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.



2>>

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!”



<<13

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.

Animal-Handler

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement.

Though the circus has settled in for its winter break, Trowa Barton (acrobat, animal-handler, and werebeast beta) still has his hands full — with a newly acquired lion he’s sure is more than it appears, the return of former romantic partner and current alpha-friend-with-benefits Heero, and tiny niece Relena growing up much too fast.

Unique to this story: a/b/o dynamics

Keeping the circus provisioned while on tour was a balancing act (pun intended) between overloading (which rendered travel difficult) and running short of supplies for all the people and animals that made the whole thing work (which put them at the mercy of the price hikes of the closest general store). By the time they finished their nine months on the road and returned to Springcleft for their season off, they’d usually run pretty low in a desire to travel light on the last leg; and the first thing Andrian and Cathy did, while everyone else got settled in, was drive back down into town and load up on goods to get the winter started. Therefore, Trowa’s heart sank a bit when his sister and brother-in-law returned earlier than expected, not with a truck bed full of food crates, but with only a handful of them beside a large, iron-banded box with what had to be air-holes cut into its sides at various points.

He jogged to meet them, but had to stand off as they circled toward the empty lions’ pen, angling and backing so the bed faced it. That elaborated on the box’s contents, at least. As Cathy jumped out the passenger side, Trowa came closer. “Cubs?”

She shook her head, wide eyes promising a surprise. “It’s a full-grown male, 450 or so.”

Trowa looked again at the box, brows lowering. “How long has it been in that undersized crate?”

“Probably a lot longer than it should have,” said Andrian as he rounded the front of the truck to join the conversation. “You know how Alex treats his animals.”

Trowa nodded. A dealer in imports and exotics often of dubious origin, Alex took advantage of the circus’s compassion for animals by procuring as many unusual examples as he could and housing them in small, shabby cages on short commons, knowing Andrian would pay the asking price just to get them away from him.

“One of these days we’ve got to find a way to make him stop,” Cathy said with a disapproving shake of head.

“It won’t be today.” Andrian gave her a quick squeeze about the shoulders. “We need to unload it and get back into town before the stores close.”

By this time, many of the circus folk had appeared and headed this direction, expecting to unload supplies but not entirely surprised when the truck’s cargo proved to be mostly lion instead. Trowa’s niece Relena, too young to remember the circus’s previous lions clearly, had popped up from somewhere, and danced with excitement to see the new animal. It took long enough, though, to rope the heavy box off the truck bed, down a ramp they used solely for this purpose, and into a position where its door could be opened to allow the creature out into the spacious pen, that the child had wandered off singing a song about lions before the actual lion became visible.

Trowa stood near the tall bars and watched in interest nearly as great as Relena’s had been. He’d missed having lions around, and only hoped this one hadn’t taken too many ill effects from its time in Alex’s clumsy hands.

“Handsome animal, isn’t it?” said Andrian as he joined his brother-in-law observing the acquisition moving slowly out into its new habitat.

Trowa nodded. The creature’s extensive mane appeared tangled, its shaggy body hair matted, and its entire frame covered in dirt and little bits of debris, but it was well formed and not as scrawny as he’d expected. It stretched thoroughly almost the instant its entire body had come free of its constrictive crate, then began to pace around the enclosure; the movements of its limbs were normal, fluid, strong, showing no signs of deformity or injury. Trowa nodded again.

“Work your magic,” Andrian commanded cheerfully, clapping the younger man on the shoulder.

“We don’t have much meat left,” Trowa reminded him.

“We’ll be sure to buy extra.” Andrian turned back toward the truck, which Cathy, once the lion-extracting equipment had been removed, had turned on again and pointed at the front gate. Trowa kept his eyes on the lion.

As a recent tenant of Alex’s, it must certainly be hungry. Once Trowa had satisfied himself that the animal seemed content for the moment simply to wander through the brush and up and down the rocks in its pen, he set off for the meathouse, after requesting that a nearby couple of trapeze artists see to the water trough.

What meat they’d had left at the end of their travels was still being unloaded, so Trowa stood and watched his options go by as Adele, who ran the circus’s fortune-telling tent, walked back and forth between the meathouse and the stack of crates just outside it. Eventually she wondered in a jovially sarcastic tone, “Can I help you, Trowa?”

“I have a lion to feed,” he informed her.

“Since when?”

“Since half an hour ago. Andrian bought it from Alex.”

“How big?”

“Upward of 400.” He didn’t quite agree with his sister’s assessment of 450; she probably hadn’t seen it walking freely.

“Spirits preserve us,” Adele muttered. “I haven’t taken inventory; I’m just doing this grunt-work.” She indicated the crates with a thumb over her shoulder. “But come down and we’ll see what we’ve got.”

A clear none of the raw stuff they inspected looked in any way palatable, though some of it, still on the bone, advertised the type of meal a lion might otherwise enjoy. Trowa settled for several smaller pieces of preserved meat, which he re-wrapped in waxed paper and dumped into one of the crates that had already been emptied. Then, with a gesture of thanks at the fortune-teller, he turned his steps back toward the lions’ pen.

There, he found John and Mary just about finished scrubbing out the water trough, which they’d removed and brought into the open for this purpose. The lions’ pen had its own pool, consistently refreshed by water running in under one set of bars and out under another, but it was some of the most mineral-heavy water that came down from the hot springs Springcleft practically overflowed with, and the previous lions had never approved the taste. A pipeline in from one of the clearer springs in a different direction kept a silo full of drinking and cooking water for anyone else in the circus complex that shared this opinion.

The troughs in the lions’ pen were accessed from an adjoining keeper’s building that had been increasingly used, while they’d had no lions on the premises, for storage. Even had Trowa anticipated the advent of a lion, there wouldn’t have been time between their late arrival yesterday and this afternoon to clean the place out. So he merely squeezed between the recently shuffled boxes near the door into the opener space beyond, and approached the bars where a chute allowed food to slide down into the other, still-present trough.
The chute was set a little high for convenience, even for the tall Trowa, and he had to drag a sealed box over and stand on it in order to peer its length and make sure it hadn’t become clogged with leaves or anything since its last use. He found it relatively clear, but rather dirty: another item he would have scrubbed beforehand if he’d known.

He hopped down and pushed his erstwhile step-stool to the opposite wall, then quickly rearranged some of the others (which he wasn’t sure why John and Mary hadn’t moved entirely aside in the first place) so it would be easier to bring the water trough back in. This they soon did as Trowa began to unwrap the preserved meats, and once they’d gotten it locked into place through the slot at the bottom of the bars, they headed back to the silo for more water to fill it with. Meanwhile, Trowa fed the meats into the chute and thereby into the equally dirty food trough.

Eventually, with food and water provided for the lion and everything in its place, the trapeze artists returned to their own tasks, and Trowa stood at the bars observing the figure at the other end of the enclosure. At the moment it was rolling around in the dirt and scratching at itself all over, and either hadn’t noticed the new amenities or didn’t yet see fit to approach. Trowa watched for a few minutes, pleased at least that the poor thing had room to roam and roll as much it wanted now. More or less satisfied, he finally walked away.

An elderly couple, former bareback rider and strong man respectively, made up the circus complex’s entire human population while the actual circus toured. They ran off would-be trespassers, took care of the animals that, like themselves, had grown too old to travel and perform anymore, and generally made sure everything remained at an acceptable level of readiness for the day at the end of the year when their fellows returned. But this didn’t by any means lessen the amount of work required in as short a time as possible when that event took place.

There were animals to be settled into their long-term habitats, supplies to stow, inventories to take, repairs to be made, and a lot of cleaning to do. So Trowa, like everyone else, kept very busy for the rest of that day, and never had a chance to check whether the lion had found its meal or stopped rolling in the dirt. But since one of his functions in the circus was animal-handler, and he needed to ‘work his magic,’ as Andrian put it, sooner rather than later, he arranged for a good long time to spend with the lion the next day.

With the meathouse stocked to a better level after a proper shopping trip with no lions involved, Trowa was able to select a much better-looking lunch for the animal than yesterday’s. And as he made his way back to the lions’ pen, he recalled its previous inhabitants: a pair of males that had sometimes bickered amicably but for the most part had gotten along fairly well. Middle-aged when Trowa had joined the circus, they’d still been an active part of the show, so Trowa had worked with them quite a bit at first. But they’d progressed into their elderly years and retired, and eventually died within weeks of each other. At times Trowa still missed them; whether the new beast would grow on him as the old ones had, he couldn’t guess.

Today, instead of wandering an enclosure it must be tolerably familiar with by now, it had settled down on a rock in that royally lazy way lions — especially the males — often had, and was soaking up the sun. It lay not too far from the keeper’s building, so Trowa believed he could get its attention fairly easily.

He hefted the large leg of lamb up into the chute and watched it fall wetly into the trough beyond the bars with a splatting thud. Then he called to the lion, “Feeding time,” and watched as the animal rose slowly, stretched leisurely, and moved casually in this direction.

“Hello,” Trowa said as it approached. “I hope you prefer this pen to whatever Alex had you in.” He spoke softly, as he always did when talking to animals and aiming to soothe; this habit had crept into his mannerisms with humans as well, leading many to make some interesting assumptions about him.

The lion looked at him briefly, then turned its full attention to the meat in the trough.

“My name is Trowa Barton,” he went on. It didn’t at all matter what he said; the point was simply to get the lion used to him and the sound of his voice. “I’m 28 years old. I’ve been with the Springcleft Circus for almost nine years — ever since my sister Cathy married Andrian, the owner. They have one child, a daughter named Relena; she’s six this year.”

As the lion tore at the meat and ate the pieces it separated from the bone in surprisingly delicate movements, Trowa went on.

“I’m a werebeast, but my sister isn’t. As far as I know, Andrian is still in the dark about it. I handle the circus animals, get them used to humans, convince them to obey commands and work together with us. Any werebeast could do that, but Andrian thinks I have a magic touch.

“I’m only a beta, but even a beta werebeast can establish an order with animals. You and I, for example…” His already-quiet tone faded to nothing as the lion looked up and met his eyes for the first time.

This was usually all it took — allowing a creature to adjust to his presence, to him, and then a good solid look in the eyes to establish his dominance — and then it would become his servant, or at least (in the case of those more intelligent or dominant themselves) a pliable, receptive associate. This was the ‘magic’ he worked for the circus and for his own satisfaction: not taming animals, precisely, but convincing them of their position relative to himself and the wisdom of complying with his wishes.

But the lion’s eyes seemed beyond intelligent, beyond assertive, and Trowa knew immediately his usual tactic wouldn’t work. He’d never seen eyes quite like that in an animal before. In fact, his surprise prompted him to ask, “Are you a werebeast too?”

The lion gave no indication of having specifically understood him, but continued its unbroken stare.

Trowa shook his head. “Anyway you’re all alpha, aren’t you? You’re never going to submit to me.”

Returning to its meal, the lion terminated the almost uncanny eye contact.

Trowa continued pensively watching. Finally, after a long interval, he spoke again. “What I want is to make sure you’re healthy and happy. If we can become friends, I’d like to arrange for acts in the circus for you. If that doesn’t work out, I’d at least like you to be comfortable and secure here. But if you won’t submit…” He pondered for a moment as the lion began gnawing the last of the flesh off the bone in the trough. Eventually he suggested, “Maybe you can consider me your beta. I don’t mind, if that’s what it takes.” He stood straight from where he’d been leaning against the bars, and swept the dramatic bow he used during his own circus acts.

Abruptly and without warning, the lion dropped the bone, cleared the trough in a quick spring, crouched in the cramped space between it and the bars, and onto one of the latter placed a huge paw.

Trowa took a step backward, not frightened but definitely startled. More than startled at the sudden and unexpected movement, he was very surprised at the comprehension, completely absent prior to this, the lion seemed to demonstrate. With that raised paw, it appeared to be accepting Trowa’s offer of service. It spoke again to the behavior of a werebeast rather than a natural animal.

“If you transformed,” he remarked drily, “we could shake on it.” But when the lion’s attitude remained the same, he raised his tanned hand to place it on the bar across from the darker brown pads. He looked the lion in the eye, searching for signs of humanity. But no clues of body in any animal suggested it might be a werebeast, only of behavior. Trowa had certainly witnessed a few such hints, but they weren’t quite conclusive.

Finally the lion, with the air of getting bored with this, removed its paw, turned its rear end on Trowa, and started nosing around in the food trough again. And Trowa decided that was enough interaction for now.

The next day, he saved the lion for last on his rounds so as once again to give himself plenty of time with it. Of course he couldn’t be certain the animal would even grace him with its presence at the west end of the enclosure where Trowa could talk to it from the comfort of the keeper’s building; and if it did, that didn’t guarantee it would stay long enough for the time to be of any value. But Trowa needed to understand it better, so he would make the attempt.

When he’d dropped off the lion’s supper yesterday evening, he hadn’t seen it. Now, however, the creature paced in front of the food trough as if unusually hungry. When it caught sight of Trowa, it let out an annoyed growl and went still.

“Sorry,” Trowa told it as he used the waxed paper to tip this late morning’s meal into the chute. “You’re on a long list; sometimes you’ll have to wait for breakfast.”

The lion inspected the food briefly, then stood back and shook itself vigorously all over. Debris flew from its dark brown mane, and Trowa stepped back even on the other side of the trough and the bars to escape some of it. Then the lion did as it had yesterday and bounded over the trough to look at the human more closely. It sat down in the dirt and, once sure of Trowa’s attention, began making grooming motions with its left paw.

Trowa watched the huge appendage run up over the lion’s ear, smoothing at its frazzled mane, and wondered what this was about. When the lion ceased this motion and pushed the paw out toward him in what could almost be taken for a pointing gesture, he shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”

The lion stood again and, moving forward, pressed the top of its head against the bars essentially right in Trowa’s face.

Trowa too stepped forward, and peered into the grungy hair in front of him. At the sound he made when his eye caught movement therein, the lion stepped back again. It sat, repeated the grooming gesture, and again put out its paw as if to point at Trowa.

“You have fleas,” said Trowa, “and you want me to take care of them.”

For a third time the lion pointed at him. Now that Trowa believed he understood, the gesture came across very much like an order. If this creature wasn’t a werebeast getting its kicks from harassing a fellow, it must be considerably domesticated to know a human could help with its parasite problem.

“I suspect it’s much easier to bathe in human form,” Trowa murmured, then added in a louder tone, “but I’ll go get what we need. You’re going to have to get very wet, and let me scrub you down. A haircut, too; you’re so matted.”

The lion made a grumbling noise, and turned back to the trough and its breakfast.

As Trowa left the keeper’s building and headed toward the shed where flea powder for all the hairy animals was kept, he reflected on his new relationship with this unusual lion. A good beta followed their alpha’s orders perfectly, and acted in every way as a staunch supporter and second-in-command. Of course he didn’t consider the lion his alpha — that honor was reserved for other werebeasts or, very occasionally, exceptionally assertive natural humans — but the lion had obviously decided to take him up on his offer and consider him its beta. And a command even from an animal alpha to whom Trowa had offered a certain level of submission spoke to his natural inclination to obey. Giving a new hairy acquisition a flea bath (and possibly a good barbering) was something he would have done anyway as soon as he believed the animal wouldn’t try to kill him for the offense, but that didn’t alter the aberrant and interesting nature of this situation.

Relena, evidently having escaped all watchful eyes elsewhere in the complex, came running up to him as he left the shed. “Uncle Trowa!!” she shouted, not even breathless yet in her youthful energy. “Wanna see me do five cartwheels in a row?”

“Yes,” Trowa replied, and watched attentively. He resisted he urge to criticize her form, merely saying, “Well done,” when she’d finished.

“I get dizzy if I do more than five,” she informed him, clapping her little hands together so dust flew off them in clouds.

He nodded gravely.

Next she wondered, “What are you doing?”

Trowa lifted the flea powder. “I’m going to give the lion a bath.”

Relena practically shrieked in her excitement. “Can I help??”

“No.” Trowa smiled. “But you can watch.

“OK.” Relena turned to lead the way. “Look how high I can skip!”

The lion observed Relena with apparent interest as she grasped the bars inside the keeper’s building and stared into the pen. It wasn’t the attitude some predators adopted when a small perceived prey stood before them; it seemed rather to contain curiosity and immediate approval. And here Trowa was, already assigning very human interpretations to the lion’s expressions.

“What’s his name?” Relena wondered.

“He hasn’t told me.” Trowa threw the lion a look.

“Can I name him?”

Trowa repeated the gesture. “Sure.”

“OK.” His niece stood on one leg and pondered, still holding a bar and gazing delightedly at the animal. “I’ll name you… MOOMBAH.”

Trowa’s third look at the lion was pretty smug. The creature, he believed, had twitched at the word. “That’s a great name,” he told Relena. “Now why don’t you go outside and down to the far end of the pen so you can see the area where the water goes in and out?”

“OK!” She tried to skip out of the building, but the crates and things that still cluttered it got in her way and she was forced to walk.

Trowa turned back to the lion. “Well, Moombah, shall we get this done?”

The lion growled softly and rolled his head from side to side, then turned around and stalked away. Trowa set down the supplies he’d brought and reached for his keys. This would be the moment of truth. Would the werebeast take revenge on him for encouraging his niece to dole out a silly name? Would the mere animal become aggressive when Trowa invaded its new space and tried to scrub it? Now to find out.

The door, a section of bars that tracked to the side, fastened with two bolts and a chain, and fortunately the roof of the keeper’s building provided sufficient protection from the elements that no rust had developed during the disuse over the last few lionless years. Trowa undid all three locks, slid the bolts back, and opened the door.

Moombah still plodded toward the pool at the other end, and did not turn at the rattling sound of the ingress. The latter Trowa closed and refastened after hauling everything he’d brought through the opening, then followed the lion to the bathing area. Relena had gotten as close, on the outside of the pen, as she could; now she poked her nose through one of the gaps so the bars pulled her cheeks back into a bizarre stretched expression, and watched with avid interest as Trowa drew even with the lion that had taken a seat near the edge of the water.

“I don’t know when anyone last used this bucket,” he remarked as he removed the items he’d been carrying inside the tin container. Moombah glanced indifferently at it, then started pawing at the running water. He tapped the surface delicately, then shook the water from his paw, then licked tentatively at what remained. He showed no signs of wanting to slaughter Trowa, and revealed this momentous fact with casual indifference. Trowa, letting out a silent breath, bent to rinse the bucket.

The land in Springcleft was composed of tier upon tier of various types of rock, and where the hot, mineral-filled waters from the springs wore away the earth between and around them, weirdly shaped holes with uneven layered edges gaped. So it was here in the circus complex wherever streams came down; so it was higher toward the apex where the large hot pools attracted bathers and vacationers; so it was right up the craggy walls of the valley, which might itself once have been completely underwater.

The pool in the lions’ pen went perhaps six feet deep at most, but had a variety of floors at different levels like a miniature of the entire valley. The channels that fed into and led out of it dug deeper and deeper into the ground each year, and one of these times they were going to have to look to the bar supports. But in any case it was sufficient to rinse buckets and keep lions clean, and surprisingly warm even this far from its source.

Moombah turned to regard the act of mixing up a batch of soapy water in the bucket, and Trowa thought that, with an audience such as he had — a lion that might be a werebeast and a small human girl on the other side of the bars — this made for the most eccentric (and possibly the most boring) show in the history of the circus. When he began scrubbing the lion, though, he trusted it became much more interesting. The creature growled and whined and stretched and wiggled under the brush, and Relena giggled incessantly. And when Trowa gave the command, “Rinse!” and the lion obeyed without too much grumbling, leaping down into the pool so water splashed far out past its mineral-crusted edges and onto Trowa, Relena was beside herself with laughter.

With the process finished — flea scrub, several rinses, shearing, and what brushing was feasible — Moombah shook himself thoroughly from head to tail, rendering Trowa wetter than ever, and took off at a run around the pen. Trowa began packing up his equipment, trying to avoid the worst of the mud that had formed over the last half hour, while Relena made gleeful, impressed sounds about how fast Moombah could run. Eventually the lion came her direction, stopped abruptly at a bit of a skid, and shook his unevenly cut mane violently so water droplets sprayed across the little girl and the bars she clung to. Once more she shrieked with laughter as he then tore away again. Obviously Relena had made a new friend.

This observation was borne out over the next several weeks, and Trowa grudgingly added to it the assessment that he had made a new friend as well. Though occasionally imperious, the lion proved consistently companionable and sometimes outright friendly. As the circus settled and began to relax, and the immediate pressing tasks of winter’s beginning were finished, Trowa had more free time in the afternoons, which he usually spent working on his acrobatics… and somehow (it was a mystery) he came to do this habitually in the lion’s pen.

Moombah watched him with apparent interest. Cats of any size were, of course, natural acrobats and contortionists, but this one never tried to imitate Trowa’s moves. One day, however, it did start a completely unexpected wrestling match. Of course it won handily, pinning Trowa to the ground with paws whose claws only barely prickled outward to keep him down, and this seemed the last proof Trowa needed that they truly were friends rather than predator and prey as they might have been.

Another mystery gradually made itself known: how Relena had come to interact as closely with the lion as Trowa did. Trowa’s growing habit, confident in Moombah’s friendliness now, of leaving the bar door inside the keeper’s building open probably had something to do with it; Relena must have wandered in at some point when he wasn’t looking. This worried Trowa as far as his vigilance concerning his niece went, but its results were nothing but pleasant. Moombah allowed Relena to do literally anything to him — play tag, climb all over him, brush his mane, and some kind of private game Trowa didn’t understand that involved pushing each other and only sometimes falling down.

The lion demonstrated gentleness, care, and infinite patience with her. Once, when Moombah deemed she’d gotten too close to the pool at the east end of the pen, he even picked her up by the overalls as he might a rebellious cub, covering her with lion slobber and carrying her, helpless with laughter, away from what he obviously considered a dangerous area. Trowa was impressed. He also believed more than ever that this must be a werebeast, but nothing he could say or do convinced the animal to reveal his human form or even confirm the theory with an unguarded look or movement. So Trowa let that matter sleep for now.

Winter in Springcleft never became more than cool, and usually remained comfortably warm (as opposed to the long span between mid-spring and mid-autumn when the atmosphere resembled the interior of a stew pot), so Trowa tended to spend more time outside than in. They had their own discrete weather patterns, too, and in winter rain only occasionally drove him under cover. At such times he would read two-bit novels, chat with his sister, or help Relena cut out an eclectic set of pictures from magazines to paste onto colored paper for some enigmatic purpose.

It looked as if it would turn into one such day, as the valley’s narrow window on the sky clouded over from northwest to southeast and a faint sprinkling of warm, scented rain already misted his hair and shoulders whenever he stepped out of the lion keeper’s building. He’d finally gotten around to tackling the plethora of nonsense that had collected in there since the previous lions had died. Some of it, relevant to lion husbandry, only needed to be rearranged logically within the small building, but most of it belonged elsewhere in the circus complex. So Trowa grew increasingly damp as he went back and forth during the course of his work. Nearby, Relena played with Moombah in the pen beyond the open bar door into the keeper’s building, undoubtedly becoming much wetter.

“Almost time to go inside, Relena,” Trowa called to her as he explored the detritus at the bottom of another crate. A resistant cry from the human child and a discontented growl from the lion answered him.

Relena got a reprieve, as Trowa became distracted by the roll of old circus posters he found amidst the other junk. He couldn’t help looking through them one by one, remembering those from the years he’d been here and assessing those he wasn’t as familiar with from before his time. It intrigued him to see the change in styles from when the previous artist had retired and handed the job over to newer blood. And some of these featured Relena’s grandmother Vasilisa, Andrian’s mother the previous owner and manager, whom Trowa barely recognized except for the golden-brown hair she’d passed on to her granddaughter.

As he moved to shuffle to the next poster near the end of the roll, he was startled by the flinging open of the wooden door into the building and the rush of a figure, darting past him through the open bar door into the pen, whom he couldn’t quite identify in the speed of their passage. He leapt to his feet, dropping the posters — they fell onto the side of the crate, some tipping into it but some scattering across the floor — and followed.

Trowa arrived just in time to see a man in a denim jacket fling himself between Relena and the lion, yanking the child back and shoving her behind him so she fell into a seated position on the grass with a yelp. Now Trowa recognized him, as well as the assumption he’d logically made upon entering the circus complex and seeing, almost first thing, a lion and a six-year-old together apparently unsupervised in this pen.

“Heero, wait,” Trowa called, hastening forward.

Heero faced the lion in an openly combative pose, though what he thought he could do with human limbs Trowa had no idea. Still, he appeared ready to attack at any moment, or try to hinder the lion if it did. Actually, he seemed ready to transform, if Trowa was any judge; the hands he’d lifted seemed to be drifting toward what garments would be destroyed or hamper his movement if he did, ready to pull them off and reveal his werebeast form to the world in order to protect Relena.

Imitating his friend, Trowa placed himself between human and lion, blocking the latter’s bemused tilt of head from the former’s view and raising his own hands. “Stop,” he commanded. “Don’t.”

Heero’s eyes widened, and a body-wide start gave way to a gradual, reluctant relaxation into a normal standing position, no longer threatening to shed his clothing onto the wet grass in order to change shape. He opened his mouth to speak, but Relena beat him to that punch. Throwing her arms around his legs, she cried, “Uncle Heero! You came back!”

The lion took one step delicately to the side, then one forward, so it could see Heero around Trowa and his outspread arms. Trowa let one of these fall so his hand rested in Moombah’s mane, a gesture of restraint and reassurance for both parties. Heero did not take his eyes off the creature as he tried to unclasp Relena’s hands from his legs, but he did acknowledge her greeting with a gruff affirmative sound.

“This is Moombah,” Trowa said, running his hand through the lion’s dark brown hair.

Heero’s brows went up.

“Relena named him.”

“He’s my friend!” Relena had gotten around in front of Heero and was now jumping up and down. “He’s my uncle, just like you and Trowa! Uncle Moombah!” Almost absently, perhaps in an attempt at calming her, Heero reached down and picked the little girl up, still keeping his eyes on the lion. Relena took advantage of the position to hug him around the neck and plant a big wet kiss on his cheek. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I didn’t see you for so long!”

“That’s a good question,” Trowa murmured.

Heero spoke at last. “I’ll tell you. Let’s get out of this lion pen.”

Trowa nodded, then was forced to stifle a chuckle as Heero literally backed away from the lion, holding Relena and staring at Moombah steadfastly with every step. Trowa had to hasten to guide him around the food trough and through the still-open bar door into the building. There, Heero set Relena down in a slow, careful movement, as if expecting the lion to bound forward and gobble her up once she stood on the floor.

Turning, Trowa observed that Moombah had followed them and taken a seat next to the trough. Interestingly, he stared at Heero as ceaselessly as the human stared at him, though his reasons were far less fathomable.

Relena started bouncing around Heero, but, as usual, the clutter in the keeper’s building got in her way. And halfway through her already broken circle, she noticed the circus posters scattered around a nearby crate, and abruptly dropped to her knees to examine them.

“You always leave this gate open?” Heero asked suspiciously, examining the setup briefly before looking at the lion again.

“When I’m here.” Trowa sat down on the floor and pointed to a place opposite to suggest Heero take it. “Moombah doesn’t cause any problems.”

The other werebeast reluctantly sat. “It’s tame?”

“I… wouldn’t say that. But he’s friendly.”

Heero nodded slowly, and said nothing more.

As usual, it would be up to Trowa to start the conversation. Accustomed to this, he found it no great difficulty, but it was all part of a problem he’d observed for as long as he’d known Heero. “We’re almost six weeks into winter. I didn’t expect to see you at all, especially after you didn’t show up last year.”

Relena wandered over with what must be her favorite poster, and installed herself unceremoniously in Heero’s lap to look at it. It occasionally blocked his vision, at which point he would push it aside in order to keep his eyes locked on Moombah. Trowa again had to restrain that chuckle.

“I went downriver to the coast. I spent the season in the swamps.”

Knowing that by ‘season’ Heero meant ‘mating season’ rather than ‘winter,’ Trowa considered this. He had no chance to ask his next question, though, because Relena cried, “You were in a swamp??”

“That’s right,” Heero replied, taking her by the shoulders and tilting her sideways so the poster moved with her.

Relena squirmed and giggled, and through her glee demanded to know, “Were there alligators??”

Now Heero met Trowa’s eyes briefly, and they both smiled. “Yes,” Heero replied.

“How many alligators? I can count to one hundred, so if there were one hundred alligators, I can count them for you!”

“Thank you,” said Heero gravely. “I didn’t count them.” His eyes flicked to Trowa’s once more as he added, “They were a dirty temptation.”

This was werebeast slang, and Trowa understood now how the beginning of Heero’s previous year had gone: he’d tried to spend his inconveniently intense mating season as an alligator, in an area suited to that shape, in order to circumvent the irresistible attraction he felt to humans in his other form… but the natural alligators in the swamps had been distractingly sexually alluring to him in alligator form. It must have been a maddening, miserable winter.

“How many is that?” Relena was asking, getting her poster in Heero’s face again.

“Relena,” Trowa said suddenly, “Uncle Heero doesn’t believe Moombah is a nice lion. Why don’t you go play with Moombah so Heero can see how nice he is?”

Relena jumped up, nearly bashing her head into Heero’s face, and stumbled out of his lap. “I will!”

“Don’t take the poster into the rain,” Trowa added hastily. For the storm had broken, transforming the drizzle into steady, heavy drops. Relena would be soaked; the adults had better finish their private conversation quickly so they could get her inside for a hot bath.

“Is it really safe?” Heero wondered, setting aside the poster the child had handed him before running out into the wet.

Trowa nodded. He noted that Moombah had come even closer, possibly to avoid the worst of the downpour, so Relena had no great distance to go to start climbing all over him. There was a relatively waterproof sort of den near the north wall of the pen, but evidently Moombah preferred to be here right now, despite how long it would take his fur to dry later.

Trowa turned back to Heero and said, “I’m sorry your swamp experiment failed.”

Heero shook his head, looking grim and somewhat haunted. “I thought this year I’d try something else. But I couldn’t. Nothing seems to work.”

“Heero, you’re welcome here. I’m here all season for you.”

“I know. I’m grateful. But it’s not fair to you.”

“It may not be,” Trowa allowed. “But I don’t mind it. If I ever do, I’ll tell you.”

Heero only frowned. He’d removed his eyes from the lion again to look at Trowa, and now it seemed they were stuck traversing his friend’s seated form. A hunger glowed in those eyes that Trowa had seen many times before, but which now looked famished, desperate; and the tension in his frame conveyed very clearly what it would take to satisfy him. An answering shiver ran through Trowa’s body, as it always did on seeing Heero for the first time after a long absence.

Trowa lowered his tone. “I need to get Relena inside to Cathy, but I can meet you in my room after that.”

Heero drew in a ragged breath. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“You’d better hold your jacket in front of you,” Trowa advised with a glance at Heero’s lap, “and be glad that didn’t happen three minutes ago.”

With a grimace, Heero removed his outer garment, stood, and stepped toward the door. Trowa rose as well, and began to replace all the circus posters in the crate they’d come from so they wouldn’t blow into the rain or otherwise get destroyed. Then he went to the bar door and called Relena, who seemed, in this rain, far more likely to come willingly. He noticed the lion’s eyes followed Heero until he was out of sight.

Trowa missed dinner that night, but since Relena had undoubtedly spread the news of Uncle Heero’s return, and the adults of the circus understood Uncle Heero’s relationship with Uncle Trowa a little better than the child did, he doubted anyone worried about him. They might have worried about muscle strain and cramp resultant upon not having moved in certain ways for quite some time, regular acrobatics entirely notwithstanding — but only if they were thinking far more about his sex life than he would prefer.

Breathless and covered in sweat after the fifth or sixth time, Trowa attempted to rearrange the bedding into some semblance of order. He found himself a little too worn out, at the moment, to do more than tug on the thin patchwork quilt that had fallen half off the bed, and inadvertently induced its complete abandonment of that piece of furniture. The sheet beneath was hopelessly twisted and wrenched from where it had been tucked at the bottom, and this Trowa couldn’t muster the energy to detangle and drape over them properly. So he let his head fall back onto the pillow, near Heero’s, and tried not to care.

They were two very quiet men that rarely disturbed the inhabitants of the rooms to either side. In fact, they might well be considered extremely similar in personality by casual acquaintances. But, Trowa reflected as he listened to Heero’s breaths controlled and silenced much quicker than his own, where his quiet was that of calm, of confidence, of peace and satisfaction with his life, Heero’s quiet was that of repression. A passion and intensity lurked beneath Heero’s surface like the alligator he sometimes was, and a muted frustration at his own denial of it drove him to wander, to seek, rather than settling into a comfortable life somewhere (such as here at the circus).

If Trowa had an alpha, it was Heero. If Heero had a beta, it was Trowa. And Trowa, who prided himself on being a good beta, had been loyal to and supportive of Heero ever since they’d first met, both when they’d been romantically involved and later when their relationship had become more that of friends with a practical arrangement. He’d always done whatever he could for Heero… but he knew by now that such behavior wasn’t what Heero needed. Trowa’s willing submission and second-in-command attitude could not draw out Heero’s intensity the way Trowa (and undoubtedly Heero himself) would like to see it brought to the surface.

Some betas (they’d started calling themselves ‘beta pluses,’ which Trowa considered phenomenally stupid) were constantly challenging their alphas, pushing them, testing boundaries, essentially seeking to topple the dominance order and become alphas themselves. This would never be Trowa’s way, and in fact annoyed him to think about… but perhaps it would better fit Heero’s true needs.

The latter obviously remained unsatisfied. A proud and selective alpha, Heero demonstrated fastidious unwillingness to take to the cities, with their bigger selection, in search of a mate, clinging instead to something he knew met his body’s demands, even while feeling guilty about it. His romance with Trowa had ended amicably some years ago, but Heero always came back here for his mating season. And Trowa would always be there for him, always love him as a friend, always submit to him sexually as Heero so desperately needed him to… but he feared Heero’s lifestyle would never lead either of them to emotional fulfillment.

Physical fulfillment, on the other hand…

Trowa slept little that night, but on subsequent nights (when they hadn’t started so early and therefore went on later) he slept even less. At this time of year, Heero was insatiable; he wore the other werebeast out before every dawn. And Trowa enjoyed the sex, naturally. He too felt lonely in general and longed for a mate, most especially during his own season in spring, but, not nearly as driven as Heero, he generally managed to get by.

“We always know when Heero’s here,” Cathy told him one day, “because you get circus tents under your eyes.” And, though she was clearly teasing, the gentle sympathy showing simultaneously in her face probably pointed toward both her brother and Heero. Despite the transformative gene’s recessiveness in her, she’d grown up in a family of werebeasts, and well understood the devastating toll an intense mating season could take on one without a mate — and those around them. But she didn’t — maybe couldn’t — say this in front of her husband.

He, a very supportive brother-in-law and with genuine good feelings and wishes toward Trowa, believed Heero and Trowa had an on-again-off-again romance, and at this point in the conversation said with comradely sympathy, “Hopefully he’ll stick around this time.”

Relena obviously had the same wish, for reasons of her own, and after not too long Heero appeared to return her affection. The last time he’d been here, his niece had only been four years old, and had mostly stayed with her parents and babysitter. Now, at six, she’d become interactive, and had the freedom to spend time with her uncles, blood and nominal and lion — and Heero didn’t seem at all to mind. Trowa speculated that, being a child and therefore not sexually attractive, Relena made a much better companion for the easily aroused alpha than did any older human, including himself. So they were frequently together, the four of them.

The uneven, grassy ground of Moombah’s pen could not be considered ideal for floor acrobatics. Because of this, Trowa found practicing there helped him adjust quickly to different terrain, a useful skill for someone that never knew how perfectly flat a surface the circus might or might not find for each show on tour. And in all or nearly all of his flips and balancing moves and cartwheels and rolls, Relena imitated him.

“I want to do the trapeze,” she complained one day after failing to pull off even a single flip in imitation of Trowa’s triple. She sat on the grass pouting, having previously brought under control the wailing and tears occasioned by her fall.

“When you’re bigger and older,” Trowa promised, “John and Mary will teach you.”

“But I wanna do it now!”

“He’s right,” said the nearby Heero, who’d been seated in the grass taking care not to watch Trowa’s body and its flexible talents, and who now rose to a crouch. “But come here.”

Relena ran to him, and jumped into his arms. Heero promptly stood straight and threw her into the air. She flailed and let out the expected shriek of mirth, then fell back to his waiting hands. “Again! Again!” she demanded. And Heero complied.

Trowa, standing still for the moment to watch, observed that Relena wasn’t the only thing rising and falling; Moombah’s great maned head swiveled up and down, up and down, following her closely with his big liquid eyes. And whether the lion felt more interest in Relena’s safety or Heero’s physical prowess, Trowa couldn’t guess.

Eventually, breathing hard, Heero caught Relena and did not immediately throw her again, though she kept telling him to. “Too tired,” he said, and unexpectedly swung the girl onto the lion’s back. Her eyes went wide, and she immediately clutched at the brown mane for balance. Moombah too seemed startled for a moment, but almost instantly regained his composure and waited, stock-still, for Relena to get her bearings. Then, as she sat up straight and looked around, clamping her little legs down as best she could onto the deep chest, he began slowly pacing forward.

A huge grin spread across Relena’s face as she discovered she could direct her mount by pulling on his mane in one direction or another, and soon they were wandering all around the enclosure at varying speeds. Heero stood and watched them, and Trowa stood on one hand and watched them, and the atmosphere was nothing but cheerful.

Relena had needed only prompting to become a devotee of lionback riding. Over the next few days, whenever they were in Moombah’s pen, she kept coming up with what she considered new ‘moves’ — different ways of mounting and dismounting, commands for actions on the lion’s part that she kept forgetting, and ringleader-style introductions to her fictional lionback riding act. Heero would throw her in the air until too tired to continue, and then she would demand all eyes upon her while she performed the latest in a string of ideas she’d come up with during the rest of her day.

This was typical Relena behavior, but more in Trowa’s vicinity than usual, and he relied on Heero’s constant concentration to give him any time to practice his own routines. Moombah seemed aware of this small dilemma, and occasionally diverted Relena’s attention away from Trowa’s lack thereof, in ways the werebeast couldn’t in any way believe unpremeditated. He never had persuaded the lion to reveal its human form, though, and had mostly given up trying.

Heero, Trowa believed, exercised this endless patience and show of interest for Relena’s young antics not solely out of desire to do what he could to help Trowa, out of gratitude and some shame for what Trowa did for him; he also truly seemed to care about her, to enjoy interacting with her, and to take real consideration with her for her plans. It touched Trowa’s heart, and made him wonder whether this was an alpha thing, or an aspect of Heero’s personality he’d never had a chance to exhibit before in Trowa’s presence, or maybe a little of both.

A camaraderie of another nature developed between Heero and Moombah. It differed from Trowa’s relationship with the lion too; this much was observable from the merest moment they all spent together. But Trowa didn’t realize just how different it was until the time he saw Heero and the lion wrestling, as Trowa did sometimes with Moombah, and felt the closest thing to a shock he’d had in quite some time.

Moombah snarled and lashed his tail and wrinkled his lips so his enormous teeth showed ruthless and shining, while Heero grappled him with biceps bulging and gritted teeth and an intensity looming in his blue eyes that Trowa had rarely seen there. Claws in, the lion gave Heero a tough bat with his paw and sent him sprawling, into a position from which Heero rolled into a crouching skid and launched himself right back at the animal. There was a seriousness to the sound, the look, the feel of the match that had never been present between Trowa and Moombah.

He shook his head slightly. That one had to be an alpha thing.

Not infrequently during any given day, Heero would become inconveniently aroused by some adult human in his vicinity, and retreat with a grumbling demeanor to Trowa’s room until presentable again. But even on the nights following days when this hadn’t happened, Heero remained insatiable. In earlier life, Trowa wouldn’t have guessed a diminished refractory period might come with the drive of a werebeast alpha, but had definitely seen it demonstrated many times over the years.

In one instance, when they’d fallen out of bed and continued on the floor, and eventually lay half on the hard slats and half on the rug, the sore and panting Trowa happened to glance in the direction of the room’s exit, and sat up abruptly. The pale glow of the minute cracks around the door prompted a broken query, “What time… how long…?”

Though Heero’s expression was invisible in the darkness, just his single syllable, “Oh…” sounded embarrassed.

Rising and stumbling to his bureau, Trowa felt out the lamp and reached for the switch. As the gas hissed and the striker clicked, the room lit up enough to see the clock on the wall, by which he observed it was nearly seven in the morning. He tried very hard not to let his subsequent glance at the naked Heero come across as accusatory.

“Oh,” Heero said again. “I’m sorry.”

Trowa shook his head, stifling a sigh. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No,” insisted Heero, rising and looking sheepish. “This is my fault.”

Unable to deny it, Trowa said nothing, just turned back toward the bureau and opened the top drawer seeking a clean shirt.

“Don’t.” Heero began replacing and straightening the disarrayed bedding. “Get some sleep. I’ll start the chores.”

Trowa smiled faintly at the offer, and nodded at his companion. “I’ll join you later.”

Heero nodded as well, and then, once he’d pulled down the blanket and sheet for Trowa to climb back into bed under, searched for his own clothing and shoes. After not too long, fully dressed, he put out the lamp and left the room.

Trowa squirmed into the bed, half luxuriating in lingering sensations and half resolving soreness and exhaustion. Despite thinking drowsily that it smelled like sex in here just a little more than usual, it wasn’t long before he dozed. And then it wasn’t long before the door cracked open again with a creak of hinges and an in-flooding of dim morning light that startled him awake.

“Trowa,” Heero said quietly, sounding bemused, “why is your alpha following me around?”

Re-closing his eyes against the light, Trowa grumbled out a barely intelligible answer: “Don’t have an alpha. ‘M a lone beta.”

“Why is your lion following me around?”

Trowa lifted himself up onto an elbow and peered at the backlit, messy-haired head peeking through the door at him. “What.”

“Your lion. Moombah. Is following me around.”

Trowa made a noise of indifferent confusion. “Maybe he wants to help you with the chores.” He reclaimed his recumbency and pulled the blanket over his head.

Heero said nothing further, and a moment later the latching and locking of the door sounded. Soon Trowa did more than doze; he’d fallen deeply asleep, and stayed there for several hours.

Though he woke groggy and sorer than usual thanks to the strenuous night and the unusually timed, truncated sleep, curiosity gave him a sharper edge than he’d expected, and eventually he rose, dressed, and issued forth to find out how much work Heero had accomplished and to what extent Moombah might have assisted in that endeavor.

Everything he took note of on his way from the rooms appeared finished, which relieved him since he hadn’t looked forward to completing a miscellany of tasks in this fuzzy state He saw no signs of Heero or Moombah all the way to the latter’s pen, but there he stopped short. Approaching the bars slowly, he felt an unexpected warmth growing inside him.

Stretched out lazily in the winter sun, the lion looked precisely like every other lion Trowa had seen lounging around that habitat in the past — except usually they didn’t have a human man propped up against them, head on mane and arm along golden back, deeply asleep. Those two had bonded indeed, whether it was an alpha thing or not. Trowa would never tell Heero how charming a scene this made, though.

How rarely the bar door into the lions’ pen was ever closed, Trowa doubted anyone besides himself, Heero, and Relena knew. The door into the keeper’s building often stood open as well, so Moombah essentially had free run of the complex and beyond. Because he emerged primarily to follow Heero and Trowa around (not when they were caring for other animals, of course, as the presence of a lion invariably spooked or aggravated those), the rest of the circus simply assumed Moombah to be under their control.

