Fate is Found in Faeryland

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

What do two dwarves (one going through sexual maturation and the other seemingly without a personality), a liberated human dairymaid, and an orc with a talking sword have in common? They’ve all, more or less, been Cursed by the monarchs of Faeryland. Can they break their Curses and retrieve what was lost? Are they in for valuable lessons about friendship and magic? Will they all get married in the end? Find out in this totally serious epic fantasy adventure!

Unique to this story: faeries can change their physical sex at will, so any characters that are faeries in this story (Trowa, Megumi, Quatre, Tomoe, and more) will present as whatever sex they feel like at any given time, and are all the same gender or lack thereof. There are also references to canonically male-presenting characters being pregnant (though it’s not mpreg as such) and canonically female-presenting characters impregnating others.

Unique to this story: cameos from various other fandoms and real life

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

Chapter 1 – Heero Gets Tickled

With the continuance of his search, there came a certain sense of rightness. It did not equate to pleasure as it once might have, yet it remained a distinctly positive feeling. He did not search out of a need for this feeling, but it seemed an extra validation of a journey he would have pursued in any case. The list grew shorter and shorter, and with every item he recovered, the correctness increased.

As he moved along his way, his peg foot crunching decisively into the fallen leaves that had dried to a fragile red at their edges and a sickly pinkish-grey at their centers, he believed an impression was at last forming in his head. He paused, steadying himself against the dark pink bole of an oak-like tree, and closed his eye.

Immediately he felt the flutter of Trowa’s wings against his face, and guessed the faery had flown from his shoulder to watch him concentrate at a better angle. Finally his Guide wondered, “Anything?”

“Yes,” Heero replied. “It’s dry and cool. There’s a… tickling sensation. Irritating.” He looked again, and found Trowa hovering in front of him, as he’d suspected. He’d only ever seen Trowa present as sexless, without clothing except for jewelry; and the faery’s pure purple skin and darker hair of the same hue contrasted brightly with the pink forest surrounding them — though whether the combination would normally please the dwarven eye, Heero could not say. They had already traveled some distance together across Faeryland, but had not visited the purple realm, so Heero had become accustomed to Trowa appearing out of place. He added, thinking of distances, “It’s faint. It’s probably far away.”

“It sounds like sand,” remarked Trowa with a nod. “It could be anywhere under the right circumstances, but I think all the sandiest places in Faeryland are along the east side of the mountains, which are far away. Are you sure you don’t want to talk to Dorothy first? There may be an easier way.”

“I’m sure.”

With a slightly huffing sigh, Trowa said, “If we continue traveling west, and cross the river and the plains, we’ll reach the Eintopf hills. By then you should have a clearer sense.”

Heero returned the nod, considering this course of action a logical one. “You continue to be a satisfactory Guide,” he said — the closest he could come to expressing what he thought were feelings of obligation and gratitude but could only catch a distant, fleeting awareness of. Trowa had counseled him to talk to Dorothy more than once, but always did him the courtesy of not pressing the issue. Heero appreciated receiving advice the giver believed to be logical, but also appreciated having his decisions respected.

Trowa gave a monosyllabic laugh, with what emotion Heero could not guess and did not try to. “Thank you,” le said. “You should rest.”

Heero said simply, “Travel will be less tiring when we strike the road.”

Though Trowa at first raised a minute eyebrow, eventually le just settled back onto Heero’s shoulder as the dwarf continued to stump through the forest in a southwesterly direction. After not too long, Heero could hear lir shifting, and then the sound of lir flute like birdsong close to his ear.

It made no real impression on him one way or another. In fact he only recognized it as music in that, unlike so many of the other noises heard on a journey through Faeryland, it indicated nothing he needed to take into consideration or even pay any attention at all.



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Chapter 2 – Kaoru Can’t Kill Combative Creatures

Unable to catch herself as she stumbled, Kaoru actually fell on her butt in the questionable dirt of the inn-yard. Moments later, her walking stick shot out the door like a javelin straight toward her, and she barely deflected it in time to avoid a lump on her head; and not long after that, an upstairs window screeched open and, before she’d even finished directing her eyes toward it, her backpack came thudding down into the dirt nearby, followed more slowly and gracefully by her cloak fluttering through the evening air.

“I was just trying to stop them harassing that poor man!” she protested as the innkeeper began to retreat into his establishment. “I don’t see you kicking them out!”

“You weigh less,” he replied shortly.

She shouted at the closed door he left behind, “That’s because I’m human!” Then she climbed to her feet, brushed off her sore buttocks, and bent to retrieve her pack. Having cleared the dirt (or whatever it was) from that too, she slung it across her back and grabbed her cloak to throw over the top. Last she took up her staff and, after shaking a huffy fist at the inn, turned away.

Her plan had been to get a good night’s rest and some food in her belly, then cover the last few miles to Faeryland in the light of day; now she determined to finish the journey immediately and look for accommodations on the inside. Perhaps not the best idea, but she was frustrated.

Past the last straggling town buildings, over a little bridge and onto the straight road toward Faeryland, she thought she could see it — either that or the failing light playing tricks on her: a level darkness ahead like a great wall, stretching off in both directions as far as she could make out. She’d heard that a line of enormous trees formed the border of Faeryland on all sides, and it appeared now those rumors were true.

After a little rise, the road ran relatively flat for the remainder of the distance, and lights showed ahead. Kaoru peered and strained her eyes, but could at first distinguish little more than that they were lights; but after another half mile or so, she thought she could make out large lamps flickering on either side of a dark opening in the massive trees. Figures moved there, and Kaoru felt a shiver go all through her. She’d reached Faeryland at last; at last she could begin her search. But what kind of reception could she expect? And how much success?

Her attention was caught by something that seemed to stumble from a cluster of bushes at the side of the road and collapse on the cobbles. It appeared unusually pale in the growing darkness, and did not immediately rise from its fall. Kaoru, frowning in concern, hurried on toward it. Perhaps she was mistaken, and it was nothing more than a bedsheet off someone’s washline that had blown here, but she had to know for sure.

Then the living creature contracted and got to its feet, and as the human approached she could definitely make out a human-like shape. It began to stagger forward at an odd lurch, as if in pain. Kaoru found herself shuddering at the movement, for it didn’t look natural. If someone had chosen it as an artistic statement, she would have said it represented a difficult repression of the self-loathing that would otherwise prevent someone from doing something necessary they deplored. It might work pretty well, actually, but it still seemed weird.

Reluctant though she’d become to get any closer, she began to jog.

Then the thing looked up and saw her. The lurching stopped abruptly, or, rather, transformed instantaneously into a forward sprint so unexpected that Kaoru halted in confusion and sudden fear. She barely had time to get her walking stick into a defensive position before the creature was on her.

She didn’t fight well, never having trained and knowing nothing of it, but she’d found on her journey so far that her strength exceeded her expectations. Evidently hauling heavy cans of milk, churning butter, and helping with calving did something for a woman’s fitness in any case. She’d even held her own in that bar fight earlier — or would have, if her opponents hadn’t been trolls. But all they’d possessed was overwhelming size and a genetic propensity for irrational unprovoked harassment; this creature differed from them entirely.

In the heat of the moment, she couldn’t take in many more details than she’d been able to see all along: human-sized, human-shaped, very pale. But she could feel its claws when they raked her, smell its putrid breath as it attempted to tear her throat out. Her flailings with the staff made little difference, and when her enemy let out a horrible, animalistic screech of aggression, she nearly dropped the makeshift weapon. Was this what her quest of recovery would come to? Dying in terror within sight of the entrance into Faeryland without ever having set foot past the trees?

Some other sound rushed toward and around the two combatants, and suddenly a blast of wind seemingly from directly above knocked Kaoru right off her feet. She scrambled backward, losing hold of her walking stick, getting caught on her cloak, and soiling the seat of her skirt for the second time that night. And she felt the expression of shock and fear on her face intensify as she saw what had happened: a dragon had swept down from the sky and scattered the fight, landing directly between the prostrate Kaoru and her similarly discomfited opponent.

Starlight glittered and gleamed off horn and scales and half-spread wings, and off an enormous eye that turned toward Kaoru as the dragon shouted, “Get on!”

With no time to think about this, to consider whether she trusted what must be a faery in the animal form to which they were limited outside the borders of Faeryland, or to decide whether she really believed, as briefly crossed her mind, that a dragon made for a nobler death than the smelly whatever-it-was, Kaoru struggled to her feet and ran to obey. At the same time, the pale creature had also risen, and was attempting to attack the dragon with the same reckless aggression it had shown toward Kaoru. A large wing kept it off, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t find a way around eventually.

Though only slightly bigger than a farm-horse rather than building-sized as the human would have expected, the dragon at first presented no obvious place to sit, and certainly didn’t look comfortable. Kaoru made do, however, throwing a leg in a flutter of skirt over the spiny neck and leaning forward to cling with her arms as well. She only missed her walking stick once they’d taken off, but thought that not too great a price to pay for her life (if she was indeed saved).

How far they flew she had no idea; it was terrifying and uncomfortable no matter the distance. She hadn’t imagined her entry into Faeryland as quite so ignoble and awe-inspiring at the same time, and she just hoped she wasn’t screaming like a baby without realizing it. After a heart-stopping dive that stole the breath from her lungs even if she was, they thudded back to earth with a jolt so hard that Kaoru’s cheekbone bounced against the dragon’s spines and began bleeding. Eyes streaming with sudden tears and squinting against the stinging pain in her face, Kaoru could see basically nothing as she followed the dragon’s next instruction and dismounted, stumbling blindly forward. Tangled in skirt and cloak, she would have fallen for a third time if arms hadn’t caught and steadied her.

“Everyone!” called a voice very close by. “Please get out there and capture that Distorted!”

As the running steps and fluttering wings of what Kaoru believed must be ‘everyone’ passed them and abruptly changed to the sounds of animal paws and hooves and the more familiar flapping of bird wings, Kaoru caught a few comments and questions, the most common thought being, “How did it get past us?”

She straightened her clothing and adjusted her feet to wobble less, then brushed tears from her right eye so she could open it fully again, leaving the left closed. The cut on her cheek hurt almost more than the scratches the Distorted had given her (if she had that name right), but she could think about that after she’d figured out where she’d arrived and who had brought her.

The woman was the first faery Kaoru had ever seen in non-animal form, so she thought staring might not be as rude as usual. The abnormally steady flames of the lamps to either side of the entrance cast an orange glow over the area, but could not disguise the pinkness of the faery. From her dark pink pony-tail to her strawberry-colored eyes to her creamy pink skin to her translucently pink wings, she seemed to embody the very spirit of pinkness. Kaoru was reminded of her foster sister, who’d always dyed her hair that color and might be very happy to do her skin as well.

Even the amulet on its elaborate silver chain around the faery’s neck was pink, but, oddly enough, her clothing was purple. Kaoru wondered if that was really allowed. In any case, the woman looked ready for action in a close-fitting tunic cinched with black at the waist over tight black pants and tall boots, with a warmer purple cape to top it all off. The unfortunate effect of the garments conforming so well to her body was that her head appeared a trifle disproportionately large… though Kaoru wondered if that might not be simply a faery thing.

This had taken only a moment or three to observe, and before either she or her rescuer could say a word, Kaoru suddenly found herself swarmed by buzzing, darting shapes and demanding voices.

“Are you looking for a Guide, Visitor?”

“What’s your destination, human? I’ll get you there quicker than anyone else!”

“Excellent Guide rates here, Visitor! Better than any of these others!”

“If you’re looking to join a Quest, I can find you one!”

“What brings you into Faeryland? You’ll need a Guide to get it done!”

Ducking her head back slightly and raising her arms, the disconcerted Kaoru began batting at the flying things, trying to clear the air around her. But the pink woman caught her wrists and stilled her before confusion could turn to panic, and advised her briefly, “These are people.” Then to the flitting nuisances she cried, “Please give this woman some space! You can talk to her once she’s feeling better!” She turned back to Kaoru with a thoughtful expression and added, “It is ‘woman,’ isn’t it? And ‘her’ and ‘she?'”

Taken aback by the odd questions, Kaoru nodded dumbly.

“Good,” the faery smiled. “I’d hate to get it wrong.”

The flock retreated to a safe distance. Some of them, Kaoru observed in surprise, grew to full-size in an instant, allowing her to see they were indeed all faeries of different colors. They waved and smiled at her as she looked at them.

A distant call of “Sofia!” grabbed the attention of the stranger, who turned her reddish-pink eyes back out toward where she’d sent her people on a dangerous errand. Then she looked the other direction, toward a building standing not far off on the other side of a low stone wall that seemed, at least at first, to mark the path farther into the forest. “Please take this human inside and let her rest and clean up!” she ordered. Then she dashed away, transforming effortlessly back into a pink dragon at the very moment she stepped from between the great border trees.

Perhaps Kaoru had been wrong to consider Sofia the embodiment of her color, for the guard that came over to escort her inside the building, waving the other importunate faeries away far less politely than Sofia had, was every bit as pink. Kaoru watched his pale pink hair in its multiple braids bounce slightly as he walked ahead of her, and reflected that her foster sister would definitely be jealous.

The apparent guardhouse, though constructed of bright pink stone and with an unusual number of ornate flourishes, looked enough like a non-faery building that Kaoru’s racing heart began to calm as they walked inside. There, the guard showed her to a room where she could sit in peace, and promised to send some water in.

Her first action, once alone, was to seat herself on one of the plain pink chairs, push out a bit from the plain pink table, and bend over to put her head between her knees. Soon she could feel the trickle of blood on her face reversing its course, which added a tickling sensation to the stinging pain of the injury, but she stayed in that position until it had traversed her left eye and started soaking her brow. Her throbbing pulse had calmed, and she breathed evenly, so she finally sat up just as a faery entered the room with a basin of steaming water and a couple of towels. The basin, Kaoru noticed as she thanked the faery, was glazed white, but she wondered what color the ceramic might be underneath. The towels were grey. She feared she might be specifically noting the colors of things for a while here.

Alone again, she tested her equilibrium before standing fully, then stepped over to the table. With a corner of the first towel dipped in the hot water, she began dabbing at the cut on her cheek. It probably wasn’t as worrisome a wound as the scratches on her arms and chest, but the blood all over her face bothered and agitated her.

“May I help you with that?” came a voice from behind. Kaoru gasped, dropped the towel, and spun, all her hard work at getting her heart rate down suddenly for naught.

This full-size faery embodied a different color: soft green like new leaves in her skin, green so dark it seemed almost black in her braided crown of hair, laughing green eyes that looked almost human, and wings that reminded Kaoru of a dragonfly’s. She wore ranger-like clothing in a brown leather Kaoru believed came from ordinary, extra-Faeryland cows, but somehow appeared too beautiful and gentle for the role these garments implied. She smiled as she reached out a hand to further her offer of assistance.

“Who are you?” Kaoru wondered breathlessly. “How long have you been in here?”

“My name is Imugeme, and I’m a healer,” the faery replied. “Please, let me help you with your wounds.”

“That doesn’t answer how long you’ve been in here.” Kaoru really had no problem letting someone else tend to painful injuries she couldn’t see very well, but she felt suspicious of everyone in this new place, and a green faery most of all. She seated herself once again and looked up at the woman with one defiant eye.

Imugeme took the towel Kaoru had dropped and resumed the cleaning of blood off her face with small, purposeful movements. She chuckled as she did so — a rich, self-satisfied little laugh — and then spoke again. “You’ll have to forgive me for disobeying the guards and not keeping back with the other Guides. I thought I could help you better than any of them.” She laughed again; it was an almost musical sound. “And if that gives me a better chance of making a pact with you, so much the better.”

Kaoru noticed Imugeme still hadn’t truly answered the question, but decided to let it slide since at least her intentions had been clarified. “What is a Guide?” she asked, trying to give the term the audible capital she’d heard these faeries using.

“It’s very difficult and dangerous for Visitors to try to find their way around Faeryland alone. A Guide will lead you right and keep you out of trouble.”

“I have a map.”

“Maps of Faeryland,” the green faery said with another chuckle, “are notoriously unreliable. And there are always dangers of various kinds that don’t show on a map anyway.” She’d apparently finished with the blood, for she set the towel aside. Kaoru’s face felt cleaner, but the pain had only heightened, and she winced as the first of Imugeme’s fingers touched her cheek near the cut. The faery’s hand slid into full contact with her face, and Kaoru stilled, holding her breath, at the sensation of warmth and gentleness in it. Imugeme smoothed a thumb out across the spot, and the pain faded. Another sliding movement of her green hand, fingers lingering and trailing, made it obvious that the cut had disappeared entirely.

The human let the air out of her lungs all at once and gaped slightly, slowly opening her left eye to see with more complete vision the woman smiling down at her in satisfaction. She’d been unsure whether to trust this faery at first, whether to take her at her word about the difficulties of travel through Faeryland and the necessity of a Guide, but her uncertainty had been eradicated along with her wound.

“Now for these others,” Imugeme said. “The Distorted cause nasty injuries, so these will be a little trickier.” She seemed to relish the challenge.

“What do you charge for being someone’s Guide?” Kaoru wondered as Imugeme helped her out of her vest and shirt. Where the cloth had torn and grown sticky with blood, the removal was particularly painful.

“Your firstborn child,” Imugeme replied. Then she laughed heartily at the expression on Kaoru’s face. “That’s a joke, my dear! You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries!”

Kaoru weakly returned the laugh. “Well, then, what do you actually want?”

“Candied fruit. And that’s not a joke. But if you have none, I’ll take a silver piece a week.”

“Silver?”

“You can’t believe everything you hear about faeries,” Imugeme repeated, and ran her hand over the scratches on Kaoru’s right arm.

“But a silver piece a week is…” The healing felt so nice, almost hypnotically so, that Kaoru ran out of words.

“That’s my price; take it or leave it. But I should add that having a pact with a Guide will translate the speech of everyone around you, so language won’t be a problem.”

Kaoru had planned to protest that a silver piece a week was a ridiculously low rate for what appeared to be a major service around here. Instead she protested, “I’ve understood everyone so far!” They had accents — even Imugeme — but these hadn’t obfuscated their words.

Imugeme moved on to the next injury, across Kaoru’s chest and right collarbone. The water had cooled a bit, but Kaoru didn’t mind. “Anyone stationed at the border tends to speak some outside language. But the further in you go, the less likely you are to encounter anyone you’ll understand.”

“You’re right, then; I would like a Guide. I’ll take your offer.”

Imugeme withdrew from her task and placed the towel back on the table. Reaching down, she drew one of Kaoru’s hands up to her lips and then her forehead, and Kaoru felt a little thrill go through her at the touch. “The pact is formed,” Imugeme stated. “I’m your Guide now.”

Kaoru smiled. “Thank you.”

The faery gently pressed her warm, soothing palm onto Kaoru’s chest. As she smoothed away this set of scratches, she said, “I can also offer you the Protection of the green faery monarch, if you want. It will provide some physical protection, and help you avoid this kind of thing.” She lifted two fingers to tap the spot she was healing.

“Does that cost extra?” Kaoru wondered, thinking a little anxiously of her budget despite the inexpensive nature of Imugeme’s pact.

“Not at all. I just happen to be able to offer it, and I think it would do you good.”

“Then I’ll take it.”

Imugeme smiled, then bent again, this time to kiss the startled Kaoru on the forehead. The thrill that went through her in this instance felt almost like the healing, but somehow deeper, and she squirmed as the sensation settled in.

“And now,” the faery said in a businesslike tone, “while I finish with these, why don’t you tell me what’s brought you to Faeryland?”

Chapter 3 – Duo Buys A Sex Toy

Emerging from the pink trees into a more open space, Duo stopped just behind the low wall that bordered for some distance the road he’d come upon. Setting his hands on its pink bricks, he looked around with eyes that grew wider and wider as they took in the details he had expected but hardly dared to hope for. Then, his bubbling joy requiring some outlet, he began to caper in place, stamping the fallen leaves and singing snatches of a song in his own language that came immediately to mind.

His dance attracted the attention of the idle Guides that haunted every entrance into Faeryland, and ley flew immediately over to investigate. Since Duo did not intend to move a single step from this spot until he’d made a pact, he welcomed leir approach with waving arms. “Yes, I need a Guide!” he shouted. “I absolutely need a Guide!”

Ley fluttered around him making leir pitches, but he mostly ignored leir words in favor of studying leir faces and figures. When he saw one he thought he recognized, he pointed a big dwarven finger at lir and said, “Quatre, isn’t it? You were one of the Guides for that Quest worried about their Cursed crops, right?”

“How word gets around!” Quatre seated lirself on the wall and went full-size. Le crossed lir legs and placed lir warm gold chin in one similarly colored hand. “You don’t usually need a Guide — Duo, I believe? What can I do for you?” Le presented as female at the moment, or at least had breasts, probably the better to fill out the flattering sleeveless green dress le wore, and this relieved Duo mightily; if Quatre had appeared male, with lir handsome face and short pale gold hair, even Duo’s general attraction primarily to other dwarves might not have saved him from an embarrassing scene. Of course he wore a protective device inside his trousers, but he would still have known (and suffered all the uncomfortable consequences).

“A pact,” was his answer to the faery’s question. “I’ll explain everything, but just make a pact a fast as you can.”

The other Guides, seeing Duo had chosen, flew off with discontented mutters. He caught one of lem remarking that he wasn’t even a proper Visitor, which he supposed to be true, but he didn’t really care what ley thought of him at this point.

Quatre, smiling, hopped down from the wall and reached for Duo’s hand. “All right,” le said equably. “As fast as I can it is.” And after making the usual gestures and sending the usual little tingle of magic through the dwarf, le added, “What’s going on?”

Duo sighed loudly in relief, and sat down unceremoniously in the greyish-pink scatter of leaves. “I’ve been lost in this forest for a month, and that’s after wandering the plains for even longer. If you can keep me from getting lost, I’ll really owe you one.”

“I was under the impression you knew Faeryland better than any non-faery there is.” Quatre joined him on the ground, seating lirself gracefully with crossed legs under lir long skirts and leaning against the wall.

“I do! But Relena Cursed me so I can’t find my way any-damn-where! I’m half starved and haven’t slept in a bed in weeks, and…” But he stopped short of enumerating all his current problems just yet.

“So le literally told you to ‘get lost,'” Quatre mused. “What did you do?”

Duo grumbled, “Killed too many Distorted for lir to ignore. You know how le is.”

“Well, I can get you to the pink enclave — for two silver pieces a week, of course — but I can’t enter. Won’t you get lost inside and wander out again without being able to find lir?”

“I’ll deal with that when I get there,” said Duo. “Up ’til now I haven’t even been able to get there. Or anywhere! You have to help me.”

“Or we could dissolve this pact and you could find a pink faery to be your Guide,” Quatre suggested.

“But I know you. You’re reliable. You did great work with that Quest, which was why word got around, and I trust you.”

Quatre bowed from lir seated position. “I hope you know I don’t take praise as payment,” le said with a smile, “but I do appreciate it. Where would you like to go first?”

Duo gave a grunt of frustration and broke into a rant. “I’ve been working in Faeryland for fifty years without ever having a problem like this! Fifty years! And I don’t think I’ve ever needed a Guide more than twice before!”

“Every Visitor gets Cursed eventually,” said Quatre consolingly.

“I’m not even a proper Visitor. I live here!” Duo sighed, dropped his head back to look up into the trees, and tugged at his braided beard. “Well, first, you can take me to a pleasure-house somewhere.”

Quatre blinked. “If you’ve been lost for months, can you even afford that right now?”

“No,” Duo admitted dejectedly. “I haven’t been able to visit a bank in all this time, because I couldn’t find one! And faeries aren’t really my thing anyway. But I haven’t had sex in longer than I can remember, and I’m getting pretty desperate!”

“You must be going through kil’ak’brük.” Quatre somewhat astonished Duo by pronouncing the name for dwarven sexual maturation correctly and in so sympathetic a tone. “I imagine that’s hard on a dwarf in Faeryland.”

“Yeah,” Duo agreed intensely.

“Well, I’ll do what I can for you.”

“Are you offering to fuck me yourself?”

Quatre laughed. “Postre is much closer than the pink enclave — I’d say about three days’ travel, for a dwarf. You can visit a bank and sleep in a bed… and, though I don’t know that there’s a pleasure-house in town, I do know ley have some specialty shops that might help you.”

“Yes.” Duo leaped to his feet. “Yes, that’s perfect. Let’s go!”

Turning small-size, Quatre echoed facetiously, “Let’s go!” and took up a position on Duo’s shoulder.

The prospect of solutions to some of his issues invigorated Duo, but so also did the new convenience of traveling rationally with a Guide. Quatre tugged on his ear or his hair whenever he attempted to walk the wrong direction, keeping him on the correct path for leir destination. Instead of going by at random, and sometimes again and again as he moved in zig-zags and spirals, the landscape passed with a reasonable progression, and whenever the road dipped, Duo could gleefully count on it coming up again to the same rise he’d seen before it began to descend. So greatly did this improve matters that he felt he’d never enjoyed a walk through any part of Faeryland this much.

He still had to request, during the few hours of rest he took each night, that Quatre give him some privacy so he could try to find sexual release as best he could on his own… but what he really needed was a dick up his ass, or his own in someone else’s, so he rather wondered why he bothered. Happy he was to see the large town of Postre before him at the end of a long, downward-sloping stretch of road on the evening of the third day.

He’d been here before, of course, but had never considered its amenities along current lines. He knew it boasted a spacious inn with plenty of full-size rooms, and before he could allow his enthusiasm (with Quatre’s help) to lead him into the market, he secured a place there for the next few days. Then he stood solidly where he was, not daring to take a step, so as not to get lost while Quatre went out to inquire after the type of shop he wanted. Finally, looking forward most heartily to a bed and some hot meals, if not something even better tonight, he ventured forth with his Guide in search of what he so desperately needed.

If faeries were anything as an aggregate, it was very open and accepting on sexual matters. The shop, called, curiously enough, ‘Have Some of Dis Pie,’ occupied a place of prominence between a full-size milliner’s and a stack of domestic goods stores for small-size homes. And while plenty of colors decorated many of the other buildings in the area (though the wood and stone was usually local), Have Some of Dis Pie had embraced the pink pinkness of the pink faery realm. From the fluffy pink curtains to the pink silk on which certain pink items showed to advantage in the widows to the pink confetti periodically exploding over them and falling in pink swirls, what to expect inside was immediately clear.

Duo attempted to make a sharp left turn at the door and walk laterally down the line of shops, but Quatre set him right, and he managed to enter. A pink bell rang as he stepped inside, but the proprietor happened to be in the main room at the time and didn’t need its pink-sounding tinkle to alert lir of his presence. Le came bouncing up to him, full-size.

“Welcome to Have Some of Dis Pie! What can I help you find today? Actually I can help you find anything we have here, because I own the shop! Are you looking for some coochie-coochie-coo? A cherrychanga with whipped cream? A charming cha-cha? It’s almost winter — do you need a muff? A purse for your treasure? A hot box for your meat? Do you want to go beaver-hunting? You’re hairy enough to be a bear; would you enjoy a honey pot? Or if you’re just the opposite, we’ve got some nice bear-traps here! Or–”

Duo, grinning in spite of himself and the arousal he already experienced just looking at some of the items for sale, raised his hands and attempted to break in. “I actually need–”

“A nice noodle? Some sexy sausage? A tra-la-la ding-ding-dong? Are you in the mood for a prize fight? Gathering firewood? Picking cucumber? Do you need a soldier who can stand at– wait!!”

The products le showed him in quick succession had done nothing convenient for his own example of all these terms, but now abruptly le stopped, eyes wide. “You’re a dwarf!!”

“Um, yes,” Duo said.

Every part of lir, from lir giant fluffy pink curls to lir ample breasts to lir chubby belly, bounced at differing speeds as le vibrated with excitement. “Wait here!” And, giggling, le ran off into the back room. Le didn’t seem to use lir wings much, just hopped and skipped and jumped. In lir absence, Duo looked around for Quatre and, finding lir, gave an incredulous look. Quatre only replied with a shrug.

The shopkeeper returned carrying a pink box. Essentially shoving it right into Duo’s face, le opened the lid. “I think this is perfectly perfect for you! I got it from a merchant who came through town a couple of weeks ago, and le was selling cheap because le knew there wouldn’t be a lot of interest, and I said, ‘I’ll take it! I think it’s perfectly perfect!’ So I gave it a nice bubble bath, because you never know where it’s been, or where the merchant’s been, and you always want…”

Lir chatter continued, but faded into obscurity in Duo’s ears as his eyes ran greedily over the velvet-cushioned dildo inside the box. The shape of a dwarf penis could not be mistaken for anything else, and this was as finely crafted as anything he’d ever seen: accurate in form and color and apparent texture, and with a sturdy handle of hard golden wood for ease of use. He longed to touch it, but figured that would be inappropriate until he actually owned the thing.

“…curves upward when it gets erect! Not too far, but a little — like a lithefruit! It doesn’t ejaculate anything, because it doesn’t come with testicles, but it does go soft after a while — I found that out while I was washing it!” Le giggled.

“There can’t be…” Duo had to pause to clear his throat. “There can’t be much demand for a replica dwarf penis in these parts.”

“It’s a niche item,” le admitted. “Get it? Niche item?”

“I’ll take it.” He still sounded a bit hoarse.

“Okie-dokie-lokie! Twelve silver pieces! Do you want to add some lubricant? I’ll throw it in for 25 copper!”

One gold piece, worth fifteen silver, was all the money Duo had left. But since he’d already paid for his room at the inn (for this very reason), he didn’t hesitate to pull it out. The combination of that very room, a dwarf in kil’ak’brük, and this marvelous magical toy promised bliss for the next few nights at the very least.

Chapter 4 – Sano Argues With His Sword

The novelty of everything’s being pink had not yet faded, and still particularly satisfied Sano whenever he found an especially large pile of fallen leaves to jump in. He loved the crunching sound and the cushioning feel to them; he loved their sharp, autumnal smell. Faeryland wasn’t really all that bad so far. He’d already had one fairly interesting fight, and the landscape, so different from that of home, entertained him.

That didn’t mean his mood was one of unalloyed pleasure. His reason for coming into Faeryland gave him continual regret, though he tried not to think about it and certainly never brought it up aloud; and he kept experiencing a sort of itching on the back of his head that he would have thought, by now, should have gone away.

“I still feel like someone’s following us,” he declared, spinning around, walking backwards for a moment, then bending for a rock he could throw into the forest the way he’d come.

“You made yourself enough of a nuisance in that last town,” said the sword at his side, “that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were coming after you for revenge.”

Sano turned his lanky form again to face southwest. “I’m serious! I really think someone’s following us! And you know I didn’t raise enough ruckus for it to be just some farmer or whatever.”

“‘Just some farmer’ wouldn’t follow us into Faeryland in any case. Do you really think anyone would? Nobody comes here except on business.”

Annoyed at the condescending tone, the orc deliberately knocked the sheathed weapon against the next tree. “Yeah, so maybe someone’s business is following us!”

“You really think you’re that important?”

“Just a second ago you said you wouldn’t be surprised if someone wanted revenge for whatever you think I did in Deserville or whatever it was called.”

“Even a villager’s well merited annoyance at you wouldn’t be enough to bring them past the border of Faeryland. They’re probably just outside waiting for you to come out again, and then they’ll mob you.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning. “That sounds like fun. Brawling with humans is like…” He cast about for an appropriate simile, and was lucky enough to find one physically present. “Like jumping in leaves! Crunch, crunch, crunch!” He demonstrated, flailing into the pile and scattering it with wild kicks of his booted feet.

The sword began some comment Sano didn’t catch over the noise of his play, but when eventually the orc settled down and moved toward where his Guide hovered patiently not far ahead, the remark started again. “If you’re really worried about someone following us, you’re a fool to leave such an obvious trail for them to track.”

“I’m more worried about getting you to believe there’s someone following us!” Sano broke into an impatient jog.

“In that case, you’re definitely a fool. What good would that do you?”

“Um, getting you to admit you’re wrong?” Sano said this in a tone proclaiming it to be the most obvious thing in the world.

The sword made a scoffing sound. “Your ambitions are so lofty. And what exactly do you want me to admit?”

Sano grunted in frustration. “Haven’t we been talking about this for days or some shit? I want you to admit you’re wrong about someone following us!”

“But have I ever said specifically that I don’t believe there’s someone following us?”

Abruptly Sano drew the sword and held it before his face as if looking for some visual clue as to the exact meaning of that question. But of course all he saw, in the finely polished steel that accepted no stain, was his own scowling tusked face. “You’re trying to weasel out of this!” he accused. “When it turns out someone’s been following us all along and they attack and kick my ass and I’m laying there dying, you’re going to say, ‘Well, I never actually said I didn’t believe you, so I wasn’t wrong about anything’ just because you didn’t say the exact words even though you’ve been arguing against the idea this whole time!”

“You think you’ll die, do you?” the sword, voice louder out in the open like this, asked easily.

“Don’t change the subject! You’re doing that politician thing again — messing around with words so you can deny everything later!”

The sword gave a brief laugh. “I’m surprised you even recognized it.”

“You are such an asshole.” Sano thrust the sword back into its sheath and quickened his pace.

“If it’s any comfort to you, when you do get your ass kicked and are lying there dying, I’ll send you off by admitting I was wrong about something.”

Surprisingly, this did comfort Sano a little. “Really?”

“If you admit at the same time that you’re a fool.”

Sano grunted again. “I might be a fool, but there’s still someone following us.”

“Why would someone follow us all the way into Faeryland?”

“Well, maybe someone was following us outside Faeryland, and now someone different’s following us inside Faeryland.”

“That seems extremely unlikely.”

“My people have a connection with trees,” Sano insisted. “Why do you think we’re green? I know when someone’s following me through a forest!”

“More like a connection with hops. ‘Your people’ are the street urchins of Drury Crossing, who come from all different races and backgrounds, none of which is a forest. Besides, you’ve already mentioned multiple times that the trees here are pink.”

At being so successfully countered, Sano practically roared with irritation. “Tomoe will back me up!” he cried. “Tomoe! Aren’t we being followed?!” And he sprinted forward to catch up with his Guide and settle the matter.

Chapter 5 – Tomoe Already Can’t Even With This

Tomoe resisted the urge to massage lir temples, sigh loudly, break the pact and fly away, or any of the other relieving things le was tempted to do. Le only said, in response to Sano’s question, “There are certainly other Visitors in the area. Whether any of lem — them — are following you, I can’t say.”

“See?” said Sano.

“You see?” said his sword at the same moment. Evidently each had taken the unhelpful statement as confirmation of his point of view.

“No, you see!” the orc insisted. “There are other Visitors in the area! Even she–” (echoing Tomoe’s error) “–le can’t be sure if someone’s following us!”

“Exactly. Le can’t be sure.” The sword never had a problem with the local pronouns. “You’d think a faery would be more certain, wouldn’t you?” This was not really true, but Tomoe didn’t bother to set him right.

“The point is, it’s absolutely possible.”

“I never said it wasn’t possible, just that it’s unlikely.”

“So? Unlikely shit happens all the time! You just don’t want to admit it because it’s my idea.”

“Do you think you’ve given me much reason to have faith in your ideas?”

“Well, can you prove there’s nobody following us?”

“That’s a remarkably foolish question, even for you.”

Even from a position far enough ahead to keep them on track and stay beyond the fast-moving orc, Tomoe could still hear them clearly. They’d done this every waking moment le’d known them, and showed no signs of stopping any time soon; but le hadn’t learned to tune them out yet.

Relatively new to Guidework, Tomoe couldn’t be quite sure how the rules applied in this situation. That they weren’t magically binding, for the most part, left lir to lir own devices how to interpret them, and le felt consistently anxious about it. The sword gave every sign of being a person, and Sano conversed with it as if it were; but he’d been remarkably unforthcoming about his reason for entering Faeryland, so Tomoe could only assume. Lir assumption was, of course, that some friend of his (for a flexible definition of the term ‘friend’) had been Cursed, and Sano had for some reason taken it upon himself to rectify the situation.

That seemed perfectly normal, and why Sano didn’t just admit to it, Tomoe had no idea. More pertinently, a Guide was supposed to refrain from talking to lir Visitor in the presence of others, and Tomoe had made a pact with Sano, not with the sword. Did a person that was technically an object count as someone le shouldn’t be talking in front of? Should le have made a dual pact? A sword had no hands, so le didn’t know if le could have… but the verbal agreement could have been altered to include the sword if Sano had explained his circumstances better. And as things stood, was Tomoe breaking the rules every time le spoke to them both? Le hadn’t been able to decide.

Lir preoccupation didn’t help. Le’d been over this many times in lir head, but never conclusively. With 189 days remaining to lir other source of worry, le didn’t much anticipate a useful answer to lir musings on the subject of Guide rules.

“Hey, Tomoe!”

Drawing a deep breath, Tomoe returned to an easier speaking distance from the orc.

“Are we going the right direction for the black faery place?”

Before Tomoe could even decide how to word lir answer, the sword broke in. “You’ve asked lir that a hundred times already, fool. You’re like a child on a long trip wondering ‘Are we there yet?’ every half hour.”

“What do you know about kids on long trips?” Sano demanded, distracted from his question.

“Yes, we’re going the right direction,” said Tomoe, and flew back to lir previous spot as the bickering continued.

Le didn’t know how le was going to put up with this for as long as the journey must take. And who knew what Sano would need to do after talking to the black faery monarch? Le was in for months of this at the very least. Only the thought of lir triple pay — for the naive orc had accepted lir unusually high rate without shopping around at all — determined lir on proceeding.

After some thought, though reluctant to do so, le allowed Sano to catch lir up. The orc had started running, as he sometimes did in his evident impatience to get where they were going, and his long legs covered the ground strikingly quickly; he ran nearly as fast as le could fly. Now le kept pace with him, waiting for a chance to break into the conversation with lir latest suggestion.

Finally one appeared, and le said quickly, “I believe a Quest might help you, since there are other Visitors in the area.”

“Aren’t I already on a quest?”

“Le explained this at the entrance,” said the sword with a sigh.

Le explained again. “A Quest is a group of Visitors who travel together and help each other with their goals.”

Sano pondered this for half a second. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound too bad. It’d be nice to have some allies in here, especially since somebody’s obviously following us.”

More importantly, it would prevent Sano — assuming he remembered the rules — from harassing Tomoe every few minutes with stupid questions. Given his reticence on the topic of his own goals, it might even cut down on his endless fruitless debates with the sword. “We’re going the right direction for that too,” le informed him. “Keep moving.” And le resumed lir place some yards ahead, looking very much forward to the moment they could unite with other Visitors and shut lirs up a bit.

Chapter 6 – Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros

Duo’s new acquisition was nothing short of a miracle of specialized magic design. Since starting kil’ak’brük three years before, he’d never had a lasting relationship, only random encounters and short-term dalliances; so it was entirely possible that these had been the best three nights he’d ever spent at an inn.

His lack of funds, however, had cut the party short. The bank in town had turned out not to be the one he used, and the process of a transfer from a branch of his own elsewhere had already outlasted the number of days he’d prepaid for. So now he sat on a barrel in the inn yard thinking longingly of his toy, with nothing much else to do since he’d already checked the status of his transfer today and been disappointed.

Pink faery after pink faery after pink faery walked or flew past him, full-size and small-size, in all variations of sexual presentation and an even greater variety of attire. As people-watching went, it could have been worse, but even so it grew monotonous after a while. So when a green orc, appearing elongated in his tall, lanky muscularity, passed by apparently talking to himself, Duo sat up and took notice.

Even this far into Postre, the orc had not ceased to look around in wonder, and the expression on his pleasant tusked face was one of gormless interest. He wore leathers rather than proper armor, and a sword that might have been a child’s plaything on his big frame. Apart from ragged brown hair sticking out in every direction (which might have been a fashion statement rather than negligence), he appeared competent enough.

He was ranting with no evident audience, however. Talking so openly to his Guide wasn’t manners, but what had Duo been doing the last fifty years if not helping people fit into Faeryland better? Yes, this fellow might be a useful asset to a Quest.

