Fate is Found in Faeryland

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

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

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

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

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

Chapter 1 – Heero Gets Tickled

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Chapter 2 – Kaoru Can’t Kill Combative Creatures

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

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

“You weigh less,” he replied shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you looking for a Guide, Visitor?”

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

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

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

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

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

Taken aback by the odd questions, Kaoru nodded dumbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a map.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silver?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaoru smiled. “Thank you.”

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

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

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

“Then I’ll take it.”

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

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

Chapter 3 – Duo Buys A Sex Toy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Duo agreed intensely.

“Well, I’ll do what I can for you.”

“Are you offering to fuck me yourself?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, yes,” Duo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4 – Sano Argues With His Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You really think you’re that important?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That seems extremely unlikely.”

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

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

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

Chapter 5 – Tomoe Already Can’t Even With This

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

“See?” said Sano.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Tomoe!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t I already on a quest?”

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6 – Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But just then they were interrupted.

Chapter 7 – Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, what do you have?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who has a death wish,” Duo appended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, what you need is a brainguard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8 – Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Tomoe agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomoe sighed. “Lir third, our sixth.”

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

“None.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9 – Sano Has No Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That seems like a shame.”

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

“How far off is the green realm?”

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

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

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

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

“It’s kind of you to think of them.”

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

“I still admire your kindness.”

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

“Of course, my dear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duo nodded, then looked at the human.

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

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

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

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

“Shut up,” Sano grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We ride horses,” Kaoru yawned.

“You wanna keep going?” Sano wondered skeptically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That does sound kinda familiar,” Sano mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10 – Tomoe Laments

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

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

Tonight had been different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you trying that early?” Quatre wondered.

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

“I have heard that.”

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

“I’m so sorry,” Quatre said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve never borne a child?”

Quatre shook lir head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not leaving?”

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

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

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

Chapter 11 – Heero Has No Sensibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am,” said Heero.

“Which monarch?”

“Dorothy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cool’ was a concept Heero had never understood.

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

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

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

Heero nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The dwarf bodyguard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not at all,” le smiled.

Tomoe nodded, and flew upward into the smaller branches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like his Curse did something to him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any time.”

Chapter 14 – Imugeme Acts As Lady’s Maid

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magical rituals?”

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

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

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

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

That must be convenient,” Kaoru murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Imugeme matter-of-factly.

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

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

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

The faery commended her good start.

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

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

“That’s not fair,” Kaoru mumbled.

“Isn’t it?”

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

“What is a ‘tomboy?'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kaoru is going to rinse her hair again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve already done that today.”

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

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

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

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

“You see? I have many talents.”

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

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

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

Chapter 15 – Sword!Saitou Seeks Solace, Suffers Subjugation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a horrifying abuse of power.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



<<14

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

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

I wasted a lot of time on this:

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

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

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

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

His Own Humanity: Seeing Red

Part 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Many times.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just doing my job,” Hajime murmured complacently.

Sano snorted.

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

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



1>>

Part 1

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

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

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

“Red?” Hajime asked.

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

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

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

“And this shade follows you around?”

“Yeah.”

“No matter where you go?”

“Yeah… to school and everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘He?'” echoed Hajime.

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

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

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

“Everything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were you doing when he showed up?”

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

“Porn?” asked Hajime, without apparent implication.

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

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

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

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

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hajime nodded slowly.

“So what do you think?”

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

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

“You notice it doesn’t attack.”

“Yeah, that is kinda weird.”

“And the shape.”

“Shit…”

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

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

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

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

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

“You have no idea?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear the government loves communicators, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cat gave another high-pitched meow.

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

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

“I’m sure you did,” said Hajime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, cats,” Sano said with a wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Misao?”

Hajime smirked. “She’s learning.”

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” the young man demanded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It never all quite leaves,” he muttered. He couldn’t see any remaining shade energy, but when he opened himself as he just had, he felt as if he were being battered by a hot, heavy wind.

Sano stood. “Let me see if I can get the rest of it.” Hajime nodded; a combination of techniques might be exactly what they needed.

The only time the ghost seemed to react to anything was when Sano moved. Hajime had been slowly pacing the room in order to keep right next to it as it drifted, but when Sano approached, the thing finally held still. Could it sense that Sano wanted it to? Perhaps, despite claiming not to be a communicator, Sano might have a better chance than Hajime at talking to it.

Now he’d reached up so his hand hovered in the air near Hajime’s, and his face had taken on an expression of angry concentration. Shades had a certain resonance that varied from one to the next, and people that absorbed shade energy did so by matching that wavelength precisely. It was about the only field where a talent for feeling a particular emotion became a trade skill. And it seemed Sano was particularly good at getting angry — either that or he’d been around this specific spirit so much that it only took him a moment to attune to it and draw off the last remaining shade energy into himself.

But it wasn’t the last. Or at least the action didn’t help. Continued attempts at communicating with the ghost, either giving or receiving ideas, met with the same failure as before, and that sense of being attacked (and the near-migraine that went with it) did not diminish. Hajime still couldn’t begin to sense a consciousness anywhere in there, and not knowing whether or not he should be able to only complicated things.

So did Sano’s increasing anger. The young man hadn’t moved from where he stood facing Hajime (across the ghost, as it were) with his hand in the air, but he’d closed his eyes and was looking — and feeling — more and more angry. The sense of its growing radiation interfered somewhat with Hajime’s concentration on something that wasn’t working anyway; so finally Hajime put his own raised hand over the younger man’s, which had by now clenched into a fist, and pushed it out of the ghost’s space.

“This isn’t working,” he said quietly.

Sano’s eyes started open, the irate gleam in them surprisingly hot and strong. It occurred to Hajime, looking into what seemed at the moment an inferno of unfathomable depth, that Sano might be dangerous if he absorbed too much anger; not that it was likely to be anything Hajime couldn’t handle, but they must remember to keep the lethal weapons out of Sano’s reach at such moments.

Sano jerked away from Hajime and the ghost, turning abruptly to stalk back over to the sofa and throw himself down. “Damn right it’s not,” he growled. “You were right: there’s just no end to the fucking stuff.”

Hajime also stood back, out of the way of the headache-inducing energy, letting his mental shields rise back into place, and nodded again. It looked like they really would have to try silly séance business, candles and all, and it was so hard to get cats to sit still for things like that, and he honestly didn’t think it would work any better than what they’d already done — though, once again, the attempt had to be made.

He glanced at his watch. It was getting to be mid-afternoon already, somehow, and they’d made no progress except to confirm that the thing was, in fact, a ghost. If the lack of results continued and Sano got much angrier, he might decide to take his ghost elsewhere. And though not exactly a paying customer (yet… though Hajime sensed ‘ever’ might be a better term), he’d presented the exorcist with a unique opportunity Hajime didn’t want to lose. He would talk to this ghost, no matter what it took. Which meant he needed to try to keep Sano happy.

“This might take a while,” he said. “How do you feel about ordering Chinese?”

Part 5

Sano had always believed himself persistent, but Hajime was absolutely indefatigable. They had tried everything: they’d used every communicative technique Hajime knew, and looked up others online; they’d performed various types of séance — most of these also gleaned off websites, many of dubious authenticity; Hajime had attempted to get the cats to make some sort of mental connection with the ghost so he could talk through them; and they’d eventually just tried to exorcize the thing rather than communicate with it, which Sano could see annoyed and dismayed Hajime, who wanted very much to get information from the ghost.

This last negated any guilt Sano might have been feeling about essentially asking the exorcist to work for free: Hajime was clearly more than a little eager to interact with the ghost, and didn’t care whether he got anything else out of the situation. This was extremely fortunate, since Sano, who between tuition and rent was always low on funds, didn’t know how much longer he could put up with this angering distraction in his life, but also didn’t know how else he might get rid of it.

Not that any efforts toward dealing with the ghost had paid off so far. Nothing had seemed even the least bit effective, and Hajime’s thin lips had set into a tighter and tighter line as afternoon turned into evening and then night, until he appeared almost as frustrated as Sano was. The two of them had taken to bickering over every little thing, and violence was only barely averted on a number of occasions. Even the cats had become increasingly irritable, and at one point Misao bit Sano’s hand so hard it drew significant blood.

Sano had firmly vetoed the suggestion that they order Chinese (since he worked at a Chinese restaurant and already suffered nightmares about never being able to eat anything else for the rest of his life), so they’d ordered pizza instead and argued heatedly about toppings. Sano had been forced to give in on that score when reminded that Hajime was paying. Then they’d eaten pizza and drunk beer as if they were hanging out having fun instead of futilely and increasingly frustratingly trying to get into contact with a ghost they could very plainly sense in their immediate presence but couldn’t talk to no matter what they tried.

At one point Sano had suggested they attempt inducing possession, and volunteered himself for the process when Hajime evinced obvious distaste for the idea. However, even once Hajime had been reluctantly convinced this was worth giving a try, yet again it hadn’t worked. Sano had been disappointed — he would have said ‘secretly disappointed’ if he hadn’t been in the same room as a communicator — not solely because it was another blocked avenue to getting rid of or at least talking to the ghost, but because he thought it would be pretty cool to be able to say later that he’d been possessed. Even if the outcome might have been unpleasant, it would have been an interesting and unique experience.

It was the damn shade that had unendingly gotten in the way. There was always more of the stuff no matter how much Hajime diffused or Sano absorbed; and no matter how quickly they dealt with it, they couldn’t seem to cause even a momentary break in the flow to allow them through to the ghost beyond. He supposed it wasn’t a bad method of protection, and reflected further that if he were undead, he would probably be wreathed in the same impenetrable anger.

The annoyance he felt at the circumstance must have caused him to project this last thought, for Hajime had remarked in response, “Undoubtedly.”

Eventually, frustrated, aggravated, worn ragged on a magical level, they’d given up — at least on dealing with the ghost under their own power. To Sano, who in calling Hajime in the first place had already admitted this defeat, it hadn’t been as annoying a concession as it obviously was to Hajime. But the exorcist had been the one to suggest the alternative they probably should have had in mind all along: taking the ghost to Aoshi. The latter was a skilled medium; if anyone could talk to this damned thing, it was he.

Unfortunately, Aoshi was unavailable on weekends (and Sano had to work on Sunday in any case), which meant another day of trying to restrain the shade from hovering where other people might unknowingly walk through it and take ill effects from the invisible anger. It was just such a fucking pain.

But now, finally, Monday morning, he’d risen earlier than he generally ever wanted to during Spring Break, and headed toward Forest of Four to meet Hajime there and hope Aoshi had a free moment sometime before lunch. Well, more than a moment: if Aoshi could communicate with the ghost, he and Hajime both were sure to sit there asking it all kinds of questions probably for hours on end. Sano was already bracing himself for a lengthy period of boredom, since, although he believed it would be interesting enough at first, he also knew those two necrovisua nerds would drag it out far past the point of easy endurance. He only hoped they wouldn’t forget about him and his predicament in the process and fail to ask the ghost the all-important question of what they needed to do to get rid of it.

Aoshi’s shop was never terribly busy, and when the little parking lot began to fill up it was usually mostly for the market next door. Sano didn’t see Hajime’s car yet, though, so he loitered around outside. Since this destination was a negligible distance from his apartment, he’d come on foot, and therefore hadn’t outdistanced the ghost. It maintained its customary slow, elliptical orbit as he stood on the curb and looked idly around.

A couple of guys hanging out pointlessly in front of the used CD store on the far side of the market kept glancing over at him, and some market shoppers stared likewise as they emerged with full bags. He wondered if he seemed angrier than usual, or if it was just that he’d used blue gel in his hair today.

Someone actually here to shop Forest of Four gave a startled look to the ghost as she emerged from her car, then a pitying one to Sano; she probably thought he was here for advice on how to deal with a red shade and politely waiting for his appointment time outside where it wouldn’t disturb the business. He was tempted to tell her, as she passed, that he was perfectly capable of dealing with red shades all on his own, thank you very much, but just then Hajime pulled up.

Glad at the prospect of taking out some of his anger on a relatively willing victim, Sano went to meet him at his car. Hajime’s yellow eyes, on stepping from that vehicle, were not on Sano but on the ghost, and he looked a little surprised. “How long have you been waiting?”

“Since nine.” Sano stuck his chin out and did not add, “You know, the time you said to meet you?” Hajime probably took Sano for the unreliable type just out of his teens that was never on time for anything, and therefore hadn’t hurried to get here. Greatly disliking that sort of assumption, Sano was pleased he’d come on foot and already had the ghost with him in order to give the impression of having been here a while.

Unfortunately, Hajime seemed to pick up on this, and, with a glance around the parking lot, which of course did not contain Sano’s vehicle, smirked faintly and gestured they should go inside. Hajime’s car, which reminded Sano a little of gangster cars in movies, was evidently new and well-enough-favored to merit locking and arming, which made Sano faintly jealous as they headed into the store.

“Good morning, Mr. Saitou!” The girl at the counter sounded surprised, but no less cheerful for that. They were always cheerful in here — all of them except Aoshi, who seemed to have made it his goal to weigh a personal balance against the combined peppiness of his entire staff.

“We need to see Aoshi as soon as possible,” Hajime told the girl as they drew up to the counter.

Sano, had he been behind that counter, would have reacted to the dictatorial tone with annoyance; all the girl did, however, was widen her eyes a bit as she looked past them both. “Is that–”

“It’s a ghost,” Hajime declared, clearly and perhaps overloudly.

“Really?” the girl breathed. Sano finally remembered her name now: Omasu, who’d turned him down when he’d asked her out the very first time he’d come in here. “An actual ghost?”

Hajime nodded. “I assume Aoshi will be interested.”

“I just bet he will!” agreed Omasu in excitement. She was already pulling up the hinged counter segment and emerging. “Let me run talk to him!”

While she carried out her stated intention, Sano realized with an odd feeling why Hajime had practically announced to the entire store that a real ghost accompanied them. There were only two other visitors at the moment, and although one (the sympathetic woman from outside) had been browsing the books on crystal healing and the other the jewelry, it appeared that by some chance they were both necrovisual. And the moment Omasu was gone, they converged on Hajime without even any polite pretense, demanding to know about the ghost.

Admittedly Hajime handled it very well, never dropping a hint that they’d brought the ghost here because they couldn’t even begin to communicate with it or, almost, affect it in any way. He made it seem, instead, without actually saying so, that he was doing Aoshi a favor by giving him the opportunity to interact with an actual ghost. He didn’t mention Sano at all.

Of course this was only natural; an exorcist’s reputation could be significantly boosted by a situation like this, and Hajime would be an idiot not to take advantage of it. Logically Sano didn’t blame him, and also reminded himself that Hajime was helping him out for free when he might have been working on a paying job — but it annoyed him no less for that.

Worse, it wasn’t even Sano Hajime was taking advantage of here, but, rather, the ghost haunting him. Sano was accessory to the actual person Hajime was using to enhance his professional reputation. What the two eager necrovisuals made of the angry young man emitting the same energy that surrounded the purported ghost, Sano couldn’t guess. Maybe he was lucky and they didn’t see red. In any case, taking cue from Hajime, they largely ignored him.

Hajime ended up giving each of them a business card, and Sano ended up giving each of them a surreptitious gesture with a particular finger. Hajime seemed entertained by this, and was clearly restraining a chuckle as Omasu came hurrying back to them with the news that Aoshi had cleared his schedule for the entire morning in order to see them.

Even as they headed for the office in back, they could hear her starting to make calls to cancel all of her employer’s existing appointments. These probably amounted to no more than two, knowing Aoshi, but even so Sano felt a little bad about displacing them. Not nearly as bad as he would have if he hadn’t been haunted by a ghost he couldn’t get rid of and an exorcist that clearly regarded said ghost with far more interest than he did Sano. It would be nice to get this all dealt with.

Part 6

When they entered Aoshi’s office, the medium was in the act of moving chairs from before and behind his desk into positions facing the center of the room. His quick, vigorous motions declared what his face, morose as usual, could not: that he was excited and interested by the promise of a ghost. Hajime couldn’t help considering that Aoshi would be extremely, possibly dangerously disappointed if for some reason the ghost turned out to be something less than he expected or if by any chance he couldn’t communicate with it; and that he was already so worked up — and, indeed, that the cashier girl had run back so enthusiastically to talk to him — on nothing more than Hajime’s statement showed satisfactorily how much the exorcist’s word was worth around here.

Semi-darkness always hovered in this room, whether to create the atmosphere favored by its gloomy occupant or for legitimate magical purposes Hajime had never known or cared; but there also always seemed to be an unearthly gleam to Aoshi’s eyes even in the shadows. Today it was brighter than usual as he looked up at them. “Whose spirit is it?” he asked — which from him was a fairly typical greeting, since he rarely bothered with polite, meaningless phrases such as ‘Hello’ or ‘Have a seat.’

“We don’t know,” Hajime replied, having a seat. He tilted his head toward the young man entering behind him. “It’s haunting Sano.”

As Aoshi’s eyes shifted to Sano, the latter commented with just a touch of bitterness, “Oh, you want me to tell him?” He’d been annoyed outside about Hajime ignoring him and playing up the ghost to the other customers, but Hajime believed he’d also understood, which explained why he wasn’t flaring as brightly as he could be right about now. By suggesting Sano explain the situation to Aoshi, Hajime hoped to reassure the young man a little that he and his predicament weren’t forgotten.

Sano didn’t get the chance to explain, however, nor was he likely to think himself unforgotten. For at that moment the ghost moved into the office after him, through the door they’d closed behind them, and procured every last bit of Aoshi’s attention.

The pale glow of the shade contrasted enough with the shadowy room actually to illuminate objects that had previously been close to invisible. It was an uncanny light, and all the more eerie to Hajime for the thought that the other two living humans in the room saw it as red, and therefore, undoubtedly, the entire office as tinted by that color (and that many other living humans, had they been present, wouldn’t have been able to see it at all). It made Aoshi’s eyes glow an even brighter blue, but Hajime supposed that, from Sano’s perspective, they must have been purple or even entirely red.

The medium began to circle the ghost like a prowling panther, examining it from all sides meticulously up and down; and whether aware of this scrutiny and deliberately permitting it or for some totally unrelated reason, the ghost held still. Finally Aoshi asked in a half whisper, “Who are you?” It seemed intended as a rhetorical question, as he didn’t wait for an answer; evidently he could already perceive the difficulty with the shade energy.

“We’ve tried everything we could think of,” Sano put in at this point; it was clear by his expression, where he’d seated himself in the chair next to Hajime’s, that he couldn’t be sure whether or not Aoshi would even hear him. He went on anyway. “We haven’t been able to get through to him. There’s just too much shade in the way.”

Aoshi might indeed not have heard him, for all the reaction he gave. He’d gone perfectly still, staring unblinkingly at the ghost now, and looked as if he might remain that way for some time. Hajime caught Sano’s eye and shrugged; Sano, who’d been scowling, relaxed a little and actually smiled. Hajime had to smile faintly too when he caught from Sano the projected thought (deliberately this time, he believed), Should’ve seen this coming. Which was certainly true.

What he also should have seen coming was Aoshi, when he finally moved, beginning to go through the motions Hajime and Sano had exhausted the day before yesterday. He doubted it would take Aoshi nearly as long to realize the futility of standard communication or even standard necromantic efforts, but for the moment he sat back in the uncomfortable chair and watched only idly. Beside him, Sano had extracted from a spike-edged pocket a cheap pre-paid phone and begun texting someone.

Just to see if he still remembered how to do it, Hajime reached out mentally to read the departing message. Apparently Sano was responding with an apologetic negative to a request that he come in to work today, but Hajime couldn’t catch the exact wording — probably for the best, as he abhorred textspeak.

If Aoshi had bothered to listen to what they had to say about the ghost instead of completely shutting them out and wading in on his own, he could have skipped the steps he was working his way through now; but in all probability he would have made the attempt anyway, believing communicator-turned-exorcist Hajime and Sano, whatever Sano might be, weren’t as skilled at contacting the dead as he was — a natural enough assumption.

In any case, while Aoshi tried various methods of talking to the ghost, sometimes with verbal questions but more often in complete silence, Hajime somewhat absently continued to follow Sano’s text conversation. There came a reiteration of the work request and the information that the other maintenance guy had called in sick — apparently X, Y, and Z weren’t going to get done, and this was some sort of disaster — followed by a firmer, less apologetic refusal from Sano and his statement that he didn’t want any extra hours this week since he had a lot to do.

When Hajime caught an incoming message in reply wondering whether this week wasn’t Sano’s Spring Break, he was beginning to get a feel for the exact words in addition to the general meaning — but just then Sano glanced abruptly over at him with a suspicious expression, and Hajime withdrew his mental nets. Interesting that Sano could sense what he was doing when he claimed seeing and absorbing angry shade energy as the extent of his magical abilities. Hajime turned his full attention back to Aoshi.

It took fifteen or twenty minutes for the medium to determine his attempts weren’t going to work; but, despite this being quite a decent time in comparison to the hours Hajime and Sano had spent at similar pursuits on Saturday, Sano was by then shifting restlessly in his chair from one bored-looking position to another, and slowly, gradually, growing angrier. Why angrier? Why would Sano be absorbing the shade at this point? It wasn’t on a large enough scale to be of any use to Aoshi, and otherwise it just seemed stupid.

But Hajime didn’t have a chance to ask or otherwise figure it out, for Aoshi at last appeared to have remembered there were living people in the room besides himself. He’d turned toward where they sat, and, though the engrossed, fascinated gleam hadn’t left his eyes, the latter did seem a little more present now. “You’ve never once been able to communicate with him?” he asked abruptly. It was his usual saturnine tone, but for some reason he spoke Japanese; and this was no ambivalent ‘him,’ but a distinctly masculine pronoun.

“That’s right,” Hajime confirmed in the same language, and reiterated Sano’s earlier statement about the shade energy getting in the way.

Sano had sat up straight, and watched Aoshi with interest now. The medium’s face, lit oddly by the single lamp on the desk and the softer, less pleasant glow of the shade, was impassive as he turned away from the other humans again and regarded the ghost once more. He’d been standing right beside it this entire time, and Hajime wondered at his fortitude. That Aoshi was immune to most normal emotions Hajime had long facetiously speculated, so perhaps the shade didn’t affect him as it would normal people, but surely he must at least be getting a headache over there.

Now Aoshi began searching for something on one of the shelves full of arcane miscellany that lined the office walls. Hajime definitely sensed an eyes-rolling sort of Finally! from Sano, and had to agree; whatever Aoshi sought would undoubtedly be part of a more pointed and expert attempt at ghostly communication, which was, after all, the reason they’d come.

The next thing Hajime picked up from the young man to his left — was Sano deliberately projecting, or really that bad at guarding his thoughts? — was an image of the three of them lit by flickering candle-flame sitting cross-legged on the floor around an intricate set of chalked lines, holding hands, eyes closed, while Aoshi chanted dramatic nonsense. Hajime snorted, and saw Sano’s cheeks twitch against a repressed grin. Clearly he had intended Hajime to see that, and Hajime felt grudgingly impressed: a lot of legitimate communicators couldn’t send ideas that sharply visualized.

The object Aoshi eventually located and withdrew from an unnecessarily ornate wooden box on one of the shelves was small enough to be mostly hidden by his hand and wrist as he turned back toward the ghost. Even when he made a couple of quick motions through the space the ghost occupied — a diagonal slash followed by a quick stab in the same spot — Hajime couldn’t see exactly what it might be. However, Hajime and Sano were instantly on their feet in the wake of Aoshi’s movement, and had both taken a step closer with quick indrawn breaths.

As if whatever Aoshi held had cut a fissure right into the shade energy surrounding the ghost and laid the latter bare along that narrow line, Hajime could suddenly see hints of a human neck and collarbone and shoulder, glowing and translucent, in the midst of the shade. He wondered if it was the same grey-white hue to Sano’s eyes; if so, it must be a striking contrast against the red.

Aoshi’s inward thrust put his hand and the item it clutched inside the constricting fissure, which then closed around the medium’s wrist; it seemed clear he’d made it in; he’d managed to penetrate the shade that had so completely defied Hajime and Sano. The latter two had gone still after leaving their chairs, and only stared as Aoshi’s eyes fluttered closed and his entire body drew up with a deep breath and stiffened into total motionlessness.

Long, tense seconds dragged into one minute, then continued on toward two. Sano was shifting impatiently again, even more agitated now than before, while Hajime attempted to discern what Aoshi held. The shade glow and the darkness of the room combined to make this nearly impossible, but it seemed about the size of a pen.

To anyone not necrovisual this would have looked absurd: Aoshi standing there with one hand raised, appearing to be straining to keep what he held in place in the air; Hajime and Sano also standing, staring at him wordlessly; the atmosphere rigid, expectant. Hajime thought Aoshi’s face was paling somewhat with effort, thought he saw the medium’s frame tremble slightly, and therefore believed himself prepared for what would happen next.

When the break came, when Aoshi shuddered and abruptly jerked his hand back — indeed, jerked his entire body back all at once as if tearing away from some painful adhesion, drawing in another deep, unsteady breath — Hajime stepped quickly forward to support him. And what Hajime hadn’t been prepared for was Aoshi to collapse backward into his arms, eyes rolling up under closing lids, a completely dead weight.

Part 7

Sano knew Aoshi’s dramatic tendencies — indeed, had more than once been required to restrain a grin of mockery or a roll of eyes in the man’s presence — but, if Hajime’s sudden half stagger and evidently somewhat irritated attempt at regaining his balance under Aoshi’s collapsed frame meant anything, this was the real deal. It interested Sano, who had never seen anyone faint before.

He’d been restraining the ghost ever since he’d entered the room, holding it still in order to let Aoshi examine it without having to follow its drifting circle around Sano, but now he released it in favor of moving to help Hajime manhandle Aoshi into a chair. The medium didn’t actually weigh very much, for a guy just under six feet tall, and it was easier than he’d expected to get him into the seat — much more comfortable than the other two in the room — beside the desk. Hajime tilted the chair backward, and adjusted the knobs underneath to make it stay that way, so Aoshi would remain where they’d set him, then looked around.

“It’s so damn dark in here,” he grumbled. “He must at least have some candles somewhere.”

Sano gave a grimace indicating no ideas, glancing at the window that would have let in some additional light if it hadn’t been painted over in black and half-obscured by a bookshelf. When he turned back, he found Hajime taking Aoshi’s pulse.

“Should we get someone?” asked Sano uncertainly. “Or call 911, or…”

Hajime frowned. “I’m not sure what we’d tell the 911 operator. At least his pulse is normal. Look in that fridge and see if he has any water.”

Sano had visited this office a number of times, seated in one of the hard chairs in front of the desk while Aoshi, in the big leather one behind it, questioned him impassively about recent shade-related activity and eventually fetched and counted out the pills Sano needed from a plastic container he kept in a locked cabinet to the left of his desk. But he’d never taken much notice of the small refrigerator beneath the shelves on the opposite side. And he’d certainly never expected to see the eccentric medium lying pale and prostrate in that same big leather chair.

Now, trying to disregard Hajime’s dictatorial tone, he did as he was told. No water was to be found in the fridge, only a salad in Tupperware, seven different flavors of coffee creamer, and a couple of vials Sano probably didn’t want to know the contents of; however, he caught sight of the coffeemaker on a shelf (this one almost more of a countertop in an alcove) above the fridge. The device seemed to have a water line in, and a group of upside-down mugs stood beside it. One of these, full of lukewarm liquid, he handed to Hajime in short order.

As Hajime flicked water in Aoshi’s face, he issued his next command: “Make some coffee too, if you can figure the machine out; he’ll probably need it when he wakes up.”

“Or,” Sano replied crossly, “he’ll get annoyed that we’re messing with his stuff.”

“How often have you seen him in here without a cup of coffee?” countered Hajime.

Sano would have liked to make an angry retort, but unfortunately the answer to Hajime’s question was ‘practically never,’ so argument would be futile. Wanting to let out some anger, though, as he turned he demanded, “And what do you mean, if I can figure out the machine? How hard do you think it is to push buttons on a coffeemaker?”

“For you, or for the average single-celled organism?”

“You know what? Fuck you.” He’d expected an insult like that, however — well, technically, he’d expected something less funny — and it was weird to feel so angry, yet simultaneously relieved and satisfied… and disconcerting to consider this jerk kinda nice to have around, what with his willingness to be offensive and irritating at the drop of a hat, and his sexy voice…

Hajime chuckled quietly, then went silent as Aoshi stirred. From Sano’s angle it was difficult to tell, but he thought Aoshi’s eyes drifted open and his breath came out in a faint sigh. Sano hastened to finish dealing with the coffee package and filter and get the machine going, and, to the sound of its quiet hiss as the brewing cycle started, circumnavigated the big chair to see what exactly was going on.

Aoshi didn’t appear to be processing anything before him, though he had indeed opened his eyes, and Sano was in time to see Hajime grip his shoulder and give him a shake. Slowly a sort of fog seemed to lift from the medium’s gaze, into which the customary glint returned as he focused more and more coherently on the two men in front of him. “Oh,” he finally said. Then he struggled to sit up straight in his chair, and frowned slightly at the odd angle it was set to. He reached down to readjust the knobs Hajime had changed, saying nothing for several seconds, until he’d fixed his seat.

Next he looked around, still a little vague. His eyes fell on the active coffeemaker and seemed to stick there for several seconds as if in confusion as to why coffee was brewing when he hadn’t initiated that process. Then he shook himself slightly, nodded, and turned back.

“You OK?” Sano wondered.

Aoshi nodded again. “I believe I am.” And like the last few things he’d said before passing out, this brief phrase was for some reason in Japanese.

Hajime prodded Sano in the ribs suddenly, and when Sano looked in his direction he found him gesturing for movement. Realizing he probably meant it was a good idea at this point to stop towering over the seated Aoshi and resume their own chairs on the other side of the desk, annoyed at Hajime’s manner of expressing the suggestion but thinking it best to comply, he stuck out his tongue and did so.

Having turned the wooden chairs to face Aoshi and sat down again, they watched him draw close to the desk as if to use it for support against the weariness that was now evident in his face and movements. Then Aoshi fixed his eyes on Sano and said, “This was the shade you contacted me about, correct? The one that collects again even after you’ve absorbed it all?”

Sano nodded.

The quiet, dour gaze moved up and down Sano analytically, undoubtedly taking in the angry aura that lingered around him after his latest irritation at Hajime’s behavior. “It’s vicious shade energy,” Aoshi remarked at last.

“Tell me about it,” Sano muttered.

“Actually, tell us about the ghost,” Hajime corrected. “Were you able to talk to it?”

Aoshi shook his head. “I was only able to get general impressions from him.”

“So he is a guy, then,” said Sano.

When Aoshi nodded, Hajime put in, “And of Japanese descent, I assume.”

“Yes. How–” Aoshi paused, his brows twitching briefly inward. Sano got the feeling he was only just realizing he’d made an unexplained language switch some time ago and the other two had cooperated without protest. “Yes,” he finally went on, now in English again. “I would tentatively guess half Japanese, half American, born and raised in the States in a Japanese-style home, possibly here in this very Asian district.”

“Sounds like me,” Sano mused.

“I couldn’t sense much more about him than that. Even that was a vague impression I might be mistaken about.”

“It seems like a fairly specific impression to me,” Hajime contradicted. “Why that particular information?”

“I am a Japanese immigrant. It’s easier to sense how you’re similar to a ghost than areas in which you’re totally different from him.”

Hajime appeared a little suspicious as he remarked, “You say that as if you’ve met other ghosts.”

“This is the second I’ve encountered,” Aoshi replied.

Though Hajime sat back without another word, Sano couldn’t help thinking somewhat complacently that that news must be annoying the hell out of him; he’d thought he’d found a ghost before Aoshi had, and here Aoshi had been ahead of him all along and was one up on him now.

The coffeemaker had gradually stopped its gurgling, and Aoshi reached for the full mug in a movement so automatic he almost seemed unaware of what he was doing. Once he had the coffee on the desk in front of him, however, he definitively noticed it; and there followed a long process of selecting a creamer from the fridge and stirring it into the dark liquid, carried out in complete silence, that was amusing and frustrating to watch.

Next he unlocked the cabinet to his left and withdrew, rather than some magical pill or powder as Sano had seen him do before, just a bottle of standard painkillers. Sano knew the brand, which was targeted at migraine sufferers and caffeinated, and raised his brows at the amount of the latter chemical Aoshi planned to ingest.

After swallowing three of the pills and beginning to sip what must still be quite hot coffee, Aoshi finally continued in a dark tone. “I wasn’t able to sense more about him because I couldn’t maintain the connection through that intense shade energy — and also because he was projecting his anchor so strongly it overrode nearly everything else.”

“Anchor?” Sano echoed, unfamiliar with the term in this context.

At the same moment Hajime wondered, “Oh? What is it?”

Aoshi sighed faintly. “It’s the same anchor as it was for the last ghost I encountered,” he answered Hajime rather than Sano. “And, as far as I’ve read, for a majority of ghosts throughout human history. A woman, of course.”

Part 8

Aoshi’s theatrical announcement that a woman anchored the ghost to the living world failed to make much of an impression on Hajime. And perhaps Aoshi was a little disappointed that he didn’t gasp and draw back, wide-eyed, in response, but when Hajime instead asked, “What does she look like?” he answered calmly enough:

“A beautiful Japanese woman. It was more a general sense than a visual. I believe she’s in her mid-twenties. She may be a mother. He wants to go to her, and it’s clear he won’t be free until he does.”

“Why doesn’t he just do it, then?” wondered Sano in frustration. “Where do I come in?”

“She probably can’t see ghosts,” Hajime reminded him. “Maybe you were the first person he ran into who could tell he was there.” Though he had to think there was more to it than that.

Sano apparently did too, for he glanced at the ghost with a pensive scowl. Interestingly, it had started drifting around the young man again as soon as Aoshi fainted; Hajime wondered what had stilled it before.

Finally Sano said, “But if he’s so mad at this woman, why doesn’t he go do the usual thing? Give her headaches and make her pissed at the whole world and all that?”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “Because he’s not just a shade, idiot. Most people want the people they’re angry at to know why they’re angry.”

“She probably killed him,” Sano said, and, in the midst of the ire he suddenly gave off at being called an idiot, it was difficult to gage his level of seriousness. “In which case I’m sure she’d know why he’s mad.”

“Maybe,” Hajime pondered, “because you’re so good at getting angry, he thinks you’ll be willing to carry out his revenge for him.”

“Well, he’s got another think coming, in that case.”

Aoshi, who’d been sipping his coffee in silence through this exchange, finally said, “We’ll never be able to communicate with him as long as he’s so violently angry. At least some of that intense shade has to be cleared up first. And obviously this mysterious woman is the key.”

His tone had a rare edge to it, a sharp indicator of continued interest and some of the dangerous disappointment Hajime had idly predicted earlier. The statement had also been something of a command: Aoshi wanted to talk to the ghost even more than Hajime did, and at this point was essentially ordering Hajime and Sano to find the mysterious woman and get the dead man’s anger dealt with. Reminding himself of Sano as he did so, Hajime bristled at this. Unlike Sano would have, however, he didn’t let it show. The ghost had to be handled one way or another, after all, and finding the woman and dispelling the shade energy seemed the logical next step.

“If we do manage to find this anchor of his,” he told Aoshi, “the result will probably be him moving on. I can’t promise you’re going to be able to talk to him on this side.”

Aoshi fixed him with a piercing stare in which were all the same emotions and concepts contained in his earlier tone. “What you can promise,” he said, “is to relay anything you learn from him to me.”

Hajime stifled a sigh. True, they had new information and a new avenue to follow, but he almost regretted bringing the ghost here. Aoshi could be a trifle obsessive, and was unlikely to let this drop until he’d either learned something interesting or become convinced of the impossibility of doing so. Still, Hajime perfectly understood the desire, even if this wasn’t the first ghost Aoshi had ever met. After all, he, too, wanted answers from the dead man… and there would certainly be no harm in passing those answers along to someone that had assisted him. “Of course,” he said. “Anything else you can tell us that might help?”

Aoshi shook his head.

“Hang on…” Sano was obviously a little confused. “Are we going after this woman? Is that the idea here?”

Hajime stood. “That’s the idea here. Thank you for your help, Aoshi.”

Aoshi nodded.

Sano rose, face set in a scowl of annoyance and lack of understanding. “But how the hell are we supposed to know where to even start looking for her? She could be anyone, anywhere — she could be in Japan for all we know!”

Hajime didn’t bother answering the question or pointing out how unlikely it seemed that the woman was in Japan. He just turned away from Aoshi’s desk and moved toward the door, saying, “Do you want to be haunted forever? This is the next step to dealing with your friend, so come on.”

“But if we find the woman, this ghost is probably going to start doing horrible things to her with his stupid shade, and she’ll suffer, and it’ll be our fault.”

It was interesting to find Sano evidently so concerned with the situation itself, and the anonymous people involved, beyond merely as it affected him. Hajime could have responded to his protest in a number of ways, and most of them would probably have to be brought up eventually in any case, but the one he chose at the moment was, “Didn’t you say you thought she killed him?”

“I was joking!”

As they passed across the open space where Aoshi had made the best contact with the ghost of any of them thus far, Hajime glanced down to where the previously unidentifiable object had fallen to the floor when the medium had fainted. On sight of the slightly tapering surgical steel handle and small detachable blade, he nodded slightly; that made sense.

Outside Aoshi’s office and the little hallway that led to it, they were immediately the subject of scrutiny of every eye in the place. Clearly the cashier had been gossiping to the other customers about who the boss had in his office right now, and the effect wasn’t lessened by Sano’s saying, as they walked out of the room, “I don’t want to just sic this angry ghost out of the blue on some innocent woman!” This statement would be enough to pique the interest of anyone that overheard it — and, by the looks of it, most of them had.

Even if Hajime had been planning another round of posing, equivocal ghost-talk, however, Sano wasn’t having it this time. He said distinctly, “Heel!” and then… well, Hajime hadn’t been expecting it and didn’t quite catch what he did. But in response the ghost moved quickly over to Sano and followed beside and behind him — indeed, very like a dog coming to heel — as Sano, scowling faintly, stalked out of the store. Hajime, fighting not to appear startled and immensely curious, hastened to follow.

Outside, Sano took several steps away from the shop entrance before he stopped walking and turned to face Hajime. Whatever hold he had on the ghost he did not release — it maintained its motionless position at his side — and Hajime realized Sano must have been doing this before whenever the ghost had seemed unaccountably still. Moreover, it probably meant he deliberately hadn’t been doing it while Hajime had been absurdly following the ghost back and forth and back and forth through his living room on Saturday. Brat.

But at the moment Hajime was more interested in how Sano did it than why he’d neglected it two days ago. This surely answered the question of why Sano’s anger had been so steadily rising in Aoshi’s office: whatever method he used to hold the ghost still probably siphoned shade energy off into him, more gradually than if he were purposefully absorbing it but eventually to the same effect.

“So where are we going to start looking for our mystery lady?” Despite Sano’s having asked the question relatively calmly, Hajime could easily see and sense he was still annoyed in general; the young man could probably do with releasing some anger.

So in a tone skeptically derisive Hajime asked, “You really can’t think of a single idea?”

Sano flared and scowled, but instead of an irate retort he gave a surprisingly frank answer. “No! Unless by some weird coincidence she happens to go to my school and I run into her and ghostie-guy here reacts, I have no way of finding some random woman I don’t even have a name or description for! She’s Japanese? How’s that supposed to help? You know what kind of Asian population this city has! I mean, look at us — we were three Japanese guys in one room there; four, if you count him–” he jabbed a thumb toward the ghost– “pretty much just by coincidence! What are we supposed to do, just walk the Asian district until some woman comes running out and says, ‘Hey, is that my ghost that I lost?'”

The unspoken but overwhelming complaint behind this rant was, “I’m going to have to deal with this ghost forever. The one way to get rid of him seems impossible, and he’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.” Hajime honestly felt sorry for him, and couldn’t help giving him a less condescending smile than usual.

“Fortunately,” he said, “I do have an idea.”

The startled, open, hopeful look Sano gave him was rather gratifying. “What is it?”

“First, tell me how you’re forcing the ghost to hold still.”

Now Sano glanced at the spirit in question, as if he’d forgotten he was doing that at all. “Oh, uh…” He raised a hand and gestured. “I just sort of… reach in there… same as how I reach to absorb the shade… only instead of doing that…” He twisted his hand as if he were wrapping a mass of something malleable around it and drawing it back toward him. “It sortof opens a channel for the shade energy again, so it’s a pain in the ass to keep doing it… but at least I can keep him from bugging other people that way.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “You do realize that exercising any type of control over a shade like that is conjuration.” That is to say, a totally different area of necrovisual magic than the one Sano claimed solely to be skilled in.

“Yeah, I guess it is.” This tone was equal parts pensive and indifferent, as if this might be a good deal more interesting later when Sano wasn’t as concerned with how they could possibly get rid of the ghost that had been haunting him for weeks. “So what’s your idea?”

At this moment, a couple of customers emerged from Forest of Four. One of them elbowed the other and made what he probably thought was a surreptitious gesture toward Hajime and Sano. A few seconds longer and they would assuredly walk in this direction.

“Let’s go,” Hajime murmured. “It’s too early for lunch, but I wouldn’t mind some coffee.” The smell in Aoshi’s office had been suggestively pleasant, even if Aoshi did take his coffee with insane amounts of bizarrely-flavored additives.

Sano, who had also observed the gawkers at the shop’s door, nodded.

“And I need to make a phone call,” Hajime added.

Part 9

Hajime had one of those in-car hands-free phone systems that automatically synched up the moment he turned on the engine. Sano restrained himself from asking if he could mess around with it, especially when, as Hajime backed out of the parking space, he was already starting his call.

Nobody answered, and Hajime hung up as soon as the voicemail connected, so Sano got no clue as to who might have been on the other end. But, “He’ll call back when he sees my number,” the exorcist said.

“Who?” Sano wondered. But Hajime was glancing thoughtfully from one side of the street to the other as he drove, evidently trying to decide on a destination, and didn’t answer. This was, of course, very annoying, but instead of reiterating the question Sano just remarked, “Aoshi was way less helpful than I expected. I figured he’d be talking to that thing inside of a minute, and keep talking to him for hours.”

“At least he got through to him at all,” Hajime replied grudgingly. “That’s more than we managed.”

“I got all distracted by him fainting and talking about anchors and that woman and all that, and forgot to ask how a ghost can keep putting out shade energy.”

