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:

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The Phenomenal Improbability of This Coincidence

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

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

Unique to this story: Hints of racism/antisemitism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But her eyes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could she tell them? Would they believe her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jane?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So many people do,” Anna murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hadn’t been. But could she now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Own Humanity: Plastic 0-5

Plastic

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

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

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could start by combing my hair.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doll sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero nodded.

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

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

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

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

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


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

The doll just shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

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

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

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

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

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

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

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

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

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

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

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

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

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

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

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



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


In full spite of the ugly art and often confusing layout, I’ve rated this comic . What do you think of it?



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 home from class. Yes, I’m going to regret that another day.

There’s no way I’ll fall asleep quickly. I’m not tired — hell, what-all have I done today? — and I’m sincerely nervous about having another dream, and hours pass with me tossing and turning and thinking almost nothing, never allowing myself to relax. When he finally gets home and moves quietly to get undressed and into bed in the dark, however, I force myself to breathe deeply and lie still. The last thing I want right now is a conversation.

Hmm, is that really the last thing I want? Is discussing whatever we would end up talking about really worse than getting beaten up by him once I’m asleep?

Now I’m almost tempted to speak.

Obviously, I don’t. And forcing myself to relax makes a difference. I don’t even realize for a while that I’m back there again until a chill starts settling over me and I notice that I’m seated on a hard surface rather than lying in bed. I open my eyes.

It looks like a jail cell. How the hell I got myself into jail I don’t know, but it kinda makes sense given how much violence I seem to be part of around here. I’m sure it has something to do with him, too.

As if in response to this thought, he appears. Well, I don’t see him just yet, but a door opens somewhere off to my left and I can suddenly hear him talking to someone else as they move in my direction. I get the feeling he doesn’t have any idea at all that I’m here, so I’m almost kinda looking forward to the moment he gets to my cell and sees me.

There he is now, walking alongside some short guy with a mustache and the same uniform he always wears. Guy’s talking about me, which seems like a good cue to jump into the conversation.

“Just like I thought,” I say loudly, triumphantly. “Instead of stumbling around in the dark, I made some trouble for the police so I could find you. Seemed like the quickest way of finding Kenshin.”

“You…” He only glances over his shoulder briefly, but I’m pretty sure he’s both surprised and displeased to see me here.

“おうよ,” I grin around what seems to be a feather or something in my mouth. “Sagara Sanosuke’s magnificent arrival in Kyoto.” After a moment’s pause, as he turns more fully toward me, still silent, I add thoughtfully, “Well, it was a gamble, actually… I didn’t know whether you’d come to Kyoto yourself or not. When I thought about it, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t just sic Kenshin on him and stand back.”

He still doesn’t say a word, so I get up and advance on the bars. “You could look a little happier to see me. I did do some training along that damn Nakasendou. Actually, I got pushed a lot farther than I needed to go by this one guy, just because I got lost…” It seems like I’m rambling, but my follow-up is more to the point. “Anyway, Saitou, I’m gonna show you the results of my training!”

The short dude asks Saitou if he knows me. “いえ, 全く,” he replies, and, turning, they both start to walk away.

“Hey!” I bellow, watching them through the bars. “Wait just a second, you!”

“It’s easy to mistake people when you’re angry,” he says. “He’s in the way, so just leave him down here for a while.”

Oh, I am so not going to take that. “Running away, you bastard?!” I demand at the top of my lungs. “Open this door or I’ll open it myself! Do you hear me?!” And when he only barely glances back before continuing down the hall, I actually do it.

Wow. Holy shit. I just totally trashed that thing! I punched it, but it wasn’t a normal punch… the wood’s half turned to sawdusty powder all over the floor, and the other pieces are splintered and small. And I did it. With my hand. I’m… I’m fucking awesome!! Guess I really did do some training on the damn Whatever-it-was. This’ll show him! It’s got to. Hell, that was so cool, I missed whatever I just said.

He watches me for a moment, then, “Chief, I will deal with this,” he tells the little fat guy (who’s not looking happy). “Please wait for me upstairs.” Notice he’s never that polite to me. Of course, I probably wouldn’t really like it if he was.

Once the other dude’s gone, he starts stalking toward me with this dark and very pointed stare. And I have to admit, even when I’m annoyed as hell at him for pretending not to know me and trying to walk away, he looks pretty hot like that. He also looks like he might want to kick my ass again. This is apparently what I want too, given what I’m saying to him: “I’ve got a lot of things I want to ask you, but first we settle the fight we started in Tokyo!” Why do I have the feeling this is going to hurt again?

Except that he’s not paying attention to me.

How is he not paying attention to me?!

“コラア!!”

He kneels down and examines the wreckage of the door, speculatively analyzing the technique. Which, I guess, is better than ignoring me completely. Except he doesn’t seem to be impressed by it at all. How the hell can he not be impressed?!?

Suddenly he stands and looks over at me. And although it’s a fixed gaze, I can’t help thinking he seems rather indifferent. Tired. “And what about the basics of defense I told you to practice?”

I shrug, grinning. Even from the inside I can tell it looks stupid, and he certainly isn’t pleased with me. Annoyed, he grabs the edges of my shirt and drags me toward him… but he doesn’t have words, apparently, for his frustration, so I speak instead, angry again: “Since when do I have to do what you tell me?” Dislodging his hand from my lapels or whatever they are, I continue, “Defense just isn’t my thing! I’ll fight my own way!”

He gives his hand a little shake, as if to get rid of the sensation of touching me, makes an exasperated sound, and turns away. “I don’t have any men to spare, but even so, you’re useless to me.”

I stare after him, fists clenching. “You’re running away again!”

“I’m very busy; I don’t have time to play with you.”

Frustrated but trying hard to keep my tone fairly casual, I take a deep breath and answer loudly, “Well, then, I guess it’s my win by default.”

“If that’s what you want to think,” he replies indifferently, not even slowing.

I think it’s the surge of pure rage at this behavior that jolts me to consciousness this time. Though I can’t even begin to piece together what the hell is happening in these dreams, one thing I’m sure of: he never takes me seriously, he never thinks I’m good enough for this big project of his. Seems like I’d even gotten stronger — which is kinda cool, especially since it felt like I was pretty damn strong before — and he still totally blew me off.

Of course, it doesn’t seem like we’re exactly lovers in this little sword story, so he’s not under quite so much obligation to take me seriously.

But half the time, he doesn’t take me seriously in real life either.

Shit, this is so messed up. Dreams are not something you base important, relationship-altering decisions on. At least they shouldn’t be… but these ones of mine are getting to that point…

I can’t stop thinking about it now. Not at home or school or anywhere. In fact, I skip my first class of the day to go to the computer lab and try to find some of the words I’m picking up. This isn’t all that educational, though, except to confirm that it’s Japanese. Whatever that should mean to me. Did I watch some movie in Japanese at some point and store away all these words in my subconscious or something? Because there’s just no way my brain’s coming up with all of this on its own… unless I’m really going crazy.

Yeah. Maybe he’s driving me crazy.

With this thought I start wandering around campus without much intention of going to any of my classes… and possibly no intention of going home, either. Home? Shit.

Maybe it’s about time I discussed this with someone else. Not a shrink, like I was thinking yesterday; that idea’s definitely out of the question now, though I’m not even sure why. But what are friends for, other than paying for dinner and driving you home when you’re drunk?

Once in the car out on the street, though, my confidence in that idea drains away. I’m still heading in the general direction of the place where a couple of my pals live, but I’m changing lanes at random and taking what could be considered the scenic route. Because none of my friends like him, but at the same time they’re all way pro-relationship in general… it’d be impossible to get an unbiased answer out of any of them, and no way in hell am I bringing up the dreams. What am I expecting to say or to hear? And what do I think I’m going to make of it? I know perfectly well I’m too hard-headed to take advice anyway.

Which is a really bad thing, I realize, if the dreams are some form of advice, whether from my subconscious or from the mystic ethereal lands of whatever.

I end up driving aimlessly for a long time. Briefly I play with the idea of just continuing to drive and seeing where I end up, but I don’t live in a movie where I’d coincidentally run into exactly what I needed to fix the situation at a little gas station twenty miles outside of town. I’ve got things to do and a boyfriend waiting either to be dumped in a face-to-face, not-spineless way or… not. So I stick to city limits.

I skip eating; contrary to the impulse that set me driving in the first place, I’m not in the mood to talk to people, and the process of ordering food seems overly complicated and not worth the trouble.

The best part of all this is that it’s not helping. I’m not resolving issues or comparing pros and cons… I’m just driving endlessly, wasting gas, my mind almost entirely blank, annoying myself with oldies on the radio again for some reason (though the instant some pansy ass starts crooning, Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream, dream, dream, dream, I turn the damn thing off). The occasional fleeting thought that has a shred of meaning is usually just a retread of everything that’s been bothering me all along, and what’s that going to accomplish?