So busy gawking he either didn’t note or didn’t recognize the potential of the dwarf’s presence, the orc walked right past Duo and disappeared around a corner of the inn. Duo immediately jumped up and looked around for Quatre. This could be a problem; his Guide was nowhere to be seen, and he couldn’t go far in the right direction without lir. He soon found he had no need to worry, though.

“Did you just see a dwarf back there?” came what must be the stranger’s voice from where he’d apparently halted just beyond the corner.

“I have no eyes,” was the rather odd reply. Surely that was never a faery’s voice!

“Yeah, you’ve got no mouth either, but you don’t have a hard time talking shit about–”

Don’t pull out a weapon on a public street again, you fool! You remember what happened last time?”

“No, he’s gonna love this! I know the exact right dwarf thing.” And the sound of his suddenly pounding feet was the last warning Duo had. As he rounded the corner with his sword raised, he let out a roaring approximation, not half bad, of a Mur’kaltulk warlord’s vik’talzis or semi-formal battle greeting. Granted, Duo had only heard a vik’talzis two or three times in his life, but he thought the orc did a pretty good imitation. And it was quite decent of him, really, to take the trouble of approaching a stranger like this.

Duo met the attack with a ready axe, glad to have something to do and an opportunity to meet a fellow non-faery and potential Quest-sharer. Beyond that, the orc’s skill showed from the very beginning, and Duo enjoyed the feeling of steel against steel. He thought the crowd that grew around them was drawn not so much by the talents of the combatants, though, as by amusement at a couple of Visitors having it out next to the inn like the savages they were.

“I’m pleased to meet you!” Duo cried through the ringing and screeching of metal that filled the air. It proved tricky to block the thrusts of a small straight blade with the big rounded edges of a battle-axe, so that was fun.

“Yeah, you too!” replied the orc with a grin. Then, addressing nobody Duo could see, he added, “See, I told you he’d love it!”

Duo did rather love it. He’d been so bored. And presently, when another of his sweeps had been twisted aside by his opponent, he wondered affably, “Isn’t that a human-sized sword you’re using? And some kind of human style?”

To his surprise, it seemed to be the sword itself, rather than its wielder, that answered him with, “Good eye.”

Prodding the situation further, Duo went on, “I hope your dick isn’t as small as your sword!”

A ripple of laughter moved through the crowd, but the orc appeared annoyed. “Why do other warriors always gotta talk about penises all the time!”

Startled, since he’d never met a warrior physically equipped as he was that didn’t enjoy a good dick joke, Duo explained, “Just trying to bond with you, man.”

“All right,” replied the orc, looking wary around the blade of his sword currently locked against the dwarf’s axe. After they’d managed to repel each other without injury, he added, “Well, I hope I can say you’ve got a damn cool axe without you thinking it’s some kind of gross comparison.”

What a strange man! Just to tease him Duo said, “It is a long shaft with two roundish bits at the end.” More laughter from the faeries around them.

The orc gave a growl of frustration and charged again. The sword remarked, “This is a stupid fight. You’re both likely to get arrested or something.”

Duo commented, “Your sword’s not much fun, is he?” And he spun into a centrifugal attack he hoped would knock the weapon from the other’s green hands.

But just then they were interrupted.

Chapter 7 – Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation

The quickening of blood, the wind of swift movement, the clash and screech of steel, the wonderful sharing of skill and technique, the dwarf’s grin, the feeling of having found a friend in this alien place — it seemed as if a bucket of freezing water had been dashed over all these things when all of a sudden there was just this frail little human woman throwing herself between the combatants with arms outspread and shouting for them to stop.

The sword’s descent halted awkwardly half an inch from driving through her shoulder. If Sano had been berserk, he couldn’t have done it in time. Maybe there was something to be said for all that restraint bullshit after all. If so, this woman could use some!

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Sano demanded. At the very same moment, the dwarf, thrown off-balance in his attempt not to chop her in half horizontally, wondered, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?!”

“What do you two think you’re doing?” she said in return, looking back and forth defiantly between them. “As if it isn’t hard enough to travel through Faeryland! Visitors should be allies, not enemies!”

“Calm down, ma’am,” the dwarf advised, raising burly arms to replace his axe in its straps. When the human shot him a look from which sparks seemed to fly, he took a step back with a half-sheepish grin.

“Yeah, take it easy,” Sano said. “We were just having a traditional dwarven greeting!”

“Wellll, technically,” said the dwarf somewhat regretfully, “it’s only Mur’kaltulk dwarves who use the vik’talzis. I’m Ghabak’nik myself.”

Chagrined, Sano made a great business of sheathing the sword, unsure what to say.

Appearing to take notice of this, the dwarf hastened to assure him, “Not that it wasn’t shaping up into one hell of a fight! We’ll have to try again sometime! Maybe with less of an audience.” For, though the faeries that had gathered around them were beginning to disperse, some evidently believed the show hadn’t yet ended and still stood at leir ease, listening and laughing.

And the human was giving the dwarf that look again — not merely reproving, but almost condemnatory. The dwarf hurried on. “But I agree with the lady! We might make excellent companions! What do you say we all head inside–” he gestured toward the inn– “and talk about it?”

The woman seemed to relent. “That’s a good idea.”

“You gonna buy me a drink?” Sano grinned. “Because you were about to lose?”

“My good man, I think you would have found you were about to lose,” the dwarf replied, moving forward and clapping Sano on the (lower) back. “Besides, I have no money.”

Sano snorted.

The dwarf, presumably by right of earlier residence, moved to lead the way; but as he rounded the corner and approached the front entrance, having pushed past a faery or two to do so, he suddenly veered off to the right away from the door.

Sano ran after him and clapped a green hand on a mail-clad shoulder. “Where you going, dwarf?”

The latter glanced around, and puffed out his lips in irritation, making his brown mustache ripple and a sound like a horse. “Nowhere,” he said. “Just… keep your hand right there until we get inside, will you?”

Sano complied with this unusual request, and it won them an odd look from the human woman where she waited beside the door, but they all made it into the common room and sat down without further incident.

Like much of what he’d seen in Faeryland so far, the furniture had a lot of unnecessary scrolls and flourishes and leaf-shaped little extra bits and shit. But the room itself interested him. The ceiling was low — or maybe average, for faeries — and made of a sort of latticework that in places revealed the second, smaller dining and drinking area above for when ley went all small the way ley did. Servers from time to time left the bar or the kitchen, shrank down as they flew upward, and darted out of sight. He wondered if Tomoe had settled at a table up there.

“Geez, you two, you don’t have to pop your eyes out,” the dwarf grumbled, and Sano lowered his gaze to find the human woman doing the same. She must never have been inside a faery inn either.

“Well, Duo–” the voice from the center of their table made them both jump– “got some more money at last?”

“Not a single piece!” the dwarf replied cheerfully to the small-size faery that had landed before him. “But my new friends here are going to buy me a drink!”

The faery turned lir entire sexless pink body, naked but for an apron, toward Sano and the human. “And what will you be treating our good dwarf to, my Visitors?”

“Uh, what do you have?”

Duo grinned wryly and broke in before the bartender or innkeeper or whatever le was could answer. “I’ll have the same as before. And just beer for these two, for now. They’ll have plenty of time to get to know your better stuff later!”

Sano’s heart warmed at the word ‘beer’ as well as at the prospect of ‘better stuff,’ and he didn’t even mind pulling out his money pouch and paying the tab for all three of them.

When the faery had left them, the dwarf sat back comfortably in his chair. “So I’m Duo, you probably noticed. Duo Axewielder, at your service.”

“Axewielder?” the human wondered. “Isn’t that a little…”

“On the nose? Yeah, it’s about the most common dwarf family name there is. You humans have your Smiths, and we dwarves have our Axewielders.”

Sano raised a hand. “I’ve got one of those too! Sano Sabertusk here. You ever visit Drury Crossing, you’ll think I’m related to half the orcs there.”

“Well, mine is Kamiya,” said the woman with some satisfaction. “Kaoru Kamiya.”

“Who has a death wish,” Duo appended.

Kaoru made a huffing sound. “If people are going to fight, it should be for a good reason!”

Sano thought he heard agreement from somewhere around his hip, but it was mostly drowned out by his own and Duo’s laughter.

“And what’s your sword’s name, Sano?” the dwarf wondered next.

“He’ll speak up if he decides he wants to talk to you,” Sano grumbled.

There was a moment of expectant silence. Kaoru looked curious.

When no introduction was forthcoming, Duo went on. “And what are your goals in Faeryland?”

Sano’s mumble, in which only the word ‘Curse’ might have been heard, was overridden by Kaoru’s more forthright explanation. “A green faery stole something from me, and I need to get it back.”

Duo looked impressed. “So you’re not Cursed? If you came into Faeryland just to get some stolen item back, you really must have a death wish! Or was it valuable?”

Appearing somewhat embarrassed, Kaoru said, “It was valuable to me.”

Poking his lips out thoughtfully and tugging on his beard, Duo mused, “Sentimental value…” He looked Kaoru up and down assessingly, and Sano believed he was sizing her, and the situation, up in a professional sense. But then his expression changed, and he made a frustrated sound. “I’m still thinking about all this like a bodyguard.”

“I don’t need a bodyguard!” Sano protested, feeling a little betrayed.

“No, what you need is a brainguard.”

Kaoru definitely heard this statement. Observing that neither of her companions were startled as she was, she bent down with a suspicious expression to peek under the table. Her mouth had opened to inquire before she’d sat up entirely, but just then the faery from before returned, full-size, with their drinks on a tray.

Sano poked at the foam on his and licked it off his finger. It smelled like beer, and the preliminary taste seemed fine, but something about it… A long gulp satisfied him that, though there was an unexpected spiciness and kick to it, the qualities he looked for on the inside of a tumbler were all present. He shook his head with a pleased grunt.

“See,” Duo was saying as Sano went through this process and Kaoru eyed hers uncertainly, “I’ve made my living for the last fifty years as a bodyguard to Quests, helping them with their Curses. Fifty years! And I never got Cursed once. But now all of a sudden here I am the one who’s Cursed and needs help with it. You wouldn’t believe how frustrating that is!” And he took a swig of whatever was in his cup — something frothy and pink — and frowned as only a dwarf could. He brightened the next moment, however, in asking Sano, “So what’s your Curse?”

Sano felt a slight blush on his face, lifted his tumbler again in an attempt at covering it, and mumbled, “I don’t want to talk about it,” his eyes flicking away from his companions.

“We’re talking about forming a Quest, aren’t we?” Kaoru wondered. “To help each other out? I don’t think we can help each other if we don’t know what we’re helping with.”

“Or do you need someone to dig it out of your green hide with an axe?”

“Don’t people get Cursed all the time?” Kaoru tentatively lifted her tumbler. “I don’t think it’s anything to be embarrassed about.”

“That’s right,” said Duo encouragingly. “You’re no stupider than the rest of us!”

“That’s debatable. Sano, I’ll tell them. Put me on the table.” At this command, which had startled Kaoru again, Sano looked down. Reluctantly, he mended his posture a bit — these carved-up pink chairs weren’t designed for long orc bodies — drew the sword, and laid it in front of him. He thought it might be best to concentrate entirely on his beer for a little while.

“My name is Saitou,” said Saitou. Sano noticed he didn’t give his family name, which happened to be Smith. “I was human until this fool got me Cursed by harassing the black griffon who lives just outside Drury Crossing.”

Sano swallowed his latest gulp and, still staring into his tumbler, muttered, “You were yelling just as loud as I was.” He knew Saitou would be expecting this protest, so he made it; it seemed more natural than falling apart in a mess of guilt, anyway.

“At least I didn’t try to pluck lir feathers,” Saitou said dryly.

“I was drunk.” Sano sank back down in his chair, trying to find a convenient place beneath the table for his outstretched legs.

“That’s your excuse for everything, and it’ll be your excuse for dying when that day comes.”

Duo was guffawing, and when Sano glanced up he found even Kaoru smiling, seemingly against her will. Once he’d calmed down, though, the dwarf remarked, “So you two need to talk to the black faery monarch to find out how to break this Curse.”

“Yeah,” said Sano grumpily. At the same moment Saitou said, “So it would seem.”

“And are you hoping–” turning to Kaoru– “to go to the green enclave and talk to the monarch there?”

Kaoru had been sipping at her beer. “This is good,” she remarked. It cheered Sano a bit to hear her say so; he’d rather believed, just looking at her and knowing her distaste for pointless fighting (one of his other favorite activities), that she might be the type to turn her little tan nose up at the idea of drinking. But then she shook her head. “I heard the green monarch is away, and nobody knows when she’ll be back. I thought I’d just describe the thief to people and see if anyone knows who he is or where he might have gone.”

Duo nodded. “Makes sense. And I could use an un-Cursed Visitor like you. Relena, the pink monarch, Cursed me so I get lost all the time, so I can’t find my way into the pink enclave to talk to her.”

“That’s why you tried to wander off when we were just coming in here!” Sano realized.

“I wondered about that,” commented Saitou, who could only judge by what he heard.

“That’s right,” Duo confirmed glumly. “Sometimes it only takes a couple of steps, and, boom! I’m at the north pole.”

Sano paid him back for laughing at him a minute before.

Kaoru shot the orc a reproving look. “I’ll be happy to help you, Duo.”

“Is the pink place on the way to the black place, though?”

“They’re practically in opposite directions,” Duo informed him. “The pink enclave is a little closer.”

“But–” Sano lifted his eyes again, this time from the depressingly bare bottom of his cup.

“Don’t make snap decisions,” Saitou reminded him.

Duo sighed. “I’m stuck here in town for at least another day anyway, until my money transfer comes in from my regular bank. So you’ve both got some time to decide whether you want to make a Quest out of this, and where we should go first if you do.”

Sano wouldn’t say so, but Saitou was right: giving this some thought seemed better than just turning Duo down offhand and rushing off alone again. He already liked this little guy, and didn’t think he’d mind traveling with him… as long as it didn’t delay his business. “All right, so obviously right now there’s only one thing to do,” he declared. And when the others looked at him expectantly he finished, “Order another round!”

Chapter 8 – Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs

It interested and amused Quatre to observe that, though the orc and the human were taking in every possible detail their greedy eyes could gather of the unfamiliar faery inn, they seemed not to notice its dirtiness and disrepair. Granted, the young man might not have observed a far greater level of neglect; but the young woman, le would have thought, should have seen it.

As for Quatre lirself, le had grown perfectly accustomed to staying in second- and third-rate inns during the course of Guidework. Some of the fare here wasn’t too bad, despite the dubious condition of the dishes; and the lumpy bed in lir room, though it smelled faintly of sweat, did technically provide a slightly better night’s rest than a tree branch or the cold earth.

Another thing Quatre had grown accustomed to was picking out fellows even in a crowded room. Le’d seen this one around and knew lir for a Guide; and based on lir solitary state beside the opening through which, if Quatre judged the angle correctly, Duo’s table below could most easily be seen and heard, le might soon become Quatre’s companion in more than just profession.

“May I join you?” the gold faery asked the pink, casting a pointed look downward at the Visitor party.

The other, wearing a female presentation, blouse, and trousers, appeared distracted for a moment, then startled. Lir somber face, framed by dark fuchsia hair, swiveled first in the direction Quatre had glanced, then at the table before lir, and finally at Quatre lirself. It seemed to take lir rather longer than it had Quatre to recognize another Guide — and no wonder; Quatre knew lir to be fairly new at this.

But finally the pink faery shook lirself and said, “Yes. Yes, of course.”

Before pulling out a chair, Quatre set down the drink le’d brought over, gave lir name and origin, and offered a golden hand — something le couldn’t publicly have done under other circumstances. The taboo relating to cross-color interaction deeply bothered lir, and the treatment le received in an establishment like this — pink faeries providing lir with whatever le paid for but simultaneously doing leir best to pretend le didn’t exist — only drove home how needlessly segregated faery societies had become. But Guide traditions were sacrosanct; even feuding monarchs couldn’t keep Guides from interacting as openly and amicably as ever.

“Tomoe of Frollino,” replied the other, standing to grip Quatre’s hand.

The introduction complete, both faeries settled at the table and looked down once more into the full-size room. The Visitors had placed drink orders and were talking animatedly about their names, which Quatre filed away as they came up. Then, briefly, le glanced around the small-size terrace again. “There should be one more of us, but nobody else here seems like a Guide.”

Tomoe made a noise of agreement, mimicked Quatre’s scan of the room, and shook lir head.

“It must be a green faery,” Quatre went on, “since that woman is under a green Protection, but I don’t see any green faeries in here at all.”

“No,” Tomoe agreed.

Quatre shrugged and returned lir attention to the party below. Le didn’t see much benefit to these three forming a Quest, except the greater safety of numbers, and perhaps the greater amusement they would provide as a group to their Guides. The latter seemed a not inconsiderable benefit, though; le laughed aloud at something one of them had just said, drained lir drink, and glanced at Tomoe to see if le found this as entertaining as Quatre did. But the focus of Tomoe’s eyes appeared to fade long before it settled on the scraggly head of lir orc Visitor.

“This will be a fun Quest,” Quatre said proddingly. And when Tomoe only made a faint sound of acquiescence, Quatre stared at lir more interestedly. Le seemed completely preoccupied, presumably with something engrossing enough to distract lir entirely from the display below.

Evidently feeling Quatre’s eyes, Tomoe looked suddenly over at lir with a start. As if shaking lirself out of a reverie, le sat up straight, glanced downward, peered into lir cup (apparently still partially full), and offered, “I’m sorry; what did you say?”

Quatre altered the statement, speculating kindly, “You have something on your mind other than this Quest.”

Tomoe gave a wan smile and said briefly, “My spouse is pregnant again.”

Filled with understanding and the beginnings of pity, Quatre inquired, “What attempt is this?”

Tomoe sighed. “Lir third, our sixth.”

And the way le said it made Quatre guess, “No success?”

“None.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that. I hope your Visitor’s goals will be accomplished quickly so you can get back to lir.”

“Thank you,” said Tomoe with a slightly warmer smile, and pretty clearly returned to lir reverie.

Quatre looked on with distinct sympathy now, but couldn’t help thinking, at the same time, that Tomoe might have done better not to take on a Visitor le wouldn’t be able to pay proper attention. But perhaps le and lir spouse needed the money; if ley were trying one of those expensive new pregnancy assistance courses, this Guidework might be essential to lem. Quatre wouldn’t judge. Le did wonder whether Tomoe was a devotee of Relena’s policies on the Distorted, though.

It took some time, and quite a few drinks, for the Visitors to separate. The orc Sano appeared fairly inebriated, and, berated by the sword Saitou for wasting money and brain cells on becoming so, wandered off to find a privy. Tomoe, sighing with a different emotion from when le’d mentioned lir pregnant spouse, bade Quatre goodbye for now and followed. Quatre took from this that there was more to Tomoe’s disinclination to pay lir Visitors much attention than merely being distracted by the situation at home. Le had to admit, they might prove a handful for even a more experienced Guide.

The human Kaoru, seeming much of Saitou’s mind about Sano’s behavior but leaving all the remonstrance to him, went to arrange for a room. She’d agreed to pay for Duo’s as well while they waited for his money to come in, which Quatre knew Duo must appreciate more than the human could possibly guess (or, probably, want to know). Most likely thereafter she would head out into the town to ask about her green faery thief.

Duo himself remained at the table, glancing up and around the moment his new acquaintances had gone. Quatre flew to him just as immediately and sat down with lir back to the dwarf’s latest tankard. “Well, you’ve found yourself the least helpful quest you possibly could have!”

“You think so?” asked Duo in surprise. “I know Sano seems kinda… thoughtless… but I like him already, and Kaoru–”

“‘Thoughtless?'” Quatre laughed. “Who’s the one under a pink Curse who wouldn’t go back for a pink Guide?”

“That’s totally different; you know that! You know I wanted someone I could trust!”

“I’d be flattered if I weren’t pretty sure that’s stubbornness talking instead of any real attachment to me.”

Duo dodged the point and went back to the previous. “But I like Kaoru too, even if she’s likely to be a little uptight about things. Why do you think they won’t be helpful?”

Quatre shook lir head with a smile. Le supposed the pink Guide business wasn’t really worth emphasizing any further. “Kaoru is under a green Protection.”

“Dammit!” said Duo. “Why didn’t she tell us?”

“She doesn’t seem to understand how things work around here,” Quatre speculated. “I think you could help her much more than the other way around.”

“Sano should still be able to help me, though. He’s not actually Cursed himself.”

“I didn’t get the feeling he’s likely to put that sword down any time soon; did you?”

Without answering the question, Duo tugged at his chestnut-colored beard. Quatre thought he did this not so much out of pensiveness as because he really liked his beard. At least he spent enough time brushing it out and braiding it every day. But presently he leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Well, at least that solves the problem of where to go first. The black enclave it is!”

“So you’re still going to join this Quest?” Quatre wasn’t as surprised as le might have been.

The dwarf shrugged. “I don’t have anything better to do, do I? And before you suggest going back to the border and finding a pink Guide, just… don’t… suggest that.” He didn’t seem to mind this weak finish, but signaled for service.

Quatre chuckled as le flew back to the upper terrace and sat at the edge of an opening, dangling lir feet and looking down. Duo, it seemed, felt more at home in a Quest than out of one, and would probably cling to that with every bit of dwarven stubbornness he possessed, just as he did to the idea of not going back for a pink Guide. Quatre didn’t mind. It would only make the journey more entertaining. And after all, le’d become a Guide in the first place to be able to interact with more than merely lir own people, the faeries subject to the monarch least interested in cooperation and acceptance.

Chapter 9 – Sano Has No Sense

Postre had not yet ceased to fascinate Kaoru. Its mixture of full-size and small-size buildings allowed for a much bigger population than she’d expected when she’d first arrived, and its elaborately decorated pink shops and market stalls seemed fancy enough for a capital city. She wondered what actual faery capitals looked like, if a small town like this was so casually embellished.

She’d had no luck so far in picking up the trail of the thief she was after. Most of the faeries she asked responded politely, and some were even friendly — especially those that had either seen or heard about her throwing herself into the middle of a fight between an orc and a dwarf yesterday — but none of them recognized the description she gave or had any idea (beyond recommending she head into green territory) where to find what she sought. And her inquiries were often met with some bemusement or even confusion that she didn’t understand.

Imugeme seemed shy of being seen by other faeries. She’d explained, that first day, about the privacy Guides traditionally kept to, and Kaoru supposed that was the reason, but it made her difficult to talk to sometimes; the human would look around for her with some comment on the tip of her tongue, only to find her nowhere in sight.

At the moment, though, as Kaoru made her way around the northwest side of town closest to the river, in which at some distance she could see an unexpectedly great number of pink faeries splashing, Imugeme sat on her shoulder. The road was largely unpeopled, but every time a faery passed by, the green Guide would dart away somewhere.

“In all the towns outside, I always saw some foreigners,” Kaoru remarked. “In the human towns, there would be other races and other species… and I went through a dwarf town where I wasn’t the only human. Even in my little dairy hometown, we had a troll family. But here I’ve seen almost nothing but pink faeries. Why is that?”

“Faeries of different colors don’t mix much,” Imugeme replied. “It’s different with Guides, of course, but in everyday life this is what you should expect.”

“That seems like a shame.”

A little sadly, Imugeme agreed. “There’s nothing to be done about it around here, though.”

“How far off is the green realm?”

“At least two weeks’ travel northwest to the border, and almost as long again to the green enclave. It will be winter before we can possibly get there.”

“I wonder if the queen will be back in that amount of time…”

“Monarch,” Imugeme corrected. “And I suppose it’s possible. Are you thinking of going there by yourself?”

“Probably not. Until we actually know the green monarch is at home, it seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it? And Sano and Duo need help.”

“It’s kind of you to think of them.”

“I’m just trying to be sensible! Sano seems like he needs that. And poor Duo, getting lost everywhere… I really think non-faeries need to stick together in here.”

“I still admire your kindness.”

Kaoru blushed and glanced around. “Look, this is a home neighborhood; I don’t want to bother people here. Can you help me find shops and things again?”

“Of course, my dear.”

Postre had a second inn, cleaner and more comfortable than the one Kaoru and her new friends were staying in, and at first she’d considered raising the idea of moving there for the rest of their time in town. But having gone inside and inquired into prices, she’d realized why Duo had chosen the third-rate establishment over this one. She was nearly out of money, and must reserve what remained to pay Imugeme and feed herself. The reflection embarrassed her, but this made for another good reason to join a Quest: she needed better-off companions if she hoped to get anywhere.

And the next day, Duo’s money really did arrive. Kaoru had wondered whether it would, or whether Duo hadn’t been deceiving them in the hopes that the others (or at least Sano) would get impatient to leave and declare their intentions of funding the trip themselves. Granted, Duo seemed perfectly honest, but Kaoru still didn’t trust plenty of what she encountered in Faeryland.

The dwarf spent a lot of time in his bedroom at the inn, doing what Kaoru had no idea, but he’d emerged this morning, as yesterday, to visit the bank and check on his transfer; and now he’d found both of his new companions and brought them back to the common room for further discussion.

“I’ve been saving for years,” he said somewhat glumly once they’d placed their orders for breakfast and drinks with the innkeeper. “I’m what you might call filthy rich. Probably a good thing, too, but I wasn’t looking forward to blowing it all on a long journey. How are you guys’ finances?”

“Uh… not great?” Sano replied, appearing embarrassed. “I gotta keep paying my Guide, and I’ve never seen any of the flowers le wants, so it’s gotta be money. I can’t afford much else except food and shit.”

“You’ve never been good at handling money,” Saitou remarked. Kaoru still wasn’t entirely used to that disembodied voice from somewhere around Sano’s thighs.

Duo nodded, then looked at the human.

“I’m about the same.” She felt less embarrassed admitting it than she would have if Sano’s emotion hadn’t seemed enough for the both of them.

Duo repeated his nod, even more glum. “Then I guess I’m the financial backer of this expedition. Well, it’ll help me in the end! I’ll just have to start saving again. I’ll give you two some money, and we’ll all go out into town and stock up for the trip.”

“And then we can leave for the black place?” Sano wondered, brightening. “I can’t wait to see a bunch of black trees and rocks and shit!”

“You’ve never been a good team player,” said Saitou.

“Shut up,” Sano grumbled.

Somewhat to Kaoru’s surprise, Duo agreed with the orc. “Yeah, let’s head west. You won’t see a bunch of black trees, though; the black realm is completely underground. The entrance is in a town in the Eintopf hills at the border of the pink realm, so that’s where we’ll make for. It’s been a long time since I was there! That won’t be so bad.”

Kaoru wondered why Duo had decided on this course of action rather than visiting the closer pink enclave first. Perhaps it was because she might eventually want to continue on into the green realm, and that too lay far to the west. Perhaps it was just to placate Sano and keep him from breaking the Quest up before it had even truly formed. They needed to do something with Sano’s energy; she thought he and Duo had already been fighting behind the inn when she wasn’t around (and when the dwarf wasn’t busy in his bedroom). So she asked, “What’s the land like between here and there?”

“Plains,” he replied. “Farmland, grazing land, and some wild meadowlands. There’s a road all the way. Should be pretty easy travel.”

She nodded. “Should we plan to leave in the morning, or do you think we’ll do all right leaving a little later today, after we’ve shopped?”

Duo considered this for a moment, and his eyes roved around the common room briefly before he decided. “Tomorrow. Best to get one last good sleep in a bed before it’s back to sleeping on the ground, eh?”

Kaoru completely agreed, but Sano seemed impatient. “Let’s go shopping, then!” he declared.

“Finish your breakfast,” the human commanded, pointing to the pink salad she wouldn’t have expected someone of his species to favor for that meal.

“Yes, mom,” he said with a roll of eyes, and started shoving leaves into his mouth.

Probably because of Saitou’s comment on Sano’s ability to handle money, Duo seemed to give him less than he did Kaoru. He instructed the two of them to buy whatever they needed — with an emphasis on that last word — except food, which he would take care of. Then they dispersed to the market streets and shops of Postre, an area with which Kaoru was becoming increasingly familiar.

She’d brought multiple changes of clothing with her — all she owned, in fact, that was suited to an adventure like this; so the only garment she purchased was a vest of pinkish-brown leather for some added protection. She traded her backpack and paid the difference for a bigger, sturdier one of that same material, and she obtained a new walking staff.

At Imugeme’s suggestion, she bought some bandages and salves, since, though she could count on her Protection to keep her out of most harm’s way, and on her green Guide to heal her if she did suffer some injury, her companions seemed the sort to get wounded and require more mundane attention. She also increased her sewing supplies for mending purposes, including a large, strong needle and thick thread for use on leather. And, reminded by Duo’s reference to sleeping on the ground, she improved her bedroll. All in all, it was a satisfying few hours in the market that she never could have afforded a quarter of on her own.

While at this, she asked around again about the green thief, but met with no more success than before. Then, since she had nothing better to do and no desire to watch Duo and Sano sparring like idiots or whatever they called it, she spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the bridge that led out of town to the west — the one they would cross in the morning — talking to Imugeme. The latter had many funny and touching stories to tell of her childhood in the green realm, for which Kaoru paid her in kind with tales of growing up with sometimes-ridiculous foster-parents and -sister on a dairy farm.

As usual, Duo retired early to his room that evening, leaving Sano and Kaoru to finish their dinner and drinks in the common room without him. The orc soon became too intoxicated for the human to get any enjoyment out of his company, and too loud for her to converse with Saitou conveniently, so eventually she left instructions with the innkeeper as to what should be done with Sano if he grew as disruptive and belligerent as she feared he must, and also went early to bed.

The next morning, rather to her surprise, she and even the hungover Sano were awake, breakfasted, and ready to leave before Duo emerged from his room. The dwarf didn’t hold them up much longer, though; he bought some meat buns for eating on his feet, settled the final account with the innkeeper, and, with a wistful look back toward the bedrooms, proclaimed himself at their disposal. Kaoru wondered whether he just loved sleep that much.

Across the bridge, the road sloped upward for about half a mile through brush and lingering trees she’d gotten a good look at yesterday, then leveled out, and Kaoru had her first sight of faery farmland. At first she couldn’t help goggling, for it appeared so different from any such land she’d ever seen. All the plants’ being pink came as no surprise, but they were so unusual in themselves, and had been harvested in a manner so foreign to her, she simply didn’t know what to make of it.

Then, there were so few full-size buildings! As far as the eye could see, no habitations presented themselves — not one single farmhouse met her searching gaze. Barns, yes, stables (for what animal she couldn’t quite tell), and livestock pens, but no homes. Duo had to inform her a few hours into their walk that faeries found it safer and more convenient to live small-size out in the open like this, though most of their work must be carried out full-size.

They came upon fields full of cows in a variety of pink-like colors — mostly smaller and less solidly built than those on the dairy back home, and with thicker creamy pink horns — and even some horses in the same hues that otherwise looked more or less like the horses she might have seen anywhere. They passed a small lake where waterfowl such as she’d never encountered called and splashed, but more often they saw V’s of unfamiliar birds heading out on some mysterious migratory pattern that took them she knew not where.

So fascinating did their surroundings prove that Kaoru paid little attention to her companions or even the passing hours, but somewhere in her subconscious lay the awareness that Sano was equal parts interested and bored, and that Duo kept attempting to wander off in the wrong direction but was consistently tugged back on course by some little gold flash pulling on one of his braids.

He informed them at lunchtime, as they sat in the imperfect shade and the fallen leaves of some pink tree resembling a maple, that the road swung farther north than their direct westward path in order to hit the town of Yabloko, but that he advised sticking to it for a few reasons: first, that by the time they could, they would certainly want to spend a night or two in a civilized settlement; second, that leaving the road meant making their way across various people’s lands, for which they might get in trouble; and third, that they should take advantage of a paved path while they had it, as they would miss it later. Kaoru, who admired his knowledge of Faeryland geography and had no problem with staying on the road, believed he laid out these reasons so carefully in order to head off Sano’s potential complaints, in which endeavor he succeeded.

Evening and even full night under constellations that, for a change, were not pink came much sooner than Kaoru had expected; but when she could no longer make out details in the pale starlight, and eventually began to stumble and yawn, her attention returned firmly to the mechanics of the journey. She’d been so engrossed in looking around her, the time had flown. She doubted she could count on any subsequent day’s going by so rapidly, but she appreciated it as a good start.

At a particularly egregious near-fall, “Humans,” Duo remarked with a shake of his head. “I don’t know how you guys ever get anywhere.” And indeed, he’d shown no signs of flagging, and still maintained the same pace he’d set out at this morning.

“We ride horses,” Kaoru yawned.

“You wanna keep going?” Sano wondered skeptically.

“Oh, I could walk another eight hours without needing to sleep,” Duo replied with a barely-visible smug smile. And if that was true, Kaoru thought, maybe he’d been saving up on sleep at the inn in Postre.

“Well, I could cover way more ground in the time we’ve been going,” was Sano’s defiance in return. “Orcs are damn fast runners, you know.”

“They’re at least good at running their mouths,” said Saitou.

Kaoru giggled. “I can’t run fast or travel for a long time without sleep. I guess I’ll always be the bottleneck.”

“We’ll look for a good place to stop,” Duo assured her.

After not too much longer, the shadow of a full-size building began to loom up on their left, appearing a short distance off the road past the stout pink fence that had been flanking them for the last several miles. They hadn’t paid any heed to such places all day, except for Kaoru to study them with interest, but now it seemed they approached a potential shelter for the night. This land had obviously been set aside for the growing of some type of grain or grass, which had been harvested in the usual incomprehensible spiral pattern, so the building was probably stuffed full; but there should be room for three travelers, Kaoru thought.

However, as they drew nearer, she suddenly felt a sharp tugging at first her pony tail and then the hood of her cloak — a stronger pull than she would have expected from Imugeme (for she it must be) apparently intent on dragging her to the right side of the road away from the barn. If the little yelp Sano gave was any indication, he’d had the same experience with his own Guide. With one accord, they all stopped moving.

“Looks like that won’t do,” said Duo, his tone as dark as the night around them and his braided hair swinging.

“Why?” Sano wondered, and his voice, on the contrary, was filled with curiosity. “What’s over there?”

The dwarf answered briefly, “Something our Guides don’t like,” and resumed his walk at a sharp angle to the right.

“Now I really wanna know, though!” Sano took off down the road toward the unidentified building. Difficult as it was to make out in the shadows, Kaoru thought he really did run very fast.

“Sano, stop!” Duo shouted after him. “Come back, damn you! It’s probably demon-infested!” But only Sano’s laughter came floating back to them. “What’s the point of having Guides if you don’t let them guide you??” He let out a frustrated grunt, turned his back on the direction in which Sano had disappeared, and drummed his thick dwarven fingers on the haft of his axe.

“Come on,” Kaoru said. “We’ve got to go after him.”

“Look, I’m just as fond as the next guy of rushing into danger, but in Faeryland, doing that can get you worse than dead.”

“We’re a Quest now,” said the human reprovingly. “We need to look out for each other.”

Duo stared at her for a moment, then grinned, his teeth bright in the darkness. “You’re right!” he admitted. And they started after the miscreant orc.

Just as they’d clambered over the fence and properly approached the barn, watching the stars ahead of them blotted out by its rising blackness, a hideous screech arose from around it on their left where the entrance probably stood. Kaoru stumbled, caught herself on her staff, and wavered for a moment in fear, for she knew that sound; Duo only ran on. Next a roar undoubtedly from the throat of a combative orc split the night, another screech, and a horrible squelching, crunching noise. By the time Kaoru and Duo had picked their way over a wrecked wagon hiding in tall weeds and around to the front of the building, it was all over.

“You bloodthirsty fool,” the sword in Sano’s hand was saying harshly as the starlight gleamed off the liquid that covered his blade. “You complete idiot. Are you deaf? Just once in your life, could you think about what you’re planning before you do it?”

Panting, Kaoru halted a few steps away from Sano at the sight of the pale, twisted figure oozing at his feet. “Sano, what did you do?” she demanded breathlessly.

“This one was way easier to kill than that one we met the first day,” Sano said in a mixture of enthusiasm and disappointment. “Barely scratched me! Looks like it was half starved.”

“Sano! Didn’t they explain this to you at the entrance? Didn’t your Guide explain? It’s illegal to kill these things in the pink realm!” She slammed her staff angrily into the ground. “If you’re going to get us in trouble like this, you can damn well go to the black enclave on your own!”

Duo spread his hands and said, more or less jovially, “They’re right; you’re a fucking idiot.”

Scowling, Sano replied, “Oh, go impale yourself.” The verb carried the very specific connotation of being run through on a sharpened stake of wood driven at an angle into the ground for the defense of an orc war camp. He did have the grace to look somewhat sheepish at the same time, though. “But on the bright side, we can definitely sleep in this barn now!”

“I am not sleeping anywhere near that dead body,” Kaoru declared. “Besides, there might be more inside.”

“Nah, I think this guy–” kicking the fallen Distorted with a booted foot– “was trying to get in looking for food. See, the lock’s still on the doors.”

“If someone comes along and finds us with that body, we’ll be arrested.”

“Yeah,” said Duo, and, turning, gestured. “Let’s get going. We’ll cover a few more miles and then make camp.”

With a snort, Sano began cleaning off the sword on the edge of his tunic, and followed. They climbed the fence again and continued down the road in a fairly awkward silence. Sano eventually sheathed the weapon and stuffed his big hands into his pockets, hunching his shoulders over in what Kaoru believed to be a state of surly guilt.

She took a deep breath. “They’re called the Distorted,” she began quietly, struggling to strip all accusation from her tone. “Or some people call them demons. They’re children of faeries who come out all wrong — crazy and aggressive. The monarch around here is trying to figure out how to save them, which is why it’s illegal to kill them in this area. You’re supposed to alert her or something, and she sends people out after it.”

“That does sound kinda familiar,” Sano mumbled.

“Because our Guide told us all about it when you made the pact,” Saitou snapped. “But you’ve always made a habit of conveniently forgetting laws.”

“Hey, cheer up!” Duo said. Sano’s chastised-puppy air seemed to have done the job for him very well. “Live and learn, right? As long as you actually live. Nobody’s likely to find that one until at least tomorrow morning, and we’ll be long gone. Just, you know, don’t do it again.”

As a new silence fell, Kaoru could see Sano observing her dragging steps and reliance on her walking staff. Finally, penitently, he said, “Want me to carry you?”

Before Kaoru could do more than smile at the idea, Duo broke in. “I don’t hear you offering to carry me.”

“Oh, go impale yourself,” Sano repeated. But now there was a grin in the words.

Chapter 10 – Tomoe Laments

Despite the human’s evident weariness, the dwarf had pushed them on for another two hours after the grisly scene at the barn. But once they’d settled down at the side of the road around a fire, Tomoe felt free to give lirself up to grief.

The previous Distorted Sano had encountered had attacked him in the forest to the northeast not far from the border. Tomoe had sensed it, of course, and advised Sano to run, but he, stubborn as always, had not obeyed. Even so, for all the illegality of the killing, and for all the orc had enjoyed it, a claim of self-defense would not be out of place.

Tonight had been different.

On a large, nearly horizontal bough of a tree that, standing alone near the road, had lost all of its leaves to autumn winds, le crouched and put lir head in lir hands. Lir sorrow rarely had physical manifestation, but that almost made it harder to bear. Le would have preferred to weep. In Kenshin’s company, le might have been able to let it out, but as it was, le could only clutch at the pain, grappling for mastery, in perfect silence.

Presently le felt a hand on lir shoulder. It could only be Quatre’s, and, though Tomoe would rather have a longtime friend than anyone currently nearby, le appreciated the gesture. Le braced lirself, gathered what strength le could, and stood up. Turning to face the other faery, le drew in and let out a deep breath.

To lir surprise, le found tears on Quatre’s face along with the expression of deep concern. “I’m so sorry,” le said. Then, adding a formal statement that indicated a motive of unromantic friendship, le pulled Tomoe into a hug.

