Fate is Found in Faeryland

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

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

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

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

Fate Is Found In Faeryland

Chapter 1 – Heero Gets Tickled

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Chapter 2 – Kaoru Can’t Kill Combative Creatures

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

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

“You weigh less,” he replied shortly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you looking for a Guide, Visitor?”

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

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

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

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

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

Taken aback by the odd questions, Kaoru nodded dumbly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a map.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Silver?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaoru smiled. “Thank you.”

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

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

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

“Then I’ll take it.”

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

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

Chapter 3 – Duo Buys A Sex Toy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Duo agreed intensely.

“Well, I’ll do what I can for you.”

“Are you offering to fuck me yourself?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, yes,” Duo said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4 – Sano Argues With His Sword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You really think you’re that important?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That seems extremely unlikely.”

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

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

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

Chapter 5 – Tomoe Already Can’t Even With This

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

“See?” said Sano.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Tomoe!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t I already on a quest?”

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6 – Duo And Sano Greet Each Other Like Bros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But just then they were interrupted.

Chapter 7 – Kaoru Has No Sense Of Self-Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sano snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, what do you have?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who has a death wish,” Duo appended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, what you need is a brainguard.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8 – Quatre Assesses Teh N00bs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Tomoe agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomoe sighed. “Lir third, our sixth.”

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

“None.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9 – Sano Has No Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That seems like a shame.”

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

“How far off is the green realm?”

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

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

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

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

“It’s kind of you to think of them.”

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

“I still admire your kindness.”

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

“Of course, my dear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duo nodded, then looked at the human.

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

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

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

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

“Shut up,” Sano grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We ride horses,” Kaoru yawned.

“You wanna keep going?” Sano wondered skeptically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That does sound kinda familiar,” Sano mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10 – Tomoe Laments

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

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

Tonight had been different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you trying that early?” Quatre wondered.

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

“I have heard that.”

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

“I’m so sorry,” Quatre said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve never borne a child?”

Quatre shook lir head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not leaving?”

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

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

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

Chapter 11 – Heero Has No Sensibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am,” said Heero.

“Which monarch?”

“Dorothy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cool’ was a concept Heero had never understood.

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

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

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

Heero nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The dwarf bodyguard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not at all,” le smiled.

Tomoe nodded, and flew upward into the smaller branches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like his Curse did something to him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any time.”

Chapter 14 – Imugeme Acts As Lady’s Maid

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magical rituals?”

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

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

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

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

That must be convenient,” Kaoru murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” said Imugeme matter-of-factly.

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

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

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

The faery commended her good start.

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

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

“That’s not fair,” Kaoru mumbled.

“Isn’t it?”

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

“What is a ‘tomboy?'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kaoru is going to rinse her hair again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve already done that today.”

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

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

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

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

“You see? I have many talents.”

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

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

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

Chapter 15 – Sword!Saitou Seeks Solace, Suffers Subjugation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is a horrifying abuse of power.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



<<14

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

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

I wasted a lot of time on this:

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

A Lois Date

A Lois Date

“She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much.

Lois is too sick to join her boyfriends on the date she had planned. And though they, of course, enjoy each other’s company in any context, can they enjoy the type of evening she had in mind without her?

A Lois Date

A Clark Date usually took place in some exotic locale that his power of high-speed flight made easily accessible: a picnic on the Serengeti with no worries about their safety in the presence of all kinds of wildlife; a swim in a secluded cove at some tiny tropical island followed by Lois and Bruce making love on their beach towel while Clark fondly looked on (or, rarely, joined in); a hike up a Tibetan mountainside with a gorgeous misty expanse beneath them and no concern about how much trouble it might take them to get back… In fact there was often a lot of nature involved in a Clark Date: aspects of a planet he was proud to call home.

A Bruce Date, on the other hand, tended to involve a lot of money: Bruce’s secondary weapon of choice. Galas, premiers, openings, exclusive red carpet events, and ridiculously fashionable private cruise ship parties off foreign shores where a third of the guests were royalty and the swimming pool was filled with champagne or something — Lois and Clark hadn’t even owned formal attire snazzy enough to hang out in the kitchen at such gatherings prior to Bruce’s buying it for them just so he could show them off at every rich venue he could think of and enjoy removing it in their private, unnecessarily opulent suite later.

(It was either this or downright stakeouts, waiting for some villain or other to show their face so it could be punched through a wall, with Lois almost frantically noting down details of the encounter for her write-up of it after the fact.)

But tonight… tonight was a good, old-fashioned Lois Date: rambling and casual. She very much enjoyed the other styles of romantic outing, but, unable to come close to matching either of her boyfriends in their chosen areas, had instead made her specialty the paying of homage to the long American traditional of cheap middle-class relaxation.

Of course it was difficult to get either of them to relax. Bruce’s definition of ‘casual’ was ‘going places as Bruce instead of Batman,’ and since Bruce Wayne was a high-society fellow, just convincing him to wear a polo instead of a button-up with a tie (and probably a suit coat) was an ordeal. And Clark’s idea of dressing down was a colored long-sleeved shirt instead of one of the improbably opaque white ones he usually favored — a style of garment he couldn’t abandon in public under any circumstances.

And both of them, no matter the context, spent their time subtly watching for signs of trouble. While in Metropolis, Bruce checked his phone for notifications from Dick or Barbara every five minutes or so; and Clark’s hearing spanned most of whatever area they happened to occupy, listening for someone to rescue or punch through a wall.

In fact Lois was certain they were doing exactly that right now.

*

“Stephanie didn’t react very naturally to the legal proceedings.” Bruce stepped aside after passing through the theater’s exit, pausing by the outside wall and a glowing movie poster advertising some nauseatingly bright computer-animated gimmick-flick, and pulled out his phone. “I’ve known plenty of spouses of accused criminals; they never act like that.”

Clark joined him with a smile, though it did turn a bit wry as he glanced at the poster against which Bruce was now silhouetted. “Not everyone is like…” His smile widened. “…some of the people we know.”

Bruce was not smiling. A frown was his typical reaction to updates from home.

“Besides, she knew all along he was innocent,” Clark persisted.

“Not all along. She had moments of doubt.”

“I don’t think so. I think she was just confused because she was so attracted to Roger in the middle of everything.”

Finally one corner of Bruce’s mouth curled up. “You always have to put a positive spin on things.”

“I believe the best of people,” Clark replied righteously, though his eyes twinkled.

Now that he’d turned the sound back on, Bruce’s phone chimed.

Familiar with Bruce’s various subdued text-tones, Clark said with some disapproval, “I thought she said she was going to take a nap.”

“She set it to send on a timer,” Bruce observed. “It’s instructions on how to proceed.” Again one corner of his mouth pulled up — the opposite corner, the Lois corner — as he added, “Looks like she’s not letting us off the hook for the rest of the evening either.”

“I’m game,” Clark declared. “Where to next?”

“Frederick’s,” relayed Bruce, “to discuss the movie.”

“It was a good movie.” Clark glanced across the parking lot, locating the restaurant in question without bothering to hone his vision for a closer examination of its distant sign. Lois had sent them with a gift certificate for the place, and it expired tomorrow — which (along with movie tickets purchased in advance) was the reason she’d insisted they go on this date without her.

Bruce raised a warning hand. “Don’t discuss the movie any more until we start dinner. Just talking about Stephanie’s attraction to Roger a second ago already put us off schedule.”

Clark laughed, and they started the relatively long walk from the theater through half a million parked cars over to Frederick’s.

There, they stood on the sidewalk and more or less gaped upward. Lois hadn’t mentioned this was a game-filled, child-filled arcade-style pizza restaurant with disquieting animatronic characters peeking around every corner.

“Bruce,” Clark said, watching colors race in a dizzying pattern around the neon letters of the sign, “isn’t there a heinous stigma that associates gay men with pedophilia?”

“I’m surprised you even acknowledge there are people so ignorant and cruel in this world,” Bruce replied dryly as three screaming children raced past them toward the doors they two adults hesitated to approach. “But, yes. I’m afraid it applies to bisexual men and panromantic asexual Kryptonians too.” Here Bruce’s phone chimed again. Not yet having returned it to his pocket, he was able to read out the message immediately. “Now that you’ve rejected Frederick’s, cross the street to Wild Burgers. Make sure one of you gets the Piggyback, because that’s my favorite.

Both brows raised, Clark laughed incredulously, and Bruce even joined him for a moment. “She never ceases to amaze me,” Clark remarked with those fond crinkles beside his eyes that Bruce loved so much, then began scanning the even more distant shopping center across the street to find the new and hopefully much more appropriate restaurant. This time he was careful to study it in detail.

Bruce nodded, and with a half-reluctant gesture finally pocketed his phone.

A few minutes later, though, he was giving the menu at Wild Burgers a very flat look indeed.

Clark, probably examining the same item Bruce was, broke the silence with, “You know, I think she meant–”

“Yes,” Bruce said in as flat a tone as his gaze. “I know what she meant.”

“We have to do it for her,” Clark insisted, a grin growing, despite his best efforts, on his face. “If she were here–”

“But she’s not here.” It was impossible to best Superman in a contest of pointed gazes, but this wasn’t the first time Batman had tried. “Just doing her best to torment us from a distance.”

“It won’t be torment,” Clark assured him, getting to his feet. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

Bruce snorted. “The more attention we draw to ourselves, the more likely we are to end up in the tabloids again.” But he followed his own advice and gave in without making a scene that would only render the entire ordeal even more eye-catching, standing also and dropping the menu that read, among other things, Give your dining companion a piggyback along Piggyback Lane and win a free Piggyback Burger!*

Naturally ‘Piggyback Lane’ snaked around and among tables throughout the entire restaurant. The latter, though not exactly packed, was full enough that a cheer and much applause and laughter broke out the moment Clark and Bruce stopped at its head, which was marked with a checkered flag pattern on the floor. Sighing, trying not to look too sour and give these people even more of a show, Bruce obediently jumped onto Clark’s back as soon as it was turned. All employees present began clapping rhythmically with a somewhat spooky spontaneity and unison, in the which they were joined by most of the diners, and the race for a free burger was on.

Oh, well. At least Clark’s hands were on his butt.

Of course Bruce’s weight was nothing at all to Superman, and hanging on for the duration of the ride was no trouble whatsoever for Batman, but Clark did pretend to lose his balance a couple of times and come close to failing the challenge like the superdork he was. And the moment they’d looped back around and touched the checkered spot on the carpet again, the entire room erupted into cheers. Bruce saw with resigned dismay that many of the other restaurant patrons were lowering cell phones; he wondered, as he hopped down and allowed Clark to lift his hand into the air in a signal of victory, if any of them had any idea how valuable their photos and footage might prove.

Next they had to suffer through congratulations from the staff and questioning on whether the documentation of their jaunt could be added to the Wall of Fame (which request Bruce managed to deny before Clark could good-naturedly agree), and their drink orders were taken and at last they were allowed to sit down again in relative peace. Then it was merely a question of who would be eating the Piggyback Burger and who got to order something of his own choosing.

“Lois doesn’t even like Canadian bacon,” Bruce complained as he examined the components of the sandwich they’d won.

“But you do,” Clark reminded him. Bruce pointed an accusatory finger at him, found he had nothing to say, and subsided.

Once Clark had ordered his meal, and some extra fries for Bruce that came to just about as much (which was how the place could afford to give away free Piggybacks), he sat back and remarked, still trying to restrain the same grin from earlier, “It was a good movie, though.”

Bruce pursed his lips and then admitted, “Yes. Lois would have liked it.”

“We’ll have to take her to it later on.”

Bruce nodded, and pulled out his phone. Honestly at the moment he rather hoped the Scarecrow had just broken out of Arkham again. No such luck. In reality, though, had he found an alert to that or similar purpose, he would have been incredibly bitter that it hadn’t come five minutes earlier.

“You know Lois might have made us do that anyway if she’d been here.”

The Lois corner of his mouth quirking again, Bruce acknowledged the point. “But it wouldn’t have looked quite so ridiculous if it had been clear she was prodding us into it.”

“You care about public opinion too much.”

“You only have the luxury of saying that because you’re everyone’s darling. Nothing spoils your reputation.”

Clark lowered his voice. “Am I your darling?”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “Does it feel nice to be able to win arguments that way?”

Clark grinned. “Back to the movie we’ve been instructed to discuss.”

“Yes, it was a good movie,” Bruce harrumphed, sounding, despite being glad to change the subject, as if Clark had dragged the concession from him with red-hot pincers. “I enjoy watching normal people deal with fairly normal problems every now and then.”

“And I like to see happy endings: good people getting what they deserve and living happily ever after.”

“You say that as if you don’t still believe in happy endings in real life.”

With a raised brow Clark replied, “It’s dangerous to imply that you don’t when you’re talking to your boyfriend.”

Bruce hmph‘d again. “I believe in happy middles; that’s all I’ll give you.”

“If Lois were here, she wouldn’t let you get away with saying that.” And Clark’s eyes had that sad slant to them that appeared there whenever Bruce’s fatalism reared its head.

Whatever each believed about the outcome of the endeavors and the course of the emotional fulfillment of sentient beings, they both liked Diet Coke, and once it had appeared at their table they turned their conversation back to specific events and character behaviors in the film.

Eventually, around the time their food came out, Bruce received another text from Lois: I hope the movie was good. And by now you better have scored a free Piggyback Burger. The next step is for Bruce to throw French fries and Clark to catch them in his mouth.

Appearing much more willing to throw food at his boyfriend than to be carried through a crowded restaurant to general acclamation and the clicking of cell phone cameras, Bruce nodded after he read this aloud.

“I should have seen that coming,” Clark said with some regret. “She always picks bits of pickle out of the relish and flicks them at me when we grab hot dogs on the way out of the Planet. I have to catch them, or else they’ll stain my shirt.”

“Sounds like ketchup is in order this evening, then,” Bruce murmured, pouring a generous helping into the basket next to his fries.

“But my shirt today is red,” Clark announced in triumph.

“Better catch anyway to protect innocent bystanders.” And Bruce lobbed the first missile.

It came as no surprise whatsoever that, as longsuffering as he’d sounded describing the recurring hot dog debacle, Superman was ridiculously, effortlessly good at catching food in his mouth no matter how clumsily or with what attempt at a curve it was thrown. Beginning to see why Lois enjoyed this so much, Bruce continually widened the radius of his attacks and the spin he put on each fry, until finally Clark had to jump to his feet to snag one that had flown upward at a dangerously acute angle. At this point he noticed more definitively how many eyes were on them and his uncanny skills, and he cleared his throat and leaned forward as he resumed his seat.

“Stop,” he admonished quietly, perhaps regretting showing off his preternatural fry-catching abilities to the uninitiated masses. “Too many people are watching.”

“You do care about public opinion,” was Bruce’s wry reply.

“Only because…” Clark let out a defeated breath and smiled. “All right, point taken.”

The Clark corner twisted upward in minor triumph, though Bruce reflected that Lois had really been the one to make the point.

*

How she had timed these messages so precisely neither detective Bruce nor superhuman Clark had any idea. The message that came in just as they left the restaurant said, Now if you head south on that same street, there’s a park you can walk through. Don’t forget to stop by the car for gift cards. And Clark was once again shaking his head in admiration.

“Lois thinks you’ve cleaned up these streets a lot better than you have,” Bruce muttered, “if she’s walking through parks in this part of town at night.”

“Lois goes wherever she wants to go,” Clark said ruefully. Bruce nodded with an expression matching the tone.

As they moved down the line of shops in the little strip mall approaching where they would cross the street back toward the movie theater parking lot, Clark paused. “Isn’t Lois a fan of that series?”

Bruce looked where he pointed. “Yes. I often question her taste.”

“Dangerous territory again there, babe.” Clark approached the crane game that stood in the entry of the store they’d been passing, and examined the stuffed characters within. Bruce, who loathed being called ‘babe’ or any other twee little term of endearment (as Clark well knew), followed.

“Yeah, I think that’s from that awful Netflix superhero show,” Bruce said with distaste. He glanced at his phone again and added, “And she wants us to hold hands.”

“Not yet.” Clark was digging through his pockets. “She’s sick; I want to bring her back something.”

“We’ll stop on the way home and pick her up something better than that,” Bruce insisted. “These games are mostly unwinnable anyway.”

Clark gave him a stubborn look. “For me? You really think so?”

It was in situations like this that Bruce outright grinned. Clark always wished it could happen at less sardonic moments and be a more straightforward, happy expression, but in any case liked to see his boyfriend smiling. “Go ahead. It’s your…” Bruce studied the machine. “…dollar-fifty a try.”

It turned out to be Bruce’s dollar-fifty a try, since Clark had no cash but the machine did take cards. Displaying a clear lack of confidence in Clark’s crane game skills despite his ability to catch ketchup’d French fries flawlessly no matter how they spun, Bruce loaded the machine with $30 — which Clark was certain was $28.50 more than he needed to get Lois a tacky little present as a memento of the date she’d been too sick to accompany them on except in uncannily accurate spirit. Oh, well; at least it would be a nice surprise for the next kid that came along and wanted to play.

Yet he found it took three tries simply to get a feel for the jerky, irregular controls, and thereafter another couple to sense the heft of the stuffed toy, which was lighter than he’d expected. Then, despite his minutely fine muscular regulation capable of far more crucial tasks than this, he just couldn’t manage to put together the three process components of aiming the crane correctly at the desired target, grabbing the stupid thing without it slithering free, and keeping it in the crane’s grasp while the arm stuttered its way back to the drop point. And he didn’t think it was his reflexes that were suffering in this instance.

“This is a very Lois Date activity,” Bruce commented after while, that sarcastic grin still on his face.

“It’s not responding right,” Clark groused. “It doesn’t react the same way every time.”

“I told you these games are mostly unwinnable.” Bruce shifted to peer down through the glass, trying to get a glimpse of the machine’s internal workings. “Would you like me to hack it for you?”

That was Bruce’s version of sweetness, but, while Clark appreciated the offer, he had to refuse. “I don’t like cheating.”

“I know you don’t,” Bruce replied with a shrug and then a clap on Clark’s back that turned into a brief warm rub of hand down his boyfriend’s spine. “Even when the game is cheating you. I hope you like giving up better, though, since I’m not putting more than thirty bucks into this thing.”

“As if you’d ever notice it was gone,” Clark murmured.

“No, I wouldn’t. But according to Lois’s plan, we should be holding hands by now, and instead you’re holding that stupid joystick.”

Clark threw him a smile, but kept trying at the game. And eleven attempts later, his patience paid off: the rigged device relented long enough for him to deliver the prize into the plastic shaft that led to the collection trough. There was a breathless moment wherein they feared it might rebound off the shaft’s wall and fall back into the sea of stuffed animals, but a jolt to the machine that definitely wasn’t caused by Bruce leaning hard against it at exactly the right place at exactly the right instant forced it the correct direction, and Clark was able to extract it at last.

And then…

“Actually I think that’s not from the show we were thinking of.” Bruce was peering critically at the outfit the super-deformed character wore. “That’s… from something different… I don’t know what.”

“I think you’re right,” Clark replied. And they both started to laugh.

“Now you have a story to go with the gift,” said Bruce, and, after a quick glance around, pecked Clark on the cheek. “Speaking of which, let’s go get those gift cards.” He was obviously tired of hanging out beside a gerrymandered game he wasn’t allowed to render more winnable.

Not long after, Clark sent his gaze through the thick layer of spray paint across a tall wooden sign to determine the name of the park they intended to enter. Apart from this graffiti, the place didn’t look too bad; a second sign, also unreadable to those that didn’t have x-ray vision, mentioned the name of the organization that had most recently volunteered to help keep the place clean, and it appeared the group was doing its job. A third sign, half of its letters peeled off and others painted in to change its meaning entirely, had originally begged park-goers to clean up after themselves and their dogs.

“Looks promising,” Bruce remarked.

“I’m not sure if I should ask ‘for what?'”

Bruce gave one of his sardonic grins and took Clark’s hand. They’d forgotten as they walked this direction that they were supposed to be doing this, and now needed to make up for lost time.

Like so many Metropolis parks in the evening, this one was dotted with homeless people settling down for the night or already resting on or under benches and trees. Some had ragged sleeping bags, some rickety shopping carts filled with all their worldly goods, and some slept curled up as tightly as possible with no particular means of warmth. The weather was mild, but that didn’t make it comfortable at such late hours not to have a wrapper of some sort.

Which was where the gift cards came in. If Clark remembered correctly, they were up to $150 each by now, their value having elevated significantly when Bruce had found out about this little hobby of Lois’s and insisted on joining in. That could buy someone a decent blanket, some new shoes, some non-perishable food… or several twelve-packs, if they so preferred. Bruce always anticipated the latter, Clark the former, while Lois maintained a position in between and added it wasn’t their business anyway what someone did with a freely given gift.

Stealth was one area in which Batman consistently bested Superman. They took turns trying to sneak the gift cards onto the persons or into the personal effects of the homeless occupants of the park as they passed them, but, though Clark could fly noiselessly, especially sans cape, he often couldn’t render his steps nearly so devoid of sound, and he certainly wasn’t a trained pickpocket. It didn’t help that Bruce could not, at times, entirely restrain his snorts of laughter at the startled reactions of the recipients Clark disturbed with his overly straightforward attempts. Meanwhile he slipped in and out without the rustle of a hair, leaving a little prize that would hopefully be surprising and gratifying when its beneficiary eventually awoke without his assistance. And every time they regrouped on the path, they joined their hands again before moving on.

They’d nearly used up the stock of gift cards they’d retrieved from the glove box of Clark’s car (in which Lois had insisted they come because Bruce’s was too nice for this kind of date) when footsteps that had been moving quietly behind them ever since they’d passed a dark set of bathrooms abruptly took to a run. There was the snicking sound of a switchblade opening, the faint prick of its point against Clark’s back, and a foul-breath’d voice mumbling, “Give me whatever you got.”

Clark started to look around in preparation for reaching around and defusing the situation, but Bruce, with a tired expression, lifted a hand. “I got this one.”

This was Bruce being sweet again: he knew how much it pained Clark to have to be harsh with misguided youth. And the undercover Batman had the guy on the grass beside the path in a move so quick and smooth it was nearly invisible, pinning him in an easy wrestling hold with one arm and a knee and pressing the would-be mugger’s own knife to his neck.

“Kid, this is stupid,” he said quietly in his Bruce voice but with the tiniest hint of Batman laid over the top. “Say you successfully robbed us — say we each had a couple hundred dollars. What then? A few grams of whatever you’re on and a pizza, and then you’re right back out here trying this again. And I don’t think I need to tell you that I could kill you right now.” This completely false threat undoubtedly rang entirely true with that blade pressing into his skin.

“So you’re out here running the risk that you’ll pick the wrong target every night for what? A couple of highs, a little bit of food? If you’re going to put your life on the line, do something big. Rob a bank; make a hundred thousand. Steal a really nice car and sell it. Genetically engineer your face onto all the fish in the harbor and trademark it.

Or–” here Bruce produced a gift card out of nowhere and tucked it into the back pocket of the young man’s ragged jeans– “go to Wal-Mart, get yourself some clean clothes, and some deodorant, and a toothbrush, and then head over to the rehab center on Patriot Avenue. Tell them Bruce Wayne sent you.” In a light motion he was off the kid and standing straight again. “It’s up to you,” he finished, and tossed the assailant’s knife straight down so it stuck, quivering, into the turf just in front of the kid’s wide, terrified eyes.

Bruce’s own eyes were dark as the night as he turned away and rejoined Clark on the sidewalk. Clark took his hand and held it tighter than ever, but said nothing. Sometimes there was nothing to say.

After they’d walked on for a minute or two, Bruce reached across his body to extract his cell phone without giving up Clark’s grip. It had chimed around the time when he’d first jumped the kid, and now he finally checked what Lois’s next instructions were. “By now you’ve probably had an attempted mugging,” he read out, “so you should call it a night.

*

The timed text messages had allowed Lois to nap with a clear conscience, knowing her men would dutifully follow her orders; but the laptop on her nightstand had continually awakened her again, knowing her story for tomorrow wasn’t getting done. What she needed was a stronger cold medicine that would knock her out reliably.

At about the time she expected Bruce and Clark to be done with their date, she gave in. She wanted to see them when they got back anyway, so she might as well work on her story until then. Seeking a comfortable angle at which to use the computer from bed for more than a minute or two proved futile, so she carried it into the office and sat down at her desk. The room was a little chilly, despite her fleece pajamas, but she shouldn’t have to wait too long.

“Why am I not surprised to find you in here?”

She looked up from her typing, a little startled that she’d lost track of time, to find Clark and Bruce in the doorway appearing handsome and (at least Clark) not too disgruntled after the outing she’d sent them on. “Because you–” But she was unable to finish her suggestion as she turned to her sleeve for a fit of coughing.

“You’re shivering,” Bruce added, coming around the desk to shake his head at her. When, trachea clear for the moment, she looked up at him, he bent down to steal a kiss.

“Yes, I’m shivering!” she said in a tone of protest, pushing his face away. “I’m undoubtedly contagious too!”

“Lois,” he chided. “I’m Batman. I’m not going to catch cold.”

“That’s not true and you know it.”

“It is for me,” said Clark from her other side, and leaned over for a kiss of his own.

Lois laughed, which turned into another cough, which pushed Clark’s face away in turn. “It is not,” she insisted when she could, “because you’re not Batman.”

“Semantics.” Clark waved a hand, then swept Lois up out of the chair into his arms.

“My story–” she said, reaching futilely for the computer.

“I’ll finish it for you,” Clark assured her. “You weren’t thinking of going in tomorrow, were you?”

She sighed and laid her head against his chest. “Well, I was, but now I think I see how this is going.”

“We followed your instructions all night,” Bruce pointed out, “so now it’s your turn.”

“I guess that’s only fair,” Lois mumbled into Clark’s red shirt. “As long as your instructions are for us all to cuddle up together tonight.”

“I was–”

She lifted her head and fixed him with a glare. “Bruce, if you say you’re planning to go back to Gotham and leave us here with me sick, I’ll never speak to you again.”

Bruce gave a defeated sigh, but smiled as he did so. “I’ll make you a cup of tea,” he said, instead of arguing, “and you can take some of the cough syrup we brought you.”

She returned his smile.

Soon Lois was sipping honey ginger tea that Bruce always made surprisingly well, while her boyfriends changed into pajamas in preparation for the cuddling she had more or less demanded in exchange for her calling in sick to work in the morning. She was pleased to see them putting on the matching sets she’d bought them when (after her initial exploration of each) she’d realized they were just about the same size; it was so cute to have them both in the striped pants and tops with the monogrammed pockets.

“We brought you a few things besides the cold medicine,” Clark told her, setting a shopping bag down near where she sat in bed. He began lifting items out of it. “A book if you’re up for reading tomorrow… this stuffed thing… a warm pack for your throat if you need it… and some animal crackers.”

Lois’s eyes widened covetously when she saw this last offering, and she grabbed the package without yet paying much attention to the other gifts. She hesitated before opening it, though, and finally said with a sigh, “I don’t want to eat these in bed and then roll in the crumbs all night.”

“I’ll catch them for you,” promised Clark. “Go ahead.”

Before she could do anything else, Lois had to cough and clear her throat several times, and decided to deal with the tea and the cold medicine — the really good stuff; these guys knew what she needed — prior to opening the cookies. Then, with Clark and Bruce right up against her and encircling her back with their near arms, she dug in. “I love these,” she mumbled as she began shoving pink- and white-coated animal crackers into her mouth, always selecting the ones with the most sprinkles first.

“I know,” Clark said, darting out a hand to catch the first of the crumbs (so small she couldn’t even see them) and a few dislodged sprinkles that fell. “Bruce wanted to get you some kind of expensive cherry cordials with rum in them, but I thought these were more appropriate for the kind of date we were on.”

Lois groaned. “Cherry cordials with rum in them sound amazing,” she said through a full mouth. And when Bruce made a triumphant sound and kissed her on the cheek she added, “But I think you were right, Clark. Besides, that cough syrup already has alcohol in it.”

Bruce sounded a little grumbly as he said, “He did let me choose the book.” And he too bit into a cookie, with perhaps just a little more force than necessary, sending a spray of crumbs out into the air for Clark to catch in a movement quicker than sight.

Turning her attention to the rest of her gifts, Lois picked up the book. Then she gave Bruce a skeptical smile and a raised brow. “And you chose a romance novel?”

“The guy on the cover looks like Clark,” Bruce defended his choice, his deadpan marred somewhat by his own full mouth.

Lois peered closer. “He does.” She looked over for comparison and found Clark blushing a little. She poked at his chest and yawned, “All right, I’ll read it tomorrow and see if he acts like Clark too. What the hell is this, though?” She’d dropped the book and picked up the stuffed character that appeared to have come right off a carnival barker’s wall.

The men glanced at each other behind her head; of course she couldn’t see their expressions, but she got the feeling there was a tale to be told here. “You’d better hear all about the evening,” Bruce said.

“Yes, tell me.” Lois leaned back, settling more comfortably into their arms, and ate another animal cracker. “Did I time my texts right?”

“All but the last one. That was a little early.”

“Oh?” she wondered sleepily, and rolled her head back and forth to look at first Clark and then Bruce. “Did he get the ‘What would your grandmother think?’ lecture or the ‘I can kill you fifty ways with my pinkie’ lecture?”

“The second one.” Clark, in the midst of extracting some animal crackers of his own, tried not to laugh. But he added loyally, “And Bruce delivered it very well.”

“We’re starting at the end,” Bruce complained. “That wasn’t exactly my favorite part of the date.”

This is my favorite part.” Lois’s head was beginning to feel very fuzzy indeed, and, despite the continual sore throat and pressure in her sinuses, it was in general satisfaction that she closed her eyes.

The other two made noises of agreement. “But the movie was good too,” Clark said, and began to tell her his impressions as best he could without spoiling it. Bruce joined in with his more cynical take, arguing against Clark’s opinion in places, and their voices started to blur together into a pleasant, incomprehensible lullaby. Lois wondered in drowsy contentment how long it would take them, after a few minutes, to notice that she’d fallen asleep.

My first posted DCAU fic! Congratulate me! These three are so damn cute that you can definitely expect more from me about thems in (possibly distant) future.

I’ve rated this story even if it is mostly fluff :D

Forgivably Wrong

Forgivably Wrong

He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

When Detective Saitou gets a chance to meet his favorite author and learns something very unexpected about him, resisting his fanboyish impulses is suddenly the least of his concerns.

Forgivably Wrong

Technically Saitou could have taken the interstate one exit farther and gotten onto Coolidge Boulevard some distance closer to the station, but the highway ahead had appeared a little congested, and he had plenty of time for the longer stretch on the slower street since he’d left for work rather early. There had been no real reason to leave so early, but, having finished breakfast and finding he had nothing remaining to do at home, he’d decided he might as well head on in.

A mass of balloons, including two huge ones floating high up on long cords, decorated the front of the bookstore on the north side of Coolidge, and Saitou recalled it was the 18th. That event he’d seen advertised so much lately was today, wasn’t it? He probably wouldn’t even have remembered if he hadn’t happened to come this direction due to traffic. And he probably wouldn’t even have looked at the store closely enough to be reminded if not for the eye-catching balloons.

Lately he’d been considering purchasing an e-reader of some sort. It would be more easily carried around with him than most books, and provide more options at any given moment as well. The question then remained whether he wanted a dedicated e-reader with limited other functionality or a tablet with the option for an e-reader app. And right now, when he’d left for work rather early for no particular reason and had plenty of time, seemed like not a bad moment to just step into the bookstore and examine the options they had. Not, of course, with any intention of getting involved in the book-signing that was, quite coincidentally, going on in there simultaneously.

But it would probably be pretty crowded, wouldn’t it? The e-reader display, he remembered, stood precisely at the center of the store, undoubtedly also where the event would be set up… it might be a little difficult to reach the sample devices without getting involved in the signing… Maybe he should wait for some other day.

But today was when he happened to have time to spare. Some other day he might not. There was no logical reason not to go in there right now. He changed lanes so as to turn into the shopping center immediately ahead.

The Yuki Tomoshiro series had probably only even grabbed Saitou’s attention originally because it was about a Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system. It wasn’t as if it was spectacularly good or anything. The prose was nothing brilliant — this wouldn’t be ranked among the classics or studied in prestigious schools — even if it did have a refreshing directness and emotionality to it without being at all pretentious. The police procedure was never 100% accurate, though admittedly what the author got wrong he at least got forgivably wrong. And the cases Yuki worked tended to be overblown and improbably adventurous much of the time, as if the author had watched a few too many crime dramas for inspiration — though, yes, that did make for the most entertaining stories. So Saitou wasn’t sure how it had become his favorite series.

Honestly he couldn’t say for certain it was his favorite series. It just hit pretty close to home; that was all. And, although the personal interactions unrelated to the cases were consistently the weakest parts of the writing, there had been hints in the latest book that Yuki might, after some wrestling within herself, start dating her precinct’s female civilian administrator. No matter how long Saitou himself had been single, a gay Japanese-American police detective struggling against prejudice in the system hit even closer to home.

He couldn’t say he entirely approved of the author’s pen name, however. Though some part of him secretly rather liked the uncompromising ‘斬’ — and he knew this was the intended spelling because the kanji were given in the author’s extended bio on the official series website — it did seem melodramatic. Still, most American readers wouldn’t recognize this — the books were written in English and set in the U.S., after all, and name kanji didn’t really enter into it except as trivia for sharp-eyed and perseverent fans — and Saitou wasn’t ignorant of the need for a catchy pseudonym. Still, he couldn’t help shaking his head a little at the huge banner on the store’s outer wall proclaiming, Book Signing Today with Zanza Sagara, Bestselling Author of the Yuki Tomoshiro Series.

Saitou had heard rumors (well, read online) that Sagara was a native of this city. Of course he didn’t really care where some random author lived, but once or twice when he’d been bored he’d tried looking it up more definitively. That had never succeeded — the guy kept pretty quiet about his personal life — but Saitou supposed, if Sagara really did live around here, it would explain why this generic bookstore with nothing special about it got the preference over classier venues for the author’s very first (Saitou was fairly sure it was his very first) public appearance, especially so soon after the release of the latest installment in the series.

The book had been out for so little time that Saitou hadn’t even finished it yet, and the envisioned greater ease of getting the rest of the way through it on an e-reader rather than lugging the new-release hardback around was one of the reasons he was considering purchasing such a device. And surely he could slip in and through the Sagara crowd, take a look at what the store had to offer, and get out without too much inconvenience.

If Saitou had been on an earlier shift rather than in at 11:00 these days, he wouldn’t have needed to worry about this event; as it was, the signing seemed to be in full swing as he made his way inside. Cheerful chatter filled the big room, which subsequently lacked its usual library-like feeling; and, as he’d anticipated, a crowd bloated the central open space. It was difficult to tell with shelves and a lot of people in the way, but he thought the table where the author sat conversing and autographing stood on the left, so he circled immediately around to the right.

He couldn’t help noticing, as he gave the crowd a wide enough berth that he wouldn’t be mistaken for someone trying to get in line, that nobody else in here looked like a cop. Of course some of them might be — it wasn’t as if he knew every last member of the police force, and there was no single defining characteristic that made cops immediately recognizable even to others of their kind — but at the very least no uniforms or visible badges showed in the group. Probably for the best, then, that Saitou didn’t plan on approaching Sagara; he didn’t really fit in with this crowd. It did prove a little difficult to squeeze between it and the e-reader display, though; he was forced to excuse and explain himself far more frequently than he would have liked.

But eventually he maneuvered into a position from which he could make a leisurely examination of the electronics. He was actually fairly close to the author’s table here, as it formed a right angle with this display and Saitou was at the end closest to the corner. That didn’t matter much, since his back was turned on the unrelated business and he stayed right up against the e-reader collection so as to keep from interfering with the autograph line.

Disappointingly, there were far fewer options than he’d expected; in fact the space was mostly taken up with different colors of the same model, as if prospective purchasers needed to test each color separately to find which would work best. Though at least one of the choices they had for sale looked fairly promising, Saitou was annoyed enough with the silly setup that he stood still for several moments listening to the group immediately behind him and one particular voice, somewhat difficult to make out among the rest of the chatter, that he believed to be that of the author.

Suddenly that voice rose in a much louder, jovial remark to whomever was at the front of the line, followed by a hearty laugh, which rendered its sound much clearer… and more recognizable. Saitou went absolutely still against the e-reader display, abruptly listening significantly harder to the next statement, sinking back down to a more normal conversational volume though it was. He knew those tones. He knew that laugh.

Because he wasn’t here to meet Sagara or particularly curious what he looked like — the dust jackets and websites were remarkably devoid of photos — Saitou hadn’t attempted to get a glimpse of him through the milling bodies; and every time he had happened to glance in that direction, nothing at the author’s table had been visible. But now he not only turned and craned his neck, he pretty quickly began pushing his way through the crowd without any excuse or explanation this time. The outcry his passage caused did little to drown out the sound of the voice he’d locked onto, nor make him any less horrifically suspicious. He had to get just one good look at the author in order to assure himself he was imagining things. Because it wasn’t possible… there was simply no way…

It was possible, and there was a way. Saitou broke free of the crowd and barely stopped himself from ramming his thighs into the table, on which he laid his hands for support in his sudden, utter shock and disbelief.

*

Knocking on doors was tedious but necessary, an endless repetition of the same questions and answers that, after a while, blended together so he had to struggle to remember which floor he was on and who’d told him what. Of course he would assess any unusual demeanor for anything beyond run-of-the-mill discomfort with talking to the police, and he would make a note of any useful or even just interesting information… but that was assuming anyone had an unusual demeanor or any useful or even just interesting information. Obviously they did often enough to make this a productive way to spend his time… but it was never often enough to make this a fun way to spend his time.

Perhaps this was why he noticed that someone seemed to be watching him even sooner than he otherwise might have: it offered some potential for engagement that this part of his investigation otherwise painfully lacked.

