The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

Could she tell them? Would they believe her? Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Three lonely years after returning to England, Jane Porter longs to find Tarzan again. And though she’s able to set out as a consultant to Elsa and Anna of Arendelle, who plan to search the same area for any news of their long-lost parents, will she be able to explain to them what she believes is the missing piece of the puzzle that brought them together on this voyage?

Unique to this story: Hints of racism/antisemitism.

Fog sneaked among masts and rigging, pier supports and walls, hats and umbrellas and even legs, very much as the African mists had sometimes done among the mighty trees and world of dangling vines and the subsequently obscure items of their own camp three years before. Each did unforgivable things to her hair, but whereas in Africa she’d been free to keep her pith helmet on as long as she felt the need — and beyond that hadn’t exactly had any social engagements — here the drooping locks that never failed to get down into her eyes would be visible not only to every passerby on the street, but also to the delegate she hoped to impress.

Beyond that, the fog chilled her to the bone despite the layers she’d donned against it, while the African mists had been a pleasant contrast to the hot equatorial atmosphere. She adjusted her hat, took a firmer grip on her closed umbrella, and pressed her unoccupied hand into a coat pocket. The crinkle from within as glove closed on paper acted as a sort of warmth, anyway.

She’d lost count, in recent days, of how many letters she’d received beginning with some approximation of, My dear Miss Porter, though I have the utmost respect for the scientific achievements of your eminent father, it is with deepest regret I must inform you… Just to have one that started differently, however desirable its proposal might or might not turn out, had lit a fire of hope in her breast as nothing else had during these increasingly bad years.

She would not, she believed, have received so many denials of her request for sponsorship if she could have said — or even in good conscience implied — that her father would once again be heading the proposed expedition. But his health had grown poor enough of late that she didn’t want him to risk the long voyage, even back to an area she believed had been especially salubrious for him, until she was certain it would be a one-way trip. And how could she know that without making a preliminary survey herself? How could she dare believe in the possibility? Was it within her conscience?

In any case, even with suffragettes becoming increasingly vocal in England and elsewhere, scientific expeditions headed by single young women did not raise much confidence — or money — with the various stodgy men of the Royal Society, or even the BA. And there was another reason the letter in her pocket warmed her heart: it was signed by a woman.

Though relatively uninitiated in the functionality and visual design of sailing ships, with or without supplemental steam engines, Jane believed the one to which she’d been invited today had a subtly affluent and dignified look while also appearing sturdy and practical. Her green and purple paint was subdued, and the carved crocus that formed her figurehead was a subtle rather than a glittering gold that didn’t immediately draw the eye. For her own part, Jane preferred bright colors, but for the conveyance of a delegation from a small norther country, this seemed properly unobtrusive.

The gangway stood extended and ready for her, and a figure, appearance blurred in the fog, waited at the top. As Jane climbed the oblique walk and kept her eyes steadily forward and upward, she took in more and more details: the stranger was a plump, fit-looking woman in her forties wearing a braided crown of red hair striped with grey and one prominent patch of pure white. This tight coiffure, along with her modish green coat over a short split skirt and neat tall boots, suggested an active person and an active function in the delegation.

The woman held out a hand as Jane drew near, and her pleasant face seemed to take the edge from the air around them with a welcoming smile and the wrinkled pattern of many such gone by beside her eyes. And there was something in those eyes — medium blue with just the slightest touch of green, the passion and energy behind them increasingly visible as Jane drew up to her — that thoroughly and abruptly engrossed her.

Jane had always been easily distracted. It wasn’t that she hadn’t spent her entire childhood taking lessons, tacit and overt, in proper behavior and social consciousness; it was just that as soon as she encountered something that grabbed her interest, she forgot herself. Staring silently between the delegate’s dark lashes, standing stupidly still without taking the last step off the gangplank, not reaching out to shake the offered hand, was patently rude, but so caught up was Jane in the seeming familiarity, the almost enchanting familiarity of those eyes that she didn’t even recognize the extent to which she’d lost her head until the woman spoke.

“You must be Jane Porter.” The delegate took that last step forward in Jane’s place and reached out. She did perhaps appear a little curious as to what had stopped her visitor so short, but only added, “I’m Anna of Arendelle,” as she shook Jane’s hand.

“Oh! Oh, yes, of course, good morning.” Fidgeting in response to her own behavior, Jane brushed a strand of damp hair out of her face, pushed her hat up by half an inch, and released both Anna’s hand and Anna’s eyes seconds too late to avoid awkwardness. “We’ve corresponded. I’m very happy to make your acquaintance.”

“I’m so glad you were able to come on such short notice,” Anna replied, taking Jane’s elbow and leading her onto the ship and across the foggy deck. “Though I guess it wasn’t such short notice for you, since you were already looking for a sponsor, but since we only determined on this voyage a few weeks ago, it seemed like a miracle when we came across your name. Come inside!”

Jane smiled to find her new acquaintance so chatty already, and allowed herself to be led out of the greater chill of the morning. “It seems we may be able to help each other,” she agreed as they went.

Inside, under a low ceiling in what nevertheless appeared a relatively comfortable cabin — the captain’s, perhaps — two more women sat behind a table covered in charts, with a man standing straight-spined nearby, his grizzled head brushing the beam just above him. Anna moved forward after closing the door behind them, gestured at the central figure, and said, “May I present Queen Elsa of Arendelle.”

Jane nearly choked. She’d taken a confident step or two behind Anna on entry, but halted as if on a sixpence at these words and gaped. Any other potential source of distracting interest — and she felt immediately there might be one or two before her — immediately slipped her mind, but that didn’t stop her from gawking at the indicated woman for at least one impolite second.

Not one tiny hint had been dropped in Anna’s correspondence that this was a royal delegation, that Jane would come face-to-face with the ruler of a nation aboard this ship. A drawing-room-sized nation, granted, consisting primarily of uninhabitable mountains and which she’d barely even heard of before looking into it on receipt of Anna’s first letter, but the fact remained that Jane’s preparations for this interview — credential, sartorial, and emotional — would have been significantly different had she known this in advance.

Queen Elsa said Anna’s name in a fondly reproving tone, and the likeness between the two struck Jane even through her haze of astonishment and agitation. This combined with the previous introduction ‘Anna of Arendelle’ rather than Christian name and surname struck Jane with the sudden realization that they were sisters. Anna too, informal and personable as she’d shown herself thus far, was Arendelle royalty.

“I thought she should know before we begin,” Anna said with a twinkle in those compelling aqua eyes. “This is Jane Porter.”

With a monumental effort, Jane got something of a grip and made her curtsey, first toward the queen and then, more shallowly and belatedly, toward the princess or whatever Anna’s official title might be. “Your majesty,” she said. “Your highness.”

“Please, Miss Porter,” the queen replied in a firm but gentle voice that mixed formality and welcome in a manner striking Jane as quite regal, “this expedition is a private undertaking; I’m not here in my capacity as Queen of Arendelle, nor my sister Anna as Princess.” She gestured elegantly to her right with one pale hand. “Neither is Duchess Judith Feinberg here in her capacity of royal advisor, but rather that of personal friend. I didn’t plan on mentioning our official ranks to you until we’d made all our arrangements, but–” shooting her sister a wry look– “Anna obviously had other ideas. I hope you’ll be willing to call us by name rather than title, or ‘ma’am’ if that makes you more comfortable. And naturally our good Captain Bengtsson–” with another wave– “prefers to be addressed by that title.”

While she spoke, Jane examined her more closely than she’d been able to while overcome with confusion and surprise. Queen Elsa of Arendelle appeared to be a little older than her sister, with the same slender figure filled out by middle-aged solidity, and hair gone entirely silver — on which she wore no crown — pulled up into a practical arrangement similar to Anna’s. Her clothing represented equal functionality in a coat of the same cut, hers of a deep purple with blue and green scrollwork in shining thread, and Jane had no doubt she wore, beneath the table unseen for now, a split skirt and stout boots like Anna’s. The only concession her garments made to her position was the embroidered crest of Arendelle on her left breast.

But her eyes…

They were the same as Anna’s, which Jane was beginning to think were also the same as…

It was that slightly greenish blue again, pure and clear, but more than the color it was the intensity that took Jane dizzily back to hot jungle days and a family of (mostly) gorillas. The depth of emotion, the penetrating energy of the spirit behind the startling irises and pupils… Jane knew it. There was little more resemblance in the soft, feminine features to the ones she recalled so clearly, but the expression in those eyes was the same. She would rather have liked to look over at Duchess Feinberg or Captain Bengtsson and take in what she could of their appearances, but couldn’t break away from Elsa’s face. She couldn’t stop the series of shivers that ran, one after another, up her spine.

Just as when she’d been connected to Anna’s gaze as if by a bar of steel, she only realized the queen had stopped speaking after some undetermined period of time had passed. She shook herself, glancing at last toward the princess and finding her watching this time with open curiosity. Fidgeting with hair and hat for a second time in five minutes, untying the latter somewhat absently, Jane took a breath and managed, “Of course, ma’am.”

“Please have a seat–” Elsa gestured at the cabin’s vacant chairs– “and we’ll discuss particulars.”

Jane obeyed, drawing up to the table so she could easily see the charts and other documents thereon, while Anna and the captain did the same at opposite corners. She hoped she could keep her gripping distraction under control and have a professional conversation.

The queen next swept her hand across a map showing the west coast of central Africa, a section of the world Jane was very accustomed to seeing on paper like this. “Our voyage, as Anna informed you by letter, is to the Kingdom of Loango, here, and, if necessary, the surrounding area. We understand your scientific expedition a few years ago was to that area as well.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Here Jane was on far more solid footing, and spoke without hesitation. “Our expedition to study western African gorillas, which was largely funded by legatees of the African Association, took place on the coast here–” she drew her finger along it– “about seventy miles north of the mouth of the Congo River. On our way there, we stopped in a European port in Kakongo — a dreadful place; full of slavers, you know — and stayed there for some time planning and making arrangements and gathering supplies. We stopped in the same area on the way back, and that was an even longer stay. A lot of the locals speak an Africanized French, which I can communicate in tolerably. I know a little about some of the local customs as well, though I’m afraid most of their dialects are beyond me. I am aware that Loango often resists European landings, but there are go-betweens you can procure without much trouble.”

When she looked up, she found both royal sisters as well as the captain nodding, as if this matched what they understood of the area. Elsa discontinued the gesture and stared down at the map with a furrowed brow. After a moment she sighed, looked up, and said, “During the reign of my father, Arendelle imported copper and a few other goods from Loango. Thirty years ago, disputes arose that threatened to break off all trade between our nations, and grew so involved that my parents felt the need to make a diplomatic voyage in person to settle them. They landed in Kakongo in order to approach Loango by land from the south, and dealt with their business there successfully over the course of several weeks. Then something delayed them. I’m sure you know how difficult communication is over such a distance and across such uncertain territories, so you’ll understand that we never knew what it was. But for some reason they only set out several months later for the return voyage, and the confused report we received after that was that their ship had gone down with all hands somewhere off the west African coast.”

Jane’s attention had been seized again by intense aqua during this speech, and as she found herself unable to look away for the moment, she also found herself thinking, I know exactly why they were delayed: they realized your mother was pregnant. Of course they wouldn’t risk the return voyage with her in that condition. And I know just about where their ship must have gone down. And I know your brother.

She couldn’t speak, not to acknowledge what she’d just heard nor to offer her condolences on the loss of three decades before. The shivers up her spine had grown so strong she was almost tempted to call them shudders, and she simply couldn’t manage a single word. Was it true? Could it be true? The phenomenal improbability of this coincidence, if it were, deafened her with the shout that it couldn’t possibly be… yet how did the saying go? Il est impossible que l’improbable n’arrive jamais? Science was full of improbabilities, and so, perhaps, was life.

That didn’t mean she could say a word, however. How could she tell them this on only the evidence she had? An area of the world, a timeline clicking into place, a color of too-familiar irises… Every moment her belief grew stronger, but with no other proof than a collection of impressions. No, best to hold her tongue on this matter until she was more certain. Especially since her own long-term plans remained hazy in the extreme.

Finally Elsa, seeing Jane did not intend to speak, finished her tale. “Events in Arendelle after our parents’ death led us to drop the connection with Loango as inconvenient, and we never renewed trade with that area of the world.” As a sort of aside she added, “We agree with you that slavers are simply dreadful. In any case, just a few weeks ago, a trader brought us what he considered an antique clearly of Arendelle design but which we recognized immediately as having belonged to our mother. It was just an old trinket, but it was our father’s gift to her, and unmistakable to us. There was a story connected with it of a sailor having survived a shipwreck and salvaged what he could on the west coast of Africa somewhere in the Loango area.”

Jane’s heart clenched. That they’d essentially taken one look at the trinket that had made a five-thousand-mile, thirty-year journey into their hands and immediately planned to trace that long course back could only mean they harbored some hope that one or both of their parents, even in old age, might yet live — and Jane knew full well they did not. And yet there was a relation for them to find down there, a brother so full of life he might almost put paid to those three decades of sorrow. But did Jane really want to find him again? And what would she do if she did? And why couldn’t she say his name even in her private thoughts?

Tarzan. Tarzan of the apes was an unknown Prince of Arendelle, secret brother of Elsa and Anna, son of the late king and queen. Tarzan was the trace of their lost parents these women were seeking.

Could she tell them? Would they believe her?

Not now; not yet. But she must be included in this expedition.

Rallying herself once again with great force of will, she managed at last to express her understanding of and engagement in the story, her condolences on the apparent loss of their parents, and her continued interest in joining their crew. She emphasized her qualifications and the manner in which she could be of assistance to them in an area with which she was somewhat familiar but they were not, and produced what letters of recommendation and credentials she’d brought with her.

As she went through all of this, she tried very hard not to get lost once again in Elsa’s eyes, and as part of that effort bestowed her glance equally upon everyone that sat in a convenient position to be looked at. And she was surprised and a little dismayed to find that there was another source of distraction in the room, as she’d suspected earlier, in the person of the duchess to the queen’s right. This was a thin, dark woman of about Elsa’s age, her bearing as upright as the captain’s but seeming nevertheless at ease. Still, from the fringed scarf covering her hair, to the coat as elegant and fine as those of the royal women yet cut to a completely different design, to her slightly but discernibly dusky coloration and the very features of her face, she did not appear someone Jane had not expected to find as a ‘royal advisor’ and ‘personal friend’ of the pale northern Elsa.

The latter took no exception to any evident distraction on Jane’s part, but seemed satisfied with her qualifications as stated verbally and presented in writing. She only regretted, she said, that they had not the means of financing a proper expedition such as Jane had been hoping to conduct; but she would be glad to take her back into a part of the world that clearly greatly intrigued her, and hoped the salary they offered would represent some advancement of her goals. Jane certainly wasn’t about to tell her that the first expedition had represented thirty years’ worth of savings on the part of her father and, before an untimely death, her mother, and the salary provided by one voyage, generous as Elsa’s offer was, seemed unlikely to make much of a dent in the sum necessary for a second. Elsa’s other point still stood, and it relieved Jane significantly to have secured a position on this ship.

Thereafter, a more technical description of the intended journey was given by Captain Bengtsson, and Jane, after sorting through the nautical terms she didn’t understand, generally agreed that it sounded sensible. They discussed the details of her employment and signed a contract, and her luggage — packed in advance for the type of voyage specified in Anna’s letter in case of a desirable issue of this interview — was sent for from her hotel. A tide was set for departure, and Jane was more than satisfied.

That night, however, found her hopelessly insomniac. Usually the movements of a ship under sail — between bouts of steam power — were restful and soothing to her, but mental agitation in this case overcame physical comfort even before the wind died and the engines were required for further motion.

She’d been assigned one of the ship’s two staterooms to share with Princess Anna, and certainly that formed part of her agitation. Anna had behaved toward Jane throughout the day with casual friendliness, and at times an almost sisterly comradeliness, and if she’d been anyone else in the world Jane would have valued her as a roommate. Yet she was royalty, and Jane couldn’t determine yet exactly how to interact with her. So she’d donned her coat, tiptoed from the room onto the quarterdeck, and found a spot at the railing where, not too blinded by the light of the nearest lantern that she’d avoided, she could look out over the dark water and up at the stars.

Royalty. Jane’s own blood ran a distilled blue, her father tracing his line back to a lesser French prince that had fled to England with wife and children a hundred years before, and this formed the basis of nearly all her problems. Not only did the pride of lineage her mother had always attempted to instill in her increase her uncertainty at how to deal with proper royalty in this context, it was that same pride that had driven her from Africa in the first place. “I belong in England… with people…” — those words would never have crossed her lips without her mother’s influence strong in the back of her mind reminding her of her place, her prospects, her deserts.

And now she was returning. Why, exactly? What would she do if she found Tarzan again? Confirm he still lived, then say a more permanent goodbye? Or turn her back on her dignity and become a woman of the jungle, bringing her father, in whom her mother had also felt so much happy pride, with her into the same darkness?

Beyond that, the aforementioned almost sisterly behavior at times displayed by Princess Anna made her more uncomfortable than ever with that second possibility. Did she aim to become Anna’s sister in reality? She had no idea what the two Arendelle women would think of their unknown brother if they were to meet him… What, furthermore, could they possibly think of an English gentlewoman bent on spending her life with such a savage-seeming man? Was any sort of acceptance to be expected, or would they withdraw in horror both from Tarzan and from the idea of Jane requesting Captain Bengtsson to perform the ceremony aboard this ship and them to return a message to her father in England that he should join her and his new son-in-law at once on the west African coast?

Returning meant she had to decide whether to seek Tarzan out once again, what to do if she found him, and whether to tell Elsa and Anna what she believed about the situation. And her mother’s voice seemed to speak to her out of the past, urging her to decide one way, while her heart seemed to be pulling her in precisely the opposite direction.

“Jane?”

She jumped at the sound of her own name and whirled with a gasp to find Anna approaching so quietly that her steps had been drowned out by the rushing of the sea beneath them. Her heart suddenly beat faster than the rhythmic rumbling of the steam engine through the deck. “Oh! Your– Anna. Good evening.”

“Good evening,” Anna returned, and her starlit smile reflected all the curiosity she’d never yet expressed aloud. “Can’t sleep?”

“I don’t much fancy traveling under steam power,” Jane admitted — and it was the truth — “but I’ll get used to it.”

Anna came to join her at the railing. “I can’t say I’m fond of that development myself.” Her interested face turned eagerly toward the stars reminded Jane yet again of Tarzan: always fascinated by the beautiful and impartially understood, no matter how commonly encountered. “But I’m looking forward to seeing Africa. How about you?”

“I…” Jane sighed. And if Anna hadn’t gone and hit near the very center of her reverie… “Yes,” she finally said honestly. “I am.”

“But you didn’t expect to be traveling with royalty.” Now Anna sounded half apologetic and half prodding: she did want to figure out what Jane’s dazed reactions earlier had been about.

At this Jane managed a smile. “No, not at all. In fact I felt in danger of fainting when you presented your sister; I really did.” And then, because she simply couldn’t bring herself to mention Tarzan just yet, no matter how much the friendly Anna wanted elucidation, she hastened on with, “If I may ask, are you two the only sisters? In whose care did you leave Arendelle?”

“We are,” Anna replied easily, leaning both arms on the rail. “And we have a whole collection of dukes and duchesses, including my husband, who are happy to look after the kingdom for us while we’re away. Arendelle is… unusually fond of my sister–” she grinned privately– “and when people heard we might be able to find some information about our parents by going to sea, they were tripping over themselves offering help so Elsa could go with a clear conscience.”

“That’s so kind of them.” Unsure what volunteering to look after a small kingdom on behalf of its sea-bent ruler precisely entailed, Jane couldn’t think of much else to say. So again she hastened on somewhat at random. “And the duchess? Does she have a financial interest in this trip?”

Anna gave her a puzzled look. “No, she’s just along as Elsa’s particular friend. Why would you think that?”

“Well, isn’t she…” Awkwardly Jane twisted her hands. “Forgive me if I’ve jumped to an incorrect conclusion, but isn’t she…” She lowered her voice a trifle in order to finish, “a Jew?”

Standing straight and folding her arms, Anna stared at Jane with one brow raised. “Yes, she is. What difference does that make?”

“Oh, none at all, I’m sure,” said Jane, hastier even than before. “I’m sure the Jews are lovely people.”

Anna’s second brow went up, and her skeptical look took on a touch of disapproval. “Are you?”

Very seriously Jane said, “Please understand I intend no offense. To be perfectly frank, I’ve barely ever spoken to any Jews, and have no real opinion — if any opinion is even necessary. It was my mother who always…” She trailed off and sighed. It kept coming back to that.

Anna’s expression softened. “Judith is basically a member of the family, and sometimes I forget that the rest of the Christian world doesn’t have Jewish sisters. Was your mother particularly opposed to Jews?”

Jane pursed her lips. “She might have been. Of course she was always civil, but I’m afraid she had her prejudices.”

“So many people do,” Anna murmured.

“It’s hard to look back on her and know what to think.” Again Jane leaned on the polished wood before her and regarded the ocean. “She spent my childhood teaching me ladylike behavior and the rules of society because she wanted to see me a successful, accomplished, happy woman, and she loved me so dearly…” It seemed an imposition to be discussing such personal matters on such short acquaintance, but she wanted to offer some explanation for what she now saw had been a markedly impolite remark. “But so much of what she believed contradicts so much of what I want to believe now.”

Mrs. Porter had highly valued her husband’s scientific pursuits, and, given the longstanding family tradition of devouring any book one could get one’s hands on, had always encouraged Jane therein as well. But would she have approved of a young lady actually physically taking part in an expedition to Africa? Jane had often asked herself that under the green canopy she so loved as she bathed from a small basin behind a screen at their campsite.

Mrs. Porter had always taught her daughter to treat her inferiors with kindness and charity, but Jane wasn’t sure her mother had ever truly believed Park’s assertion that whatever difference there is between the negro and European, in the conformation of the nose, and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature. Would she have approved of a descendent of Prince Adam of France hob-nobbing with the people of the Congo area?

Mrs. Porter had stressed the importance of marrying a respectable man of good upbringing — and very hopefully of good family — that would treat his wife well and be able to support her at the level to which she was accustomed. Would even the blood of Arendelle serve to compensate for a complete lack of gentility in lifestyle and connections? No, Jane didn’t think it would. And that was why she’d gone back to England. She’d regretted the decision the moment she’d made it, but had never been able to reconcile herself to contradicting her mother’s wishes either.

Her voice trembled as she finished her explanation. “She did everything she thought was best for me, and I feel as if it’s disrespectful to her memory to abandon what she taught me — as if what she did and what she wanted for me are all I have left of her.” She glanced penitently at Anna and added, “But that doesn’t mean I have any wish to speak disrespectfully of anyone you think well of.”

A certain depth to the sad smile on Anna’s face seemed indicate both that Jane was forgiven and that this discourse had struck a chord. As she had that morning, she reached out to take Jane’s hand. Her own was ungloved, and Jane wondered whether living so far north made her less susceptible to the cold. As she applied friendly pressure, she said, “It’s hard to know what to think about my parents too.” Her gaze, even as it met Jane’s, seemed to withdraw, as if, though every word had weight, she watched far-off events rather than her companion’s reaction. “They did everything they thought was best for Elsa and me — especially Elsa — and they were, to be blunt, wrong. They loved us so much, and they tried so hard… but what they did supposedly in our best interests caused us years and years of suffering. I don’t resent them — obviously, or I wouldn’t be on a voyage right now looking for any clue to what happened to them! — but I don’t feel the need to cling to their bad ideas. I don’t think it’s disrespectful at all to let go of something someone’s taught you that was simply incorrect, even if you dearly loved that person and they you.”

Jane watched Anna’s eyes, so similar in color and energy to Tarzan’s, and considered her words in something of a stupor. Older and more experienced, royalty, herself married, sister to the man Jane loved and sisterly in and of herself, having been through something at least vaguely similar to what Jane had thanks to the misguided actions of a parent… Anna was perhaps the only person in the world that could have driven this advice home. She let her glance drop to where Anna held her hand tightly as if with an urgent desire to convey more gently the lesson her own past had so painfully taught her. And she suddenly remembered, with a fresh throb of the heartache that had plagued her ever since that moment, a glove flying from her hand in the wind and spinning away to land in the surf at Tarzan’s knuckles just as if she really had been letting go of her hold on her mother’s mistaken precepts and resolving to stay with him as her father had urged.

She hadn’t been. But could she now?

“Goodness, we’ve gotten personal out here,” Anna said, abruptly releasing her with one more squeeze and half a sheepish grin. “I’m so emotional all of a sudden thinking about my parents, and it’s been thirty years.” She laughed a little, but as she turned away Jane thought with some concern she saw sparkling around the edges of the princess’ eyes beyond what starlight could account for.

“Oh, dear. I hope I haven’t upset you.”

“Not a bit!” Anna was definitely wiping away tears with her back turned to Jane, perhaps eschewing the use of a handkerchief in an attempt at concealing the motion. “Not that I’d consider it your fault if you had, with me being the one to bring up my parents. Still, I think I’ll go back to the cabin now. Good night!”

Jane almost asked her to stay, but wasn’t quite to the point of pouring out the tale of Tarzan just yet, and so only returned her goodbye. She watched the spry figure disappear through the door that led to the cabins, then turned with another sigh, hugging herself against the chill of the night and the sea spray, to look out into forever again.

She kept picturing that glove, and how it had almost taken her back to him. But the other one had remained, a stark symbol of everything her mother had stood for, and once aboard the ship she had replaced the one she’d lost. And she’d never felt good about it. Now she imagined tearing off the gloves she currently wore and tossing them into the ocean below, throwing away that symbol and truly going back. She didn’t actually do this, since the cold did bother her, but one by one the mental gloves were discarded as she examined her mother’s truths and rejected them.

Royalty, or simply someone that had married a royal descendent, could make poor choices regarding their children, even coming from a place of love. A descendent of royalty could do unladylike things such as every single activity Jane had taken part in the last time she’d been in Africa. A descendent of royalty could get distracted by matters she truly valued and drop some of the trappings of polished society. A descendent of royalty could make friends with Jews and Negroes and not consider them inferiors to be regarded only through the lens of noblesse oblige.

But could a descendant of royalty marry a man completely uncivilized, unmoneyed, unknown to the enlightened world, and usually unclothed? This was the point where she repeatedly stuck, the glove that just wouldn’t come off.

She had squeezed herself into a corner and laid her cheek forlornly against an upright beam, in spite of the chill, and this time, rather than her failing to notice those that emerged from the cabins, it appeared they missed the presence of anyone standing in a narrow little spot beside the railing. They climbed the stairs onto the upper deck without seeming a glance in her direction, and moved to gaze out over the prow. The lantern on the poop revealed them as Elsa and Judith, strolling easily to their destination arm in arm.

Jane watched them forlornly, envying their easy steps and evidently easy consciences. Elsa had been, if not as warm and talkative as her sister, nothing but civility and grace, and the duchess’ politeness, though quiet, had never been tainted by any coolness or restraint. But they hadn’t talked to Jane as pleasantly and freely as they seemed to be talking to each other now. Their low, indistinguishable conversation nevertheless proved how intimate and comfortable they were with each other, and the dark sea surely had no such effect on them as it did on Jane.