The pink faery stiffened, unused to this kind of comfort from a recent acquaintance and never having expected such compassion from a gold faery, but after a moment le returned the embrace. This was almost enough to free the tears, but not quite — yet lir appreciation deepened, and lir pain sank just a little. “Thank you,” le whispered.

Quatre released lir and took a step back. Then le took one more, and dropped into a seated position, looking down at the Quest below. The invitation to stay and unburden couldn’t be more clear, and Tomoe was very grateful. After a moment le too sat, drawing lir knees up to lir chin, but gazed up instead of down. Le didn’t want to see Sano right now.

After a while, le turned lir eyes back toward Quatre. The gold faery had changed clothing and presentation at some point when Tomoe hadn’t been looking, and now wore a long, flowing sleeveless tunic over tight trousers, bare feet, and a flat chest. The intermingled fiery red and orange of lir garments looked bright even in the darkness, and seemed incongruously but not unwelcomely cheerful.

Barely loud enough to be heard over the night breeze, Tomoe said, “It could have been one of my children.”

“Were you trying that early?” Quatre wondered.

Tomoe nodded. “Our first three attempts came before the monarch’s decree. We kept lem with us as long as we could — ley’re not aggressive at first, you know…”

“I have heard that.”

“But eventually ley even turn against leir parents. We hoped that maybe, if we showed lem enough love and gentleness, ours would be different… My spouse is a champion of love and gentleness.” Le almost smiled at the thought. “But it was no good. One by one, we had to set lem down near others of leir kind. We had to fly away and leave lem. We’ve never known if ley lived or died.”

“I’m so sorry,” Quatre said again.

And Tomoe likewise repeated, “Thank you.” Le sighed, and once more felt the tears close but not quite within reach. “It got a little easier once Relena started taking in Distorted babies. It still hurt to fly away, but at least we were leaving lem in better circumstances, or so we’ve always hoped. But nothing can ever make it hurt less…” Le pulled lir knees even tighter against lir. “…hurt less to go through years of pregnancy and finally deliver a… someone who’ll never love you, someone who’ll try to kill you…”

“I can only imagine,” said Quatre very softly. And the starlight seemed to sparkle off the paths of moisture down lir face even more than it did off lir gold skin.

“It’s so kind of you to cry for me,” said Tomoe even more quietly. Especially since le was unable to do so for lirself.

Quatre gave a faint laugh that held amusement, frustration, and some self-deprecation all at once, and swiped at lir eyes and cheeks. “I can’t help it. It’s just too damn awful.”

It was. There was nothing else to be said. It was just too damn awful.

“I think it’s incredibly brave of you and your spouse to keep trying, though. I don’t know if I would have that kind of strength.”

“You’ve never borne a child?”

Quatre shook lir head.

“It takes something out of you. Something transfers from you into the baby. With normal children, it seems to me that ley repay it over and over again, but with a Distorted child… you lose something you never get back. If you’re planning on having children, I’d advise you to wait until the Distorted problem has been solved.”

The slight frown that crossed Quatre’s face made Tomoe wonder whether le’d struck a nerve with this last. If so, le regretted it, but could do little to make amends — especially when Quatre asked after only the briefest pause, “Do you believe in what Relena’s doing?”

“I have to,” Tomoe sighed. “Le’s the only one trying to determine how to fix the whole situation.”

The nod of Quatre’s golden head came slowly, and lir lips were pursed. Again Tomoe wondered what le was thinking.

Finally le asked, “And you? Do you believe in what Dorothy is doing?”

“Exterminating all Distorted in lir realm? I’ve been withholding judgment, but…” Le smiled wanly at the pink faery. “I’m grateful for your perspective. It helps me see things more clearly.”

This wasn’t precisely an answer, but Tomoe let it go. “I’m grateful for you listening,” le said instead of inquiring farther.

“Any time.”

Several minutes passed in silence. Tomoe watched the distant clouds drift across the stars from southwest to northeast, trying to scrub from her interior vision the sight of that poor Distorted, emaciated and hopeless, pierced by a sword so deeply through its chest that ribs cracked in both front and back. Le knew the memory would blur in time, though it would never bother lir less, but le would like it to depart sooner and more completely than it possibly could. Le didn’t dare try to sleep, and couldn’t decide whether that was because le feared it wouldn’t work… or that it would.

At last, with another sigh, le glanced over at Quatre, and found lir looking down as before at the sleeping Quest. As if dragged along the line of the gold faery’s gaze, Tomoe at last turned lir eyes in the same direction.

Duo had put out the fire before he, restless and the last to settle, had gone to sleep: a wise decision, as the firepit was now choked with leaves and half scattered across the little campsite. The moon had begun to rise, however, revealing whatever the starlight hadn’t illuminated. The dwarf lay with his hands behind his head and his braided hair pulled forward onto his chest, snoring, but shifted onto his side with a mumble even as Tomoe watched.

Kaoru, whose Guide never had appeared, slept the sleep of one struggling to accustom herself to the new demands placed upon her. She’d curled up on her side inside her bedroll and begun snoring on what must be a relatively soft pile of leaves, but, drained as she’d been, Tomoe doubted she would have noticed even the hardness of the bare ground until morning.

And Sano… Tomoe forced lirself to look at him. He sprawled out on top of rather than inside his own bedroll, as le’d seen him do ever since the border despite the chilly autumn, long green limbs flung every which-way, snoring. He never removed his sword-belt, even to sleep, and on more than one occasion le’d observed him roll over onto the sheathed sword and half awaken in confused discomfort.

The sight wasn’t as hateful as le had anticipated. Le couldn’t say le liked him right now, or would ever, but there was at times something very childlike about him, and to this le was drawn. Even so… “I don’t know if I can keep my pact with him,” le murmured.

Quatre apparently started out of a half doze. “I’m sorry?”

“Sano. I don’t know if I can continue as his Guide. He doesn’t listen to me, and tonight…”

For a second time, Quatre smoothed away a frown almost as soon as it appeared on lir face. “I can understand why you’d want to leave him,” le said. Le didn’t bother enumerating the reasons it wouldn’t be a good idea, only added, “But I do think Kaoru and Duo will get the management of him.” Then le yawned.

“Maybe…” Tomoe shook lir head. “He listens to Saitou sometimes, and that’s a good sign…”

“Do you know what Saitou was like as a human?” It seemed more drowsy curiosity than continuance of the previous topic. “I have to admit, I think he must have been attractive.”

“I have no idea.” Tomoe didn’t mind changing the subject. “Strong, evidently; and Sano teases him about his hair sometimes, though he gets as good as he gives. That’s all I know.”

Quatre yawned again, then said, “I hope I get to see him sometime. As a friend.”

“Do you have someone already? Or are you just not interested in Visitors?”

“No… no, not really.” Quatre didn’t specify which question these words and lir wan smile answered, only yawned a third time.

“Why don’t you sleep?” Tomoe suggested. “I’ll watch.”

“You’re not leaving?”

“Not until we reach a town at least. I won’t abandon him in the middle of nowhere.”

“You run the risk of seeing something like tonight again.”

“I know. I know.” Le pressed a balled hand to lir forehead. And le had no idea what to say besides, again, “I know.”

Chapter 11 – Heero Has No Sensibility

Whenever Trowa was forced to leave him on other business, Heero kept to the road. It curved a little too far northward for his precise needs, but the need to avoid disaster outweighed the need to reach his destination as quickly as possible. Even making camp in a copse several yards from the track was a risk, but it was a risk he had evaluated and considered worth the greater physical comfort provided by the area more sheltered from the wind. He couldn’t travel as fast or as far at a stretch as had been the case before his Curse, and he required the best sleep he could attain.

It would be an inconvenience if something were to attack him, given he also couldn’t fight as well as before — and that never a very high standard to begin with — so he remained very alert while waking. He had warmed himself beside a small fire, but now it had fulfilled its function and could be put out to prevent attracting attention. There was nothing left for him to do besides sleeping in any case. He rose and moved to kick dirt over the flames, then paused as his ears picked up something coming this way from the direction of the road.

He had passed faeries occasionally as he walked; a few had even tried, unsuccessfully, to start a conversation with him. Faeries could travel much faster than anyone else in Faeryland, and everyone he’d met had been driving animals or carts. What he heard now sounded like the footsteps of a party of travelers, but without the accompaniment of animal noises or creaking wheels to explain their lesser speed. Probably other Visitors, then, with unknown intentions. Instead of putting out the fire, Heero put his back to it. He did not draw his knives, as he believed it would be unwise to present a threatening aspect to the newcomers, but they were ready should he need them.

“See, I told you!” a man’s voice said.

“Yes, I certainly see,” said another, slightly muffled.

They pushed their way through the trees and bushes. In the shady copse and with a figure between them and the fire, details were difficult to make out, but Heero assessed what he could: a dwarf man that looked Ghabak’nik, obviously more a warrior than Heero was, armed with something whose heavy haft alone could be seen over his shoulder — most likely a battle-axe; a tall orc man, green-skinned and tusked, wearing a sword that appeared a trifle too small for him; and a human woman with a staff in her hand that could be intended for combat or merely for walking. In either case, Heero’s knives would be of no use here.

The orc, catching sight of Heero, halted mid-gesture; he had evidently meant to indicate the fire. The human looked as if she’d been on the point of saying something, but she too stopped short on seeing the stranger. The dwarf, on the other hand, seemed prompted to speech. He advanced with a fist outstretched, smiling.

“Evening! It’s so great to see another dwarf around here!” He glanced around. “Are you traveling alone?”

“I am,” Heero replied. Deeming it wise to accept the casual Ghabak’nik greeting, he reached out to touch fists with the other man.

“Do you mind if we share your camp?” The unknown dwarf smoothed down his thick braided beard as he dropped his hand. “Safety in numbers!”

Heero believed the probability not great that these Visitors — obviously a Quest — would want to do him harm. If the improbable occurred, he had already calculated he could do little to fend them off, warriors as at least two of them appeared to be, and this consideration would apply just as much to the options of refusing the request or relocating himself. And, as the stranger said, he would be safer in their company — especially without his Guide — should they prove well disposed.

“You may,” he answered, and moved to resume his previous place sitting beside the fire.

The other dwarf approached and shed his bulky pack. He did not appear tired, and Heero assumed the Quest was resting for the benefit of the other two. Eyes fixed on Heero, he sat, and leaned back against the discarded article. “You have a Guide, I hope?”

“I do.” Heero thought he detected in this other dwarf, even at this early stage, a reaction similar to that of nearly everyone he had met since being Cursed: some confusion and negative emotion. It would, he believed, be wise to gain favor with these Visitors that would be sharing his campsite, so he added to his statement. “Are you a Quest?” He knew his toneless brevity formed at least part if not all of why others reacted negatively to him, but he could come up with no embellishment to the question.

The other, apparently deciding to ignore his own feelings for now, replied, “Yes. We’ve got some problems that can only be solved in Faeryland.”

“Hey,” the orc said at this juncture in a loud whisper, “can I greet this dwarf with the vik’talzis thing?”

In just as loud a whisper, the human answered, “Don’t be a jerk! Can’t you see he’s wounded?” And Heero made mental note of her ability to discern that something was physically wrong with him after so brief and distant an examination.

“Come sit down, you two,” the other dwarf urged his companions without a glance at them; his gaze still seemed locked on Heero. He wondered next, “Are you Cursed too?”

“I am,” said Heero.

“Which monarch?”

“Dorothy.”

The other dwarf sucked in a breath. He hadn’t stopped looking Heero over, and the latter wondered whether it was a gaze of assessment. Perhaps the man wanted Heero to join this Quest. But what he said was, “Have you been to talk to lir yet?”

“No. I already know what I need to do to break the Curse. Visiting Dorothy seemed unnecessary.”

The orc addressed him for the first time. “You’re two steps ahead of the rest of us, then!”

“Do you mean you don’t know how to break your Curses?” Heero turned his head in that direction as he spoke.

The orc too had dropped his pack and leaned against it, but appeared as if he didn’t know how to interpret Heero’s mannerisms, and less relaxed than his dwarf companion. “Yeah, that’s right. We’re headed to the black faery place, where I should be able to figure out mine.” For some reason, he laid a hand on the sword at his side.

“Do you mean the black enclave?” Heero asked.

“Yeah, that.”

Heero considered for a moment. Then he said, “I’m also traveling southwest. I believe it would be wisest if I joined you.”

The strangers all stared at him, then glanced at each other. Heero believed the other dwarf reacted positively to the suggestion, but none of them appeared to have been expecting it. Perhaps he’d made it too early in the conversation.

Trying to mitigate the effect in the interest of good relations, he added, “I may be required to leave you at any time if I sense the presence of one of the objects I’m looking for in another direction.”

At this, the others seemed a little easier, and the human woman finally sat down beside the fire, but no one spoke immediately. Heero probably should have approached the subject more circumspectly, but at this period he found it almost impossible to converse casually or irrelevantly.

“Well, I think that sounds fine,” the other dwarf said at last. “What do you guys think?”

The orc merely shrugged, then put his hands behind his head and leaned even farther back. The human looked Heero over again and said, “I don’t mind. Maybe I can help you with your injuries.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Heero replied.

The woman had some kind of negative reaction to this, and silence fell again.

After an interval, Heero said, “My name is Heero Silvertrade. I need to find a number of objects to break my Curse. They must be found in a certain order. I have some clues to their whereabouts, and I can sense them when I get close.”

The other dwarf had resumed staring at him. It looked as if he had a hard time determining that Heero had finished speaking, but after a wordless second or two he said, “Yeah, ‘Fetch me 10 items that I could just as easily have collected for myself’ is a pretty standard requirement for breaking a Curse — and actually not too bad for Dorothy! It sounds like le must have Cursed you in person.” When Heero nodded, he went on. “I’m Duo Axewielder, by the way, at your service! My Curse is from Relena, and I get lost all the time.”

“He means all the fucking time,” the orc put in, throwing a small twig at Duo.

“I haven’t talked to her yet,” Duo went on with a gesture of hand directed at the orc. “I’m helping Stupid here get to the black enclave first.”

Heero knew friends sometimes made negative comments to each other that weren’t intended to be taken seriously, but he’d lost the ability to distinguish between those and the ones that were; therefore, he couldn’t be sure whether or not Duo and the orc had mutual positive feelings. He also had no time to dwell on it, for a brief laugh that evidently did not come from any of the three other Visitors caused him to search for its source.

“That’s Saitou,” the orc explained. He lifted his sheathed sword. “He’s this sword.”

“Technically I’m the one Cursed,” the sword said. “Sano here is just my idiot courier.” And Heero believed the orc, Sano, had a negative reaction to this.

“Turning people into objects is a pretty standard Robin Curse, now I think about it,” said Duo. “Le loves making things.”

“The sword existed before the Curse,” the disembodied voice from the weapon in question contradicted. “It’s been handed down for generations in my family. It’s unbreakable, and very valuable.”

“No wonder it looks so cool,” Duo said.

‘Cool’ was a concept Heero had never understood.

Sano looked as if he might speak, but seemed to decide against it. Instead, the human woman said, “Well, Heero, I’m Kaoru Kamiya. I’m looking for something too, but in my case it’s only one thing, and I can’t sense anything about it.” She smiled across the fire, trying, Heero believed, to make an emotional connection with him.

In this he could not meet her, but he did come up with something else to say. “Where do you need to go to break your Curse?”

“It’s not actually a Curse. I just had something stolen from me by a green faery, and I want it back. I’ve been describing the thief to people, but nobody seems to have heard of him. I’ll probably need to talk to the green monarch eventually. For now–” she gave a particularly wide smile, indicating what emotion Heero could not assess– “I’m helping Duo help Stupid get to the black enclave.”

Heero nodded.

“Hey!” said the orc loudly. The sword at his hip — Saitou — laughed again.

It might, Heero reflected, weary his mind more than his body to travel with these people. They all expressed so much emotion, and interacted in ways he could not comprehend. The simplest solution would be not to try, but because there was a rightness to understanding the world around him just as there was to finding the items he needed, and because knowing his allies as well as possible seemed logical, he would try whether it tired him or not.

It would tire his body too. He was already tired, and had postponed getting any rest in order to talk to these new companions. Now he stood, and said, “I plan to sleep now. I’ll leave putting out the fire to you.”

Before he turned fully away from them and toward his bedroll, he believed he again detected signs of negative reactions, perhaps to his abruptness. He didn’t know for certain, and wouldn’t have had any conception what to do about it if he had.

Chapter 12 – Trowa Proposes Marriage For The First Time In At Least Three Weeks

On this threshold of winter, Tomoe had changed into thicker clothing and added a plum-colored coat with squorrel fur at collar and cuffs. This last had been tailored in the small size and would not expand, but le didn’t anticipate needing to go full-size any time soon. Anyway le lacked Quatre’s apparent skill at summoning items from home without much effort, and had chosen lir favorite coat to wear until le next felt it necessary to expend the energy to summon something else.

Sano, le noticed, still slept on top of his bedroll despite his breaths being visible once the sun had gone down; but he sprawled less and curled up more, lying on his right side so as not to awaken with a sword-shaped dent in his left. Kaoru and Duo slept as they usually did, though the dwarf seemed more restless than usual tonight. And the other dwarf… this new Heero person… he slept like the dead. He appeared battered and exhausted, and Tomoe wondered if that explained his strange demeanor.

“Any sign of Kaoru’s Guide yet?” Quatre wondered as le joined Tomoe in the small branches of a leafless shrub and gazed out over the Quest. The gold faery too had changed clothing, as le did fairly often — this time into a turquoise cloak that buttoned across lir flat chest and gave the impression almost of a uniform. Tomoe reflected a little forlornly that Quatre looked good in everything le wore and every presentation le adopted; some people had all the luck.

“No,” le said in response to the question. “None at all.”

“Le must be the antisocial sort,” Quatre remarked in a pointedly louder tone, lir eyes darting here and there as if to catch sight of someone hiding just behind the next clump of weeds.

Tomoe nodded. “Or maybe,” le speculated after a moment, “she has no Guide. Maybe she couldn’t afford the ongoing rate, and bought a Protection instead.”

“I suppose that’s possible… but then how could she have found her way so far before she joined the Quest?”

Tomoe answered with only a shake of lir head. Le was studying Heero again where he lay, the farthest from the fire and the others, sleeping like a stone in a bedroll that appeared lighter than any of his companions’. Le wondered whether he, like Sano, didn’t mind the cold as much as Duo and especially Kaoru did; or if he simply didn’t have the physical strength to add the weight of extra blankets to his baggage. And also… “I wonder who Heero’s Guide is.”

Quatre agreed. “He claimed to have one… Maybe le’s the antisocial sort too!” Lir cheerful smile sounded in lir next statement: “What an interesting Quest we’ve found!”

Ley said nothing more, and Tomoe, at least, fell into a doze, propped up at various points by the twigs into which le’d more or less nestled, only occasionally opening lir eyes for a quick sweep of the camp. Le half-contemplated, half-dreamed of Kenshin, alone at home dealing with pregnancy without lir, and some time passed. Le’d reached the stage where a voice in lir head had begun nagging that this wasn’t really comfortable and le should find a better place to get some real sleep, when Quatre startled lir fully awake by jumping up and fluttering into the air. It required not much visual scanning to see another faery approaching, and Tomoe too, yawning, rose and flew.

The newcomer, light purple of skin and with darker hair that swept over lir face on one side, wore simple clothing and no sexual presentation, and was most probably Heero’s Guide. The only thing that stood out about lir, Tomoe noticed as le came up to them and stopped at a hover before Quatre, was the filigree silver sheaths decorated with gems of red and green and white that adorned both of lir ears. They had the appearance of wedding jewels, though it seemed unusual for someone to be wearing both the left and the right, and must have cost the stranger a pretty penny.

“Trowa!” Quatre did not actually raise lir voice, but lir tone was that of a shout. “I’m so glad to see you!”

Wordlessly, the purple faery unlatched one of the ear-sheaths, slid it free, and held it out with both hands to the gold faery. Tomoe’s brows rose. If this was a marriage proposal, it was the strangest le’d ever seen.

Quatre laughed and reached up to close Trowa’s fingers over the offering. “I’d rather have you play for us,” le said lightly. And as Trowa replaced the jewel on lir ear, Tomoe somehow got the feeling ley’d been through this ritual many times, which perhaps explained its complete lack of ceremony. But if it had been a marriage proposal, how realistically did Trowa mean it? Le had demonstrated no emotion thus far — which, Tomoe reflected, made lir particularly suited for Heero’s Guide — and Quatre, for all lir apparent openness, proved surprisingly difficult to read. Had le refused because this was merely a recurring game between lem, or because of the difficulties of intercolor marriage in the current climate, or because le wasn’t interested?

The pink faery couldn’t help thinking back to lir engagement with Kenshin, which actually made lir smile. They’d taken part in an initiative of Relena’s to build and settle a new town in a spot where the monarch particularly wanted one not far from the gold border. It had so happened that the others involved had been nearly all married couples, and Tomoe and Kenshin, as close friends, had naturally been believed among that number. Eventually Kenshin had suggested, half jokingly, that ley too get married so reality would match assumption. The subsequent redness of each face had forced lem, unexpectedly, to deal with the subject a good deal more seriously.

“Let’s find a spot in the trees,” Trowa said, speaking for the first time and gesturing upward.

As they flew, Quatre remarked, “You look exhausted.”

Trowa landed on a branch and glanced around, then back at Quatre, and nodded.

“Trust a purple faery to be Guiding more than one Visitor at a time!” Quatre said with a smile. As Trowa found a seat beside the bole of the tree, le dropped down next to lir with the air of nothing more than a friend. Tomoe, though le believed le would sleep elsewhere and give these two leir privacy, just in case they needed it, sat cross-legged nearby for now.

“‘Trust a purple faery,'” Trowa echoed. “That’s not something I often hear a gold faery say.”

Quatre laughed. “Here’s your opportunity to hear it from a pink faery too! This is Tomoe of Frollino. Tomoe, this is Trowa of Romãgarden.” And Tomoe had to get to lir feet again in order to clasp hands with Trowa, though le didn’t yet offer the suggested statement of faith in someone that might very well be a spy.

“And I’d better tell you about the Quest,” Quatre went on, observing Tomoe’s silence with a momentary drawing-together of brows that smoothed immediately. Trowa nodded. “You know Duo, of course.”

“The dwarf bodyguard?”

“That’s the one. I think we’ve all wondered what he would be like as a member of a Quest instead.”

“Is he Cursed, then? I’ll owe Cathy some glass.”

Again Quatre laughed. “I should have made my own bet when I had the chance!” And le went on to describe Duo’s Curse and his resultant attitude, as well as Kaoru and her situation. “You should have heard her trying to make friends with your strange dwarf!” he finished.

“I assume that didn’t work,” Trowa said with a faint smile.

“What’s wrong with him?” Quatre reached behind to scratch a molting spot on one wing.

“It’s private. You’ll have to wait until he chooses to explain.”

Tomoe was a little disappointed, if not exactly surprised, at this answer.

“Tomoe,” Quatre asked courteously, “would you prefer to tell Trowa about Sano?”

The pink faery, seated closer to the curve of the branch, looked down once more at lir Visitor and listened to his distant snoring for a moment. Then le shook lir head.

“Sano…” Quatre began, and broke off to chuckle as if le couldn’t help it. Le grinned all through lir description of the orc, the sword, and their Curse and their acrimony, and eventually declared that the reality was far more amusing than le could tell it.

Trowa thanked lir for the information, and asked who Kaoru’s Guide was. And after a brief exchange on that subject, ley fell silent. Presently Trowa, perhaps remembering Quatre’s request, produced a flute and began to play.

Tomoe recognized the melody; the lyrics that went with it discussed the narrator’s desire for the ‘beautiful soul’ of the object of lir affection. It had been quite popular a few years ago, and, in addition to enjoying it so well performed now, le wondered whether it was as pointed a gesture of courtship as it seemed. Fearing that, if le remained where le sat, le ran the risk either of being lulled to sleep in an awkward place or adding lir voice uninvited to the compelling music, le stood and looked around for a better spot to rest.

Quatre rose as well, and came to lir side. “We’re in a position now to have at least two Guides with the Quest most of the time,” le murmured — “maybe even three, if Kaoru’s is hiding somewhere near. If you want to go check on your spouse from time to time, I’m sure we could handle things here.”

“That’s generous of you,” said Tomoe gratefully in return. “You don’t mind taking the first watch, do you?”

“Not at all,” le smiled.

Tomoe nodded, and flew upward into the smaller branches.

‘Beautiful soul’ described Kenshin so well: so gentle and kind-hearted, so firm of purpose yet so conciliating of manner… exuding a peace le could sink into even in times of hardship. And ley’d certainly had times of hardship. Tomoe could only hope that, at least when le was around, le provided a similar level of strength and emotional support.

And now le believed, as a friend, that Quatre merited the same description, whether or not le could be easily read. Gold faeries were known as harsh, insular, and grasping, but Quatre seemed to be none of these things. In addition to the thoughtfulness le had shown Tomoe all along in relation to lir situation, le seemed to be in favor of good relations among the colors (something Tomoe too should probably support, though le had other things to think of at this juncture); and le’d talked about the Quest just now with good-natured rationality, and with a knowledge of the racial divisions of other intelligent species that had impressed Tomoe (and that Trowa, le believed, had shown some hint of fondly admiring).

Though the pink faery’s thoughts remained primarily with lir spouse as le curled up, shivering a little, in a recess of the tree, le also reflected briefly and sincerely that if Trowa wanted to marry Quatre, that seemed perfectly understandable.

Chapter 13 – Duo Doesn’t Discern Dude’s Dilemma

Traveling with Heero was strange. He limped along at about a human’s pace, sometimes appearing tired or uncomfortable but never appearing to have any emotional state to correspond with the physical. He complained not at all, only mentioned as an indifferent fact, when he reached that point, that he couldn’t go much further. And while he responded to anything directed at him, he rarely attempted to start a conversation, and never made remarks in passing. Everything he did say was spoken with the same toneless abruptness as everything he’d said when they’d first met.

So Duo supposed he should amend his thought and declare that Heero himself was strange. For a variety of reasons, he would prefer not to, but he just couldn’t get a handle on the other dwarf. He’d taken an immediate liking to Sano and Kaoru, which had increased his general sanguinity about the journey; but Heero had been on the road with them for five days now, and Duo knew him not a whit better than he had at the start. Duo doubted Heero would ever get in their way, but would he actually be any use?

Well, that wasn’t quite true, for Heero did get in the way.

He was Onkoltuk, a race somewhat darker and distinctly less hairy than Duo’s, and had revealed that he came from Azh’krizh, a small, mostly underground kingdom northwest of Duo’s original homeland in the Southern Rog’kik Range. No surprise his family name was Silvertrade. He didn’t look like a miner, though; in fact Duo had rarely seen so smooth a skin on a dwarf before. Heero’s mustache and beard, though growing out scraggly on this leg of the journey between towns, appeared to have been originally just as smooth. And his eyelashes… they swept in a luxurious body to the side above an eye like a deep pool without ripples. He had not seen fit to reveal what had happened to the other eye, only mentioned, when asked, that eventually he would be able to remove the patch.

His figure also seemed unusually smooth. Of course he was broad, as a dwarf should be, but there was something about him a little narrower and more lithe than Duo. The latter got the feeling that, once the unspecified injuries had healed — especially whatever had happened to his left foot, the obvious source of his limp — Heero would be downright graceful.

And all of this did dreadful things to Duo’s penis.

Of course he’d grown up hearing horror stories about kil’ak’brük, along with recommendations of certain meditation techniques designed to strengthen the mind over the needs of the body in time to meet with calmness and fortitude the approximately decade-long period of wild desire. He’d never practiced the meditation, and three years into his sexual maturation seemed too late to start. But he’d had no idea it could get this bad, having long assumed his elder siblings’ warnings exaggerated for effect.

His parents had given him The Talk about halfway through his second century, but because he’d never demonstrated any interest in women and therefore pregnancy wasn’t a concern (and such preferences were usually borne out by kil’ak’brük), their advice had amounted to, ‘If you’re not ready to withstand the physical need you’re going to feel, make sure you have an arrangement with someone for those ten years.’ He shook his head looking back, but you couldn’t change the past. One of his letters home, though, after about fourteen months of kil’ak’brük, had certainly been full of his thoughts on how inadequately young adults were prepared for the experience. The answer had been, essentially, ‘This is your fault for deciding to live permanently in Faeryland instead of with other dwarves like a normal person.’

Since he’d started, he’d run in with a few compatible dwarven Visitors sympathetic to his plight, and a couple of faeries that enjoyed what amounted, for a non-dwarf, to fucking a rock… but no one that could help him in the long term. His dildo was a lifesaver, but he couldn’t bring himself to use it anywhere besides the privacy of an inn room. They couldn’t reach Yabloko soon enough. In good conscience he wouldn’t be able to urge his companions to stay for more than one night, but they did need to stock up on winter goods, which might delay them…

And now here was this unbelievably handsome dwarf man traveling with them, sleeping not a dozen feet from Duo at night, moving just awkwardly enough when he walked to catch Duo’s eye again and again… Under normal circumstances, Duo would have flung himself at Heero’s feet, explained his problem, and begged for sex with no strings attached; but Heero’s strange behavior rendered these circumstances far from normal. How could Duo proposition someone like that? Someone with no apparent grasp of proper interaction with others? Would Heero even understand the request? It made Duo uncomfortable just thinking about it. Maybe not as uncomfortable as the hypersensitive skin of his erection grinding against his protective cup or the subsequent (eventual) pressure and pain in his testicles, but in a more meaningful way.

The group had been doing what most Quests did by taking time each morning before getting started to separate — far enough to satisfy tradition but near enough for safety — and talk to their Guides. And today, after awakening from a dream of clamping down hard on the hips of a Heero on hands and knees (a position that might be easier on him than straddling the root of a tree, which had been the previous dream), he was determined to get some answers if he could. The difficulty of keeping active fantasies about Heero out of his head while awake was great enough; visions he couldn’t control and the accompanying knowledge that he could do nothing to resolve the issue might well drive him crazy.

“Any idea what’s going on with Heero?” he demanded of Quatre, who’d gone full size to talk to him (probably to show off lir white gown with its purple embroidery and fur trim).

The gold faery looked as if le knew the motive behind Duo’s question. “None, I’m sorry to say.”

Frustrated, Duo pursued, “Any insight, even? Any useful thoughts?”

Quatre’s brows lowered and lips pursed pensively. “I have met people in the past — some faeries, some Visitors — who were very… unusual in the way they dealt with others. It seemed as if they saw the world differently from everyone else, and once you accepted that and learned their ways, it didn’t create any problems. But they all demonstrated that they felt things, in response to what was going on around them or just in their own heads. Heero doesn’t seem to feel anything… and I don’t know how much is going on in his head. I suspect he’s not like those others, and there’s actually something wrong with him.”

“Like his Curse did something to him?”

Quatre nodded. “I couldn’t say what, though.”

Duo couldn’t be contented with this, but grumbled his way into, “Thanks for that, anyway.”

“I think you’ve been very ethical in your treatment of him,” the faery said seriously.

Duo gave a bitter laugh. “Yes, thank you for that too.”

“And it’s only another few days until Yabloko.”

The dwarf nodded. “If I can survive that long.”

“You’re strong,” said Quatre with a smile. “I’m sure you can.”

Despite how open faeries were about sex, it seemed odd to be discussing, even obliquely, his intense sexual attraction to a fellow Visitor with a faery. Odd, but somewhat relieving. “Thanks,” Duo said again with a smile of his own.

“Any time.”

Chapter 14 – Imugeme Acts As Lady’s Maid

Kaoru submerged, stretched her limbs luxuriously, and let her hair seaweed out. She couldn’t remember when she’d last been so happy to get into hot water, though she could easily foresee the next instance: cold as it was outside now, the perpetual chill in her feet would only grow as they traveled into winter, and her delight in a hot bath along with it. She sighed out some explosive bubbles, and sat up with a splash.

Once she’d pushed the streaming water off her face and hair, but hadn’t even opened her eyes yet, she heard Imugeme’s voice — full-size, by the sound — commenting from not far off, “You’re a human after my own heart.”

“Imugeme!” Kaoru protested. “I don’t need a Guide in the bath!” But, blinking her vision clear, she observed the green faery sitting cross-legged on the floor with her back to the elaborately tiled inset tub.

“I’ve never peeked at you naked,” Imugeme chuckled. “But, my dear, you really must learn to think less of these things if you’re going to get on in Faeryland.”

“Yes, I guess I better…” Because she was determined to track down that thief, Kaoru didn’t complain that she had no real desire to get on in Faeryland. She lay back, raising her knees and reaching for a bottle of hair-soap. As she worked it all through and rubbed up a lather, she sighed in contentment again despite Imugeme’s impudent presence. Then she asked, “Why am I a human after your own heart?”

“Oh, bathing is so important to so many of us,” the faery replied lightly. “It’s used in many of our rituals. It’s good to see a human taking as much pleasure in it as I do.”

“Magical rituals?”

“Sometimes. Most ritual magic is beyond most faeries, though. The monarchs do plenty of it, but the average person isn’t so gifted.”

“Let me rinse my hair,” Kaoru said. She slid down fully into the water again, reflecting as she did so that her Guide’s hair was so beautiful — that dark, dark green so lustrous in the light and black in the shadows — and probably, when free of its braids, longer than her own, it came as no surprise that the faery valued bathing as much as she did. For some reason, the thought made her blush, as if she were treading forbidden territory in thinking compliments about Imugeme, and she abruptly felt overheated. She hastened to finish her rinse so she could sit up again.

To dispel the strange sensation, she asked, when she could be sure of hearing the answer, “What kind of magic can the average person do?”

“We’re innately magical creatures, so a lot of what we do is magical without even thinking about it. We can change size, and travel quickly, change our bodies, put on clothing so it automatically accommodates our wings…”

That must be convenient,” Kaoru murmured.

Imugeme gave her rolling laugh. “I can’t even begin to imagine life without it!”

Kaoru chuckled too, but then sobered. “So do you think,” she began slowly, “when the green monarch comes back from whatever she’s busy with, she’d be willing to use magic to find the faery who robbed me?”

“Probably,” said Imugeme briefly, “but listen; I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this for a while. You must learn to refer to faeries correctly.”

Awkwardly Kaoru asked, “You mean ‘le’ and… all that?” She stretched out her legs again, and bent forward to touch her toes.

“That’s right.” Imugeme’s tone had a hint of severity to it. “You’ve been in Faeryland for over a month; you should be able to use these words properly.”

Kaoru, feeling appropriately chastised, swished some of the bubbles left over from her hair.

“I assume you’re going to shop after this, and ask around about your thief,” Imugeme went on when the human didn’t speak. “You’re likely to have more success if you can remember to use ‘le’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ People will think better of the Quest, too, if you don’t come across as so insensitive.”

Being or even seeming insensitive Kaoru wanted to avoid as much as she wanted more success and an improved image for the Quest. “And it’s ‘lir’ instead of ‘him’ or ‘her,’ right?”

“You see, you know the words!” The faery’s tone held both encouragement and a teasing condescension. “You just need practice using them!”

“I’ve been… nervous… about trying,” Kaoru admitted. “I’m afraid I’ll get it wrong.”

“Yes, you probably will,” Imugeme laughed. “Most Visitors do at first. But you’re in luck: you have the chance to practice on me.”

Kaoru blushed again. “You want me to sit here in the bath talking about you to your back?”

“Yes,” said Imugeme matter-of-factly.

“You look so much like a woman, though!”

Imugeme chuckled again. “And that kind of thinking is what you need to get over. I would offer to change for you, but my shoulders are a little too broad for this shirt when I put on a penis, and I’m afraid you would have just as difficult a time with seeing me naked.”

Now Kaoru really blushed. But since Imugeme was right about everything, she took a deep breath. “Imugeme,” she began haltingly — it was like practicing another language, which Kaoru had done very little of — “Le wants me to talk about her– lir behind lir back.”

The faery commended her good start.

“Le could change shape,” Kaoru went on as if reciting, “but lir shoulders are too broad for lir shirt.”

“Kaoru thinks Imugeme looks like a woman, but faeries are different. Ley have no gender like humans do. Ley have physical presentation ley change like clothing.”

“That’s not fair,” Kaoru mumbled.

“Isn’t it?”

“If I could have changed my gender like clothing while I was growing up… Well, everyone was always calling me a tomboy, and I know my mom wished I would be cuter and more feminine…” She didn’t exactly know what she was trying to express.

“What is a ‘tomboy?'”

“People call girls that when they think they’re not girly enough.”

“Hmm. I suppose that’s something a faery can’t understand very well.”

“I’m sure something like that happens with faeries!” She wanted Imugeme to understand, or at least to try. “Aren’t some faeries expected to be some way because they were–” she checked and amended “–because ley were born purple or pink or something? And then what if someone isn’t that way?”

The green head nodded. “Of course; you’re right; I wasn’t thinking. Green faeries are expected to be skilled at healing, and if one of lem isn’t, le’s likely to be called ‘bloody hands,’ among other things.”

Satisfied, Kaoru began rubbing scented cream into her hair. “When you’re a kid, you don’t think twice about making fun of someone because they’re not what you expect them to be. But as an adult… I don’t think it’s very nice. By the way… what word should I use to refer to a mixed group? Faeries with non-faeries?”

“Your ‘they’ and ‘them’ are acceptable coming from you. I would use ‘ley’ and ‘lem.'”

“Imugeme would use ‘ley’ and ‘lem’ because le’s a faery.”

“Kaoru is going to be an expert at talking about faeries soon!”

“Kaoru is going to rinse her hair again.”

Underwater, she considered that it would be nice if she could let go of her embarrassment about being seen, or seeing others, unclothed. She enjoyed talking to Imugeme, but there had been a slight stiffness about the entire conversation, undoubtedly arising from the faery’s being forced to keep her back turned. If they could just chat casually with none of that restraint between them, everything would be so much more comfortable. As it was, Kaoru still blushed at the thought of Imugeme turning to look at her, or ‘putting on a penis.’

When she came up for air and deemed her bath about finished, she said regretfully, “I wish I could live here.”

“In Faeryland?” Imugeme sounded startled — the first time Kaoru had heard that tone from lir.

“No! In the bath! Why is it called ‘Faeryland,’ anyway? I’ve never heard of a ‘Humanland’ or ‘Dwarfland.'”

“That’s a long story,” the faery answered somewhat gravely. “Are you getting out?”

“I better. I still need to go shopping.”

Imugeme rose and moved farther away from the edge of the bathtub. “I’ll dress your hair for you so it won’t drip down your collar so much.”

Interested, Kaoru asked as she wrung out the same, “In a faery style?”

“Of course!”

“I’d love that.” And she reached for a towel.

Not long after, fully clothed and less inclined to blush (perhaps only because she now had to think about it less), she sat in an ornate chair in her own small inn bedroom with Imugeme behind her seeing to her hair. The cream provided in faery inns consistently made combing much easier, wet or dry, and she made a mental note to obtain a recipe before she left the country. She was glad she’d managed to reply with only limited insulting negativity to Imugeme’s suggestion that she wished she could live in Faeryland, but she had encountered one or two things here she would regret.

All over again, Kaoru was struck with the warmth and gentleness of Imugeme’s hands. Le never pulled the human’s hair uncomfortably, and when the faery’s skin brushed hers, Kaoru wanted to lean into it. And she was blushing again, once more not entirely sure why. Could Imugeme feel the growing heat of her face and neck? She used the same tactic as before to muscle through. “This kind of work isn’t really in a Guide’s job description, is it?”

Imugeme laughed. “I have many talents. I might as well use them.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Kaoru replied, somehow even more embarrassed than previously.

“I give excellent advice as well,” Imugeme added smugly.

“You’ve already done that today.”

“Yes, well, you should switch to trousers. You’ll curse your skirts once it starts snowing!”