One evening, though, as Trowa and Heero sat with Cathy helping to sharpen a truly startling set of throwing weapons that she’d arranged by size in heaps on a thick tarp spread across the dirt, while Relena hopped and cartwheeled and sprinted in large circles around this business she was strictly forbidden to get any closer to, Cathy remarked, “The way that lion stares at us is unnerving.”

Her brother glanced over to where, some yards away closer to the front gate, Moombah sat, straight and lordly, gazing across at them from behind the bars of his pen. Trowa believed him to be staring at Heero as he often did when not outright following him around, but Trowa refrained from informing Cathy of this.

“Maybe he wants to help,” Heero murmured in between grinds at the spinning stone.

Cathy chuckled. “And have his claws sharpened while we’re at it?”

“He might,” Trowa realized aloud as he noticed the lion’s gaze moving subtly, “be watching Relena.”

Cathy’s expression and bearing became uneasy. She turned entirely toward Moombah and watched him intently, her brows lowering farther every time Relena crossed her field of vision.

“Because he’s worried about her,” Trowa clarified. “He’s afraid she’ll get too close to the edged weapons.”

The look Cathy gave him now blended skepticism with a hint of suspicion. “He knows about edged weapons?”

Trowa reminded her, “I’ve mentioned he must have lived with humans in the past.” In one form or another.

“Yes, but…” She pursed her lips as she fixed worried eyes on her daughter.

“He’s very protective of her.”

Whatever answer Cathy might have given was overridden when Relena, noticing her mother’s fixed attention, shouted, “Mommy, watch me!!” and started cartwheeling again. It was nothing any of them hadn’t seen a dozen times before, but they applauded when she finished, staggering and panting, and started to draw closer at a walk.

“Keep clear of the weapons,” Cathy said.

Relena stopped and sat down at a safe distance. “OK.”

All three adults smiled — for each’s personal definition of the term — as they turned back inward to their work and Relena began to draw in the dirt and sing a song about numbers as she did so. The next time Trowa looked over at Moombah, he found the lion’s gaze fixed… but the animal stood too far away to guess precisely whom it stared at.

Though the surrounding walls loomed about twice as high, the front gate onto the property rose only about five feet — tall enough for basic security, but making no pretensions to an ability to stop, for example, stampeding elephants. It remained fastened by chain and padlock unless someone had left and would return the same day; and on this particular one, the two high divers — a vapid married couple of ladies whose only real talents were looking extremely good in swimwear and no fear of heights — had gone to the lower valley to shop. Though perhaps unlucky for the Springcleft Circus folk, this was a lucky thing for the figure fumbling drunkenly at the gate’s fastening, which never would have given way to his clumsy hands had the chain been in place.

They only noticed their visitor by noticing first that Moombah had moved down to the far end of his pen nearest the complex’s entrance and now stood in a pugnacious pose, fur bristling, watching the man struggle to and eventually, painstakingly enter. Then, attention drawn that direction, they all looked at the big blonde figure stalking toward them with alcohol-fueled determination.

Cathy, as a co-owner and manager of the circus, rose first. She didn’t bother putting down the hand ax she held as she left the tarp and the seats, and her face radiated disapproval. “Relena, please go into the house,” she called over her shoulder before heading toward the newcomer. Then in a louder tone she asked, “What do you want, Alex?”

Alex’s line toward them hadn’t exactly been straight, but the angle changed when Cathy spoke. “I’ll te’you what’s I want!” he shouted in reply. “I tell you, I’ll tell ya!”

Trowa sighed, and looked around at where Relena had, instead of obeying her mother, merely moved back a pace. “Relena, go into the house,” he reminded her quietly. Very reluctantly, the child obeyed, looking over her shoulder every couple of steps and then standing in the open door to the residence hanging from the knob without going any further. At least there she was too distant to hear the language Alex would undoubtedly soon start using.

“Thas my lion, dyhearme? My lion!” Alex gestured furiously at Moombah, who, behind the bars of his pen, had kept even with Alex and maintained his angry stance. “You circus freaks thing you’re better’n me with your big cages an’ shiny tens an’ lectric lights an’ shit, up in this rich fuckin’ valley you don’ even ‘serve t’own landin… Well, thas my lion, yhearme?”

Cathy remained cool and completely uncowed as Alex stumbled up to her and shouted the last declaration directly in her face. “How did you get here in this state?” she wondered, the question more rhetorical than anything. “And how many trees did you hit on the way up?”

As Alex’s ranting became a little more personal, all about how the circus folk lorded it over him but in reality they were just weirdos that couldn’t get real jobs, interspersed with continual insistences that Moombah belonged rightfully to him, Trowa and Heero came to stand on either side of Cathy for solidarity, and hopefully to diminish the amount of spittle she had to deal with on her face by sharing the load.

“You’re very drunk, Alex,” Trowa informed him quietly when he paused to draw breath. “You need to go home.”

“Nah withou’ my lion!”

Trowa followed Alex’s flailing gesture over to Moombah. The lion, observing Trowa’s eyes on him, bared his teeth and made an imperious clawing movement with one paw; and Trowa didn’t doubt — not least because he instinctively twitched to obey — Moombah was ordering him to physically attack Alex. The lion must have been mistreated during his time in one of the unkempt cages in Alex’s filthy warehouse, and now wanted Trowa to take revenge for him. Trowa, however, resisted the loyal beta’s urge to do so, because Heero had stepped forward to deal with Alex in his own way.

Though broad-shouldered and tall — standing at least a head above Heero and even a couple of inches taller than Trowa — and bulked out by muscle and fat, Alex seemed abruptly hypnotized by the close gaze he suddenly had locked with the shorter, more wiry man in front of him. Heero had placed a fist on Alex’s chest, and begun moving forward slowly, forcing Alex to give way. A drunk human ranked little higher than an animal, after all, so no surprise a werebeast alpha, even in this less intimidating form, could impose his will on him.

“You sold that lion to the circus,” Heero said. He spoke even more quietly than Trowa, but his voice held authority and a buried fierceness.

Alex continued moving slowly backward away from Heero’s advance, but protested, “Mueller sol’ the lion! He ‘ad no right!”

“Mueller works for you,” Heero reminded him. “He acts with your authorization.”

“He di’n’ get enouffer the lion! Thas a good lion! You assholes owe me!”

Trowa, moving slowly forward behind Heero, shifted in annoyance. Alex paid this type of call infrequently (and had never done it in Heero’s presence before), but was consistently irritating when he did; and honestly Trowa would like to follow Moombah’s command and give him a good sock to the jaw… but Heero outranked the lion in terms of influence over Trowa, and must be allowed to continue as he wished. Trowa remained poised nonetheless for whatever he would be called upon to do.

Heero’s final word on the matter came with the force of crushing jaws: “You need to leave this property. If the circus wants to deal with you and your illegal animal imports, they’ll come to you. Leave, and never come here again.” He had alpha’d Alex all the way back to near the main gate, and as Alex stumbled over the gate rut and only barely caught himself, he looked around and realized how far he’d come. Trowa could see his crookedly parked truck out beyond, its front bumper buried in a bush. And Alex himself appeared for a moment as if he might actually leave of his own free will, though whether or not he could navigate a motor vehicle down to the larger valley in his current state remained a mystery.

But then he turned again, seeming to rally, glaring at Cathy and Trowa and pointedly avoiding Heero’s gaze. “You thing you’re th’only circus aroun’?” he demanded spitefully. “I’m a circus too, an’ you can’ keep my animals from me! Thas my lion, an’–” But he broke off with a squeal, bloodshot eyes widening in sudden terror, and fell onto his rear end as he attempted to scramble back. For Moombah had obviously tired of the tirade exactly as Trowa had, and emerged through the ever-open bar door of his pen and the keeper’s building to come bounding toward them.

The lion pounced on the screaming Alex, pinning him to the dirt, and roared again, deafeningly, right in the face of the drunk that hadn’t expected any such result of his visit to Springcleft Circus this evening. In the distance, other animals stirred up by the sound added their opinions, particularly the elephants and the monkeys, and the entire north side of the complex shook with cacophony for almost a full minute. Alex, losing the energy or perhaps the strength of lung even to scream, writhed, wet himself, and made incoherent whimpering noises with a pleading timbre to them. The others, at least for a moment or two, merely stood back and watched.

Trowa felt he knew Moombah pretty well by now. He knew how friendly the lion was toward himself and any other human he’d observed approach it thus far; he knew how protective it was of Relena. He speculated, based on Moombah’s apparent order to him, the lion didn’t actually want Alex badly injured or killed. But he wondered whether a line had been crossed, whether the creature would now act like a vengeful lion instead of a sensible werebeast and actually maul Alex here and now. If Moombah chose to do so, they wouldn’t be able to stop him — and attempting to might be dangerous.

But evidently Heero disagreed. At any rate, he appeared mildly annoyed — perhaps that his successful nonviolent maneuvering of Alex had been overridden by the lion’s more vigorous plan — and moved around to look Moombah in the eye. “If you kill him,” he said, in his own tone of command, “the circus will face legal trouble. Back off. Let him go.”

The lion did not obey, only stared defiantly at Heero. Trowa took a few steps to the side so as to see their locked gaze more clearly, then had to resist the urge to shy away from the crackling of alpha energy practically visible in the air between them. And as this contest of wills dragged out, Alex managed somehow to gather his nerve and wriggle from between the lion’s paws. He scrambled away, first on all fours, then, finally gaining his two legs, toward his truck.

It was Moombah’s turn to appear annoyed, and he broke eye contact with Heero at last in order to step to the side and roar at Alex again. Again the elephants trumpeted and the monkeys shrieked, and Trowa believed he heard the zebras making their strange noise as well. Alex ran faster in response, slammed into his driver’s side door, and hauled himself up through its window with a dexterity Trowa wouldn’t have expected from him at this juncture. As he struggled to start the car, Heero grunted and turned away.

“I’ll be in your room,” he said to Trowa, and stalked back into the complex.

Moombah spun with much the same frustrated gesture and stalked back toward the lion keeper’s building. A minute later, having returned that direction themselves, Cathy and Trowa saw him pacing as if still irritated behind the bars of his pen.

Sister and brother looked at each other, and each shrugged faintly. Then they went back to sharpening Cathy’s throwing weapons, their task force diminished by one. Eventually Cathy remarked, “That was a dominance struggle, or I don’t know anything about pack dynamics.”

Trowa nodded. “It wasn’t exactly settled, either.”

Cathy agreed.

Just at that moment, Relena came running out to resume her safe distance from the tarp and the sharpening endeavor, and demanded to know what had happened. So Cathy began to tell her, which had the benefit of allowing Trowa to relive it all and decide what he really thought about it.

The little girl’s impression, as she told them a few days later in Moombah’s pen while Trowa practiced, was glee at the bad man having been scared off by the lion… but some bafflement as well. The idea of fearing Moombah seemed patently silly to her; Moombah was her best friend in the whole world.

Said Moombah rewarded her with an affectionate nuzzle for this statement.

“I want to do an act for the circus to show everyone I’m not scared of Moombah!” Relena went on. “Because a lot of circus acts are things people are scared of, so if people are scared of Moombah, won’t they like to see me not scared of him?”

Trowa landed in a standing position instead of on his hands as he’d planned, and glanced at Heero. They both wore the same thoughtful expression, though his friend’s showed more subtly in brow and corners of the mouth. He looked back at Relena and the lion. “I think that’s an excellent idea for a circus act,” he said.

“Really?!” Relena worried Moombah’s mane, then jumped up and hopped over to Trowa. “I’m going to decide what it’ll be!”

“Are you up for this?” Heero asked the lion.

Moombah just yawned.

“Let’s all decide what it will be,” Trowa corrected Relena. “Then you and Moombah can practice it together.”

Relena’s grin threatened to split her face.

In his own opinion, Trowa had never been the most artistic deviser of circus acts. He made sure to remain expert at a variety of acrobatic moves, but usually allowed one of the other acrobats to put them together into a routine that would dazzle an audience. Thus, coming up with a juvenile lion-tamer’s act that demonstrated how firmly under Relena’s little thumb Moombah was taxed his resources, and Heero had little useful input. They undertook the task, however, with great energy and seriousness not only because they believed this would be a legitimately valuable circus act that audiences would eat up (and therefore they needed at least a prototype of how it would go to present to Andrian), but because if Relena had an honest-to-goodness act to practice that she felt only she could do, it might take the edge off her longing to join the circus in more hazardous ways such as the trapeze, the tightrope, and the high dive. Beyond that, Trowa couldn’t help feeling proud of his niece for her dedication to the family business, and rather suspected Heero felt the same. Everyone seemed likely to come out a winner from this situation.

Once they convinced Relena to stop describing the sequined outfit she wanted, they were able to come up with a sequence of tricks she and the lion could perform together that didn’t seem too badly constructed. Relena’s favorite suggestion, which made her dissolve in giggles more than once, was the idea of pretending to brush Moombah’s teeth and then finding her missing toy inside his mouth. She would need a few props, which Trowa (who knew the inventory better than Heero) went to fetch, and then practice began.

Yet again, Trowa found himself more than a little frustrated at his certainty Moombah was a werebeast without hard proof that would allow him to bring it up to any real purpose with Heero. The lion played his part of the act with precision, excellent memory, and the care for Relena’s wellbeing the others had come to expect of him, and he simply could not have gotten the hang of this so quickly and expertly as merely an especially intelligent lion. But what could Trowa say? Nothing he’d ever tried had convinced Moombah to admit to being a werebeast, and as long as he retained his lion form, nothing changed even if he was.

In fact Moombah seemed willing to continue practicing the routine far longer than Relena did. The attention span of a six-year-old, no matter how devoted to the family business, allowed for no more than a handful of times through and some memorization practice before she wanted to play something else. But they had worked some kinks out, and Relena was over the moon about the plan.

“I want to show mommy and daddy!” she declared, worrying Moombah’s mane again. “Moombah, don’t you want to show mommy and daddy! It’s going to be the best act ever!”

“How about tomorrow night?” Trowa suggested. “You can practice one more day, and then we’ll get them to come to the practice ring and turn on the electric lights.”

Relena’s eyes widened in excitement at the thought of the electric lights, which were the mark of a proper circus act such as actual circus performers did, but she still complained in a silly high-pitched voice, “I want to show them nooowwwwwww!”

“You need to practice more,” Heero admonished. “But come here.”

This had become a catch-phrase in more than one sense, and Relena ran to him to be thrown into the air as many times as Heero’s arms would stand for. Thus he often convinced her to do something she would rather not, or compensated her for a perceived hardship.

The second day went as promisingly as the first, though Relena still took some persuasion to keep at it long enough to truly have the routine memorized and perform it relatively smoothly instead of running off to her parents and dragging them to a premature demonstration. Trowa had recommended not spoiling the surprise by saying anything to them last night, and (though when he’d spoken to them about Relena having something to show them, their knowing looks had suggested she hadn’t been able to keep her mouth entirely shut) he believed she’d at least attempted to take his advice. Andrian and Cathy had set aside a special time in the evening, after the sun had gone down so as to please Relena with the use of the electric lights, to watch her unknown show, and Relena could hardly keep her head attached to her shoulders for excitement and impatience.

The practice ring measured the same distance across as the main ring they set up under the big top while traveling. Trowa didn’t know that Relena, small as she was, would merit a show in the main ring even with the bulky Moombah beside her, but for astonishing her parents there could be no other option. The electric lights, which were the same (and ran off the same generator) they took with them on tour, had been set up in the same pattern they would be on the road: footlights, spotlights, and some with thin colored paint over the outer glass to cast a dizzying rainbow into the ring. It made for an impressive spectacle, and tonight it might well make the highlight of Relena’s year.

With the ring open to the sky and no rear curtain through which performers could emerge, there could be no surprise entrance. And when Andrian and Cathy arrived and took their seats on the lowest of the high-rise benches, Trowa noted Andrian was startled and unhappy to see a completely unrestrained lion off to the side with his six-year-old daughter. Either Cathy hadn’t informed him of Moombah’s friendship with the girl, or he hadn’t believed her when she had. They’d better get this show started, lest Relena’s father call it off and break her little heart.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Trowa strode out into the ring sooner than he’d intended, trying to nip any such intention in the bud. “May I present, for your wonder and delight–” with his level and often solemn tone, he made an abysmal ringleader– “the youngest lion-tamer who ever lived, the fearless and fantastic Miss Relena! With her terrifying companion, the dreaded Moombah!” Also, it was difficult to announce with a straight face anyone named ‘Moombah.’

Andrian looked as if he would stand up and shout his disapproval in immediate response to the announcement, but Cathy took his arm firmly and said something to him in a low tone Trowa didn’t catch. Then she disengaged her hands and began to clap loudly, in which her husband, after a reluctant moment, joined.

Relena, grinning in a manner exactly opposite the calm, professional demeanor wanted for such an exhibition, entered the ring as Trowa bowed himself out and went to stand beside Heero not far from the watching parents. She had one hand in Moombah’s mane, and the lion slowed his steps to match hers. They stopped in the center of the ring and started in on their routine, and Trowa restrained a shake of head. He’d told her they should come farther forward, since the ring was so big the details of their act wouldn’t be seen well from this distance, but obviously she’d forgotten. Still, that she gave commands the lion obeyed with precision and alacrity couldn’t be mistaken, and after not too long Andrian and Cathy were both sitting forward looking intently at her with surprised interest.

The child couldn’t ride the lion at any great speed yet without losing her balance, but her lionback circuit around the perimeter was still impressive, and she remembered (or just happened) to stop this time at a better distance for visibility. Then she began playing fetch with Moombah with a ball they’d brought along for this purpose. It was the weakest part of the act, because Relena didn’t throw very well (even less so when excited), and the lion had to retrieve the ball from various incorrect places after failing to catch it in his mouth. But then they moved on to the finale, and the show was saved.

“Moombah!” Relena announced. “You got so much dirt in your mouth getting the ball! We’re going to have to brush your teeth!”

The lion took his place patiently in front of her, and pulled his lips back in what resembled a terrifying snarl. This time, Andrian really did stand up, and Cathy with him. However tame this animal had proven, they understandably couldn’t believe this part of the routine would go well.

And Relena pulled from her pocket the biggest toothbrush they’d been able to find at short notice, and began placidly rubbing it across Moombah’s big ivory teeth. He made no sound during this process, only sat very still except for the occasional twitch of lips that probably weren’t comfortable holding this position for so long. His jaw certainly remained more fixed than those of the circus managers.

“All done!” Relena declared. “Let me see inside your mouth!” And when Moombah obligingly opened it wide, the alarmed half cries of Andrian and Cathy were drowned out by the girl’s subsequent declaration, “It’s much cleaner now, but look! You still have the ball in there!” Utterly fearless, Relena reached into the dark space (they would have to think about angles and lighting for future performances) and retrieved the slobbery ball. Holding it high in the air, she turned completely toward her parents, who’d taken at least four steps in her direction, and bowed. The gesture was clumsy with the burden in her still-upraised hand, but Moombah mimicked it much more gracefully beside her, and the two of them retained the position for the appropriate count.

Trowa and Heero, neither of them the sort to stomp and whistle and cheer, yet were capable of applauding loudly; and Cathy and Andrian joined in only a little tardily with half-forced smiles on their faces. In response, Relena came tearing over to the adults and flung herself at each of them in turn for hugs all around. Then, in an excess of exuberance, she began jumping and skipping and cartwheeling from where they stood to the other end of the ring, and the complex wall beyond, and back, laughing and shouting “Hooray!” at intervals as she did so.

When the child had moved out of earshot, Andrian turned to Trowa with lowered brows. “You should be pleased to know you’re a classic uncle.”

“Why?” Trowa wondered a bit awkwardly. Heero too — the other uncle in this scenario — looked puzzled.

Cathy gave a weak laugh. “You couldn’t have warned us?”

“It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“Well, it was that.” Andrian shook his head and took a deep breath. “My heart still hasn’t stopped racing.”

“I apologize,” Trowa murmured.

Andrian’s smile returned as Relena did, and it looked a little more natural this time. He accepted her repeat hug, then watched as she worked her way down the line again. It seemed her energy had only increased in her jaunt to the wall and back, and a glance between Andrian and Cathy took a break from the agitation caused by the lion-taming act to say, “We’re never going to get her to bed tonight.”

Heero, at the end of the queue, pulled Relena out of the hug and into the air above his head, causing her to shout her glee shrilly and (hopefully) expend some excess energy. The others angled themselves to watch — not without a few suspicious glances, on the managers’ part, at where Moombah had relaxed into a comfortable-looking sprawl on the dirt in the same spot he’d occupied before — and began discussing in relatively low voices their feelings about the night’s entertainment.

Andrian and Cathy obviously agreed that, having the matter sprung on them as it had been, they couldn’t assess their own feelings about it very well… but Trowa got the impression that, once they’d calmed down and thought about it a bit, they would see the matter as he did. Trusting Moombah would make a big difference in getting Relena her own circus act, and that could be pretty easily accomplished.

In fact, Trowa was about to suggest they all head over to the lion and interact with him so the others — Andrian in particular — could get to know him and his cooperativeness. But just then, Heero gave a sound of surprise, and the nonspecific gazes of the other three adults focused perforce on the airborne Relena. Or rather, where Relena had been.

Only with great difficulty had Trowa convinced his niece to wear normal clothing for the demonstration. In the absence of an actual costume, she’d wanted to wear her nice dress, and it had been an effort for an uncle to come up with reasons why she shouldn’t. Eventually, he believed, it had been her impatience to get going far more than his powers of persuasion that had won his point. She’d opted to remain clad as she had been all day, in a ruffly shirt and denim pants and leather shoes.

Garments that now appeared unoccupied.

The upward momentum granted them by Heero’s latest throw had not yet faded; and the way the little shoes, no longer inhabited by feet, abruptly flew faster than the other pieces and started their drop sooner held a touch of horror to it. This was only compounded by the sudden unfamiliar shrieking that now sounded from the abandoned clothing as if in mockery of the late cries of delight from its former occupant.

As the pants too slowed in their rise and, fluttering with uncanny emptiness, began to fall, the shirt seemed rather to hang in the air, and from it the noises obviously emerged. And there seemed to be a struggle going on within as it jerked and bulged and moved in ways not entirely in keeping with the toss that had set it aloft.

Then, from beneath the hemline, a chaotically fluttering blur in brown and tan emerged in an explosion of feathers, and Trowa abruptly knew what had happened. The shirt drifted to the ground at last to join its fellows, and Relena, in the form of a small owl, appeared above their heads, awkwardly trying to get her wings to obey.

Her panicked screeching didn’t stop, and in fact she’d become even more frightened than before now she’d emerged from her shirt, since a number of the electric lights that had so delighted her earlier shone into her wide but diminutive owl eyes. And the would-be inviting gestures both Heero and Trowa made and calls they gave to the confused child tripped each other up as they came late and at the same time.

Though it seemed at first Relena would lose control of the wings she’d never used before, her evident desire to get away from the bright lights blinding her must have granted her a boost in fledgling skill. She screeched again and reeled across the practice ring, unfortunately heading toward the complex wall.

“Relena, come back!” Trowa called, but this time was overridden by the frightened cries of Relena’s parents — one of them far more savvy than the other, but both startled and concerned. So Trowa began unfastening his clothing indiscriminately; from the corner of his eye he saw Heero doing the same.

“You never mentioned you had birds in your family line,” the latter commented.

Dryly Trowa replied, “It never came up.”

With an animal form so much closer to human than Heero’s was, Trowa didn’t need to disrobe nearly as far before changing shape. Evidently the mere sight of him shedding his shirt and opening his pants, though, had been enough to give poor mating-season Heero an inconvenient and very badly timed erection, and the last thing Trowa saw before transforming and heading for the wall was Heero turning around as he unfastened his own pants.

Shaggy and rust-colored, Trowa ate up the ground on all four palms, then jumped and caught at the wall and swung himself upward on long arms. His eyes quickly lighted on the still-fluttering figure of Relena heading into the trees at the top of the slope, and he made a series of quick calls while pointing in the direction she flew. Then he threw himself off the wall and went loping after her.

As he ran, he was soon joined by Heero, who’d taken to alligator shape in order to worm his way under the wall rather than seeking out the nearest human exit. Possible lingering erection and definite nudity notwithstanding, Heero changed back to his longer-legged form not long after, but Trowa found it most convenient to remain an orangutan as they entered the trees. He swung up as high as he could go, and managed to catch another glimpse of Relena ahead.

Although they’d left behind the distressing lights of the circus complex, the young owl appeared more panicked in the forest. She probably didn’t know how to perch or come to any kind of safe stop, so, unable to conceive of anything else to do, flew on simply out of desperation, though she had no idea how to navigate among the trees.

Trowa hooted as he followed to indicate the direction, and heard Heero crashing along in the brush beneath. Breathlessly the other werebeast called with his human mouth, “Relena! Stop! Turn around and come back! Come toward my voice!”

Somehow this made Relena fly faster. Was she too frightened to hear and obey? Did she believe the sounds behind her to be unknown enemies? Or did they have another alpha on their hands, and issuing orders would only make things worse?

They came perpendicularly upon a fold in the land down which a small stream ran, where it appeared Relena had made almost a right-angle turn in order to follow the easier, less tangled path up the line of the water. She gained better and better control of herself every moment, until she almost looked like a normal bird in flight as far as Trowa could tell in the shadows, yet she didn’t stop or turn back.

Briefly, dangerously, he changed shape again and, during the rapid moment he spent balanced, naked and precarious, on a branch very inconvenient for a human, called behind him, “Heero! Up the waterway!” He couldn’t retain this shape any longer than that if he didn’t want to lose his grip and fall straight out of this tree, but as he transformed and swung off again, he hooted continuously in case Heero hadn’t heard him clearly.

They needed to catch up with Relena and bring her home or into their direct protection before she either lost them and then herself or some bigger predator noticed the inexperienced owl and took advantage of the situation. How did the relatives of bird werebeasts deal with this problem? Kids often panicked at their initial transformation, but all those Trowa had known had been ground animals — or at least indoors when they’d first changed shape.

It would be convenient if she did lose control of her flight or run into something and fall down, as long as she took no injury, because then she could be scooped up into relative safety. She hadn’t done them this favor yet, though. Trowa was unsure how quickly bird werebeasts learned to fly, but had a feeling this one would be a champion as she grew up if they could keep her alive to do it. No wonder she’d been so fixated on the airborne circus acts, and being throw into the air by Heero!

A splash behind alerted him to Heero’s entry into the water, and a dark form below shot past as the alligator did what he did best and raced forward with powerful lashes of his tail. He probably wouldn’t dare go too far, since he could undoubtedly make out even less, from under water, of Relena’s shape in the air above him than Trowa could in the dark.

Heero confirmed this speculation when he rose, a dripping and muddy human figure pale in the darkness, from the middle of the stream some distance along — ahead of Relena, in fact — and looked around. The owl whirled when she detected him, making a clumsy turn that pointed her straight up what had become a much sharper-angled slope as they’d progressed. Heero waded messily out of the water and plunged into the trees after her, calling another futile command for her to come back; and Trowa, who’d been navigating the trees on the opposite side of the stream, made a reckless swinging leap across and hastened to follow them both.

The earthen forest floor and its foliage swiftly gave way to crag rising almost vertically to one step and then another and another, climbing the valley’s side out of the warm, wet air around the hot springs environs and into the winter chill of the mountain proper. Trowa’s long clinging orangutan fingers and strong, flexible arms made short work of the uneven rock faces, but Relena remained ahead of him — while Heero, lighter but unable to climb nearly as fast, lagged behind.

The owl, who’d screeched in protest or fear when Heero had last called out to her, now flew silently but crazily, wheeling and rising unevenly and struggling not to plow into the rock or any of the bushes, increasingly devoid of leaf, that clung to patches of earth in crevices in the crags. She really must have no idea how to land; she would most certainly run into something eventually, especially as she grew more and more exhausted. Toward that state Trowa too felt himself hastening; even as an orangutan, he couldn’t climb forever, and the increasing cold seemed to be sapping his strength.

He felt the force of it more severely when he changed shape not long after. He’d reached the top of the current crag, and found he’d entirely lost sight of Relena, so he took on his human form with its slightly better night vision and turned quickly around, shivering, trying to locate her.

This step stretched longer and wider than the previous as the mountain began to change shape, and had enough accumulated soil tucked into the cracks in its surface to support a scrubby set of trees and bushes. It still felt hard and rough and frigid under Trowa’s bare feet, though, as he swiveled from side to side. To the southeast he could see the forest below and the lights of the circus complex beyond, and down past that a blanket of cloud hiding the lower valley from view; if it blew over Springcleft, the warm drafts would lift it and melt it to rain temperatures, and they’d have a downpour tonight. To the north the step ended with a cluster of largely leafless foliage, over whose heads the stars stretched up and up.

And above, the rising ground gradually lost both the chaotic distribution of smaller rocks that characterized the crags as well as the crag’s unrelenting verticality, moving skyward at more varying angles; but it also disappeared after no great distance in a lowering cloud-like mist that sheathed the mountain from here to its peak. If Relena had gone into that, she was lost to them.

He breathed deeply, trying to ignore his racing heart and the importunate cold, closing his eyes and listening hard. And perhaps it was his desperation to find his niece that allowed him, in this blundering human form, to hear scrabbling and fluttering from the cluster of trees and bushes to the north. Transforming as he ran so as to have some protection against prickling twigs and the needles of pines that were more prevalent this far up, he took off in that direction.

Once he’d fought his way through the thicket, with care so as not to plunge off some abrupt precipice that could support scrub but not an orangutan, he found what he sought. She’d obviously crashed into a stunted hollygrape bush that grew just at the edge, and hadn’t righted herself; she vibrated and panted visibly at an awkward angle of leg and wing amongst the scraggly red leaves of winter and what berries, rotted to purple-black, she hadn’t knocked to the ground in her crash. She appeared uninjured, and Trowa let out a soft relieved hoot.

Just then there came a snapping of talons and beating of wings in his face, to the tune of a startling long screech clearly meant as a warning. A clawed foot with a wicked opposable digit scratched a bloody stripe across Trowa’s leathery brown face, and he stumbled backward with a startled sound. He tripped right over something that hadn’t previously stood immediately behind him, and felt a large shape wriggling free of his flailing legs. As he righted himself, he was just in time to see the alligator (a shape doubtless assumed, like that of the orangutan, for protection against the vagaries of the thicket) give a half leap and snap his enormous jaws into the air.

Heero missed the duck hawk, as it wheeled upward, by a yard or so, and the raptor gave another cry and, turning, dove at frightening speed for the prey it claimed for itself. Heero’s second lunge at it prevented its talons from closing on any part of Relena in the bush, but only just barely. Black-barred white underside flashing in the starlight, the bird came around for another pass, and Heero hissed out an alligator’s subtle challenge, barely audible over the crashing of Trowa’s heart and the screech of the hungry hawk.

And as the latter started its descent, and Heero’s stubby legs tensed in readiness, the crashing sound abruptly grew louder — loud enough for Trowa to recognize it as coming from outside his chest — and a huge form that glowed a dull gold and seemed to shake the crags with its roar sprang free of the trees and brush and, intercepting the duck hawk mid-flight, crushed it concisely between massive, toothy jaws.

Moombah trotted to a stop after his leap, muscling his way through bushes and turning awkwardly with his right rear leg planted firmly inside one. He gave the duck hawk one worrying shake, then tossed it aside. Licking his bloody lips, he pulled his leg ungracefully free and moved toward Trowa and Heero.

Trowa, quickly changing shape, reached out both arms with a gasp and received Moombah’s big head for a nuzzling hug. “We’ll have a barbeque just for you,” he whispered to the lion. Then he turned, one arm still across the maned neck, toward Relena.

Heero too had transformed, and was moving slowly and carefully right up to the hollygrape bush. Relena hadn’t resumed any attempt at rearranging herself into a more reasonable position, and perhaps was too frightened to move, so Heero shifted his feet a little farther apart as if for balance and reached out cautious hands into the midst of the shrub.

The nearby sound of rustling leaves and snapping twigs must have startled Relena, for she began struggling and screeching weakly. The entire bush shuddered, and Heero said in a quiet tone, “Relena. Relena, calm down. It’s me, your Uncle Heero. You’re safe now. Hold still.” It appeared to work, and everyone — including the lion, Trowa thought — breathed more easily as the owl at last followed orders. Gingerly, slowly, Heero’s hands, now streaked with dark berry juice, closed around the little feathered body and began to adjust the wings so as to be able to draw her out of the bush without harm.

He kept shifting his feet, though, and Trowa thought he saw movement in the ground beneath them. Cracks opened in the soil, which appeared to be sliding away and breaking up, and the level of Heero’s head, framed by the stars of the open space beyond, was sinking.

“Heero…” Trowa spoke in barely more than a whisper.

“I know,” Heero replied at the same volume. He did not, however, hasten his movements; if Relena were startled into panic again, the likelihood of catching up with her a second time and rescuing her at last seemed scant. But the earth at this end of the crag was definitely collapsing, sliding toward the drop-off.

After the agonizing patience of Heero’s minute and painstaking progress at getting Relena detangled from clinging twigs and pulling her toward him, when things did move it was as if the passage of time, lulled by the preceding thirty seconds, had suddenly dashed ahead at double speed. Heero flung out his arms to throw the owl toward Trowa precisely as the ground beneath him gave way completely; Moombah darted from under Trowa’s hand and away; and Relena changed shape in midair and hit Trowa full in the chest, knocking him down and backward. The sliding, scrabbling noise of a minor landslide, with the cracking of ill-held roots as they disconnected, the grunts and piteous crying of human voices filled Trowa’s ears; and he disregarded entirely how scored and bloodied his human skin would be when this was over as he awkwardly scrambled around onto his knees facing the disaster with Relena clinging to him like a vise with all four limbs.

And there he saw, lying flat on his belly in the slithering soil, reaching down with both arms past what was now visible as a rocky precipice, free of foliage, over which dirt still poured in little rivulets, naked but for a veritable mane of brown hair, a complete stranger.

Trowa wasted no time in springing to his feet and, wishing he could detach Relena but having no opportunity to think about it, planting his own bare buttocks right on top of the other man’s and digging his heels into the ground in front of him, trying to create a sort of anchor. The other man — no stranger at all, really — grunted again as he felt Trowa’s weight, but said nothing, only hauled upward as best he could. As soon as Heero’s hands in the stranger’s became visible, Trowa leaned forward (very awkwardly) and grasped the wrists beneath them; and together, still to the sound of Relena’s weeping, and with the help of Heero climbing where he could with his bare feet, they pulled their friend up and over and away from the brink of certain death. Then everyone collapsed on the ground a safe distance from the edge, gasping and twitching.

It was the eventual subsiding of Relena’s sounds of confusion and fear, and her removal of her head from where it gave Trowa a crick in the neck, that caused him to sit up at last into a cross-legged position and let her slide down onto his leg. She took deep breaths that calmed gradually, and presently began looking around. Trowa squeezed her and asked, with a quiet born more of shock than of his usual placidity, “Do you feel better now?”

Relena nodded, eyes wide. “I turned into a bird,” she whispered.

“You did,” Trowa agreed.

“And you turned into an animal too.”

“I did.”

“And Uncle Heero…” She rotated, and Trowa looked with her.

Heero and the stranger, both lying on their stomachs, had also both risen to their elbows and were mutually staring in complete silence. It reminded Trowa strongly of the time they’d faced each other as lion and human when Alex had come harassing: there was a crackling intensity, a wordless struggle for dominance, easily discernible in the gaze.

“I knew it…” Trowa murmured.

The stranger gave his head a couple of extensive shakes and tore his eyes from Heero to glance at Trowa. He had a wide, lop-sided grin on a jovial face that also held some regret, if Trowa could be any judge in this light. “Yeah, you called it. You’re too familiar with how natural lions act!”

Heero, not nearly as familiar with how natural lions acted, drew in a deep breath. His eyes had not moved. “I don’t know whether to thank you for your help or throw you off the cliff myself.” He spoke in an unusually dark, intense, accusing tone.

The stranger’s grin became completely teasing as he returned it to Heero. “Trowa promised me a barbeque. But after that we can come back up here all alone, and you can try whatever violence you want to.”

With not a twitch of change to his expression, Heero said nothing. Still it seemed as if something were passing between them, in their moments of wordlessness, that occupied much of their attention.

“Who are you?” Trowa broke in.

“Duo,” replied the lion werebeast. “Duo Maxwell.” And he only glanced at Trowa briefly as he said it before resuming crackling into Heero’s eyes.

“Everyone is naked,” Relena announced with a slightly hysterical giggle.

“We sure are, kiddo.” For Relena Duo obviously was willing to break eye contact with Heero for more than a mere moment, in order to give her the fondest smile ever uncle bestowed upon niece. “Are you OK?”

“Yes… I think so,” said Relena. “I turned into a bird, but now I’m back to being normal. Who are you?”

“I’m Duo Maxwell,” repeated he, then added with a wink, “but you can keep calling me Moombah if you want to.”

“I… never saw you before.” Relena sounded confused and suspicious. “Moombah’s a lion.”

“He sure is.” And abruptly Duo transformed.

Relena jumped and let out a shriek of surprise, but ran to hug her friend with equal rapidity. “Moombah! Moombah, really can you turn into a person just like I turned into a bird???” Her words were barely intelligible through the lion’s mane, and she continued in that vein for quite some time while Moombah, or Duo, returned the embrace with a big paw and nuzzled her with his soft face and wet nose.

Finally Heero interrupted them with the impatient statement, “Don’t think you can just stay in lion form now. We want to know who you are.”

With evident reluctance, Duo pushed Relena away, lay down, and transformed back into a man on his stomach in the dirt. “Why doesn’t Relena know anything about werebeasts?” he demanded.

“Don’t try to change the subject,” said Heero stonily.

“I really want to know!” Duo protested. “Why is all this such a surprise to her? Why hasn’t Cathy explained? She’s old enough for the talk!”

Relena turned toward Heero and wondered, “Are you mad at Moombah?”

“His name is Duo,” said Heero in a kinder tone. Neither he nor anyone else could be harsh with Relena, but Trowa thought, with a shiver of realization, that this statement held more genuine emotion than he’d heard from Heero in a long time.

“He said I can call him Moombah!”

“That’s right, Heero,” Duo grinned, and the air crackled between them again. “I’m still Uncle Moombah. You’re not allowed to call me ‘Uncle,’ though.”

Trowa broke in again. “It’s freezing up here, and we need to get Relena back to her parents. Duo, I think you owe us an explanation first.”

Duo scratched at the dirt near his face. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. “Short version: I’m in season all year.”

The others just waited.

“I mean in season.” Duo grimaced and rolled his eyes toward Relena, clearly loath to be more explicit. “I mean, why are you lying on your stomach, Heero?”

“Oh,” Heero said in surprise.

“I see,” said Trowa. With a slight frown and shake of head he muttered, “In the freezing cold and all scraped up and everything…”

“You know how it works,” Heero murmured back.

Duo gave an embarrassed chuckle. “It’s easier to just live exclusively as a lion, because there really aren’t any other lions around to, you know, be a dirty temptation. This–” he gestured expansively as if to indicate tonight’s adventure– “forced my hand, though. I’d do anything to help our Little Missy, even take three stupid tries to jump over a damned high wall and struggle through a forest that wasn’t designed for lions and climb a mountain that really wasn’t designed for lions.”

“You did that all to save me?” Relena wondered, awed and excited.

“But it wasn’t Relena you gave away your human form and risked your life for,” Heero pointed out. “It was me.”

They were staring at each other again, and Trowa shifted impatiently. But at least Duo’s reply provided information. “When I first saw you, you were willing to fight a full-grown lion to protect Relena. Actually I thought you were about to change shape and give your other form away to do it. As if I could let you outshine me!”

“What do you turn into, Uncle Heero?”

“An alligator.”

Relena shrieked again, this time, with the resilience of childhood, in complete delight and no remaining trace of fear or uncertainty. “Show me! Show me!”

Heero obliged without a word, but didn’t retain the shape long enough for the girl to examine him all over and force him to open his mouth and so on. She did jump around a bit in a furor even after he’d changed back, though.

“Relena,” Trowa said very seriously, and continued repeating it until he had her full attention. “Your mom’s going to have to talk to you about changing shape, since she’s the one–” throwing a quick glance at Duo– “who decided not to tell you about it before. But right now you need to know — when you turn into an owl again, you need to be very careful, and not fly away scared. It’s dangerous out here, and that mean duck hawk almost got you before. Understand?”

Relena nodded solemnly, and before anyone else could speak or start crackling again, Trowa went on. “We need to leave. Duo, I don’t think either of us can carry her down in either form; can you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Are you sure?” Heero demanded. It seemed half concern for Relena and half alpha contrariness.

“I had to find a lion-friendly path up here in the first place, didn’t I?”

“If anything happens to her on the way down–”

“Do you really think I’d let anything–”

“You don’t exactly have a good record–”

“As if you don’t completely understand–”

They were doing it again. Trowa reached out and took Relena’s hand to draw her fascinated attention away from the two men on the ground. “Do you think you could try to turn into an owl again,” he asked quietly, “and follow me while I climb down the crags and go back to the circus? Those two can follow when they’re done arguing.”

“They’re arguing a bunch,” Relena whispered conspiratorially.

“Do you think you could turn into an owl again?”

Relena thought about it for a moment. “I bet I could.”

“You’ll have to try not to be scared, and watch where I go and follow me. Do you think you can do that?”

Relena nodded. “I could tell where everything was really good before.” She waved her hands and squinted into the air around her. “Easier than right now!”

Trowa too nodded. “And you might have to try to land on something, even if you don’t know how yet. Could you try that if you needed to?”

“I can figure out how!” she replied enthusiastically.

“Good. You’re my favorite niece; did you know that?”

“Do you have more nieces?”

“No.”

“Then…” She tried to puzzle through the compliment and determine whether it held water.

“Why don’t you try right now to turn into an owl?”

A mere minute later, to the sound of the argument — or whatever it was — giving way behind them to reactions of surprise, they were off down the crags. Less than half an hour later, they’d successfully made their way back to the circus complex.

Trowa would have liked nothing more than to drop Relena off, take a bath to clean up all his abrasions (some would need bandages), have a stiff drink, and go to bed, where he had no doubt he would sleep alone tonight — but of course this could not be. Had Relena left behind, in her wild flight, only her parent of werebeast descent, it would have been possible, but instead Andrian must be considered.

He was allowed to sit quietly in the parlor of the big house in the clothes he’d left out in the practice ring — which Cathy had brought inside and which weren’t very comfortable over his dirt and scrapes — as his sister explained the concept of werebeasts to her husband. She’d waited to do this until Trowa returned so she could call on her brother to demonstrate, so Trowa left his belt and shoes off and his shirt unbuttoned at first. It took about twenty-four transformations for Andrian to overcome his shock and begin to accept the truth before him; how long it would take to reconcile with the fact that his wife was a dormant werebeast and his daughter an active one, Trowa couldn’t guess. He rather thought Cathy should have explained all of this years ago, but held his peace on that topic. Perhaps, after growing up with a family whose abilities she didn’t share, she’d set out to have a marriage and a new family completely free of the business.