And yet I don’t go home until it’s way later than I ever get home without letting him know where I am. Which seems blatantly rude considering just yesterday he let me know where he was when he was going to be home late… but it’s done now. The apartment’s dark; evidently he didn’t wait up for me.

It’s too much to hope that I can sneak into bed without disturbing him, since he’s such a light sleeper, but I do my best. He doesn’t sit up or even move as he asks, “Where have you been?” His tone is pretty neutral, but I get the feeling he wasn’t even asleep.

“Out.” I don’t snap it, but a one-syllable answer is always going to sound a little tetchy.

“That much I had noticed,” he replies dryly.

Since that’s not a question, I decide I’m not required to respond, and just settle into my place in the bed and close my eyes.

“Hey,” he says after a moment. Great, now he’s going to demand I tell him.

“Yeah?”

“Are you OK?”

He’s… Dammit, I’m just not sure… Of course he’s noticed something’s going on with me; he’s not stupid… he’s probably even guessed what I’m trying to decide… and he’s not a complete jerk… I just don’t… I don’t know.

“Yeah,” I lie.

It’s a thick silence, like he wants to say something else, but eventually it’s clear he’s decided not to. We go to sleep with our backs to each other.

Next morning I’m thinking maybe it was my increased uncertainty and discomfort caused by this brief exchange that brought on a dream with a slightly different focus. It wasn’t so much that he was an overt asshole this time… just that he was still undervaluing me. I blew up an entire fucking battleship singlehandedly, by being awesome, and kept from getting shot in the process, and he still didn’t have a word to say to me. I would say it’s like I don’t exist, but I sure as hell seem to when he wants to beat someone up.

So I’m angry again; seems I’m always waking up angry now. I’m getting into this way too much. As real as it all feels, and as much continuity as I’ve come up with, they’re just dreams, right? 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. Just because I’ve got some fixation with impressing him — I mean, just because Sano has some fixation with impressing Saitou in my dreams — doesn’t make any difference in my real life… right?

I don’t even go anywhere at all today. Normally Saturday is a time for me to sleep in (more than usual), lounge around for a while, then go do stupid shit and find my friends… but what’s the point? I’d just be moody and annoying, and it’s about time to make up my mind once and for all anyway. If I’m staying with him, I need a good reason why. If I’m leaving him, I need to do it, stop leading him on and driving myself crazy. I need to figure out what these dreams mean, what they’re telling me. If anything.

First I lie on the bed and then the couch, watching sunlight creep through the apartment through open blinds. Then I eat something… not sure what… Eventually I find a deck of cards somewhere and deal myself a game of solitaire, or maybe more than one… I don’t know. I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing, but at the same time my thoughts are just going around and around and not accomplishing much either, like yesterday. What does he really mean to me? What do I mean to him? Am I brave enough to go? Or do I want to stay and I’m just being childish? And where in all this mess do the fucking dreams come in?

It’s inevitable that, spending so much time doing jack, I’m going to fall asleep at some point. At multiple points, actually, though they’re really just cat-naps. Long enough, though, for a broken string of brief images to hound me through the day:

Him and me talking as we walk up some steep path under these red arches in some mountain forest. He’s calling me an idiot again, of course.

Him volunteering to take my place as I fight some big guy in kinda gothy makeup. Obviously he still doesn’t think I’m good enough, and I’m surprised he cares whether I get my ass pounded.

Him getting ready to fight some weirdo in a blindfold while I run off, picking up some woman (oddly enough) and carrying her away before I throw a look back at him. I’m worried about him.

Yeah, so it all makes even less sense than before, but I’ve given up trying to follow the story, if there is one. The point, again and again and again, is that he doesn’t think I’m worth anything, but even so I

Well. I don’t know. Or maybe I do know and I’m just denying it.

He’s quiet and thoughtful this evening — worried, I think, probably about something at work connected with what kept him late the other day. Normally I would ask, but right now I’ve got my own concerns. We don’t really say much of anything, actually, and dinner is quiet and a little awkward. Then we watch TV for a while in continued silence.

After the news, we both get up to go to bed as if we’ve discussed it. I feel dull, and as if physical stuff like what I’m wearing to sleep just doesn’t matter at all… and he probably gets the wrong idea from me sitting down on the bed in nothing but boxers, because the next second he’s leaning against me, mouthing my shoulder and running hands around to my chest.

I fight off a shudder, trying hard not to show how much I’d like to… because I really don’t need this right now. Pushing his hands away, I say a little stiffly, “I don’t feel like it.”

He pulls his arms back immediately. “Fine.” Considering I’ve not once ever ‘not felt like it,’ I actually expected more of a reaction than that neutral tone, but not having to explain is a good thing. I lie down with my back to him and return to my thoughts.

Tomorrow is his day off, and of course I have no classes on Sundays. Normally when our days off coincide, we find something fun to do, and I’m wondering… would one last day and night together be a nice parting gift, or just leading him on more? I guess it depends on how much I really think he likes me. Which, when it comes down to it, I’m just not sure about. And maybe I’m only finding excuses to stay. Because, when it comes down to that, I don’t think I’ve even really made up my mind yet.

This isn’t the best mood or train of thought for falling asleep, but eventually I’m as worn out fussing about it as I would have been if I hadn’t stopped him, though not as pleasantly, and I slip uncomfortably off.

The scene I come into smells like shit and doesn’t feel much better. I could say it’s nice to get here after the ass-beating for once, but actually I find I prefer to know where all this raging pain came from before I experience it. As it is, it takes me a bit to focus on anything else — but eventually I do become aware that we’re standing on a stone bridge overlooking… I’m not sure… napalm or something… a canyon, I guess, filled with fire and billowing, rancid smoke.

I’m holding the Kenshin guy, who’s unconscious and, wow, he’s so short… Nearby is some sad-looking dude in a glowing trench-coat, and on my other side, of course, is Saitou. He’s… he’s hurt pretty bad, it looks like… bleeding heavily all over his chest and both his legs. Somehow I don’t think I did that to him, so it’s a fair guess I look about ten times worse. Of course, I don’t really have any idea what I look like at all around here.

I know what I sound like, though, and I think it’s the remains of my desperate annoyance echoing in the air as we stare at a giant pair of heavy-looking metal doors starkly closed in front of us. There’s a feeling here like everything’s almost over; I think the battle’s been fought and all we have left to do is get the hell out, which probably means getting through these things. Seems ample cause for frustration.

“Out of the way.” Rude as always, even when we’re all dying. But I shift aside to let him pass, noticing as I do so that he’s drawn his sword.

“Hey, you’re wounded too,” I object. It makes sense he’s almost as bad-off as Kenshin: he was pretty much in charge of this whole thing, I think, and he’s too dedicated to just let someone else do the hard work. But what is he up to now?

I don’t seem to be nearly as surprised as I should be to see him charging at the doors in that silly-looking attack position of his. There’s no way he’s going to be able to…

Well, I guess there is.

Wait, I took one of those to the shoulder? What the hell am I made of?!

He stands back in this kind of ‘after you’ gesture, satisfied with the jagged hole he just created as an escape route. Hell, I’d be pleased with myself too. I can’t help but notice, though, that the blood seeping through the bandages on his legs has increased quite a bit, and his face looks grim. But all he says, I guess in response to my protest of a moment ago, is, “I’ve gotten through more of these situations than you have.”

And then shit starts happening fast. As everything begins rumbling so violently it’s almost difficult to keep my feet, I glance back and see that some building thing behind us — sticking out of the opposite canyon wall or something — is starting to explode in places with loud booms and bursts of fire. Fire is likewise flaring around us from below, and in the next instant a huge pillar of it roars up just in front of me, right through the stone I’m standing on, scorching my hair (I think) and making my sudden gasp burn all the way down my throat into my lungs. Then in an instant it dies down again.

Panic leaps up inside me with the explosion just as abruptly, and is quelled just as quickly with its dissipation; it’s replaced by a very sharp sense of relief when I see he’s OK… if you can call it ‘OK’ when a twenty-foot gap has been blown through the bridge and he’s on the other side. “Sa- Saitou!” I call out to him, aghast.

“How annoying.” He isn’t shouting back exactly, but purposely says it loud enough for me to hear over here, I’m sure of it. Then, casually as if he’s not standing on the edge of a hundred foot drop into a fucking inferno, he pulls out matches and cigarettes and lights one. He lifts his eyes again, looking us over in that damn calculating way… and a moment later, starts to turn.

I can feel my eyes widening, my heart-rate increasing until I think my chest must burst, my breaths coming short, hot, and angry. Where does he think he’s going? There’s no way he can survive over there! “Saitou!” I’m screaming, and I can easily hear the internal desperation leaking through into my voice. “You bastard, are you trying to run out while you’re still ahead? Saitou!! What about our fight? Answer me!!”

What is wrong with me?! ‘What about our fight?’ What the hell kind of question is that? Can’t I think of anything else to bring him back here, get him to try to save himself?