“I guess you’re right. Again.” Kaoru tried to look down, but stopped when Imugeme tugged her head back into position by the hair. She had to sigh, though. So many customs of the human world she came from did not apply here; and, while she found nothing to complain of in people that looked like women wearing trousers, and thought she might rather enjoy it herself, she felt lost. Foreign. Which she was. Should she even be here? She’d rearranged her entire life for this, and determination still filled her, as strong as ever… but wasn’t she in a little over her head?

Imugeme, apparently finished with Kaoru’s hair, laid lir warm hands on the human’s shoulders. “My dear,” le said gently, and went on as if le’d read Kaoru’s mind, “I may not understand the expectations humans have for their different genders, but if you’re worried that wearing trousers will make you look… less womanly… I suppose all I can say is that I think you’re very beautiful, and pants won’t change that.”

Heart suddenly racing, Kaoru raised one hand to place it atop Imugeme’s. “Thank you,” she said. “That makes me feel a lot more confident.”

“You see? I have many talents.”

Kaoru blushed again, and laughed. “I better go shop and ask around while I still have time.” Her next sigh had a different sound to it than all the previous. “I feel bad using so much of Duo’s money, though.”

Imugeme’s laugh lasted longer than Kaoru’s had. “He’s been hoarding money in Faeryland for fifty years; let him do some good with it for once!”

Kaoru couldn’t help grinning. She squeezed the faery’s hand before releasing it and standing up. “The first thing I need,” she said, turning, “is a mirror, so I can see how talented Imugeme really is!”

Chapter 15 – Sword!Saitou Seeks Solace, Suffers Subjugation

The night sounded windy again, and Kaoru had earlier remarked how glad she was she’d purchased heavier clothing in the last town, so Saitou assumed the weather to be cold, even stormy. He’d never been fond of winter, and had to admit that not being forced to put up with it provided some consolation for being trapped inside, or transformed into, or whatever the specifics of the magic might be regarding his own heirloom sword.

Sano’s suggestion, when they made camp, that they all go to sleep without lighting a fire had been met with outrage from Duo and Kaoru, and the remark from Heero that sleep would more effectively rest their bodies if they were more comfortable. And when Saitou had inquired why his foolish companion wanted to avoid a fire, it had come out that Sano still believed — indeed, now more than ever — some Visitor was following them. They’d met plenty of faeries on the road, the conversations with whom Saitou had listened to with some interest, and this traffic could easily have explained Sano’s sensations, but, no, he was determined: someone was following them, and it wasn’t a faery.

This far into their journey, Saitou could no longer dismiss this intuitive conviction as offhandedly as he had before; and when Duo, who obviously knew Faeryland better than perhaps any Visitor, agreed to its possibility, Saitou retreated entirely from his previous stance. This occurred only in thought, though, since aloud he had to continue giving Sano a hard time about it. It had become unexpectedly important to argue with and harass Sano.

In Drury Crossing, this resident hooligan orc had never once failed to meet and exceed Sherrif Smith’s enthusiasm for conflict between them, had never lacked a retort to any insult Saitou chose to throw at him. But here in Faeryland, Sano responded to Saitou with greater restraint, and only during an argument could Saitou hope to draw from him anything like the fiery reactions he’d always given before. He found this troubling.

He might have believed it a good sign — that Sano was finally learning some self-control and maturity — if he hadn’t guessed it stemmed rather from guilt at Saitou’s condition that was entirely his fault. Such a feeling was natural and just, but Saitou didn’t think he liked Sano’s change in attitude toward him. For one thing, it seemed to have little effect on the orc’s general behavior — he took just as many unnecessary risks and behaved just as thoughtlessly as he ever had.

The others, to a certain extent, were able to exert some control over the foolish young man, and this effect increased gradually as the group dynamic improved. Beyond that, however, Saitou didn’t place any significant faith in the benefit of traveling in a Quest. It complicated the journey, gave them too many goals to meet, and seemed only considered a necessity because of a deep-rooted fear of being alone in Faeryland. Sano, a competent warrior (and at this time assisted by Saitou’s knowledge and skill whenever he fought with the sword), could surely make his way across this strange land with only the help of Tomoe, a competent Guide.

He thought of the demons Sano had already killed, and mentally sighed. Perhaps not.

Nights were very boring as a sleepless sword. In Drury Crossing, he’d never been bored. Even if he’d had nothing particular to do at a given moment, he’d always been able to go out looking for troublemakers to arrest — and had almost always found some. Often Sano had been involved. No, he’d never been bored at home. But now, stripped of that option as well as every other besides listening to his companions snore and thinking dreary thoughts, he felt particularly dull — which was ironic, given that he’d become a rust-resistent sword.

He could hear, as on many other nights, the quiet, distant sound of the Guides conversing. Though he knew he wasn’t supposed to, he’d managed to pick up names — Quatre, Duo’s Guide, and Trowa, Heero’s — and he sometimes caught snatches of leir talk. These had been too broken to give him much real information, but it was better than nothing. And now he decided, almost on a whim, to seek some interaction of his own.

“Tomoe,” he called. Sano gave a grunt and seemed to shift position, but Saitou didn’t think he’d awakened him or anyone else.

He didn’t need to call again. Immediately a fluttering of wings like a large moth met Saitou’s nonexistent ears, and Tomoe’s quiet voice greeted him. “Yes?”

Saitou didn’t waste time with small talk. “Realistically, what are the chances of getting this Curse broken?”

Le sounded sympathetic as le answered. “Curses happen all the time. Visitors usually deal with them without too much trouble.”

“If this is not much trouble,” Saitou replied dryly, “I’d hate to see what you would consider a lot of trouble.”

Tomoe hesitated, then said, “I suppose you’re right. But the first Visitor I made a pact with, just over a year ago, had a much harder time. He was a troll who was Cursed when he convinced a group of his friends to refuse some needed assistance to a black faery at their local Grove.”

“In other words, he was behaving like a troll,” Saitou put in.

With a brief, regretful laugh, Tomoe agreed. “He was ugly to begin with — though I suppose I don’t know what makes a troll beautiful — but his Curse made him look like one of the Distorted, which to faeries is even worse.” Le sighed. “It was particularly difficult for him to navigate Faeryland.”

“I can certainly see how that would be the case.”

“When we reached the black enclave, Robin told him that to break the Curse, he needed to fall in love with a black faery and earn lir love in return.”

“That is a horrifying abuse of power.”

Again the faery hesitated. “Yes,” le said at last, “yes, I suppose it is. But that’s not all. The troll’s friends, who had gone along with his unkindness to the Glade Ambassador, were Cursed too. They were transformed like you, but into household items, knick-knacks and whatnots. He had to carry them with him, and was responsible for breaking the Curse for all of them. They all bickered constantly… You and Sano remind me a little of that situation, though in their case I had everything explained to me from the beginning.”

Saitou chose not to comment on that aspect of the story. “What was the outcome?”

Tomoe sighed again. “He fell into despair, and lost all hope, and didn’t believe any faery could ever learn to love a Distorted. He dissolved our pact and sent me away. As far as I know, he’s still living in Gulaš, the city outside the black enclave.”

“So a faery monarch placed an unreasonable Curse on an entire group of people,” the sword summarized, “then demanded an unreasonable task to break it, destroying the lives of everyone involved and making it impossible for you to do your job properly.”

“Yes.”

“The deplorable state of relations between faeries and non-faeries is the most horrifying part of all this.”

Now the faery sounded pensive and distant. “The Rainbow Accession was almost 500 years ago… I think the monarchs take more liberties now than they did then.”

“What was laid out in that treaty beyond preventing the borders of Faeryland from expanding?”

“The monarchs maintain the border, and don’t leave Faeryland. Any common faery that leaves Faeryland is limited to lir animal form, except in the Groves.”

“And what did the non-faeries provide in exchange?”

“I don’t know. That’s all I can remember.”

“In any case, it’s clear the monarchs’ magic reaches out through the Groves to affect the non-faery world, in a way the Accession certainly never had in mind. We’ve all taken for granted the way we interact with faeries, and you faeries have probably done the same regarding us… but the truth is it needs to change.”

“You may be right,” le granted. “That and other things…” Le didn’t sound particularly hopeful.

“And if I have some plan for changing things,” Saitou interpreted, “you’d love to hear it.”

“We should focus on getting your Curse broken first.”

Saitou took this to mean that Tomoe’s job was to help with that goal, not work toward large-scale sociopolitical reform, and le would rather get on with that. All along, since they’d met, le’d seemed distant and largely professional, and Saitou doubted this conversation would make much difference. “Thank you for the information,” he said formally. “I’ll let you get back to the other Guides.”

“Good night,” le bade him, and evidently flew off, leaving Saitou with thoughts, if not less dreary than before, at least more extensive.



<<14

During this pandemic (as at other times XD), the only thing I have to offer is art. So I’m starting to write and post this story far earlier than I originally planned. In order to give bored, depressed people in isolation something to read on a regular basis, I hope to update it frequently, and as such will be using a quicker writing and editing process than usual; so it’ll be a little rough.

There are no sex scenes planned for this story. I’ve given it a rating of 4 because some of the sexual references will be pretty explicit. I hate writing sex scenes and don’t do it if I can possibly avoid it… but I’ve been known to forget that policy any time someone buys me $15 worth of ko-fi. I would probably be pretty open to requests from Patrons, too.

I wasted a lot of time on this:

Now your job is to guess who everyone is (despite none of the faeries having wings), which ones I think look decent and which ones made me laugh uproariously, and how many bangs options are available in Rinmaru Games Mega Fantasy Avatar Creator. There were ZERO hair options for Sano, and no tusks at all, and I was laughing too hard to keep trying to make one for him.

Forgivably Wrong

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.

Forgivably Wrong

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.

I Like Your Face

I Like Your Face

Sano’s strange behavior started on Monday, though (that day at least) its strangeness stemmed merely from the fact that he’d never done it before, not that it was in any way out of character. He hung around the station for hours, continually making believe he was leaving but never really doing so, and kept jumping out at Saitou from around corners and through half-open doors, presumably in an attempt at taking him by surprise that was consistently foiled by Saitou being hyper-attuned to Sano’s ki.

He crashed into him three times, and once into another officer he wasn’t aware was also walking that hallway, until finally Saitou told him irritably to properly go away. Sano did, but tried the same trick twice during Saitou’s walk home, prompting an eventual growl that finally sent the idiot, disappointed, scurrying off for good for that evening. It hadn’t ever been startling, but it had been annoying… and the fact that Saitou then spent the night alone was even more so.

On Tuesday, though he’d evidently abandoned the jumping-out tactic, the one visit he made to Saitou’s office during the day was just as silly: he came bursting in red-faced as if he’d been running quite some distance, rushed up to Saitou’s desk, and informed him breathlessly, “Your house is on fire!”

Saitou sat back, studying him, noting he’d gone to some trouble for this. However… “You’ve been over at the smokehouse, I see. If it were my house burning, you wouldn’t smell nearly so much like salmon.”

Looking even more disappointed than yesterday as he stared Saitou right back in the face, Sano replied, “Aww, man! I was sure the smoke smell would get you.”

“Apart from that, you should have chosen a building closer to the station. If I really thought you’d run all the way here instead of getting the fire brigade when my house was burning, you’d have bigger problems than what kind of smoke you smelled like.” Observing Sano’s mutinous expression at this, Saitou added quickly, “But you have given me an idea for dinner, so don’t be late tonight.” He didn’t want another lonely evening like yesterday’s had been.

He might have believed Wednesday morning’s gross aberration of Sano getting up before he did and clumsily cooking breakfast for them both was the young man’s way of demonstrating gratitude for the numerous meals Saitou had made him over the past three months, except that Sano seemed to be so pointedly expecting some specific reaction from Saitou when he walked into the kitchen and found his lover, like the room, splattered with ingredients that might or might not require the application of a chisel in various places to remove. Sano’s cooking, though explosive, wasn’t half bad, and it was nice to spend some time with him before work for a change, so Saitou enjoyed the unusual morning… but he did wonder what the roosterhead was up to.

Scant light was shed on this question on Thursday, even when Sano made his appearance in the afternoon fully decked out in a woman’s kimono and with his usually spiky locks combed into sleek near-unrecognizability. Again Saitou sat back and studied him, examining the pattern of autumn leaves across the garment, the brown obi, the gold leaf-shaped hair ornament, and most of all the expression on Sano’s face that already conveyed disappointment with the wolf’s response. And Saitou said, “Those colors suit you very well — much better than they would Kamatari, which is where I assume you got all those things.”

“Yeah, they’re just a loan.” Sano sounded almost surly. “And thanks, I guess.”

Noticing Chou in similar getup just inside the doorway — his hair really was quite long when not perpendicular to sanity — Saitou’s next comment was, “If you two are going undercover like that, let me hear you both talk like women.”

Now Sano’s surliness came to be mixed with amusement as Saitou forced him and the broomhead to practice various phrases in feminine tones over and over until they could deliver them relatively convincingly, so at least he didn’t leave the office entirely unhappy. Saitou still wondered what the ultimate goal of his recent behavior was.

On Thursday, when Sano showed up at the station as he so often did these days, it was with an unusual air of bashfulness and worry that, while fairly convincing, Saitou still believed to be falsified. Sano kicked around and cleared his throat and said nothing in a manner unusual and somewhat calculated to annoy, until Saitou, figuring they’d better get this over with, finally asked him what was wrong.

Sano came over and planted his hands on the desk, took a deep breath, and looked into Saitou’s face — there certainly did seem to be a strong element of studying Saitou’s expression to all of this — before answering with calculated hesitation, “Megumi just found out she’s pregnant with my baby.”

Saitou almost laughed aloud at this one, a reaction certainly not what Sano wanted. With only a faint smile, therefore, he shook his head and said, “Ahou. A woman might know she’s pregnant after five or six weeks, and a doctor is likely to be especially aware.”

“So?” There was some defiance in Sano’s tone, but also the letdown Saitou was growing accustomed to this week.

“So,” the officer explained patiently, “you and I have been exclusive for eighty-six days, and you’re not the unfaithful type.”

At this assessment Sano appeared to be grinning in spite of himself. “Yeah, you’re right; it was just a joke.” But the statement came out rather forced; evidently he was still disappointed. Besides, claiming to have cheated on his lover in such an egregious fashion would not normally be his idea of casual humor.

“Takani doesn’t strike me as the unfaithful type either,” Saitou mused. “Didn’t her relationship with the kenjutsu girl start even before ours did?”

Startled, “I didn’t know you knew about them,” said Sano.

“Oh, I follow the gossip in your little circle closer than you think.”

“Still spying on us all, are you?” Sano sounded pleased, though, and Saitou was glad to have mitigated his disappointment somewhat.

The pregnancy scare hadn’t exactly been subtle, but Sano seemed to have pulled out all the stops for Friday’s attempt. Saitou was on his way home, wondering in the back of his head whether his rooster had given up on whatever it was he was trying to do, when the most dramatic and horrified of shrieks burst from an alley just in front of him. Though Sano had tried to disguise it, Saitou recognized his voice, and he rolled his eyes even as he glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed. The area was empty — at least Sano had chosen his location well — so Saitou didn’t hesitate to step into the small side way and look around. And he wasn’t at all surprised to find the alley drenched in crimson, the bulk of it a puddle in the dirt but a significant amount yet spattered over the walls and contents of the little street. It reminded him of the breakfast kitchen the other day.

“Ahou,” he sighed, “even if it weren’t obvious this is just red paint — which has already started to dry, by the way — the amount is inconsistent with the scream.”

“What?!” came Sano’s indignant voice from behind a garbage barrel. “I set up this great murder scene, and you’re getting picky about the amount of blood?”

“A more pertinent question than why you believe someone could have spontaneously shed so much blood, still had the energy to scream so loudly, then disappeared without a trace along with their murderer before I could get here is the question of why you’ve apparently been trying to startle me all week.”

Sheepishly Sano emerged from where only half of his face had previously been visible behind the barrel — presumably in order to observe Saitou’s response — and stood straight looking down at the bright stain on the ground. “I guess you caught me.”

“Yes. So explain.”

Sano did not look up, and Saitou didn’t think the slight redness of his cheeks was a reflection off the paint. “Well, I was talking to Kenshin the other day, and we got to remembering the Rengoku, and he mentioned how at one point, while I was crossing over on the wreckage and couldn’t see you, you had this really surprised look on your face — like surprised enough to surprise him. Though now I come to think of it,” Sano added with a touch of newfound suspicion, “I dunno why he would’ve been looking at you right then when I was about to get my ass shot…”

“Himura is very observant about certain things,” Saitou replied dryly, recalling the moment in question with piercing clarity. “He was probably looking for my reaction. But go on.”

“Well, it occurred to me I don’t actually know what your surprised face looks like. I kinda wanted to see it,” Sano finished with a shrug.

“The amount of trouble you’ve gone to–” Saitou gestured around, one brow raised– “suggests more than ‘kinda.'”

“I just… like your facial expressions, all right?” Sano mumbled. Even more quietly he finished, “I like your face.”

Saitou couldn’t help chuckling as he moved to take the young man in his arms. Sano felt stiff, as if resentful at having his honest confession laughed at, so Saitou said, “In exchange for that compliment — if that’s what it was — I’ll tell you a secret: that wasn’t a surprised look, back then.”

Sano drew back and glanced up at him curiously. “But Kenshin said–”

“I was a little surprised to see the Gatling gun,” Saitou admitted, “but by then I was taking everything Shishio did in stride. After seeing the Rengoku itself, I could hardly be astonished at anything else… If you’d looked at me when the façade came off the ship, you might have been satisfied.”

“Huh. But then what was that look later, that Kenshin saw?”

Saitou pulled Sano close again, shaking his head. “That was a look of absolute horror, ahou.” He elaborated simply, “I’d just heard Shishio order you gunned down.”

Now Sano struggled against the embrace that had him pinned in order to pull away once more and stare Saitou in the face… and his expression might very well be exactly what he’d incorrectly imagined Saitou’s to have been on the deck of that warship. “Way back then? Already?”

Saitou nodded solemnly.

Sounding confused and perhaps even somewhat affronted, Sano wondered, “But then why did it take us so long to–”

“Because you’re an oblivious idiot,” Saitou interrupted with fond impatience. And when Sano scowled at him, he went on, “Though if it’s any consolation to you, you surprise me all the time.”

“Yeah, but you never show it.”

Saitou chuckled. “Maybe one of these days you’ll take me off guard with something if you keep trying. Just,” he added quickly, thinking of this past week, “stop being an idiot about it.”

“According to you,” Sano grumbled, “that’s not possible.”

“You’re a creative idiot, at least; I’m sure you’ll figure something out that will surprise me without making me want to kill you. In the meantime…” Saitou bent to kiss him, not caring how strange it would look to anyone that happened to walk down this narrow, dirty alley and find a police officer and former kenkaya making out in the midst of a copious amount of red paint. Just before their lips met he finished his statement: “I like your face too.”

This story, which I’ve rated , was for ishrahsan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “How about a Saisa where Sano keeps trying to surprise Saitou?” I liked the idea and had fun with this piece, but this the first RK writing I’d done since the big bad news felt… just a little different than usual. Perhaps the new normal.

For a few more notes, see this Productivity Log.

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

An Unexpected He Could Deal With

An Unexpected He Could Deal With

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

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

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

“Oh?” Katsu echoed.

“Uh, yeah. That happened.”

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

“Yyyyyeah,” Sano admitted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katsu only snorted.

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

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

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

“That’s never stopped you before!”

“Except he does have a bed!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve rated this fic . For some further thoughts on it, see this Productivity Log.

Unboxing Party

Unboxing Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… freeloading…” Saitou interjected at a murmur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou smirked, and they got to work.

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

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

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

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

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

“Very French,” he said at last.

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

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

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

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

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

This story, which I’ve rated , was for HakuSaitoSan’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt “Saito giving in to some unusual want of Sano’s.” For some author’s notes from not long after I wrote it, see this Productivity Log.

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

It’s Curtains For You

It’s Curtains For You

Indifferent as he was to most westernization, Saitou had a distinct opinion on the new curtains. They were part of a continual project intended to ‘increase the comfort and convenience and augment the dignity of the much-respected Tokyo police force,’ a project that had strangers in and out of his office on a regular basis taking measurements and assessing colors. The result was gaudy and provokingly red, didn’t necessarily match the fresh wallpaper as well as they believed it did, not to mention something that would require dusting or laundering or airing or whatever you did with long curtains — which meant further invasion of his privacy on a regular basis with no foreseeable end.

And it wasn’t as if the window needed any covering… This second-floor chamber wasn’t susceptible to invasion through that route — not that the curtains would do much good if it were — and even an assassin with a powerful weapon would never have the office’s occupant in his line of sight since Saitou’s desk was a good six feet forward. Still, he would probably get used to the stupid things eventually.

It was ironic, when he’d just been grouching about the advent of intruders unrelated to police business in his space, how his heart leapt at the sight of Sano’s head poking through the door. And there was something like the exact opposite of irony — a feeling of interest, of piquancy, based not on contradiction but on precise similarity — about the way Sano’s face lit up when he saw Saitou.

“Here you are!” the rooster said cheerfully as he opened the way more fully and stepped inside, closing it firmly behind him. He studied the office with a quick and seemingly fairly negligent eye before returning his happy gaze to Saitou and sauntering toward him. “This is nice! I’ve never seen this part of the station before, only the shitty downstairs.” As something seemed to occur to him, he frowned slightly and added, “Funny how it gets less Japanese as it gets nicer up here.”

A recent conflation of ‘refurbish’ or ‘improve’ with ‘westernize’ was one aspect of the movement Saitou did actively disapprove of, but, though he admired Sano for making the point, he was too impatient to know something else to pursue that topic right now. “How did you find my office? Have you been invading every room on the second floor looking for me?”

“Well, only the unlocked ones,” Sano replied without compunction, placing both hands on Saitou’s desk and bending to give him a cheeky grin. “And I only just peeked in to see if I had the right room; I didn’t interrupt anything.”

Saitou leaned back in his chair and, after a long drag, blew cigarette smoke up into the young man’s face. The harshest expression he could command, however, was a wry smile at the thought of Sano startling every single officer and secretary all along the hallway in his quest to visit his relatively new lover at work for the very first time. He tried to concoct a reprimand, but his brain kept stumbling over that idea — Sano was visiting him at work — and suggesting statements and actions completely different both from what needed to be said and done and even what was feasible to say and do in this context. Finally all he managed was, “Well, now that you know where my office is, you can avoid harassing my co-workers going forward.”

“That sounds like an invitation to come back in here whenever I feel like it.” Sano’s grin had intensified, and now he knelt upward onto the desk, drawing his second leg after so he straddled the paperwork Saitou had been busy with and the wolf would be forced to reach right between his wide-angled thighs should he wish to rescue it.

“You have a gift for selective interpretation.” Not favoring how inaccessibly far above him Sano’s face now hovered, Saitou stood, reaching past the young man on the desk to stub out his cigarette in the ash tray as he did so. This was going to fully confirm the presumed invitation for Sano to return routinely, but to be honest Saitou hadn’t really planned on contradicting it. Instead he put one hand on each of Sano’s knees to protect the stack of sheets in between, and moved in close.

Sano’s arms wrapped eagerly around Saitou’s neck, crossing at the wrists as he tilted forward to bring his face nearer the other man’s. “What time do you get off?” he asked in a tone that was half faux-casual flirtation and half ridiculous husky seduction.

“Not until I get you into bed,” Saitou replied with a smirk, sliding his hands off Sano’s knees and halfway up his thighs on the inside curve, ruffling the overshadowed and largely forgotten papers.

Sano chuckled appreciatively and bent to close the distance between them. His breath tasted like sake and something slightly spicy and the even spicier anticipation of the promised nighttime activity.

Just then, noisy booted footsteps came pounding up the hallway outside so quickly and loudly that both men looked toward the door. “Chou,” Saitou muttered in some irritation, withdrawing his hands disappointingly from their sneaky upward progress.

Sano grunted in similar annoyance and, bracing himself abruptly on Saitou’s shoulders, gave a little spring off the desk, barely missing sending the entire stack of paperwork flying. He’d no sooner hit the floor on the far side from the room’s entrance than he’d ducked behind one of the unnecessarily elaborate curtains beside the window and concealed himself completely.

Saitou wasn’t sure how he felt about this. Yes, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and, yes, they’d been in a pretty compromising position just now, but if Sano planned on making these visits a regular thing, trying to keep them a secret from Saitou’s assistant seemed futile and not worth the effort. Still, it was a brand-new relationship Chou didn’t know about, and Saitou did take a certain amount of delight in the delicious novel privacy of Sano’s presence.

He didn’t really have time to decide one way or another, since the aforementioned assistant came bursting in without knocking — they might need to have a conversation about knocking — and breathlessly right up to his desk without a pause. He slammed his hands down in a louder version of Sano’s earlier gesture and gasped out, “Commissioner’s on his way!”

“Thank you, Chou.” Both Saitou’s statement and the nod that accompanied it were slightly exaggerated in response to the over-the-top delivery of this mundane news. And when Chou continued to lean on the desk and catch his breath Saitou was forced to add, “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

Grudgingly Chou acknowledged this dismissal by standing straight and backing away a step. “You sure you don’t want me to–“

Saitou cut him off before he could complete whatever spurious offer he was about to make as an excuse to stick around and eavesdrop like the gossip he was. “I’m sure.”

“All right, fine.” And the broomhead made an exit as exaggerated as his entrance had been.

The latch had barely clicked when Sano’s warm hands were on Saitou’s neck, moving up and down in a stroking, almost massaging motion he liked very much. But the comment Sano had to make was, “Nice of him to warn you like that.”

“He does think he’s being nice,” Saitou admitted, giving Chou credit he rarely afforded him in person. “He’s the type of person who never wants his boss to drop by unexpectedly, and he assumes I feel the same.”

“And you think I’m like that too,” Sano concluded from Saitou’s tone, indignant but simultaneously laughing a little.

“You did approve his choice to come in here and ‘warn’ me.”

Taking hold of Saitou’s earlobes and using them as handles to tilt the officer’s entire head back, Sano looked down into his face with a stern expression. “I approved,” he said, “his choice to try to make your day easier.”

“You might make the same choice now and then,” Saitou smirked as Sano’s lips descended.

Before they could come to rest, however, there was a proper knock at the door. Saitou found he’d been balancing his seat on its two rear legs as he leaned back to look at Sano upside-down, for as his lover released him and darted behind the curtain once more, the chair thumped onto the rug below with surprising heaviness. It made Saitou’s “Come in” come out with more vehemence than he’d intended.

Here was, as Chou had indicated, Kawaji, accompanied for the moment by Uramura, though Saitou knew full well the police chief would be dismissed presently without much reason given. He always went with good grace, knowing ‘Fujita-kun’ to be more than what he’d ever been let in on, but while he remained in the room there was a sort of wistful curiosity about his every word and gesture that amused Saitou faintly — though perhaps not as much as, uncharitably, did his awareness that, at this private meeting between commissioner and agent, a former kenkaya and present layabout with no connection to the force except that he was fucking one of its members would be hearing all the interesting details the loyal and discreet Uramura was barred from (and probably wouldn’t even find them all that interesting).

And they weren’t all that interesting. It was a pretty standard meeting with Kawaji: important, engrossing, but nothing to get fired up about. Saitou paid no less attention and responded with no less engagement than usual, and Kawaji certainly didn’t appear to notice anything out of the ordinary… and yet there was a distinct difference to the proceedings in Saitou’s mind that unquestionably sprang from the awareness of what waited for him behind that luxurious curtain. He had a hidden muse, a beautiful secret that made no real difference to the scene except to add an undercurrent of irrelevant entertainment as long as the conference lasted and a crackling anticipation for the moment it ended.

Eventually it did end, no sooner or later than they ever did, and, though Saitou hadn’t been impatient, precisely, he did feel something like relief — and definitely something like excitement! — as he watched Kawaji’s diminutive form disappear out the door. And once again, before the latter was even completely closed, Sano was upon him.

Whatever interest or amusement mirroring Saitou’s Sano had or hadn’t felt back there, he was evidently tired of running out of time and getting interrupted, for in this instance he wasted no words: he stepped immediately around into the narrow space between the seated Saitou and the desk, leaned down, and, braced firmly on the armrests, kissed him thoroughly. Saitou did not protest that he should really get back to work, glorying as he was in the taste and smell and nearness of Sano, the feel of his tongue in his mouth, and wishing this chair were big enough for Sano to fulfill the movement toward which he was obviously inclined and crawl into Saitou’s lap somehow. In fact gloved hands were making ineffectual tugging gestures at Sano’s flanks beneath the open, dangling sides of his gi.

And then they heard Chou’s boots in the hall again.

The sound Sano made as he broke free of the kiss and slipped away was almost more a laugh than a frustrated sigh, and Saitou rolled his eyes. It was annoying, but not as if they wouldn’t have plenty of opportunity for this kind of thing in days to come, or kiss many times over and much more intimately tonight after work. The newness of the relationship and the situation rendered the separation more aggravating than it really was.

The broomhead entered and reached Saitou’s desk in another whirlwind of gaudy garb and hair, but now seemed less panicked and more eager to hear all the juicy news. “So what’d he want?” he demanded.

“None of your business,” replied Saitou in as cool a tone as he could manage given the lingering heat of his mouth. “Get out; I have work to do.”

The dramatic Chou looked so utterly crestfallen, staggering backward this time as if he’d been struck, that Saitou was forced to relent and promise, “I’ll tell you about it later, when I have a chance.” After all, much of it hadn’t actually been strictly confidential, as least as far as Saitou’s assistant was concerned.

This seemed to be all Chou needed to cheer him, for he grinned and continued backing toward the door. “You better!” he said.

“Oh, and, Chou…” Saitou raised a hand, then continued when the broomhead paused. “I’m going to need you to start knocking before you enter.”

Appearing a little surprised at this new development, Chou tilted his head slightly and said, “Got it,” in an almost questioning tone — as if the edict to knock on a superior’s door instead of just bursting impetuously into the room was a peculiar one requiring explanation. But then his eyes strayed past Saitou’s lifted arm in a direction the officer realized might be somewhat dangerous, and a thoughtful expression took his face.

Cautiously, not daring to look behind him just yet, Saitou asked, “What is it?”

“You know…” Chou put one of his own gloved hands to his face, rubbing his chin with a finger. “I kinda like the new curtains.”

Now Saitou did turn and give the curtains — or at least one of them — a long, searching glance, and was able to assure himself that, with the opulent amount of cloth the things were made of, there was no hint of where Sano was hidden even to someone that knew he was there. Which meant Chou wasn’t making a snide comment but voicing an actual opinion.

With a faint smile as part of a thoughtful expression of his own, Saitou turned back to his subordinate and admitted at a deadpan, “They’re growing on me.”

This was for plaidshirtjimkirk’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “Established Saisa where Sano visits Saito when he’s working and kisses him in his office.” It was only a barely established relationship, though XD

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

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

The Solution

The 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).

Silly and Pointlessly Difficult

Silly and Pointlessly Difficult

After work, Saitou found Sano had taught himself how to leap up and perch on the top of the tallest vertical slat of the bridge near home, standing still high up like a long-leggèd crane or posturing ninja. He looked absurd, his gi and bandanna flapping in the evening breeze. But he jumped down, as Saitou began to cross, with a satisfied grin.

Of course Saitou must mock him for devoting so much time and effort to so silly and pointlessly difficult an undertaking, but even as he did, he realized the exercise was not only one of balance, which could benefit future combat, but it let Sano catch sight sooner, from that elevated situ, of Saitou’s figure coming t’ward him and the house they shared as of late through the growing dusk. It seemed meaningless, but the superficial hid unexpected depth.

Such too was Sano: an exterior often foolish and aimless screening intentions and a depth of character admirable and even delightful. This unexpected treasure in mind, somewhat to the bemusement of that same young man so complex and yet so simple, Saitou took his hand as they walked along, and said, “I love you, ahou.”

For author’s notes, check out this Productivity Log. I’ve rated this fic .

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

The Prevention of Gross Injustice

The Prevention of Gross Injustice

During the deep winter, having the wood stove on the arbiter’s platform was a distinct blessing. In late autumn, however, with a temperature chilly enough for a fire but not nearly low enough to justify the remarkable level of heat the stove produced in the immediate vicinity of Kenshin’s entire right side, he could never determine whether too hot or too cold was the better option. But since he now approached his fifth anniversary as an arbiter for the sovereignty and his requests to rethink the arrangement of the assessment hall had consistently been ignored, he doubted anyone would jump to accommodate him any time soon.

Too hot or too cold, he would cease to be bothered by the uncomfortably fluctuating temperatures the very minute this assessment became a little less tedious — that is, if they ever managed to get through the small fry. These consisted of acquaintances of the accused — from household slaves to employees of the young man’s father to ‘friends’ probably better described as ‘convenient drinking companions with no real depth of attachment’ — and Kenshin couldn’t think very highly of any of them.

Of course the avowal of slaves at an assessment wasn’t worth nearly as much as that of any person at liberty, since, caught between potentially vengeful masters and the law, they tended to say what they believed would best benefit them (or at least stave off punishment); but even the free and supposedly honest people that had been offering information thus far hadn’t struck Kenshin as particularly reliable. Half of them had sworn up and down that the accused was buried to the eyebrows in his father’s treasonous dealings, while the rest had maintained he’d taken no part whatsoever in them and was, in fact, the best guy in the world.

Kenshin found each style of avowal suspicious in this situation, and reflected wryly that liars would always lie. Respect for truth, most likely, would not be found among the undoubtedly numerous reasons any of them might want this assessment to go one way rather than another. Some of those reasons would probably come to light, bidden or unbidden, during their assessments, many of which Kenshin would also have to arbitrate. He didn’t greatly anticipate that.

This assessment, however, teased interest despite the frustrating tangle of dishonesty that had comprised its first hour and a half. The accused had a very handsome and honest face and a lively, compelling manner that could have predisposed anyone in his favor; his air of mingled annoyance and concern was understandable at the moment, too, given that, whatever his state of innocence or guilt, it must be disconcerting and worrisome to hear half the people he knew painting him as a saint while the rest decried his many evil deeds.

The queue of liars seemed, thankfully, to have come to an end with the latest one, whose earnest statement that, “Nobody who buys everyone drinks as much as he does could be a bad guy,” had the ring more of rote practice than of genuine feeling. As this particular young man was not in custody, he could go about his business freely when dismissed, and he gave the accused a casual encouraging wave on the way out. Neither circumstance forced Kenshin to rethink his opinion that the avowal had been more than a bit of an act aimed at freeing the frequent buyer of drinks.

Kaoru, overseer of assessments, watched the last of the riff-raff allowed out the exit, which was relocked behind him by the sentinel there, then glanced back to where a messenger had been waiting, patient and silent, beside the door near the back of the hall that led deeper into the building. At her movement, the man shook his head. She gestured her thanks, and the messenger imitated the latest witness by leaving the room and having the door locked behind him. Then Kaoru turned toward where Kenshin sat on the arbiter’s platform. “Looks like the father of the accused continues to refuse to avow.”

“All right,” said Kenshin. None of them could be happy about this, but unfortunately no inference could be drawn from it; conceivable motives came to mind in droves for someone to refuse to avow, whether the accused was innocent or guilty. It did decrease the amount of information the arbiter had to work with, but there was nothing to be done about it. The accused, Kenshin noted, merely appeared to have been expecting this; there was no guessing the exact significance of the deep breath he drew and released at hearing the news.

Again Kaoru glanced around the hall, a somewhat unnecessary movement as she stood at its head beside the arbiter’s platform and therefore had a clear view of everyone present. “The last witness will be here as soon as possible; there’s no telling how long it may take. Do you want a break, or would you prefer if Megumi questions the accused out of order?”

Kenshin’s eyes were drawn to the accused, who, where he waited in the care of a two-person armed escort, had twitched visibly at the mention of ‘the last witness.’ Evidently the final participant’s avowal would be the most important — or, at least, the information that had the accused most agitated. Curious and wishing to proceed, Kenshin said, “I would prefer to hear from the accused.”

With another nod, Kaoru also fixed her eyes on the young man. “Sanosuke of lineage Shishio, please step onto the witness’ platform.”

Unlike Kenshin’s platform, which was reached by a small flight of stairs in order that the arbiter might observe the proceedings from an elevated angle, that from which witnesses avowed was a single step up from the floor and mostly surrounded by a plain railing as if the witness were in a cage. This cage Sanosuke now entered, moving with a vigor that matched the energy of his gaze and general bearing, seeming somewhat loath about the upcoming questioning but with an evident determination to get this over with.

“Megumi,” Kaoru said, “the time is yours.”

The questioner had been availing herself, in between witnesses, of the drinking water on the table where the hall scribe sat recording what was said. Now she turned with her usual impassive gaze and began the traditional reiteration of the initial statement of the accused: “At the beginning of this assessment, you maintained your innocence of the accusation of complicity in the treasonous activities of your father Makoto. After the avowals we have heard from the previous witnesses, do you wish to change this statement in any way?”

Sanosuke scratched his head and appeared a little annoyed. “I don’t see why I’d want to change what I said because of any of that bullshit.” Then he threw a quick look, half penitent and half concerned, with an overlay of sheepish joviality, up at Kenshin. “Guess I shouldn’t swear in an assessment, huh?”

The young man was so winning that Kenshin couldn’t help a somewhat indulgent feeling as he looked down at him. It was Kaoru, however, as overseer, that replied: “You may not abuse anyone present, but otherwise we’d prefer you to speak as naturally as you can.”

The grin Sanosuke returned for this seemed relieved he hadn’t landed himself in trouble with almost his first statement, but still far more determined to get this over with than in any way happy to be here. Then he turned back to the questioner and said squarely, “So, yeah, I don’t want to change what I said. Still innocent of that.”

“Very well,” Megumi replied. Kenshin didn’t think he imagined a slight smile, if not on her face, at least in her bearing. It took a lot to compromise Megumi’s professionalism, but Kenshin knew her well enough that he could tell when she was hiding amusement. “If you are willing to avow on your own behalf, you will need to take the Oath of Honesty.”

Over the years Kenshin had seen many witnesses — even some he’d eventually declared innocent — display reluctance or discomfort regarding the Oath, so he knew the signs. And if Sanosuke had any problem repeating the ritual words after Megumi, swearing to speak the exact truth to the best of his ability and belief, he certainly hid it well. He was either completely ingenuous or an extremely convincing actor.

Megumi’s first question once the formalities had been seen to was, “If you were not involved in your father’s treasonous activities, surely you must at least have been aware of them?”

“Uh, not exactly,” Sanosuke replied. “I wasn’t really surprised when I heard what the accusation was, but I didn’t realize before that’s what he was doing.”

“So you always knew your father didn’t have the most solid moral code regarding business?”

“Regarding anything. ‘Always’ might be an overstatement, but, yeah, I’ve known that for years.”

“But you were not aware specifically of any criminal activity.”

“That’s right.”

Megumi excelled at her job of drawing from witnesses as much information as she could so the arbiter of the assessment could make the fairest judgment possible. And it not infrequently happened that she got a hint of some crime additional to or separate from the one in question; in such cases, she strove to clarify the situation as far as she could. Here, Kenshin could see, she was working to differentiate between the stated accusation ‘complicity in treason’ and the unspoken possibility ‘failure to report criminal activity,’ of which Sanosuke might still be guilty even had he never taken part in his father’s misdeeds.

“Would you tell us,” she requested, “what details you know about your father’s business?”

“Um, sure.” Sanosuke sounded a little skeptical, as if Megumi was asking for either a large amount of or some particularly dull information. “His main job is — I guess was — working with different factions all over the kingdom negotiating accords and shit. I always thought it was the most boring job I ever heard of, but I guess if he was secretly working with enemies of the sovereignty, that makes it more exciting. Probably more money in that, too… not like we ever needed more money.”