Relena, despite obvious weariness, had no desire whatsoever to go to bed, or even to stop chattering for half a breathless instant, so some time passed before the entire story could be coherently told. Once Cathy got her daughter into her lap and convinced her to stay quiet for a bit so Uncle Trowa could tell them all about it, they only had to bear with a few interruptions from her before she began falling asleep to the lulling sound of Trowa’s calm, quiet tones. Her subsequent unconsciousness freed Trowa to explain, so Andrian could understand, the more adult-oriented parts of the story without resorting to a lot of euphemisms and tilts of head.

And Andrian, still the supportive brother-in-law even in the midst of his bafflement and shock, commented disapprovingly, “So Heero’s just been using you all along?”

Trowa smiled slightly and with a touch of sadness. “Only because he had to. Have you ever seen a cat in heat?”

Andrian threw a considering glance at his wife and began, “My dear–”

“Yes,” said Cathy hastily, blushing. “Yes.” And from this Trowa gathered she had inherited certain aspects of werebeast life even if she couldn’t change shape. He hadn’t really needed to know this about his sister, but he did pity her.

With everything out in the open — some of it several times over — Andrian finally sat back in his chair and rubbed at his beard with a thoughtful thumb. “An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…” He actually chuckled faintly, and Trowa knew he was coming around at last. He also knew that pensive look accompanied by that particular glint of eye. “So that’s how you always handled the animals so well…”

Trowa nodded.

“An orangutan… an alligator… and a lion…”

Trowa had always assumed that, whenever someone did get around to informing Andrian he could transform into an exotic animal and retain his human intelligence, he would immediately be worked into a variety of circus acts as an orangutan. And now that Andrian had his sights set on three werebeasts, his thoughts on the matter probably ran on a much larger scale. This wasn’t a bad thing, but could mean a lot of extra work in future.

“Where are Heero and the lion-man, by the way? I would have thought they’d be back by now.”

“I’m sure they are,” Trowa replied. “And I’m sure they thought me better-qualified to handle this conversation.” Assuming they weren’t already very busy with other things.

“You’re their designated human-handler, are you?”

Trowa chuckled.

Relena awoke at this juncture with a start, and for a moment looked around in a panic as if she’d forgotten where she was. Cathy gathered her into a more convenient carrying position and declared, “Bedtime for you, miss!”

And as Relena protested groggily that she wanted to find Moombah and wanted to show her parents how well she could turn into an owl and didn’t want to go to bed and wasn’t tired, all the way out of the room and up the stairs, Andrian came to Trowa and shook his hand. “Thank you again,” he murmured.

Trowa nodded.

“I’ve got a lot to think about, and a lot to talk over with Cathy, but…” He clapped his other hand over the back of Trowa’s that he held and shook it again. “Thank you. For Relena.”

Again Trowa nodded. He felt he’d done less than the other two, but accepted the gratitude for his effort and concern at least. Next he accepted Andrian’s good night, and, after watching his brother-in-law hasten from the room and up the stairs, turned and headed for the front door.

Outside, he found Heero and Duo, both in human form, both naked, seated on the front steps, staring at each other. They appeared to have been deep in conversation, and, as up on the crag, it took a moment before they could look away and acknowledge Trowa’s presence — as if he’d needed further confirmation that this was a done deal. It gave him, as he gazed at his longtime best friend, some forlornness to consider he’d lost this aspect of Heero’s companionship completely, especially just before his own mating season… but that emotion was overshadowed by happiness that Heero seemed to have found at last what he needed. Who’d have thought it would be another alpha?

“Are we forgiven?” Duo wondered, jumping to his feet. His long erection bobbled as he did so, and Trowa turned immediately to Heero, who, more practiced at dealing with the intense-mating-season problem in human form, had risen more slowly. Trowa handed him the clothing he’d left in the ring, gathered along with Trowa’s by the helpful Cathy.

“You are.” Trowa directed his words toward Heero since he faced that way. “But it may be rescinded if you don’t officially join the circus.”

Heero appeared startled, opened his mouth, and closed it again with brows lowered more in pensiveness than disapproval. The problem that had sent him wandering year after year might well now have been solved, after all.

“Moombah is completely up for that,” Duo declared, putting his chin on Trowa’s shoulder in order to look over it into Heero’s thoughtful eyes. “Can’t abandon my beta now we’ve formed such a good bond.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” Heero murmured, staring unflinchingly back.

Trowa snorted, both at Duo’s comment about ‘his beta’ and at finding himself in the middle of the crackling now. “Think about it in a guest room,” he suggested as he slipped out from between them, “and let me know in the morning what you decide.”

Heero nodded. “I’ll show you the way to the guest rooms, Duo.”

Perversely — really, how was this alpha-alpha thing going to work? — Duo flipped his hair and turned the other direction. “I already have a room, thank you very much.”

“You can’t spend the night in lion form,” Heero said flatly.

“And you can’t spend the night with Trowa.”

Trowa, letting out a sigh, was yet smiling as he walked away.

The rain he’d foreseen began not long after he’d gone to bed, and between its lulling sound, the bath he’d taken beforehand, a gulp of whiskey, and the lack of any bedroom activities to keep him up, he slept better than he had in weeks. He awoke, if not sexually satisfied as he usually did in the winter, definitely well rested and full of energy, and emerged into the wet and muddy circus complex to do his chores.

First thing, though, he had to make his way straight over to the lions’ pen and discover which alpha had won that argument. He couldn’t peek into each of the guest rooms, after all, but he could look here. And when he eased open the door to the keeper’s building and poked his head around it, he felt no shock at what he saw within.

Heero had probably never put his clothing back on, and the chances Duo even owned any seemed slim. The dirt and berry juice and dried blood of their adventure of the night before, not to mention Duo’s ample provision of hair, must be their substitute as they lay, entwined at various points and clearly exhausted, on the hard floor. They didn’t so much as twitch at the sound of the door opening or the sense of someone watching them.

With a smile, Trowa withdrew. Tarrying in the shade of the roof over the door, he considered. They reminded him so much of the time Heero, worn out from a night of sex and a morning of chores, had curled up with Moombah in the pen… The word ‘adorable’ came to mind.

About to walk away, he paused as movement caught his eye over by the main gate, and he looked that direction just in time to see its closed height cleared in a fluid movement by a gorgeous blonde stag. If he’d had any doubts, after this unusual behavior, that the animal was something out of the ordinary, the bundle strapped to its back told a familiar tale. He leaned against the door and stood still, awaiting the outcome.

The stag swung its proud head, still crowned with fine unshed chestnut antlers, from side to side, seeming to examine the circus complex in front of it. Then, evidently missing Trowa in his shadow and believing itself unobserved, it stepped delicately out of the main thoroughfare and changed shape. In its place stood a gorgeous blonde man, who quickly removed the bundle tied around his waist and began dressing in haste. Trowa had to smile again, because hadn’t they all been there?

Once decent, the stranger took off at a confident stride toward the main house. When he drew level with Trowa, the latter called out, “Hello — can I help you?”

Though briefly startled, the stranger altered course with no less confidence than he’d already exhibited, and moved to stand before Trowa. “Good morning,” he said as he walked, and came to a halt with a winning smile on his face. “I apologize for the intrusion. I think I took a wrong turn in the fog, and now I have no idea where I am!” Charming smile crinkles appeared to the sides of his beautiful grey-blue eyes as he admitted his mistake. “And then there was this low spot in the road full of water, and my engine flooded. Can you please help me? Do you have a telephone?”

Trowa studied him thoughtfully. Despite the ingratiating demeanor and politeness, he got the sense that here was yet another alpha, and he already twitched to do what the man said. Interesting how many alphas came and went through his life, and never to date one willing to stay for the long term.

“We have no telephone,” he said. “But I know the low spot you mean. I’ll bring one of the trucks around, and we’ll see if we can pull you out of there.”

The stranger gave him a full, dazzling smile. “Oh, thank you. I was at my wits’ end!”

“Don’t worry,” Trowa told him as he moved toward the house himself in order to fetch a key for one of the trucks, gesturing for the man to follow. “I’ll take care of you.” And as they walked off together and the stranger began inquiring curiously, and very understandably, what kind of place this might be, Trowa reflected that a good beta’s work was never done.

This story was written for Daiyanerd as part of the Seasons of Anime Exchange 2019. I wish I could find more such exchanges to take part in! I kinda miss my art exchange days, and writing a story for an exchange is even more fun.

Piper, who has joined Waybee in the fine tradition of helping me write stuff, contributed the following:

iukkkkkk888888888888888888888888I



The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

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

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

Unique to this story: Hints of racism/antisemitism.

The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But her eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could she tell them? Would they believe her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jane?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So many people do,” Anna murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hadn’t been. But could she now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Own Humanity: Plastic

Plastic

“A curse affects both the victim and the caster. A skilled curse-caster can bend this effect so that their share in the curse is something they don’t mind, something that doesn’t inhibit them… but even if they manage that, repeatedly having a share in any curse leaves a mark eventually.”

When Heero rescues an abandoned doll from the gutter, he hardly thinks it’s going to change his life; but now he and his best friend Quatre find themselves involved in the breaking of a curse from almost a hundred years ago, and perhaps in falling for exactly the wrong people.

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

“Don’t play ignorant; you know what. You knew she and I were to go driving today; you deliberately kept her out all afternoon so she would miss the appointment.”

“So?”

“So?! So, you are sabotaging my relationship with her!”

“And if I am? All’s fair in love and war, my friend.”

“You don’t love her. You don’t care about her at all. You’re just trying to make sure I don’t win her. You’re being petty and shallow and… and fake. It’s as if you were made of plastic.”

“Oh, plastic, that is appropriate. No surprise you should mention that, since that’s all you care about. You never behaved like this when we were both poor, but ever since that promotion at the factory, you think you can just buy everything you want — a big flat, a motorcar, even a nice woman. You don’t care about her either! She’s simply another object to you.”

“Good lord, Duo, is this really about money? How can you deny being petty while you’re saying such things?”

No, this isn’t about money… not entirely. But ever since you’ve had money, you’ve become more and more disconnected with the human world and human emotions. You don’t care about people anymore — not her, not me, not anyone. You don’t care about anything beyond your damned work!”

“You’d probably better watch what you’re accusing me of. You may not want to find out just how much I care.”

Heero’s glance into the gutter to make sure nothing was going to splash up at him as he stepped over it turned into a double-take and a pause. Something unexpectedly flesh-colored had seized his attention, and as he looked down more pointedly he stopped walking entirely. Then he bent and picked up the object that had caught his interest.

It was a doll — one of those Barbie men, whatever they were called, that dated Barbie or whatever they did — though Heero hadn’t thought they made them anatomically correct these days, nor the males with such long hair. Lying on the ground hadn’t done its state of cleanliness much good, and it had no clothes, but seemed otherwise undamaged. What a strange thing to find in the gutter.

He weighed the doll in his hand, looking around for a child that might perhaps have dropped it. The plastic had a somewhat brittle feeling to it, and the little figure was heavier than he would have thought it should be. Looking back down, he reflected that he was (understandably) out of touch with the world of dolls; he hadn’t thought they made the faces this nicely detailed, either. Really, for a toy, it was rather attractive. It seemed old, somehow, too, for all it was in such good shape. Why and how such a thing should be here he couldn’t guess, but surely this was someone’s collector’s item abandoned by accident.

Despite feeling a little foolish, Heero couldn’t bring himself to set it down once he’d reached this conclusion. If he put it back, it would just get ruined, and it was already so forlorn… Besides, it was undoubtedly worth something to someone, even if that was just someone on ebay; he might as well try to locate its owner. Or sell it. He could let the businesses in the immediate area know he’d found it, in case someone came asking, and if that didn’t lead anywhere he could check online to see how much it might be worth.

He didn’t want to put a dirty, wet doll in his briefcase, but neither did he much want to be seen carrying it — he wasn’t sure how his co-workers would react to the sight, but he was certain it would be annoying. So he held it down against his leg as he hurried on into the parking lot, trying to hide it as best he could with one hand and feeling its long, matted hair brushing him as he walked.

Mentally reviewing the contents of his refrigerator and kitchen cupboards and trying to decide whether or not to stop at the grocery store on the way home, he largely forgot about the doll as he drove. But once he removed his briefcase from on top of it on reaching his apartment (having decided to skip shopping today), there it was staring up at him with wide eyes and a vague smile. Sardonically he shook his head and carried it inside.

The kitchen sink under running water seemed a good place for it to wait while Heero put his work things away and changed clothing, and once he came back into the kitchen he poured some dish soap over it with a lavish hand. It looked better already. After double-checking that his mental fridge inventory was correct, he returned his full attention to the doll again. Keeping it under the tap, he worked the soap off of the plastic and out of the tangled hair, then turned the water off and held it out for inspection.

No, it didn’t look bad at all. The face was remarkably nice, actually, for something that small, and the hair was soft and didn’t feel much like plastic. Hadn’t they made dolls’ hair out of real human hair in some previous decade? This hair felt real, which was a little disconcerting but probably increased the value of the piece. The plastic genitalia was strange too; Heero wondered if this might not have been designed as some kind of gag gift. After a moment of thought, he pulled a paper towel from the roll behind the sink, folded it in half, and wrapped it around the doll’s waist, tucking the upper fold beneath the lower so it would stay. Studying the effect, he wondered if this was what little girls felt like when they dressed their dolls.

Again he shook his head. “So what am I going to do with you?” he murmured.

“You could start by combing my hair.”

Heero dropped — or, rather, threw the doll into the sink, jumping back with a startled noise. That thing had just… that thing had really just…

“Just a suggestion,” said the doll’s small voice, echoing slightly against the metal of the sink.

After his initial surprise, Heero didn’t quite know what to think. He moved forward and stared down at the doll, which now lay on its face partially hidden by this morning’s cereal bowl; the paper towel skirt had come askew, so a pair of plastic buttocks, half-hidden by clinging wet hair, was all Heero could actually see. Even as he looked, though, it commented further, “I hope you didn’t faint. I hate it when they faint.”

“I’m sure the audience likes it, though,” Heero murmured as he reached into the sink somewhat tentatively and drew the doll out again. This time he pulled the paper towel off completely and began a minute examination of the plastic body. He was looking for the camera.

“You know,” said the doll calmly as Heero turned it over and over, “this is just one of the horrible effects of reality TV. A talking doll never gets believed anymore; it’s always, ‘All right, where’s the audience?'”

“Yes, that is one of the biggest horrible effects of reality TV,” Heero replied dryly. “It happens all the time.” No feature on the doll’s body seemed to resemble camera, speaker, or microphone, but surely the unusual heaviness of the thing was explained by their presence somewhere.

The doll laughed. “OK, mostly I just hate reality TV,” it admitted. “And it does make it difficult to get anyone to believe that the doll in their hand is really talking to them on its own.”

By this point Heero had turned it to face him once again, and could swear that the little lips were actually moving — stiffly, as one might expect one’s lips to move if one were made of plastic, but moving nonetheless. “Who would ever believe that?” he wondered. He thought the camera was probably focused through the eyes, since that made a certain sort of sense, and was peering closely at them trying to find any sign of it. They were nicely-painted eyes, well-detailed and an attractive shade of indigo, and, as far as he could tell, not cameras. They didn’t even appear to be transparent.

“Children sometimes do,” the doll said in a tone that implied he would have been shrugging had his shoulders contained the necessary muscles. Or… any muscles. His voice, though fairly quiet, didn’t sound either recorded or transmitted; communication technology really had come a long way.

“I’m not a child,” Heero said flatly. Perhaps if he removed one of the limbs…

“No, you’re a big, strong, handsome man who’s going to be nice to little helpless me,” the doll cajoled absurdly. Then it went on in a more practical tone, “Also you’re… wasting your time trying to pull my leg off. I don’t come apart.”

Ceasing his attempt to dismember the doll, Heero just stared at it with a raised brow. “Are you flirting with me?”

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

“If this is one of those Punk’d-style shows, I have to say I don’t think much of this premise.”

“I dunno; I think it might work pretty well.” Here was that ‘shrug’ tone again. “Too bad it’s not a show; I think being a TV star would make being a doll suck less. I could get one of those luxury Barbie houses and a little convertible and everything.”

“Well, it’s time for this doll to go back to the gutter he came from. I was going to try to find your owner, or maybe sell you on ebay, but I think you’ll do OK on your own.”

“Thanks for the bath, at least,” the doll sighed. Pensively, softly, it added, “I wonder how much I’d go for on ebay these days…”

In response to Heero’s somewhat distracted look as he answered his door, Quatre remarked, “I just talked to you a few hours ago. You didn’t already forget I was coming over, did you?”

“No, I didn’t,” replied Heero almost absently, stepping back to allow Quatre into the entry and closing the door behind him.

“Well, what’s wrong?” Quatre persisted.

Heero frowned. “I guess I’ll show you.”

He gestured to the kitchen, which was set apart from the rest of the living/dining room only in that it had linoleum rather than carpet, and which lay immediately to the left of the entry. Quatre set down his shopping bag and backpack and immediately reached for the strange object on the counter. Heero stood aside in silence; evidently this was exactly what he’d planned on showing.

As Quatre examined the doll quizzically, Heero gave one of his usual unhelpful explanations. “I found it in the gutter outside work.” After an almost expectant pause, he went on slowly,”I thought I might try to find its owner.” Again he paused, as if waiting for Quatre to interrupt, then finally said, “Or see if it’s valuable enough to sell it online or something.”

At last the apparently hoped-for interjection came, though not from Quatre: “I think it’s pretty obvious,” said the doll, “that I’m a ‘he,’ not an ‘it.'”

Quatre dropped the doll and stepped back, startled and staring. Its lips had moved.

“Yeah,” said Heero darkly. Slowly the doll, which had landed face-down on the counter, moved its unbending plastic arms and righted itself stiffly, ending up in a sitting position with its legs straight out, facing them. At Quatre’s side Heero shifted uncomfortably and muttered, “Well, I haven’t seen it do that.”

He,” the doll insisted. “Surely you noticed the giant plastic penis.”

“‘Giant?'” wondered Heero with a raised brow.

At the same moment Quatre speculated, “Is this some kind of reality TV stunt?”

The doll sighed.

He–” Heero emphasized the pronoun– “claims it’s not. I can’t find any cameras or microphones or anything.”

“But they have to be there somewhere.” Quatre took up the doll again, straightening its legs out and examining it once more, this time with the aim of detecting hidden electronic devices. The plastic penis was rather large, proportionally speaking; obviously this was some kind of joke. Quatre smoothed the long brown hair away from the doll’s face and looked closely at the latter. “Why is he wet?”

It was the doll rather than Heero that answered. “He gave me a bath. He rubbed me all over. It was niiice.”

Assuming the licentious tone was part of the joke, Quatre simply shook his head and kept looking for the camera. Heero, however, seemed prompted to reply. “Yes, I’m sure all those plastic nerves of yours enjoyed it.”

The doll laughed regretfully. “You caught me. I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m aware that he’s turning me over and over — you’re looking for cameras, aren’t you? — but I can’t really feel it. Someday maybe I’ll get used to that.”

So forlorn was the complaint that Quatre had to laugh. “You’re pretty convincing!”

Plastic lips stretched past what Quatre would have thought their limit must be into what might be called a grin. “Thanks. It’s a side effect of being real.”

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

“I’m not inclined to tell,” the doll replied a little haughtily. “You’re just going to throw me back into the gutter.”

“I’m not going to throw you back into the gutter.” At Heero’s impatient tone Quatre had to restrain a laugh; sometimes the most unexpected things could get Heero involved and worked up.

“No,” Quatre agreed pleasantly. “If technology really has come far enough for dolls to have conversations with people, you’ve got to be pretty valuable. And if you’re just a transmitter for somebody who’s secretly taping us, then somebody‘s in violation of certain privacy laws.”

“Oh, nicely done,” the doll commended him. Heero’s sharp nod seemed to indicate he felt much the same.

“Anyway,” Quatre went on lightly, “the game’s going to start…” He looked down at the doll. “I don’t suppose you’re a college basketball fan?”

“For you, I could be,” said the doll with a wink — an actual wink, though the examination of him that Quatre had conducted thus far wouldn’t have led him to guess he had mobile eyelids.

Quatre shook his head skeptically. “Heero,” he wondered, glancing up at his friend, “what have you gotten us into?”



“I’ve watched a lot of TV in my time,” the doll was saying as Heero propped him up against the lamp on the end table beside the sofa in front of the television, “– and by that I mean more TV than anyone should ever watch in a single lifetime — but not much basketball.” The propping took longer than Heero had expected, since the paper towel skirt, which he’d replaced, didn’t want to behave.

“What kind of TV do you prefer?” Apparently Quatre had decided to play along.

Heero, who hadn’t decided anything yet, rolled his eyes.

“I like sci-fi,” the doll stated. “I used to watch that channel all day at my last house. The girl would leave me where I could see the TV, and the remote next to me where I could reach it, when she went to school; I just had to make sure to turn the TV off if her mom came into the room!”

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

“Yeah, my last kid; the last person who was taking care of me.” With a disconcerting swiveling motion, the doll shook his head. “She liked to dress me up, and she liked to alter the clothes she had for me. She’d put sequins on them and stripes with markers and stuff like that — creative little kid. The problem was that she’d take off my clothing to do something to it, and then forget to put it back on me, so I’d be laying around naked.

“She was a little too young to appreciate my fine physique… she just forgot. But her mom hated finding me around naked all the time. I didn’t talk to the mom, because she was touchy and would have freaked out, so she didn’t know why I’m so detailed in certain areas, and she didn’t like it. She told the kid that if she found me somewhere naked one more time, she was taking me to Goodwill. Well, guess what happened.”

Quatre was standing beside the table now, looking down at the doll in silent fascination. Heero found that he too was staring, inordinately interested in the narrative.

The doll wrapped up his story with, “So I have no idea what’s been happening on Dr. Who lately, and it’s driving me crazy.”

Very convincing,” Quatre murmured, shaking his head. “Somebody’s done a really good job on this.”

Heero nodded. “How did you supposedly get from Goodwill to the gutter?” he asked the doll as Quatre turned on the TV and settled onto the couch beside him.

“Oh… well…” The doll seemed a little annoyed, though whether at Heero’s choice of words or what he was about to relate Heero wasn’t sure. “I always try talking to the person who gets ahold of me, but it doesn’t always work very well. They all think I’m a reality TV thing or some kind of walkie-talkie, like you guys do. I usually change hands a bunch of times before I end up anywhere I can stay for a while. Some woman buys me and then throws me out for the usual reasons… some kid she’s babysitting picks me out of the garbage, tries to hide me from her mom on the way home, and drops me… some dog chews on me and carries me around… dogs love to chew on me… sometimes it goes on for days and days.”

“How long do you usually stay somewhere?” Having found the channel, Quatre was now digging through his shopping bag and pulling out cheese dip and chips.

“It varies,” said the doll in his ‘shrug’ tone. “Days, months, years… depends on how long it takes people to decide I’m an unhealthy figment of their imaginations and get rid of me.”

The sincerity in Quatre’s tone as he replied, “Oh, I see,” struck Heero as rather worrisome. Quatre wasn’t necessarily gullible, but he was kind-hearted almost to a fault, and it might be problematic if he started believing this weirdness, even just a little, simply because it seemed so pathetic.

“All right, enough about the doll,” Heero commanded stonily.

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

“Not Ken?” wondered Heero dryly, having eventually remembered the name of Barbie’s boyfriend.

“Ken’s got nothing on me,” the doll — Duo — grinned. “Did you ever see a well-hung Ken doll?”

“Well, I’m sorry we’re not watching Dr. Who,” Quatre broke in, addressing Duo, “but maybe you’ll enjoy the basketball game.” It was a pointed reminder that the latter was starting.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” the doll replied, waving one arm stiffly up and down. “Just explain the rules and I’ll be fine.”

Paying full attention to basketball with a talking doll on the end table was something of a challenge. Duo — or, more accurately, whoever was controlling the doll — was a quick learner: it only took a couple of commercial break lectures on the rules and a few comments about events during the game to get him just as involved as they were, and he readily joined in cheering on the team they were supporting… but that was only natural for someone trying to win their trust in order to further the practical joke or whatever this was.

“That was great!” he was saying enthusiastically once it was over. “It’s too bad I’ve never watched basketball before! There was one guy I watched a lot of football with a couple of years ago, but he wasn’t a basketball fan.”

“Did he throw you away too?” Quatre wondered.

“He Goodwilled me,” replied Duo a little bitterly. “You know I fucking hate Goodwill? Yeah, his girlfriend thought it was weird how he kept an anatomically-correct man doll around, and he didn’t want to tell her that I talked because he was afraid she’d think he was crazy. I could have just talked to her, but he thought it wasn’t a good idea, so he just got rid of me.”

“It makes sense, I’m afraid,” Quatre said apologetically.

Heero nodded.

“Well…” Duo swiveled his plastic head toward them, his tone thoughtful. “I know you two still don’t believe me, but–”

“Believe what, exactly?” Heero broke in. “Are you inclined to tell yet?”

“That I have no cameras or microphones in me… nobody’s talking through me or recording you… and I’m not a piece of advanced technology designed to have conversations with bored little girls while they dress me up.”

“All right,” said the skeptical Heero. “Then what supposedly are you?”

Seriously Duo replied, “I’m a human. Or I was. These days I’m just a creepy doll. But I’m supposed to be human. See, I’m under a curse.”


Quatre tried his hardest, his very hardest, but he simply couldn’t help himself; he burst out laughing. “You’re what?”

The doll just shook his head.

“Everything sounded really good up until that part.” With an effort, Quatre got control of himself again. “Seriously, I’d change it; say you’re alien technology stranded on Earth or something. That would fit better with you liking sci-fi shows anyway.”

“The shows I like have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a doll,” Duo protested. “Besides, you wouldn’t believe the alien technology thing either, so why not just tell the truth?”

Heero was actually smirking a bit at this conversation. “We might come closer to believing that, though.”

“Why is science fiction always so much more plausible to people than fantasy?” complained Duo. “Why are robots who can have intelligent conversations more believable than curses?”

“Because we’ve made progress toward–” Heero began.

Quatre put a hand on his shoulder. “Debating the psychological impact of technological advancement is pointless right now.”

So Heero asked a question instead. “How did you get…” The rueful half-smile he’d adopted in response to Quatre’s admonition changed to another skeptical look. “…cursed?”

“I’m not even really sure,” Duo replied. “My friend and I’d been playing around with magic for a while, but neither of us was very good at it. We had an argument, and I heard him starting a spell… some kind of spell, but he was talking real quietly… but I didn’t think he would do something like this to me. Hell, I didn’t think he could do something like this! We never had this kind of power…”

“Well, that’s convenient,” Quatre said a little sarcastically, and began counting off points on his fingers. “Somebody else cast the spell, so you don’t know exactly what he did… It’s something stronger than you thought you guys were capable of, so not something you can reverse on your own… I bet you’re going to claim you can’t do spells as a doll anyway… and you’ve probably lost track of your friend… am I right?”

Duo tilted his plastic chin up in a motion that made his entire head swivel backwards. “No, I can’t cast spells as a doll,” he said a bit snappishly. “And my friend is long dead, since he was born in 1898.”

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

The doll seemed to take a deep breath, which was faintly audible but in no way visible, and to put some effort into downplaying his irritation. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said, with admirable calm. “Just don’t take me to Goodwill.”

With a thoughtful sidelong smile at his friend, Quatre remarked to Heero, “I think we know how to keep him in line now, don’t you? Just threaten to Goodwill him, and he’ll probably do anything we ask.”

“What on earth would we ask him to do?” Heero was giving Quatre a dark look, almost accusing, and Quatre realized immediately what the problem was.

“Heero, I don’t believe him,” he said sternly.

Heero’s expression seemed to ask, “Are you sure?” and Quatre’s in return was almost a glare. Heero really was getting worked up about this.

“Well, my flight leaves at 7:50,” Quatre said next, turning away and changing the subject; “I’m going to go take a shower.” He was a little surprised at his own tone of voice — it seemed to insert an “I give up” into his statement somewhere. There really was little more of use, he felt, to be gotten out of the doll (though probably a good deal more of interest), and Heero was evidently in a strange state of mind.

It was reluctantly, however, that he rose from the couch and made his way toward the hall. Only the awareness that he didn’t want to be either dirty or tired at tomorrow’s meeting induced him to abandon such a fascinating scene in progress. He did turn again at the entry to the hallway, though, and look back to where Heero was still pensively staring down at Duo. “Good luck with him…”


“So I’m a little confused,” Duo was saying after Quatre had gone. “Is he or is he not your roommate? He knocked on the door earlier and you had to let him in, but now he’s taking a shower here?”

“He’s not.” Heero wondered why the doll cared. “I mean he’s not my roommate,” he clarified. “But he lives out east past the edge of town, and we’re closer to the airport here; he usually stays the night when he has a flight the next day.”

“Ohhhhhh,” said Duo in an exaggerated tone of understanding. “Where is he flying to?”

Heero’s cool answer was, “None of your business.”

“Fine, fine,” Duo said breezily. “Where are you going?” For Heero had stood.

“None of your business,” Heero repeated, moving toward the hall as Quatre had. Also as Quatre had, he paused in the doorway and glanced back. He couldn’t help thinking that, whatever kind of hoax this was, Duo did look rather lonely and pathetic sitting there on the end table, stiff and unmoving in his paper towel skirt. Heero watched him for a moment, a frown growing on his face as much in response to his strange feelings at the sight as to the sight itself. Then, returning to the couch, he found the remote and turned on the TV again, this time to Syfy.

“Oh!” came Duo’s surprised voice from his left. “Thanks!”

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

Resultant upon a greater demand and therefore a higher price for one-bedroom apartments in the complex just when he’d been looking, Heero lived in a two-bedroom. The second room did hold a bed, and did come in useful when Quatre spent the night here, but its primary purpose was to house Heero’s computer desk and bookshelf. So while Quatre was in the shower and the doll was watching television, Heero got on the internet.

Typing ‘talking doll’ into Google made him feel even stupider than leaving the TV on said talking doll’s favorite channel as if he really thought a piece of plastic (and presumably electronics) was capable of a preference. The search results were far from pretty, and even farther from useful. The things little girls would play with…

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

The creepiness of the results didn’t really diminish with the sex toys removed from the lineup, nor did he find anything useful in the fifteen pages he had the patience to glance over. Neither did adding terms like ‘hoax’ or ‘reality TV’ or any clever combination of quotation marks call up anything that seemed at all similar to this situation, let alone related. ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ gave him no results at all. Not that he’d expected any; they (whoever they were) undoubtedly had the doll give a different name to each person it attempted to trick, for this very reason.

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



You Won’t Regret It

You Won’t Regret It

Why did he treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?


Having been slaves for most of their lives, they know that love is both a luxury and a weakness they can’t afford; with Sano obsessing over a guard and Katsu enchanted by a newly-arrived fellow slave, however, they may not be able to help themselves. But something bigger than that is going on around them, and their growing feelings may be the least of their problems.

Unique to this story: shallow treatment of very serious topics

You Won’t Regret It

Chapter 1

Two figures trudged silently up a long, gentle, brush-covered hill that was dotted with small trees on either side of the dirt road. There were no clouds that day, and the burning harvest sun never ceased its barrage of scorching rays despite its near-hidden state behind the forested horizon. The young men were covered in dirt the same color of dark brown as that beneath their bare feet, and sweat ran over round muscle in bright lines through the grime they’d accrued from their day’s work. Their plain, sleeveless shirts, rumpled and filthy like their equally plain, baggy pants, were balled in their hands, baring the tattoo that each bore on his right shoulder-blade: a simple logo consisting of two fisted hands pressed knuckle-to-palm and the letters ‘KL’ above a ten-digit number.

The more muscular of the two was brown-haired and brown-eyed, his locks shorn close so they prickled in every direction. He was tall and lanky, his frame filled out with muscle and perfectly trim, his skin golden. His name was Sanosuke.

The other was only slightly shorter, stockier and less well-developed but still undeniably strong from the huge amount of hard labor he and his fellow slaves performed day after day. His long black hair was tied up to keep it out of his face, which visage was somewhat gaunt and tired-looking. His skin was darker than his friend’s, his eyes clear blue. This was Katsuhiro.

As they began to speak, it was with perfectly mixed accents; they had lived in the slave complex for so long that their national origins could no longer be determined; it was possible that they themselves did not remember what those were.

“I know what you’re thinking about.” Katsu was looking anywhere but at his friend — at a lizard skittering across a rock nearby, at the half-obscured tire tracks in the dust beneath their feet, at his own work-hardened hands as they swung beside him.

“Fuck,” was all Sano replied. His gaze was steadily forward, but he didn’t seem to see anything — at least, not anything actually ahead of him.

Katsu sighed. “I know it hurts you to watch her like that, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Throwing him a dour look, Sano replied, “So I should just forget it, huh?”

Katsu’s eyes fell again to the ground they walked. “I don’t know.”

“I swear that bastard did it on purpose!”

“Did what?”

“They told him Kaoru was Kenshin’s woman, and he bought just Kenshin on purpose to hurt them both.”

“He did seem pretty cold-hearted,” Katsu admitted.

“Cold-hearted? The man was a fucking sadist!”

Katsu sighed again. “Sano, this isn’t helping.”

“I’ve gotta do something, though… she’s still sick, and now they’re making her work the fields already!”

“Sano, I told you, there’s nothing you can do!”

Sano seized his friend by the shoulders and shook him. “What the hell are you saying, man? What would Souzou think to hear you say that?!”

“Why do you think Souzou’s dead, idiot?” replied Katsu in a defensively loud tone, pain filling his eyes.

Sano’s face contorted in an angry growl. “Coward!”

“Is there a problem?”

Both slaves turned to look at the source of the deep, Sorratian-accented voice, and observed a guard watching them. He’d obviously been heading down to the fields from the barracks for the night watch, for the crisp cloth of his uniform was as yet unmarred by any of the dust that would certainly stripe it by the end of the night. He’d apparently come upon them just as the shaking and yelling had begun; fights between slaves were absolutely not tolerated, and the guard was touching his holstered gun, slung left-handed, in silent warning.

Slowly the two calmed and shook their heads, resuming their steady pace toward their sleeping quarters. But as they passed the grey-clad enforcer, Sano could feel the guard’s eyes carefully and approvingly traversing his body before the man chose to walk on.

Now I’ve done it,” Sano grumbled.

Their brief argument was forgotten. “Hey, he was looking at me too,” Katsu reassured him. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance.”

“I’ve never seen him around here before.” Sano fought the urge to look back at the tall, unfamiliar figure. “Suppose he’s new?”

“I guess.” Katsu gave in to the temptation Sano had resisted and turned his head to glance at the man. He snorted. “If they’re going to let their guards use us as their personal whores, they should at least get good-looking ones.”

Sano was startled. “I thought that guy looked pretty good; you didn’t?”

“He was freaky… didn’t you see? his eyes were yellow.”

Sano had seen, and shrugged. “Not like it matters much once they’re fucking you.” And he thought no more of it, for his mind had returned to the disturbing matter of Kaoru.

His heart ached for her, seeing her weakening daily from her mysterious illness. The doctor hadn’t been able to give any real diagnosis, which was why the slavers were forcing her to continue work, but Sano knew exactly what she was suffering from: a broken heart. Ever since that white-haired bastard had shown up looking for a strong but pretty man and taken Kenshin away from her forever, Kaoru’s spirit was entirely broken. Sano knew she couldn’t last long. He’d seen it before, in the years he’d spent here, but it had never hurt him like this. Kenshin had been a good friend to him, and Kaoru was like a sister, despite the fact that he’d only known the two of them for just under a year. It was difficult that no matter what he did, Kenshin was destined to live out a life of slavery to some rich sadist somewhere never knowing that his lover had wasted away without him.

Today she had collapsed in the field shortly after noon, and though they had not feared for her life — she’d been open-eyed and relatively lucid as she’d been helped back to the quarters by a couple of grumbling guards — naturally Sano and Katsu were worried that her condition was worsening. And of course there was no communication between slaves in one part of the complex and those in another, so they had no idea how she’d fared for the rest of the day.

As they drew nearer to the cluster of slave quarter buildings that semi-circled the mess hall, their pace subtly increased as they threaded their way through the influx of people to the latter and headed for their own quarters instead.

The building, identical to the other four, was a plain rectangle divided into two long rooms succeeding a small set of chambers that belonged to the quarter-warden. The main rooms contained little more than the rows of cots on which the slaves slept; as nobody stayed in the complex long before being sold, there were few belongings to be seen, and no personalization whatsoever. And everything, even what had started out another color, had faded to the same uniform grey.

Against this, Kaoru’s dark hair and pale skin stood out, as did the similarly dark hair of the stranger that sat beside her on the cot. Sano and Katsu slowed momentarily as they entered the room, surprised. Kaoru looked up at them and smiled slightly. Deciding for the moment to ignore the unfamiliar young man at her side, the two hurried over to her.

“You’re sitting up; you look OK,” Sano said as they reached her.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “It was just the heat, I think.”

“I hope you’ve been drinking lots of water,” Katsu said.

She nodded, and gestured to the stranger, who, they noticed, was holding a half-full glass bottle. They both took the time now to study the fine features and short, even black hair of the young man that looked to be about their age. He must have been well-treated, wherever he came from.

“You new?” Sano asked him.

“My name is Soujirou,” the newcomer replied with a nod, and even in these few words his Touschan accent was clear. “I just got here today, and they didn’t give me anything to do, so I’ve just been sitting with her since she came.”

“Thanks for helping her,” Katsu replied seriously. “I’m Katsu and this is Sano.”

“You feelin’ up to supper?” Sano asked Kaoru after he’d completed his half of the introduction with a nod to Soujirou.

“I think I could manage it,” she said softly, the only problem with the statement being that she didn’t seem to care whether or not she ate that night or ever again. Sano, deciding to ignore this and how helpless and miserable it made him feel, extended a hand to help her up, and at her side Soujirou also stood.

“Anyone show you the way to mess hall yet?” Sano asked as he started toward the door.

“They pointed it out to me,” Soujirou admitted, “but I’m a little disoriented now.”

“You must have come from someone nice,” Katsu commented as he fell into step at Soujirou’s side.

Soujirou nodded. “Actually, I’m a little nervous about all this… I never had to do much hard work…” A slightly shaky laugh accompanied this statement, and Sano couldn’t help pitying him. He’d find out soon enough what real slave labor was.

There wasn’t a day when the topic of escape didn’t come up at some point, facetious, sardonic, or hopeless as such conversations usually were. The mess hall was usually the setting of this, and, despite having a new addition to their little circle, tonight was no exception. This discussion was led, as was quite often the case, by Yahiko, a boy that usually shared their company and always had a grand scheme for getting out.

“No, I swear it would work,” he was insisting, emphatically waving a piece of bread at the skeptical Katsu beside him. “All we’d have to do is get to the top of the windmill and–”

“Listen, kid,” Sano interrupted him with a shake of his head, “don’t get your hopes up with crazy plans like that. Unless we come up with something that would actually work, we’re not likely to ever escape from here, and that’s reality.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Kaoru chided, observing the eleven-year-old’s downcast expression with pity. “I’m sure there’s some way out.”

Katsu only shook his head as Sano had done.

Yahiko was determined not to despair even in the face of jaded discouragement. His was a strong spirit that had yet to be broken, he having been here only a few months or so after the relatively kind owner he’d been born serving had died. He idolized Sano, for some reason, to the point even of trying to imitate his hairstyle, though his locks were black. And he was determined to escape. “No, seriously, hang-gliders work really good — you strap it to your back and glide for a mile or something.”

Sano smiled wanly. “Don’t you think they’d notice if we took all our blankets outside and started tying them onto sticks and stuff?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Kaoru said.

“See?” Yahiko demanded.

Soujirou, who had been listening in intent silence, now joined the conversation. “If you could escape, though, where would you go?”

“Yeah, exactly,” Sano said.

“Back to Touscha, of course,” said Yahiko hotly.

“How would you get there, though?” Soujirou pursued. “This place is in the middle of nowhere between Touscha, Baiza, and West Sorrat, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is,” Katsu confirmed, a little surprised; most slaves didn’t have any clear idea of the complex’s geographic location.

“Wouldn’t it be a long, hard hike, then?” Soujirou asked. “And what would you eat? And what if something ate you?”

Seeming a little dismayed at these questions, Yahiko struggled to find answers.

“And if you got to Touscha,” Soujirou pressed on, “what then? Do you know how to live like a free man? Could you blend in well enough that when Ketterect Labor came looking, they wouldn’t suspect you were an escaped slave?”

This was another surprise; few slaves knew what the KL on their backs stood for.

“And how would you support yourself? Touschans don’t hold jobs until they’re eighteen, you know.”

“Is this really necessary?” asked Kaoru quietly. Katsu noticed absently that she hadn’t eaten much.

Sano sided with Soujirou. “No, he’s just being realistic.” And though it did seem odd that Soujirou could play devil’s advocate so persistently with that mild smile on his face the entire time, Katsu had to agree that realism shouldn’t be argued against. A lot of the time — as in this situation, evidently — those that had just arrived were the most pragmatic; anyone that lasted longer, went through a couple of dealer cycles without being sold, often had their perspective skewed. As for Katsu and Sano… he didn’t know whether their history at this place rendered their perspective dead-on, or skewed even worse than most.

Yahiko was staring at his plate unhappily; Katsu found his eyes lingering on the boy for quite some time. The prudence of practicality notwithstanding, maybe the newcomer had been a little too blunt. Katsu’s gaze rose to find that young man, and discovered Soujirou looking similarly at Yahiko. The smile was gone from his face, and the expression there in its stead was one of sorrow and pity that Katsu couldn’t help but appreciate; maybe Soujirou also thought he’d been too hard on the kid.

As if feeling Katsu’s gaze, Soujirou looked up and caught his eyes, and the light smile returned, the sadness vanishing as if it had never existed. Katsu thought this odd, but there was no use staring any further; he was finished eating and had somewhere to be.

“Well,” he announced as he stood and picked up his tray, “I’ve got barracks-call.”

“Oh?” Sano looked up quickly. “That guy?”

“He was on night-patrol, remember? It’s Akamatsu, of course.”

“Oh,” Sano glowered.

“Yeah. See you all tomorrow.”

After tubbing his dishes, Katsu headed for the doors, glancing back at his friends as he exited. He found Soujirou watching him very steadily, and gave a little wave. Soujirou didn’t seem to have any idea what he’d meant by ‘barracks-call,’ and waved back with that same smile. Katsu sighed as he trudged away from the mess hall up the hill toward the guards’ quarters. He’d find out soon enough.



2>>

Chapter 2

The next day, Sano couldn’t help thinking a little wistfully about Yahiko’s hang-glider plan as he walked with Katsu and Soujirou past the windmill on the way to the fields in the clear dawn. The kid was always thinking up crazy ideas like that; in some ways it was refreshing, and in others terribly frustrating.

Yahiko was also constantly talking about the outer world as he’d known it. Sano had never been to Touscha, at least not as far as he could remember, and therefore those stories were interesting almost to the point of being painful. For what was the likelihood of Sano’s ever being able to find out for sure whether or not Yahiko was making them up?

It didn’t make matters any better that Soujirou was new to the complex and had all sorts of nosy questions. Some weren’t so bad… the ones about how the farming here worked and whether KL sold the grain to anyone or just used it to feed the slaves and the guards, and whether they knew which country KL bought the commodities they couldn’t produce from (incidentally, Katsu did know, because he had a seemingly superhuman ability to pick things like that up and remember them), and whether there was ever any recreation for the slaves, and all sorts of other irrelevant things… Sano just listened as Katsu patiently answered it all, in between the comings and goings of guards, until Soujirou happened upon a subject neither of them were going to want to discuss.

