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!”



<<13

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

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

I wasted a lot of time on this:

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

Blood Contingency

Blood Contingency

Part 1

I’m so rarely afraid of anything that when I do happen to encounter something that scares me, I hardly know what to do about it.

It would be easier to decide on a course of action if the source of my fear were something that might reasonably frighten a normal man — but this sudden, irrational wariness of the teenager leaning against the wall near my apartment door isn’t really something I know what to do with. I stop, under the pretense of checking something in the car before I get out, to examine the stranger.

About my height, though he’s slouching and that estimate could be off; a pale, Asian face with dark-lashed eyes; shaggy brown hair — I can’t tell how long, as it’s pulled back; seems fairly lanky, though not a lightweight; and could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two-or-three. He doesn’t appear threatening — at least not in any way I, as a cop, would normally consider threatening; there are, of course, any number of things that could be hidden under the jacket he’s wearing, but his bearing doesn’t suggest him ready to attack at any moment. So why does the very sight of him send a chill through my entire body?

Afraid I may be, inordinately and unusually so, but a coward I am not. I’ve already determined that he doesn’t mean to attack me, and, besides that, I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest and have a gun and a nightstick at my side. Closing the car door with no more firmness or haste than I normally use, I head up the sidewalk toward the building without hesitation. “Can I help you?” I ask the young man casually.

“I was waiting for you, actually,” he replies, and though on the surface his tone is equally casual, there’s something immovably… hard… in the voice… some cold note I can’t quite place, but which sends a slight shiver up my spine and puts me even more on my guard.

“And what can I do for you?” I ask, stopping before the stranger without a flinch.

He straightens up and pulls empty hands out of the pockets of his jacket. They’re unnaturally pale in front of the black leather and even the blue jeans they fall against as they drop to his side. He’s now looking me very intently in the face; I think that staring into his eyes, which are, like his skin, uncannily bright, might well and probably should increase the irrational fear, but somehow it doesn’t. In fact, the effect is rather the opposite.

“There’s a lot of things you could do for me, Joe,” he says after a long moment of silence. “It’s gonna be up to you like always, though.”

I wonder briefly if I’m being sexually propositioned, but dismiss the notion as implausible at best. Even the boldest prostitutes don’t wait for police officers outside their own homes and then make their advances in cryptic, stalker-like language — and this isn’t the neighborhood for it at any rate. It’s also far from the center of what little gang activity there is in this city, as well as the worst areas of drug-related intrigue. Thus I’m really at a loss what this young man who knows my name and address could possibly want from me here at night with empty hands and an aura of danger.

But, once again, I am far from cowardly. “I think you’d better tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here.”

He gives a wry smile — almost rueful, I think — and shakes his head. “You’ll find that out one way or another,” he says. “This is your first chance.”

“Are you threatening me?” I ask, my cool tone far from a reflection of my state of mind.

He shrugs. “Kinda. I’ll be back in a week.” And, replacing his hands in his pockets, he turns and begins to walk away.

I’m surprised and annoyed. That someone should show up like this outside my home, frighten me as nothing has for a decade, and then walk so carelessly away after making such incomprehensible remarks… it isn’t merely unsettling and bizarre, it’s irritating. However, as I’m opening my mouth to tell him to come back and explain himself, my entire attention is arrested by something — yet another inexplicably disconcerting object that really should mean nothing to me — something that sends another shiver up my spine.

There is a large symbol in white on the back of the stranger’s jacket: some sort of Japanese character, I think, though this is just my default guess because I happen to have a Japanese-American girlfriend. But something about it freezes me to the spot and silences whatever protest or demand I was about to make. It isn’t an innately frightening sign; it doesn’t convey any meaning to me whatsoever; it certainly does not, in its design or general aspect, have any sort of hypnotic effect; but somehow it’s riveting. Because it’s… familiar…?

When the young man’s back has disappeared from my sight around the corner, releasing me from the disturbed and absorbed contemplation of the symbol thereupon, my presence of mind returns instantly and informs me that it would be absurdly foolish to let him walk away like that.

However, darting around the corner with quiet, determined footsteps, I find the parking lot completely empty — empty, silent, and calm under the peaceful moon. My eyes stray from one part of my placid and familiar surroundings to the next, my ears straining for any sound out of the ordinary in the quiet neighborhood, for a good five minutes before I turn with yet another shiver and make my way back to the apartment.

Inside, in the comforting skepticism of an air-conditioned and linoleum-floored kitchen, I analyze the confrontation as I mechanically seek out something microwaveable for dinner. I’m realizing now, in even greater annoyance than I was feeling a few minutes ago, that I wasn’t really afraid so much as disturbed by the stranger’s aspect and presence. Something inside me doesn’t want to have anything to do with the guy, even look at him. Of course there’s a certain amount of fear involved in this, but the primary reaction was and is reluctance. As if I really do know, and disapprove of, who he is and what his appearance signifies. Which seems impossible, but there it is.

And then that symbol… what did it mean? And what did it mean that I found it so terribly fascinating that I couldn’t look away or say a word while it was in view? Turning from the busy microwave, I seize a paper towel and the nearest available writing utensil, and do my best to reproduce the image; having a good eye for detail, I think I’ve done fairly well, but it means no more to me now than it did then.

A glance at the clock confirms that it isn’t too late for a phone call, but I can’t decide for a moment whether or not that would be overreacting. Eventually I opt for better-safe-than-sorry and dial Renee’s number.

“You’re calling me on a Wednesday?” she greets me. “What’s the big occasion?”

Ignoring her sarcasm I command, “Grab something to write with.”

“OK,” she says gamely, then, a moment later, “Go ahead.”

I study the figure I’ve jotted down, realizing just how stupid this is going to sound. “Draw a tic-tac-toe board,” I begin.

“Is this our date for the week?” she wonders, but I can hear the scratch of a pencil.

“Yes,” I deadpan. “Now put lines across the top and bottom about the same length as the other horizontal lines.”

“OK…”

“Then add a wide letter U or smile underneath.”

“Oh, I see what we’re doing.”

“Do you?”

“Yes, but it’s not really a fair game… you don’t know any kanji, which means I never get a turn. Where are you seeing this one?”

I find myself oddly reluctant, suddenly, to tell her about the strange young man. Am I hesitant to admit how much he disturbed me? Though unsure if this is my actual motive, the impulse not to mention him is too strong to resist. So I put her off with, “I wasn’t finished.”

“Well, with dashes around and inside the ‘smile,’ and the sides of the ‘tic-tac-toe board’ closed off” — she obviously finds this quite amusing — “you’ve got ‘waru’ or ‘aku,’ which means ‘evil.'”

“Evil,” I repeat slowly. Somehow I’m not surprised. Then, in response to her expectant silence I explain, “I saw it on someone’s jacket and wondered what it meant.”

She laughs. “People wear kanji all over the place and have no idea what they actually say. At least it wasn’t a tattoo.”

“Or a shirt that says, ‘Let’s Begin To Love Myself Over Again?'” I can’t help bringing that up; I never can.

“May I remind you that that was a birthday present?” She’s laughing. “I didn’t buy it.”

“And yet you still wear it.” I really don’t feel like further banter, though, so before she can retort I add, “Thanks for the translation; I have to go.”

She must have observed that my tease was half-hearted, for after noting that I sound tired and promising to call me on Saturday for a date that will not involve tic-tac-toe, she lets me go.

I stand in the kitchen staring at the paper towel for who knows how long, eventually make slow progress with my warmed-up leftovers to the table, and turn on the TV. I don’t pay any more attention to the news than I do to my dinner, however. It’s irritating but predictable: I can’t stop dwelling on the stranger. He was giving me a chance… to do what? He’ll be back in a week… why? And what was it he thought I could do for him? It’s pointless to speculate; if he does come back, presumably I’ll find out… but I hate being left in the dark, sitting back and waiting for my turn to know until it’s too late for action.

Most engrossing, though probably not most important… why was I so perturbed by him? I didn’t know the meaning of the symbol on his back until after he was gone, so why did I find it so riveting, so nearly horrifying? But he probably couldn’t answer those questions even if I felt like making a fool of myself asking them.

The next question is why such a minor event is still bothering me so much now that it’s over. It’s understandably annoying that I was disturbed enough not to act as I logically should have, but why I should be feeling echoes of that agitation even now… why I should be feeling traces of some kind of superstitious premonition, as if that brief encounter was a herald of upheaval… why I should be feeling like there’s something I should remember but that’s just past the edge of my conscious mind… I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.

I’m certain that going to bed is not likely to improve my state of mind, but I’m not about to change my habits or disrupt my sleep schedule for some stranger who shouldn’t really be at all unsettling.

It was probably just a prank anyway, and I’ll never see the guy again.



2>>

Part 2

“Saitou,” she said. “With a mysterious, bloodthirsty psychopath murdering his way through Tokyo, I really should have been expecting you.”

“Good morning to you too, doctor,” I returned the greeting. “I’m not surprised to find you here.”

“No,” she replied sardonically, “considering I’ve managed to examine five of these things so far.”

I wasn’t about to mention how lucky I found these combined circumstances. I hadn’t yet had opportunity to examine much physical evidence, so I’d been less upset than I might have at another murder — and far from upset that Takani-sensei, who had no selfish motives or class biases and who knew me better than most, had once again been the closest doctor to the crime. The fact that the pattern had been significantly broken this time was another point in the incident’s favor.

Hironaku was getting excited over the signs of violence, which hadn’t been present at any of the previous scenes. He seemed to be missing the fact that, as usual, the victim had evidently gone peacefully without a struggle — that the smashed dishes, broken table, and dented wall had not been part of the murder — but he’d been with this case since the first corpse and had watched two other investigators make nothing of it, so his enthusiasm was reasonable. As subordinates went, he was a greater combination of tolerable and competent than most; I would probably keep him.

Takani was still kneeling beside the body, looking understandably disheveled. This certainly wasn’t the first time in the last few weeks she’d been summoned to an unusual murder scene in the early morning without even the consolation of being a police doctor. I wasn’t entirely without sympathy, but was still glad she and not some other physician was present.

A few drops of blood on the floor that had evidently come from the victim’s single wound were the only indication as to where the body had originally fallen and how it had lain. Apparently the wife, in her understandable but damnable hysteria at finding her husband the latest of possibly the most bizarre string of murders in Tokyo’s history, had dragged him out of place and might have caused more harm to the scene had her frantic screaming not alerted the neighbors and, subsequently, the police.

Only by chance had there been an officer in the vicinity at all; it wasn’t the type of neighborhood that got much attention from our upstanding and unbiased justice system. And that was the most significant deviation from the pattern here. The murders thus far had fallen into two categories: successful businessmen killed in their own homes, apparently by design; and unemployed lowlifes or homeless killed in the streets, apparently at random. This man had been an unemployed lowlife, yet, by all appearances, had still been specifically tracked to his home and deliberately murdered.

“What can you tell me?” I asked the doctor once I’d finished my methodical look around the room.

“He’s the same as all the rest,” she reported dully, “just fresher. Exsanguination and no trauma as far as I can tell. At least this time you found him soon enough for a proper autopsy.” The last remark was clearly made without much hope that she wouldn’t be the one performing it.

“Time of death?”

“He has no blood,” she reminded me flatly. “That throws everything off. Until the autopsy, I can only guess. Three hours ago, maybe more.”

I nodded as I stared down at the corpse. I hadn’t disbelieved the reports regarding the cause of death, but I hadn’t exactly believed them, either. Not until I’d seen it for myself could something so outlandish seem at all real. And I found myself a good deal more disturbed than I typically was at a murder scene. It wasn’t the abnormally pallid, dry-looking flesh and emaciated, slightly twisted frame that made it so much more horrific than usual… I’d seen bodies barely recognizable as such, turned inside out or strewn in pieces across large expanses, seen rooms so drenched in blood as to make me go temporarily colorblind. This was the exact opposite, and somehow just that… the mere absence, the complete absence of blood… that made it worse than all the rest.

Only the most puerile investigators jumped immediately to insanity as the likely motive for a crime, but this… this had the mark of a madman. Though still a madman with specific goals. The theory the previous investigators had been working with was that we had on our hands a disgruntled, jealous, overly ambitious businessman who’d hired an assassin to give him an edge and had set the killer on a few unrelated victims as well in order to cloud the issue. Not a bad hypothesis… but, typically, its flaws had either never occurred to my predecessors or had been willfully overlooked. Significant among these was a question they had entirely ignored: what would a businessman — or even an assassin — want with such a large volume of blood?

I’d been in town and on the case for several days now and still had no solid theories, and that was a deviation from pattern of another kind. Nothing we knew so far was remotely conclusive; indeed, every new clue we turned up seemed to point in a different direction from the last.

The final deviation was the witness. Every previous victim seemed to have been killed in complete solitude, and a few of them hadn’t even been discovered for days. But this man had been entertaining at the time of death — a guest who’d been knocked hard into a wall and fallen thence onto the table where the sake they’d been sharing had rested… but who might have seen something before that, who might be able to explain why a struggle had been necessary to subdue him but not the man actually being murdered.

I worked my way through the scene once more. I felt like I was missing something, or perhaps that some of this was making more sense to my subconscious than to the surface of my mind. Either way, I didn’t think I was likely to learn anything more from the room at the moment. “Let’s get him out of here. Takani-sensei, you’ll perform the autopsy?”

Hironaku looked at me askance but said nothing.

“Of course,” the doctor answered, heavily but unhesitating, as she rose. She wasn’t happy about this; it was rather outside the boundaries of what she usually dealt with, her connection to the Kamiya dojo notwithstanding… but she was resigned, and not lacking in the aplomb necessary for her profession.

I’d sent for a closed wagon to transport the body, and at my orders a few of the men who waited outside got the latter wrapped and loaded onto the former. “The wife was taken to the south station?” I asked another.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have arrangements made for her for the next couple of days, and one of you stay here to keep the curious off. I’m going to look this place over again after I’ve questioned the witness.” He repeated his acknowledgment, and I left him discussing with the others who would return to the station and who would stand guard.

“I doubt your ‘witness’ is going to have anything to say for some time,” Takani warned me quietly.

“On the off chance that he’s awake and coherent and happened to see something, I’m going to look in on him.”

She was giving me an odd eye, and it seemed she might have something useful to say, but eventually she merely shook her head and remarked, “I won’t have you jeopardizing his recovery.”

I had no answer for this, since each of us knew that, if it came to it, the other would press their side of the issue — and probably knew equally well who would prevail.

By the time I handed the doctor into the cab and took the spot beside her, Hironaku was already seated looking over his notes. While I preferred to keep my thoughts organized in my head where troublesome people couldn’t get their hands on them, I had to appreciate his dedication.

“This murder method…” he remarked as the carriage began to move, then abruptly glanced at the doctor. His expressive face was as plain as a direct question whether he should discuss his theories in front of her. She wasn’t looking at either of us. I nodded.

“It reminds me of some things yakuza bosses have done to scare their people into sticking with them,” he continued slowly. “Or something similar: someone trying to send a message to someone…”

“With as much specific aim as anonymously tacking signs up on lamp-posts,” I replied. “If it’s a message, it could be meant for just about anyone, and that anyone isn’t likely to step forward.”

He sighed. “In any case, we’re dealing with one sick bastard.”

“Or more than one,” I reminded. “Don’t get too caught up in speculation until after we find out what the other man knows.” Not that I wasn’t speculating. I just wasn’t doing it aloud.

With an expression of perturbation, Hironaku nodded. In actuality I feared he might prove a little too emotionally fragile to last long… He hadn’t shown signs of excessive brittleness, but he seemed the type that might crack all at once when things piled up. Still, someone relatively competent for a short while was better than someone hopeless I couldn’t get rid of. Perhaps I could increase his longevity by letting him handle most of the paperwork. That would be doubly useful.

“I do wonder why the other man is alive at all, though,” he murmured thoughtfully after several silent moments. “Our murderer has killed eight people so far… why not this other man?”

“If you’ll allow me to speculate…” Takani had looked up abruptly. “‘Your murderer’ seems to be interested in collecting blood, not committing murder.” It was only very slight, but in her voice was the tone of someone patiently explaining something obvious. Hironaku’s expression in response was slightly amusing; it seemed this thought really hadn’t crossed his mind. Maybe I wouldn’t keep him.

“If he was equipped to extract blood from only one man,” Takani continued, “and had no idea there was anyone else there until he entered…”

“Oh?” Now I was curious, and turned to regard her with a raised brow, wondering what she thought she knew. “Why would he assume his victim was alone?”

“Oh?” she echoed. I got the feeling she was somewhat darkly pleased at having information that I lacked. “None of your fine officers were able to identify the other man?” Finally I comprehended her earlier odd expression as she added pointedly, “I doubt anyone besides the victim knew Tsukioka-san was there, or would be there, at that time. He’s not the type to let people know what he’s planning.”

I nodded slowly. That complicated things.

Part 3

“…of all the stupid things. A degree in criminology, and they’ve got me hunting vampires.”

Overhearing this at the station the next day is not exactly comforting. Nor is the fact that I make mental connections as fast as I do.

“I don’t know what else to call them, though… I’ve never seen murders like this before, and neither have you.”

Curious as I am — and I am — I decide not to ask. Better not to know the details of this elaborate hoax. It isn’t my case anyway, and it certainly won’t help keep my mind off the strange, pale visitor of last night.

The latter, as I somewhat anticipated, is in and out of my head throughout the day. The same questions I’ve been asking about him all along arise and are steadfastly ignored while I get what I need to do finished. Even more assiduously I ignore the movie lines that keep popping up in my head trying to distract me… things like, “You know how few vampires have the stamina for immortality, how quickly they perish of their own will?” and, “The vampires didn’t realize you were following a human… did they?” and, best of all, “You’re not a full vampire until you’ve made your first kill. You were supposed to be mine… but I couldn’t…” Only then do I realize just how many stupid vampire movies I’ve actually seen. It’s very annoying.

I wonder how the stranger would react if he knew these thoughts. Vaguely putting myself in his place (assuming some sort of reasonable motive for the mysterious behavior), the idea is actually slightly amusing, in a god-forbid sort of way.

The question from last night that returns the most persistently is why this matter continues to bother me so much. Mere unusualness is not enough to justify this kind of devotion of thought. I try to tell myself that it’s the natural result of boring paperwork, that as soon as I’m out on a new case I’ll forget it entirely… but not even boring paperwork has ever led me to reflections this firmly locked on a seemingly unimportant subject before.

Eventually, thinking to drown the fixation with excess information, I give in and ask someone to enlighten me on the ‘vampire’ business. My precinct is given to gossip like some proverbial group of old women, so he’s only too happy to do so — and what I hear is no more than I expected: a couple of apparently-related killings by some unknown whose MO matches what one must assume a vampire’s would be if such creatures existed, right down to the presence of foreign DNA in the neck wounds. Predictably, keeping the press off the occurrences is taking up half my colleague’s energy at the moment.

For all our gossipy habits (and, yes, sadly, I’m forced to include myself in this description), the tales don’t leave the station; as such, the number of people outside the police force who are likely to know about this matter is small (for now, while the press is still in the dark). Therefore, little as I want to assume there are two similar hoaxes going on simultaneously in the same vicinity, I have to believe this is unconnected with my visitor — mostly because if the circumstances were connected, that complicates and darkens something I thought simply unusual.

Wait; similar hoaxes? Why, I wonder in annoyance, am I connecting them at all? Why has such a fantastic concept as vampires attached itself so tenaciously to the visitor in my head? Because he was pale, because he moved quickly and quietly, because I was disturbed by him? How utterly childish of me. Maybe I’ve been working too hard lately. I wonder briefly when I can next take vacation time. Renee would like that, anyway.

“I fucking hate vampires.”

I roll my eyes, and, with an effort of will, force myself to stop thinking about it. And once I’ve torn myself away, I manage, if not entirely without further struggle, to stay away for the rest of the day.

Leaving rather late, having lost track of the time in enthusiasm(?) for my paperwork, as is often the case, I find the parking lot dark and sparse when I finally emerge. Not even the faintest glow of sunset remains on the city-obscured horizon, and I parked in a spot where the lot lights don’t touch. It’s from the shadows near my car, which I haven’t quite reached, that a woman’s voice unexpectedly speaks: “You’ve been contacted.”

Simply because of the brazen oddity of the greeting, yesterday’s occurrence — and all related reflection — springs immediately back into my mind.

Stepping forward into the full light, she displays pale Asian features and bright eyes. When she catches sight of my face she stops moving. “Oh,” she says in a tone of understanding.

Two encounters with washed-out, glowing-eyed, cryptic Asians on two consecutive days is no coincidence — especially given the news, I can’t help but think — so I’m immediately tense, ready to make sure she doesn’t run off. “‘Oh,’ what?” I demand.

Her face takes on a sad expression. “He hasn’t reminded you yet.”

Assuming she’s referring to the young man, and considering he didn’t tell me anything, I have to assume she’s correct.

She looks even more somber at my silence. “I know you’re confused,” she says quietly, “and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I can assure you you’ll know everything in time.”

“Everything?” I echo wryly. “Not something I ever wanted to know.”

Her smile matches my tone. “And you won’t want to know most of this. But I’d like at least to assure you that we don’t have any criminal intentions towards you.”

I frown, unable to keep from becoming suspicious at this carefully-worded statement. “Who are you?”

She looks thoughtful for a moment, almost indecisive. Finally she says, “Megumi.”

A Japanese name, I know; Renee is a fan of some trembly-voiced singer called the same thing. That doesn’t tell me much, but it’s better than no information at all. “And your friend’s name?”

Another wry smile. “‘Friend?’ Hmm. Well, his name… I’ll leave that up to him.”

This is getting frustrating. I’m tempted to return to the prank theory, but there’s something about her that seems too serious to disregard. “And what do you want?” I wonder next.

“I want nothing from you,” she says, and her slight emphasis of the word ‘I’ again makes me frown.

“And him?”

“Again, that’s up to him,” she replies.

There’s very little more I can ask her, given that this is not an interrogation and she’s basically told me she isn’t going to tell me anything. And as the silence lengthens, she shakes her head and turns. I don’t feel I should let her walk away, but can’t think of anything to make her stay.

Then, as she puts her back to me but before her first few steps take her out of the ring of light, I see very clearly, slung over her shoulder, a sort of leather holster that contains, unless I’m very much mistaken, a neat row of wooden stakes.

By now even my better judgment is starting to give way, and only my desire to consider this a hoax allows me to keep doing so.

Part 4

Sagara answered after I’d knocked about four times, opening the door sluggishly and blinking at me for several moments. Then he scowled. Grunting, he withdrew, leaving the way free for me to follow. “I figure if you’re here to kick my ass,” he explained at a grumble, “you might as well do it inside where you won’t wake up all my neighbors.”

“How considerate of you,” was my reply as I shut the door behind me.

“Since when are you in town?”

“Since last week; I’m here for a case.”

“Then I guess I can forgive you for not showing up earlier to kick my ass.”

“Unfortunately, I have business other than kicking your ass today.”

It was the first time I’d been inside his home, and I found it a little neater than I’d expected… mostly because he didn’t seem to own very much. What he did have was enough, however, to provide sufficient clutter that his search for the upper garment he lacked was taking some time. “I thought all your Tokyo cases involved kicking my ass,” he said as he hunted.

“Hn.” I would have had a better reply for this, but I really was here on business — business he was probably going to find even less pleasant than his speculations. “Hurry up and get ready.”

He straightened, his gi in one hand, and threw me a black look. “Like I’m going to take orders from you.”

“You are if you want to hear what happened to your friend.”

The gi dropped to the floor. “Which friend? What happened?!”

“I’ll tell you on the way.”

Hastily now he recovered the article of clothing and shrugged into it, demanding, “On the way where? You didn’t come in a stupid carriage, did you?”

“No. Come on.”

He followed me out the door, not bothering to lock it behind us. Of course, I didn’t know if he ever bothered to lock it.

“Well?” he demanded as we started up the street.

“Have you heard about the recent attacks?” I began.

With a snort he replied, “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that… think about where I live.”

He hadn’t heard, then; he’d have known what I meant without any elaboration otherwise. “Eight people — so far — have been killed by having large quantities of blood drained from their bodies.”

“Eight?? What the fuck are you cops doing? Is one of my friends one of ’em?!”

One of his questions was a very good one, but not one I felt like addressing right now. “He isn’t dead,” I replied. “He was found unconscious next to the body of the latest victim. He’s the first potential witness to any of the attacks.”

Sanosuke drew a deep, angry breath. “You’re an asshole, you know that? Scaring the shit of out me like that for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing. His shoulder was dislocated, his arm broken, and he has a concussion.”

“My god, you are an asshole… Why the hell didn’t you say that before?”

“He’s also incoherent and won’t talk to me.”

“I fucking wonder why,” muttered Sanosuke. “So that’s what this is all about. You want me to help you question one of my friends because you can’t do it yourself. I’d never have known he was hurt otherwise.”

“I’m fairly sure you’re his only real friend, and probably as close to family as he has at this point,” I replied coolly; “you’d have been notified if he died.”

“Shit, it’s Katsu, isn’t it?” His tone had taken on an edge of much greater concern. “Why didn’t you just say so?” When I did not reply he went on in a surly tone, “So what do I get out of this?”

I raised a brow. “Safer streets?” I suggested. “The opportunity to talk to him at all?”

“Ch…” He’d only asked in order to be perverse, I was certain; we both knew he wouldn’t refuse to help in a situation like this. “Hurry the fuck up, then,” he added.

The only reason I hadn’t taken a carriage was that I recalled how difficult he’d been the last time I’d tried to get him to ride in one. The walk between the clinic and his neighborhood took more time than I really wanted to waste, but I’d decided that keeping him in a relatively compliant mood was probably worth it. Still, my impatience to get back and get on with things led me to accede quite easily to his demand that I ‘hurry the fuck up.’

Eventually he recognized the direction we were going. “So he’s at kitsune’s clinic?”

I nodded. “Takani has been lucky enough to examine most of the bodies so far, including this latest one.”

“No wonder I haven’t seen her around lately…” Sagara murmured thoughtfully. I was vaguely surprised at the implication that he saw her around enough to know the difference; I hadn’t thought they got along that well.

As we finally approached the clinic, I broke the silence again. “He has no reason to trust me. But if you can convince him he’s safe in telling you anything that might be related to this matter–”

“Dyou realize what you’re doing?” Sagara broke in.

I glanced at him with a raised brow.

“You’re counting on me,” he stated. Though his tone was nearly flat, it had the air of a defiant announcement. “I’m doing something important for you, and you’re trusting me to do it.”

“You’re the only one who can,” I replied, by which I meant (and he knew it) that if there had been anyone else, I wouldn’t have asked him.

His face darkened briefly, then cleared, and he grinned slightly. “I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”

“Do as you please.”

We’d reached the door, and here Sanosuke paused. “All right, so what am I finding out if I can?”

“Anything he remembers about the attack, anything he thinks might be related to it. The series of events, what the killer was like, and any guess he might have about why the killer chose that victim.”

“You don’t ask much, do you?” wondered Sagara sarcastically.

“I’ll be out here,” I replied.

He shook his head and entered the building.

It took much longer than I expected. Whether this meant Tsukioka had a lot of information to relate, or that he wasn’t lucid enough to relate it quickly, or that Sagara was dominating the conversation talking shit about me, I couldn’t guess — though presumably I would find out soon enough.

The lady doctor, who’d left to get some rest after the autopsy, returned while I was waiting. She didn’t look particularly rested, however; actually, I thought the darkness beneath her eyes was even more pronounced than before. But I restrained myself and didn’t speculate about nightmares or anything less appropriate that might have interrupted her sleep, merely nodded to her.

With a grim expression she glanced from the door to where I was leaning against the wall looking out at the yard. “You found Sanosuke?” she guessed.

I nodded again.

“You know I don’t approve,” she said flatly.

“And you know it’s necessary,” I answered in a similar tone.

She held my eye for a second and then replied more lightly, “I meant your smoking just outside my clinic.” Evidently she knew better than to argue further against disturbing her patient.

I smirked slightly, darkly, as I took another drag. “That’s necessary to keep me from going insane.”

“Yes, this case of yours is enough to have that effect on anyone.” She sounded simultaneously sympathetic and exasperated, though mostly tired. “Just don’t bring it inside.”

Again I nodded, and she disappeared through the door.

Eventually Sanosuke emerged. He was moving slowly, with an unusual restraint on all his limbs, as if he were a patient here and suffering from some invisible wound; but when he looked up and met my gaze, I could see in his face a deep anger just waiting to invigorate him against some unsuspecting target. Breaking eye contact, however, he sat down on the edge of the porch with his back to me.

After several long moments of silence he said abruptly, “He doesn’t know anything.”

I lit another cigarette and waited for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, I requested that he should.

“You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing,'” he retorted, though I felt that, for once, he wasn’t really angry at me. He sighed slightly and went on. “He doesn’t know that the dead guy — Irutou’s his name, right? — had any enemies in particular. Apparently the guy was always going on about some big shot he used to work for named Tomizawa, but it wasn’t the kind of thing Katsu prints. But Katsu loves gossip whether he prints it or not, so it’s no wonder they were drinking together. Everything was normal, and then the next thing he knew somebody was knocking him into a wall.”

“What did he see?”

“Almost nothing, I guess… shadows… he said the lamp had gone out. Though apparently whoever attacked him moved really fast and was pretty normal-sized.” Sanosuke shrugged. “He doesn’t remember it very clearly, but it sounds like even if he did he probably didn’t see anything helpful.”

“So it seems,” I murmured thoughtfully.

“And that’s all he said.” This statement had a fatalistic edge to it, as if Sagara’s friend had died after saying all of this.

“How is Tsukioka doing now?”

Sanosuke made a noise like a snort or a grunt, bitter and angry, and said nothing; so I turned my thoughts to the minimal information he’d provided.

Though I did appreciate the artist’s remembering it, the name Tomizawa was not likely to be terribly useful. For though Tomizawa — whoever he was — might not be aware that the victim’s information on him wasn’t the sort of thing Tsukioka was interested in printing — thus providing a motive for the murder — that would not explain any of the other killings, the blood thing, or, most significantly, the fact that Tsukioka was still alive. Still, it was a name; I would have Hironaku look into it.

Sagara interrupted this brief reverie with the very stiff-sounding pronouncement, “Thanks for coming to get me.” Turning my eyes back to him, I could easily mark the further stiffness in his figure as he stared out across the yard at nothing.

“Don’t mention it,” I said.

“So this person,” he began again presently, in what I might have called a careful tone if I could have thought him capable of that.  “This person who hurt my friend… he’s killed eight people, right?”

As I realized why he was asking this, I was a little surprised at my own reaction: an abrupt sinking of heart.  I was certainly taking care as I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah, you always get to play with the psychopaths, don’t you?”

“The doctor made much the same comment.”  I was still wary, not daring to hope the danger had been averted.

And it hadn’t.  “So what do you know about the guy so far?”

“Nothing.”  Normally I wouldn’t be so quick to admit such a complete lack of results even on a case I had only very recently taken, but I didn’t want to give him anything he might see as a clue lest he… get in my way.

“Nothing?” he echoed suspiciously.  “You’ve been in town since last week and you just found a fresh corpse yesterday, and you still don’t know anything about the murderer?”

I must have been tired from staying up all night: his skepticism was slightly flattering; I wouldn’t have guessed he thought so highly of my abilities.  That didn’t change the situation, however, and I threw back his earlier words: “You can’t get much more specific than ‘nothing.'”

He rose and turned to face me, staring me in the eye much as Takani had earlier. But unlike her, Sagara had no issues with arguing. “You’re lying,” he stated flatly.  “You’d be way more annoyed if you really didn’t know anything.  You’re lying ’cause you think it’s none of my business.”

“It is none of your business,” was my cool response.  Of course he’d really only been skeptical because he didn’t want to believe I had no information.  “It’s police business.”

“Bullshit,” he said emphatically.  “You wouldn’t tell the families of the victims that it’s none of their business, and you said yourself I’m as close as Katsu’s got.”

“I would tell them that, if they were likely to get in my way.  But I’m not lying,” I added before he could retort.  “Whether you choose to believe me or not is your own business, but all I have at this point is speculation… and that won’t give you any skulls to crack.”

“Well…”  It seemed I’d convinced him, for his anger had cooled.  Or at least his specific annoyance at me had. “What do you speculate?”

He’d grown much stronger since our last don’t-get-involved argument, but somehow my desire for him not to get involved was also that much stronger.  And while I wouldn’t hesitate to lie to him to accomplish that, there was no lie in this situation that was likely to be as effective as the truth.  So I answered immediately, hoping to give the impression of compliance despite fully intending to give him more questions than answers.  “Your friend’s presence would complicate even the most straightforward investigation.  A political journalist doesn’t become a witness to a murder like this by coincidence.”

“Right,” Sanosuke muttered thoughtfully.

“But did they mean to leave him alive? If so, why?  Does he have some information they want to see published, or is there another reason?  If not, why do they want him dead?  Does he know something they don’t want to get out?  And why did he survive?  Is the murderer simply sloppy?”

My companion’s face was now very serious and contemplative, and, given that rare circumstance, I thought I could be forgiven for staring.  He didn’t seem to notice or care.  “I’m surprised you’re not in there questioning him to death,” he finally remarked.

“If he does know something that’s related to this, he’s not aware of it, or he would have told you; I’m sure he trusts you enough for that.  Our only option is to keep an eye on him in case the murderer really does want him dead.”

Sanosuke took the bait.  “Oh, believe me, nobody’s gonna touch him again,” he vowed darkly.  “And if somebody tries… well, I’ll solve the case for you.”

I gave him an assessing look, not because I was considering options but because I wanted him to think I was.  This should keep him out of my way at least for a while, let him think he was helping, and (I thought) put him in no more danger than he would already have been in.  I agreed with Takani’s assessment — the murderer, who was primarily after blood, hadn’t expected to find Tsukioka there and, in getting him out of the way, hadn’t cared whether he lived or died.

“Fine,” I said at last.

Sagara’s expression turned skeptical again.  “What, you’re gonna let me do that?”

“I can hardly keep you from hanging around your friend, and you’ll probably be a much more competent bodyguard than anyone I could assign from the police force.”

This time he frankly gaped.  “Did you just call me ‘competent?'”

“It was relative, but, yes, I believe I did.”

“Holy shit…”  He had looked down, and I might have been mistaken, but I thought he was blushing slightly.  I was probably mistaken.

Part 5

As early as the next day, I’m forced to think about the ‘vampire’ issue again. A new body has turned up, this one in a small grocery store dumpster used for the disposal of old frying oil. Cause of death was the same, but a little more care was given this time to the subsequent disposition of the corpse, and the shape of the container and the weight of the victim make it unlikely that only one person was involved in hiding the body… These facts make my colleague somewhat wary of assuming he’s even dealing with the same murderer. But how many murderers with vampiric aspirations can there possibly be in this city? And if one or more of the crimes was imitation, which was the original? Interesting as it is, I’m grateful this isn’t my case.

Unfortunately, this discovery has been largely publicized. Last night’s news (which I, regrettably, skipped watching) talked about it, for one thing, and before I get the real details at work that day I’ve heard of it from no fewer than three of my neighbors. Whether they’re trying to comfort themselves with the reminder that they have a cop in the near vicinity, see if they can be the first to tell that cop about a murder, or just garner my approval on the plans that are evolving in the area, I don’t know.

Because plans are certainly evolving. The murder wasn’t precisely in the neighborhood, but close enough that the families in my apartment complex are thrown into a subdued panic of carpool and neighborhood watch arrangements. I know that fervor will die down after a few uneventful weeks — possibly even a few uneventful days; it always does. People strive for complacency, after all, to the point of disregarding a real threat the moment they’ve ‘done their part’ to prepare for it.

Besides instilling in my neighbors the aforementioned paranoia, this affects my life by shutting down the closest grocery store, probably for several days. Which is why Friday evening finds me walking to a convenience store just around the corner, rather than wasting the gas it would take to drive all the way to the next-closest grocery store, in search of macaroni and cheese.

Renee would certainly tease me about venturing forth on foot in the middle of a murder scare to buy what she calls fake food, but the shopping I planned to do tonight now isn’t going to happen. Of course, I would have bought macaroni and cheese at the grocery store anyway; it isn’t an inability to cook real food that makes this item a regular in my kitchen, but rather a hypersensitivity to the pointlessness of spending much time or effort making anything complicated for myself alone.

The local juvenile-delinquents-in-training that are always at the gas station pretending to be some variety of hardcore, knowing me for a cop, slink off as I approach, leaving the exterior of the store vacant and silent. Silent, that is, except for a couple of voices I can just hear conversing quietly around the corner of the building. It seems an unlikely place for a drug deal — though god (and the entire precinct) knows that well-off neighborhoods like this can produce some phenomenally naïve dealers — but since it also seems an unlikely place for any entirely innocent conversation, I stop to listen for a moment before going inside.

“–know you were back in the country until today,” a woman is remarking in a chiding tone. “You need to get a new cell phone.”

“Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed,” replies a man’s voice, “I’m not in much position for a credit check, and the prepaid ones don’t cover half the places I go.”

Startled and experiencing abruptly some of the same agitation as a few nights before, I stiffen and listen harder. It’s that vampire boy.

I have no idea when I started thinking of him that way.

“There are channels…” Having identified the young man, it isn’t difficult to recognize the other as the woman who approached me last night. Megumi.

“Fuck them,” says the young man, dark and vehement.

“My thoughts exactly,” Megumi agrees.

“Besides, they’ve figured out my connection to you across the whole damn country by now; they wouldn’t do a thing for me.”

She laughs mirthlessly and then (to judge by her tone) changes the subject. “So do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here?”

“No clue.”

“I thought the police might be farther along than they usually get when I felt the touch on one of them, but it was just…” Here she seems to trail off in some sort of hesitation.

“Yeah,” the other puts in abruptly, harshly. “Just him.”

Silence ensues, and lasts so long I think the conversation must be over. But then the young man goes on, now in a tone that sounds so close to tortured as to be entirely absorbing, “He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

“I know,” she replies quietly.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–”

“I know,” she repeats, interrupting. “I know.” Without missing a beat she goes on in Japanese, and he answers in the same language.

This transition doesn’t make their conversation any less comprehensible, but I have no doubt that I am the ‘fucking cop’ and that they’ve stopped using English because they know I can hear them. They know I’m here. I haven’t made a sound; I haven’t stepped forward or even moved; I feel I’m barely breathing in my efforts to catch every word… yet somehow they know I’m here.

Which means there’s no reason to keep pretending I’m not.

Walking quickly around the corner, I find myself in a sort of alley between the store and the car wash, the kind of place that seems to have been built deliberately for the kind of young men with nothing better to do that my approach spooked just a few minutes ago. It couldn’t have been constructed with much else in mind, given that it’s too narrow to house anything beyond a few large trash cans and a lot of grime.

And it’s empty.

That my first thought is, Of course it’s empty; they can probably fly, isn’t even my greatest source of chagrin; rather, it’s that it takes me nearly a minute to recognize that this was my first thought and react to it with proper disdain.

Normally this kind of stupid semi-subliminal fixation with an absurd idea would somewhat irritate but mostly amuse me; that I’m more disturbed by it than anything else in this situation suggests that it has taken far more hold of my subconscious than I really want to admit. It almost makes me angry to find myself searching the rooftops of the two buildings with my eyes, to admit thus that I don’t find it totally illogical to think the speakers might have escaped in that direction.

But, really, where they’ve gone is probably the least compelling question of the evening. Questions… I need more questions, don’t I? I feel like I should be writing them down, there are getting to be so many of them.

Beyond merely wondering at the meaning of that strange conversation, I wonder that I caught it at all. Either they deliberately allowed me to hear, or they didn’t notice at first that I was there. And since what I heard meant almost nothing to me, I have to assume the latter… and therefore that this place is a customary haunt for the young man. A block from my home.

So it appears that it isn’t his intention merely to give me an ultimatum and come back when the time is up; he’ll be watching me through this week of his. Why? Does he expect some specific reaction from me? Or is he just curious how I’ll behave under these strange circumstances? Perhaps I’ve become the subject of an undeclared, unethical psychological experiment, and there will be a reward once it’s all over if I get through with sanity intact.

Why does it bother him so much that I’m a cop, though, and what did he mean by ‘again?’ There was something in his tone as he made that remark that was completely riveting. Despite Megumi’s comment about the police being ‘farther along than they usually get,’ which logic suggests should be the most interesting part of the exchange, my mind keeps returning inexorably to the pain in the young man’s voice as he seemed to deplore my being a cop. ‘Again.’ It was the manner of one struck unexpectedly with a tragic memory, and I simply can’t think what it might mean.

If he really were a vampire… But I cut that thought off before it can bloom into absurdity. It wouldn’t provide an explanation anyway.

How long I stand in that little alley I’m not sure, but it must be quite a while; when I leave it I find that the loiterers have returned. And the irritation on my face must be rather severe, for at my appearance they scatter even faster than before.

It’s reassuring, at least, how easily I can transition from thinking about vampires to shopping for macaroni and cheese, as I’m fairly certain that means my subconscious really isn’t as convinced as some of my thoughts seemed to indicate it is; surely I would not be able so smoothly to return to the mundane of the familiar world if I truly believed I was being stalked by vampires.

I am being stalked, though, and what I should do about it (if anything) I don’t know. The woman assured me that they have no ‘criminal intentions’ toward me, but do I believe that?

“He’s a cop again, Meg. A fucking cop.”

Perhaps the young man has done this before to others — whatever it is that he’s doing — and I’m not the first policeman in his lineup. The anguish in his tone, though, which would seem to indicate that he finds it an unpleasant, even painful task to carry out makes that theory incompatible with ‘no criminal intentions.’ Other than this, I have no theories.

And why should I continue to theorize, when the issue is so obviously beyond my comprehension at this point? Personally, there’s nothing I can do about this: they are clearly capable of evading me with apparent ease; legally, I still don’t really have a basis for action, and in any event just the thought of the phone call to the precinct to report the supposed crime makes me almost shudder with chagrin; mentally, persisting in my speculations will get me worse than nowhere: if I keep up at the rate I’m going, I might well have some sort of breakdown before the week is over.

Presumably the latter will bring the answers I need. It had better, I find myself thinking grimly as I head back home with my pseudo-groceries. And despite the resolution I’m forming about this entire affair, I still have to force myself not to look behind me at every other step to see if I’m being followed. Not that I would probably see them anyway, even if they happen to be there.

Part 6

I wasn’t particularly given to discouragement, but to irritation certainly, and I was starting to become rather irritated with this case. A thorough retread of the scene of the latest murder and a similarly meticulous review of everything we knew so far had been completely unenlightening. I had to keep reminding myself that such a reexamination could never be a waste of time — given that sudden epiphanies about things like this usually arose from collected subconscious understanding — just to prevent myself from considering the entire day meaningless. Still, if Hironaku’s investigations into Tomizawa turned up nothing inspiring, I couldn’t help feeling I might as well not have gotten up this morning.

Ironically, this total lack of progress on my part did little to reverse my opinion of the prior two investigators of the issue; I was just as certain of their incompetence as I would have been had I shown up in Tokyo and solved the case overnight. Perhaps this was a double standard of sorts, but I honestly didn’t care.

Eventually Hironaku entered my office looking concerned. Though not an immediate source of worry since he often looked that way, this wasn’t terribly encouraging either; presumably he wouldn’t look that way if he’d had any success. “Well?” I asked.

He started his report standing at attention, and eventually in some annoyance I gestured for him to sit down. It seemed I’d been right about Tomizawa: at least on the surface, the man was utterly unconnected and uninteresting — though he was the same class of businessman as half of the victims. That wasn’t the inciting part of Hironaku’s account, however.

“There was something strange about everyone I talked to,” my dutiful assistant was adding after he’d given me all the facts. “I’m almost certain they’d all been questioned about this before, and not long ago. They seemed intimidated somehow. It looks as if we’re not the only ones investigating Tomizawa.”

I frowned. Although there were quite a few possible explanations for this (among them that Hironaku was simply imagining things), my mind for some reason jumped straight to one potential answer in specific and clung there. I couldn’t help recalling the furnace that had been Sagara’s eyes yesterday when he’d asked about the person who’d hurt his friend, and Tomizawa’s name had been the only thing like a clue that he’d had taken from that conversation. If he’d gotten started on it then, he could well have reached all of the people Hironaku talked to before the latter did. I wouldn’t have thought him that resourceful, but…

Well, it was still just a guess in any event. But, given Sagara’s tendencies to involve himself in anything that held the prospect of a good fight, to stand up for his friends to the point of almost suicidal recklessness, and to do exactly what I told him not to do, it wasn’t exactly unprecedented. And even if he wasn’t behind this, checking on him to make sure he wasn’t up to anything else didn’t seem overcautious.

Hironaku made his usual polite inquiry, “Sir?”

I stood up, apparently with some abruptness if Hironaku’s slight start was any indication. “Look into his business and see if he has any connection there with any of the victims,” I ordered; “we’ll drop this if he doesn’t. I’ll deal with the third party.”

Hironaku made a (rather annoying) curious face, but only said, “Yes, sir.”

Alternately relieved at having some kind of next step to take even if it had little to do with the actual case, irritated almost to the point of anger at Sagara for this as-yet-hypothetical behavior, I went first to the Oguni clinic to look for him.

The look with which Takani greeted me, however, was not at all promising, given that I hadn’t had a cigarette for hours and therefore knew her disapproval didn’t stem from that. A sort of flash of dark triumph showed in her eyes, though, as she seemed to consider something for a moment before saying anything. “They’re not here,” she finally announced.

I shook my head, annoyance and suspicions growing. “Why doesn’t that surprise me…”

“Sanosuke felt he could guard his friend better at his own home, or something like that,” she explained, sounding somewhat exasperated, “and wouldn’t listen to anything I said. It didn’t help that Tsukioka-san is just as reckless and pigheaded as he is.”

“Tsukioka may not be thinking clearly,” I reminded her.

She acknowledged the point with a nod; then that same triumph of a few moments before flickered again in her eyes as she said, “Which makes it entirely Sanosuke’s fault.”

That had been the only reason I’d mentioned it, so I merely nodded as well. Obviously she’d known I wasn’t going to be pleased about this, and was looking forward to having revenge for Sagara’s complete disregard of her concern for her concussed patient exacted through me. I had to admit, I was going to be glad to comply, since I was almost certain Sagara had moved Tsukioka to his own home so he could keep a more consistent eye on him during his comings and goings as he got in the way of my case.

“If you do go over there–” She pronounced this very casually, as if there were any question in the matter– “do make sure Tsukioka-san isn’t moving around too much, won’t you?”

“Certainly. And if you see Sagara before I do,” I added darkly, “don’t mention that I’m looking for him.”

“Certainly,” she echoed, her eyes flashing again.

I smirked slightly and left her.

It occurred to me to wonder, during my carriage ride from the clinic to Sagara’s neighborhood, why I knew where he lived at all. My ally the good doctor hadn’t needed to tell me his address yesterday, and futilely I tried to recall why I’d ever looked it up, an event which I thought had actually taken place the last time I’d been in Tokyo. It was lucky, given that circumstance, that he was even in the same apartment now as then. Not that any of it mattered; it was simply a natural train of thought consequent on going there for a second time in two days.

On reaching the disreputable longhouse, I lifted a fist to knock (pound, rather) on the patched door, but changed my mind as I remembered him neglecting to lock it on the way out yesterday. Testing, finding it unlocked again (or still), I entered without warning.

The place only had one room, so everything was immediately visible: Tsukioka on a futon in the corner, Sagara sitting next to him, apparently in the middle of a relatively quiet conversation and both foolishly drinking sake despite one’s wounded state. Sagara broke off whatever he was saying as I opened the door, turning and beginning an irritated demand, “And who the hell–” but stopped short when he saw me.

If he couldn’t tell by my face that I was upset with him, my practically slamming the door behind me would have made it evident. His tone was already defensive as he wondered, “What do you want?”

“I told you to stay out of this,” I replied stonily without preamble.

His undecided expression settling into a scowl, he growled back, “So? Like I give a shit what you tell me.”

All suspicions confirmed, I didn’t even bother to ask for particulars, but went on with the tactic I thought would probably be most effective. “While you’re out playing vigilante, interfering in police business, your friend here is likely to get assassinated.”

“Why the hell do you think we left the clinic? They won’t know he’s here–”

“Oh, of course,” I broke in with heavy sarcasm, “they’ll have an extremely difficult time guessing he’s gone to his best friend’s house. How long did it take you to come up with that brilliant plan, ahou?”

Sagara sprang to his feet, fists clenched. “Well, if they do come here–”

Again I interrupted; I was in no mood for excuses. “You’ll be out intimidating witnesses I’d prefer to have compliant? What’s your plan in that case, to have him blow up your apartment defending himself?”

“What makes you so sure they’re gonna come after him anyway?” Sagara took a step toward me, clearly ready for a fight. “You don’t even know what’s going on or who we’re up against or why Katsu got attacked in the first place. For all you know–”

“There is no ‘we’ in this, boy.” My own fists were clenched by now; if he wanted a pummeling, I was ready to give him one. “Nor are you in any position to be telling me what I do and don’t know about my own case.”

This seemed to anger him more than anything else I’d said. “So you were lying to me yesterday.” He was shaking his head slightly, and I thought that, for some reason, in addition to being irate, he was also maybe a little hurt. “My best friend gets half-killed, and you give me a bunch of bullshit to try and keep me from getting revenge. You are such a bastard.”

Absolutely nowhere was where I’d feared we might go with this, and those fears were justified more with every passing moment. It was interesting that Tsukioka wasn’t taking part in the exchange, though he was watching intently… perhaps he was still unwilling to talk to me, or maybe simply didn’t have the energy. At any rate, continuing my attempts at rational persuasion was obviously a complete waste of effort. “This is the last time I’m going to tell you without beating it into you,” I said in a tone of finality: “I don’t want you involved in this.”

Sagara’s flaring anger was almost visible in the air around him, and, as such, so was its unexpected cessation; it was like watching a fire die down as something seemed to strike him and he looked at me with a strange expression.

“‘I don’t want you involved,'” he repeated slowly, almost as if to himself, and then again, with heavier accents, “‘I don’t want you involved.'”

He was right; that had been an odd way to word it. This wasn’t his business, he was going to get himself killed, I didn’t need some idiot getting in my way, certainly… but to imply that I personally had some desire for him specifically not to be involved… It may have made my reply a little more caustic even than I’d intended: “Keep repeating it until you have it memorized, ahou, if that’s what it takes. Because if I get so much as a hint that you’re sticking your nose in my business again, I’ll break it along with the rest of you.”

Still he was giving me that look that I didn’t quite understand (or perhaps just didn’t want to), and either had no reply or was, for once in his life, restraining himself. But since the conversation was obviously over, I turned and left.

I’d really expected physical violence from that scene, and wasn’t entirely sure why it hadn’t turned out that way. On some levels Sagara was as incomprehensible as he was asinine, and I thought it was safe to say that I found him as aggravating as he obviously found me, for all I didn’t throw tantrums about it like he did. He was probably back there right now pouring out his irritation to Tsukioka the unfortunate captive audience, whereas nobody would be hearing from me about any of this.

Still, I was stalking away from his apartment with a severe scowl, cursing this maddening end to an unproductive day, Sagara for his stupid persistence, for his expressive face, for picking up on the fact that there might be reasons I wasn’t admitting for not wanting him involved, and for forcing me to say even that much.

Part 7

I’m struck, somehow, by the details of my surroundings. Or, rather, I’m struck by my attention to the details of my surroundings. For while the surroundings themselves are not entirely consistent — the settings alternating from one moment to the next — no matter where I find myself, I view the area with wearyingly, almost painfully precise, acute observation.

At times the stone walls of a labyrinthine cavern surround me. The rock is a dark, slightly warm-tinged grey, uniformly rough-textured, except where mineral deposits liven its surface with off-whites, yellows, and soft oranges in smooth streaks. Fantastically-shaped columns in all these colors rise like strange, unbearably slow-growing plants, marching away in infinite variety into the darkness not far to either side. The scene is lit only by a small flickering light like a fire of some sort; I think it must be an old-fashioned lamp or torch, though no such object is visible.

