practice at controlling his emotions, but even so, there was a lot here.

Combined with what Sano had already absorbed, both in the office and from Hajime, this was going to leave him with a greater amount of internalized shade energy than he thought he’d ever carried at once before. And there was still more. The world was turning red, Sano’s thoughts were melting away as if in a hot or corrosive substance, and still there was more. Something deadly, fueled by the shade, was pushing out from his mind in a gradual, unstoppable wave, and somehow there was more. He was ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, and still there was more.

Everything he knew, everything he was, everything seemed to be exploding in exquisitely excruciating slow motion.

And still there was more.

Part 30


Hajime had never slept on the sofa in his den. He knew it was comfortable enough to sit on, but, though he had once or twice dozed off during a DVD he’d thought would be more interesting, he hadn’t ever had occasion to test this seat’s functionality as a bed before. And perhaps this was why, though he’d been attempting to take a much-needed nap, he just couldn’t lie still. He had to rise, again and again, and go back to his bedroom to check on the young man he’d installed in his own, actual bed.

After a while, though, he was forced to face facts: this really had nothing to do with the comfort level of the sofa. Had it been merely that keeping him awake, he might have made himself useful — might have contacted Kaoru to let her know things were progressing, or might at least have tried to find Kenshin to attempt to see exactly how much more progress they needed to make. But, no, all he could bring himself to do was look in, over and over, at the motionless figure of Sano, and long to smoke a cigarette.

Finally he gave in to the unhealthy urge. He usually didn’t smoke inside the house, but at the moment he couldn’t quite bear to go farther away from his bedroom than just across the hall, in case Sano woke up. So he opened the windows in the den and hovered beside them at one end of the sofa as he poisoned himself and the air around him.

When next his inability to stand still brought him to face the interior of the room, he found Tokio looking up at him with an air both skeptical and a little concerned. He waved his free hand in the direction of the bedroom and asked, “Is Misao still in there?”

She began to lick a paw as she explained that Sano had a very high body temperature.

Hajime wondered if this was natural or if the young man had a fever. A fever was only to be expected. A fever could be controlled.

Tokio cocked her head. She’d been under the impression that Hajime was the one that had hurt Sano — but if he’d done it deliberately, why was he fretting about it?

Turning back to the window, stabbing the remainder of his cigarette into the ash tray on the sill, trying to combat the desire to light another, Hajime said harshly, “Yes, I was the one. I had no choice.”

But that wasn’t quite true. There might have been some other way to exorcize the greater-than-usual amount of shade Sano had absorbed. Though it was a technique he’d never really used, Hajime might have been able to attune himself to the energy and absorb some of it to take part of the load off Sano. But could he have figured it out in time? Or what they’d done before — the insults and the arguments and the actual fighting — might have worked just as well as ever, once Sano had awakened from the faint his unusual level of absorption had induced. But that had been the difficulty: it had rather seemed as if Sano never would awaken. The much-diminished pulse and respiration rate, the rapidly cooling extremities, and, worst of all, the completely inaccessible psyche behind an impenetrable barrier of shade…

Hajime didn’t remember ever having been so worried. And though his desperate measures had had the desired effect, had brought Sano back, that had only changed the shape of his worry. And Tokio was picking up on it.

Was this, she queried, one of those behaviors pack animals like humans engaged in? Had Hajime hurt Sano in order to establish dominance, and now he worried that he hadn’t gotten his point across thoroughly enough?

“Oh, I’m sure I made my point.” Then, in spite of his better judgment, he asked, “Why would you think I’d want to establish dominance?”

Tokio replied that it would be to make certain Sano knew whom he belonged to.

“And what makes you think he belongs to me?”

She stretched out so that the markings on her back seemed to ripple along her long body, which was her equivalent of a shrug. She’d never seen him this invested in another human before, so she’d just assumed that Hajime wanted to keep Sano as his mate. Humans sometimes kept mates of the same sex, she added wisely as she began walking out of the room. She personally didn’t see the attraction, but neither did she understand cars or bathtubs or why she and Misao were supposed to stay off the kitchen counters; Hajime undoubtedly knew all about human things like that. Then she added that it smelled bad in here, and was gone.

Hajime gave a soft, bitter laugh. So now even his familiar’s thoughts pointed that direction, did they?

He lit another cigarette.

He wasn’t blind to what Sano wanted. How could he be? Little as he’d ever been interested in anything of the sort, he wasn’t unaware of its existence or its importance in the lives of others. And Sano hadn’t exactly been discreet. His interest had developed rapidly — for all the hours they’d spent together, it had still been only a single week — but Sano himself had admitted that he made fast decisions, and Hajime supposed there had been wilder and hastier ones.

This would all be much simpler if Hajime could claim he didn’t like Sano, as that would neatly solve this little problem. But he did, in fact, like Sano. It was odd… he didn’t like many people… but he liked Sano, enough that he didn’t think he could bring himself to lie about it.

He liked the way Sano seemed to live so intensely and yet so lazily, somehow, at the same time. He liked Sano’s sense of humor. He liked that, aimless as Sano often appeared, still he had standards he passionately adhered to. He even liked the way Sano grumbled so much despite simultaneously seeming pretty happy with his life.

And perhaps some of this had been brought to Hajime’s attention only by the sight of Sano’s blood on his hands.

Insulting Sano, annoying Sano, even thinking badly of some of Sano’s life choices… that was one thing. But today’s experience had proven to Hajime that the idea of losing Sano was uncomfortable and agitating enough to be called, perhaps, painful.

But wasn’t he, in thinking thus, trying to hold onto something he’d never actually had? Maybe Tokio was right, and he was trying to establish ownership. Because though their relationship wasn’t exactly professional, they weren’t exactly friends either.

At some point during these thoughts, Hajime had finished his second cigarette and drifted yet again to his bedroom door. The room’s interior was dim, but still he could make out certain aspects of Sano’s face, and the faint light from the hallway on the curve of shoulders — one bare, one bulked up by white bandage — just above the blanket. Misao was visible as a perfect black circle at the young man’s side.

Friendship, though a rarity in Hajime’s life, was nothing distasteful. Friendship with Sano, he thought, was even specifically desirable. He would like to get to know a Sano that wasn’t enraged all the time. He would like to see where Sano’s geological fixation went, how the skinflint father would take the news. He would like to gather more evidence for or against his theory about Sano’s magical talents. He would like to talk to Sano about… well, anything, really. He could easily envision a lot of time spent with Sano with little more to do than what he believed people generally called ‘hanging out.’ He just… wanted Sano around.

But Sano obviously wanted more than that. At this point, assuming he didn’t hate Hajime forever when he woke up and learned what had happened, Sano might even believe he was entitled to more than friendship. And though that was nonsense, still Hajime didn’t like the idea of disappointing him.

Of the type of relationship Sano probably had in mind, however… of the type of emotions that would prompt someone to form such a relationship, or at least would be expected to develop once they had… Hajime simply wasn’t sure he was capable. Even the more simplistic concept Tokio had suggested, that of seeking a mate — at least in the sexual sense — was something completely alien to him. And any sense less intimately involved than that, he was afraid Sano would not accept.

He didn’t want to hurt Sano, but, just as he had earlier today, he feared there was no other option.

“I have to say, it is nice to finally see what he looks like. I believe I never saw him during my life.”

Though the soft voice immediately to Hajime’s left and a little above him was unexpected, the exorcist thought he managed to hide his startlement fairly well as he turned to regard the ghost that had at some point appeared silently at his side. “You might not recognize him right now even if you had,” he replied; “he’s unusually dressed today. The bandages aren’t normal either. I think.” And as he said this, he took his first real look at Kenshin Himura.

Part 31


Kenshin Himura was taking his first real look at the man he was fairly certain had been around him quite a bit just recently. The narrow eyes that currently returned his scrutiny were an unsettlingly light brown or even gold, and, like the other harsh features surrounding them, distinctly Japanese. Figure tall and lean, hairstyle odd and angular, clad in stark black and white, the man wasn’t the most friendly-looking of all the people Kenshin could have had his first post-dissolution conversation with. So happy was Kenshin, however, to be able to have a conversation with anyone that he wasn’t going to complain.

When the man finished his examination of the ghost and turned back to regard the sleeper in the room beyond, Kenshin was reminded of the topic on which he’d started the aforementioned conversation. “Is he all right? I missed what happened to him.”

“He’ll be fine,” said the tall man briefly. After a moment he glanced at Kenshin again. “So you didn’t go into the building, then. Sano was wondering why it was taking you so long to catch up.” Sano, Kenshin noted, was the name of the man they were discussing — the one he’d been haunting for… he wasn’t really sure how long.

“The place the red mist was coming from?” he answered the question, shaking his head and smiling wanly. “No. I think it’s safe to say I have had enough of that for one afterlife. When I got close to where Sano had stopped and felt how much more of it there was, I waited at a distance. And then… I was already under the impression that Sano was trying to help me, but I wasn’t ready for the red mist just to disappear all of a sudden.”

Though he spoke calmly, he knew he would never forget as long as he… existed… the abrupt withdrawal of the angry shroud that had kept him for so many uncounted days or weeks or months largely cut off from the world. He’d found he’d almost forgotten what that world was even like in his near-complete lack of ability to sense it properly. Suddenly able to see and hear and smell and taste again (though touch, it appeared, was not to be restored), he’d gone a little crazy for a while: losing track of his priorities, he’d floated aimlessly in sensory overload until the moment he’d realized Sano was once more on the move; then he’d retraced his… path… and followed Sano as he’d been doing since he’d first found him, and eventually come to this house.

“I did that, actually.”

This curt pronouncement dragged Kenshin back out of intense memory to the present, and prompted him to reply, “Then thank you very much.”

The man nodded slightly, then murmured, “Not that Sano wasn’t useful.”

It was a little odd how precisely Kenshin still seemed able to mark his own movements and gestures when he lacked a sense of touch. Consciousness of remembered muscular impulse, perhaps? It didn’t really matter; all that did was that he now found himself smiling slightly as he followed the man’s intent gaze back to the sleeping Sano in the bedroom. “He is a remarkable person, you know.”

Shifting, raising a hand to the doorframe, then stilling again, the man said nothing.

“I know you have talked to my wife,” Kenshin began a little more quietly, “so you may know that I was haunting her for a while…” He paused. He’d meant this as a comment about Sano, but he realized quickly that it was going to become an explanation or even a story, and had to backtrack and start at an earlier point. “When I died, I was not sure why I became a ghost. I was drawn to Kaoru, almost pulled towards her, which I thought was only natural; but there were no other ghosts around, so being one could not be entirely natural. I thought maybe I was allowed to stay so I could learn why she was so upset with me during that last month of my life. I thought maybe I was being punished for whatever I did to her… or maybe,” he added contemplatively, “for something I did years ago…”

All the intensity of the amber gaze had transferred to Kenshin now, though the man made no move to leave the doorway where he stood and still did not say a word. In the face of such obvious interest, Kenshin could but go on, though going on at this point was not necessarily easy.

“I watched her suffering… I watched her trying to be strong for everyone else, for Kenji — trying to decide how much to tell him and how to answer his questions — but she could not hide how much pain she was in from me, since I saw her when nobody else was looking.” Were the tears on his face just some sort of astral projection? Merely a memory of tears? And how, exactly, was he even aware that they were there, when he couldn’t feel them? He took a deep, false breath into lungs that, he supposed, no longer really existed.

“There has always been a sort of… pulling… feeling… I’m afraid I have no way to describe it any better than that, but it has been there since the beginning — since the moment I realized I was dead: something pulling me, trying to pull me away from here, I guess into whatever comes next. And Kaoru was what held me back. Watching her in so much pain and wanting to talk to her, to try and help her somehow, kept me from ever responding at all to that pulling… thing. And it got worse when I finally found out what really happened that night when I died.

“You would think a ghost would know all about his own death. Doesn’t it seem unfair to die and not know anything more than you did when you were alive? But I didn’t know the truth until I heard her say it out loud. I think it was the only time she has said it out loud since it happened, unless she told you…”

“She did,” the man — whom Kenshin was beginning to regard as his audience — nodded. “And don’t be concerned that she’ll get in any trouble for it; we don’t intend to tell anyone.”

“Thank you,” said Kenshin, intensely and sincerely. His first impression (more or less) of this harsh stranger wasn’t a very good one, but he deeply appreciated that the man had made this reassurance immediately and unbidden. He went on with his story. “She said it like a sort of prayer, as if by saying it out loud she might be able to get control of what happened and how she felt about it. It didn’t work, but it let me hear the truth about how I died and what happened before that.

“When I knew Kaoru felt like a murderer because of what she had done, I wanted even more than ever to talk to her somehow. I wanted to let her know I did not — that I could never blame her, and that actually I knew what it… well…” No reason to pour out, in his wife’s absence, everything he wanted to say to her. “That kind of thing. I knew then that that was why I became a ghost. I can’t move on, no matter how hard it pulls me, until I tell her.

“But she could not hear me or see me; she had no idea I was there. I don’t know how long that went on. I don’t think I am aware of time the same way I was when I was alive; I have no idea how long I spent trying to communicate with her without being able to get even the smallest response from her.”

The man snorted quietly. “That sounds familiar,” he murmured, and left Kenshin to interpret the remark as he would.

“And then the red mist came. It appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden and completely covered me. I had no way of knowing what it was or where it came from, and, though I did not like it, at first I also did not consider it a problem.”

“It didn’t make you angry?” the man wondered with a raised brow.

“Not me,” replied Kenshin ruefully.

“Interesting.”

“All it did to me was cut me off from everything. I couldn’t see or hear anything around me through the mist, except for… well, I could still sense my wife and son, but it was not the same as before. Before, I saw and heard everything just like I did when I was alive, just like I can now. But through the mist, it was… a different sense. Something that was probably there all along, but that I never noticed until it was the only way I could find them.”

“A psychic connection.” Though the man’s tone was contemplative, the little nod he gave had no doubt in it. “Even people without any magical skill form bonds like that with others.”

Not entirely pleased with a pronouncement as of expertise from someone that hadn’t actually been part of this experience, but not wanting be impolite, Kenshin merely accepted the diagnosis with a nod of his own and continued. “Whatever it was, I was able to ‘see’ Kaoru and Kenji even through the mist, and there were even a few things relating to them that got through normally — whenever one of them mentioned the other out loud, I could still hear it — but most of what they were actually doing and saying I usually couldn’t make out. I can’t say for sure how long it took me to realize that the mist was affecting Kaoru — or, even once I did notice, how long it took me to decide that it really was the mist, or possibly me, and not some other cause.

“You probably know what it did to her. Yes?” Kenshin shook his head, remembering in powerless pity and frustration. “I never wanted to talk to her any less, to tell her everything I wanted to tell her… and inside the mist I felt that pulling sensation even less than before… so for me, nothing had changed except maybe to make me want to stay with her even more. But I couldn’t stay with her and keep making her situation even worse than it already was and her even more unhappy. I had to leave. I had no idea where I could go or what I would do, or even if I would ever see my wife again, but… I couldn’t stay.”

Again the man nodded, this time in a manner that suggested he’d had guesses confirmed by this. At the same time, his interest seemed to intensify as Kenshin was finally approaching what had been the point of his long narrative from the beginning.

“I just started wandering,” he said, “aimlessly.” Helplessly he lifted his spectral hands. Trying to describe the emptiness, the hopelessness, the misery of a search without an object, a path without a destination, of knowing he’d left everything he loved behind in more pain even that he felt… he wasn’t going to bother with the attempt. Instead, he let his hands fall to his sides and glanced into the bedroom. “And then I sensed Sano.

“I had already found that Kaoru and Kenji were not the only ones I could sense through the mist. There were people here and there, when I was moving around without any real place to go, who I could sense, a little. But Sano was… amazingly clearer, and more something I was drawn to, than anyone else. He was almost as clear as Kaoru and Kenji. I never met him while I was alive, so it probably wasn’t any kind of psychic connection — at least not one that I had already made. I think what I felt was… potential.

“He was not my friend, but he could have been. He was the kind of person I could have been friends with, best friends with. He was somebody I could have loved. I think I was drawn to him because I could sense all sorts of things about him, maybe things that would have taken me a lot longer when I was alive. It was like…” Kenshin paused, pensive, trying to think how to describe it, and eventually settled on a metaphor.

“Imagine flying over a tropical island completely covered in mist. You know there is a jungle beneath you; you know exactly what kinds of plants and animals are down there, but you can’t see anything through the mist. And then ahead of you, rising out of the mist and glowing, you see a volcano. That was what finding Sano was like.” Though certain misleadingly visual terms rendered this not entirely satisfying, Kenshin left it as it was, mostly because of the expression it had occasioned on his companion’s face.

“A volcano.” For some reason, the man had just the faintest trace of a glower between his eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth, and Kenshin got the oddest feeling that this guy was jealous because he hadn’t thought of the description first. “Yes, that’s Sano.”

“He could see me. He was the first person I encountered after I died who could, and that meant a lot. I thought it was ironic that I could not see him, or figure out much about him from what I sensed — not his name, or how old he was, or anything like that… but part of the feeling I had about him, that drew me to him, was that he could help me. I felt like he had the potential — whatever kind of magical powers you folks have that could help me, I felt like he had them — and that he was the kind of person who’d be willing to try.”

The man had gone back to staring into the bedroom. “I can’t be sure yet,” he said thoughtfully, “but I think he’s what we call a natural — someone who subconsciously uses all branches of magic, and masters anything he consciously tries to learn very easily. Naturals are very rare.”

“He’s certainly something special,” Kenshin agreed with a nod. “If I had not found him, I have no idea where I would be now. Though,” he added politely, “as you mentioned, I have you to thank for getting rid of the red mist.”

“That still wouldn’t have happened without Sano,” the man admitted. And now, finally, he moved away from the bedroom door, turning fully to face Kenshin and fixing him with a pointed gaze. “But there is a way you can repay the favor.”

Though Kenshin was more than a little impatient to get back to Kaoru now that the mist was gone and he’d explained himself to at least one of the people here, there was nothing to be said in response to that remark but, “I will do whatever I can.”

“I’m an exorcist.” A more thorough introduction, Kenshin thought, would have been appropriate at this juncture, but the man evidently didn’t agree. “Anything more I can find out about your current state would be professionally useful to me, if you wouldn’t mind answering some questions.”

An exorcist, was it? Probably about as close to the polar opposite of a ghost as you could get. Perhaps it was natural, then, for Kenshin to dislike this man, so he didn’t have to bother trying not to. “I’ll be happy to tell you anything I can,” he promised politely.

“Come with me, then,” the man commanded. And with one last glance in at the sleeping Sano, he moved away purposefully down the hall.

Part 32


A number of points had Sano just a little worried when he properly regained consciousness.

He’d been swimming through the very uncomfortable type of chaotic and incoherent half-awake dream state he generally only ever experienced when his brain was muddled by medication, which was bad enough… but usually he found himself in his own bed upon his unsettled full awakening. This bed was completely unfamiliar — and the immediate would-be cheerful thought in the back of his head that it smelled like Hajime was rather more disquieting than comforting, since he wasn’t aware that he knew what Hajime smelled like.

Similarly, he could swear up and down that he’d been hearing Kenshin’s voice while he slept, much more clearly and realistically than any noise his dreams could have provided… but he didn’t know what Kenshin’s voice sounded like. He didn’t even know where Kenshin was, and hadn’t for… how long had it been?

Then, something was… off. Something was different, something was missing. That he recognized this so distinctly and certainly, but could in no way define precisely what had changed, was frustrating and simultaneously surreal. The knowledge was barely beyond his grasp, and that made him doubt it was actually there, doubt his own senses. All but one.

For the factor that gave him the most unease was the pain. He thought this was specifically what had awakened him, since it had been increasing for some time and must just have reached a level where he couldn’t sleep through it anymore. Which made sense, since it was a raging ache that at first seemed to have his entire upper body in a hot, tight grip. As he breathed shallowly and slowly turned his head, however, he came gradually to realize that it was centered in his right shoulder.

Actually, movement brought him a few answers. When he noticed the tiny warm body curled into an impossibly tight spiral at his side, her furry flanks expanding gently with each sleeping breath, he was convinced beyond any doubt that he was in a bed that might reasonably be expected to smell like Hajime — whatever that might smell like. Then, the nightstand nearby was host to a green plastic bottle with a big, otherwise-blank white label across which was scrawled, as with a Sharpie on an inconveniently curved surface, Percocet — which explained the drug dreams.

This nightstand was — thank god! — on his left. Some discomfort resulted even from moving his left arm, but he could at least do so. What he couldn’t do, yet, was sit up in order to avail himself of the glass of water that was neighbor to the green bottle. He almost wasn’t capable of getting the bottle open, one-handed, horizontal, and barely coherent as he was, but fortunately it didn’t seem to be the most medically official prescription ever dispensed and lacked a child-proof lid. The viciously disgusting flavor of the two pills he fished from inside and attempted to swallow made him long for the water, but that was an unattainable ambition for now. So he lay still trying not to think about the taste in his mouth or the sensation of the bulky pain killer moving slowly down his esophagus.

What the hell had happened to him was something he would rather like to figure out, but, though the bandages on his right shoulder seemed a good place to start, he wasn’t quite up to the amount of movement or probing of the painful area that would be required to seek the answer. Instead, he concentrated on another answer he was slowly becoming aware of.

He wasn’t angry. At all. That was the large-scale change he’d been sensing since waking. He’d come so close to forgetting what it felt like not to be angry, not to have at least a little red shade tainting everything he thought or did, that it had taken him this long to recognize its absence.

They’d done it. He was free. He was no longer haunted by a shade.

Whether or not he was still haunted by a ghost was a different story. Where was Kenshin? Had he really been there, talking, while Sano slept? Perhaps he’d said goodbye; perhaps Sano would never see him again — never truly see him except in a ruined photograph in the office of the man that had caused his death and set all of this in motion.

What had happened back at the Seido building? How had Sano gotten from there to Hajime’s house minus shade but plus some kind of really painful injury? Had Gains perhaps decided that Sano, uncontrollably irate after absorbing so much angry energy, was a threat to security, and had him shot? And in that case, had something unpleasant happened to Hajime as well? Where was Hajime?

Logically, being in Hajime’s house, Hajime’s bed, meant that Hajime himself must be present and well enough to have arranged those circumstances. But still the thought that he as well as Sano might have been hurt at the Seido headquarters was enough to galvanize Sano into much more vigorous activity than he’d previously been planning for any time soon. He jerked the blanket aside, startling a protest out of the suddenly awakened Misao, and sat up.

The Percocet definitely hadn’t kicked in yet; the pain radiating from his shoulder made his head feel dizzy and pressurized and his stomach nauseated. But he fought through it, swiveling his legs off the side of the bed and propping himself on his left hand.

Misao had wormed her way out of the bedding that had been thrown over her, and now was stretching toward him looking bleary and perhaps a little annoyed that he’d so abruptly interrupted her nap. Not quite ready to rise, Sano reached out the hand on which his weight had previously rested, feeling a little precarious as a result, and clumsily scratched the little ridgey area between the cat’s ears. “Hey, Misao,” he said. It came out in a rough whisper. “Where’s your familiar?”

She sat down beside him, eyes half open as she accepted the caress, and replied that Hajime was in the den across the hall.

The fact that he’d perfectly understood her meow was something he would have to wonder about later. For the moment, he drew a deep breath in preparation for forcing himself to stand. This turned out to have been a mistake, for the swelling of his chest also affected the injured shoulder and left him reeling where he sat for a few pain-blinded instants. But as his legs seemed unhurt, he forced them to lift the rest of his body into an upright position. Immediately he stumbled unstably forward into the nearest wall, but he didn’t seem to be in any danger of actually falling, and with such a solid guide could make his way around to the bedroom door, the hallway beyond, and the other door across from him.

It seemed to be evening, as the house without any lights turned on was dim. A clock stood on Hajime’s nightstand, but even had Sano been at a better angle to read the red numbers while looking in that direction, he’d been too focused on the pain killer to note the time. But at least there was enough fading daylight through the windows behind the couch in the den to show him the sleeping figure of Hajime.

Against Sano’s bare skin, the coolness of the doorframe that was currently supporting him after what had almost been a leap across the hall made him wonder vaguely what had happened to his shirt. But mostly he was just sagging in relief at the sight of Hajime unhurt before him. Of course the fear that Hajime might have been hurt had been a fantastic one in the first place, but that didn’t make the relief less palpable, less emotionally overwhelming, or even, at this point, physically problematic. He couldn’t move an inch; he was sure he really would fall to the floor this time. So he just let the painted wood continue to support him, and stared as the light faded.

‘Crush,’ he feared, was no adequate term. It didn’t matter that it had only been a week; he was seriously into this guy. Which was funny, since Hajime’s behavior hadn’t given Sano any overwhelming reason to like him.

But he couldn’t help it. Hajime was so admirably, drivingly purposeful that it was as if Sano, breathless and unable even to protest, was just caught up and swept along. Hajime always seemed to know exactly what needed to be done, and didn’t hesitate to do it. Similarly, he always knew exactly what he wanted — what he wanted to do, what he wanted to learn, what he wanted to be — and pursued it without reference to anything or anyone. He’d chosen to work in the branch of magic he liked best rather than the one in which he had the most natural skill; he’d chosen the profession he wanted, the way of life he wanted, in spite of the overbearing desires of his family. He was all about will, all about choice, and the things he willed and chose always seemed to be fundamentally right.

‘Nice’ wasn’t exactly a word Sano would have used to describe Hajime… and yet, though he would never postulate as much aloud to the man himself, he believed that Hajime had chosen exorcism not merely because the actual work involved was interesting, but because he still wanted somehow to help people, to better lives by eliminating some of the evils that arose in them, even if those people and those lives were not really to his taste. It was a backward sort of charity that Sano probably shouldn’t have found as intriguing and attractive as he did.

Because, god, Hajime’s taste… what was Hajime’s taste? If he preferred to disdain everyone, to put on politeness like a creepy mask in order to interact with a world he wasn’t interested in being a real part of just for the sake of destroying shades and then retreating… then this little infatuation of Sano’s was undoubtedly hopeless. He thought they’d had some fun together; he thought Hajime had shown signs of enjoying Sano’s company… but perhaps that had only been a businessman making the best of time he was forced to spend with a non-paying client in the pursuit of gathering information about a potential asset. All just professional.

But Hajime did have at least one friend; that was how Sano had interpreted the suggestion of lunch with that Chou guy, anyway. And if he had at least one friend, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have at least two. And if he had at least two friends, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have a boyfriend. Unless he wasn’t into men at all, which was a topic of research on which Sano hadn’t been able to make any progress whatsoever. Not by action, attitude, or anecdote had Hajime given a single hint as to what his sexual orientation might be. He didn’t read as gay, or bisexual, or straight; he didn’t read as anything. On that score Sano was utterly confounded, and hadn’t quite had the nerve to ask outright.

Hopeless, then?

So long did Sano stand in the doorway of the den with eyes and thoughts directed intensely at the man on the couch that any sunlight from outside had completely faded and the Percocet had started to take effect before he remembered where he was. Misao had abandoned him at some point, having yawningly remarked that he was boring and gone back into the bedroom. And Sano had straightened, he found; as the pain had faded somewhat he’d mostly stopped leaning on the doorframe. Now he looked interestedly down at his bandaged shoulder.

Gingerly with his left hand, he sought out the tape that held in place the outer wrap circling his shoulder and armpit. Peeling it carefully back, he was able to loosen it so as to get at the layers beneath. The bottom one was taped directly to his skin, and painful to work free far enough to see under, and even when he’d managed it he couldn’t make out a thing in the current darkness.

Returning to Hajime’s bedroom and closing the door, he flipped on the light and took another look. A bathroom mirror might have been a better option, as this angle wasn’t the most convenient, but he was going to lie back down in a second here and didn’t feel like leaving the room again.

He’d never been shot, and only had Hollywood’s word on what a gunshot wound looked like… and on this evidence he determined that such was not the nature of this hurt. Beneath the stitches, the injury ran in a neat, perfectly straight line such as might have been formed by a precise hand holding a scalpel.

Or an equally, or perhaps even more precise hand on the hilt of a sword.

“I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.”