“Your friend Yahiko seems hell-bent on escaping. Has anyone ever escaped from here before, that you know of?”

Both Katsu and Sano shook their heads.

“In Touscha, slavery is a very touchy issue,” Soujirou remarked. Sano found his smile, at such a moment, almost uncanny. “It’s technically legal, but lots of people are against it… if something big were to come up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it banned. That’s why I was wondering — if there were to be a mass break-out, it would stir things up there and might accomplish something… Has anyone ever tried anything like that?”

“Yes,” Sano and Katsu answered at once.

Soujirou paused, looking at them. Sano only saw this out of the corner of his eye, as he’d become very intent on his work and guessed Katsu had as well. Undoubtedly they were both trying to keep their faces from betraying the pain that still lingered.

“What… happened?” Soujirou wondered a little hesitantly. He was obviously no fool, and had read enough in their mutual tone, even in that single syllable of affirmation, to make him cautious.

Neither of the others answered for a long moment until finally Katsu said briefly, “Almost everyone involved was killed.”

“Oh.” Soujirou cleared his throat and then made a slight and obviously deliberate change of subject. “Lately — before my master went bankrupt, anyway — I was hearing about some anti-slavery groups doing things like kidnapping slaves and supposedly taking them to West Sorrat and conditioning them for free life. He worried about sending me on errands outside his property!” he added with a slight laugh, clearly unaware that a guard had appeared not far off, that he was talking too much. “I heard that not much was being done about these people because–”

“Would you shut the hell up already?” the guard said as he stepped forward and gave the cheerful young man a rough shove. “You new fucks with your stupid chatter. God.”

“Sorry, sir,” Soujirou said unnecessarily, turning his unfaltering smile toward the guard.

“Yeah, yeah, just get back to work.” The guard was perhaps taken somewhat aback by that incongruous expression — which, Sano thought with a faint touch of amusement, was maybe its point — and only eyed Soujirou a bit more before continuing his walk of the field.

Soujirou, still smiling, did as he was told. Sano was a trifle relieved.

Like all newcomers, Soujirou would undoubtedly become accustomed to this place very quickly, Sano reflected, and not by asking a lot of questions — just because no day was ever any different from any other, and the nights were similarly all the same. Week after week it was nothing but work while the sun was up (Soujirou had proven today that he was capable of that); get fucked by some guard at night (Soujirou undoubtedly had the face and figure for that); and hope to survive to see the next season roll in.

Soujirou, in that last area, was a matter of question. He was too obviously accustomed to being treated well, and was therefore a little too flippant toward the guards. Not that slaves were routinely killed by guards, but the enforcers would go out of their way to make sure they didn’t get any attitude from those they ruled. Sano had seen some slaves die of pure indifference as their spirits were thus broken. He wasn’t to that point yet, though he didn’t know why — his must have been a stronger spirit than most — but he could see the day coming. And he wasn’t looking forward to watching it happen to yet another person that had joined their little group. Soujirou had better smooth himself out before someone else did it for him.

Kaoru seemed worse than usual that night, and Sano fervently hoped that the guards would forget about him for just this evening. Just let him sit by her side a little longer. If he couldn’t bring Kenshin back, the least he could do was try to fill the void, however inadequate he was. Yahiko seemed to be out of ideas for the moment, Soujirou was weary and quiet on the cot behind Sano, and silence reigned in their part of the room.

Kaoru was very pale as she lay curled up on her side in the little cot, eyes open but unmoving, and she shivered occasionally. Sano and Katsu had given her their own thin blankets, but she never seemed to be warm enough at night, even in these sweltering months. Sano’s face was blank as he stared down at her, but his mind wasn’t. Thoughts raced through his head like suicidal flying creatures — crashing into each other, into the ground, into trees, until he thought he was going crazy. Just like every night.

His reverie was broken when Kaoru sat up slowly. “Water?” she mumbled a little blearily.

“I’ll get it,” Katsu replied, stilling Sano and rising. He walked down the long line of cots past other slaves, who ignored him, to the end of the room. Pausing for a moment to stand directly in front of the electric fan that was all the ‘air conditioning’ they were allowed, he then moved on to where a few buckets sat in the corner full of water for their use. Sano watched him tiredly, for no particular reason, and when Katsu held up an empty bucket for him to see and headed for the door, he nodded absently.

“Katsu’s going to the pump,” he assured Kaoru. “It’ll just be a minute.”

“Thanks,” she replied, and her vision seemed to drift away to something she couldn’t actually see. He was sure it had something to do with a red-haired, violet-eyed man with pale skin and a gentle demeanor. Tears slowly filled her eyes as she closed them, and she brushed fitfully at the few that slid out down her cheeks.

Sano took her hand and squeezed it, knowing he could give no real comfort but wanting her to feel his presence. It was awkward and more than a bit painful watching a woman cry when there was nothing he could do about it, though, and he let his eyes drift around the room.

As it generally did at this time of day, the false serenity of weariness lay over the slave quarters — over the small group of companions as well as the others that sat massaging their feet or lay exhausted on their cots. The noise level, as always, was low; conversation during the work-day was discouraged, and the fear of reprisal carried even into the night when no guards were present. There were a few children in one corner carrying on some kind of quiet activity with their backs to the adults, but even their game — or whatever it was — was nearly devoid of energy.

Katsu, stopping just inside the doorway to set down his burden and observing the subdued scene, reflected that, in his eyes at least, his friends were the only part of the room that had any color; everything else appeared hopelessly dull. He wasn’t sure what he would do in a place like this, would have done all these years, without those he’d become close to — even coming and going as they always did — and especially Sano.

He transferred the big metal drinking ladle from an empty bucket to one of those he’d just filled, and went over to Kaoru. She accepted the ladle gratefully and drained it slowly. When she was finished, she sighed and returned the utensil to Katsu. Glancing from his face to Sano’s and then down to Yahiko, she remarked, “You all take care of me so much. Thank you.” Sano nodded, but couldn’t say anything. Yahiko, sitting on the floor, was looking down, sad and awkward, at his crossed legs and feet. Katsu nodded, like Sano, and went to put the ladle back in the bucket.

“I heard some guards talking,” he said quietly when he was seated at Kaoru’s side again, “out there. There was water in the trough, so I didn’t have to use the pump and they didn’t hear me. They were on the porch, and didn’t know anyone could hear them.”

They waited for him to continue, Kaoru easing herself down onto the cot once more and Yahiko watching him curiously.

Katsu looked around to make sure no one else was listening. Soujirou was evidently not paying attention (though Katsu felt fairly sure he could trust the newcomer anyway), and nobody else was within earshot. Finally he continued. “I didn’t hear everything, but they did say something about a break in the perimeter — out across the east field.”

Sano’s brow furrowed. “What do you think?” he asked.

Katsu shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. It sounds dangerous, but it could be our best chance yet.”

Yahiko opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak, but then didn’t say anything.

Sano was nodding slowly. “But we’d have to do it soon… they won’t let something like that sit for more than a day or so.”

“Oh, I forgot…” Their attention was all drawn to where Soujirou had stood up abruptly. “A guard told me to come to his room after dinner. I guess I’m late.”

Katsu and Sano exchanged unhappy glances.

Soujirou’s own face went slightly pale at sight of that. “I heard what you were saying yesterday… Does that mean…”

“Yeah,” Sano said quietly. “Sorry, man.”

“But, I…” Soujirou bit his lip.

“No choice,” Katsu said darkly. “Hopefully it was one of the nicer ones, and not Akamatsu.”

“I heard you say his name last night too,” Soujirou faltered. “Is he…”

“He’s a horny pervert and a complete bastard,” Sano said.

“Gets off on making our lives hell,” added Katsu.

“What does he look like?” Soujirou asked, even more faintly.

“He’s short, kinda big,” Sano informed, “got all kinds of scars on his face.”

The young man let out a breath of relief. “It wasn’t him, then. But… what happens if I don’t go at all?”

“You’ll probably get beaten then raped,” Sano told him grimly. “Best to just go and get it over with.”

Soujirou took a deep breath, then nodded. “Good night, then,” he said in a tone that was evidently struggling to sound strong as he turned for the door and headed off to face his doom.

“Poor guy,” Katsu muttered. “Second night here, too.”

“At least he’s old enough…” But despite the pity in his tone, Sano evidently couldn’t keep his mind on that matter. “Anyway, what about that break? Do you think we should go for it?”

“Yes!” Yahiko said, a little too loudly. His eyes were sparkling. “We could get out and make a run for it!”

“You should,” Kaoru agreed, and Katsu saw that her wide-open eyes were clear and filled with some emotion he hadn’t observed there for some time.

“We’ll go get help,” he said. “Soujirou was saying earlier–” He didn’t have time to explain it, though. “Well, we’ll find something, come back, and get you out.”

She smiled. “I don’t need your promises,” she said softly. “Just get yourselves out.”

Sano frowned. “No, we will come back for you.” But she shook her head. His frown deepened at that, and Katsu thought he was slightly hurt. “Fine, don’t believe it. But we will.” Turning to Yahiko then he said, “I’m sorry, kid, but we can’t take you with us.” He continued swiftly, not allowing the protest to make its way out of the boy’s mouth. “You know if we get caught trying to escape they’re likely to kill us, and I refuse to have your death on my conscience, even if I’m dead too. Plus, you’re not strong enough or fast enough to keep up with us.”

Yahiko gritted his teeth with an angry blush, abruptly fighting back tears. But not only was there no argument against Sano’s blunt points, he probably believed the insistence that Sano and Katsu would return to rescue them — maybe even more than either of them did. Finally he nodded.

Sano pulled him against his chest in a sudden hug. “I’ll miss you, kid,” he said.

“If we get out, it’ll be worth it,” Katsu nodded, reaching out to ruffle Yahiko’s hair.

“Yeah,” Yahiko stammered.

Sano then leaned down and kissed Kaoru on the brow. “Goodbye,” he said.

“We’ll be back,” Katsu promised again, squeezing her hand.

“Goodbye,” she replied, and closed her eyes so as not to see them rising and heading for the door… given that she obviously believed she would never see them again.

They planned quietly as they made their stealthy way across the dirt yard between the slave quarters and the guard barracks and onward. Heading north, they determined that they would cut through the orchard and come onto the field from the south, crossing it at the lower end where they would less easily be seen by patrols. Thence it was into the thick, hostile forest that surrounded the complex, and hopefully they could find the break in the perimeter fence soon enough to slip through and start running before someone realized they were gone.

After that, they had no idea what to do. It was only logical to assume that, as the complex lay at the juncture of three nations, whatever direction they chose to take would eventually lead them to one of those… Touscha would be preferable, given what Soujirou had said about slavery there, and they understood that it was to their northwest — but while northwest was easy enough to find in a place they’d known for a decade, things would be very different in a dark forest with many hours before dawn. With this in mind, they resolved not to be too particular about where they ended up, as long as it was somewhere other than here, and not dead.

But as Soujirou had pointed out last night, what then? Ketterect Labor Complex had been their home for ten years, and of what lay beyond they really had no concept other than what they’d been told and what they vaguely remembered from their childhood. Would they be capable of blending in, coming up with some way to support themselves, and finding help for their friends here in time?

They could not allow themselves to doubt that somewhere in the great beyond would be help for Kaoru. At the very least, if they could raise enough money somehow, they could buy their friends and bring them to freedom. And perhaps someone would have heard of a mistreated red-headed slave that pined for a love lost at the hands of a cruel white-haired man. Or even if that could not be, if they could get her out, Kaoru could receive better medical attention. The taciturn doctor that tended to the slaves was gentle and fairly adept, but cold and distant, wrapped up in thoughts no one could guess.

They had one close call as they scaled the orchard wall and Katsu nearly fell, but the guard below merely walked on without noting them. “This would be a lot easier,” Sano grumbled a bit later, when he could without being heard, “if they didn’t wear dark grey and we could see them better.”

Katsu shook his head with a wry smile. “Idiot.”

They crossed the orchard with little trouble, and darted across the dirt road between it and the sunken level of grain that was the east field. This was going to be a bit more difficult, as guards actually patrolled up and down the lanes between the plots, and it was there Katsu and Sano also had to walk — as going through the grain itself would make too much noise on this windless night and could not be risked. By the time they made it to the ditch that separated the field from the forest, they were sweating as much as if they’d been working in the field, not sneaking through it, but they remained unseen.

Clambering across the ditch, they took one last look around before plunging into the forest.

“Do you think we’re actually going to make it?” Katsu asked when they were a few minutes into the dense foliage, fighting their way forward with determination.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, looking for a path through a particularly nasty tangle. “But I’ve gotta try. For Kaoru. And Kenshin.”

“And Souzou,” Katsu added softly.

Sano nodded.

The perimeter was drawing nearer, and the frenzy of Katsu’s heart spread to a flush throughout his entire body. This could be the moment he’d dreamed of his entire captive life, the amazing moment when he looked for the first time beyond the pale of slavery into freedom. Of course, all he was likely to see was forest, but that was immaterial. Now, if only they could find the break!

The tall, imposing barbed-wire electric fence appeared suddenly in front of them, the trees cleared away around it and the foliage hacked back. They peered cautiously out from the forest’s shelter, and saw what they were looking for off to their right: a tree had fallen into the fence, snapping wires and creating a bridge to freedom. It wasn’t obvious how the tree had been tipped, but they weren’t about to argue with such good fortune. Scanning the area for any sign of life, they both looked again at the fallen trunk, then at each other, and slowly moved forward.

“Did you two idiots really think there wouldn’t be a guard here?”

The unexpected sound stopped them short just a few yards from their destination. They might have risked the chance that the speaker was armed and run onward if the voice had not come from in front of them — indeed, from exactly where they were heading.

The guard stepped casually from behind the fallen tree, where boughs and shadows had combined with his dark uniform and black hair to render him completely invisible.

“Shit,” Sano growled.

It was the same guard that had been admiring them yesterday. Despite the blackness, his golden eyes glowed with a deadly gleam. He stood nonchalantly regarding them, a cigarette marking the darkness in his right hand, his left lying lightly on the holster at his hip.

Sano didn’t waste time between his next phrase, “Let’s take him down!” and his sudden sprint toward the man, but neither did the guard waste time in drawing and calmly firing a single perfect shot that flew straight into Sano’s shoulder.

Katsu was less inclined than Sano to physical combat, and so had held back at first, but upon seeing his friend fall to the ground in a burst of blood he leapt forward. However, the guard had, with the same calmness, pointed the gun directly at him, and was advancing slowly.

“K-katsu…” Sano choked out, grimacing as he clutched at his shoulder and tried to rise. “Run… get out…”

“Idiot!” Katsu replied in a desperate hiss, falling to his knees at his friend’s side when he saw that attacking an armed man was futile. “I’m not going without you!”

The guard loomed over them, a tall shadow stretching up to two amber points. What little light there was in the lee of the great trees gleamed off the barrel of his gun as it was leveled at Katsu’s head. “Get away from him,” he commanded.

“If you want to kill him, you’ll have to kill me first,” Katsu replied, leaning over Sano protectively.

“That would be easy enough,” the infuriating voice drawled out of the dark. “But if I wanted to kill him, don’t you think I might have aimed for a more vital area?”

There wasn’t really a logical answer for this, and the next moment a long arm snaked around the obstruction Katsu presented to seize Sano’s shirt and pull him all at once out of his friend’s clutching grasp. The guard lifted Sano easily and slung him over his shoulder. Sano must have blacked out, for he made neither protest nor attempt to escape, and his arms hung limp.

“What are you doing?” Katsu demanded, jumping to his feet.

The man looked at him briefly. “He’s bleeding; he needs to be treated. What do you think I’m doing?”

Katsu stared at him, baffled. “But… what should…”

The guard gestured at the fallen tree. “You’re free to continue your escape attempt if you wish to do so without your companion. Otherwise, I would advise you return to your quarters before dawn.” And with these words he turned and walked away calmly into the trees, carrying Sano with him.

Chapter 3

The pain was terrible, and in large part, he thought, stunting his progress toward full consciousness. Combined with this, the other sensations of soft bedsheets around him and something grazing the bare skin of his chest left him at a total loss as to where he was or what was happening to him. The last feeling, as if someone’s hand were slowly running over him in a light, almost absent caress, he dwelt on longest; it was soothing, especially compared to the agony in his shoulder.

Wait… he’d been shot, hadn’t he? Because… because he’d been trying to escape, and Katsu…

Sano sat up, giving a grunt at the increased pain and surprise at suddenly being completely awake, his hand flying immediately to his wound as a soft blanket slid down his body and a set of infinitely familiar objects came into focus: the plaster ceiling and walls, plain light fixture, and brown door of a barracks interior. “What the…? Where am I?”

“In my room.”

Sano started away from the guard that was seated immediately beside him on the bed, leaning against the wall behind them and barely looking up from the magazine he was reading. The startled motion nearly made Sano fall to the floor, and preventing himself from doing so caused him quite a bit of discomfort. “Ow… shit…”

His first thought was that the guard must have brought him back here to have his way with him before he turned him in for trying to escape, but it was obvious that he hadn’t been raped in his sleep. Beyond that, as he took stock of himself, he found that his gunshot wound had been cleaned and bandaged. For all the pain he was in, the way his shoulder and arm were moving led him to guess that the bullet had missed everything vital and left him to heal back to what would probably be a normal muscular condition. It must have been an amazingly precise shot to do so little damage.

Dizzy and confused, he lay down again, flat on his back, looking up at the other man. “Why?” he asked softly.

“Because I didn’t feel like treating your wound outside on the ground in the middle of the night.” Once more, the guard didn’t even look at him as he answered.

“Where’s Katsu?”

“If your friend has any sense, he’ll have gone back to his quarters long before this.”

It felt like a stupid thing to ask, but, given the circumstance, Sano couldn’t forebear — “Are you gonna turn us in?”

“No.”

“Why?”

The man put his magazine down at last, and regarded Sano with his uncanny golden eyes. “I’ve been watching you and your friend for several days now,” he said, but his words didn’t seem to be meant as any sort of answer to Sano’s question. “How did you come to be here?”

Although confused, Sano saw no reason not to tell him, so he replied, “Katsu and I were living on the streets in LeMere in Baiza, and these guys picked us up.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Ten years? Eleven? Something like that.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “I find it hard to believe than a strong and attractive young man wouldn’t have been sold in such a length of time.”

“Those are the exact reasons I wasn’t. I’m strong, so I’m useful for all kinds of work…” Sano’s eyes flicked up toward the ceiling rather than the man’s face as he blushed. Why exactly he was blushing, he couldn’t be quite sure; it might have been because of what he was about to explain, but why that should be, when it was something he basically took for granted, he didn’t know. “And I’m attractive, I guess, so I’m useful for all kinds of other stuff too. I’ll never get sold. Matter of fact, somebody always locks me and Katsu up when the dealers come by, just to make sure we don’t. I don’t think the higher-ups know they do that, though.”

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen, I think.”

There was a brief silence, and Sano was almost afraid to look over again, but did so anyway. He found the man staring down at him with a piercing gaze that he did not understand. “Are you saying,” the man asked, with peculiar emphasis, “that these guards have found you ‘strong and attractive’ since you were nine years old?

Sano was blushing even more than before. Maybe it was just that no one had ever really talked to him about it like this; it had always just been… the way he lived. “Yeah. Well, not like it’s been the same guards all this time. You guys come and go too.”

More silence. Then finally, “How many slaves would you say there are here?”

“About a hundred.”

“And how long do they usually stay — the ones who don’t routinely get raped?”

“I’ve never known anyone to stay more than a year, but sometimes they go after a month even. The dealers come all in a group once a year and pick out lots of people, but sometimes individual ones come some other time when they’re running low or whatever.”

“Do you know anything about where the slaves get sold to?”

“Nah… usually the buyers don’t come up here in person. The dealers take the slaves they pick back to wherever they do whatever they do, and the buyers get what they need from there. Every once in a while a buyer wants more selection, and’ll turn up here looking for something specific, but that doesn’t happen much.” He thought of the asshole that had bought Kenshin.

The yellow-eyed man was nodding. “And when do most of the dealers come?”

“After harvest. Won’t be more’n about a month now.” Sano, by this point, was really at a loss to explain all these questions, which reminded him vaguely of Soujirou’s endless curiosity earlier this very day (for all it felt like weeks ago)… didn’t guards get briefed on all this stuff when they took the job? Maybe not. Maybe he was just too accustomed to the ones that had been here long enough to figure it all out.

“Do you know the date?”

“It’s just… after harvest…”

“I mean, do you know today’s date?”

“Um, no…”

The guard’s lips tightened. Sano was confused.

Abruptly the man stood and set his neglected magazine down on the table, then reached up to tug on the chain that turned off the light. The interrogation was probably over, then, and it was time to get on with the reason Sano was sitting here naked. A strange feeling began to grow in the pit of his stomach at that thought, a sensation he didn’t quite recognize. It was almost as if he didn’t feel ready for it, despite the fact that he was as ready as he ever was any night.

But all the man said next was, “Go to sleep.”

Sano blinked several times into the darkness, recognizing by the shifting of the bed and the blankets that the man had lain down beside him. “What?”

“I said, go to sleep.”

“Yeah, I heard you, but…”

“Or stay awake all night, if you think that will help you heal quicker.”

“I thought… Aren’t you going to fuck me?”

He might have been imagining things, but it seemed there was a pause that felt almost indecisive before the man replied in a tone half amused and half… something else… “Why; do you want me to?”

“No!”

“Why would you ask, then?”

“I wasn’t asking you to do it; I just figured you were already going to.”

“Why?”

“Well, you obviously want to…” At least, that was how Sano was reading the man’s expressions and tones.

“So?”

Baffled, Sano had absolutely no answer to this.

“You’re injured,” the guard said, as if that explained everything.

Sano was motionless with shock. No guard in the history of the slave complex would have cared that he was injured — indeed, to some it would have been an added bonus. And this one, while not bothering to deny that he wanted it, didn’t plan on taking him just because of a clean and well-treated wound in his shoulder?

“Who are you?” he managed to ask at last.

“A guard, idiot.”

“Yeah, I know that, but when did you get here? I never saw you before yesterday. What’s your name? Why did you ask me all those questions? Why didn’t you turn us in?”

“You’re noisy. Go to sleep.”

But Sano, feeling strangely fearless, was not going to relent just yet. “If you didn’t plan on fucking me or turning me in, why did you stop me escaping?”

The guard said nothing; it seemed he didn’t intend to answer.

Finally, despairing of finding out what he wanted to know, Sano lay down with a slight sigh followed by a grunt of pain. He was acutely conscious of the warmth of the man immediately to his left; the guard still wore a robe and had his back to Sano, yet the arrangement felt very… intimate… and without the activities that generally preceded going to bed thus side by side, that intimacy was disconcerting. Sano wasn’t sure he’d actually be able to sleep like this. He couldn’t even turn away from the other man, as that would put him on his hurt shoulder.

It didn’t help that he was inexplicably naked.

Why was he naked, if the guard hadn’t planned on fucking him?

This question nagged at him until he was forced to ask it aloud.

“Your ratty clothing was covered with blood,” was the reply whose tone seemed to suggest that the answer was obvious and Sano should really shut up.

“But they won’t issue me any more clothing until–”

“I’ll make sure they do,” the man interrupted. “I’ll tell them in the morning that my gun went off by mistake and wounded you.”

“You really aren’t going to tell anyone that we tried to escape, are you.” Sano hadn’t been aware, up until this point, that he hadn’t really believed it up until this point.

“No, I’m not. It would be a good idea for you not to mention it to anyone either.”

“No shit… But I still don’t get why you stopped us. It doesn’t seem like you care whether we escaped or not.”

“Maybe I just wanted some company for the night.” By now the guard sounded exasperated.

“You could have had anyone!” Sano’s tone was very similar, but his was tinged with desperation, maybe even anger.

“I wanted you.”

“I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to.”

“But you could have had someone who wasn’t trying to escape, dammit!”

“I told you; I’ve been watching you for days. I didn’t want anyone else. I wasn’t going to let you escape.”

“What the hell kind of motive is wanting my company for keeping me from my freedom?”

There was a long silence, and Sano thought the man was once again not going to answer him, until finally the reply came out of the darkness in the softest tone the guard had yet used: “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

The words made him shiver, for some reason, and that strange sensation in the pit of his stomach was growing. “Why?” he wondered, almost in a whisper.

“You ask too many questions.”

Sano had to give a snort of laughter. After the day he’d had… “I ask too many questions?”

But this time there really was no answer.

Once he’d resigned himself to the conversation’s end, he found discomfort, irritation, curiosity, and confusion fading, or at least going temporarily dormant, as he drifted away from consciousness much sooner than he’d expected.

The pre-dawn wake-up siren brought him to his senses in an empty bed; reflexively he sprang up before remembering the events of the night, then sat down again abruptly with a combination sigh and moan. His shoulder roared with pain, and his entire body felt stiff. He wondered if he’d moved even once the entire time he’d been asleep.

He looked around, but the guard was gone. Back to Sano came the oddly serious and almost gentle words that had been nearly the last thing he’d heard before going to sleep: “You won’t regret it. I swear.” Logically, he should be feeling regret, should be bitter or irate… but, besides the pain of his wound, the only sensation of which he was conscious was a strange sort of coldness that was more like an emotional void than anything brought on by the chill of morning. He touched the bandage on his shoulder gently and wondered where he would be by now if yellow-eyes hadn’t stopped them. He didn’t really know how to feel.

But the sun was certainly rising, and he would have time to think as he worked. Not that he was particularly looking forward to harvesting grain with this throbbing pain. He stood again, slowly, moving his arm a bit to test the muscles and grimacing at the result. No, not looking forward to it at all.

At that moment, the door opened, and a blank-faced girl entered without preamble. She didn’t seem to care that Sano was totally naked, only held out the bundle she had brought. “Here,” she said emotionlessly.

Sano knew well the look in the kid’s eyes, having seen it many times in countless faces since he came here: total, soul-deep apathy. He didn’t have to know her personally to be aware that she always did exactly what she was told, rolled with every blow, and could not care less where her life was going. It was the ultimate face of slavery: the death of all that was human in an individual.

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Yeah, buddy, you’re gonna hafta work pretty damn hard to live up to that one, Sano reflected harshly as he looked at the girl and thought of so many others like her, not to mention those that hadn’t yet reached this point, whose wills could still be saved, that might have been helped by his escape. He thought of Kaoru…

“Thanks,” he said, taking the clothes, old and used but clean and new to him.

“Coord’ told me to tell you to work in the wash-house ’til you’re OK.”

Sano nodded and began to dress as the girl turned and left.

As he stepped from the room and closed the door behind him a few minutes later, listening to the click of the latch with an indescribable rising emotion, the first of the morning, stretching out his healthy arm with a yawn, his attention was drawn to movement at his left. A guard had been standing very still close by and was now approaching.

“What’s your name?” the man asked in a flat tone; his accent was Sorratian like that of the other guard.

“Sano,” he replied promptly, puzzled and a little worried. Was he in trouble after all? He refrained from searching the man’s face, as guards generally didn’t like that, but from the short dark hair and cold blue eyes he’d taken in with his first glance he knew he’d never seen this man before.

“Quarter 4-12 tonight,” the stranger informed him in the same tone.

“Yes, sir,” Sano said dully, and watched in minor stupefaction as the guard turned and walked away without another word. They’re lining up for me outside each other’s doors now, he was reflecting, not without a touch of weary amusement, but how the fuck did he even know I was in there? He would have had to… well, maybe yellow-eyes told him this morning… Even with this explanation, though, it was disconcerting. But he’d deal with it as he always did.

Noting that the sun was by now risen, the slave made haste away from the barracks and down the hill toward the wash-house, hoping the excuse of having been wounded and needing to wait for new clothes would be enough to keep him out of trouble for being late.

Chapter 4

Katsu’s endless horrified conjectures about what had happened to Sano last night, and what might happen to both of the would-be escapees today, were to a certain extent interrupted by a very pale Soujirou joining him on the way to the fields just before sunrise. Looking a little lost and a bit the worse for wear, he fell into step quietly at Katsu’s side.

The latter was far too inured to the way they lived here to feel any intense remorse for Soujirou’s plight, but that didn’t make him totally unsympathetic. “Good morning,” he offered softly. “Are you all right?”

“I…” Soujirou’s face was blank.

Katsu put a hand on his shoulder, knowing full well that there was nothing he could say that would really mean anything.

Apparently attempting to rally his spirits, Soujirou managed a faint smile and, “Where’s Sano?”

Katsu tried not to frown. If Soujirou had been three minutes earlier, had come to the quarters, Katsu could have told him. Out here, however, with more guards around and so many slaves moving in the same direction, it was difficult to determine who was or wasn’t listening. “A guard came in for him right after you left last night,” he lied. “He’s probably already in the field.”

“So, how often should I expect… that…?” Soujirou wondered in response to this, trying to keep his voice even.

Katsu had to admit that he was somewhat glad of the distracting conversation. “Sano and I are their favorites,” he replied, “and we don’t usually get called up more than about three or four times a week during warmer parts of the year.”

Soujirou looked away with wide eyes, and Katsu, glancing over, could see him mouth the words, ‘four times a week’ with an air of disbelieving stupor.

“That’s actually not all that often, if you think about it.” Katsu tried to reassure him a little by explaining the system as he understood it. “There’s about forty guards, so it could be a lot more. But most of them don’t like men, I think. So since sex between women and men isn’t allowed here — because pregnant slaves don’t sell as well, and it isn’t like there’s a shop around the corner selling condoms — those ones don’t bother us. And except for Akamatsu, the rest of them don’t all feel like fucking every night.”

Whether or not Soujirou was reassured, he did seem a little calmer. “You really know how this place works, don’t you?”

“I have been here most of my life.”

“Most of your life?” Soujirou echoed in surprise. “How can you have gone so long without being sold?”

“I told you Sano and I are their favorites,” Katsu replied a little grimly. “Like they’d ever let us go.” Though that could have been subverted last night if not for that strange guard. And where was Sano? Katsu was scanning the field for him without any luck.

Soujirou, who hadn’t had any reply to Katsu’s last statement (for what was there to say?), followed his gaze across those that had already started working, then those just arriving, and shook his head. “I don’t see him.”

Tried to sound casual, Katsu agreed and added, “I wonder where he is…” And he continued to look.

“Katsu, the guards are watching.” Soujirou tugged on his arm. “Let’s go.”

Katsu couldn’t think that Soujirou’s indifference toward the guards’ influence had been completely reversed already, but evidently the barracks-call had taught him something. He allowed the younger man to pull him away from his search.

Once they were safely working and no guard was immediately nearby, Soujirou asked, “Why wouldn’t he be here?” Of course not knowing the story of the previous evening, his tone was nothing more than curious.

The only answer Katsu could come up with was that Sano was in bad enough condition that he couldn’t work the fields — but he couldn’t say that to Soujirou without explaining everything that had happened and risking being overheard… “I don’t know,” he replied at length, not bothering to hide his concern; Soujirou should be able to understand it, if he picked up on it, even without all the details.

Katsu caught a glance from the other slave that suggested he had picked up on it. “How long have you known him?” Soujirou asked deliberately, perhaps attempting to cheer Katsu up or at least distract him.

“As long as I can remember.” Katsu was not averse to being cheered up or at least distracted. “We met as orphans in LeMere and watched each other’s backs for a few years before KL found us.”

“You were homeless, then? Without any living relatives?”

“I see you know how it works.”

Soujirou smiled and rolled his eyes. “If the laws are the same in Baiza as they are in Touscha, yes. They claim anyone would rather be a slave than be homeless with no one to go to.”

With a shake of his head, Katsu remarked darkly, “I wonder if any of the people who make laws like that have any idea what it’s like to be either a slave or homeless. Anyway,” he continued, “Sano always claimed he had an uncle somewhere, but we were kids… even if he wasn’t making it up or remembering wrong, we didn’t have much of a chance at finding the guy. We were barely just staying alive.”

“And given the choice between barely staying alive and slavery, what would you take?”

Katsu had to smile a little, wryly, as he answered. “That isn’t a fair question to ask me. It may not look like much of a life I’ve got here, but compared to the horror stories I’ve heard from so many people–” He cut himself short and turned wholly to his work as a guard went slowly by.

As soon as the grey figure was gone, Soujirou broke into protest with a skeptical smile: “Katsu, men like that rape you three or four times a week. How can you say you have a better life than anyone?”

With a sighing laugh Katsu replied, “I can tell you came from a nice master who let you do things like not get raped, easy work, and keep up with national politics, so you obviously don’t know what it’s like for most slaves. Sure, I’m a free whore, but I don’t get beaten much, I don’t get starved, I’m capable of the work I’m assigned, my ownership isn’t going to change hands once every sixth months when my master gets tired of me… Most of the slaves I meet here can’t say any of that.”

“But wouldn’t you like to take a chance at finding a good master?”

“I don’t want any master.” He said it more fiercely than he’d thought he would. “I’d take a chance at freedom — nothing less.”

“For some reason, that’s exactly what I expected from you,” Soujirou said thoughtfully.

Katsu turned to find the other slave regarding him with a pleased smile, and somehow felt like he’d just received a flattering compliment; he returned to his work unexpectedly gratified.

Sano never appeared. Katsu hadn’t really expected him to, after the first half hour, but couldn’t stop watching for him. Soujirou didn’t miss this endless, worried impatience, and succeeded in distracting him from it yet again by asking sometime in the late afternoon completely out of the blue, “Is Sano your lover?”

“No!” said Katsu in surprise. “No… we’re really more like brothers.”

And Soujirou nodded, still, of course, smiling. Katsu spent the rest of the workday wondering why he’d wanted to know.

He was more anxious than usual to get back for dinner, as he anticipated answers there, good or bad, to the day’s questions. Soujirou hurried along at his side without a word as he strode through the twilight in that direction.

“Katsu!” Yahiko cried from where he waited on the mess hall porch. He didn’t shout anything further, as the door guard turned to glare at him just for the name. As the two field-workers joined the boy where he stood, Yahiko said quietly, “Sano’s not in there, and I haven’t seen him.”

“Neither have I,” Katsu admitted.

“Do you think he’s–”

“Are we eating tonight,” the guard interrupted almost at a growl, “or having a party on the porch?”

At this insistence, they all turned reluctantly to enter the building. Soujirou was inside and Katsu was just about to step through the doorway when Yahiko looked back over his shoulder, then hurled himself from Katsu’s side with a cry of “Sano!!!

Katsu whirled at the name to see Yahiko hugging the person in question, who looked as if he hadn’t even known the kid was there until just now. Sano’s shoulder was bandaged, and other than that he seemed unharmed.

“Where the hell have you been?” Yahiko was demanding.

Sano hugged him back, looking to Katsu and then to the door guard. “Come on,” he said. “I’m starving, so I’ll tell you inside.” The armed man, though glowering, was looking simultaneously curious, so Sano continued over-loudly, “Some guard’s gun went off and wounded me, so I got treated last night and worked in the wash-house today.” And pulling Yahiko off him, he moved from the post-dusk darkness into the dimly-lit interior of the mess hall.

“What did he do?” Katsu asked immediately when they were inside and making their way across the crowded room. Soujirou was already several spots ahead of them in the line, and gave a smile and a shrug when Katsu caught his eye.

“He did this,” Sano was answering, pointing to the bandage on his shoulder. “Then he asked me a bunch of questions, mostly… about this place and the people here, and me…”

“But why didn’t he…” Katsu began in a marveling whisper, cutting himself off before saying anything possibly incriminating in a crowded room. “If he just wanted information, he could have gotten it from any other guard, or the staff.”

Sano shook his head. “I have no idea. It was confusing as hell.” And, indeed, he had an air about him of underlying perplexity like Katsu had never seen.

Once they had their thick bread and thin soup, they made their way over to where Kaoru sat at the end of a bench saving places for them; Soujirou had found a spot across from her, and the two were conversing quietly. Katsu still couldn’t help but appreciate the concern Soujirou seemed to show for Kaoru. She looked paler than usual this evening, but her unhappy face took on an amazingly relieved expression when she saw Sano.

“Hey, missie,” the latter said softly as he took his seat beside her.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” she remarked. “I was getting ready to go find that guard and beat him up.”

Sano smiled. “Getting some of your spirit back, I see,” he said amusedly. “But he really wasn’t so bad.”

“I missed what happened,” Soujirou said with a smile of his own. “What guard are we beating up?”

“The one Sano spent the night with,” Katsu said quickly. “His gun went off by accident, and you can see the result.” He jerked a thumb at his friend.

Sano took the hint that Soujirou was not in the know and added, “But it’s really OK. I get to work in the wash-house for a while instead of baking in the sun.”

“The wash-house…” Soujirou said thoughtfully. “So you’ve been doing laundry all day? Please tell me they don’t make you do it by hand.”

“Nah, there’s machines in there,” Sano assured him. “Just no dryers. We gotta hang out all the clothes, with clothespins and everything, only it’s inside so nobody steals ’em, and the whole place smells like… well, wet laundry. Then we take the dry stuff down and fold it and organize it by size in this huge wall of compartments. It’s boring as shit, and I was getting my ear talked off all day too.” He gave a slight chuckle at the end of this explanation, but Katsu thought his mind was not entirely on this conversation, that something was wrong.

“By those nice old ladies, right?” Kaoru asked, looking amused in her turn.

“Well, yeah, and there’s some new girl too who just went on and on the whole day.” Sano started to reach up with his right hand, winced, and switched to his left to scratch his head. “She wasn’t actually talking to me, but it wasn’t like I couldn’t hear her.”

“Oh, I think I know who you’re talking about,” Yahiko put in. “I saw her the other day when they were assigning her — the one with the long black braid?”

“Yeah, that’s her.”

“Well, I’m done,” Soujirou declared suddenly, standing and stepping back over the bench, then looking down at Katsu. “You coming?”

“You eat too fast,” Katsu replied with a slight grin. “We’ll be there when we’re done.”

“OK.” Soujirou leaned over suddenly and kissed Katsu on the mouth before turning and walking away.

Katsu was speechless for a very long moment while that brief pressure seemed to linger teasingly, worrisomely on his lips and the others stared at him, their previous conversation entirely forgotten.

“Katsu…” Sano began in a worried tone.

“I…”

“Katsu, don’t,” Sano said. “You know what’ll happen.”

“It was just unexpected, that’s all!” Katsu protested. “And he’s only been here a couple days! It’s not like…”

“Yes, it is like,” Kaoru contradicted. “I can tell.”

“You know what’ll happen,” Sano repeated darkly. He did not add what Katsu knew he must be thinking: Don’t make me watch another one of my friends go through that.

“It’s nothing,” Katsu assured them, especially Sano, attempting at the same time to assure himself of the same thing. “Don’t worry about me, OK?” And he turned his full attention to eating as silence fell heavily among them.

Eventually they all finished, and with very few words rose together and left the hall — each of them, from what Katsu could gather by furtive glances, pensive with a different emotion: Yahiko seemed to feel awkward at that last exchange, not knowing what to think or say on the subject; Kaoru appeared very sad, even paler than before and moving at a slow pace — she understood better than anyone why Katsu should be careful; and Sano still looked confused, maybe a bit angry on top of it, and rather worried.

Katsu went to walk at his best friend’s side. “Are you all right?” he asked in a low tone. “You seem…” But he didn’t quite know how to describe it.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Katsu thought Sano’s reply was a little absent.

“Are you sure? That weird guard… did he rape you?”

“No…” Sano said slowly, thoughtfully.

“But..?”

“But nothing. It was just strange and confusing is all.” Sano seemed to shake himself out of his reverie, for a few moments at least, long enough to reiterate his warning. “You just worry about yourself and pretty boy over there.”

“I told you, it’s nothing,” Katsu said with a slight frown. “You notice I didn’t tell him about last night.” OK, so that was a misleading statement, but if it made Sano feel better…

It appeared to. “Yeah. Good.” Sano had slowed, and now as Yahiko and Kaoru caught up with them he stopped walking entirely. “I’ve got call tonight, so I’ll see you all at showers tomorrow. Well, except you,” he added with an emotionless smile at Kaoru. “You I’ll see at dinner.”

Katsu shook his head sympathetically. A barracks-call was going to be even worse than usual for Sano with a shoulder he could barely use. “Good night,” he said.

As the other two echoed the goodbye, Sano turned away in the direction of the guards’ quarters while Katsu continued toward his own. It was troublesome that so few of the questions he’d awakened with today had been answered… not only that, but a new and totally unexpected issue had come to light: on top of being worried still that the guard might report what they’d been trying to do, now he had to figure out whether Soujirou might not already have led him onto the road to heartbreak.

Chapter 5

The blank door opened at his knock to reveal the equally blank face of the guard within.

“Hey,” Sano greeted him, trying not to sound too unenthusiastic. The guard gestured him inside without a word, then returned to the task of undressing in which Sano had apparently interrupted him.

There was always a tired, almost morbid curiosity in Sano’s mind regarding the sexual organs of a good-looking guard that hadn’t fucked him before, so he waited in watchful silence to find out how well this one was hung. But for some reason, the man stopped at his boxers and turned to the slave. “Sit there,” he said in an emotionless tone, pointing not to the bed as Sano had expected but to the chair that every guard had in his room and few seemed actually to use.

“OK,” he replied, obeying.

The man looked him over slowly, not a trace of what he was thinking evident on his face. Finally, just when his scrutiny was beginning to make Sano a bit nervous, he spoke again. “My name is Aoshi. I expect you to do everything I say.”

Sano nodded. That was normal.

“You can sleep in that chair,” Aoshi continued, reaching up and turning off the light. “Just stay quiet.”

Sano blinked. That was not normal. He opened his mouth to question as he heard the unmistakable sound of the guard getting into bed, then forbore. It seemed as unwise to go against what Aoshi had just commanded as it seemed completely illogical for the guard to have called Sano here for no reason in the first place.

As he adjusted his position in the uncomfortable chair, his head was slowly starting to ache. Up until twenty-four hours ago, his life had been so straightforward… he hadn’t been confused about anything since Yahiko had tried to explain triangle geometry math to him a couple of months ago. And now…

He’d spent the day trying to ignore both the pain in his shoulder as he worked and the chattering braid-girl, and the whole time a wheel of confusion had been endlessly turning, endlessly repeating, in his tired mind:

Why would a guard that was willing to shoot him casually through the shoulder, willing to prevent him escaping this whorehouse of a life, hesitate to fuck him, though obviously wanting to, just because he was hurt? There was always the possibility that yellow-eyes found injuries or blood a turn-off, but he hadn’t seemed the squeamish type to Sano… and otherwise, such consideration seemed so nice… or at least reasonable…

But wouldn’t it also have been nice or at least reasonable to let him escape? Or if he wasn’t going to allow that, wouldn’t it have made sense to turn them in like a normal guard would? Well, some normal guards… Akamatsu wouldn’t have turned his favorite sex toys in to be executed. But yellow-eyes hadn’t wanted sex. No, even less comprehensibly, he had wanted it — as if Sano couldn’t tell after all these years when somebody did! — just hadn’t taken it. It really didn’t add up.