A web-like network of paths, smoothed to a dull shine by the passage of countless feet, oddly clean of debris and even dust, wind their diverse ways among pointed spires tapering to water-touched tips, boulders so large their full extent cannot be seen in the limited light, misshapen pillars that presumably reach the invisible ceiling, and sudden drops into abyssal darkness. On the rare occasion when the cavern roof dips low enough to be seen, I note that it’s as uneven as the floor, hung with lethal lengths of stone reaching their fragile points down toward me as if regarding me with the same minute attention I give to them as long as they’re in view.

The air is very still, damp with a cool wetness that makes me think somehow of clammy, unresponsive flesh, and faintly acrid. The silence breaks only to the echo of my footfalls and the occasional, distant sound of water dripping into some invisible pool.

At other moments, however, I traverse the claustrophobic corridors of some strange building or complex. The wood forming the old-fashioned paneling that criss-crosses the walls and ceiling is slavishly neat and well cut, and has a preternaturally even grain like the plasticky fake oak coating on cheap plywood furniture. There is a smell like that of fresh-cut wood, but beneath this lingers the same scent of acrid minerals and damp stone as the first setting, and I’m not fully convinced they aren’t actually the same place. The same mysterious light even accompanies me here as it does through the other locale.

Beneath the wooden decorations, the walls and ceilings are neatly plastered and painted, and I have a feeling that all of this covers hard cut stone. The hallways are eight feet wide and the ceiling precisely as high, and this, combined with their seemingly endless length into darkness and the suddenness of crossing ways’ appearance at either side, gives them an increasingly close and paranoid feeling in direct contrast to the cavern’s open moroseness. In fact, as I proceed, a sensation of discontent — of fear, even — grows steadily on me until the speed of my steps is almost double what it was when I began to explore.

Along with this comes, inexorably, the awareness that he is here. Exactly what connection this awareness has with the fear, the nature of the fear, or the continuing evolution of the fear, I can’t tell — but there’s undoubtedly a correlation.

Then, at times, I’m elsewhere; and, while I return continually to the two underground locations, and walk without destination there, this third option is never the same place twice, and my actions fit the circumstances. These scenes hold more narrative cohesion (within themselves, not with each other), as if they’re interpolations of clear but unfamiliar memory into an unsettling, nonsensical main story.

Like me, he’s moving alternately through the corridors and the cave; but whereas my progress is aimless and random, his is purposeful and directed. He’s coming closer. He’s coming to me.

Naturally this alters the nature of my own movement; it’s now as pointed as his. I don’t think I’m afraid of him, precisely, but I don’t want to meet him. And I am afraid of something. It’s a strange, almost giddy sort of fear, intoxicating and not all together unpleasant. In fact, it feels very much like the nervous excitement I remember feeling as a child playing hide-and-seek or certain varieties of tag. Here and now I find this reaction rather annoying, since I don’t consider this a game.

And he’s getting closer.

Heat washes over me even in the dead of night as I sit with my back to the low wall my compañones and I put together for defense. My gun propped at my side and the dull pain of a recent, treated injury throbbing in my left thigh, I remove my helmet and sponge the sweat off my face with a sun-bleached, fraying handkerchief, then return to eating the bitter pomegranate in my hand and occasionally chucking the seeds to a couple of nighttime crows.

He sits nearby, unconcerned with danger or cover, atop the stacked stones of the wall, wordless but speaking volumes with his presence. He’s clad like I am — like a soldier — but a single glance is enough to show that he’s not really one of us. His eyes glow faintly in the dark.

Evidently he knows the cave and the passages better than I do, for he subtly maneuvers me into one dead end after another. Every time I encounter one of these spots — where the path I’ve taken ends in a precipice or dives into a glassy pool, or the hallway I’m walking turns a corner that brings me abruptly face-to-face with converging walls — I’m forced to double back, and can feel the distance between us closing more rapidly. It can’t be long now.

Eventually I catch a glimpse of him leaving some spot I just traversed, and begin to run. It seems stupid, but I can’t stop myself; the agitation of the scene has approximately doubled at the sight of him, brief and unclear as that was — though he is not what I fear. Oddly, another sensation joined the fear at that moment as well: the feeling that, for all my reluctance to encounter him, still I want to. He’s only trying to get to me, after all… he’s been following me for so long… he must be so tired…

Mobbing the officials checking passbooks seems reckless, but if not now, when? Cries go up from all sides enumerating the grievances my people have suffered, and the entire busload of workers leaving the Bantustan for their daily toil surges forward. We have no cover, no weapons, and no great hope, but it seems we’ve chosen this time and place to take a stand as so many others have been doing over the years throughout the country we long to reclaim.

Through the chaos of shouting, the shots fired as the first police arrive, the crashing of cars and equipment beaten and overturned, only one thing remains constant: the light pressure of a cold hand on my elbow.

When next he catches up with me, I take a moment to look more closely at him before moving on. This steadier observation is no clearer, however. In direct contrast to the continually sharp detail all around me, he seems strangely blurred and imprecise. In fact, all I can make out of him most of the time is a vaguely human-shaped group of colors: brown, tan, black, white, red. As I begin running again — still unable to bring myself to endure an encounter — I reflect that the details are there; the problem is in my own eyes. Or, rather, in my mind — it’s almost as if something inside me simply refuses to recognize him.

Weariness has joined the other sensations with which I’m struggling, and my steps begin to drag. The burning sluggishness gradually suffusing my limbs only increases the other agitation, and heightens the awareness that it can’t be long before this all comes to an end. What end that will be I don’t like to think.

For maybe the hundredth time, I reassure my husband that we’re not sending military support against Iran and, in my position as solely an aide, I’ll be in little danger. The look on his face forestalls me reminding him, in this instance, that even should I end up in danger — even should the worst occur — I’m proud to face it while serving my country. Instead, I set down my carry-on and pull him to me for one last kiss before I leave for at least the next eight months.

And from across the terminal, I can feel him watching. I can’t see him and wasn’t aware until this point that he was here, but I know that gaze: focused and intense, bright brown like a bird of prey, unblinking.

Suddenly the boxy corridor draws up at a blank wall. For a moment my mind is equally blank as I glance from one corner to another, looking for a means of escape that does not exist, trying futilely to decide what to do. There is nothing to do. As I turn I hear his footsteps just around the corner.

Again his appearance seems to augment everything I’m feeling; now nearly in a panic and weary almost beyond endurance, I stumble back. I want to reach out to him; I wish I could pull him away from the terror that hovers around him like a cloud but is not a part of him. I do reach out, in fact… but only as I retreat. Unable to take my eyes off him in the grip of some sort of slowing paralysis, I move sluggishly from him, back, back, back… until I hit the wall.

There is nowhere else to go.

He steps toward me.

I wake up with a jerk.

As my harsh breathing and pounding heartbeat calm and the heat of nightmare fades in the cool normalcy of my dark bedroom, I stare up at the ceiling in some turmoil of mind. What the hell was that? I haven’t suffered from bad dreams since childhood, and why on earth should I be dreaming about him in any case?

Thanks to the haziness that surrounded him in those underground places, the majority of the dream, I don’t know how he looked there — though I’m certain his appearance was different than in what I’m pleased to call ‘real life’ — but I knew him beyond any doubt. It was the feelings that identified him: that fear, which, though prompted by his presence, was not specifically — indeed, was almost aggressively not directed at him; and the simultaneous sensation of strong sympathy…

I wish I had a name to call him by, even just in my own thoughts.

I know it’s simply the atmosphere — the dim light, the weariness of my body roused from sleep — but as I sit up with a sigh, I feel a nearly overwhelming sense of sadness, something severe that’s growing into what I might call misery.

This is very annoying.

As I rise and go in search of coffee — it’s early yet, but I might as well stay up, since I doubt I’ll get any more sleep — I count the days until the promised week will be finished and this will, hopefully, all be over. I base this hope, logically, on the idea that my current stress is caused by my lack of knowledge and combating desire to understand, and that once he’s explained the charade my life can therefore get back to normal. I base this hope, emotionally, on exactly that: hope. I’m not given to nightmares and confusion, and I don’t want to be.

Being forced to sit patiently — helplessly — and wait, sleepless and obsessing about the matter over coffee at four in the morning, isn’t helping. That young man is going to have a lot to answer for.

Part 8

“I feel like someone is… stalking me.”

I wouldn’t have heard this if I hadn’t been planning on spending only a short time at the police station that morning, since I was only in the habit of leaving my office door ajar under that particular circumstance. In fact, it was pure chance I was at the station at all; after two more days of absolutely no results on any front, I was utterly sick of the place.

“Someone has been following me,” continued the woman’s voice. She was undoubtedly talking to the officer whose desk was closest to my office door. “I tried to tell myself I was imagining things, but now somebody’s been inside my house… My brother tells me I’m being silly, but I’m very particular about my housekeeping and I know when something is out of place; I know when something is missing.”

The report I’d come here to consult locked back into my desk, I was moving toward the door when the next statement made me pause. The officer had asked politely for the woman’s name, and she replied, “Tomizawa Nori.”

Of course there were plenty of people in Tokyo called Tomizawa, but since it was a name of interest in my case I wasn’t going to ignore it. Positioning myself just inside the door, I listened now deliberately.

“Yes, my brother is Tomizawa Daitarou,” she went on. “I know he’s been in here a lot, but today I’m here without his knowledge. If he’d thought this was serious he would have come himself, and he won’t be happy I came… he doesn’t think anything is really going on. But, as I told you, I can tell.”

To his credit, the officer broke in at this point and attempted to get the information from her in a more organized fashion — but there was little more to be learned than her initial words had indicated. She kept mentioning her brother — who was, after all, the same Tomizawa that had employed the late Irutou — and I was amused to observe the mixture of emotions with which she spoke of him: though evidently proud of the relationship and happy to be associated with such a successful businessman, she just as evidently didn’t appreciate the way he at least attempted to run her entire life.

Interesting as this was, however, it was not useful. What did concern me was the basic fact: that someone connected to that single name Tsukioka had mentioned was being stalked none too subtly… and I was certain I knew by whom.

Now I was angry. Everything Sagara had done so far had been foolish and annoying, but at least it had made sense. This was just random and stupid, and now was causing the precinct pointless extra work.

I considered talking to the woman on the way out, but decided not to; it would be unwise to give her the impression that her brother was under any kind of suspicion — and further questioning in any other light would not make sense. Besides, I had other questioning to do.

Sagara was one of the few people I’d ever met that could make me genuinely angry rather than merely temporarily irritated. I didn’t like to think why this was, but it was a condition I could not ignore. And the ultimatum I would give him today was one he would not be able to ignore.

Stepping into his apartment, the first thing I saw was Tsukioka apparently hard at work, probably on his newspaper, at a dingy little table that stood on two legs, a large rock, and a piece of firewood. Though seeing someone so industrious under his own motivation — especially with the added inconvenience of a cast on his slung left arm — was good for my faith in humanity, none of this was particularly surprising: setting aside the condition of Sagara’s table, Tsukioka’s continued presence and improving condition had been reported to me by the lady doctor, who had visited daily as much at my request as out of her sense of professional responsibility. I thought she was still as annoyed with the two young men (particularly Sagara) as I was; she’d been happy to assure me that Tsukioka was recovering and hadn’t been attacked again.

Tsukioka looked up at me as I entered, his eyes dark and suspicious, and remarked, “In some cultures it’s considered appropriate to knock before entering.”

Ignoring this (not unintelligent) comment, I demanded, “Where is he?”

Tsukioka gestured, indicating the rear wall and, presumably, whatever lay outside. I stepped back through the door.

A dirty yard containing a privy separated the various buildings of this particular residential area, and here I found my quarry. Not expecting me and completely oblivious to my presence in the shadows just inside the entrance of the enclosure, he didn’t notice me until my hands actually gripped his collar. He gave a startled cry as I yanked him backward and stopped him from exiting the yard; I didn’t give him a chance for any further exclamation.

“I warned you to stay out of my business,” I growled, propelling him toward the nearest wall while his surprise still left him relatively mobile.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he yelped. Jumping back, away from me, regaining his balance and clenching his fists, he assumed what I thought he intended as a defensive stance. “I haven’t done a goddamn thing!”

“Tomizawa Nori,” I said, advancing. “Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”

He frowned, actually loosening his fists a trifle and straightening as he stared at me. “Who?”

“Don’t fuck with me.” I took the last few steps necessary to seize him again.

He struggled violently as I shook him, shouting directly into my face. “I don’t fucking have any idea who or what you’re fucking talking about!” He managed to land a blow on my chest, but it didn’t stop me from slamming him into the wall and holding him there.

“Don’t bother lying to me,” I hissed. “I don’t know what you think you’re trying to accomplish, but leave the woman alone.”

For a long moment, unmoving and almost limp, he stared into my face, his breath tangible against my lips, as wordless as if I’d actually stunned him — but I knew better; Sagara Sanosuke wasn’t stunned by such a small amount of rough handling. He was obviously trying to think of what to say next, whether because he didn’t feel he could keep lying and was deciding how much to tell me or because his anger had rendered him momentarily mute.

“I…” His brows lowered in an expression almost more of confusion than anger. “I’m not lying. I seriously have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Was it the unexpectedly grave tone? Was it the look in his eyes as he stared into mine? Whatever the reason, I believed him. More than that, I felt like I could trust him. Which was as stupid as it was unprecedented.

And yet it was an impression I could not dismiss. With bizarre suddenness I wasn’t upset with him anymore… further proof that I genuinely believed him, for whatever reason. With the anger gone, I felt only the weary frustration and confusion that were such an integral part of this case.

“Fine.” Why did my response sound so surly? More importantly, why did I seem to feel a certain comfort from his proximity, as if he were a shield against the aforementioned feelings? Why didn’t I let go of him, move away from him, once the word was spoken? He was staring at me now as if he wanted to ask the same question. Honestly I thought he knew the answer as well as I did, and the months of denial and repression were suddenly seeming like a profound waste of my time and his.

I saw the resolution half-forming in his eyes and the restrained tendency of his movement toward me. His dark brows jerked down and then up again as if he couldn’t decide, not merely what to do, but what to think or feel. After all, just a moment ago I’d slammed him into the wall and told him not to fuck with me, and now I was giving him some kind of look I surely never had before. But hesitancy did not become him.

Perhaps it was to teach him better, perhaps to overcome those of my own instincts that still thought denial was a good idea… whatever my motive, I pulled his body against my own and his face to mine so decisively that it could have been described as roughness.

It seemed a stupid moment for kissing, and yet I couldn’t help feeling a growing sensation of completeness… as if some fundamental desire like hunger or thirst was fulfilled after ages of abstinence. His form was hot against me, his lips eager, his arms around my neck. Clutching at him, kissing him hard, I felt inclined never to let go.

Which was all just really… stupid… at the moment.

I was supposed to be working; he was supposed to be staying out of my way… and if he hadn’t been harassing that Nori woman, who had? But I couldn’t take my hands off him; just at the moment, I couldn’t do without him. I’d been so frustrated lately; none of my efforts had been paying off… and the feeling of him so close, his compliance as I ground him against the hard surface behind, the desire I sensed in him… it was all going a long way to make things right.

It still seemed like a stupid moment for it, though.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so. When I finally pulled my tingling lips from his just far enough to draw a deep breath, he did likewise and admitted a little shakily, “I’m confused.”

I gave a short laugh. “As opposed to…?”

“Hey,” he protested, “don’t go pretending you still think I’m the world’s biggest idiot when you just kissed me like you were going to eat me.”

“I’m fairly certain I can do both,” I replied. I wasn’t really clearly aware of what I was saying, though… His arms had slid to my back and tightened… I hadn’t realized until this moment just how much I needed a chance to think about something besides exsanguinated corpses and untrackable murderers. Needed a vacation of sorts from the realization that I was failing continually to do my job and live up to my own standards. Needed to feel a lithe, willing body in my arms and discuss the minutiae of how that came about and what was going to happen next as if it were the most important thing I had to deal with right now.

“And how ’bout an apology for just assuming I was doing whatever you thought I was doing when I wasn’t?” Without giving me a chance to reply to this demand, however, he went on. “How the hell did that turn into kissing me, anyway? I mean, I knew you didn’t hate me as much as you pretended, but how did we go from ‘I warned you to stay out of my business’ to your tongue in my mouth?” He wasn’t adjusting to this change of dynamic nearly as smoothly as his cavalier words suggested; most of his face had turned bright pink — except for his cheekbones, which were more of a bright red — and his tone was uneven.

Again I laughed slightly. “I don’t want to think about my business any further at the moment.” I’d moved my face back toward his, and now spoke almost directly into his mouth.

“You’re a strange guy,” he whispered, raising his chin so that his lips came again into full contact with mine.

Absorbing heat from his solid form, responding in kind to the increasing eagerness of his mouth and hands, it was easy to forget everything else I was supposed to be worried about. As such, it was also a very simple matter to pretend — for the moment, at least — that the pleasure I derived from the taste of his kisses, the rippling of muscle across the small of his back beneath his gi, and the pressure of his hips against mine arose purely from its fulfillment of my need for a distraction.

His next statement, when our lips parted again, was made in a satisfied, confidential murmur that I rather liked. “It’s always pissed me the hell off how much I didn’t hate you. ‘Specially back when you kept beating me up every day. Took me a while to realize you might be the same way.”

At this I couldn’t help chuckling again. “You’re under a number of false impressions.”

He jerked back — not far, but even half an inch seemed quite a distance when my arms were around him. Rather than confused, this time he looked wary and perhaps a bit unhappy. That was quite a confession he’d just made, after all, and my words could easily be interpreted to mean I didn’t really care about him at all in return. And while I wasn’t ready to admit (even to myself) the extent to which I did care, I didn’t want him under the impression that I was playing with him. Not that I didn’t still save my reassuring point for last.

“I only beat you up twice,” I began, withdrawing one arm and raising a finger, “so ‘every day’ is an inaccurate description. And I could beat you up again any time, so your implication that those days are past is also in error.”

He listened wordlessly, still with that guarded look, as I counted off these points that would normally have angered him. That they didn’t in this instance told me he was even more worried about my final point than I’d thought. Raising a third finger I finished, “And don’t assume my mental processes are the same as yours… I’m more the type to deny and ignore an illogical attraction than berate myself for it.”

His consternation melted away into an open, pleased expression that went a long way toward erasing my lingering uncertainty about taking this step. “That does seem more like you,” he admitted, grinning. Again he raised his lips to mine and kissed me slowly.

He was very good at that.

“So you gonna start calling me Sano now?” was the next important matter of business he felt the need to introduce as my hands went about a leisurely exploration of his body. “Or is it still going to be ‘ahou’ all the time?”

“It will still be ‘ahou’ whenever you deserve it,” I replied immediately. Since he really didn’t deserve it at the moment, though, I added experimentally, “Sano…”

Perhaps it was my tone, or maybe the breath of the word against his ear, but he shuddered tangibly, stiffening slightly against me and letting out a little sigh. I found this somewhat extreme reaction to that one simple word rather arousing, and it was the growing sensation of intense physical desire that reminded me of the specifics of our present situation. This was neither time nor place to give in to that sort of impulse.

“God knows what your friend is thinking by now,” I murmured after another kiss; they were becoming increasingly difficult to pull away from.

Sano started. “Oh, shit, that’s right.” He moved away from me now just as indecisively as he’d moved toward me earlier — torn, I thought, between worry that Tsukioka might come looking for him at any time and curiosity about just how far I was willing to go in the relatively public yard behind his apartment. “He probably thinks I’m dead,” he continued pensively, “and if he hasn’t come out here to check yet, he probably won’t…” I could almost hear the unspoken, “So we might as well keep making out,” at the end of this, and chuckled yet again. “Or maybe he did come out and check already.” He blushed slightly as he added, “I probably wouldn’t have noticed.”

This made me laugh outright. “Ahou,” I said, and pulled him back against me for one more — just one more — kiss. “Go back in. I have to get back to work.”

“Oh.” He stared uncomprehendingly for a moment as I began to straighten and smooth the uniform his searching hands had disarrayed. “I– What? No!” He scowled at me. “You can’t just leave right after you–”

“You have a houseguest and I have work to do,” I replied in what I’d intended as a cool, authoritative tone but that came out sounding somewhat fond and amused. “I hadn’t meant for this to happen just now.”

“You probably hadn’t meant for this to happen ever,” Sano grumbled. Brightening slightly he added, “But I was just too damn sexy for you to resist!”

I rolled my eyes and said again, “Ahou ga.” But I couldn’t help smirking a little, since his statement was essentially true. “My point is that I don’t have time for you today. I’ve already been here longer than I should have.”

“When will you have time?” he wondered, part eager and part suspicious.

“I don’t know. In case you’ve forgotten, there’s still a crazy murderer out there somewhere.”

“I’ve been trying to forget,” he muttered darkly — then, throwing me a piercing look, added, “for you.”

Surprised into momentary speechlessness, I stared at him. Sagara Sanosuke, exercising deliberate self-restraint? For my sake? At last I said, “Thank you.”

Now he was staring at me. He’d probably never expected that phrase from my lips. Not that it was the first unexpected thing he’d received from my lips today. “You’re welcome,” he said. He continued in a tone suggesting he spoke almost against his will, “But if I do find out who did that to Katsu, nothing’ll keep me from going after him.”

Fleetingly he had that hard, deeply angry look in his eyes again, and I realized that his willingness to sit quietly and stay out of my business was probably actually based more on having no idea where to look or what to do than respect for my warnings. This should have annoyed me, but its only real effect was to make me laugh again. I hadn’t meant for this to happen today, but if I’d realized how therapeutic it would be I might have initiated it long before.

“Don’t laugh at me!” he protested, glowering. “Just because you’ve got no friends–”

I interrupted him with the command, “Go back inside.” Laying my hand flat against his chest I advanced, pushing him backward with every step. He only gave way, I thought, because he wasn’t really angry with me just then. He still appeared too surprised at this new development between us for any other strong emotion. There seemed to be a sort of glow about him, too — a flush of the face, a brightness of the eyes, an energy in his movements even greater than usual — and I wanted nothing more than to drink it directly from his heated skin. But there would be time for that later.

All the way across the yard he walked backward, staring at me with those shining eyes, but after he’d tripped a third time and nearly fallen he finally decided to turn and walk like a normal person. This was probably more in response to my mocking expression than the stumbles themselves. Near his door he stopped and again gave me his full attention. “When will…” he began, but trailed off with a pensive expression suggesting he was as uncertain about exactly what he was asking as he was of my probable response.

I shook my head. “I’ll come find you when I know.”

At first he seemed annoyed at this evasive answer, but after a moment he grinned and replied, “You know what’ll happen if you make me wait too long.”

I grimaced, and it was only half facetious. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“You better.” For an instant he flashed a smile at me that was astonishingly bright and evidently a good reflection of what was going on in his head — an open, guilelessly happy look that seemed to encompass not only his feelings for me, whose depth I had perhaps underestimated, but also the wholeheartedness and strength that were such an important part of his character — before turning away toward his apartment, leaving me staring after him with a heart pounding rather harder and faster than I was used to.

Part 9

In the midst of the turmoil my brain has been experiencing all week, it actually feels a little strange to be meeting Renee normally for a normal date as I might on any normal weekend. And I can’t decide whether a dose of such normalcy is more likely to be a good, healthy, grounding circumstance or only make things worse by contrast.

“Let’s go make fun of antiques on Old Center Street,” is Renee’s suggestion when I, unable in my distracted state to come up with anything acceptable, wonder what she wants to do. I agree readily, drawn somewhat out of my reverie by the pleasant idea. It’s interesting how many of our excursions start with “Let’s go make fun of–“

Old Center Street, the original main thoroughfare of the city, is relatively short and narrow by today’s standards, and features a lineup of old or at least old-style buildings that, this century, mostly sell useless and spectacularly tacky junk ranging in age from twenty to two hundred years. There are a few art galleries, pretentious jewelry stores, and hipster clothing shops tucked in among these, and Renee and I have made the tour a few times since we started dating. Added to the reliable entertainment furnished by the things people are willing to pay money for, a pleasant walk in nice weather is never unwelcome.

Whether or not it can distract me from vampires remains to be seen.

Renee is a corporate officer for a line of hotels, and it’s not unusual for any meeting between us to start with the details of her latest amusing and frustrating inspections. Her sarcasm is pleasantly familiar, but even the entertainment value (and outrage at the idiocy) of the employees that populate her buildings is difficult to concentrate on from the very moment she starts speaking.

I struggle to pay attention, to stay invested, as we amble along, but I find myself watching the shadows with a concentration of vision that renders my hearing a secondary consideration at best. It occurs to me after a while, only increasing my irritation with myself and the situation, that the sun is still up; why am I already looking around like this in the daylight? I’m no expert, but I believe the majority of vampire myth dictates death or injury as a result of UV exposure, and all my encounters with strange people thus far have been at night.

An antique store we’ve visited every single time we’ve come down here draws us in as usual, and the work-related conversation gives way to sotto voce commentary on the available goods and resultant assumptions about the mindsets of people in previous decades and centuries (as well as the mindsets of people willing to buy these things today at these prices). It is somewhat engrossing, I have to admit, and there are quite a few minutes — many of them stacked all in a row — inside the store during which I give not a thought to vampires or anyone masquerading as such. But the issue rises to the top of my consciousness immediately again when I step outside and observe that sunset it upon us.

“What are you looking for?” Renee eventually wonders, indicating that my attempts to at least keep my searching glances subtle, if I can’t eliminate them entirely, have failed.

“Nothing.” The idea of explaining does cross my mind, and in a serious way, but is dismissed after not too long. Aside from the irritating fact that I’m now operating under an assumption that I’m being constantly stalked, and therefore anything I say to Renee is likely to be overheard by one of those people, I also find I can’t be sure of her reaction. Would she worry about my state of mental health, or dismiss my fixation and concern as meaningless? Would she consider this a legitimate threat that requires an actual police response, or merely a dark practical joke? I don’t know, and it’s not a conversation I want to have. We’ve been dating for several months now, but apparently we just aren’t that close yet.

Neither of us is particularly demonstrative, so when she slips her hand into mine with a firm grip, I know it’s not a casual gesture, but a bid for my fuller attention. She’s a demanding person and often possessive, which I don’t mind in general because these are characteristics that we share, but right now her desire to be my sole focus, though totally understandable, is an inconvenience. And I find myself annoyed all over again at my supposed stalkers for their ruination, when I can’t even detect their presence yet and am only just assuming, of something as personal as a date with my girlfriend.

At this thought, a new (if interrelated) consideration arises within me: why am I allowing the behavior of others — in this case, merely their presumed behavior — to dictate my own? Am I not my own man, a responsible adult capable of decisions, motivations, and strength of character entirely unrelated to what those around me choose to do? Even if I am being stalked — and even if I am being stalked by vampires — that such a circumstance should ruin my evening out with my girlfriend only means I’m allowing it to do so.

It’s probable that my resolve regarding this matter has been weaker than it should have because I’m so unaccustomed to dealing with this type of distraction. When have I ever found something so gripping, so engrossing? I’ve had little practice keeping my head under such circumstances, so even where I feel I should excel based on my own natural propensities, I’ve been failing simply through lack of experience.

In order both to provide Renee with an explanation of sorts and to take control of my own experience and frame of mind, I decide to tell her about the murders. It’s not what’s really bothering me, but it’s connected.

“That isn’t your case, though, is it?” she wonders when, after glancing around to make sure no one detectable is listening in (I can’t do anything about anyone hypothetically lurking in the shadows), I’ve outlined what I know so far.

“No,” I reply. “But I’m sure you’ve heard about the latest murder. The body was found at the grocery store in my neighborhood.”

We’re walking along the lamplit sidewalk between stores, and she doesn’t slow as she gives me an appraising look. “Yeah, I did hear about that. It didn’t occur to me that was the one you shop at, but I guess it was.”

I nod. It’s possible she believes now — and my manner of presenting this would not have deterred the belief — that I have some level of interest in the case, possibly even some discomfort or concern regarding it, because of its closeness to home. Being so disingenuous with my own girlfriend may not be the optimal way of dealing with this situation, but it’s better than nothing, than not dealing with it at all.

That I’ve sunk to ‘better than nothing’ makes everything all the more galling.

“Someone’s obviously going out of their way to make these look like classic vampire attacks,” she muses, and I appreciate that she’s humoring me and engaging in conversation about this, even if vampires aren’t the topic I would really prefer at this time. “And you have to assume the average person doesn’t have the equipment or know-how — or patience — to drain large amounts of blood from bodies.”

I nod, trying to keep from glancing down the alley we’re passing as I do so. It’s getting darker and darker, and I’m not so much wondering whether one of those people is nearby as assuming they are and just wondering whether I’ll be able to catch a glimpse of them. This has gotten extremely stupid.

“That makes it seem less random, doesn’t it?” Renee goes on. “Somebody planned and bought equipment for this.”

Even as I’m agreeing with her and entering into a discussion of what equipment might allow the thorough bleeding of a human body through small wounds in the neck — and, though neither of us is anything like a medical professional, certain questions of blood pressure and the seeming difficulty of the task arise almost immediately — I’m remembering, with a bit of a chill, something I overheard that Megumi woman saying: “Do you have any idea who’s vagabonding around here? When I felt the touch on one of the police, I thought they might be farther along than they usually get.”

I’m coming to accept the fact that some part of me is taking the vampire idea entirely seriously, so it’s no surprise that that part feels some immediate, sardonic pity for my co-worker who isn’t likely to get anywhere on his case against a ‘vagabonding’ vampire. That same part of me wonders, furthermore, whether Megumi, with her holstered wooden stakes, is in the area to deal with the problem herself. If some vampires are the enemies of humanity and others are not, it seems the latter would feel a moral imperative to protect the weaker humans from the former. Somebody qualified had better be handling the matter, if the police are destined to fail at doing so, before more innocent people die.

Of course, maybe vampires simply don’t care about human murders. I’m pretty sure tracking down whoever is ‘vagabonding around here’ isn’t the reason the young man is present.

The rest of me, the part that believes itself the most rational and still insists that vampires can’t possibly exist, is simply more irritated than ever that I’m having these thoughts at all. It rededicates itself to the conversation with Renee, which may be about vampire attacks but is probably about the more human kind of monster the police are more accustomed to dealing with, no matter how much morbid know-how, patience, and purchased equipment they may have.

We look through a few shop windows as we carry our discussion onward, then cross the street and head back in the opposite direction, still leisurely doing the same, but make no move to further our original plan of browsing and deriving amusement from store contents. It’s as if we’ve come to an unspoken agreement not to get any closer to other people than we have to, whether because our conversation is confidential or because I’m still obviously distracted I don’t know.

And I wonder, as we walk, whether the growing sense that someone is watching us, listening to us, following us, is merely the inevitable result of my preexisting paranoia, or something more substantial.

Renee is too sharp for this. She knows perfectly well that I’m disengaged, even without my constant attempts not to look around trying to find the source of my suspicions. She knows I introduced the current topic of conversation in an attempt to keep up a real interaction with her, and she knows the degree to which I’ve failed. It’s no great surprise when, eventually, undoubtedly tiring of my half presence, she pulls my person two steps down the space between two buildings and my face down to hers for a kiss that’s far more pointed than passionate.

And now there can be no mistake: I’m certain I feel eyes on me, with every bit as much focus as Renee’s lips. It’s like a burning, not on the back of my neck since I can’t pinpoint any location so exact, but somewhere on my figure. And this time it’s undeniable.

As she draws away, Renee is giving me a piercing, calculating look. Clearly the purpose of that kiss was not to make another demand for my greater attention but to assess more precisely the lack thereof. And when I can’t help glancing around in a brief but undoubtedly quite visible (and futile) attempt at locating the fiery-eyed watcher whose scrutiny so intensified during the last several moments, my returning gaze finds Renee’s somewhat narrowed as she meets it.

“We should get going,” she says, and her tone is distinctly cool. I don’t think she’s necessarily upset with me, but she’s certainly not pleased with the situation.

I couldn’t agree more.

Part 10

I tried to insist I was surprised to find myself going to see Sano the very next day, but in fact it was no surprise at all: following yesterday’s unexpected, transformative encounter, I’d made little to no progress tracking down the murderer — still — and I found myself not only looking forward to having something else to think about, but actively yearning for his distracting company. Craving it. I knew I’d been long repressing an attraction to him, but I couldn’t help thinking it had broken out far more intensely than it probably would have if the dam hadn’t burst in the middle of a case like this.

This time I actually knocked, and relatively quietly too. The sun had only just disappeared behind the horizon, but I had no idea when Tsukioka was likely to be resting; no need to disturb him if I wasn’t here, for once, to wreak havoc of the peace of the household. Beyond that, I wanted Sano to come out here alone.

The way his face lit up when he saw who stood at his door was… not just gratifying, not just amusing and touching… it was exhilarating. And not simply because his face was so nicely shaped and that seeming inner light made him even more handsome and desirable; there was an answering spark in me, a flame fanned by the sight of him and his pleasure at seeing me, that was as galvanizing as it was confusing. I’d been away from him for months working in other parts of the country without any hint of discontentment; why did I find now, after barely a day and a half, that I missed him madly, was almost ecstatic to meet him again? It seemed I’d opened a greater floodgate even than I’d realized by admitting my interest in him. I would have to be careful.

This last thought, cold as it was and little quarter as I was inclined to give it right now, was reinforced by his manner of greeting me. After what had passed between us yesterday, I was expecting some enthusiasm, but I wasn’t expecting him to fling himself at me. He didn’t even bother to close his apartment door first.

Breaking the contact he’d initiated, not terribly happy with just how much I enjoyed the sensation of his breath against my face, I sighed, “You have absolutely no sense of discretion.”

“Never wanted one, either,” Sano replied lazily, grinning up at me.

I shrugged away from him, trying not to glance around to note the precise number and nature of passersby or neighbors who might have observed his attempted kiss. “Don’t get all over me in public.”

“That’s just like you.” Sano sounded annoyed. “We gotta sneak around. Keep things quiet. Don’t let anyone know that we might be human.”

“Who says I’m human?” I replied sardonically.

At this he appeared even more irritated, and, finally closing his apartment door, brought an accusatory expression toward me. “I’ve waited a fucking long time for you to get your head out of your almighty ass and pay some real attention to me,” he growled, “but no way am I going to do this if you’re going to be all embarrassed about me and pretend it isn’t happening.”

I wasn’t about to admit that he’d always had my attention, and to let him know that I didn’t think him nearly as worthless as he assumed I did would just be unsporting. “Good of you to realize how embarrassing it is for me to like someone like you…” I paused to admire the glow of anger in his eyes before continuing, “but that has nothing to do with it.”

“Well, then, what does?”

“I once stabbed you to make a point about the dangers of keeping people you care about around while you deal with serious situations.” Remembering the relative privacy we’d managed yesterday in the yard behind his apartment, I began walking in that direction.

Sano followed. “I thought it was to make a point about how Kenshin trying to protect people didn’t work.”

“It was a multi-pointed demonstration. What I mean is that it’s unwise for someone like me, someone in a position to have any number of enemies — especially right now when I have no idea who my enemy is — it’s unwise for me to publicize my close relationships.”

I thought he would protest further, but either he actually comprehended what I was trying to say or decided it wasn’t worth arguing at the moment. He only grinned complacently and echoed, “‘Close relationships…'” Then, the instant we were secluded within the yard that had been my destination, he was against me, pulling at me with strong hands mostly below the belt, dragging me into tight contact with him and leaning up to breathe into my ear, “You kissed me here yesterday, and it wasn’t even this dark out then.”

“And I would fuck you here right now,” I told him, almost growling in response to his groping hands, “if it were just a little cleaner.” My arms slid around him, reciprocating his suggestive gestures despite having just said that I didn’t intend to do what I was certain we both wanted.

His voice was husky and a little breathless as he said, “It’ll be really dark back here soon… You wouldn’t even notice how dirty it is.”

“I’d still be aware of it,” I said regretfully. “I’ve seen it in the light, and my imagination would make it worse when I couldn’t see it.”

He laughed, and the rich sound in the growing shadows was tinged with both amusement and a regret even stronger than mine. “It’s kindof insulting that you’d be thinking more about the walls and shit than me at a time like that.” His tone brightened as he added, “But it’s nice to know you do plan on fucking me sometime or other.”

“Right now is inconvenient,” I breathed into his neck.

Once again he didn’t protest when I expected him to. “Yeah, with Katsu here…” I could tell he was trying to stop pressing against me so meaningfully, stop grinding his hips against mine. He took a deep breath, drawing back slightly. “Well, at least kiss me.”

“Your self-restraint keeps surprising me,” I told him in perfect honesty. It wasn’t that I’d expected him to beg for sex right here and now — though, secretly, I might have liked him to — but neither had I expected this kind of forbearance from him, especially after I’d already been taken unawares by his consideration and constraint yesterday; I thought I’d reached my allotment for, oh, the next year or so.

“I think you’ll find I’m full of surprises,” he replied, and, despite his slightly flippant tone, I got the feeling he was quite serious; he was both chiding me for underestimating him and promising that there was more to him than he felt I was aware of.

He was wrong; I’d always been aware that there was an entire world beyond that shallow and careless exterior… but I’d certainly never let on that I knew, perhaps because I’d never before considered reaching into those depths and seeing exactly how far they extended. Now the thought of finding out everything that lay in that interesting space beyond the beautiful brown eyes unexpectedly caused me to shiver with an anticipation that, though it was not in itself physical, made me suddenly want to fuck him more than ever. Unfortunately, we’d already discussed and dismissed that possibility. So I just kissed him instead.

“You know, I honestly didn’t expect to see you again so soon,” he said eventually. “I figured I’d have to come looking for you and remind you I exist.”

After the consistency with which he’d returned to my mind even in the midst of the work I’d been doing, this idea was consummately absurd.

“What are you laughing about?” he demanded. “I’m serious. You think I don’t know your work’s more important to you than anything?” He added almost disdainfully, “I think I know you at least that well. Besides, aren’t you married? You probably already have shit to do after work.”

“Which is why I came here straight from the station today,” I replied with a touch of sarcasm.

“You are married, though, right? I thought Kenshin mentioned that sometime…” And now, though he was aiming for casualness, there was a certain concern in his voice as he essentially asked whether his involvement with me was causing infidelity on my part. Of course he wouldn’t like the thought of that. Neither would I.

“Technically, yes,” I answered. “It’s been more convenient not to divorce, but we’ve been separated for three years.”

On the east side of one of the surrounding buildings — Sano’s apartment, actually, if I was judging correctly — the shadows grew around us more quickly than in the rest of the yard. His shifting movement as he looked up at me, however, and what little I could see of his face told plainly that he was dying to ask why I’d split from my wife; he wanted reassurance that I was free to pursue whomever I preferred at this point, that this was all legitimate. Moreover, I thought, he wanted gossip.

“It was only natural,” I said, happy to give him what he wanted in this instance. “It was an arranged marriage. We never disliked each other, but there was never a strong attachment either.”

“No, no, no, you said that wrong.” I could hear the grin in the words. “You guys never disliked each other; therefore there was never a strong attachment.”

I laughed again. Trust him to put it like that.

Someone had entered the yard, no doubt on the way to the privy, and started at our presence. He couldn’t have gotten a very good look at us in the shadows, but whatever our low voices and close proximity to each other put him in mind of — a cop abusing his power, some kind of secret assignation, or the perfectly innocent (if fairly intimate) conversation it actually was — he hurried past with eyes averted.

Smirking, I went on in a quieter tone, “Tokio lives in Toyama with our three children. I don’t see them often, but we exchange a lot of letters.”

“Wow, three kids…” I wasn’t certain exactly what was in Sano’s tone. Jealously that I had three children with a woman he’d never met? Wonder at the fact that I was old enough to have three children at all? Or something else?

I decided to inquire. “Is that so unbelievable?”

“No…” He shrugged, biting his lip. “No, not really. It’s just… I mean… do you like them?”

So that was it. He still maintained some (probably more than a little) lingering suspicion that I was a heartless bastard, and was having a difficult time reconciling that with the idea of a fond father.

I chuckled again and, after the privy-using stranger had passed us once more and left the yard, started to do something I had never dreamed I might be even remotely inclined toward: tell Sagara Sanosuke all about my children.

It was, as the entire conversation had been, a profound relief. The topic was so far removed from the late local string of murders that I could almost pretend to forget the latter was taking place. Beyond that, I found myself enjoying the discussion for its own sake. I’d certainly never been one of those fatuous parents that rambled at length about every insignificant detail of their children’s lives, but my offspring were consistently fairly amusing and intelligent, for their ages, and I rarely if ever got the chance to talk about them.

Sano seemed more than a little intrigued — possibly because of that aforementioned lingering suspicion that no emotion so soft as fatherly affection could possibly exist in my heart, possibly simply because he liked children; whatever the reason, I appreciated his engagement and his interested questions.

I also got the feeling that he still wanted to do any number of obscene things to me right here and now, despite the unsexiness of our topic and the fact that we’d separated to a more reasonable distance for a conversation like this. And he was still restraining himself. The angle of his body, the pattern of his breathing, the way his eyes caught the occasional glint of light as they moved restlessly over me… these were the only symptoms he displayed, but they were clear enough.

This continued desire, the restraint, and even his evident absorption in a subject I hadn’t expected to engross him so readily made him that much more attractive to me as well. I was actually starting to consider lowering my standards of cleanliness and perhaps making use of this yard after all — despite the potential witnesses that occasionally passed through on their way to and from the amenities in back — when the conversation took a less pleasant turn.

It was inevitable, I supposed. Just because he’d refrained for a while from poking around in my business didn’t mean he’d forgotten about it, and I had mentioned that I sometimes described some of my simpler cases in my letters to my children. Even so, I could not but respond at first with an almost angry sigh when Sano asked how the murder investigation was going.

“That good, huh?” Though there was sympathy in his grinning tone, I still pinched his ass; it helped me resign myself to talking about this. “Hey!” he yelped, obviously having been expecting something else entirely from my moving close to him again. “What was that for?”

For no reason I could quite understand even in my own mind, I decided to confide in him. It was odd and seemed a little unwise, since, though things between us had changed, he hadn’t changed… but I wanted to trust him. I wanted someone to whom I could explain all my feelings of frustration and inadequacy regarding this case, and I wanted that someone to be him.

Fortunately, my good sense intervened. Maybe at some point I would be able to converse that intimately with Sanosuke, but that point was not the second day of our new relationship. Some things I would tell him; everything I would not.

“The name your friend provided may be of some use after all, but I’m still not sure yet.” Taking advantage of my regained closeness to Sano, I spoke in a low and guarded tone; I didn’t see anyone around at the moment, but this still wasn’t something I wanted to proclaim to the entire street. “Tomizawa fits the specific class that half the murder victims have been, and some of their deaths must have been advantageous to him in a business sense… but so far that’s all that links him to the crimes. Apparently he hasn’t changed his habits or acted at all strangely recently, and the people around him can verify where he’s been most of the time…”

“He hired an assassin?” Sano suggested.

“That’s the obvious conclusion,” I nodded. “The problem is that we’ve found no evidence of that yet… and he’s going to realize any time now, if he hasn’t already, that he’s under investigation, which will put him on his guard and may make evidence even harder to find.”

“Do you have to have evidence? Can’t you just go after him yourself?”

“I am authorized to carry out private executions,” I allowed, “but only when I’m personally convinced of someone’s guilt, and then only if the criminal seems likely to escape the law or cause serious trouble before he can be brought in. And I’m not convinced Tomizawa is our man.”

“Your job is so cool,” Sano murmured. He might as well have said, You are so cool,” for the tone he used.

I wasn’t about to admit how much his admiration pleased me; instead I just kissed him again.

“So what do you do next?” was his next question. He’d seemed reluctant to pull away from the kiss, and it was interesting that, even so, he’d gone right back to the topic of the murder case. Where the previous question hadn’t, this one set off warning bells.

“Keep investigating Tomizawa,” I replied, deliberately vague.

“And didn’t you say some woman with that name was being harassed? You thought it was me, but since it wasn’t, who was it? Is that part of this?”

I had long denigrated Sano’s intelligence, mostly for my own amusement, but in reality I’d been perfectly well aware that he was far from the idiot I always named him. And I knew perfectly well what the eager yet contemplative tone in his voice meant right now. Sternly I said, “I told you to stay out of this.”

“Yeah, and then you kissed me so hard it practically gave me a boner. Mixed messages, I thought.”

I couldn’t help smiling, but my voice was dark when I answered with words whose significance he had specifically comprehended only a few days before and that should mean even more now: “I don’t want you involved in this.”

The moon had risen as we talked, and now, by its light that intruded into our shadowy corner, I could clearly see the scowl on his face. “You still think I’m weak, don’t you?” He sounded more unhappy than angry, but the anger was building.

“Only relatively,” I said lightly, and even I didn’t know whether I sought to tease or reassure. Either way, he couldn’t doubt my complete seriousness as I went on, “But, Sano, this murderer is a monster. It’s my profession to deal with him. It’s not yours.”

“I used to fight — sometimes even kill people — professionally too, you know,” he tried, sounding surly.

“But not anymore. There’s no reason for you to be involved in this now.”

He pulled away, and the sudden absence of his warmth against me left a coolness even greater than physical contrast could account for. “I don’t need this,” he said quietly. “I don’t know whether you think I’m going to get in your way and fuck things up, or if you’re trying to pull a Kenshin and protect me, but either way, you don’t have to, because I’m not weak.”

I didn’t know if I was more annoyed at the suggestion that I was ‘trying to pull a Kenshin’ or the fact that he’d completely ignored the possibility that I didn’t want to see him used against me by the unknown enemy. But I couldn’t throw him on the ground and kick open an old wound this time to make my point. Well, I could — and would, if he made me angry enough — but at the moment it didn’t seem the optimal course of action.

Instead I said tightly, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This is my job, which I’m going to do my way. It’s not your responsibility, and there’s no reason for you to get involved.”

“No reason except maybe I don’t want you involved with this monster either,” Sano shot back, “but since you have to be, it’d sure make me feel better if I could help.”

I stared down at him. It wasn’t that I couldn’t comprehend his frustration at the idea of being left behind or even the implication that he wasn’t strong enough… it was just that I hated the thought of him being exposed to a murderer who had, so far, drained all the blood from eight bodies… hated it even more than I’d suspected I would. And I appreciated his reciprocal desire for my noninvolvement — again, more than I’d suspected I would — but that didn’t change a thing.

“I’m sorry,” I said at last, “that I can’t take your feelings into consideration here.”

“Funny how you can take yours, though,” he said bitterly.

I was going to tell him that we couldn’t have it both ways. I was going to tell him that it made sense for him to be the one to give way in this scenario because I was assigned to this and he was not. I was going to tell him that it didn’t matter whether or not he was weak when the important factor was his level of strength relative to the anonymous murderer, and that was something we couldn’t know. I was going to tell him to stop being an idiot. I was going to tell him again that I was sorry. But I ended up telling him none of these things, because the irate, hurt expression on the face that caught the moonlight as he turned it up toward me suddenly affected me as it never had before.

“You know,” he said, “I’ve really been happy you came ’round tonight. But right now…” He broke off with a growl of frustration and turned away. Two steps from me he finished belatedly, “Good night,” unwillingly, as if he thought I didn’t deserve it but couldn’t bring himself to leave without it.

With very much the same attitude, I sent softly after him the only thing that was really available for me to say at that point: “Good night.” And though I was a little annoyed and more agitated, I refrained from adding, “ahou,” tempted though I was.

Part 11

On Sunday I allow a call from Renee to go to voicemail. It feels both rude and cowardly, but I don’t know what I could say to her. It keeps coming back to our degree of closeness and what I feel I can or can’t tell her. I have to admit I’d like to tell her about the strange things that have happened lately, the strange things I’ve been prompted to believe or at least start obsessing over, but I can’t foresee a good outcome to that venture.

Perhaps once this is all finished, when I know exactly what’s going on and can work from a position of understanding rather than confusion and doubt, Renee and I can have a long, elucidating conversation. Of course that’s assuming I do at some point discover what all of this is about, that it does end, and that I’ll have any desire whatsoever to talk about it by then. At the moment, my primary motivation for discussing it would be to gain insight and comfort in my confusion. In a more knowledgeable position I would not need either… and though I like Renee enough, and respect her opinion enough, to think I might enjoy hearing her take on this situation after it’s all over, will I feel the need to talk to her — or anyone — about it at that point? I’ve already established that I’m just not as close to her as I thought… it’s possible the urge won’t even arise.

Currently, I definitely don’t have anything reasonable to say to her, which is why I let her call go to voicemail. She’ll just have to guess where I am and what I’m doing that doesn’t allow me to take it. And since I do have a few errands to run, I have a legitimate excuse. Let her think I’m hooked up to headphones at the gym, or that I don’t get any reception at the cleaners picking up my laundry (which is true).

For never calling her back I have less excuse.

Sunday is difficult to get through for more reasons than that. Recognizing my own restlessness, I run not merely my usual weekend errands, but all the errands that could possibly need running — everything I’ve been looking for a convenient time to get done, regardless of whether today is actually a convenient time — but eventually, no matter how long I take, there are simply no errands left. Then, just as I feared, I can’t entertain myself for the rest of the evening via any conventional means. My mind wanders from television and from books with equal rapidity, and I can’t even pretend I don’t know exactly what it would rather concentrate on.

Eventually, in a move very uncharacteristic of me but that I’ve apparently been driven to, I spend the rest of the evening at the computer half-reading news stories, looking at memes that aren’t funny, and trying not to type vampires into any search engine or wiki. And I’m upset, still or again, at this commandeering of my attention by something I don’t even really understand.

On Monday, when it appears that the work to which I’ve dedicated my life is not going to be enough to occupy me fully in the face of this nonsense, I decide to take a different tack. Of course it would be optimal to do my job with as much devotion and concentration as usual, but since this clearly is not an option, I try to balance out the two things that are obviously going to be on my mind all day. Every time I start to get distracted thinking about the anonymous man or the woman Megumi and what I know — or guess — about them so far, I direct my thoughts into a very specific channel. As long as I’m essentially being forced to think about this, I might as well get some benefit from it.

So by the end of the day, piece by piece, I’ve come up with a narrative — a collection of theories, arising from everything I’ve observed and subsequent extrapolation, about what is going on and the intentions of the two strangers — working from a basis of belief that they are, in fact, vampires.

Entering into the thing so credulously is a sort of last resort, and obviously one I did not see fit to try before — mostly because I fear that, once I start acting as if I believe in this silliness, I won’t be able to stop. But I find that it does help keep my thoughts, if not entirely under my own control, at least organized. It strips away a layer of the unknown that is causing so much of my agitation, so I don’t have quite such an irritated headache when I at last head home, reviewing the story I’ve concocted during the workday:

Vampires have lived subtly among us for perhaps all of human history, their occasional public encounters with the living inspiring books like Dracula and the surprising number of vampire movies it’s turned out I’ve watched. Something in their nature — a lesser immunity to human weapons than popular culture indicates, maybe, or possibly just the fact that they’re vastly outnumbered — makes secret and probably quietly cooperative cohabitation safer and easier than continually preying on and being at odds with humanity, and ‘vagabond’ is the term vampires use to describe others of their kind that jeopardize the secrecy of their existence by indiscriminately murdering humans.

Megumi is a vampire-hunting vampire, appointed (perhaps only by herself) to track down such vagabonds and end the threat they pose to both human and vampire society. It’s a necessary function, but one that doesn’t make her very popular among her fellows. I wonder whether it’s defiance, or a natural sense of honesty, or some other consideration that causes her to wear her stakes openly the way she does. To humans she merely looks like a cosplayer, but to vampires it must be perfectly, disturbingly clear what she is.