Oddly, and maybe at least in part because the Percocet was making him a little weird in the head, his initial reaction to this discovery was weak, breathy, and nearly uncontrollable laughter as he sat down on the bed, clumsily re-sealed the tape, and re-tightened the outer layers and the wrap around his shoulder. There was, he couldn’t help thinking, some irony in finding this just after he’d been reflecting on how and why he liked Hajime so damn much.

So that was how… that was why… yes, that explained just about everything. And everything suddenly just seemed really funny and stupid. He staggered back up, with a lot more pain than sound in the breaths that expanded his chest, and moved to turn the light off and crack the door in case Misao wanted out while he slept. This last was something it was definitely time to be doing.

Part 33


Necromancy, though it had turned out to be within his abilities, was nothing Hajime had ever practiced before, which meant that just about every word Kenshin had spoken yesterday had required specific concentration on Hajime’s part to understand, and the entire ordeal had left him even more mentally spent than he’d already been. He’d slept long and hard, so much that he’d arisen with no clearer idea of the comfort level of the den sofa than he’d had yesterday afternoon. And now it was Saturday morning, a little later than he usually rose, and he was going through a headachy process of making breakfast for two when he wasn’t quite sure when or if the second party would want it.

The cats had remarked leadingly that the sausage smelled interesting, then been distracted from that topic by their own breakfasts, and Hajime had taken some aspirin with his coffee as he started the meal on his own, before he heard noises from the hall. Slow footsteps sounded on the wood floor toward the bathroom, the door to which opened and closed.

Then (unsurprisingly, as Misao had galloped out of the kitchen the moment she’d detected signs of Sano’s wakefulness) the bathroom door opened and closed a second time, accompanied by a grumble that sounded something like, “I’ve had enough of people in the bathroom with me lately.” Sano would probably be equal parts relieved and irritated to learn that Kenshin usually hadn’t been able to see or hear his normal activities during the period of haunting.

A few minutes later, a rumpled-looking young man, hair plastered into a smooth slope in back so it came to a sort of jagged point at the top, entered the kitchen. Hajime, leaning against the counter beside the stove, set down his breakfast plate and braced himself.

Sano aimed a single finger at him and said just as pointedly, “Peacemaker Kurogane.”

This was not at all the greeting Hajime had expected, so he just raised a brow.

“I was in a shit-ton of pain last night,” Sano explained, “because for some reason it kinda looks like somebody might have stabbed me with a sword…” He paused with a frown. “And I swear I’ve heard that in a movie somewhere. Anyway, every time the Percocet wore off, I got up and wandered around for a little before the next one kicked in and I could sleep again. And I was looking through your shelves, and I discovered your dirty little secret.”

“Where you’ve heard my name before?”

“Well, yeah, that too, but I mean that you like anime. Yes, Misao, hi. Sorry I wouldn’t let you in the bathroom. Good morning.” Though the little cat had been meowing nonstop for Sano’s attention, she didn’t actually have anything to say; so once he’d satisfied her by bending briefly, stiffly, to pet her, she shut up and headed for Tokio’s food bowl in case her elder had left anything behind for her to steal.

Hajime wasn’t going to point out that, to have been looking through the shelves his DVD’s were kept on, Sano would have to have been in the den — hovering near the sleeping Hajime, in other words, which was something the waking Hajime didn’t really want to discuss. So he just said, “I like some anime. Sometimes.”

“Yeah, well, you made it sound before like you thought it was all stupid or something. But this is a series I’ve even seen — because my name’s in there too — and here you have it on DVD, and I remember now it has you in it, seeing ghosts and everything.”

Hajime didn’t feel like checking the inordinate amount of pleasure Sano was taking in this perceived triumph; in fact, he had to smile a bit at the suggestion that he himself actually featured in the series in question, and the indirect idea that he’d been named after an anime character rather than the historic figure that character represented. He did feel the need to point out, however, “All I implied before was that getting all your Japanese culture from anime was stupid.”

“Yeah, OK, fine.” Sano started to shrug, winced visibly with an audible intake of breath, and canceled whatever he’d been planning on saying next. Hajime thought it was something about never having been to Japan, but couldn’t be entirely sure when the walls were up.

“Do you want breakfast?” He turned toward where he’d kept the second half of the meal warm. “It’s eggs and rice with sausage.”

“Is that your way of apologizing for stabbing me in the shoulder?” Sano wondered, stepping forward to join Hajime at the stove and look down into the pan.

“It might be,” said Hajime neutrally. He couldn’t quite bring himself to apologize for something he really had believed was necessary, but he was sorry that so much discomfort had been the unavoidable result.

Sano’s immediate, “Then I accept,” came as a bit of a surprise, and Hajime turned just as quickly to search the young man’s face for any insincerity, for suppressed resentment. He found none. Moreover, Sano gave him half a grin and continued in a quieter tone, “It’s kindof extreme, but you wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to. It hurts like all kinds of hell, but…” Apparently he barely remembered in time to restrain a second shrug. “It’s kinda cool too.”

Hajime didn’t bother trying not to feel intensely relieved at this reaction. “Idiot.”

“Yeah, well…” Sano’s grin twisted to demonstrate just how much pain he was still in — as if Hajime couldn’t already tell. “I’ll probably punch you in the face for it next time I’m mad. And don’t do it again, OK?”

“I’ll try not to.” Hajime gestured to the dishes he’d set out for Sano’s use and changed the subject. “I have coffee or orange juice, if you’re interested. Or there’s water. I don’t recommend mixing beer with pills.”

“Yeah, I’m already spacey enough. Though it’s not so bad when I’m not laying down. Uh, water sounds good. I think orange juice or coffee would make me sick right now.”

Though Hajime had previously been eating bachelor-style standing up beside the stove, he now transferred his things to the dining table beyond the doorway out of the kitchen while Sano dished himself the remainder of the breakfast mess and filled his cup from the tap. When he joined Hajime at the table, Tokio immediately took up a place beside his chair and started demanding that he give her sausage.

Hajime vetoed this with, “It’s not good for cats.” Then to Sano he remarked, “Those stitches have to stay in for at least a week. I’ll pay for you to see a doctor, since I assume you won’t want to go back to the U.S.Seido on-site surgeon.”

“Guh, yeah, was that who put these in?” said Sano through a full mouth. “I mean, not like he didn’t do a good job or anything, but…” He shook his head. “I guess a yakuza would have a surgeon on their payroll just hanging around, wouldn’t they…” When Hajime nodded, he added, “No wonder that Percocet bottle looks so black-market.”

Hajime didn’t bother to mention that he’d double checked with Gains how quickly a qualified medical professional could be summoned before going through with his extreme measures; nor that he’d rubbed down the end of his sword, before touching Sano with it, with some chlorhexidine solution he hadn’t wanted to ask why Gains had on hand; nor did he wonder what Sano’s prior experience with black-market Percocet might be. He just reached out at a hand in the next convenient interval and touched the startled Sano’s forehead.

“You don’t feel feverish,” he said as he compared the temperature with his own.

“Nah,” said Sano, recovering quickly from his surprise. “Just in pain and kinda stupid.”

Hajime forbore from taking advantage of this opening, and continued his breakfast in silence.

Presently Sano asked, “You got any ketchup for this?”

With a skeptical look, Hajime gestured wordlessly toward the refrigerator in the next room.

“Oh, I see how it is,” said Sano as he rose. “Apology only goes so far.”

“Any moron who wants to ruin good cooking with ketchup can go get his own.”

“And yet I see you have ketchup here.” The grin was audible in Sano’s voice as he made what he believed was a clever follow-up to this remark: “What I haven’t seen yet is any good cooking.”

Hajime snorted faintly. Then he ignored the casual way Sano, upon returning to the table, picked a piece of sausage off his plate and offered it to Tokio. Then he ignored the laughing way Sano, having thus mortally offended Misao, dug out an even bigger piece for her by way of amends. It wasn’t improbable that each cat would find she didn’t like sausage very much anyway.

“That’s an interesting tattoo you have,” the exorcist said at last, thinking of the shirtless, muscular back that had just been turned on him as Sano had rummaged through the fridge.

“Oh!” Sano started, then winced as the motion must have hurt his injury. It was clear he’d completely forgotten about his tattoo, or at least never considered that Hajime would have seen it by now. At the same time, Hajime was picking up on some embarrassment on the topic strong enough to leak through the barriers in Sano’s head. “Uh, yeah…”

Pursuing this advantage, “You must really think you’re a badass,” Hajime said with a smirk.

“I am a badass,” replied Sano defiantly. “And you better have a new shirt for me.”

“Somehow I got the feeling that one you had on yesterday wasn’t exactly one of your favorites. Tokio, stop that.” Having, as Hajime had expected, deemed the sausage uneatable, she’d been trying to bury it, and the scraping of her paws on the wood floor was getting annoying. Neither the cat’s behavior nor Sano’s attempt at changing the subject, however, could keep Hajime from centering right back on the real topic at hand. “What in the world made you think it was a good idea to put the kanji for ‘evil’ permanently on your back? Especially that big?”

Shifting abashedly and looking at his plate, Sano explained. “Well, I’d just turned eighteen and gotten a pretty big tax return… I wanted to do something that would prove I was an adult and… an individual… and all that… I thought some kanji or other would be a good way to, you know, express my Japanese heritage or whatever… and this one looked cool… and plus it was kindof a rebellion against my parents, since they think only bad people get tattoos at all…”

Glancing up and finding Hajime still smirking at him, Sano frowned and went on in a more serious tone. “I can’t be sorry for the kind of person I was in the past, even if I did decide to write it really big on my back for some reason. You don’t get where you are without having been where you were.”

Impressed that Sano had made it through that last verbal tangle, Hajime withheld his remark that he didn’t believe the young man nearly as far removed from the rebellious teenager phase as Sano himself apparently did. He merely nodded his agreement with the totally just sentiment.

Now Sano was blushing faintly. “Plus it still looks cool,” he mumbled in conclusion. Following up a quick shoveling of the last of his breakfast into his mouth with a long gulp of water, he rose hastily and added, “I need to go take some more Percocet.”

Part 34


The first thing Sano had to say when he came back into the kitchen where Hajime was loading the dishwasher was, “Where’s Kenshin, by the way?” He’d been so distracted by Hajime himself that he hadn’t gotten around to asking. Which was funny, when Kenshin was so important, but, Sano supposed, not exactly unprecedented.

“He went back to his wife,” Hajime answered. “I told him we’d meet him there to help him talk to her as soon as you were feeling up to it.”

Sano would have remarked, ‘As soon as you find me a shirt to wear,’ but feared that would lead back to the topic of his tattoo. So instead he said, “I’m glad he’s doing OK now.”

“If you call being dead ‘doing OK.'”

“Better than being dead and breaded with someone else’s crazy anger.”

Hajime laughed.

“Did you get to talk to him? About the afterlife and everything, I mean? Find out all sorts of stuff that’ll make Aoshi totally jealous?”

Closing the dishwasher with what Sano thought was unnecessary firmness, Hajime looked annoyed. “Aoshi… I’m going to have to call him, aren’t I.”

“You did promise,” Sano reminded him, though not without sympathy. And then a much-belated thought struck him in response to the word ‘call.’ “Hang on,” he said with a frown of his own. “What time is it?” Starting to panic just a little, he spun completely around, searching the kitchen for a clock.

“9:24,” said Hajime, and then — Sano could sense and guess more than see that this was the case — watched in amused skepticism as Sano began frantically patting down his pockets and cursing.

Remembering eventually that he’d seen some of his personal effects on the nightstand, beside the clock that might have prevented this disaster if he’d taken note of it earlier, Sano hastily left the kitchen. Trying not to think about the necessity of Hajime’s having put his hands into Sano’s pants pockets in order to empty them of wallet, keys, and cell phone so Sano could sleep more easily, he ran to the nightstand and grabbed the last of these items.

It was dead, of course. These days, if he didn’t charge it overnight, that was always the case in the morning. He swore.

“You had a couple of texts yesterday,” Hajime volunteered from where he’d followed to the doorway of the bedroom and now was watching Sano’s frustrated efforts at getting his phone to turn on. “It seems like your excuses for not going out with your friends lately haven’t been very good.”

“No, they haven’t,” Sano agreed. “I’ve been saving all my good excuses and terrible lies for right now this very minute. Can I use your phone?”

With a smirk Hajime retrieved it from his pocket and handed it to Sano. Then he walked away, presumably to offer some privacy, and soon after Sano heard what sounded like the front door. Privacy was unlikely, however, as two cats had entered the room, taken a seat on the bed, and were now watching him with interest. He turned his back on them and, after the few seconds it took to dredge up a number he usually relied on programmed contacts to remember, called work.

No less than eight minutes and one somewhat disastrous climbing cat adventure later, he went back into the kitchen and returned the phone to its owner, who was now sorting through what must be yesterday’s mail. With a sigh Sano leaned against a nearby counter and said, “Well, I don’t think they’ll fire me. Sucks for them I know it’s more trouble to train another new maintenance guy than put up with this kind of bullshit from me… but the manager who’s in there right now is pissed.

“He wouldn’t believe I got in a huge fight and got stabbed and then I was too high on Percocet to call two hours early this morning like you’re supposed to. I’m going to shove this shoulder and all these stupid bruises in his face the next time I see him. God, and it’s going to suck working with this,” he added with a groan. “You know how much lifting I have to do? I can barely even move this arm yet.”

“The Seido doctor wanted to put it in a sling,” Hajime informed him, not looking up from the mail, “but I didn’t think you’d appreciate that.”

Sano thought about it, and decided he was probably right. He preferred even a slight amount of usability, painful though it was, to having that arm completely immobile. Work was still going to hurt for a while, though.

“This may help if you do get fired,” was Hajime’s next statement, handing Sano an envelope.

With what the exorcist was currently doing in mind, Sano was for an instant extremely confused; but then he saw that the envelope was entirely blank and realized that Hajime had not, in fact, randomly given Sano some of his own mail. He pulled the unsealed flap out from where it was tucked, and extracted the contents. Observing the back of what was clearly a check, he flipped the little piece of grey-blue paper around and examined it.

The elbow he’d propped against the counter (the left elbow, of course) slipped somehow, and he staggered sideways, then forward. It took a surprising amount of time and effort to catch himself and reach a balanced upright position again.

“Holy fuck!” he managed finally from right in the center of the kitchen. The vehemence of the exclamation startled Misao, who had already retreated to the doorway when he’d stumbled, into darting into the hall and out of sight.

“Gains wrote one for each of us,” explained Hajime, who was clearly entertained at Sano’s astonishment. “I did remind him what my actual rates are, but I didn’t try very hard to argue him down.”

“Holy fuck,” Sano said again, staring unblinking at the digits in the box. Just in case he might suspect that the amount was written incorrectly, there it was in letters on the adjacent line too. He knew that at some point his mind would start racing over all the possibilities that came with this much money, but at the moment it was mostly blank with shock.

“You’ll note it’s dated the 26th.” Hajime, finished with his mail, was now just looking at Sano as he held up a matching unlabeled envelope that presumably held his share of the absurd payoff of yesterday’s adventure. “Gains isn’t stupid. He warned me that if we played some kind of hypnotic trick on him to make him feel better just temporarily, it would be in our best interest not to attempt to cash these. But if the next week goes by and he hasn’t had any kind of relapse — which, of course, he won’t — the money will be there.”

Sano’s tone was still breathless with disbelief as he wondered, “You sure he wasn’t just completely lying? I mean, this is– shit! This is a fuckload of money here! And he wrote another one for you? Who has that kind of money?”

“He wasn’t lying.” Hajime shrugged. “Of course he might change his mind between now and next week, but he was sincere enough at the time. He was mentally exhausted and not guarding very well.”

“Oh?” Sano was interested, but he couldn’t look away from the check in his hand even as he spoke. “What else did you pick up from him?”

“Among other things, that Enishi knew he was going to die. Gains didn’t know how Enishi knew, but he was sure he did.” Now Hajime set down the envelope and walked across the room. Pausing at the door, he added, “It was another yakuza member who assassinated him, by the way. We both guessed that, but Gains’s thoughts confirmed it.”

Sano followed him almost without realizing what he did. But he forced himself to tear his eyes from the check in order to navigate the hallway, and in doing so was also able to participate a little better in the conversation. “So Enishi saw that coming, and that was probably why he did that shit to Kaoru and Kenshin just before.”

Hajime nodded in grim agreement as he stepped into his bedroom and went to open the closet.

“Do you think he knew Kenshin would become a ghost?”

“I don’t know,” Hajime said slowly. “If he was a diviner, he might have. And if he did, it makes his revenge less limited than we thought.”

“You know… I bet… I bet that wasn’t even the revenge he really wanted. Just the best he could do on short notice when he realized someone in the organization was going to kill him. I bet he had something a thousand times worse in mind, but he just couldn’t pull it off in the time he had left.”

“You may be right. Here.”

Between thinking about crazy Enishi and horrible revenge and the check that seemed to be burning hot in his hand, Sano had noticed neither what Hajime was doing in the closet nor what that closet contained — and the latter, he realized now, was something he really was quite interested in and should have looked into last night during his painful interludes of aimless snooping around. Now the time it had taken to work through his distractions, and to realize that what Hajime held out toward him was a shirt, had been long enough for the exorcist to have closed the closet door and prevented Sano’s seeing anything inside.

“Thanks,” said Sano a little blankly, accepting the offering. A moment passed before it even occurred to him to examine it, but, to his disappointment, the scenario that popped into his head at the same time — wherein Hajime had nothing but nice dressy stuff he didn’t want to give Sano, and therefore had been forced to dig back to the back of his closet where he kept all the embarrassing remnants of his youth like hair-band concert shirts, one of which Sano now held — did not appear to be playing out. It was merely a short-sleeved and rather casual-looking black button-up. He did wonder what kind of music Hajime liked, though.

“Soundtracks,” said Hajime succinctly, with twitching lips. In a bit of non sequitur he went on, “Oh, and Gains formally apologized for any offensive remarks he might have made under the influence of shade anger.”

As he sought the least painful method of pulling the right sleeve onto his arm and shoulder, Sano snorted. “Funny how that doesn’t make him less of a homophobic dick.”

“The truth about people comes out when they’re that angry. It’s one of the reasons red shades are such a problem; people don’t want that kind of truth coming out.”

Glad that Hajime had stepped away so Sano now had his back to him, and therefore the exorcist couldn’t see his concerned biting of lip at this statement, Sano recalled uncomfortably that he’d been even angrier than Gains on a few occasions in Hajime’s presence; he’d been stupid and irrational and violent, and he would really rather not have it known how much he suddenly feared Hajime thinking this was his true nature.

But Hajime either read the thought — he’d picked up that one about music just a bit ago, after all — or guessed it some other way. “Don’t worry,” he said. “All I’ve learned about you is that you’re an idiot. And I could have figured that out without any help.”

Deeply relieved, relaxing from a tenseness he hadn’t even realized he’d adopted — actually, that was probably what had given him away, and it also hurt his shoulder — Sano grinned. “You know, there’s no shade left to get me to work off… you don’t have to keep calling me an idiot.”

“It seems to have stuck, though. Everyone needs a nickname.”

The buttoning process was slow and painful with a right arm that would really rather not move at all, but Sano continued to grin anyway. Because a nickname, however rude, implied a continued acquaintance. Friendship, even. Maybe? He sought to test the theory: “I’ll have to come up with something just as nice to call you, then.”

And Hajime was definitely smiling as he replied, “Let me know when you decide on something.” He took two more steps away, apparently in preparation for leaving the room. “Your shoes are on the other side of the bed. Are you ready to go meet Kenshin?”

Still fumbling with buttons, Sano answered that he would be as soon as he’d had a chance to fix his hair, then listened to Hajime’s footfalls moving around the house. Some too-low-to-be-intelligible exchange with at least one of the cats in another room reminded him that he’d forgotten to bring up the matter of an apparent communication skill he’d never realized he had, but that could wait for another time. At the moment he was too busy for it — too busy reflecting that maybe things weren’t quite as hopeless as he’d been thinking they must be.

Part 35

Another triumph Sano appeared to be taking pleasure in that Hajime didn’t feel like thwarting was that this time they’d called ahead before showing up at Kaoru’s apartment. It didn’t really relate to not having done so the last time, nor make Hajime regret that circumstance, but Sano seemed to think it did.

When she opened the door to them — today without hesitation — Hajime noted that Kaoru looked every bit as weary as she had two days ago, but that in her dark-ringed eyes there was also the faintest trace of hope. He hadn’t told her that her husband was, as far as he knew, already here, but he had mentioned that he and Sano brought news as good as anything that could be expected out of this situation.

“Come in,” she said at once. “Sit down.”

The apartment was sparsely furnished and decorated, and Hajime speculated that Kaoru had lacked the energy or desire, when she’d moved, to set up all the things she’d brought from the house she’d shared with her husband. Additionally, the current state of cleanliness was not the best — Hajime, whose own housekeeping was more or less impeccable, couldn’t help but notice — and, once again, absence of will and energy in disaster’s wake was probably to blame. He wondered whether she was struggling financially as well; he remembered her saying she worked from home, but had she been in any fit mental state for that since Kenshin’s death?

Two other people were present in the small, drab living room: the red-haired child they’d seen from afar the other day at the park, and that child’s red-haired, undead father. Not that the redness of Kenshin’s hair was visible in his current state, but it was easy to imagine. He had apparently been watching his son play with a couple of tiny police cars beside the couch, but now they both looked over at Hajime and Sano. Up close, Hajime thought he could see a resemblance to both parents in the child’s face.

“Hey, Kenji,” Kaoru said, with a decent facade of joviality over the dullness in her voice, “I’m going to move you into your room to keep playing, OK?” And with impressive ease she scooped up both the three-year-old and his toys and carried them out of the room.

Hajime, as had been suggested, found a seat in the chair beside the sofa, but Sano had approached Kenshin with obvious interest. “Hey!” he was saying. “Good to finally see you at last!” He made a face at the redundancy of his statement, but did not amend it.

“Yes, it is,” agreed Kenshin warmly. “I would shake your hand, but…” Instead, he bowed in the Japanese style. “Ageku yoroshiku.” And once Sano had repeated that last word with a grin, Kenshin went on, “Now I can apologize for all the trouble I have given you in particular.”

Sano, who unsurprisingly didn’t appear to need to expend much effort to understand everything Kenshin said, started to lift his right hand, winced, and made his dismissive wave with the left instead. “Don’t worry about it.”

“And I can thank you for all your hard work.”

The lop-sided grin on Sano’s face said pretty clearly (to Hajime, at least), “You don’t have any idea how much trouble and hard work it’s actually been.” What he said aloud was, “No problem.” So apparently he did have some understanding of professionalism.

“I wanted to wait for you to wake up yesterday,” Kenshin said next, apologetically, “but I was too impatient to come back here.”

“I was a little loopy whenever I did wake up, so it’s probably better you didn’t.” Sano added at a mutter, “I’m not exactly super awake right now, actually…” Which was true: all earlier interaction with Hajime and apparent energy notwithstanding, Sano had been dozing in the car on the way over. How much he’d taken in of Hajime relating what Kenshin had told him last night could not be guessed.

Politely Kenshin said, “I hope you are feeling all right, though,” with a brief glance at the exorcist. Hajime had eventually been required to explain to the ghost what he’d been forced to do to Sano, and Kenshin had never seemed quite approving. Not that it was any of his business.

“Yeah… except for the one little thing–” and here Sano too threw a glance at Hajime, though his accusation was far more facetious than Kenshin’s– “I’m actually better than before. No offense, but I’m looking forward to getting back to school without taking you with me.”

Kenshin had a very gentle smile that was probably a manifestation of the kindness Kaoru had always liked so much about her husband, but that Hajime couldn’t help considering irritatingly wishy-washy.

Now Kaoru herself reappeared in the doorway, and seemed a little confused when she saw Sano standing in the middle of the living room with the manner of one involved in conversation but turned half away from the only other person she could see. When she realized what this must mean, her eyes flew to Kenshin (or, from her perspective, the empty air where she assumed he must be), and her hands flew simultaneously to her mouth.

“Could you let her know I’m here?” Kenshin requested quietly.

Resisting the urge to point out that Kaoru had clearly already realized this, Hajime let Sano do the honors.

“Yeah, he’s here,” the young man said, turning toward the woman. “And we can talk to him now. The shade’s all gone.”

Kaoru’s breathing abruptly became unsteady, as if she was fighting off sobs. Continuing to stare toward her husband, she finally let her hands sink from before her face, though they clasped and remained just in front of her neck in a classic dramatic pose. Hesitantly and with evident difficulty she began, “Kenshin, I… I don’t…” Then glancing at Sano she asked, “Can he hear me?”

Moving in his wife’s direction, Kenshin said her name in a pitying tone.

Hajime answered before Sano could. “He can. And I know there are things you need to say to each other, but I think it would be better if we told you what we’ve learned before you two become too emotional.”

Kaoru, glancing again at where Kenshin had been before he’d come closer to her, took a deep breath and nodded. Then, with reluctant movements, she walked over to the sofa and sat down; her husband went to hover by her elbow. This left the other half of the couch unoccupied, but Sano opted to mirror Kenshin and come stand near Hajime’s chair. The exorcist considered offering to trade places with him, to let Sano sit and rest while they talked, but, doubting Sano would really appreciate being treated like an invalid and thinking there wasn’t really time to waste right now annoying him deliberately, decided against it.

Kaoru was watching them both closely — not, Hajime thought, because she was the least bit interested in anything either of them might do for its own sake, but because she wanted to follow their gazes to determine where Kenshin was.

“Mrs. Himura,” Hajime began. “I spent a lot of time talking to your husband yesterday, but it was mostly about subjects that are professionally interesting to me. I saved the information Sano and I learned to tell you both at the same time.” When Kaoru nodded again, he went on. “The anger that was keeping us from talking to him, and that affected you so unpleasantly in January and February, was not your husband’s at all.”

“Did you think it was?” asked the startled Kenshin.

“Yeah,” Sano provided. “For a while we thought you were just really mad at her.”

Briefly everything became incoherent as Kaoru first wondered what Sano meant, then realized he’d been answering a question she hadn’t heard, then started crying about how it was only natural for Kenshin to be mad at her — and Kenshin, all the while, tried futilely to reassure her that he wasn’t and never had been angry. He kept trying to touch her, obviously with no great success.

Hajime eventually cut them both off by stating loudly, “We’ll get to all that in a minute. The person who actually left behind the angry shade when he died was Enishi Yukishiro.”

The name, rather than Hajime’s volume, was what really silenced the Himuras. Kenshin went stiff and wordless in an instant, clearly extremely startled; Kaoru looked blank.

“Since you obviously don’t know,” Hajime addressed Kaoru alone, “Enishi was the brother of Kenshin’s first wife.”

Kaoru blinked once, twice, then simply stared; the blankness hadn’t really gone. Kenshin’s eyes, on the other hand, slowly closed as he bowed his head in a movement that was almost a nod of understanding and had a touch of resignation to it as well. Under other circumstances, Hajime might have given Kenshin this news separately and confirmed how much he wanted shared with others before telling anyone else; but in this case, Hajime felt Kaoru had a right to the information regardless of Kenshin’s feelings on the subject.

“Enishi…” Kenshin murmured. “Enishi. I never thought I would hear from him again.”

“Kenshin’s…” Kaoru spoke in the tone of someone trying her hardest to remain completely rational and neutral, and she managed fairly well. “Kenshin’s first wife.”

“He never could forgive me for–” the ghost was recalling, but cut himself short in order to say regretfully, “I would have told you; I would have told you.”

Again Hajime jumped in before this could go any farther. “Kenshin’s first wife died ten years ago in a car accident, and her brother blamed Kenshin for it.”

“No reason to try to exonerate me,” said Kenshin quietly. “It was my fault. Enishi had an unhealthy obsession with his sister, yes, but his belief that I killed her was completely accurate.”

Hajime paused for a moment before, deciding this was relevant enough to transmit, he said, “Kenshin wants it understood that he agrees it was his fault.”

“Oh, Kenshin.” Kaoru was crying again, and Hajime thought it had something to do with the discovery that she wasn’t the only one in this marriage to have committed (or at least to consider herself guilty of) mariticide.