Of course there were not infrequently gawkers at any active police work (even when ‘active’ was a dismaying misnomer), and most of the time they offered far more sources of annoyance and interference than of fascination… but Saitou was pretty good at interpreting the feeling of eyes on him, and the current set seemed to carry something subtly different than the usual gormless curiosity or deep mistrust with which he was usually watched while on duty.

Then, the hallway walls in this particular apartment building were relentlessly white and plain — and it wasn’t even an off-white, but an unfinished pure lack of color except wherever it was dirty — and the carpeting a utilitarian grey that did nothing for overall appeal. The bland brown of the doors was equally neutral, so the whole place had a drab, dull feeling that made Saitou wonder how anyone ever agreed to live here. Crisp colors stood out against all of this just as obtrusively as a seemingly intrigued contemplation stood out against the insipidity of this part of his investigation, caught his notice with just as much promise.

The watcher was a young man half visible around the corridor’s far corner, casually observing Saitou approach slowly, one door at a time, toward his end of the hall. His red hoodie, unfaded black jeans, hair of a brown much less lackluster than that of the doors Saitou was knocking on — even the bright green of the apple he was eating — rendered him distinctive initially, but when Saitou fixed him with a pointed and assessing look, his face and figure had that effect perhaps doubly so.

During the run of any investigation, Saitou, naturally, saw a lot of people, and throughout his career as a whole encountered a pretty decent cross-section of the city: citizens of every race, economic level, type of self-presentation, and apparent degree of sanity. He was required to assess them, to pinpoint any aspect of personality or behavior that might be indicative of something he wanted to know, so of course he concentrated minutely on many of their personal attributes. Despite this, however, rarely did any of them really grab his attention. They were all vastly different, but in a way they were all the same: they did nothing for him; they were all numbers to crunch, essentially, puzzle pieces to fit into appropriate spots and then leave there.

So when someone did stand out to him, did catch his attention as something other than a number to be crunched, the very fact that they did so made them even more obtrusive. And as such, this young man seemed to shine like a beacon at the end of the hallway, simultaneously difficult to look away from and perhaps a little blinding. Saitou paused in his work, motionless before the next door he needed to knock on, and simply stared, wordless.

The most pertinent point had to be the young man’s excessively good looks, as well as a sort of overall contradictoriness that gave an immediate and perhaps unfair impression of perverseness of character. His face appeared young and fresh, with a touch of the feminine to its prettiness, but bore a scattering of stubble and a broadness of jaw that helped him retain a look of masculinity despite this. His hair had obviously had gel applied in order to be styled into that wild set of spikes, but, despite this deliberate effort, the overall effect was one of carelessness, of indifference to physical appearance and purely accidental handsomeness as a result. And though the baggy sweat-shirt hid upper body details, the jeans fit closely enough to indicate the excellent shape of groin and legs. He was more than just eye-catching; he was enticing, appetizing.

And there was also his race. Of course the city’s Japanese population was such that Saitou felt no surprise at finding them wherever he happened to be, but Japanese heredity yet made for an automatic source of greater interest. To run into someone this attractive that also happened to have the same descent as Saitou’s — and who seemed to be looking at him with some kind of unusual fixedness — was far more rare.

When the young man observed Saitou’s riveted gaze, he abandoned his position at the hallway’s corner and came ambling down toward him, still eating his apple in careless motions that implied he wasn’t worried at all about what this cop in his apartment building might think of him hanging around watching — and also demonstrated a flexibility of lips that Saitou’s hedonistic side (not nearly as smothered as it usually was, for some reason) took special notice of. He came to stand casually near Saitou, finishing his snack and looking the detective up and down without compunction.

“Can I help you?” The officer’s words came out dry as paper not only because he wondered what the kid was up to, but because he was dissatisfied with himself for how pleased he was to see him at close range.

The young man shrugged. “I heard there was a cop in the building, so I figured I’d come down and see.”

“Is there a problem with me being in the building?” In response to that carelessness, Saitou’s tone was even drier than before.

“Nah. I like cops.” He gave Saitou a grin that was both cheeky and damnably attractive, then went on to say something rather shocking: “We just don’t usually get the sexy ones around here.” He eyed Saitou again without a trace of hesitancy — indeed, with a cockiness and self-assurance that seemed to suggest the perfect naturality of flirting with someone without checking on their orientation first. His grin took on a satisfied edge as he finished his second once-over, but then he shook his head. “Sometimes I feel like I should move somewhere with higher rent… maybe then I’d meet more hot cops. You know… richer neighborhoods getting more police attention and all that.”

This statement troubled Saitou largely because it was probably true. The young man might be gorgeous, but in practically leading with a jab like that he was simultaneously frustrating. So, rather than trying to decide whether or not to respond to the flirtation — which, under some circumstances, he might have done — Saitou replied in a tone now more disdainful than dry, “Could you afford higher rent?”

The stranger scowled. “Why would you assume I couldn’t? I probably make more money than you do. I’m just…” He was either embarrassed to admit this or (which seemed more likely) scrambling for an excuse. “…stuck in a long lease I shouldn’t have renewed.”

Saitou glanced around — at the disgusting carpet, the scuffed walls, the terminally bland colors — intending the message, “If you make so much money, you’re an idiot to stay in a place like this.” Evidently he’d gotten his point across, since when his eyes returned to the handsome youth, he noticed clenched fists. (Where the apple core had gone he didn’t know.) What he said aloud was, “I’m Detective Saitou, RCPD. I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Here?” the young man wondered.

Saitou raised a brow. “Unless you’d prefer I arrest you for obstruction of duty and then question you…”

“That sounds like fun. But, nah, I got work to do. No time for an arrest today. What I meant was, here, in this hallway? You don’t want to come upstairs to my apartment? It’d be way more… private in there.”

“I do not require privacy to ask everyone in the building the same set of questions.” Again Saitou might have responded to the flirtation instead of making such a businesslike and acerbic statement, but he really did need answers.

“Huh,” said the young man, sounding disappointed. “Hot, but not a lot of fun. OK, so what are your questions?”

“What’s your name?”

“Ooh, questions about me personally.”

“No, idiot, I just need to know who you are in case I decide to arrest you later for annoying me.”

The young man relented with good grace. “Well, I’m Sanosuke Higashidani.”

“It must be fun navigating American life with a name like that,” Saitou murmured as he noted it down in his phone.

Sanosuke sounded rueful, with a touch of actual exasperation, as he replied, “Yeah, well, we can’t all have sleek, snappy names like ‘Saitou.’ Unless we use pseudonyms.”

Saitou smirked. “And which apartment do you live in?”

“4305.” Sanosuke jerked a thumb upward to indicate the third floor above them. “Wanna see it?”

Making a show of ignoring the second half of that answer, Saitou quickly ran over the building’s layout in his head. “So the windows of your apartment must be on the east side, looking out over the side parking lot.”

Sanosuke considered for a moment. It was sometimes surprising how little oriented people were within their own personal spaces. “Yeah, that’s right. It’s a pretty boring view, now I think about it.”

“I can’t imagine there are many interesting views from the windows of this apartment complex.”

Sanosuke seem to recognize that the officer was again prodding him subtly on his choice of living accommodations, for he frowned. Somewhat defiantly he said, “Well, if you’re wondering whether I’ve seen anything interesting out my windows lately, the answer is no.”

“I wonder if you would recognize something of interest even if you saw it.”

The frown deepened into a scowl. “What, you think I’m too stupid to know something suspicious when I see it? This is about those burglaries, right? You probably think it was an inside job, and want to know if anybody who lives around here’s been acting weird or coming and going at weird times.”

“‘Inside job?’ Somebody’s been watching too many police dramas.”

“No such thing as watching too many police dramas,” Sanosuke replied immediately. No wonder he claimed to like cops. “And the answer’s still no: I haven’t seen anybody suspicious around here lately.”

“What times of day are you usually at home and awake?”

“Wondering about my sleeping habits, huh?” He tried to say it suggestively, but it sounded more stupid than flirtatious. And when Saitou only looked at him, he answered the question. “My schedule’s really random. I’m just as likely to be up all night on the computer and sleep all the next day as the other way ’round. Except sometimes I take my laptop to a restaurant or something and work on shit there for a while. So I’m in and out a lot too.”

People took a bizarre amount of pleasure, Saitou had noticed, in talking about the mundane minutiae of their personal lives. They might be a little uncomfortable answering police questions, but once they got started about their boring schedules, many were willing to go on at tedious length. Sanosuke had actually been more concise than most — probably because he didn’t really have much of a schedule, as he admitted himself — and the unpredictable nature of his activities spanning all twenty-four hours of the day made him almost an ideal potential witness, except…

“If you’re working at your computer most of that time–” Saitou believed himself very generous with the term ‘working’ here– “you probably don’t see all that much out your windows even when you are home.”

“No,” Sanosuke said regretfully, “I don’t. And my computer desk faces away from the patio door.”

Saitou nodded, and moved on. “Since you’ve lived here, how often have apartment complex employees or maintenance people come into your apartment?”

Sanosuke tilted his head, simultaneously cheerful and pensive. “You do think it was an inside job.”

He was right, but Saitou wasn’t about to admit it. Apartments like this were very difficult to break into, and that several of them had been lately suggested someone somewhere had access to keys. “How often?” he repeated.

Still appearing somewhat triumphant at his supposedly correct analysis, Sanosuke replied, “A bunch of times. For a while, every time I took a shower — naked, in case you’re interested — it leaked into the bathroom of the person downstairs. Took ’em forever to figure out what was wrong, so some maintenance guy was in and out of here probably five times, and one of the apartment managers came to look at it once too.”

“Can you describe them for me?”

“Maintenance guy was about my height,” Sanosuke said promptly, almost professionally; “narrow build, kinda like yours, but with a little more fat on him; Caucasian, at least mostly, and at that point he had a fading sunburn; long face, bit of a double chin, thin nose, acne scars, labret piercing; ears stuck out pretty far, and he had one of them pierced too; brown hair, not as dark as mine, with–”

“All right.” Saitou raised a hand to stop him. He didn’t actually need all these details, just enough to pinpoint which maintenance guy it had been — and what Sanosuke had already said tallied with what he’d heard from other apartment-dwellers about the one named Jeff. He was, however, more than a little impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and conciseness of description, though he didn’t plan on saying so. “How about the apartment manager?”

“Her name’s Vivian Something. She doesn’t work here anymore; I think she moved. But she’s a Black woman with–”

“Since you know her name, I don’t need the description.” Saitou had heard about Vivian Something (it was Stetson, in fact, at least up until her recent marriage) from other residents as well.

“OK,” Sano shrugged. “Where’s your partner, by the way?”

Saitou raised his eyes from where he’d been making another note, and raised a brow at the young man. “Asking stupid people boring questions is hardly a task that requires two officers. She’s busy with a different aspect of this case.”

In response to this, Sanosuke seemed to go very rapidly through three distinct emotional states, and the one he ended on surprised Saitou a little. “I’m not— you know, this could be way less boring if you– so your partner’s a woman?”

“Is that a problem?” Not entirely sure why Sanosuke had asked, Saitou gave this response very coldly indeed.

“No, it’s great!” The enthusiasm in Sanosuke’s tone was another surprise. “She wouldn’t happen to be Japanese too, would she?”

Saitou hesitated, but since he saw no reason not to give this information he admitted, “As a matter of fact she is.”

“And I bet you two got partnered up because you’re the only Japanese cops in the precinct.”

Not only did Saitou feel disinclined to comment on this probably true assumption, they were getting off track. Why did he feel as if the tables had turned and he was suddenly the one being interrogated? “And what about your vehicle? Or do you take the bus everywhere?” He really had nothing against public transportation; the disdain with which he spoke the word ‘bus’ merely aimed at prodding Sanosuke away from his untoward queries.

It worked. It seemed pretty easy to bait this young man, and Saitou definitely felt he had the upper hand while they discussed comings and goings in the parking lots and what cars and trucks Sanosuke recognized as regulars around here. But Sanosuke recovered himself enough to resume his previous demeanor of simultaneous obnoxiousness and far-too-tempting flirtatiousness during the next topic. All in all, Saitou felt like they came out of the questioning approximately even — and that was both unprecedented and irksome.

He didn’t suspect the young man of anything except extreme nosiness, and perhaps an unexpected interest in Saitou, and it was the latter suspicion combined with Sanosuke’s undeniable allure that kept Saitou from telling him off. But he wouldn’t go so far in the other direction as to leave a business card with the guy; alluring or not, Sanosuke was also pretty aggravating. When they eventually parted — Sanosuke, presumably satisfied about the presence of a cop in his building, back to whatever apple-eating idling he’d been doing before some gossipy neighbor had informed him of the circumstance and sent him down here; Saitou to continue door-knockings destined to be even more tedious and uninteresting than ever now — he watched the handsome figure disappear around the hallway’s corner with ambivalent feelings, wondering whether he would encounter him again during the course of this case, or perhaps in some context besides criminal investigation. If he did, it would be through no fault of his own.

*

“What the hell…?” No great shock, honestly, that he’d somehow gotten past the officers in the dining area; they’d only just barely gone out there to keep an eye open for customers trying to enter. “Well, no wonder a guy can’t get any pizza, with all these cops running around the place.”

It wasn’t necessarily startlement that kept Saitou silent for a moment or two longer than he normally would have been, though there was some of that too; it was more the combination of surprise at seeing this person again so unexpectedly with the abrupt reminder of how ridiculously attractive he was. And since Saitou was thus momentarily speechless, Tokio answered:

“Got the wrong stereotype there, don’t you?”

Trying to fight off a grin in order to maintain the facetious expression of concern he wanted, Sanosuke’s face writhed comically for a moment. Stupidly, this didn’t make him any less handsome. “Oh, crap, don’t tell me Krispy Kreme’s been hit too!”

Tokio rolled her eyes. “Why don’t you go check for us?”

Now Sanosuke’s grin conquered the look of false consternation and spread wide. “But I wanted pizza today, not donuts.” Then, seeing Tokio was about to dismiss him in a more official capacity, he added quickly, “Besides, I was an invaluable witness at y’all’s last case; I can probably be useful here too.”

Undoubtedly never having seen Sanosuke before, Tokio turned toward Saitou with elevated brows, and Saitou broke his silence at last with, “He lives in the Hammock apartments. And ‘invaluable’ is a gross exaggeration.”

Sanosuke appeared annoyed, but rallied quickly and said, “Hey, just because you turned down certain parts of the offer doesn’t change its overall value.” His grin, which had darkened somewhat in his irritation, now brightened as he added in a more jovial tone, “But seriously. How you doing, Detective Saitou, RCPD? Single? You never did call me.”

Tokio’s brows lifted even farther.

“What are you doing here?” Saitou asked the question flatly, feeling he did fairly well at hiding how amusing he found this kid.

“Well, I wanted pizza. Looks like I got a crime scene instead.” And it couldn’t be more evident that Sanosuke considered this an excellent trade. He did a little dance of childish excitement and anticipation as he looked around the chaotic kitchen, causing the laptop bag slung over one shoulder to bounce alarmingly against his hip, and punched one fist into his other palm, smiling broadly and lopsidedly the entire time. “I mean, check it out: there’s fresh bullet-holes in the walls and everything!” And his grin only widened as he noted this fact that many another person might comment on with fear or dismay. He paused, though, as he turned to gaze delightedly at the signs of the few shots that had been fired not long before and added, “Except that one above the grill; that one looks older.”

Of course the eyes of the two cops snapped immediately to the spot in question, then to each other. Then Tokio started searching for something to stand on. They hadn’t even really begun examining this room yet; the questionable employees had only been escorted out minutes before. But it was possible — Saitou didn’t like to admit it, but it was possible — the evident age of one of several bullet-holes decorating the kitchen walls might have escaped them where this apparently sharp-eyed idiot had been able to point it out immediately. And it might even provide useful facts, depending on which bullet matched which gun.

As he watched Tokio go about her examination, Sanosuke’s expression of pleasure intensified; he obviously reveled in having stumbled upon an interesting crime scene as well as in what he’d cleverly noticed there. But Saitou wasn’t going to put up with his nonsense this time. “You need to leave,” he said sternly.

Before Sanosuke could even begin to protest, as Saitou was certain he would have done, Tokio said in a mischievous tone, “Oh, I don’t see why he can’t stick around. He is an invaluable witness, after all… and this bullet-hole is definitely old.” She’d dragged a greasy chair from just outside the restaurant’s small office over to the grill and begun examining the place carefully without touching it. Now she held out a mute hand requesting implements, which Saitou hastened to provide.

Into the ensuing silence Sanosuke remarked easily, “So you must be the partner. Saitou mentioned you last time.”

“Only because you brought her up,” Saitou reminded him.

The aforementioned partner, though she didn’t look away from her task, gave every indication of great amusement and a strong likelihood of going into Tokio Mode. Now she said, in as casual a tone as Sanosuke had used, “Yes, I’m the partner. Someone has to keep this crooked cop in line.”

The responding expression of glee Sanosuke turned toward Saitou did not bode well, but at least he seemed to recognize this particular statement as a teasing remark rather than taking it at face value. “So maybe you can tell me, since he never bothered to: is he single?”

Saitou braced himself for Tokio’s answer, and therefore was prepared when she said, “Of course he is.” Out of the side of her mouth, as if he weren’t standing immediately to her left, she added in a stage whisper, “He’s a virgin.”

Sanosuke looked Saitou up and down, then let out a patently disbelieving chuckle. And Saitou had to admit to a certain amount of disappointment, despite how stupid the conversation already was, when the young man’s next question, still directed at the more cooperative Tokio, was, “And what about you?”

She adored talking about herself, especially in Tokio Mode, so she answered with no trace of hesitation. “Single, or virginal?”

Impish, Sanosuke replied, “Both.”

“Neither. I have nine children; I’ve been married for ten years.” In fact the closest she came to being a mother was forcing Saitou to look at funny pictures of her nieces and nephews sent by her brother in Montana; and, though she’d been married throughout most of her twenties, had divorced her husband three years ago.

Nine?” the young man echoed, startled out of his casual flirtatious demeanor. Though he’d recognized her earlier statement as untrue, evidently she’d taken him in with this one. “How old are you?”

“You should know it’s rude to ask a woman that,” she chided. “But I’m twenty-six.” In fact she was thirty-two.

“You’ve been married since you were sixteen?”

She redirected the course of the questioning. “I notice you don’t ask how old Saitou is.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask now.”

Finished prying the bullet from the wall and sealing it in an evidence bag, Tokio jumped down from the chair. “Well, he’s only forty-two,” she assured Sanosuke. In fact Saitou was thirty-six. “That’s not too old for you, is it?”

“No,” Sanosuke said thoughtfully, apparently adjusting his perspective but not necessarily disappointed. “No, it’s not. But you — you make enough money as a police detective to support nine kids?”

This unexpected question was evidently a welcome challenge, and Tokio, in fine form, didn’t miss a beat as she replied, “My husband won the lottery a few years back, so we have more money than we know what to do with.” She rolled her eyes as she added, “He bought an entire stable outside town last year so he could get a pony for every single one of our children, including the baby.”

Now Sanosuke looked as if he finally began to suspect the veracity of Tokio’s words, and didn’t know quite what to do about it. Accusing a police officer of straightforwardly lying to your face was always a tricky business, after all; that was part of why Tokio Mode worked so well in the first place.

But Tokio had a dual purpose in this instance, and didn’t allow Sanosuke time to reply to the pony comment. “But maybe it wasn’t so much my income you wanted to know about?” She threw Saitou another sidelong glance. “I ain’t sayin’ you a gold-digger, but why did you want to know?”

Sanosuke laughed. It was unfair what a nice laugh he had. “Well, I really was curious, but, you know, it is useful — like if you want to go out to dinner with somebody or something — it’s kinda nice to know what they’re used to. Like whether you can get away with cheap-ass pizza places that apparently have secret crime going on in the back room at the same time–” He pronounced the word ‘crime’ with satisfaction verging on delight as he gestured around at the kitchen in which they stood– “or whether, like, a Red Robin is a better price range, or if I need to spring for some fancy-ass steak place where it’s forty dollars a plate.”

Tokio’s satisfaction too seemed to be on the verge of delight, and Saitou could practically hear the gears grinding in her head as she came up with some elaborate description of what type of dates he enjoyed going on. But there was more a pressing concern at the moment, and Saitou himself spoke up for the first time in a while: “It’s interesting you’re talking like you have money when you’re still dressed like that.” (This wasn’t actually the pressing concern, just something he felt he had to bring up first.)

“Like what?” Sanosuke demanded, looking over his jeans and layered T-shirts before turning challenging eyes under lowered brows on Saitou.

The latter pressed on without elaborating on that particular topic, however: “But what I really want to know is why you think ‘secret crime’ is ‘going on in the back room’ here. Despite the old bullet-hole, a scene like this–” he imitated Sanosuke’s gesture around them of a moment before– “would seem more indicative of an isolated incident, don’t you think?”

Now Tokio also appeared more focused on the interloper, for reasons other than that she loved messing with people. She said nothing, though, waiting for Sanosuke’s answer (and probably still contemplating her fiction about her partner’s ideal date and holding it in reserve for a better moment).

“This place always seemed sketchy,” Sanosuke shrugged. “Especially the guys in back, if you ever saw ’em. They made such good pizza, though,” he added with an unrepentant flash of teeth.

“And you didn’t report this?” Saitou’s words came out darker and more cutting than they needed to be because he was vexed both with Sanosuke’s flippancy and his own amusement at it.

“Oh, yeah,” the young man said with a roll of eyes, “like I’m gonna call you up and say, ‘Hey, this pizza place I do my work at sometimes has a bunch of really twitchy employees, and I think their food license is outdated.'”

“It would be an excuse to call,” Tokio pointed out.

“Huh.” Sanosuke acknowledged this with a thoughtful twist of lips, probably trying to decide whether having an excuse to call would be worth the hell Saitou would undoubtedly give him in response to that idiotic ‘report’ — and whether it wasn’t more likely Saitou would simply hang up on him (about which Saitou himself wasn’t entirely sure).

“Tell us about the twitchy employees,” Saitou commanded, hiding his precise facial expression by digging for his phone and stylus and opening the note-taking app he primarily used.

“OK, well…” Sanosuke launched into a detailed account of what he’d noticed about the pizzeria’s employees and their comings and goings. Though he could only guess — and did, with possibly problematic canniness — at what had been going on around here, his information served to enhance the impression Saitou and Tokio had of this place: that if you knew the right way to order and had the cash, you could get a side of stolen iPad with your breadsticks; and, just as the last time they’d met, Saitou was grudgingly impressed at Sanosuke’s eye for detail and his ability to collate the information he observed.

And it was clear Saitou wasn’t the only one when Tokio, about halfway through Sanosuke’s description, leaned over and said very unsubtly to her partner, “Kid’s got good instincts.”

Saitou restrained himself from nodding, and didn’t look up from his notes even when Sanosuke broke off to retort, “‘Kid?!’ We never talked about how old I am!”

“Old enough for Saitou,” Tokio said airily. “That’s all that’s important.”

As the banter continued and Saitou tried with varying degrees of success to get actual information out of this alternately obstructive and entertaining young man, he also tried with varying degrees of success to push away thoughts of how (he was tempted to say ‘conveniently’) well Sanosuke got along with his partner, how unexpectedly useful his powers of observation and recounting might turn out despite his simultaneously being completely in the way, and how damned attractive he still (in fact now more than ever) was.

*

Saitou had only planned to have one last, quick look around the bloody crime scene for the satisfaction of his own inquisitiveness before leaving it to forensics and heading down to the end of the alley where Tokio was already busy taking statements; but as his eyes had risen from the pocked and stained asphalt surface on which he stood, past the rusty dumpster and collection of plastic trash cans that surrounded it, and up the dirty brick walls of the buildings that loomed over him to either side, he discovered he wasn’t going to be able to walk away just yet.

“What are you doing?” he asked the young man squatting on the lowest level of the decrepit fire escape and peering down through its railings. His tone wasn’t accusatory or demanding or even particularly surprised; somehow he felt he should have expected to find Sanosuke there.

“Ogling your crime scene, of course,” the latter replied easily. “And you, maybe.” Even more so here than when Saitou had originally met him, he seemed to shine brilliantly, ridiculously visually appealing and desirable in contrast with the dilapidation and grime and evidence of murder around him. He was also, and for reasons beyond his mere presence where his absence would have been more appropriate, still annoying. “And before you say I’m not supposed to be here, there’s people watching from up there too–” He jabbed a finger skyward, indicating two figures peering down from the fire escape’s fourth platform– “and you should really start at the top.”

They’re not ogling me, though.”

Though Saitou had said it at a mutter, Sanosuke obviously caught the statement, for he grinned. “They are if they have any brains!”

There was some impulse to return the expression, but Saitou resisted easily. “What are you doing here?” he asked again, grim.

Sanosuke’s eyes shifted from where they’d been wantonly traversing Saitou’s figure to the ground nearby where a splatter of red was drying to copper. And though his tone didn’t sound quite as dead serious as Saitou’s had, he still spoke levelly. “Got a text from a friend saying something was going on — police and stuff.” Next he indicated behind him with a thumb. “The guy in this apartment was nice enough to let me come out here and have a look.”

Of this Saitou could not approve. “In other words,” he said cuttingly, “you’re sitting up there like a vulture waiting to feed off of someone else’s death. Crime dramas aren’t enough for you anymore, so you have to get your fix by dogging the police trying to see the real thing.”

Sanosuke sprang to his feet, barely missing knocking his head against the metal stairs upward behind him. “Don’t act like you know what my motivations are.” Fists clenched and eyes flashing from on high, he appeared more lively and enticing than ever — but Saitou feared he could no longer look at him in the same light. “I admire you, OK? And I don’t just mean your long sexy legs. You cops trying to figure shit out and make sure situations like this get resolved, trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again — just because I want to watch your procedure and see how it’s done doesn’t mean I’m disrespecting that poor guy who got killed!”

Saitou stared up and Sanosuke stared down for a long moment, and something in the officer gradually relaxed. It was an unexpected relief, actually, to find himself believing the young man’s words. Even if his presence here and irrelevant curiosity was a little tasteless, Sanosuke truly didn’t intend any disrespect. Even if he was still a dumbass. Saitou probably shouldn’t have been so pleased.

Possibly sensing the change in atmosphere despite Saitou’s continued silence, Sanosuke added at a grumble, “And don’t talk about crime dramas like they’re worthless. Nothing wrong with getting some entertainment out of crime, since it has to happen anyway. Besides, they make people think, don’t they?”

“I’m not sure they make people think about anything useful.” Saitou’s tone had eased as his attitude had. He wasn’t about to offer an apology for having misjudged, but in a slightly more conciliatory manner he did add, “I do enjoy some crime dramas, though.”

Anger seemingly in full recession, Sanosuke dropped back into the same crouch as before; it allowed him a closer view through the railings of the narrow street beneath him. And his tone too had lightened as he replied, “We should read some together sometime,” with an incongruously suggestive smile.

“‘Read?'” Saitou echoed in surprise. Literature was not the medium he would have expected Sanosuke to propose.

“Yeah, you know, like… Barnes & Noble and chill.”

Saitou laughed. He couldn’t help it. He sobered quickly, though, shaking his head and making the scan he’d come here for in the first place. When he glanced back up at the fire escape, he found Sanosuke watching him intently. “You’re not likely to see a lot of procedure here today. The team’s going to get started soon, and you’re going to be asked to leave.”

Sanosuke merely shrugged. “At least I got to see you.”

“Do you want to join the police?” Saitou wondered, ignoring this latest bit of flirtation. “Is that what this is about?”

“No. What?” Sanosuke seemed inordinately surprised at the question, as if the idea had never occurred to him and he was a little incredulous it had to Saitou. “Actually I’m an–” But he stopped when Saitou’s phone warbled thrice in quick succession.

I see you gossiping over there, Tokio had sent from the alley’s entrance. The second message read, Is that that kid from the pizza place? Followed immediately by, If you’re not going to help me take statements, I hope you’re at least setting up a double date with him and someone for me. She had a remarkable gift for never letting on that she was texting while busy with something else.

I’m taking HIS statement, Saitou replied, and proceeded to do so. “How long have you been out here?” he asked as he returned his eyes to Sanosuke, who he knew had not been stationed on the fire escape for any significant span but who, with that unexpected detail orientation of his, yet might have noticed something useful.

In order to look at his watch, Sanosuke pulled back the sleeve of his hoodie. It was the same he’d been wearing the first time Saitou had encountered him, the one whose bright red looked so good with his brown eyes and dark brows. “Twelve minutes,” he answered in the more businesslike tone he used to give solicited information, “and we’ve been talking for three.”

His statement about where we’ll all be going out to dinner tonight? Tokio wondered. I never did get a chance to tell him what your dream date would be like.

“So you didn’t see anything here.” The body would have been gone by the time Sanosuke emerged from the apartment, it seemed.

“Thought you weren’t supposed to frame it as a leading statement like that,” Sanosuke said with a crafty smile. Observing Saitou’s impatient expression he added, “No, sorry, I didn’t see anything here except the neighbors upstairs.”

“We’ll have to talk to them,” Saitou confirmed. He paused for a moment in order to send, If YOU want to go to dinner with him tonight, I’ll give you his number. Then he asked aloud, “Who was the friend who texted you to come here?”

And as Sanosuke described his acquaintance and the circumstances under which the guy had noticed the gathering police — all perfectly, dully innocuous — Tokio replied, So you DO have his number.

May I remind you someone has died here. Saitou wished he could send a stern expression in some manner other than by using emojis, which he found stupid and counterproductive.

“Are you texting your partner at the same time you’re questioning me?” Sanosuke asked with uncanny acumen. “Say hi to her for me.”

“May I remind you someone has died here?” Satisfyingly, Saitou was now able to employ the stern expression.

“I know that.” Sanosuke stood straight again, looking around once more at the taped-off area. His bearing and faint frown indicated he truly was taking this seriously, despite any little indications to the contrary. It was an almost police-like attitude of Life goes on in spite of everything that struck Saitou as odd and more than a little fascinating coming from someone that had expressed surprise at the idea of his wanting to join the force.

Did that kid kill him? was the next text from Tokio, and Saitou stifled a sighing laugh. It wasn’t as if they didn’t pretty typically use gallows humor and fake flippancy in most situations like this, after all. Life went on in spite of everything; Sanosuke couldn’t really be blamed for exhibiting some levity even in the wake of a murder when the cops did the same thing. Actually it stirred up a sense of camaraderie between them that Saitou would rather it didn’t, and made the idea of spending time with him — in some situation besides the somewhat ridiculous ones in which they’d met so far — seem all the more appealing.

“You guys’ll figure it out,” Sanosuke went on in a lighter tone. “By dinner time, maybe? Then you can meet me somewhere. Do you like pizza? We never established that last time.”

Thinking he really should give his partner Sanosuke’s number, since the two of them were so eager to have dinner somewhere tonight, Saitou instead pocketed his phone in some irascibility without responding to Tokio’s latest, which was, In any case, say hi to him for me. And tell him I own this entire city block. In fact she didn’t even own her car. He did not relay the greeting of either one of them.

“Or you could come to my place — you remember where I live, right? — and I’ll cook us dinner. And then breakfast tomorrow,” Sanosuke finished with eyebrows pumping.

Saitou rolled his own eyes at the impudence that could flirt so blatantly while overlooking the tragic and gruesome. Simultaneously, though, it made for another nice contrast. “I have no more questions for you,” he said shortly. “You’d better clear out.”

“OK, fine.” Sanosuke’s tone was one of mingled regret and frustration, with just a touch of defiance thrown in; Saitou, having turned away and started walking, couldn’t see his face, but he believed the obnoxious kid was torn between respecting the crime scene and annoyance with Saitou for not responding to his amorous efforts. He was also probably, based on what Saitou knew of him so far, trying to concoct one last snappy statement, whatever its purport. After all, the chances of their meeting like this ever again — by coincidence while Saitou was working — seemed infinitesimal, so if he wanted to change the nature of their relationship, this was pretty much his last chance.

The only thing he came up with, however, before (if the sound of rough hinges and the closing of a door was any indication) also turning and leaving, was a shouted, “Call me!”

And Saitou didn’t necessarily know that he would. But the temptation was definitely there.

*

He’d been wrong. So very wrong. He imagined a number of shapes lying on a table — perhaps a table like the one at which he now stood — onto which a fist had just slammed down hard — harder than his limp hands had helplessly come to rest on this one — and the shapes jumping into the air and falling again all scrambled into an entirely new pattern. Everything was different now, and a lot of facts bore considering in quick succession.

Zanza Sagara, quite possibly Saitou’s favorite author, had suggested they read together.

Zanza Sagara, Saitou’s favorite author, had asked if Saitou was single.

Zanza Sagara had called Saitou ‘sexy.’

Zanza Sagara, historically so repressive in keeping his personal life separate from his professional, had actually, at one point (Saitou realized now), been on the verge of crossing the line and mentioning to some random guy he was flirting with that he was an author of detective novels. On the verge of letting Saitou in on that secret in order to make him understand why he was so interested in crime scenes.

Zanza Sagara had cared that much what Saitou thought.

Given that there were seven books in the Yuki Tomoshiro series, that they’d been released over the last decade, and that no preteen had written any of it, Zanza Sagara had to be at least ten years older than that fresh face of his indicated. And he really did live in town… in fact Saitou knew exactly where he lived… He knew where he had, at least up until its closure a few months back, worked on his novels while eating cheap pizza. He knew what color most flattered his eyes, and it wasn’t the sage green of the tie-less button-up he currently wore.

Now the author looked over at the sudden movement through the crowd and abrupt appearance at his signing table, and his jovial face broke into a wide grin. And why was Saitou so damn pleased at that familiar expression? Yes, this was Zanza Sagara, his favorite author, but it was also that dumbass kid he’d never quite been able to bring himself to reprimand properly for being obnoxious and obstructive, because he was so very, very distracting.

The two were merging irrevocably in Saitou’s thoughts, however. His favorite author was taking on the undeniably gorgeous looks and compelling aura of the dumbass kid, and the dumbass kid was revealed to have the intelligence and creativity to write a series of books Saitou hadn’t been able to put down. It frustrated and disconcerted him. He didn’t know what to do.

“Saitou!” Zanza jumped up, knocking his folding chair over with a clatter and appearing overjoyed — which still, aggravatingly, provoked a similar response in the officer. The author’s surprise at seeing him faded quickly as he added what would have been incongruous with that emotion: “You made it!”

The crowd, previously discontented at Saitou’s rude intrusion, seemed to relax and accept his presence much more readily as the person they were all here to see reacted so favorably to it. There was some shifting — these were probably bookstore employees and maybe an agent or publisher’s representative standing near the author, and some looks of slight confusion passed among them as Sanosuke seized Saitou’s arm and dragged him around the end of the table to stand beside him. Saitou, still shell-shocked and not sure how to react, went unresisting.

“Guys, this is Detective Saitou, RCPD!” Sanosuke announced. He draped an arm around Saitou’s shoulders in a manner so far from platonic that Saitou marveled there wasn’t a chorus of titters from the assembly, and fitted himself against Saitou’s just slightly taller form as if he’d been designed for that space. It was obnoxiously comfortable, and Saitou had to actively fight the urge to slip his own arm around Sanosuke’s waist. “He helped me with some accuracy checks in this latest book…”

Perhaps this statement was true in a sense, but it certainly made it sound as if Saitou had provided a lot more directed information and critique than had actually been the case. It also, somewhat to Saitou’s chagrin, gave him a little thrill, as if he really had been involved in the production of the most recent installment of his favorite series. He shouldn’t be feeling so much excitement about this; Sanosuke just wanted to get into his pants, right?

Though was that idea really so bad?

“…and he’s going to be my consultant for all the rest of the series!” Sanosuke finished, and Saitou had to clench his jaw to keep it from dropping open. There was no doubt the sly young author meant what he suggested, but in addition to that a twist to the sound of ‘be my consultant’ implied so much more than just police-picking details in future books (itself a delightful prospect). The arm around Saitou’s shoulders tightened, and the warmth all along his side seemed to squirm just slightly closer. “Right, Saitou?”

“You shameless idiot,” was what Saitou wanted to say. But under the gaze of a hundred expectant fans (among whom he reluctantly had to number himself), with the prospect in mind of getting a glimpse not only at Zanza Sagara’s work in advance but also at his writing process as it took place, and with a very desirable person he hadn’t wanted to admit he would like to get to know better in a couple of different senses pressed covetously up against him, all he could manage was, “Of course.”

That this bargain had been struck only this moment, and perhaps somewhat under the duress of an unexpected public appearance, it seemed a fair amount of the audience recognized, and there was some laughter interspersed among the applause that followed, but nobody seemed to object. Sanosuke gave his possessive arm another squeeze, then looked around for the chair he’d knocked over so as to resume his celebrity activities — but not until after granting Saitou a very private and evocative grin that promised a host of interesting possibilities for the future.

Well, Saitou was thoroughly embroiled now, but he found he didn’t mind so much. Anticipation and curiosity filled in the gap between astonishment and annoyance at today’s unanticipated events, and looking forward through a disbelieving haze that fully obscured what on earth might happen from here — not to mention the necessity of staving off Tokyo’s inevitable curiosity about his inevitable preoccupation — would undoubtedly occupy his work shift to a lesser or greater extent.

He’d been wrong about the diminutive likelihood of ever meeting Sanosuke by coincidence again; he’d been wrong about the minuscule probability of the young man’s getting what he wanted. He’d been wrong about his real level of interest both in Sanosuke Higashidani and Zanza Sagara, and as such could never have imagined the direction this day would go when he’d decided, under the pretense of having nothing better to do and unrelatedly wanting to look at e-readers, to stop by this bookstore to catch a glimpse of his favorite author. He’d been wrong about a fair few things, it seemed.