Megumi has no business with me, and, though she feels sorry about certain aspects of this situation, sees no reason to interact with me. She would never even have approached me at all if I hadn’t had ‘the touch’ — presumably some smell or other sense that rubs off on a human after their first contact with a vampire. Which brings me to that other vampire.

The young man remains far more of a mystery than Megumi, and even in the midst of the faint relief this hypothesizing exercise is, it’s frustrating how little I’ve learned about him. Still, what I could come up with, I have.

He wants something from me — some interaction or information or recognition that he’s traveled internationally to obtain — and he believes there’s some chance I’ll realize what it is before he comes back. Both he and Megumi know me from before, well enough to recognize me in an instant, and the young man, at least, expects me to remember something from that ‘before’ as well.

Allowing for the reality of vampires demands, somewhat annoyingly, that I allow for the possibility of other supernatural elements of existence as well. As such, I see two possibilities for ‘before.’ The first is that my own awareness of some previous part of my life has been erased or rewritten — through some sort of supernatural brainwashing designed to force me to forget the existence of vampires, for example, or perhaps through repression of some traumatic experience. The second is that the two vampires, who could conceivably be hundreds or thousands of years old, somehow recognize me from a previous life. I’ve never subscribed to reincarnation theory — and, if I had, I would have assumed a degree of change in a person from one life to the next that would make a reborn soul impossible to recognize a lifetime later — but in already considering the seemingly impossible, I suppose it’s rational enough.

In either case, whatever happened ‘before’ is something he and Megumi took part in with me, and something he wants me to remember. If I haven’t remembered under my own power by Wednesday — one week from when he first approached me — he’s going to enlighten me. And then I’ll have a choice to make.

And some part of me does remember. It’s the part that disapproved of him so heartily at our first meeting, that plunged me into a dream I didn’t understand, that keeps dredging up fear over innocuous things and pity for someone I don’t know. But since that’s all it seems able to do, I think the chances of my remembering anything more, in any level of detail that would provide answers to current questions, are not great.

How much I actually believe of this scenario I’ve put together is dubious. However, having constructed the narrative, supplied as many answers as I possibly can, and ordered my thoughts allows me a good deal more relaxation and patience on Monday evening than I’ve had for several days. I can wait for Wednesday.

‘Waiting for Wednesday’ is the most thorough and accurate description I can come up with for the entirety of Tuesday. It doesn’t matter that I don’t consider myself flighty; reality is stronger than any self-satisfied preconception.

I suppose, though, this happens to everyone at some point. In everyone’s life there must be events that lead to frames of mind entirely at odds with their chosen methods of productivity; we are only human, after all. I can’t help thinking, however, to the detriment of any comfort this train of thought might otherwise have provided, that others ‘only human’ don’t have jobs quite so important as I do — quite so constantly involved with security and crime, life and death, even if I am only hammering away at paperwork at the moment; nor are they distracted and held back by something quite so nebulous, so possibly frivolous, as I am today.

The loss of a friend or family member… the consideration of a proposal of marriage, or perhaps excitement for the big day itself… nervousness about some major opportunity that could be lost as easily as won… all of these changes or choices would, I think, be perfectly justified in distracting someone from even the most important, meaningful, and engrossing of employment. And even in those cases it would still be better to try for investment in work, but anyone would understand if that proved difficult or impossible.

And what do I have? What remarkable, life-altering circumstances are keeping me from concentrating on working to protect and serve my fellow Americans? The prospect of meeting a near-perfect stranger I guess — I don’t actually know — will answer some questions for me.

So in addition to impatient, curious, distracted, and annoyed, I’m embarrassed as well. I might almost feel ashamed, but for that, at least, my self-confidence proves too strong. I know I’m not weak-minded, and therefore must assume that it’s logical for this strangely emotional and gripping situation in which I find myself to be distracting me as much as it is, that my current fractured frame of mind and resultant imperfect behavior is to some degree forgivable.

As I spend the majority of the day considering tomorrow’s possibilities in between everything else I should be thinking about more exclusively, I come to a dismaying realization that should have struck me much sooner in order for me better to manage my impatience: merely ‘waiting for Wednesday’ isn’t enough; it must, logically, be Wednesday evening, Wednesday after dark that I’m actually waiting for. Regardless of how much I believe in the whole vampire idea, my visitors have only shown up once the sun was down. I doubt, somehow, that before work is an option, and it was evening just as I got home when he appeared the first time. Which means I have one entire work day more than I was envisioning to get through.

With this in mind, I have little to say about Wednesday, and would have little excuse to make for myself if anyone were to wonder about my level of distraction. But either I’m hiding it better than I thought I was, or my co-workers figure everyone’s due a day or two of distraction now and then — an indulgence I might not allow them in return on as little information as they have here. Or perhaps they’re all too distracted themselves, what with a murderer likely to make national news (if the media gets hold of the details) running around our usually fairly peaceful little city. The number of people assigned to that case is growing, but I am, thankfully — or perhaps unluckily — not yet among them.

If I had to face the prospect of even one more day of this — of trying to concentrate on paperwork that consistently takes a second priority in my head to the aggressively more engrossing yet uselessly circular vampire thoughts, until I think I’d almost rather be on traffic duty than this; of listening to news and station gossip regarding the murders and wondering whether I might not soon be in a position of greater knowledge about this, whether Megumi really has anything to do with it; of feeling like a waste of public resources as my paycheck covers easily as much idle daydreaming (for lack of a better word) and subsequent irritation and ineffectual self-castigation as proper work — I might actually be tempted to call in sick. And this temptation, hypothetical though it is, annoys me more than almost anything else. I’ve never been even the least bit inclined to lie about my state of health to get out of work. I can’t help thinking all over again that the vampire boy has a lot — an ever-increasing lot — to answer for.

When at last I punch out for the day and try not to move with undignified haste toward the door and the parking lot, I finally abandon all attempts at not allowing this to dominate my brain. I’m wondering what his exact plans are, how exactly the evening is going to go. Megumi appeared at the station last week (though the sun was more completely down when I left that day), and the young man has shown signs of stalking me; I’m sure he knows where I work and could show up here easily if he wanted to. But somehow I get the feeling — I fact, in a way, I hope — he has more to say to me than can comfortably be said standing next to my car in a relatively busy lot.

The apartment again, then. That’s what I think I’ve subconsciously been expecting all along anyway. Perhaps he’ll be waiting outside the door just as he was in the previous instance. Will he expect an invitation inside? Perhaps he’ll require an invitation inside, if he really is a vampire. I do seem to recall hearing that aspect of the legend at some point.

So the last question I’m pondering as I head toward home, growing more and more agitated and anticipatory with every street closer I move, is whether or not I’ll be willing to extend that invitation.

Part 12

The personal conviction I’d told Sano I lacked in regard to Tomizawa was becoming more of a possibility. The farther we looked into his affairs, the stranger they seemed — and, while there wasn’t yet any definitive evidence linking him with the murders, certain facts that came to light appeared to make it only a matter of time.

Oddly, he didn’t seem to have observed that he was being investigated. With police spies prying into various aspects of his professional and personal life, the only likely explanations I could see for his evident indifference were that he was stupid enough not to have noticed, or secure enough not even to twitch under scrutiny. And judging by his confident, dictatorial personality, the latter seemed more likely.

Yet he should be worried. If he had any sense, he must be worried, since he did have at least one thing to hide. His sister Nori’s fiance, one Shibue Touru, had cleanly disappeared just a few months before, and Tomizawa had hushed it up. Apparently he’d told his sister he was working with the police trying to find Shibue — which was what she’d meant, that day she’d come to the station, in saying, “I know he’s been in here a lot” — but this was the very first the police had heard of the matter. And why would a man that had abetted a criminal in his flight (for this was, I thought, the most likely explanation for the circumstance) remain so completely unperturbed under police investigation?

In any case, after a few days of snooping, the missing Shibue became a suspect, more questions than only the aforementioned were raised, and I had a specific line of inquiry to pursue — which was all extremely satisfying in comparison to what had gone before.

It seemed to me that the unknown entity whose surreptitious presence and occasional forays into Nori’s house had sent the woman to the police in the first place might well be Shibue: the criminal on the run still missed his fiance and longed to see her, and occasionally also found it convenient to obtain supplies or temporary shelter in a home where, if he was caught, his presence would be far less likely to draw immediate police attention — since Nori was obviously completely ignorant of whatever her husband-to-be had done to force him into hiding.

So the next step was to see if I could manage to track down Nori’s stalker. I had to be the one to do it, since not one of the police agents available for my use did I trust with such a task. Hironaku was extremely disappointed, but he was also heavy-footed and absolutely out of the question. Besides, if I saw a chance to confront the unknown watcher and attempt to bring him in, I was going to take it, and I didn’t trust any of my subordinates with that task either.

Nori’s report had indicated she was primarily being watched at night (which seemed to contraindicate the possible other explanation that her overzealous brother had assigned her a bodyguard without telling her), so the next step must obviously be to mimic the watcher and quietly observe Nori’s home at night in the hopes of observing more than just that.

Here she was to have lived with Shibue, and it had been, I’d come to understand, set up with her brother’s funds as a would-have-been wedding present: a good-sized house in a neighborhood with more pretensions than real class but plenty of real money. As such, this was an inconvenient monitoring job with its large perimeter and number of sides to the building, but at least the resultant complexity — the necessity of regular surreptitious shifting of position in order to regularly cover the entire area — granted an interest to the proceedings that might otherwise have been absent.

And someone besides me was definitely watching the place, though whoever he was, he was too skilled to pinpoint right away. Starting just after full darkness had fallen, I detected some interest pointed toward the house from somewhere in the immediate vicinity, but it seemed to be quickly snuffed out every time I concentrated on locating it more precisely. In fact it took me the entire night to become convinced I wasn’t imagining things. Like Tomizawa himself, the anonymous presence was probably aware of and apathetic toward the police surveillance. Which brought up the bodyguard theory again but certainly could not confirm it.

By the time sunrise neared and the presence disappeared as subtly as it had been manifesting all night, I’d learned nothing definitive, only confirmed Nori’s suspicion of being watched. I had no clear indication of criminal activity here, nor that the watcher — Shibue or whoever he turned out to be — had any connection whatsoever with the murders. Nevertheless I felt I’d made progress; as previously mentioned, having what seemed like a clear path to follow, even if it turned out to be a tangent, made for a remarkable contrast in morale. I had a plan for the next night — possibly the next few nights, depending on how skilled the watcher really was — and no need to sit idly waiting for anyone else to bring me information.

This time, despite my improved mood, it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself heading in the direction of Sano’s neighborhood without thinking. After avoiding him for the last couple of days, my desire to see him certainly hadn’t diminished, but I hadn’t thought it particularly increased either. Evidently I’d been wrong.

Continually showing up at Sano’s home very clearly not on police business was hardly in keeping with the careful behavior I had recommended to myself the last time I was here, but somehow, despite being aware of that, the direction of my steps did not change. Indeed, with this on my mind, I thought they actually hastened, as if to say, “Well, if I’m going to do this, I might as well get it over with quickly.” Or perhaps just wanting to get to him sooner for his own sake.

This neighborhood was not the type to be busy at dawn, but still there were a few people about. It was the type of neighborhood to be wary of cops, and my uniform won me some looks suspicious and even bitter — proportional to the small number of pedestrians, quite a few looks suspicious and even bitter. But I ignored them and hurried on.

He was sure to be asleep; I couldn’t picture him up before about noon unless he’d never gone to bed in the first place. Of Tsukioka I was less certain, though I had to admit I was a little annoyed at the thought of his presence. It didn’t matter much, though, since all I planned on doing was quietly looking in, taking a brief glimpse that would, I hoped, tide me over until a more propitious time. Then I would hire a carriage home, sleep a few hours, and get back to work with whatever new strength that glimpse I was apparently so desperate for had afforded me.

The door still wasn’t locked; I was going to have to have a word with him about that. It was all very well and good that his entire neighborhood knew better than to trespass on the property of the former Zanza, but blatantly ignoring rudimentary safety precautions, especially with an unusually bloodthirsty murderer running around Tokyo, was idiotic. It even opened and closed quietly enough — with a careful hand — that it was unlikely to awaken a sleeper within.

And there was only one sleeper within. My surprised gaze immediately ran the length of the room, taking in the single occupied futon, the table that had been cleared of the mess of papers I’d last seen on it, the dishes left over from a meal for one. Tsukioka was gone.

I had come here to admire a sleeping Sanosuke possibly without even waking him, but now a certain amount of concern forced my plans to change. I doubted I would see signs of a peaceful solitary dinner near a soundly sleeping Sano if there had been an attack, and I also liked to think he would have let me know, but what had happened? Was it possible Tsukioka’s medical condition had worsened and he’d gone back to the clinic? Or… surely they couldn’t have been stupid enough to think all danger past and him safe to return home alone?

Despite fully intending now to wake Sano up, still I had to pause to admire him. He slept full-force, as it were, the same way he did everything else. In this case that meant he sprawled, ungracefully but probably quite comfortably, across a futon that didn’t look too intolerably filthy, with a blanket twisted around him in a manner simultaneously haphazard and precise.

It was as if he’d made an art out of sleeping, out of arranging that blanket to be tight where he wanted and loose everywhere else, out of pillowing one arm under his head and relaxing down onto it as if this was the most important thing he’d ever done and he was damn well going to get the most out of it… and yet it was only sleep, and nothing to be stressed about or given a great deal of thought. I didn’t know how he always managed to be so much of so many seemingly contradictory things… so intense yet so carefree… so aimless yet so decisive… so much of what annoyed me, yet so much of what I fiercely wanted…

His eyes opened while I watched him, before I had a chance to make any move to awaken him. He didn’t start or gasp or sit up abruptly, and I wondered if he’d sensed my presence in his sleep in order to be so unsurprised to find me actually there when he awoke.

“Hey,” he said, both tone and expression marking him groggy but pleased. “I haven’t seen you in two and a half days!”

“You were mad at me and I was busy with work,” I shrugged, unable to remove my gaze from his. In his current state, his eyes appeared simultaneously soft and bright, an interesting and compelling look.

“I’m always mad at you,” he said in tired protest, “and you’re always busy with work.”

I smiled. “Well, here I am now. Where’s Tsukioka?”

Blinking and yawning, Sano seemed for a moment unable to comprehend the change of subject. But finally the puzzled look slid from his face and he gestured vaguely with the bare arm he wasn’t using as a pillow. “Read that note on the table.”

I did so, unfolding a half sheet of paper that was covered on one side with smudged and indecipherable doodles and on the other with artistically messy handwriting.

It’s clear you need some privacy, and I think I would be more comfortable elsewhere anyway. Don’t worry about me; I’ll stay with some activist friends who have even better reasons to lie low than I probably do. Don’t let Takani-sensei worry about me either; the worst is over, as she ought to know. Try to keep out of trouble, though this new complication of yours makes that seem even more unlikely than usual.

He hadn’t signed it, but it wasn’t exactly a great mystery who had left it. Nor was what he meant by that last line. It was, to my memory, the first time I’d ever been called a ‘complication,’ but probably not entirely inaccurate. Honestly the note itself — or at least the altered situation it represented — was a bit of a complication, and I was suddenly rethinking my intentions here yet again, somewhat more pointedly than before.

As my eyes left the paper they immediately found Sano’s, and it was just as immediately apparent that he not only had the same thought I did, but read that simultaneous consideration in the shared gaze. I might have teased him by pretending to be unaffected by the word ‘privacy’ in that note or my reflection of a few minutes ago that his futon didn’t look too intolerably filthy… but he already knew we were both thinking the same thing, and the new edge to his smile clearly reflected his expectations for the scene.

Refolding with deliberate movements the liberating missive as I did so, I asked, “Do you ever lock your door?”

For half an instant Sano looked annoyed by my critical tone and confused at what he viewed as another change of subject, but then the probable motive behind my words registered and he went back to grinning in anticipation. His answer was, “Yeah… when I need to.”

“Then you do have a key.”

“Yeah… somewhere…” Though his previous statement had been vaguely flirtatious, Sano’s tone had now slipped into one of intense focus as he probably realized I wasn’t joking about wanting to lock the door — and that he was going to need to figure out where ‘somewhere’ was before any further progress could be made. With a comical level of concentration he finally added, “I think it was on the window-ledge.”

I found two keys side by side where he indicated, guessed correctly on the first attempt which one fitted the door, and wrestled the aged lock into granting us more privacy than even Tsukioka had with his departure. And apparently just the observation that my quest was nearing completion had been enough for Sano, as he hadn’t waited patiently for me at his end of the room. Even as I turned toward him, I heard his barefoot steps across the floor, then found insistent arms slipping around me and a hot body pressed to mine. My own arms rose to caress his back and pull him closer as his lips and hot breath and grazing teeth slid up my neck. Undoubtedly in response to cloth against his flesh, in between a series of nipping kisses just underneath my jaw, he murmured, “Take off those damn gloves.”

I chuckled and obeyed, not at all averse to following a direct order when the result was the beautiful feel of his skin beneath my naked fingers and palms. He’d begun grinding unrepentantly against me too, breathing somewhat harder near my ear, and the longing he thus displayed was in no way unreciprocated. “Now take off those damn clothes,” he whispered.

I let out a sighing breath and obeyed.

What was it about this stubborn, vehement, easygoing, infuriating person that had me so captivated? That made it so I could never get enough? That filled me with a tingling desire for him down into my bones? His physical passion and ability to respond to my own were not in any way surprising, but, though making love to him for the first time was a spectacular and deeply gratifying experience, there was more to it than simply satisfying my body… or even than a few hours of psychological rest from the demands of my work. Something about him specifically seemed to have a nearly supernatural power to enthrall, to draw me in and engage me as I hadn’t been engaged in a relationship for years, perhaps forever. And I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was about Sano that I found so enchanting.

For that matter, I had no idea what drew him to me. We drove each other crazy in every possible way, and we’d been rivals at best when we’d first met… and yet here we were, content or even decidedly happy together in the morning sun through the shouji on his not-too-intolerably-filthy futon, sticky and cooling and calming after having demonstrated very clearly that any disliking we might have for each other ran parallel to, and perhaps less deep than, an emotional state that was very different indeed.

The weariness of having been out all night combined with the exertion just now had left my mind pleasantly foggy, and in the comfort of Sano’s embrace and bed I didn’t see much need to work at clearing it — and no reason I couldn’t rest here instead of heading home as I’d intended. I doubted Sano had been planning to get out of bed any time soon in any case, and I certainly didn’t object to a companion as long as he didn’t snore too loudly. Sano himself, however, seemed surprised at the sedentary tendency of my movements after we’d finished.

“You’re going to sleep here?” he wondered, his words close to my ear and still somewhat breathless.

Eyes closed, I replied, “Is that a problem?”

“No, not even a little bit! I just… figured you’d go home.” He sounded as if he couldn’t believe his luck, and I found I rather liked the implication of his happy astonishment that I would remain with him after sex.

“I was out all night.” If my words weren’t explanation enough, the weariness I couldn’t keep from them must have been.

“And I just wore you out the rest of the way, huh?” Had I ever heard him so pleased with himself before?

“Ahou.” But I didn’t bother to deny it.

He kissed me on the cheek and settled into restfulness against me. “I won’t move for a while, then,” he murmured. And I was unsurprised to find I liked the sound of that too — of his casual solicitousness, even if it was probably born in part of laziness and a preexisting desire to do exactly as he’d stated.

Just as I was ready to drift into very comfortable sleep, however, he made a lie of his promise by stirring again. In a slightly more alert and now faintly accusatory thoughtful tone he said, “But you know… I think you were trying to use sex to keep me from asking about your case and what you were out all night doing.”

This roused me slightly too. “If I thought I could use sex to do that, I certainly would try.” I interrupted myself by yawning, but he didn’t jump in, so I was able to finish, “I can’t think of a more pleasant way to keep you off the scent.”

He snorted. “Well, I guess I can’t really say, ‘Oh, don’t ever fuck me again, you sneaky bastard…’ but it won’t work, you know.”

“I thought it worked extremely well just now.”

This time he laughed. “Yeah, you’re right about that.” And he nuzzled his face into my neck. I thought he might drop it there and let me sleep, but that was no realistic hope; half a minute or so later he persisted. “So what were you out all night doing?”

I didn’t trouble my tired self trying to prevaricate. “I have a feeling Tomizawa may be involved with the murders, and whoever is stalking his sister along with him.”

“So you’ve been stalking the stalker,” he finished with satisfaction.

“Something like that, yes.”

“But you probably still don’t have enough evidence to just assassinate Tomizawa yet, do you?”

“Not yet, no.” And when in response to this he hmm‘d pensively against my skin, I added firmly, “Stay out of it, Sano.”

In frustration he said, “I could help you, you know.”

“And you know how I feel about that.”

We had started to move back into more upright positions as this threatened to turn into a more active discussion or even an argument, but now he buried his face in my chest as he said, “You made it pretty clear how you feel just a little while ago.” And though he said it at a mutter, it was one of embarrassment rather than annoyance or defeat as he referred to how I felt in a completely different context than the one I’d meant.

With a sudden unexpected pressure in the space just beneath where his forehead rested, I found my arms rising to draw him close again. Had I made it clear how I felt? Because I wasn’t sure I knew how I felt. In fact I’d rather been wondering the entire time — or, if I’d been avoiding the how, I’d at least been wondering why I felt that way. In any case, it seemed he’d taken some confirmation from my actions and attitude that I hadn’t, perhaps, intended to give… but that I didn’t, perhaps, mind having given.

Almost involuntarily I found myself saying softly, “I just want to make sure you stay safe.” And that it sounded so maudlin and trite under the current circumstances didn’t make it any less sincere.

He clenched the arm he had around me as he replied, in loving annoyance, “You asshole. What if that’s exactly what I want for you too?”

I didn’t know how to answer that — at least not without saying something I’d already said that hadn’t convinced him then and probably wouldn’t now — so I remained silent. He too said nothing more, as if he’d made or accepted some point — I couldn’t tell which. And despite the utterly inconclusive nature of the conversation, it seemed to be at an end, and we drifted to sleep in a surprisingly pervasive atmosphere of lingering contentment and satisfaction with the situation and each other.

Part 13

It neither astonishes me nor vindicates any concrete expectation that the area in front of my apartment is devoid of figure or motion; my thoughts on the matter have been such a mess that his presence or his absence there seems equally feasible. I unlock the door and enter, flipping switches in motions no different than usual, finding everything inside no different than usual. I hang up my jacket and keys, remove and put away my gear, and move toward the bedroom to shed my shoes and tie with no particular haste. The only thing setting this evening apart from any other is the fact that I’m not very hungry and therefore giving little thought to what I’ll have for dinner… and perhaps a heart-rate just slightly quicker, more anticipatory, than on most nights.

At the bedroom door, however, before I have a chance to reach for the light, I’m greeted by sight and sound simultaneously unexpected and exactly what I was waiting for: “Your week’s up.”

“I have to admit,” I say, going still in the entry to the room, “I’m not surprised to find you breaking and entering.” So much for needing an invitation.

He’s seated on my bed with his jacket lying beside him. I note systematically that he doesn’t appear to be armed: his short-sleeved dress shirt is open halfway down his chest, its white material too translucent to disguise much of anything underneath. His unearthly eyes seem to glow as he looks me up and down and gives a monosyllabic laugh that conveys no amusement whatsoever. Slowly he stands. “Do you remember me?”

I can’t look away. Even with the jacket removed, he’s exactly the same as a week ago, and yet there’s something utterly riveting about him that wasn’t present before. Can it be merely the fact that I’m anticipating an end to the confusion and perhaps the whole strange situation, that I’m eager for answers? No, it’s something more. In that inhumanly beautiful face, above that slender, muscular body advancing smoothly toward me, eyes like that are enough to nullify completely any concept of heterosexuality a man might have about himself.

That isn’t why I hesitate answering his question, though. Yes, I’m caught up, all of a sudden and for no reason I can pinpoint, in his mysterious attractiveness, but in addition to that I feel I do remember him. I can’t recall anything specific about him, but he’s so familiar I could almost… well, I don’t know what. I don’t know, and therefore I don’t know what to say.

He stops just in front of me, and it’s all I can do not to reach out and seize him. His eyes, holding mine, seem to convey an uncanny amount of emotion, but I can make little sense of the turmoil they reveal. He’s hopeful… darkly, hopelessly hopeful… but what else, I can’t tell.

The heavy silence doesn’t need much time to become oppressive, but somehow I feel that to answer, to crush that desperate hope, would be even worse. I don’t need to speak, however; he can tell just by looking that I haven’t remembered whatever he wants me to. Slowly his expression hardens, the hope dimming. “You never were much of a spiritualist.” It’s almost a mutter, equal parts disappointment and… fond acceptance?

Abruptly I want him… so clearly, so intensely I simply cannot restrain myself. I want to be with him, to be close to him, to touch him, hold him, make love to him, be one with him forever, and nothing else in the world seems meaningful or even real. My hands, almost of their own volition, move to clutch at him, to pull him against me, and through the incomprehensible haze of longing and desire that’s overtaken me I’m vaguely startled at how cold he feels. But should that really be a surprise at this point?

“Calm down.” His voice next to my ear is a whisper so husky it nearly qualifies as a growl. “I’m not seducing you today; I just want to make this easier.” I get the feeling — how, I probably wouldn’t know even if I were more lucid — that he wants me as much as I suddenly want him, but his frigid hands have taken hold of my wrists with shocking strength and kept them still. Cold breath moves along my neck, sparking an intense, prickling shudder through my entire body.

My instincts war within me: the more wary screaming to push him away, to break away myself, because when I feel his lips part against my skin I know what’s coming next; the more hedonistic replying that nothing that feels this good, that I want this desperately, can be bad; and the most logical replying that, while, yes, it can be bad, it can’t be that bad because vampires aren’t real.

They all snap silent as his fangs pierce my flesh. There is a stab of pain, a cold, tugging sensation followed by a slow spread of burning heat, and then… nothing.

I don’t know how long the blackness lasts; it could be moments and it could be hours. It’s like traveling through a tunnel, assuming there exists a tunnel that strips you of not only your sight but of every other sense as well as all presence of mind. On one side everything was, if not precisely normal, at least framed in a context I’m familiar with and could try to sort out eventually; on the other, as I emerge from the sensory deprivation, everything is chaos.

I remember. In a tumultuous rush, the living of an entire lifetime in an instant, I remember everything — Japan, my childhood, the wars, the Shinsengumi, my life as a spy, my wife and children, and Sano… Sano…. Sano….. I remember what happened to us, to him, to Takani, the bizarre events of those last weeks, what he did and what he wanted… I remember it all, and all at once; and as I struggle desperately to make sense of it, to calm and order my frantic mind, and most of all to reconcile it with America and the current millennium and everything I think I know about myself, I’m fairly sure I’ve gone insane. I’m probably babbling, too, out there in the physical realm that I’m barely feeling at the moment.

His arms are around me. That’s the first thing I realize as I begin to come to my senses. I’m sitting on the bed now, still in deep shadow in a room whose blinds are closed and lights turned off, and he’s holding me. The gesture is purely for physical support, and at the moment I’m so torn by various emotions and so lost in my fractured state of mind that I can neither enjoy nor wish to escape his presence.

“Sanosuke…” I gasp after who knows how long, calming further but still severely agitated. “How…”

“We live forever with people who live over and over,” he replies coolly. His arms drop from around my shoulders, and I feel very unsteady on the edge of the bed, as if I might topple and fall right off the world. “Eventually,” he goes on, “we get the ability to make you remember your past lives, if we want. Some assholes do it just to torture their victims, or make them feel like death’s better than the insanity of remembering everything all at once… but I’m not quite to that point yet. Though I did work pretty hard to perfect the technique.”

I don’t really hear his answer — don’t grasp his meaning just yet, at any rate; I’m still struggling within my head. It’s more than anyone should have to take in so suddenly, more than I can assimilate quickly or even, I fear, at length… the one thing I can think to do is try to ignore most of it and only give thought to what I absolutely have to. Though this is easier resolved upon than done.

At that moment I realize that what I’ve thought of as a ringing in my ears is actually a ringing in the room, and that the glow in my eyes isn’t just a remembered light from Meiji-era Japan. Not fully aware of what I’m doing, but glad to have something to cling to of the existence I thought I knew — my life, the ‘real world’ of my current consciousness — I reach clumsily for the cell phone that is the source of the sudden light in the room. How it came to be on the bed rather than in my pocket as it was before I’m not sure; perhaps that gives some clue as to how long I was in that tunnel.

It’s my girlfriend calling, but there’s no way I can answer in this state; she would think I’ve gone crazy, and I’m not entirely sure I haven’t. I can’t quite manage to reject the call, though, with fingers that aren’t obeying my commands very precisely just yet.

The next moment I’m on my feet, throwing the device back down on the bed, face aghast and a hand raised as if to ward off a blow. Above her number, naturally, her name appears… I seldom bother with individual ringtones, but I do keep everyone in my contacts organized…

Saito, Renee

“Oh, my god…”

I would declare this a coincidence — my reeling mind is already protesting that it’s a common enough surname — if not for the ensuing bitter statement out of the darkness near my nightstand: “Yeah, she called a few minutes ago too. Funny who fate decides to toss together, isn’t it? Though actually, far as I can tell, it’s people’s souls that find each other… someone you had some connection with in a previous life’s more likely to find you than someone you didn’t. This one’s less fucked-up than some I’ve seen… Yahiko and Chou ended up married a couple of lives down the line.”

I’m not sure whether it’s more startling to find that Sano is still here, that I’m apparently dating my own something-great-granddaughter, or that all of this is suddenly making so much sense to me. Yahiko… Chou… the names mean something, despite a large part of my mind wishing in a panic that they didn’t. And Renee is…

“I hope you’re happy,” I say in an effort to speed the process of regaining my mental stability, but unfortunately it comes out as something like a snarl. “I’ll never be able to look at her the same again.”

“Happy?” Sano wonders, skeptical and more bitter than before. “Yeah, right. But satisfied that I won’t have to watch you happily in love with someone else again? A little.”

“You’re not like I remember.”

“No shit. A hundred fucking fifty years’ll do that to you. Not to mention constant rejection.”

I sit down on the bed again, on the opposite side now from him, and lean my head in one hand. Though I open my mouth to speak, nothing comes out; I simply don’t know what to say next. I’m remembering his cold, blank face in that cellar, his despair when he awoke, and, most significantly, my own feelings at that time.

All the emotions from those days are coming back, slower than the memories but no less overwhelming. Sano… I… loved him… I loved him and I lost him… or perhaps he lost me…

Maybe I still love him.

God, that is just too much to think about at the moment.

“Rejection?” is what I finally manage to come up with. My tone still isn’t very steady, but I’m beginning to feel readier for a real conversation.

“I think you’ve had enough shock for one night,” he replies. Despite the slight sound of sympathy in his voice, yet it’s colder than anything I remember Sano saying back then; but I get the feeling this is normal for him now. ‘A hundred fucking fifty years’ indeed…

I turn to look at him. He’s standing with arms folded, watching me, the glint of his eyes in the darkness dimmer than it was before. “Sano…” I begin, though still with no clear idea what to say. I have two lifetimes now in which I can’t recall ever being so stymied.

“It’s OK,” he says softly. “You have a lot to think about. I’ll give you a few days, and then we can talk.”

“Sano,” I repeat, more decisively this time, standing and facing him. “I want to know–”

“Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot you want to know,” he cuts me off brusquely — another tone I don’t remember hearing from him before. “But not right now. You’re gonna have a choice to make here after not too long, and you need to be in your right mind for a while first.”

“What choice?” I ask, though the thought that I really don’t need to is already stirring in the back of my head.

And he’s gone.

I don’t even hear the apartment door open and close. Apparently vampires have the ability to silence locks and latches in addition to their own movements. Or maybe he can turn into mist.

Oh, my god, he’s really a vampire.

Of course he’s a vampire. I was there for that. A hundred and thirty-some years ago.

I slump back down onto the bed and again put my head in my hands.

This is overwhelming and beyond agitating, and right now I don’t know how to deal with it. Two lives are suddenly jumbled together in my head, two different senses of self, and, though it’s all clamoring for attention, none of it is what at least part of me feels I should be thinking about. Not while considering the fact that Sano — Sano, whom I remember full well now, whom I loved — has been alive — undead, I suppose, is the correct word — for all these years and has sought me out after so long in another country, another era, another language, another ethnicity… for what?

Just as I was able to put together a set of theories about the situation over the last couple of days at work — a set of theories I’m now much closer to believing in their entirety, as far as I’m capable of thinking about them at all — I feel I can theorize with a fair degree of accuracy what he wants from me now, what choice I’m going to have to make. The look on his face as I died in his arms — the horror and despair and frustration — is such a painful and deeply ingrained memory I almost can’t believe I ever lost it, hundred and thirty-some years or no, and I know what it is he wants.

But I almost can’t handle thinking about my own death like that.

And… how many times must I have died since then?

With a deep, desperate breath something like a sob, as if my body wants to remind itself and my mind that I am still alive, I collapse onto my side on the bed, curling up and closing my eyes. The first two fingers of one hand have somehow found their way just to the left of my trachea as if I were taking my own pulse, running up and down over the two sore spots on my neck, feeling the dried blood there as if it’s brail spelling out a readable message. But it tells me nothing… nothing that isn’t totally overridden by everything else that’s bombarding me, that is.

Memories, many of them seemingly conflicting if not downright impossibly contradictory, shuffle like semi-transparent cards in front of my mind’s eye, overlaying each other and blending improbably together into an incomprehensible mass comprised of two childhoods, two young adulthoods, two manhoods, two different set of police protocol — oh, that’s annoying — two worlds in which I’ve lived, two languages I suddenly speak, two lifetimes’ worth of beliefs and attitudes and recollections. And Sano’s face is superimposed across the whole — Sano’s handsome, enthralling face in all its variety of expression: his sometimes goofy pleasure, his ready anger, his more serious moments still with eyes sparkling, all of it so easy yet so intense… even the more modern aloofness, coldness, bitterness… I can’t stop seeing them. I can’t stop thinking about him.

But I can’t think exclusively about him, no matter how much part of me wants to, no matter how much that seems the only way to stay sane at the moment. The rest of it simply can’t be ignored. It all has to be worked through before I can decide what I think about Sanosuke and what’s happening now, the turn things have taken. If I, Joseph, am going to get on with my life, Hajime will have to be integrated. And I, Hajime, am strong enough to deal with this without going mad. Obviously Sano thought so, or he wouldn’t have burdened me with a past incarnation; he did specifically say he wasn’t doing it to torture me. There’s some irony in this thought, but that’s thirty-five years into the story and has to be put off until I get back around to it.

For now, I’m starting on February 18, 1844. Not that I have any memories from quite that early, but I will work through this as methodically as I can from as early a point as is relevant. I will put it all in place so I can move forward and make the choice I have to make, possibly the most important one of my life. Of this life, anyway.

I already have the beginnings of a dire migraine, and a sense of sorrow growing in the pit of my stomach that’s more than a little like nausea. I suspect these symptoms will only worsen as I lie here thinking and remembering and sorting, and I’m certain that when I call in sick to work tomorrow, it may be Sano’s fault, but it won’t in any way be a lie.

Part 14

Rich people — at least those determined to make a show of their wealth — often purchased their own downfall in the form of extensive landscaping that provided cover for spying on or secretly approaching their houses. Tomizawa Nori’s home was not the first I’d encountered that made for ridiculously luxurious monitoring conditions. The perfume of flowers in the darkness might not be my favorite scent — since spending the better part of a day in bed with Sano, there was a distinctly more human smell or combination of smells that came immediately to mind at that thought — but I certainly preferred it to filthy back streets with full gutters.

Even this, however, could not erase the awareness that the criminal I sought — possibly the other clandestine watcher of Nori’s house I specifically awaited right now — was a thief of large volumes of blood, and I had never been able to figure out or believably speculate what he wanted it for. Considering this, even among the azaleas and young tulip trees, my mind seemed to conjure up the scent of blood to blend with that of the pleasant greenery in an ominous mixture. Takani — who thus far had been useful for more than merely her postmortem perspective on the victims she’d examined; I would have to keep her in mind as a consultant, when one was needed, for future cases — had been unable to come up with a use anyone might have for so much (if any) coagulated blood, and therefore assumed the stolen liquid had been put to its intended use immediately upon its withdrawal from the bodies… which meant the smell was entirely an illusion, as it seemed next to impossible that any actual blood was being stored at this location or any other related to the case… but the imagination was a powerful thing that could easily compromise the luxury of this posh spy job.

I was uneasy before that, however; the unreal combination of scents merely accentuated a preexisting mood. The other watcher had not, as far as I could tell, appeared yet, and it was later than I’d sensed him last time. Of course Nori hadn’t been able to say for certain whether she’d been watched every night, and I’d spied on her house just the once before — but I couldn’t help worrying that I had spooked the mystery man (if that was the right way to put it when he didn’t seem to have cared at all about my presence) and wouldn’t be able to get any information here. The eventual emotion distilled from this set of concerns was not so much agitation as irritation, since not only would that mean this was a dead end and I would return to having few or no leads, it might take several more nights of sneaking around this place before I would be able to determine for certain it was a dead end.

Just as I had on the previous instance, I was shifting gradually around the perimeter of the property, carefully keeping hidden but observing the house and its surroundings methodically from every angle. And I would have believed my concentration on the job — combined with irritation at the idea that this might be a waste of time and the agitation of the imaginary scent of blood and uneasy imaginings about what that blood could possibly have been wanted for — would keep me entirely occupied… but I had to admit that, after how events had run lately, I wasn’t actually particularly surprised to find myself thinking about Sano as I moved surreptitiously from one shrubbery to the next. That irresponsible idiot of mine must be rubbing off on me; this was no appropriate time to be dwelling on the taste of his lips or the stupidly amusing nature of his conversation or the unanticipated delight that arose within me when I considered that he was my irresponsible idiot.

Something compelled me almost overwhelmingly about the idea that I had (in a way) someone to go home to, someone I could seek out for comfort, companionship, and more after I’d wearied my body and mind on this or other professional pursuits. I felt almost giddy, like a child, at the thought of this change in my life and how ridiculously happy it made me. And, strangest of all, it was a new giddiness, a new happiness; I’d never been this way about Tokio.

No, I supposed, it wasn’t really strange. While Tokio and I had enjoyed each other’s company to some extent, and even enjoyed the sex that had produced our three children, we’d never had a passionate attachment. I’d never been overcome with thoughts of her and her charms while on a potentially dangerous assignment, and I’d never been ecstatic at the thought of going home to her. And what the difference between my attitude toward my wife and toward my new lover had to say about the true nature of my feelings for the latter — the ones he claimed I’d already displayed pretty clearly — was something I shied somewhat from thinking about. Anyway I shouldn’t be thinking about any of this.

Even as I forced the reflections away, though, and took a firmer hold on my current purpose, I was smiling.

The attack came from behind, but something so completely undetectable could have come from directly ahead and I might still have been oblivious until being hit by it — and to me this indicated that the attacker had only imperfect confidence in his abilities, believed he needed the added advantage of attacking from behind. In any case, I was knocked forward by a blow that, though it didn’t break any bones, definitely hurt as I went flying into a tree small enough to snap when my body smashed through it.

As quickly as I was back on my feet, spine aching after having bent too far in an odd direction, drawing my sword and whirling, the unexpected enemy made little more than a flash in the corner of my eye. I threw myself to the side, straight into a shrub that let off a strong but not unpleasant scent as I crushed many of its leaves and branches underfoot, and sensed I’d barely evaded another attack in so doing. The third blow I didn’t manage to dodge, however — it felt like an elbow that jabbed into the side of my neck just below my jaw — as again I failed, though not moving at all slowly, to face the enemy or determine what side he was coming from. And not yet having caught sight of him or any idea what to make of him except that he was startlingly fast, I felt my starting disadvantage as sorely as my aching back and neck and rattled head.

Crunching footsteps in the mulch, light and quiet though they were, gave the sole indication of his trajectory for the moment, and once more I threw myself instinctively in what I thought was the safest direction from his current charge. I couldn’t turn quickly enough to see him unless I could anticipate his movements, and I couldn’t anticipate his movements unless I could get a reading on his ki. And it was present — this was definitely the same interest I’d felt pointed toward the house last night — but in combat it seemed astonishingly weak and unfocused for someone so fast and strong. As such, I needed a very precise fix on what I was looking for before I could make any use of it.

As I worked on that, I took another blow: a tendon-straining punch to the left shoulder that, while painful, did allow me a blurred glimpse of its deliverer before he darted off behind me again. He appeared quite mundane in that unclear moment, and, though there could easily be — and probably was — more to him than one half glance could tell, still I was reminded of Tsukioka’s ‘pretty normal-sized’ attacker that ‘moved really fast.’

I’d nearly lost hold of my sword in the percussion through my shoulder, and shooting lines of pain ran down my arm, but at least I was starting to get a feel for the man’s motions and combative intentions. When next I turned, it was toward where I anticipated him moving to — and I was correct. He’d been drawing back a fist for another strike, but faltered when he saw me face him. The thrust of my sword wasn’t as graceful or correctly aimed as I would have preferred, but my arm still stung and throbbed and it was the best I could do. At any rate, the blade did manage to pierce his kimono just under his raised right arm — and, I thought, the flesh beneath — before he ducked away to the side again with a faint sound of tearing cloth.

Pretty normal-sized indeed. Of average height, somewhat but not remarkably fat, with a very traditional (for this era) cut to his black hair, wearing (as far as I could tell in the shadows) totally uninteresting clothing, the only things even a little noteworthy about his appearance — the ‘more’ I’d assumed there must be to him moments before — were a brightness of eye a little uncanny in the dark garden and an apparently pretty significant level of dirtiness — some of it, I was sure, dried blood — to his run-of-the-mill clothing.

And why should he be so reluctant to let me see him? His features gave me no new information as to his identity, and there had been no reason just now for him to back off from delivering the blow he’d been planning. My opinion of earlier strengthened: he lacked confidence in his own abilities, and probably didn’t want me to get a good look at him in case he felt the need to retreat and remain anonymous thereafter.

His next hit was similar to the first — what I believed was a shoulder-led body-slam aimed at my mid-back — but I managed mostly to dodge, and, though the displaced brunt of his momentum still caught me in the side and sent me spinning, I used that centrifugal motion to strike out against him, and this time definitely felt my sword connect with flesh. I might have made better use of the blow if I hadn’t briefly been so disconcerted by his complete lack of reaction to it. His body barely moved except, a moment later, to jerk free of where my nihontou stuck in his side; he certainly gave no pained vocalization of any sort. In fact, I realized suddenly, I couldn’t even hear him breathing, and surely it was unusual for someone — especially someone overweight — to exert himself so much so silently!

I was on the verge of panting and gasping. Another blow to the chest like that last one, off-center though it had been, would knock the wind right out of me, render me incapable of fighting and terribly vulnerable for at least several seconds. The stranger hit hard, and I found myself reflecting in no small amount of gratitude and relief, as I whirled yet again trying to find him before he could connect, on what a blessing it was that he used his body rather than a more conventional weapon. The very first hit would have killed me, I was certain, had he been wielding even just a dagger; it would have been instantaneous with a sword.

I didn’t have to wonder why he was thus unarmed, though, since the most likely answer was immediately apparent and fit right in with his weak, undirected ki: this man was no warrior. He probably had no idea how to use even the simplest weapon, and it probably hadn’t even occurred to him that he could try. Scantly as that seemed to fit with the incredible strength, speed, and endurance he demonstrated, or the extreme danger I now found myself in thanks to those attributes, I believed it. Here was someone with natural abilities such as I’d rarely seen, but little or no aptitude or training for combat, who’d been thrown into a combat situation for some reason or another.

And what that reason might be I pondered as I took a blow to the side of my stomach, above my right hip, that sent me sprawling again. Rising with a difficulty I tried to conceal, I managed to retaliate successfully, only to find the piercing point of my sword once more completely disregarded. But even with this remarkable capacity to shrug off what should have been staggering strikes, the man’s lack of confidence in his own skill combined with his reluctance to let me see him and clear lack of training made it seem even stranger that he’d attacked me at all tonight. Was he so desperate to see me out of the picture that he’d come up against me despite having little belief in his ability to succeed? He seemed wary or even frightened of me, and perhaps desperation alone had driven him to try what he felt was expedient but hazardous. And while normally I would have said he had good reason to be frightened and had made a fatal mistake in choosing to attack, in this case I couldn’t be so optimistic.

Because it only took a few more exchanges of hits to convince me I could not win this battle. My blows seemed to have no effect whatsoever, but I couldn’t take many more of his. And though I struggled to continue fighting steadily, to avoid showing how much damage his assault had done, eventually I must falter and render evident just how much he had the upper hand. And the instant his confidence improved and he stopped dancing around trying to avoid my gaze, he would end this with one decisive punch.

Of course the idea of ‘one decisive punch’, of undirected brute strength, the uncalculated application of force in the hopes of a good outcome without any real planning, must make me think, for a second and far more dangerous instance during this night’s work, of Sanosuke. He was just the type to plunge into a battle he wasn’t sure he could win, fists flying, recking very little of what wounds he received. But I had to do my lover the credit of admitting that, though at one point in his career he might have been similar to this flailing attacker — undoubtedly as an even younger man than he was now — he’d long since grown out of the combative niche this stranger currently occupied and probably always would.

And if I wanted to appreciate Sano’s ever-improving ability to give matters serious thought, to plan for things, to restrain himself — in fact if I wanted to appreciate anything about him again — I needed to find a way out of this battle as soon as I possibly could.

A fist to the side of my face that set the world spinning wildly interrupted my attempts at coming up with an escape route and nearly, I thought, fractured my cheekbone. I managed to stave off any follow-up by a stab directly into my opponent’s thigh, but he, as usual, simply drew back, seeming to ignore the wound completely, and dashed off to the side out of my sight. I fought merely to stay upright and unwavering as I turned yet again to find the man; as soon as the shockwaves through my head ceased, I would recommence trying to think of a way out of this.

But my opponent’s ki was suddenly gone.

Calm air, the sounds of night insects, the sweet smells of the garden around me, and, most of all, an abrupt complete lack of any discernable intent anywhere nearby… it was uncanny. I stood very still, reaching out with every sense that might give me some hint as to what my opponent was up to, and gradually my injuries began to assert themselves. At first I forced the pain and debilitation into relative invisibility, just as before, in case the unknown might be watching, only to determine eventually that he had simply disappeared. For now — however long ‘now’ might be — it seemed I was safe.

Lesser warrior that he was, he must have entertained the same idea I had — that this was a futile battle against a stronger opponent — and, unable to see his mistake, had made a judicious retreat. The wounds he’d taken from me must have done some damage after all — honestly I couldn’t see how they could have failed to, his lack of reaction or apparent weakening notwithstanding — and he, not knowing how close his victory lay, hadn’t felt he could take any more. My attempts at hiding just how badly I was faring had probably saved my life. I did not look forward to whatever he might try next to get me out of his way.

I needed a doctor immediately. Takani probably wasn’t going to be happy about this, but at least I’d managed to avoid delivering her another corpse. Reaching her at all in my current state might be a bit of a difficulty, however; I felt as if I’d been pummeled nearly to death, and, though nothing seemed to be broken — even my skin — my entire body throbbed with pain of various depths, and felt ridiculously weak, as if the first step I took might send me toppling into the dirt.

Hurrying footfalls, concerned voices, and lantern light were approaching up one of the nearby paved paths from the direction of the house, and I spent a moment trying to decide how (or whether) I should deal with the servants coming to see what in the world was going on in the garden. I feared there was little choice at this point, and at the very least I could benefit from their presence. Fortunately, I had a ready-made excuse for being here.

The first man to leave the walkway and round the shrubbery that obscured any view of me stopped short and gaped at the disheveled cop with dripping sword in hand, the absence of opponent or dead body or other indication of exactly what had gone on here, and the devastation to this area of the landscaping. Before he could even begin to pull himself together, a second man, this one bearing a drawn saber even a private security guard probably shouldn’t have been carrying, appeared at his side.

Covered though I was with growing deep tissue bruises and strained tendons in multiple joints, I managed to draw myself up to a straightness that was clearly imposing (it helped that I had the higher ground) and look down on the men with an air of command not inappropriate to my actual position as a representative of the police force and, by extension, the government. I withdrew a cloth from my pocket and began cleaning the blood off the blade in my hand, which gleamed portentously in the lantern light, with a movement far more composed than I felt. “One of you go find me a cab,” I ordered in a tone that indicated I was not looking for any argument. “And tell Tomizawa-san I need to talk to her about her stalker.”

Part 15

Was I really reassured at some point by my ability to buy macaroni and cheese after thinking about vampires? I underestimated the power of habit, the relentless tendency of the human mind toward normalcy. What I theorized on Wednesday evening — that Sanosuke must consider me strong enough to assimilate the memories of an entire lifetime without going crazy, or else he wouldn’t have restored them — might indeed be true… but in the end, I believe, far more than any strength of spirit I may or may not possess, it was that mundane human resilience in the face of the incomprehensible that helped me through the tumultuous task of integrating my previous incarnation into my awareness of self.

In fact I integrated Hajime — or perhaps I, being Hajime, integrated Joseph — so quickly, I probably could have worked the second half of Thursday. After the tangle of emotions and the migraine and the seemingly unconquerable confusion of Wednesday night, it was startling how rapidly my state improved, how neatly things settled into place in my head, after a fitful few hours of sleep and a cup of strong coffee. By lunchtime I was calm and collected, and relatively equanimous toward the two different identities I now have to work with.

Of course, no matter how shockingly easy it all turned out to be — and it is a shock every single time I consider how simply I’ve adjusted to such a huge and sudden load of new information about myself — everything is different now. Although from Thursday afternoon onward I’ve been able to go through my usual routine without much of a hitch, it’s been a bizarre exercise in acclimatization.

At work on Friday it was as if everything I did was for an audience — as if I was holding up the modern United States police and my involvement in it for inspection — except that audience, that inspector, was inside me. I’ve been gaging Hajime’s reaction to every aspect of my life, but they’re my own reactions. Everything seems new because I have a new perspective from which to view it, and even the old — the memories to which I now have access that were hidden from me before — becomes new again each time I recall something from my days in Japan and examine it in the light of my attitudes and experiences as an American with a somewhat different personality.

It’s been surprisingly undisagreeable.

Despite not feeling nearly as disturbed as I might have expected by being, in a way, two people at once, I’ve been keeping Hajime in the background, as far as this is possible, treating my former self more like an index of philosophies and information I suddenly have access to (and am free to disregard, if I wish, in making decisions) than anything that compels. This is not because I consider my Japanese life any less a part of me or any less worthy of being referenced in my choices going forward, but because that life has been completed, and my modern self, the life currently in progress, has a greater right to remain in the forefront and as undistracted as possible under the circumstances.

So I continue to identify as Joe, but that doesn’t mean I’m not Hajime underneath. Attitudes from those days bleed through, and I wouldn’t really want to stop them, even if some impulses I’ve had since recovering that part of myself have been unnecessarily harsh… arising from a hardness of character born of wars I fought in during that lifetime that gave me an edge beyond what I have now.

This all made for a work day yesterday even more distracted than Wednesday before Sano’s return, but, thanks to that aforementioned power of habit, I struggled through it. I have to admit, I’m glad it’s Saturday now, that I have Saturdays off work with my current schedule, and that Sano’s previous promised time of appearance was adhered to punctually enough that his current ‘few days’ can be taken at face value. Even allowing for variable interpretations of ‘a few,’ I’m expecting him as soon as the sun is down.

The waiting isn’t nearly as difficult as previously, because I’m not nearly so single-mindedly impatient for this meeting as I was for the last. There are points I want to discuss, yes, questions I want to ask… but one question — the biggest question — I’m afraid I already know the answer to, and I’m not looking forward to having it brought to light. And I want to see him again, yes, but simultaneously in a way I’d rather not. In fact I’m so conflicted about what I assume will happen this evening that every time I look at the clock I feel perfectly torn: how can time be passing so slowly and yet so quickly?