In conjunction with what he’d already known, Hajime relayed what he’d just found out: “Enishi was obsessed with his sister, and never could forgive Kenshin for her death. He was the one who organized the events that led to Kenshin’s death, and when Enishi himself died, it was his leftover anger that surrounded Kenshin and made him impossible to communicate with.”

“How did Enishi die?” Kenshin wondered.

“So the…” Kaoru said at the same moment. “The man who threatened my son… and made me murder my husband… is dead?”

“He was killed by another member of his criminal organization,” Hajime nodded.

Kaoru started to sob. She probably felt as if she was in the center of a web of murder and intrigue, and no better than anyone else tangled in it.

“I need to talk to her,” Kenshin said somewhat desperately. “Face to face. Sano, I think I can see how I might be able to, if you would do me this one last favor…”

What Hajime wanted to say, accusingly, was, “You didn’t mention yesterday that you’d figured out how to possess people.” But somehow what came out of his mouth instead, concernedly, was, “Sano’s in no condition to try that.” Which was odd, because he usually didn’t have that kind of intention/delivery mismatch.

It didn’t matter anyway; one look at Sano’s face told him that. The stubborn, reckless young man had even remarked once (well, thought loudly) that it would be cool to be able to say he’d been possessed. Now he stepped forward with, “Yeah, sure.”

“I am afraid,” Kenshin said levelly, glancing at Hajime as he responded to his protest, “that it would not work with you.”

So at least Hajime knew he’d been right in thinking that he and Kenshin, only barely acquainted though they were, didn’t really like each other. How much it would mean if this procedure ended in disaster he didn’t know, but at least he had that slight consolation to bolster him.

Part 36


Kenshin’s first wife.

The man that had threatened her son was dead.

Criminal organization.

Kaoru was so overcome with such a variety of emotions and accompanying ideas that trying to get hold of herself took most of her attention, and she didn’t mark what was going on in the room for several moments. Since she was unable in any case to detect her husband’s presence or hear his contributions to the conversation, it could be no surprise that she didn’t take much trouble to try to follow the latter once she had so much to think about.

But now Sano was approaching where she sat on the couch, and something had changed.

Little as she had wanted to believe these men, a combination of logic and intuition had dictated that she must… but there’d always been a part of her that had treated this as a sort of sick game she was playing to distract herself, and that wouldn’t have been surprised to find the whole thing an elaborate hoax (though it would simultaneously have been interested to discover what benefit the perpetrators could possibly derive from such a deception). Overall, though, she’d been taking this very seriously.

She hadn’t been at all prepared for certainty, though.

When Sano dropped to his knees in front of her and said, “My lady,” it didn’t matter that it was possible he was just a really good actor that had somehow found out the nickname her husband used to call her in private, and it didn’t matter that she barely knew Sano at all — she was certain, instantly freed from any doubt, that this was not Sano. The inflection of those two words, the expression on his face, especially the eyes — though nothing was physically altered, and though anyone that did know Sano would easily have recognized him, still everything had changed.

And that certainty burned away her tears, eradicated her discomposure, and left her with only the adrenaline calm of emergency. There was no time to waste dithering now.

“Kenshin,” she said.

He took her hands. “It is difficult to begin a conversation I know has to end with me leaving you, but I had to talk to you one more time.”

She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t ask him not to go, though that was the desire of her heart; and the painful joy of talking to him again, of being granted this chance, this goodbye, was too great for expression.

“I would have told you about Tomoe, my first wife,” he went on. “That was not something I planned on hiding from you forever.”

That he was apologizing to her seemed farcical, under the circumstances, and she shook her head. This wasn’t how she’d envisioned a conversation like this going.

“And I want you to know that the reason I didn’t tell you was not that I didn’t trust you or didn’t want to share myself with you. It was because…” He too shook his head.

Even with as few words as he’d spoken thus far, Kaoru had already mostly lost track of the fact that it was actually Sano’s voice saying them, Sano’s head being shaken, Sano’s hands clasping hers. In a sense not precisely visual or aural but very definitely real, Sano had mostly melted away. It was like forgetting about the device she held during an intense phone conversation; the means of connection was irrelevant in the face of that connection.

“After my reckless driving killed Tomoe,” Kenshin finally went on, “I felt like a murderer. For the next few years, every time I looked in the mirror and saw the scars from that accident, I hated myself as much as Tomoe’s brother ever could hate me. But then I met you, and you looked at my scars and said, ‘Anyone who doesn’t think scars are beautiful has never survived any pain of their own and become stronger because of it.'”

Kaoru laughed weakly along with her husband as he added, “And I know you got that line from a movie, but what mattered to me was that you meant it. You always saw the good I could become and never worried about what I was before. You made me feel like it was all right to go on living and enjoying life even after what I had done. And I felt like I had to do whatever I could to leave behind the person I once was and try every single day to be more worthy of somehow having found love a second time.”

“I never thought you–” Kaoru paused with a faint smile and corrected herself. “I never would have thought you weren’t worthy of that. You’re a wonderful person, Kenshin — a good, great, kind, thoughtful, wonderful person.”

For her smile he returned that one of his that was so beautifully mellow and yet, as it often had been in life, faintly sad. “Thank you. You were always making me feel like that, like I could be better. I was more and more at peace with myself the longer I spent with you, and I decided that as soon as I reached a point where the past no longer hurt quite so much, I would tell you all about Tomoe and how much you had changed me. It was no secret, just… something I wasn’t quite ready to share yet.”

“I never worried about the things you didn’t tell me,” she assured him seriously. “I always knew you had your reasons. I’ve never not trusted you.”

“Then right now,” he replied just as seriously, “I need you to trust me one last time. You were not the one who killed me.”

She let out a breath that was almost another sob as the conversation shifted so abruptly from what Kenshin felt she might blame him for to just the opposite.

She could still feel the weight of the gun; she’d felt it every night in her dreams for months, and doubted it would ever really leave her hand. She could still remember with sickening precision the sight of him jerking and falling, and the ocean of self-loathing that had swept over her at that moment, soaked deep into her until she was saturated.

“There is no part of me that even begins to blame you for what you were forced to do. You protected Kenji; how could I possibly blame you for that? Don’t you think that, if I had known what was going on, I would still have gone down that alley and let it happen to keep you both safe?”

That was an angle from which she hadn’t considered things. Kenshin hadn’t had any choice in the matter, had been an unsuspecting and unprepared victim, but she’d never thought about what his choice might have been if he’d been offered one. Of course the fact that Kenshin would gladly lay down his life for his son did not change the fact that she’d taken his life without warning or consultation… but if the positions had been reversed… there was no question that she would unquestionably consent to die rather than see her son harmed.

Perhaps he recognized that, while this point had not been unproductive, it couldn’t really alter a state of mind, a depression of spirit, that was by now so deeply ingrained. He’d always excelled at detecting what she was thinking and feeling — which had undoubtedly made his inability to do so (or at least to make sense of what he saw) while she was being threatened all the more confusing and painful for him — and he must see now that the best he could do here was attempt to put her on the path to self-forgiveness and recovery. Unfortunately, Kaoru wasn’t sure that was a path her feet could ever find.

He probably recognized that doubt too, for he said in a tone of urgent sorrow and supplication, “Please, Kaoru. I know what it feels like to take everything away from someone you love. I know what murder feels like.”

Finally she managed to speak, to break in before he could come to his point. “But you only said ‘reckless driving!’ That’s not murder; that’s just a stupid mistake!”

“Just as much murder as killing someone to protect your son,” said Kenshin quietly. “I was reckless; you were afraid. Both of us might have had a different choice, but in the end, for both of us, someone still died. So I know how it feels. I know how it feels to blame yourself, and wonder what you could have done differently — and then blame yourself even more for not doing it differently — and to think about how the one person you might be able to talk this out with — the one person who could comfort you, the person you miss more than anything in the world, so much it physically hurts — that person is not there to talk it out with you because of something you did. I know how much it hurts, and how hopeless it is, and how tempted you are just to kill yourself and get rid of it all.

“I know how all that is, and I am begging you: let it go.”

She didn’t want to appear to be making light of such a serious subject, and she believed Kenshin would know that she really wasn’t, but she couldn’t help laughing a little, wretchedly, at the simplicity of his advice. “You said you couldn’t do that until–”

“Until I met someone stronger than I was,” he interrupted intensely. “And if there is anyone in the world I believe can recover from something like this all on her own, it’s you.”

Again she gave a miserable little laugh, both painfully touched at his opinion of her and continually daunted by the seeming impossibility of what he wanted her to do.

Hearing this, his smile took on an even more regretful look as he added pragmatically, “Though I think some therapy might help too.”

Now she laughed more straightforwardly, though there was still a bitter edge to it at the idea of attempting to get any therapist anywhere to believe what she’d been through.

“I hope you will do whatever you have to to be happy again,” he went on. “All you ever did during our time together was make me happy; I can’t stand to leave knowing that you can’t be happy yourself.”

Throughout this whole conversation, something huge and heavy had been building inside Kaoru, contributing to her constriction of throat and becoming steadily more painful. Now, at the word ‘leave’ she realized what it was: the awareness, increasingly sharp and unignorable, that he really had to leave, that these really were their last few moments together until… she didn’t know when or how or even if they would meet again. She supposed he didn’t either.

“I… I’ll try…” she choked out, and the panic that was growing along with the awareness sounded in her voice. “But, Kenshin, I–” She couldn’t stop his going; she couldn’t take back what had been done even if she did manage to stop blaming herself for it. So what was there to say? That she couldn’t continue without him? Perhaps she did feel like that at the moment, to some extent, but she simply couldn’t throw his statement of faith in her strength back in his face. So in the end there was nothing to say but, “I love you so much.”

“And I love you,” was his passionately quick reply, “more than I can even tell you. I have no words for how much I love you and how much you changed my life. But if I know you will try to be happy, I can go to wherever I’m supposed to go now and…” Gently releasing her hands, he spread his and smiled. “And rest in peace.”

As he stood, Sano’s height a brief but quickly-forgotten reminder that the body, at least, was not actually Kenshin’s, Kaoru felt the panic take hold of her so firmly that she couldn’t say a word as she too jumped unsteadily to her feet.

“I feel it pulling me again,” Kenshin said, looking briefly up and over his shoulder. “I wish I could say goodbye to Kenji, but there’s no time.”

Desperately she managed to say his name, but no more.

He shook his head. “I am sorry. I would never leave you or Kenji if had the choice, but Enishi did not give me that choice. Please tell Kenji how much his daddy loves him, always. I know he will be a good person, with you raising him.”

She flew at him, gripping, crushing, clutching as if somehow she could manually hold him in the world, keep him with her. And it didn’t matter that the height was off and incorrectly-shaped arms pulled her against an unfamiliar chest; she was embracing her husband, the man she’d fallen in love with and never stopped loving, the father of her child, the source of both the greatest happiness and the greatest pain she’d ever known, for the last time.

Gently he pushed her from him after only a moment — not long enough, not nearly long enough, but his strength was irresistible. “Thank you for everything you have done for me,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, even as he backed slowly away from her. “And goodbye.”

Teeth gritted, breaths hissing through them in sobbing gasps, she tried to detect some sign of his actual departure, but there was none. Kenshin was gone. There was only Sano, whose face smoothed from Kenshin’s expression into blankness and whose frame shuddered and went limp as, his eyes drifting closed, he pitched forward toward the floor.

Part 37


“–probably find it interesting, at least, that he’s fainted twice in twenty-four hours.”

This latter half of a statement, from Hajime, was the first thing Sano heard upon awakening. But if Hajime thought the interest of having fainted twice in twenty-four hours was the first thing Sano would feel, he was dead wrong. Well, it was interesting — earlier this week he’d been reflecting on how he’d never actually seen someone faint, and now he’d done it twice himself — but not nearly as engrossing as the sensation of what couldn’t be anything but Hajime’s arms around him, Hajime’s body against his.

Just as he’d suspected, it was a hard, wiry body that could probably do with eating more pizza on a regular basis, and the arms had an unrelenting grip. Given that they were both more or less upright, Sano guessed that Hajime had caught him as he’d fallen, and he was impressed at their positioning: Hajime must have dragged Sano’s left arm across his own shoulders, leaned slightly, and pulled Sano against him with an arm around his ribcage — thus avoiding as best he could the wounded right shoulder while still taking most of Sano’s weight on himself.

Not that the shoulder wasn’t rather excruciating at the moment. It felt a little as if someone far more concerned with the extremely emotional conversation he was having than the state of the body he was borrowing had used that right arm and shoulder indiscriminately for a while. No real resentment could possibly arise from this, though; it was how things had to be. Honestly, Sano just wished he’d had a chance to say goodbye to Kenshin.

It was strange to think of Kenshin as gone after so long having him around but inaccessible. Sano had barely gotten any opportunity to talk to the guy between the nuisance stage and the farewell, and that recognition of Kenshin as an individual that he’d hoped to accomplish at some point had never really come to pass. During their brief exchange, he had felt as if this was someone he really would like to get to know, but it was too late now, and he couldn’t help regretting it.

Not exactly gently, but certainly with no deliberate roughness, Hajime was now setting him in the chair beside the sofa. Sano tried not to be quite so dead a weight as Hajime attempted to arrange him, but motor function was not available to him at the moment. It seemed the control of his body he’d relinquished to Kenshin was not something that would return on its own: he had to find it and actively take it up again. And the strangest thing about this state was that it didn’t particularly worry or even frustrate him; it was only a matter of reconnecting, which might be a little while but would definitely happen.

The feeling of breath on his face simultaneously galvanized him toward greater ability and froze him where he sat; but then Hajime drew away, out of contact with Sano entirely, leaving behind a racing heart that must be instrumental in a return to activity. Still, when control did begin to trickle back, it did so subtly enough that he barely noticed; it was as if he’d never been without it, and the open-eyed state he’d been wanting was achieved before he even knew he had the power to attain it.

Hajime stood nearby, watching Sano calmly. His expression was so calm, in fact, that for a moment Sano was a little annoyed. He’d fainted! Surely that merited some concern, especially given that he was still wounded. But then it occurred to him that his thoughts had become relatively coherent full minutes before he’d been able to move — which meant Hajime would have had evidence that Sano was all right long before Sano had been able to open his eyes and note the exorcist’s face. So maybe Hajime had worried at least a little. He’d apparently made a point of catching Sano before he could hit the floor, after all.

At this, Hajime rolled his eyes and turned away. There was just the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips, though.

Kaoru had returned to her seat on the sofa, whence she was staring at nothing with streaming eyes. She didn’t seem aware of her surroundings, and, though Sano guessed she must have spoken to Hajime at least once to have prompted his comment about Sano fainting twice, he doubted she really remembered there was anyone else in the room.

Her conversation with her husband was more like a dream than a proper memory to Sano, since being possessed had turned out to be a little like dreaming. Hell, compared to this process of recovering from being possessed, it had been downright lazy. He’d felt as if he was floating in a comfortable haze, not required to do or say or think anything, barely even aware of what his body was up to; and all the events around him he’d observed with the detachment of a spectator only slightly invested in the proceedings.

So now, in order to decide what he thought about that farewell discussion, he had to concentrate on it, run through it line by line and force it to solidify in his memory. And still it was a memory of someone else entirely; the fact that most of the words had been spoken with his mouth and many of the gestures given with his body didn’t really register.

He emerged from his musings at last with two very distinct impressions: first, that he was extremely glad Kaoru had made at least a little progress toward a better frame of mind; and, second, that he regretted more than ever not getting to know Kenshin. It seemed somewhat ironic and almost cruel that they’d been thrown together the way they had, inconveniencing Sano for so long during a very difficult time for Kenshin, but never been allowed to become friends and help each other through those difficulties as friends would.

Well, it wasn’t as if they’d been no help to each other. Sano had done his part getting rid of the shade that had been plaguing Kenshin, and Kenshin… well, if he’d never begun haunting Sano, the latter would never have felt the need to call up an exorcist, would he?

A third very distinct impression, actually, accompanied Sano out of the reverie about Kenshin’s departure: his shoulder hurt a fucking lot. So his first real movement was to reach into his pocket in search of a couple of pills he’d stashed there before leaving Hajime’s house. He was probably taking more of this stuff than he really should, but he could cut back on it later when he was free to lie around and not be possessed or stabbed by anyone.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting here regaining control of his body and pondering the friend he’d almost had, while Kaoru mirrored him on the couch trying to regain control of her emotions and pondering the husband she’d lost, but Hajime was stoically waiting for one or the other of them to say or do something.

I don’t think she’s going to be up to much more from us, Sano sent, and was surprised at how weary even his mental communication sounded. Evidently he wasn’t going to be up to much more either. Possession really took a lot out of you, probably even if you weren’t injured to begin with.

Hajime nodded slightly. Give her another minute, he replied. I have a few more things to tell her. Somewhat irritably he added, I would have said them earlier, but Kenshin just had to talk to her that second.

It didn’t appear, however, that an appropriate moment for reopening conversation with Kaoru was likely to arise any time soon; she was so deep in thought that her awareness of their presence actually seemed to be decreasing as minutes passed. Sano found it all too easy to lose track of the others around him in his own reverie about Kenshin and everything that had happened, so he could only imagine how profoundly embroiled in contemplation Kaoru must be.

Though Hajime was outwardly still and silent, waiting with apparently limitless patience for the right moment to resume the discussion, Sano was aware that he was increasingly impatient within. It came as no real surprise that Hajime was the type of person much more interested in the active pursuit stage (even if that active pursuit sometimes involved sitting around waiting for a phone call) than the emotional aftermath of a job like this. Of course he would not have given Kaoru any hint of this even had she been in a state to recognize hints, but he wanted to wrap this up.

Eventually, clearly with his desire to be gone and his unwillingness to harass the client both in mind, in a tone just a touch louder than he might normally have used to get the attention of someone in the same room, Hajime said, “Mrs. Himura.”

Though a portion of his attention had been on Hajime all along, still Sano started a little at the sound, which motion of course jarred his shoulder. But Kaoru turned only slowly toward the speaker and seemed to be emerging gradually and with some difficulty (and, in the end, no more than partially) from her contemplation. She looked at Hajime as if there was a whole world of things she might want to say, but eventually said nothing at all.

“We’ll leave you to your thoughts,” Hajime said, and again Sano believed he was aiming for a gentle tone he just didn’t quite have the capacity for. “But there are a few more things you need to hear before we go.”

She nodded almost absently; her current level of attention was probably the best they were going to get from her right now.

“The criminal organization your husband’s brother-in-law was the head of was U.S.Seido, a company you’ve probably heard of, and we got most of our information from a man named Gains, who was Enishi’s secretary. I would have preferred not to mention you specifically, but I wanted to know what your status with them is right now. Gains assured me that whatever revenge Enishi was working on against your family was being conducted with his personal resources, not the company’s, and that he was using independent agents not directly employed by U.S.Seido. You’ll have to decide how safe you feel knowing there are probably still a few people who were working for Enishi who know what really happened last year, but as far as the organization is concerned, you and your son are not targets and not being watched.”

Kaoru nodded slowly, her expression blank. Sano guessed this was more than she could process right now, and its meaning and implications would not sink in until later. Probably much later.

At that moment there issued from the hallway that led from this room the command, “Stop making mommy cry!”

All eyes turned that direction, toward where a little red-headed boy stood hugging the wall looking simultaneously rebellious and somewhat nervous. And as Sano gazed at the son Kenshin hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to and saw this courageous concern for the mother’s feelings even at so young an age, he couldn’t help thinking that Kenshin had been right: Kenji was sure to be a good person. At the very least, he might be able to break the pattern of murder and guilt his parents had established.

Kaoru had held out her arms to her defensive child, who had gone willingly to sit on her lap and be held tightly by her but continued to stare defiance at the two men he perceived as the current cause of his mother’s sorrow. It was about time to leave.

“I… I don’t know what to say,” Kaoru murmured, half into her son’s hair, as Sano stood slowly from the chair and leaned on it for balance.

“Don’t try,” Hajime advised. This seemed somewhat rude, but it was also probably the best option for her at the moment.

Still, Sano felt the need to wish her a friendlier goodbye. “You have my number if you need to talk or anything,” he said, perhaps a little awkwardly. Meeting the angry gaze of Kenji still on his mother’s lap, Sano was prompted, against pretty much every feeling on every side of this situation, to smile. “Good luck,” he added before turning and following Hajime out of the apartment.

Part 38


“So what do you think?” Sano had sunk into the passenger seat of Hajime’s car with a sigh and leaned limply against the headrest before asking this question.

Knowing that the latter was intended as, “What do you think about Kaoru’s prospects for health and happiness?” Hajime made a brief shake of the head precursor to looking behind him in order to back out of the parking space. “It’s not promising.”

“You think so?” Evidently Sano was surprised at Hajime’s pessimism, but didn’t have the energy to express it at greater length.

“There probably isn’t a single part of her life that hasn’t been affected by this experience. Her entire life has essentially been broken.”

“You don’t think she can fix it?”

“At best she’ll end up living for her son. It won’t be her own life anymore.”

“I think… you’re wrong. I mean, it makes sense. But I think she’ll be OK.” And there it was again: that unaccountable surety Hajime had heard from Sano on a few previous occasions, as if Sano was privy to more information than Hajime, as if Sano was able to know rather than guess. As if Sano was divining without being aware of it. And when he added, “Anyway I hope she will,” the statement, rather than seeming, as it might have, a retreat from that certainty, seemed only a general expression of good will not at all incompatible with the absoluteness of the previous. Hajime could give no reply but a slight nod.

Tired and pained though he was, Sano’s mind was full and active. Perhaps a little too active, in fact; he was obviously thinking and feeling a number of things at once, which Hajime thought was sure to wear him out even faster. He needed to lie down for a while, sleep if possible; removal from Hajime’s presence might be beneficial as well. Since Hajime wasn’t going to dump him at home without his Percocet, however, he was currently heading back to his own house to retrieve it.

At the moment Sano was thinking about Kenshin, and feeling guilty for being so pleased that Kenshin was no longer haunting him. Now he could freely do all sorts of things he’d been less than entirely thrilled about performing for an audience (even if Kenshin had rarely been conscious of what Sano was up to), and get back to a daily life that didn’t involve perpetual rage. But of course he still found the circumstances of Kenshin’s death last year horrendous, pitied Kaoru profoundly, was glad he’d been able to help in any way, and wasn’t sure to what extent he should allow himself to rejoice that the ghost was gone.

Between Hajime and Kenshin there had been immediate disliking, but Sano’s experience with the dead man had been just the opposite. And that fact, along with the knowledge that Kenshin had been haunting him specifically because he’d recognized the potential for serious friendship between them, led Sano to feel a forlorn regret that was unexpectedly intense.

Sano hated the thought that he’d entirely missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Kenshin, that there was nothing he could do about it now and might never have been… and he anticipated an even stronger and deeper regret if, so close on the heels of that disappointment, he likewise missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Hajime. Opportunities seemed to be slipping from his grasp right and left.

Though Sano hadn’t said any of this aloud, it was entirely possible he’d wanted Hajime to hear it all. Either that or he’d been having a long moment of ineptitude attempting to keep his thoughts to himself. There were still times when it almost seemed as if Sano was incapable of that, though that assumption would not have been strictly accurate.

Sano had been improving on guarding his thoughts — and at a rate Hajime would have considered impossible for someone not actively training as a communicator — but somehow Hajime had also been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other. Which meant that Hajime still picked up on as much of the surface level of Sano’s brain as he ever had. Perhaps more.

But this latest thought was nothing Hajime could respond to at the moment. Because he still wasn’t sure yet what he was going to do about Sano. If they became friends, would Sano’s continual attempts to become something more irritate Hajime too much? Would Hajime’s continual evasion of those attempts hurt Sano too much? Would it be a good idea to proceed in spite of that danger? Should Hajime plainly state that his interests lay in friendship alone, or just hope that Sano’s romantic attachment would fade in time if nothing was said? Or perhaps not risk continuing the acquaintance at all? But he wanted

This social nonsense was the type of thing he just didn’t have time for. Was it any wonder he lived with only non-human roommates five thousand miles from everyone he’d grown up with?

What really bothered him was that he wasn’t usually this indecisive. Was the question of whether or not to be Sano’s friend really so important, so potentially life-altering, that he could still be dwelling on it after so long, could still have made so little significant progress in reaching a solution to the problem?

Whether or not he’d meant to project his latest set of thoughts, Sano had obviously been using his wordlessness as a period of rest for a more involved verbal conversation, and now as they pulled into Hajime’s driveway he sat up straighter and opened his eyes. But Hajime wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to have the conversation Sano was undoubtedly planning.

“Are we, um…” Pausing, Sano cleared his throat. From his look toward the house and back, it would have been easy to assume he was merely wondering what their plans for right now might be, and that he’d left most of the mundane question unspoken out of simple weariness.

Hajime could not assume. But he pretended to. “You wait here,” he said, just as if he weren’t interrupting at a possibly crucial moment and had no idea Sano had been about to (at least attempt to) say something significant. “I’ll be right back.”

Inside, he first threatened Misao with a return of the spray-bottle if she didn’t stay off the kitchen counters, then ignored her subsequent noisy questions about where Sano was and when he would be coming back. She’d really taken a liking to Sano, apparently. It was a shame she wasn’t the only one.

The young man looked as if he was ready for fresh start at his intended question when Hajime returned to the car, and if Hajime had managed to make up his unusually untidy mind he might have allowed it. As it was, he handed over the green bottle he’d retrieved from his nightstand and asked immediately, “Did you leave anything else in my house?” And he really hadn’t intended to sound cold or deliberately uninviting with this totally legitimate question, but apparently his intentions didn’t matter much.

“No, I don’t think so.” This somewhat defeated-sounding pronouncement from Sano was the last thing either of them said for a while.

The earlier reflections must indeed have been meant for Hajime to hear, for the walls were up full force now and very little was getting through. As they headed back to the Asian district and drew closer and closer to Sano’s apartment, the only mental voice Hajime was hearing was the one in his own brain urging him to invite Sano out to lunch between classes on Monday. Or something. Anything.

But what if Sano thought he meant it as a date?

Would even that really be so bad?

The parking space beside Sano’s car was available as it had been the other day, and Hajime pulled into it in continued silence. He hesitated, considering turning off the car, but thought better of the message that might send.

“I’ll probably sleep all afternoon,” was Sano’s muttered introduction to his real goodbye.

“Probably a good idea,” Hajime replied.

“So I guess…” When Hajime turned a little reluctantly to face him, Sano went on very seriously. “Thanks for everything.” He smiled weakly as he said, “Even stabbing me. I mean, this has all really been a huge big deal. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t helped.”

“Neither do I,” Hajime smirked.

Sano gave a faint laugh at the insulting implication, but didn’t specifically respond to it. Instead he said, “I feel less bad about not paying you since Gains gave us both money, but you didn’t know that was going to happen… so… thanks for the free help.”

“It would have been worth it even without the money, since I had the chance to talk to a ghost.”

This statement, while perfectly true, seemed to serve as serious discouragement to Sano. Hajime was fairly sure this had all been leading up to another attempt at some suggestion regarding the future of their acquaintance, but now Sano’s usual straightforwardness appeared to have momentarily abandoned him. Funny how that quality and Hajime’s decisiveness both seemed in abeyance when it came to this one particular matter…

“Try not to overdose on that Percocet,” Hajime said after what could only be called an awkward silence.

Sano forced a laugh. “Guess that depends on how much it hurts.” And with this ambiguous remark he reached for the door.

Once standing on the pavement, he bent slightly and looked back into the car just as he had the last time Hajime had dropped him off here. And just like last time, Sano didn’t quite seem to know what to say. His brows lowered a trifle, as with determination, and he opened his mouth… and Hajime, almost without thinking, shot down his last attempt.

“Thank you for an interesting professional experience.” It felt like a defensive move, a sort of reflex against the idea of even discussing a potential romantic relationship.

“Yeah,” said Sano dully. “Sure.” He stood straight again so that his face was hidden as he added, “See you around.” And he closed the door without further ado and began walking away.

As this movement was being conducted rather slowly, and as Hajime thought the awkwardness would not be improved by his sitting here watching Sano’s long path toward the building, the exorcist put his car in reverse after only a few moments and vacated the parking space. He threw one last look at Sano’s retreating figure before leaving the lot and probably leaving Sano to think, despite the optimistic wording of his goodbye, that they would never meet again.