Perhaps forgivably wrong, though.

This fic, which I’ve rated , is dedicated to Yaoibutterfly, because one time when they were telling me about a story idea they had, my brain tangented and came up with this thing. For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

I Like Your Face

I Like Your Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. So explain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saitou nodded solemnly.

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

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

“Yeah, but you never show it.”

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

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

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

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

For a few more notes, see this Productivity Log.

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

Prison of Their Own Making

Prison of Their Own Making

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered.

Tom Felton organizes a silly little reunion, and it gets sillier.

Prison of Their Own Making

When Tom stepped from his car into the parking lot to meet his friends, he was a little dismayed if not particularly surprised to find a grand total of two people waiting for him — only Daniel and Emma, the ones he saw most routinely anyway — at the specified time.

After hugs and handclasps of greeting, Emma looked around curiously and commented, “I thought you invited everyone.”

Tom shrugged. “I guess everyone’s busy.”

I’m very busy,” Emma replied in a mock huffy tone, “and I’m here.”

With a laugh Tom put a comradely arm around her shoulders and hugged her again. “It’s really good to see you guys.”

Daniel too was scanning the area. “It is,” he agreed, shrugging slightly as he turned back without having found a trace of any of their other friends. “So what are we doing, exactly?”

Tom frowned across the lot at their destination, then threw one last, futile glance at the empty parking spaces nearby. “Well, I’d like to wait and see if anyone else shows up, but we’re scheduled for 4:00, so we’d better go inside.”

“That doesn’t actually answer the question, though,” Emma pointed out as they crossed toward the tinted glass doors awaiting them.

Tom grinned. “You’ll see inside.” The others rolled their eyes at this pointed but pointless mystery, but didn’t hesitate to accompany him.

They did see inside, and the continued rolling of eyes and a certain amount of gaping once they were there prevented any further comments from Daniel or Emma as Tom got them checked in. “Felton?” the attendant was saying, flipping through pages on a clipboard. “Yeah, we’ve got you down for four, but I thought you were going to have a lot more people with you?”

“Seems like all our other friends are gits who can’t show up on time to a reunion get-together,” Tom explained. “I thought we’d get started, and if anyone else arrives you can let them in, all right?”

Although this arrangement didn’t entirely seem to suit the attendant, he nevertheless agreed; Tom had paid him a decent amount of money. After some picky business with waivers the man didn’t even look at once they were all filled out, he ushered them down a narrow hallway to where a set of lockers stood across from a dark door. Once he’d allowed Emma to stow her purse in the former, he drew their attention to the latter and began giving instructions. These dragged on for what seemed an unnecessary length of time, perhaps because the only one of the three to respond and confirm he was actually paying attention was Tom; the others maintained a dubious silence. But finally the man finished his dissertation, handed each of them a large round button with a pin on the back for attaching to one’s clothing, and stepped past them to open the door and allow them to enter.

Inside what proved to be a cramped but high-ceiling’d entry or antechamber, the moment the way behind them was closed, Daniel and Emma rounded immediately on Tom with expressions of skeptical amusement and demanded almost in unison, “A Harry-Potter-themed escape room?”

Tom’s grin was part sheepishness and part cheek. “When I saw they had one, I couldn’t resist.”

“Of all the silly things to drag me away from everything I was busy with…” Emma was rolling her eyes again, but she laughed as she said it.

“Does that bloke out there know who we are?” Daniel wondered at about the same moment.

Tom shrugged. “I don’t know. You’d think he would, but it’s been so long…”

“Well…” Emma turned away from them to examine the tiny room. “We only have an hour, right? Since we’re here, we might as well get going on it.”

The nature of the first puzzle was immediately apparent. A big wooden door with an old-fashioned wrought-iron handle and lock blocked their path, the keyhole gaping at them like a taunting mouth. And above them, too far up to be reached even with a skillful vertical spring, myriad winged keys dangled on strings from the distant ceiling. A fan seemed to be running up there, for the keys spun and jostled and clinked together in not too bad an imitation of the scene from the film.

Finished peering into the jingling dimness, Daniel dropped his eyes to the more accessible parts of the room again. “There’s no broom…”

And this is reality,” Emma reminded him. “How were you expecting to fly up there?”

Now it was Daniel’s turn to look a little sheepish. “I thought if I could find a broom and sit on it, the right key might fall down.”

“It’s sure to fall down if we do something,” Tom mused.

At that moment the door behind them opened once again, and they were joined by Rupert, who came bounding into the small space and immediately clapped Tom on the back. “All right, guys? Tom, you’re a genius! I would have never guessed this was your idea! How did you find this place?”

“Online, of course,” Tom told him, returning the slap on the back.

Daniel winced even as he moved to take his turn greeting Rupert. “You look at Harry Potter stuff online?”

“So what are we doing here?” Rupert wondered before Tom could answer the somewhat loaded question.

“Trying to get the right key to come down to open this door,” Emma explained as she hugged him in her turn. “And before you ask, there’s no broom.”

“Well, and this is reality anyway,” Rupert allowed.

“It was the natural first thing to look for!” protested Daniel.

“But there is a wand over there.” Everyone followed Rupert’s pointing finger, wondering how he’d noticed when he’d been in the room a fraction of the time they had.

Emma moved to snatch the prop from the little wall-mounted shelf where it lay beside a vase of fake flowers. Examining it, she said, “This is one of those official replicas. I think it’s Draco’s.”

“Let me see,” said the admitted Draco expert. And when he too had studied it for a moment he confirmed, “Yeah, this one’s mine. But I don’t remember the fetching-things spell.”

“Accio,” Daniel supplied with a grin. “I should really know.”

Tom thanked him and pointed the wand upward. “Accio key!”

Emma’s amused reminiscent murmur of “Swish and flick!” was drowned out by the sound of the shelf from which they’d retrieved the wand crashing from its supports down against the wall and the vase that had previously rested upon it — apparently made of nothing more delicate than plastic — falling to the floor.

“Oh, crap, we broke the escape room,” Tom muttered as he lowered his wand. He looked guiltily toward the door, expecting the attendant to enter at any moment and demand what they were playing at not five minutes into this challenge.

“No, I think that was supposed to happen.” Daniel bent thoughtfully to pick up the fallen vase and gather its silk flowers. “That was sort of like what happened when I — when Harry tried to use a wand that wasn’t right for him. Remember?”

“That’s right!” Rupert pointed at Daniel enthusiastically as he agreed with the theory. “We have to find a different wand!” And he began poking into the room’s darker corners.

As they all searched, the main door opened again and admitted Evanna into what was by now a very crowded space indeed. Hugs were getting difficult, but they managed them, and then the newcomer wondered what they were all looking for. Once Tom explained, she shook her head with a smile.

“But it won’t be a different wand. It’ll be the same wand, only somebody else has to use it.”

Their foolish looks at each other indicated their concurrence with this idea they wished they’d thought of sooner.

“We could all try it,” Daniel suggested reluctantly, glancing around. “There’s not much else to destroy in here if we get it wrong.”

But Emma said suddenly, “No, I get it! It’s Draco’s wand, so it can only be used by whichever of us got assigned Slytherin — that’s you, Dan.”

They all looked down at the buttons they wore. Tom had fastened his on without really paying attention — the attendant had still been talking at that point, and all he’d said about these accoutrements was that they would provide valuable clues — but now as he handed the wand over to Daniel he remarked, “I always did rather fancy Hufflepuff.”

This time when Daniel pointed the wand upward and confidently said, “Accio key!” nothing in the room around them fell apart… but if there was a more positive effect, they all missed it, for just as he spoke, the entrance opened again and Bonnie came in.

There was now barely room to move in here, and as everyone shuffled awkwardly around trying to greet their friend, it wasn’t even clear who muttered, “We really need to get this door open.”

“And what are we doing to get the door open?” Bonnie asked. With a glance at the dangling keys that evidently apprised her of the situation, she added, “I guess we can’t fly up there with a broom in real life.”

It was clear who snorted at this.

“We were trying to summon it,” Rupert explained.

“That… usually doesn’t work in real life either,” Bonnie pointed out with laughter in her tone.

Daniel just raised the wand again, nearly taking Evanna’s eye out as he did so. “Accio key!”

Nothing happened.

“Try pronouncing it ‘ax-ee-oh,'” Tom suggested. It was getting pretty hot in here, and he hoped uneasily that everyone was wearing antiperspirant.

And when the altered pronunciation too produced no results, Emma wondered, “Are we sure this is right?”

Evanna said, “I think you need to be more specific with the spell.”

Bonnie agreed. “Yeah, you have to say which key you want.”

“I can’t see any of them clearly, though,” Daniel complained, gently head-bashing Rupert as he craned his neck to look upward. “What should I say?”

“Which key was it in the film?” someone asked.

“I wasn’t even in the studio when you guys filmed that scene.” Tom started to shrug, then, finding his two arms pressed up against Emma’s back and Rupert’s side, respectively, thought better of it.

“I wasn’t even in the franchise when you guys filmed that scene,” Evanna put in.

“But there was a line about it,” Emma insisted. She added at a mutter, trying to remember, “What was it?”

“I’ve done a lot of other films since then,” Daniel said helplessly.

I’ve been driving an ice cream truck.” This was apparently all Rupert had to offer.

Tom advised, “Just try everything you can think of.”

“Accio correct key!” Daniel jabbed the wand toward the ceiling again. “Accio the key we need!”

“Try colors,” someone suggested.

“Accio black key! Accio brown key! Accio silver key! Accio rainbow key!”

“That’s a lot of keys!” came another voice from the newly opened door — the statement and a slight, very refreshing breeze from the orifice were the first indications of James’s presence.

“Yeah, do we really need all of those keys?” Oliver wedged himself in beside his brother, cheerfully eliminating the very last of the available space. “Or would just the rainbow one do?” And as the entry closed behind the twins, verbal pandemonium broke out.

Far above the reunited group now packed like sardines into the little escape room antechamber, unseen but not unseeing, seated on the fluffiest of clouds overlooking the bustling Earth, two winged men shared a bowl of celestial peanuts. These came up honey-roasted for one, lightly salted for the other, as each preferred, and now the elder of the two — though it was difficult to distinguish ages in this context — plucked one nut from the container and flicked it down toward the subject of their entertainment. It faded away into nothingness as it fell, unlike his chuckling lament, “They’ve wasted twenty minutes on just the first puzzle!”

“‘We’re looking for a big old-fashioned one,'” the younger man quoted. “‘Probably rusty like the handle.’ ‘The one with the broken wing.'” And he shook his head with a wry smile.

“Now, Alan, you have to remember that they don’t have nearly as much freedom as we do to marathon all eight films whenever they please.”

“You still think they can make it?”

“They always worked together well in the studio.”

“I think you’re going to end up owing me twenty wingfeathers, Richard.” Alan rattled his own angelic appendages in satisfaction.

“Bets aren’t binding in Heaven,” Richard replied piously.

“Which is why we came down here to watch,” said Alan with a grin. “Look, he’s trying the spell again.”

And with another handful of peanuts apiece, the two divine messengers returned their attention to the scene below and their friends’ sporting attempt at finding a way out of a dark, crowded, sweaty, and ridiculously appropriate prison of their own making.

This was for my very own mother’s November Quick Fics 2017 prompt, “The child actors that play the HPworld characters do a HP escape room. Although maybe as adults.” I was not expecting any RPF prompts for this, least of all from my mom XD Hopefully nobody that reads this piece knows how any of these people actually act or talk, since I purely made it all up. Also, at the time it may have been Too Soon re: Alan Rickman, but there it is.

I’ve rated this story . For some author’s notes, see this Productivity Log.

The Test



Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

In response to Heero’s tendency to date the biggest jerks on the planet, his friends have developed a screening process for all potential boyfriends. This latest guy seems like he might be up to scratch, but only if he can survive The Test.

The Test

Section 1

“In eleventh grade was when I started pursuing art seriously.”

That’s where you’re starting with this?”

“Yeah… this is going to be a long explanation.”

“If you’re starting in eleventh grade it is!”

“Sorry.”

“No, don’t worry about it! I’m totally fine hearing about eleventh grade. So you got into art seriously?”

“Yeah. My parents didn’t want me to. They said there was no future in it. And by ‘future’ I mean ‘money.’ They wanted me to — they still want me to get into law.”

“You know, I think you would make a pretty decent lawyer, if lawyers weren’t all so evil.”

“It would be a very practical way to fund my interest in art. If it were a field that interested me at all.”

“Well, I definitely won’t question you being more interested in art than being a lawyer. That’s like the difference between chocolate cake and stabbing yourself in the eye.”

“Is it?”

“You have to admit it is!”

“I guess… maybe… that’s one way to describe it. Anyway. My parents have never been happy I wasn’t interested in law. Once my mother asked — as if she didn’t want to bring this up at all but I’d forced her to — if my interest in art had anything to do with me being gay. That was the only time they ever came close to giving me a hard time about being gay. The question confused me a little at first, but she explained she thought maybe I was getting into something stereotypically gay because I felt like I needed to reinforce that I was gay… or something.”

Is art stereotypically gay?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe? Gayer than law, I guess. Obviously she thought it was, since she asked. Of course I told her I was interested in it for its own sake. She didn’t ask again. I think they didn’t try to stop me from getting into the art club at school because they hoped I’d discover I wasn’t really interested. Or maybe that I wasn’t good at it. Then I could quit and do what they wanted me to do.

“But I was interested. And I was good at it. Good enough to keep going, anyway. I loved the art club. We met after school, and it was fun and educational. Then I would take the city bus home, and that was how I met Trowa. He was a junior at my school too, and he was taking an after-school guitar class. Since he lived out past me in the same direction, he took the same bus home.”

“Hah! So you were an art student hanging out with a beatnik guitar player who turned out to be totally insane; I bet your parents loved that!”

“I definitely didn’t mention him to them for a while, at least not specifically. They probably would have thought I was dating him if I had. You’re right, they probably wouldn’t have approved.”

Did you ever go out with him?”

“No. He’s not really my type. Don’t get me wrong: he was my best friend for two years of high school, and he’s been one of my best friends ever since. But we were never interested in each other like that.”

“Maybe because he’s out of his fucking mind?”

“He wasn’t always quite so… enthusiastic… about things. Well, actually, he probably was. He just didn’t always have the funding. But the neighborhood he lived in was pretty rough. He grew up knowing how to fight and how to take care of himself, so I guess all of this was… inevitable…”

“And you were both out of the closet?”

“Neither of us had a big social circle. All right, that’s an understatement. We were each other’s only friends, and neither of us wanted more friends. So some people knew and some people didn’t. We didn’t try to hide, but we didn’t exactly broadcast it either.”

“That’s probably better than what I did…”

“What was that?”

“I actually came out by dumping my girlfriend — this was freshman year — because I was thinking I was probably gay when I found myself crushing hard on this one guy who seemed like he liked me back. It was a jerk thing to do to her without any warning like that, and even, like, fourteen years later I still feel kinda bad about it. Especially when I realized I was bi anyway.”

“Did this guy at least actually like you back?”

“Um, sort of… yes? but not in the right way. He had this idea somehow that I was really easy — probably the way I dumped my poor girlfriend didn’t help — and he wanted what he called an ‘open relationship,’ by which he mostly meant he would do absolutely nothing to keep up his half, but he would try to hit me up for sex whenever he felt like it.”

“Wow, in ninth grade?”

“Not going to pretend I wasn’t having sex my freshman year… just mostly not with him.”

“So you were cheating on him.”

“How could I? It was an open relationship! Though mostly he left me in this huge state of annoyance too constantly for me to be in the mood to find anyone else. He would never pay for anything. We’d go places, and he’d always just assume I was paying. God, he was such a jerk. We had so many loud arguments about everything we wanted each other to do before he finally ended it… if you can end something that practically didn’t exist in the first place.”

“I can’t decide if that’s better or worse than my first boyfriend.”

“Oh, yeah?”

***

It was a Monday not quite halfway through the semester when the new and very interesting pictures turned up in the big room where Heero had his drawing class, and, as he’d arrived a bit early, he had a chance to look through them at his leisure. Not everything Ms. Hilde brought in was to Heero’s taste, but they were always worth glancing at, even if just to guess what artistic principle she would be using them to illustrate. These new pieces, however, were very much to Heero’s taste.

For his own part, he preferred to work in graphite or charcoal. Ms. Hilde had facetiously told him that his fixation on monochrome seemed a little psychotic, but he stuck to his guns. That didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate colors, though, especially colors like these; the artist seemed fond of brief lines of striking contrast, or bright streaks and swirls of opposites, and the effect was quite nice.

The subjects were all human and all moving, many of them athletes but some wearing street clothes and just randomly in vigorous motion. And nearly every one of them had at least one feature that was conspicuously distorted — an unusually shaped torso, a pair of oversized hands, oddly tiny feet — that helped the figure’s lines fit neatly into the overall composition or drew the eye where the artist wanted it.

There were seven pieces total, and they reminded Heero of nothing so much as Van Gogh, though the similarity lay in little more than a certain sense about the brush-strokes: convoluted, seemingly erratic, they invariably fulfilled their purpose and simultaneously implied a fair amount of insanity in the brain driving the brush. There was a strong sense of mobility — a wildness, almost — about each picture, which kept Heero’s gaze moving from one point to another and allowed little rest. It was almost tiring.

Although Heero guessed it had been laid in thin, diluted layers, the paint was built up thick and hard, and, given how it seemed the brush had moved and the little splattery trails in places, had probably ended up all over more than just the canvas. He imagined the unknown artist, a paint-spattered, off-kilter genius, standing in front of an easel — no, not standing: unable to stand still, dancing slightly in excitement — filling in the background in motions of arm and body far larger than the tiny, manic brush-strokes actually required. He smiled faintly to himself at the thought.

There was an artist’s signature on each of the wild paintings, but, though it looked very nice, it was distinctly unreadable. Curious, he tipped the canvases forward in turn, examining the backs for more information. Finally, on the second-to-last, he found, in a scrawl almost as messy as the signature on the front, the words Duo Maxwell. At least that’s what he thought it said. It didn’t make much difference, though, since he’d never heard of the person. Still, he thought that, as much as he would ever like to meet anyone he didn’t already know (which wasn’t generally a great deal), he wouldn’t mind meeting this artist.

As usual, the class began with an hour of work time. While they plugged away at the current assignment, which had to do with perspective and foreshortening, or caught up on unfinished previous pieces, the students chatted or just worked quietly and listened to the radio, and the teacher walked among them making comments and suggestions.

Despite how personable she was, Ms. Hilde had always intimidated Heero just a little. After all, she was in her late twenties, as was he, but she taught college-level art classes. It wasn’t the most expensive or venerable college in the world, but it was still a college. Beyond this, though modesty or something in her contract prevented her from mentioning it directly, Heero knew she had a relatively successful career as an artist outside this job. Still, these intimidating qualities were also precisely what made her a good teacher — that and her ability to give suggestions in a wonderfully friendly and encouraging manner.

Eventually they all put away what they were working on and sat back for the lecture portion of the class. Heero had been looking forward to this today, interested in the new pictures and what Ms. Hilde would have to say about them; it was always nice to have her point out aspects that he might have missed, to hear her perspective. Today her take provoked just as much thought as it ever did, but Heero had to admit to a slight amount of distraction as he took in once again the details of the paintings he’d been so admiring at the beginning of class.

“You’ll notice this artist is extremely skilled at human proportions,” the instructor was saying as she gestured with two fingers at various spots and along various invisible lines. “That way, when he wants to achieve some effect — like in this one where he sweeps the focus riiight around to here — he can include just a slight deliberate error, just distend the arms a little as you can see, and it’s much more striking in contrast with the rest of the body, which is portrayed entirely accurately; it draws the eye much better than if the entire body were out of proportion.

“With body proportions, just like with everything else we’ve studied, it’s important to have a solid knowledge and the ability to get it right before you deliberately start doing it wrong. Which is why we’ll be doing some figure drawing next. We’ll be mostly working from photos and from each other because of the usual budget nonsense, but — and this is extremely important, so listen up — we will have a real model next week. So you need to be here. If you miss Monday, you are going to be responsible for finding your own live model who’s willing to pose nude for you to draw. I know better than pretty much anyone in the world how awkward it is to ask people to do that, so take it from me: be here.”

There was some laughter, both at the reference to ‘the usual budget nonsense,’ which was a sort of running joke in this class, and at Ms. Hilde’s expression as she touched on the issues inherent in finding nude models. Then, after a few more announcements and one or two final points about the paintings she just couldn’t help making even though she had presumably finished talking about them for now (this was also a running joke), she dismissed them until Wednesday. And Heero wandered out toward his next class with a brain full of the bright colors and unquenchable motion of the unknown Duo Maxwell.

***

“I didn’t really go out with anyone before junior year. I just didn’t know a lot of gay guys.”

“And the one you did know was your best friend you were never interested in like that, and you guys didn’t bother telling people you were gay.”

“Something like that. But that year I met this guy named Evan who was friendly and funny and bisexual…”

“And hot?”

“Yes. I’m an artist. I can’t help it if hot guys catch my eye. Stop laughing at me. Evan was hot, yes, and he had that kind of bright personality that drew people to him. I got drawn. I’m not sure what made him notice me. I don’t think I was really his type. But pretty soon we were going out. I liked it at first… or at least I convinced myself I did… but I think I was lying to myself after not too long, for a long time.

“Trowa never liked him. I swear Trowa is loyalty made into a human being. He’s unfailingly steadfast about things, and he never quits once he’s made up his mind. He made up his mind about Evan, and he wouldn’t give up no matter what I had to say about it. He was constantly telling me I should break up with him. That I ‘deserved better.’ I figured that was the kind of thing a best friend would always say, and ignored it.”

“You must have had it bad.”

“What I definitely had was nothing to compare my relationship to. I guess I didn’t really know how bad it was. Evan… it seemed like Evan just wanted a trophy boyfriend.”

“I didn’t know you could have a trophy boyfriend in high school.”

“He looked better having a boyfriend. I guess having someone at all put him in a higher rank socially. If that person was a guy, it made him edgy or something. And I was a pretty good student who was in the art club, and most people thought I was pretty good-looking.”

“Um, yeah.”

“So I guess I made pretty good arm-candy for him. Looking back on it, I can see perfectly well now — though I never could then — that he was never really interested in me. He hardly ever bothered to hang out with only me. He pretty much just wanted me with him when other people were around, so they could see what a great couple we were. And at those times, the way he talked to me… well, it wasn’t even talking to me half the time. He would talk about me, as if I wasn’t there.

“He said all sorts of embarrassing personal things. We weren’t having sex, but he always made it sound like we were. He’d say things like, ‘And those rumors you hear about Japanese guys not being well-hung? Totally not true.’ Right in front of me, but without really acknowledging that I was there. Without noticing that it embarrassed the hell out of me.”

“Noticing or caring! Wow, I hope you eventually punched his lights out!”

“I’ve never been much for punching people. Not unless they hit me first. Trowa almost did, though. Six or seven times, if I remember correctly.”

“Good for him!”

“Evan would flirt with people right in front of me, too. With practically everyone, really. Looking back, I’m pretty sure now that it wasn’t just flirting, but that’s all he ever did when I was around. Of course at the time I tried not to be hurt by it. I tried to tell myself that was just his nature and he didn’t mean anything by it. But Trowa insisted he was cheating on me with half the school. He was probably right.

“So Evan was using me for cred or whatever and not really bothering to hide the fact that he was cheating on me. But then he would have the nerve to get jealous if I talked to anyone in some way he thought meant I was flirting.”

“Even though you’re not really the flirtatious type.”

“Yeah. But he would get possessive, and actually get angry. And a couple of times he actually tried to fight people over it. Of course he didn’t dare try that with Trowa, because he knew Trowa would have wiped the floor with him. But Trowa was always a sore point. Actually it’s why we eventually broke up. He was trying to pressure me to stop hanging out with Trowa because he couldn’t be sure Trowa and I weren’t ‘doing anything.’ And that was… well, that crossed a line.”

“I bet Trowa was happy.”

“He threw me a party.”

“Hah!”

“Well, he called it a party. But he’d been watching me get dragged out to real parties by Evan for eight months and secretly hate every minute of them. So his ‘party’ was just him and me and some very artsy horror movies and a lot of junk food.”

“Good for Trowa! But, god, you were with that guy for eight months?”

“Yeah, it was just a week before the end of our junior year that I broke up with him.”

“Somehow I get the feeling there’s more to this story once senior year starts.”

“Somehow you might be right.”

***

When Heero’s alarm went off the next Monday morning, he silenced it in an immediate practiced movement and buried his face in his pillow. He wasn’t sure how Sylvia had convinced him to watch that many episodes of whatever anime that had been last night, but at least three hours past the time he should already have been asleep had found him still awake and puzzling through the intricacies of some incomprehensible plot he’d come in on a third of the way through. He was going to be drooping throughout all his classes today.

Of course he could skip the first one and get some more sleep… but that was art, and he couldn’t forget Ms. Hilde’s admonishment of a week ago; how on earth was he supposed to get someone to model for him if he missed today? Quatre could most likely be convinced to do it, but that would open a can of worms for which Heero didn’t know if he was prepared. Trowa would undoubtedly demand to be present, and would look, and would critique Heero’s work with cruelly unfair bias; and Heero could already imagine himself, especially under Trowa’s lethal eye, giving only the most abstract attention to the groinal region, which, being that of a close friend, he wasn’t sure he could even bring himself to draw in the first place. No, no, he’d better go to class. This was just the price he had to pay for letting his curiosity about that weird show get the better of him.

Mostly because of the city bus schedule, Heero was usually about twenty minutes early to his drawing class. This gave him time to set up his workspace at his own pace and to look over any new pieces Ms. Hilde had brought in, or to step out to the coffee vending machine down the hall. Today was (like most days) definitely a day for coffee, but first he had to examine the setup they would be working from.

If he guessed correctly (and his awareness of the art department budget issues made him fairly certain he did), it was a recliner with the arms sawed off under that thin white blanket. He wondered how comfortable it would be for someone to lie unmoving on for two hours. He glanced around, looking for the model, and thought he’d found her upon catching sight of a figure inside Ms. Hilde’s office with extremely long brown hair and apparently wearing a bathrobe; it was difficult to tell through the warbled glass of the office door.

Having returned from his caffeine expedition, he sat down to wait for the overhot drink to cool enough for him to consume it, watching his classmates trickle in and set up their equipment. Another benefit of arriving early was that he always got the choicest spots and never had to crane his neck to see over or around someone else. He hadn’t realized just what a blessing that would be today until Ms. Hilde emerged from her office with the model and the latter became clearly visible for the first time.

It was not, in fact, as the long hair had led Heero to believe, a woman. No, it was probably the most attractive man Heero had ever seen. Bright, sparkling eyes, an even brighter smile, a level of energy that seemed to have some kind of magical draw — Heero, at least, could feel the pull of it! — and he was clearly about to remove that bathrobe. Good lord. Heero had never worked from a nude model before, and this was not the somewhat droopy and moderately, safely unattractive lady of a certain age he’d been expecting.

In addition to his breath, he found himself holding his coffee in two tense hands as the model very casually undid the tie and shrugged out of the white robe. What became of this garment Heero didn’t know, since his eyes were, at the moment, fully occupied. The figure, its back currently turned toward Heero, was long-limbed, almost lanky, but not clumsy in construction or in movement. The skin was uniformly fairly pale, but still had a tannish cast to it; this man would probably turn a brown darker than his hair with the application of some sun, but evidently that was something he didn’t get a great deal of.

The aforementioned hair obscured his entire back and gave only tantalizing hints at buttocks and upper thighs, but in itself was worth looking at. However, even as Heero was doing so, admiring its sheen and evenness, the man turned in order to assume his position on the covered chair, and the breathing Heero had just managed to resume caught and stuck again.

Scrawny was definitely a good look on this guy; the dip beneath his ribcage was, for a few moments, all-absorbing to poor Heero, followed by the region immediately beneath. An inner thigh in that impossible milky tan color couldn’t quite distract from well proportioned genitalia whose specific potential uses Heero could not possibly be ignorant of, but it was still quite a sight. And then the model was settling down onto his side, pulling one leg slightly up so as partially to hide the flaccid but still very inviting penis and at the same time give just a hint at the smooth curve and shadow rearward.

“Duo, did you want this?” Ms. Hilde held out an iPod with headphones dangling, which the model sat up again to accept from her with a grinning thanks as if he’d forgotten and would have regretted it. He had a voice almost glowingly warm, somehow simultaneously mellow but suffused with the same energy that directed his movements.

Heero, however, couldn’t concentrate properly on the voice, so dumbfounded was he by what Ms. Hilde had just said. Duo? Duo?? This incredibly gorgeous naked man he had a specific excuse to study was also the painter of those pictures Heero had been so enamored of last week? The artist he’d been specifically thinking he wouldn’t mind meeting in person? Well, it wasn’t a common name… it had to be the same guy. What a package! –not even euphemistically speaking, either (though that was perfectly true as well).

A ‘blessing,’ had he called his happening to be closer to the model than anyone else? It was a mixed blessing at best, and ‘curse’ might not have been the least appropriate alternate description. How was he going to keep his composure throughout this class? How was he supposed to keep his thoughts professional when he had that in front of him?

Well, by concentrating on technicalities. He was still an artist, after all, regardless of how red-blooded he might be. That didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally stare a lot longer than he really needed to, and he wasn’t entirely sure he never drooled, and whether his finished picture would have any of the elements of the assignment in it was a matter of question, but at least he managed not to get an erection or anything. He wondered if anyone else in the class was having this problem, but didn’t dare look around to find out.

The modeling session seemed simultaneously agonizingly long and teasingly brief; Heero barely felt he’d gotten into the rhythm of the thing (as it were), found a workable plateau for his feelings, when Ms. Hilde was calling it to a halt. A glance at his watch revealed that not only was drawing time ending, the entire class was about over; Heero remembered now that she had said they wouldn’t be having any lecture today… had it really been that long? As his eyes were drawn inexorably back to the model, he realized in some dismay that it had.

His movements sluggish as he put away his stuff, he managed to be the last out of the classroom just as he’d been the first in. He didn’t bother trying to lie to himself about his reasons for doing so. He also didn’t bother trying to restrain his subtly searching eyes from following the model now that he was moving again. Duo had slid from the armchair in an ungraceful motion and reclaimed his bathrobe from wherever it had been; even as Heero watched, the glories between neck and knees were veiled. But if he’d thought this would release him from the spell of motionlessness that seemed to have fallen over him, he was mistaken; the hair Duo swept out from where it had been pinned by the robe, and even just the way he did it, were nearly as captivating as the other sights now hidden.

The model followed the instructor into her office, but didn’t close the door behind them, and Heero found himself shifting slightly, craning his neck so as to see inside. They were conversing cheerfully, but quietly enough that only the sounds of their voices rather than distinct words could be made out by the listener. Heero struggled to turn and walk away, but at first he couldn’t quite.

At last, as he continued to watch them surreptitiously almost against his own will, he saw Ms. Hilde rise partially onto tiptoe to kiss Duo on the cheek. Well, Heero thought, that explained both how she was able to use originals of his wonderful work in her classes and why Duo was willing to model for her. He wondered if she ever got jealous at so many greedy eyes all over her boyfriend’s fabulous body for so long, or if she was simply pleased with herself because, at the end of the day, she was the one that really got him.

Finally Heero tore himself away. The kiss had been the spellbreaker as the robing hadn’t, and now, in a mixture of disappointment and some annoyance at himself for having had any hopes to be disappointed in the first place, he headed for his next class.

As captivated as he’d been, on multiple levels, during his first few hours of school, it wasn’t as if he’d been abruptly and completely smitten with unshakable lust or an interest that overcame all other cognition. He was able, without too much trouble, to concentrate on taking notes in his next class and allowing his thoughts of the attractive artist and model to fade; and by the time he’d gotten through the third and last period of the day and headed off campus toward the bus stop, the circumstances of the morning, agitating as they’d been, had taken an appropriate place in the back of his head.

In fact, as he traversed the downtown sidewalks, he was thinking about an essay he needed to write for his American Art History class, trying to decide which of the prompt questions would be the most interesting to answer, and neither had any thoughts in particular about earlier events nor paid any attention to the car that pulled up to the parking meter beside him as he walked by.

But it became evident the next moment that they weren’t actually parking when a warm voice from that vicinity called out clearly to Heero, “Hey, excuse me! Do you know this neighborhood?”

He turned, prepared to give directions, and was startled to recognize the man in the car’s passenger seat through the half-rolled-down window.

“You’re Duo Maxwell,” he said, and continued before he could stop himself, “the one who did that great blue javelin piece.”

Duo’s fairly thick eyebrows rose in an expression of amused surprise, and, instead of answering Heero, he turned to glance over his shoulder at whoever was driving the car. “That’s a new one.”

“Yeah, wow.” This voice was familiar. Heero hadn’t been planning on rudely bending down to peer at whoever was in the driver’s seat, but at these words he did it anyway — and wasn’t terribly surprised to find Ms. Hilde at the wheel, looking out at him with a thoughtful expression. She said something else to Duo that sounded like, “I say go for it.”

“Roger that,” Duo replied, with a grin to his tone, and turned back to face out the window once more. But again instead of saying anything else to Heero, he opened the car door and got out, stepping long-legged over the gutter onto the curb in front of him.

Fully clothed, Duo fit so perfectly into Heero’s mental niche of the artist that had come up with those images he admired that he almost couldn’t believe he hadn’t envisioned him specifically as he appeared now: unholy mass of hair pulled back in a long, messy braid; lively eyes sparkling over a slightly-too-wide lopsided grin; old tee-shirt bearing a faded and cracked Derain, a couple of holes, and a lot of dried paint; jeans and tennis shoes equally worn and spotted; and a demeanor of boundless energy bordering on wildness. And he was still the most attractive person Heero had ever seen.

“Can I walk with you?” Duo asked.

Utterly nonplussed, Heero just stared at him for a long moment before shaking himself free of his mild stupor and replying, “Um, sure.”

Duo grinned even more broadly and shut the door he’d been holding open with a long arm. Immediately, Ms. Hilde drove off. Heero watched the car move away down the road and pause at the intersection before continuing out of sight. Then he turned back to his new and unexpected walking companion, and found he had no idea what to say.

Instead, Duo spoke. “So you liked my javelin piece, huh?” He thrust his hands into his pockets and started ambling slowly in the direction Heero had been going, and Heero, adjusting his bag strap on his shoulder, hastened to fall in beside him.

“Yeah,” Heero said, eyeing him sidelong. He’d been hoping Duo would have something to say about what the hell was going on, but at least this topic was one Heero could talk about with relative ease. “That was my favorite. I think it was just because those particular colors really clicked for me. But I liked all the ones Ms. Hilde brought in. You’ve got an amazing sense of movement and emotion.

“That guy throwing the javelin didn’t just look like some random athlete. He really looked desperate, as if throwing that thing was the most important thing he’d ever done. And the whole piece was so alive. The lines flowed so well from the immediate focal point out to the end of the javelin. I kept thinking it was going to fly out of his hand any second while I looked at it.”

Duo was beaming. “Well, thanks!” he said, sounding very pleased. “You know, people say things like that about my stuff sometimes, but I never think about it like that while I’m painting it… I just paint whatever I feel like, and then people read stuff into it after the fact.”

Heero gave him another assessing look, simultaneously considering this and enjoying the almost intensely casual way Duo walked. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he said at last. “It wasn’t part of what I guessed about you when I first looked at your paintings last week — I was trying to guess what the painter must be like by looking at them — but it fits.”

“Were the rest of your guesses right?” Duo wondered, still grinning.

“So far I think so,” said Heero carefully.

“Except you didn’t expect me to be so young and hot,” declared Duo in a deliberately overdone tone of self-satisfaction.

Feeling himself blushing, Heero realized he was caught and decided not to try to deny it. “No, I really didn’t,” he confessed.

Duo withdrew his hands from his pockets and put them behind his head in an almost triumphant gesture. This meant one of his arms blocked his face from Heero’s view, which was disappointing. “I’ve been modeling for Hil’s art classes every semester for three years now,” he said cheerfully, “and there’s always at least one person who ogles the hell out of me. Not just studying like, ‘What’s the best way to draw this?’ but staring like, ‘Oh, god, I want a piece of that.'”

At this Heero’s blush deepened threefold, and he was torn between stammering out an apology and laughing at the touch of smugness in Duo’s tone.

“I mean,” Duo went on before Heero could resolve on anything to say, “you were pretty subtle about it, but Hil still noticed. She always notices. And that’s always when she runs The Test.”

Hearing the audible capitals Duo had given the phrase, Heero felt a stab of alarm. “‘The Test?'” he echoed, trying not to let what would certainly seem an unexpected and incongruous level of dismay sound in his voice.

“Yeah, the test to see whether or not you’re a creepy pervert,” was Duo’s disarmingly nonchalant explanation, “or if it’s safe to ask you out.” Stunned by these last three words, Heero couldn’t have interjected anything at this point even if Duo had given him time. “It’s usually what you saw — she tracks you down in the car and has me pretend to ask for directions, to see if you recognize my face with me dressed and my hair back and everything. Sometimes it’ll be someone who doesn’t walk much, though, and she has to do something else.”

Heero surprised himself by not asking the first question on his mind. Rather, he said, “But that doesn’t prove anything. Your face is just as–” And this many words were already out before he was able to stop himself.

Duo finally dropped his arms and let Heero see the face in question again. It was pleased and amused. “I’ll pretend you finished that compliment and say thanks,” he grinned. “And, yeah, you’re right, it doesn’t prove much. But it weeds out the worst of the skeeves and makes Hilde feel better. She already feels a little bad about parading me around naked without paying me for it; I think she thinks she’s making it up to me by making sure I don’t pick up another jerk S.O. at the same time.”