The answer, he thought, lay in that impossible promise. But that was as easily decoded as the rest of the man’s behavior. Why wouldn’t Sano regret it? What lay in his future important enough that it was worth shooting him to be sure he was here for, and not turning him in to be sure he was alive to see? Something that yellow-eyes knew about and would swear by, as if he, a mere guard, could personally guarantee it? Something better than freedom? And why, if it seemed so offhandedly impossible, was Sano inclined to believe it? He had no reason to trust the man, and several reasons to be suspicious of him…

But what exactly was there to suspect him of, when he’d done no worse than any other guard would have done, and in at least one respect better? Maybe Sano just wanted to believe, because it was better than the despair he might have felt at having been thwarted three yards from escape. But how could he believe something that he didn’t even understand?

He started to sigh, but then, remembering his situation, restrained it. Why the hell was he here, anyway? Of course Aoshi probably had no idea that Sano had already had one inexplicably sex-free night in a guard’s room and more than enough confusion for one week… but what in the world was the point of calling him here and then telling him to sit in a chair all night anyway? Did that turn him on or something?

This was an unpleasant way to try to sleep. Sano couldn’t say he’d rather have been raped, and at least in this case it wasn’t totally nonsensical — as Aoshi had shown no signs of actually wanting him — but still he could have done without additional strange behavior after last night. For a few moments he toyed with the notion that there might be some connection between the two circumstances, but abandoned it when he couldn’t come up with anything logical. Of course, none of this was logical…

Aoshi had probably just changed his mind about finding Sano attractive. But that wasn’t logical either, for not only had no other guard ever done so (or at least bothered to tell him, or not fuck him, if they had), but wouldn’t it also have made more sense to send Sano back to his quarters at this point?

If they’d been successful in escaping, Sano wouldn’t have had to puzzle over Aoshi’s behavior. He wouldn’t be desperately confused about anything. He wouldn’t be in quite so much pain; he wouldn’t be brooding in the dark over, of all stupid things at this moment, whether he was becoming less attractive and was that good or bad? and he certainly wouldn’t have a hole in his shoulder. But, then, he wasn’t going to regret all that.

Sitting like this really wasn’t the best way to encourage his wound to heal, and besides, he’d love to spend a couple of nights with his friends just to keep an eye on things. He restrained another sigh. This timing…

He’d seen the attraction between Katsu and Soujirou yesterday, but hadn’t really recognized it as such until today when Soujirou had startled him into looking back a little more critically. And though he should trust his best friend not to make any stupid mistakes, Katsu seemed to be in denial about it. Sano wasn’t sure what there was to be done, especially as Soujirou was in their quarters, but he just couldn’t let Katsu get attached to someone that was going to be sold in a month. It was as much for his own sake as for Katsu’s — how could he watch another friend break and fade away?

Of course, if they’d managed to escape, that wouldn’t have been a problem, now, would it? They would be on their way to Touscha or something, and Soujirou would be forgotten. Guess I’m not supposed to regret that, though, he reflected bitterly, ’cause you’ve got something better than not watching my friend get hurt, right?

“Damn you,” he whispered inadvertently.

In the darkness, Aoshi stirred, but whether he was actually awake and disturbed by Sano’s comment, the slave could not tell.

With yet another stifled sigh, he rearranged himself again and wondered for the second night in a row if he was going to get any sleep.

This question was answered when for the second morning in a row he awoke to the siren alone in the room. He groaned as he stood, for his shoulder was in agony. Today was a bathing day, and after that he thought he should go see the doctor again. He’d gone yesterday — she’d taken a quick look, applied some desperately painful alcohol of some sort, and changed the bandages — but he thought it was actually hurting more now than it had before. “Thanks a lot, Aoshi,” he grumbled.

The showers building adjoined the wash-house; it was a noisy, wet facility that always smelled of soap and mold and was a pain in the ass to clean if you happened to be assigned to it. Sano usually enjoyed bathing, which only happened every three days, but today he was uncertain about what to expect. What he found, though, wasn’t too surprising.

“Good morning, Sano!” Why did Soujirou have to be so damn cheerful? Especially when he was making no visible effort not to ogle Katsu?? The latter greeted him with a nod as Sano deliberately stood between them. Sano couldn’t help noticing that Katsu’s glance strayed more often than not in Soujirou’s direction as well.

Damn naked bathing was going to fuck everything up. Sano couldn’t help noticing also that Soujirou, though he finished cleaning up about twice as quickly as the others, stuck around for no apparent reason other than watching Katsu. Of course Yahiko was relatively oblivious to what was going on, but even he could sense the tension, and didn’t say much.

It was difficult for Sano to clean his shoulder without getting the bandages soaked, so he was doubly frustrated as well as in pain by the time he was finished. Well, at least he knew what he needed to do. Not that the doctor was likely to lessen the pain, and not that letting Soujirou know exactly how things had to be was likely to lessen the frustration… but it was better than nothing, wasn’t it?

It was a relief when everyone was dressed again, and just as they were all leaving the building was Sano’s moment. “Soujirou.”

The latter must have recognized the trouble in Sano’s tone, for his smile was worried as he turned toward him.

Sano gestured him three steps back into the entryway, making sure Katsu and Yahiko were out the door before speaking. “I like you, OK? But you’re exactly the kinda guy who’s gonna get sold first the next time there’s a dealer up here. So I want you to leave Katsu alone. See, I’ve already got one friend who’s dying from being lonely. I don’t think I can handle two.”

Soujirou nodded with a very serious expression. “I understand. All I can tell you is that you’re going to have to trust me.”

“What?” Sano glowered.

“Trust me,” Soujirou reiterated. “There’s no way I’m letting Katsu get hurt.”

The really strange thing was that with the way the guy said this, Sano had this uncanny urge to believe him. That actually made him angrier. “I don’t know where you came from and what kind of freedom you had there, but around here you ain’t in charge of whether or not someone else gets hurt. There’s no way you can promise not to let him get hurt and make it mean anything to me.”

Soujirou’s face did not change. “I’m sorry, Sano,” he said softly. “You really are just going to have to trust me.” And with that he turned and walked away.

“Soujirou!” Sano growled. “Who do you think you are? Dammit, Soujirou, come back here!”

When he did not find his order obeyed, Sano ran out the door after him. He came up short just outside, though, finding Katsu there and Soujirou standing with him. Well, it was no good continuing now; it would only start a fight for which he had neither the energy nor the heart. He merely let out an angry breath and hastened heavily away.

Katsu watched him head off toward the other side of the building with a frown, his heart heavy. He’d heard everything that had just been said; he wasn’t sure Sano had even attempted to keep it from his ears. And now he found he couldn’t quite turn toward Soujirou.

“Let’s go,” the latter said, taking a few steps in the direction of the fields.

The long-haired slave was torn between following Sano and following Soujirou. It didn’t help that either choice would end in awkwardness. He just didn’t know how he felt about this. On the one hand, he perfectly understood Sano’s reasoning and appreciated his concern; on the other, he also perfectly understood how things worked around here and wished Sano would have a little more faith in him. He wasn’t sure where the fact that he did like Soujirou fit in…

Finally, with an unhappy shake of his head, he joined Soujirou.

“I’m sorry if I’ve made things difficult for you,” the latter said after several silent paces.

Katsu sighed. “It’s OK. Sano always gets — Sano and I both always get pretty protective of each other.”

“I do like you a lot, you know,” Soujirou smiled over at him.

Was it a good or a bad sign that this made Katsu’s insides feel so damn warm? He cleared his throat. “That’s kind of… sudden.”

“We’re slaves,” Soujirou replied. “We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.”

“Sano’s right, though… you’re sure to get sold after harvest. Not falling in love at all is a better option.”

“And if we could escape?”

Katsu had to laugh, bitterly, at this unexpected and absurd question. “Don’t you start with that too. It doesn’t work. Period.”

With a return of that careful tone that suggested he wanted to know but wasn’t going to push too hard for it, Soujirou remarked questioningly, “You’ve had some kind of personal experience with that.”

Not sure he’d rather be discussing this than the philosophy of romantic attachment between slaves, Katsu was silent until they were safely working and he could make a reply with his back to Soujirou and no guards immediately present.

“When Sano and I first came here, we didn’t want to trust anyone. We’d been on the streets with only each other for so long… We were miserable and scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to us, and we had this attitude that anyone around us was out to make things worse for us somehow. But there was this man in our quarters named Souzou… He was just a slave like everyone else; I think he was from West Sorrat, and he’d been a slave all his life like most people… he wasn’t better educated than anyone else… didn’t have any particular abilities more than the rest of them…” Katsu trailed off with a slight shrug, feeling the ache that always accompanied this subject and surprised he’d even managed to get this far.

“But he was special somehow,” Soujirou prompted after a few moments, “right?”

“Yeah.” Katsu struggled to continue. “He didn’t seem like a slave. When you were around him, you didn’t get the sense that he belonged to someone, that his whole life had to be directed by a master of some kind. It was like he was a free man who was putting up with slavery, for now, for some very good reason of his own. It wasn’t anything he said or did; it was just the way he was. Of course we couldn’t stay away from a guy like that.”

“Of course,” Soujirou echoed. “And he gave you the same attitude.”

“You think so?”

“You and Sano don’t seem so much like slaves either, you know.”

Katsu smiled faintly. “I don’t know if that’s because of Souzou or just because we’ve been here so long. We’re practically part of the staff these days.”

“True,” admitted Soujirou. “But go on.”

“Well, Souzou sort of took us in. He was like a father, almost, though as old as we were it really would be more like an older brother, I think. He helped us adjust, made us feel like part of a family with him and his friends. You wouldn’t think you’d want to feel like part of a family at a place like this, but it turns out it’s better than feeling like everyone you see is out to get you. Anyway he was better family than anything Sano or I had had, and we loved him like we were really related to him. We weren’t the only ones, either.”

Soujirou maintained a patient, anticipatory silence.

“Eventually,” Katsu continued, steeling himself for the rest of the account, “he and some of the other adults started making plans to escape. A lot of them were thinking what you were talking about the other day: if there was some kind of mass break-out, the governments wouldn’t be able to ignore the issue anymore, or people would speak out against slavery, or something. A lot of the people in the quarters were going to go along with it, and it seemed like it was going to work pretty well… until we got near the main entrance and…” Even if a guard hadn’t passed by at that very moment, Katsu would not have been able to articulate the rest of those events.

“So you were actually there,” Soujirou marveled pityingly, quietly. “When you said before that almost everyone involved was killed, I guessed it must have been somebody close to you, but…”

“Yeah, we got to watch.” Katsu wondered if this pain lingered so much because of that — the first and most traumatizing event in his life — more than any other reason. He couldn’t say another word for a while, and Soujirou did not make any further inquiries.

“The only reason we survived,” continued Katsu at last, figuring he might as well finish the story, “is that Souzou sent us off into the trees when he realized what was about to happen. We didn’t want to go — Sano especially didn’t want to leave him — but what could a couple of kids do? It would probably have been better if Souzou hadn’t let us come along in the first place.” He added quietly, “Or maybe if we’d been shot along with him.”

“You don’t really think so,” Soujirou answered immediately in the same quiet tone. “You don’t really think you’d be better off dead, or you wouldn’t be here.”

At this assessment Katsu gave a wry smile. “I can’t say that for sure. It’s possible I just never thought about it enough to know one way or another.”

“Or maybe you live for people like Kaoru and Yahiko.”

This idea was a slight surprise that Katsu had to ponder for a while. And into his thoughtful silence Soujirou continued, “Because you must realize that you’re doing the same thing for Yahiko that that man did for you…”

Right down to trying to escape and getting shot, even. But things had gone better for them than they had for Souzou; did that mean there was more hope for Yahiko? It was a fanciful idea that smacked of some kind of silly karmic theory or other, and yet it was, strangely enough, vaguely comforting.

“Maybe,” Katsu admitted with a smile as he continued working in an oddly improved mood. “Maybe.”

Chapter 6

Sano beat his friends to the mess hall by several minutes, and was already eating by the time Katsu, Kaoru, and Soujirou sat down around him.

“What’s wrong?” asked Katsu immediately.

Sano glowered. “I ran into that guard again.”

“That does happen sometimes with people who work here,” Katsu replied carefully.

But Sano was no in mood for caution. “He asked me how my shoulder was!”

“So?” wondered Kaoru.

Unsure why his companions were not getting it, “He’s messing with me!” Sano explained in irritation. “How can he shoot me and then confuse the hell out of me and then ask me how I am?!”

“How did he confuse you?” Soujirou inquired. Sano had forgotten that the newcomer didn’t know all the details.

Sparing Sano the trouble of answering, Yahiko joined them just then with the announcement, “I have a great idea!” Making no objection to the subject change, Sano sat back and brooded in silence as the kid detailed his latest escape plot.

But as Soujirou began again systematically to shoot him down with a smile (though Yahiko seemed to have thought it through better this time, and was putting up more of a fight), Katsu leaned over to Sano and murmured, “I think you’re worrying too much about this.”

“No, I’m not!” Sano protested. “I can’t tell if he’s threatening me or what!” His voice dropped to a quiet, intense hiss. “He said he wasn’t going to turn us in, asked me a hundred questions he could have found out the answers from anyone, and said he wasn’t going to fuck me because I was hurt. Then he shows up in the wash-house like he’s coming specifically to ask about my shoulder, and gives me this look like I think he still wants me, but…”

“Oh, god, Sano, is it the sex thing that’s bothering you?” Katsu demanded incredulously.

“It’s everything about him!” replied Sano vehemently. After a moment he added, “Still, though, when was the last time a guard took you to his room and then didn’t fuck you?”

“He’s probably planning to wait until your shoulder’s better and then do it.”

“But it doesn’t make sense! Nothing he did makes sense!”

“I’m not saying I don’t see your point… there’s just nothing you can do about it. If you keep worrying, it’s just going to drive you crazy.”

“Maybe it already has,” Sano muttered. “But I don’t think I can just let it go when the guy knows…”

“That puts the ball in his court,” Katsu replied firmly. “You’re just going to have to wait for whatever he wants to do. You can’t go harassing a guard.”

Sano really had nothing more to say. Despite the soundness of this admonishment, he wasn’t sure Katsu was right — but at the same time, what could he do to press the issue, to find out anything more than he already knew? The answer to that was obvious, and the next question was whether Sano would rather pursue peace of mind by taking potentially life-threatening chances or a good friend’s concerned and reasonable advice. At the moment he was leaning toward the life-threatening chances, but it took a while for him to decide.

It was one of those rare nights when both he and Katsu got to sleep in their own cots in their own quarters and not get fucked by anyone. With Soujirou around and also without barracks-call, the occurrence was that much more unusual. And though Sano would never actually wish the guards’ attentions on his friends, it was a bit of an unfortunate coincidence, as their presence could only weaken his resolve and Katsu specifically was sure to object.

But though Katsu might be able to talk him out of it, he couldn’t stop him if Sano had a head start…

The quarter-warden hadn’t closed the doors yet, as usual, letting the cooler air into the consistently-uncomfortable building, but she had already done her nightly count — ‘inventory,’ she called it — after which it was very difficult to convince her that you had barracks-call: you’d be late by then, and few slaves were stupid or absent-minded enough to keep a horny guard waiting. Sano was debating now whether it would be better to tell her he had call and risk her not believing him (and keeping a closer eye on things for the rest of their awake time), or to attempt sneaking out (which would have worse consequences if he were caught). Either option had its advantages in keeping Katsu from following him with dissuading logic.

Presently the decision became easier when the conversation among his friends turned simultaneously lively and exclusive of him just when the warden had stepped into the next room. There was no time for further consideration; Sano rose quietly, glad he wasn’t sitting in the middle of the group, and slipped out the door.

Hurrying up the hill toward the barracks, he only looked back once. Though nobody followed, he still felt nervous. Well, of course he felt nervous: he was sneaking out to pay an unsolicited visit to a man that could bring about his death in a variety of ways and didn’t seem to have any logical reason not to have done so already.

And this was his door…

His knock was answered immediately, yellow-eyes was staring down at him, and suddenly Sano had no idea what to say. Katsu had been right, of course: deliberately seeking out a guard with the idea of demanding anything was phenomenally stupid.

The man’s expression slowly turned skeptical as Sano continued to say nothing, until finally he stepped aside and gestured the slave to come in. Closing the door he remarked, “I don’t recall inviting you here.”

“You didn’t invite me the other night either,” was all Sano could come up with.

The guard nodded as he bent and continued to untie his half-unlaced boots.

Sano watched uncertainly for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Look. I wanna know…” What did he want to know? Everything. How to ask was the more difficult part. “Who are you?” he finished lamely.

The guard glanced at him a little skeptically as he set his shoes aside and began to unbutton his heavy grey shirt. “I believe I answered that one last time.”

Sano was heartened by the casualness of this response, and retorted, “You didn’t do a very good job.”

Curtly drawing his gun, the guard startled Sano into stepping hastily back with a racing heart and a hot rush of fear. But yellow-eyes was merely putting the weapon away in the safe, it seemed. Still, the awareness that Sano shouldn’t push his luck was reinforced by the action; this man had shot him once without blinking, after all.

But he’d come to get answers. “You’re not a normal guard.”

“Thank you,” yellow-eyes replied, laying his shirt over the back of the chair to his right. “Get in the bed.”

The strange sensation Sano had felt in the pit of his stomach the last time he’d talked to this guard abruptly returned. “I didn’t come here to sleep with you,” he said hoarsely.

“It’s past curfew,” the guard replied, removing his belt to lay it also on the chair and seating himself on the bed. “You can’t go back to your quarters now.”

Sano couldn’t argue with that point. “Not without getting in trouble, anyway,” he muttered, going to the other side of the bed. At least yellow-eyes was on the left this time, which meant Sano could lie on his good shoulder and not face the man. And maybe he could yet obtain some answers.

But as he was removing, slowly and painstakingly, his own dirty shirt and tossing it onto the floor, very conscious of the presence close at his back, yellow-eyes questioned, “What kind of punishment is usual here?” And he reached up to turn off the light.

Sano pulled back the blankets and lay down as close to the mattress’ edge as he could. “Why do you want to know?” He was braver in the dark, but only for half a second —

For as the guard settled down beside him and replied, “I asked first,” Sano could feel the words almost in his ear, and the man’s warmth just behind him, partly against him.

His heart was pounding, and that feeling in his stomach was steadily increasing. Uncomfortably he hastened to answer. “It depends on who’s giving it, what you did, what time it is, shit like that. Some guards’ll just smack you around some; some of ’em’ll drag you into a corner and make you give ’em a blow job or something. If it’s staff, quarter-warden or something, you’ll probably end up with some really shitty cleaning project you have to get done along with your regular work.”

“And what if you’ve done something more serious than just breaking curfew?”

“Still depends. If it’s not bad enough to kill you over, you might end up in solitary for a while. They don’t feed you much in there, and you get beat a lot.”

Yellow-eyes was silent, and the air was tense. Still, Sano interpreted the quiet to mean that it was his turn. “So, why’d you want to know?”

“I’m calculating how much I’ve saved you from,” came the reply.

Saved me?!” wondered the slave angrily. “You fucking shot me!”

“You wouldn’t have survived long enough out there to get to any country. I saved your life.”

“What kinda life is this? And how do you know I wouldn’t have survived?”

“Didn’t Souzou’s experience teach you not to put faith in escape attempts?”

Startled, Sano couldn’t reply for a few moments. Finally he asked in a near-whisper, “How do you know about him?”

“You’re not the only one who was here back then,” yellow-eyes answered.

Sano was wordless, baffled. Who besides him and Katsu was left from that time? Some member of the staff, no doubt… but who could it be? And if the guard was getting detailed information from that person, what need was there to question Sano? But while this would probably have been the perfect moment to inquire about that, the unexpected mention of Souzou’s name had thrown him drastically off balance.

It had been so long, and he still couldn’t help but be deeply disturbed by the thoughts of those events. But, then, he’d long known that time didn’t move the same for him as it did for others. Sometimes — not often — he almost wished he were just a normal slave. Might not that be a better life than stagnating in painful memory? But if he was going to wish for anything, he might as well wish for freedom. Or…

“You could at least have let me die like him,” he whispered.

“I saw no need for you to die,” yellow-eyes replied immediately.

“There was no need for him to die either, but at least he got away from here…”

“If you wanted to be like him in that sense, you wouldn’t be here.”

“If you hadn’t stopped me, I wouldn’t be here.”

“True.”

And finally Sano managed to ask the question he most wanted answered: “Why won’t I regret that?”

“Because I won’t allow it.”

Sano laughed bitterly. “What if I’m already regretting it?”

“Then you need to be distracted.” Suddenly the man’s arm had crept over his body to run fingers across his chest.

Sano’s breath caught in his throat, his shoulder throbbed, and his stomach twisted… and, oddly enough, none of these necessarily in an unpleasant way. “So you’re gonna actually fuck me this time?”

The guard had shifted so he was pressed fully against Sano’s back, and now replied in the slave’s ear, “Do you want me to?”

“No,” Sano gasped as the man’s hand slid into his pants, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if yellow-eyes hadn’t heard him at all. And as the guard began stroking him, he didn’t think he had the ability to reiterate his negative. The last time he’d gotten an erection without having to concentrate on doing so was… he couldn’t remember… Had a guard’s touch ever done it before? He didn’t think so…

He knew he shouldn’t let the man’s overtly-stated intention of distracting him be fulfilled, but the unusual sensation of being deliberately pleasured by somebody else was too overwhelming. And as yellow-eyes, who seemed unfairly good at this (though what did Sano know?), wasn’t in any hurry to finish him off, there was plenty of time for Sano to lose track of everything except the skilled fingers working him toward orgasm, and to forget everything he’d come here intending to find out.

While all this was going on, Katsu, who might otherwise have prevented it, found himself equally distracted. Having emerged from the building too late to stop or even catch sight of the missing Sano, he spent a moment contemplating the relative merits of chasing his reckless friend versus sneaking back inside before the quarter-warden closed the doors.

“Katsu, what’s happening?” Soujirou had followed him.

“Sano’s being stupid,” Katsu sighed.

“I heard some of what you were saying… he’s having trouble with a guard, right?”

Katsu nodded. “The guy who shot him the other night was unusually nice to him, that’s all. Sano doesn’t know how to deal with people being nice when he doesn’t expect it.” Hell, who did?

“Maybe this is a good way for him to learn, then.”

“Bothering a guard isn’t a good way to do anything except get yourself in trouble.”

“Is the guard likely to do anything worse to Sano because of it than he would do anyway, though? Or, if he’s nice…”

“I don’t know that he is; I’ve never talked to him.” Though his tone was still grim, Katsu’s tension was draining. Soujirou made a very good point: what could the guard do to Sano at this point that was any worse than what they were already fearing might happen? Hell, maybe the guy would fuck Sano for his trouble, and Sano’s confusion would end. Not that Katsu would ever really wish that on his friend.

“Hey,” Soujirou said softly, breaking Katsu from his thoughts. “I’m sure it’ll be all right. Who knows better than Sano how things work around here?”

“I do,” Katsu replied wryly, “and I’m the one who’s worried.”

Soujirou put his hand on Katsu’s shoulder, drawing his gaze. “It’ll be fine,” he reiterated, leaning up and kissing Katsu briefly.

The latter watched the blue eyes as they drew back. He wasn’t sure why, but somehow when Soujirou said things like that, Katsu was inclined to believe it. “I hope you’re right,” he said in a lighter tone, looking back in the direction of the guard barracks. I hope you find some answers, he told Sano silently.

Soujirou said his name suddenly, and on turning Katsu found himself locked in a longer and much more intense kiss. And perhaps it was not the best display of friendly loyalty, but with Soujirou’s soft lips against his, he couldn’t stay worried for long.

The younger slave’s arms slid around Katsu’s back to pull them closer together, and even in the warm summer night the heat of proximity was not unpleasant. Katsu laced his fingers though Soujirou’s hair and savored the feeling of the other’s body against his.

And then the voice he hated most in the entire world spoke from several yards away: “Nothing I like better’n slaves sneaking out of their quarters at night to fuck.” Akamatsu was approaching swiftly as he said this, opening his pants. “Don’t mind me, guys,” he grinned licentiously as he halted.

Katsu tried to keep what would have been a very detrimental expression of horror off his face. He couldn’t say he was surprised at this turn of events — standing around outside carelessly kissing another slave could bring only a few results — but was vehemently cursing his luck and foolishness.

Soujirou did not appear any better pleased at the prospect of providing this kind of entertainment for a third party, but after a moment his visage hardened in determination and he put his mouth to Katsu’s ear. “Looks like we have no choice; might as well make the best of it.”

“We can’t do this…” If he’d had time to explain, he would have had more objections than just the audience. He’d never had a relationship, because he hadn’t wanted to find himself in Kaoru’s situation or that of those he’d known before her… and the fact that something about Soujirou was more intensely attractive than anything he’d ever felt from anyone else he might have liked was all the more reason to want to do things right… if there was a right way for one slave to get involved with another that was likely to be sold away from him within a few weeks. And he wasn’t sure he knew how to have sex the right way, the way where both parties supposedly enjoyed it.

Soujirou said very seriously, almost as if reading more than one of these objections in Katsu’s few words, “You won’t regret it if I enjoy it, though?”

“But, in front of him?” Katsu murmured, aghast. It wasn’t as if he’d never done anything like this in front of a guard before — indeed, this guard — but he assumed Soujirou really hadn’t.

“Just pretend he’s not there.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

Akamatsu’s impatient tone broke into their debate. “Are you guys gonna get on with it, or do you need my help?”

Katsu was not about to answer that out loud. Slowly he drew Soujirou to him once more and wondered not only whether he could do as he was urged — ignore the guard and enjoy this — but what kind of animal it would make him if he did. Most likely, merely more the kind he already was. He tried to console himself, to placate his conscience, by reflecting that this was probably better, at least, than either of them having Akamatsu’s attention solely on himself… but in the end the most placating circumstance arose from his body, not his mind.

It was some time — indeed, it was about the middle of the night — before they went back inside their quarters. That they were going to be unusually tired tomorrow was the least of Katsu’s concerns.

Chapter 7

Supper was very hushed the next day, but the nuances of the wordlessness were eluding Katsu. They’d had to rouse the warden to let them back into the quarters last night; she’d not been quiet in her wrath and assignment of punishment — it didn’t help that she found distasteful the activities they’d fairly obviously been engaged in outside — so Yahiko and Kaoru knew.

Kaoru was very disappointed; she seemed to think Katsu should have been stronger than that against temptation. She’d worked alongside him and Soujirou throughout most of the nearly-silent day, unhappy and without enough energy for the annoyance she might otherwise have displayed. Katsu hadn’t bothered to explain that Akamatsu had encouraged them into it, given that he wasn’t entirely sure something similar wouldn’t have happened without the guard’s help.

Yahiko was uncomfortable with anything sexual, being at the age where such things were still relatively null in his mind, but, simultaneously, living in an environment where it was present around him at most times and where he also had to worry that he might be growing into a more attractive young man than was good for him. He understood fairly well the potential dangers of involvement with another slave, having seen Kaoru’s symptoms as plainly as the rest of them, but evidently didn’t feel qualified to discuss the matter.

How much Sano deduced by the atmosphere among them Katsu couldn’t tell. He’d never come back yesterday, so presumably he’d spend the night with that guard again. And whatever had occurred between them didn’t seem to have improved the situation, for Sano was even more broody and tense than before. Whether this preoccupation extended so far as to keep him from noticing that Kaoru was sad and disapproving, Yahiko silent and embarrassed, and that Soujirou couldn’t look at Katsu without his smile turning all silly, there was no way to tell.

Not knowing exactly what his own opinion about last night was, Katsu didn’t feel up to trying to make conversation, and the meal proceeded without much comfort. He also couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to ask Sano about the outcome of the ill-thought venture, whether it had accomplished anything more than getting friends in trouble: such a discussion would undoubtedly lead to what Katsu and Soujirou had gotten in trouble for, and why they’d been out after the door was locked… he feared Akamatsu’s involvement wouldn’t entirely avert Sano’s protectiveness and worry. Yet Sano was sure to find out sooner or later, and, for all Katsu’s engrossment in his own situation, he was concerned enough about Sano’s not to want to wait.

Kaoru had hardly any appetite, and walked heavily and slowly away with Yahiko after not too long. This didn’t help the tension much, but, as Katsu thought it would be best to question Sano with less of an audience, he didn’t complain. Once the two of them were done eating (Soujirou, of course, having finished before anyone else, as usual), they all rose and left the building wordlessly. Katsu found that Sano turned immediately toward the guard barracks outside the door.

“You’re going back to him?” he asked without thinking.

Sano stopped and turned. Soujirou, almost as if Katsu had specifically requested it, did not halt, but walked on a few paces, giving the two of them almost complete privacy. Sano sighed and said, “No… the other confusing guy.”

“The othe– oh, the one who had you sit in a chair the other night?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what the hell he wants me up there again for.”

With a shake of his head and a shrug Katsu changed the subject. “So what happened last night?”

Sano scowled, and at first it seemed he wasn’t going to answer at all. This was not a good sign. Finally he said, “Not much. He asked me more questions…”

“And then…?”

“And then he jacked me off.”

This, Katsu had to admit, was strange… but he was sure Sano was making more of it than it merited. “Why?” he asked.

“I don’t know!” Sano exploded. “I don’t understand one fucking thing he’s done!”

Katsu shook his head again. “Neither do I… and I also don’t understand why you’re complaining when it’s better than what you’re used to.”

“I’m not used to being confused,” Sano insisted heatedly. “I’m not used to–”

And just then Soujirou called out, “Katsu, don’t forget we need to scrub the bathrooms!”

The conversation was derailed and Sano was frowning at him. “Why do you guys have to scrub the bathrooms?”

It was Katsu’s turn to sigh, and Sano’s frown grew; evidently he hadn’t gone through dinner time completely oblivious. “Last night I went outside after you, and he followed… then Akamatsu showed up and demanded some slave porn. We didn’t get back in for a while.”

The expression on Sano’s face was disturbing. He obviously didn’t know what to say, or probably what to feel. Finally he forced a very unconvincing grin and said, “Better than that bastard doing you himself, right?”

Katsu, miserable at his friend’s concern — all the more because it was perfectly justified — seized him by his good shoulder. “Look, I don’t want you to worry yourself to death about me when you’re already driving yourself crazy over some guard who’s suddenly decided you’re his boyfriend.”

“It’s not that I–”

“I know exactly why you’re worried,” Katsu broke in, “and I appreciate it. But you’re going to have to trust me to take care of myself, OK? I’m not going to… I’m not going to fall in love with him and waste away and abandon you. I promise.” And he shook Sano slightly.

Sano took a deep breath as if steeling himself. “OK.” He didn’t sound entirely convinced, but he did make a brave attempt to smile.

“I won’t let you down.”

Sano nodded.

“I’ve gotta go scrub toilets. Good luck with that weirdo.”

“Have fun,” Sano said, with another gratifying effort at greater cheer. He turned and walked away. Katsu watched him for several moments with a heart in turmoil.

“Everything OK?” Soujirou asked in what seemed a deliberately casual tone as they started toward their quarters again.

“Relatively speaking,” was Katsu’s dry reply.

“I don’t want this to come between you guys,” Soujirou said softly.

“I don’t know that there is a ‘this,'” answered Katsu just as quietly.

Soujirou nodded his understanding, his smile wan.

It wasn’t long before, armed with old and somewhat ragged scrub-brushes and diluted but still foul-smelling tile cleaner, they were sequestered in the first bathroom. There were two bathrooms, of course, at the back of the building, connected by a door that was usually locked; tonight they had they key so they could detail clean both sides without bothering the other slaves, and easily vacate the women’s half when someone needed to use it. Having a key to anything was an unusual amount of responsibility, but this was not exactly consoling.

As they went at the streaked, disheveled sinks with less than perfect vigor, a somewhat awkward silence hung in the air; the last exchange they’d had outside was just as palpable between them. Katsu wasn’t sure it was a good idea to say anything; doing so might give rise to expectations or even assumptions he didn’t want to encourage — in both of them. But at the same time, he couldn’t just say nothing… because neither did he want to promote the idea that there wasn’t anything between them.

Finally, “So how much of this type of work did you have to do with your old master?” He gestured at the brush in his hand. He thought this was a fairly safe topic.

“Some,” Soujirou shrugged. “More towards the end when he was selling the others. I can’t say I like it very much.”

Katsu gave him a skeptical smile. “Does anyone?”

“Well,” Soujirou pondered, “I think it wouldn’t be so bad if it were my bathroom.”

Katsu had to smile again. “So you do want freedom.”

Mimicking Katsu’s skeptical expression of a moment before, Soujirou wondered, “Doesn’t everyone?”

“You and that smile could fool anyone. You seem like you’re happy all the time no matter what.”

Soujirou laughed. “I guess I’m just an optimist.”

“You’ve been pretty optimistically shooting down all of Yahiko’s escape plans,” Katsu pointed out, still quizzical.

“Even an optimist can be practical!” Soujirou protested. “I wouldn’t want to try anything stupid, but I’m always sure things will get better somehow.”

Somehow, sure,” replied Katsu darkly. “It won’t be because of anything you did, though; it’ll still be someone else making changes in your life. Someone doing you a favor, or you being in the right place at the right time.”

Soujirou considered this and nodded slowly. “You’re right; a slave’s happiness isn’t the same as a free man’s happiness…” Not surprisingly, he broke into another smile. “Either way, I’m still usually pretty happy.”

Katsu experienced an abrupt clenching in his heart at this. He had to admit, he couldn’t understand the concept of practical optimism… and whether what he felt now was more worry for the moment of Soujirou’s disillusionment or a hopeless desire to share in the sanguine attitude, he could not tell. So much for a safe topic.

The conversation lapsed as they each attacked one of the two toilets with quiet sighs.

“Come look at this,” Soujirou said suddenly, after several minutes. “It won’t come off, and I swear it’s moving.”

Katsu joined him in the next stall, and, both of them on their knees, they scrutinized the spot on the toilet Soujirou indicated. It was faintly green with bright orange blobs, and it did almost seem to be pulsing on the slick porcelain as they looked at it.

“Watch,” Soujirou advised, and, bending down, scrubbed at it hard. When he pulled his brush away, the stain had undergone no change; indeed, it had quite possibly become more pronounced. He gave a helpless laugh. “It looks like an octopus having spasms.”

Katsu, who only vaguely knew what an octopus was, peered more closely and replied, “Or a dancing spider.”

“It’s an indestructible toilet monster!”

Katsu chucked; then, sitting back up, found himself very close to Soujirou.

The latter had opened his mouth to say something more, but refrained as they were suddenly staring into each other’s eyes. Katsu wondered why he felt like he’d never seen that precise shade of blue before. Some silly reason, no doubt.

Hands clammy with tile cleaner sought each other as their lips met almost desperately, and they were kneeling next to a toilet and the smell was unpleasant and they’d just been discussing some kind of fungal discoloration and it was about as far from romantic as anything he could imagine and Katsu could not stop. His hands were moving to Soujirou’s body, trying futilely to pull him closer or at least to feel as much of him as possible. Soujirou’s were likewise engaged.

And then came the unmistakable sound of the door opening.

They jerked apart and scrambled up. The girl that had entered was looking curiously at the open door into the other bathroom, and gasped when they emerged from the far stall.

“Sorry,” Soujirou smiled a little breathlessly. “We’re cleaning the bathrooms; we’ll step out.” As he grabbed Katsu’s arm and they hastened through the door, the girl nodded her comprehension. She didn’t appear any too sympathetic, and Katsu assumed she’d been awakened last night, as many had, by the quarter-warden yelling at them.

He swung the door closed and leaned against it, and presently found his companion leaning against him looking up into his face. Soujirou didn’t say anything, only smiled.

Katsu sighed, but also didn’t really have anything to say. Actually, there wasn’t much to do other than kiss him again and not let go until they heard the girl exiting the other side.

Sano’s night, not surprisingly, involved a good deal less scrubbing, but also a good deal less kissing. Which he would have considered himself happier to forego, under the circumstances, was a matter of question.

Aoshi responded immediately to the knock, and ushered him in without a word. Once the door was shut, Sano found his entire figure the subject of the guard’s intense, silent scrutiny. For several moments the cold eyes roved over him, and Sano was actually a little startled when Aoshi spoke. “Take off your clothes.”

Sano did as he was told, wondering if this night would end up a little more normal than the last one had. But he found when naked that Aoshi was still doing nothing more than staring. It almost seemed he was looking for something. After what felt like a very long time, and without giving any hint at what he was thinking, Aoshi turned. “Sleep in the chair. Put your clothes back on if you want.” Sano opened his mouth. “And keep quiet.”

A little annoyed, Sano began pulling on his pants as darkness fell and he heard Aoshi getting into bed. He fumbled his way to the chair and sat down.

Here we go with another comfortable night, he grumbled silently. Way to make sense again. What the hell was wrong with this guy? It was almost like he was punishing Sano for something. This was just like the other night, only everything he was sitting here contemplating had escalated since then. Stupid fucking guards.

“…some guard who’s suddenly decided you’re his boyfriend…”

Sano just didn’t want to think about any of it. He was very close to wishing he were in some normal guard’s room, so at least he might have something to distract himself. Some guard that didn’t pretend not to want him or pretend to want him and not fuck him either way and what the hell did it mean?!

Then a new theory struck him, and he stared through the darkness to where he knew Aoshi lay. I bet… he considered slowly, and a slight grin spread across his face. Bet ‘e can’t get it up. He’s hauling me in here and doin’ his best, but even I can’t do it for him.

Maybe it was the stress he’d been under lately, or maybe it was because this explanation lessened the burden of confusion on his mind, but somehow, the more Sano thought about the theory, the funnier he found it — until he had his head laid against the back of the chair and tears leaking from his eyes in silent laughter, and drawing breath quietly was difficult. He can’t get it up, and sending me back to quarters would be good as admitting he couldn’t… so he keeps me here in the chair and goes to sleep all frustrated.

He hadn’t expected to find any relief here tonight, but after not too long was falling asleep in a much better mood.

Chapter 8

Days passed with no more perturbing guard-related events than sitting twice in Aoshi’s chair and being checked on fairly routinely by yellow-eyes. Though he still wanted answers, Sano was, somewhat against his will, beginning to get used to this. Aoshi’s strange behavior kept him out of random beds on at least those nights, anyway; and constant confusion, while not technically pleasant, was technically better than his interaction with most guards.

The one disconcerting moment of the week (guard-related, that is) was when yellow-eyes, ‘coincidentally’ encountering him yet again, asked whether he had barracks-call that night. Sano’s eyes flew instantly to the man’s hand, currently holding a cigarette, his thoughts to the feeling of that hand touching him, and that same strange twisting sensation in his stomach kept him for a moment from answering. Was the guy giving in? Had he actually decided to fuck Sano? It didn’t matter, since Sano did have a call for that night, but he spent the day in renewed mystification.

Katsu was no help at all, for a few reasons. First, Sano had yet to hear from coordination and was still separated from his friends during the days as he did laundry and they worked the fields. Second, Katsu still thought Sano was making too much of this, and from a logical standpoint Sano couldn’t even argue. Third, there was still Soujirou. Sano wasn’t sure how, but he was certain the two of them were finding opportunities to be alone and… do whatever. What disturbed him most was how cheerful this made Katsu. Increased happiness on the part of any of his companions would, of course, normally be a good thing, but here he feared it meant that Katsu was falling more and more for the smiling newcomer.

Katsu knew Sano’s worry, and continually insisted that he could take care of himself. He seemed to think Sano’s ‘obsession’ (as he called it) was a greater problem. The evening after yellow-eyes made his disconcerting inquiry, when Sano had told his friend about the conversation and wasn’t even bothering trying to disguise his intentions for the night, Katsu nearly snapped.

Why, Sano?” He looked like he might very readily have punched Sano if they hadn’t been indoors.

“I have to know what the hell he meant by that,” Sano grumbled, at once guilty and defensive. “I have to try at least one more time to get answers.”

“Goddammit,” hissed Katsu in desperate frustration, “don’t you realize that it’s not just your own ass you’re risking here?”

“If he was gonna turn us in,” Sano insisted, lowering his voice with a glance around at the others, “he’d have done it already. He’s got something else going on, and I wanna know what it is.”

“It probably has nothing to do with you!”

“Then why didn’t he turn us in?”

“Who cares?” Katsu exploded. “Since when is it your business what he does or doesn’t do?”

“I think I’ve gone crazy,” was Sano’s muttered admission. “Or if I haven’t, I will if I don’t figure this guy out.”

“You realize he didn’t actually tell you to come to him; he just asked if you were going to anyone else. It’s not necessarily the same thing.”

“I know. But I have to go.”

Katsu pursed his lips and nodded. “Be careful,” he said hopelessly.

Sano had been planning on merely stopping by the quarters to check on Kaoru, who hadn’t come to supper, but between waiting for a moment when Soujirou wasn’t listening and the subsequent debate with Katsu, he found the quarter-warden locking the door by the time he approached it; she didn’t even ask, tonight, where he thought he was going, only let him out with a sneer of, “You’ve been busy lately.”

He just nodded, and left as quickly as he could.

But as he made his way up the hill, he found himself dawdling, hesitant. Katsu was right: yellow-eyes hadn’t told him to come. Though the guard hadn’t been angry the last time Sano had shown up uninvited, was Sano pushing his luck? Just asking for the man to snap? Or what if… what if yellow-eyes had somebody else with him in there? What would he do to the upstart slave that came pounding on the door like a suspicious lover?

Something cold and hard seemed to grow in Sano’s chest, and still he wavered. He couldn’t go back now, even if he wanted to. He could spend the night outside; he’d done it before, and knew it was possible… but what he’d told Katsu had been true as well: not knowing was going to break him.

The dilemma was eventually solved for him. “What’re you doing out, there?”

At first Sano thought he was caught: outside after curfew, having lied (at least by omission) to his quarter-warden, with no actual barracks-call to excuse his slow, loitering walk… and the voice, of course, was Akamatsu’s… The blood rushed to his face as he stood suddenly still. But a split-second later he realized that the guard, a few yards away, was addressing another slave and Sano, concealed in shadow, had gone unnoticed as yet.

It was the braid-girl from the wash-house. “I… I…” She’d barely begun to stammer out an excuse when the guard interrupted her:

“Never mind, sweetie, just come with me.”

“Where?” The girl’s voice was a frightened squeak.

“We’ll just head back to my room and not worry about curfew.” Not for the first time, Sano wondered whether Akamatsu ever did any actual guarding or just wandered around looking for slaves to molest. He hadn’t been aware that the asshole liked girls, though.

“But, sir, I–” Now it was a horrified squeak.

“C’mon.” He grabbed her arm. “I’m lettin’ you off easy here.”

“No!” She was standing her ground.

Won’t do you any good, Sano told her silently, repressing a sigh and remembering.

“Don’t give me no attitude, there,” the guard growled.

“But…”

“You gonna keep fighting me? Do I hafta show you your place right here outside, then?”

Sano couldn’t take this. He’d been fairly sure this girl was new around here since the first time he’d seen her; he couldn’t stand to watch her dragged off to be raped — or, worse, raped right in front of him on the ground — when all it would take to save her was a ‘Hey, guy, she ain’t worth your time… wanna try something tighter and ready to go?’ He was about to go over there and work his charm when the situation suddenly turned on its head.

“Bastard,” the girl said in a clear and completely different tone, and, apparently without effort, threw the man to the ground.