She should return to bed, she considered as she continued somewhat absently to watch the two women in the lamplight on the higher deck. She had over four thousand nautical miles to work the matter out, and anyway she was weary from the long train of thought she’d already engaged in tonight. That should help her sleep, and by tomorrow night perhaps she would be reaccustomed to the movements of the ship under all varieties of power.

Frozen in place, however, she found herself abruptly stock-still as she would have moved toward the door to the cabins, staring upward with widened eyes, unable to take a step. For of all things that could have arrested her complete attention and even torn it from contemplation of Tarzan and what to do about him, nearly foremost on the list was Judith turning a smiling face toward her queen and interrupting the latter’s laugh by kissing her full on the lips. She withdrew only after several loving moments, then laid her head on Elsa’s shoulder.

That had been no familial kiss, and it was clear that when Anna had referred to the duchess as being like a sister, she’d meant only to herself. To Elsa Judith was obviously something different, something more. And Jane could not have been more astonished.

Oh, she’d heard of such behavior. Suffragettes talked about it at times when the desired freedoms of women arose in conversation, and of course there was the poetry of Sappho. But she’d never in life thought to encounter women living out a Lesbian tradition in front of her very eyes. It gave her an even greater shock than had Anna’s earlier words concerning the very real possibility of a loving parent making choices that would traumatize their children for years. It was… it was…

It was sending her thoughts hurtling in the direction of Tarzan again as if they were made of India rubber and now sprang back with a violence proportional to the force with which they’d been thrown away.

Because Queen Elsa of Arendelle, not merely the descendent of a prince that had (like so many royals and nobles) fled a people’s revolution a century ago, but the much-loved monarch of a nation, felt herself free to take a lover that would surely meet with approval neither from Mrs. Porter nor society at large — both a Jew in a Christian nation and a woman. She was not standing up there on that deck worrying about the propriety of her match, nor clinging to the poor decisions her parents had made trying to do what they thought was best for her.

Jane didn’t know how she felt about this issue of Lesbian love that had just exploded upon her, but had a sneaking suspicion that, as with Jews, she wasn’t actually called upon or perhaps qualified to have an opinion. All she knew was that Queen Elsa, someone her mother would have wept with joy to see her daughter grow up to be like in many respects, was following her heart.

Taking care to walk as quietly as she could so as not to disturb the sweethearts on the poop deck nor reveal to them that she now knew their secret — though, in full view of the watch as they were, the ship’s entire crew must be in on it already — Jane moved with a sudden warm sense of internal peace she hadn’t felt in longer than she could remember into the hallway off of which the cabins opened.

Inside her state room, she found her princess roommate and possible sister seated at the dressing table brushing out her greying red hair. A smile and those energetic crinkled eyes met Jane in the mirror as she entered, and Jane took a deep breath.

“Anna,” she said quietly, “may I tell you a story?”

My final November Quick Fics 2018 prompt, which took me approximately forever to write a story for, was from my co-worker Julia, who said, “Jane actually leaves Tarzan at the end of the movie and spends about 5 or so years trying everything to get back to him. She finally finds a way back because Elsa and Anna are trying to find him too.” Technically Elsa and Anna don’t know here that they’re looking for Tarzan, but close enough, eh? :D This one now holds the record as my longest November Quick Fic!

For a few author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it and actually wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up.

Her Own Words

With some surprise Seiya took the paper Yaten held out, and skimmed it. Yaten didn’t write lyrics often, so it always came as something of a surprise. She supposed she could have handed the sheet over more gracefully, too, than with nothing beyond the grumbled name of a currently popular song with a similar meter.

Seiya started to hum as she neared the bottom of the page, and Yaten, observing she’d caught the working melody, turned away and moved to the widow seat, where she drew her knees up to her chin and stared somewhat sullenly out the dark glass. In these male bodies, Seiya alone of the three of them had a soloist’s voice, which Yaten blatantly resented since she’d loved to sing back on Kinmoku. Now it was backup or embarrassment, and though Yaten often chose the latter, Seiya was really the only one that could do a dry run of a new lyric.

Taiki, who’d arrived in time to hear the name of the song Yaten had mentioned and then taken her customary place at the keyboard, now played a few introductory chords.

“Two notes lower,” Seiya requested.

Taiki frowned as she did a quick and somewhat difficult mental transition, played a few more chords to get the feel of the new key, and paused.

“And there’s a bridge I’m going to have to improvise,” Seiya added. “Maybe just drop out when I get there.”

Taiki nodded, fingers poised on the keys, and Seiya started the run-through.

Once this gentle heart of mine gave birth to so much love,
But with the ending of my world I had to lock it up,
Wrapped in starry scarlet like the glitter of your hair,
Surround myself in marble as I struggled not to care.
But can you blame me?
Can you blame me?

I feel it every time.

Of course they each had an image, a specific niche they filled in the band: Seiya the bad boy, the show-off; Taiki the scholar, the aloof and dignified; and Yaten the hard-hearted, the cold-hearted, the bitch. She knew she had a following, a specific set of fans of this persona that went starry-eyed every time she rudely refused to take a picture with the groupies or made some overly harsh comment in an interview.

And this song would be a calculated risk, representing as it did a shift in that persona, but Yaten thought it would pay out by solidifying that part of the fanbase without a lot of interaction with them on her part. She was pretty sure most of them already believed her to be so seemingly unfeeling because of some great tragedy in her past. They were right, of course, but their vapid imaginations went no farther than ‘loss of girlfriend…’ which was exactly what these lyrics would be taken as confirmation of, sending most of the hiding-his-broken-heart-Yaten contingent into paroxysms of pity and passionate love. And those that legitimately liked her because of her perceived unkindness were the type of people she didn’t want as her fans anyway.

Not that she wanted any fans.

And it’s not your fault for leaving,
But if you came back you’d fix everything.
Please return to me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

It had been different once. On Kinmoku or on the moon that had been her particular domain under Kakyuu’s rule, Yaten had been happy to share her music, when she had time, with everyone around her. She’d been pleased to have admirers that appreciated her talents. She never would have refused anyone a picture or made overly harsh comments back then. But that had been before every single one of them had died.

Here on Earth she looked out over a sea of humanity and tried to pretend she neither liked nor cared about them. It didn’t quite work — and every time one of them had a Star Seed taken, she literally ached — but she was able to present this frigid front to save herself, and part of that was denying her fans. Fans that might well be multiplied by this song when they realized it was only unbearable pain that had made her so cold. Oh, joy.

Though I’ve tried to block it out, I always feel their pain,
But these angry, fisted hands may never heal again.
Somewhere past my cruelty I’m longing to be kind,
But when everything is gone, what’s left to do but hide behind
The walls I’m building?
These walls I’m building…

I feel it every time.

When she did write lyrics, she tended to put her heart and soul into them; none of her songs were fictional as so many tended to be. As such, when performed or even recorded, they always included the psychic message the trio desperately hoped would bring Kakyuu back to them. Of course the band came up with a decent number of more mundane pieces — they had to fill up their concerts and albums somehow, and it took a lot out of them if every song sent the broadcast — and Yaten dutifully orchestrated them and played bass and sang harmony as needed… but, though she put plenty of artistic energy into them, those songs didn’t mean a thing to her. The trio had one mission, one goal, one purpose that swallowed up everything else; she couldn’t afford — and had no desire! — to get caught up in other nonsense.

And the rest of the band business? The signings and the sponsoring events and the advertising contracts and the interviews? That was even purer nonsense than the casual music required of them by circumstance. She considered it nothing very worthy of censure to give very little effort to that.

It wasn’t as if she needed anyone around here to respect her work ethic anyway. Though perhaps, deep down, in the part of her that lived in the past on a now-barren world, she might have liked them to.

And it’s not your fault I’m alone now,
But if you found me I know I’d know how
To say I’m sorry,
And return me to the me I used to be.

All this drama with the local Sailor Senshi had made her feel worse than ever. That Sailor Moon, like their own princess, had the power to restore phage to human form, to restore stolen Star Seeds, cut like a knife into the breast of one that had sensed so many of her own people disappear forever at the hands of Shadow Galactica. Of course Kakyuu would have saved them if she could, but, wounded and defeated, hadn’t been given that choice. That someone else out there had the power to prevent all that death and suffering, but hadn’t been present to do so, hurt so badly it was almost a catalyst to draw out all the emotions Yaten was so industriously repressing.

And that Sailor Moon clearly wanted to help, had been the one to insist in the first place they heal the phage instead of simply destroying them… that was so close to unbearable Yaten simply refused to think about it. Not only because it represented a missed opportunity, however remote the chances, but because healing…

No, she would never consent to join forces with Sailor Moon and her handmaidens. Never. Let them heal their own world, since they oh-so-fortunately still had the power to do so. Or fall to Galaxia, for all Yaten cared.

I feel it every time:
Every sorrow and hurt.
They reach out to me, and I turn away without a word.
Are you reaching out too?
I swear I feel you near.
I know the type of me you’d prefer…

Kakyuu was out there somewhere. And ‘out’ perhaps wasn’t even the right term; Yaten could absolutely sense her somewhere on this planet, somewhere in this country. The others couldn’t — at least not nearly so strongly — which was why Yaten herself had led them here, and at first she’d looked down on them for that. In her newly forged emotional withdrawal and harshness, she’d disdained her fellow soldiers for lacking her adeptness in one particular area.

But she was past that now. They had their own skills, as she’d known all along and had eventually come to accept even through the walls and the bitterness. It was impolitic in any case to demand more of them, or to blame them for working in their own ways alongside her when that work was more important than any individual’s strengths or weaknesses.

Would she ever see her princess again, though? Every time she thought about it, a dull ache she simply couldn’t push down throbbed through her. Where, exactly, was Kakyuu? What was she doing? Dying of her wounds, or biding her time? Working toward some goal, or just slowly healing?

And did she fail to respond to their desperate songs because she didn’t feel it safe to do so, or because she didn’t hear… or because they had changed so much she no longer wanted or needed them?

Yaten refused to think about it. Just finding her… that would be enough.

And it’s not your fault I’m broken,
But if I saw you I’d be whole again.
Please don’t forget me,
And return me to the me I used to be.

She didn’t like what she was. That was one truth of the song: she wished she could be other. In reality she didn’t think she could go back to her former self, because she couldn’t unsee the horrors she’d witnessed on Kinmoku and on her moon, and she couldn’t unfeel the pain of her princess’ flight to this unknown world. And it would take some doing even just to unwrap the layers of unkindness she’d used to hide from everyone she might have loved.

But if she could grow from the experience into a better, gentler, stronger version of her old self… couldn’t she better serve her princess that way? Perhaps someday she could even heal again… if only she could find her…

And until then, the walls. The marble. The near-complete insensitivity.

We’ll be together. I’ll find you.
I won’t stop searching past the stars and the moon,
Through the galaxy,
For my princess and the me I used to be.

That last chorus… Yaten wasn’t quite sure about it, and would probably cut it. Too many of their songs already used the word ‘princess,’ and eventually even the most thick-headed fan had to wonder why the Three Lights all seemed to be obsessed with someone they called by that name. The imagery of stars and moon was also repetitive of similar wordings in other pieces, and, though it was difficult to avoid, it did get old after a while.

Beyond that, the attitude seemed a little… optimistic. After all, perhaps, as Yaten had reflected before, Kakyuu didn’t want to be found. Perhaps she was on a mission of such importance she’d considered it expedient to shed everything that might hold her back, including her own soldiers. Or perhaps she didn’t even recognize them in their young men’s bodies.

Yaten stared down at her boy’s hands as Seiya finished singing. This was another thing she hated. The others often seemed fairly comfortable in their bodies, but Yaten never was. The only time she felt physically right was when she transformed. Just another thing to hate about herself and the contingencies of the mission they were on.

Seiya went over the bridge again, experimenting with a different melody without accompaniment. Then she tried one of the verses a little slower than before, making it sound even more soulful in her smooth voice. Yaten fought a prickle of tears behind her eyes as her own words, her own deepest thoughts and the pain that prompted them, poured out of her comrade’s mouth.

Finally Seiya ceased singing all together. Yaten’s gaze shifted to where she could see Seiya’s reflection in the window, and, observing her frowning slightly over the paper, Yaten frowned as well. And Seiya asked, “Don’t you think some of this is a little obscure for a boy band?”

“No more obscure than most of Taiki’s lyrics,” Yaten almost snapped back.

“That’s true,” Taiki admitted. Gently she added, “I think they’re excellent lyrics, Yaten.”

Seiya’s reflection nodded. “We’ll have to find a different melody, of course, but this’ll make a great song.”

Almost against her will, Yaten smiled faintly. Because she knew they’d suffered very much as she had, changed in their own ways as she had in hers. Because she knew that by ‘excellent lyrics’ and ‘great song’ they meant, “We understand every word; we’re with you in pain and in hope.”

Because where she’d previously had fellow servants of a higher authority from different moons, barely even acquaintances, she now had sisters — or perhaps brothers — with the same name, the same goals, the same trauma.

She swiveled in the window seat and stood. “Let’s practice something else,” she said airily, as if none of this mattered, and headed to pick up her own instrument.

And maybe she would keep that last chorus in after all.


An anonymous Guest gave me the following November Quick Fics 2018 thoughts:

I’m not sure if you would be interested, but I feel like the Starlights don’t really have enough fics about them? I’m particularly interested in Yaten and her apparent (psychic? emphatic?) abilities. None of the Solar Senshi were able to tell when a Star Seed was taken, yet she always did. How was she affected when her own planet was destroyed? I mean, could it be a reason for her to close herself off and become so resistant to getting attached again? I feel like one of the reasons she never lost faith in the Princess and knew she was somewhere out there was because she could sense that she was alive, but then seeing her die would have hit her twice as hard. It also seemed to me that while Taiki and Seiya could be a little harsh on each other, they were more tolerant of Yaten’s mood swings and when they did scold her (i.e. for throwing away fans’ letters) they were always gentle. Lastly, her name’s Healer but she doesn’t seem to have the ability to actually heal – or could that be that by cutting herself away from her emotions she also cut away her healing powers? (we do know some other characters have these.) I feel like there is much to explore here (not necessarily in the way I see it). Or maybe not, and I’m terribly wrong…

I think I hit most of the points. I’ve rated this story


Time For This


Sano kept stretching out his arms and examining his cuffs and looking pleased. He’d needed the use of links demonstrated, having barely been accustomed to standard button-up shirts, let alone these fancier things, but he seemed to relish the effect.

Saitou tried not to watch him, because it burned like acid on his heart how good Sano looked in the suit. He also didn’t like to see Sano repeatedly checking his gun because he wasn’t used to a shoulder holster either; he didn’t like to be reminded how much distress he felt at Sano’s recent minor promotion.

As they continued along the highway, however, Sano’s grin at his own finery turned gradually downward until eventually he wore a pensive frown instead of a smile. Finally he remarked somewhat darkly, “You can stop looking at me like that. I know you think I shouldn’t be at this thing.”

Concentrating on the road ahead and refraining from glancing at the passenger seat again, Saitou answered, “I’m surprised you noticed.”

“Oh, fuck you,” relied Sano without venom. “I’ve known for a long time. You don’t think I’m cut out for diplomatic work.”

“You’re not.”

“And fuck you again. You think I can’t keep quiet, but what do you even know about it?”

Saitou just snorted faintly and said nothing, knowing Sano would, as the saying went, open his mouth and prove it.

“I’m just going to be basically Sadojima-san’s bodyguard anyway. It’s not like I’m going to be part of the talking.”

Saitou did not reply.

“And you know that, since it’s pretty much what you’ll be doing too.”

Still Saitou remained silent, though now he did wonder if Sano had some other point he hadn’t anticipated.

“So what I’m wondering is: is the real reason you don’t want me here just ‘dumbass Sano can’t talk fancy and is likely to fuck this up?'”

Uncomfortable all of a sudden for what reason he couldn’t guess, Saitou nevertheless replied drily. “That, and you’re likely to misinterpret everything anyone says to Sadojima-san and start fights over nothing. And a concealed weapon isn’t right for you. And your hair is a disgrace.”

“Pff.” Sano failed at not sounding annoyed, but succeeded at not being distracted. “Same old insulting bullshit as always, huh?” He shook his head, and the movement looked almost wry. “Are you sure that’s why you don’t want me there?”

“Did you have some other reason in mind?” Saitou’s tone was cool, but he was beginning to feel distinctly hot under the collar. Was it possible Sano — childish, inattentive Sano — had noticed? Had recognized how Saitou felt? But why would he bring it up now, of all times? Because Saitou was driving and essentially couldn’t escape the conversation?

“I thought maybe you didn’t want me along because…” Sano tried to hide his deep breath, his nervousness about making this statement, and couldn’t. Would he feel any better if he knew how correspondingly nervous Saitou was about hearing it?

“…because Hanazuki and Shirojima aren’t the only groups that’ll be there tonight, are they?”

It came like a blunt strike when he’d been expecting a sharp, and it took a moment for him to shift gears to deal with it. And then, as the implications of that declaration veiled in inquiry hit him, he literally shifted gears, pulled abruptly to the shoulder, and stopped the car.

“How do you know that,” he wondered in a low tone with just the barest hint of threat to it, “and what else do you know?”

“I know you’re undercover.” Sano’s voice was just as quiet, and also surprisingly even considering he’d obviously had to work himself up to this. “But I only know ’cause I’ve been watching you. Really closely. I don’t think anyone else has you figured out… but I do.”

Saitou stared at him, wondering, first, just how far Sano did have him figured out — whether his original suspicion still held true even in the light of this new information — and, second, whether or not Sano, over there in the dark passenger seat on this dim evening highway, was blushing. Why had he been watching Saitou ‘really closely?’ Was it possible…

It was a further burn on Saitou’s heart that they didn’t have time for this right now.

“You must realize,” he said, steeling himself, “that I can’t take you to the meeting now that I know you know.”

“Yeah, you can,” Sano defied him. “You can take me as your partner.”

Did he know? Could he possibly not be punning? Or was he indeed completely oblivious to how very much Saitou would like to ‘take him as his partner?’

But they still didn’t have time for this.

“You want to abandon Hanazuki and join me?” he asked, blunt and a little skeptical, refraining from specifying the organization he worked for even to this person he longed to trust.

“You want to stop us making an arrangement with Shirojima,” Sano said. This sounded like a reasoned hypothesis rather than a guess — a more logically certain tone than Saitou was accustomed to hearing from Sano. It scared him how much he liked it.

“If Hanazuki and Shirojima start sharing turf and working together,” he answered, “they may both be given boryokudan status.”

“Shit.” All fleeting hints of relationship talk drained from the discussion as Sano vehemently shook his head. “That’s gonna suck for everyone.”

Saitou nodded. “You might want to get out while you can.”

“I’ve been thinking about it…” Sano spoke slowly and not with perfect surety. Undoubtedly this was the first time he’d voiced this sentiment aloud. “And I dunno that ‘getting out’ is enough anymore.”

“What more do you want?”

“I never realized how fucked-up this life is until I talked to you. Not like you ever said it, but you made me think…” At a mumble he added in some apparent chagrin, “Nobody ever really made me think before. Supposedly this is all about family and looking out for each other and shit… but nobody cares much if you’re a terrible person doing terrible things as long as those things are for the family.”

Saitou was moved in a way he hadn’t been in many years, and impressed beyond words that this young man had somehow, in an atmosphere completely antithetical to the concept, developed a sense of individual morality. He wanted to tell him how much more attractive this made him, wanted to express his sense of flattery that Sano had somehow been inspired to this by him, even while he’d been undercover… but they still didn’t have time for this.

“So what is it you want?” he asked again.

“I want to help,” said Sano immediately. “I don’t want a bunch of people getting arrested or killed because the group gets promoted to ‘most dangerous to society.’ We’ve gotta stop them from making that deal.”

“‘We…'” Saitou was surprised how bitter his imitation sounded. He should have known Sano would manage to get himself into a situation even more dangerous than his little yakuza promotion had already lined him up for.

“This meeting’s gonna get raided, right?” This was clearly a guess, but it was a shrewd one. “Then you’ll find excuses to deal with everyone there in one way or another…” Sano sounded a little anxious as he avoided defining how he expected Saitou and his allies to ‘deal with’ the gathered yakuza bosses, but evidently even the worst he could imagine wasn’t a deterrent, for he went on almost defiantly. “It’ll be real useful to have someone else on your side with the Hanazuki people. It might make things a lot easier.”

Saitou continued to stare at him as Sano fell into a demanding silence, wishing he could see more details of that attractive face in the darkness without doing something that would immediately give him away like turning on the cabin light.

It would be useful to have someone else on his side among the Hanazuki people. It might give him an invaluable edge in what was likely to be an unpleasant and difficult situation. And afterward… Sano wouldn’t be able to go back. He would have to seek out other work, other sanctuary. Where and with whom was a matter of question… but certain possibilities came immediately to mind…

But could he trust Sano? Did he really believe Sano had come to recognize the inherent wrongness of yakuza life and wanted a change? Did such things happen — could all of this be true — or did he only want to believe it? Were his heart and his vanity and some misguided sense of optimism out of nowhere overriding his logic, and likely to betray him just as Sano was?

But Saitou had always been one to follow his instincts. They didn’t really have time for anything else. And nowhere was safe for a yakuza thug, especially a passionate and foolhardy one… so they might as well go into danger together.

“All right,” he said, taking the car out of park. “Your briefing starts now.” And he could hear the excited catch of breath — childish as usual! — at the world of meaning inherent in his words. He had to smile a little as he added, “Stop checking that gun, though; I don’t want you killing anyone tonight if you can help it.” He glanced briefly over to where Sano’s teeth showed in the darkness in an eager grin. “It doesn’t suit you anyway.”


This was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Saitou/Sano Modern AU Yakuza,” and it just goes to show that when I think of things in haste, the result is often a lot of idea-recycling XD Also there wasn’t actually any yakuza action, but ‘primarily conversation’ has always been so much my specialty that I even have a content tag for it XD

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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


The Solution


The funny monotonous humming, alternately amusing and irritating, that Chou used to pass the time while he worked broke off suddenly, and Saitou glanced from where he sat in his own office to the tank-like outer area housing Chou’s desk. Based on the new ki discernible there, Sano had arrived on the scene. Now they would distract each other and get zero work done for an incalculable period of time; they always did.

After the rude greetings in jovial tones that could have misled anyone about the relationship between these two, Sano asked, “Saitou around?”

And Chou immediately replied, “Nah, he’s not here yet.” And though this might have been a deliberate lie — especially in light of the further conversation — Saitou thought it not unlikely the broomhead really was unaware of his presence; he’d entered his office at a moment when Chou had stepped away, and he wasn’t making a lot of noise in here.

“Damn,” was Sano’s response to the news

Saitou could hear the lazy grin in Chou’s tone as he said, “Well, no wonder he wouldn’t come in when you’re gonna be here.”

And the identical expression must have been on Sano’s face as he replied, “He’s probably just trying to spend as little time with you as he possibly can.” Though if Saitou had really been forced to decide which of them annoyed him more, he would probably have had to flip a coin. He wouldn’t truly have bothered trying to avoid either of them, though; the occasional annoyance was just part of the deal.

Chou replied, “Hey, he’s glad to have me. He was doing all this shit alone before; he’s never had an assistant he could trust.” And the listening Saitou had to admit this was true; he’d never told Chou it was the case, but evidently the broomhead had figured it out on his own.

“I do good work for him too!” was Sano’s defiant response. “I’ve turned up loads of important information for him.” Which was also true — Sano had a gift for reading a crowd, a room, or a witness that spoke to a highly developed, if largely subconscious, analytical ability Saitou greatly valued. He was far more intelligent than many would have guessed. And where Chou was conspicuous both visually and in a sense of showmanship he simply couldn’t abandon, the roosterhead, despite his almost equally ridiculous clothing and hair, could fit into many an unexpected group and winnow out of it whatever Saitou needed to know.

“Yeah, too bad you have to leave writing it up to me, since you’re so damn hopeless at that.” There was that grinning tone again: a surprisingly un-biting tease that was also perfectly accurate — Chou, far more meticulous and systematic than many would have guessed him, had a talent for police paperwork that Saitou also greatly valued. Where Sano was semi-literate, sometimes completely inarticulate, and certainly disorganized, Chou had raised the efficiency of Saitou’s operation to a degree the wolf had never anticipated when he’d begun working with him.

Sano pointed out, “But at least I’m behind him with all his goals. I even totally forgive him for stabbing me when we first met, ’cause it was all for justice and shit.”

“I’m totally behind him too,” Chou protested, though his tone turned to more of a grumble as he went on. “I actually follow laws now, and I never kill anyone except when I need to for work.”

Though unsure whether he was more exasperated at the description of his personal policies as ‘for justice and shit’ or Chou’s long-suffering air of martyrdom, Saitou had to admit (to himself; he never would have said it to them) that he appreciated the sacrifice and change in lifestyle enacted by each for his sake. Sano could still be cluelessly trailing Battousai around and getting nothing done, and Chou could have run off long ago to murder people and steal their swords, yet they were both here dedicating at least some of their not inconsiderable energy to helping him make a difference in the government and the country.

“Way to be totally morbid about it!” If Sano’s laughter was any indication, however, he had no real objection to Chou’s references to his homicidal past. “See, I’m happy all the time–” Saitou didn’t really think this was true, though he did find Sano’s intense and often rapidly shifting emotional state compelling– “and he needs that. He isn’t happy nearly as much as he should be; he needs someone cheerful around.”

“He sure as hell need a distraction sometimes,” Chou agreed. “It’s just this endless grind for him, and he’ll never be able to deal with all the corruption. But that’s where I come in! He likes hearing about my swords, and that helps him think about something else for a while.”

The idea as stated was not entirely correct; it wasn’t so much that Saitou specifically enjoyed hearing Chou talk about his ever-expanding collection as that he was amused and grudgingly impressed by Chou’s unfailing interest and extensive knowledge. And it wasn’t impossible that he did need cheering and distracting more — and more frequently — than he would be willing to admit. It displayed a greater degree of thoughtfulness than anyone could have expected of these two — and certainly more than Saitou was accustomed to having in his life — that Sano and Chou recognized this.

But he couldn’t be entirely pleased at the thought, nor at what he was overhearing. They were confirming, out there, what he’d long quietly and somewhat worriedly believed: that their desire to impress him went beyond the professional. That they weren’t merely ‘behind him with all his goals.’

“I’m distracting too, you know!” And was that ever right! Sano had such a vibrant, entertaining personality that Saitou had never been satisfied — had never been able to stop dwelling on him — until he’d secured him to his employ. The same thing could be said of Chou, however — there was a reason he’d snapped him up the moment he learned about the broomhead’s amnesty deal, after all — so if he’d had to choose which of the two was more distracting, he would have to bring out that coin again.

“I’m never scared to say exactly what I think about him right to his face,” Sano went on proudly, as if this was a mighty accomplishment rather than a childish and somewhat annoying behavior prone to getting in the way of business.

Sardonically Chou replied, “Yeah, too bad ‘what you think’ and ‘how you feel’ are two different things.” And they both sighed. After a long, pensive silence during which Saitou didn’t even pretend to be working rather than following the drama going on just outside his office with an avidity he wouldn’t have wanted to admit to anyone, Chou spoke again. “And I think he likes me being kinda roundabout. Makes conversation interesting, you know?”