Hajime took his turn looking annoyed. “There were several things he probably could have told us if he hadn’t fallen in love with that ghost at first sight and forgotten we were there.” Sano took this to mean, “I got distracted and forgot too,” which could only make him smile. But if Hajime sensed and resented Sano’s interpretation of his statement, he gave no indication of it.

They ended up at a coffee place Sano had never heard of, though it was just outside the south end of the Asian district. Sano would have sat with idle hands at the table they chose beside the front window — gourmet drinks at pretentious little coffee shops were just too expensive for someone like him — if Hajime, somewhat impatiently, hadn’t insisted on buying him one. Sano never said no to a free… well, anything, really, but it felt a little weird to be accepting another favor from a man he technically should have been paying for his services instead of the other way around.

Hajime picked up on this and said dismissively, “Incidental expenses.”

Sano looked dubiously at his cup. “How often do you buy coffee for your clients?”

“Occasionally,” the exorcist shrugged.

“But they’re usually already paying you money.” Hajime hadn’t even asked if Sano could pay him, which was probably for the best since Sano didn’t think he would have been able to refrain from making an only-mostly-facetious offer of gay sex in place of funds he didn’t have. (He felt he was getting the hang of controlling which thoughts went out and which ones stayed hidden, and to this one Hajime didn’t respond.)

“They also usually don’t give me the chance to talk to a real ghost.”

At this Sano mimicked Hajime’s shrug and decided not to worry about it any further. And the next moment, Hajime’s phone rang.

Sano sat forward, listening eagerly to this side of the conversation and what little he could hear from the other party — which wasn’t much, though he thought the voice was youngish and somewhat belligerent.

“Yes,” Hajime began the discussion. “It took you long enough to call back.” Then, after some apparently equally rude remark from the other end, “Of course. No, that’s over and done with. I need to know if there have been any Japanese men around here who have died lately under unusual circumstances. Yes. No. He’ll have left behind a woman, also Japanese — a wife or girlfriend or maybe a family member — someone close to him. Yes; when isn’t it? No, I’ve got a client being haunted by an actual ghost this time. Yes. OK, thanks.”

As Hajime replaced the phone — it was a nice-looking smart phone with a touch screen — Sano guessed, “So… cop?”

Hajime nodded. “He’s got no magical talent himself, but he’s been a believer ever since I dealt with a yellow shade he picked up somewhere. We have an unofficial arrangement that he can consult me on anything that seems magical, and in return he gives me information when I need it.”

“Sounds good,” Sano nodded. Actually he was more than a little impressed. Having a contact in the police like that was better than just knowing a good medium; not only did it sound like something super-cool out of a TV show, it also rather put Hajime into a higher league of effectiveness. He supposed that was one marked difference between a career exorcist and a guy that just happened, every once in a while, to absorb red shades for his schoolmates.

“So why are you an exorcist, anyway?” Sano had asked this question, or a variant, on Saturday, but now had a hankering for a more complete answer.

“It seemed interesting.” While Sano doubted this comprised Hajime’s entire reason for his career choice, he also got a feeling of truth from the words. But just then the ghost, in its sluggish circling of the table, moved right into the path of a customer getting in line, and Sano reached out and jerked the spirit toward himself to spare the poor woman some discomfort. Once she’d moved out of the ghost’s likely trajectory, Sano let the figure go again. He was conjuring, wasn’t he? He’d never thought about it before; the action had always just seemed to come so naturally…

Hajime, watching him with unreadable eyes, now asked unexpectedly, “What are you going to school for?”

Sano was always a little embarrassed when people hit him with that question. “I haven’t really decided. I’m just getting the general stuff out of the way right now.” He shrugged. “I should probably figure it out pretty soon here… but it kinda sucks how you only have a couple of years to choose what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.”

“You don’t necessarily have to do what you major in forever,” Hajime said with a skeptical expression.

Again Sano shrugged. “It’s easier, though. And it seems like the cooler and more fun a profession is, the less likely you are to ever be able to get into it.”

Hajime chuckled. “Only if you lack ambition and drive.”

“And luck!” Sano replied, stung. “People with cool jobs were usually in the right place at the right time.”

“With the right skillsets,” Hajime appended.

“Yeah, well… you can’t go around training for every cool job in the world just in case a good coincidence happens to come along.”

“Fortune favors the prepared.”

“What does that actually mean, anyway?”

“I can see that a strong understanding of the English language isn’t part of any of your skillsets.”

“I understand English just fine, ” Sano said hotly. “Just old sayings and shit don’t always make sense.”

Hajime only laughed at him again.

Sano’s hand clenched tightly around the coffee cup, warping the cardboard with his irate grip, but he strove not to speak angrily. “I mean, like, ‘cutting the mustard?’ What the hell does that mean? Or, why does it mean what it means?”

Derisive smile unfaded, Hajime did at least admit, “You have a point there.”

Someone was about to walk through the ghost again, and Sano stood abruptly as once again he pulled the it quickly toward himself. “Come on. There’s too many people in here; let’s go outside.”

The walk wasn’t exactly picturesque; next door to the coffee shop stood a tire store that filled the air with an intolerable reek of rubber, followed by a gas station and then an apartment complex behind a tall fence. Sano was getting annoyed from dragging the ghost around so much, and it annoyed him to find himself getting annoyed for no good reason, and then he was annoyed at being annoyed at being annoyed. When Hajime evidently found this amusing, Sano at least then had good cause to be annoyed.

It fascinated him how cheerfully Hajime took his abuse. Sano was aware — and grateful! — that the exorcist was and had been provoking him deliberately so he could work off some of the stupid shade anger he’d been absorbing; he figured Hajime would do that for any client. But he seemed to enjoy it. Was he a masochist, or what?

He wanted to know more than this about Hajime. His earlier question about the man’s choice of profession had barely been answered, and he still wondered about the apparent improbable level of income, though perfectly aware it was none of his business.

“I guess if you want to know that desperately, I could tell you,” Hajime mused.

Sano swore under his breath. “I thought I wasn’t projecting that.”

“You were still giving off a general sense,” Hajime told him with a smirk. “That’s harder to control.”

With a growling expression of discontent, Sano threw him a dark look. “So you gonna tell me, or what?”

Hajime shrugged.

Deeming that as good an answer as he was likely to get, Sano tried to decide exactly what to ask.

Part 10

Sano had just opened his mouth for the first of what he inexplicably wanted answered when Hajime interrupted preemptively. “If you ask me something, you have to answer a question too.”

“What?” The startled Sano obviously assumed Hajime meant this as an expression of return curiosity.

“Equal exchange.” In fact, Hajime only wanted to minimize the time he had to spend talking about himself and, with the threat of reciprocation, prevent Sano from asking anything obnoxiously personal.

“O…K…” Sano was still surprised, and seemed to be wondering whether this meant Hajime wanted to be friends or what. He was improving at keeping his thoughts to himself, though, and remarkably quickly at that. Finally he said, “So what made you choose to be an exorcist? And just so you know, ‘It seemed interesting’ is not a real answer.”

“I’m afraid it’s still the truth.” Hajime gave Sano a moment to get good and angry at this, then continued. “What’s the next reason for anyone’s career choice, after money? Being an exorcist doesn’t pay enough for me to have any reason to do it other than that it’s interesting.”

“Fine,” Sano allowed, very frustrated, “but, I mean, why aren’t you doing something that pays more? Why aren’t you brainwashing people for the government or doing some non-magical job that, you know… pays more?”

“Exorcism seemed more interesting.”

Sano made an angry noise. “I’m about to throw this ghost at you if you don’t quit it.” It was his coffee he raised threateningly, though.

Hajime laughed. “You’re mostly wondering how I can survive on just an exorcist’s paycheck… Why is that such an area of concern for you?”

“I don’t have to tell you a damn thing until you answer my question first.” Sano’s jaw was set as the lowest part of an impressive scowl, and his movements had taken on an amusing angry stalking quality.

“And I don’t have to answer any of your questions,” Hajime pointed out. “Though, technically, I did. So it’s your turn. What’s your issue with money?”

“Can’t you just read my mind if you want to know?”

“I probably could. So what’s your issue with money?”

Through the midst of the bright angry aura that surrounded him by now, Sano suddenly laughed. “This is probably the stupidest conversation I’ve ever had.”

“It is stupid, but I would hesitate to assign a superlative when you’re involved.”

“You would what to what, now?”

“Your issues with money?” Hajime prompted.

Again Sano laughed, this time sounding defeated, though his aura was only fading slowly. “OK, fine. My ‘issues with money.'” He shrugged. “I don’t think I really have any. We never had a lot of money when I was growing up, but we weren’t what I’d call poor or anything… My parents saved so they could help me pay for college, and I didn’t get a lot of cool stuff… and we always had to ‘shop smart’ and shit like that, especially for food and clothes, so I never got to wear what I wanted, which you know what that does to you in high school?

“And my parents — especially my dad — were always lecturing me about how to manage money, like, every single time I got any; and I’ve been working since I was fifteen — do you know, if you work in a restaurant when you’re fifteen, you’re not allowed to go into the walk-in fridge? — and my parents made me save most of it and never get anything I wanted… but, like I said, it’s not like we were poor or anything.”

As Sano listed all these issues with money he didn’t think he really had, Hajime got an impression, from behind the words, of the value Sano’s parents had attempted to instill in him: a rigid frugality totally foreign to his careless nature that therefore manifested now, rather than as any sort of prudence, as more of an undiscriminating miserliness with occasional outbursts of extravagance. Good thing, after such mismanagement, they were helping him with his tuition.

“What are you grinning about?” Sano demanded suddenly.

“Nothing. Go on.”

Though Sano had originally been annoyed at being maneuvered into giving information first, and was currently annoyed at the implication that Hajime found what he had to say funny, he was also not unhappy to be complaining about his parents and this financial business. “My dad won’t leave me alone about money, ever. It’s gotten so I barely even want to talk to him, because every time I do I know there’s a million questions coming that I don’t really want to answer; and it kinda sucks not wanting to talk to your own dad just because of something like that, but, seriously, he needs to lay off!

“I mean, I’m twenty, for god’s sake, and I have my own apartment, even if it is kinda shit. And, yeah, they’re helping me pay for college, but does that really mean I have to do the classes they want me to take? I have to get my general ed out of the way no matter what I do, so it’s not like I absolutely have to decide right away, but my dad won’t stop getting on my case about choosing a major. He wants me to get some kind of business degree — you know, so I can make plenty of money — but I still don’t know if that’s what I want.”

“That’s what I have,” Hajime offered neutrally.

You have a degree in making money, and you’re still an exorcist?” As Hajime drew breath to answer, Sano added quickly, almost in a snarl, “Don’t you fucking dare say it seemed interesting.”

Hajime, who had been about to, instead restrained his grin at how much fun messing with Sano was proving and said seriously, “Yes. My magical talents woke up while I was attending college here in the States, and after I’d graduated and gone back to Japan I spent a couple of years thinking a career in magic would be much more interesting than the family business, where I was expected to stay forever. But in Japan it’s almost impossible to make money as an exorcist if you don’t do things in approved Shinto style.”

Sano gave a Why am I not surprised? laugh, and Hajime smiled a little as he continued. “When one of my grandparents left me a decent inheritance, I moved back here and took up exorcism as a career.”

Despite how little information Hajime had actually given, Sano seemed totally engrossed. Without even looking at the trash can they passed, he discarded the coffee cup he’d by now emptied.

“Let’s cross here and head back,” Hajime suggested, gesturing at the street. Sano complied, still giving him an expectant look all the way along the crosswalk as if Hajime might have forgotten he was in the middle of a story of sorts. Actually, his evident fascination seemed strange; Hajime’s brief narrative certainly wasn’t any more interesting than Sano’s talk of his parents’ financial eccentricities.

“Of course I’ve invested since then, to make sure I always have enough to live on when no one happens to need an exorcist.” With a shrug to indicate just how mediocre he found all of this, Hajime finished, “That’s all there is to it.”

Clearly impressed, Sano said, “So you didn’t just get lucky getting some money from a relative…” He’d obviously been planning on making fun of Hajime for this (to the extent he was capable), but had been forestalled by further information. “You had something in mind and you went for it as soon as you could, and then you made sure you could keep doing it. Damn.” He didn’t even seem to be trying to conceal that he found this simultaneously inspiring and unsettling.

Hajime too was just a trifle unsettled; he wasn’t used to inspiring people, and thought Sano was assigning inordinate weight to insignificant things. So he sought quickly for a reply that would bring their interaction back to a more appropriate level. “It doesn’t mean you need to lean forward and gape at me like that… you look like an orangutan.”

After the predictable (and predicted) reaction from Sano, the latter fumed for a bit and then, as far as Hajime could tell, returned to wondering at Hajime’s apparent equanimity in response to his anger. He was still reading significance into unimportant things, but there was really nothing to be done about that.

The car system announced an incoming call not long after they’d started back from the coffee shop toward Forest of Four, and Hajime answered immediately.

“Didn’t I mention my client is being haunted?” At this greeting, at his side, Sano’s brows went up over a skeptical smile; he obviously couldn’t tell yet that this type of rudeness and accusation was par for the course of these conversations, and assumed, therefore, that those involved must be more antagonistic toward each other than they actually were. Just to add to the effect, Hajime added, “Do you think I have all day?”

“You know I don’t really give a shit about your clients,” was the retort, sounding half lazy and half harried. “Ain’t my clients. And you better have all day, ’cause there’s no way I’m getting this shit done right now. I’ve got other shit to do, since I have a real job, unlike some bullying assholes I know.”

“When do you estimate you’ll have the information?”

“Tomorrow sometime… or not sooner than never if you’re a bitch about it.”

Hajime grinned. “Sooner than never sounds good. I’ll be waiting to hear from you.”

“Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath.”

“Thanks, Chou.”

As soon as he was convinced the call had ended, Sano laughed. “Wow, that guy sounds like a complete moron!”

“Oh, really?” wondered Hajime. “I was just thinking that he reminds me a little of you.”

“What??” It was terribly entertaining how easily Sano’s buttons could be pushed. “You know, I was just thinking how rude it was that he called you a bitch, but now I think my mind’s changing all of a sudden!”

In a tone of agreement Hajime said, “It can’t weigh too much, so I guess it shifts easily.”

“What does the weight have to do with it?”

“Not too much on it.”

“I think that one was a stretch.” Sano sounded both amused and annoyed, though.

When they reached the Forest of Four parking lot, after only a few more, similar exchanges and nothing of any actual consequence between them, Sano vacated the car with some alacrity, his motions similar to those with which he’d been stalking along the street earlier. With a smirk, Hajime stood out his door and observed his companion over the roof. “I’ll call you as soon as I have information,” he offered.

With a stiffness evidently born of aggravation, Sano nodded and turned away. He hadn’t been holding onto the ghost in the car, and it had yet to catch up; Hajime wondered whether its relatively rapid progress along the street in pursuit of Sano caused any of the inconveniences Sano sought to prevent elsewhere by conjuring it out of people’s paths. He supposed Sano couldn’t be held responsible for everything the ghost did, but it was beginning to be a little odd to see him without the glowing figure close by his side.
After Sano had taken a few steps away and Hajime had begun to move back in order to return to his seat, the young man stopped and turned. This time his stiffness seemed to have another basis entirely. In a voice that was half a grumble, “Thanks for the coffee,” he said.

Part 11

Sano supposed he would just have to get used to being forced to drive around in his car at times and for distances he otherwise would have avoided, at least until this ghost thing ended. And he really wanted this ghost thing to end, so he was probably less annoyed than he might have been when Hajime called him on Tuesday afternoon and requested (more or less; ‘ordered’ might have been a better word) that Sano come to his house to review the information his police friend had emailed him.

He got lost on the way there, of course. Any location he’d visited exactly once was most likely to lead to this result, since he became overconfident about finding a place he’d been to before and didn’t bother asking for helpful reminders such as what street it was on. So he was already angry by the time he finally reached Hajime’s house, and then having to park a block away and hike back didn’t improve matters.

Evidently Hajime recognized his mood (hell, he’d probably picked up on it with Sano still halfway up the street), for on opening the kitchen door at Sano’s none-too-gentle knock, he gave an extremely disdainful look and said, “So you finally decided to show up.”

“You know what?” Sano growled. “Fuck you.” And immediately felt a bit better.

Hajime grinned and let him in.

Misao was suddenly on his knee and climbing before he’d even recognized her presence in the room. And as these pants only had spikes up the sides, she made it through the potentially dangerous area without injury this time. Sano, on the other hand, felt anger flaring again at the painful pricking of her insistent claws all the way up his body; but since he would rather die the most horrible death he could imagine than loose his rage on a kitten, he worked even harder than usual to contain it.

Perhaps sympathizing with Sano, perhaps fearing for Misao’s safety, Hajime came to the rescue of both of them. “Those pants look even stupider than the other ones.”

Misao also said something, in her high-pitched meow, and bumped her head against Sano’s ear, but Sano ignored her in favor of an irate retort to her human: “At least they’ve got some individuality, so I don’t look like some faceless office drone.”

“No, you look like someone who wasn’t allowed to wear what he wanted in high school trying to dress under his age.”

Both because this remark hit close to home and because he couldn’t really turn the matter around effectively when Hajime looked so damn good in those suits he always wore, Sano felt compelled to repeat himself. “Fuck you!” And to make it relevant he added, “I like my clothes!”

Evidently satisfied for the moment, Hajime grinned again and turned away.

Sano found himself now in a fit state to greet the cats. “Hi, Misao.” He lifted her off his shoulder (away from his ticklish ear) and into the crook of an elbow, where she squirmed but allowed him to scratch her head. “Hi, Tokio,” he said next to the older cat that was by now seated with great dignity at his feet.

Whatever Misao had been asking before, she now resumed, and Sano somehow had a feeling Tokio’s more stately meow was a repetition of the question. He glanced at Hajime for a translation.

“They’re wondering where the ghost is.” The exorcist stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, leaning against the frame.

“He’ll probably be here pretty soon,” Sano grumbled, addressing one of the kitchen cupboards rather than the cats since this brought back his annoyance. “All that time I spent trying to find a place to park probably gave him a good chance to catch up.”

At that moment Misao squirmed so intensely and abruptly that Sano dropped her. This seemed to have been her intention, and she twisted in midair, landed on splayed feet with barely a sound, and ran out of the kitchen. Sano hardly had time to wonder what she was up to when she returned, dragging a whippy plastic stick by the little bundle of feathers on one end.

With the latter in her mouth, her meows came out more like squeaks, but evidently they were still intelligible to Tokio, for at Misao’s muffled explanation the older cat said something that sounded disdainful. Well, to Sano, most of what Tokio said sounded, but this one seemed to be specifically meant that way. Misao’s reply had an undaunted tone, however, as she fell onto her side right at Sano’s feet, curling up suddenly and viciously attacking the feathered end of the stick with fore and hind paws.

Regardless of his fluctuating levels of annoyance, Sano couldn’t help breaking into a grin as he watched Misao’s seeming life-or-death endeavor. In particular, the vigor with which her back legs clawed at the toy seemed calculated to disembowel it — or would have, if the thing had possessed bowels — and was pretty funny to watch. After a couple of tries, he got hold of the flailing other end of the stick and began to direct the little cat’s violent endeavors around the kitchen floor.

“She wanted to put you in a better mood,” Hajime explained, sounding amused. “But Tokio speculated she was really more interested in some play for herself.”

Laughing, Sano had to admit that, even if the altruistic purpose had been secondary, she’d succeeded at it.

“Don’t get used to it,” warned Hajime. “Cats aren’t known for their sense of charity; she’s sure to grow out of it.”

Again Sano laughed. It wasn’t as if he’d never been around cats before, but he’d definitely never fully appreciated the twistiness of frame that allowed at least this one to attack with her full body something wiggling just behind her left ear.

Unfortunately, his speculation about the ghost’s probable ability to catch up had been accurate, and he’d been playing with Misao for less than two minutes when the anger she’d done so well at shunting aside loomed once again front and center and full force.

“God dammit,” Sano muttered. He was so tired of being pointlessly angry all the time. Standing abruptly straight, he found Hajime and both of the cats looking past him, but he didn’t turn. He was tired of the sight of the ghost, too. Fucking ghost.

“Let’s see what we can find out about him,” Hajime said, moving back through the doorway out of the kitchen and gesturing Sano to follow.

The combination den and workroom, wherein another comfortable- (and expensive-) looking leather sofa, a TV, a number of bookshelves, and a computer desk were more or less crammed but still quite functional, Sano had already seen on Saturday. Now he stalked in and seated himself heavily on the arm of the couch with a frustrated noise.

“Sit properly or stand,” Hajime ordered as he pulled his own chair out from the desk.

“Fine,” Sano growled, and stood again.

The exorcist removed his dark blue suit jacket and set it carefully aside before taking his seat. This was the first time Sano had seen him make such a concession to his own living space, and he wondered whether it was because Hajime still thought of Sano as a client despite his non-paying status. If so, that was stupid.

Almost absently Hajime murmured, “I wouldn’t really expect you to understand professionalism.”

Sano was annoyed both at the statement and that Hajime had picked up on the thought, but also interested to note that it seemed to be the things more specifically aimed at his companion that went out more readily.

For instance, when, noting Hajime was wearing the third solid-color tie Sano had seen him in, he wondered mentally whether the man owned any patterned ones, Hajime murmured, “One or two” — whereas when Sano then reflected that solid colors were probably cheaper and easily obtained in packages of multiples, Hajime gave no indication of having heard. Of course, that might be merely because it had been a phenomenally boring thought not worth responding to, or because Hajime had pulled up the email from his police friend.

The latter might have come across as a bit of a jackass on the phone, but Sano had to admit this seemed a satisfyingly thorough report he’d put together. There weren’t a lot of names, but Sano supposed that was to be expected: how many Japanese guys could possibly have died under unusual circumstances recently in any given police jurisdiction? But for each one listed there were links to news articles regarding the incidents, and some specifics on the women they’d left behind. This, added to the brief biography of each of the deceased, forced Sano to say in a tone of grudging admiration, “Wow… this is good stuff…”

Hajime smiled wryly. “You’ll also notice he hasn’t given us much, if anything, he could get in trouble for disclosing. We could have found most or all of this online if we’d wanted to spend a week searching. He’s very good at his job, though you wouldn’t guess just by talking to him.”

Sano had stepped closer and was reading the screen somewhat at random. When Hajime obligingly scrolled back to the top of the email, he began reciting the provided names aloud.

It proved easier than he’d expected. The moment he spoke the third item on the short list, he suddenly felt he had the ghost’s attention. How exactly he could tell, he wasn’t sure, but something in the atmosphere of the room had changed. Whether from Sano or from the hovering spirit, Hajime too evidently recognized this. “Is that the one?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” replied Sano. He stared for a moment at the words on the monitor, then turned to face the ghost in the air behind him, looking directly at it for the first time since it had entered the house. “Is this you?” he asked — rhetorically, he supposed, since even having the ghost’s attention probably wouldn’t make it any easier to communicate with. “Are you Kenshin Himura?”

Part 12

“It’s kinda totally unfair,” Sano was grumbling, “that to get anything from this guy we had to take him to a medium who had to cut through the shade energy with a scalpel or something and then fucking fainted after getting impressions from him for, like, two minutes… but ghostie-guy here can pick up on things we say no problem as long as they’re about him or whatever.”

‘Unfair’ wasn’t exactly the word Hajime would have chosen to describe it, but it certainly interested him.

Kenshin Himura, whose short biography provided by Chou matched Aoshi’s assessment of their ghost, had been shot in the head, an innocent bystander in a brief, unexpected gunfight near the bus stop he’d been waiting at one day last November. He had left behind a wife and three-year-old son. And to the verbal mention of this information, the ghost — Kenshin himself, presumably — definitely reacted.

And this seemed to represent an inexplicable aberration from the previously-noted inability for any information to pass the barrier of the shade energy without great effort. They still couldn’t deliberately communicate with Kenshin in any way, despite this development, but Kenshin had become visibly agitated — and, if Sano’s state was anything to judge by, started emitting anger even more strongly than before — at the presentation of facts about his death and surviving kin. Just one more thing to ask the ghost about if they could ever manage to get him to a point where questions and answers were possible.

Toward that end, the next step had not changed: they needed to get in touch with Mrs. Himura, find out what she could tell them about her husband and his death… and take note of how he reacted to her. Why did Kenshin’s anger appear to increase when his untimely end was discussed? If that increase was significant, what did it indicate? Hajime tried not to jump to conclusions when even the mere verbalization of the ghost’s name prompted the same reaction.

With that same seemingly uncharacteristic carefulness Hajime had mentioned to Sano before, Chou hadn’t included contact information for the various people listed in the email, waiting for Hajime to inform him specifically which one he needed to talk to instead of handing out addresses and phone numbers wholesale. As he hadn’t answered when Hajime had called, they were once again sitting around waiting to hear from him, and Sano was very annoyed. Yet only after a few unnecessary comments from Misao about how agitated the ghost was, and an equal number of insults from Hajime aimed at releasing some of Sano’s anger, did his cell vibrate and display Chou’s number.

“Kaoru Himura,” formed the entirety of Hajime’s greeting.

Chou must have had the information to hand, because barely a moment passed before he was reading out the address and phone number. These he followed up with, “And you didn’t get this shit from me.”

“I won’t expose your crooked dealings,” Hajime promised sarcastically.

“Oh, and you’ve gotta tell me about this ghost shit when it’s over.”

“We’ll have lunch sometime.” (Hajime ignored the subsequent unspoken query from Sano, Wow, what does it take to get this guy to ask you to lunch?) He said his fairly rude goodbyes with Chou, pulled the top paper free of the pad on which he’d been writing, and stood. “Let’s go.”

Kaoru Himura lived in an old, drab, but not necessarily uncomfortable-looking apartment complex in the Asian district, a part of town Hajime had been seeing a lot of this week. Sano grumbled when he realized where they were going, and — more from the thoughts the young man didn’t bother to hide than from his mostly-unintelligible verbal complaints — Hajime picked up that he felt like he’d wasted a drive of his unreliable car by going to Hajime’s house in it and then coming all the way back to the Asian district in a different vehicle. Nothing could improve that ironic situation, though, and the grumbling was entirely rhetorical.

While waiting for the ghost to catch them up, they sat around for a while watching apartment-dwellers come and go through the parking lot, arguing about whether they should have called ahead. Hajime won that argument with the dry query, “If you couldn’t see ghosts and probably didn’t know they existed, would you agree to meet two total strangers who called and said they were dragging around your dead husband?”

The afternoon sun shone full on the western side of the building in which the woman lived, rendering the outdoor staircase up to her floor quite warm. Later in the year this place must get intolerably hot. As they climbed and then looked for the correct door, Sano’s jaw gradually set so firmly that the muscles stood out at the corners; he was clearly taking a very hard grip on the ghost so as to prevent it from doing anything he didn’t want. Hajime nodded his approval.

The door, probably metal beneath its drab grey paint, was also hot as Hajime’s knuckles contacted it sharply three, four times. Then the two men stood still. Traffic on the nearby street made it impossible to hear any movement within the apartment, but Hajime had other senses that could inform him of what might be going on in there.

Eventually, after several minutes of tense silence waiting for any response to Hajime’s knock, Sano muttered, “You think she might not be home?” He shifted, uncomfortable and angry. “I mean, it’s the middle of the day… she might be at work or something…”

“No, she’s on the other side of the door,” Hajime stated flatly. “She’s just standing there wondering why people can’t leave her alone.”

Sano craned his neck as if he might see through the door if he looked from an angle that was different by a couple of inches. “She doesn’t know who we are, though!”

“But she knows we want to ask her questions, and she doesn’t want to answer any more questions. It’s a little suspicious.”

“Well, I don’t know about suspicious, but–” Sano cut himself short and turned a puzzled gaze on Hajime. “Why would you think it’s suspicious? It makes sense she wouldn’t want to answer more questions, and she probably doesn’t know we’ve got her husband with her, so…”

Hajime’s brows went down slightly as he attempted to catch any additional idea from the mind on the other side of the door. The woman’s mental guard, at least at the moment, was fierce and desperate; it didn’t feel as if she had formal training, just a solidly protective personality and a strong desire not to share anything with anyone. He shook his head. “She’s much better than you are at keeping her thoughts to herself.”

“Don’t you fucking start with that,” Sano growled, distracted from his suspicion about Hajime’s suspicion. “Not when I’m already practically lifting weights keeping this goddamn thing away from her.”

He was, too. Hajime had been peripherally aware of his struggle, but now, focusing more completely on him, noticed the small beads of sweat that had broken out on Sano’s forehead. Some of them, rolling slowly down from beneath his hairline, were red from where they’d picked up bits of his colored hair gel, and looked a little like blood; but this, while morbid and somewhat interesting, was not relevant. Obviously it cost Sano a much greater effort than usual to restrain the ghost, which was rigid in the air just behind him.

“He wants to go to her, I take it.”

Sano made another growling noise, this one completely inarticulate, but his clearly projected mental reply was, No shit, genius. And it was equally clear that Sano would continue to prevent the ghost from attaining this goal with every ounce of his psychic strength, and that it would be no good for Hajime to suggest he let the thing go just to see what would happen. His control might break eventually, but Hajime didn’t think it wise to test his limits at the moment — mostly because Hajime, for his part, wouldn’t be able conjure the ghost back away from the woman once they’d seen what it planned on doing to her.

Turning, he said instead, “Let’s go, then.”

Sano didn’t slacken his grip on the ghost until they’d made it back to Hajime’s car, and kept it in such a rigidly-controlled position all the way there that Hajime observed for the first time the effect it had on a person moving through it: an apartment-dweller they passed on the way down the stairs, after walking through the ghost and surrounding shade energy, could be heard a moment later swearing vigorously at her keys as she struggled to open her door above.

Even once they’d reached the car and taken their seats inside, Sano kept a dark, careful eye on the presumed Kenshin, obviously still concerned the ghost would want to return the way they’d come and do whatever he wanted to do to his widow. The glowing figure, however, simply took up its usual orbit of Sano in its usual relative calm.

Sano watched Kenshin’s leisurely movements around and through the frame of the car for several moments with furrowed brow and distinct frown. Finally he gave a frustrated noise and turned toward Hajime, his expression bordering on thunderous to match the thick aura of anger around him, which in turn almost perfectly matched that of the ghost.

“Well,” he growled, “what the hell do we do now?”

Part 13

As if deliberately to provoke him, Hajime didn’t answer Sano’s question, elaborate on what he thought the next step was, with any sort of promptness. Instead he just sat there, pensive, his eyes seeming to stare at nothing except whenever Kenshin’s roughly circular drift brought him into the exorcist’s field of vision. Then the golden irises locked onto the ghost’s figure and followed it until it was again out of sight. But still Hajime said nothing, and Sano was about ready to explode.

When Hajime did speak at last, what he had to say was, “She probably saw your stupid hair and decided it wasn’t worth her time opening the door.”

Your hair’s the one that looks like you just bought four separate black extensions and just glued them to your forehead.” Sano could actually feel the angry energy filling the words, departing from him in his voice, dissipating in the air. There remained plenty where that came from, but it was still a palpable relief.

Hajime gave a startled chuckle, as if he’d never heard his hair described quite like that before.

“Besides,” Sano grumbled, “there weren’t any windows.”

“There was a peephole in the door, idiot.” Seeming to judge (quite accurately) that even ‘idiot’ wasn’t enough to work through the worst of Sano’s current level of anger, Hajime added cuttingly, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you weren’t perceptive enough to notice it darken when she looked through it.”

“Yeah, in case you didn’t notice,” Sano growled, “I was too busy holding onto some pissed-off dead fucker to really be watching for things like that.”

“It’s a good thing you didn’t come here alone, then; you would have completely botched this.”

“I didn’t botch anything! I didn’t do anything, except hold the fucking ghost! You knocked!”

“Like I said… she probably took one look at you and decided to stay safely inside.”

You’re the one who looks like a CIA agent or something in you stupid suit!”

“No, we established earlier that I look like a faceless office drone. To look like a CIA agent I’d need sunglasses.”

Though Sano remained some distance above even the level of anger he’d been at earlier, this exchange had helped, and the last statement made him laugh. “Well, whoever’s fault it was,” he said in a tone somewhat less irate, “that still totally failed.”

“So the next step is to call her.”

“Just a minute ago you were saying we shouldn’t call her.”

“I said we shouldn’t call ahead,” Hajime corrected. “But now calling is our only option.” He held out the paper on which he’d written Kaoru’s information. “So call her.”

“What, me? You want me to call her?”

“Yes.”

“But… you’re the exorcist. And the one who understands professionalism.” Sano couldn’t help throwing that comment from earlier back at the other man.

“That’s certainly true…” Unexpectedly, the deliberate smugness drained from Hajime’s tone and gave way to a serious pensiveness as he went on. “There has to be a reason this man you don’t know is haunting specifically you rather than anyone else. It doesn’t seem plausible that he just chose you at random; there has to be some kind of connection. It may be that he sees something in you — god knows what — that drew him to you. Some characteristic that might have drawn him to you in life as well.”

“So, what, like, he’s… got a crush on me or something?” Sano wondered dubiously.

“At this point we have no way of knowing exactly why he chose you, but the fact that he did makes you less of a complete stranger to his wife than I am, so you probably have a better chance of convincing her than I do.”

Still uncomfortable with the thought of calling up a recently bereft person — to whom, no matter what Hajime said, he would still come across as a total stranger — and start talking about her murdered husband, Sano broadened the subject. “And what if we can’t convince her?”

“That’s when we start behaving like cads.”

“Like what?” Startled even out of his anger by the unexpected terminology, Sano laughingly repeated, “Behaving like what?”

Hajime smiled faintly. “Just giving up and not talking to her isn’t an option.”

“So we ambush her or something?” Sano wondered with a grimace.

“We’ll be walking a fine line. We have to talk to her, but we also have to be careful not to get ourselves indicted for harassment.”

Sano tried to think of any method of talking to an unwilling stranger that wouldn’t constitute harassment. It was an annoying train of thought, but probably more because of the anger he’d been absorbing than because the prospect was maddening in itself.

Right on cue Hajime said, “I guess I should have expected that the very idea of calling a woman would terrify someone like you.”

“‘Someone like me?’ I’m bisexual! I am not scared of women!”

At that moment there came the buzz of Hajime’s vibrating phone. When he’d glanced at it once it was out of his pocket, he informed Sano, “I have to take this.”

Sano grabbed the paper with Kaoru’s information, which Hajime had eventually set down on the dashboard, and stepped out of the car. They hadn’t circled back to the argument about his being the one to make the call, but he knew it would only have been a matter of time and what the outcome would have been.

At least with Hajime simultaneously on the phone, Sano wouldn’t have to put up with an agitating audience. It would already be difficult enough not letting on how angry he was or how much of a jerk he felt or how stupid he knew it was going to sound. But he couldn’t stand around worrying about those points, or he would lose his chance at making the call in solitude. Before he could change his mind, he forced himself to dial the number.

With each subsequent ring, Sano became more nervous, but the tension eased out of him somewhat when a click preceded a recorded message. It was the default computerized greeting rather than a personal recording; he wondered if Kaoru had been harassed over the phone a lot since her husband’s death, by the media or the police or whatever. That certainly didn’t make Sano feel any better about what he had to say.

Eventually he did have to say it, though. “Hey,” he began. “This is… well, you don’t know me, but my name’s Sano Sagara, and I was at your door just a little while ago with a… friend… and… OK.” He took a deep breath. He really should have planned out his wording before he started. “This is probably going to sound completely crazy to you, and it may hit a nerve or two also, and I’m really, really sorry about that. I swear to god I’m not making this up, so just please hear me out.”

Again he took a deep breath, and began talking quickly. “I have this ghost that’s been haunting me for a while, and I think it may be your husband. We’re pretty sure it’s you that’s keeping him here, so he’s going to have to contact you sooner or later if he’s going to pass on, but we’re having problems actually talking to him, so we need to talk to you and get some information about him and how he died. Obviously if he really is your husband, you’ll want to help for his sake, but you’ll be helping me too, since I can’t get on with my own life when this guy’s hanging around all the time. And I really am so sorry if this hurts you; I promise I would never bug someone about something like this, especially so soon after what happened, if it wasn’t really–”

A beep similar to the one that had signaled him to start now cut him off. Evidently he’d run out of time. He found his breathing a little unsteady as he listened to the options regarding the message he’d just recorded; he’d gotten worked up at the end, there, trying to convince her he honestly regretted any pain he might be causing her, when he should have been trying to convince of the truth of his words. But what more could he say than he already had on that score?

Apparently he had the option to re-record his message if he wanted to try again. Half on impulse, however, he hit the button to send it instead. It was candid, at the very least; if she valued frankness, that might do more to win her over than a smoother and more measured explanation. After a few moments’ thought, though, and a glance through the window of Hajime’s car that confirmed the older man was still on the phone, he did call a second time.

“Hey, it’s Sano again. Sorry if I sounded a little crazy before. This is really important, and I’m not lying or schizophrenic or whatever. Please call me back and at least we can talk things out a little on the phone.”

Hopefully that didn’t seem too… well, OK, it wasn’t likely, in this scenario, he would ever sound not totally weird, unless by some remote chance she happened to be a magician and knew ghosts existed — but in that case, would her dead husband really have been forced to a total stranger? Anyway, Sano left his number and hung up, and couldn’t feel terribly impressed at his own general performance. His one consolation was that at least Hajime hadn’t been there to overhear… though the exorcist would undoubtedly get at the crucial details in any event.

He stood watching the ghost whenever it passed, much as Hajime had a few minutes before, in brooding silence for a while, pondering the wisdom of making another call. Would three be overkill? Two had probably been overkill. Poor woman must already think he was imbalanced and heartless. But he could reiterate the urgency of the matter… maybe mention a little more definitively how difficult this was making his life…

He hadn’t come to any real conclusion when Hajime suddenly stood out his door and asked across the roof of the vehicle, “Are you done?”

“Yes,” Sano grumbled, allowing this to make the decision for him, and got back in the car even as Hajime did. Settling into his seat and glowering out at Kenshin as the latter adjusted his trajectory, he gave an angry sigh and asked, for the second time, “Well, what the hell do we do now?”

Part 14

“I promise you don’t need to.”

They’d relocated to a Denny’s, on Hajime’s dime, when it became obvious that, once again, they were in for a wait on a phone call (which in this case might never come) — and that Sano was extremely hungry but not about to suggest anything more expensive than going back to his apartment and making some ramen noodles. Hajime, trying to pick Sano’s brain on the details of the message or messages he’d left, had only been able to confirm Sano’s embarrassment and more determined blocking than usual. So conversational tactics were in order.

“I don’t know if I trust your promise any more than I trust your ability to leave rational messages about ghosts.”

“You’re the one who said I should do it because I have a connection with him or whatever. Plus I’m the one who’s gotta be haunted by him for god-knows-how-long if we can’t find some way to get rid of him!”

“Did you tell her that?”

A little awkwardly Sano replied, “I told her everything I needed to.”

“I still think I should leave her a follow-up message.”

Unexpectedly Sano went on the offensive. “And what would you say? ‘Hello, Mrs. Himura, this is Hajime…’ what’s your last name, again?”

Amused, Hajime supplied it.

“‘This is Hajime Saitou, and I’m attempting to exorcise your husband’s ghost. I’ve tried a variety of techniques rooted in various cultures, including traditional Shinto rituals, but since nothing seems to be working I thought I’d look you up and ask what his favorite band was so I could play the proper music during my next attempt. And did he like beer? How did he feel about cats?'”

Sano’s voice, for the first few syllables a decent attempt at imitating Hajime’s, had become more and more stilted as this absurdity went on, until finally Hajime actually laughed aloud. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said, but he also stopped trying to get Sano to tell him what he’d said on the phone.

When their slow and somewhat clumsy waitress, her blaring thoughts on stressful home responsibilities barely even partaking of the here and now, finally brought them their order, Sano started in on the strawberry-decked blueberry pancakes on his plate with an immediacy and gusto that would have made up for their price even if Hajime had begrudged it in the first place. He’d seen Sano eat pizza in much the same manner the other day, and at the time had speculated Sano didn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis. Now, after longer exposure, he rather thought Sano just loved food that much. The young man certainly didn’t have anything to say for several minutes while he made massive inroads on his breakfast-themed early dinner.

Finally, though, Sano did manage to slow down, and to tear his eyes from the plate long enough to remember that someone sat across from him. His anger was, for the present, at the level Hajime had come to consider standard for his current haunted state, and the food had otherwise put him in a good mood. So his easy tone came as no surprise as he remarked, “So, ‘Hajime Saitou,’ huh? Doesn’t sound too bad. ‘Saitou Hajime’ sounds better, though. Got a nice ring to it.”

He paused, frowning slightly, and Hajime, though without any skill whatsoever in divination, could very clearly see what was coming. “Actually, now I think about it,” Sano said slowly, just as expected, a piece of sausage pausing halfway to his mouth as he pondered aloud, “it sounds… familiar. Saitou Hajime… where have I heard that name before..?”

Hajime sighed slightly, but then grinned as the best possible response occurred to him: “Let me know if you remember.”

Sano flared. It was like having a mobile campfire Hajime could toss fuel onto at any time. “What, you’re not going to tell me? So you admit you might be famous or something, but you won’t remind me where I might have heard your name?”

“That’s right. It’s that old saying, ‘If you have to ask, you don’t deserve to know.'”

I’ve never heard that saying,” Sano protested.

“Then it’s even more applicable.”

Sano fell to speculating. “You must be named after some actor your mom thought was hot. Probably from one of those horrible Japanese dramas I never… oh, but if your parents named you after… it would have been in…” He gave Hajime an assessing look. “The seventies or something. What was on in Japan back then…”

With a dry chuckle, Hajime shook his head. “I doubt my parents have ever watched any of those horrible Japanese dramas.”

“Oh, yeah, they sent you here for college, didn’t they? So maybe they were watching horrible American shows. In the seventies — and I’m just guessing, here,” he added proddingly, “since I’m not that old — wouldn’t it have been… Saved By the Bell? But they wouldn’t have gotten a name like ‘Hajime’ out of that…”

“Wrong decade. And sitcoms wouldn’t really have appealed to my parents either.”

Sano caught at the sardonic tone of Hajime’s statement and, completely abandoning the name issue, wondered, “Oh, really? What do they watch instead?”

“If they watch anything, it’s not for entertainment. Stock market analysis is more their speed.”

“Oh, you’ve got one of those stereotypical Japanese business families.”

“Says the son of miserly immigrants.”