Sano wasn’t exactly sure what she’d done — he certainly didn’t see any weapon — but the man did not get up again. And now the girl was looking straight at him. “Come over here and help me,” she commanded.

Sano did so, having not the faintest idea what to expect, his eyes on the fallen guard. “Did you… is he…”

“I just knocked him out, but it’s going to be a big problem. Can you carry him for me?”

Eyes widening and brows lowering, Sano demanded, “Just what do you think you’re doing? This… this is gonna get you killed, you know that? I can’t… I mean, not that I haven’t always wanted to kick this guy’s ass, but…”

She gave him a flat stare that said very clearly, I know what I’m doing. Which Sano couldn’t believe, but she was doing it rather convincingly. “Just come on,” she ordered.

For some unfathomable reason, Sano found himself obeying. “I’m gonna get fucking killed,” he muttered as he hoisted Akamatsu onto his back and tottered after the girl, who was now leading the way. “I always feel bad for you gals and do stupid shit.”

She threw a grin over her shoulder at him. “Trust me.”

“Why do people keep saying that?” Sano grumbled, then added under his breath, “This bastard always stinks…”

Braid-girl was keeping them close to the trees, watching carefully for anyone approaching from any direction; she moved almost noiselessly, and her vigil looked like it was unerring. Sano wondered, very curious, what kind of work she’d done for her previous master.

She stopped them suddenly, as they were about to leave the cover of the little belt of forest, and scanned their surroundings even more cautiously than before. Sano was becoming increasingly nervous… they were approaching the guard barracks, and he had an unconscious rapist on his back. “Where are we going?” he wondered in the quietest tone possible.

“There,” she replied, pointing — he must be seeing things — straight at the barracks in front of them.

“Are you fucking crazy?” he demanded, stepping back a few paces and almost stumbling under his load. “What the fuck is your–”

She glared at him. “I’m not suicidal and I’m not stupid. Do you think I’d be doing something like this if I didn’t know what I was doing?”

“Um…” Sano shook his head, baffled. “I don’t know you from fucking Juno! How should I know if you would or not?”

“Well, I wouldn’t,” she said impatiently. “Are you going to trust me and come with me, or am I going to knock you out too?”

“Betcha can’t drag us both,” he said defiantly.

She turned fully to face him with an annoyed scowl. “Just trust me. Bring him, and everything’ll be OK.” After a long moment she turned away again and continued checking for watchers.

Thinking he must have gone completely insane, Sano stepped after her as she hurried across the open space toward the building. His frown deepened as he realized that he knew which room she was approaching. But… it couldn’t be… why?

She glanced around yet again, furtively, when she reached the door. Indeed, it was the door. She knocked softly, and, indeed, it was yellow-eyes that opened and, with only a fleeting look of surprise, gestured for them both to come inside.

Sano was by now far over his head in puzzlement and trepidation. He entered mutely, and at braid-girl’s gesture dumped the unconscious body on the floor.

“I’m sorry…” the girl was saying, giving Akamatsu a look of contempt. “I shouldn’t have… but you said not to let any of them touch us.”

Yellow-eyes nodded shortly; then, to Sano’s utter shock and dismay, he knelt beside the prostrate guard and, in a concise movement and with a quick, sickening series of snapping crunches, twisted the man’s head violently almost a full one hundred and eighty degrees.

“H-holy… fucking…” The slave was gaping, shaking his head, feeling bile rise in his throat and his entire body flush with horror. He’d witnessed deaths before, but this was… different… and the fact that he’d fantasized seeing exactly that for at least a year actually made it worse.

“Look away if it bothers you,” said yellow-eyes shortly. Then he turned immediately back to braid-girl and told her, “Go spend the night in Aoshi’s room; tell him what’s happened. We may have to move sooner than we’d planned because of this; we’ll need to see how this man’s absence is taken.”

Even through the shock he was in, Sano didn’t fail to note the smile that flickered across braid-girl’s face at Aoshi’s name. Aoshi? Aoshi??

“Yes, sir,” braid-girl said, and was out the door.

“Um…” Sano stood rooted to the spot, his gaze fixed on a point where he could still see the corpse in the corner of his eye. “What is going on?”

“You’ll need to spend the night here,” yellow-eyes told him. Sano was compelled to look at his face, but, as always, could not read the expression there.

“That doesn’t really tell me what’s going on,” he protested weakly. Although, provided something was done with the dead body, spending the night here was not nearly as disagreeable a thought as it might or probably should have been.

“You don’t need to know what’s going on,” yellow-eyes said. “Just forget everything you saw tonight.” He had pulled the blanket from the bed and was busy stripping the sheets.

Sano didn’t like this at all. “You can’t just expect me to really do that,” he protested. “You just fucking killed a guy… a guy who’s been raping me for, like, a year, yeah, but…”

“He’s been worse than most, hasn’t he?” Yellow-eyes’ voice was stony.

“How the hell did you know that? Yeah, he has… but…”

“I’m sorry if it disturbs you,” said the man grimly, “but someone like that deserves it.”

“He does… he did… but… What the fuck are you? You and that girl and… and that other guard, Aoshi… you’re all working together to do something here, aren’t you?”

“How do you know who Aoshi is?” yellow-eyes asked curiously as he bent and began tightly wrapping the sheet around the corpse.

“He keeps calling me up to his quarters and then just having me sit there all night not doing jack-shit. Confused the hell outta me before, but maybe I get it a little now.”

For some reason, yellow-eyes looked annoyed at this. “Not as much as you think you do,” he replied darkly.

“What do you mean? And what are you guys all here for?”

Yellow-eyes just shook his head as he finished his task.

Frustrated but by now familiar with how nearly impossible it was to get information out of this man, Sano made one last attempt to put the pieces together. Knowing that there was some kind of conspiracy, some kind of organization toward whatever end yellow-eyes had in mind, was not nearly as helpful as he would have thought it should be. The only answer he could come up with, eventually, was, “Are you here to steal slaves?”

Looking up at him impassively, yellow-eyes replied shortly, “Yes.”

Surprised that his guess had been correct, Sano frowned for a moment before making another. “And I’m one of the ones you want.”

The guard was briefly silent as he lifted the body, then stood straight with a slight smirk and said, “You are the one I want.”

“What, you’re each only taking one?” Suddenly the man’s behavior up until now came frighteningly close to making sense. But… yellow-eyes, braid-girl, and Aoshi… that was only three… if they were each hand-picking one slave, then… Sano scowled abruptly. “I won’t let you.”

Yellow-eyes quirked an eyebrow. “You’re not going to have a choice.”

“So was this why I wasn’t supposed to regret not escaping?” Sano demanded irately. “Because you stealing me was going to make up for it?” The idea was somehow more painful than anything else he’d imagined during the long days that had passed since the fateful escape attempt. Sano’s rising voice overrode whatever the guard might have been about to say. “You fucking asshole, you’re just like all the other guards here… fuck that, you’re worse… you’re worse than that stiff you’re holding!”

The look of mild and relatively patient annoyance on the man’s face as he let Sano have his say was just too much. In what the slave hoped was an unexpected movement — not that the guard was in much of a position to stop him, burdened as he was — Sano yanked the door open and bolted.

Lucky he was that he didn’t encounter anyone, for he ran almost blindly — first in the general direction of his quarters, then, in a brief moment of greater presence of mind, into the nearby belt of trees. There, he threw himself down half in a bush and closed his eyes.

He didn’t know where to go. Straight to another guard, to report the crime brewing in their midst? No, he couldn’t… no matter what the man’s motives had been, yellow-eyes hadn’t turned him in for trying to escape — nor, perhaps more to the point, Katsu — and Sano didn’t think he could just turn around and betray him after that. But he couldn’t allow himself to be stolen…

The mere thought of that man’s attitude and behavior was bitterly painful to him. Why it should be so he was not sure… Because, despite his technical status as a slave, he yet was unaccustomed to being so blatantly objectified? Because, now that he knew the inadequate reason for its prevention, the thwarted escape attempt was haunting him? Because the faith he’d had, in defiance of all logic, in that mysterious promise was now shattered? And why was it that knowing the truth raised more questions than it answered?

The sex thing, for example, still made no sense. Did yellow-eyes plan on continuing to ask him, ‘Do you want me to?’ once Sano had become his personal property? Did he assume Sano would eventually succumb to his… charms… and answer yes? That would fit, Sano thought, with the arrogance and selfishness of a man under the impression that belonging to him would be better than freedom.

Sano buried his face in the dusty cloth that covered his knees, as if by hiding it he could hide from the emotional turmoil it displayed. He feared he wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight.

Chapter 9

In the showers the next morning, it was readily evident to Katsu that Sano was, true to form, even worse off than he’d been before going on his third (or was it fourth?) quest for answers. This obsession of his had to reach a breaking point eventually… Katsu could only fear that, as Sano himself had once suggested, it might well be Sano’s breaking point. Today he didn’t even appear to notice the interaction between Katsu and Soujirou, which otherwise Katsu assumed would have worried and angered him.

Sano seemed exhausted and unhappy, but more distressing than that was the blankness of his eyes — and nothing Katsu thought of to say could really pull him from his evidently very unpleasant thoughts. He wished they would be going to the fields together; if he’d had all day to work on him, his efforts might have had some better effect. As it was, the time for their separation came all too soon, and Sano made for the other side of the building and his laundry with almost no farewell.

Katsu watched him go with a feeling of pained frustration, then turned toward his own day’s work. But as his eyes swept past the belt of forest that ran behind the wash-house and the mess hall and on up the hill, he caught sight of a tall grey figure standing in the shadows of the trees, from all appearances watching the slaves emerging from the wash-house very intently. And, though the features were obscured by distance and shadow, somehow Katsu knew who it was.

Maybe he was feeling reckless; maybe the memory of the conversation he’d overheard at the showers the other day inspired him to greater protectiveness of his friend than prudence could restrain. Whatever the impelling madness, he said quietly to Soujirou at his side, “Wait here a second,” and jogged over to the guard.

The latter gave him an aloof quizzical look and said nothing, only sucked on a cigarette, as he approached. That was somewhat promising.

“What are you doing to Sano?” Katsu demanded, taking care not to precede the question with a deep breath that would indicate just how nervous he was.

“I don’t see him around, so I’d have to say nothing,” the man replied with a touch of sarcasm.

Sarcasm, however, was far from the hostility Katsu would have expected from a guard thus accosted, and this gave him courage. “Every time he goes to you, he’s confused and upset the whole next day. He hasn’t been himself at all since that night you stopped us.”

“Sounds like a personal problem to me,” said the guard.

“A personal problem you’ve been causing!” Katsu protested. “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing he didn’t want or enjoy.”

By this statement Katsu was taken aback, and a frown grew on his face as he remembered Sano’s slow and thoughtful ‘No…’ when Katsu had asked if the guard had raped him. Did that mean… could it be possible… that something had happened to make Sano like this man? That would explain everything very neatly, Katsu thought. And if it indeed was the case, it made Sano’s situation even more complicated and unfortunate than Katsu’s. Who had ever heard of a slave becoming attached to a guard?

Still, he couldn’t be sure from the uncertain information the taciturn man had given him. He was about to demand more answers when the guard cut him off with, “You need to get to work.”

“Yes,” Katsu replied in a colder tone than he thought he’d ever used with a guard before, and added for good measure, “sir.” Then he turned to obey the command.

“What was that?” Soujirou wondered as Katsu rejoined him and they set off.

“Me being suicidal,” sighed Katsu in reply. “Sano’s rubbing off.”

Soujirou glanced back. “Oh, was that the guard that Sano’s worried about?”

“Yeah.” A harshly helpless feeling was growing in Katsu’s chest as they walked. Was that really the best he could do for his friend? A couple of questions and then a quick step back into line? He’d had the guy there, conveniently located and at his ease… yet all he could manage was to invite retribution while obtaining almost no answers and definitely not making his point. “Goddammit,” he muttered.

“If he upset you so much,” Soujirou remarked, “I’m surprised your conversation was so short.”

“As if I had any choice,” replied Katsu in a growling sigh. “There’s not much else you can say to ‘You need to get to work’ than ‘Yes, sir.'” He kicked at a rock, but didn’t bother to go back for it when he missed and half-stumbled past it. “It doesn’t matter what we do,” he added softly, bitterly. “Whether we try to stand up to them or just give up and do whatever they say… they’re miles above us. It’s like they’re a different species.”

“That’s not true, and you know it.” Soujirou’s tone was quiet, serious, and just a little startling. Glancing at him, Katsu noticed that, although his rarely-absent smile was in its customary place, it was more rigid than usual. Walking purposefully and quickly as always, Soujirou was looking down at the ground… but Katsu thought there was something tight about his movements; a completely different emotion than the ones superficially suggested by his expression showed in every other aspect of his figure. “Anyone who’d be willing to guard a place like this is less of a man than you are.”

Katsu stared. He’d never heard Soujirou talk like that, but somehow it reminded him of the pitying look he’d caught him giving Yahiko his first night — if only because of the apparent incongruence of each circumstance. “I’m still usually pretty happy,” Soujirou had commented when they’d discussed their attitudes toward their situation, and his constant smile testified of that statement’s truth… yet moments like this did not. Was there something about Soujirou, something hiding behind that smile, that Katsu was missing?

Aforementioned smile rose, once again beaming innocent complacence in almost jarring transformation now that Katsu was paying attention. “But you’re probably right about not provoking the guards; you know how this place works better than I do, after all. Do you think Sano’s gotten himself in trouble with that guy?”

With a slight chill Katsu recognized the technique: transition away from the revealing comment, compliment to distract, and question on a topic that won’t be ignored. Was he imagining things? Or else how many times had Soujirou directed his conversation thus since arriving at the complex? And, more importantly, why? To conceal strong anti-slavery sentiments that could get him killed if they were even hinted at aloud? Or something less harmless? Not that Katsu could imagine anything one slave might have to conceal from another that would require such behavior…

“I don’t know,” he said, not bothering to make his answer sound less darkly contemplative; let Soujirou think Katsu was brooding about Sano. Hell, let him think Katsu was onto him; it didn’t make much difference. Still, favoring the first impression slightly, he added with a little more attention, “I don’t think so. The guard didn’t sound angry.”

“Well, that’s good, at least,” Soujirou smiled, and asked no more questions.

Having a lot to think about wasn’t entirely bad, despite the unsettling nature of the two subjects: the day seemed to fly by when both his head and his hands were occupied. He took little part in the conversation between Soujirou and Kaoru, who was working in their area as she did whenever she could; and the apparently innocuous nature of Soujirou’s half of the discussion only lengthened Katsu’s internal debate: was he imagining things? There was more to anyone he was likely to meet than he would be able to comprehend in the amount of time he’d known Soujirou; just because he’d had sex with someone didn’t mean he knew everything there was to know about him. Was he borrowing trouble just so he wouldn’t have to deal with the trouble he already had?

Not that he wasn’t thinking about Sano, but there was nothing new in those reflections. The very novelty of the suspicions Soujirou’s words had awakened was, for the moment, almost equal to his worries about his best friend, so there was a fairly steady alternation of topic throughout the course of his work — to absolutely no purpose. The aforementioned suspicions were not concrete enough to approach Soujirou with, and the aforementioned worries, as Katsu was fully aware, got him right to the middle of a bleak and frustrating nowhere. It made for a disheartening day.

Near the end of the latter, he was distracted from both of his engrossing subjects by a couple of guards that stopped nearby to talk in low voices. What caught his attention in specific was the question asked by the one that had apparently initiated this not atypical breach in protocol: “So, did you hear about that pervert scarred guy?”

Katsu moved a few quiet steps closer. It was his habit to listen to any conversation he was able to overhear between guards, and here he had the added incentives of a distraction from unpleasant reflections and finding out what the other guards thought of Akamatsu.

That opinion didn’t seem to be too high. “The one who’s got a slave up to his room every fucking night?” the second guard snorted. “No, what happened?”

“He’s gone,” replied the first. “Last night, I guess; never showed up this morning, and his stuff’s gone from his room and everything.”

This was such a shock of good news that Katsu could scarcely believe it.

“Man, I never thought he’d leave… all the free faggy sex he wanted here; where else was he gonna go?”

“That’s the best part… seems like he found himself a real boyfriend.” The first guard’s tone was sardonic and amused. “That new guy — the one with the yellow eyes — he’s gone too.”

Katsu’s brows lowered. He’d seen the man just this morning… and now they said he was gone? Unless there was some other new guard with yellow eyes…

The second speaker burst out laughing at the first’s suggestion. “You’ve gotta be shitting me! Those were the two scariest-looking guys in this place!”

“Funny coincidence, though, them both leaving on the same day, isn’t it?”

Just at that moment the siren calling the end of the work-day sounded from the distant opposite end of the complex, and Katsu jumped. Hastily he stepped away from the guards and put his back to them to make sure he didn’t appear to have been doing what he’d been doing.

Soujirou gave him a curious smile, but Katsu shook his head slightly. Not until they’d stowed their tools in the shed and left the immediate supervision of the field guards for the greater privacy of the road did he speak. This gave him time to decide whether to confide in Soujirou at all, and, if so, how much. The conclusion he came to was that, even if there was something untoward about Soujirou, this particular piece of news probably wouldn’t do any harm — and would undoubtedly reach his ears after not too long anyway.

Soujirou’s comment on the story was very much along the lines of what Katsu had been wondering since hearing it himself: “But if he supposedly left before work, why did we see him hanging around the wash-house this morning?”

Katsu shook his head. “Who knows?”

Kaoru, who hadn’t witnessed the morning’s encounter, had to have it explained, which was fortunate — although Katsu had been willing to relate what he’d overheard, his thoughts in response to it were something he didn’t feel like sharing, and this was a good way to avoid doing so.

The guard had seemed to be waiting or watching for something outside the wash-house — if not necessarily for a rendezvous of some sort, at least to confirm someone’s presence or state. Perhaps that had been his final item of business before leaving the complex? And where did Akamatsu fit in? Would he also be showing up for one final item of business?

With a sigh (and a slight shudder at that last concept), Katsu reflected that he was soon likely to be as bad as Sano if he kept puzzling over things like this. Overall, it was good news that the yellow-eyed man had left, whenever he’d gone: whatever Sano might or might not feel for the guard, he would be better off without him around. And Akamatsu’s departure must be, beyond simply good news, a cause for outright celebration.

Kaoru was agreeing aloud with this unspoken sentiment as they approached the mess hall, but, naturally, quieted as soon as they were within earshot of the guard on the porch. “Sano will be happy to hear it,” she did add, however, in an undertone, as they entered.

Katsu wasn’t so sure about that. Based on what he’d seen this morning and the logical destination of the road Sano’s spirit had been traveling lately, he feared even the news that the world was going to end tomorrow might not have roused Sano from the stupor into which he’d fallen. Yet he pondered how to bring the subject up. Although, in perfect accordance with his theory, Sano’s eyes were just as blank over his soup and bread as they had been in the showers, Katsu’s surety of his friend’s current dullness wasn’t so great as to assume that the news of the yellow-eyed guard’s departure would have no affect on him.

Conforming to the pattern of the day, he was distracted from one issue by another when he noticed the odd way Soujirou was holding his soup spoon. Of course the slaves weren’t given knives or forks — not that they needed such things for their simple meals — and the spoons were too flimsy to be used as weapons… but their edges tended to be somewhat rough, and it seemed this was causing Soujirou some discomfort.

Curious, Katsu abandoned his scrutiny of Sano’s blank face for the moment in favor of watching Soujirou’s hands surreptitiously. It didn’t take too long to discern that their undersides, from wrist to fingertip, were covered with raging red blisters and cuts, which were apparently aggravated today more than previous days by the basic motions of eating. Indeed, Soujirou’s typical speed at that activity was hampered somewhat by the care he was taking not to hurt himself more than he had to.

Soujirou had mentioned that his work for his late master had been ‘white-collar.’ Katsu’s wasn’t entirely clear on that concept, but knew it placed Soujirou in the category of indoor slaves. Therefore the havoc that the rough, heavy harvesting tools had been wreaking on Soujirou’s hands was no surprise at all. What did come as a surprise was that Katsu hadn’t seen it before today. Usually he was quite good at noticing things like that — at noticing things in general, actually — and in this specific case, the hands in question had touched him rather intimately on several occasions. That he hadn’t taken note of their injured state seemed to suggest Soujirou had been taking care to keep it hidden. And did that mean he had deliberately allowed Katsu to see it tonight? But why would he do either?

Or was Katsu still imagining things, fitting this circumstance into the network of doubt he was now continually developing in reference to the other slave? Soujirou might merely be embarrassed to have his weakness known, or in some sort of quiet denial about the circumstances that had caused it, or undesirous to add to the others’ existing unhappiness. And it was quite possible that Katsu was simply slipping — that this thing with Sano had blinded him, to a certain extent, to extraneous facts, and caused the state of Soujirou’s hands to escape him. Or perhaps the blisters hadn’t been this visible until tonight? There were plenty of logical reasons Katsu might not have noticed besides Soujirou having some kind of dark secret.

In any case, the sight reiterated a fact Katsu had been largely trying to ignore all day: whatever Soujirou was or might be hiding and why, Katsu cared about him. Not as much as he cared about Sano and in a decidedly different way… but he did care, and he couldn’t deny it. He would have to talk to Soujirou about it later; it could be that the latter simply wasn’t aware there was treatment (however perfunctory) available, and had opted to suffer in silence.

“Katsu.” Kaoru brought him back to the here and now with her quiet call. She was looking at Sano worriedly — and when a woman wasting away of heartbreak looked at someone like that, it was time to pay attention. “Are you going to tell Sano the good news, or should I?”

“Good news?” Sano said vaguely, his eyes still unfocused.

With a deep breath, Katsu tried to put on a smile as he nodded. “I heard some guards talking…” He trailed off for a moment as he was reminded of the last time he’d used this exact phrase and what had happened that night. Were they headed for further disaster? But that was superstitious and irrelevant. “Akamatsu’s gone,” he finished with all the cheer he could muster. It wasn’t quite as much cheer as he could have mustered if he hadn’t had additional news he was less eager to relate, but it didn’t sound too bad.

“Aka… ma…” To all appearances, Sano wasn’t even aware that he was repeating the name; it was as if his mouth were acting independently of his brain in an attempt to bring the rest of him up to speed.

His moment of realization, as abrupt as the firing of a gun, was clearly visible and equally puzzling to all of them: the color drained from his face, and his body straightened with a jerk that caused the tray beneath his hands on the tabletop to clatter and shift. He stood without a word and started to make a swift, ungraceful path through the crowd toward the door. For one baffled moment they all stared after him, unmoving. Then Katsu, his mind and consequently many of his actions in complete disarray, jumped up clumsily and followed.

He hadn’t really believed Akamatsu’s departure had anything to do with the other guard’s, but for Sano to react thus forced him to rethink that assessment — though any logical guess at the connection between the circumstances was beyond the pales of Katsu’s imagination. But now his curiosity had risen to the level of his concern, and both were at fever pitch. He was not surprised, on leaving the building, to see Sano heading up the hill toward the guard barracks. Nor was he surprised to hear Soujirou’s footsteps behind him as he gave chase.

“Sano,” he called out as he drew close. He didn’t think Sano would deliberately ignore him, especially not when he spoke in a tone so serious; he suspected that Sano was in this case so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even heard. “Sano!” he said again, more loudly.

“This is the last time.” Sano replied with a sure finality that yet held the same lack of attention that had marked all his previous statements of the evening. He didn’t even look around or slow as he said it.

It wasn’t even really a protest at Sano going to see that man again, not this time; Katsu just wanted to know what the hell was going on, both physically and in Sano’s head. But it was discouragingly obvious that a question to that purpose would get him absolutely no response. So he said the only thing he was sure would stop his friend’s absent yet determined steps:

“He’s gone, Sano.”

“What?” Sano finally looked back, the blankness lifting somewhat from the eyes he turned toward his friend.

“He’s gone,” Katsu repeated quietly. “He and Akamatsu both. The guards I overheard mentioned them at the same time.”

The maelstrom of emotions that flashed momentarily across Sano’s face made Katsu alternately want to shake him until he came to his senses or hug him to that exact same purpose. But in the next instant Sano shook himself, turned again, and took off at a run in the same direction he’d been going.

Squeezing his eyes closed, Katsu raised his face toward the sky in frustration and pain. He could only hope — and without even much of that confident emotion — that this really would be the last time, that the man really was gone and that Sano would be able to let him go. Because otherwise… He didn’t know, couldn’t guess what would happen to all of them; in his mind it was an impenetrably black void of despair.

Soujirou laid a comforting hand on Katsu’s shoulder and squeezed slightly. There wasn’t really anything he could say, but Katsu appreciated the gesture — and it reminded him…

He couldn’t help himself. Taking the hand gently in his own, he examined the palm briefly before lifting it to his lips and kissing the only spot that was still relatively unhurt. But he too had nothing to say, so next he merely let go and turned back toward the mess hall. Soujirou, whose eyes had been very bright during those few wordless moments, followed in silence.

Chapter 10

Braid-girl hadn’t been there — transferred, supposedly, to the workshop — but somehow in his confused state of mind Sano hadn’t been able to connect this with the events of the previous night. Had completely lost track of it, in fact, in the whirlpool of thought and emotion that passed for his brain these days.

As far as he knew, the washing machines into which he’d been stuffing clothing were the only actual whirlpools he’d ever encountered, and he’d certainly never attempted to swim — but he imagined this must be what drowning felt like. His thoughts, normally allies if not necessarily friends, now dragged at and overwhelmed him. If he tried to think about something else or sought the solid ground of a blank mind, the other matter sucked him back down with crushing surety.

Even within the topic to which they were restricted, his thoughts were limited. He might have realized the significance of braid-girl’s absence if he’d been able to think about her at all. He might have been able to guess what was coming if his reflections had been a little broader. But the only thing in his head — practically the only thing in his world — was that man, the things he’d said and done, and the sense Sano was trying desperately to make of it all.

Well, really, it all would have made sense easily if not for his emotions that had to attach varying significance to anything and everything that had happened between them, and to any inference Sano could draw therefrom.

Yellow-eyes was here to steal slaves — or, rather, a slave. Why had he fixed on Sano among all the rest? He’d seemed angry when he’d spoken of the guards finding Sano strong and attractive… for what other attributes, then, could he desire to possess him? Or was it all right as long as he didn’t plan on raping him? As long as Sano was the property not of a faceless slave-trafficking corporation but of a single person, someone that was willing to ask him, ‘Do you want me to?’

Someone that wanted him badly enough to shoot him rather than let him escape?

Part of Sano’s heart — a dark, secret part hiding behind his rational thoughts — also wanted it, desperately wanted it. Couldn’t stop imagining what it would be like… couldn’t keep from reflecting on the romance of it… couldn’t help thinking that there was no way in hell it could be worse than the life he’d led up until now.

He was bitterly ashamed of this, but could not entirely repress it. Did that mean he was giving in? That he was past caring about having a master so long as that master was intriguing and good with his hands? So long as that master was that man?

To further his shame, the same part of him that would gladly belong to that man forever was more than willing to sacrifice everything else that mattered to achieve that end. In a way, he felt, this was a sort of mirror to what he thought the other man’s desires were… Sano almost ready to lose everything he valued in himself in order to be with him, and yellow-eyes ready almost to kill him to similar purpose.

Still, the whole thing seemed strange, and not just to his emotions that had their own mysterious agenda. People had work and responsibilities out there, after all… could someone really afford to waste the amount of time and effort yellow-eyes was evidently putting into this on a venture that wasn’t likely to repay either? For Sano couldn’t consider the acquisition of a single personal slave of much practical use… Really, the more he thought about it — and god knew he couldn’t stop thinking about it — the more insane it seemed… like some things he’d heard in stories about eccentric masters with too much money. But, while yellow-eyes was like nobody else Sano had ever met, he’d never seemed insane

Perhaps, then, Sano had misinterpreted the man’s intentions. What exactly had the guard told Sano, after all? That he was here to steal a slave, and had selected Sano. He hadn’t, Sano realized with a sudden constriction in his chest, said anything about keeping him. If the man was merely a merchant of sorts, and Sano was the stolen item yellow-eyes thought would fetch a good price… if the merchandise agreed to sleep with the merchant along the way, well, that would be a nice perk, wouldn’t it? –but if it didn’t, not much of a disappointment. Sano felt cold and small and miserable thinking of such a possibility.

But it still didn’t make sense! He didn’t know much about business of any kind, but even he was fairly certain that putting bullets into the wares was not good business. Besides, yellow-eyes had — no, Sano just couldn’t convince himself he’d been imagining it, however beneficial it might have been to his state of mind — yellow-eyes had as good as stated a strong personal interest in him. No, Sano really couldn’t doubt that the guard meant to keep him. So there must be another explanation for the apparent incongruity of shooting him in the shoulder but not fucking him without permission.

Perhaps yellow-eyes was a collector? Maybe he made a habit of stealing attractive slaves, and had an entire harem at home to satisfy him if Sano continued to say no? Come to think of it, Sano had no real way of knowing that the man did intend to steal only him. He’d been interpreting “You are the one that I want” that way, but desire and intention weren’t necessarily the same thing — as yellow-eyes had already proven by denying himself, for some obscure reason, pleasures he quite clearly wanted.

Goddammit, none of this made any sense, and Sano’s theories were getting more far-fetched by the moment. He really should stop speculating before he worked himself into an inventive frenzy; the truth was that he just didn’t have enough information, what he did have was ambivalent at best, and the added confusion of his twisted emotions could only continue to complicate things until he lost track of what little he was certain of.

Which was why he had to go back. One last time. And if he didn’t get his answers this time, he would… well, he didn’t know what he would do. Go entirely insane and run screaming into the electric fence, most likely. But he had to try, or just go ahead with that suicidal run right now.

And then…

“He’s gone, Sano.”

He couldn’t believe it. Katsu’s further information notwithstanding, somehow the fact did not register in Sano’s mind as something that was actually possible; it entered into the whirlpool and was immediately flung out again, rejected. Still, Sano found himself moving at a dead run toward the barracks, those words echoing in his head and taking longer than they should have to fade. He’s gone, Sano. He’s gone.

Some part of him — the same fatalistic part, probably, that considered the electric fence a viable alternative to a continuation of the way he’d been living lately — must have believed it, for he didn’t bother knocking when he reached the door that looked, somehow, completely different from the other, identical doors along the barracks wall. Nor did he bother coming up with anything to say — greeting, excuse for his presence or precipitous entrance, or even just a better way to phrase the questions that so far had gone unanswered.

And the room was empty.

It was unmistakably evident. The bed was made with military precision; the chair was pushed neatly up to the table; the strongbox was sitting open and the key lying on top. The only sign that anyone had ever lived in this cold, lifeless space was the full ash-tray that still gave off a scent he felt he would never forget.

The ash tray was the only thing that was full. Emptiness like the room ate at Sano, until only one thought rang through the void that was his head and heart:

“You won’t regret it. I swear.”

Now more than ever he couldn’t understand what he was feeling. It reminded him vaguely of what he’d experienced when Kenshin had been sold — as if someone that cared about him was gone; as if yet another beloved friend had been taken from him — but this was worse, somehow… perhaps because he didn’t know if yellow-eyes had cared about him, or because it seemed like the man had purposely abandoned him. Whatever the situation was, Sano was in sudden and severe pain, and not just in his shoulder.

No, he couldn’t lie to himself. Not anymore. He knew the real reason he was hurting so intolerably. The man’s behavior had hinted to him how life could be, how things could feel. He’d been like a lover, a real lover, something Sano had never had. He doubted real lovers were supposed to shoot you in the shoulder; but, at the same time, nobody had ever expressed the kind of interest and concern in Sano that yellow-eyes had.

He had cared; Sano knew he had; he would be damned if he would believe otherwise. But now… now? Why was he gone? Why had he left without even trying to contact Sano? Had he been forced to abandon his plans because of last night’s events? Or had he simply decided that Sano wasn’t worth the trouble? Sano couldn’t think; he couldn’t guess. He just didn’t know.

Stock still, staring silently at some vague point in the empty room, Sano was bizarrely conscious of the grain of the wood of the door he clutched in his raised hand as if to support himself. Everything that had happened here, everything that had begun in this room, everything he’d hoped for or feared that had arisen from that man’s presence… it was like something out of a dream. And that’s exactly what it was… a dream… an illusion, a vision he would never see again.

Now that he’d had a glimpse… now that he had experienced, however briefly and incompletely, something more… he could never just go on as he had. He’d always known with his intellect, but now, staring into this barren room with the rough wood under his whitening fingers, remembering strange sensations that made him shudder with a mixture of emotions even now, feeling the cold of this empty space seeping into his bones and seeming to make them brittle and render him more breakable than he’d ever felt… it came home to him suddenly, brutally, inescapably, just how miserable his life was.

Nothing had actually changed, but his new awareness made that same life a hundred times worse than it had been, could ever have been before. Why did that man treat him like that, like he cared about him, then leave him with a promise he couldn’t possibly fulfill?

Who are you? he inquired in silence of the stranger that had done this to him. What am I supposed to do now that you’ve fucked up my life?

But the man’s only answer was, “You won’t regret it. I swear.”

What the hell kind of promise is that? Sano queried desperately. What does it mean?

But the same six words, cool and mocking, were the only reply.

Chapter 11

A loud pounding on the outer door of the quarters in the middle of the night startled a good half of the sleeping slaves awake, including Katsu. Anyone that remained asleep was probably awakened by the subsequent discussion; even through the wall Katsu could hear every word.

“What the hell do you want?” This was the quarter-warden; she had absolutely no qualms being incredibly rude to the guards if she thought the situation warranted it. Apparently being dragged out of bed at some dark hour of early morning warranted it.

“This one’s yours, isn’t he?” This guard was familiar enough to Katsu, his voice rough and annoyed. A thudding sound accompanied the question.

“Yeah; what’d he do?”

“We found him hanging around an empty barracks room. Trying to avoid earning his keep; who knows how much he’s been doing it lately?”

Katsu had a sudden sinking feeling that he knew who ‘he’ was.

“He’s been out a lot lately,” the warden said in disgust, and by this time Katsu had rolled from his cot and crept to the doorway between the two rooms.

“Don’t let him out anymore unless one of us comes for him,” the guard was saying as Katsu peered around the doorframe. It was as he’d feared: Sano, red spots of recent blows on his face and redder spots of blood on his shoulder, crouched or knelt on the floor as if he’d been thrown there. Half bent over and motionless in the incomplete light from the door of the warden’s room, he looked almost dead.

Even as Katsu’s eyes fell on him, the guard that had brought him gave him a hard kick. “You hear me?”

At once Sano answered in a dull tone, “Yes, sir.”

“And I’ll be by for you tomorrow night when I’m not on patrol. I’m not done teaching you your lesson yet.”

“Yes, sir,” Sano repeated, and Katsu found himself shuddering. That tone, that repetition…

The guard gave Sano a parting shove before turning to leave; Sano fell forward onto all fours and remained there. With a snort, the warden turned her disgusted gaze from him to where Katsu stood watching, as if she already knew she would find him. “Get him to bed,” she ordered. “Clean him up first if you want, but if I hear one sound out of any of you you’ll be scrubbing this place until your fingers fall off.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Katsu murmured, hastening forward. The presence of Soujirou at his side briefly startled but did not really surprise him. The newcomer couldn’t assist much in raising Sano, given that only one of the latter’s shoulders was a workable support, but his willingness to be of service was comforting.

Another, deeper shudder chilled Katsu as they got into the bathroom and full light. Sano stood still, swaying slightly, exactly where he was placed, gaze angled downward and shoulders slumped. He didn’t seem to feel the pain of his reopened injury or the blows he’d evidently taken to other parts of his body, and he didn’t say a word as Katsu pulled the loose shoulder of his shirt aside to see how bad the damage was.

It wasn’t as dire as Katsu had feared — well, as far as he could tell; admittedly his medical knowledge was next to nonexistent — and he hoped that, once the blood was cleaned off and the bandages retightened, Sano might not suffer too much.

“What happened?” Soujirou asked, hovering to one side.

For a moment Sano did not even seem to have heard the question, but finally he stirred a little — though still staring blankly at the floor — and murmured, “I should have closed the door.”

At first Katsu couldn’t think what his friend meant by this, and silently continued wiping the blood away from Sano’s shoulder with a wad of toilet paper. As he threw the latter into the garbage, however, he guessed, “Of the room that guard found you in?”

“Yeah,” Sano replied in the same quiet, listless tone. He didn’t wince as Katsu yanked the bandages back into place and fastened them in a tight knot. But he did look up, meeting his friend’s gaze, as he added, “His room.”

Katsu drew in a sudden rough breath and took an inadvertent step back as a painful, desperate panic whirled through him. “Sano…!” The word had the tone of a shout but was as quiet as a whisper. His hands reached out, clutching tightly at his friend’s shoulders as he moved back toward him. “Sano!” he said again, shaking him.

“That hurts,” Sano replied vaguely, pulling away from Katsu’s grip and moving past him. “I’m going to bed.” And without another word he left the room.

Katsu stumbled blindly to the nearest hard surface and, without even thinking what he did, pounded a fist against it. A muffled gasp told him he’d found the door between the two bathrooms and startled someone on the other side, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care whether whoever it was alerted the warden and he got in trouble. How could this be happening? How could this be happening??

Soujirou’s hand was on his shoulder. “Katsu, what’s wrong?” The worry in the tone seemed born more of confusion than sympathy.

But how could Katsu answer? How could he possibly explain to someone as carefree as Soujirou, someone without a history of being mistreated, someone that had not lived his life among the most miserable members of the human race, that the dullness he had seen in Sano’s eyes was the first downward step on the path to utter soullessness? And how could he admit the secret belief he’d cherished all along that he would be the first to break? That he would never have to deal with Sano breaking because he would almost certainly go first? That he wasn’t ready for this?

But Soujirou’s hand was still on him, gripping him tightly, silently expressing a desire to know and to help… as if there were anything he could do to help… Katsu had to say something.

He leaned his forehead against the cold wall and squeezed his eyes closed. “This is how it starts. I know the signs.” His tone was hoarse, almost harsh. “That’s how they act when they’re starting to break. If he keeps going like that, he won’t be Sano anymore. He won’t be anyone anymore.”

Soujirou drew in a deep breath, and Katsu held his own. He’d chosen his words carefully — as carefully as he could in this frame of mind — because he didn’t think he could stand it if Soujirou argued with him; he simply could not handle a debate at this point. But what the other finally said, quietly and slowly, was, “If that’s true, then it’s even more important now not to give up hope.”

It sounded so trite, so meaningless in the face of what Katsu couldn’t help regarding was something like the end of his world… and yet somehow, when he stood straight and looked over at Soujirou and saw the sad smile on his lips, he felt, if not exactly reassured, at least steadied: aware that he wasn’t alone. Still, his tone was unmistakably bitter as he replied, “You and your optimism.” After which he found Soujirou’s arms around him — strong arms, stronger than he’d really been aware before — holding him tightly as if to say that, while Soujirou might not entirely understand, still he would not let go. And if Katsu’s reciprocal gesture was more of a clinging grasp than a return embrace, neither of them much cared.

The amount of sleep Katsu got for the rest of that night was phenomenally low, if not actually nonexistent. When he wasn’t staring at Sano’s motionless back in the next cot, he was tossing and turning with his eyes squeezed shut, unable to fight off a parade of cruelly dismal thoughts about the future. And every once in a while, when he was turned that direction, he would catch sight of Soujirou on his other side watching him in the darkness with expressionless eyes.

Katsu felt somewhat comforted that he was not the only sleepless worrier… but also got the impression, though he could not have explained why, that Soujirou was just as much keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t do anything impetuous as offering moral support. He remembered the suspicions he’d formulated about his would-be lover… but at the moment couldn’t bring himself to give that matter much thought.

The morning came with some consolation. Although Katsu could still barely get a word out of Sano before they went their separate ways, Sano’s blankness seemed to reflect contemplation rather than true absence of mind. Katsu should have known better than to think Sano would go all at once… but it was only a slight relief, given that the genesis had unmistakably taken place even if Sano was fighting it.

As for Sano, he could only hazily remember what had happened after his disastrous visit to that empty room last night. As a matter of fact, except for certain repetitive trains of thought that seemed to have him in an unshakeable taloned grip, everything was a little hazy in his head. The world seemed simplified somehow… he was confused, he was unhappy, but beyond that he didn’t seem to care about — or, to a certain extent, even recognize — anything.

It was not so much any sort of external inhibition of his senses as an internal disinclination or even inability to rouse himself to any particularly complex thoughts or emotions. And he found he couldn’t really object. There was pain and confusion; here was relative peace. If he could just not care for a while, things would undoubtedly work out.

The dullness made the day drag, each load of laundry seeming to take an hour just to get into the washing machine and the muscular impulses required to accomplish this task unusually difficult — but the apathy rendered him indifferent. The increased pain in his shoulder from the beating he’d taken last night, augmented by the work of the day, could not rouse him; even the memory that he was in disfavor with the quarter-warden and had what would probably be an unusually unpleasant barracks-call tonight could not rouse him.

His senses were dulled along with his thoughts: he didn’t really hear the murmur of the other slaves in the mess hall, nor taste his supper, and saw his friends only as if from far away, their faces unusually featureless. If they held any conversation while they ate, he didn’t notice.

The one event of the entire day that threatened to shake him was when Katsu very deliberately kissed Soujirou as the newcomer rose to leave the room once he’d finished eating… but even that was not quite enough. Why worry about a situation for which there was no help? Besides, Sano’s mind felt like it had shrunken past the point of holding anything but the unpleasant reflections, now hazy, that had plagued him since yesterday. Eventually, he thought, even those must fade.

He hardly noticed the quarter-warden’s disdainful insults when he came in after supper, and once again the dull time passed smoothly away before his uncaring eyes as he waited for the guard that was going to ‘finish teaching him his lesson’ tonight.

The crispness of the man’s grey uniform, freshly-laundered today, was something of a jolt, but the guard lacked the leanness of figure and precision of movement that would have really bothered Sano. At another time, in another frame of mind, that expression combining lust and anger might have worried Sano… but not tonight. This was just another thing he had to do; it meant nothing. So, though Katsu gave him a stricken look as the guard led him out and the others appeared no less grim, Sano didn’t feel there was any real need for worry.

He was right. Rough, almost brutal, though the guard was with him, Sano found it even easier, as the day progressed toward its end, not to care. It was just another task, and if he could get through it he could sleep. And the simplest way of getting through it was not caring.

He didn’t care how thoroughly or painfully the guard wore him out. He didn’t care that the man then made him sleep on the floor. He didn’t care that his shoulder and ass were bleeding. He didn’t care that the doctor was tired of seeing him and might get him in trouble when he went to her in the morning. He didn’t care that he was going to be in even greater pain as he worked tomorrow.

Abstractly he wondered why he hadn’t ever tried this before. Life would have been so much easier, could have moved so much more quickly and smoothly toward its end like this. He wasn’t entirely certain yet whether or not he wanted to remain thus indefinitely, but at the moment it didn’t seem a half-bad idea. Forget yellow-eyes and the confusion he’d induced, forget the idea of a better way of living, and just not care.

For tonight at the very least, in any case, he planned on staying in this peaceful, hazy place, and it was unlikely there was anything in his little world that could possibly drag him out of it.