It fascinated Saitou that they neither ever denied the other’s claim — that by neglecting to argue Chou had tacitly admitted Sano’s presence was cheering, and Sano that Chou’s conversation was interesting. The two were a volatile, possibly explosive combination, but for all that not, Saitou believed, incompatible. The issue was that they hadn’t realized their chemical compatibility; each had another mixture in mind. And he didn’t necessarily object to that idea, except for one glaring problem.

“You don’t need to do anything to make conversation with Saitou interesting,” Sano said. “It already kinda… crackles… if you know what I mean.”

Chou sounded as if he did know what Sano meant as he replied regretfully, “Yeah… He’s sexy as shit.”

And there was the glaring problem.

I can barely look at him without getting into an argument,” Sano mused, “and he treats you like the worst kind of peon… I wonder which is better.”

“Or… Juppongatana or Sekihoutai — which is worse?”

Sano gave a surprisingly mirthless laugh, and another silence followed.

Presently Chou said, “You know he’s got files on both of us, right?”

“Does he?” Sano wondered in surprise. “I mean, of course he would, but I never really thought about it…” And temptation already sounded strong in his voice even just with this beginning of an idea.

“Not like they’d tell us which of us he’d rather get horizontal with, but it might be interesting to see what he does have to say about us.”

Saitou barely had time to reflect that he’d rather not ‘get horizontal with’ either of them — or anyone, which was precisely his dilemma in this situation — when the sound of Chou’s chair scraping across the floor indicated he had more important things to think about. Not that he was likely to be the one flustered by the revelation that he’d overheard their entire conversation, just that things would probably come to a confrontation now and he needed to be prepared for his part.

The door burst open with the impetuosity of movement exhibited by both of his assistants, so it was impossible to say which of them had done it, and they piled into the room.

“Discuss me in my absence all you want,” Saitou said from where he sat at his desk, “but prying into my files is going too far.”

Though his words had been cool, they seemed to have just the opposite effect on the faces of his subordinates. He found it was a fairly attractive shade of red on both of them.

“What the serious fuck?” Sano demanded. As was often the case with him, the emotions of the situation (regardless of what they specifically were) caused his hands to ball into fists as he took an angry step forward. “How long have you been here?”

“Really, ahou, what kind of question is that? I know it was an engrossing conversation, but do you really think I could have sneaked past you at any point?”

“You’re a damn sneaky bastard,” the roosterhead shot back, “so maybe!” His face had gone even redder. Chou, more circumspect (just as he’d said a minute before), stayed silent, but Saitou thought he too was blushing a little harder at this clear indication that the wolf had been there all along.

“It is my office,” Saitou pointed out.

“So then you probably heard all that shit we were saying out there.” The nonchalance Sano attempted at this juncture was far too little too late, but it was funny he was trying.

“You were talking rather loudly. It’s been difficult to get any work done in here.” Which was true, but not for the blandly insulting reason Saitou implied.

“So there’s no point pretending!” After a deep breath and never breaking eye contact with Saitou, Sano demanded, “Which one of us do you like better?”

“You hired me way earlier,” Chou hastened to remind his boss, speaking for the first time since entering the room. “You musta liked what you saw in that jail cell.”

“Yeah, but he met me earlier than that.” Sano addressed Chou rather than Saitou in order to argue the point more directly. “He liked what he saw on the dojo steps!” And Saitou almost couldn’t believe this was devolving into, ‘Well, I saw him first.’

“Yeah, but then he stabbed you.”

“He left you in the jail cell.”

Saitou didn’t even bother trying to keep the amusement from his tone as he asked, “Can’t you idiots think of a better way to solve this than trying to determine which of you I’ve abused less?”

“Yeah!” Sano took another vigorous step forward, raising his fist as if for a fight rather than what he was about to suggest. “Yeah, I can! All we gotta do is each of us kiss you, and that’ll clear everything up!”

“You think so?” Now Saitou was on the verge of laughter, though he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with the idea. Kissing he didn’t mind so much — he was lucky Sano hadn’t demanded, in that straightforward way of his, something far more inappropriately intimate to prove this point — but he couldn’t be confident the demonstration would have the desired effect.

But Chou was grinning, the expression devious and anticipatory. “Yeah, that’s perfect. Good idea, tori.” And Saitou thought he could read the true thoughts behind the approving words: Chou too doubted the efficacy of this plan for actually determining which of them Saitou liked better, but was totally onboard with any course of action that would win him a kiss he hadn’t otherwise expected to receive.

Saitou looked back and forth between their agitated but eager faces, and found a smirk growing slowly on his own as he thought he began to see the formula laid out before his mind’s eye. It was still a volatile situation, but he believed he knew now how to work his way through it. Finally he said, “All right.” Then he raised a gloved hand to stop Sano’s immediate impetuous advance. “On one condition.”

Sano and Chou shot each other an almost conspiratorially nervous look, then turned their eyes back toward Saitou in mute curiosity.

“For every kiss I give either of you,” Saitou told them calmly, “you to have to kiss each other first.”

Chou’s left eye popped open in astonishment, while Sano’s response was a hoarse, “…the fuck?”

Saitou’s smirk widened. “You heard me. Get to it.”

The immediacy and lack of complaint or question with which they obeyed was not only flattering — they wanted to get at him quicker — but also promising — they truly didn’t mind this. And he had to admit, it was even nicer than he’d expected to see them together like that. They seemed to fit remarkably well, and know instinctively what motions of lips and tongue — because, oh, yes, there was tongue involved — would be most enjoyable. It lasted a lot longer than even Saitou had anticipated, and certainly, based on their expressions when they broke apart, longer than its two participants had guessed it might. They stared at each other — Chou’s left eye, Saitou noted, still wide open — in bafflement and perhaps a growing mutual awareness for several long seconds after the kiss ended.

Saitou was more than satisfied. If they could get some of what they needed from each other and the rest of what they wanted from him, perhaps there was a solution to this problem after all. And perhaps they too were beginning to recognize that.

But they were also still desperate for the answer to the original question. In entertainingly similar movements, they shook themselves as if discarding, at least for the moment, the revelation that had just began to dawn, and turned toward Saitou almost in synchronization. “Well?” Sano demanded, and Saitou thought the redness of his face arose now from more circumstances than before. “That’s one! So who’s first?”

“Who, indeed?” Still smirking, Saitou reached into his pocket and pulled out a 10 sen piece. Without bothering to declare which of them he’d assigned to which side of the coin, he sent it spiraling into the air with a flick of his thumb. Three pairs of eyes watched it rise, flashing, and then begin to descend.


This story, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to plaidshirtjimkirk because it was directly inspired by their ficlet Tough Love. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

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


Aku Soku Zan(za) (1)



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

Last updated on October 28, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

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

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

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

“What did you find out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

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

“You will when you hear my message!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

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

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

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

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime snorted derisively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story is a rewrite of the one I began in 2002, whose first story arc was completely finished and second well underway before I realized it needed more than just touch-ups in all its older sections. For some author’s notes on the segments in this post, please see all these Productivity Log posts.


Veritas

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Duo hadn’t had that problem.

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

“Heeyyyy, Heeeeerooooo!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Save,” Heero cut her off.

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“End of message. To delete this–”

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

“Save.”

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

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the door opened.


I’ve rated this fic .

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


Substantiated


In response to the cheerful knock, Katsu’s voice called down, “Up here, Sano!” The latter therefore, making use of some old crates against the wall that were probably a fire hazard but had been there as long as he could remember, clambered onto the roof where Katsu had a habit of camping when he didn’t want to destroy the delicate balance of too many recently inked papers laid out to dry inside. It seemed late in a rather cold day for sprawling on the roof, but to Katsu a little chill was no great price to pay to keep inadvertent elbows out of his fresh prints.

Katsu never really looked right relaxing, being simply too intense for it. No matter how casually he glanced over at Sano, no matter how lethargic he appeared, it always seemed more as if he was waiting in enforced and somewhat frustrated idleness to return to what mattered than actually getting any real rest. It made Sano grin as he stretched out across the cracked roof tiles beside his friend.

From his recumbent position Katsu raised himself onto an arm and reached over to flick the edge of Sano’s gi aside. Lifting a brow as his eyes moved from one of the bruises on Sano’s chest to the next and the next, he finally fixed his friend with a hard look. “I’m going to have to draw the line at this kind of abuse, Sano.”

Sano laughed. “It’s nothing like that. We just get kinda… rough… sometimes.”

“I’d be interested in seeing how many bruises he has after you guys ‘get kinda rough sometimes.'”

“Nah, that’d make me jealous,” Sano replied, pulling his gi tight shut to keep out the evening air, then pillowing his head on his raised arms (which motion reopened his upper garment almost completely, but it wasn’t worth worrying about).

In the variegated sky, stars were beginning to peek out from between the sparse clouds, and Sano watched contentedly as they became more and more visible. He’d come to see if Katsu wanted to go drink somewhere, but knew well his friend’s unwillingness to leave drying sheets unattended. Not that they were technically attended right now; there seemed to be an acceptable radius of proximity. So Sano would talk to him here for a while and then go drink on his own somewhere. Or maybe go to the police station and harass Saitou about staying at work so damn late.

Almost as if reading his thoughts — though in reality, of course, just belatedly continuing the conversation, “Why do you like that guy, anyway?” Katsu asked.

“Why do you like Megumi?” Sano retorted. He’d long since tired of interrogation about his relationship with Saitou, and had begun asking prying questions of his own in return — taking advantage of the fact that Katsu had been developing a serious interest in the lady doctor and that his condition became discernibly (to Sano) worse each time he happened to meet her.

“None of your business.” Katsu always looked somewhat angry when he blushed; it was kinda funny.

“Then neither’s mine.”

“All right,” Katsu conceded with a snort both frustrated and amused. “I’ll tell if you will.”

“But I’ve already told you!” was Sano’s next protest. “You’ve asked me practically every day since him and me first got together!”

“Let’s do a compare and contrast instead, then.”

That sounded a good deal more interesting than the defensive Sano usually found himself put on. “All right, fine. You start.”

“I asked first!”

“Yeah, you’ve asked a million times, and it’s annoying. So you start.”

Katsu made a sort of huffing noise, but then his expression turned gradually contemplative, abstract, as he sought words for his thoughts. “She… she knows exactly what she wants and how she intends to get it. Not only in being a doctor, but in everything she does.”

“Yeah, that does sound like her,” Sano nodded. “She goes right for whatever she wants.” He’d only ever seen her flummoxed about what she hoped to gain from life back when he’d first met her, including the time she’d spent desiring Kenshin but observing his clear preferences elsewhere. Of course Sano was not about to mention this to Katsu, who would only mope over that old attachment and start morbidly looking for signs of its continued existence. Instead he remarked, “Saitou does that too.”

“Yes, I remember,” Katsu said dryly, “how he went right for you when you guys first met.”

“I wish he had! Oh, you mean with a sword.”

Katsu snorted again.

“But that’s still part of the same thing, though… he was trying to make a point, and he just went right for the best way to make it. And, you know, he could have killed me.”

“Oh, yes, I’m convinced. You like him because he didn’t kill you when he had the chance. Good reasoning.”

“It’s more than just that, bakayarou. These things he goes right for, they’re always good things. He always wants what’s best for the country and shit, and he just does whatever he has to to get to those goals. Maybe he’s an asshole about how he does it sometimes, but he always wants what’s right. He’s always got the big picture in his head, and things always turn out better because of what he does, even if it seems like some of the little things along the way make him a jerk.”

“But how can you–”

Sano interrupted him. “No, it’s your turn again, buddy. You suggested this compare and contrast thing, and then you barely said anything about Megumi; don’t try to weasel out of it and just give me shit about Saitou like always.”

“All right… fine…” Katsu sounded annoyed, but also as if he couldn’t refute Sano’s logic. After a moment he started again slowly. “Megumi-san is… well, she’s the opposite of what you just described, really. For her it’s not about the big picture; it’s always the details. She’s concerned with how she can make this particular person feel better right now. She’s not worried about changing the world, or how what she’s doing will affect society overall, just how she can save or improve one life, even a small one.

“But she’s also similar, in that that’s what she believes is right, and she doesn’t let anything — not anyone else or their ideas about a way of life that might be better — stop her from doing exactly what she thinks she should be doing. She’s so dedicated to what she believes is her calling that, whenever I see her doing something else — which is mostly when I see her — she looks as if she’s forcing herself to take a break and would really rather be back at the clinic. She knows the health benefits of pacing herself, but she doesn’t really relax and enjoy anything.”

Once again, Sano was not about to mention to Katsu that, back when Megumi had still thought there might be a chance at winning Kenshin’s heart and therefore that there was a point beyond maintaining her own health to the time she spent at the dojo, she’d seemed to enjoy her periods of rest much more and get a lot more out of them. Which was not to imply Megumi had no feelings of friendship for the dojo inhabitants, but these days Katsu’s assessment of her activities rang true: lacking a secondary purpose to pursue in her moments of relaxation, her primary purpose of helping and healing constantly drew her thoughts back to it when she was supposed to be giving herself a break.

Sano also wasn’t about to laugh out loud at how similar to his own interpretation of Katsu, so avid in researching political issues and writing and distributing his newspaper, was Katsu’s interpretation of Megumi. A new secondary purpose, Sano thought — to wit, a reciprocated romantic interest — would benefit them both, enrich both their lives. If something managed to arise between them, hopefully they could encourage each other in the proposed down-time, relax together and focus for brief periods on something other than their driving goals. Katsu obviously already observed that need in Megumi — surely she, with her medical acumen, would see it just as easily in him.

But Sano didn’t necessarily have words in which to express all these thoughts, and anything even distantly referencing Megumi’s former interest in Kenshin must be absolutely taboo anyway. So what he said was, “Saitou’s kinda like that too. He’s a total workaholic, and sometimes he loses track of things he really should be doing for his own sake when he’s busy trying to dig up dirt on some politician he just knows is crooked or something. It’s good to kinda force him to do fun shit sometimes.” He grinned reminiscently. “But at the same time, you can’t help admiring that kind of drive. It makes me feel like I could be doing better myself at, you know… making things better. He lets me help him with his work sometimes, and that always… makes me feel like a better person too. A little, at least.”

Katsu’s sigh seemed equal parts resigned and confused. “All right, I guess I can see why you enjoy that…” There was no way, after all, he could deny the appeal of helping to improve society, given that his own personal goals and beliefs tended in that direction. “But I still don’t understand how you can bear to stay with him. Because even recognizing good points about him doesn’t change the fact that he’s also harsh and demanding and unfeeling.”

“Yeah… yeah, he definitely is those things,” Sano admitted. “And I never said it was easy or anything. I mean, he does drive me crazy pretty much every damn day… but he’s also got all those good things about him and it kinda… balances out, you know? I’m happy. Plus, there’s also…”

He paused. They’d been discussing this with so much freedom that he’d started this last statement without really meaning to. It wasn’t actually a point he wanted brought up… but he was unsurprised when Katsu didn’t just let it go.

“Also?”

Sano made a dismissive noise.

“Sano, I want to know. What is it about that guy that makes you so adamant to stay with him?” And when Sano remained reluctantly wordless, Katsu pressed, “Is it the fighting? I know you’ve always had an unhealthy obsession with anyone who’s able to beat you up…”

Sano snorted.

“Or the sex? You can’t tell me that’s the deciding factor. Seriously, how does it balance out?”

“All right… fine… all right…” In for a rin, in for a yen, he supposed. “I’ll tell you… if you promise not to tell anyone else.”

“Of course.”

Sano propped himself up on an elbow in order to stare suspiciously at his friend’s face, searching for any hint that Katsu had merely made the promise in order to get answers out of him. Finding only earnestness, concern, and curiosity in Katsu’s demeanor, he lay down again, looking into the sky once more. “I don’t know why…” he began at last. “But I’m sometimes afraid, way deep down under knowing better, that my friends are just putting up with me. That they don’t really like me, and just let me hang around out of the goodness of their hearts, because they’re too nice to tell me what they really think of me… too nice to tell me to get lost.

“I mean, I pretty much forced myself on the dojo back at first, and then everyone just sort of got used to the way things were. What real reason does Kenshin have to be my friend — because I started following him around? Why should the others like me — because Kenshin puts up with me? And the guys around town? I’m convenient to roll dice and get drunk with, but really they could do that with anyone.”

Katsu had been making protesting noises, but Sano overrode any actual statement. “That’s the shit that goes through the back of my head sometimes: that nobody has any real reason to be my friend, and they probably don’t really give a shit about me, but they’re just too nice to say so. I know it’s not true — probably — and it’s not like it bothers me most of the time… but sometimes I can’t help thinking that way.”

“Well…” Katsu remarked slowly after a few moments of silence. “Setting aside how troubling this weird fear of yours is, what does it… have to… do… with…” His words slowed as he made the connection himself. “Saitou’s not the type to put up with anyone he doesn’t really like out of the goodness of his heart.”

“Yeah, exactly. He’s too much of an asshole to politely put up with something, so I know he really does like me. I know it better than I know anyone else does.”

Katsu sat up and stared at his friend with an inscrutable expression. Presently he spoke, and it was difficult for Sano to decide whether the words sounded more like laughter or groaning. “Sano, I’m not certain that’s entirely healthy. You realize you’re essentially saying you like him because he treats you like shit?”

“That’s not why I like him,” Sano sighed. “Well, I mean, that’s not what I like about him.” At Katsu’s look he protested, “I just got done telling you some of the things I like about him, and you even agreed you were kinda starting to see my point. But then there’s this added bonus of knowing he likes me back. Knowing for sure, without having any little stupid doubts about it in the back of my head like I do about some of my friends. Maybe it’s not healthy, but I really like it. There’s this security about the situation that… it’s pretty great.”

Slowly Katsu mimicked Sano’s earlier gesture, lying down again onto the rooftop and returning his gaze to the sky as if not entirely content but aware this was the best he would get. “‘Security…'” he said, testing the word. “So you’re saying you feel… safe… with this guy who once stabbed you in the shoulder.”

“Um, yeah,” Sano confirmed. “It’s weird as shit, I know, but… yeah.”

A long and seemingly rather dissatisfied silence followed, until finally Katsu asked quietly, “Are you afraid I don’t really like you?”

Despite having known his confession might distract Katsu from the obnoxious and seemingly endless subject of all the problems he saw in Sano’s relationship with Saitou, Sano yet hadn’t been entirely eager to make it for fear it would actually be a less comfortable topic than the other. Still, having taken the step and brought it up, he had braced himself for this question and been ready with its answer.

“Nah, not you,” he said fairly easily. “I mean, after I promised to go along with you on your little raid last year and then basically backstabbed you…”

“Punching in the stomach is almost the literal opposite of stabbing in the back,” Katsu put in at a murmur.

Sano cleared his throat. “My point is that, after that, only a real friend would be willing to hang out with me all the time and worry about whether I’m happy with my boyfriend and shit.” He’d had this answer prepared, and thought it came out rather well, but not until he actually said it did he realize how emphatically, how profoundly he meant it.

“It took a real friend to punch me in the stomach just then at all,” was Katsu’s reply, solemn, as if he too felt the touched-upon connection between them. “You were looking out for me then, and I’m trying to look out for you now.”

“I know.” Sano’s tone held equal solemnity as he acknowledged, beyond merely the surface meaning of Katsu’s words, the true nature of Katsu’s friendship and his own awareness of it, to some extent newly deepened.

“And if you’re really happy…” Katsu sighed, and shrugged his shoulders an inch or so up the roof tiles beneath them. “I guess I should stop giving you a hard time about it.”

Sano whooped and punched a victorious fist into the air. Of course it meant a lot that Katsu was so concerned for him, annoying as it had been, but it meant even more that he was willing, even in the face of that concern, to trust Sano and let it go. So when his friend made a derisive sound in response to Sano’s display of triumph, he said cheerfully, “It’ll be way easier for you when you’re distracted by making out with Megumi all the time.”

Again Katsu sighed. He probably blushed too, but Sano wasn’t looking and couldn’t tell. “I’m glad one of us is confident that’s ever going to happen…”

“I know you feel totally awkward talking to women. Well, to anyone you’re interested in,” Sano corrected, given that Katsu’s tastes (if not necessarily his actual pursuits) were even less restrictive than Sano’s. “And it’s kinda hilarious watching you try sometimes…”

“Bakayarou.” Katsu struck out in Sano’s direction with a clenched hand, but Sano rolled slightly out of the blow’s path, laughing.

“Seriously, you’re fucking adorable, man… you get so focused, it’s like a little kid trying to write a formal letter.”

“You mean like you trying to write a formal letter?”

“Shut up. What I was going to say is, it’s a good thing you’ve totally fallen for a lady who’s not likely to wait around for a guy she likes to say something. I mean, we established just a minute ago she goes right for whatever she wants. So it doesn’t matter much whether you’re any good at talking to women!”

Katsu made a very discouraged noise. “That’s really not comforting, Sano, considering she hasn’t gone anywhere in my vicinity.”

“Yeah, but I think she’s starting to notice you; the other night when you were both over at the dojo, I definitely saw her looking at you a few times like, ‘Hey, that’s interesting.'”

“Did you? Was she?” Katsu sat up again with an expression of childlike hope that melted quickly into a forlorn disbelief.

“She sure as hell was,” Sano assured him. What he didn’t voice was his new determination to help bring about this desirable match in any way he could — to help an important friend find happiness with another friend far more similar to and compatible with him than Sano had realized until this very conversation.

“She’s so… beautiful…” Katsu sighed, flopping down onto his back once more in dramatic despair.

And at that moment, a voice called out from down below near the front door, “Tsukioka-san? Is that you up there?”

This time, rather than rising in the normal way, Katsu convulsed into a more upright position with a choking sound of startled recognition. The moonlight that was by now the primary source of illumination for the scene didn’t allow for fine color distinctions, but Sano, who also sat up, believed with some certainty that Katsu was blushing harder than he’d ever done in his friend’s presence before. A couple of surprised, chagrined questions were practically hovering in writing above his head, too — “How long has she been there?” and “What might she have heard?”

For his part, with a grin, Sano scrambled down to the edge of the roof and peered at the woman below. “Hey, Kitsune!” he greeted as she met his gaze with a smile. Though Sano had never really thought about it before, Katsu was right; she was beautiful — not Sano’s type, but definitely good-looking. Glancing over his shoulder he called out, “Katsu, come see who’s in your vicinity!” Then, because Megumi was not alone in the street in front of his friend’s door, he flung himself off the roof, crying, “Think fast, cop!”

Saitou demonstrated surprise for only half an instant; then the whites of his eyes showed as he rolled them and stepped swiftly aside. Sano, who’d expected this (this, or possibly a blow as he descended, depending on Saitou’s mood), managed (mostly) to stick his landing. Then he turned, still grinning, and moved to throw an arm around Saitou’s shoulders and address Megumi again:

“I didn’t expect to ever see you hanging out with this bastard!”

Complacently she replied, “The delinquent cop–” gesturing at the officer that had accepted Sano’s familiarity as well as the insulting epithets of both speakers with no trace of reaction– “happened to mention that he planned on looking for you here, so I decided to come along and make sure Tsukioka-san didn’t drink himself sick like you did the other night.”

“I wasn’t sick,” Sano protested. “Or,” he added with a sheepish widening of grin, “I was only sick while I was passed out, so I didn’t notice it.”

Katsu had been descending from the roof using a more traditional method than Sano’s, and now joined the group in front of his door with a somber expression and the polite greeting, “Good evening, Takani-sensei.” Given that he didn’t seem to have entirely stopped blushing yet, it was a significant mark of courage that he’d come down at all; god knew that if they’d been discussing Saitou rather than Megumi just when those two had appeared, Sano might have jumped from the other side of the roof and taken off across town rather than face the possibility that Saitou had heard his thoughts about him and their relationship.

“Good evening, Tsukioka-san,” Megumi returned, but Sano broke in loudly before she could say anything else:

“Looks like we’re going to have to cancel our dinner plans that we made, Katsu. Maybe you better take Megumi instead, so she can lecture you about drinking too much.” He glanced at Saitou. “I have to go get stabbed.”

“Ahou.” Saitou elbowed Sano in the chest so hard that the younger man detached from him, coughing, scrunched over in discomfort, and staggered back. In response, Megumi gave her characteristic laugh and Katsu made a noise of protest.

“Yeah… see…?” Sano gasped, gesturing at Saitou as he attempted to stand straight again. “I got shit to do.”

Katsu shook his head. “All right,” he said. And he shook his head once more, closing his eyes, with a sound that was exasperated but perhaps just a little amused as well.

And Sano took hold of Saitou’s hand and started attempting to drag him away down the street. “Bye, you two! Kitsune, don’t give him too hard of a time!” The officer, with another roll of eyes, shook off Sano’s grip but went with him willingly enough.

When the goodbyes of those they left behind had faded, Sano muttered to Saitou, “You didn’t have to hit me that fucking hard, asshole… I might not have meant anything sexual by ‘get stabbed’ at all, you know!”

“That had nothing to do with it,” Saitou replied. “It was because you’re such an abysmal actor with no sense of subtlety. Anyone could see what you were trying to do from a mile away. Tsukioka’s not likely to consider you his friend for poor attempts like that.”

“Oh, I dunno…” Sano glanced back to where Megumi had drawn closer to Katsu and engaged him in a much more active conversation in their freshly attained privacy. “I think Katsu and me have this friendship thing pretty much down.”


I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes written before the fic was complete, see this Productivity Log.

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


He Can Be Taught (1/3)




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

1
2
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Aoshi, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Yo, tori-atama!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano just grunted.

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

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

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

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

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

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

“All right, Kenshin!”

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

…for a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He started to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, why should they be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano blushed and scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

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

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

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

“Tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

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

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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


His Own Humanity: Fast Decisions

The Wal-Mart electronics department was a stormy sea of temptation in which Sano, when foolish enough to venture there, not infrequently foundered. The broad ‘electronics’ heading simply held too many items he would be more than happy to own for him to approach even such a homogenized selection as this without going into a sort of trance in which all thoughts of prudence or the need to eat for the next month were swallowed up in the desire to shoot enemy soldiers and/or aliens underscored by some badass guitar.

Today, however, he had a specific and reasonable purpose — even an inevitable, necessary one — and hoped to avoid spending too much on anything he didn’t need by concentrating hard on what he actually did.

His cell phone provider was cheap in every sense, and the part of the rack that bore their logo had the smallest variety of phones of any of the assembled companies — but they had, at least, finally acknowledged modern times with a single smartphone option, and over this Sano lingered longingly. It looked a bit outdated compared to those from other providers — though still five or six times more expensive than the plainer phones from this provider — but in any case it had to be worlds better than the device Sano had come to replace, which was by this time not so much on its last legs as ignoring its vestigial organs in favor of a sidewinding slither.

Of course he always had the option of switching providers. It would be more expensive per month, but also nice to have voicemail included in the plan rather than as an add-on, as well as, probably, some other little features he’d been entirely doing without all this time… and then he could get a much prettier smartphone than this one here. Like one of the new iPhones made with indestructible helicopter fiberglass or whatever. He could see what that Angry Birds thing was all about.

But did he really need to see what that Angry Birds thing was all about? And aside from games he could play anywhere, how did a smartphone actually compete with the less intelligent kind? Of a phone, after all, he only required standard communicative functions, and that purpose had been adequately fulfilled by a much crappier one this whole time. What use could he possibly have for a smartphone?

Stupid question. A smartphone was a little computer, and nothing like a computer could ever be a bad thing to own or a waste of money, right?