Again, somehow, what Heero really wanted to say was not what came out of his mouth. “So Ms. Hilde is your…”

“Sister,” Duo supplied. “Step-sister, technically. And it’s so cute how you guys all call her ‘Ms. Hilde.'”

“She says ‘Ms. Schbeiker’ makes her feel old.”

Duo laughed. “Makes her sound old, too. She’s the same age as me, and nobody calls me ‘Mr. Maxwell.’ I think I’d have to smack them, actually, if they did. Anyway, her dad met my mom at a gallery opening when we were both eight, and now we’re a big happy artist family together.”

“And you model for her classes.”

“Hey, you draw… you know how expensive things are in the art world…” Duo gave a theatrical wincing hiss. “She’s pretty much right at the bottom of the budget list at that school, and if she doesn’t have to pay her model, she can buy an extra set of Prismas or something every semester.”

“That makes sense,” Heero nodded. “Everything in the art department is always falling apart, and I think the easels are from the 70’s.”

“Yeah, you know why she started bringing in original pieces by local artists for her lessons, right? Because the only projector they had broke, so she couldn’t even put art up on that crappy screen anymore.”

“I bet she was always using yours, though,” Heero guessed.

“Well, yeah. Actually, she sometimes asks me to do something specific — like, ‘I need a piece with a really strong complementary color scheme’ — and I try my best, but I told you how I work.” Duo laughed. “Going into something trying to deliberately use a ‘really strong complementary color scheme’ is like working backwards for me.”

Heero was prompted to smile at this, and reflected that it would be an experience worth having to watch Duo work. And here he finally managed to pose the question he’d been wanting to — just as the conversation had moved completely away from the subject, naturally: “Did you say you’re asking me out?”

“Yep.” Duo evidently didn’t mind at all that Heero had brought them wheeling back around to the earlier topic; in fact, he seemed to have been waiting for it. “Do you want to go get coffee or something?” His tone was perfectly unabashed, and Heero simultaneously wondered at and admired his cavalierness — especially when Duo was the one that had been naked under two dozen eyes only a few hours ago. Of course, that had just proven that he had nothing to be ashamed of, hadn’t it?

“Yes,” Heero said without any hesitation, then added, “if you’re satisfied I’m not a creepy pervert.”

“Not really,” Duo grinned. “But you did say all that nice stuff about my paintings. If you’re a creepy pervert, you’re at least a smooth one.”

Heero couldn’t help smiling a little at this. “I’m not going to pretend your paintings were the only things I saw that I liked,” he said with a certain measure of caution. “But they definitely got me interested before I ever saw you in person.”

“There, see?” said Duo, sounding pleased. “Smooth.”

‘Smooth’ wasn’t something Heero was used to being called, but he had to admit that there was an unaccustomed amount of smoothness to this discussion. He was attributing it to Duo, however: something about Duo made conversation remarkably easy, even when Heero was inclined toward discomfort and uncertainty. Something about Duo made him feel as if they were long-time friends rather than just meeting today under somewhat unusual circumstances. Something about Duo was… welcoming.

Which probably attracted exactly the wrong sort of people, especially if Duo was naked when they first saw him. No wonder Ms. Hilde ran that Test of hers. To Heero, who was no stranger to Tests, it made sense.

He cleared his throat. “Do you know Perk Up on Meridian?”

“I’ve seen it,” Duo replied. “Don’t think I’ve ever been in there, though.”

Heero gestured to the bus stop they were approaching. “This bus stops pretty close to it, if you want to…”

***

“Senior year was when Quatre transferred to our school. That’s Quatre Winner, if that means anything to you.”

“Not really.”

“Well, his family owns probably three quarters of this city. A lot of their money comes from being mafia in the 30’s and 40’s.”

“Oh, that kind of Winner! Whoa. Yeah, I’ve heard they were gangsters back in the day — is that really true?”

“Yes. Quatre has specifically confirmed it.”

“So why did he come to your school? Didn’t he have some rich fancy private school, or just an army of private teachers or something?”

“Yeah, he was at a private school before — all the way up until twelfth grade, actually. But he was getting bullied because he was gay, and he was tired of it.”

“A Winner was getting bullied? And the best thing the Winners could come up with to do about it was transfer him to a public school?”

“There were more reasons than just that. He was getting a little tired of that school anyway. He didn’t like the teachers much. Also, at a private school where everyone comes from an influential family with money, I guess being a Winner doesn’t mean the same thing it means around here. He’ll tell you all about it if you ask. All we knew at the time was that this gorgeous blonde guy showed up at our school, and Trowa was… yikes…”

“Love at first sight?”

“I’m pretty sure it was, but it didn’t have to be, since Quatre gave him plenty of chances. We used to eat lunch in this little alcove at the top of the stairs between two buildings. Quatre walked by there right at the beginning of lunch every day. You should have seen it. Trowa’s eyes were glued to him. It was totally unsubtle. He was practically panting.

“That was my first hint that Trowa might be a bit of a… spy, I guess is the nicest way to put it. Because as soon as Quatre was out of sight, Trowa would turn to me and start telling me whatever he’d found out about him lately. It was a little creepy, actually. I’d usually change the subject — a little — by telling him he needed to go talk to him. But he never would, because he was a poor kid from a poor neighborhood who wanted to start a punk rock band that would probably never make him any money.

“And I’d try to talk sense into him and point out that Quatre had come to our school. So obviously he couldn’t care about that kind of thing too much. I remember one time Trowa responded with something like, ‘Did you see those shoes he’s wearing? Those are Brunomaglis!’ I had to look up the brand name. Then I was shocked Trowa knew what it was. So eventually I went and talked to Quatre myself.”

“You did not!”

“Of course I did. Trowa was going crazy.”

“Crazier, you mean. But, seriously, you? The guy who couldn’t break up with his jerk boyfriend for eight months even when your best friend was threatening to kill the guy?”

“If I’ve learned anything about relationships by now, it’s that it’s a lot easier to mess around in other people’s than fix your own.”

“OK, you have a point there. So what did Quatre say?”

“He admitted that — after the first few times — he’d been walking by at lunch every day on purpose. Just out of curiosity whether Trowa would ever do anything besides staring at him. I told him Trowa was afraid of his shoes, and he laughed. But then they’d hooked up by the end of that day.”

“Trowa wasn’t mad at you for going over his head?”

“Mad at me? I thought he’d kiss me.”

“Probably not a good idea when he’d just started going out with someone else.”

“Heh. No. Quatre’s not really the jealous type, but that still probably wouldn’t have been the best way to start their relationship.”

“Speaking of which, who were you dating all this time? I think you’ve been deliberately talking about Quatre to hide things you don’t want me to know!”

“Well, it’s important you know about Quatre. Besides, what about your next boyfriend? Was he as bad as the first one?”

“Yes! I don’t know where they kept getting the idea from that I was just easy sex for the asking. Do I really come across that way?”

“To a jerk, sure.”

“Yeah, well, they’d always act nice at first, like they wanted something real, but pretty soon it would be, ‘So when are you going to put out?’ Usually not quite that polite, of course. I had a whole string of those. I had to take some self-defense classes eventually to keep grabby hands off. But you changed the subject! What are you hiding??”

“Hush. Yes, I had a boyfriend senior year, and I’ll get to that. But Quatre… you have to understand Quatre.”

“OK. He’s gotta be at least as crazy as Trowa.”

“They’re certainly a well matched pair. But the thing about Quatre is that he’s… he loves people. He has an endless supply of love. And once you’re his friend, you’re in. There’s no getting out. At first I was just his new boyfriend’s best friend — though, honestly, that was close enough — but eventually he became one of my best friends too. And Quatre loves people aggressively. He makes friends with you, and then he fixes your life up.”

“That sounds… creepy.”

“It’s… it gets a little stifling at times. I won’t lie. And with Trowa backing him — like I said, Trowa is loyalty incarnate — they’re a force to be reckoned with. But you can’t help loving Quatre back. You can’t not love Quatre once you get to know him. He’s always so genuinely concerned for everyone. He always really wants to solve your problems.”

“And I take it your next boyfriend was a problem.”

“Yeah.”

***

Toward the relatively familiar table alcove behind the fireplace in Perk Up, the big front window beside the ugly mural, the little hallway leading to the bathrooms, and the small dark area with pretensions to arcade status with its four standup video games, Heero was already throwing paranoid glances that he hoped he was able to conceal adequately from Duo’s notice as they entered the cafe and moved toward the counter.

He tried to tell himself there was absolutely no way anyone could know he was on a date; he’d only first seen Duo a few hours ago, and it had been practically a chance encounter that had led them to make the arrangement… but he knew better, by now, than to underestimate his friends.

He wondered if he should warn Duo. He generally didn’t bother, for a variety of reasons, but Duo seemed so nice. Of course, they always seemed nice at first. That was precisely the problem.

“Ooh, a raspberry lemon muffin?” Duo noted with great relish as they drifted to the end of the short line and he looked up at the hand-chalked menu on the board above the bustling service area. “This place looks great!”

Heero glanced sidelong at him (not that he hadn’t already been doing so whenever he wasn’t glancing openly at him), wondering whether Duo was one of those high-metabolism energy people that endlessly stuffed face without gaining any weight. Why that idea should be attractive at the moment was a mystery; was he really crushing so hard already that random insignificant unconfirmed theories were suddenly cute?

Then Duo threw him a sidelong look and asked, “You’re not one of those anti-cofficionado snob people who’ll go anywhere as long as it’s not a Starbucks, are you?”

With a slight surprised laugh at the term ‘anti-cofficionado,’ Heero shook his head. “No, I’m fine with Starbucks. I understand they treat their employees very well. They try to stay environmentally friendly, too.”

Duo’s brows were raised, and on his lips was a skeptical smile. “Those are such unselfish reasons to like Starbucks that I kinda feel like you’re protesting too much.”

“A couple of my roommates are anti-Starbucks snob people, whatever you called them.” Heero smiled sheepishly. “So I’ve looked up some things. Just in case they ever give me a hard time.”

“And you obviously like this place better anyway.”

“Well, it has an ugly mural…” Though he gestured at the wall in question, Heero had no time to explain further, as it was now their turn to order. But Duo was chuckling throughout that process, perhaps at the idea that Heero liked this place specifically because it had an ugly mural.

Not far from and commanding a good view of the latter was where they settled down with their coffee and pastries, and Duo sat staring at its brilliant hues and unusual stylistic choices for a minute or so before turning to face Heero. “Yep, it’s ugly,” he pronounced, and lifted his muffin. Before taking a bite, he glanced back at the colorful wall, then shook his head. “If you base how much you like a coffee shop on how ugly its mural is, I can totally see why this place wins.”

Heero chuckled in return, and took a temperature-testing half sip of his coffee.

“But Starbucks usually has ugly murals too,” Duo pointed out, words muffled a bit by his mouthful of muffin.

“Yeah, but they’re corporate ugly murals. Pre-printed on wallpaper or something.” Again Heero gestured to the nearby monstrosity. “Somebody stood here and painted that. Somebody put their whole heart into that thing.”

“That’s true… it feels a lot more personal when–” here Duo lowered his voice and leaned forward– “whoever did something so terrible might be sitting at the next table or something.”

Again Heero chuckled. “I just like the feeling I get from it. I appreciate it when someone does something so whole-heartedly. So intensely. You can really tell how much of themselves they put into it.”

Duo’s eyes roved across the mural once more, then returned to traverse Heero’s face just as intently. “Yeah,” he said at last. “I can see how that could be pretty attractive. You don’t really get much of that at Starbucks.”

Heero found himself blushing, as if he had been the subject of assessment even more than the ugly mural. He couldn’t decide whether he was disappointed or relieved when Duo removed his intense gaze from his face to look at the painting again.

“I can’t decide whether being commissioned to do a mural in a coffee shop is particularly pathetic or really means you’ve made it.”

“I guess it depends on how you feel about the finished work,” Heero said thoughtfully. “If the artist ended up thinking it was as ugly as we think it is…”

“Yeah, I guess if they like it…” Duo was clearly dubious about the possibility. But he did allow, “Lots of people are going to see it in here, and if the artist got paid for it, I guess that’s about all you can ask, right? We mostly want satisfaction, money, and exposure, right?”

“When you put it that way…”

Duo laughed along with Heero. “It makes us sound like arrogant, greedy bastards. But it could be worse, you know? I could be like, ‘We mostly want to paint five thousand square feet of chapel ceilings that change art history forever.'”

“Have you ever been there?” Heero wondered, too eager to care that he was shifting the subject.

Duo also didn’t seem to care. “No,” was his regretful answer, after which he perked up quite a bit to add, “but I have been to the Louvre!”

“Seriously? That must have been amazing.”

“It was! Seeing originals is — I mean, you expect it to be cool, but it’s way cooler than you even think it’s going to be.”

Heero nodded. “There’s something magical about it, isn’t there?”

Though more physically vigorous, Duo’s nod in return seemed nevertheless to convey an identical enthusiasm. “Like instead of just looking at a picture, you’re looking through a window into some other world, or back in time, or something.”

“And you think about all the people who have looked at that same picture over the last four hundred years. And you feel a sort of connection to all of them. Without having to actually talk to any of them.”

“Yeah, exactly!”

The topic of classic art, and which specimens of it they’d seen in person and where, engrossed them for quite some time. Duo continued to fit the image Heero had developed of him from his paintings by proving largely unable to sit still when he was excited: he tapped his empty coffee cup rhythmically on the table, stacked it on top of Heero’s until both fell, rolled it back and forth between his hands, and used its base to rearrange the crumbs from his muffin. This was cute, and contributed to the engrossing nature of the conversation, so it was no wonder Heero found himself so thoroughly — perhaps detrimentally — distracted when a new development arose.

When he caught sight of it in the direction he happened to be looking, he stiffened — inadvertently but so thoroughly as to catch the attention of Duo, who broke off what he was saying and glanced around. “What?”

Well, it was too late to warn him now, even had Heero been inclined to do so. But this was… a little different than usual. Actually Heero didn’t think it would work. For one thing, the pastel orange of the slightly-too-tight polo Wufei wore was definitely not his color.

“Look who I found,” Wufei said as he sat down. “Heero on a date.” And grudgingly Heero had to admit that his tone was fairly convincing.

Duo threw the newcomer a skeptical look, doubtless in regards to his completely uninvited assumption of the third seat at the little table. But his face smoothed out as Wufei turned immediately toward him. “Heero always brings his dates here,” Wufei said wisely. “He’s very predictable that way.” Then, with a knowing look, he added in a lower tone, “But he can get creative, I promise.”

Heero was used to this type of language, but not from this source; normally he could get through it without blushing, but pretty distinctly not this time. Somewhat comforted he must be, however, by the skeptical expression that popped onto Duo’s face the very instant Wufei looked away from him. It gave him strength to say with a corresponding gesture, “Duo… Wufei.”

As Wufei turned back toward Duo, Heero observed with some amusement Duo’s skepticism forced into relatively polite blankness again. And Wufei said, with seeming obliviousness to the lack of welcome at the table, “What Heero never mentions is that he’s my ex. I can give you all the… inside information.”

At the implication thus presented, Heero blushed even harder, especially when he felt Duo’s eyes on him. Somehow this process was more unpleasant this time around than it usually was; he was going to have to take Wufei to task for it later.

Duo looked as if he wanted to speak, but didn’t get the chance, for Wufei immediately continued, “And I’ll say one thing for him: he always has good taste. I can certainly see why he brought you here.” Heero couldn’t quite manage to look at Wufei’s face at this point; the smirking, self-congratulatory tone was already almost more than he could handle. He thought perhaps Wufei was overdoing it a little… but Duo wasn’t familiar with Wufei’s usual seriousness and wouldn’t know that this smugness was put on.

Finally Duo had a chance to reply. “Yeah, to see the ugly mural,” he said with a gesture. His face was still a studied neutral, but for a moment, as Wufei glanced in the direction he indicated, it took on a look of annoyance and puzzlement.

Wufei too seemed bemused. However well he was performing this role, he undoubtedly hadn’t prepared for all contingencies, and now studied the mural a few moments longer than he needed to, probably trying to decide what to say. Heero, embarrassed and disconcerted though he was, couldn’t help being amused at the disparate reactions of his two companions. And it was about what he’d expected when Wufei finally turned back toward a Duo whose face was only smoothed just in time and said, “So I see you have good taste too.” And he raised his brows as if to suggest that certain appreciations would only naturally follow.

“Heero pointed it out,” Duo replied, and now his irritation sounded faintly in his voice.

“Yes, Heero and his art.” Wufei threw Heero a brief smile, and Heero had to admit he was impressed: both tone and gesture held a mixture of possessive fondness and patronizing dismissiveness Heero wouldn’t have thought Wufei could command. He almost wasn’t embarrassed, he was so impressed. “Heero really is an artist, you know,” Wufei went on, again focusing his attention on Duo as if Heero were not present. “If his style matches your taste, of course. If not… well, plenty of fish in the sea, right?” And he leaned back at an angle in his chair so as to prop an elbow on its back in a studiedly casual ‘Check me out’ sort of gesture.

Duo stood abruptly. “I’m going to grab some napkins,” he said, and moved stiffly away.

Heero didn’t waste time. He thought perhaps Duo was giving him a chance to respond in private to Wufei’s perceived rudeness, but, though this was a good sign, he knew Wufei would not be dismissed by his efforts. What he really wanted to find out… “What are you doing here? Is Zechs sick or something?”

“They don’t trust him after what happened last time,” Wufei murmured in reply.

Unfortunately, that made perfect sense. Drama student Zechs had a thing for ‘getting in character,’ and last time there had been inappropriate touching and an eventual call to the police. And Wufei was doing unexpectedly well in the role of sleazy ex. But still…

“What does Sylvia think of this?”

Wufei’s face reddened just a touch, which was not at all ‘in character,’ and he said almost inaudibly, “She thinks it’s hot.”

Heero rolled his eyes. “Are you wearing Quatre’s clothes?” he wondered next. Polo shirts weren’t typically Quatre’s thing, but pastels like that orange definitely were.

Wufei didn’t have a chance to answer, however, since Duo returned just then with an anomalously large stack of napkins, which he essentially threw down onto the middle of the table. At their loud plopping noise and the subsequent scraping of Duo’s chair as he resumed his seat, Heero sighed inwardly and wished that, just once, he could have a first date without this period of awkwardness in the middle.

“Welcome back,” said Wufei easily.

Duo ignored him, but Heero thought the set of his jaw was still annoyed as he picked up the top few napkins and began wiping debris off the table into yet another napkin he then crumpled up around the crumbs with a vigorous movement. A small spot of spilled coffee came next, and then Duo began to stuff the used napkins into his empty cup without saying a word.

Heero sat in equal silence, hoping Duo didn’t prove one of those too touchy even to get past the first phase. He’d really been enjoying Duo’s company before Wufei showed up, and would like to see him again… but Duo was clearly irritated by Wufei, and, though he hadn’t reacted in any inappropriate manner, Heero wouldn’t be surprised if the weirdness and awkwardness of his purported ex’s advent and behavior drove him away. Supposedly, if it did, that would prove Duo not worth the pursuing, but Heero had never been quite sure he believed that.

Wufei evidently didn’t know what to say now. At this point in the proceedings, Zechs would usually offer his phone number or ask for that of Heero’s date, but Wufei had either forgotten or was himself too overcome by the unease of the scene to take the appropriate next step. In either case, the embarrassing silence dragged on while Duo cleaned up their table, straightened the remaining napkins in the exact center, and finally fixed Heero with a pointed look.

“Didn’t you say you had somewhere to be at 3:00? Or was that tomorrow?”

Again Heero was impressed, this time with Duo’s excellent wording. The question provided a simple excuse if Heero wanted to get away from Wufei; but should that not actually be his desire, he could easily claim that the appointment he’d supposedly mentioned earlier was, in fact, for tomorrow. He shuddered to think what message it would send to Duo if he deliberately chose to continue sitting here with someone making the kind of comments Wufei had been, but felt it was very decent of Duo to give him that option despite how distasteful it probably was. Hopefully Wufei himself had missed none of this.

“Oh, yeah.” Heero found his voice rather weak as he replied to Duo’s question, sat up straight in his chair, and reached for the bag he’d earlier set beside it as if ready to rise and depart. He’d always had a difficult time playing along with his friends’ charades, and found it funny now that it was not theirs but his date’s he was trying to comply with. “Yeah, I better get going.” He stood, shouldering his bag, and, with a deep breath, hoping Wufei didn’t think it a good idea to tail him at this point, said, “See you later, Wufei.”

In a gesture that would have been legitimately creepy and aggravating coming from an actual ex, Wufei put a hand on Heero’s arm and squeezed. “It’s always good to see you again, Heero.” Thankfully, he gave no sign of joining the two that were now both on their feet.

Outside the building, Heero restrained himself yet again from looking around searchingly, this time not so much because he didn’t want to know who might be there as because he was perfectly well aware someone was. Trowa had undoubtedly hidden himself too well for Heero to find him even with a meticulous visual scan anyway.

Three steps from the coffee shop they’d left in silence, Duo threw his hands up and burst out, “Jesus X. Christ, man, what was that about?”

Heero laughed faintly and said, “Thanks for the out. That was… good.”

“What is that guy’s damage? Did you really go out with him?”

Heero avoided the second question by giving a perfectly truthful answer to the first: “He’s not usually that bad.”

“How long were you with him?”

“Not… long…” This was truthful too, in a way.

“Good!” Duo turned a huff into a deep breath as if forcing himself to calm down. “I mean…” He looked sidelong at Heero, still seeming annoyed but now with perhaps a touch of penitence mixed in. “I mean, it’s absolutely none of my business, and I shouldn’t be bugging you about it.”

“Well…” Heero hoped Trowa’s equipment had picked that up. “Thanks for not making a big deal about it in there.”

“It was hard,” Duo admitted, laughing a little. “Does he do that a lot? Just show up when you’re out with someone and start… saying totally inappropriate things like that?”

“Saying inappropriate things has been a problem in the past,” Heero said carefully. “But he’s never shown up before when I was out with someone else.”

“And hopefully he won’t do it again! Where can we go next time to be safe from him?”

Abruptly Heero was lifted out of the dejection and mortification of the last scene into buoyant hope and happiness, so quickly he thought his ears were popping and his lungs cramping. He was smiling as he said, “Campus should be safe.”

Duo must have heard the smile, for he looked Heero full in the face and returned the expression. “OK. What day works for you?”

“Any day, really…” Heero couldn’t turn away from that captivating grin, and found he’d stopped walking perhaps just to stare. He tried to think more coherently, for a moment, than the brightness of that expression was allowing. “Thursday I have a nice big gap between classes in the middle of the day. If you want to have lunch…”

“Sure!” Duo didn’t seem to mind that they were standing on the sidewalk making no progress toward any discernible destination except another date. “Want me to bring lunch from somewhere?”

“Only if you really want to,” Heero replied, self-conscious about making someone pay for both their meals on only the second date. “The cafeteria food’s not bad.”

Duo laughed. “If you say so! OK, cafeteria food it is.”

The tail end of today’s outing involved ambling in the direction from which they’d originally come, determining which bus route would take Duo back from this unfamiliar stop to where he needed to be, solidifying their plans for Thursday, and getting in a few more remarks on classic art. And Heero parted company with his charming new acquaintance in great satisfaction and hope for the future, regardless of what his other friends might have taken from the events of the day.

***

“At least Quatre and Trowa saw my next boyfriend as a problem.”

“And you probably didn’t until afterwards.”

“I can see you’re getting how this went. Yeah, Paul was… well, he wasn’t exactly the same as Evan, except for a dazzling smile and a sort of presence I was drawn to again. It was that whole moth-to-the-flame thing. But he was another one who wanted a trophy boyfriend. And sex.”

“Oh, Heero, you didn’t. Hey, don’t go all eyebrows at me! You were obviously a lot more pure and innocent than me in high school, and I don’t want to hear about you giving it up to some jerk like that!”

“It was high school. I don’t blame myself.”

“You sound like you regret it, though.”

“Honestly, I don’t have a single ex I don’t regret.”

“Yeah, I’m definitely starting to get how this went.”

“Paul did at least seem to like to spend time with me. So at the time I thought he was better than Evan. Looking back, it’s obvious he mostly… just wanted sex. Though there was some arm-candy duty too, like I said. He was on the student council, and I’m pretty sure after high school he went into actual politics. He knew the benefit of having a nice-looking significant other.”

“Asshole.”

“The worst of it, though — and the part that really drove Trowa and Quatre crazy — was that he couldn’t take me seriously. Especially my art. He wouldn’t look at things I was working on. He had no patience for time I wanted to spend on art. He actually made fun of art in general, and the idea of anything being artistic. He couldn’t even pretend to be the tiniest bit interested in anything I was doing or anything I was into. I think I put up with it at the time because he had a clever way of saying things that would make me laugh. Even if they kinda hurt at the same time. Except that he used the word ‘gay’ for things he didn’t like. Claimed that since he was gay, he was allowed. He didn’t care that it still bothered me.”

“Super asshole!”

“I’m still convinced Quatre had something to do with the new job Paul’s dad got. He had to move away suddenly in the middle of our last semester. Quatre won’t admit it, to this day, but… let’s just say circumstances were suspicious. I offered to do the long-distance thing, but Paul said he thought it would be better if we just broke up.”

“Because all he wanted from you was a warm body, for one reason or another.”

“Obvious in hindsight.”

“Well, I’m liking the sound of mob boss Quatre Winner, anyway.”

***

Heero wasn’t surprised to find himself ridiculously impatient for his meeting with Duo on Thursday, and his American Art History class, usually one of his favorites, rather difficult to get through. He even looked forward to the cafeteria food, since it tended to improve with good company. In such an optimistic mood, it should have been impossible to worry about how the encounter would go, but precedent was a strong indicator. So it was with caution that he looked around the big, bustling room at the appointed time, mostly seeking Duo but certainly keeping his eyes open as well for anyone else he knew.

How such an attractive person as Duo with such unusual hair and such a compelling aura of energy and interest about him could walk into a room this full of people without drawing every eye to him, Heero had no idea. His eyes were certainly drawn as Duo entered, and, despite the planned meeting being nothing more than conversation over lunch, he felt his excitement about today growing.

“They don’t make you wear one of those guest badges?” he wondered as Duo approached him.

“Oh…” Duo glanced down at his shirt — another paint-spattered tee, this one advertising some gallery event in much-worn and hardly legible lettering. “I’ve got one somewhere…” He looked deeply pensive. “I’m trying to remember the last time I actually wore it.”

Heero chuckled faintly. “If you’re around here a lot for Ms. Hilde’s classes…”

With a shrug Duo replied, “Eh, I wouldn’t say ‘a lot,’ but I guess it’s enough for nobody to care whether I wear a guest badge.” He threw a calculating eye across the various lunch options available here. “Come on; I’m starving.”

“Me too. I barely had any breakfast.”

“Oh, are you one of those people who can’t eat in the mornings?” Duo threw Heero a grin that suggested he might think this every bit as cute as Heero had found his hypothesis about Duo’s metabolism the other day.

Forcing a calm tone despite his blush, Heero replied, “No. I’m one of those people who can’t think straight in the mornings. At least not until after coffee. Which I usually drink on the way to class, or not until I get here.”

Duo laughed, but if he had any intention of reciprocating with information about his own morning habits, it would have to wait until after they had ordered their present meals. The lines typically weren’t too long at the times of day Heero was in here, including now, so the only remaining problem was whether Duo wanted tacos or pizza. And by the time they took their selections to one of the smaller tables and got everything set up to their dining satisfaction, coffee had fled both their minds.

“So what’s your major?” Duo wondered as he surveyed the tacos and pizza on his tray with a deep and enchanting satisfaction.

“Art History and Criticism,” Heero replied. “Unless I switch to Drawing and Painting.”

Duo nodded, causing the taco he was lifting to his mouth to bob up and down for a moment along with the rest of his head, at which Heero couldn’t help laughing aloud. When Duo had managed his mouthful enough to talk through it without spraying bits of beef and lettuce across the table, he remarked, “I always thought European Art would be an awesome major, but, yeah, a more general art criticism program might be even better. But something more applicable like Drawing and Painting — I mean, painting is what I love best! — so that could be really useful too.”

Heero grinned. “I can tell you’re really decisive about this sort of thing.”

Duo swallowed his bite of taco and said with friendly defensiveness, “Just, there are so many fantastic options!”

“There are,” Heero agreed, digging a fork into his lasagna. Before he took a bite of his own he asked, “So are you going to school somewhere too?”

“I should be,” Duo admitted, “but I get so caught up in doing art all day, I keep not signing up. Hilde keeps bugging me to come here, but… Well, sometime I will…”

As he finished with his mouthful, Heero began to remark that whenever Duo did start attending, he would be forced — eventually, at least — to choose a major. His words became confused and then trailed off, however, when a figure whose approach he had not noticed appeared beside them: despite the polite, waiting silence of the newcomer, the instant Heero saw and recognized him he completely lost his train of thought.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Quatre greeted when he could obviously see that Heero wasn’t going to finish the statement he’d started. By way of apology or explanation (or merely acting his part), he held up the sketchbook he’d brought.

“You’re earlier than I expected,” said Heero defeatedly. And he meant it, though of course it would come across slightly differently to the other person at the table.

“I have some errands to run,” Quatre replied with a smile, and held out the sketchbook, “so I thought I’d stop here first.”

Heero accepted the delivery he’d purportedly requested, and set it down nearer the far end of the table where it was less likely to have anything spilled on it. “Duo,” he said, gesturing, “Quatre.”

Turning his eyes upon Duo for the first time, “Oh, you’re cute,” Quatre said, and his immediate blush at this allegedly inadvertent comment left even Heero hard-pressed not to reply, Who’s cute?”

Duo, who didn’t know perfectly well either that nothing Quatre said was uncalculated or that he could conjure that lovely pink to his face at will, couldn’t seem to repress a smile at the supposedly ingenuous remark and reaction. “Thanks,” he said. “So’re you.” But he was also looking Quatre surreptitiously up and down with some suspicion (justified, Heero thought, after the meeting with Wufei) buried beneath his smile. Evidently, however, in the honest, open face, the slacks and dress shirt (but no tie; Quatre was dressed for his ‘errands’ about as far down as he got), or the guest badge the rule-abiding Quatre was wearing, nothing worried Duo just yet. Heero had not expected it to.

“Oh! Thanks!” Quatre’s blush deepened, and this time Heero was hard-pressed not to roll his eyes as his friend and roommate turned back to him as if flustered and eager to look away from the professedly cute guy that had just complimented him. “Um, so, yeah, Heero, there’s your sketchbook. I’ll get out of your way…” He took a step back, then frowned. “As soon as I figure out what’s wrong with my shoe.”

Quatre had graduated from Brunomaglis along with high school, but when running errands he still sometimes slummed it in shoes costing no more than $400 or so — and he had one particular old pair he saved for this specific occasion because the lace had broken through one of the eyes during some escapade with Trowa a few years back. And this damage was what he ostensibly sought to examine when he sat down in one of the free chairs at the table, next to Heero, and bent over. The movement was always fairly convenient for the placement of a small transmitter in some crevice out of sight; Heero didn’t even watch him to catch it anymore.

At this second instance of a date being interrupted by one of Heero’s friends seating himself uninvited at their table, Duo looked more suspicious than previously. However, when Quatre swiftly ‘discovered’ the break in his shoe and declared it unfixable at the moment, rising again from the commandeered seat, Duo relaxed a trifle. And when Quatre, after bidding Heero a cheerful goodbye and declaring that he’d see him later, added with another slight blush, “It was nice meeting you, Duo!” and started to walk away, Duo relaxed completely.

Heero didn’t feel like volunteering any information about Quatre — in part because, had Quatre truly been dropping by to deliver some forgotten item from home, Heero wouldn’t have felt the need to talk about him in his absence unless specifically asked — and Duo didn’t ask. He just started an elaborate process of napkinning his fingers off one at a time, very thoroughly, despite the fact that he was only halfway through his eclectic lunch. Heero watched with growing curiosity until Duo, satisfied he was as clean as possible without the application of actual water and soap, pushed his tray aside and reached for the sketchbook to Heero’s right. At the last moment, however, his hands stopped just short of the cover. “I suppose I should ask first,” he said, meeting Heero’s eye with a smile half sheepish and half impish.

“Go ahead,” Heero replied, returning the smile and glad Duo had accepted the delivery of the item at face value. “It’s mostly doodles anyway.” Quatre always brought the same sketchbook, no matter how carefully Heero hid it afterwards. Apparently he thought it worked particularly well for the purpose.

“I love doodles,” Duo declared. “Ooh, and I love…” He brought the first page closer to his face. “…super detailed…” He rotated it and squinted. “…suuuper detailed…”

Heero chuckled faintly. He’d been through this process enough times that, even though the sketchbook was an older one and the pieces on the first few pages of it especially ancient, he didn’t have to struggle to remember exactly what they were.

“You know what this reminds me of?” Duo was taking in the whole again, the paper not quite so close to his nose. “When you see, like, a whole underpass that’s entirely covered in graffiti? And there’s no blank spots anywhere?”

Genuinely pleased despite the age of the picture, Heero smiled. “That’s actually exactly what I was inspired by.”

“The city should pay you to design murals for spots like that.” Duo nodded several times down at the drawing before turning the page.

“I’ll design them if you do the painting,” Heero offered.

“I’ve never tried airbrushing,” mused Duo, “which is what I think it’d take, but–” here he raised his eyes to Heero with a thoughtful and momentarily distant expression– “it might not be a bad idea for a serious project. Big painting, help the community, maybe make some money? Oh, yep, here’s some doodles.” And he buried his face in the sketchbook again.

Duo’s comments were not usually particularly profound — few of these pages merited it — but clearly he was genuinely interested and engaged, which pleased Heero and undoubtedly pleased whoever else might be listening as well. And it was as much for the benefit of these latter as for Duo’s sake that Heero eventually felt the need to comment, “Your food has to be getting cold.”

“Oh… yeah…” Duo glanced over at his tray with eyes clearly unattuned to anything not graphite at the moment, then said a little absently, “I don’t want to get stuff on my hands right now.” And he’d barely returned his gaze to the page in front of him before he was smiling in admiration and remarking, “This contrast is awesome.”

“Thanks.”

As Duo proceeded right through the sketchbook with no apparent intention of stopping any time before the very end, Heero experienced the same mixture of emotions he did every time this part went well. Duo’s artistic skill gave his opinion weight and value, and Heero was gratified and flattered by the attention he was paying these drawings — old as they were — and by the comments he had about them. Honest as Duo seemed on the subject, though, as much as it seemed he would have been making these same comments no matter the context in which he flipped through the book, there was no getting around the fact that he’d essentially been tricked into the perusal.

Heero knew what the point was, of course. If he’d felt like it, he could have glanced around to see if he could find Trowa — though, unlike when the scene took place outside and a glint of light off of glass or chrome could sometimes be caught in a bush not far away, here Trowa was likely to be outside the cafeteria, or possibly outside the building entirely (Heero wasn’t completely sure of the range of his equipment). But though he knew what this was about, he couldn’t help thinking there might be, in addition to that, some desire on his friends’ part to get poor Heero some praise of his artwork when they, none of them visual artists, could not provide it. And did Heero really come across as so insecure?

That had nothing to do with Duo, though.

What was more relevant to Duo and the opinions he now voiced was Heero’s faint sense of annoyance that his friends did always choose this sketchbook. It was so old it was becoming almost irrelevant in that it didn’t really give an observer a sense of Heero’s talents and preferences. He wanted Duo to have a better idea of his current artistic progress. That could, of course, happen another time — in fact, whether it should happen another time would supposedly be determined by the present exercise — but Heero was, perhaps, rendered just a little impatient by the adorable way Duo expressed himself, and the fact that his commentary, though not necessarily profound, was savvy and interesting.

Eventually, too soon but not nearly quickly enough for Heero’s conflicted sensibilities, Duo reached the end of the sketchbook. The last few blank pages, which always made the book seem actively in use rather than abandoned (in fact Heero typically abandoned his sketchbooks a few pages from the end), Duo looked over with evident disappointment before, with an air of regret, carefully closing the back cover and replacing it at the far end of the table. Then, his demeanor shifting to that of someone emerging from a trance or a highly engrossing daydream to face the real world again, he looked around.

“Sorry… what were we talking about before?” he wondered somewhat vaguely.

Heero smiled at Duo’s attitude, but had to struggle, for his own part, to remember. Finally, as he watched Duo slide his lunch tray back in front of him and begin to reacquaint himself with its contents, he ventured, “You going to school, I think?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Duo agreed, picking up his half eaten pizza slice and examining it from all angles. It hadn’t been very appetizing originally — whatever Heero had said about the cafeteria food not being bad, he wasn’t a fan of their pizza — and now it looked congealed and more or less disgusting. “I’ve been thinking,” Duo went on, and bit unconcernedly into the thing before continuing with a full mouth, “I’ll probably enroll once the place I’m working at goes out of business.”

That seemed like an odd sort of plan to Heero, who said so. Then, as Duo had taken another bite and stuffed his mouth even fuller than before — past the speech threshold, apparently — he added, “Where do you work?”

Eventually Duo managed to answer. “You probably never heard of it. It’s called Sunset Colors; it’s a place where kids — I mean, anyone who wants to, but it’s mostly kids who come — they can do art stuff. Mostly pottery, but we’ve got all sorts of materials. And some great aprons they get to choose from when they come in.”

“And it’s going out of business?”

Duo’s laugh sounded both sad and self-deprecating. “The lady that owns the place is great at watercolors and being a grandma to all the kids who come in, but she kinda sucks at the business end of things? And it’s not like I can help her when I don’t know anything about any of that stuff either.”

“So you’re just predicting.”

“I don’t know how much longer the place has.” Duo shrugged as he turned his attention and his newly emptied mouth to what remained of his taco. Heero, watching charmed and amused, wondered whether the two greasy foods were actually good in alternation like that.

