Voice of Experience

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.”

Sofia has a dilemma concerning her sister, and there’s only one princess that can give her exactly the advice she needs.


From the great ballroom doors into the shadowed corridor, the spilling light appeared golden and hypnotic, the spilling sound as sweet an invitation as a delicious scent to the hungry. Nevertheless, Sofia waved a negative at the herald waiting to announce her, and ducked into a side hallway under the pretense of adjusting her scarf with its huge emerald broach and the string of pearls winding through her upswept hair. Perhaps being fashionably late to your own brother’s engagement ball was not quite the thing, but she simply had to take a moment to calm her nerves and make a final desperate bid at overcoming her indecisiveness.

She smoothed her gloved hands down the rustling taffeta beneath her waist. The wide hooped skirts she’d run around in for much of her childhood were a thing of the past, and long, sleek, slender lines such as she’d often admired on classmates the Enchancia fashion now; but — aside from frequently having difficulties, even with Amber’s help, finding a design in that style that flattered her full figure — tonight the royal ladies, in honor of James’s fiancé, were all clad in voluminous-skirted ball gowns with a dozen petticoats inspired by current Avalor fashion — still designed by Amber, of course.

Amber. Sofia clenched her hands into nervous fists. There was a reason she’d requested a gown in green, Amber’s favorite color.

She checked her fan, checked her bracelets, checked her dance card, realized she was stalling, took a deep breath, and turned back toward the doors into the ballroom… and ran into déjà vu as into a brick wall. She’d mostly forgotten, but this wasn’t the first time she’d been through this precise struggle, was it? Back then she’d always worn purple, but the indecision had been the same… even if it might not have meant quite as much, to a child, as it did tonight to a grown woman. In fact it had been in this very corridor…

And as she recalled those events in greater detail, going right through them in her head perhaps as one last excuse to postpone her entry into the ballroom, she suddenly caught her breath, and heat rose to her cheeks. Because she did remember completely now, and she understood.

*

The music flowing from the great doors into the shadowed corridor enticed her, and the scents of the thousands of flowers Baileywick had ordered and painstakingly hung as decorations throughout the ballroom enchanted her, all calling out in hypnotic voices to come in and join the dance. Sofia, however, already late though she was, couldn’t quite bring herself to enter yet. Under the pretense of making sure she hadn’t lost her fan and that the pearls hadn’t somehow detached and fallen from her shoes, she sneaked off into a side corridor to calm her nerves and ponder one last time a question she hadn’t been able to discuss even with her mother or Clover for all she craved advice on the matter.

The fan was there, and the pearls were there, and pondering the question wasn’t any easier in this dimly lit hallway than it had been all week in various other places. With a deep and frustrated breath, she prepared to turn back and make her entrance, though she hadn’t made her decision, when a familiar warmth and light caught her attention and stopped her in her tracks. She lifted her eyes from the glowing, slightly hovering pendant around her neck, her brows lifting as well.

The woman whose figure resolved out of the shimmer before Sofia also wore a ball gown, and appeared as ready to dance as Sofia would be if she could get this question resolved. She smiled at the little princess, and had already begun swaying to the music almost before she finished materializing.

“Princess Anna!” Sofia couldn’t help smiling herself at seeing how eager her visitor was for the evening’s activity. “I didn’t think this was a problem I needed a princess’ help for, but I’m still really glad to see you.”

“I’ll help however I can!” Anna replied. “Oh, and Olaf says hi.”

“Oh… great! Hi to him too! I wish he could have come with you… I could use a warm hug right about now.”

“So what’s the problem?”

Sofia sighed. “I want to ask Amber to dance with me tonight, but I don’t know if she’ll like that.”

Anna’s smile did not alter, but her eyes seemed to take on a serious depth that had previously been nothing more than a sparkle of excitement on hearing the music from the ballroom. “Seems like all you need to do is ask,” she offered, “and then you’ll know!”

“Yeah, but I don’t know if she’ll even like me asking,” Sofia said awkwardly. “Most princesses don’t dance with their sisters at balls… Most princesses don’t even dance with other princesses at balls! It’s just not what princesses do.”

“Oh, wow.” Anna was nodding. “I think I know why I was summoned to help you with this one.” And she dropped unceremoniously to her knees, billowing skirt and all, and reached out to take both of Sofia’s hands. She wore gloves that matched one of the lighter greens on her dress, which clashed with the purple of Sofia’s… and looking at the colors combined to such ill effect made the younger princess more uneasy than ever.

“Why do you want to ask Amber to dance so much?” Anna queried earnestly.

This was easier to explain. “I love dancing with Amber! She taught me how to dance in the first place, and it’s so much fun! I don’t mind dancing with dad or any of the princes, but Amber’s my favorite person to dance with in the whole world. She’s so graceful and beautiful, and we can talk about anything while we’re dancing!”

Anna gave the same nod as before, the one simultaneously impressed and pensive. She squeezed Sofia’s hands. “All right, your little highness, here’s what I think.” And Sofia focused hard on whatever advice she would give, knowing it must be especially pertinent if Anna believed she knew why she in particular had been brought here tonight. “I can’t tell you whether Amber will like you asking her to dance, or whether she’ll say yes or no. That’s all on her end. But for you–”

She suddenly jumped to her feet — no mean accomplishment without tripping over her gown! — and whirled Sofia around like a partner in a particularly vigorous Avaloran salsa. Sofia giggled as she spun, but still caught the rest of Anna’s statement: “If dancing with Amber is what will make you happy tonight, don’t miss out on it because you were afraid to ask! She might say no, but she definitely won’t say yes if you don’t ask!” And Anna spun Sofia back toward her and into the warm hug she’d just recently been wishing for.

After a few moments’ thought, the Enchancian princess accepted the advice she’d just recently been wishing for as well. “You’re right,” she said as she stepped away from Anna and nodded decisively. “I have to try. What’s the worst that could happen, right?”

“Right!” Anna pumped a fist in encouragement. Then she sobered, and her expression turned somewhat distant. “There’s one more thing I need to tell you.”

Sofia focused in again, which made Anna smile.

“This is actually advice for when you’re a lot older; you won’t really understand it now, and you may not even need it then. But if you do need it someday, think back to what I’m about to say, and maybe it’ll help.”

A little puzzled, Sofia said, “What is it?”

“It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in that ballroom. It’s all right to love your sister more than anyone else in the world. It’s all right to love her more than anyone else around you expects you to.”

“But why would anyone expect me not to love Amber?”

Anna’s expression was both kind and mysterious. “I told you you wouldn’t understand until you’re older. Maybe not even then. Just don’t forget what I said, in case you need it later!”

Again Sofia nodded decisively. The counsel seemed strange, and perhaps a little unnecessary or even redundant, but she thought she could keep hold of it until she understood.

“Now! Ready for some dancing?” Anna gestured toward the ballroom doors with a grin.

“Thanks to you I am!”

“Should I come in with you and show everyone how it’s done?”

Sofia giggled. “I know my family would love to have you as a guest, but I think it would be kinda hard to explain when the amulet sends you back.” And in fact, when she turned from the light spilling out of the ballroom to face Anna once again, that had already happened.

*

The great domed space shimmered from every wall, while the spinning forms of the dance about to end created a blur of gorgeous color. Sofia hardly marked her name and titles from the herald’s lips as the orchestra, now so much closer to her ears, called her again, this time inexorably, with stirring voices. Guests that stood still, like a garden seen from afar, lacked detail just as much as those dancing; the only clearly visible figure at the ball to Sofia at that moment was Princess Amber, resplendent and graceful seemingly at the end of a rainbow tunnel of light and sound.

“There you are!” Amber’s eyes swept her sister from toe to head, in the end meeting her gaze with an approving set to her chin at Sofia’s dress and accessories. “You could have made a flashier entrance, you know, if you’d waited until the end of the opening waltz.”

Even through her lingering nervousness, Sofia couldn’t help grinning at this very typical remark. “I didn’t want to make a flashy entrance. I just wanted to get to you before all the princes started crowding around asking you to dance.”

“Oh, they already did that.” Amber smiled smugly, but her wave was dismissive. “My card is completely full.”

Sofia’s heart sank. “Then why aren’t you out there now?”

“Because Prince Zandar claimed the first two dances and then disappeared,” Amber sniffed. “He probably wandered off to look at the Hall of Armor and lost track of time.”

This was it, then. The second dance would soon begin, and, with Amber fully engaged, now was Sofia’s only chance. Thanking Zandar from the bottom of her heart for his absentmindedness, trying not to show how deep was the breath she took, she screwed up her courage. She’d faced worse trials than this.

“Then…” She dropped into a deep curtsey, fanning out her skirt with one hand and holding the other up toward the gold-clad princess before her. “I would be honored if you would give me this dance.”

“Oh!” Amber seemed unusually tongue-tied after that one surprised syllable, and as Sofia lifted her eyes she found an expression of some confusion on her sister’s face. And even in the midst of the flowers and glittering lights and luxurious ballroom attire and happy visages all around them, the blush that then spread across Amber’s royal cheeks and the hesitant smile that grew on her perfect lips as she reached for the offered hand had to be the loveliest sight Sofia had ever seen.


For some author’s notes on this story, see this Productivity Log.



To Sketch: To Suggest

She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

On seeing a new set of Nathaniel’s drawings with a new subject, Chloé’s at it again.



Though truth and documentation would always be her primary concern, there was a distinct flavor of sensation to Alya’s journalism. And though she strove to be fair and as kind as reasonably possible, she liked gossip as much as the next high-schooler. She wouldn’t bother to deny it. So when, descending the stairs after class (by herself, as Marinette had pulled a vanishing act the way she so frequently did), she caught sight from that high vantage point of what promised to be a kerfluffle at the bottom, she paused and watched for two reasons: first, in case she might learn something of interest; second, in case she might need to step in and tell off Chloé Bourgeois.

Nathaniel had a marvelous talent for carrying a stack of loose papers while not looking where he went. The sound of their rustling flutter to the ground and under the feet of startled passersby had barely even settled before Chloé had begun the statement that had really attracted Alya’s attention: “Look, Sabrina–” snatching up a sheet covered in headshots and holding it between finger and thumb– “Nathaniel’s finally moved on from his first bad choice.”

Sabrina, under the guise of being helpful but the wicked gleam in her eyes seeming to reflect off the floor and make itself visible even with her head turned downward, had immediately begun reaching for the spilled papers. In so doing she bumped heads with Rose, who had knelt to do the same (though undoubtedly with much kinder intentions). The rest of the flow of students had formed a hasty circle around them so as both to stop stepping on the sketch pages and to observe what transpired.

“Let’s see who his new gross crush is,” Chloé declared, flipping her confiscated set of drawings upward and examining it critically. Her brows went down, and her expression gradually changed from eager disdain to frustrated confusion. “Ugh. I can’t even tell who this is supposed to be. Usually Nathaniel’s chicken scratches are more recognizable than this.” She tossed the paper down in a sort of Get this away from me gesture. “Or do you like someone so boring we can’t even figure out who she is?”

Alya, pressed against the staircase railing in an attempt at letting others pass, grimaced. She could tell whose face and sometimes figure Nathaniel had sketched over and over again on the dozen sheets that had gone flying when he’d tripped or bumped into someone. And if that indeed was his new crush, Alya had some bad news for him.

I think they’re fine,” Rose protested, grabbing after three attempts the page Chloé had dropped as it switchbacked through the air toward the floor.

But Nathaniel sighed, bending to retrieve the last of the fallen papers. “No, she’s right, Rose. For some reason, not one single one of them came out any good. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately.”

“What’s wrong,” Chloé said, never one to miss such an opening, “is obviously that you have a crush on someone who’s not even interesting enough for me to recognize.”

“He does not!” Rose, now on her feet, hugged the pages she’d gathered to her chest like a precious treasure.

At the same moment, Nathaniel said in frustration, “It’s not that! She’s very interesting to look at! It’s just that something seems to go wrong with every picture…”

“Chloé!” Sabrina gasped all of a sudden from where she too had risen and was staring intently at the only couple of sketches she’d managed to get her hands on. “I think it’s Juleka!”

Alya shook her head with a sigh of her own. She’d hoped neither Sabrina nor Chloé would pick up on that. Admittedly the sketches didn’t seem quite right somehow, so there had been basis for optimism…

“Juleka?!” Snatching one of the drawings from her minion, Chloé peered again. “No. Way.” And when she raised her eyes, she was clearly convinced. “I mean, obviously it’s not as bad as the bread-flour girl, but, really, Nathaniel? Juleka, with her corpse makeup and that awful dye job and those tacky gloves?”

More to the point, Juleka, with her preference for other girls? That Chloé didn’t bring that up meant she must not know. Alya let out a breath of relief that Nathaniel’s hopes and dreams wouldn’t be destroyed (yet again) by such a cruel messenger. Someone would have to tell him, though.

“I think we’re going to have to warn Juleka,” Sabrina said in a serious, almost pious tone. “I mean, Nathaniel already turned into a supervillain over one girl he liked…”

Chloé put a finger to her chin. “You’re right, Sabrina. Even if it means I have to talk to Juleka and try to stand her fashion sense for a few minutes, it’s for her own good!” She laughed affectedly. “I’m such a good friend.”

“You’re making a–” Nathaniel began, appearing awkward but not at all disturbed by Chloé’s barely veiled threat. But he went no farther.

“Nathaniel does not have a crush on Juleka!” When Rose raised her voice, it was more squeak than shout, but sufficient to draw the attention of anyone in the vicinity not listening. “And Juleka has adorable fashion sense, and I love her makeup, and I love her hair, and I love her gloves!” She stalked toward Chloé, waving papers in her face, free hand clenched into a little fist at her side. “I asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for me, because for some reason nobody can get a good photo of her and I wanted some pictures!” The tears that came so easily to Rose’s eyes sounded in her voice, but that same tone was unexpectedly assertive enough to have driven Chloé back a few steps with hands raised.

“Calm down!” Chloé protested, obviously unsure, just at first, how to respond to such a confident Rose. “Geez!”

Ever the loyal assistant, Sabrina dashed in here to help Chloé save face. “So you’re saying you’re the one with a crush on Juleka, Rose?”

“Yes!” Rose replied at top volume, retrieving the last of the drawings from the tormentors.

Silence fell around the circle, and now at last Alya began again making her way down the stairs, tensed for conflict. There were certain levels of jerkish behavior everyone had learned to tolerate in Chloé, but if she started throwing homophobia around, Alya wanted to be on the spot ready to smack her down. She’d never heard Chloé’s opinion on the subject, but couldn’t trust it to be a reasonable one.

As the inevitable muttering and giggling began all around them, Nathaniel murmured, “Sorry, Rose; I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s OK, Nathaniel,” Rose broke in, and as she briefly faced him Alya could easily see the tears. But then she returned her gaze to throw what appeared to be a very pointed look from Sabrina to Chloé and back. “I’m not too embarrassed to admit I like another girl.” And with her head held high, she marched from the open circle into the crowd and away.

Frozen in place, jaw slightly slack, Alya lost sight of Rose as a new sound from the crowd filled her ears: much louder mutters and giggles, this time with some shrieking and the occasional Ohhhhhh of triumph and pleased surprise thrown in. Had Rose, little innocent flappable airheaded Rose, just made a snarky implication about Sabrina and Chloé and silenced them both thereby? For they certainly were standing stock-still with scarlet faces trying not to look at each other.

It was a good five seconds longer than her standard before Chloé got hold of herself. The color of her cheeks altering not one whit, she demanded with less outraged certainty than her norm, “What did she just say about me? The very idea! It’s ridiculous — utterly ridiculous!” She stomped her foot and, still without meeting Sabrina’s eyes, called her to heel.

As they stalked away in a huff, pushing between students at the edge of the circle, jeers began to float in from miscellaneous spots around them, only rendering Chloé’s walk all the more exaggeratedly angry. Since some of the taunts were, unfortunately, as homophobic as the sentiment Alya had half feared from Chloé herself, she made a point of shouting them down with, “Aren’t you going to warn Juleka about Rose’s crush, Chloé?”

“No!” Chloé called back, and her words faded with distance despite her annoyed volume. “Rose hasn’t ever been akumatized, so Juleka can take care of herself!”

The interested students began to disperse (not least because M. Damocles had emerged from his office and come to the railing, wondering what was going on below), and the tenor of the surrounding conversation was curiosity as to how much truth there might be to Rose’s implication. Alya herself found it interesting that Chloé had so automatically assumed Rose to be addressing her when it could just as easily have been Sabrina accused of hiding an interest in her best friend.

Glancing around, regaining her bearings and trying to remember where she’d been on her way to when this had started, Alya found herself meeting Nathaniel’s eyes. Unexpectedly he gripped one of her shoulders and gave it a little shake, saying intensely as he did so, “Thanks, Alya.” Then he ran off, probably to collide with someone else and spill a second set of sketches all over the floor.

Since the only thing Alya had actually done just now had been to try to drown out the homophobia in the courtyard, she could only imagine Nathaniel had been thanking her for that. And the implication of that thanks, therefore, was clear. Alya smiled and shook her head, resuming her walk toward the cafeteria and mulling over everything she’d learned in the last several minutes. At some times it was harder than others to keep from turning the school blog into a pure gossip rag.



Rewatching Reflekta (prior to which this is set) gave me this idea. Though it’s understated in the story, I thought it would be incredibly sweet if Rose asked Nathaniel to draw Juleka for her so she could have pictures when none of the attempted photos ever came out right. And of course the curse is still in effect at this point, so even Nathaniel’s drawings don’t come out right!

Oh, and did I mention how pansexual everyone is?



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.

Forgivably Wrong

He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

When Detective Saitou gets a chance to meet his favorite author and learns something very unexpected about him, resisting his fanboyish impulses is suddenly the least of his concerns.


Technically Saitou could have taken the interstate one exit farther and gotten onto Coolidge Boulevard some distance closer to the station, but the highway ahead had appeared a little congested, and he had plenty of time for the longer stretch on the slower street since he’d left for work rather early. There had been no real reason to leave so early, but, having finished breakfast and finding he had nothing remaining to do at home, he’d decided he might as well head on in.

A mass of balloons, including two huge ones floating high up on long cords, decorated the front of the bookstore on the north side of Coolidge, and Saitou recalled it was the 18th. That event he’d seen advertised so much lately was today, wasn’t it? He probably wouldn’t even have remembered if he hadn’t happened to come this direction due to traffic. And he probably wouldn’t even have looked at the store closely enough to be reminded if not for the eye-catching balloons.

Lately he’d been considering purchasing an e-reader of some sort. It would be more easily carried around with him than most books, and provide more options at any given moment as well. The question then remained whether he wanted a dedicated e-reader with limited other functionality or a tablet with the option for an e-reader app. And right now, when he’d left for work rather early for no particular reason and had plenty of time, seemed like not a bad moment to just step into the bookstore and examine the options they had. Not, of course, with any intention of getting involved in the book-signing that was, quite coincidentally, going on in there simultaneously.

But it would probably be pretty crowded, wouldn’t it? The e-reader display, he remembered, stood precisely at the center of the store, undoubtedly also where the event would be set up… it might be a little difficult to reach the sample devices without getting involved in the signing… Maybe he should wait for some other day.

But today was when he happened to have time to spare. Some other day he might not. There was no logical reason not to go in there right now. He changed lanes so as to turn into the shopping center immediately ahead.

The Yuki Tomoshiro series had probably only even grabbed Saitou’s attention originally because it was about a Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system. It wasn’t as if it was spectacularly good or anything. The prose was nothing brilliant — this wouldn’t be ranked among the classics or studied in prestigious schools — even if it did have a refreshing directness and emotionality to it without being at all pretentious. The police procedure was never 100% accurate, though admittedly what the author got wrong he at least got forgivably wrong. And the cases Yuki worked tended to be overblown and improbably adventurous much of the time, as if the author had watched a few too many crime dramas for inspiration — though, yes, that did make for the most entertaining stories. So Saitou wasn’t sure how it had become his favorite series.

Honestly he couldn’t say for certain it was his favorite series. It just hit pretty close to home; that was all. And, although the personal interactions unrelated to the cases were consistently the weakest parts of the writing, there had been hints in the latest book that Yuki might, after some wrestling within herself, start dating her precinct’s female civilian administrator. No matter how long Saitou himself had been single, a gay Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system hit even closer to home.

He couldn’t say he entirely approved of the author’s pen name, however. Though some part of him secretly rather liked the uncompromising ‘斬’ — and he knew this was the intended spelling because the kanji were given in the author’s extended bio on the official series website — it did seem melodramatic. Still, most American readers wouldn’t recognize this — the books were written in English and set in the U.S., after all, and name kanji didn’t really enter into it except as trivia for sharp-eyed and perseverent fans — and Saitou wasn’t ignorant of the need for a catchy pseudonym. Still, he couldn’t help shaking his head a little at the huge banner on the store’s outer wall proclaiming, Book Signing Today with Zanza Sagara, Bestselling Author of the Yuki Tomoshiro Series.

Saitou had heard rumors (well, read online) that Sagara was a native of this city. Of course he didn’t really care where some random author lived, but once or twice when he’d been bored he’d tried looking it up more definitively. That had never succeeded — the guy kept pretty quiet about his personal life — but Saitou supposed, if Sagara really did live around here, it would explain why this generic bookstore with nothing special about it got the preference over classier venues for the author’s very first (Saitou was fairly sure it was his very first) public appearance, especially so soon after the release of the latest installment in the series.

The book had been out for so little time that Saitou hadn’t even finished it yet, and the envisioned greater ease of getting the rest of the way through it on an e-reader rather than lugging the new-release hardback around was one of the reasons he was considering purchasing such a device. And surely he could slip in and through the Sagara crowd, take a look at what the store had to offer, and get out without too much inconvenience.

If Saitou had been on an earlier shift rather than in at 11:00 these days, he wouldn’t have needed to worry about this event; as it was, the signing seemed to be in full swing as he made his way inside. Cheerful chatter filled the big room, which subsequently lacked its usual library-like feeling; and, as he’d anticipated, a crowd bloated the central open space. It was difficult to tell with shelves and a lot of people in the way, but he thought the table where the author sat conversing and autographing stood on the left, so he circled immediately around to the right.

He couldn’t help noticing, as he gave the crowd a wide enough berth that he wouldn’t be mistaken for someone trying to get in line, that nobody else in here looked like a cop. Of course some of them might be — it wasn’t as if he knew every last member of the police force, and there was no single defining characteristic that made cops immediately recognizable even to others of their kind — but at the very least no uniforms or visible badges showed in the group. Probably for the best, then, that Saitou didn’t plan on approaching Sagara; he didn’t really fit in with this crowd. It did prove a little difficult to squeeze between it and the e-reader display, though; he was forced to excuse and explain himself far more frequently than he would have liked.

But eventually he maneuvered into a position from which he could make a leisurely examination of the electronics. He was actually fairly close to the author’s table here, as it formed a right angle with this display and Saitou was at the end closest to the corner. That didn’t matter much, since his back was turned on the unrelated business and he stayed right up against the e-reader collection so as to keep from interfering with the autograph line.

Disappointingly, there were far fewer options than he’d expected; in fact the space was mostly taken up with different colors of the same model, as if prospective purchasers needed to test each color separately to find which would work best. Though at least one of the choices they had for sale looked fairly promising, Saitou was annoyed enough with the silly setup that he stood still for several moments listening to the group immediately behind him and one particular voice, somewhat difficult to make out among the rest of the chatter, that he believed to be that of the author.

Suddenly that voice rose in a much louder, jovial remark to whomever was at the front of the line, followed by a hearty laugh, which rendered its sound much clearer… and more recognizable. Saitou went absolutely still against the e-reader display, abruptly listening significantly harder to the next statement, sinking back down to a more normal conversational volume though it was. He knew those tones. He knew that laugh.

Because he wasn’t here to meet Sagara or particularly curious what he looked like — the dust jackets and websites were remarkably devoid of photos — Saitou hadn’t attempted to get a glimpse of him through the milling bodies; and every time he had happened to glance in that direction, nothing at the author’s table had been visible. But now he not only turned and craned his neck, he pretty quickly began pushing his way through the crowd without any excuse or explanation this time. The outcry his passage caused did little to drown out the sound of the voice he’d locked onto, nor make him any less horrifically suspicious. He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

It was possible, and there was a way. Saitou broke free of the crowd and barely stopped himself from ramming his thighs into the table, on which he laid his hands for support in his sudden, utter shock and disbelief.

*

Knocking on doors was tedious but necessary, an endless repetition of the same questions and answers that, after a while, blended together so he had to struggle to remember which floor he was on and who’d told him what. Of course he would assess any unusual demeanor for anything beyond run-of-the-mill discomfort with talking to the police, and he would make a note of any useful or even just interesting information… but that was assuming anyone had an unusual demeanor or any useful or even just interesting information. Obviously they did often enough to make this a productive way to spend his time… but it was never often enough to make this a fun way to spend his time.

Perhaps this was why he noticed that someone seemed to be watching him even sooner than he otherwise might have: it offered some potential for engagement that this part of his investigation otherwise painfully lacked.

Of course there were not infrequently gawkers at any active police work (even when ‘active’ was a dismaying misnomer), and most of the time they offered far more sources of annoyance and interference than of fascination… but Saitou was pretty good at interpreting the feeling of eyes on him, and the current set seemed to carry something subtly different than the usual gormless curiosity or deep mistrust with which he was usually watched while on duty.

Then, the hallway walls in this particular apartment building were relentlessly white and plain — and it wasn’t even an off-white, but an unfinished pure lack of color except wherever it was dirty — and the carpeting a utilitarian grey that did nothing for overall appeal. The bland brown of the doors was equally neutral, so the whole place had a drab, dull feeling that made Saitou wonder how anyone ever agreed to live here. Crisp colors stood out against all of this just as obtrusively as a seemingly intrigued contemplation stood out against the insipidity of this part of his investigation, caught his notice with just as much promise.

The watcher was a young man half visible around the corridor’s far corner, casually observing Saitou approach slowly, one door at a time, toward his end of the hall. His red hoodie, unfaded black jeans, hair of a brown much less lackluster than that of the doors Saitou was knocking on — even the bright green of the apple he was eating — rendered him distinctive initially, but when Saitou fixed him with a pointed and assessing look, his face and figure had that effect perhaps doubly so.

During the run of any investigation, Saitou, naturally, saw a lot of people, and throughout his career as a whole encountered a pretty decent cross-section of the city: citizens of every race, economic level, type of self-presentation, and apparent degree of sanity. He was required to assess them, to pinpoint any aspect of personality or behavior that might be indicative of something he wanted to know, so of course he concentrated minutely on many of their personal attributes. Despite this, however, rarely did any of them really grab his attention. They were all vastly different, but in a way they were all the same: they did nothing for him; they were all numbers to crunch, essentially, puzzle pieces to fit into appropriate spots and then leave there.

So when someone did stand out to him, did catch his attention as something other than a number to be crunched, the very fact that they did so made them even more obtrusive. And as such, this young man seemed to shine like a beacon at the end of the hallway, simultaneously difficult to look away from and perhaps a little blinding. Saitou paused in his work, motionless before the next door he needed to knock on, and simply stared, wordless.

The most pertinent point had to be the young man’s excessively good looks, as well as a sort of overall contradictoriness that gave an immediate and perhaps unfair impression of perverseness of character. His face appeared young and fresh, with a touch of the feminine to its prettiness, but bore a scattering of stubble and a broadness of jaw that helped him retain a look of masculinity despite this. His hair had obviously had gel applied in order to be styled into that wild set of spikes, but, despite this deliberate effort, the overall effect was one of carelessness, of indifference to physical appearance and purely accidental handsomeness as a result. And though the baggy sweat-shirt hid upper body details, the jeans fit closely enough to indicate the excellent shape of groin and legs. He was more than just eye-catching; he was enticing, appetizing.

And there was also his race. Of course the city’s Japanese population was such that Saitou felt no surprise at finding them wherever he happened to be, but Japanese heredity yet made for an automatic source of greater interest. To run into someone this attractive that also happened to have the same descent as Saitou’s — and who seemed to be looking at him with some kind of unusual fixedness — was far more rare.

When the young man observed Saitou’s riveted gaze, he abandoned his position at the hallway’s corner and came ambling down toward him, still eating his apple in careless motions that implied he wasn’t worried at all about what this cop in his apartment building might think of him hanging around watching — and also demonstrated a flexibility of lips that Saitou’s hedonistic side (not nearly as smothered as it usually was, for some reason) took special notice of. He came to stand casually near Saitou, finishing his snack and looking the detective up and down without compunction.

“Can I help you?” The officer’s words came out dry as paper not only because he wondered what the kid was up to, but because he was dissatisfied with himself for how pleased he was to see him at close range.

The young man shrugged. “I heard there was a cop in the building, so I figured I’d come down and see.”

“Is there a problem with me being in the building?” In response to that carelessness, Saitou’s tone was even drier than before.

“Nah. I like cops.” He gave Saitou a grin that was both cheeky and damnably attractive, then went on to say something rather shocking: “We just don’t usually get the sexy ones around here.” He eyed Saitou again without a trace of hesitancy — indeed, with a cockiness and self-assurance that seemed to suggest the perfect naturality of flirting with someone without checking on their orientation first. His grin took on a satisfied edge as he finished his second once-over, but then he shook his head. “Sometimes I feel like I should move somewhere with higher rent… maybe then I’d meet more hot cops. You know… richer neighborhoods getting more police attention and all that.”

This statement troubled Saitou largely because it was probably true. The young man might be gorgeous, but in practically leading with a jab like that he was simultaneously frustrating. So, rather than trying to decide whether or not to respond to the flirtation — which, under some circumstances, he might have done — Saitou replied in a tone now more disdainful than dry, “Could you afford higher rent?”

The stranger scowled. “Why would you assume I couldn’t? I probably make more money than you do. I’m just…” He was either embarrassed to admit this or (which seemed more likely) scrambling for an excuse. “…stuck in a long lease I shouldn’t have renewed.”

Saitou glanced around — at the disgusting carpet, the scuffed walls, the terminally bland colors — intending the message, “If you make so much money, you’re an idiot to stay in a place like this.” Evidently he’d gotten his point across, since when his eyes returned to the handsome youth, he noticed clenched fists. (Where the apple core had gone he didn’t know.) What he said aloud was, “I’m Detective Saitou, RCPD. I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Here?” the young man wondered.

Saitou raised a brow. “Unless you’d prefer I arrest you for obstruction of duty and then question you…”

“That sounds like fun. But, nah, I got work to do. No time for an arrest today. What I meant was, here, in this hallway? You don’t want to come upstairs to my apartment? It’d be way more… private in there.”

“I do not require privacy to ask everyone in the building the same set of questions.” Again Saitou might have responded to the flirtation instead of making such a businesslike and acerbic statement, but he really did need answers.

“Huh,” said the young man, sounding disappointed. “Hot, but not a lot of fun. OK, so what are your questions?”

“What’s your name?”

“Ooh, questions about me personally.”

“No, idiot, I just need to know who you are in case I decide to arrest you later for annoying me.”

The young man relented with good grace. “Well, I’m Sanosuke Higashidani.”

“It must be fun navigating American life with a name like that,” Saitou murmured as he noted it down in his phone.

Sanosuke sounded rueful, with a touch of actual exasperation, as he replied, “Yeah, well, we can’t all have sleek, snappy names like ‘Saitou.’ Unless we use pseudonyms.”

Saitou smirked. “And which apartment do you live in?”

“4305.” Sanosuke jerked a thumb upward to indicate the third floor above them. “Wanna see it?”

Making a show of ignoring the second half of that answer, Saitou quickly ran over the building’s layout in his head. “So the windows of your apartment must be on the east side, looking out over the side parking lot.”

Sanosuke considered for a moment. It was sometimes surprising how little oriented people were within their own personal spaces. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a pretty boring view, now I think about it.”

“I can’t imagine there are many interesting views from the windows of this apartment complex.”

Sanosuke seem to recognize that the officer was again prodding him subtly on his choice of living accommodations, for he frowned. Somewhat defiantly he said, “Well, if you’re wondering whether I’ve seen anything interesting out my windows lately, the answer is no.”

“I wonder if you would recognize something of interest even if you saw it.”

The frown deepened into a scowl. “What, you think I’m too stupid to know something suspicious when I see it? This is about those burglaries, right? You probably think it was an inside job, and want to know if anybody who lives around here’s been acting weird or coming and going at weird times.”

“‘Inside job?’ Somebody’s been watching too many police dramas.”

“No such thing as watching too many police dramas,” Sanosuke replied immediately. No wonder he claimed to like cops. “And the answer’s still no: I haven’t seen anybody suspicious around here lately.”