“Only my mom’s an immigrant,” Sano protested angrily, “and only my dad’s a miser.” Based on what Sano had told him yesterday, Hajime didn’t think the second point entirely true, but it didn’t matter; he’d wanted to bait Sano more than compare stereotypes.

As Sano calmed a little after his flare-up, Hajime admitted, “But you’re right. My parents are both top executives in the company my paternal grandfather owns, and we were all expected to join in as soon as we were old enough.”

“‘We?’ So you’ve got siblings?”

Hajime nodded. “An older brother and sister.”

“And did they both go into the family business like good little offsprings?”

Again Hajime nodded. And again he felt just a little nonplussed. Glad though he was to have avoided the ‘Saitou Hajime — where have I heard that before?’ conversation, which he’d had enough of by the time he’d turned twelve, he still considered Sano more than justifiably interested in his past and his family.

“So if they were already doing the thing,” Sano mused, “there probably wasn’t as much pressure on you to do it too?”

“You might think so…” At the memories, Hajime smiled distantly and wryly. “But two out of three wasn’t enough for my parents.”

“Well, yeah, that’d be a failing grade on an assignment…”

“And my parents are ruthless; it comes from the type of work they do: petty hostile takeovers and driving rivals out of business… I wasn’t the only one in the family who didn’t like it.”

“Funny…” Sano set down his glass after a sip of soda, and looked at Hajime with a thoughtful grin. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the type to not like ruthlessness.”

“Oh, no.” The smile Hajime returned Sano, he’d been informed in the past, made him appear rather evil. “I have no personal objections to ruthless tactics in a good cause.” He rolled his eyes slightly and tried not to sigh. “But this is telecommunications. Whatever my parents may think, this is not a beleaguered band of heroes fighting oppression and tyranny. They make cell phones. There are appropriate times and places for ruthlessness, and this isn’t one of them.”

And there he’d gone and impressed Sano again. It was almost embarrassing.

“So what’d they do, send the yakuza after you or something?” Sano was only half joking, his eyes wide with interest and admiration.

“I wouldn’t put it past them.” Hajime too was only half joking. “Though that’s more my brother’s style than my parents’. But, as I’ve mentioned, it was my mother’s father who helped me out. He never approved of the way my parents did business, and he could see I was on his side… the money he left me could almost be considered a bribe; he was paying me to get away.”

“This is why your parents didn’t watch horrible Japanese dramas: your whole family was a horrible Japanese drama.” Sano’s attempt at scraping the last of the syrup and grease off his plate wasn’t working very well, mostly because he was using a fork, and this in addition to his conjuration of the ghost out of the path of staff and patrons in the increasingly busy restaurant was evidently building his anger up again.

Once more Hajime chuckled wryly, and they fell silent as Sano finished his Dr. Pepper and Hajime bent his attention to the remainder of his own dinner.

Finally, “Do you really think she’s going to call back at all?” Sano asked, and the quietness of his tone did little to hide his shifting mood.

“That depends on what you said to her.” Calculatedly Hajime added, “If it was as stupid as I’m inclined to believe, probably not.”

They threw that topic back and forth for a while to work off some of Sano’s anger. He sometimes had surprisingly clever retorts, which combined with the constant and almost measurably predictable ire to make him an unexpectedly enjoyable conversational companion (when he wasn’t gaping over some perceived trait or accomplishment of Hajime’s as if he’d never met another human being before). But eventually, unfortunately, they had to talk business again: they’d both finished eating, and it would be best to let Sano take the ghost somewhere less full of innocent bystanders.

“Whatever nonsense you left Mrs. Himura on her voicemail, it will probably take her a while to decide to call you back, if she doesn’t just decide you’re insane and try to ignore you. We need to give her some time, so I suggest we both go home for now.”

Of course Sano had to argue this too, as they left their table and moved to pay for the meal and exit the restaurant; and since he didn’t bother to lower his voice, his frank mention of the ghost haunting him won them some looks on the way out both skeptical and interested.

Despite the United States government taking a dim view of the idea of widespread knowledge on the topic, talking about magic in public generally wasn’t considered dangerous or inappropriate, since anyone unaware that magic actually existed simply didn’t believe the discussion serious… but such conversations did sometimes have interesting, even entertaining results. Once, after the conclusion of some business arrangements on the phone, Hajime had been approached by an unfortunate homeless gentleman that had overheard him discussing exorcisms and wanted to tell about all the dead celebrities that wouldn’t leave him alone. Hajime’s diagnosis had been ‘crazy and malnourished’ rather than ‘haunted.’

Sano, who was the opposite, continued to grumble as they headed back to Hajime’s house, and rather on a whim Hajime decided to relate the aforementioned experience. It proved a good thought, since the ensuing conversation distracted Sano all the way to their destination; he didn’t even have time to complain again about the condition of his car. He did recover some of his annoyance when instructed to contact Hajime the moment Kaoru Himura called him (if she, in fact, did so), but still the two men parted in relative peace. And Hajime went inside thinking the day not entirely wasted.

Part 15

Technically, cell phones weren’t allowed out at Imperial Panda II for anyone on the clock. But aside from the current manager’s love affair with her Blackberry that inclined her toward leniency, the maintenance guy pretty much went his own way all day and didn’t have a lot of critical eyes looking over his shoulder. And no way in hell would Sano be away from his phone in case that woman called him back.

She didn’t. As Sano unloaded the delivery truck and kept the ghost away from people, shelved the load and kept the ghost away from people, organized the dry stock area for the second time in the last ten days and kept the ghost away from people, fixed the oven again and kept the ghost away from people, then went on lunch break to eat an uninspiring free meal, keep the ghost away from people, and look forward to the second half of his day, he grew increasingly impatient and concerned. And this was largely in response to the apparent increasing impatience and concern of the ghost.

Yesterday’s approach of Kaoru Himura, Sano thought, had made Kenshin more restless. It was difficult to tell for certain when the ghost seemed so aimless in general, but Sano believed dragging his unwanted guest out of people’s paths required more effort and led to a quicker and more intense buildup of anger today than previously. Kenshin never made any move to leave Sano, to go anywhere or do anything other than what he’d been doing all along, but pretty clearly he wanted to do something; and Sano was sure it had something to do with his widow.

What had Hajime said they would do if she never called back? ‘Start behaving like cads,’ hadn’t it been? At least Sano had that fairly hilarious memory to cheer him up a bit, even if the referenced caddishness, seeming more and more likely with each passing hour, was little to his taste. He didn’t want to think about the effect it might have on the unfortunate woman if they started more or less stalking her. What a miserable idea.

Of course the alternative was to think about his own situation. How long could he keep working so hard to prevent Kenshin’s angry aura from harming and enraging people around him before he decided he just didn’t give a shit and let the ghost do whatever it wanted to anyone that came near him? Or, worse, got so angry himself that he actually started deliberately conjuring Kenshin in the direction of others?

The last couple of weeks had been difficult and frustrating, especially at school where there were a number of innocent bystanders in a small space for hours at a time; and studying and homework had been practically impossible… and that had all been before their visit to Kaoru’s apartment had kicked things to a higher level. If they didn’t manage to get this solved before Spring Break ended… if Kenshin kept acting like this… Sano might as well drop all his classes, quit his job, and move out onto a secluded island right now.

When Imp Panda finally turned him loose that afternoon, he managed to make it all the way home before his frustration got the better of him and directed his fingers to dial Hajime’s number. This waiting had been the exorcist’s idea, after all; the least he could do was suffer alongside Sano.

“I actually expected to hear from you much earlier,” was Hajime’s greeting.

“I was working,” Sano replied angrily. “I kept my phone on through my whole shift — nine hours! — and she never called.”

“We already acknowledged that possibility,” Hajime reminded him. “She may never call.”

Remembering what would happen in that case, Sano demanded, “Isn’t there some way we can do this without bugging her? I mean, you’re a communicator; why can’t you just read her mind?”

“Getting past someone’s shields and reading their mind when they don’t want you to is difficult and takes a lot of practice.”

“Practice you haven’t had,” Sano finished bitterly, “because you’ve been playing with shades instead.”

Hajime said nothing, as if he just wasn’t going to bother with an answer to that.

The noise Sano made, half whine and half growl, sounded so much like a dog that even he was taken aback… and maybe a little amused, which helped. “I don’t want to,” he said next, “but… do you think I should call her again? Or maybe we should go back to her place and see if she’ll talk to us there this time?”

“No and no. If we’re too persistent, she’ll call the police. There’s only so much Chou can smooth over for me.”

“What good are you, then?” A second silence came from the other end, and the vacuum of that silence eventually dragged out of Sano a grumbled, “I mean… what the hell am I supposed to…” And again he made an angry sound, even more frustrated now because he was too annoyed to offer the apology he felt he probably should for his unfair implication. Without Hajime, after all, his chances of finding out the identity of the ghost and locating the widow would have been practically nonexistent.

Now Hajime spoke, and, instead of calling Sano on his rudeness or even continuing on the topic they were more or less discussing, he said, “You grew up around here, didn’t you?” And while Sano in surprise worked to change gears Hajime added, “For a given value of ‘grew up.'”

“Sortof,” Sano replied, wondering why Hajime wanted to know and bristling at the casual insult. “We moved here when I was just about to turn fourteen.”

“From?”

“Paso Robles, down south.”

“And were you born there?”

“Nah, we moved there when I was two or three; I was born in Carson City.”

“Did you like Paso Robles?”

Sano thought he understood now: this was distraction, pure and simple. Well, fine; he could handle that. “It was OK. Not a big Japanese population, so I got most of my heritagey culture from anime.” At Hajime’s derisive laugh, Sano continued determinedly in a tone that sounded incongruously angry. “The best part was right when we moved out, actually; this earthquake hit pretty much the same day we were loading up the moving van.”

“And that was a good thing?”

“Well, not for the people who died, obviously, but it was pretty damn cool anyway. It was a 6.5, and it made this fucking enormous sinkhole open up in the library parking lot. I just checked online, like, a week ago, and they still haven’t fixed that thing, seven years later.”

“You’re so attached to the town that you’re still checking on it?” Maybe because of the level of investment Sano had displayed in the subject, Hajime too actually sounded interested.

“Not the town, just the sinkhole. Sinkholes are awesome.”

“Are they?”

“Yeah. And earthquakes. I mean, they’re bad for people, but they’re still… cool. This one hot spring under the town used to be totally dead, but the quake brought it back to life. You know what kind of seismic activity that takes?”

“A 6.5, presumably.”

“Well, yeah, but, I mean, there’s a specific combination of circumstances to get a hot spring going again to the surface and have it stay that way; it’s not something that happens every day.”

Now a third silence emanated from Hajime’s end of the phone, though Sano thought he caught the distant sound of one of the cats — Misao, probably — asking a question. And this silence didn’t seem designed to abash Sano or make him rethink his words; rather, it sounded pensive. Finally Hajime asked, “And why aren’t you studying geology?”

“Oh. Well. Not as much money there as where my dad wants me.”

“Do you have reliable statistics on that?”

“Not off the top of my head!”

“Maybe you should look it up.”

“Yeah, sure, maybe I should… if this goddamn ghost will let me do anything without wanting to put my fist through the monitor.”

Hajime laughed, which was annoying. “It’s at least something to think about while you wait for Mrs. Himura to call.”

“I am so fucking tired of waiting for phone calls.”

“Better not get into big business, then.”

With another annoyed noise — Sano had always been good at those, but lately he’d been taking the art to new levels — he said in frustration, “I’ll call you again later,” and abruptly hung up.

He found his mood more mixed than before: just as angry, certainly, but now with an added restlessness born of interested thoughts. As he’d talked to Hajime he’d been pacing the linoleum of his tiny kitchen with a heavy step; when at some point in the process the ghost had joined him, he’d taken — as he not infrequently did at home — to turning gradual circles as he moved to and fro so as to keep his back to the thing at all times. The anger seemed to grow more slowly when he wasn’t looking at it. Now, however, he’d stopped moving and turned to face the computer on his cinder-block-and-particle-board desk across the room.

Truth to tell, he hadn’t given geology any conscious thought, but in the back of his head always figured it was one of those science things that taught you a lot of interesting stuff but didn’t provide a lot of career opportunities unless you happened to live in Antarctica. But it would be kinda cool. OK, more than kinda; he was excited and cheered just thinking about it.

Well, if he was careful and got up and away from the computer the moment he felt the rage building too far, it was worth checking, right? He’d been assuming all along geology wasn’t a viable option, so he couldn’t discover anything worse than what he’d already thought. And what else did he have to do right now? Get pissed off… play video games and eventually throw the controller in the toilet… maybe call Hajime back and try to abuse him… Except Hajime had made this pleasant suggestion, so that didn’t quite seem fair. Of course it had simply been in an effort to keep Sano distracted and occupied until either the woman called back or the exorcist decided they’d waited long enough… but Sano couldn’t help feeling grateful, which was an intriguing contrast to his still-present anger.

At the very least, as the man had said, this gave him something to think about.

Part 16

One of the impressions Hajime had already gotten about Sano without actually having it confirmed for certain was that he didn’t rise early by choice. Therefore, when the exorcist’s phone rang at around eight o’clock on Thursday morning and displayed Sano’s number, Hajime could only consider it a good sign. And when Sano’s greeting was a somewhat breathless, “She left me a message,” it was as if he’d had a divination confirmed.

“She called at, like, three in the morning,” Sano went on. “It woke me up, but I didn’t get to the phone in time, but it’s fine ’cause she left a message.” He sounded almost giddy, and once again Hajime had to sympathize a little; given the current situation, it was no wonder this progress in their attempt at getting rid of the ghost pleased the young man so much.

“What did she say?”

“She wants us to meet her at Isei Park at noon. That’s not too far from my apartment — actually I used to hang out there all the time when I was a kid; do you know where it is?”

“I’m sure I can find it.” Hajime was grinning somewhat, almost in spite of himself, at Sano’s tone: it was so unusually happy, but without having lost any of its customary underlying anger, which made for an intriguing sound.

“Well, I’m going to head over there right away.”

“Four hours early?”

“I straight-up called in sick to work, so I’ve got the whole day. I’ll take my books and see if I can get some studying done, and probably grab some breakfast on the way over at that place next to…” Suddenly seeming to decide that Hajime probably didn’t really care what his exact plans were — which assumption, though logical, was not entirely true — Sano finished abruptly, “So anyway, I’ll see you there around noon, right?”

The answer Hajime had planned on giving was overridden by Misao making her insistent way around his neck to the hand that held the phone, and yowling into it as best she could while trying, at a bad angle, to keep her balance.

“Hi, Misao,” Sano was chuckling from the other end even as Hajime lifted her off his shoulder and set her on the floor.

“She has nothing real to say,” Hajime translated. “She just likes phones.”

Sano was still laughing. “Yeah, I got that.”

“Did you?” Without allowing Sano to reiterate that he had, Hajime continued, “Anyway, I’ll meet you at the park later.”

“Right. See you then.”

Hajime set the phone on the floor for Misao to yell into until she realized there was no one on the other end, and stood a few moments in silent thought. Although the upcoming meeting with Kaoru Himura might be significant and productive, there was no guarantee it would be. He didn’t for an instant believe the ghost’s anger would just suddenly dispel and the ghost himself fly off to the afterlife the moment they encountered his wife; Kenshin undoubtedly had something he wanted to say — probably a maudlin goodbye not worth nearly the amount of trouble he’d been giving Sano — and of course he couldn’t communicate with her while all channels were blocked by the shade. So today’s talk with his widow was little more than an exploration of another possible avenue to getting rid of that shade, and might prove disappointing for nearly everyone involved.

Well aware of this, Hajime felt it would be wise to talk to Sano about it before Mrs. Himura showed up — to give him a cautionary reminder that this was just one step in a longer process and he shouldn’t expect too much. Sano, it seemed, excelled at emotions in general; of course his constant anger had amused Hajime all along, and just now his happiness and excitement over the phone had been almost infectious… but, interesting as it might be, the exorcist didn’t really feel any desire to see Sano in a state of despair.

Actually, Hajime had the most unaccountable inclination to go to Isei Park right now to annoy Sano for the next few hours. It had nothing to do with the ghost; he just wanted, essentially, to poke Sano and see what he did. He’d never had such an entertaining client before. Of course, he’d never had a client with a disembodied soul floating around him; Sano couldn’t help being unusual.

Well, nothing would keep him from it. He had no other cases on — he’d lined up a meeting for next Monday with what sounded like a blue shade victim (though it might turn out to be perfectly natural clinical depression; those situations often did), but at the moment it was all Sano — and he’d cleaned his entire house yesterday. He’d even already had breakfast. And surprisingly little noise came from his conscience in response to this desire deliberately to bother another human being for no better reason than his own pleasure.

As it happened, he didn’t set out right away. He spent a good twenty minutes wearing Misao out with the laser pointer while Tokio watched with a put-on disdain that couldn’t hide her desire to join in, then about the same amount of time answering an email and paying a couple of bills. But it was barely nine o’clock when he did leave the house, and not even nine thirty when he arrived at the park near the center of the Asian district and started looking around for Sano.

Even this early in the day, the convoluted concrete skating area was alive with mobile, shouting kids — it must be Spring Break for more than just Sano. The latter, with his blue-gelled hair, enormous backpack, and glowing undead friend, was easy to spot on a bench nearby. Perhaps this had been where Sano used to hang out; his current look might even partake somewhat of the skater style, but Hajime, unclear on fine subcultural distinctions, couldn’t be sure.

To test the young man’s mood, Hajime greeted him with, “Trying to reconnect with your fellow childish idiots?”

“Wow, that was harsh even for–” Sano attempted simultaneously to turn toward Hajime (who’d approached him from behind), look at his cell phone to see the time, check that the ghost wasn’t making any trouble, and give an angry gesture — all without dislodging the messy arrangement of textbooks and notebooks across his lap and the bench beside him. And in keeping with this, he attempted to say several things at once. “What time– why are you already– are you trying to say skaters are– I’m not even–” And at last, inevitably, he dumped his things all over the ground, and, swearing, jumped up to recover them.

Hajime leaned against the bench and looked down. He might have considered lending a hand, since the spill had to a certain extent been his fault, but it was more amusing just to watch. Sano’s previous level of investment in his studying struck him as negligible in any case. Anger, perhaps — the usual anger — had kept him from better concentration; but Hajime also thought he observed a certain measure of that same excitement and happiness he’d heard over the phone in Sano’s somewhat jerky movements gathering up his stuff from the grass. Yes, they would definitely need to have a talk about today’s prospects; Sano’s optimism pleased him, but he needed to be prepared for its inevitable dispelling.

It turned out Hajime was in for a bit of a surprise. For by the time Sano had gotten himself resettled on the bench and begun stowing his school things away in his backpack in a clear indication he didn’t plan on attempting to make any further use of them right now, he was already well into a dissertation that revealed the cause of his current mood to have far less to do with Mrs. Himura than Hajime had assumed.

“So after you bugged me about it yesterday,” he was saying, “I went online and looked up stuff about geologists and the kinds of jobs available for them and shit… and you were totally right…” Admitting to this didn’t seem to be the slightest problem, so pleased was Sano. “I really needed to look before I decided about that!”

“Of course you did, you idiot.” Though not having expected the friendliness of his own tone, having thus started, Hajime decided he might as well continue; so, with no real concept, himself, of the career options of an aspiring geologist, he went on in some legitimate interest, “Good news?”

Sano twisted to face him, pulling one leg up entirely onto the bench and placing both arms on its back as he gave Hajime a grin almost childlike in its enthusiasm. “So you know oil, that thing everyone’s fighting over all the time? Guess who those companies hire.”

“And that fact never occurred to you before?” Of course, it hadn’t occurred to Hajime either, but he wasn’t the one with an apparently long-standing fascination with weird underground activity.

Sano’s brows twitched a little at the sarcasm, but it sidetracked him not one step. “I’m not really all that interested in finding oil, because that sounds boring and stupid; I’d rather be taking readings inside live volcanoes or something… but there are jobs like that too, and the point is, I can tell my dad about the oil thing, and he’ll totally go for it.”

“So you’ve decided on this?” For the brevity of this statement, the skepticism of its delivery compensated by adding a heavy, unspoken, “Already?”

This time Sano did emit some anger in his response. “I make fast decisions, OK? Nothing wrong with that.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised,” murmured Hajime. And he truly wasn’t. He wasn’t terribly condemnatory, either; to his understanding, most people changed their majors several times before any permanent fixation, so the distance of the conclusion to which Sano had jumped would likely make little difference in the long run.

“Besides, I’ve kinda wanted to do this for years.” While still defensive, Sano’s tone was creeping back toward the excitement of only moments before, which seemed to be the resilient sort. “It wasn’t just the stuff in Paso… you can’t live by the San Andreas most of your life without getting interested in earthquakes!”

“I think most normal people can,” Hajime said easily.

Sano made one of those frustrated noises he was so good at, but even this held a note of interest and enthusiasm. “Well, normal people are stupid.”

Hajime had to agree.

“Seriously, though, online yesterday, I found all sorts of interesting shit about volcanologists and stratigraphists and people who specialize in just one specific geological era, and…”

And as Hajime settled in to listen to Sano’s ongoing raving, he reflected that, though he hadn’t planned on this precisely, he didn’t at all regret his decision to come to Isei Park two and a half hours early.

Part 17

To what extent he’d been going on and on about yesterday’s internet discoveries, and, perhaps even more intriguingly, to what extent Hajime had been indulging him in that, Sano didn’t realize until the ghost gave a sudden stiffening or intensifying and seemed to shift its orbit somewhat in the direction of the parking lot and the playground. The usual heat-wave overtook him at this increased ghostly activity, all the greater because his internal anger had, to a certain extent, been pushed aside for the last couple of hours. Of course Hajime had been making rude interjections all along in order to draw it out, but Sano’s excited happiness had been dampening that outlet.

Now he experienced a second instance of the futility of trying to look around behind him and check both the time and the ghost all at once; but Hajime, who had eventually joined him on the bench, announced that it was 11:40 and Kaoru Himura had just emerged from a car over in the parking lot.

“How do you know that’s her?” Now Sano too looked over at the woman, who was distant enough that her features couldn’t be made out in detail.

“Don’t be stupid. She’s an Asian woman arriving near noon, looking around nervously, and getting a three-year-old out of her car.”

Since she hadn’t been doing either of the latter activities when Hajime had made his initial pronouncement, and since being Asian didn’t signify anything when nearly everyone here was, Sano said pointedly, “So you mean you guessed.”

“The man with her is her father.” Ignoring the accusation, Hajime continued to gaze thoughtfully across the grass. “At least she had the sense not to come alone, in case we do turn out to be psychopaths.”

“You’re still guessing.” Sano’s heart wasn’t in it this time, though, as his attention had been entirely caught by the little boy the presumed Kaoru Himura was doing something to the shoes of in preparation for turning him loose in the playground. Even from here the bright red of the kid’s hair drew the eye, in stark contrast to the mother’s black. What was it Aoshi had said about Kenshin? ‘Half Japanese, half American?’ It showed in his son. Sano snorted faintly. ‘American;’ what kind of description was that? He never would have inferred red hair from that.

The man Hajime had identified as Kaoru’s father, closing the passenger door of the car they’d come in, was talking to her with some rapidity, even urgency. Hajime supplied, “He thinks this is a bad idea.”

With a skeptical glance at his companion, Sano wondered, “How can you get that from over here?”

“I can only get a very vague impression,” admitted Hajime, “but that’s more because of all the people around than the distance. But look at his body language.”

He had a point; the man pretty clearly wasn’t happy about the whole situation. Kaoru must have told him the purpose of this trip, and the ‘psychopaths’ scenario suggested a moment ago probably seemed the most likely to him. Apparently, however, having decided to do this, Kaoru would not be to be talked out of it, for she replied with an evident determination despite her body language that suggested she still didn’t feel entirely sure about this course of action.

The little son tugged at his grandfather’s hand, eager to get to the playground; meanwhile, Kaoru gestured quite clearly in the direction of Hajime and Sano over by the skate park, and the man shook his head. “She knows who we are,” Sano muttered. With the ghost twitching in the direction of its wife, tugging enthusiastically at Sano’s psychic hand, he thought he knew exactly how that grandfather felt.

“Your hair,” said Hajime in a tone of reminder, and got to his feet facing the distant party as if acknowledging a greeting. Presently, thinking vaguely mutinous thoughts (he liked his hair), Sano joined him standing. Eventually the three by the parking lot broke up; Kaoru Himura came in their direction, while her father and son moved off toward the playground.

With every step the woman took toward them, the force of the ghost’s straining against Sano’s hold grew perceptibly stronger, just as it had as they’d approached her apartment the day before yesterday. It felt like restraining a large, increasingly excited and persevering dog, assuming it was a dog that couldn’t keep from rendering him more and more irate as minutes went by. He wondered what precisely would happen if he simply let go.

As Mrs. Himura drew nearer, Sano tried to distract himself from the growing anger by studying her face and figure. She was fairly short, with black hair and blue eyes, and he couldn’t really work up much more of a mental description than that. ‘A beautiful Japanese woman,’ Aoshi had said, but Sano thought this had come more from the woman’s husband than the medium, because Kaoru, while not ugly or anything, definitely had a sort of girl-next-door look that Sano would not have described as ‘beautiful.’ And actually, that was interesting, because why– But she’d reached them and, with the stiffest backbone Sano had ever seen, offered the following greeting:

“I haven’t decided I don’t think you’re crazy, or I’m not crazy for being here, but I’m giving you a chance.”

“Thank you,” Hajime nodded. “Of course we understand your reservations, and we appreciate you coming to talk to us at all.” He extended a hand. “I’m Hajime Saitou, an exorcist. And you’ve already heard from Sano.”

Sano hadn’t observed this particular professional act in Hajime before, probably because Sano himself was an abnormal sort of client, and he found the polite, slightly obsequious tone a little creepy. Kaoru, however, seemed somewhat reassured, for just a tiny bit of the tension left her shoulders, and she shook Hajime’s hand before turning to Sano.

Although no physical movement was involved in holding the ghost, still Sano felt as if he rendered his grip less secure by giving Kaoru his hand; but he also felt, first, that it would be counterproductive to start this conversation by being rude or unfriendly, and, second, that he didn’t want to be outdone by Hajime. “Good to meet you,” he said as he returned the woman’s firm handshake. Then, because that had already sounded a little angry, he added less darkly, “Glad you came.”

She heard the anger, and the subsequent enforced cheer did not prevent her from tensing up again. It wasn’t merely uncertainty about a weird meeting that showed in her bearing and visage, but unhappiness and weariness too… a weariness of long standing, and an unhappiness that had etched delicate lines around her eyes before this. It made Sano even angrier just seeing it; he couldn’t stand idea of contributing to her pain. And this further increase in ire she noticed too, and stiffened even more.

Hajime stepped in. “Let’s have a seat and talk.”

As if reluctant not to keep wary eyes on the dangerous one at all times, her gaze left Sano sluggishly, followed Hajime’s gesture to the bench, then moved to the exorcist’s face. Without budging she asked, “You say my husband is here right now?”

For the answer Hajime glanced at Sano, who said, “Yeah, he’s…” Helplessly he indicated, knowing how it would look and sound. “He’s right here.” He tried very hard to speak calmly as he added, “I’m working hard holding him still, so we’ll let Hajime do most of the talking.”

Kaoru stared at what surely looked to her like a normal empty patch of air, her eyes directed at a point where she probably guessed the face would be, but which, with the height at which her husband floated, was actually chest or stomach level — assuming this form of the ghost corresponded with his actual physical attributes (which would mean Kenshin, like his wife, was pretty short).

With an expression like a brittle surface that must eventually crack, she abruptly turned away from the ghost and sat down on the bench.

Hajime took the place beside her, though he didn’t look at her, and said, “I’m sorry to have to ask, but what can you tell us about your husband’s death?”

Sano, who hadn’t returned to the bench himself but stood, every bit as stiff as Kaoru, at its end looking down obliquely at her, now glanced at Hajime with a surprise that momentarily cut through his growing anger. No, Hajime’s tone wasn’t gentle or comforting — despite only having known him for a week, Sano already believed with assurance that the world might come to an end at any gentle or comforting tone from Hajime — but in the calm, low voice there was an audible (to Sano) desire not to wound or even disturb more than necessary… and this, from that source, seemed extraordinarily thoughtful.

Whether Kaoru recognized the unusual consideration, Sano could not tell. In any event, she took a deep breath and, staring down at the clenched hands she’d laid on her knees, began speaking very rapidly, perhaps feeling that if she didn’t get through her story quickly she wouldn’t be able to get through it at all.

Part 18

“I don’t know how much you already know, since I don’t know how you found me, but if you’ve read the articles or talked to the police you probably know as much as I do. On November 23rd last year, Kenshin was taking the bus home from work — he worked at the Humane Society, which you probably know is way across town from here, but we lived a little closer to it then; I only moved back here to be near my parents after…” She gave a pained-sounding clearing of throat and paused for a moment before going on at the same pace as before. “He was on his way home, waiting for his connecting bus, and there was a gunfight in the street near the stop. It was a gang thing.

“They said he must have tried to take shelter down a little street behind the bus stop, because that’s where he was found. It’s not the best area — it was the stop at Hamlet and 11th, if you know it, which is statistically the worst part of the city for gang activity — and though there aren’t a lot of gunfights, they do happen, and there does happen to be a bus stop right there, so it was inevitable that eventually someone would…”

Her face had been growing more and more brittle throughout this dissertation, her voice tighter and tighter. Something was going to crack, and the result would surely be sobbing and tears and probably a good deal less coherence. She cleared her throat again and took a deep breath not entirely steady.

“He didn’t always take the bus to work; we do have a car. It was perfect coincidence that I needed it that day.” Her voice sank as she added in a self-accusatory tone, “But of course I didn’t need it. I work from home… I didn’t have to go shopping that day… if I hadn’t kept the car — I didn’t need it — he wouldn’t have been at that bus stop. He would never have been at that bus stop.” Tears were definitely starting to surface; it was difficult to see her eyes, still turned down as they were toward her knees and the hands clenched thereon, but the intonation could not be mistaken. She was on the verge of losing the careful control she’d undoubtedly built up painstakingly over the last few months of repeating this story.

She was also lying.

This frustrated Hajime to a pitch that heightened with every word she spoke. Exactly what she was lying about, exactly why she’d chosen to lie, and exactly how it pertained to the current situation and her husband’s ghost, he could not begin to determine, but she couldn’t hide from him the general sense of untruth behind her words.

What she could hide from him was just about everything else. She guarded so fiercely, he couldn’t even get at completely unrelated thoughts in her head. Moments like this made him regret never training more thoroughly in communication, and he decided then and there how he would be spending his spare time after this ended, so bothersome was it not to be able to reach a truth that would, presumably, help everyone present.

“He was actually shot twice,” she went on, surprisingly with no great increase in breakdown of control: “once just behind his right ear, and the other just in front of it. He was unconscious when he was found and taken to the hospital, and it took him less than an hour to pass away. I didn’t even make it over there before… I didn’t get a chance to…” After another trembling breath she went on more steadily, “They said, if there was any pain, it was probably over with quickly.”

Throughout this discourse Sano had been shifting restlessly, and, though Hajime doubted the young man could sense the concealment, clearly the woman’s words — especially these last — did nothing to help decrease the already significant level of anger he struggled to deal with. But Kaoru, gaze still fixed on her knees, appeared to notice none of this.

“The police also said the sweatshirt he was wearing might have contributed, since he’d pulled the hood up, probably to hide his face and hair in the dark or something, and that might have made him look more like a member of one of the gangs. I always thought he should wear a jacket that didn’t look so… young… he was thirty-two, but you’d never guess… and it was mine in the first place; I mean, it was grey, but it was a woman’s hoodie…” Evidently these somewhat rambling details were more difficult to relate than the physicalities of the death itself, and the tears now stood visibly on her face. Hajime deemed her distress genuine, but couldn’t pass judgment on the accuracy of her account.

“He was always doing that: wearing my clothes without realizing anyone would think it was weird. And the really weird thing was they looked just fine on him — usually better than they did on me. But I still used to give him a hard time about it, because of Kenji and the neighbors and because he never seemed to notice it was a little weird.” Her words became more and more difficult to understand as sobs broke into her sentences and a constricted throat marred her pronunciation. “For a while after… last November… I kept thinking, ‘If I could just have him back, I’d never get on his case about that again. He could wear anything he wanted — not just jeans and things, but dresses or whatever — if he would just come back.’ And every time I realized I was thinking that way, I got so angry at myself for being so stupid… but it still took a while to stop.”

This latest set of revelations Hajime believed to be totally honest, since it had nothing to do with Kenshin’s death, and the overwhelming sense of deception had faded somewhat from Kaoru’s demeanor. But whether she was making a subtle attempt to get away from the topic about which she felt the need to lie, or whether she really had been sidetracked in her grief by memories of her late husband’s quirks, the exorcist couldn’t guess. In any case, it got them nowhere.

“Mrs. Himura,” he began, in the cool tone of a lecturer, “the problem here — at least the first problem that needs to be dealt with — isn’t so much your husband himself as the angry energy surrounding him. When someone is haunted by this type of energy — which is called a shade — it has a number of negative effects on them; headaches and an extremely bad mood are the most common. As you can see, Sano is currently suffering these effects because, for some reason, your husband has been haunting him for three weeks.”

He’d been ready to go on for as long as she remained silent until the entire situation was laid before her, but at this point she broke in. “Why?” She sounded a little desperate. “Why would he go to a complete stranger?” With an uncertain glance at Sano she added, “Or did he know you and just never mention you?”

Sano, clearly beyond the ability to speak, shook his head. Hajime almost expected a countdown to appear in big visible red numbers above the spiky blue-gelled hair at any moment, and continued his explanation to Kaoru more quickly. “That’s one thing we’d like to figure out. But besides the effects on Sano, just the fact that your husband is still here at all needs to be addressed. It’s not healthy for anyone to stay in this world after death, and whatever is holding him here needs to be dealt with.

“But the shade energy is blocking all attempts to communicate with him. We can’t find out what exactly is holding him here if we can’t talk to him — and it’s more than likely that some sort of communication is what he needs in order to move on anyway. So the most important point at the moment is why he’s so angry. If we can dispel the anger, we can move on to the next step in this process. And the probability that his anger is related to the circumstances of his death is overwhelming.”

Her tears were in abeyance for the moment, and she looked faintly confused and equal parts wary; in her mind, the walls seemed to have become thicker and rougher than before. “OK,” she said slowly and relatively levelly. “I can see why that would be important.”

Abruptly Hajime stood, and the movement made Mrs. Himura shy back toward her end of the bench. “I’m sorry to startle you,” he said. “As I mentioned, we appreciate that you came out here at all to talk to us. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared to tell us the truth, I’m afraid you’re not going to be any help to us.”

The barriers suddenly doubled, and her level of agitation increased perceptibly. He would never have deliberately put her back up like this — it would have been so much more politic to continue the conversation on a non-threatening level and try to work the answers out of her — but to his left he could sense Sano about to explode. What direction the young man’s anger currently pointed didn’t matter; he might do something everyone would regret after not much longer.

“What–” Kaoru was saying, rising hesitantly from where she’d been seated, wringing her hands.

But in favor of looping one arm through the straps of Sano’s backpack, taking Sano’s elbow in a firm grip with the other hand and pulling him away along the sidewalk, Hajime gave every indication of completely ignoring her.

Part 19

The entire world seemed to exist behind a thick filter of intense red that fluctuated between the color of fresh strawberries and that of clotting blood. Sano recognized nothing around him, and didn’t entirely know what was going on, like in a video game where half the time you were in a mirror of reality that only corresponded vaguely with it, and the controls had gone all twisted and frustrating. His body trembled; his blood pounded so noisily he couldn’t hear a thing above it. He also didn’t realize for some time — he didn’t know how long — that he was moving.

More than once he’d wondered what the anger would be like when it became ungovernable, but now (Unfortunately? He would have to decide later) his frame of mind disallowed analysis. Nor could he tell exactly what his status might be. Prior to this there had been a sort of scale or gradient by which he could measure the level of his wrath and its probable effects on his behavior, but this had risen right off the chart.

He was walking. With the tenacity of someone in shock not knowing what he clung to, he maintained his grip on the ghost, and every step he took jarred the anger in him as if he were filled with liquid to the brim and about to be shaken into spilling. The anger was all the worse in that it had no object, no rationale. Of course it had been that way all along, but this… he needed an object… he needed a reason for this overwhelming rage. And why was he walking? Hadn’t they been talking to Kenshin’s wife, whom he couldn’t decide if he was angry at or just angry about? Hadn’t they been working on dealing with this problem, not walking away from it?

‘They?’

He turned.

Through the film he saw Hajime, who looked distant and sinister and very red. Hajime, the disdainful jerk still pretty clearly more interested in some dead guy he’d never actually met than in Sano.

Suddenly the wrath had an object.

He realized Hajime had hold of his arm only when he wrenched free. Turning to face him, fists clenched… well, he meant to demand what the fuck was going on, where they were, where Mrs. Himura was, and any number of other things… but the noise that broke from him had no words and practically no semblance of humanity.

Hajime spoke, but to Sano he was every bit as incomprehensible as Sano had probably been to him just now. All that came across was the insufferable calm and indifference with which Hajime always seemed to treat him, and that caused a critical mass. Whether or not he could measure his current level, whether or not he could judge its probable effects, there had clearly been a line, and it had clearly been crossed. With a burst of increased tension that set his muscles creaking and straining, Sano charged the other man with flying fists.

No impact came, but the next thing he saw, as he caught himself and whirled, was Hajime slipping quickly out of his jacket, which he dropped onto what appeared to be Sano’s backpack standing on the grass, and loosening his tie. The bastard didn’t even have the decency to look concerned that Sano had struck at him; on his harsh face appeared merely a sort of bored, almost passive determination to do what had to be done. It was maddening.

The next blow met flesh as Hajime raised an arm to prevent it reaching its real target. The one after that went wide as Hajime retaliated into Sano’s ribs with his left. Pain felt absurdly good at the moment, and there was a bizarre accompanying sensation as if he were slicked over with a liquid coating of anger and the punch had splashed a certain amount of it right off of him. But that was nothing compared to the astonishing, glorious release in tension when his subsequent attempt connected with Hajime’s shoulder and seemed to deliver anger along with kinetic force.

So tightly was he packed with rage that he felt he must literally explode and decorate the park with viscera and pressurized blood. He was so heavy and overheated, his movements seemed reeling and clumsy… and yet somehow, simultaneously, pointed and devastatingly impactful as he drove an elbow toward Hajime’s neck and a knee toward his abdomen. And, though not precisely what he’d been going for, it was hardly any less a release of anger when neither connected and, in fact, Hajime half sidestepped and gave him such a hard hit to the shoulder that he spun past and crashed to the ground.

After half a hot breath, barely enough to bring him the red scent of the grass beneath, Sano stood on his feet again, twisting to throw another punch at the man that seemed to have been waiting for the attack without taking advantage of the fall. This time Hajime’s raised arm didn’t move quickly enough to prevent a hit to his high cheekbone, and to Sano this felt so good that he let out a growl of satisfaction at the cracking contact. It wasn’t unanswered, though, as, in a spray of released anger, that hard left of Hajime’s slammed next into Sano’s face in almost precisely the same spot.

Chaos roared in his hearing like a riotous crowd, and the waves of pain rippling from the point of that last hit temporarily affected his vision as well, but the driving impulse of forward and against kept him active. Hajime blocked him, blocked him again, hit him in the stomach, dodged and kicked and sent him sprawling a second time, but Sano was undaunted. His craving for the feeling of his knuckles against Hajime’s face had not been satisfied by one instance.

Through the haze of rage and adrenaline, as he struck out once more and was denied, he wondered vaguely how Hajime seemed so good at this. Hadn’t he seen Hajime with a sword on more than one occasion? What kind of martial arts training did the bastard have? Had he ever mentioned? But attempting to remember things like that not only taxed Sano extremely in his current state of mind — though, he thought, it became slightly easier as moments passed — it was also dangerously distracting with fists flying, and probably what won him the next couple of blows to his chest.

The diminution of his anger had been steady and gradual, but the realization that he was within measurable levels again struck him abruptly and startlingly. The result was a sudden winding down as if a power source had shut off, and he found the arm he’d raised for a punch sinking along with the adrenaline and the desire for further violence. His fist loosened as his wrist came to rest on Hajime’s shoulder instead of progressing as he’d intended. Hajime’s movement also ceased as he perceived Sano’s changing state, and he was looking much less crimson.

“Back, are you?” he wondered, and Sano rejoiced to find the words relatively comprehensible.

His reply that he believed so emerged with no great smoothness, because he turned out to be panting and shaking like a drug addict, but Hajime, at least, evidently understood. He nodded, then gave Sano one final punch across the face.

The unexpectedness of the hit increased the amount of anger it caused Sano to release, and he swore loudly as he sprawled back onto his ass on the ground. But he was seeing clearly now, hearing accurately, and, he thought, properly aware of his surroundings and situation for the first time in he didn’t know how long.

For example, he realized he and the grim-faced man standing over him weren’t alone. Hajime’s thoughtful frown was sufficiently engrossingly infuriating that it took some doing to drag Sano’s attention away from it, but this was accomplished by the recognition of a group of kids loosely surrounding them: primarily the skate park crowd, past whom Hajime had probably paraded Sano to get here, and some of whom looked as if this was the best day of their lives. He doubted they often got to see two grown men (one in a suit!) beat each other up right in the park in front of them. Some still cheered, some laughed; a few, seeing the fight had ended, were analyzing it — evidently Sano had pretty clearly lost — while others stood in interested or even horrified silence.

As the pain of the various instances of successful application of Hajime’s fists began asserting itself, now without nearly as much satisfaction attached as earlier, Sano turned back to the source of this discomfort. Hajime had retrieved his jacket and folded it over one arm; he seemed unmoved by the seam at the shoulder of his shirt that had split or the dark spot already intensifying on his face.

Sano remained quite angry, and was readier than not to turn and roar at the gawking kids if they didn’t shut the hell up — and Hajime had no exemption from this wrath… but the sight of those results of the fight summoned up a simultaneous sensation of almost affectionate gratitude. How many people, even in the pursuit of a significant source of interest in their career, would fall so readily into a fist fight with an non-paying client just to work off some excess anger? When Hajime held out a hand to help Sano up, Sano reached for it thankfully, and, upon standing, clasped it briefly in both of his own in lieu of a verbal expression of appreciation that probably wouldn’t have come out very coherently at the moment.