At least Renee appears to have given up calling for now. She’s persistent, but she also knows how to pick her battles, and must have realized we won’t be having a date this weekend. Does she realize we won’t be having a date ever again? Who knows? I’d have to speak to her to find out, and I’m just not ready for that. Less ready, in fact, than I was before, now I know she’s some manner of descendent of mine. It’s something I’ve been trying not to think about. As before, this seems cowardly… but trying to determine how to deal with the situation is necessarily a lesser priority at the moment.

My frame of mind, comprised as it is of desire, reluctance, and avoidance all vying for the same space, boils down to agitated impatience and inability to sit still, and the evening turns out much like Sunday’s: I can’t read, I can’t watch television, and I end up on the internet wasting time and trying to numb my thoughts with its banality. And I’m wondering, as I did on Wednesday, how exactly he’s going to do this. Will he knock on the door like a civilized person? As if Sano was ever a civilized person… Or will I find him in my bedroom again with no idea how he got there? I chuckle briefly as I consider that that’s a fairly good metaphysical summary of our relationship back in Japan.

It’s upon returning from a trip to the bathroom that I find him seated on my sofa, and I can’t help speculating on whether he’s really as stealthy as I’ve been assuming. I was, after all, extremely preoccupied when he left the other night; it’s possible the silence in which he did so was an illusion caused by my inability to recognize sounds just then. And now perhaps he waited until I was out of the room to enter — quietly but not actually silently — to preserve that illusion.

Looking at him, as it were, through two different sets of eyes at once — and far more self-possessed now, able to interpret coherently as I wasn’t on Wednesday night — I can see both the similarities to and the divergences from what he once was. Of course it’s all new to Joe, but what I notice from that perspective that contrasts with the old Sano therefore stands out all the more strikingly against Hajime’s intimate knowledge.

Visually very little has changed. He wears his hair longer now (and I do have to wonder how bodily development works in vampires), but before it constricts into a small, messy tail in back, it still pokes out wildly on top. His skin is significantly paler than in life, but it’s a paleness I had a chance to get used to before I died, so nothing unexpected there. Another unsurprising difference from his time as a human is the shining eyes… but in the light of my living room their independent glow is less distinguishable. And of course his clothing is unfamiliar, except as far as it’s the same jeans and button-up I’ve seen on him whenever I’ve met him here in the U.S. — it seems likely vampires don’t have much need to do laundry — but the same old kanji, perhaps representing the same old futile clinging to the past, decorates the jacket lying at his side.

No, the real alteration is in expression and bearing. Just as I observed at our last few meetings but didn’t properly recognize or process, there’s a coldness and hardness about the way he carries himself that is completely alien to the Sagara Sanosuke — even the undead version — I remember. He’s sitting in what should seem a perfectly casual position in the corner of the sofa, but there’s something uncompromising about the pose that I find chillingly foreign. And the lines around his eyes… there’s a bitterness, a harshness there that was never present before. There’s no trace of the joviality or even the anger, the lively passions I so loved in him once upon a time, in face or figure.

Originally I planned on taking a seat near him at the other end of the sofa. But in an echo of the repulsion I’ve felt toward him ever since he walked back into my world last Wednesday — a repulsion I now regrettably understand all too well — I stop in the middle of the room, staring fixedly at him in a mixture of desire to go to him and to get as far away from him as I can.

“Breaking and entering again, I see,” is how I greet him, and the sarcasm in the statement is all Hajime.

He just nods, and the difference in him is even more apparent. Back then, Sano certainly wouldn’t have hesitated to let himself into my home without permission if he felt the need to do so, but — I know this; I knew him — there would have been an emotional reaction to being found there. He would have grinned sheepishly, and (contradictorily) maybe a little triumphantly as well, when confronted with his intrusion. Any compunction would have turned to brazenness, and he would have followed his initial reaction with something flirtatious or suggestive. Or there might even have been anger at the idea that I could possibly object to his presence, given our relationship, or doubt its importance, given whatever reason he’d had for breaking in. He would never merely have nodded with such disinterested acknowledgment.

Furthermore, he’s here now after having done something he freely admits some vampires do specifically to torture their victims. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about having had those memories forced on me, but it was certainly a momentous ordeal that has reordered my entire existence… and yet Sano exhibits none of the uncertainty or guilt I know he would have felt in the Meiji era about approaching someone — especially someone he loved — on whom he’d recently inflicted pain and confusion and transformation for his own purposes. He should be hesitant, concerned, if he truly is the Sano I remember… but he isn’t. He’s sitting, unruffled and with no hint of tentativeness about him, ready to being a life-altering conversation.

And I can’t help thinking this change has occurred not because he’s outgrown the awkwardness of youth and gained a perfect aplomb, but because he’s shed many natural human emotions and reactions. Many of the things that made him Sano. Inadvertently at this thought — which is, after all, only a guess until I have more information — I shudder. For a few moments I can’t bear looking at him, so I move to fetch one of the chairs from my dining table and place it in a spot decently far from but facing him. Then I sit and force myself to meet his gaze once again.

“You’re doing OK with the memories,” he says, and it’s not a query whether I’m all right, just a cool observation.

I nod. I have no comment on that topic, at least not yet. And after all, it isn’t as if he asked a question I need to answer.

He mimics my nod, just slightly. “OK, then. You probably have lots of questions. Where do you want me to start?”

Dealing with this in an orderly fashion seems like the easiest way to keep my head on straight, keep from plunging back into everything that made Wednesday night so hectic. With that in mind I ask, “What happened after I died?”

He gives me a somewhat skeptical look. “That’s a lot of time to cover.”

“You covered a lot of time the other night as well.”

“Even that wasn’t this much. But let’s see…” He leans back, stretching out his legs to cross them at the ankles, and props one elbow on the sofa’s armrest, and the movement and pose are a shiver-inducing echo of my old Sano. So are the words that follow.

I’m reserving judgment on precisely how I feel about Sanosuke at the moment, suppressing Hajime’s profound emotions on the matter as best I can and assessing the vampire from Joe’s point of view. That makes it significantly easier to sit here listening to him speak, easier to attain some sort of impassivity about him and his story. How long I can keep it up I don’t know, but for now at least I’m able to take in what he says without too much intense reaction of heart.

“Your assistant — Hirotaka or whatever his name was — he was just sure Meg and I conspired to kill you and then ran off together.” Sano shakes his head with a smile both bitter and rueful. “I guess I can’t blame him for thinking that; what other explanation was there when you turned up dead, and me and Megumi missing? But seriously…” He laughs faintly, derisively.

“Meg stuck around in Japan for a while, trying to keep practicing medicine. She went to Nagasaki to avoid the heat in Tokyo, and dealt with mostly prostitutes and lowlifes and people who appreciated a doctor who only worked at night. But she found out pretty quick that vampires don’t make good doctors. I think she had some really bad experiences before she decided to call it quits. That was a huge blow to her. Being a doctor was what she always wanted. I don’t even remember how many years she wandered around the world just miserable before she found something else to do with herself.”

I nod my wordless understanding. Apart from feeling I have nothing useful to say in response to these unhappy details, anything I could say on the subject would lead into very uncomfortable territory, and in fact directly to the main reason Sano is here… a reason neither of us, I think, is trying to avoid, but that we’re working up to with a measured account of events in the order they occurred. So instead of commenting on Megumi’s sad fate, I ask, “And what about the rest of your friends? Tsukioka and Battousai and everyone? How did they deal with what happened?”

“I only kept up with them through letters after that.” Sano looks pensive, and there’s definitely some regret there. It’s no surprise he couldn’t interact in person with his living friends once he’d begun needing and craving their blood for his own survival, but it couldn’t have been easy for him to abruptly abandon every relationship he’d formed throughout the second half of his life. “Katsu literally sent me back a letter that was just four giant kanji ‘bakayarou’ when I first wrote to him, but after that we were OK. We wrote each other for a few years, but eventually his newspaper got him killed like we all expected.

“You know I still have a print he did? It’s probably worth a fortune these days, but I still hang onto it.” Sano’s glowing eyes turn distant as he says this, as if he’s seeing into the past. I wonder if that’s a skill some vampires actually have. “Anyway, I heard about him in a letter from Kenshin months and months after it happened: a politically motivated murder trying to send a message to anyone else with bright ideas about exposing dirty truths. It was inevitable, I guess, and I think he was probably happy enough to go that way — doing what he thought would be most helpful to the political situation in Japan — but he was the first. Besides you, I mean.

“And Kenshin… He knew Megumi and I didn’t murder you, of course. Actually he was just sure we were both killed by whoever got you. His response to my first letter was just stupid relieved. Kinda annoyed too — like he couldn’t hide it — that I took so long to reassure him. Just like someone else we knew once. Also I think he had to get the police chief — that guy who liked him so much; what was his name? — to make them stop harassing Kenshin and Kaoru about where Megumi and I might be hiding.”

“Uramura,” I murmur. It’s so strange to think that Sano and I have memories of the same set of days, months, and years, but where his must be a bit hazy at certain points after the passage of over a century, mine are relatively fresh and sharp, since they were the last things to occur during the time just recently restored to me.

Sano nods and moves on. “Kenshin never knew for sure about you and me. I’d have gotten around to telling him eventually, if, you know, we hadn’t both died. But I think he guessed. His first few letters were really… like he was offering condolences and support without actually saying it, even though I’m sure he didn’t like the idea of me being with you. He was always like that. He was a really good guy.”

Though Himura’s death hasn’t actually been mentioned yet, there’s a moment of silence between us that feels deliberate, like a respectful gesture. I always had mixed feelings about the man, and am neither surprised at nor can I disagree with Sano’s speculation about his lack of approval of our relationship, but looking back at him now through Joe’s eyes… and, if I’m to be perfectly honest, with Hajime’s grudging awareness of all the facts of the matter… he truly was exactly what Sano says: a really good guy. I wonder what form he currently inhabits, how his present life is going.

“Of course Kenshin and Kaoru got married eventually,” Sano continues at last, more lightly, “once they figured their shit out. Took ’em even longer to figure out birth control, though, because they just kept having kids. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.” He gestures uncomprehendingly in the air with one pale hand, and I can’t help a brief laugh. “I think Yahiko got tired of the constant baby-making, because he moved out as soon as Kenshin handed over his sakabatou. Into my longhouse, actually…” Again his look is distant, this time with a slight smile. No doubt we’re both remembering that longhouse and what were probably the happiest moments of the end of our lives.

“And Kenshin had to deal with a few more serious enemies before he gave his sword up. I didn’t get many letters from Kaoru, but she always gave me more details than Kenshin did — he would make it sound like it was nothing, but she was more worried about him after every different conflict. And eventually she turned out to be right: all that fighting and struggling to protect people without killing just tore him apart, and he died before he was even fifty. Kaoru lived to be seventy-something, with eight million grandkids, though. Yahiko married her oldest daughter eventually, but I didn’t write them many letters after Kenshin died.”

“And where were you writing letters from?” I know this will usher us into the story of the next hundred years, the real story Sano is here to tell, and drop us off at the doorstep of the question he’s here to ask, the offer he’s here to make. But that’s the point we’ve reached — everything has been laid out sensibly, and this is the next step; I’m as ready for it as I’ll ever be.

“Oh, all over the place. There wasn’t much reason for me to stick around Japan after you died, and a lot of good reasons to leave. Even if I wasn’t wanted for murdering a government agent, they held your funeral during the day, of course. I did hear eventually, from Kenshin, that a bunch of interesting people showed up — him, to begin with, and Chou, and some of your old Shinsengumi buddies who were still alive… You’d have been surprised how popular it turned out you were.”

The half amused and half dismissive hn sound that comes out of my mouth has nothing whatsoever to do with my current life.

“So at first I just wandered. Learned about vampires a bit more, figured out how to keep going without too many random murders. Thought about killing myself but never quite went through with it. I probably would have eventually, but then I ran into this kid — this really nice little eleven-year-old M?ori kid — in New Zealand. Before that I never thought much about what I believed about the afterlife — it was too painful, with all the people in my life who were already dead. But this kid… this kid was Sagara Souzou.

“It was such a huge shock; I had to stick around his village night after night after night until I could be absolutely sure I wasn’t imagining things, and they thought some evil spirit was haunting them or something.” He chuckles darkly. “They were right about that! But the point is, it was proof that reincarnation is a thing. That’s when I realized I had something to keep living for — though of course ‘living’ isn’t the right word.” He fixes me with a sudden direct gaze that, with the vampire brightness of his eyes, is startling and piercing. It’s almost hypnotic, like every glance of those eyes the other night. I can’t look away. “I realized,” he corrects himself, “I had something — someone— I could be looking for.”

Part 16

Somewhat unusually and not entirely to my satisfaction, the elderly Oguni rather than the younger and more hale Takani was the one dragged from bed to assist me once I’d made it to the clinic of my choice. Of course the man’s medical skills were not in question, and at that point my attitude was very much, ‘Any port in a storm,’ but I was conscious of some disappointment at not finding the woman there. Not only had I come to regard her as a useful ally, and someone to whom more details of the night’s events could be given than to the other doctor, she, as the examiner of all the bodies, was already involved in this affair, whereas the old man was not.

Thankfully I had no broken bones, though the damage to muscle and tendon was bad enough. Between the growing swelling that already constricted my movement in some areas and the pain throughout my body, it was more or less a miracle I’d gotten as far as the clinic in the first place. After a thorough and painful (though mercifully quick) examination, Oguni dispatched a preteen messenger — a great-nephew, I thought, awakened to act as the clinic’s errand boy and apparently not averse to the adventure — to rouse someone that worked at the closest icehouse and purchase a certain quantity for use on my various strains and bruises. Then Oguni declared that, though my life was in no particular danger, pressure, cold, and rest would be required in fairly copious amounts to ensure continued full function of limb — and he got to work with bandages.

The pain wasn’t the worst of it, nor the knowledge that I’d been brought so low by such an apparent amateur. It was the prospect of being forced to stay here with these constrictive wrappings on — the one around my left shoulder was already proving particularly troublesome — pressing ice over internal wounds and languishing in ineffectual stillness while the murderer I sought perhaps struck again. The doctor was already musing on the possibility that several days’ worth of motionlessness except for the gentlest of stretches would prove necessary for my complete recovery. And while I grudgingly agreed to be clinic-bound for the entire coming day, to anything beyond that I would not consent. I didn’t declare this aloud, but I was fairly sure the doctor recognized my resolve, for with a disapproving expression he merely tightened up some of the bandages, applied the ice more firmly, and recommended a dose of laudanum.

The latter I resisted at first, a little worried I might have been followed here and disliking the idea of being unconscious or, at best, hazy-headed if my attacker were to strike again; but eventually I gave in upon consideration that, if he should reappear, I would be in no condition to deal with him in any case, and therefore might as well take advantage of the analgesic and the assistance toward sleep while it was available.

Exactly how many hours I was unconscious I couldn’t be sure, but it was mid-morning when I awoke, groggy and breathing shallowly, to find Takani giving my throbbing wrapped injuries another once-over with ice. I wondered pointlessly if they’d replenished the supply or if this was about the end of it; I had a vague idea I had been iced continually as I slept, though that might have been a drug-induced dream.

“Stay still,” the doctor commanded, putting her free hand on my right shoulder to keep me from trying to sit up. “This round’s almost done.”

I attempted some deep breaths; somehow it seemed I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs, and this paradoxically made me crave a cigarette. My voice as a consequence sounded weak as I asked, “What time is it?”

“That doesn’t matter,” she replied firmly, “because you won’t be going anywhere or doing anything for several hours at least.”

I let out a faint breath that was the closest thing to a laugh I could manage at this point. “You are formidable, doctor.”

“That means a lot coming from you.” A faint smile showed on her face, but overall her expression was dark. She probably knew just as well as her associate did how soon I planned on rising and resuming my work, and that there was little she could do to stop it. And as if she didn’t want to hear me say so, she changed the subject by asking, “What happened to you?”

“I had a run-in with the man I suspect is our murderer. Can you send a message to the police station for me?”

She blinked, as if the seeming non sequitur took a moment to parse. Then she asked suspiciously, “What kind of message?”

“To bring my assistant here. If I’m going to be lying around uselessly all day, I can at least get something done through him.”

At this Takani seemed to relax a trifle. “Of course.” She let the cloth-wrapped ice (which had gradually been transforming into merely a wet cloth) fall into a bowl that sat nearby, and, taking this in hand, rose to her feet. “Anything else you need?”

“A package of cigarettes,” I deadpanned. She gave me a very severe look whose reproof lessened very little even when she realized I was joking, and left the room.

When the same boy as last night — if his meticulously wide-eyed enthusiasm was anything to go by, he had aspirations to the medical profession himself — had been brought in to receive a verbal message I wasn’t sure I could put to paper at the moment, then departed, Takani began cleaning up the melted remains, on and around me, of the morning’s icing process. The pain occasioned by the blows I had received was still somewhat numb throughout my body, consequent on the lingering effects of the laudanum, but I thought those effects also accounted for my inability to breathe quite properly, and I couldn’t decide how quickly I would prefer them to diminish. I was still groggy, too, but definitely didn’t want to sleep anymore; there were tasks to be set in motion, even if I couldn’t do them myself.

At length Takani remarked, “I suppose you’d rather not give me details of what happened last night, but it might be useful for me to know.”

“I don’t mind giving you details,” I replied in all honesty. “You’re not likely to get yourself killed doing something stupid with the information.”

“Another compliment!” This time there was definitely a smile on her face. “Though I wonder if that wasn’t really an insult aimed at somebody else.”

Since insulting Sanosuke in his absence only made me miss him to no purpose, and since speaking with these shallow breaths seems to render it wiser to limit my remarks to the more important ones, I got to the point. “A woman named Tomizawa Nori has been stalked lately, possibly by her missing fiancé, who may be the murderer I’m looking for.” I went on to describe with some specificity the events that had landed me here. As I spoke, I came gradually to adjust to the seemingly lower level of air entering my lungs, until my breathing and speech felt almost normal; meanwhile Takani, having finished her cleanup work, leaned against the counter and watched me, as she listened, with critical eyes.

“That’s interesting,” was her eventual remark when I had finished. “Strength and speed but no training or combative abilities?”

Remarkable strength.” I made a small gesture to the numerous pressure wraps across my body, but quickly returned my hand to its prone position beside me when the motion proved uncomfortable.

“Well, we already knew he was very strong — assuming this is the murderer — based on what Tsukioka-san had to say after he was attacked… but who would have guessed, after that description, he would turn out to be so unskilled?”

I wanted to nod, but there was a spot on my neck and another on my face — already aggravated by the small movements of lip and jaw required for speech — that ached and stung and contraindicated the gesture. I wondered what these bruises looked like from the outside. Eventually I agreed aloud and elaborated. “Sometimes a madman may be superhumanly strong, and these murders certainly have seemed insane… but would a madman have the knowledge and precision required to drain bodies of so much blood and leave hardly any trace of what he’d done?”

“It’s possible…” She trailed off, the fingers of one hand tapping thoughtfully against the opposite arm. “If he’s a doctor or a scientist, that might explain both what he wants the blood for — or at least it would suggest a reason, if he’s conducting some kind of experiment — and also his lack of combat training. Do you know what your suspect’s profession was before he disappeared?”

“Merchant. He dealt in building materials. I don’t know that he had any connection with any medical or scientific profession. It’s not a bad theory, though.”

Mutely she shook her head. Then a long silence fell during which she seemed reluctant to leave the room but unable to think of an alternative. My guess was that, having examined the murder victims and assisted Tsukioka after his attack, she felt too caught up in this simply to walk away, but had no idea what else she could do. Fortunately, as I’d said, she wasn’t likely to plunge impetuously into danger trying to figure it out. It was nice to have someone so level-headed around. Though some part of me put in at this point that having a specific someone a little less level-headed around might have been nice too, in a different way.

The ensuing conversation, broken by wordless periods during which we both, presumably, contemplated the matter to minor effect and I tried to ignore my injuries, brought her up to speed on what details she hadn’t been acquainted with yet. It surprised me somewhat, but I found I really didn’t mind telling her everything about the case; evidently I considered her an even better consultant than I’d realized. Not that it helped. The point we kept returning to was the difficulty of reconciling any rational motivation for the murders with the amount of blood stolen from the victims. Under normal circumstances, reasons for murder were thick on the ground, and if the theft of blood was discounted it was no difficult matter to assign a motive to these crimes. But the theft of blood could not be discounted.

When Hironaku arrived, it was with evident and great reluctance that Takani vacated the room with the comment, “Call if you need anything; I won’t be far off.” I was tempted to tease her with another mention of cigarettes, but decided against it.

“Sir,” my assistant breathed in horror, wringing his police cap between hands that threatened to twist it out of all usefulness, “what happened?” He was looking me over with eyes as wide, and probably just as observant, as the messenger boy’s had been, and I reflected that whatever bruises were not currently covered in bandages must indeed be a sight to behold.

“I may have found our suspect.” And there may have been a touch of flippancy in my reply to his flabbergasted question and gaze.

“And he did this? To you?” Though Hironaku had never seen me so much as draw my sword, ever since being assigned to assist me he’d had an almost unaccountable regard for my strength and combative skill. I knew there were certain rumors that navigated the police force from time to time — quite ridiculous, some of them, though others were closer to the truth — about my history and abilities, and Hironaku must have been listening. His attitude at the moment, however, was more irritating than amusing. He needed to stop goggling at me and consider how to be productive.

I had barely started describing last night’s encounter for a second time this morning — and more sternly than I’d delivered my previous remark as I tried to get Hironaku to think rationally — when I heard a commotion outside the room. Takani’s provoked tone, though raised, was unable to hide another voice I recognized instantly, and I became more irritated than ever at my own immediate pleased reaction to the sound. Only moments later, despite the doctor’s attempts at preventing it, the door flew open, and my difficult-to-deal-with lover entered.

For a few moments I sat quietly in the bed and watched as three outraged people made chaos in front of me — Hironaku outraged at what he considered a gross invasion of an officer’s privacy by a random unrelated party and demanding the intruder remove himself immediately, Takani outraged at essentially the same thing and insisting I needed calm and quiet above all else, and Sanosuke outraged because… well, he was Sanosuke, wasn’t he?

The scene carried a certain entertainment value, especially as I observed the seemingly very effective man-handling abilities of the good doctor, but what humor I could draw from it quickly turned to aggravation as, despite her strength of personality, her strength of body proved insufficient to eject this latest visitor from the room. Hironaku’s comments accomplished little in that direction either, and Sano managed to advance halfway toward the futon with the two of them essentially in tow and no coherent dialogue among the three. So I snapped out an imperious demand for silence, and, despite the pain in my face in so doing, made it loud enough it could not be ignored.

Though he’d undoubtedly come because I was here, Sano didn’t seem to have looked very clearly at me up until this moment, and now his brows went down and his jaw somewhat slack as he took in the bruises and the highly bandaged shirtless upper half that showed above the blanket. “Shit,” he muttered, shaking off the others almost without effort or apparent thought and moving right up to the bed. “You…” He didn’t seem to know what to say, and eventually just added, “Shit,” again. Unlike Hironaku, he had seen me draw my sword, and was therefore fitter to assess the seriousness of this situation. Moreover, he had an emotional involvement that (I sincerely hoped) Hironaku distinctly lacked, which must make this scene all the more distressing to him.

However much I might have enjoyed hearing it, I didn’t allow him to express his concern — assuming he would eventually have been able to — since I was in turn a little distressed by the stricken look on his face and wanted to put things on a more businesslike footing. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

Immediately the outrage returned. “I saw that kid–” he gestured around– “he’s the one they always use around here for running errands and shit — going into the police station, and when I saw this guy come out and head straight for the clinic, I thought–”

In the middle of his second gesture, this one at Hironaku, I broke in. “And what were you doing outside the police station?”

“I was–” Sano cut his explanation short and glanced around. He was glowering, but when his eyes returned to mine I could see the dismay and worry not far beneath. And yet he still had the presence of mind to question silently whether I really wanted him to answer and, essentially, reveal all.

I found I didn’t care at this point. I was glad he was here, but I was annoyed he was here. I appreciated his concern, but not his storming in here and interrupting. And if he’d been waiting around outside the police station for me, possibly hoping to reassure himself with a sight of me alive and well… well, I appreciated that too… and it also annoyed me. This relationship of ours would be difficult to maintain if everything each of us did so continually aggravated the other. But I’d known that going in. The others in this room might as well know it too. I gave Sano an expectant and impatient look.

In response, Sano’s thunderous expression deepened, and he said loudly and with some defiance, “I thought you would come back to my place again after you were done for the night and get some sleep. So when you didn’t show up, I was worried.” His voice dropped to an unhappy mutter as he added, “Looks like I was right, too.”

The phrase ‘come back to my place again and get some sleep’ could potentially have been interpreted in a couple of different ways, but only at a stretch. The expressions on the other two faces in the room — Takani’s in particular — made an interesting picture. Hironaku had some strange larger-than-life impression of me, and if he thought me capable of romance at all, I doubted a former kenkaya fit his mental image of my type. And the doctor knew me to some extent, knew my history with Sano — including the stabbing — and knew Sano even better than that, well enough never to have seen this coming.

As I looked past him at the two gaping people just behind, Sano’s face slowly took on a pinkish hue. Though still angry, still deeply concerned about my condition, now he was also a trifle embarrassed. Well, he had been the one to insist on bursting in here and stalling a police discussion with personal concerns. Though as I saw him square his shoulders slightly, it occurred to me that, chagrined though he was, it wasn’t the disclosure he minded so much as the manner, completely out of his control, in which the information had come to light. I couldn’t say I disagreed.

“Well, as you can see, I took some damage last night, but I’m in no danger now. I was about to tell Hironaku what happened. If you sit down and shut up, you can listen too.”

Sano started in surprise. “You’re not going to kick me out of here?”

“Not if you can behave yourself,” I replied, gesturing to the spot beside my futon. I wasn’t about to admit I might not be physically capable of kicking him out of here at the moment.

Appearing simultaneously pleased and just as disturbed as before, he dropped to his knees beside me.

“Sir…” Hironaku’s voice was half curious and half protesting, with an overlay of doubt. Takani, on the other hand, remained silent. She seemed to have returned to relative placidity after the shock of revelation, but I doubted she knew what to say just yet.

I didn’t give her the chance to think of anything, nor Hironaku any response at all. I simply started again on the story of the skirmish I’d taken part in. After not too long, Sano reached for my hand, and I had to ponder briefly whether I would allow him to hold it. It actually wasn’t that difficult a decision, considering his presence really was a comfort and the others in the room now knew about our relationship. The young man was even savvy enough not to move my arm with the gesture, so I couldn’t complain.

When I’d finished the tale, Hironaku, who had gone a bit breathless without needing any laudanum, said what he’d obviously been longing to ever since the relevant moment in my discourse: “That matches the description we have of Shibue!”

“It does, but don’t get too excited; what I saw was so limited, it could match any number of descriptions.”

“It does seem like it must be Shibue, though, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” I admitted, “it does. We can’t assume, but that is seeming more and more likely.”

“And what about Tomizawa Nori?”

“I spoke to her immediately after my attacker disappeared. Based on what she said about her missing fiancé, I didn’t feel it was wise to tell her he’s under suspicion along with her brother; I just informed her that her stalker may be more dangerous than we had realized, advised her to increase her guard, and told her the police would be in touch. I think now, though, it would be safest to take her into protective custody. Even if this person who’s been watching her is her fiancé, we have no way of knowing what his intentions toward her might be. If he’s our murderer, it’s possible he’s less than entirely sane. I don’t want the woman’s dead body to be the next thing the doctor here has to examine.”

“Thank you,” Takani said quietly with a nod.

Hironaku glanced at her as if he’d forgotten she was there, but must have remembered me discussing details in front of her in the past, for he made no complaint. As if to compensate for that lack of complaint, however, his next glance was at Sano — who had, to his credit, been remarkably quiet throughout this conversation — definitely with some disapproval. But all he said was, “I’ll send someone over there.”

“Quietly,” I ordered. “Plain clothes. And tell her to keep her personal security guards at the house as if she’s still there.”

“Yes, sir. Do you want a police presence there as well?”

I paused for a moment before answering. I had been thinking about this, and, though I’d reached a decision, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it. If Shibue or whoever he was realized Nori had left, he probably wouldn’t return to that house — assuming it was Nori drawing him there in the first place and not something to do with the building itself. Police walking the grounds would probably suggest Nori’s continued residence, which might invite the unknown man to attack again, which could allow him to be identified more specifically or even captured… except that the attacker I’d fought last night had been so reluctant to allow me, a single officer, to see him, it seemed highly unlikely he would be willing to approach a group of such. A smaller number on patrol might draw him in better, but the average police officer — or even two or three of them — wouldn’t stand a chance against the stranger’s strength and speed. A lack of police presence — using the security guards as bait, as it were — might make Shibue feel safer to approach, but might also, again, lessen the implication that Nori was actually still inside and simultaneously any desire Shibue would have to approach.

“No,” I finally said. “We’ll get reports from the guards if the suspect shows up there again.”

“We’re counting on private security?” Hironaku wondered skeptically.

“The security guards are only a precaution. I’m afraid Nori’s house is going to be a dead end to us after this.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I want the observation of the Tomizawa brother tightened up. I want to know everywhere he goes, everyone he speaks to, and details on every member of his household. If he and Shibue are working together on these murders, they have to be communicating somehow.”

“So less focus on his business and more on his personal life?”

“It would be preferable to cover every angle,” I said with a sigh, “but we only have so many operatives.”

“I could–” Sano began.

I cut him off without even looking at him. “No.” Practically feeling his hand growing hotter in mine with his anger at having yet another offer of assistance rejected, I added quietly, “We’ll talk about it in a minute.”

Sano shifted, made a small grumbling noise, then subsided.

“Yes, sir,” Hironaku said belatedly.

“Send verbal reports with any updates to me here.” I sensed Takani tensing at these words, and guessed she wanted to reiterate just how long I needed to be receiving those reports in this location. Before she could, I added, “I’ll let you know when I’m at home again. It won’t be any earlier than tomorrow morning.” And at this the doctor’s lips and eyebrows pressed together, and she said nothing.

“Yes, sir.” Hironaku hesitated before turning to leave. “Any other orders?”

“Just be careful. Our suspect is incredibly strong, even if he lacks training. He’s been reluctant to let himself be seen, so try to keep to public places or groups, at least for now.” Hironaku was less relentlessly irritating than most of the assistants they assigned me for things like this, and I didn’t want to sacrifice him to the blood thief if I didn’t have to.

With another, “Yes, sir,” he bowed and left the room.

Takani watched him go, then slowly folded her arms and gave Sano and me a very calculating look that seemed to rest longest on our clasped hands. “Well,” she said at last, “as interesting as listening to police orders is, I think this development is even more so.”

Sano’s grin was somewhat sheepish. “Yeah, it’s kinda crazy, isn’t it?”

She shook her head with a wry smile, her eyes still roving over us both. “It certainly is. And I can’t decide whether to scold you about harassing my patient, or scold my patient about potentially hurting you.” And though she spoke lightly, I could tell she meant ‘hurting’ in the most serious sense. It was about the reaction I’d expected from Sano’s friends. God knew how it would be compounded when Himura eventually found out.

And what could I say to her? That Sano’s safety — physical and emotional (probably, by necessity, in that order) — had become one of the highest priorities in my life? I certainly didn’t plan on making avowals of devotion in this woman’s presence, for all I felt we’d become closer lately and today even something like friends. So what I decided on was, “Don’t worry; I’ll send him away if he causes any trouble.”

Seeming to accept this, at least for now, she laughed. “This is Sanosuke we’re talking about.”

“Hey!” Sano protested. “Saitou’s obviously been way more trouble than me today!”

“He has.” And Takani gave me a warning look I knew very well not to disregard. Her concerns were unfounded but understandable; I simply had nothing I was willing to say at the moment to refute them.

The doctor transferred her steely gaze to the young man beside me and said, “I suppose it’s all right if you stay with him, especially if that will encourage him to stay, but you might as well make yourself useful as long as you’re here. I’m going to send for some more ice.” And with that she left the room.

Not wasting an instant, Sano turned toward me, bent over, and kissed me — more gently than his abrupt movements had promised. It aggravated the bruises on my face, but I enjoyed it well enough. When he pulled away, he was scowling again. “You asshole. Why would you send for your stupid assistant and not me?”

“Who says I didn’t send for you? You weren’t at home for a messenger to find.”

Taken aback Sano wondered, “Did you?”

“No,” I admitted. “But I would have, after my work was done.”

Sano looked as if he didn’t know whether or not to believe me, but still, almost against his will, liked what he’d heard. “So you do want me around,” he said in a tone that was equal parts grumbling and flirtatious.

“Of course I do, ahou. How else could I warn you about this new danger?”

Obviously irritated at this implication that, rather than actually desiring him near me, I merely wanted to lecture him, Sano made a frustrated noise and flopped onto his side, propping himself up on an elbow. This allowed me to lie down more fully as well without him towering over me quite so much.

“I don’t want you testing yourself against this enemy,” I said wearily. “I want you to take the same precautions I gave Hironaku: keep to public places and groups as much as possible. I’m going to give the same advice to the staff here. Until we know more about this man and are able to plan an assault on him that won’t fail, I don’t want to give him another chance to get at anyone he thinks might be involved. Especially you.”

“You think he’ll come after me?”

“I have no idea. But if he didn’t know before which investigator specifically is pursuing him, he does now. That may make you a target. And he is very strong.”

“It’s kinda more you I’m worried about at this point. I can take care of myself–” and before I could protest, Sano added grudgingly, “–and I’ll take those stupid precautions — but you’re lying here wounded not in a public place or a group.”

“Then it’s a good thing I have you to protect me.”

At first his scowl deepened at the sarcasm I just couldn’t keep out of my tone, but gradually his face smoothed as he realized that, facetiousness notwithstanding, I was making a legitimate request. He sat up again and looked down at me. “You really want me to stay here with you.” His intonation had the disbelieving flatness of a statement rather than the rise of a question.

“You’re my precaution in this scenario,” I replied, instead of telling him I’d prefer him in that role than anyone else in the world, or something else similarly maudlin.

“Guess I’d better stay, then.” His put-on casualness was a sort of mirror to my professionalism: a mask over what he really meant. He lay back down, and this time didn’t prop his head up but rested on his outstretched arm. After a few moments he said, “But, damn, Saitou, you really know how to scare a guy. Coming in here and seeing you all purple-faced and shit…”

“Should I apologize?” I wondered sarcastically.

He chuckled unhappily. “Only, I didn’t think it was possible. The last time I saw you get your ass handed to you, it was by Shishio. I really don’t want to think you’re up against another Shishio-level enemy practically all by yourself.”

And yet again we were back to the idea of his helping me out on this case. He just wouldn’t let it go. And I was too tired and sore to debate any further at the moment. “Cheer up,” I said, sounding as worn out as I felt. “Maybe he’ll spontaneously combust.”

Somewhat mournfully still, Sano chuckled again.

Part 17

No matter how much I would like to pretend otherwise, I’ve been dreading this. The aversion I’ve felt regarding Sanosuke from the moment he walked into this current life of mine is based not merely on the fact that he is a vampire, an obligate murderer, but also on the point about to be raised in this already ambivalent conversation.

“It’s gonna be up to you like always.”

“…someone I could be looking for.”

“You’re gonna have a choice to make here after not too long.”

“…constant rejection…”

I can’t ask him what happened next, can’t prompt him to continue his story as I did before. He’s going to tell me no matter what I do, and I don’t have the courage to speed that process. At the same time, I can’t stop staring, and I don’t think vampiric allure has anything to do with it. I may not want him to go on, but I won’t shy from that inevitability. Can he see the antipathy in my eyes as I look at him? I’m sorry for that.

He takes and releases a deep, preparatory breath, and I’m reminded so poignantly of his panic at finding himself unbreathing in those first moments when he awoke a vampire that I draw a sudden, quick gasp into my own, working human lungs without thinking.

“Saitou Hajime died in 1879,” Sano begins quietly at last. “Nine months later, in 1880, the same guy was born named Fernando in Brazil. It took me about sixteen years to find him, though; I was almost ready to give up, but that’s never been something I’m very good at.” A slight, wry smile touches his pale lips, but this time I can’t return it. It doesn’t touch his voice. “By then you were in Canudos and could have seriously benefited from super strength and immortality… but you still didn’t want it, even when I told you how you died before — I couldn’t do the giving-back-memories thing yet at that point. So you died again in 1897.”

“Canudos?” I echo.

“Look it up,” he replies, somewhat harshly. “You don’t need to remember all your past lives.”

I shudder. “No, I don’t,” I agree.

“But after that,” he goes on, his tone growing even harder, “I watched you die again in 1920, 1957, and 1980. I’ve watched you die five times, Saitou. Every time it’s because you refused to let me change you. Every fucking time. You could have lived, we could have been together forever, but every fucking time you said no. You just made me watch.”

The pain in his voice is beyond anything I can fathom, and contemplating what his existence has been since Japan is almost more than my mind and heart can handle. I can’t say a word.

“You always thought I’d get myself killed doing something stupid before I was twenty-five…” He laughs bitterly. “But Canudos… the Rif War… riots in Johannesburg… the fucking Persian Gulf… here I am a hundred and forty-eight, and you’re the one who can’t get through half a life.”

Still I’m unable to speak. What must he have endured, finding me again and again, helplessly watching me die time after time… what must he have suffered?

“It doesn’t have to be that way…”

And that’s what it comes down to: the same point, I suppose, it came down to every lifetime: my power to bring this series of tragedies to a halt, to end his suffering.

“And eventually I’m not gonna ask; I’m just gonna–“

It didn’t mean anything to me when I overheard him telling Takani this outside the convenience store, but now the chilling significance of the statement strikes me with cruel, inexorable force. Eventually he isn’t going to ask for my permission, whether I want him to save my life or not, whether I want to share his eternal fate. He’s simply going to force the issue the moment he finds me.

The deep and multifaceted horror I feel at this idea must show in my face, for his twists and hardens in despair and frustration as he looks quickly away from me. “I’m not strong,” he whispers. “You always said it back then, and it was true. I’m not good enough. I’m becoming just like the rest of them no matter how hard I try.

“I can’t stand to give you up, to let you live your own lives and go on without you… but time changes me, and every time I meet you again I’m a worse person than I was before. Someday the Sagara Sanosuke you knew in Japan will be completely gone, and all that’ll be left will be this monster who’ll turn you without thinking and keep you forever like a slave or a pet. And I know I should just walk out into the sun and end all this, but then I think about finding you again and I can’t do it.

“I still love you. I’ve loved every version of you, every time; there are things about people that don’t change no matter how many times they’re reborn, no matter what situation they’re born into or what kind of parents they have or how they grow up — and you’re always the same guy who fights to make things right, who fights until he dies to make things better for people, fights for whatever he believes in and somehow always manages to believe the right things. I’ll always love that. And I don’t want to hurt you, but one of these days it’s going to happen. And I don’t know what to do about it.”

Silence falls like a heavy weight. We’ve reached a juncture where I must speak, and can’t allow not having the faintest idea what to say to keep me from saying something. I open my mouth, but how can I express even a fraction of what’s going through my head?

I anticipated what the eventual primary topic of this conversation would be, and I recoiled… but I see now I was responding solely to the same abhorrence I felt at the time of my death in Japan: an aversion to the prospect of losing my humanity. Now as the full implications of the situation slowly dawn on me, my emotional reaction broadens immeasurably. Because whatever he is or is becoming, the fact that Sano never stopped searching the world for me crashes down on me like a weight as heavy as the silence, sending out ripples through all my other thoughts and feelings.

He never was, as he freely admits, very good at giving up, of letting go of the past; in fact I even wondered just a few minutes ago whether his continued insistence on wearing that aku ichimonji isn’t an indication that this aspect of his character hasn’t changed. But for that stubborn tenacity still to be in ascendancy over a century later? It’s enough to startle even someone that knew him intimately during his mortal life.

There is, however, a certain question I’ve been assiduously dodging the way I won’t allow myself to do with the offer he’s here to make, and only in this avoidance, this suppression of an important point, could I possibly be at all surprised at learning how devotedly he has sought me out over the years. He loves me. He said it himself, and it wasn’t as if I didn’t know it — but the true strength and depth of that love, a love that could keep him endlessly on my trail despite my inevitable reception of him every single time, is something I never recognized — and something that’s making my heart beat rapidly now.

His dogged disinclination to let go of the past cannot account for everything he’s done, and wasn’t I just recalling, with some sorrow at its apparent loss, his intense emotionality? That inability to let go could only send him on this hopeless eternal quest when combined with a profound and dedicated love — a love I underestimated, both in Japan and certainly here and now. Here, at least, because I wouldn’t allow myself to look at it squarely, because I didn’t — and don’t — want to face the related question, Do I still love him? In part because that question and its answer will make his offer all the more complicated to deal with in its turn.

“I’m sorry.” The words that eventually emerge from my open mouth seem ridiculously, agonizingly inadequate. Are they better than saying nothing at all? I don’t know. “I’m sorry it’s been so painful for you. I wanted to save you from…” Helplessly I pause. At the time I didn’t know what I wanted to save him from; plain death was the worst I could imagine. If I’d even dreamed of this possibility, of course I would have tried with all my power to guard him from it… but none of us had any idea. “…everything.” It’s true enough, if still ridiculously inadequate.

Though he accepts my statement with a nod, there’s a faintly afflicted expression on his face indicating he knows perfectly well, as I do, that we’ve slipped from the main point. “This wasn’t something you could save me from,” he says, lifting a ghostly pale hand. “Even if we’d known more about vampires at the time — or anything about vampires — there wasn’t a lot we could have done.”

“We could have stayed inside at night,” I suggest with a shake of my head. This is prompted by the back of that raised hand, which, from wrist to fingertips, is covered with an unexpected, familiar burned patch. That must have been there the whole time, of course — I specifically took note of the paleness of his hands the first night — but I didn’t notice it until it meant something to me.

“That wouldn’t have helped. Remember, I wasn’t a random attack.”

I frown. I do remember. Just as I remember the circumstances of that burn. “We’re lucky the sun didn’t kill you that first day.” I’m still staring at his hand where he’s lowered it to his leg once again. It’s easier than looking at his face.

“‘Lucky,'” he snorts. “Right.”

Taken aback by the bitterness in his tone but not quite ready to discuss the disturbing changes to his character, I remark instead, questioningly, “That still looks almost fresh.”

Sano raises the appendage a second time and gives it the type of nearly blank look generally used to examine an already quite familiar object. “Vampires may be a lot stronger than humans,” he says at last, “but we grow and heal a lot slower. It takes a lot of blood to get rid of something like this. ”

My emotions at this information are indescribable. He’s carried that mark for over a century when presumably he could have hastened the healing process by consuming more blood. He hasn’t given in yet. He isn’t a… Well, he is. He is a monster. No matter how he restrains himself, he’s still a vampire, someone who preys on his fellow man in order to survive. The urge that’s arisen within me — to go to him, to hold him, to kiss his scarred hand — is overwhelmed by the familiar cold reluctance.

Maybe he senses that resurgence of hesitancy, for he brings us back around to our earlier topic. “The point is–” He sounds unhappy and impatient– “this isn’t your fault, and you shouldn’t feel sorry about it. It wasn’t even my fault,” he adds with only the hint of a sour smile. “You did everything you could, and I was even ready to listen to you for once. How were we supposed to know stepping out to use the bathroom would get me killed?”

Again I shake my head.

He takes another unnecessary deep breath. “There’s only one part of the situation you have any control over. And I’m still myself enough to give you a choice, for now.”

“I know,” I murmur, averse to hearing him say it unequivocally but knowing he’s about to.

And he does. As he leans forward, my eyes are drawn inexorably from the sun-scorched hand on his knee to his chalky, earnest face — the face I so loved in a previous life. “Let me make you a vampire, Saitou. Stay with me forever this time.”

I wonder if in previous instances he framed it as a question rather than a command. It doesn’t much matter — except as an illustration of the gradual alterations he’s undergoing — because the answer is still no. Just as it was in Japan, just as it has been every time, just as it always will be. He must know, based on those aspects of my character that remain the same throughout every reincarnation, that I could never consent to become an undiscerning killer. In fact it hurts that he would even ask, continue to ask, as if that might change. But I suppose the idea of giving me up, giving up the only means he can think of to be with me for more than a single too-short lifetime, is just as horrific to him as I find the idea of indiscriminately murdering innocent people to meet my own selfish needs.

And how long can this cycle go on? Anguish, protracted on his part and brief but endlessly repeated on mine; rejection, turmoil, unwanted personal metamorphosis? Death after death after death? How long can he hold out? Next time — hell, perhaps this time — will my refusal of his plan be met with a snap of teeth and a return to that sensationless tunnel, at whose end in this instance will lie slavery and self-loathing? Or is he stronger than he thinks, and this process is destined to repeat far oftener than either of us can anticipate? Will I be stepping from my flying car onto the landing pad of my floating apartment in the year 2500 to confront a pale, unknown but unnervingly familiar visitor approaching me with an offer to which the answer will still be no?

I wonder what I’ve said to his question — or command — in the past. Not the purport of my reply, but what words and demeanor I’ve used. For I find that now, no matter how decisive my opinion, it won’t come out of my mouth. Just as I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I didn’t remember him, to crush his distant hope that something in me might have recognized my old love without his having to resort to vampiric tricks to restore my memory, I can’t straightforwardly tell him the method he has in mind for keeping us together forever is and must always be totally unacceptable. At least not now. Perhaps I do love him, and can’t admit it. I know, whatever my feelings, I don’t want to cause him further suffering. It seems so simple to say, “No,” and yet I find it’s something I have to work up to.

“I’m going to need some time,” I finally manage, “to think about this.”

He doesn’t complain, or demand to know how much time, or protest that it’s a really easy question — which it is — or give any of the passionate reactions I’ve stopped expecting from him but part of me yet craves. He merely nods. I get the feeling, however, he’s disappointed just as he was when I couldn’t offer any verbal reply to, “Do you remember me?” He undoubtedly knows what I’ll eventually say; it would require a flagrant repression of pattern recognition beyond even Sanosuke’s stubbornness not to be aware of that. As such, I may actually be prolonging his suffering exactly as I was reflecting I’d prefer not to in failing to say it candidly now… but still I can’t manage it. I’m simply incapable. He mentioned there are challenges he feels he’s not strong enough to meet — completely different than what I had in mind when I disparaged his strength in the Meiji era — perhaps without realizing that I too suffer from weakness in certain unexpected areas.

Another silence falls, this one unbearably tense. No, he didn’t ask how long I needed or complain about the ease with which I should be able to come up with an answer… but surely, underneath this wordlessness, he doesn’t believe the time I require will be a mere matter of seconds or minutes? That I’ll say what I have to say here on the spot? The thought almost makes me smile, incongruously in the midst of this painful drama, since it would be so characteristic of the old Sano. And I wish I could at least produce some timeframe, some estimated period during which I can hope to work up the nerve to give him the forthright answer that’s already in my head. But I can’t even do that much.

And after a while he demonstrates he is not, in fact, waiting for me to speak again. He abruptly leaves the sofa, prompting me to stand as well, and says, “I’ll come back tomorrow night and see how you’re doing.” And though his movement was startling, his words are a relief: that he didn’t declare he would return for my answer, only to check on me. He has some kindness and consideration left, whatever he’s lost.

It’s my turn to nod blankly, since I can’t think of anything to say or which of my many interconnected feelings to allow on display. And instead of trying to figure out how I’m going to tell him what I have to tell him, I’m staring at his familiar yet altered figure, his still-beautiful face, and remembering happier days.

Between one memory and the next, he’s gone. I actually hear the soft sounds of the door opening and closing this time, but I’m too caught up in emotion and contemplation to add this information to my dilettantish interest in how silently vampires do or don’t move. Without looking after him, my eyes in fact locked on the space where he previously stood, I remain motionless for several moments in my bright, empty living room. Then I step slowly to the sofa and sit down exactly where he sat. The abnormal chill in the slight depression is the only remaining sign he was even here.

I press my palm against the cool spot on the couch’s side where for a while Sano’s arm rested, thinking of that old burn and everything he said to me, everything he’s suffered, and everything I need to say to him. Presently I lean forward, removing my back from a cushion that’s already losing the elusive coldness of Sano’s presence under the influence of my own, and drop my head into my hands.

Part 18

I couldn’t say I knew something was wrong, for no identifiable sense gave me any such information. Even the paranoia that must have generated the idea, based on an underlying and never-stilled concern about certain possible combinations of events, was not clearly apparent when I awoke. At first I recognized only the absence of Sano and the presence of a feeling that something was wrong.

Of course there were a number of possible explanations for his having risen and left the room, the most logical of which was a need to visit the toilet. Or he could be having a conversation with one of the doctors; he might even be assisting in some midnight business for which medical clinics were specifically prepared. He could have stepped outside for some air, or detected something unusual and gone to investigate. Though these last two options angered me just in considering them, since they would directly defy my edict (as would, technically, a visit to the outbuilding, but that at least was a necessary breach of the companionship rule), they were understandable and not unpredictable actions. And yet I felt something was wrong, to an extent that would not allow me to go back to sleep.

For one thing, I wouldn’t have awakened in the first place, in this hurt and weakened state in desperate need of rest, if he hadn’t been gone long enough for my muddled consciousness to sense it through my incoherent dreams. For another… well, I simply worried about him. I wouldn’t be content until I knew where he was, nor possibly until I’d given him another lecture on safety in the current scenario.

I looked around, feeling the immediate pain in my neck that came from turning my head. The examination room, lacking windows, was filled with deep shadow; in fact the only light filtered dimly through the door’s paper from the hallway where a single small lamp was kept lit overnight for the benefit of patients or staff needing to move around the clinic during the hours of darkness. I could see nothing with any clarity, but I could make out what I knew to be a jug of water and its accompanying cups on the counter — I’d made use of them earlier, and thus distinguished their shapes now — which eliminated ‘getting a drink’ as a possible motive for Sanosuke’s disappearance.

My entire body was ridiculously stiff and painful, and the muscular impulses required merely to sit up were agonizing. I rather expected the ever-increasing discomfort would go hand-in-hand with a similarly rising irritation, but found it was not so; that sense of something wrong, that irrational concern about my irresponsible lover, overrode, for the moment, most of the annoyance I might have felt with him. When I located him hanging around outside for no good reason, or whatever the case turned out to be, normal emotions could resume.

Walking was torture, and I had to take a minute or so to practice this activity I’d mastered thirty-five years ago to make sure I could do it effectively before I even considered leaving the room. Glad I was that I’d refused a further dose of laudanum and was alert enough for upright motion at all.

With Sano’s help and a great deal of inconvenience, I’d changed last night out of what I’d yet been wearing of my uniform into a yukata that had proven much easier to sleep in, and this garment should be sufficient for now. But I wanted my sword as a precaution, and couldn’t remember where it had ended up when I’d first come to the clinic early yesterday morning. If I couldn’t find it almost immediately, I would leave without it; I didn’t have the patience for a prolonged search. Upon sliding the room’s door quietly open and allowing a greater amount of light inside, however, I saw it lying neatly on the counter atop my folded clothing not far from the water jug. Since I was certain Sanosuke hadn’t folded the garments — and uncertain Sanosuke knew how to fold garments — I supposed I had Takani to thank for this.

I would prefer to brook the wrath of neither of the two doctors in residence, so I made an effort to move down the corridor as naturally and evince as little discomfort as possible despite the reluctance of my muscles to do anything I told them. But I hoped not to encounter anyone — except Sano — since the doctors, no matter how I moved, would definitely still scold me and cause delay thereby, and any other patient might be startled or even frightened at the sight of my bruises, my weapon, and my air of determination and concern. Fortunately, in this case my wish was granted.

At the side entrance there were a couple of pairs of geta, small and large, provided for anyone resident in the building and capable of using the external facilities rather than a bedpan, and into one of these I gratefully stepped. I didn’t know how many pairs were usually present or if any might be missing, but I felt this was the most logical direction in which to start my search. This impression was strengthened when I found the door unlocked and observed a hook beside it, where a key might have hung, empty.