“You like it, though?”

“Yeah, it’s fun!” Duo nodded vigorously before taking a crunching bite. “Kids are hilarious; I love helping them with art.”

“Is the owner usually there with you?” Heero was imagining the scene in his head with pleasure, picturing Duo and his enthusiasm and ready artistic critiques encouraging and inspiring a group of aproned children in their clumsy painting of pottery.

“Sometimes. She’s old.”

Heero laughed at this concise explanation. “Do parents ever get weirded out by a single young guy working with their kids with nobody else in the building?” He wondered if any of the kids ever developed crushes on the hot guy that helped them with art on weekends or whenever; he’d be willing to stake money that they did, but figured he wouldn’t ask that in so many words.

Now Duo’s taco manipulation was fronted by a pensive frown, and it was several masticating moments and an unhappy-looking swallow before he spoke again. “I… don’t know. Nobody’s ever said anything about it, but of course they probably wouldn’t to my face, would they? They just wouldn’t come in again, probably.”

“People do get weird about things like that,” Heero said in a tone of regret. “Sorry I mentioned it.”

“No, it’s a good thing.” Duo was thoughtful now. “That’s one of those logistical things I probably would never have thought of, and maybe it’s part of why I think we’re going under! I’ll have to talk to Geraldine about it.”

“Does she stay at home working? Could she do her watercolors at the place instead?”

“I think so… maybe… She’s going to flip out about it, though… I bet she’s never thought of that either; she’d never think people could have such nasty minds. But maybe we can figure something out, and save the place yet!”

Heero sat back and said honestly, “Now I’m torn. It sounds like it’ll be sad when she goes out of business. But if that’s what it will take for you to go to school…”

With a wincing grin Duo said, “Quick subject change! Where do you work?”

“That isn’t much of a change,” said Heero with a slightly raised eyebrow, but chose to accept it nonetheless on the understanding that the previous focus might be a little uncomfortable for Duo. “But I do tech support for Allery Media.”

“So like cable and internet and stuff?”

“Yeah. It’s mostly over chat on the company website, but I sometimes have to take phone calls. It lets me work from home, though.”

“That must be nice if you want to draw while you work!”

Heero grinned. “It is.”

Duo grinned back. “And do you ever have to tell people their CD tray isn’t a cup holder?”

The only possible reply to this was a longsuffering sigh.

“Hey, I always thought that was pretty funny,” Duo protested.

“In some ways it is. It does still represent pretty well how much people don’t know about how computers work. But I don’t think the actual joke has been surface-level funny for longer than we’ve been alive.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“Oh, cool, me too. And I figure that joke first popped up about twenty years ago, so we would both have been born, even if we weren’t old enough to appreciate it.”

“That doesn’t make it not overused and outdated,” replied Heero firmly.

Duo laughed. “OK, fine, no more cupholders. Were you born here in town?”

This subject change, more complete and effective than the previous, led them onto a meandering topic of childhood homes and moves that lasted throughout the rest of the time Heero had to spend on lunch before needing to head off for his next class. And he did so with even greater optimism than had ended their first date. So far Duo had done nothing to indicate he was anything but the warm, very attractive, talented artist Heero had thought him at first, and hopefully had done some things to impress Heero’s friends. Not only that, his reciprocal interest seemed to have been developing at the same pace as Heero’s — well, perhaps not quite so quickly, as he’d never seen Heero naked — and they seemed to be clicking really well. And though that was how it always started, Heero also thought there had been numerous points in Duo’s favor, above and beyond the usual, scattered throughout his conversation.

Perhaps most promising of all — if not to the listeners-in, at least to Heero — they ended today’s encounter with the suggestion (from Duo again, not that Heero wouldn’t have gotten around to it himself) of another meeting. A time was chosen and arrangements were made, and, though Heero would rather not have parted at all, he found the parting just as hopeful as the rest of his reflections during the last several minutes of their lunch.

***

“Well, mob boss Quatre Winner’s parents gave him a house as a graduation present, and–”

“A house?!”

“Yeah. Not a small house, either. And Quatre, being Quatre, of course insisted that Trowa and I both come live with him.”

“Probably a good thing it’s not a small house, then.”

“Yes, they get plenty of privacy, and so do the rest of us.”

“Who else is there?”

“Technically just one other guy, at least right now. I’ll get to him. Right after high school, I didn’t think about college right away. I went a little art-crazy, actually. Quatre didn’t want any rent from me, so most of the money I made could go toward supplies. And since I had a really big bedroom with plenty of space to use as a studio…”

“I’d go crazy too! That’s awesome!”

“It was. It is. Trowa’s kinda been doing the same thing. He got some people together and got his band started. They have a practice room at the house. They’ve actually been doing pretty well, for a local group.”

“What are they called?”

“Dense Lead Stovepipe.”

“Oh, yeah, I think I’ve heard of them. So, good for him.”

“But Quatre started college right away — at Traevis, of course, for business. And that’s where he met Wufei.”

“Wufei? That jerk-face loser goes to the same school as a Winner? Wait– wait– wait– that’s not the– that guy lives with you?

“Yes, but he’s not a jerk-face loser. I promise.”

“Uh-huh. You’d better give me a damn good reason you put up with that guy in your same house.”

“Quatre bullied him into moving in, actually. They made friends at school. Then when Quatre heard Wufei was struggling to pay rent and tuition…”

“And then?”

“Stop grinding your teeth like that. It’s not good for you. So Wufei moved in. When I first met him, I didn’t think he was going to get along well with either me or Trowa. Quatre wasn’t a problem, since Quatre can get along with anyone, and nobody can help getting along with Quatre. But I didn’t think the rest of us would be hanging out much.

“But it turns out Wufei is someone you can’t help respecting. He’s got this unshakable code of right and wrong, and he just doesn’t bend. I think that’s how he and Quatre bonded. They’re both such innately good people, even if they’re totally different in personality, they couldn’t help being drawn to each other.”

“This does not sound like the Wufei I met.”

“You didn’t meet the real thing. Wufei isn’t as much fun as some people I know, but he’s the kind of guy who’ll always stand up for what he believes in. And that’s… well, it’s nice to have that kind of person around. Trowa thinks he’s fun, though. Trowa gravitates to anything with zombies in it–”

“Really???”

“–and it turns out Wufei does too. They bonded over zombies, I think, the same day Wufei moved in. You should see them whenever a new video game comes out where you get to kill zombies. It’s uncanny.”

“Somehow I’m not aaalllll that surprised.”

“And Wufei’s girlfriend–”

“So he’s bi?”

“Actually he’s totally straight.”

“But I thought–”

“Just trust me.”

“It’s a good thing that’s so easy to do, because this is getting weird.”

“Weirder than it already was?”

“Well… OK… maybe not. Go on.”

“Wufei’s girlfriend Sylvia is a complete nerd. She’s always over making him do, um, nerd stuff. They do Dungeons and Dragons… thing… They have obscure series DVD marathons in the basement. They… I don’t even know what else. She’s very nice, though. She’s been a good friend to all of us.”

“All right, so you’ve got a gay couple, a straight couple, and a single guy all living in one house. All you need are some lesbians and aces to make a complete set.”

“We do know some, but I don’t think any of them need a house. Anyway, Sylvia doesn’t technically live with us. Even though she’s always around. And I haven’t been single all this time…”

“Hmm, OK, so we’re heading into another awful boyfriend of yours here. And, let me guess, you told me about Wufei and Sylvia because they joined the People Who Don’t Approve Of Heero’s Amazing Bad Taste Club.”

“Yes.”

“Even though Wufei–”

“Just forget that.”



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Section 2

The house Duo shared with his mother, step-father, and step-sister was as old as the one Heero shared with his friends, but looked to have been better maintained over the years. There were two really old neighborhoods in the city — the oldest parts of two former towns, actually, that had eventually grown enough to merge — and the fact that Duo lived in the area opposite Heero explained why Heero had never observed his hotness on the way to and from bus stops in the past.

That the house was impeccably painted in an interesting and brazen set of oranges that were some of them almost yellow, Heero was not particularly surprised. In fact he grinned internally as he approached, informed of the probable identity of at least one of the house’s inhabitants by its bright colors almost as much as by the presence of Duo on its porch. He wondered how they’d gotten that past their HOA.

“Heero!” Duo’s enthusiasm in shouting his name (rather unnecessarily) and waving as soon as he caught sight of him made Heero smile externally. More particularly, the idea that Duo was so pleased to see him made Heero go all warm and fuzzy inside. He felt pretty good about this guy so far; they’d gotten to a third date, after all, without either of them being scared off. And Duo sure was cute.

“You made it!” was Duo’s cheerful greeting as Heero climbed the porch steps.

“Apparently,” Heero agreed.

“Well, come on in.” Duo stepped back and made an expansive gesture of welcome.

With a smile Heero obeyed.

The interior decor seemed thorough, experimental, and eclectic, with paint selections melting into each other from one room to the next and no two spaces floored the same. The art on display coordinated with the chosen colors so well Heero thought it must have been deliberately created for the specific spots it occupied. The furniture, on the other hand, was often cheekily just on the edge of not coordinating; every piece seemed to ask impudently, ‘Can I get away with this in this room?’ Heero had never in his life been amused by furniture, and credited to Duo his first instance of this bizarre but not unenjoyable experience.

“We rearrange sometimes,” Duo said with a grin when he heard Heero’s reaction to the decorating, “and then it gets even crazier.”

Besides the prospect of hanging out with Duo again, Heero had been looking forward to coming here so he could see more of Duo’s art. He’d said so, too, if perhaps a little shyly — especially since pointing out that it was only fair for him to get to see more of Duo’s work after Duo had seen so much of his seemed a trifle disingenuous when that had only happened because Heero’s friends had essentially insisted. But since that didn’t lessen his interest, he had mentioned it, and the pleasure the statement had been met with had rendered it entirely worth any embarrassment involved.

“People say you can’t judge how successful you are as an artist by how much money you make doing it,” Duo remarked, “and I’m not sure how much I think that’s true? but you definitely feel more successful when other good artists are all excited to see your stuff.” And not only was Heero very inclined to agree, he was also excessively flattered at being so offhandedly called a good artist by this good artist.

So now Duo gladly pointed out which of the pieces throughout the rooms they toured had been painted by his own hand. And while Heero was happy to see more of a style he was already coming to love, he enjoyed Duo’s commentary even more. Duo’s manner of discussing his own work was funny and fetching at once: a relatively pure realism of approach that lacked false modesty. He had no inhibitions stating his high opinion when he thought something merited it, and also no illusions about what aspects might need improvement. In the artistic world Heero knew, which was one of alternating obnoxious arrogance and depressing lack of self-confidence, such pragmatism was refreshing and engaging.

“This one would be totally badass if I’d been able to get this secondary light here to look right,” Duo said of one piece in the large and comfortable living room. “But at least the hands actually look like human hands.”

They lingered longest over a piece Duo had done for an upstairs bathroom, discussing in that very unromantic setting the techniques of non-objectivism (a style of which Duo didn’t often partake) and what type of message was sent, in a bathroom used primarily by guests, by the vaguely unsettling imagery and colors that had been selected here.

“I wanted it to make you think of sunset over the ocean without actually showing sunset over the ocean,” was Duo’s laughingly half rueful comment. “I didn’t mean for it to look like sick or blood or anything.”

Then they made their way downstairs, and it was there Heero came to understand why both adult children of this family hadn’t been able to bring themselves to move out of their parents’ house even in their late twenties. Heero himself might have been willing to put up with quite a lot of family annoyance (and embarrassment when people asked about his living arrangements) in order to have anytime access to so large and thoroughly stocked a studio so conveniently placed.

They’d either knocked out most of the walls or finished an unfinished basement to a totally open plan, creating a sprawling space they could easily fill with draft tables, easels, cabinets of materials, and sets of shelves of finished works. Lighting was prolific and adjustable, there were large working sinks for the rinsing of brushes (and probably the cleaning of paint-spattered hands and arms); and a comfortable bathroom decorated in more welcoming colors than the one in the hall upstairs, as well as a couple of conveniently placed small refrigerators full of snacks and sodas, rendered it feasible to spend hours and hours at a time working down here without ever needing to emerge.

Observing how close Heero was to drooling over the amenities as he showed them off, Duo grinned and sang, “We’ve been spending most our lives living in an artists’ paradise.” And when Heero winced and laughed simultaneously he added, “Seriously, though, let me show you this,” and gave him something else to drool over instead.

‘This’ was merely a nicely designed (and apparently home-designed by Duo’s mother) rack of sliding shelves that held a wide range of canvas sizes very neatly, but, though Heero liked the engineering and was quite pleased to see the finished artworks it currently held, Duo’s manner of presenting it only served to strengthen an impression that had been growing during their entire time in the house.

There had been a bit of walking when they’d initially met up on the street, but the majority of their first two dates had been conducted in seated positions. Duo was very attractive when seated; his face and interesting, messy hair — not to mention his engaging mannerisms and the brightness of his expression — constantly drew Heero’s eye and pleased him. But with Duo moving around, bending to lift canvases up and then gesture at them energetically, seeming to involve his entire body in every motion, it was a different story. A much more intense and distracting story that usually started with, Once upon a time, all of this was naked.

As he’d essentially told Duo at their first meeting, Heero wanted to pretend neither that he was unaffected by Duo’s sex appeal nor that it was the only thing that interested him — but finding a balance in his thoughts and behaviors was proving rather difficult. The good news was — well, the ambivalent news was that Duo wasn’t naked right now, so, regardless of how enticing he looked in those jeans and how enthralling was every motion of his body, only memory and imagination on Heero’s part painted them in flesh tones; so if he could restrain those two, he could stick to socially appropriate interaction and keep himself from panting over nothings like the manner in which Duo bent way, way over to reach out and point at some aspect of a portrait that was rather too large to be examined in a horizontal state but would have been extremely inconvenient to prop up just to look at for a few minutes and then replace on the sliding rack.

The struggle continued throughout the extended tour of the studio, and it was an extended tour. Even had Duo not been pleased to show off the place and all it contained, Heero would probably have kept them downstairs that long anyway marveling and admiring and lusting (in one way or another). And as when Duo had actually been naked in front of him, Heero did eventually come up with a way to work with feelings that definitely weren’t diminishing over time.

He had arrived at the house around eleven, and it was three in the afternoon so soon he could hardly credit it. And since he had a class this evening, he was forced to insist eventually, reluctantly, that they emerge, blinking and readjusting like travelers out of a cave full of the most remarkable formations, from the addictive studio. He didn’t have to leave the house cold turkey, however, since they’d planned from the beginning to scrounge up a late lunch in the kitchen.

“I’m pretty sure we have cold cuts and tuna and peanut butter and jelly,” Duo listed as they climbed the stairs, “if you want a sandwich. Or we could make some mac and cheese or something.”

“These are some gourmet options,” Heero murmured, smiling at the way Duo’s wording had seemed to imply a sandwich with cold cuts, tuna, and peanut butter and jelly on it.

“We’ve got plenty of real food too.” Duo’s return grin sabotaged his mock-defensive tone. “You just don’t have time for us to put together crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce. Neither do I, actually, since I have to work this evening.”

“Wow,” said Heero as he experienced an unexpected rumble in his stomach, “crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce sounds amazing. Do you have a recipe for that?”

“What?” For an instant Duo seemed somewhat panicked. “No! I can’t cook to save my life! I just made up something that sounded good!”

Heero chuckled, then admitted somewhat forlornly, “I’m not much good either. But you know…” Even during their third get-together, even feeling pretty easy around Duo, Heero still had to take a surreptitious deep breath here. “Giachetti’s is really good Italian food. I don’t know if they have crab manicotti, but I know they’re good…” Also not knowing exactly what might happen to disrupt a more formal date between himself and Duo, Heero hardly dared make the suggestion any more explicit than that. He had a pretty good idea what was coming next, but whether or not it would happen today he couldn’t be sure. He’d been longing for a more formal date with Duo, an upgrade of their interaction to the next level, but couldn’t help being hugely nervous about the idea at the same time.

If Duo recognized this nervousness, he most likely attributed it to shyness or uncertainty of the reception of the idea or something similar, for he gave Heero a reassuringly flirtatious smile as they entered the kitchen and said, “We’d probably better go there, then, since I got us both hooked on this manicotti idea.”

“And what if they really don’t have any?” Heero replied with a smile of his own, pleased and relieved.

“We’ll just have to find some place that does and go there next.”

And Heero felt all warm and fuzzy again.

They were inclined to dawdle over their peanut butter and jelly, joking about sandwich techniques and the proper alignment of the universe that was thrown off by Duo’s choice to put raisins in his, wasting plenty of time before they’d even sat down despite each of them having somewhere to be after not too long. Neither, it turned out, had been served many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a child, and therefore they felt a bit detached from the popular concept of the meal choice as a childish one — but they did have pretty firm ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate along those lines, and no qualms about debating them. Beyond that, it was interesting to talk about what they had eaten as children and did associate with their younger days.

Eventually, however, Heero really did have to get up and leave, lest he find himself unable to coordinate buses properly to get first home and then to school. To his very great satisfaction, though, Duo accompanied him to the bus stop down the street with such immediacy, and without so much as the briefest question whether Heero wanted him to, it was as if they’d prearranged this as well. Which meant their conversation about their preferred cartoons growing up continued almost uninterrupted.

In fact it continued almost uninterrupted far longer than it should have, and far longer than Heero realized at first. Right in the middle of recalling his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode that he could remember (the one about the cufflinks), the sight of a bus passing — passing, not turning — along the larger connecting street some distance down from them jarred him into sudden realization.

“What time is it?” he demanded, interrupting himself in his startlement.

Duo too was startled, and jerked his head around searching for whatever had broken into Heero’s thoughts. By the time he looked back, Heero had answered his own question by lifting the watch he’d been wearing all along, and had assumed a grim expression. “What?” Duo asked. “What time is it?”

Heero gave a frustrated sigh. “4:35.”

“There should have been, like, three buses by now!” Duo yelped.

For a moment Heero remained silent. Was it worth explaining that he knew exactly why, and on whose dime, the buses weren’t coming down this street? Probably not. What would happen would happen, and trying to give details at this point would undoubtedly only be more awkward. So all he finally said was, “It would take too long to walk down to the next stop. It’s already so late. Can I use your phone?”

“Doesn’t Allery do cell phone service?” Duo wondered as he fished out his device.

“I think they’re thinking about it. But it’s all land lines at the moment.”

“So you’re holding out ’til you can get a good discount.”

“I’m holding out as long as I can. I’d rather not have to carry a phone at all.” Heero stared reluctantly down at the one he now held.

Duo laughed. “You’d rather be a hermit.”

“Yes,” Heero agreed bluntly, and dialed the number of someone much more inclined than he was to be constantly connected to the rest of the world. He would simply have asked Duo for a ride — embarrassing as that would have been — if he hadn’t been aware that Duo, like himself, had no car and only sometimes borrowed one belonging to people he lived with, none of whom were present.

“No wonder you liked our basement so much,” Duo grinned.

Quatre’s greeting was the friendly and professional tone he used for strangers, indicating that, whatever else he knew about Duo by now, he didn’t have him listed as a phone contact yet. But as soon as Heero identified himself, the sound of Quatre’s reply abruptly shifted to a disingenuous combination of concern and smugness. “Oh, hi, Heero. How’s it going?”

“Fine.” Heero tried not to sound too defeated. “Do you have time to give me a ride?”

“Oh, sure!” Quatre replied a little too readily. “Where are you?”

Heero might not have rattled off Duo’s address quite as quickly as he did if he’d believed Quatre was actually in need of it. The recitation won him a confirmation from Quatre even more glib than the address had been, as well as a surprised and pleased look from Duo perhaps in response to the revelation that Heero already had where he lived by heart.

“Actually I think I’m not far from there,” Quatre added.

“Hmm,” said Heero, in lieu of a sarcastic comment on that extraordinary coincidence.

“So I should be there pretty soon.”

“OK. Thanks.” Heero hung up, resisting the urge to shake his head, roll his eyes, or sigh, and handed the phone back to Duo. There was always some amusement to all of this too, and some grudging admiration at how well everything came together, but he tried not to show any of that either.

“So, back to the house?” The cute casual motion by which Duo replaced his phone in his pocket probably held Heero’s eye more than it should.

“Yeah.” Here it wasn’t too difficult not to sound defeated, since an excuse to spend more time with Duo wasn’t really anything he regretted. So they sat amicably on the porch making definitive arrangements for a date at Giachetti’s, and Heero couldn’t be even a little annoyed about being stuck here waiting for a ride.

With typical good acting — better than what he’d used on the phone where he could be relatively certain he was safe — Quatre didn’t show up any sooner than would make sense, and moved along the street slowly as if looking carefully at house numbers before catching sight of his roommate on the porch of the one he wanted.

“Nice car,” Duo muttered admiringly as Quatre came to a stop. Heero was watching the big, excited shape in the back seat with the continued urge to shake his head, all suspicions confirmed.

Technically it wasn’t necessary for Quatre to leave the vehicle when he was only here to collect a passenger, but not only did the plan require him to do so, it was also Quatre’s nature to be polite and sociable under any circumstances. So of course he’d turned off the car and was getting out to say hi to Duo just as if he didn’t know that the passenger he already had was going to burst forth like living chaos to join him in so doing.

As sixty-five pounds of ridiculously excited chabrador exploded toward him, Duo made a surprised noise, but that was all he had time for before the dog was on him. Quatre was shouting vainly and as if he hadn’t expected this, and Heero was braced for the outcome.

“He chewed through his leash!” Quatre called as he approached. And though this was true, strictly speaking, the despair and frustration in the tone were misleading — Truffle had chewed through this particular leash perhaps six months ago, at which point Heero, tired of replacing nylon leashes, had bought him one made of chain that he couldn’t so easily destroy. Like the sketchbook that wouldn’t stay hidden, however, the latest chewed-through leash continued to make appearances whenever it was convenient for it to do so.

And then Duo dropped to his knees, carelessly putting his face right in range of the big wet purple tongue, and said with an enthusiasm to match Truffle’s, “Did you chew through your leash?? That’s so naughty!!”

Heero had been looking back and forth between Duo and the car, watching alternately for what his handsome new acquaintance would do in response to the dog and signs of a stealthy exit from the back seat and the assumption of a position in hiding somewhere whence the entire scene could be captured on video; but Trowa’s powers of stealth were constantly improving, and Heero, even while specifically watching for him, got only slight hints at his presence. Besides, his full attention was diverted in the other direction when Duo, to cap his welcome of Truffle, produced seemingly out of nowhere a good-sized Milk Bone with which to tease and eventually gratify the good-sized dog. Seriously, where it had come from was an enormous mystery at this point. Even Heero had only been half expecting Truffle today; there was no way Duo could have known.

Duo’s initial reaction to unexpected shedding and slobber had been excellent, but his subsequent production of treats bordered on the incredible. As Heero’s wondering eyes rose from Duo to meet Quatre’s, he heard in his head the echo of an exchange from the other day when he’d first encountered Duo in Ms. Hilde’s car:

“That’s a new one.”

“Yeah, wow. I say go for it.”

And though Quatre’s face didn’t quite communicate ‘go for it,’ beyond a doubt he was impressed. But the interested calculation that settled onto his expression thereafter gave Heero a bit of a chill as he realized that… nobody had ever made it past the dog before, at least not this definitively. He had no idea what was supposed to happen next. And they’d already arranged a proper date for the coming weekend.

Normally he would have pulled Truffle off the victim by now, but he’d been so taken by surprise by Duo’s reaction that he’d just stood there for half a minute longer than usual. At least Duo seemed not to mind. In fact he almost sounded disappointed when Heero’s commands drew Truffle’s loving attentions away to his owner. And as Duo stood, wiping saliva from his face, he asked, “What kind of dog is he?”

“He’s chow/black lab.” Heero got a good grip on Truffle’s harness when he noticed that another Milk Bone from nowhere had appeared in the same hand Duo was using the back of to clear off his face. “Why do you have dog treats?”

“Oh, there’s a bunch of dogs between here and the bus stop, though you don’t always catch them outside. I keep some treats on me for them.” As he spoke, Duo approached where Truffle was straining at Heero’s grip on his harness, and held up the latest Milk Bone. “Does he do any tricks?”

So while Duo put Truffle through his paces, rewarding him with what was probably an unhealthy amount of treats for the few commands he’d learned well enough to perform while excessively excited, Heero watched him and admired the friendliness with which he interacted with the dog, glanced around somewhat pointlessly in search of Trowa (whom he never found), and worried about the artful gleam in Quatre’s eye. Perhaps he could keep the time and place of his next meeting with Duo a secret; perhaps he could stave them off. Though honestly he wasn’t sure, much of the time, how they even knew in the first place.

And it didn’t matter anyway, since when they finally got around to goodbying after a decent amount of further interaction with Truffle that was sure to make his little doggy day, Duo commented, “So I’ll see you on Friday. I think there’s a bus stop in that shopping center — right across from the mall, right?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Heero forced himself to smile, to hide his minor dismay at having the time and place (more or less) announced like that in front of Quatre. “I’ll see you then.”

And after bundling Truffle, with some effort, back into the car, leaving Trowa (wherever he was) to his own devices in getting home, Heero took his place in the passenger seat wondering whether he was more eager to spend time with Duo or anxious — in the face of Quatre’s complacent but crafty visage — how that meeting could possibly go.

***

“Donovan went to Traevis too. He’s probably graduated by now. I haven’t talked to him for a while. But he was trying to get close to Quatre for networking purposes, so that’s how I met him.”

“Sounds like another trophy-hunter.”

“…yeah.”

“How’ve you managed to pick up so many of those?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t have such a long list.”

“I’m glad I’m not the only one with a shitty list.”

“So I guess yours only got more fun after high school too?”

“They got more drunk after high school. Drunk and freeloading and assuming I owed them sex and thinking it was manly to be pushy and rough — or, for the girls, that it was my job to buy them whatever they wanted.”

“What was the common denominator? Besides that, I mean. Since I assume you didn’t choose them for that stuff.”

“You know, I’ve thought about that, and… it sounds totally self-centered, but I think what drew me to all of them in the first place was their interest in me. There was always something about them — you know, some good or interesting personality trait, since none of them were all bad — something that kept me with them after that first attraction, but it was usually their interest that started it. I guess I’m just a total egotist, but don’t we all want to be adored? And maybe they were just interested in me because they thought they could get stuff from me, but I always loved the feeling of someone showing specific interest in me out of the blue. Does that make me an awful person?”

“No, I don’t think so. Or at least not more than it makes me an awful person to be drawn to people just because they’re good-looking and have a bright presence.”

“Hah! We’re both so superficial!”

“Well, we’re both artists… what can we do?”

“Hope to get lucky, I guess. Not like that. You know what I mean. No, seriously, that’s not what I meant! So, uh, how many more are on your list after Donald or whatever?”

“I don’t remember. Two or three a year. I haven’t really kept track, because after Donovan… things changed. But with Donovan, it was pretty much the same as the high school relationships were. Only now I had a whole house full of roommates that didn’t approve. We didn’t last very long because of that, actually… well, and because he kicked my dog.”

“He what?!”

“He thought it was good business to wear suits all the time, and he had… Wufei described it as ‘using dignity to cover up a lack of real ethics,’ or something. Sylvia just said he had a stick up his ass. But his dignity and his nice clothes couldn’t stand my hairy dog. He thought I didn’t know he was mistreating Truffle, but I did.”

“I hope you threw him out that same second.”

“Pretty much. And he won’t be networking with Quatre any time soon.”

“Good! Good. So then what changed after Donovan?”

***

Heero tried to fight off nervousness as he disembarked from the bus just opposite the mall and turned to make his way across the parking lot toward Giachetti’s. He’d considered asking his roommates directly what the plan was for tonight, but, knowing he would never get a straight answer, had eventually decided not to. There was even a certain relief to ignorance, since he would be able (if he was able) to eschew thinking about it and simply enjoy his date with Duo, and show genuine, uncontrived surprise in response to whatever did happen. Nevertheless the nervousness was still tugging at him as he walked.

Duo waited outside the restaurant, leaning against the wall beside the door giving a friendly smile to anyone that entered in front of him. And Heero simply couldn’t help gawping as he approached.

Observing the fixed gaze, Duo glanced down at the emerald tie and matching vest he wore over his milky white dress shirt and slacks. He’d obviously put his hair in a fresh braid too, and taken some care in so doing, since it was sleek and smooth, much neater than the last times Heero had seen him. Heero would never want to use a trite and possibly demeaning phrase like, ‘He cleans up well,’ but it was a pretty stunning improvement. Duo was easily as sexy and eye-catching now as when he’d been draped naked across an armless armchair.

“Too much?” Duo wondered, looking back up from his inspection of self.

“No!” Heero didn’t bother trying not to stare. “You look amazing.” In some chagrin he added, “I think I’m underdressed.” He too had opted for a button-up and slacks, but had foregone a tie — and certainly didn’t own anything as nicely coordinated as what Duo wore.

“It is your turn,” Duo replied with a flirtatious grin. When he saw how much the remark made Heero blush, the grin widened into a sort of ‘My bad!’ expression, and he hastened on with, “Let’s go inside.”

There, Heero looked around surreptitiously for anyone he knew. The problem was that pretty much everyone in here — at least all the customers seated at the various tables, if not necessarily the staff — appeared familiar, but he couldn’t precisely place any of them. Was he being paranoid? This city housed a big enough population that, though he might recognize a lot of faces, it seemed highly improbable that everyone in a restaurant would be familiar to him… and yet he couldn’t attach a name, or where he thought he’d seen the person before, to a single one of them. At the same time, with the way his life worked, he couldn’t write this off as mere paranoia.

Since he also couldn’t do anything about it, he made no specific request about where they would like to be seated.

As they began to peruse their menus, Duo remarked happily, “Oh, good, they’ve got Coke products here. Pasta’s always better with Coke.”

“Better than Pepsi?” Heero sought to clarify.

“Yeah, ’cause Coke’s a little bit more bitter?”

Heero shrugged and admitted, “They’ve always tasted the same to me.”

Duo gave him an exaggerated look of shock. “You’re not serious. Hah! You’re very serious. Next you’re going to tell me Sprite and Sierra Mist are the same thing.”

“I can’t say I like either one of them.”

“What is wrong with you?”

Heero smiled. “Who’s the drinks snob now?”

Duo grinned back, then gave his attention to the server that had appeared to take their order for sodas. When the woman had gone, Duo said, “No, but you know who really was snobby about Coke?”

“Who?”

“Well, kinda everyone. You know how Pepsi was originally the poor man’s Coke?”

“Not really, but I’m not surprised.”

“Yeah, well, apparently, when they first made Pepsi, it was supposed to be a cheaper alternative to Coke, and it was supposed to taste the same. My… great… grandma…” He articulated slowly, as if taking care to specify the relationship correctly. “Yeah, ’cause it was my grandma who told me, about her mom. My great-grandma used to keep a pack of Coke bottles that she would wash out between uses and fill with Pepsi when she had guests.”

“She really cared that much?”

“I guess! You want to save money, but you gotta look classy, right? Can’t let anyone know you buy the cheap-o Pepsi like a poor poory… poorerson… right?”

Heero laughed. “I can’t imagine caring about how much people thought I spent on something. I’d much rather get a good deal.”

“And they’d probably admire you more for finding it on sale anyway! I mean, in the art world, you totally get what you pay for, so it’s like, good stuff being expensive is just something we all deal with, not a way to prove how rich you are or something.” When Heero nodded his agreement, Duo added, “Some weirdos may think Pepsi tastes the same as Coke, but nobody thinks Grumbacher is the same as Sennelier.”

Heero, though he hadn’t done much oil painting, still had to agree again, on principle.

Their server walked by them just then, carrying drinks to another table, and Duo picked up his menu. “Guess I should figure out what I want…”

Yet again Heero nodded agreement, and did likewise. He thought they were both searching for crab-stuffed manicotti with parmesan sauce — and though, as he’d feared, they didn’t find that specific combination available, they’d both managed to settle on something they wanted by the time their drinks came out and the server asked if they were ready to order.

When she had gone again, Duo inquired, “So how’s Truffle? Not sick from all those treats I gave him, I hope?”

“No, he’s fine,” Heero smiled. “As unmanageable as ever.” Actually Truffle had gotten sick that day, but since Heero speculated Quatre had plied him with excessive treats just to get him into the car in the first place, he didn’t blame Duo for that.

“How long have you had him?”

“Four years or so. I always wanted a dog growing up. My parents would never let me.”

Duo made a gesture of understanding and concurrence. “I’d have loved to have one too, but the kind of house we always lived in… I mean, you saw it…”

“Yeah, a dog might be a disaster in there.”

“I want a place someday where I can have both! Where I can arrange it for lots of art and a dog! And maybe some cats! And, like, some gerbils and rats and snakes and stuff! I dunno — maybe some birds too?”

Heero chuckled at this optimistic plan. “It sounds nice. But I’ve heard rats can smell–” And he stopped.

He wasn’t sure whether his eye was caught by the sudden surreptitious but still unusually concerted movement throughout the room or whether it was pure coincidence that he happened to glance around just then. He actually might have missed it had he not lifted his eyes at that moment, because they were all that skilled at ‘casual’ and ‘natural,’ but by pure chance he did notice: every single person in the room was suddenly putting on makeup.

Typically he would have considered it very rude to look frantically from one fellow restaurant patron to the next, staring hard but briefly at each trying to figure out what the hell they were doing; and even in this situation where it clearly wasn’t inappropriate behavior, he found it embarrassing. But those colors were not natural, and not all of it was even, as far as he could tell, standard cosmetics. What these folks were up to he couldn’t guess. Or, rather, knowing Trowa all too well, he did have a guess growing in the darkness of his suddenly cold gut — a guess he could hardly allow for the possibility of, did not even want to consider, but that would not let go. Quickly he looked back at the table on which were resting hands that had clenched into nervous fists, staring down at the clean tablecloth as if he could ignore away the greyish whites, sickly greens, and bruise purples being applied in copious amounts at tables around the room.

To Duo the nonsense had gone, as yet, unnoticed, but he hadn’t failed to pick up on Heero’s sudden increased tension and concern. And his concentration on Heero’s face and uneasy fists was touching. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly.

And that was when the first wet-sounding, guttural groan came floating in their direction.

And that was when Heero realized where he knew all these people from.

“What the…” Duo’s eyes had been drawn from Heero by the sound, and now he looked out across the room with an expression simultaneously skeptical and amused. Reluctantly, Heero followed the gaze.

The other ‘patrons,’ having finished their cosmetic endeavors — and some of them, apparently, having removed outer garments to reveal clothing far more ragged and bloody underneath — had all assumed limp slumps at their tables as if they’d been murdered over their ravioli and nobody had been left to clean up the mess… everyone, that is, except a couple of diners at the far end, almost invisible thanks to some potted plants in the way, who were now slowly, awkwardly hauling themselves to their feet. Once upright, their uncertain stances became imbalanced staggers as they set out just as slowly, still groaning, in a sluggish but deliberate line that seemed to point directly at Heero and Duo.

The latter turned his eyes, beneath high-raised brows, back toward Heero, and remarked in an almost questioning tone, “Everyone in this restaurant is suddenly a zombie.”

“Yeah,” said Heero faintly. “Yeah. Looks like it.”

The swinging door into the kitchens shuddered open as a member of the wait staff — in fact Heero thought it was their very own server — came shuffling out, now with a greenish-white face and oozing some kind of black substance from her mouth, indicating that more than only the space had been bought out for this occasion. He also noticed, since it was glowing red right above the door that had just caught his eye with its movement, a digital clock whose original function he wasn’t sure of but that seemed to have recently started a seven-minute countdown.

“Looks like we have six and a half minutes,” he murmured.

“Until what?” wondered Duo, glancing over. “And is she going to bring us our food?”

Heero couldn’t help smiling a little. “Probably not.”

“Well.” Duo moved briskly, taking a long last pull on his Coke straw and then unexpectedly beginning to shift all the contents of the table onto the booth seating or the floor beside him. This consisted of their drinks (which went onto the carpet in the far back corners where they hopefully wouldn’t spill), a wooden container of sugar packets with salt shaker and pepper grinder on the other side, two sets of silverware they hadn’t unrolled from protective napkins yet, a bottle of oil for the bread appetizer they were supposed to have received next, and the tablecloth; Duo was careful with all of it, propping the oil especially delicately into the corner of the seat where, like the drinks, it shouldn’t fall over. The tablecloth he folded — unevenly, yes, but it was neater than crumpling it — and placed next to the rest with the silverware stacked on top.

Heero had watched this performance in such rapt bemusement that he hadn’t taken note of the first zombies’ positions for a while. Now a glance around showed him that the one from the kitchen was nearly upon them and had been followed by another in a bloody chef’s uniform, with the initial set of patrons and a newly risen second set not far behind. The third group of diners was stirring, climbing from their seats and joining the slow-moving throng in the direction of Heero and Duo, who was busy with the next step in what Heero realized now was an impromptu bunker: he’d stood from his seat and was carefully tipping their heavy table over onto its end.

“‘Scuze me,” he said as Heero was forced to move his legs to avoid the multi-footed one of the table swiveling up in his vicinity. He added conversationally, “We’re lucky it isn’t attached to the wall; I think they usually are in restaurants like this.” Then, painstakingly as it was heavy and he obviously didn’t want to damage it, he rolled it down onto its long side and slid it into place to create a sort of front gate for the enclosure formed by their booth seating.

Heero was now somewhat inclined to laugh, though it might have come out a little frantic-sounding. He had no idea what the zombies would do when they got over here, nor what Duo’s plan was for that eventuality — Heero figured his date was probably thinking along the same lines as his own vague notion of using the silverware against them — but it was stupid and hilarious that Duo was creating a hiding place for them with the restaurant’s furniture, his aplomb nothing less than adorable.