Chapter 12

The alarm siren was pounding through his brain like a stake driven by a mallet as he and Katsu hid in the trees, shaking, clutching at each other in terror — fear that was all the worse for being unusual and unconquerable. They wouldn’t have been afraid at all if it hadn’t been for the desperate, hopeless tone in Souzou’s voice as he ordered them away. “You’re too young to die,” he’d said. “I’m sorry.” They knew now what he’d known all along: that the approaching footsteps were armed guards out for the kill.

Sano awoke in outright tears, curled up on the floor clutching at his chest as if he could pull himself into a tighter ball and thereby avoid notice, as if he were still that frightened child of ten years prior.

Weapons at the ready, the grey-clad enforcers appeared all at once from practically every direction. Obviously by prearrangement, they did not speak or otherwise allow for confrontation. They merely opened fire.

This was what he got for trying not to care, for thinking nothing in the world could rouse him.

Sano would have liked to look away or close his eyes, would have liked to run to avoid the stray bullets that tore the air around him and splintered the tree trunk behind him… but he couldn’t… he couldn’t move or even blink as the slaves before him — all of them good men and women that had been kind to him during his brief time in this awful place — were mercilessly slaughtered in a shower of gunfire and blood. As he watched Souzou fall, he screamed.

This could always rouse him, no matter what else he’d suffered, no matter how he felt. The day the memory of Souzou’s horrific, pointless, glorious sacrifice failed to move him was the day he truly lost his humanity.

After a few moments, silence fell over the gory scene, broken only by the weeping of two young slaves — boys that, a moment later, were spared their companions’ fate only because they were too young and too pretty to kill.

Fighting viciously to subdue the fear and misery that kept him from functioning correctly, it took Sano a moment to recognize what had caused him to dream of that distant scenario: outside, the alarm siren was blaring for perhaps the first time he could remember since that tragic night.

The guard was gone, apparently having run out in a hurry to see what the alarm was about, leaving the door half-open. Sano had managed to pull himself off the floor and had just located his shoes when the shooting began.

Against the backdrop of the alarm siren, it was almost too painfully similar to the events of his dream for him to bear, and he was tempted to curl up on the bed and squeeze the pillow around his ears until it was all over. But he was braver than that, so he put his head cautiously through the door.

Looking out from the south side of the building on the first floor, he was facing the slave quarters and facilities. Guards were running here and there in a pattern he only recognized very vaguely: the complex seemed to be going into lockdown in response to the shooting, which was coming from up the hill to the north in the vicinity of the staff buildings and the main entrance. He left the room and headed around the corner.

He didn’t feel like himself. He wasn’t sure what “feeling like himself” was anymore, but he didn’t feel like it. The pain of which he’d been barely conscious last night was present, the thoughts he’d pushed aside all day yesterday were audible in his head, and yet this awareness was different from the usual: the current situation, whatever it was — the sounds of the siren and the guns, the memory that was so inextricably connected with them — superceded everything else. He was himself, but it was more the self of years ago than the self of today or the day before yesterday.

“Sano!”

He looked up to see Katsu running toward him from the direction of the slave quarters, looking haggard and desperate. It was no surprise that Katsu had felt the need to seek Sano out in the midst of what must be for him just as emotionally chaotic as it was for Sano, but the latter doubted it was a good idea.

Reaching him, Katsu took him by his good shoulder and met his eyes, panting. The look on Katsu’s face showed plainly that he’d been awakened in the exact same manner Sano had, but also that he hadn’t forgotten how Sano had been acting yesterday and wasn’t sure now in what state he would find his friend. Sano was sorry for that. At least he was able to convey with a single glance that he had returned, though it did little to alleviate the pain in Katsu’s gaze.

“What’s going on?” Katsu asked unsteadily.

“I don’t know,” Sano replied, reaching up to take hold of and squeeze the arm with which Katsu was gripping his shoulder — as much for his own comfort as to reassure Katsu.

The latter pushed his messy, unbound hair out of his face, and together they turned to look toward the noises. They could still see nothing through the trees that separated the sprawling barracks from the staff buildings, but they could hear that the gunfire hadn’t lessened.

“Hey, you two!” A guard startled them in their watch by turning the corner and almost running into them. “What the hell are you doing standing around here? Are you fucking deaf? Get in–”

Sano and Katsu, turning, saw it where the guard could not, and their mutual expressions of surprise were not in time to warn him, even had that been their intention. His eyes went as wide as theirs before closing as he slumped forward to the ground. They stepped back to avoid his falling figure, staring, and Sano was sure Katsu was wondering, just as he was, whether the man was still even alive.

“You left so fast,” Soujirou greeted Katsu with his usual smile, lowering the hand that had felled the guard, “I almost couldn’t figure out where you went!”

“I… had to find Sano…” Katsu was shaking his head disbelievingly. “Did you… is he dead?”

Sano sympathized with his friend’s evident inability to grasp what was going on, but thought he understood better than Katsu could. Had he not questioned — in almost those same words, even — a similar action performed by another newcomer only days before? The same mysterious motion, the same fortuitous timing… Sense was suddenly blossoming out of confusion… and, with it, anger.

You’re part of all of this too, aren’t you?” he demanded, stepping toward Soujirou without minding that he trod on the arm of the fallen guard. “You could have answered my questions all along, and you fucking pretended to be just like us!”

Soujirou raised a hand as if to stave off further recrimination or even physical retaliation, though Sano hadn’t planned on the latter. “I’ll explain on the way; we need to get back to the quarters.”

“Like hell we do.” Sano stood his ground, growling. “What the fuck is going on? Who are you, or what are you, or whatever? Where is… where’s that guy? That guard?”

“Sano, what the hell are you talking about?” Katsu was demanding at about the same moment.

“He’s probably in the middle of the shooting,” Soujirou answered Sano’s question. “You’ll have to wait until this is all over.”

Turning immediately, Sano tried again to guess via sound where exactly the aforesaid middle of the shooting was likely to be. Behind him Katsu gave a shaky sigh and remarked, “With as long as you’ve been here, I should think you’d know Sano better than that.”

Glancing back, Sano saw that Soujirou’s smile was wry, probably because he’d realized that actually answering the question had been a mistake of sorts. “If you go over there and get yourself shot, he’ll be angry,” he told Sano.

“He fucking shot me already,” Sano replied flatly. “I’m going to find him.”

“Sano…”

Sano almost couldn’t bear to face Katsu, nor could he help reflecting that there were a lot of diverse and fascinating ways to be a complete dick to someone. He had no idea what his friend must think of him by now, after all the stupid and crazy things he’d been doing lately, after everything he’d put him through, after yesterday… but this, he hoped, would be the end. The end of everything.

Why it was so imperative for him to brave the crossfire and chaos that was presumably going on over there was more difficult to say… but he felt he was being drawn, impelled, so that every moment he spent standing still here for whatever reason was almost painful to him. There was no way he could make Katsu understand this, however, so he remained silent.

He might have had more faith in his friend. True, it was only uncertainly and decidedly unhappily that Katsu smiled at him and spoke, but his words were just, “Be careful, OK? Stay in the trees or something.” And whether this was more akin to his saying, You’re an idiot, or, I forgive you, Sano seemed to sense a certain weight lifting off his heart. Honestly he didn’t feel entirely justified in going on this suicidal pursuit, leaving his friends at this critical moment, especially when he knew Katsu — like himself — must still be feeling the awful burn of memory, but the fact that he had to, and that Katsu understood, made the necessity easier.

“By now,” Soujirou said slowly, “he may be in the staff buildings… but I can’t be sure.”

“Thanks,” Sano nodded. And after looking Katsu in the eye one last time, he turned and ran off, heading for the end of everything.

As Katsu watched his friend depart, fully aware that he might never see him again (alive), his heart was clenching tighter and tighter with compounded worry and grief. And he couldn’t decide whether this conscious, feeling, still-obsessed Sano was better than yesterday’s Sano slipping toward oblivion.

However, he had very little time to consider this before Soujirou was tugging at his arm. And as he looked at the smiling, agitated other, Katsu’s eyes seemed to focus or lock onto Soujirou as if he’d forgotten he was there. As if he’d forgotten that he’d been right, that there had been something suspect about Soujirou all along, that there were more strange situations in the complex than just Sano’s.

He gave Sano’s disappearing form another glance before turning to follow Soujirou. However foolish it might be — even more so than Sano going in the first place — Katsu wanted to follow his friend, die with him if need be. He wanted all of this to end. But he also desired, with a fervor only secondary to the aforementioned, to find out who and what Soujirou really was and what was going on. And somebody needed to check on the other slaves. Katsu wasn’t entirely ready to abandon Kaoru and Yahiko just yet.

“So explain,” he commanded tersely as he fell into step beside Soujirou.

“We’re vigilantes,” replied Soujirou promptly. “Or terrorists, depending on which news stations you watch — fighting for human rights that aren’t available to people by law. Our goal on this mission is to completely destroy Ketterect Labor and relocate all slaves to safe locations throughout the three countries.”

Involuntarily Katsu drew in a hissing breath at the ambitiousness of this project. On the surface, in fact, it seemed impossible, except perhaps by the power of a very large, well-funded organization. Given that Soujirou did not seem to be joking or exaggerating, Katsu had to believe that such was the situation, had to take this seriously… but still it was almost too much to wrap his brain around. It meant the total annihilation of his entire world, however he felt about that.

Their swift pace had allowed them to reach the quarters after only so many words and reflections, but when Soujirou went to open the door Katsu held him back. “I assume you’ve taken care of any guards inside already.” He was a little surprised at how bitter his tone already was when he hadn’t even neared the bitter part of his discourse yet.

Soujirou nodded.

“Then we have a minute.”

Although Soujirou threw what might be called a calculating (if still smiling) glance at the door, on looking back at Katsu he seemed to read the seriousness in the latter’s expression. “All right,” he said.

“I knew you were hiding something,” Katsu began, “but this I wouldn’t have guessed.”

Soujirou nodded without saying anything; he was watching carefully all around them, although he did not seem tense.

“All that talk about laws and public opinion wasn’t just talk,” Katsu went on at a murmur. Still Soujirou did not seem inclined to reply, at least not until Katsu continued pointedly, “But the rest of it was.”

“The rest of it?”

“‘I really do like you,'” Katsu quoted harshly. “‘We don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love.'”

“That wasn’t just talk.” Soujirou actually seemed a little startled at the accusation. “I do like you.”

“So much that you’d take advantage of me and lie to get what you wanted from me.” Outwardly Katsu was a good deal calmer than inwardly, but he didn’t think there was a tone that could have expressed just how betrayed he felt at this point.

“I had to lie.” Soujirou, too, was calm — almost agonizingly so. “Those were my orders.”

“Your orders,” Katsu said very dryly, “were to find a slave you liked and seduce him?” For all he didn’t actually believe Soujirou’s orders had been anything of the sort, still he felt as if the entire time he’d been nothing more than an objective… a quota…

Now Soujirou’s smile was gone, and tone and expression were entirely serious. “My orders were to make friends with slaves, find out information, and steer them away from anything that might lead them to guess something was going on.”

“You did it to distract me, then?” If anything, this was an even cheaper excuse than the previous, and Katsu was almost inclined to discontinue the conversation. On top of everything else, this was simply too painful.

“I did it because I like you,” said Soujirou quietly. “If I didn’t like you, there were other ways I could have distracted you.”

“But you preferred playing games and feeding me lines.”

“Katsu, they weren’t lines; it wasn’t a game.” Soujirou shook his head emphatically. “I wouldn’t have taken it as far as Akamatsu made us go, but I really have been sincere.”

Katsu also shook his head, protesting, almost in denial of this situation. “Didn’t you ever think that my feelings might be different if I knew what was going on?” he demanded. “Maybe I’d like to know I really do have the luxury of taking a long time to fall in love? That I might actually have a choice?” He was finally starting to sound angry now, the hot, upset emotion breaking at last through the shock and confusion. “That my new option isn’t like everyone else, and neither is the situation?”

In response to Katsu’s tone, Soujirou looked away and said quietly, “I thought… you liked me…”

Katsu stared at him. How could someone so intelligent still be so clueless? Because it was clear that Soujirou simply did not understand the magnitude of what he’d done. And seeing finally that the mistake arose not from callousness but from genuine (if completely unexpected) naivete, Katsu couldn’t help feeling just a little less betrayed.

“People get into relationships with different attitudes,” he explained with a sigh. Soujirou looked up at him again immediately, hopefully, at the apparent abatement of anger. “If you’re assuming it’s going to be brief,” Katsu went on, “or if you get into it with the idea that this is the only option when you happen to be horny, it’s not going to be the same as if you know you have a choice, both about the person and how long you’re going to be with them. It’s going to be a totally different relationship; it won’t mean as much.”

Now Soujirou was staring, and his smile had returned — but it was a sad, wan expression. “How is it that you’re an expert on this too?” he murmured, seeming a little confused. “How do you know so much about everything when…”

Flatly Katsu finished the question for him. “When I’m a slave? I’m only a slave when people treat me like one… keeping me in a place like this, or raping me four times a week… or letting me think that I have no choice but to like them or stay lonely. I can still keep my eyes and ears open and learn whatever I can.”

Soujirou bowed his head again, now as if in defeat, his smile even sadder. “You really are like him…”

If Katsu hadn’t already had Souzou on his mind — admittedly in the background, behind the separate dramas of Soujirou and Sano — he might not have realized what Soujirou meant. As it was, he couldn’t help feeling, as he had the last time Soujirou had compared him to his late role model, a little gratified. As such, his tone was gentler than it had yet been during this conversation as he asked, “Does it bother you that a slave might know more about relationships than you do?”

“Only a little…” Again Soujirou raised his head and gave Katsu a forlorn smile. “I’ve always known I’m hopeless in that area. It just makes me like you more, knowing how impressive you really are.”

Although this seemed honest and still a bit sad, there was more than a hint of pleading ingratiation about the words. Katsu had no doubt that Soujirou really did like him… but all that did was make the situation more complicated and more potentially painful. Here all over again was the dilemma he’d faced when he’d started suspecting Soujirou, only on a larger scale. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the right moment to puzzle through his own heart and what he could or could not forgive; they really couldn’t afford to spend any more time standing around out here. Still, looking into the almost hopeless face turned up toward him, Katsu couldn’t bring himself to be too harsh just yet.

“Maybe if you get me out of here alive,” he said, “we can start over.”

Chapter 13

On entering the slave quarters ahead of the watchful Soujirou, Katsu halted in shock when he found himself face-to-face with the barrel of a familiar gun. The quarter-warden had always been rather proud of her weapon, and had been given, periodically, to sitting in a comfortable chair just outside her rooms cleaning it ostentatiously with the nervous slaves looking on in silence. But now the quarter-warden was nowhere in sight, and was certainly not the one leveling the gun at the door.

Katsu stared, blank, unblinking, almost unbreathing at the rigid form of Kaoru, who lowered the weapon when she saw who he was. Her other hand held a second gun; this one looked like it probably belonged (had belonged) to a guard. Although tears ran down in two unbroken trails, her face was of better color than he’d seen for weeks, even months; her bearing was upright and steady; her voice was like iron — hard, strong, white-hot — as she met his astonished gaze and said calmly, “Katsu… I’m going to see Kenshin again.”

Until that moment, Katsu hadn’t really felt anything in regard to the current situation — his reaction to Soujirou’s revelation had overridden it. But now it rushed in at him all at once like a whirlpool, and his entire body seemed suddenly weak. Freedom… Not just for himself, but for all of them. Everyone he loved and every last hopeless, miserable person in this hopeless, miserable place. Ten years of nightmare would end at last.

His somewhat inane agreement came out nearly a whisper: “Yes… yes, you are.”

How much longer he might have stood still in the doorway, staring at Kaoru’s unshaking hands holding those guns as if fully confident of her willingness and ability to use them, Katsu could not have guessed. But Soujirou’s hand on his shoulder reminded him that they were supposed to be entering the quarters in order to take cover. Mutely he moved out of the way.

A confused noise arose among the other slaves at the sight of Soujirou; it sounded very much like it wanted to be a cheer. God knew slaves weren’t very practiced at that particular sound, but it shook Katsu out of his shock to some extent.

With a modest nod, Soujirou turned to Kaoru and reached out. Once she’d given him the second gun, she had a hand free to wipe the tears from her face — a futile gesture, since they just kept coming.

“You’ll dehydrate yourself like that,” Soujirou smiled, then offered the gun to Katsu.

The latter’s eyes went wide. “I’ve never–”

“It’s very simple,” Soujirou assured him. “Just point and pull the trigger.”

“I wouldn’t hit a damn thing!” Katsu took a step backward.

Soujirou moved closer and, with that uncanny speed and dexterity of his, took Katsu’s hand, pressed the gun into it, curled Katsu’s fingers around it, and stepped back again.

“But… what about you?” Katsu stared uncomfortably at his own hand, which had the gun pointed resolutely downward and held it only loosely.

“I don’t need one,” Soujirou smiled.

Before Katsu could protest further, a new voice broke into the conversation with a demand both energetic and uncertain: “Where’s Sano?” It proved an adequate distraction, since not only did it send Katsu’s thoughts flying immediately to his friend, it also called his attention to Yahiko, who’d joined them and asked the question.

Wondering if Sano was even still alive at this point, Katsu shook his head.

Kaoru drew in a startled breath. “He’s not–”

“I don’t know,” said Katsu quickly. “He went off after that same guard again.”

“What?” Kaoru looked and sounded incredulous and almost angry. Yahiko, who’d edged to her side, appeared horrified.

“The guard’s part of this too,” was Katsu’s helpless reply. “God knows how many others there are.”

“Almost fifty,” Soujirou smiled. “Apart from the people who stayed outside who’re attacking now, there were three ‘guards,’ and at least one ‘slave’ in every quarters building. Our assignment at this point is to keep all of you inside until someone comes for us. And take care of any guards that might show up, of course. That could happen any time, if things are going our way up the hill; they might come running down this way to try and hide in one of these buildings or take slaves hostage. So,” he added, still smiling somewhat unnervingly, “keep your eyes on the door.”

Kaoru nodded.

Soujirou had done it again, Katsu noted wearily as he turned, like Kaoru, to face the door: neatly diverted their attention from a troubling issue — this time perhaps to keep them on task, prevent excessive worry about Sano, or stave off further questions… Katsu couldn’t be sure. He wasn’t sure of anything at the moment, and in order to avoid catching Soujirou’s eye he watched the door very steadfastly and listened hard.

The room was not quiet. True, the uneasy conversations behind him were conducted at the lowest possible volume, but since it seemed that everyone in the room was talking, it added up. It did not, however, mask the sounds of gunfire outside that were drawing nearer by the moment. This wasn’t the same gunfire as before, though; it was far more diffuse. Katsu guessed that whatever primary assault had been carried out by Soujirou’s ‘people who stayed outside’ had ended in a rout of the defenders, who were now being pursued into and through the complex. Soujirou was right; they might be seeing guards seeking sanctuary inside the building any time now. Little as he felt qualified for it, Katsu finally tightened his grip on the gun in his hand.

Beside him, Kaoru still stood solid and unshaken, still crying and still with that brilliant light in her face. She hadn’t been seduced by a terrorist. She didn’t have to worry how she felt about Soujirou. She hadn’t seen what another member of this mysterious group had done to Sano. To be quite honest, she didn’t care as much about Sano as Katsu did. Not that she didn’t care at all… but at the moment, Katsu was certain, all she did care about was the prospect of seeing Kenshin again. And who could blame her? When love was as straightforward as that — she loved him, she missed him, she would do anything to be reunited with him — why seek out unnecessary complications?

It was a question he might well ask himself. Of course he was worried about Sano and perturbed about Soujirou, but why did he find himself so unbearably, increasingly agitated about the situation itself? It was, after all, no more complicated than Kaoru’s: he was a slave, he would prefer not to be, and soon he would have his freedom — something he’d dreamed about every night and planned for every day for a decade. Why should he be standing here in utter turmoil, not knowing what to think or how to feel?

He knew why. It had nothing to do with the potential dangers of frantic guards or stray bullets. It was in response to a single looming question: once he was free… what then?

He was not worried about the technical aspects of it — whether or not this breakout would achieve the social and legal revolution Soujirou had mentioned so hopefully, whether he would remain free. There was no doubt in his mind that a group capable of orchestrating an operation like this could keep him safe and hidden until the proper time.

No, though he would not have liked to admit it, what really concerned him was freedom itself. Concerned him? It downright terrified him. Of course they’d always talked about escape, and had even attempted it once or twice… but had they ever really thought past that? Thought past what it meant to give up a life that, while fairly miserable, at least offered a measure of certainty? In the countries beyond, there were laws he didn’t know, social customs he didn’t know, work he didn’t know, human nature he didn’t know, life he simply did not know. Would he even be capable of living as a free man?

He wondered whether, and to what extent, Soujirou’s organization had taken this into account. Because it occurred to Katsu at that moment, with this overwhelming realization in mind, that not all slaves were likely to want to be freed.

But he wanted it. When it came right down to it, the fear and uncertainty were nothing compared to his boundless desire to leave this life behind. He wanted to work honestly for his own sake, to get paid for it, to go where he pleased and do as he chose. He wanted his friends around him, no guards, and no guns. And whether he liked it or not, he wanted Soujirou with him.

Still unready to think about that, however, he shifted into a more solid stance and once again directed his eyes at the door.

The morning’s emotional turmoil had been no less severe for Sano than it had been for his friend, though the components were different. For one thing, there was a dead body in the foliage in front of him, and his heart simply would not stop racing.

It wasn’t just that he’d been agitated by the memory of Souzou; it wasn’t just the sight of figures, some in the grey uniform of guards and some in foresty camouflage, running and shooting; it wasn’t just the danger to himself or the worry about his friends… it was the fact that soon he would have answers. Finally. His confusion and turmoil would end. It was this that kept him on his feet and kept the blood rushing so frantically through his veins.

Well, and it was all that other shit too.

He’d never moved so fast in his life, he thought: around the barracks and up the hill in what felt like an instant. Only when he’d reached the staff buildings and the gunfire had seemed to explode practically in his ears had he remembered Katsu’s admonition. He’d plunged into some trees, the last cover available before the main entrance, paused to get his bearings — and, if possible, calm his racing heart — and was now ducked down low in the bushes.

The guard’s body that sprawled beneath another bush almost within arm’s reach was a nerve-wracking indicator that Sano wasn’t the first to take cover in this particular spot. However, he thought the danger had passed from this immediate vicinity; most of the movement he could see was past the corner of the nearest building, and the noises of gunshots and shouting were loudest from that direction.

The gates of the complex lay to his left, but it would take several paces through the trees to see them clearly; he didn’t think he could hear any gunfire thence, but it was difficult to tell. From his current position he could see most of the staff buildings, however, and he had a good view to the right and down the hill. Whether because neither of the combative groups intended the actual slaves any harm or purely by luck, Sano seemed to have made his way straight through the midst of several small firefights; the turmoil appeared now to have spread out all the way down past the guard barracks.

This is stupid and I didn’t think it through, he was reflecting. The same fluttery nervousness that kept him from looking too closely at the nearby corpse was whispering, with a franticness to match his pulse, that he should go back to his quarters before he got himself killed — killed for no good goddamn reason, killed without ever seeing his friends again or even knowing what had become of them — or at the very least flatten himself onto the ground and wait this out.

But the thought that yellow-eyes was around here somewhere, that the answers he wanted were so close, coupled with the fact that he’d gotten this far, aroused in Sano a stubborn unwillingness to retreat. He did, however, wish he’d asked Soujirou just a few more questions about what was going on, where people were likely to be and to go, and whether or not they were likely to kill him on sight.

If he could just get into that closest building, surely he would be safe. Safer, at least, than he was here. He could probably sprint to the door on this side before anyone was likely to notice or try to shoot him. Circumnavigating the dead body, he moved to the very edge of the trees and peered to the left and right. Nobody seemed to be nearby, nor did anyone within his range of vision seem to be looking his direction. This was the moment.

He sprang forward, and, as predicted, reached the door two seconds later. However, within that span of time, the crack of a shot sounded just above him. It was so startling, acting on his already-pounding heart and strained nerves almost as severely as if the bullet had actually struck him, that his last two steps were a stumble and his hands could barely manage the door that was his object.

Inside, he immediately took the staircase that lay just past the small entry, and put his back to the wall so he could face both the stairs he’d just practically jumped down and the continuing descent. It wasn’t the most tactically strategic position, but he had to give himself a few seconds to calm down. He was shaking, and at the moment he thought only the wall against which he leaned was keeping him upright.

How could he have forgotten?? The staff buildings, unlike all the other buildings in the complex, had windows — windows that opened (or could be broken) and therefore through which people could easily shoot at anything that approached. And just because Soujirou had said yellow-eyes would probably be in the staff buildings by now didn’t mean he was guaranteed to be in this one or that all the staff buildings would be safe to enter!

I really didn’t think this through. Sano drew an unsteady arm across his face as this reflection heralded a wave of giddy amusement, of all things. Stability was returning, and he thought he would soon be able to move again — but perhaps before that, he should give some serious consideration to what the hell he was doing.

He didn’t have time for that, however, as he heard footsteps on the stairs above his head, coming down from the second floor. “Shit,” he muttered, and stood straight. Yes, his legs would do what he told them to now. He told them to run.

The basement contained a short corridor with a door to either side and at the far end. It was very dark, but the light switch didn’t have any effect when Sano turned it; he guessed that the whoever-they-were’s had disabled the complex’s power. It would probably be more difficult to find or shoot him in the dark, anyway, if that was the intention of his presumed pursuer.

Panic began to take hold of him once again when he found the first door locked and the second leading only to a small office in which (as far as he could tell in the limited light) it would be impossible effectively to hide. The third door, however, opened onto a large storage room that seemed to fill the entire remaining basement space.

He couldn’t see a thing once the door was closed, and he fumbled with outstretched arms for anything large enough to conceal him from sight. What it was that he eventually found he couldn’t identify, but it was solid and tall enough to duck behind; after that he concentrated on holding still and controlling his breathing. The latter wasn’t exactly coming out in gasps, but it wasn’t exactly unobtrusively quiet, either.

Strain his ears how he might, though, he couldn’t hear a thing. This was almost, he thought, more disconcerting than distant sounds of gunfire. The building — or at least this room — must be well-insulated. Even more disturbing, perhaps, was the lack of footsteps from the hall he’d just left. Was it possible that whoever had been coming down the stairs hadn’t been looking for him after all? Or had they realized they’d set him to flight and quieted? And if nobody appeared, what then? At least he’d have time to give this situation a little more thought.

Not that he really had any idea what he’d do if someone did appear.

Then he heard it: the slight click of the doorknob turning, though unaccompanied by any sounds of human movement. A low grey light, filtered down the stairs and the hallway and through the opening, vaguely illuminated a few dim shapes out past whatever Sano was hiding behind. It shifted slightly, growing, distorting, shrinking, and then disappeared entirely. The door clicked shut. Complete silence fell as Sano held his breath and his movement in rigorous check.

Someone was there.

Sano had never been so still or silent in his entire life. His lungs felt likely to explode, his legs were cramped from crouching, his entire body was tense almost beyond endurance ready to run again, and the only thing going through his head was the continued reiteration of his own stupidity and utter, suicidal lack of forethought.

Another, unexpected light appeared suddenly — this one the brief orange flare of a match, sending strange, unidentifiable shapes jumping into view for half a second and then dying down again. The sound of its striking was accompanied by that of an indrawn breath, and was followed by a calm statement that pierced the darkness as effectively as the light had:

“There’s no need to hide from me.”

Sano knew that voice.

Chapter 14

“Y-you…!” He gasped the word out along with the breath he’d been holding. “God fucking damn you, you scared the shit out of me!” His burning legs gave way and he collapsed into a sitting position on the floor, raising his hands to clutch as his hair as almost the only way he could express his relief and the abrupt withdrawal of adrenaline from his system.

The man chuckled, and this time Sano could clearly hear his footsteps approaching; apparently he only moved silently when he felt the specific need. “Making your way up here in the middle of a firefight doesn’t scare you, but this does?” Sano could tell when the man had neared him, not only by sound but by the sight of a small point of orange light in the darkness. The scent of cigarette smoke informed him what this must be. “I should have known you wouldn’t stay safely in the slave quarters until this was over. I suppose Soujirou told you where to find me?”

“He… I…” It would take too many words to explain, and Sano felt that he was really the one that was owed an explanation here. Because suddenly he was angry. Angrier than he’d been in a very, very long time — perhaps his entire life. What right had this man to treat him the way he had, then walk in here and scare him half to death and laugh at him and ask him questions so coolly? It brought Sano to his feet in an instant.

“You better fucking have some good explanations ready.” It was a little like the first time they’d lain in yellow-eyes’ barracks bed together — the darkness seemed to embolden Sano — and this time on a much larger scale. In fact, knowing what he now knew, he felt all of his inhibitions dissolving and all his fears erased, and nothing but the desire for answers present in his mind.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me?” he burst out. “Who the hell gave you permission to fuck with my head like that? Do you know how fucking confused I’ve been about you and what was going on? Why would you let me think you were here to ‘steal slaves’ without just fucking telling me what you were really doing? Why would you make me think you were going to just take me away from my friends — and that was confusing as hell too because you acted like you hated all the fucking guards — and why would you act like you fucking cared about me and then just make it look like you’d left without even saying anything to me?” Here he ran out of breath; this and the nagging reflection that he wasn’t expressing himself very well forced him to pause.

A long silence followed, during which the end of the man’s cigarette glowed brightly for a moment as he took a drag, then faded back to its former, duller red. Finally, “I knew you must be confused,” came the voice of the darkness, “but I didn’t realize it would bother you that much.”

“You shot me,” Sano replied, striving for a level tone, determined that it should make sense this time. “You stopped me from escaping but didn’t turn me in. You wanted to fuck me but never did. You acted like you cared about me specially but wouldn’t ever answer any of my questions. Then you killed a guy right in front of me, claimed you were here to steal me, and then disappeared. If you’d just told me what you were doing here, I’d have gotten it. Instead I just about fucking lost my mind.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. But I couldn’t have told you without jeopardizing the mission.”

“‘Jeopardizing the mission…'” Sano repeated it at a whisper. “Jeopardizing the fucking mission…” Then, because he simply couldn’t help himself, he began to laugh.

Suddenly, as if something that had been tightening all morning had snapped inside him, he felt exhausted and strangely limp. He took two steps forward, and yellow-eyes steadied him as Sano pressed against his body and continued laughing into his chest. He seemed to be shaking a little more than the laughter could account for, and there was a touch of hysteria in the sound.

“I’m sorry,” the man said in his ear. “It’s all over now.” He even sounded fairly sincere.

“You…” Sano murmured when he could speak again. “You are a fucking asshole…”

One of the man’s arms went around Sano for support as he answered, “Probably.”

Sano noted distantly, pointlessly, that the cloth against his face was not the stuff the guards wore — infinitely familiar as he was with that — but something a touch rougher and not so stiff. Yellow-eyes had probably changed into the same camouflage the rest of his group had on. “I don’t know why I’ve been thinking about you nonstop for so fucking long. That was all I really needed to figure out: that you’re a fucking asshole.”

Yellow-eyes chuckled again. “Then you understand everything now.”

“Not quite.” Sano remained where he was, with his head bent and his words muffled by the man’s garment; he wasn’t ready to move quite yet. “You wanted me all along, but you didn’t fuck me because you wanted to be better than the other guards because you’re not really one of them and all that. That makes sense now, I guess. But then why the hell did you jack me off that one time?”

“I shouldn’t have done that,” was the answer — so immediate that Sano thought yellow-eyes must already have had this on his mind.

“It didn’t help with me being confused as hell, you know.”

“Do you want me to apologize again?” These words were somewhat dry, but Sano got the feeling the man would apologize again if Sano demanded it.

He considered for a moment. “Nah,” he finally said. “You just did it ’cause you felt like it?”

He could feel the man nod.

Sano nodded also, withdrawing slightly. He felt a little less shaky now, but still very tired. He doubted it was an hour since he’d arisen, but he could probably sleep a whole night’s worth if he lay down now.

Yellow-eyes made no effort to keep him close; in fact, in a businesslike tone he remarked, “I’ve been down here too long. Come with me.” The glowing ember of the cigarette fell to the concrete floor and disappeared under an invisible foot.

Sano reached out and caught at the man, finding an arm to hold onto, afflicted by a sudden, childish fear of losing him in this darkness. But if yellow-eyes picked up on this, he said nothing, only led Sano unfalteringly to the door. Notwithstanding his lack of tension up until this moment, he opened it quietly and cautiously. Once Sano’s eyes had adjusted to the dim light pouring through the slowly-widening aperture, he could see that yellow-eyes had his hand on his holstered gun and was, in fact, wearing the camouflage Sano had observed on the other invaders.

The hallway was empty, and no sound came from up the stairs. As they stepped out of the storage room and yellow-eyes closed the door behind them, Sano paused to look at him. It was the same face — the same high cheekbones and narrow eyes, expressive lips and thin brows — but something was different about him now, something more than a mere change of raiment could explain. Perhaps it was that, after that conversation in utter darkness, Sano felt he knew the real man a little better, that some of the mystery was repealed. Perhaps it was only the absence of the previous turmoil through which Sano had been viewing the other all along.

Whatever it was, he found himself moving almost without conscious effort, taking the handsome face in his hands, and leaning up to kiss him.

His anger was mostly gone, and though he didn’t know what would happen next or exactly how he felt about this man, there was undeniably something between them. Yellow-eyes responded by pulling him close, and they stood thus for quite some time.

When Sano finally broke away, the man quirked a half-smile at him and said, “Trying to pay me back for confusing you so much?”

“You’d deserve it if I did.” Sano wasn’t quite sure what he meant, though.

Evidently in response to Sano’s uncertain tone, “I’m a fucking asshole,” the man explained, “but you kiss me?”

Sano grinned. “Yeah, why don’t you just headache about it for a while before I tell you?”

Yellow-eyes’ smirk widened as he shook his head slightly, released Sano, and turned again. His cautious demeanor and the hand again on his gun told Sano they were moving on.

“So you’re in charge of all of this?” Sano asked quietly as they climbed the stairs.

The man looked for a moment as if he wasn’t going to answer, was perhaps going to advise wordless progress, but then — perhaps realizing that Sano might explode if he tried that shit again — answered just as softly, “Our organization has three teams; I’m in charge of one of them.”

“And what the hell are you guys trying to do?”

They’d reached the second floor, and here, upon seeing another camouflage-clad person crouched beside a potted plant in the corridor to which the stairs led, yellow-eyes relaxed somewhat. Acknowledging the watcher with a nod, he answered Sano’s question as they continued down the hall. “Our goal is to annihilate Ketterect Labor and free all the slaves.”

Although this was what Sano had guessed, he couldn’t help shivering slightly at hearing it. If he hadn’t seen all the people with guns… if he didn’t know this man was in charge of at least part of the operation… he would have thought it an impossibly grandiose scheme likely to get more of them killed than freed.

“What are you going to do with me?” he asked next.

“We’ve arranged for temporary homes for all the slaves; it was the longest and most difficult part of the preparation for this mission. You’ll all be acclimatized to free society, and hopefully during that time the laws will change.”

“No, I mean, what are you going to do with me.”

Yellow-eyes paused outside the door they were evidently about to enter and looked back at him. “Whatever you want me to,” he said.

In response to Sano’s somewhat baffled expression, the man smirked faintly and explained. “It’s really up to you whether you want to put up with me after this.” He held Sano’s gaze for a moment, and Sano really didn’t know what to say. “For the moment,” he finally continued, turning back to the door, “I’m going to work on keeping you alive long enough to decide.”

Sano followed him unhesitatingly into the room. This might prove to be a rather long day, but he wasn’t sure he minded.

Katsu also felt he was in for a long day. The lights had gone out, leaving them in near-complete darkness in the windowless slave quarters, and, while he and Kaoru maintained their dubious cover of the door, the other slaves bombarded Soujirou with questions.

Just listening — on the outside now, as it were — Katsu could clearly see how easily and glibly Soujirou answered only exactly what he wanted to and evaded the rest. Some of what the other slaves wanted to know, Katsu guessed, might indeed be dangerous or demoralizing; but not all of it was, and there seemed no good reason for evasion. He wondered whether this repressiveness was simply Soujirou’s nature. In any case, it didn’t seem to be hurting the other slaves’ opinion of him; there was already a touch of hero-worship to their interaction with him. Katsu tried very hard not to let this make him jealous.

Every moment that passed seemed like an hour as he held the gun, watched the faint glint of tears on Kaoru’s face, and felt the tension grow; eventually he lost all concept of the passage of time. There was no way to see outside without opening the door, there were no clocks, and the questions being posed by his fellows to Soujirou were getting disconcertingly repetitive. Katsu felt he was beginning to go a little crazy. Was it morning or afternoon? Or another day or year? Or had time stopped completely?

The gunfire, at least, had stopped completely, after a gradual diminution, and it had been some time since Katsu had heard anything beyond the increasingly loud noise here inside the building. Their little set of rooms might have spun out from the rest of the world for all he knew, and he might stand here pointing this gun at that unmoving rectangle of dim light at the other end of the chamber for the rest of eternity.

Even these thoughts seemed removed by an incomprehensible gulf of time from the eventual sounds at the door.

The room fell gradually quiet as the realization that someone was outside filtered through its inhabitants. Most of them, Katsu thought, were turned toward Soujirou in apprehensive appeal by the time the knock came.

It was a peculiarly rhythmic knock, obviously a signal of some sort, and in response Soujirou’s smile widened. “Looks like it’s over,” he said cheerfully, and moved toward the door. Gratefully, Katsu lowered his gun.

The sunlight that streamed into the room seemed almost alien after the shadows, but the hour of day, at least, could now be guessed at. Katsu couldn’t be surprised at seeing what looked like the light of mid-afternoon, given that he’d had no idea what time it was.

“Hey, Sou,” said the figure that entered, partially blocking the light.

“All clear,” Soujirou replied.

“We’re on to Phase 4,” the man’s voice said. Katsu couldn’t make out any details beyond his silhouetted figure in the open doorway, but felt predisposed to like the person. The combination of his seeming informality and the words ‘Phase 4’ seemed strange, but it really made little difference. “We’ll take over for you here, if you wanna report to the captain at the office building.”

Soujirou tilted his head curiously. “Why?”

“Captain’s informant wants to hear his friends are safe or something. Said you’d know who to take up there.”

If it weren’t for the fact that Katsu always heard everything, he might not have caught the second sentence. Overwhelmed with relief at the implications of the first, he let out a breath like a sigh and felt suddenly rather weak. Beside him, he could sense much the same reactions from Kaoru and Yahiko.

“Sounds good.” This time Katsu didn’t just hear the smile in Soujirou’s voice, but saw it on his face along with a glint of blue eyes as Soujirou turned toward him and gestured. “Katsu, why don’t you come with me?”

Quickly Katsu joined Soujirou at the door, through which the latest arrival had moved into the room. “Hey, folks,” the man was saying to the other slaves. “How you doing?”

Outside, shielding his eyes against the sun, Katsu found himself facing a number of people clad in camouflage the colors of the forest and carrying various firearms. He couldn’t help stopping to stare for a moment, though Soujirou just waved and started up the hill. They stared back, some of them smiling, some grim, some curious.

Katsu shook himself and jogged to catch up with Soujirou.

The latter remarked as Katsu reached him, “It’s good to hear that Sano’s all right, isn’t it?”

Yes,” replied Katsu emphatically. He glanced back at the slave quarter buildings as they moved farther up the hill, taking note of the number of camouflage figures he could see and their movements. After a few more paces he felt compelled to comment, “Your organization seems really… informal.”

“I guess,” Soujirou shrugged. “It works, though.” He added with a slight laugh, “People don’t disobey the captains.”

“That guard of Sano’s…” Katsu had to pause to grimace briefly at his own choice of words. “He’s one of the captains?”

Soujirou nodded. Katsu thought he understood why people didn’t disobey, in that case.

Although there were two staff buildings that contained offices, apparently Soujirou knew what to understand by ‘the office building,’ as he was headed unerringly to the one nearer the complex entrance. Everywhere Katsu looked there were more camouflaged people, standing around, moving purposefully somewhere or other, watching him and Soujirou… It made him a little nervous — not that he was exactly free of that emotion to begin with — and when they reached the doors to the building he was actually relieved to find not a single one in sight (from that angle at least). There were sure to be more inside, though.

A desire had been growing in the back of his head all the way up here, and now as Soujirou reached for the door handle Katsu took a deep breath and said his name. When Soujirou turned a questioning smile on him Katsu said, “Hey, listen.” But that wasn’t really what he meant. Frowning, reaching for Soujirou’s hand to pull him close, Katsu bent and kissed him briefly and almost reluctantly.

Soujirou looked a little surprised. “Does that mean you’re not mad at me?”

“Not necessarily,” replied Katsu. He sighed, letting his head fall back to look up at the underside of the roof that overhung the doors so he wouldn’t be tempted to kiss Soujirou again. “I’m not really sure what it means. Just… thanks.”

Squeezing Katsu’s hand briefly and probably smiling, Soujirou released him and said, “Let’s go find Sano.” Katsu looked down to see him turning back toward the door and again reaching for the handle. He took a deep breath and followed.

Chapter 15

Time didn’t seem to be passing any more quickly for Sano and Katsu once they were together, but they didn’t mind. As a matter of fact, they might have said fairly positively that they were content now to weather out the long day watching the comings and goings of the operatives around the complex.

Yellow-eyes — whose rank of “captain” apparently allowed him to stay in one place and give orders rather than run around like everyone else — was the only consistent sight throughout the afternoon; even Soujirou had to go do something at some point, throwing a bright smile at Katsu before he left.

Realizing that here was another question he could probably get answered now, Sano strolled over to yellow-eyes’ side once Soujirou was out of the room. “So were his orders to seduce Katsu, or what?” Hearing his friend behind him make a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sigh, Sano guessed Katsu and Soujirou had already been over this.

Turning fully to face them both with a frown that seemed to indicate existing suspicions now confirmed, yellow-eyes answered, “No.”

Katsu sighed again. “Is that going to get him in trouble?”

“We’ll see,” replied yellow-eyes darkly.

But with taking cryptic, uninformative statements from this man Sano was finished. “We’ll see what?” he demanded. Yellow-eyes was unable to answer, however, since at that moment someone entered the room to make a report (or something) and he became busied in a professional conversation.

“It’s probably a little difficult for him to decide,” Katsu speculated, “when he’s pretty much guilty of the same thing.” Sano could clearly hear the disapproval in his barely-lowered voice, and felt his own expression tauten into what might have been called a rueful grin.

“I don’t wanna say I think he did something horrible to me,” he murmured reluctantly. His words grew even quieter as he continued, glancing over at yellow-eyes to see if he was still occupied with the other person. “I was really pissed at him earlier, and I don’t know exactly how I feel about him or what I want to do… but… well, I dunno.”

Katsu snorted. “That’s about how I feel about Soujirou.” Then he sighed again, and returned Sano’s rueful grin as he shook his head. Whatever he might have said next was prevented, though, by the return of yellow-eyes to their end of the room and his full attention to them.

“I also,” the latter remarked as if he’d been part of their discussion all along, “have to take into consideration exactly what he did and to what extent it could have been consensual.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sano, a little suspicious.

Katsu gave the false guard an appraising look. “He means,” he explained slowly, “that the more mindless he finds me, the less forgivable whatever Soujirou’s done will be.”