Whether or not that was true, Hajime simply didn’t know yet.

Part 39


On a Friday afternoon like most Friday afternoons — most Friday afternoons before Kenshin, that is — just as Sano was headed out of class, as usual, toward the bus stop, already pondering what he was going to have for lunch and whether homework or the playing of video games was likely to come first today, the phone he’d just barely powered back on started to ring.

Looking at the number, Sano frowned. It seemed familiar, but wasn’t one of his contacts, nor something he immediately recognized. He didn’t think he had any bills overdue, so this probably wasn’t anyone he would be too annoyed talking to. So he went ahead and answered.

“Sano?”

It took him a second to recognize the voice, not only because he’d never talked to her on the phone before but because something was different in her tone.

“Kaoru?”

“Yeah. Hi.” She sounded simultaneously less hopelessly miserable than every time he’d been around her, and a lot more hesitant and uncertain. She probably thought he would think her weird for calling almost a week after everything had ended.

“Hi,” he echoed in immediate concern and desire to put her at ease. “How are you doing?”

“As good as you could expect… maybe a little better than before. I’m calling because I was hoping I could… talk to you…”

“Yeah, of course,” he assured her earnestly.

“Have you talk to me, mostly, actually. I know I was a little… out of it… when you guys left on Saturday. I was hoping you would tell me everything that happened that I couldn’t really listen to before.”

“Yeah, sure.” He looked around. Not about to be That Guy having a phone conversation during his entire bus ride — especially a conversation about the ghost that had been haunting him and the mob secretary he’d met during the course of dealing with it — he made for a nearby bench. As he threw down his backpack he began, “Actually a lot of the stuff you’ll want to hear I only got from Hajime; I didn’t see it myself. But I’ll try to make it interesting anyway.”

“OK.” She sounded grateful and just the tiniest bit amused. Which was a very good sign, as Sano had never heard even that tiniest bit from her before.

He gave her all the details of the visit to Gains at the U.S.Seido headquarters, including what had happened after he’d passed out; this led to an explanation of how he and Hajime had come to investigate that seemingly very random avenue in the first place, which led to a hasty reassurance about what the police did and didn’t know, including, to the best of Sano’s ability, a word-for-word imitation of what Hajime had said to Chou about Kenshin’s death. He also relayed much of what Hajime had told him about his discussion with Kenshin, omitting only the parts that would be of interest solely to someone with a magical talent for interacting with the dead. This all took a while, and his phone had done that heating-up thing it sometimes did on lengthy calls before he was finished.

When he concluded, “And I’m pretty sure that’s everything that happened that you’d want to know,” she gave a drawn-out sigh. He was also pretty sure she’d been crying through at least part of what he’d had to say.

Now she said, “Thank you so much. This has all been really strange and horrible for me, and I really appreciate you talking to me about it.”

“Any time,” he replied. And to underline his sincerity he added, “And I mean that. I don’t know how much it’s likely to help, but, seriously, call me whenever you want to talk.” After all, though he hadn’t managed to get to know Kenshin in time to be his friend, there was no reason he couldn’t get to know Kaoru and be hers.

“Thank you,” she said again. “I think I’ll probably have to, some time.”

“‘Have to?'” he echoed. “I’m not that bad to talk to!”

And without a sour edge to it for the first time he’d heard, she laughed. “No, sorry,” she said. “It’s just… I may need a lot of talking before…”

“Yeah, definitely,” he agreed. “I totally understand.” Just as he had at her apartment last week, he felt a little awkward trying to offer the dubious service of his conversation to someone with as long and hard an upward road as she had before her, but he didn’t shrink from the task. “Seriously, call me any time.”

She thanked him yet again, and added, “And say thank you to your friend for me, too, would you? I have his card still, but… I don’t know… it seemed like…”

“He’s a lot more professional than me?” Sano tried to keep the bitterness of the last five days out of his tone.

“Well, he was polite and everything, but… yeah, professional’s a good word. It was all just work to him; it seemed like you cared more.”

This was such a pricklingly accurate summary that Sano could barely confirm it and promise that he would, nevertheless, relay her thanks to Hajime. If he ever happened to talk to him again.

“I’ll let you go,” she said next. “Thanks again.”

“No problem at all.”

When the call had ended and Sano sat staring unseeingly at the phone he didn’t want to put back in his pocket until it had cooled down a bit, he found himself in an ambivalent mood. This conversation, he felt, had been a very good thing; Kaoru now had all the information available, which would surely help in her recovery — not to mention, for what it was worth, the awareness that Sano was there for her whenever she needed him. And she even seemed to be doing a little better than the last time he’d seen her. This was all calculated to please him… but then, naturally during the course of such a conversation, Hajime had come up, and thinking about Hajime right now was not calculated to please. Not that Sano hadn’t been doing it all week; but he’d at least been free of it (mostly) for the last several hours.

That Hajime could possibly be ignorant of Sano’s interest in him, Sano could in no way bring himself to believe. Therefore, the fact that he’d heard nothing from the man since their awkward goodbye on Saturday could only be, he thought, an indication of Hajime’s specific disinterest. Which shouldn’t be even the tiniest bit surprising: that was what Sano had believed of him pretty much the entire time. As Kaoru had said, it was all just work to him.

But they hadn’t known each other very long… how could Hajime dismiss him with so much surety after only a week’s acquaintance? Of course that same limited time period meant Sano didn’t know that it wasn’t just as likely things really wouldn’t ever work between them, but that was no reason not to give it a try! All Sano wanted was a chance; was that too much to ask?

Or, if Hajime really was dead-set against the idea — didn’t like men, for example (which, Sano had to admit, would be a pretty solid reason to dismiss him with so much surety) — he damn well could have said something to that effect.

Not that Sano had actually said anything. He’d been on the verge of doing so a number of times, but hadn’t ever gotten the words out. Somehow the casual statement of interest he’d never had a hard time giving anyone else had just been really difficult with this guy that was comradely one minute and all business the next. And now he hadn’t heard from him for six days. It seemed that ship had sailed.

And that was when the phone in his hand began to play the mournfully angry song his pique halfway through the week had authorized him to purchase as a ringtone for Hajime’s number.

His heart-rate seemed instantly to double and time simultaneously to slow as the name appeared on the screen just when he’d convinced himself that would never happen again. His fingers fumbled unbearably across the keys, nearly initiating a couple of different ‘reject call’ options by accident on the way to answering. And his “Hello?” definitely came out a good deal more quiet and hoarse than he could have wished.

“You don’t have call waiting.” Still no actual greeting. Sano had never decided whether or not he thought that was a good sign, but at least nothing had changed.

“Yeah,” he found himself explaining at unnecessary length, “for some reason, my crappy service charges, like, two dollars extra a month for that. Same with call forwarding and voicemail. You’d think those would all be basic features, but I guess if they can make some extra money on ’em, why not?”

“You need a new provider.”

“I’ll think about that as soon as this phone dies. It’s still got a couple months left.”

“You should be able to afford a new one sooner than that; it’s the 26th.”

“Oh, yeah, it is! Shit!” Sano wasn’t sure whether he was more astonished or amused to find that, in light of his annoyed disappointment about Hajime, he’d actually managed to forget the massive check that was currently sitting on his kitchen counter.

“So you need to cash a check and see a doctor,” Hajime said, and it was clear that amusement was his foremost reaction. “I thought you might want a ride.”

Well, so far, so professional — both of those things had to do with the ordeal last week, and the offer of a ride was probably merely another part of Hajime’s unspoken apology for stabbing Sano in the shoulder. Sano wasn’t going to tell him just yet that he’d pulled the stitches out himself because they’d become annoying, and that therefore Hajime didn’t need to pay any doctor to do it for him. Though it probably would have hurt less if he had.

“So you called to offer to drive me around,” Sano said probingly.

“That, and ask if you wanted to assist in a job I’m working on.”

Sano bit back the immediate affirmative that sprang into his throat, and asked instead, “What kind of job?”

“People shouldn’t move into a house where someone has recently died without having the place checked out first,” Hajime remarked, sounding a little irritated despite the fact that such people kept him in business. “I took care of the red shade in the house, but one of the children had already internalized enough of it to cause some serious problems.”

“And you don’t want to stab the kid,” Sano grinned.

“Not particularly. There’s a share of the fee in it for you, if you’re interested.”

‘Interested’ was a bit of an understatement. Just the thought of doing that kind of real, official work in the field of necrovisual magic with Hajime made Sano almost giddy. He remembered Hajime referring to him as his partner a week ago and the rush that had given him at the time… and now Hajime was essentially asking Sano to fulfill that function. Either that or ‘using a specialist’ as he’d also mentioned once in Sano’s hearing. In any case, it was money and work he didn’t hate and recognition of his abilities and time spent with Hajime all in one. Of course he was interested.

On the other hand, the offer, obviously even more than the ones that had preceded it, still fell very much in the realm of the professional. There was no saying that Hajime would have called him, that Sano would ever have heard from him again, if there hadn’t been last week’s business to clean up and this week’s business to pursue. This was all about business, and that was a huge puncture in Sano’s ballooning glee.

But that didn’t mean he was going to make the same mistake twice. Not after he’d spent the entire week wondering whether he should call Hajime to say what he hadn’t managed to say on Saturday. The level of discouragement Hajime had doled out — deliberately or otherwise Sano had never been able to decide — had made it pretty evident that a direct statement such as, “I’d kinda really like to make out with you,” was probably not a good idea… but now that this line was open, he wasn’t going to hang up until he’d at least said something.

“You know a share of the fee’s not all I want, right?” And maybe even that was too direct, but he’d said it now.

“There may be some pizza and beer in it for you as well,” Hajime replied.

It wasn’t just the words, but their immediacy — Hajime’s complete lack of hesitation in speaking them — that flooded Sano with a hot, energizing excitement and happiness. This seemed a pretty clear indication that Hajime was not averse to giving Sano a chance at winning him over — or, at the very least, that he would be happy to spend time with him. Because there was no promise of a ghost now. Nothing professional. Just Sano. Hajime had already specifically established, in fact, that Sano was not even a little bit professional.

“And anime?” Sano didn’t bother trying to keep his emotions out of his voice.

There was a hidden grin in Hajime’s reply, “That depends on what I’m in the mood for. It may be Law and Order.”

“I can handle that. And what about lunch right now?” With this he was pushing just for the sake of pushing.

“You are a worthless freeloader,” Hajime declared. “And I’ve already had lunch.”

“I can’t absorb shade on an empty stomach!”

“We’ll find you a drive-thru on the way to the clients’ house.” It didn’t even sound as if Hajime was giving in, merely adjusting his plans as required.

The ecstatic Sano would have adored to continue this conversation right up until the moment Hajime actually appeared in the flesh in front of him, but the beeping that had arisen in his ear forced him to say, “Hey, my phone’s about to die. You know how to get to the school?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’m in front of the Statton Building.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“My pants have big red chains on them that match my hair today; you can’t miss me.”

“Idiot.” And Hajime hung up.

Sano squeezed his phone and shook it in a gesture of triumph and delight, laughing simultaneously under the same influence. A chance was what he’d wanted, and a chance, it appeared, was what he was getting. Well, he had wanted, and still wanted, more than that, but a chance was all he’d thought it totally reasonable to ask for. And now he had it: proof that this wasn’t actually hopeless, and an opportunity that he was certainly going to make the most of. That exorcist was going to find Sano capable of haunting just as tenaciously as any ghost.

Huge happy smile undiminished, Sano nudged his backpack onto the ground, lay down onto the cool bench with one arm behind his head, turned his gaze up into the cloudless blue of the sky, and waited for Hajime.



<<38

Plastic was written, along with its first follow-up, Reciprocity, when I started toying with some ideas. There had long been a few things I’d wanted to write about Saitou and Sano: asexual Saitou and how that would clash with a very sexual Sano; Saitou as a paranormal investigator helping Sano out of a supernatural difficulty; Saitou owning/taking care of cats Tokio and Misao (familiars or otherwise); and police procedural featuring (you guessed it) Saitou. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt I could combine all these elements (with some tweaking) in a story set in the same world as Plastic, which at that time, I believe, did not have a title.

It proved to fit remarkably well, rounding out the magical system I had created and dropping a few little hints that the stories took place in the same city (which is essentially a fictionalized version of San Jose, Californa). It also provided crucial concepts that helped me shape the plot of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, which was, back when I wrote it, the first instance of crossover between the Gundam Wing characters and the Rurouni Kenshin characters.

On that topic, I find it interesting that, while I strove to include every possible GW character I could in Plastic, Seeing Red has only the RK characters necessary for its precise story. I’ve been honing over many years the art of stripping Saitou & Sano fics down to as close to “only Saitou and Sano fics” as they can get, and this carried over even into this broader universe where the disposition of many other characters must be of interest.

I didn’t manage to hook Saitou and Sano up in this one, though, which somewhat surprised me at the time. The problem was simply that this Saitou believes himself to be aromantic as well as asexual. He is, in fact, panromantic, but not aware of that for a while, which makes the anticipated clash I mentioned above all the more complicated and fraught when it comes.

Saitou as paranormal investigator also didn’t work out exactly as I’d daydreamed. I had envisioned him as being a more general-purpose investigator into supernatural events, but needed to give him a far more specific job in order to fit him into this world of semi-secret magic. I’m still pretty tickled by the idea of this pretty harsh guy with a sword showing up to take care of invisible energies in someone’s new house XD

Unlike the rest of the points, the cats turned out very precisely what I had imagined, and I had a ton of fun writing them.

And as for the police procedural… well, this story’s procedure isn’t nearly as intensive as in a police investigation, but I still think I managed to produce a decent mystery and the steps it takes to solve it. And the good news is that I haven’t checked any of these things (except maybe the cats) off my list of potentials for future stories, so I may write an honest-to-goodness police mystery AU, with Saitou at the helm, one of these days.

I’m excessively attached to this story. I think it’s quite good and very interesting, and I love the unique dynamic it has between Saitou and Sano. You would think, then, that I’d be quicker with the big sequel that will smooth out their relationship and get them where they need to be! But in any case, I’ve rated this .

Angles – The Color of 120°

Angles – The Color of 120°

Chapter 1 – Something

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

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

“What does he see in you?”

The world spun and blackened…

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

Pressure… a fiery touch… the taste of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Kenshin replied grimly.

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

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

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

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

Kenshin nodded, his face still rather bleak.

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

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

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

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

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

He had a feeling everything was soon going to change.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially not where Saitou Hajime was concerned.

His lover had no reason to worry.

***

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

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

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

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

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

Or had, up until very recently.

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

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

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

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



Chapter 2>>

Chapter 2 – No Security

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

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

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

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

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

But would any of them send him a letter?

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“What do you mean, he’s not here?”

“I don’t know where he is.”

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

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

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

“Where did Ken-san go?”

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

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

“Yes, and I’m worried.”

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

“I think I’ll go outside and wait.”

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

“Wow, I thought policemen carried sabers.”

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

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

“I have special permission to carry this.”

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

“What?!”

The door had opened.

“Where did you hear something like that?”

Footsteps were approaching.

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

Chapter 3 – Chaos (ScornBloodConfusion)

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

Already Kenshin was fighting without him.

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

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

“It has been ten years.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.” The look on Saitou’s face as Kenshin uttered this calm rebuttal only confirmed further what Sano had begun to believe — and he could not move, perhaps because of this or perhaps in spite of it.

For it was clear now, to Sano at least, that Saitou wore scorn just as Sano wore anger — to protect himself from something he didn’t want to feel, to hide that feeling from the rest of the world. It was not a falsified emotion, not a show… but it was deliberately conjured to guard against something else. Nobody that didn’t shield in such a manner could tell, Sano guessed, but even from this brief conversation that didn’t involve him it seemed obvious. Perhaps that had been what he’d seen in Saitou’s eyes the other day when…

“Is that so? Then come,” Saitou challenged. And what was he trying to hide? What was it he didn’t want to feel? Sano thought his contempt increased tenfold as he added, “I deny everything you are.”

***

It was the same stance. Kenshin never forgot a technique that was shown to him, and this one he remembered particularly well. It was that straightforward stabbing move that could be modified into just about any swing after its commencement, like truth that could become a lie at any moment or perhaps even a lie that could become truth. And he was willing to meet it. He drew his own sword.

“Are you going to involve your lover in this?” Saitou asked, making just the slightest gesture with his head.

The words hit Kenshin like a blow, for he had… forgotten… that Sano was there. Sano, whom he loved, whom he wanted to stay with for the rest of his life… he had forgotten him. It hurt. He dared not turn around, lest Sano should realize this was the case. He feared it was too late.

He stepped slowly away from the door and the two people behind him.

“Kenshin…” Sano growled softly.

Kenshin couldn’t tell whether his tone was one of warning, of fear, of supplication, or something else. Why couldn’t he tell? He’d been with Sano long enough that he could usually read everything from a single word… why didn’t he know now what his lover was thinking?! “Sano, please stay back.” His own voice sounded surprisingly calm, flat even, much like… it always had… back then… “This is inevitable.”

“But, fighting like this… you promised…”

He’d forgotten Sano’s tendency to read oaths into simple words or actions; Kenshin had never promised him anything. “It will be all right.” He glanced over at Sano finally, now he was far enough away, hoping his words were enough to keep Sano out of the fight. But he couldn’t tell. He might as well never have set eyes on his own lover before this, for all he could anticipate Sano’s intentions. And the reason for that was… he was already looking through the eyes of a hitokiri: Sano, as a non-threat, was practically invisible. Which might be a good sign, as far as Sano’s planned involvement in the upcoming battle, but…

But now Kenshin was angry.

How dare Saitou have such an affect on him?!

That carefully-locked-away part of himself should not be so easily, so quickly accessed by another; Kenshin should have a chance to fight it at the very least. He almost felt violated as that assassin’s internal fire rose again within him and he clenched tighter at his sword hilt. He was already battling the desire to kill Saitou, to spatter blood all across the floor and walls of the dojo — and the fight had not yet begun. He could not engage Saitou with that impulse in his veins… could not.

But Saitou was not leaving him that option.

The policeman charged in his first gatotsu stance, and Kenshin jumped to avoid the stab. The warring desires of slaughter and decency slowed him, however, and before he could move into a Ryuu Tsui Sen, Saitou had altered the trajectory of his blow and jumped upward to meet him. Kenshin barely managed to block, avoiding being impaled straight through the chest, but still felt his ribs grazed as the sword pierced his flesh on the right. Saitou twisted the blade to the right and slashed it out across Kenshin’s chest in a burst of pain and blood, spinning to kick him in the stomach in the same movement.

Kenshin fell to the floor, struggling within himself. The taste and smell of blood were exciting him dangerously; the desire to kill was growing. He got to his knees, then his feet, watching Saitou fall into his first stance again. As the wolf charged, Kenshin went forward to meet him, almost staggering as something twitched within him, urging him toward destruction. They engaged midway, vying until Saitou managed to get in a quick but forceful slash across Kenshin’s chest, knocking him backward. Hitting the wall so hard he could hear plaster crack, holding his stomach with a grimace, Kenshin fought to stay upright. He… didn’t want… to want… to kill him… but that battle he was losing. Standing again, he really did stagger this time, making one last attempt to bring his enemy down before he himself was lost. Saitou was ready to meet him with a second-stance gatotsu; Kenshin slipped around behind him, but Saitou turned and kicked him in the face, knocking him away in another splash of blood.

And suddenly everything was colored thus, deepening until there was only red and black as Kenshin flipped backward to land in a crouch some distance off, panting, staring at Saitou who seemed pleased and who charged in his second stance again. And Kenshin dodged to the left, blocked the slash that Saitou moved into, then ducked down beneath the level of Saitou’s sword to spin around backward into a Ryuu Kan Sen. And there was harsh contact between blade and skull, a guttural cry, and Saitou was thrown through the wall. Certainly that hurt, but unfortunately did not kill.

Sword resheathed, ready for Battoujutsu, watching Saitou’s second stance again, meeting its charge and forcing the other blade away to the right, feeling the heat between bodies drawn close together, then ducking beneath Saitou’s sword and throwing it off entirely. Speeding forward low with a rising sweep, feeling the tension as Saitou blocks him again in a clash of metal and they’re forced close to each other once more, an attempted blow from Saitou’s right fist, and with evasion they’re apart again.

A jump into a half-formed Ryuu Tsui Sen that Saitou dodges, but push upward from the resulting crouch with a sweep that Saitou blocks, and suddenly Saitou is restraining his sword-hand and sweeping his own weapon at him simultaneously, but a high leap can dodge the swing and free the hand at the same moment, then charge forward again, I’m going to kill him, but it’s blocked and now the heat is there again between two close bodies locked by flashing swords between until Saitou pulls back and swings downward but if I jump again I can dodge that as well as the next, onto the ceiling, sheathe the sword again, push off toward the wall, propel from there into an aerial Battoujutsu that he blocks on his right, so I roll forward through the air and push off another wall, spinning, regaining my bearings, stabbing at him, falling backward as he blocks and pushes me back, he’s so close and the beautiful edge of that sword is near my cheek I’m going to kill him so I kick his face, flipping over and launching myself above his head backwards to land facing him as I resheathe my sword again, he isn’t waiting but he’s back in his first stance, which I meet with Battoujutsu and break his sword, so now we’ll see who’s going to die I’m going to kill him he’s charging again the fool without a weapon block the broken hilt he throws at me blood from my left hand pain in my sword-hand his belt? sword falls to the left blows all over my chest and stomach behind me damn him jacket? can’t breathe can’t pry the thing off choking slam iron sheath into his chin jump tear away the jacket smells like cigarettes crouching panting going to kill him those eyes kill him love those eyes ready for the next stand kill he’s aiming kill this is the end

Stop!!

***

He’d never deluded himself into thinking he would walk into that dojo and make an impartial judgment of Himura’s level of strength, but he hadn’t expected it to go quite as far as it did. The moment he’d started to fight, all surroundings had shattered and they’d been lost in a void of heat and movement and the desire for one another’s death that was far from any era but farthest from the Meiji. And on his part, it was weakness. He couldn’t speak for Himura, but that battle was exactly what Saitou had been wanting for years — to be able to fight with abandon and still be in danger of his life. He’d experienced nothing so thrilling since the Bakumatsu — not in the Boshin wars and certainly not during his time with the police, even as a spy. But it was weakness. He was not here to sate his long-repressed desire, but rather to test the former Battousai’s strength for more important matters. And he’d given in.

And yet he couldn’t regret it.

He’d shown them — shown them all — what Himura was really like — shown that boy. That boy that thought he knew Himura so well, that was stupid enough to think his foolish existence was sufficient to feed the fire of a hitokiri’s soul. Certainly Saitou had proven him wrong on both counts. Although why he felt so triumphant at the thought of having done so, he did not know. As if he cared what kinds of playmates Himura sought out these days.

As if he’d ever cared.

He wasn’t paying attention to the conversation going on around him; he’d barely even noticed the other woman was there in the room, didn’t know when she’d entered. He was concentrating dually on the presence outside the window and his own thoughts. As he felt more than heard Akamatsu slip away, presumably to run to Shibumi with his whipped tail between his legs and his ears down (although hadn’t Saitou just finished saying Akamatsu could never be strong enough to merit the canine title?), the room came back into focus. He hadn’t realized his unseeing eyes had been directed at the boy Sagara the entire time, but apparently they had. He wondered how long Sagara had been staring back at him the way he was now.

“Hmph.” He made the noise only to draw attention to himself as he bent and retrieved his jacket. Slinging the latter over his shoulder, he directed his following statement at Himura: “I’d love to stay and play, but I have real work to do. We’ll finish this some other time.”

“Your life has been spared,” Himura replied in that even, emotionless tone Saitou remembered so well.

“Rather, yours has,” Saitou replied with a smirk. These were the typical words of men whose battle has been prematurely terminated: meaningless noise. Only in actual combat could such things be determined. He continued toward the door.

“Saitou!”

Kawaji. Saitou probably wouldn’t hate him so much tomorrow as he did now; at the moment he was still reeling internally from the abrupt withdrawal of his battle-drug that Kawaji’s voice had caused, despising his short employer for dragging him back into this era that he loathed. He paused, resisting the urge to say something pointless and nasty to the little man, and decided what he would say. Halting thus put Sagara immediately to his right, and before answering Kawaji’s stern demand he turned his head briefly in that direction to give the boy a glance that if he’d ever told Sagara anything would have been an ‘I told you so.’ “Mission report,” he finally stated succinctly: “Himura Kenshin is worthless. Himura Battousai may suffice. End report.” And he stalked out the door.

Oddly enough, as he walked away, replacing and buttoning his jacket and wiping the blood from his face with gloves he then folded and put in his pocket, he couldn’t quite decide whether he’d succeeded or not. Obviously he’d done what he’d been assigned to do — tested Himura’s strength and determined whether or not the former assassin was suitable for the task Ookubo wanted to set him at — but as for his own personal goals… he couldn’t be sure whether he’d met them or not, as he wasn’t entirely certain he even knew what they had been.

Chapter 4 – The Beginnings(?) of Distraction

Sano was about ready to go into a rage and start throwing things. Every last little aspect of this situation made him nervous and unhappy, and his anger, as a response, was phenomenal. The only thing stopping him was the reflection that his shoulder, which already hurt like hell, would not stand for it.

What had that look been for? Any of those looks? Why had Saitou been looking at Sano anyway, if the bastard was so fixated on stabbing Kenshin to death? On taking Kenshin away…? (Sano was determinedly focusing all his anger on Saitou so as not to have to think about Kenshin at all.) Was Saitou maybe trying to rub in the fact that Sano didn’t understand his eyes and whatever that nameless-but-familiar thing in them was trying to tell him? Yeah, that’d be a great reason to stare at someone like they’re your next meal.

And just who the hell was Saitou, anyway?? Working for Ookubo and Kawaji and crap explained a couple of things, but not why the jerk had stabbed Sano through the shoulder or fucking kissed him. He doubted that had been part of Saitou’s mission briefing. Then Saitou’s whole demeanor, Sano thought, had been this understated cry of check-me-out-I-may-be-a-freak-but-I-can-kick-Battousai’s-ass-I-am-so-cool, right down to the casual way he’d strolled out the door after informing Kenshin he’d be dealing with him later, then looked straight at Sano with that… that… that look. That look saying who-fucking-knew-what. Was it, See how great I am? Or I’ll be dealing with you later, too? Or…

Wait…

Sano felt the blood drain from his face at his new thought. Was that what Saitou wanted? In other words, was he what Saitou wanted? That would explain why Saitou had obviously intended to kill Kenshin rather than just test him as Ookubo and Kawaji insisted had been the original idea… That would explain why Saitou had kissed Sano… That would explain the looks, probably… That would… not explain “What does he see in you?”

I am so fucking confused…

A sudden movement startled him into looking at Kenshin again, against his inclination, as his lover abruptly punched himself in the face, and it took Sano actual willpower not to step back in surprise. He just didn’t want to think about…

“I am not the only one involved in this,” Kenshin said darkly as he raised his bloody face. “We will all hear what you have to say.”

“…sessha hitori dewa gozaran…”

A wave of heat ran through Sano at the sound of the words, and he stopped breathing entirely. No, he hadn’t been thinking about Kenshin, but in reality… he’d been thinking quite a bit about Kenshin. And now it was like a physical sensation, the relief he felt at knowing that Kenshin, his Kenshin, had returned. From the sharp intake of breath at his side, Kaoru had evidently noticed as well… but she, not being in love with the confusing redhead, couldn’t possibly feel it the way Sano did. “Megumi-san?” she requested in a tone that, despite the tension of the scene, was almost calm. Sano wouldn’t have been able to say anything calmly even if he’d wanted to try.

Megumi nodded and hurried over to Kenshin. One look and with a shake of her head she said, “Come over here and sit down. This will take a minute.”

“Yahiko, will you find cushions for everyone?” Kaoru said.

Sano was barely paying attention to the sudden air of business that had filled the room; he stepped after Kenshin as the latter went to have his wounds tended, knowing this interval would not be long and soon Ookubo would be saying what he’d come to say. And in that time, Sano wanted to — needed, actually, to hear Kenshin’s voice again, talking just to him. He told himself it didn’t matter what that voice was saying as long as it was speaking and it was his Kenshin, but he wasn’t sure at all if that was true.