And then Duo, after navigating over the seat into the space behind the upturned table, bent down and pulled the right leg of his white slacks all the way up to his knee, revealing what appeared to be a machete strapped there with scrunchy pony-tail holders of three different colors that must have been either stretched beyond all usefulness or cutting off the circulation in his calf. Heero, gaping, watched as Duo somewhat clumsily extracted the weapon from the hair accessories holding it in place, and finally managed to ask, in an even weaker tone than he’d yet used, “Why do you have a machete under your pants?”

Duo examined the knife, which seemed to be made of rubber, from end to end as if he’d not yet had a good chance to do so, or perhaps as if he found it repeatedly fascinating. He slapped its tip experimentally into his other palm, watching it wobble slightly with an appraising expression. “Some guy gave it to me and said I’d better bring it tonight because I was going to need it.” He gestured to the first of the zombies, who were getting dangerously near the table. “I guess this is what he was talking about.”

“‘Some guy?'”

“Yeah, he was all in that black and grey camo.” But before Duo could provide any further description — not that Heero really needed it — the first of the zombies was upon them.

The movement by which Duo swung his machete at the woman just as she reached their table was an experimental one, as he couldn’t be sure what degree of false violence — if any! — would be effective against these false zombies. It seemed to have done the trick, though: as soon as the rubber made contact with her neck, she let out another theatrical groan, staggered off to her right, and fell to the floor.

“Looks like this’ll work, then,” Duo said with a cheerful nod, again slapping the bendy blade against his free hand.

Heero mimicked the first gesture, but not the second.

The next zombie reached them after not too long, and Duo dealt with that one in the same way he had the first. Though Heero couldn’t see them around the booth’s edges once they’d fallen to the floor, he had an uneasy feeling they were crawling away along the room’s perimeter and might not really be finished. Meanwhile, seated zombies were slowly awakening in waves, each one closer to the defenders, and beginning to stagger their way over.

The clock above the kitchen door read 5:00.

“So did you know,” Duo wondered as he wielded his weapon in the face of the grimy onslaught, “that everyone in here was going to turn into a zombie tonight?”

“I did not,” replied Heero with complete honesty. He didn’t add that he was not surprised, however, and he was glad Duo hadn’t asked if he knew why this was happening.

Some of the makeup jobs here were distinctly gruesome — impressive for a last-minute application with only handheld mirrors! — and in the otherwise silent restaurant — the music that had previously been playing softly from overhead speakers having ceased, probably to accommodate the atmosphere — the groans and shuffling sounds were genuinely agitating. Heero’s heart now beat even faster than it had when he’d been in the dark as to this evening’s proceedings, something he would have considered impossible prior to this — surely, would have been his assumption, vague and unsettled anticipation of what would happen must be worse than whatever was actually going to happen! As usual, he should know better than to underestimate his friends.

Two moaning zombies came at them simultaneously, clawing arms outstretched to reach over the barricading table, and Duo dispatched them with a neat slice that crossed the throat of one diagonally down through the chest of the other. They separated, falling dramatically in different directions and crawling away out of sight across a carpet that Quatre might need to pay to have stage makeup stains professionally removed from after this.

“So obviously you do what you gotta do,” Duo remarked, “and I never mind a spot of zombie-killing of a Friday evening… but if someone had warned me ahead of time, I wouldn’t have worn white!” And into the chest of the next zombie he thrust his blade, which bent comically before the approaching monster staggered backward away from it and fell to the floor.

“The fact that you were going to need a machete might have been a warning,” Heero pointed out. “I didn’t even get that much.”

Duo allowed, “That’s true,” and sliced another zombie across the neck. “Besides, I look damn good in white.”

“Yes,” said Heero seriously, making Duo’s grin widen, “you do.”

The clock above the kitchen read 4:17.

The onslaught thickened as the entire population of the building joined in, including the wait and bus and kitchen staff and what Heero guessed to be the restaurant manager or owner in a bloodstained suit and tie, and all the former diners had risen from their seats. Duo was forced to deal out blows right and left with an arm that must be getting tired. The most difficult part seemed to be maintaining a gentleness of strike that would not damage the real living people beneath the makeup even with a rubber machete, and Heero admired his dedication to the rules of an unexpected game that might have annoyed a less patient person into a more hurtful demonstration of his dissatisfaction with this crazy postponement of his dinner.

The clock above the kitchen indicated they had just over three minutes left, and Heero felt a mixture of awkwardness, embarrassment, and amusement in addition to the aforementioned agitation and nervousness resultant upon the semi-realism of certain aspects of this scene. He should be doing something to help, but wasn’t sure what; he didn’t have a rubber machete strapped to his leg — inasmuch as giving him one would have constituted far more forewarning than his friends obviously believed he needed — and his silverware idea from earlier seemed, upon further reflection, unfeasible unless he wanted to add genuine blood to the fake stuff many of these people wore.

Well, it probably didn’t matter much. Duo was obviously enjoying himself, even if he did appear, as Heero had previously noted, to be tiring, and whatever the hell Heero’s friends thought to learn from this exercise — how well Duo could make use of his surroundings and available resources in the event of an unexpected undead apocalypse? — must be well in evidence in his enthusiastic one-man hold of the little bunker. And if Heero was correct and the clock over the kitchen doors was significant to their situation, Duo probably wouldn’t have to heft that fake machete for all that much longer in any case.

Just then, Heero started at a sound to his right, and half-whirled-half-jumped to see a lurching body clawing its way over the back of the booth seating in that direction and reaching for him with hideous purpose. This was a zombie Heero recognized, so he knew what that purpose was, and couldn’t be sure whether to roll his eyes or duck behind Duo in a very pointed ‘I’m here on a date with someone who is not you, Treize’ gesture.

Neither was required of him (though he might have done one of them anyway), for Duo, attention caught by Heero’s motion, wasted no time in bringing his machete down right onto Treize’s still-stylish-even-in-undeath head. Treize gave a groan that sounded more disappointed than anything, and slumped down behind the seat.

“Keep watch on both sides,” Duo instructed, “and let me know if anyone else gets that bright idea.”

“Oh, they will,” Heero replied darkly. Because where Treize went, never far behind was…

And, yes, just as expected, the next head to appear over the back of the seat was platinum blonde. Long, elegant hands in torn button-up sleeves reached for him, and this time the message Heero would have intended in jumping behind Duo was, ‘Still not interested in a threesome, Zechs.’ But instead he just said his companion’s name in a warning tone, and was rewarded with the very satisfying sight of Zechs being smacked in the ear with a rubber machete and toppling backward — perhaps not entirely theatrically — out of sight.

The clock read 1:38.

It was several zombies more before Heero became certain that the cycle had started over and they were seeing for a second time attackers Duo had already dealt with. A particular early-90’s denim jacket, artfully spattered in blood, Heero couldn’t possibly have missed after having taken specific note of it the first time, and the besuited manager/owner stood out as well. The zombies were, it seemed, doing what Heero had speculated since the beginning: circling around at a crawl to the back of the straggling line for a fluid, continuous attack.

This repetition evidently rendered it allowable for Treize and Zechs to make each another attempt at getting at Heero — though Heero puzzled, as not infrequently at their behavior even in more routine circumstances, over what they thought to gain by it, whether they really thought this would change his mind about them and what they wanted — and in fact Treize was coming over the seat-back to be met by Duo’s machete a third time when the clock above the kitchen door finally reached the end of its countdown and began repeatedly flashing 00:00.

It seemed a little silly, but Heero’s nervousness actually increased at this point. He wouldn’t be surprised if these folks somehow found a way to combine all the zombies into a giant undead horror so tall it would burst through the ceiling — which Quatre would then pay for — and challenge Duo and Duo’s little play weapon with flailing arms and stomping legs each comprised of two or three individuals. Or maybe the clock above the kitchen had been a ruse all along — designed, perhaps, to test Duo’s response to disappointment, though Heero would probably be the more disappointed of the two — and the assault would not stop at this juncture. How soon would Duo tire of the game and demand to be let out? Heero couldn’t guess.

But any hope that had arisen at the end of the countdown was justified after all. In a rush, accompanied by the resumption of music from the speakers above — now some heroic movie theme Heero did not immediately recognize — rescue burst upon the scene.

“Yep, that’s the guy.” Before dealing with the next zombie in the queue, Duo gestured with his machete at the figure at the head of the newcomers.

Heero had absolutely no need to ask which ‘guy’ he meant. “That’s Trowa,” he said in more of a ‘this is so typical of him’ tone than any of identification.

“And isn’t that your roommate?”

“That’s all of my roommates,” Heero confirmed. “Yes.”

At first Duo didn’t have much time, between zombies, for examining the rescue party, for admiring all their stylish urban camouflage or their various weapons — from Sylvia’s replicas of Legolas’ knives from the Lord of the Rings movies and Wufei’s runed broadsword with the dragon hilt that looked ridiculously out of place in this context to the machete in Quatre’s hand that seemed to have come in a set with Duo’s and the chainsaw Trowa hefted that Heero really, really hoped was fake — but after not too long, Duo was able to stand back, relax a bit, and examine the fresh heroes as they drew the zombies’ attention away from the previous targets.

“Quatre can’t keep a straight face,” he chuckled presently as they watched Quatre dive into battle with an expression that showed just how absurd he found this.

“Neither can you,” Heero pointed out. And he didn’t add that, to someone that knew Trowa (who could keep a straight face), it was obvious he too was overwhelmed with emotion — in his case, intense pleasure and excitement.

“Well, it’s not every day you get to fight an Italian restaurant full of zombies!”

Wufei and Sylvia had headed down the line and were further away with their backs turned this direction, undoubtedly because Duo had met Wufei once before in a situation, if not exactly worse than this, at least pretty bad, and might recognize him again now. This precaution was probably unnecessary, though, since the wide, enthusiastic sweeps of Trowa’s chainsaw — which made a very convincing sound effect now he’d turned it on — were difficult to look away from.

“That guy’s really into it,” Duo laughed.

“That’s Trowa,” Heero repeated.

For a little while they watched the action without being called upon to take any further part, until zombie Zechs started climbing over the seat again and Duo dispatched him with a thoughtful expression. He glanced back at where the carnage still proceeded without them, since it seemed the zombies were not staying down for the rescue party any more than they had for the beleaguered. And now, as casually as if motivated by mere unconcerned curiosity, he finally asked the question Heero had been dreading: “Why is this happening?”

“I… can… sorta… explain,” Heero replied haltingly. “But not…” He gestured around, having no words to express how impossible he found the idea of a rational conversation at any length in this setting.

“I think they’ve got things under control in here.” Duo still couldn’t keep a straight face as he glanced back at the enthusiastic Trowa and his chainsaw. “Why don’t we go outside and talk?”

Half reluctant and half relieved, Heero nodded again. Together they carefully climbed out of the makeshift barricade and headed quietly for the doorway that led toward the exit. No one followed, though Heero thought he could make out the disappointed figures of Treize and Zechs watching them go from the booth beside where they’d been seated. It seemed likely that the game plan had been to keep this drama inside the controlled environment of the restaurant, for the sake of everyone’s safety and privacy and the least amount of property damage, so Heero and Duo would probably, as speculated, be safe outside. In the doorway, with a quiet, uninhabited bar to their left and the entry just before them, they paused by mutual silent accord and looked back.

Despite the defenders numbering only four, the battle had spread out to fill every corner of the room. Closest to them was Quatre, whose laughing machete strikes made it hard for even the zombies around him to keep to their prescribed expressions of slack-jawed undeath. Several of them on the floor around him were visibly giggling, which seemed to be impeding their progress toward crawling away to get to their feet and rejoin the skirmish elsewhere. For a moment or two, this strategy — if it could be called that — left Quatre the only one standing in a ring of mirthful zombies scrambling ineffectually to retreat.

And in that moment, Trowa backed into the circle and briefly turned off the sound effect on his chainsaw in order to hear Quatre’s comment, “You’re right — this is fun.”

Trowa gave him a very serious look and replied quietly, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

“I’m glad!”

“It’s all thanks to you,” said Trowa earnestly, and leaned down to kiss Quatre firmly on the mouth. It made for quite the picture, what with the chainsaw pointed out one side and the machete out the other and the zombies at their feet — the very image of love surviving all odds even in a post-apocalyptic scenario.

“It’s not all me,” Quatre said breathlessly after the kiss had ended. “Thank Heero too; he’s the one who insists on dating jerks.”

“Marry me,” said Trowa.

“Oh!” Quatre’s face went pink as Trowa released him, and for once Heero thought it was both a genuine and spontaneous blush. “OK. Yes! Yes, that sounds like a good idea.”

The zombies on the floor — and, Heero thought, several that were upright and near enough to have heard the exchange — let out a concerted groan that was startling and very disturbing but probably the closest in-character thing they could manage to a cheer.

“Did that seriously just happen?” Duo chortled.

“I think it did,” replied Heero as he watched Trowa give Quatre one more quick kiss and then, restarting his chainsaw sound, plunge back into the fray. He couldn’t help grinning at having just witnessed the engagement of his two best friends, at the situation in which he’d witnessed it, and at the indication it gave that this dating thing really did work out from time to time. Actually he found it all rather heartening, and suddenly felt quite a bit better about the idea of spilling his guts — his somewhat bizarre guts, under the circumstances — to his companion.

“And do you insist on dating jerks?” Duo wondered next.

Heero laughed faintly. “That’s… part of the story.”

“All right, then, let’s really get out of here.” Duo tugged on Heero’s hand to urge him toward the exit. “I can’t wait to hear this.”

***

“After Donovan…”

Seated on a stone bench outside Giachetti’s in the shadows of both the building itself and the trees landscaped around it, with Duo beside him, Heero was finally getting to the end of what must be the longest and most rambling explanation for anything he’d ever given.

“After I broke up with Donovan, Quatre decided it was time to get seriously involved. I think he felt personally responsible — at least a little — since I met Donovan through him. He wanted to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. So he came up with The Test. He coordinates and pays for everything, and Trowa does most of his legwork with a bunch of expensive spy equipment. There’s a troupe of theater students — that was most of the zombies in there — who do whatever parts they need. And the others kinda pitch in wherever.”

“You know I know about Tests,” Duo replied. “But what was the zombie thing supposed to prove?”

Heero shook his head. “The zombie thing was Phase 4. I knew there was a Phase 4, but I had no idea what it was. If it’s supposed to prove anything besides ‘Trowa loves zombies,’ I don’t know what it is.”

“‘Phase 4?'” Duo leaned back against the rock planter into which their bench was set and laughed out loud. “There are phases to this? Way to make Hilde look like a total amateur!”

“I had to appreciate the irony of running into someone else who does Tests, though.”

“So what were the other– wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess.” Duo raised a finger. “You said your first boyfriend had a tendency to flirt with other people and say all sorts of inappropriate stuff about you right in front of you, as if you wouldn’t notice or care. So that Wufei guy was pretending to do that bullshit to see how I’d react. That was Phase 1.”

“That’s right. If you’d flirted with him seriously or followed the topics he raised — or if you tried to fight him or something — you would have failed.”

“But you’ve never actually been out with him at all, since he’s totally straight and has a nerdfriend.”

“Yeah. Usually they send this one guy Zechs to handle that part — he was one of those two zombies coming after me over the seats just now. He’s interested in me himself, and he’s not very good at taking ‘no’ for an answer. Last time he got a little… carried away… and Wufei volunteered this time. Or Sylvia volunteered him. I’m not sure.”

“So Phase 2 was…” Duo thought about it, raising a second finger somewhat indecisively. “Phase 2 must have been Quatre bringing you that sketchbook right in front of me to see if I’d be interested in your art.”

Heero nodded. “I’m not sure why they didn’t change it this time, since you’re an artist too.”

“Well, it’d be even worse for a fellow artist not to be interested, wouldn’t it? Someone else might just not be interested in art, but from me it would be like saying, ‘This kind of thing is OK when I do it, but yours isn’t important.'”

“I guess that’s true,” Heero smiled.

“But the fact that I’m interested in your art still doesn’t prove anything. I could still be a serial killer or a playboy or something…”

“Those things being very much in the same league,” murmured Heero.

“Well, I know I really do sometimes… neglect things I should do, because I forget about them or get lazy, or just don’t take life seriously enough… which has annoyed people in the past.”

Helplessly Heero shrugged. “Tell it to my roommates.”

Despite what he’d just said, Duo’s gaze was very serious as it met Heero’s through the shadows. “Does it bother you that they do this?”

Heero felt a thrill at the question and its tone as he realized that Duo was essentially offering to try to do something about his eccentric friends. Not that Heero could think of a single thing that might be done — and Duo probably couldn’t either — but the fact that Duo was willing to offer at all gave Heero simultaneously another fuzzy warmth and a bit of a chill.

The latter because Duo’s impulse rather made him fit right in with Heero’s eccentric friends.

“It… doesn’t bother me… too much,” he said at last. “Sometimes they go a little overboard–”

Duo gave a snort of laughter. “A little?”

“The zombie thing is new,” Heero admitted, grinning in spite of himself. “Normally it ends after the dog thing, if the…” He winced as he was forced to use the melodramatic term Quatre and Trowa had for it. “…if the Subject makes it that far.”

“‘The Subject,'” Duo chortled. “They’re so hardcore about this!”

“What you’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg. Of their enthusiasm, I mean. I couldn’t stop them doing this even if I wanted to.”

“So you don’t want to! You secretly enjoy this as much as they do!”

“I don’t think I will ever enjoy anything as much as they enjoy this. But, no, I don’t want to stop them. Well, part of me doesn’t… some of the time. Because it works. At least it works as well as Ms. Hilde’s Test for you… it weeds out the worst of them.”

“But you said the Subject usually doesn’t get as far as the dog part! It sounds like you’ve had exactly three dates with everyone you’ve tried going out with for the last however many years!”

“It isn’t always as compact as it’s been for you. Sometimes there are as many as six dates.”

“So what was different this time?”

Heero’s face went hot. “I think… I think they could tell I’m really into you. So they sped things up.”

“That…” Duo’s chuckle had a slightly uneasy sound. “That’s not reassuring. I mean, I like that a lot, but at the same time, how do I know dating you won’t bring out previously unknown assholeish tendencies in me? Since you’re so good at picking awful guys?”

“Hey, you have frankly admitted that everyone you dated were jerks too,” Heero pointed out. “I could easily be just like them. Your Test for me wasn’t nearly as extensive as mine for you.”

“Well, I do know one thing: it says something that all your friends think you’re special enough to look out for like this. I was already figuring out about you being hot and smart and fun, but this… this says something pretty special about you even beyond that.”

Again Heero was forced to smile, blushing simultaneously. “I think it says Quatre’s a crazy mobster, Trowa likes to play with spy equipment, Wufei’s can’t say no to his girlfriend, and Zechs and Treize have an unhealthy interest in me.”

“OK, well, it says all that too,” Duo laughed. “But it’s still kinda sweet.”

“And I know about you that you’re OK with fighting zombies on the spur of the moment, you’re nice to dogs, and you have fairly decent social skills.”

“So so far we’re not jerks,” concluded Duo solemnly. “Further testing is probably a good idea, though. I mean, I’ve passed your friends’ Test, so it seems like they’re going to let me date you… though I don’t think I’ll be surprised if we get kidnapped by pirates or something next time… and Trowa’s probably still monitoring us right now…”

Heero reminded him, “He just had his marriage proposal accepted. We’re probably OK for tonight.”

“What I’m wondering is… I passed your friends’ Test, so now it should be your turn to test me. Seems a little unfair, them making the decision for you.”

“The only thing they get to decide,” said Heero firmly, “is whether they let me try dating you in peace or harass you mercilessly. And as far as I’m concerned, just the fact that you’re sitting here talking to me right now after all this insanity proves something pretty special about you.”

Duo persisted. “But that’s only a result of their Test. Isn’t there anything you want to test?”

Heero’s smile widened at this obvious fishing. “Fine,” he said. “Kiss me.”

Duo pushed off the stones he’d been leaning back on with an alacrity that suggested he’d been waiting (or perhaps just secretly hoping) for this, and scooted the foot or so of bench required to bring him right against Heero. As he leaned in, his hands slid up Heero’s arms to rest on his neck, and his breath was suddenly warm in Heero’s face. Their parted lips met, and Duo pressed forward to move against Heero with an insistence unanticipated but welcome. He smelled and tasted of Coca-Cola, and in this context Heero couldn’t possibly say he didn’t like it — though he might still have maintained that Pepsi was about the same. Then it was several very pleasant moments longer than he’d expected before they broke apart.

“You pass,” Heero murmured.

“Really?” Duo looked amused and triumphant. “It’s that easy?”

“If you call everything you had to go through to get to that point easy…” Heero gestured to the restaurant as an indication of at least part of what he meant.

“You’re right about that… I think someday I’m going to ask you to marry me just to see what your friends will do.”

At the very suggestion Heero felt himself reddening again, and wondered, half tentative and half calculating, “You think we’re going to get lucky?”

“I seriously was not talking about sex when I said that!” protested Duo.

“I know,” Heero assured him. “But it was so funny that your mind jumped right in that direction.”

“Well…” Duo’s tone was quieter now, more earnest. “I feel pretty lucky with you so far. And did you say we’re safe for the night? Want to escape and try our date again somewhere else? It may be the only chance we’ll have to find out whether we’re both jerks without your friends interfering.”

“Sounds good to me.” When Duo jumped to his feet and, reaching for Heero’s hands, pulled him up after, Heero did not resist. “What did you have in mind?”

“I never got my dinner, and I’m starving.” Duo slid an arm around Heero’s back, drawing him comfortably but not inconveniently close. “Why don’t we grab a pizza or something and maybe rent a movie?”

“Perfect.”

“Yeah, I hear Rotting Flesh is out on DVD now, and supposedly it’s pretty good.”

In the semi-darkness of the parking lot as they headed for the bus stop, Heero’s somewhat theatrical groan was not the first to grace that venue that night.



<<1

For some author’s notes on this story, see this and this Productivity Log. I’ve rated it .

For an ebook version of this story, click here (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).

Veritas

Veritas

There came a time when the truth was more important than the fallout of the truth, and at such a time Heero would simply act.

A recent series of voicemail messages from Duo has brought Heero to a realization… and a decision.

Veritas

Every step of this process had been incredibly difficult: the initial decision to go through with it, reached only after weeks of agony; the plans he’d made as to how, where, and when, drafted, revised, scrapped, and rethought a dozen times; dragging himself to someplace where flowers could be purchased, something he didn’t recall ever having done before; trying to decide on the relative merits of the available options and what each would communicate, and eventually selecting a bouquet of sunflowers and some other things, bright orange and red (he, far from a flower expert, didn’t know exactly what they were); actually buying the flowers and dealing with the cheerful comments of the sales clerk; reentering the car and contemplating turning it on again, and then really thinking about his destination… He couldn’t do this. He just couldn’t.

Twisting the key with perhaps more vigor than was strictly wise — he’d bent a key out of shape and rendered it completely useless once in the past, doing that, and been forced to make his getaway in a different and much less convenient manner — he breathed deeply and started to back out of the parking space at the florist. He was going to do this. He could. In fact, he must.

Nevertheless, he needed some encouragement, and fortunately knew exactly where to get it. The car had by now recognized and synched up with his cell phone, and Heero hit the voice command button on the steering wheel and said, “Voicemail.”

Seven weeks ago, in accordance with the usual rotation designed to keep Preventers from getting burned out, he and Duo had been pulled from fieldwork and assigned more sedate clerical tasks. With this had come a new, regular schedule, with proper weekends off and everything, and that had significantly changed… well, everything.

“You have no new messages,” the computerized voice told him as he left the parking lot and headed up the street toward the highway. “Six saved messages.”

For Heero, the luxury of days off had required some adjustment. It wasn’t as if he had a social life that could occupy his free time, and he was so accustomed to disregarding his own idle desires as to be unsure, at first, how else to spend it.

Duo hadn’t had that problem.

“First saved message,” the monotonous voice announced when Heero didn’t give any command, followed by a date exactly seven weeks ago today. Heero realized suddenly that he wasn’t breathing as he waited for the half-yell-half-drawl he knew was coming.

“Heeyyyy, Heeeeerooooo!”

He let out the held breath in some irritation and self-deprecating amusement. Really, this had become absurd. Well, it had always been absurd.

“I thought you’d answer!” the message went on, with a force of wonder greater than seemed entirely rational and that had, the first time Heero had listened to this, confused him a little. “You always answer!”

He never would have thought of Duo as a drinker. Technically they were still too young to drink legally in most places anyway, but nobody ever said no to Duo. And evidently, once Duo had Saturdays off, alcohol was the order of Friday nights. A lot of alcohol. Well, Heero didn’t know specifically how much it took to get Duo drunk, but his estimate was ‘a lot.’

“I was at the bar, but… I forget… no, I came home from the bar…”

Heero might have worried about this new or apparently new pastime of Duo’s, except that it never seemed to interfere with his work or his health. At least it hadn’t the last six weeks. And unless it crossed that line, it wasn’t Heero’s business what Duo chose to spend his weekends on. Though he might like it to be.

Duo’s voice from the car speakers continued in a cheerful near-slur. “I came home because I wanted to come home, and I totally ordered this food. Did I order it?” Here he paused for a long moment, as if pondering deeply. “I think I made the taxi guy stop so I could get it on the way home, but maybe I ordered it too. Yeah, I think I did both.”

This first dissertation about the food (ordered or stopped for or both) had been recorded by pure coincidence when Heero hadn’t been able to get to the phone in time. In fact he’d been in the bathroom, because mundane circumstances sometimes led to extraordinary ones. Emerging, he’d seen that Duo had called, but assumed he would leave a message or call back if it was important. And leave a message Duo had.

“Yeah, so, this food! It came in a box! A paper box. Like I was going to pack it up and mail it to you. I could put your address — I mean, I did put your address: I took a marker and I really wrote your address right on this box.”

Heero hadn’t been aware that Duo knew his address at all; he definitely hadn’t been aware that Duo knew his address well enough to remember it when drunk. He would have liked to see that take-out box.

“Not like I’m actually going to send it to you, but I could because it’s in a cardboard box — I mean, a paper box; it’s that kind of thick paper that’s like cardboard — and it has your address on it. I wonder what the mailman would think!”

Of course Heero had originally intended to delete the message after listening to it, as he would any other, but, from a certain point onward, that had suddenly ceased to be an option, even had its entertaining nature not prevented him.

“Oh, I have this… I have this!” Evidently abruptly distracted from the box, Duo had begun laughing at its contents. “I have this shrimp. Shrimp is hilarious. It looks like wrinkled fingers or something.” He made a squeaking noise — “ee-ee, ee-ee, ee-ee” — then laughed again. “Oh, you can’t see that, can you? Too bad. It’s like some kind of monster with these fingers is trying to claw its way through the window, only it doesn’t have any claws, because it’s shrimp.” He paused.

“Heero, I want to eat shrimp with you.” This was spoken so levelly, so earnestly, that taken out of context it would have seemed entirely sober. But then he continued at a moaning, pathetic sing-song, “I waaaant to eeeeaaaat shriiiii–” and cut himself off abruptly. “Oh, wait,” he said in an I-just-remembered tone, “you’re allergic to shrimp, aren’t you?”

How he’d known this in the first place, let alone how he’d remembered it at that point, Heero hadn’t the faintest idea.

And when he added almost disgustedly, “I’ll never eat shrimp again,” Heero had to grin.

Whether the misery of this realization had been too much for Duo, whether he’d dropped the phone into his shrimp, or whether something else equally logical had occurred to end the call, Heero would probably never know. In any case, after a few moments the computerized voice announced, “End of message. To delete this message–”

“Save,” Heero cut her off.

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

The second time, though the pattern hadn’t yet been established, Heero had anticipated it and deliberately refrained from answering. After that, with two messages in a row, he’d had no doubt on subsequent Friday nights what he was to expect when his phone rang with Duo’s number.

“I’m drinking coffee.” No greeting preceded this statement, and Duo’s tone was that of someone recently blessed with an epiphany and more than a little enthusiastic to share it. “I mean, it’s coffee, but it’s got, like, raspberry schnapps in it; I wanted some coffee, and the bartender thought I’d like this, and she’s right! Wow!”

Heero hadn’t had much occasion to be around intoxicated people. During an assignment, the presence of such — anyone with judgment and abilities chemically diminished — would usually just make his job easier and quicker, and therefore he could get away from them sooner. During anything other than an assignment… well, as previously mentioned, he had no social life. But he’d overheard enough conversations carried out by drinkers and those that hung out with drinkers to be aware that drunks were typically divided into various more and less desirable classes.

“Have you ever tried this stuff? It’s like coffee, but with raspberry schnapps in it. So I was drinking this coffee stuff and thinking about you… I mean, I was thinking about coffee, and that got me thinking about you, because you know how when you drink coffee it’s usually too hot for the first few drinks, but you try to drink it anyway because you need the caffeine to wake you up and you don’t want to wait or you’re going to be late to work, or you’re just really craving the coffee, so you start drinking it anyway, and you usually burn your mouth so half the time you stop being able to taste the rest of the coffee, and you kinda feel like an idiot because of that?”

Heero had heard people mention ‘weepy drunks’ and ‘angry drunks’ and ‘slutty drunks’ and ‘fun drunks’ and he did not care enough to remember what else. It was pretty clear, without going any farther down the list, that ‘fun drunks’ was the category into which Duo fit. Whether he dallied in any of the other divisions Heero didn’t know, as the only evidence currently available was six voicemails that were undoubtedly mere fractions of the nights of drinking on which they’d come. But of the given descriptions, those voicemails definitely represented ‘fun’ more than any other. It took a lot to amuse Heero enough to make him laugh out loud, but the squeaky shrimp noise, as well as several other moments, never failed to have that effect.

“And then the last few drinks have gotten all lukewarm and gross, and you have to force yourself to drink them because you don’t want to waste the last of your coffee and you need all the caffeine, but you almost feel like you’re going to be sick because they’re just that gross temperature that’s not cold but definitely not hot enough, so you do force yourself to drink the last of it because you just have to?”

Not that Duo had to be drunk to make Heero laugh, or even to be labeled ‘fun.’ In fact Heero could say with a fair degree of surety that Duo was his personal definition of ‘fun,’ and made him laugh out loud on a regular basis. Which was something nobody had ever done before. He’d never had a personal definition of ‘fun’ before. It had never mattered before.

“Well, and in between those there are, like, two drinks in the middle, between where it’s so hot it burns your mouth out and lukewarm and totally gross, and those two drinks are… just… perfect… just the perfect temperature, so they’re absolutely like heaven to drink? They’re exactly what coffee should be like and would be like in a perfect world, like, some world where there wasn’t war and stupid terrorism and nobody needed mobile suits or armed space stations or even thought they did?”

How Duo could have altered Heero’s perspective so completely — so that he had come to value the concept of ‘fun’ and his own ability to laugh — Heero couldn’t begin to think. How could one person change him so much? How could one single person render something he’d previously ignored so valuable to him, make him see an entire concept and part of life in so totally a different light?

“Well, I was drinking this coffee — it’s got, like, raspberry schnapps in it; it’s really good — and I got to those two drinks, and, God, they were just perfect, and I was thinking about the world and how things should be and how we’re always working to try and make them, and I was thinking… you’re those two drinks, Heero. You’re those two perfect drinks from that perfect world. I kinda feel like I don’t even need to drink coffee anymore ever again, since I’ve got you around so much of the time.”

The impression the end of this message always made on Heero, a piercing poignancy and wonder, left him so breathless and fragile that the computerized voice had to prompt him twice, then threaten to disconnect, before he managed to tell her to save it.

“Message re-saved,” she said again. “Next message.”

Having chosen the closest florist, by map, out of what was perhaps an unnecessary sense of precision, he’d made it by now more than halfway to his final destination. He was only going to get through three of the six messages on this brief drive. He hoped they would be encouragement enough.

“I saw these…” Duo began. “Ha ha ha, I saw these flowers! Oh, God, Heero, you have no idea about these flowers. I don’t know if he was proposing to her or if they just come from somewhere or what, but they were at the bar, and she had these flowers, and I just…” He laughed incoherently for several seconds. “They were all white, first of all — I mean the flower part, not the, obviously, not the stem or leaves or whatever — they were all white, but that’s fine; I mean, lots of flowers are all white, right? But these… I swear, they looked just like…”

Evidently what they looked just like was about the funniest thing Duo had ever thought of, because once again he dissolved into helpless laughter. When he went on, it was in a breathless, almost choking tone. “They look just like… crumpled… tissue! Like somebody just blew his nose and… stuck the tissue on the end of a flower stem!”

Heero had never heard Duo laugh this hard in person. He’d observed him in pretty serious mirth at times, but at this point it was clear that tears had gotten involved, and it was possible that Duo was not even upright as he made his borderline-incoherent statements. Where he was — whether he’d completely left the bar or was making a fool of himself in its parking lot or restroom hallway delivering this raucous voicemail — wasn’t even clear.

“God, I would never get you flowers like that,” he eventually continued, coming slowly and painstakingly down off his laughter high. “Maybe, like, sunflowers or something, but… what would it say if I got you flowers that looked like used tissues? ‘Oh, I want to blow my nose on you!’ How meaningful! That is not what I would want to mean.”

It was easily, almost painfully apparent: Duo liked him. Duo perhaps even loved him. The problem was that Duo only seemed to realize this when he was drunk. Whereas Heero, who had never been drunk in his life, realized that he liked Duo, perhaps even loved Duo, and had to deal with that awareness, every single almost painfully sober moment of every day.

“End of message. To delete this–”

Duo’s day-to-day obliviousness of this fact wasn’t just almost painful. Because it wasn’t merely that Duo’s ignorance of his own feelings presented a formidable barrier to action — it was the truly awful question of what that ignorance implied. Why was this state of liking or even loving buried so deep that it took intoxication to bring it out? Was there something about being in love with Heero so disgusting to Duo’s awareness that he’d shoved the entire condition into his subconscious for the sake of self-preservation?

“Save.”

On the other end of the spectrum — and Heero had assessed the entire prospect spectrum meticulously over the last few weeks — lay the possibility that love of Heero had come so naturally and transparently to Duo that there had never been the need for a moment of realization — that Duo simply hadn’t noticed yet because loving Heero was so much a part of him that it would have been like noticing the texture of his own skin. This was very much what Heero’s experience had been, but he hardly dared postulate that Duo might have had a similar evolution of feeling. It seemed improbable in the extreme, far too much to be hoped for.

“Message re-saved. Next message.”

The end point was — how would Duo react to a declaration? The range of apparent possibilities was as great as the spectrum of potential reasons for Duo’s ignorance, and the numbers seemed to be against Heero in terms of the desirable/miserable ratio. And that the numbers had been against him many times in the past without having any impact on his subsequent decisions did not improve the situation. The situation that was extremely different, in composition, probable outcome, and consequences for his future and morale, from every previous.

“Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini,” Duo began, “qui fecit caelum et–” but Heero interrupted with a command to disconnect. He would have preferred to listen to the fourth message — and the fifth and sixth — all the way through, not only because he loved listening to them but for their strengthening effects… but he’d pulled into the parking lot of Duo’s apartment complex and needed to turn off the car. He needed to turn off the car, vacate it, walk up to Duo’s door, and knock. He needed to carry his flowers to Duo’s door, remember his preplanned words, and knock. He needed to knock, present his bouquet, present everything, hazard everything.

He needed to refrain from wasting time. It was Friday evening; Heero had changed clothes at work (what to wear and what message it might send having been weighed and judged to a precise point over the last couple of days), gone directly to the florist, and then come here, specifically so as to stage this scene before Duo had a chance to leave for the weekly alcoholic outing. There wasn’t a huge window in which to sit dithering in the car.

Not that Heero was the type to vacillate once he’d made up his mind, no matter the apocalyptic potential of certain possible outcomes of the venture. There came a time, after all, when the truth was more important than the fallout of the truth, and at such a time Heero would simply act, difficult as it might be.

Perhaps that this was so difficult made it a little easier, nonsensical as that seemed. Enough of his original training and brainwashing remained with him still that, when confronted with the seemingly impossible and a situation that spoke directly to his sympathetic nervous system, adrenaline appeared just where he needed it, self-preservation curled up and receded behind whatever he perceived as duty under the circumstances, and he suddenly found himself ready, willing, and able to do whatever he had to do.

Of course that meant he regressed somewhat into a robot, but if that was what it took… Certainly his movements were a bit stiffer (if no less effective) than usual as he closed the car door behind him, taking care not to catch the large bouquet in it, and walked away, but as long as there was no actual sound of grinding gears, he was fine. And as long as his voice didn’t actually have a metallic ring to it, it didn’t matter much if the words he’d chosen and was rehearsing in his head came out sounding scripted. If he could love Duo even knowing what Duo was like when drunk, perhaps Duo could love him even knowing what he was like when a robot.

Toward the building — he was grateful Duo’s apartment was on the opposite side so as not to have treacherous windows looking over this parking lot — past a couple of flower beds laid out and maintained with institutional care — no crumpled tissues here, only boring carnations of a type he’d rejected at the florist — up the concrete stairs to the second floor past doors that interested him far less — was he imagining the smell of coffee brewing behind at least one of them? — and down to the end, to a door that technically looked no different from any of the others yet seemed to glow with life-altering potential like something radioactive, he made his somewhat jerky way.

At this point it was all about the mission. And it wasn’t really as different as he’d considered it before from missions he’d carried out in the past. Failure simply meant the end of the world. That failure, in this case, depended far less on his own performance and far more on outside circumstances lightened the burden somehow.

He arranged the bouquet in front of him against his chest in as casual a hold as he could manage. He forced himself to breathe easily, naturally. He lifted his other hand and knocked in a motion that, though it perhaps lacked grace, certainly lacked hesitation. And with ears far more sensitized than they’d ever been even to the sounds of enemies stealthily approaching through the brush, he caught the sounds within of footsteps approaching, then the deadbolt undone, then the knob turning.