“What times of day are you usually at home and awake?”

“Wondering about my sleeping habits, huh?” He tried to say it suggestively, but it sounded more stupid than flirtatious. And when Saitou only looked at him, he answered the question. “My schedule’s really random. I’m just as likely to be up all night on the computer and sleep all the next day as the other way ’round. Except sometimes I take my laptop to a restaurant or something and work on shit there for a while. So I’m in and out a lot too.”

People took a bizarre amount of pleasure, Saitou had noticed, in talking about the mundane minutiae of their personal lives. They might be a little uncomfortable answering police questions, but once they got started about their boring schedules, many were willing to go on at tedious length. Sanosuke had actually been more concise than most — probably because he didn’t really have much of a schedule, as he admitted himself — and the unpredictable nature of his activities spanning all twenty-four hours of the day made him almost an ideal potential witness, except…

“If you’re working at your computer most of that time–” Saitou believed himself very generous with the term ‘working’ here– “you probably don’t see all that much out your windows even when you are home.”

“No,” Sanosuke said regretfully, “I don’t. And my computer desk faces away from the patio door.”

Saitou nodded, and moved on. “Since you’ve lived here, how often have apartment complex employees or maintenance people come into your apartment?”

Sanosuke tilted his head, simultaneously cheerful and pensive. “You do think it was an inside job.”

He was right, but Saitou wasn’t about to admit it. Apartments like this were very difficult to break into, and that several of them had been lately suggested someone somewhere had access to keys. “How often?” he repeated.

Still appearing somewhat triumphant at his supposedly correct analysis, Sanosuke replied, “A bunch of times. For a while, every time I took a shower — naked, in case you’re interested — it leaked into the bathroom of the person downstairs. Took ’em forever to figure out what was wrong, so some maintenance guy was in and out of here probably five times, and one of the apartment managers came to look at it once too.”

“Can you describe them for me?”

“Maintenance guy was about my height,” Sanosuke said promptly, almost professionally; “narrow build, kinda like yours, but with a little more fat on him; Caucasian, at least mostly, and at that point he had a fading sunburn; long face, bit of a double chin, thin nose, acne scars, labret piercing; ears stuck out pretty far, and he had one of them pierced too; brown hair, not as dark as mine, with–”

“All right.” Saitou raised a hand to stop him. He didn’t actually need all these details, just enough to pinpoint which maintenance guy it had been — and what Sanosuke had already said tallied with what he’d heard from other apartment-dwellers about the one named Jeff. He was, however, more than a little impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and conciseness of description, though he didn’t plan on saying so. “How about the apartment manager?”

“Her name’s Vivian Something. She doesn’t work here anymore; I think she moved. But she’s a Black woman with–”

“Since you know her name, I don’t need the description.” Saitou had heard about Vivian Something (it was Stetson, in fact, at least up until her recent marriage) from other residents as well.

“OK,” Sano shrugged. “Where’s your partner, by the way?”

Saitou raised his eyes from where he’d been making another note, and raised a brow at the young man. “Asking stupid people boring questions is hardly a task that requires two officers. She’s busy with a different aspect of this case.”

In response to this, Sanosuke seemed to go very rapidly through three distinct emotional states, and the one he ended on surprised Saitou a little. “I’m not— you know, this could be way less boring if you– so your partner’s a woman?”

“Is that a problem?” Not entirely sure why Sanosuke had asked, Saitou gave this response very coldly indeed.

“No, it’s great!” The enthusiasm in Sanosuke’s tone was another surprise. “She wouldn’t happen to be Japanese too, would she?”

Saitou hesitated, but since he saw no reason not to give this information he admitted, “As a matter of fact she is.”

“And I bet you two got partnered up because you’re the only Japanese cops in the precinct.”

Not only did Saitou feel disinclined to comment on this probably true assumption, they were getting off track. Why did he feel as if the tables had turned and he was suddenly the one being interrogated? “And what about your vehicle? Or do you take the bus everywhere?” He really had nothing against public transportation; the disdain with which he spoke the word ‘bus’ merely aimed at prodding Sanosuke away from his untoward queries.

It worked. It seemed pretty easy to bait this young man, and Saitou definitely felt he had the upper hand while they discussed comings and goings in the parking lots and what cars and trucks Sanosuke recognized as regulars around here. But Sanosuke recovered himself enough to resume his previous demeanor of simultaneous obnoxiousness and far-too-tempting flirtatiousness during the next topic. All in all, Saitou felt like they came out of the questioning approximately even — and that was both unprecedented and irksome.

He didn’t suspect the young man of anything except extreme nosiness, and perhaps an unexpected interest in Saitou, and it was the latter suspicion combined with Sanosuke’s undeniable allure that kept Saitou from telling him off. But he wouldn’t go so far in the other direction as to leave a business card with the guy; alluring or not, Sanosuke was also pretty aggravating. When they eventually parted — Sanosuke, presumably satisfied about the presence of a cop in his building, back to whatever apple-eating idling he’d been doing before some gossipy neighbor had informed him of the circumstance and sent him down here; Saitou to continue door-knockings destined to be even more tedious and uninteresting than ever now — he watched the handsome figure disappear around the hallway’s corner with ambivalent feelings, wondering whether he would encounter him again during the course of this case, or perhaps in some context besides criminal investigation. If he did, it would be through no fault of his own.

*

“What the hell…?” No great shock, honestly, that he’d somehow gotten past the officers in the dining area; they’d only just barely gone out there to keep an eye open for customers trying to enter. “Well, no wonder a guy can’t get any pizza, with all these cops running around the place.”

It wasn’t necessarily startlement that kept Saitou silent for a moment or two longer than he normally would have been, though there was some of that too; it was more the combination of surprise at seeing this person again so unexpectedly with the abrupt reminder of how ridiculously attractive he was. And since Saitou was thus momentarily speechless, Tokio answered:

“Got the wrong stereotype there, don’t you?”

Trying to fight off a grin in order to maintain the facetious expression of concern he wanted, Sanosuke’s face writhed comically for a moment. Stupidly, this didn’t make him any less handsome. “Oh, crap, don’t tell me Krispy Kreme’s been hit too!”

Tokio rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you go check for us?”

Now Sanosuke’s grin conquered the look of false consternation and spread wide. “But I wanted pizza today, not donuts.” Then, seeing Tokio was about to dismiss him in a more official capacity, he added quickly, “Besides, I was an invaluable witness at y’all’s last case; I can probably be useful here too.”

Undoubtedly never having seen Sanosuke before, Tokio turned toward Saitou with elevated brows, and Saitou broke his silence at last with, “He lives in the Hammock apartments. And ‘invaluable’ is a gross exaggeration.”

Sanosuke appeared annoyed, but rallied quickly and said, “Hey, just because you turned down certain parts of the offer doesn’t change its overall value.” His grin, which had darkened somewhat in his irritation, now brightened as he added in a more jovial tone, “But seriously. How you doing, Detective Saitou, RCPD? Single? You never did call me.”

Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

“What are you doing here?” Saitou asked the question flatly, feeling he did fairly well at hiding how amusing he found this kid.

“Well, I wanted pizza. Looks like I got a crime scene instead.” And it couldn’t be more evident that Sanosuke considered this an excellent trade. He did a little dance of childish excitement and anticipation as he looked around the chaotic kitchen, causing the laptop bag slung over one shoulder to bounce alarmingly against his hip, and punched one fist into his other palm, smiling broadly and lopsidedly the entire time. “I mean, check it out: there’s fresh bullet-holes in the walls and everything!” And his grin only widened as he noted this fact that many another person might comment on with fear or dismay. He paused, though, as he turned to gaze delightedly at the signs of the few shots that had been fired not long before and added, “Except that one above the grill; that one looks older.”

Of course the eyes of the two cops snapped immediately to the spot in question, then to each other. Then Tokio started searching for something to stand on. They hadn’t even really begun examining this room yet; the questionable employees had only been escorted out minutes before. But it was possible — Saitou didn’t like to admit it, but it was possible — the evident age of one of several bullet-holes decorating the kitchen walls might have escaped them where this apparently sharp-eyed idiot had been able to point it out immediately. And it might even provide useful facts, depending on which bullet matched which gun.

As he watched Tokio go about her examination, Sanosuke’s expression of pleasure intensified; he obviously reveled in having stumbled upon an interesting crime scene as well as in what he’d cleverly noticed there. But Saitou wasn’t going to put up with his nonsense this time. “You need to leave,” he said sternly.

Before Sanosuke could even begin to protest, as Saitou was certain he would have done, Tokio said in a mischievous tone, “Oh, I don’t see why he can’t stick around. He is an invaluable witness, after all… and this bullet-hole is definitely old.” She’d dragged a greasy chair from just outside the restaurant’s small office over to the grill and begun examining the place carefully without touching it. Now she held out a mute hand requesting implements, which Saitou hastened to provide.

Into the ensuing silence Sanosuke remarked easily, “So you must be the partner. Saitou mentioned you last time.”

“Only because you brought her up,” Saitou reminded him.

The aforementioned partner, though she didn’t look away from her task, gave every indication of great amusement and a strong likelihood of going into Tokio Mode. Now she said, in as casual a tone as Sanosuke had used, “Yes, I’m the partner. Someone has to keep this crooked cop in line.”

The responding expression of glee Sanosuke turned toward Saitou did not bode well, but at least he seemed to recognize this particular statement as a teasing remark rather than taking it at face value. “So maybe you can tell me, since he never bothered to: is he single?”

Saitou braced himself for Tokio’s answer, and therefore was prepared when she said, “Of course he is.” Out of the side of her mouth, as if he weren’t standing immediately to her left, she added in a stage whisper, “He’s a virgin.”

Sanosuke looked Saitou up and down, then let out a patently disbelieving chuckle. And Saitou had to admit to a certain amount of disappointment, despite how stupid the conversation already was, when the young man’s next question, still directed at the more cooperative Tokio, was, “And what about you?”

She adored talking about herself, especially in Tokio Mode, so she answered with no trace of hesitation. “Single, or virginal?”

Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

“Neither. I have nine children; I’ve been married for ten years.” In fact the closest she came to being a mother was forcing Saitou to look at funny pictures of her nieces and nephews sent by her brother in Montana; and, though she’d been married throughout most of her twenties, had divorced her husband three years ago.

Nine?” the young man echoed, startled out of his casual flirtatious demeanor. Though he’d recognized her earlier statement as untrue, evidently she’d taken him in with this one. “How old are you?”

“You should know it’s rude to ask a woman that,” she chided. “But I’m twenty-six.” In fact she was thirty-two.

“You’ve been married since you were sixteen?”

She redirected the course of the questioning. “I notice you don’t ask how old Saitou is.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

Finished prying the bullet from the wall and sealing it in an evidence bag, Tokio jumped down from the chair. “Well, he’s only forty-two,” she assured Sanosuke. In fact Saitou was thirty-six. “That’s not too old for you, is it?”

“No,” Sanosuke said thoughtfully, apparently adjusting his perspective but not necessarily disappointed. “No, it’s not. But you — you make enough money as a police detective to support nine kids?”

This unexpected question was evidently a welcome challenge, and Tokio, in fine form, didn’t miss a beat as she replied, “My husband won the lottery a few years back, so we have more money than we know what to do with.” She rolled her eyes as she added, “He bought an entire stable outside town last year so he could get a pony for every single one of our children, including the baby.”

Now Sanosuke looked as if he finally began to suspect the veracity of Tokio’s words, and didn’t know quite what to do about it. Accusing a police officer of straightforwardly lying to your face was always a tricky business, after all; that was part of why Tokio Mode worked so well in the first place.

But Tokio had a dual purpose in this instance, and didn’t allow Sanosuke time to reply to the pony comment. “But maybe it wasn’t so much my income you wanted to know about?” She threw Saitou another sidelong glance. “I ain’t sayin’ you a gold-digger, but why did you want to know?”

Sanosuke laughed. It was unfair what a nice laugh he had. “Well, I really was curious, but, you know, it is useful — like if you want to go out to dinner with somebody or something — it’s kinda nice to know what they’re used to. Like whether you can get away with cheap-ass pizza places that apparently have secret crime going on in the back room at the same time–” He pronounced the word ‘crime’ with satisfaction verging on delight as he gestured around at the kitchen in which they stood– “or whether, like, a Red Robin is a better price range, or if I need to spring for some fancy-ass steak place where it’s forty dollars a plate.”

Tokio’s satisfaction too seemed to be on the verge of delight, and Saitou could practically hear the gears grinding in her head as she came up with some elaborate description of what type of dates he enjoyed going on. But there was more a pressing concern at the moment, and Saitou himself spoke up for the first time in a while: “It’s interesting you’re talking like you have money when you’re still dressed like that.” (This wasn’t actually the pressing concern, just something he felt he had to bring up first.)

“Like what?” Sanosuke demanded, looking over his jeans and layered T-shirts before turning challenging eyes under lowered brows on Saitou.

The latter pressed on without elaborating on that particular topic, however: “But what I really want to know is why you think ‘secret crime’ is ‘going on in the back room’ here. Despite the old bullet-hole, a scene like this–” he imitated Sanosuke’s gesture around them of a moment before– “would seem more indicative of an isolated incident, don’t you think?”

Now Tokio also appeared more focused on the interloper, for reasons other than that she loved messing with people. She said nothing, though, waiting for Sanosuke’s answer (and probably still contemplating her fiction about her partner’s ideal date and holding it in reserve for a better moment).

“This place always seemed sketchy,” Sanosuke shrugged. “Especially the guys in back, if you ever saw ’em. They made such good pizza, though,” he added with an unrepentant flash of teeth.

“And you didn’t report this?” Saitou’s words came out darker and more cutting than they needed to be because he was vexed both with Sanosuke’s flippancy and his own amusement at it.

“Oh, yeah,” the young man said with a roll of eyes, “like I’m gonna call you up and say, ‘Hey, this pizza place I do my work at sometimes has a bunch of really twitchy employees, and I think their food license is outdated.'”

“It would be an excuse to call,” Tokio pointed out.

“Huh.” Sanosuke acknowledged this with a thoughtful twist of lips, probably trying to decide whether having an excuse to call would be worth the hell Saitou would undoubtedly give him in response to that idiotic ‘report’ — and whether it wasn’t more likely Saitou would simply hang up on him (about which Saitou himself wasn’t entirely sure).

“Tell us about the twitchy employees,” Saitou commanded, hiding his precise facial expression by digging for his phone and stylus and opening the note-taking app he primarily used.

“OK, well…” Sanosuke launched into a detailed account of what he’d noticed about the pizzeria’s employees and their comings and goings. Though he could only guess — and did, with possibly problematic canniness — at what had been going on around here, his information served to enhance the impression Saitou and Tokio had of this place: that if you knew the right way to order and had the cash, you could get a side of stolen iPad with your breadsticks; and, just as the last time they’d met, Saitou was grudgingly impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and his ability to collate the information he observed.

And it was clear Saitou wasn’t the only one when Tokio, about halfway through Sanosuke’s description, leaned over and said very unsubtly to her partner, “Kid’s got good instincts.”

Saitou restrained himself from nodding, and didn’t look up from his notes even when Sanosuke broke off to retort, “‘Kid?!’ We never talked about how old I am!”

“Old enough for Saitou,” Tokio said airily. “That’s all that’s important.”

As the banter continued and Saitou tried with varying degrees of success to get actual information out of this alternately obstructive and entertaining young man, he also tried with varying degrees of success to push away thoughts of how (he was tempted to say ‘conveniently’) well Sanosuke got along with his partner, how unexpectedly useful his powers of observation and recounting might turn out despite his simultaneously being completely in the way, and how damned attractive he still (in fact now more than ever) was.

*

Saitou had only planned to have one last, quick look around the bloody crime scene for the satisfaction of his own inquisitiveness before leaving it to forensics and heading down to the end of the alley where Tokio was already busy taking statements; but as his eyes had risen from the pocked and stained asphalt surface on which he stood, past the rusty dumpster and collection of plastic trash cans that surrounded it, and up the dirty brick walls of the buildings that loomed over him to either side, he discovered he wasn’t going to be able to walk away just yet.

“What are you doing?” he asked the young man squatting on the lowest level of the decrepit fire escape and peering down through its railings. His tone wasn’t accusatory or demanding or even particularly surprised; somehow he felt he should have expected to find Sanosuke there.

“Ogling your crime scene, of course,” the latter replied easily. “And you, maybe.” Even more so here than when Saitou had originally met him, he seemed to shine brilliantly, ridiculously visually appealing and desirable in contrast with the dilapidation and grime and evidence of murder around him. He was also, and for reasons beyond his mere presence where his absence would have been more appropriate, still annoying. “And before you say I’m not supposed to be here, there’s people watching from up there too–” He jabbed a finger skyward, indicating two figures peering down from the fire escape’s fourth platform– “and you should really start at the top.”

They’re not ogling me, though.”

Though Saitou had said it at a mutter, Sanosuke obviously caught the statement, for he grinned. “They are if they have any brains!”

There was some impulse to return the expression, but Saitou resisted easily. “What are you doing here?” he asked again, grim.

Sanosuke’s eyes shifted from where they’d been wantonly traversing Saitou’s figure to the ground nearby where a splatter of red was drying to copper. And though his tone didn’t sound quite as dead serious as Saitou’s had, he still spoke levelly. “Got a text from a friend saying something was going on — police and stuff.” Next he indicated behind him with a thumb. “The guy in this apartment was nice enough to let me come out here and have a look.”

Of this Saitou could not approve. “In other words,” he said cuttingly, “you’re sitting up there like a vulture waiting to feed off of someone else’s death. Crime dramas aren’t enough for you anymore, so you have to get your fix by dogging the police trying to see the real thing.”

Sanosuke sprang to his feet, barely missing knocking his head against the metal stairs upward behind him. “Don’t act like you know what my motivations are.” Fists clenched and eyes flashing from on high, he appeared more lively and enticing than ever — but Saitou feared he could no longer look at him in the same light. “I admire you, OK? And I don’t just mean your long sexy legs. You cops trying to figure shit out and make sure situations like this get resolved, trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again — just because I want to watch your procedure and see how it’s done doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting that poor guy who got killed!”

Saitou stared up and Sanosuke stared down for a long moment, and something in the officer gradually relaxed. It was an unexpected relief, actually, to find himself believing the young man’s words. Even if his presence here and irrelevant curiosity was a little tasteless, Sanosuke truly didn’t intend any disrespect. Even if he was still a dumbass. Saitou probably shouldn’t have been so pleased.

Possibly sensing the change in atmosphere despite Saitou’s continued silence, Sanosuke added at a grumble, “And don’t talk about crime dramas like they’re worthless. Nothing wrong with getting some entertainment out of crime, since it has to happen anyway. Besides, they make people think, don’t they?”

“I’m not sure they make people think about anything useful.” Saitou’s tone had eased as his attitude had. He wasn’t about to offer an apology for having misjudged, but in a slightly more conciliatory manner he did add, “I do enjoy some crime dramas, though.”

Anger seemingly in full recession, Sanosuke dropped back into the same crouch as before; it allowed him a closer view through the railings of the narrow street beneath him. And his tone too had lightened as he replied, “We should read some together sometime,” with an incongruously suggestive smile.

“‘Read?'” Saitou echoed in surprise. Literature was not the medium he would have expected Sanosuke to propose.

“Yeah, you know, like… Barnes & Noble and chill.”

Saitou laughed. He couldn’t help it. He sobered quickly, though, shaking his head and making the scan he’d come here for in the first place. When he glanced back up at the fire escape, he found Sanosuke watching him intently. “You’re not likely to see a lot of procedure here today. The team’s going to get started soon, and you’re going to be asked to leave.”

Sanosuke merely shrugged. “At least I got to see you.”

“Do you want to join the police?” Saitou wondered, ignoring this latest bit of flirtation. “Is that what this is about?”

“No. What?” Sanosuke seemed inordinately surprised at the question, as if the idea had never occurred to him and he was a little incredulous it had to Saitou. “Actually I’m an–” But he stopped when Saitou’s phone warbled thrice in quick succession.

I see you gossiping over there, Tokio had sent from the alley’s entrance. The second message read, Is that that kid from the pizza place? Followed immediately by, If you’re not going to help me take statements, I hope you’re at least setting up a double date with him and someone for me. She had a remarkable gift for never letting on that she was texting while busy with something else.

I’m taking HIS statement, Saitou replied, and proceeded to do so. “How long have you been out here?” he asked as he returned his eyes to Sanosuke, who he knew had not been stationed on the fire escape for any significant span but who, with that unexpected detail orientation of his, yet might have noticed something useful.

In order to look at his watch, Sanosuke pulled back the sleeve of his hoodie. It was the same he’d been wearing the first time Saitou had encountered him, the one whose bright red looked so good with his brown eyes and dark brows. “Twelve minutes,” he answered in the more businesslike tone he used to give solicited information, “and we’ve been talking for three.”

His statement about where we’ll all be going out to dinner tonight? Tokio wondered. I never did get a chance to tell him what your dream date would be like.

“So you didn’t see anything here.” The body would have been gone by the time Sanosuke emerged from the apartment, it seemed.

“Thought you weren’t supposed to frame it as a leading statement like that,” Sanosuke said with a crafty smile. Observing Saitou’s impatient expression he added, “No, sorry, I didn’t see anything here except the neighbors upstairs.”

“We’ll have to talk to them,” Saitou confirmed. He paused for a moment in order to send, If YOU want to go to dinner with him tonight, I’ll give you his number. Then he asked aloud, “Who was the friend who texted you to come here?”

And as Sanosuke described his acquaintance and the circumstances under which the guy had noticed the gathering police — all perfectly, dully innocuous — Tokio replied, So you DO have his number.

May I remind you someone has died here. Saitou wished he could send a stern expression in some manner other than by using emojis, which he found stupid and counterproductive.

“Are you texting your partner at the same time you’re questioning me?” Sanosuke asked with uncanny acumen. “Say hi to her for me.”

“May I remind you someone has died here?” Satisfyingly, Saitou was now able to employ the stern expression.

“I know that.” Sanosuke stood straight again, looking around once more at the taped-off area. His bearing and faint frown indicated he truly was taking this seriously, despite any little indications to the contrary. It was an almost police-like attitude of Life goes on in spite of everything that struck Saitou as odd and more than a little fascinating coming from someone that had expressed surprise at the idea of his wanting to join the force.

Did that kid kill him? was the next text from Tokio, and Saitou stifled a sighing laugh. It wasn’t as if they didn’t pretty typically use gallows humor and fake flippancy in most situations like this, after all. Life went on in spite of everything; Sanosuke couldn’t really be blamed for exhibiting some levity even in the wake of a murder when the cops did the same thing. Actually it stirred up a sense of camaraderie between them that Saitou would rather it didn’t, and made the idea of spending time with him — in some situation besides the somewhat ridiculous ones in which they’d met so far — seem all the more appealing.

“You guys’ll figure it out,” Sanosuke went on in a lighter tone. “By dinner time, maybe? Then you can meet me somewhere. Do you like pizza? We never established that last time.”

Thinking he really should give his partner Sanosuke’s number, since the two of them were so eager to have dinner somewhere tonight, Saitou instead pocketed his phone in some irascibility without responding to Tokio’s latest, which was, In any case, say hi to him for me. And tell him I own this entire city block. In fact she didn’t even own her car. He did not relay the greeting of either one of them.

“Or you could come to my place — you remember where I live, right? — and I’ll cook us dinner. And then breakfast tomorrow,” Sanosuke finished with eyebrows pumping.

Saitou rolled his own eyes at the impudence that could flirt so blatantly while overlooking the tragic and gruesome. Simultaneously, though, it made for another nice contrast. “I have no more questions for you,” he said shortly. “You’d better clear out.”

“OK, fine.” Sanosuke’s tone was one of mingled regret and frustration, with just a touch of defiance thrown in; Saitou, having turned away and started walking, couldn’t see his face, but he believed the obnoxious kid was torn between respecting the crime scene and annoyance with Saitou for not responding to his amorous efforts. He was also probably, based on what Saitou knew of him so far, trying to concoct one last snappy statement, whatever its purport. After all, the chances of their meeting like this ever again — by coincidence while Saitou was working — seemed infinitesimal, so if he wanted to change the nature of their relationship, this was pretty much his last chance.

The only thing he came up with, however, before (if the sound of rough hinges and the closing of a door was any indication) also turning and leaving, was a shouted, “Call me!”

And Saitou didn’t necessarily know that he would. But the temptation was definitely there.

*

He’d been wrong. So very wrong. He imagined a number of shapes lying on a table — perhaps a table like the one at which he now stood — onto which a fist had just slammed down hard — harder than his limp hands had helplessly come to rest on this one — and the shapes jumping into the air and falling again all scrambled into an entirely new pattern. Everything was different now, and a lot of facts bore considering in quick succession.

Zanza Sagara, quite possibly Saitou’s favorite author, had suggested they read together.

Zanza Sagara, Saitou’s favorite author, had asked if Saitou was single.

Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

Zanza Sagara, historically so repressive in keeping his personal life separate from his professional, had actually, at one point (Saitou realized now), been on the verge of crossing the line and mentioning to some random guy he was flirting with that he was an author of detective novels. On the verge of letting Saitou in on that secret in order to make him understand why he was so interested in crime scenes.

Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

Given that there were seven books in the Yuki Tomoshiro series, that they’d been released over the last decade, and that no preteen had written any of it, Zanza Sagara had to be at least ten years older than that fresh face of his indicated. And he really did live in town… in fact Saitou knew exactly where he lived… He knew where he had, at least up until its closure a few months back, worked on his novels while eating cheap pizza. He knew what color most flattered his eyes, and it wasn’t the sage green of the tie-less button-up he currently wore.

Now the author looked over at the sudden movement through the crowd and abrupt appearance at his signing table, and his jovial face broke into a wide grin. And why was Saitou so damn pleased at that familiar expression? Yes, this was Zanza Sagara, his favorite author, but it was also that dumbass kid he’d never quite been able to bring himself to reprimand properly for being obnoxious and obstructive, because he was so very, very distracting.

The two were merging irrevocably in Saitou’s thoughts, however. His favorite author was taking on the undeniably gorgeous looks and compelling aura of the dumbass kid, and the dumbass kid was revealed to have the intelligence and creativity to write a series of books Saitou hadn’t been able to put down. It frustrated and disconcerted him. He didn’t know what to do.

“Saitou!” Zanza jumped up, knocking his folding chair over with a clatter and appearing overjoyed — which still, aggravatingly, provoked a similar response in the officer. The author’s surprise at seeing him faded quickly as he added what would have been incongruous with that emotion: “You made it!”

The crowd, previously discontented at Saitou’s rude intrusion, seemed to relax and accept his presence much more readily as the person they were all here to see reacted so favorably to it. There was some shifting — these were probably bookstore employees and maybe an agent or publisher’s representative standing near the author, and some looks of slight confusion passed among them as Sanosuke seized Saitou’s arm and dragged him around the end of the table to stand beside him. Saitou, still shell-shocked and not sure how to react, went unresisting.

“Guys, this is Detective Saitou, RCPD!” Sanosuke announced. He draped an arm around Saitou’s shoulders in a manner so far from platonic that Saitou marveled there wasn’t a chorus of titters from the assembly, and fitted himself against Saitou’s just slightly taller form as if he’d been designed for that space. It was obnoxiously comfortable, and Saitou had to actively fight the urge to slip his own arm around Sanosuke’s waist. “He helped me with some accuracy checks in this latest book…”

Perhaps this statement was true in a sense, but it certainly made it sound as if Saitou had provided a lot more directed information and critique than had actually been the case. It also, somewhat to Saitou’s chagrin, gave him a little thrill, as if he really had been involved in the production of the most recent installment of his favorite series. He shouldn’t be feeling so much excitement about this; Sanosuke just wanted to get into his pants, right?

Though was that idea really so bad?

“…and he’s going to be my consultant for all the rest of the series!” Sanosuke finished, and Saitou had to clench his jaw to keep it from dropping open. There was no doubt the sly young author meant what he suggested, but in addition to that a twist to the sound of ‘be my consultant’ implied so much more than just police-picking details in future books (itself a delightful prospect). The arm around Saitou’s shoulders tightened, and the warmth all along his side seemed to squirm just slightly closer. “Right, Saitou?”

“You shameless idiot,” was what Saitou wanted to say. But under the gaze of a hundred expectant fans (among whom he reluctantly had to number himself), with the prospect in mind of getting a glimpse not only at Zanza Sagara’s work in advance but also at his writing process as it took place, and with a very desirable person he hadn’t wanted to admit he would like to get to know better in a couple of different senses pressed covetously up against him, all he could manage was, “Of course.”

That this bargain had been struck only this moment, and perhaps somewhat under the duress of an unexpected public appearance, it seemed a fair amount of the audience recognized, and there was some laughter interspersed among the applause that followed, but nobody seemed to object. Sanosuke gave his possessive arm another squeeze, then looked around for the chair he’d knocked over so as to resume his celebrity activities — but not until after granting Saitou a very private and evocative grin that promised a host of interesting possibilities for the future.

Well, Saitou was thoroughly embroiled now, but he found he didn’t mind so much. Anticipation and curiosity filled in the gap between astonishment and annoyance at today’s unanticipated events, and looking forward through a disbelieving haze that fully obscured what on earth might happen from here — not to mention the necessity of staving off Tokyo’s inevitable curiosity about his inevitable preoccupation — would undoubtedly occupy his work shift to a lesser or greater extent.

He’d been wrong about the diminutive likelihood of ever meeting Sanosuke by coincidence again; he’d been wrong about the minuscule probability of the young man’s getting what he wanted. He’d been wrong about his real level of interest both in Sanosuke Higashidani and Zanza Sagara, and as such could never have imagined the direction this day would go when he’d decided, under the pretense of having nothing better to do and unrelatedly wanting to look at e-readers, to stop by this bookstore to catch a glimpse of his favorite author. He’d been wrong about a fair few things, it seemed.

Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.


This fic, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Yaoibutterfly, because one time when they were telling me about a story idea they had, my brain tangented and came up with this thing. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.



Stumped

“You’re always so honest. I feel like I could come to you about anything.”

Spike wonders whom to ask to spend Hearts and Hooves Day with him. Applejack may know.


“Prop that there log up under here, would you, Spike?”

Proof of the little dragon’s trust in Applejack was the readiness with which he seized the piece of firewood in question and hopped down into the awkward hole beside her in order to squeeze it under part of the enormous tree stump she was holding partially up with her forehooves. If she were to lose her grip, the thing would swivel down on top of them, retaking its place in the gap in which they stood and crushing them without a trace.

As it was, once Spike had wedged the log in place and vacated the hole, Applejack eased the stump down to test it; and when it held, standing perpendicular to its usual position propped on the other piece of wood, she made a satisfied sound and also jumped out.

“Hey, Applejack!” was Spike’s belated greeting.

“Hiya, Spike,” replied the amused pony as she positioned herself just at the edge of the hole.

“Can I talk to you about something?”

“Sure thing, if you don’t mind me workin’ on this gol-durned stump at the same time.” She turned her back to the object in question, looking over her shoulder to adjust her angle.

“OK,” said Spike, then took a deep breath. His next phase came out all in a rush: “I need some advice about Hearts and Hooves Day.”

With great precision and all the force she could muster, Applejack bucked at the stump, hoping with the motion to disengage the two stubborn and inconveniently deep roots that yet held it in place. Unfortunately, all it actually did was dislodge the log from the stump’s jagged underside and bring the latter creaking inevitably back down into its former home. “Darn it,” Applejack muttered. Then she turned to Spike, who had watched with interest. “You need advice on how to ask Rarity to spend Hearts and Hooves Day with you?”

“Well…” Spike traced a pattern in the dirt with one clawed foot. “Not exactly. See, I like Rarity… I really, really, really like Rarity… but…” He gave a hopeless sigh. “She still thinks of me as a kid.”

“Rarity is real sophisticated,” Applejack admitted. “I think she’d prefer somepony older.” She didn’t mention, as unhelpful, how little it improved matters that Twilight always referred to Spike, however affectionately, as a ‘baby dragon’ — which, though it might technically be true in terms of years, proportionally speaking, gave an inaccurate impression of Spike’s level of development and maturity.

“Yeah,” said Spike, wistful and admiring. “So sophisticated.”

“Won’t do any good to dwell on it,” Applejack said with matter-of-fact sympathy. “Who’re you gonna ask instead?” She was studying the stump from all sides again, trying to determine, since bucking hadn’t worked, what would be the most efficient method of getting it out of there.