But if he wanted to buy a new computer, wouldn’t it be better to buy an actual new computer?

This train of thought was, presumably, the reason he found himself looking at laptops when he’d come to find a new cell phone. His desktop occasionally crashed for no apparent reason, and some games the video card in particular just couldn’t handle. It would be nice to be able to take notes at school in a more organized fashion, too.

But it wasn’t strictly necessary. He hadn’t made any real attempts to do anything about his current computer, and a system restore — a much less expensive option than an entirely new machine — might solve its solvable problems. It seemed extravagant to buy a new computer outright when the old one still functioned at a high level. And he needed a phone in any case, and certainly wouldn’t get a laptop and a smartphone.

On the other hand, laptop prices had come down drastically in the last few years… four or five hundred dollars would give him the chance to stop rocking XP Professional and finally try out that copy of The Saboteur he’d never gotten to work, and then he could grab the least expensive phone his current provider offered and come out of the shopping trip not too much poorer.

Who was he kidding? Four or five hundred dollars poorer when he’d come in planning on a twenty dollar phone?? Also, if he did decide to switch providers — which seemed like a good idea, on the whole — that would cost him extra to get started too. And he might still actually want a more advanced phone than the least expensive one available. More than twenty dollars, sure, but less than four or five hundred.

But it still seemed silly to buy a miniature computer instead of an actual computer. And he wanted a laptop.

But he didn’t need a laptop.

“If you know you don’t need a laptop, walk away from the laptops. Don’t stand here staring at them like some broke idiot who’s wandered into a bar hoping someone will buy him a beer if he just looks thirsty enough.”

“I wasn’t doing that!” Sano turned to face the suit-coated man that had appeared unexpectedly at his side. “I wasn’t doing that at all!”

“Close enough.” Hajime, obviously picking up on Sano’s brainwaves, couldn’t possibly miss the rush of joy that always filled the younger man at the sight of the older; but in this case, before Sano’s effort at keeping his thoughts in check (an automatic response to Hajime’s presence) took hold, there must also be a rush of annoyance as the exorcist moved to stand between him and the computers on display. “You clearly have no idea what it’s like to be a communicator,” Hajime went on, putting a firm hand on Sano’s shoulder. “It’s bad enough that I have to hear irrelevant thoughts from half the people around me… then someone like you comes along and starts broadcasting his problems.”

Though Sano immediately protested that he hadn’t been broadcasting, he allowed himself to be directed — almost pushed — away from the laptops and back toward the cell phones.

“I could hear you from all the way across the store.”

Sano grumbled something mostly indistinct, but he did recall what his mental state had been before Hajime popped out of nowhere. Though not about to admit it, perhaps he could see how he had maybe been broadcasting just a little. That it seemed to have summoned Hajime, though, like a genie at the rub of a lamp, wasn’t likely to make Sano think too badly of the activity.

“You were radiating indecision like a criminal who wants to get caught so he can get help. So here I am to rescue you from your complete lack of self-control.” With the final shove necessary to reposition Sano before the rack he’d originally been examining, Hajime also came to a halt. “There doesn’t seem to be any good reason,” he continued in a businesslike tone, “for you not to switch carriers and buy a reasonably priced smartphone if that’s what you want. In this society a reliable phone with reliable service is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. As long as you know you’re up to the monthly bill and won’t let the phone get damaged so you have to replace it.”

“I’m pretty sure I wasn’t broadcasting, ‘Hey, Hajime, come over here and lecture me,'” Sano muttered.

“I’m not lecturing.” That Hajime released Sano’s shoulders at this point was a mixed blessing. “I’m reminding you of what you already know. Make up your mind about your new phone and then come find me in grocery.”

Sano felt a little thrill at the command, as it pretty much guaranteed this chance meeting would lead to them hanging out. And though that was a fairly standard result of a chance meeting between them, with Hajime chance meetings weren’t so plentiful, nor friendly declarations of such low value, that Sano could fail to take pleasure from them. So, much more gleefully than before, he turned his attention seriously back to the rack he’d come to examine.

All of a sudden the choice of carrier and model didn’t seem nearly as complicated as it had a few minutes ago. In fact, it was now perfectly obvious which company would be the best option and which smartphone he wanted. And though veiled laptop desires still danced, sparkling, at the edge of his awareness, they no longer significantly tempted him.

It turned out he had no need to go find Hajime in grocery. The process of obtaining the fixed attention of an employee qualified in the workings of cell phone accounts, then waiting while that person set him up with a monthly plan and initiated a port process, necessitated a longer time spent in the electronics department than Hajime could possibly take looking for and even purchasing food and whatever else he needed throughout the store. He rejoined Sano just as the latter had finished setting up an automatic recurring payment on his debit card and was receiving lengthy and repetitive instructions on how the service switch would progress over the next twenty-four hours.

And as Sano, ridiculously pleased at his new acquisition and excited to play with it extensively, finally turned away from the counter to the sound of the employee’s polite goodbye, Hajime asked with just the tiniest touch of impatience, “Do you need anything else here?”

“Nope, this was everything.” Triumphantly Sano held up the box containing his new phone.

“You came in your own car?” And when Sano confirmed this, Hajime replied, “I’ll bring you back here later to pick it up, then.”

Under some circumstances, Hajime’s dogmatic assumptions about coming events, what people around him would do, irritated the hell out of Sano. But he could never be annoyed by the assumption that the two of them would be spending the evening together. And anyway he would only be exploring his new phone all night regardless of where he was. He did wonder a little, though, how Hajime would react if he told him he had somewhere else to be.

“We can’t finish season two if you’re not going to be paying attention.” Hajime, now sounding somewhat amused, had clearly foreseen Sano’s primary activity this evening. Without divination, even.

“You’re right,” Sano admitted regretfully. “It’ll have to be something else.” And his inevitable preoccupation ruled out a number of options — any show he particularly cared to see, all games of any type — but Hajime never had a problem finding something to do while Sano hung around pointlessly. That this was the case blatantly delighted Sano.

“The movie I just rented is supposedly extremely funny,” Hajime informed him, lifting a shopping bag through which the shape of a DVD showed vaguely among the obscure purchases. “We’ll see if it can distract you from your new toy.”

“More like I’ll be distracted watching you,” Sano retorted as he waited for the click of lock to let him know he could climb into Hajime’s car, “to see if you’ve grown a sense of humor lately.” Since Hajime generally seemed to enjoy laughing at what he considered folly in Sano more than at anything else. Which Sano actually didn’t mind much.

Whatever Hajime said in response was largely inaudible between the crackle of his shopping bags settling into the back and the closing of one door before he opened the other and took his seat behind the steering wheel, but, judging by a familiar tone, Sano thought it must be some variation of, “Idiot.”

Only belatedly, as they left the parking lot, did Sano realize his old phone was due to stop working any time and the new one might require some figuring out. With this in mind, the text he immediately sent might have been just a little more hastily composed and poorly spelled than usual, but he believed his friend would get the gist of it.

Sensing a mental outreach from Hajime as he would detect something he didn’t want to collide with in the dark, Sano glanced over at the other man and remarked, “You know I’ll tell you what it says if you ask? You don’t actually have to intercept them.”

In a tone that acknowledged the truth of this Hajime replied, “And you don’t have to cancel all your other plans every time you run into me.”

Sano grinned crookedly. “You were the one who just decided I’d be going home with you without even asking.”

“I assumed you’d tell me if you had other plans.”

There were a few things Sano could say in response to this. Unfortunately, “You really think you’re not first priority?” was probably too much of a come-on, which type of remark always seemed to irritate and put off Hajime. And, “Funny how you assume I’ll tell you things when you suck so much at doing that,” might well start an argument Sano’s good mood wouldn’t tolerate at the moment. So what he decided to say was, “It wasn’t really plans, just ‘we’ll hang out if nothing else comes up.'”

And then Hajime did that mixed message thing where he seemed silently pleased that he counted as ‘something else coming up,’ but would obviously get miffed and more offensive than usual if Sano were to make some leading comment about this pleasure.

Never before had Sano gone this long liking someone without saying something openly about it, and he often wondered whether this indicated an interest stronger than or different from any previous crush, or that the two of them simply weren’t meant to be more than friends. Because two months was an extremely long time not to raise the issue definitively, especially with someone he saw in person with tolerable frequency; and it just wasn’t his style to wait around hoping for the development of reciprocation from someone already aware he was interested.

Admittedly logic (something that, whatever Hajime had to say about it, Sano did regard) was on his side in not behaving in a manner that would push Hajime away while he waited for the jerk to return his feelings or at least explain why he never would… but it couldn’t last forever. A sense of novelty hung about this unusual patience and forbearance, but even that couldn’t maintain his silence indefinitely. And Sano was watching with some fascination, with a sense almost of detachment as if he were outside the situation, to see how long it would take him to snap and demand Hajime like him the way he liked Hajime.

In the meantime — and this was undoubtedly the only reason he’d held out for so long and had any hope of continuing to do so — he could still enjoy the exciting and not infrequently aggravating company of a man he should probably consider himself lucky to have even as a friend.

*

Not entirely to Hajime’s pleasure, Sano was sitting there thinking about their relationship again. He did that for at least a few minutes, if not off and on the entire time, whenever they spent time together; and though he appeared aware that bringing it up aloud would be counterproductive, and though it didn’t agitate his companion enough to make avoiding him a better option, Hajime still disliked it.

The eventual decision that to state bluntly his total disinterest in romance would probably drive Sano away unhappy, and that Hajime hated that thought, had involved them in a sort of waiting game: Sano waited for Hajime to suddenly feel like falling into bed with him, and Hajime waiting for Sano to get over his infatuation. The wild card of Sano’s impatience would force both of their hands sooner or later, since Hajime was never going to feel like falling into bed with Sano, and then everything would probably be ruined; so Hajime had been working to resign himself to the fact that this friendship was a temporary arrangement. And in response to this knowledge, there might have been some of the dictatorial assumptions Sano always accused him of: he wouldn’t waste chances to be with Sano while he still had them.

Thinking-about-relationship time ended when Sano’s friend returned his text. Incoming messages were much more difficult than outgoing ones, since, if you weren’t reaching unceasingly to catch anything that appeared, you had to know when they might be coming to know when to reach at all — it took a lot of practice to get any warning of an approaching message, and Hajime didn’t quite manage to read this one. Sano’s reply, an affirmative in all lower case, was easy enough, but gave no clue as to the question it answered.

Once again Sano noticed what Hajime was up to. “I think I’m starting to see how you do that.” He’d tilted his head as if a different neck angle served his magical senses better. “Sometime when you’re not driving, you should text me and see if I can grab it.”

Thinking this worth immediate pursuit, Hajime pulled so abruptly into a turn lane pointing toward a gas station that Sano made a surprised noise. Soon he had the car in park and his cell phone out. He would be interested to see whether or not Sano really could do this trick without ever being specifically shown how.

Sano held his old phone closed before him, staring at it with an amusing degree of concentration, as Hajime sent his first message, and frowned slightly with effort as Hajime sent his second. His mental nets were perhaps a little too intense, certainly very unsubtle, but he did seem to have the general idea of how this worked. After an unusually long time, the dilapidated phone chimed only once. Still frowning, Sano opened it, compared the text with what he’d picked up magically, then waited impatiently for the other to arrive. As he realized the transition of service was probably just taking effect and had robbed him of the second message, at least for the moment, his frown deepened into a scowl even as some of his previous excitement about the new phone reappeared to mix with the annoyance at having the experiment interrupted.

“I think I got both of them,” he said at last. He threw his old mobile a dirty look. “But I only know for sure I was right about the first one.”

Hajime, who had already repocketed his own phone, moved to leave the parking lot. “And?” His first message had asked, Why were you worried about spending a few hundred dollars on a computer anyway? The second had added, You can’t have spent all the money Gains gave you already. Now that he was satisfied on whether or not Sano could teach himself to intercept text messages mentally, he wanted answers to his other questions as well.

“Oh.” Sano cleared his throat. “I kinda… gave half that money to Kaoru.”

It took only a moment’s consideration for Hajime to reply, “I can’t say that comes as a big surprise.”

“It just seemed too unfair.” And Sano’s quick response just seemed too defensive. “Sure, we did Gains a favor, and it was a pain in the ass — and the shoulder — but it was his boss’s fault her husband died and her life got fucked up. Why should he just give us money?”

Hajime chuckled. “Your logic’s a little flawed, but I’m sure she appreciated it.”

“My logic’s just fine,” Sano insisted. “You’re just a jerk who wouldn’t ever think about someone needing money in a situation like that.”

Hajime believed Sano’s defensiveness resulted from an internal battle between concern for Kaoru and old indoctrination that money was to be retained as long as possible at all costs. That Hajime found Sano’s hang-ups about money entertaining and more or less adorable would be taken exactly the wrong way by Sano, the exorcist knew well, and he didn’t plan to mention it. Instead he said, “Just because I have no interest in being her friend — especially since you seem to have that base covered — doesn’t mean I have absolutely no sympathy for her or her situation.”

Sano gave him a disbelieving look. “Yeah, but I don’t think you would have given her any of your share.”

“Which would be normal behavior. You went above and beyond in your usual extravagant way; don’t expect the same of me.”

“I don’t,” Sano muttered.

“But in any case, even with just half the payoff left, you should still have plenty of money. Why was the computer such a problem?”

“Because I’m trying to save that other half,” said Sano irritably. “You fancy exorcists with your inheritance and stocks and house that’s already paid off and shit might not know what it’s like for poor college students who work at a cheap-ass restaurant.”

Hajime, not bothering to point out either that his house was not, in fact, paid off, or that Sano’s plurals were getting a little confused, merely laughed at him again.

Though he opened his mouth to continue, Sano reclosed it as he seemed struck by a thought. In pensive silence he turned to his phone packaging, then the puzzle of how the battery and back cover went into or onto the device; and, though a certain interested part of his attention was genuinely caught up in getting the thing powered on, a large part of his consciousness seemed to be grinding away furiously at whatever had just occurred to him. Curious though he was, Hajime continued the drive toward his house in equal silence and relatively solid patience.

Finally, as they entered Hajime’s neighborhood, Sano said, “You know what I should do…” His tone sounded distracted, and light from the new phone glittered in his eyes, but he went on almost immediately: “I should have you hold onto all the money I’m trying to save. That way, whenever I wanted to spend some of it, I’d have to tell you what I wanted to buy, and then you’d give me hell about it; and plus even if I still decided to go through with it, it would be a huge pain to get the money back to my account. So I’d really have to want whatever it was, and it would force me to really think about it.”

Normally Hajime had a prompt reply for anything Sano said, even if only “Idiot,” but this one required an unexpected amount of thought. In continued silence, therefore, he pulled into his driveway and shut off the car. Then he turned toward Sano. The latter appeared to have his full attention on the phone in his hands, but this did nothing to lessen the impression of sincerity in the proposal he’d made. He really had just thought of this idea, given it perhaps a minute’s contemplation not undivided with more frivolous thoughts, come to a conclusion, and presented it immediately to the other party involved. Perfectly simply.

Whatever nickname Hajime chose to give him, Sano was not actually unintelligent. And that an intelligent person could reach and divulge such an important decision so quickly without seeming to worry about it at all was… well, stupid. But in a way it was also impressive. And something about such an alien manner of seeing the world, of thinking about things, fascinated Hajime, too. Stupid, impressive, fascinating… it was almost Sano himself in miniature.

He must also consider the issue of Sano’s apparent level of trust. Though Hajime remembered with unusual clarity the unhesitating way Sano had told him, “You wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to,” in regard to a certain fairly serious injury a couple of months back, he hadn’t properly recognized, even then, to what degree Sano trusted him. At the moment he had not only the evidence provided by what Sano had put forward, but a mental sense of that confidence not terribly difficult to pick up on now he actively looked for it.

Of course Hajime had no intention of betraying or taking advantage of Sano in any way — and didn’t anticipate any unless in the unlikely event there arose some moral demand superior to that of not betraying or taking advantage of a friend — but despite Sano’s trust in him being (probably) perfectly justified, its level after this amount of time seemed easily as precipitously attained as Sano’s other choices. Simultaneously, though… no matter how silly it was and no matter how logically Hajime argued against the sensation… he liked it. He wasn’t sure if anyone had ever trusted him to that degree, and that Sano did specifically and recognizably pleased him.

Perhaps equally pleasing was a sense almost of domesticity about the suggested arrangement — the idea of stronger ties to Sano and perhaps a lesser degree of brevity to their friendship than Hajime had previously been assuming. Unfortunately, despite the allure of these concepts, he couldn’t fail to recognize their other implications as well. Domesticity did rather go hand-in-hand with romance, or at least often formed its natural result, and there was an almost marriage-like quality to this type of financial cooperation. Entering into this agreement would not have to indicate increased interest in a romantic relationship on Hajime’s part, but that indication would undoubtedly be fabricated by the eager Sano. And it was this more than any other consideration that determined Hajime against the idea.

“No,” he finally said. “No, I don’t think so.”

Raising his eyes from his phone and appearing to realize for the first time that the car had stopped, Sano gave Hajime a petulant look. “Why not?”

“You don’t really need my help with this. You’re perfectly capable of controlling your own spending habits.” Not that the idea had been entirely unreasonable… but it also wasn’t necessary, and could be dangerous.

“Hey, you just swooped in to rescue me from buying a laptop,” Sano reminded him with some defiance.

“You wanted someone to swoop in. What you really wanted was for someone to swoop in and give you permission to do what you already wanted to do but knew you shouldn’t.”

“But I got you instead.” Whether Sano considered this better or worse — or simply different — than whatever rescue or justification he’d subconsciously desired was not evident. “What do you think I would have done if you hadn’t come along?”

“I don’t know what you would have done. But I know you could have made the right decision even without me.” Hajime said this fairly casually, but Sano would know just how seriously he meant it. Sano’s trust, and the satisfaction the offer thereof had unexpectedly raised in Hajime, deserved that serious response. More typically shallow interaction could resume afterwhile.

“Really?” One corner of Sano’s mouth and part of each of his eyebrows rose, apparently almost against his will, to change his somewhat annoyed expression into a dubious half grin. “Because I’m pretty sure you said I have a complete lack of self-control.”

“Your self-control is fine. When you’re not being too lazy to bother with it.”

“Well, then,” Sano demanded, both gratified and irritated, “why won’t you help me with my laziness?”

“I will.” It had occurred to Hajime that, though he couldn’t respond the way Sano wanted, he also couldn’t respond to the not-entirely-unreasonable idea and the pleasing indication of trust with cold and complete refusal. “But not the way you suggested.” He spent a lot of time shooting Sano down, but at the moment it needn’t be to such a depth as was often the case. He could return haste for haste, and hopefully keep from injuring his friend more than necessary. “Here’s my offer: whenever you’re tempted to buy something stupid you don’t need, call me.” He gestured to what Sano held. “You have a phone that should be reliable at any time of day, so you’ll have no excuse not to. Call me, and I’ll tell you exactly what I think of whatever you’re planning.”

“So you’re saying… I’m allowed to call you any time of day.” Sano’s tone was almost perfectly flat but for the tiniest hint of skepticism. “Just… call you whenever. Doesn’t matter what time it is.”

“Yes.” Perhaps this had been a bit impetuous, and perhaps that worried him slightly, but Hajime held steadfastly to his stated purpose.

“Just so we’re clear: ‘any time of day’ means any time of day?” Now a feeling of impending… something… colored Sano’s voice.

“Yes.” And perhaps Hajime hadn’t entirely considered the possible ramifications of this course of action… but that was the price of fast decisions. Sano probably didn’t appreciate Hajime’s willingness to pay that price for his sake, and would only have taken it the wrong way if he’d known.

“So, like, three-in-the-morning any time qualifies as ‘any time?'” It was glee building up in there, taxiing toward a runway Hajime could practically see behind Sano’s eyes.

“Yes.”

“All twenty-four hours? For real?”

“Yes.”

A sudden suspicion seemed to put a momentary brake on the takeoff. “But you’ll have your phone off half the time.”

“I won’t. Why would I miss a chance to tell you you’re an idiot? You call, I’ll answer.”

And they had left the ground. Sano made not the faintest attempt to hide the pleasure this exchange gave him: his mouth spread into a wide grin, his eyes crinkled at the edges, his entire body seemed invigorated by his rising elation. “Really? Even if you’re in the middle of something?”

Hajime nodded. Unwarranted as this level of happiness seemed at the promise of something so simple, so nearly meaningless, it was nothing but a joy to observe. He’d always loved to observe Sano’s emotions, and the contagion of his happiness in particular was at times only just short of thrilling.

“What if you’re meeting with a client or something? Or in the shower? What if you’re on another call?”

Again Hajime nodded. And maybe an offer like this, and the exercise of Hajime’s apparently stupidly great influence over Sano’s mood, provided the young man with undue encouragement — though not nearly as much as Sano’s suggestion, had Hajime accepted it, probably would have — but Hajime couldn’t regret having excited such felicity even if it did.

“What if you’re in the middle of a nail-trim on Misao?”

Here Hajime hesitated. Of course the perseverent Sano would find an exception. “If I actually have Misao pinned down so she can’t move, I may not answer the phone even for you.”

“Man, I wish someone had been around to take that out of context — hey!” Abruptly Sano started laughing, and his late exclamation indicated it wasn’t so much at the notion of someone getting incorrect ideas about who and what Misao was and what Hajime might be inclined to do to her as at some new thought. And eventually he had to be prodded, since, though Hajime had been practicing getting at people’s thoughts in spite of their mental barriers, he hadn’t mastered the technique yet. But in response to an impatient demand, Sano seemed perfectly willing to share: “I’m going to give Misao my old phone.”

To Hajime this intrigued more than amused, since chances were that having her own phone would deter Misao from climbing people trying to get at theirs. He didn’t really mind her climbing in general, but sometimes her interjections into serious conversations, such as with potential clients, were somewhat problematic. “Not a bad idea,” he told Sano. “But you’ll have to remind her what will happen to it if she constantly leaves it where I’m going to step on it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll remind her you’re an unforgiving tyrant,” Sano promised. Neither his broad grin nor his overflowing happiness had faded. “Come on, let’s go tell her.” As he reached for the door with one hand, the other held up his new phone so he could glance at it once more before leaving the car. And the look he gave it seemed extraordinarily pleased, now for more than one reason.

Was the assurance of an answer to a call at any time really so wonderful? Wonderful enough to make Sano completely abandon his previous idea with no apparent regret? Though Hajime loved to see Sano happy, he doubted the rationality of the origin of that emotion. Sano clearly read more into this than was intended. But that had been inevitable, and Hajime still couldn’t truly regret it. Their interaction could only ever be full of mismatches, and Hajime thought it was probably worth it.

So he disembarked with a faint smile at the pleased agitation of the young man waiting now beside the kitchen door, took up his shopping bags from the back seat, and headed toward the house and an evening that both he and his companion were likely to enjoy despite any possible — even probable — ambivalence to the proceedings.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve rated this story .



One Year, Two Minutes (1/3)



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

1
2
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Heero.

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

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I am not going to Harvard.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe he’s got performance anxiety.”

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

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

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

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

Every head turned toward him; everyone went silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

This place was strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually it turned out he didn’t have to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Totally hot; I just said!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good! ‘Cause I’m really curious.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, cool. Do you speak Japanese?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh. Weird.”

“So you showed up and of course everyone–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What guy?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marveling at the ease with which Duo suggested so friendly an activity to someone he’d just met, but seeing nothing wrong with the idea, Heero said, “Yeah, why don’t you come to my house?” He added somewhat warningly, “If you’re serious about doing homework. Because I have a lot of it.”

“Now, what would make you think I’m ever not totally serious about anything?” Duo demanded in the most innocent of tones as he followed Heero around the corner.

***

Duo had rather hoped to coincide with Heero on the way to school on Monday, but thought the difference in timing between a walker and a cyclist was a decent enough explanation for why he didn’t. Although he’d never hated school the way some people did, it wasn’t exactly his favorite pastime either — but today he was actually quite interested in being there. Having a secret was always fun, as was putting on a show for people; and becoming better acquainted with the quiet, intelligent Heero had its attractions as well.

Besides, this time when someone Duo didn’t know came up to him in the hall and asked what struck him as an extremely rude personal question having to do with the accuracy of the portrayal of Japanese men’s anatomy in anime porn — an inquiry whose significance would have gone completely over his head just a few days before — he was able to reply immediately and cheerfully that he would be quite willing to dole out punches to the face of anyone else that was curious.

The weather was cold, but evidently Heero’s group of friends wasn’t going to let a little thing like January deter them from eating in their customary outside spot. Anything to maintain their territory and avoid freshmen, Duo supposed. And the central courtyard was pretty nice, if a bit of a walk from the cafeteria if you happened to be buying school lunches (which, Duo had determined after some calculations, were cheaper in the long run than trying to figure out something else every single day). So the only problem left was coming up with an explanation for why he hadn’t eaten lunch with Heero last week, why he was eating with him today, and why he might not be again in the future.

Interestingly, Heero was more taciturn with his friends than he had been with a complete stranger on Friday, and evidently they’d been unable to get a thing out of him last week regarding his newly-arrived boyfriend. Since Heero had mentioned in some embarrassment that he’d put off seeking Duo out because he hadn’t been sure what to say to him, it shouldn’t be too great a surprise that he hadn’t discussed the matter with anyone else either. But it also meant that his lunch crowd was even more curious than they might otherwise have been because of the perceived secrecy.

They mobbed Duo the moment he appeared, a little later than most of them due to the aforementioned walk from the cafeteria and a disorientation about the layout of the school that he hadn’t yet quite overcome. Space was made beside where Heero sat unobtrusively in a corner so Duo could squeeze in next to him — right next to him, which was a pleasant warmth in the cold outside air, but Duo couldn’t help wondering how Heero felt about it.

The reason he gave, in response to the immediate questions about why he’d been neglecting his boyfriend, was that he’d been checking out lunch venues throughout the school — which he in fact had. His response to the information that Heero had been unhappy here without him was a serious inquiry of Heero whether or not this was true, to which Heero replied with a slight quirk of a corner of his lips that he’d been fine. His astonishing answer to the demand that he eat lunch here with Heero and the rest of them from now on was something silly to the effect of his being an itinerant at heart and unable to stay in one place long or consistently.

Then, in order to cover up the whispering that started as they all tried to wrap their brains around this and began to speculate what it would probably mean for his relationship with Heero, Duo asked to be introduced to everyone. When it became obvious that Heero wasn’t about to take this task upon himself, it was performed instead by a girl named Relena. Duo was interested to note both the all-knowing Quatre and lackey Trowa among the group, and also that Heero didn’t actually seem terribly friendly with most of these friends of his. It made Duo wonder how it was that he’d come to eat lunch with them every day at all.

Once Relena was finished rattling off names (and accompanying facts that were probably designed for further identification but that meant nothing to Duo), she settled down against one of the large concrete squares stationed throughout the courtyard. These had undoubtedly been intended by their builders as benches, but the one in this corner was used by this group as a shelf and a seat-back; Relena’s current position in relation to it put her near and directly facing Duo in what almost resembled the attitude of an interrogator across a table from an unwilling informant.

“Now,” she said in a complacently authoritative tone, “you have to tell us everything: how you guys met, what it’s been like being long-distance, what made you decide to move up here — everything!”