“As I just told you,” he says, turning again and sucking on his cigarette as he glances back right at me, “I’ve gotten through more of these situations than you have…” His lips curl into that derisive smile as the cigarette leaves them and he adds decisively, “…idiot.” Then he walks away into a rising chaos of flame, rubble, and smoke as more of the world falls apart, explodes inescapably — most pointedly the place where he was standing just moments ago.

The sound of my own voice screaming his name as if I were the one dying is, I think, what wakes me up.

I’m struggling hard. I don’t remember for a couple seconds that it was just a dream, that nobody’s died, that I don’t need to save anyone. He’s holding onto me tight even though I was probably kicking him, and the room feels uncomfortably hot. Still, as soon as I’m awake enough to stop struggling, I cling to him, trying to calm down. I can’t get the images out of my head; my heart is pounding, and I don’t want him to let go.

“These dreams of yours are getting out of hand, it seems.”

Trying not to seem so childish and out of control, I attempt to laugh it off, but it comes out shaky and weak. I’m planning on asking whether he’s been wakened up and bothered by all my weird dreams lately, or at least something comparably reasonable, I really am… but I find as I bury my face in his chest, the only words that come out of my mouth are, “I love you. I love you, and I’m not going to leave you.”

A startled silence falls over us, interrupted by my rasping breaths against his skin.

“I’m… glad to hear it,” he finally says.

“Are you?” I ask shakily. I’m glad to hear it too. Guess I’ve got my answers.

“You were thinking about it, weren’t you?”

“Only because I’m an idiot.”

After that we just hold each other for a while; I’m calming down and adjusting to the heat in the room, which I think may actually be more internal than anything else — remembered heat from that platform thing. Finally I’m relatively rational, and with a deep breath I speak again as if there hasn’t been a lengthy silence between statements. “You and me, we’re… we’re not in a good place. We both have things we need to change about ourselves and the way we treat each other.”

After a pause not quite as long as the previous, but still taut and anticipatory in the warm darkness, he says, “I agree.”

The clutching of my arms around him intensifies as I declare with a strength of purpose, almost a desperation, that surprises even me, “But I think it’s worth trying to get right.” I stop myself just short of admitting that the idea of losing him, of letting go of what we have or could have without even attempting to fix it, is horrifying beyond endurance — a dramatic avowal that, even in this intimate, accepting atmosphere, might get me laughed at a little.

He returns the tightening of embrace, and, with an intensity to match mine, repeats, “I agree.” And he presses a kiss to my temple before we both loosen our grip in order to lie more comfortably. “In the morning,” he goes on more levelly, “I’ll make you a mushroom omelet and we can talk about it.”

“Thank you,” I whisper — and my gratitude relates much more to his immediate willingness — earnest desire, even — to work with me on this than to his offer of my favorite breakfast. He hasn’t specifically told me he loves me back, but I think I’ve got it pretty much figured out now. Closing my eyes, I bury my face in his chest. I’m exhausted, as if I really did just fight a major battle. And escape from the fiery fortress really is in view: I feel I can rest properly, dreamless and optimistic in his arms, now I know he’s going to try to save himself. Now I know we’re going to try to save us.

As I’m falling back toward sleep, however, he pulls me out, briefly, with a quiet statement: “I do have one question right now, though.”

“Hmm?”

“Who the hell is Saitou?”

I chuckle just as quietly against the soft cloth of his t-shirt, shaking my head in a nuzzling motion and grinning slightly as I reply, “It’s a long story.”


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #6 “the space between dream and reality,” and dedicated to FarStrider.

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


Prescription

“As a doctor, I cannot recommend strenuous sex so soon after an injury.”

Sano is closer to recovering from his recent wound than Megumi thought to find him, and Saitou is curious.

Unique to this story: something like voyeurism.

“Oh… oh… oh…”

Megumi’s raised hand paused near the doorframe and did not knock. She’d thought to check on Sanosuke and that wound of his she’d dressed the other day — not that she had any reason to concern herself particularly over an idiot that never went to a doctor except when he was dragged in unconscious, but he happened to be on her way home this evening. But it was evident from the noise within that he was in something like decent shape by now anyway.

A moan sounded clearly through the thin door, and Megumi found herself blushing fiercely. From what she remembered of the single other time she’d visited Sanosuke’s apartment, there wasn’t too much further inside to go… but it really did seem like they’d gotten down to business immediately within the entrance.

Megumi moved to depart, to the sound of, “I’ll try, but if you keep doing that I’m gonna come right now,” but then as Sano cried out more loudly, “Oh, god, Saitou!” she stopped and with wide eyes turned back. The moaning within continued, for a while entirely inarticulate.

She knew she shouldn’t be listening, but that unexpected name held her. She would have thought that for those two to become involved was an entirely hopeless business, something she would have bet money against; indeed, only proof such as this would have convinced her of it at all. Which didn’t justify her eavesdropping, but she was too overcome with curiosity to move.

“Stop teasing me,” Sano was gasping; “just put it in already!”

Accompanied by some thumping, the sounds of pleasure intensified. So did Megumi’s blush. She really should go.

“New hobby, sensei?”

She jumped, squeaked, and spun to face the very last person in all existence she could possibly have expected to catch her at this. As she stammered and blushed, quickly rethought her assessment of things, and tried to get hold of herself, Saitou glanced at the apartment and asked with a smirk, “And who are we spying on?”

The doctor, as was her talent, was swiftly recovering her presence of mind, and the amusing fact that Saitou didn’t even know where Sano lived, let alone… well, that helped. “Sanosuke,” she replied almost calmly, though the blush had certainly not gone. But her growing entertainment as the reality of the situation struck her more thoroughly added a whole new dimension to her reflections — especially as she saw Saitou, at her answer, throw another glance, seemingly inadvertent and much more interested, at the run-down building.

He gave a brief, disdainful laugh.

“I was going to check on his wound from the other day,” Megumi continued with composure, “but from what I’m hearing, he’s better than fine.”

At just that moment, as if in deliberate support of her statement, a rapturous groan burst out that must have been loud enough even for Saitou, not nearly as close to the door as Megumi was, to hear. His eyes narrowed as he took two steps forward, regarding the entrance, and he murmured darkly, “They should wait until they’re out of the doorway to do that.”

Megumi noticed he didn’t step back. By now completely in control of herself and thinking she comprehended well enough how things stood, she restrained a smile and said, “It isn’t a big room.”

Saitou shook his head and muttered, “Ahou.” He still did not step back.

Nodding, Megumi agreed gravely, “Yes; as a doctor, I cannot recommend strenuous sex so soon after an injury.”

She drew extreme satisfaction from the expression he could not quite keep off his face. All he said, though, in a slightly forced tone of sarcasm, was, “And therefore you feel vindicated listening at his door.”

“Of course,” replied she in the same serious manner. “I need to know what to prescribe when he hurts himself in there.”

“You must be an excellent doctor –” the sarcasm coming more naturally this time — “to determine that much just from listening to something like this.”

“Oh, I know exactly what he needs,” she said blandly.

Just then they were startled by a much longer, louder moan — almost a wail — from within. Megumi blushed again, and Saitou growled, apparently without even realizing he was saying it, “Who is he with in there?”

Megumi smiled wickedly. “Let’s find out,” she said, and, raising her hand once more to the door frame, knocked loudly.


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #26, “If only I could make you mine.”

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


Greedy

It wasn’t enough, was it, that I admitted you’d been of some use, despite what I’d thought that made it quite a concession to say you weren’t entirely worthless? No, you demanded I respect you on top of that. Outright respect! From me!

It wasn’t enough that I admired you, was it, acknowledged to myself disinterestedly how beautiful you were? Of course not. You insisted I actually lust after you as well. Objective appreciation just wasn’t sufficient; for you it had to be this distracting physical attraction.

It wouldn’t, naturally, be enough that your loud and obnoxious presence dominated my attention whenever you were around. No, you required that I obsess over you even when you were gone. You had to have some part in every second of my contemplation.

It couldn’t be enough that I gave up my peace of mind, my tranquility, my solitude, to be with you, could it? Then you demanded I give up my unhappiness too. Change my entire way of life and the feelings of each moment solely for you!

And now I’m sure it isn’t enough that I lie here with you in my arms having thoughts like these totally inconsistent with my character. You’re going to insist I say it aloud in no uncertain terms, aren’t you? Compromise my dignity as always by making some kind of silly statement like…

“I love you.”

“Tell me how much.”

Hn. Greedy boy.

What am I going to do with you?


I’ve rated this story .

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


Pride of her Parents 1

…a light in the distance that only she could see, whose name was perhaps death, perhaps happiness…

A simple Shapierian thief finds herself become something she never wanted to be, and must embark on her own quest across Glorianna to redeem herself and reunite with the Hero she loves.