“That’s…” She could hear him pawing the ground again, but presently this was overridden by a brief belching sound and the rustle of paper. “…actually what I want your advice about.”

She glanced over to find him holding a scroll that, as it unrolled, proved longer than he was tall. Stifling a laugh she commented, “You’ve been workin’ for Twilight for too long.”

“Do you think so?” Spike asked somewhat anxiously. “Just, she’s the first pony on my list…”

Applejack had gone back to examining the troublesome roots. “Just a joke, Spike,” she assured him with a grin. “Twilight’s a genius when it comes to organization, and that’s been useful to everypony in this town.” Moving to the wagon in whose bed her tools waited (not to mention a huge heap of firewood from the tree she’d felled), she hopped up. As she tossed her shovel shoes down over the side, their brief presence in her mouth muffled her subsequent words somewhat: “But for Hearts and Hooves Day, dontcha think you might like somepony a little more spontaneous? She’d probably put you on a tighter schedule than you’d really enjoy.”

Spike made a note on his list (she had no idea where he’d been keeping the quill) as Applejack jumped back down from the wagon. “Well, there’s Rainbow Dash,” he suggested, hovering the tip of his pen over another spot on the paper.

Applejack chuckled. “Can’t get better than Rainbow Dash for spontaneity!” Adjusting her shovel shoes and slipping her forehooves into them, she added, “Rainbow’s a lot of fun, too. You’d have an excitin’ Hearts and Hooves Day with her! She might wear you out, though; she doesn’t always notice when ponies around her don’t have as much energy as she does.”

“True,” Spike agreed with a nod, and jotted something down. “But I bet I wouldn’t have to worry about that with Fluttershy!”

Applejack had begun driving the blades now attached to her feet into the earth beside one of the problem roots. She would never be able to get at the stupid thing with a saw, but if she cleared the dirt down to a point where the root wasn’t so stubbornly thick, she could try an axe. And as she dug she replied to Spike’s latest proposal. “No, you’re right about that: Fluttershy’s always sensitive to ponies around her. You might have a sweet old time with her.” She paused in her vigorous attack on the ground and looked over at him with a rueful expression. “She really is shy, though, obvious as that sounds to say. She might be too bashful to enjoy anythin’ y’all decided to do together that day, if she even agreed in the first place.”

Spike nodded decisively, evidently accepting this assessment, and made another mark on his list. “You know who’s not shy, though?”

“Pinkie Pie?” Applejack speculated as she returned to her digging.

Spike sounded startled. “Yeah; how’d you know?”

“Lucky guess?” Digging down the sides of the root was proving somewhat tricky, and she was coming at it in bits and pieces from various angles.

“Well, yeah, then, what about Pinkie Pie?”

“She knows how to have fun if anypony does!” Applejack replied, the thought of the broadness of Pinkie’s definition of ‘fun’ making her grin. “And she can always come up with things to do, so y’all’d never be bored…”

As Applejack trailed off in the relative silence of the shovel shoes’ continued scraping thunks into the ground, Spike wondered, “But…?”

Somewhat reluctantly Applejack answered, “But dontcha think an entire day with just Pinkie might get a little… crazy? I’d never want to insinuate an earth pony wasn’t down-to-earth enough, but sometimes Pinkie Pie…”

“‘Possible sensory overload,'” Spike muttered as he scribbled.

Applejack gave a laugh of agreement, but found her smile turning to a faint frown as she looked at the dragon and his lengthy paper. “Now, just how many more names do you have on that there list?” she wondered warily.

“Oh, tons,” Spike replied. “There’s Cheerilee, and Rainbow’s friend Gilda, and Time Turner, and Vinyl Scratch, and Lyra, and Big McIntosh–”

Applejack was afraid she would have some disqualifying news about more than a few of the ponies Spike was considering, but on this topic as well as the conspicuous lack of one particular name she had no comment as yet. What she wanted to know next, gently interrupting the recital, was, “And why’d you come to me about this, Spike?”

“Because,” the dragon replied earnestly, lowering his paper and looking at her with big green eyes, “you’re always so honest. I feel like I could come to you about anything, I guess.”

“Well, you keep right on feelin’ that way,” Applejack told him with a smile that probably concealed very well the bittersweetness of this turn in the conversation. “But why this in particular?”

“You can tell me exactly what would be great about every one of our friends… and what wouldn’t be so great… as a special somepony for Hearts and Hooves day.” His looks and tone became despondent as he added, “And it seems like everypony has something about them that wouldn’t be so great…”

“Aw, Spike, you can’t think about it that way,” she chided kindly. “If I made it sound like any of our friends wouldn’t be a great choice for you to ask, I didn’t mean it. Nopony’s perfect; you’ll never find somepony who won’t have some problem. That’s the thing about havin’ a special somepony, even if it’s just for one day: you gotta work together to have fun in spite of everythin’ that ‘wouldn’t be so great.’ It takes a lot of hard work sometimes, but that just makes it better.”

“I guess,” he said a little doubtfully, looking down at his list again.

Applejack too returned her eyes downward. She’d made good progress on the root, but it was going to take as long again to render it accessible to an axe, and even once it was severed she would probably need to dig further along its length to free it from the constricting earth in order to lift the stump out. And then there was the other root.

“I think we could both use a break,” she said at length. “Wanna ride to the house for some cider before we tackle this again?”

“Sure!” With an air of some relief, Spike rerolled his paper and fire-breathed it back to whatever hiding place, hopefully safe from Twilight’s sharp eyes, it had originally come from (and perhaps his pen with it?).

Applejack, meanwhile, shed her shovel shoes and stretched out her forelegs. When she found the little dragon standing next to her, she reached out to grip between her teeth the spines just south of his neck and toss him up over her head and onto her back. His innocent laughter at the stunt energized her, and she crouched slightly, tensed to run. “Time me!” she commanded.

“All right!” His little clawed hands gripped her mane just beneath her hat. “Ready? Set? Go!”

There was a certain type of withholding of information that was not a lie by omission, but rather a recognition that the truth had not yet matured into an appreciable form. Though he might not be a kid, precisely, Spike was still young, and had a lot to learn, both of universal constants and specific possibilities, not to mention of himself. It would never do to try to rush him. And Applejack, for all Spike might value her honest advice, probably had a thing or two to pick up as well. They could figure it out together, given time.

For now, they just galloped off through the trees.

This story, which I’ve rated ,was for MangoFox’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “MLP fic where Spike has multiple romantic interests. So he goes to Applejack to get advice on whom to choose. But it turns out that Applejack is actually the best choice for him.” I did not watch a single episode to prepare myself for writing this, none of Spike’s sarcasm ever happened, much to my sorrow, and the implied Applejack & Spike ended up kinda vague. Ah, well.

For some further thoughts on this fic, see this Productivity Log.



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).


Working Interview

As yet there were no symptoms of neurological disorder, however contradictory it might be that Duo appeared so generally happy after coming so close to death.

Concerning Duo’s Near-Death experience and its results.


The air in the tent Heero had pitched beside where they’d hidden their gundams was a trifle too warm — in large part thanks to the brush he’d arranged against the canvas siding for optimal concealment — but still he was sitting just within the open flaps where he could see and hear both inside and out, since he didn’t believe it wise to leave Duo alone at the moment. After having gone to the trouble of resuscitating him and hauling him back here (and the latter, at least, had been some considerable trouble), he wasn’t going to abandon him possibly to his death and waste all prior effort.

It wasn’t merely that. True, he was never pleased by wasted effort, but here he thought there was also some actual desire on his part for Duo not to die. Duo was often a useful ally, and allies of any type were rare enough in the current climate that Heero didn’t want to waste one of them either. And though the agitation he’d felt during the process of resuscitating this one had struck him as inexplicably excessive for the situation, mirroring the oddly heightened hope of this very moment for some sign that Duo had not suffered permanent damage, Heero wasn’t dwelling on it. He merely waited.

Slight indications of Duo’s change in consciousness sounded faintly before the crinkling of the emergency blanket signaled it more loudly and Heero looked back around to see the prone figure shifting. He reached over to put a hand on Duo’s shoulder. “Don’t move too much,” he admonished. “I assessed your condition the best I could, but you need to confirm your status.”

“You know, some people, when their injured friend wakes up, say things like, ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’ or ‘You’re going to be all right.’ But not Heero. Heero’s like, ‘Make sure your bones aren’t secretly broken before you move!'”

There was no reproof in Duo’s tone, no hint of bitterness. In fact he was smiling faintly, and simultaneously fixing Heero with an odd expression. It was a look such as Duo had never given him before, and suggested, in its turn, that it was seeing things about him Duo had never noticed before. An expression like that as the first to cross Duo’s face upon his regaining consciousness seemed a little illogical, and perhaps an indication of more injury to the brain than Heero had originally diagnosed.

“‘How are you feeling?’ isn’t specific enough. And I can’t know yet whether you’re going to be all right.”

“I know.” Duo’s smile widened, and he raised a hand to clasp the one of Heero’s that urged him to stay down. Though the movement was slow, the squeeze he gave was relatively strong and definitely warm. Heero withdrew his hand quickly.

“All right,” Duo grunted. “Checking now.” He started working his muscles, making the blanket shudder on top of him but not sitting up. Though the occasional grimace crossed his face as he felt out all the damage that had been done to his body back in the base, still he was giving Heero that unusual and unusually happy look. Though perhaps ‘happy’ wasn’t quite the right word. Heero sometimes had difficulties with emotions and how to describe them, and wasn’t entirely sure how to define what Duo appeared to be feeling at the moment. Normally he wouldn’t consider it a matter of any concern, as long as it didn’t interfere with Duo’s recovery and subsequent mission performance, but he found in himself now an unprecedented curiosity about Duo’s mental state.

“All right,” Duo repeated at last. “My muscles are all burning, and I’m completely exhausted, and I have a headache, and I’m dizzy, and I feel like I can’t catch my breath. Oh, and the backs of my arms and thighs feel like they were actually burned.” This list of complaints was delivered with such incongruous cheer that it might have been a list of reasons he was having a wonderful day. “What…” And the frown that followed his smile was no more than puzzled, seemed to hold no real unhappiness. “What actually happened?”

“It appeared one of your charges went off prematurely,” Heero replied, “and you were thrown against a wall. It must have been a serious shock to your body. Your heartrate was so erratic and weak that I could barely detect it, and you had no significant respiration.”

“Wow!” Duo looked surprised and impressed, and still sounded perfectly sanguine. “Who knew I sucked so bad at setting charges?”

“It may have been faulty.” Heero experienced a touch of surprise of his own as he said this, for he wasn’t usually given to seeking extenuating circumstance to justify past failure. What was done was done. But somehow it seemed undesirable to hear Duo claim that he ‘sucked so bad’ at something, especially something at which he had demonstrated sufficient expertise in the past.

Mirroring Heero’s at this statement, Duo’s surprise evidently grew a trifle. It seemed he too was unaccustomed to having Heero make such a deviation from his usual unrelenting practicality. And was he pleased by it as well? Why should that be? In any case, all he said was, “I’m lucky as hell the stupid thing went off when I was far enough away from it for it not to just kill me.” At Heero’s nod of agreement he went on, “The whole thing was really lucky, I guess. Lucky everything turned out the way it did… lucky you were there…”

Again Heero nodded, less certainly this time. He didn’t know that he believed in luck. Things had worked out better than they could have, though.

Slowly, as if continuing to test his muscles and find them smarting from that brief period of poor circulation, Duo raised his arms in a cautious motion to put hands behind his head in a pose that would normally appear casual and unconcerned. He yet seemed inordinately satisfied, as if things had worked out more than merely ‘better than they could have’ — which still didn’t entirely make sense, which still worried Heero a trifle. Why were Duo’s eyes fixed on him with such apparent pleasure? At least they were focused and unclouded eyes. What was the meaning of that faint smile on Duo’s lips, which looked so out of place beneath the discomfort evinced by his contracted brows? At least his facial muscles all seemed to be functioning properly.

Only after approximately one hundred and eighty seconds of the two young men staring wordlessly — Heero attempting to dissect Duo’s emotional state and determine whether it indicated cerebral damage, Duo conducting whatever mysterious thoughts were contributing to his bright eyes and inscrutable smile — did Duo ask, “So what’s next?” They each seemed to have fallen into a sort of reverie focused on the other, and from this Heero now shook himself.

He had no way to assess definitively the current state of Duo’s brain. He could only work from symptoms — and as yet there were none of neurological disorder, however contradictory it might be that Duo appeared so generally happy after coming so close to death. He glanced at the time. “Response to calls for help from the base could arrive as early as ninety minutes from now. That’s based on the location of their closest allies and the assumption that none of them were already en route for any reason. I would prefer to leave the area in forty-five minutes.” Actually he would have preferred to leave the area as soon as the mission was complete, but was providing Duo with the estimated maximum period he had to lie here and recover.

“Got it.” Now Duo removed his arms from where they’d been pillowing his head, still with the same gingerly motion as before. He rolled his shoulders slowly, extending his arms first upward, then out to the sides, flexing his hands as he did so. Since piloting a gundam, though it was taxing to the entire body, required the most from these particular organs, it was no surprise to see Duo trying to prepare them, in the time he had, for getting out of here in forty-five minutes. What might have been a surprise was that he still looked so cheerfully pensive as he did it.

Finally Duo broke the silence again with the perfectly conversational remark, “You know I’m not afraid of dying… not even a little bit.”

Heero believed it with certainty. The same held true for him, though he felt that the lack of fear each of them had was of a different composition, had different origins, said something different about the character of each. Deeper into this he did not have the capacity to probe, so he merely nodded.

“Actually it’ll probably be pretty cool,” Duo went on, continuing his stretching motions. “The next really big mission, you know?”

“That seems possible,” Heero allowed.

“But I’m still glad I didn’t die.”

It took no significant restraint for Heero not to reply that he, too, was glad — but the impulse to say it was distinctly present. He wondered whether mere pleasure at not having died was the explanation for Duo’s current mood.

“I feel like I’ve got lots of stuff to do.”

“There’s a lot for all of us to do.” In this Heero was both agreeing with Duo and echoing a sentiment he’d heard J express. “Probably more than any of us have time for.”

“Yep.” Duo seemed unperturbed by the grim idea. “Lots to do for probably a hopeless cause.” White teeth flashed in an open grin. “Good thing the work’s fun, huh?”

And there Duo had locked himself up in a sanctuary Heero could not enter, and one that, at the moment, he had no energy to assault. Already struggling with puzzlement regarding Duo’s inexplicable cheer, Heero didn’t need the added agitation of the old ‘trying to figure out what fun is’ problem. And though there was at the moment a strange combination of drive to know and indifference — he wanted to understand what Duo considered ‘fun’ about the work they did, how he felt in circumstances like this and why, but at the same time found the entire thing irrelevant enough to himself as to be almost tiresome to consider — neither desire nor disinterest motivated him at the moment: it was merely that he already had enough to think about.

This attitude was, he found, practical, for clues to neither Duo’s current frame of mind nor his concept of fun were forthcoming during the next half hour, which was all the time Heero had to spend in his company right now and certainly not enough to give him answers. And perhaps he did believe in luck after all, since he considered it lucky or something like it that answers were not what he needed or sought. It was a little odd that he even wanted them.

As they broke camp and prepared to go their separate ways, to report their success to and receive further instructions from their disparate commands, Heero watched Duo’s movements carefully. He should have been convinced by them that there would be no danger in leaving the other pilot unsupervised, but there was some last little percentage of conviction that seemed impossible for him to obtain. Perhaps it was because he knew how easily the fragile human body could suffer invisible damage, and how foolish it would be for Duo to die or suffer other permanent ill consequences after the successful conclusion of a mission due to a simple lack of proper medical care.

So as Duo headed for the cockpit of Deathscythe high above and separation from Heero for a length of time neither of them could guess, his movements still apparently a bit uncomfortable, Heero held him back for a moment with the serious admonition, “Be sure to have some scans run. We don’t know what kind of internal damage that shock may have done.”

Duo, hand still on the cable that would draw him upward and away as soon as he initiated its retraction, turned toward Heero, this time with an expression that looked somewhat annoyed or frustrated. “You know I was planning to make you go out to lunch with me after we were done?” He grunted in irritation. “Nothing like a near-death experience to mess up your hopes of marinara sauce, huh?”

Taken aback by what seemed an almost completely irrelevant response, and not as ready as he might have been with a statement that this proposal wouldn’t have been practicable even without the near-death experience, Heero said nothing.

“The point is,” Duo explained, leveling one finger at Heero almost accusingly, “I already said I had lots of stuff to get done.”

Thinking he understood and therefore giving a nod of acknowledgment, Heero replied, “Just remember we can’t go out to lunch if you die of a skull fracture you could have caught with one radiograph.”

Duo’s thwarted expression turned into a grin. “Roger that.” And he ascended.

As Heero followed suit, he wondered just how seriously Duo had taken his advice. Adding this to his curiosity about Duo’s frame of mind and the strange looks he’d been giving Heero, Duo’s state of health and the possible results of today’s injury, why Heero was so unexpectedly interested in all of this, and whether or not he’d just agreed to go out to lunch at some point, he came up with a package of unusual inquisitiveness that was probably better not opened today, if ever at all. It was easier to enter his own gundam, fire it up, exchange a brief confirmation of departure/goodbye with his fellow pilot, and flee the area without wondering any more about any of it right now.

*

Duo didn’t much like these underground bases with their claustrophobic little corridors. There wasn’t room for a gundam’s foot, let alone to swing a twelve-meter scythe. To destroy a place like this he had to run in on his own legs, usually shooting a number of people on the way, and set a bunch of charges.

Of course, when Heero had the same mission, there was the option of having him blast at the place from outside with his beam cannon while Duo guarded his back against a horde of defenders… but Heero didn’t seem to think that sounded nearly as fun as Duo did, and there was always the possibility that the result would be a field of melty slag atop a series of untouched inner rooms and hallways too deep for the cannon to reach. So running and shooting and charges it was.

Not that there wasn’t a huge rush associated with meeting Heero again outside the base after a heart-pounding, gunfire-punctuated twenty minutes apart, taking cover in the brush, and counting down to a simultaneous activation of detonators. But heated gundam battles were always exciting. Heero was all about strategy and proportional expenditure of energy, though.

Today’s expenditure of energy went quite smoothly. These folks were pretty well trained, but they weren’t ready for a couple of gundam pilots. Quite a few of them were even smart enough to run, and Duo mostly let them go; the focus here was the facilities, the equipment, more than the personnel. Some heavy explosions would take care of that, and, though that probably wouldn’t be as fun as a mobile suits battle, maybe he could then convince Heero to go get some lunch with him somewhere afterwards.

With that happy thought, he dealt with obstructions, set his charges, checked with Heero (who was also just leaving), and headed out. Noodles, he thought, sounded good. Something with marinara sauce.

Only then something (something without marinara sauce) exploded. It wasn’t time yet, and he could swear he’d set them up correctly, but something exploded anyway. As was not infrequently the case when explosions were involved, he wasn’t entirely certain what happened next. There was heat and whooshing and pain, and he thought abrupt full-body contact with a wall might have been involved; but then everything went black.

Fortunately, the confusion didn’t last long. At least, it seemed like only a moment or two later that Duo was climbing to his feet with no difficulty. The explosion didn’t appear to have progressed considerably… in fact, the whole world seemed to have slowed down, which was a little strange. So was the realization that, although he had stood up, he was also still lying at the base of the wall, looking rather the worse for wear. Why did there seem to be two of him all of a sudden?

Listening to Heero’s voice over his communicator demanding to know what had happened and whether he was injured, the sound even smaller and more distant than it should have been from where Duo was (for lack of a better word) standing, he stared down at himself in some puzzlement. Not a great deal of puzzlement, though; it didn’t seem to matter all that much why his body and his primary area of consciousness suddenly weren’t occupying the same space the way they normally did.

Even when the explosion had passed and left only small lingering fires in its wake, and the sound of feet in the nearby corridor heralded the advent of Heero; even when Heero, completely ignoring Duo and, in fact, apparently running directly through him and out the other side so that Duo had to spin around to continue watching him… even then, all Duo had to say was a mildly interested, “Huh.” And he might have been surprised at the serenity of his tone if he hadn’t suddenly felt so very calm. “Weird.”

INDEED, came a voice from beside him. It was an odd and interesting voice; in fact, it was more interesting than the events in front of him, and Duo rather liked it. And when he turned to find its source, he liked what he saw even more.

The figure that now stood next to him where none had been a moment before was unnaturally tall, but somehow it didn’t really look unnatural — especially since the excessive height was compensated for by an excessive narrowness: despite the great length of the deep black robe, hood drawn low over the face, that shrouded the entire shape, it was clear there wasn’t a lot of room inside. And then there was the totally fleshless hand that emerged from one black sleeve to clutch the smooth haft of a great scythe even taller than the figure itself.

Duo couldn’t decide whether he liked the bony hand or the bright edge of the weapon best… or maybe it was the figure as a whole. Perhaps it was a little odd, especially in the apparent context, but he was definitely reacting positively to what he saw. He might even go so far as to say he was delighted… except that nothing he felt at the moment was quite strong enough for such a word.

“So you do exist,” he said. There was a touch of admiration to his tone, but even this seemed to have faded into placidity.

TODAY I DO, replied the figure. TOMORROW I MAY NOT.

Trying to reconcile the uncanny voice he didn’t quite seem to be hearing, as he understood the action, Duo shook his head, found the motion similarly uncanny for its lack of physical sensation, and gave up. “Tomorrow I may not,” he pointed out instead.

OH, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO EXIST, the voice from beneath the hood assured him. A bony hand — the one not holding the scythe — flicked toward where Heero was assessing the level of injury to Duo’s limp figure. BUT POSSIBLY NOT IN THIS FORM. Then the fleshless fingers gestured back in the direction of the swaying cloak that presumably enveloped an even more extensive set of bones. I, HOWEVER, MAY NO LONGER EXIST IN THIS WORLD BY THE TIME YOUR PERCEPTION OF TIME HAS ADVANCED TO WHAT YOU CONSIDER “TOMORROW.”

Duo had been planning on asking in what form he would exist tomorrow, if not this one, but was distracted by what seemed a greater issue. “How can you not exist?” he wondered. “Aren’t you sorta… universal? You know you’ve kinda been my hobby for half my life… I’ve more or less named myself after you…” He finished up where he’d started: “How can you not exist?”

With a clattering noise, off-white phalanges and metacarpals drummed pensively against the black haft of the scythe as their owner seemed to consider, in the darkness of his hood, how to answer this question. Finally the strange voice said, DEATH IS UNIVERSAL, YES, BUT THE PRESENCE OF AN ANTHROPOMORPHIZED REPRESENTATION OF THE PROCESS MAY BE AFFECTED BY THE SKEPTICISM LEVELS IN A GIVEN UNIVERSE. THIS WORLD HAS LACKED A DISTINCT ANTHROPOMORPHIZATION FOR SEVERAL OF YOUR CENTURIES.

Duo wasn’t quite sure he got it, but one fact stood out. “So you come from another world.”

The upper portion of the hooded form moved forward slightly in what Duo read as a nod. MY PRIMARY PERSONIFICATION TOOK PLACE IN A DIFFERENT CONTINUUM. BUT BECAUSE MY VISUAL MANIFESTATION CORRESPONDS SO CLOSELY WITH CERTAIN TRADITIONAL IMAGERY ASSOCIATED WITH DEATH IN A SUFFICIENT PERCENTAGE OF YOUR POPULATION, I HAVE BEEN TEMPORARILY ENGAGED TO TEST THE RECEPTIVENESS OF THIS WORLD TO THE REINSTATEMENT OF A PERSONIFICATION.

Duo raised a hand to scratch at the back of his head, unsatisfying as the gesture was. “So… you’re doing a sort of… working interview?”

The tall figure was perfectly still for a moment, as if considering — perhaps searching an impossibly long memory for the phrase in question and deciding whether it fit. Finally, YOU COULD SAY THAT, the sepulchral voice allowed. BUT I BELIEVE “ANTIGEN” MIGHT BE A BETTER TERM. THE RESULT OF A POSITIVE ASSESSMENT IS LIKELY TO BE THAT THIS WORLD REACTS TO MY DEPARTURE BY REGENERATING ITS OWN PERSONIFICATION OF DEATH.

“And where would that come from?” Duo wondered, extremely interested; intellectual processes, though largely divorced from emotion, seemed still intact. “Just out of nowhere? Or could it be, maybe, a person who already existed who happened to have died? Maybe someone who always believed in Death even more than he believed in God?”

The hooded head turned specifically toward him for the first time, and Duo definitely made out the gleam of blue eyes in the darkness. He met the gaze without fear, and not merely because fear seemed irrelevant here and now; his interest facilitated his confidence. He met the gaze that seemed to be reading him — looking, perhaps, into his past, seeking out the truth of his words and the qualifications he’d been hinting at — and in his turn he read.

He saw a spirit that wanted to understand humanity, perhaps even wanted to join it, but thought — even feared — it never could. He saw a mind that believed itself entirely separate from emotion — not in disdainful aloofness, considering itself exalted into logic and above emotion, but in something much more like naiveté. The Order Of Things was all this being knew… or, at least, The Order Of Things was all that had ever been taught, which had led to an understanding at once supernaturally deep and pitifully shallow.

And yet this was a being that desired, that believed, that feared. Duo thought it was a being that knew joy and sorrow and love… but probably did not begin to understand them, or perhaps even to recognize their presence. It was captivatingly pathetic… instantly endearing… or would have been if pity and fondness hadn’t been so muffled and distant at the moment.

Duo was the first to blink. Of course he was pretty sure there weren’t eyelids in the shadow beneath the hood, and his own remembered need to periodically shutter his eyeballs did him a disservice. He wasn’t cowed, however; rather, he was wondering at the detail of his own assessment. Was he making things up? Or, if it was true, how did he think he knew all of that?

Then, with a jolt — or what might have been a jolt back on the other side — he realized abruptly that this wasn’t the first time he’d looked into blue eyes and seen that kind of spirit, that kind of mind.

It seemed ironic, somehow, that, when Duo was the one to claim for himself the title of God of Death, this actual specter of Death should remind him more of–

I CAN MENTION YOUR NAME, the figure said at last.

Letting go, for now, of his previous thoughts, Duo said in relative heartiness, “Thanks!”

DON’T MENTION IT. And the dark form turned back to its apparent scrutiny of Heero performing CPCR on Duo’s body.

Duo followed the line of focus and watched as his fellow pilot tried to bring him back. “But I’m already dead, right?” he wondered aloud. He really should have been experiencing a greater level of concern about this, but just couldn’t seem to muster it.

TECHNICALLY, said the hooded figure. FOR THE MOMENT. BUT THIS FRANTIC YOUNG MAN MAY BE ABLE TO RESUSCITATE YOU.

From somewhere in the currently hazy center of Duo’s mind where he cared about what went on in life, he was informed that, on that side of things, it would be very significant to him that the usually implacable Heero was so frantic in his attempts to revive Duo — that he appeared, as he compressed Duo’s chest, to be experiencing real desperation and terror… emotions he perhaps did not comprehend or even recognize. At the moment, ‘here,’ this only almost mattered, almost meant something. Some emotion on the life side wasn’t quite developed enough to reach into Duo’s placid state of death. He wondered whether that would change if he went back; he wondered how qualified he was to judge anyone’s emotionality when he was in such an uncertain condition himself.

The likelihood of going back seemed, he thought, fairly good. Anything Heero knew how to do he knew how to do perfectly, and first aid was no exception. And Duo’s body didn’t seem to have been too desperately damaged, only given a pretty hard shock.

He felt this theory confirmed when the figure at his side presently remarked, THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES, BUT CONSIDER YOURSELF UNDER OBSERVATION FROM NOW ON.

“Sweet,” said Duo.

The robed form turned toward him again, this time in a movement that seemed slightly puzzled. EVEN ALLOWING FOR A PSYCHOLOGICAL PERCEPTION OF FLAVOR, I SHOULD THINK THERE IS NOTHING TO TASTE AT THE MOMENT.

“Oh, sorry,” Duo grinned. “I mean, that’s good. I like that.”

AH, OF COURSE. A SLANG EXPRESSION. He said this in a tone that suggested he was filing the term away for future reference or perhaps use. Then he turned back toward the living scene — where, Duo noticed, Heero seemed to have calmed down a bit, though he hadn’t quite returned yet to his usual stoniness.

Simultaneously, Duo was aware of a sudden increase to a sensation that had previously been so sluggish as to go largely unnoticed. If he’d had to describe it (and for one pointless instant he was considering how to), he would have said it felt as if something in his chest, fluttering only feebly before, had abruptly resumed a stronger rhythmic movement by which it was forcing some kind of fluid to circulate throughout his entire body. And being currently disembodied made this very strange. Actually, the fact that he found it very strange was, compared with his previous lack of concern, rather strange. “Am I going back?”

IT WOULD APPEAR SO. YOU WON’T REMEMBER ANY OF THIS, NATURALLY.

“What?” The startled Duo began to turn. “But then how can I–” But at that moment, once again, everything went black.


So, yeah, surprise crossover here, in the form of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Death. Canon crossovers are not something in which I typically indulge (as a matter of fact, this’ll be the first one around this place), but I think it works well enough here. As a matter of fact, I kiiinda freaked out with joy when I thought of that Heero/Death comparison.

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


Ultramarine


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing personal,” Heero had echoed dully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I’ve rated this fic .

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


Commonality


Kaoru had just started on lunch, dropping a few grumbling hints that Sano could get up and help rather than lying around waiting for her to do all the work on a meal he was only going to complain about eventually anyway, when Megumi appeared.

After greeting the doctor, looking immediately back to the seasonings she was measuring out, Kaoru added, “Kenshin’s not here right now.”

“Jou-chan sent him out for the usual shit-ton of groceries she doesn’t actually need yet,” Sano elaborated from his prone position on the floor.

“I see!” Megumi gave that amused-with-everyone-for-no-reason-she-would-ever-divulge smile, and, stepping to the stove, lifted the lid on the rice just a fraction and peered in. Expression unchanged, she said, “I might as well give you a hand with this, then,” and crouched to poke at the fire with an immediacy suggesting she thought dire things were or would be happening to the rice at the current temperature.

Appearing somewhat torn, Kaoru said nothing. Sano continued to lift no finger to join in the cooking endeavor.

Finally, after a lengthy silence during which the look on Megumi’s face had gradually shifted to one more pensive as she kept it mostly hidden from the others in attending to the stove fire, she remarked in a tone lighter than her expression, “It’s a shame Ken-san isn’t here… I was going to ask his opinion on something.”

In concert the others protested that this comment seemed to dismiss their opinions as not worth the asking, and Kaoru went on with, “And it isn’t as if you can’t stay until Kenshin comes back!”

Megumi laughed. “I feel so much more welcome around here than I used to!”

Perhaps Kaoru appeared torn again, but she’d bent so far over the fish she was seasoning that it was impossible to tell. At any rate, she said nothing.

“Well, I suppose I will ask your opinions, then,” Megumi said. She went on at once as if it were no great matter, “I feel like someone has been watching me lately.”

Not only did Kaoru’s face snap up in response to this, but Sano propped himself onto an elbow to look at Megumi. Their expressions were startled, but where Kaoru’s had also a touch of concern, Sano’s seemed more annoyed or even angry. “Seriously?” he wondered, in a dark tone as if this confirmed some fear.

“Are you sure?” Kaoru said at the same time.

“No,” Megumi admitted, answering one rather than the other (and possibly ignoring the other entirely, for all the attention she paid him). “I’m not a warrior of any description, of course, but I’ve had a… unique living situation for a while now, and…” She shrugged, still easy even if she had become a little more serious. “You start to pick things up. Or maybe just become paranoid. That’s what I wanted to consult with Ken-san about.”

“But I’ve thought the same thing!” Kaoru gripped the board before her knees as she stared up at Megumi intensely. “That someone’s spying on me or something… I never actually see anyone or anything suspicious, but I can’t shake the feeling!”

Megumi returned her surprise, and now there was some of the same concern in her eyes that already lay in Kaoru’s.

“Me too,” Sano put in before either of them could say anything more, sitting up completely and adding the concentration of his gaze to the one they were sharing. “I’ve been having that same experience for the last week or so.”

Megumi let out a breath. “Then I suppose I haven’t been imagining things.”

“But who is it?” Kaoru demanded. “And why? What do they want? Does Kenshin know? Is he being watched too?”

“I hate to admit it–” and, indeed, Sano sounded reluctant and irritated to be doing so– “but Kenshin would have noticed way before we did.”

The others nodded. “And done something about it,” Kaoru added.