I saw no one immediately outside, and silently followed the path curving around into the back. The night was neutral, as the previous had been, with only a faint intermittent breeze, and a scattering of small clouds blocked out the stars only in negligible patches. The rear yard, with its outhouse at the far end and a fenced-off garden seating area where patients could take the air, stood peaceful and quiet in the shadows, yet somehow my every step heightened the sensation that something was wrong.

A lantern’s bright spot showed the grain of the outhouse door even at this distance, but it was to darkness rather than light that my eyes were drawn. For between the clinic’s main building I’d just left and the outbuilding I’d thought to approach to check for Sanosuke, there stood a shed that must be passed to reach one from the other. An unassuming structure in the same style as the rest on the property, there was no reason for it to catch my attention… except that there was also no reason for its doors to be gaping open, a portal into deep blackness like a yawning mouth in its face, at this time of night and with no one around.

Though it seemed superstitious and nothing I would have liked to admit aloud, I felt as if my concerns and the impression of wrongness I was gripped with were all suddenly concentrated on this one spot, on the invisibility beyond those wide-flung doors. I felt as if I’d left my relatively comfortable futon in the examination room, abandoned my own injunction of keeping inside or to crowds as much as possible, forced myself through pain and difficulty to walk out of the building, specifically to come here and enter this shed and find what I would find there.

I checked the sword at my side. The tie of a yukata wasn’t the most convenient restraint for slinging a weapon, but it would do; I could draw at any time as long as my opposite hand was also free to steady the sheath. Then, without attempting to pierce the gloom within the shed with my naked eyes, I walked straight past it to the outhouse and reached up with perfectly steady hands to unhook its small lantern. Finally, without hesitation, I turned back and moved in the direction of the unknown.

My geta clattered somewhat on the step up into the little building, and the noise echoed like gunshots in the silent night. As a matter of course I thrust the lamp forward and took a careful look around at the entry, ensuring no ambush awaited me. All I could see, sharp yet indistinct in the minimal light, was the perfectly mundane accumulated storage of years, exactly what one would expect to find in such a place. And the disarray of much of it indicated, I thought, a recent struggle here, though not a particularly wide-ranging or long-lasting one — certainly not one as dire as what I’d gone through at Tomizawa Nori’s house. I moved forward across the cluttered floor toward the back of the building, the tapping of my shoes continually galling in this vacuum of sound, then halted when the light fell on… fell on exactly what I’d…

White cloth greyed with the dust into which it had fallen… tanned skin faded to pallor…

I wasn’t aware of how still I stood until motion beside me seemed blurringly fast: a rake, previously holding only precariously to its wall peg after whatever struggle had stirred the shed’s contents, now gave up the fight and fell with a clatter to the floor. And it didn’t actually fall any quicker than gravity dictated; it was just that my perception had slowed as it took in every horrific detail of the scene: the stiffness, the paleness, the awkward angle of attitude and limb…

The light shifted, and I found my previously raised arm, trembling slightly, sinking with its minimal burden toward a limp position at my side as if the lantern were simply too heavy to continue holding up.

Eventually, after how long I did not know, I tore myself from where I stood. With every forward step I took, I seemed to grow colder, less connected with my surroundings. By the time I fell to my knees beside him and set the lantern down, I was completely numb. I felt nothing, I heard nothing, I saw nothing but him. His face was placid; at least he didn’t seem to have died in pain. The wound on his neck was the same as all the other victims, but he lacked the appearance of emaciation most of those had exhibited. He didn’t seem to have taken any other hurt, besides hitting the floor in an uncomfortable position and achieving rigor mortis there.

Vaguely surprised by these detached reflections, I abandoned them for the moment as I reached out and brushed aside a haphazard lock of brown hair, touched his face.

Had I thought I had gone cold? It was nothing, nothing in comparison to this. He was stone; he was ice. As cold, predictably, as death.

Had I thought I had gone numb? It struck me like a sudden attack from a heavy weapon, perhaps like the one he had once carried but infinitely more enormous and impossible to parry or dodge. I shuddered, abruptly unable to breathe. Under that attack my chest was being slowly crushed, and a stabbing pain arose there and spread rapidly through me. The only clear thought in my darkened mind was that I was too late; I’d lost him. I’d failed and lost him forever. The entire world was shrinking, contracting like my faltering heart, narrowing until its full extent was my hand on his face and the overwhelming, inescapable fact that he was gone.

Death, in the abstract as well as in the specific reality of lethal wounds sometimes delivered by my own hand, had always been an inextricable part of my reality. Any samurai, any soldier, even a police officer in this new and tamer era lived with and embraced the possibility of dying at any time, and walked surrounded by death wherever he went and whatever he did. It was grim, unfortunate, but unavoidable — and when it came with honor, at times acceptable or even desirable.

Yet there had been instances when this inevitability for which I’d been prepared was more difficult to tolerate: Okita, my friend, lost not in the glory of battle but in a miserable sickbed as his once-brilliant body betrayed him; Yaso, my wife for a mere two months, cut down ignobly by some random killer on the streets of Gonohe; Ookubo, one of the few statesmen I had respected and admired, assassinated for daring to do his job. In these cases death was not so much a quiet, constant companion as a cruel and relentless oppressor.

But it had never felt like this before.

There had always been some degree of grief, of bitterness against the hand of the tyrant, of questioning what I could have done to prevent this, of bleak anticipation of what the future held in the absence of the deceased… but never such an overwhelming weight of unendurable pain. No experience in my life, no failure, no loss, nothing had ever hurt like this. His passions stilled, his determination defeated, his laugh silenced, his love extinguished, his prospects destroyed… I had failed him.

And then…

Then he opened his eyes.

I believe for a few moments my heart actually stopped. The hallucination, however, continued. He looked up at me with a gaze that was far too bright for that dim enclosure, and the new arrangement of his features was familiar. It was one that might previously have irritated me: a complacent, ignorant expression suggesting he hadn’t been paying attention, didn’t know what was going on, but was too lazy to be worried.

“Was a dream…” he murmured a little hoarsely.

And at the sound, I started to believe that maybe this was really happening. After having thought him dead, my reaction to finding him alive was every bit as earth-shattering. I still could not move or speak.

“Saitou…” Sano murmured, and sluggishly raised a hand to take mine.

His fingers and palm were frozen cold. Surely a living human body could not be that cold! I couldn’t reply.

Watching my face in the uncertain light, his took on a look of slowly growing horror and fear. “Saitou,” he whispered again, “what the hell is wrong with me?” It seemed a struggle for him to move, but also that his strength was gradually returning. The straightening of his awkwardly placed limbs seemed eminently unnatural, and he sat up woodenly, clutching at my hands, his glowing eyes wide and desperate. “I can’t breathe,” he said frantically. “S-Saitou…”

Finally I found my voice, but all I managed to say was, “Sanosuke.” At the sound he started and shuddered, clinging to my chest. I ignored the pain this caused; it was nothing compared to what I’d felt a minute ago, what in a way I still felt. I never would have thought to see him so frightened, but it made sense; his entire frame was infused with that impossible chill, and… he was right: he wasn’t breathing, except in quick bursts just before he spoke, as if the only air entering his lungs was doing so exclusively to push sound back out again. How this could be I couldn’t begin to fathom, but I had to set aside my own wonder and confusion in the interest of supporting my understandably agitated lover. “Calm down,” I whispered. “You’re all right.” Though this didn’t seem anywhere close to true.

“I’m not,” he protested, but I thought his desperation was calming somewhat. “I’m dying… I’m dead… I’m… I don’t know… ”

I put my arms around him despite the pain and the unnerving cold. “You’re not dying. You’re not dead.”

Sano still clung. “Then why the fuck am I not breathing?”

I thought his profanity was a good sign. Having no answer to his question, however, I prevaricated, “Have you tried breathing?” I was surprised I was breathing, in fact, surprised at my own ability to formulate coherent words. My chest still seemed incapacitated by the aphysical blow it had received at my original assessment of the scenario; my entire body still throbbed with shock.

“Why should I have to try to–” He interrupted himself by drawing in a shuddering gasp of air and letting it free. After a few more of these he muttered, “I don’t get it.”

“Neither do I,” I assured him, “but you are alive.” I said as much for myself as for him.

Perhaps a little uncertainly he nodded, released the front of my yukata at last, and looked around.

This caused my world to widen abruptly back out, and I recalled surroundings and a situation that had completely slipped my mind until this moment. I decided to decide later whether or not this preoccupation was a legitimate source of chagrin. “Can you stand?” I asked.

He took another deep breath as if desperate for air, and repeated his nod. That he believed himself capable of rising contributed to my ongoing sense of how close he might have come to never rising again.

As we both got rather unsteadily to our feet, I noticed but did not quite understand his change of expression; I hadn’t realized how intently I had my eyes, hungry for his every life-affirming movement, locked on him. He looked down at his hands, flexing them, and muttered, “Feels weird.”

“Weird?” I echoed.

“Yeah… I feel… stronger. Being dead should be a lot worse than this.”

“You’re not dead,” I almost snapped. I couldn’t deal with that idea right now, given how deeply it and its subsequent contradiction had shaken me.

“Yeah, maybe not…” He said it abstractedly, though, and not as if he really believed it, as he began a sort of self-assessment by feeling at various parts of his body. His movements had loosened up from the stiffness they’d originally carried, and he appeared to be unhurt, but his frown only deepened as he examined himself. His probing fingers kept returning to his neck as if he expected to find something there — and not the spot beside his trachea where he might have felt his only visible wound, but the back just beneath the shaggy ends of his hair. Finally, still flexing his hands as he had before and still appearing distressed and confused, he leaned against me and slowly dropped his face to my shoulder.

“What happened?” I asked as I wrapped him in my arms again, continuing to disregard the discomfort such close contact occasioned.

Against my collarbone his head shook slightly. “I don’t… I don’t actually remember. I feel like… a bunch of stuff happened, but…”

“It’s all right,” I assured him, responding to the trace of panic in his uncertain tone. “It may come back to you. We should go back into the clinic.”

“Right…” He lifted his gaze and looked around uncomfortably, then added at a mutter, “I must have been attacked.”

Grimly I nodded. Normally this would have been the perfect opening for a sarcastic remark, since it was very obvious he’d been attacked, but I wasn’t capable of it — or even remotely inclined toward it — at the moment. “Let’s try not to let it happen again.”

As we made our way out of the cluttered shed, after extinguishing the lantern I wasn’t going to bother returning to its place, I attempted to keep an eye out for any signs of the attacker in the immediate vicinity. I hadn’t sensed him when I left the clinic, and I sensed nothing now, but I would be damned if I failed Sano again. It proved difficult, though, with him clutching at me as we walked; it wasn’t that the pain was distracting — it was, but I’d dealt with worse — but that every particle of my being wanted to concentrate solely on him and the fact that he was alive. I wanted my arms to remain around him without release; I wanted to hold him so tightly he became a part of me, keep him so indivisibly close that nothing like this could ever happen again. Stunned and sore, I reeled from the back-to-back shocks I’d taken; Sano was supporting me every bit as much as I was him.

The horror of what might have been and the sense of deliverance from that possibility seemed to wash over me in waves, and a particularly strong instance of these contrasting emotions struck the very moment we’d made it back to our examination room — originally intended for my use with him only on the periphery, but now destined to be a medical haven for us both. I slid the door closed, plunging us into blackness, as soon as we’d stepped inside, ignoring the awareness that I mustn’t stay, that I needed to seek out a doctor. I couldn’t leave his side for even one instant just at the moment.

Succumbing briefly to that deep relief that shook me so intensely, I held him tight against me. My battered frame screamed in protest, despite his unnatural coldness almost resembling the ice that had been used on my bruises and strains more than it did a living human body, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that he was here and relatively safe, that he wasn’t dead. I found myself trembling slightly, which was embarrassing, and breathing more unevenly than he was though no actual wound had been delivered to my chest.

“Hey…” he whispered, the uncertainty in his voice similar to that of his movements as his arms slipped upward in an invisible mirror of mine. “It’s… all right…” Evidently he hadn’t expected to be offering me comfort like this — possibly at any time in our lives, but especially tonight when he had been the one attacked.

“I know,” I replied in just as harsh a whisper… though I didn’t necessarily know. His arms were agonizing around my back, as if he were grasping me much more tightly than he needed to, but I didn’t mind. Anything to continue reassuring me he wasn’t dead.

How long we spent in that embrace, that consoling close connection that nevertheless postponed the night’s crucial next step, each of us struggling for different reasons to breathe properly, crushed together in the darkness and clearly unwilling to let go, I also didn’t know.

Part 19

Through the blinds, out past the parking lot between the cars, I can see the horizon darkening. I’ve never been much of a sunset-watcher, and it occurs to me that I’m not really sure how long this basic daily occurrence actually takes. I suppose subconsciously, after thirty years — perhaps even sixty-five years — of seeing or at least being aware of it on a daily basis, I really am familiar with the length of time at this season between the disappearance of the sun and full darkness setting in, but consciously I find I haven’t a clue.

There are other things I don’t know: where he spends his days, how soon after dusk he awakens, how quickly he travels, how much residual sunlight in the atmosphere he can tolerate outdoors. I can make educated guesses, but they’re based on pop culture as well as information more than a century old — and, as I’ve already noted, someone can change a lot in that many years. Eventually I let the blinds snap back into place and compel myself to think about dinner.

The water in the pot is perhaps halfway to boiling point when I’m not so much startled as intrigued by the sound of the front door opening. My interest isn’t piqued by the same issue I’ve been pointlessly dwelling on — how quietly a vampire can or can’t manipulate objects in his environment — but by the fact that that door was dead-bolted. He doesn’t need to scan the room; his glowing eyes jump immediately to me even as he’s closing the entrance behind him, and he takes a seat at my small dining table without removing them from me. He’s dressed the same as last night and every night, and I reiterate to myself the theory that vampires don’t need to change clothing much.

There can be no such thing as an un-charged sight of him, and my brain teems even just with this glance. The way he looks at me recalls my realization yesterday of how much he must love me, which is still a diamond-hard awareness my musings glance off of, can’t get any purchase on — and that’s only the most basic level of my reaction to his presence. However, amidst all the complicated reflections and feelings half acknowledged, memories of the past and fears for the future, one interesting point stands out: I’m happy to see him. Uncomplicatedly happy that he’s here, that I can be with him again for a little while. I try very hard not to assign any interpretation to this.

Instead I remark, “That door was locked, you know.”

He glances over. “It probably still is.”

“You couldn’t open locked doors back in Japan.”

“I don’t know if I ever tried,” he replies, and I miss the nonchalant shrug that would have accompanied such a statement from him in the distant past. “But vampires are weird. Those of us who survive get all sorts of interesting abilities as we get older.”

“So I’m seeing.” I lean against the kitchen counter and watch him, content for the moment to do only that — to observe him, assessing as best I can, coming no closer but drawing no farther back. “And you obviously don’t have to be invited into someone’s home.”

He frowns slightly, and it’s an expression of thoughtfulness rather than unhappiness. “That one… used to be true. I think it still is, in some places. But even in the parts of Europe where it was the biggest problem, it was already fading when I got changed. I’m trying to think…” He shakes his head. “I don’t remember ever getting stuck at somebody’s door because of that.”

So fascinated am I at this unexpected description of the situation, it takes me a moment to realize my water is boiling. As I hastily tear open the side of the box and somewhat clumsily pour the dry noodles in while trying not to remove my eyes from my vampire ex, I ask in great interest, “Why? How does that work?”

Now he does shrug, though as casual gestures go it’s still pretty stiff and chilly. “Nobody’s really sure. The favorite theory — at least right now — is that, thanks to all the vampires in popular culture and everyone’s growing interest in them — I mean, we’d never heard of them, but Dracula was only twenty years later — society’s kinda given vampires a collective invitation in, so vampires don’t have to worry about individual invitations anymore.”

This is utterly engrossing, and if I’m stirring my noodles properly, it’s through muscle memory alone. “So… human collective consciousness affects what vampires can and can’t do.”

“Something like that. There’s a lot about us that isn’t really well understood. Nobody likes to call it ‘magic,’ but how else can you describe it?”

Magic. How else indeed? Looking at him like this, talking to him like this… remembering a previous life and our time together in it… reflecting on how surreal and difficult things have become… I can’t think of a better word. I shake my head slightly and ask, “Is anyone studying all of this?”

Sanosuke chuckles monosyllabically. “One thing you figure out pretty quick about vampires is that we’re really private. We probably don’t actually need to stay as secret as we do — it’d be easier to live openly with humans — but there’s this fear of ‘them finding out’ that kinda throws a wet blanket over everything we do. Most vampires aren’t down for being studied.”

I nod. “It seems like a…” I search for the right term, and settle on, “scientific shame… but I’m not a vampire.” And as I offer a shrug of my own, I realize I’ve said the wrong thing. Yesterday he told me he would come back tonight to ‘see how I’m doing’ — not to press the issue of his potentially life-changing wish — and here we’ve been having an interesting conversation on a relatively unconnected topic… I don’t think it’s wise to bring up points more specifically connected to that question I can’t answer yet. Deeming this an excellent moment to pay some real attention to the macaroni spinning in the hot liquid at my side, I turn toward it and stir more pointedly.

It seems to be with some difficulty Sanosuke avoids the segue I inadvertently offered him and says instead, “Ask Megumi about it if you’re really interested. She thinks it’s a scientific shame too.”

Directing my words into the steam rising before my face, I asked as casually as I can manage, “Am I likely to see her again?”

“I’m almost her only friend. As long as we’re in the same area, we’re gonna hang out as much as we can. She’ll probably show up here eventually too.”

His words give me a faint, shivering glimpse into the lonely fate of a vampire, a member of a ‘really private’ people — a people unwilling to be discovered by the majority of the population among which they exist, unwilling even to learn more about themselves if it means ‘them finding out.’ For a doctor, that must be almost unbearable. For anyone, that must be almost unbearable.

“Do you have other friends?” I can’t help asking, quiet and concerned despite the awkwardness of the question. It isn’t my place anymore to pry into his private affairs… though obviously he’d like it to be, which is part of the problem.

“No.” He doesn’t pause before saying it, doesn’t seem to be adding up or considering whether So-and-So really counts as a friend. Just a flat negative. “Other vampires don’t like Meg very much, and they know I created her… They’re mostly a bunch of assholes anyway, so I don’t really try with them.” And he doesn’t even mention the possibility of human friends.

This, I think, sheds some light (an inappropriate metaphor when discussing a vampire if ever there was one) on a couple of different points. If because of this prejudice against Takani and her vampiric creator — whatever that stems from — Sanosuke has formed no meaningful relationships, engaged in no emotional intimacy except with one person that evidently isn’t always around, for 130 years, is it any surprise whatsoever that he’s clung all the more tenaciously to his love for me? Is it any surprise that tracking me down and experiencing, even if only for moments in between lifetimes of suffering, what was perhaps the truest and deepest connection he ever felt has become his driving purpose?

Beyond that, is it any wonder he’s altered so much? On an endless search punctuated with disappointment and rejection, usually alone and with no prospect of any companionship, any uplifting interaction to reinforce his humane instincts, beyond brief contact with that single aforementioned friend — his only other options being ‘a bunch of assholes’ that don’t accept him in any case, is it any wonder he has, as he said himself, become a worse person? He claimed time changes him, but I think it may be more circumstance than natural progression.

And in a situation like this, is there any hope for the future — his or mine?

I can’t speak as unhesitatingly as he does; not only do these thoughts sadden and appall me, I haven’t had over a century to get used to all of this. So it’s a moment or two before I ask, “Why don’t they like her?”

“When she comes around, you’ll have to have her tell you all about it.”

I nod, accepting that this isn’t his story to relate, and silence falls. I don’t know what to say. Can I voice the ideas I just turned over in my head? Can I suggest that perhaps his tendency to throw himself so fully into everything has done him a disservice in this case? Because it seems there are other options, alternatives to living in a lonely echo chamber of the old emotions he can’t let go. It seems he needn’t have transformed into what he is today, if only he had ever been willing to think of something other than me and finding me again and continually making his horrendous offer. He could have saved himself, and perhaps he still can… but can I tell him that? I’m afraid I don’t know him well enough anymore; I may be mistaken in my entire assessment, and in any case I can’t voice it aloud.

Presently, with no apparent incitement other than the passage of silent time, I find him at my side. His quick, noiseless movement is startling, but at least the concept of vampires and their uncanny abilities has been specifically on my mind to prepare me for it. Now he looks into the pot on the stove and grimaces faintly at its swirling contents. “You and your gross noodles,” he comments.

Though his words make me chuckle, which is a relief in the present atmosphere, I’m distracted by his physical closeness. Though not quite against me, he is standing very near — near enough that I should feel his body heat, rendering its absence conspicuous. And though my right hand continues its mechanical stirring motion, the rest of me is frozen in indecision. I’d like to touch him, to connect with him a little, to reassure the part of myself that still thinks of this as impossible that it’s all true. 130 years ago, if we’d been alone like this and he so close to me, I would have reached out without conscious deliberation. It might have been a blatantly sexual gesture, or merely a playful one, or something gentler and more casual just to take pleasure in his presence… but even ‘gentle’ and ‘casual’ is far beyond me right now, and there’s a gulf between us that may never be spanned. I don’t like it. I still don’t know how I feel about him, but I don’t like it.

I do manage to respond to his comment, however, using the process of extracting a couple of macaroni from the water and letting them cool in order to test their softness as a mask for my discomfort. “These won’t be plain, though; they’ll have cheese on them.”

“Yeah… ‘cheese…'” He returns to the table — he really does move disconcertingly quickly — and resumes his seat. “Some foods I’m glad I never had to try.”

“You dodged a bullet with this one, then.” I set the colander in the sink and carry the pot to it. Over the ensuing waterfall I raise my voice to continue, “If you were human in this era, I suspect you’d eat nothing but macaroni and cheese.”

He laughs, and perhaps just a touch of the tension between us is dispelled. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“I know I am,” I murmur as I throw a quarter stick of butter into the bottom of the still-hot pan and let it start to melt. “If Kraft macaroni and cheese had existed in Meiji Japan, that’s all you would have eaten back then too.”

He laughs even louder this time, reminding me hauntingly of the old Sano. “OK, fine, when you sound that sure about it…”

I echo his mirth, then ask in some interest, “Is there any normal food you can eat?”

“Nothing at all, unless you count water. Not even raw meat.”

“What happens if you try?” It’s a rather disgusting topic, but apparently it doesn’t bother him, and I’m curious.

“It sits in my stomach and rots.” And with this matter-of-fact answer, the topic becomes even more disgusting. “And makes my breath smell really, really bad.”

Grateful I’m not squeamish, I even laugh a little as I wonder, “Worse than after drinking blood?”

“I guess it’s a matter of taste,” he admits, “but the blood at least gets absorbed. The food just sits around.”

“And your body really has no way of getting rid of it?”

“Oh, it does.” His tone is dark all of a sudden. “We can get most of our old functions working again temporarily if we drink enough blood all at once.”

“Oh.” I fall awkwardly silent, and for a moment the only sound in the room is the newly squishy stirring of macaroni now complete with sauce. I don’t really want to pursue this, but it’s something I feel I need to know. “And you never drink much blood all at once.”

“I only feed when I have to,” he confirms shortly. And another awkward silence fills the room.

Extracting leftover peas from the fridge, removing the Tupperware lid, and getting the microwave started gives me half a minute or so I can safely spend with my back to him as I ask what may be another unwelcome question: “And what about animal blood?”

“I wish,” he says fervently. “There’s another scientific shame for you: nobody knows why it has to be human blood.”

“That seems like something easier to study, though,” I muse, beginning to gather up accoutrements for my dinner — plate, fork, salt and pepper, napkin, Coke and cup with ice with which to drink it. “To determine what’s nutritionally unique about human blood…”

“I don’t think it’s that, though…” As I turn back toward him with utensils I plan to set down on the table across from him, I find he’s sitting less stiffly than he was when he first took that position: he’s got one foot up on the chair, white hands folded over the raised knee near his face, and his other foot kicking against the floor slightly. I like that; it reminds me of how he used to be. I realize belatedly that his tones have grown less cold, too, during the course of our discussion; is it possible that this vampire talk really has set him somewhat at ease? That would be ironic, considering how uncomfortable I feel.

“It’s another stupid ‘magic’ thing,” he goes on– “but don’t ever let any vampire besides me or Meg hear you use that word, I swear — because it seems like there’s something about the actual act of drinking blood from a human body that makes all the difference. Otherwise the ones of us who don’t like murdering people could just live off the rejects from blood banks. That stuff’ll keep you going for a while,” he adds in a distasteful sort of aside, “if you can stand the anticoagulant, but it doesn’t really satisfy you. And the longer you go unsatisfied…” His hands rise in a helpless gesture. “…the more likely you are to murder people.”

An unpleasant thought strikes me: is he perhaps growing warmer and less constrained this evening, more like his old self, because he’s getting the chance to educate me on being a vampire? He hasn’t brought up the big question even obliquely, but is this all really just a subtle training session of sorts for the future he has in mind for me? Perhaps he believes that if he simultaneously relaxes me into the concept and talks about it in a fairly down-to-earth manner, it will be easier for me to accept. If that’s the case… well, it’s not likely to make the thought of becoming a monster easier to accept, but it is a kinder way to accustom me to these ideas. For I’m not sure if I could have asked what I have tonight under many other circumstances.

Case in point, I wonder now, “Has anyone ever attempted drinking animal blood from a human? Pig’s blood from a human’s mouth, for example.”

He blinks in surprise, letting his foot down off the chair and staring at me. “I don’t know! I never have.” After a moment he lets out the heartiest laugh of the evening. “God, can you picture what a mess that would make? It’d be like a bird-mom giving her little babies food, except the food is blood, and no matter how careful you were, you’d end up with it all over each other — ’cause you’d only get a mouthful each time, so you’d have to keep coming back for more, and eventually the vampire and the human and the entire fucking room would just be covered in pig’s blood.”

“You could use a straw,” I suggest blandly, though it’s a struggle to keep a straight face.

And at this Sanosuke drops his head to the table and laughs until I’m sure he would be crying if he were still capable of it. It’s somewhat reassuring to realize vampires aren’t immune to a touch of hysteria when they’re highly amused during a situation of intense repressed emotion. I don’t hesitate to laugh along with him, through my macaroni and cheese, and for a minute or so everything is… not wonderful, not even good, but… OK. We’ve struck a balance. He’s a vampire; I don’t know how I feel about him; I’m still ill at ease and often horrified around him; but it’s good to be here with him.

And apparently he agrees, for eventually he chortles, “Oh, my god, Saitou, it is so good to be with you again.” And the smile on his handsome, colorless face is 100% my old Sano.

We continue the conversation — mostly about vampires, yes, but I don’t mind so much — for some time as I finish my dinner and clean up. He never mentions his desire to make me one of them, though I think on a couple of occasions he’s tempted to as he was earlier, and an odd feeling starts to take me. Sitting here across the table from him, talking over dinner, asking some decidedly getting-to-know-you questions… I almost laugh out loud when the realization hits me. But I don’t think we’re quite back to the point where explaining funny thoughts that pop up at random would come naturally just yet. So I merely keep up my end of the discussion, sometimes haltingly and never without effort, and remain privately of the opinion that this is without a doubt the strangest date I’ve ever been on.

Part 20

“Well…” Takani sat back on her heels with an expression so baffled it hardly had room for the revulsion and pity lingering around the corners of her mouth and eyes. She made a helpless gesture. “You appear to be dead.”

“Told you so,” Sano mumbled. He hadn’t rebalanced himself enough to say it brazenly as he normally would, but merely that he said it at all was reassuring.

And I was certainly in need of reassurance. “How?” I wondered, trying not to sound as demanding as I felt of the doctor already mystified by this situation. “Why?”

She gave a slight shake of head indicative of continued bafflement and began to count on her fingers. “Very little heart activity, no respiration except when he’s thinking about it, unlivably low body temperature, almost no gut motility or salivation… He has none of the functions of a living body except for…” She threw her hands up. “…being alive!”

None of us knew what else to say. It was medically impossible, yet undeniably present in front of us — for Sano, undeniably present within his own body. And I wasn’t about to confess aloud that, horrified as I was at the concept of his being dead somehow, I was still intensely, overwhelmingly relieved he was alive.

We sat wordless for quite some time. The situation made for a significant distraction from the far more straightforward and comprehensible nature of my own form, but didn’t entirely erase my awareness of pain and difficulty navigating my wounds. But of course Sano’s condition concerned me far more, so for the moment my state seemed an irritant rather than a true debilitation. I stared at him with frustratingly exhausted eyes, simultaneously unable to look my fill at his moving and sometimes breathing figure and trying to solve the conundrum of what had happened to him.

Takani stared too. She’d done all the basic-level probing she was capable of, but, though she’d mentioned more in-depth testing before declaring him dead and falling as contemplatively silent as Sano and I had, she’d made the suggestion without much energy — not, I believed, out of any lack of interest in answers or determination to find them, though the sheer lunacy of the circumstances undoubtedly did present a barrier of sorts, but out of pure weariness. Earlier, when I’d recovered myself enough to seek her out, she’d informed me — with no reproach, merely as an explanation — that she’d only been in bed about an hour and a half after a late call to assist with a difficult childbirth.

And Sano, in as close to perfect seiza as I’d ever seen him, was staring as well: down at his unmoving hands, pale as the death I still wanted to deny, that gripped each other in his lap. How did it feel to hear with functioning ears, to process in an active brain that you were deceased? What was moving under his unusually calm exterior? I realized I wished Takani would go away.

As if reading my thought, she took a deep breath and looked around in a movement very much like shaking herself awake, tearing her eyes from Sano with the manner of one that hadn’t really been seeing what she was looking at anyway. With an effort she turned toward me. “This changes your investigation.”

“It does,” I agreed, taking a deep breath of my own; it aided in transition. “It suggests an explanation for why my opponent didn’t react normally to being injured during our fight.”

“Yeah,” Sano agreed, lifting one of the hands he was so fixated upon and clenching it into an experimental fist. “I don’t feel like I’d react much if you injured me right now.” The faintest touch of a smile appeared on his face. “Matter of fact, I dunno if you could injure me right now.”

“We’ll see about that,” I replied, trying for levity and largely failing.

Takani didn’t appear to approve in any case. “Whatever I can learn about your condition,” she said sternly, directing her words first at Sano and then at me, “may give us more information about the murderer.”

“Nice to know I’m a test subject for criminal investigation now.” Sano too was aiming at casual banter, and succeeding better than I had.

Takani reached out and poked the center of his forehead with a pointer finger. “Understanding what’s happening to you and how to treat it will be a secondary benefit,” she admitted facetiously. Then she yawned.

I took the opportunity to say, “You should go back to bed.”

Her face tightened with extreme reluctance. “It’s you two who should go back to bed,” she mused, sounding as if she were trying to convince herself, “but as long as my patients are asleep, I might as well be too…” Her concern for us both, but for Sano most specifically, and her professional interest in his state were abundantly evident. But so was her weariness, and probably my own — if not my intense desire, after her initial diagnosis, to talk to Sano privately.

“You can examine him further after we’ve all had some rest,” I told her firmly. “In the meantime, I promise to wake you again if anything medically interesting takes place.”

She tilted her chin upward and replied with mock haughtiness, “I don’t know if you would recognize ‘medically interesting,’ officer.” But it was only a joke, and she pushed herself to her feet the next moment. Neither of us rose with her, so she looked down imperiously as she added, “But make sure you do call me if anything changes.” At the exit she glanced back with a pensive, worried expression, clearly unsure she was doing the right thing in postponing further exploration… but eventually she did depart, closing the door behind her and leaving us to each other’s company in the brilliance of all the lamps she’d lit for her examination.

Slowly, in a movement almost as reluctant as Takani’s had been if probably for different reasons, Sano too finally got up, and went to deal with the obtrusive lights. I watched him carefully, unsure exactly what to say. His movements were fluid, easy, even natural, but there was something about them that made me feel cold. And his face, when he turned toward me again, appeared pensive but nothing worse, yet I shivered. He simply could not be as detached from this as his outward aspect suggested. I wasn’t certain how best to inquire, but between my wounds and the emotional battering I’d taken tonight, I was too hurt and exhausted to come up with any circumspect way of asking what I needed to know.

So I opted for bluntness. “How are you feeling?”

He paused in extinguishing the last lamp, visage averted from me and stillness uncanny. And the forced cheerfulness that emanated from him as he replied was like a blow. “I feel great, actually! I feel like I could run five miles without breaking a sweat. I mean,” he added with a stiff chuckle, “obviously I’m not really sweating right now, but the point is, I feel… probably better than I ever have. I don’t get it–” he shrugged as he put out the final light– “but it’s not bad.”

Still blunt, but finding it easier to make this specification in the darkness, I said, “I meant emotionally.”

For another moment he stood still, and I realized I’d neglected to draw Takani’s attention to the new and preternatural luminance of his eyes. I’d only noticed it vaguely myself, caught up as I had been with other concerns; now I focused on it, not as something I particularly liked or drew interest from, but as essentially the only object on which my own eyes were willing to settle and proof that he was looking at me as fixedly as I was at him. And in fact it was this topic, rather than any response to my question, he chose to bring up next: “I can see a lot better in the dark all of a sudden. It is really dark in here, right?”

“It is,” was all I could say. I didn’t have the heart to tell him his eyes were glowing, to add the question of what that might mean to the ever-expanding list. Not yet.

His black silhouette and those two points moved toward me, footsteps remarkably quiet across the floor, and I sensed him fall to his knees beside my futon. “Megumi was right: you should get some sleep.”

Though my body cried out in agreement, I refused to lower myself into a prone position just yet; I knew that when I did, unconsciousness would not be long in coming, and there were things needing to be said first. “Sano,” I insisted. “Are you all right?”

After the longest silence yet — so long, in fact, with that utterly motionless figure beside me, I might have believed I’d dozed off and missed his answer — he finally took one of the profound preparatory breaths I was already beginning to associate with speech rather than a need for oxygen with him. He probably didn’t require quite that much air, though, for the brief whisper he gave: “No.”

I sat up more fully and reached for him, and he came willingly into my arms. It shocked me all over again how cold he was, and the contact between us still hurt, yet I drew him against me and held him firmly. Apart from the chill, his body felt nothing but hale and strong, giving no indication of whatever turmoil lay within, but all that did was give me reason to cling tighter as if trying to get at that hidden interior.

I didn’t know whether it was the new closeness, or the intensity of my embrace, or my anticipatory wordlessness, or the concealing darkness around us that allowed him finally to elaborate. “I’m so fucking scared right now, Saitou.” He continued to whisper, as if any more volume might attract the attention of what he feared. “My body feels just fine — better than just fine — but I’m still dead. What if this is just… putting off really being dead somehow? When’s it gonna catch up with me? Am I gonna drop down dead all of a sudden — for real this time — without any warning? I don’t know what the hell’s going on, and I don’t really think Megumi can figure it out.”

The light of his eyes disappeared as he buried his face in my shoulder, and I felt my own body trembling as I held him. I couldn’t muster the energy, this time, to tell him he wasn’t dead; I couldn’t even tell myself that anymore. I did, however, have a train of logic I could use to reply to his primary concern. “The man who did this to you — Shibue or whoever he is — has been murdering people for months without any sign of weakening or dropping down dead all of a sudden. I don’t think you need to worry about that.”

“That’s… a good point,” Sano allowed shakily. “I have at least a couple of months, then.”

“And you should have more faith in Takani.” I was grasping at straws here trying to comfort him, but I supposed it was better than nothing. “Imagine what she’d do to you if she knew you didn’t think she could keep you alive. Or whatever we’re calling this.”

He gave a reluctant chuckle. “She might kill me.” It was dark humor, but it was humor. Something in him had eased a little — I couldn’t tell how I knew — so I was satisfied for the moment.

I pulled at him. “Lie down here with me. You may feel better than fine, but you could still do with some rest.”

He drew back a little. “But I’m freezing cold.”

“You’ll save the clinic on ice, then.”

He gave in, clearly craving the closeness, and stretched out against me, as comfortably as we could render the arrangement, on the futon not really intended for more than one person. And he was freezing cold, but my half-joking rejoinder also held true: though the pressure remained uncomfortable, the chill of his body felt actively good against my strained muscles and bruises. If I could fall asleep while a doctor rubbed ice all over me, I could fall asleep like this. I didn’t know whether he would be capable of it, and I didn’t like to abandon him in his current state no matter how much I’d managed to comfort him with my logic and weak humor, but I was about at the end of what I could handle for the night.

And in fact I very soon lost consciousness, and did not awaken for how many hours I couldn’t tell. My dreams during that time wrenched at my heart, appalling and tragic, half remembered and quickly fading upon awakening though they were, and it was with renewed poignancy and relief that I found Sano still in my arms, still cold and unbreathing and unmoving at my side, when I opened my eyes.

Clearly having roused before me, if he’d slept at all, Sano recognized my wakefulness immediately, drew aside, and sat up as if he’d been waiting to do so. The room, an interior chamber removed from sunlight by multiple filters, was only a little brighter now that it had been when I’d gone to sleep, but I thought I could make out the expression on his face: bleak, haggard, wearier than last night if that were possible, and reflecting deeper troubles.

“Did you sleep?” My question came a little hoarsely, and I had to clear my throat.

Sano shook his head, those newly glowing eyes swinging from side to side like carriage lanterns at a sharp turn. He pulled his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them, appearing childish and forlorn and as if he wanted to ward off reality with this defensive posture. He inhaled, perhaps to speak, then merely let it out in a sigh.

I struggled upward more slowly than he had done, feeling my way through my injuries. I thought they were diminished somewhat since last night. I wanted to clean my teeth, to visit the toilet, to find some breakfast… but all of these needs paled beside that of attending to this wretched-looking Sano of mine. I would have reached out for him, inviting him again into my arms, if he hadn’t just pulled away from an embrace that had lasted presumably many hours already. So as it was, I watched, waiting for him to speak.

When he finally did, it was in a fainter voice than I’d ever heard from him, it too almost childlike in its uncertainty: “He broke my neck. He took me by surprise and hit me so hard…” He raised one hand to the back of the organ in question exactly as he had last night. “I couldn’t move. I was just paralyzed on the floor. I think something else was dislocated too, but it kinda didn’t matter right then.”

I merely continued to stare at him. There would be no purpose in commenting that his neck appeared unbroken and nothing on him seemed dislocated.

“He drinks blood,” Sano went on desolately. “That’s what happened to all the murder victims.” Now his hand crept from the back of his neck to the front where the two puncture wounds — long suspected to be the point where our unknown killer had drained the blood from the bodies — stood out copper-colored against the unnatural whiteness of his skin. “He bites you right here and sucks the blood right outta you.”

“But none of the other murder victims…” I had no adequate way to describe what had happened to Sano, so I merely gestured at him to indicate what I meant.

“That’s because I drank his blood too.” Now Sano hid his face between his knees, and the supreme horror of this part of the night’s story sounded strong in his voice. “I thought it was a dream, but… that’s how he made me like this: he drank my blood, and gave me his blood to drink in exchange. My injuries healed up completely, and now I’m like this. Because I drank his blood.”

I was simply out of consolation to offer, words or gestures. What could anyone say in response to that? With an inward steadying of self I tangented to the logistics of our situation. “How long have you remembered all of this?”

“It’s been coming back to me ever since I woke up in that shed out there.”

“But you didn’t tell me any of it last night.”

“It took hours to put all the pieces together.” Finally he raised his bright eyes far enough to look at me again over the curve of his kneecaps; I couldn’t read their expression. “Besides, I figured if I told you I drank some guy’s blood, you’d never get to sleep.”

That startled an “Ahou” right out of me, by which I meant — though I couldn’t say it in so many words — I was supposed to be looking out for you last night, not the other way around.” It was very much like when he’d tried to comfort me in that desperate moment in the dark when we’d first entered this room; it was unfair that he, after what he’d suffered, should be the one to feel the need to offer support. It was just like him.

Now he lifted his face farther, high enough that I could see the slight smile on his lips. “More like ihou now, isn’t it?” — a terrible pun having to do with a relic of a dead person.

“Stop that,” I commanded, glad to find I could still feel irritable even under these circumstances; it normalized things somewhat.

His smile widened into a grin, the first real instance of that expression I’d seen from him since he… died. Finally he let go of his knees, stretching his entire body out alongside mine once again and staring up at the ceiling with a sigh. “Not looking forward to telling Megumi about the blood thing.”

“As eager as she is to find out more about your condition,” I reminded him, “you’re under no obligation to tell her anything.”

“Well, but she’s involved in all of this now; I feel like I owe her that much. Besides, it’s like she said last night: the more she can learn about me, the more we’ll know about the guy who did this.”

“Do you remember anything about him?”

Sano raised his arms to pillow his hands beneath his head in a gesture almost shockingly casual under the circumstances. “Not a damn thing, except what he did: nothing about what he was actually like.”

A long silence followed, less miserable and uncomfortable than any that had gone before. Sano was strong; despite his fear and uncertainty and disgust at what had happened and what might happen, he was recovering his confidence and presence of mind. I felt almost as much relief at this as I had at finding him alive in the first place, and touched to no small degree by the realization that it seemed to have been interacting with me that had helped him take this step. It seemed we really could get through this together, trite as that sounded.

Eventually I voiced something that had been on the periphery of my awareness since last night: “We can’t stay here. He was able to target you on your way across the back yard; our continued presence puts everyone in the clinic at risk.”

Sano nodded. “Maybe I really won’t have to tell her about the blood, then. She’s not gonna like it, though.”

“No.” I chuckled darkly. “Even if she weren’t already concerned for our health as a doctor and a friend, this will be a blow to her scientific curiosity. But it can’t be helped; we wouldn’t want a repeat of last night.”

He shuddered, the most human physical reaction I’d seen in him for a while. “Fuck, no,” he muttered.

Not particularly looking forward to rising and moving around, I stirred and said, “We should let her know as soon as possible, and then leave. We’ll go to my house.”

Sano turned a lopsided grin toward me. “Your house, huh? I guess that’s something to look forward to.” Then he added, “As long as you don’t mind having a blood-drinker under your roof,” in a tone that reminded me very much of the one he’d used once upon a time to confirm that I was married: would-be casualness barely masking a deep concern. I realized he’d mentioned the blood-drinking more frequently and more pointedly than he probably would have if he hadn’t been sounding me out for a reaction I hadn’t yet given.

The truth was, we had a lot to consider and discuss relating to Sano’s attacker and how the events of last night changed my perspective on the murder case and my professional plans — but postponing such discussion until a more private, secure, and leisurely setting still seemed the wisest course. So I wasn’t thinking about the seemingly perverted and decidedly unsettling answer to our long-standing question, ‘What does this murderer want with so much blood?’ And I was trying not to think about the ghastly scenario Sano had mentioned, of his having been forced to partake in our enemy’s gruesome predilection. But it appeared I needed to think about it, at least briefly, in order to reassure him.

“I don’t mind having you under my roof,” I told him firmly, “regardless of what some maniac with sharp teeth did to you.”

A faint hissing intake of unnecessary breath and its release with a more appeased sound was the only indication he gave of the relief I believed he felt. And after a moment he sat up again and turned away from me, apparently toward the clock on the wall; I couldn’t make out its hands in the dark room, but evidently he had no trouble telling the time. “Should be late enough to wake kitsune up by now,” he mumbled. In a fluid movement that illustrated just how hearty and strong he still felt physically, he jumped lightly to his feet. “I’ll go get her.”

Much more slowly and painstakingly, I moved to follow. “First walk with me to the outbuilding.”

In accepting the hand he offered to help me up, I couldn’t but sense his strength. And in the light from the hallway that spilled over him as he opened the door, I couldn’t miss the unquestionable apprehension in his face. “Bring your sword.”

I didn’t protest, despite how absurd the admonition might have seemed to an outsider, only moved to retrieve the article in question.

The Oguni clinic tended toward quiet and calm at most times of day, I’d already noticed, and hopefully Takani was yet resting; so it was both typical and desirable that we met no one in the corridor on our way. My movements still hurt considerably, but I could feel a definite improvement, and this allowed surer steps with less specific concentration than last night; I appreciated that.

Stepping into the same geta as before, I noticed the hook beside the outer door still empty; presumably this exit had been unlocked ever since Sano had left the building on the same errand that occupied me now. We should have considered that, I reflected uneasily, though admittedly we’d had good reason for distraction.

I gestured, pleased to find the motion not as painful as yesterday. “Do you have this key?”

“Oh, yeah.” As I turned to glance at him, Sano, just behind me, lifted a hand, ready to thrust it into his pocket, and the door slid open under the influence of my own. But his expression instantly twisted, altering horribly, as he gave a sudden unexpected cry of dismay and pain and staggered backward.

Occasioning some serious discomfort in my limbs — though by now I was rather accustomed to it — I hastily followed him the two steps he’d stumbled, heart racing as if to make up for the sluggishness of his and glancing around as if I weren’t fully aware of our solitude and expected to find some newly arrived enemy. Sano was clutching at one hand with the other, holding it so tightly against his chest that I couldn’t see what might be wrong with it; and on his face was a look almost more astonished than hurt, though the pain was evident as well.

“What happened?” I demanded, eyes again darting from him to find the answer. But the corridor was, as I well knew, unpeopled except for ourselves, bright in the sun that streamed through the exit flung open to the morning air.

“The– the light,” he gasped, and his words, like his face, seemed to hold more surprise than anything else. He finally released his tight grip in order to gesture almost desperately with his right hand toward the door and the rays streaming through it, and I was every bit as shocked as he to see what had happened to his left: it was covered from fingertip to wrist, on its outside face, with an angry redness, shining and blistered, a hideous welt at least six inches long. It was what I imagined a sunburn might progress to in a far hotter climate than this; it appeared agonizing, but, more than that, impossible to have happened in the mere moment the direct sunlight had spent on his skin. Impossibility, however, had been thoroughly negated where he was concerned.

Footsteps and voices sounded from different parts of the building, undoubtedly roused by Sano’s cry, but I didn’t know that I wanted anyone but Takani to see him. “Come back into the room,” I urged, taking him by the shoulders, disregarding the open door just as we’d previously disregarded its unlocked state. I couldn’t move him until he was willing to move himself, but that took only a moment; soon we were barricaded against prying eyes again in the examination room that had been my home for far too long, though it was only a matter of time before someone knocked.

Sano held his hand out from his body, wincing and hissing with pain, face screwed up so harshly I expected to see tears that, presumably, his eyes no longer produced. He couldn’t utter a word, he was evidently in such distress. Looking at the boils and flaming redness of his fresh wound, I couldn’t say I blamed him.

The implications of this event were so numerous, and potentially interacted so intricately with the other inferences Sano’s condition had raised about our unknown foe, my head was spinning trying to keep them all in the background where they belonged. I needed to help Sano; I needed to talk to Takani; I needed to get our plans for leaving back on track.

I didn’t need, right at this moment, to dwell on just how close I’d apparently come to losing Sano again, this time to the most innocuous of natural phenomena.

Part 21

Yes, there’s unquestionably a feeling of pleasure — delight, even, or joy — that comes with seeing Sano again. My memories of our time together in Japan have such a freshness about them, not to mention my feelings for him then, that how I feel now hardly seems relevant. This strikes me as a trifle unfair, but hasn’t the whole thing been?

Vampire ex or no vampire ex, my life goes on, and that means I need clean clothing for work I really do have to attend, and that means laundry must be done. The experience is undeniably different than usual with Sano hanging around making conversation, though. As if a long-lost friend has returned? Something more than a friend? Or something completely separate from that — a predator, a demanding stranger whose goals must perhaps make him an enemy, no matter how happy I am at his presence?

“Damn lotta laundry you got here all at once,” he’s commenting as I rotate the second load into my undersized dryer in preparation for filling my tiny washer with the third.

I don’t bother pointing out just how small the loads have to be thanks to the aforementioned diminutive nature of my laundry room, which is really more of a closet off my kitchen; I merely reply, in a tone of somewhat sarcastic accusation, “I usually only have one or two loads, but last week something had me too agitated to get a lot of my chores done.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Do you always approach me like that? So I’m miserable and confused for a week?”

The query restores the hard expression to his face, probably because it reminds him of just how many times he has approached me, whether like that or in some other manner, and his voice as he answers holds that cold unhappiness I’m getting used to. “I keep hoping you’ll remember me on your own.”

So my assumptions along those lines were correct. Finished starting the washer, I turn my attention to folding and hanging the still-warm contents of the basket I recently set atop the dryer. “You never were very good at pattern recognition.” My nonchalance is a deliberate contrast to his darkness and heaviness.

It seems to work, too, for he chuckles, only a little morose. “And I’ve seen a lot of patterns; you’d think I’d be better at it by now.” He’s leaning against the kitchen cabinets just outside the laundry room doorway, and at this he unfolds the arms he had crossed and places his hands on the countertop instead. “But, no… it hasn’t always been like that… You haven’t always been in a good position for me to give you a week.”

Every time I glance over at him, I find his gaze locked on me; I don’t think he ever looks away. Now when I meet his eyes briefly in asking, “What do you mean?” I find him staring as intently as ever.

“When you’re doing well… when you’re well-off… when you’re safe…” He shrugs. “Getting a week to try to figure shit out is a luxury. Sometimes when I find you, it turns out you’re in such a bad position I don’t even know if you have a week. I have to jump in right away and give you your memories back — or just tell you about everything, like in Brazil, before I learned how to do that. You may think it’s pretty bad this way, but it’s worse with no warning at all.”

I hang shirts in silence for a moment, then nod. I can’t quite bring myself to point out that not restoring my memories of a previous life, refraining from demanding I choose between hurting someone I once loved and becoming a monster, simply not approaching me at all might be even less unkind than either of those two options. It’s already obvious how impossible he would find letting me go, and I still haven’t confirmed how I feel about his return to my life, so bringing up the inappropriateness of his actions would only wound him. And even if he’s wounding me, I’m not inclined to reciprocate.

“I like to see you in a life like this.” There’s a forced sense of greater lightness to his tone as he says this, and I feel like we’re skirting he-wants-my-answer territory again. “I mean, you’re always in danger, but at least in a life like this it’s official. And obviously you make enough money to be comfortable… You can afford your gross-looking mac and cheese, and a washer and dryer in your apartment, and all that…”

Again I nod without a word, without bringing up the fact that my life has been decent and relatively uncomplicated… up until now.

In a way this exchange, in which everything each of us says or could say has the potential to hurt the other, is a mirror of many we had in Japan, where everything each of us said had a tendency to aggravate the other. Of course back then there was a specific subconscious reason to become agitated at the sound of the other’s voice; and here and now I’m far less willing to hurt Sano that I was to annoy him in those days… but the parallel remains. It’s a tense conversation even in its easier moments, hinting at possibilities I’m not eager to face.

Am I grateful for the interruption of a knock at the door? I wasn’t necessarily unhappy to be alone with him, but that tension was undeniable and not particularly enjoyable. I do worry a little, however, about who this might be. A neighbor coming to talk about local safety? Apartment maintenance appearing for an unusually late job? Renee wondering why I haven’t called her? None of these options is palatable, and the last is downright nightmarish, considering I still haven’t figured out what to say to her.

Whether or not he guesses my specific concerns, Sano obviously recognizes my uneasiness about the visitor, for he reassures me, “I think it’s Meg. Want me to get it?”

He’s offering to answer the door at my apartment just as he felt free to do at my house in Japan (though in that instance without asking). I’d like to say yes, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea, so I tell him, “That’s OK,” and move past toward the entrance.

And Megumi it is. Like Sano, she’s still wearing the same outfit I saw her in previously — the one that makes her look like a video game character — but unlike Sano, she gives an immediate smile when she sees me. “I thought I had the right place. May I come in?”

“She’s a better vampire than you are,” I throw over my shoulder into the kitchen. Then to Megumi, “Yes, come in.”