Unique to this story: spectacular Mary-Sue



1
Chapter 1 - A Mistake
2
Chapter 2 - Shapierian No More!
3-4
Chapter 3 - Itsumo Kawai
Chapter 4 - Nightfall
5-6
Chapter 5 - Demons and Darkness
Chapter 6 - Mirror, Mirror
7
Chapter 7 - Sechburg
8
Chapter 8 - Magic and Mayhem
9
Chapter 9 - On the Road
10
Chapter 10 - Trouble in South Spielburg
11
Chapter 11 - New Quests
12
Chapter 12 - Silmaria
Chapter 13 - Looking Forward
Chapter 14 - Various Ends
Chapter 15 - Forms of Hell
Chapter 16 - Horror and Heartache
Chapter 17 - Dance of Destinies
Chapter 18
Chapter 19 - Blood of Love, Death of Death
About the sequels


Chapter 1 – A Mistake

“We think you are ready to learn the thief sign,” announced Manta as the day’s training commenced, looking and sounding somber as usual. In careful, slow demonstration, he crossed his eyes, put his thumb to his nose, wiggled the remaining fingers of that hand, and rubbed his stomach with the other.

En Shevil, despite the long years she’d waited to learn the gesture that would be nearly the final step in her journal toward being an official thief, just could not help but giggle at the sight. The sound had barely left her mouth when Kylur was at her side, startling her. En Shevil’s early memories were of Manta and Kylur teaching her stealth, but even after eighteen years she was still unused to them appearing next to her at any given moment. Naturally they were completely silent — katta were like that, after all.

“This is a very serious thing, child,” said Kylur. “If you do not know the sign, you run the risk of a knife in your back.”

“I know,” En Shevil replied, putting a hand over her mouth to hide her amused smile. “I wish you’d taught it to me earlier…”

“We couldn’t have you running around making the sign to people until we felt you were old enough to handle yourself properly. Anywhere that there is no guild, one must be more cautious.”

En Shevil had often thought that the couple who had raised her were just about the only dishonest katta in all of Shapier. Manta had explained once that in the old days, there had been a sophisticated thievery system among the katta of Shapier, which had then been abolished when humans had muscled their way into the country. Now En Shevil planned to revive thievery in the city of Shapier, if she could, although she was a human. And perhaps it was this lofty ambition that had led her parents to be so wary of letting her spread her thiefly wings before they were sure of her ability — in any other country, she was sure, she would have learned something as essential as the thief sign years ago. Or perhaps it was just the guild thing.

“Try it,” said Manta, showing her the sign again. She attempted to copy him, but fell to giggling once more. “Very well,” sighed her foster-father, as always making a bigger deal of it than En Shevil would have thought he should. “We will do something else until you have regained your self-control.”

“I’m sorry,” she said with enforced calmness. “I’m ready to try seriously.” For a second time she made the sign.

“Move your fingers more regularly,” said Kylur sharply. En Shevil tried again, accustomed to her parents demanding perfection in even the simplest things but still laughing inwardly.

Once she had mastered the ridiculous move by their exacting standards, she was guided through the same process with the countersign and left to her own devices to practice. And as she had no desire to sit around in the back room at home doing this, she headed out to wander the streets.

She smiled at the guards as they passed her. There were usually guards patrolling Jamal Darb, it being so close to the palace. She hurried down that street and turned onto Hawa Darb, whence she went with a light step to the Plaza of the Palace.

There she loitered, watching people pass by and trying not to make eye contact with the merchants, any of whom would talk your ear off if you let them get started. She’d once tried to rob the silly jewel merchant by slipping into his window at night; however, he had awakened and she’d been forced to retreat. If Manta and Kylur had ever found out about that one…

Well, once she earned her lockpick — then she’d really have fun. Her foster-parents would not give her a lockpick until she had proven herself capable of using, concealing, and caring for one to their satisfaction. This, of course, was because there was no Thieves’ Guild in the city and therefore no aid for the hapless thief who got careless and got caught. Well, that and her revival ambition.

She decided to practice her latest skill. No one responded. With a sigh, she headed down Sultan Darb toward the Fountain Plaza. She made the thief sign to everyone she met along the way, but no countersign.

Oh, wonderful, she thought sarcastically as she reached the plaza. Omar… There, indeed, sat the ridiculous poet on a rug by the western door, spouting out some rhyming nonsense about honor. Just like every time she looked at him, she got the feeling she had seen him somewhere before, but it didn’t exactly matter as she couldn’t stand to be around him for more than five seconds. Next to him stood Ja’afar, the tall man who ‘translated’ the old idiot’s blather into plain language. His eyes seemed to be everywhere, and he always looked as if he had a secret.

Having no desire to put up with any of the old man’s sad excuse for poetry, En Shevil hurried away. A little annoyed at being denied her favorite spot, she ambled on through the city, slowly and leisurely, practicing the thief sign to kill time before she could return.

When she did so, Omar was gone from the plaza. On the ground where he had been, something glinted. En Shevil thought as she bent to pick it up, Stupid old man! I don’t think he’s ever done a reading here and not left something behind. Still, his loss was her gain, so she didn’t exactly curse his stupidity.

It was a pin, the kind commonly made by katta and very lovely — and better yet, rather expensive-looking. She glanced around casually to see that everyone was busy with their own affairs, and shoved it into her pocket. Quite a prize for a sharp-eyed thief.

When she reached the Plaza of the Palace on her way home, the sun had set and the merchants were gone. She sped up, eager for the night’s practice. Since Manta and Kylur’s legal trade was cushionry, a stand in the bazaar was out of the question, there being simply not enough room to display their wares, so they worked out of their own home. Thus, thievery lessons could only be conducted after dark when the door was locked for the night. Of course, Manta sometimes taught her the odd skill, as today, in the back room on slow days, but usually En Shevil was put to work doing chores, sewing, or running errands.

She bowed politely as she passed a late-staying customer at the door, and Manta locked the latter as she closed it. “Your mother has only finished dinner,” he said. “As usual, you’re just in time.”

They went into the kitchen and sat at the table while Kylur brought over their food on trays. “Lamb felafas again?” groaned En Shevil.

Kylur laughed as she took her place at the table, for this was an old complaint. “You know they’re your father’s favorite.”

“I know,” sighed the girl, poking reluctantly at her tray.

“Tonight’s task is a bedroom robbery,” said Kylur after supper.

“Wonderful,” replied En Shevil. She loved this type of exercise.

“You need to go in, find anything of value, take it, and get out. Manta will be the sleeping resident.” Kylur handed En Shevil a lockpick. “Go!”

She concealed most of the tool in her hand as she worked, bent over the lock on the bedroom door, ready to pull out and look innocent should Kylur decide to play guard. Quicker than it ever had before, the lock snapped and the door opened. En Shevil stepped quickly into the dark room and shut it softly, lest the light from outside waken the ‘sleeper.’ She paused to let her eyes adjust.

Here, she knew, katta had an advantage over humans with their ability to see in the dark and their sharper senses. However, with the techniques her parents had taught her, the darkness grew clearer, and she began to pick her way across to a chest in the corner.

Scouring the room took her less than two minutes, and soon she was out with the valuables in her pockets and arms. “You made very good time,” began Kylur as En Shevil spread the items before her, “and it looks as if you found everything.”

“That is not all she’s done,” said Manta, emerging from the bedroom.

“Oh, wonderful,” groaned En Shevil. “What now?” Manta was always more strict than Kylur. But as she looked at him, she realized that his expression was one of amazement.

“If I hadn’t been watching you the whole time, I would not have known that you were there. I don’t know where you found the time to practice, but it’s certainly paid off. I don’t think we need do any more stealth exercises.”

En Shevil was hard-pressed to conceal her astonishment. Though she would never argue with praise, this was beyond her. Practice? Not she! And though she felt she had done remarkably well that night, she couldn’t believe she had been quiet enough to evade katta hearing.

“Oh, yes,” she said absently, handing the lockpick to Kylur. “Here.”

“Keep it,” the woman said, looking at Manta for confirmation that he swiftly gave. “You’ve earned it.”

The thrill of this soon faded, however: she found after not many days that most people barred their doors, and she would have to earn a whole different set of tools to get past that barrier. Those that did not take this caution rarely owned anything worth money, but she soon taught them to be more scrupulous.

She didn’t know how or where her parents fenced the goods she brought them, but she was content for now with the small income she was bringing in. The one thing she could never bear to part with was the pin she had found.

There was something fascinating about it. It was shaped like a griffin with a blue gem in its chest and obviously very valuable, but somehow she did not want to sell it; it seemed precious to her somehow, although she could not tell why. She took to wearing it on her shirt wherever she went, removing it only when Omar was seen in the Fountain Plaza.

Nearly two months, and six robberies, later, she was wandering Shmali Tarik and happened to look down to that strange purple door with the eye painted on it. She knew the sorceress Aziza lived there, but En Shevil had never seen her. On a whim, she grinned and altered her course. I wonder what kind of valuables a sorceress keeps.