“It could be the type of thing he might not have said anything about to the rest of us,” Megumi mused, “but he would certainly be aware of it if someone were spying on him.”

More nods. “I think he’s gotten over that not-including-us-in-important-dangerous-shit bullshit, though… Seems more likely we’re being spied on and he’s not.”

There was a moment of silence before Kaoru said, “The biggest thing the three of us have in common is…”

“…Ken-san himself,” Megumi finished. “Our friendship with him.”

“Um, and maybe more specifically…” Now Kaoru was visibly flustered as she again stared down at the fish and herbs on the preparation board in front of her. “I think maybe all three of us…”

Another brief silence passed before Sano, clearing his throat, took his turn finishing for her: “…thought we were in love with him for a fucking long time? Uh, yeah.”

Without bothering to deny it, Megumi said, “I doubt that has anything to do with whoever’s spying on us, though; I think it’s common enough among Ken-san’s acquaintances.”

“Do you?” Kaoru looked relieved at this, as if it at least began to lessen the embarrassment of having misunderstood her own heart for, as Sano put it, ‘a fucking long time.’

Appearing a little embarrassed herself, Megumi sought out the vegetables lying nearby, then began looking for a knife. “Ken-san has a tendency to rescue people from whatever is the worst thing in their lives when he meets them.”

“Or at least he’s so damn different from everyone…” Sano scratched his head as if struggling to put his thoughts into words. “People just get this kick in the balls all of a sudden — not literally, I mean — by this guy who’s like nothing they’ve ever met before.”

“He makes such a profound first impression,” Megumi went on, once again almost as if she hadn’t heard Sano’s input, “that I think nearly everyone who becomes his friend believes themselves in love with him for a while at first.”

“I don’t think they even have to become his friend. You guys’ve probably never heard houki-atama over at the police station talk about him.”

Kaoru broke in to clarify. “You mean that Juppongatana guy with the silly hair?”

“Yeah, him. Every time I’m at the police station — I mean, not like I’m there a lot or anything; I just sometimes happen to wander over there for no reason, you know? Anyway, houki’s always talking about Kenshin like… well, he’s always acting all pissed that Kenshin beat him so hard, and going on about how he’d love to have a rematch some time… but it’s totally obvious that Kenshin impressed the hell out of him, maybe even more than he annoyed him… and maybe he wants to meet up with Kenshin again way more than makes sense for just a rematch.”

“He can’t have much hope, though,” Kaoru said dubiously. “Kenshin would never look twice in his direction! Would he? Do you think?”

“Hmm,” was Megumi’s ambiguous opinion.

“I don’t know…” Again Sano sounded reluctant and even annoyed to admit this. “Chou’s a fucking idiot, but the police investigation shit is pretty cool. Something you can admire, you know? He’s on the right side now, doing a job that helps people and shit…”

“Hmm,” said Megumi again.

“No, I just can’t see it,” Kaoru decided, returning to her fish-seasoning endeavor with vigor as if to make up for time lost staring and being surprised. “Not a murderous jerk like that guy. But I think you’re exactly right, Megumi-san–” with a quick and perhaps somewhat appreciative glance in Megumi’s direction as if to congratulate her fleetingly on her excellent assessment– “about people getting the wrong idea about how they feel about Kenshin.

“I never thought about it before, but now that I do… It does seem like everyone who meets him kinda becomes obsessed with him. It’s easy to mistake that for love, especially if he lives with you…” Again she bent her head over her work, possibly to hide a blush, and her next words came out hastily as if she wanted to segue quickly. “Even his master, when we met him in Kyoto, acted a little like a resentful ex… like Kenshin had dumped him and he’d nobly forgiven him but was still a little bitter about it.”

“He did, didn’t he?” Sano gave a surprised laugh, then grinned widely as he evidently thought back to what memories he had on the subject. “He fucking did!”

“I didn’t spend much time with Hiko-san,” Megumi said a little doubtfully. “Do you think he and Ken-san ever did actually…?”

“I don’t know.” Kaoru’s quick statement was accompanied by a definite blush this time. “Kenshin would have been awfully young…”

“I could see the attraction,” Megumi admitted. “Someone who teaches kenjutsu, who works with students and prepares them for the future, is much more impressive than just some brute warrior.” Now she was perhaps coloring a bit herself as she continued with the vegetables. “But, yes, Ken-san would have been very young, wouldn’t he?”

Sano coughed. “Normally I wouldn’t say it’d be a big problem a guy in his teens with a guy in his thirties, but with Kenshin I kinda can’t picture it.”

“And I think Kenshin was fourteen,” Kaoru grimaced. “That’s a little different from seventeen or nineteen…”

There ensued an awkward wordless period wherein total silence was prevented only by the chopping and crunching sounds from the boards. Finally, as if reminded by food and wanting to shift the subject again, Kaoru said, “You know, Tae-san has always been kinda silly about Kenshin too… and she never came to gossip with me nearly as much at the Akabeko before he showed up.”

Megumi appeared happy to have something new to talk about. “I haven’t seen that Ken-san has ever taken any particular notice of her, though.”

“Well, she’s so…” Sano seemed to consider this dangerous territory, and to be wording his sentiment with appropriate care. “Normal, I guess? Don’t get me wrong — she’s a nice girl, and she’s got good business sense and all, but if Kenshin’s going to go for a lady, he’s got you guys around, and you’re way more interesting.”

“Sanosuke!” Megumi’s surprised pleasure might have been genuine, but the degree to which she displayed it was certainly deliberately exaggerated. “That sounded like a compliment!”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get used to it,” was the gruff reply.

“Tae-san is an excellent cook, though,” Kaoru said, blushing harder than before. “And she’s good at that right in the middle of the other work she does… That’s certainly attractive…”

“Well, I don’t think Ken-san is aware of her in that light.” This veto from Megumi was just as decisive as Kaoru’s of Chou had been earlier. “But as long as we’re on the topic of the Akabeko…” Abruptly, startling the other two a bit, she raised her voice. “Yahiko! Yahiko, are you inside?”

Footsteps pounded along the passage, and Yahiko appeared with evident haste. Kaoru looked as if she didn’t know whether to be more resentful that Yahiko was so much more attentive to Megumi’s call than her own or admiring that Megumi commanded her recalcitrant pupil so well.

“Yeah?” he asked as he came in. “What’s up?”

“Hey, kid.” Sano got bluntly to the point before the women could approach the issue with any sort of tact. “Were you ever in love with Kenshin at all?”

Yahiko’s face, ears, and neck went far redder than anyone’s in the room had been thus far, and he stiffened as if someone had run a cold finger up his spine. “What?!”

“Sanosuke, is that any way to ask?” Megumi demanded. “You’ve just lost any credit I gave you for complimenting us before.”

Sano stuck out his tongue. “I don’t talk to get credit from you, you know!”

“Yahiko,” said Kaoru, turning from her work to face her student, “what we mean is… well, actually, what we mean is exactly what Sano said, but… I’ve noticed you and Tsubame-chan definitely like each other, and it’s been a really long time you haven’t done anything about it, and I thought maybe there was some reason for that–”

“Wh-why should I ‘do anything about it?'” Yahiko broke in, still blushing as if his nose might start gushing red at any moment. “Tsubame and me are none of your business, and neither is anything else like that — why would you even ask? What a stupid question!” His fists were clenched, but his entire reaction seemed far more embarrassed than angry. “Kenshin’s a-a hero! He’s someone I want to be like, not– You guys are the ones who– I’m not even old enough for stuff like that! Why would you ask me something so stupid?!” And abruptly he spun and ran from the room as quickly as he’d entered it.

“Well, I think we have our answer there,” said Megumi into a silence that, this time, wasn’t even broken by cooking sounds.

“I’m afraid he’s going to feel a bit betrayed by us for a while,” Kaoru said with some apparent regret, “for prying like that.”

“He may say it’s none of your business,” Megumi replied critically, “but you’re like a mother to him — of course it’s your business!”

“I might have said a sister,” mumbled Kaoru, blushing yet again.

I was the one who asked, anyway,” Sano reminded them.

“Yes, like a complete lout!” Megumi shook her head with an annoyed sigh and went back to dicing vegetables. “Kaoru-chan, you were much kinder, but you were right… Yahiko hasn’t gotten involved with the girl at the Akabeko, and I think there is a specific reason for it.”

Kaoru nodded. “It’s… it’s really hard to consider even trying to get involved with someone… even admitting there might be someone, after…” And she trailed off.

“Hell,” Sano picked up in a tone of agreement, “it was hard enough thinking for a while you wanted Kenshin and wondering what the hell to do about it, and then realizing that wasn’t true and trying to be just friends with Kenshin after you thought you were in love with him. The whole thing’s just really, really…”

“Awkward,” Megumi finished, summing up the group predicament.

After yet another long pause in the conversation, it was Sano’s turn to shake his head as if shaking off the previous subject. With a wry grin he said, “Wow, we really got away from the point, didn’t we? Who the hell is stalking all of us? That’s what we were talking about, wasn’t it?”

Megumi laughed. “Well, we’ve at least determined what we have most in common… and I think it’s been good to get this all out into the open.” She gave Kaoru a smile that looked almost shy, and another touch of color came into her cheeks — a rare look for her — before she reached for a pan and some oil for the final stage of lunch preparation.

“Y-yes,” Kaoru stammered. “I agree. I mean, who the hell is stalking all of us? It can’t have anything to do with us all thinking we were in love with Kenshin, can it?”

“Seems as likely as any other reason…” Sano scratched at the back of his neck. “People either want to kill Kenshin or fuck him.”

Kaoru tittered at the blatant sexual reference. Megumi said sardonically, “Usually both. Not necessarily in that order.”

“But if someone is spying on us because they want to–” Kaoru proved unable to repeat Sano’s wording– “to be with Kenshin, and they think we’re in the way or something… that could be anyone! We just went over a few people off the top of our heads who probably think they’re in love with him, and there could be dozens more!”

“Or it could be a totally different reason,” Sano reminded.

“Yes, it could be the ‘kill’ option,” agreed Megumi. “This could be someone trying to gage the strength of his allies before they attack.”

“Dammit!” Kaoru cried. “I may not be in love with Kenshin, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Kenshin! I don’t want to see him attacked again!”

The other two nodded.

At this moment the door into the room slid open, and Yahiko reappeared. Everyone gave him a startled look — they hadn’t expected to see him again so soon — especially as they noted his face hadn’t really returned to its usual color.

“Um, this guy…” Yahiko muttered, and stepped aside. From the shadows of the hall another figure emerged, greatly increasing the surprise of everyone present.

“The fuck are you doing here?” Sano demanded, jumping hastily to his feet and taking a step forward. The two women, though they did not speak and their demeanors were not as completely innervated as his, seemed to be wondering the same thing.

“I came to discuss something with Himura,” replied Saitou, tone mild and bearing entirely noncombative.

“He’s not here,” said Kaoru warily.

“So the young man told me.” Saitou gestured briefly at Yahiko, who had retreated into the shadowed doorway. “It may actually be more convenient this way,” he added with a faint smirk, “since the three of you may be better able to decide what to do with this information.”

“You know who’s stalking us,” Megumi guessed.

“Well done, doctor.” Saitou stepped farther into the room (causing Sano to become, evidently, even more tense and energized than before) and glanced at the lunch preparations as if assessing the Kaoru-Megumi teamwork based on what he saw around the kitchen. “Yes, an old acquaintance, after spying on a number of people in Kyoto apparently to his satisfaction, according to my sources there, has traveled to Tokyo to keep up this antisocial behavior. His targets here are you three and a few random others that nonsensically include myself and my assistant. What his reasons for this or his specific choice of victims are, I can’t begin to guess–” Here Saitou looked back and forth between Kaoru and Megumi, then transferred his sardonic gaze to Sano, where it remained– “but the only person he does not appear to be taking any interest in is your Himura Kenshin.”

“Shit, it’s Aoshi, isn’t it,” Sano muttered, half at a growl, as if trying to decide whether he thought this news was acceptable or something to get angry and worried over. “Shinomori fucking Aoshi.”

“A spark of deductive reasoning.” Like Megumi’s surprise earlier, Saitou’s was clearly deliberately exaggerated.

“We were just talking about this. We knew someone was– wait.” Sano, whose eyes had fallen from Saitou’s, now met his gaze again with a look in which suspicion was trying to deny the presence of concern. “Did you say he’s been watching you?”

“Again, I can’t imagine why,” Saitou replied blandly. And again, when he denied having any idea what might be the motive for Aoshi’s strange behavior, it seemed like a blatant lie. “But since everyone he’s been spying on is either a friend of Himura’s or someone Himura has fought sometime in the last year or so, and since it’s impossible to believe that’s a coincidence, I thought it best that Himura — or at least the inner circle of his fanclub — be apprised of the situation.”

The silence that now fell was more awkward than any previous, probably because of the presence of Saitou, who watched them all with a surface impassivity that didn’t entirely mask his amusement and disdain about the entire situation.

“So, what,” Sano finally demanded belligerently of the cop, “are you waiting around for us to thank you?”

Some gesture of thanks might be appropriate,” replied Saitou easily, “but a police officer learns not to expect it — especially from an idiot like you.”

“Well, thank you anyway.” There was a lilt of amused appreciation in Megumi’s tone, as if hearing Sano insulted lifted her spirits. “We will certainly put this information to good use.”

“I’ll leave the matter to you, then.” With an ironic smile, Saitou turned to depart without any further goodbye. It was probable he would have to escort himself out, since Yahiko was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Sano made a jerky movement toward the door and opened his mouth as if to protest, but eventually said nothing and stopped himself short; so the officer went unhindered.

Presently, “Aoshi…” Megumi murmured. “We should have seen that coming.”

“Yeah, we really should have.” Sano sounded annoyed as he tore himself from his scrutiny of the recently closed door. “He was obsessed with Kenshin from day one. And I could see him taking this long to decide to do something about it. Figure out who his real rivals are and shit, you know?”

Suddenly Kaoru started making an almost frantic gesture of hand as if to request silence and attention for what she was trying to find words to say. “And… and… and you know what?” she finally managed. “I never thought about it before, but Kenshin talks about him more than — more than anyone else I can think of. Definitely more than he talks about anyone else he’s defeated who isn’t around. Like Aoshi is more than just someone he had a conflict with for a while.”

The other two seemed to be rethinking memories, sorting through scenes with Kenshin seeking confirmation of Kaoru’s words. Sano was still frowning. “You know, I think you’re right.”

“Ken-san is so subtle about this sort of thing, but… yes…”

“And it wouldn’t be totally stupid… Aoshi does have that tall, dark, and handsome badass spy thing going on.” With this reluctant statement Sano glanced into the shadows of the doorway again, perhaps expecting to find Aoshi hiding darkly and handsomely there.

“He does have beautiful blue eyes…” Megumi sounded dubious, as if this concession was the greatest she was willing to make.

“I guess I can see it… a little…” Kaoru frowned. “I don’t know him very well, but while we were in Kyoto, he made it obvious that he was going to try to follow Kenshin’s advice and work to atone for what he’d done by living in the best way he could from now on — like Kenshin does — instead of dying, like he’d planned before. That kind of strength is definitely… something I could see being attracted to… But, even so, in Aoshi’s case, he’s tried to kill Kenshin twice!”

“That’s not exactly…” Sano shrugged a little awkwardly, reaching a hand into his gi to scratch an itch on his shoulder. “You live in a warrior’s world, you get used to things like that. It’s not such a big deal anymore, you know?”

“No, I don’t know! Kenshin may have forgiven him, but that should always be a barrier between them!”

“Nah, not really… I mean, I don’t think Kenshin would think of it that way. You get into these big conflicts and shit, and… suddenly it’s like… someone stabbing you or whatever? It’s less serious than it would be otherwise. Like you’re all on a different level, so that kind of shit just doesn’t count like it would for anyone else.”

“I guess you can’t really hang onto every time someone tries to hit you,” Kaoru murmured thoughtfully, as if lost in a memory. “And just because you were rivals at one point doesn’t mean… And with Kenshin… you’re right, I guess he does operate on a more serious level…”

“No, don’t put the vegetables in just yet,” Megumi advised. “Wait until you’ve turned the fish a few times.” She guided Kaoru’s hand — perhaps somewhat unnecessarily — toward the action specified, and remarked as she did so, “There’s one area where Ken-san is on exactly the same level we are — he isn’t pursuing any romance either.” When Kaoru remained uncharacteristically silent in response to this, she went on, “If he is interested in Aoshi, he’s done absolutely nothing about it.”

“That’s ’cause he’s too damn nice,” grumbled Sano. “That’s always been his problem. He probably knows — at least on the inside, even if he doesn’t know consciously or whatever — he knows how people around him think about him, and he feels like it would make him a total asshole to everyone who thinks they’re in love with him if he went and found someone of his own and crushed all their hopes.”

“That does sound like Ken-san…” It was possibly the most seriously Megumi had taken any statement of Sano’s during this entire conversation. “He grasps so firmly at the first decent, unselfish response he sees to a problem… He doesn’t realize there might be a better way.”

Kaoru, having recovered her tongue, agreed critically, “He always thinks the best solution is whatever’s the most inconvenient for him. It would be like him to just assume that denying himself his own romance is doing what’s best for everyone else.”

“…not realizing that if he were to find someone of his own, he would set the rest of us free to do the same.”

“Yeah, that would make things way less awkward, if Kenshin got with someone finally.”

“But…” Kaoru took a deep breath, and her face, in contrast to its previous redness, now paled. “Isn’t it maybe a little selfish to wait around for Kenshin to set us free? When the whole problem came from the fact that we were wrong about how we felt in the first place?”

Sano stared at her, parts of his face shifting in and out of a variety of expression components so that no single emotion showed clearly. “Are you saying we should all go after — I mean, not saying there’s necessarily anyone to go after — but if there was, you think we should all go for it so Kenshin will get the message?”

“It might solve the problem…” Megumi’s voice, which was directed toward the frying fish rather than either of the other two, was quiet and a little hoarse. “It probably couldn’t,” she added, lifting her eyes at last and looking steadily at Kaoru, “have any negative effect.”

“It would show Aoshi-san we’re not his rivals.” Kaoru’s voice was just as hoarse as Megumi’s as she returned the intent gaze. “And it would show Kenshin he wouldn’t be hurting any of us if he went after his own happiness…”

“And our happiness… if we were brave enough to reach for it…” Megumi didn’t seem to intend this as an immediate continuation of Kaoru’s thought, but rather as the beginning of another she didn’t need to finish.

Watching Kaoru’s paleness after her daring suggestion darken back to its prior redness, Sano didn’t bother to point out that the fish seemed to be crackling rather alarmingly in the pan during the wordless few moments that followed. He just waited out that time with his expression still shifting as it had before until finally it settled into one of determination. “I’ll leave the matter to you, then,” he eventually said, and, without further goodbye, headed for the dark doorway behind him with a speed and vigor of movement probably a little excessive for simply vacating the room and perhaps the dojo.

And the two women remained behind in silence, but for the sounds of their lunch starting to burn, staring at each other, wondering whether they had the courage to reach for their own happiness.


I’ve rated this story .

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


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).


In-Law


It was one of those situations in which the person following him was so obvious that the concealment could barely be considered more than nominal, and perhaps existed merely for the sake of anyone else the two of them might happen to pass. It certainly did nothing for Aoshi, who grew more and more impatient for the eventual encounter and had been, for a few minutes now, seeking an appropriate venue.

When he found one — a side street devoid of pedestrian traffic and heavily shadowed in the purpling dusk — he turned to face his tail and smoothly drew a kodachi. He definitely didn’t need two; he might not even need one.

And the voice of his pursuer said, “Please, Shinomori, do you really think, if I planned on attacking you, I would do it this openly?”

“You overestimate your skills,” Aoshi replied, searching for identifying detail in the darkness whence the somewhat familiar voice had come, “if you think you could approach me without my knowing.”

“If you say so.” Discarding any attempt at secrecy, the follower drew Aoshi’s eye directly to him by lighting a match. Briefly it illuminated a harsh face as the man, whom Aoshi now recognized, brought it to the end of the cigarette between his lips. “No,” Saitou went on, “I’m here to advise you.”

“Advise me of what?” Aoshi put his weapon away. He’d been right: he didn’t need it — though apparently not quite for the reason he’d believed.

“You may have a chance with Himura, but the stalking has got to stop.”

Completely blindsided, the former Okashira simply stared.

“Half the city knows you’re there, and many of us are wondering why a man with your abilities can’t be more subtle.”

That was all the time it took Aoshi to recover at least his outward composure. “You’re a police officer,” he said coolly; “what does it usually mean when someone with the ability not to be is consistently near being caught?”

“That he wants to be caught,” Saitou replied with some impatience. “But that’s the wrong way to approach this; you’ll only make things awkward.”

“I’ve tried to kill him twice. ‘Awkward’ is the baseline here.”

“So many people have tried to kill Himura that he considers it a perfectly legitimate form of introduction. I even heard him refer to me as a ‘friend’ recently. So, no, your relationship is not yet awkward enough that it won’t be worsened by the ridiculous stalking act.”

For a long moment Aoshi was silent, pondering this. He had to admit that between the Bakumatsu and the pursuit of Shishio, Saitou had spent more time around Himura than he had and was, perhaps, qualified to offer this admonishment. Why he would do so was a wholly different and rather bizarre question, but maybe he did, at least, know what he was talking about.

“Very well,” Aoshi said at last, in a tone he hoped would convey his willingness to listen but no promise to comply if he didn’t like what he heard. “What do you suggest?”

“As strange as it is to say surrounded by lunatics, you’re going to have to act like a normal, straightforward person. Innuendo won’t do. I’ve been reliably informed that Himura is ‘kindof a dipshit about things like this.'”

Aoshi blinked.

“I don’t know the boring details, but apparently he has some great romantic tragedy in his past, and buried his romantic sense along with the rest of his old life. The way I heard it described was, ‘These days he doesn’t even recognize romance if it swats him on the ass.'”

Though he’d reconciled himself to the fact that he was actually having this conversation, Aoshi didn’t yet feel entirely comfortable asking where these quotations were coming from.

“In other words,” Saitou went on, “Himura sees people almost exclusively as either friends or enemies, and he’s starting to believe you’re an enemy again, thanks to the stalking you’ve been so eager to let him notice. It will, as I said, make things incredibly awkward if that behavior suddenly turns into romantic overtures. You need to become his friend first, then make your romantic overtures in such a way that he can’t possibly misunderstand you. There is no place for stalking anywhere in this.”

“You said he referred to you recently as a friend,” wondered Aoshi suspiciously. “How do I know you’re not purposely giving me incorrect advice to further your own cause?”

Saitou’s laugh in response to this was so derisive as to drive home the sincerity of his subsequent words. “I’m not nearly so imbalanced and depressed yet as to find Himura attractive. He’s only shifted to ‘friend’ for me because I’ve been around him–” and here he added somewhat grudgingly, “and more or less forced to be relatively polite to him — so much lately.”

Irritated but feeling he might as well proceed, Aoshi asked, “Then what do you advise regarding my real rivals? He’s been living at that girl’s dojo for almost a year now.”

You haven’t been there much — under normal, social circumstances, at least — since you came to Tokyo, but what has the weasel you brought with you been up to this whole time?”

“She’s spent nearly every minute of every day with Kaoru; sometimes she even sleeps–” He cut himself short, his eyes widening. From merely relieved that Misao seemed to have lessened the intensity of her attentions to him, he became all of a sudden sharply curious, and a little shocked that this hadn’t occurred to him before. “Do you mean to tell me that they–”

Saitou chuckled. “You’re an excellent spy, Shinomori, but sometimes you’re a little too single-minded.”

Deciding with a struggle to let go that comment on his abilities — or at least to store it away for later examination, along with the question of whether or not he approved of the relationship just implied involving someone for whom he couldn’t help feeling at least a little almost paternal responsibility and fondness, and whether he was or wasn’t completely failing to live up to those sensibilities by failing to notice this earlier — Aoshi asked, “What about Sagara?”

With a skeptical hmming sound as derisive as his earlier laugh, Saitou cocked his head to the side and said, “You think he’s interested in Himura?”

“At the very least I would not be surprised.”

“If you take my word for anything tonight, believe that he is thoroughly otherwise occupied.”

“Very well. And the doctor?”

Now the cop sighed faintly, as if he would rather not be quite so well informed as he was on this score. “Her burgeoning romance,” he said with sarcastic dramatic emphasis, “is even more unfathomable than the concept of anyone being attracted to your noisy protégé.”

“Who–”

“Let’s just say your path is clear. The ladies have lost interest and are looking elsewhere after waiting too long for Himura to make the first move, which we’ve already established will never happen since he is, and I quote, ‘dumbassedly blind to sexy even when it’s trying to kill him.'”

“Who the hell said that.”

Saitou just snorted.

A more pertinent question, which Aoshi could no longer refrain from asking, was, “And why are you, of all people, bringing this up?”

“Himura and I are practically related these days.” It was approximately the same tone as before — as if Saitou didn’t exactly want to be saying this, but had no choice. “I can’t get rid of him, so I more or less have to look out for him. It would be in your best interest to make him happy. It might also be a good idea to be sure this is what you really want before you marry into this family.”

“‘Family?'”

Again Saitou snorted. “Single-minded,” he reiterated. “Take two minutes to stop staring exclusively at whatever it is you find so attractive about Himura, and look at the people around him, and someone with your skills should be able to sort things out. Then go ask him to drink tea with you or something instead of climbing a tree on the Kamiya property and tracking his ki all night ‘like a trench-coat spider trying to figure out what would be the creepiest way to suck Kenshin’s blood.'”

Aoshi didn’t bother to ask how Saitou had known what he’d been planning for this evening.

“I will undoubtedly see you around,” was Saitou’s abrupt, sardonic goodbye as he turned with a facetious wave and disappeared into the darkness.

Silently and in perfect stillness, pondering, Aoshi watched the point of the cigarette vanish from sight. ‘Practically related?’ Why on earth did Saitou have to look out for Himura? What could possibly link them thus? That the officer was bent on safeguarding Himura’s happiness — inexplicable as that might seem — was reassuring, but what did Himura make of such a guardian? This odd tangle Aoshi had blindly walked into by coming to Tokyo with the intentions he had — might it not be better to extricate himself from it while he still could? As Saitou had so cuttingly pointed out, after all, Himura hadn’t the faintest idea of Aoshi’s interest.

And yet, recalling a peculiarly alluring blend of strength and gentleness, a determination to help and heal rather than harm even in bitter extremities, Aoshi couldn’t entertain any thought of giving up, of walking away. Especially now he knew, thanks to a spy more resident than he was (and evidently in some ways he hadn’t quite parsed yet), that those he’d been considering his rivals had already conveniently dropped from the running.

He was not too proud to accept advice when it seemed reasonable, and becoming Himura’s friend first didn’t strike him as preclusively irrational. Aoshi might not be terribly skilled at friendmaking, but Himura was certainly worth taking on that challenge for. Besides, if it didn’t work, or if Saitou (and his anonymous source of slangy Kenshin-wisdom) turned out to be wrong or deliberately deceptive, he could always fall back on stalking.

With new plans forming in his head and a new determination — perhaps slightly less single-minded than before — Aoshi resumed his path toward the Kamiya dojo. He looked forward to attaining his goal, of course, with all his heart, but now he anticipated satisfaction as well from seeing Saitou around and gaining some idea of what was going on with him, possibly even greeting him as a relation for all practical purposes sometime in the not-too-distant future. He would figure it all out; that should be easy enough, really, with the leads he’d been provided tonight.

No one, whatever their reason for being involved in the tangle, would scare him away from this. He would make Kenshin — and himself — happy. It was what he really wanted.


I’ve rated this story . For some fairly inane author’s notes written just after the story, see this Productivity Log.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano 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).


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.

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

I’ve rated this story .



His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

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

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

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Part 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Many times.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.

Sano snorted.

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

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



1>>

Part 1

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

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

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

“Red?” Hajime asked.

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

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

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

“And this shade follows you around?”

“Yeah.”

“No matter where you go?”

“Yeah… to school and everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘He?'” echoed Hajime.

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

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

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

“Everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you doing when he showed up?”

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

“Porn?” asked Hajime, without apparent implication.

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime nodded slowly.

“So what do you think?”

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

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

“You notice it doesn’t attack.”

“Yeah, that is kinda weird.”

“And the shape.”

“Shit…”

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

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

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

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

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

“You have no idea?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear the government loves communicators, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cat gave another high-pitched meow.

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

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

“I’m sure you did,” said Hajime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, cats,” Sano said with a wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Misao?”

Hajime smirked. “She’s learning.”

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” the young man demanded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You OK?” Sano wondered.

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

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

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

Sano nodded.

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

“Tell me about it,” Sano muttered.

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

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

“So he is a guy, then,” said Sano.

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

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

“Sounds like me,” Sano mused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aoshi shook his head.

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

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

Aoshi nodded.

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

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

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

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

“I was joking!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Occasionally,” the exorcist shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With the right skillsets,” Hajime appended.

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

“Fortune favors the prepared.”

“What does that actually mean, anyway?”

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

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

Hajime only laughed at him again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime shrugged.

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

Part 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exorcism seemed more interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You would what to what, now?”

“Your issues with money?” Hajime prompted.

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

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

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

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

“Nothing. Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath.”

“Thanks, Chou.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not too much on it.”

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

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

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

Part 11

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

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

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

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

Hajime grinned and let him in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine,” Sano growled, and stood again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He wants to go to her, I take it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So the next step is to call her.”

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

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

“What, me? You want me to call her?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 14

“I promise you don’t need to.”

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

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

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

“Did you tell her that?”

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

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

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

Amused, Hajime supplied it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then it’s even more applicable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Says the son of miserly immigrants.”

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

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

“‘We?’ So you’ve got siblings?”

Hajime nodded. “An older brother and sister.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From?”

“Paso Robles, down south.”

“And were you born there?”

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

“Did you like Paso Robles?”

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

“And that was a good thing?”

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

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

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

“Are they?”

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

“A 6.5, presumably.”

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

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

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

“Do you have reliable statistics on that?”

“Not off the top of my head!”

“Maybe you should look it up.”

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

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

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

“Better not get into big business, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

Part 16

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

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

“What did she say?”

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

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

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

“Four hours early?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right. See you then.”

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

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

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

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

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

Even this early in the day, the convoluted concrete skating area was alive with mobile, shouting kids — it must be Spring Break for more than just Sano. The latter, with his blue-gelled hair, enormous backpack, and glowing undead friend, was easy to spot on a bench nearby. Perhaps this had been where Sano used to hang out; his current look might even partake somewhat of the skater style, but Hajime, unclear on fine subcultural distinctions, couldn’t be sure.

To test the young man’s mood, Hajime greeted him with, “Trying to reconnect with your fellow childish idiots?”

“Wow, that was harsh even for–” Sano attempted simultaneously to turn toward Hajime (who’d approached him from behind), look at his cell phone to see the time, check that the ghost wasn’t making any trouble, and give an angry gesture — all without dislodging the messy arrangement of textbooks and notebooks across his lap and the bench beside him. And in keeping with this, he attempted to say several things at once. “What time– why are you already– are you trying to say skaters are– I’m not even–” And at last, inevitably, he dumped his things all over the ground, and, swearing, jumped up to recover them.

Hajime leaned against the bench and looked down. He might have considered lending a hand, since the spill had to a certain extent been his fault, but it was more amusing just to watch. Sano’s previous level of investment in his studying struck him as negligible in any case. Anger, perhaps — the usual anger — had kept him from better concentration; but Hajime also thought he observed a certain measure of that same excitement and happiness he’d heard over the phone in Sano’s somewhat jerky movements gathering up his stuff from the grass. Yes, they would definitely need to have a talk about today’s prospects; Sano’s optimism pleased him, but he needed to be prepared for its inevitable dispelling.

It turned out Hajime was in for a bit of a surprise. For by the time Sano had gotten himself resettled on the bench and begun stowing his school things away in his backpack in a clear indication he didn’t plan on attempting to make any further use of them right now, he was already well into a dissertation that revealed the cause of his current mood to have far less to do with Mrs. Himura than Hajime had assumed.

“So after you bugged me about it yesterday,” he was saying, “I went online and looked up stuff about geologists and the kinds of jobs available for them and shit… and you were totally right…” Admitting to this didn’t seem to be the slightest problem, so pleased was Sano. “I really needed to look before I decided about that!”

“Of course you did, you idiot.” Though not having expected the friendliness of his own tone, having thus started, Hajime decided he might as well continue; so, with no real concept, himself, of the career options of an aspiring geologist, he went on in some legitimate interest, “Good news?”