As she does so, she reaches out a startlingly cold hand and clasps mine, shaking it with contrasting warmth. “It’s good to see you again.” And I think she means it. I know she means, by ‘again,’ not a reference to our meeting in the police station parking lot some days ago but rather to however many previous lives she’s known me in.

I return the handshake and agree with her, every bit as sincere. I can’t help staring a little, though, and I hope she’s not offended. I simply don’t remember her as nearly this… beautiful.

Despite my relationship with Sano being the most meaningful of my Japanese life, the capacity for attraction to women was, I believe, just as strong in me as attraction to men. Whether the same is true in this incarnation I don’t yet know, but currently it’s the male side of things in question; I’ve never doubted I liked women. I’ve never had any problem recognizing and admiring female beauty. My awareness of Megumi’s was always somewhat abstract, given how thoroughly occupied my aesthetic appreciation of others was by Sano at the time… but I surely would have taken greater notice if she’d looked like this.

In the dark station parking lot it wasn’t nearly as evident, with my attention so caught up in the mystery of the situation, but here in the brighter lights of my apartment, up close, with the bafflement and confusion and frustration of that scene behind me, I can easily categorize her looks as ‘stunning.’ The precise perfection of her features, the luster of her hair, the curve of her figure… it’s almost unbelievable.

But as I stare I realize just as immediately that there’s something else different about her as well, something less pleasant: a sense of otherworldliness, of horror almost, that’s deeply repellent, perhaps especially so as it contrasts with her incredible beauty. It’s not the same feeling I’ve had about Sano — I still believe that arises more from the awareness of what he wants from me than from any kind of innate human fear of a predatory alien being… but the latter is exactly what I believe this reaction to Megumi must be. Sano I recognize as someone that at least should be human, but in Megumi my instincts see little to no humanity at all. Ironic, when Sano is the one most concerned with losing track of what he was. Unnerving.

“She’s a hotter vampire than me too,” Sano remarks, obviously observing my reaction.

I pause and give my two guests a back-and-forth comparative scan. And though my goal is primarily to bait Sano, and though there’s still something about him that has far more of a personal draw than Megumi, with all her astonishing loveliness, can command, when I nod and agree with him my statement is nothing but the truth.

Sano makes a snorting, huffing sound, and, while it sounds like a darker reaction than such a meaningless tease would have prompted in him back in the day, it’s a relatively lighthearted moment nonetheless — especially when Megumi seems to validate my facetious intentions by laughing in response.

Since I resumed my progress into the laundry room in order to finish up that chore before I sit down to have a proper conversation with Megumi, Sano’s face is out of sight; therefore I can’t be sure of the precise reason he targets her with his retort, “Yeah, Meg’s a walking stereotype these days.” Is he jealous because I indirectly called her hot? Or is he simply unable, at this juncture, to aim a snide comment at me?

I ask, “What stereotype?”

“Sano’s just jealous,” Megumi answers, “because he doesn’t look like a Hollywood vampire.”

“Oh, fuck that shit,” Sano grumbles.

As they then fall silent for a few moments, I prod, “That still doesn’t tell me what the stereotype is.” By now I can probably guess, but I’d rather have one of them elaborate.

Megumi does so. “Real vampires — most of us, anyway — look more and more monstrous the longer we survive, and all of us appear less and less human. Many vampire stories used to reflect this: we were horror story villains meant to inspire fear. But over the years the public perception of vampires has changed somehow, and now we’re portrayed as sympathetic villains or even heroes, and almost always superhumanly sexy instead of frightening.”

I nod my understanding, both of the phenomenon she describes and of the specific stereotype she therefore seems to embody. Why she’s evidently not included in the ‘most of us’ that look more and more monstrous the longer they survive has yet to be revealed, but everything makes sense so far.

“It’s bullshit.” Sano is still irritated. “Some of the old stuff used to be almost accurate, but these days people have this entire concept of vampires that’s 100% wrong. There’s nothing sexy about us, for one thing,” he finishes in disgust.

I glance over, giving him a skeptical look, unwilling to bring up aloud the way he somehow forced me to want him so desperately in order to ‘make this easier’ when he was restoring my memories of life in Japan.

“Well…” He obviously knows exactly what I mean with the expression, and has the grace to look a little sheepish. “Yeah, I mean, there is that. We’ve got a sort of sexual attractiveness we can turn on and off to help us hunt. But it’s not like we can take it any further than that; we can’t do any of that shit anymore — at least not without eating, like, three people first. And you can stop rolling your damn eyes at me, Meg; we’re not all born aces.”

“It’s certainly easier not to worry about the circulatory system that way.”

I believe I understood that exchange, though the reference to aces might have gone over my head if sexual or romantic orientation hadn’t already been at least a little on my mind. I never knew Megumi was asexual; as she says, it’s probably more than a bit of a blessing in her current form. I think back to my concerns about this specific topic in Japan, and wonder how sexuality in the long term is affected by becoming a vampire and the changes in bodily function that transition represents — by the apparent need to ‘eat, like, three people’ before attempting sexual activity. It seems insensitive to bring up, however, so instead I revert to what I previously wanted to know: “And how do you manage to look like a Hollywood vampire?”

“I’m a cannibal,” Meg replies easily. “I drink blood from other vampires, which heightens all of my abilities and makes me…” She gives a reluctant chuckle. “…sexier.”

“Yeah, she’s like a vampire squared.” I glance over in time to see Sano aim a blow, lightning-quick and totally unnecessary, at Megumi’s face and she, from where she’s seated at my dining table, catch it and throw it back with zero apparent effort.

“And you can survive that way?” I’m about done folding my laundry, and very interested in this new information.

“As long as I feed on non-cannibals. Which is a shame, really; if cannibals could all live off each other, we could leave humans entirely alone.”

“So why do you do it?” I hang the last pair of pants and emerge, deciding that, today at least, I’m not ready to put away my laundry (including underwear) in their presence. It can wait where it is until they’ve gone.

Megumi leans back in her chair with that outlandish undead fluidity and soundlessness I’m just about accustomed to by now. “Drinking the blood of other vampires gives me insight into their abilities and evolution, and helps me understand vampires as a species better. There are a lot of things about ourselves that we don’t understand, and cannibalism helps me study them.”

This starts to answer some of the questions I took from my conversation with Sano about the mysteries of vampirism, but not all of them. Before I can decide what to ask next, however, Sano responds to my assumption of the third seat at the dining table by lifting a pack of cards he’s withdrawn from somewhere and asking, “Wanna play?”

Since a card game — whatever card game — seems an optimal technique for staving off awkwardness among the three of us as we chat, I readily agree, and the next few minutes are spent going over the rules. This involves Sano writing out a list of scoring parameters on a piece of notebook paper I retrieve at his request, and I find myself inordinately interested in what his handwriting looks like in English and modern times.

I’m also intrigued by his reaction to his role as rules authority for the game. It’s only a reminder for Megumi, with whom he’s obviously played this before, but to me it’s all new, and Sano is surprisingly engrossed in — indeed, at times almost excited by — the simple action of teaching me how it works. He always did love to gamble, and, though we’re not wagering anything here and now, it seems games of chance still rank among his favorite pastimes. It’s yet another moment of Sano seeming like Sano, and my own engrossment in learning the rules is definitely enhanced by my pleasure at seeing this.

So here I am again hanging out with vampires — one my lover from a previous life, one the most beautiful woman in the world and yet so off-putting that my chair is decidedly closer to Sano’s side of the table — casually discussing the drinking of blood and other horror-movie concepts, this time without nearly so much discomfort as I experienced in the previous instance: I’m getting used to this. Exactly how used to it I can become remains a matter of question, along with a host of other things, but at the moment I’m relatively content just to play cards with a couple of friends without worrying about the fact that they are physically programmed — magically programmed? — to require the death of people like me for their own survival. Without worrying about how startlingly much I enjoy the presence of one of them when I’m not sure how I feel about him personally and he’s literally here to offer me a fate worse even than that aforementioned death.

Part 22

“You haven’t eaten anything in three days.”

“Yeah, well…” Sano sprawled on my living room floor in a pose that would normally have seemed easy, unconcerned. “I’m still not hungry.”

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. Takani had mentioned that Sano’s bodily functions seemed to have shut down; conceivably this lack of appetite was the new normal. However… “You may not feel any hunger, and it’s possible you don’t actually need food, but we don’t know that. To be on the safe side and make sure you don’t starve, you should come over and eat something.” My gesture at the table I’d just finished ladening with dishes was lost on his now-stubbornly-closed eyes. Would he even have entered the room if he’d known I was preparing a meal for two rather than one?

“I think the, uh…” He denied the sight of the ready table even more decisively by turning his back to it — and me — and propping himself up on his side facing the fireplace. His volume dropped a dreary step as he finished, “…the blood was enough. I don’t think I need anything else for a while.” And he let out a faint, unhappy sigh. It hadn’t been long, but he already hated mentioning ‘the blood’ more than I’d ever seen him hate anything during our entire acquaintance — my decisive ability to defeat him in combat, the Meiji government, and Shishio Makoto included.

In an effort to strike a balance between distressing him by belaboring the issue and yet, by necessity, insisting, I tried to approach the subject as matter-of-factly as possible. “We still can’t know that.” As I reiterated this idea, I dropped to my knees beside him and placed a hand on the shoulder that stood like the top of a bastion wall before me. I was more or less accustomed by now to the coldness immediately apparent through his upper garment, and left the hand in place, thumb sliding back and forth in a subtly caressing movement, as I continued. “We do know that something as simple as sunlight could kill you, and avoiding that is as easy as keeping you out of it. I won’t let you die of something as simple as starvation when avoiding that is as easy as having you eat occasionally, even if you don’t feel like it. So you need to at least try.”

“It’s you who needs to be resting,” Sano returned, trying a different tack still with his back to me, “instead of wearing yourself out making dinner for people who don’t want it.”

“Making dinner does not ‘wear me out,'” I told him with a roll of eyes. “I’m not the one whose recovery the doctor was worried about when we left.”

“Oh, yeah,” replied Sano in a tone even more sarcastic than mine, “Megumi wasn’t worried about you at all. You’re doing just fine. Obviously it’s way more important to harass me about food than take care of your own injuries.”

I wanted to say, “To me it certainly is,” but it seemed a mawkish sentiment (however true), so I avoided expressing it. I also didn’t comment on his apparent prioritization of my state over his own. Anyway I believed he was only using that as an excuse not to do something he didn’t feel like doing, and therefore preferred not to admit how much it touched me. Why he was so averse to eating I couldn’t be sure, but I also couldn’t simply let the matter go. Prepared to close the sub-topic with this statement, I said, “My injuries have healed exactly as much as they should have five days after being inflicted.”

“Oh, have they?” Sano sounded irritated, as if the claim were particularly childish and aggravating despite his being far more prone to such behavior. I was about to answer snappishly, but he pre-empted the intended remark. The flash of a glowing brown eye turning toward me provided scant warning before, undoubtedly to prove in a somewhat backward fashion a point about my level of infirmity, he had risen, twisting around to throw me none too gently to the floor and himself on top of me.

Like a convalescent gradually regaining full use of a damaged body — such as I was, in fact — Sano had been moving faster and faster since the incident in the shed. The difference was that he’d never slowed in the first place, never been an invalid working at a diminished level; so his increase in speed had put him above average from the very beginning of the process. By now his normal actions (when he wasn’t concentrating on maintaining a more standard rate of motion) were so rapid as to be startling, uncanny, inhuman. It provided further evidence that the enemy I’d fought a few days earlier — an enemy that, despite his lack of combat prowess, had demonstrated such lightning quickness that I’d been forced to try to anticipate where he might be next rather than tracking his movements as he made them — shared Sano’s non-dead state of inexplicably increased physical abilities.

And it was a good thing Sano, with his far greater natural talents and level of training, intended me no harm. For not only had he pressed me to the floor, pinned my arms, and straddled my hips in half a breath’s unexpected action, then when I immediately made an instinctive attempt at pushing back against his hold, the straining of my body beneath him had almost no effect on the arrangement of his above.

He had been, I believed, about to comment something to the purpose of, “See? You’re still in really bad shape; you should lie down and get some sleep instead of trying to force me to eat dinner” — but as he observed the difficulty, the near futility of my struggles against him (almost instantly discontinued though they were), his demeanor abruptly completely changed.

He didn’t seem to have felt much in the way of happiness since, to Takani’s distress, we had abandoned the Oguni clinic and come here for a more private and leisurely recovery, so his apparent glee as he crouched there on top of me was as refreshing to observe as it was surprising. He stared into my face with an almost disbelieving grin on his pale lips, shifting somewhat on top of me as if settling in, and finally murmured, “I really am stronger than you now, aren’t I?” And you would think he’d never received good news in his life prior to this; it was idiotic and nonsensical how happy the realization had made him… but also, perhaps, stupidly endearing.

“We’ll have to spar some time and find out for sure.” I said it with a wince that might have had a touch of the theatrical about it; I was distinctly uncomfortable, but probably wouldn’t have displayed it quite so openly had I not wanted to point out to him the foolishness of exacerbating my injuries in order to insist I take better care of them — especially if his new condition had indeed rendered him physically more powerful than I was.

Sano swore at my subdued indication of pain, and the wrestling hold ended as abruptly as he’d initiated it. As I sat up, sore, and rubbed at my right shoulder, I was interested to observe the mixture of emotions in his demeanor: sheepishness that he’d hurt me blended with a kind of grim satisfaction that he’d been right about my state of debilitation, and underneath it all the exhilaration that he’d somehow been granted one of his dearest and most pointless wishes: to be stronger than his longtime rival Saitou Hajime.

“Now will you come eat something?” I asked.

He gave a startled laugh at my persistence, and I knew I had him; the better temper he’d achieved thanks to the revelation of his superior strength seemed relatively tolerant of food he didn’t want. “All right, fine.” And he jumped to his feet almost quicker than sight, stretching a hand to help me up after him. “Now that I know I can force you to stay here until you really are healed.” Evidently there was more to his attitude than solely the desire to get out of an undesirable task.

We moved to the table and took our seats, and I told him, “I don’t plan on going anywhere for a while.”

Across the bowl into which I was dishing him a generous helping of rice, he eyed me suspiciously. “Really? ‘Cause when that messenger was here yesterday, it sounded like you were pretty anxious to go question that Nori woman again.”

Finished patting down the rice heap, I turned my attention to the vegetables and corrected his misapprehension. “I just wanted to know exactly how much she knew when Hironaku took her into custody. I don’t feel the need to talk to her again myself.” In reality, any number of things did have me pretty anxious to get out of the house, but not only was talking to Tomizawa Nori not one of them, what concerned me even more was keeping Sano inside, safe and quiet, for as long as possible. If he believed his continued presence here represented the sole barrier between me and the work currently being handled by my only questionably competent assistant… well, he was at least partially correct, and so much the better. We could be a check on each other, and both feel more secure because of it.

As I’d seen him do many times in the past, Sanosuke gathered up as big a bite as chopsticks would allow; he stuffed it into his mouth without any of the reluctance I’d feared he would continue to exhibit about eating. Satisfied, I started piecing together my own bite, only to be interrupted by a startlingly disgusted sound from across the table that caused me to look over again at my companion. An intense grimace, so puckered it would have been funny under other circumstances, had overtaken Sano’s face, and the chewing movement of his jaw as he struggled to finish what he had in there seemed almost tortured. At my inquisitive raising of brows, he shook his head minutely as if he had no strength to answer, and continued his apparently very difficult mastication.

Admittedly I hadn’t taste-tested the components of this meal as regularly as I usually did while cooking, anxious as I’d been to finish and get on to convincing Sano to join me (though little had I suspected how troublesome that process would prove), but Sano was the least picky eater I’d ever met in my entire life; it would take more than a slight carelessness in the kitchen to wring this type of reaction from him. I assumed, therefore, this had something to do with his new condition rather than my culinary skills. To test the theory, I took my own bite and chewed it thoughtfully; when its flavor and texture proved no better or worse than my usual efforts in this area, I swallowed and remarked with easy dryness, trying to keep the atmosphere light, “It’s not Himura’s cooking, I’ll admit, but it’s not that bad.” Not that I’d ever actually tasted Himura’s cooking, but I’d heard the rumors.

Sano finally managed to swallow his oversized mouthful, though his distorted expression barely untwisted in its wake and his tone had a pained groaning quality as he said, “Yeah… sorry… that was fucking awful.” He worked his lips and jaw as if trying to rid himself of the taste, emitting faint gagging noises, and swung his head rapidly back and forth. “I thought I could eat some of this just to make you happy, but there’s no way… I can’t take another bite… No wonder I wasn’t feeling hungry; that was like eating brick dust or some shit.” And he resumed his apparently futile movements aimed at ridding himself of an unbearable flavor.

This time I had to give in. He’d made the attempt; that was all I could ask. But the implication that he could no longer eat food intended for the living distressed me for more than one reason. Of course there was the obvious, looming question of what he would be required to subsist on if normal food was no longer an option — a question whose answer was likely to cause Sano disgust and dismay along the same lines as before. But there was also the fact that something Sano had always adored with a winning avidity and simplicity seemed now to have been taken from him, perhaps forever. And one of the few ways in which I was able to care for him — providing him with meals and ensuring he maintained a healthy diet — had now been taken from me.

But as I had been doing fairly regularly over the last few days, I tried to remain calm and rational about this and not show how deeply disturbing I truly found it. All I said was, “Do you want to try some tea to wash it down?”

He gave the kettle I had lifted a dubious look, but eventually said, “Yeah, might as well… It can’t taste any worse than this.” And after an almost clawing gesture toward his throat, he accepted the tea I poured for him, took a large gulp, swished noisily, and swallowed again. He rolled his eyes thoughtfully upward, working his mouth once more, and finally let out a relieved-sounding sigh.

“Better?” I asked with some curiosity. I hated to let slip that I found his condition interesting in spite of how much it upset us both, but that was the truth of the matter. Takani probably would have been even worse had she been here.

He nodded and lifted his cup again. “Still pretty disgusting, but nowhere near as bad.” And he took another drink.

The logistics of his nutritional situation as revealed by this event would, sooner or later, require discussion. Would he have to drink more blood? How soon was that need likely to arise, and how was it to be fulfilled? These issues were going to devastate Sano, and few of the facts that might come to light were likely to be any more pleasant in and of themselves than his inevitable reaction to them. As such, I preferred to put off the conversation as long as I could — at the very least until this scene with the disgusting food had become less of an immediate disagreeable presence in his head. Given the extreme reluctance he’d demonstrated over the past few days to touch on the blood-drinking at all, I believed he must agree with this unspoken decision.

Unfortunately I, not being dead, could not so easily do without this human-style food, needed to finish the meal on the table, and feared that might remind him of what we were postponing and render postponing it a meaningless exercise. If he decided to leave the room to avoid watching me eat, he was likely to brood pointlessly in another part of the house and keep the unwanted topic firmly before him. So, since I saw in this a service I could render him that yet remained to me, I considered how best to assist his frame of mind until the dark time when we would be forced to face the miserable topic.

Finally I decided to strike up a discussion of police work, beginning with (as most relevant to our current situation and most on my mind) what Hironaku’s messengers had told me he’d discovered so far about Tomizawa Daitarou’s movements, but fully intending after not too long to segue into other cases I’d dealt with in the past that wouldn’t be quite such a blatant reminder of what had happened to Sano during the course of this one.

To whatever degree aware this was a deliberate tactic, Sano accepted the distraction, and seemed… not exactly happy… but at least content with the subject I’d raised. His un-life had become an unpredictable fluctuation of mood that I didn’t know how to deal with in the long term, but at least in the short term we were staying on top of things. Barely. At least he remained here with me and didn’t go torment himself somewhere alone, as he’d shown a pathetic inclination to do occasionally over the last few days.

A worrisome aspect of the conversation, however, unrelated to his mental state in the aftermath of the attack, was that as we spoke, casually and mostly about business long concluded, he yet gave subtle indications of still wanting to be involved in my professional affairs. This elicited in me the same reaction as it always had: a mixture of poignant pleasure at the closeness or sought-after closeness the desire exhibited, and exasperation, even frustration, at his impractical stubbornness. But these feelings seemed shallow in comparison to the underlying, overwhelming consternation now accompanying the idea. Sano in his current state would be physically unstoppable should he decide to insist on taking part in the current case, and I doubted my ability to reason him out of it — especially after all the effort it had taken merely to convince him to try something to eat.

And how could I bare to him the extent of my horror at the thought of his being hurt further? How could I tell him that I feared it might break me to see it, to come so close to losing him again? That I knew it would break me if I did lose him after all this strangeness and pain?

I couldn’t. I simply didn’t have the words. So I merely continued with what I could say, doing my best to keep him occupied and relatively optimistic, until long after I’d finished eating, and dishes, leftovers, table, and cushions had all gone to their proper places. Dawn would break after a short while, which meant bedtime was nearing; it might not have been too bad a moment to bring up the hateful subject that must eventually be broached, to get it over with and then allow Sano to cleanse his mental palate with sleep perhaps more effective than tea had been at a similar task — though not positively unwakable, Sano had already shown a propensity in this new form to sleep particularly hard during our new daylight downtime… but my efforts at keeping him contented seemed to have been so successful, I couldn’t stand to sabotage them. There would be time for the conversation tomorrow, our moods perhaps strengthened by some rest.

The latter was not the only bedroom activity I could think of that might improve our outlooks and brace us for what was to come. In fact a physical demonstration of our feelings for each other, which I believed had only intensified during this disaster, seemed an extremely desirable step. But no sexual activity whatsoever had taken place between us since we’d come to my house; I’d barely even kissed him. In some dismay I considered again the shutdown of bodily functions Takani had mentioned that had already been so discouragingly manifest this very night, and wondered whether Sano was capable anymore of feeling sexual urges or acting upon them if they arose… and whether he ever would be again.

Considering the matter dourly as we undressed for bed, he baring an expanse of grayish pale skin that showed only the slightest hint of the golden tan it had once worn, I reflected sadly that there might be an emotional element to it as well. Satisfied as he seemed to go to sleep for the day pressed up against or even embracing me, perhaps he wasn’t prepared to resume the greater intimacy we’d had before his disaster. And I wondered, as with the physical element, whether he ever would be. He’d seemed ready enough earlier to throw me on my back in a different type of interaction; would that other sort of freedom with me ever return?

And if the answer was no, that meant yet another thing Sano sincerely enjoyed that had been taken from him by that man we were trying to track down. It meant yet another way my relationship with him and our mutual happiness had been damaged, possibly beyond repair. It meant, I reflected as I gathered him into arms clutching with a fierceness that no longer threatened to harm him but that I still tried to conceal, a distressing tendency in my thoughts — not hitherto unknown but never approved of — toward a desire for revenge rather than justice.

Part 23

The game I’m setting out to play with Sano and Megumi seemed complicated at first description, but turns out to be relatively fast-paced and simple enough that I’m not likely to need constant reminders of most of its procedures. And after a few rounds to get the hang of it, conversation unrelated to the game starts up again in and around our turns, and I’m able to resume the interesting topic where it was left off. “What do you hope to learn about vampires by drinking their blood?”

“I have a number of specific questions I’d like to find answers to,” Megumi answers, “but I’d settle for ‘everything.’ Sano, I’ll trade you two tens for that eight.”

Sano agrees, and as the trade takes place I ask, “What questions?”

“About special vampire powers, for example.” Takani studies her cards. “Why do we develop these special abilities as we get older? And why does the lineup of available powers seem to be changing? Does either of you want a five or a king?” Once she’s traded away her five and been forced to put up with the king since neither of us wants it, she goes on without prompting. “Sano has the ability to restore people’s memories from their past lives, and that’s an ability specifically useful to him. But did his need for a power like that have anything to do with gaining that power? And is that why certain other powers seem to have been phased out over the years — because vampires simply don’t find them useful anymore?”

“I dunno… being able to turn into a bat would be pretty badass.” Tone almost completely unaltered, Sano immediately goes on, “Saitou, I’ll take both of those off your hands, but all I got’s a jack.”

Suddenly I have multiple ideas to deal with at once. I find, for one thing, that I wish he wouldn’t call me ‘Saitou.’ I don’t say so right now, however, since I’m too much arrested by his tone in mentioning the concept of turning into a bat (which is a pretty cool idea, I have to admit) — the same tone he used to discuss an aspect of the game, which I’ve already noticed is something he seems to be specifically relishing. Obviously there are multiple sides of reality besides just me that interest him, things he can enjoy if he allows himself to… although perhaps only in my presence.

I also have the game to think about, and accept the proposed trade somewhat distractedly. Then I have to figure out what to do with the jack, and don’t end up asking anything about bats until halfway through Megumi’s turn and some further exchange. “Badass, yes,” she says, “but how useful, exactly?”

“It’d always be useful to be able to turn into some small flying thing to get into places. And if you could spend the day as a bat, that could solve all sorts of problems with the sun and worrying about people finding you and shit.” At a mutter Sano adds, “Think I’ll take both of these… and… your turn.”

“It might be a useful power, but do people think of it that way? In modern times, when you think, ‘I need a safe place to spend the day where people won’t find me,’ is your next thought, ‘If only I could turn into a bat?'”

I chuckle at the suggestion as I watch her somewhat elaborate turn, and finally ask, “So some vampires have been able to turn into bats?”

“Some of ’em still can,” Sano confirms when Megumi proves a little too distracted at the moment by her layout of cards to answer immediately. “Just older ones, though.”

“And what about wolves?” I ask after making an offer — eventually rejected — for Megumi’s two aces. Probably more appropriate for her to keep them anyway. “Can any of you turn into wolves?”

“You would think of that,” Sano says with a dark grin. For a second time I don’t remind him that I’m not exclusively Saitou, only acknowledge his point as he goes on to remind me of a rule I’d forgotten as I attempt to cash out some of my cards.

It’s Megumi who actually answers my question: “That’s another old power, and I have a theory about that one. Society has so separated the concepts of vampire and werewolf that vampires have lost the ability to turn into wolves because it’s perceived as belonging to a different species entirely.”

Somewhat drowned out by Sano’s sound of triumph as he trades in a ten-card stack for points, I ask, “Do werewolves exist, then? Separate from vampires, I mean?”

“They do. And how they’re connected to vampires, if at all, is another one of the things I’d like to figure out. Did modern vampires and werewolves evolve out of the same monster, and separate gradually into two categories over the years because of people’s perception, or were we two separate things from the start and just happened to have some similarities for a while?”

“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, then.” It’s really just a polite remark; though this is all very interesting, I don’t know what else to say.

“Your turn,” Sano tells her.

Megumi stares at her cards with a pensive frown, and eventually, laying down only sluggishly the ones she intends to play, remarks, “I know a lot of this seems frivolous…” Perhaps, though I didn’t intend it, my comment came across as somewhat critical. “But answering some of these seemingly less important questions may help me understand the bigger ones: why are we like this? What power causes us to become undead, and allows us to survive apparently against all the laws of nature? And is there any way for us to continue surviving without committing murder?” She looks up at me with serious glowing eyes from the cards she’s just turned over. “You’re working on fives; do you want this?”

Once again I make what may or may not be an advantageous trade without giving it much thought, dwelling as I am on the simultaneous conversation. What my mind is caught up with now is a comparison between the lives (if that word applies anymore) and purposes of Sano and Megumi. For each of them has a purpose, a goal or set of goals that drives them, but while Megumi’s has to do with truth and understanding and potentially helping others, Sano’s is and has always been small-scale and essentially selfish. I wonder what kind of strength it takes to keep hanging on decade after decade with only a personal desire and no prospect of doing any good in the world; I don’t wonder at Sano’s bitterness, nor at the apparent honing of his selfishness to the far sharper point I’ve felt from it lately than I was ever aware of in Japan.

And of course very little has changed besides that since I knew them before. Megumi was always determinedly humanitarian and purposeful, whereas Sano, though he performed the good of which he was capable when opportunities arose, was always fairly aimless. In fact I think it was in part his lazy approach to morality that drew me to him: it was nice to take a break, without actually letting go of any fundamental rightness, from the driving need to be changing the world, and Sano certainly represented that.

These days, it seems, the two of them have taken their natural propensities one step further: instead of merely saving and bettering the individual lives she comes into contact with through her medical practice, Megumi is bent on saving humanity from vampires and saving vampires from themselves through her research; and Sano, instead of merely freeloading alongside those he loves and enjoying their company (sometimes at the expense of their comfort and convenience), is continually seeking out the one person he loves most in an effort at promoting that old way of life he so misses at the expense of that person’s peace of mind or even happiness.

I can’t help thinking that perhaps Sano would be better adjusted now, abler to deal with the inevitable, if he had ever developed a sense of purpose beyond seeking me throughout endless lifetimes. His lack of large-scale drive seems another aspect of his original character, along with his inability to let go, that has made the situation particularly harrowing for him. I also can’t help admiring Megumi for her continued desire to work hard for humanity’s sake as best she can even under these difficult circumstances. And this time when I remark, “Those do seem like questions worth answering,” I’m careful to offer the comment in as sincere a tone as I can manage.

“She probably wouldn’t be a cannibal for anything less,” is Sano’s remark.

“Well, it is nice being the strongest vampire around most of the time.”

Sano grumbles, “You just mean it’s nice being stronger than me.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” she says complacently.

“Do either of you want these?” I ask. “And what’s wrong with being a cannibal?”

I make a trade with each of them, and Megumi explains. “You’ve heard of prion disease in human cannibals? Well, being a vampire cannibal has had strange effects on me that I don’t understand any better than a lot of these other aspects of vampirism. You can see, for one thing, how much less human I look than Sano even though we’re the same age. For another, though I am stronger and faster than most other vampires–”

“Vampire squared!” Sano puts in as he shuffles the discard pile into what I believe is our final draw pile of the game. He sounds almost annoyed, evidently seeking the reaction he didn’t get with the first instance of this joke.

Megumi allows a smile, at least, as she continues. “I have less and less specific control over standard vampire abilities such as the allure Sano mentioned that gets used for hunting, and I’ve never developed any extra special abilities at all.”

“That’s why she doesn’t think being able to turn into a bat would be a useful skill,” Sano says to me, and even in his conspiratorial tone there’s still some of the usual darkness. “It’s just sour grapes because she doesn’t even have the option.”

“At least I look like someone who might be able to turn into a bat,” she replies. “Are you going to use that four or just sit there staring at it?”

Sano grumbles something about ‘fucking Hollywood vampires,’ and throws the four at her without asking for anything in exchange. And as I watch her casually pluck the spinning card from the air and add it to one of her piles, then commence her own turn, I reflect that perhaps Sano is actually jealous to some extent of Megumi’s incredible beauty. Maybe he feels a supernatural boost in attractiveness would be enough to carry his point with me, to get me to give him the answer he wants, make him just desirable enough to provide the final convincing factor. It’s horrible to be thinking of him so exclusively in terms of how he relates to me, but this is the only explanation that comes to mind for his attitude in referring to ‘Hollywood vampires.’

Certainly having no desire to ask this outright, and therefore deciding to change the subject, as I take the next turn I ask, “Is cannibalism the reason other vampires don’t like you?”

Megumi glances and Sano, acknowledging that he was probably the one to give me at least the beginnings of that idea, and nods. “Vampires hate cannibals almost as much as Sano hates Twilight.”

My mouth quirks upward at the comparison, but it’s in a serious and somewhat reluctant tone I reply, “A stigma against cannibalism is understandable even among murderers.”

“I’ll trade you two fours for that queen,” Sano offers. This time, not nearly as distracted as in previous instances, I take a look at his piles and make a tactical decision to decline the exchange. Evidently still unable to be rude to me in reply, however facetiously, Sano resorts to saying something startlingly profane about Twilight under his breath to express his annoyance.

In response to Sano’s behavior, Megumi grins. They remind me of a close brother and sister, and I especially appreciate the way Megumi knows just how to draw out aspects of the old Sano that are clearly still in there despite the overlay of a century’s worth of bitterness. Her words are not exactly cheerful, though. “It doesn’t help that I’m also a vagabond-hunter. I track down and kill vampires who aren’t being careful enough, who are threatening to expose our existence to the world.”

This is something that, without any input from Sano, I had already guessed about her, and it’s pleasant to be confirmed in my theory even if I made it simply to distract myself on a bad day.

“That makes me the sort of garbageman of the vampire world,” she goes on: “it’s an absolutely essential job that nobody respects or is willing to pay much for. Vampires hate vagabond-hunters, especially successful ones like me, so it goes with being a cannibal extremely well: I’m largely hated for both of the things I do, but tracking down vagabonds provides me with vampires I can cannibalize for my research, which I consider just as important as executing the worst of the murderers.”

I nod my understanding, though the gesture doesn’t convey my admiration. I can see the need for better understanding of what these people are in order to improve their conditions. I can see the need for a vagabond-hunter, and the convenience of how she’s set up her situation. It seems she’s taking a dreadful risk on a regular basis when her continued cannibalism has effects she doesn’t yet understand, but if she believes the research she can accomplish this way and the potential good it may be able to do for humans and vampires alike is worth taking that chance, that’s a choice — a courageous, terrible choice — only she can make.

I understand, at least to some small degree, for I too have a subject of research whose pursuit may well involve a direct personal risk. As in the comparison I drew earlier between Megumi’s sense of purpose and Sano’s, my research probably seems much more selfish and limited in scope than hers, but I find I’m no less serious about it. Because I want to understand Sano: the way he is and why, how deep the changes run in him that have been taking place since our deaths in Japan, and most of all whether there’s the possibility of his being happy — remaining a relatively good person who can be satisfied with himself — in this impossible situation he’s created and with the answer I’m inevitably going to give him. I’m determined to find this information even if my continued proximity to him in seeking it is tempting fate — tempting him, rather, to forget about consent and take what he wants as he’s well capable of doing.

And why am I so determined?

Is it because I love him?

I still have no answer to this question, but I don’t shy away from the question itself quite so hard as I’ve done on previous days. In fact, as I watch him finish up the last turn of the game and cash in his remaining piles to add to his final score with a simple glee apparently born of a surety of having won that I can’t be certain is overconfidence — a glee that reminds me more than ever of those wonderful old emotions he used to display so readily — I concede to myself that the idea of being in love with him isn’t nearly so monumentally intimidating as it was the first time I asked myself about it.

“Twenty-six,” he announces, having counted his score pile and slammed a triumphant pale hand down onto it.

“Twenty-two,” is Megumi’s defeated acknowledgment.

“Twelve,” I admit.

“Damn, Saitou! I’d have thought you’d be better at this!” At this openly teasing expression of surprise — the first time Sano has broken the barrier and spoken to me in such an easy manner during this lifetime — even Megumi chuckles a little.

I’m not entirely without competitive instinct; I’m almost tempted to protest that, for my first time playing this particular game and as distracted as I was by various circumstances, it’s really not such a bad score. But I prefer not to make excuses — they only make you look pathetic — and therefore remain silent.

Sano has been gathering the cards, and now holds up the deck a second time with a glint in his eye beyond the actual literal glow. “You want to try again?”

I glance around, then briefly down at my watch. I do have chores to finish, and haven’t eaten dinner yet, and there’s work in the morning. But somehow none of that seems to matter. And it isn’t merely because Megumi has interesting information and Sano is a newly embarked-upon project; it’s because I enjoy their company. Whether I love him or not, I’m glad to have Sano around, and I’d rather he didn’t leave just yet.

“If you two are ready to lose this time,” I say.

Megumi grins. Sano grins — which was what I hoped for. The night progresses.

Part 24

The note read, I don’t know exactly where you live, but this concerned young policeman does. Don’t think I’m unwilling to track down my patients at their own homes or anywhere else if they won’t come to me for their follow-up exams. And I had to admit, it was nice to have something to laugh about, not to mention very desirable to have something to share with Sano that might cheer him up a bit too.

“Guess we better go see her,” was his response to her message. And though he sighed after he said it, undoubtedly not looking forward to hearing more about his condition and having prying questions asked, the tone of his words, at least, was amused.

In the small handful of days since the question had arisen in my mind about what Sano must subsist on now, I hadn’t worked up the fortitude to ask it aloud. Since he had reported no sensations of hunger (or, as it might turn out, thirst), I’d concentrated instead on my continual efforts to improve his attitude and on the news my subordinates regularly brought me. As I returned to fighting trim, my impatience to get back onto the case personally increased alongside my fitness, but I found my priorities divided. Sano’s physical safety concerned me less than it previously had, but his mental state had become far more precarious, and anything I could do to help him struck me as the most desirable course to take.

At the moment, though, the only course to take led to the Oguni clinic. We certainly didn’t want the doctor getting herself in trouble by demonstrating further how involved she was in our affairs, and I absolutely believed what she said about coming to find us; so we would have to go see her. Therefore, the moment the sun had set sufficiently to render walking abroad safe for Sano, we headed that direction. About halfway there I gave in and hailed a late-prowling cab, satisfied at least that I could make it half the distance on foot; and Sano was kind enough not to complain, though his claustrophobia regarding carriages did not seem to have diminished with his transformation.

“Good evening, officer-san, Sanosuke-kun,” Oguni himself greeted us when we arrived at the quiet clinic. “Megumi mentioned you might be dropping by this evening.”

“Did she,” I wondered with flat amusement.

“Yes, and she asked me to send you in when you got here. We’ve both been busy writing up notes on all these influenza cases lately, but she’ll be happy to see you in her room.”

Observing that we did seem to have interrupted him in his work despite the hour, I assured him of our familiarity with Takani’s room and that he need not trouble himself. Then, as we headed down the hall in the direction we unfortunately knew all too well, I requested elucidation on the cause of the wry, almost wistful grin on Sano’s face.

“You gave me that polite act exactly once,” he explained, “and then never again.”

“You never do much to merit politeness.”

“Least it means I’m in your inner circle by now… the people you don’t bother faking with.”

“You’re in an exclusive circle.” I would have gone on, but at that moment, having reached the door to Takani’s room, I paused for Sano’s knock.

“All right, kitsune, here we are!” His tone was put-upon, but his grin from a minute ago had only grown more solid, and lent some joviality to his assumed annoyance.

And at about that moment I began to feel uneasy. Did I sense something amiss through the door? Or was it merely that everything had been so uncertain lately? In any case, I gave the doctor less time to respond than I normally would have before calling a second greeting. “Takani-sensei, are you in there?”

Either Sano sensed something too, or he picked up on my worry, for his face was dead serious and, not even giving her as long as I had, he pulled the door open.

At first the signs of invasion were minimal, as was to be expected: if too much furniture had been tossed around, the noise would have alerted others in the building. But following a small trail of scattered objects around the corner from Takani’s sitting area into what might be thought of as her office and bedroom beyond disclosed a despoiled desk and set of shelves, a chaos of fallen or disarrayed items — among them an unsheathed tanto — and the woman herself on her back in the midst of it.

As quickly as I moved, Sano was kneeling at her side literally faster than I could see, sweeping books and papers carelessly away to make room for himself and disentangling a towel or other cloth that had wrapped around one of Takani’s legs apparently as she’d fallen. I knelt opposite him and fixed my gaze on the doctor’s white face, but not with much hope.

“Is that you two?” Her eyelids dragged open, but the slow, rolling motion of her eyeballs didn’t indicate much clarity of vision.

“Yeah, it’s us,” said Sano hoarsely. “What the fuck happened here?”

With the shallowest of breaths, even that obviously painful, she answered without strength or volume. “He knew I sent a note. He was afraid you would be staying at the clinic again. Then he’d never get the information he needed. He had to get to me first.”

“He must have been just here.” Sano looked around wildly. “If we’d been five minutes faster– Gensai doesn’t even know anything happened!”

Takani’s eyes closed again, but her lavender-tinted lips still seemed capable of some speech. “Didn’t want to scream. Nobody here could have fought him. They would have died with me.”

This was why I wanted people — especially people I cared about — out of the way in such dirty business. Doctors were often forced to get involved, but it had been foolish of me to start considering this one a friend, to allow anyone to see we’d become close enough that she might be expected to have information. She’d known the risks — of her profession in general, of treating patients like me and Sanosuke, of responding to me lately with apparent similar feelings of friendship — and she understood every bit as well as I did the desire to keep innocent others from becoming entangled in a mess she felt she couldn’t turn her back on… but that didn’t make this any less tragic a sacrifice.

And it was a sacrifice Sano evidently wasn’t ready for. So agitated I could see him trembling, he demanded in a fainting tone, “What did he do? Where are you hurt? How can we help?”

Takani let out the lightest pained sigh. “He wanted to know where Tomizawa Nori is. I don’t know, but he wouldn’t believe me. Kept hitting me. Broken ribs… moderate to severe internal hemorrhage… nothing to be done.”

Eyes wide as dinner plates and fists clenched, Sano jumped to his feet. “But Gensai…!”

I said his name softly. I wished I had some comfort to offer my lover, who would suffer a greater loss than I would in this scenario, but death took everything — even words from the mouths of the living. All I could advise was, “Do her the credit of believing what she says.”

At some point I’d taken Takani’s hand, but I only became properly conscious of its cold clamminess now when she exerted the slightest pressure to recover my attention. “Listen, Saitou… 165cm… 80kg… wide, thick eyebrows… early receding hairline… kuroboku-stained clothes…”

“It’s impressive you managed to take in so many details of the man beating you to death.” I clasped her hand, which had gone limp again after that one tiny squeeze, in both of mine. “Otsukaresama.”

Recognizing this for the farewell it was, Sano dropped to his knees again and pounded on the floor with a fist that sent shockwaves through the boards and my body. “No,” he half roared. “I won’t fucking accept that! You can’t– just because it’s bad doesn’t mean–”

Takani let out a faint huff that might have been something like a laugh. Again with what effort I could not guess, she opened her eyes, perhaps for the last time. “I was… looking forward… to studying your condition… further…” Though clearly unable to smile, the tone of her ever-fainter voice was halfway there.

Again Sanosuke stood with lightning quickness, but now his expression had entirely altered. His eyes had gone wide again, and his brows down, and he shook his head as if in denial… but watching him, I felt a chill. This wasn’t horror at Takani’s fate, nor denial of what lay in front of him. He was contemplating something desperate that appalled, perhaps even sickened him, and it took the briefest moment to realize what it must be.

I can save you,” he whispered. “I know how.”

Uncertain, uneasy, I asked, “Would it work?”

“I don’t–” He looked at me desperately, as if begging for answers. “My neck was broken, and… but then she’d be like this… but if she’s dying…”

I could do nothing but shake my head. I had absolutely no answers for him.

He dropped yet again to his knees and gave Takani’s shoulder a little shake. “Megumi, I can– I can save you.” His voice choked as if with tears, but his face remained dry, tormented, dead in color but alive with sentiment. “I can make you like me, and that should heal your wounds — least that’s how it worked for me — and then you can study yourself all you want, but you’ll… you’ll probably have to…”

Her head had rocked slightly with the shake, but her eyes did not open again. She breathed out a lifeless, delirious “Yes, please” that might after all only have been a sigh, then stilled again.

Sano’s face was even more haunted than before as he looked back up at me, and by now he was beyond words, though I recognized what he wanted to know. My own voice came out rough and quiet as I answered, “She’s too far gone to understand what you’re asking her. You’ll have to do it without her consent, or let her die.”

At the last three words, his face twisted into a nearly unbearable mask of pain and uncertainty. Letting go of someone he cared about, giving up on a cause, not taking every last measure of which he was capable in an effort he supported, was a trial too great for my Sanosuke… and yet he didn’t want to force upon her the inhuman condition with which he was afflicted. He’d probably never been so torn, and it broke my heart in turn to see it and be able to do nothing. It was a decision he had to make.

And once he made a decision, he acted upon it without further hesitation. Sitting up straight, his face smoothing into a less convoluted expression of determination, he took a deep breath. Meeting my eyes he said, “Go outside. I don’t want you to have to see this.”

Aching for him and the disgust he felt at his own intentions, I replied, “Only if you really don’t want me here. If you do, I’ll stay.”

His lips writhed around his attempted answer, but he couldn’t speak. He merely nodded, his expression conveying a desperate gratitude I would have done just about anything in the world to excite. Then, looking quickly away, he bent forward, reached down, and took Takani into his arms. Her head fell limply to one side as he cradled her upper back and settled her, reclining, onto his lap. His eyes taking on an even brighter glow than I’d yet seen and a startling flash coming from bared teeth that appeared longer and more pointed than before, he bent and fastened his mouth on her pale neck.

Only for Sano would I have watched such a display. It was monstrous, the way he sucked at her, the way her body had stiffened as he began to drink, and it sounded obscene. Bile rose in my throat and my stomach twisted, and intermittent shudders would not be repressed… but I sat firm, observing all remaining color ebb from the doctor’s exposed skin. She seemed likely to become a desiccated husk in no time at all, drained just as all those corpses had been. It had affected me before, but now it almost hurt to consider this type of end for a vibrant, brave, efficient human being, friend or otherwise.

“Sano,” I urged at last, my voice husky and low. “The next step?” I feared he was taking too much of her blood, and there would be no life left to revive with his own if he didn’t get on with it.

He made no answer, however, nor any shift of body, only continued his repugnant sucking. In this, I believed with sinking heart, our unspoken fears were confirmed: blood was life to him now, sustenance of which he’d been entirely deprived since his transformation, and he couldn’t bring himself to stop while it still flowed.

As close as I knelt to him, it was no difficulty to wind up and punch him in the shoulder, where once I’d stabbed him, with all my strength.

He toppled and slid, the figure of Takani falling bonelessly on top of him, and a snarling noise told me he’d disengaged from her neck even before I could see it when he sat up again. He shifted backward into a more active kneel, pulling the woman’s body halfway behind him with one possessive hand as if she weighed nothing at all, and raised the other hand as if to return my blow. His lips, running with blood, twisted into a snarl, and his eyes were feral for one long, breathless moment before he seemed to shake himself, breathing hard, and recognize me. And then the abrupt agony in those eyes was equaled only by the agony in my heart in response.

He looked as if he wanted to speak but didn’t know what to say, or perhaps lacked the power to say it. And in any case, I didn’t want him to bury himself in shame; once he gave in to that emotion, it would be a long uphill battle compelling it to release him. So I spoke instead, urging, “You have to finish it. Do you want my sword?”

Sano let out a faint, desperate laugh, and whispered harshly, “So damn practical,” even as he shook his head. Glad I’d diverted him at least somewhat from a detrimental frame of mind, I watched as he lifted his right wrist and raked his teeth across it with careless violence. Blood welled and ran down his arm, spattering across him and the objects on the floor as he moved once more toward Takani. He easily adjusted her position, smearing her with red as he did so, and soon the oozing liquid was flowing into her mouth.

I found the sight easily as distressing as the previous — perverted and inhuman and disgusting — and as I forced myself to sit still and calm and be a strength for Sano if I possibly could, a chill like icy water began to spread through my own body, as if my own veins were running cold.

Sano had undertaken this hideous task to try to save a friend. Whether or not he’d made the right choice in so doing, he was motivated by determination, mercy, and love. Yet Shibue — for I no longer had any doubt, after Takani’s description, about the murderer’s identity — appeared not to have acted on sentiments so noble. And he and Sano were now, after all, the same kind — the same kind Takani would become very soon if this process worked the way Sano believed it would. All three of them would be blood-drinkers; all three of them, presumably, would require something essential to the lives of others in order to maintain their own, regardless of what morals they took into their state of life or death.

Had Sano become a monster? Was he turning Takani into one before my eyes? Was I allowing evil to be born right in front of me because of my attachment to Sano?

The mere need for something combined with the capacity to take it did not make someone evil. But I’d seen how rapt Sano had been a minute before… I had no doubt that if I hadn’t been here to stop him, he would simply have killed her. Was it possible for someone to exist like that without committing murder, or was Sano destined to tread Shibue’s path?

And if he was, did I have the strength to do what was necessary? If it came to a choice, could I make the correct selection between Sanosuke’s life and Aku Soku Zan?

I rather doubted it.

In the near silence of the scene, the very disquieting noises from within Takani’s body were easily audible. And it wasn’t merely the occasional gut sound that made being in the presence of the dead so disturbing to some: there was a creaking, as of something all through her tensing, tightening; and a sound like boiling water, as if the blood Sano returned to her were indeed changing into a different state. And after several minutes, there came from her chest a startling cracking — ribs repairing themselves? — and her entire form straightened almost imperceptibly as if she were unconsciously correcting her posture in this prone position.

Her emaciation had faded; though her skin remained white as chalk, her lips a pale purple where they weren’t covered in blood, she now appeared more like a corpse awaiting cremation than a recent murder victim. In a way, she looked very much like Sano. She certainly looked like Sano had when I’d found him in the shed, and, for all I wanted her to live, that thought could give me no pleasure.

How Sano knew or thought he knew he’d done enough I couldn’t tell, but eventually he lifted his hand from near her face and drew it back, dripping blood down her chin and neck and chest. He started picking at the red wrap he always wore around his left wrist, and when I realized what he intended I spoke.

“Ahou…” I had to clear my throat. “We’re in a doctor’s office. There are plenty of actual bandages around.”

“So damn practical,” he whispered again, and distractedly began searching. I lifted a hand to stop him and then carried out the task myself, quickly sorting through the items that littered the floor nearby until I located a roll of bandages. I reeled out what I deemed a sufficient length and tore it free, then handed it to him. And as I did so, he continued speaking in a voice hardly louder than the previous whisper:

“I don’t think it’s going to bleed long. My heart… it got my heart going again to drink… It was pretty strong for a minute there… but I can feel it slowing down again. Thanks.” And he began to wrap his wrist.

If drinking some blood restarted his heart beating (implying that the rest of the time, whatever blood his body possessed was, what? resting motionless in his veins?), would a large enough quantity of blood restore all his bodily functions? Essentially restore him to life? Was that what Shibue sought, secondary to whatever Tomizawa Daitarou had assigned him? Evidently it hadn’t worked even after quite a few victims. I wondered if this had crossed Sano’s mind as it had mine.

In any case, the information Megumi had provided might help me pin the murderer down at last, and that she’d made the effort to convey it as she died was worthy of deepest respect. It wasn’t every murder victim that had the opportunity to avenge themselves. I only hoped she wouldn’t wake up now in her righter mind and resent what Sano had done. I didn’t know if he could handle that.

Perhaps it was time to find out, for Megumi stirred slightly where Sano had laid her. Her chest did not rise — evidently it was normal for people in this condition not to breathe spontaneously — but her fingers twitched, and before her eyes even opened, one hand had risen to brush hair from her face and blood from her chin.

I stood, and Sano’s gaze snapped over to me in startled dismay. I told him, “I’ll give you a few minutes.”

“You don’t have to.”

I regretted the necessity, and regretted the secret relief I felt at the idea of taking a break from this situation, but meant it when I said, “You’ll need to discuss things only you two can understand. I’ll wait outside the room.”

He stared for a moment, then seemingly required some effort of will to nod. “Thanks for staying this long,” he mumbled as he turned his face away. Then, even more softly, “Thanks for stopping me.”

“Of course.”

And as I moved quickly toward the door, I heard Megumi’s voice asking in quiet confusion, “Sanosuke? What just happened?”

Part 25

Sitting beside Sano on the sofa has become, by now, routine. I may still shy away from what he represents, what he wants in the long-term, but at his mere physical presence I no longer balk. I’m confident at least that he won’t attack and turn me right this moment; and his personality and character, and the changes therein, still fascinate me. Whether or not he’s truly beyond hope, whether he might retain some chance at happiness and (relative) morality, and what role I and Megumi have in the process of his reclamation, I long to discover.

Originally we were playing some old copy of Trivial Pursuit that Megumi dug up somewhere, with the finicky plastic pie pieces and everything, but, after she and Sano tied twice in a row, it devolved into their flashing trivia questions at each other in such quick succession it’s almost too fast to hear. Only now does it occur to me how many books you have time to read, movies and TV shows you have time to watch, and museums you have time to visit when you’re immortal — on top of whatever you’ve experienced firsthand. And I’m so comfortable at this point sitting around playing family games with a couple of vampires that I actually find myself complaining.

“You know this is less fun for the odd-man-out who hasn’t lived a hundred and fifty years?”