***

It had all been a test, of course. There was no deep, mysterious motive behind Saitou’s behavior; he was following orders as usual, presumably for some good cause, probably something fair and rational Kenshin would hear about in a minute or two, something in the pursuit of the destruction of evil. Yes, it all made sense now. Kenshin laid it out carefully in his mind thus:

Saitou had been assigned to seek Kenshin out. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have, as he would have had no reason to do so. Saitou had a few points to make as part of this assignment, but no emotional involvement in any of them — the points were related to whatever Ookubo and Kawaji wanted to use Kenshin for, undoubtedly something unpleasant and difficult. Saitou had striven to prove that Kenshin’s friends were weak and he couldn’t protect them, that Kenshin himself was too trusting and easygoing. Was too different from the way he had been. Yes, Saitou had worked very hard to demonstrate that. And even if the old days had jumped up around them as they fought, that was just a natural result of such a battle — it was still merely part of the test, the assignment. Everything had been; it made sense.

And then from the end of the battle until the moment he’d left the dojo, Saitou had looked at nothing… but… Sano…

And all of Kenshin’s neatly-organized reasoning was blown away, as if each step in the process were written on a slip of paper on the floor and the door had suddenly been opened.

It meant nothing.

It proved nothing.

It said nothing to either of them.

Didn’t it?

Or had it meant something to Sano?

It almost seemed like it had.

Saitou hadn’t appeared threatening, particularly. Smug, perhaps, and calculating — Kenshin hadn’t been able to read him. Had Sano? Why would Saitou look at Sano like that anyway? Kenshin was trying so hard to believe the only thing going through Saitou’s head was the assignment, the duty in the name of justice. So why, when Kenshin had been the one at whom were aimed the cutting words, “I can’t stand to see what you’ve become” — words obviously meant to goad him into anger so Saitou could fight him and carry out that same duty — why did Saitou stare at Sano?

It wasn’t that Kenshin cared whether or not Saitou could stand it; it was just that the statement did seem to indicate Kenshin was the focus of this drama. Why should Sano be a target? Especially when it had already been proven that Sano was weaker than both of them and therefore a relatively easy one? Saitou didn’t know, and therefore could hardly have any grudge against or interest in Sano… as far as Kenshin could see, Sano’s part in all of these dealings had ended the moment he hit the dojo floor the day Saitou attacked him. Why would Saitou have been staring at him??

Kenshin was jolted into awareness of a question perhaps even more important by a hand on his shoulder that was not Megumi’s: Why, if he was so very worried about his lover, had he forgotten entirely Sano was there, sitting beside him?

***

As far as Saitou knew (and he knew rather a lot, as when he’d become a spy for Kawaji he’d gained access to all sorts of new information sources), Himura, a disturbingly young man wielding a legendary kenjutsu style whose actual existence many doubted, had shown up out of nowhere in 1863 in Choushu’s Kiheitai and become an assassin at Katsura Kogorou’s request for the specific purpose of using his skills to help build a new era in which the weak would no longer suffer.

Perhaps some would object to such a portrait of one that killed in the shadows for a revolutionary group, but from the few existing accounts of those that had known him at the time, it was undoubtedly true. Not that Saitou needed any such proof: it had been evident to him from the first time he’d crossed blades with the hitokiri Battousai. Well, perhaps the particulars of Himura’s morale hadn’t been evident: there was no way he could have read something so complex in another’s eyes alone. But what was obvious was conviction, whole-hearted devotion to a well-understood cause — and that was admirable in and of itself. The accounts Saitou heard later regarding what, more exactly, Battousai believed had only strengthened his respect for his one-time enemy. Clearly Himura Kenshin, during the Bakumatsu at least, had been fighting for the good of Japan and its people using all his strength of body and will.

And what was he now?

Saitou didn’t like to admit how often he’d wondered, during the past ten years, just what had happened to Himura at the commencement of the Meiji era. It was nothing unnatural to wonder, of course, about the fate of someone so interesting to so many, but after the first couple of years the curiosity really should have faded just as it had about the other few that had captured his interest during the war. What was there about Himura, after all, so much more intriguing than about any other young warrior from those days that fought with conviction and spirit? Well, other than that Himura could battle Saitou evenly and most of the rest hadn’t even come close?

At least that was still true of him, if nothing else was.

The first report, given by the unflagging spy he’d set to watch Himura from the moment the former Battousai set foot in Tokyo, had been a surprise. Subsequent reports had been dismaying. Actually, Saitou had not really believed them. The man these accounts represented was sloppy, passive, acquiescent — it could not be the same he had known. But now he had no choice but to believe. Now he’d been informed definitively that ten years was enough time to change someone completely. He wasn’t sure why it bothered him so much.

But was it really a change? Had Himura really transformed into something nearly unrecognizable, or was this rurouni merely an aggravating and hopefully temporary façade? Did Saitou hope, as it really seemed he did despite the indifference he continually declared to himself, that the latter was true? Presumably the answer to these questions would not be long in coming to light.

Saitou assumed the reason he cared was because there were so few people left that he’d known at all during the war, even fewer he’d respected, and he would like to understand what had happened to this one — whether he could continue to respect him, or whether he would be forced to add him to the ever-growing ranks of those he utterly scorned, on which he was often tempted simply to list ‘mankind as a whole’ and be done with it. But even given that sort of understandable curiosity, this kind of musing seemed slightly… no, no, it wasn’t worth that title. He liked to see, to know and understand what was going on around him, down to minor details, but that didn’t make him obsessive. Really, it was just the week thing that was bothering him.

Either Himura was still, underneath the fluffy exterior of this ridiculous decade, the precise and steadfast warrior he had once been; or he was, in spite of the strength of purpose with which he’d once burned, truly a lost and faded soul doomed to die some obscure death unworthy of his former status. The offer of a week to such a man was pointless.

The hitokiri would not need a week to accept the task.

The rurouni could take a year and still be coming up with excuses not to go.

And Saitou should not care so damned much either way. Why should those seven days seem like such a long time to wait?

Chapter 5 – Other Beginnings

The next few days were not pleasant.

Kaoru was in a bad mood in general due to recent events, and therefore when Megumi came over the two of them fought more than ever. Not that Megumi was in a particularly good mood herself. Yahiko had been pestering Sano ever since that day to give him the details of his relationship with Kenshin, about which the kid hadn’t known until Saitou’d had to go and refer to Sano as Kenshin’s lover in front of him. And Yahiko was too young to hear details like that, but too persistent to let the subject drop. And as for Kenshin… Kenshin was spending a lot of solitary time, among chores and shopping trips, in his secluded bamboo practice-hole.

He didn’t exactly say he didn’t want Sano around, but Sano, with all the willful irritation an insecure lover can muster, assumed. And as his shoulder still hurt, he spent most of his own time lying around in Kenshin’s room or just outside it, dozing or thinking. Mostly thinking. Kaoru, who hated it when Sano stayed at the dojo for extended periods of time and seemed in her annoyance to have forgotten he was still wounded, presumed him sleeping — and truly he would have preferred to be. He abhorred trying to work things out in his head, because they only seemed to get more twisted, and as he got deeper and deeper inside his own confused mind he just got more and more angry.

If there was anything worse than the confusion, it was this tense monotony. Kenshin made no sign, whenever he returned from his meditative outings, that he’d chosen one way or another. Sano didn’t care what Kenshin chose, as long as Kenshin was still Kenshin, but he would have liked to know what was going on under that red-thatched roof. Not knowing was surely as bad as whatever Kenshin eventually decided.

And he still had another four days of this to deal with.

Rather than in or near Kenshin’s room as he mostly had been for the last seventy-two hours, he was lying now on the front porch of the dojo. Actually, it seemed he’d gravitated slowly in that direction from day to day, or even nap to nap. It took him a while to notice, and when he did, he sat up and stared. He didn’t like to think he was drawn toward the as-yet-unpatched hole in the wall, but that was where he seemed to have stopped.

And he knew why he’d awakened, this time: he felt something. He didn’t always know what people were about to do the way Kenshin did, but he damn well knew when there was an enemy hanging around outside the dojo walls. He jumped up, ignoring the pain the action occasioned, and crossed the yard. He flung open the doors with a scowl and one clenched fist, and stopped short.

Any enemy but this he had been ready for. Now he didn’t know what to do.

***

Kenshin hadn’t been able to decide whether to walk up to Saitou and ask what he wanted, or to ignore him and enter the yard a different way. The choice was taken out of his hands, however, when Sano burst out the front doors ready to do battle and stopped short when he saw who his enemy was.

“Calm down, boy; I’m not here to see you.” Saitou sounded unexpectedly amused. Kenshin would have liked to see his face, but if he moved any closer Saitou would certainly realize he was there. Perhaps he already knew.

“You weren’t the first time either.” Sano, on the other hand, sounded agitated — and for good reason, Kenshin supposed. He could feel his lover shifting into a more solid combative stance.

“Is it my fault you spend your entire life lying around on someone else’s porch?” The sound of a match striking accompanied this question: Saitou remained casual.

“Shut up!” Sano growled. “Just tell me what you’re doing here!”

“You are aware that shutting up and telling you anything are mutually exclusive?”

“Tell me what you fucking want before I kick your ass!” Sano was becoming more and more angry and disturbed; he probably thought Saitou once again had some violent intention here at the dojo. Kenshin knew better: if Saitou intended violence, he would already have carried it out and would not be wasting time talking with Sano. Still, Kenshin couldn’t help being a little worried. Why was Saitou talking with Sano like this, casually but for Sano’s high level of tension?

“Indeed, what do I want?”

“What are you staring at, you psychopath?” Kenshin was startled at this demand, brows lowering at its implications. Saitou seemed to stare at Sano quite a bit, and if that meant what he thought it might… The idea bothered him, more than he would guess it should. “Hey, cut it the hell out! Like I’m some shunga or something…” Sano obviously didn’t much like the attention either. Kenshin found himself thinking at the same moment both that he should be relieved at this and that to feel so would be an insult to his lover.

He felt similarly about Saitou’s scorn-laden reply: “What makes you think you look that good?”

Now Sano was angry again, and, although the uncertainty wasn’t entirely gone from his voice, it had diminished quite a bit. “All right, just why the fuck are you here?”

“To talk to Himura, if you must know,” Saitou answered easily, adding, “though it’s hardly any of your business.”

“Listen up, bastard: it is my business if it has to do with Kenshin!” Here was Sano’s typical tone of righteous indignation, but with an added depth to it of whose nature Kenshin could not quite be sure.

“Is it really?” Had Saitou picked up on that extra edge to the tone as well, and understood it better than Kenshin had? He seemed to know exactly what to say to render Sano speechless. And that question… Kenshin didn’t like this. Not at all. What did Saitou think he knew? No, what did Saitou know, that he could use to make Sano so uncomfortable with just a few words? Actually, Kenshin had his guesses… and he didn’t want to think about them.

He moved forward, stepping around the corner. “What do you want, Saitou?”

Saitou was already looking in his direction. “Are you going to Kyoto?” he asked.

“Thought your part in that shit was just trying to kill everyone.” Sano, who had obviously found his voice again, moved to stand next to Kenshin even as Kenshin took his stolid place before the open door.

“Then you have been misinformed on several counts.” Saitou did not even remove his eyes from Kenshin as he said this, almost as if Sano’s presence didn’t matter anymore.

“Ookubo isn’t expecting my reply for two more days,” Kenshin said calmly.

“I’m asking now, out of curiosity,” Saitou returned just as calmly. There was no challenge in his words.

“I have not made my decision yet,” Kenshin said after a moment, not pleased with how much he found himself inexplicably shaken by the question. Why did Saitou want to know? Surely, as Sano said, his involvement in the whole affair was over?

Saitou frowned. “Putting it off, are you?”

Kenshin disliked the heavy scorn in the tall man’s voice. “No,” he replied firmly, “debating possibilities.”

Saitou stared down at him wordlessly, and Kenshin wondered, not for the first time, what was going on behind those metallic eyes. He would instantly have been able to tell if Saitou intended something other than standing there levelly meeting his gaze, but as to what the wolf was thinking… Finally with a sneer, Saitou took a drag on his cigarette and turned.

Sano let out an angry breath as the police officer began to walk away. “What the hell are you so worried about?!” he shouted after Saitou a moment later. “Bastard, like it has anything to do with you!” His volume was fading as he added, “Like Kenshin won’t do the right thing…”

Kenshin looked at him in surprise. “Sano…”

“Sorry,” Sano grumbled. “I just can’t stand him looking at you like that. Who does he fucking think he is?”

How was it Sano could assign any interpretation to that unreadable expression? Let alone that interpretation? And then, if Sano was so angry, why didn’t he act as he usually did and try to fight Saitou? Kenshin didn’t think for one moment Sano was learning any self-preserving restraint… perhaps the younger man saw something else in Saitou that Kenshin could not? The thought was unaccountably disturbing. “Come inside,” Kenshin urged, taking Sano’s hand and moving through the doorway, away from Saitou and the mystery he presented.

Because it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter what Saitou was thinking or feeling, or who knew about it or how they knew.

It just wasn’t important.

***

Ookubo’s murder was not much of a surprise to Saitou. He wasn’t exactly thrilled it had happened, but couldn’t exactly say he hadn’t seen it coming some time in the indefinite future, either — especially given the way Ookubo liked to run around without an escort of any kind. No, not much of a surprise.

He wasn’t thrilled… it was terrible news… he wished he could have prevented it… but he wasn’t torn to pieces over it either. Because he hadn’t seen that look in Himura’s eyes — that absolute determination fueled by some flame within that could not be extinguished — in a number of years he didn’t like to count… and it was the knowledge Ookubo had been assassinated by some agent of Shishio’s that had inspired it. Whether Himura’s mind had been changed at the last moment or his resolve merely strengthened, the former Battousai was going to Kyoto.

Himura’s little troupe of friends, though… that was a different story. Saitou had no idea whether Himura had really understood his demonstration or not. And even if the point had gotten across to him, it was too much to hope that the headstrong Sagara would remain in Tokyo, regardless of what Himura chose to do. The other fools were mostly directionless without Himura around, so Saitou didn’t worry as much about them, but Sagara was likely to be a problem. A problem Saitou was almost looking forward to taking care of, although he didn’t quite know why. Probably because the boy was irritating.

The best way to find out how Himura planned to deal with those friends of his was to keep a close eye on him until the rurouni left the city, and as Saitou had very little business remaining in Tokyo at the moment, he could easily make that his first priority. Therefore, as soon as he could get away from Kawaji, he discreetly made his way to the Kamiya dojo to find out what he wanted to know.

Chapter 6 – Fallout

Kenshin had been gone all day.

It seemed so cold out. Unseasonable. Sano frowned.

It couldn’t take this long, could it? Unless… but, yeah, right. Seriously, Kenshin certainly wasn’t going to accept this stupid assignment. So all he would have needed to do was find Ookubo and explain he wasn’t going. Couldn’t take more than a couple hours at the most, no matter how much the old guy argued. Kenshin should have been back long before this.

It wasn’t really actually all that cold out, now he thought about it. It just felt that way, a little bit. He went inside, into Kenshin’s room, and sat down, staring at the door.

All right, so maybe he was worried. Kenshin and his damned sense of responsibility… As if this Shishio thing were his fault in any way, shape, or form. As if he had any obligation whatsoever to go to Kyoto and clean up the damn government’s mess.

But, no. There was just no way. Because, no matter how Kenshin felt about the issue, the thing involved killing, and that wasn’t Kenshin. Not anymore. And Kenshin would never, never go back to those days.

Not even with some guy around who seemed to want to pull him back. Some guy with really haunting eyes and…

Sano got up and left the room again. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking; it wasn’t cold, it was hot. And it was way too stuffy in there. He sat outside on the porch and stared absently into the twilight.

But what if…

No way.

He clenched a fist and slammed it down into the wood beneath him. He would really love to continue reassuring himself that his rurouni wasn’t going anywhere, but he couldn’t keep up lying to himself much longer. Because in the last little while he’d come to realize just how much he didn’t know about Kenshin and just how likely it was he could be mistaken about his lover’s intentions and, more frighteningly, the effect that the past could have on the former assassin. The truth was that he just didn’t know what conclusion had been the end of Kenshin’s week’s musings. Kenshin hadn’t confided in him, not even with the smallest hint.

It hurt, and he wasn’t reluctant to admit it. But even worse was this inescapable fear. Something important like this, and Kenshin didn’t say one word of his thoughts or plans to his lover… It made Sano wonder… how much did he really mean to Kenshin? Before this thing had started, he’d really been beginning to think Kenshin loved him. Would love him after not too long, at any rate. But now that he began to rethink the equation of Sano plus Kenshin, the answer was coming to something more like diversion than love — something useful that would take up time until Kenshin’s past came back to claim him. Until he

“Motherfucker, I am not gonna start thinking like that,” Sano growled, standing up abruptly. He went back into Kenshin’s room. The wind out here was a little chilly anyway.

He trusted Kenshin. He believed in Kenshin. He loved Kenshin. He didn’t sit around thinking stupid, traitorous, faithless, jealous, irrational thoughts about Kenshin.

But Kenshin had been gone all day.

Sano tensed abruptly as he heard footsteps outside. He was up and bounding toward the door in an instant, but before his hand reached it he realized it couldn’t be Kenshin. Too much weight, too much height. For all Kenshin sometimes looked and sounded really girly, he didn’t walk like a woman. Certainly not one that tall. Megumi, Sano guessed, coming to gossip with Kaoru.

To his credit, he didn’t go straight to sleep after he’d unrolled Kenshin’s futon and thrown himself down onto it — he lay around reflecting that love had to be more than just a word when the combination of uncertainty and an absent lover’s scent could make a heart hurt so desperately. Could drive someone that hadn’t cried in ten years so perilously close to tears.

***

It had taken him nearly an hour to come up with the words. Granted, that deliberation had been interspersed with contemplation on other subjects, so it might not have been such a lengthy process had he been undistracted. But even hearing the voice of the person that had murdered Ookubo had not taken his mind entirely from the difficult matter.

No matter what he said, it was going to upset Sano, so to choose what would hurt his lover least had been the dilemma. He hoped he’d gotten it right, but he wouldn’t know until he next saw Sano. And when that would be he did not know; he was on his way to Kyoto now, and had no idea how long he would remain there.

There hadn’t been anything he’d wanted to take with him: he’d spent what few yen he had on some food for the journey, and a decade as a wanderer had acclimated him to owning very little. Besides, Sano had been asleep in his bedroom, and although Kenshin could move as quietly as any spy, he just couldn’t risk his lover awakening. So he’d slid his note through the crack in the door and departed.

He was glad it was summer. He was taking any comfort he could get at this point, after all, and the thought of how much worse this would have been had it occurred in winter… well, it didn’t really do anything for him. But at some point it might.

The others, he felt sure, would forgive him. Kaoru and Megumi had each other, whether they knew it or not (and he was fairly certain they still thought of each other only as fellow members of the Women-Kenshin-Doesn’t-Want Club); and though they might be outraged at first, Megumi’s sense and Kaoru’s activity would soon help them both recover. And Yahiko admired him too blindly to be angry at him for long. Beyond that, even if they all understood he’d left alone for their protection, they would not hold it against him.

Sano, on the other hand…

Kenshin wouldn’t really want Sano calmly to accept that he wasn’t strong enough to accompany the rurouni on this dangerous venture; that just wouldn’t be Sano, and so compliant a lover would not appeal to Kenshin. But the concept was going to hurt him more than Kenshin could bear to consider. It was too much to hope Sano wouldn’t eventually figure it out, too (and, once again, Kenshin wouldn’t really want him not to), although the note certainly hadn’t elaborated on it; he could only hope Sano would not hate him for it.

His footsteps seemed difficult, somehow, as if the very act of walking had become a chore. He had to smile a little, wryly, at his predicament in general: he’d left his friends and lover, hurt them, in order to accept the request of a murdered man to do something he didn’t want to do and had, in fact, sworn he would never do again. And where was the benefit?

Well, certainly he would be aiding the country, fulfilling his own sense of responsibility, doing in part what he had dedicated himself to doing when he took up his sakabatou — and that had to be enough. But he didn’t feel it. And the thought that there might be one or two other rewards, which he probably didn’t want any more than he wanted the assignment in the first place, was vaguely disturbing. No, he didn’t even want to think about that… but the alternative was thinking about Sano, and there was too much heartache associated with those thoughts. So what could he think about, on this long and lonely walk?

The weather was always a good topic.

He reflected, most steadfastly, that it would have been a much finer day out if this chilly wind would stop.

***

Saitou was now even more curious than before, and it annoyed him because he’d rather not be curious at all. He just couldn’t help wondering what Sagara’s response to Himura’s note would be — not to mention what that note said — and it irritated him that he cared so much. He could probably have rationalized that he needed to know what message Himura had left and see first-hand the boy’s reaction to it the better to plan what he should do and say to keep Sagara from following Battousai all over creation… but the fact was simply that he was curious, and he wasn’t bothering to deny it.

The problem, for all of that, was that he really had no desire to sit around outside the dojo waiting for Sagara to wake up and find Himura’s message. And the problem with that was that he had nothing better to do. Dealing with Himura’s stubborn lover was Saitou’s final task in Tokyo, after all. But though he wanted to make sure he did it right, he didn’t want to waste much time on it. Still, he didn’t think walking into Himura’s bedroom and kicking Sagara awake in order to tell him he couldn’t go to Kyoto would be quite as effective as waiting and holding a slightly more conventional conversation with the boy. So he waited.

All night.

After this Shishio thing was over, he was going to sleep for a week.

The Kamiya girl and the child were up long before Sagara ever stirred, and even the doctor woman found her way to the dojo relatively early. As Himura hadn’t spoken to any of them the previous evening, they were all anxious to know the outcome of yesterday’s events, and kept walking past Himura’s bedroom door apparently in the hopes someone would emerge from it if they made enough noise…

Kenshin usually doesn’t sleep this late, but maybe he had a rough night, or maybe Sanosuke kept him up, giggle giggle, or maybe he isn’t in there at all, but someone’s obviously in there, it might be Sanosuke, should we knock? that would be too rude, but what if we were bringing him breakfast? maybe he’s thinking and doesn’t want to be disturbed, he does that sometimes, what do you think he said? and so on and on and on. How did Himura stand them?

Saitou was getting impatient. After battle or a long stint without rest it would make sense, but how could any ordinary person sleep this late? Especially in the middle of something this important to him? Granted, Saitou couldn’t exactly think of Sagara as an ordinary person anymore… the kid was strong and beautiful enough to have caught Himura’s attention, although whether that could possibly be anything more than a purely sexual relationship Saitou doubted. Still, how could the boy sleep so long??

There was always the possibility that Sagara had already awakened and read the thing and was sitting in there considering it or something, but Saitou was counting on an initial reaction explosive enough not to miss. Thoughtfulness didn’t really fit with what he’d seen of Sagara so far, let alone the reports he’d been given before that.

He was partially correct. Around noon Sagara finally appeared, flinging the door open so hard it bounced and sprang from its track and fell askew. In the boy’s free hand was clenched, crumpled, what must be Himura’s note, but the expression on his face was not what Saitou had expected. There was anger in it, and some pain, yes, but more than that some kind of confused look neither pleased nor unhappy. What did that damned note say?

This was very irritating. Saitou had sat around all night waiting for an entertainment, not for the stupid boy to be completely ignorant of what he was feeling. And now the officer had to go talk to him like that… Sagara was really an idiot. It was vaguely disappointing to think Himura had such poor taste — but then, as before, it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement for which he could more easily be forgiven; the physical attraction, after all, Saitou could readily understand (although when he’d come to that conclusion he wasn’t quite sure).

In bursting from the room, Sagara had startled the passing doctor woman into screaming, which in turn had brought the Kamiya girl running outside, but the kenkaya pushed past them both without a word as if he were only half conscious of their presence.

“Sanosuke!” they both protested, but, seeing they were being ignored, turned in synchronization toward Himura’s room. The boy, who’d obviously seen them after all and evidently knew they would seek answers from him when they found the chamber empty, took off at a run the moment their backs were to him, and was out the main doors of the dojo before they’d turned again.

Saitou followed, determined to have his questions answered and the remainder of his Tokyo duties carried out within the hour.

Chapter 7 – Confrontation, Confession

He wanted to tear the damn thing up, wanted to burn it, wanted to throw it in the river where the ink would bleed away and the paper would wash downstream out of his sight forever. And he wanted to keep squeezing it and never let go, wanted to take a needle and sew it into the skin just above his heart, wanted to frame it and hang it somewhere where he’d see it every day when he awoke. He wanted to kiss it, but he was afraid in doing so he might rip it to shreds with his teeth. He wanted to grind it into the dust with his heel and walk away, but he knew he would only turn around and pick it up and hug it and apologize to it, and then it would be difficult to get the dirt off.

He wanted to stop being ridiculous, but he really had no choice.

He had no idea what he was thinking or feeling, or where he was going or what he was planning. He was so angry, he wanted to track Kenshin down and punch him in the face. Or shake the little guy and demand just why the hell he’d thought Sano needed to suffer like this. He was so happy, he wanted to fly after Kenshin and kiss him halfway to death. Or talk to him, tell him everything, anything he could think of, all his secrets and stories and thoughts and ambitions and anything, just because he wanted to share himself. Tell him he loved him. But not until after he hit him, to let him know how much he was hurting. Or kissed him, to let him know how much he missed him already.

All right, so he did have some idea what he was thinking and feeling and where he was going and what he was planning. He wanted to see Kenshin. He wasn’t staying here. He was going to Kyoto. But what he would say to his lover once he found him… about that he really had no idea.

To Kyoto… He would need traveling food, and that meant money. And since he’d just annoyed Kaoru and Megumi, no way was he going back to the dojo or to the clinic. Besides, they would want to know how he knew Kenshin was gone, and that would bring up the note, and then they’d demand he tell them what it said, and then they would be the ones annoying him, and they’d probably want to go with, and… no, that just wasn’t an option. He would never, never, never show that horrible note to another living soul. It was the treasure of his heart, and not for anyone else’s eyes.

Katsu was his best option. Katsu would lend (give) him money without asking questions. Well, Katsu probably wouldn’t need to ask questions. Ever since he’d started the whole newspaper thing, he knew everything, and he would probably take one look at Sano and say, “You’re going to Kyoto after Himura, aren’t you? Do you need money?”

The problem was that Sano had been walking randomly through town without looking where he was going, and was now far from Katsu’s apartment. And although it would be quicker just to keep on the way he was going and leave the city right now, he knew he shouldn’t depart without some supplies. He forced himself to stop and consider. Trekking all the way to Katsu’s apartment before heading out would make visiting his own only a small detour, so there was no excuse not to pack a couple of things. He could still be out of here in a couple of hours, which amount of time couldn’t possibly make any real difference except to his impatient mind. So that’s what he would do. He turned, pleased with himself for being reasonable.

“Shit!” This wasn’t really in response to anything specific, just an exclamation of surprise at finding he was not alone. “Fucker!” This one was aimed more specifically. “How long’ve you been following me?”

“Longer than anyone should be able to follow someone else without being noticed,” Saitou replied dryly. “But I suppose the usual rules of attentiveness and sense don’t apply to you, do they?”

“Shut the hell up. What do you want this time? Shouldn’t you be off to Kyoto anyway? Got big murder plans and shit to take care of, don’t you?”

“I believe I’ve already explained that if I shut up I can’t answer your questions. You’ll have to choose one or the other.”

Sano growled, clenching the paper in his hand more tightly. “You think this is all going great, don’t you? You think everything’s worked out just exactly how you wanted it.”

Saitou nodded once, smiling slightly, but Sano could see the heavy scorn in his eyes. What emotion was Saitou repressing that he had to… well, Sano shouldn’t really try to figure that kind of thing out. First of all, he could have been wrong with that hypothesis he’d made back in the dojo a week ago and now be looking for something that wasn’t there. Secondly, he didn’t want to stand here staring into Saitou’s eyes puzzling over scorn and repression when Kenshin was somewhere waiting to be punched in the face and kissed half to death. Third, he hated Saitou anyway, so what the hell did he care how scornful the bastard was?