Sano twisted to face him, pulling one leg up entirely onto the bench and placing both arms on its back as he gave Hajime a grin almost childlike in its enthusiasm. “So you know oil, that thing everyone’s fighting over all the time? Guess who those companies hire.”

“And that fact never occurred to you before?” Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Hajime either, but he wasn’t the one with an apparently long-standing fascination with weird underground activity.

Sano’s brows twitched a little at the sarcasm, but it sidetracked him not one step. “I’m not really all that interested in finding oil, because that sounds boring and stupid; I’d rather be taking readings inside live volcanoes or something… but there are jobs like that too, and the point is, I can tell my dad about the oil thing, and he’ll totally go for it.”

“So you’ve decided on this?” For the brevity of this statement, the skepticism of its delivery compensated by adding a heavy, unspoken, “Already?”

This time Sano did emit some anger in his response. “I make fast decisions, OK? Nothing wrong with that.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” murmured Hajime. And he truly wasn’t. He wasn’t terribly condemnatory, either; to his understanding, most people changed their majors several times before any permanent fixation, so the distance of the conclusion to which Sano had jumped would likely make little difference in the long run.

“Besides, I’ve kinda wanted to do this for years.” While still defensive, Sano’s tone was creeping back toward the excitement of only moments before, which seemed to be the resilient sort. “It wasn’t just the stuff in Paso… you can’t live by the San Andreas most of your life without getting interested in earthquakes!”

“I think most normal people can,” Hajime said easily.

Sano made one of those frustrated noises he was so good at, but even this held a note of interest and enthusiasm. “Well, normal people are stupid.”

Hajime had to agree.

“Seriously, though, online yesterday, I found all sorts of interesting shit about volcanologists and stratigraphists and people who specialize in just one specific geological era, and…”

And as Hajime settled in to listen to Sano’s ongoing raving, he reflected that, though he hadn’t planned on this precisely, he didn’t at all regret his decision to come to Isei Park two and a half hours early.

Part 17

To what extent he’d been going on and on about yesterday’s internet discoveries, and, perhaps even more intriguingly, to what extent Hajime had been indulging him in that, Sano didn’t realize until the ghost gave a sudden stiffening or intensifying and seemed to shift its orbit somewhat in the direction of the parking lot and the playground. The usual heat-wave overtook him at this increased ghostly activity, all the greater because his internal anger had, to a certain extent, been pushed aside for the last couple of hours. Of course Hajime had been making rude interjections all along in order to draw it out, but Sano’s excited happiness had been dampening that outlet.

Now he experienced a second instance of the futility of trying to look around behind him and check both the time and the ghost all at once; but Hajime, who had eventually joined him on the bench, announced that it was 11:40 and Kaoru Himura had just emerged from a car over in the parking lot.

“How do you know that’s her?” Now Sano too looked over at the woman, who was distant enough that her features couldn’t be made out in detail.

“Don’t be stupid. She’s an Asian woman arriving near noon, looking around nervously, and getting a three-year-old out of her car.”

Since she hadn’t been doing either of the latter activities when Hajime had made his initial pronouncement, and since being Asian didn’t signify anything when nearly everyone here was, Sano said pointedly, “So you mean you guessed.”

“The man with her is her father.” Ignoring the accusation, Hajime continued to gaze thoughtfully across the grass. “At least she had the sense not to come alone, in case we do turn out to be psychopaths.”

“You’re still guessing.” Sano’s heart wasn’t in it this time, though, as his attention had been entirely caught by the little boy the presumed Kaoru Himura was doing something to the shoes of in preparation for turning him loose in the playground. Even from here the bright red of the kid’s hair drew the eye, in stark contrast to the mother’s black. What was it Aoshi had said about Kenshin? ‘Half Japanese, half American?’ It showed in his son. Sano snorted faintly. ‘American;’ what kind of description was that? He never would have inferred red hair from that.

The man Hajime had identified as Kaoru’s father, closing the passenger door of the car they’d come in, was talking to her with some rapidity, even urgency. Hajime supplied, “He thinks this is a bad idea.”

With a skeptical glance at his companion, Sano wondered, “How can you get that from over here?”

“I can only get a very vague impression,” admitted Hajime, “but that’s more because of all the people around than the distance. But look at his body language.”

He had a point; the man pretty clearly wasn’t happy about the whole situation. Kaoru must have told him the purpose of this trip, and the ‘psychopaths’ scenario suggested a moment ago probably seemed the most likely to him. Apparently, however, having decided to do this, Kaoru would not be to be talked out of it, for she replied with an evident determination despite her body language that suggested she still didn’t feel entirely sure about this course of action.

The little son tugged at his grandfather’s hand, eager to get to the playground; meanwhile, Kaoru gestured quite clearly in the direction of Hajime and Sano over by the skate park, and the man shook his head. “She knows who we are,” Sano muttered. With the ghost twitching in the direction of its wife, tugging enthusiastically at Sano’s psychic hand, he thought he knew exactly how that grandfather felt.

“Your hair,” said Hajime in a tone of reminder, and got to his feet facing the distant party as if acknowledging a greeting. Presently, thinking vaguely mutinous thoughts (he liked his hair), Sano joined him standing. Eventually the three by the parking lot broke up; Kaoru Himura came in their direction, while her father and son moved off toward the playground.

With every step the woman took toward them, the force of the ghost’s straining against Sano’s hold grew perceptibly stronger, just as it had as they’d approached her apartment the day before yesterday. It felt like restraining a large, increasingly excited and persevering dog, assuming it was a dog that couldn’t keep from rendering him more and more irate as minutes went by. He wondered what precisely would happen if he simply let go.

As Mrs. Himura drew nearer, Sano tried to distract himself from the growing anger by studying her face and figure. She was fairly short, with black hair and blue eyes, and he couldn’t really work up much more of a mental description than that. ‘A beautiful Japanese woman,’ Aoshi had said, but Sano thought this had come more from the woman’s husband than the medium, because Kaoru, while not ugly or anything, definitely had a sort of girl-next-door look that Sano would not have described as ‘beautiful.’ And actually, that was interesting, because why– But she’d reached them and, with the stiffest backbone Sano had ever seen, offered the following greeting:

“I haven’t decided I don’t think you’re crazy, or I’m not crazy for being here, but I’m giving you a chance.”

“Thank you,” Hajime nodded. “Of course we understand your reservations, and we appreciate you coming to talk to us at all.” He extended a hand. “I’m Hajime Saitou, an exorcist. And you’ve already heard from Sano.”

Sano hadn’t observed this particular professional act in Hajime before, probably because Sano himself was an abnormal sort of client, and he found the polite, slightly obsequious tone a little creepy. Kaoru, however, seemed somewhat reassured, for just a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders, and she shook Hajime’s hand before turning to Sano.

Although no physical movement was involved in holding the ghost, still Sano felt as if he rendered his grip less secure by giving Kaoru his hand; but he also felt, first, that it would be counterproductive to start this conversation by being rude or unfriendly, and, second, that he didn’t want to be outdone by Hajime. “Good to meet you,” he said as he returned the woman’s firm handshake. Then, because that had already sounded a little angry, he added less darkly, “Glad you came.”

She heard the anger, and the subsequent enforced cheer did not prevent her from tensing up again. It wasn’t merely uncertainty about a weird meeting that showed in her bearing and visage, but unhappiness and weariness too… a weariness of long standing, and an unhappiness that had etched delicate lines around her eyes before this. It made Sano even angrier just seeing it; he couldn’t stand idea of contributing to her pain. And this further increase in ire she noticed too, and stiffened even more.

Hajime stepped in. “Let’s have a seat and talk.”

As if reluctant not to keep wary eyes on the dangerous one at all times, her gaze left Sano sluggishly, followed Hajime’s gesture to the bench, then moved to the exorcist’s face. Without budging she asked, “You say my husband is here right now?”

For the answer Hajime glanced at Sano, who said, “Yeah, he’s…” Helplessly he indicated, knowing how it would look and sound. “He’s right here.” He tried very hard to speak calmly as he added, “I’m working hard holding him still, so we’ll let Hajime do most of the talking.”

Kaoru stared at what surely looked to her like a normal empty patch of air, her eyes directed at a point where she probably guessed the face would be, but which, with the height at which her husband floated, was actually chest or stomach level — assuming this form of the ghost corresponded with his actual physical attributes (which would mean Kenshin, like his wife, was pretty short).

With an expression like a brittle surface that must eventually crack, she abruptly turned away from the ghost and sat down on the bench.

Hajime took the place beside her, though he didn’t look at her, and said, “I’m sorry to have to ask, but what can you tell us about your husband’s death?”

Sano, who hadn’t returned to the bench himself but stood, every bit as stiff as Kaoru, at its end looking down obliquely at her, now glanced at Hajime with a surprise that momentarily cut through his growing anger. No, Hajime’s tone wasn’t gentle or comforting — despite only having known him for a week, Sano already believed with assurance that the world might come to an end at any gentle or comforting tone from Hajime — but in the calm, low voice there was an audible (to Sano) desire not to wound or even disturb more than necessary… and this, from that source, seemed extraordinarily thoughtful.

Whether Kaoru recognized the unusual consideration, Sano could not tell. In any event, she took a deep breath and, staring down at the clenched hands she’d laid on her knees, began speaking very rapidly, perhaps feeling that if she didn’t get through her story quickly she wouldn’t be able to get through it at all.

Part 18

“I don’t know how much you already know, since I don’t know how you found me, but if you’ve read the articles or talked to the police you probably know as much as I do. On November 23rd last year, Kenshin was taking the bus home from work — he worked at the Humane Society, which you probably know is way across town from here, but we lived a little closer to it then; I only moved back here to be near my parents after…” She gave a pained-sounding clearing of throat and paused for a moment before going on at the same pace as before. “He was on his way home, waiting for his connecting bus, and there was a gunfight in the street near the stop. It was a gang thing.

“They said he must have tried to take shelter down a little street behind the bus stop, because that’s where he was found. It’s not the best area — it was the stop at Hamlet and 11th, if you know it, which is statistically the worst part of the city for gang activity — and though there aren’t a lot of gunfights, they do happen, and there does happen to be a bus stop right there, so it was inevitable that eventually someone would…”

Her face had been growing more and more brittle throughout this dissertation, her voice tighter and tighter. Something was going to crack, and the result would surely be sobbing and tears and probably a good deal less coherence. She cleared her throat again and took a deep breath not entirely steady.

“He didn’t always take the bus to work; we do have a car. It was perfect coincidence that I needed it that day.” Her voice sank as she added in a self-accusatory tone, “But of course I didn’t need it. I work from home… I didn’t have to go shopping that day… if I hadn’t kept the car — I didn’t need it — he wouldn’t have been at that bus stop. He would never have been at that bus stop.” Tears were definitely starting to surface; it was difficult to see her eyes, still turned down as they were toward her knees and the hands clenched thereon, but the intonation could not be mistaken. She was on the verge of losing the careful control she’d undoubtedly built up painstakingly over the last few months of repeating this story.

She was also lying.

This frustrated Hajime to a pitch that heightened with every word she spoke. Exactly what she was lying about, exactly why she’d chosen to lie, and exactly how it pertained to the current situation and her husband’s ghost, he could not begin to determine, but she couldn’t hide from him the general sense of untruth behind her words.

What she could hide from him was just about everything else. She guarded so fiercely, he couldn’t even get at completely unrelated thoughts in her head. Moments like this made him regret never training more thoroughly in communication, and he decided then and there how he would be spending his spare time after this ended, so bothersome was it not to be able to reach a truth that would, presumably, help everyone present.

“He was actually shot twice,” she went on, surprisingly with no great increase in breakdown of control: “once just behind his right ear, and the other just in front of it. He was unconscious when he was found and taken to the hospital, and it took him less than an hour to pass away. I didn’t even make it over there before… I didn’t get a chance to…” After another trembling breath she went on more steadily, “They said, if there was any pain, it was probably over with quickly.”

Throughout this discourse Sano had been shifting restlessly, and, though Hajime doubted the young man could sense the concealment, clearly the woman’s words — especially these last — did nothing to help decrease the already significant level of anger he struggled to deal with. But Kaoru, gaze still fixed on her knees, appeared to notice none of this.

“The police also said the sweatshirt he was wearing might have contributed, since he’d pulled the hood up, probably to hide his face and hair in the dark or something, and that might have made him look more like a member of one of the gangs. I always thought he should wear a jacket that didn’t look so… young… he was thirty-two, but you’d never guess… and it was mine in the first place; I mean, it was grey, but it was a woman’s hoodie…” Evidently these somewhat rambling details were more difficult to relate than the physicalities of the death itself, and the tears now stood visibly on her face. Hajime deemed her distress genuine, but couldn’t pass judgment on the accuracy of her account.

“He was always doing that: wearing my clothes without realizing anyone would think it was weird. And the really weird thing was they looked just fine on him — usually better than they did on me. But I still used to give him a hard time about it, because of Kenji and the neighbors and because he never seemed to notice it was a little weird.” Her words became more and more difficult to understand as sobs broke into her sentences and a constricted throat marred her pronunciation. “For a while after… last November… I kept thinking, ‘If I could just have him back, I’d never get on his case about that again. He could wear anything he wanted — not just jeans and things, but dresses or whatever — if he would just come back.’ And every time I realized I was thinking that way, I got so angry at myself for being so stupid… but it still took a while to stop.”

This latest set of revelations Hajime believed to be totally honest, since it had nothing to do with Kenshin’s death, and the overwhelming sense of deception had faded somewhat from Kaoru’s demeanor. But whether she was making a subtle attempt to get away from the topic about which she felt the need to lie, or whether she really had been sidetracked in her grief by memories of her late husband’s quirks, the exorcist couldn’t guess. In any case, it got them nowhere.

“Mrs. Himura,” he began, in the cool tone of a lecturer, “the problem here — at least the first problem that needs to be dealt with — isn’t so much your husband himself as the angry energy surrounding him. When someone is haunted by this type of energy — which is called a shade — it has a number of negative effects on them; headaches and an extremely bad mood are the most common. As you can see, Sano is currently suffering these effects because, for some reason, your husband has been haunting him for three weeks.”

He’d been ready to go on for as long as she remained silent until the entire situation was laid before her, but at this point she broke in. “Why?” She sounded a little desperate. “Why would he go to a complete stranger?” With an uncertain glance at Sano she added, “Or did he know you and just never mention you?”

Sano, clearly beyond the ability to speak, shook his head. Hajime almost expected a countdown to appear in big visible red numbers above the spiky blue-gelled hair at any moment, and continued his explanation to Kaoru more quickly. “That’s one thing we’d like to figure out. But besides the effects on Sano, just the fact that your husband is still here at all needs to be addressed. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in this world after death, and whatever is holding him here needs to be dealt with.

“But the shade energy is blocking all attempts to communicate with him. We can’t find out what exactly is holding him here if we can’t talk to him — and it’s more than likely that some sort of communication is what he needs in order to move on anyway. So the most important point at the moment is why he’s so angry. If we can dispel the anger, we can move on to the next step in this process. And the probability that his anger is related to the circumstances of his death is overwhelming.”

Her tears were in abeyance for the moment, and she looked faintly confused and equal parts wary; in her mind, the walls seemed to have become thicker and rougher than before. “OK,” she said slowly and relatively levelly. “I can see why that would be important.”

Abruptly Hajime stood, and the movement made Mrs. Himura shy back toward her end of the bench. “I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “As I mentioned, we appreciate that you came out here at all to talk to us. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared to tell us the truth, I’m afraid you’re not going to be any help to us.”

The barriers suddenly doubled, and her level of agitation increased perceptibly. He would never have deliberately put her back up like this — it would have been so much more politic to continue the conversation on a non-threatening level and try to work the answers out of her — but to his left he could sense Sano about to explode. What direction the young man’s anger currently pointed didn’t matter; he might do something everyone would regret after not much longer.

“What–” Kaoru was saying, rising hesitantly from where she’d been seated, wringing her hands.

But in favor of looping one arm through the straps of Sano’s backpack, taking Sano’s elbow in a firm grip with the other hand and pulling him away along the sidewalk, Hajime gave every indication of completely ignoring her.

Part 19

The entire world seemed to exist behind a thick filter of intense red that fluctuated between the color of fresh strawberries and that of clotting blood. Sano recognized nothing around him, and didn’t entirely know what was going on, like in a video game where half the time you were in a mirror of reality that only corresponded vaguely with it, and the controls had gone all twisted and frustrating. His body trembled; his blood pounded so noisily he couldn’t hear a thing above it. He also didn’t realize for some time — he didn’t know how long — that he was moving.

More than once he’d wondered what the anger would be like when it became ungovernable, but now (Unfortunately? He would have to decide later) his frame of mind disallowed analysis. Nor could he tell exactly what his status might be. Prior to this there had been a sort of scale or gradient by which he could measure the level of his wrath and its probable effects on his behavior, but this had risen right off the chart.

He was walking. With the tenacity of someone in shock not knowing what he clung to, he maintained his grip on the ghost, and every step he took jarred the anger in him as if he were filled with liquid to the brim and about to be shaken into spilling. The anger was all the worse in that it had no object, no rationale. Of course it had been that way all along, but this… he needed an object… he needed a reason for this overwhelming rage. And why was he walking? Hadn’t they been talking to Kenshin’s wife, whom he couldn’t decide if he was angry at or just angry about? Hadn’t they been working on dealing with this problem, not walking away from it?

‘They?’

He turned.

Through the film he saw Hajime, who looked distant and sinister and very red. Hajime, the disdainful jerk still pretty clearly more interested in some dead guy he’d never actually met than in Sano.

Suddenly the wrath had an object.

He realized Hajime had hold of his arm only when he wrenched free. Turning to face him, fists clenched… well, he meant to demand what the fuck was going on, where they were, where Mrs. Himura was, and any number of other things… but the noise that broke from him had no words and practically no semblance of humanity.

Hajime spoke, but to Sano he was every bit as incomprehensible as Sano had probably been to him just now. All that came across was the insufferable calm and indifference with which Hajime always seemed to treat him, and that caused a critical mass. Whether or not he could measure his current level, whether or not he could judge its probable effects, there had clearly been a line, and it had clearly been crossed. With a burst of increased tension that set his muscles creaking and straining, Sano charged the other man with flying fists.

No impact came, but the next thing he saw, as he caught himself and whirled, was Hajime slipping quickly out of his jacket, which he dropped onto what appeared to be Sano’s backpack standing on the grass, and loosening his tie. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to look concerned that Sano had struck at him; on his harsh face appeared merely a sort of bored, almost passive determination to do what had to be done. It was maddening.

The next blow met flesh as Hajime raised an arm to prevent it reaching its real target. The one after that went wide as Hajime retaliated into Sano’s ribs with his left. Pain felt absurdly good at the moment, and there was a bizarre accompanying sensation as if he were slicked over with a liquid coating of anger and the punch had splashed a certain amount of it right off of him. But that was nothing compared to the astonishing, glorious release in tension when his subsequent attempt connected with Hajime’s shoulder and seemed to deliver anger along with kinetic force.

So tightly was he packed with rage that he felt he must literally explode and decorate the park with viscera and pressurized blood. He was so heavy and overheated, his movements seemed reeling and clumsy… and yet somehow, simultaneously, pointed and devastatingly impactful as he drove an elbow toward Hajime’s neck and a knee toward his abdomen. And, though not precisely what he’d been going for, it was hardly any less a release of anger when neither connected and, in fact, Hajime half sidestepped and gave him such a hard hit to the shoulder that he spun past and crashed to the ground.

After half a hot breath, barely enough to bring him the red scent of the grass beneath, Sano stood on his feet again, twisting to throw another punch at the man that seemed to have been waiting for the attack without taking advantage of the fall. This time Hajime’s raised arm didn’t move quickly enough to prevent a hit to his high cheekbone, and to Sano this felt so good that he let out a growl of satisfaction at the cracking contact. It wasn’t unanswered, though, as, in a spray of released anger, that hard left of Hajime’s slammed next into Sano’s face in almost precisely the same spot.

Chaos roared in his hearing like a riotous crowd, and the waves of pain rippling from the point of that last hit temporarily affected his vision as well, but the driving impulse of forward and against kept him active. Hajime blocked him, blocked him again, hit him in the stomach, dodged and kicked and sent him sprawling a second time, but Sano was undaunted. His craving for the feeling of his knuckles against Hajime’s face had not been satisfied by one instance.

Through the haze of rage and adrenaline, as he struck out once more and was denied, he wondered vaguely how Hajime seemed so good at this. Hadn’t he seen Hajime with a sword on more than one occasion? What kind of martial arts training did the bastard have? Had he ever mentioned? But attempting to remember things like that not only taxed Sano extremely in his current state of mind — though, he thought, it became slightly easier as moments passed — it was also dangerously distracting with fists flying, and probably what won him the next couple of blows to his chest.

The diminution of his anger had been steady and gradual, but the realization that he was within measurable levels again struck him abruptly and startlingly. The result was a sudden winding down as if a power source had shut off, and he found the arm he’d raised for a punch sinking along with the adrenaline and the desire for further violence. His fist loosened as his wrist came to rest on Hajime’s shoulder instead of progressing as he’d intended. Hajime’s movement also ceased as he perceived Sano’s changing state, and he was looking much less crimson.

“Back, are you?” he wondered, and Sano rejoiced to find the words relatively comprehensible.

His reply that he believed so emerged with no great smoothness, because he turned out to be panting and shaking like a drug addict, but Hajime, at least, evidently understood. He nodded, then gave Sano one final punch across the face.

The unexpectedness of the hit increased the amount of anger it caused Sano to release, and he swore loudly as he sprawled back onto his ass on the ground. But he was seeing clearly now, hearing accurately, and, he thought, properly aware of his surroundings and situation for the first time in he didn’t know how long.

For example, he realized he and the grim-faced man standing over him weren’t alone. Hajime’s thoughtful frown was sufficiently engrossingly infuriating that it took some doing to drag Sano’s attention away from it, but this was accomplished by the recognition of a group of kids loosely surrounding them: primarily the skate park crowd, past whom Hajime had probably paraded Sano to get here, and some of whom looked as if this was the best day of their lives. He doubted they often got to see two grown men (one in a suit!) beat each other up right in the park in front of them. Some still cheered, some laughed; a few, seeing the fight had ended, were analyzing it — evidently Sano had pretty clearly lost — while others stood in interested or even horrified silence.

As the pain of the various instances of successful application of Hajime’s fists began asserting itself, now without nearly as much satisfaction attached as earlier, Sano turned back to the source of this discomfort. Hajime had retrieved his jacket and folded it over one arm; he seemed unmoved by the seam at the shoulder of his shirt that had split or the dark spot already intensifying on his face.

Sano remained quite angry, and was readier than not to turn and roar at the gawking kids if they didn’t shut the hell up — and Hajime had no exemption from this wrath… but the sight of those results of the fight summoned up a simultaneous sensation of almost affectionate gratitude. How many people, even in the pursuit of a significant source of interest in their career, would fall so readily into a fist fight with an non-paying client just to work off some excess anger? When Hajime held out a hand to help Sano up, Sano reached for it thankfully, and, upon standing, clasped it briefly in both of his own in lieu of a verbal expression of appreciation that probably wouldn’t have come out very coherently at the moment.

Beginning to be convinced the entertainment had drawn to a close, the kids were dispersing. This was for the best, since Sano had no clear idea where the ghost was, and he didn’t want breaking up a brawl among a bunch of suddenly incensed little skaters to be the next thing he had to do today.

“You’re quite the thug,” Hajime remarked, sounding unsurprised.

Assuming his mental shields had taken just as much of a beating as his body, and that Hajime could therefore pick up on his memory of just how many fights he’d been in during high school, Sano didn’t bother explaining, only said, “You’re pretty damn good yourself,” as he went to retrieve his backpack from the grass.

Hajime also neglected explanation, which annoyed Sano since he couldn’t read the exorcist’s mind. Scanning the area, presumably watching the kids returning to their previous activities, Hajime straightened his tie in a seemingly unconscious movement. Sano too looked around, and found the ghost not far off doing its usual thing. He gave an angry sigh and addressed Kenshin at a grumble: “Fucking ghost making me randomly attack people… You’re going to owe me big when this is over…” Then he frowned and turned back to Hajime. “Hey, did I hear you say the lady was lying or something?”

“She was. Come on.” The exorcist gestured. “It’s not a good idea for us to be here much longer after that.”

Unsure what the gesture referred to, too annoyed to ask, Sano yet didn’t mind following. Well, it annoyed him to follow, but he did it anyway.

Hajime began to explain, as they walked, about the finale of the conversation with Mrs. Himura that Sano had been too irate properly to mark. That Sano, under Kenshin’s stupid influence, had essentially blown their only chance at getting information out of her could only irritate him further; and as soon as he had the gist of what Hajime detailed, he couldn’t help breaking in with, “Big fucking waste of time today’s been.”

Hajime made a thoughtful sound even as he raised a hand to the growing bruise on his face. “It might not have gone as badly as you think,” he said cryptically, and walked on.

Part 20

The things Hajime had discovered so far that could distract Sano from his rage were humor, food, and this new excitement over the possibility of geological pursuits. Of course the rage still needed to be released, but Hajime thought it was easier on Sano to insinuate outlets for it during more pleasant interactions. So, since they were essentially killing time again right now, he attempted to make use of at least two of the aforementioned three. And the restaurant across the street had a patio with a few outdoor tables, ideal for both a man with a ghost orbiting him and a man that wanted to keep an eye on the park nearby.

Sano presented an amusingly contradictory attitude inside when a small internal war seemed to arise between his protest that Korean food was too similar to Chinese food for his tastes (a point Hajime would have to debate with him sometime) and his pleasure at being bought any kind of food by anybody. But eventually they were seated and waiting for any number of things, and Sano looked as if he might return to fuming. To head this off, Hajime had been planning on introducing immediately the topic that had so engrossed them this morning, but Sano beat him in starting the conversation abruptly on another subject:

“Hey, did you think she was pretty?”

Though convinced Sano’s reasons for asking this were serious and mostly not frivolous, Hajime had to reply, “Hmm… for a second there I thought you had something rational to say.”

“I am being rational!” Sano insisted. “And I really want to know — did you find her attractive?”

“No,” said Hajime bluntly, not bothering to add that he didn’t really find anyone attractive.

Somewhat to his surprise, Sano grumbled, “You probably don’t find anyone attractive. So take it from me — I’d call her a five. Maybe a six at best. Average, you know?”

Hajime just raised a brow at him, feeling no desire to comment.

“So why did Aoshi describe her as ‘beautiful?’ That’s a pretty strong word that I don’t think really fits her.”

“No accounting for tastes — yours or Aoshi’s.”

Sano snorted. “Well, if we’re talking about Aoshi’s taste…” He shrugged. “My gaydar could be off because he’s such a total weirdo, but I never thought he was the type of guy who’d overexaggerate a lady’s prettiness.”

Wondering how Aoshi’s sexual orientation had come into this, Hajime asked, “So?”

“So he was probably getting that impression from Kenshin.” Sano gestured to the drifting ghost. “Because Kenshin’s idea of his wife that Aoshi picked up on was that she’s so beautiful because he still loves her that much.”

Now Hajime saw his point, and glanced also toward the ghost, which floated at that moment in the orbital spot about the most convenient for this. Unexpectedly, much sooner than he’d anticipated, a server appeared with their food, stepping right into the space his gaze occupied and startling him a bit. Though friendly and obliging, both her demeanor and the extreme curiosity she suddenly projected evinced her wonder at all the evidence of recent vigorous activity between these two customers; for this reason and others, their interaction with her wasn’t entirely natural.

When she’d left and the slightly awkward scene had ended, Hajime said, “So you think Kenshin’s anger isn’t aimed at his wife.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Sano surveyed his plate with much more optimism than his earlier complaints could have predicted (probably because this was nothing like Chinese food). “If it was her he’s mad at, you’d think he wouldn’t be giving off this impression of her being so beautiful when she’s not.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “It’s not a bad assessment, but you can’t be sure.”

Pausing with chopsticks halfway to his mouth, Sano frowned. For a moment he remained still and silent, and finally shook his head. “No, I am sure. Don’t even start asking me how, but I’m sure. He’s not mad at her. He sure as hell is mad, but not at her.”

“You’re the one he’s haunting,” Hajime allowed. Actually he was inclined to believe Sano’s assertion without any more evidence than had been offered, but still felt the need to raise one more point. “But doesn’t his anger increase when he’s around her?”

Again Sano shook his head. “I thought so at first, but that’s not it. He gets more intense when she’s nearby… he wants to go to her and do whatever… so then I have to work harder to deal with him, so I soak up more of that shit… but I don’t think there’s actually any more of it just because she’s around.”

Hajime nodded again, accepting the explanation, and ate his lunch in silence. The idea that the dead man’s vicious anger might not be directed at his anchor was intriguing and probably important, but it didn’t advance them at the moment. The truth about Kenshin’s death remained the crucial information, and, while Hajime didn’t despair of getting at it, the slow proceedings were somewhat annoying.

Eventually, as even the nothing-like-Chinese food couldn’t keep Sano’s brow from darkening and his grip on his chopsticks from tightening detrimentally to his ability to use them, Hajime deemed the moment right to ask, “What will you need to do at school to get into geology?”

Sano seemed surprised, and once again to be considering this apparent sign of interest, rather than solely a distraction technique, a gesture of friendship… and maybe he wasn’t so far from the truth this time. And he didn’t hesitate answering. “Well, like I said, I’ve already been working on getting all my general stuff out of the way… and I’m actually already in the first chemistry pre-req I’ll need for the geology program. It’s seventy-five credit hours, and then I can look into getting my masters somewhere else; there’s some really good schools for it…”

The topic wasn’t interesting — school plans never could be, except perhaps among relatives (and, Hajime thought, not frequently even then) — and yet he found himself interested. An unignorable difference came over Sano’s demeanor when he discussed this subject: the directionlessness, the waste of energy, the carelessness and frustrated frame of existence Hajime had begun to consider characteristic of him seemed entirely to disappear, to be replaced by a vigorous and unvarying determination.

Of course he couldn’t be certain how long it would last — this whole resurgence of geological fixation might be no more than a flash in the pan — but at the moment Hajime had to rethink or at least put on hold his earlier idea that Sano would probably eventually change his mind about this. And certainly this new sense of purpose Sano radiated was engaging.

So too was the rapidity with which he’d gathered such thorough information Of course an ability to look things up online set no records for effectiveness — though Hajime knew both the lack of internet conversance of a large portion of the population and the frustratingly unintuitive nature of college websites — but listening to Sano’s description of what he’d wondered and how he’d found out, Hajime was irresistibly reminded of the question-and-answer pattern of divination.

As engrossed as Hajime wouldn’t deny he was, this entire leisurely process of lunch and conversation had a purpose other than distracting Sano from his anger for a while or even proving to Hajime that his companion might not be as much a waste of space as he’d previously thought. And when Sano abruptly stiffened and scowled, simultaneously reminded of his anger by some sudden movement of the ghost and dismayed because he’d believed himself finished with the higher levels for the day, Hajime had to struggle not to smile. He enjoyed giving Sano hell, but had no reason (at the moment) to be grinning in the face of his misfortune… yet he did like knowing he’d been right about something.

Suspicious and angry, Sano scanned for the reason behind the ghost’s change in motion and attitude, but that reason had already moved from his line of sight. And by the time he’d stopped craning his neck and turned back to a proper position in his chair, Mrs. Himura had come through the restaurant and stood before them on the patio.

Part 21

In a funny mixture of hesitation and bravado, Kaoru pulled out one of the vacant chairs, took a seat, and looked back and forth between the two men. She hadn’t said a word yet, but Sano thought he could feel her eyes on his facial bruises as palpably as if she’d been using her fingers. A glance at Hajime showed him studying Kaoru as intently as she studied them, and it would have made sense to assume the exorcist wanted to determine whether the woman felt ready to tell the mysterious truth he was so sure she’d been withholding… but for some reason Sano had the impression Hajime actually examined her features trying to decide on her level of attractiveness. Sano stood by his five.

Kenshin, meanwhile, struggled to approach his wife, which meant all the effort Hajime had expended to get Sano back down to a manageable level of anger would be negated as Sano had to restrain the guy all over again.

The deep breath Kaoru eventually drew in preparation for speech partook of the same mixture of boldness and uncertainty as had her motions sitting down, but her voice was steady as she said, “I may be ready to believe you.”

“Oh?” was all Hajime replied. He seemed to have been expecting this; jerk could have mentioned that.