She slid her lockpick from the metal band that held her blonde hair. The latter, a color unusual to desert-dwellers, had always made her suspect that she had been born of parents from somewhere north and east, specifically Spielburg. Because of this, she had always kept up with the news thence, and it was a point of interest to her that recently the long-lost daughter of Stefan von Spielburg had finally been returned to him. But En Shevil did not know the details — something to do with brigands — and hadn’t been able to hear them anywhere.

Returning to the task at hand, the thief pushed the pick gently into the lock and gave it a slight twist as a test. There was a snapping sound, and an abrupt jolt of unexpected pain stabbed through her. She jerked back her hand as she fell to the ground, her fingers closing reflexively over the tool. The pain seemed to echo in her body, throbbing sullenly and slowly fading. Clutching the lockpick tightly, she lay curled up on the street for how long she knew not.

Teach me to mess with a sorceress, she thought painfully. Chest pounding, she hauled herself up the wall, slipping halfway and sluggishly growing stronger. As she finally stumbled to her feet, she conjectured that another attack like that would kill her. She decided it would be wise to go home. Throwing a look over her shoulder at the door, she shuffled haltingly back up the street, bent over and holding her chest with her left arm while replacing her lockpick with her right. She had only gone a few paces when she was forced to stop and lean, gasping, against the wall once again. Movement awakened physical memories of that pain. And all the while she was wondering whether the door had merely been enchanted or if Aziza had been watching her the entire time. She fervently hoped the first, rather than the second, to be true. And thus, slowly, she made her way home.

After being confined to the house for a week, partly as punishment for being so foolish and partly so that she could recover, she was finally free again, and so she went out to wander the streets. She noted with interest a new inn at Gates Plaza, but decided to defer making her first curious visit to a later date. She was in a thoughtful mood, and preferred not to meet people. So she mostly avoided the plazas.

She did not pay attention to where she was until she turned a corner and suddenly heard shouting. She looked around, realizing that she stood on Dinar Tarik and that around the next turn was the shop of the money changer, who seemed to be having an argument with someone.

En Shevil crept to the meeting of the walls, crouched, and peered around. In front of Dinarzaad’s window stood a disgustingly muscular, half-clothed man with no hair. Even the money changer’s guard, standing close by with sword drawn, looked dwarfed by him. En Shevil realized that she had seen him somewhere before. Yes… he kept one of the shops in town.

“–talk to you however I want!” he was shouting.

“Issur, I won’t, and that’s my last word,” responded Dinarzaad, her tone equally loud.

“Yes, you will!” said Issur, whom En Shevil finally remembered to be the weapon maker from the Fighters Plaza.

“All right, that’s it,” said Dinarzaad, spreading her arms out on the sill. “We’re through. No more relationship. The End.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it,” he jeered, “but remember — you got mad at me, I never got mad at you.” He pointed at himself and her with the appropriate words. This statement did not seem to En Shevil particularly intelligent, relevant, or true, and she guessed that it concerned a previous argument, or the part of this one that she’d missed.

“I want my pin back,” said Dinarzaad.

“No way,” said Issur immediately. “That was a gift.”

“It was a loan!” she protested, her voice rising once again.

“You wanna take it to the sultan?” snarled Issur. “Fine. Hope he don’t ask where you got it. Or look too close at it.”

“Get out of here,” she commanded, pointing.

“Fine,” he snapped. “And remember, I’m not mad.”

En Shevil had barely time to press herself into the corner before Issur stormed past. Fortunately, he was too not-angry to notice her presence. Only when he was a safe distance down the street did she move, and to the sound of Dinarzaad’s near-scream of frustration walk into the tiny dead end Issur had just left.

“I’m closed,” the woman said sharply, reaching for the shutter of her window.

“Wait!” En Shevil said, stepping hastily up to the sill. She leaned forward. “I can get your pin back for you.”

Dinarzaad laughed darkly. “I like that. And I suppose you’re going to find Arus al-Din, may he live forever, as well?” En Shevil made the thief sign, just for good measure, as she prepared to speak again. Then she noticed that Dinarzaad was staring at her. “Where did you get that pin you’re wearing?” the woman asked softly. En Shevil glanced nervously at the guard who had replaced his sword and stood now by the wall. “Don’t worry,” the money changer assured her, “Franc does not speak or write. He knows my business. So, effenda thief, where did you get that?”

“I found it,” said En Shevil cautiously. “Why?”

“It’s a match to mine,” said Dinarzaad. “Mine which that jackass Issur has.”

“I can get it back for you,” said En Shevil eagerly, “if you’ll tell me where to go. And also, why is it so special?”

“I’ll tell you why they’re special if you can bring mine back, and I’ll also give you a hundred dinars.”

“Deal,” said the thief with excitement — Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective employer, Kylur had drilled into her, but it was difficult to restrain how thrilled she was at having received her first commission at such a high price.

Dinarzaad, who seemed rather amused at En Shevil’s eagerness, proceeded to give her directions. “One more thing,” she added as the girl turned to leave. “What’s your name?”

“En Shevil,” replied she.

“Pretty name,” said the money changer, repeating it. “That’s the old katta language, isn’t it? What does it mean?”

“‘Pride of her parents,'” said the thief.

The dark-haired beauty at the window smiled. “Would your parents be proud of you if they knew what you’re planning?”

“Oh, they would,” En Shevil assured her.

***

“Hey, kid!” En Shevil grabbed the arm of a hooky-playing child who ran past her at the eastern end of the Plaza of the Fighters.

“Leggo,” protested the child.

“Wait. Can you read yet?” En Shevil glanced towards the Guild Hall and back down at the kid. Then she looked up again, briefly. Before the hall stood a familiar rig of stands and rope; Agi the Agile was back to mock the uncoordinated Shapierians yet again.

“‘Course I can,” said the child proudly.

En Shevil let go his arm and crouched down to his level. “I’ll give you two dinars if you’ll take this into the Guild Hall and read it to Uhura.” And she held out a scrap of paper.

The kid stuck out his chin and looked at her. “Two fifty.”

“All right, fine, whatever,” said En Shevil impatiently, wanting very much to watch Agi: someone had accepted his challenge. “I’ll give you half now and half when you come back.” She counted the money out from her pocket and handed it to the kid, who scampered off in the same direction En Shevil now took.

It was the day after she had acquired her first official job as a thief, and being made to run errands all morning did not serve to take her mind off of it. At least she had escaped seeing Uhura. She joined the small, disinterested crowd around Agi’s tightrope. On the first platform stood a man whom she could only assume was the newly-arrived “Hero.” His hair was the same color as hers, and he looked slightly taller than she was.

She watched his blue-clad back as he began to walk the rope. En Shevil, four years ago, had taken Agi’s challenge, and had spent the entire day earning bruises and a bump on the head before she’d learned it. Usually now, each time he appeared, she would accept near the end of the day, provided no one else had, just to show his audience that it could actually be done. She was the only one in town, though, who had bothered to master this fairly useless skill. Now it seemed she had competition. She was amazed, really, at how well he did this, certain he must have learned it somewhere else and was just showing off. She would have waited for him to finish to ask him about it, but her child-helper emerged from the Guild Hall when the Hero was only halfway across the rope.

“She said, ‘that fine,'” the kid told her.

“Thanks, that was a real help,” said En Shevil, giving him the rest of his money. “Now, you better get to school before some guard finds you.” Shapierian children usually attended school until they were ten. Then, if they wanted further education, they would have to go elsewhere or seek an apprenticeship.

The child skipped off happily, and En Shevil hurried towards home and the rest of her chores, with only a brief backward glance at the man from Spielburg. He had reached the other platform and was climbing down the rope.

He must have done it before.

After dark that night, En Shevil crept from her house and headed in a state of high anticipation for the Fighters Plaza. At the doorway to Saif Darb, she paused, taking a deep breath and looking around. The plaza was shadowy, the brown-yellow stone appearing almost blue in the moonlight. As all spring nights were in the desert, the evening was warm, but a cool breeze floated down from the tops of the mountains, and she shivered — but that might have been with excitement.

There was a sudden noise to her right, and she jumped back into the doorway as a stream of light fell onto the ground from the door of the Guild Hall. She laughed at herself for being so nervous. It couldn’t be more than some idle traveler who had lingered talking to the Simbani woman.

Besides her glimpse that morning, En Shevil had heard only sketchy reports of the Hero, she having never been one for gossip, and her curiosity was merely idle interest in the fact that he came from Spielburg. But all of that changed when she had a close view of him, for he was by far the handsomest man she had ever seen.

Before he could escape her, she stepped from the street and said clearly in the merchants’ common tongue, “Good evening, effendi.”

He looked startled, and turned to face her. Then with a half smile he said, “Good evening.” She was glad now that she had managed to pick up on the language used by merchants worldwide during her time helping Manta and Kylur’s foreign customers. Neither of them had ever bothered to teach her. “Why out so late?”