Duo had actually given a fair amount of thought to this during the long hours he’d worked over the weekend, and entertained himself making things up; though he hadn’t consulted Heero yet about the stories he’d concocted, he deemed it unlikely that Heero had fabricated anything too terribly complicated on his own that would contradict what Duo had to say. However, though Heero might not object, within the context of the scam, to Duo waxing eloquent on their supposed relationship, he might mind for other reasons. The briefest glance in Heero’s direction showed him already blushing faintly just at hearing the questions asked; the answers, fictitious or otherwise, couldn’t improve his condition.

“You know,” Duo said instead, with a grin, “I’d rather not take all the mystery out of that story by telling it all at once; it’ll be so much better if I just give you little hints over time. So for now, how about I tell you all about the fabulous Duo Maxwell instead?”

Relena’s expression of slight discontent was the first hint Duo had that she was perhaps less interested in him personally than as he related to Heero. But all she said was, “OK, fine.”

So he spent a happy lunch hour complaining about how his foster parents hadn’t really wanted a son, but, rather, a minion they could shape and control; how they’d pressured him for as long as he could remember to prepare himself for a military career, and how he’d never been interested; how he’d put up with their demands and insistence for a few years and then rebelled, and how tense things had been thereafter; about the nuclear-level explosion he’d occasioned by announcing that he was bisexual; and, finally, about his lengthy and careful preparations, during the year he would turn eighteen, to get himself out the moment that happy event took place. That had been last December, and as soon as school had halted for the winter break he’d moved away from Gearing.

“I came here — I mean here specifically — because of Heero, obviously,” he concluded, joggling his ‘boyfriend’ slightly with his elbow. “But also because I knew this school was all famous for being so gay-friendly. I read that one article in that magazine–”

“You and everyone else in the world,” someone put in laughingly.

Duo grinned. “Yeah, the one where they said this was probably the only school in the country where you could get beaten up for being a homophobe — and I was like, ‘I am so there.’ I figured even transferring schools in the middle of my senior year would be worth it to come here for a while.”

“And he didn’t tell me any of this,” Heero put in unexpectedly. It was the first time he’d spoken in quite a while.

“What do you mean?” Relena sounded incredulously amused. “He didn’t tell you he was moving here?”

Heero shook his head.

Taking the cue, Duo grinned broadly and expanded on the subject. “It was pretty much the best surprise ever, if I do say so myself. Whenever I was complaining before about how much I hated living at home, Heero would remind me that high school was almost over, if I could just hold on a little longer…” This fictitious advice seemed consistent with what Duo had observed of Heero so far. “He had no idea I was already planning on getting out before high school was over!”

“So you just showed up here with, what, a truck full of stuff or something…” Incredulity now tinged with delight, Relena turned to Heero. “And that was the first you knew he was coming here?”

“Something like that,” Heero mumbled. He looked embarrassed, maybe because he was so bald-facedly lying, but Duo thought this had been a good move on Heero’s part: it would at least partially explain why he’d been in a weird mood last week — anyone might be a little stunned if his long-distance boyfriend suddenly joined him in his hometown without warning.

“So if you and Heero met and started going out last April…” This was the very innocent- and harmless-looking little blonde Quatre, and he had Duo’s immediate attention. “And you were getting ready to get away from your parents all of last year… that means you already knew you’d be moving and changing schools before you even met him. Did you have this school in mind then?”

Duo wondered where Quatre, who knew the truth, was going with this question. Maybe he was just trying to guide the topic back to something that would embarrass Heero less. Perfectly happy to accept the subject shift in that or any case, Duo nodded. “Yeah, ever since I read that article…”

“So you were already interested in this school,” Quatre mused, “and then you met Heero.” His pointed yet half-veiled gaze indicated his awareness that, with the way he’d worded it, this was totally accurate. “It’s kinda like destiny or something.”

Duo remembered his own comment last Friday about stars aligning, heard the giggles and charmed noises of some of the girls in the group, and grinned as he leaned over the very small distance it took him to rub his shoulder against Heero’s. He still wasn’t sure what Quatre meant by that line of inquiry, and didn’t know that it was likely to embarrass Heero any less, but he didn’t hesitate to agree, at least verbally.

It turned out he needn’t have worried so much about Heero’s level of embarrassment. On their way home that afternoon, almost immediately they were down the street away from the school and the ears of fellow students, Heero brought it up.

“I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t happy not to have to get into relationship talk over lunch,” he said, “but I’m not fragile. You’re obviously a better actor than me, so you’re welcome to choose what we talk about to everyone, and I’ll just try to keep up.”

“Well, I thought you did fine,” Duo assured him. “That idea that I supposedly didn’t tell you I was moving out here was pretty funny, and I thought you pulled it off perfectly.”

“Thank you.” Heero smiled slightly; it was the first time Duo had seen him do it, and it was remarkable what a striking, attractive change the expression made to his face. “This is…” The smile turned into a bit of a grimace as he admitted the unpalatable fact. “Well, I didn’t think I was going to like this, but actually it’s been kinda nice so far.”

Duo wondered whether this unobtrusive person had ever received so much positive attention at school before. “Even if some of it was embarrassing?”

“I said I’m not fragile,” said Heero, now somewhat irritably. “Just because I get a little embarrassed about something doesn’t mean anything changes.”

Now Duo had to wonder whether anyone around here took Heero at all seriously in a social sense. He was an exceptionally good student — Duo knew that quite well even after such a short time — and there was a general tendency among people their age to equate that with a lack of social skills. Maybe that was at least part of the reason everyone had been so interested to discover Heero ‘had a boyfriend.’

Anyway, Duo didn’t feel like trying to analyze Heero’s place in the high school strata right now. “We’re only a day in,” he said instead with a grin that was both cheerful and warning. “It could get better or worse from here.”

“And if it’s worse,” Heero said calmly, “we can always ‘break up.'”

It wasn’t real; since they weren’t actually dating, they couldn’t actually break up. But Duo couldn’t help considering this — particularly Heero’s self-reassuringly cool manner of delivery — rather cold. No wonder, again, everyone had so marveled at the idea of Heero with a boyfriend!

After this, however, they moved on to Heero’s favorite topic (homework), with the occasional mention thrown in of Duo’s job at a restaurant not far from his apartment, and Duo pretty much forgot he’d ever felt put off.

***

“So it ended up 37-20, and they’re obviously in. With Manning in there, they’re practically unstoppable. That guy can find a receiver every single time, no matter what kind of heat’s on him; it’s fucking amazing. There’s no way in hell San Francisco can… god, are you even listening?”

“Yes,” Sylvia replied abstractedly, “and I totally agree.”

“Then what did I just say?”

“That you’ve got a crush on Eli Manning,” she replied promptly, finally turning her eyes back toward him.

“Not funny,” Alex growled. “That’s what’s wrong with this fucking school… everyone assumes everyone’s fucking gay.”

“I was totally joking,” she assured him. “But you have been talking about football a lot.”

“Well, what would you rather talk about?” he demanded in that exasperated ‘Oh, my god, why can’t girls ever make sense?’ tone guys sometimes used, glancing around to see what kept grabbing her attention past his left shoulder. Evidently he couldn’t tell what she was looking at, for he turned back to her with no enlightenment on his face.

“Look again,” she commanded, grinning. “Aren’t they totally cute?”

His expression darkened. “I’m not looking again if it’s just to see something ‘cute.'” Then, briefly, a flicker of puzzlement crossed his face and, contrary to his words, he did look again. “Oh, god,” he said as he slowly turned back. “You’re talking about that new guy Duo and that nerd guy, aren’t you? Please, Sylvia, please tell me Duo’s not gay.”

“He’s not gay,” she said immediately.

Alex breathed a huge, exaggerated sigh of relief. “Good, because he’s in my P.E. class, and if I thought–”

“He’s bi,” Sylvia broke in.

“So he is gay! Goddammit, he’s probably been staring at my ass in the locker room ever since he got here!”

Sylvia tried not to laugh. Alex actually seemed angry, but she couldn’t feel sorry for him. “I totally wouldn’t blame him if he did,” she said. “And why would he anyway? He’s together with Heero.”

Alex appeared somewhat consoled by her flirtatious remark, and also curious in spite of a very strong inclination not to be. “Is he? I heard he played soccer at his old school… and Heero’s in, like, five different Honor Societies… why would they–”

“Duo’s totally got a 3.8,” Sylva said, proud of her inside knowledge. “Or at least that’s what he had at his old school; I don’t know about here. I think Heero’s got, like, a 4.7 or something, but anyway they’re both really good students. Probably,” she added in satisfaction, “because they spend, like, every day after school at Heero’s house doing homework.”

“You sure that’s what they’re doing?” Alex asked darkly.

“No,” she tittered. “But they won’t come out with us on Fridays, and they always go home together. Duo doesn’t always eat lunch with us, because I guess he’s already got a lot of friends all over the school, even though it’s been, what, like, three weeks? And I think Heero misses him at lunch, but with Heero you can never tell.” She laughed again. “Anyway, they always go home together.”

“Why are you so interested in this?” Alex’s tone was suspicious as he closed his locker, gave the couple they were discussing one last, somewhat venomous look, and turned away to walk down the hall.

Following him, Sylvia answered cheerfully. “Because I’ve been eating lunch with Heero practically every day for two years now, and we’ve never seen him go out with anyone, and we always thought it would be cool if he did, and now he finally is!”

“I can’t believe that Duo guy’s gay.” This was more in muttered apostrophe than as any sort of reply to Sylvia.

“He’s bi,” she corrected.

“Oh, come on, like any girl would go out with a guy who’d been with another guy,” he said harshly.

I would!”

“God, would you? Have you? Seriously, if you say yes, you are not getting a ride home.”

That, Sylvia thought, was a terribly rude comment, but she had to admit that she never had gone out with a bisexual guy… and she didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of a date with Alex on Friday by calling him on his homophobia. She did, however, as a sort of passive rebellion, keep talking about Heero, and how pleased she was to see him with the very likeable Duo, all the way out to the student parking lot and half the way home.

***

The previous three Januaries had been the heaviest homework months of the school year, as if the teachers were trying to make up for the long winter break and get the new calendar year started off right, and this January had sustained that trend admirably.

“And you know how many pages he wants?” Duo was complaining as they made their usual way out one day near the end of the month. “Freaking ten! That’s practically a book! And he was very specific about margin widths and font sizes, too, so we can’t cheat.”

“Triple-space it,” Heero suggested.

Duo stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. “You’re a genius!”

Heero, who didn’t stoop to such tactics himself but somehow knew them all, and who moreover had written two seven-page essays this month and was inclined to feel sorry for his companion, gave a sympathetic look.

“But, seriously, I’ll still end up having to write eight or nine pages,” Duo groaned. “Who does that?”

“Have you chosen a topic?”

“I was thinking the Civil War.”

Heero laughed. “You can’t just do ‘the Civil War.’ That’s way too general.”

“Way too General Lee?”

Heero rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’ll figure something out. Stupid research paper.”

“Just wait ’til college. We’ll be writing twenty-page research papers, and we won’t have nearly as long to finish them.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. How’s it going with Stage, by the way?”

Willum Stage University, located in a town called Placette only a couple of hours’ drive from here, was the school Heero had in mind, and he’d just finished the application process earlier this week. For this he was duly congratulated, after which they fell silent for a block or so — one of them, presumably, still mulling over the paper that had been assigned in his history class today. But it was just occurring to Heero to wonder something about Duo.

Finally he asked. “Where do you want to go to college? I’ve never heard you mention.”

Duo pushed out his lips in a silly, almost pouty way and looked sidelong at Heero. “Iiiii don’t know if I do want to go to college,” he said a little reluctantly.

Surprised, Heero said, “Really? You’re a good student; I thought…”

“Yeah, that’s how everyone reacts,” Duo mumbled, “which is why I don’t talk about it much.”

“Everyone does tend to assume we’ll all be doing the same things once we’re done with school,” said Heero carefully, “but… some people work for a while first… some people travel… I guess some people don’t go to college at all…”

Duo made a weary, protesting noise. “You make it sound like it’s a really weird concept.”

“College has been my goal for as long as I can remember,” Heero admitted apologetically. “What do you have in mind instead?”

“I kinda want to be a chef.” Duo apparently didn’t have a great deal of hope that this would be in any way acceptable; his parents probably had something to do with that.

It sounded fine to Heero; he didn’t even have to give it much thought. “So, a culinary school, then?”

“Yeah, maybe.” Evidently heartened by the lack of immediate condemnation from Heero, Duo went on more enthusiastically. “What I think would be really cool is to have a combination restaurant and car repair shop so people could drop off their cars for whatever and then come inside and eat! Except I don’t actually want to run the place, I just want to do the cooking. I might take a few business classes just so I’ll have some idea what’s going on, but mostly my plan is to do some other cooking jobs so I can get really good at that and save up enough money to find a partner who can handle the business end of things while I make all the awesome food. And of course we’ll need a really good mechanic who…” He paused. “I lost you at ‘combination restaurant and car repair,’ didn’t I?”

Trying very hard to stifle his laughter and speak seriously, Heero said, “No, no, I think it’s a great idea.” In truth he considered it a remarkably childlike idea: something not necessarily impractical or inappropriate, but that few adults would come up with. Obviously one of those few was Duo, whom Heero couldn’t help considering, in light of this, rather adorable. Forcing calm upon himself he reiterated, “Really. Not a bad idea at all.”

Across the bike that separated them, Duo peered suspiciously at Heero. “You mean it?”

Solemnly Heero nodded.

Breaking into a brilliant grin, Duo exulted, “Hah! You’re the best ‘boyfriend’ ever!”

With a slight blush Heero said, “Who you should really talk to is my mom. She sometimes does catering. Just for small events, because it’s just her and a friend doing the cooking, but she still knows some things about the business…”

“Oh! That explains why she always has the Best Snacks Evar for us whenever I’m at your house doing homework! I meant to get the recipe for those little potato skin things, but I forgot. How come you didn’t tell me she did catering??”

“I didn’t realize you were interested.”

Duo frowned. “It’s probably not good that we ‘boyfriends’ don’t know all this stuff about each other. I mean, what if someone asked? Anyway, it’s definitely not good that we real, actual friends don’t know.”

Unexpectedly pleased at having Duo refer to him as a real, actual friend, Heero suggested, “We should have a question and answer session.”

“Yes! Yes, we should! OK, let me think of questions.”

This activity occupied them the rest of the way to Heero’s house. There, because Duo wanted to harass Heero’s mother and Heero wanted to do his homework, they agreed that the best way to go about this was for each of them to write down a list of questions, which they would then exchange and answer in between their other tasks as they had time and inclination.

Between the culinary discussion in which Mrs. Yuy was happy to indulge Duo for quite some time and the homework that Duo, who wasn’t nearly as irresponsible as he sometimes acted, started in on afterward, it wasn’t until nearly two hours later that they gave each other their questions. And then, not for the first time that day, Heero had to try to stifle his laughter.

1. What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?

2. What was one thing you used to want to be when you grew up that totally changed?

3. If you could take the characters from any movie and put them into a new movie about a DANCE COMPETITION, which movie and characters would you choose and why?

4. If you could have any animal in the world for a pet (and it would be friendly to you no matter what it was), what would you choose?

5. Do you have any awesome tattoos, and how do you feel about tattoos?

These weren’t really the sort of questions Heero had had in mind, and totally dissimilar to his list, which was about things like politics and important formative experiences… but honestly he was rather looking forward to answering them. Not only that, but it struck him after a few moments of thought that Duo actually had the right idea: Heero had conveyed plenty about his plans for the future and other such serious topics; it was the extracurricular aspects of his personality Duo would know least about at this point — and vice versa for Heero about Duo.

So, setting aside for the moment the book he was reading for English and the notes he was taking thereon, he centered Duo’s sheet of questions in front of him and set down his pencil without looking in order to choose one at random. Upon rereading it, he decided he would need more space than what Duo had allowed him, and extracted a fresh sheet of paper.

Am I limited to animals? he began writing. Because if it will be friendly to me no matter what it is, a banyan tree……


His Own Humanity: Plastic 0-5

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”



“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”


Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”


“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



Pillow Talk


Sano wasn’t sure which aspect of his hangover woke him, just as he wasn’t sure which was the worst, or which the most familiar; it would have been like trying to describe the wetness of water. Very disgusting water that left him still thirsty.

Every new hangover — at least lately — felt like the worst he’d ever had. Today’s surpassed even that ever-growing record by seeming like the worst experience he could possibly have in waking up. But that was only until he managed, with some difficulty, to drag his lids open and force his eyeballs to focus — and saw the woman lying in the bed beside him.

“Oh, god,” he groaned, burying his face in the blanket again immediately. It was one thing to get so drunk he couldn’t remember what he’d done the night before; it was another entirely to wake up in bed with what he didn’t remember. Not that this was by any means the first time it had happened to him lately. Usually, though, it was merely signs that someone else had been there, not the someone herself. And none of the reasons they ever stuck around until Sano awakened were good.

“If you’re hoping for breakfast,” he mumbled at last into the linen, “you’re out of luck.”

“That’s just what you said last week,” she replied complacently.

Sano was so relieved she hadn’t said something like, “You promised to pay in the morning,” it took him a moment to comprehend what she had said.

“Last week?” Was he supposed to know this girl?

“You don’t remember? Guess I’m not surprised. This is the second time for us.”

Sano sighed and raised his face slightly so his voice wasn’t quite as muffled as before. “At least one of us must be a pretty good lay.”

He could hear the grin in her reply, “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks, but since we haven’t actually fucked…”

Already grimacing, Sano could not express his confusion with a frown, but he did turn his eyes toward her with a little more attention.

She was fairly pretty, a couple of years his senior, and already had that world-weary shadow in her expression that he knew would eventually turn to dull blankness as she went about her seductive trade entirely by rote. For now, though, she evidently had energy and enthusiasm enough. She looked back at him from where she sat in the tangle of blankets at his side, eyes sparkling with curiosity. That she wore underclothes seemed to bear out her latest remark, and Sano struggled futilely to remember what they had done last night.

“You’re everyone’s favorite client, you know,” she went on, “just ’cause of that. Getting paid for a night of almost no work…”

“‘Everyone’s?'” Sano sat up now, noting he was fully clothed, and that his hangover was every bit as bad as it had seemed at first.

The woman raised a brow at him. “Every one of us you’ve hired recently, yeah. We’ve started rolling dice to decide who gets to go with you whenever you show up.” She laughed a pleasant, musical laugh.

Considering the method by which Sano raised the funds necessary to pay for this entertainment, there was something ironic in the idea of the entertainment rolling dice over him. Dismissing this, however, along with the depressing thought of how much money he must have spent on absolutely nothing lately, he listened to her next comment.

“We’ve got some bets going on you, too. We thought, since we were already gambling…”

Again he merely echoed her word, “‘Bets?'” and wasn’t really surprised at how blank his voice sounded.

She propped her elbow on her knee and leaned forward to rest her chin in her hand, fixing him with an intense gaze. “Well, some of us think she must be European… an exotic foreigner, you know? Some, including me, are sure she must be an older woman… there’s even one gal with her money on it being a warrior of some sort.” Again she laughed, and her eyes sparkled. “We’re all sure she must be a real looker, so there’s no money in that.”

Sano had believed his somewhat bewildered state was due to his hangover, but was beginning to retreat from this point of view. “Who the hell are you talking about?”

Her expression softened slightly as she replied, “The woman who broke your heart.”

Sano blinked. “What?”

The musical laugh was a little gentler this time. “For weeks now you’ve been coming over stone drunk and paying for us and then never actually fucking any of us, like you just want somebody to sleep next to. If that ain’t the behavior of a heartbroken man…”

“Oh.” Sano wasn’t sure whether to laugh or sigh. He supposed once a group of complete strangers started telling him he was clearly heartbroken, it was about time to admit it to himself. Especially given how ineffectual it was proving getting drunk enough not to remember the nights and making sure he had a distraction for the mornings.

Eventually he did laugh, albeit somewhat bitterly. “None of you are gonna be able to collect on your bets,” he told her; “sorry. Well, except whoever guessed a warrior. Maybe. If you guys decide it still counts.”

Now it was the prostitute’s turn to appear bemused.

Like his laugh, Sano’s grin was rather bitter. “No woman broke my heart,” he said, the bluntness of his tone belying the ambivalence of his words.

She had him figured out, though — either that or she thought she was teasing him with the suggestion, “A man, then?”

Sano nodded.

Again she laughed. “And if I thought the news of a beautiful woman was going to stir the girls up…”

“I’m glad you think it’s funny,” Sano half-snarled, tempted to rebury his face in the bedding after telling this nosy woman to go to hell.

Her next laugh, however, was actively sympathetic. “Oh, honey, I don’t think it’s funny at all! Someone as lonely as you…”

“Who says I’m lonely?” Sano responded automatically, sullenly, and entirely futilely.

“And we ain’t helpin’.”

“No, you sure as hell aren’t,” Sano agreed.

She stared at him thoughtfully for a moment, then asked in a conversational tone, “So did he die?”

“No!” Sano felt a little cold at the thought, and answered more vehemently than the question really required.

Now she was looking at him expectantly. “So if he isn’t dead…”

“You know, it’s really none of your business,” Sano replied.

She chuckled. “No, it isn’t. But we’ve all been so curious… and talking about it would be good for you.”

Examining her eager face, Sano couldn’t really bring himself to believe his wellbeing was any great part of her motives… but that didn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t right. It certainly couldn’t be any less effective than what he had been doing.

“Fine,” he sighed a little grouchily, lying back down and raising his arms to use as a pillow. Eyes closed to facilitate the ebb of his headache, he wondered where to start.

Well, hell, why not at the beginning? “We were sortof enemies at first. Well, we were on the same side, but he didn’t want me around. Thought I wasn’t good enough to be there. I wanted to prove him wrong so fucking bad… I got so used to obsessing about it and thinking about him, I don’t even have a clue when I started liking him… but at some point I did.”

“But what’s he like?” she asked impatiently. “What does he look like? What does he act like?”

Sano huffed, also somewhat impatient, but couldn’t see any reason not to provide this peripheral information. “Well, he’s thin… I mean, he’s got muscle, but he’s also got a sorta narrow body. His face is kinda harsh; he’s got these high cheekbones so there’s always these shadows…” He traced the spots on his own face. “And his eyes…” Here he trailed off, unable to give the details he’d had in mind. The pain abruptly blossoming in his chest had nothing to do with his hangover. Finally, though, he forced himself to complete the broken sentence. “His eyes are gold.”

A long silence followed. He’d been half expecting her to laugh again, and appreciated that she didn’t.

Eventually, when the silence began to weigh on him unbearably, Sano went on. “And how he acts… pretty much like an asshole most of the time.” Now she did laugh, and he didn’t mind. “He’s a good person,” he explained, “a really good person… he’s just not a very nice person.”

A more pensive silence followed, and eventually Sano murmured almost to himself, “I guess it makes sense. Obsessed with the guy and then getting to know what a good person he really is… I kinda had no choice, you know? Not fair, really…”

“If he’s an asshole, then, no, it really ain’t fair,” she agreed. It was a prodding tone, urging him to go on, and at the same time she was trying to hide her amusement.

Again Sano considered telling her to go to hell — or at least get out of his home and stop rubbing salt in his wounds — but, having disclosed this much, unless he finished the story, he had probably doomed himself to endless questioning from every prostitute he hired from now on. Which, given his track record, he wasn’t likely to stop doing, once he got drunk, no matter how much this one annoyed him.

“Yeah…” he went on at last, “so, eventually somehow when I was trying to get his attention it wasn’t because I wanted to fight him anymore. And I guess I was pretty annoying, because he gave in finally.”

“He gave in finally because you were… annoying?” Sano could hear the skeptical laughter hiding behind the careful neutrality of this statement.

“Yes.” His tone was surly. “He was always annoyed with me. Always telling me to get lost, acting like I was in his way all the time, even when he was fucking me…”

“So he was fucking you at one point.”

“Yeah, for a while. A lot, actually.” He added with a wry grin, “See, I really am a good lay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she chuckled. “So he must’ve liked you at least a little, then.”

Sano’s arms weren’t in the best position for a shrug, but still that was the tendency of his shoulders as he answered bitterly, “If you call acting like he never wants me around and always calling me names and saying that everything I say is stupid and basically being a jerk to me in every possible way all the fucking time signs that he likes me at least a little, then, sure, maybe he did.” At her repeated sympathetic laugh he added decisively, “No, the whole thing was just sex to him, and I should’ve never let it get more than that for me.”

After another long moment she asked, “How did it end?”

“He left,” Sano sighed. “Got transferred out to Niigata.”

“So it wasn’t even a real break-up? That’s almost worse…”

“Well, it was… I dunno. He did say I could come with him if I wanted… like that actually meant anything.”

Though he wasn’t looking at her, Sano got the feeling the woman went utterly still where she sat. “So…” she said after a tense moment. “This guy you’re in love with…” With a grunt Sano protested her word choice, but she went on. “You always wished he’d stop acting like he didn’t want you around, and he’s not the type of guy to show he cares about someone…”

“Right, right,” said Sano impatiently.

“So this guy who never acts like he likes you — and you wish he would — asks you to come with him when he gets transferred…”

“Yeah?”

“And you say no?”

“Course.”

At her sudden movement he opened his eyes, in time to see her roll onto her side and press the blanket against her face to muffle her sudden torrent of laughter. It was loud and it was musical, and it was quite clearly derisive.

“God, shut up,” he grumbled, stung. “I thought you felt sorry for me.”

“I do!” She pulled the blanket away from her face long enough to laugh out these words. “It’s just you’re such a fucking idiot!”

If he’d thought her capable of holding her own against him in a fist fight, he would have started one. Instead he merely tried to defend himself in a raised voice. “Look, I don’t know why he even said that, but it wasn’t like I was going to jump at the chance to go with someone who only wants me around to fuck whenever he feels like it. Even if I do… really like him.”

For some reason this sent her into a fresh spasm of laughter, and by now Sano was sitting up watching her mirthful writhing in annoyance. She did manage to ask, however, through her amusement, “What exactly… were you waiting for… from him?”

“What do you mean?” Sano demanded.

With a succession of deep breaths she strove to calm herself, and answered in a more level tone, “Guys who are bad at showing they care about their boyfriends and all don’t change overnight… he ain’t just gonna come out and say ‘Oh, I love you’ all of a sudden. He’s gonna show it by doing something.”

“What, you think he said I could come with him because he was in love with me or some shit?” Somewhat to his surprise, Sano actually found himself rather angry at the idea. How could she even suggest such a stupid thing?

Evidently following his mood, she sobered completely. “Why the hell else would he do it, if he’s such a jerk?”

She did have a point… but even so, the theory was utterly absurd. Not to mention… a little painful to think about, given how quickly he’d said no.

“And did you ever think to ask him why he was inviting you like that?” she pursued. “Or did you just assume that, just ’cause he doesn’t read you poetry, he only wanted you to come along as his fuck-buddy?”

“Yes!” Though this emphatic answer was almost loud enough to be a shout, it sounded more discouraged than angry. “Why the hell should I think anything else? I mean, he was never nice to me; I thought I made that pretty clear.”

“Lord save me from the like,” she murmured with a rueful grin toward heaven. Then, returning her eyes to him, she went on in a calm, placating tone. “Course I don’t know all the details, and I don’t know the guy, and, hell, I don’t really know you. I’m not gonna try to talk you into seeing it my way… but do you really think you handled it right?”