Beginning to be convinced the entertainment had drawn to a close, the kids were dispersing. This was for the best, since Sano had no clear idea where the ghost was, and he didn’t want breaking up a brawl among a bunch of suddenly incensed little skaters to be the next thing he had to do today.

“You’re quite the thug,” Hajime remarked, sounding unsurprised.

Assuming his mental shields had taken just as much of a beating as his body, and that Hajime could therefore pick up on his memory of just how many fights he’d been in during high school, Sano didn’t bother explaining, only said, “You’re pretty damn good yourself,” as he went to retrieve his backpack from the grass.

Hajime also neglected explanation, which annoyed Sano since he couldn’t read the exorcist’s mind. Scanning the area, presumably watching the kids returning to their previous activities, Hajime straightened his tie in a seemingly unconscious movement. Sano too looked around, and found the ghost not far off doing its usual thing. He gave an angry sigh and addressed Kenshin at a grumble: “Fucking ghost making me randomly attack people… You’re going to owe me big when this is over…” Then he frowned and turned back to Hajime. “Hey, did I hear you say the lady was lying or something?”

“She was. Come on.” The exorcist gestured. “It’s not a good idea for us to be here much longer after that.”

Unsure what the gesture referred to, too annoyed to ask, Sano yet didn’t mind following. Well, it annoyed him to follow, but he did it anyway.

Hajime began to explain, as they walked, about the finale of the conversation with Mrs. Himura that Sano had been too irate properly to mark. That Sano, under Kenshin’s stupid influence, had essentially blown their only chance at getting information out of her could only irritate him further; and as soon as he had the gist of what Hajime detailed, he couldn’t help breaking in with, “Big fucking waste of time today’s been.”

Hajime made a thoughtful sound even as he raised a hand to the growing bruise on his face. “It might not have gone as badly as you think,” he said cryptically, and walked on.

Part 20

The things Hajime had discovered so far that could distract Sano from his rage were humor, food, and this new excitement over the possibility of geological pursuits. Of course the rage still needed to be released, but Hajime thought it was easier on Sano to insinuate outlets for it during more pleasant interactions. So, since they were essentially killing time again right now, he attempted to make use of at least two of the aforementioned three. And the restaurant across the street had a patio with a few outdoor tables, ideal for both a man with a ghost orbiting him and a man that wanted to keep an eye on the park nearby.

Sano presented an amusingly contradictory attitude inside when a small internal war seemed to arise between his protest that Korean food was too similar to Chinese food for his tastes (a point Hajime would have to debate with him sometime) and his pleasure at being bought any kind of food by anybody. But eventually they were seated and waiting for any number of things, and Sano looked as if he might return to fuming. To head this off, Hajime had been planning on introducing immediately the topic that had so engrossed them this morning, but Sano beat him in starting the conversation abruptly on another subject:

“Hey, did you think she was pretty?”

Though convinced Sano’s reasons for asking this were serious and mostly not frivolous, Hajime had to reply, “Hmm… for a second there I thought you had something rational to say.”

“I am being rational!” Sano insisted. “And I really want to know — did you find her attractive?”

“No,” said Hajime bluntly, not bothering to add that he didn’t really find anyone attractive.

Somewhat to his surprise, Sano grumbled, “You probably don’t find anyone attractive. So take it from me — I’d call her a five. Maybe a six at best. Average, you know?”

Hajime just raised a brow at him, feeling no desire to comment.

“So why did Aoshi describe her as ‘beautiful?’ That’s a pretty strong word that I don’t think really fits her.”

“No accounting for tastes — yours or Aoshi’s.”

Sano snorted. “Well, if we’re talking about Aoshi’s taste…” He shrugged. “My gaydar could be off because he’s such a total weirdo, but I never thought he was the type of guy who’d overexaggerate a lady’s prettiness.”

Wondering how Aoshi’s sexual orientation had come into this, Hajime asked, “So?”

“So he was probably getting that impression from Kenshin.” Sano gestured to the drifting ghost. “Because Kenshin’s idea of his wife that Aoshi picked up on was that she’s so beautiful because he still loves her that much.”

Now Hajime saw his point, and glanced also toward the ghost, which floated at that moment in the orbital spot about the most convenient for this. Unexpectedly, much sooner than he’d anticipated, a server appeared with their food, stepping right into the space his gaze occupied and startling him a bit. Though friendly and obliging, both her demeanor and the extreme curiosity she suddenly projected evinced her wonder at all the evidence of recent vigorous activity between these two customers; for this reason and others, their interaction with her wasn’t entirely natural.

When she’d left and the slightly awkward scene had ended, Hajime said, “So you think Kenshin’s anger isn’t aimed at his wife.”

“Yeah, exactly.” Sano surveyed his plate with much more optimism than his earlier complaints could have predicted (probably because this was nothing like Chinese food). “If it was her he’s mad at, you’d think he wouldn’t be giving off this impression of her being so beautiful when she’s not.”

Hajime nodded slowly. “It’s not a bad assessment, but you can’t be sure.”

Pausing with chopsticks halfway to his mouth, Sano frowned. For a moment he remained still and silent, and finally shook his head. “No, I am sure. Don’t even start asking me how, but I’m sure. He’s not mad at her. He sure as hell is mad, but not at her.”

“You’re the one he’s haunting,” Hajime allowed. Actually he was inclined to believe Sano’s assertion without any more evidence than had been offered, but still felt the need to raise one more point. “But doesn’t his anger increase when he’s around her?”

Again Sano shook his head. “I thought so at first, but that’s not it. He gets more intense when she’s nearby… he wants to go to her and do whatever… so then I have to work harder to deal with him, so I soak up more of that shit… but I don’t think there’s actually any more of it just because she’s around.”

Hajime nodded again, accepting the explanation, and ate his lunch in silence. The idea that the dead man’s vicious anger might not be directed at his anchor was intriguing and probably important, but it didn’t advance them at the moment. The truth about Kenshin’s death remained the crucial information, and, while Hajime didn’t despair of getting at it, the slow proceedings were somewhat annoying.

Eventually, as even the nothing-like-Chinese food couldn’t keep Sano’s brow from darkening and his grip on his chopsticks from tightening detrimentally to his ability to use them, Hajime deemed the moment right to ask, “What will you need to do at school to get into geology?”

Sano seemed surprised, and once again to be considering this apparent sign of interest, rather than solely a distraction technique, a gesture of friendship… and maybe he wasn’t so far from the truth this time. And he didn’t hesitate answering. “Well, like I said, I’ve already been working on getting all my general stuff out of the way… and I’m actually already in the first chemistry pre-req I’ll need for the geology program. It’s seventy-five credit hours, and then I can look into getting my masters somewhere else; there’s some really good schools for it…”

The topic wasn’t interesting — school plans never could be, except perhaps among relatives (and, Hajime thought, not frequently even then) — and yet he found himself interested. An unignorable difference came over Sano’s demeanor when he discussed this subject: the directionlessness, the waste of energy, the carelessness and frustrated frame of existence Hajime had begun to consider characteristic of him seemed entirely to disappear, to be replaced by a vigorous and unvarying determination.

Of course he couldn’t be certain how long it would last — this whole resurgence of geological fixation might be no more than a flash in the pan — but at the moment Hajime had to rethink or at least put on hold his earlier idea that Sano would probably eventually change his mind about this. And certainly this new sense of purpose Sano radiated was engaging.

So too was the rapidity with which he’d gathered such thorough information Of course an ability to look things up online set no records for effectiveness — though Hajime knew both the lack of internet conversance of a large portion of the population and the frustratingly unintuitive nature of college websites — but listening to Sano’s description of what he’d wondered and how he’d found out, Hajime was irresistibly reminded of the question-and-answer pattern of divination.

As engrossed as Hajime wouldn’t deny he was, this entire leisurely process of lunch and conversation had a purpose other than distracting Sano from his anger for a while or even proving to Hajime that his companion might not be as much a waste of space as he’d previously thought. And when Sano abruptly stiffened and scowled, simultaneously reminded of his anger by some sudden movement of the ghost and dismayed because he’d believed himself finished with the higher levels for the day, Hajime had to struggle not to smile. He enjoyed giving Sano hell, but had no reason (at the moment) to be grinning in the face of his misfortune… yet he did like knowing he’d been right about something.

Suspicious and angry, Sano scanned for the reason behind the ghost’s change in motion and attitude, but that reason had already moved from his line of sight. And by the time he’d stopped craning his neck and turned back to a proper position in his chair, Mrs. Himura had come through the restaurant and stood before them on the patio.

Part 21

In a funny mixture of hesitation and bravado, Kaoru pulled out one of the vacant chairs, took a seat, and looked back and forth between the two men. She hadn’t said a word yet, but Sano thought he could feel her eyes on his facial bruises as palpably as if she’d been using her fingers. A glance at Hajime showed him studying Kaoru as intently as she studied them, and it would have made sense to assume the exorcist wanted to determine whether the woman felt ready to tell the mysterious truth he was so sure she’d been withholding… but for some reason Sano had the impression Hajime actually examined her features trying to decide on her level of attractiveness. Sano stood by his five.

Kenshin, meanwhile, struggled to approach his wife, which meant all the effort Hajime had expended to get Sano back down to a manageable level of anger would be negated as Sano had to restrain the guy all over again.

The deep breath Kaoru eventually drew in preparation for speech partook of the same mixture of boldness and uncertainty as had her motions sitting down, but her voice was steady as she said, “I may be ready to believe you.”

“Oh?” was all Hajime replied. He seemed to have been expecting this; jerk could have mentioned that.

“I followed you when you walked away. I saw you fighting. I think it’s pretty obvious that either what you’re saying is true, or at least you believe it is.”

“Or we’re thorough con artists,” Hajime added.

“Or that,” she agreed, evidently rendered a little easier by the acknowledgment of this possibility.

“Yeah…” Sano looked at her askance. “Not to argue against ourselves or anything, but seeing us fighting… doesn’t really prove anything.”

She sighed. “No, I guess not. But I already wanted to believe you. No, that’s not what I mean. I don’t want to believe my husband is haunting you and can’t pass on, or that he’s so mad he’s making you try to beat up your friend… but I think I do believe you. Because what you were saying before?” She turned to Hajime. “About the usual effects of having an angry ghost around? That happened to me.

“I don’t know why it didn’t start until December — late December, almost January — when he died in November, but it was just like you described. I had non-stop migraines, and I was just so angry all the time… I had to send Kenji, my son, to my parents’ house practically every day because I was afraid I was going to take it out on him. Sometimes I took it out on people I met — people at stores, and friends, and even my own parents sometimes — and on things, like the furniture and my car, and…” She was beginning to look distraught again. “I thought I was just angry about what had happened, but now that you’ve mentioned what ghosts do to you…”

Sano had actually opened his mouth to repair her conflation of ghosts with red shades, but decided that being pedantic at this point might do more harm than good. Besides, his anger was swiftly growing again, and he probably wouldn’t be able to say it without sounding inordinately unkind.

So after a moment or two she went on uninterrupted. “Eventually I noticed it starting to fade, but it’s only about a week and a half ago that I’ve really started to feel like myself again. But I realized it was probably about three weeks ago that it started fading. Because that was when he left and went to you, wasn’t it?”

Sano nodded as she looked at him again.

“Probably because he couldn’t get through to you,” Hajime mused, “and got tired of trying. Why he went to Sano, specifically, we still have no idea, but it seems logical for him to have gone to someone else when he found he wasn’t getting anywhere with you, who can’t see ghosts.”

“Is this something that happens a lot?” Kaoru wondered next. “Do lots of people get haunted by other people’s husbands?” Sano considered this question a sign of the authenticity of her stated readiness to believe.

Hajime shook his head. “What I usually deal with are shades, which are just leftover emotions, not people. Real ghosts are very rare. If you were wondering what my part in all of this is,” he added in much the same tone he’d used for the earlier con artist comment, “I’m essentially just waiting around to talk to your husband in order to get some more information about ghosts.”

Kaoru gave a confused half smile. “I wasn’t wondering; I assumed he was paying you.” She glanced from one of the men to the other and back. A new interest showed in her face, but Sano thought she was forcing it in order to avoid thinking about something else. And when she asked, “Are there a lot of exorcists?” it sounded like someone making polite conversation. If she needed this as a strengthening routine in order to move on to a more difficult subject, Sano didn’t want to discourage her… but he was once again becoming angrier with every moment he spent near her as Kenshin strained against his hold, and her delays could only worsen the situation.

Hajime seemed all patience, however. “I’m currently the only professional exorcist in this city, which is why I moved here. For this population, one tends to be enough — though there are certain types of cases I have to use a specialist for.”

Though she listened with ostensible attentiveness, Kaoru yet seemed caught up in something else she would rather not think about. “So the leftover emotion things keep you busy enough,” she asked somewhat hastily, “to make a living?”

Sano rearranged his sore body in the chair. He’d picked up his cloth napkin for something to do with his hands, and now realized he was pulling it badly askew. It didn’t seem in danger of tearing — yet — but long stretch-marks indicated where he’d been tugging at it.

“More or less,” Hajime was answering with a glance at the younger man. “But listen, Mrs. Himura: you need to understand what it does to Sano to have you sitting here.”

She too glanced at Sano, with dark eyes and a frown, then searched the air around him for a moment before returning her gaze to his angry face. Her brows contracted and she swallowed. Softly she said, “I’m just trying not to think about the idea that he’s really here when he shouldn’t be.” It was clear that by ‘he’ she didn’t mean Sano, though she continued looking at him as she spoke. “Ghosts are really rare, you say… so I guess only a very unusual situation can turn someone into one.” Her voice sank even farther. “No wonder he’s so angry.”

Seeing the tears welling again in her eyes, Sano wanted to share with her his theory that she was not the object of Kenshin’s wrath, but he couldn’t without making her the object of his. He wished Hajime would bring it up, but he obviously believed doing so would destroy the progress they’d made toward getting at what they needed to know.

“Why should he be angry at you?” the exorcist asked quietly.

Kaoru shook her head rapidly as if trying to rid herself of some clinging aura (and probably failing). Again she looked from one man to the other. After a deep breath she said, “You were right. I wasn’t telling the truth before.”

Hajime’s gaze intensified, but he said nothing.

Kaoru’s hands on the table clenched as she looked down at her white knuckles as she had earlier. “If I believe you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to believe you and I don’t want to tell you… but I feel like I have to believe you, and I do want to tell someone. I’m so tired of this…” As she looked up again, her expression confirmed this last statement, and the breath she drew in sounded much the same. “I will tell you… but you have to promise not to go to the police.”

She really did kill him, Sano sent to Hajime, not so sure he was joking this time.

Hajime nodded slowly in response to the thought, but his expression did not change. “I can’t promise you that,” he told Kaoru gravely. “We want and need to hear your story, but if there’s been a crime I feel I have to report, I will report it.”

She gave him a long look, then eventually turned to Sano. “And you?”

Sano forced himself to answer, though none too pleased with the growl in which his words emerged. “I could promise, but it wouldn’t matter: this bastard reads my mind, so he’d get at it anyway.”

The woman seemed taken aback, though whether at the roughness of the statement or the revelation she was seated next to a mind-reader Sano couldn’t guess. Her eyes dropped, and for several moments she sat in tense silence staring at her hands. Finally she reached a decision, as evinced by the determined hardening of her expression and the set of her shoulders. “All right,” she said. “I’m probably crazy, but I’m going to trust you. I’ll tell you everything.”

Part 22

With the type of resolution that feels it might as well get a necessary evil over with as quickly as possible, Mrs. Himura stood from the table and announced, “But not here. Come sit in my car where people can’t hear me.”

Her car, Hajime reflected, was probably the safest of any relatively private places she could have chosen for a couple of strange men to accompany her to, but that they really weren’t psychopaths or con artists was also fortunate. Perhaps personal safety didn’t mean much to her anymore.

Though Sano hadn’t eaten anything since the woman had appeared at their table and necessitated he start holding onto the ghost again, still he cast a disappointedly annoyed glance at what remained on his plate as he stood. Nothing to be done for it; the service here seemed very quick, but Hajime didn’t want to wait for to-go boxes; he already planned to force payment for the meal on whichever employee he ran across first inside.

Finished with that, they started back toward the park in tense silence. More than one of them glanced around in some discomfort: Kaoru was probably concerned her father would see them and make very understandable trouble; while Hajime worried that, after the fisticuffs earlier, he and Sano might be personae non gratae in this location at least for a while (or perhaps a little too gratae among the former spectating kids). Sano himself, evidently, was too busy keeping a firm hold on both the ghost and his own rising temper to think much about either issue. And his lack of attention eventually proved justified when they reached and entered the Himura car without event.

Gripping the steering wheel behind which she’d seated herself as if craving something to cling to, Kaoru let out a sigh both defeated and preparatory. Then, for a second time that day, she began speaking at a rapid pace as if she feared she wouldn’t be able to make the confession if she didn’t talk fast.

“I killed my husband,” was how she started. “And I don’t mean that the way people do when they’re trying to find some way to blame themselves for something they didn’t want to happen, no matter what I said before about keeping the car that day. I mean I shot him twice in the head with a Taurus .38 Special.”

She fell abruptly silent at this point, and Hajime didn’t need to be able to read her mind to know she awaited their reactions. And perhaps she needed those reactions — the surprise and the horror she expected — to contribute to the order she was trying to set up for herself to regulate her emotions and situation… but unfortunately, Hajime and Sano, already having guessed at what she’d just confessed, could not provide. Hajime merely nodded, and Sano’s scowl did not alter.

“It started in October,” she finally went on, perhaps taking revenge for their lack of interested response by not specifying what ‘it’ was. “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was late in October because we’d just bought Kenji a Halloween costume when we were out shopping one night, and the next morning he was asking me questions about Halloween. Somehow he had it confused with Christmas, and he thought if he dressed up that meant he needed to give away presents. He was deciding who was going to have which of his toys, and I thought it was so sweet… just like his dad…”

She’d begun rambling again, apparently. Hajime thought a point was being progressed toward, but Sano obviously couldn’t tell. He shifted uncomfortably even more than before in the back seat, which he’d occupied without a word when Hajime had taken the front.

“Then later that same day,” Kaoru went on, “a note appeared out of nowhere on my refrigerator. It said something like, ‘You have a very generous son. If you want him to live long enough to give away his toys for Halloween, follow these instructions exactly: burn this note and cut up an apple for him to dip in peanut butter.'”

Now she got the reaction she’d previously been anticipating. Sano gave a surprised growl or grunt, and Hajime’s brows went down over narrowed eyes. This news came as an unexpected shock, and the eventual outcome of the story after such a beginning seemed unpleasantly guessable.

“Apples in peanut butter is one of Kenji’s favorite snacks, and anyone could have known that. But the conversation about his toys on Halloween I hadn’t told anyone about yet. But at first I thought the note must be a practical joke, even if it wasn’t very funny, because you just don’t think about that kind of crime-drama thing actually happening in real life — at least not to you or anyone you know. So I looked around for someone maybe hiding in the house, but it wasn’t a big house… Kenji thought it was a game and helped me look; I was so shaken up, I couldn’t get him to sit still in the kitchen and wait for me.

“Then I thought I’d call Kenshin and see if he had something to do with it, even though it obviously wasn’t the kind of joke he would do… but when I reached for the phone, the doorbell rang. I thought whoever it was at the door would probably have the explanation, but when I got there there was no one there, just another note. These were typed notes, by the way. Like, printed notes. This one said something like, ‘It’s a better idea not to tell anyone about this. No one will answer the phone anyway.’ And then it went on telling me about exactly what Kenshin was doing — it even mentioned the specific breed of dog he was working with right then — and the exact movie my parents had just walked into.

“My first thought was to lock myself and Kenji in the bathroom — because it had no windows — and call the police, but there were too many problems with that idea. What if I couldn’t grab the phone and get in there in time? What if they really were watching Kenshin and my parents at the same time, and weren’t just bluffing to scare me? How could I convince the police I really was in danger? And what if, by the time the police got there, whoever was leaving these notes had just disappeared?”

Hajime might have expected, in the telling of such a tale, even more tears and incomprehensibly choked diction than before, but found it otherwise. Though there was in her voice a faint echo of the terror and desperation she must have felt on that first day, the full course of events she detailed must eventually have inflicted upon her a sense of helplessness beyond activity and bordering on numbness, and this last sounded most prominently in her dull pronouncement, “So I burned the notes and cut up an apple for Kenji.”

Another silence fell, a heaviness and reluctance for this tale to progress any further toward its inevitable conclusion… but in glancing at Sano, Hajime guessed they had only a few more minutes before another intervention would need to take place. “And then?” he prompted.

More, apparently, out of weariness than anything else, Kaoru sighed. “There were several notes during November, mostly to make sure I knew whoever they were really were watching me and my family and that I really would do whatever they asked. I don’t know what kind of ninja was putting these things in the places I found them, but they must have been pretty amazing, because I never saw anyone, and the notes kept appearing in places like on the refrigerator or the bathroom counter, and once in my jewelry box on my dresser. And they never asked me to do anything unusual — nothing that wouldn’t be completely natural for me to do, but what I might not necessarily have done just then if they hadn’t told me to.

“And I don’t know what kind of network they had watching my husband and my parents, but they kept giving me little hints about what they were doing — things I always found out later were true, just like my parents really were at that Amelia Earhart movie that first day and Kenshin really was assisting on a min pin spay. It was… it was so freaky… I got so scared whenever I found out that something one of the notes told me was true, and each time was worse than before.

“They were conditioning me — I could see even then that that was what was happening — but I didn’t know what for. They were getting me ready for something by making sure I was good and scared and ready to do whatever they asked. You can’t know what that’s like…” Her voice sank to an almost contemplative murmur; the horror, presumably, had either passed or taken such deep hold that it had been assimilated into normalcy, and only this dullness remained.

“Not knowing who’s watching you when or where, or when you might do something wrong or what they might do then. Or how to protect the people you love, or even if that was even possible… And imagining all sorts of horrible things and not knowing whether I was exaggerating or what. I got so paranoid I had no idea what was realistic and what was me overreacting.

“I tried not to show it, but that was completely impossible almost right from the beginning, because it was like I became a totally different person.” She gave a faint, frustrated huffing noise. “Between that month and the trauma after and all the anger in January and February, I’m surprised anyone even recognizes me anymore.

“I got into the habit of trying to stay between Kenji and the window, no matter what room we were in, even though I didn’t really think that would do any good. And I didn’t see any way we were going to survive this, even with me doing every little thing they told me. We were hostages, was really what we were, and do you know what hostage survival rates are like?

“I didn’t dare do anything that might even look like I was trying to find out who these people were or trying to do anything about them; no matter where I went, I assumed they were watching through crosshairs. I didn’t want to…” She cleared her throat. “I wouldn’t sleep with my husband. Of course he was desperate to know what was wrong with me — not just because of that, I mean, but because of the entire way I was acting. He tried everything… he tried asking in every way he could, and guessing even the craziest ideas, and bringing me presents because he thought I was upset with him… god, his last month alive, and he thought I was upset with him…” This tangent brought on the tears the main story hadn’t been able to prompt, and Mrs. Himura was for a few moments overcome.

Assuming the tale was going the direction Hajime believed it must be, he perfectly understood this behavior — in fact, he thought, it bordered on miraculous she could talk about this at all, or function in general. She was a tougher person than he’d believed; he should have realized it from the mere presence of natural mental shields strong enough to keep him out apparently indefinitely.

He had no time to ponder this, or to attempt in his inexpert way to offer some kind of consoling statement that might be able to draw out the remainder of what she had to relate. For it was time to see to Sano again.

Part 23

Sano didn’t recognize the motions he used to get out of the car, didn’t feel the handle under his fingers or hear the sound of the door closing, barely even registered the parking lot around him. He knew only the huge, hot, overwhelming certainty of what the end of Kaoru’s story must be. He was so angry he couldn’t think; he was so angry he practically couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t quite call it worse than before, because it was different than before, but he couldn’t quite say anything, because all that would come out was an inarticulate roar.

Sure, it was no surprise, after all the speculation (serious or otherwise), that Kenshin’s wife had been his killer… but Sano had expected as the cause a concealed callousness, or a moment of lost control during an argument, or some kind of infidelity or other marital intrigue… If he’d had any idea threat and coercion had been involved… He raged at himself for ever having joked about it.

The sight of Hajime’s bright red figure emerging from the passenger side of the unfamiliar red car was the first event or part of his surroundings to log coherently (relatively) in Sano’s head, and he felt his hands clench immediately into tingling fists. Of course he still raged at Hajime, for all the same reasons as before — the aloofness and evident disinterest, the blame Sano laid on him (unfair, even now he knew) for the slowness of proceedings and the fact that he still had a maddening ghost attached to him — but this time he also recognized, somewhere deep in the molten rock of his thoughts and emotions under Kenshin’s influence, that Hajime wanted to help him, that Hajime was willing to do anything necessary. This time, as Sano staggered toward him with intentions every bit as violent as earlier, he did so with nearly as much needy hopefulness as anger.

It went as before: Hajime encouraged him off behind one of the other cars in the parking lot — a big old SUV, Sano vaguely classified it, which could provide at least a little privacy — and essentially beat him up until Sano had reached a more propitious frame of mind. And this time, when yet another hard-knuckled blow from the exorcist opened the return doorway to rationality, when Sano staggered backward to stumble (not for the first time in the last couple of minutes) over the curb that bordered the lot on this side and sit down heavily in the small strip of grass between that and a tall fence, he ran a hand across his face and let out a frustrated sigh. His statement that he hoped they wouldn’t have to go through this again today lacked about half its intended words.

Hajime snorted but said nothing. Both shoulders of his shirt, Sano noted, were now split open, and at least one of the buttons across his chest had torn through its hole; his jacket he must have left in Kaoru’s car, since it wasn’t visible anywhere around. The newest bruise on his face induced simultaneous guilt and satisfaction in Sano.

Calming his panting breaths and trying in vain to smooth away his scowl, Sano growled, “Thank you.”

Returning to their interviewee after not too long, Sano in some weary dismay at the feeling of the anger still growing as he continually had to restrain Kenshin, they found Kaoru staring at the steering wheel with a dry face but despairing eyes. These she turned only briefly on Sano as he resumed his place in the back seat; then she returned quickly, with a wince, to what she’d been regarding before.

“He’s mad at me,” she whispered. “Kenshin. He wants revenge. He isn’t — wasn’t — isn’t that kind of person, but… but I think anyone would react like that. I killed him… me, the person he should have been able to trust most… I took everything from him… and now his son is being raised by a murderer. Of course he would have to do something about that. Anyone would.”

“Then he’s a fucking dick,” Sano growled, “and he can damn well just stop haunting me right now, because fuck that.”

Neither of the others responded directly to this largely incoherent statement. Instead, Hajime said in what Sano believed he intended as a sympathetic tone, “What’s the rest of the story?”

After the same preparations for unpleasant speech they’d seen her make a couple of times already today, Kaoru continued. “These notes had me so tense and miserable and worried that I didn’t even blink when they told me they needed me to kill someone. The note said I’d never hear from them again if I did it, and I was so relieved at that thought that at first even murder didn’t seem like too much. That’s how far they’d pushed me.

“Obviously after a while I was horrified by what they were asking me to do, but even then I couldn’t see any way out of it, and I think I accepted the idea and how helpless I was a lot more easily than I should have. It’s something to remember, I guess… how easy it is to make someone a murderer. It’s not a certain type of person; it’s any type of person in the right situation. You’d never look at me and think, ‘She seems like someone who’d shoot a man twice in the head,’ but here I am a murderer.

“Kenshin and I had agreed I wouldn’t have any guns in the house until Kenji was old enough that we could count on him not hurting himself by accident. Obviously whoever they were knew that, because they told me where to go to find a gun to use for the job they wanted me to do: they left it in a box behind a dumpster in one of the streets on the way to where they wanted me to go. It was — I told you — it was a Taurus .38 special, snub-nosed, hammerless, with a — god, what does that matter? I’ll remember every little detail of that gun for the rest of my life, but you guys probably don’t need to know.”

“I’ll admit,” said Hajime, looking at her with slightly raised brows, “that description didn’t actually mean anything to me.”

“Sorry.” It was half a laugh and half a sob. “Not everyone’s a fan of guns. Including me, now. But I’ve been shooting since I was little… actually, I’ve always wanted to be a policeman. Not much chance of that now, is there?”

As Kaoru took a moment to get hold of herself as she admitted to a lifelong dream thus shattered, Hajime filled the near-silence with the query, “Is that why they chose you for this? Because you’ve had the practice and are familiar with guns?”

She shook her head slowly. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this — god knows I’ve had a lot of time to think about all of this, even if I wasn’t thinking very clearly some of that time — and I think that was only the reason they had me do it the way they did. If I wasn’t a good shot and familiar with guns, they’d’ve had me poison him or something. And if they just… if they just wanted him dead and not cared who did it, they already had whoever it was who was sneaking notes into my house, who I’m sure would have… would have done it better than I did anyway.”

“So you think this was a deliberate form of torture or revenge?” Although Hajime seemed to be interjecting at this point to allow Kaoru another moment to calm her misery, his tone also had the steel-cool determination of someone that loathes what he’s heard and has plans for doing something about it.

With a nod, a deep breath, and an obvious effort, she elaborated. “They wanted me to do it because — I’m just sure of this — they thought it would be the best way to hurt us both. They didn’t care whether I got caught or what happened afterwards… they were completely anonymous the entire time, so even if I did get caught and I told everything, the police wouldn’t be able to get at them and I’d probably still be charged with accessory to murder or something.

“I think I did better than they thought I would, though,” she added with the hint of a bitter smile. “I followed their instructions about the route to take and the best position to be in to wait for the victim, and I wore what they suggested, and I got rid of the gun exactly how they told me. They promised to provide cover fire in the street, and they even did that. It went so smoothly, it was just like I’d practiced it, like I’d been doing this forever.”

They had probably been doing this forever,” said Hajime.

“Did you…” Sano could barely get the words out. “Did you know who…”

“No,” Kaoru whispered. “Do you think I would have — do you think I could have done it if I’d known? Even to protect my son, even to save my own life, do you think I would have been capable of…”

“And it was a dark little back street and he had his hood up,” Sano finished for her in a tone as low as hers but far more rough. “I bet you never even saw his face.”

“I didn’t even know until the phone call came. But… but even not knowing who it was… from the moment I pulled the trigger for the first shot, I felt sick… and cold… and just… terrible like I can’t even describe… and when I saw him fall on his face, I knew I’d done something I could never take back. And even thinking about how I’d done it to save Kenji didn’t help, because I knew I’d turned into something I…” Whatever she said next was completely unintelligible in a storm of body-wracking sobs.

Sano didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Exhausted and aching all over, he doubted he could handle another fist fight today… and yet the anger grew even more quickly than before as he watched the suffering of this poor woman and thought of whoever had put her through this torment. He wanted to find them and do to them the most horrible things he could come up with, force them to endure what Kaoru had endured. His heart hurt even more than his body, and the horror of the circumstance she described was overwhelming.

Eventually, as her sobbing diminished, Hajime asked, “And did you get any more notes?” When she shook her head, he nodded. Even from the back seat, Sano could make out the set of his jaw and his brow, and he realized with an odd sense of clarity and certainty that Hajime entertained much the same thoughts and vindictive desires he did. On the topic of what should be done about Kaoru’s abusers, evidently, they were in complete accord.

A long period of brooding wordlessness followed, during which Sano tried to decide how much longer he could stay in this car and how he could comprehensibly express, through this rage, his resolution and pity. Finally, though, Kaoru spoke again, apparently determined to finish what she’d started even if her story had rather fallen apart halfway through.

“So you can see why it makes perfect sense for Kenshin to be so angry. I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whatever he needs to see happen so he can move on. I’ll shoot myself in the head if he wants. If it weren’t for Kenji, I probably would have done it already.”

Part 24

Finally, Sano managed to say what Hajime knew he’d wanted to for some time: “He’s not mad at you. I swear to fucking god on whatever you want me to swear on that it’s not you he’s mad at.” Of course with the way he said it, it sounded as if Sano was mad at Kaoru, but by now she must understand his situation.

She remained utterly still for a long moment, body frozen, expression locked, apparently not even breathing. Then, finally, letting the air out of her lungs in another uneven sigh, she shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.”

“Mrs. Himura.” Even Hajime’s own voice sounded a little angry. The object of his wrath remained distant and unfocused, but that didn’t alter the emotion. “Whoever was sending you those notes was the murderer of your husband. There’s no specific word for what they did to you, but you were the victim, not the criminal. If your husband has the intelligence of a fly, he’s aware of that. He’s obviously angry not at you, but at the people who forced you into this situation.”

Again she shook her head, but this time said nothing; it seemed she had no ability to argue against a point of view she would greatly have preferred to espouse and yet was convinced, down to her bones, could not be true.

Though not the type to wish to be anything besides what he was, there were times Hajime couldn’t but be aware that other states of being, other states of mind he could never attain, would work more effectively toward certain ends.

Having been coerced, the woman was innocent, or at worst guilty only of prioritizing the life of the son for whom she was responsible over that of, as she’d believed, a total stranger. Perhaps a higher social consciousness would have dictated a complete refusal to commit murder under any circumstances, but, inasmuch as doing so might have been considered equally murderous — in that case of a dependent — he could not condemn the decision she’d made.

She hadn’t, as she believed, become evil; she’d had evil thrust upon her, and it was a shame she couldn’t feel more secure in her blamelessness. Not that it came as any surprise, human nature being what it was. If he’d been a different kind of person, he might have been able to reassure her; as his personality stood, he just sat still and silent in her passenger seat while she wept.

That her mental walls remained as impenetrable as ever made a point of interest that vied with the misfortune of the situation for his attention. It was often all or nothing with the untrained; she’d probably spent the months since that first note fighting so hard against the idea of discovery, which would endanger the life of her son, that even now, when she’d confessed all, she couldn’t relax her defenses. They’d become a default.

Sano, on the other hand, flashed like a beacon in the back seat: he projected pity and horror, in addition to the usual ever-expanding rage, so clearly that his radiating emotions almost colored the air; though he’d become capable of keeping Hajime from what he didn’t want detected under many normal circumstances, the emotional ups and downs of this day had rendered him perfectly easy to read. It was about time to get him out of this setting.

Somewhat abruptly Hajime said, “Reporting this to the police wouldn’t do anyone any good. We need to find out who might have had a reason to do something like this to you and your husband. Do you have any idea?”

“No,” said Kaoru. “No, not at all.”

Hajime had expected as much; with all the time she’d already mentioned she’d had to think about this, she would certainly have come up with an answer if one had been available.

“Everyone has people who don’t like them,” she went on helplessly, “but I can’t think of anyone who would hate me that much. And Kenshin… there were things about his past I know he never told me, but going through his legal documents and records hasn’t found anything.”

Sano, suddenly distracted slightly from his anger by wonder at the thought of a long-term relationship involving withheld information or even deceit, added curiosity and some disapproval to his lineup of noisy emotions.

Completely disinterested, for his own part, in how healthy Kaoru’s marriage had been, “I’m glad to hear that you’ve been looking, at least,” Hajime said.

“What else could I do? I haven’t heard from them since then, but I feel like if I leave town I might get their attention again… but if I had any idea who they were… I couldn’t investigate them in any way I could think of, but nobody would be suspicious of me looking at my husband’s records. But there’s nothing there that gives me any ideas.”

Hajime nodded. “If you find anything that might help…” From the pocket of the jacket that lay across his lap he withdrew a business card. As he handed it to her he added, “And we’ll use the resources we have to look for information as well.”

She also nodded, staring at the card with only the second or third smile he’d seen on her face. Like the previous, it was faint, and held no trace of happiness or entertainment. He thought it stemmed from bemusement at the circumstance of such a dryly professional business card for an exorcist.

“Thank you again for coming to talk to us today,” Hajime said formally. “We’ll keep you updated.”

As he slid slightly sideways and reached for the door, she looked over at him abruptly. Her movement and the expression on her face both seemed surprised, as if she hadn’t realized her conversational companions were leaving so soon — or perhaps that they were leaving at all — and in her eyes he made out the desperation of someone that, having just found a source even of slight relief from her pain, shied from returning to the latter yet or even doubted she could. It must have meant a lot to her to be able to unburden herself the way she had.

Hajime stilled. Little comfort as he knew she was likely to take from anything he could offer, he had to say something; Sano was in no state to do it, and something had to be said. Eventually he decided on, “Remember that you had no choice. Try to believe your husband isn’t mad at you. Hope that when we find out the truth it will help you both.”

The act of steeling herself to go on with business as usual showed in the movement of her body, and sounded in the long, slow breath she drew. And her voice was perfectly steady as she said, “Thank you.”

Outside the car after that intense conversation, Hajime suddenly found himself wanting a cigarette, as he occasionally did when his emotions were aroused. But he pushed this urge firmly away and began crossing the parking lot toward his own vehicle. “I’ll drive you home,” he told Sano.

“It’s not far,” the young man growled. “I’ll just walk.”

“And harass everyone you meet on the way? Don’t be an idiot.”

Without any further protest Sano gave in — there’d been no reason to refuse in the first place besides his angry desire to be contrary — but as he got into Hajime’s car with the ghost firmly in tow, he still scowled. Hajime believed his level could be dealt with verbally instead of through further violence, though, which relieved him since they were both by now a little ragged.

But before Hajime could start in on a calculated barrage of insults so as not to leave Sano in a worse state than when he’d found him, Sano had a comment of his own to make: “That was good.” With his crossed arms and his bruised and glowering face, the words sounded amusingly out of place. “It was good,” he went on very gruffly, “that you tried to make her feel better. I mean, it didn’t make her fucking feel better, but… it was good that you tried.”

Oddly, surprisingly, Hajime found himself… pleased… by this somewhat inarticulate expression of approbation. He wouldn’t have thought Sano’s opinion could mean much to him on this or any topic, yet his spirit distinctly lifted. Therefore it was ironic that he replied with the most cutting insult he could come up with. And he wondered, possibly for the first time, to what extent Sano understood he did this mostly to deal with the anger rather than out of any real desire to tear him down.

It was not, indeed, very far to Sano’s apartment, though they would have reached the place quicker if its resident had been in any fit condition to give proper directions. Still, reach it they did, eventually, and Hajime took his initial look at Sano’s ‘kinda shit’ home. He’d mostly expected this: old, disrepaired, undoubtedly cheap, creeping toward complete disrespectability. He circled the lot until he located Sano’s car (whose general appearance matched that of the apartment complex with entertaining precision), and pulled into the space next to it.

Several moments had passed since either of them had said anything, and now Hajime gave Sano an assessing look in continued silence. With a slight nod as he decided Sano had probably resumed or at least neared his standard levels, he reached out and hit the voice command button next to the radio. “Call Chou,” he ordered.

Sano, who had been about to open the passenger door, subsided with a grunt to listen.

To the surprise of both men (and possibly of Chou himself), the police officer actually answered after only two rings. “You wouldn’t be shit without me on this case, would you?” was his somewhat taunting greeting. “I don’t remember the last time you called me this much. Or is this a new ghost today?”

Sano snorted, but Hajime lifted a hand to silence him. As funny as he thought it would be to see what happened if he let Sano voice his developing opinion of Chou, he couldn’t risk alienating his police contact just now. “No, still the same case,” he responded calmly. “Listen. Kenshin Himura was probably just made to look like an innocent bystander during the gunfight that killed him; he might actually have been a deliberate victim. Do you have any more information about him? Anything that might have connected him to the gangs involved, or anyone involved with them?”

Chou made a reluctant noise like a verbal headshake, but promised to look into it. “I’ll get back to you probably in the morning,” he added, “since I still got shit to do.”

“Thank you,” Hajime replied.

With another noise, this one a sort of ‘Whatever,’ Chou hung up.

Sano shook his head, opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head again and said nothing.

“I’ll call you when I hear from him,” Hajime offered as Sano reached for the handle.

“Good.” Sano stood from the car and winced as he slung his backpack from the floorboards onto his sore body, then caught the door halfway from the closure he’d jerked it toward. He bent and regarded Hajime through it as if for a proper goodbye, yet still had nothing to say. In fact his mind boiled so furiously that Hajime couldn’t even pick up a definitive parting thought; it had been quite a day for him so far, and probably wouldn’t get much better now they were, yet again, waiting on a phone call.

And unexpectedly the thought drifted across Hajime’s consciousness that they didn’t necessarily have to wait separately for that call; they could just as easily return to his house, tease the cats, discuss the situation, drink some beer, order pizza again once dinner time rolled around…

But Chou wasn’t likely to call until tomorrow, and Hajime had better things to do than babysit an angry non-paying client until then.

Just as if Sano had been reading his mind, he nodded abruptly and, backing away, closed the door. And the exorcist was left to watch him stalk toward the building, dragging the apparently unresisting Kenshin behind him, in a mixture of emotions and a solitude he suddenly felt more keenly than he thought even the events of the day entirely accounted for.

Part 25

Very rarely did Sano wake before his alarm went off, or refrain from grumblingly curling into a tight blanket ball and going determinedly back to sleep if he did, but, as Kaoru had suggested yesterday, an unusual situation could lead to rare happenings. Today he lay in bed observing the slow growth of faint light in the room, noting the stiff soreness of his entire body, watching Kenshin circling with a placidity that belied the fury surrounding him that could so easily be transferred to Sano.

Not that Sano required superfluous external anger to madden him. The mere fact that he had a stranger so close, so undismissable, twenty-four hours a day was enough to keep him just as consistently annoyed even before the supernatural influence. He felt like he’d become the star of a reality show against his will; he felt like he had a chaperone, a jailer, in this unknown man over a decade his senior whose eyes were, perhaps, on him non-stop.

Waking up from angry dreams to find himself trying to tear his pillowcase apart felt especially stupid and frustrating when he knew he had an audience. Doing anything in the bathroom embarrassed him hugely. The state of his apartment from one moment to the next was almost enough to raise a blush, but the idea of straightening up in Kenshin’s presence smacked of catering — caving! — to the presumed tastes and desires of someone he didn’t want around in the first place. And it wasn’t necessarily appropriate to be thinking about the sex life of a brand new and as yet not-terribly-close acquaintance, but Sano couldn’t help making comparisons between Kaoru’s stated reluctance to sleep with her husband when she’d known she was being monitored and his own change in intimate personal habits when he’d realized he was being haunted by more than just a shade.

Not that the inconvenience of his situation, great as it was, could even begin to compare with the misery of hers. Of course he needed to be free of Kenshin in order to get on with his life, and no consciousness of disparity between his predicament and someone else’s could change that, but, even haunted, that life could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe if he kept that thought in mind and stopped concentrating so much on his own difficulties, things would go more smoothly.