But the half smirk was beginning to enrage him, so he finally growled out, “Listen to me, you freaky-eyed jerk: no matter what you think, just ’cause Kenshin’s going to Kyoto doesn’t mean he’s gonna kill anyone.”

“I suppose you’re going to stop him.” Saitou’s tone was still threateningly casual, but he wasn’t fooling Sano.

“No, dumbass, he doesn’t need anyone to stop him! He’s strong enough to keep his own promises.” Except for the one about not wandering off without me, an unexpected infidel thought interjected.

“Promises? He promised you he wouldn’t kill Shishio?”

Sano didn’t quite know what to make of this question. “He didn’t have to… I already knew… that’s just how he lives…”

Saitou’s smirk grew. “So you have nothing to hold him to.”

Sano wasn’t sure why he was even still standing here discussing this kind of topic with this kind of man… maybe it was because he couldn’t bear anyone speaking badly of Kenshin, or maybe just because Saitou seemed to be playing off his own specific worries and Sano wasn’t going to take it. Either way, he demanded angrily, “Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time? Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it. But I guess you wouldn’t know about shit like that, would you?”

The older man was contemplating him now with undisguised disdain, and what did it mean? “And if the rurouni you know is only a hiatus, a step out of his regular lifestyle?”

Sano glared, but truthfully, when this was exactly what he’d been worrying about lately, Saitou’s bringing it up did more to frighten than anger him. “But for me–” he began, but Saitou interrupted him:

“What makes you think you’re worth a second thought when it comes to what direction he decides his life is going?”

It stung about twice as much as Sano would have expected. Illogical as it was, he didn’t think it could have hurt all that much more even if Kenshin himself had said it. But at the same time, it infuriated him to the point where he wasn’t even sure what he did next. It felt as if he was trying to punch Saitou, but he found after a moment that he’d shoved Kenshin’s note into the other man’s face. “That fucking does,” he growled. “Read it, asshole, and just try to say that again.”

Saitou took the crumpled message between two fingers, smoothed it halfway out with two more, and scanned it briefly before handing it back. “Ahou.”

Sano snatched it, bristling. “What?!”

“You let a few words on a piece of paper blind you… you really can’t see the reason he left you behind, can you?”

“He said it right there, dipshit,” Sano retorted. But this entire conversation was leaving him with a dreadful sinking feeling, as if there were a lot of things out of his control and Saitou knew it.

With a short, derisive laugh Saitou replied, “Even if he hasn’t abandoned you in order to return to the way he once was without your interference, it’s obvious he doesn’t want you around because you’re a liability to him.”

Sano stared, dumbstruck. He was a… But Saitou couldn’t possibly… But it made sense… And Kenshin would never say something like that, might even say something else to lead Sano away from the idea…

As Sano stood stunned, Saitou continued. “The first rule in any fight is to know your opponent’s weak points. If you were to go to Kyoto, Shishio would immediately find a way to use you. Battousai knows he can’t protect you; I showed him that. That’s why he left you here.”

The scales were tipping heavily toward punching Kenshin rather than kissing him, although at the moment Sano could do nothing but stand perfectly still waiting for the first wave of pain to subside. He wasn’t really seeing anything in front of him, only Kenshin’s face and the question of how he felt about it. But as things began slowly to come into focus around him, it was extremely irritating to find Saitou still standing there, silent and staring. He frowned, and in a sudden movement pushed past the other man and started walking swiftly away.

“Where are you going?” Saitou asked.

“Where do you think I’m going, bastard?” Sano stopped and glanced back; Saitou had not moved. “I’m going to Kyoto to hit Kenshin. Got a problem with that?”

“Kyoto is the other way,” Saitou replied mildly, walking toward Sano with calm purpose. “And, yes, I do have a problem with it. I can’t have an amateur like you underfoot; this is too important for you to get in the way.”

Sano turned to face Saitou, eyes blazing with the rage these words had awakened. “I’ve had about enough of you,” he snarled. “I’m going to Kyoto whether you like it or not!” And he hurled himself at his enemy to prove his point with his fists.

But Saitou dodged the blow, and, in a movement that seemed to indicate he’d been ready to fight all along despite his casual demeanor, slammed his own gloved fist into Sano’s exposed underarm, seized the wrist that sailed past him, and used the intended strike’s momentum to throw Sano dizzyingly to the ground.

The disorientation of this move did not distract Sano from the agonizing sensation of barely-healed flesh ripping open and blood abruptly soaking the gi Kenshin had just washed and mended for him. By the time he hit the ground, though, the anger was blocking out any other pain — until Saitou’s heel ground down on his torn shoulder and pain took over again for a moment. Then anger regained the upper hand as the bastard stepped back and spoke. “You see how easily your weakness is used against you. Do what’s best for everyone and stay here.”

Sano staggered to his feet. The battle between anger and pain within him continued, but the unbeatable pain — the one that wasn’t physical — was returning with new force and threatening to overwhelm all. Weakness… Was he really…? He just… No, it seemed his rage still had a chance, as he felt it surge up again and break over him, sending him hurtling forward a second time. And even though Saitou was his target, some of the anger was directed at Kenshin, giving Sano new resolve.

Saitou blocked the punch with raised arms, and, although he skidded back, it didn’t seem to have affected his balance. Evidently, however, his composure was slowly wearing away. “What is this going to prove?” he wondered in obvious annoyance as Sano postured for combat. “Especially when I’ve already beaten you once?”

“You can’t say that,” Sano returned in a growl. “You didn’t fight fair.”

Saitou glowered. After a moment he reached down and lifted his sheathed sword out of its holster on his belt and tossed it aside. “You won’t have that excuse this time. If I use your own sorry way of fighting to beat you, you’ll see what your own limitations are whether you like it or not.”

“You’ll never make me think I’m anyone’s fucking weakness,” Sano replied as he charged. Although he wasn’t sure he believed it.

At the moment, much as he would like to do some serious damage to Saitou, what he really wanted was for the jerk to back off so he could go to Kyoto without any trouble. So all he needed was to prove he was stronger than Saitou thought, that he had some tricks (fair tricks!) up his sleeve that would ensure he was not a liability. So he showcased his new idea, one he’d actually formulated while watching Saitou fight Kenshin: he laid into the man with a seemingly endless barrage of tight punches, forcing Saitou to stay entirely on the defensive (if he didn’t want his ribs pummeled into his lungs) and never giving him a chance to get in a hit of his own. A messy technique, but effective.

Or so he’d thought. But he found, as he fell back slightly to observe the effects of the prolonged attack, that his blows didn’t seem to have connected. Saitou would have nicely bruised forearms from blocking them all, but that would be the sole damage. Sano could only stare.

Saitou’s smirk was heavy with contempt, but also rather irritated. “You still don’t get it, do you?” He lowered his arms, the sleeves over which were shredded from elbow to wrist, and indeed he did not seem to have taken a single hit. “You may be considered strong in your little Tokyo fighting circles, but the Kyoto we’re talking about is a different world. Compared to Battousai and me you’re nothing but a child.”

Sano’s fists clenched again, but the depth of his ire was not so great as it had been. It was appalling, the way Saitou said ‘Battousai.’ Sano had heard Kenshin’s enemies say the old assassin’s name before, and of course he’d heard Saitou speak it both to Kenshin and when discussing Kenshin with Sano… but when mentioning him so casually like this, it was different from anything Sano had ever heard. Especially given the context, it sounded so familiar, so knowledgeable… as if Saitou were infinitely accustomed to speaking that name as well as perfectly justified in passing judgment on that man.

“That’s not his name anymore,” Sano said tensely, trying not to seem illogically defensive. Saitou started to make some undoubtedly smart reply, but Sano immediately continued, loath to listen. “And even if he did decide to start killing people again, it still wouldn’t be his name because the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

A brief — barely momentary — flicker of contemplation passed through the yellow eyes before Saitou replied, “Even so, you’re nowhere near his level. Kyoto is no place for you.”

Sano’s only response was to ready himself to fight again.

“You don’t know when to give up,” Saitou remarked darkly, and attacked.

Sano gritted his teeth and struggled just to keep his balance as Saitou mimicked his move from a few moments before — copying it perfectly except that he connected nearly every time. It didn’t make any sense! The blows were the same speed, coming at Sano with the same strength, but he was lucky if he could block one out of four. What was the difference?

It didn’t take Saitou long to knock Sano to the ground again, this time with a painfully shocking hit to the jaw that wrenched his neck and sent paralyzing tremors through his entire body. Of course Sano immediately struggled to rise, but just at first he couldn’t find anything like balance.

“Do you understand yet?” Saitou was saying. “Even at your own game, you can’t win. Shishio is going to be playing something completely different; if you go, you’ll jeopardize the entire operation and be killed.”

Perhaps it was the mixture of determination and rage flooding him that helped Sano finally stand. Saitou looked annoyed as the former kenkaya steadied himself and declared, “I’m going to Kyoto.” His tone was surprisingly calm, the words far more level than any he’d yet used as he added, “No matter what you or anyone else says.”

Saitou frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Give up.” There was a chilling finality to the statement, and as he made it he took what looked like a gatotsu stance without a sword. “You can barely stay standing.” Sano returned the dour expression, silently still and challenging. “It doesn’t matter how stubbornly you keep this up; you’re still just an inexperienced child.”

This was not a blow Sano could afford to take, and he knew it, but not until the last possible moment did he see any way out of it. Then as Saitou’s fist was about to meet his face, he slammed his own fists together with Saitou’s arm between them, applying all the force he could without knocking himself over. And it worked: Saitou was stopped mid-charge, staring surprised at Sano. There was a long moment of silence during which a slow, dark, triumphant smile spread over Sano’s face. “This inexperienced child could break your arm right now,” he finally said. “What do you think of that?”

“Kisama…” Saitou, for the first time, really looked like he’d been thrown for a loop. And this helped Sano find the words he needed.

“You keep saying I’m nothing compared to you and Kenshin, but so what? You guys didn’t start out that strong, or get like that just overnight… you had a war and then ten years to practice and get better and crap. But that doesn’t mean everyone who hasn’t had that kind of experience is a weakling. I may have a long way to go, but that doesn’t mean I ain’t at a pretty good place right now.”

Saitou’s expression had gone back to its usual sneer, but he made a frustrated sound. Sano thought he was going to say something, but instead the older man caught him unexpectedly with a right hook that knocked Sano away. “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed.”

“I am not gonna ‘get myself killed!'” Sano retorted, watching irately as Saitou turned and started to walk away.

Saitou looked over his shoulder. “A fool who thinks he’s strong and doesn’t know the first thing about defense isn’t going to survive long.”

Sano kept his eyes on Saitou’s back until the other man was out of sight, and he found he was trembling. Possibly with pain, but he doubted it, as that sensation was mostly forgotten. He found all he could think of was how he could get stronger and prove to that bastard he wasn’t some loser weakling. He didn’t even bother to wonder why it mattered so much that he prove this, why he cared what Saitou thought. He just had to; he just did. In that moment, there was nothing else in the world besides Saitou and Sano and something one of them really needed to learn.

After a while, of course, reality came trickling back, and Sano turned and headed toward Katsu’s place again. He felt a little tired now, although he hadn’t really expended all that much energy in the fight… it was the conversation, rather, that seemed to have drained him. He didn’t want to think about anything, not even how he was supposed to become stronger in so short a time; he just wanted to leave and start walking. He’d have to figure something out on the way.

***

He never really considered that it wasn’t quite natural for there to be two of them. It was just one of those things that seemed perfectly normal in the dream and wouldn’t strike him as odd until he awoke in the morning. That there were two was just another part of his trial anyway.

I’ll tell the locals they’re twins. And that I’m only married to one of them. Except that he was married to both of them, because they were the same woman but there were two of her.

But I don’t want either of them. The person I love is… somewhere else. It’s been a long time… So long he almost couldn’t remember who it was. And the women wanted him. Why is that? I killed their fiance… They should hate me. They both should. But, actually, he didn’t know yet that he’d killed their fiance. So why should they hate him?

Still, I can’t love them, obviously; all I want is to protect them. He didn’t much think about protecting people, usually; it was his job to kill, and although there was a philosophical, indirect sort of protection involved in that, it was far from his thoughts when he drew his sword. But now I just want to make sure they’re safe and happy. That was clearly impossible, though. They wanted him to be something other than what he was, and they weren’t going to allow him to protect them.

Yes, that’s exactly how it happened. Are they destined to die, then?

He awoke to the sound of someone approaching through the trees.

***

He’d always been rather partial to the ocean, as much as he’d ever really been partial to anything. He enjoyed the fact that for all its changes in form and attitude, it remained blue, remained vast and unstoppable despite the years’ movements. He was appreciating this idea in the back of his mind as he stood at the rail and only half observed the rocking tide around him. The ship swayed more and more as they truly got underway, but it felt steadier to him than anywhere he’d stood for weeks. And still it rolled beneath him.

“…the war’s been over for ten fucking years and he couldn’t go back to that time even if he wanted to.”

He never would have thought that after so long, after all the changes that had touched both their lives, he would trust Battousai. Trust Himura, he corrected himself with a surprising lack of bitterness. It made no sense for him to trust the man in the first place; they had never been anything but enemies — mortal enemies. Well, perhaps there had been some rivalry there, a slight sense of competition… but it was a strange world in which a man could trust his enemy over his friends. But Saitou had no friends, so perhaps it was he that was strange. Certainly he was foolish. He and Himura had tried to kill each other too often for this kind of sensation. He must be mistaken.

“No matter what you think of my ideals, I will never kill again.”

Perhaps out of desperation, a final act of rebellion against something he knew he couldn’t deny much longer, he searched his memory for any evidence of the animosity that should logically be the basis of his relationship with that man. Ah! Why had he gone to the dojo after the fight, he demanded of himself triumphantly, if he trusted Himura so much? Shouldn’t he have assumed the former assassin would make the right choice?

“Sometimes people promise you things without saying it, you know? Just by being a certain way and getting close to you. And then you can hold them to that even if they’ve never said a word about it.”

The truth was that he had assumed. He’d never really believed Himura would turn down Ookubo’s request. Feared it, perhaps, but only in the irrational way an adolescent still fears the monsters in his closet. And he’d gone to the dojo simply because he wanted… he wanted…

He didn’t know what he wanted. He didn’t know why he’d gone there that day.

It’s been said that a filthy man cannot smell the stench that clings to him. But Saitou was beginning to smell his own denial. Or perhaps that was only the sea, which at the moment was looking disturbingly far from blue.

Sanosuke– I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you. –Kenshin

So there was obviously more to it than physical attraction. But Saitou wasn’t ready to admit just yet that he could see any basis for emotional appeal. Then, Sagara was clearly not as pathetic as Saitou had thought at first, but there was certainly no reason for… But Himura loved the boy, so there certainly was a reason.

Saitou no longer had the energy to ask himself why he cared.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life, or do you just run around stabbing people all the time?”

No. No, he didn’t know much about having a normal life, and he didn’t want to. He hated it all. He hated being confused. He hated this rocking ship. He hated Himura and Sagara and their damned voices in his head and however he actually felt about either of them. He hated this hellish, changing grey sea most of all.

Chapter 8 – Stronger Distraction

He’d been a little off in his prediction. Upon opening the door, Katsu had skipped the small talk and gone straight to the point with, “How much do you need?” But then, Sano had made his prediction before he’d had a bloodied shoulder and freshly bruised face. At any rate, departure from Tokyo hadn’t taken long. Neither had getting lost.

He sat wearily against a tree and tried not to think about anything. He’d never run so fast for so long before — pushing his body to its limits until his lungs threatened to dissolve and his legs finally declared their simple decision not to run anymore today — but he’d wanted to escape. Perhaps that was what had gotten him lost, but he didn’t really care. Just… he’d escaped… now…

Or had he? Naturally, once he went still and his rasping breaths were calming, the thoughts began to return. He wished he could run forever — well, run all the way to Kyoto in one stretch, anyway, so there would be no gap, no moment when he was forced to sit against a tree to save his lungs from being ripped to shreds and his legs from turning to some kind of highly useful bean paste not terribly effective at holding his weight. The gap let the thoughts in again, and now he was exhausted on top of it.

If he could sleep, he could lose them, and when he awoke he would be rested enough to run from them again. He pushed away the mental query about what he would do if his dreams followed the same pattern as his thoughts, as they seemed likely to do. It didn’t matter, though; he couldn’t sleep just yet anyway.

He pressed his hands against his chest and looked down at them with a scowl. The knuckles were split, every one, the fingers bruised, and dried blood lay in thin, halted lines down to his wrists. He probably shouldn’t have done that… but he’d been so furious!! He’d had to take his rage out on something, before he started running, and it had felt so good to watch huge trees splinter and go crashing down among their fellows to cause absolute havoc among the animals and birds. Trees looked nothing like Saitou, but still, somehow, it felt good.

And now he’d admitted why he’d bloodied his fists, the thoughts came pouring in. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree-trunk, hoping sleep would take him soon but not very optimistic about it.

. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . His reflections flowed along in time with the beating of his heart. . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . that bastard . . . stronger . . . why did every fucking thing he had to say have to be true?. . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but it wasn’t all true . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . no, ’cause Kenshin’s still Kenshin, no matter what Saitou says . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll make that asshole respect me, if it’s the last thing I do . . . stronger . . . and I’ll prove to Kenshin I’m not a fucking liability, too . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t even know how . . . stronger . . . but I fucking will . . . they’ll see . . . stronger . . . both of them with their ten years of experience since the war, all better than me and everything . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . they’ll see, and then they’ll . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I don’t know . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . but I won’t be left behind again . . . stronger . . . I’m not a fucking baby . . . stronger . . . even if he did say I’m a child, and so what if I am compared to those old men? . . . stronger . . . I’ll show them . . . I will get stronger . . . stronger . . . Saitou has to . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . Kenshin has to . . . stronger . . . they both . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . I’m not just . . . stronger . . . stronger . . . had ten years . . . stronger . . . . . . . stronger . . . . . . . . I will . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It seemed he was closer to sleep than he’d originally imagined. Either that or this pleasant lullaby had eased the transition from waking to dreaming much more quickly than he’d fancied it could.

***

“…and they were all laughing like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard!” She reminded him a little of Sano. “And it was true, but it’s good for onmitsu to be small, right?” Not that Sano ever chattered like this. “But when I said so, they just kept laughing!” A certain restlessness about her was somewhat like Sano when he was actually interested in what he was doing. “I got so mad…” Misao’s energy level was slightly higher than Sano’s even then. “Then, I guess to prove their point or something, Hyottoko grabs me and throws me in the air!” He wondered if she had lazy spells the way Sano did. “So I’m looking for a good way to kick him in the face as I’m coming down, just to show them all that just because I’m small doesn’t mean they can toss me around…” Her lazy spells would probably exceed Sano’s in lethargy just as much as her activity did his in exuberance. “And then my grandpa decides to get his old self involved.” She didn’t seem to do anything by halves, and therein lay the real resemblance. “He isn’t really my grandpa, actually, did I mention?” Beyond that, she seemed prone to bouts of swift-passing anger much like Sano was. “My real grandfather was Okashira before Aoshi-sama.” But once again, Sano didn’t go on like this. “He was killed at the beginning of the Bakumatsu and I never met him.” Actually, her talk was becoming a bit tiresome. “Anyway, so here I am falling and Jiiya decides to show off that he still knows what he’s doing even though he’s so old.” Not that he would tell her she was annoying him… yet. “Actually, it was a pretty good lesson for me, because of course I was so silly back then — you know, eleven years old and all, and thinking anyone over thirty is washed up — so it was good to learn that old Jiiya still had it in him.” He liked energetic people perfectly well. “I hope I’m still that good when I get that old!” He didn’t like chatter, and he found women’s voices a little irksome. “So where was I? Oh, flying through the air, and then Jiiya jumps up and grabs me before I can manage to kick Hyottoko in the face.” Sano would probably put up with her a little better… “And he and Hannya-kun start playing this game like I’m a ball or something.” Sano and Misao might turn out to be two peas in a pod, really. “Every time I manage to get something ready — like a kick or a punch, and once I had a really good one for Hannya-kun’s crotch — whoever was holding me would hand me off to the other guy.” He could be wrong, though; they might rub each other entirely the wrong way for being so similar in some points. “So they’re jumping around off the courtyard walls passing me back and forth in the air, and Beshimi’s rolling on the ground laughing.” Saitou would not like her at all. “I mean literally rolling on the ground laughing!” Not that Saitou and Misao were likely ever to meet, but it might be interesting if they did. “And the worst part of it was that — I mentioned I was eleven at this point, right? — it was actually kinda fun to be thrown around like that, and I was trying not to laugh myself!” He wondered idly what Saitou would have to say to her. “Anyway, like I said, that was the last time I saw Aoshi-sama smile.” Or about her, if Saitou considered it not worth his time to address her directly. “And the time before that was — hey, did you hear something?”

***

Before they’d even become aware of him, Shishio Makoto had built up one of the largest criminal empires in Japanese history, as well as a fighting force that could not be dismissed as some mere gang. His organization had eventually grown so big that despite how well it was maintained it could no longer be hidden from the government. But by then, he was firmly established and unshakeable, and had already quietly begun his takeover. It seemed incredible, but the possibility that he could have the entire country under his control within the next year was real. The worst part of it was that the whole affair, when looked at in the light, appeared so implausible and fantastic that there was little chance of much resistance from the general populace. Moving thus so efficiently in the shadows, Shishio was a greater danger than any other kind of revolutionary. That was why they had to combat him in kind: quietly and subtly.

And, really, in the midst of something like that seemed a very odd time for a government agent to indulge in self-defeating behaviors.

Though he was still technically denying that he… well, denying things… he wouldn’t have used that phrase for it. ‘In denial’ implied there was an awareness not readily apparent, that the knowledge being denied was subconscious — whereas what he denied now had been parading itself through his head for the last few days; he was merely pushing it away, not claiming it didn’t exist. He had been in denial, and now he was simply being stubborn. He would not admit… what was begging to be admitted.

Stubbornness — persistence for persistence’s sake apart from any justice involved in the issue — was a perfectly useless, often dangerous, and almost always ridiculous frame of mind, and one he would generally avoid. But everyone had to let themselves go somewhere, sometime… it was just a vacation of sorts. Although right now really did seem like an odd time for it.

But then, none of this had anything to do with Shishio and the state of the nation… allowing himself to play at being stubborn or in denial or whatever he was might as well happen now as any other time, as long as it didn’t interfere. Actually, keeping things from interfering might be one of his motives. He had no time, he had no energy, he certainly had no patience for things like that right now. Also, he could think up a number of very specific reasons why he shouldn’t admit…

Or maybe that was denial again? Considering, he couldn’t decide whether these excuses he was making, though they seemed quite logical, were part of the stubbornness, or part of another attempt to claim he didn’t…

Or maybe they were both really the same thing? He’d admitted that he was being stubborn, but maybe it was just a new label for the denial? He could be in stubborn denial about being in denial, stubbornly claiming he was merely stubborn rather than in denial.

And if that wasn’t the most ridiculous thought he’d ever had, he didn’t know what could possibly have been.

He hated this. It gave him a headache every time he thought about it, which meant he’d had a headache for… a week? Or had it been longer than that? But this headache, actually, was probably different from the headache he’d had before he’d realized… Time to think about something else. Perhaps saving the country would be a sufficiently distracting subject. Starting with whatever was going on in this sorry little village.

Himura appeared to have found yet another shrill and obnoxious friend just when it seemed he’d managed to escape the last batch. Saitou could see merely by the hyper glint in her eyes that he would probably regret after not too long having saved her just now. But he couldn’t look at her for long, because Himura was out there fighting in the main square of the little town.

Himura had very red hair, that is, and the contrast against the grey and miserable tableau drew Saitou’s gaze. That was the reason he looked at him.

(…self-defeating…)

“Hey,” Saitou called, in a slightly darker tone than he’d intended. No, actually, it was good to talk to him like that. That was what Himura needed to hear. “What are you doing wasting time around here?”

“Saitou…” The way Himura said his name was… well, it wasn’t interesting at all. It was not at all different from the way anyone else said his name. Similarly, Himura’s eyes that turned toward him in surprise were nothing remotely fascinating. Just like his hair, they provided an unexpected contrast to the colors around them and drew Saitou’s own eyes.

(…useless…)

“What are you doing here?” Himura didn’t seem to care, asking this, that he hadn’t answered Saitou’s very similar question.

Saitou explained concisely. It was good to talk business, but when it was Himura he was talking to, it didn’t really help.

“The boy’s brother must have been the man you speak of.”

Saitou followed Himura’s brief glance toward the two desecrated bodies that hung in the center of the square and then at the boy behind him and nodded slowly. “Mishima Eiichirou was a native of this town; I thought he could get in without raising suspicion, but apparently he was discovered. The fool should have waited for me before trying to get his family out.”

The anonymous girl had drawn closer, and now burst out, “How can you say something like that about one of your own men?!”

“Oi…” Saitou glanced sidelong at her, marking smallness, swiftness, bared teeth, and a pointed nose. Not to mention a peculiar annoying quality that, as it was already displayed in this the third thing he’d heard her say, was sure to heighten to a painful degree. Certainly this was not a companion Himura had chosen of his own accord! “Who is this weasel-girl?”

The little one went into a violent tantrum, and Himura restrained her and said some pacifying things, but Saitou had what he wanted: that quirk of the former assassin’s mouth, the glint in those violet eyes, that told him he’d been correct.

Which knowledge, of course, he only wanted because he needed to be sure Himura’s judgment was still intact.

(…dangerous…)

And he wasn’t tempted to test Himura’s tact by saying something else that would invite the redhead to join him in teasing the girl possibly without her knowledge, thus making a sort of inside joke out of the scene.

(…ridiculous…)

“Please calm down, Misao-dono.” Himura was still trying to keep the girl from attempted murder. “That is merely the way he talks; if you become angry with everything he says, we will be here for eternity.”

Saitou snorted, but Himura still had half of half of a grin hanging around the edge of his lips, so he could not be entirely displeased. Anyway, it was the truth…

“Besides that,” Himura added, his tone growing less pleasant as he turned slowly back toward the square, “we have more important things to attend to right now.”

Saitou had never rued his low level of compassion. But at the same time, he had never particularly disliked the emotion on the occasions he did feel it, nor minded it in others. Of course he believed having too much of it, or none at all, could be blinding, but it was generally something he didn’t give much care or consideration. Certainly he’d never admired it… before…

But the combination of deep pity and rage in Himura’s eyes as he fixed them on the hanging bodies, Saitou was realizing, suited him extremely well. Not the same as the purpose with which they’d glowed ten years ago, no… but somehow, that was all right. Different, but still…

Yes, fine, he admitted it. It was a little irritating, but he conceded he’d probably been wrong in assuming the changes Himura had undergone were entirely bad. That didn’t mean much, though. They still needed Battousai’s superior strength for the coming conflict.

(…and his subconscious could stop with the tirade any time…)

Himura was approaching the corpses, his hand on the hilt of the sword he’d resheathed. As his intent became clear, a protest rose from some member of the crowd that had gone only half-noticed as it gathered at the other side of the square. Saitou, Himura, and the girl Misao looked to where an old man, surly in his fear, stood spokesman for the equally surly and frightened other men of the town.

“You can’t cut them down,” he said. “You’ll anger Senkaku-sama, and we can’t allow you to do that. Without his permission, those bodies stay where they are.”

“Will you listen to yourself?” the girl sprang forward shouting. Saitou expected her to go up in flame at any moment like the slip of paper she almost resembled. “Are you going to let this Senkaku get away with this, just like that?!”

“Defying Senkaku-sama means death. Obeying him means life.” There was hardly anything in the old man’s eyes as he replied… a trace of weariness, a spot of fear, perhaps… but beyond that, nothing. He barely even seemed human. “All of you must leave at once, for the sake of the village. Eiji, do you hear me?”

Little Misao was trembling with anger, apparently shocked that anyone could act like this. Ah, young disillusionment. Not that the situation was any less abhorrent to someone twice her age. Saitou stepped forward quickly, putting a hand on her head and startling her out of whatever she’d begun to retort. “Don’t bother,” he said. “Few people are willing to put honor and dignity over their own lives. If your only goal is to survive, after all, those things are useless. Give them up and live like an animal, and you’ll live.” Intentionally he spoke loudly enough for everyone present to hear him, but he knew it would have little effect. Men that had allowed themselves to sink so far could rarely be brought back by mere words.