“How is asking me that not trying to talk me into seeing it your way?” Sano wondered. Then, as she only looked at him, he added, “I have no fucking clue whether I handled it right or not!”

“Well, neither do I,” she shrugged.

Sano was surprised to feel a surge of annoyed disappointment at this; had he really been expecting some wise advice or something from this complete stranger? “Why the hell did you even ask, then?”

“Well, what I do know is that you shouldn’t just end a relationship without talking about it first.”

“Wasn’t a fucking relationship,” Sano grumbled. “It was just fucking.”

“People don’t invite their fuck-buddies to come with them when they transfer,” she replied dismissively.

“Maybe nice people don’t.”

“All I’m saying is, it seems like you wasted an opportunity, and I hate that.”

“Yeah, sure, an opportunity to keep dealing with the hardest situation to deal with and the biggest jerk ever.”

“People who want real relationships do deal,” she said sternly. “I know because the rest buy whores.”

“God!” Sano protested, “you say that like I’ve got some kind of responsibility or something and I’m not doing it right.”

“That’s kinda exactly what I’m saying. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing people like you who can do things and go places I never can throwing away their chances.”

“What do you mean? What chances do I have that you don’t?”

She gave him a hard look. “You think I’ll ever have someone ask me to go with him when he gets transferred? Hell, do you think I’m ever likely to leave Tokyo… do anything besides what I’m doing now for the rest of my life… however long that turns out to be…? That’s why you people who ain’t whores really oughta make the best of your choices, ’cause not everybody has any.”

“What?” Sano stared at her. “The hell you don’t have any choices! Who says you can’t leave Tokyo? Who says you have to stay a whore?”

“My contract and a million other things.”

“A contract? Shit, that’s nothing.”

“See, it seems really easy to you… Nobody thinks about what I’d have to do to give up this life.” She raised a hand and began counting off points on her fingers. “I’d have to sneak out, move to a new town, leave all my friends and all the stuff I know… change my name, probably change the way I look… I’d have to learn a real job to support myself and actually work it… practice talking all correct, probably…” She laughed. “And you think it’s hard to deal with your boyfriend.”

“You’d think so too if you met him! Besides, I’d have to travel and go find him. And then what if I was right? What if he didn’t want to talk to me or see me or whatever? At least your thing would make your life better; I’d be maybe making things worse.”

With a slight laugh she acknowledged this to be true. “But the point is that you could.”

“So could you!” he countered. “You listed all that stuff, but all you really said was that it would be hard to leave. Maybe harder than me talking to him, sure, I’ll give you that, but you could do it.”

She tilted her chin upward and looked shrewdly down her nose at him. “Tell you what. Let’s make a deal. You go talk to him and find out how he really feels about you, and I’ll come with you and start a new life in Niigata.”

Sano gaped at her, at first unable to speak. Finally he managed, “You’re kidding.”

“No!”

“But… why…?”

Now the look she gave him was skeptically disdainful. “You think I want to stay like this forever?”

“No, but… going all the way to Niigata…” Sano scratched his head.

“‘Sas good a place as any, ain’t it?”

“Well… I guess…”

“So is it a deal?”

“I…” Sano’s mind had gone somewhat blank the moment she’d suggested he go look for Saitou, but now he had to think quickly and intensely. He couldn’t deny that he would like almost nothing in the world better than to see him again, but what would such a meeting entail? All he could think of was Saitou’s coldest tone, narrowed eyes, and most indifferent gesture as he wondered why Sano had come all this way for nothing. And yet… and yet… there was that small seed of uncertainty that had already existed, buried deep, even before this woman had started pouring water and sunshine on it. Was he sure he’d interpreted everything correctly? Was he sure he knew how Saitou felt about him? And wasn’t his uncertainty almost worse than the rejection he assumed would be the result of the proposed venture?

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a deal.”

***

Saitou turned toward the wall, pulling the crumpled blanket up to his hips. His breathing was returning to normal, the sweat cooling, and the haze receding, which meant the usual host of importunate thoughts was coming forward from the background — whence it had been hounding him all along — to hound him up close.

He’d stopped attempting to keep these thoughts away — the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret — because even if he put his hands over the spring, it welled up inexorably through his fingers. The result was that he felt defeated and ineffectual on a daily basis at his inability to control what went on in his own head, and then had to deal with the irritation and the puzzlement and the regret on top of that. And moments like this were the absolute worst.

“Hajime,” came Tokio’s soft voice from behind him.

Saitou pulled the blanket up farther and stared at the wall.

“Ha-a-ajime,” she called him again.

He ignored her as best he could. As if she hadn’t commanded plenty of his attention a few minutes ago.

She wasn’t having it, though. She crept sideways to press herself against him, and slid a delicate hand up over his arm around to his chest. “It’s funny,” she said into his ear, in that vague, airy way of hers. “You’ve always been distant when we made love, but lately you’re even worse. You’re just an empty, handsome shell. Your mind is a hundred miles away.”

Saitou had nothing to say to this; it was true enough.

“I wonder why that could be,” she went on, dragging out ‘wonder’ in a way that clearly stated, “Tell me, or else I’ll speculate. Aloud. At length.”

He wasn’t about to tell her, however. Masochistic this might be, since she didn’t threaten idly, but he didn’t care.

Once several moments had passed and it was evident he wouldn’t be admitting anything, “I suspect you’ve left your heart in Tokyo,” she said.

Saitou stifled a groan, but couldn’t quite restrain the accompanying sigh. It was a little ironic, considering what they’d just finished doing, how penetrating she was. Of course she’d managed to hit on the real answer on her first guess. And, as was often the case, she did it with an air of simultaneous absence and intensity that made it seem as if she were the one a hundred miles away and yet had never been more invested in anything in her life than she was in this — as if her interest were, in fact, being transmitted from a hundred miles away, like a discussion carried out by telegraph but without the stops and ungrammatical brevity.

“Funny thing, your heart,” she mused. “Some would say it doesn’t exist.” She chuckled her distracted-sounding laugh. “Especially that poor man who runs errands for you at the station. I know I’ve certainly never gotten at it.” She ran her fingertips up and down his arm, again as if waiting for him to add something to the thus far one-sided conversation.

Of course he didn’t. It wasn’t his responsibility to provide her with entertainment; Tokio was perfectly capable of finding alternate sources, and routinely did so when he was otherwise occupied. She would never have come bothering him if Sano had been here.

If Sano had been here…

“I wonder what it takes…” she went on eventually. “Since you are, in fact, very passionate, I believe you must love very well. Very skillfully. And I don’t just mean your skills in bed. I can get into your bed because of our legal bond, but what kind of person can get into that heart of yours?”

She always reminded him of the ‘legal bond’ at times like this, reveling (as much as someone like Tokio could ever revel in anything) in the fact that he had a sense of honor that wouldn’t allow him to deny his wife her marital dues.

“I think it must be someone a little older than you,” she speculated: “someone who’s had a chance to steady out like you have and who’s savvy and jaded like you; someone cool and calm who won’t annoy you.”

“Is there a point to this chatter?” Saitou wondered, prodded into impatient speech at last by this spectacularly inaccurate assessment.

“Well, let me know if I’m right…”

“Not even close.”

“I thought so,” she said. The complacence in her tone brought him to the irritating realization that she’d been baiting him with a false picture of what she thought his lover must be like; she knew him better than that. “You would prefer someone younger, whom you can order around, but probably not somebody who actually obeys all your orders; someone who still has something to learn, because you’d like to help; someone who enjoys life the way you can’t, but still knows what the world is really like; someone as passionate as you are, and probably just as stubborn.”

After a long silence, he had to admit with grudging admiration, “That’s about right.”

“The world’s a funny place,” she said thoughtfully and with half a sigh. “That someone like you exists somewhere, and then it turns out someone like him does too.”

She even knew it was a man. Why did he bother trying to hide anything from her?

“And yet you didn’t bring him here with you when you transferred…” Her voice was even more pensively musing than usual at this.

And that was the crux of the matter, wasn’t it? That there had been someone in the world for someone like him, and then, all of a sudden, there hadn’t been. Because evidently, despite all steadily growing impressions to the contrary, Saitou hadn’t been right for him.

“I offered,” he said, and didn’t bother to try hiding his bitterness; she would pick up on it anyway. “He refused. That was the end of it.”

“Perhaps he didn’t really like you.”

Resisting the urge to snarl, Saitou said tightly, “That was the conclusion I came to.” Not that Sano had said so, exactly… but he’d laughed when Saitou had offered to bring him here.

“You ‘came to that conclusion?'”

He grunted assent.

“That’s funny,” she said, and left it at that.

She let him steep for a few minutes in his frustrated disappointment, and then almost repeated her last phrase. “It’s funny…” She dragged out the word in a you really want to know what I have to say sort of way, then waited a moment in placid silence. Finally, “You have a tendency to run people’s lives,” she said. “I think I’m almost the only person you don’t expect to jump when you tell them to, and you still tried it for the first year we were married.”

Out of morbid curiosity as to what her point could possibly be, Saitou asked, “Why is that funny?”

“You didn’t insist on him coming with you, but you’re still thinking about him now.” How she could read so much from the motionless back turned toward her he could never tell; sometimes it was uncanny how much she knew without any evidence as to how she knew it. Occasionally the thought had crossed his mind that he should recruit her as a spy, but the gulf of attendant horror always swiftly drowned it.

“Funny,” she went on, “that you care so much about him, but wouldn’t insist.”

“I wasn’t about to force the idiot to do anything he didn’t want to do.”

“Of course not. So it’s lucky you have me around to take his place, isn’t it?”

The implication was clear: he might be thinking of someone else, but as long as he couldn’t physically produce that person, Tokio had free rein. No great surprise there.

He couldn’t help reflecting on this conversation the next day when she dragged him shopping. With Sano around, days off had seemed to have a purpose; he’d actually enjoyed being away from work. But here with Tokio, it was all boring errands and wondering (on good days) what was going on at the station or (on worse days) what was going on in Tokyo. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t just put in seven days a week and avoid all of this. Oh, wait, yes, he was: Tokio wouldn’t let him. If either of them had had another lover around, she would leave him alone, but as it was…

“Well?” she was wondering in her gentle tone that suggested she’d never been impatient or annoyed in her whole life.

“Go with the orange,” he replied absently. “The white doesn’t suit you.”

She smiled her thanks at the advice and turned back to the merchant.

Saitou also turned away, wanting to look anywhere but at the stall and fearing he must go insane if he had to pass judgment on one more set of options for his wife’s new kimono as if he in any way cared what she wore. And that was when he saw, some distance off coming up the crowded sidewalk in this direction… but it couldn’t be… Sano.

Outwardly, of course, Saitou remained as collected as ever — though he was glad Tokio was doing business just at that moment, as it provided a good excuse for him to be standing there still as stone — but inside he seethed with turmoil and confusion. What was Sano doing here? What would happen if they met? Why was Sano in Niigata in the first place? What could Saitou possibly say to him? What was Sano doing here? And who was that smart-looking woman walking next to him?

Sano was busy talking to the woman with that over-animation of his that simultaneously animated others — Saitou recognized it with painful precision — and evidently hadn’t noticed him yet. There didn’t have to be a confrontation. Saitou could turn and walk away right now and hope never to be tormented again by the unexpected sight of Sano with a beautiful woman on his arm. Or by the sight of Sano, period. Just a glimpse of him like this in a crowded market street did things to Saitou’s head and heart, and it would be better for all concerned if it simply didn’t happen again.

At that moment, as if on cue, Tokio appeared and took his arm, making some remark about the order she’d just placed. She couldn’t fail to note his rigidity, though, and the fixed stare he hadn’t yet managed to withdraw. “Hajime?” she wondered placidly. “What’s wrong?” She leaned slightly toward him, looking where he looked, and said, “Ohhh.” He could hear the calm smile in her next words, but the words themselves blurred as his attention strayed — for at that moment Sano noticed him.

Accident or coincidence, Saitou had thought, must be unlikely here. What business could Sano have in Niigata that didn’t involve Saitou — Sano, to whom ‘business’ generally meant ‘finding someone to buy him a drink?’ And yet the look on the boy’s ingenuous face now was so honestly shocked, it didn’t seem possible he’d been specifically looking for Saitou — because why, in that case, should he be shocked at seeing him? In any case, he and his woman formed a sort of mirror to Saitou and Tokio: standing still in the middle of the flow of sidewalk traffic, staring, each man evidently ignoring the words of his companion.

Perhaps Sano was simply here to show off this new ladyfriend of his. She was certainly pretty, and had a self-sufficient, down-to-earth air Saitou thought must appeal to the young man. And yet he didn’t believe he’d ever done anything to Sano to deserve such retribution, nor that Sano was capable of such deliberate cruelty.

“Who is that woman?” Tokio asked. Obviously she’d decided on who Sano was — actually, Saitou might well have told her without noticing, that and god knew what else, while he was distracted — and she thought the woman might be an acquaintance as well.

“I have no idea,” he said briefly.

“She’s very pretty,” Tokio remarked, then went on in a dreamy tone about the woman’s kimono, but Saitou was mostly ignoring her again. For Sano’s face had twisted and he was turning away. He didn’t seem terribly pleased at seeing Saitou, and evidently also thought they didn’t really have to talk just because they’d (almost) run into each other again. Maybe it truly was a coincidence.

Saitou found himself excessively relieved, and simultaneously overcome with fresh bitterness and disappointment. Of course it made sense that, if Sano had never cared about him and even had a new interest now, he might not be inclined to say a single word to Saitou… After all, outside of being lovers they’d practically been enemies… It made sense, but it hurt.

Now there seemed to be some sort of active discussion or even argument going on between Sano and his companion, and presently the latter broke away and turned. Moving purposefully through the others on the sidewalk, she made her way back the direction they’d previously been walking. Sano whirled, looked after her with an exclamation of some sort, then followed in what seemed to be a thick mixture of reluctance and anger.

“Oh, she’s coming over here,” Tokio observed unnecessarily.

The woman walked directly to Saitou and stopped, an intention that had been obvious from her determined expression. The latter disappeared entirely, however, behind a mask of suggestive playfulness as she looked up at him. He’d seen that practiced putting-on of coquetry before, and knew what it meant, but in this situation — at this time, in this place, and given who he assumed she was — it seemed so utterly incongruous and inexplicable that he was completely unprepared for what she said to him:

“Hello, handsome. You look so hot… how about a quick dip and something to eat?” And it wasn’t so much the words as the inflection that emphasized their secondary over their straightforward meaning.

“That sounds like fun,” Tokio smiled placidly. “Am I invited?” And the worst part was that she knew what she was saying just as well as the other woman did.

“Course you are, honey.” The woman flashed his wife a seductive smile. “Always a discount for pretty ladies on the side.”

Between the proposition out of nowhere and Tokio’s frank response, Saitou found himself at a loss for words. He probably appeared every bit as nonplussed as Sano did; the latter had caught up just in time to hear his friend’s unusual offer, and apparently was taken as much by surprise as Saitou was. Now, consciously avoiding meeting Saitou’s eyes, he took the last step forward to seize his woman by the arm and drag her away.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he demanded as they went. They were moving rapidly out of earshot, so Saitou only caught part of the woman’s response, and even less of Sano’s subsequent statement.

“Hey, if you ain’t gonna…your half…deal…don’t…mine.”

“…think…obvious…goddamn wife…”

Saitou didn’t really want to hear more, especially once the word ‘wife’ got involved. Let them have their little private, intimate conversation there with their heads so close together and Sano still gripping her arm like that. It didn’t matter what stupid game the idiot was playing, parading his sweetheart (or whatever she was) around here like this and sending her to flirt so clumsily with Saitou. He wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, he had to admit, it had been… nice… to see Sano again. Even if nothing good could come of it, even if it exacerbated his condition… a part of him was lighter for the encounter. Another part of him, the coldest and most pragmatic part, hoped it would be their last.

As he turned to leave, he found himself facing Tokio, who had evidently anticipated him and somehow gotten right into the path she knew he would tread. She had a gift for making herself seem to take up a good deal more space than she actually did, and he stopped after only a step, scowling at her.

“It’s funny,” she said in her softest, blandest tone, “the look on your face when you saw him. Well, really, it’s more funny that you’re walking away now, when you obviously desperately want to talk to him.”

“I don’t ‘desperately’ want to do anything,” he said stonily, “and there’s no reason for me to talk to him at all.”

“I think you’re wrong,” replied Tokio calmly. And then she just stared up at him with those wide eyes whose appearance of vacancy could fool anyone into thinking there was very little going on behind them. She did not intend to move. And pushing past or circumnavigating her would take so much more than just the relatively easy physical motion involved. How had he ever ended up married to someone like this?

He turned again and looked at Sano, who was still arguing with the unknown woman some distance off. Both seemed upset. Turning yet again toward Tokio, he found her unbreakable stance unchanged. When he faced Sano again, he found him coming toward him with that same expression of angry reluctance he’d worn before. Sano didn’t meet Saitou’s gaze, only stared defiantly at the ground as he drew up to him. There he stood solidly and said nothing.

Saitou wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, nor entirely sure he wanted to be, but when he glanced over his shoulder, Tokio just smiled at him. He found Sano having a similar experience — except that, instead of smiling, Sano’s woman glowered and gestured emphatically across the street. There a neat row of trees stood that might provide a bit of privacy for any two people wanting a personal conversation away from the market crowd. Assuming there were two such people around. And perhaps this was starting to make a little more sense.

Sano’s head swung around, and his eyes met Saitou’s for the first time. Scowling, he looked away again quickly, muttered something unintelligible, and headed off across the street. The scowl wasn’t his angry one, though; it was the I can’t see this ending well expression he used for unpleasant situations he couldn’t get out of. And if he was that averse to talking to Saitou, he could damn well just… but, no, Tokio still stood there smiling benignly; Saitou had no choice either. With a sigh he crossed the street after Sano.

Behind a tree that didn’t really hide them from most people’s sight but that they could at least pretend did, they stared at each other for a long moment without a word. And finally Saitou said, “It seems I’m not the only one plagued by helpful women.”

Sano laughed sardonically. “So’s that your wife?”

“Yes.”

“She’s hot.”

Saitou snorted, and another long silence fell. Knowing Tokio wouldn’t allow him to leave for a while yet, he eventually forced himself to ask, “What are you doing here?” And he was surprised, after all the effort it took to get started with the question, how excessively easy it was to continue and finish.

“I…” Sano’s voice dropped so that his words were nearly inaudible; Saitou caught them, however: “I was looking for you.”

Saitou’s heart had been beating a little faster than usual ever since the moment he’d set eyes on Sano, and now, hearing this, it fluttered abruptly and alarmingly. “Why?”

Standing stiff and motionless, looking away, Sano took a deep breath. “I made this deal…” he began. “See that woman over… Well, ever since… I mean, I wanted to…” With each new abortive phrase he sounded less uncertain and more irritated. “I guess I can keep acting like a fucking idiot,” he murmured gruffly, “or just fucking ask you and get it over with.”

As no question was immediately forthcoming, “So you wanted to ask me something…?” Saitou prompted.

“Yeah, she was getting on my case for never… But, I mean, you could have told me sometime without me having to… one way or the other…” Abruptly Sano turned his face toward Saitou and looked him straight in the eye, his fists clenching as if for a fight. The idiot was always ready for a fight, even in the middle of a scene like this. Whatever kind of scene this was. He managed to get his question out fairly levelly, though: “What exactly do I mean to you?”

The heart that had hastened unduly now seemed ready to stop beating. After so many weeks of separation, after so emphatically denying what Saitou wanted and parting with him so cavalierly, was Sano really here — could he really be here, now, asking a question like this? Saitou found his own voice surprisingly, disturbingly subdued as he said, “You came all the way here to ask me that?”

“Yeah.” Sano’s tone was similarly soft, almost a whisper. And his answer to this question, Saitou thought, also provided an answer to another Saitou could have asked, had he been inclined to wonder. Sano added a little more strongly, “And I want the truth, Saitou.”

“When have I ever lied to you?” Saitou’s smirk struck him as very weak and somewhat out of place at the moment.

“Um, whenever you fucking felt like it?” It was the same glare as always, wonderfully hot and direct; but there was a look of desperation to it as well that demanded the truth in more forceful terms even than Sano’s words had. Not that Saitou could possibly want to play with him at the moment — not when Sano’s mere, unexpected presence had already brought more lightness into Saitou’s day, whatever had been going on with that woman notwithstanding, than anything had since the transfer. Not when he might have a chance to get back what he’d let go, to return to the happiness he’d had and lost.

“What impression have you been under all along?” he wondered quietly.

“That I was just convenient sex,” replied Sano, flat and equally quiet, looking away again as if he couldn’t bear to meet Saitou’s eyes as he said it, in case it might be true.

And suddenly everything made sense.

“No.” It came out as something of a horrified whisper. “I…” Saitou took a deep breath, and said what he realized now he should have said back then — said every day — and the lack of which had come so close to costing him everything. “I love you.”

Sano’s head snapped back around, his face going white, and it seemed he postponed inhaling for an unnaturally long span. Then, in a flash, he had flung himself at Saitou and was kissing him for all he was worth — which, Saitou was inclined to think, was a good deal more than he had ever realized.

“Well, that’s about done it,” said one woman, coming to stand by the other and join her in looking across the street.

“I believe so,” the other smiled.

“And all it took was some basic communication,” the first said, somewhat exasperated. “Dunno what men find so damn hard about that.”

“Some men think they’re safer if they defend everything like a secret,” said the second.

“I think we’ll need to keep an eye on ’em still for a while,” the first frowned. “I can totally see them turning around and doing the same thing to each other again if we don’t.”

“You may be right,” said the second woman. She looked around, and added pensively, “I’m hungry. Shall we discuss it over lunch?”

The first woman agreed gladly. Introductions ensued, and two new friends — or perhaps co-conspirators, or even business partners — walked off arm in arm.


I’ve rated this story . The idea was kicking around for literally years before I actually wrote it. I think it’s pretty sweet. Also, you know Tokio and that ex-prostitute are going to hook up now. Maybe I should write a story about them

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


The Eyes in the Mirror

Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

Days keep slipping by while Heero, who desperately wants to step up his relationship with Duo, the taxi driver that always takes him to work, continually puts off confessing that he likes him.



Monday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab almost fifteen minutes later than his usual time, shook off and half-closed his umbrella, and tossed his briefcase onto the empty beige seat beside him with what would have been a grumble, or perhaps a sigh, if he’d given it any volume. Despite the relative subtlety of this expression and the complete muting by the rain of any sound he might inadvertently have let escape his lips, Duo, of course, noticed his mood.

“Moving a little slow today?” he said cheerfully, throwing an understanding grin over his shoulder from the driver’s seat. Only someone that knew Heero well enough to read the signs of his discontent would have been able to guess at its cause… Duo had driven Heero to work almost every day for the past few months, and had learned to read the signs earlier than most people.

“Yes.” Heero gave him a hard look, though not necessarily an angry one. He was irritated, but only at himself for getting off to such a late start; he supposed there probably were circumstances under which he could be angry at Duo… but he hadn’t found any yet.

Duo’s grin widened as he glanced back the other direction and pulled away from the curb. “You’re my third fare of the day who’s been running late. The first guy’s basement flooded, and then this lady told me an awesome story about her kid taking his diaper off and putting it all over his room, and she had to clean it up before she could leave for work.” He chuckled. “Think your excuse can top theirs?”

“No.” There was a touch of surliness to this answer, since Heero would much rather have had such an excuse, unpleasant as either situation would have been to deal with, than the infinitely weaker ‘couldn’t get to sleep for hours and then didn’t hear the alarm once sleep finally came.’ However, he found himself, for some reason, explaining this to Duo despite its lameness.

“Well, I think this is the first time I remember you coming down late,” the driver answered him in an easy, reassuring tone. “Nobody can be on time every day. I mean, me, the earlier I get up, the later I’m likely to be. If I have to be to class at eight and I get up at six, I’ll be late; but if I get up at seven fifteen I’m fine.”

At this Heero couldn’t help smiling a little; if he’d had to guess what Duo’s morning routine was like — and he spent more time guessing about Duo’s personal life in general than Duo probably had any idea — this would certainly have been part of it. He could easily picture Duo snooze-buttoning himself into rising five minutes before he needed to leave, then getting ready in forty-five seconds and showing up to work as dapper as usual.

Except for… “How long does your braid take?” The words were out of his mouth almost before he’d even fully formed the question, long before he’d consciously decided to ask it. That sort of thing happened a lot in Duo’s cab; Heero was almost used to it.

Duo shrugged. “A minute? Two minutes? Maybe?”

Heero raised a brow at the indigo eyes in the rear-view mirror. “I don’t believe you,” he said, and noticed, as he often did, how serious his voice sounded — as if he were denying, rather than the length of time Duo claimed it took to do his hair, the possibility of a heinous crime he knew Duo incapable of committing, or the likelihood of some hideous natural disaster he would rather not believe had happened. No wonder they kept him off the phones at work.

Duo, however, far from objecting to Heero’s incongruously dire tone, seemed inclined rather to build on it. “I swear it’s true, your honor!” he protested, the edge of his face that Heero could see wrinkling in amusement as he squeaked out this appeal. “Don’t send me back to jail!”

“All right,” Heero answered, “I’ll let you off this time.” And though he still sounded unnecessarily serious, the slight grin that had taken hold of his mouth almost in spite of himself added a touch of warmth to his tone that he was sure Duo would pick up on.

“Seriously, though,” Duo went on, “it doesn’t take very long: pull it out, brush it, put it back in.” With a facetiously rakish expression that was discernable even from this angle he added, “It’s not like I have to spend forever in the bathroom to look fabulous.”

Heero pursed his lips against the response he was tempted to make — to wit, that he had no doubt this was the case. Fortunately, he was saved the trouble of coming up with an innocuous response when Duo turned a corner rather sharply and noticed Heero reeling a bit behind him.

“Seat belt!” the driver commanded, and Heero dutifully complied. Duo watched him in the mirror, eyes narrowed and jaw jutting out in an exaggerated expression of authoritative determination, until something on the road drew his gaze to where it probably should have been all along.

Heero was never quite sure whether he should worry when Duo looked at him rather than traffic, as he did rather value his life… but he certainly couldn’t complain if Duo wanted to look at him — even if it was only to be sure he was donning his seat belt as commanded — and Duo did have a remarkable talent for weaving through the lanes and avoiding other vehicles that often made Heero wonder vaguely if, with coordination like that, he might not be a very good dancer. So it was unlikely that Heero would protest until Duo actually wrecked them — and even that Heero might overlook, provided the circumstance was resultant upon Duo fixing him with that unexpectedly firm gaze in the mirror or half-turning to say something adorable over his shoulder.

Yeah, Heero had it pretty bad.

When Duo’s attention returned to him, both face and voice were companionable once again. “So are we still going to hang out on Friday?”

To Heero this was a somewhat awkward question, since his reply, “If you’re free,” was not what he actually wanted to say. He wasn’t really given to blushing, but he did busy himself with shaking the rain off his umbrella onto the floor beside his feet so as to avoid, just for the moment, meeting the eyes in the mirror.

“Only if you promise not to stand me up again,” Duo said.