“Well, I…” she found herself tongue-tied, and could not have explained why. Seeing her expression, he raised his hands, and, to her total amazement, made the thief sign. Shocked, she clumsily made the countersign, and as if with one accord they both headed out of the plaza and onto Saif Darb where they could talk.

“I saw you earlier today… what’s your name?” he asked.

“En Shevil,” she said, trying not to notice how pleasantly muscular he was — in a laid-back, active way, not like Issur’s carefully-developed body.

“I’m Achim, from Spielburg.”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “I’ve been wondering about you.” That was a lie — at least it would have been two minutes earlier — but it was a way to get him talking. “Did you really save Elsa von Spielburg from brigands?”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said, rubbing his neck thoughtfully. “It’s rather a long story.”

“Well, do you have time?” she asked. He looked at her, and she got the impression that he found her attractive. Good.

“Why not?” he said. “See, I was born in the northern part of Spielburg, not near the actual town or the barony at all. I wanted to be a Hero, so I applied to the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School……”

His story went on, and eventually shifted into talk and laughter between them. Suddenly En Shevil was conscious that the greenish light from the torches on the walls was not responsible for the glow around them. “Sunrise!” she exclaimed, jumping up. “I’ve got to get home!”

Achim yawned. “I suppose I should get some sleep.” He looked up at her. “I’m sorry I took you from your — er — job,” he said. “Can I see you again some time?”

“Of course!” she replied, probably with too much enthusiasm. Always control yourself in the presence of a prospective romantic interest, she chided herself, but, hey, she’d never been this attracted to a guy before.

“What about tomorrow — I suppose it’s tonight, now — here, at sunset?”

“Wonderful!” she said, and then changed her mind. “No, I really need to get this job done. What about, well, really tomorrow?” She had lowered her voice, hearing the bustle of the merchants in the brightening plaza beyond.

He stood up and looked down at her with a most engaging half-smile. “All right. Goodbye.” The smile turned into a grin that made her heart beat faster, then headed out into the plaza along with the rest of him. When he was gone, she realized she had forgotten to say goodbye.

That day dragged on, and on, and on, anticipation for the coming robbery making the time stretch terribly. Also, she was unused to staying out all night, so she was abnormally tired. There was no escape from her work, either: the forerider of a caravan that would arrive tomorrow or the day after had ordered a whole set of light sleeping-cushions, the kind generally used by large caravans going a long way.

Fortunately, she wasn’t imprisoned in the workroom the entire time; her parents did have a few errands for her. It was mid-afternoon, and she had been shopping for about three quarters of an hour, when she stopped by Gates Plaza to visit the forerider at the inn with some questions. She almost dropped the bundle she was carrying, though, when she reached the end of Junub Tarik and looked out onto the plaza.

The merchants were gone, along with their stands and blankets; not a soul was visible. The plaza’s on fire! Of course the plaza was not “on fire,” it being constructed primarily of stone — but fire was rife before her eyes in a roughly man-shaped pillar of flame that raced, dancing, from wall to wall.

En Shevil stood enraptured, staring at the beautiful flickering figure that seemed aimless, without thought, as it circled the plaza again and again. Until the voice spoke in her ear a second time she did not even mark its presence. “En Shevil?”

“Uh?”

“I did get it right, didn’t I? En Shevil?”

It was Achim. “Yes,” she said in a slightly gasping tone, turning to find his face disconcertingly close to hers.

“An elemental.” He pointed out around her to the plaza.

“I noticed.”

“Omar warned about it the other night, and I didn’t take him seriously.”

She giggled. “Who could?”

He echoed her reaction. “I have to… I’m the Hero.” Striking a pose, he put his hand to the hilt of one of the daggers sheathed at his side.

She giggled again. “So that means you’re going to get rid of it, right?”

He looked sheepish. “Do I have to?”

“Of course!” Then she reconsidered. “Well, maybe you should let some wizard handle it.”

“But… I’m the Hero.” He jumped from his second, more dramatic pose into a jog out to the middle of the plaza. Withdrawing a waterskin from his pack, he fell into step behind the creature and attempted to douse it.

With an angry flare the elemental sparked and spun violently away from him, not diminishing in size. En Shevil was afraid for a moment that it was going to return and attack him, but it only continued its random movement from wall to wall. Achim stuck out his lip in annoyance and went after it again. After three or four fruitless attempts to corner and extinguish, Achim retreated to the security of the street once again. “I’m out of water,” he said, scratching his head.

“I don’t think it’s going to work anyway,” she replied. “It’s too strong for a little bit of water.”

“No, it’s just too fast. I need to get it into the street where it can’t dodge around.”

En Shevil backed away from the door onto the plaza. “Wonderful idea… count me out.”

“I don’t know how to do it anyway,” he replied with a shrug, turning and following her. “I’ll go get some more water.”

With a glance back at the brightly-lit plaza, she walked beside him.

As Achim filled his waterskin at the fountain, En Shevil looked around, trying to think of a way to help. The sign above the apothecary’s door caught and held her eye. “Harik,” she murmured.

“What was that?”

“The apothecary’s name is Harik; that means ‘fire.'” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, I guess…”

“But any clues I could gather would help,” Achim finished.

“I’ll stay here,” En Shevil said nervously, sitting down on the side of the fountain as Achim headed towards the red-brown door of the apothecary’s shop. A moment later she moved to the other side to avoid the sparkling glare that the sun cast into her eyes off of the brass merchant’s extensive wares. Thus her back was to him when he reemerged, flicking her ear for attention. “Any luck?”

“Hmm…” He held up a metal box that smelled of incense. “He said I should try and lure the thing with this. Hopefully once it’s in the street, I can get rid of it.”

En Shevil, who was looking at the sun, said ruefully, “I’d come and watch, but I’ve gotta get going — more errands for my parents.”

“You’ve got to let me meet your parents sometime,” was his unexpected response. “All that stuff you said about them last night was interesting.”

She blushed and jumped up. “Well, tell me about how you dealt with that thing tomorrow, all right?”

“All right. Goodbye.”

That night, after practicing the finding and securing of valuables quickly in a dark room to improve her speed, she bolted for the door. “Where are you going?” asked Kylur.

“Out,” replied En Shevil, standing on one foot with agitation. She had been taught not even to tell her parents what she was planning in the way of thievery, if she could avoid it, so that if she were caught they could truthfully say in the face of magic-wielding judges that they had not known of her plans.

“Where?” asked her mother nevertheless.

“To rob someone, where else?” said En Shevil, dying to be gone.

“Well, don’t stay out all night again,” said Kylur. “And don’t get caught!” she added. But En Shevil was already halfway down the street.

Saif Darb was quiet and stuffy, the torches burning silently in the heavy air. En Shevil, excited, was practically skipping down the street, counting doors until she reached Issur’s house. She paused, listening, raising her hand to her hair band but not removing her lockpick. No noise, no light. That made sense, as it was after midnight. She pulled out her lockpick and set to, opening the door in almost no time at all.

Her brow furrowed as she saw the room. Ridiculously Spartan, it consisted of a door in the right and left walls, a wooden table with chairs against the opposite, a stool, and a large cabinet next to the door on the left. Swords, spears, maces, axes, scimitars, and so on leaned against the walls or stood neatly stacked on the floor. He uses his home as a warehouse! she thought in wonder; how inconvenient!

She went first to the cabinet, but inside she found only mail shirts hung in rows. She decided to try one of the two doors, and randomly chose the one to the right. Silently she opened it, and crept into the bedroom beyond. It was quite different from the room preceding.

Though the only furnishings, a bed and a round-topped chest, were as plain as those in the main room, the walls were crowded with ornate shields, matching sets of beautifully-designed weaponry, and a huge embroidered banner bearing the letters “EOF.” She was startled to notice that the bed was empty, but she wasted no time wondering. Going to the chest against the wall and picking the padlock, she thought, How strange: He doesn’t bar his door but puts a padlock on the chest in his bedroom.

A sickening smell of must and sweat arose as the lid creaked open. Inside was clothing she did not pause to examine, thrown in haphazardly along with a few other miscellaneous items of no value clustered in heaps under the smelly cloth. She did not spare a thought on them. Instead she let the lid down gently and snapped the padlock shut. She stood and went to the bed. Underneath she found a trap door, but surmised that to lift the heavy wooden square would require moving the bed, something she doubted she could do at all, let alone quietly.

On one side was a small fireplace she had not noticed, unused until the mild nighttime cold of winter. In the deep black of its interior, something glinted, which was impossible since there was no light in the room. She took a step closer, and the glint was repeated, and this time she started as it was answered by a tiny flash from the pin on her shirt. After recovering from her surprise, she began to think that this was rather cute — they were talking to each other. Wonderful.

She knelt by the fire and reached hesitantly in. Her hand contacted something just below the first layer of fire debris, and she grasped it and drew it out, the ash falling from it as she shook her hand. It was indeed the pin, she knew, for it flashed once more. It seemed an exact replica of hers, save that the gem was red. She shoved it hastily in her pocket, stood and headed for the other room.