And, indeed, it only made them angry. Mutters spread through the little crowd, but even so it was a washed-out murmur: a little anger, a little guilt, but mostly just noise for the sake of it. Truly, they were little better than animals.

“No matter what you say,” the old man finally insisted, “we can’t allow you to remove the bodies, and you must leave at once.”

Himura stepped forward without a word, and Saitou found himself watching breathlessly, taking in every slight motion of that small frame with a rising feeling of pleasure. Yes… yes… he’d been wrong. So very wrong. The fire had never gone out, nor even waned. The flames had just shifted hue, so Saitou had not at first been able to make them out — but he was beginning to see them again, a figurative light around the former assassin. That was why he really stood out.

Purposefully displaying his uncanny speed in the action, Himura severed the ropes that held the two corpses, his sword vanishing back into its sheath before anyone present except Saitou could mark its movement. Then, kneeling, heedless of the blood and not flinching at the touch of cold flesh, he began to untie the ropes from the dead couple’s necks.

Saitou walked toward him, finding as he did so that any desire he’d been harboring to keep up his stubborn denial about this particular matter had been swept away. It was about time he admitted that this Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai; that Saitou wanted him just as much now as he had ten years ago and even, as long as he wasn’t in denial anymore, every day for that long decade.

He toyed with the idea of admitting some other things as well, but he didn’t think he was ready for that yet. The concession he’d just made had been quite enough for one day.

The girl was cheering, the villagers protesting loudly, but Himura, who had straightened and looked away from them all, ignored the sounds, his face grim and determined. Saitou stopped at his side, his gaze directed at the villagers rather than Himura for fear he might say the wrong thing. “You see how the people of this place have degraded themselves,” he remarked softly. “If Shishio has his way, the same will happen to all of Japan. People will be controlled through fear and violence, and in struggling just to survive they’ll forget the real reasons they were living in the first place.”

“Saitou,” Himura said quietly, “did the government truly abandon this town?”

With a frown and a sigh Saitou replied, “It isn’t just this one. At least ten villages have been lost to Shishio and his men. The police have given up all efforts at recovering them.”

“I don’t get it,” the girl said. She’d drawn closer as Saitou spoke. “If the police can’t do anything, why not just send in the army?”

“Ahou,” he replied, not even bothering to look at her. “It’s barely been half a year since the Seinan War. If the army were to be mobilized again so soon, it would show every foreign power exactly how weak we are at the moment.”

“How can you say something like that, you heartless–” her shrill voice came from his side, but he cut her off sharply:

“Even if that weren’t the case, we’d never get the authorization for any kind of military action. Nobody who’s in a position to give the order wants to share Ookubo’s fate.”

“I see,” Himura nodded. “The army could certainly retake this and the other villages, but whoever planned the operation would undoubtedly be assassinated in retaliation.”

Saitou finally looked at him. “You of all people should know how little the government can do to prevent such things,” he replied quietly. Then more loudly, “In the end, politicians and officials are only human. They all value their lives and hope someone else will handle the problem.”

“Someone else?” the girl shrieked, waving her arms. “Someone else?! Who else is there? Who’s going to help this place, and avenge that kid’s family?!”

“Who else indeed?” Saitou asked, and Himura would know the question was directed at him. “The village, the police, the army, the government… nobody can stand up to Shishio Makoto.” He met Himura’s eyes, and finally let his gaze stay there as he saw that the former assassin had come to the same conclusion Saitou was vocalizing: “That’s why men like you and me are needed for something like this.”

He was searching for any sign that Himura had also come to the conclusion Saitou did not vocalize– That’s why I had to hurt you and your lover. It was never random… never malicious –an avowal he wouldn’t have bothered to make even mentally if he hadn’t decided to leave his comfortable denial. But apparently he was looking for too much, on this occasion, for the only glint in Himura’s eyes was that of determined purpose.

The girl must have wondered why they were just standing there staring at each other, for she was making impatient, angry noises like some kind of trapped rodent. Saitou realized in that moment that it might be every bit as dangerous having admitted what he had as the denial had been before. He was already starting to get a little distracted by these ideas, and it had barely been ten minutes.

“We’ve located the inn where Shishio is currently staying,” he said, resolving not to think about any of it right now when it was potentially perilously intrusive; he would resolve this later. “I think a visit is in order. Will you be coming with me?”

Himura was silent for a long moment, but it didn’t seem he was deliberating… or at least, it didn’t seem he was trying to decide how to answer that question. Finally he replied with a simple, intense, “Yes.”

Chapter 9 – Still Not Obsessive

The last time he’d been left behind by someone he loved because he wasn’t strong enough, that person had then been beheaded.

That this was a different kind of love and different kind of situation didn’t make any difference; the worry was the same. Not that he’d actually worried at the time, ten years ago — he’d never expected what had happened, as he’d been steadfastly convinced Sagara-taichou was invincible. But during the nights when those events repeated themselves in his dreams, he did worry… he hoped things might play out to another ending this time around. But by the time he awoke, they never had. And he had the same firm belief in Kenshin’s infallibility as he’d had as a child in his captain — a belief perhaps equally childish. No one could exist without taking a defeat at some point, and it was about Kenshin’s turn, no matter how good he was.

The point was that Kenshin might need all the help he could get. The point was that Sano didn’t want to be left alone again. The point was that he would get stronger and keep things from happening like they had ten years ago. He just didn’t quite know how yet.

He was still lost, and sweltering in the spots between tree-shadows. And he couldn’t get his mind to stop bouncing around like a hyper child in a small room. It was a little sad, but more annoying, that even after having cooled off somewhat, slept, stopped punching trees, ceased picturing Saitou’s face everywhere he looked… still the moment he exhausted that minute’s store of Kenshin-thoughts, they were replaced by thoughts of Saitou.
It was perfectly clear to him now that he must get stronger just as much to prove to Saitou he was worth something as to prove to Kenshin he wasn’t a weakness. Less clear was why these were so equally weighty in his mind… something about that man’s derisive eyes, and “I can see I’m wasting my time with you. Go, then, if you’re so determined to get yourself killed…”

So he walked on and on, his thoughts moving in an endless circle of Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou, the link between them that same tiresome, inciting mantra of stronger, stronger, stronger that had punctuated his mental process since he left Tokyo. He couldn’t get any of it off his mind, and it was giving him a headache. Again. Still.

Please wait for me.

“I can see I’m wasting my time with you.”

An idea had suggested itself to him so subtly that he hardly recognized it at first. But once he did, he fought against it with vigor and ire. Obviously he was dealing with this emotionally, because he was an emotional person… but even he didn’t just react at random. There were sensible reasons he felt the way he felt, and it was logical to want what he wanted. Hadn’t he just finished reflecting how possibly similar this was to the situation of ten years ago? And he wasn’t dwelling on this too much; it was natural for him to be thinking the way he was. Anyone would do the same in his shoes. And that stupid idea could just go jump of something high and precipitous.

Yeah, he was scarred. Yeah, he was therefore maybe a little overreactant. Yeah, he was in love and, yeah, he was incensed. But if there was one thing he wasn’t, it was obsessive.

***

There were times he felt totally convinced, and there were times he was less sure. He couldn’t recall ever having lost faith, but on occasion he was tested. It was a distinctly different pair of mind-sets: the one in which he felt he was doing the right thing with his life and could be strong in the resolve he’d made no matter what kind of pressure was on him, external or internal; and the one in which he feared he was fighting an unwinnable battle for principles that were perhaps wrong and useless. The first feeling, which was greatly strengthened by the support of those he loved and respected, he’d come to associate very much with Sano. The second… he was beginning to connect quite a bit with Saitou.

However, despite Saitou’s proximity and Kenshin’s overwhelming consciousness of his presence, this was nothing he could afford to dwell on during as important an event as his first confrontation with Shishio. Still, with Saitou standing beside him undoubtedly wishing he would spring forward and decapitate their enemy, it was a difficult thing not to dwell on. The scene was certainly tense to begin with, but it became even more so because of this.

He didn’t think Shishio could tell there was something on his mind that had only a minor connection to the matter at hand, but he felt sure Saitou could. It was a bit bothersome, though. He didn’t need Saitou’s approval and didn’t want to want it, but he did want it, and couldn’t help thinking that if Saitou would just accept the way he was, things would be a lot easier. But it was Saitou’s job at this point to expect a killer of him, wasn’t it? Kenshin found this rather annoying.

He didn’t always enjoy fighting, but the conflict with Senkaku was a welcome release. But when even Shishio, who didn’t even know him, started in on his ideals, Kenshin found himself wishing, just a little, that Sano were here. Not because he needed someone to defend him when his lifestyle was questioned, but because this whole affair was so dreary and almost demoralizing that some happiness, some increased confidence in himself, would have been a comfort. He didn’t like going into battle feeling like a champion of a lost cause — though the exchange of sword-blows with Soujirou did not turn out to be quite as much of a ‘battle’ as he had been expecting.

And now his sakabatou was broken. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he was dreading it, but he didn’t look forward to Saitou’s comments on that. Then he was somewhat distracted by Eiji, as there were things that could not go unsaid and it wouldn’t do to be selfish (and he was fairly certain Saitou wasn’t going to say them), but soon enough he had returned to his own problems. Saitou, too, seemed distant, and his orders to his subordinates, as those men cleaned things up around Shingetsu and took Senkaku away, were curt. Even genki-genki Misao seemed to have been put in a dark mood by the proceedings.

“This village is my home,” Eiji was remarking. “I’m glad something good could happen to it.”

“That reminds me,” Kenshin said. “What is Eiji going to do?”

“I’ll take him to stay with Tokio,” Saitou replied absently. “He can determine what he wants to do from there.”

“Tokio?”

Saitou looked over at him, and, though Kenshin could have been imagining things, for some reason he appeared slightly startled. But it passed quickly, and he answered calmly, “My wife.”

It was such a shock that Kenshin could not even complete his first resultant reflection, I thought I knew everything about… Saitou was married? He wasn’t sure why it was such a surprise, given that there were several years of the man’s life he hadn’t followed obsessively, and a wife could easily have entered the picture during that time… but… Saitou was married?! Kenshin couldn’t quite figure out, also, why the thought of Saitou being with a woman was so strange — unsettling, even — but it was. He supposed he’d just always assumed that… well, he didn’t know what he’d always assumed.

He was lucky Misao was equally shocked, as otherwise his prolonged staring silence in response to the revelation might have seemed more than a little odd. As it was, he found himself absently responding to her whispered comment with something that was probably unduly insulting to Saitou — not that he cared. Actually, the man seemed rather amused by whatever Kenshin and Misao were whispering, so Kenshin struggled for a moment to remember what it was — something about saints… Saitou was married?!

Misao was having a relatively cheerful conversation with Eiji now, and Saitou had taken two steps toward Kenshin with that usual inscrutable expression on his face. “You go straight to Kyoto,” he said. “And it should be obvious to you after that fight — you couldn’t even take Shishio’s advisor: you can’t fight Shishio the way you are now.” Kenshin braced himself for censure, irritated once again at the same time that this man had such an effect on him. But Saitou’s next words were the second shock of the last few minutes: “We need your old strength, so figure out some way to get it back even if you don’t plan on killing him.” And with a hand laid briefly on Kenshin’s shoulder, his leave-taking was at an end and he was walking away, calling Eiji to follow.

This time, Kenshin managed to recover much more quickly, quite possibly thanks to a self-preservation instinct reminding him that Misao’s list of insistent questions would probably double in length if she caught him staring after Saitou like… like… he didn’t fancy any of the analogies that came to mind, and didn’t think Sano would either.

But Saitou… well, it would be silly to say he approved or agreed or anything so positive, but obviously he suddenly didn’t mind the way Kenshin was. Kenshin had no idea how the wolf could possibly have come to that conclusion during the events that had just transpired, but… Had he been thinking it would ‘make things easier’ to have Saitou’s acceptance?

What a weak description.

He was elated.

And he didn’t care anymore that that might be an overreaction.

***

Just a minor slip of the tongue, really. It happened sometimes when he was distracted, though only in the presence of those he didn’t really worry about telling things. In other words, it rarely happened at all. And now he couldn’t stop thinking about it. He’d known this would be distracting, but he hadn’t counted on it being quite this distracting. He just couldn’t get the image out of his head of Himura’s shocked face. And, try as he might, he couldn’t stop dwelling on it and wondering whether this was a good or a bad thing.

On the one hand, Himura’s surprise had apparently not been of the pleased variety. And surely there was hope if Himura disliked the idea of Saitou being married! Not that he needed to be thinking about hope or the furtherance of his desires… but he was. On the other hand, supposing Himura’s inclinations had ever tended toward him at all (and Saitou could not help thinking perhaps they had), in a mind such as Himura’s, the knowledge that Saitou was already spoken for would only add to the weight of moral obligation to forget him. And there obviously hadn’t been opportunity to discuss the details.

It was fortunate Eiji was being quiet. Saitou didn’t think he had the patience to answer a lot of questions at the moment.

All very irritating, the whole affair. Why, in the first place, did such feelings have to develop and get in the way of sense and activity? This desire he now had, to explain to Himura the entire situation with his wife, seemed unlikely to go away; most likely it would plague him throughout his dealings with the other man until he found some way to fulfill it. But he just didn’t have time, at the moment, to make any attempt at winning Himura over, and how if not in such a light could he bring up such a subject? He supposed he could possibly…

This was no good. A certain kind of philosophical pondering was one thing, but this sort of pointless speculative musing was entirely another. And he was stronger than this anyway. With painful determination, he wrenched the greater part of his thoughts from the topic they most wanted to hover around and sent them with great force toward the much more important business of saving the country. Which is not to say they all went obediently, but at least for the moment he could be pleased with his level of self-control.

***

He was lying on the ground in exhaustion, taking a break, just a brief break, from his training — he deserved it after three unflagging days — holding Kenshin’s note above his face and rereading certain words over and over again without really taking in their individual meanings.

Sanosuke Sanosuke –

He had to hold it carefully, to avoid getting the paper dirty with the blood that ran from his mangled knuckles; he’d gone at that last set of rocks a bit carelessly.

…I feel I I I feel feel…

Of course, blood could only make the words brighter, because to have earned the love of someone like Kenshin was…

…go go go to…

He wasn’t making sense.

…I feel I…

Too tired, no doubt.

…must I must must feel I must…

They all had duties… why, when there was love, did those duties have to conflict? Or did they only think they did?

…go to Kyoto go to Kyoto go to go to…

Yes, he was going to Kyoto. He’d show them both.

Please Please Please Please…

Kenshin didn’t really need to beg him.

…protect protect protect the…

How could he protect anyone if he couldn’t even master something so simple as hitting a rock twice and making it shatter?

…the others protect the others…

But it wasn’t for Kenshin that he wanted to do that, was it? There was an other, indeed.

…while I’m gone…

No, Kenshin, nothing happened while you were gone… I still love you…

…wait wait wait…

The words seemed almost accusatory. I swear I still love you…

…wait for me…

Desperate, maybe? Even if I…

…please wait…

Even if I…

…for me for me for me me me…

Even if there’s maybe something…

I love you.

…someone…

– Kenshin Kenshin Kenshin

It was about time to get up and start working on that Futae no Kiwami thing again.

Chapter 10 – In Another Light

He’d never really intended to come back here. He didn’t feel that subjecting himself to an endless stream of horrific memories was necessary to his penance, and this city was the Bakumatsu to him. It was here the path of his life had led down through a pool of blood and forever colored his footprints. It was here he’d met Tomoe, who had represented at once a victim of and someone to be protected by his sword; represented everything terrible he was and everything noble he could become. As little as he’d actually felt anything in those days of repression, she had almost been his first love… except that it was here he’d first seen… well, he hadn’t ever intended to come back to Kyoto. And yet here he was.

The girl seemed pleased. No, ‘seemed’ was an unnecessary description for Misao at any time, since she let everyone know exactly what she was thinking and feeling in a manner so unambiguous — indeed, often so overstated — as to put the matter beyond speculation. And she did make him smile a little. But not much. Kyoto was too sobering, and he was beginning to see things in the colors of the old days — deep blues and bloody reds and all with edges of gold. It was like being plunged into a dream more corporeal than anything he’d ever experienced, while at the same time real life went on all around him — to a certain extent: he saw and heard and spoke, accepting the help of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu in finding the people he knew he must seek, but not really conscious of any of it.

It was his own fault for allowing the spirit of the past thus to overcome him, but he couldn’t remember having felt this lonely for years.

***

The Kyoto chief of police was giving him a lot of unnecessary details he already knew and that probably weren’t relevant to the interrogation he was about to conduct, but to which he couldn’t object as, firstly, he personally wasn’t infallible and was capable of forgetting things; and, secondly, he personally wasn’t infallible and had of late been in an inordinate state of distraction that could do with a good healthy dose of unrelated data.

And really didn’t need to be aggravated by the sight of Sagara Sanosuke sitting, glowering but at his ease, in the shadows of one of the lesser cells.

He’d already come to a halt in front of the latter even before Sagara greeted him, even before he’d decided that stopping and looking toward the boy was a bad idea. Having halted, having decided, there was then not much to do besides throw his impassive gaze at an angle between the slats of the wooden door and try to be as ambiguous as possible about whether or not he was listening to what the boy was saying.

And only half listening he was in reality, as certain thoughts from previous days reiterated themselves with alarming mental volume. It was the first time he’d seen Sagara, had that aspect of recent realizations (or admissions) forced onto his mind, since those realizations or admissions had taken place, and perhaps he wasn’t as well prepared for the ensuing reflections as he could have been.

…it was certainly just a temporary, casual arrangement… Himura Kenshin was every bit as palatable to him as the old hitokiri Battousai… pointless speculative musing… I feel I must go to Kyoto. Please protect the others while I’m gone; please wait for me. I love you…

Oh, come, now! He wasn’t… This little pathetic nineteen-year-old didn’t have that power over him, did he? With that perfect body and those warm eyes and that unguarded, passionate nature that seemed to be just exactly what Himura needed these days…

No, no… As Saitou looked him over again, he resisted the urge to shake his head. If he were jealous, he would certainly be experiencing different sensations here and now, especially having entered this encounter entirely unaware and unprepared as he had. He would surely be conscious of a much more lively, bitter disliking of the young man before him than the same passive disdain that (he was fairly sure) had been his attitude toward Sagara’s existence ever since the beginning of the roosterhead’s association with Himura…

Indeed, the only distinct feeling he could admit to now, besides the aforementioned disdain, was the other he’d had since the beginning: curiosity as to what in the world a man like Himura could see in a boy like Sagara… at least, what he could see that would hold him, would prompt him to write such words as he had. It was an unforeseen desire, strong enough for its vigor also to be rather surprising: to find out what there was to the idiot beyond what met the eye and ear… to know, if it came to that, exactly what he was up against. A strategic desire, but simple… and unmistakably ill-timed.

Perhaps his recent acknowledgment had not been inappropriate, but, as he’d reminded himself more than once, anything that purported to move beyond mere mental acceptance into the realm of planning or actual deeds was totally out of place at this point. He had neither time nor opportunity to do whatever it was this new and rather odd attitude toward Sagara was prompting him to do — get to know him better or be nicer to him or any such thing. He tried to tell himself he didn’t want to either, but denial was getting stale and he didn’t relish it as much as he used to. He had other things to do.

Pulling forcibly out of these reflections, he found himself, as he had once before, staring fixedly into Sagara’s dark eyes. And though he would not go so far as to say it was startling, the sudden recollection that, somehow, Sagara had on certain recent occasions been able to read him better than Himura had left him abruptly just the tiniest bit unsettled. Not that he had any fears regarding the privacy of his thoughts and feelings… but this was a potent reminder, more even than his own remonstrances to himself, that he didn’t have leisure to try to define the look in Sagara’s eyes.

So when the police chief ventured into the thick silence, “Do you know him?” Saitou merely replied, “No, not at all,” and walked on. And while he wasn’t entirely thrilled at having done it, such was necessity.

***

Had Kenshin been aware someone somewhere was consistently struggling not to think about him, he might have been comforted. He’d been thinking about himself all night, struggling not to think about Sano.

Hiko had said there was something wrong with him, something he was missing… this was not exactly news, and though its bearing on his ability to master the technique was as much a mystery to him as it was, he couldn’t be surprised at the necessity of facing whatever it was before he could complete his training.

But he couldn’t contemplate the state of his life, the interior of his soul, without thinking about Sano. Much as his lover had to do with those things, Kenshin was sure this issue was deeper within himself than Sano could reach — or at least could have reached by this point — and thinking about him was therefore outside the purpose of the night’s meditation. It was also outside his ability to avoid. Without throwing any blame on Sano, Kenshin blamed this for his lack of results. Not that he’d ever really needed any additional reason for having no answer to What is wrong with me?

Hiko had shed his mantle. Kenshin didn’t remember ever having seen him do this with sword in hand, and a shiver ran through him so heavy it left him feeling almost paralyzed.

He shook himself, trying to break free of the spell. Why should I be afraid? he demanded. Either I master the technique, or he kills me. I have already said I’m willing to die for this… why should I fear his killing me?

The answer to that came a little more easily than whatever other answer he was seeking: there rose immediately into his mind with piercing clarity faces… words… experiences, past and cherished, future and anticipated…

“I believe in you. You won’t lose.”

“That’s why men like you and me are needed.”

Obviously, then, it wasn’t the act of dying he feared, but the separation it would bring about from a certain person… certain people… he’d rather not part from so soon. It was selfish, certainly… he, with the blood of so many on his hands, should not hesitate to die for a righteous cause just because he wanted…

And then it hit him, swifter and harder even than a blow from his master — that no matter who or what he was, what he’d done, what he deserved, he did not want to die. It was something he’d never considered, the difference between being willing to die for the protection of the weak, if it came to it, and having entirely lost the will to live. For this, it struck him in a half-moment as that fine difference came to him all at once, he had not done.

It was not selfishness to desire life; it was a basic human instinct… and, in trying to repress it, had he not repressed a part of his own power and ability along with it? He hadn’t realized it, as he’d never thought about it, but he knew now, suddenly, almost overwhelmingly… he was not going to die if it could be helped. He wanted to see them again. He wanted to live. He would live. Hiko Seijuurou was not going to kill him here.

He put his hand to his sword hilt.

***

Saitou had pretty much continued being just as much of an asshole as usual, but somehow it wasn’t bothering Sano like before.

For one thing, the cop was confident they would meet Kenshin soon; though volunteering very little information, from what he had said Sano got the impression there was a kind of general police lookout on for Kenshin throughout Kyoto ever since he’d trashed that Chou guy and caused a commotion outside some shrine.

For another thing, Sano couldn’t help thinking of the way Saitou had looked at him downstairs in the cells — both right at first and then in that unexpected moment of total agreement after talking to Chou. Something had changed. There was something in Saitou’s bearing toward him now that seemed to imply, however strange it might be, that Sano had been just then truly noticed by Saitou for the first time. This really made no sense, as Saitou had paid him plenty of attention in the past… what with the stabbing, staring, beating, and possibly kissing… and Sano really should be mad that even after all of that it was only now Saitou saw him as something other than an object — either tool or obstruction. He should be mad, but he couldn’t… for though Saitou’s overtly displayed opinion of him didn’t seem to have changed, and though he still refused to fight Sano again, it had been from the moment of Sano’s Futae no Kiwami on the cell door that Saitou had ceased to make any real objections to Sano’s coming with him. Which meant Sano’s efforts had made Saitou take him more seriously, and how could Sano be angry in such a moment?

While he didn’t think he’d won a particularly large amount of respect, having won any at all just confirmed how much he wanted more. Of course he still hated the bastard, but at the same time found himself elated even with such an understated rising esteem. In fact, he had a rather stupid, childish urge to make the first thing he said to Kenshin, when he saw him again, “I showed him!!!” After he punched him, of course. He cracked his knuckles with a grin.

“You’re in a very good mood for someone who’s been in a jail cell all day,” Saitou remarked dryly, looking at Sano over the top of the paper he’d been studying with a grim expression.

Sano thought this an oddly conversational (that is, relatively un-insulting) remark, and was not averse to answering. But there was no way he was going to admit the already somewhat disturbing fact that his good mood had a lot to do with Saitou himself. “I’m looking forward to punching Kenshin in the face,” he said.

“How affectionate,” murmured Saitou.

Sano only bristled mildly at the scornful tone. “Like you’d know,” he muttered.

Though Saitou’s eyes had turned back to whatever he was reading, Sano thought they flashed as he answered, “And how would you know what I know?”

The younger man snorted. “Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” He found Saitou’s response strange, though, and a little unsettling. Certain worries regarding Saitou and relationships had never entirely been cleared from the back of his mind, and the confusion of the dojo was suddenly beginning to reawaken.

“My wife would probably agree with you,” Saitou nodded without looking up again.

This didn’t do much to keep the confusion off.

“Your… wife…?”

After a few moments, Saitou set aside his paper and stood in an abrupt movement. Withdrawing a cigarette case and going about the business of matches, he left Sano in inexplicably agitated suspense for nearly a minute. Then, through a fresh haze of smoke, he answered in a still oddly casual tone. “She’s been trying for a ‘relationship’ with me for years. Either I’m not good at it, or she’s not nearly as attractive as she thinks.”

Sano was skeptically horrified. “So she likes you but you don’t like her?” What was wrong with this man?! “Why the hell’d you marry her?”

Saitou snorted but had no other answer. Actually, Sano was surprised such a topic had even come up at all, that he’d gotten even that much of a response to such a question. But he had to admit, their last conversation in Tokyo (if an argument that ended in blood could be called a conversation) had also concerned rather personal serious subjects. Sano had even shown him that note he hadn’t been planing to show to anyone, hadn’t he? This, perhaps, made them even, in that case. Sano liked that thought somehow, but at the same time, it threw Saitou’s wife into contrast with… Sano couldn’t help remarking, “Figures you’re even a bastard to your wife.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow and preceded his response with a long drag of his cigarette, as if sustaining himself through the unpleasant subject. “And it figures you’d blame me for not returning some stubborn idiot’s feelings.”

“Well, I bet you didn’t even try,” Sano retorted a little huffily.

“Should I have?”

“You said ‘years!’ A woman’s in love with you for years and you can’t even try to like her back?”

“Would you apply that logic to anyone?”

“What do you mean?” Sano asked a little warily.

“If someone you didn’t like was in love with you, would you try to like them back?”

“Of course,” insisted the uneasy Sano.

“Even if you already loved someone else?” The glance Saitou threw him as he said this, though brief, was piercing, and Sano’s confusion was great. At first he was, as Saitou seemed to be admonishing, putting himself in the unfortunate position of being in love with and promised to one and sought after by another… but after a moment the particular significance of that statement as made by that speaker struck him.

“Wait, so, you do?”

“Hn.” Saitou returned to the desk.

Sano watched him, unsure how to react. Short as it had been, that discussion had given him much food for thought. Saitou’s words and behavior could add up to a couple of conclusions, but they were in areas of Sano’s mind he’d pretty much forbidden himself to enter, and now he was agitated. He was angry, too, with Saitou for bringing it up and then leaving it hanging — but what more could he do besides reiterate a question that was maybe (hopefully) none of his business, that would lead him to thoughts he definitely didn’t want?

And what the hell did it mean that Saitou had entered so readily into such a conversation, anyway? In the middle of police shit, too, with a plot afoot to burn down Kyoto, why would Saitou waste time on a totally irrelevant discussion? That didn’t seem like him. He must have had some specific purpose…

Sano suddenly felt very uncomfortable.

Exceptionally quiet, this police station. After they’d finished questioning Chou, Saitou had consulted briefly with the fat chief, most of the cops who weren’t out already had been ordered off on different assignments, and the building was left big and echoing and empty. Except for this room where Saitou was doing whatever he was doing — some kind of research or something, combined with a stack of local reports of some kind; Sano didn’t really have any concept what the prospective result was — in here the air was thick with the hovering remains of that conversation, with thought and implication, mostly ideas Sano wanted to avoid.