“I followed you when you walked away. I saw you fighting. I think it’s pretty obvious that either what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe it is.”

“Or we’re thorough con artists,” Hajime added.

“Or that,” she agreed, evidently rendered a little easier by the acknowledgment of this possibility.

“Yeah…” Sano looked at her askance. “Not to argue against ourselves or anything, but seeing us fighting… doesn’t really prove anything.”

She sighed. “No, I guess not. But I already wanted to believe you. No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to believe my husband is haunting you and can’t pass on, or that he’s so mad he’s making you try to beat up your friend… but I think I do believe you. Because what you were saying before?” She turned to Hajime. “About the usual effects of having an angry ghost around? That happened to me.

“I don’t know why it didn’t start until December — late December, almost January — when he died in November, but it was just like you described. I had non-stop migraines, and I was just so angry all the time… I had to send Kenji, my son, to my parents’ house practically every day because I was afraid I was going to take it out on him. Sometimes I took it out on people I met — people at stores, and friends, and even my own parents sometimes — and on things, like the furniture and my car, and…” She was beginning to look distraught again. “I thought I was just angry about what had happened, but now that you’ve mentioned what ghosts do to you…”

Sano had actually opened his mouth to repair her conflation of ghosts with red shades, but decided that being pedantic at this point might do more harm than good. Besides, his anger was swiftly growing again, and he probably wouldn’t be able to say it without sounding inordinately unkind.

So after a moment or two she went on uninterrupted. “Eventually I noticed it starting to fade, but it’s only about a week and a half ago that I’ve really started to feel like myself again. But I realized it was probably about three weeks ago that it started fading. Because that was when he left and went to you, wasn’t it?”

Sano nodded as she looked at him again.

“Probably because he couldn’t get through to you,” Hajime mused, “and got tired of trying. Why he went to Sano, specifically, we still have no idea, but it seems logical for him to have gone to someone else when he found he wasn’t getting anywhere with you, who can’t see ghosts.”

“Is this something that happens a lot?” Kaoru wondered next. “Do lots of people get haunted by other people’s husbands?” Sano considered this question a sign of the authenticity of her stated readiness to believe.

Hajime shook his head. “What I usually deal with are shades, which are just leftover emotions, not people. Real ghosts are very rare. If you were wondering what my part in all of this is,” he added in much the same tone he’d used for the earlier con artist comment, “I’m essentially just waiting around to talk to your husband in order to get some more information about ghosts.”

Kaoru gave a confused half smile. “I wasn’t wondering; I assumed he was paying you.” She glanced from one of the men to the other and back. A new interest showed in her face, but Sano thought she was forcing it in order to avoid thinking about something else. And when she asked, “Are there a lot of exorcists?” it sounded like someone making polite conversation. If she needed this as a strengthening routine in order to move on to a more difficult subject, Sano didn’t want to discourage her… but he was once again becoming angrier with every moment he spent near her as Kenshin strained against his hold, and her delays could only worsen the situation.

Hajime seemed all patience, however. “I’m currently the only professional exorcist in this city, which is why I moved here. For this population, one tends to be enough — though there are certain types of cases I have to use a specialist for.”

Though she listened with ostensible attentiveness, Kaoru yet seemed caught up in something else she would rather not think about. “So the leftover emotion things keep you busy enough,” she asked somewhat hastily, “to make a living?”

Sano rearranged his sore body in the chair. He’d picked up his cloth napkin for something to do with his hands, and now realized he was pulling it badly askew. It didn’t seem in danger of tearing — yet — but long stretch-marks indicated where he’d been tugging at it.

“More or less,” Hajime was answering with a glance at the younger man. “But listen, Mrs. Himura: you need to understand what it does to Sano to have you sitting here.”

She too glanced at Sano, with dark eyes and a frown, then searched the air around him for a moment before returning her gaze to his angry face. Her brows contracted and she swallowed. Softly she said, “I’m just trying not to think about the idea that he’s really here when he shouldn’t be.” It was clear that by ‘he’ she didn’t mean Sano, though she continued looking at him as she spoke. “Ghosts are really rare, you say… so I guess only a very unusual situation can turn someone into one.” Her voice sank even farther. “No wonder he’s so angry.”

Seeing the tears welling again in her eyes, Sano wanted to share with her his theory that she was not the object of Kenshin’s wrath, but he couldn’t without making her the object of his. He wished Hajime would bring it up, but he obviously believed doing so would destroy the progress they’d made toward getting at what they needed to know.

“Why should he be angry at you?” the exorcist asked quietly.

Kaoru shook her head rapidly as if trying to rid herself of some clinging aura (and probably failing). Again she looked from one man to the other. After a deep breath she said, “You were right. I wasn’t telling the truth before.”

Hajime’s gaze intensified, but he said nothing.

Kaoru’s hands on the table clenched as she looked down at her white knuckles as she had earlier. “If I believe you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to believe you and I don’t want to tell you… but I feel like I have to believe you, and I do want to tell someone. I’m so tired of this…” As she looked up again, her expression confirmed this last statement, and the breath she drew in sounded much the same. “I will tell you… but you have to promise not to go to the police.”

She really did kill him, Sano sent to Hajime, not so sure he was joking this time.

Hajime nodded slowly in response to the thought, but his expression did not change. “I can’t promise you that,” he told Kaoru gravely. “We want and need to hear your story, but if there’s been a crime I feel I have to report, I will report it.”

She gave him a long look, then eventually turned to Sano. “And you?”

Sano forced himself to answer, though none too pleased with the growl in which his words emerged. “I could promise, but it wouldn’t matter: this bastard reads my mind, so he’d get at it anyway.”

The woman seemed taken aback, though whether at the roughness of the statement or the revelation she was seated next to a mind-reader Sano couldn’t guess. Her eyes dropped, and for several moments she sat in tense silence staring at her hands. Finally she reached a decision, as evinced by the determined hardening of her expression and the set of her shoulders. “All right,” she said. “I’m probably crazy, but I’m going to trust you. I’ll tell you everything.”

Part 22

With the type of resolution that feels it might as well get a necessary evil over with as quickly as possible, Mrs. Himura stood from the table and announced, “But not here. Come sit in my car where people can’t hear me.”

Her car, Hajime reflected, was probably the safest of any relatively private places she could have chosen for a couple of strange men to accompany her to, but that they really weren’t psychopaths or con artists was also fortunate. Perhaps personal safety didn’t mean much to her anymore.

Though Sano hadn’t eaten anything since the woman had appeared at their table and necessitated he start holding onto the ghost again, still he cast a disappointedly annoyed glance at what remained on his plate as he stood. Nothing to be done for it; the service here seemed very quick, but Hajime didn’t want to wait for to-go boxes; he already planned to force payment for the meal on whichever employee he ran across first inside.

Finished with that, they started back toward the park in tense silence. More than one of them glanced around in some discomfort: Kaoru was probably concerned her father would see them and make very understandable trouble; while Hajime worried that, after the fisticuffs earlier, he and Sano might be personae non gratae in this location at least for a while (or perhaps a little too gratae among the former spectating kids). Sano himself, evidently, was too busy keeping a firm hold on both the ghost and his own rising temper to think much about either issue. And his lack of attention eventually proved justified when they reached and entered the Himura car without event.

Gripping the steering wheel behind which she’d seated herself as if craving something to cling to, Kaoru let out a sigh both defeated and preparatory. Then, for a second time that day, she began speaking at a rapid pace as if she feared she wouldn’t be able to make the confession if she didn’t talk fast.

“I killed my husband,” was how she started. “And I don’t mean that the way people do when they’re trying to find some way to blame themselves for something they didn’t want to happen, no matter what I said before about keeping the car that day. I mean I shot him twice in the head with a Taurus .38 Special.”

She fell abruptly silent at this point, and Hajime didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she awaited their reactions. And perhaps she needed those reactions — the surprise and the horror she expected — to contribute to the order she was trying to set up for herself to regulate her emotions and situation… but unfortunately, Hajime and Sano, already having guessed at what she’d just confessed, could not provide. Hajime merely nodded, and Sano’s scowl did not alter.

“It started in October,” she finally went on, perhaps taking revenge for their lack of interested response by not specifying what ‘it’ was. “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was late in October because we’d just bought Kenji a Halloween costume when we were out shopping one night, and the next morning he was asking me questions about Halloween. Somehow he had it confused with Christmas, and he thought if he dressed up that meant he needed to give away presents. He was deciding who was going to have which of his toys, and I thought it was so sweet… just like his dad…”

She’d begun rambling again, apparently. Hajime thought a point was being progressed toward, but Sano obviously couldn’t tell. He shifted uncomfortably even more than before in the back seat, which he’d occupied without a word when Hajime had taken the front.

“Then later that same day,” Kaoru went on, “a note appeared out of nowhere on my refrigerator. It said something like, ‘You have a very generous son. If you want him to live long enough to give away his toys for Halloween, follow these instructions exactly: burn this note and cut up an apple for him to dip in peanut butter.'”

Now she got the reaction she’d previously been anticipating. Sano gave a surprised growl or grunt, and Hajime’s brows went down over narrowed eyes. This news came as an unexpected shock, and the eventual outcome of the story after such a beginning seemed unpleasantly guessable.

“Apples in peanut butter is one of Kenji’s favorite snacks, and anyone could have known that. But the conversation about his toys on Halloween I hadn’t told anyone about yet. But at first I thought the note must be a practical joke, even if it wasn’t very funny, because you just don’t think about that kind of crime-drama thing actually happening in real life — at least not to you or anyone you know. So I looked around for someone maybe hiding in the house, but it wasn’t a big house… Kenji thought it was a game and helped me look; I was so shaken up, I couldn’t get him to sit still in the kitchen and wait for me.

“Then I thought I’d call Kenshin and see if he had something to do with it, even though it obviously wasn’t the kind of joke he would do… but when I reached for the phone, the doorbell rang. I thought whoever it was at the door would probably have the explanation, but when I got there there was no one there, just another note. These were typed notes, by the way. Like, printed notes. This one said something like, ‘It’s a better idea not to tell anyone about this. No one will answer the phone anyway.’ And then it went on telling me about exactly what Kenshin was doing — it even mentioned the specific breed of dog he was working with right then — and the exact movie my parents had just walked into.

“My first thought was to lock myself and Kenji in the bathroom — because it had no windows — and call the police, but there were too many problems with that idea. What if I couldn’t grab the phone and get in there in time? What if they really were watching Kenshin and my parents at the same time, and weren’t just bluffing to scare me? How could I convince the police I really was in danger? And what if, by the time the police got there, whoever was leaving these notes had just disappeared?”

Hajime might have expected, in the telling of such a tale, even more tears and incomprehensibly choked diction than before, but found it otherwise. Though there was in her voice a faint echo of the terror and desperation she must have felt on that first day, the full course of events she detailed must eventually have inflicted upon her a sense of helplessness beyond activity and bordering on numbness, and this last sounded most prominently in her dull pronouncement, “So I burned the notes and cut up an apple for Kenji.”

Another silence fell, a heaviness and reluctance for this tale to progress any further toward its inevitable conclusion… but in glancing at Sano, Hajime guessed they had only a few more minutes before another intervention would need to take place. “And then?” he prompted.

More, apparently, out of weariness than anything else, Kaoru sighed. “There were several notes during November, mostly to make sure I knew whoever they were really were watching me and my family and that I really would do whatever they asked. I don’t know what kind of ninja was putting these things in the places I found them, but they must have been pretty amazing, because I never saw anyone, and the notes kept appearing in places like on the refrigerator or the bathroom counter, and once in my jewelry box on my dresser. And they never asked me to do anything unusual — nothing that wouldn’t be completely natural for me to do, but what I might not necessarily have done just then if they hadn’t told me to.

“And I don’t know what kind of network they had watching my husband and my parents, but they kept giving me little hints about what they were doing — things I always found out later were true, just like my parents really were at that Amelia Earhart movie that first day and Kenshin really was assisting on a min pin spay. It was… it was so freaky… I got so scared whenever I found out that something one of the notes told me was true, and each time was worse than before.

“They were conditioning me — I could see even then that that was what was happening — but I didn’t know what for. They were getting me ready for something by making sure I was good and scared and ready to do whatever they asked. You can’t know what that’s like…” Her voice sank to an almost contemplative murmur; the horror, presumably, had either passed or taken such deep hold that it had been assimilated into normalcy, and only this dullness remained.

“Not knowing who’s watching you when or where, or when you might do something wrong or what they might do then. Or how to protect the people you love, or even if that was even possible… And imagining all sorts of horrible things and not knowing whether I was exaggerating or what. I got so paranoid I had no idea what was realistic and what was me overreacting.

“I tried not to show it, but that was completely impossible almost right from the beginning, because it was like I became a totally different person.” She gave a faint, frustrated huffing noise. “Between that month and the trauma after and all the anger in January and February, I’m surprised anyone even recognizes me anymore.

“I got into the habit of trying to stay between Kenji and the window, no matter what room we were in, even though I didn’t really think that would do any good. And I didn’t see any way we were going to survive this, even with me doing every little thing they told me. We were hostages, was really what we were, and do you know what hostage survival rates are like?

“I didn’t dare do anything that might even look like I was trying to find out who these people were or trying to do anything about them; no matter where I went, I assumed they were watching through crosshairs. I didn’t want to…” She cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t sleep with my husband. Of course he was desperate to know what was wrong with me — not just because of that, I mean, but because of the entire way I was acting. He tried everything… he tried asking in every way he could, and guessing even the craziest ideas, and bringing me presents because he thought I was upset with him… god, his last month alive, and he thought I was upset with him…” This tangent brought on the tears the main story hadn’t been able to prompt, and Mrs. Himura was for a few moments overcome.

Assuming the tale was going the direction Hajime believed it must be, he perfectly understood this behavior — in fact, he thought, it bordered on miraculous she could talk about this at all, or function in general. She was a tougher person than he’d believed; he should have realized it from the mere presence of natural mental shields strong enough to keep him out apparently indefinitely.

He had no time to ponder this, or to attempt in his inexpert way to offer some kind of consoling statement that might be able to draw out the remainder of what she had to relate. For it was time to see to Sano again.

Part 23

Sano didn’t recognize the motions he used to get out of the car, didn’t feel the handle under his fingers or hear the sound of the door closing, barely even registered the parking lot around him. He knew only the huge, hot, overwhelming certainty of what the end of Kaoru’s story must be. He was so angry he couldn’t think; he was so angry he practically couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t quite call it worse than before, because it was different than before, but he couldn’t quite say anything, because all that would come out was an inarticulate roar.

Sure, it was no surprise, after all the speculation (serious or otherwise), that Kenshin’s wife had been his killer… but Sano had expected as the cause a concealed callousness, or a moment of lost control during an argument, or some kind of infidelity or other marital intrigue… If he’d had any idea threat and coercion had been involved… He raged at himself for ever having joked about it.

The sight of Hajime’s bright red figure emerging from the passenger side of the unfamiliar red car was the first event or part of his surroundings to log coherently (relatively) in Sano’s head, and he felt his hands clench immediately into tingling fists. Of course he still raged at Hajime, for all the same reasons as before — the aloofness and evident disinterest, the blame Sano laid on him (unfair, even now he knew) for the slowness of proceedings and the fact that he still had a maddening ghost attached to him — but this time he also recognized, somewhere deep in the molten rock of his thoughts and emotions under Kenshin’s influence, that Hajime wanted to help him, that Hajime was willing to do anything necessary. This time, as Sano staggered toward him with intentions every bit as violent as earlier, he did so with nearly as much needy hopefulness as anger.

It went as before: Hajime encouraged him off behind one of the other cars in the parking lot — a big old SUV, Sano vaguely classified it, which could provide at least a little privacy — and essentially beat him up until Sano had reached a more propitious frame of mind. And this time, when yet another hard-knuckled blow from the exorcist opened the return doorway to rationality, when Sano staggered backward to stumble (not for the first time in the last couple of minutes) over the curb that bordered the lot on this side and sit down heavily in the small strip of grass between that and a tall fence, he ran a hand across his face and let out a frustrated sigh. His statement that he hoped they wouldn’t have to go through this again today lacked about half its intended words.

Hajime snorted but said nothing. Both shoulders of his shirt, Sano noted, were now split open, and at least one of the buttons across his chest had torn through its hole; his jacket he must have left in Kaoru’s car, since it wasn’t visible anywhere around. The newest bruise on his face induced simultaneous guilt and satisfaction in Sano.

Calming his panting breaths and trying in vain to smooth away his scowl, Sano growled, “Thank you.”

Returning to their interviewee after not too long, Sano in some weary dismay at the feeling of the anger still growing as he continually had to restrain Kenshin, they found Kaoru staring at the steering wheel with a dry face but despairing eyes. These she turned only briefly on Sano as he resumed his place in the back seat; then she returned quickly, with a wince, to what she’d been regarding before.

“He’s mad at me,” she whispered. “Kenshin. He wants revenge. He isn’t — wasn’t — isn’t that kind of person, but… but I think anyone would react like that. I killed him… me, the person he should have been able to trust most… I took everything from him… and now his son is being raised by a murderer. Of course he would have to do something about that. Anyone would.”

“Then he’s a fucking dick,” Sano growled, “and he can damn well just stop haunting me right now, because fuck that.”

Neither of the others responded directly to this largely incoherent statement. Instead, Hajime said in what Sano believed he intended as a sympathetic tone, “What’s the rest of the story?”

After the same preparations for unpleasant speech they’d seen her make a couple of times already today, Kaoru continued. “These notes had me so tense and miserable and worried that I didn’t even blink when they told me they needed me to kill someone. The note said I’d never hear from them again if I did it, and I was so relieved at that thought that at first even murder didn’t seem like too much. That’s how far they’d pushed me.

“Obviously after a while I was horrified by what they were asking me to do, but even then I couldn’t see any way out of it, and I think I accepted the idea and how helpless I was a lot more easily than I should have. It’s something to remember, I guess… how easy it is to make someone a murderer. It’s not a certain type of person; it’s any type of person in the right situation. You’d never look at me and think, ‘She seems like someone who’d shoot a man twice in the head,’ but here I am a murderer.

“Kenshin and I had agreed I wouldn’t have any guns in the house until Kenji was old enough that we could count on him not hurting himself by accident. Obviously whoever they were knew that, because they told me where to go to find a gun to use for the job they wanted me to do: they left it in a box behind a dumpster in one of the streets on the way to where they wanted me to go. It was — I told you — it was a Taurus .38 special, snub-nosed, hammerless, with a — god, what does that matter? I’ll remember every little detail of that gun for the rest of my life, but you guys probably don’t need to know.”

“I’ll admit,” said Hajime, looking at her with slightly raised brows, “that description didn’t actually mean anything to me.”

“Sorry.” It was half a laugh and half a sob. “Not everyone’s a fan of guns. Including me, now. But I’ve been shooting since I was little… actually, I’ve always wanted to be a policeman. Not much chance of that now, is there?”

As Kaoru took a moment to get hold of herself as she admitted to a lifelong dream thus shattered, Hajime filled the near-silence with the query, “Is that why they chose you for this? Because you’ve had the practice and are familiar with guns?”

She shook her head slowly. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this — god knows I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this, even if I wasn’t thinking very clearly some of that time — and I think that was only the reason they had me do it the way they did. If I wasn’t a good shot and familiar with guns, they’d’ve had me poison him or something. And if they just… if they just wanted him dead and not cared who did it, they already had whoever it was who was sneaking notes into my house, who I’m sure would have… would have done it better than I did anyway.”

“So you think this was a deliberate form of torture or revenge?” Although Hajime seemed to be interjecting at this point to allow Kaoru another moment to calm her misery, his tone also had the steel-cool determination of someone that loathes what he’s heard and has plans for doing something about it.

With a nod, a deep breath, and an obvious effort, she elaborated. “They wanted me to do it because — I’m just sure of this — they thought it would be the best way to hurt us both. They didn’t care whether I got caught or what happened afterwards… they were completely anonymous the entire time, so even if I did get caught and I told everything, the police wouldn’t be able to get at them and I’d probably still be charged with accessory to murder or something.

“I think I did better than they thought I would, though,” she added with the hint of a bitter smile. “I followed their instructions about the route to take and the best position to be in to wait for the victim, and I wore what they suggested, and I got rid of the gun exactly how they told me. They promised to provide cover fire in the street, and they even did that. It went so smoothly, it was just like I’d practiced it, like I’d been doing this forever.”

They had probably been doing this forever,” said Hajime.

“Did you…” Sano could barely get the words out. “Did you know who…”

“No,” Kaoru whispered. “Do you think I would have — do you think I could have done it if I’d known? Even to protect my son, even to save my own life, do you think I would have been capable of…”

“And it was a dark little back street and he had his hood up,” Sano finished for her in a tone as low as hers but far more rough. “I bet you never even saw his face.”

“I didn’t even know until the phone call came. But… but even not knowing who it was… from the moment I pulled the trigger for the first shot, I felt sick… and cold… and just… terrible like I can’t even describe… and when I saw him fall on his face, I knew I’d done something I could never take back. And even thinking about how I’d done it to save Kenji didn’t help, because I knew I’d turned into something I…” Whatever she said next was completely unintelligible in a storm of body-wracking sobs.

Sano didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Exhausted and aching all over, he doubted he could handle another fist fight today… and yet the anger grew even more quickly than before as he watched the suffering of this poor woman and thought of whoever had put her through this torment. He wanted to find them and do to them the most horrible things he could come up with, force them to endure what Kaoru had endured. His heart hurt even more than his body, and the horror of the circumstance she described was overwhelming.

Eventually, as her sobbing diminished, Hajime asked, “And did you get any more notes?” When she shook her head, he nodded. Even from the back seat, Sano could make out the set of his jaw and his brow, and he realized with an odd sense of clarity and certainty that Hajime entertained much the same thoughts and vindictive desires he did. On the topic of what should be done about Kaoru’s abusers, evidently, they were in complete accord.

A long period of brooding wordlessness followed, during which Sano tried to decide how much longer he could stay in this car and how he could comprehensibly express, through this rage, his resolution and pity. Finally, though, Kaoru spoke again, apparently determined to finish what she’d started even if her story had rather fallen apart halfway through.

“So you can see why it makes perfect sense for Kenshin to be so angry. I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whatever he needs to see happen so he can move on. I’ll shoot myself in the head if he wants. If it weren’t for Kenji, I probably would have done it already.”

Part 24

Finally, Sano managed to say what Hajime knew he’d wanted to for some time: “He’s not mad at you. I swear to fucking god on whatever you want me to swear on that it’s not you he’s mad at.” Of course with the way he said it, it sounded as if Sano was mad at Kaoru, but by now she must understand his situation.

She remained utterly still for a long moment, body frozen, expression locked, apparently not even breathing. Then, finally, letting the air out of her lungs in another uneven sigh, she shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.”

“Mrs. Himura.” Even Hajime’s own voice sounded a little angry. The object of his wrath remained distant and unfocused, but that didn’t alter the emotion. “Whoever was sending you those notes was the murderer of your husband. There’s no specific word for what they did to you, but you were the victim, not the criminal. If your husband has the intelligence of a fly, he’s aware of that. He’s obviously angry not at you, but at the people who forced you into this situation.”

Again she shook her head, but this time said nothing; it seemed she had no ability to argue against a point of view she would greatly have preferred to espouse and yet was convinced, down to her bones, could not be true.

Though not the type to wish to be anything besides what he was, there were times Hajime couldn’t but be aware that other states of being, other states of mind he could never attain, would work more effectively toward certain ends.

Having been coerced, the woman was innocent, or at worst guilty only of prioritizing the life of the son for whom she was responsible over that of, as she’d believed, a total stranger. Perhaps a higher social consciousness would have dictated a complete refusal to commit murder under any circumstances, but, inasmuch as doing so might have been considered equally murderous — in that case of a dependent — he could not condemn the decision she’d made.

She hadn’t, as she believed, become evil; she’d had evil thrust upon her, and it was a shame she couldn’t feel more secure in her blamelessness. Not that it came as any surprise, human nature being what it was. If he’d been a different kind of person, he might have been able to reassure her; as his personality stood, he just sat still and silent in her passenger seat while she wept.

That her mental walls remained as impenetrable as ever made a point of interest that vied with the misfortune of the situation for his attention. It was often all or nothing with the untrained; she’d probably spent the months since that first note fighting so hard against the idea of discovery, which would endanger the life of her son, that even now, when she’d confessed all, she couldn’t relax her defenses. They’d become a default.

Sano, on the other hand, flashed like a beacon in the back seat: he projected pity and horror, in addition to the usual ever-expanding rage, so clearly that his radiating emotions almost colored the air; though he’d become capable of keeping Hajime from what he didn’t want detected under many normal circumstances, the emotional ups and downs of this day had rendered him perfectly easy to read. It was about time to get him out of this setting.

Somewhat abruptly Hajime said, “Reporting this to the police wouldn’t do anyone any good. We need to find out who might have had a reason to do something like this to you and your husband. Do you have any idea?”

“No,” said Kaoru. “No, not at all.”

Hajime had expected as much; with all the time she’d already mentioned she’d had to think about this, she would certainly have come up with an answer if one had been available.

“Everyone has people who don’t like them,” she went on helplessly, “but I can’t think of anyone who would hate me that much. And Kenshin… there were things about his past I know he never told me, but going through his legal documents and records hasn’t found anything.”

Sano, suddenly distracted slightly from his anger by wonder at the thought of a long-term relationship involving withheld information or even deceit, added curiosity and some disapproval to his lineup of noisy emotions.

Completely disinterested, for his own part, in how healthy Kaoru’s marriage had been, “I’m glad to hear that you’ve been looking, at least,” Hajime said.

“What else could I do? I haven’t heard from them since then, but I feel like if I leave town I might get their attention again… but if I had any idea who they were… I couldn’t investigate them in any way I could think of, but nobody would be suspicious of me looking at my husband’s records. But there’s nothing there that gives me any ideas.”

Hajime nodded. “If you find anything that might help…” From the pocket of the jacket that lay across his lap he withdrew a business card. As he handed it to her he added, “And we’ll use the resources we have to look for information as well.”

She also nodded, staring at the card with only the second or third smile he’d seen on her face. Like the previous, it was faint, and held no trace of happiness or entertainment. He thought it stemmed from bemusement at the circumstance of such a dryly professional business card for an exorcist.

“Thank you again for coming to talk to us today,” Hajime said formally. “We’ll keep you updated.”

As he slid slightly sideways and reached for the door, she looked over at him abruptly. Her movement and the expression on her face both seemed surprised, as if she hadn’t realized her conversational companions were leaving so soon — or perhaps that they were leaving at all — and in her eyes he made out the desperation of someone that, having just found a source even of slight relief from her pain, shied from returning to the latter yet or even doubted she could. It must have meant a lot to her to be able to unburden herself the way she had.

Hajime stilled. Little comfort as he knew she was likely to take from anything he could offer, he had to say something; Sano was in no state to do it, and something had to be said. Eventually he decided on, “Remember that you had no choice. Try to believe your husband isn’t mad at you. Hope that when we find out the truth it will help you both.”

The act of steeling herself to go on with business as usual showed in the movement of her body, and sounded in the long, slow breath she drew. And her voice was perfectly steady as she said, “Thank you.”

Outside the car after that intense conversation, Hajime suddenly found himself wanting a cigarette, as he occasionally did when his emotions were aroused. But he pushed this urge firmly away and began crossing the parking lot toward his own vehicle. “I’ll drive you home,” he told Sano.

“It’s not far,” the young man growled. “I’ll just walk.”

“And harass everyone you meet on the way? Don’t be an idiot.”

Without any further protest Sano gave in — there’d been no reason to refuse in the first place besides his angry desire to be contrary — but as he got into Hajime’s car with the ghost firmly in tow, he still scowled. Hajime believed his level could be dealt with verbally instead of through further violence, though, which relieved him since they were both by now a little ragged.

But before Hajime could start in on a calculated barrage of insults so as not to leave Sano in a worse state than when he’d found him, Sano had a comment of his own to make: “That was good.” With his crossed arms and his bruised and glowering face, the words sounded amusingly out of place. “It was good,” he went on very gruffly, “that you tried to make her feel better. I mean, it didn’t make her fucking feel better, but… it was good that you tried.”

Oddly, surprisingly, Hajime found himself… pleased… by this somewhat inarticulate expression of approbation. He wouldn’t have thought Sano’s opinion could mean much to him on this or any topic, yet his spirit distinctly lifted. Therefore it was ironic that he replied with the most cutting insult he could come up with. And he wondered, possibly for the first time, to what extent Sano understood he did this mostly to deal with the anger rather than out of any real desire to tear him down.

It was not, indeed, very far to Sano’s apartment, though they would have reached the place quicker if its resident had been in any fit condition to give proper directions. Still, reach it they did, eventually, and Hajime took his initial look at Sano’s ‘kinda shit’ home. He’d mostly expected this: old, disrepaired, undoubtedly cheap, creeping toward complete disrespectability. He circled the lot until he located Sano’s car (whose general appearance matched that of the apartment complex with entertaining precision), and pulled into the space next to it.

Several moments had passed since either of them had said anything, and now Hajime gave Sano an assessing look in continued silence. With a slight nod as he decided Sano had probably resumed or at least neared his standard levels, he reached out and hit the voice command button next to the radio. “Call Chou,” he ordered.

Sano, who had been about to open the passenger door, subsided with a grunt to listen.

To the surprise of both men (and possibly of Chou himself), the police officer actually answered after only two rings. “You wouldn’t be shit without me on this case, would you?” was his somewhat taunting greeting. “I don’t remember the last time you called me this much. Or is this a new ghost today?”

Sano snorted, but Hajime lifted a hand to silence him. As funny as he thought it would be to see what happened if he let Sano voice his developing opinion of Chou, he couldn’t risk alienating his police contact just now. “No, still the same case,” he responded calmly. “Listen. Kenshin Himura was probably just made to look like an innocent bystander during the gunfight that killed him; he might actually have been a deliberate victim. Do you have any more information about him? Anything that might have connected him to the gangs involved, or anyone involved with them?”

Chou made a reluctant noise like a verbal headshake, but promised to look into it. “I’ll get back to you probably in the morning,” he added, “since I still got shit to do.”

“Thank you,” Hajime replied.

With another noise, this one a sort of ‘Whatever,’ Chou hung up.

Sano shook his head, opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head again and said nothing.

“I’ll call you when I hear from him,” Hajime offered as Sano reached for the handle.

“Good.” Sano stood from the car and winced as he slung his backpack from the floorboards onto his sore body, then caught the door halfway from the closure he’d jerked it toward. He bent and regarded Hajime through it as if for a proper goodbye, yet still had nothing to say. In fact his mind boiled so furiously that Hajime couldn’t even pick up a definitive parting thought; it had been quite a day for him so far, and probably wouldn’t get much better now they were, yet again, waiting on a phone call.

And unexpectedly the thought drifted across Hajime’s consciousness that they didn’t necessarily have to wait separately for that call; they could just as easily return to his house, tease the cats, discuss the situation, drink some beer, order pizza again once dinner time rolled around…

But Chou wasn’t likely to call until tomorrow, and Hajime had better things to do than babysit an angry non-paying client until then.

Just as if Sano had been reading his mind, he nodded abruptly and, backing away, closed the door. And the exorcist was left to watch him stalk toward the building, dragging the apparently unresisting Kenshin behind him, in a mixture of emotions and a solitude he suddenly felt more keenly than he thought even the events of the day entirely accounted for.

Part 25

Very rarely did Sano wake before his alarm went off, or refrain from grumblingly curling into a tight blanket ball and going determinedly back to sleep if he did, but, as Kaoru had suggested yesterday, an unusual situation could lead to rare happenings. Today he lay in bed observing the slow growth of faint light in the room, noting the stiff soreness of his entire body, watching Kenshin circling with a placidity that belied the fury surrounding him that could so easily be transferred to Sano.

Not that Sano required superfluous external anger to madden him. The mere fact that he had a stranger so close, so undismissable, twenty-four hours a day was enough to keep him just as consistently annoyed even before the supernatural influence. He felt like he’d become the star of a reality show against his will; he felt like he had a chaperone, a jailer, in this unknown man over a decade his senior whose eyes were, perhaps, on him non-stop.

Waking up from angry dreams to find himself trying to tear his pillowcase apart felt especially stupid and frustrating when he knew he had an audience. Doing anything in the bathroom embarrassed him hugely. The state of his apartment from one moment to the next was almost enough to raise a blush, but the idea of straightening up in Kenshin’s presence smacked of catering — caving! — to the presumed tastes and desires of someone he didn’t want around in the first place. And it wasn’t necessarily appropriate to be thinking about the sex life of a brand new and as yet not-terribly-close acquaintance, but Sano couldn’t help making comparisons between Kaoru’s stated reluctance to sleep with her husband when she’d known she was being monitored and his own change in intimate personal habits when he’d realized he was being haunted by more than just a shade.