So what if he was irrationally, sometimes destructively angry all the time? So what if some guy he didn’t know was watching him every time he took a piss? So what if he’d developed a crush on someone whose sexual orientation he couldn’t parse? At least he’d never been coerced into killing his husband.

He sat up and looked at Kenshin, turning his head to follow the ghost’s progress around him. He really had been thinking a lot about himself, hadn’t he? Kenshin, central to this affair, had barely registered as more than a problem to be solved, a nuisance to be gotten rid of by whatever means — certainly never fully as an individual with driving needs and memories and (as Sano should have good reason to know) human emotions.

What thoughts and feelings might Kenshin be entertaining now? How had that intense meeting with his wife affected him? What did he really want accomplished? Was he eager to move on, or would he prefer to remain a ghost?

Angrily, Sano sighed. How unfortunately easy it had proven to ignore the humanity of someone so unreachable in every way! There’d been no picture of Kenshin in the email report; Sano didn’t even know what he looked like, beyond that apparently ‘good in women’s clothing’ was part of it. He definitely knew nothing about Kenshin’s personality, except that Kaoru thought him pretty much the nicest guy in the world — which, even ignoring the probable bias, didn’t mean a lot. And though he could guess the dead man wanted to tell Kaoru he didn’t blame her for what she’d been forced to do, he couldn’t be sure.

None of these reflections helped or pleased him: overall, an annoying way to start the day. He wondered when he could expect Hajime to call. How early did that bullshit cop go into work? Sano lay back down and closed his eyes, but after a moment rolled onto his stomach and reached over the side of the bed. Not wanting to repeat the experience of a few days ago when he’d been too disoriented coming out of sleep to answer a call in time, he’d left his phone on its charger on the floor within arm’s length. Now he unplugged it and dragged it into a teddy bear position as he curled up on his side and rearranged the blanket he’d completely disarrayed.

He didn’t sleep, but neither did he think profoundly; he just lay there, nonspecifically angry, conscious of every bruise Hajime had given him yesterday, listening hard for any noise from the phone cradled against his chest. Eventually, though, as the morning became more visible, he did call in sick to work again. That he endangered his state of employment thus was an unavoidable fact, which made him feel sorry for anyone that legitimately got sick for two days in a row, but he had a feeling he would need the free time today. And he was satisfied with his effort at not sounding too irate talking to the opening manager.

Next, giving up on doing nothing any longer, he tried to choose an appropriate ringtone for Hajime’s number, but this frustrated him because all he had to work with was the pre-loaded lineup of generic jingles, and none of them seemed to fit. A few songs came to mind that would be very appropriate — a couple angry, one plaintive — but to buy them as ringtones cost something like two dollars each. He was pondering the issue, considering whether or not he should authorize the expenditure, and on the verge of giving in, when Hajime actually called and spared him the decision (for now).

“Kaoru was Kenshin’s second wife.”

So busy trying to decide whether it augured promise or disappointment that he now apparently rated a complete absence of greeting just like that dumbass policeman, Sano barely took in the meaning of this initial statement, and responded only with an inarticulate sound.

“His first wife, Tomoe,” Hajime went on, “died in a car accident in Fresno back in ’99 after he was married to her for less than a year. Kenshin was driving that car, and speeding at the time, which made the accident worse — she might have survived if he hadn’t been going thirty over the speed limit.”

“OK,” said Sano slowly. “That sucks…”

“Her maiden name was Yukishiro. Sound familiar?”

It did, actually, but Sano couldn’t place it. Something he’d heard in the news at some point not too long ago…

“Enishi Yukishiro,” Hajime filled in the silence, “was her younger brother.”

That name was even more familiar, but Sano still didn’t quite have it. “OK, I give up,” he admitted at last.

Hajime helped him out with, “CEO of U.S.Seido?”

“Yes!” said Sano as he remembered, but then sobered as he finally recalled the news reports he’d been trying to dredge up. “But didn’t he die, like, last year?”

“Just at the end of last year,” Hajime confirmed, “near the beginning of January.” And he paused to let this sink in.

“Right when… right when Kaoru started having red shade problems?” Sano had no idea what it meant, but it didn’t sound like a coincidence.

“What would you say to the theory that the anger we’re dealing with isn’t Kenshin’s at all?”

Sano had been in the act of shoving his blanket aside in order to rise, probably to start pacing in some agitation, but as Hajime’s suggestion hit him he stilled, and gradually sank back to rest against the wall. “Shit,” he murmured. “That would…” So simple an idea, yet not even a hint of it had ever crossed his mind. “Yeah…” He’d never heard of a ghost being affected by someone else’s shade, but, honestly, how much did he know about ghosts in the first place? “That’s a…” If this Enishi guy had still somehow been angry enough a decade after his sister’s death to plan the kind of bullshit that had gone on last year, his anger must be both prolific and tenacious… and wasn’t that exactly what they’d been noticing about this shade all along?

Sano’s trailing remark finally finished with, “…really good… theory…” Despite the inconclusiveness implied by this last word, a certainty was growing in his mind as if being built up by an outside source, and that source an authority. He believed this idea. Soon, he felt, he would be past the point where he could entertain any other.

Hajime apparently awaited an end to the contemplative, almost shocked silence, and it came as no less of a shock to Sano to realize the exorcist also awaited a more definitive response from him… that Hajime had proposed this as if Sano were the authority here. In a way, being the one haunted by Kenshin and most closely connected with the shade in question, he was the authority… but he wouldn’t have expected Hajime ever overtly to recognize that. So it was with a sudden and unexpected warmth in his gut, and as a result none of the cautious restraint he might otherwise have used, that he said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on. When that guy died, he left some kind of huge shade behind, and it’s been wrapping around Kenshin ever since and keeping us from talking to him.”

“I always thought there was a little insanity in that shade.” Hajime sounded incongruously pleased, and Sano had to grin a bit at this further evidence that the exorcist reveled in being right about things. “To get revenge ten years later…”

“Yeah, seriously.”

In a more businesslike tone suggesting they would definitely want to retouch that branch of the conversation later, Hajime went on, “But that’s not all the information Chou had for me. The rumors that Seido is practically a stateside yakuza are true, apparently — in addition to their legitimate business, they’re more than suspected of money laundering, smuggling, and other, less pleasant things. Chou wasn’t happy to find out they might be involved in this. According to him, the police don’t touch Seido unless they’re absolutely sure they’ll come out on top of the transaction.”

“I don’t think I’m happy finding out about this,” said Sano, now a little uneasy. “I don’t really want to get involved with any yakuza either.”

“I’m not exactly ecstatic about it myself,” Hajime admitted. “But this is significant progress. Seido sometimes makes use of one of those gangs that provided the cover fire when Kenshin died, and you may have heard about that Seido secretary who was a person of interest in the investigation of Enishi’s death because of unusually aggressive behavior that started the same day Enishi died.”

Nothing of this latter story had reached Sano, and he admitted as much in some surprise.

“I’m sure you did hear that Enishi’s death was eventually ruled suicide, so this secretary wasn’t charged with anything. But apparently he’s been on a leave of absence ever since because he’s too angry to get any work done.”

“I’m an asshole for saying it–” and in fact Sano had a hard time stifling a grin as he did so– “but it’s kinda nice to know I’m not the only one whose life’s been fucked up by this.” Then, quickly repenting his choice of words, he added, “I mean, obviously Kaoru and Kenshin in the first place, but still…” He cleared his throat. “So you think the next step is to find this secretary guy and get the shade out of him?”

“And see what he can tell us about Enishi and his grudge against Kenshin,” Hajime confirmed. “I’m sure he’ll be glad to answer at least some questions; when I talked to him just now, he seemed desperate to find any solution to his current problem and very ready to believe he was being haunted by his late boss’s anger.”

“You talked to him just now?” Sano had eventually followed his original plan of rising to pace his apartment, and at this point he stopped on the kitchen linoleum and threw up his free hand. “God, you are so disturbingly efficient!”

Hajime sounded smug as he replied, “Well, unlike you, I like to actually do my job.”

Although he hoped that in general he wasn’t becoming immune to the very useful power of insult from Hajime, Sano gloried in the feeling of camaraderie between them.

“Don’t think it was extremely easy, though,” Hajime went on somewhat regretfully. “It took every corporate connection I have and all my personal charm to get someone at Seido to put me through to this man Gains, and he was so angry it was hard to get anything rational out of him.”

“‘Personal charm,'” Sano echoed, and whether his accompanying snort sounded more amused or derisive he wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure Hajime had set that one up deliberately, though.

“Anyway, if you want to come with me to meet him, which I assume you do, be ready for me to pick you up in half an hour.”

“Oh! Yeah! OK.” Sano could only be glad at Hajime’s efficiency — and also that he himself had been awake enough fully to appreciate this whole conversation. Some unusual happenings were better than others.

“See you then,” was Hajime’s goodbye.

As Sano’s hand holding the phone fell to his side, he stared at the ghost drifting through both hallway walls in its pattern around him. He still struggled to think of Kenshin as an individual and not an inconvenience, but this next step might help. Sano shook his head as he returned the phone to its charger, and headed toward the bathroom for a quick shower. Having done so yesterday, he hadn’t planned on showering today merely for the sake of a work shift, but for the sake of sitting in Hajime’s passenger seat he suddenly felt the need. Ghost or no ghost.

Part 26


“You look like one of those metal brain teaser puzzles,” Hajime announced as Sano slid into his passenger seat.

Sano glanced down at his weird pants with a frown, but the expression gradually turned from angry to thoughtful. “You mean the kind where you have to figure out how to get the rings apart from the other part or whatever? Yeah, I can see that.”

“I don’t know what kind of security measures they’re going to put us through at this place, but if there’s a metal detector we may have a problem.”

“Where exactly are we going?” the startled Sano asked.

“Seido headquarters.” And at his companion’s blankness, Hajime mentioned the part of town where this was located.

“Did you bring your sword?” Now there was suspicion and defiance in Sano’s tone.

“Yes, but an exorcist’s sword is relevant to an exorcism. Those pants are not. Neither are all those earrings, to be perfectly honest.”

“Yeah, like it’s such a huge pain in the ass for you to be perfectly honest about anything that–” Breaking off abruptly, Sano sat back with folded arms and a twist to his mouth that was turning it gradually into an angry-looking grin. “So you want me to take off my pants, huh?” he growled with deliberate suggestive slowness.

Though not particularly practiced at dodging flirtation, Hajime didn’t see this instance as terribly difficult to get around. “And the boots,” he said sternly. “And all the metal jewelry. Don’t you own any sane clothing?”

Sano looked even more irritated than before. Instead of answering the question, he made an angry noise, got out of the car, and walked back across the parking lot and into the apartment building. Hajime watched in the rear-view mirror, wondering if he should perhaps have worded that differently. The possibility of Sano’s clothing combining unpleasantly with the postulated metal detector did exist, but any opinion about said clothing on Hajime’s side (apart from the one he’d already expressed, that Sano’s choices in dress made him look as if he was trying to relive his teenage years) did not. But it was too late now; any pleasant atmosphere that had arisen during their phone call earlier was lost, probably beyond recall.

The Sano that returned was a bit of a shock, and Hajime found that maybe he did have an opinion after all. Stripped of jewelry, in a plain t-shirt, dark jeans, and tennis shoes, Sano looked a lot less like he was parading a past he couldn’t let go of, and a lot more… respectable. More real, perhaps. Even the spiky hair, considering that whatever gel he’d used today didn’t add any unnatural color, was acceptable; even the bruises, in this context, could more easily be presumed the results of some unfortunate accident instead of signs of a reckless and wasteful life. Sano was striking, suddenly, in a way he’d never been before, which was ironic when his usual attire seemed to scream for attention.

He was also still clearly annoyed with Hajime. He didn’t respond to the older man’s placid, “Better,” only donned his seat belt in brief motions and looked out the window as they started off. And this annoyance seemed a little different from the usual low-level anger that was the result of normal time at home with Kenshin. Was it because Hajime had refused to flirt with him? Well, he was just going to have to get over that; Hajime simply didn’t flirt.

Nevertheless, the exorcist thought they had a lot to talk about, given all the information they now possessed. There were, he believed, several connections to be made and theories to be turned over, some of them before they reached the Seido building. So when their drive had proceeded in perfect silence for three or four minutes, he asked directly, “What are you thinking about?”

Whatever it was, Sano seemed to pull himself from it with some difficulty and then face some uncertainty as to what to say. He was shielding, but not quite to the point where, when he replied, “Whether or not we’re getting in way over our heads,” Hajime wasn’t conscious that the statement wasn’t quite an accurate answer to his question. It probably hadn’t been far behind Sano’s actual thoughts, but it had definitely been no more prominent than secondary.

Only a brief glance in Sano’s direction could Hajime spare at the moment, and this told him nothing. In the interest of a legitimate discussion that was not about Sano’s emotions (whatever they might be), he decided to let the matter of concealed thoughts go. “You didn’t hesitate to come, though.”

“No.” Sano’s tone was dark. “But I’m a little pissed that it looks like the guy behind all that shit Kaoru went through’s already dead. I was kinda hoping to kill him myself.”

Aware that this was hyperbole (barely), Hajime replied only, “You’re ‘a little pissed?'”

Sano gave a bitter laugh and fell silent again.

“You’re probably less pissed than Enishi was, anyway,” Hajime admitted by way of transition.

“Seriously,” Sano agreed in a tone half marveling and half irate. “If he’s really our guy, why the hell did he wait ten years to get revenge? And how was he even still that mad after so long?”

“His secretary may be able to answer that.”

“Or he may not,” said Sano darkly. “At least I hope the whole stupid group wasn’t in on torturing some poor woman.”

“It’s an interesting point,” Hajime mused, “that the wife has probably suffered more from this than the husband who actually killed Enishi’s sister.”

“The wife who replaced Enishi’s sister?” Sano interjected doubtfully.

Hajime acknowledged this decent point with a slow nod even as he went on with his own train of thought. “Though that might only have been the case because Kenshin actually died. They — he, if it was Enishi — may not actually have expected Kaoru to succeed in killing her husband. Kenshin might have suffered more if Kaoru had just appeared to be upset with him, eventually threatened him with a gun, and refused the entire time to tell him why. Or, if she had decided to try to get out of that somehow, Enishi always had the option of murdering the son. No matter how it ended, the situation was likely to result in the destruction of Kenshin and Kaoru’s relationship, possibly legal trouble, possibly the death of their son, and probably psychological trauma for whoever survived. It was a win-win situation for whoever set it up, since there didn’t seem to be any way for Kenshin and Kaoru to get out of it together without suffering in one way or another.”

“It still seems like there might have been a better way to make sure Kenshin was the one who really suffered, though, and leave Kaoru and the kid out of it.”

“Well, as you just pointed out, Enishi may have had some kind of grudge against Kaoru and the kid too.”

“If Enishi really did all this.”

“It seems like a logical assumption at this point, but we’ll have to wait and see whether the anger Gains is dealing with is the same that’s surrounding Kenshin — assuming Gains is actually haunted. That should tell us fairly conclusively whether Enishi is our culprit.”

“What is this Gains guy’s actual job in this fake-company-yakuza-thing?”

“Bridgestone Gains,” Hajime replied, giving the name the very precise enunciation he felt it deserved, “was Enishi’s administrative assistant, and I get the feeling he’s on an influential level with the–”

Here Sano interrupted with, “Bridgestone Gains?” in a voice completely altered by skepticism and amusement from his previous surly growl. “You sure he’s not the executive officer of the yakuza’s designer men’s clothing line or something?”

Hajime actually laughed out loud, glad to find that Sano agreed with him on this point.

The good humor of that moment was unfortunately short-lived, as their conversation returned soon after to the topic of Enishi’s presumed revenge and long-lasting vindictiveness, as well as the haunted secretary (regardless of his name) and the possibilities of the day. They didn’t have time for a thorough canvass of all the information and all the inferences that were now available, but they managed to discuss enough to satisfy Hajime before they reached the Seido building.

The wrathful Gains, on the phone, had not been entirely coherent, but had at least struggled commendably to arrange things to Hajime’s convenience in visiting; he’d offered a place in the headquarter’s gated multi-level parking complex for the duration, but Hajime had declined as politely as possible. There was something distasteful to him about having his car swallowed up in the darkness of a yakuza garage, so he opted for meter parking on the street and the building’s main entrance. On being acquainted with this plan and the reason for it, Sano commented on the irony of Hajime refusing to leave his ‘mafia-looking car’ in the care of yakuza; Hajime, who’d never considered his car particularly mafia-looking, just rolled his eyes.

“Not that I don’t feel you.” If this choice of idiom on Sano’s part was another attempt at flirtation, it was certainly delivered in as unflirtatious a tone as he could possibly have used: his voice was heavy with uneasiness as the two of them left the vehicle and set off to cross the street toward the looming Seido building. “Of all the ways I never thought I’d finish up my Spring Break…”

Hajime nodded grimly. “The alternative is to give up.”

Sano threw him a sidelong look. “You know, you don’t have to be here at all. I’m not paying you… Kaoru’s not paying you… Kenshin sure as hell isn’t paying you to be here…”

Just as grimly, Hajime smiled. “Giving up isn’t actually an alternative for me.” By now it wasn’t merely the prospect of talking to a ghost; after hearing Kaoru’s story, even after seeing how Kenshin’s presence was affecting Sano’s life, Hajime could not back out of this. Solving this type of problem was what he’d become an exorcist for.

Mimicking the smile, though his was a bit more contemplative, Sano murmured, “No, I guess not.” And it was as clear as if it had been stated aloud that he appreciated both Hajime’s determination and the support it led to.

Inside the main entrance, the appearance of the Seido building was nothing too unusual. The mirror-like marble floor, the lofty ceiling, and the man-sized urns overflowing with greenery (which probably required a discrete employee’s entire day to care for) seemed a tad excessive for the entry to the main office of a business purportedly — and, according to Chou, at least 40% in reality — devoted to data analytics, but the décor, if a trifle overwhelming, was at least tastefully put together. But the feeling of the place had Hajime instantly more on his guard even than he’d already been.

The hushed awkwardness of everyday activities being conducted in the presence of death, the wariness of an already uncertain situation steeped in the possibility of betrayal, the awareness that less than half of what went on here was in any way aboveboard and that it would be hugely inconvenient both to the collective and to the individual at fault should the wrong desk be crossed, the tension of change and unusual circumstances and the accompanying strain of not quite knowing how to deal with them — all of this and more Hajime picked up immediately upon entry, and at first he could only see a single person.

Sano too had stiffened and begun to scowl as he’d taken his first step across the shiny, veined marble. But there was no time for further discussion of how little they liked being here, for the receptionist at the semi-circular marble-topped desk had fixed them with a polite but very studious look. “Good morning,” she greeted. “Are you here to see Mr. Gains?”

Hajime nodded, stepping forward toward her. This woman had a mind as tightly guarded as any he’d expected to find in such a place, and he guessed more than sensed that she was well armed where he couldn’t see. Her eyes, however, never once moved toward the sheathed sword in his hand, or even the bruises on his face; instead she just gestured and said, as courteously as before, “Dae-hyun will take you up.” Her smile was convincingly warm.

The area to which she’d gestured was a large corner of the room that hadn’t been visible, behind a sort of wall of potted plants, until they were near the desk; and it was inhabited by a man whose presence had previously been impossible to observe, or else who had just entered by the door they could now see in the rear wall. This person held out his hand in a welcoming fashion and gave them a smile just as professional and almost as friendly as the receptionist’s.

“Good morning,” he said as Hajime and Sano moved toward him. “Mr. Gains let us know you were coming. I’ll carry your sword upstairs.”

This Dae-hyun, though short, was built very solidly beneath his tailored suit, and seemed extremely competent and unhesitating, in the manner of a bodyguard, beneath his veneer of politeness. Hajime handed over his nihontou without protest. If he and Sano were in any danger here, the temporary lack of that archaic weapon would not make much difference.

Smile unwavering, Dae-hyun gestured again, this time toward the door through which Hajime could see a deep-carpeted and oak-wainscoted corridor. “After you; please turn right.” Obediently, Hajime took the several strides down this hall necessary to reach an elevator whose doors were oak-fronted to match the walls around them, and stopped. A keycard, he noted when Dae-hyun joined them after having waited a couple of steps to follow, was required to access this conveyance, and after that had been accomplished they embarked, in a silence that was no less tense for being so polite, on an upward journey toward the fifteenth floor and Bridgestone Gains.

Part 27


The air here tasted angry. Sano doubted anyone not as precisely attuned to it as he was would have been able to sense it until they were much closer, but he was aware by the time the elevator had ascended only a few floors that they were in the right place. Somewhere in this building was shade energy — to which they were drawing closer and closer — that matched exactly the energy that had been plaguing Sano for the last month. Its influence strengthened with every moment, and he was bracing himself for what must come.

“We’re perfectly happy to assist Mr. Gains wherever it’s most convenient,” Hajime was remarking to Dae-hyun in that creepily polite tone Sano had heard from him once before, “but maybe you can tell me something I didn’t want to ask him on the phone: what is he doing at his office when he’s in such bad shape? I understood he was on a leave of absence.”

Dae-hyun, who resembled nothing so much as a smiling brick, nodded his understanding of the question and replied in a pleasant tone like something from a training video. “Besides being a very valuable and highly respected member of our organization, Mr. Gains is also an artist. He has a studio here in the building where he spends much of his free time.”

Yes, having this somewhat ambiguously ranked assistant to the CEO readily available must be very convenient to the organization, Sano reflected. As he couldn’t quite decide whether he would rather have come to this tense and unnecessarily posh-looking office than visit a possibly paranoid and definitely irate yakuza secretary at his own home, Sano couldn’t quite decide either how he felt about the existence of this so-called studio. It made no difference; he was already here.

But for a few more totally fake (but very well delivered) remarks between Hajime and Dae-hyun about the sparkling success of U.S.Seido, the elevator ride was conducted in silence. Sano didn’t have to watch the numbers to track their approach of the fifteenth floor; he could feel the angry shade more strongly with every passing moment. He couldn’t imagine how much was up there for him to be so aware of it at this distance, but he feared that stepping from the elevator at the top was going to be like entering a war zone.

At what point Hajime had noticed the shade and its effects on Sano, the latter couldn’t guess, but the exorcist had taken half a step, made just a slight shift in the way he was standing, that seemed to indicate solidarity, and for that Sano was grateful. Hajime really didn’t have to be here, but here he was, ready, as ever, to do what he must. Sano just wondered what that would end up being in this situation.

He also wondered if and how Kenshin would react to this volume of shade energy. The ghost hadn’t caught Sano up yet, which was more of a relief than anything, but if he followed his usual pattern he must eventually; what would happen then? Did Kenshin know whose anger it was? Did you find things out after death that you hadn’t known before? Or perhaps Kenshin had known before he died of the possibility of his brother-in-law’s seeking revenge, and was held in this world by the guilt he felt at never having warned his wife.

Such speculation was useless at the moment. Sano just tried to block himself off against absorbing any shade energy before it was absolutely necessary, took a deep breath, and watched the elevator doors slide open. This time their escort led the way instead of gesturing them to precede him, and, as the presence of the huge red shade more or less hit Sano in the face from in front of him to the left, it was a significant relief that Dae-hyun took them to the right. The awareness of the shade didn’t greatly diminish by the time they’d reached the door they were apparently to enter, but Sano was still glad not to have to confront the thing immediately.

In response to Dae-hyun’s knock, the heavy, paneled door was jerked open almost at once, and the visitors got their first look at Bridgestone Gains; the fact that the man in front of them was most definitely haunted by the same shade as was Sano verified his identity even before Dae-hyun’s polite greeting could do so. Other than the red energy rising from him, as his precipitous opening of the door expended some of it, there was nothing terribly remarkable about him except an apparent vigor and athleticism of movement perhaps a little unusual for a man evidently in his late sixties.

“Come in,” ordered Gains curtly, interrupting whatever was being said by Dae-hyun. The latter didn’t appear at all put out by this, just handed Hajime his sword and walked away with smile and imperturbability intact. Sano listened for the sound of the elevator as he followed Hajime through the door in front of him, but heard nothing. So this floor, at least, was being guarded as long as they were here, even if Dae-hyun wouldn’t actually be in the same room. He supposed it was no surprise.

What was a surprise was that same room. Sano hadn’t even begun to take the term ‘studio’ seriously, and if he had would have envisioned easels and canvasses and paints. This mixture of workshop and laboratory, fitted with sinks and gas jets in a couple of high tables, scattered with a number of somewhat disturbing-looking instruments such as might be used by a sculptor, and decorated by several much more disturbing-looking products of these tools, was nothing he would have expected even if he’d bought the description of ‘artist’ for the man they were here to see.

The figures — sculptures? — though they had indentations and curves reminiscent of certain more extreme contortions of the human body, were yet not exactly human in shape, and Sano would need a little more time than he had right now to decide what he thought they actually looked like. Just the glance he was allowed at the moment, though, before turning his attention toward Gains, told him that the most disturbing thing about them was not so much their shape as their composition; whatever they were made of didn’t seem to be stone or clay, but something a good deal more… fleshy. The light in the room definitely hit them the same way it did the skin of the three people present.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime was saying in his obsequious tone that, compared with the creepiness of this room, was positively reassuring at this point, “I can see just by looking at you that it’s a good thing we came, if you’ll excuse me saying so. I’m Hajime Saitou — we spoke on the phone — and this is my partner Sano Sagara.”

Hajime had a gift for making remarks that knocked Sano right out of whatever else he was thinking or feeling, if only for a moment. Partner?? It was staggering, and if Hajime hadn’t wanted Sano to react to it with the full-body jerk and whiplash glance in his direction he gave on hearing it, he should have warned him beforehand.

Examining them both briefly up and down with a scowl, and certainly not missing Sano’s start, “It looks like that’s as true as it is believable,” Gains replied in a sneering tone. Scorn, Sano had found, often arose from an impulse to hurt that was itself a product of anger… and this was a very familiar anger. Only imperfectly did he recognize it, however, so caught up was he yet in the unexpected effort of trying to quell the tingly feeling that had suffused him at the idea of being any kind of partner to Hajime.

“And this is a data analytics business,” the exorcist said dryly, “whose CEO committed suicide.”

It was well done, Sano thought. He’d already been trying to counter the aforementioned tingly feeling with the stern reminder that Hajime’s introduction of him as a partner would have been less complicated and perhaps more dignified than explaining who he actually was — but now, in implying something between the two of them he didn’t want to mention outright, Hajime had managed to create a sort of parallel of concealment that must help to raise fellow feeling. He’d essentially suggested to Gains, “Let’s work together on the understanding that we each know the other has a secret, and are both politely not prying.”

However angry he might be, Gains evidently understood, for he nodded sharply. “Well, and what can you two do for me?” he asked irritably, crossing wiry arms whose liver spots were bared by the rolled state of the sleeves of his black button-up. “It’s been almost three months since Enishi’s ‘suicide;’ if he’s haunting me, how do you get rid of him?”

As always, the uninitiated assumed ghosts when all that really plagued them was shades. Unless, Sano reflected with a slight shudder, Enishi’s ghost was hanging around just like Kenshin’s was. Maybe he was in the next room, hovering in the midst of his anger, waiting for Sano to bring Kenshin to him and stage a final, dramatic, undead confrontation or something.

But that couldn’t be. One ghost was rare enough; the statistical likelihood of encountering two at once must be practically nonexistent. Sano shook himself back into sense and shelved these thoughts alongside the daydreams he fully planned on entertaining later about being Hajime’s partner. Which left only the overwhelming urge to ignore the current conversation, and instead examine this crazy room, to try to repress.

Hajime was reassuring Gains with, “Sano can extract the angry energy from you, so you’ll be able to go back to your normal activities.” And he proved that he too was curious about the contents of the room in which they stood by throwing a quick glance around at it as he spoke the last words. Sano’s contribution was a nod; he doubted it would be any kind of problem to absorb all the shade that had Gains so tetchy — or at least it wouldn’t be difficult to accomplish… what might happen afterward, if there was enough of the stuff to give Sano another critical mass, he didn’t know.

“Do it, then!” Gains ordered, glaring at Sano. Actually he seemed far less angry, in general, than Sano had expected; he must have found a way to expend some of the shade before they’d arrived. The disarray of the equipment in here, as if someone had inflicted upon it a very bad mood and then only imperfectly straightened up, might explain that.

“First,” Hajime said smoothly, “tell me: what’s over there?” He gestured with the hilt of his sword off to their left, past a couple of painted folding screens that were distinctly out of place in here but that probably looked congruous enough from the other side; between them, Sano could see through to what appeared to be a sort of lounge done up in a mixture of oriental styles. It was beyond this space, probably past the far wall he could only get a limited glimpse of from this angle, that the feeling of red shade was emanating most strongly. Hajime wanted to head straight for the source of all this trouble, and, unpleasant as Sano feared it would be, he couldn’t but agree.

Gains jerked his gaze in the direction Hajime indicated, and scowled. “I assume you mean Enishi’s office, since you can see the kètīng perfectly well for yourself.”

“Enishi’s office,” Hajime repeated thoughtfully, ignoring Gains’s grouchy tone (and not bothering to ask what a kètīng was even if he, like Sano, wasn’t entirely sure). “We’ll need to take a look around in there.”

“Nobody but me goes in there,” Gains snapped. “Not until we have a new CEO.”

Hajime’s tone was as smooth and soothing as before as he answered, “And I’m afraid that’s the reason you’ve been so angry for so long. You’ve been picking up more angry energy every time you go in there, and probably just by spending so much time here in your studio next door.”

Again Sano nodded his concurrence. Somebody or other would have been affected eventually by the shade under any circumstances, but Gains had hastened and worsened the process by hanging out so close to it ever since Enishi’s death. And his leave of absence, rather than helping him recover, had probably actually exacerbated his condition by giving him so much more time to spend in his studio.

At Hajime’s words and Sano’s nod, Gains’s face twisted into an expression almost of rage, and Sano wondered whether this was because he didn’t like to be dictated to by strangers, or because the aforementioned appointment of a new CEO — something that had obviously already been a long time in the works — was a touchy business that caused him to get defensive about the old one’s office and effects, or because he’d been closer to his late boss than they’d had any idea. But he didn’t strike at either of them, as Sano had half expected, nor even lash out verbally. “All right,” he said instead, teeth gritted. He turned abruptly and moved toward the other half of the room and the room beyond, pulling a keycard from the pocket of his black slacks as he did so. “But you can’t touch a damn thing in there.”

Part 28


Everything Hajime had been thinking about — his curiosity regarding Gains’s exceptionally strange art, his residual amusement at having thrown Sano so completely off-balance with the ‘partner’ remark, even his ongoing underlying concern at being in a yakuza headquarters dealing with someone that could probably have them killed with a single word and seemed hateful enough to do it — all of it crowded right into the background of his mind and huddled there, subdued, as he took his first step into Enishi’s office.

Whether or not this room contained the matching antique furniture, expensive ornamentation, and relatively classy mixture of eastern and western decorating he’d expected, he had no idea. He couldn’t see a thing through the almost pulsing brightness of the wall-to-wall shade that filled his vision like a roiling acidic mist. It blinded him, pounded at his magical senses, battered his consciousness with anger and pain. He’d never encountered a shade anywhere near this large and powerful, and even having made what he thought were logical mental preparations based on what he’d known it must be like beforehand, he could never have been prepared for this.

Holy shit,” came a murmur, quiet but intense, from behind him.

“Sano, get back,” he ordered, taking two more slow steps onto what felt like firm carpet or perhaps a rug atop tile. “Stay outside the room. I’ll deal with this.”

“What, are you trying to be a hero all of a sudden?” Sano, still right behind him, growled. “This is way fucking more than–”

“You’re already absorbing it.” It was getting to Hajime too, if the angry tone in which he’d just said that was any indication, and he wasn’t even the one that was deliberately attuned to it. He attempted to speak rationally as he went on, “You’ll need to deal with Gains after all of this is gone, which you won’t be able to do if you stay in here much longer.”

“Ah, fuck,” Sano muttered, and retreated.

“Mr. Gains,” Hajime said next, “it would be better if you waited outside the room as well.”

Gains sneered, “And leave you to poke around in here? I think not.”

“I’m not here to dig up secrets on your organization,” Hajime snapped. “But if you want to stay, get into a corner and be ready to move if I come near you.” Lifting his sword as an indication of the danger this situation posed, yet he didn’t wait to see if Gains followed his instructions — indeed, he couldn’t see anything of the sort — but unsheathed the weapon. The blade was an intense red, a bloody-looking contrast to the bright white that surrounded him, but he hadn’t needed that to tell him what he was up against.

Falling into the pattern of breathing he’d found worked best for the use of kendo as exorcism, Hajime closed his eyes to the whiteness and probed outward with his mind. If he’d had any doubt that this astonishing shade belonged to the former inhabitant of this office, he would have been convinced upon noting that the energy was mostly confined to the acknowledged limits of the room; shades, which were not technically inhibited by physical barriers like walls or windows, generally only adhered to them in reflection of a human’s awareness of a space — and the person most aware of a room’s boundaries was usually that room’s primary resident.

As strong as he’d anticipated, the shade was also even more insane. Though it wasn’t quite fair to maintain that, in order to keep up this level of anger for an entire decade, someone would have to be insane, and though Enishi must have functioned rationally in most areas in order to head up an organization like this, there had definitely been some madness there, which had accompanied the anger in becoming this shade. Hajime concentrated on the defeat of both.

Earlier Sano had remarked that he wished he could have killed Enishi, and Hajime rather had to agree. Perhaps this was a foolish way to feel about someone he’d never even heard of until the man’s death, but he thought the desire must help him in this situation. He didn’t know what number and variety of evils Enishi had perpetrated as the head of a criminal organization; all he was familiar with was Kaoru’s story — and the fact that Enishi had been her tormenter wasn’t 100% verified even yet… but he was certain that Enishi’s death had done little but good for the world.

And now the dissipation of his shade, at Hajime’s hands, would do a more specific good for a smaller subset of the world. For Sano, whose entire life was practically on hold. For Kaoru, who’d been forced to commit an act foreign to her nature. For Kenshin, about whom Hajime really knew nothing. Even for this strange Gains man about whom Hajime cared nothing.

With this knowledge and desire strengthening his intent, focusing all his will on breaking up and destroying the shade, he opened his eyes and thrust his sword into the nearest intense patch in the fluctuating mass of angry energy.

It was a shock, stronger than when he’d last exorcised any of this shade by a much greater margin than he could have expected merely by reckoning proportions based on size at the source. It almost left him stunned, and only by holding onto the awareness and determination previously fixed upon did he keep it from completely overwhelming him. Had he been a disinterested party here to perform this professional service for a client, he might have been defeated in this first moment, so it was lucky for everyone concerned that he was not so disinterested. If it could be called luck.

When the patch on which he’d focused finally gave up its attempt to out-will him, wavered, and dissipated, he swept his sword out to the right after a second segment without pause. His movement toward a third was slower, but he thought the overall intensity of the shade throughout the room was fading.

The work was exhausting, and the clash of wills that comprised it was like nothing else he’d ever experienced. He thought perhaps it could be compared to the process of two people attempting to outmaneuver each other in an organization just such as this, using all their cunning to get the better of each other and staying on their toes every moment of every day in the fear of betrayal over the course of long months or even years — but all packed into the space of a few minutes. As he’d never done any such thing, however, he couldn’t be certain.

His head ached, and he felt ready for a long rest by the time the furniture around him was becoming visible. He’d already discovered the chairs facing the desk during his movements through the room, but now he began to be able to make out the carved patterns in their wooden backs.

Gains had shouted more than once, quite possibly about taking care not to damage things with what to him must have appeared a randomly and wildly swinging blade — Hajime had been concentrating too hard to note exactly what he had to say — but by the time it was all over he’d fallen silent, perhaps in recognition of the futility of his words. And Hajime sagged into that silence, looking slowly around for any further traces of shade he’d missed and breathing somewhat hard.

To locate the source of the last remaining shade he was sensing didn’t take long; it was small, but it glowed as brightly white in his vision as any part of the huge shape that had previously filled the room: an object that stood at the far end of the desk he could now properly make out. Trying to decide exactly what it was through the light of the energy that suffused and surrounded it, he peered at it as he circled the desk to the sound of Gains’s now much more irate reiteration that he touch nothing.

The general balance of the desk suggested a picture frame set up in symmetry with the one on the opposite corner. The latter held a photo of an elegant-looking Japanese woman that Hajime assumed to be the long-dead sister; who was likely to be the subject of another such frame he could not guess, unless it was a second instance of the same person. He knew so little of Enishi, however, that he might be wrong on all counts here. Whatever this item was, it had been suffused with shade energy to the point where he could almost call it an artifact — though he’d pity anyone trying to do magic with its assistance or even in its presence.

Gains must have realized what Hajime’s target was when he raised his sword one more time, for the secretary recommenced shouting. Clearly just the few minutes he’d spent in here, even with Hajime cleaning up the shade, had affected him, for his tone was extremely angry and his language abusive. Hajime ignored him. Invoking his full force of will and concentration once again, he brought the blade down on the glowing object on the desk, taking a grudging care not to allow the blow to continue any farther than was required precisely to destroy the thing so as not to damage the furniture.

Two halves of whatever it was clattered apart and fell to the floor where he couldn’t see them, and Hajime was by now so worn out that he didn’t feel like retrieving them immediately to confirm or disprove his guess. He just sheathed his sword and leaned on the desk, around which Gains, still yelling, was approaching. “That was one of Enishi’s prized possessions, you brainless fraud! What the hell are you thinking, when I told you not to touch anything in here, destroying things without even explaining what the hell you’re doing?”

“The goddamn thing was packed full of shade!” Sano, now attempting to shout Gains down from the doorway, had apparently followed Hajime’s order of retreat no farther than would yet allow him to watch. “It wouldn’t have done you any fucking good to have the room cleared if that thing was still left!”

Perhaps not having heard (and undoubtedly not having understood), Gains continued his tirade right into Hajime’s ear. The exorcist continued mostly ignoring him, but the loud tone wasn’t exactly diminishing his headache. He did stand straight, however, when Sano, having entered the room, bent to collect the broken pieces from the carpet and bring them around.

It was a picture frame, or had been. It had matched the other one; the expense of the set was one of Gains’s current points of protest. And the photo, now sliced diagonally down the middle into fairly neat, nearly triangular halves, showed a red-haired man with Japanese features marred by the type of meandering pink scar-lines one might obtain from a car accident.

“This is… Kenshin…” Sano muttered. “Isn’t it.” There wasn’t really any interrogative quality to the remark.

“How the hell do you know who he is?” demanded Gains, who must have been paying better attention than the others had believed.

Shaking his head, Hajime didn’t bother to answer the question; nor to comment that the picture, depicting Kenshin and being suffused with Enishi’s shade, had undoubtedly acted as a sort of focus or channel allowing that shade to transfer continually to Kenshin’s ghost; nor to wonder aloud at hatred so obsessive it led to the keeping of a photo of its object exactly parallel to one of somebody for whom the possessor, presumably, felt the opposite emotion.

Instead, he tore his eyes away from the severed image and fixed them on one of the men at his side. “I believe it’s your turn, Mr. Gains.”

Part 29


Whatever look Hajime had given Gains, along with the admittedly ambiguous declaration in an unexpectedly threatening tone that it was ‘his turn,’ must have been particularly scary, for even in the midst of his newly increased wrath the secretary took two steps back and raised his hands defensively. Sano didn’t wait for whatever bullshit Gains had to say at the moment, however; he broke in with, “No, it’s not; it’s your turn.”

A startled and even angry expression turned toward Sano as he set down the two halves of the ruined picture frame with greater care than he would have given them had they contained no broken glass. “What do you–” Hajime began, but evidently the amount of anger just in those three words was enough to prove to him that he needed some attention.

“Yeah,” said Sano, enjoying while he had the chance a Hajime angrier than he was. “I’m probably going to need some help from you after I’ve dealt with him. Can’t have you already half as pissed as I am. Come sit down and let me–” It flashed across his mind to say, ‘let me suck it out of you,’ but decided just in time that the situation and company called for different phrasing. “–absorb this shit,” was what he went with instead.

“I should have you two con artists shot.” As Sano led the surprisingly willing Hajime out of the office and toward one of the low sofas in the little lounge next door, Gains was trailing after them with clenched fists and red energy pulsing around him in waves. “I should just kill you both myself,” he seethed. “How dare you threaten me? Destroying things in the CEO’s office, you goddamn spies!”

“Shut the fuck up, would you?” It wasn’t that Sano didn’t think Gains could kill them or have them killed as easily as snapping his fingers; it wasn’t that he couldn’t sympathize about the type of anger Gains was trying to deal with right now; it was just that he had very little patience for anyone that could watch Hajime’s magnificently performed exorcism in the other room and then call him a brainless fraud.

“Sano,” said Hajime sharply. He’d taken a seat without protest, but didn’t appear to approve of Sano antagonizing the client. Or whatever Gains was. “If you’ll wait just a minute, Mr. Gains,” he went on in the most rigid, enforcedly polite tone Sano had ever heard, “Sano will help you.”

“Why the hell can’t you do it?” Apparently, despite the fact that Hajime had supposedly threatened him with a deadly weapon, Gains still trusted him over the younger man that had done nothing here so far except tell him to shut the fuck up.

Hajime’s politeness cracking, he replied, “I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.” It was the last of his unusual anger, though, for as this exchange had taken place Sano had seated himself beside the exorcist, put a hand on his suit-jacketed shoulder, and drawn the shade right out of him. It had come unexpectedly smoothly and easily, and the increase in Sano’s ire it caused might have been a good thing in that it kept him from dwelling on how well he’d become attuned not just to this particular shade, but to Hajime.

“Thank you.” The gold eyes turned in his direction were tired, but Sano thought it was a temporary weakness at worst.

So he replied with an angry grin and a murmured, “Just let me know when you think you can handle me.”

“I can handle you any time, idiot,” Hajime answered in the same tone. “But if you mean a fist fight, give me just a couple of minutes.”

Sano’s voice dropped even further as, situation and company notwithstanding, he simply couldn’t help remarking, “I think you just flirted with me.”

Hajime rolled his eyes. “And I think you really are an idiot.”

“Is this what you came here for?” Gains’s impatient derision broke into the quiet conversation. “To stink up my rooms with this kind of queer bullshit?”

Sano was on his feet, fists clenched, stalking toward the secretary, before he realized he was even moving. “What the fuck did you just say to me?”