Truly, obviously, Duo had no idea. ‘Stand me up’ was such a date term. And Friday’s arrangement — their second attempt, after last Friday’s cancellation on Heero’s part thanks to the demands of overtime, to turn the customer-client relationship into something more — was definitely not a date. Sure, they’d discussed a restaurant and renting something they’d both missed while it was in theaters, but just because the resulting plan was ‘dinner and a movie’ didn’t mean it was a date. No matter how much Heero wanted it to be.

“Not this time,” he promised. “I told them I wouldn’t be working any overtime this week.”

Duo winced theatrically, amusement sparkling in his eyes. “If you told them with that face, I’m not worried!”

“What face?” Heero wondered, resisting the impulse to raise a hand to the area in question to attempt ascertaining with fingers the answer to his.

“That face where if you said, ‘I told them I wouldn’t be on the planet this week,’ I would totally believe you,” Duo chuckled. “And so would they. Man, when you get serious, you really get serious! You should ask for a raise with that face. I mean tell them you want a raise with that face. Or tell my boss I want a raise with that face.”

Heero laughed. This happened occasionally in Duo’s cab; he was almost used to that too. He did have to wonder, though, whether, if the driver had watched his face enough to know it so well, Duo had really never suspected…

Well, Heero reflected, his face probably wouldn’t show it. He wasn’t exactly a stereotypical gay man. The fact that he didn’t think he’d ever actually met a stereotypical gay man didn’t negate his belief in their existence, since his social circle — so called — was not wide enough to encompass any other gay men, and therefore he had no living model besides himself to compare with the mythos of television. But he hoped he was able to perceive the status he claimed for himself in others, if it existed — at the very least in someone he’d watched carefully — and he hadn’t yet observed any symptoms in Duo. And evidently Duo didn’t recognize it in him, either.

Which was why Friday’s meeting wouldn’t be a date.

…unless Heero managed to establish it as such before the time in question, and Duo accepted the arrangement — the chances of which seemed at the moment to range from slim to none, given that Heero hadn’t been able to bring himself yet to confess his crush and Duo probably wouldn’t be interested even if or when he did. Would probably, in fact, become uncomfortable, and would stop showing up conveniently outside Heero’s apartment at 7:45 every morning knowing he was guaranteed a fare that at least up until that point he’d seemed to enjoy talking to. That’s what Heero thought he would do in a similar situation, anyway.

“So Friday…” He began this phrase in the hope of tricking himself into finishing it without realizing. Generally he didn’t speak impetuously or lose control of what he was saying, but the moment he was in Duo’s cab he had a tendency to blurt things out spontaneously — which might lead, if he timed it correctly, to his saying exactly what he wanted to say and hadn’t yet been able to. His ingrained reticence and reluctance to emotional commitment won out over Duo’s influence, however, and he found himself unable to proceed.

“Yeah?” Duo wondered.

With an effort Heero forced out, “I’ll get that movie.”

“Cool.”

They were approaching the office now, so it wasn’t really the right time for a conversation beginning with an unprecedented declaration of gay admiration. He would prefer to have a little more leisure to discuss it, and be more adequately braced for possible rejection, in any case. Still, it wasn’t with a great amount of hope, as Duo swiped his card and then bid him a friendly farewell, that Heero reflected, Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab with every intention of getting the big question out before they reached the interstate. He’d spent breakfast working himself up to it, considering variants of phraseology on his part and possible responses on Duo’s as well as what he would say and do if Duo utterly rejected him. However, he was completely distracted from his purpose, as he pulled the door shut, by the heartily bizarre greeting from the driver: “Welcome to my dog!”

“What?” wondered Heero blankly.

“Oh, in the book I’ve been reading…” Duo began as he inserted the taxi smoothly into traffic.

“The same one?” Heero guessed.

In response to the slight skepticism in the query Duo just laughed. He’d been working on this particular book for almost two months now, if Heero was remembering correctly, ever since a class he’d been taking had studied excerpts and gotten him interested. “Well, it’s, like, a thousand pages,” he reminded Heero, without even a trace of shame at taking so long or at the subsequent admission, “and some parts of it are really boring.”

Heero restrained his head-shake. Duo was so enthusiastic about things — about life in general, it seemed — that even in something he did purely for recreation he enjoyed a challenge. Heero couldn’t help but admire the intensity as well as the intelligence that fitted Duo for such a pursuit… For any thousand-page book he wasn’t required to read that didn’t entirely hold his interest, Heero didn’t think he would have the fortitude.

It wasn’t that he objected to a challenge… just not when he was trying to relax. Maybe that was why he found it so difficult to relax most of the time: it was too damn challenging, so he avoided it. As if that made sense at all. Duo obviously had no such problem. Still, Heero might not necessarily want to be like that… but he definitely knew he wanted to be with that. There was about Duo an almost uncanny air of ease and simultaneous boundless energy that was somehow galvanizing and restful at the same time.

“Anyway,” Duo continued, “I got to this part last night where they called a dog a ‘cab’ — part of this thieves’ dialect-thing that was really interesting for almost the whole time the author went on and on about it — and it made me think I should name my car ‘Spot’ or something. It’s got those checkers on it; I think it’d make a good ‘Spot.'”

Heero had considered, on occasion, bringing with him on his taxi rides a little notebook in which to document the number of times Duo made him smile unexpectedly. “Do people name their dogs ‘Spot’ anymore?”

“Well, it needs to be a name people know is a dog’s name, or else the joke won’t work.”

“I think your ‘joke’ is a little too obscure for it to matter.” God, would he ever be able to respond to Duo’s carefree conversation with matching lightness, or was he doomed forever to this overly-serious tone? He struggled for greater levity of expression as he added, “You might as well choose a name you like better than ‘Spot.'”

As usual, Duo didn’t seem to mind Heero’s solemn tone; eyes crinkling with his pleased expression, he looked at his passenger in the mirror and said, “Well, and it’s a translation, too, so I guess that makes it even more obscure. We didn’t read this part in class, so I don’t even know if ‘cab’ was actually the word they used — so maybe the joke doesn’t even really work. Someday I’ll try the original and find out… but my French isn’t good enough for that yet, so I’m sticking with the English version for now.”

Had Heero been a more flirtatious man, or one possessed of easier powers of socialization — or, possibly, even just a bit more surety of his success in the present case — he might have tested on Duo the only French phrase he knew: asked for a translation in all innocence, or simply thrown it out as the admitted extent of his conversance, and gauged the reaction. As it was, he kept his voulez-vous coucher avec moi to himself. That, and admired Duo’s inclination and ability to learn a foreign language at all — something Heero had never managed. Unless programming jargon counted.

Heero had been fortunate enough to complete an accredited technical training program just out of high school on a grant, and had been making decent money in a relatively stable career field ever since. Duo, on the other hand — as far as Heero understood based on their conversations up until this point — had been painstakingly working his way through a four-year degree at the local college for the last decade, paying every penny of tuition himself by driving cabs and waiting tables. Heero, while not thinking of himself as overly transient in his interests or pursuits, couldn’t help looking up to that kind of long-term determination.

And now, as Duo inquired whether Heero had finished ‘that train robbery book’ (the most recent novel he had mentioned reading), there really was no way to introduce the topic Heero had entered the taxi determined to bring up; it would seem too jarring against the clever joviality of Duo’s book talk. Heero could only hope that they were not like that as well: too different ever to mesh, and in more ways than mere orientation (which information neither possessed, currently, about the other to any degree beyond assumption).

Heero knew perfectly well that he was gloomy and far too serious… or, at the very least, too outwardly serious for his own good. It made other people take him seriously, which was to his advantage, but it didn’t necessarily make anyone like him. And Duo was so cheerful… Still, Heero thought he had noticed — only a few times during their acquaintance, since taxi drives to work, however consistent, rarely afforded occasion for such — a deeply shadowed side to Duo’s vehemence of personality with which he thought he could readily identify. There was a well-rounded awareness of the often painful realities of life under that attractive grin; Duo simply chose to be cheerful on top of it.

The facts that they could probably connect on that level, that Duo’s sanguinity so often increased Heero’s, and that Duo didn’t seem to be bothered by Heero’s lack in the first place, surely made them perfectly suited for each other. Heero certainly saw it that way… but would Duo?

So the question went unasked that day as well; instead they discussed Michael Crichton until pulling up at the office and parting.

Wednesday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab already on the phone. It was never a good sign when his work day started before he’d even left the apartment, and Duo apparently agreed; as the latter moved them out into the street, evidently realizing this was a business call, his face took on first a look of sympathy and then a dramatic expression of suffering and despair.

It was a statement almost never made of Heero that he could not keep countenance, but, as he explained the details of the current project (admittedly somewhat complicated) to his coworker, and Duo began responding to everything he said with increasingly exaggerated feigned misery, rarely if ever watching his driving, it grew more and more difficult not to laugh out loud.

It got so bad that Relena finally asked, “Is something wrong?” She’d probably never heard him smile over the phone before.

“No,” Heero assured her, tearing his eyes away from those in the mirror with some effort and smoothing over his grin. “But if you’re in the area this afternoon, I’ll talk to you then. Just make sure you call us if you do hear from him.”

She assured him that she would and said goodbye.

Almost before the call had even ended, Heero had again sought out the gaze of the taxi driver, who grinned unrepentantly at him. “Good thing I don’t charge for the entertainment!” said Duo, laughing at himself. “Good morning! Now that you’re done sweet-talking your girlfriend.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” Heero shook his head at the idea as he snapped his phone shut and put it back into his briefcase. Then, in one of those disturbingly unguarded bursts of madness that Duo’s cab seemed so often to induce, he added, “I don’t date women.”

He felt the blood drain from his face and then return in a rush for an honest-to-goodness, hot-burning blush. Why the hell had he said that?? He could have explained the situation in so many other ways — ‘She’s seeing someone;’ ‘We’re just friends;’ ‘I’m not interested in her’ — all of them perfectly true and all of them a good deal less burst-out-of-the-closet-from-nowhere startling.

But all Duo said was, “Oh! That makes a difference, doesn’t it?” And while he did appear a little surprised, it faded quickly and was neither accompanied nor followed by any look of disapproval. Heero thought, though, in a stiff fit of ragingly awkward, conflicting feelings, that the driver’s eyes were turned away from the mirror a good deal more than usual throughout the rest of the journey.

Obviously the latter could no longer reasonably hope to contain the specific conversation Heero had wished it would. As a matter of fact, he almost felt like jumping out of the cab and walking the rest of the way from the next light, melodrama level of that gesture notwithstanding.

It was not heartening that he felt this way about a fairly smooth admission of homosexuality that could only bring him closer to his goal. The statement had, for all its serious tone, had the kind of unassuming, personal, yet not indelicate sound he would precisely have wished for… a sound he doubted he could conjure anywhere but here or probably to anyone but Duo, if he could come up with it at all. If this relatively well-delivered and well-received confession was attended by so much embarassment and confusion, what hope on earth was there for his planned ‘let’s-make-this-a-date‘ speech?

That this was really a fortuitous event he kept telling himself with all the firmness he could command. This meant one thing fewer to worry about getting off his chest; maybe it would make the asking easier. And wasn’t it a good sign that Duo hadn’t freaked out? Now he had merely to propose casually that they rename the get-together on Friday, no preamble required. It would no longer be a surprise on top of another surprise; the two shocks were divided conveniently onto separate days. Surely this was a good thing.

So he kept telling himself.

And yet he wished he could fall through the seat and into the road like one of those superheroes that went intangible at will.

He was hardly aware of a word they spoke during the remainder of that drive. Duo, after a minute or so of silence, reverted to that completely harmless conversational staple of his, amusing anecdotes about anonymous passengers — but Heero would certainly not remember any of them later. As usual when this subject arose, he did wonder vaguely and somewhat dejectedly whether he might not be the hero of any of these stories when someone else was in the back seat, but for once Duo’s pleasant cabbie chatter could not wholly engross him. Staring out the window, uncertain whether or not he was still blushing, he tried to make for his agitation a sort of balm out of the wordless sound of Duo’s voice that was all he could hear behind the noise of his reflections. He thought he gave noncommittal interjections occasionally, too.

By the time they reached the office, Heero had straightened his head out somewhat. Whether he actually believed it or not, he was ready at least to believe that this had been a step forward, and he was fairly sure the usual tan of his face had returned. And at least his expression (as far as he could tell) hadn’t changed this entire time to betray his embarassment and turmoil. There was something to be said for stoicism.

His emotions were still rather augmented, but hadn’t really changed. So, although he didn’t exactly expect it, the half-hopeful, half-painful throb his heart gave when Duo smiled at him as he said goodbye didn’t really surprise him.

Thursday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab somewhat damp, as it was raining rather torrentially today; even with an umbrella, just the walk from the apartment lobby doors to the curb could not but discomfort.

“Good morning,” he said.

…there was another thing Duo’s cab did to him: made him offer a greeting (to Duo) before he’d been greeted. Which only happened occasionally, since Duo pretty consistently got to it first.

Through vigorous repetition of all the positive thoughts he’d tentatively entertained yesterday, Heero had come to grips with his inadvertent confession and was relatively calm. Whether he was at all ready to ask Duo about tomorrow was an entirely different story, but he thought he could at least converse with some degree of normalcy.

Duo, on the other hand, seemed out of sorts. His good morning was lethargic, and he yawned expansively before pulling out into the street. The eyes in the mirror looked tired, the planes beneath them unusually dark, the friendly opening comments that usually accompanied their gaze markedly absent.

After a few minutes of pathetic silence Heero wondered, “Not feeling well?” Here was where the austere tone did him the most disservice: there was no way he could sound concerned with that voice. He could only hope Duo would read his sincerity some other way.

The driver threw a rueful smile over his shoulder. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Heero replied, and stifled a sigh at how stiff and purely conventional it sounded.

“Thanks,” said Duo. His smile, visible in the mirror as he tilted his chin up to get a clear look at the right lane, widened into something more like his usual transmittable grin; this comforted Heero a little for his inability to express himself the way he wished to… he wasn’t sure whether it was merely Duo’s professionalism that led him to act as if he didn’t care about Heero’s social deficiencies, or whether he truly didn’t mind — and this lack of certainty was a large part of why Heero was so reluctant to speak — but it was comforting. Even when he was sick or tired or both and not inclined to converse, Duo was a wonderful person to have around.

Whatever the case was, Heero forced himself to say something else to reiterate (perhaps to prove) his genuine sympathy. “I sometimes unexpectedly get insomnia, and I hate it. And I don’t even go to school,” he added, considering how that would complicate things.

Duo nodded, his expression still weary and rueful.

“Does it happen to you often?” Heero persisted.

“No,” answered Duo. “No, not very often.”

“Well, that’s good, at least.” And Heero could think of nothing more to say. Well, he could think of plenty to say; he just doubted his ability to say it naturally enough that it wouldn’t sound somewhat creepy. One didn’t suggest a certain type of pajamas and a glass of warm milk to one’s taxi driver unless one was a good deal smoother or outwardly friendlier than Heero was. Or just a little closer to said driver.

Which brought him uncomfortably hard up against the very solid and unpleasant reflection that perhaps it would be unwise, even unkind, to attempt a transition from business associates straight to guys that are dating without even a nominal stop at friends.

How well did he know Duo, really? How well could he expect Duo to know him at this point? Was it really such a good idea to try to initiate a more romantic relationship without finding out? And wouldn’t he be putting an awful lot of pressure on Duo by asking him to take that step without giving him the chance to get to know Heero under less businesslike circumstances than these taxi rides to work?

He didn’t know. How did most people go about this sort of thing? Maybe Duo would just provide some reasonable contingency involving a forerunning period of friendship. Heero could accept that. It would drive him crazy — closer even than the current arrangement, yet still not what he wanted — but he could accept it.

It was stupid, though, even to contemplate Duo’s specific response to the idea of dating him without knowing how Duo felt about dating other males in general. What was the latest word on population percentages? Two out of a hundred American men identified as gay? Seriously, what were the chances that out of, say, the hundred men on this stretch of interstate right now, the two gay ones were sitting in the same taxi?

Heero wasn’t the type to shy — for long — from something he was reluctant to do… he knew he would confess, he would ask, at some point. But it certainly wasn’t going to be today, and it might very well not be tomorrow either. Duo’s mood made it utterly impossible today, and tomorrow… well, he simply wasn’t sure it simply wasn’t too early for all of this.

There were moments in this cab, however, when he felt he could spill out all the words requisite to forming the confession and ensuing question, if not necessarily in perfect order, at least in some semblance of coherency. At these moments he really had no idea what was holding him back, and his agitation was extreme. He was fairly certain it still didn’t show in his face or sound in his voice if he happened to speak just then — and it might have been better if it had — but these were some of the most discommodious moments of any time spent with Duo. And this was definitely one of them.

It was not an entirely silent trip following the brief opening exchange; even through the bleak mood that had gripped him in his exhaustion Duo still had an apparently unquenchable urge to say certain things that came to mind. It was clear, however, that he was not inclined toward ongoing conversation, nor in the best humor with the rest of the world; he grumbled a few fairly rude comments in apostrophe at other drivers on the road — which comments were nothing unusual in themselves, only rendered so by the lack of the cheery volume and forgiving affability that generally accompanied them. He wasn’t exactly unpleasant to Heero, but the atmosphere remained far from what it normally was.

Still, he did make a visible effort at smiling and rendering his goodbye pleasant when Heero had paid and was readying his umbrella. “Have a good one,” Duo bade him wearily.

“You too,” replied Heero, and hesitated. After a surreptitiously heavy breath he added, “I hope you feel better. Get some sleep.”

Duo’s smile deepened, and just that was worth the effort of the extra, personal words. “Thanks,” he said sincerely.

Heero smiled a bit too, and got out of the cab.

Friday

Heero slid into Duo’s cab in a state of almost frantically desperate determination he seldom reached, knowing today was the day if any was. Yesterday’s doubts hadn’t made any significant difference to his overall resolve; he’d decided to try it today, if he could. For one thing, he thought it more than likely that he couldn’t, and therefore saw no reason to put it off since it would probably be put off for him anyway. For another… well… he really, really liked Duo, and didn’t want to turn him into a distant courtly love. Heero wasn’t the happiest person in the world, but simultaneously had little patience for that sort of counterproductive self-pitying lethargy.

Duo’s wonderfully cheerful, amusing, enticing demeanor was back in place today in full force. Before Heero could even begin to think how to work the discussion around to what he wanted to talk about, he found himself engrossed in some topic that with anyone else would have been utterly dull but with Duo was funny and interesting — yard work and gardening, he thought. He was afraid he was an even worse conversational companion than usual, though, since his mind was on such a different track. Duo, as always, didn’t seem to mind.

But that didn’t mean he didn’t notice. His eyes were fixed on Heero in the mirror more often than on most days, and with a curiosity he didn’t bother to disguise. Heero thought that some of the agitation might actually be showing for once; it was certainly growing moment by moment — or, rather, street by street as they drew closer and closer to their usual goal of Heero’s place of employ and watched his opportunity shrinking.

And then, with a splash in the gutter beside the curb and a tenfold increase of inner turbulence, they had arrived. Duo put the car in park and turned a smile on Heero as he always did. “So I’ll call you tonight after class and make sure–”

Heero cut him off. “About tonight.”

Duo tilted his head slightly, wordless, his smile undiminished.

“I was wondering.” He sounded like a goddamn robot, absolutely flat and emotionless. “I was wondering,” he said again, feeling a bit faint. Apparently ‘I was wondering’ wasn’t the right way to start, though, since no other words wanted to emerge thereafter. He tried a different approach. “I’ve had a…” No, that wasn’t it either. “I have a…”

Duo’s brows went up, though he was still smiling.

And that was what did it, really. Rather than appear incompetent — especially to someone he liked so much — rather than keep dithering like an idiot — or, worse, start actually stammering or stuttering — Heero would bear all the rejection in the world. “I’ve liked you for a long time,” he said, coolly, clearly, and with perfect calm. “And I wanted to know if we could possibly call tonight a date instead of just ‘hanging out.'”

There. There was an end of that. He didn’t know if he could speak ever again, but there, at least, was an end of that. Now Duo would let him down gently and drive off out of his life.

For a long moment Duo stared at him with no change in the unconcerned expression on his face. Finally he said, “Yeah, sure, I guess we could.”

Dumbfounded, certain his face had gone white and that he had quite possibly stopped breathing entirely, Heero sat frozen, staring back. After what seemed like forever in the steady beat of the rain and the windshield wipers and the noise of cars outside and the stunned silence within he managed, “‘Yeah, sure?’ Just like that?” And again with the level, serious tone. Not that the flabbergasted squeak in which these words would have emerged from many another person’s mouth was what he wanted… but it probably would have been better to convey just a little of the utter shock that had overtaken him at Duo’s response.

Duo’s smile turned sympathetic. “If it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t this calm about it on Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” Heero repeated. “When I…”

“Said that bit about not dating women? Yeah. I hadn’t even guessed! And I remembered on Monday you said ‘About Friday’ or something all hesitating…”

“You remember what I said on Monday,” Heero put in blankly.

“Well, unlike most people in this city, you say interesting things; I usually remember it. Anyway, on Wednesday I was pretty shocked, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it… I realized that you might want tonight to be a date and just hadn’t told me, and I didn’t really know…” He laughed a little helplessly. “I didn’t know what to do about that.”

“That’s why you were in a weird mood yesterday.”

“Yeah… sorry if I took it out on you… Wednesday wasn’t quite long enough to decide; it took me half of yesterday too.”

“And now…” This was really nothing like anything Heero had expected; he felt as if, in this conversation, he was largely along for the ride. How appropriate.

Duo shrugged. “I’ve had this thing in the back of my head for a while about whether or not I might like men, but it’s hard to decide that these days in this understanding country of ours.” He accompanied his airy tone with a casual wave of the hand, as if to indicate that this was a largely unrelated matter. “So since you’re an interesting guy, like I said, I figured you’re the perfect way to find out for sure.”

“I’m an interesting guy…” Heero’s voice trailed off into silence, probably a better indication of what he was feeling than anything he’d said to Duo all week.

“Yeah.” Duo grinned as he added, “Didn’t you know that?”

Heero saw no reason to try to fight off the infectiousness of that grin — though his own expression was more of a baffled half-smile. “No, not really.”

“You expected me to say no, didn’t you?” This was spoken a little more quietly than the previous statements, and the look in Duo’s eyes had softened a trifle.

Heero nodded.

Duo reached over the seat — which was awkward, yes, but neither of them really cared — and took Heero’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re a brave man, Heero Yuy,” he stated solemnly. It was absurd that even his deliberate solemnity couldn’t match Heero’s most casual tone.

Feeling suddenly warm all over and the beginnings of an overwhelming, adrenaline-withdrawal-like jittery joy, Heero held onto Duo’s hand for a moment and just smiled.

“So I really will call you when I’m out of class,” Duo went on, returning the pleased expression as he pulled his arm back over the seat, “and let you know I’m on my way. Don’t forget to rent that movie.”

“I won’t,” Heero assured him, pulling his briefcase onto his lap. As he opened it and reached for his wallet, Duo waved dismissively.

“This ride’s on me,” he said.

Afterward (Saturday)

Heero slid into Duo’s arms where they welcomed him onto the sofa in the midst of a nest of rumpled blankets. They’d been up so late last night after the movie, talking about nearly every subject under the sun until even the laconic Heero was hoarse and dry-throated, that Duo had opted to stay the night — chastely, on the couch in the living room, since (even if Heero had been) he really wasn’t ready for any more intimate arrangement just yet. Apparently he was ready for some small-scale cuddling, though, and Heero felt no reluctance whatsoever — felt, in fact, a clinging, overwhelming eagerness — at settling into the mess of spare bedding beside and against him and returning the half-embrace.

“Good morning,” Duo said, a charming half-grin quirking his mouth. He brought his face very close to Heero’s as the latter echoed the greeting; Heero could feel Duo’s breath warm against his skin, and his own respirations seemed to have gone all uneven and shallow as Duo’s eyes roved meticulously across his features and that adorable little grin faded into a more absent, contemplative smile. Then, abruptly, Duo pushed forward and kissed Heero briefly but firmly without closing his eyes.

“This gay stuff isn’t so hard,” he murmured as he drew back.

For a long moment Heero had no power to respond, and Duo’s traditional hearty grin blossomed beneath his amused, crinkling bright eyes.

Finally Heero said, “No, apparently it isn’t.” He didn’t even bother lamenting the serious tone now.

Duo raised a brow. “‘Apparently?’ You’re the experienced one here, aren’t you?”

Heero’s own brows went down slightly. “I’ve only ever dated a couple of guys before,” he admitted, feeling a little awkward and suddenly hoping Duo wasn’t anticipating all-encompassing expert knowledge from him. “And it was never very… physical.”

Nodding his understanding and giving no sign of disappointed expectations, Duo asked, “And women? Did you ever see any women before you realized?”

“A few,” said Heero with a shrug. “It was pretty much the same with them.”

Again Duo nodded. “Well…” Again he moved his parted lips and intoxicating breath toward Heero’s face, and again Heero’s own breath became almost embarassingly erratic. Before they touched, though, Duo finished his statement, “At least this part’s pretty easy.”

He kissed him harder this time, and with a sort of shifting, caressing pressure that was almost more exploratory than anything else. Heero, through the hot steam of indigo and tan and golden-brown that seemed to have overtaken his vision and blurred his thoughts, felt the entire universe narrow to the circumference of the space they occupied; everything more than an inch beyond the boundaries of their bodies ceased to exist, and even the forest-green couch cushions on which they sat and leant and the blankets tucked around them were dimming.

Duo’s left hand running slowly up and down his arm; Duo’s right hand on his back, fingers bending and unbending in a sort of small massage against his pajama shirt; Duo’s thigh, clad only in shorts he’d been wearing beneath his jeans last night, the smooth tanned flesh of a shapely leg intermittently visible through the parted folds of the blanket, flush against Heero’s, warm and firm; Duo’s lips pushing against his in incomprehensibly world-melting patterns — this was really all there was to anything… and all with the tacit promise of an exponentially greater level of intensity once Duo got his bearings.

Heero was not ready to stop kissing Duo when Duo pulled away, but neither was he for several moments in a sufficiently lucid state verbally to request a return of Duo’s lips to his. During those moments, Duo brought one hand near his face and spoke into an imaginary sound recorder in a stodgy, mustached accent. “March 20, 2010. Experiment Report. Test subject responding favorably to prolonged oral contact with minor peripheral stimulus. Scientist responding pretty well too. Propose increasing complexity of interaction, but not today since scientist has to be driving at 11:30 and has probably already been here too long.” By the time he reached the end of this little dissertation, his voice had worked its way back to its usual sound.

Heero, meanwhile, had regained his composure, vision, and (to some extent) clarity of thought, and had overcome the urge to push Duo down onto his back and jump on him. Instead, he just grinned in response to Duo’s performance and said, “We should schedule another experiment, in that case.”

“Well, do you want to play basketball with me on Wednesday?”

“Yes,” Heero found himself saying, almost before the precise nature of the invitation had actually registered. He had a feeling that his answer to ‘Do you want to [verb] with me?’ spoken by Duo would be an unmitigated ‘yes’ for an indeterminate period of time to come. Once the meaning of Duo’s words did sink in, though, he added, “But we can get together next Friday too, can’t we?”

Duo grinned; perhaps he could sense Heero’s keen interest in the proposal even through the inadvertent facade of solemnity, now that he was aware of Heero’s keen interest in general. And if that was the case, Heero thought, there really was no logical reason to try to abandon that facade for the rest of the world.