After several tense minutes passed in silence but for the shifting of papers, the chief bustled back in and, with a curious and slightly disapproving glance at Sano that matched the ones he’d given him before, started talking to Saitou about patrol patterns and something else that sounded like it might actually be interesting if Sano cared to listen. Instead it seemed that he, only half-realizing what he did, was taking the opportunity to slip out of the room. As he resumed a leaning position against a shadowy wall in the corridor, he found it wasn’t much more comfortable out here than it had been in there. In fact, if anything, he felt more restless and agitated than before, because now he had the vague sensation of having somehow backed down from something, retreated from some challenge. Which was stupid, since there hadn’t been anything of the sort within… just Saitou and the totally immaterial and extraneous fact that he had a wife he didn’t love and maybe a love he hadn’t admitted to.

Eventually the chief emerged, gave Sano the same expression of confused disapprobation, and hastened off about some other task. Sano fixed his eyes on the door and contemplated moving toward it, but somehow never did.

Whether his thoughts kept to the same tether was another business entirely.

Chapter 11 – Angles

He could go in there and comment, “Yeah, pretty serious shit you didn’t want my help with, ain’t it?”

He’d taken a restless little walk around the station, and had been trying to decide whether or not to go back into that office and talk to Saitou again, only to hear, upon his return, through the door of said room, Kenshin doing exactly that. His lover’s surprised and horrified voice crying “Kyoto Taika?!” sent shivers up Sano’s spine. It seemed much longer than a mere couple of weeks since he’d seen him, seemed like a lot had changed. He hadn’t set eyes on the rurouni since before reading the words I love you, and he was sure their meeting would mean more than a standard reunion; he still wasn’t certain whether he felt angrier or happier with Kenshin. And “Yeah, pretty serious shit…” seemed like a decent way to enter the conversation. But for some reason he didn’t do it.

Saitou was explaining, his tone relatively devoid of emotion, how he’d learned of Shishio’s arson plans. Saitou was all business, of course. Lives and the country were in danger, and Saitou wasn’t dragging personal shit into it. Even if he had brought up his wife for no good reason just a little earlier. Sano couldn’t quite admonish himself to follow Saitou’s example, but, even so, perhaps a less pointed opening remark, such as, “With shit like this going down, seems like you can use all the help you can get,” would be better.

“It seems strange,” Kenshin remarked pensively.

“Strange like going on an epic quest without your boyfriend?” That would also be a good interjection… but still Sano didn’t move.

“You think so too?” wondered Saitou.

Sano frowned and leaned against the door in order to catch every word more fully. Not that it was important that Saitou and Kenshin had some similar unfathomable thought; he just didn’t want to miss any of what was certainly an important conversation.

“No matter how strong Shishio’s organization is,” mused the wolf, “we still have an overwhelming advantage of numbers. So their tactics will have to emphasize surprise attacks and assassination, and this Kyoto Taika will have to rely on the same things. If their plans aren’t kept a complete secret, they can’t accomplish anything nearly that big. Their security should be so tight that information leaks are a matter of life and death, so I thought someone would be sent to eliminate Chou before he could be brought to tell what he knows. I set up a close watch down in the cells… but there was no sign of anyone, and it turns out you can get anything out of Chou without much effort.”

Sano snorted. It made sense, though; in that light, it did seem strange. Sano surely would have noticed if he hadn’t been distracted. It was about time he made his entrance.

“There must be something behind the Kyoto Taika that is a secret even to the Juppongatana,” Kenshin agreed.

“Well, going places and doing shit without your allies is popular these days,” Sano could say, if he walked in there right now.

“There must be some other target.”

“Either that or there’s some other…” But that was going a little too far; he wouldn’t say that.

Sano didn’t know the reason for his continually increasing anger as he listened. It wasn’t as if anything inappropriate was going on behind this door, or as if anything had happened to render him more annoyed than he had been before Kenshin had arrived… but… couldn’t Kenshin tell he was here?

“This is modeled after the Ikedaya affair,” Saitou said decisively. “Since Shishio is taking over the country and taking revenge at the same time, he’s probably playing a game of some sort with the Kyoto Taika and this other target.”

Playing a game with an ostensible objective and a second, concealed one. That concept was just… Yeah, it must be Shishio Sano was so angry at.

There was silence for a few moments. Sano could head in there and berate Kenshin for his mean trick right now, but… what exactly would he say?

“In the battle of Tobafushimi,” began Kenshin, his words slow, dark, and thoughtful, “Tokugawa Yoshinobu deceived his own allies by retreating by ship from Osaka Bay to Edo. This maneuver was the main reason for the government victory. It would be ironic if Shishio could somehow mirror that tactic for his own victory… Here!” Sano was startled by the vehemence and volume of the sudden exclamation. “The Kyoto Taika is only the first stage of his plan! His true objective is a marine bombardment of Tokyo!”

Sano’s frown had by now become an irate glower; again, the logic in there was flawless, this conclusion even less pleasant than the last. And he couldn’t help thinking he could easily open the door and say, “Tokyo? What, you mean that place I was supposed to stay so I wouldn’t get involved?”

“I see…” Saitou sounded pretty glowery too. “The Kyoto Taika is an opening move that will draw all eyes to where Shishio’s forces are meeting head-on with the police in a flashy battle. He deliberately released the information about it to draw attention from his real target: the seat of the government and a place that can’t be put out of harm’s way.”

“Tokyo will not be able to combat a marine attack!” was Kenshin’s energetic worry. “That’s the one thing they cannot avoid! There’s no time! Hurry!”

“Hurry to leave me behind again?” He could say that. Or… could have. It was too late now. The door was opening. Actions spoke louder anyway.

***

Himura really didn’t seem to have seen it coming, truly didn’t seem to have noticed Sagara’s presence in the hall. Saitou wasn’t sure how this could be possible when the boy was so conspicuous that his mere presence in the building was like having a bonfire glowing just out of the corner of one’s eye; should he consider it significant that Himura had been so preoccupied?

The crack of fist meeting face was nearly concurrent with Himura’s startled gasp and followed by the rustle of cloth as he stumbled and Sagara caught him. It hadn’t been a light punch, and, Saitou suspected, the unfamiliar circumstance of its taking Himura entirely by surprise made its impact all the stronger. Then Sagara hauled the redhead upright and kissed him, and the poor man looked completely stunned.

Well. ‘Poor man’ was not an apt description.

Saitou didn’t bother trying not to stare, to study the contact of their lips, their clutching arms and hands. He’d never actually seen them behave like lovers before, and, though there was nothing particularly surprising about the display, he felt something that seemed a little like surprise. Strikingly unexpected was that he couldn’t quite define the feeling, which was intense, a dizzying mix of pleasant and unpleasant, and not quite jealousy. He’d feared this would be too distracting, and he’d been right. He really didn’t have time to analyze such things right now, or to put up with useless displays of affection… and yet he did nothing to break up the unorthodox reunion.

As the kiss ended and Sagara’s eyes opened, the boy caught sight of the assiduous watcher. And his expression as their gazes met over Himura’s shoulder was about as unfathomable to Saitou as the emotion the previous action had produced. Sagara himself had literally shoved the status of his relationship with Himura in Saitou’s face at one point, and therefore shouldn’t have much room to complain of feeling intruded upon; Saitou got the impression he probably would anyway. But that wasn’t the look the boy was giving him now.

Nor was it the frenetic I have him and you can’t defiance he would have expected had he thought Sagara had any idea… It wasn’t even angry. Saitou couldn’t think him at peace, even in his lover’s arms; it must be that, having accomplished what he’d intended, his fury had abated. But why he seemed to be including Saitou in his brief period of contentment — or at least not actively excluding him — the wolf couldn’t understand. Was it simply Himura’s long-sought company that had made him momentarily so unhostile?

“Sano!” Once Himura had his breath back, his astonishment was great. “How did you get here? What are you doing here?”

The strange instant had passed as Sagara’s eyes returned to his lover. “I came with him,” he said — somewhat misleadingly, Saitou thought, and was that deliberate? — “to help you.”

Saitou abhorred having such a limited grasp on the nuances of a situation, even if it was merely the personal aspect that he shouldn’t be allowing to distract him so much in the first place. “Don’t you mean get in our way?” he asked caustically, and was pleased to feel the entire mood shift at once.

Sagara broke from Himura with clenched fists and an irate face that also looked, oddly enough, vaguely betrayed. “What the fuck is your problem?” he demanded. Saitou just smirked.

Himura’s admonition, “Calm down, Sano,” didn’t seem to be the primary impetus for the boy’s subsequent deep breath and angry sigh, but in any event Sagara did calm down, somewhat, and turned pointedly away from Saitou back to his lover.

“Anyway, I got a lot to tell you while we run; we should get going.”

“You’re going to run to Osaka, ahou?” Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh or to go over there and hit the boy on the head. “We’ll take a carriage.”

“Is there some reason–” Sagara began, but Himura interrupted him:

“I need to send a message to some allies here in Kyoto; Saitou, can you have someone deliver it immediately?”

A little surprised by the request because it didn’t seem Himura had only made it to diffuse the argument, Saitou nevertheless merely pointed to the office they’d just vacated and said, “Hurry. I have a telegram to send as well; I can have someone take yours at the same time.”

He’d expected a much greater delay to aggravate him before they could be on their way, especially given the current status of the Kyoto police force, but they managed to get their tasks finished quickly, and the carriage was ready for them soon thereafter. Then Sagara seemed oddly hesitant about climbing into the equipage, as if he had some other course of action in mind. Surely he didn’t really think he could run to Osaka…? But he sat down next to Himura without complaint, and they were off. As their rapid journey commenced, they all seemed to breathe a silent sigh and settle into their seats as if for a much-needed rest. Which is not to say the air among them was at all relaxed.

It was too late for the Osaka police to set up roadblocks despite the telegram; Saitou was agitatedly aware they were departing late, that at best they couldn’t arrive until nearly midnight, and he said so. “And if we have to search for him randomly once we get there,” he added, “we have no chance of success.”

“He will undoubtedly have his ship disguised as something unobtrusive and hidden among the others,” Himura replied logically, “but it will have to be a certain size and ready to depart. If we can get there in time, I’m certain we can find him without trouble.”

The officer nodded darkly. ‘If we can get there in time’ was the key point.

Sagara was looking between them with a scowl. “Why the hell are you two so gloomy? So we don’t make it… it’s not like Tokyo can be destroyed by just one ship.”

Again Saitou couldn’t decide whether to laugh at him or hit him… and, really, that he was indecisive in such a matter was significant.

“Shishio is not trying to destroy Tokyo,” Himura explained patiently. “Remember that the appearance of the black ships in Kaei 6 threw Edo into panic and led to the opening of the country and the Bakumatsu. Even though Edo has become Tokyo, the terror and uncertainty of that time and of the war still lingers in people’s hearts. If an unfamiliar ship suddenly appears in Tokyo Bay and opens fire, the city will, without a doubt, fall into total chaos.”

“The government doesn’t have the power to stop it,” Saitou agreed. “Tokyo will become a lawless region, paralyzing the government in a single stroke. Especially,” he added, “with so many of the Tokyo police relocated to deal with the other problems Shishio is causing.” The man was playing this all exceptionally well.

“Yeah, I see,” Sagara muttered. “It gets worse and worse.”

“How many policemen are in Kyoto?” asked Himura.

“Five thousand,” Saitou replied. “That’s ten times as much manpower as Shishio has. With that alone we should be able to hold off the fire.” Then, as an afterthought, he inquired, “What was that message you sent?”

Sagara looked at him sharply — Saitou wasn’t sure why — but said nothing. The wolf thought the boy was just as curious anyway.

“The police can hold off 500 soldiers,” was Himura’s answer, “but they cannot stop 500 sparks. To fight the Kyoto Taika, we need the help of the people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu.”

Saitou smiled slightly. “Which people who protected Kyoto during the Bakumatsu?”

“The Oniwabanshuu,” was Himura’s reply.

“What?!” cried Sagara.

With a raised brow, Saitou wondered, “So Shinomori has decided to let you live?”

Himura also gave a small, reluctant smile. “Not as far as I know. This group is no longer under his leadership.”

“I shoulda known there’d be more of those bastards…” Sagara grumbled.

Himura’s smile grew. “These are mostly women, Sano.”

“As I thought,” Saitou frowned, “that girl…” He’d realized eventually what her clothing implied, but hadn’t really been willing to believe it.

Himura nodded.

“What girl?” wondered Sagara. Suspicion sounded in his tone, and Saitou didn’t entirely understand it. If Sagara suspected Saitou’s preference, surely his reaction — his entire demeanor — would be a good deal less calm. But why would that suspicion arise if not from jealousy about the time Himura and Saitou had spent together while Sagara hadn’t been around? Perhaps the boy just hated him. That would make sense on more than one level… but somehow, despite all evidence provided by their interaction up to this point, Saitou didn’t think so.

Himura had begun to explain about the girl Misao and the other members of the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu, Sagara was listening somewhat skeptically, and Saitou watched them both. Once the account was completed, nobody introduced a new topic of conversation, and the ride continued in increasingly tense silence.

***

Kenshin wasn’t sure what had prompted him to pay specific attention to the way Sano and Saitou interacted, but by the time they reached Osaka he was tracking it minutely. He toyed with the idea that he wanted to reassure himself that Saitou had no further plans for wounding Sano, but that couldn’t be it; a mere half-minute’s observation made it clear there was no murderous (or even semi-murderous) intention in Saitou’s attitude toward Sano — quite the opposite, in fact. Though what exactly would be the opposite of stabbing him in the shoulder, Kenshin couldn’t guess. Perhaps to Saitou, simply allowing Sano to accompany him was the opposite.

Osaka Bay necessitated these thoughts move from center stage, but he couldn’t help marking the desperately frustrated tone in which Sano wondered why Saitou had to find fault with everything he said… the way Saitou, after surfacing from the dive off the ruined pier, glanced back almost inadvertently to where Sano had barely missed being struck by the cannon shot…

In his own horror for his lover’s safety and the easement thereof at Sano’s nearly miraculous survival in the face of a gattling gun, he almost missed the stricken look that flashed across Saitou’s face and the profound relief that replaced it… but still he caught them. He just didn’t know what they meant.

He couldn’t help noticing, also, the immediacy of Saitou’s withdrawal from combat-intent at his urging… but that was entirely different.

Or was it? Once Shishio had gone, Kenshin was at leisure to be surprised at the sound of Saitou’s “Ahou…” and the glance at the ranting Sano that accompanied it. It wasn’t that Saitou didn’t mean it, but it lacked intensity. He might almost have called it… indulgent… if that would have made any sense at all. It was at the very least a good deal more tolerant than the disposition Saitou had previously displayed toward Sano. Or had Kenshin been misreading that? There had been the staring… Or else what had changed to make the officer so accepting?

Largely experimentally, Kenshin said, “You are being too harsh. Without Sano, this would not have turned out nearly so well. He’s more reliable than you think.”

Saitou specifically turned away as he replied, “I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s an idiot.” But it wasn’t so much the facial expression Kenshin couldn’t see as the action he could — Saitou extracting a cigarette he could not possibly light and smoke after the swim across the bay — that led the rurouni to suspect there was more to the words than the wolf really wanted to express.

Kenshin wasn’t sure what to think or feel about that. But maybe this level of acceptance was simply the opposite he’d been wondering about earlier. And it didn’t mean much, really. A little more acceptance from Saitou still meant a disdainful ‘ahou’ for Sano.

The latter was definitely standing next to the former, though, a good five feet behind Kenshin, as they looked out over the railing of the sinking ship for any signs of fire in Kyoto.

Chapter 12 – A First Time For Everything

Toward wherever Kenshin was taking them they walked through town in an indefinable silence. It was almost as if they couldn’t say anything, as if they were both trying but it just wasn’t working. And why should that be? Well, the previous day and night had been tiring; although it would have felt more natural to talk about what had happened than to maintain this unusually wordless state, people did odd things when they were worn out.

They both, Sano noticed, seemed to be looking around them diligently at the bustle and arrangement of the city. Searching for signs of fire and destruction in the Kyoto streets was an excellent excuse not to talk. That they weren’t finding any must be a source of joy and relief, but must also eventually lead to the discussion they were trying to avoid. Were they trying to avoid a discussion? He’d believed they were just tired.

Saitou had been preoccupied when they’d left him, busy with the police chief, with numbers and reports and the wounded from last night’s anti-arson efforts, and Sano felt the situation to be a little unfair: he and Kenshin were heading for some inn presumably to rest, while Saitou didn’t seem likely to get any sort of break or sleep in the near future. Whatever he was, his dedication to this cause deserved a better reward than that.

“So…” Kenshin remarked in a tone that was almost casual. “You seem to have made up with Saitou.” Obviously Kenshin’s thoughts had been on the same topic as Sano’s.

The rush of emotion the younger man felt at this was nothing he could describe. It wasn’t anger, it wasn’t embarrassment, it wasn’t fear; yet it partook somewhat of each, and he was certainly agitated. Yes, they had been trying to avoid a discussion, and this was that discussion; it would be fruitless to deny in the face of this reaction that prompted a tenseness in Sano’s frame and caused his fists to clench and twitch as if he really were angry.

He certainly sounded angry when he demanded in a growl, “Why the fuck would I have made up with that asshole?” And why did that seem like such a… backlash? Sano tried very hard not to answer that question.

Kenshin didn’t look at him, and they said no more. The silence was now palpably awkward. Why awkward? There was no reason for — no, Sano didn’t even want to think about it.

“God, I’m fucking hungry,” he growled in nearly the same tone as his previous statement, little as he thought that would really help. “This place we’re going to’s an inn, you said? I hope they’ve got some good service.”

Kenshin shook his head slightly and spoke in the tone of one forcing himself onto the cheer of an innocuous topic. “Yes, it is, and yes, they do.” He smiled faintly. “And I am certain you will find the staff entertaining.”

“Oh, really?” There wasn’t much else to say.

“Yes. This branch of the Oniwabanshuu is very different from the ones we met in Tokyo.”

“Great.”

Oh, god, this was polite conversation. Even a reference to a shared experience — an emotional one at that — hadn’t been enough to turn it into a real conversation. Why… how… he needed to say something now to dispel this unprecedented atmosphere, to smash through this goddamn awkwardness that had come up out of fucking nowhere. When had he ever been this uncomfortable with Kenshin?

Did it really come up out of nowhere, though? a surprisingly sedate voice in his head wondered suddenly. Think back, it said. When did it start?

I know perfectly fucking well when it started, was his surly reply.

Then it shouldn’t be difficult to figure out why it started, the voice admonished calmly. He wasn’t given to such cool and logical self-counsel, but there was a first time for everything; he must have been a little too much under the influence of…

I’m not even fucking going there, he shot back.

Eventually you’re gonna have to. You’re gonna have to think about him, and you’re gonna have to admit–

I am not fucking gonna have to fucking admit anything I don’t fucking want to!!! It was the mental equivalent of a bellow, and some of it must have leaked out his mouth, for Kenshin looked toward him.

“Did you say something?” he asked, his tone still insufferably polite and benign.

“No,” Sano muttered.

Could he keep this up? There was a distinctly rebellious tone to that collected and rational voice in his head — which, after all, was merely part of his own consciousness and pointing out things he knew already; how long could he really resist it? Could he keep his thoughts under control enough not to start suspecting, to start blaming, to start resenting? Wasn’t he already cracking just by admitting the possibility of those frames of mind? And what else might he find if he allowed himself to look at this situation from all angles, as he was beginning to ache to do? Did he even want to admit there was a ‘situation?’

He felt guilty already. Determining why he did would blow the issue open, since he was fairly sure the reasons were manifold and branched out through everything else he was feeling. And the only plausible reaction to this frame of mind was an anger more profound than he’d experienced for some time.

Time… yes, that was what it would take, wasn’t it? If he could keep himself together until this ended… once Shishio was defeated, they would surely return to Tokyo and the way things had been, and he could let go and forget. Distraction, aspersion, confusion — it would all vanish once this mess was over.

Hah! It was his damned head again. Haven’t you heard? ‘You can never go back.’ And the distraction isn’t just gonna go away on its own, for you or for him.

Shut the fuck up, he told himself, but it was no use.

‘Once Shishio’s defeated?’ it demanded. You know what has to happen before that. You know what has to happen tomorrow morning.

God fucking dammit. He really had nothing else to say. He could argue as stubbornly as anything — against someone else. Against his own private logic, it was a battle lost almost before it started. Denial (and perhaps a subconsciously encouraged obtuseness) could only protect him for so long. Eventually he had to admit to himself that facts would have to be faced once they… well, tomorrow morning. But, hell, if he couldn’t find something to distract himself with until then, he might well not be sane enough to face those facts when the time came; there were a lot of weary, pensive hours between now and then.

“Here we are,” Kenshin said, and probably had no idea just how good his timing was.

***

Saitou felt as if he’d been wading carefully downstream in the shallows of a raging river, but had now misstepped and been swept away in its powerful currents — in the direction he wanted to go, admittedly, but with absolutely no control over how or how quickly. And why not? he wondered with grim abandon. Why not let all hell break loose in this matter? What was at stake, after all? Only the fate of the nation.

It was useless to try not to take so much upon himself. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t alone in this endeavor; if they failed, the responsibility would still rest with him. And he was in a dangerous state of mind.

The boy had been brilliant.

No, not brilliant — he’d been telling himself that all day, but somehow the adjective persisted. Yes, Sagara had been innovative and effective and had managed to keep himself from getting killed at the same time… all in that flashy, jarring way of his where every move was unexpected and eye-catching, but not… Well, maybe, in a symbolic, luminescent sense of the world, ‘brilliant’ wasn’t too bad a description.

No, it was still a bad description. The moron had gotten the bombs from somebody else and wouldn’t even have known how to use them properly if Himura hadn’t reminded him of the properties of gunpowder. And he’d nearly given a couple of people a heart attack with his antics. Sagara was still an impetuous child unworthy of someone like the former Battousai.

But weren’t practical use of the tools available and the ability to adapt one’s plans at the last moment traits of a proficient warrior? No matter how sloppy the technique seemed, if the desired outcome was attained and the performer remained relatively unscathed, Saitou could not reasonably object.

It was no good trying to drag his thoughts away from this topic. Now that he’d been pulled into the flood, he had very little choice left in the matter. He could let it overpower him and interfere with his duties, or he could assimilate the unavoidable — he could sink, or he could swim, but there was no getting out of the water.

And there was no denying he’d asked for it. “What does he see in you?” he’d wondered of Sagara back when — it seemed bizarrely long ago, now — he’d knocked him through the wall of the Kamiya dojo. He shouldn’t ask questions if he wasn’t ready for the answers. Of course, that had been before he’d admitted how he felt about Himura, when he’d still thought he was strong enough to open an emotional issue in the midst of the other and keep it from getting in the way.

Perhaps, in response to the half-formed resolution he’d made in the jail to find out what he wanted to know, he’d been subconsciously attempting to look at Sagara as Himura must, and was therefore being easier on him than he otherwise might… but the reason why was neither problem nor solution. The problem was that he was starting to see what Himura saw in the passionate kenkaya, and it threatened to be one distraction too many. And the solution? He hadn’t the faintest idea.

This feeling of nearly complete lack of control, of being a breath away from drowning, was irritating, agitating… And if the tasks of the day hadn’t been engrossing enough to keep his thoughts relatively well balanced, it would also have been overwhelming. Fortunately, he had enough to do in cleanup after the events of last night and preparation against further assault from Shishio that he could have continued working without pause from the moment they got back to Kyoto until it was time to depart for the mountain the next morning; how fortunate he should really consider the general ineptitude of the police force was a matter of debate, but it was convenient for purposes of distraction.

“Do you know anything about having a normal life?” This time, somewhat disturbingly, these remembered words only made Saitou smirk slightly, ruefully, and shake his head.

He had to rest eventually. God knew how much fighting, and what else besides, he would have to do tomorrow… but it was almost as if he dreaded the cessation of his work day. Though he’d never been given to brooding insomnia, there was a first time for everything, and this was just the situation to bring about that sleepless state.

“Everything I know about you so far pretty much proves you don’t know much about relationships.” Well, he knew they were damned inconvenient. Even when it was only someone else’s relationship that wasn’t his business in the first place.

Midnight had come and gone before he found his bed in the cheerless inn near the police station. Sleep did not elude him as he’d feared it might, but uncomfortable images of rushing water in which he sometimes thought he could see figures and faces followed him relentlessly there and throughout the rest of the night.

***

Why was it so cold? Kenshin already sat as close to the fire as was prudent; why was there still such a deep-set chill in his body? He rubbed absently at one arm with the other as he stared at the low flames and felt goosebumps rise across his flesh. Was it an after-effect of the swim in Osaka Bay? Had he caught something?

The door slid open and then closed again, and quiet footsteps crossed the floor.

The shiver that ran through Kenshin at the sound of Sano entering their shared room was not the usual one; it was neither pleased nor aroused, but rather… uncomfortable. Anxious, even. Why? It couldn’t be Sano’s mere presence he worried about… but, rather, interaction with him, a continuation of the atmosphere that had marked that interaction all day.

Sano was trying not to show how disturbed he felt, and had been avoiding Kenshin — or at least being alone with Kenshin — ever since they’d entered the Aoiya. Even now he did not greet him, and walked as quietly as he was able (which, as always in Sano’s case, wasn’t particularly quiet). But surely he didn’t think Kenshin hadn’t noticed. Every last word they’d said to each other had been forced, uncertain, stilted, ever since… well, all day. Sano had used the reunion with Kaoru and Yahiko and getting acquainted with the Kyoto Oniwabanshuu as his unstated excuses for saying as little as possible to his lover, and Kenshin had accepted that… but it couldn’t continue. Not when they had a potential deathmatch tomorrow. Not when dawn would bring… No, Kenshin couldn’t just let this go without at least trying to work things out.

Seeming somewhat indecisive, Sano now stood in the middle of the room. Kenshin’s back was to him, but he could sense the younger man’s perfect stillness. That stillness seemed to bring with it a fresh coldness, as if Sano were a door to the starry night, and Kenshin wanted to draw even closer to the fire. But that coldness, he could tell, lay only in the space between the two of them; no one else would have felt such a low temperature radiating from Sano. He feared Sano must be feeling the same from him.

After seconds had dragged by without word or movement from his lover, Kenshin said his name quietly. “Are you upset with me?”

“No!” Sano replied, with so much vehemence and so much haste that the rurouni, heart sinking, immediately doubted the insistence. “Upset with you for what?”

“For… leaving you behind in Tokyo.”

“Oh.” In that one syllable, why did Sano sound so relieved? As if he’d perhaps thought Kenshin would suggest something, confess something else Sano might be angry at him for? But was Sano worried Kenshin would admit having suspected him of… something… or admit to… that same something on his own part?

No, that was impossible. That something was only a fragmentary thought in Kenshin’s head in the first place; its very wild improbability was the only thing that even brought it to mind, and therefore made for a self-fulfilling prophecy: his search for the awkwardness that would certainly characterize it if it were true had caused awkwardness to develop.

Yes, he was the cause of this strange atmosphere between them, he and his… what could he call it but an overactive imagination? He wasn’t generally given to that sort of fancy, but there was a first time for everything… and the vague ideas he avoided directly scrutinizing couldn’t have any basis in reality. He needed to stop thinking about it, stop looking for signs of its presence, and then things would improve. And he never should have mentioned…

“No,” Sano finally said. “No, I’m not mad at you for that anymore. Or for anything else.” It was a stiff pronouncement, and ended on a note of indecision. “Just tired and tense,” he added in an obvious and ineffectual attempt to put a graceful end to the fledgling conversation. “I’m going to bed.”

Kenshin nodded, and forced himself to say good night in as warm a tone as he could command. After that he could sense Sano’s increased agitation, and he thought the kenkaya even reached out a hand toward him that fell back before making contact. Then came the shuffling noises of Sano preparing for bed, and at last quiet breathing. No reminder of the need for them both to be rested, no invitation to join him. Not that Kenshin thought Sano wasn’t worried about his well-being or didn’t want him at his side; he just wouldn’t say it at this point, because of… whatever had come between them. And Kenshin found he couldn’t insist on a more explicit discussion.

He wondered that he wasn’t feeling worse about this. Slight apprehension, yes, but nothing that would keep him awake when he eventually joined Sano on the futon. Certainly such unnatural communication with his lover should be a source of greater worry… and yet he found his only sensation