“Sano,” said Hajime again, and this second remonstrance was every bit as hard as his grip on Sano’s arm; he too had stood, and was clearly ready to restrain his companion by whatever means necessary.

There was a very tense moment of silence as two men faced off and a third awaited the outcome. Sano thought he saw something like a mirror of his own struggle in Gains as each of them, with an effort of will, attempted not to release his rage on the other. Sano knew perfectly well that reacting to the old man’s remark would be — and Gains probably knew perfectly well that what he’d said had been — utterly counterproductive.

“Just a couple of minutes,” Hajime reiterated quietly behind Sano… and he was, in fact, so close behind Sano that these words provided a sudden but pointed distraction. Whether Hajime had intended this Sano couldn’t guess, but his next words of distraction, directed over Sano’s shoulder, were clearly meant as such: “Mr. Gains, would you tell us a little about your unusual art?”

Judging by his face, Gains too was aware of the purpose of this request, but, just as Sano had been on multiple previous occasions, he was willing to play along. He began pacing and speaking quickly, first irately but gradually more calmly as his anger was in some measure repressed or circumnavigated by the interest of his topic. Sano found himself dragged backward into another sitting position on the sofa beside Hajime, who gave him a warning look. So with a deep breath and fists yet unclenched, he listened.

To capture the beauty of the human body in its essence rather than its technicality — whatever that meant — was apparently Gains’s artistic motivation, flesh his particular fascination, and achieving the precise look and feel of flesh combined with the durability and longevity of more traditional sculpting material such as stone his ultimate ambition. The application of other media to imitate the effects of human skin had never satisfied him, so he’d been experimenting with amalgamations.

Myriad combinations of sculpting materials and flesh-like substances were available, but so far none of them had been able to answer both his aesthetic desire and the artificial aging process he applied to test the endurance of the finished product. He’d found that the use of actual skin (obtained whence he did not mention) tended, predictably, to produce the best visual and tactile results, but that he could much more easily chemically integrate his sculpting material into artificial flesh grown in his lab — and that in either case, decomposition became an issue. Nylons and rubbers were more readily manipulated and lasted longer, but lacked the verisimilitude he wanted. And that wasn’t even beginning to touch on the differing degrees of chemical compatibility of different sculpting materials with all these substances or the gradient of longevity of the resulting compounds.

He’d been working on this for many years, and felt he’d at least developed a smooth and meticulous system of experimentation that must allow him, eventually, to hit on the result he wanted. It was only a matter of time.

Little as Sano had expected it to be, this was all quite interesting, and the next time he took any stock of his surroundings and his own mood he found that even his anger had been pushed back a bit by the discourse. Additionally, it had been at least the couple of minutes Hajime had requested, which meant that hopefully it was time for Sano’s big scene and then they could get the hell out of here. A glance at the exorcist won him a nod of confirmation, so he jumped to his feet.

“That,” he said in sincere admiration, pointing at Gains, “is cool. Creepy, but cool.”

Gains didn’t seem to know quite how to take this, and only glowered at him.

“Now, just hold still for a sec.” After cracking his knuckles, Sano reached out again toward the secretary. Gains flared red at the approach, shifted a bit, but held his ground. “It doesn’t hurt or anything,” Sano assured him as he came within arm’s length and put a hand on Gains’s bony shoulder.

It didn’t hurt, but it was much rougher than it had been with Hajime. Sano tried not to think about that, especially since it was becoming clear that he was going to have to focus hard in order to make it through the entire length of this process. Damn, there was a lot of this stuff. He pulled and pulled, trying not to look at anything, not even at what he was pretty sure were dentures in Gains’s mouth, because at the moment even false teeth were enough to break his concentration and send him into a blood frenzy, and there was still more of this shade. That Gains had been able to be distracted away from it at all was a shock; it was probably because he was so old and had more practice at controlling his emotions, but even so, there was a lot here.

Combined with what Sano had already absorbed, both in the office and from Hajime, this was going to leave him with a greater amount of internalized shade energy than he thought he’d ever carried at once before. And there was still more. The world was turning red, Sano’s thoughts were melting away as if in a hot or corrosive substance, and still there was more. Something deadly, fueled by the shade, was pushing out from his mind in a gradual, unstoppable wave, and somehow there was more. He was ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, and still there was more.

Everything he knew, everything he was, everything seemed to be exploding in exquisitely excruciating slow motion.

And still there was more.

Part 30


Hajime had never slept on the sofa in his den. He knew it was comfortable enough to sit on, but, though he had once or twice dozed off during a DVD he’d thought would be more interesting, he hadn’t ever had occasion to test this seat’s functionality as a bed before. And perhaps this was why, though he’d been attempting to take a much-needed nap, he just couldn’t lie still. He had to rise, again and again, and go back to his bedroom to check on the young man he’d installed in his own, actual bed.

After a while, though, he was forced to face facts: this really had nothing to do with the comfort level of the sofa. Had it been merely that keeping him awake, he might have made himself useful — might have contacted Kaoru to let her know things were progressing, or might at least have tried to find Kenshin to attempt to see exactly how much more progress they needed to make. But, no, all he could bring himself to do was look in, over and over, at the motionless figure of Sano, and long to smoke a cigarette.

Finally he gave in to the unhealthy urge. He usually didn’t smoke inside the house, but at the moment he couldn’t quite bear to go farther away from his bedroom than just across the hall, in case Sano woke up. So he opened the windows in the den and hovered beside them at one end of the sofa as he poisoned himself and the air around him.

When next his inability to stand still brought him to face the interior of the room, he found Tokio looking up at him with an air both skeptical and a little concerned. He waved his free hand in the direction of the bedroom and asked, “Is Misao still in there?”

She began to lick a paw as she explained that Sano had a very high body temperature.

Hajime wondered if this was natural or if the young man had a fever. A fever was only to be expected. A fever could be controlled.

Tokio cocked her head. She’d been under the impression that Hajime was the one that had hurt Sano — but if he’d done it deliberately, why was he fretting about it?

Turning back to the window, stabbing the remainder of his cigarette into the ash tray on the sill, trying to combat the desire to light another, Hajime said harshly, “Yes, I was the one. I had no choice.”

But that wasn’t quite true. There might have been some other way to exorcize the greater-than-usual amount of shade Sano had absorbed. Though it was a technique he’d never really used, Hajime might have been able to attune himself to the energy and absorb some of it to take part of the load off Sano. But could he have figured it out in time? Or what they’d done before — the insults and the arguments and the actual fighting — might have worked just as well as ever, once Sano had awakened from the faint his unusual level of absorption had induced. But that had been the difficulty: it had rather seemed as if Sano never would awaken. The much-diminished pulse and respiration rate, the rapidly cooling extremities, and, worst of all, the completely inaccessible psyche behind an impenetrable barrier of shade…

Hajime didn’t remember ever having been so worried. And though his desperate measures had had the desired effect, had brought Sano back, that had only changed the shape of his worry. And Tokio was picking up on it.

Was this, she queried, one of those behaviors pack animals like humans engaged in? Had Hajime hurt Sano in order to establish dominance, and now he worried that he hadn’t gotten his point across thoroughly enough?

“Oh, I’m sure I made my point.” Then, in spite of his better judgment, he asked, “Why would you think I’d want to establish dominance?”

Tokio replied that it would be to make certain Sano knew whom he belonged to.

“And what makes you think he belongs to me?”

She stretched out so that the markings on her back seemed to ripple along her long body, which was her equivalent of a shrug. She’d never seen him this invested in another human before, so she’d just assumed that Hajime wanted to keep Sano as his mate. Humans sometimes kept mates of the same sex, she added wisely as she began walking out of the room. She personally didn’t see the attraction, but neither did she understand cars or bathtubs or why she and Misao were supposed to stay off the kitchen counters; Hajime undoubtedly knew all about human things like that. Then she added that it smelled bad in here, and was gone.

Hajime gave a soft, bitter laugh. So now even his familiar’s thoughts pointed that direction, did they?

He lit another cigarette.

He wasn’t blind to what Sano wanted. How could he be? Little as he’d ever been interested in anything of the sort, he wasn’t unaware of its existence or its importance in the lives of others. And Sano hadn’t exactly been discreet. His interest had developed rapidly — for all the hours they’d spent together, it had still been only a single week — but Sano himself had admitted that he made fast decisions, and Hajime supposed there had been wilder and hastier ones.

This would all be much simpler if Hajime could claim he didn’t like Sano, as that would neatly solve this little problem. But he did, in fact, like Sano. It was odd… he didn’t like many people… but he liked Sano, enough that he didn’t think he could bring himself to lie about it.

He liked the way Sano seemed to live so intensely and yet so lazily, somehow, at the same time. He liked Sano’s sense of humor. He liked that, aimless as Sano often appeared, still he had standards he passionately adhered to. He even liked the way Sano grumbled so much despite simultaneously seeming pretty happy with his life.

And perhaps some of this had been brought to Hajime’s attention only by the sight of Sano’s blood on his hands.

Insulting Sano, annoying Sano, even thinking badly of some of Sano’s life choices… that was one thing. But today’s experience had proven to Hajime that the idea of losing Sano was uncomfortable and agitating enough to be called, perhaps, painful.

But wasn’t he, in thinking thus, trying to hold onto something he’d never actually had? Maybe Tokio was right, and he was trying to establish ownership. Because though their relationship wasn’t exactly professional, they weren’t exactly friends either.

At some point during these thoughts, Hajime had finished his second cigarette and drifted yet again to his bedroom door. The room’s interior was dim, but still he could make out certain aspects of Sano’s face, and the faint light from the hallway on the curve of shoulders — one bare, one bulked up by white bandage — just above the blanket. Misao was visible as a perfect black circle at the young man’s side.

Friendship, though a rarity in Hajime’s life, was nothing distasteful. Friendship with Sano, he thought, was even specifically desirable. He would like to get to know a Sano that wasn’t enraged all the time. He would like to see where Sano’s geological fixation went, how the skinflint father would take the news. He would like to gather more evidence for or against his theory about Sano’s magical talents. He would like to talk to Sano about… well, anything, really. He could easily envision a lot of time spent with Sano with little more to do than what he believed people generally called ‘hanging out.’ He just… wanted Sano around.

But Sano obviously wanted more than that. At this point, assuming he didn’t hate Hajime forever when he woke up and learned what had happened, Sano might even believe he was entitled to more than friendship. And though that was nonsense, still Hajime didn’t like the idea of disappointing him.

Of the type of relationship Sano probably had in mind, however… of the type of emotions that would prompt someone to form such a relationship, or at least would be expected to develop once they had… Hajime simply wasn’t sure he was capable. Even the more simplistic concept Tokio had suggested, that of seeking a mate — at least in the sexual sense — was something completely alien to him. And any sense less intimately involved than that, he was afraid Sano would not accept.

He didn’t want to hurt Sano, but, just as he had earlier today, he feared there was no other option.

“I have to say, it is nice to finally see what he looks like. I believe I never saw him during my life.”

Though the soft voice immediately to Hajime’s left and a little above him was unexpected, the exorcist thought he managed to hide his startlement fairly well as he turned to regard the ghost that had at some point appeared silently at his side. “You might not recognize him right now even if you had,” he replied; “he’s unusually dressed today. The bandages aren’t normal either. I think.” And as he said this, he took his first real look at Kenshin Himura.

Part 31


Kenshin Himura was taking his first real look at the man he was fairly certain had been around him quite a bit just recently. The narrow eyes that currently returned his scrutiny were an unsettlingly light brown or even gold, and, like the other harsh features surrounding them, distinctly Japanese. Figure tall and lean, hairstyle odd and angular, clad in stark black and white, the man wasn’t the most friendly-looking of all the people Kenshin could have had his first post-dissolution conversation with. So happy was Kenshin, however, to be able to have a conversation with anyone that he wasn’t going to complain.

When the man finished his examination of the ghost and turned back to regard the sleeper in the room beyond, Kenshin was reminded of the topic on which he’d started the aforementioned conversation. “Is he all right? I missed what happened to him.”

“He’ll be fine,” said the tall man briefly. After a moment he glanced at Kenshin again. “So you didn’t go into the building, then. Sano was wondering why it was taking you so long to catch up.” Sano, Kenshin noted, was the name of the man they were discussing — the one he’d been haunting for… he wasn’t really sure how long.

“The place the red mist was coming from?” he answered the question, shaking his head and smiling wanly. “No. I think it’s safe to say I have had enough of that for one afterlife. When I got close to where Sano had stopped and felt how much more of it there was, I waited at a distance. And then… I was already under the impression that Sano was trying to help me, but I wasn’t ready for the red mist just to disappear all of a sudden.”

Though he spoke calmly, he knew he would never forget as long as he… existed… the abrupt withdrawal of the angry shroud that had kept him for so many uncounted days or weeks or months largely cut off from the world. He’d found he’d almost forgotten what that world was even like in his near-complete lack of ability to sense it properly. Suddenly able to see and hear and smell and taste again (though touch, it appeared, was not to be restored), he’d gone a little crazy for a while: losing track of his priorities, he’d floated aimlessly in sensory overload until the moment he’d realized Sano was once more on the move; then he’d retraced his… path… and followed Sano as he’d been doing since he’d first found him, and eventually come to this house.

“I did that, actually.”

This curt pronouncement dragged Kenshin back out of intense memory to the present, and prompted him to reply, “Then thank you very much.”

The man nodded slightly, then murmured, “Not that Sano wasn’t useful.”

It was a little odd how precisely Kenshin still seemed able to mark his own movements and gestures when he lacked a sense of touch. Consciousness of remembered muscular impulse, perhaps? It didn’t really matter; all that did was that he now found himself smiling slightly as he followed the man’s intent gaze back to the sleeping Sano in the bedroom. “He is a remarkable person, you know.”

Shifting, raising a hand to the doorframe, then stilling again, the man said nothing.

“I know you have talked to my wife,” Kenshin began a little more quietly, “so you may know that I was haunting her for a while…” He paused. He’d meant this as a comment about Sano, but he realized quickly that it was going to become an explanation or even a story, and had to backtrack and start at an earlier point. “When I died, I was not sure why I became a ghost. I was drawn to Kaoru, almost pulled towards her, which I thought was only natural; but there were no other ghosts around, so being one could not be entirely natural. I thought maybe I was allowed to stay so I could learn why she was so upset with me during that last month of my life. I thought maybe I was being punished for whatever I did to her… or maybe,” he added contemplatively, “for something I did years ago…”

All the intensity of the amber gaze had transferred to Kenshin now, though the man made no move to leave the doorway where he stood and still did not say a word. In the face of such obvious interest, Kenshin could but go on, though going on at this point was not necessarily easy.

“I watched her suffering… I watched her trying to be strong for everyone else, for Kenji — trying to decide how much to tell him and how to answer his questions — but she could not hide how much pain she was in from me, since I saw her when nobody else was looking.” Were the tears on his face just some sort of astral projection? Merely a memory of tears? And how, exactly, was he even aware that they were there, when he couldn’t feel them? He took a deep, false breath into lungs that, he supposed, no longer really existed.

“There has always been a sort of… pulling… feeling… I’m afraid I have no way to describe it any better than that, but it has been there since the beginning — since the moment I realized I was dead: something pulling me, trying to pull me away from here, I guess into whatever comes next. And Kaoru was what held me back. Watching her in so much pain and wanting to talk to her, to try and help her somehow, kept me from ever responding at all to that pulling… thing. And it got worse when I finally found out what really happened that night when I died.

“You would think a ghost would know all about his own death. Doesn’t it seem unfair to die and not know anything more than you did when you were alive? But I didn’t know the truth until I heard her say it out loud. I think it was the only time she has said it out loud since it happened, unless she told you…”

“She did,” the man — whom Kenshin was beginning to regard as his audience — nodded. “And don’t be concerned that she’ll get in any trouble for it; we don’t intend to tell anyone.”

“Thank you,” said Kenshin, intensely and sincerely. His first impression (more or less) of this harsh stranger wasn’t a very good one, but he deeply appreciated that the man had made this reassurance immediately and unbidden. He went on with his story. “She said it like a sort of prayer, as if by saying it out loud she might be able to get control of what happened and how she felt about it. It didn’t work, but it let me hear the truth about how I died and what happened before that.

“When I knew Kaoru felt like a murderer because of what she had done, I wanted even more than ever to talk to her somehow. I wanted to let her know I did not — that I could never blame her, and that actually I knew what it… well…” No reason to pour out, in his wife’s absence, everything he wanted to say to her. “That kind of thing. I knew then that that was why I became a ghost. I can’t move on, no matter how hard it pulls me, until I tell her.

“But she could not hear me or see me; she had no idea I was there. I don’t know how long that went on. I don’t think I am aware of time the same way I was when I was alive; I have no idea how long I spent trying to communicate with her without being able to get even the smallest response from her.”

The man snorted quietly. “That sounds familiar,” he murmured, and left Kenshin to interpret the remark as he would.

“And then the red mist came. It appeared out of nowhere all of a sudden and completely covered me. I had no way of knowing what it was or where it came from, and, though I did not like it, at first I also did not consider it a problem.”

“It didn’t make you angry?” the man wondered with a raised brow.

“Not me,” replied Kenshin ruefully.

“Interesting.”

“All it did to me was cut me off from everything. I couldn’t see or hear anything around me through the mist, except for… well, I could still sense my wife and son, but it was not the same as before. Before, I saw and heard everything just like I did when I was alive, just like I can now. But through the mist, it was… a different sense. Something that was probably there all along, but that I never noticed until it was the only way I could find them.”

“A psychic connection.” Though the man’s tone was contemplative, the little nod he gave had no doubt in it. “Even people without any magical skill form bonds like that with others.”

Not entirely pleased with a pronouncement as of expertise from someone that hadn’t actually been part of this experience, but not wanting be impolite, Kenshin merely accepted the diagnosis with a nod of his own and continued. “Whatever it was, I was able to ‘see’ Kaoru and Kenji even through the mist, and there were even a few things relating to them that got through normally — whenever one of them mentioned the other out loud, I could still hear it — but most of what they were actually doing and saying I usually couldn’t make out. I can’t say for sure how long it took me to realize that the mist was affecting Kaoru — or, even once I did notice, how long it took me to decide that it really was the mist, or possibly me, and not some other cause.

“You probably know what it did to her. Yes?” Kenshin shook his head, remembering in powerless pity and frustration. “I never wanted to talk to her any less, to tell her everything I wanted to tell her… and inside the mist I felt that pulling sensation even less than before… so for me, nothing had changed except maybe to make me want to stay with her even more. But I couldn’t stay with her and keep making her situation even worse than it already was and her even more unhappy. I had to leave. I had no idea where I could go or what I would do, or even if I would ever see my wife again, but… I couldn’t stay.”

Again the man nodded, this time in a manner that suggested he’d had guesses confirmed by this. At the same time, his interest seemed to intensify as Kenshin was finally approaching what had been the point of his long narrative from the beginning.

“I just started wandering,” he said, “aimlessly.” Helplessly he lifted his spectral hands. Trying to describe the emptiness, the hopelessness, the misery of a search without an object, a path without a destination, of knowing he’d left everything he loved behind in more pain even that he felt… he wasn’t going to bother with the attempt. Instead, he let his hands fall to his sides and glanced into the bedroom. “And then I sensed Sano.

“I had already found that Kaoru and Kenji were not the only ones I could sense through the mist. There were people here and there, when I was moving around without any real place to go, who I could sense, a little. But Sano was… amazingly clearer, and more something I was drawn to, than anyone else. He was almost as clear as Kaoru and Kenji. I never met him while I was alive, so it probably wasn’t any kind of psychic connection — at least not one that I had already made. I think what I felt was… potential.

“He was not my friend, but he could have been. He was the kind of person I could have been friends with, best friends with. He was somebody I could have loved. I think I was drawn to him because I could sense all sorts of things about him, maybe things that would have taken me a lot longer when I was alive. It was like…” Kenshin paused, pensive, trying to think how to describe it, and eventually settled on a metaphor.

“Imagine flying over a tropical island completely covered in mist. You know there is a jungle beneath you; you know exactly what kinds of plants and animals are down there, but you can’t see anything through the mist. And then ahead of you, rising out of the mist and glowing, you see a volcano. That was what finding Sano was like.” Though certain misleadingly visual terms rendered this not entirely satisfying, Kenshin left it as it was, mostly because of the expression it had occasioned on his companion’s face.

“A volcano.” For some reason, the man had just the faintest trace of a glower between his eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth, and Kenshin got the oddest feeling that this guy was jealous because he hadn’t thought of the description first. “Yes, that’s Sano.”

“He could see me. He was the first person I encountered after I died who could, and that meant a lot. I thought it was ironic that I could not see him, or figure out much about him from what I sensed — not his name, or how old he was, or anything like that… but part of the feeling I had about him, that drew me to him, was that he could help me. I felt like he had the potential — whatever kind of magical powers you folks have that could help me, I felt like he had them — and that he was the kind of person who’d be willing to try.”

The man had gone back to staring into the bedroom. “I can’t be sure yet,” he said thoughtfully, “but I think he’s what we call a natural — someone who subconsciously uses all branches of magic, and masters anything he consciously tries to learn very easily. Naturals are very rare.”

“He’s certainly something special,” Kenshin agreed with a nod. “If I had not found him, I have no idea where I would be now. Though,” he added politely, “as you mentioned, I have you to thank for getting rid of the red mist.”

“That still wouldn’t have happened without Sano,” the man admitted. And now, finally, he moved away from the bedroom door, turning fully to face Kenshin and fixing him with a pointed gaze. “But there is a way you can repay the favor.”

Though Kenshin was more than a little impatient to get back to Kaoru now that the mist was gone and he’d explained himself to at least one of the people here, there was nothing to be said in response to that remark but, “I will do whatever I can.”

“I’m an exorcist.” A more thorough introduction, Kenshin thought, would have been appropriate at this juncture, but the man evidently didn’t agree. “Anything more I can find out about your current state would be professionally useful to me, if you wouldn’t mind answering some questions.”

An exorcist, was it? Probably about as close to the polar opposite of a ghost as you could get. Perhaps it was natural, then, for Kenshin to dislike this man, so he didn’t have to bother trying not to. “I’ll be happy to tell you anything I can,” he promised politely.

“Come with me, then,” the man commanded. And with one last glance in at the sleeping Sano, he moved away purposefully down the hall.

Part 32


A number of points had Sano just a little worried when he properly regained consciousness.

He’d been swimming through the very uncomfortable type of chaotic and incoherent half-awake dream state he generally only ever experienced when his brain was muddled by medication, which was bad enough… but usually he found himself in his own bed upon his unsettled full awakening. This bed was completely unfamiliar — and the immediate would-be cheerful thought in the back of his head that it smelled like Hajime was rather more disquieting than comforting, since he wasn’t aware that he knew what Hajime smelled like.

Similarly, he could swear up and down that he’d been hearing Kenshin’s voice while he slept, much more clearly and realistically than any noise his dreams could have provided… but he didn’t know what Kenshin’s voice sounded like. He didn’t even know where Kenshin was, and hadn’t for… how long had it been?

Then, something was… off. Something was different, something was missing. That he recognized this so distinctly and certainly, but could in no way define precisely what had changed, was frustrating and simultaneously surreal. The knowledge was barely beyond his grasp, and that made him doubt it was actually there, doubt his own senses. All but one.

For the factor that gave him the most unease was the pain. He thought this was specifically what had awakened him, since it had been increasing for some time and must just have reached a level where he couldn’t sleep through it anymore. Which made sense, since it was a raging ache that at first seemed to have his entire upper body in a hot, tight grip. As he breathed shallowly and slowly turned his head, however, he came gradually to realize that it was centered in his right shoulder.

Actually, movement brought him a few answers. When he noticed the tiny warm body curled into an impossibly tight spiral at his side, her furry flanks expanding gently with each sleeping breath, he was convinced beyond any doubt that he was in a bed that might reasonably be expected to smell like Hajime — whatever that might smell like. Then, the nightstand nearby was host to a green plastic bottle with a big, otherwise-blank white label across which was scrawled, as with a Sharpie on an inconveniently curved surface, Percocet — which explained the drug dreams.

This nightstand was — thank god! — on his left. Some discomfort resulted even from moving his left arm, but he could at least do so. What he couldn’t do, yet, was sit up in order to avail himself of the glass of water that was neighbor to the green bottle. He almost wasn’t capable of getting the bottle open, one-handed, horizontal, and barely coherent as he was, but fortunately it didn’t seem to be the most medically official prescription ever dispensed and lacked a child-proof lid. The viciously disgusting flavor of the two pills he fished from inside and attempted to swallow made him long for the water, but that was an unattainable ambition for now. So he lay still trying not to think about the taste in his mouth or the sensation of the bulky pain killer moving slowly down his esophagus.

What the hell had happened to him was something he would rather like to figure out, but, though the bandages on his right shoulder seemed a good place to start, he wasn’t quite up to the amount of movement or probing of the painful area that would be required to seek the answer. Instead, he concentrated on another answer he was slowly becoming aware of.

He wasn’t angry. At all. That was the large-scale change he’d been sensing since waking. He’d come so close to forgetting what it felt like not to be angry, not to have at least a little red shade tainting everything he thought or did, that it had taken him this long to recognize its absence.

They’d done it. He was free. He was no longer haunted by a shade.

Whether or not he was still haunted by a ghost was a different story. Where was Kenshin? Had he really been there, talking, while Sano slept? Perhaps he’d said goodbye; perhaps Sano would never see him again — never truly see him except in a ruined photograph in the office of the man that had caused his death and set all of this in motion.

What had happened back at the Seido building? How had Sano gotten from there to Hajime’s house minus shade but plus some kind of really painful injury? Had Gains perhaps decided that Sano, uncontrollably irate after absorbing so much angry energy, was a threat to security, and had him shot? And in that case, had something unpleasant happened to Hajime as well? Where was Hajime?

Logically, being in Hajime’s house, Hajime’s bed, meant that Hajime himself must be present and well enough to have arranged those circumstances. But still the thought that he as well as Sano might have been hurt at the Seido headquarters was enough to galvanize Sano into much more vigorous activity than he’d previously been planning for any time soon. He jerked the blanket aside, startling a protest out of the suddenly awakened Misao, and sat up.

The Percocet definitely hadn’t kicked in yet; the pain radiating from his shoulder made his head feel dizzy and pressurized and his stomach nauseated. But he fought through it, swiveling his legs off the side of the bed and propping himself on his left hand.

Misao had wormed her way out of the bedding that had been thrown over her, and now was stretching toward him looking bleary and perhaps a little annoyed that he’d so abruptly interrupted her nap. Not quite ready to rise, Sano reached out the hand on which his weight had previously rested, feeling a little precarious as a result, and clumsily scratched the little ridgey area between the cat’s ears. “Hey, Misao,” he said. It came out in a rough whisper. “Where’s your familiar?”

She sat down beside him, eyes half open as she accepted the caress, and replied that Hajime was in the den across the hall.

The fact that he’d perfectly understood her meow was something he would have to wonder about later. For the moment, he drew a deep breath in preparation for forcing himself to stand. This turned out to have been a mistake, for the swelling of his chest also affected the injured shoulder and left him reeling where he sat for a few pain-blinded instants. But as his legs seemed unhurt, he forced them to lift the rest of his body into an upright position. Immediately he stumbled unstably forward into the nearest wall, but he didn’t seem to be in any danger of actually falling, and with such a solid guide could make his way around to the bedroom door, the hallway beyond, and the other door across from him.

It seemed to be evening, as the house without any lights turned on was dim. A clock stood on Hajime’s nightstand, but even had Sano been at a better angle to read the red numbers while looking in that direction, he’d been too focused on the pain killer to note the time. But at least there was enough fading daylight through the windows behind the couch in the den to show him the sleeping figure of Hajime.

Against Sano’s bare skin, the coolness of the doorframe that was currently supporting him after what had almost been a leap across the hall made him wonder vaguely what had happened to his shirt. But mostly he was just sagging in relief at the sight of Hajime unhurt before him. Of course the fear that Hajime might have been hurt had been a fantastic one in the first place, but that didn’t make the relief less palpable, less emotionally overwhelming, or even, at this point, physically problematic. He couldn’t move an inch; he was sure he really would fall to the floor this time. So he just let the painted wood continue to support him, and stared as the light faded.

‘Crush,’ he feared, was no adequate term. It didn’t matter that it had only been a week; he was seriously into this guy. Which was funny, since Hajime’s behavior hadn’t given Sano any overwhelming reason to like him.

But he couldn’t help it. Hajime was so admirably, drivingly purposeful that it was as if Sano, breathless and unable even to protest, was just caught up and swept along. Hajime always seemed to know exactly what needed to be done, and didn’t hesitate to do it. Similarly, he always knew exactly what he wanted — what he wanted to do, what he wanted to learn, what he wanted to be — and pursued it without reference to anything or anyone. He’d chosen to work in the branch of magic he liked best rather than the one in which he had the most natural skill; he’d chosen the profession he wanted, the way of life he wanted, in spite of the overbearing desires of his family. He was all about will, all about choice, and the things he willed and chose always seemed to be fundamentally right.

‘Nice’ wasn’t exactly a word Sano would have used to describe Hajime… and yet, though he would never postulate as much aloud to the man himself, he believed that Hajime had chosen exorcism not merely because the actual work involved was interesting, but because he still wanted somehow to help people, to better lives by eliminating some of the evils that arose in them, even if those people and those lives were not really to his taste. It was a backward sort of charity that Sano probably shouldn’t have found as intriguing and attractive as he did.

Because, god, Hajime’s taste… what was Hajime’s taste? If he preferred to disdain everyone, to put on politeness like a creepy mask in order to interact with a world he wasn’t interested in being a real part of just for the sake of destroying shades and then retreating… then this little infatuation of Sano’s was undoubtedly hopeless. He thought they’d had some fun together; he thought Hajime had shown signs of enjoying Sano’s company… but perhaps that had only been a businessman making the best of time he was forced to spend with a non-paying client in the pursuit of gathering information about a potential asset. All just professional.

But Hajime did have at least one friend; that was how Sano had interpreted the suggestion of lunch with that Chou guy, anyway. And if he had at least one friend, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have at least two. And if he had at least two friends, there was nothing saying he couldn’t have a boyfriend. Unless he wasn’t into men at all, which was a topic of research on which Sano hadn’t been able to make any progress whatsoever. Not by action, attitude, or anecdote had Hajime given a single hint as to what his sexual orientation might be. He didn’t read as gay, or bisexual, or straight; he didn’t read as anything. On that score Sano was utterly confounded, and hadn’t quite had the nerve to ask outright.

Hopeless, then?

So long did Sano stand in the doorway of the den with eyes and thoughts directed intensely at the man on the couch that any sunlight from outside had completely faded and the Percocet had started to take effect before he remembered where he was. Misao had abandoned him at some point, having yawningly remarked that he was boring and gone back into the bedroom. And Sano had straightened, he found; as the pain had faded somewhat he’d mostly stopped leaning on the doorframe. Now he looked interestedly down at his bandaged shoulder.

Gingerly with his left hand, he sought out the tape that held in place the outer wrap circling his shoulder and armpit. Peeling it carefully back, he was able to loosen it so as to get at the layers beneath. The bottom one was taped directly to his skin, and painful to work free far enough to see under, and even when he’d managed it he couldn’t make out a thing in the current darkness.

Returning to Hajime’s bedroom and closing the door, he flipped on the light and took another look. A bathroom mirror might have been a better option, as this angle wasn’t the most convenient, but he was going to lie back down in a second here and didn’t feel like leaving the room again.

He’d never been shot, and only had Hollywood’s word on what a gunshot wound looked like… and on this evidence he determined that such was not the nature of this hurt. Beneath the stitches, the injury ran in a neat, perfectly straight line such as might have been formed by a precise hand holding a scalpel.

Or an equally, or perhaps even more precise hand on the hilt of a sword.

“I can, easily. If you want me to stab you.”

Oddly, and maybe at least in part because the Percocet was making him a little weird in the head, his initial reaction to this discovery was weak, breathy, and nearly uncontrollable laughter as he sat down on the bed, clumsily re-sealed the tape, and re-tightened the outer layers and the wrap around his shoulder. There was, he couldn’t help thinking, some irony in finding this just after he’d been reflecting on how and why he liked Hajime so damn much.

So that was how… that was why… yes, that explained just about everything. And everything suddenly just seemed really funny and stupid. He staggered back up, with a lot more pain than sound in the breaths that expanded his chest, and moved to turn the light off and crack the door in case Misao wanted out while he slept. This last was something it was definitely time to be doing.

Part 33


Necromancy, though it had turned out to be within his abilities, was nothing Hajime had ever practiced before, which meant that just about every word Kenshin had spoken yesterday had required specific concentration on Hajime’s part to understand, and the entire ordeal had left him even more mentally spent than he’d already been. He’d slept long and hard, so much that he’d arisen with no clearer idea of the comfort level of the den sofa than he’d had yesterday afternoon. And now it was Saturday morning, a little later than he usually rose, and he was going through a headachy process of making breakfast for two when he wasn’t quite sure when or if the second party would want it.

The cats had remarked leadingly that the sausage smelled interesting, then been distracted from that topic by their own breakfasts, and Hajime had taken some aspirin with his coffee as he started the meal on his own, before he heard noises from the hall. Slow footsteps sounded on the wood floor toward the bathroom, the door to which opened and closed.

Then (unsurprisingly, as Misao had galloped out of the kitchen the moment she’d detected signs of Sano’s wakefulness) the bathroom door opened and closed a second time, accompanied by a grumble that sounded something like, “I’ve had enough of people in the bathroom with me lately.” Sano would probably be equal parts relieved and irritated to learn that Kenshin usually hadn’t been able to see or hear his normal activities during the period of haunting.

A few minutes later, a rumpled-looking young man, hair plastered into a smooth slope in back so it came to a sort of jagged point at the top, entered the kitchen. Hajime, leaning against the counter beside the stove, set down his breakfast plate and braced himself.

Sano aimed a single finger at him and said just as pointedly, “Peacemaker Kurogane.”

This was not at all the greeting Hajime had expected, so he just raised a brow.

“I was in a shit-ton of pain last night,” Sano explained, “because for some reason it kinda looks like somebody might have stabbed me with a sword…” He paused with a frown. “And I swear I’ve heard that in a movie somewhere. Anyway, every time the Percocet wore off, I got up and wandered around for a little before the next one kicked in and I could sleep again. And I was looking through your shelves, and I discovered your dirty little secret.”

“Where you’ve heard my name before?”

“Well, yeah, that too, but I mean that you like anime. Yes, Misao, hi. Sorry I wouldn’t let you in the bathroom. Good morning.” Though the little cat had been meowing nonstop for Sano’s attention, she didn’t actually have anything to say; so once he’d satisfied her by bending briefly, stiffly, to pet her, she shut up and headed for Tokio’s food bowl in case her elder had left anything behind for her to steal.

Hajime wasn’t going to point out that, to have been looking through the shelves his DVD’s were kept on, Sano would have to have been in the den — hovering near the sleeping Hajime, in other words, which was something the waking Hajime didn’t really want to discuss. So he just said, “I like some anime. Sometimes.”

“Yeah, well, you made it sound before like you thought it was all stupid or something. But this is a series I’ve even seen — because my name’s in there too — and here you have it on DVD, and I remember now it has you in it, seeing ghosts and everything.”

Hajime didn’t feel like checking the inordinate amount of pleasure Sano was taking in this perceived triumph; in fact, he had to smile a bit at the suggestion that he himself actually featured in the series in question, and the indirect idea that he’d been named after an anime character rather than the historic figure that character represented. He did feel the need to point out, however, “All I implied before was that getting all your Japanese culture from anime was stupid.”

“Yeah, OK, fine.” Sano started to shrug, winced visibly with an audible intake of breath, and canceled whatever he’d been planning on saying next. Hajime thought it was something about never having been to Japan, but couldn’t be entirely sure when the walls were up.

“Do you want breakfast?” He turned toward where he’d kept the second half of the meal warm. “It’s eggs and rice with sausage.”

“Is that your way of apologizing for stabbing me in the shoulder?” Sano wondered, stepping forward to join Hajime at the stove and look down into the pan.

“It might be,” said Hajime neutrally. He couldn’t quite bring himself to apologize for something he really had believed was necessary, but he was sorry that so much discomfort had been the unavoidable result.

Sano’s immediate, “Then I accept,” came as a bit of a surprise, and Hajime turned just as quickly to search the young man’s face for any insincerity, for suppressed resentment. He found none. Moreover, Sano gave him half a grin and continued in a quieter tone, “It’s kindof extreme, but you wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t think you had to. It hurts like all kinds of hell, but…” Apparently he barely remembered in time to restrain a second shrug. “It’s kinda cool too.”

Hajime didn’t bother trying not to feel intensely relieved at this reaction. “Idiot.”

“Yeah, well…” Sano’s grin twisted to demonstrate just how much pain he was still in — as if Hajime couldn’t already tell. “I’ll probably punch you in the face for it next time I’m mad. And don’t do it again, OK?”

“I’ll try not to.” Hajime gestured to the dishes he’d set out for Sano’s use and changed the subject. “I have coffee or orange juice, if you’re interested. Or there’s water. I don’t recommend mixing beer with pills.”

“Yeah, I’m already spacey enough. Though it’s not so bad when I’m not laying down. Uh, water sounds good. I think orange juice or coffee would make me sick right now.”

Though Hajime had previously been eating bachelor-style standing up beside the stove, he now transferred his things to the dining table beyond the doorway out of the kitchen while Sano dished himself the remainder of the breakfast mess and filled his cup from the tap. When he joined Hajime at the table, Tokio immediately took up a place beside his chair and started demanding that he give her sausage.

Hajime vetoed this with, “It’s not good for cats.” Then to Sano he remarked, “Those stitches have to stay in for at least a week. I’ll pay for you to see a doctor, since I assume you won’t want to go back to the U.S.Seido on-site surgeon.”

“Guh, yeah, was that who put these in?” said Sano through a full mouth. “I mean, not like he didn’t do a good job or anything, but…” He shook his head. “I guess a yakuza would have a surgeon on their payroll just hanging around, wouldn’t they…” When Hajime nodded, he added, “No wonder that Percocet bottle looks so black-market.”

Hajime didn’t bother to mention that he’d double checked with Gains how quickly a qualified medical professional could be summoned before going through with his extreme measures; nor that he’d rubbed down the end of his sword, before touching Sano with it, with some chlorhexidine solution he hadn’t wanted to ask why Gains had on hand; nor did he wonder what Sano’s prior experience with black-market Percocet might be. He just reached out at a hand in the next convenient interval and touched the startled Sano’s forehead.

“You don’t feel feverish,” he said as he compared the temperature with his own.

“Nah,” said Sano, recovering quickly from his surprise. “Just in pain and kinda stupid.”

Hajime forbore from taking advantage of this opening, and continued his breakfast in silence.

Presently Sano asked, “You got any ketchup for this?”

With a skeptical look, Hajime gestured wordlessly toward the refrigerator in the next room.

“Oh, I see how it is,” said Sano as he rose. “Apology only goes so far.”

“Any moron who wants to ruin good cooking with ketchup can go get his own.”

“And yet I see you have ketchup here.” The grin was audible in Sano’s voice as he made what he believed was a clever follow-up to this remark: “What I haven’t seen yet is any good cooking.”

Hajime snorted faintly. Then he ignored the casual way Sano, upon returning to the table, picked a piece of sausage off his plate and offered it to Tokio. Then he ignored the laughing way Sano, having thus mortally offended Misao, dug out an even bigger piece for her by way of amends. It wasn’t improbable that each cat would find she didn’t like sausage very much anyway.

“That’s an interesting tattoo you have,” the exorcist said at last, thinking of the shirtless, muscular back that had just been turned on him as Sano had rummaged through the fridge.

“Oh!” Sano started, then winced as the motion must have hurt his injury. It was clear he’d completely forgotten about his tattoo, or at least never considered that Hajime would have seen it by now. At the same time, Hajime was picking up on some embarrassment on the topic strong enough to leak through the barriers in Sano’s head. “Uh, yeah…”

Pursuing this advantage, “You must really think you’re a badass,” Hajime said with a smirk.

“I am a badass,” replied Sano defiantly. “And you better have a new shirt for me.”

“Somehow I got the feeling that one you had on yesterday wasn’t exactly one of your favorites. Tokio, stop that.” Having, as Hajime had expected, deemed the sausage uneatable, she’d been trying to bury it, and the scraping of her paws on the wood floor was getting annoying. Neither the cat’s behavior nor Sano’s attempt at changing the subject, however, could keep Hajime from centering right back on the real topic at hand. “What in the world made you think it was a good idea to put the kanji for ‘evil’ permanently on your back? Especially that big?”

Shifting abashedly and looking at his plate, Sano explained. “Well, I’d just turned eighteen and gotten a pretty big tax return… I wanted to do something that would prove I was an adult and… an individual… and all that… I thought some kanji or other would be a good way to, you know, express my Japanese heritage or whatever… and this one looked cool… and plus it was kindof a rebellion against my parents, since they think only bad people get tattoos at all…”

Glancing up and finding Hajime still smirking at him, Sano frowned and went on in a more serious tone. “I can’t be sorry for the kind of person I was in the past, even if I did decide to write it really big on my back for some reason. You don’t get where you are without having been where you were.”

Impressed that Sano had made it through that last verbal tangle, Hajime withheld his remark that he didn’t believe the young man nearly as far removed from the rebellious teenager phase as Sano himself apparently did. He merely nodded his agreement with the totally just sentiment.

Now Sano was blushing faintly. “Plus it still looks cool,” he mumbled in conclusion. Following up a quick shoveling of the last of his breakfast into his mouth with a long gulp of water, he rose hastily and added, “I need to go take some more Percocet.”

Part 34


The first thing Sano had to say when he came back into the kitchen where Hajime was loading the dishwasher was, “Where’s Kenshin, by the way?” He’d been so distracted by Hajime himself that he hadn’t gotten around to asking. Which was funny, when Kenshin was so important, but, Sano supposed, not exactly unprecedented.

“He went back to his wife,” Hajime answered. “I told him we’d meet him there to help him talk to her as soon as you were feeling up to it.”

Sano would have remarked, ‘As soon as you find me a shirt to wear,’ but feared that would lead back to the topic of his tattoo. So instead he said, “I’m glad he’s doing OK now.”

“If you call being dead ‘doing OK.'”

“Better than being dead and breaded with someone else’s crazy anger.”

Hajime laughed.

“Did you get to talk to him? About the afterlife and everything, I mean? Find out all sorts of stuff that’ll make Aoshi totally jealous?”