Not that the inconvenience of his situation, great as it was, could even begin to compare with the misery of hers. Of course he needed to be free of Kenshin in order to get on with his life, and no consciousness of disparity between his predicament and someone else’s could change that, but, even haunted, that life could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe if he kept that thought in mind and stopped concentrating so much on his own difficulties, things would go more smoothly.

So what if he was irrationally, sometimes destructively angry all the time? So what if some guy he didn’t know was watching him every time he took a piss? So what if he’d developed a crush on someone whose sexual orientation he couldn’t parse? At least he’d never been coerced into killing his husband.

He sat up and looked at Kenshin, turning his head to follow the ghost’s progress around him. He really had been thinking a lot about himself, hadn’t he? Kenshin, central to this affair, had barely registered as more than a problem to be solved, a nuisance to be gotten rid of by whatever means — certainly never fully as an individual with driving needs and memories and (as Sano should have good reason to know) human emotions.

What thoughts and feelings might Kenshin be entertaining now? How had that intense meeting with his wife affected him? What did he really want accomplished? Was he eager to move on, or would he prefer to remain a ghost?

Angrily, Sano sighed. How unfortunately easy it had proven to ignore the humanity of someone so unreachable in every way! There’d been no picture of Kenshin in the email report; Sano didn’t even know what he looked like, beyond that apparently ‘good in women’s clothing’ was part of it. He definitely knew nothing about Kenshin’s personality, except that Kaoru thought him pretty much the nicest guy in the world — which, even ignoring the probable bias, didn’t mean a lot. And though he could guess the dead man wanted to tell Kaoru he didn’t blame her for what she’d been forced to do, he couldn’t be sure.

None of these reflections helped or pleased him: overall, an annoying way to start the day. He wondered when he could expect Hajime to call. How early did that bullshit cop go into work? Sano lay back down and closed his eyes, but after a moment rolled onto his stomach and reached over the side of the bed. Not wanting to repeat the experience of a few days ago when he’d been too disoriented coming out of sleep to answer a call in time, he’d left his phone on its charger on the floor within arm’s length. Now he unplugged it and dragged it into a teddy bear position as he curled up on his side and rearranged the blanket he’d completely disarrayed.

He didn’t sleep, but neither did he think profoundly; he just lay there, nonspecifically angry, conscious of every bruise Hajime had given him yesterday, listening hard for any noise from the phone cradled against his chest. Eventually, though, as the morning became more visible, he did call in sick to work again. That he endangered his state of employment thus was an unavoidable fact, which made him feel sorry for anyone that legitimately got sick for two days in a row, but he had a feeling he would need the free time today. And he was satisfied with his effort at not sounding too irate talking to the opening manager.

Next, giving up on doing nothing any longer, he tried to choose an appropriate ringtone for Hajime’s number, but this frustrated him because all he had to work with was the pre-loaded lineup of generic jingles, and none of them seemed to fit. A few songs came to mind that would be very appropriate — a couple angry, one plaintive — but to buy them as ringtones cost something like two dollars each. He was pondering the issue, considering whether or not he should authorize the expenditure, and on the verge of giving in, when Hajime actually called and spared him the decision (for now).

“Kaoru was Kenshin’s second wife.”

So busy trying to decide whether it augured promise or disappointment that he now apparently rated a complete absence of greeting just like that dumbass policeman, Sano barely took in the meaning of this initial statement, and responded only with an inarticulate sound.

“His first wife, Tomoe,” Hajime went on, “died in a car accident in Fresno back in ’99 after he was married to her for less than a year. Kenshin was driving that car, and speeding at the time, which made the accident worse — she might have survived if he hadn’t been going thirty over the speed limit.”

“OK,” said Sano slowly. “That sucks…”

“Her maiden name was Yukishiro. Sound familiar?”

It did, actually, but Sano couldn’t place it. Something he’d heard in the news at some point not too long ago…

“Enishi Yukishiro,” Hajime filled in the silence, “was her younger brother.”

That name was even more familiar, but Sano still didn’t quite have it. “OK, I give up,” he admitted at last.

Hajime helped him out with, “CEO of U.S.Seido?”

“Yes!” said Sano as he remembered, but then sobered as he finally recalled the news reports he’d been trying to dredge up. “But didn’t he die, like, last year?”

“Just at the end of last year,” Hajime confirmed, “near the beginning of January.” And he paused to let this sink in.

“Right when… right when Kaoru started having red shade problems?” Sano had no idea what it meant, but it didn’t sound like a coincidence.

“What would you say to the theory that the anger we’re dealing with isn’t Kenshin’s at all?”

Sano had been in the act of shoving his blanket aside in order to rise, probably to start pacing in some agitation, but as Hajime’s suggestion hit him he stilled, and gradually sank back to rest against the wall. “Shit,” he murmured. “That would…” So simple an idea, yet not even a hint of it had ever crossed his mind. “Yeah…” He’d never heard of a ghost being affected by someone else’s shade, but, honestly, how much did he know about ghosts in the first place? “That’s a…” If this Enishi guy had still somehow been angry enough a decade after his sister’s death to plan the kind of bullshit that had gone on last year, his anger must be both prolific and tenacious… and wasn’t that exactly what they’d been noticing about this shade all along?

Sano’s trailing remark finally finished with, “…really good… theory…” Despite the inconclusiveness implied by this last word, a certainty was growing in his mind as if being built up by an outside source, and that source an authority. He believed this idea. Soon, he felt, he would be past the point where he could entertain any other.

Hajime apparently awaited an end to the contemplative, almost shocked silence, and it came as no less of a shock to Sano to realize the exorcist also awaited a more definitive response from him… that Hajime had proposed this as if Sano were the authority here. In a way, being the one haunted by Kenshin and most closely connected with the shade in question, he was the authority… but he wouldn’t have expected Hajime ever overtly to recognize that. So it was with a sudden and unexpected warmth in his gut, and as a result none of the cautious restraint he might otherwise have used, that he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on. When that guy died, he left some kind of huge shade behind, and it’s been wrapping around Kenshin ever since and keeping us from talking to him.”

“I always thought there was a little insanity in that shade.” Hajime sounded incongruously pleased, and Sano had to grin a bit at this further evidence that the exorcist reveled in being right about things. “To get revenge ten years later…”

“Yeah, seriously.”

In a more businesslike tone suggesting they would definitely want to retouch that branch of the conversation later, Hajime went on, “But that’s not all the information Chou had for me. The rumors that Seido is practically a stateside yakuza are true, apparently — in addition to their legitimate business, they’re more than suspected of money laundering, smuggling, and other, less pleasant things. Chou wasn’t happy to find out they might be involved in this. According to him, the police don’t touch Seido unless they’re absolutely sure they’ll come out on top of the transaction.”

“I don’t think I’m happy finding out about this,” said Sano, now a little uneasy. “I don’t really want to get involved with any yakuza either.”

“I’m not exactly ecstatic about it myself,” Hajime admitted. “But this is significant progress. Seido sometimes makes use of one of those gangs that provided the cover fire when Kenshin died, and you may have heard about that Seido secretary who was a person of interest in the investigation of Enishi’s death because of unusually aggressive behavior that started the same day Enishi died.”

Nothing of this latter story had reached Sano, and he admitted as much in some surprise.

“I’m sure you did hear that Enishi’s death was eventually ruled suicide, so this secretary wasn’t charged with anything. But apparently he’s been on a leave of absence ever since because he’s too angry to get any work done.”

“I’m an asshole for saying it–” and in fact Sano had a hard time stifling a grin as he did so– “but it’s kinda nice to know I’m not the only one whose life’s been fucked up by this.” Then, quickly repenting his choice of words, he added, “I mean, obviously Kaoru and Kenshin in the first place, but still…” He cleared his throat. “So you think the next step is to find this secretary guy and get the shade out of him?”

“And see what he can tell us about Enishi and his grudge against Kenshin,” Hajime confirmed. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to answer at least some questions; when I talked to him just now, he seemed desperate to find any solution to his current problem and very ready to believe he was being haunted by his late boss’s anger.”

“You talked to him just now?” Sano had eventually followed his original plan of rising to pace his apartment, and at this point he stopped on the kitchen linoleum and threw up his free hand. “God, you are so disturbingly efficient!”

Hajime sounded smug as he replied, “Well, unlike you, I like to actually do my job.”

Although he hoped that in general he wasn’t becoming immune to the very useful power of insult from Hajime, Sano gloried in the feeling of camaraderie between them.

“Don’t think it was extremely easy, though,” Hajime went on somewhat regretfully. “It took every corporate connection I have and all my personal charm to get someone at Seido to put me through to this man Gains, and he was so angry it was hard to get anything rational out of him.”

“‘Personal charm,'” Sano echoed, and whether his accompanying snort sounded more amused or derisive he wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure Hajime had set that one up deliberately, though.

“Anyway, if you want to come with me to meet him, which I assume you do, be ready for me to pick you up in half an hour.”

“Oh! Yeah! OK.” Sano could only be glad at Hajime’s efficiency — and also that he himself had been awake enough fully to appreciate this whole conversation. Some unusual happenings were better than others.

“See you then,” was Hajime’s goodbye.

As Sano’s hand holding the phone fell to his side, he stared at the ghost drifting through both hallway walls in its pattern around him. He still struggled to think of Kenshin as an individual and not an inconvenience, but this next step might help. Sano shook his head as he returned the phone to its charger, and headed toward the bathroom for a quick shower. Having done so yesterday, he hadn’t planned on showering today merely for the sake of a work shift, but for the sake of sitting in Hajime’s passenger seat he suddenly felt the need. Ghost or no ghost.

Part 26


“You look like one of those metal brain teaser puzzles,” Hajime announced as Sano slid into his passenger seat.

Sano glanced down at his weird pants with a frown, but the expression gradually turned from angry to thoughtful. “You mean the kind where you have to figure out how to get the rings apart from the other part or whatever? Yeah, I can see that.”

“I don’t know what kind of security measures they’re going to put us through at this place, but if there’s a metal detector we may have a problem.”

“Where exactly are we going?” the startled Sano asked.

“Seido headquarters.” And at his companion’s blankness, Hajime mentioned the part of town where this was located.

“Did you bring your sword?” Now there was suspicion and defiance in Sano’s tone.

“Yes, but an exorcist’s sword is relevant to an exorcism. Those pants are not. Neither are all those earrings, to be perfectly honest.”

“Yeah, like it’s such a huge pain in the ass for you to be perfectly honest about anything that–” Breaking off abruptly, Sano sat back with folded arms and a twist to his mouth that was turning it gradually into an angry-looking grin. “So you want me to take off my pants, huh?” he growled with deliberate suggestive slowness.

Though not particularly practiced at dodging flirtation, Hajime didn’t see this instance as terribly difficult to get around. “And the boots,” he said sternly. “And all the metal jewelry. Don’t you own any sane clothing?”

Sano looked even more irritated than before. Instead of answering the question, he made an angry noise, got out of the car, and walked back across the parking lot and into the apartment building. Hajime watched in the rear-view mirror, wondering if he should perhaps have worded that differently. The possibility of Sano’s clothing combining unpleasantly with the postulated metal detector did exist, but any opinion about said clothing on Hajime’s side (apart from the one he’d already expressed, that Sano’s choices in dress made him look as if he was trying to relive his teenage years) did not. But it was too late now; any pleasant atmosphere that had arisen during their phone call earlier was lost, probably beyond recall.

The Sano that returned was a bit of a shock, and Hajime found that maybe he did have an opinion after all. Stripped of jewelry, in a plain t-shirt, dark jeans, and tennis shoes, Sano looked a lot less like he was parading a past he couldn’t let go of, and a lot more… respectable. More real, perhaps. Even the spiky hair, considering that whatever gel he’d used today didn’t add any unnatural color, was acceptable; even the bruises, in this context, could more easily be presumed the results of some unfortunate accident instead of signs of a reckless and wasteful life. Sano was striking, suddenly, in a way he’d never been before, which was ironic when his usual attire seemed to scream for attention.

He was also still clearly annoyed with Hajime. He didn’t respond to the older man’s placid, “Better,” only donned his seat belt in brief motions and looked out the window as they started off. And this annoyance seemed a little different from the usual low-level anger that was the result of normal time at home with Kenshin. Was it because Hajime had refused to flirt with him? Well, he was just going to have to get over that; Hajime simply didn’t flirt.

Nevertheless, the exorcist thought they had a lot to talk about, given all the information they now possessed. There were, he believed, several connections to be made and theories to be turned over, some of them before they reached the Seido building. So when their drive had proceeded in perfect silence for three or four minutes, he asked directly, “What are you thinking about?”

Whatever it was, Sano seemed to pull himself from it with some difficulty and then face some uncertainty as to what to say. He was shielding, but not quite to the point where, when he replied, “Whether or not we’re getting in way over our heads,” Hajime wasn’t conscious that the statement wasn’t quite an accurate answer to his question. It probably hadn’t been far behind Sano’s actual thoughts, but it had definitely been no more prominent than secondary.

Only a brief glance in Sano’s direction could Hajime spare at the moment, and this told him nothing. In the interest of a legitimate discussion that was not about Sano’s emotions (whatever they might be), he decided to let the matter of concealed thoughts go. “You didn’t hesitate to come, though.”

“No.” Sano’s tone was dark. “But I’m a little pissed that it looks like the guy behind all that shit Kaoru went through’s already dead. I was kinda hoping to kill him myself.”

Aware that this was hyperbole (barely), Hajime replied only, “You’re ‘a little pissed?'”

Sano gave a bitter laugh and fell silent again.

“You’re probably less pissed than Enishi was, anyway,” Hajime admitted by way of transition.

“Seriously,” Sano agreed in a tone half marveling and half irate. “If he’s really our guy, why the hell did he wait ten years to get revenge? And how was he even still that mad after so long?”

“His secretary may be able to answer that.”

“Or he may not,” said Sano darkly. “At least I hope the whole stupid group wasn’t in on torturing some poor woman.”

“It’s an interesting point,” Hajime mused, “that the wife has probably suffered more from this than the husband who actually killed Enishi’s sister.”

“The wife who replaced Enishi’s sister?” Sano interjected doubtfully.

Hajime acknowledged this decent point with a slow nod even as he went on with his own train of thought. “Though that might only have been the case because Kenshin actually died. They — he, if it was Enishi — may not actually have expected Kaoru to succeed in killing her husband. Kenshin might have suffered more if Kaoru had just appeared to be upset with him, eventually threatened him with a gun, and refused the entire time to tell him why. Or, if she had decided to try to get out of that somehow, Enishi always had the option of murdering the son. No matter how it ended, the situation was likely to result in the destruction of Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship, possibly legal trouble, possibly the death of their son, and probably psychological trauma for whoever survived. It was a win-win situation for whoever set it up, since there didn’t seem to be any way for Kenshin and Kaoru to get out of it together without suffering in one way or another.”

“It still seems like there might have been a better way to make sure Kenshin was the one who really suffered, though, and leave Kaoru and the kid out of it.”

“Well, as you just pointed out, Enishi may have had some kind of grudge against Kaoru and the kid too.”

“If Enishi really did all this.”

“It seems like a logical assumption at this point, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the anger Gains is dealing with is the same that’s surrounding Kenshin — assuming Gains is actually haunted. That should tell us fairly conclusively whether Enishi is our culprit.”

“What is this Gains guy’s actual job in this fake-company-yakuza-thing?”

“Bridgestone Gains,” Hajime replied, giving the name the very precise enunciation he felt it deserved, “was Enishi’s administrative assistant, and I get the feeling he’s on an influential level with the–”

Here Sano interrupted with, “Bridgestone Gains?” in a voice completely altered by skepticism and amusement from his previous surly growl. “You sure he’s not the executive officer of the yakuza’s designer men’s clothing line or something?”

Hajime actually laughed out loud, glad to find that Sano agreed with him on this point.

The good humor of that moment was unfortunately short-lived, as their conversation returned soon after to the topic of Enishi’s presumed revenge and long-lasting vindictiveness, as well as the haunted secretary (regardless of his name) and the possibilities of the day. They didn’t have time for a thorough canvass of all the information and all the inferences that were now available, but they managed to discuss enough to satisfy Hajime before they reached the Seido building.

The wrathful Gains, on the phone, had not been entirely coherent, but had at least struggled commendably to arrange things to Hajime’s convenience in visiting; he’d offered a place in the headquarter’s gated multi-level parking complex for the duration, but Hajime had declined as politely as possible. There was something distasteful to him about having his car swallowed up in the darkness of a yakuza garage, so he opted for meter parking on the street and the building’s main entrance. On being acquainted with this plan and the reason for it, Sano commented on the irony of Hajime refusing to leave his ‘mafia-looking car’ in the care of yakuza; Hajime, who’d never considered his car particularly mafia-looking, just rolled his eyes.

“Not that I don’t feel you.” If this choice of idiom on Sano’s part was another attempt at flirtation, it was certainly delivered in as unflirtatious a tone as he could possibly have used: his voice was heavy with uneasiness as the two of them left the vehicle and set off to cross the street toward the looming Seido building. “Of all the ways I never thought I’d finish up my Spring Break…”

Hajime nodded grimly. “The alternative is to give up.”

Sano threw him a sidelong look. “You know, you don’t have to be here at all. I’m not paying you… Kaoru’s not paying you… Kenshin sure as hell isn’t paying you to be here…”

Just as grimly, Hajime smiled. “Giving up isn’t actually an alternative for me.” By now it wasn’t merely the prospect of talking to a ghost; after hearing Kaoru’s story, even after seeing how Kenshin’s presence was affecting Sano’s life, Hajime could not back out of this. Solving this type of problem was what he’d become an exorcist for.

Mimicking the smile, though his was a bit more contemplative, Sano murmured, “No, I guess not.” And it was as clear as if it had been stated aloud that he appreciated both Hajime’s determination and the support it led to.

Inside the main entrance, the appearance of the Seido building was nothing too unusual. The mirror-like marble floor, the lofty ceiling, and the man-sized urns overflowing with greenery (which probably required a discrete employee’s entire day to care for) seemed a tad excessive for the entry to the main office of a business purportedly — and, according to Chou, at least 40% in reality — devoted to data analytics, but the décor, if a trifle overwhelming, was at least tastefully put together. But the feeling of the place had Hajime instantly more on his guard even than he’d already been.

The hushed awkwardness of everyday activities being conducted in the presence of death, the wariness of an already uncertain situation steeped in the possibility of betrayal, the awareness that less than half of what went on here was in any way aboveboard and that it would be hugely inconvenient both to the collective and to the individual at fault should the wrong desk be crossed, the tension of change and unusual circumstances and the accompanying strain of not quite knowing how to deal with them — all of this and more Hajime picked up immediately upon entry, and at first he could only see a single person.

Sano too had stiffened and begun to scowl as he’d taken his first step across the shiny, veined marble. But there was no time for further discussion of how little they liked being here, for the receptionist at the semi-circular marble-topped desk had fixed them with a polite but very studious look. “Good morning,” she greeted. “Are you here to see Mr. Gains?”

Hajime nodded, stepping forward toward her. This woman had a mind as tightly guarded as any he’d expected to find in such a place, and he guessed more than sensed that she was well armed where he couldn’t see. Her eyes, however, never once moved toward the sheathed sword in his hand, or even the bruises on his face; instead she just gestured and said, as courteously as before, “Dae-hyun will take you up.” Her smile was convincingly warm.

The area to which she’d gestured was a large corner of the room that hadn’t been visible, behind a sort of wall of potted plants, until they were near the desk; and it was inhabited by a man whose presence had previously been impossible to observe, or else who had just entered by the door they could now see in the rear wall. This person held out his hand in a welcoming fashion and gave them a smile just as professional and almost as friendly as the receptionist’s.

“Good morning,” he said as Hajime and Sano moved toward him. “Mr. Gains let us know you were coming. I’ll carry your sword upstairs.”

This Dae-hyun, though short, was built very solidly beneath his tailored suit, and seemed extremely competent and unhesitating, in the manner of a bodyguard, beneath his veneer of politeness. Hajime handed over his nihontou without protest. If he and Sano were in any danger here, the temporary lack of that archaic weapon would not make much difference.

Smile unwavering, Dae-hyun gestured again, this time toward the door through which Hajime could see a deep-carpeted and oak-wainscoted corridor. “After you; please turn right.” Obediently, Hajime took the several strides down this hall necessary to reach an elevator whose doors were oak-fronted to match the walls around them, and stopped. A keycard, he noted when Dae-hyun joined them after having waited a couple of steps to follow, was required to access this conveyance, and after that had been accomplished they embarked, in a silence that was no less tense for being so polite, on an upward journey toward the fifteenth floor and Bridgestone Gains.

Part 27


The air here tasted angry. Sano doubted anyone not as precisely attuned to it as he was would have been able to sense it until they were much closer, but he was aware by the time the elevator had ascended only a few floors that they were in the right place. Somewhere in this building was shade energy — to which they were drawing closer and closer — that matched exactly the energy that had been plaguing Sano for the last month. Its influence strengthened with every moment, and he was bracing himself for what must come.

“We’re perfectly happy to assist Mr. Gains wherever it’s most convenient,” Hajime was remarking to Dae-hyun in that creepily polite tone Sano had heard from him once before, “but maybe you can tell me something I didn’t want to ask him on the phone: what is he doing at his office when he’s in such bad shape? I understood he was on a leave of absence.”

Dae-hyun, who resembled nothing so much as a smiling brick, nodded his understanding of the question and replied in a pleasant tone like something from a training video. “Besides being a very valuable and highly respected member of our organization, Mr. Gains is also an artist. He has a studio here in the building where he spends much of his free time.”

Yes, having this somewhat ambiguously ranked assistant to the CEO readily available must be very convenient to the organization, Sano reflected. As he couldn’t quite decide whether he would rather have come to this tense and unnecessarily posh-looking office than visit a possibly paranoid and definitely irate yakuza secretary at his own home, Sano couldn’t quite decide either how he felt about the existence of this so-called studio. It made no difference; he was already here.

But for a few more totally fake (but very well delivered) remarks between Hajime and Dae-hyun about the sparkling success of U.S.Seido, the elevator ride was conducted in silence. Sano didn’t have to watch the numbers to track their approach of the fifteenth floor; he could feel the angry shade more strongly with every passing moment. He couldn’t imagine how much was up there for him to be so aware of it at this distance, but he feared that stepping from the elevator at the top was going to be like entering a war zone.

At what point Hajime had noticed the shade and its effects on Sano, the latter couldn’t guess, but the exorcist had taken half a step, made just a slight shift in the way he was standing, that seemed to indicate solidarity, and for that Sano was grateful. Hajime really didn’t have to be here, but here he was, ready, as ever, to do what he must. Sano just wondered what that would end up being in this situation.

He also wondered if and how Kenshin would react to this volume of shade energy. The ghost hadn’t caught Sano up yet, which was more of a relief than anything, but if he followed his usual pattern he must eventually; what would happen then? Did Kenshin know whose anger it was? Did you find things out after death that you hadn’t known before? Or perhaps Kenshin had known before he died of the possibility of his brother-in-law’s seeking revenge, and was held in this world by the guilt he felt at never having warned his wife.

Such speculation was useless at the moment. Sano just tried to block himself off against absorbing any shade energy before it was absolutely necessary, took a deep breath, and watched the elevator doors slide open. This time their escort led the way instead of gesturing them to precede him, and, as the presence of the huge red shade more or less hit Sano in the face from in front of him to the left, it was a significant relief that Dae-hyun took them to the right. The awareness of the shade didn’t greatly diminish by the time they’d reached the door they were apparently to enter, but Sano was still glad not to have to confront the thing immediately.

In response to Dae-hyun’s knock, the heavy, paneled door was jerked open almost at once, and the visitors got their first look at Bridgestone Gains; the fact that the man in front of them was most definitely haunted by the same shade as was Sano verified his identity even before Dae-hyun’s polite greeting could do so. Other than the red energy rising from him, as his precipitous opening of the door expended some of it, there was nothing terribly remarkable about him except an apparent vigor and athleticism of movement perhaps a little unusual for a man evidently in his late sixties.

“Come in,” ordered Gains curtly, interrupting whatever was being said by Dae-hyun. The latter didn’t appear at all put out by this, just handed Hajime his sword and walked away with smile and imperturbability intact. Sano listened for the sound of the elevator as he followed Hajime through the door in front of him, but heard nothing. So this floor, at least, was being guarded as long as they were here, even if Dae-hyun wouldn’t actually be in the same room. He supposed it was no surprise.

What was a surprise was that same room. Sano hadn’t even begun to take the term ‘studio’ seriously, and if he had would have envisioned easels and canvasses and paints. This mixture of workshop and laboratory, fitted with sinks and gas jets in a couple of high tables, scattered with a number of somewhat disturbing-looking instruments such as might be used by a sculptor, and decorated by several much more disturbing-looking products of these tools, was nothing he would have expected even if he’d bought the description of ‘artist’ for the man they were here to see.

The figures — sculptures? — though they had indentations and curves reminiscent of certain more extreme contortions of the human body, were yet not exactly human in shape, and Sano would need a little more time than he had right now to decide what he thought they actually looked like. Just the glance he was allowed at the moment, though, before turning his attention toward Gains, told him that the most disturbing thing about them was not so much their shape as their composition; whatever they were made of didn’t seem to be stone or clay, but something a good deal more… fleshy. The light in the room definitely hit them the same way it did the skin of the three people present.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime was saying in his obsequious tone that, compared with the creepiness of this room, was positively reassuring at this point, “I can see just by looking at you that it’s a good thing we came, if you’ll excuse me saying so. I’m Hajime Saitou — we spoke on the phone — and this is my partner Sano Sagara.”

Hajime had a gift for making remarks that knocked Sano right out of whatever else he was thinking or feeling, if only for a moment. Partner?? It was staggering, and if Hajime hadn’t wanted Sano to react to it with the full-body jerk and whiplash glance in his direction he gave on hearing it, he should have warned him beforehand.

Examining them both briefly up and down with a scowl, and certainly not missing Sano’s start, “It looks like that’s as true as it is believable,” Gains replied in a sneering tone. Scorn, Sano had found, often arose from an impulse to hurt that was itself a product of anger… and this was a very familiar anger. Only imperfectly did he recognize it, however, so caught up was he yet in the unexpected effort of trying to quell the tingly feeling that had suffused him at the idea of being any kind of partner to Hajime.

“And this is a data analytics business,” the exorcist said dryly, “whose CEO committed suicide.”

It was well done, Sano thought. He’d already been trying to counter the aforementioned tingly feeling with the stern reminder that Hajime’s introduction of him as a partner would have been less complicated and perhaps more dignified than explaining who he actually was — but now, in implying something between the two of them he didn’t want to mention outright, Hajime had managed to create a sort of parallel of concealment that must help to raise fellow feeling. He’d essentially suggested to Gains, “Let’s work together on the understanding that we each know the other has a secret, and are both politely not prying.”

However angry he might be, Gains evidently understood, for he nodded sharply. “Well, and what can you two do for me?” he asked irritably, crossing wiry arms whose liver spots were bared by the rolled state of the sleeves of his black button-up. “It’s been almost three months since Enishi’s ‘suicide;’ if he’s haunting me, how do you get rid of him?”

As always, the uninitiated assumed ghosts when all that really plagued them was shades. Unless, Sano reflected with a slight shudder, Enishi’s ghost was hanging around just like Kenshin’s was. Maybe he was in the next room, hovering in the midst of his anger, waiting for Sano to bring Kenshin to him and stage a final, dramatic, undead confrontation or something.

But that couldn’t be. One ghost was rare enough; the statistical likelihood of encountering two at once must be practically nonexistent. Sano shook himself back into sense and shelved these thoughts alongside the daydreams he fully planned on entertaining later about being Hajime’s partner. Which left only the overwhelming urge to ignore the current conversation, and instead examine this crazy room, to try to repress.

Hajime was reassuring Gains with, “Sano can extract the angry energy from you, so you’ll be able to go back to your normal activities.” And he proved that he too was curious about the contents of the room in which they stood by throwing a quick glance around at it as he spoke the last words. Sano’s contribution was a nod; he doubted it would be any kind of problem to absorb all the shade that had Gains so tetchy — or at least it wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish… what might happen afterward, if there was enough of the stuff to give Sano another critical mass, he didn’t know.

“Do it, then!” Gains ordered, glaring at Sano. Actually he seemed far less angry, in general, than Sano had expected; he must have found a way to expend some of the shade before they’d arrived. The disarray of the equipment in here, as if someone had inflicted upon it a very bad mood and then only imperfectly straightened up, might explain that.

“First,” Hajime said smoothly, “tell me: what’s over there?” He gestured with the hilt of his sword off to their left, past a couple of painted folding screens that were distinctly out of place in here but that probably looked congruous enough from the other side; between them, Sano could see through to what appeared to be a sort of lounge done up in a mixture of oriental styles. It was beyond this space, probably past the far wall he could only get a limited glimpse of from this angle, that the feeling of red shade was emanating most strongly. Hajime wanted to head straight for the source of all this trouble, and, unpleasant as Sano feared it would be, he couldn’t but agree.

Gains jerked his gaze in the direction Hajime indicated, and scowled. “I assume you mean Enishi’s office, since you can see the kètīng perfectly well for yourself.”

“Enishi’s office,” Hajime repeated thoughtfully, ignoring Gains’s grouchy tone (and not bothering to ask what a kètīng was even if he, like Sano, wasn’t entirely sure). “We’ll need to take a look around in there.”

“Nobody but me goes in there,” Gains snapped. “Not until we have a new CEO.”

Hajime’s tone was as smooth and soothing as before as he answered, “And I’m afraid that’s the reason you’ve been so angry for so long. You’ve been picking up more angry energy every time you go in there, and probably just by spending so much time here in your studio next door.”

Again Sano nodded his concurrence. Somebody or other would have been affected eventually by the shade under any circumstances, but Gains had hastened and worsened the process by hanging out so close to it ever since Enishi’s death. And his leave of absence, rather than helping him recover, had probably actually exacerbated his condition by giving him so much more time to spend in his studio.

At Hajime’s words and Sano’s nod, Gains’s face twisted into an expression almost of rage, and Sano wondered whether this was because he didn’t like to be dictated to by strangers, or because the aforementioned appointment of a new CEO — something that had obviously already been a long time in the works — was a touchy business that caused him to get defensive about the old one’s office and effects, or because he’d been closer to his late boss than they’d had any idea. But he didn’t strike at either of them, as Sano had half expected, nor even lash out verbally. “All right,” he said instead, teeth gritted. He turned abruptly and moved toward the other half of the room and the room beyond, pulling a keycard from the pocket of his black slacks as he did so. “But you can’t touch a damn thing in there.”

Part 28


Everything Hajime had been thinking about — his curiosity regarding Gains’s exceptionally strange art, his residual amusement at having thrown Sano so completely off-balance with the ‘partner’ remark, even his ongoing underlying concern at being in a yakuza headquarters dealing with someone that could probably have them killed with a single word and seemed hateful enough to do it — all of it crowded right into the background of his mind and huddled there, subdued, as he took his first step into Enishi’s office.

Whether or not this room contained the matching antique furniture, expensive ornamentation, and relatively classy mixture of eastern and western decorating he’d expected, he had no idea. He couldn’t see a thing through the almost pulsing brightness of the wall-to-wall shade that filled his vision like a roiling acidic mist. It blinded him, pounded at his magical senses, battered his consciousness with anger and pain. He’d never encountered a shade anywhere near this large and powerful, and even having made what he thought were logical mental preparations based on what he’d known it must be like beforehand, he could never have been prepared for this.

Holy shit,” came a murmur, quiet but intense, from behind him.

“Sano, get back,” he ordered, taking two more slow steps onto what felt like firm carpet or perhaps a rug atop tile. “Stay outside the room. I’ll deal with this.”

“What, are you trying to be a hero all of a sudden?” Sano, still right behind him, growled. “This is way fucking more than–”

“You’re already absorbing it.” It was getting to Hajime too, if the angry tone in which he’d just said that was any indication, and he wasn’t even the one that was deliberately attuned to it. He attempted to speak rationally as he went on, “You’ll need to deal with Gains after all of this is gone, which you won’t be able to do if you stay in here much longer.”

“Ah, fuck,” Sano muttered, and retreated.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime said next, “it would be better if you waited outside the room as well.”