And then the door opened.

I’ve rated this fic .

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

His Own Humanity: Plastic

Plastic

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

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

“I’ve had enough of this.”

“Enough of what?”

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

“So?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could start by combing my hair.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.” Its lips were definitely moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doll sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Real what?” Heero wondered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

“‘The girl?'” Quatre echoed curiously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Duo,” said the doll.

“What?”

“That’s my name. Duo Maxwell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero nodded.

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

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

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

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

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


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

The doll just shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero snorted. “This keeps getting better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heero, feeling a little stupid, did not reply.

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

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

The things grown men would play with…

He turned ‘safe search’ on and tried again.

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

Frustrated and judging by the cessation of the bathroom fan that Quatre would soon want the room, Heero shut down the computer.

Duo was watching something involving a psychic couple and an albino trying to stop a clan war among people with weird hair, but how much he was enjoying it was anybody’s guess. The design of his face seemed well-suited for emotional display, Heero thought, and it was unfortunate — and a little uncanny — to see it so stiff and dispassionate.

Then he shook his own head vigorously. He shouldn’t have been so quick to judge Quatre earlier, when here he was thinking things like this. Duo was not a person, for god’s sake. He was either an expensive toy or a conduit for some prankster’s misplaced sense of entertainment.

“Something wrong?” Duo wondered, his head swiveled a good forty degrees past disconcerting to glance at Heero.

Instead of answering the question, Heero requested the identity of the rather stupid-looking show Duo was watching. This proved not to be the best idea, as it led to a conversation about the series and the broader topic of science fiction and its typical follies. And with a piece of plastic he’d found in a gutter and was already having a difficult time dismissing as the joke part of him was still certain it must be, Heero really had no desire to be enjoying any discussion quite this much.



His Own Humanity is an AU series set in modern-day America (plus magic) featuring characters from Rurouni Kenshin (primarily Saitou and Sano) and Gundam Wing (primarily Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre). In chronological order (generally), the stories currently available are:

Sano enlists the help of exorcist Hajime in discovering the nature of the unusual angry shade that's haunting him.

Best friends Heero and Quatre have their work cut out for them assisting longtime curse victims Duo and Trowa.

During Plastic (part 80), Cairo thinks about thinking and other recent changes in his life.

A look at how Hajime and Sano are doing.

A look at how Trowa and Quatre are doing.

A look at how Heero and Duo are doing.

A meeting between Kamatari and Wufei.

Couple analysis among Heero, Duo, Trowa, and Quatre.

Quatre undergoes an unpleasant magical change; Heero, Duo, and Trowa are forced to face unpleasant truths; and Hajime and Sano may get involved.

During La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré (parts 33-35), Sano's 178-day wait is over as what Hajime has been fearing comes to pass.

During Guest Room Soap Opera (part 3), Cathy learns a lot of interesting facts and Trowa is not happy.

A few days before the epilogue of La Confrérie de la Lune Révéré, Duo and Sano get together to watch football and discuss relationships and magical experiences; Heero listens in on multiple levels.

On the same evening as That Remarkable Optimism, Trowa tells Quatre's parents the whole truth, as promised.

Here is a picture I drew of dolly Duo:

I actually didn’t draw this until a much later point, but I moved it to this part to be concurrent with Duo’s first appearance in the story. I’m very pleased with this piece, all except the hair. It’s supposed to look like real human hair, but I think it actually looks more fakey than anything else in the picture. The shadows aren’t entirely correct either, but I couldn’t figure out how to make them look more realistic; I suck at lighting. Ah, well. I didn’t draw the background; it’s a photo of my kitchen counter that I blurred up a bit and put Duo on top of.

Here’s a picture of Quatre I drew:

Like the previous picture of Duo, I didn’t draw this until long after this part was posted, but I put him here since this is Quatre’s first appearance in the story.

His facial expression didn’t turn out at all like I planned, and actually strikes me as rather hilarious.

I never had Barbies growing up, because my mother disapproved of them. This was partly because she didn’t like the image they presented to impressionable young minds (in which I really can’t disagree with her), and partly because she just knew they’d end up lying around naked, and she hated that thought…. and, to be honest, I can’t really disagree with her there either. Oh, Barbies…

In reality, you can go fifteen pages into a Google search for “talking doll” and not find any sex toys; there is a lot of creepy Christian stuff, though. And ‘”Duo Maxwell” “cursed doll”‘ does actually turn up several results — mostly from cosplay.com — though the two terms usually only happen to be on the same page, and not actually related. This may change if the search engines catch up to these chapter posts, though :D



Subtext

The absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was.

When the victim of Sano’s prank texting turns out to be an intimidating cop, Sano’s friends are every bit as amused as Sano is terrified.


When Katsu got home from work, he found his roommate chortling on the floor. Sano’s head was under the coffee table, his legs up on the couch, and he held a cell phone in the air above his face. The moment Katsu entered and looked at him, he rolled onto his side in a spasm of laughter — the sort of laughter that sounded like a relapse, as if he’d just managed to get himself under control and Katsu’s appearance had set him off afresh.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” Katsu remarked as he closed the apartment door behind him.

At first Sano could not answer except with further paroxysms, but he did sober enough to read the text message that presently chimed in to his phone. But if Katsu expected an explanation thereafter, he was disappointed, for the message sent Sano into another rolling fit of amusement.

Being a patient young man, Katsu moved off into his own bedroom to change from his work uniform and turn on his computer; he left the door open, though, in case Sano should recover to the point of volunteering information.

Eventually he did. “I’ve been prank-texting this dude for, like, an hour now,” he explained at a shout. “Pretending to be some chick named Sandra.”

“Oh, god,” was Katsu’s (not entirely unamused) response.

“I asked him out and everything. He thinks I’m a girl…” And Sano lost it again.

Katsu shook his head, rolling his eyes and grinning. “And who is this guy?”

“I dunno… Chou gave me his number.”

“Are you sure it’s smart to be randomly texting somebody Chou gave you the number of?”

“I dunno. It’s just some–” The phone chimed again, appropriating all of Sano’s attention. “Oh, he says he’s going to–” But again the phone cut him off, this time with a genuine ringtone. Sano’s mirth quickly turned to consternation as he realized, “Oh, shit, my voicemail! What do I do?”

“You should have thought of that before.”

With a deep breath, Sano answered the call.

Now Katsu had to bury his face in a couch cushion, for at the first sound of, “Hey, Sandra here!” in the most unconvincing falsetto he’d ever heard, he simply could not contain himself any longer.

As soon as Katsu emerged again he saw Sano waving violently at him in a gesture that clearly communicated, It’s hard enough for me to keep from laughing without you doing that. “No, I’m not,” he was saying into the phone, still in that awful fallacious tone. “I lost my voice for a few days and it’s just coming back, so if I sound weird that’s why. Hmm, oh, really? That sounds so sexy. Ooh, that sounds totally sexy too! What? No, those are hot too. Ha ha, no. I love a car with good gas mileage.”

Whether this was a euphemism and what they could possibly be talking about Katsu couldn’t guess, but the absurd discussion dragged on and on and on; the man at the other end must either be phenomenally stupid or enjoying the joke just as much as Sano was. Every little while, Sano would turn aside and let out a string of muffled guffaws into his sleeve, and Katsu wondered what the stranger thought of these breaks in the conversation.

“He keeps getting all quiet for, like, a minute at a time,” Sano explained in a choked whisper on seeing his roommate’s expression at this. “What do you think he’s–” But he was forced to return to the phone at this point, his stupid falsetto even less convincing than before. “Oh, no, sugar, I was talking to the TV. I told you I was bored…” Sometimes a random little accent crept in too, and Katsu wasn’t sure whether Sano even knew it was happening. “What else do I have to do when I don’t have a man to keep me busy? Oh, can’t you guess? Well, I’ve been told I give really good blow jobs. Hmm? Oh, yeah, any time.”

Things had gone so far that just about everything Sano said was too much for Katsu, and eventually he would surely betray his friend by laughing more loudly than the pillow could stifle or too suddenly to hide it. Besides, he had other things to do. However, he’d barely reached his room again when there came a knock at the apartment door. Assuming Sano was too busy — and in no fit state — to answer it, Katsu reemerged.

“Dude, he stopped talking again,” Sano was chortling as Katsu turned the dead-bolt and then the knob.

“Yes, he did,” said the man at the door in a carrying tone, ostentatiously snapping shut the cell phone he held.

Sano sat up abruptly, dropping his own phone. He dove for it, found the confirmatory evidence of the call’s having ended on its screen, and stared at the man again in growing dismay.

“A word of advice for you,” the stranger remarked as he stepped inside unhindered by any motion of Katsu’s. “Chou isn’t a very good accomplice. He can’t keep a straight face.”

Katsu restrained a snorting laugh.

“And the fact that he works at a police station should have given you some idea of the type of people he’s with all day.” The man pulled aside his jacket to display the badge he wore on a lanyard around his neck.

This time Katsu couldn’t contain it; the laughter burst out of him. “Oh, god, Sano, you do know how to pick them.”

“So what?” demanded Sano, worried and obviously trying to cover it up with surliness. “Are you gonna press charges or something?”

“Harassment is a fairly serious charge,” the cop agreed with a smirk, “but I’m more inclined to take you up on your offer.”

“What offer?” Sano wondered blankly.

The officer held up his phone again and answered blandly, “Among other things, you asked me out.”

This was almost too much for Katsu. And if the pronouncement itself hadn’t been enough, Sano’s stunned expression — as if he’d just been shot in the middle of a laugh — certainly would have been.

“That was… that was just a… I wasn’t serious!”

“Still, you did offer.”

“I have a girlfriend,” Sano stated defiantly.

“Of course,” was the cool reply. “And that poster there was her idea of a joke.”

Katsu almost lost it again as the man indicated with a gesture the half-naked Speedo model adorning the wall. The interlocking rainbow male symbols that formed the poster company’s logo didn’t help.

“Yeah, OK, it’s a boyfriend.”

The cop glanced at Katsu, who was still struggling not to collapse bonelessly onto the floor as he shook his head without a word.

“Katsu!” Sano yelped in protest at this betrayal.

The stranger’s mouth twisted into a smile. “So it appears you have no legitimate cause to object to our arrangement.”

“Except that it was just a joke! I was just messing with you!”

“So you would rather I pressed charges for harassment?”

“I…” Sano’s brows went down over wide, astonished eyes. “That’s blackmail! Isn’t that just as illegal?”

“It’s called ‘settling out of court,'” the stranger corrected. “You’ve had your fun; now it’s my turn.”

Katsu thought Sano went a little pale at this.

“Come on,” the man insisted, jingling his keys. He added with a smirk, “I thought you wanted to see my car.”

Sano took a step toward him, jerkily, as if drawn against his will. “Katsu…” he said helplessly.

“Have fun, Sano,” Katsu grinned.

With a look at his friend half stricken and half irate, Sano began to move a little more naturally: evidently he realized he had no choice in the matter. Stopping just short of arm’s length of the stranger, however, he turned to Katsu and said darkly, “If I’m not back in a couple of hours, call the…” He threw a glance at the policeman and amended his statement. “Call someone.”

“I may call a pizza place and order something to eat…” Katsu offered.

“Oh, fuck you,” Sano said. And then they were gone.

Katsu didn’t have long to laugh himself sick over all of this while wondering desperately and impatiently what was going on; he should have known Sano would keep him posted. The first text arrived only a few minutes later: I’m going to fucking die!

What are you guys doing? Katsu inquired in return.

We’re going to play pool, I guess, was Sano’s answer.

That’s not so bad.

It is with THIS psychopath! Now he’s asking if I’m harassing someone ELSE, so I’ll tell you more later.

Katsu sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be too much later, since this was funnier than anything he could have found on TV, and had made his day a good deal better not only than it had been but than any recent day he could think of or future day he was likely to have. Living with Sano was always an adventure.

This guy kicks ass at pool, was the next message, after perhaps half an hour.

Better than you? wondered Katsu.

I’ll beat him pretty soon, Sano replied evasively, but Katsu could hear the irritated determination as clearly as if they’d been talking rather than texting.

Relative pool skills were all well and good, but what Katsu was mostly interested in hearing about… Is he still being creepy?

Not really. He bought me some snacks. This didn’t tell Katsu much, since Sano was so fond of being bought snacks that he might overlook a good deal of creepiness on the part of the buyer.

Another twenty minutes or so passed before Katsu heard anything more. Then it was, I’m going to kill Chou. He TOLD this guy who I was after my FOURTH text. He told him I was gay and everything.

And probably that you were his neighbor, too.

You should totally hear this guy talk about him, though. Shit’s hilarious.

“Oh, Sano,” Katsu murmured, laughing as he read this and refraining from making the obvious reply.

The next communication, after another interval spent impatiently on Katsu’s end trying to find anything that hadn’t gone bad in the fridge, was a call. Of course he picked up immediately. “Sano?”

“Shit, man, I don’t know what to do!” Sano sounded panicked “You gotta help me!”

“Calm down! I can’t do much to help you from here. What’s going on?”

“He… this guy…” Sano’s voice echoed somewhat; since the signal was fine and the words otherwise undistorted, Katsu guessed him to be making the call from a restroom.

“Is he assaulting you, or what?”

“Well, sortof… I mean, he keeps saying things…”

“That’s quite an accusation, Sano.”

“He keeps saying… flirty… things.” The word didn’t really seem an appropriate descriptor for the man, briefly as Katsu had met him, but the concept at least was clear.

“You guys are on a date,” Katsu pointed out. His tone was mild, but it was probably a good thing Sano couldn’t see his face.

“Only because he forced me!” Sano sounded far more confused than anything else.

“What’s really bugging you is that you’re enjoying this.”

“What?! I am not! Just ’cause he’s… How could I possibly–” At this moment Sano made an indescribable and very undignified sound, and his phone clattered as it evidently fell to the floor. Hastily Katsu turned off the TV and pressed his own phone hard against his ear so as not to miss a word of the subsequently distant conversation.

“What are you doing in here?!” This was Sano, startled and angry.

“Seeing what’s taking you so long,” said the man’s voice; he sounded amused. “You just can’t stop harassing people with that phone, can you?”

“I’m not–”

“And what are you promising this one?”

“It’s just–”

“I seem to recall you promising me a ‘really good blow job.'”

“I… what?!” Sano sounded a little hysterical. Or perhaps ‘giddy’ was a better term. “I didn’t… No!”

Even from here, Katsu could tell that the man was teasing just as easily as he could tell that Sano didn’t mind the idea nearly as much as he claimed to.

“Then I think you owe me a kiss at least.”

The guy was probably giving Sano some kind of look Katsu couldn’t appreciate from afar, for Sano was obviously very flustered. “Not… not… not on the first–”

There came a scuffling sound, during which the transmitting device was apparently kicked into a corner or something, followed by a long silence. Finally, almost inaudibly now (thanks to the phone’s new position? or the man’s lowered tone?), the police officer said, “That wasn’t so bad.” And whether the statement aimed at reassuring Sano or commenting on his performance Katsu couldn’t tell.

“You are the worst cop I’ve ever met,” Sano responded with relative distinctness — and relative calm, too, especially for how breathless he sounded; it really must not have been so bad.

“That’s quite an achievement, considering you’ve met Chou.”

“And he backstabbed me.” This grumble of Sano’s was suddenly a good deal louder as he evidently bent to retrieve his phone.

“I don’t know what else you were expecting,” the man said, a sentiment with which Katsu had to agree.

Some profane statement of Sano’s cut off as he hung up the phone without a goodbye, and again Katsu waited for the next update on the edge of his seat (figuratively, as he was, rather, sprawled on the couch in weariness from laughing so much and never having found anything readily edible in the kitchen).

Sano’s eventual comment was, So he’s a good kisser.

So I gathered, Katsu replied.

And he’s actually pretty hot.

I noticed that too.

And he bought me ice cream.

Plying you with dessert, is he?

He’s still an asshole.

I’m sure he is.

During the next information lapse, wherein Katsu tried futilely to pay attention to the show he was supposedly watching but kept checking his phone so frequently he might as well just have turned the TV off again, there came a knock at the door. A little irritated at an interruption he doubted could be anywhere near as interesting as the ongoing drama, Katsu went to answer it. He knew who it must be, however, when the knock was repeated and elaborated upon before he’d made it halfway to the door.

“Hiya, Katsu,” Chou greeted him, craning his neck to look past into the apartment.

“He’s not here.” Katsu gestured Chou inside, shut the door behind him, and checked his phone again. “And you’re lucky he’s not, because at the moment he wants you dead.”

Chou grinned broadly. “Hey, I tried not to give him away… but it was just too fucking funny.”

“It’s better than you think.” Katsu couldn’t help promising great things with his own grin. “At this very moment they are out on a date.”

“What?!” yelped Chou. “You’re shitting me! No way!”

“Last I heard–” Katsu held up his phone– “your boss or whatever he is was buying Sano ice cream.”

Chou staggered over to the couch and collapsed onto it, breathless and helpless with laughter. “Do you…” he panted eventually. “Do you know… what he came over here… to do…?”

“Threaten Sano with death if he ever did something like this again?”

“Yeah, something… something like that…” Chou buried his screwed-up face in the same cushion Katsu had been using all evening to muffle his own laughter.

“Well, he pretty much took one look at Sano and changed his mind.”

When Chou could speak again he said, “Oh, we live in a fucking insane world.” His posture having returned to more or less upright, he’d freed up the other half of the sofa; Katsu came to sit next to him and give a more detailed account of what was going on somewhere else in town — including reading out all the messages sent and received thus far.

At the end of the tale, Sano’s newly arrived comment on the proceedings could be appended: I guess we’re done now.

Did you ever beat him? Katsu wondered.

I would have if he wasn’t so distracting, Sano answered, to the great amusement of his friends.

“‘Distracting,'” Chou chortled. “God, of all the fucking weirdness I never expected…”

Katsu shook his head. “This is so typical of Sano.”

“This is so not typical of my boss,” replied Chou.

“You’d better get back downstairs,” Katsu advised. “I don’t know where they went, but it might have been that pool hall just up the street, and if Sano gets back and finds you here…”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Chou grinned, rising. “Thanks for the entertainment, though.”

“I think I should be thanking you. Sano probably should too, but I doubt he ever will.”

Chou’s grin broadened, and he turned in the exit. “You’ve got my number, right? Let me know if more fun shit happens.”

“Roger that.” And Katsu shut the door behind him.

His speculation regarding Sano’s date venue was pretty much confirmed when Sano arrived, solitary and angry, after only a few more minutes.

“He didn’t walk you back in?” Katsu wondered, fighting to keep his face grave; his levators and zygomatics were aching enough as it was.

Sano’s answer was a short, irritated negative.

“Did he at least try to molest you in his car?”

“He didn’t even kiss me again,” was Sano’s reply, and exactly what the surliness of his tone was aimed at was rather up in the air.

“Well, I’m glad you survived,” Katsu said placatingly.

Sano snorted and threw himself down onto the couch.

Gradually the apartment grew quiet, except for the continued chime of incoming texts to Sano’s phone. Katsu, moving around straightening things up and getting ready for bed, wondered whether Sano was threatening Chou or continuing his ‘distracting’ interaction with the other cop. Eventually, too curious to refrain from being nosy, he stepped to the couch and looked down over it, and Sano’s shoulder, from behind.

It was fun, said the latest message Sano had received. Despite the angle, Katsu saw the conflict in the lip-biting scowl on his friend’s face. He also saw that Sano had created an actual contact for the man. The name confirmed what Katsu had guessed at seeing the man’s face: another gay Japanese guy. How did Sano keep finding them?

Finally, Yeah, I guess, Sano replied.

Katsu rolled his eyes, and didn’t move. His quiet patience was rewarded, soon thereafter, by the sight of another message from the cop: Same time next week?

Sano made a What the fuck, man? sort of gesture, and suddenly noticed Katsu. “God!” he cried, startled. “How long have you been standing there?”

Katsu grinned. “A while. What are you going to tell him?”

Sano grimaced at him, and got up in something of a huff. “I don’t know!” He headed for his room, and Katsu watched him complacently, still grinning.

He was pretty sure he knew what Sano’s answer would be.


So there’s a dumbass story behind this story. It is, in fact, based on actual prank-texting that happened at one point. It was my brother in real life, pretending to be a girl and asking some guy from school to homecoming and whatnot. It happened very much like this, too: the dude eventually called, my brother realized that his voice on the voicemail recording would give him away, and falsetto conversation ensued.

So, yeah, Sano would definitely chatspeak, abbreviate, typo, and misspell all over anyone he texted (especially with T9 and whatnot, which is the era this story is set in; ah, nostalgia), but there was no way in hell I was going to write it like that. Consider this a translation.

I’ve rated this story .

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Fourteen Strange Looks


1. A woman loading groceries into her trunk glanced over at a young man emerging from the car that had just pulled into the space next to hers. “I still don’t get why I have to come with you,” he was complaining.

“You’re the one who said it would be ‘really cool’ if they visited over Spring Break,” the car’s driver replied as he also disembarked, dropping a cigarette and grinding it out with his foot.

“Yeah, but just because I like your kids better than you do,” the first said, “doesn’t mean I should have to come grocery shopping with you!” They were now walking past the woman toward the building, and the younger was eyeing the store warily. “You totally owe me sex for this.”

2. A courtesy clerk collecting carts from the parking lot caught part of the conversation of the customers he’d paused to let past. “I don’t owe you sex just for making you pull a fraction of your own weight,” one was saying. “And I don’t want to make ten trips from the car to the house to get all of it brought inside.”

“Like you need me here for that,” the other was grumbling. “I coulda just helped you when you got home.”

“Somehow I have a hard time believing you’d have been any more eager to abandon your beloved video games in that case either.” The man had stopped to glance at the carts lined up by the employee, and, with a nod to the latter, disengaged the one at the end and propelled it in front of him into the building.

“Hey,” the other was protesting, “you bought me that X-Box.”

“Proof that I do sometimes make mistakes,” the first muttered, almost inaudible to the clerk as he entered the store.

3. A shopper emerging from the checkout lane to the sound of a bagger’s friendly goodbye was nearly run down by another customer bounding over to a display that stood in the middle of the store entry. “Ooh, donuts!” the young man was saying. “I wonder if they have any filled ones.”

“No donuts,” another man, wheeling an empty cart past the first, said flatly. “And try not to kill people.”

“But they’re on sale!” the first pointed out, throwing an apologetic grin at the shopper he’d almost run into and then returning to what was evidently a much more important matter.

“They’re ‘on sale’ every weekend.”

The younger man laughed. “Why am I not surprised you know that?” He threw one last longing glance at the donuts before following his companion.

“Because you’re entirely too credulous?”

“No, because you’re a cop!” Their voices were fading as they walked away.

“Maybe I don’t need your help. Maybe I should just kill you.”

“You said not to kill people!”

4. The florist, thinking she was being addressed, looked up quickly with a professional smile at a young man’s voice saying, “I want some roses.” She found, however, that the young man in question was not talking to her. “How come you never buy me roses?” he was complaining to an older companion.

“First of all, because you’re an idiot,” the latter answered. “Second, because you don’t really want them. Third, because I think giving someone dead plants is stupid.”

“You could get me one of these candy bouquets,” the first suggested. He’d stopped next to a display full of the item in question while the other moved on without even looking. “I could eat that, so I’d definitely want it.”

“But you’d still be an idiot,” the second replied from where he’d already left the floral department and hadn’t slowed.

5. Store security, making the rounds as usual and noticing the overly-casual way the brown-haired teenager in produce seized a plum and started tossing and catching it repeatedly, thought he’d found a vandal or a grazer. However, the man with the cart behind whom the boy was strolling turned suddenly and snatched the fruit from the air, fixing his companion with a rather dangerous-looking expression of irritation. “If you start throwing things, I really will kill you.”

“God, fine,” the boy acceded with an injured, surly air. This didn’t last, however, as when the two continued walking he immediately noticed a display full of cherries and started chuckling. “Hey, hey, Saitou,” he chortled, taking up a bag and bounding back to his companion’s side. “Dyou want my cherry?”

The man elbowed the boy in the arm. “Put those back.”

“How could you say no to that?” the boy demanded in a falsely hurt tone, stepping back and obeying the order.

The man threw a disdainful smirk over his shoulder. “You’re a few years late to be offering, aren’t you?”

6. The pharmacist, in the absence of customers of her own, had been watching an odd pair of shoppers that had spent several minutes arguing over something at the end of produce nearest her counter before moving on. She wondered if the older man was aware of the seemingly random items the younger was continually snagging off shelves and slipping into the cart. Somehow she got the feeling the younger didn’t really care what he grabbed just as long as the other didn’t see — and somehow she got the feeling the other did see and simply wasn’t bothering to say anything at this point.

7. A father whose children had dragged him down the candy aisle noted that he wasn’t the only one having problems controlling a juvenile sweet-tooth. The other shopper apparently in need of controlling didn’t technically appear to be juvenile, however — though his excited bounding from one side of the aisle to the other and one overpriced Easter candy selection to the next could have led anyone to believe he really was just an oversized kid.

“Why am I even on this aisle?” the second newcomer was wondering as he wheeled a cart and a skeptical expression behind his companion.

“Why would you not want to be on this aisle?” the young man answered, his question sounding every bit as rhetorical as the other’s had.

The other merely rolled his eyes and sped up. “Come on.”

“No, wait, we’ve gotta get some candy!” the younger protested. “I know you like chocolate.”

“Only in situations that aren’t going to arise any time this coming week.” The older didn’t stop, and was halfway down the aisle by now.

“No, wait, look at this!” The younger started laughing as he examined a package he’d seized off the shelf, and hastened after his comrade to show him. “These have sticky stuff on them so you can put them in weird places… check this out: Hide Easter Eggs where they’ve never gone before.” The chortle accompanying this showed plainly the context in which he was taking that statement. “We should totally get some and do that.”

“What did I just tell you about this coming week?” was the last audible comment of the other as the two progressed too far down the aisle to be heard clearly — and the bemused father realized somewhat belatedly that he should probably be paying better attention to what his own children were getting into anyway.

8. A cutter in the meat department did not look up from his work as a young man’s voice nearby sniggered, “‘Meat department.’ Heh…” That joke was so old it didn’t deserve acknowledgement.

“Don’t even bother elaborating on why you find that funny,” said a second voice.

“We should call our bedroom the ‘Meat Department,'” the first suggested, still childishly entertained.

This caused the cutter to look up, in time to see the second man — a tall, dark, very straight-looking guy — roll unamused yellow eyes as he examined a package of hamburger. “Why must you keep bringing up sex?”

“Can you blame me for thinking about something more interesting than grocery shopping?” the other wondered. The cutter, straining to hear the end of the exchange as they walked away, managed to catch the final comment, “But seriously, we should steal that ‘Meat Department’ sign and put it up over the door…”

9. A businessman not too accustomed to grocery store aisles but in dire need of something to bring to the office potluck was practically run down by a pair of little girls — one frantically propelling a cart down the lane, the other clinging to its far end, both screaming. Looking around irritably for parents or guardians, he found instead, not far behind him, an apparently unrelated teenage boy watching the swiftly-disappearing cavalcade with a rapt and covetous expression. This boy didn’t seem to notice the disapproval either of the businessman or of his own companion, to whom he now turned with shining eyes.

“Let me drive the cart.”

“Absolutely not,” replied aforementioned companion, a much more reasonable-looking man perhaps twice the other’s age, who now sped up to avoid the boy’s hands that groped after the cart he was pushing.

“Just for a second,” the boy persisted.

“No.”

“Come on, I promise I won’t crash it.”

“No.”

“Fine, asshole, then I’m going to get some snacks.”

“Do as you please.”

As the boy stalked somewhat huffily away, the companion’s eyes met the businessman’s briefly and rolled. Wondering what their relationship was — they didn’t quite seem like father and son — but certainly not about to ask, the businessman returned to his own quest for suitably edible items as the other man moved slowly on down the aisle.

10. A woman perusing the frozen foods, on hearing a deep voice saying, “Idiot. You may not have all that junk food. Go put it all back,” looked up indignantly to see who was treating his child so unkindly — only to be somewhat surprised at finding the ‘child’ in question a man of perhaps twenty bearing a huge armload of chips, cookies, and various other unhealthy snack foods.

This young man was replying as petulantly as any child, however, “Aww, come on, don’t be such a jerk!”

“You may have one,” the older man replied sternly, still sounding for all the world like an overly harsh parent of a misbehaving youngster. The shopper wondered if the other man was perhaps mentally challenged.

“But there’s going to be three kids in the house all week!” the young man was protesting.

“You mean four,” murmured the older.

Fearing the condition might rub off, the woman abandoned her search for whole baby onions and left the frozen section.

11. The cake decorator looked up with a polite, “Yes, sir?” when someone appeared in her bakery requesting an answer to a question.

“Has anyone ever grabbed one of these pies and just–” The young man on the other side of the counter mimed an elaborate pitcher’s windup. “–just thrown it right at the guy they were shopping with?”

The decorator’s reply that this had never happened in her presence was completely cut off when an older man nearby said in a pointed tone, “You might as well ask her if anyone’s ever strangled the guy they were shopping with, too.”

“So…” It seemed for a moment that the young man was, in fact, going to ask her this. “Has…” But apparently he couldn’t. “So has…” He kept interrupting himself by glancing over at his companion with an expression of growing interest and amusement, until finally he turned away from the decorator and followed the other man with the comment, “Strangled? We’ve never tried that.”

“No,” the other agreed emotionlessly, “we haven’t.”

“So, what, did you want to?”

“Not any time in the next week. Can you imagine one of my sons walking in on that?”

The young man’s laughter seemed to be the end of the exchange, but when the decorator realized she’d absently trailed a line of blue frosting across the counter in front of her, she stopped even attempting to listen.

12. The checker at checkstand 6 was slightly baffled by the behavior of the man with the funny bangs: as he’d begun to unload his groceries onto the belt, he had also seized a basket from under the counter and placed a decent number of items into that instead. He barely looked at these things, but each one’s removal from the cart seemed to cause the young man beside him increasing distress.

One object over which the black-haired man did pause was what looked like a bottle of vitamins. “Calcium pills?” he asked the other. “The rest of it almost made sense, but this…?”

The other took the bottle with a slightly perplexed expression and examined it. “Calcium? I thought it was…” He glanced up at the checker, grinned slightly, and didn’t finish his sentence, instead tossing the bottle back into the now-nearly-empty cart.

“We’re not buying it, idiot,” the first said, retrieving it and shoving it into the basket. This he thrust at the younger man. “Now go put all this stuff back.”

“You are so no fun,” the second grumbled. “You’da bought it if it had been what I thought it was.”

“If it had been what you thought it was, we wouldn’t have needed it.” The first’s smirk was decidedly inappropriate, and the checker was beginning to think she could vaguely guess what the brown-haired man had thought the bottle contained.

13. The bagger at checkstand 6 at first received no answer in response to his query whether the odd pair needed help out, since they seemed too busy discussing items they weren’t buying to pay him any attention. But eventually, once the younger of the two had run off back to the aisles with a basket full of stuff, the older mentioned they wouldn’t require assistance. Thence the bagger paid him little more attention until the younger returned, panting.

“You put it all back?” the older demanded, hardly looking over from where he was busy with the card-reader.

“Yeah,” the younger replied breathlessly.

“Where it goes?”

“Yeah.” The younger man was distinctly annoyed.

“You didn’t just drop the basket somewhere or put it all onto random shelves?”

“Yes, fuck you very much.”

Without even needing to glance at his target, the older man struck neatly out with a fist and caught the younger rather hard in the shoulder. “Idiot,” he said. “Don’t swear in front of people with children.”

“Ow! Sh–” The younger punched the older back, seemingly rather harder, also in the shoulder. “What the f–” He glanced around with a surly sort of self-consciousness at the other shoppers nearby. “What was that for?”

The older, who didn’t seem even to have noticed the return blow, just rolled his eyes and pushed past the younger to direct the cart, now full of bags, out of the lane.

“Have a nice day…” the bagger said uncertainly as they headed for the exit.

14. A woman loading groceries into her trunk looked up when one of her children pointed out a little worriedly, “That guy is hitting that other guy.”

Indeed, one of the two men approaching across the parking lot was continually punching the other in the shoulder.

“They’re just playing, honey,” the woman assured her daughter, blatantly lying if she was any judge of the strength behind the blows.

The pair evidently belonged to the car immediately next to hers, for there they stopped. “I think we’re more than even now,” the object of the blows was saying in a slightly irritated tone.

“Oh, you finally decide to admit you don’t like that, huh?” the other teased, and stopped punching his friend. “Poor Saitou. Can only pretend it doesn’t hurt for so long.” And with a grin, he leaned up and — unexpectedly, it seemed, to everyone except him — kissed the older man soundly on the mouth.

The woman’s own mouth dropped open, and it was a moment before her wits returned enough even for her to check on whether her children were watching. Of course they both were.

“Idiot,” the older man said as soon as his lips were free, “did I not just tell you–”

“You told me not to swear in front of people with kids,” the younger interrupted. “You didn’t say anything about kissing.” And before the other could say a word in response to this he added somewhat forcefully, “And if you think I’m going all week without kissing you just because your kids are here, you better think again, ba– uh, jerk.”

“Mommy, that guy just kissed that other guy,” the woman’s daughter whispered, tugging insistently at her mother’s sleeve.

“They’re just…” No spur-of-the-moment explanation came to mind.

“They’re gay,” whispered her son, the older and unfortunately savvier of her children.

“What’s ‘gay?'” her daughter asked.

“No, one of them’s a girl,” the mother said desperately, shoving the last of her groceries haphazardly into the trunk and hastening to get the children into their seats as quickly as possible.

“They both look like boys,” her daughter stated.

“They’re gay boys,” her son stated, this time not quite in a whisper, just before his door crunched shut.

“What’s ‘gay?'” her daughter asked again.

“We’ll talk about it in a minute,” said the woman quietly, trying to sound firm.

But before she could lean in to fasten the seat belt around her daughter, the latter leaned out the door and called to the two men, “Are you boys or girls?”

After a startled hiss, hurriedly subduing and buckling her daughter, and a hasty, red-faced apology to the strangers whose eyes she could not quite meet, the woman got herself into the driver’s seat as fast as she was able. She couldn’t help hearing, however, before her own door closed, the laughter of the one, nor noticing through the window the other’s somewhat amused smirk and roll of eyes. Pulling out as abruptly as caution allowed, she tried to ignore the goodbye wave the corrupting young man gave her children as she left the parking lot.


This fic, which I’ve rated , was for 30_kisses theme #28 “Wada Calcium CD3.” It’s mostly only amusing if you find homophobia and the shocking of bigoted people funny. What I like about it, though, is how devoted Saitou obviously is to Sano here. He does little more than threaten him when Sano embarrasses him in public, he has his kids over to visit for a whole week at Sano’s insistence, he buys him a freaking X-Box… so cute.

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Black and Blue and White All Over



“Kenshin!!”

The rurouni paused and turned. As the young man, slipping occasionally but never quite falling, pelted up the hill toward where his friend stood on the more level road, Kenshin wondered, “What is wrong, Sano?”

“Look out!” Sano cried as he reached him, and, ducking behind Kenshin, this time really did fall full-length into the snow. Kenshin didn’t have time to worry about that, however, for, the very moment Sano was behind him, a snowball struck his scarred face so forcibly it knocked him backward; he tripped over Sano and fell, and his tofu bucket went flying.

“Thanks, buddy,” Sano gasped as he wriggled from beneath Kenshin and took to running again, off the road once more into the field on the other side.

“I’d apologize, Himura,” came a new voice, “if that hadn’t been the most comical thing I’ve seen all week.”

“No need for an apology, Saitou,” Kenshin replied as he sat up. “I am used to Sano using me as a shield against missiles. Of course,” he added, smiling brightly and bringing a large handful of snow with him as he stood, “that does not mean he always gets away with it.”

Saitou smirked.

Sano had ducked behind a hedge, presumably to assemble an arsenal, and it only took a single glance between the other two men to coordinate their attack: Saitou crept around the shrubbery’s far end while Kenshin approached it broadside just at the point where he sensed Sano opposite him. Then, simultaneously, Saitou came charging at Sano from the right while Kenshin cleared the hedge in a jump and landed on his left; Sano was pelted with multiple snowballs from both directions.

With a yelp, Sano tossed the one he’d been making at a bad angle, missing his two assailants entirely, and, ducking away, once again ran off.

Kenshin, obviously satisfied with this, turned with a grin and the intention of searching for his lost bucket. However, as he did so, a snowball struck him squarely on the back of the head, and when he turned again another hit his face. Saitou, who’d been more alert and therefore successfully dodged Sano’s attack, threw Kenshin a look that said, Are you just going to take that?

Kenshin bent and scooped up another handful of snow.

Sano wasn’t giving much thought to strategy, but was vaguely aware that the belt of trees toward which he was slowly being driven by the now-doubled enemy force was 1) not likely to provide much snow for further missiles but 2) likely to provide better cover than the field. It was just as he started trying to think what to do about this change in terrain when he noticed someone on the road off to his left and his face broke into a grin.

“Hey, Katsu!” he called.

The figure, which was indeed that of his good friend Katsu, stopped and looked in his direction just in time to see him take two snowballs to the chest. Sano’s subsequent cry of, “Help a guy out, will ya?” was a little breathless as a result.

Katsu stood quietly watching for several moments as Sano dodged another assault. Deciding that the hedge he’d abandoned was probably a good option as long as he didn’t let anyone take him by surprise by jumping over it again, the kenkaya tried to run back that direction and throw snowballs at both Kenshin and Saitou at the same time. One endeavor worked better than the other: although he hit his targets, his calculated movement was entirely thwarted by the return volley.

And that was when Katsu’s first snowball struck him squarely between the shoulder blades from behind.

“Katsu!!” Sano bawled in anger and surprise.