As Sanosuke went on in a very rambling fashion to describe his father’s work as he understood it, Kenshin was hard-pressed to restrain blatant laughter. Very little of what the accused had to say contained any significant detail, and some of it seemed so improbable as to suggest Sanosuke either knew next to nothing about the actual workings of Makoto’s employment or was, once again, an extremely skilled — and entertaining! — dissembler.

Megumi was a bit too deadpan as she asked her next question for Kenshin to believe her unaffected by Sanosuke’s amusing account. “You just recently turned nineteen, I believe. As a legal adult, how is it that you know so little of your father’s business?”

Sanosuke’s straightforward gaze strayed from Megumi’s face for a moment as if he didn’t want to meet her eyes. Tone equally abashed as he eventually looked back at her, he said, “Well, you know… up until just this last month or so, I never really cared about… serious shit. I mostly just fucked around and enjoyed myself. Dad’s been trying to get me into the business for years, but that was just so boring…”

“But I understand that changed when you turned nineteen. Your father finally managed to force some responsibility on you.”

“No!” It was the vehemence of annoyance. “Well, he tried, but that’s not what made me start thinking about things more seriously and shit. He just sat me down on my birthday and said it was time — ‘long past time,’ he said, asshole — time for me to start taking responsibility and learning how to run things and whatever, and said I was going to have to start doing some shit around the estate if I wanted to keep doing everything I liked doing. So all that did was make me really pissed at him.”

“And your new duties included the purchase of domestic slaves?” When Sanosuke replied in the affirmative, Megumi pursued, “And that was how you first encountered the sovereignty agent?”

It was the same discernible twitch as before. Evidently Sanosuke really did have some significant agitation relating to this person, who must be the final witness they were waiting for and was probably delayed on official business. Kenshin congratulated himself on having been correct about the interest level of this assessment, and waited in great anticipation, rubbing at his overheated right thigh and shifting slightly away from the wood stove, to hear the rest of the story.

“Yeah,” Sanosuke said. “Yeah, that’s how I met him.”

“Describe how that happened, please.”

“I went to the slave market looking for a kitchen girl, but I saw this guy — Saitou, the agent, who of course I didn’t know was a sovvie then — and I decided to buy him instead.”

“Why did you decide to purchase someone completely different from the type of slave you needed?” Megumi asked.

“I really didn’t want to be there,” grumbled the accused, “especially since the slave market’s open so damn early so you have to go first thing in the morning to get the really good ones. But dad made it pretty clear I wouldn’t get any more money or get to do anything I wanted ever again if I didn’t do what he wanted. So I was really pissed at him. I figured if I bought some slave who was totally not what we needed, it’d show him I wasn’t the right choice for that job and he’d let me off it. Plus it might make him mad, so it was sorta revenge too. Also the slave was really fucking hot, so, you know…” Sanosuke cleared his throat, blushing, and his eyes strayed from Megumi’s face again.

“So you purchased what you believed to be a slave” — Megumi was shifting smoothly onto a new track, Kenshin could tell, though Sanosuke probably couldn’t — “with the express purpose of raping him.”

Sanosuke’s hands had been lying on the railing in front of him, occasionally sliding idly from side to side, but now they jerked back toward his body as he stiffened upward, looking appalled. “What?! No! Of course not!”

“You did just say,” Megumi pointed out calmly, “that one of your reasons for buying the slave was that he was ‘really fucking hot.'” Her coolness made the quoted profanity sound very childish indeed, and Sanosuke flushed a deeper shade of red from an apparent combination of emotions.

“I don’t rape slaves, all right? That’s something my asshole dad does, not me! I mean, I know it’s something a lot of people do, but not me!”

This, Kenshin reflected, though it could not be entirely verified, was consistent with the attitude the Shishio household slaves had displayed toward Sanosuke in their avowals.

“I won’t say I didn’t totally want to have sex with him or that wasn’t part of the reason I bought him, but I always ask. I’d never force someone — I told him he could say no and it wouldn’t be a problem.” Sanosuke’s voice dropped to a mumble as his hands came down on the railing again and his gaze fell to the floor. “And he seemed like he was totally fine with it.”

“In what way did Saitou indicate he was engaging in sex willingly?”

Pensiveness now seemed to overcome Sanosuke’s chagrin, and he appeared, as he slowly drew breath and opened his mouth to answer, as if he wasn’t sure his explanation would make sense to his listeners. “He seemed so strong and so in-control…” Distinct admiration rang in his timbre. “It felt like, if he didn’t want it, he would’ve definitely said so. He didn’t really seem like a slave at all, and after a while I couldn’t even think of him as one. Sure, I gave him a job to do, but he was more like… I don’t even know. I didn’t know he was a sovvie, but from the way he talked I did get the feeling there was something else going on — like he had a reason to be there besides just that I bought him and brought him there.”

“And since you’ve discovered he did have another reason to be there, have you considered that Saitou might only have accepted your sexual advances because he believed it would endanger his position or even his personal safety to refuse you?”

Hotly Sanosuke replied, “I told him he could say no!”

“You were in a position of absolute authority at the time, and he was in the position not only of a slave and someone who needed to maintain cover, but someone who had never met you and couldn’t be familiar with your personal policy regarding slave rape. Did that never occur to you?”

Sanosuke looked stricken. “I… no. Shit. No, I… never thought of that. I really… really… didn’t feel like it was… I thought it was all just fine at the time, but… shit…” His eyes broke from Megumi’s again, fixing on the floor, and in this instance they did not re-ascend.

With a tone infinitesimally more gentle than before, Megumi shifted the subject slightly. “How did your interaction with Saitou proceed from there?”

“I… well, I had no real job to give him,” Sanosuke told the floor, “so I made him just a sort of odd-jobs man to do whatever muscle-work anyone needed. There wasn’t a lot for him to do, so mostly he just ended up… in… in my room.” He hastened on in a faintly defensive tone, “But we talked a lot! It wasn’t like we were just having sex all the time.”

“And what did you talk about?”

“He would never want to talk about himself. Obviously that’s because he was a secret agent all along, but at the time I just figured a slave didn’t have a lot of interesting stuff to say about his own life. So we mostly talked about me, and how I grew up, and what I liked to do. Oh, and about dad and his work.” Sanosuke’s mouth tightened into a frown before he went on more slowly, “I guess…” This point seemed to be novelly occurring to him here and now. “I guess he got a lot of information out of me, actually. I couldn’t have helped him with details, but what I said probably told him what to investigate and where to look and shit.”

Kenshin repressed another smile. If the vague and rather hilarious information Sanosuke had given earlier about his father’s business was typical of his elaboration on the subject, it might not have actually been remarkably helpful to the sovereignty agent.

Megumi suggested next, “You seem to regret these interactions.”

With a faint sigh Sanosuke admitted, “Yeah, I guess I do. I was thinking before that we had some good times, and he had some important stuff to say to me, but I guess I was… always kindof a dick to him. I didn’t think it was rape, and I thought it made sense he didn’t talk about himself… but I was always the one in charge, and he probably couldn’t say no, and I just talked about myself on and on like a total ass.”

“You say he had important things to say to you?”

“It seemed important at the time.” Sanosuke shrugged, and the casual gesture did not nearly suffice to downplay words he obviously meant very intensely. “When he got to know what kind of life I always had, he had things to say…” He chuckled faintly and with a mixture of bitterness and appreciation. “He was fucking rude about it, but he always got his point across. He just made me kinda realize how I was wasting my life. I was already not really thinking of him as a slave, so that’s probably why I didn’t notice how weird it was that this supposed slave — who’d been a slave his whole life, supposedly! — knew so much about… life stuff.”

So that was the real reason Sanosuke had started ‘thinking about things more seriously and shit.’ Even from the brief description of their interactions, Kenshin could see what an impact this Saitou agent had made on the young man.

“Was it your inability to see Saitou as a slave that kept you from determining he was a spy?” was Megumi’s next question.

“Yeah, that was probably part of it.” Sanosuke scratched his head, appearing a little easier now they’d left behind the question of whether or not he had committed rape — especially on someone he obviously admired. “But also I didn’t want to ask him a bunch of questions in case I blew his cover. I knew he was up to something, and I kinda really wanted to see him do whatever he was there to do because I figured that’d be one in my dad’s eye.”

“So your attitude toward your father had not changed?”

“Actually it did change.” The young man’s brow furrowed as he recollected. “I kinda went from thinking of him as this mean old dad who was forcing me to do work and threatening to take away my allowance and shit to thinking more about how I grew up with this terrible person who probably kept me from being… something better, you know?”

Kenshin had a feeling he could guess at the origin of this alteration in attitude. It was a stroke of luck Sanosuke had run into someone that could cause that revolution in him when he had. Really, it was a stroke of luck that laziness and thoughtlessness were (to all appearances) the worst of Sanosuke’s bad traits, given the circumstances of his upbringing.

“But, yeah, as far as wanting to get back at my dad for whatever I was mad at him for? That didn’t change.”

“But you still didn’t question Saitou about his intentions?”

“Yeah, like I said, I didn’t want to ruin the plan. Whatever the plan was.”

“I wonder if you didn’t want to ruin your sexual arrangement with Saitou as well.”

To Kenshin, an experienced arbiter that had worked extensively with Megumi in the year and a half she’d been questioning at his assessments, it was obvious why she returned to this topic: though slave rape was a matter of hazy legality and Sanosuke had been unaware of the true identity of this supposed slave, still sexual assault of a sovereignty agent was serious — another potential crime for which Sanosuke might be condemned — and it was essential the issue be examined thoroughly.

But to Sanosuke this probably wasn’t nearly so evident. His eyes had previously, gradually returned to the questioner’s face and his expression had cleared somewhat, but at this latest statement his brows drew back together as his gaze fell once more. “Yeah, there was probably some of that too. I didn’t want to change things with him. I didn’t want to scare him off.”

“Given the way things turned out, do you wish now that you had questioned him?”

Sanosuke scraped a foot, at which he stared fixedly, back and forth on the wooden flooring of the platform. “I don’t really know. I’m afraid shit would have gone down just the same even if I had.”

“So you don’t consider yourself in any way responsible for your father becoming aware that Saitou was a spy?”

“He didn’t know Saitou was a spy–” Here Sanosuke interrupted himself impatiently in order to answer the actual question right in the middle of his protest– “no, I wasn’t responsible for that! — but if dad knew Saitou was a spy, I bet he would have just killed him right then.”

“Are you aware of your father having committed murder in the past?”

“Not for sure, but I wouldn’t put it past him.” Sanosuke’s voice grew somewhat distant. “Actually I always wondered, when my mom died… not right at the time, but later I wondered… did she maybe cheat on him, and he…” His shoulders lifted somewhat helplessly, and Kenshin guessed this dark speculation was one he’d never been able to put into words before. The most lazy, resentful teenager had certain lines he might not want to cross, even in his own mind, about his father.

“You may want to hold onto that thought,” Megumi remarked somewhat sardonically, “for when it’s your turn to give avowal at your father’s assessment.”

Sanosuke scowled, and, forcing the scribe to lean forward abruptly to catch what he had to say, grumbled something about maybe just completely refusing to show up, then fell into an unhappy silence. Kenshin doubted the young man looked forward to the referenced event, even if he knew the assessment of Makoto would be little more than nominal, a last courtesy offered to someone already condemned in all but the final legal sense and doomed to high-security imprisonment for the rest of his life.

“But to return to the compromise of Saitou’s situation,” Megumi went on. “How exactly did that happen, if you had no part in it?”

“‘Exactly‘ is tough,” Sanosuke admitted. “I just noticed one morning that I couldn’t find Saitou anywhere, and I kinda wanted… to find him… so I was wandering around looking, and my dad noticed and called me into his room. He asked me what I knew about Saitou — called him ‘that slave you’ve been fucking’ all annoyed — so I told him — and it was totally true! — that I didn’t really know anything about his past. Of course I knew a lot about Saitou personally by then, but I knew that wasn’t what dad wanted, so I didn’t bother saying that. Anyway, dad said he noticed Saitou could read (which I never noticed because I was too busy ordering him around and talking about myself like a little shit), but of course dad got suspicious.”

That such a revelation would render a person like Makoto suspicious made sense, Kenshin reflected. In a house-slave, a certain degree of literacy might not be totally unheard-of; but in the type of person Kenshin was envisioning based on the description given of this agent thus far — probably someone, in the eyes of a slave-owner, pretty distinctly intended for manual labor — the ability to read would seem decidedly out of place. And anything out of place might set off alarms in the head of a paranoid traitor to the sovereignty.

“He said he wanted to question Saitou — whatever that actually meant — so of course I was starting to freak out a little bit on the inside. But he was going away on business for a couple days and couldn’t put it off, so he couldn’t get to questioning Saitou right away. He said he already had him locked up, and he needed to stay that way — with a guard — and I wasn’t allowed to see him.”

Just as locks and guards came up in the avowal, Kenshin noticed the sentinel at the inner door step aside and allow a man to enter the room. At Kaoru’s nod of acknowledgment Kenshin had to assume this was the agent, Saitou, their final witness and a significant part of this interesting drama; so he said nothing as the newcomer silently passed rows of benches standing empty at this private assessment and took a seat at the end of one in front. Sanosuke, his back to the door and apparently having missed the overseer’s nod, had noticed none of this.

Megumi was asking, “Do you believe your father ordered you not to contact Saitou while he was gone because he was suspicious of you as well?”

“Nah, I don’t think so. Dad was just trying to get back at me for having Saitou around in the first place. We’d already had this big argument about me buying a slave just for… uh, personal reasons… instead of what we actually needed, and he wasn’t any less pissed about it at this point… but I think it was just the usual ‘why can’t you take life seriously?’ bullshit, not him thinking I was working with Saitou on some secret mission or something.”

“And did you obey your father in this instance?”

“Hell, no! The second he was gone, I went straight to see Saitou. I was trying to think of a way to get him out of there, but I didn’t have any ideas that weren’t totally crazy, and he didn’t have any ideas either, and I was really frustrated… I told him I was sorry, since it was basically my fault for buying a slave just because he was really hot and to annoy my dad… Saying sorry didn’t fucking help, but it was all I could do for him right then. Well, I mean, besides…” Sanosuke cleared his throat.

Kenshin rather expected Megumi to probe further into this latest implication of sexual activity, but what she asked instead was, “Your father had left him under guard?”

Sanosuke scowled. “This guy Usui, who’s worked for my dad for a while — he’s this asshole thug — he was guarding the room when I got there, and even though I supposedly wasn’t supposed to see Saitou, Usui let me in pretty easy. I didn’t think that was weird at first because I was distracted, but later I did wonder why he did that. Only then, as soon as his guard shift was over, he showed up in my room saying he wanted to make a deal.”

Sanosuke’s lip curled in distaste and discomfort. “He knew me and Saitou were fucking. I mean, it probably didn’t help that… Well, anyway, he figured I might be willing to do something for him if he agreed to help Saitou escape.”

“Do what for him?”

“Um, basically… fuck him too.”

Megumi looked a little taken aback. “Why?”

Sanosuke flushed. “You don’t have to make it sound like it’s impossible to imagine or something.” At these words, one of the guards that stood a couple of steps behind the witness’ platform was forced to turn an inadvertent laugh into a cough. Kenshin noticed Kaoru giving the man a reproving look.

“What I mean,” Megumi said composedly, “is that allowing a prisoner to escape would be a dangerous risk for this Usui to take. Why would he jeopardize his position working for your father for the sake of sex?”

“You have to understand…” Again Sanosuke looked as if he feared this explanation might be a little beyond him. “Usui’s always wanted dad’s business. Not just like he wanted to work for him; he wanted to take his place. He probably knew my dad was doing illegal stuff, and he wanted to be doing it himself, I guess. Anyway, the weird thing was that dad always knew what Usui wanted, so I never could figure out why he kept him around — friends close and enemies closer and all that, I guess? So Usui could never do anything open to try to get some advantage over my dad; he had to do sneaky shit.”

“And he would have believed sleeping with Makoto’s son would give him leverage in the future?”

“Yeah.”

“All right.” Megumi nodded her understanding. “But why would you believe such an obviously untrustworthy person would keep his end of any bargain?”

“I didn’t really have any choice!” protested Sanosuke. “I couldn’t just let my dad do whatever he was going to do; I had to try something. And, I mean, I have… a lot of sex… most of the time, so what was a little more if it might help with something? And, hell, it did end up working, didn’t it?”

“Did it?”

“Well, yeah, he did keep his end of the deal, didn’t he?” Sanosuke’s expression gradually became pensive. “Actually that’s kinda weird, now I think about it. He really isn’t the kind of guy to keep a deal like that… but since he did, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

In order to allow her to draw out information as effectively as possible, Megumi, like any questioner, was given an overview of events relevant to an assessment prior to interrogating witnesses. And Kenshin could tell now that what she’d just heard did not entirely tally with what she’d known before entering the hall today. As usual, however, surprise was absent from her voice as she wondered, “Usui himself told you he had released Saitou?”

“Actually I haven’t seen Usui since then. I figured he was keeping his head down until after dad got back so one of the other guards could take the blame for Saitou escaping. They were really freaking out, too, when it turned out Saitou was gone — one of ’em ran away, and I really couldn’t blame him. And then the second dad came home, the whole place was just suddenly swarming with sovvies, like they knew exactly when he was going to be back, and we were all arrested. But, yeah, if you need me at Usui’s assessment — he is getting assessed, right? — I can tell you everything I know about him.”

In direct contrast to how he’d reacted to the idea of making avowal at his father’s assessment, Sanosuke seemed to be taking a grim pleasure at the thought of disclosing everything he knew about someone he disliked so much more straightforwardly. And there was a touch of tightness around his mouth, a tilt to his brows, a fleeting haunted look in his eyes that he seemed to be trying his best to hide, indicating (to Kenshin, at least) that, no matter how bravely he’d implied this encounter had merely been an additional instance of something he had quite a lot of, he was more distressed about his interactions with Usui than he was letting on verbally.

If Megumi had also noticed how much Sanosuke had really suffered by fulfilling his part of the bargain he’d made, still she chose to wrap things up and not pursue the matter. And when the questioner had declared herself finished with the accused, Kaoru took over by wondering whether the arbiter had anything to ask.

Kenshin smiled at her. Both she and Megumi could probably tell how engrossed he was in this assessment — for one thing, he hadn’t made a single request regarding the nearby overhot stove — just as he could read Megumi’s little reactions of surprise and the outrage Kaoru had been subtly evincing about the Usui business. He shook his head.

Kaoru nodded again, then turned back to Sanosuke. “The sovereignty thanks you for your avowal, Sanosuke of lineage Shishio. You may take your previous place.” She gestured to where Sanosuke’s escort still stood behind the platform.

Though he’d clearly been depressed by several items brought up during his avowal, and though he appeared understandably wearied by the ordeal, the young man’s energy of movement didn’t seem to have decreased; he hopped down the single step and turned with alacrity to face the guards that had come to meet him. Kenshin had been watching meticulously for how Sanosuke would react to his first sight of Saitou since before his arrest, what might happen when their eyes met, but the seat Saitou had taken was to the right of the platform, and Sanosuke had stepped down on the left and again entirely missed his presence in the room.

He could not long remain in ignorance, however, as Kaoru next said, “Our final witness will please step onto the platform.”

Even had Kenshin not been specifically observing, he doubted he could have failed to catch sight of Sanosuke stumbling abruptly on his way back to the open space where the accused and his escort stood and then turning in a movement that incorporated a deep breath and a significant stiffening of spine. Sanosuke still could not meet Saitou’s eyes, however, since the agent, having taken his place on the witness’ platform, now faced away from him.

As the assessment proceeded, Kenshin divided his attention between the final witness and the accused. Saitou took the Oath of Honesty, and in doing so immediately displayed a disposition seemingly the polar opposite of Sanosuke’s: perfectly composed, with no emotions tied up in this business whatsoever. And he wasn’t what Kenshin would have described as ‘really fucking hot.’ Of course Kenshin had little interest in men — the elegant questioner or the lively assessment overseer were more his speed — but even by his admittedly vague standards of what made a man attractive he found this one a little too harsh. But there was no accounting for taste.

“To begin,” Megumi was saying, “for clarity: you are an agent of the sovereignty transferred here from another location in order to investigate Makoto and his business dealings.”

“That is correct,” replied Saitou.

“You had arranged to pose as a slave in order to enter Makoto’s household, because you had some information that led you to believe he would be inclined to buy you.”

“Yes. The scar on my chest, which would be visible on a slavers’ platform, would draw associations with an old enemy of Makoto’s. We believed he would not be able to resist purchasing me.”

Kenshin noticed Sanosuke nodding slowly as if this information, though he hadn’t put its pieces together before, added up to a reasonable conclusion.

“But in fact,” Megumi pointed out, “it was Makoto’s son who purchased you. Do you believe it was a coincidence that Sanosuke had taken over the task of buying household slaves just at the time you were planted in the slave market?”

“Yes, I do.” Saitou’s demeanor made Megumi’s seem warm and casual by contrast.

“Sanosuke tells us that when he brought you home and sexually propositioned you, he indicated you had the option of refusing. Is that true?”

With a curt nod Saitou replied immediately, “He made it as clear as someone in his position at the time possibly could.”

“Would you have felt safe rejecting Sanosuke’s advances?”

Here, Kenshin was interested to note — though he couldn’t be entirely sure he wasn’t imagining it — Saitou hesitated briefly before answering, “No. I would have believed doing so would endanger my position in the household.”

A quick glance at Sanosuke showed a stricken expression so poignant as to infect Kenshin somewhat with its sudden misery. And guaranteeing the continuance of that unhappiness, Megumi persisted on the dreary topic by asking Saitou, “Do you believe Sanosuke took advantage of you?”

Saitou frowned, and spoke in a pensive tone that, though as cool as before, held a touch of darkness. “Slavery has allowed mankind new and more incisive ways to objectify and abuse each other. Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not. No one who has not acted as a slave can realize the layers of oppression that can be inflicted on one human by another, nor how humans change when they are put into the positions of master and slave. It’s a system the sovereignty would do well to examine closely in the near future.”

It was such a lengthy and unexpectedly moralizing answer that everyone stared at him in silence for a moment. Then Megumi gave her head a tiny shake and said, “I wonder if you aren’t trying to avoid the question.”

“I apologize,” Saitou replied dryly, “if I got a little too philosophical.” Much more bluntly he continued, “I believe I took advantage of him by cultivating a relationship under entirely false pretenses and using him for information.”

Watching Sanosuke, Kenshin believed he could pinpoint the exact instant of heartbreak — during the last syllable of ‘entirely false pretenses’ — and felt his own heart go out to the young man. It was a shame Saitou never looked around and saw the face of the accused, on which rampant emotions played as openly as children on a lawn.

Kenshin also noted, however, that Saitou, for all his cool bluntness, had still avoided the actual question Megumi had asked. He probably did believe some advantage had been taken, and now had deliberately eschewed specifically saying so — Kenshin didn’t think it was mere wishfulness on Sanosuke’s behalf that made him believe it — in order to spare the accused the pain of the admission. Whether that would have hurt more or less than ‘entirely false pretenses,’ Kenshin wasn’t sure.

Megumi seemed satisfied, at least for the short term, on the point of whether or not Saitou had been sexually assaulted, for she moved on to another part of his interaction with Sanosuke. “Is it true that Sanosuke was not responsible for the betrayal of your intentions to Makoto?”

“Yes, it is true. That was a slip of my own.”

“And did Sanosuke contact you during your imprisonment in an attempt to determine a way to free you?” When Saitou confirmed this as well, she went on. “Sanosuke reported that neither of you had any idea how you might be able to escape your confinement; yet you were able to escape soon thereafter, so clearly you did have some idea.” Saitou nodded. “Was it because you didn’t trust him that you didn’t confide your plans in him at that time?”

Kenshin, accustomed to seeing the story of events twist and evolve as it passed through various witnesses at an assessment, was not disturbed or surprised at hearing a slightly different account of Saitou’s escape from the Shishio estate than Sanosuke had presented. But Sanosuke was looking distinctly confused, and that expression only intensified as Saitou answered, “No, not because I didn’t trust him. It was because I believed it would be safer if he were not involved in my escape attempt.”

“Then you were unaware,” Megumi suggested, “of the bargain Sanosuke was making with Usui.”

“I was unaware.” Now there was a discernible, if still minimal, hint of emotion, of tightness, in Saitou’s words and bearing. He had never once looked around at Sanosuke, but at this moment Kenshin believed a certain muscular tendency indicated he would like to. “I was unaware of that,” he repeated stonily, “until just now at this assessment. If I had known of Usui’s intentions, I would have escaped and killed him much earlier than I did.”

Abruptly Sanosuke seemed to understand how things had really happened, and it might only have been possible to detangle the mess of emotions on his face with a decent stretch of time and some fine tools. It looked as if he might burst out with some surprised and unhappy exclamation, contrary to the rules of the assessment hall that forbade witnesses not on the platform from speaking, but he managed to control himself, and the mouth he’d opened snapped back into miserable closure.

Kenshin got the feeling Megumi wanted to be done with this; she probably felt the dreary atmosphere emanating from Sanosuke as well as the arbiter did. “You spent nearly a month in the Shishio estate,” she said to Saitou, “and must have become fairly well acquainted with Sanosuke and his lifestyle. Do you believe Sanosuke had any connection with his father’s illegal dealings?”

“No, I don’t believe it. Sanosuke has merely been lazy and useless and a waste of significant potential for most of his life, not actually criminal. In fact, whether he intended it or was even aware of it, he assisted in my investigations and should be commended.” Though this statement was spoken with the same lack of hesitancy as most of Saitou’s statements, it was also even more coldly professional, and Kenshin could tell Sanosuke drew very little comfort from the proposed commendation. It was evident, moreover, that Sanosuke believed Saitou had no personal interest in him and regarded him only as a facet of a job he’d been busy with that was now about ready to wrap up.

Whether or not Megumi, like Kenshin, remained far less convinced than Sanosuke was, she now turned to Kaoru and declared herself finished questioning this witness. And Kaoru wondered formally, as before, if Kenshin had anything he wanted to ask.

Kenshin stared at Saitou for a moment, and came to the conclusion that it was unlikely he had any clearer idea of the situation that Sanosuke did. He hadn’t been present for the more emotional parts of Sanosuke’s avowal, hadn’t even looked him in the face this entire time; and Sanosuke’s described behavior during their near month together had been very… frivolous… certainly nothing to indicate his interest in Saitou had been anything beyond physical, casual, transient — and that in a context of master and slave not easily translatable into normal interaction.

Saitou didn’t know what a difference he’d made in Sanosuke’s way of thinking. He didn’t know that what Sanosuke had done in an attempt to free him had been a real and deliberate sacrifice rather than the throwaway action the young man had implied it was. He didn’t know Sanosuke had never really been able to see him as a slave — especially given that, based on Saitou’s comment, ‘Even the best master treats a slave differently than he treats any free man, whether he realizes it or not,’ that perception of Sanosuke’s had not been strong enough to be plainly demonstrable.

Kenshin, having leaned far toward ‘completely ingenuous’ and away from ‘extremely convincing actor,’ fully planned on declaring Sanosuke innocent of the crime of complicity in his father’s treason. He wouldn’t even need to spend his mandatory ten minutes considering the matter; rather, he could concentrate on cooling down his right side for a bit. He did consider Sanosuke guilty of some misconduct in his sexual relationship with Saitou, but that behavior, Kenshin was sure, arose from an ignorance and thoughtlessness that Sanosuke was at least on his way to relinquishing. Besides, Saitou had clearly reached a philosophical breakthrough regarding the system of slavery and the treatment of slaves during his time posing as one, so it wasn’t impossible that Sanosuke might have some assistance in considering matters of authority and consent.

And Sanosuke would need assistance in more than that. He’d just had his entire attitude about life turned upside-down, been arrested for and accused of treason and displaced from his longtime home in the process, had his father (whatever his father might be to him) exposed as the worst of men and finally come to terms with his own suspicions about him, and discovered that he himself might be a rapist and was probably at least, as he’d put it, ‘a total ass.’ He needed someone strong and steady and wise in his life right now, and Kenshin had a pretty good idea who that person could be.

If those two ever actually spoke to each other again. Given the level of misconception Kenshin believed he currently observed between them, he wouldn’t be surprised if they went their separate ways from this hall and became little more than bitter memories in each other’s lives.

But what was an arbiter for if not the prevention of such gross injustice?

“I do have a question for you,” Kenshin said, fixing Saitou with a calm but penetrating gaze. “And I would like to remind you, before I ask, that you have taken the Oath of Honesty.”

Saitou looked wary. “Of course.”

“What,” Kenshin wondered in a friendly tone, “are your precise feelings toward the accused at this time?”

There was a long silence during which Saitou’s narrowed eyes remained locked with Kenshin’s, and the arbiter feared the witness might attempt to refuse to answer. Of course if Saitou believed Sanosuke had been doing nothing more than enjoying casual and convenient sex with a perceived slave, he would feel pathetic admitting to any deeper sensibilities. No one liked declaring unrequited love, and the strength to be completely open about something so personal, something that could be turned so easily into a weapon in callous hands, was not one everybody possessed.

But Saitou rallied with a nearly invisible breath and squaring of shoulders. He kept hold of Kenshin’s gaze with his eyes as if it were a lifeline and stated, in just as indifferent a tone as he’d used for anything else he’d said here today, “I have developed an emotional attachment to the accused that, though I can’t call it ‘love’ at this time, is more than friendship and certainly more than I would feel for someone I was merely using to further my investigative efforts.”

A choking sound issued from where Sanosuke stood, but Kenshin was not looking in that direction; he’d felt it more courteous to maintain that eye contact Saitou so clearly needed to make his declaration. Now he gave a slight smile. “Thank you,” he said, and stood, making an automatic and almost unconscious movement away from the wood stove as he did so. “I will withdraw to deliberate, and return with my arbitration in no less than ten minutes’ time.” As Saitou twitched slightly toward the step down from the witness’ platform — on the side away from Sanosuke, of course — Kenshin added, “Please remain where you are until I return.”

Saitou nodded, and stood very still and stiff where he was without looking around. Kenshin met first Megumi’s eye and then Kaoru’s as he turned for the door into his cloister, and each gave him a subtle smile of her own. They knew him too well; they must be aware both of what he’d been aiming for out here and what he planned on saying when he came back.

The arbiter’s cloister was normally unpleasantly chilly at this time of year, but today it was a nice change after the wood stove. Kenshin closed the door behind him and stretched his arms and back, rolling his shoulders and yawning. Then he drew out his pocket-watch to begin counting down.

He hadn’t arbitrated such an interesting assessment in quite a while; and he felt that when, ten minutes from now, he returned into the hall and declared Sanosuke innocent of all criminal behavior at this time, and dismissed both the accused and the final witness to go about their business simultaneously, he would have done a good day’s work.

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

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

Commonality

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).

First Kiss

Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Why did Saitou kiss Sano on their way into Shishio’s fortress? Can Sano figure it out now Saitou is dead?


Two steps earlier and Kenshin would have seen. Two steps later and Yumi would have. Two seconds shorter and Sano wouldn’t have been quite shocked enough to keep quiet; two seconds longer and, again, Yumi would have seen.

Saitou certainly had a good sense of timing.

This wasn’t Sano’s only thought on the matter, but it was one of the more prevalent. The universe seemed to have handed Saitou that moment, that perfect opportunity, to surprise and confuse the hell out of Sano, and Saitou had not been remiss in accepting.

And now he was dead.

How long he’d been awake Sano couldn’t be sure; dream and waking thought tended to blend rather uncomfortably when you were wounded. Had he been dreaming about Saitou and was now consciously thinking about him? Or had he been awake, contemplating, and slipped into a dream that still gripped him? Honestly it didn’t matter much; such metaphysical questions paled in comparison with the greater query, Why had Saitou kissed him?

Sano sighed (a gesture that, he thought, indicated fairly well he was awake). He could recall the exact feeling of Saitou’s lips on his, the racing of his heart, the shock that had suffused his entire body, the taste and the smell… but why? Had it been an apology for all the ill treatment? A premature profession of a secret passion? A goodbye preceding what Saitou knew was coming? Or perhaps just a whim?

Saitou was an asshole. This Sano’s logic told him with alarming frequency while these reflections meandered through his head. Saitou was an asshole, and why he’d done anything he’d done during his lifetime could not be a question worth asking. Nor Saitou, the asshole, worth pursuing, nor the feel of his kiss a sensation worth dwelling on. But Saitou was also intelligent and persistent and honorable. Not to mention attractive as hell, but what did that matter? The guy was dead.

The ability to predict and plan for the moment of his own death was something Sano would not put past Saitou’s impressive skill, so perhaps it had been a sort of goodbye. The concept of a ‘goodbye kiss’ was not unusual, after all… just totally bizarre in this context. Because why a kiss? From Saitou? Though it didn’t seem too out of character for Saitou to have left Sano with an insoluble mystery in an aggravating memory just to drive him crazy after he was dead…

And Sano couldn’t regret it. After all, apology, proposition, or farewell, it was the only one he’d gotten.

He’d felt for some time that Saitou’s disliking of him, strongly expressed though it was, really didn’t exceed Saitou’s disliking of anyone else… that Saitou might, perhaps, not even dislike him much at all. It had been a significantly shorter time since he’d started thinking his disliking of Saitou might not be as intense as he’d all along believed. Was that merely because he felt bad about Saitou’s death? Was he cutting him slack because they’d fought side by side and Saitou had eventually given his life for the cause? Sano couldn’t be certain it was only this and not something more, because he’d never bothered attempting to analyze his feelings before.

That analysis was not proving very successful now. His hands ached, his head ached, his entire body ached, and he was operating in a state of perpetual weariness; the mental fatigue that came with this topic clouded the issue further, until he could barely think straight. And wasn’t it a moot point in any case? With Saitou dead, did it really matter how Sano had felt about him?

As little able as he was to distinguish sleep from waking at any given moment of this contemplation — he knew he’d had some real sleep since coming back from the fortress, and acknowledged vaguely that it was now the next day, but more details than this eluded him — he felt it was about time for another long attempt at some real rest… the kind that didn’t involve surreal memories of Saitou’s hand gripping his jaw, holding him in place for precisely four and a half seconds, and what the hell that meant. Afterward, maybe seeing how everyone else was doing and getting a more coherent version than they’d had on their return of what had happened in their absence would distract him from what he’d been thinking about ever since that return.

Just as he was lying back down, however, from the seated position in which he’d been dully looking around the room he’d been occupying in what remained of the functional chambers of the damaged inn, there came a knock at the door. Most likely, he thought, here was that hyperactive girl trying to find anyone to talk at when everyone was as busy resting as she should be after the ordeals of the last few days, but he retracted this speculation when the knock was not repeated.

Despite its probably being someone else, then, he considered not answering, pretending to be asleep — but only for a moment. He might as well see what whoever it was wanted. Something interesting (distracting) might be going on that would be even better than rest for him at present, since if he actually managed to fall asleep he couldn’t be at all certain what type of dreams he would have (or continue to have). So he called for the unknown to enter.

It was one of the two Oniwaban guys, Kuro or Shiro (visually they were perfectly distinct, but Sano sure as hell couldn’t remember which name went with which man), and all he’d come for, he explained apologetically when he saw Sano lying down, was to bring up a note that had just been delivered to the Aoiya. Thinking he’d been right not to pretend to be asleep, Sano thanked the guy and accepted the folded paper, though he didn’t open it until he was again alone.

Its purport was merely that he should come immediately to a certain room of a certain inn, and the unfamiliar handwriting, strong but neat, had a dictatorial slant to it that matched the style of the language.

What was this? Whom was it from, and what did it mean? The writer had put Sano’s full name on the outside, so it certainly hadn’t been misdelivered, but they sure hadn’t bothered to put their own name at the end of the message. With the conflict over and Shishio dead, what kind of meeting would someone feel the need to summon him to at this point?

None of this mattered much, he reflected as he rose from his futon and looked around for something to wear. Pursuing this mystery would be an engrossing pastime, and in that light the note was little less than a godsend.

Given how imperiously it ordered him to come, Sano thought its writer might at least have provided directions to the area of town where his destination was located. He intended to go, and go immediately as instructed, but there was no guarantee, in this unfamiliar city, he would be there anytime soon. That was fine with him — a relaxing walk with thoughts of this unknown communicator to keep him from what he’d been agonizing about was exactly what he needed — but how the sender of the note would feel about his probable lateness he couldn’t guess.

It had rained significantly sometime while Sano had been unconscious, in pain, deliberating, and analyzing, and the brisk wet air under the silver cover of clouds made Kyoto feel like a different world than the one he’d walked through with Kenshin and Saitou to reach the path to the shrine. Of course, that one of those men was dead had an impact on the scene as well. Every death made the world a different place; Sano wasn’t sure why this one should make so much more of a difference than most. Maybe because it had been preceded by that damned inexplicable kiss.

But he really must stop thinking about that. Whatever secretive and dangerous circumstances he was preparing to put himself in would not be improved by thoughts of the taste of Saitou’s breath through barely parted lips, and wasn’t the entire point of going to force his mind away from that topic? Firmly Sano started running through names of potential senders of the note and potential reasons for their having sent it.

Though he’d come up with a few scenarios whose pieces more or less fit together, though sometimes only roughly, by the time (after having separately asked three people for directions that had turned out to conflict in various aspects) he found the stupid inn he was looking for approximately ten thousand miles away from his starting point, nothing he’d thought of seemed terribly likely. This wasn’t terribly important, since the distraction had been unobjectionable, and now he was finally here he could concentrate on what this situation actually turned out to be rather than his speculations about it.

The place looked normal enough, Sano considered as his gaze swept across the second-floor windows, all of them in perfectly natural and innocuous positions, where the room he needed must be located. Of course an enemy could be waiting up there to attempt to kill him silently, or possibly the entire inn was in on the ambush or whatever it was… Sano couldn’t think what enemy it was likely or even possible to be, but it wasn’t impossible. Still, he didn’t really mind walking into ambushes; one against many was his specialty. He would have preferred to be less tired and incapacitated, but everyone needed a handicap now and then, right?

When the employee inside, upon hearing of Sano’s errand (just that he was supposed to meet someone, not that he anticipated an attack), merely directed him politely as if this was expected, Sano’s suspicions intensified. He saw no one all the way up the stairs, and the second-floor corridor was empty, but he listened hard at every step for anybody that might burst out of one of these rooms or try to sneak up behind him. And when he reached the door he needed, after double-checking the note he then thrust into his pocket so as to have his hands completely free, he tensed for action before knocking. He couldn’t help hoping there might be a really fun fight waiting for him in here, and he could lose himself in those good old emotions and forget about everything else for a while.

The door opened, and Sano found himself staring up into narrow golden eyes.

“I sent that message over two hours ago. What could possibly have taken you that long?”

Sano could have told him to fuck off, that Saitou was not entitled to his presence in a timely or even an untimely fashion, that Saitou should feel damn lucky Sano had bothered to respond at all to an anonymous note mysteriously ordering him around, that he might have been in the middle of something and had taken his sweet time responding. He might even have told the truth, admitted he was unfamiliar with the layout of Kyoto and had made one or two wrong turns on the lengthy trip over. But he actually said nothing, at least at first.

For the world seemed to go simultaneously unnaturally sharp at all edges and blurred in the middle, while the saturation of every color fluctuated wildly. A sudden pressure in his head combined with an erratic jumping of his heart made him feel as if he was suspended by the latter in a haze of surprise and other, less definable emotions above an unknown abyss.

The first he knew he was swaying was when Saitou caught him. The feel of the man’s hands on his arms, hot and alive, jolted him out of his momentary syncope. And when the officer said with unexpectedly warm sarcasm, “That happy to see me, are you?” it worked further to bring reality back.

“You asshole,” Sano gasped, and, neither content to leave it at that nor able, just yet, to articulate anything more meaningful, repeated himself in a stronger tone. Finally, after what seemed at least an entire minute during which Saitou had drawn him into the room, guided him to a seated position on the mat, and dropped down beside him, he felt up to continuing. “You survived. You fucking survived, and let me think you died.”