Gains sneered, “And leave you to poke around in here? I think not.”

“I’m not here to dig up secrets on your organization,” Hajime snapped. “But if you want to stay, get into a corner and be ready to move if I come near you.” Lifting his sword as an indication of the danger this situation posed, yet he didn’t wait to see if Gains followed his instructions — indeed, he couldn’t see anything of the sort — but unsheathed the weapon. The blade was an intense red, a bloody-looking contrast to the bright white that surrounded him, but he hadn’t needed that to tell him what he was up against.

Falling into the pattern of breathing he’d found worked best for the use of kendo as exorcism, Hajime closed his eyes to the whiteness and probed outward with his mind. If he’d had any doubt that this astonishing shade belonged to the former inhabitant of this office, he would have been convinced upon noting that the energy was mostly confined to the acknowledged limits of the room; shades, which were not technically inhibited by physical barriers like walls or windows, generally only adhered to them in reflection of a human’s awareness of a space — and the person most aware of a room’s boundaries was usually that room’s primary resident.

As strong as he’d anticipated, the shade was also even more insane. Though it wasn’t quite fair to maintain that, in order to keep up this level of anger for an entire decade, someone would have to be insane, and though Enishi must have functioned rationally in most areas in order to head up an organization like this, there had definitely been some madness there, which had accompanied the anger in becoming this shade. Hajime concentrated on the defeat of both.

Earlier Sano had remarked that he wished he could have killed Enishi, and Hajime rather had to agree. Perhaps this was a foolish way to feel about someone he’d never even heard of until the man’s death, but he thought the desire must help him in this situation. He didn’t know what number and variety of evils Enishi had perpetrated as the head of a criminal organization; all he was familiar with was Kaoru’s story — and the fact that Enishi had been her tormenter wasn’t 100% verified even yet… but he was certain that Enishi’s death had done little but good for the world.

And now the dissipation of his shade, at Hajime’s hands, would do a more specific good for a smaller subset of the world. For Sano, whose entire life was practically on hold. For Kaoru, who’d been forced to commit an act foreign to her nature. For Kenshin, about whom Hajime really knew nothing. Even for this strange Gains man about whom Hajime cared nothing.

With this knowledge and desire strengthening his intent, focusing all his will on breaking up and destroying the shade, he opened his eyes and thrust his sword into the nearest intense patch in the fluctuating mass of angry energy.

It was a shock, stronger than when he’d last exorcised any of this shade by a much greater margin than he could have expected merely by reckoning proportions based on size at the source. It almost left him stunned, and only by holding onto the awareness and determination previously fixed upon did he keep it from completely overwhelming him. Had he been a disinterested party here to perform this professional service for a client, he might have been defeated in this first moment, so it was lucky for everyone concerned that he was not so disinterested. If it could be called luck.

When the patch on which he’d focused finally gave up its attempt to out-will him, wavered, and dissipated, he swept his sword out to the right after a second segment without pause. His movement toward a third was slower, but he thought the overall intensity of the shade throughout the room was fading.

The work was exhausting, and the clash of wills that comprised it was like nothing else he’d ever experienced. He thought perhaps it could be compared to the process of two people attempting to outmaneuver each other in an organization just such as this, using all their cunning to get the better of each other and staying on their toes every moment of every day in the fear of betrayal over the course of long months or even years — but all packed into the space of a few minutes. As he’d never done any such thing, however, he couldn’t be certain.

His head ached, and he felt ready for a long rest by the time the furniture around him was becoming visible. He’d already discovered the chairs facing the desk during his movements through the room, but now he began to be able to make out the carved patterns in their wooden backs.

Gains had shouted more than once, quite possibly about taking care not to damage things with what to him must have appeared a randomly and wildly swinging blade — Hajime had been concentrating too hard to note exactly what he had to say — but by the time it was all over he’d fallen silent, perhaps in recognition of the futility of his words. And Hajime sagged into that silence, looking slowly around for any further traces of shade he’d missed and breathing somewhat hard.

To locate the source of the last remaining shade he was sensing didn’t take long; it was small, but it glowed as brightly white in his vision as any part of the huge shape that had previously filled the room: an object that stood at the far end of the desk he could now properly make out. Trying to decide exactly what it was through the light of the energy that suffused and surrounded it, he peered at it as he circled the desk to the sound of Gains’s now much more irate reiteration that he touch nothing.

The general balance of the desk suggested a picture frame set up in symmetry with the one on the opposite corner. The latter held a photo of an elegant-looking Japanese woman that Hajime assumed to be the long-dead sister; who was likely to be the subject of another such frame he could not guess, unless it was a second instance of the same person. He knew so little of Enishi, however, that he might be wrong on all counts here. Whatever this item was, it had been suffused with shade energy to the point where he could almost call it an artifact — though he’d pity anyone trying to do magic with its assistance or even in its presence.

Gains must have realized what Hajime’s target was when he raised his sword one more time, for the secretary recommenced shouting. Clearly just the few minutes he’d spent in here, even with Hajime cleaning up the shade, had affected him, for his tone was extremely angry and his language abusive. Hajime ignored him. Invoking his full force of will and concentration once again, he brought the blade down on the glowing object on the desk, taking a grudging care not to allow the blow to continue any farther than was required precisely to destroy the thing so as not to damage the furniture.

Two halves of whatever it was clattered apart and fell to the floor where he couldn’t see them, and Hajime was by now so worn out that he didn’t feel like retrieving them immediately to confirm or disprove his guess. He just sheathed his sword and leaned on the desk, around which Gains, still yelling, was approaching. “That was one of Enishi’s prized possessions, you brainless fraud! What the hell are you thinking, when I told you not to touch anything in here, destroying things without even explaining what the hell you’re doing?”

“The goddamn thing was packed full of shade!” Sano, now attempting to shout Gains down from the doorway, had apparently followed Hajime’s order of retreat no farther than would yet allow him to watch. “It wouldn’t have done you any fucking good to have the room cleared if that thing was still left!”

Perhaps not having heard (and undoubtedly not having understood), Gains continued his tirade right into Hajime’s ear. The exorcist continued mostly ignoring him, but the loud tone wasn’t exactly diminishing his headache. He did stand straight, however, when Sano, having entered the room, bent to collect the broken pieces from the carpet and bring them around.

It was a picture frame, or had been. It had matched the other one; the expense of the set was one of Gains’s current points of protest. And the photo, now sliced diagonally down the middle into fairly neat, nearly triangular halves, showed a red-haired man with Japanese features marred by the type of meandering pink scar-lines one might obtain from a car accident.

“This is… Kenshin…” Sano muttered. “Isn’t it.” There wasn’t really any interrogative quality to the remark.

“How the hell do you know who he is?” demanded Gains, who must have been paying better attention than the others had believed.

Shaking his head, Hajime didn’t bother to answer the question; nor to comment that the picture, depicting Kenshin and being suffused with Enishi’s shade, had undoubtedly acted as a sort of focus or channel allowing that shade to transfer continually to Kenshin’s ghost; nor to wonder aloud at hatred so obsessive it led to the keeping of a photo of its object exactly parallel to one of somebody for whom the possessor, presumably, felt the opposite emotion.

Instead, he tore his eyes away from the severed image and fixed them on one of the men at his side. “I believe it’s your turn, Mr. Gains.”

Part 29


Whatever look Hajime had given Gains, along with the admittedly ambiguous declaration in an unexpectedly threatening tone that it was ‘his turn,’ must have been particularly scary, for even in the midst of his newly increased wrath the secretary took two steps back and raised his hands defensively. Sano didn’t wait for whatever bullshit Gains had to say at the moment, however; he broke in with, “No, it’s not; it’s your turn.”

A startled and even angry expression turned toward Sano as he set down the two halves of the ruined picture frame with greater care than he would have given them had they contained no broken glass. “What do you–” Hajime began, but evidently the amount of anger just in those three words was enough to prove to him that he needed some attention.

“Yeah,” said Sano, enjoying while he had the chance a Hajime angrier than he was. “I’m probably going to need some help from you after I’ve dealt with him. Can’t have you already half as pissed as I am. Come sit down and let me–” It flashed across his mind to say, ‘let me suck it out of you,’ but decided just in time that the situation and company called for different phrasing. “–absorb this shit,” was what he went with instead.

“I should have you two con artists shot.” As Sano led the surprisingly willing Hajime out of the office and toward one of the low sofas in the little lounge next door, Gains was trailing after them with clenched fists and red energy pulsing around him in waves. “I should just kill you both myself,” he seethed. “How dare you threaten me? Destroying things in the CEO’s office, you goddamn spies!”

“Shut the fuck up, would you?” It wasn’t that Sano didn’t think Gains could kill them or have them killed as easily as snapping his fingers; it wasn’t that he couldn’t sympathize about the type of anger Gains was trying to deal with right now; it was just that he had very little patience for anyone that could watch Hajime’s magnificently performed exorcism in the other room and then call him a brainless fraud.

“Sano,” said Hajime sharply. He’d taken a seat without protest, but didn’t appear to approve of Sano antagonizing the client. Or whatever Gains was. “If you’ll wait just a minute, Mr. Gains,” he went on in the most rigid, enforcedly polite tone Sano had ever heard, “Sano will help you.”

“Why the hell can’t you do it?” Apparently, despite the fact that Hajime had supposedly threatened him with a deadly weapon, Gains still trusted him over the younger man that had done nothing here so far except tell him to shut the fuck up.

Hajime’s politeness cracking, he replied, “I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.” It was the last of his unusual anger, though, for as this exchange had taken place Sano had seated himself beside the exorcist, put a hand on his suit-jacketed shoulder, and drawn the shade right out of him. It had come unexpectedly smoothly and easily, and the increase in Sano’s ire it caused might have been a good thing in that it kept him from dwelling on how well he’d become attuned not just to this particular shade, but to Hajime.

“Thank you.” The gold eyes turned in his direction were tired, but Sano thought it was a temporary weakness at worst.

So he replied with an angry grin and a murmured, “Just let me know when you think you can handle me.”

“I can handle you any time, idiot,” Hajime answered in the same tone. “But if you mean a fist fight, give me just a couple of minutes.”

Sano’s voice dropped even further as, situation and company notwithstanding, he simply couldn’t help remarking, “I think you just flirted with me.”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “And I think you really are an idiot.”

“Is this what you came here for?” Gains’s impatient derision broke into the quiet conversation. “To stink up my rooms with this kind of queer bullshit?”

Sano was on his feet, fists clenched, stalking toward the secretary, before he realized he was even moving. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”

“Sano,” said Hajime again, and this second remonstrance was every bit as hard as his grip on Sano’s arm; he too had stood, and was clearly ready to restrain his companion by whatever means necessary.

There was a very tense moment of silence as two men faced off and a third awaited the outcome. Sano thought he saw something like a mirror of his own struggle in Gains as each of them, with an effort of will, attempted not to release his rage on the other. Sano knew perfectly well that reacting to the old man’s remark would be — and Gains probably knew perfectly well that what he’d said had been — utterly counterproductive.

“Just a couple of minutes,” Hajime reiterated quietly behind Sano… and he was, in fact, so close behind Sano that these words provided a sudden but pointed distraction. Whether Hajime had intended this Sano couldn’t guess, but his next words of distraction, directed over Sano’s shoulder, were clearly meant as such: “Mr. Gains, would you tell us a little about your unusual art?”

Judging by his face, Gains too was aware of the purpose of this request, but, just as Sano had been on multiple previous occasions, he was willing to play along. He began pacing and speaking quickly, first irately but gradually more calmly as his anger was in some measure repressed or circumnavigated by the interest of his topic. Sano found himself dragged backward into another sitting position on the sofa beside Hajime, who gave him a warning look. So with a deep breath and fists yet unclenched, he listened.

To capture the beauty of the human body in its essence rather than its technicality — whatever that meant — was apparently Gains’s artistic motivation, flesh his particular fascination, and achieving the precise look and feel of flesh combined with the durability and longevity of more traditional sculpting material such as stone his ultimate ambition. The application of other media to imitate the effects of human skin had never satisfied him, so he’d been experimenting with amalgamations.

Myriad combinations of sculpting materials and flesh-like substances were available, but so far none of them had been able to answer both his aesthetic desire and the artificial aging process he applied to test the endurance of the finished product. He’d found that the use of actual skin (obtained whence he did not mention) tended, predictably, to produce the best visual and tactile results, but that he could much more easily chemically integrate his sculpting material into artificial flesh grown in his lab — and that in either case, decomposition became an issue. Nylons and rubbers were more readily manipulated and lasted longer, but lacked the verisimilitude he wanted. And that wasn’t even beginning to touch on the differing degrees of chemical compatibility of different sculpting materials with all these substances or the gradient of longevity of the resulting compounds.

He’d been working on this for many years, and felt he’d at least developed a smooth and meticulous system of experimentation that must allow him, eventually, to hit on the result he wanted. It was only a matter of time.

Little as Sano had expected it to be, this was all quite interesting, and the next time he took any stock of his surroundings and his own mood he found that even his anger had been pushed back a bit by the discourse. Additionally, it had been at least the couple of minutes Hajime had requested, which meant that hopefully it was time for Sano’s big scene and then they could get the hell out of here. A glance at the exorcist won him a nod of confirmation, so he jumped to his feet.

“That,” he said in sincere admiration, pointing at Gains, “is cool. Creepy, but cool.”

Gains didn’t seem to know quite how to take this, and only glowered at him.

“Now, just hold still for a sec.” After cracking his knuckles, Sano reached out again toward the secretary. Gains flared red at the approach, shifted a bit, but held his ground. “It doesn’t hurt or anything,” Sano assured him as he came within arm’s length and put a hand on Gains’s bony shoulder.

It didn’t hurt, but it was much rougher than it had been with Hajime. Sano tried not to think about that, especially since it was becoming clear that he was going to have to focus hard in order to make it through the entire length of this process. Damn, there was a lot of this stuff. He pulled and pulled, trying not to look at anything, not even at what he was pretty sure were dentures in Gains’s mouth, because at the moment even false teeth were enough to break his concentration and send him into a blood frenzy, and there was still more of this shade. That Gains had been able to be distracted away from it at all was a shock; it was probably because he was so old and had more practice at controlling his emotions, but even so, there was a lot here.

Combined with what Sano had already absorbed, both in the office and from Hajime, this was going to leave him with a greater amount of internalized shade energy than he thought he’d ever carried at once before. And there was still more. The world was turning red, Sano’s thoughts were melting away as if in a hot or corrosive substance, and still there was more. Something deadly, fueled by the shade, was pushing out from his mind in a gradual, unstoppable wave, and somehow there was more. He was ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, and still there was more.

Everything he knew, everything he was, everything seemed to be exploding in exquisitely excruciating slow motion.

And still there was more.

Part 30


Hajime had never slept on the sofa in his den. He knew it was comfortable enough to sit on, but, though he had once or twice dozed off during a DVD he’d thought would be more interesting, he hadn’t ever had occasion to test this seat’s functionality as a bed before. And perhaps this was why, though he’d been attempting to take a much-needed nap, he just couldn’t lie still. He had to rise, again and again, and go back to his bedroom to check on the young man he’d installed in his own, actual bed.

After a while, though, he was forced to face facts: this really had nothing to do with the comfort level of the sofa. Had it been merely that keeping him awake, he might have made himself useful — might have contacted Kaoru to let her know things were progressing, or might at least have tried to find Kenshin to attempt to see exactly how much more progress they needed to make. But, no, all he could bring himself to do was look in, over and over, at the motionless figure of Sano, and long to smoke a cigarette.

Finally he gave in to the unhealthy urge. He usually didn’t smoke inside the house, but at the moment he couldn’t quite bear to go farther away from his bedroom than just across the hall, in case Sano woke up. So he opened the windows in the den and hovered beside them at one end of the sofa as he poisoned himself and the air around him.

When next his inability to stand still brought him to face the interior of the room, he found Tokio looking up at him with an air both skeptical and a little concerned. He waved his free hand in the direction of the bedroom and asked, “Is Misao still in there?”

She began to lick a paw as she explained that Sano had a very high body temperature.

Hajime wondered if this was natural or if the young man had a fever. A fever was only to be expected. A fever could be controlled.

Tokio cocked her head. She’d been under the impression that Hajime was the one that had hurt Sano — but if he’d done it deliberately, why was he fretting about it?

Turning back to the window, stabbing the remainder of his cigarette into the ash tray on the sill, trying to combat the desire to light another, Hajime said harshly, “Yes, I was the one. I had no choice.”

But that wasn’t quite true. There might have been some other way to exorcize the greater-than-usual amount of shade Sano had absorbed. Though it was a technique he’d never really used, Hajime might have been able to attune himself to the energy and absorb some of it to take part of the load off Sano. But could he have figured it out in time? Or what they’d done before — the insults and the arguments and the actual fighting — might have worked just as well as ever, once Sano had awakened from the faint his unusual level of absorption had induced. But that had been the difficulty: it had rather seemed as if Sano never would awaken. The much-diminished pulse and respiration rate, the rapidly cooling extremities, and, worst of all, the completely inaccessible psyche behind an impenetrable barrier of shade…

Hajime didn’t remember ever having been so worried. And though his desperate measures had had the desired effect, had brought Sano back, that had only changed the shape of his worry. And Tokio was picking up on it.

Was this, she queried, one of those behaviors pack animals like humans engaged in? Had Hajime hurt Sano in order to establish dominance, and now he worried that he hadn’t gotten his point across thoroughly enough?

“Oh, I’m sure I made my point.” Then, in spite of his better judgment, he asked, “Why would you think I’d want to establish dominance?”

Tokio replied that it would be to make certain Sano knew whom he belonged to.

“And what makes you think he belongs to me?”

She stretched out so that the markings on her back seemed to ripple along her long body, which was her equivalent of a shrug. She’d never seen him this invested in another human before, so she’d just assumed that Hajime wanted to keep Sano as his mate. Humans sometimes kept mates of the same sex, she added wisely as she began walking out of the room. She personally didn’t see the attraction, but neither did she understand cars or bathtubs or why she and Misao were supposed to stay off the kitchen counters; Hajime undoubtedly knew all about human things like that. Then she added that it smelled bad in here, and was gone.

Hajime gave a soft, bitter laugh. So now even his familiar’s thoughts pointed that direction, did they?

He lit another cigarette.

He wasn’t blind to what Sano wanted. How could he be? Little as he’d ever been interested in anything of the sort, he wasn’t unaware of its existence or its importance in the lives of others. And Sano hadn’t exactly been discreet. His interest had developed rapidly — for all the hours they’d spent together, it had still been only a single week — but Sano himself had admitted that he made fast decisions, and Hajime supposed there had been wilder and hastier ones.

This would all be much simpler if Hajime could claim he didn’t like Sano, as that would neatly solve this little problem. But he did, in fact, like Sano. It was odd… he didn’t like many people… but he liked Sano, enough that he didn’t think he could bring himself to lie about it.

He liked the way Sano seemed to live so intensely and yet so lazily, somehow, at the same time. He liked Sano’s sense of humor. He liked that, aimless as Sano often appeared, still he had standards he passionately adhered to. He even liked the way Sano grumbled so much despite simultaneously seeming pretty happy with his life.

And perhaps some of this had been brought to Hajime’s attention only by the sight of Sano’s blood on his hands.

Insulting Sano, annoying Sano, even thinking badly of some of Sano’s life choices… that was one thing. But today’s experience had proven to Hajime that the idea of losing Sano was uncomfortable and agitating enough to be called, perhaps, painful.

But wasn’t he, in thinking thus, trying to hold onto something he’d never actually had? Maybe Tokio was right, and he was trying to establish ownership. Because though their relationship wasn’t exactly professional, they weren’t exactly friends either.

At some point during these thoughts, Hajime had finished his second cigarette and drifted yet again to his bedroom door. The room’s interior was dim, but still he could make out certain aspects of Sano’s face, and the faint light from the hallway on the curve of shoulders — one bare, one bulked up by white bandage — just above the blanket. Misao was visible as a perfect black circle at the young man’s side.

Friendship, though a rarity in Hajime’s life, was nothing distasteful. Friendship with Sano, he thought, was even specifically desirable. He would like to get to know a Sano that wasn’t enraged all the time. He would like to see where Sano’s geological fixation went, how the skinflint father would take the news. He would like to gather more evidence for or against his theory about Sano’s magical talents. He would like to talk to Sano about… well, anything, really. He could easily envision a lot of time spent with Sano with little more to do than what he believed people generally called ‘hanging out.’ He just… wanted Sano around.

But Sano obviously wanted more than that. At this point, assuming he didn’t hate Hajime forever when he woke up and learned what had happened, Sano might even believe he was entitled to more than friendship. And though that was nonsense, still Hajime didn’t like the idea of disappointing him.

Of the type of relationship Sano probably had in mind, however… of the type of emotions that would prompt someone to form such a relationship, or at least would be expected to develop once they had… Hajime simply wasn’t sure he was capable. Even the more simplistic concept Tokio had suggested, that of seeking a mate — at least in the sexual sense — was something completely alien to him. And any sense less intimately involved than that, he was afraid Sano would not accept.

He didn’t want to hurt Sano, but, just as he had earlier today, he feared there was no other option.

“I have to say, it is nice to finally see what he looks like. I believe I never saw him during my life.”

Though the soft voice immediately to Hajime’s left and a little above him was unexpected, the exorcist thought he managed to hide his startlement fairly well as he turned to regard the ghost that had at some point appeared silently at his side. “You might not recognize him right now even if you had,” he replied; “he’s unusually dressed today. The bandages aren’t normal either. I think.” And as he said this, he took his first real look at Kenshin Himura.

Part 31


Kenshin Himura was taking his first real look at the man he was fairly certain had been around him quite a bit just recently. The narrow eyes that currently returned his scrutiny were an unsettlingly light brown or even gold, and, like the other harsh features surrounding them, distinctly Japanese. Figure tall and lean, hairstyle odd and angular, clad in stark black and white, the man wasn’t the most friendly-looking of all the people Kenshin could have had his first post-dissolution conversation with. So happy was Kenshin, however, to be able to have a conversation with anyone that he wasn’t going to complain.

When the man finished his examination of the ghost and turned back to regard the sleeper in the room beyond, Kenshin was reminded of the topic on which he’d started the aforementioned conversation. “Is he all right? I missed what happened to him.”

“He’ll be fine,” said the tall man briefly. After a moment he glanced at Kenshin again. “So you didn’t go into the building, then. Sano was wondering why it was taking you so long to catch up.” Sano, Kenshin noted, was the name of the man they were discussing — the one he’d been haunting for… he wasn’t really sure how long.

“The place the red mist was coming from?” he answered the question, shaking his head and smiling wanly. “No. I think it’s safe to say I have had enough of that for one afterlife. When I got close to where Sano had stopped and felt how much more of it there was, I waited at a distance. And then… I was already under the impression that Sano was trying to help me, but I wasn’t ready for the red mist just to disappear all of a sudden.”

Though he spoke calmly, he knew he would never forget as long as he… existed… the abrupt withdrawal of the angry shroud that had kept him for so many uncounted days or weeks or months largely cut off from the world. He’d found he’d almost forgotten what that world was even like in his near-complete lack of ability to sense it properly. Suddenly able to see and hear and smell and taste again (though touch, it appeared, was not to be restored), he’d gone a little crazy for a while: losing track of his priorities, he’d floated aimlessly in sensory overload until the moment he’d realized Sano was once more on the move; then he’d retraced his… path… and followed Sano as he’d been doing since he’d first found him, and eventually come to this house.

“I did that, actually.”

This curt pronouncement dragged Kenshin back out of intense memory to the present, and prompted him to reply, “Then thank you very much.”

The man nodded slightly, then murmured, “Not that Sano wasn’t useful.”

It was a little odd how precisely Kenshin still seemed able to mark his own movements and gestures when he lacked a sense of touch. Consciousness of remembered muscular impulse, perhaps? It didn’t really matter; all that did was that he now found himself smiling slightly as he followed the man’s intent gaze back to the sleeping Sano in the bedroom. “He is a remarkable person, you know.”

Shifting, raising a hand to the doorframe, then stilling again, the man said nothing.

“I know you have talked to my wife,” Kenshin began a little more quietly, “so you may know that I was haunting her for a while…” He paused. He’d meant this as a comment about Sano, but he realized quickly that it was going to become an explanation or even a story, and had to backtrack and start at an earlier point. “When I died, I was not sure why I became a ghost. I was drawn to Kaoru, almost pulled towards her, which I thought was only natural; but there were no other ghosts around, so being one could not be entirely natural. I thought maybe I was allowed to stay so I could learn why she was so upset with me during that last month of my life. I thought maybe I was being punished for whatever I did to her… or maybe,” he added contemplatively, “for something I did years ago…”

All the intensity of the amber gaze had transferred to Kenshin now, though the man made no move to leave the doorway where he stood and still did not say a word. In the face of such obvious interest, Kenshin could but go on, though going on at this point was not necessarily easy.

“I watched her suffering… I watched her trying to be strong for everyone else, for Kenji — trying to decide how much to tell him and how to answer his questions — but she could not hide how much pain she was in from me, since I saw her when nobody else was looking.” Were the tears on his face just some sort of astral projection? Merely a memory of tears? And how, exactly, was he even aware that they were there, when he couldn’t feel them? He took a deep, false breath into lungs that, he supposed, no longer really existed.

“There has always been a sort of… pulling… feeling… I’m afraid I have no way to describe it any better than that, but it has been there since the beginning — since the moment I realized I was dead: something pulling me, trying to pull me away from here, I guess into whatever comes next. And Kaoru was what held me back. Watching her in so much pain and wanting to talk to her, to try and help her somehow, kept me from ever responding at all to that pulling… thing. And it got worse when I finally found out what really happened that night when I died.

“You would think a ghost would know all about his own death. Doesn’t it seem unfair to die and not know anything more than you did when you were alive? But I didn’t know the truth until I heard her say it out loud. I think it was the only time she has said it out loud since it happened, unless she told you…”

“She did,” the man — whom Kenshin was beginning to regard as his audience — nodded. “And don’t be concerned that she’ll get in any trouble for it; we don’t intend to tell anyone.”

“Thank you,” said Kenshin, intensely and sincerely. His first impression (more or less) of this harsh stranger wasn’t a very good one, but he deeply appreciated that the man had made this reassurance immediately and unbidden. He went on with his story. “She said it like a sort of prayer, as if by saying it out loud she might be able to get control of what happened and how she felt about it. It didn’t work, but it let me hear the truth about how I died and what happened before that.

“When I knew Kaoru felt like a murderer because of what she had done, I wanted even more than ever to talk to her somehow. I wanted to let her know I did not — that I could never blame her, and that actually I knew what it… well…” No reason to pour out, in his wife’s absence, everything he wanted to say to her. “That kind of thing. I knew then that that was why I became a ghost. I can’t move on, no matter how hard it pulls me, until I tell her.

“But she could not hear me or see me; she had no idea I was there. I don’t know how long that went on. I don’t think I am aware of time the same way I was when I was alive; I have no idea how long I spent trying to communicate with her without being able to get even the smallest response from her.”

The man snorted quietly. “That sounds familiar,” he murmured, and left Kenshin to interpret the remark as he would.

“And then the red mist came. It appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden and completely covered me. I had no way of knowing what it was or where it came from, and, though I did not like it, at first I also did not consider it a problem.”

“It didn’t make you angry?” the man wondered with a raised brow.

“Not me,” replied Kenshin ruefully.

“Interesting.”

“All it did to me was cut me off from everything. I couldn’t see or hear anything around me through the mist, except for… well, I could still sense my wife and son, but it was not the same as before. Before, I saw and heard everything just like I did when I was alive, just like I can now. But through the mist, it was… a different sense. Something that was probably there all along, but that I never noticed until it was the only way I could find them.”

“A psychic connection.” Though the man’s tone was contemplative, the little nod he gave had no doubt in it. “Even people without any magical skill form bonds like that with others.”

Not entirely pleased with a pronouncement as of expertise from someone that hadn’t actually been part of this experience, but not wanting be impolite, Kenshin merely accepted the diagnosis with a nod of his own and continued. “Whatever it was, I was able to ‘see’ Kaoru and Kenji even through the mist, and there were even a few things relating to them that got through normally — whenever one of them mentioned the other out loud, I could still hear it — but most of what they were actually doing and saying I usually couldn’t make out. I can’t say for sure how long it took me to realize that the mist was affecting Kaoru — or, even once I did notice, how long it took me to decide that it really was the mist, or possibly me, and not some other cause.

“You probably know what it did to her. Yes?” Kenshin shook his head, remembering in powerless pity and frustration. “I never wanted to talk to her any less, to tell her everything I wanted to tell her… and inside the mist I felt that pulling sensation even less than before… so for me, nothing had changed except maybe to make me want to stay with her even more. But I couldn’t stay with her and keep making her situation even worse than it already was and her even more unhappy. I had to leave. I had no idea where I could go or what I would do, or even if I would ever see my wife again, but… I couldn’t stay.”

Again the man nodded, this time in a manner that suggested he’d had guesses confirmed by this. At the same time, his interest seemed to intensify as Kenshin was finally approaching what had been the point of his long narrative from the beginning.

“I just started wandering,” he said, “aimlessly.” Helplessly he lifted his spectral hands. Trying to describe the emptiness, the hopelessness, the misery of a search without an object, a path without a destination, of knowing he’d left everything he loved behind in more pain even that he felt… he wasn’t going to bother with the attempt. Instead, he let his hands fall to his sides and glanced into the bedroom. “And then I sensed Sano.

“I had already found that Kaoru and Kenji were not the only ones I could sense through the mist. There were people here and there, when I was moving around without any real place to go, who I could sense, a little. But Sano was… amazingly clearer, and more something I was drawn to, than anyone else. He was almost as clear as Kaoru and Kenji. I never met him while I was alive, so it probably wasn’t any kind of psychic connection — at least not one that I had already made. I think what I felt was… potential.

“He was not my friend, but he could have been. He was the kind of person I could have been friends with, best friends with. He was somebody I could have loved. I think I was drawn to him because I could sense all sorts of things about him, maybe things that would have taken me a lot longer when I was alive. It was like…” Kenshin paused, pensive, trying to think how to describe it, and eventually settled on a metaphor.

“Imagine flying over a tropical island completely covered in mist. You know there is a jungle beneath you; you know exactly what kinds of plants and animals are down there, but you can’t see anything through the mist. And then ahead of you, rising out of the mist and glowing, you see a volcano. That was what finding Sano was like.” Though certain misleadingly visual terms rendered this not entirely satisfying, Kenshin left it as it was, mostly because of the expression it had occasioned on his companion’s face.

“A volcano.” For some reason, the man had just the faintest trace of a glower between his eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth, and Kenshin got the oddest feeling that this guy was jealous because he hadn’t thought of the description first. “Yes, that’s Sano.”

“He could see me. He was the first person I encountered after I died who could, and that meant a lot. I thought it was ironic that I could not see him, or figure out much about him from what I sensed — not his name, or how old he was, or anything like that… but part of the feeling I had about him, that drew me to him, was that he could help me. I felt like he had the potential — whatever kind of magical powers you folks have that could help me, I felt like he had them — and that he was the kind of person who’d be willing to try.”

The man had gone back to staring into the bedroom. “I can’t be sure yet,” he said thoughtfully, “but I think he’s what we call a natural — someone who subconsciously uses all branches of magic, and masters anything he consciously tries to learn very easily. Naturals are very rare.”

“He’s certainly something special,” Kenshin agreed with a nod. “If I had not found him, I have no idea where I would be now. Though,” he added politely, “as you mentioned, I have you to thank for getting rid of the red mist.”

“That still wouldn’t have happened without Sano,” the man admitted. And now, finally, he moved away from the bedroom door, turning fully to face Kenshin and fixing him with a pointed gaze. “But there is a way you can repay the favor.”

Though Kenshin was more than a little impatient to get back to Kaoru now that the mist was gone and he’d explained himself to at least one of the people here, there was nothing to be said in response to that remark but, “I will do whatever I can.”

“I’m an exorcist.” A more thorough introduction, Kenshin thought, would have been appropriate at this juncture, but the man evidently didn’t agree. “Anything more I can find out about your current state would be professionally useful to me, if you wouldn’t mind answering some questions.”

An exorcist, was it? Probably about as close to the polar opposite of a ghost as you could get. Perhaps it was natural, then, for Kenshin to dislike this man, so he didn’t have to bother trying not to. “I’ll be happy to tell you anything I can,” he promised politely.

“Come with me, then,” the man commanded. And with one last glance in at the sleeping Sano, he moved away purposefully down the hall.