“We have all week to discuss it,” Duo said.

“Or put off discussing it,” Heero replied with a smile.

To judge by his expression, Duo — like Heero — already knew what conclusion they were most likely to come to.


This story was written for Sharon as part of the “Help Haiti” auction in 2010. I’ve rated it .

I don’t think the perspective is correct in that picture, but whatever… if I were worried about anything in it, it would be the less-than-perfectly-straight lines of seat and dashboard that I couldn’t be arsed to use a ruler for.

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


Unconventional Gift



Sano lost track of his laundry basket as he craned his neck to watch the car — he’d caught sight of it some-miraculous-how the moment it appeared at the stop light — pulling into the lot and then a parking space. The laundry room at the rear of his apartment building, which was on a slight rise, had a good view of the adjacent lot, but a few of the venerable wide-boled trees that dotted the landscape of the complex got in the way. Which was just as well, since Sano would really prefer that fewer people noticed him blatantly ogling his neighbor.

Though Sano wasn’t sure how much money there was to be made in undercover cop work or super spy work or whatever exactly kind of work the guy did, the fact that he lived in this relatively cheap apartment complex meant either he wasn’t rolling in the dough or he was on some kind of long-term ultra-secret assignment that required him to pose as a typical middle-class drudge. In any case, Sano thought he could afford a nicer car. Sure, that thing got good gas mileage, but it was so ugly.

Unlike the man himself.

Sano found himself holding onto the zippered edges of his sweatshirt hoodie, as if holding himself forcibly back from running to attack (in one way or another) the man now climbing the shallow sidewalk steps toward the building they both inhabited. It would be a pointless maneuver; Saitou wouldn’t even bother to knock him down — he’d just move out of the way to let Sano fall on his face, make some caustic comment, and keep walking. So Sano merely watched him, probably with the Stupidest Expression Ever on his face, until the apartment blocked his view of the sidewalk and, consequently, Saitou.

There was one moment before that inevitability, though, when Saitou turned a pointed gaze directly at him, and Sano shuddered. His upstairs neighbor had this way of looking at him — well, at anyone, he supposed; he wished it was just at him — that seemed to say, “I will kill you.” And Sano couldn’t blame him — it couldn’t be anything but annoying not to be able to walk from the car to the apartment without being stared at — but he knew it was a bluff. Saitou was far more likely to ignore him to death, these days, than to bother killing him any other way.

They’d come to blows several times during the odd circumstances under which they’d met in the first place — a rather complicated business involving a couple of Sano’s friends that had turned out to be based largely on misunderstanding — and Sano had always been distinctly, bloodily on the losing end. Saitou hadn’t laid a hand on him since then, but it made perfect sense that Sano couldn’t just let it go. Nobody beat him that decisively, let alone that dispassionately.

It might have been irrational to think the rematch he wanted would end any differently than any of the previous bouts, but wanting it was completely logical. So, he thought, was the subsequent transformation of his desire into something more curious than angry; he’d still craved the fight, but now more because he wanted to know the extent of Saitou’s abilities — not to mention how his own might improve in the process — than because he felt the need to take out his frustrations on the man… and that was quite understandable.

It was in retrospectively contemplating the next transformation that he lost the thread of logic. The first two attitudes made sense, but the final evolution — an interest in Saitou as something very different from a rival or sparring partner — seemed removed from them by a bottomless gulf of incongruity.

OK, well, given that he would still enjoy a good fist-fight with the guy for the previously mentioned reasons, he couldn’t even really say that particular desire had changed. It had just sprouted some kind of unexpected cancerous growth that turned out to be something like a mad crush. Or were they unrelated? It was all nonsense.

With a sigh that was almost angry, he cast about for his laundry. He’d dropped it, and the overloaded basket had fallen onto its side in a spill of dirty clothes. Gathering these up somewhat absently, he glanced once more toward the corner of the building behind which Saitou had disappeared. It might all be nonsense, but that wasn’t by any means a deterrent; Sano was whole-heartedly obsessing and disinclined to deny it. He’d accepted with relative equanimity, in fact, and wouldn’t have complained even merely to himself… if Saitou didn’t seem to have this obnoxious attitude of being entirely finished, case closed and paperwork filed, with Sano.

The latter spent more time than he would like to admit daydreaming… trying to come up with an ambiance romantic enough to force Saitou to stop thinking of him as the stupid neighbor kid that always wanted a fight and see him instead as… something more. Even a little more would help.

If, for instance, he were to sabotage the stairs up to Saitou’s door and then lie in wait for Saitou to come along and sprain his ankle, Sano could tenderly care for him until Saitou was all better, and during that time Saitou would surely realize… well, no, sprained ankles weren’t terribly romantic, and neither was what Saitou would probably do to Sano if he realized it had been a setup.

Along the same lines, some manner of mildly poisoned food or drink was similarly unromantic and likely to be more dangerous to Sano’s health than Saitou’s.

There was always the good old mail mixup… it was delivered here to unlocked boxes just inside the outer door; Sano potentially had access to that of all four of the apartments in the building. But, while it was an excuse to meet, that was not even remotely romantic… not to mention the fact that the meeting would last all of ten seconds anyway: Saitou would accept his letters, possibly make some disparaging comment on the state of the postal service, and close the door in Sano’s face.

Borrowing a cup of sugar was just stupid.

But what if Sano played his music really loud and then answered the door half naked when Saitou appeared to tell him irritably to turn it down? Sano could pretend to be drunk and horny, and… No. That was not romantic. That was pathetic. Why did so many of his ideas seem so blatantly to run the risk of making Saitou dangerously angry?

So apparently he was good at thinking up dumb situations, but his romantic sense needed work. But, hell, if he could just get Saitou to notice him — other than by demanding a fight, that is… not that Saitou was even willing to give him that… “That’s all behind us,” he always said, or some similar whitewash. “Why can’t you just drop it?” Obviously he didn’t realize how Sano’s attitude about it had changed, and Sano couldn’t figure out how to tell him.

Laundry was something he always put off for as long as practicality allowed, but he’d been lectured in the past about the rudeness of occupying both washing machines at once… so, rather than risk the wrath of the other tenants, although he had two loads’ worth of clothing, Sano got one of the washers going and then stood staring at the other, empty machine somewhat wistfully for a few moments while the first whirred noisily about its business. Then he wandered out of the detergent-scented humidity to the chillier outside air.

Tall and lean to the point of angularity wasn’t something Sano would have thought he might at some point find attractive, but there was something about Saitou’s form that had a devastating effect on Sano’s frame of mind. Maybe it was the awareness of what kind of musculature lay under the impeccably buttoned long sleeves despite the look of leanness. Or maybe it wasn’t so much the figure as the eyes, which stabbed into Sano like jolts of hot adrenaline… or the smirking lips so promising and expressive. Whatever it was, seeing all of these aspects suddenly just in front of him outside the laundry room door was enough to make Sano suck in a quick, surprised breath.

Saitou wasn’t here to do laundry. If Sano hadn’t immediately noticed, with the acumen that cleverly picks up on superlatively useless facts at moments like this, that the other man had no basket full of white button-ups and slacks not discernibly dirty but probably having been worn to work and back the requisite once — at least, this was what Sano assumed Saitou would bring to this location — the clenched fist aimed at his face would have been a fairly good indication that laundry was not on Saitou’s mind at the moment.

“The hell?” Sano demanded as he barely dodged the blow.

Saitou’s only response was an elbow to the side of Sano’s head. It didn’t crunch against his temple nearly as hard as he’d expected, which seemed to contradict the conclusion he’d tentatively reached that Saitou was tired of Sano staring at him like an idiot and had come to let him know.

His expression didn’t look angry at all, in fact, and Sano wasn’t sure how to react. Well, obviously, he’d already clenched his own fists and started throwing punches back — but emotionally it was a little confusing. Normally when somebody jumped him for no apparent reason he would be boiling over before knuckles even brushed his cheek, but wasn’t this exactly what he’d just been wishing for? So for the moment he decided simply to fight back as best he could and assume he would slip into the correct emotional state eventually.

It didn’t take long — five or six punches, two kicks, a good deal of ducking and weaving, and a few jabs from elbows, shoulders, and knees — to get things sorted out: whenever Saitou landed a hit, especially given that the bastard really didn’t fight fair, it was annoying as hell; whenever Sano caught sight of those intense golden eyes, it was dangerously, distractingly arousing; when he realized Saitou was actually prolonging the combat by restraining himself from laying Sano flat in a couple of moves, it was confusing — even if the impetus for this sudden spar hadn’t already been a mystery. But overall, it was fun. Sano’s blood raced, his entire being energized. He couldn’t begin to think what had pushed Saitou to this point, but he was damn well going to find out so he could make sure it happened again. Maybe this wasn’t the full extent of what he wanted from the other man, but it was good and it was a start.

The combination of a knee to the stomach and a hard fist to the jaw stole Sano’s breath and seemed to set off firecrackers behind his eyes; with a grunt he crumpled, his hands falling twitching away from any blow they might have thought to attempt in return. Unexpectedly, Saitou caught him firmly as he fell; it was the only thing firm in a world suddenly very wobbly and increasingly blurry around the edges. Bending quickly, his mouth close to Sano’s ear, he murmured, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

Sano was fairly sure his descent into unconsciousness was abetted by the shock of the words and their breath against his face, the realization of their implications, not to mention the glorious feeling of falling into Saitou’s arms. He had just time to reflect, as the blackness took him, that maybe he wasn’t the only one to have allowed a complete incapacity for romance to keep him from confessing something…

And that maybe that was just fine with him.



All right, an author’s anecdote almost entirely unrelated to the story here: once upon a time, over two decades ago, in a high school geometry class, the teacher used to play this CD of truly awful Christian pop during work time. And one of the songs on this album had a chorus that repeated ad nauseum the phrase, “Unconditional love.” So now, even so many freaking years later, every damn time I catch sight of this story’s title, I get that song stuck in my head. Or, rather, since that one main phrase is all I can remember of it, I get that stuck in my head — those two words over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. AAAARGH.

Anyway, I’ve rated this story .

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


Where the Love-Light Gleams

“…he’s got nobody to spend Christmas with… he pretends not to care, but you should hear him whining about the Christmas music on the radio…”

Saitou isn’t terribly pleased at the approach of Christmas and the winter break; Sano thinks he knows the reason and what to do about it.


“Well! I’m gonna fail my English class,” Sano announced as he shed his backpack, sat down heavily, and placed squarely in the center of the table his tray full of tacos.

Sano’s companion, immediately pushing the tray away from where it encroached upon his own lunch space, glanced up through spidery bangs and remarked, “You were already saying that before you took the final.”

“Yeah, well, now I know for sure. Stupid little mini essays…”

“You don’t seem terribly concerned.”

Sano shrugged. “It’s hard to be really worried about anything this close to break.”

With a scowl, Saitou returned to the task of applying mustard to his sandwich. “That attitude seems to be contagious, if my last class was any indication.”

Sano always observed Saitou’s lunch with some amusement. The older man seemed to have a stock of frozen sandwiches, comprised only of meat and cheese (which would be thawed by lunch time), onto which he would then put lettuce and tomato from a ziplock and mustard from a packet. What entertained Sano most about this was the mental image of Saitou at home painstakingly laying out the meat and cheese on twenty sandwiches at a time in order to freeze them to take to work every day. Sano had long since run out of energy to tease him about it, however, so today it didn’t interrupt their conversation. “I seriously can’t blame anyone for trying not to think about the kind of finals I’m sure you give,” he grinned as he unwrapped one of his tacos. “Taking one of your classes is probably about the same as suicide.”

“So you’ve theorized before,” Saitou replied — somewhat sourly, Sano thought.

“Well, I’ve just got one more final at 1:45,” the younger man said through a mouthful of spicy beef and lettuce, “and then I’m done! Then it’s home for Christmas!”

“Idiotic song.” It seemed at first that Saitou’s statement was an answer of some sort, and Sano blinked in confusion before he realized what he’d last said had overlaid the same words emanating in wavering, sonorous tones from the speakers above.

At these latter he glanced up pointlessly as he wondered, “Is it?” He hadn’t really been paying attention to the music.

“He says he’ll be home for Christmas,” the teacher elaborated in some irritation, “that whoever he’s talking to can plan on him being there. But at the end he admits it may only happen in his dreams. With as slowly as he’s singing, they might already have made all of their plans by the time he gets around to letting them know he may not actually come home.”

Sano chuckled. “You’re right,” he admitted; “seems pretty rude. Which reminds me I forgot to email my dad.”

“You mean,” Saitou wondered with exaggerated expression and tone of incredulity, “you haven’t mentioned your plans to him every day for the last two weeks?”

“I don’t talk to my dad every day,” retorted Sano. “And I’m excited to go home, OK? You know, since my dad can afford to eat more than, like, three times a week?”

Though Saitou’s monosyllabic laugh reiterated his attitude toward poor college students — especially, Sano was all too aware, poor college students that didn’t budget very well and spent half of the week’s food money on one day’s lunch at the cafeteria Taco Bell — still he seemed to be in a worse mood than usual. Was it just because of finals?

Even in retrospect, Sano was unsure what had prompted him, that cool day back in early September, to go sit down across the little table from what was obviously a teacher ousted from the faculty lounge by the construction then in progress. He was equally uncertain why said teacher had put up with him when a mere half hour’s conversation had evinced the man’s disliking of the human race in general and freshmen in particular. How it had then become a custom for the two of them to eat lunch together every weekday, exchanging news and insults and the occasional joke, was as much a mystery as the other points. Sano liked to think there was a subconscious and perhaps precognitive explanation for it, but always reminded himself firmly not to get his hopes too high.

Of course, his hopes had to have some sort of elevation today, given what he proposed to propose… and he feared that nearly an entire semester of repressing his optimism might be responsible for the complete unpreparedness he felt for the task.

All of a sudden Saitou rolled his eyes, the motion of the irises seeming very pointedly directed toward the ceiling (and therefore, presumably, the speakers therein and the music the latter were playing).

“What now?” Sano wondered, sucking on his drink.

“Why would any sane person want to be wished a ‘merry little Christmas’ like some kind of backwater idiot?” Saitou shook his head and finished with muttered disdain, “I’m surprised the song doesn’t use the word ‘y’all’ in it anywhere.”

Leaning his chin on his fist Sano replied with a grin, “Not much into making the Yuletide gay?”

Saitou just rolled his eyes again.

Then as silence fell but for the continuation, above their heads, of the song in question, Sano took a surreptitiously deep breath, working up his courage. Finally he said, as casually as he could manage, “Speaking of Christmas, I got you a present.”

This caused Saitou to look up from his meal rather abruptly. He expressed no surprise at the announcement, however, merely stared.

Sano tried not to let Saitou hear him clearing his throat as he bent and retrieved the wrapped package from his backpack. He wasn’t exactly heartened by Saitou’s immediate raising of an eyebrow as the object changed hands.

“It’s a tie,” Saitou said flatly. It wasn’t even a remotely inquiring tone; he wasn’t guessing.

“How the hell do you know that?” demanded Sano.

“Because you were as uncreative packaging it as you were selecting it.”

“Hey, it could be anything!” Sano didn’t want to admit that, being fully conscious of the possible implications of a present, he’d chosen as generic a gift as he thought would still be even the slightest bit meaningful. “Just because it’s about the size and shape of a box a tie comes in doesn’t mean…” But he trailed off as Saitou removed the wrapping paper and disclosed the tie within.

The eyebrow rose even higher as Saitou looked, and the expression of wordless incredulity now turned toward Sano bordered on the reproving. Finally Saitou demanded, “And what on earth makes you think I would be caught dead wearing something like this?”

Despite the premonition that his gift might provoke this precise reaction, Sano felt, in addition to a little crestfallen, the stirrings of irritation. “I swear every teacher here’s got a Christmas tie except you,” he explained. “You always wear those boring ones with diamonds or those little bent teardrops with shit all over them.”

“Nobody expects the Japanese teacher to wear a Christmas tie.” Saitou glanced again through the clear plastic at the chaos of candy canes that covered the article in question, rolled his eyes, and bent to stow the present away in his briefcase. Well, at least he hadn’t refused it outright.

Sano was about to protest that Christmas was celebrated in Japan as well, but stopped himself before he’d said a single word to that effect… it really would be too embarrassing if the discussion turned to the romantic nature of that particular holiday in that particular country. Instead, he continued to defend his choice. “Hey, at least I didn’t get you one with Santa or some shit on it, OK? I mean, I saw some pretty horrible and scary ones at the store. You should be thanking me for not getting you any of those.”

With a slight smirk that seemed to arise almost in spite of himself, Saitou shook his head and returned to his food. After a few moments he said grudgingly, “I suppose I should thank you for the thought, at least.” He didn’t actually thank Sano, but, really, that was close enough… and more than Sano had expected anyway.

Saitou usually brought vegetables to eat alongside his sandwich. As with the latter, Sano had long since run out of verbal ammunition to make fun of him for his elementary-school-healthy selections (and, since Saitou never ran out of ammunition, proper eating was a subject best avoided when Sano was having tacos). But he was tempted to dredge up some of the teasing statements he’d made back when he’d still been able to think of new ones, just because the silence was beginning to feel rather heavy. Logically he knew it wasn’t any more uncomfortable than any silence between them on any day, but it seemed worse because he still hadn’t managed to ask what he really wanted to ask.

He was on his last taco, still vacillating, and Saitou was finishing off his iced tea, when the teacher made his next comment. Predictably this was, “People who write Christmas music all seem to be morons.”

“Hey, I like this one,” protested Sano.

“‘Giddy-up, jingle-horse, pick up your feet,'” Saitou repeated in a drawn-out tone of utmost scorn, and Sano had to admit that the words sounded even stupider than usual in that dark, serious voice. “It might be less irritating if the idiot who wrote it had a basic grasp of the syntax of the original song.”

“OK, when you start using words like ‘syntax,'” Sano laughed, “that’s when I really stop caring.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot too,” Saitou muttered.

Sano didn’t bother getting annoyed at this insult (which was typical in any case), mostly because he thought he knew by now what really had Saitou so irritable — and was fairly certain it wasn’t the music itself. To test his hypothesis, he actually listened to the next song that came on, and voiced the first complaint about it that sprang to mind: “If he’d take off those blue suede shoes, I bet his Christmas wouldn’t be so blue.”

Saitou lifted an eyebrow in obvious disdain. This could merely have been a criticism of Sano’s powers of criticism, but Sano felt his theory was confirmed. “I just thought you could use some help in your Grinching,” he explained.

The eyebrow rose even higher, now in skepticism. “‘Grinching?'”

“Well, you’re all kinds of hating Christmas today.”

“I’m not hating Christmas,” Saitou contradicted. “I have no feelings one way or another about Christmas. It’s this stupid music I can’t stand.”

“And my present.”

The slight shift in Saitou’s expression interested Sano; he wasn’t quite sure he could pinpoint what exactly had changed, but somehow its annoyance stood out distinctly from the previous. “If you were going to waste money,” the teacher admonished, “you might as well have bought me something useful.”

“How the hell is a tie not useful?!”

“A tie I’m likely to drop off at Goodwill next week is–”

“You wouldn’t!” Sano scowled at the other man, pounding a fist onto the table so the remains of his lunch jumped. “I know you’re a jerk, but seriously.”

Saitou’s ambiguous answering smirk indicated he was slightly cheered. This didn’t last long, however, for the moment some incredibly obnoxious chorus of kids and a consequently very creepy-sounding adult singer burst out of the speakers with the beginnings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Saitou stood abruptly. “I need a cigarette,” was the only explanation or invitation he offered, leaving Sano to clear up the table and hasten after him as quickly as possible.

By now Sano definitely believed he knew exactly what was wrong, and also exactly how to handle it; the only remaining point of uncertainty was exactly how Saitou would respond. This resulted in a return of his nervousness as he continued to attempt to decide exactly how to word his statement. Heartened as he was by the apparent accuracy of his hypothesis, his state of encouragement had been largely canceled out by the extended response to his present. How the hell was he supposed to put this so it sounded appealing and casual and… not-stalkerish?

The issue, luckily, largely left his hands. As he joined Saitou in the frigid shadow of the building on the north side, snow crunching beneath his feet and his breath as visible as the smoke Saitou was already exhaling, his pocket gave a chirp indicating that the lack of signal inside had caused him to miss yet another call. Withdrawing his cell, he noted that this had actually been someone he wanted to talk to. Turning away from the teacher, who was watching him wordlessly, he called back. As he conversed, he couldn’t help being acutely aware of how the discussion must sound to someone that could only hear half of it:

“Hey, dad, what’s up? …nah, I just had no signal… …no, I got one more this afternoon… …pretty good, all except English, but I knew that would suck… …yep! So I’ll probably be there around three or four… …nah, I’m good… …hey… um, do you mind if I bring someone home with me? …no, not even a girl, actually; it’s a friend from school — well, sortof — actually he teaches here… …nah, he only teaches Japanese history and boring shit like that… …yeah, he is, and his family’s all still over there — and he hates them all anyway — so he’s got nobody to spend Christmas with… …no, he doesn’t have any except me, far as I can tell… he’s kindof an asshole… …nah, he pretends not to care, but you should hear him whining about the Christmas music on the radio… …no, no, you’ll like him… …really? OK, cool… …see you tomorrow, then… …yeah, bye.”

Snapping the cell phone shut, he replaced it in his pocket and took another subtly deep breath, bracing himself, before turning to face his companion. Saitou was staring at him with the same skepticism he’d displayed a couple of times already today, but now there was a touch of something else to it — curiosity, perhaps? Sano had spent a lot of time studying Saitou’s facial expressions since he’d met him, but feared it would take a good deal longer than a single semester — years, maybe — to understand them completely. And he refused to allow himself to believe there was some kind of pleased surprise in that look. Just in case.

“Well?” he asked, trying hard not to allow his tone to express his uncertainty. The precise interpretation of Saitou’s arrangement of features still eluded him, so Sano added, “Your last class is done by eleven tomorrow, right? Think you can stand to sit in a car with me for, like, four hours?”

Finally Saitou’s stillness broke as he raised his cigarette to his lips, but his eyes hadn’t left Sano’s face; Sano thought his expression was more contemplative now than anything else. At last he said, “That depends.”

“On?”

“On whether you’re going to play any Christmas music during the drive.”

A huge wave of relief and joy washed over Sano at these words, but, remembering that he wanted to seem not-stalkerish, he restrained himself from any overt display of any such emotion. “I thought you wouldn’t care so much,” was his reply instead, “now that your Christmas isn’t going to suck.”

“You have an inordinately high opinion of your own entertainment value.”

“Hey, my family’s plenty entertaining,” objected Sano with a grin.

“And you think your dad will like me,” the teacher mused, stepping to the ash tray to dispose of his cigarette butt. After this, however, he made no motion to go back into the building.

Cold as it was, Sano felt his heart warmed by the thought that Saitou didn’t mind standing out here in the snow, with him, all alone, making plans with him to go home with him and meet his family. That seemed like considerable progress for someone that didn’t think too highly of the human race in general and freshmen in particular; actually, it seemed like the best Christmas present Sano had received in many years.

“He’ll like you better if you wear that tie,” he said, grin widening.

“You’re already getting me to help you celebrate a holiday that means almost nothing to me,” replied Saitou, his smirk also widening slightly. “Don’t push your luck.”


This story is very unremarkable, and I’ve rated it , but it might have been better if I’d ever gotten around to writing the second half of it. Let’s take a look at what I had written, shall we?

*

It had taken Saitou an anomalously long time to see the truth. Neither the unprecedented companionship nor the unexpected present nor even the surprising invitation had given him a clue. He might have begun to realize what was going on by his own happy reaction to that invitation or the unanticipated pleasure he’d taken in the four-hour drive to Sano’s hometown, if those hadn’t been so engrossing — and, therefore, distracting — in themselves. In fact, it was not until they’d reached their destination and greetings and introductions were over with that Saitou had his first real, jolting hint at the truth.

The little sister, Uki, had apparently demanded more space in which to do her homework, and thus what had previously been the spare room was now devoted to computer desks. It was Sano’s reaction to the news that his guest would have to sleep on one storey of his own bunk bed that gave him away: a startled look and noise accompanied by an intense blush he immediately tried to hide — all of them just a little too vehement for the news in question.

Saitou’s own surprise was equally great, simply because the concept had never crossed his mind. Looking back at his interaction with Sano over the last three months, he was consequently disposed to think himself somewhat blind. But, then, the general consensus around here seemed to be a certain set of idiotic stereotypes for men that liked other men, and perhaps he’d subconsciously absorbed that attitude to the exclusion of more logical reality.

Now all he had to do was decide how he felt about this.

In the meantime, Sano had shaken himself out of his shocked stupor and accepted the situation with a show of backbone. But there wasn’t much mystery behind his excessive sudden embarrassment in his room when he unthinkingly asked, “Do you want top or bottom?”

And perhaps the fact that Saitou immediately, amusedly ran his eyes up and down Sano rather than the bed before answering, “Top, I think,” helped at least to start answering the question about how Saitou felt. He’d never really looked at Sano in this light before; he’d been aware that the kid was good-looking, thanks both to his objective observation thus far and to the reactions of others that made it rather absurdly evident, but that awareness had been nothing but clinical up until now. Now… perhaps it was evolving.

*

Uki has several of her barely-teenage friends over for a Christmas party to celebrate the end of school. Several of them are all googly-eyed over Uki’s hot brother and Uki’s hot brother’s hot friend.

*

A gesture from one of the high-schoolers caught his eye, and he noticed that Uki and another girl were having an intense, rather giggly conversation behind their hands. It seemed to involve looking over at him a lot. Not really interested in what they might be saying, he turned away again — only to find Sano’s eyes, narrowed with suspicion, pointed in the direction Saitou’s had just been. Finally Sano also looked back, looked around, and abruptly turned red.

Saitou wasn’t sure what had caused Sano’s blush this time, but the boy’s embarrassment was getting more and more difficult to pretend to ignore. In a pointed effort to do so, however, he directed his attention again toward the girls… and that was when he caught the whispered word ‘mistletoe.’

He didn’t glance upward. He didn’t need to.

Now he couldn’t look at Sano or Sano’s sister, and the one consolation, as things currently stood, was that if the little girl did work up the nerve to kiss him — something Sano certainly wouldn’t do — watching Sano’s reaction was a guaranteed source of entertainment that might fully make up for it.

*

Sano’s dad asks them to set out the Christmas stuff for him on Christmas Eve, since Outa has caught on to the secret and will be staking out dad’s room. They do this, and then, before heading back to Sano’s bedroom…

*

“I believe…” he began pensively, giving Sano a thoughtful stare. Sano wasn’t looking at him, however, so Saitou left it at that for the moment. When Sano finally did glance over, curious, Saitou finished. “You noticed that mistletoe before your sister did. I believe that means you owe me a kiss.”

“What?!”

*

Outa, coming to check whether the presents are somehow there, walks in on them kissing.

*

“Are you guys gay?”

The concept ‘bisexual’ was not really something he wanted to explain to an eight-year-old, let alone the even more difficult ‘bi-curious’ — so Saitou just nodded.

“OK,” said the boy, and turned toward the Christmas tree.

*

Bit of a shame I never finished that, isn’t it? It’s pretty damn cute. But more things are a greater shame than just the lack of a fun second half of a mediocre story.

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