Meg laughs. “Sorry. We got carried away.” And she reloads the game components into the box with white-flashing hands in about two seconds.

“I’ll beat you next time, though,” Sano says with a competitive grin.

“I’ll beat you both at that card game,” I assure him. “It would be nice to know what it’s called.”

“I don’t actually know.” Sano joins me standing and heading toward the kitchen table. “I learned it from a werewolf in Frobisher Bay, like, thirty years ago. Then I tweaked the rules some, and I always just call it ‘that game.’ Not like I have a lot of people to play it with.”

Deciding not to dwell on his terminal loneliness and the effect it’s had on him, I state lightly instead, “You’re going to have to tell me about werewolves.”

But as he sets up the new game as quickly as Meg dismantled the old, and both of them start in on a description of werewolves and what is and isn’t known about them, I’m distracted by my phone lighting up yet again. This is the fourth time Renee has called today, and, though I turned off both sound and vibration much earlier, the alert that still appears on the screen causes guilt to weigh more and more heavily on my heart.

As Hajime, I wouldn’t have had a hard time coming up with what to say, and wouldn’t have been afraid to say it. I managed my relationships with the wives I had in that life reasonably well, after all. But I’m not entirely Hajime, and my former samurai straightforwardness blended with the cunning of a spy is of less use here and now. I don’t want to hurt her, but I can’t formulate an explanation for the circumstances rational enough to convince her of its truth and render our remaining interactions as smooth as possible. And every minute I put it off makes it less likely I’ll be able to do anything of the sort.

Self-castigation and a feeling of confounded helplessness notwithstanding, I manage to start the game and drag my mind back to it for a while. Sano and Meg resume their discussion of werewolves, and the night moves on with a certain amount of interest and entertainment. And as the hours pass, the chances of Renee calling again diminish, which is one benefit of having nocturnal friends. I’ve been up late far too often in recent days, and it has to start taking its toll sooner or later, but, even in her desperation to talk to me, Renee won’t risk waking me up.

But then my phone glows again. With a deep breath I look down, and note that it’s a voicemail. This is the first time she’s left me a message, and I reach for the device as I let the air out of my lungs as silently as possible. I glance back up at Meg’s neutral expression and the faint crease between Sano’s brows, and tell them, “I’d better listen to this.”

Swiftly Meg rises. “I’ll get out of earshot, then.” I wonder how far away that is for her.

“No, don’t–” Sano begins, and Megumi jerks to a standstill. “Sorry, sorry. I mean, why don’t we make sure Saitou doesn’t want us around before just running off?”

I frown. The truth is that I would prefer neither of them listen to this, but I fear what it might do to Sano to push him away — especially when the matter touches him so closely, even if it’s really none of his business. But I don’t like to evict one and permit the other.

“I’ll go,” she says with a reassuring smile — or as reassuring as that gesture can ever be on her too-perfect lips. Unexpectedly, she bends down and gives me an ice-cold kiss on the cheek. Then she punches Sano hard in the arm as she walks past him, and she’s gone.

Rubbing at the injured spot, Sano turns to face me again. “It’s OK if I stay, right?” His modern coldness gives the impression less of a request than of a command.

I nod. And since he’s going to hear it all anyway, I set the phone on speaker as I dial in to voicemail.

Joe, I know something’s wrong. It isn’t like you to ignore me. I didn’t think it would happen like this, because I know you’re better than this, but I’ve been worried about our relationship for a long time. You’ve never seemed ready to take things to the next level with me, and lately — even before you started ignoring me — I’ve gotten the feeling your heart’s not in it anymore. But I love you, Joe, and I want to make this work. If you’d just tell me what’s going on, we can still try. Or if you really do want to break up, I’d still like to be your friend and support you. But you have to talk to me.

After pressing 9 to save, I hang up and stare at the phone on the table without taking in any of its details. That Sano is doing the same I can tell from the corner of my eye, but I don’t look at him, and he makes no sound. That was… such an unusual message. Not one drop of sarcasm, barely any disdain, open emotional talk… not at all like Renee, who’s never seemed inclined to discuss our relationship. The cues she gives have always been subtle and usually unspoken. If she has worried for some time, did it take this crisis to force the confession out of her? Otherwise, why is she suddenly willing to bare her heart like this?

And I still don’t know what to say to her.

At a loss, I dial in again and replay the message. Her language is direct, personal but not overly sentimental — which is like Renee — and I notice she’s used the least affection form of ‘love’ when she declares her feelings for me… and that’s the answer.

“It’s in Japanese,” I say aloud in some surprise.

“Yyyeah,” Sano confirms, bemused.

Now I can’t help but smile as I hang up on voicemail once more. “She assumed I wouldn’t understand this.”

“Why would she say all that shit if you wouldn’t understand it?”

“One mystery for another. I haven’t been talking to her, so she left me a message in Japanese trying to get me to call back. It’s pretty clever.” I was underestimating her. That’s the Renee I know and… love? In the least affectionate form of the verb? I swallow hard and close my eyes as I leave the table, and my phone, behind.

“So what are you gonna do?” Sano wonders, somewhat demandingly, from behind me.

“I don’t know.” I sit down hard on the sofa, and find him beside me before I’ve completely settled. But all I can say, again, is, “I don’t know.” Uncomfortable as I feel dating someone I know is my own descendant, the more I consider cutting her out of my life, the more reluctant I find myself.

“You–” He reaches out a pale hand to touch my arm, hesitates, and then, when I don’t pull away, places it there with a restraint I didn’t expect. It’s trembling slightly, and colder than ever through my sleeve. And in his face there’s torment, less skillfully repressed than the strength of his hand.

“I know what you’d prefer me to say to her,” I tell him, cautious.

“I wasn’t gonna say it,” is his fierce, bitter response. Jealousy seems to darken his face, though in reality it’s as bloodless as ever. His fingers clench a bit more tightly on my arm, and he holds the pose for a moment, seeming to struggle within himself. Silently I’m doing my best to encourage him, because this emotion — which can only worsen with time — must certainly be one of the obstacles he needs to overcome if he wants to remain a decent person, or at least a decent vampire. And something inside me seems to untwist in relief when he relaxes a trifle and says in a tone less harsh, “I’m not qualified to give love advice. I’ve only ever had one boyfriend — that I remember — and you saw how that went.”

I breathe out a weak chuckle, and am surprised to find it followed by another, stronger, and then another. Soon Sano and I are both laughing ridiculously at what was, after all, a fairly morbid statement. As unexpectedly as Megumi’s earlier kiss — to both of us, I think — I lean into him for a hug and laugh on his cold, stiff shoulder for a moment. At first he goes motionless, and his laughter dies abruptly, but then he draws in a gasp and clutches me with bruising tightness. When I move to pull away, he clings only for an instant before letting go, and the darkness is gone from his face.

Memories of physical contact with Sano in another life bombard me, and my heart stutters into a higher gear. Am I tempted? I won’t deny it. The idea of being with him like that again prompts far less awkwardness and discomfort in me than it did before. But do I love him? I still don’t know.

Clearing my throat, I look away from the hope and desire and underlying acquisitiveness in his expression, and shift the subject. “So you said I’ve been in love with people in past lives?”

He lets out his gasp of a moment before somewhat raggedly, and at first appears to struggle once more, this time for an evenly delivered answer. “You… yeah, you were. You carried around a love note from some girl you left behind in Spain, and showed it to me every time you thought I was getting pushy… and then you had a wife in South Africa, who I didn’t really meet… and a husband in the States…”

An image returns to me of an airport terminal, a lingering kiss goodbye, and jealous eyes on me like those of a bird of prey, and I snatch at the memory and his last words. “I dreamed about him. My – husband.” The word tastes unfamiliar in this context, but not necessarily unpleasant. “After you showed up, but before you gave me my memories. I had a very confused dream where I saw…” Thinking back to it, its events become clearer and clearer, but only up to a certain point. “I saw past lives. I saw my husband, and our goodbye at the airport before I went to Iraq.”

“You– what!?” Sano leaps to his feet, for a moment every bit his old impetuous self. “You dreamed about previous lives before I gave you any memories back?!” The look on his face is divided between astonishment and excited delight. “That means you’re — you’re getting better! You’re figuring it out!”

“I didn’t enjoy it,” I tell him quietly — though I am, merely for these few seconds, enjoying his happiness. “It took place mostly in Shishio’s fortress. It was very chaotic. Not knowing what any of it meant made it into a nightmare.”

“I’m sorry, but, but, but this is great!” He shakes exuberant fists in the air and spins around on one heel. “It means you’re kindof… assimilating…” And he trails off at the serious expression on my face. “I’m sorry,” he says again. “Just…”

“Tell me about my husband,” I request. I know the subject must bother him, but I suspect getting him to talk about it is a step in the right direction. Wrapping past pain in an ever-thickening layer of jealousy and anger isn’t the way to deal with it. And I don’t want him dwelling more than he needs to on the idea that our souls are becoming more tightly linked with every passing lifetime, no matter how it pleases me to see him so simply happy again.

“Do you just want the memories?” he asks, a little sourly.

And again, I’m tempted. The condition I considered earlier — having more experiences than the average person to draw on for knowledge and wisdom — comes before me again with tantalizing promises. But even after so many days, I’m still fighting to deal with one previous lifetime’s worth of experiences and the little memories that pop up out of nowhere at inopportune moments and have to be worked through. Besides, the point is getting him to talk. “I think you just want to bite me again.”

The look he gives me is slightly suspicious, but perhaps my statement — which, despite its deadpan delivery, might be considered the tiniest bit flirtatious — strikes him pleasantly, for he resumes his seat at my side and takes a deep enough breath for extended speech. And a story unfolds of a college football coaching assistant, injured during his own time on the defensive line and unable to join the armed forces as he’d long wished, who won the heart of one Peggy McClendon with his fun-loving ways and infinite devotion. And Sano, in describing him, sounds not so much jealous or bitter as forlorn, maybe even nostalgic. He respected that man. He respected my love for him, because he saw why I felt the way I did. It hurts to watch him, but this is a remarkably good sign. I’m starting to feel the first hints of hope.

I’m also curious. Once he’s finished his description, I prompt, “So I’ve been attracted to men in more than one lifetime.”

The hunger springing up in his eyes tells me this may be a dangerous topic. “You were bi as Peggy, though you guys were monogamous, so…” He shrugs, and the gesture isn’t as casual as he’d probably like it to be. “When you were Yaro, you never showed any signs that I saw, but you were pretty damn busy speaking out against apartheid everywhere it wouldn’t get you killed… I mean, it eventually did, but… Anyway, as Aliásar, just from the way you looked at the other guys in camp, I thought you could’ve probably been into them, and you reacted way better than I expected when I told you my story — you just didn’t buy the vampire part — but then you died.” He shrugs again, and it’s more helpless this time.

“And the life that came after Japan? In South America?”

“Yeah, as Fernando…” He reaches a hand up to scratch the back of his head, and I wonder if he actually itches or if this is merely an echo of a long-ago gesture of the living Sano. “You were really young? And really gung-ho about getting yourself killed. I think you just weren’t really into it that time around.”

I chuckle faintly. “And I’ve been Japanese, Brazilian, Spanish, South African… What was Peggy?”

“White,” Sano replies, more easily now. “Probably had some Irish or Scottish in her, with a name like that, but I never found out for sure.” He looks me up and down, and, though there’s the customary expression of longing in the gaze, it’s more assessing than anything. “And now you’re… Puerto Rican?”

Impressed at his discernment, I nod. “I seem to have gravitated toward Latino.”

Sano shrugs. “I got no explanation for that.”

As so often happens these days, I find myself emotionally drained. Having my curiosity satisfied is bittersweet, and trying to navigate Sano’s convoluted frame of mind at the same time is nerve-wracking. But I can’t bear to abandon this conversation with Sano relaxing and enjoying it again. “It’s very interesting, though,” I say, then fight to come up with another question or remark to keep the discussion going.

I’m not fast enough. Sano’s face darkens again. “…but none of this is helping you figure out what to do about your girlfriend.”

With a sigh aimed more at my inability to manage his mood than at the purport of his statement, I admit the truth of this.

Very seriously he begins, “Look, Saitou–”

“Call me Joe,” I interrupt, ironically in a more Saitou-like tone than anything else I’ve said this evening.

For an instant he appears purely surprised and hurt. Then his lips and brows tighten into darker lines, and his words come out like ice. “It’s harder every time I see you with someone. But she’s safe for now.” He rises from the sofa, stiff as rigor mortis. “Do what you want with her.”

Quiet but firm, I tell him, “That may just mean taking her up on her offer of friendship.” Since I’ve blown my chance at continued conversation on a more pleasant level, the truth is the next best option. And his form seems to soften just perceptibly at my statements. “You’re friends with Megumi; I can be friends with Renee.”

“Megumi is literally a blood relation.” Sano still has his back to me, but his tone also has softened a trifle.

“But I’m her friend too. It would be unfair of you to be jealous of Renee but not of Megumi — and every other friend I have.”

He takes a deep breath, very deliberate as all his deep breaths must be, then lets it out gustily. “You’re right,” he says, turning. “I have to try to be reasonable.”

“Never an outstanding skill of yours,” I reply in Saitou’s tones with a grin, “but it’s good that you’re willing to try.” And I mean that very deeply. Perhaps to emphasize the fact, I get to my own feet, step forward, and put my arms around Sano again. “Thank you,” I murmur. And I’m not entirely sure what I’m thanking him for. Probably for the optimism I’m truly beginning to feel.

He may not be sure either, but the embrace melts him. Once more he clutches at me as if letting go means ceasing to exist, though he says nothing. I can only hope this will serve to give him strength — strength to do what I’m sure he still knows is right, strength to resist becoming something neither of us wants.

This time when I pull back, there’s more than a moment of tenacity on his side. But he does let me go, and looks at me with a mixture of emotions on his cold face. “I’ll… let you decide what you’re gonna do,” he almost whispers, and suddenly he’s at the door.

“Good night,” I reply at about the same volume. Then, in a preternaturally abruptly empty apartment, I mimic my movements of several days ago and sink back onto the sofa to put my head in my hands.

So we’ve definitely progressed to hugging now.

Part 26

My mind jumped back to the time when I’d taken a carriage, along with a suspicious Himura and a rebellious Sanosuke, south from Kyoto in a desperate hurry. Grim at what we’d already learned, intensely concerned about what we might find (or fail to find) in Osaka Harbor, uncertain about Battousai’s likely level of cooperativeness, and trying not to think too much about the young man on the roof, I’d been as uncomfortable then as I’d believed I ever could be. Yet I hadn’t considered Himura a friend. I hadn’t considered Sanosuke a lover. I hadn’t considered either of them a monster. Tonight’s carriage ride was far worse.

Megumi hadn’t said a word to me, nor shown any readable expression beyond profound pensiveness. When I’d suggested she relocate to my house for safety and convenience, she’d merely nodded as if her thoughts were elsewhere — as well they might be. What she and Sano had discussed behind closed doors I couldn’t guess any more than what excuse she’d made in the note she’d left for the other doctor. Now nobody spoke, and the silence crowded against me like a host of invisible foes. I found the horses’ hoofbeats, the creak of the carriage, the low and occasional sounds from the midnight city, even my own soft breathing unusually agitating.

Sano looked at our friend, when he believed she couldn’t see it, with haggard glowing eyes in which guilt, despair, and supplication appeared equally evident. His clenching hand gradually tore the marks of his fingers into the leather seat. I didn’t dare ask what either one of them was thinking and feeling after what had happened. I had stood by Sano during a soul-rending moment, and would have thought we’d be more emotionally intimate thereafter, but I didn’t dare ask. And I wasn’t close enough to Megumi — and perhaps never would be — to intrude where she didn’t choose to volunteer.

When we alighted in my neighborhood after a painful eternity in the cab, Megumi still said nothing, nor did she look around to take in details of the unfamiliar place. I paid the driver, then pushed past the others toward my door. I felt stiff and worn out, my physical condition only contributing to my underlying unhappiness. As I ushered them inside, I resisted a pressing and uncharacteristic urge to speak.

Finally, though, someone else did. The doctor glanced at my entranceway where she removed her shoes, and the living room into which she continued, and said quietly, “I need to be alone.”

Again I walked past her, swallowing what I would rather say as I reached for one of the doors off the main chamber. “The bedroom is yours as long as you need it.” My voice emerged like an alien being.

After gathering up a random armful of clothing and a spare blanket, I bowed slightly over my burdens and left her with her thoughts. The door slid to behind me, and seemed to close me out not only from the woman but from my mental turbulence concerning her. Both were still present, but it felt as if a weight on my mind had been eased slightly.

The other, interconnected and far heavier weight had seated himself in what had become his usual spot near the cold fireplace. When my eyes fell on him, having laid what I carried across a chair, my heart gave a dizzying throb of sorrow and pity. That he’d put his back to me indicated no readiness for discussion, but this silence couldn’t continue. I just didn’t know where to start.

Finally, “Did you remind her about the sunlight?” I asked, in a far harsher tone than I’d intended.

His reply was equally rough. “Shit, how stupid do you think I am?” His volume dropped, though, as he added, “Course I reminder her about the fucking sunlight.”

“Did you tell her…” And even after so long, I still lacked the strength to finish the question, “Did you tell her she’ll have to drink human blood to survive?”

“I told her everything I needed to,” he whispered, and fell silent again.

“Sano…”

He drew his knees up to his chest and hugged them.

I went to him and dropped down, putting my arms around his cold body and clutching at him. He uncurled a little, and let his head fall back onto my shoulder, but said nothing.

“Sano, please…” Was I begging? I might have been. He and the circumstances had brought me this low. I felt as if a door lay between us just as it did between me and Megumi, though in this case doing nothing to mute my consternation and sympathy and desire to be of use. I would never understand what he was going through, neither in his half-dead state nor in having made the decision he had regarding the doctor. But if he would open up on these topics, I might be able to help him work his own way through. He’d always been so open…

Abruptly he twisted in my embrace, returning it and knocking me down. He held my waist and back and buried his face in my chest, a cold presence near my quivering heart, and stilled again. He said nothing yet, did not even breathe, but at least I could tell he wanted me there.

I struggled against thinking I was losing him again, that my relief at finding him alive though dead had been premature and eventually unjustified; but I began to feel trapped in that perspective as in a cell against whose walls I raged like a madman. That this growing system of helplessness and anxiety and sadness would sooner or later seep into every other aspect of my life, most particularly affecting my work performance, I could not deny, and the awareness only tied my hands more tightly. It was one of the dangers I’d once tried to warn Himura against, and in neither case had the foreknowledge made any difference. At the time he’d done a poor job disinvolving his friends from the hazardous fight against Shishio, but I thought I could forgive him now for countenancing them when they’d followed anyway.

Hours must have passed in the uncomfortable position Sano had forced on us, and maybe I dozed despite the angle of my body atop his right arm, for eventually, when he pulled away and sat up, allowing me to do the same, the shouji informed us the sky outside was lightening. Sano looked around discontentedly, then down at himself. I’d cleaned the blood from his face and neck before leaving the clinic, but a great deal had dried on the borrowed garments he’d been wearing all night (which had caused our cab driver to look at us askance). Now he frowned at it, and, instantly on his feet, had shed both kimono and hakama quicker than my eyes could follow.

I rose more slowly and painfully, and returned to where I’d set the extra clothing. I would move it all into the office later; for now I dug through the pile to find Sano a yukata, which I tossed to him without a word. Then I searched deeper for a replacement kimono for myself, since I hadn’t escaped the disaster without bloodstains either.

When my lover, looking a little easier in the clean cloth, saw what I was doing, he demanded in the most Sano-like tone I’d heard from him in a while, “Where do you think you’re going?”

As I changed, I explained. “Now I do need to talk to Tomizawa Nori. I’m convinced Shibue is our enemy, but I need confirmation — and any information she can give me about where he might be hiding during the day.”

“You promised you’d stay here,” Sano said flatly, “and let Hiro-what’s-his-name handle things.”

“The situation has changed.”

With a mirthless laugh at this understatement, Sano reminded me, “Earlier tonight you couldn’t even walk all the way to the clinic. You’re still in bad shape.”

“I’ll take a cab.”

“Of course you will… but…” His wrathful tone came close to breaking; it seemed he too had been pushed almost to the point of begging. He wouldn’t give in, though, and was falling back on anger to hide his distress.

It touched me deeply, and it hurt. So, instead of pointing out that Shibue couldn’t move against me while the sun was up, I said, “I’ll stay here until you fall asleep.”

Sano’s glowing eyes seemed to request a greater concession than he would ask for aloud — greater than I could make, and he knew it. He turned away from me, and busied himself with moving the room’s single screen in front of the eastern shouji, pushing all the remaining clothing off the chair onto the floor and arranging it into a longish heap like a bunker, then digging out the spare blanket. Though he could tolerate the indirect sunlight filtering into the house, he liked to have that last extra layer of protection; he said it helped him sleep better. Now he threw himself down again, and patted the tatami beside him with a stubborn expression.

I felt the ghost of a smile on my lips at that look, and sat down against him. Immediately pulled recumbent, I found myself under the blanket on my side facing him. He didn’t put his arms around me this time, but raised one to prop his head and huddled the other against my chest. I brought one of my own up to hold his hand, at which he breathed and sighed, and then lay still staring into the two glowing brown circles just before me.

It didn’t take long for his grip to slacken, the circles to disappear, and that slumber like a second death to slip over him — but long enough for me to retread the same harrowing thoughts as before again and again with an actual physical pain in my heart. When I found myself threatening to join him, I released his hand and rolled away out from under the blanket. He made no move, no sound, which gave me more than a slight additional pang as I stood and headed for the door.

For the use of several types of people related to our business, including those in protective custody, the police maintained what appeared to be a square of small apartments intended for single workers or couples without children. I’d stayed there myself when I’d first transferred to Tokyo, before Kawaji had decided he wanted me in the new capital on a more permanent basis, and I knew the place well. Now I used the discreet back entrance on an adjoining street, and found in the courtyard, as expected, an unassuming gardener-handyman doing some sort of leisurely and probably unnecessary maintenance on his rake in the absence of anything else to keep him looking busy.

He didn’t recognize me at first — semi-retired elderly operatives with assignments like this could hardly be expected to know every face in the precinct — but when I quietly identified myself, he gave a nod of confirmation. “You must be here for Tomizawa-san, then,” he murmured.

“Only for a conversation.”

He nodded again, and withdrew from a deep pocket a set of keys. “She’s in number four,” he told me as he removed the one I needed.

Early though it was, I let myself into Nori’s temporary home. The tenements with neighbors on both sides had almost no windows, but before I could even produce a match, I heard one strike in the next room. No wonder, I thought, if she’d become a bit jumpy and easily awakened. The light through the shouji increased.

After very little shuffling, the door slid open, and Tomizawa Nori’s yukata-clad figure appeared in the opening. Her eyes wide and cautious, the sunkenness of her cheeks emphasized by the dimness, her long brown hair in two braids that fell across her shoulders and made her appear very young, she stared at me for a protracted moment before seeming to realize who I was.

“Fujita-san!” She moved quickly to place the lamp she held on the table, and came up to me beseechingly. “How much longer do I have to stay here? Nobody can tell me, but you ordered this, didn’t you?”

“You must remain under police protection until we’ve dealt with your stalker. I need to discuss that with you, and you should prepare yourself for some unpleasant news.”

She took another step toward me, hands clenched. “Is it Daitarou? Is he all right? Is he in danger?”

“Please have a seat.” I gestured at the table. “What I have to say may be worse than that.”

She obeyed, shifting the lamp to a better position and almost tipping it in her agitated haste. I took the place opposite her, and watched her twisting her hands so they turned white before forcing herself to lay them flat on the table. I’d considered on the way here how to present this, but it was with some heaviness that I began.

“I’ve been tracking a serial murderer, Nori-san. This man has an unusual physical condition, an illness of sorts, that requires him to drink human blood to survive, and he has already transmitted this condition somehow to two of my assistants. A doctor I work with has been studying it, but we don’t fully understand it yet.”

She had shuddered at ‘drink human blood,’ and now stared at me, mouth slightly open but evidently incapable of speech. Undoubtedly every possible application of this information to herself, her stalker, and her brother was running through her head.

“I believe,” I went on quietly, “that this murderer is your missing fiance, and that your brother is hiding him.”

She gave a sobbing gasp, her hands flying to her face so only her black eyes remained visible. She’d impressed me, when I’d met her before, with her practicality and strong will, and she convinced me completely now by not growing faint or beginning to wail. Incoherent noises like attempts at speech mingled with effusions of horror came from behind her hands, but she remained straight where she sat. I let her take her own time overcoming the initial shock, and eventually she managed, “But… but Shibue-san couldn’t have… killed anyone! He wouldn’t, but… but he really couldn’t! He’s never been in any physical shape to…”

“His new condition grants him additional strength and speed, probably transferred somehow from the blood he steals. And in fact the desperate need for blood may push him to greater exertion than anything else.”

She shuddered again, but her hands sank slowly from her face. “So if he… if he does…” She swallowed hard. “…need blood to survive, he might not have wanted to kill anyone. If he’s been doing it to survive… he can’t be held entirely responsible, can he?”

By refraining from answering this question, I allowed her to hope. “The man in question is 165cm tall, weighs approximately 80kg — overweight — has wide, thick eyebrows, and an early receding hairline. When he attacked me, I observed he was unskilled in combat, but still presented a threat because of the unusual strength and speed I mentioned. When he attacked my assistant, he had kuroboku stains on his clothing.”

“That’s Shibue-san,” she whispered. “He always hated the idea of learning to fight… He…” Distractedly she began connecting ideas, slowly working her way aloud (if still in a very subdued tone) through what she knew. The only somewhat useful or confirming facts she produced were that her brother was very controlling, and might want to assist and protect Shibue as much out of a desire to keep the situation under his eye as for his sister’s sake; and that Shibue, a modest, diffident man, always did everything Daitarou told him to.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found this conversation a relief. Despite the crimes’ bizarre features, discussing them with Nori was proceeding like any other questioning of a witness. My harried mind took refuge in the routine, and it soothed me so much that the tediousness of her putting her thoughts in order hardly aggravated me. I wouldn’t have attempted to hurry her in any case, since I wanted her to believe there might be a chance at saving Shibue’s life if he could be found. Pressing her would probably tip her off to the likelihood of my seeking him for a very different reason, and prevent her from sharing any ideas she might have on how to locate him.

Finally she looked up at me again with an expression of deep concern and sorrow. Earnestly she asked, “Do you think he can be cured?”

“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully, and allowed her to see a fraction of my own worry on the subject when I added, “and the same goes for my two assistants.”

“How did he… where did this ‘illness’ come from?”

“I don’t know,” I repeated.

But with a chill I realized that I did. I hadn’t considered it until this very moment… The circumstance I’d been dreading had come upon me without my even realizing it: my personal preoccupations had interfered with my ability to do my job. I should have thought of this at least seven days ago. I should have realized that, unless there was some improbable accidental method of contracting the non-dead condition Shibue suffered, there must have been someone else in Tokyo to drink his blood and feed him theirs. Someone perhaps still in Tokyo. Carefully regulating my tone, “What,” I asked, “was the date of Shibue’s disappearance?”

“Between May 14th and 17th,” she replied promptly.

Long before the first murders had come to light. I would need to compare exact dates, but this might mean that the unknown someone, if they existed and had remained in the capital, covered their tracks much better than Shibue had been able to. My chill persisted. This previously unconceived-of enemy might prove far more dangerous than Nori’s fat fiance, and someone against whom we should have been preparing (if any preparation were possible) earlier than this.

But finding the murderer I knew existed must be my priority at the moment. So I said, “In any case, he can’t be allowed to continue killing people.”

“No,” she whispered, and fell silent.

I felt I had her on my side now, and that her pensiveness pertained not to whether she should confide in me, but rather to everything she knew that might contribute. This guess was confirmed when she suddenly lifted her head and met my eyes again as if she’d just remembered something. “Daitarou purchased a tea farm in Nerima in December, and I think the soil there is kuroboku.”

“I don’t recall any tea farm among his businesses.”

“I think…” She frowned; obviously this had only ever been discussed in passing between them. “I think he was planning to experiment with modern methods of producing tea that will save money. He would have kept it quiet, and not attached his name to it, to prevent theft of his ideas.” I nodded, and we stared at each other. Eventually she added, “I hope he won’t be in trouble for hiding Shibue-san…” And at an even quieter murmur, “I suppose I see why he didn’t tell me…”

On this point I deemed it best to hold my peace. The outlook was dismal for both men; but whereas Shibue might be considered not in his right mind, Tomizawa Daitarou had evidently been selecting targets for his would-be brother-in-law to serve his own selfish ends.

Observing my unwillingness to answer, her voice small and restrained, she tried, “What will you do if you find Shibue-san?”

“That depends on how Shibue-san reacts to being found.”

And all in an instant, she broke down. Tears began to pour from her eyes, her lips and jaw trembled and seemed hardly capable of their natural functions, and her posture fell apart as her breaths came in heaves. “F-Fujita-san, please… you can’t know what it’s like to love a man and–and lose him j-just when you thought… and then discover you h-haven’t really lost him, but now you have to–to live in fear of losing him again! Please don’t take him away from me again!”

…to live in fear of losing him again…

So stunned, so overwhelmed was I by her words, I couldn’t have told her even if I’d wanted to how acutely, how precisely, I did know what that was like. I couldn’t even offer her a handkerchief as a good sympathetic interrogator would have done. I simply sat there, dumbstruck, while she wept in front of me.
I believed I had everything I’d come for, and more. New paths of investigation had opened: new work, new worries, new action to set in motion at the police station, where I must go from here. If this final blow, delivered in all innocence by a woman that shared my peculiar situation far more than she realized, was blinding me now to other questions I should ask her, I couldn’t possibly recognize that until later, after the shock had receded; and for the moment, I only wanted to get away.

With a great effort, I stood. She looked up at me, face blotchy and pathetic. “Nori-san,” I said, in a voice as hard as stone, “I will do everything in my power to ensure no one else is lost.”



<<25

When I originally started writing this story approximately forever ago, what are now odd- and even-numbered parts formed the halves of chapters. Eventually I decided I liked it better this way, since previously there was some implied connection between the specific events in the halves of each chapter, and I didn’t like giving that impression.

The idea to have the modern parts in present tense was also a later decision. I think it’s an interesting way to differentiate the timelines and the narrating voices.

A problem that started early and that I struggled with throughout this story was to keep both halves interesting without either one getting ahead of where I wanted it and revealing information I wanted very specifically timed. Hence scenes like Part 7 that are basically filler, though I tried at least to make sure they entertained and provided some food for thought.

For some author’s notes on part 11, see this Productivity Log, this one for part 12, this one for part 13, this and this one for part 14, and this one for part 15. For part 17, see this Productivity Log, this one for part 18, this one for part 19, and this one for part 20 and the title illustration. For part 21, see this Productivity Log, this one for part 22’s notes, and this one for part 24. Where are the notes on part 23? I don’t know. Evidently I didn’t make any. How will you cope??

Aku Soku Zan(za)

Aku Soku Zan(za)

Section 1

The paper itself was of such high quality that, even when Zanza’s decisive hands had crumpled it into a tight, lopsided little ball, it still felt hefty and undefeated as he tossed it away, and clattered noisily into a dusty corner to crouch, bright in the shadows, under an empty jug that he should really take back to the bar he’d gotten it from one of these days.

Grumbling incoherent profanity, he whirled, putting his back to the offending object, and started moving away from it so precipitously he almost tripped over the long sword that nearly bisected his small room. In growing irritation he hopped over the zanbatou and stalked from the apartment. An unsuspecting neighbor immediately outside, attention procured by the slamming of the door and accompanying swearing, took one look at Zanza’s glower and made a quick, judicious retreat back into his own home.

He had no particular destination in mind other than away from that damned letter, and as such he turned more or less randomly at each intersection of narrow, dirty streets; and every time he did so, something in his head urged him to go back, to pull the thing from the dust, smooth it out, and give it another try. He needed money, after all, and it was stupid to get so angry at an apparent job offer that he couldn’t even finish reading it… but for the writer to have employed what seemed like such extravagantly excessive kanji…

In order to get his message to its destination, the guy must have dug Zanza’s address up from somewhere; couldn’t he guess, based on that, at its recipient’s level of education? Nobody in this neighborhood could read that many or that kind of kanji, and that Zanza perhaps knew a few more than his neighbors was due only to his actual origins lying elsewhere — if any of the people around him here could read at all, it was some kind of miracle. Did the letter’s sender want to rub this in, or was he really just that ignorant of what life was like outside his insular world of fancy paper and cultured handwriting?

“Ohayou, Zanza!” Technically it was afternoon, but Yoita, like most of Zanza’s friends, knew that this time of day approximately counted as morning for him.

Without turning, Zanza snarled out something that might have been a return greeting.

Accustomed to the kenkaya’s moods, Yoita didn’t even flinch at the unpleasant sound as he fell into step beside him. Nevertheless, he insured his own safety before he said another word by extracting from the pocket in which he’d been digging a piece of candy wrapped in brown paper and offering it to the kenkaya. “You look pissed,” he remarked as Zanza accepted the premium with a rough gesture. “Landlord been on your case again?”

The sweetness of the candy and the friendliness of the inquiry were already working, and Zanza merely shook his head instead of exploding.

After watching Zanza brood and suck hard on the candy for half a street, Yoita finally remarked, “I guess you’ll tell us all tonight. You are coming to Sochi’s place, right?”

“Maybe,” was Zanza’s surly answer as he considered grumpily that if the engagement proposed in the letter was for tonight, he might never know it.

“Those same girls from last time said they’d be there,” Yoita cajoled.

Suddenly Zanza turned a thoughtful look on his friend. It seemed like a long shot, but not completely impossible. “Hey, do you own a dictionary?”

“What?” Yoita gave a surprised laugh. “Why would I need a dictionary?”

“You suppose any of the other guys have one?”

“Why would any of us need a dictionary?”

I need one.”

Yoita was still laughing. “Why?”

With an irritated sigh that marked the transition from raging to trying to be productive, Zanza explained. “Some guy sent me this long fucking letter, I think wanting me to fight someone, but I can’t read all his damn kanji. I just spent an hour giving myself a headache trying to figure it all out, but I’m obviously going to need a dictionary.”

Yoita made a noise of understanding. “Well, I doubt you’re going to find one anywhere in our group, but you know there’s a charity school just up the street, right? That guy who runs it’s really nice; he could probably help you.”

“Oh, shit, you’re right.” Zanza stopped abruptly, looking around, orienting himself and considering where the school in question was located. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because you were mad as hell?” Yoita grinned.

Cheered enough all of a sudden that he was able to return the expression, Zanza gave Yoita’s shoulder a little shake and said, “Thanks, man,” before spinning and setting off at a run back toward his apartment to retrieve the letter.

That it took longer than he’d expected to locate his destination might have been a good thing, because it gave him time to smooth out the abused paper and render it (relatively) legible again. He was even, in his anticipation, considerably less annoyed by the time he reached the big old house with its modest, venerable sign proclaiming its secondary function as an educational establishment, despite the embarrassing circumstance of having gotten lost in what was essentially his own neighborhood.

Thanks to the lack of any formal schooling in his childhood, he entered the place without much thought for time of day, and as a result found himself stared at by at least ten young pairs of eyes bearing expressions ranging from startled and almost frightened to curious to admiring, a few even a bit disdainful. It was unexpectedly nerve-wracking, perhaps creepy, and Zanza was immediately conscious, for some reason, of the state of his clothing and how long it had been since he’d bathed.

“Can I help you?” The voice came from the head of the room, and pulled Zanza’s embarrassed gaze to the man that had evidently paused at the mercenary’s entrance in the dissertation he’d been conducting. He was as Zanza had seen him a few other times in the past: middle-aged, stocky, with an apparent strength subdued by his contemplative calmness.

“Uhh…” Suddenly tongue-tied, Zanza scratched his head. “I need a hand with a… thing… if you’ve got some time when your… class is done?”

Though the instructor raised his brows, there was more friendly inquiry than skepticism in his gaze. “We finish at three, if you want to wait or come back.”

Unexpectedly glad to have a non-living object to transfer his eyes to, Zanza looked at the clock on the wall. “Yeah,” he said. It was just over an hour to the specified time. “Yeah, thanks. I’ll wait outside.” He owned no watch, after all, and had no place else in mind to go for the interim.

Though the kenkaya, eyes still fixed on the minute hand, didn’t see the man’s expression, he could hear the irony in the reply, “Make yourself at home.”

In the warm sun and calm air outside, Zanza’s discomfort quickly faded, and it wasn’t long before the seated position into which he’d immediately sunk on the front porch transitioned into a reclining one and then a dozing flatness. He didn’t necessarily mean to fall asleep, but he’d expended so much energy on anger that it was the inevitable result of having an hour to wait doing essentially nothing else in nice weather.

It put him in a dangerous position, however. He was rudely, almost terrifyingly awakened, when the countdown ended, by schoolkids pouring out around and even over him, many of them shrieking in delight for no apparent reason other than the glee of a school day’s end. He could do nothing against this unexpected onslaught other than roll onto his side and shield his head and neck from the enthusiastic young feet until the shouting and pattering had proceeded far enough down the street to make him believe they weren’t coming back.

He sat up to find the instructor standing before the closed front door looking down at him with an expression of repressed merriment. When the older man observed Zanza’s gaze, he moved forward to take a seat against the pillar beside the steps, patting the adjacent space with a strong hand. “You’re a mercenary, I believe,” was how he began the conversation. “I’ve seen you a few times around; I think you don’t live too far from here.”

“That’s right.” Zanza picked himself up and took the few paces necessary to drop down again beside the other pillar opposite the instructor. Outside the formality of the classroom setting, it was much easier to face and talk to the guy. “I got a problem…” He fished the folded letter, by now very victimized, from a pocket. “I’m pretty sure this guy wants me to fight someone, but I can’t read the damn thing.” He finished at a bit of a mumble, not happy to admit either his deficiency or the fact that it embarrassed him a little. “I was hoping you could help.”

Wordlessly the instructor accepted what Zanza held out, and unfolded it. Above the eyes he immediately turned on the letter, his brows rose to form once again the expression of amused skepticism he’d worn inside the building an hour before. “I can see why,” he murmured.

Feeling vindicated, Zanza made an annoyed noise as the instructor apparently began to read in earnest, and then several silent moments passed while the kenkaya leaned over to watch in anticipation and the eyebrows of the other man did not descend.

Both the amusement and the skepticism seemed to increase as the man made his way through the entire length of the thing; until finally, shaking his head, he laid it on his lap and turned a sort of I-don’t-know-what-to-say expression toward the eager Zanza. What he did eventually say was, “Well.”

“Yeah?” The man’s demeanor had done nothing to lessen Zanza’s eagerness and curiosity.

The instructor opened his mouth, then closed it again as if commentary absolutely defied him. Finally he seemed to give up, and just said, “I’ll read it aloud.” And with a preparatory stiffening, as if for some conflict much more difficult than the oration of a letter, he began.

To you, esteemed Zanza-san, I extend the salutations of the salubriously mild-aired spring day on which I write, a day I believe to be full of auspice in a spring that can only be an amplification of that excellent promise in a year that has already seen so many momentous changes to our collective way of life that, though not every alteration wrought since January can be viewed as propitious for the advancement of our civilization, the year itself nevertheless must be recognized as an adumbration of no idleness of hand! This communication stands in apologue of such an idea, and therefore of the season and year and era in which we live, since in hailing both from and to hands that have never been idle it seeks to effect change just such as the auspicious 1878 has already observed.

At this point, as the instructor took a deep breath to continue, Zanza raised a trembling hand and solicited weakly, “Could you possibly just summarize the rest? Actually, could you possibly summarize all that shit you just read too?”

The man’s mouth twitched into a smile he obviously couldn’t repress. “Well, as for all that shit I just read, he says hello, misrepresents the weather, and that things have happened this year. He goes on to say…” His eyes became more mobile, more searching, as he turned them back to the letter. “He heard about your fight with a swordsmith in Komatsugawa, and the exceptional strength you demonstrated in that fight… there’s a reference to anvils that I don’t quite…”

Zanza chuckled, recalling clearly and fondly the fight and the anvils in question.

Smile widening at this reaction, the instructor went on. “He says he would have dismissed the story as an entertaining exaggeration if the person telling it… here’s some unnecessary detail about the person telling the story and where they were at the time… ah, yes, if the person telling the story hadn’t gone on to mention your reputation as an outspoken critic of the government.”

Interest somewhat aroused, Zanza waited more or less patiently as the other man reread the next section of the letter in silence. “He has a lot to say about the government,” he said at last, “but what it seems to boil down to is that he puts up with it without liking it much.”

“Yeah, don’t we all,” Zanza grumbled, reflecting at the same time that someone rich enough to be naive enough to write and send a letter like this to a street fighter might also be in a position to do something more than unhappily put up with, but he didn’t bother saying it.

“Don’t we all,” echoed the teacher at a murmur, still evidently amused. “Anyway, he reiterates that he heard about your feelings regarding the government, and this got him interested, so he started asking around about you… and apparently you’re always looking for challenging fights..? That seemed perfect to him, because he’s had a plan in mind for a while without seeing any way he could carry it out, and you might be exactly what he needs…”

“All right,” Zanza broke in, losing patience, “what exactly does he need? And why the hell does he think I want his life story on the way?”

Now the instructor laughed out loud. “I can’t possibly answer that second question, but the answer to the first is that he wants to hire you to fight Saitou Hajime.”

Despite having asked for it, the point of the message so neatly encapsulated in so few words took Zanza a bit by surprise, and it was a moment before its meaning really sank in. Then he sat up straight in an almost convulsive movement. “What, Shinsengumi Saitou Hajime?”

“That’s the one. He makes it–” the teacher glanced at the letter again with a wry smile– “very clear.”

Now Zanza jumped to his feet. “Well, why didn’t he just fucking say so in the first place?” Despite this complaint, a wide grin had spread across his face. “If he’s heard so much about me, he’s gotta know of course I’d wanna fight Saitou Hajime — that guy was supposedly super strong, right? And he’s still around? What’s he doing these days? How old is he? I mean, is he even stronger than before, or has he gotten all old and weakened up?”

Again the teacher laughed. “Well, let’s see… as to why he didn’t just fucking say so in the first place, it doesn’t seem to be in his nature to do anything of the sort. And he does seem to be aware that of course you’d want to fight Saitou Hajime — that’s the gist of about half the letter, really. And what is Saitou Hajime doing these days? Working for the police, it appears.”

Excitement suspended for a moment, Zanza wondered if he’d heard that right. “For the police? The police, who’re part of the government? The Meiji government? The same people he was fighting against in the war?”

“That police,” the teacher nodded. “Those same people.”

Snatching the letter back in a rough movement that seemed to startle the other man a little, Zanza snapped it taut in front of his own face and searched, incredulous and angry, for written confirmation of what had just been spoken. Unfortunately, the half-familiar kanji blended together into a headache-inducing mass just as they’d done every other time, and he had no idea what section he and his assistant had progressed into. Resisting with some difficulty the urge to crumple the thing again, he instead let his hand fall angrily to his side, taking the paper fluttering down with it, and stared out into the street.

“Before I… before I actually got involved with shit,” he muttered, reminiscing bitterly, “me and the other kids would play that we were going to Kyoto to fight the Shinsengumi, and we had to take turns playing Kondou. They were fucking legends to us. They represented the old times, and shit staying the way it was… they were the champions of everything the country was that people were fighting about.”

He turned to find the teacher regarding him impassively; this time when Zanza, with an abrupt gesture, threw the letter back down toward his feet, the man didn’t even flinch.

“Not like I started liking the idea of the Shinsengumi any better once I realized what a bunch of backstabbing assholes the Ishin Shishi were… the old days weren’t any better than this bullshit we have today, so I never thought they were heroes or anything… but they were still the champions of the other side! They fought harder against those fuckers than practically anyone, and we all sure as hell saw them as representations of the Bakufu…”

Still offering no attempt at interpretation or judgment, the teacher nodded his comprehension.

“So how could he switch sides like that? Someone who practically was the other side — how could he join up with the fucking Meiji like that??” Zanza’s hands were clenched now into hard fists. He’d never even met this Saitou guy, but a number of unexpected fragments had converged into a very unpleasant picture, and he was angry.

After reaching for the fallen letter, the teacher held it again in his lap without a word, looking down pensively at it and smoothing it out somewhat absently, evidently still listening to Zanza rant. And all the time he maintained a neutrality of expression and bearing that was half encouraging and half irritating. Not that Zanza could possibly be irritated much by anything besides his current fixation.

When his tirade had devolved into little more than apostrophic name-calling that neither helped his mood improve nor advanced the conversation, and his fingers were clenching so tightly in his fists that the knuckles creaked and ached, he forced himself to shut up and calm down. Well, he didn’t calm much, but he did start to focus a little better on his surroundings and situation. He needed more information — a lot more information — and he wouldn’t get it if he didn’t finish the letter. Frankly, he was damned lucky this guy had put up with him for as long as he had; he probably shouldn’t push that luck any further.

So he turned back toward the instructor — he hadn’t even realized he’d been facing the street as if in dramatic soliloquy — took a deep breath, loosened his fists, and said in a sort of enforcedly placid summary (though his teeth were clenched), “So, yeah, I’d really fucking like to fight Saitou Hajime. What do I have to do?”

***

Saitou rubbed the bridge of his nose with two fingers, trying to alleviate the headache that had developed over the course of the day. Massaging his face seemed unlikely to help when the headache had been idiot-induced, but he did it anyway — as if somehow the motion would get rid of every frustrating police underling in the station, every petty drug dealer on the streets, and every stupid thug in every bar and slum in Tokyo. He longed for some proper sleep, something he hadn’t had much of in the last couple of days and something that would probably be a great deal more effective toward the diminution of his headache than was his gloved hand.

The notes he’d been reading hit the desk with a rustling slap as his eyes slid gratefully off the final line of the final page. He’d predicted he would come to the end of this perusal this evening, and might have read the last few entries a little more quickly than he otherwise would have, but it didn’t matter: it was clear now, if it hadn’t already been, that the entirety of the documented evidence they had on their current subject of investigation was sufficient neither to condemn him in court nor to make Saitou feel justified in assassinating him privately quite yet. That he couldn’t pick out a paper trail here neither surprised him nor made him less suspicious of the man in question; the tips they’d received, though in no way constituting proof, had been too definitive and, to his mind, too reliable not to investigate thoroughly.

He might even end up doing some of said investigating personally this time, depending on what kind of information Tokio brought back. That would be a nice change from the tiresomely lengthy paperwork at the end of the previous job and the beginning of this one that he’d skipped sleep lately trying to get finished. If he must be deprived of sleep, he would much rather it be due to a stakeout or a lengthy chase than because he was writing out the details of whatever he’d just finished doing in the driest language he could command and triplicate.

After reorganizing the notes and fastening a descriptive paper obi around the stack, he locked it away in a drawer, whence he would eventually retrieve it as material supplemental to whatever further facts he obtained during the course of the ensuing inquiry. Then he stood, stubbing out the remaining third or so of his latest cigarette in an ash tray overly full from an overly long stint at the office, put out the lamp, and headed for the door.

The station proper, busy even nearing what might for the rest of the city be considered the end of the day, seemed shockingly hot thanks to multiple bodies often under stress or in vigorous movement, despite the open windows and especially to anyone wearing a police uniform with a heavy jacket (which nearly everyone in the room was), so Saitou hastened through to the main entrance and beyond. There was always at least one idle carriage hanging around outside the police station, Tokyo drivers being well aware of how loath many officers were to walk more than a short distance unless, as on patrol, the walking rather than the arrival was the purpose of the trip. And Saitou supposed hiring a cab to and from work might be considered a lazy habit, but there were some days (possibly most days) when he just couldn’t stand to stick around any longer and had to get away as quickly as possible. So today, as not infrequently, he paid the driver and was whisked away toward home.

As he felt he’d had more than enough of this Rokumeikan business over the last little while, he tried not to think about it on the way, tried to relax and look forward to a quiet evening; this was difficult, however, in that no other compelling subject was jumping to replace Rokumeikan in his mind. There just wasn’t a lot going on for him right now besides work… and there, he supposed, was another subject for thought.

Weeding corruption from the government was not only his primary occupation but his primary source of fulfillment. He required and actively sought nothing more from existence than this. But that didn’t mean he objected to more when it was presented, nor failed to feel its absence when it wasn’t. When the standard policework that occupied his time between more meaningful cases consisted of small-time busts and big-time paperwork, minor investigation after unstimulating minor investigation, the almighty pen far oftener than the much more interesting sword… when sleep was wearily dreamless and solitary, night after similar night, and therefore a luxury frequently dispensed with… If it weren’t for the one friendship he maintained, his one source of enrichment, then that core of his existence, meaningful as it was, would be the barest of bones anyone had ever attempted to called a life.

He turned these reflections over like something interesting but largely irrelevant. There might have been a touch of amused self-denigration to them, but no sense of importance. He was, after all, fulfilled even if he wasn’t terribly enriched. This was merely a mild method of entertainment to get him through his carriage ride.

And the carriage was slowing, drawing to a stop. At the hasteless speed they’d been maintaining, Saitou knew they hadn’t yet reached his house, but at the sound of the voice speaking to the driver outside he knew the reason for their halt. A moment later there was a weight on the steps, and the door opened to admit the figure of his wife, who sank onto the seat opposite him with a sigh of relief and weariness.

“Going home so early!” she remarked. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Paperwork,” was his brief, sardonic reply.

She made a darkly understanding sound, but answered in an easy tone. “It’s so early, I couldn’t even be sure I had the right cab. I’d have been nicely embarrassed if I didn’t!”

He felt no surprise that she’d deduced his presence in the carriage, but did perhaps feel some that the driver had stopped for her. Tokio sometimes faced difficulties getting people to do as she asked when she was in uniform, and at the moment she wore the relatively unobtrusive kimono-hakama combination she favored when spying; it was some surprise the driver had even noticed her. She didn’t appear entirely respectable, either, and Saitou commented as the carriage got underway again, “I can’t say I like the new style.” He drew a couple of gloved fingers through his own hair to indicate his meaning.

The hand she then ran up to her frazzled bun dislodged the two leaves he’d been specifically referring to, and she laughed faintly. “I’m pretty sure I know the privet shrub on the east side of Rokumeikan’s house much better than his gardener does by now.”

“What did you find out?”

“I was going to wait until tomorrow to file my report.”

“I’m not asking you to file anything, just for a general overview.”

“Oh, fine.” She rolled her black eyes at him. “I was thinking about what I’m going to make for dinner when I get home, but I know perfectly well you never notice what you’re eating anyway.” When her husband, rather than rising to the bait, just lifted an impatient brow, she went on in a more businesslike tone, “He has some kind of influence with the Karashigumi. I couldn’t figure out exactly what he is to them, but I think he has some real power there.”

The surprised Saitou, unable quite to recall, asked, “Who’s their leader?”

“A guy named Eisatsu. But it looks like he answers to Rokumeikan on the sly, so…”

“No wonder those accounts weren’t leading anywhere,” Saitou murmured.

Tokio nodded. “If they’re doing all his dirty work…”

“We’ll want to deal with them all at once.”

“Mmm. Fantastic.”

He understood her sarcasm; going up against yakuza was complicated and frustrating, and something they didn’t deliberately undertake unless it specifically related to a pre-existing case. Here, if a politician was using organized crime to raise money and influence, it was wisest to take out both his manpower and the criminal society’s leadership all in one sweep.

This time when the carriage drew to a creaking stop, it had been plenty long enough to get home, so Saitou and Tokio each slid sideways toward the door that presently opened at the hand of the courteous driver. But as Saitou paid the latter, he frowned slowly. Something nearby, the sense of which grew as he focused on it, was angry, aggressive, and directed toward him.

“Must they come to the house?” Tokio murmured, sounding tired and annoyed.