Closing the dishwasher with what Sano thought was unnecessary firmness, Hajime looked annoyed. “Aoshi… I’m going to have to call him, aren’t I.”

“You did promise,” Sano reminded him, though not without sympathy. And then a much-belated thought struck him in response to the word ‘call.’ “Hang on,” he said with a frown of his own. “What time is it?” Starting to panic just a little, he spun completely around, searching the kitchen for a clock.

“9:24,” said Hajime, and then — Sano could sense and guess more than see that this was the case — watched in amused skepticism as Sano began frantically patting down his pockets and cursing.

Remembering eventually that he’d seen some of his personal effects on the nightstand, beside the clock that might have prevented this disaster if he’d taken note of it earlier, Sano hastily left the kitchen. Trying not to think about the necessity of Hajime’s having put his hands into Sano’s pants pockets in order to empty them of wallet, keys, and cell phone so Sano could sleep more easily, he ran to the nightstand and grabbed the last of these items.

It was dead, of course. These days, if he didn’t charge it overnight, that was always the case in the morning. He swore.

“You had a couple of texts yesterday,” Hajime volunteered from where he’d followed to the doorway of the bedroom and now was watching Sano’s frustrated efforts at getting his phone to turn on. “It seems like your excuses for not going out with your friends lately haven’t been very good.”

“No, they haven’t,” Sano agreed. “I’ve been saving all my good excuses and terrible lies for right now this very minute. Can I use your phone?”

With a smirk Hajime retrieved it from his pocket and handed it to Sano. Then he walked away, presumably to offer some privacy, and soon after Sano heard what sounded like the front door. Privacy was unlikely, however, as two cats had entered the room, taken a seat on the bed, and were now watching him with interest. He turned his back on them and, after the few seconds it took to dredge up a number he usually relied on programmed contacts to remember, called work.

No less than eight minutes and one somewhat disastrous climbing cat adventure later, he went back into the kitchen and returned the phone to its owner, who was now sorting through what must be yesterday’s mail. With a sigh Sano leaned against a nearby counter and said, “Well, I don’t think they’ll fire me. Sucks for them I know it’s more trouble to train another new maintenance guy than put up with this kind of bullshit from me… but the manager who’s in there right now is pissed.

“He wouldn’t believe I got in a huge fight and got stabbed and then I was too high on Percocet to call two hours early this morning like you’re supposed to. I’m going to shove this shoulder and all these stupid bruises in his face the next time I see him. God, and it’s going to suck working with this,” he added with a groan. “You know how much lifting I have to do? I can barely even move this arm yet.”

“The Seido doctor wanted to put it in a sling,” Hajime informed him, not looking up from the mail, “but I didn’t think you’d appreciate that.”

Sano thought about it, and decided he was probably right. He preferred even a slight amount of usability, painful though it was, to having that arm completely immobile. Work was still going to hurt for a while, though.

“This may help if you do get fired,” was Hajime’s next statement, handing Sano an envelope.

With what the exorcist was currently doing in mind, Sano was for an instant extremely confused; but then he saw that the envelope was entirely blank and realized that Hajime had not, in fact, randomly given Sano some of his own mail. He pulled the unsealed flap out from where it was tucked, and extracted the contents. Observing the back of what was clearly a check, he flipped the little piece of grey-blue paper around and examined it.

The elbow he’d propped against the counter (the left elbow, of course) slipped somehow, and he staggered sideways, then forward. It took a surprising amount of time and effort to catch himself and reach a balanced upright position again.

“Holy fuck!” he managed finally from right in the center of the kitchen. The vehemence of the exclamation startled Misao, who had already retreated to the doorway when he’d stumbled, into darting into the hall and out of sight.

“Gains wrote one for each of us,” explained Hajime, who was clearly entertained at Sano’s astonishment. “I did remind him what my actual rates are, but I didn’t try very hard to argue him down.”

“Holy fuck,” Sano said again, staring unblinking at the digits in the box. Just in case he might suspect that the amount was written incorrectly, there it was in letters on the adjacent line too. He knew that at some point his mind would start racing over all the possibilities that came with this much money, but at the moment it was mostly blank with shock.

“You’ll note it’s dated the 26th.” Hajime, finished with his mail, was now just looking at Sano as he held up a matching unlabeled envelope that presumably held his share of the absurd payoff of yesterday’s adventure. “Gains isn’t stupid. He warned me that if we played some kind of hypnotic trick on him to make him feel better just temporarily, it would be in our best interest not to attempt to cash these. But if the next week goes by and he hasn’t had any kind of relapse — which, of course, he won’t — the money will be there.”

Sano’s tone was still breathless with disbelief as he wondered, “You sure he wasn’t just completely lying? I mean, this is– shit! This is a fuckload of money here! And he wrote another one for you? Who has that kind of money?”

“He wasn’t lying.” Hajime shrugged. “Of course he might change his mind between now and next week, but he was sincere enough at the time. He was mentally exhausted and not guarding very well.”

“Oh?” Sano was interested, but he couldn’t look away from the check in his hand even as he spoke. “What else did you pick up from him?”

“Among other things, that Enishi knew he was going to die. Gains didn’t know how Enishi knew, but he was sure he did.” Now Hajime set down the envelope and walked across the room. Pausing at the door, he added, “It was another yakuza member who assassinated him, by the way. We both guessed that, but Gains’s thoughts confirmed it.”

Sano followed him almost without realizing what he did. But he forced himself to tear his eyes from the check in order to navigate the hallway, and in doing so was also able to participate a little better in the conversation. “So Enishi saw that coming, and that was probably why he did that shit to Kaoru and Kenshin just before.”

Hajime nodded in grim agreement as he stepped into his bedroom and went to open the closet.

“Do you think he knew Kenshin would become a ghost?”

“I don’t know,” Hajime said slowly. “If he was a diviner, he might have. And if he did, it makes his revenge less limited than we thought.”

“You know… I bet… I bet that wasn’t even the revenge he really wanted. Just the best he could do on short notice when he realized someone in the organization was going to kill him. I bet he had something a thousand times worse in mind, but he just couldn’t pull it off in the time he had left.”

“You may be right. Here.”

Between thinking about crazy Enishi and horrible revenge and the check that seemed to be burning hot in his hand, Sano had noticed neither what Hajime was doing in the closet nor what that closet contained — and the latter, he realized now, was something he really was quite interested in and should have looked into last night during his painful interludes of aimless snooping around. Now the time it had taken to work through his distractions, and to realize that what Hajime held out toward him was a shirt, had been long enough for the exorcist to have closed the closet door and prevented Sano’s seeing anything inside.

“Thanks,” said Sano a little blankly, accepting the offering. A moment passed before it even occurred to him to examine it, but, to his disappointment, the scenario that popped into his head at the same time — wherein Hajime had nothing but nice dressy stuff he didn’t want to give Sano, and therefore had been forced to dig back to the back of his closet where he kept all the embarrassing remnants of his youth like hair-band concert shirts, one of which Sano now held — did not appear to be playing out. It was merely a short-sleeved and rather casual-looking black button-up. He did wonder what kind of music Hajime liked, though.

“Soundtracks,” said Hajime succinctly, with twitching lips. In a bit of non sequitur he went on, “Oh, and Gains formally apologized for any offensive remarks he might have made under the influence of shade anger.”

As he sought the least painful method of pulling the right sleeve onto his arm and shoulder, Sano snorted. “Funny how that doesn’t make him less of a homophobic dick.”

“The truth about people comes out when they’re that angry. It’s one of the reasons red shades are such a problem; people don’t want that kind of truth coming out.”

Glad that Hajime had stepped away so Sano now had his back to him, and therefore the exorcist couldn’t see his concerned biting of lip at this statement, Sano recalled uncomfortably that he’d been even angrier than Gains on a few occasions in Hajime’s presence; he’d been stupid and irrational and violent, and he would really rather not have it known how much he suddenly feared Hajime thinking this was his true nature.

But Hajime either read the thought — he’d picked up that one about music just a bit ago, after all — or guessed it some other way. “Don’t worry,” he said. “All I’ve learned about you is that you’re an idiot. And I could have figured that out without any help.”

Deeply relieved, relaxing from a tenseness he hadn’t even realized he’d adopted — actually, that was probably what had given him away, and it also hurt his shoulder — Sano grinned. “You know, there’s no shade left to get me to work off… you don’t have to keep calling me an idiot.”

“It seems to have stuck, though. Everyone needs a nickname.”

The buttoning process was slow and painful with a right arm that would really rather not move at all, but Sano continued to grin anyway. Because a nickname, however rude, implied a continued acquaintance. Friendship, even. Maybe? He sought to test the theory: “I’ll have to come up with something just as nice to call you, then.”

And Hajime was definitely smiling as he replied, “Let me know when you decide on something.” He took two more steps away, apparently in preparation for leaving the room. “Your shoes are on the other side of the bed. Are you ready to go meet Kenshin?”

Still fumbling with buttons, Sano answered that he would be as soon as he’d had a chance to fix his hair, then listened to Hajime’s footfalls moving around the house. Some too-low-to-be-intelligible exchange with at least one of the cats in another room reminded him that he’d forgotten to bring up the matter of an apparent communication skill he’d never realized he had, but that could wait for another time. At the moment he was too busy for it — too busy reflecting that maybe things weren’t quite as hopeless as he’d been thinking they must be.

Part 35

Another triumph Sano appeared to be taking pleasure in that Hajime didn’t feel like thwarting was that this time they’d called ahead before showing up at Kaoru’s apartment. It didn’t really relate to not having done so the last time, nor make Hajime regret that circumstance, but Sano seemed to think it did.

When she opened the door to them — today without hesitation — Hajime noted that Kaoru looked every bit as weary as she had two days ago, but that in her dark-ringed eyes there was also the faintest trace of hope. He hadn’t told her that her husband was, as far as he knew, already here, but he had mentioned that he and Sano brought news as good as anything that could be expected out of this situation.

“Come in,” she said at once. “Sit down.”

The apartment was sparsely furnished and decorated, and Hajime speculated that Kaoru had lacked the energy or desire, when she’d moved, to set up all the things she’d brought from the house she’d shared with her husband. Additionally, the current state of cleanliness was not the best — Hajime, whose own housekeeping was more or less impeccable, couldn’t help but notice — and, once again, absence of will and energy in disaster’s wake was probably to blame. He wondered whether she was struggling financially as well; he remembered her saying she worked from home, but had she been in any fit mental state for that since Kenshin’s death?

Two other people were present in the small, drab living room: the red-haired child they’d seen from afar the other day at the park, and that child’s red-haired, undead father. Not that the redness of Kenshin’s hair was visible in his current state, but it was easy to imagine. He had apparently been watching his son play with a couple of tiny police cars beside the couch, but now they both looked over at Hajime and Sano. Up close, Hajime thought he could see a resemblance to both parents in the child’s face.

“Hey, Kenji,” Kaoru said, with a decent facade of joviality over the dullness in her voice, “I’m going to move you into your room to keep playing, OK?” And with impressive ease she scooped up both the three-year-old and his toys and carried them out of the room.

Hajime, as had been suggested, found a seat in the chair beside the sofa, but Sano had approached Kenshin with obvious interest. “Hey!” he was saying. “Good to finally see you at last!” He made a face at the redundancy of his statement, but did not amend it.

“Yes, it is,” agreed Kenshin warmly. “I would shake your hand, but…” Instead, he bowed in the Japanese style. “Ageku yoroshiku.” And once Sano had repeated that last word with a grin, Kenshin went on, “Now I can apologize for all the trouble I have given you in particular.”

Sano, who unsurprisingly didn’t appear to need to expend much effort to understand everything Kenshin said, started to lift his right hand, winced, and made his dismissive wave with the left instead. “Don’t worry about it.”

“And I can thank you for all your hard work.”

The lop-sided grin on Sano’s face said pretty clearly (to Hajime, at least), “You don’t have any idea how much trouble and hard work it’s actually been.” What he said aloud was, “No problem.” So apparently he did have some understanding of professionalism.

“I wanted to wait for you to wake up yesterday,” Kenshin said next, apologetically, “but I was too impatient to come back here.”

“I was a little loopy whenever I did wake up, so it’s probably better you didn’t.” Sano added at a mutter, “I’m not exactly super awake right now, actually…” Which was true: all earlier interaction with Hajime and apparent energy notwithstanding, Sano had been dozing in the car on the way over. How much he’d taken in of Hajime relating what Kenshin had told him last night could not be guessed.

Politely Kenshin said, “I hope you are feeling all right, though,” with a brief glance at the exorcist. Hajime had eventually been required to explain to the ghost what he’d been forced to do to Sano, and Kenshin had never seemed quite approving. Not that it was any of his business.

“Yeah… except for the one little thing–” and here Sano too threw a glance at Hajime, though his accusation was far more facetious than Kenshin’s– “I’m actually better than before. No offense, but I’m looking forward to getting back to school without taking you with me.”

Kenshin had a very gentle smile that was probably a manifestation of the kindness Kaoru had always liked so much about her husband, but that Hajime couldn’t help considering irritatingly wishy-washy.

Now Kaoru herself reappeared in the doorway, and seemed a little confused when she saw Sano standing in the middle of the living room with the manner of one involved in conversation but turned half away from the only other person she could see. When she realized what this must mean, her eyes flew to Kenshin (or, from her perspective, the empty air where she assumed he must be), and her hands flew simultaneously to her mouth.

“Could you let her know I’m here?” Kenshin requested quietly.

Resisting the urge to point out that Kaoru had clearly already realized this, Hajime let Sano do the honors.

“Yeah, he’s here,” the young man said, turning toward the woman. “And we can talk to him now. The shade’s all gone.”

Kaoru’s breathing abruptly became unsteady, as if she was fighting off sobs. Continuing to stare toward her husband, she finally let her hands sink from before her face, though they clasped and remained just in front of her neck in a classic dramatic pose. Hesitantly and with evident difficulty she began, “Kenshin, I… I don’t…” Then glancing at Sano she asked, “Can he hear me?”

Moving in his wife’s direction, Kenshin said her name in a pitying tone.

Hajime answered before Sano could. “He can. And I know there are things you need to say to each other, but I think it would be better if we told you what we’ve learned before you two become too emotional.”

Kaoru, glancing again at where Kenshin had been before he’d come closer to her, took a deep breath and nodded. Then, with reluctant movements, she walked over to the sofa and sat down; her husband went to hover by her elbow. This left the other half of the couch unoccupied, but Sano opted to mirror Kenshin and come stand near Hajime’s chair. The exorcist considered offering to trade places with him, to let Sano sit and rest while they talked, but, doubting Sano would really appreciate being treated like an invalid and thinking there wasn’t really time to waste right now annoying him deliberately, decided against it.

Kaoru was watching them both closely — not, Hajime thought, because she was the least bit interested in anything either of them might do for its own sake, but because she wanted to follow their gazes to determine where Kenshin was.

“Mrs. Himura,” Hajime began. “I spent a lot of time talking to your husband yesterday, but it was mostly about subjects that are professionally interesting to me. I saved the information Sano and I learned to tell you both at the same time.” When Kaoru nodded again, he went on. “The anger that was keeping us from talking to him, and that affected you so unpleasantly in January and February, was not your husband’s at all.”

“Did you think it was?” asked the startled Kenshin.

“Yeah,” Sano provided. “For a while we thought you were just really mad at her.”

Briefly everything became incoherent as Kaoru first wondered what Sano meant, then realized he’d been answering a question she hadn’t heard, then started crying about how it was only natural for Kenshin to be mad at her — and Kenshin, all the while, tried futilely to reassure her that he wasn’t and never had been angry. He kept trying to touch her, obviously with no great success.

Hajime eventually cut them both off by stating loudly, “We’ll get to all that in a minute. The person who actually left behind the angry shade when he died was Enishi Yukishiro.”

The name, rather than Hajime’s volume, was what really silenced the Himuras. Kenshin went stiff and wordless in an instant, clearly extremely startled; Kaoru looked blank.

“Since you obviously don’t know,” Hajime addressed Kaoru alone, “Enishi was the brother of Kenshin’s first wife.”

Kaoru blinked once, twice, then simply stared; the blankness hadn’t really gone. Kenshin’s eyes, on the other hand, slowly closed as he bowed his head in a movement that was almost a nod of understanding and had a touch of resignation to it as well. Under other circumstances, Hajime might have given Kenshin this news separately and confirmed how much he wanted shared with others before telling anyone else; but in this case, Hajime felt Kaoru had a right to the information regardless of Kenshin’s feelings on the subject.

“Enishi…” Kenshin murmured. “Enishi. I never thought I would hear from him again.”

“Kenshin’s…” Kaoru spoke in the tone of someone trying her hardest to remain completely rational and neutral, and she managed fairly well. “Kenshin’s first wife.”

“He never could forgive me for–” the ghost was recalling, but cut himself short in order to say regretfully, “I would have told you; I would have told you.”

Again Hajime jumped in before this could go any farther. “Kenshin’s first wife died ten years ago in a car accident, and her brother blamed Kenshin for it.”

“No reason to try to exonerate me,” said Kenshin quietly. “It was my fault. Enishi had an unhealthy obsession with his sister, yes, but his belief that I killed her was completely accurate.”

Hajime paused for a moment before, deciding this was relevant enough to transmit, he said, “Kenshin wants it understood that he agrees it was his fault.”

“Oh, Kenshin.” Kaoru was crying again, and Hajime thought it had something to do with the discovery that she wasn’t the only one in this marriage to have committed (or at least to consider herself guilty of) mariticide.

In conjunction with what he’d already known, Hajime relayed what he’d just found out: “Enishi was obsessed with his sister, and never could forgive Kenshin for her death. He was the one who organized the events that led to Kenshin’s death, and when Enishi himself died, it was his leftover anger that surrounded Kenshin and made him impossible to communicate with.”

“How did Enishi die?” Kenshin wondered.

“So the…” Kaoru said at the same moment. “The man who threatened my son… and made me murder my husband… is dead?”

“He was killed by another member of his criminal organization,” Hajime nodded.

Kaoru started to sob. She probably felt as if she was in the center of a web of murder and intrigue, and no better than anyone else tangled in it.

“I need to talk to her,” Kenshin said somewhat desperately. “Face to face. Sano, I think I can see how I might be able to, if you would do me this one last favor…”

What Hajime wanted to say, accusingly, was, “You didn’t mention yesterday that you’d figured out how to possess people.” But somehow what came out of his mouth instead, concernedly, was, “Sano’s in no condition to try that.” Which was odd, because he usually didn’t have that kind of intention/delivery mismatch.

It didn’t matter anyway; one look at Sano’s face told him that. The stubborn, reckless young man had even remarked once (well, thought loudly) that it would be cool to be able to say he’d been possessed. Now he stepped forward with, “Yeah, sure.”

“I am afraid,” Kenshin said levelly, glancing at Hajime as he responded to his protest, “that it would not work with you.”

So at least Hajime knew he’d been right in thinking that he and Kenshin, only barely acquainted though they were, didn’t really like each other. How much it would mean if this procedure ended in disaster he didn’t know, but at least he had that slight consolation to bolster him.

Part 36


Kenshin’s first wife.

The man that had threatened her son was dead.

Criminal organization.

Kaoru was so overcome with such a variety of emotions and accompanying ideas that trying to get hold of herself took most of her attention, and she didn’t mark what was going on in the room for several moments. Since she was unable in any case to detect her husband’s presence or hear his contributions to the conversation, it could be no surprise that she didn’t take much trouble to try to follow the latter once she had so much to think about.

But now Sano was approaching where she sat on the couch, and something had changed.

Little as she had wanted to believe these men, a combination of logic and intuition had dictated that she must… but there’d always been a part of her that had treated this as a sort of sick game she was playing to distract herself, and that wouldn’t have been surprised to find the whole thing an elaborate hoax (though it would simultaneously have been interested to discover what benefit the perpetrators could possibly derive from such a deception). Overall, though, she’d been taking this very seriously.

She hadn’t been at all prepared for certainty, though.

When Sano dropped to his knees in front of her and said, “My lady,” it didn’t matter that it was possible he was just a really good actor that had somehow found out the nickname her husband used to call her in private, and it didn’t matter that she barely knew Sano at all — she was certain, instantly freed from any doubt, that this was not Sano. The inflection of those two words, the expression on his face, especially the eyes — though nothing was physically altered, and though anyone that did know Sano would easily have recognized him, still everything had changed.

And that certainty burned away her tears, eradicated her discomposure, and left her with only the adrenaline calm of emergency. There was no time to waste dithering now.

“Kenshin,” she said.

He took her hands. “It is difficult to begin a conversation I know has to end with me leaving you, but I had to talk to you one more time.”

She didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t ask him not to go, though that was the desire of her heart; and the painful joy of talking to him again, of being granted this chance, this goodbye, was too great for expression.

“I would have told you about Tomoe, my first wife,” he went on. “That was not something I planned on hiding from you forever.”

That he was apologizing to her seemed farcical, under the circumstances, and she shook her head. This wasn’t how she’d envisioned a conversation like this going.

“And I want you to know that the reason I didn’t tell you was not that I didn’t trust you or didn’t want to share myself with you. It was because…” He too shook his head.

Even with as few words as he’d spoken thus far, Kaoru had already mostly lost track of the fact that it was actually Sano’s voice saying them, Sano’s head being shaken, Sano’s hands clasping hers. In a sense not precisely visual or aural but very definitely real, Sano had mostly melted away. It was like forgetting about the device she held during an intense phone conversation; the means of connection was irrelevant in the face of that connection.

“After my reckless driving killed Tomoe,” Kenshin finally went on, “I felt like a murderer. For the next few years, every time I looked in the mirror and saw the scars from that accident, I hated myself as much as Tomoe’s brother ever could hate me. But then I met you, and you looked at my scars and said, ‘Anyone who doesn’t think scars are beautiful has never survived any pain of their own and become stronger because of it.'”

Kaoru laughed weakly along with her husband as he added, “And I know you got that line from a movie, but what mattered to me was that you meant it. You always saw the good I could become and never worried about what I was before. You made me feel like it was all right to go on living and enjoying life even after what I had done. And I felt like I had to do whatever I could to leave behind the person I once was and try every single day to be more worthy of somehow having found love a second time.”

“I never thought you–” Kaoru paused with a faint smile and corrected herself. “I never would have thought you weren’t worthy of that. You’re a wonderful person, Kenshin — a good, great, kind, thoughtful, wonderful person.”

For her smile he returned that one of his that was so beautifully mellow and yet, as it often had been in life, faintly sad. “Thank you. You were always making me feel like that, like I could be better. I was more and more at peace with myself the longer I spent with you, and I decided that as soon as I reached a point where the past no longer hurt quite so much, I would tell you all about Tomoe and how much you had changed me. It was no secret, just… something I wasn’t quite ready to share yet.”

“I never worried about the things you didn’t tell me,” she assured him seriously. “I always knew you had your reasons. I’ve never not trusted you.”

“Then right now,” he replied just as seriously, “I need you to trust me one last time. You were not the one who killed me.”

She let out a breath that was almost another sob as the conversation shifted so abruptly from what Kenshin felt she might blame him for to just the opposite.

She could still feel the weight of the gun; she’d felt it every night in her dreams for months, and doubted it would ever really leave her hand. She could still remember with sickening precision the sight of him jerking and falling, and the ocean of self-loathing that had swept over her at that moment, soaked deep into her until she was saturated.

“There is no part of me that even begins to blame you for what you were forced to do. You protected Kenji; how could I possibly blame you for that? Don’t you think that, if I had known what was going on, I would still have gone down that alley and let it happen to keep you both safe?”

That was an angle from which she hadn’t considered things. Kenshin hadn’t had any choice in the matter, had been an unsuspecting and unprepared victim, but she’d never thought about what his choice might have been if he’d been offered one. Of course the fact that Kenshin would gladly lay down his life for his son did not change the fact that she’d taken his life without warning or consultation… but if the positions had been reversed… there was no question that she would unquestionably consent to die rather than see her son harmed.

Perhaps he recognized that, while this point had not been unproductive, it couldn’t really alter a state of mind, a depression of spirit, that was by now so deeply ingrained. He’d always excelled at detecting what she was thinking and feeling — which had undoubtedly made his inability to do so (or at least to make sense of what he saw) while she was being threatened all the more confusing and painful for him — and he must see now that the best he could do here was attempt to put her on the path to self-forgiveness and recovery. Unfortunately, Kaoru wasn’t sure that was a path her feet could ever find.

He probably recognized that doubt too, for he said in a tone of urgent sorrow and supplication, “Please, Kaoru. I know what it feels like to take everything away from someone you love. I know what murder feels like.”

Finally she managed to speak, to break in before he could come to his point. “But you only said ‘reckless driving!’ That’s not murder; that’s just a stupid mistake!”

“Just as much murder as killing someone to protect your son,” said Kenshin quietly. “I was reckless; you were afraid. Both of us might have had a different choice, but in the end, for both of us, someone still died. So I know how it feels. I know how it feels to blame yourself, and wonder what you could have done differently — and then blame yourself even more for not doing it differently — and to think about how the one person you might be able to talk this out with — the one person who could comfort you, the person you miss more than anything in the world, so much it physically hurts — that person is not there to talk it out with you because of something you did. I know how much it hurts, and how hopeless it is, and how tempted you are just to kill yourself and get rid of it all.

“I know how all that is, and I am begging you: let it go.”

She didn’t want to appear to be making light of such a serious subject, and she believed Kenshin would know that she really wasn’t, but she couldn’t help laughing a little, wretchedly, at the simplicity of his advice. “You said you couldn’t do that until–”

“Until I met someone stronger than I was,” he interrupted intensely. “And if there is anyone in the world I believe can recover from something like this all on her own, it’s you.”

Again she gave a miserable little laugh, both painfully touched at his opinion of her and continually daunted by the seeming impossibility of what he wanted her to do.

Hearing this, his smile took on an even more regretful look as he added pragmatically, “Though I think some therapy might help too.”

Now she laughed more straightforwardly, though there was still a bitter edge to it at the idea of attempting to get any therapist anywhere to believe what she’d been through.

“I hope you will do whatever you have to to be happy again,” he went on. “All you ever did during our time together was make me happy; I can’t stand to leave knowing that you can’t be happy yourself.”

Throughout this whole conversation, something huge and heavy had been building inside Kaoru, contributing to her constriction of throat and becoming steadily more painful. Now, at the word ‘leave’ she realized what it was: the awareness, increasingly sharp and unignorable, that he really had to leave, that these really were their last few moments together until… she didn’t know when or how or even if they would meet again. She supposed he didn’t either.

“I… I’ll try…” she choked out, and the panic that was growing along with the awareness sounded in her voice. “But, Kenshin, I–” She couldn’t stop his going; she couldn’t take back what had been done even if she did manage to stop blaming herself for it. So what was there to say? That she couldn’t continue without him? Perhaps she did feel like that at the moment, to some extent, but she simply couldn’t throw his statement of faith in her strength back in his face. So in the end there was nothing to say but, “I love you so much.”

“And I love you,” was his passionately quick reply, “more than I can even tell you. I have no words for how much I love you and how much you changed my life. But if I know you will try to be happy, I can go to wherever I’m supposed to go now and…” Gently releasing her hands, he spread his and smiled. “And rest in peace.”

As he stood, Sano’s height a brief but quickly-forgotten reminder that the body, at least, was not actually Kenshin’s, Kaoru felt the panic take hold of her so firmly that she couldn’t say a word as she too jumped unsteadily to her feet.

“I feel it pulling me again,” Kenshin said, looking briefly up and over his shoulder. “I wish I could say goodbye to Kenji, but there’s no time.”

Desperately she managed to say his name, but no more.

He shook his head. “I am sorry. I would never leave you or Kenji if had the choice, but Enishi did not give me that choice. Please tell Kenji how much his daddy loves him, always. I know he will be a good person, with you raising him.”

She flew at him, gripping, crushing, clutching as if somehow she could manually hold him in the world, keep him with her. And it didn’t matter that the height was off and incorrectly-shaped arms pulled her against an unfamiliar chest; she was embracing her husband, the man she’d fallen in love with and never stopped loving, the father of her child, the source of both the greatest happiness and the greatest pain she’d ever known, for the last time.

Gently he pushed her from him after only a moment — not long enough, not nearly long enough, but his strength was irresistible. “Thank you for everything you have done for me,” he said, so quietly it was almost a whisper, even as he backed slowly away from her. “And goodbye.”

Teeth gritted, breaths hissing through them in sobbing gasps, she tried to detect some sign of his actual departure, but there was none. Kenshin was gone. There was only Sano, whose face smoothed from Kenshin’s expression into blankness and whose frame shuddered and went limp as, his eyes drifting closed, he pitched forward toward the floor.

Part 37


“–probably find it interesting, at least, that he’s fainted twice in twenty-four hours.”

This latter half of a statement, from Hajime, was the first thing Sano heard upon awakening. But if Hajime thought the interest of having fainted twice in twenty-four hours was the first thing Sano would feel, he was dead wrong. Well, it was interesting — earlier this week he’d been reflecting on how he’d never actually seen someone faint, and now he’d done it twice himself — but not nearly as engrossing as the sensation of what couldn’t be anything but Hajime’s arms around him, Hajime’s body against his.

Just as he’d suspected, it was a hard, wiry body that could probably do with eating more pizza on a regular basis, and the arms had an unrelenting grip. Given that they were both more or less upright, Sano guessed that Hajime had caught him as he’d fallen, and he was impressed at their positioning: Hajime must have dragged Sano’s left arm across his own shoulders, leaned slightly, and pulled Sano against him with an arm around his ribcage — thus avoiding as best he could the wounded right shoulder while still taking most of Sano’s weight on himself.

Not that the shoulder wasn’t rather excruciating at the moment. It felt a little as if someone far more concerned with the extremely emotional conversation he was having than the state of the body he was borrowing had used that right arm and shoulder indiscriminately for a while. No real resentment could possibly arise from this, though; it was how things had to be. Honestly, Sano just wished he’d had a chance to say goodbye to Kenshin.

It was strange to think of Kenshin as gone after so long having him around but inaccessible. Sano had barely gotten any opportunity to talk to the guy between the nuisance stage and the farewell, and that recognition of Kenshin as an individual that he’d hoped to accomplish at some point had never really come to pass. During their brief exchange, he had felt as if this was someone he really would like to get to know, but it was too late now, and he couldn’t help regretting it.

Not exactly gently, but certainly with no deliberate roughness, Hajime was now setting him in the chair beside the sofa. Sano tried not to be quite so dead a weight as Hajime attempted to arrange him, but motor function was not available to him at the moment. It seemed the control of his body he’d relinquished to Kenshin was not something that would return on its own: he had to find it and actively take it up again. And the strangest thing about this state was that it didn’t particularly worry or even frustrate him; it was only a matter of reconnecting, which might be a little while but would definitely happen.

The feeling of breath on his face simultaneously galvanized him toward greater ability and froze him where he sat; but then Hajime drew away, out of contact with Sano entirely, leaving behind a racing heart that must be instrumental in a return to activity. Still, when control did begin to trickle back, it did so subtly enough that he barely noticed; it was as if he’d never been without it, and the open-eyed state he’d been wanting was achieved before he even knew he had the power to attain it.

Hajime stood nearby, watching Sano calmly. His expression was so calm, in fact, that for a moment Sano was a little annoyed. He’d fainted! Surely that merited some concern, especially given that he was still wounded. But then it occurred to him that his thoughts had become relatively coherent full minutes before he’d been able to move — which meant Hajime would have had evidence that Sano was all right long before Sano had been able to open his eyes and note the exorcist’s face. So maybe Hajime had worried at least a little. He’d apparently made a point of catching Sano before he could hit the floor, after all.

At this, Hajime rolled his eyes and turned away. There was just the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips, though.

Kaoru had returned to her seat on the sofa, whence she was staring at nothing with streaming eyes. She didn’t seem aware of her surroundings, and, though Sano guessed she must have spoken to Hajime at least once to have prompted his comment about Sano fainting twice, he doubted she really remembered there was anyone else in the room.

Her conversation with her husband was more like a dream than a proper memory to Sano, since being possessed had turned out to be a little like dreaming. Hell, compared to this process of recovering from being possessed, it had been downright lazy. He’d felt as if he was floating in a comfortable haze, not required to do or say or think anything, barely even aware of what his body was up to; and all the events around him he’d observed with the detachment of a spectator only slightly invested in the proceedings.

So now, in order to decide what he thought about that farewell discussion, he had to concentrate on it, run through it line by line and force it to solidify in his memory. And still it was a memory of someone else entirely; the fact that most of the words had been spoken with his mouth and many of the gestures given with his body didn’t really register.

He emerged from his musings at last with two very distinct impressions: first, that he was extremely glad Kaoru had made at least a little progress toward a better frame of mind; and, second, that he regretted more than ever not getting to know Kenshin. It seemed somewhat ironic and almost cruel that they’d been thrown together the way they had, inconveniencing Sano for so long during a very difficult time for Kenshin, but never been allowed to become friends and help each other through those difficulties as friends would.

Well, it wasn’t as if they’d been no help to each other. Sano had done his part getting rid of the shade that had been plaguing Kenshin, and Kenshin… well, if he’d never begun haunting Sano, the latter would never have felt the need to call up an exorcist, would he?

A third very distinct impression, actually, accompanied Sano out of the reverie about Kenshin’s departure: his shoulder hurt a fucking lot. So his first real movement was to reach into his pocket in search of a couple of pills he’d stashed there before leaving Hajime’s house. He was probably taking more of this stuff than he really should, but he could cut back on it later when he was free to lie around and not be possessed or stabbed by anyone.

He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting here regaining control of his body and pondering the friend he’d almost had, while Kaoru mirrored him on the couch trying to regain control of her emotions and pondering the husband she’d lost, but Hajime was stoically waiting for one or the other of them to say or do something.

I don’t think she’s going to be up to much more from us, Sano sent, and was surprised at how weary even his mental communication sounded. Evidently he wasn’t going to be up to much more either. Possession really took a lot out of you, probably even if you weren’t injured to begin with.

Hajime nodded slightly. Give her another minute, he replied. I have a few more things to tell her. Somewhat irritably he added, I would have said them earlier, but Kenshin just had to talk to her that second.

It didn’t appear, however, that an appropriate moment for reopening conversation with Kaoru was likely to arise any time soon; she was so deep in thought that her awareness of their presence actually seemed to be decreasing as minutes passed. Sano found it all too easy to lose track of the others around him in his own reverie about Kenshin and everything that had happened, so he could only imagine how profoundly embroiled in contemplation Kaoru must be.

Though Hajime was outwardly still and silent, waiting with apparently limitless patience for the right moment to resume the discussion, Sano was aware that he was increasingly impatient within. It came as no real surprise that Hajime was the type of person much more interested in the active pursuit stage (even if that active pursuit sometimes involved sitting around waiting for a phone call) than the emotional aftermath of a job like this. Of course he would not have given Kaoru any hint of this even had she been in a state to recognize hints, but he wanted to wrap this up.

Eventually, clearly with his desire to be gone and his unwillingness to harass the client both in mind, in a tone just a touch louder than he might normally have used to get the attention of someone in the same room, Hajime said, “Mrs. Himura.”

Though a portion of his attention had been on Hajime all along, still Sano started a little at the sound, which motion of course jarred his shoulder. But Kaoru turned only slowly toward the speaker and seemed to be emerging gradually and with some difficulty (and, in the end, no more than partially) from her contemplation. She looked at Hajime as if there was a whole world of things she might want to say, but eventually said nothing at all.

“We’ll leave you to your thoughts,” Hajime said, and again Sano believed he was aiming for a gentle tone he just didn’t quite have the capacity for. “But there are a few more things you need to hear before we go.”

She nodded almost absently; her current level of attention was probably the best they were going to get from her right now.

“The criminal organization your husband’s brother-in-law was the head of was U.S.Seido, a company you’ve probably heard of, and we got most of our information from a man named Gains, who was Enishi’s secretary. I would have preferred not to mention you specifically, but I wanted to know what your status with them is right now. Gains assured me that whatever revenge Enishi was working on against your family was being conducted with his personal resources, not the company’s, and that he was using independent agents not directly employed by U.S.Seido. You’ll have to decide how safe you feel knowing there are probably still a few people who were working for Enishi who know what really happened last year, but as far as the organization is concerned, you and your son are not targets and not being watched.”

Kaoru nodded slowly, her expression blank. Sano guessed this was more than she could process right now, and its meaning and implications would not sink in until later. Probably much later.

At that moment there issued from the hallway that led from this room the command, “Stop making mommy cry!”

All eyes turned that direction, toward where a little red-headed boy stood hugging the wall looking simultaneously rebellious and somewhat nervous. And as Sano gazed at the son Kenshin hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to and saw this courageous concern for the mother’s feelings even at so young an age, he couldn’t help thinking that Kenshin had been right: Kenji was sure to be a good person. At the very least, he might be able to break the pattern of murder and guilt his parents had established.

Kaoru had held out her arms to her defensive child, who had gone willingly to sit on her lap and be held tightly by her but continued to stare defiance at the two men he perceived as the current cause of his mother’s sorrow. It was about time to leave.

“I… I don’t know what to say,” Kaoru murmured, half into her son’s hair, as Sano stood slowly from the chair and leaned on it for balance.

“Don’t try,” Hajime advised. This seemed somewhat rude, but it was also probably the best option for her at the moment.

Still, Sano felt the need to wish her a friendlier goodbye. “You have my number if you need to talk or anything,” he said, perhaps a little awkwardly. Meeting the angry gaze of Kenji still on his mother’s lap, Sano was prompted, against pretty much every feeling on every side of this situation, to smile. “Good luck,” he added before turning and following Hajime out of the apartment.

Part 38


“So what do you think?” Sano had sunk into the passenger seat of Hajime’s car with a sigh and leaned limply against the headrest before asking this question.

Knowing that the latter was intended as, “What do you think about Kaoru’s prospects for health and happiness?” Hajime made a brief shake of the head precursor to looking behind him in order to back out of the parking space. “It’s not promising.”

“You think so?” Evidently Sano was surprised at Hajime’s pessimism, but didn’t have the energy to express it at greater length.

“There probably isn’t a single part of her life that hasn’t been affected by this experience. Her entire life has essentially been broken.”

“You don’t think she can fix it?”

“At best she’ll end up living for her son. It won’t be her own life anymore.”

“I think… you’re wrong. I mean, it makes sense. But I think she’ll be OK.” And there it was again: that unaccountable surety Hajime had heard from Sano on a few previous occasions, as if Sano was privy to more information than Hajime, as if Sano was able to know rather than guess. As if Sano was divining without being aware of it. And when he added, “Anyway I hope she will,” the statement, rather than seeming, as it might have, a retreat from that certainty, seemed only a general expression of good will not at all incompatible with the absoluteness of the previous. Hajime could give no reply but a slight nod.

Tired and pained though he was, Sano’s mind was full and active. Perhaps a little too active, in fact; he was obviously thinking and feeling a number of things at once, which Hajime thought was sure to wear him out even faster. He needed to lie down for a while, sleep if possible; removal from Hajime’s presence might be beneficial as well. Since Hajime wasn’t going to dump him at home without his Percocet, however, he was currently heading back to his own house to retrieve it.

At the moment Sano was thinking about Kenshin, and feeling guilty for being so pleased that Kenshin was no longer haunting him. Now he could freely do all sorts of things he’d been less than entirely thrilled about performing for an audience (even if Kenshin had rarely been conscious of what Sano was up to), and get back to a daily life that didn’t involve perpetual rage. But of course he still found the circumstances of Kenshin’s death last year horrendous, pitied Kaoru profoundly, was glad he’d been able to help in any way, and wasn’t sure to what extent he should allow himself to rejoice that the ghost was gone.

Between Hajime and Kenshin there had been immediate disliking, but Sano’s experience with the dead man had been just the opposite. And that fact, along with the knowledge that Kenshin had been haunting him specifically because he’d recognized the potential for serious friendship between them, led Sano to feel a forlorn regret that was unexpectedly intense.

Sano hated the thought that he’d entirely missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Kenshin, that there was nothing he could do about it now and might never have been… and he anticipated an even stronger and deeper regret if, so close on the heels of that disappointment, he likewise missed the opportunity to make any kind of meaningful connection with Hajime. Opportunities seemed to be slipping from his grasp right and left.

Though Sano hadn’t said any of this aloud, it was entirely possible he’d wanted Hajime to hear it all. Either that or he’d been having a long moment of ineptitude attempting to keep his thoughts to himself. There were still times when it almost seemed as if Sano was incapable of that, though that assumption would not have been strictly accurate.

Sano had been improving on guarding his thoughts — and at a rate Hajime would have considered impossible for someone not actively training as a communicator — but somehow Hajime had also been adapting to Sano’s shields even as Sano had been learning to erect them. They’d been growing together, specifically alongside each other. Which meant that Hajime still picked up on as much of the surface level of Sano’s brain as he ever had. Perhaps more.

But this latest thought was nothing Hajime could respond to at the moment. Because he still wasn’t sure yet what he was going to do about Sano. If they became friends, would Sano’s continual attempts to become something more irritate Hajime too much? Would Hajime’s continual evasion of those attempts hurt Sano too much? Would it be a good idea to proceed in spite of that danger? Should Hajime plainly state that his interests lay in friendship alone, or just hope that Sano’s romantic attachment would fade in time if nothing was said? Or perhaps not risk continuing the acquaintance at all? But he wanted

This social nonsense was the type of thing he just didn’t have time for. Was it any wonder he lived with only non-human roommates five thousand miles from everyone he’d grown up with?

What really bothered him was that he wasn’t usually this indecisive. Was the question of whether or not to be Sano’s friend really so important, so potentially life-altering, that he could still be dwelling on it after so long, could still have made so little significant progress in reaching a solution to the problem?

Whether or not he’d meant to project his latest set of thoughts, Sano had obviously been using his wordlessness as a period of rest for a more involved verbal conversation, and now as they pulled into Hajime’s driveway he sat up straighter and opened his eyes. But Hajime wasn’t entirely certain he wanted to have the conversation Sano was undoubtedly planning.

“Are we, um…” Pausing, Sano cleared his throat. From his look toward the house and back, it would have been easy to assume he was merely wondering what their plans for right now might be, and that he’d left most of the mundane question unspoken out of simple weariness.

Hajime could not assume. But he pretended to. “You wait here,” he said, just as if he weren’t interrupting at a possibly crucial moment and had no idea Sano had been about to (at least attempt to) say something significant. “I’ll be right back.”