Yellow-eyes nodded briefly and turned back to his perusal of some of the paperwork he’d rounded up from the various offices. Sano had no idea what he was looking for — but, then, he really had no idea what kind of paperwork the staff kept in their offices. To be honest, he almost had no idea how to read.

He also had no idea how he felt about what Katsu had just said.

They sat in silence for a while, Katsu at the chair from one of the room’s large desks and Sano atop the latter, Sano watching yellow-eyes work and Katsu staring out the window. From this room there was a good view of about two thirds of the complex, which Sano thought was probably the reason yellow-eyes had chosen to remain there.

Everyone that entered drew Sano’s attention — as much because he wanted to watch their interaction with yellow-eyes as that he wanted a better idea of what kind of people these were. For the latter… well, that he had no real idea what ‘normal people’ were like or what to expect from them did occur to him, but he thought most of the members of this group could pass for a fairly good approximation. For the former… it didn’t surprise him to find that yellow-eyes was something of a jerk to his subordinates, nor that they obeyed his orders without argument or hesitation.

All except Aoshi.

Sano couldn’t help grinning a little at the other false guard when he entered. Aoshi didn’t look at him, and kept his conversation with yellow-eyes low — neither of which surprised Sano either. Aoshi seemed to have a sort of passive-aggressive one-man rebellion going on against yellow-eyes’ authority, which yellow-eyes tolerated with crumbling patience. This also didn’t surprise Sano, given what he’d learned earlier.

Aoshi did cast a cold-eyed and unreadable look at Sano before he left the room, and Sano didn’t even bother trying not to laugh. Understandably, he found Katsu bemused and curious when he returned his eyes to his friend.

“That’s sit-in-a-chair-all-night guy,” he explained. “Aoshi.”

“Oh!” Katsu glanced at the door through which Aoshi had disappeared, then back to Sano. “Did you figure out what his deal was?”

“I’d completely forgot about him earlier, with all this other shit going on, or else I would have asked yellow-eyes there,” Sano began in a low voice, once again glancing at the third man in the room to see if he was listening. He didn’t appear to be, but that didn’t really mean anything. “But then Aoshi came in here, a little before you showed up, and I remembered. He acted all worried about whatever yellow-eyes was ‘doing with me,’ like I wasn’t even here or couldn’t hear what he was saying. He asked if yellow-eyes was really in love with me after less than a month and’d decided to keep me.”

Katsu blinked widened eyes, apparently uncertain whether to be more annoyed or surprised at the words.

“Yeah,” Sano agreed. “And yellow-eyes said he didn’t have to explain anything, and Aoshi says something like, ‘Of course you don’t have to. But I think you’re lonely and you’re trying to fill the gap with someone you just met, and it’s not going to work.’ Then — this is the best part — yellow-eyes says, ‘Lonely? You have a very high opinion of yourself.'”

Katsu’s eyes widened even further as the implications of this exchange struck him immediately. “So that’s why…” A grin similar to Sano’s was beginning to pull at his mouth.

Sano nodded. “I laughed. Right out loud. You shoulda seen the look Aoshi gave me.”

“It’s good to know people other than slaves can have relationship issues.” It was only a partly facetious comment, and Katsu’s grinning, head-shaking expression was half-pained.

Sano just grinned back.

Sobering completely, Katsu noted, “You were glad he was jealous.”

“Maybe I was,” Sano agreed, and couldn’t even regret admitting it. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed yellow-eyes smirking faintly.

Eventually out the window they could see the other slaves exiting the quarters in fairly placid, organized lines, and at this point yellow-eyes announced it was time to go down. Looking forward to seeing how Kaoru and Yahiko were doing, they followed him from the building. Perhaps because of their greater understanding of the situation, the time they’d spent away from their other friends seemed like an age or more.

By the time Sano, Katsu, and yellow-eyes reached them, the slaves were milling about at the entrance to the complex. They were still roughly organized by quarters division, probably simply for convenience, and a kind of count or roll call was being conducted by some of the camouflaged operatives.

Whether deliberately or otherwise — Sano wasn’t going to ask — yellow-eyes led them to a spot very near where their friends stood, then turned pointedly away to converse with one of his own people. Sano didn’t have time or inclination to attempt to listen in, since at that moment Kaoru and Yahiko staged a sort of hugging-and-talking-at-once attack on him.

“Ah! shit! shoulder!” Sano grunted in reminder.

With an apology Kaoru drew back far enough to stop hurting him and to look up into his face, and actually startled him with hers. She’d obviously been crying, and that didn’t do much for anyone’s complexion — but somehow, despite the red blotches that were her cheeks and the puffiness around her eyes, she looked better than he’d seen her in months. She looked, in fact, more like the strong and determined Kaoru he’d met a year ago than he’d ever thought to see her again.

With a shock, staring at her uplifted expression, he realized suddenly that he’d never expected her to survive this far. Perhaps her lack of faith in her friends’ ability to escape and come back to rescue her had been in response to their lack of faith in her. Perhaps slaves couldn’t ever really have faith in each other. He didn’t know. But now… now everything had changed, and in an instant a totally unanticipated and overwhelming joy filled him. He pulled her back into the hug she’d abandoned, ignoring the pain.

Things became very noisy for a while as all the slaves seemed to be discussing this turn of events at once, shouting to friends from other quarters or sometimes, it seemed, just for the pleasure of shouting without repercussion. Kaoru and Yahiko were not the only ones to be checked on, and for a while Sano and Katsu were pleasantly busy. Marveling, plan-making, weeping, speculation, congratulation: it assaulted them from every side. Not everyone was happy, and most were nervous if not downright terrified… but the general air was of relief, wonder, and joy. This, Sano thought, was what a holiday must feel like.

As the sky began to blacken, even the redness of sunset fading from the close forested horizon, a number of buses pulled up in a neat row just outside the entrance of the complex and reilluminated the scene with their bright headlights. Sano barely remembered buses, and these looked bigger and a lot nicer than the ones he recalled hazily from the LeMere streets so long ago, but at the moment very little he saw could fail to give him pleasure — especially anything that would help remove the slaves from this place, hopefully never to return. So he grinned at the buses and at the operatives once again calling the crowd to order.

Turning, he found yellow-eyes watching him from nearby. Sano had rather lost track of the man in the last couple of hours, though in the back of his thoughts never really misplacing him or the indecision connected with him. Now Sano moved toward him a few steps, for no real reason other than a certain feeling of being drawn by the sight of him.

He wanted to say something, but this wasn’t really the moment for all of his serious reflections that tended toward working out the aforementioned confusion. Eventually what came out, pointless but at least something, was, “So… buses…”

Yellow-eyes nodded.

“Where are you taking us?”

“A number of different sites. It isn’t safe or practical for everyone to relocate to the same place.” Now it was Sano’s turn to nod. Most likely, naming the destinations here in front of everyone also wasn’t safe or practical, and the names probably wouldn’t mean anything to Sano anyway… but he couldn’t help feeling a little annoyed. It must have shown on his face, too, for yellow-eyes smirked slightly and said, “I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Tell him what?” Katsu wondered as he appeared at Sano’s side — probably in response to Soujirou, who’d just appeared beside yellow-eyes.

“Exactly where we’re going,” Sano answered. “And where everyone is going,” he added as an afterthought. “And all the details of this project of theirs that he hasn’t told me yet. Like where they got buses from and shit.”

Yellow-eyes snorted. “You certainly don’t ask much.” The sarcasm wasn’t meant to cut, though.

“You specifically told me I ask too many questions, actually.” Sano stared up into the man’s face, more flippant than defiant but not willing to be denied his answers. The yellow eyes rolled.

“So…” began Katsu. He glanced from Soujirou, at whom he’d been looking fairly steadfastly, to a nearby operative that was shouting orders to the slaves in the immediate vicinity. “Do we get on the bus with them?”

Yellow-eyes’ mouth tightened, and Soujirou’s smile turned a little self-conscious. “That depends,” the false guard said at last.

Sano and Katsu just waited.

“You two are a… special case.” Yellow-eyes shook his head, and the expression on his face seemed to reflect an almost helpless sort of frustrated amusement that held a touch of self-deprecation. Neither he nor Soujirou, after all, had probably expected to find what they had at Ketterect Labor Complex; Sano was sure neither of them was entirely satisfied with his own behavior. “We’ll probably bring you with us in one of the trucks… back to our headquarters instead of to a relocation site, and then… you two are free now; it depends on what you want.”

“Free…” Had Sano ever really understood that word before? It tasted strange on his lips, sounded unfamiliar in his ears. He glanced from the interesting look on yellow-eyes’ face to Soujirou’s tentative smile to Katsu, and saw the same uncertainty in his friend’s expression that was probably in his own. They had Kaoru, Yahiko, and others to consider, not to mention the ambiguity of their own attitudes toward their deliverers. “I… don’t know,” Sano answered at last. Katsu shook his head to indicate similar feelings.

“Well, you have three hundred miles to think about it,” Soujirou smiled.

Yellow-eyes nodded.

Glancing at Katsu again, Sano couldn’t help smiling too. The one thing he could be sure of was that, whatever strange complications had arisen thus far, neither of them would regret these events or even meeting these men, whatever they decided. They had three hundred miles — and more — to think about it; Sano believed, at this point, that neither Soujirou nor his superior officer would pressure either of the two former slaves.

They had all the time in the world. This was what Souzou had wanted; this was what Souzou would always have wanted for them. They were free — free — to come to their own decisions, to determine their own future.



<<14

When I first got an account at fanfiction.net in 2002 and started posting things there, the popularity and the headiness of multiple reviews per chapter provided a rush of motivation, and I produced eleven rickety chapters of a story called You Won’t Regret It in record time. And perhaps it was the haste with which I wrote it, or possibly a special kind of naivete that fanfiction.net didn’t help, but it really sucked. It was so full of implausible circumstances and so incredibly shallow and fangirly that a few years later I took it down.

But having a finished story eleven chapters long sitting around not posted really bothered me, and eventually I decided to rewrite the thing and see if I could manage to hate it less. And here is the result: a rewrite barely less spurious than it was before, even more hedonistic in places, consisting for many chapters mostly of recycled text from the original with other shit added and some slight pretext of dealing with some of these serious issues just a touch less shallowly. If you’ve made it this far, I’m impressed… and actually kinda feel I should apologize. Still, it has its moments; one of these days even their sad glitter may fade, and then it’ll come down.

I’ve rated this story (though the last few chapters, the best parts of the fic, merit more like a ).

Gold Eyes False

Gold Eyes False

It might not be so bad if we weren’t outside in the rain, and he wasn’t such a complete bastard.

When Sano is forced to live a day as Saitou and Saitou is forced to observe, the resulting realizations are nothing like what they expect.

Unique to this comic: astonishingly ugly art.

000

Image 1 of 101

Oh, what can I say about this comic? I went through phases of trying to make it look decent, and others of not caring at all about the visuals because I just wanted to tell the story. In fact, it was originally a prose story, but there were some moments that just screamed for visual representation (like all the nonsense Sano does when he first finds himself inside Saitou’s body). The whole thing took me forever to complete, and, as you can see in the comments, I had some amazing support all the way through despite the visuals. In fact, when it was finished, evidently not having learned my lesson, I immediately started in on another comic. Fortunately I eventually got tired of spending so many hours on pages that never looked any good, and turned that one (Heretic’s Reward) into a much better prose story.

I’ve been told that my commentary on the GEF pages is as much fun as the comic itself, so I kept that available to read beneath the pages. However, I don’t know if anyone has read the comic at all since a year or two after its completion XD Anyway, in full spite of the ugly drawings and often confusing page layouts, I think the story is pretty damn brilliant, and I’ve rated this comic .

漸進的 な 会得 – Gradual Understanding

These people Saitou and Sanosuke, they’re not him and me, and we don’t live in Japan, and none of this has anything to do with our relationship.

A string of bizarrely realistic dreams in a language he doesn’t speak about some old-timey Japanese people has absolutely nothing to do with his relationship and possible breakup with his boyfriend, no matter how much Sano and Saitou remind him of the two of them.

Unique to this story: narrating voice is disparaging of psychiatric patients and treatment.



It’s always thirty billion degrees when I get home from class, because he has the air conditioner set not to run when neither of us is here. Saving money or something. So the first thing I have to do is turn it up all the way. Then I toss my backpack next to the couch and my keys somewhere nearby, and sit down to yank my shoes off, humming the song that was playing on the radio in the car. I swear some of those songs from the 50’s only still get played because they get stuck in your head so easy. Some people might call that ‘catchy,’ but I call it fucking annoying.

There’s nothing quick to eat in the kitchen; there never is. I bug him to buy better food, but he goes for all that ‘sensible’ bullshit. And there’s only so much a poor college student like me can afford to buy on his own.

I end up drinking the rest of the milk, then flop down on the couch. I find my keys again that way somewhat painfully, and throw them on the floor. With a yawn I arrange the cushions better and close my eyes. Hopefully I won’t wake up until he’s home and making dinner… or maybe if I wake up right when he gets home I’ll be able to convince him to make grilled cheese sandwiches. With that happy thought, I drift off.

Almost the moment I’m really asleep and nothing’s left of my actual surroundings, it starts: I find I’m sitting somewhere I don’t recognize on some wooden steps — or a porch, I guess — my chin in my hands. It seems like I’m annoyed; I think I came into this dream a little late and missed stuff. Maybe a lot of stuff. I’m staring at some funny walls and doors that look like… something out of Crouching Tiger or something.

I yawn and mutter incoherently, and although it’s definitely the familiar feeling of me moving, I don’t have any sense of really being in control, of having sent the commands from brain to body to do those things. Guess I’m just along for the ride here, then.

One of the doors opens — slides open — and someone comes in. Well, this is outside, but he comes through the door. I recognize him right away, except he looks all Chinese. And he’s wearing some goofy outfit with a… skirt… I swear it is.

I realize I just said something to him. I don’t think I was making fun of the skirt, though, which is what I’d actually be doing if I were in charge here. Anyway, somehow it doesn’t seem to bug me that he answers in a language I don’t know: “始めまして. 私 石田散薬 という 妙薬 を 扱っている 多魔 の 薬売りで 藤田 五郎 と申します.” He’s pretty close in front of me now, opening this box he had on his back and holding up this paper sack. He sounds like a total yuppie, too, as he keeps talking about it; I think he’s selling it. Door-to-door salesman’s not something I ever would have thought to see him as; it’s pretty funny.

“待った 待った,” I tell him, whatever that means. “俺 は ここ の 者 じゃねーよ.” I guess I don’t want any of the paper bag stuff. “ここ の 者 は 留守 だぜ みんな.”

He looks kinda pleased with this. “そうなんですか…”

Something besides his funny clothing is obviously wrong here, because whatever I say next sounds pretty suspicious.

He just laughs, though, giving me a bright and somewhat creepy smile as he replies, “この 目 は 生まれつきな もんで.”

But evidently I’m not taking that answer. I can feel my eyes narrow — though not to the extent of the squint he’s got going — and I reach out and grab his wrist. “そう か い じゃお,” I growl accusingly. “薬売りにゃ全然 似合わね この竹刀 ダコ. これ は 生まれつじゃねえよな. てめ 何者 だ?”

Smiling, he just looks at me for a moment. Then he lets up on his squint and murmurs very pointedly, “なかなか 鋭い男 なんですね, 相楽 佐之助君.”

The uncanny color of his eyes has always been riveting, but at the moment I don’t have time to be captivated. His words are a jolt, and I’m jumping backward quickly and warily. For good reason, too: as he continues to speak in a dark tone, he’s pulling from almost nowhere — well, from his back — a real, actual sword.

This shit keeps getting weirder.

Still, I don’t seem to be as surprised as I reasonably should be at my pedemarketer-boyfriend pulling a sword out of nowhere or his back. I’m just making some grim comment and tensing up like I’m getting ready to fight him. Maybe I’ve got a sword too?

And then, I guess in response to my remark, he — I swear I’m not kidding — licks the sword. What the hell kind of kinky shit is this?! Isn’t he afraid he’s going to cut his tongue? God! “いいだろうよ,” I growl at him, not caring much for this behavior. I slam my fists together menacingly. “受けて 立つぜ!” Wait… am I going to fight him with my bare hands?? “てめえ の 正体 は この 拳 で 聞いて やろ!” I assert, and charge. I guess I am. Well, the adrenaline I think I might have conjured out of nowhere (from my back, maybe?) convinces me pretty well that I know what I’m doing. And the punch I throw at his face seems pretty effective.

At least, for about five seconds it does, until it becomes obvious he wasn’t knocked away by it, he stepped away to get his own attack ready. “成程,” he says. “ケンカ 一番と噂される だけおって いい 拳打 を しているよ. だが…” As he pulls the sword back and holds it funny, he finishes in this irritatingly disdainful tone, “それも 明治 という 泰平 の 世 で の 話 幕末 の 京都 に 於いて は この 程度 の 拳打 は 全く通用しない.” Apparently the meaning of the words is just as annoying as the tone, if my rush of indignation at them is any indication, but again I don’t really have time to react, because — shit, he’s fast!! — he’s suddenly racing at me with the sharp end of that sword pointed where I’d really rather not have it.

I try to dodge, but my movements seem sluggish and meaningless compared to his. Holy shit, that fucking hurts! Right into my shoulder goes the sword, and right through something hard and solid goes my entire body with the force of his attack. I skid and crash to a halt on my side, grating across the wooden floor of whatever building this is, pummeled with rubble from the smashed wall, losing sight of him somewhere even when the dust and the haze of pain allow me to see anything at all.

Oh, and I’m pissed off now. I’ve barely stilled before I’m hauling myself to my feet with a roar, swaying just slightly with pain and the loss of equilibrium. “どこ を 向いてる, 細目野郎?” I demand, catching sight of his back as I stand. “まだ 終わっちゃいねえぞ!”

“威勢 が いい な. だが…” He turns casually toward me; the sword is gone from his hand, probably because the snapped-off end of it’s still sticking out of my screaming shoulder. “大人しく 寝ていた 方 が 身 の 為 だったな,” he says; “致命傷 に 至らなかったとは 言え 深 傷 に は 代わない.” And though I don’t understand, it’s no surprise I’m not pleased by the admonition.

“るせい!” I bellow. “深 傷 は 負ったが てめえ の 刀 も 砕けた! 勝負 は これ から だ!” With this I rush to attack him again.

If I thought my chances were better now he’s got no sword, boy, was I wrong… he half dodges, half blocks my punch and at the same time slams the protruding end of the broken weapon into my shoulder. Through the agony this occasions, only a hot blur is his hand on my face, his harsh command “寝ろ,” and my swift descent.

I jerk awake as my skull should hit the floor, and I think I’m making some kind of funny gasping sound. Disoriented for a second, it takes me a bit to realize I’m in my apartment on the couch and nothing unusual is going on. My heart’s pounding like mad, though, and I swear for a split second I can feel ghostly echoes of the pain from my dream.

He’s sitting in the chair across from me reading the paper and looking as American as ever, and I can’t help staring at him for a bit. He raises an eyebrow at me as he turns a page. With a frown that melts into a yawn, I get up and go over and smack him.

He looks up at me skeptically.

“That’s for stabbing me,” I tell him.

The eyebrow goes higher, so I take his paper, throw it on the floor, and climb onto his lap. “You’re just as big a asshole in my dreams as you are in real life.”

“And I’m sure you’re just as big an idiot,” he replies, groping my ass.

“Well, I guess you thought so, ’cause you fucking stabbed me.” But I’m frowning as I say this. The more I think about it, the weirder that dream seems — because I usually dream about things I’m familiar with, you know? And I’m familiar with him, of course, and his bastardliness, but I don’t know anything about katanas or whatever, and I definitely don’t know any other language.

“You probably deserved it.”

“Maybe I did.” Maybe it was some kind of psychic message. That would be cool, except… why would I get a psychic message about my boyfriend stabbing me? Of course there’s the obvious sexual meaning, but it didn’t feel like that kind of dream. Maybe it was a warning, letting me know that everything I’ve been worrying about lately’s been right on target.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, with more curiosity than concern.

“Nothing.” I jump up. “I’m gonna take a shower.” Pulling off my shirt, I head down the hall.

I can hear him following, and soon he’s standing at the bathroom door watching me strip. Obviously he picked up my shirt on the way — which was mostly why I dropped it in the hall — but he doesn’t say anything about me throwing the rest of my clothes all over the bathroom. I’ll never get it — how is the hall different from the bathroom, when they’re both places you’re not supposed to throw clothes? He’s weirdly picky like that.

I close the shower curtain and turn on the water, but don’t get in just yet. First I have to say over my shoulder, “You coming?” As if I really need to ask. The sex is the one thing in this relationship I could never complain about. Hell, that’s probably why I’ve stayed as long as I have. That and the money. Which is really sad. Anyway, I step into the shower as he starts to unbutton his shirt.

It’s hard to use up all the hot water in a big apartment complex like this, but we’ve done it, like, three times now. I’m really tired by the time we’re finished, and neither of us says much of anything as, vaguely and mostly as if it doesn’t matter, we get ready for bed. And I’ve pretty much stopped thinking about the dream by the time I’m curled up beside him in a nice haze and falling asleep.

I can’t help but remember it the next day, though.

He’s almost always up and gone a lot earlier than I am — I’m not one for morning classes — so I come to alone, as usual. The new images in my head are already dimming, but that doesn’t mean I’m forgetting them. Having a second dream like that so soon after the first is more than a little startling.

I was still in pretty bad shape, and had to lean real hard on this woman’s shoulder to stand up. He was fighting some little red-headed guy in a dress, and none of the people watching seemed very happy about it. I’m not sure who was winning, though, and I woke up pretty soon after making some fatalistic-sounding comment in Chinese or whatever again. “無理 だぜ 嬢ちゃん… 俺達 には 止められねエ…”

I lie in bed for a bit and watch the image of the blue outfit he was wearing this time — a much better choice than his previous thing — blur into the ceiling as the dream fades. I have to wonder, really wonder, what this all means. Two in a row is no coincidence, and non-coincidental dreams are pretty much always important and trying to tell me something, right? And in this case the message seems fairly obvious.

My boyfriend’s a freak.

I’m broken from the downward spiral of this reverie by the grumbling of my stomach, and I remember the other thing I forgot last night: the dream and the shower distracted me from the fact that I didn’t have any dinner. Jerk probably had his own while I was getting beat up by him inside my head, and didn’t bother to wake me up for it. Or, I amend with a little more charity, lost track of the fact that he was human and forgot to eat entirely. Because he does that sometimes too.

With an inarticulate remark I’m fairly sure is about food — see, I make as much sense in English as I do in whatever-dream-language — I finally haul my ass out of bed and go to see which of my guesses is correct.

The issue bugs me on and off all day, but not so much that I can’t pay attention at school. Or at least not so much that I pay any less attention than I ever do. Between classes, I’ve got to dodge/hide from the poster people who want me to come to the environmental club thing and the campus improvement panel thing and the association of gay-bi-les-whatever students thing. Drive-time I’m too distracted trying to choose a new radio station (hopefully one that won’t annoy the shit out of me) to think about dreams. But once I get home, it’s on my mind full-force once again. I turn up the air conditioner and, after another futile glance through the fridge, plop down on the couch to do some homework.

I should know better. Know better than to look in the fridge and better than to think I’m going to get any homework done.

“なかなか 鋭い男 なんですね, 相楽 佐之助君.” I still don’t understand a word of it, but phrases are replaying in my head like they should mean something. “幕末 の 京都 に 於いて は この 程度 の 拳打 は 全く通用しない.” The image of my fist meeting his face, of him charging at me with that sword. “俺達 には 止められねエ…” Him fighting that other guy and me just totally despairing of a good outcome… And what’s the significance here, anyway? That I had two of these dreams? If I went to sleep now, would I have another one?

But there’s no way I can take a nap today, I remind myself dejectedly… I already put off studying for my marketing test, which is tomorrow, by wasting yesterday evening. And I don’t have time to dwell on dreams either, I add firmly. With a sigh I go back to the couch from the random pacing I was doing, dig out my notebook, and find that my marketing book isn’t in here. It’s probably in the car.

With an annoyed groan I lean my head onto the back of the cushion and glower at the ceiling. I don’t want to walk all the way out to the car through this heat… why the hell can’t I bring stuff in when I get home?

I turn on the TV.

The TV’s not mine, I reflect as the somewhat comforting noise fills the room. Practically nothing in here is. If I break up with him, everything’s going to be really empty for a while… Not that I’ll have leisure for TV, since I’ll have to go full-time just to pay rent. I probably won’t eat for a while, too.

I close my eyes and frown. Is that why I’m still here? Because I’m too fucking lazy not to keep leading him on if it means more work for me? Am I that big a half-assing jerk? That’d make me way worse than he is. He doesn’t deserve that…

The first commercial break makes me wonder suddenly what the hell I’m doing, and I flip to my marketing notes. I don’t take very good notes; I need the book. This is probably why, after several minutes, my attention drifts again.

Why’d he stab me, anyway? Was he there specifically to stab me, or was he just mad that I didn’t want to buy anything? Deranged door-to-door salesman… perfect… And why didn’t he kill me, then? I was obviously still alive to see the thing with the red-head, who it seems like he did intend to kill… why him and not me? Did he need me alive for something? Why through my shoulder like that? Why would he go to the trouble of kicking me around so badly, but not kill me, when he’s evidently Mr. Super Violent?

More importantly, why am I not studying?

I look to my notebook again.

He gets home after I’ve been following this pattern for a few frustrating hours without ever going out to get the textbook, and, given the prevalent topics of the day, I’m only half glad for the distraction of his presence.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to turn the air conditioner up? Just hit the ‘occupied’ button.”

“Yeah, good to see you too.”

“I’m serious; is it that difficult?”

”’bout as difficult as it is for you to be nice.”

“Grouchy today?” he wonders a little testily, and neither of us says anything more for a while.

I find I can’t stop looking at him, trying to pin down the exact differences between his real face and his face in my dreams. A certain annoying-as-hell quality definitely exists in both. And he’s hot either way, but who the hell cares about that when he’s stabbing you or harassing you about the air conditioner?

Eventually, of course, he has to start again. “You drank all the milk, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, so?” I look studiously back at my notebook, but he’s got to know I’m not actually reading it.

“So, if you tell me, I can buy more before we need it.”

“What do you ‘need‘ milk for?” I ask skeptically.

“A case I’m working on,” is his very sarcastic reply. “For dinner, idiot; what do you think?”

“Well, since you’re so smart, I’m sure you can figure out something to make that doesn’t need milk.”

He snorts. “Or you could.” And he leaves the room; pretty soon I hear the shower starting. I echo his grunt and jump up to go get my book from the car finally.

I’m not sure whether I think it’s a good thing that I end up sitting awake half the night studying and then sleep so hard there’s no room for dreams. Do I want more dreams? Do I really believe they’ve got some deeper meaning, that I’m going to find some answer in them? Or do I want them to stop? Do I think they’re getting in my way, clouding the issue, that I need to make up my own mind without this weirdness? Oh, give me a break. I don’t have time for this; I’ve got a test today.

It doesn’t go too badly, considering. Well, OK, it goes badly. But I don’t have to find out exactly how badly until next week, and then there are other tests this semester to make up for it. I try not to think about it. Not too difficult, when I’ve got plenty else to keep my mind off it. A little too much, really. I’m not the most gung-ho student ever, but this is getting annoying. They’re just dreams, probably induced — oh, yeah, why didn’t I think of this before? — induced by the stress of indecision about leaving my boyfriend.

I experience an almost-tangible wave of relief as this occurs to me. Of course there’s no secret, no message… it’s natural to have unpleasant dreams about him at this stage, right? It makes me feel so much better, that thought… for about two seconds, before some stupid voice in my head answers, Not in Chinese, it’s not. Not with swords and blood and shit. That’s not normal at all.

So I keep going back and forth between thinking the dreams mean something and that they don’t… that they’re the cause of my anxiety and that they’re just caused by it… and the point I keep coming back to is the language thing. Two dreams in a row in a coherent-sounding language I don’t speak has to mean something. But what the hell is that?

If I take any notes this whole day, they’re going to be hilarious to reread when this is all over… a painful, I’m-going-to-fail-all-my-Wednesday-classes funny.

My homework efforts this evening are just as laughable. Too bad I’m not laughing.

I give up the attempt when he gets home, but he’s late and tired and I’m grouchy… and, rather than argue again — though I remembered to hit the stupid ‘occupied’ button this time and he’s bought more milk — we’re quiet for the rest of the evening. More quiet than usual, actually, for after such a little argument. I mean, we fight all the time, and usually we’ve forgotten it the next day, unless we need make-up sex (which is pretty much always). But tonight we end up in bed with the lights off and no indication of wanting to do anything more than sleep. Is this because of my indecision, or it is the natural death of a relationship that was never meant to be?

I’m almost nervous as I close my eyes, and, probably because of that, it takes me a while to fall asleep. Then I’m standing very suddenly in a narrow street. It’s got the same type of look as the last place, just a lot shabbier. There’s an intermittent hot breeze, and by the smell carried on it, this neighborhood is every bit as run-down as it looks. I feel incredibly tense; I’m staring steadily, angrily in front of me… I guess I came into this one late too.

Barely a yard away, he’s facing me with a somewhat annoyed expression, and saying severely, “抜刀斎 に とって お前等 の 存在 など 弱点 以外 の 何でも ないんだ.”

For some reason, these words come as a painful shock, and for a moment I can’t make any reply. I don’t know who Battousai is or why I care so much what he thinks of me, but evidently it hurts to have this pointed out. He goes on, but I barely hear any of his harsh explanation and remonstrance. I’m shaking, breathing hard, battling a huge wave of anger.

I find, though, as I begin to speak, that I sound a good deal calmer than I really feel. “そう か… 俺 は 剣心 の 弱点 で… 守り きれない から あいつ は 独り で 旅立った って 訳 か…” Again with this Kenshin person who seems to be the center of this issue… that red-haired guy… who left me behind… and my stabbing boyfriend here agrees with that decision. My attempts at staying calm failing utterly at this thought, rage explodes through my chest as I clench my fists and shift toward him. “それ を 聞いて 尚更 あいつ を ブン 殴りたく なったぜ!””

He looks like he expected this, and says nothing.

“どけ 斎籐!” I order him angrily. “どかなきゃ, 力ずくで いくぞ!” Of course I’m not going to put up with this type of treatment; I’ll make him get out of my way.

“その 言葉… そっくり 返すぜ,” he replies grimly, tossing my threat right back at me. But I’m not afraid of him — actually, considering what he did to me last time we ‘fought,’ I’m probably a little too not afraid of him — and I’m racing at him, ready to do battle.

He doesn’t take the hit this time, but dodges almost faster than I can see. With a disdainful expression, he grabs me by the sleeve of the weird black-and-white thing I’m wearing, and punches me in the armpit. It must be not too long after the stabbing, because my shoulder’s obviously not healed yet. This Holmesian deduction that puts the scene into better perspective doesn’t do much to distract me from the sensation of shit tearing that’s really better off in one piece, blood gushing abruptly, and my whole body suddenly flying through the air as he throws me.

I slam into the ground with a pained grunt. A voice I don’t recognize is yelling something about that not being fair, but with the wind knocked out of me and my shoulder reopened I’m not in any condition to state my agreement. A moment later as his shadow looms over me and one of his heels slams unexpectedly down into the aforementioned shoulder, I’m not in any condition to do much more than scream.

He waits until I’m good and recovered from that shock — or at least have stopped screaming and can listen to him — before starting to explain why he won’t leave my damn shoulder the hell alone. The other voice (which, I finally recognize indistinctly, belongs to one of the people who were watching the fight with that Kenshin dude) is arguing the point. I override them both as I struggle to my feet. “痛かねエ…”

Oh, look at that — he’s surprised. He didn’t think I could still get up. He thought his point was made. Ha. Still, if I’m not mistaken, I just claimed this wound doesn’t hurt. I know I’m all for bravado, but, uh, it does hurt. Like hell, actually. But then I go on to explain that something having to do with Kenshin hurts a thousand times more, and I guess that makes sense… I may not have much idea what’s going on here, but I can damn well feel all this emotional turmoil. Using the latter to power my movement, I charge him again, and this punch connects hard.

Looking startled, he blocks it, but is still knocked backward. “Out of the way, Saitou!” I command again. “I’m going to Kyoto! 京都 で 俺 が ヤツ の 力 に なれるって この 拳 で あかしてやるぜ!”

“身 の 程 知らず が,” he replies tensely, almost angrily, looking me up and down. Then he puts a hand to his chin and says with grim thoughtfulness, “よく 言うぜ この 前 は 俺 に ボロ負けしたくせして.”

This makes me so irate I want to rip his throat out, but the sight of him removing his sword from his belt and tossing it aside calms me. Is it possible he’s going to take me a little more seriously now? But then, “So you won’t have any excuse about me having a sword,” he says, pretty much disproving that theory. “This fight will be on your terms — 拳 の 勝負 だ.”

I’ve noticed this blue outfit he’s got on, with the way the jacket-thing’s shaped, still kinda looks like he’s wearing a skirt. A mini-skirt this time. Too bad I’m too busy being pissed at him and preparing to get my ass kicked again to make fun of it.

He has a brief exchange with the kid, who’s trying to warn me about something, but I’m not really listening. I’m watching his hands as he gets ready to fight me. But as he finishes with, “No matter how stupid he is, he’ll understand how weak he is when I beat him at his own game,” I can’t help paying attention to his words.

I’m angry as all hell, but I think being about to fight helps me control it better (because I know I’m about to let it all out?) “Interesting,” is all I say through my clenched teeth, then slam my fists together and hurl myself at him with a growl.

Scornfully, and in a motion that looks almost slow compared to my wild rush, he blocks. Apparently exasperated, he opens his mouth, doubtless to tell me why that punch sucked — but I’ve got more up my sleeve this time. Without warning — and I think it’s a surprise to both of us — I follow up the first blow with a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth… countless more hits… I just don’t stop, my arms working like machinery, and there’s no way he’s blocking all of them… What a good idea! I’m pleased with myself. As long as I don’t relent, he’ll never have a chance to hit me back, and eventually I’m sure to get enough through to take him down. Seems messy and slow, but, hell, if it works…

It’s a flurry of heat and movement and the thump of flesh-and-bone contact, and after a while, arms burning, I guess it’s OK to let off and stand back to see how it went. Looks like I’ve forced him to retreat a couple steps, and completely shredded the sleeves of his jacket… but as he straightens from his defensive stance, I can see… Shit, it doesn’t look like a single one of my million or so punches actually connected with his body. What the fuck? Ruined sleeves shows what nice forearms he’s got, sure, but if that was the only effect of my great attack, even I have to admit it was a waste of energy. I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about it.

“Finished?” he asks in that infuriating tone, advancing. He raises his gloved hands, and…

I needed more pain today, right? I needed fists like iron slamming into my face and chest over and over and over, right? It’s another unintelligible flurry of motion and impact, this time with a lot more hurting mixed in, as he returns my attack — only it works for him. Why the hell am I not blocking?

A jarring blow to the jaw knocks me right off my feet, and I barely feel myself falling to the ground through the stunning tremors from the hit. I’m definitely tasting blood, and the image of him standing over me wavers slightly. I find I’m not yet able to move.

“Do you understand?” he demands, then, ironically, adds, “お前 は 俺 や 抜刀 には実力斎 も 経験 ありと あらゆる 面で 遠く 及ばない. 俺達 から すれば お前 など 口 うるさい だけ の ヒョッコ過ぎん.”

During this little speech I’ve mostly regained my mobility, though my voice still sounds slurred as I shout, “Shut up! So what?” I force myself up, feeling unsteady, planting my feet firmly apart to keep my balance. “I’m going to Kyoto no matter what anyone says!” But I find even as I make the defiant statement that, though I’m standing, my ability to do just about anything else is not great. As a matter of fact, I may fall over again if I even try.

He’s evidently aware of this, and knows I know. As he draws back, stretching his right arm out and holding his left fist tight at his side, he says in a tone of grim command, “You cannot go to Kyoto.”

I don’t need the noisy kid’s warning to recognize the danger I’m in. The stance reminds me of the one he used to stab me before; he’s like clockwork, wound up tight and ready to strike. Problem is, I don’t think there’s really much I can do to avoid taking this hit. So like him to save his worst attack for after he’s already worn me out.

“No matter how hard you try,” he tells me disdainfully, then finishes as he begins his charge, “you’re still nothing more than an amateur!”

In the next flashing instant I seem to be concentrating on three things at once: trying to roll with his incredibly painful blow, avoiding getting knocked off my feet again, and doing something with my arms. It only takes a moment to find out what the latter is, even with the blood now running down my face and hazing across my eyes: I’ve caught his arm, as he drew it back, between my fists, and am applying what has to be an uncomfortable amount of pressure.

He looks unpleasantly shocked, and I feel a rush of satisfaction as I growl, “Your arm could have been broken by an amateur — how does that feel?”

“きさま…” But he doesn’t go on. I guess he’s actually going to hear me out.

“You’ve been having fun with your ‘amateur, amateur…'” I continue, drawing closer to him but not loosening my hold on his arm. “Maybe you and Kenshin are stronger than me, but you didn’t start out that way. Maybe I didn’t fight in the Bakumatsu ten years ago, or help build the Meiji era… Maybe I am an amateur, but that doesn’t mean I’m weak.”

It seems for half a moment like he’s contemplating my words, but before I can even begin to hope, he just makes a contemptuous sound and punches me across the face with his free hand. Which, now that I think about it, kinda is the tactical drawback to pinning one of his arms with both of mine.

“Bastard!” I shout at him as he moves to walk away.

Without pausing he replies, “I’m finished with you.”

“What?!” I demand, incensed.

“Trying to keep an idiot from doing idiotic things is a waste of time. Go to Kyoto if you want. You’ll die soon enough.”

“何イ?!?” I cry, even more furious than before.

He turns briefly to look back at me. “Any moron who relies on his current strength with no thought of defense can’t possibly survive very long.” Then he keeps walking.

I wake up with what sounds like a growl to find myself tense in a tightly wound sheet. However much I must have moved to get it so twisted up, I don’t seem to have bothered him; he’s got his back to me and the entire blanket.

I find I’m still pissed. He didn’t think I was good enough for whatever was about to go down in Kyoto, wherever the hell that is. I don’t know why I wanted to help with whatever it is at all, considering he stabbed me in the shoulder, and I don’t know anything about this Kenshin person, but obviously the whole thing meant a lot to me, so why did he have to be such an asshole about it? It seems so typical, though…

OK, this has to be some kind of warning message. Why else would I dream about him kicking my ass repeatedly just now when I’m wondering whether to leave him? He’s never hit me or anything — well, not seriously like in the dreams, and definitely not with a sword — but imagining him getting abusive isn’t too hard, even if the idea does kinda bug me.

As I struggle to escape the sheets, some of the grunts escaping my lips sound like curses against him, and I’m not quite sure they’re not. Finally free, lying still at last, I stare at his back and wonder. How many days can it possibly take me to make up my mind or work up my nerve or whatever? I mean, why am I still here? My reasons for being with him are stupid, he’s not a nice guy, and my subconscious seems to have an even bigger problem with him than my conscious. But here I am…

Maybe it’s just that I’m not quite sure how to do it. Not that I think he’ll be heartbroken or anything — yeah, right! — but what the hell exactly do I say? ‘Hey, man, we gotta break up because I’m just a horny gold-digger and I dream about you beating me up in Korean or something?’

I sigh and bury my face in the pillow.

It doesn’t even really strike me until I’ve lain still for a while trying not to think about it that I understood a good half of the dialogue in that one. The words were still… whatever language… but it wasn’t a problem for me any more. It felt so natural at the time, it didn’t seem at all strange to be slipping into comprehension… but it sure doesn’t clear up the issue. Yeah, I know a bit more about what’s going on in dreamland, but what does that imply here? My first thought would be that my brain is starting to make sense of its own nonsense… but that would have to mean I’m getting closer to some kind of real understanding — and I certainly don’t feel even the beginnings of enlightenment.

It takes a while to get back to sleep, and then thankfully I don’t have any more stupid dreams before waking up the next day. But what’s the difference at this point? Three of them is enough to mean whatever it means… that I need to leave him… that I need to stay with him… that I’m fucking stupid and don’t even understand myself

I go to school dully and without much hope of getting any higher education out of the day. The phrase ‘going through the motions’ comes to mind… an expression that’s often used, coincidentally, to describe failing relationships. Perfect. And for some reason, “No matter how stupid he is, he’ll understand how weak he is when I beat him at his own game,” keeps echoing through my head. The anger comes and goes, but mostly the day is just apathetic.

A new idea occurs to me when a psychology class empties into my hallway as I’m heading for the shuttle back to the parking lot. I’ve never thought about it before, but we’ve got to have some kind of psychology therapy counsely person on campus somewhere. Don’t most schools have those? And wouldn’t that person maybe be able to interpret my dreams for me? That’s what they’re there for, right? Assuming they’re there at all? They could help with the stupid dreams and the stupid big question.

Or would I just get handed off and become an unwitting contributor to some psychiatry major’s thesis?

No, I’m not even remotely distrustful and bitter about this place because of how much they charge me for the privilege of doing homework and having no life.

It’s the beginnings of an idea, though, and I give it some serious thought as I drive home. But I haven’t really reached a decision by the time I get there (which is so typical of me these days, isn’t it?), because… well, going to a therapist seems so extreme. They’re just dreams. And couples break up all the time without having to see shrinks. Simultaneously, though, I remind myself that if they were really just dreams, they wouldn’t be bothering me this much… and that no breaking up has actually occurred yet, just a lot of thinking about it. And if I can’t deal with something on my own, isn’t it about time to get help?

The idea of ‘getting help,’ however, is distasteful. It suggests I really think there’s something wrong with my head that I can’t work out. And I don’t think that, do I? God, I hope not. But as I seem to hear again, “Trying to keep an idiot from doing idiotic things is a waste of time,” and feel the same rush of anger in response as I did then, I grab the phone book.

Staring at the list of doctor names and numbers, running my finger absently over them again and again, I wonder if I’m really going to do this. Am I overreacting? I’m really just a very normal person who’s had a couple of abnormal dreams coinciding with a difficult decision, that’s all. Do I really need therapy? What if they want to give me drugs? Despite my misgivings, I’m drifting toward the phone. If I call, they’ll probably want me to schedule an appointment. Then if I change my mind later, I can just not show up. This isn’t a commitment to being crazy; I’m just testing the water. I pick up the receiver.

What meets my ear is the manic-sounding quick tone that means there’s a voicemail. Without even thinking, I dial in to listen to it.

“I’m going to be working late.” He always sounds so brusque on the phone… “There’s some cash on the dresser.” You’d never guess it was his boyfriend he was calling… “You can order pizza for dinner, and make sure to put what’s left in the fridge.”

I delete the message, hang up the phone, and go flop down on the couch. ‘Working late’ means ‘working really late,’ usually because of something exciting and dangerous, or at least some important development in some case. He’s got a pretty cool job.

Idly I wonder how he would react if he came home late after tracking down and arresting and processing some serial killer and found me and all my stuff gone. It’s actually a really disturbing scenario. No matter what I end up choosing, I won’t do it that way. He’ll know, and he’ll know why. Which brings me back to the question of what I am going to choose.

I don’t call a therapist.

After some pizza that isn’t nearly as exciting as pizza usually is and should always be, I head to bed. Yes, I remember to put the leftovers in the fridge. No, I haven’t touched a textbook since I got