To this there was no response, and Sano needed none to know the rebuke was unjust. Everything around him signified this was almost the earliest possible moment he could have been called here: near the futon not far off were indications of a doctor’s having been in attendance until recently; a thoroughly consumed meal’s empty dishes, though neatly stacked, had not yet been removed; and a packet of what looked like official paperwork had not yet been untied or attended to… indeed, that Saitou was here at an inn at all, rather than already back at a police station plugging away again, seemed meaningful.

And the very instant Sano’s brain had finished up these thoughts, he was overcome once again with the abrupt memory of Saitou turning suddenly toward him, gripping his chin, and kissing him firmly for four and a half seconds. From the cold and light-headed whiteness it had undoubtedly attained during his brief weakness, Sano’s face transitioned instantly to a burning heat that was probably brilliant red. Was that why Saitou had brought him here? To explain his strange behavior? And what would Sano say when he did? He never had figured out how he felt about it.

He opened his mouth to demand to know why Saitou had kissed him, but found he couldn’t quite bring himself (indeed, didn’t even really know how) to tread such vastly alien territory. What emerged instead was, “So how did you get out of there? Seemed like there wasn’t even much ‘there’ to get out of when we were leaving.” The words sounded surprisingly rational, considering how different they were from what he really wanted to say, what he really meant.

“There was a second exit on the other side of the canyon,” Saitou replied, “though it did take some work to get to.”

“Shit! Did you have to climb burning wreckage and stuff?” Though Sano was legitimately alarmed by the mental image of that escape, what he meant by the question was, ‘Why the hell did you kiss me?’

“In between dodging it,” Saitou nodded.

Impressed rather in spite of himself, the younger man gave the older a more thorough visual examination than before. Like Sano, Saitou had abandoned for the moment the ensemble, now rather the worse for blood and battle damage, he generally favored; he wore a more traditional kimono and hakama from under which bandages peeked in bright contrast to the outfit’s dark grey and black. And like Sano, Saitou had about him the kind of passive pained weariness that comes after the first long rest following injury and exhaustion. But in general, remarkably, “You don’t even look all that much more hurt than you were when we left.”

Saitou’s lips lifted at one corner as if he could tell this near-praise was delivered almost against Sano’s will, but he probably couldn’t tell that what Sano would rather say was, ‘So why’d you kiss me?’ At any rate, his reply was, “It looks like you managed to stumble back without hurting yourself too much more as well.”

“Excuse me, dickface,” Sano retorted, instead of asking why Saitou had kissed him, “I am capable of walking across town without fucking dying.”

“But apparently not without taking two hours.” It was irritating how attractive those thin lips could be even when arranged in such a mocking expression.

“You know, you’re lucky I came at all. An unsigned note telling me to come to some strange place for some reason it didn’t bother to mention?” Sano was pleased to make one of the points he hadn’t been able to when he’d first arrived, even if the point behind that point was, “And now you’re going to tell me why you kissed me, right?”

“Certainly nobody with an iota of sense would have come in response to a note like that,” Saitou agreed with mock solemnity. “I was counting on that.”

“Bite me,” Sano growled. “Or at least goddamn explain why you kissed me yesterday.” Yesterday? Had it really been only yesterday? He felt like he’d been dwelling on it for a lifetime. With an effort he forced himself to ask, “Why the hell did you even call me here, anyway?”

“I thought you might want to know I was still alive.”

“You really thought I’d care, huh?”

Rather than point out that, just minutes before, Sano had grown faint at the revelation and then profanely reprimanded Saitou for not telling him sooner, the officer merely said, “I thought it might at least be interesting to you.”

“You know you could have said that in the note, though, right?” Annoyed that he had reacted so dramatically, whether or not Saitou had called him on the discrepancy, Sano sounded more surly than he actually felt. “I didn’t have to come all the way across town when you could have just written, Hey, I’m still alive, and actually signed it.”

“But I couldn’t kiss you from all the way across town.”

Having gone so long without bringing it up and then made inroads away from the topic, then giving this statement so blandly, Saitou took Sano completely and shockingly by surprise, and he’d leaned in and almost connected with Sano’s lips before the stunned young man could react to the words or the gesture. As in the previous instance, Saitou’s nearness and intoxicating smell overwhelmed him, and Sano was for an instant entirely paralyzed.

And then, jumping as if stung, he jerked back and raised a hand to block access to his mouth. “Fucking–” he gasped. “No, just– stop that!”

Though the time that passed between this broken admonishment and Sano’s subsequent words was the span of a breath and no longer, it was enough to observe, interpret, react, and feel a great deal. For Sano thought he read in Saitou’s slight straightening movement toward his previous position some disappointment and resignation, and just that was enough to provide a few answers or at least conjectures to similar effect.

Saitou had summoned him here not merely to let Sano know he was still alive, but to reiterate the overture he’d made at the gates of the fortress… and in that brief moment before Sano explained himself, Saitou interpreted Sano’s impetuous reactive words as a rejection, and was disheartened by it. This was simultaneously, even in that fraction of a second, empowering, pathetic, and irritating to Sano.

He could never have predicted that, having (or perhaps being) something Saitou wanted, he would be able to hold over Saitou’s head his ability to deny him that desire. The lightning-fast realization that he didn’t want to deny Saitou that desire didn’t change the fact that, with this unexpected influence in mind, they were on much more equal footing than they’d ever been before. Much more equal footing was much more solid footing, and Sano felt abruptly much more sure of what to say, much more able to deal with this scenario.

And even that merest hint of disappointment he thought he saw in Saitou made him feel bad for the man. Who hadn’t, after all, experienced fear of rejection, fear of losing or even entirely failing to gain a desired prize? Saitou had too much pride to display anything beyond just that faint hint that couldn’t be hidden, but just that faint hint had been enough to make Sano pity him and feel more disposed toward his cause.

And this was annoying. A normal person, someone not intolerably arrogant and overconfident in their own powers, would perhaps say words to the effect of, ‘I like you; let’s have a romance.’ There might be presents involved, or at least pleasant conversation or other signs of friendship preceding the declaration. But not Saitou Hajime. Saitou would kiss a guy out of the blue, unsolicited, unwarned-for, unexplained, then allow his victim to suffer agonies of indecision and confusion, then try to repeat the performance without ever giving any other overt signs of interest or even good will… and then make a grippingly pathetic display of his manfully repressed sorrow at the apparent failure of his scheme. What a marvelous jerk.

And yet Sano didn’t want to say no, and did feel something in response to Saitou’s disappointment.

He might have tried to play with that power he suddenly felt he had over the other man, but couldn’t quite bring himself to evoke a possibly even stronger dismayed reaction in Saitou. Though Saitou would certainly deserve that, it might get Sano thrown out on his ass before he could admit he was just messing around, making the whole situation much more difficult and uncomfortable. Also, he maybe wanted to hasten, as best he could, the moment when Saitou would kiss him again.

So he lowered his hand, leaving his lips unguarded, and said loftily, “We need some First Kiss rules before you can do that.”

Saitou’s lean toward Sano disappeared completely as he sat straight again, eyebrow raised. “And the previous kiss doesn’t count why?”

Sano’s glare was one of righteous indignation. “Because you didn’t explain anything — like why the hell you did it — and then you went off and died.”

Any and all signs of unhappiness had vanished from Saitou’s demeanor, and the skeptical expression on his face took on a touch of amusement. “Setting aside the fact that neither of those things makes this our first kiss, are those the rules you want? ‘Tell you why I’m kissing you,’ and ‘don’t die afterwards?'”

Pensively Sano replied, “Also you have to promise you’re not just fucking with my head — because you’ve pretty much been nothing but a complete bastard all along to me, so it’s hard to believe you kissed me except to mess with me.”

“Is that all?” Saitou asked with an exaggerated air of patience.

“Um, no, also–”

“These are a lot of rules for something that’s only going to happen once.”

“Well, yeah, but a First Kiss is important!” Sano too was impatient to get on with this thing, but he meant what he said. “It’s a big moment, and it means a lot — it sort of sets up how everything’s going to go from then on!”

“All right.”

“So when you beat me up outside Katsu’s place, you were saying…”

Saitou’s brows both rose as Sano proceeded to elaborate the fourth rule. Presently, with a slight sound of frustration that might have been his forbearance snapping, he leaned forward again and cut Sano’s words off entirely by kissing him.

As Sano’s lips worked slowly against Saitou’s, opening gradually at the advancement of a tongue that tasted more of soba and green tea and less of cigarettes than he would have expected, every nerve in his body seemed to intensify in its receptiveness so his injuries throbbed like his heart. He felt sensitized and dizzy and overwhelmed, and he clutched at Saitou with painful hands as the man pushed him slightly backward with the fervor of their connection.

This was Saitou being an tyrannical asshole again, but Sano could not have complained even if he’d had breath and opportunity to do so. As a First Kiss it was acceptable, even superior, and as a representation of the rest of their relationship, whatever that turned out to be, Saitou muscling past any preexisting animosity to startle and incapacitate Sano with something new and shockingly wonderful seemed neither inaccurate nor undesirable.

When after some time they divided like a chemical bond breaking, forming two entities from what had previously been one, Sano was panting heavily and almost painfully and watching little darting, sparkling dots at the edges of his vision. He was definitely in no physical condition, at the moment, for kisses that passionate; if he had been, he would probably have flung himself on top of Saitou at this point and demanded more… never mind that Saitou’s physical condition seemed even worse than his.

“I did that,” Saitou said somewhat breathlessly, “because I like you. And I have no intention of dying any time soon. And if this weren’t such a bad time for it, I would drag you onto that futon over there and prove that I’m not just fucking with your head.”

The rush of hot blood mobilizing through Sano’s body at these words and at the look in Saitou’s eyes, making him feel all over again as if he might faint, only served to reiterate what he’d just been thinking and Saitou had essentially just said: that, despite how much both of them would love to continue this experiment, this was not a good moment for it. All the interesting possibilities that had arisen between them must be put off until another time.

“I might drag myself onto that futon over there and take a nap,” Sano muttered.

“No. I have paperwork to do, and I can’t have that temptation lying there the whole time.”

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at what was essentially a compliment no matter how coolly Saitou had delivered it, but he was concurrently annoyed. “You want me to walk all the way back across town again?”

“I didn’t say I wanted you to.” Saitou threw a look half regretful and half irritated at the bundle of papers.

“You and your stupid dedication,” Sano snorted.

Saitou’s gaze returned to him, the quirk of his lips and the narrowness of his eyes now clearly teasing. “Think you can manage it in less than two hours this time?”

“Probably not. I know the way better, but I’m in worse shape now — which is your fault, by the way.”

Without responding to the accusation, Saitou just said, “You’d better get going as soon as possible, then.”

“Fine!” Only Saitou would start something like this and then dismiss his partner like that. Sano climbed laboriously to his feet, somehow managing not to reel once fully upright, and stuck out his tongue at the smirking policeman. Then he turned toward the door. When he’d opened it, before actually leaving the room, he glanced back briefly, perhaps to offer a goodbye, though whether it would be friendly or belligerent he couldn’t be quite sure.

His breath caught, however, and he found himself incapable of speech of any kind when he observed Saitou smiling at him as Sano had never seen him smile before — with a look of fondness, of genuine pleasure, of satisfaction untouched by mockery. In the face of this interesting unknown he’d somehow unlocked, Sano clutched at the doorframe in an unexpected repeat of his earlier imbalance as he blushed madly… but he did manage a return smile before departing.

He made his way back to the Aoiya in continued dizziness and a mixture of buoyancy and discomfort. His injuries hurt more severely than before, and he was far more exhausted than he should have been after a mere two leisurely walks (even with an earth-shattering kiss between them), but his fluttering heart seemed to keep him half-hovering off the ground, and his emotions, though not significantly more coherent than they had been earlier, were now such a pleasant tangle as to give a vigor he could not otherwise have expected to his steps.

By the time he’d reached the blue roofs, some of them even more damaged than he was, and let himself in and found his way back up to his room as quietly as possible, he was happily, fuzzily contemplating both the general future with its bizarrely unexpected pleasures and the very immediate prospect of some thorough rest and recuperation almost this very moment. Though famished and still curious about what his friends were and had been up to, he must consider sleep his absolute first priority; with one contact of lips, Saitou had managed to enforce that.

Sano thought he understood, now, the meaning of the original kiss that had so baffled him at the time. It had been neither apology nor goodbye, as he’d speculated (though there had probably been in it some smugness at the thought of how much it would puzzle and annoy Sano until it could be explained); it had been no declaration of deepest affection, nor yet a meaningless whim; in fact it had been nothing more nor less than a suggestion of something they might try and see how they liked it. Which meant Sano didn’t need to figure out how he felt about Saitou, since the experiment was not over; actually it had just begun.

Currently he felt pretty damn positive about him, despite how much Saitou had annoyed him even during the pleasant parts of their conversation. Currently he felt pretty damn positive about everything. Getting some proper sleep was going to be a lot easier now.

For a second time, however, just as he was lying down and preparing to rest, in this instance far less worried about (indeed, rather looking forward to!) the type of dreams he might have when he did, there was a knock at the door. Also for a second time he speculated it was probably Misao, and also for a second time was proven wrong.

It was the other of the two Oniwaban guys, Shiro or Kuro, and the déjà vu of debating over appellations augmented that of seeing the note just delivered to the Aoiya. That it had arrived directly on Sano’s heels reiterated one of yesterday’s startling points: what an uncannily good sense of timing Saitou had. And Sano’s full name on the outside of the folded paper was so identical to the first, he had to pull the other out for comparison before he could believe there actually were two notes. Then, once again having waited until he was alone, he opened the message.

I thought about it, and that one may not have qualified either. We had better discuss your other rules and try again tomorrow. Come by at around lunch time.

Sano lay back down in triumph and weariness, hugging the refolded note to his chest. That was right; that was exactly right. Saitou recognized his First Kiss requirements, that they hadn’t all been elaborated upon, and that another attempt must be made at meeting them. And if he and Sano didn’t manage it tomorrow, they could easily give it another shot the next day. Eventually, when wounds had started to heal and bodies had regained some stamina (and perhaps when paperwork had diminished a trifle), they could try more than once in a day. His standards were fairly high on this point, after all; the number of attempts it might require could not really be fathomed at this juncture.

He plunged toward sleep happily anticipating something he would not previously have considered a matter of question, something he would have taken entirely for granted before yesterday: the probability that he would never have a proper First Kiss with Saitou.


This fic is dedicated to liveonanon and W. Solstice for the explosion of joy they had recently caused in my life at time of writing.

I’ve rated this story . The part where Sano reacts to Saitou reacting to Sano blocking his attempted kiss is my absolute favorite. The rest of the fic is pretty good, but that part is genius, if I do say so myself. Too bad I can’t say the same about the illustration XD

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


He Can Be Taught

He Can Be Taught

Section 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Aoshi, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Yo, tori-atama!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano just grunted.

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

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

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

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

“I love you too, Kenshin.”

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

“All right, Kenshin!”

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

…for a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sanosuke!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He started to plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Again, why should they be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano blushed and scowled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about it?”

“I mean you owe me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you take a look around?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have so many fucking books!”

“You have so few words in your vocabulary.”

“What the hell language is this?”

“Can you even read Japanese?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You always reach these conclusions so quickly.”

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

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

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

“Tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“Ohhh,” Sano moaned, “scaaaryyy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A black eyebrow arched. “You smoke?”

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

“Doesn’t that bother you?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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



2>>

Section 2

That wasn’t the last time Sano spent the night at Saitou’s house. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t the last time Sano spent the entire day and then the night at Saitou’s house. The routine developed quickly, almost enforcedly: wake up, usually with a throbbing skull and aching body that was bizarrely more encouraging than dismaying; do the chores, which became easier and quicker as he developed a viable pattern, but never seemed like less overall work; practice whatever Saitou had ordered, by which he was reminded of Yahiko’s ten thousand repetitions of some move or other at Kaoru’s bidding; eat dinner, often with Saitou, who hadn’t shown himself nearly as averse to feeding Sano on a daily basis as Sano had expected him to; and then spar in a somewhat one-sided, vigorous and educational manner until he passed out and was able to rest for the next day’s fresh start.

In one corner of his mind, he’d rather expected Saitou wouldn’t be willing to maintain this arrangement for very long. They still annoyed each other, after all, and now Saitou not only gave up time and energy to Sano’s goals, but also food (alternately known as money) to Sano’s admittedly rapacious stomach. He even, despite what he’d said the first evening, allowed Sano the very occasional cigarette. And he got his house cleaned and his laundry and dishes washed, sure, but still was probably doing this only out of a passing interest in beating Sano up routinely for a while, and must eventually get tired of it. Either that or he wouldn’t trouble himself too much about the teaching, and that aforementioned beating up of Sano would be the full extent of their training together.

But this, Sano found, was not the case. Saitou might not be the most personable teacher ever to harass a student, but he knew very well what he was doing. His criticism, though irritating, was always accurate and comprehensible. He showed Sano how better to balance his weight so as to be ready to receive attacks as well as deal them out; he helped Sano recognize subtle changes in an enemy’s stance so he might have some chance at knowing what was coming. He gave cogent explanations and practical demonstrations, and even refrained from taking too great an advantage, with those iron fists of his, when Sano entirely failed to predict and properly react to the next incoming blow. They hadn’t yet progressed to a point where Saitou was ready to draw his sword, but that Sano was making progress couldn’t be denied, and Saitou didn’t seem to be tiring of the pastime.

Only after almost three weeks of this did Sano realize he hadn’t seen his friends, or even Tokyo in general, in quite some time. And though he was more than a little pleased at the maturation of his plan, he felt all of a sudden like a hermit. His scummier friends probably thought he’d finally lost his life by picking a fight too tough for him (which, in a way, was true), and surely Kenshin must have noticed his absence this time. So he made a special effort to rise early one morning, got the chores done as quickly as possible, and left the house in an anticipatory mood for the Kamiya Dojo.

It was odd, but with all the work he did these days — cleaning, practicing, and dealing with Saitou — he’d hardly given Kenshin a thought lately. Not that the rurouni had never crossed Sano’s mind, but there hadn’t been nearly as much leisure to dwell on him, and Sano hadn’t once… well… imagined him as he had during those days in jail. He hadn’t dreamed about him much either, but that might have been because ‘sleep’ and ‘unconsciousness from too many blows to the head’ were difficult to distinguish one from the other nearly every night. But since the whole rigmarole aimed at eventually getting Kenshin’s attention, that goal could easily take the place of obsessive thought.

Presently he caught sight of a familiar figure not far ahead of him, she having just turned from another street onto the one he walked, perhaps heading the same place he was. As quietly as he could, he ran up behind her and slipped his hands over her eyes with a sly, “Guess who!” But he withdrew his arms quickly the next moment as he felt his fingers grow slick with moisture.

Megumi gave him a furtive glance like a wounded animal even as she began hastily wiping her eyes dry with a sleeve of her doctor’s smock. “Oh, Sanosuke,” she acknowledged. And that was all. No real greeting, no pointing out that he was the only person impudent enough to play that childish game with her and therefore she had no need to guess who it was, no inquiry as to where he’d been for the last couple of weeks, and no explanation of her tears.

“What’s wrong with you?” he wondered. And though he didn’t say it without sympathy or concern, perhaps he could have worded it a bit better.

She turned away from him and resumed her walk. “It’s nothing,” she replied as he jumped to follow.

“Someone like you doesn’t cry about just nothing,” he prodded.

“Even you should realize I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Talk about what? Seriously, what’s wrong?”

Her face screwed into a tight, painful grimace. “I knew you were a jerk,” she spat at him, “but I didn’t think you’d go this far.”

“Look, I’m trying to be nice here.” Sano’s concern gradually gave way to anger. “You don’t have to get all bitchy on me!”

“If you really haven’t been paying attention all this time… if you really don’t know how I…” Her expression hardened so her face was transfigured into a mask of anguish, skepticism, and disgust. “Or are you just taunting me? I thought some things were beneath even you, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Why the hell would I… taunt you… about what? I really truly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Very convincing. Maybe you are just that clueless.” Megumi quickened her pace. “There’s no need for you to walk with me any further.” And the tears never ceased their steady trail down her cheeks as she left a confused and very angry Sano behind.

He stared after her until she disappeared around another corner, then muttered, “What the fuck was that…?” He looked around for a stone to kick, but, not finding one, just kicked at the ground instead. Here his first sojourn out of his new little life was already turning out weird and unpleasant.

Well. Kenshin would cheer him up. The rurouni might even know what was bothering Megumi, which might help Sano eventually patch things up with her. Maybe. Not that he cared. Clueless about what?

The first thing he noticed as the familiar outer walls of Kaoru’s property came into sight was a dejected-looking Yahiko sitting in a little ball outside the doors. Glancing up at the high sun and down at the glum boy, Sano was puzzled; shouldn’t Yahiko be practicing about now? He usually was at this time of day, and it took some serious distraction on Kaoru’s part for him to get out of it. Of course, Sano was truanting on his own practice time at the moment, so he couldn’t really accuse.

“Sano!” Yahiko yelled, jumping to his feet and running to meet him. “Where have you fucking been?”

“You better watch that mouth,” Sano grinned. “You’re starting to sound like me, Yahiko-chan.”

“Oh, you–” Yahiko cut himself off without bothering to vent his frustration at the honorific. “Never mind. Where have you been? You haven’t been around here for so long, you haven’t heard the news!”

Stopping just outside the doors, Sano looked at Yahiko askance. He couldn’t quite tell what the expression on the kid’s face meant. Was it unhappy? Frightened? It was definitely agitated. Agitating news, then… and Megumi was crying somewhere across town, and had expected Sano to know why. He suddenly gripped Yahiko’s shoulders and demanded, “What’s happened?”

“Calm down,” Yahiko protested, trying to shrug the heavy hands from him. “It’s not like something happened, exactly…” There was a touch of resignation to his demeanor in addition to the agitation.

Sano didn’t understand. “Well?”

“All it is is that Kenshin and Kaoru are getting married.”

Kenshin and Kaoru are…

Kenshin and Kaoru are getting…

“Ittaai, Sano! Get your hands off me! Hello?! Sano! Let go!”

Kenshin and Kaoru…

Kenshin…

Feeling somewhat dizzy all of a sudden, Sano finally released the grip that had been mercilessly squeezing poor Yahiko’s shoulders. He straightened and thrust his hands into his pockets, where they immediately clenched into fists. His teeth ground with a horrible sensation, which was perhaps the reason for the sudden painful pounding in his head. It didn’t explain the painful pounding in his chest, but you had to start somewhere.

“Sano?” The boy’s voice sounded tentative now. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, kid; it’s just a surprise, that’s all; nothing’s wrong.” Sano knew he spoke a little too quickly in a little too-high-pitched a tone, but it was the best he could do. He felt like he’d just been kicked in the balls.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Not recently… So, when’s the wedding?” His attempt at sounding casual failed miserably, and Yahiko’s head had practically started to smoke with frustrated curiosity. Smoke… Sano suddenly wished for Saitou’s presence, just so he could beg a cigarette off him.

“Something like three months,” Yahiko said, still staring at Sano’s face with his jaw thrust out contemplatively. “I don’t know the exact date.”

Sano had just reached down to ruffle Yahiko’s hair and thank him, then turn and walk away to find a wall somewhere to pound his head against in an attempt to beat away the pain and perhaps improve his equilibrium. But at that moment a voice called from inside the dojo grounds: “Yahiko? Yahiko, where are you?”

“Coming, Kenshin!” the kid replied as he glanced in that direction. This gave Sano, in addition to a hard shiver down his spine, the chance he needed to escape. He heard Yahiko behind him wondering where he was going, but the query faded as Sano pelted away as fast as he thought he’d ever left the Kamiya Dojo before.

He could probably run forever. The pounding of his feet seemed to mix with his heartbeat in a drumming rhythm that punctuated his shock and despair: Kenshin! and Kaoru! Kenshin! and Kaoru!

So she had won. And Sano hadn’t even really gotten started yet.

This was what he got for acting slowly, for putting things off, for living a lifestyle that left him little recourse for the plan he’d conceptualized and the end he wanted to achieve, for being a lazy good-for-nothing, a pathetic little boy with no talents, no future, no personality. He deserved to lose Kenshin… but was Kaoru any fitter to win him? He decided to keep running forever… or at least until he came to an ocean, where he could end it all like the miserable bottom-dweller he was.

He had not yet reached an ocean, however, when he changed his mind and headed for a bar instead.

***

Saitou ate slowly, occasionally scowling but trying not to. He really shouldn’t, he kept telling himself, be annoyed at Sano’s absence. Just by looking around he could tell the young man had done the chores, and any time Sano chose to spend away from Saitou’s house thereafter could only hurt his own cause, not do any damage to anything Saitou cared about. And it was only natural that he should want a break after eighteen days of the rigorous routine they’d fallen into. But it would have been polite to inform Saitou of such a plan before carrying it out, so Saitou could make his own plans for the evening.

Not that Saitou would have. If he wasn’t required to stay late at work or go out on some spying venture after dark or attend some event, he cherished his evenings as the only time he could relax and think about something other than the state of the country. Well, he never really stopped thinking about the state of the country, but at home he could at least allow other considerations to take center stage. And perhaps he’d grown more accustomed to having company over and after supper than he’d realized, and didn’t appreciate being abandoned. He left the dishes for Sano.

Probably because he’d developed a new habit of exercising just before bed, Saitou found himself very restless — far too restless to sit quietly reading. He stalked back into the great room and went through some moves, but apparently it wasn’t enough. Wasn’t the same. Glowering, he returned to the study.

Paperwork, though nothing he particularly relished, at least usually had the power of seizing his full attention since it reflected the pursuits to which he was devoted, but even this, tonight, was insufficient to occupy him. He decided in his frustration that he might as well just go to bed early. As he stripped down to nothing in his bedroom, he couldn’t help feeling a little confused about his own state of mind. When had he ever been so bound to a routine that he couldn’t function when it was disrupted? This was stupid.

It seemed he’d barely fallen asleep when his ever-wakeful instincts warned him of someone standing outside at the front door. Footsteps sounded loud and clumsy on the porch, and there was a fumbling at the latch. With a soundless dexterity inversely proportional to that of the unknown party, Saitou rose, slipped into yesterday’s pants, took sword in hand, and moved toward the hall. The intruder had the way unlocked by now, but seemed to be having difficulty getting through it. Sliding the bedroom door open a fraction, Saitou peered through into the faint light cast from outside.

Then he dispensed with secrecy, flinging the door fully open with an impatient gesture and stepping out. “Ahou, what are you doing here?”

The figure dimly silhouetted by starlight in the doorway reeled in startlement, clutching at the frame as Saitou’s sharp voice assaulted him. After a moment, appearing to remember who Saitou was and where they both were, he slurred out in reply, “Wz comin’ to do th’ chorzz.”

Saitou moved toward Sano, grimacing as he caught the remarkably strong smell of sake. Reaching out a bare arm, he seized Sano’s gi and yanked him inside, tossing him carelessly to the floor as he closed the door with his other hand. “Get your drunken ass in here before you wake up the neighbors. Do you know what time it is?”

Not bothering to pick himself up, Sano whined something unintelligible in as miserable-sounding a tone as Saitou had ever heard from him. The officer stalked past him into the great room and lit a lamp, waiting for the moron to get to his feet and follow. Eventually the moron did, unsteadily and with his head hanging, and, staggering into the middle of the room, collapsed again into a heap.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Saitou said, looking down at him, “that this is how you choose to spend a night off. Attack any walls this time?”

From where he’d buried his face in his arms, Sano made another wretched sound, and Saitou was a little startled to realize what it portended.

“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, moving a bit nearer.

Sano looked up, eyes clouded and tears streaming down his face, and almost wailed, “Ke’shin’s ge’ing married!”

His annoyance suddenly tempered by amusement and perhaps even some pity, Saitou knelt down. He reached out to punch Sano’s shoulder, though the blow and his subsequent tone were a little softer than usual. “That was inevitable, ahou. Even you must have seen it coming.”

Without warning, Sano broke down entirely, sobbing his heart out. More surprising still, he threw himself forward onto the other man, burying his face once again in his arms, but this time in Saitou’s lap. Though taken aback, Saitou made no move to forbid Sano his little drunken bout of self-pity. In fact, he had to combat a sudden extremely unexpected desire to stroke the spiky locks close beneath his hands that had risen in his initial surprise. The gesture probably wouldn’t have helped to comfort Sano in any case.

When Sano’s wailing eventually subsided, his sobs shaking less of his body and his state more propitious for hearing anything said to him, Saitou asked him calmly, “When is the wedding?”

“I dunno,” came Sano’s muffled voice. “Yah-Yahiko sayziz in three monsur sothin.”

“Then all this does is give you a deadline,” was Saitou’s businesslike reply, “and an incentive to work harder.”

Sano sat up, gazing lopsidedly at him. “Harder?” he echoed. “I’m nafuckin ge’ing anywhere!” His lip trembled. “I’m nalernin; I’m jussa stupid kid; I’m…”

“While I would have to agree that you are a stupid kid,” Saitou interrupted, “you’re wrong if you think you’re not learning. You’ve come much farther since we started than I could have expected.”

The brown eyes widened, and perhaps grew a shade less bleary. “Serious?”

“Yes,” Saitou replied with conviction. “Now go to sleep.” He leaned forward and pushed Sano hard, easily sending him to the floor. Standing, he moved to the hearth where the folded blanket Sano used for sleeping here generally stayed, and threw it at him. “Since I know you’re the kind of idiot that never gives up, I know you’ll show your usual resilience and get back to work tomorrow.”

“Buh Saitou…” Sano clutched at the blanket like a child with an indispensable toy, looking up at the wolf despairingly.

“Shut up and sleep,” Saitou commanded as he moved toward the lamp to put it out. Despite the harshness of his words, his tone was almost kind; it surprised even him. “You’re drunk, and you’re not thinking straight.” Certainly Sano wasn’t, to bury his face in Saitou’s lap!

Sano’s compliance was evinced by the silence, but for sniffling and a slight shuffling of blanket, that accompanied the click of the lamp’s snuffing, and Saitou returned to his bedroom in relative peace.

***

All right, he’d now been awake for twenty seconds at the most, and had already done a lightning-speed search of his memory in order to confirm that this was the worst hangover he’d ever had.

Yes – it – was.

How the hell much had he drunk last night? And why the hell had he gotten that drunk? He didn’t dare move for fear of making it worse, nor open his eyes to what felt through his lids like the light of mid-afternoon. He wasn’t even sure where he lay, couldn’t remember a thing about the entirety of yesterday. His head felt far worse than usual after a spell even of heavy drinking, his bladder swollen to twice its usual size, and his stomach threatened to do what it never did and actually regurgitate something. Also, where was he, and what had happened last night?

Well, the surface beneath him seemed to be a hard floor, and the blanket atop him smelled clean and felt soft. These combined clues led him to believe he’d slept at Saitou’s house. Why did he have a gladiatorial hangover at Saitou’s house? Saitou wouldn’t have allowed a drunken Sano into his house, would he? Ah, but Sano had a key. So that explained how he’d gotten in… but what time had that been?

He didn’t remember training yesterday, and the pain in his head wasn’t the type that usually came from Saitou’s fists. Some extremely blurry images of wandering around town becoming increasingly drunk were beginning to trickle back. People he’d talked to… acquaintances he’d had drinks with… in bar after bar after bar… after bar… why?

Then there’d been Megumi, right? She’d been crying and wouldn’t tell him why. And Yahiko, who’d been sitting outside the dojo for some reason, and…

“Shit!”

In a single rapid, jerky movement he sat up, his eyes springing open as he remembered, and immediately fell back to the floor with a loud groan, pulling the blanket over his face.

Kenshin and Kaoru! How could he have forgotten?

Well, the multiple jugs of sake might have had something to do with it.

So he’d been so miserable yesterday after hearing the news that he’d run off and gotten drunker than he’d ever been, then somehow found his way back to Saitou’s house for no reason he could comprehend in a more sober state, and collapsed here. Saitou must have been irate. Nothing later than about the fifth bar could Sano remember, but he’d be willing to wager he was in for a more intense beating than usual later. He’d better get the chores done quickly… especially if it was, as he’d guessed upon first awakening, mid-afternoon; he could probably start now and still not be quite finished before Saitou came home.

But he seriously didn’t want to get up. Wow, this one was bad. And he doubted Saitou had any of the ingredients for his usual remedy.

But if he didn’t get up soon, there was no chance he’d be done in time, and Saitou might refuse to train with him. Since Sano was already probably in trouble for skipping out last night and then barging in drunk at whatever wee hour, he doubted the wisdom of further angering the officer. As much of a bother as it was, it seemed he would have to act like a responsible adult, get up, and do his job.

The great room blazed cruelly bright despite the shouji not letting in any more light than usual, which was yet insufficient preparation for actual daylight; making his way to the necessary facilities outside was a tortuous process. Even once he’d recovered the safety of indoors, he still squinted hard as he shuffled into the kitchen to see if anything might be lying around that he could make half a breakfast of. It must actually be half a lunch he sought by now, but he didn’t care what the meal was called as long as it was edible. Saitou usually left at least some rice around…

What he didn’t usually leave around was a single cigarette atop a box of matches in the cupboard next to the tea jar.

Sano stared at the thing for what were probably minutes, though he kept no track of time in his efforts to fight his overall discomfort and make sense of what he saw. The thought that finally sluggishly struck him was this: Saitou never took a cigarette out of the package without smoking it. And he kept his matches in a desk drawer in the other room. There was simply no reason in the world for the presence of this solitary cigarette and box of matches in this cupboard at this time… unless Saitou had intended Sano to find them there. And there wasn’t any reason for that either.

He tried to tell himself Saitou had meant to smoke this after breakfast, or that there was some other unfathomable rationale behind its being here like this, but he knew the officer’s habits too well by now to think he would ever put one cigarette and some matches in the cupboard like a portent… or a present. There was obviously nothing for it but to smoke the thing.

So did this mean Saitou wasn’t mad at him? What a miracle for his hangover, anyway. Maybe Sano had explained about Kenshin’s engagement, and Saitou was just being… who the hell did he think he was kidding? Saitou just being sympathetic? Just being a decent person? Just proactively trying to comfort Sano? Beyond nonsensical.

But he enjoyed the hell out of the cigarette.

Later, having finished washing up after what appeared to be last night’s supper and this morning’s breakfast, reentering from dumping the dirty dish-water, he could tell by the fresh scent of tobacco that Saitou was home. Unsure what to expect, he hung around fidgeting by the back door until the officer returned to the great room, then tried his hardest to sound casual as he greeted him.

Saitou eyed him, said nothing, and moved into the kitchen to start making supper.

Shit. Maybe Sano was in trouble after all. “Sorry for ditching practice last night,” he tried.

Still the officer remained silent.

“I didn’t do it on purpose.” Was that a touch of panic in Sano’s tone? He fought it off as he continued, “That was just how things worked out.”

Finally, more or less easily, Saitou broke his silence. “Some temperance might be advisable, but, considering the circumstances, I think you can be forgiven this time.”

A pressing feeling of concern suddenly eased out of Sano’s chest, and he realized that his smile was the first he’d worn all day. “Seriously? I thought you were going to kill me!”

Far too much amusement sounded in Saitou’s tone as he replied, “I thought about it at first, but after your little crying fit I didn’t have the heart.”

“Crying fit?” Sano echoed hoarsely.

“You don’t remember?”

Mutely Sano shook his head.

Saitou merely laughed, obviously enjoying this. But Sano wasn’t. Just how drunk had he been? ‘Fit’ might be a malicious exaggeration, but he didn’t think even Saitou would invent such an episode wholesale; some tears must have been involved. In front of this guy, of all people? What potentially embarrassing things might Sano have let slip during such a lapse in control?

“What did I say?” he asked before he could think of a more diplomatic way of finding out.

“You confessed your own stupidity, among other things.”

What other things?”

“Just some pathetic wailing about Himura, I believe. It was rather late,” Saitou added pointedly; “I can’t be expected to remember your every word.”

Wondering what to say next (and certainly not about to say, “But I bet you do, you bastard”), Sano remained silent for a moment. He still couldn’t be sure whether Saitou was mad at him or just having fun being a jerk as usual, nor what should be done to allay the man’s possible ire. Finally, “Well, sorry about that,” he decided on.

Saitou made no reply.

Glancing at the tofu that waited on the counter to be worked into tonight’s meal, Sano volunteered, “Why don’t I help you make supper?”

“I think I prefer my kitchen in one piece.”

Sano bristled, forgetting his attempt at penitence. “Hey, jerk, I can cook just as good as you can!” When the only response was a skeptical sound, Sano strode forward and seized a knife, turning toward the tofu.

“Careful with that,” the officer cautioned. “It’s called a ‘knife,’ and one of the edges will hurt if you touch yourself with it.”

“Very funny, asshole.”

Saitou grinned and made a conciliatory gesture. “If you think you can mange it, ahou, go ahead.”

A little later, when they sat down at the table, instead of starting right in on the meal, Sano watched intently as his companion did so. He was confident Saitou would confess what an excellent cook Sano was and admit he couldn’t possibly be upset with him any longer, and then everything would be fine. But Saitou merely continued eating without a word or any change in demeanor.

Finally Sano couldn’t stand it. “Well?”

With a mildly dubious expression Saitou said, “Outside. I should think you’d know where it is by now.”

“I mean the food,” Sano growled. “I’m a good cook, huh?”

Saitou looked down at his supper with a soft, “Hn.”

“What the hell ‘hn?’ What do you think of it?”

“I think…” Saitou continued to stare pensively at the food in front of him. “I think I will add making supper to your list of chores.”

Sano’s jaw dropped. That was not the commendation he’d had in mind.

The corners of Saitou’s lips twitched, but he prevented the expression from becoming a full-blown smirk by taking another bite. Then he said in an admonitory tone, “You’d better eat, ahou. We have a lot for you to learn tonight, considering how much time you’ve got left.”

Oh, yeah… he had a deadline now, didn’t he? He had to win Kenshin away from Kaoru before they could get married and ruin Kenshin’s life forever! He had to work harder.

It occurred to him to wonder why he wasn’t as depressed about this as he’d obviously been yesterday. Had drinking really made him feel better? That would be… unprecedented. Something had made him feel better, though. As he thought about it, his hand slowed in bringing his chopsticks to his mouth and eventually hovered just short of it. Was he merely thinking wishfully, or did he hazily start to remember Saitou saying something… something nice… about him… last night?

He took his bite and chewed, still struggling to remember. Finally he felt he had to ask. “So how am I doing, anyway? Think I’ll beat you any time soon?”

“No,” Saitou answered immediately and bluntly. “But you’re not hopeless.”

“Guess that’s the best I’ll get out of you,” Sano said wryly. In actuality it was a pretty meaningful concession, but he wasn’t going to say so.

“Probably. Your friend’s wedding is set for July the 22nd, by the way.”

Sano stared. “How do you know?”

“Sometimes, ahou, if you ask someone something, they tell you.”

“Who’d you ask?”

With the customary raised brow Saitou said, “Battousai?”

“Oh. Fuck. Well… thanks, I guess.”

Saitou merely nodded.

Sano was still eating when Saitou, who’d had a head start, laid down his chopsticks and sat back, as he usually did after supper, to light up while he drank the remainder of his tea. This, of course, reminded Sano of something he didn’t really want to mention (in case he’d been wrong) but felt like he must. Fixing his eyes on the contents of his bowl he said, “Oh, and thanks for that cigarette this morning.”

Saitou’s tone was easy as he replied, “Don’t mention it.”

***

Things progressed for the next few weeks much as they had for the first few, save that now Sano worked doubly hard to meet Saitou’s increasingly harsh demands. He’d decided July 15th would be the big day — the day he would tell Kenshin his feelings — and that sometime before that he must, obviously, take Kenshin out somewhere and get into a fight in order to set things in motion by making a solid bid for the rurouni’s attention and admiration.