She had hardly closed the door, however, when she knew something was wrong. She could see far too well. Light flooded in, diffusing from its horizontal origin under the other door, as well as the sound of harsh voices laughing. Whence had they come? Not from the street — En Shevil would have heard them from the bedroom. There must be another exit in the left-hand room. Who would have imagined the weapon maker to have — or want — such a large house?

Unfortunately, En Shevil lingered too long wondering. She was suddenly blinded as the door opened in a burst of light. She could see nothing for a moment, but heard Issur’s surprised, “What?” Then he roared, “Thief!” and sprang at her. It was only by pure luck that she evaded his huge arms and reached the outside door, but as she flung it open and bolted, a hand reached for her and snapped on her shirt, the semi-gauzy cloth of which ripped as she pulled away. She guessed that she had left a piece of it in her pursuer’s hand.

Clutching the front of her torn garment, she raced off Saif Darb, onto Askeri Darb, Nisr, Trab, Tarik of Rafir, and down Naufara Darb to the Fountain Plaza. All the way was the sound of pounding feet behind her, several heavy men. Somehow they did not catch up to her, and En Shevil got the feeling that they were slightly drunk and had a bit of trouble negotiating corners. She wondered why they didn’t shout, though she was glad they refrained: an entire neighborhood, angry at being awakened in the middle of the night, would have been even more difficult to escape.

At the Fountain Plaza she had an advantage. She knew that if she could hide, the men would search for her down the streets and she could slip away home or wait them out. She looked around desperately. A window? No, not enough time: climbing in haste, she might fall and kill herself. Having little other choice, she stepped into the bowl of the fountain and curled herself around the middle. Water splashed out onto the ground for a few moments before the magical spring adjusted to the new level. Balling her hands and placing them under her head, she raised her mouth out of the water.

She realized suddenly that her ruined top was floating loosely about her, and she made a slow movement to clamp it down. “Where is she?” asked a loud voice nearby, making her jump just the littlest bit. With the fountain noises all around her she had not heard the men come up.

“I got a piece of ‘er shirt,” said a slurring voice. Chortles and suppressed snorts of drunken laughter followed.

“We’ll split up,” said a calmer tone — Issur’s. “And don’t wake anybody.” Apparently then the men dispersed, but En Shevil dared not move for quite some time.

The Dark Hand was high and the moon was bright, but suddenly a shape — a man looking down at her, hands on hips — blocked her view. She reacted immediately. Splashing him first in the face and giving him a mild push, she sprang from the bowl in a spray of water, banging various parts of her body against various parts of the fountain. He grabbed for her, but only barely scraped her arm as she began to run. “En Shevil!” he said, and she stopped with a gasp. It was Achim.

She turned again, clutching her chest with relief, to face the dripping Hero. But she felt as she did so the tatters of her shirt hanging forlornly from her shoulders. She blushed; though nothing was exposed, it was still embarrassing. She quickly located her pin and used it to secure the two torn edges of her shirt-back as best she could. “Come with me,” said Achim, taking her hand when she was done and pulling her towards the western arch. His touch gave her goose-bumps, or perhaps that was merely the light breeze against her wet skin. She started shivering.

Without question she followed him. “You’ve been getting into trouble!” he said, still pulling her down the corridor.

“It’s not what it looks like,” she replied earnestly.

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I find you in the fountain with your shirt half-off, and a drunk guy after you — what am I supposed to think?”

“Wha…? You–? I don’t…” She was finally speechless for some moments as they turned off Naufara Darb onto Dinar Tarik. Then she gasped, “You thought I… oh!” she ended with a cry of indignation as he began to laugh. Finally he pulled her onto Centime Tarik and pushed his wet hair back, leaning against the wall and still laughing.

“I saw Issur storming out of the money changer’s alley and had to tell his fists that I hadn’t seen you. I don’t think he’ll be back this way tonight. I’ve never seen him so mad, not even when I made the thief sign to him. What did you do?”

En Shevil, still supremely annoyed at his earlier joke at her expense, said shortly, “I can’t tell you.”

“As I thought,” he replied lightly.

Why is he staring at me like that? she thought. What she said was: “I have to go see the money changer. I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I? And tell you all about it?”

“Certainly,” replied Achim quietly. He grinned as he had the night before, and En Shevil was suddenly hot. “If you don’t get into any more trouble.

He kissed her lightly on her upturned mouth and walked away.

In a complete daze En Shevil moved cautiously down the street towards Dinarzaad’s shop. Though she was shivering slightly and her pants were chafing her, her mouth felt hot.

“Well!” said Dinarzaad as she came into sight. “I suppose this is what I get for dealing with such an obvious amateur!”

En Shevil’s mouth opened, but Dinarzaad laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I know it wasn’t your fault. But with all these men running about after you, I think I’m going to have to break my own rule and invite you inside. That is, if you still want to know why the pins are so remarkable.”

“Wha — in there? Yes, of course I do.”

“Very well. Hop in.” She moved away from the window. En Shevil clambered over the sill, trying not to look too curiously around her at the fairly sparse, claustrophobic shop of the money changer. The walls were mostly hidden by locked cabinets, and a table stood by the window with a few oddments on top and underneath. There were no chairs, and Dinarzaad indicated that she should sit on the large chest in the corner. She must have seen the way En Shevil looked sidelong at all this, for she smiled wryly and explained, “I do my best to make up for the lack of a Thieves’ Guild around here. So of course I need some extra storage. And now I really must know what happened at Issur’s.”

“Well,” began En Shevil slowly, “the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I got in at all — why his door wasn’t barred, I mean. Most people’s are, even during the day.”

“Oh,” said Dinarzaad dismissively. “That’s my doing. I always made him keep it unbarred so I could get in. He probably just got into the habit.”

“Well, I had no trouble finding it,” continued En Shevil, pulling the pin from her pocket and looking at it. “But then, in the other room, there were men. They were having a party or something, and I think they were drunk.”

“That was probably EOF,” said the money changer. “It’s their stupid ‘secret’ group. They only have meetings in the middle of the night, and usually parties afterwards. I should have warned you.”

“It’s all right,” said En Shevil a little dryly (as dryly as she could say anything when she was soaking wet). “I love adventure.” And otherwise, she thought, I wouldn’t have seen Achim. “Now what about these pins?” She handed the red-chested griffin to the woman. She noticed then that the griffin’s head was turned to the right. If she remembered correctly (she could not see it), the head on hers faced left.

“These pins were — where is yours?”

En Shevil blushed and rolled her eyes backwards to indicate. “It’s holding my shirt on. I really did have a narrow escape. And then I had to lay down in the fountain to get rid of them.”

Dinarzaad burst out laughing. She laughed, apparently uncontrollably, for minutes on end, her face turning red as she attempted to catch her breath. “Excuse me,” she said at last, letting a tear roll onto her finger and flicking it off. “So that’s why you’re soaking wet. Well, that is a story… All right.” She cleared her throat, shaking her head. “When humans started ruling Shapier, a clan of katta, to prove their loyalty to the new Sultan and Sultana, made for the first royal couple these matching pins. The red was for the Sultan and the blue for his wife. They had the power to augment any talent of the bearer’s that he or she was focusing on using.”

“Oh!” exclaimed En Shevil, eyes wide. “Oh! So that’s why… Well — go on.” This explained the amazing performance by which she had won her lockpick.

“The red one would only work for a man, the blue one for a woman. They were passed down the generations until the time of Rashid bin Hawa, who as you know was the father of our present Sultan (may he live forever) and Emir (he as well). A master thief broke into the palace to steal them, but lost the woman’s pin on the way out. I’m curious as to how you got yours, but I assume you would rather not tell, as is the situation with me.”

En Shevil was shocked. So that was why Omar looked so familiar! The poet himself, she was guessing, was Harun al Rashid — though why he would be carrying around the woman’s pin she could not guess. “You’re right,” she said. “But what I want to know is about you and Issur.”

“What about us?”

“Well, you don’t exactly seem like the ideal couple.”

“There’s really little to tell. At first it was mostly a joke, but then he began getting possessive and over-demanding. We didn’t last long, so now I’m looking for a replacement.” This last was said with an airy tone that reminded En Shevil of her friend Thalanna. The katta girl had been flirtatious, mischievous, vivacious (but law-abiding and unaware of the practices of her aunt, uncle, and adopted cousin)… Her family had moved to Rasier a few years ago, and now with all the katta driven out of that city, En Shevil had been terribly worried, as she had heard nothing from her.

“Do you have anyone in mind?” she asked teasingly, still thinking of Thalanna.

“You know, that Hero-man is pretty fine-looking. Achim, that’s his name?”

“Yes,” said En Shevil numbly, sorry she had asked. The last thing she needed was Dinarzaad, the patent desert beauty, going after her Hero. At about that same moment, the full implications of the night’s events were beginning to hit her, and she started to shake, just a little. “I really need to go home and change,” she said weakly.