As the cab driver moved to resume his place on the box and depart, Saitou replied, “Better than the station.” And he turned to see who it was, following both Tokio’s gaze and the sense he had of angry ki to where a young man stood in the shadow of the property wall with the air of one waiting with waning patience for the occupants to come home. Or undoubtedly, in this case, just one of the occupants.

Tokio was giving the stranger a calculating look. “Ten minutes, you think?”

Watching with similar calculation the young man beginning to emerge from the shadows, Saitou thought it best to say, “Better make it fifteen.”

“Don’t push it.” Tokio turned toward the house. “I want to go to bed.”

He knew she meant by this, “You probably won’t bother with supper if I don’t force you to, so I won’t go to bed until I’ve seen you eat.” It was a common enough contention between them, so Saitou merely nodded. Then he turned from where she’d begun making her way inside and faced the approaching mercenary.

Zanza, that was the name. Of course the police kept tabs, more or less, as they had time and resources, on the prominent mercenaries in town, but Saitou wouldn’t have remembered what this one called himself if it hadn’t pretty clearly been taken from the sword he reputedly only used when he believed the battle would be worth getting it out for. Evidently he thought this one would be, so at least Saitou Hajime still had some reputation among mercenaries and those that hired them.

The light of the nearest streetlamp brought out details of face and figure as the young man neared, and Saitou’s interest was caught even as he reflected that Tokio might have found it worthwhile to put off starting supper and remain out here, tired though she was. He might not recall everything he’d heard about this kenkaya, but he believed with some surety he would have remembered if anyone had ever given an adequate description of how very attractive he was.

Zanza’s right arm curled up behind his head holding the long, cloth-wrapped sword that lay across his shoulders, and thus his gi was pulled wide away from his smoothly muscled chest. Under the yellowness of the lamp, his skin looked golden-tan and of a superb texture, though even in this imperfect lighting there was some scarring visible; really, that just added piquancy to the view. And the young man’s face was of excellent shape, its features masculine yet beautiful, bearing an active, eager, angry expression that promised something diverting at the very least.

Overall, it was quite a pleasing picture, and Saitou could think of several things he’d rather do with this person than fight. But thugs didn’t hang around Saitou Hajime’s house waiting for him to get home for nearly so satisfying a purpose, so Saitou would have to deal with him as he always did those sent by his enemies (or old comrades that now had the wrong idea).

Ceasing his advance, which was evidently meant to be threatening, at a decent combat distance, Zanza fixed Saitou with a glare the officer could not remember having done anything to earn but which he didn’t particularly mind. The kenkaya’s fighting ki was raw and rough, straightforward and strong, and Saitou found he rather liked this too.

“Former captain of the Shinsengumi’s third unit Saitou Hajime,” Zanza announced clearly, “I’ve come to pick a fight!”

“So I see,” Saitou replied, withdrawing his cigarette case from the breast pocket of his jacket without removing his eyes from Zanza. It was indulgent, yes, but he had to smile as he looked him over again.

“What are you grinning about?” Zanza demanded.

“You. What makes you think I want to fight you?”

“You will when you hear my message!”

“And what,” Saitou inquired in a bored tone, lighting the cigarette he’d extracted, “does Yonai Fumihiro have to say?” Though not exactly a shot in the dark, this was no more than an educated guess based on the awareness of Yonai’s recent move to Tokyo… but when Zanza’s scowl deepened, Saitou knew he’d been right. He went on before the mercenary could answer. “That I’ve betrayed the principles of the Shinsengumi and the long history of the Bakufu, and I’m not going to get away with it? Probably in not so few words?”

Zanza looked even more annoyed than before, which was saying something. “Well… all right… but that’s just half the message!”

Flicking away the first ash of his fresh cigarette, “If you insist,” Saitou said, “I’ll have the rest of it too. But before you unveil your precious partner, let’s find a better place than the middle of my neighborhood street.”

Now Zanza looked a bit taken aback, perhaps at how much was known about him personally in addition to his errand, and this seemed to make him even angrier; but he followed willingly enough, and gave no indication of being about to attempt a surprise attack, as Saitou turned his back and began leading the way down the road. This neighborhood opened out onto a pleasant wooded area not far off, and a clearing in the beeches was wide and yet private enough for their purposes. As a matter of fact, it was where Saitou had fought the last two mercenaries sent against him. This particular mercenary should consider himself lucky Saitou was not the type to abuse his superior strength in the name of personal passion; Zanza’s attractiveness and ready tailing of a complete stranger to a secluded place combined into quite a temptation.

For obvious dramatic purposes, Zanza waited until Saitou had reached the far end of the clearing and turned before grasping at the wrap on his sword and pulling it away in a practiced gesture. Laughable as the blade was — an oversized club disguised as a sword, really — it did seem appropriate to its bearer: strong, conspicuous, and sadly in need of honing. Saitou liked the way Zanza’s muscles bulged and his body shifted as he took its long, thick haft in his hands and swung it off his shoulders into what he probably thought was a stance.

Finishing a last once-over of the beautiful young man, visible now in the light of a rising moon, Saitou placed a languid hand on the hilt of his own sword. He was promising nothing, but Zanza seemed to twitch forward in anticipation; that was interesting. In a level tone, neither mocking nor threatening, Saitou said, “If you come at me, I’m not going to go easy on you.” He always wondered at these arrogant young men that came to attack him for money and generally didn’t depart with their dignity or combat abilities intact even when Saitou left them their lives. He might have been a tad more curious than usual about what drove this one — if he remembered correctly, Zanza had a passion for good fights — but still it seemed so suicidal.

Very much to the confirmation of both of these last thoughts, Zanza now hefted the zanbatou above his head and tensed for action, growling out as he did so, “You’d better fucking not!”

***

Now that Zanza had actually met the guy, what he felt was more than merely anger at a defector that had run to the heartless government for a high-paying position under a false name. He didn’t like the indication given by the house he’d seen in the neighborhood he’d been waiting in as to just how high-paying was the position Saitou had attained. He didn’t like the way this Meiji bastard looked at him, those freaky golden eyes glinting even in the growing darkness, somehow calculating and dismissive at the same time. He didn’t like the jerk’s careless manner of holding that cigarette as if he weren’t about to get his head bashed in by an eighty-pound horse-and-rider-slaying weapon. He didn’t like the casualness with which Saitou had suggested they step into the trees as if for a quiet conversation rather than a battle.

But most of all (and it probably shouldn’t have been most of all, since it had nothing to do with how seriously Saitou was or wasn’t taking him, but he really couldn’t help it), he didn’t like those weird bangs. What was going on at that hairline? Was is deliberate? What was Saitou trying to say with a look like that? Zanza would definitely enjoy kicking this guy’s ass.

No definitive sign indicated the beginning of the battle, but Saitou, in his evident complete lack of concern for what was coming, obviously wasn’t about to make the first move, and Zanza had never been the least concerned with dueling etiquette. He gritted his teeth and charged, putting all his strength into the first swing not because he thought he might be able to end things before they really got started but because he wanted to effect an abrupt and startling change in Saitou’s attitude toward him.

It felt amazing to have his weapon out again. There were so few opponents around these days (or at least so few opponents around these days against whom people wanted to pit him for money) of the caliber to stand up to a zanbatou, and the poor thing had been collecting dust for far too long. The shift of it in his hands with unexpected speed as the blade raced downward; the air rushing by with a hollow-sounding, metallic whistle; the weight and balance that challenged both muscle and stance; the techniques he looked forward to using again after what seemed like forever — these all delighted and invigorated him despite his anger.

It was obvious his blow had missed even before the great sword’s contact with the ground sent a mess of dislodged earth, twigs, and leaves exploding out in all directions from the point of impact. What had been far less obvious was the movement by which Saitou had dodged; he’d been there one instant, absent the next. Zanza wrenched the sword back up, looking for his enemy, his shouldered weapon giving a sound of rushing metal as it spun with him. And there behind him was Saitou, standing still and smoking as before.

“Draw your sword!” Zanza demanded, irate that, even after such a decisive first strike as he’d just made (whether it had connected or not), Saitou could still be so casual about this. He charged the man again, making the swing of his own sword part of his approach in a fluid horizontal attack.

He thought he’d been pretty quick, but as the zanbatou swept at the officer, the latter crouched with surprising speed (though Zanza at least saw the movement this time) beneath the trajectory that, sadly, could not be altered mid-swing, then stood calmly again — still smoking and not even appearing to notice the rain of twigs and small branches that had been occasioned around him.

The sound of Zanza’s teeth grinding as he again shouldered his weapon seemed loud in the quiet clearing. This bastard was just like the damn government he represented: untouchable and annoying as hell. “Draw your fucking sword!” Zanza growled.

“Why?” Saitou replied, blowing smoke in the kenkaya’s direction. “It’s more entertaining watching you.”

What the hell did he mean by that? “I’m not here for your entertainment!” To drive his words home, Zanza struck — horizontally again, just in case Saitou might think he would always alternate — but found once more that Saitou had thwarted him, this time moving swiftly back out of the zanbatou’s reach.

“That doesn’t lessen your entertainment value,” the cop said, finally flicking away his current cigarette and — yes! — laying the now-vacant hand on the hilt of his sword. Yet again, however, he made no move to draw the weapon.

Zanza had to get this guy to fight. First of all, he was going exactly nowhere with the one-sided attacks, and might have better luck if his enemy’s attention was split between defense and reciprocation. Secondly, he’d been hired to fight Saitou Hajime, not charge endlessly at Saitou Hajime and marvel at how adeptly he got out of the way. Thirdly, by now he really wanted to see how strong this smug bastard was; he was beginning to long to see the grip of a sword in that gloved hand and observe some of the techniques he’d been hearing about lately during his inquiries about this man. And lastly, he wouldn’t have any idea how much payment to ask for this if it remained the aforementioned charge-and-miss routine.

So he said the most calculated thing he could in this state of annoyance: “Are all Meiji cops too chickenshit to actually fight, or just the ones who betrayed the Shinsengumi?”

Based on a slight shift in Saitou’s stance, Zanza thought he’d scored the first hit of the evening, and the man’s response seemed even more promising: “Strong words from a teenager.”

The implication was clear: Zanza had no room to speak, having been nothing more than a child back when Saitou had done his betraying (as far, of course, as that betraying could be considered a single-instance action and not an ongoing process that had continued this entire past decade). In any case, Saitou’s words meant he didn’t know quite everything about Zanza, even if he knew who had sent him, what that guy had to say, and even how verbose he’d been about saying it… but this was small comfort to the kenkaya when it was all too painfully common for no one to know the truth about the Sekihoutai.

Not only that, but, despite his apparently being a bit stung by Zanza’s remark, Saitou still didn’t draw, and the next swing of the zanbatou (vertical this time) was as ineffectual as all the previous had been. Zanza wasn’t entirely sure what to say next.

Finally he stood back, scowling, as if in recognition of an impasse, and tried, “I’m going to have to tell Yonai it’s worse than he even thinks: you didn’t just betray the Shinsengumi; you turned into a complete coward.” And he struck out again, a quick, hard surprise blow. At least he’d thought it was.

“You can tell him whatever bullshit you want and he’s sure to believe it,” Saitou replied from behind him. “Yonai always had more money than sense.” At least now he sounded distinctly annoyed; Zanza was, perhaps, finally getting somewhere.

“I wouldn’t wanna go by your idea of sense,” the kenkaya persisted, whirling, “since you obviously just join up with whoever’s stronger at the time to keep your own ass safe!”

Though it was absolutely the truth, he’d really only said it to anger the man, and at an impatient movement given by the cop he thought he’d succeeded. He leaped forward with another great heave of his sword, hoping this time for a better response. And it was with a darkly gleeful sense of anticipation that he heard at last the rasp of Saitou’s weapon leaving its sheath. It was a purely aural indication that he might finally get what he wanted, as not only did the swinging zanbatou obscure his vision somewhat, Saitou still moved startlingly fast.

Unexpectedly, Zanza felt the clash and slide of sword against sword as his blow was diverted with a screech down an oblique path formed by a diagonally-held blade. Not many people were willing to go head-to-head with a zanbatou using a mere katana, and of those that were, even fewer could actually do it instead of failing miserably at the attempt, so Zanza was already impressed.

He was even more surprised at the next blow, which, despite the strength with which he aimed it, was not only pushed aside but actually entirely thrown off. Losing his balance, he staggered away and nearly tripped, but had regained his footing almost immediately. His heart, he found, was pounding harder than the mere exertion of battle could explain, and the blood throbbing in his ears was all he could hear. Because nobody had ever done that before; nobody had ever met a zanbatou attack so skillfully, so forcefully.

The sight of the treacherous, motionless officer, blurring with the shadows in his dark blue uniform but for the brighter line of his casually-held nihontou, angered Zanza but excited him too. He’d wanted to know what Saitou’s combat abilities might be, and now that he’d had a taste of what seemed to be a fairly remarkable answer to that question, he wanted more. This might prove to be one hell of an awesome fight. Zanza charged again.

Blow after blow fell and was repelled, the air grew thick with earth tossed up from the churning ground and the noise of ringing collisions, and Zanza drew closer and closer to what he sought, what he always sought from battle — beyond making money, a point, or a reputation, beyond even surviving. It looked as if he’d finally found the opponent he needed: someone strong enough to engage every aspect of his skill and activity so as to drag him forcefully away from everything else in his life. He hadn’t entirely anticipated this, but with the prospect of any battle against an apparently skilled opponent, he hoped.

It was like taking in the heavy scent of some exquisitely delicious dish: there was an unmistakable promise of the meal he could almost taste that, even while it teased nearly unbearably, was yet intrinsically enjoyable. Coming close to losing himself completely in battle, though not as fulfilling as that completion, was yet a marvelous experience. Zanza’s hands on the haft of his weapon tingled like the rest of his energized body, and for a few glorious moments, he felt as if he could do anything, could rise above pain and uncertainty and reclaim what he’d lost.

Proof of how much conscious thought had already slipped from Zanza’s movements was that he went for an apparent opening in Saitou’s guard without even considering how little he wanted this battle to end. The huge sword descended, certain to connect this time, and battles had been ended by far less decisive blows of a zanbatou. Well, it was a shame, but he’d still enjoyed himself here more than he had in a very long time; Yonai would be getting a huge discount on this fight.

But for some reason, as a wrenching, steel-shearing sound filled the air, Zanza found himself staggering forward instead of being stopped by the shock of impact or the alternate option of his zanbatou driving into the dirt. He stumbled, and for some reason was unable to right himself as he would normally have done by pressing his weapon into the ground. In the disorientation of falling and seeming to lack a resource he usually counted on, he could not for a moment determine exactly what had just happened.

His eyes widened in shock and he drew in a sudden gasping breath of surprise as the answer embedded itself deeply into the earth before him with a thud. His startled gaze ran down the haft of his weapon to where the blade had been severed near its point of origin so that only about six inches of metal remained at the end of the wooden grip. For a moment, he could do nothing but stand and gape, his body still pulsing with excited energy as if it hadn’t quite gotten the message yet.

His… zanbatou… was… was…?

“And your idea of sense, it seems,” Saitou remarked, resuming the conversation as if it had never been interrupted, “is to engage in meaningless battles for nothing more than the childish pleasure of fighting.”

At the sound of this statement from behind him, whose calm tone almost belied its disdainful purport, Zanza felt that excited energy, which had been buoying him up so delightfully thus far, curdle into a sick sort of rage. He rounded on Saitou with a roar. “My sword! My fucking sword!”

Saitou gave his own weapon a slight swish and no indication that he’d exerted himself at all in the previous skirmish. “You were the one who insisted I draw mine.”

In contrast with the coolness of this sarcasm, the entire world went hot and red in Zanza’s perception. Tossing aside the haft of his beloved and now useless zanbatou, he clenched his fists. “Do you know how hard it is to get ahold of one of those fucking things?”

“Yes, they are rather rare these days, aren’t they?” Saitou replied conversationally. “But it’s an idiot’s weapon to begin with, so I don’t know why anyone would take the trouble.”

Not only had Saitou destroyed a precious possession, he was now mocking it — and through it, mocking its wielder in that easy, disdainful tone of his. It was about the best example of ‘adding insult to injury’ Zanza could think of. He charged.

Even through his anger he was conscious of astonishment and subsequent suspicion as Saitou remained motionless, sword still pointing toward the discomposed earth, and barely even seemed to brace himself before deliberately receiving the punch to his high cheekbone. Even as Zanza sprang back immediately after connecting, anticipating some trick, he noted the officer’s nod that seemed to suggest he’d just had some theory confirmed. And at the total lack of concern in Saitou’s demeanor after a considerably strong blow to the face, Zanza couldn’t help glancing briefly down at his own fist, wondering if something was wrong with him.

In the past he’d defeated enemies with a single hit. He was one of the few people he knew of that could even carry a zanbatou with any degree of ease, let alone use it in battle. But this guy… this Saitou Hajime… first he threw off full-strength blows from the biggest sword in the world, and now he completely ignored an enraged punch from Zanza’s not inconsiderable fist? How could anyone be that strong? Was Zanza in way over his head here?

If that was the case, however, didn’t it mean he could retrieve that glorious battle intensity he’d been so achingly close to just a few minutes ago? He could take it back, pick up where he’d left off, and feel that elusive oblivion at least briefly before this fight ended. With this thought, far from being discouraged by Saitou’s evidently superior strength, he pounded his fists together with a grimace and attacked again.

Saitou, however, after testing Zanza’s punch or whatever he’d been doing, had evidently decided to go back to the constantly-dodging style of responding to the kenkaya’s blows. How did a man about the same size manage to move so much faster than Zanza could? How could he read seemingly all of his opponent’s intended moves?? The strongest blow from the hardest fist imaginable wouldn’t do much good if it never landed!

Eventually, burning with frustration that threatened to build into rage at the promise of the fight he wanted that never came to fulfillment, Zanza fell back a pace and stared at Saitou with angry, unblinking eyes.

“You’re as strong as the rumors say,” the officer remarked. The faint smirk on his face widened as he continued, “But I hope you understand that that’s Meiji-era strength. In Bakumatsu’s Kyoto, these little punches you’re throwing would have been completely meaningless.”

He’d been so close… so close to what he really wanted… How had he gotten Saitou to fight him properly before? Through his rising anger Zanza sought for the right words. “Good to know you haven’t forgotten everything from those days.” He clenched his fists again, preparing for another attack. “Yonai’ll be glad to hear it.”

“There is one thing you can tell him,” replied Saitou as he deftly caught the flying right hand in his own left, knocking away Zanza’s other fist with his opposite elbow, and abruptly driving his sword into the kenkaya’s shoulder. With a quick half roar of pain and a flailing of limbs, Zanza was borne to the ground. There, he was held down by the foot Saitou placed on his chest as he yanked his weapon free. “You can tell Yonai Fumihiro,” he went on, again almost conversationally as he stepped back and sought out a handkerchief to wipe the blood from his sword, “that a wolf is always a wolf, Shinsengumi or otherwise, and that in this Meiji era I continue to act as I always have by hunting down evil wherever it is found. There is no better way to do so than as one of the government’s own agents, fighting corruption within the system itself. You’re welcome to tell him all of this,” he reiterated, sheathing his nihontou and turning, “if you can get up.”

The actual words — whether they were surprising or enraging or puzzling or merely incredible — Zanza would have to think about later. His body was full of pain and his head was full of the awareness that he’d been toyed with. This incredibly strong man, who could have given him exactly what he wanted where few others could, had instead refused to take him or his errand seriously, mocked and belittled him, destroyed the object he prized most, and then badly wounded him (just how badly was yet to be seen) without seeming to think anything at all of it. In fact he was now daring to walk away from a fight as if the entire thing didn’t fucking matter.

Zanza wasn’t defeated yet. He would never lose like that, to someone like this. With a grunt, streaming blood, he jumped to his feet, clapped a hand over his wounded shoulder, and faced his enemy’s calm back with fire in his eyes. “Wait one goddamn second, you fucking bastard!” he roared. “I’m not finished with you yet!”

The expression on the face that glanced back over a blue-clad shoulder suited the words, “I’m getting bored with this. You’ve delivered your message, and I’ve given my reply. We have no further business together.”

Clenching his left hand even more tightly over his injured right shoulder so he saw little shining points at the edge of his vision, Zanza threw himself after the retreating figure.

The same indifference with which he’d made many a move this evening marked Saitou’s reaction: he turned easily, blocked Zanza’s punch, and replied with one of his own straight into the wounded shoulder just as the extension of Zanza’s arm caused his left hand to slip from it. A moment later he followed up with a gloved palm to the kenkaya’s brow, hurling him once again to the ground in a violent motion.

Zanza bellowed out his pain and anger as his opponent thus took advantage of the wound already inflicted, but the noise fell to a whimper as he hit the dirt hard — so hard, in fact, that the next moment he found everything fading to black around him. And he swore into the growing darkness that he’d get the bastard for this if it was the last thing he ever did.

***

Tokio glanced at the clock as her husband entered the room. Thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds. Given the forty-five or so seconds that had passed between his pronouncement of how long would be required and her first instance of looking at the timepiece, that made for around fourteen minutes total.

“Looks like your estimate was about a minute off,” she said.

“I got tired of humoring him,” Hajime replied shortly. He seemed annoyed, and stood in the doorway almost indecisively for a moment as if considering just going straight to bed from here.

To prevent this, Tokio said hastily, “Set the table.”

Hajime’s lips tightened a fraction and his frame stiffened infinitesimally, which was a typical reaction to any direct order from his wife, even after all these years; but it was only a moment before he complied. After placing his sword on the rack and his jacket on the peg, he removed his gloves — Tokio, still watching to make sure he did as he was told, noted that one of them was red across the entirety of what might be called its punching surface — and washed his hands before reaching for dishes. His motions were all fairly quick, and seemed to bear out the impression of annoyance she’d already formed.

Curious about a fight that could have left Hajime in this sort of mood, she asked as she turned back to her cooking, “So who hired this one?”

“Yonai Fumihiro.”

She had to ponder a moment. A good memory for personal details was essential in her line of work, but she didn’t think Hajime had mentioned this name more than a few times before. “Wasn’t he in your division?”

“Yes,” said Hajime, even more shortly than before.

“I suppose it was the usual story, then? Somehow he heard who Fujita Gorou really was, and assumed…”

Hajime nodded.

“And?”

“And what?” he replied somewhat irritably.

“And how did the fight go?”

A moment of silence passed during which Hajime was undoubtedly giving her a sarcastic look of some sort — probably, if she knew him, glancing down at his unharmed body as if to say, “How do you think the fight went?” Tokio, however, was familiar with his ways and could often defeat the sarcastic looks by the simple tactic of anticipating them and turning away in time to avoid seeing them. So Hajime was more or less forced to answer aloud if he wanted to convey his scorn: “How do they ever go?”

“Well, I can see you’re unharmed.” With food in her hands ready to set on the table, she turned and gave her husband a pointed look that he was not quite in time to avoid. “And annoyed. What happened, exactly?”

“I destroyed his sword,” Hajime replied succinctly as Tokio set her burdens in their places and took her seat opposite him. “I stabbed him and knocked him out.”

That did sound like the usual story for such a battle. But normally mercenaries sent to fight Hajime didn’t leave him in so grouchy and pensive a mood. And since she got the feeling he wasn’t likely to say any more unless she worked to drag it from him, she set about, as they ate, that very work. Either she would get more information, or she would punish him for being so laconic.

“He must have brought you some message from Yonai that annoyed you,” was her first suggestion.

“It was the same message as always.” Hajime was not, Tokio believed, eating quickly in an attempt to get away from her questions, but that didn’t mean much, since he always ate quickly.

“Then you must have cared for Yonai’s opinion more than I thought.”

Hajime snorted derisively.

“The mercenary can’t have managed to actually insult you somehow?”

Now the sound from Hajime’s nose sounded like a faint laugh. Unfortunately, Tokio had never been able to read him very well, and how to interpret this noise she wasn’t sure.

“Maybe he knows some secret from your past,” she persisted, “that he brought up at just the wrong moment.” When Hajime made no reply she went on, “And you’re trying not to admit how much it bothered you, but…”

“Don’t be stupid,” he finally said, and she knew she’d succeeded in annoying him.

She went on with a grin. “And it was so bad, you really would rather have killed him. You bloodthirsty thing. But the kanji on his silly outfit was an outright lie — a promise he couldn’t keep.”

Hajime set bowl and chopsticks down with a clink and said shortly, “It ought to say ‘souzen’ on his back.”

Perhaps, then, the young man had merely annoyed Hajime with an unusually forcefully presented personality. A lot of people’s personalities annoyed Hajime, and, though it might take some doing to make him show it like this, it didn’t seem impossible.

“So since your enemy wasn’t properly Evil, the great gods of Aku Soku Zan–” she drew out the syllables with portentous drama– “could not justify a killing, and you just had to put up with him for as long as it took to destroy his sword, stab him, and knock him out.”

Hajime, taking a last long drink of his tea, made no answer.

“No wonder you came in here so distracted and annoyed! Having to put up with someone you couldn’t kill for that long…”

The very fact he was ignoring her now, she thought, was a sign that she’d achieved her goal — if not the goal of goading him into speech, at least of getting her revenge. He disliked being prodded about Aku Soku Zan, as if she didn’t know and respect how much it meant to him, every bit as much as she disliked having emotional details kept from her by one of the few people she’d ever met whose feelings she couldn’t pretty easily read most of the time.

Now he rose coolly, setting down his teacup, and made his way to where a folded newspaper waited for him on the kitchen counter. Normally, if he intended to read the paper at all before bed, he would do so where he could discuss interesting news items with her; it seemed she’d punished herself along with him by her nonsense, and as he left the room without a word she reflected in some annoyance of her own that perhaps she should have tried a little harder to ask straightforwardly before resorting to obnoxious conversational tactics. She sometimes made things a little too much of a contest between herself and her husband. She sometimes did that with most men.

She fully expected this to be the end of it. Hajime would not bring it up, so she would never solve the mystery of his mood after that fight; and she was unlikely ever to catch sight of that mercenary ever again. It was irritating, but she resigned herself to disappointment — and also strove to remind herself that it wasn’t really that important.

In fact she’d completely stopped thinking about it by the time she realized it hadn’t ended there, which subsequently came as a bit of a surprise. Several days after the mysterious fight — enough that she didn’t even consider exactly how long it had been — she was on patrol when the matter arose again. This was perhaps her least favorite police duty, and felt like a waste of her talents, but she was doomed to it whenever not actively occupied by some task relevant to their current case. And since Hajime was making use of what agents the police had in place that could obtain any information about the Karashigumi, in order to determine better that group’s connection with Rokumeikan, she would walk a beat today. At least she’d been allowed to choose an area of town that was generally acknowledged to be Karashigumi territory, little as she was likely to pick up about them while wandering the streets in uniform.

The other benefit to this mostly uninteresting pursuit, at least today, was that the leisurely but watchful progression of her patrol took her, without any deliberate detour, right past (or, rather, right to) the stand of an art vendor whose wares she was very happy to have an excuse to look over. She’d been here several times before, and always appreciated this particular vendor’s taste in stock, though she rarely actually purchased anything. Today she tried to make her perusal brief, but almost immediately realized how difficult that was going to be.

New to the shelves since the last time she’d been here were a number of prints by some truly excellent artist she wasn’t familiar with. All his subjects seemed to be war heroes rendered with the accuracy either of personal experience or excellent research, and there was a feeling of intensity or investment to the work that seemed, at least to Tokio, to indicate a personal interest in these subjects beyond merely how best to put them to paper. She wondered if this artist had as great a fascination as she did with war heroes, or with anyone that had fought with all their heart during any of the conflicts that had marked Japan’s recent history.

She was actually holding in her hand a particularly tempting piece depicting Hachirou Iba in battle, marveling at how well the artist had managed to confer beauty on so brutal a scene, when she realized that somebody — someone other than the solicitous and indulgent vendor — was watching her. Being a spy herself, she could generally tell when this was the case, but in this instance he made no attempt at concealing his presence or his attention, so as she turned to look she easily spotted him. That would have been easy anyway: with his predominantly white garments and unruly hair, he did rather stand out. And as he, noting her attention, began to approach, she caught sight of another attention-grabbing feature: the bandages across his chest and shoulder that were visible as his apparently just-washed gi flapped open. They seemed more extensive than a single stab-wound could account for, and she wondered if Hajime had understated the amount of harm he’d done this young man the other night. Though the mercenary did at least appear to be moving without much trouble or discomfort at this point, which in itself was impressive so soon after any wound Hajime had dealt.

“Hey, police lady,” he said as he drew near. For all the currently near-growling tone, he had a pleasant voice that, though deep, sounded simultaneously young.

She looked up into his attractive face and responded with an interest almost too pert to be polite, “What can I do for you?”

“You’re that bastard Sa–“

Smoothly she cut him off before he could say the entire name. “Fujita’s, yes.” And musingly, with a smile, she finished the statement by listing its various possible endings. “Friend? Roommate? Personal chef? I suppose the aspect of our relationship you’re most interested in is ‘partner.'”

The mercenary appeared embarrassed — probably because she was being so personable; he hadn’t expected that, and perhaps regretted his somewhat rude greeting — and simultaneously interested in his turn. “Uh, yeah,” he said, seemingly thrown off course.

“I’m Takagi Tokio,” she told him, her smile broadening. “And you, I believe, are kenkaya Zanza.”

“You’ve heard of me?” he wondered, some pleasure creeping into his tone and onto his face.

“Probably nothing to crow about,” replied Tokio. “I am a member of the police force, however ineffectual.”

His brown eyes gave her a glance up and down that was clearly exaggerated. “Ineffectual? You look like you could knock the pants off of just about anyone.” And she didn’t think the potentially flirtatious nature of this wording was an accident.

“Well…” Her grin turned wry and reluctant without much trouble, since, however facetious their exchange, this comment was entirely straightforward. “I am a woman.”

“Oh, I noticed that,” he assured her. “Anyone’d have to be blind to– oh, wait, you mean people give you shit about that.” And the pleasantly flirtatious atmosphere was abruptly dispelled.

Since this was the case, Tokio moved back toward the point. “But you didn’t come to discuss my troubles…”

The young man’s face darkened right back to its previous morose irritation, and he reached up to scratch under a bandage on his chest as if one of the hurts Hajime had done him suddenly itched in reminder. “No, I didn’t.”

“So what,” she asked again, as bright as before despite the shift in mood, “can I do for you?”

“I want to fight him again,” was Zanza’s dark answer. He added in unnecessary clarification, “Your partner.”

“That’s hardly something you need to tell me. He’s the one in charge.” Though there was a touch of irony to her tone, she managed to restrain herself from making the lengthy sarcastic follow-up comment to which she was tempted about how a woman, after all, was only an acceptable police officer if carefully kept under close male supervision, and even then only because that close male happened to be highly independent and intimidating.

Whatever, if any, of this Zanza picked up on, he did give her another once-over that seemed more aimed at actual assessment this time. “Why the hell would a nice-looking girl like you be partner to an asshole like him, anyway?”

To the attitude willing to call a woman six or seven years his senior a ‘girl’ Tokio chose not to respond. Instead she said, with a decidedly flirtatious grin this time, “So you did come to discuss my troubles.”

There was a faint answering grin on his face even as he spoke again darkly. “I mean, you seem a lot nicer than him… I wanna fight him again, but I don’t wanna have to talk to him again. So I thought maybe you could arrange it for me.”

He was cute, and she decided she liked him: a little less urbane than men she was generally interested in, but funny and very good-looking. She set down at last the print she’d been holding all this time and turned fully to face him. “And what do I get out of this?”

“Um…”

“You really can’t think of anything you could do for me?”

“Well, nothing I’d really wanna say in front of… you know…” He gestured around, and briefly at the art vendor that had listened to this entire exchange with a bemused smile. “People.”

Yes, she reflected as she laughed aloud at this statement, definitely cute. “How about this,” she said: “I set up your fight in exchange for–” here she too glanced at the merchant with a grin– “a night out sometime that would be totally appropriate to mention in front of… people.”

He seemed a bit surprised — possibly that her flirtation had been serious and not merely an idle method of amusing herself somewhat at his expense — and also a bit taken aback as he replied, “You mean, like, I pay for dinner or something?”

“You must not be…” But here Tokio’s words faded and died as she saw the abrupt change in his expression. Something just past her had caught his attention, and his entire demeanor had altered all at once: his brows lowered over suddenly widened eyes and his body tensed. She glanced to the side to see what could possibly have had this effect on him even as he reached for it: one of the prints on display at the stand they were more or less monopolizing with their stationary conversation.

Trying to read him, very curious, she stared at him as he stared at the paper in his hand. Agitation, surprise — astonishment, even — and a growing something like anger but that she believed was really just a tendency toward intense activity were all very evident in his face and bearing. And after not too long that last burst out in the form of a growlingly intense demand directed at the vendor: “Where does he live?”

“I’m–” The merchant had been listening to the conversation with benign puzzlement this whole time, and was very startled to be all of a sudden addressed. “–sorry?”

The kenkaya stepped forward and seized the front of the vendor’s kimono, hauling him up to eye level and almost bellowing, “The artist!” He had released his grip and let the man fall into an unsteady standing position before Tokio could even put out a hand to try to detach him. “The guy who made this print!” He rattled the paper in the merchant’s face. “Where does he live?”

Even as he stammered out, “Th-the Dobu Ita rowhouses,” the vendor was shooting Tokio an appealing look. She could tell, however, that Zanza meant the man no harm — was desperate, not angry — and probably wouldn’t lay hands on him again. “But he never — he never sees anyone — he barely even talks to me — I don’t know if you can–“

“He’ll see me,” Zanza interrupted in a tone of finality, and, whirling, stalked away without another word.

More curious than ever, Tokio watched his swift, purposeful steps until he turned a corner and disappeared. “Well!” she said, and with a somewhat confused smile turned back to the vendor. He hadn’t resumed his seat, but was also looking after the mystifying kenkaya with a helpless expression and a slow but ongoing shaking of the head. “What on earth was that about?” Tokio wondered next as she began searching her pockets for something with which to pay for the print Zanza had just made off with — it was either that or arrest him for theft the next time she saw him, which might ruin their planned date.

Still shaking his head, the merchant set a hand down gently on the stack of remaining prints from which Zanza had taken the one that had gotten him so worked up. “That Bakumatsu group that claimed it was a government-sponsored volunteer army — this is a portrait of the leader.” And they both looked down pensively, as he removed his hand, at the top picture in the stack. “Though now I look closer,” the merchant murmured, “this boy next to him in the picture…”

“…could possibly be a much younger Zanza,” Tokio finished, equally quiet. She began counting out coins.

“Thank you very much,” said the vendor in relief as he accepted the payment and resumed his seat, looking a bit worn out. A small pipe, extracted from a pocket, might help to soothe him once he got it filled and lit, and he focused on that task as he added, “That’s literally the first I’ve ever sold of that one. I don’t know why that artist insists on making them.”

“My guess is I’m soon going to find out.”

“Seems you’re having an interesting day.”

“And I thought this patrol was going to be boring,” Tokio grinned. Then, with a friendly nod at the merchant, she turned and bent her steps in the same direction Zanza had gone.

***

It was one of those days when people had been in and out of Saitou’s office almost nonstop as long as he’d occupied it; and while some of them were his own agents with reports (though not always particularly productive reports), the rest had been unrelated to his current case. That didn’t mean they weren’t on important business, just that they dragged his thoughts constantly from what he actually wanted to think about. So with some irritation he glanced up when the door opened yet again in the afternoon, but when he saw that the latest visitor was his wife he calmed. She wouldn’t have left her patrol if she didn’t have some important or at least interesting news for him.

Tokio smiled when she saw his expression. “You look like you’re having a lovely day,” was her greeting.

He snorted faintly. “Information on the Karashigumi is coming in at a trickle. We may have to send someone to infiltrate.”

“Or we could just concentrate on Rokumeikan and forget about the yakuza.”.

Since there really wasn’t much to say in response to that bit of mutual wishful thinking, “Why are you here?” Saitou asked.

Her smile grew into a look he recognized as intrigued amusement. “I had a run-in with that bishounen you fought the other day.” Saitou raised his brows at her word choice, but waited silently for her to continue. “He’s dead-set on fighting you again, but that’s not nearly as interesting as the rest of what I found out.”

Saitou wouldn’t have admitted it aloud, but this tantalizing beginning had him hooked. What could she have discovered that wasn’t common knowledge? The level of interest he had in learning more about Zanza was unprecedented; though he hadn’t given a great deal of thought to the young man since their battle, the few times Zanza had crossed his mind over the last several days was far more than usual for some mercenary sent by an ex-comrade to fight him.

“You’ve heard of the Sekihoutai?” she went on when he remained silent. He nodded. “Zanza was a member. Well, he must have been nine or ten years old at that point, so ‘member’ is maybe… but he was obviously close to their leader, Sagara, a sort of assistant to him; and it seems like he looked up to him like family.”

Saitou frowned. “Sagara was executed, wasn’t he?”

With a nod she confirmed, “For false promises in the name of the Ishin Shishi to win the loyalty of his volunteers.”

“But would a nine- or ten-year-old have seen it that way?”

“Exactly.” Tokio’s demeanor was a funny mix of pitying and amusedly interested. She loved this kind of emotional drama. “It explains why he’s so determined to fight you again, doesn’t it?”

It at least started to. A child might not have understood what was going on at the time, nor recognized the crimes his captain was committing; to Zanza, it must merely have appeared that the Ishin Shishi, supposedly his allies, had murdered someone he loved and respected like family. And even in the young adult of later years, though he might in hindsight better understand what had happened, the bitterness and hatred born in him earlier in life could be far stronger than any logical recognition of justice. He would have every reason to hate the government the Ishin Shishi had become, and to despise especially someone that had originally fought against it and then joined its ranks.

“How did you discover this?” Saitou asked at length.

She told him about the incident with the print, and how she’d followed Zanza to the artist’s home. “The artist — he’s going by ‘Tsukioka Tsunan,’ but Zanza calls him ‘Katsu’ — he was in the same position as Zanza as a child with the Sekihoutai. He seems just as angry as Zanza, but more focused. They kept referring to ‘Sagara-taichou’s betrayal’ and ‘the betrayal of the Sekihoutai’ — so, as you said, a nine- or ten-year-old…” When Saitou nodded his understanding, she finished, “They were still talking about the past — half nostalgia and half bitterness — when I left. I got the feeling they’re going to be reminiscing all night.”

Saitou sat back in his chair and thoughtfully lit a new cigarette, staring at nothing in particular as he took the first few long, contemplative drags. It seemed a shame to let an undeniably strong young man like Zanza run around without any purpose to his life beyond reminiscing bitterly and picking meaningless fights to scrape out a living that couldn’t possibly be worth (or, sometimes, even pay for treatment of) the damage he occasionally took from opponents like Saitou Hajime. The latter had felt the potential in those blows; some signs of their effectiveness were even visible on his face and the arms hidden by his jacket. With proper training, the kenkaya could be formidable. He wasn’t entirely stupid, either; even through his obvious anger and battle-lust, he’d still managed to throw out attempted insults, in order to achieve his ends, that had been far more effective than Saitou would have expected from him.

“You’re planning something,” Tokio remarked with a curious grin, “and in this context I’m not sure…”

“We need,” replied Saitou slowly, “to determine how best to go up against the Karashigumi.”

Tokio’s brows rose as she picked up on the idea. “Zanza would be pretty well placed for that… Joining them might not work when he’s already so high-profile, but he’s in just the right walk of life to make the right friends and find out useful information…”

“But…?” Saitou caught this unspoken word in his wife’s musing tone.

“But he’s a loose cannon,” she said bluntly, “and he already hates you.”

Saitou smiled wryly. “So we give him the second fight he wants, and then a chance at working against a corrupt agent of the government he hates so much.”

She nodded slowly. “I think it could work. It’s worth a try, at least. Any particular time you’d like to fight him again?” When he shook his head, she straightened from where she’d been propped on one gloved hand against his desk. “All right, then, I’m back to patrol. I’ll see you tonight.”

In her absence, Saitou remained leaning back in his chair, puffing at his cigarette, pondering. What little useful information he’d received so far about the Karashigumi, and what he could make of it, suddenly held no interest for him, and he thought he might take a few minutes’ break to think about this new idea before forcing himself to return to that.

As Tokio had said, recruiting Zanza as a temporary agent was at least worth a try. The mercenary was well placed for the purpose, and strong enough to take care of himself should a certain amount of trouble arise. Just how willing he would be to enter into the project was another story, since, as Tokio had also pointed out, he already seemed to have a disproportionate amount of antipathy toward Saitou; but Saitou had a feeling Zanza’s situation and attitudes could be turned to their advantage.

And it was that feeling that had him a little worried, because he feared he might be allowing his personal interest to cloud his judgment. Was he letting his desire to know more of Zanza, to make something of Zanza, and his undeniable sexual attraction to him, lead him to believe the kenkaya could be of more use to him professionally than was actually the case?

He hadn’t had a lover for years, and most of the time this didn’t bother him; or at least he believed it didn’t. But just the other evening he’d been thinking about how stripped-down his life was, how little enrichment he had… and then this incredibly attractive and intriguing young man had appeared as if on cue, as if to fill that void; it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Saitou’s subconscious had taken that timing as a sign and started looking for ways he could involve Zanza in that bare bones of a life of his.

Why, beyond the obvious physical attraction, he should be interested in an uneducated urchin that named himself after a stupid weapon, wore tacky clothing, and engaged in meaningless combat for a living, he couldn’t be sure. Having a history of being picky about his lovers made him listen to his instincts when he did feel an interest in someone… and perhaps those instincts were compromising the others, the ones that now said he could make professional use of the young man as well.

He would simply have to be careful. At the moment there didn’t seem to be any way to divine the truth — whether he honestly believed recruiting Zanza would benefit his case, or whether certain parts of him were finding reasons to do what they hoped would further an entirely different agenda — but he’d already made the suggestion, set the thing in motion. He would fight the stubborn young man again, and he would have a thing or two to say at that time to try to get Zanza’s attitudes into better alignment with his own needs. That was probably something that needed to happen in Zanza’s life in any case, and Saitou might as well be (in fact rather wanted to be) the one to do it.

But before that (and now he wished, just a little, that he had specified time and date for the encounter so as to give himself some working space), he would forewarn himself; he would go to that fight armed with all the information he could find so as to make the best decision he possibly could about what he wanted to happen afterward — personally and in regards to the Karashigumi. That seeking this information might well be yet another thing his unprofessional desire and interest was foisting on his professionalism under the guise of a job-related need he was well aware, and not terribly concerned.

The fact was, he’d been bored half to death today playing the role of coordinating spymaster waiting around for other people to bring him news and receive updated orders; some actual research on his own, even if it involved merely heading over to one of the government offices to dig up what files there might be on this Sekihoutai he only vaguely remembered hearing about in the past, would be a vastly welcome change.



2>>

Section 2

The brightest of lights shone through the throbbing nerves at the back of his eyes — closed though they were — directly into his brain, which seemed to be pulsing in time with a noisy pounding that reverberated from somewhere nearby — against his skull, perhaps, if the pain therein was any indication, though what the weapon in use was he couldn’t guess.

With seeming suddenness and all at the same time came the realizations that the light was the normal illumination of the sun through shouji, the pounding a knocking at his door that had at least started out at a normal level of firmness and volume, and his overall state one of very normal hungover discomfort and incoherence. Zanza dragged his hands up to his face to shut out the light and try to clutch the throbbing into manageable stillness.

In the next instant, with the same abruptness, came the memory of Katsu and their unexpected reunion, of their hours of ambivalent reliving of old times and subsequent visit to the nearest bar. Under the cover of his big hands, Zanza’s mouth curled into a slight smile. He wasn’t exactly happy at having met Katsu again, at having suffered a stirring of dregs in the cup of his life he’d spent so many years and so much effort trying to get to lie still; but proper happiness was nothing he’d felt for some time, and he wasn’t sure he even knew how anymore. In any case, there was an intense feeling of rightness about the meeting — perhaps abetted by the type of language Katsu himself had used in reference to it — as if they’d been specifically destined to run into each other again just now. So obviously the only thing to do had been to get flaming drunk. Well, for Zanza, anyway — he wasn’t sure he’d seen Katsu take anything more than the occasional sip.

The reoccurrence of that pounding against his head — no, it really was at the door — reminded him why he’d awakened in the first place. It was astonishingly early, in this context, for visitors, and he planned to do nothing more than dismiss this one in a most peremptory manner when he raised his voice to inquire who it was. He didn’t even manage that inquiry, however, as he found his croaking throat and nasty, swollen tongue far less manageable than he’d anticipated. Whatever noise he made, aside from being muffled by the hands he’d neglected to remove from his face, didn’t qualify as speech, and the knocking at the door was not so much repeated as stubbornly continued.

Finally, on his third attempt, he managed something that, though completely inarticulate yet, was at least loud enough to be heard without — or so he judged when the pounding gave way to a listening, ringing silence. Then he was rather pleased with himself when his next try sounded at least a little like, “Go the fuck away,” at a tolerably loud volume.

“You know, Zanza, some people, by the time noon rolls around…” This voice was somewhat familiar, but the kenkaya had used up all his finer skills on emitting words more or less distinctly, and couldn’t quite place it. When he made no reply, however, the voice called out, “I am authorized to force entry if you don’t comply,” and he realized all at once who this must be.

Much as he would rather remain still except for whatever motion was required to pad his unwilling ears with blanket, he feared for the state of his door should the cheeky woman make good on her threat. Not that anything around here was of high quality or in any kind of good repair, and not that he owned much that was both worth stealing and portable to the average thief, but he would prefer his lock remain intact. So with a monumental effort, he hauled himself across the floor, trailing the blanket behind him, and reached up, without standing, to unlock the door. The light in the room increased even as he buried his face again in cloth that smelled of sake and sweat and other things, and the voice, now clearer, said, “I’m not, actually. They’d never give that kind of authorization to a woman.”

Zanza’s only reply was an inarticulate grumble.

She closed the door behind her, and then he could almost feel her assessing and increasingly disdainful gaze on him as he wallowed in a straggling blanket in the genkan trying to combat nausea. Finally she said, “You’re one for extremes, I see. Drinking yourself into a stupor, then sleeping all the next day…”

“Extremes are the only thing that work,” he replied, though whether the words were at all comprehensible to her he neither knew nor cared. What could it possibly matter to her how much alcohol it took him to forget, or how much sleep he needed thereafter?

She stepped out of her shoes and up onto the floor, evidently taking a look around the small apartment. This got Zanza’s fuller attention, as he had a vague idea that her first impression of his quarters might play later into his chances with her, so he finally, painstakingly dragged himself into a sitting position so as to see what she saw. And he had to admit, it wasn’t pretty. Dust that in some places had turned to grime coated many a surface, the cabinet in which he kept his few small possessions was missing a door, his tiny tea stove was propped up on a brick where one leg had been knocked off ages ago, and the futon he’d just vacated to crawl over to the door was covered in stains.

“Don’t go complaining about the mess in here–” His voice was a rather stupid-sounding mixture of defiance and embarrassment– “since you’re the one who insisted on coming in.”

“Oh, I saw it all last night,” she replied somewhat absently, her eyes seemingly fixed on the broken zanbatou that now half stood and half lay in one corner. “Just getting a better look in the light.”

“What?!” Halted in the act of struggling to his feet in order to leave the entry and return to his futon (in some part to hide its stains with blanket or body or both), Zanza ran rapidly again through the catalogue of yesterday’s events. Talking to this woman, seeing the print, finding Katsu, astonishment, talking to Katsu, talking to Katsu, heading for the bar, drinking, drinking, drinking, and then… blankness. Yes, he’d envisioned getting this attractive and unusual woman in here some night, probably with sake involved, but, even given her flirtatious manner during their conversation, he’d considered the prospect distant at best and ridiculously optimistic at worst. Surely it hadn’t happened the first night after they’d been introduced??

“Extremism in your housekeeping too, I see,” the officer said at last with a wry smile.

Finishing his project of returning to the bed, though at first he only plopped into a sitting position on top of the blanket rather than lying down again, Zanza mumbled something about how he would have cleaned up a bit if he’d known beforehand that he would have a lady’s company.

The policewoman chuckled. “I’ll look forward to seeing that sometime. Last night you were far too drunk to do much more than collapse there–” she pointed at where he currently sat– “and pass out again.”

So she’d helped him home. Not as glorious as his momentary daydream, but not as bad as it could have been, either, unless… “Did you get called out to that bar?” Perhaps now she was here to effect an arrest or reprimand for which she’d been too compassionate (or he too incoherent) last night.

Her wry smile twisted into a smirk. “Not at all, though that probably might have been a good idea. I met you by coincidence in the street on my patrol, just like earlier, and noticed your friend was having a hard time lugging you home all by himself, so…”

Zanza looked her up and down, this time concentrating not on the figure so nicely delineated by the police uniform, but on the uniform itself. “And he let you help?” Cooperating with a representative of a government agency didn’t sound much like the Katsu he’d met last night.

“He said you’d mentioned me.”

“I… oh.” Now Zanza turned his face quickly away in the hopes that his sudden abashment wouldn’t be observed, totally unwilling to admit that he’d vocalized the ridiculously optimistic to Katsu in terms he vaguely remembered to the tune of, ‘I might score with this hot police chick.’ Better change the subject. “What’s your name, again?”

“Tokio.”

“Yeah…” Zanza scratched his face. “Where have I heard that before?”

“Besides yesterday, when I introduced myself?”

“Yeah…”

“If you were looking into any of Hajime’s business…”

“Oh, yeah, of course.” Saitou’s name (even his given name) was like a pinprick at the moment. Despite having been awakened earlier than he’d intended, despite his hangover, Zanza had been creeping toward a fairly good mood in the presence of this attractive woman… and the reminder of her loathsome partner brought him right back down into the headache and muscle aches and disgusting mouth. Saitou, yes. He’d tracked down some information about the man in order to get a better idea of what he would be up against, and in doing so was pretty sure he had heard Tokio’s name mentioned. He also seemed to recall having dismissed it as unimportant, though he couldn’t quite remember why; a partner that lived with his target seemed worth taking into some consideration.

She interrupted his attempts at recollection. “I arranged your fight with him.”

Suddenly the thought of Saitou wasn’t nearly as loathsome as it had been, and Zanza eagerly made a proper sitting position out of the sprawl he’d sunken into. “Yousha! For when?”

“Whenever you want to drop by like you did the other night. I’d really rather you didn’t show up at the house again, but you already know where it is, and there is that convenient clearing, so…”

“Any time?” wondered Zanza eagerly.

“Make it evening. You must have noticed when we arrived home before, though I can’t guarantee when he’ll be there any given night.”

“Bastard’s a workaholic, is he?”

“He is a workaholic, but he isn’t a bastard.” She was strolling around the small room now, around Zanza, and had put herself between him and the patched paper windows, so her head seemed surrounded by a painful, glowing halo of sunlight if he looked in her direction. “Just because he defeated you…”

“It’s not that!” Zanza protested angrily. And when she gave him a brow raised, still brightly backlit, he turned away in pained annoyance and explained. “I figure you know who he really is, since you call him ‘Hajime,’ so how the fuck can you work with him? This government — this whole fucking system, everything the country’s turned into these days — is such a load of bullshit, and–” He stuttered for a moment, remembering that this was the government she worked for he was trash-talking. Of course he meant every word of it, but perhaps he should dwell on a slightly different aspect of the truth. “And he was against that until suddenly he switched sides! Everyone says he was so strong and dedicated when he was with the Shinsengumi; how could he just abandon that?”

When he turned his head back toward Tokio, he found her movement stilled and that she was looking at him with a kind of faintly amused skepticism, as if he were a silly child. As annoying as he found this, there was also something… perhaps a little titillating about it at the same time. But all she said was, “Maybe if you ask him…”

Zanza frowned as he felt, unexpectedly, of all things, a faint touch of jealousy. “You like him.”

Her expression did not change. “Yes.”

And you live with him. Are you guys… y’know…?”

“Consummating our relationship?” she replied