Inside, he first threatened Misao with a return of the spray-bottle if she didn’t stay off the kitchen counters, then ignored her subsequent noisy questions about where Sano was and when he would be coming back. She’d really taken a liking to Sano, apparently. It was a shame she wasn’t the only one.

The young man looked as if he was ready for fresh start at his intended question when Hajime returned to the car, and if Hajime had managed to make up his unusually untidy mind he might have allowed it. As it was, he handed over the green bottle he’d retrieved from his nightstand and asked immediately, “Did you leave anything else in my house?” And he really hadn’t intended to sound cold or deliberately uninviting with this totally legitimate question, but apparently his intentions didn’t matter much.

“No, I don’t think so.” This somewhat defeated-sounding pronouncement from Sano was the last thing either of them said for a while.

The earlier reflections must indeed have been meant for Hajime to hear, for the walls were up full force now and very little was getting through. As they headed back to the Asian district and drew closer and closer to Sano’s apartment, the only mental voice Hajime was hearing was the one in his own brain urging him to invite Sano out to lunch between classes on Monday. Or something. Anything.

But what if Sano thought he meant it as a date?

Would even that really be so bad?

The parking space beside Sano’s car was available as it had been the other day, and Hajime pulled into it in continued silence. He hesitated, considering turning off the car, but thought better of the message that might send.

“I’ll probably sleep all afternoon,” was Sano’s muttered introduction to his real goodbye.

“Probably a good idea,” Hajime replied.

“So I guess…” When Hajime turned a little reluctantly to face him, Sano went on very seriously. “Thanks for everything.” He smiled weakly as he said, “Even stabbing me. I mean, this has all really been a huge big deal. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t helped.”

“Neither do I,” Hajime smirked.

Sano gave a faint laugh at the insulting implication, but didn’t specifically respond to it. Instead he said, “I feel less bad about not paying you since Gains gave us both money, but you didn’t know that was going to happen… so… thanks for the free help.”

“It would have been worth it even without the money, since I had the chance to talk to a ghost.”

This statement, while perfectly true, seemed to serve as serious discouragement to Sano. Hajime was fairly sure this had all been leading up to another attempt at some suggestion regarding the future of their acquaintance, but now Sano’s usual straightforwardness appeared to have momentarily abandoned him. Funny how that quality and Hajime’s decisiveness both seemed in abeyance when it came to this one particular matter…

“Try not to overdose on that Percocet,” Hajime said after what could only be called an awkward silence.

Sano forced a laugh. “Guess that depends on how much it hurts.” And with this ambiguous remark he reached for the door.

Once standing on the pavement, he bent slightly and looked back into the car just as he had the last time Hajime had dropped him off here. And just like last time, Sano didn’t quite seem to know what to say. His brows lowered a trifle, as with determination, and he opened his mouth… and Hajime, almost without thinking, shot down his last attempt.

“Thank you for an interesting professional experience.” It felt like a defensive move, a sort of reflex against the idea of even discussing a potential romantic relationship.

“Yeah,” said Sano dully. “Sure.” He stood straight again so that his face was hidden as he added, “See you around.” And he closed the door without further ado and began walking away.

As this movement was being conducted rather slowly, and as Hajime thought the awkwardness would not be improved by his sitting here watching Sano’s long path toward the building, the exorcist put his car in reverse after only a few moments and vacated the parking space. He threw one last look at Sano’s retreating figure before leaving the lot and probably leaving Sano to think, despite the optimistic wording of his goodbye, that they would never meet again.

Whether or not that was true, Hajime simply didn’t know yet.

Part 39


On a Friday afternoon like most Friday afternoons — most Friday afternoons before Kenshin, that is — just as Sano was headed out of class, as usual, toward the bus stop, already pondering what he was going to have for lunch and whether homework or the playing of video games was likely to come first today, the phone he’d just barely powered back on started to ring.

Looking at the number, Sano frowned. It seemed familiar, but wasn’t one of his contacts, nor something he immediately recognized. He didn’t think he had any bills overdue, so this probably wasn’t anyone he would be too annoyed talking to. So he went ahead and answered.

“Sano?”

It took him a second to recognize the voice, not only because he’d never talked to her on the phone before but because something was different in her tone.

“Kaoru?”

“Yeah. Hi.” She sounded simultaneously less hopelessly miserable than every time he’d been around her, and a lot more hesitant and uncertain. She probably thought he would think her weird for calling almost a week after everything had ended.

“Hi,” he echoed in immediate concern and desire to put her at ease. “How are you doing?”

“As good as you could expect… maybe a little better than before. I’m calling because I was hoping I could… talk to you…”

“Yeah, of course,” he assured her earnestly.

“Have you talk to me, mostly, actually. I know I was a little… out of it… when you guys left on Saturday. I was hoping you would tell me everything that happened that I couldn’t really listen to before.”

“Yeah, sure.” He looked around. Not about to be That Guy having a phone conversation during his entire bus ride — especially a conversation about the ghost that had been haunting him and the mob secretary he’d met during the course of dealing with it — he made for a nearby bench. As he threw down his backpack he began, “Actually a lot of the stuff you’ll want to hear I only got from Hajime; I didn’t see it myself. But I’ll try to make it interesting anyway.”

“OK.” She sounded grateful and just the tiniest bit amused. Which was a very good sign, as Sano had never heard even that tiniest bit from her before.

He gave her all the details of the visit to Gains at the U.S.Seido headquarters, including what had happened after he’d passed out; this led to an explanation of how he and Hajime had come to investigate that seemingly very random avenue in the first place, which led to a hasty reassurance about what the police did and didn’t know, including, to the best of Sano’s ability, a word-for-word imitation of what Hajime had said to Chou about Kenshin’s death. He also relayed much of what Hajime had told him about his discussion with Kenshin, omitting only the parts that would be of interest solely to someone with a magical talent for interacting with the dead. This all took a while, and his phone had done that heating-up thing it sometimes did on lengthy calls before he was finished.

When he concluded, “And I’m pretty sure that’s everything that happened that you’d want to know,” she gave a drawn-out sigh. He was also pretty sure she’d been crying through at least part of what he’d had to say.

Now she said, “Thank you so much. This has all been really strange and horrible for me, and I really appreciate you talking to me about it.”

“Any time,” he replied. And to underline his sincerity he added, “And I mean that. I don’t know how much it’s likely to help, but, seriously, call me whenever you want to talk.” After all, though he hadn’t managed to get to know Kenshin in time to be his friend, there was no reason he couldn’t get to know Kaoru and be hers.

“Thank you,” she said again. “I think I’ll probably have to, some time.”

“‘Have to?'” he echoed. “I’m not that bad to talk to!”

And without a sour edge to it for the first time he’d heard, she laughed. “No, sorry,” she said. “It’s just… I may need a lot of talking before…”

“Yeah, definitely,” he agreed. “I totally understand.” Just as he had at her apartment last week, he felt a little awkward trying to offer the dubious service of his conversation to someone with as long and hard an upward road as she had before her, but he didn’t shrink from the task. “Seriously, call me any time.”

She thanked him yet again, and added, “And say thank you to your friend for me, too, would you? I have his card still, but… I don’t know… it seemed like…”

“He’s a lot more professional than me?” Sano tried to keep the bitterness of the last five days out of his tone.

“Well, he was polite and everything, but… yeah, professional’s a good word. It was all just work to him; it seemed like you cared more.”

This was such a pricklingly accurate summary that Sano could barely confirm it and promise that he would, nevertheless, relay her thanks to Hajime. If he ever happened to talk to him again.

“I’ll let you go,” she said next. “Thanks again.”

“No problem at all.”

When the call had ended and Sano sat staring unseeingly at the phone he didn’t want to put back in his pocket until it had cooled down a bit, he found himself in an ambivalent mood. This conversation, he felt, had been a very good thing; Kaoru now had all the information available, which would surely help in her recovery — not to mention, for what it was worth, the awareness that Sano was there for her whenever she needed him. And she even seemed to be doing a little better than the last time he’d seen her. This was all calculated to please him… but then, naturally during the course of such a conversation, Hajime had come up, and thinking about Hajime right now was not calculated to please. Not that Sano hadn’t been doing it all week; but he’d at least been free of it (mostly) for the last several hours.

That Hajime could possibly be ignorant of Sano’s interest in him, Sano could in no way bring himself to believe. Therefore, the fact that he’d heard nothing from the man since their awkward goodbye on Saturday could only be, he thought, an indication of Hajime’s specific disinterest. Which shouldn’t be even the tiniest bit surprising: that was what Sano had believed of him pretty much the entire time. As Kaoru had said, it was all just work to him.

But they hadn’t known each other very long… how could Hajime dismiss him with so much surety after only a week’s acquaintance? Of course that same limited time period meant Sano didn’t know that it wasn’t just as likely things really wouldn’t ever work between them, but that was no reason not to give it a try! All Sano wanted was a chance; was that too much to ask?

Or, if Hajime really was dead-set against the idea — didn’t like men, for example (which, Sano had to admit, would be a pretty solid reason to dismiss him with so much surety) — he damn well could have said something to that effect.

Not that Sano had actually said anything. He’d been on the verge of doing so a number of times, but hadn’t ever gotten the words out. Somehow the casual statement of interest he’d never had a hard time giving anyone else had just been really difficult with this guy that was comradely one minute and all business the next. And now he hadn’t heard from him for six days. It seemed that ship had sailed.

And that was when the phone in his hand began to play the mournfully angry song his pique halfway through the week had authorized him to purchase as a ringtone for Hajime’s number.

His heart-rate seemed instantly to double and time simultaneously to slow as the name appeared on the screen just when he’d convinced himself that would never happen again. His fingers fumbled unbearably across the keys, nearly initiating a couple of different ‘reject call’ options by accident on the way to answering. And his “Hello?” definitely came out a good deal more quiet and hoarse than he could have wished.

“You don’t have call waiting.” Still no actual greeting. Sano had never decided whether or not he thought that was a good sign, but at least nothing had changed.

“Yeah,” he found himself explaining at unnecessary length, “for some reason, my crappy service charges, like, two dollars extra a month for that. Same with call forwarding and voicemail. You’d think those would all be basic features, but I guess if they can make some extra money on ’em, why not?”

“You need a new provider.”

“I’ll think about that as soon as this phone dies. It’s still got a couple months left.”

“You should be able to afford a new one sooner than that; it’s the 26th.”

“Oh, yeah, it is! Shit!” Sano wasn’t sure whether he was more astonished or amused to find that, in light of his annoyed disappointment about Hajime, he’d actually managed to forget the massive check that was currently sitting on his kitchen counter.

“So you need to cash a check and see a doctor,” Hajime said, and it was clear that amusement was his foremost reaction. “I thought you might want a ride.”

Well, so far, so professional — both of those things had to do with the ordeal last week, and the offer of a ride was probably merely another part of Hajime’s unspoken apology for stabbing Sano in the shoulder. Sano wasn’t going to tell him just yet that he’d pulled the stitches out himself because they’d become annoying, and that therefore Hajime didn’t need to pay any doctor to do it for him. Though it probably would have hurt less if he had.

“So you called to offer to drive me around,” Sano said probingly.

“That, and ask if you wanted to assist in a job I’m working on.”

Sano bit back the immediate affirmative that sprang into his throat, and asked instead, “What kind of job?”

“People shouldn’t move into a house where someone has recently died without having the place checked out first,” Hajime remarked, sounding a little irritated despite the fact that such people kept him in business. “I took care of the red shade in the house, but one of the children had already internalized enough of it to cause some serious problems.”

“And you don’t want to stab the kid,” Sano grinned.

“Not particularly. There’s a share of the fee in it for you, if you’re interested.”

‘Interested’ was a bit of an understatement. Just the thought of doing that kind of real, official work in the field of necrovisual magic with Hajime made Sano almost giddy. He remembered Hajime referring to him as his partner a week ago and the rush that had given him at the time… and now Hajime was essentially asking Sano to fulfill that function. Either that or ‘using a specialist’ as he’d also mentioned once in Sano’s hearing. In any case, it was money and work he didn’t hate and recognition of his abilities and time spent with Hajime all in one. Of course he was interested.

On the other hand, the offer, obviously even more than the ones that had preceded it, still fell very much in the realm of the professional. There was no saying that Hajime would have called him, that Sano would ever have heard from him again, if there hadn’t been last week’s business to clean up and this week’s business to pursue. This was all about business, and that was a huge puncture in Sano’s ballooning glee.

But that didn’t mean he was going to make the same mistake twice. Not after he’d spent the entire week wondering whether he should call Hajime to say what he hadn’t managed to say on Saturday. The level of discouragement Hajime had doled out — deliberately or otherwise Sano had never been able to decide — had made it pretty evident that a direct statement such as, “I’d kinda really like to make out with you,” was probably not a good idea… but now that this line was open, he wasn’t going to hang up until he’d at least said something.

“You know a share of the fee’s not all I want, right?” And maybe even that was too direct, but he’d said it now.

“There may be some pizza and beer in it for you as well,” Hajime replied.

It wasn’t just the words, but their immediacy — Hajime’s complete lack of hesitation in speaking them — that flooded Sano with a hot, energizing excitement and happiness. This seemed a pretty clear indication that Hajime was not averse to giving Sano a chance at winning him over — or, at the very least, that he would be happy to spend time with him. Because there was no promise of a ghost now. Nothing professional. Just Sano. Hajime had already specifically established, in fact, that Sano was not even a little bit professional.

“And anime?” Sano didn’t bother trying to keep his emotions out of his voice.

There was a hidden grin in Hajime’s reply, “That depends on what I’m in the mood for. It may be Law and Order.”

“I can handle that. And what about lunch right now?” With this he was pushing just for the sake of pushing.

“You are a worthless freeloader,” Hajime declared. “And I’ve already had lunch.”

“I can’t absorb shade on an empty stomach!”

“We’ll find you a drive-thru on the way to the clients’ house.” It didn’t even sound as if Hajime was giving in, merely adjusting his plans as required.

The ecstatic Sano would have adored to continue this conversation right up until the moment Hajime actually appeared in the flesh in front of him, but the beeping that had arisen in his ear forced him to say, “Hey, my phone’s about to die. You know how to get to the school?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I’m in front of the Statton Building.”

“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“My pants have big red chains on them that match my hair today; you can’t miss me.”

“Idiot.” And Hajime hung up.

Sano squeezed his phone and shook it in a gesture of triumph and delight, laughing simultaneously under the same influence. A chance was what he’d wanted, and a chance, it appeared, was what he was getting. Well, he had wanted, and still wanted, more than that, but a chance was all he’d thought it totally reasonable to ask for. And now he had it: proof that this wasn’t actually hopeless, and an opportunity that he was certainly going to make the most of. That exorcist was going to find Sano capable of haunting just as tenaciously as any ghost.

Huge happy smile undiminished, Sano nudged his backpack onto the ground, lay down onto the cool bench with one arm behind his head, turned his gaze up into the cloudless blue of the sky, and waited for Hajime.



<<38

Plastic was written, along with its first follow-up, Reciprocity, when I started toying with some ideas. There had long been a few things I’d wanted to write about Saitou and Sano: asexual Saitou and how that would clash with a very sexual Sano; Saitou as a paranormal investigator helping Sano out of a supernatural difficulty; Saitou owning/taking care of cats Tokio and Misao (familiars or otherwise); and police procedural featuring (you guessed it) Saitou. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt I could combine all these elements (with some tweaking) in a story set in the same world as Plastic, which at that time, I believe, did not have a title.

It proved to fit remarkably well, rounding out the magical system I had created and dropping a few little hints that the stories took place in the same city (which is essentially a fictionalized version of San Jose, Californa). It also provided crucial concepts that helped me shape the plot of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, which was, back when I wrote it, the first instance of crossover between the Gundam Wing characters and the Rurouni Kenshin characters.

On that topic, I find it interesting that, while I strove to include every possible GW character I could in Plastic, Seeing Red has only the RK characters necessary for its precise story. I’ve been honing over many years the art of stripping Saitou & Sano fics down to as close to “only Saitou and Sano fics” as they can get, and this carried over even into this broader universe where the disposition of many other characters must be of interest.

I didn’t manage to hook Saitou and Sano up in this one, though, which somewhat surprised me at the time. The problem was simply that this Saitou believes himself to be aromantic as well as asexual. He is, in fact, panromantic, but not aware of that for a while, which makes the anticipated clash I mentioned above all the more complicated and fraught when it comes.

Saitou as paranormal investigator also didn’t work out exactly as I’d daydreamed. I had envisioned him as being a more general-purpose investigator into supernatural events, but needed to give him a far more specific job in order to fit him into this world of semi-secret magic. I’m still pretty tickled by the idea of this pretty harsh guy with a sword showing up to take care of invisible energies in someone’s new house XD

Unlike the rest of the points, the cats turned out very precisely what I had imagined, and I had a ton of fun writing them.

And as for the police procedural… well, this story’s procedure isn’t nearly as intensive as in a police investigation, but I still think I managed to produce a decent mystery and the steps it takes to solve it. And the good news is that I haven’t checked any of these things (except maybe the cats) off my list of potentials for future stories, so I may write an honest-to-goodness police mystery AU, with Saitou at the helm, one of these days.

I’m excessively attached to this story. I think it’s quite good and very interesting, and I love the unique dynamic it has between Saitou and Sano. You would think, then, that I’d be quicker with the big sequel that will smooth out their relationship and get them where they need to be! But in any case, I’ve rated this .

Helpless

Helpless

It was stupid and crazy and he knew it. After a day of chaos and a night of worry and little rest, he was barely cleaned and patched up, and decidedly exhausted. Beyond that, he had to evade a doctor, several concerned friends, and a house full of fucking onmitsu just to get to the door. And that was all before taking into account his terrible sense of direction. But despite everything, here he was sneaking from the half-ruined Aoiya, pockets stuffed with spare bandages, heading out of town.

There wasn’t much he could do to deny the reasons for this foolishness, but he didn’t really want to think about it, so he concentrated on walking, on the physical pain, on not thinking about too much of anything. One foot in front of the other, don’t stumble, try to keep to a relatively straight line.

But a burning image was seared across the insides of his eyelids every time he blinked, and an unusually ambiguous rage tore at his heart. He might have identified that anger if he’d wanted to; might have associated it with memories, with missed opportunities — none of them from too long ago, yet all bearing the mental stamp of circumstances deliberately distanced from associated recollection because they were too painful to consider.

He would have stayed if he’d been the only one, or even if Kenshin hadn’t needed him quite so desperately.

Walking. Physical pain. Not thinking about anything. Not getting lost.

Smoke rose from the site; it was visible from the edge of town, but soon hidden again by trees. His progress was slow, and he found himself pushing, frustrated, for greater speed, as if there were something up there that couldn’t wait. As if there were anything up there at all.

He couldn’t be sure, after not too long, that this was the right direction, but he kept moving. The sun was high and the path bright between the trees’ shadows: the perfect day for a nap, something Sano was certainly in a condition to appreciate… but instead here he was plodding up a mountain, probably killing himself, looking for…

…nothing.

Eventually he lost track of how long he’d been walking; awareness of a lot of things was fading, actually, and it was perhaps this general dimness that prompted the worried voice in the back of his head that vaguely suggested he stop. Or perhaps it was something else. For, slowing to a standstill as he rounded a bend, he raised his gaze from where it had preceded his footsteps along the ground and saw before him, among the mountain foliage and the imaginary gloom created by his own weakness, what he took at first to be a hallucination. For a while he merely stared. It was almost as if he’d been expecting it, for there was no surprise at the sight… no surprise, only a slow, magnificent fury.

How could he make an ambiguous exit like that and then get out just fine? Finally play the hero and then just walk away??

“Asshole,” Sano growled. Everything about Saitou was so maddening, from the indifferent expression to the slow way he stood straight from the tree he’d been leaning against as if Sano was barely worth his attention, that the young man could not restrain himself. He would show that arrogant bastard…

Saitou twisted so Sano’s arm passed over his shoulder, and unexpectedly met him chest to chest, his weight driving them both back a pace. Thus Sano’s fist barely brushed the bark of the tree, and his eyes went wide. If Saitou had answered his attack any other way, a very solid trunk would have met the very sensitive hand about which Sano himself had, in the ire of the moment, almost forgotten.

“I doubt that’s the way you want to fight me,” Saitou murmured.

Sano could find no answer. This guy knew everything; he’d been unconscious when Shishio had crushed Sano’s hand, yet had noticed at some point and now had the presence of mind to spare Sano further injury.

Also, he was still pressed against Sano for some reason, seeming almost limp.

“What the hell are you doing?” demanded Sano, nonplussed.

“Didn’t you know?” Saitou replied in what was barely an echo of his usual tone. “This is my new hobby.”

This was the first intimation that Saitou might not be fine, and at that thought Sano’s rage drained instantly away. Returning common sense seconded the supposition: Saitou had been wounded in the fortress; getting out of the fortress, through that inferno, couldn’t have improved his condition. In a movement almost panicky, arms rose to clutch at Saitou’s form. Now that Sano was paying attention, he could smell charred clothing and flesh, and he thought something wet was soaking through Saitou’s jacket onto his chest. For half a moment he had no idea what to do.

“Make yourself useful, ahou,” Saitou commanded faintly.

Annoyance restored Sano’s presence of mind. “I’m waiting to see if you’re gonna die before I waste my time on you,” he retorted, though his voice sounded nearly as weak as Saitou’s. Honestly, just supporting the other man’s weight as well as his own was almost more than he could handle. Trying to remember how far back along his path lay the nearest potential place of rest and medical care was futile; he could barely remember how far he’d come from the city, let alone what he’d passed along the way. “How far can you walk?” he asked doubtfully.

“If I could still walk, do you really think I’d be leaning on you?” Saitou’s sarcasm was distinctly blunted under these circumstances.

Sano snorted. “Fine,” he muttered, looking around for a decent place to… what? Make camp? Play doctor? Preferably not in the middle of the path.

Eventually he chose a somewhat clear spot among the trees to their left and helped Saitou to the ground. The officer really didn’t look good. Beyond merely wondering, Sano was baffled as to why he hadn’t noticed at first. His emotional response at finding Saitou still alive at all might have been some explanation — if he wanted to think about that.

Before he could do anything else, he had to take some rest himself. Both of his hands hurt desperately, the pain in his skull was steadily growing again, and his entire body ached. He felt he could sleep for a year — and probably would, forgetting Saitou and everything else in the world, if he lay down. But, though there were times when it seemed forgetting Saitou would make his life a good deal easier, that didn’t strike him as the best plan at the moment. So he leaned against a tree and drew an arm across his face, closing his eyes in search of comfortable darkness.

His breathing, which he hadn’t realized was so uneven, became gradually more regular, and the sounds of the wooded mountain were soothing — until he felt himself tilting, succumbing to gravity, falling asleep on his feet. Straightening, dropping his protective arm, he opened his eyes to the somewhat jarring day. Surprisingly, he did actually feel rested — readier, at least, for the task at hand. His steps weren’t as steady as he could have wished, however, as he made his way back to Saitou.

The officer’s eyes had closed, but Sano thought he was still conscious. And at least he didn’t seem to have any respiratory problems. “Any idea what’s worst here?” Sano asked almost conversationally as he knelt at Saitou’s side and began unbuttoning the man’s jacket. It was almost a pointless exercise — the front of the thing was a mess, the dexterity of Sano’s fingers far from its usual level — but he didn’t want to start destroying clothes before he had to.

Saitou took a breath as if to answer, but then let it out without a word; Sano guessed he’d had some unhelpful sarcastic impulse that he’d thought better of, and had nothing to say in its place. He did open his eyes, though, and these seemed alert enough for the moment.

“Holy fuck,” was Sano’s next remark. He was taking in the extent of the wounds on Saitou’s chest as he started to peel the jacket away from them. “How’d you even make it this far?”

“Good question,” Saitou replied, and it was nearly a whisper; Sano thought he was perhaps trying to cover up his hiss of pain as torn, bloody cloth that was already hardening onto similar bloody tears in his flesh tugged at the latter.

“Water…” Sano muttered. He wasn’t going to get much farther without it.

“Listen,” admonished the officer, and just in that single, weary word the implication was strong: “You should have thought of that earlier.”

It was true, and there was no purpose getting annoyed about it now. Sano closed his eyes, alert this time and concentrating. His head was pounding, and it interfered somewhat with the pursuit of distant sound, but he forced himself to perceive past it, and restrained his breathing until he felt he must faint; never in his life had he listened so hard. And Saitou was right, of course: he did hear water, some way ahead and to the left — whatever direction that actually was.

It took him longer to physically locate his goal than it had to perceive it, and by the time he reached the little stream he was frustrated and tired. But the thoughts of rest he entertained as he sank again to his knees were dispelled when he glanced down and saw Saitou’s blood patterned across his borrowed gi. Having no container of any kind, after some thought he pulled off the garment and held it in the water until it was entirely soaked. Then, wadding it up and trying to keep it as much as possible from dripping, he rose and returned (after a few false starts in wrong directions) to where he’d left the other man.

Although Saitou’s eyes were again closed, he was still obviously awake, and Sano grudgingly had to admire that; lying flat, Sano would long ago have been out cold. The officer even went so far as to grunt and speak an entire sentence when Sano wrung out one corner of the waterlogged gi over his chest: “Do you have… any idea… what you’re doing?”

“Yes,” Sano replied indignantly. “Any decent street-fighter knows how to treat wounds… basically.”

“‘Decent…'” Saitou muttered, eyes still closed.

“Hey, fuck you,” Sano shot back, responding to the disdain he assumed Saitou intended; “I could just leave you here.” But somehow, facetiously as he’d meant it, this was a disturbing idea, so he added more seriously, “But don’t worry. After I get you cleaned up and you have some rest, we’ll get you down to a real doctor. In the meantime, I’ve got all sorts of bandages.”

Now one of Saitou’s eyes cracked open, but it seemed all he could manage was a very faint expression of skepticism and consternation. “I’m not sharing your dirty bandages, ahou.”

“No,” protested Sano, piqued again, “I grabbed a bunch from the Aoiya before I left, just in case–” He broke off, his face heating for some reason.

Saitou, even in his present state, didn’t miss it. “‘In case–?'”

Choosing to ignore this, a luxury he didn’t often have with Saitou, Sano bent his full attention to the duty before him. His stupid blush was undoubtedly answer enough anyway.

It was a laborious process conducted mostly in silence. Sano was forced, after all, to use the nihontou from the officer’s belt to cut free the front sections of shirt and jacket, and getting these out of the clotting wounds was an ordeal for both of them. Sano’s hands didn’t fancy the exertion, and obviously it was a good deal less pleasant for Saitou. But eventually it was done, and the newly-cleaned cuts were beginning to ooze fresh blood, which, after the mélange of blackening cloth, looked positively healthy.

Sano hastened to empty his pockets of the various rolls of bandages he’d managed to pick up on his way out on this absurd quest. Presently he found that he’d either overestimated the amount he’d brought or underestimated how much length was required to treat any significant hurt, for by the time he got Saitou’s chest sufficiently wrapped, very little remained. He could only hope, as he turned his attention to Saitou’s lower half, that the officer had no other severe injuries. The hastily tended wounds on his thighs were obvious and should probably be re-wrapped, but other than that he couldn’t tell.

“Don’t,” Saitou murmured as Sano’s hand touched his belt. Glancing back at the wolf’s slitted eyes, Sano got the impression Saitou’s struggle against unconsciousness was nearly lost.

To see Saitou like that, vulnerable and hurting, gave Sano the oddest feeling and the oddest impulses. His bandaged fingers had reached out and grazed the harsh face before he even realized what he was doing. “Just checking for other shit you might die from,” he replied softly, trying to fight off another blush at his own foolishness. “Didn’t figure you for the modest type.”

Saitou’s answering twitch of lips was a far cry from his usual smirk, and faded quickly. “I just don’t think… you need another reason… to be jealous of me,” he whispered. Then with a slight sigh he closed his eyes, this time clearly abandoning wakefulness.

Reflecting that Saitou would be sarcastic even on his deathbed, Sano continued with his planned course of action. Saitou was probably right; removing an unconscious man’s pants was always an awkward procedure, and given the lack of large bloodstains on them it was to be assumed he didn’t have any life-threatening wounds below the waist… but Sano would be perverse even on his deathbed, and Saitou’s parting shot was an indomitable inducement at least to look.

He bit back a… remark. Figured Saitou would be right about that too. Though it wasn’t exactly jealousy Sano felt.

Of course he really had only given himself unnecessary work by disturbing the bandages on the officer’s thighs. But he persevered until he had those wounds cleaned and re-wrapped (simply rotating the same bandages, unfortunately) and had at least wrung the last of the water he could from his now very bloody gi onto the burns that covered Saitou’s legs in painful-looking patches from the knees down. Then it was even more awkward to get the pants back on, but finally his work seemed finished.

Almost without another thought, he stretched out on the ground beside the other man and went to sleep.

***

Saitou awoke, cold and in pain, in an unfamiliar and decidedly outdoor setting, and wondered for a long, disoriented moment why this didn’t bother him more.

Concentrating first on the physicality of his situation, the sensations of the ground beneath him and the pain throughout his body, he determined in what position he lay and recalled each of his wounds in succession, and the world seemed a bit less nonsensical. What he couldn’t quite make sense of was the warmth all along his left side. But as the events preceding his period of unconsciousness slowly, vaguely returned to him, he realized what it must be.

His mind was almost blank; he didn’t know what to think, and it was easier just to hurt. The one solid reflection he was able to entertain was that he’d been helpless: truly helpless, with only an extraneous factor standing between him and a variety of possible causes of death, the circumstances entirely beyond his control; a state he hadn’t been in since… he couldn’t remember when. Though trying to remember did awaken his cognitive faculties somewhat.

He didn’t think he would have made it more than a few steps further on his own. Whether he would have survived his inevitable collapse, he didn’t know — but even if the idiot hadn’t saved his life, he had certainly saved him from complications and greater discomfort. Sagara Sanosuke, of all people.

Though Saitou knew perfectly well why Sano had done it. It was the same reason Sano was huddled up against him now, rendering imperfect the chill that had settled across his body.

Slowly and with a great deal of discomfort, Saitou sat up. His next breath was a gasp as the wounds on his chest flared with a burst of pain, and he had to lean heavily on his hand to keep from falling back to the ground. Once it had died down (or he’d become accustomed to it), he assessed his condition. It took only a brief examination to see that Sano had done an unexpectedly good job with his ‘just in case’ bandages. Saitou was still in rather dire shape, but he wouldn’t die and might not get infected.

Next the officer turned his eyes to his companion. Sano lay on his side, curled up, shirtless, shivering occasionally but untroubled by Saitou’s movement in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Saitou stared at him for a long time — until weariness and pain dragged him back to the ground and his eyes closed, in fact. What kept his gaze riveted until that extremity was the unfamiliar and unanticipated reaction he had to seeing the young man there like that: far from clinical indifference, or even the vague tolerance he would have expected if he’d thought about it at all, the sudden rush of emotion he experienced was, rather, something discernibly positive… something that went beyond fondness, even, and held traces of possessiveness and sympathy.

When had that started?

At some point while Saitou had been in the aforementioned rare helpless state, undoubtedly. Helpless, evidently, in more ways than one, if, as it seemed, the big brown eyes and stupid remarks had finally gotten to him. Well, there was nothing to be done about it now but let it run its course, whatever that might be. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, anyway. Himura had predicted it. Saitou himself had not ignored the possibility in his calculations for the future — he just hadn’t thought it a very probable possibility. And here it was.

He could already hear Tokio’s comment: “So you just woke up one day” — it was a phrase she used consistently, which was why it crossed his mind at all — “and decided you liked this kid?” And when he replied that, yes, that was exactly how it had happened, she would say… but he didn’t have the energy to play out that hypothetical but inevitable conversation, entertaining as it was and would be.

A burning sensation lay just beneath his flesh throughout his body, and he thought illness might be the greatest danger to him at this point. In direct contrast, the surface of his skin was uncomfortably cool, and sweat stood clammy across his form. Though the day was warm, the sun’s light, diluted by the trees, did little to comfort him. And at his side he thought Sano shared his condition. But there was nothing to be done about it; he wasn’t yet rested enough to finish the walk back to Kyoto — and because of his wounds, he couldn’t even find a better position to lie in for shared body heat. He did, however, seek out Sano’s wrist, in lieu of a broken hand, and hold onto it as he fell asleep again.

When next he woke, he felt, if not exactly better, more like he might be able to stand and walk. Sano still slept soundly at his side, now with Saitou’s hand lying between both of his — which, though unclenched, yet managed to seem tenacious. When Saitou pulled his away as he sat up, Sano gave an angry-sounding mutter but did not stir. It was dusk, and getting steadily colder; Saitou thought that was what had awakened him. High time to get back to civilization.

“Sano,” he said, but his voice came out weak and faint. Bending, awkward and painful, until his lips brushed Sano’s ear, he repeated the hoarse call.

Sano stirred slowly, mumbling, as Saitou drew away, and eventually opened his eyes. Disorientation seemed to last about twice as long for him as it had for Saitou, but when on sitting up he caught sight of the older man, recollection flashed in his face. “Shit, how long–” He broke off as he looked around at the evening shadows.

“Long enough,” Saitou replied quietly.

“How’re you feeling?” was Sano’s next query. It was made with some abashment, but the young man seemed to have gained greater mastery over the apparent embarrassment of having come up this mountain in this state specifically to find Saitou, and the blush from earlier did not reappear.

Saitou pondered a moment on what reply was most likely to recall that blush, and decided honesty would probably do the trick. “Grateful,” he said. “You may have saved my life.”

It worked, for which victory the concession was only a small discomfort in exchange. “Well… I wasn’t…” Sano’s tone was amusingly defensive, as if Saitou’s statement had been one of accusation rather than gratitude. “I couldn’t just…”

“I know,” said Saitou, and his tone only served to intensify the blush. He smirked, albeit faintly.

“Look…” Sano began, but hesitated, evidently unsure how to continue.

Unfortunately, this was not the best moment for the wavering idiot to work himself up to a confession, so Saitou changed the subject. “Let’s go.”

At this Sano seemed to return to reality. “Yeah,” he agreed hoarsely, and scrambled to his feet. Saitou noted his expression when his hands touched the ground; and, thinking Sano in this mood might want to try to help his companion up and hurt himself in so doing — he was reckless like that — Saitou made his own way to a standing position.

Immediately he foresaw difficulties: his legs were very stiff and reluctant to move, and a nearly overwhelming wave of pain, originating in his chest, swept through him with every breath the instant he was upright. “I’m going to need your help.” His voice grated out in a whisper once more, but Sano was at his side in half an instant, literally almost tripping over himself. Saitou smirked again. “You’re just the right height for this,” he remarked, still very softly, as Sano supported him. Sano seemed to overlook the possible offensively objectifying interpretation of this statement, for it threw him into another dither of abashment as they set off.

So the first time they ever had their arms around each other, it was because Saitou could barely walk. It made for a long and awkward trip back to Kyoto, but at least Sano’s warmth at his side was a comfort in the growing dark; and, though his thoughts became hazier with every moment he spent perpendicular, he used the time to accustom himself to the idea of seeing a lot more of Sano’s from now on.

They did not speak until they’d entered town, and it was Sano who broke the lengthy silence. “Where now?”

Saitou’s energy was almost entirely gone, and his answer, “Police station,” was a barely intelligible mumble.

“Are you insane?” Sano demanded. “I go to all this trouble to get you back here alive, and you want to kill yourself going to work?”

“Ahou…” He was about to continue with an explanation about police doctors in as few words as he could condense the idea into, but Sano cut him off at the epithet:

“‘Sides, the police station’s gone. Juppongatana destroyed it.”

This news was so startling, it seemed somehow to put up a wall in the officer’s brain. He couldn’t get his thoughts past it, and they ran in circles at its foot. At a complete loss, near the end of coherent reflection, he couldn’t speak.

“Aoiya, then,” Sano pronounced, sounding at once dogmatic and concerned.

This, at least, Saitou was aware he didn’t want, and it roused him somewhat. “No,” he whispered, and with a great struggle managed to come up with the name of one of the doctors that answered to the precinct. And that was the real end of his logic for the day; he was content thereafter to lean increasingly heavily on Sano and let him take charge. In the fog of confusion that seemed to have fallen over Kyoto, relying on someone that was confused under normal circumstances didn’t even seem strange.

The next thing he knew was waking up alone. Though not as disorienting as waking up on the forested mountain, this was also more jarring than that unusual occurrence had been. Why did finding himself lying beside Sano feel so natural where in a similar condition finding himself in a clinic bed felt somehow off? Well, the answer to that must be obvious… if a somewhat alien concept.

Noting simultaneously the improved state of his various wounds and his lower level of pain, he looked around languidly at his sterile but comfortable environment, taking in details but not straining himself. He didn’t remember and couldn’t really imagine how Sano had managed to find the right place. Actually, he wasn’t even sure this was the right place. But it was obviously the right type of place, and not that ninja inn, and for the moment that must be enough. Though he didn’t feel significantly better, it was now a placid discomfort aware of drugs and a soft bed and the promise of as much rest as he needed. His mind still wasn’t entirely clear either, but at least now this didn’t result from him being about to collapse.

The end of last night’s events at first completely eluded his recollection, and, content to drift in and out of a half-sleeping state, he didn’t fight for it. But finally the thought of Sano’s face and voice managed to conjure up certain expressions and statements that he was fairly sure had been made during the period in question. He knew he’d spoken to Sano as well, replying to his remarks, and that there had been a doctor and possibly a doctor’s assistant that had also probably had something to say… but he still couldn’t remember most of it. In his struggle for recollection, all he heard was Sano.

“I’d stay, but I kinda feel like shit too, and they’re probably having fits about me being gone this long.”

Saitou reflected with a slight smirk that they would probably have fits when they realized why he’d gone, too. Himura would understand… but would he approve? That was a question for another time.

“But I’ll come by tomorrow if I can and make sure you’re not dead, all right?”

This had been spoken in such an odd tone… as if Sano had been more than a little anxious to reassure him. What had Saitou said or otherwise indicated to have prompted that? He simply couldn’t recall. And then…

Then Sano had kissed him. Right in front of the doctor and god knew who else.

Saitou sighed, rolling his eyes, but found he also wore a small smile. It was an inevitable result of being helpless in Sano’s hands… and conceivably an inevitable result of involvement with Sano in general. He might as well get used to it.

The effort of remembering had tired him, so he closed his eyes and drifted again, musing vaguely, speculatively, and not entirely unpleasantly about the future.

“I’ll come by tomorrow.”

He wondered how long Sano would keep him waiting.

This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #20 “The road home.”

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).

How Many Days


“You need to learn the difference between persistence and stubbornness,” Saitou half sighed, dropping the butt of his cigarette and grinding it underfoot before turning to face the young man approaching him through the dusk.

Is there a difference?” Sanosuke wondered, his tone an interesting mix of dark determination and joviality.

Saitou couldn’t believe the idiot had managed to keep this up for so long. “One evidently too subtle for you to grasp,” he replied at a murmur, undoing the top two buttons of his jacket.

“Fuck subtlety,” was Sano’s growled retort as he hurled himself forward to attack for… yes, Saitou believed, this really had to be the thirtieth time.

“Your personality in two words,” the officer marveled as he jerked aside, dodging the kick Sano aimed at his shoulder, and, turning, slammed a solid blow into his face.

Sano had no reply for the quip other than to wipe vaguely at the trickle of blood now issuing from his nose, clench his fists, and come back for more.

“Eventually you’re going to have to realize,” Saitou admonished patiently as he blocked a few punches and returned a few, rather idly, of his own, “that it can take just as much strength to admit defeat as to keep fighting a losing battle forever.”

Sano staggered back and slowly regained his balance. “You’re so sure I’m never gonna get anywhere with you.”

“You’ll never defeat me,” agreed Saitou, waiting for the next charge.

“Che…” Sano rubbed absently at a growing bruise on his right forearm before making it. “Even I know that by now.”

“You’ve attacked me every evening for a month, and barely hit me a handful of times.” Saitou caught the fist flying toward him, twisted to dodge the other, slammed his own hard in Sano’s ribs, and threw him back again. “If you know you can’t beat me, what can you possibly hope to gain from this?”

Coughing and stumbling, his face a grimace of pain, it was several moments before Sano could answer. “Proof… that you’re not… invincible.”

A black eyebrow rose. “If you haven’t figured that out by now, I don’t see how my beating you up every day will help.”

I already know it.” Sano’s breathing was labored from the last blow, his growl considerably subdued. “I wanna prove it to you.”

“If I were under that impression,” Saitou wondered as he sidestepped entirely the roosterhead’s next attack, “and you did somehow manage to disillusion me” — spinning and elbowing Sano in the back of the head — “what makes you think I’d admit it to you?”

But there was no answer, as with the crack of contact between arm and skull Sano fell limply to the ground.

Saitou stepped back, brushed off his jacket and refastened the top two buttons, and stared at the unconscious figure as he pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “Ahou,” he muttered, though not to any particular purpose. After a few moments, he crouched at Sano’s side, flipped him easily over, and examined briefly the wounds inflicted by today’s bout. These were difficult to distinguish from yesterday’s wounds, but it seemed he’d actually broken a rib with that punch. He sighed; to the doctor, then.

He’d altered his route home to take him past a clinic when it had become obvious that this new hobby or fixation of Sanosuke’s would not relent for a while, and the young man had timed things well enough this evening that it was only a short walk there with the extra weight.

Again, Fujita-san?” asked the doctor in a despairing tone as the officer entered.

Saitou, laying Sano’s slack form down on the table as usual, shrugged. “It makes just as much sense to me,” he replied, drawing from his pocket, as usual, enough money to cover today’s treatment. “I believe he has a broken rib this time.”

The doctor sighed, taking the money and stepping into the next room to retrieve what supplies would be necessary to patch Sano up yet again.

Saitou looked down. “Ahou,” he said softly once more, shaking his head. “How many days will it take you to find something better to do with that energy of yours?” He snorted and added in a very dry and quiet tone, “As if I would admit it to you.” Then quickly, briefly, he bent and brushed his lips against Sano’s. “I was invincible.” He went to the door, turning to glance back once before he exited. “See you tomorrow.”


This story, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #16, “Invincible, unrivaled.”

A Strong Bad quote comes to mind here: “It’s like… even when we win, he wins.” Yet even when Sano’s one-up on Saitou, he’s still the one unconscious with a broken rib. I love it when he manages to win something, though. All it took to show Saitou was a month of getting his ass kicked XD

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Pride of her Parents

…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 robb