“All right,” said Dinarzaad sympathetically. She left her place against the wall by the window and went to a cabinet, producing a large set of keys from absolutely nowhere. She opened the doors to reveal rows of small drawers. She unlocked one and collected in her hand some coins. They fell with a chink into En Shevil’s.

“Thanks,” the girl said blankly, shock and weariness combining to cloud her vision as she looked at the ten ten-dinar pieces and stood up. She went to the window. “Well, it’s been fun, but I probably won’t be seeing you again.”

“Goodbye,” said the money changer. “Thanks.”

En Shevil pushed herself out the window and headed home, her mind foggy with the terrible realization that had hit her: she would have to leave Shapier. Issur at least, if not some of his party, had seen her in his house, and whether or not he would recognize her face, there were few other blondes in the whole country, let alone the city. In fact, she knew of only one: some strange man that everyone thought was crazy who walked the streets with a drum. She smiled slightly at the thought of him, too strung for a laugh.

By this time she had reached home, and with a deep breath she entered. She stood in the dark for some time, looking through at nothing. The world was calm and surreal here, a peaceful place of safety and familiarity where she could not stay. But she was beyond emotion now, numb and dull. So she went to bed.

The next day was quiet. They had resigned themselves to the tragedy, following an explosive and somewhat traumatic conversation in the early morning. By a mutual unspoken agreement, they did not talk about it, did not try to convince themselves aloud that it was their only option. That if Issur determined to bring En Shevil down, they could not hide her forever, or keep themselves clean in doing so, especially as it seemed that, given the information from Dinarzaad about EOF, Issur would go after her covertly rather than through the proper authorities.

So instead of dwelling on their sorrow, they brought up amusing stories from the past, humorous events or just important ones: the time Manta and Kylur had decided to take in the orphan baby brought by a caravan almost eighteen years earlier; the night En Shevil and Thalanna had repainted the shop signs and street-direction markers in Fountain Plaza and collapsed in laughter the next day as confused katta and map-bound tourists became helplessly lost as they thought north was south and east west; the year Kylur had been struck with a sickness that confined her to bed for nearly the whole summer, Manta and En Shevil putting in extra hours to make up for her absence; the time, just before Thalanna’s family had left, that, on a dare, En Shevil had told a newly-arrived Uhura that “humor” was the Shapierian word for “supplies.” Uhura, trying to furnish the Guild Hall to her tastes, had instead received only bad jokes in response to her carefully-worded inquiries.

So the family laughed as they worked, finishing up the sleeping cushions for the caravan, with which it was now determined that En Shevil would depart, to end up in Anzhad or Darun or another of the southern Shapierian towns. But their laughter was subdued, and carried behind it an audible sadness at the thought that they might never be together again. And En Shevil writhed inwardly with the thought that she was the cause of this misery. Had she only fled Issur’s house more quickly, all would now be well. But in her parents’ eyes she read their reassurance that to them it was no more than an unfortunate accident that took her from them.

Near sunset she told them quietly that she must say goodbye to her friends. They nodded silently, the expressions on their faces enough to break En Shevil’s heart. She left the house with a heavy step. Walking warily and avoiding what sounded like footsteps, she eventually crept onto the Fighters Plaza just as Rakeesh was gathering up his rug to go inside for the night.

She watched for a moment as the day’s last light glinted off his golden fur, then stepped out to halt him. “Wait!”

He turned to look at her. “Good evening, my friend,” he said. “Why so downcast?”

“I’m leaving Shapier tomorrow, probably for Darun.”

“You have fallen into trouble, I see,” said the Paladin shrewdly.

“Y-yes,” she admitted, knowing he would not betray her trust. And that she could not have deceived him at any rate. “So I came to say…” En Shevil choked suddenly and was amazed at herself. She had not imagined that this parting would be difficult; she enjoyed talking to Rakeesh, but there always the barrier that necessarily existed between thief and Paladin kept them from becoming particularly close. And now her words were all falling out on top of each other, “…goodbye, and… thank you for all your advice — and tell Uhura I’m sorry for the word thing, and please don’t think badly of me!”

“I seldom think badly of anyone, for all have their path in life. The Paladin way is not for everyone. You however…” He began the tirade to which she had paid little heed before, though the words struck her peculiarly now, “…you — if you would only take the road of Honor, you could become one of the great ones, an Erana of the night.” He smiled his ferocious lion’s grin and stepped towards the Guild Hall doors. “May you leave the path of dishonor you have chosen and go on to the glory for which you are meant. Farewell, En Shevil.” And he was gone.

En Shevil noticed that tears were picking their tickling way down the sides of her nose. “I’m sorry,” she told the doors for no reason.

She ducked onto Khaniar Tarik as she saw the door to Issur’s shop open and the bald man emerge. She didn’t take her eyes off him until he was safely gone down Saif Darb. But even then she felt nervous about going there to meet Achim.

Apparently he guessed this, and as it began to darken he came striding across the plaza to find her. “Fully-clothed this time, I see,” he said. “No rendezvous with Issur tonight?”

She gave him a scathing look. “I can’t stay long,” she said. “I leave before sunrise.”

“What!? Leave where? The city?!”

She opened her mouth to tell him, but suddenly he seized her shoulders and pulled her bodily around behind him. He drew a knife, whirled, and met the onslaught of a red-faced man in a turban with a large sword who was charging with surprising silence straight towards them. En Shevil took a step backwards in surprise, for she had not seen him come up behind her. The man seemed to want to get past Achim, and she realized that he must be from EOF.

Now she saw Achim in action, the greatest feat of skill she had ever witnessed, though much too close for her comfort. He dodged the sword-thrusts of the warrior, who seemed to outmuscle him two-to-one, and the blows he could not avoid he parried — with a dagger! Then he would dart behind the huge man’s guard to stab, but was always thrown off. Ever the attacker tried to maneuver himself around so that he could break away and go for En Shevil.

She was amazed and frightened at this persistence. If every member of EOF was as obstinate as this man and they had, as she feared, been alerted to her, then her consternation was justified and it was wise of her to go. And now had she pulled Achim into her troubles? The large man gave a strangled cry, biting his lip to silence himself, as Achim’s blade contacted his bare arm, drawing a long gash that immediately welled up red.

En Shevil crouched and pulled her own dagger free of her pant leg, ready to help if needed, though her only skill was in throwing. Kylur, the all-time Shapierian dagger-casting champion, had insisted she drill constantly at target practice, both still and moving with various knife makes and sizes, saying that a thief was not a thief who could not throw. But would it do her any good in practice?

The warrior bore down on Achim so fiercely, of a sudden, that the Hero was forced to meet the attack with his knife raised above his head. The weapons clashed, and the dagger screeched along the sword blade to the hilt so that the tip of the latter was barely above his head, gold by the reflection of his hair. The two men came up against each other, arms above their heads, weapons locked. En Shevil watched in dismay as Achim was forced slowly downward by the man’s strength alone. Then she regained confidence and threw her knife.

He growled as it tore into his underarm and blood jetted out. His right hand released its grip. His left arm was flung and his sword clanged against the wall as Achim threw it off and slashed across his enemy’s stomach. Still the warrior made no noise, which frightened En Shevil even more: if EOF, silly as Dinarzaad had implied it to be, could breed such self-restraint, they would indeed be menacing foes. When would this fight end?

Her question was answered as the man spun and ran, taking her dagger with him. He turned the corner and was out of sight. En Shevil began to shake so violently that she had to lean against the wall just to stand. She had just essentially stabbed somebody. She had seen the blood from the wound. She had a set of very dangerous enemies in her hometown, which she was soon to leave, perhaps forever. She might never see her parents again. And that’s when it hit her: she was afraid. Absolutely terrified of leaving home. She had never been out of Shapier within the time she could remember, and she was petrified.

She began to sob, and felt Achim’s comforting arms around her, helping her to sit. “Yy-you see why I hhave to go,” she said, still shaking. “But I don’t — ” she choked. After a moment she went on, “…want to go.” He said nothing, only held her and let her cry. Then she thought of something else. “And-and now I’ve gott’n you in trouble with EOF. They-they’re a group of fighters that’s after me, and now they’ll… they’ll go after you too.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “But where are you going?”

“Darun,” she answered. She was calming now, and feeling foolish for her outburst. She moved to stand and he released her. “I must go home.”

“I’ll walk with you,” said the Hero.

“Thank you,” En Shevil replied sincerely, not looking at him. At the door to her house, she turned to him, her eyes dry though probably red. “Thank you for saving me,” she said. “Twice.”

“It was my pleasure,” he murmured, putting his hand on her face. “Come back to me soon.” And then he slid his arm down to her back and, pulling her close, kissed her. She noticed after a moment that her arms were around him as well. They stood thus for some time. “Goodbye,” he said when he finally released her.

“Goodbye,” she returned, but her voice was barely a whisper.