“Sorry, Sano,” said the grinning Katsu, “I like these odds better.”

“Your friend has sense,” Saitou smirked.

“My friend’s a fucking traitor!” Sano growled, now trying to watch all three of them at once.

Kenshin laughed.

“Besides, Sano, I still owe you for shoving snow down my pants last week,” Katsu explained as he took careful aim and hit Sano’s forearm so accurately that the ball Sano had been about to release from it was knocked right out of his hand.

“He shoved snow down your pants?” asked Saitou in an odd tone.

“It was a non-sexual shoving,” Katsu assured him quickly.

“I am not sure in what context shoving snow down someone’s pants could be considered sexual,” remarked Kenshin.

“Well, with Sano, you never know,” was Katsu’s mock-sober response.

They all got back to business. The brief exchange, though, had given Sano an opportunity to take a better stance against them and hastily manufacture enough snowballs that he was able to hold his own for a few minutes. He felt rather proud of himself, actually; he knew he excelled at facing off against multiple enemies, but he wouldn’t have thought he could last this long at snowballs against both Saitou and Kenshin — and Katsu was proving uncannily good at this, too.

“What’s this??” A new voice from the road. “Nobody told me it was Everybody Throw Snowballs At Tori-Atama Day!”

“Shit,” Sano muttered.

As Chou came sliding down the slope to join the others, Sano had another moment of relative freedom in which to replenish his collection of weapons somewhat desperately.

“You’re supposed to be at the station,” Saitou was admonishing.

“I think you are too,” Chou grinned. “But I need to get even with this bastard for shovin’ snow down my pants the other day.”

“Hmm…” Thoughtfully Kenshin cocked his head to one side. “Whose pants has Sano not shoved snow down recently?”

“His own, presumably,” Saitou replied.

“We should totally fix that,” Chou suggested.

Sano did not like the sound of this. Gathering up his snowballs, he turned and fled into the trees.

They followed him — Kenshin the most quickly, of course, but Sano, expecting that, slowed him up with a pointed missile. Then his heart lightened as he cleared the trees and came upon exactly what he needed.

A little ridge of rock curved toward the forest belt, a considerable snowdrift piled between its protective arms. If his enemies kept to the cover of the trees, they would have little ammunition; if they advanced to where the snow began again, they would be forced into the narrow space between the rocks, and he would have an easy shot. And he had plenty of snow within reach; he didn’t even have to bend down for it. He grinned in triumph and turned to face them.

They must have seen immediately the advantageous circumstances in which he’d placed himself, for after a few missiles they’d probably brought with them from the field, everything went still and silent. Sano watched carefully for their movements behind the trees they were using for concealment, a snowball in each hand and a defiant smile on his face.

Finally, after a tense minute or so of this stalemate, Saitou stepped out into plain view.

Sano threw immediately; Saitou dodged one and took the other, and kept walking forward. Sano reached back for more snow, at which the officer raised his empty hands and Sano paused. He would accept their surrender graciously.

“You’re freezing,” Saitou murmured as he came within arm’s length of the younger man and observed his heavy shivering.

“And whose fault is that?” Sano wondered.

“Entirely your own,” replied Saitou with a smirk. “We should probably stop…” He bent and kissed Sano soundly, working the coldness from his lips with a massaging motion.

As he drew back, Sano’s shivering increased, but his eyes were sparkling. Then his expression changed completely as Saitou added softly, “…but not yet,” and sprang abruptly backward, bending for a handful of snow.

“What the fuck was–” Sano began, but was cut off as snowballs came flying at him from all directions. He dashed for cover, but found the very ridge he’d been using for that purpose now held against him. Two of his enemies must have scrambled up it from either side while he’d been too distracted to notice and thwart them.

“Your diversion techniques are rather unusual, officer-san,” Katsu remarked from high on Sano’s left.

“What?!” Sano demanded as he attempted to dodge in multiple directions at once and failed miserably.

“Yeah, I gotta try that one one of these days,” Chou laughed from high on Sano’s right.

“No, you don’t!” Sano growled as he went to scoop up more snow to retaliate, only to have an unfairly accurate projectile knock his hand away.

“Sano, you really should know better than to lower your guard in the middle of a battle,” Kenshin’s voice came from not far behind Sano to his left, “no matter who it is kissing you.”

“‘Battle?'” Sano swatted a snowball out of the air but took another to each side of his head.

“I keep telling him that,” Saitou remarked from Sano’s right, “but he really is too thick-skulled.”

“You’ve never said a word about kissing in the middle of a battle!!” Again Sano attempted to fight back, but started to recognize the futility of his efforts. Soon there was nothing to do but fall to his knees and try to guard his face and head with upraised arms.

“Well, Sano, do you give up?” Kenshin wondered cheerfully.

“Never!” Sano roared.

“Come on, Sano, my hands are getting really cold,” Katsu prodded, nearly as cheerful as Kenshin.

“Not mine,” Chou put in, more cheerfully than both of them. “I could do this all day.”

“You’re wearing leather gloves,” Katsu pointed out.

Despite his defiance, Sano was weakening. What’s more, he was beginning to be able to distinguish which snowballs were whose, and that was pretty pathetic: Saitou’s hit hardest, Kenshin’s came fastest, Katsu’s were the most accurate, and Chou’s were just sloppy. Not that it mattered much; four on one would suck in any case. He was getting to the point where he was almost ready to start thinking about maybe giving in when he was unexpectedly saved.

What is going on here?”

The tone was enough to stop them all in their tracks, frozen more thoroughly than the snow could render them.

“Kenshin, I sent you out after tofu an hour ago!”

Sano, peering warily through his arms, saw Kaoru standing back beyond Kenshin and Saitou in the trees, brandishing the bucket Kenshin had dropped earlier and glowering like death incarnate. “I come out looking for you because I’m worried something might have happened to you, and what do I find?? A bunch of grown men playing around in the snow!?!”

“And if you were all gonna beat up on Sano,” grumbled Yahiko from her side, “you could at least have invited me.”

After smacking Yahiko briefly, Kaoru held out the tofu bucket and growled, “Kenshin…”

“Yes, yes, Kaoru-dono.” Kenshin dropped the snowball he’d been about to throw and began self-consciously brushing and shaking snow from his clothes even as he went to join his dojomates.

“I swear, you’re as easily distracted as Sano is!” Kaoru ranted as she turned sharply and walked away with a tight, hauling grip on Kenshin’s sleeve. Sano noticed Yahiko casting those that remained in combative positions a somewhat wistful glance as he followed.

Watching with grins and rolling eyes, Katsu and Chou began making their way off the high ground they’d so unfairly captured — one careful, the other reckless. “I’ve entirely forgotten what I was on my way to do,” Katsu said.

Chou glanced over at him. “You were on your way to have dinner with me?” he suggested hopefully.

“Oh, was I?” wondered Katsu with a laugh. “I guess I’m late, then.”

“Oh, I have a feelin’ you’ll get there the same time I do,” Chou grinned, “so it’s probably all right.”

“Better get going, then.” Katsu returned the expression, then glanced at Sano. “Sano, it appears I’ve got a date, so we’ll have to finish this another time.”

Sano, who had not yet removed his arms from over his face, grumbled from behind them, “You’re wasting your time with that guy, but all right!”

Soon, therefore, the only people left were the two with whom the entire drama had originated, and the scene had become very quiet. Seeing both of Saitou’s hands engaged in lighting a cigarette, Sano deemed it safe to emerge.

“How the hell did that start, anyway?” he wondered, standing at last.

Saitou looked over at him with a raised brow. “By you stuffing snow down my pants?” he suggested.

“Oh, yeah,” Sano grinned. “Well, I guess that was worth it.”

“You’re going to be black and blue,” smirked Saitou.

“No shit, man.” Grimacing, Sano glanced over the various red spots that had already developed on his raw, aching skin. “I swear Katsu’s had little eyes and brains of their own.”

“He does seem to be quite a good shot,” Saitou agreed. “But I meant you’re going to be black and blue once I’m finished with you. Come on; let’s go take a bath.”

Sano’s grin widened as he bounced over to Saitou’s side and took his arm. “All right!”

With narrowed eyes and a puff of smoke that seemed double in the frosty air, “And we’ll make sure it was ‘worth it,'” Saitou added.


I’ve rated this story .

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


Gold Eyes False

Gold Eyes False

It might not be so bad if we weren’t outside in the rain, and he wasn’t such a complete bastard.

When Sano is forced to live a day as Saitou and Saitou is forced to observe, the resulting realizations are nothing like what they expect.

Unique to this comic: astonishingly ugly art.

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Image 1 of 101

Oh, what can I say about this comic? I went through phases of trying to make it look decent, and others of not caring at all about the visuals because I just wanted to tell the story. In fact, it was originally a prose story, but there were some moments that just screamed for visual representation (like all the nonsense Sano does when he first finds himself inside Saitou’s body). The whole thing took me forever to complete, and, as you can see in the comments, I had some amazing support all the way through despite the visuals. In fact, when it was finished, evidently not having learned my lesson, I immediately started in on another comic. Fortunately I eventually got tired of spending so many hours on pages that never looked any good, and turned that one (Heretic’s Reward) into a much better prose story.

I’ve been told that my commentary on the GEF pages is as much fun as the comic itself, so I kept that available to read beneath the pages. However, I don’t know if anyone has read the comic at all since a year or two after its completion XD Anyway, in full spite of the ugly drawings and often confusing page layouts, I think the story is pretty damn brilliant, and I’ve rated this comic .

Just That Bored

This wasn’t a topic that would normally make the least bit of difference to Saitou.

Saitou tries to keep himself from dying of boredom by looking for the answer to a seemingly unimportant question.



“Saitou? What are you doing here, de gozaru ka?”

“Oh?” wondered the officer with heavy sarcasm. “Wasn’t I invited?”

Himura cleared his throat.

With a roll of eyes Saitou explained. “The police chief asked me to patrol around the dojo to make sure this party of yours isn’t disturbed.”

Now Himura looked skeptical.

“I did remind him that with the kind of people you and that girl were likely to invite, the only danger would be from each other… but he insisted.”

With a slight smile Himura nodded his understanding. “The chief of police is very attentive.”

Saitou rolled his eyes again.

“Well, you’re welcome to come inside if you want.”

Saitou raised an eyebrow. “So I am invited.”

“And I’m sure you’re as pleased to know that as Kaoru-dono will be.”

“No need to alarm her,” Saitou replied dryly. “I won’t be coming inside.”

Himura, who’d already assumed as much, just nodded and smiled as he turned back toward the door; Saitou began his ‘patrol,’ looking forward to an exceptionally dull night.

Contrary to his avowal, however, the temptation to enter at least the grounds became after not too long acute, for he found that traversing the streets around the Kamiya dojo was about the most tedious thing he’d ever done. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if there had been any point to it other than that the chief of police had a hopeless crush on Himura; as it was, even the headache he must acquire from the presence of those within would be better than this monotony. He let himself through the main doors.

Patrolling the inside of the wall was at first just as boring as the outside, but eventually the party spilled from the building and there was at least something to watch. Saitou was actually fairly surprised at the presence of certain of the guests; those that noticed him were surprised at his presence as well. And given the caliber of some of them, about a third of those attending must be aware of his shadow-prowling vigil. Let them find out from Himura why he was here, though, if they were curious.

He didn’t think he could stomach drawing close enough to catch any of their conversations — though some of them (any that included the Oniwaban chibi in particular) reached his ears anyway — but at least watching kept the tediousness from driving him mad. Some of it was even faintly amusing. He had to reflect, for instance, as he observed the looks the tanuki constantly threw Himura, that if such a girl had been giving him that treatment, his reaction might actually have been legitimate fear.

The truly frightening thing about these glances, though, was that the rurouni appeared to enjoy them. In which case he was being remarkably slow about things… How long had he been living here, and no progress between them? Of course, all of the members of the pitiable Kenshingumi had been single for a very long while, it seemed. Obviously this wasn’t a topic that would normally make the least bit of difference to Saitou, but at the moment he was just that bored. And, really, it was a little sad how relationship-challenged this group appeared to be. That Sagara boy, for instance, who was currently entertaining a small cluster of friends with a gesture-filled anecdote… shouldn’t he have snagged that doctor woman by now?

Well, the pointy-eared medic, for all her manhandling ability, wasn’t strong enough for someone like Sagara. The boy would be better off with Himura himself… except that the redhead was so short and annoying and enamored of an even more obnoxious girl. The latter might actually have been a decent match for the doctor, but she also wouldn’t do for the roosterhead.

Shinomori might be a good option… or perhaps not… even if Super Angstman could escape the jealous clutches of the Shrieking Sidekick, there was no way Sagara could long put up with someone that dull. The Okashira might do well for Himura, though. And the weasel might match Sagara’s energy fairly closely, but the boy definitely didn’t have the patience it would require to tolerate her for any great length. Saitou didn’t think anyone did. It might be amusing to watch someone try, though: the kenkaya or — sudden thought, even better — Chou. How long would the weasel last once the broomhead snapped? And what kind of damage would she inflict on him before he killed her?

Come to think of it, Chou himself might not be the worst choice for Sagara. Well, if the stupid phallic-symbol-collector had the stamina for more than a two-day relationship and an attitude focused just a little more outward, that is. And maybe a better hairstyle.

So perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise that Sagara didn’t have anyone, when there seemed to be something that unsuited each of them for him. But for some reason Saitou kept thinking there was somebody around that was suited for him… somebody so obvious it was actually a little difficult to figure out who it might be… who was he missing? He looked around at the remainder of the party guests.

Of course there was always Himura’s eccentric master with the odd taste in clothing… Saitou wasn’t overly familiar with that person, but from the little he’d seen so far it seemed the caped giant was in love with himself to the point where bringing somebody else in would make it a threesome and someone was bound to get jealous, possibly the man himself.

Sagara’s quiet friend with the long hair was probably the one Saitou was thinking of. The officer didn’t know much about him either, other than what he did for a living (and otherwise), but… it still didn’t seem right. The man always looked so gloomy… that wouldn’t do for Sagara. Not in a romantic sense, anyway. It might for Shinomori, though…

This was no use. A question whose answer eluded him so completely was almost worse than the boredom it was supposed to replace. And yet nothing else would occupy his mind. Well, there was that restaurateur… Sagara was fond of a good meal, of course, but there wasn’t much to Sekihara beyond business; she probably wouldn’t be able to hold his attention anywhere but at a dinner table.

And then there was that overdressed scythe-wielder that was supposed to be in England… Saitou wouldn’t even have considered him, but he was running out of choices; still, it was obvious offhand that Honjou wouldn’t do: Sagara might look decent with a woman prettier than he was, but never with a man. Maybe the psychotic Tenken was a better former-Juppongatana candidate… but, no, the last thing Sagara needed was somebody that compliant; Seta’s smiles would only egg Sagara on in every one of his foolish behaviors.

There had to be someone else. Why did it seem the answer was there, but barely beyond his reach? The most annoying part was that it didn’t matter… it was just something to keep him from insanity… it shouldn’t be this frustrating…

Eventually, after what felt like several ages, the party began to break up, and goodbyes were said to those not staying at the dojo. Saitou was fairly sure his presence was even less required at this point than it had been before, and gladly slipped away for home before the guests really started to leave.

The question about Sagara, and the conviction that he was forgetting someone, bothered him still, but that was fading along with the overriding need to stave off boredom. And once he stopped thinking about it all together, the answer was sure to come to him.

Actually, considering it had to do with that perverse roosterhead, it was likely to strike him at the least convenient moment possible — just when he’d fallen asleep, or some such.

Stupid boy was troublesome like that, even when he wasn’t around.


I’ve rated this story .

This story is included in the Saitou & Sano Collection ebook (.zip file contains .pdf, .mobi, and .epub formats).


One Nightfall

At first it still felt a little odd to be kissing Chou, of all people, but that was only before the grinding started.

Chou and Sano don’t like each other; they just want to have sex. Being forced to endure each other’s company as they attempt to find a place to do the deed makes for an interesting night.


Sano shouldn’t have been surprised at Chou’s presence in the bar; he hadn’t had enough to drink yet to overlook the logic that although he didn’t like Chou, Chou did live in Tokyo too and could show up at any bar he wanted to — but for whatever reason, Sano was surprised. Maybe it was because when he’d eyed the broom-head suspiciously, Chou had said in a mocking tone, “Whatcha starin’ at, tori-atama? You lookin’ to get laid?” Or maybe it was because Sano had then examined Chou’s pleasant slenderness and promising hands and replied casually, “Yeah.” Or it could have been because Chou, instead of laughing, had immediately returned Sano’s appraising scrutiny and said, “Me too.”

Now they were grinning at each other, both frankly surprised and amused at how quickly and easily they’d reached that agreement — possibly the first time they’d ever agreed on anything.

“Let’s go back to my place,” Sano started to say, but halfway through it changed into “Oh, shit” as he remembered why he was out drinking (and recklessly embarking upon a one-night stand with a rival) in the first place. “I got evicted.”

Chou echoed the “Shit,” chewing his lip. “An’ we can’t go to my place ’cause I got four roommates in one tiny rat-hole of an apartment, and” — he lowered his voice as if he were telling an incredibly dirty secret — “they’re all so inta women it’s scary.”

Sano grimaced. Then they looked at each other for several moments, baffled.

He wasn’t about to waste the price of a hotel room just to fuck someone he didn’t like, and he didn’t have the money anyway — he’d been planning on sleeping at the dojo himself, Kenshin’s guest notwithstanding, and… “Hey! We could go to the dojo!”

“That’s kinda kinky,” replied Chou, clearly not thinking much of this suggestion. “You plannin’ on an orgy or what?”

“Kenshin’s weird master’s in town,” Sano explained; “I dunno why. They’re taking him to dinner or something tonight, and the guy drinks like a fucking fish… they’ll be out forever, and when they do get back they’ll all be plastered.”

Chou grinned wickedly. “Le’s go, then.”

They didn’t really feel any need to talk on the way to the dojo; not only was the winter air too frigid for much conversation, they weren’t exactly friends and didn’t really care what was going on in each other’s life.

Sano had long since commandeered a key to the dojo’s outer doors, and he let them in without any trouble. He stopped short, however, forcing Chou to run into him, with an, “Oh!” at the sight of Kenshin in the yard. “Oh. Hey, Kenshin.” He knew that being surprised and at a loss for words made him look incredibly guilty, but there it was.

Kenshin raised an eyebrow. “Hello, Sano.” He looked from Sano’s reddening face to Chou and back, and said nothing more.

Sano cleared his throat. “Where’s the big guy? Thought you were all going out for dinner or something.”

Looking hard-pressed to conceal a sudden smile of understanding, Kenshin replied, “He disappeared hours ago and hasn’t come back. I didn’t think he had any friends in Tokyo, but…” He shrugged in an I’ve-never-really-understood-Hiko-despite-having-lived-with-him-for-seven-years gesture.

“Well, I was just… I mean, I ran into houki-atama here, and…” He could sense Chou’s mirth behind him, and that didn’t make it any easier not to blush.

Kenshin was evidently about to fail similarly in his effort not to smile, when suddenly Kaoru’s voice came floating out of the building: “Kenshin, dinner’s almost ready! Is that Sano I hear out there?”

“Shit, we gotta get out of here,” Sano said in a panic. “If she catches us, she’ll make us both eat.”

“Izzat bad?” Chou wondered, even as Kenshin turned away with a wave and a laugh toward the house.

“Like you would not believe,” Sano insisted, seizing the sword-collector’s gloved hand and pulling him out of the grounds and back into the street. Once the doors were safely closed behind him he gave a sigh of relief and leaned against the wall, only to stand straight again as the plaster was freezing cold. “Now where?” he wondered.

“Well…” Chou said slowly, “there’s Saitou’s house…”

“The fuck…?” It was Sano’s turn not to think much of the suggested locale. “Now who’s thinking kinky shit?”

“He’s got a date tonight.” Chou’s emphasis of the word and significant raise of eyebrow showed how very amusing he found that concept.

Sano guffawed his agreement with that sentiment. “You mean there’s someone in the world old cricket-face doesn’t hate?”

Chou grinned. “Anyway, so he shouldn’t be home…”

“I guess…” Sano agreed, still rather reluctant but unable to think of anyplace else.

Chou proceeded to lead the way; their only conversation this time was a brief query-and-explanation on the quality of Kaoru’s cooking.

Sano had never seen Saitou’s house before, but it was about what he would have expected of the man. He watched in mild admiration as Chou deftly picked the lock and let him inside.

But something was not right. “Hey, why’s there light down there?” He pointed to an open room at the end of the hall.

In alarm, Chou turned from closing the door to look where Sano indicated.

“I can’t think you’d be stupid enough to try to rob me,” came Saitou’s voice, sounding none too happy, from the room in question, “so what are you doing here?”

“Shit,” Chou muttered, and headed in that direction. Very hesitantly, Sano followed.

They found Saitou sitting alone in the room at the end looking more sour even than usual. Sano, who had never seen the officer out of uniform except for that long-ago first time they met, stared at the strangely normal-looking clothes the man was wearing. “Well?” Saitou wondered irritably.

“Thought you’d be out with what’s-‘is-name,” Chou mumbled.

“Well, obviously I’m not,” Saitou said acidly, “and that doesn’t explain what you were doing breaking into my house.”

Chou cleared his throat. “Well…”

Saitou looked up, practically for the first time, glancing at Sano; his expression, if possible, became even more annoyed. “If you ever,” he told Chou, “even consider using my house for that kind of thing again, I will cut your balls off.”

Chou blanched. “Well, we just…”

“Hey,” Sano broke in, completely unable to contain his raging curiosity for even half a moment longer, “so who’s your boyfriend, Saitou?”

Saitou stared at him, his expression not so much angry as incredulous. “I’d tell you it’s none of your business, ahou,” he said at last, “if I weren’t so amazed that you don’t know.”

“Like I keep tabs on your love life,” Sano snorted. “C’mon, who is it?”

With a mirthless laugh Saitou shook his head. “Do you mean to say that for all the time you spend at that dojo with Himura, you’re not aware of the reason his master is in town?”

Chou appeared startled; evidently he also had not connected the circumstances, though his realization was probably the converse of Sano’s.

“Wait… no way…” Sano stared at him, wide-eyed and flabbergasted. “You’re… no way… Hiko is your boyfriend?!”

Saitou merely rolled his eyes.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”

“Why are you still in my house?”

“So, where is he? Kenshin said he’s been gone for hours… you two were supposed to go out tonight, right?” Though he had to wonder what ‘going out’ meant to a pair like that. “What happened, you get in an argument?”

Saitou looked away, and the very great irritation on his face confirmed this guess.

“All right, well, I just have one question and then we’ll let you mope,” Sano asked, making the same attempt that Kenshin had earlier to keep a straight face. “Do you ever suck him off?”

Chou choked, by all appearances nearly going into shock, and his disbelieving look seemed to inquire, ‘Did you really just ask Saitou if…’ No, even the facial expression could not complete that thought.

Saitou’s look was much the same, except that the unfinished half involved less admiration and a lot more potential drawn-out suffering for Sano.

“I just want to know if you can get drunk off his cum.”

Chou seemed about ready to pass out and possibly die.

“Or at least if it tastes like sake…”

Saitou’s hand moved to his sword.

Chou seized Sano’s arms from behind and dragged him a half-step backward. “We’ll jus’ get outta–” he began, but cut himself off as a noise from the front door seized everyone’s attention.

Sano, who was still facing Saitou, couldn’t help but see on the latter’s face something he never would have thought to find there: a pleased, hopeful look as of sudden happy surprise. It flickered only briefly, however, before being replaced by an even more dreadful scowl than before. He had to admit, in that moment, a little sympathy for Saitou — he couldn’t imagine trying to keep up that kind of relationship with Hiko. Putting the shoe on the other foot, though, he really couldn’t imagine trying to keep up that kind of relationship with Saitou, either.

Chou had put on a devious expression that matched the tone in which he now unexpectedly spoke, much more loudly than before: “Di’n’ want you to be lonely, so we thought we’d come see if you wanted any… you know… company for the night.”

“What?!”

Both Sano and Chou turned to face Hiko, who was traversing the hall swiftly from the front door. And if Sano had thought Saitou was good at looking fucking terrifying… He was glad it was mostly Chou at which the caped man’s glare was directed. Still, impressively, Chou managed a tolerable show of disdain as he said, “Oh, it’s you.”

Saitou had risen, murderous eyes also turned toward Chou. Hiko pushed past the two younger men into the room to face the police officer. “Are you in the habit of sharing ‘company’ like this?”

Chou answered before Saitou could say a word. “‘Scuse me,” he drawled in an offended tone, “I was jus’ offerin’ Saitou here a favor he obviously needed.”

Hiko looked Chou over briefly, though more meticulously than before, and snorted. “I thought you had better taste than this,” he remarked to Saitou.

“Of course I do,” Saitou replied, clearly irritated by Chou’s all-too-convincing playact but also a little uncertain as to where it was going.

“Hey, tori-atama here happens to be the best sex in Tokyo,” Chou protested, clapping Sano on the shoulder.

Hiko’s eyes shifted to Sano (who was again trying not to blush), took in every detail of his form from hair-tips to toes, and narrowed dangerously as they lingered about his lower half. He then put himself two steps closer to Saitou, a movement Sano thought was downright possessive — almost frighteningly so — despite the lack of physical contact between them. “You’re one of baka deshi’s friends, aren’t you?”

Sano nodded, not sure what to say.

“And the best sex in Tokyo?”

Sano knew even less what to say to that, but fortunately Chou jumped in with, “You can’t ask him that; how the fuck should he know? You’ll hafta take my word for it.”

“Well,” Hiko replied, his glare becoming closer and closer to lethal with every passing instant, “as far as I know, Saitou doesn’t settle for anything less than the best sex in the world, so unless you think you can provide that, I suggest you leave.”

“God, aren’t we fuckin’ pleased with ourselves,” Chou muttered as he turned away. “C’mon, tori-atama, le’s get outta here.”

Sano didn’t need any urging.

Chou managed to keep from laughing until they were out of Saitou’s yard. “Best sex in the world!” he kept repeating.

Sano couldn’t help joining him. “And he was serious about it, too!” And they wandered aimlessly up the street, still laughing, breathlessly predicting the outcome of that little exchange.

As they eventually calmed down, Sano remarked, “That was really sneaky, you know that?”

“Those big intense warrior-types!” Chou replied with a grin. “All you gotta do is make ’em a little jealous.”

“It was really nice, too,” Sano pursued.

Chou shrugged. “Happier the boss is, less shitty my job is.” But the self-satisfied expression did not leave his face, and Sano couldn’t help but think the con had been less self-serving than Chou implied.

Sano laughed again and then recalled the reason he was still freezing his ass off out here with Chou in the middle of the night. “Hey!” he said. “We could go to the clinic!”

“Could work,” Chou agreed, “long’s we’re quiet.” And he cast a slow look over at Sano, raking his body leisurely with one suggestive eye and unexpectedly making the former kenkaya’s skin tingle.

Shit, Sano thought in amazement, is it just me or did he just suddenly get hot?! Of course Chou had never been unattractive, but also had never called up that kind of reaction in Sano before. Probably because his annoying personality got in the way of any physical admiration.

They hurried toward Gensai’s.

No discernable lights burned in either clinic or house, though this time the prospective couple peered vigilantly at every window for several moments before hopping the gate and making their way across the yard. Chou once again demonstrated the cleverness of his fingers, and soon they were inside a shadowy room examining an uncomfortable-looking patient bed surrounded by equally unpleasant medical items.

“Well,” Sano said, scratching his head, “it’s not the best place in the world, but…”

Chou shrugged, glancing around. When he turned back to Sano, both his eyes were open and narrowed, and his slow smile drew Sano immediately to him. Their lips met and raged against each other, their tongues engaged in a more intense argument than they had ever conducted verbally; at first it still felt a little odd to be kissing Chou, of all people, but that was only before the grinding started.

After not too long, Sano was on the bed half-reclining, sucking on Chou’s neck with force proportionate to how insistently the back of the broom-head’s hand was running over his crotch. “Shit,” Chou said as he heaved himself up to straddle Sano and resume grinding, even harder this time, “why di’n’ I fuck you back in that jail cell?”

“With Saitou watching?” Sano replied, gasping mostly from sensation rather than shock at the idea.

“It’d be worth it,” Chou replied nearly unintelligibly, just before their mouths converged again.

Sano had never given much thought to the subject of Chou’s ass, but was finding it now not only to have a very pleasant texture through the red cloth but also very useful as a tool to increase pressure between their hardening groins. The blonde’s hands were tugging at the wrappings over Sano’s stomach with the interesting feeling of warmed leather against skin, and suddenly the door opened.

There was an extended moment of relative quiet in which Chou and Sano sluggishly shifted their attention from each other’s appendages and oral fluids to the figure in the entry.

“Oh my god…” Megumi murmured, her emotional state impossible for anyone not privy to her thoughts to define.

The young men freed their tongues and attempted somewhat frantically to disentangle, but only ended up on the floor with their limbs even more muddled.

The door closed.

Chou and Sano stared at each other, wide-eyed.

“This room doesn’t have everything I need,” they heard Megumi saying, and though she was doing her best to sound natural, at least Sano couldn’t help but catch the odd tone to her voice. “That one there.” Other voices sounded, worried and quick, and feet pounded toward another room.

“She jus’ covered for us!” Chou marveled.

Sano buried his face in writhing hands. “Oh, shit, I am never, never, never, never, never going to hear the fucking end of this one…”

“C’mon, le’s get the fuck outta here before she comes back.” Chou climbed to his feet and pulled Sano after him. This brought the rooster-head up against him abruptly, and at the contact of their bodies Chou shuddered briefly and added, “Damn shitty bad timing…”

Sano was still too overcome with horror to say anything.

They vacated the room and the property with all possible haste, setting out once again in no particular direction through the frigid night.

Presently, Chou began to laugh.

“It’s not funny!” Sano groaned.

“I won’t say I ain’t pissed,” Chou replied, “but didja see her face?”

“No,” said Sano, curious in spite of himself.

“She couldn’a been more surprised if it’d been Battousai with a harem of monkeys!”

Sano couldn’t help bursting into laughter of his own at this unexpected image. “She musta looked pretty damn surprised, then!” But the amusement could not long overcome the discomfort. “But, shit, man, I wasn’t telling her I only like guys because I think she likes me and I didn’t want to make her feel bad!”

It was Chou’s turn for a surprised laugh. “It was good timin’, then, after all, so you can stop leadin’ her on!”

“I wasn’t leading her on!” Sano protested. “I never did anything to make her think I liked her!”

“Sure, but long as you let her think y’might start to like her one of these days, that’s what we call leadin’ her on.” Chou smacked the back of Sano’s skull lightly as he said this.

Sano gave Chou’s head a blow in return. “Since when do you know so much about this kind of shit?”

“Hey,” Chou replied, jerking a thumb at his chest, “you’re lookin’ at an expert at leadin’ people on! It’s a great game when you’re bored… ‘cept she’s your friend, right?”

“Yeah…”

Chou shrugged. “Better not to fuck with’er head, then.”

They walked on — Sano contemplating Megumi as well as the surprising realization that Chou, in his own bizarre way, had a streak of maturity in him — until all of a sudden the broom-head cried, “Hey!” and pointed excitedly ahead of them.

“What?” Sano wondered in confusion, looking at the row of shops and seeing nothing to merit such an exclamation.

Chou quickened his pace. “That restaurant there… the owner was doin’ drug deals and all sortsa shit out his back door, so we arrested him’n’ shut the place down.”

“So?”

“So… nobody’s gonna be there for days!” Chou threw Sano a leer over his shoulder. “Think a coupla days’ll be long enough for us to get finished?”

Sano mirrored the licentious expression and hurried to catch up.

The lock on this particular door gave Chou a little more trouble than the last two had, and standing still watching was both very cold, motionless in the winter air, and very hot, as Sano pictured being on the receiving end of Chou’s… lock-picking.

Once inside the building, they didn’t waste much time looking around as they had in the clinic, only chose a booth near the far side of the room to crawl into and went at each other’s clothes with determined frenzy.

They hadn’t really established who was going to be on top, but there wasn’t much need to discuss it — Chou’s ungloved, saliva-covered finger in Sano’s ass once the broom-head got the rooster-head’s pants halfway off, coupled with the memory of the lock-picking fantasy of minutes before, were enough to establish the order of things fairly quickly. Sano was moaning into Chou’s neck, trying to figure out the blonde’s somewhat complicated outfit, his hips twitching as Chou ran teasing fingers over his erection. The sword-collector cursed loudly as Sano finally found his way in and skin met skin. He latched onto Sano’s mouth and added a second finger as Sano stroked him hard, and they squirmed in lip-locked ‘silence’ for a few moments.

Suddenly, panting, Sano broke away from the kiss and looked around with a frown. “Is it getting really hot in here?”

“No shit, gorgeous,” Chou murmured before beginning to suck on Sano’s shoulder and giving more concentrated attention to his partner’s lower half.

“Oh, god,” Sano gasped, struggling to hold onto reason and not buck his hips. “Hey,” he whispered, “I think the restaurant’s on fire.”

“I don’t care,” growled the other.

Despite the implied compliment that Chou didn’t mind burning to death as long as Sano’s hand was on his cock, Sano could not be entirely satisfied with this reply. “Chou!” he tried again, giving the shaft in his hand a hard squeeze to get his attention.

“Oh, shit, Sano…” Chou groaned, arching into him.

Sano couldn’t help a heated moment’s reflection that his name, which he didn’t remember ever having heard Chou say before, sounded really nice like that. Still, “You weren’t supposed to enjoy that, asshole,” he hissed, releasing Chou’s member entirely.

No longer being groped, Chou seemed to regain a measure of his senses. “Huh?” Then his eyes widened. “Shit, the fuckin’ room’s on fire!”

“C’mon, let’s go!” Sano urged, not without some irritated disappointment. They scrambled up.

They had no clue whence the fire had come, but it was spreading rapidly; the building was not likely to survive. This fact, the already uncomfortable heat, and the increasingly unbreathable atmosphere induced them not to worry about their disarray of attire until they were safely across the street.

“What the fuck is going on?” Sano complained as he tied his pants. They were still distinctly bulging.

Chou, no less bulging but closer to fully dressed, was looking around with an irate, attentive eye for the answer to that question. “Hey!” he roared suddenly, startling Sano’s attention away from the rising flames, and took off down a nearby side-street. Being about decent by now (at least clothing-wise), Sano followed. It soon became evident what they were doing, but whether Chou thought the three figures they were chasing had something to do with the fire, or whether he was just taking out his frustration on random passersby at being interrupted, was more difficult to determine. Sano had no scruples left, however, once, emerging onto a brighter street, their prey became more visible and the matching kanji on their backs could be read.

“You didn’t say the guy had yakuza enemies,” Sano protested to Chou as they caught up with the strangers.

“Course he had yakuza enemies!” Chou replied as he caught one of the gangsters by the back of his gi and yanked him hard to the ground.

“So you just decided it would be a good idea to go get all off-guard in a place that had yakuza troubles and might get burned down any time??” Sano demanded, seizing the second of the men around the neck and pummeling him in the side.

You weren’t comin’ up with any place!” Chou retorted as he drew a sword and attacked the third man, who’d stopped to support his comrades.

“It was your turn!” Sano yelled as he kicked the legs out from under his struggling opponent and rapped him unconscious.

“Only ’cause your stupid clinic idea fuckin’ sucked!” Chou growled back as one of his enemies hit the ground in a spray of blood.

Sano noted vaguely that there seemed suddenly to be more people involved in this little fight than the original five, but that hardly mattered. “Like yours was any better!” he bellowed as he drove his elbow into someone’s chest.

I di’n’ suggest goin’ somewhere where we might get walked in on by someone who’s got a fuckin’ crush on me!” Chou returned as he whirled to slice three surrounding gangsters at once.

“No, only by the scariest man I know!” Sano cried , kicking someone in the face and punching someone else in the ribs.

“Don’ be such a fuckin’ pussy, tori!”

“Thought you didn’t like women, houki — if I’m such a pussy, why’d you want to fuck me?”

You di’n have to take me seriously!”

“So you just go with anyone who’s willing to have sex with you?”

“Why the fuck not?”

“Always knew you were a fucking slut.”

“Well, then, why’d you want me to fuck you?”

It was at this moment that they realized they were shouting in each other’s faces, quite close together, which seemed to imply that their enemies were either defeated or in retreat. Glancing around, they found this to be true; except for quite a few less-than-sentient figures on the ground, they were alone. There was shouting not far off, apparently in the direction of the burning building; no smoke or flame was visible from here, so perhaps the fire was contained.

They each released the front of the other’s attire and brushed themselves off. Looking back, each gaze falling to immediately to the other’s crotch, they both scowled. The cold and the rush of blood in other directions during the fight had effectively taken care of the bulging. It was far from comfortable.

Chou gave a sigh of defeat. “Le’s go back to the bar,” he said, giving one of the fallen yakuza a frustrated kick.

Sano echoed the sigh, scratching the back of his head, and followed.

“We could jus’ break into random buildings ’til we found someplace empty,” Chou was grumbling as they walked, “but with our luck tonight, I think we might get struck by lightnin’ next. And I gotta be at work in the mornin’ anyway.”

Sano had been just about to suggest that they return to the dojo, wait until everyone there was asleep, and then sneak inside, but Chou’s last complaint shot that idea down and he had no others.

The bar was more crowded than it had been when they’d originally coincided there, and they practically had to fight for space and service. That was fine; they’d been fighting already anyway, and the faint smell of blood that hung about at least Chou warded off most of the smaller ones, letting them drink away what little money they had (and credit they could wrangle) in black, undisturbed silence.

It wasn’t the ending to the night that Sano would have liked, but at first it seemed it might be prove at least to be relatively acceptable. The drinks were good and with that, their