But he felt that, before he could do this, he needed to get a move past Saitou. He had to. Though this wasn’t a line he’d deliberately set for himself — at least not consciously — it had popped up from somewhere, and he saw it as an undismissible marker of progress, one he must reach before he could stop this relentless training. He’d hit Saitou before, of course, but only ever on his own terms. He wanted to get in a decent shot by Saitou’s rules. And he felt like he was running out of time awfully quickly.

It frustrated him, therefore, when Saitou mentioned one night that they wouldn’t be able to train the next evening, as he was expected to attend a party that would probably run late. Observing that Saitou didn’t seem much more pleased at the prospect than Sano was at the disappointing news, the young man inquired about the details. Apparently the officer would be officially representing the police at the inauguration of a respectable Kyoto manufacturer’s new branch of operations in Tokyo, but his real objective was to try to sniff out any connection between this manufacturer and a recent increase in modern weaponry on the streets.

Though he’d asked, Sano was surprised Saitou had answered so openly — and pleased as well at this sign of trust. And seeing the importance of trying to control the presence of firearms throughout the country, he tried to stifle his annoyance at having to miss another training session. At least this would give him a chance to go remind his friends that he still existed and see, once again, whether or not Kenshin had missed him.

But his visit to the dojo came to a cataclysmic end when Kaoru actually kissed Kenshin. Right in front of everyone! Sure, it was a quick, shy little peck, but everyone saw. If anybody wondered why both Sano and Megumi got up suddenly with half-formed excuses for why they must depart so abruptly, they didn’t voice their curiosity. Indeed, the two lovebirds seemed so sickeningly wrapped up in each other and the moment that they didn’t really notice much of anything. And Sano headed for the bars.

His mood was foul, but not the type that encouraged him to get phenomenally drunk; it encouraged him, rather, to pick fights. By the time he was ready to declare the night over (and technically it was, for early morning had commenced), he’d been kicked out of more places than he could count, and might not be welcome back to any of them another time. Still, he hadn’t been able to help himself when, on top of what had happened earlier to upset him, every single person he’d run into had insisted on being so damn irritating.

That last one had been the worst, and Sano still fumed in the wake of the infuriating exchange. Retaliation hadn’t been an option, since the guy was so clearly not a warrior that engaging him in physical combat would be outright bullying… and in verbal combat, the enemy had just as clearly consistently had the upper hand. Most frustratingly, it had actually stung, and worried Sano at the same time, to an unusual degree; he generally didn’t care nearly so much about other people’s opinions of him. He would have liked to discuss it, actually, with a sympathetic listener, but Katsu would be either asleep or prohibitively wrapped up in newspaper work at this hour, Kenshin would not do for a conversation that would inevitably eventually touch on the topic of Sano’s chances with him, and no one else would take him seriously.

Finding himself at Saitou’s house took Sano rather by surprise in the midst of his agitation and anger, as he hadn’t realized that his thoughtless steps were directing him to it. He did have his own place, after all; it wasn’t like he actually lived here. That this, rather than his apartment, had been his unconscious destination just showed how accustomed he’d grown to spending his nights on Saitou’s floor, and that seemed a little pathetic. But since he was here now, he might as well stay instead of traipsing all the way back across town to his trashy longhouse.

Perhaps, upon entering, he slammed the door a bit harder than he should have. And perhaps his socked footfalls in the hallway were a bit louder than they should have been. Whatever the case, Sano had barely flung open the great room door when Saitou’s irritated voice sounded from behind him: “Ahou, did you ever consider that there are certain volumes more appropriate for daytime than two in the morning?”

Grumpily and without responding, Sano threw himself onto the floor near where he usually slept.

Saitou glared at him from the doorway. “Are you drunk again?”

In trying to avoid meeting Saitou’s eyes, which, even in this semi-darkness, seemed to emit live sparks of irritation at him, Sano noticed as he looked downward that the pants Saitou had thrown on in order to come harass his noisy houseguest were not buttoned quite up to the top. This, combined with the lack of a belt and the slight sag of the pants, gave Sano a better view of the officer’s abdominal muscles than he’d ever had before, and the shadows in the room lit only by the moon through the shouji made the sight even more intriguing. However, the conclusion that Saitou really was quite physically attractive could only specifically make things worse.

“No,” was Sano’s surly reply to the question.

“Then what’s your problem?”

To say Sano replied unthinkingly would be understating the fact, as he would never in a million insane years have voiced what was on his mind if he’d given it even half an instant’s thought. “Saitou, am I sexy?”

Saitou’s expression of surprise and skepticism wasn’t terribly difficult to make out even in the shadows, and Sano experienced a moment of shock and horror as he realized what he’d just said. That it might have been entirely counterproductive and he was probably now in for a second round of denigration such as he’d suffered at that last bar, he couldn’t fail to be aware, and in extreme annoyance and some trepidation he dropped his gaze to his knees to await Saitou’s taunting.

Only then Saitou said, “Yes.”

His brain suddenly a confusion of disbelief and the scattered remnants of the defenses he’d been building up, Sano shook his head, unable to formulate a reply.

“Why?” wondered Saitou, curiosity and some amusement having replaced his prior annoyance. It was interesting how often this particular emotional exchange seemed to take place in him in response to Sano.

Well, if Saitou wasn’t going to make fun of him, and in fact, against all expectations, might be inclined to take his side, Sano might as well tell him. “There was this dickhead in the bar who decided it would be hilarious to keep talking shit at me the whole time I was there. One of those guys who probably sits at a desk all day because he knows all these big words and how to put ’em together right.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t beat him up because he was too small and scrawny, and somehow we got onto this topic of who gets more sex, and he was basically saying that I’m not attractive at all and only a dog would ever want to have sex with me and shit like that.” It certainly hadn’t helped that Sano had been talking much bigger than his actual experience the entire time, a fact his obnoxious rival might well have picked up on, but Sano didn’t plan on mentioning that aspect of the conversation to Saitou.

Saitou was grinning at this account, and more, it appeared, entertained than disdainful. “This ‘dickhead’ — what did he look like? Small and scrawny, you say?”

“Yeah, he was a short little guy. Looked straight-up like a woman, too, even with the really short haircut — I would have thought he was a woman except for the whore on his lap. She was kinda the reason we got onto the sex topic in the first place, and, you know, she could have stuck up for me. I mean, with the way she was looking at me, I’m pretty sure she didn’t agree that I wasn’t sexy at all. But I guess she didn’t want to ruin her chances with him.”

“Did he have a scar above his left eyebrow?”

“Yeah… how’d you know?” Sano wondered suspiciously.

Instead of answering the question, Saitou informed him, “That was a woman.”

“Oh, great, you know her?” Though not terribly surprised at finding his assessment of the cross-dressed bar-goer correct, Sano had to wonder why all the people in his life that drove him crazy ended up being connected somehow.

“Rather well.” The amusement in Saitou’s voice had taken on a tone of fond tolerance. “She typically wears men’s clothing. And she does have a very sharp tongue.”

“Yeah, I fucking noticed.”

“Poor ahou: always getting beaten by everyone.”

“She didn’t ‘beat’ me! Just annoyed the hell out of me.”

“And yet you made a strategic retreat. That was unusually rational of you, in fact.”

Sano gave a frustrated sigh and, rather than continuing to argue, confessed what really had him worried. “The thing is, if she thinks I’m ugly enough that it’s worth sitting there insulting me forever about, what’s to say Kenshin doesn’t think I’m totally unattractive too? It’s not like he’d ever tell me what he thinks of my looks unless I asked him, so I have no way of knowing. He could have thought that all along and I’d never know.”

“Don’t take Tokio’s opinion of you so seriously,” Saitou said somewhat dismissively. “She’ll aim for any target that gives her a chance to exercise her wit.”

“‘Tokio?'” Sano wouldn’t have guessed Saitou was close enough to any woman to refer to her so familiarly.

Saitou obviously read Sano’s meaning in the single word. “It would be odd to use an honorific with my own wife.”

This electrified Sano right onto his feet. “Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“No, ahou, I’ve been married for ten years.”

“Ten… years…? Didn’t you fight at Hakodate and everything?”

“Fighting at Hakodate and being married are not mutually exclusive.”

“Shit.” So overwhelming and unexpected and bizarre a concept Sano was having a very difficult time getting his brain around. As the idea slowly penetrated, however, he did reflect that if Saitou were to be married to anyone, that offensive woman he’d met at the bar seemed like the ideal candidate. Finally he asked, “Why doesn’t she live here with you?”

The fondly tolerant tone had returned as Saitou replied, “Tokio enjoys taking a lot of women to bed with her — sometimes all at the same time — which would be inconvenient under my roof.”

“Shit,” Sano muttered again. He didn’t know what else to say. It made sense, in that case, that the woman personally might consider him unattractive; and Saitou’s hint that she enjoyed haranguing people on topics she wasn’t necessarily legitimately invested in, just for the sake of employing her verbal skills, rendered Sano’s entire interaction with her completely understandable… but this couldn’t relieve his newly arisen concern about whether or not Kenshin found him attractive. If anything, it reinforced his fear by reminding Sano that tastes differed significantly from one person to the next. Just because Saitou admitted Sano was sexy didn’t mean Kenshin would. And Saitou was… “I can’t believe you’re fucking married,” he couldn’t help expressing aloud.

“It’s more of a business arrangement.” Saitou sounded downright tickled by Sano’s reaction, if such a word could be thought to apply to him. “We make foreign investments jointly, and that’s about the extent of it.”

They were both still and silent for a moment as Sano digested this. Why did these words seem to relieve him somehow? Because it would have complicated the arrangement if some really obnoxious woman might have dropped by any old evening and wondered what the hell Sano was doing sleeping on her husband’s floor? “So I guess…” he postulated, “you guys aren’t… in love… or anything.”

“‘In love?'” The scornful way Saitou drawled out the phrase almost made Sano blush. “You met her. What do you think?”

Sano grinned, relieved again. He’d been afraid at first it might be love in general that Saitou looked down on, and wondered for a fraction of a second what the officer must think of him for spending so much time and effort in the pursuit of it. But it made perfect sense that Saitou should speak so disdainfully of the idea of being in love with the person in question. “Yeah, she did seem really annoying.”

Saitou’s tone relaxed as he allowed, “I actually like her well enough. But she isn’t interested in men, so we’re merely friends.”

Friends with Saitou. Funny, but up until several weeks ago, Sano wouldn’t have considered that possible for anyone. Now, however, as he analyzed the atmosphere between them, he could positively state that this was a friendly silence.

Eventually Saitou broke it with an unexpected query. “Ahou,” he said slowly and somewhat pensively, “are you planning on making sexual advances toward Himura?”

“I mean, I wouldn’t put it exactly like…” Sano looked away, scratching his head. “Yeah, I guess. I’m going to have to, if this is going to work.” Since waiting for Kenshin to make sexual advances toward him certainly hadn’t.

“How?”

Sano was glad the shadows probably hid his blush at the thought that immediately entered his mind — a very nice thought, certainly, but he had to get to that point first. “I dunno,” he muttered.

“Why don’t you try it?”

“What, you mean march over to the dojo and–”

“I mean here and now. Try to seduce me and see how far you get.”

His blush abruptly deepening as his body stiffened in sudden surprise, Sano’s eyes snapped back to where Saitou still stood in the doorway. “You… you’re not serious…”

Saitou shrugged slightly, giving no indication that he might be joking. “It’ll be pretty pathetic when you’ve gone to all this trouble to impress Battousai and then can’t follow it up with a decent performance in more important areas.”

“Who says I can’t?” Sano demanded, insulted.

“I didn’t. But if you fail, you can be sure I’ll be laughing at you.”

“Fuck you.”

Saitou narrowed suggestive eyes. “I thought you didn’t intend to.”

Again Sano blushed. “I… I couldn’t. Kenshin… it wouldn’t be right…”

“Well, if celibacy is worth the strong possibility of failure, good night.” Saitou started to turn as if to go back to his bedroom.

“Hang on.” Sano took a step toward him with a sudden unexpected resolve that had arisen along with the horde of butterflies in his stomach. He would fuck the bastard’s brains out if he had to, just to prove him wrong. And it wouldn’t be so bad to get some practice in, after all… it might be nice to know what he was doing when he eventually made his move on Kenshin, and actually it would be really convenient to get it from the same source as his defense training. So he strode up to Saitou and did something he would never have dreamed he could possibly ever have considered: he kissed him.

It wasn’t his first kiss, but it couldn’t have been anything more than his eighth… and it sure as hell felt like the first. Might as well have been the first, for the mixture of uncertainty, awkwardness, nervous elation, and absolutely uncontrollable physical response involved. The tobacco and soba taste of the officer’s mouth and the warm sensation of his lips was surprisingly pleasant, and Sano dragged the kiss on longer than he’d meant to. Saitou, on the other hand, stood there motionless.

When he finally pulled back and asked, “How’s that?” it was with a bravado that was at least three quarters feigned.

The shadowy, thoughtful look the action had won him rather annoyed Sano, even in the midst of his other, more confused emotions, as Saitou demonstrated so little reaction to what Sano had considered a really good kiss. What he did instead was make a pensive sound and reach out. “Hardly enough to tempt someone into bed. Move your lips more.” And as he simultaneously slid bare hands around Sano’s shoulders and leaned forward, he murmured, “Like this,” and returned the kiss.

It was difficult to define the subtle differences to the action that made Sano’s heart throb and his knees weaken and his groin tingle; Saitou did move his lips, yes, and pushed gradually closer, but surely that couldn’t be the extent of it…!

Breathless, weak-limbed, and wide-eyed, Sano staggered back a step when Saitou released him. “Fuck,” he whispered. “You really know what you’re doing.”

The familiar smirk returned. “Try again,” Saitou commanded.

And things went from there.

***

It was with a mixture of emotions inexplicable and unfamiliar that Sano awoke the next morning much earlier than he generally did. For a few moments, eyes squeezed shut against any potential evidence to the contrary, he lay still and hoped it had all been a dream. Unfortunately, senses other than vision would provide their evidence — the futon beneath him was soft, for example, and smelled of cigarettes — and even his eyes, though closed, informed him that the light hit their lids from a different direction than it did in the great room. No, no good. He really was in Saitou’s bed.

Fuck,” he muttered, looking around at last at the room he’d never seen from this particular angle before. He hadn’t been drunk last night, but obviously he’d been pretty damn close to let Saitou do that. Do to him what had left behind a physical memory so powerful it could not be ignored, especially as he shifted into a sitting position and hugged his bare knees to his bare chest.

He tried, at least, to push away all the other memories crowding and clamoring for his attention… the sensation of hands and lips creeping over his body; the shocking realization of just how attractive Saitou really was, especially naked, how well built his body and how well suited to this particular activity; the rise of intense passion and simultaneous frustration as he was brought almost to his peak with aggravating expertise that never quite allowed him to climax until slick fingers had loosened him up sufficiently for…

“No!” God, how had he done that? “Oh, Kenshin,” he groaned, remembering just how fucking good it had felt. “I’m so sorry.”

And it had all started so innocently! Well, at least, it had all started so non-sexually… with Saitou’s willingness to listen to Sano’s concerns giving rise to the idea that Saitou might actually be someone Sano could at some point consider a friend. He hadn’t been thinking he might ever consider Saitou something more. He couldn’t consider Saitou something more. He loved Kenshin, for fuck’s sake, and this insanity didn’t change that.

The blanket needed washing, he reflected dully as he rose. He didn’t know what do to about the futon. It didn’t matter; the first thing to do was cover up the nudity that still made him think of how Saitou’s muscles felt beneath his skin, shifting hot on top of Sano, and the way trailing fingertips had sent little prickling shivers all across his body. Covering up the mottled bruise around his left nipple seemed eminently desirable, too.

“You always go to sleep like this afterwards,” Saitou said, somewhat breathlessly, when it was all over. With a deft movement of strong arms, he nestled Sano close up against him, then pressed his face to Sano’s sweaty head.

At first Sano was too dazed to say anything, but eventually, on regaining his voice, he commented hesitantly, “I… kinda hoped… I’d be the one to…”

Saitou gave a muffled laugh into Sano’s hair and raised his mouth enough to speak. “Not if you’re practicing for Battousai. Hasn’t the glimpse you’ve gotten at his true inner self shown you how things will be between you?”

Not sure what he made of Saitou’s apparent surety that sex would be any way between Kenshin and Sano, the latter said in continued hesitation, “But Kenshin’s–“

“Repressed,” Saitou broke in. “And he’ll show it in bed. His personality issues won’t let him give control to someone else at such an intimate moment, even for something as enjoyable as penetration. You’ll never get on top of him.”

Sano would have protested the disdainful reference to Kenshin’s ‘personality issues’ if he hadn’t been so busy wondering in some concern just how much of Saitou’s rather unkind assessment was true.

Now Sano considered that, since he was up so early, he should avail himself of the bath out back. It wouldn’t help with the nakedness, but obviously he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about this any time soon in any case. “We make foreign investments jointly,” had remarked the bastard that had fucked him last night; thus he could afford a private bath. Sano might as well make use of it.

The advantage of bath-houses over private baths was, of course, that somebody else got everything ready for you, so the relaxation stage was reached much sooner and with less trouble. But eventually, even here, Sano lay back in the hot water with his eyes closed thinking about the same things he’d been thinking about almost exclusively since awakening. The biggest question at the moment remained how he could feel so good about something and yet so fucking awful at the same time.

It was all so totally wrong. Not even the proof Saitou had continually offered that this really was just practice for Kenshin — the tips he’d given Sano (usually with accompanying demonstrations) on how to go about this sex thing, the comments he’d made about Sano’s future with Kenshin, his businesslike manner throughout (considering the nature of the situation, at any rate) — not even that could change the wrongness Sano felt now, the morning after. But the undeniable awareness that it had been wildly, amazingly fun, that he desperately wanted further demonstrations of Saitou’s expertise, left him miserably conflicted.

And it wasn’t like he was having an affair or anything. He wasn’t actually with Kenshin yet, and this was just practice…

He groaned. To lose his virginity to Saitou Hajime was nothing he’d ever expected — not when he’d entered into their little agreement, nor at any time in his weirdest and most perverted dreams. He hadn’t even tried to pretend Saitou was Kenshin. And the most ridiculous thing was that he didn’t mind.

He tried to tell himself he did. The whole situation was sick — he should mind — he minded not minding. But it was clear already that his first taste of sex had changed how he felt about a lot of things… including sex. He wanted more of it, and at the moment he could accurately say he didn’t care how or with whom. Eventually he hoped it would be with Kenshin, but for now Saitou would have to do.

And how had he reached this conclusion so quickly? How had he gone from last night’s “It wouldn’t be right…” to this morning’s perfect readiness to bend over for Saitou (or, hell, to bend Saitou over if he’d let him)? Had it been at all aided by the memory of Saitou’s hot tongue on his–

“I’m not fucking thinking about that!” he growled. His face seemed more heated than the water that splashed up onto it when he slammed a fist down into the bath. He’d been in here for a long time, and had really better get out and start his chores.

***

That Saitou could sit there over supper without a single word, could act so normally, after what had happened between them last night, astonished Sano to no end. Not a syllable, not a look, not a movement on the officer’s part indicated their relationship had changed. Well, Sano reflected a bit defensively, because it hadn’t changed. Just practice for Kenshin, remember?

“You had better have been practicing,” Saitou did finally say as he smoked his after-dinner cigarette while Sano washed the dishes. “I’m not going easy on you tonight.”

At the way his brain chose to interpret that remark, Sano blushed so hard he thought blood must ooze from his eyes, and he had to fight off a totally unnecessary increase in respiratory rate. There was another thing he definitely needed practice in — he couldn’t get uncontrollably worked up like the barely-post-virginal amateur he was at the slightest thought or mention of sex. He had to be confident and in control, or Kenshin would just smile at him with that gentle condescension he excelled at and move on to something closer to his own level — or, worse, to Kaoru, who wouldn’t even be post-virginal yet.

With how much work he still had to do to become the mature sexual being Kenshin surely deserved, Sano didn’t want to jump right into combat practice. His astonishment at Saitou’s apparent indifference to the new step they’d taken hadn’t abated yet. How could the officer think to start training just like that, without a word?

“So, Saitou…” Though he’d finished the dishes, Sano didn’t turn; it was easier to bring this up — especially to bring it up without sounding shy and hesitant — with his back to Saitou. “About last night…”

“Yes?” The officer’s casual tone made it evident he really hadn’t thought much of it. It really had just been practice.

Relieved, Sano wondered, “Well, how was I?” with greater ease than before. This was the next step if he wanted to get some more. Practice, that is. More practice.

The amused curl of Saitou’s lip sounded in his reply, “Adjusting for the fact that it was your first time, or speaking objectively?”

“How do you know it was my first time?”

“Your pathetic performance made that pretty clear.”

“Hey!”

In his annoyance Sano had turned around at last, so he was able to see Saitou’s shrug. “You asked.”

“Fuck that,” grumbled Sano.

“Later,” said Saitou, in the same easy tone as before, “if you like.”

Attempting to look as cool and disinterested as Saitou and not to show the excited reaction that spread through his entire body at the words, Sano folded his arms across his chest and said, “Yeah?”

“You won’t get anywhere with Himura with your level of performance.” An interesting gleam appeared in Saitou’s eye as he added, “And I am certainly not averse to helping you improve.”

“You old lech,” Sano grinned. “Hurry up with the training, then!”

“Hurrying will make it worse.” Saitou reached for his sword, which he’d started using during these sessions only in the last week or so. “I expect you to learn just as much.”

“Bring it on,” Sano growled.

“Then don’t pass out, ahou.”

***

Sano wondered, a few days later, how sex could be so damned addictive. Since everything he’d ever heard had indicated this was the case, it came as no great surprise, but he definitely hadn’t been prepared for its influence in his own life. Alcohol had always been an effective diversion for him, but it had never been this compelling; fighting had always been a good escape from reality, but it had never been this irresistible. ‘Addiction’ was the only way to describe it, and he’d never been addicted to anything before.

This was exciting and frightening, and he couldn’t be sure exactly what he would do about it. Transfer the entire condition over to Kenshin, he hoped. And meanwhile, he planned on enjoying himself (enjoying Saitou, that is) and disregarding any guilt. He didn’t have much choice, really. Memories of sex were his constant companions during the day, dreams of sex not infrequently invaded his brain at night, and even during after-supper spars his thoughts were never fully occupied by his combative education and progress anymore — especially when Saitou took off his jacket and gloves to expose muscular arms and dexterous hands whose effectiveness in areas other than this Sano was coming to know intimately.

But one night all such distractions tumbled vigorously into the background when Sano, smoothly sloughing Saitou’s intended sword-blow away as he’d been taught — if not for the first time, at least for the first time to such a decisive degree of success — felt his follow-through connect. The next moment, of course (probably facilitated by his surprise at his own triumph), he was thrown to the floor by Saitou’s much more proficient counter-counterattack, but it was with an idiotically big grin on his face and a bubbling sense of victory and accomplishment.

Saitou stepped back, his sword-arm falling to his side. And though he undoubtedly wasn’t as full of glee as Sano, the nod he gave and his voice as he remarked, “It’s about time,” indicated satisfaction.

Bouncing to his feet, Sano struck a bicep-flexing pose as he gave a celebratory roar that turned into a laugh. “Oh, fuck, yes!” he exulted. “Did you see that? Did you fucking see that?” The brow Saitou raised worried him not at all. “Ohhh, Zanza is back in business! Anybody looking for someone to fight any ex-Shinsengumi captains? Contact me tonight and I’ll do it for free!”

“Whenever you and your deluded ego are finished…” Saitou’s tone was sardonic, but there was a touch of amusement to it as well.

“You have to admit I’ve come a long way. I couldn’t even touch you before.” Though Sano hadn’t intended a pun of any sort, he wondered if Saitou’s mind made as rapid a jump as his had from one kind of touch to another.

The officer gave no indication of such an inference as he said calmly, “True. You have improved.” Which was high praise, coming from Saitou, and only increased Sano’s excitement.

“Come on, let’s go celebrate!” Seizing Saitou’s right arm, Sano made tugging movements toward the door into the hallway.

Saitou shrugged him off easily, pointing his sword at the young man’s chest to keep him from reattaching. “Ahou, don’t you ever think of anything else?”

Attempting to hold off a blush, Sano protested, “Hey, bastard, don’t think you’re so fabulous I can’t keep my mind off you!” And was that ever a half truth at best. “I meant let’s go hit a bar somewhere.”

“You… and I… ‘go hit a bar somewhere?’ I must have been training you too hard.”

“I knew you’d say that. Come on, let’s go.”

The disbelief in Saitou’s stare increased. “Ahou, what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

“The part you didn’t say, which I’m pretty sure was ‘no.’ Come on!”

“I have to go out of town tomorrow,” Saitou told him with a shake of the head. “I’m not going to spend my last night in Tokyo at some trashy bar full of lowlifes like you.”

These words fell like cold rain onto Sano’s sizzling enthusiasm. “What? How long will you be gone?”

“At least a week.”

“A week?! And you weren’t even going to tell me about this?”

“Of course I was. I couldn’t have you getting the wrong idea when I didn’t come home and going to look for me or something.”

“Like I’d ever look for you.”

“Like you’d ever have a chance at your darling Battousai without me.”

Sano made a frustrated sound. His cheer had been dampened, tempered by annoyance, but not eradicated. “Well, I still want to celebrate,” he said stubbornly. “I finally hit you!” His tone turned wheedling. “Just come out for an hour.”

“Why is it so important to you that I come drinking with you?”

Gradually Sano stilled. Why was it so important? It wasn’t as if there weren’t a dozen other people he would rather drink with than Saitou. Why should Saitou seem such a specifically desirable companion in this instance? He scrambled for an answer, and managed to come up with an excuse that might actually have been the truth. “Because… because you know what we’re celebrating, and I couldn’t really tell anyone else.”

Unsurprisingly, Saitou answered only with, “Hn.” Abruptly he sheathed his sword and moved toward the hallway door. “How late will you be out?”

Sano knew exactly what that question meant, but if Saitou didn’t plan to ask plainly Sano didn’t plan to answer plainly. “I dunno. All night, maybe.”

“Fine.” Saitou hadn’t turned to look at Sano since he’d started walking, and now did not even pause before entering the hall, which resulted in a somewhat muffled goodbye: “I’ll see you in a week or so, then.”

An inexplicable sense of bitter disappointment filled the young man he left behind. “Have fun in wherever the fuck you’re going!” Sano shouted after him. And when he’d stared at the hallway from beneath thunderous brows for several moments and received no reply, he finally whirled and stomped out of the house, slamming the back door behind him.

“Asshole,” he growled as he hopped the fence and took off through the neighborhood. He didn’t even know why he was so annoyed; he could drink just as easily without that jerk — more easily, in fact, since Saitou would probably complain about venue and company wherever they went and eventually insist they leave. Still, Sano wished Saitou had joined him, if only because he was curious about the cop’s level of tolerance.

Maybe he would go roll some dice with the guys. He’d landed the long-desired hit on Saitou; perhaps that luck would carry him to a series of wins. It was Monday, so he would probably find his friends down at Demura’s place clear across town. He could stop for a drink or two on the way, and if he ran into someone that seemed likely to treat him continually, he might cancel his gambling plans entirely. In any case, it should be a good night.

So why did he keep glancing back up the street toward Saitou’s house? It wasn’t like Saitou would have a sudden change of heart and come running out after him. And though voluntarily doing without the nightly pleasure he’d become accustomed to lately was no happy prospect, still it wasn’t like Sano would have a sudden change of heart and go running back in there to Saitou. The coming week was going to suck too, but he could stand it. He’d done it for twenty years; he could do it for seven days.

The silence weighed on him oddly as he made his way out of the residential area and into a more commercial district, to the point where he almost felt like talking to himself to fill it. Not quite that far gone yet, however, he just stomped his feet as he walked instead. He felt like being noisy, since obviously he had no chance at conversation. Damn that bastard! Was it so hard to come drinking for an hour with his star pupil or whatever the hell Sano was to him?

He paused for a moment in order to knock on his forehead. “Hello in there!” And now he really was talking to himself. “You don’t fucking care, remember? It’s not important!”

Saitou had accused Sano, the day they’d started all this, of not being able to take him seriously. But who wasn’t taking whom seriously now? All Sano wanted was to have a few drinks to commemorate this checkpoint in his training… it meant a lot to him, and what was so fucking hard about it? What seemed the most logical answer — that Sano’s company did not at all appeal to Saitou, that Ex-Shinsengumi-san would rather sit around alone and then go to sleep in a cold bed than be seen in public with someone like the former Zanza, that Saitou could find more entertainment in his own solitary thoughts than in anything Sano had to offer, that Sano in general just wasn’t good enough — was something Sano simply refused to think about. Not that he cared what Saitou thought of him in any case.

What he really needed, he realized, was to see Kenshin. It had been too long, and Sano would have to face Kaoru again eventually. That would rid his head of these tumultuous thoughts about stupid Saitou, too, so multiple birds could be taken care of with one stone. Was it too late for a visit to the dojo? Probably not… he’d have to see what the hour was by the time he made his way over there.

Ah, Kenshin. He could erase any number of problems. Sano thrust his hands into his pockets as he continued walking and began to contemplate his friend. The first smile since before his argument with Saitou crossed his face as he recalled how it had felt, in response to Kenshin’s potent words, to realize there was more to life than he’d been getting out of it, that if he looked outside himself he might actually be able to enact some change in the world, Meiji era or not. He remembered how inspiring it had been to watch Kenshin fight the Oniwabanshuu for Megumi’s sake, culminating in that dreadful (and, embarrassingly enough, only partially observed by Sano) battle with Aoshi.

He thought back to the time when old loyalties had confused him, set him on another misguided quest of violence, and how Kenshin had not only rescued him once more, but had done so in a manner that allowed him to retain his other best friend. He recalled how frighteningly noble Kenshin had been during that ridiculous pirate affair, how he’d managed to turn Shura’s heart just by being his extraordinary, strong, generous self. And of course there had been Kyoto. Even knowing the rurouni, Sano couldn’t have imagined it until he’d seen it; the image of a battered and nearly dead Kenshin rising slowly but forcefully from the ground to face Shishio yet again would forever give him shivers.

Truly, no one was as amazing as Kenshin.

With a sigh, Sano glanced behind, back up the street, one last time.

***

The footfalls that had started when speech had ceased were coming this way, hastening into a run. Sano, who hadn’t previously bothered trying to hide as he listened in, now stepped into a nearby shadowed doorway and waited. Presently, as he’d expected, a female figure passed him, moving as quickly as her zouri and restrictive kimono would allow. The glimpse he caught of her face showed warring panic and determination; she didn’t believe fleeing would help, but neither did she plan on simply giving in. Lucky for her Sano had been around to notice her predicament.

Also as he’d expected, when he stepped out of his brief place of concealment to intercept the woman’s pursuer, he found himself facing a drawn sword. He’d heard its rasp at the culmination of the argument that had set the woman running, not to mention the suddenly overtly threatening tone of the man’s voice that had previously been merely haughty and demanding. And Sano wanted to know why, between these two people that seemed to know each other and have some manner of business to discuss, things should escalate into violence. If the woman were a prostitute, it would make sense — still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it would make sense — but she didn’t look it, and this wasn’t the right part of town.

The man, like the woman, appeared to be relatively affluent, clean and classily dressed, but the katana he held was nothing out of the ordinary. And given there was no way he could mistake the demeanor of the much more scruffy-looking person that had just stepped from the shadows and held out an arm, fist clenched, to block his path, he lowered his weapon as he came to a halt and scowled. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what the hell you think you’re doing.”

“Nothing that’s any of your business.”

“You’re armed; she’s not. That kind of bullshit’s always my business.”

The man drew himself up, and his sword rose to mimic the straightness of his spine. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

“No.” Sano grinned darkly. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

Too busy narrowing his eyes and curling his lip, the man didn’t actually manage to reply to this question. It was a panting female voice from behind Sano that provided the answer: “You’re… kenkaya… Zanza.”

Sano twitched a brief glance over his shoulder to where the woman had ventured back this direction and now stood, bending as if to ease a stitch, a few cautious paces away. He gave her a more friendly grin. “Glad someone still recognizes me. What the hell is going on?”

“Butt out, mercenary!” Evidently the announcement of Sano’s former identifiers had done nothing to cow the man. “She’s my fiance; I have every right to–”

“To chase her around with a sword?” Sano turned fully to face the man again, taking a menacing step toward him. “I don’t fucking think so.”

“And I told you,” the woman put in, still breathless, “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man in Tokyo, no matter what your father does.”

Just Tokyo, huh? Small world.

Having evidently reached the end of his patience, the man pointed his weapon at Sano. The position of his hands and orientation of his body spoke a certain degree of expertise, and Sano, much to his pleasure and somewhat to his surprise, fell automatically into one of the defensive stances he’d been practicing with Saitou. Even the unfairly demanding wolf couldn’t criticize that reaction.

And then another voice spoke up. “I believe you should put your sword away. I would not recommend fighting this man.”

Sano’s heart, which had given a little jump at the very first word, began to pound rapidly as he turned his eyes toward the new arrival. He couldn’t believe this luck. Ever since Saitou left town, Sano had actively planned on dropping by the dojo, yet somehow been sidetracked every single evening; and now here on the fourth night was Kenshin running into him. What a gorgeous, perfect coincidence.

“Oh, hey, Kenshin,” he greeted, as casually as if he’d been expecting him. “Don’t bother trying to talk to this guy; I think he’s the stubborn type.”

Taking another step out of the shadows, where it appeared he’d concealed himself in order to see what would happen exactly as Sano had a few minutes before, Kenshin gave Sano an adorable mild expression of skepticism at the description of someone else as ‘the stubborn type.’ “I heard what he was saying to the young lady. He does seem very sure of himself.”

Sano gave a derisive laugh worthy of Saitou, at which the bratty man made a snarling sound of defiance and lunged.

To drag this fight out as long as possible so as to showcase every single move he’d been practicing lately was Sano’s goal, and he pursued it ruthlessly. The rich guy, though not on a level with Sano’s combative skills, wasn’t too bad with his little sword, and Sano allowed him to think they were more evenly matched than was actually the case as he encouraged more complex attacks just to show how well he could deflect or avoid them. And once sure he’d shown off everything — he didn’t want this to get too repetitive, after all — he knocked the jerk out cleanly with a single hit.

“I did tell him…” Kenshin said ruefully as he approached from where he’d been calmly watching.

Sano nudged the form at his feet with a brief laugh.

“That was amazing!” The woman too had come forward, and was now staring down at her fallen harasser with a wide-eyed expression of almost disbelieving pleasure and sudden freedom. “Thank you!” And she joined them in watching the shallow breaths of the lump on the cobblestones for a few moments.

Finally Kenshin asked her, “Will this make your situation worse?”

“I don’t know that it can get worse,” she sighed, “and this is certainly better than whatever he was planning to do to me just now.”

“If you require any assistance…” Seriously Kenshin gave directions to the Kamiya Dojo. “You will find friends there.”

She looked from one man to the other and nodded gratefully.

“Meanwhile,” Sano advised, “don’t let this jerk push you around. Just kick him in the balls if he tries.”

“When he’s awake and armed,” she replied regretfully, “that isn’t usually an option.” Her smile became very sunny all of a sudden as she added, “But right now…” And she lashed out with a heel with such suddenness, viciousness, and precise aim that Sano and Kenshin both winced. For an intense instant she looked as if she was considering doing it again, or even several more times, but then apparently thought better of it. “I’ve got to go home. Thanks again!”

Sano waved her away, and he and Kenshin waited in silence until she’d turned a corner. Then, not for the first time, Sano murmured, “Women are scary.”

“I hope she will be all right,” Kenshin worried.

Though Sano hoped so too, this wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. Time to get the long-anticipated reaction from Kenshin. So he replied, “Well, hopefully this guy won’t bother her again now I’ve taught him a lesson.”

Kenshin glanced down. “We should do something with him.”

“Why?” Sano started moving away from the recumbent form. “Though I did leave him in pretty bad shape, didn’t I?”

Joining him with only a brief backward look and slight shrug, Kenshin smiled up at Sano. “You did. You have clearly been training.”

“I sure have,” Sano beamed.

“And it has been well worth it,” Kenshin assured him. And he sounded impressed! He really did!!

“I’ve been working hard!”

“I see,” the rurouni went on, speaking slowly as if planning his words with care, “that you are learning to defend yourself more thoroughly, and avoid taking injury, as you fight.”

Though Sano honestly didn’t see anything wrong with taking a reasonable amount of injury as a means to the desired end, he wasn’t about to say so; rather, he launched into some smooth self-promotion: “Yeah, I’m not as bull-headed as everyone thinks.”

“I never thought you were,” was Kenshin’s automatic reply. Then he gave an embarrassed laugh as honesty evidently compelled him. “Well, maybe occasionally I did. Or maybe more often than that, but…”

But now you fucking don’t! Slapping Kenshin’s back in a friendly, I’m-not-planning-on-seducing-you-eventually sort of way, the overjoyed Sano said, “I’ve been working so hard, I haven’t seen you in forever. How ’bout we go get a drink somewhere?”

Once he regained the balance Sano’s slap had thrown him off, Kenshin smiled up at him again. “All right,” he said.

As they headed toward the nearest decent drinking establishment Sano knew (and Sano knew most of them, decent or otherwise), Kenshin continued the conversation on the same topic, which was exactly where Sano wanted it. “Have you been training ever since we got back from Kyoto?”

“Not the whole time… it wasn’t ’til after that bullshit with that Shigure guy. But I’ve been doing damn well for how long I’ve been at it, if I do say so myself.”

“You are! I was very impressed.”

He was impressed! He was fucking impressed!!

But then he said the one thing in the world Sano didn’t want him to — well, besides talking about how in love with Kaoru he was or something — “Whom have you been training with?”

Not blushing was out of the question, given the images the words conjured up in Sano’s head, even if the secondary training he’d been busy with had only been aimed at becoming better for Kenshin. And though there was surely no way Kenshin, knowing nothing of what was going on, would suspect the true depth of Sano’s arrangement with Saitou, he was struck with a wild, guilty fear that the redness of his face would reveal everything and Kenshin would utterly scorn him for the rest of his life.

“Some bastard I met on the street,” he said somewhat indistinctly, avoiding Kenshin’s eye. Technically it was the truth. “Look, there’s the Haiirobou; they do some good mitarashi.” And he hastened forward.

Giving no sign of having noticed anything odd in the answer to his last question, Kenshin followed his friend inside and joined him in requesting some snacks and sake, even openly volunteering to meet the bill like the angelic being he was. But whether his mind remained on their previous topic or he’d been brought back to it by the dango they’d ordered, he continued on it. “You are really serious about this training, if you haven’t stopped by the dojo for food even when Kaoru is not cooking.”

To hear Kenshin refer to Kaoru with no honorific was disconcerting and depressing; Sano had come to consider the ‘dono’ an integral part of the relationship between those two, and didn’t like it dropped.

“Hey,” he protested, “I was there… um, well, I guess it was a few weeks back, wasn’t it?” He tried not to think about the kiss that had broken up that party, how he’d slumped off to drink and fight away his pain, and then Saitou had… “But I’ve also got a job,” he half lied, making the addendum hastily so as to force images of that hot night out of his head, “so I’m really busy. Actually I’ve been meaning to come see you sometime soon, since my trainer’s out of town and I have some free time.”

“Everyone misses you,” Kenshin said, evidently completely oblivious to the shiver such words occasioned up Sano’s spine. “Especially the little girls.”

Though Sano wouldn’t have minded getting some more admiration out of Kenshin regarding his improving skills, the interrelated topic of Saitou that he would prefer to avoid actually made it something of a relief to abandon the subject. So he said teasingly, “Ayame-chan and Suzume-chan just can’t get enough of a real man when he shows up, huh?”

Kenshin laughed along with him. “I believe Ayame-chan may be developing some interest in Yahiko.”

“And he can’t see anyone but Tsubame-chan, so he’ll never notice.”

“That does seem to be the case.”

They both laughed again, but Sano couldn’t help noticing the irony of the exchange. Reminded by this of one other that shared his plight, he asked, “By the way, have you guys seen kitsune-sensei lately?”

Appearing somewhat worried, Kenshin shook his head. “No. Kaoru and I are concerned about her; she seems to be overworking herself. Something is troubling her, I think.”

For this Sano had no reply. A variety of reasons existed not to tell Kenshin bluntly that Megumi was in love with him and undoubtedly trying to distract herself with a heavy workload from thinking about his engagement to Kaoru — especially when Kenshin went on musingly, “Actually, I believe the last time we saw her at the dojo was that same night when you were last there.”

Yeah, funny coincidence, Sano was tempted to say aloud. He hoped Megumi would pull through this. Things would probably be especially bad for her when Sano jumped in and proved that Kenshin and Kaoru could be broken up with the right application of leverage. At that point, if she could never bring herself to examine and treat his hand again, he would completely understand. He should probably visit her for a checkup sometime before he alienated her permanently.

“Speaking of Kaoru worrying,” Kenshin said, looking around, “I promised her I would not be out too late.”

Sano clenched his jaw to keep it from dropping open, and sounded almost as appalled and unhappy as he actually was when he protested, “But you just got here! You’ve only had two drinks!”

“You were right,” said Kenshin as he prepared to rise. “The mitarashi here is delicious. But Kaoru will be expecting me back.”

Struggling mightily for a jovial tone rather than the deep bitterness that wanted to spill out in his words, Sano replied, “Funny… I didn’t notice that collar around your neck until just now. Where does that leash lead off to?”

Kenshin’s smile acknowledged the tease while at the same time reproving very slightly. “It is not a leash, Sano; it’s basic courtesy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Sano forced a smile in return. “Have fun. I’ll talk to you later.”

Kenshin nodded and bade him a casual goodbye that seemed somehow very cold in spite of its informality. Even the wave he offered from the door before he slipped out was no consolation. And Sano was left staring down at the last of the dango and the sake he fully intended to finish before he left, wondering where all the pleasure in his night had gone.

***

How Sano endured the remaining four days before Saitou returned, Sano wasn’t at all certain. Though he did make it to the dojo on two separate occasions, all that happened there was the assignment of chores and babysitting jobs and the opportunity to observe Kaoru making eyes at Kenshin, who was as gorgeous and oblivious as ever, and Sano came back extremely frustrated. Eventually he was so agitated, and judged himself so impossible to be around, that he lay in the bath the entire last day of Saitou’s absence, emerging only to stoke the fire for another period of hot water, alternately napping and languidly masturbating.

The only coherent dream he had during any instance of sleep, however, was about Saitou rather than Kenshin, and explicit enough that he awoke with an erection to go along with his confusion. He needed Saitou here, to put things in perspective, to calm him down, to get everything back on track. With Saitou around, things were a lot easier to understand — everything except Saitou himself.

So he took care of his condition, finally vacated the bath, and checked over the house to make sure it was up to the bastard’s exacting standards of cleanliness and organization. He’d done this yesterday, hoping Saitou would be home then, and probably didn’t need to do it again… but figured he couldn’t be too careful. He even gave the great room floor one last and somewhat unnecessary sweep before he went into the bedroom.

He’d been shamelessly sleeping in Saitou’s bed all week, and didn’t think twice about preparing to do so knowing its rightful owner might join him there tonight. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been using it when Saitou was around, and anyway this was all just an arrangement. But it did feel odd to be surrounded by that cigarette smell, which never really washed out of the linens, without actually having the smoker in the house. It felt… wrong… somehow. Of course the whole situation was wrong, but it wouldn’t last much longer. Because Kenshin’s wedding careened toward them faster every day, and Sano would be damned if he lost him after working so hard.

Having stripped to his wraps, he tossed his clothes aside on the floor and himself down onto the futon. Though the night was hot, he always felt the need, in bed, to be covered with something, and pulled the blanket loosely over his stomach. Then he closed his eyes, lay still, and tried to escape the confusion of today’s thoughts by forcing himself to contemplate Kenshin coherently and purposefully.

Exactly when he fell asleep, or what he was thinking at the time, he didn’t know. But at some point he sensed vaguely a draft of cooler air, soft sounds nearby, the advent of a warm body beside him, strong arms around him, and breath on his neck as a deep voice said… something… before he returned to his dreams. He couldn’t make out the words, and didn’t remember them in the morning, but somehow he felt better than he had the previous day despite again awakening alone. The only indication that Saitou had returned was the new laundry in the basket and a few dirty dishes in the kitchen.

That day, unfathomably happy, Sano whistled as he did his chores, every vestige of yesterday’s agitation and confusion gone. He washed his own clothes along with Saitou’s, borrowing the officer’s red yukata until the sun had dried everything else. Not that his clothes particularly needed this attention — he’d laundered them just last week — but for some reason he wanted them clean. It was the same non-reason he’d taken another bath this morning despite having lived in the water yesterday. Some of Saitou’s fastidiousness must be rubbing off on him.

Then he spent longer than usual making supper. Things weren’t turning out the way he wanted them, for some reason. And the table didn’t look right no matter how many times he reset it; it took four attempts before he considered himself (grudgingly) satisfied. Saitou must really be rubbing off on him — he’d never cared this much before whether the rice was perfect or whether the chopsticks were at the correct angle!

He sat down to wait.

“Is that empty bowl particularly interesting this evening, ahou?”

At the first syllable of this question, Sano jumped, rattling the table, then nearly upset the latter as he rose clumsily to his feet. “What bowl?” was his stupid response.

“The one you’ve been staring at for the last three minutes.”

“You were standing there that long?”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t even notice? That’s an achievement even for you.”

Flustered, Sano protested, “I was thinking, all right?”

The mocking expression on the harsh face intensified, though there might have been some interest there as well, as Saitou asked, “Ah, and was Himura impressed with your new skills?”

Sano shook his head. “How the hell do you always know fucking everything?”

“I look around, unlike a certain idiot I know.”

Turning, Sano dropped back into his place at the table. “Well, get over here and look around at this food before it gets cold.” Despite his exasperated sigh, however, he’d enjoyed this exchange, and he definitely enjoyed having Saitou in the same room again. Against all odds, it appeared he truly was glad to have the bastard back.

The officer sat, and they commenced eating just as they had so many times before. They often spent the first half of the meal in relative silence, since little came between Sano and his food; but it seemed to Sano that, though Saitou wasn’t saying anything more than usual, his gaze crossed the table with a strange frequency. After a while it began to get irritating, so finally Sano asked, “What are you staring at?”

“You.” Saitou was unfazed by his companion’s belligerent tone.

“Yeah, I noticed that much. What about me?”

“I was just wondering how else you’ve wasted your time this last week. Not practicing, I assume.”

Would Sano never again be able to hear words like ‘training’ and ‘practice’ without blushing? He bent over his vegetables to hide his face. “Maybe I have been. You don’t know.”

“I think we covered what I know just a few minutes ago.”

Sano choked on his latest bite, gripped suddenly by the uncanny thought of Saitou being able to see him wherever he went and whatever he did — especially, though not exclusively, what he’d been doing yesterday. “Hey, don’t go claiming to have any supernatural powers or anything,” he said weakly, through a cough.

“Only in bed.” This was uttered at such a deadpan, without the slightest change in facial expression as Saitou sipped his tea, that at first Sano didn’t quite know what to say.

Finally, as the implications of the phrase sank in, Sano grinned. “Kyoto was cold, huh?”

Saitou’s face remained tilted slightly downward into his cup, but Sano caught the amused gleam in his eyes as they rose toward him in acquiescence.

“Then hurry up and finish, old man. It’s been cold here too.”

Section 3

Days passed, and suddenly it was July. How could time have been moving so slowly when it was already July? Looking at the calendar on the wall in Saitou’s office, despite how meticulously the officer kept to the current page, Sano still felt there must be some mistake. It could only be the beginning of June at the very latest! Even the weather didn’t seem to believe it could possibly be July; this was the mildest summer he could remember.

Though he never definitively brought it up, and Saitou never questioned, Sano began pushing himself harder than ever in all areas. Technically he could probably entirely abandon the combative part of his training, since the goal of impressing Kenshin had been accomplished… but Sano felt he wasn’t quite getting something, that something lay just barely beyond him; he was sure if he only reached far enough, trained thoroughly enough, he would understand. If only Saitou would giver him some positive feedback! As Sano had predicted all those weeks ago, ‘not hopeless’ was the best he would ever get. Even just a word or two of specific encouragement would do him a world of good.

This overwhelming desire for an expression of approbation from his mentor brought Sano to the realization of just how reliant he’d become on Saitou, and forced him to a reluctant decision: regardless of what remained for him to learn, he needed to extricate himself from this dependency. So on July 8th, having finished his chores early enough to be done before Saitou appeared, he went home… though that phrase didn’t feel entirely accurate anymore; his run-down apartment seemed almost unfamiliar after so long. It was definitely cold. Very cold, particularly at night. And the lack of a certain heat during those hours was not the least of the circumstances he needed to acclimatize himself to. He should only be thinking about Kenshin now, even at night — especially at night — and he needed a clear head for the upcoming trial.

And he was prepared, wasn’t he? In the important areas, at least. He’d built up better defensive skills than he’d ever had, could easily continue practicing them on his own, and had caught Kenshin’s eye with his abilities and his willingness to change and grow. He’d learned so many lovemaking tricks that he hadn’t even gotten a chance to test half of them yet, but he sure as hell knew what their effects on him were; he figured if Saitou could do it to him, he could do it to Kenshin.

So why did he still feel there was something serious, something vital, that he hadn’t figured out yet?

In searching his own head for the answer, in trying to lay everything out neatly in the hopes that he would be able to spot the missing piece, he found only confusion. Of course lately he’d been confused on a fairly regular basis, and he assumed it would clear up once he was triumphantly and happily settled down with Kenshin, so he attempted not to worry too much about it.

Settled down with Kenshin? Now that he thought about it, this circumstance seemed unlikely. Sano’s intentions were going to destroy or at least severely damage some of the friendships they had here in Tokyo and — he hadn’t considered this before — effectively evict Kenshin from the Kamiya Dojo, at the very least until Kaoru recovered. A single glance around assured Sano he couldn’t very well invite Kenshin to stay here with him in the limited space under this leaky roof… it was about time he made some concrete plans.

First, the confession.

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I put my hand on his shoulder and step up close. “I’ve been wanting to tell you for a long time. A really long time. Maybe ever since I first met you.” Dammit, even in my own fucking imagination I can’t spit the damn phrase out.

So Kenshin says, “Yes?”

“Kenshin… I love you. And I don’t want you to marry jou-chan.”

Then he stares at me like I’m crazy and says, “But I love Kaoru! I am sorry, Sano.”

Fuck! No! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. How about this…

“Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

“Of course, Sano.”

Then I take him for a walk away from the dojo and make sure jou-chan doesn’t follow, and once I get him somewhere private I give him a kiss — a really good kiss, like the kind where Saitou…

He shifted in discomfort and annoyance where he lay on his moldy futon staring at the ceiling. It took several moments to get his thoughts under control again.

Yeah, so I kiss the hell out of him, and while he’s all breathless afterwards I say, “I love you, Kenshin. Please don’t marry jou-chan; it’ll break my heart.”

And he’ll look at me and realize he’s loved me all along and was only going along with jou-chan because… whatever; anyway, he’ll see that me and him just have to be together, and he’ll say, “Oh, Sano, I am so glad you told me this! I might never have realized, but of course I love you! I must cancel my wedding to Kaoru-dono.”

Again he was derailed. Because that was going to fucking kill Kaoru.

He’d never given more than marginal reflection to this topic, but now he supposed it was time to focus on it squarely. Kaoru loved Kenshin. Kaoru had supported Kenshin, emotionally and financially, almost from the very moment she’d met him. Kaoru had waited ages for a return of affection from Kenshin. And once Sano had won Kenshin away from her, had broken her heart, how could he live with himself?

And yet… shouldn’t she have picked up, after those platonic ages, that Kenshin would only marry her if she pressured him into it? By this time she should be braced for the possibility of never actually having him. And it wasn’t as if a lengthy period even of the impressive type of unwavering support Kaoru had been providing entitled her to romance; she shouldn’t expect it! And, honestly, did Kaoru really love Kenshin? Was there a proper bond of souls there, or was she merely dazzled by Kenshin’s awesome amazingness?

Besides, Kaoru was strong and resilient… she’d recovered nicely once before when Kenshin had left her. Even if the emotion she felt toward Kenshin and the expectation of living happily ever after with him were both serious and deep, even if the series of events Sano planned on initiating did break her heart, she would eventually be fine. She would go on to find a love more properly suited to her, and perhaps even, someday, reinstate her friendship with the two men.

Though far from satisfied, Sano steeled himself. That was the best he could do, so he pushed thoughts of Kaoru’s part in all of this firmly aside and went back to meticulous planning of his conversation with Kenshin. “Hey, Kenshin, can I talk to you?”

This set of reflections left him much closer to satisfied. He believed he had things worked out reliably well, having come up with a general plan of attack, specific arguments against any weak excuses Kenshin might provide, and some really delicious mental images of how things would go from there. Then he would suggest they remove to Kyoto for a while — he could do some work for the Oniwabanshuu or something to support them — as a sort of honeymoon. It gave him shivers just thinking about it.

Over the next couple of days, he took to practicing the persuasive statements he had in mind whenever he was alone — which, given that he’d come home specifically to concentrate and not be distracted by anyone (mostly by Saitou), he usually was. As long as he didn’t botch his delivery (and possibly even if he did, depending on how near the surface lay Kenshin’s subconscious love for him), he didn’t think anything could go wrong.

That at least some aspects of the affair still had him feeling undeniably, skin-crawlingly wrong he continued attempting to ignore.

And July 15th arrived. Sano didn’t have to make any special effort to rise early, for he’d been awake all night. Once the light of dawn touched his unsettled figure in its twisted blanket, he gave up trying to sleep and commenced pacing instead. Hands in the pockets of his freshly washed pants, he chewed his lip in between hours’ worth of broken further rehearsals of what he was coming to consider his lines for the day.

Finally, “What the fuck am I doing?” he grumblingly demanded of himself. Throwing open the door with decisive vigor, he strode out toward the Kamiya Dojo and his conquest.

***

Though Sano raised his arm toward the dojo property’s outer door, his fingers seemed to shrink back toward the palm of his hand rather than extend to open it. Was he really that nervous? His steps had been sluggish all the way here, and his mind was in a turmoil. He was more than ready for this, so why the hesitation?

He brushed the handle, which was good for a start. He had to stop overthinking. Had to set worry aside and just go in there and do this. It was his own happiness he sought; delay would do nothing for him. What was wrong with him? After a deep breath he intended as steadying and encouraging (little as it functioned thus), he clenched the muscles in his arm to fling the door open.

“Sanosuke.”

He froze. Not having heard the other man’s approach was nothing unusual, but the use of Sano’s actual name was.

“Sano.”

And his nickname, even? Sano turned slowly. Under other circumstances, he might have been annoyed with Saitou for throwing him even farther off balance than he already was with the unprecedented name-calling, but he found himself bizarrely pleased at the officer’s presence. The very sight of him there puffing away at the ubiquitous tobacco fix braced Sano unexpectedly.

“Hey,” was his weak greeting. “Come to wish me good luck?”

“Since you didn’t bother to say goodbye a week ago…” That the generally articulate Saitou didn’t finish the sentence struck Sano as odd, but he took his point. Actually it was touching — and surprising — that Saitou would wish him well, so far even as to show up here specifically today.

Sano smiled faintly. Saitou had been really nice all along, hadn’t he? Nice and supportive and a lot more of a friend than Sano had ever expected to find him. It would have been appropriate to thank him for that at this point, but an unspeakable ocean of things Sano needed to say already threatened to drown him. So he just gave the older man a wave that probably didn’t convey much as he turned toward the door again.

And then Saitou said his name for a third time. The sound of those syllables in that voice was so unusual and so compelling that Sano turned back immediately. He noticed now, as he looked closer, that Saitou’s appearance differed somewhat from that of last week: he was worn out, Sano thought, and perhaps a little thinner… haggard, almost. He’d clearly been up all night as Sano had. He must be working on a difficult case.

Though Sano sympathized, he couldn’t handle delay. Still, he tried to keep any unfriendliness from his tone as he asked, “What do you want?”

The period Saitou then spent staring, cigarette near but not quite touching his lips as if he’d forgotten about it, lasted so long that Sano would have thought his own patience shouldn’t have covered it… and yet he made no move, nor attempted to break the silence. And finally Saitou said, “You’re finding this difficult.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Sano muttered.

“Why?”

“If I knew what was wrong, I’d have kicked its ass by now.”

One corner of Saitou’s mouth lifted. “Pithy, as always.” He came a step closer, looking abruptly so pointedly determined that Sano shivered. Those golden eyes seemed ready to stab into him every bit as devastatingly as Saitou’s sword had once done. “My point,” he said, “is that you don’t actually want to go through with this.”

Sano stiffened. “What? What the hell do you mean?”

“Maybe you haven’t realized it yet, but you don’t really want Himura.”

“What the fuck would you know about that?” He managed to make this demand in a decently defiant tone, and the feeling of fists forming from what had previously been lax, sweating hands encouraged him somewhat, but mentally Sano was even more of a mess now than before.

“I was sleeping with you for two months, a week, and three days. It makes sense that I would know some things about you.” Saitou’s smirk lacked something; it looked put on, like a mask behind which his true feelings were completely unreadable.

“And you came all the way over here to tell me this at the last minute?”

“I came all the way over here at the last minute,” Saitou said slowly, as if struggling for words, “to tell you that I don’t want you to go through with this.”

At this the final strands of Sano’s annoyance and impatience unraveled, leaving behind thin-stretched nervousness and a condition, newly revealed, that seemed very much like unhappiness. But there was curiosity too, and something else he couldn’t quite define, in response to Saitou’s words and unusual demeanor. “What? Why?”

The officer stepped even closer, so that only a short distance remained between them, never removing his piercing gaze from Sano’s. “I am in love with you.”

Inability to breathe or, for several moments, to formulate a coherent thought in the wake of the sort of reality implosion that had just taken place inside him left Sano stammering and dizzy. What kind of a development was this?

All these months practicing at… at… everything… had all been real to this guy? All along? Or else since when? And Saitou claimed Sano didn’t want Kenshin, which carried the obvious implication that there might be someone else Sano did want… and Saitou had an infuriating habit of being right most of the time. And Saitou was not only capable of love, willing to admit he could and did love, but loved Sano? Enough that he would actually say it in such unmistakable, uninsulting terms? How had that happened?

Everything was spinning, and Sano suddenly found himself leaning on the frame of the door he’d been trying to open just minutes before. The figure in front of him had become more of a concept, a puzzle he was being forced to solve, than a proper visual, and seemed to be flickering in and out, repeatedly replaced with a different concept, a different puzzle, a torment to Sano’s eyes and brain. Kenshin, Saitou, Kenshin, Saitou… what was he going to do?

***

As the silent mental wrestling match progressed, Saitou watched in raging anxiousness, unmoving and equally silent. He didn’t miss a single expression that crossed the young man’s face as Sano furiously contemplated this upheaval, but what to make of those expressions he didn’t know. He feared his own interpretation must be miserably biased, but interpretation was all that could occupy his mind at the moment.

No, that wasn’t true. In addition to this, his mind was full to bursting of any number of things, many of them emotion-charged images and memories: Sano jumping in mud puddles and kicking rocks; Sano yelling until he was pink in the face; Sano lounging around Saitou’s home as if it were his own; Sano complaining in colorful language about the littlest, silliest things; Sano sitting across from Saitou at the supper table, laughing at something Saitou was telling him about work; Sano twisting and attacking during their training, somehow simultaneously stubborn and responsive; Sano straining upward as Saitou thrust deep inside him… Everything was Sano: cheerful, infuriating, funny, beautiful Sano. It was all Saitou could do to keep from shaking in fear at the thought of losing what he’d so unconsciously come to treasure.

The only person that could hide anything from Saitou with any success, he reflected bitterly, was Saitou himself. He’d certainly repressed this well, at any rate. Exactly when it had started — exactly how long he’d spent denying what he felt, coolly claiming that the entire arrangement with Sano was nothing more than a source of entertainment, eventually easy sex, and perhaps something like unexpected friendship — he still didn’t know. He probably would never have admitted it even internally if he hadn’t been forced to.

When Sano had disappeared so abruptly without a word of explanation, Saitou had tried to tell himself first that he wasn’t surprised, then that he didn’t regret the loss, then that he missed Sano only as he would miss anything he’d become accustomed to having around, that he would soon cease to notice his absence. But just the consciousness of that absence — the awareness that Sano might never come back, that Saitou might never see him again or perhaps encounter him only as Himura’s lover — had roused in his suddenly racing heart a sharp, squeezing pain that increased with every lonely moment and every thought of Sano. He’d been overcome with a furious and nearly unconquerable desire to go after the idiot, drag him home, and never let him go again, and this had made plain to him the full scope of his own emotions.

And now what? He’d been encouraging Sano’s plan to win Himura — at first because it was so amusingly ludicrous, but eventually because it seemed to mean so much to Sano — and therefore hadn’t made any provisions against falling in love with Sano himself. If he’d even recognized that as a possibility, he would have been more guarded, probably wouldn’t have slept with him, would at least have watched himself for symptoms and nipped any budding of what he would have considered a very inconvenient and counterproductive attachment.

Or, if the attachment had been inevitable, which he was more than a little inclined to think, if he’d merely known his own heart earlier, he could have spoken then and avoided the badly timed outburst of today… the one that, every moment, he expected to have thrown back in his face with anger and derision… or, even worse, stupefied pity.

But he hadn’t been lying when he’d postulated that Sano didn’t really want Battousai. Wishful thinking it might be, but not dishonesty. To him, Sano’s behavior over the last few months, not to mention the way Sano spoke of Himura, indicated nothing more than a superficial infatuation. Saitou certainly didn’t believe Himura had any romantic interest in Sano, but, again, wishful thinking might be skewing his perception.

If Sano continued his plan, walked in there now and made his confession, what would be the result? And if it turned out Saitou was the only person around here that actually understood his own feelings, might not irreparable harm be done to more than just him by the decisions made behind these doors?

Of course, even if Sano didn’t love the rurouni, and even if he could acknowledge that, it did not necessarily follow that he loved or could acknowledge he loved Saitou. There were any number of ways in which these events could end very badly.

Sano’s emotions tended to be printed across his face like words on a page. Saitou therefore watched all the more carefully, looking for any sign of favor in those eyes, those lips, that set of jaw and level of brow. But though every feature seemed active, the whole was also almost unreadable in its chaos. As Saitou had predicted, Sano didn’t really know what he wanted, and was at the moment overwhelmed with confusion — better than outright rejection, than a dogged clinging to his supposed love for Himura, but horribly tormenting in the interim. What would he say?

Nothing, it turned out. Instead of speaking or even attempting to speak, Sano spun jerkily and ran away.

Saitou released a tense little sigh as he watched the white-clad figure tear off down the street like a madman. That Sano wanted time and privacy to think things over meant more hope for Saitou, but the latter would rather be with Sano than know he was dealing with turmoil and confusion alone. The presence of one of the causes of that confused turmoil probably wouldn’t improve Sano’s mood or assist his thought, but still Saitou would like to be with him during this difficult time. At the very least, he would like to know immediately what conclusion Sano came to.

Deciding that, in any case, he would prefer to remain as close to him as possible until the crisis had ended, he tossed away his cigarette and lifted his leaden feet to follow.

***

It felt as if Sano had done a lot of running lately — a lot of leaving behind of problems, a lot of avoidance of things he didn’t want to face. But he couldn’t go to a bar and drink this away. He was literally running, but he couldn’t outdistance this issue. He had to stop moving, stop mentally reeling, and face this.

What did that mean, “I am in love with you?” Sano knew it meant, “This changes everything.” He knew it meant, “I won’t lose you to Himura.” He knew, as surely as if Saitou had said it aloud, that it meant, “Stay with me.” Maybe forever, because that was the kind of person Saitou was. It held an entire world of meaning, the earnestness of a strong heart and unwavering character directed toward Sano with the piercing purpose and desire he’d observed in Saitou’s eyes just now. It held the offer of everything Saitou was, and the life that could create for Sano, for both of them. Because that was the kind of person Saitou was.

But how could it be possible? After all their training on various battlefields for today’s trial, that Saitou would be the one to back down had never seemed remotely likely, had never occurred to Sano. He hadn’t even thought the officer particularly invested; Saitou had just been getting his chores done and some nightly entertainment, hadn’t he? But now it turned out that in fact Saitou loved him. It didn’t make sense.

Without having given any thought to where he was going, Sano found himself approaching the river near the spot where, just over a year ago, Kenshin had taught him one of the most important lessons of his life. Perhaps the singular appropriateness of the place had drawn him. He clambered up onto the wooden wreckage that had changed very little since he’d last seen it — certainly far less than he had — stared out over the sparkling water, and essayed to make some sense of his racing thoughts.

He tried to think of Kenshin, or at least to give equal time to the two most prominent men in his life, but apparently his memory had other ideas: Saitou moving with that spare but graceful stride; Saitou mocking him with a gleam of eye stating that, although he meant the insult, he didn’t mean any hurt by it; Saitou sitting across from him at the little table, surprisingly easy and pleasant company; Saitou training him, his concise words and precise movements teaching Sano more than he’d ever learned from anyone else; Saitou conjuring up reactions from his body that he couldn’t have imagined… Although he’d come to accept some time ago that Saitou was not the heartless bastard he’d long thought him, he hadn’t realized until it was laid out in front of his mind’s eye like this what a wonderful person Saitou really was.

But Sano wanted Kenshin, didn’t he? He’d always wanted Kenshin! Since that first day here at this very spot, when his life had been turned upside-down, he’d wanted him. Kenshin was gorgeous; he had eyes you could melt into and the world’s sweetest smile. He could move like nobody could, and he’d done things nobody else could have done. Kenshin was kind and admirable and amazing. You just couldn’t help loving Kenshin. Of course Sano wanted Kenshin.

Even if Kenshin never paid Sano much attention, didn’t know where he was or what he was doing or notice when he was gone. Even if conversation with Kenshin rarely progressed past the superficial, and Kenshin was never willing to spar with him. Even if the connection Sano felt with Kenshin didn’t really go far beyond that of one comrade deeply indebted to another. Even if memories of Kenshin came in discrete little bursts like recalled interesting moments from an otherwise unmemorable play he’d seen at some point — unlike those memories of Saitou, which grasped him in an unshakable grip, rolled him over, climbed on top of him, and started kissing his neck. Fuck it all. Everything was snapping into focus.

Sano was in love with Saitou.

The whirling of reality seemed abruptly to cease, and as Sano gazed out over the calm river he thought his eyes were continually adjusting as if he’d been falling and had suddenly been righted.

No, he never really had loved Kenshin. Not the way he’d believed he did. He gave a hoarse, wild laugh, in fact, as it occurred to him that the feelings he’d vaguely attributed to Kaoru in his attempt to excuse what he planned on doing were actually, more accurately, his own: not love — not romantic love, at any rate — but rather an awareness of the heroic, mysterious image of the hitokiri-turned-rurouni, who had taught him such an important lesson and done such impressive things, that had dazzled him. Dazzled and blinded him so he couldn’t see anything else, even what should have been glaringly obvious.

Of course there was some legitimate physical attraction there, but what did that mean? A lot of people Sano met or noticed in passing were physically attractive, and he wouldn’t necessarily want to spend his life with them. Of course Kenshin was a comfortable friend to have around, but Sano was realizing now that this friendship had a sort of stagnation to it, an unchanging complacency and a lot taken for granted. And of course Kenshin had revolutionized the way Sano lived, and Sano would always be grateful for that… but love didn’t necessarily follow. He could appreciate without idolizing. Hell, he could even, if it came to it, idolize without desiring.

He needed someone to saturate his existence, someone whose presence in his mind was more than just a disconnected series of isolated events; someone that didn’t consider him merely a groupie, and had a real emotional reaction to his presence, whether that was good or bad; someone that knew him well enough to understand his thoughts, and was actually interested enough to pursue them; someone that would surprise him instead of sticking to an endless routine; someone uncontrollable and perfect. He needed Saitou, and if he went back to the dojo now he would be making the biggest fucking mistake of his life.

***

A tall blue figure stood on the long bridge over the river, a smoldering cigarette held to his lips, watching the unceasing sparkle of sunlight on the water beneath him. The bright spots burned his eyes and remained in negative, obscuring his vision, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to look away.

He should be at the police station right now; he should be working. God only knew what kind of mess Chou would be making there without him. Somehow Saitou couldn’t quite bring himself to care.

Presently he found his cigarette had shrunken to a butt, which was farther than they usually got before he threw them away — though it was possible he’d only let it burn down rather than actually smoking the thing to this point. He allowed it to fall from lax fingers into the water, and there lost track of it. Another would be nice, for the comfort of the thing, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to search one out and light it. He merely stood still, perfectly still, waiting in silence.

Sano wasn’t far off. He’d stopped at a point just out of sight of this bridge that seemed to hold special significance to him, and Saitou had come here to wait without even taking care not to let Sano see him following. And here he waited.

He tried not to think about Sano, tried not to think about the situation or the last few months or the possible future. But the burning sun and its unpleasant effect on his body in a relatively heavy jacket, the coruscating whiteness of the river water, the case he was currently working on and the harm Chou might do it while left alone, the state of the country in general… none of it could take his thoughts off Sano. Just as the officer had been unable to do anything recently, even sleep, without thinking of Sano, so Sano dominated his thoughts all the more in this crucial moment.

What would he do if the young man went through with his plan, went back to the dojo and the clueless, undeserving Battousai? Wait around like a faithful hound in case he might have a chance at second place? No, never. He was Saitou Hajime, and he could deal with this as he’d dealt with any pain or loss he’d ever experienced. If Sano rejected him, he would leave Tokyo and move on. He’d been alone for years; he could do it again.

And yet, if Sano did go through with his plan, and was, as Saitou believed he would be, rejected by Himura, he would emerge from the dojo heartbroken and probably in greater need of support than he’d ever been. Could Saitou bear to abandon him at such a moment? Just because the plan was idiotic didn’t mean Sano would suffer any less when it failed.

But approaching him at that point, even purely as a friend offering comfort, would be like pressing his suit, taking advantage of Sano’s frame of mind to insinuate himself as a replacement for the originally desired prize. There were many circumstances under which Saitou would have no objection to such underhanded methods in pursuit of a worthwhile end, but in this case his pride would not allow it. He would not be satisfied with attentions from Sano under any pretenses not completely straightforward. He would not take second place, and he would not take advantage.

But if Sano needed him…

Finally he lit another cigarette, using jerky, irritable movements and viewing the package and matches only imperfectly through the burn spots on his eyes. Then he turned back toward the water and continued to damage both his vision and his lungs.

Not quite knowing what to do was an unusual state for him. He was half inclined to go seek Sano out, half to go home. Which was the wisest course he couldn’t tell, and the awareness that nothing he did was likely to make much difference, that the outcome of this situation lay entirely out of his lands, made the decision seem pointless in any event. He was Saitou Hajime, who had outwaited enemies in the most uncomfortable of circumstances and whose work often required immeasurable patience… but this extended ignorance, he thought, might well kill him.

How long he’d been standing here he wasn’t sure — it could have been minutes or hours — but eventually he felt as if he was at last ready to move. Where he would go and what he would do he likewise wasn’t sure, but the moment finally seemed right. So he lifted his hand to toss what remained of his latest cigarette into the water unfinished before he turned to walk away, but found himself frozen as a figure appeared in the corner of his eye and footfalls sounded across the planks of the lengthy bridge.

He knew Sano’s tread as well as his own, and he thought his heart slowed with each step toward him until it stopped entirely. He ached to look, to see the noontime brightness picking out the subtle differences of shade in Sano’s hair, gilding his smooth skin, sparkling in his eyes, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t move. What he might see in those eyes when he turned his own in that direction kept him paralyzed. He was Saitou Hajime, dependent on no other person for his own fulfillment, and yet he could not move.

These continual reminders of his identity were having little effect. The terrible, wonderful presence nearly at his side was enough to make him forget himself in an instant.

Hotter even than the July sun, ready to burn Saitou into nothingness with his verdict, ready to send him from this place in agony, Sano paused a few feet away for several moments without a word. Finally he came to lean on the railing beside Saitou, reaching out a casual hand to nab the forgotten cigarette from dangling gloved fingers. “So,” he said after a long drag, “why the hell did you wait so long to tell me?”

Under other circumstances the question might have been ambiguous, but here Sano’s tone and the language of his body made its meaning plain. And as if Saitou had been entirely suffused with anxiety so great it was almost despair, swollen and tight with it, he seemed now to feel this wretchedness draining out of his sensitized tissues and spirit and dissipating. He was conscious of relief in every part of himself, every muscle and bone, every corner of his mind; it left him embarrassingly weak. And yet his motions were strong and sure, energized by the same outside source that had freed him from his fears, as he turned and reached out.

Crushing, jealously clutching, he drew Sano to him, flush up against him, fitting them together as they were meant to fit, as perhaps they always had been. One hand at the base of Sano’s spine and the other on his neck, Saitou did not allow any space to remain between them as he tilted Sano’s face upward and descended on slightly parted lips with his own. Sano gave a muffled sound of surprise, but the squirming motion of his body was clearly intended only to wedge himself even closer as his own arms circled Saitou’s back and held tenaciously.

Overwhelmed as he was with relief and happiness and desire, Saitou had no other way to express himself at the moment. He could only kiss Sano as he never had before, as he’d never allowed himself to, as he’d never felt the need to, trying to communicate thus what he could not, at present, convey in words: all the fervor and adoration that had been building during the last few months and had now broken over him like a thunderstorm.

Eventually, dizzily, panting, lips swollen and internal temperatures significantly increased, they were forced after some unknown period of time to stop kissing each other, at least for now, and acknowledge that the world around them still existed. Saitou, however, only saw it reflected in Sano’s eyes, which were at the moment extremely bright and clear and still very close to his own, as the two hadn’t loosened their mutual embrace. Sano stared at him with a shocked expression that might presently turn into a grin but at the moment was still too much blown away for anything but astonishment.

“You… never kissed me like that before,” he gasped.

Before Saitou could even reply, he had to kiss him again, but he made it brief this time. Then, “I couldn’t have you staying with me just for the sex,” he explained, every bit as breathless as Sano.

“Shit.” Somehow Sano’s eyes managed to widen even further. “Have you been holding back there too?”

“Come home,” said Saitou, conscious of a thrill like electricity at a phrase that suddenly held an entire new world of meaning, “and I’ll show you.”

***

During a kiss that had seemed to last forever, to promise forever, and yet hadn’t been nearly long enough, Saitou’s feelings had required no clarification, but the fact remained that Sano couldn’t read Saitou nearly as well as Saitou could read him. As they embarked on the long walk across town, Sano couldn’t shake the impression that Saitou was still worried, and he wondered if he was imagining things.

It would make sense, though… he didn’t like to think what his poor wolf must have suffered waiting for Sano to make up his stupid mind. How long Saitou had loved him Sano didn’t yet know — it was one of a number of questions he wanted to ask — but every moment that emotion had been recognizably present in Saitou’s heart while Sano mindlessly pursued someone else must have been a torment. And recovering from that kind of ongoing concern and agitation must take more than just one kiss, especially given that the conclusion Sano had come to had been reached over the course of less than an hour’s reflection.

The silence that settled over them as they walked, however, seemed to forbid speech. The thousand things that needed to be said — reassurances, queries, explanations — busily lined up in Sano’s head and quickly lost patience, but he couldn’t bring himself to say a word. He wasn’t uncomfortable walking next to the officer, but he did feel… well, impossible as he would otherwise have considered it, he really did feel… shy… and he believed the revolutionary nature of the kiss on the bridge had caused it. Their relationship, the entire scope of their interaction, and, in fact, Sano’s whole spinning world had changed… and he doubted what to do or say now.

But the need to reassure Saitou was overwhelming; the thought of him still skirting the edge of fear and sorrow, and Sano doing nothing to steady him, was unbearable. Somehow he had to demonstrate the seriousness of his decision. So he reached out — almost without looking, lest he deepen the blush that already rode his cheeks — and took the closest gloved hand in his own. As he interlaced their fingers, he thought he saw from the corner of his eye an expression turned toward him that seemed to say, “Right out in public, ahou?” Yet Saitou didn’t pull away. In fact he never pulled away, throughout the entirety of that lengthy walk.

As the familiar house came into view, Sano’s heart gave a little throb. “Come home,” Saitou had said. This was home. At the same time, the silence became discernibly heavier and more expectant than before, and Sano wondered what Saitou believed to be the cause of the increasing sweat on his palm that must be palpable through the glove. In any case, he finally disengaged his grip as they went inside, closed the door behind them, and removed their shoes in continued wordlessness.

Sano had to admit he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted at the moment. Well, he knew of several things he wanted very much, but in what order they should be accomplished and how each should be carried out he couldn’t tell. His body longed for the sex Saitou had promised him — somewhat annoyingly perpetually demanded it, actually — but those thousand things he had to say clamored with equal noisiness in his mind. His heart, full of a variety of emotions, was making the obviously erroneous claim that it would be quite content doing nothing more than simply being here with Saitou, while simultaneously informing him that the unprecedented post-bridge shyness had only become stronger.

With all four doors closed, almost no light shone in this hallway, and Sano had never before felt so grateful for that circumstance. It meant the intensity of his blush couldn’t be seen as Saitou pulled him close in the darkness, though the pounding of his heart would undoubtedly be felt. Saitou didn’t kiss him this time, but drew him into a tight embrace as the silence dragged on. And Sano got the feeling, somehow, that he was still worried. Sano himself was nervous, but that overwhelming need to prove himself and the truth of his feelings was as strong as ever. Words still weren’t quite working, so, until they were, actions would have to do; that at least helped to clarify what the order of events was to be at the moment.

He stepped back out of Saitou’s arms, but, catching hold of one, urged the man toward the door for which the fingers of his other hand fumbled. Then the dim light of the shuttered bedroom filled the passage, and they moved together into it.

Sano caught his breath at the sight of the room, and was at last able to speak. “You left your futon out this morning.”

“Is that really what you want to talk about, ahou?” Though the tone was one of skepticism nothing alien to Saitou, yet there was a hint of evasiveness to this answer — as if he was reluctant to admit to a morning state of mind so distracted and unhappy that he hadn’t bothered to put his futon away… a state of mind that was, perhaps, still lingering in traces.

Instead of forcing Saitou to discuss the unpleasant details of earlier hours, Sano turned to him with a grin. “Your housekeeping’s hopeless without me, isn’t it?” He trailed down the arm he had hold of until he caught Saitou’s hand, then began walking backward onto the futon in question.

“Don’t get too high an opinion of yourself,” Saitou admonished, smiling crookedly as he allowed Sano to pull him down to his knees on the bed.

Kneeling, Sano immediately leaned forward to kiss Saitou. And though this was something he’d done many times over the last couple of months, he was blushing harder than ever now — which probably explained why the kiss started out so soft, though it didn’t stay that way long. For Sano pressed closer eagerly to taste the cigarette flavor of Saitou’s mouth, and Saitou teased Sano’s tongue out with his own.

With so much blood heating his face, that there was any left to form an erection down in the sudden tightness of the wraps beneath his pants was astonishing. Sano’s chest rose and fell rapidly with the intensity of his breaths; and, wanting to get some part of Saitou in between his legs, he squirmed closer to him in an attempt to rearrange their limbs a bit, rendering their kiss messy and difficult to maintain as he moved. The desire he felt to be closer to Saitou was like an explosive force expanding within him… and it was this very desire, seemingly contradictorily, that slowed him.

Because words from earlie